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Episode 117 - Eyewitness Accounts and UFOs, Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Loftus

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Recap: The majority of UFO = aliens reports today - if not in quality then at least in quantity - come from simple eyewitness testimony. People often point to "trained observers" as being key witnesses, such as police officers or pilots. But, skeptics tend to dismiss these reports, and in this episode, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus shares her research into the fallibility and manipulability of human memory, with implications for why this kind of testimony is not considered good evidence.

Puzzler for Episode 117: There was no Puzzler in this episode.

Q&A: There was no Q&A in this episode.

Additional Materials:


Because this was an interview, there is no transcript for this episode. A brief list of topics discussed include:

  • The malleability of human memory, despite how good people think their memory is.
  • The unreliability of eyewitness testimony, even if someone is a "trained observer."
  • Application to UFO reports.

There was a longer amount of after-interview monologue by me:

Thanks again to Dr. Loftus for coming on to talk about her research into memory. While her research applies to many different areas, I really tried to focus in on the primary application to topics related to this podcast: UFO sightings, in particular. The vast majority - at least in quantity - of UFO evidence these days comes from the so-called "eyewitness reports." The common dismissal among deniers is that it's just some backwoods farmer making a claim of something he doesn't understand.

And so the UFO = aliens proponents will then often turn to the eyewitness reports made by other people, touting the fact that quote-unquote "highly qualified and trained observers" such as pilots, police officers, military personnel, firefighters, politicians, and even former President Jimmy Carter - although that's something he no longer remembers based on an interview a few years ago - have all made these kinds of UFO reports.

So, the thinking goes, these trained observers have to be believed, or at least should be believed. That's why I asked Dr. Loftus to come on, for her research clearly shows that it doesn't matter how trained or untrained of an observer you are, or even how good you think your memory is: It is very fallible and very easily manipulated.

Now, in the interest of fairness, and in the spirit of true skepticism, that does not mean that the whole "lights in the sky" phenomenon is false. I, myself, have seen stuff in the sky that I haven't been able to explain. But, that doesn't mean that it was aliens. It just means I saw something that I couldn't immediately identify. It's a classic Argument from Ignorance to say that because I couldn't identify it, it must be aliens. It's also fallacious to say that the object or objects behaved in a way no earthly craft could, because I don't know what it is -- what if it's a toy quadcopter, which can easily make right angle turns?

But, the whole purpose of this show is to examine the evidence for various claims. How good is that evidence? Is it real, is it reliable?My point in doing this episode is that these kinds of arguments of eyewitness testimony of lights in the sky being UFOs and those UFOs being aliens is horribly prone to the foibles of human memory, and therefore it's NOT good evidence, no matter how credentialed or "trained observer-y" you think the witness is. Especially when that witness is asked leading questions. Something as simple as, "What did the brunette woman ask you?" can completely change your memory to make you think the blonde woman was brunette, and the interviewer may have had the best of intentions, they just let their own biases interfere. Such is the nature of the fallibility and manipulability of the human memory, as Dr. Loftus discussed.

That doesn't mean aliens don't exist. But, it means that this as a line of evidence for them is dubious at best.

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