Why can't we trust what we see?

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Why can't we trust what we see?

Postby Zep Tepi » Thu Apr 15, 2010 6:13 pm

The following article is from the BBC website and highlights the danger of trusting eyewitness testimony. Very apt where UFO eyewitness accounts are concerned, IMHO.

Why can't we trust what we see?

Excerpt:
BBC Article wrote:The human memory can be impressive, but it is equally prone to letting us down. Now groundbreaking research has revealed the extent of just how fragile it can be - and how to use it better.

You're in the pub and trouble starts. There is shouting, someone is stabbed, they die. It happened right in front of your eyes and the police want to speak to you. But what exactly did you see?

It's long been accepted that eyewitness testimony may not always be as reliable as it seems. The problem is people simply don't remember exactly what happened, say psychologists. The mind does not work like a video camera, nowhere in the brain is the perfect memory of everything that has been seen, in the order it happened.


Read the rest of the article (with video) at the above link.

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Re: Why can't we trust what we see?

Postby ryguy » Thu Apr 15, 2010 9:19 pm

This is an excellent perspective to cover! I was just watching a show on the Discovery channel the other night about environmental anomalies - strange weather conditions, electrical storms, solar EM "storms" - and observation the commentator made was really compelling...he said that throughout the centuries, cultures interpret the strange things that they see - such as lights or orbs in the atmosphere - using the cultural and social ideas that are commonplace for that time and in that society. Whether it's fairies, angels, UFOs, etc...it's an important part of these experiences to consider.

Someone reports seeing a UFO - asking what they *really* saw isn't saying that the witness is lying. It's more like saying that you believe the witness had a *real* experience that they've interpreted in a way that makes sense to them - but setting that aside, what's the real cause?

I really like this topic - and I'd love to hear what anyone has read or heard about the strengths and weaknesses of witness accounts...

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Re: Why can't we trust what we see?

Postby longhaircowboy » Thu Apr 15, 2010 9:52 pm

Well here's another factor that may come into play. A devout skeptic recently approached me with his version of why we cant trust what we see. Pareidolia. In case you don't have any idea what that is here's the short Wiki version
Pareidolia (pronounced /pærɪˈdoʊliə/ pa-ri-DOE-lee-ə) is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse. The word comes from the Greek para- ("beside", "with", or "alongside"—meaning, in this context, something faulty or wrong (as in paraphasia, disordered speech)) and eidolon ("image"; the diminutive of eidos ("image", "form", "shape")). Pareidolia is a type of apophenia
His idea is that just as we see faces in clouds or Jesus on toast there be some mechanism whereby we see UFOs where there are none. Its an intriguing idea but my own sightings were definitely not faces in clouds. As to the reliablity of witnesses its best to get to them quickly lest time fuz there memory. When I investigate a case I always try to find as many as possible because often what one person saw is not what another saw.
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Re: Why can't we trust what we see?

Postby lost_shaman » Thu May 13, 2010 8:52 pm


I really like this topic - and I'd love to hear what anyone has read or heard about the strengths and weaknesses of witness accounts...


Most sightings are fairly simple and straight foward observations of something strange in the sky. These observations are not nearly as complicated as trying to remember what strangers face goes along with what article of clothing and what behavior was exhibited by whom in a crowd of strangers in a tense and frantic environment such as described in the article Zep posted. As such the tendency to be confused or remember things inaccurately should be greatly reduced when we are talking about observations of something strange in the sky.

I think evidence of this being the case would be the fact that most sightings are explained in the prosaic based on witness descriptions. There are other instances where simple prosaic explanations don't explain what witnesses are describing but can be shown that the witnesses are actually giving quite accurate descriptions of what they had been seeing, such is the case with many witnesses of the light phenomena in the Hessdalen valley which has subsequently been well documented.

Only a small percentage of observations reported year in and year out remain unexplained, more often than not these that only involve a single witness are not even investigated, the ones that are investigated but remain unexplained often involve multiple witnesses reporting very similar observations.
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Re: Why can't we trust what we see?

Postby Access Denied » Fri May 14, 2010 7:07 am

lost_shaman wrote:There are other instances where simple prosaic explanations don't explain what witnesses are describing but [it] can be shown that the witnesses are actually giving quite accurate descriptions of what they had been seeing…

How do you figure? How do you know their descriptions were accurate if you haven’t been able to identify it? There’s nothing to compare it to for accuracy.

[philosophical epistemology discussion in 3, 2, 1…]

One could argue that given the very high probability that any given UFO report will have a mundane explanation, if no satisfactory prosaic explanation can be found, that may be a good indication there was some kind of error in the description.

lost_shaman wrote:…the ones that are investigated but remain unexplained often involve multiple witnesses reporting very similar observations.

Not surprising… in theses type of cases I think there’s a fairly high likelihood that many of the wittiness’s descriptions will be influenced by the descriptions of others. If so, their original, and perhaps more helpful, descriptions may be hopelessly lost.

Conversely, it’s also true that truly independent descriptions will likely vary so widely that it may be impossible to make a positive identification. Which ones do you accept and which one do you reject? If some seem to correspond how can you be sure they’re truly independent unless they lead to a mutually satisfactory identification?

Anyway, I remember reading recently about some interesting scientific research that has been done in this area and I was going to post about it when I saw this thread but unfortunately I was distracted by some fire or another that broke out before I could get to it… I’ll have to see if I can find it again.
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Re: Why can't we trust what we see?

Postby jbondo » Fri May 14, 2010 5:50 pm

IMO people tend to fill in story gaps with consciously forgotten artifacts in their subconscious memories.
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Re: Why can't we trust what we see?

Postby gunter » Fri May 14, 2010 6:19 pm

[philosophical epistemology discussion in 3, 2, 1…]
...zero.

In terms of rejecting any observations you're point of departure is nothing more than the Solipsist entrapment. The logical extension of such an admission of pure subjectivity is not simply doubt but the necessary rejection of all independent observation per se. All of it. I suppose that's ground zero for an ideological rational skeptic but it's also a sort of intellectual nihilism. Once one takes the initial leap of faith beyond our sensory prison every actual occasion becomes the subject of consideration. To then reject any given set of observations as false is based in categorical presupposition. And, of course, all observers have their own. Some observed occasions are objectively true and others false. Which are which is a matter of filtered judgment. A truly reasonable man brackets his own prejudicial inclinations in deference to an open mind.

Epistemology 101™ courtesy of the Cartoon Syndicate.
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Re: Why can't we trust what we see?

Postby longhaircowboy » Fri May 14, 2010 9:23 pm

Access Denied wrote:
One could argue that given the very high probability that any given UFO report will have a mundane explanation, if no satisfactory prosaic explanation can be found, that may be a good indication there was some kind of error in the description.
Which is why the first thing I do when I get a report is have the witness write it down to the best of their ability and to also describe it to me in their own words. Cuts down on the discrepencies. Some folks seem to remember better when writing it down.
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Re: Why can't we trust what we see?

Postby lost_shaman » Sat May 15, 2010 2:10 am

Access Denied wrote:
lost_shaman wrote:There are other instances where simple prosaic explanations don't explain what witnesses are describing but [it] can be shown that the witnesses are actually giving quite accurate descriptions of what they had been seeing…

How do you figure? How do you know their descriptions were accurate if you haven’t been able to identify it? There’s nothing to compare it to for accuracy.


Sure there is, the light phenomena was subsequently documented extensively. It shows that the witnesses reporting the lights were accurately describing a previously undocumented light phenomena.



Access Denied wrote:[philosophical epistemology discussion in 3, 2, 1…]

One could argue that given the very high probability that any given UFO report will have a mundane explanation, if no satisfactory prosaic explanation can be found, that may be a good indication there was some kind of error in the description.


And one could argue that if such an argument held any water so to speak it would have been made 60 years or so ago by better men than you or I; neither of us would be discussing the subject in such a case.


Access Denied wrote:
lost_shaman wrote:…the ones that are investigated but remain unexplained often involve multiple witnesses reporting very similar observations.

Not surprising… in theses type of cases I think there’s a fairly high likelihood that many of the wittiness’s descriptions will be influenced by the descriptions of others. If so, their original, and perhaps more helpful, descriptions may be hopelessly lost.


Only if exposed to other witnesses is that possible. That isn't always the case, and when it is it ussually isn't all the witnesses who are exposed to others so often there would be two groups.i.e. those exposed to others and those whom remain independent.



Access Denied wrote:Conversely, it’s also true that truly independent descriptions will likely vary so widely that it may be impossible to make a positive identification. Which ones do you accept and which one do you reject? If some seem to correspond how can you be sure they’re truly independent unless they lead to a mutually satisfactory identification?


You say "likely vary so widely". There are numbers of observations where that just isn't the case.

Then in cases of such, you still are left with the fact that multiple people felt the need to report some sort of stimulus be it prosaic in nature or not so you're still left to explain why people initially independent of on another reported in the first place even if they then contaminated eachothers testimony later after the fact.
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Re: Why can't we trust what we see?

Postby lost_shaman » Sat May 15, 2010 4:21 am

gunter wrote:
[philosophical epistemology discussion in 3, 2, 1…]
...zero.

In terms of rejecting any observations you're point of departure is nothing more than the Solipsist entrapment. The logical extension of such an admission of pure subjectivity is not simply doubt but the necessary rejection of all independent observation per se. All of it. I suppose that's ground zero for an ideological rational skeptic but it's also a sort of intellectual nihilism. Once one takes the initial leap of faith beyond our sensory prison every actual occasion becomes the subject of consideration. To then reject any given set of observations as false is based in categorical presupposition.


Interesting. Why are some so quick to catagorically dismiss certain observations by others if these interfere with that persons world view such as simple observations of UFO's that don't fit prosaic expanations tend to completely fluster self proclaimed skeptics of such observations? I believe it was you who gave the example "Fox in the garden." Why is it that no-one questions "Fox in the garden." observations but "Light in the sky." observations are nothing less than heresy to these people.

Is it a simple case of serious egocentrism or is there more to it? Is it science (as we know it today) as a religion for some people?

How we go from observing everything and explaning it with science to rejecting observations that science doesn't explain is beyond me.
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Re: Why can't we trust what we see?

Postby gunter » Sat May 15, 2010 4:59 am

Excellent question. If I weren't so tired I'd give that the deep thought that it begs. But off hand I'd say that a closed mind is a matter of hubris. Saying just that is not enough because I think you and I are obviously looking for the principles or qualities that give rise to hubris to begin with. Essentially it is has to do with limited powers of imagination based in a hapless, categorical anthropocentrism. In short: Hubris and Wanking.
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Re: Why can't we trust what we see?

Postby Tim Hebert » Fri May 21, 2010 4:58 pm

Back in the late 1970s in West Texas, I was driving from home back to college, distance of approximately 70 miles. It was late at night. From a distance, out of my car's side window, I saw what appeared to be a blue-greenish ball of light moving at a fast rate of speed over the top of the surface. Then it disappeared. To me, this was strange and unusual.

Sometime later, I was making the same trek, same route, but now traveling in the daytime. At a distance, rapid movement caught my eye. Two Air Force F-4s (the aircraf'ts make and profile was unmistakable) were moving at high speed and flying very close to the ground. Could this be what I had previously seen that first night? Maybe I had seen the glow of an aircraft's after-burners.

Fast track to ten years ago. Driving towards my home in Southern California, it was dusk, I saw a similar blue-green object in the distance streaking at angle to the ground and disappear behind the surrounding hills. It was a meteor! The sight of that meteor immediately brought back the memories of that night back in the 1970s.

So, now I have three choices to choose from concerning my 1970s sighting

1. I saw a meteor
2. I saw the after burners of a jet aircraft
3. I saw a UFO, of the ET kind

All of the above choices are possible, but which ones are probable?

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Re: Why can't we trust what we see?

Postby Access Denied » Sat May 22, 2010 5:53 pm

Well, I for one know better than to trust my own eyes… I’ve been fooled by them on a number of occasions. Often with hilarious (in retrospect) results.

Access Denied wrote:Anyway, I remember reading recently about some interesting scientific research that has been done in this area...

Found the papers I remember reading about. The following paper and the last one I discuss below were referenced by Gilles. F. on Kevin Randle’s blog recently during a lengthy debate about Roswell and the memories of “eyewitnesses” some 30+ years later…

Memory Conformity: Can Eyewitnesses Influence Each Other’s Memories for an Event?
Fiona Gabbert, Amina Memon and Kevin Allan
http://abdn.ac.uk/~psy282/dept/Gabbert% ... 202003.pdf

The current study investigated memory conformity effects between individuals who witness and then discuss a criminal event, employing a novel procedure whereby each member of a dyad watches a different video of the same event. Each video contained unique items that were thus seen only by one witness. Dyads in one condition were encouraged to discuss the event before each witness (individually) performed a recall test, while in a control condition dyads were not allowed to discuss the event prior to recall. A significant proportion (71%) of witnesses who had discussed the event went on to mistakenly recall items acquired during the discussion. There were no age-related differences in susceptibility to these memory conformity effects in younger (18–30 years) as compared to older (60–80 years) participants. Possible social and cognitive mechanisms underlying the distortions of memory due to conformity are discussed.

71%? That’s pretty significant. From the conclusion…

In conclusion, it is human nature for people to discuss their shared experiences, especially if they concern something out of the ordinary such as witnessing a crime. However, as the present results clearly demonstrate, if witnesses have discussed an event with one another then the police should take great care not to give undue weight to the consistency of their independent statements when judging their accuracy.

Now here’s another paper I found from the same authors discussing the effect that the learning of any “different” information may have on a witness’ memory…

Memory Conformity: Disentangling The Steps Toward Influence During A Discussion
Fiona Gabbert, Amina Memo, and Daniel B. Wright
http://www.abdn.ac.uk/~psy282/dept/Gabb ... 20PB&R.pdf

When two people see the same event and discuss it, one person's memory report can influence what the other person subsequently claims to remember. We refer to this as memory conformity. In the present article, two factors underlying the memory conformity effect are investigated. First, are there any characteristics of the dialogue that predict memory conformity? Second, is memory conformity differentially affected when information is encountered that omits, adds to, or contradicts originally encoded items? Participants were tested in pairs. The two members of each pair encoded slightly different versions of complex scenes and discussed them prior to an individual free recall test. The discussions were audiotaped, transcribed, and analyzed. Our most striking finding was that the witness initiating the discussion was most likely to influence the other witness's memory report. Furthermore, witnesses were most likely to be influenced when an additional (previously unseen) item of information was encountered in the discussion.

And here’s a good example of this from the first paper…

A striking example of how the memory report of one witness may influence that of another during discussion comes from an analysis of witness evidence in the Oklahoma bombing incident in 1995. The key evidence in this case came from interviews with witnesses who worked at Elliot’s Body Shop where Timothy McVeigh rented the truck used in the bombing. McVeigh was arrested for the mass murder but there was a question as to who, if anybody, was his accomplice. Three witnesses saw McVeigh when he hired the truck, one of whom claimed he was accompanied by a second man. Initially, the other witnesses gave no description of this accomplice; however, later they too claimed to remember details of this second person. Months later, the first witness confessed that he may have been recalling another customer. So, why did all three witnesses provide a description of an accomplice when McVeigh had actually entered the shop alone? It is likely that the confident witness unintentionally influenced the others, leading them to report that they also recalled this second man (Memon and Wright, 1999; Schacter, 2001). Indeed, witnesses admitted in testimony that they had discussed their memories before being questioned (Memon and Wright, 1999).

Now it seems to me investigators and journalists could also potentially influence eyewitness descriptions in a similar manner however this paper indicates that while they can, it’s evidently not as significant as the effect other witnesses can have…

Say It To My Face: Examining The Effects Of Socially Encountered Misinformation
Fiona Gabbert, Amina Memon, Kevin Allan and Daniel B. Wright
http://www.abdn.ac.uk/~psy282/dept/Gabb ... 202004.pdf

Objectives. Errors in eyewitness accounts can occur when a witness comes into contact with post-event ‘misinformation’. A common way to encounter misinformation is through face-to-face interaction, in particular, via conversation with other individuals who also witnessed the crime. The current research compares this kind of misinformation with the non-social post-event narrative method typically employed in laboratory studies.

Method. Young (17–33 years) and older (58–80 years) adults viewed a simulated crime event on video and were later exposed to four items of misinformation about it. The misinformation items were either introduced as part of a discussion about the event with a confederate or were embedded within a written narrative about the event that participants were asked to read. A questionnaire containing 20 items about the event was given to participants before and after the experimental manipulation.

Results. Participants were less accurate than controls on questionnaire items after encountering misinformation. More importantly, misinformation encountered socially was significantly more misleading than misinformation from a non-social source. This was true for both young and older adults.

Conclusion. Misinformation encountered socially produced more errors than misinformation from a non-social source. This finding has implications both for applied (forensic) and theoretical understanding of eyewitness memory.

Of course UFOlogists are often “experiencers” themselves so in some situations they may need to be considered as a potential “social source” of “misinformation” as well.

Also, here’s another article (albeit non-academic) that duplicated the above results with believers in the paranormal…

Memory Conformity And Paranormal Belief
Krissy Wilson and Christopher C. French
http://www.parapsych.org/papers/56.pdf

The study found that a significant proportion of witnesses who had discussed an observed event with a co-witness reported items of information that could only have been acquired during the course of that discussion. These results replicate previous findings and demonstrate a robust memory conformity effect. It was not found that believers in the paranormal were more susceptible than non-believers to memory distortion for a non-paranormal event.

Anyway, I think the article Steve linked to in the OP is a must read for anyone who believes in the infallibility of eyewitness testimony. It’s highly subjective and must be treated as such if one wishes to approach the UFO phenomenon in an objective, scientific manner…
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Re: Why can't we trust what we see?

Postby Zep Tepi » Sat May 22, 2010 9:38 pm

Fantastic post Tom!

Incidentally, I watched the documentary series linked in the OP and it was really fascinating stuff. Riveting even, if you enjoy learning about how easily it is to be "deceived" by others around you, without them even wanting to.

Imagine what you could do, when you intentionally set out to "deceive" someone's memories...
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Re: Why can't we trust what we see?

Postby AussieMike » Mon May 24, 2010 1:48 am

I always liked this one, illustrates the point rather well

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ahg6qcgoay4
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