Postscript: the problem of photographic evidence

Alternative Title: Review of Robert Sanger, “Gettier in a Court of Law” (Part 4)

If you go back to my previous posts in this series (see here and here, for example), you will notice that they all involve photographic evidence of some sort–the picture of the sheep-dog in Sanger’s Gettier paper or the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination. This observation, in turn, poses a new question: is a photograph or a film clip, standing alone, able to generate knowledge in the sense of a “justified true belief” or is such evidence especially vulnerable to the Gettier problem, i.e. the problem of a justified belief that turns out to be false.

As I thought about this question, I stumbled upon this beautiful book Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, available here, by Errol Morris, an award-winning film director. Morris’s book is about the nature of truth and belief in the domain of photography, and he later summarized the main points of his book with a series of thought-provoking tweets. (Morris posted his tweets on October 1 and 2, 2011; see here.) Of the ten tweets in his series, the ones that I found most relevant for my analysis of the Zapruder film were #3, 4, 6, 8 and 10. Below, I will restate Morris’s tweets in reverse order (also, for clarity, each of his points appears in italics, followed by my commentary in brackets):

#10. “Photographs provide evidence. (The question is of what?)” [I am starting with Morris’s last tweet in his series because it is the most relevant one for our analysis of the Zapruder film. A photograph or film clip might provide crucial evidence of “what happened?” at a given time and place.]

#8. “The more famous a photograph is, the more likely it is that people will claim it has been posed or faked.” [The Zapruder film is a case in point, but that said, sometimes photos are, in fact, fake or manipulated. Think of Ansel Adams’ famous “falling soldier” photograph during the Spanish Civil War, a picture that was probably staged.]

#6. “Uncovering the relationship between a photograph and reality is no easy matter.” [As I mentioned above, photographic evidence can purport tell us “what happened?” at a given time and place. The problem, however, is that that the photo might be staged, or even more epistemologically troubling, the photograph or film clip might be consistent with different good faith interpretations of “what happened?”]

#4. “False beliefs adhere to photographs like flies on wallpaper.” [Again, the Zapruder film is a case in point, but how do we know when a belief is true or false? How do we know which JFK conspiracy theory to believe in? This observation is the crux of the Gettier problem: a picture or movie clip might generate a narrow or wide variety of beliefs about “what happened?,” and some or many of these beliefs might even be justified, but–and here’s the rub–most of these beliefs might turn out to be false!]

#3. “Photographs are neither true nor false. (They have no truth-value.)” [This last point is Morris’s most controversial one, but is he right? Read on …]

Morris elaborated on point #3 in this fascinating essay, which was published in the New York Times on July 10, 2007 under the heading “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” Among other things, Morris makes the following keen observation (emphasis added):

“The idea that photographs hand us an objective piece of reality, that they by themselves provide us with the truth, is an idea that has been with us since the beginnings of photography. But photographs are neither true nor false in and of themselves. They are only true or false with respect to statements that we make about them or the questions we might ask of them.”

In other words, a bare photo or film clip has no truth-value when it is standing alone–i.e., without any words, like a caption or some form of narrative explanation. Stated in Gettier terms, a photograph of a sheep-dog (like the one Sanger refers to in his Gettier paper) or a film clip (like the infamous Zapruder film) might generate a number of beliefs, and some of these beliefs might even be justified, but most of these beliefs–even justified ones–might turn out to be false.

I will now conclude with some final observations. In Sanger’s example, the picture of the sheep-dog was designed to dispel the shepherd’s justified belief that he saw a sheep in his field. Sanger’s picture of the sheep-dog (assuming the enlargement did not produce a fuzzy image) ended up rebutting or falsifying the shepherd’s belief that he saw a sheep. But the case of the Zapruder film is different. Instead of providing us a true picture of what really happened on November 22, 1963, the Zapruder film generates any number of competing hypotheses or beliefs about what happened, e.g. the lone-gunman theory versus the Grass Knoll conspiracy.

What is to be done, then? I think the idea of subjective probability–the bayesian notion that there are “degrees of belief”–might be the best way out of this Zapruder film conundrum and out of other Gettier problems more generally. I will elaborate on this observation and conclude my review of Sanger in my next post.

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About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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