Thursday, 10 April 2014

Witness or instrument?

Blurry photoThat witness testimony has limited reliability is well known among paranormal researchers (see here). But what about instruments? Science uses instruments whenever possible, rather than eye witnesses, because of their much greater reliability (see here). However, because of the particular ways in which they are used, we cannot assume instruments are always much more reliable in paranormal research.

There are two main ways in which instruments are used in paranormal research. Firstly, they may happen to be in use when a spontaneous anomalous incident occurs. For instance, a witness may just happen to have a camera when they see a ghost or UFO. Also, witnesses may discover anomalous photos or recordings despite not experiencing anything odd at the time (taken by many as an indicator of something anomalous). Secondly, investigators may deliberately use instruments in situations such as ghost vigils. In both cases, the reliability of any recordings from such instruments will depend crucially on how they are made.

There are many examples of witness testimony contradicting what is seen in a photo. The witness may not recall using a flash even though EXIF data shows that they did. Or a witness may report deliberately not breathing out on a cold night despite a mist being clearly visible in a flash photo. A camera flash is a powerful, if brief, light source and can catch faint signs of breath on a cold night for some time after someone has exhaled. Or there may be a very obvious human figure in a photo even though the photographer is adamant that they were not there at the time. However, when you are busy paying attention to taking a photo, it is easy to miss something quite obvious right in front of you.

In the examples above, the camera is a more reliable recorder of what was happening than the the witness. However, with photographic artefacts, the camera itself becomes a less reliable recorder of what was physically present when a photo was taken. For instance, in the photo above there is considerable motion blur because the shutter speed was 1/3s, too slow for the camera to be held steady. The bizarre brown shapes are actually tree stumps, though you might not know that from the photo! They might be bizarre figures in undergrowth.

Paranormal investigators are used to assessing the reliability of witness testimony and treating it with due caution. However, they cannot assume instrumental recordings are completely reliable, as the examples above show. It is vitally important to understand how the instruments have been used. Without that information, instruments may be no more reliable than witness testimony.

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