Eyewitnesses to Mystery
Hello there! Welcome to Part 5 of my ten-part introduction to the basics of scientific paranormal investigation, adapted from my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, and the workshop I give of the same title. It’s intended to give the layperson a taste of how a science-based paranormal investigator goes about solving mysteries.
This time we’re going to take a look at eyewitness testimony, and interviewing eyewitnesses. There’s always a chance that while investigating a haunted house (or looking for a lake monster, or researching a miracle) you might experience some sort of paranormal (or seemingly paranormal) event. You should be prepared to record and investigate it if you can.
However it’s far more likely that most of the time you personally won’t be the eyewitness. Instead, you’ll be interviewing people who claim to have witnessed amazing or mysterious events. This makes up the bulk of the evidence for paranormal claims, and therefore it’s important to have a good understanding not only of how to interview eyewitnesses (it’s not simple or easy as it might first appear), but also what factors may play a role in a person’s experience.
Understanding human psychology is of great benefit in paranormal investigation, in part because often there is little hard evidence to examine and the bulk of the claim is someone’s personal experience. “I saw a ghost,” one young woman told me during an investigation, or “I think I have psychic powers because my dog can read my mind,” as one fourteen-year-old Canadian boy e-mailed me in 2008. Unless there is some sort of supporting evidence or proof, these are simply interpretations of experiences.
There’s nothing wrong with personal experiences, but by themselves they are not proof or evidence of anything except that the person experienced something they didn’t understand or couldn’t immediately explain. Most people who report such experiences are being truthful (not hoaxing), but being truthful is not the same as being accurate. They may be completely sincere and genuine, and simply wrong.
In order for a person to accurately report an experience, they must do four basic things correctly: 1) they must correctly perceive the phenomena; 2) they must correctly interpret the phenomena; 3) they must correctly recall the phenomena; and 4) they must accurately report or describe the phenomenon.
Example: A man on a boat in a lake sees something big and dark rise out of the water. When he gets to shore, he tells his wife he saw a lake monster.
Maybe he did; maybe he didn’t, but some questions must be asked:
- How accurate is his perception? Does he wear glasses? Was it bright daylight, dusk, or nighttime? How far away was it? Ten feet? 100 yards? A quarter mile? Maybe he got a good look at it, maybe he didn’t.
- How good is his interpretation? Why did he interpret what he saw as specifically a lake monster, instead of a fish, or a wave, or a sunken log? Did it have characteristics that convinced him it could not be something with a more likely explanation? Were there any other factors that might influence his interpretation or judgment (for example, alcohol or other drugs, health problems such as diabetes, exhaustion, etc.)? Had he reported seeing the monster before, or been told about the creature? Was he actively searching for the monster, or doing some other activity such as fishing?
- How good is his recollection? Did the incident happen just minutes or hours earlier? Or was it weeks, months, or even years later? Does he have any memory problems? The more often a person repeats a story, the more likely it is to have been embellished; details creep in or drop out over time.
- How good is his ability to adequately report or describe his experience? How extensive is his vocabulary? Does he speak the same language as the person he’s reporting his experience to? Is he too frightened to speak? Are there any other factors that might affect his ability to fully communicate?
The same basic questions apply to all eyewitness experiences. Note that an eyewitnesses’ account can only be considered completely valid if the person is not affected by factors such as these. If he clearly sees the object, correctly identifies it at the time, but can’t correctly recall or describe it later, then the sighting is compromised. If any part of the chain breaks down, if any one of these steps is dubious or missing, then there will be serious errors and mistakes in what is reported.
This of course doesn’t mean that all eyewitnesses are unreliable, just that investigators cannot take reports at face value. In our daily lives, any errors that creep into the cognitive process are likely to be minor and insignificant. But in alleged eyewitness accounts of paranormal phenomenon, every detail may be important. The gap between what is experienced and what is reported can create monsters and mystery where none exist.
In my investigations, I have encountered many cases where a sincere person reported a first-hand eyewitness account of something that simply did not happen. It’s not that the eyewitnesses are lying or hoaxing; sometimes people misremember experiences and events; sometimes they even create them out of thin air and come to believe them.
Eyewitnesses and Personal Experience
Studies have shown that personal experience—contrasted with, say, academic experience—strongly influences our perceptions and beliefs about the world. We may hear newscasters discuss the dangers of highways, but the point won’t really be driven home until someone we know is injured in an accident. That’s just the way the brain has developed: to emphasize emotional, vivid events. Stories are better remembered than statistics; personal experience and emotional events are imprinted much more strongly on our thought processes than those told to us by others. Much of the time this is a useful feature. But because human perception and understanding is subject to many influences and mistakes, it can very easily lead us astray.
Most people recognize on some level that personal experience can’t always be trusted. If we are on a jury, we should be more comfortable convicting a defendant on the basis of incriminating fingerprints or DNA evidence than an eyewitness’s identification. Carl Sagan wrote in The Demon-Haunted World: “American police procedure concentrates on evidence and not anecdotes. As the European witch trials remind us, suspects can be intimidated during interrogation; people confess to crimes they never committed; eyewitnesses can be mistaken.…But real, unfabricated evidence—powder burns, fingerprints, DNA samples, footprints, hair under the fingernails of the struggling victim—carry great weight. Criminalists employ something very close to the scientific method, and for the same reasons.”
We forget where we parked the car at the supermarket, we misremember people’s names. But just as the brain can make mistakes on these trivial issues, those same errors also occur in topics of importance. Personal experience is not always a reliable guide to the world.
When I speak to people who have had special encounters—say, with psychic powers, or ghosts, or mysterious phenomena, I’m struck by the confidence with which people aver their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. Often they say that they saw it with their own eyes, and know what they experienced. That may be entirely true, but it also raises the question: Can people misunderstand and misperceive the world around them? This is not even a question— it has been firmly, repeatedly, and reliably proven. Innocent people have been jailed for years—even decades—based upon faulty eyewitness testimony.
It is important to point out that just because we know that eyewitnesses can be mistaken, that doesn’t mean that they are—people also correctly and accurately describe weird things all the time. So a good scientific paranormal investigator doesn’t dismiss eyewitness reports; they should be fully investigated, as they may lead to further evidence. But reports, by themselves and without any evidence to support them, are often an investigative dead end.
There’s much more to all this, and in this 10-part course I can only scratch the surface of investigation principles and techniques. But so far you’ve got a good grounding in some of the foundations and basic principles.
Enough theory! Let’s move on to applying some of these ideas to some real mysteries!
In the next two parts I’ll give you some real-life examples of some minor mysteries that I have investigated, pulled from my 12 years of investigations. Then it will be your turn to take a stab at it!
Next: Part 6