The Science of Eyewitness Testimony: An Example of How to Incorporate Current Events and Science Policy Into Your Classroom

One of the reasons to invest in scientific research is to gather evidence that can inform policy so that our government can act more effectively, efficiently, and fairly. Of course, for that to happen we need informed citizens to pressure their politicians to enact reforms.  According to the AAAS Vision and Change report one of the core competencies that all undergraduate biology students should have is the ability to understand the relationship between science and society. To help students practice this competency, I have been trying to incorporate more discussions about how findings in neuroscience can be used to understand and hopefully help solve societal problems.  Of the 40ish students that take my Neurophysiology class every year, likely only a handful of them will need to directly use the knowledge they gain about the ionic basis of action potentials. I hope the rest of them will take away from the class the ability to discriminate correlation from causation, how to find good sources of information, and what a well designed experiment looks like.  This year’s events in Ferguson have highlighted issues that could be used to start discussions in many different classes, but below I have a suggestion for an activity that could be used in a Neuroscience or Psychology course.

Neuroscience & Society Activity: Why were there conflicting eyewitness accounts of the shooting of Michael Brown?

One of the biggest news stories of the year was the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Eyewitnesses reported that Brown had his hands raised signifying surrender when he was shot. This led to sustained protests following the shooting and the decision by a grand jury not to indict the police officer. The prosecutor released the evidence seen by the grand jury, including the testimony of all eyewitnesses and the police officer. Even though all 22 witnesses viewed the same event, not all eyewitnesses agreed about whether Brown was kneeling or his hands were up during the final shots (a nice summary of statements can be found here).

Seeing something with your own eyes is considered the best proof that it happened and eyewitness testimony can be quite persuasive. Memories are not unchangeable video recordings, though. They can be influenced by your past experiences and emotions as well as by what you hear from others, including police officers when they are taking your statement, your friends, and/or the media. In fact, the Innocence Project reports that 72% of convictions overturned by DNA evidence involved inaccurate eyewitness testimony.

I have designed an activity (full assignment and suggested readings and video can be found here: NeuroscienceSociety_Eyewitness Testimony) to explore whether the science of memory and perception supports our faith in eyewitness testimony or whether it can explain the disparity between witness statements in the Brown case. All students will read a short blog post and watch a TED talk by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus that discuss how memories can be subject to manipulation. Groups of students will be assigned additional readings that they will summarize for the rest of the class. This activity could be easily tailored depending on the goals and level of your students. For instance, you could assign readings that discuss molecular mechanisms of memory formation, readings on implicit biases, or even conduct your own experiment about the fallibility of memory (see this example experiment suitable for K-12 classrooms). Below are the discussion questions I plan to ask students to complete before we discuss their answers in class.

Discussion Questions:

 1)       In your own words describe how multiple people could give such differing accounts of the shooting of Michael Brown.

2)      What are some ways that memories can be altered?

3)      Many people, including Michael Brown’s family, have advocated for the use of body cameras by police. What are at least 3 pros and 3 cons of requiring all police officers to wear body cameras?

4)      From what you have read/seen, what procedures would you suggest for law enforcement to use when collecting eyewitness statements?

5)      What was one thing you were surprised by or learned from this assignment?

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