Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/469

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.


PROFESSOR MÜNSTERBERG, of Harvard University, who, by his combination of scientific eminence, active interest in public questions, and rare literary skill, occupies a unique position among those who discuss large educational and social problems, recently made a plea,[1] which attracted wide attention, for the introduction of the tests of experimental psychology as a means of judging of the value of evidence given in courts of justice. To show that a deplorably large part of the evidence given in courts and elsewhere is untrustworthy for one reason or another would have been a work of supererogation; nothing is better established in the minds of all who have to deal with the subject. But, while everybody is familiar both with the phenomena of lying and loose statement, and with the fantastic tricks played by our treacherous memories, it is probable that most persons are unaware of the trouble that lurks in malobservation; and it is solely with the errors which arise from this source that Professor Münsterberg deals in the argument to which we have referred. He presents an appalling array of divergences in the outcome of ordinary observation of the same things by one hundred members of his class at Harvard; and he draws from his results the double conclusion that human observation is incomparably more fallible than is generally supposed, and that courts of justice can, and therefore ought to, test the value of the testimony of witnesses by subjecting them to the examination of the expert psychologist. If Professor Münsterberg is right in these conclusions, they are certainly deserving of the earnest attention both of psychologists and of lawyers; but, while his argument drew forth wide-spread comment, it does not seem to have been anywhere discussed with any thoroughness. And it is the purpose of this paper to show that neither the sweeping pessimism as to human reliability which would result from accepting the record given by Professor Münsterberg at its face value, nor the practical plea that he urges for the classifying of witnesses by the methods of experimental psychology, is justified upon careful examination of his argument.

To pass in review each one of the tests detailed by Professor Münsterberg, and attempt to measure the degree in which the whole array falls short of establishing the contentions which it is designed to support, would require the quotation of almost the whole of the article,

  1. McClure's Magazine, July, 1907.