Saturday 14 February 2009

seeing is believing or is it?

Seeing is believing or is it? The majority of cryptozoological and paranormal activity evidence relies on eye witness testimony. Anyone who has studied psychology will have come across studies that show eye witness testimony to be unreliable.

, Lake monsters and new animals to science. It is not yet an accepted science by mainstream standards. Paranormal research involves anything seen as strange or different to everyday experience, from ghosts to UFOs. Most of the evidence is anecdotal i.e. stories ,or people saying they have seen something and reporting this. Little concrete evidence such as blood samples or bones of unknown creatures have been found. Photographs can be altered, so are often discarded as fakes by the scientific establishment

There are occasional success stories such as the coelocanth.This is a prehistoric fish discovered still living in the waters off Africa and Indonesia.

The most well known study on eye witness testimony was by Loftus(an American psychologist) in 1979 .This experiment has been repeated many times by psychology undergraduates in the classroom and has always come up with the same results. The students are shown a video of an incident( a car accident or bank robbery). They are then divided into groups in which some are witnesses and some are detectives.What the witnesses don’t know, is that the questions they answer are in different formats.

Witness 1 is asked open questions e.g. What colour was the car?
Witness 2 more closed questions e.g. Was the car blue or brown?
Witness 3 closed and leading questions e.g. The car you saw was blue yes?

Even when shown the film again, after questioning witness 3 will say they could have sworn the car was blue. If asked again 3 months later they will repeat the car is blue.Human beings have the capacity to fool ourselves that something untrue is true and stick to that idea stubbornly

How does that reflect on a scientific genre that relies on eye witness testimony for it’s evidence? The correlation often cited between whisky drinking and sightings of the Loch Ness phenomena comes to mind.

In order for eye witness testimony to be become scientifically acceptable ,it has to be made more reliable by scientific method. A standard would need to be set to be used by everyone involved in this research. It would also prove useful to law enforcement agencies as a tool.

The first step would be to have the evidence i.e. eye witness testimony, recorded as soon as possible after the event has taken place. Any lapse of time would cause some deterioration of the memory or embellishment from discussion with others. E.g Witness 3 in the study above had some of their peers convinced the car was blue despite having previously stated otherwise. This would mean a pro forma ( in the form of an observation chart or record)would have to be readily available to complete. Around Loch Ness , for example ,it could be available from visitor centres and eating establishments, just to pick up and take away, should something occur.

It would need to not only consist of the expected questions ,on age, gender etc. of witness, description of sighting, weather conditions, other witnesses, but also information that some witnesses may not want to reveal. There would need to be questions on the witnesses health. Do they wear spectacles? Were they wearing them at the time? Were they under the influence of alcohol or medication/ drugs? ( If so how much had they drank?) Had they had mental health problems or suffered from hallucinations ( not in them selves mutually exclusive), dizzy spells or memory loss? Have they seen this phenomenon before? (dates and times).
Only by eliminating all possibilities can the evidence be classed as a true record. The problems inherent in this are obvious, in that one must rely on the witness being truthful about any health conditions and that these same conditions may disbar the evidence from being classed as reliable.

However in the method’s defence, Brigham et al (1982)(an american psychologist), found only 34.2% reliability of eye witness testimony in a field setting, so any method that can improve on that is a positive. The only way forward would appear to be a field trial of the method. The drawback to this is Nessie does not appear on cue, nor do paranormal activities appear when called.
So many fake nessie experiments have taken place, where something is planted for visitors to see, that only a true scientific method can rescue this type of research from farce. The people who undertake these fake experiments , have the best interests at heart, but do more harm than good by making cryptozoology a joke.

In order for any science to be accepted, as the so called new social sciences have been, by the scientific establishment, a method of investigation that can be replicated must be utilised. In eye witness testimony a better approach must be found.

That method may be by necessity intrusive on participants private lives but without some sort of scientific measure, cryptozoologists and paranormal investigators will constantly be beating their heads against a brick wall .To become accepted at an academic level necessitates improving on present scientific methods to accommodate what is normally not measurable phenomena. In other words, make seeing believable. Only by making eye witness testimony more reliable can these studies move on to a firm footing.

Loftus E F Eye Witness Testimony Cambrige Mass:Havard University Press 1979

Brigham J.C, Maass A., Snyder L.D. and Spaulding K.
Accuracy of Eye Witness Identifications in a Field Setting Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1982 42 673-681

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