THE "EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY IS NOT EVIDENTIAL" ARGUMENT

 

Dialectician 1.   g1 If putative evidence is completely unreliable in the fringe sciences, then it is not of any use in justifying our belief in the truth of any proposition in this area -- i.e., it is not really evidence at all in the fringe sciences.

g2 As countless examples show, eyewitness testimony is completely unreliable as evidence in the fringe sciences.

g3 Therefore, human eyewitness testimony is not of any use in justifying the belief in the truth of any proposition. It is not really evidence at all.*

g4 If something can be dissected, photographed, discussed, looked at, etc.,  then it can be used as evidence to justify our beliefs in things.

g5 Physical evidence can be dissected, photographed, discussed, looked at, etc.

g6 Therefore, unlike eyewitness testimony, physical evidence can be of use in justifying our belief in the truth of a proposition. (For instance, for a biologist to claim that a new species of animal exists, to name a new species, he or she has to have a type specimen.)*

g7 Eyewitness testimony can be used to start a research project, but the burden of proof is on the person making the claim. (And physical evidence can constitute that proof.)

g8 The method of science embodies the two principles that, first, eyewitness testimony is poor evidence, and, second, that physical evidence is what is needed.

g9 Therefore, anyone who accepts eyewitness testimony as evidence is not doing science, and his or her conclusions are not scientific. [Argument adapted from arguments by Michael Shermer: Larry King Live, on CNN, July 13, 2007 and Coast to Coast radio show, Aug. 1, 2007]

 

Archae.  g10 [vs. g2: g2 is false] Dialectician 1, your wholesale condemnation of eyewitness testimony in the fringe sciences seems to me to represent an extreme view, a view which one might not expect to encounter in much real-world debate. g11 But, in fact,  skeptics all too often refuse to give any evidential weight at all to eyewitness testimony, and even in cases where a great deal of solid eyewitness testimony exists to support an extraordinary claim, the skeptical argument often includes the phrase "there is no evidence," which is taken as being synonymous to "there is no physical evidence." g12 All eyewitness testimony in these cases is glibly, without any analytical appraisal of it, characterized as mere "anecdote."

g13 Actually, it is easy to show definitively that it is false that "eyewitness testimony is completely unreliable as evidence," a statement that is at least implicit in many skeptical arguments. g14 Consider the following argument:

 

My friend Bob has, hundreds or thousands of times, told me the truth. I can't recall a single time when he didn't.

Bob told me he saw a dog chasing a cat across his front yard this morning.

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A dog chased a cat across Bob's front yard this morning.

 

g15 The above is an ordinary, totally unproblematic, example of inductive reasoning that provides a clear example where eyewitness testimony is evidential. Such examples are ubiquitous. If eyewitness testimony is of value in ordinary life, and, I might add, in courts of law, the burden is on the skeptic to show why it is not evidential in the fringe sciences.  g16 Also, consider this case:

 

If a respectable scientist describes, in a journal, an observation he made--an instrument reading, say, and another scientist repeats the experiment and reports the same result, we're entitled to believe this eyewitness testimony.

 

g17 So, eyewitness testimony is given its due in both ordinary life and in science. g18 Juries, detectives and historians could not do their work if they shared the skeptic's extreme view, a view that pits itself against ordinary induction.

g19 Of course, much eyewitness testimony is, indeed, worthless as evidence. g20 Those who uncritically accept all eyewitness testimony in the fringe sciences are making a mistake that is the mirror image of the skeptic's.  g21 Clearly, some eyewitness testimony is evidential--some is even conclusive--and some is unreliable and not evidential at all. g22 The task then is to determine whether or not a particular piece of eyewitness testimony is evidential, and if it is, to determine to what degree it is evidential. g23 (The skeptic may reply in a particular case, "I meant to say that this particular eyewitness testimony is not evidential." But this is then a new argument.) g24 Any argument that fails to look at the relevant distinctions is unsophisticated and "clunky."

g25 Roughly speaking, the factors that determine the evidential value of any eyewitness account seem to be these:

 

1. The character of the witness.

2. The susceptibility to multiple interpretations of what's reported.

3. Corroboration: the existence of other witnesses to the same thing.

 

g26 [vs. g9] Dialectician 1, here's a second point about your argument: The question of whether or not a conclusion is "scientific" is best ignored in many cases. g27 First of all, views on what exactly the word "science" means may differ. g28 Moreover, although the skeptic's argument often implies that if a belief was not arrived at via a scientific method, then it is not justified, science is clearly, by anyone's definition, only one kind of rationality. g29 Philosophers, historians, detectives, and people in ordinary life may not, by anyone's definition, be doing science, yet they may well be forming beliefs in a rational way. g30 In many arguments, the skeptic's reply, "It's not scientific," may be factual but not in fact a criticism. So the important question in most cases is not "Is this scientific?" but is "Does this particular testimony rationally justify belief, and ,if it does, to what degree does it justify it?"

 

 

[Why do skeptics argue this way? s\d..]

 

This article links to Roswell, page 10.

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Notes

g3.   g1, g2  Id

g6.   g4, g5  Id + MP 

     g4  If something can be dissected, . . . , then it can be used as evidence . .

     α Physical evidence = something

     β If physical evidence can be dissected, . . . , then it can be used as evidence . . .   440, α  Id.

     g5  Physical evidence can be dissected, photographed, discussed, looked at, etc.

     g6  So, Physical evidence can be used as evidence to justify our belief in things.  β,440.01  MP

 

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© Richard Crist, 2007