What is witness reliability?

Yesterday’s hearing in the U.S. regarding Brett Kavanough’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court is an opportunity to high-light the difficulty that exists when attempting to draw conclusions about the truth of an incident based solely on the word of one person versus another. While the information provided by the accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, relating an unwanted, inappropriate, sexual encounter of 36 years ago with Kavanough has caught worldwide attention, the general scenario is played out thousands of times over in many courtrooms yearly across North America.

One need not look very hard or long to quickly see the judgments that have already been made, whether on social media, on major television broadcasts or among informal gatherings at the coffee machine. In all these discussions it is rare that persons stop to consider how much they can depend on the accuracy/truth of what they have heard.

While correct judgment requires it, regardless of the individual, personal bias is a difficult factor to remove. For the most part, those who have made their judgments have a strong-felt belief that they are capable of distinguishing truth and lies from signals such as whether someone is nervous, angry, emotional or by the success with which they are able to explain their position. It is an unfortunate reality that we fail to understand how important it is to support our judgments with reliable, objective evidence.

If nothing else, this hearing should demonstrate to all how important it is that a proper, impartial investigation be carried out as early as possible by experienced investigators who are given the proper time and resources to complete their work. Without the documentation of objective evidence and analysis based on standardized, accepted, scientific methods, there is a high likelihood that the justice that must be attained, will not be reached.