ASSAP: Paranormal Research
ASSAP: Paranormal Education
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Why we need witness testimony

There are people who dismiss most anomalous phenomena because they rely on 'anecdotal evidence'. While it is true that witness testimony is not a particularly reliable source of evidence (see here for instance), this is not a reason to dismiss it out of hand.

Firstly, a high proportion of reports of anomalous phenomena are found, on close examination, to be most likely caused by misperception or hallucination. The latter is almost entirely subjective and former largely so. In such cases, our only realistic form of access to such material is through witness testimony. Even when considering such subjective factors, we are dealing with a real experience, with specific causes, rather than an 'overactive imagination' or delusion.

Secondly, the witness testimony we have for various anomalous phenomena is consistent across locations and through history. Ghost reports, for instance, are reasonably consistent across huge numbers of independent witnesses over many centuries, countries and cultures. Even more interesting, ghost reports consistently differ significantly from their well-known fictional and cultural representation. In the case of hauntings, for instance, the same phenomena may be reported at the same location by independent witnesses over a long period of time, indicating that there must be factors involved independent of the witnesses themselves. This gives rise to 'haunting hot spots', a remarkably consistent feature of real hauntings, though not of their well-known fictional and cultural counterpart.

It is clear that reports of anomalous phenomena are sufficiently consistent, and not just because of cultural transmission, to justify the idea that they represent specific human experiences not so far fully explained by existing science. While it is likely that we may be able soon to directly record human experience from brains in real time, which would make such anomalous experiences objective and measurable, witness testimony is, at present, almost the only viable source of evidence concerning these experiences. Though there are many claims of instrumental recordings of anomalous phenomena, few stand up to careful scientific examination. Nearly all anomalous photos, for instance, are found to be photographic artefacts when closely examined. Overall, it is clear is that we are not dealing with some simple culturally transmitted delusion or fantasy, as those who dismiss anomalous phenomena as 'merely anecdotal' appear to suggest.

Unusable testimony

None of the above means that we should accept all witness testimony concerning anomalous phenomena at face value. Indeed, very little of such testimony is actually worthy of scientific consideration. It is important to consider all the limitations of testimony. Humans are not objective recorders of their surroundings and their memories are not as fixed, detailed or accurate as we might suppose.

So what type of witness testimony is worth considering when doing a scientific study of anomalous phenomena? Here are a few types that are NOT worth considering:

Legends - it is said that legends are usually based on some germ of truth. This may well be so but it means that most of the tale is essentially invented. Even worse, we don't know which bits of the story are real and which are not!

Media reports - anyone reading a media report of a ghost sighting, for instance, will immediately be struck by the fact that it invariably raises more questions than it answers. Such reports tend to be brief and often contain irrelevant background information. For instance, a report of a ghost sighting may include speculation about the historical identity of the apparition. This is despite that fact that there is frequently little or no relevant information pointing to any particular individual.

Personal anecdotes - most people have a real life 'ghost story' to tell from their personal experience. Unless these incidents were investigated by competent researchers reasonably soon after the incident, however, such testimony is unlikely to be sufficiently accurate or detailed to be of scientific interest. As well as the universal problems of misperception and unreliable recall, many witnesses tend to 'form a view' on their experience, especially with the passage of time, which can bias their retelling of the incident. It is interesting to note that such anecdotes typically differ markedly in their content from carefully investigated cases. This suggests that memory drift and witness interpretation may often affect such accounts.

FOAF - friend of a friend (FOAF) stories are like personal anecdotes but even less reliable. This is because the person relating the story is not the original witness. This inevitably introduces 'Chinese whisper' effects making the material highly likely to be changed, albeit unintentionally, from its original form. Furthermore, you cannot question the original witness for further details.

Most vigil reports - a great many 'ghost vigils' these days use 'assumption-led' techniques. Since such techniques cannot ever question their own assumptions, and since they are perfectly capable of producing 'positive' results anywhere, whether at a haunted location or not, they have little or no value in producing useful evidence.

Useful testimony

The most useful witness testimony comes through a formal investigation by competent paranormal researchers. Such researchers will use cognitive interviewing techniques to gain the highest proportion of reliable information from original witnesses. They will also interview any other witnesses who were either present at the time or saw the same phenomena at a different time or place. They will examine the site of the experience to check if it corresponds with witness testimony and if any obvious xenonormal causes for the report are apparent. They will also look for other, less obvious, possible xenonormal causes as well as trying to reproduce the events described by the witnesses. They may well consult with experts in relevant fields who may suggest further xenonormal causes to consider. They may hold a vigil but only if it is considered relevant or likely to be useful and never using assumption-led techniques.

Even from this brief summary it is obvious that conducting a thorough formal investigation into even a single report of an anomalous incident is a major undertaking. It certainly goes well beyond a personal anecdote or informal investigation. However, this is the level of research required if we are to stand even a tiny chance of understanding what took place during a reported anomalous incident. In most cases the conclusion will be that xenonormal causes are the most likely explanation.

It is only this exhaustive level of inquiry that can make witness testimony worthy of consideration in scientific research.

© Maurice Townsend 2013