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Eyewitness Testimony and Cryptozoology

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Cryptozoology is the study and search for unknown or hidden animals such as Bigfoot, lake monsters and other creatures new to science. It is not yet an accepted science by mainstream standards. Paranormal research involves anything seen as strange or different to everyday experience, from ghosts to UFOs. Most of the evidence is anecdotal1. Little concrete evidence such as blood samples or bones of unknown creatures have been found. Photographs can be altered and so are often discarded as fakes by the scientific establishment.

Is Seeing Believing?

It is said that seeing is believing, or is it? The majority of the evidence for cryptozoological and paranormal activity relies on eyewitness testimony. Anyone who has studied psychology will have come across studies that show eyewitness testimony to be unreliable. There are occasional success stories such as the coelacanth. This is a prehistoric fish that was thought extinct, until living specimens were discovered in the waters off Africa and Indonesia.

Eyewitness Testimony

The best-known study on eyewitness testimony was by Loftus (an American psychologist) in 1979. This experiment has been repeated many times by psychology undergraduates in the classroom and has always come up with the same results. The students are shown a video of an incident (a car accident or bank robbery). They are then divided into groups in which some are witnesses and some are detectives. What the witnesses don't know, is that the questions they answer are in different formats:

  • Witness One is asked open questions, such as 'What colour was the car?'
  • Witness Two is asked more closed questions, such as 'Was the car blue or brown?'
  • Witness Three is asked closed and leading questions, such as 'The car you saw was blue, yes?'

Even when shown the film again, after being questioned, Witness Three will say they could have sworn the car was blue. If asked again three months later, they will repeat the car was blue. Human beings have the capacity to fool themselves that something untrue is true and stick to that idea stubbornly.

How does this reflect on a scientific genre that relies on eyewitness testimony for its evidence? The correlation often cited between whisky-drinking and sightings of the alleged Loch Ness phenomenon comes to mind.

Scientific Standard

In order for eyewitness testimony to be become scientifically acceptable, it has to be made more reliable by scientific method. A standard would need to be set to be used by everyone involved in this research. This standard could also prove useful to law enforcement agencies as a tool.

The first step would be to have the evidence (eyewitness testimony) recorded as soon as possible after the event has taken place. Any lapse of time would cause some deterioration of the memory or embellishment from discussion with others. For example, Witness Three in the study above had some of their peers convinced the car was blue, despite having previously stated otherwise. This would mean a proforma (in the form of an observation chart or record) would have to be readily available to complete. Around Loch Ness, for example, it could be available from visitor centres and eating establishments, just to pick up and take away, should something untoward occur during a visit to the lake.

This proforma would need to not only consist of the expected questions on personal details of the witness - descriptions of the sighting, details of weather conditions, other witnesses and so on also need to be taken into consideration, alongside information that some witnesses may not want to reveal. Questions on the witness's state of health also need to be asked. Do they wear spectacles? Were they wearing them at the time? Were they under the influence of alcohol (if so: how much had they imbibed?) - or medication or 'recreational' drugs? Had they had mental health problems or suffered from hallucinations (not in themselves mutually exclusive), dizzy spells or memory loss? Have they seen this phenomenon before? If so, where and when?

Only by eliminating all possibilities can the evidence be classed as a true record. The problems inherent in this are obvious; it relies on the witness being truthful about any health conditions.

In defence of the method, Brigham (an American psychologist) et al, in 1982, found only 34.2% reliability of eyewitness testimony in a field setting, so any method that can improve on that is a positive. The only way forward would appear to be a field trial of the method. The drawback to this is Nessie does not appear on cue, and paranormal activities do not occur on demand.

So many fake Nessie experiments have taken place, where something is planted for visitors to see, that only a true scientific method can rescue this type of research from farce. The people who undertake these fake experiments may have good intentions2, but do more harm than good by making cryptozoology a joke.

In order for any science to be accepted - as the so-called 'new' social sciences have been - by the scientific establishment, a method of investigation that can be replicated must be utilised. In eyewitness testimony a better approach must be found.

That method may be, by necessity, intrusive on participants' private lives but without some sort of scientific measure, cryptozoologists and paranormal investigators will be constantly banging their heads against a brick wall. To become accepted at an academic level necessitates improving on present scientific methods, to accommodate what is normally not measurable phenomena. In other words, make seeing believable. Only by making eyewitness testimony more reliable can these studies move on to a firm footing.

Sources: Loftus, EF: Eye Witness Testimony Cambrige, Mass: Havard University Press 1979
Brigham JC, Maass A, Snyder, LD and Spaulding, K: 'Accuracy of Eye Witness Identifications in a Field Setting', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1982 42 673-681
1The simple recounting of events.2To give them the benefit of the doubt.

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