Recently one of my Myspace friends posted the following video in a bulletin
This gave me the idea of briefly addressing the crucial role that eyewitness testimony often plays in grand conspiracy theories and other false beliefs.
A great article that discusses the reliability of eye witness testimony can be found here.
Perhaps the most important thing to note is that, even though there is a popular perception of eyewitness testimony being among the most reliable forms of evidence available, the criminal justice system treats such testimony as being among the most fragile and even unreliable available.
Eyewitness testimony falls into the category of anecdotal evidence, which while most people tend to think is among the best form of evidence is actually one of the weakest forms of evidence. Indeed, in our society we tend to put a great deal more stock in a story if we’re told that the one telling the story saw the whole thing with their own eyes, especially when that storyteller has an honest reputation and seemingly no reason at all to lie about their alleged experiences. But like I always say, if anecdotal evidence was really worth its salt we’d all have to accept that millions of people have been abducted by space aliens. And we’d have to accept that space aliens visit the Earth more often than Fox News criticizes “left-wing media.” Surely billions of people aren’t deliberately lying. In many cases, these beliefs have a devastating impact on the lives of the believer.
How does this happen? There are many explanations but one is that we have pattern-seeking brains that see patterns even when none exist. For instance, have you ever heard the expression: seeing is believing? This is adage that suggests anecdotal evidence is compelling. Though the reality is that the reverse is more accurate: believing is seeing. Once you believe something, you see it everywhere. For instance, if I thought for some reason that I keep encountering the number 47, then I’m more likely to notice the number 47 everywhere I go even though I only come across it as often as I would be likely to by chance alone.
In fact many studies has shown a rise in superstitious beliefs in situations where greater uncertainly exists. And in a recent study when people were given rewards at random intervals, most subjects developed the false believe that they’d discovered a pattern. Also, there seems to be a rise in conspiracy theories involving negative events beyond the individual’s control.
As Elizabeth Loftus describes in her book Memory: Surprising New Insights into How We Remember and Why We Forget:
“Memory is imperfect. This is because we often do not see things accurately in the first place. But even if we take in a reasonably accurate picture of some experience, it does not necessarily stay perfectly intact in memory. Another force is at work. The memory traces can actually undergo distortion. With the passage of time, with proper motivation, with the introduction of special kinds of interfering facts, the memory traces seem sometimes to change or become transformed. These distortions can be quite frightening, for they can cause us to have memories of things that never happened. Even in the most intelligent among us is memory thus malleable.”
Another popular “evidence” that conspiracy theorists use is anomaly hunting, where they begin with a pre-determined conclusion about something and then apply post hoc arguments and confirmation bias in order to rationalize their case. It never seems to matter whether the perceived holes they find in “the official story” are a non-sequitur or red herring. But just as long as it damages the credibility of “the official story,” then they feel perfectly willing to insert whatever crazy hypothesis they want to explain the apparent inconsistencies. But the problem is that there will always be holes in official stories because nobody has got perfect memory or has the ability to perfectly describe what they saw and there are always far too many variables to factor in when trying to deal with the physics of a particular event. And when you have laypeople who aren’t that familiar with the science playing armchair detective and taking the word of minority fridge figures they’ve embraced as “whistle blowers”, over the overwhelming mass consensus of thought among the experts, you’re going to run into problems.
I’m reminded of a recent interaction I had with someone who believed that the JFK assassination wasa government conspiracy. One piece of evidence they presented was that apparently a news reporter had misstated the murder weapon, saying it was 1 specific type of gun when it really was another. I asked if it was possible that the news reporter had simply made a mistake? The answer I got was no, because the guns are too dissimilar. But I didn’t know that. And it’s a long shot to think that some blue state news reporter reading off a teleprompter or cue card is going to know that. One gun sounds as right as any other. Maybe the script guy accidentally mixed up the guns in 2 different news stories. There’s got to be a million and one more plausible explanations than to suggest that this is evidence that not only did “the government” kill JFK but that some random news reporter knew the truth, was in on the conspiracy, and instead of make his career by breaking the story, chose to take part in the cover up. That’s quite a leap from something as simple as mistaking the model of gun used in the assassination. Anomalies mean nothing if they don’t add up to anything.
Lastly, in the mind of the conspiracy theorist there are no coincidences. Therefore just by asking leading questions about random things that have even the slightest and flimsiest connections can be used to suggest a massive cover-up, perhaps best illustrated by this conspiracy theorist parody.
So I put together the 3 Stages of Delusion:
2. Apply confirmation bias by seeking out & isolating any data that might superficially seem to support the pre-determined conclusion while ignoring any data that challenges the pre-determined conclusion.
3. When confronted w/ criticism, vilify the opposition and deny, deny, deny.
And here are some videos that delve deeper into this discussion: