Gordon Coulter, Tim Cross, Elizabeth Loftus discussed on The Economist: The Intelligence


Jurisprudential ties with some of the justices to her right. Of course, first she has to get there. Thanks very much for your time, Stephen. Thank you for having me. I'm Gordon coulter. For many years, I served as a law enforcement officer. Today it's my privilege to host this program on a little known area in law enforcement, but important to every small community and every large city across our vast country. It's the area of satanic cults. The year is 1994, and this training video is called law enforcement guide to satanic cults. A so called satanic panic had swept through America. The theory went that thousands of ordinary people were secretly members of devil worshiping cults that abused and murdered children on an industrial scale. On the strength of testimony by alleged victims, many people went to prison. But in time, it became clear that practically none of the hysteria was based in fact, and the whole affair cast lasting doubt on the primacy of memories. One after effect of the satanic panic was to really make it obvious to the public, just how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be. Tim cross writes about science and technology for The Economist. And so that skepticism is sort of the way that both the public and I guess the criminal justice system has thought about eyewitness testimony ever since, but there was some interesting research presented at the annual meeting of the American association for the advancement of science that suggested that maybe the pendulum swung a bit too far the other way and that blanket skepticism isn't always warranted. But what was it about the satanic panic that really cemented this skepticism in the public's mind? I think it was a couple of things. Psychologists had already started to suspect that memory was much more malleable than people up to that point of thought. So you had people like Elizabeth Loftus who ran a whole series of experiments that demonstrated that memory is not like taking a picture of a scene and sticking it in a filing cabinet then coming back to it and looking at it years later. It's much more fuzzy than that. What the satanic panic kind of did is prove in a very sort of lurid and un ignorable way just how powerful this effect can be and just how untrustworthy even sort of strong memories that people claim to be very sure of can potentially be. And this is more than just an academic concern because eyewitness testimony is often used in trials. And if you look at the work done by the innocence project, for instance, which is an American charity, one piece of work they did looked at 375 cases of wrongful convictions where someone had been convicted of a crime and then exonerated sometimes many years later. And they found in that dataset that witnesses misidentifying suspects was a factor in about 70% of those miscarriages of justice. So this stuff really matters in the real world. How is it that this new research challenges that assumption we now have about eyewitness testimony? So this is based on many years of research done by a guy called John wickstead, who's a psychologist at the University of California. And essentially what it says is that eyewitness memory can actually be very reliable, but only in the right set of circumstances. And those circumstances are sort of very peculiar and you have to get them right. What do you mean conditions just right? What conditions are those? There were kind of two strands to his research, I guess, and the first was that actually people are pretty good at assessing the accuracy of their own memories. So this is based on lab work where you show people a simulated crime and then you present them with a photo lineup. And if they can spot the suspect in the lineup and they're quite certain that they can. Then most of the time, they're right. Things only get dicey when they can't be sure either way. The second strand is that that only holds true the first time you ask them the question. I suppose it's a little bit like in quantum mechanics where when you try to measure the position of a particle, the very act of measuring it changes it, and something similar, it seems, happens with memories, where if you present someone with a photo lineup, the very act of looking at all the faces, that seems to contaminate the witness's memory with those faces and mean that subsequent tests are much, much less reliable. So the upshot of doctor wick says research is that you can use eyewitness evidence and it is reliable when you do it if the eyewitness says that it is, but you can only do it once. And once you've asked them the question once, you then can't ask them again if you want a reliable answer. That makes plenty of sense. I'm just wondering how much police departments and the like will put this kind of knowledge into you. So this just sort of an academic finding of some interest. It's worth noting that the police department in Houston have done a field test that seems to back up doctor wickstead general arguments. I just go back to the point about the satanic panic, this stuff really does matter in the real world and doctor wickstead ends his lecture with several examples of people who'd been convicted of crimes, including murder, and these are people who are now on death row and basically said, if my research is right, some of these convictions look more than a little shaky because they relied on eyewitness.

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