We Humans Are Terrible Earwitnesses


Over the weekend I wrote a short post about how terrible most people are as eyewitnesses. Today I got this email from JB, a regular reader:

Human beings are terrible “earwitnesses,” too. I’ve been a lawyer specializing in air crash litigation — from the defense side — for 33 years, and witnesses often claim to have heard what are, essentially, impossible sounds. My favorite involves turbine-powered helicopters (I was a military helicopter pilot before entering law school), which earwitnesses invariably report as suffering engine “missing” (irregular piston firing) just before a crash, when turbine engines — you guessed it — don’t have pistons. Occasionally, you get a good report from a sophisticated witness like a pilot or mechanic, but most of the time the best you can hope for is some indication of either sound or silence at a given point before impact, about which you have to fill in the source from a menu of the possible.

This is no surprise, of course. Eyes, ears, whatever. We humans are just unreliable witnesses, especially when we’re under stress. Unfortunately, most of the time it really matters, we’re under stress.

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