Monday, April 04, 2005

Q & A 101

There are a number of methodological problems within ufology. To me, however, the most serious relates to the process of interviewing people who may or may not have something to offer to the study of the UFO phenomenon (these people are often, and incorrectly, as I have pointed out elsewhere, referred to as "witnesses" by ufologists).

There are many different ways to ask a person a question, or a series of questions. There is no one, absolutely correct way to do it - for example, a defense lawyer cross-examining a prosecution witness will often use leading questions, often requiring a simple "yes" or "no" answer, whereas, as a general rule, he is not permitted to use leading questions when examining his own witness (there are, as always, a number of specific exceptions that prove the rule); instead, he would use open-ended questions.

There are reasons for this rule, which can be discerned from an examination of both the types of questions that can be asked, and the effect they can have on the "witness" testimony that is given as a result.

For the purposes of ufology (and borrowing from Legal Interviewing and Counselling by David Binder and Susan Price), here are four basic categories of questions of which ufologists should be aware:

1. Open-ended questions - In general, questions can be classified in terms of the breadth of information that they seek to elicit from the interviewee. At one end of the spectrum are open-ended questions, which allow the interviewee to select the information related to a general subject which he believes is pertinent and relevant. A ufological example might go something like this: "Could you tell me what you observed on the mesa that day?"

2. Leading questions - At the opposite end of the spectrum is the leading question.The structure of this type of question provides all the data which the interviewer believes is pertinent or relevant. The question makes a statement and, in addition, suggests that the interviewee ought to affirm the validity of the statement. A ufological example might go something like this: "You saw a flying saucer on the mesa that day, did you not?"

Between the totally open-ended question at one end of the spectrum, and the absolutely leading question at the other end, there may be an infinite variety in the forms of question. There are, however, two other significant types of questions:

3. The Yes / No Question - These are phrased in such a way that the interviewee can respond with a simple "yes" or "no." A ufological example might be: "Were there police officers on the mesa?"

4. Narrow Questions - Narrow questions both select the general subject matter, and choose which aspect of the subject the interviewer wishes to discuss. In restricting the interviewee to discussing that aspect of the general subject which the interviewer has selected, the interviewer is asking the interviewee to put aside whatever notions he might have as to the importance of information, and adopt instead the priorities of the interviewer. A ufological example might be: "How old were the police officers that you saw?"

As a general rule of thumb, ufological interviewers should begin with, and try to stick to, as much as possible, open-ended questions; narrow questions can be employed to focus in on particular pieces of information for which the interviewer would like further clarification. The goal should be to use these two types of questions to elicit as much information as possible from the interviewee, without distorting the answer.

This last consideration should be paramount. There are many ways in which the type of questions that are asked can influence the accuracy with which interviewees recall and relate information. Here are four of which ufologists should be especially aware:

1. Improper use of leading questions - Assuming the interviewer knows best, the interviewee will often go along with the interviewer's suggestion rather than indicating he does not know the answer, or is unsure of the answer. By an unconscious use of leading questions, the interviewer can unwittingly lead an interviewee into adopting a favourable but ultimately inaccurate view of the event or situation being discussed.

2. Pressuring the interviewee for too much detail - People do not perceive all of the details of any given event; therefore, they cannot usually report precisely everything that occurred. When pressed for too much detail, they will often "fill in" the details they can't remember by taking what they can recall of the event, and then using logic to reconstruct the event by imagining details that would be consistent with the facts that they do remember. This is usually an unconscious process. An interviewer who states in advance what he believes happened, or who asks leading questions, may inadvertently encourage an interviewee to "reconstruct" events to fit in with the interviewer's version.

3. Obtaining conclusions which distort - In some instances, asking a person for a conclusion before obtaining the details on which the conclusion is based can lead to distortion. For example, if the interviewee is first asked, "Do you believe that flying saucers have crashed, and that the government has recovered them?" the person's "yes" or "no" answers may shape his subsequent reporting of a specific alleged crash retrieval case.

4. The use of too many narrow questions - As stated above, the focus of the interview should be to allow the interviewee to tell his story in his words, as fully as he can recall it. Unless he is given this opportunity, which can best be accomplished through open-ended questions, certain facts and details will often not emerge. As a consequence, the story he relates might be more limited than it otherwise would have been.

Keeping the above in mind will help prevent the kind of interview that Frank Feschino conducted with Colonel Dale Leavitt about the Flatwoods case, as recounted at pp. 55 to 61 of The Braxton County Monster. Here's a particularly egregious example of leading the witness (found at pp. 56 to 57). The inappropriate questions are highlighted, with the worst one also bolded:

"Feschino: Where did you have to send all this? Did you have to send it to Washington?

Leavitt: The Air Force, that's what they wanted me to do.

Feschino: And they never told you any of the results?

Leavitt: No results. Never. They never do.

Feschino: Why do you think that? Do you think?...

Leavitt: You think something's wrong?

Feschino: Do you think they were trying to cover something up?

Leavitt: [Caught off guard by the question] Maybe."

Feschino followed up this sequence by a later one when he again asked Leavitt about a cover-up, and Leavitt expressed his opinion that it was. The problem is that we'll never know whether that was Leavitt's real opinion, or the result of Feschino's leading questions and interview technique (another example, when discussing the oil Leavitt found on the ground - "Feschino: I guess spaceships have oil leaks too.")

Here's how this segment of the interview should have been conducted, and the answers that probably would have been given as a result.

"Feschino: What did you do with all of the stuff you collected?

Leavitt: We sent it to the Air Force.

Feschino: Where?

Leavitt: [Wherever it was sent]

Feschino: Did you ever hear back from the Air Force about what you sent to them?

Leavitt: No.

Feschino: Why?

Leavitt: It was standard procedure. Our job was to collect the material, theirs was to analyse it. I wouldn't have had a need to know, whatever it was."

Of course, there are those in ufology that discount all of this.

And that's a BIG problem.

After all, as Mr. Justice Beck, of the Alberta Court of Appeal, wrote in Maves v. Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Company (1913), 14 D.L.R. 70, 73 - 77 (Alta C.A):

"The chief rule of practice relative to the interrogation of witnesses is that which prohibits 'leading questions,' ie. questions which directly or indirectly suggest to the witness the answer he is to give. The rule is, that on material points a party must not lead his own witness... if he were allowed to lead, he might interrogate in such a manner as to exact only so much of the knowledge of the witness as would be favourable to his side, or even put a false gloss upon the whole."

Common sense then; common sense now.

Paul Kimball


RRRGroup said...


Your observations are as perspicacious as usual, and perspicuous.

(I have one Britannica volume: P)

How do you propose to institute the proper interviewing methodology, when persons who get into the UFO field are often (not always!) amateurs who didn't make it in a real career of profession so they take on UFOs, and muck up some important cases and events by their ineptitude.

They've done this in the past, as you cite, and continue to do so even now.

One can untangle the illogic or leading elements in interviews, as you've done here, but why should one have to do that?

Let's hope that a purity of intent and methodology will take hold in future, but I'm not holding my breath.

Rich Reynolds

Paul Kimball said...


You don't have to be the proverbial rocket scientist to master basic interviewing methodology. A little research, and practise, can go a long way.

You do, however, need to accept that such methodology is necessary in the first place.

That seems to be a problem for some.