LtE in CMO #270

From William P SHEEHAN



. . . . . . . . . . Dear Masatsugu,

 

I am sorry to hear about the health problems -- these are always alarming, and I hope that all the test prove that the hematuria is of no consequence. My friend John Westfall, who has completed the text of a book on the transit of Venus, recently suffered a detached retina and this had to be operated on twice. It is exceedingly poor timing to have these things happen with Mars approaching, but they cannot be helped! I hope you will rest as you can and not overwork yourself with Mars.

Of course, I am looking forward exceedingly to the visit to Japan, and am certainly glad we can make a foray to see the cherry blossoms. All this will be a highlight of my entire life. I will attempt to ascertain information about Lafcadio Hearn's possible publication on the transit of Venus, and will also confirm with Professor Strauss his sources for the Lowell visit to Kyoto.

With my very warmest regards,

(1 March 2003 email)

. . . . . . . . . .Dear Masatsugu,

 

Thought you might like a copy of the sidebar I wrote for *Mercury*, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's magazine, on Martian canals.

I do think the Pacific designation should be comprehensive and include observers on both sides of the basin.

David Strauss gave me a grand list of publications on Japan including works by Lafcadio Hearn, Edward S. Morse and others and I am looking forward to reading them.

With best regards, and eager for news (I hope all favorable) regarding your health.

(8 March 2003 email)

 

Sidebar: Eyewitness Testimony: the Canals of Mars

 

One of the questions that comes up in courtroom testimony is the reliability of eyewitness testimony. According to psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus, writing in Eyewitness Testimony (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 6-7:

 

"Whether we are concerned with the identification of a person or the accurate recounting of the details of an event... eyewitness testimony is very believable and can wield considerable influence over the decisions reached by a jury; on the other hand, eyewitness testimony is not always reliable. It can be flawed simply because of the normal and natural memory processes that occur whenever human beings acquire, retain, and attempt to retain information."

 

The debate over the reality of the Martian network on Mars depended on a form of "eyewitness testimony." It was the observer's testimony at the eyepiece of the telescope, under conditions in which the image of a

planet -- tens of millions of kilometers from the Earth and swimming in a sea of air -- moved and changed and trembled.

 

Psychologists have learned that a number of factors can influence the reliability of eyewitness testimony. One of the factors is exposure time -- subjects are much more accurate at remembering a face they studied for a longer period of time than a face they examined only fleetingly. Another factor affecting reliability of testimony is detail salience -- when a complex incident is witnessed, not all the details are equally salient, or memorable, but in general, "the extraordinary, colorful, novel, unusual, and interesting scenes attract our attention and hold our interest." As we now know, these factors are no less relevant to the eyewitness testimony regarding the image of a planet.

 

Percival Lowell's lawyerly marshaling of evidence in favor of the reality of the Martian canals and the civilization he deduced from their presence is assembled in his books: Mars (1895), Mars and its Canals (1906), and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). In many ways, his arguments seemed very convincing, but they all turned on the reliability of eyewitness testimony: that of the man at the telescope.

 

Lowell described his own experiences in making out the canals. So did others -- such as Lowell's personal friend and fellow Orientalist Edward S. Morse, whose Mars and its Mystery contains a quaint account of his own initially unsuccessful quest for the canals:

 

"Professor Percival Lowell ... enrolled [me] to observe Mars every night for nearly six weeks through his twenty-four inch refractor.... Imagine my surprise and chagrin when I first saw the beautiful disk of Mars through the superb telescope. Not a line! not a marking!..."

 

Eventually Morse progressed in his ability to see the canals and added his testimony to that of other eyewitnesses. In the courtroom, the testimony of such eyewitnesses, says Loftus, "is likely to believed ... especially when it is offered with a high level of confidence... All the evidence points rather strikingly to the conclusion that there is almost nothing more convincing than a live human being who takes the stand, points a finger at the defendant, and says, 'That's the one!'"

 

Loftus mentions the well-known case of the Braintree, Massachusetts murders for which two Italian immigrants, Sacco and Vanzetti, were convicted

in the 1920s. One witness, Mary Splaine, positively identified Sacco, even though the murderers riding in a car passed no closer to her than sixty feet and she had the car in view only for the period it took the car to travel fifty or sixty feet:

 

"Q: ...The hand you said you saw where?"

 

"A: The left hand, that was placed ... on the back of the front seat. He had a gray, what I thought was a shirt -- had a grayish, like navy color, and the face was what we would call clear-cut, clean-cut face. Through here [indiciating] was a little narrow, just a little narrow. The forehead was high. The hair was brushed back and it was between, I should think, two inches and two-and-one-half inches in length and had dark eyebrows, but the complexion was a white, a peculiar white that looked greenish."

 

In commenting on Splaine's testimony, a psychologist said: "Such perception and memory under such conditions can be easily proved to be pscyhologically impossible. Every psychologist knows that -- so does Houdini." {Felix Frankfurter, 1927. The case of Sacco and Vanzetti. New York: Little, Brown}

 

Because of the tremulousness of the air along the line of sight between the observer and Mars, the red planet's disk becomes crystal-clear usually for only moments, fractions of a second, at a time. It is in these glimpses that Lowell called revelation-peeps that the canals appeared and the planet was convicted of harboring life. But we now know that the reality of the Martian surface -- with numerous irregular features, splotches, craters, mountains -- is like a complex scene of a crime; in the short-duration of

the perceptions, the eye and brain manage to record only the most salient features (lines) Under these conditions, Lowell, Morse, and other canalists were as unreliable in what they reported than Splaine seems to have been.

 

It is widely conceded that Sacco and Vanzetti were falsely convicted for the Braintree murders; and Mars, on the evidence of the canals, has now been

acquitted of haboring intelligent life.

 

 


Bill SHEEHAN (Willmar, MN, USA)

sheehan4@en-tel.net


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