Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson on why your eye witness testimony isn’t good enough.

Invariably when I get into a discussion, be it on religion or ghosts or some other supernatural phenomena, someone will eventually accuse me of calling them a liar. “Are you telling me,” they’ll begin to ask with an air of righteous indignation, “That I don’t know what I saw?” Yes, I’ll reply. That’s exactly what I’m telling you. I don’t doubt you believe you saw what you think you saw, but I doubt that you actually saw what you claim to have seen. Quite often that’ll put an end to the conversation as the other person stamps off in a huff over the outrage of having his perceptions challenged.

The next time I come across a conversation like that I’ll point to this video clip of from Cosmic Quandaries with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. In it he’s just been asked if he believes in UFOs and he goes on to explain the argument from ignorance and why your eyewitness account isn’t enough for scientists to accept by itself. Check it:

Good stuff and points made with a bit more tact than I’m usually capable of.

Update: Looks like you can watch the whole thing on YouTube.

Found via Greg Laden’s blog.

7 thoughts on “Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson on why your eye witness testimony isn’t good enough.

  1. The world could use more people who are both rational and funny. Scientists have a reputation for being serious, dull, and pedantic. This isn’t always deserved, because learning is a two-way, participatory experience. In other words, you should not have to be entertained in order to learn. But let’s face it, people respond to excitement (the scary flip-side of this is that there are funny and animated people preaching irrational bullshit), so it’s nice to have people like Dr. Tyson out there.

  2. Trial consultants have made this into a science. There are studies where groups of people are shown a brief video clip of, say, a man robbing a bank. The test subjects are then asked to write down a description of their “eye witness” account. The answers will be all over the place. Black, white, tall, short, blonde, dark hair, and so forth.

    In a trial, so-called eye witness testimony isn’t always as rock-solid as one would think.

  3. In a trial, so-called eye witness testimony isn’t always as rock-solid as one would think.

    Especially cross-cultural eye witness testimony: white witnesses identifying black suspects and vice-versa. Then take into account pariedolia, the eye witness accounts of the Virgin Mary, and you can see why such accounts lack merit.  tongue wink cheese

  4. I’m reading Tyson’s memoir, The sky is not the limit, and it’s pretty interesting stuff.  One incident where he talks about his thoughts being confronted by some guy with a knife, his early experiments in urban astronomy, the first time he was paid for giving a lecture (still a teenager) and thought himself an “information prostitute”.  Oh, and he once considered becoming a male stripper before tutoring guys on death row instead.  I’m only a third of the way through the book.

  5. I hadn’t yet taken time to watch DoF’s 90 minutes of Tyson but after seeing your post I will definitely do it now.  Thanks for the heads up!

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