More Than Ever, Eyewitness Testimony Should Count!


Eyewitness testimony is a point of contention between paranormal investigators and skeptics. Skeptics generally dismiss eyewitness testimony since it is difficult to measure and perceptions can be quite different than reality. Other investigators point to the correlation of the cases as evidence that there is a unique cause. 

Accurately accounting for eyewitness accounts can be tricky, but to ignore people’s experiences outright is troubling. I’ll make the case for why and how eyewitness testimony should become a part of paranormal investigation. 

Every measurement involves error. 

The key issue with eyewitness testimony is what people remember can differ from what actually happened. And of course many people may exaggerate or completely fabricate accounts for attention or monetary gains. This leads to error in first-hand accounts. 

But when did error become unacceptable? If we are honest every measurement made includes a degree of error, the key is establishing an idea for the amount of error. Once we know that we can determine the value of the underlying information. 

It is the starting point for investigations.

When large numbers of people are reporting very similar things, it is very reasonable to assume there is a legitimate cause and the accounts are not simply fabricated. And while there may be a logical explanation, using eyewitness accounts as a starting point for investigation can lead to fruitful findings and conclusions. Ignoring these accounts means throwing away good leads.

It doesn’t change scientific testing.

Accepting eyewitness accounts into investigation and analysis of paranormal claims does not change the standard of scientific testing. Everyone interested in paranormal investigation should aspire to develop testable claims. The hard part is getting to this point. Eyewitness testimony provides important information that can lead to that all-important scientifically testable claim. 

It can send people to prison and get others blown up! 

Eyewitness accounts are used in our legal system to send people to jail and are a crucial part of intelligence programs and significantly influence military decision-making. Both of these communities have established ways to evaluate the truthfulness and accuracy of eyewitness accounts; why can’t the scientific community? 

In a world where my wallet-sized smartphone is more powerful than the laptop I typing on why can’t we conquer this obstacle? 

We know more about what influences perception than ever! 

Skeptics point to numerous studies in psychology that point to a myriad of conditions under which eyewitness testimony can become distorted. This is cited as proof that testimony is unreliable. But if anything this is all the more reason to include eyewitness accounts. Today we have scientific proof of the factors that influence human perception. From this we can establish average error under various conditions and use this to assess the accuracy of eyewitness reports. For example we know a report where the eyewitness was half asleep, in low light and saw something for a very short time is going to be, on average, less accurate than a long daylight sighting. 

Truthfulness can be estimated. 

And finally there are many techniques to evaluate the truthfulness of claims. One good method is correlation. While it would be foolish to accept one account as the absolute truth, a strong correlation of many eye-witness reports increases the confidence that the reports are valid. This is magnified if some of the reports occurred during daylight hours, for a significant period of time, from an unobscured vantage point. 

Sure eyewitness testimony can be flawed but so can any observations, measurements or even scientific experiments. Science has long-recognized the need to understand error and bias and be able to account for this in developing fact. It is time for science to step up and recognize eyewitness testimony as a valid source of observations.