The ability of eyewitnesses

By Tim Printy 1998

UPDATED October 2008

When an event of extraordinary magnitude occurs, it is often the role of the witness to shed light on exactly what happened. Unfortunately, eyewitness testimony is based on the recollections and perceptions of human beings. Unlike a television or video camera, people are not accurate at what they report. One can make claims that certain eyewitnesses are more reliable. For instance, an airline pilot would be accurate in describing an event based on his experience and skills. However, what we discover is that EVERYONE suffers from the same problems when it comes to reporting unusual events. Nobody is exempt and there are plenty of examples over the years.

During World War II, experienced pilots on both sides often misidentified many things. Not only did their gun crews try and shoot down planets but they also made numerous mistakes in identifying earthly objects. During the battle of the Coral Sea, a Japanese scout plane misidentified an Oiler and a Destroyer for a Cruiser and Aircraft Carrier. This resulted in the Japanese carriers launching a full strike at the wrong target. These pilots of this scout plane had years of experience in their trade. They had seen aircraft carriers before and should have been able to differentiate between them and an oiler. One also must keep in mind that these pilots had the responsibility of locating the American fleet in order to protect their own ships. They had to get it right but they did not. This happened on the American side as well and became even more critical during the battle of Midway. What this shows is that even highly trained and very experienced individuals can make mistakes. In Dr. Hynek's book, The Hynek UFO Report, we discover that pilots make more misidentifications than any other occupation in the Bluebook files. Hynek stated, "What we have here is a good example of a well-known psychological fact: "transference" of skill and experience does not usually take place. That is, an expert in one field does not necessarily "transfer" his competence to another one" (Hynek 261). Does that mean that pilots are lousy observers? No, but it does mean that when a pilot is presented as an "expert witness", one should not accept their testimony as fact.

Are Police officers any better than pilots? Alas, police officers suffer from misperceptions as well and there are numerous examples that I have produced before. Allan Hendry discovered that 94% of the UFOs reported by law enforcement individuals were misperceptions. This was the highest group in his study (interestingly Hendry found pilots to be at the 75% level). This is another example of Hynek's observations concerning "non-transference" of expertise. Police officers have been known to chase the planet Venus or identify a star as a UFO. Perhaps it is long hours of working late that contributes to this problem or maybe, police officers are no better than the average witness in making a report.

Another "expert witness" used by UFOlogists are astronomers. However, one forgets that in the late 1800s, astronomers became enthralled by the "canals" they saw on Mars. Many of these individuals were expert observers. However, they suffered from the preconception that there must be canals because others had seen them. What they were actually seeing were irregular markings on the edge of perception. They were so close together, that the observers misperceived them as lines or "canals". Reality struck for good in the 1960s when it came to the "canal" question. Mariner spacecraft showed no artificial "canals". There was interesting terrain and valleys but nothing that matched the drawings made over 50 years before. Other events I have seen or heard about are "dark meteors". Having spent many years observing meteors, I often saw dark objects moving outside the limits of perception and thought they may have been meteors. After careful consideration, I chose to ignore them because I believed that these were just "tricks" of the eye. Veteran meteor observer George Zay agrees and after changing his observing habits such that he got rest between meteor observing periods, he discovered the numbers of "dark meteors" dropped off significantly indicating fatigue had something to do with it. George goes onto explain, "I have no doubt that the dark meteor phenomenon is due to an individuals tired mind or night flying animals. I no longer give them any consideration" (Zay 54). Even trained nighttime observers, like astronomers, are capable of misperceiving events especially if they occur only over a few seconds. While astronomers are more familiar with the night sky, they still can be susceptible to misperceptions and misidentifications.

People, of all occupations, are susceptible to misperception of an event. They are just being confronted by something they are not familiar with and allow their pre-conceptions to take hold. In my discussions with witnesses to the Phoenix UFO event, I was told there was no way that they could have been wrong. I admire the firmness in their belief but I was surprised on how steadfast they were in their belief that they could not be wrong. After further reading, I realized why this was so. There is so much emotionalism surrounding these events, witnesses will refuse to admit they were possibly wrong. Writing in 1949, journalist Sidney Shalett, stated, "However, the investigating authorities have learned that all the logic in the world will not convince the witness who wants to believe that the thing he sighted was something sinister or maybe interplanetary"(Peebles 41).

My experience in astronomy and nuclear power has shown that witnesses were usually correct about the basic facts surrounding events. When asked to elaborate, they often embellished certain details to make it difficult to understand what happened. One has to be very careful on what one wishes to accept as factual in eyewitness testimony. In one case, I had a witness tell me about how carefully he recorded his observations and how certain he was about the facts in his sighting. Unfortunately, his observations were incorrect and after inquiry it became clear that he was off in his direction by 90 degrees. Instead of looking over uninhabited terrain, this individual's sighting was in the direction of a major city (in this case LA and in the general direction of LAX) and at the same time, the UFO hovered over the vicinity of a major college campus. Amazingly (or not so amazingly), no college students reported the event. This witness is also a self-proclaimed "repeater". Like the boy, who cried, "wolf", a repeater should be considered skeptically. In the early days of UFOlogy, this was the case. Today, it is considered to be a sign of someone who must be gifted or "chosen". Imagine that if UFOs are extraordinary phenomena, how is it that millions of people never see one event yet others can see more than one? It is more likely that they are suffering from preconceived ideas that any unusual event is a UFO and are not critical enough of what they think they are seeing.

There are many stimuli for UFO reports. Stars and planets can be seriously misidentified as UFOs as I described in another web page, When stars become UFOs. Other events that could result in UFOs are blimps, balloons, aircraft, and birds. It seems that anything airborne (even scraps of paper being blown about) can be misperceived as a UFO. Perhaps nothing amazes me more than how bright meteors (called bolides or fireballs) and reentering spacecraft debris can be misperceived as UFOs. I have seen many brilliant meteors and reentering satellites. However, as an experienced amateur astronomer, I am well acquainted with these events. For someone who can not tell the difference between a planet and a star, it is not hard to understand how this happens. The Zond IV event in March 1968 is widely publicized but I can add to this list. In November 1997, an event occurred many northwestern US residents considered a UFO. However, it turned out that the cause was a reentering Russian booster rocket. Despite the claims that the NORAD was covering up for a real UFO, it was clear from videotapes of the event, that the UFO was reentering debris. Concerning this event, Gary Val Tenuta wrote,

...I'm suggesting the possibility that the excitement generated by the spectacular sightings of the rocket debris could have activated a temporary disturbance in the "stable illusion" of some people's personal realities, thus allowing their unconscious intellects an opportunity to create a momentary illusion of a an anomalous group of lights, a hovering disk, or whatever. What the person believes he sees, as Budden points out, is determined by whatever related ideas or images the UC (Unconscious Intellect) was able to grab, at a moments notice, from the storehouse of the persons memory banks. Think of all the related items that are stored up in our memories these days: visual images from the X-Files, Unsolved Mysteries, Strange Universe; the movies like Independence Day and Men In Black; alien Grey's in car commercials; Whitley Strieber's "Communion" book cover; thoughts, ideas and images broadcast daily by radio programs such as Jeff Rense's Sightings On The Radio and Art Bell's overnight program. (Val Tenuta Online)

UFO "investigators" often allow misperceptions to highlight their reports as genuine UFOs. For instance, Peter Davenport of the National UFO Center constantly grabs these events and appears on Art Bell's radio program to proclaim it as a genuine UFO event. In August 1999, he made extraordinary claims about a -16.5 magnitude fireball. He claimed the meteor moved too fast to be a meteor. However, he based this on the fact that the "UFO" traversed half the sky in a matter of seconds. However, these values are typical for a meteor. The witness's reports were typical observations of a meteor and I recognized it right away. How can UFO investigators make such mistakes? This is because the preconception extends to the investigator too. Peter, whose job is to keep people interested in his phenomena, will accept any widespread event as something extraordinary. Instead of eliminating cases by explaining them, it is better not to investigate and allow them to remain a mystery. Jenny Randles wrote, "If you don't solve at least nine out of ten cases you are doing something wrong"(Evans and Stacy 248). However, it is amazing that once a UFO case gains national attention, there appears to be a strong desire to ignore facts that would explain it. UFO investigators would rather ignore important data than assume that the witnesses may have been mistaken on certain aspects of the "sighting".

It is eyewitness unreliability that makes UFO reports so extraordinary. Once one understands astronomical and aerial phenomena, it becomes obvious what many witnesses are seeing. It is extremely likely the reason an event can be listed as unexplained is that the facts have been very distorted by the witness/witnesses and, in some cases, the investigators themselves. Astronomer Gerard Kuiper understood this well and stated,

More than 90% of these reports are found to be hoaxes or poor accounts of well-known or trivial events. Under those circumstances an unexplained residue of perhaps 10% is no basis to believe in miracles. It is more reasonable to assume that this residue is so distorted or incomplete as to defy all analysis. (Condon et al. 842)

Works Cited

Condon, Edward U., et al., eds. Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects. New York: Bantam, 1968.

Evans, Hilary and Dennis Stacy ed. UFO1947-1997: Fifty Years of Flying Saucers. London: John Brown Publishing Ltd., 1997

Hynek, J. Allen. The Hynek UFO Report. New York: Barnes & Nobles, 1997

Peebles, Curtis. Watch the Skies: A Chonicle of the Flying Saucer Myth. New York: Berkley, 1994.

Val Tenuta, Gary. "Northwest Sightings Event: A Study in Mass Hallucination? What Happened Here?" UFO Folklore Online. Internet. Available WWW:

Zay, George. Zay's Meteor Observing Guidebook. California, George Zay, 1998.


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