Ehrman begins chapter three of his book, Jesus before the Gospels, referring to a staged event that occurred in 1902. In this event, “a well-known criminologist named von Liszt was delivering a lecture when an argument broke out. One student stood up and shouted that he wanted to show how the topic was related to Christian ethics” (Ehrman 87). A fight ensured, a gun was drawn, and while Professor von Liszt tried to intervene, the gun when off (Ehrman 87). The professor then called the class to order assuring them that the whole scene had been staged as a test of observation and memory. Some students were then asked to write immediately about the event. Others wrote the next day or a week later. Still others were deposed under cross examination. Ehrman then reports that “The most accurate accounts were in error in 26 percent of the details reported. Others were in error as many as 80 percent” (Ehrman, 88). Ehrman concludes that “eyewitnesses are notoriously inaccurate” (Ehrman 88).
Ehrman got this story from a book by Elizabeth Loftus (Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA : Harvard Univ. p 20-21). Loftus was quoting from someone named Hugo Munsterberg (On the Witness Stand. New York : Doubleday, 1908; 49-51), and Munsterberg was recalling the event which had been staged by professor von Liszt six years earlier. Unfortunately, Munsterberg gave no further detail on this study so it is difficult to know what to make of the statistics cited. For example, Ehrman didn’t happen to mention that in this study, any “Omissions… wrong additions and alterations” were counted as mistakes (Loftus 20-21). But in recounting any event, different parts of the event may stand out to, and be emphasized by, different people. The fact that two or more people should omit parts of the whole may be due to factors other than memory. Without knowing more about what was omitted or added, or the nature of the alterations, the statistics are not much good.
It would have also been helpful to know what percent of the gist of the story students got accurate. Students undoubtedly got details wrong, but did any students remember the event entirely differently? Did anyone think the professor shot the student? Did anyone think both students were shot? Did anyone say there was no gunshot at all? My guess is that the gist of the event could have been reconstructed quite well from the eyewitness accounts even though minor details would vary from student to student. Nevertheless, Ehrman uses the story to make the point that “eyewitnesses are notoriously inaccurate” (Ehrman 88).
As an aside, it may also be worth noting that Ehrman is trusting Loftus’ summary of Munsterberg’s memory of von Liszt’s eyewitness account in an effort to show that memory can’t be trusted!
Another study cited by Ehrman related to the crash of an El-Al Boing 707 (Ehrman 89-91). Ehrman cites a study by psychologists Hans Crombag, Willem Wagenaar and Peter Van Koppen regarding a Boeing 707 that crashed into an apartment near Amsterdam in October of 1992 (Hans. F.M. Crombag, Willem A. Wagenaar, and Peter J. Van Koppen, “Crashing Memories and the Problem of ‘Source Monitoring,” Applied Cognitive Psychology, 10, 1996: 95-104).
Ten months after the crash, Crombag and his colleagues surveyed 193 university faculty, staff and students about the accident. Specifically, participants in the survey filled out a questionnaire which asked, “Did you see the television film of the moment the plane hit the apartment building?” (Ehrman 90; Crombag 99). Of the 107 who responded, 55% said yes. Later another questionnaire was given to 93 law students. Ehrman relates that “In this instance 62 (66 percent) of the respondents indicated that they had seen the film. There was just one problem. There was no film” (Ehrman 90). Ehrman concludes that “they were imagining it, based on logical inferences…” (Ehrman 91).
What Ehrman doesn’t mention—and what is only relegated to a footnote in Crombag’s article— is the fact that “some networks showed a schematic computer animation of the movements of the plane between take-off and the moment of impact” (Crombag 95 n.1). A television computer animation could legitimately be considered “a television film.” So those who said they saw the television film were not necessarily mis-remembering a non-existent film. They may have thought the questionnaire was referring to the television computer animation film which did, in fact, exist and was shown on TV. Even though this film “did not show how the plane crashed” it did show “the movements of the plane between take-off and the moment of impact (Crombag, 95 n.1). The existence and airing of the computer animation on TV calls this entire study into question.
The possibility that those taking the questionnaire thought they were being asked about the computer animation is supported by the fact that the researchers were actually puzzled by the fact that it would be very improbable that a video would exist of the actual impact (the study was obviously before 911). They wrote, “only very little critical sense would have made our subjects realize that the implanted information could not possibly be true. We are still at a loss as to why so few of them realized this” (Crombag 103). It is actually quite easy to explain. Those taking the questionnaire thought they were being asked about the television animation film they had seen.
A follow-up study regarding the crash asked more specific questions, for example whether the plane was burning when it crashed, or whether it came in nose up, nose down or vertically, etc. (Crombag 100). Some who answered the questions admitted they had not seen the TV film of the crash. The researchers concluded that “The fact that in Study 2 many of the respondents answered the ‘memory’ questions’ after having admitted that they had not seen the (nonexisting) TV film indicates that they thought that all that mattered was getting it right” (103).
The researchers fail to realize, however, that this also undermines their study. The respondents simply misunderstood what they were being asked. They apparently thought this was a survey about what happened—and they pieced together what happened from memory of the extensive TV coverage of the aftermath of the crash. They were really being asked about what they personally remembered seeing on a television film.
One of the points made in this article was that “Witnesses in legal trials must therefore be explicitly reminded that they can only testify as to what they know first-hand” (Crombag 103). Those who did the study should have followed their own advice. Were the respondents in Crombag’s study “explicitly reminded” that they were only to answer very specifically regarding what they had actually seen on a TV video (not an animation) of the actual crash—not what they inferred to have happened from videos of the aftermath? There is no way of knowing, therefore, whether these questionnaires were measuring memory or interpretation.
This study was a good reminder for those conducting court trials but has little relevance to historical studies. No one doubts that eyewitnesses get details wrong. What matters is the big picture or “gist” of the story. While the details in Crombag’s study varied, no one to our knowledge questioned the big picture, i.e. that a large plane (not a train or truck) did hit a building (not a soccer stadium) near Amsterdam (not Paris or London) and the result was chaos and disaster!