Sharon Hill on: “Being skeptical of eyewitness accounts”

Sharon Hill, writes a great article in the HuffPo all about why you should be skeptical of eyewitness accounts entitled … “I’m Not Making This Up: Why I’m Skeptical of Eyewitnesses“. To give you an idea, here are a few key phrases and observations that leapt out for me …

…Memory is constructed. Pause a moment and let that sink in.

Memory is not objective, it is constructed by our own brains

…I’ve had a journal since I was 7. There have been times when I looked back on events and was dumbfounded at the dispute between what I thought had happened and what I wrote happened in my journal. For a moment, I doubt my journal! But that’s incorrect. My current memory had evolved into what I wanted it to be for my state right now. It had been reconstructed each time I accessed it in the intervening years.

You know of course that the primary concern here is not with discrepancies between her personal diary and a current recollection, that is just to illustrate the key point …

I can’t take your Bigfoot story or any of your recollections at face value and why it would be unskeptical and irrational of me to do so. It’s not personal. It’s human.

Indeed yes … when faced with claims backed up by people telling you that they truly have indeed seen – aliens, Bigfoot, a ghost, a miracle, etc… be skeptical, because such an anecdote is simply not credible objective evidence and is instead completely subjective.

Sitting between your ears is an amazing pattern seeking machine that will strive to apply order to chaos and by doing so interpret what is seen and heard by applying layers of preconceived beliefs to random patterns, and so it is with our memories as well … what we recall is often the narrative that makes sense to us, and not what actually happened.

Humans are very easy to fool, and the one person that will most probably fool you is yourself.

OK, a bit of fun … here is a picture … now ask yourself what you see?


It is just a tree, there is nothing else there, but what you think is also there is not actually there at all, that is just inside your head.

OK, so how about a religious experience then … fancy an encounter with Jesus perhaps …

indexOnce again, what you think you see is not actually there at all, that is simply your brain applying a cultural image to a random collection of data.

So do you “feel” at times that you are perhaps being watched, is there something out there keeping an eye on you?


Your brain will apply your fears and beliefs to random patterns, and not just to what you visually see, but also to your memories as well … we simply cannot depend upon the ever so subjective experiences of people when they are cited as “proof” for things such as ghosts, Bigfoot, aliens lake monsters and religion. The stories you are told may indeed be sincerely recounted and honestly believed to be truth, but in fact did not actually happen at all.

I may indeed be a skeptic for such claims, but I myself am not immune to such things. I recall once telling somebody an amusing travel story as something that happened to me, and then later when pondering over it realized that while telling the story I might have believed it to have been personally experienced, but realized that it was not me at all. I had heard the story once, then for some reason my brain decided that it was something that had happened to me many years ago, but it had not, because I remembered where I had in fact first heard it. I had fooled myself, and by doing so had also successfully fooled somebody else.

So when faced with an anecdotal tale to verify a claim, be cautious and do not accept it as evidence … but also be respectful and gentle with anybody telling you such a story, they most probably truly believe it to be something they actually experienced. Suggesting they are delusional or unacquainted with the truth is really not going to help them.


Further Reading

Ms Hill also makes the following further reading recommendation … I need not add my own alternative because this is indeed a top-notch recommendation.

For more, I recommend the book Eyewitness Testimony by Elizabeth Loftus, a world-leader in memory research. Dr. Loftus has been working with experts in the legal field to develop guidelines for jurors regarding how to think about eyewitness testimony in court cases.

If that further reading is a bit too much, then perhaps the TED talk by her might be of interest instead

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