Faye Flam, science writer and presenter at TAM2013, published a piece this past week on Forbes that resonated with skeptical audiences. Or at least it should have.
She was writing about how the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown was fraught with problematic eyewitness testimony that was inconsistent, made up, or factually wrong. The unreliability of such testimony and the malleability of memory is a core concept in evaluating evidence, especially in cases of unusual events or crime situations.
The piece, What Science Says About The Ferguson Case: Memory Can Be Hacked, also referenced long-time JREF friend and TAM presenter Elizabeth Loftus. Dr. Loftus’ book Eyewitness Testimony should be required reading, in my opinion, for any investigator or researcher into extraordinary claims. Thanks to Dr. Loftus’ (and others') work, we now are in no doubt that memory recall and eyewitness testimony can be perilous. It can send people to jail, destroy families, and… it can intensify civil unrest and national strife, as it has these past few weeks centered upon a troubled neighborhood in Missouri.
Flam’s article in Forbes should have resonated with a skeptical audience for another reason - the problem of letting emotion overwhelm facts. When it comes to hot-button, impassioned issues, everyone will interpret “facts” in terms of their own world view. This will differ between us creating dissonance. But we, as the bystanders and over-the-fence-peekers into the Ferguson Grand Jury proceedings, did not hear the complete case as they did. Unless you were on the jury (or read the voluminous testimony carefully) you did not know the facts used in the decision and should not be making judgments as if you did .
Sadly, I have seen happen several times with the skeptical community , where WAY too many "rational" people jumped to conclusions short on facts and evidence but strong in feigned expertise, personal values and emotional sentiments. They let their feelings get the best of them; we’re human after all. But when it comes to important decisions and conclusions, we must keep values and emotion-based opinions out of the process of evidence-based reasoning .
Dr. Loftus told Flam in the Forbes piece that a person’s frame of reference and past experience will color their perception of the witnessed events . In the Ferguson case, we must consider the witnesses’ frame of reference. They exist in a social condition of high stress, fear of crime, racial tension, and distrust of police. Such factors will certainly tint their interpretation of events that will be fitted into their reality personally constructed to make sense of their own lives. With these factors in play, it’s no wonder rumors and exaggerations sound believable and get passed along, making the situation worse. When this “reality” is internalized, people believe it. And they act on it – possibly lashing out at those around them in desperation, which is possibly why we saw the the extreme behavior from vandals and police. The police themselves are viewed as a community threat to some in Ferguson. This appears to be a situation far unlike most of us can conceive of in our own lives.
Outside observers not in the thick of things will gleefully finger scapegoats (most often minorities) to blame for social troubles . Those afflicted will blame their constructed enemy. It’s not that simple. Not remotely simple. To fix this will be long and hard and require multiple approaches to address the myriad of cancers in our society. 
Two of the guidelines to be a critical thinker is to NOT oversimplify the problem and NOT make trigger decisions based on emotion. Someone ought to be the calm in the storm of outrage so that perhaps serious problems can be identified and rational progress can be made towards solving them. I know it feels good to yell on social media and to bond with others over shocking developments , but it promotes misunderstanding and does not help the big picture.
Flam’s piece concludes with a sentiment that I fully support - that we should consider and acknowledge human memory flaws. Awareness of limitations and problems with memory and eyewitness observation should not just be made to juries in criminal trials but to children as early as they can understand. Our memories are not videotape recorders. Our perception can be influenced. Our reality can be made plastic. Only when we grasp this theory of memory can we access the facts closest to the truth. It also spares us countless arguments about who remembers a past situation correctly when we very well ALL may be wrong.
While we are waiting for the world to open their eyes and come to grips about how crappy human memory can be, remember one other human tendency that leads to error. When you hear the emotion-laden explanation that pulls in your dearly held values and passions, be aware that you could be sucked in to exploiting the fiction, not the facts.
> Critical Thinking (CT) Scan #1 - I recommend a Critical Thinking (CT) scan
- For an excellent talk on applying skepticism in even emotionally difficult situations, see Carol Tavris' presentation at TAM2014.
- Several accusations have been made against prominent skeptics based on questionable claims.
- See the aspects of critical thinking under “Basic CT scan” in “I recommend a Critical Thinking (CT) scan” http://web.randi.org/swift/i-recommend-a-critical-thinking-ct-scan
- There are too many examples of this to count but one of the simplest is when a believer in spirits assumes every odd noise or strange event is a “ghost”.
- Bartholomew. Robert E. and Benjamin Radford. 2003. Hoaxes, Myths and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking, Prometheus Books. p 211.
- With the Eric Garner and Tamir Rice cases adding to the social outrage about police brutality, there's little doubt that something must be done but again, to generalize these cases and make it all about a narrow issue is a mistake.