Eyewitness Testimony is Unreliable

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​Have you ever watched a television crime show or a movie with extension cross-examination of eyewitnesses to a crime, especially when the music eerily rises and come to a crescendo with a subsequent denouement when a particular factoid is released rom the quivering lips, and shaking and salt-eyed face, of the eyewitness in the show or movie? It’s touching.

Touching in the emotionally rousing nature of the events, but also in the H.L. Mencken commentary on women’s observation of the “touching self-delusion” of men, I apply this in a cross-cultural sense. All around the world. We take eyewitness testimony extremely seriously. However, as the pioneering work of Professor Elizabeth Loftus at the University of California, and others, explain and demonstrate, and as Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson notes, eyewitness testimony remains one of the worst forms of evidence possible while taken as some of the most serious in cinematic portrayals reflecting a similar assumed authority in the efficacy of the human mind as a data-taking device.

Let’s make this perfectly clear, human beings are naturalistic and, therefore, evolved organic beings with capacities, and insofar as human beings have capacities; they have limitations. Those limitations come in the form of the human mind too. The mind as a result of the operations of the brain through time in response to internal processing and external input as interpreted and delivered, in so limited and flawed a manner as, from the senses.

The mind’s ability to remember is the source of memory, but our memories, by and large, stink. Psychological Science states, “Memory doesn’t record our experiences like a video camera. It creates stories based on those experiences. The stories are sometimes uncannily accurate, sometimes completely fictional, and often a mixture of the two; and they can change to suit the situation… memory can be remarkably accurate or remarkably inaccurate. Without objective evidence, the two are indistinguishable.”

As an evolved organ with specific traits and functions, human memory is not a single-input engine. Both in the encoding of memories and in the retrieval of memories; the mind acts with memory as a constructing to encode and reconstructing to retrieve system. Both the cognitive biases in encoding and in the breakdown of memory and the flaws in the reconstruction for a memory amount to a large part of the unreliability of human memory.

Scientific American stated, “The uncritical acceptance of eyewitness accounts may stem from a popular misconception of how memory works… The act of remembering, says eminent memory researcher and psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, is ‘more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording.’ Even questioning by a lawyer can alter the witness’s testimony because fragments of the memory may unknowingly be combined with information provided by the questioner, leading to inaccurate recall.”

So, these movie portrayals of a functional memory and then leading to some of the dynamics of the popular mythologies around human memory. These need to be blown out of the water. Professor Loftus’ research can be an important tool and step in this. Indeed, especially for the most cited woman psychologist ever, and the sacrifices made in professional life by her, we should work harder to support the research pioneered by her. A good start would be changes in the media and in the landscape of popular portrayals of the apparent validity and reliability of human memory for criminal cases, whether movies or television. Another would be in police, detective, and legal work. Human memory sucks.

Simply put, the human organism is a poor data taking device, including, if not especially, in eyewitness testimony. One could apply this standard to the entire Gospel accounts of the life and times of Jesus Christ (superstar) and other religious traditions reliant upon eyewitness testimony. Indeed, with the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, any decade or more timespan after the events would have to come in alignment with the modern empirical evidence if in consideration of the authority of the biblical accounts – even if ignoring supernaturalist claims in the naturalistic tentative conclusion wrought forth by the modern scientific revolutions. Her research will, eventually, revolutionize biblical criticism and, in turn, theological textual analysis by the nature of human fallibility.

Photo by Max Kleinen on Unsplash

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