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9\. Direct Observation

  • As a matter of fact, the inquest or trial scene in detective fiction makes a great point of the testimony of eye witnesses. Yet really the utter unreliability of eye witnesses has often been remarked upon; and Hawthorne, in his "Note-Book," says:
  • > "Every day of my life makes me feel more and more how seldom a fact is accurately stated; how, almost invariably, when a story has passed through the mind of a third person it becomes, so far as regards the impression that it makes in further repetitions, little better than a falsehood, and this, too, though the narrator be the most truth-seeking person in existence. How marvelous the tendency is. Is truth a fantasy which we are to pursue forever and never grasp?"
  • Now, it is sufficient to pay attention to the conversations in which we take part every day to discover that the worth of evidence depends to a very small degree on the good faith or the moral value of the witness. Who is there who has not seen for himself to what an extent accounts of the same fact may differ, even when related by serious witnesses endeavouring to keep scrupulously to the truth?
  • Nothing, indeed, is more difficult than to tell the truth; that is to say, to recount the past, to make a deposition upon some fact, even if the fact be one which has come a great number of times under our own eyes.
  • To prove that this is so, let the reader make the following simple experiment.
  • Without any preliminary, ask a number of persons kindly to draw from memory the figure which indicates six o'clock, exactly as it appears on the dials of their watches. You will find that some of these persons will simply write the figure VI or 6; others, sharper, remembering that the figures take their line of direction from the centre of the dial, will write the symbol upside down, IX or 9. Everybody, however, will be quite convinced that his particular testimony is correct, and ready to swear to it on oath. Now ask them to take out their watches and look at them. Most of them will discover to their stupefaction that the figure VI or IX which they saw so clearly at the foot of the imaginary watch floating before their mind's eye has no existence at all on the dial of the real watch, where its place is taken by the small seconds- hand dial!
  • Here, then, we have a great number of inaccurate depositions; and yet, how often in the course of a day do most people look at their watches! There is no doubt, moreover, that all these people whom you have thus proved to be wrong acted in perfect good faith; not one of them had any wilful intention of deceiving.
  • Again, it is not uncommon to find a man who has owned his watch for many years, utterly unable to state whether the hours on the dial are indicated by Roman numerals or Arabic figures. This means only lack of observation, but quite as common is mistaken observation.
  • An amusing practical test of this is thus related of Professor Dueck. In order to test the memory and susceptibility to suggestion of his pupils he performed the following experiment on forty-eight boys between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. He passed a silver coin about the size of a fifty-cent piece around the class, instructing each boy to examine it carefully, but giving no further indications as to the purpose of his action. At the end of the lesson, which in other respects proceeded as usual, Professor Dueck, having again taken possession of the coin, addressed the class as follows:
  • > "You have no doubt observed that the coin which I handed around had a hole in it; now I should like to test your powers of observation. I am, therefore, going to ask each of you to indicate the point on the coin where the hole is found. Just take a piece of paper, draw a circle upon it, and indicate roughly the position of the head on the coin and of the hole which you observed."
  • As a matter of fact there was no hole in the coin at all. Nevertheless no fewer than forty-four out of the forty-eight pupils indicated the position of the alleged hole in the coin, some even indicating the position of two holes.
  • Of the four remaining pupils, only one positively asserted that there was no hole in the coin, the other three merely said that they had not observed the hole.
  • This alone is interesting enough, but there were several other features in the case which are well worth recording. In the first place the one and only individual who had not been open to suggestion was a boy who had previously shown his independence by giving considerable difficulty in matters of discipline. Furthermore, several of the younger boys, even after they were told that there was no hole in the coin, absolutely refused to admit this.
  • The Scientific American, commenting upon this experiment, remarks:
  • > "It hardly needs to be pointed out how significant an observation of this character is in its bearing on legal testimony. We must not be surprised that the witness may under certain circumstances not merely make a certain statement incompatible with facts, but may even insist in his erroneous belief in the face of overwhelming evidence against it—and all this in perfectly good faith."
  • Once an observer of a magnificent military parade noted the exact and well- trained marching of the soldiers; and in describing it afterward, said positively, "And every man was exactly the same height." Which was far from being true, as the soldiers were of varying heights, but the strong impressions of harmony and precision, had given an unconscious effect of uniformity of height. All of which goes to prove that with the best intentions in the world, false testimony may be given.
  • Further than this, if desired, false testimony may be induced by suggestion of the questioner. Indeed in the giving of evidence suggestion plays a most important part. The simple fact of questioning a witness, of pressing him to answer, enormously increases the risk of errors in his evidence. The form of the question also influences the value of the reply that is made to it. This has given rise to the well-known prohibition of "leading questions" in courts of law.
  • Let us suppose, for instance; that some persons are questioned about the colour of a certain dog. The replies are likely to be much more correct if we ask the witnesses, "What is the colour of the dog?" than if we were to say to them, "Was the dog white, or was it brown?" The question will be positively suggestive if we ask, "Was the dog white?" To such a question the answer is probably of no value. In questioning witnesses—that is to say, in pressing them and forcing their memory—we may obtain, it is true, a much more extensive deposition than if we leave them free to answer spontaneously. Any advantage thus obtained, however, is problematical, since we lose in fidelity whatever we may gain in extent of information. A trained observation takes things in at a glance, and correctly, too.
  • M. Robert Houdin gives this interesting description of training his own eye, as quoted in "The Lock and Key Library:"
  • > "My son and I passed rapidly before a toy-shop, or any other displaying a variety of wares, and cast an attentive glance upon it. A few steps farther on we drew pencil and paper from our pockets, and tried which could describe the greater number of objects seen in passing. I must own that my son reached a perfection far greater than mine, for he could often write down forty objects, while I could scarce reach thirty. Often feeling vexed at this defeat, I would return to the shop and verify his statement, but he rarely made a mistake.
  • >
  • > "My male readers will certainly understand the possibility of this, but they will recognize the difficulty. As for my lady readers, I am convinced beforehand they will not be of the same opinion, for they daily perform far more astounding feats. Thus, for instance, I can safely assert that a lady seeing another pass at full speed in a carriage, will have had time to analyze her toilet from her bonnet to her shoes, and be able to describe not only the fashion and quality of the stuffs, but also say if the lace be real or only machine made. I have known ladies to do this."
  • Zangwill in "Big Bow Mystery" thus argues the worthlessness of most casual observation:
  • > "Sir, everything depends on our getting down to the root of the matter. What percentage of average evidence should you think is thorough, plain, simple, unvarnished fact, 'the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?'"
  • >
  • > "Fifty?" said the Minister, humoring him a little.
  • >
  • > "Not five. I say nothing of lapses of memory, or inborn defects of observational power—though in the suspiciously precise recollection of dates and events possessed by ordinary witnesses in important trials taking place years after the occurrences involved, is one of the most amazing things in the curiosities of modern jurisprudence. I defy you, sir, to tell me what you had for dinner last Monday or w hat exactly you were saying and doing at five o'clock last Tuesday afternoon. Nobody whose life does not run in mechanical grooves can do anything of the sort; unless, of course, the facts have been very impressive. But this by the way. The great obstacle to veracious observation is the element of prepossession in all vision. Has it ever struck you, sir, that we never see anyone more than once if that? The first time we meet a man we may possibly see him as he is; the second time our vision is colored and modified by the memory of the first. Do our friends appear to us as they appear to strangers? Do our rooms, our furniture, our pipes strike our eye as they would strike the eye of an outsider, looking on them for the first time?
  • >
  • > "Can a mother see her baby's ugliness, or a lover his mistress' shortcomings though they stare everybody else in the face? Can we see ourselves as others see us? No; habit, prepossession changes all. The mind is a large factor of every so-called external fact. The eye sees, sometimes, what it wishes to see, more often what it expects to see. You follow me, sir?"