Post Author: Bill Pratt
In the previous post, we talked about the role of testimony in our everyday lives. There are some, however, who cast serious doubts on the reliability of testimony. Here is a typical quote from a skeptic who commented on this blog:
As we all should know, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. There are numerous examples of situations in which large numbers of people have individually presented eyewitness testimony which has later turned out to be false (UFO sightings are a case in point). Numerous trial convictions hinging on eyewitness testimony have been shown to be wrong when the evidence is analyzed more fully.
Here is what is interesting to me. First, note that the skeptic fails to give a balanced account of testimony, in general. Why, for example, doesn’t the skeptic note that there are also numerous examples of large numbers of people who reported testimony that turned out to be true? With regard to trial convictions, the skeptic does not remind us that the vast majority are never overturned because the eyewitnesses got it right. We only hear about the overturned convictions because they are so rare.
The second thing to note, and this is really important, is that the only way the skeptic knows about most of the cases where large numbers of people got something wrong, or that trial convictions have been overturned due to false testimony, is through other testimony! The skeptic did not personally experience most of these cases himself. He had to hear about these cases from other people (through books, blogs, magazines, etc.) who did, supposedly, experience these cases. So, in tearing down the reliability of testimony, the skeptic must rely on testimony. This approach is clearly self-defeating.
Here is another typical quote:
In thinking about the past, we can only reason about unknowns using knowns. Among the knowns are the laws of science and the propensity of eyewitnesses to make mistakes. Among the knowns when it comes to tales of supernatural events are human foibles such as prevarication, gullibility, superstition, wishful thinking and ignorance.
Notice the skeptic’s negative outlook on eyewitness testimony. He says that we know when people report supernatural “tales” that they prove to be gullible, superstitious, ignorant, and engage in wishful thinking.
How does the skeptic know these things? You guessed it: through testimony. The skeptic relies on the testimony of people he trusts to tell him that most people who report supernatural events are gullible, superstitious, and ignorant. Here again, the skeptic tears down the reliability of testimony by relying on testimony.
At this point, the second skeptic may cry foul and say the following: “I was specifically writing of testimony about supernatural events, not testimony in general. So there is nothing wrong with me using testimony from people I trust to back up my claims.” And he has a point; it seems he may have escaped the self-defeating approach of the first skeptic. However, it leads to another difficulty.
In the next post, we will discuss this difficulty and wrap up this series on the reliability of testimony.