"To tolerate 

nonsense is 

to tolerate 

a disrespect 

for the truth."





Eye-Witness Accounts
Adequate Evidence? Maybe Not...
 By Jeanine DeNoma 
What constitutes a credible witness or source of information? What are the hallmarks of hoaxes and frauds? How are we deceived? These were some of the questions confronted in a spirited discussion lead by Loren Pankratz at OR's January 28th meeting.

     Education, science and mass communication should help us sort out nonsense but, Pankratz suggests, the opposite is occurring. "There is so much information ... there are so many unbelievably true discoveries, it is very easy to believe maybe there is something you can rub on your head to make your hair grow or a simple answer to AIDS in shark cartilage ... It is harder, not easier, to solve the problem of what is true."

     Take Bigfoot, for example. If Bigfoot exists why don't we have better pictures? "After all, the most elusive animals in the world have been filmed in vivid color and you can see them making love on television," said Pankratz. But today there is another, bigger problem. Technology allows hoaxers to fabricate pictures without leaving clues of the photo having been doctored. If we did have pictures, would they constitute confirming evidence?

     Pankratz, a hobby historian of hoaxes, pointed out that many situations have all the smells of a hoax. Some can be sniffed out with a little detective work. For example, Pankratz reported the first cases of fictitious post-traumatic stress in medical literature after he identified five patients who falsely claimed they were suffering from trauma, some due to having been POWs in Viet Nam. Simple checks into their medical histories uncovered their fraud. In one case, a patient claiming to have been a POW, not only had never been one, but he was not even a veteran; his fraud was uncovered after he went into a tirade during a disagreement with a physician. A tirade, said Pankratz, is one giveaway of a liar.

     While false stories may seem harmless, they depreciate the real harm done by war, rape or other trauma. "It is amazing to me," said Pankratz, "that some feminists are furious about the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. It seems to me they should applaud the efforts to smoke outfalse claims of sexual abuse because false claims cheapen the real trauma of sexual abuse." In Pankratz's opinion, therapists who fail to try to confirm patient's stories are acting contrary to their patient's interest.

     Using hypnosis to uncover such things as multiple personalities is an example of where error may occur, said Pankratz. In such cases the therapist may perpetuate a deception because hypnosis has been suspect since Mesmer identified it as 'animal magnetism.' "It is known to be based on suggestion and because of this," said Pankratz, "it is a therapy ripe for clinical error."

     Satanic rituals, space aliens, crime stories, the Indian rope trick, all are urban legends. In the 1800s everyone who went to Africa came back and reported they had seen a unicorn. Such, allegedly eye-witness, reports are told over and over again. Everyone swears they heard it from a reliable source; it occurred to "friend of a friend." The deeper the story is traced, however, the further its source recedes away. J. H. Brunvand, folklorist, has written several books, including The Vanishing Hitchhiker, detailing urban legends. Knowing the signs of urban legends can help one identify when a story has a high probability of being false.

     Charlatans often use another clever strategy. They hold out the possibility that something may be true and then confer upon 'the people' the power to confirm it. The promoters of laetrile did this. Despite the fact that laetrile is useless for curing cancer, its promoters repeatedly said it does. Then, without demonstrating its effectiveness, they went directly to the people to judge if laetrile worked, even though the public has no expertise or information with which to make such a judgement.

     To make an accurate judgement requires an understanding of the phenomena being observed. Pankratz showed a small wheat lamp, lit, he said, in a very unusual way - by placing its contacts between two coins of different metals. Well, he admitted, the coins must first be held in sweaty palms to build up salts. Many of us believed Pankratz's story: We did, after all, see the light come on. But then Pankratz confessed, "I lied to you twice. Both theories are wrong!" We weren't accurate witnesses because we lacked the specialized knowledge about physics and conductivity required to recognize that we were being given impossible explanations. In some areas we are all experts, said Pankratz. We can all determine if it is safe to pull our car into oncoming traffic. But in other areas, such as identifying a space vehicle taking off at warp speed, no one has had experience.

     How do we identify experts? As Bill Capron pointed out, "We have allowed 'expert' to be applied to people who have no science ... There is a science which can be applied to Bigfoot which is not from Bigfoot experts. They may be in biology or something else, but there is very little to be supplied, in terms of expertise, by experts on Bigfoot. They are not scientists."

     "Even harmless junk science pollutes the environment. To tolerate nonsense is to tolerate a disrespect for the truth," said Pankratz. "I had someone tell me today that 'science is a white male thing that happens at universities and should be done away with'...Science is just a strategy for figuring out what is true. It is just a strategy we use to work together to clear our own prejudices so we can see to the heart of a matter." Each scientific field develops its own collective knowledge and techniques for solving problems. The commonality in science is the spirit of honesty.

     There are three questions to keep in mind when evaluating the accuracy of an eye-witness report, said Pankratz:

     As one audience member summed up, "In order to get to the truth you need to get around three kinds of deception: deliberate deception of others by charlatans, unwitting deception of others by those who mean well but don't know any better and self-deception because you want so very much to believe."

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 2001 Oregonians for Rationality