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On the Reliability of Human Witnesses
By David Talbott

Amy Acheson wrote: "But will we cultivate the necessary discipline to find the EVENT which first gave meaning to the symbols?"

Finding the event behind archaic symbols is indeed the challenge. Could any lines of reasoning be dependable, when the "evidence" includes such enigmatic sources as myth, magical rites, and cultic symbols? Many specialists in the hard sciences will find abhorrent our claim that myth points to unusual natural events. And particularly objectionable to them will be our insistence that, under certain circumstances, human memories can give us considerable detail about events unknown to science (Of course the limitations of scientific knowledge come into the equation as well.)

When reports by more than one person imply a shared experience, issues of logic and probability arise. We deal with such issues all the time in judicial proceedings–and in fact we do not hesitate to send someone to the electric chair based on the memories of three people. But the principles for assessing testimony are generally ignored when it comes to the patterns of ancient memory.

Rules of evidence need to be clarified, and perhaps we can work upward from a couple of simple examples. The first question is whether the occurrence of contradictory versions of an underlying story excludes the possibility of a reliable reconstruction. On this issue, common opinion is almost never correct. There are rules for finding reliable testimony in a sea of contradictions.

Imagine an experiment involving a dozen groups with a dozen members in each group and no communication permitted between the groups. From each group, one individual is allowed to witness a newly-written play, then asked to convey the story verbally to another individual in his group, recalling as much detail as possible. The second individual then reports to the third, and so on until the story reaches the last person in each group, who will then report the story to you.

From this exercise you would likely receive many different ways of telling the story, with many contradictions between versions. But to come as close to the original as possible you would give greatest weight to those story elements retained in several accounts. And despite horrendous errors in transmission within various groups, if you follow this simple principle, your reconstruction will be generally reliable. Even if it lacks the full texture of the original, you can be confident in the basic structure.

To see why comparison of accounts can produce a reliable reconstruction, you only have to recognize what a mistake in transmission will do to a remembered event or story It will introduce a contradiction to the way the story is told by others. It is typically much easier to make mistakes than to make the SAME mistakes others have made. So in the cross-referencing of stories, the first key is to follow the points of agreement.

More significantly, there is a common paradox which even the experts in comparative study frequently ignore. One might think that when two groups share an improbable story element, it becomes more likely that the two groups made the same error of transmission. But actually the reverse is true. The more unusual or bizarre the points of agreement, the more likely it is that they speak for the original story. Here's why: it's much easier to make a mistake on matters of routine background, than on unexpected or startling detail. How many chairs were in the room when the protagonist died? Well, there were five, but who was counting? Here, not just mistakes, but similar mistakes would be predictable. Consider, however, that when the protagonist died, a dove leapt from his chest and flew away. The recurrence of that particular element in just three of the accounts will create a virtual certainty that the motif was part of the original story, even in the unlikely event that the nine other accounts failed to mention it. Short of cross contamination of our storytelling groups, it is simply too dramatic and too unusual to have been injected into the story by more than one storyteller, either through a mistake or through deliberate deception.

Now these principles are extremely relevant to the cross-cultural comparison of human memories. But there is still much more to consider here. It is often noted that human witnesses are notoriously unreliable. In judicial proceedings this unreliability is properly noted–and demonstrated–all the time. But commonly overlooked is a further consideration. In certain circumstances the accounts of UNRELIABLE witness can produce ABSOLUTELY RELIABLE conclusions.

To make this point I have concocted an episode called "The Unfortunate Peter Smith"–

On Tuesday morning, a man robbed the bank down the street, escaping with about $12,000. When the police arrived they faced a dilemma. The man was seen rushing from the bank toward a blue Honda, jumping in, and speeding off. But the car was too far away for anyone to catch the license plate.

Inside the bank, the police found only three witnesses, and as it turned out all were highly unreliable. One had a history of lying relentlessly. Another was a schizophrenic, often hallucinating. And the third was dyslexic.

Immediately on their arrival, the police had separated the witnesses and interviewed them. There seemed to be general agreement that the robber was wearing a ski mask, a black leather jacket, and blue jeans. But there were more discrepancies than points of agreement. This was partly because the known liar freely made up details as he answered police questions, the schizophrenic described things seen by no one else, and the dyslexic could not even get the name of the bank right.

Nevertheless, when the police compared notes they immediately sent out a bulletin, and it wasn't long before a fellow officer stopped a blue Honda, driven by a man named Peter Smith. When the officer looked inside the car, he did not see a ski mask, and he did not see any money. But the moment he observed the driver, he made an arrest. And he was certain he had nabbed the robber.

How did he know?

His confidence came from certain details the police had noted in their interviews with the witnesses. While much of what the congenital liar reported was self-serving and almost certainly invented, one thing he had said was most unusual, and was remembered by the police interviewer. He had laughed about the robber wearing two different running shoes. On his left foot he was wearing a Nike, and on his right foot he was wearing an Adidas, the man said. The second witness said nothing about the shoes, and seems to have heard strange voices and seen things reported by no one else. But he did mention that when the robber started to leave the bank, several bills fell from the paper bag, which the robber bent down to pick up. That was when the witness noticed that the tag on his tee-shirt was on the outside; his shirt was inside out. He could even read the label. The third witness, the dyslexic, also had noticed the tag up close, but said he couldn't read it. Additionally, he reported the robber wearing two different running shoes–a Kine and a Daddies.

So the police drew a conclusion–formulated a "prediction," if you will–that the bank robber was driving a blue Honda, wearing two different running shoes and a shirt inside out. And when they found Peter Smith, they had every reason to be confident. Short of a conspiracy to deceive them, this WAS the robber, beyond a shadow of a doubt. THE WITNESSES DO NOT EVEN HAVE TO BE DEPENDABLE!

In this example the confidence of the police relates directly to THINGS OUT OF PLACE. A liar, a schizophrenic, and a dyslexic may create havoc in their contradictory accounts, and yet the force of agreement on highly unusual details is far greater than the burden of contradictions. In fact, the convergence of testimony on the two cited details is simply inconceivable–astronomically improbable–unless Peter Smith was the robber. The police would not need DNA tests, lie detector tests, fingerprints, or any other wonders of modern science and technology to draw a reliable conclusion.

So the moral of this story is that in certain situations a simple comparison of human testimony can achieve exceptional reliability, even though the witnesses are not inherently trustworthy.

And how does all of this apply to the patterns of more ancient human memory–those distinctive, archetypal complexes referring us back to the mythical age of the gods? In this series of explorations we will illustrate the following principles:

1) Cultures around the world, using quite different words and symbols, describe remarkably similar experiences;

2) These points of agreement consistently include unique, but well-defined forms in the sky;

3) The recurring forms have no relationship to things seen in our sky, or to any natural experience today;

4) Granting the presence of these extraordinary forms will make possible a unified explanation of myth, removing hundreds of contradictions and anomalies left unexplained by prior theories of myth.

In seeking to reconstruct ancient memories through cross-cultural comparison, we will discover a substructure of remarkable depth and coherence. The power of human memory is incomparably greater than scholars have typically assumed.

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