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The Deceptive Mind – The dangers of eyewitness testimony

Our brains are incredibly susceptible, fragile organs, that can be manipulated by drugs, alcohol, the power of suggestion, physical trauma, fear, and many, many other factors, including even the clothes we wear (enclothed cognition)¹! Despite our perception of it, memory is not a snapshot, and is nothing like a recording. The very act of remembering a moment slightly changes the memory each time it’s recalled.² Many of our memories are incomplete, even immediately after an event occurs, but if our brain misses a detail or two, it’s all too comfortable filling in the gaps with made up information at a later point in time.

72% of all prisoners who have been exonerated by DNA evidence were put there in the first place by eyewitness testimony.³ Not only do memories change, but it’s even possible to implant false memories, as demonstrated by Julia Shaw at the University of Bedfordshire,4 and at MIT, false fears were successfully implanted into the brains of mice.5 Eyewitness testimonies are utterly useless in accurately determining fact from fiction. But take a few conflicting eyewitness testimonies from unknown authors, wait fifty years before writing the first one down, then give them two millennia, and a few hundred translations to morph and change, and you have scripture.

“But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.” – Thomas Paine The Age of Reason

When I began to search for evidence for the authenticity of the Bible, it surprised me how often the answers I received were similar to, “hundreds of people witnessed Jesus’ miracles, his death, and his resurrection firsthand.” But I understood just how susceptible to manipulation eyewitness testimony is. I had experienced the distortion of my own “miracle” stories. If I don’t trust modern eyewitnesses, why would I trust ancient ones? The very fact that these testimonies are ancient, robs them of their credibility and makes them all the more suspect!

This generation-to-generation game of telephone, regardless of religious belief, is almost always based on eyewitness testimony or revelation. Joseph Smith, Muhammad, the Apostle Paul, Moses – each of their respective traditions claims that one of these “holy” men had a divine revelation. They can’t all be true, but they can all be false. If Christianity is true, then billions of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are screeching lies in an echo chamber, and vice versa. No matter who’s right, the vast majority of humanity is completely delusional.

Even in the present day, superstitions and religious followings are springing up left and right. With smart phones and computers, they’re easier to disprove, and yet people still flock to modern day saviors, prophets, gods, and gurus. Take for example, the case of Sathya Sai Baba, the Indian guru who died in 2011 (12 years prior to the date he predicted he would die). His so-called miracles include pulling ash pellets from thin air, healing the sick, and allegedly raising people from the dead. But in the age of the smartphone and freeze-frame photography, not even a child should be fooled by his debunked trickery and illusions. Nevertheless, estimates of his following range from between six million and one hundred million people. When he was a child Sathya Sai Baba supposedly told his father he was the reincarnation of the god Sai Baba and demanded that his dad worship him. Millions today do just that at shrines around the world.6

If millions of modern-day, intelligent people, living in the information age, fall prey to the trickery of such a charlatan, it is not only conceivable, but likely, that groups of naïve, gullible, bronze-age peasants would fall for similar scams at multiple points in the development of the human race. Penn and Teller, David Blaine, and other modern-day illusionists have repeatedly performed far more impressive illusions on camera. The difference is that none of them claim to be gods! In fact, most magicians are the biggest skeptics of the supernatural, because they know how incredibly easy it is to be deceived.

After attempting to contact his dead mother in the 1920s, Harry Houdini, one of the greatest magicians of all time, realized just how big of a scam mediums were. Debunking psychic frauds became his passion. He referred to them as “vultures who prey on the bereaved.” In conjunction with Scientific American, Houdini offered a sizable cash prize to anyone capable of speaking with the dead and systematically debunked every psychic who crossed his path. He swore that if he were to die, he would do everything in his power to cross the void and contact the living and even developed a secret code, only known by his wife and him.7

After years of psychics attempting to guess Houdini’s code, one weasel, Arthur Ford, waited till the magician’s widow was sick. He then preyed on her during a time of desperation, used formerly published newspaper articles to concoct a self-described “successful” séance, and he even forged Bess Houdini’s signature. But Bess was not fooled. She would later write, “I don’t and never did believe the message genuine nor did I believe in spiritualism.” She finally gave up on the possibility of contacting her deceased husband.8

Similar to Houdini’s prize is the modern day Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation to anyone who can demonstrate the supernatural in a controlled environment. Many have tried to claim the prize; all have failed. Yet mediums and psychics still take money from the grieving and the vulnerable, and it’s absolutely sick!

Not one single allegedly “supernatural” event has been able to successfully stand up to the rigorous testing of scientific scrutiny. Either evidence has been absent, or claims have been debunked. With thousands of mutually-conflicting religions, ideologies, and superstitions, we’re forced to ask ourselves:

Is it more likely that people lie; that the stories and legends which morph with time to attain grandeur live on while those that don’t die out; that our emotional, easily-fooled minds are susceptible to misunderstanding events and to believing stories we’re taught as impressionable children by the people we trust; or is it more likely that all of the tested, tried, and true, unchanging laws of physics become entirely suspended when no one is around to test them?

  1. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103112000200s
  2. http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2012/09/your-memory-is-like-the-telephone-game.html
  3. http://www.innocenceproject.org/free-innocent/improve-the-law/fact-sheets/dna-exonerations-nationwide
  4. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/26/3/291
  5. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/meet-two-scientists-who-implanted-false-memory-mouse-180953045/?no-ist
  6. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/apr/24/sri-sathya-sai-baba-dies
  7. http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4430
  8. http://www.csicop.org/si/show/the_day_houdini_almost_came_back_from_the_dead

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