No skeptics on the jury, thanks

Neil deGrasse Tyson did a couple of alarming and disheartening tweets just now –

Neil deGrasse Tyson@neiltyson

Done with Jury Duty. I said I could not convict a person solely on eyewitness testimony. They sent me home. I’m now 0 for 4.

After hearing my skepticism of eyewitness testimony, six other jury candidates promptly agreed. And they got sent home too.


Eyewitness testimony is so crappy – so very unreliable and yet so trusted.

TV trains everyone to think it’s infallible, as if there were a video camera in our brains and all we have to do is roll the tape. We’re bad at noticing stuff even when it’s right in front of us, and then we’re bad all over again at remembering. Put the two together and you get a big “Huh? I dunno. I wasn’t watching.” But noooooo, cop shows always present it as Hidden Photography Inside The Head. The cops ask for detailed descriptions of the suspect, they get impatient when people don’t know, they take the lineup very seriously – as if all this were totally reliable.



  1. Pteryxx says

    note to skeptics: srsly, fight for reform of jury selection laws so lawyers can’t pre-select for ignorance, bias, and gullibility.

  2. says

    You want to break your heart on this subject, see the movie/DVD Ghost Bird, dir. Scott Crocker, Small Change Productions.

    Also read Errol Morris’ book Believing Is Seeing.

    I’m a longtime birder. Eyewitnessing, perception, is, shall we say, my form of athletics. It’s a big challenge to see what you’re seeing, be able to describe why you think it is what you think it is, AND be ready to accede to better evidence.

    Ideally, it keeps you humble.

  3. Rodney Nelson says

    My brother once rode in my car with me. During the drive he called his wife to tell her we were coming and described the car as a dark blue Nissan. My car is a dark green Mitsubishi.

  4. Glenn says

    My father and his uncle remember CLEARLY what each of them were doing when they heard about Pearl Harbor. Their separate accounts of where they each were and what they were doing was as if it happened yesterday. Their stories had them in completely different situations and locations. But they heard the reports at exactly the same time. How do they know? The only thing common to each of their stories was that they were together at the time.

  5. Alverant says

    I wonder how many of those other jurors actually agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson or just figured out that if they say, “Eye-witness testimony is unreliable” like he did that they’ll get out of jury duty. I imagine that when he got released a bunch of others suddenly became skeptics saying, “Oh yeah yeah what he said. Eye-witness *bttthh* can’t trust it. Can I go home now?”

    I never had to serve on a jury but if I did, I wonder how being an Atheist, liberal, skeptical, and rationalist would play out (I do live in a town that has one of the highest church/resident ratios in the US).

  6. iknklast says

    My husband never gets picked for jury duty. They hear he has been to law school, and it’s good bye. They don’t want someone trained in the methods they use.

    I never get picked for jury duty. I am a trained scientists (like Tyson, but biological). I am also a skeptic. They don’t want me, because I teach that seeing isn’t believing, believing is seeing.

  7. terracognition says

    Disturbing how little appreciation is given to the skeptical viewpoint and critical thinking in the justice system. Reminds me of the scene in 12 Angry Men:

    Juror #3: You’re talking about a matter of seconds. Nobody can be that accurate.

    Juror #8: Well I think that testimony that can put a boy into the electric chair should be that accurate.

  8. says

    TV trains everyone to think it’s infallible, as if there were a video camera in our brains and all we have to do is roll the tape…

    Rashomon should be required viewing, as penance.

    I sometimes wonder how I’d do as an eyewitness. Probably unusually awfully even by the usual abysmal standards, I suspect. I’ve had people complain I’m just incredibly unobservant, and especially, oddly, it seems to me it’s mostly all about all those personal details people usually use to describe and identify people.

    As in: hair colour? Eye colour? Height? What they were wearing? Huh? I’m even unusually awful at guessing age and weight. If they were noticeably/dramatically Black or Asian, I’d probably recognize that much. But I do mean noticeably. I’ve a friend I only recently realized was half Japanese, and that was when I met her mother who happened to be entirely. And I had to ask her, even then, as it was dawning from eye shape, stuff like that (and of course, her mother) but I still wasn’t real sure, and figured I couldn’t quite assume she wasn’t adopted or something, anyway…

    Oh, also: names. Dates. When things happened. Where. Seriously, if someone is murdered near me, and I have to give an alibi, it’s not going to be fun. Where I was, officer? Let’s hope that’s in my calendar, because odds are pretty good it’s not in my head.

    I’m only really good at well-integrated details about people. What they do, if they’ve told me, attitudes, accents, so on, and I figure that’s probably just because there’s all that other stuff about them that’s likely to tie nicely to that, reinforce it, context in which it makes sense. Like I said, awful with names, but I probably would remember roughly what national tradition it came from, if I happened to know, and that was obviously associated with other stuff about your origin. Like I might not remember you go by Mike, but I’d know, oh, yeah, some white European guy name… Let me think… And like I said, awful at weight, but if you were obviously in really athletic shape, and I knew you were a gym nut or athlete, that would stick out… But I still couldn’t tell your height or weight within a mile; would notice if it was far enough in either direction from average, but that’s all I’d know. Really tall. Really short. Really heavy. Really thin. That’s about it.

    … So, shorter, I guess, if you’re planning on murdering someone, you’re probably best off doing it near me. I’ll be an awful witness, won’t be able to give an alibi, and they’ll probably just accuse me.

  9. says

    Glenn, I remember what I was doing on 9/11 the moment the first plane was shown hitting the building. But it was a fairly simple memory, and studies show that you tend to retain a memory better when it’s connected to something distinctly unpleasant. Still, recalling details like what the weather was that day? What clothes I was wearing? Did I have my backpack on that day? What I said to anyone about it, or they said to me? Whether I walked or rode by car to school? . . . I don’t remember *any* of those details. I only remember the gist. I was standing in front of the large (at the time) TV in my living-room and that my dad wasn’t up yet. Those details weren’t important at the time, so I didn’t make a point of remembering them. While it’s hard to forget where you were standing when a plane rams into a building a state over from you and you found out, all the other details of that day were totally negligible and forgotten. In the case of the Pearl Harbor thing, if they both mutually remember just being next to one another, that might be the only kernel of truth there – but it might be a very real memory. At the time, that may have been the ‘gist’ that they remembered, the same way I remember standing in front of my TV at home but don’t remember anything else.

    I’ve seen some studies and documentaries on the lack of reliability of eyewitness testimony. This is something that’s subject to scientific demolishing. They played a video of people playing basketball and had a large man in a gorilla suit run in, dance around, and run out – and afterward, when asked about the video, almost nobody remembered seeing the gorilla. They weren’t looking for it, so their brain sort of edited it out. They had to play the tape again with them expecting to see it for them to go, ‘Oh my god. . . you’re right! How did I miss that?!’ Because of how the brain fills in a lot of stuff from memory (because it’s a bit of a lazy organ that likes taking shortcuts), rather than directly seeing every bit of it, what you’re seeing isn’t always what’s actually going on.

  10. bad Jim says

    Last time I got to the point of being questioned for jury duty, I mentioned that I was an ACLU member. The prosecutor used up one of his peremptory challenges to excuse me. Membership has its privileges.

  11. says

    note to skeptics: srsly, fight for reform of jury selection laws so lawyers can’t pre-select for ignorance, bias, and gullibility.

    For that matter, I’m unclear on why exactly the lawyers have any say in the matter at all. If we’re going with the whole idea of ’12 random citizens make the decision,’ then fine. Let’s do that. Pick 12 names at random (Maybe 16 to allow for people who absolutely won’t be able to show for whatever reason), and that’s it. That’s the jury. End of story.

    @AJ Milne
    I’m exactly the same way.

  12. says

    Maybe this is immoral, but I long ago decided that if I was asked if I could render a verdict that would result in the death penalty (which they always ask) I would lie and say yes.

    And then stick steadfastly to my anti-death penalty principles in the jury deliberations.

    I will also never take the word of a cop over the word of the accused (assuming no other evidence, or should I just say “no evidence”).

    But I’d lie about that during jury selection too.

    I dunno if that’s bad of me or not, but it’s what I will do.
    (Not that they’ve ever kept me during jury selection anyway. I think I look too questionable to both sides.)

  13. Bjarte Foshaug says

    It’s kind of circular, isn’t it: I know my own perception/memory is reliable because my own perception/memory tells me so.

  14. says

    I know my own perception/memory is reliable because my own perception/memory tells me so.

    Ya know, that argument sounds vaguely familiar. “I know it’s true because I know it’s true.” I swear I’ve heard a version of it somewhere before, over and over again.

    If I could just put my finger on it…

  15. 'dirigible says

    CSI has addled people’s expectations of evidence. If you won’t convict without holograms then you certainly shouldn’t be on the jury.

    It’s OK, I’ll make sure that I or one of my kids are actually hospitalised by the guy next time so that good little skeptics have some real evidence to go on.

  16. Bjarte Foshaug says

    There’s a ton of difference between refusing to convict another person “solely on eyewitness testimony” (emphasis added) and demanding “holograms”.

  17. kevinalexander says

    My favourite stupid criminal story:

    The prosecutor asks the old lady on the witness stand if she recognized the man who mugged her.
    She points to the accused and says ‘I think it was him’
    Reasonable doubt, the guy walks or so you’d think.
    Instead the genius jumps up and shouts ‘I shoulda blown your fukin’ head off when I had the chance’

    The judge instructed the jury to disregard the outburst since the fifth amendment protects him from self incrimination so the jury had to believe the old lady’s testimony to convict.

  18. Kes says

    I’ve served on two juries, both for criminal trials. And on both juries, the testimony of the witnesses involved was regarded with the least weight in deliberations.

    The most recent trial I sat on, last summer, had a mountain of physical evidence gathered by the cops, video surveillance from several different cameras and angles of the entrances and exits of the accused, and cell phone tower evidence proving their whereabouts. But all of that only served to prove they were in the building at the time and took the items they were alleged to have taken. It didn’t prove anything about what occurred between the accused and the victims while they were there. We acquitted on almost every charge, since the only support for those charges was the victims’ eyewitness testimony, which was inconsistent and contained blatant falsehoods in some cases. No one on the jury believed what the victims had said to be the un-alloyed truth.

    I have confidence that most people are aware of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, and consider it in that light.

  19. says

    dirigible – what? The issue isn’t whether there was a crime or not, it’s the reliability of eyewitness testimony on its own. Those are two separate things.

    It’s weird that people muddle this. It’s as if the thought is “if the crime is really terrible then it’s ok to convict the wrong person.”

  20. sc_8ddc3059896b695eda1d8d6c6db10881 says

    I’ve also been kicked off of jury duty for refusing to consider eyewitness testimony totally reliable.

    What’s worse, I once got assaulted and robbed by a couple guys. The police insisted over and over again, “What did they look like?” and I kept replying that I didn’t know, that I didn’t get a good look at their faces, and that even if I had, my memory wouldn’t be very reliable at identifying them.

    You want to hear something really disgusting, one (white) officer even grabbed a guy off the street a block away because he was black, male, and wearing a hoodie, literally the only details I had given (never mind that there were two guys, and this guy was clearly alone and squarely middle-aged).

  21. kaboobie says

    Tyson’s first two dismissals were mentioned in his keynote speech at TAM 9, and I think I saw a clip of him discussing this elsewhere as well. He presented it in a very funny way, even though the implications for our justice system are dismal.

  22. neuroturtle says

    Ugh. After the amazing work Elizabeth Loftus has been doing for at least a decade now, I don’t know how any legal system could ethically put this kind of emphasis on eyewitness testimony.

    I was mugged last March. I gave what info I had to the police. By a week later, when they came with a photo lineup, I had almost zero recollection of what this guy looked like; he could have been anyone. In my current memory he has facial hair, but he didn’t in my original report to the police, so right there is one proven inconsistency.

    To their credit, the police followed the best protocol you can: they told me it was okay to pick nobody, they asked me how sure I was, and they never told me who they thought it was. (Offhand comments like “yeah, we thought it was him” can increase eyewitness confidence to 100% when they testify in court, even when they weren’t at all sure in the initial decision. And juries love confidence.)

    Lucky for me, dude attacked me on a downtown street in front of a bank, so there is loads of camera footage. He plea-bargained down to five years in prison, so I never had to give “uh, maybe that guy?” testimony in court. =/

  23. Pteryxx says

    For that matter, I’m unclear on why exactly the lawyers have any say in the matter at all. If we’re going with the whole idea of ’12 random citizens make the decision,’ then fine. Let’s do that.

    As far as I can tell it’s there because it’s there… peremptory challenges (when a lawyer removes a potential juror for no specific reason, unlike say removing a close relative of the accused) go back a hundred years or more, and because of the weird precedent-based way the law works, it’s gotten more and more detailed and now it’s an industry.


    Citing this call for an end to peremptory challenges:

    Blog about using psychological research for jury selection:

    We’ve seen a number of studies lately that study links between political persuasion and our willingness to consider the perspective of those different than us. The current issue of The Jury Expert features research on how differing political orientation is related to our willingness to extend empathy. In short, we look out for people who agree with our views (including political), and act insensitively toward those who don’t. What is alarming in the current study is how far many are prone to taking this insensitivity. It’s an intriguing study for litigation advocates since our goal is to have jurors extend empathy for our case. The study published in The Jury Expert would say that is unlikely to happen without a nudge.

    Can it possibly be that simple? Identify someone’s political affiliation and then automatically select or deselect for your jury?

    Probably not. In fact, research just published would say it isn’t really about politics at all–it’s about ideology. Ideology is a term that refers to our world view.

  24. says

    Well, the last (and so far, only) time I was called for jury duty, I pointed out that I am a survivor of domestic violence. I was not contacted further.

    I wonder, on what rationale, by what reasoning, do they determine which categories of people should be automatically excluded? Are there standards, or is it arbitrary?

    (I do apologize if that’s a derail, I’m simply curious.)

  25. Lyanna says

    Dirigible does have a point–people do have absurdly high expectations for evidence, thanks to CSI and other pop culture. And, as a result, they often give non-DNA evidence less weight than it deserves.

    This obviously doesn’t mean it’s good or acceptable to convict the wrong person for the sake of convicting someone. It just means that we need to better understand non-glamorous evidence. DNA tests are glamorous. So are dead-certain eye witness IDs. I don’t think eye witness evidence should be brushed off as totally unreliable. It just needs to be placed into the overall context of human memory and perception.

  26. says

    Lyanna I don’t think it’s a matter of brushing off eyewitness testimony, but of realizing how unreliable it can be. If it’s the only evidence…well, that could be risky.

  27. psocoptera says

    I was dismissed from my one and only jury selection for being young, white, female or some combination of those. They literally asked no questions, just told several of us that we were excused.

  28. John Doe says

    But you’re not allowed to use information from outside the courtroom, right? Even if you speak a foreign language, you’re obligated to trust the court interpretation. You’re supposed to be a justice machine, not a free thinker.

  29. says

    No I don’t think that’s right. It’s true that you’re not allowed to use external information, but not true that you’re obligated to trust anything. The two sides have different interests, but not quite as different as tv leads us to think. The voire dire process I went through was surprisingly co-operative between the prosecution and the defense – they united in reminding us what not to do, and so on.

  30. Rodney Nelson says

    The voire dire process I went through was surprisingly co-operative between the prosecution and the defense

    I’ve been through voire dire several times. One trial had over a hundred prospective jurors. The prosecution and defense took turns questioning candidates. Once one lawyer said “I don’t want him on the jury but I’m almost out of challenges” and the other said “Not a problem, I’ve got plenty so I’ll challenge him for you.”

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