If human perception is questionable, human memory is at least equally questionable.
The tempting simple assumption is that people have "Flashbulb Memory." That just as a flashbulb fires and imprints an image permanently on film, an event is emblasioned on human memory and remains there unchanged. Alas, that's not the case.
In the first place, people can "remember" things that they could not have possibly seen. One example comes from Daniel Schacter's book Seven Sins of Memory, and concerns the 1992 crash of an El Al cargo plane into an apartment building in the Netherlands.
People throughout the country saw, read, heard, and talked about the catastrophe.
Ten months later a group of Dutch psychologists probed what members of their university communities remembered about the crash. The researchers asked a simple question: "Did you see the television film of the moment the plane hit the apartment building?" Fifty-five percent of respondents said "yes." In a follow-up study, two-thirds of the participants responded affirmatively.
They also recalled details concerning the speed and angle of the plane as it hit the building, whether it was on fire prior to impact, and what happened to the body of the plane right after the collision. These finding are remarkable because there was no television film of the moment when the plane actually crashed.
The psychologists had asked a blatantly suggestive question: they implied that television film of the crash had been shown. Respondents may have viewed television footage of the postcrash scene, and they probably read, imagined, or talked about what might have happened at the moment of impact. Spurred on by the suggestive question, participants misattributed information from these or other sources to a film that they never watched. [p. 112]Thus witnesses have not conjured up these "memories" from nothing. But neither had they seen what they claimed to have seen.
Witnesses can distinctly "remember" things that logically must have happened, but which they in fact didn't see. Consider the following:
As slide shows go, it wasn't even in the same league as your aunt's vacation snapshots, but the audience was paying close attention: there was going to be a quiz. In one sequence a student sitting in a packed lecture hall topples onto the floor. In others, a hand retrieves oranges that have rolled all over a supermarket, and a woman picks up groceries scattered across a floor. Between 15 minutes and 48 hours later the Boston University undergrads volunteers in this psychology experiment scrutinize more photos and, for each one, decide whether they ever saw it before. Yup, saw the student carelessly leaning back in his chair. Yeah, also saw the guy stupidly tab an orange from the bottom of the pile. Uh-huh, saw the grocery bag rip. In all 68 percent of the time the students remembered seeing the "cause" picture (a ripping bag) whose effect (spilled groceries) had been part of the show.
There was only one problem. The slides did not include a single such cause photo. "When people saw the effect photo but not the cause photo, they "filled in the blank by saying they had seen the cause with their own eyes," says psychologist Mark Reinitz of the University of Puget Sound. Writing in the July  issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, he and Sharon Hannigan of Bard College conclude that the mind's drive to infer causes can fool people into "remembering" something they never saw. In other words, says Reinitz, 'memories can be illusions." (Sharon Begley "Understanding absent-mindedness," nation-online.com, July 18, 2001)When one encounters witnesses like Jean Hill and Ed Hoffman, both of whom claimed to see a Grassy Knoll shooter, it is tempting to conclude that they are simply lying. Hill's story changed between the day of the assassination when she said she didn't see any shooter, and the 1980s, when she started describing seeing one. Hoffman's story has changed too, and has demonstrably picked up some conspiracy book factoids. It is also flatly contradicted by several other witnesses who would have seen the shooter and the "Railroad Man" who disassembled the rifle if such men existed.
Ira Hyman, Troy H. Husband and F. James Billing of Western Washington University asked college students to recall childhood experiences that had been recounted by their parents. The researchers told the students that the study was about how people remember shared experiences differently. In addition to actual events reported by parents, each participant was given one false event either an overnight hospitalization for a high fever and a possible ear infection, or a birthday party with pizza and a clown that supposedly happened at about the age of five. The parents confirmed that neither of these events actually took place.
Hyman found that students fully or partially recalled 84 percent of the true events in the first interview and 88 percent in the second interview. None of the participants recalled the false event during the first interview, but 20 percent said they remembered something about the false event in the second interview. One participant who had been exposed to the emergency hospitalization story later remembered a male doctor, a female nurse and a friend from church who came to visit at the hospital. In another study, along with true events Hyman presented different false events, such as accidentally spilling a bowl of punch on the parents of the bride at a wedding reception or having to evacuate a grocery store when the overhead sprinkler systems erroneously activated. Again, none of the participants recalled the false event during the first interview, but 18 percent remembered something about it in the second interview. For example, during the first interview, one participant, when asked about the fictitious wedding event, stated, "I have no clue. I have never heard that one before." In the second interview, the participant said, "It was an outdoor wedding, and I think we were running around and knocked something over like the punch bowl or something and made a big mess and of course got yelled at for it." (Elizabeth F. Loftus, "Creating False Memories", Scientific American, September 1997, vol 277, #3, pages 70-75)That no experimental subject "remembered" the false event during the first interview might seem reassuring. And the fact that only a fifth remembered the false event during the second interview might likewise seem pretty good. But many JFK assassination witnesses have been interviewed far more than twice, providing multiple opportunities to implant a false memory. Further, researchers have interviewed literally hundreds of Dealey Plaza witnesses. They have talked to dozens of witnesses who were in New Orleans in the summer of 1963 and might have had an opportunity to see Lee Oswald in the company of David Ferrie or Clay Shaw or Guy Banister. They have talked to dozens of witnesses who were at one time or another were in the Carousel Club and might have seen Lee Oswald with Jack Ruby. It is virtually guaranteed that many witnesses with false memories have turned up. And, of course, this is in addition to witnesses who are simply telling tall tales.
There is no doubt that American troops fired on and killed fleeing Korean refugees at No Gun Ri. At issue is the number of refugees killed (the Associated Press said "hundreds") and whether unit commanders ordered the shooting (the AP said they did). The controversy raised many questions about the journalistic standards of the Associated Press, which failed to examine the backgrounds of key witnesses, and was apparently willing to uncritically accept reports of high casualities and orders from commanders since these reports rendered the whole incident vastly more newsworthy.
But journalistic standards aside, the case shows some very interesting things about memory. Was Daily's claim to have been there an example of a "false memory?" Or was Daily simply lying? Daily appears to have forged a series of documents about his military record, and the New York Times explained:
The citation he showed friends for the Silver Star, which praised Mr. Daily for "bravely" commanding his platoon under fire and rescuing another soldier appears to have been fabricated; Army records show he did not receive the medal or the promotion to which it refers.
People familiar with the Army's inquiry into the purported massacre say investigators have obtained documents some from Mr. Dailey himself concerning Mr. Dailey's war record that they now consider falsified. One is a letter saying Mr. Daily had been taken prisoner of war. There are fabricated letters awarding him medals that he actually did not win, including the Silver Star, they said.
There are two versions of the regiment's Christmas-dinner roster, one with Mr. Daily's name typed at the bottom of the list slightly crooked at that. A group photo of the regiment he showed to friends is also suspect: Mr. Daily's head, marked with an arrow and the word "me," appears to be superimposed on another man (Michael Moss, "The Story Behind a Soldier's Story," New York Times, May 31, 2000).
A look at Mr. Daily's life reveals a man who loved to hear other men's war stories and who went to extraordinary lengths to create his own legend in the past 15 years.
So embedded is Mr. Daily in the memories of some veterans that they still find it difficult to believe he was not with them at No Gun Ri.
"I know that Daily was there," insisted Eugene Hesselman, another key witness in the original Associated Press account. "I know that. I know that."
Millard Gray, 75, of Fort Cobb, Okla., said he believed for years that Mr. Daily had rescued him on the battlefield until a buddy pointed out that he would not have been able to recall anything immediately after being pummeled by a concussion grenade.
Mr. Gray, who was not quoted in the Associated Press account, said he now realizes that his memory of Mr. Daily pulling him out of a foxhole to safety came from Mr. Daily. "I didn't know the difference," Mr. Gray said. (Moss, op. cit.)Another serious problem is the possibility that Daily actually created some of the memories of other veterans.
Charles J. Hanley, a reporter who worked on the Associated Press project and staunchly defends it, said that as many as 20 veterans confirmed some or all of Mr. Daily's account, and that the reporting team found sources outside Mr. Daily's sphere of contacts. Mr. Hanley acknowledged that Mr. Daily was a valuable source for The A.P., supplying ex-soldiers' telephone numbers early in the inquiry.
"They all talked to each other in this investigation," Mr. Hanley said of the veterans. "This is why it was important that we try to not get a grapevine going."
Still, it may have been an impossible task to determine whether Mr. Daily was harvesting memories or creating them. (Moss, op. cit.)
Sometimes, so many witnesses testify to something that it would seem we have to believe them. At first blush, this seems to be the case with the witnesses who placed Lee Oswald in or around Alice, Texas in early October, 1963. As Dave Reitzes explains:
To sum up, fourteen witnesses believed they'd seen or spoken to Lee Harvey Oswald in or near Alice, Texas in or around the first week of October 1963, several of them specifying October 3rd, 4th and 5th. Many of these witnesses believed that Marina Oswald was with him. . . . Some witnesses said he had a car at that time. Several said he did not. Two said he was trying to rent one. The physical descriptions are problematic, though the witnesses seem to have genuinely believed it was Lee and Marina Oswald they had seen, sometimes with one or two very small children. (Dave Reitzes, "Another Oswald Sighting: Allegations of Lee Harvey Oswald in Alice, Texas")Conspiracists like Chris W. Courtwright have claimed that these sightings were not of the real Lee Oswald, but were rather of someone impersonating Oswald. But did it have to be either?
Given the fact that the evidence precludes Lee and Marina Oswald having been in Alice, and given the implausibility of the impersonation scenario, perhaps we should look to memory for the answer.
No one in Alice knew Lee or Marina Oswald before the assassination. But after the assassination, and after the witnesses had been exposed to the barrage of publicity including photos of Lee and Marina, they came to "remember" Lee (and sometimes Marina) in Alice.
Some things about the couple in and around Alice would have connected them to Lee and Marina:
The Warren Commission accepted this, and even questioned all the cops who had been there. Seven of them said they saw the leavings of Williams' lunch on the sixth floor Luke Mooney (3H288), E.D. Brewer (6H307), L.D. Montgomery (7H97), Marvin Johnson (7H102), Elmer Boyd (7H121), Robert Studebaker (7H146, Studebaker Exhibit H), and Gerald Hill (7H46). Employee William Shelly said the same thing (6H330).
So it came as a bit of a surprise when WFAA-TV newsreel photographer Tom Alyea spoke at the "Reporters Remember" conference in Dallas in 1993, and claimed the bones and bottle were found on the fifth floor. Alyea got into the Depository before police sealed it off.
All right, on the fifth floor I'm going to get questions on this I was walking with this officer, plainclothesman, and we see a sack on the floor. And a Dr. Pepper bottle. I said fifth floor. He hit it with his toe. Some chicken bones came out of it. (Laura Hlavach and Darwin (eds.) Reporting the Kennedy Assassination, p. 39)Later in the 1990s, Alyea told a similar story in Connie Kritzberg's book Secrets from the Sixth Floor Window:
There were no chicken bones found on the 6th floor. We covered every inch of it and I filmed everything that could possibly be suspected as evidence. There definitely were no chicken bones on or near the barricade or boxes at the window.Unfortunately, Alyea's current account differs from the one he gave in a statement on December 19, 1963:
I filmed Captain Fritz talking with associates in this dismantled area [the "sniper's nest"], along with Studebaker, who was dusting the Dr. Pepper bottle which had been brought up to him from the 5th floor. This is all recorded on my film. I never learned if prints were lifted from the pop bottle. I'm not sure if anybody ever asked. (pp. 39-46)
They were conducting a systematic search. It boiled down to the sixth floor. After awhile it was obvious that the assassin was not in the building. They looked for the gun. I filmed 400 ft. of film of the Secret Service men looking for the assassin, climbing over boxes, over the rafters, and the actual finding of the gun. At the time it was suspected that the assassin had stayed quite a time there. There was a stack [sic] with a stack of chicken bones on it. There was a Dr. Pepper bottle which they dusted for fingerprints. The fingerprints were not Oswald's. (John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection, Papers of C. Douglas Dillon, The President's Committee on the Warren Report to Columbia University Bureau of Applied Social Research, Box 3, National Archives, College Park, MD)With some other witnesses who have changed their stories, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that they are now lying. But it's hard to see why Alyea would lie about this. He's a bit of a curmudgeon, frequently complaining about conspiracy authors and witnesses and the tales they tell. But could all the cops (and Williams and Shelly) have lied about this? Could the Warren Commission account have been a fabrication?
"People remember what is plausible. People remember a blend of observation and conversation about the observation. People remember what interviewers put in their heads." Dennis Ford, Ph.D.
It's mildly inconvenient for the Warren Commission version to have Williams eating his lunch on the sixth floor. It requires either that Oswald made his way into the Sniper's Nest by about noon and huddled there quietly while Williams ate, or that Oswald got to the sixth floor in the ten or fifteen minutes between the time Williams left and Kennedy's motorcade appeared. But having Williams eat his lunch on the fifth floor would have been perfectly convenient. Thus it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Warren Commission witnesses told the truth, and Alyea gave an accurate account initially. But then memory played a trick on Tom Alyea, as it does to so many witnesses.
JFK Shooting RecalledPeople who know little about witness testimony would be inclined to accept Couch's word. Not only does he seem very sure, but searching the archives of the Clifton Record shows him to be a solid citizen of his community. The only problem is that the scene he describes simply did not and could not have happened. Not only does no other evidence support this account, it's at odds with Couch's Warren Commission Testimony. Couch did tell the Warren Commission that he saw a "pool of blood" on the sidewalk, and various officers did find and retrieve pieces of Kennedy's shattered head a hundred yards or so down Elm Street from the Depository. These elements have been garbled and fused together in a sincere, but grossly inaccurate, mental picture.
Local Resident, Former TV Reporter Remembers Kennedy Assassination
Couch's Memories Remain Clear 37 Years Later
CLIFTON - Mal Couch, a citizen of the Womack community, and a former television reporter and cameraman for ABC-TV in Dallas, can remember Nov. 22, 1963, like it was yesterday.
"At the scene, people were still lying on the ground, some protecting their children. Others were running. Policemen were scattering in every direction with shotguns and pistols drawn.
"I started toward the building where I had seen the rifle in the window. Then I saw something very weird. There was a trail of blood from the spot where the shooting occurred to the entrance of the Texas School Book Depository. I pointed it out to a man with me.
"Just then an FBI man stepped out of the building, and in his hand was an object dripping blood. It looked like a piece of hairy flesh. I know I didn't imagine this. The scene is very clear to me."
One classic example is provided by photographer Robert Kundsen, who processed exposed film from the JFK autopsy. Knudsen insisted to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978 that he saw at least two and perhaps three metal probes through John Kennedy's torso where bullets had penetrated.
Knudsen was wildly wrong. In the first place, the witness testimony was unanimous that Kennedy's torso wound couldn't be probed a fact that conspiracists are constantly citing as proof that a bullet didn't in fact transit his torso as the Single Bullet Theory requires. Further, witness testimony and the autopsy photos show there was only one wound in Kennedy's upper back, and another in his throat below the Adam's Apple. Kundsen describes one probe through the torso at this location, and then another through the torso about midway between the neck and the waist. Such a wound would imply a shooter in the trunk of the presidential limo shooting Kennedy through the back seat!
But this is only the beginning of the Knudsen story.
A year before Knudsen talked to the HSCA, Popular Photography interviewed him for a story with the questionable title "'Shooting' the Presidents" which appeared in the August 1977 number. It describes Knudsen's role as follows:
The one Presidential trip which Bob Knudsen did not make was the one to Texas in November, 1963. Scheduled to go, he was hospitalized at the last moment with steel slivers in his eye. Cecil Stoughton went instead, and wound up making the most famous of all Presidential succession pictures: Lyndon Johnson being sworn in aboard Air Force One following the Kennedy assassination.John Stringer, who actually photographed the autopsy, would doubtless be surprised to learn that Knudsen was the "only" photographer there.
When the news of the assassination came from Dallas, Kundsen left the hospital to meet Air Force One at Andrews Field. He was the only photographer to record the autopsy "the hardest assignment in my life." (Popular Photography, August 1977, p. 81)
Knudsen also told his family that he had photographed the autopsy, and their testimony was taken down in detail by the Assassination Records and Review Board.
But on August 11, 1978, when Kundsen testified under oath to the HSCA, he gave the following story (from page 5 of the transcript):
MR. PURDY. Your responsibilities were for the President and not for the First Lady?
MR. KNUDSEN. That is correct. I photographed the President's activities and appointments and social functions.
MR. PURDY. When did you first become aware of the existence of photographs of the autopsy of President Kennedy?
MR. KNUDSEN. The morning following the autopsy, Dr. Berkley to the best of my knowledge, Dr. Berkley had the film holders in a brown paper bag and handed them to me. Jim Fox, the Secret Service photographic expert, was told to go over and develop them and see that they were secure at all times.Somehow, Knudsen's testimony under oath to the HSCA is missing a key element of the story he told Popular Photography.
Wild and wacky accounts were common among the HSCA witnesses. For example, David Osborne, then a Captain in the Navy, was in the autopsy room when Kennedy's body was removed from the casket. According to a Committee staffer:
Osborne said that the President was fully dressed when the coffin was opened. Upon raising his shoulders to remove the coat, Osborne said that a slug rolled out of his clothing and onto the table. Osborne said that the slug was copper-clad and that the Secret Service or FBI took possession of this. Upon further inquiry, Osborne emphasized that the slug was a fully intact missile and not a fragment. (HSCA interview with David Osborne, 6/20/78, Archives Record Number 180-10102-10415, p. 3)Conspiracists have enthusiastically cited his "bullet" testimony, which the HSCA went to the trouble to debunk, but have said little about the "fully dressed" comment. It not only contradicts the vast majority of the witnesses who said the naked body arrived in the same plastic sheets in which it was wrapped in Dallas but it contradicts the well-known conspiracy theory of David Lifton. Lifton claims that the body arrived in a body bag, based on the testimony of one Paul O'Conner whose recollections are as suspect as Osborne's.
Autopsy radiologist Dr. John Ebersole, in otherwise sensible testimony, described the body arriving at the autopsy with "a neatly sutured transverse surgical wound across the low neck" (Hearings before the Medical Panel of the Select Committee on Assassinations, House of Representatives, March 11, 1978). Since literally every other witness who described the neck wound described an unsutured slit corresponding to the tracheostomy the doctors at Parkland said they made, it would seem prudent to simply write off this bit of testimony. But David Lifton claims that "The simple fact that the wound was sewn up was evidence that someone had intercepted the body between Dallas and Bethesda." (Best Evidence, p. 541)
Further, no other witness supports O'Neill's "small brain" testimony, and this includes Stringer, who questioned only the angles from which the brain had been photographed, and not its size in the photos.
Another example of how conspiracist authors will quote mutually contradictory testimony to try and impeach the "official version" is found in Mike Griffith's essay "Historic New Information on the JFK Assassination." Griffith cites the testimony of Stringer as follows:
We can add John Stringer, who was a photographer at the autopsy, to the list of witnesses who saw an entrance wound right next to the external occipital protuberance (EOP), near the hairline. We read in the recently released ARRB medical interviews that Stringer told the ARRB that the rear head entrance wound was where the autopsy doctors said it was, i.e., near the hairline, next to the EOP, and that the supposed image of a higher entry wound on the skull was not the entrance wound he saw on the night of the autopsy (indeed, Stringer denied this image is that of a bullet wound) (Deposition of John T. Stringer to the ARRB, July 16, 1996, pp. 193-196). This is important because this is further evidence that the rear head entrance wound could not have been caused by a bullet from the so-called "Oswald sniper's window." In other words, Oswald could not have fired the missile that struck the back of President Kennedy's head.The problem here is that Griffith, in this same essay, has quoted other witnesses who remember a large exit wound in the back of Kennedy's head. Yet Stringer remembered no such wound, but only a small entrance wound. Both Griffith's "back of the head" witnesses and Stringer's "entrance wound near the EOP" testimony contradict the "official version," but unfortunately they also contradict each other.
The last thing I wanted to mention, just in terms of how we understand the evidence and how we deal with what we have is what I will call is the profound underscore profound unreliability of eyewitness testimony. You just cannot believe it. And I can tell you something else that is even worse than eyewitness testimony and that is 35 year old eyewitness testimony.Likewise, the Final Report of the ARRB stressed the problems with witness testimony:
I have taken the depositions of several people who were involved in phases of the Kennedy assassination, all the doctors who performed the autopsy of President Kennedy and people who witnessed various things and they are profoundly unreliable.
The deposition transcripts and other medical evidence that were released by the Review Board should be evaluated cautiously by the public. Often the witnesses contradict not only each other, but sometimes themselves. For events that transpired almost 35 years ago, all persons are likely to have failures of memory. It would be more prudent to weigh all of the evidence, with due concern for human error, rather than take single statements as "proof" for one theory or another.
This, of course, is good advice not just for the medical testimony but for assassination testimony generally and indeed for all historical inquiry. As critic Dennis Ford, Ph.D. has observed:
Researchers do not give enough consideration to memory factors. Often there is a naive belief that witnesses saw what they saw pure and simple. If skepticism is applied to eyewitness accounts, it is only to dissenting witnesses. Yet memory research has shown that memory is not a copy of an event but a reconstruction. Eyewitness reports are unreliable; contrary to common sense, stress constricts the focus of attention and reduces memory. People remember what they want. People remember what is plausible. People remember a blend of observation and conversation about the observation. People remember what interviewers put in their heads. ("Assassination Research and the Pathology of Knowledge," The Third Decade, July 1992, p. 13, emphasis in original.)In real world criminal investigation, this means that what counts most is the hard physical evidence ballistics evidence, photographic evidence, handwriting analysis, and so on. But in the topsy-turvy world of the conspiracy books and videos, all of that is believed to have been faked, forged, or tampered with. Thus conspiracists are left to make their case from witness testimony. In this, as in all forms of inquiry, the conclusions can't be better than the premises, and the premises are witness observations from quite normal, and therefore quite fallible, people.