The train derailment this time: Why did that Amtrak train speed up as it approached that dangerous curve?
We’ll offer our speculation below. For today, we once again learn an important lesson about the limitations of eyewitnesses.
By the weekend, the following questions had arisen: Had the windshield of the train been struck by some object? Could that have played a role in the derailment?
For ourselves, we don’t know what occurred. According to murky reporting in today’s New York Times, an account from an earwitness has apparently turned out to be wrong:
PHILLIPS AND SCHMIDT (5/19/15): On Monday, as Amtrak restored service between New York and Washington, F.B.I. investigators traveled to a train yard in Wilmington, Del., where Amtrak 188 was taken for further study. Officials analyzed the windshield to determine if damage to the glass was caused by the derailment or a projectile, such as a rock.It seems the earwitness was wrong about what she thought she heard. In a bit of a muddle, the Times report doesn’t explain which train the earwitness was on.
The N.T.S.B. said it expected final results in the next few days.
“It could be completely coincidental, it could be causal, and that’s exactly what we are trying to find out,” Robert L. Sumwalt, a member of the N.T.S.B., said Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” Mr. Sumwalt said at a news conference on Friday that an assistant conductor said she heard an engineer on the Septa regional commuter line say in a radio transmission that his train had been struck by an object. She told investigators that she believed she heard the Amtrak engineer, Mr. Bostian, say that his train had been hit by something, too.
On Sunday, Mr. Sumwalt, appearing on several talk shows, said recordings of radio traffic showed that the engineer did not call dispatch to say his train had been struck, nor did the Septa engineer recall having a conversation with Mr. Bostian.
Last Friday, Jim Dwyer wrote an important piece in the Times about the limitations of eyewitnesses. In his “About New York” column, he described mistaken testimony from two eyewitnesses to an incident last Wednesday in which a man with a hammer attacked two police officers.
The two eyewitnesses gave separate accounts of the incident. Both were sure about what they had seen. Until they watched surveillance tape, which showed their accounts were wrong:
DWYER (5/15/15): Contrary to what Mr. O’Grady said, the man who was shot had not been trying to get away from the officers; he was actually chasing an officer from the sidewalk onto Eighth Avenue, swinging a hammer at her head. Behind both was the officer’s partner, who shot the man, David Baril.The two eyewitnesses weren’t malicious, Dwyer emphasized. They were simply wrong—wrong about what they thought they saw during a brief, highly unusual incident.
And Ms. Khalsa did not see Mr. Baril being shot while in handcuffs; he is, as the video and still photographs show, freely swinging the hammer, then lying on the ground with his arms at his side. He was handcuffed a few moments later, well after he had been shot.
There is no evidence that the mistaken accounts of either person were malicious or intentionally false. Studies of memories of traumatic events consistently show how common it is for errors to creep into confidently recalled accounts, according to cognitive psychologists.
“It’s pretty normal,” said Deryn Strange, an associate psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “That’s the hard thing to get our heads around. It’s frightening how easy it is to build in a false memory.”
The shortcomings of eyewitness testimony were brought to the fore in the Justice Department’s report about the death of Michael Brown. This material was widely ignored by those on our own liberal team.
The material was also widely ignored by some of the overpaid stars of “cable news.” In subsequent incidents, they quickly returned to a shaky practice—they interviewed excited eyewitnesses without warning viewers that such testimony, while well-intentioned, may often turn out to be wrong.
To name one name, Anderson Cooper has never met an eyewitness whose account he didn’t love. We were struck by the ease with which some cable performers returned to an irresponsible practice. Perhaps it’s what they get paid for!
Dwyer’s column was instructive. Regarding the train derailment:
In a medium driven by speculation, we’ve seen no one wonder if this could possibly have been a copycat incident. A copycat of what, you may ask.
Incomparably, we’ll leave it right there! But in a world driven by speculation, we’re often struck by the lack of imagination among those in our cable brigade.