In search of a Fair Witnes

In an article on Skepticblog titled Climbing Heinlein’s Hill, Daniel Loxton describes how he was — like me — impressed by the concept of the Fair Witness:

“Robert Heinlein’s classic 1961 sci-fi novel Stranger in a Strange Land includes a passage I’ve often thought of as a parable for scientific skepticism. Understanding the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, Heinlein imagines a special class of ‘Fair Witnesses’ — licensed professionals trained to observe accurately and give legally admissible testimony. In one scene, cantankerous patriarch Jubal Harshaw demonstrates that one of his staffers is a certified Fair Witness:

“Anne!” Anne was seated on the springboard; she turned her head. Jubal called out, “That new house on the far hilltop — can you see what color they’ve painted it?”

Anne looked in the direction in which Jubal was pointing and answered, “It’s white on this side.”

Continues Loxton: “This answer has echoed for me ever since. Anne states the evidence she has, and specifies the limits to her knowledge. As Jubal explains, ‘it doesn’t even occur to her to infer that the other side is probably white too. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t force her to commit herself as to the far side…unless she herself went around to the other side and looked.’ ”

The idea of Fair Witnesses was one of many things that left a very great impression on me when I read Stranger in my late teens. For a long time I tried to be as factually accurate in my answers to people’s questions as would be a Fair Witness. This proves socially unpractical, of course, since you tend to receive blinks and stares when you answer questions like “Excuse me, do you know when the bus is coming?” with “I’ll know it when I see it arrive.”

I had to learn over the years to temper my answers with some social lubricant, but my internal dialog usually still works something more like a Fair Witness’s. These days, however, what I actually say out loud fits more into people’s expectations of normal conversation.

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