In the new book, The Case Against Miracles (Edited by John Loftus), Darren M. Slade contributed a chapter to the book titled, Properly Investigating Miracle Claims. In it Slade cites evidence from reliable and replicated studies of memories from the scientific community.
Following are some of the results that intersect with claims made by Joseph Smith and his followers regarding his First Vision. The article does not focus on Joseph Smith. I ask the reader to do that,
Sorry for the length, but at least half of the pages are devoted to sources cited, for those who wish to see them.
I’ve believed for a long time that Smith MAY have prayed once, and then “fertilized” the tale until it grew like Jack’s Beanstalk. That even if he did pray once and felt a religious stirring, he could no more accurately recount it years later than anyone, due to the fallibility of humans’ memories.
High school reunions are proof enough that witnesses (and some who were not witnesses, but NOW remember being there) to the same events misremember them differently.
1. Slade cites, Craig Keener, author of Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, attempts to defend the miracle claims of the religiously inclined. Keener admits that believers’ religious fervor, often leads them to make fraudulent claims, yet declines to question the veracity of miraculous claims in his book. (pages 614-616)
2. Slade points out that most people are poor lie detectors. They average 54% accuracy, only slightly better than outright guessing. (Amina Memon, Aldert Vrij, and Ray Bull, Psychology and Law: Truthfulness, Accuracy and Credibility, 2nd ed., Wiley Series in Psychology of Crime, Policing, and Law (West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2003), 107‒ 10.
3. Those who are most confident that they can tell when people are lying are more likely to be incorrect. Those who claim that J Smith’s first vision claims “sound” authentic are biased. (Bella M. DePaulo et al., “The Accuracy-Confidence Correlation in the Detection of Deception,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 1, no. 4 (1997): 346‒ 57.)
4. Liars do not consistently display verbal and non-verbal cues pointing to dishonesty. They are smarter than that. (Memon, Vrij, and Bull, Psychology and Law, 11‒ 18.)
5. People are almost twice as likely to report false autobiographical memories simply because they have imagined a fictitious, hypothetical event, which is later reported as a genuine occurrence. (Maryanne Garry and Devon L. L. Polascheck, “Imagination and Memory,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 9, no. 1 (February 2000): 6‒ 10; Giuliana Mazzoni and Amina Memon, “Imagination Can Create False Autobiographical Memories,” Psychological Science 14, no. 2 (March 2003): 186‒ 88; and Giuliana A. L. Mazzoni, Elizabeth F. Loftus, and Irving Kirsch, “Changing Beliefs about Implausible Autobiographical Events: A Little Plausibility Goes a Long Way,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 7, no. 1 (March 2001): 51‒ 59.)
6. Proneness to reporting miraculous events is especially characteristic among those who frequently spend time imagining alternate realities, regularly hallucinate, and/or imagine having intense religious experiences. (Memon, Vrij, and Bull, Psychology and Law, 142. On fantasy proneness, see Peter Hough and Paul Rogers, “Individuals Who Report being Abducted by Aliens: Investigating the Differences in Fantasy Proneness, Emotional Intelligence and the Big Five Personality Factors,” Imagination, Cognition and Personality 27, no. 2 (2007‒ 2008): 139‒ 61; Harald Merckelbach, “Telling a Good Story: Fantasy Proneness and the Quality of Fabricated Memories,” Personality and Individual Differences 37, no. 7 (November 2004): 1371‒ 82; and André Aleman and Edward H. F. de Haan, “Fantasy Proneness, Mental Imagery and Reality Monitoring,” Personality and Individual Differences 36, no. 8 (June 2004): 1747‒ 54.)
7. In Neil v. Biggers (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there are five variables required to determine the accuracy of eyewitnesses. First, a claimant must be certain about their claim. Joseph Smith was not certain about his claims and changed his story numerous times, adding, deleting, altering, and enlarging the scope of his first witness accounts over time. Second, did the witness have the capacity to witness the event. Third, a fleeting glance is not enough. Fourth, eyewitnesses need to have quality descriptions of the occurrence. Last, there must not be a large gap of time between the event and report of it. Smith’s first First Vision account was first written in 1832, twelve years after the event was said to have happened. (Lauren O’Neill Shermer, Karen C. Rose, and Ashley Hoffman, “Perceptions and Credibility: Understanding the Nuances of Eyewitness Testimony,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 27, no. 2 (May 2011): 187; R. Barry Ruback and Martin S. Greenberg, “Crime Victims as Witnesses: Their Accuracy and Credibility,” Victimology: An International Journal 10, no. 1 (1985): 419; Smalarz and Wells, “Eyewitness Certainty,” 162‒ 63.)
8. Eyewitness accounts, whether about visions, miracles, crimes, or other events are unreliable. As of March 1, 2019, the Innocence Project has exonerated 361 persons through DNA where over two-thirds (71%) were wrongfully convicted due to faulty eyewitness testimony. (See “The Cases,” Innocence Project, accessed March 1, 2019, https:// www.innocenceproject.org/ all-cases/# exonerated-by-dna and “Eyewitness Identification Reform,” Innocence Project, accessed March 1, 2019, https:// www.innocenceproject.org/ eyewitness-identification-reform.)
9. There exist numerous psychological factors that notoriously affect a person’s perception and memory of an event. Among them are: (1) the length of time a witness observes an event where less time equates to less accuracy; (2) the rate of memory loss is highest immediately after an event; referred to as the “forgetting curve”; (3) the initial expectations of an eyewitness, which affect how they perceive events; (4) Influence by family and peers. Children [Joseph Smith said he was 14 at the time of his First Vision in one version] are influenced by family expectations, worldview, and social influences. (5) And, and the habitual occurrence of “postevent information,” where recollections often reflect material acquired only after the incident has occurred, indicating that people cannot reliably discriminate between true and false memories. (Saul M. Kassin et al., “On the ‘General Acceptance’ of Eyewitness Testimony Research: A New Survey of the Experts,” American Psychologist 56, no. 5 (May 2001): 405‒ 16.)
10. Investigators for the truth need to understand the possibilities for memory bias in the witness and close associates. People don’t pluck memories on an event out of a video storage unit in the brain. They reconstruct memories at each retelling. People’s personal interests and personalities will dictate which details they interpret as significant and salient. A person’s culture, past experiences, preconceptions, prejudices, and preferences often dictate how people experience, remember, and interpret miraculous events. (Redman, “How Accurate Are Eyewitnesses?,” 182‒ 83; Duke, Lee, and Pager, “A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words,” 29‒ 30; Ruback and Greenberg, “Crime Victims as Witnesses,” 411‒ 12.)
11. People regularly recall and interpret details selectively in order to justify or rationalize their already held beliefs about reality. Thus, memory recall often appears in story form, which eyewitnesses then mold in order to captivate their audience and validate their actions and beliefs. The problem is that frequent retellings of a story tend to result in altering, adding, or omitting past details, which then become a solidified part of the autobiographical memory in future retellings. (Redman, “How Accurate Are Eyewitnesses?,” 180, 186, 189.)
12. People are not just poor eyewitnesses, but they are also inaccurate earwitnesses, meaning people consistently provide inaccurate testimonies about conversations, words spoken, and intended meanings. Like other remembrances, conversational memory is vulnerable to the same biases and schema-driven errors as other memories. (The numerous studies in Duke, Lee, and Pager, “A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words,” 1‒ 52.)
13. People misattribute the origin of their recollections to their own experiences. For example, claimants may remember experiencing a miracle when they only heard or read about the incident happening to someone else. (Memon, Vrij, and Bull, Psychology and Law, 93‒ 99; Johnson, Hashtroudi, and Lindsay, “Source Monitoring,” 3‒ 28.)
14. Misinformation can occur when people mistakenly remember or simply speculate about certain details, which also become part of the memory itself. Particularly during the interview Witnesses consciously or unconsciously invent details to supply investigators with “what must have happened” for things they did not, in reality, observe. (Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony, 56‒ 58.)
15. Bias occurs when an interviewer conveys details, stereotypes, or desired answers to the witnesses, which prompts claimants to respond in a particular manner based on what they believe the investigator wants to hear. Simply expressing amazement or excitement about a miracle can increase people’s sense of certainty about its authenticity. [KC] I think this is important because the Smith family, believers, and other adherents were eager and keen for Smith to recite miraculous and glorious details of the First Vision. The more glorious, the better . He had an eager and gullible audience. (Gary L. Wells, R. C. L. Lindsay, and Tamara J. Ferguson, “Accuracy, Confidence, and Juror Perceptions in Eyewitness Identification,” Journal of Applied Psychology 64, no. 4 (August 1979): 440‒ 48; Jack P. Lipton, “On the Psychology of Eyewitness Testimony,” Journal of Applied Psychology 62, no. 1 (February 1977): 90‒ 95; Memon, Vrij, and Bull, Psychology and Law, 96‒ 97, 101‒ 6; and Yuille and Cutshall, “Analysis of the Statements,” 176.)
16. Hence, when apologists exhibit an eagerness to corroborate miracle claims, particularly from friends and family, they may inadvertently compel claimants to fabricate, embellish, or omit details in response to the apologist’s enthusiasm. The feedback loop ends up artificially heightening the sense of confidence and sincerity felt between interviewer and interviewee. Indeed, witnesses who express a high level of confidence are just as likely to make mistakes as the general population, especially when considering that a witness’s confidence and sincerity increases the more times they recount their testimony to others. (Siegfried Ludwig Sporer et al., “Choosing, Confidence, and Accuracy: A Meta-Analysis of the Confidence-Accuracy Relation in Eyewitness Identification Studies,” Psychological Bulletin 118, no. 3 (November 1995): 315‒ 27; John S. Shaw III and Kimberley A. McClure, “Repeated Postevent Questioning Can Lead to Elevated Levels of Eyewitness Confidence,” Law and Human Behavior 20, no. 6 (December 1996): 629‒ 53; Köhnken, “Behavioral Correlates of Statement Credibility,” 272; Smalarz and Wells, “Eyewitness.)
17. Moreover, there exist certain biases that affect recall, as well. For instance, people have a tendency toward “retrospective biases” where people falsely superimpose their current experiences, feelings, attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs onto past events. (Ibid.)
18. Another memory variable involves time delay. In general, memories are subject to rapid decay and post event distortion where false memories actually increase over time. Hence, the longer the time between encoding, storage, and retrieval, the more difficult recall becomes for eyewitnesses. (Henry F. Fradella, “Why Judges Should Admit Expert Testimony on the Unreliability of Eyewitness Testimony,” Federal Courts Law Review 2006, no. 3 (June 2006): 10; Craig R. Barclay, “Schematization of Autobiographical Memory,” in Autobiographical Memory, ed. David C. Rubin (1986; repr., Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 82‒ 99; Elizabeth F. Loftus, “Silence is Not Golden,” American Psychologist 38 (May 1983): 564‒ 72; Duke, Lee, and Pager, “A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words,” 30‒ 33; and Lipton, “On the Psychology of Eyewitness Testimony,” 90‒ 95.)
19. The question about burden of proof is easy to address. The burden of proof rests on the person proposing an explanation for the cause of a “miraculous” event.