Humans are storytelling animals, and they are easily persuaded by the testimony of other individuals. The telemarketers and advertisers all know that if they get a popular celebrity to endorse their product, it will sell well, even if there are no careful scientific studies or FDA approvals to back up their claims. The endorsement of your next-door neighbor may be good enough to make simple decisions, but in science, anecdotal evidence counts for very little. Yet as Daniel Loxton and I found out during our research for our new book on cryptozoology due out soon, nearly all evidence of Bigfoot, Nessie, Yeti, and other cryptids is no more than anecdotal, “eyewitness” accounts. As Frank Sulloway put it, “Anecdotes do not make a science. Ten anecdotes are no better than one, and a hundred anecdotes are no better than ten.”
Most scientific studies require dozens to hundreds of experiments or cases, and detailed statistical analysis, before we can accept the conclusion that event A probably caused event B. In the case of medicine and drug testing, there is typically a “control” group that doesn’t receive a given treatment, or receives a placebo instead, so that we can rule out the possible effects of the power of suggestion, and also rule out random effects. Only after such rigorous testing which can rule out the biases of the subjects and the observers, random noise, and all other uncontrolled variables, can scientists make the statement that event A probably caused event B. Even then, scientists do not speak in finalistic terms of “cause and effect” but only in probabilistic terms that “event A has a 95% probability to have caused event B.”
The same goes for eyewitness testimony, which may have some value in a court of law, but is regarded as highly suspect in most scientific studies. Thousands of studies have shown that eyewitnesses are easily fooled by distractions such as a weapon, or confused by stress, or otherwise misled into confidently “remembering” things that did not happen. This is vividly demonstrated by a startling video where the viewer is told to count the number of times players dressed in white pass the basketball. If you do it and focus on the counting, you will completely miss a man in a gorilla suit who walks right through the shot, because your attention is focused elsewhere.
As Levin and Kramer put it, “Eyewitness testimony is, at best, evidence of what the witness believes to have occurred. It may or may not tell what actually happened. The familiar problems of perception, of gauging time, speed, height, weight, of accurate identification of persons accused of crime all contribute to making honest testimony something less than completely credible.” Consequently, court systems around the world are undergoing reform as DNA evidence has shown case after case of eyewitness testimony that resulted in a wrongful conviction. One famous study involved a young woman who conclusively identified the face of her rapist and sent him to prison, only to find out later when his DNA was tested that he was not the culprit. She had seen his face on television and subconsciously associated his face with her (unseen) rapist’s face. As psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has shown, eyewitness accounts of events and their memory of them are notoriously unreliable. In her 1980 book, Memory: Surprising New Insights into How We Remember and Why We Forget, Loftus writes: “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.”
Radford and Nickell recount several examples that make this point vividly. In 2004, one Dennis Plucknett and his 14-year-old son Alex were out hunting in north Florida. Alex was in a ditch some 225 yards away from his father when someone yelled “Hog!” Dennis grabbed his gun, pointed it at a distant moving object that looked like a hog to him and fired. Instead, he killed his son with a single shot to the head. Alex had been wearing a black toboggan cap, not a hog costume or anything else that would have made him look remotely hog-like. Yet at that distance, and with the suggestion that there was a wild hog nearby, his father mistook a toboggan cap for a wild boar, and a tragic result occurred. In fact, hunting accident stories like these are common, since many hunters shoot first and ask questions later, often confused by distant objects that are moving and by the suggestibility of their own imaginations to “see” what they are looking for, and not what’s really there.
Or take, for example, the Washington, D.C., sniper panic of 2002. Early eyewitness descriptions told authorities to look for a white or light-colored box truck or van, with a roof rack. Police wasted weeks of time and caused huge traffic jams stopping every vehicle that remotely matched the description. Finally, the suspects, John Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad, were caught— and the “white van” was actually a dark blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice. D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said, “We were looking for a white van with white people, and we ended up with a blue car with black people.” All that energy and time was wasted because eyewitness accounts were wrong. The Washington Post reported that the suspects’ Caprice had actually been stopped ten times during the period of the panic because it was near the site of one of the attacks, but each time it was released because it didn’t match the eyewitness descriptions.
Many of these “memories” of strange experiences or eyewitness accounts of bizarre beasts can be attributed to sleep-deprivation, dreams and hallucinations. In his book, Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer describes how he once had an experience of being abducted by aliens. At the time, he was undergoing the stress of an ultra-marathon cross-country bicycle race, and his mind hallucinated the entire experience. As Shermer showed, most famous accounts of aliens abductions and out-of-body experiences can clearly be attributed to dreams or hallucinations caused by stress. For most “eyewitness” accounts of bizarre monsters, there is overwhelming evidence that individuals can hallucinate or imagine things that aren’t really there, or be fooled by a stressful panicked glimpse of something real (such as a bear instead of Bigfoot), and then their memory and imagination fills out the details later.
This is one of the central issues one encounters when you examine the claims of cryptozoology, as Daniel Loxton and I did in our upcoming book. Nearly every cryptid, from Bigfoot to Nessie to the Yeti, is based largely on the often contradictory and changing accounts of eyewitnesses, with no hard physical evidence of any of them that has held up to scrutiny. Cryptozoologists and Bigfoot fans place a lot of faith in what they saw or heard, or what other people report, without realizing how easily their perceptions can be fooled. None realize how fallible human perception is, and why scientists view it as the worst possible line of evidence.
What is the proper scientific approach to such evidence? As we have seen, most scientists discount it outright unless there is strong physical evidence to support it. Even the most reliable eyewitness account does not meet the standard of “extraordinary evidence” that we would need to substantiate an “extraordinary claim.”
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