‘Expert Eyewitness’ Shoots Dog Walker: Skeptical Lessons from Tragedy

January 5, 2012

From a recent news article:

NORTON, Mass. — A woman was mistakenly shot by a hunter while walking her dogs in Norton. It was an agonizing 911 call after the accident on New Year’s Eve 66-year-old Cheryl Blair wounded. The call was placed by the hunter who accidentally shot her. “I just shot a person — a woman she’s shot in the woods,” the hunter told a 911 dispatcher. “I’m in Norton behind Jim Blair’s house.” Cheryl Blair can be heard yelling in pain in the background of the recording.
Blair was walking her two retrievers on a trail when she was hit in the side. The man who fired the single shot from a rifle was an off duty state trooper. The accident left Blair with a bullet lodged in her hip, but she’s expected to return home in a few days. The off duty trooper is not facing charges. Investigators say the accident happened on property where hunting is permitted.

There are a few things about this case that are important to understand in the context of skepticism. The most obvious one is that people can (and often do) misunderstand what they see, and that eyewitnesses are often mistaken. However there’s another important point in that this was not a stray bullet; the hunter hit what he was aiming at, mistaking the two retrievers she was walking for a deer. This was not some half-blind, drunk yahoo shooting in the dark; this was a police officer (a state trooper, in fact). Proponents of Bigfoot and UFOs place especially strong weight on eyewitness reports provided by police officers: these are trained observers they claim, people who don’t make mistakes.

Cases like this one–and there are many more–show just how flawed this assumption is. Anyone can misunderstand what they see, and if a trained observer like this state trooper can look at a pair of retrievers and be sure enough that he’s seeing a deer to pull the trigger, then he can surely mistake a bear for a Bigfoot.

Here’s another example: In February 2010, a group of people on the shore of Maine’s Moosehead Lake encountered a terrifying sight out on the (mostly) frozen lake: a drowning snowmobiler in desperate need of help.

The figure, dressed in black and wearing a black helmet, was partly submerged in the freezing water and struggling to climb back onto the ice. The three witnesses called 911, and emergency crews were immediately dispatched to the scene in an airboat. But when the rescuers arrived, they saw no sign of the drowned snowmobiler– nor, for that matter, any sign of a snowmobile or anything wrong at all. Instead searchers found pieces of crawfish and a small bloodstain on the ice: clear evidence that one or more otters had recently been feeding there. Furthermore, there were no reports of any missing persons in the area.

How could three eyewitnesses mistake an otter for a drowning man?

Actually, it’s quite easy: They misjudged the distance to what they were seeing, and therefore overestimated its size. This same process occurred in the investigation that Joe Nickell and I did into the most famous photo and sighting of Lake Champlain monster: the eyewitness dramatically overestimated the size of what she saw. The bright sun’s glare reflecting off the ice made it difficult to see the animal clearly, and it’s likely that once one person decided it was a drowning snowmobiler dressed in black, the others agreed with that interpretation. Joe has demonstrated that otters can be —and have been– mistaken for lake monsters; now we can add drowning snowmobilers to the list of otter doppelgangers.

Examples like this remind us of how inaccurate eyewitness testimony can be, whether it’s a witness to a crime in a court of law, or a hunter who claims he saw Bigfoot in the Oregon woods: You can’t always trust your eyes.