by Jeff Wagg
December 4, 2012
I have a story to tell you but first, I'd like you to do something for me.
Watch this video, but carefully. Watch the person walking across the street, and stop the video at :25. That's important. Stop at 25 seconds.
In the late 1980's, I lived in Utah. I didn't have much money, and neither did my friends so our playtime activity was frisbee golf. We spent many hours on the course in Murray, and despite that I never got very good at it. I spent a lot of time in the trees looking for my frisbee.
One day I severely overshot the hole (actually, a basket on a pole) and my disc slumped onto the grass beside the fairly busy street. As I bent over to pick it up, a speeding car caught my eye. He was going way too fast for this intersection on a curve, and sure enough—a car came out of a side street right into his path.
The impact was impressive. The speeder's car, a white GM sedan, didn't slow down much; it easily pushed the unfortunate Ford Taurus onto the grass and down a steep embankment. Seeming not to even have noticed collision, it kept heading down the road.
I immediately rushed over to help the two older ladies in the Ford when the driver started shouting at me stay away. "Gas leak?" I thought, but after a few moments I realized what the concern was—her elderly passengers had lost her wig.
After determining that everyone at the scene was safe, I looked for the perpetrator. His car had travelled another tenth of a mile and turned into a parking lot, where it finally stopped, probably for good. The police, who must have been nearby, showed up and I congregated with them and the victims.
I gave my information to both the police and the victims so they could call me as a witness, if needed. I explained briefly what I'd seen: a white GM sedan was speeding and hit this poor people. After the hullabaloo was over, I walked over the parking lot to see what was left of the car.
It was gone. I'm not sure if it was driven away or of there was an expedient tow truck nearby, but in its place was a pile of beer cans and and a crumpled silver fender, possibly ripped off so the car could roll.
And then I paused. A silver fender.
My memory was fresh. 20—30 minutes had passed and I clearly remembered his car being white. I would have bet serious money on it. But here in front of me was hard evidence that the car was in fact silver.
As it turns out, I was called to be a witness a few weeks later. Before the hearing, the defending attorney pulled me aside for a chat.
So, tell me what you saw.I paused for a minute and reflected. I'd been wrong about the color—could I have been wrong about the entire incident? Could it be that the old woman pulled out into traffic? I decided that no, it didn't seem possible. What caught my attention was the speeding car not the accident itself. I was sure of that.
I'd tell the police that they had made a mistake. I saw the accident. I was four feet away.The lawyer paused then, and walked away saying "Thank you for your time."
As it turned out, my pre-hearing testimony was enough to convince the lawyer to advise his defendant to plead guilty, which he did. My being there may have saved the effort of a jury trial.
But... was I right? The only honest answer I can give is: I don't know. I have memories of the event. They are slow-motion memories like those that happen in times of stress, and those are the memories I related to everyone involved. But in the end, I fear that don't mean all that much. "This is what I saw" really means "This is what I remember seeing" and what THAT means is "I have these memories, but we know how inaccurate memory is. Other evidence, even circumstantial evidence, should be weighed heavily."
Now, back to the video.
Describe what happened. Write it down, or just be clear about it in your head. Remember that had you'd been on the scene, you would have only seen this once.
Watch the video again and check yourself. Is it what you remembered? Are you clear as to who was at fault? In fact, were you able to even accurately describing what happened?
I'll bet you got some major things wrong. However, in a trial, the jury would believe you over an expert with "evidence." We place a very high value on eyewitness testimony (news networks are frequently called 'Eyewitness') but study after study shows it's just not all that good. When you consider the concepts of false memories and implanted memories, the idea of an eyewitness seems less like good evidence and more like the faint echoes of something that might have happened.
I've had a motto for a long time, and it is "Pale ink is better than a good memory." The best memory in the world should be suspect if it doesn't fit the evidence. Strong memories can be easily dismissed, but hard facts should never be ignored.
by Jeff Wagg
@Skeptoid Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit