Are eyewitness accounts reliable?
Eyewitness Accounts – When we rely on the validity of the information about an event based on the word or written statement of one or more persons who witnessed the event in action. Witness accounts can range from very reliable and thus, important, to very inaccurate and even fallacious.
The Kennedy assassination is a prime example cynics often mention in their defense of the unreliability of eyewitness accounts. I, myself, have spoken to witnesses who can be seen in the famous Zapruder film, which captured the assassination. They told me that some of the initial details they gave of their experience were later proved to be inaccurate after they watched the Zapruder film. However, other details they gave in interviews were corroborated by the film, thus, validating their account of the assassination — the most significant being they witnessed the mortal wounding of their President.
The validity of eyewitness accounts is substantially strengthened when given accounts of the same event do not conflict. Please take note that by “do not conflict,” I do not mean “different.” Any event with multiple witnesses will inevitably yield different, though not necessarily conflicting, details given by the witnesses based on their position relative to the event.
For instance, the experience and account of an American paratrooper who was dropped over France shortly after midnight on D-Day will differ greatly from the account of an American GI who participated in the invasion’s amphibious assault roughly six hours later.
That would not make their accounts conflicting — only that they experienced the event from different perspectives and positions. Their differing accounts actually provide more information about the event, giving those of us who were not present during this most successful military invasion, the knowledge that it was a complex and vast endeavor.
Witness accounts are often used to substantiate a prosecution’s case in criminal trials e.g. Mr. Smith was sentenced to life in prison after two bystanders said they saw him stab the victim while in the alley. Similarly, witness accounts can exonerate a wrongfully accused person e.g. the two reputable bystanders in the alley say Mr. Smith was not in the alley when the murder took place.
Witness accounts also carry a lot of weight with regard to the interpretation of history that took place before photography, audio, and video were invented. Example: I did not witness the Peloponnesian War and there are no pictures of it, but I know it happened and I have knowledge about it based on the witness account and written records of Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War – a book I highly recommend, by the way.
Some people discount the importance of eye witnesses because such accounts are not scientific and, at times, have been inaccurate. It is apparent witness accounts can, at worst, be used to cause harm to innocent people, and at best, very accurate and reliable.
Unfortunately, we live in a time where we are quick to dismiss the importance and validity of the written record of eyewitness accounts because we rely on them to provide knowledge about eras and time periods well before our own. This makes us feel uncomfortable because we are a people whose identity is rooted in a sophisticated technological age. It is only natural that we feel very disconnected from both ancient and recent history that had very crude forms of technology, if any at all. This difference has caused a general attitude of condescension toward those who lived in previous periods in human history. It has also led to cynicism about information provided from witness accounts from earlier historical periods that had no access to sophisticated technology. Hence, the hostility often encountered about historical texts such as the Torah or the Bible.
The more recent and technologically advanced a historical period is, the more believable and thus, more “accurate” their recorded history is to us. But is that notion based in reality? For example, it is easier to envision, relate to, and therefore, believe the horror of the American Civil War because we have photographs showing fields of dead and wounded soldiers.
But we find ourselves much less able to relate to the Peloponnesian War. In general, we do not relate, feel or even understand the pain of the ancient Greeks like we do the veterans of the Civil War, even though the historian Thucydides painstakingly recorded the horrors of that war, in which he was a participant. To some, it may as well be folklore.
A historian or political scientist may rely more on recorded witness accounts left behind from previous eras in human history than, say, a physicist does. But, even though the scientific method may provide more reliable knowledge, that does not mean witness accounts are somehow less significant in their ability to provide us knowledge. In fact, the scientific method relies heavily on the accuracy of witness accounts. (After all, it is how scientists conduct the very experiments that provide knowledge.) However, the reverse is not true: eyewitness accounts do not rely on the scientific method in order to be valid.
It is obvious we must interpret witness accounts with a certain degree of caution and sometimes even cynicism, particularly when considering the source. It is only logical, however, to assume that the veracity of a witness account increases each time it is corroborated by another person, with the obvious caveat that the witnesses are giving an honest account to the best of their ability.
Most importantly, we should resign ourselves to the fact we use this method of obtaining knowledge on a daily basis. We witness our experiences and the experiences of others to — whether we realize it or not — form our beliefs about life and make decisions as well as judgments.
It is for this reason it would be foolish and even ignorant to dismiss the importance of this form of obtaining knowledge simply on the basis that eyewitness accounts can and have been unreliable at times.
As people of the twenty-first century, we should remind ourselves of the need to, when appropriate, rely on witness accounts for knowledge because, many times, other forms of obtaining knowledge, such as the scientific method, are simply not applicable and often useless in the pursuit of answers to most of our nagging questions about the universe.
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