The Conversation Strand in the Festival brings together experts from different fields to examine a question of interest to all of them. This is an innovative and lively format, as our first Conversation in the Festival this year proved.
In the first Conversation,VOICES ON PARADE, the distinguished panel looked at the issue of using recognition of the human voice as evidence. The topic was introduced from three points of view: we heard from the expert in Forensic Phonetics, Dr Kirsty McDougall (Cambridge University, Dept of Linguistics) ; from Cambridge Professor of Psychology, Brian Moore, who specialises in the field of auditory perception; and from Professor Peter Mirfield, the Professor of the Law of Evidence in Oxford University.
Dr McDougall tested the audience’s powers of voice recognition and showed how difficult it is to identify a voice after just a few minutes (never mind the many years which have often elapsed when asked to recognise a voice in a court case), illustrating perfectly Professor Moore’s point that claims for 100% accuracy in evidence is unlikely to be achieved. Professor Moore then discussed the specific case of lip reading and showed how the human mind tries to make sense of the various snippets of information derived from perceiving the movements of the face, lips, mouth and tongue. This lead into Professor Mirfield’s discussion of the practical implications of using evidence of recalled voices or lip-read phrases in the courts; and he discussed the tolerance that the court has for admission of such evidence which might be inaccurate or only partially accurate: ‘let the jury decide’ is often the view of the courts.
Dr Neil Jones, Fellow of Magdalene and Director of Studies in Law, then chaired a very wide-ranging discussion between the panel and a large, well-informed and highly engaged audience; a discussion which continued informally over drinks.