Monday, 20 June 2016

Is witness testimony valuable?

ASSAPIn this month that marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of ASSAP's foundation I am, once again, musing on what has changed over the organization's lifetime. I am particularly interested in the role of witness testimony this time.

I cannot speak for other ASSAP members but I have seen my attitude towards witness testimony change hugely over ASSAP's lifetime. In the early days I initially took witness testimony on anomaly cases more or less at face value. However, research showed (see here for instance) that witness memory is a fragile and unreliable thing. It can be altered by such things as how someone is interviewed or the opinions of friends. Once such false memories are formed, they replace the originals forever.

So just how reliable are witness reports of anomalous phenomena? Taking ghosts as an example, they are remarkably consistent which is a point in their favour. And more importantly, they are consistently different to the talking, transparent ghosts of fiction and the movies. This suggests that some ghost reports, at least, are describing something real and not just the product of a collective cultural imagination.

Another factor in favour of the reliability of witness testimony is that independent witnesses often report the same ghosts at the same location on different occasions, despite being unaware of any previous reports. Then there are ghosts witnessed by multiple observers at the same time. In theses cases witnesses sometimes agree about what was seen and sometimes disagree, with some people seeing nothing unusual at all. Such multiple witness events imply a cause that is not strictly subjective. There is, of course, a xenonormal cause for some ghosts to be seen by independent and multiple witnesses - misperception - which certainly accounts for many such reports.

In recent years I've started to have my own regular strange experiences, most of which are documented in this blog. In my case, I have invariably tried to record and investigate, where possible, my own experiences immediately. Obviously this is important as the factors that may contribute towards a sighting of something unusual may quickly be lost. I have seen ghosts, people disappearing, UFOs, strange animals and other weird things. I have, in every case so far, found xenonormal causes for my sighting. However, without an immediate investigation, which few other witnesses would ever attempt, such causes could easily have been missed.

What struck me about my own experiences is this - they could have been taken as paranormal by many other witnesses had they seen the same thing. Had I reported these events as paranormal, they would have sounded no different to many other cases that investigators deal with all the time. My point is that just because a witness reports something extraordinary, we cannot assume they didn't experience exactly what they said they did! However, neither can assume that what they experienced was paranormal.

So, after thirty-five years my attitude towards witness testimony is that it IS useful but must be treated with caution.

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