Is Testimony Really That Unreliable? Part 2

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.

11 thoughts on “Is Testimony Really That Unreliable? Part 2”

  1. For those who desire to see the quotes in context, the first quote is taken from
    jflcroft’s comment here and the second quote is from Vinny JH’s comment here. (Bill Pratt, it is common courtesy to link when providing quotes to confirm context.)

    As I feared, there is a bit of equivocation here. “Testimony” given in a court setting (under oath; under penalty of perjury) is different than “testimony” of an article in reader’s digest about “testimony” in trials. And both are different than “tales of supernatural” about “testimony” in Reader’s digest.

    Although there is point one can muscle out of all this. You are correct, Bill Pratt, we question the reliability of some claims by virtue of other claims. (Again, I would avoid the term “testimony.”) Why? Because we weigh the reliability based on numerous factors. Including our own common experience, observation, repetition. This happens all the time.

    I am not sure what the misunderstanding here is. You seem to be claiming we either must:

    1) Question ALL claims; or
    2) Agree with ALL claims.

    No one does that. No one claims Christians do it (indeed jflcroft makes that exact point immediately after the portioned quote above), no one is demanding the other side do it.

    Either this is another strawperson, or such dogmatic black-and-white thinking as to be completely inapplicable in our present world.

    Bill Pratt, do you question Mormon claims? (Ugh…or if you prefer…”testimony”) Do you find them unreliable based upon other claims, argumentation, reason, other evidence, observation, etc? Why do you find it so extraordinary non-Christians may do the same to your claims?

  2. Why should we look forward to an analysis of the epistemology of some vaguely defined category of “supernatural events” when you can’t even bring yourself to address absolutely basic facts about how testimony works in ordinary cases?

    Once again, you complain about the results of skeptical inquiry while utterly ignoring what you’ve been told a thousand different ways from a thousand different people about what the procedure, the method is. And that method is simply parsimonious coherence with prior experience.

    I despair that any apologist will even acknowledge this simple distinction his interlocutors keep bringing up, much less engage with it.

    What’s it going to take?

  3. Bill Pratt, here is a simple two-part question.

    1) why is there a rule generally excluding hearsay testimony in our legal system? i.e. what is the general principle put forward to justify it?

    2) is anyone accepting the general principle from (1) being a “hypocrite” when they accept hearsay statements in their daily life, e.g. “I talked to cousin Jessica on the phone and she said she’ll be in town next week”?

  4. Bill asks, 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?

    How ironic a point is this when it is Bill touting the importance and reliability of testimony alone. So let me point out the irony by asking a question in return: how do we know testimony “turned out to be true?”

  5. I’m happy to see that there are a number of people already commenting here on the bizarreness of this post. I only want to add one thing: it is misguided at best, deliberately obfuscating at worst, to refer to literally everything as “testimony.” Perhaps there is an element of “we have to take them at their word” when a scientist publishes a journal article reporting their results and error analysis on their measurements, but this seems to me to be very obviously different than the “testimony” of someone who had a dream or a vision of a supernatural being giving them a message. As DagoodS said, we don’t need to choose between accepting all claims or rejecting all claims — we can look at the level of plausibility of a claim and gauge how believable it is. Claims of the former type are simply much more plausible than the latter type.

    In every case I have ever heard a religious person use the term “testimony,” they are referring to a very personal, subjective experience, something that they want other people to believe just because they said so (and not because they could replicate and verify it if they wished, etc.). It’s intellectually sloppy to use the term “testimony” to refer to anything that happens to be communicated by another person at any point in time.

  6. In the next post, we will discuss this difficulty and wrap up this series on the reliability of testimony.

    The second skeptic eagerly awaits your next straw man.

  7. You mean that ultimately we only found out that it ‘turned out to be true’ by using another, more trustworthy method?

  8. Like I said before Bill–if you believe eyewitness testimony to be reliable–then you should also believe in the Hindu god Krishna, because there is a great deal of “eyewitness testimony” to his accomplishments. You should also believe in the unicorn, because of the eyewitness testimony of the Emperor Fu Hsi. Do you believe in unicorns Bill? I didn’t think so….

    Remember, for something to have historicity, it must be corroborated by outside sources. Your so-called “eyewitness testimony” does not have any such corroboration. It’s as reliable as the “eyewitness testimony” of someone who has seen a ghost…

  9. A is for Atheist said: “Do you believe in unicorns Bill? I didn’t think so….”

    Maybe he does; they are mentioned several times in the bible. Numbers 23:22, Numbers 24:8, Deuteronomy 33:17, Job 39:9, Job 39:10, Psalm 22:21, Psalm 29:6, Psalm 92:10, Isaiah 34:7.

  10. The flaw in this post seems pretty obvious to me. Testimony is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of its reliability. Its usually reliable but occasionally unreliable. One trend that is clear though is that “testimony” about events that dont depend on the supernatural is proven by other means to be true more often than not. Testimony about supernatural occurences, when other forms of proof can be offered one way or another (often they can be neither proven nor disproven) it always disproves the testimony.

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