Does video tell the whole truth?

I enjoy it when my disparate interests overlap in some way. In this case, powerlifting and personal safety.

In recent years, especially the past some months, it’s become a hot topic to have police body cameras. Basically, people want recordings of every facet of police interactions. This is understandable as it generally works to protect all involved because “video doesn’t lie”.

But does video tell the whole truth?

In powerlifting, squat depth is a big deal. To oversimplify, a legitimate squat is one where your thighs are parallel to the ground, or deeper (e.g your butt touches your heels). People putting massive weights on their back and only moving them about 3 inches then claiming awesomeness — that’s not legit. All sorts of videos come out of lifters making “world record squats”, and the first thing people do is gripe if the lifter squatted to depth or not. Granted some squats (and meet judging) are legitimately up for question, but most often the squat is passed by the meet judges but not the Internet armchair judges — because of the video.

The video may be poor. The video may be at a “wrong” angle. The video isn’t likely to see and reproduce what the 3 meet judges see.

And this could be good, this could be bad. It could give you the proper perspective, or it could give you the wrong perspective.

Is the video lying?

Is the video telling the (whole) truth?

What got me thinking about this was the recent posting of the dashcam video of a controversial police interaction. Commenters took the video as objective proof. Interestingly, some commenters took it as objective proof the cop was in the right, and some commenters took it as objective proof the cop was in the wrong.

Objective?

I thought back to the endless debates on powerlifting videos about their “objectivity”, because if video was in fact objective, if video told the Truth, there should be no debate about someone’s squat depth. But yet there is.

Back in 2014, the well-respected Force Science Institute published a list of “10 Limitations of body cams you need to know for your protection”. Original PDF here, article reprint here. You should read the article for a complete explanation, but here are the 10 points:

  1. A camera doesn’t follow your eyes or see as they see.
  2. Some important danger cues can’t be recorded.
  3. Camera speed differs from the speed of life.
  4. A camera may see better than you do in low light.
  5. Your body may block the view.
  6. A camera only records in 2-D.
  7. The absence of sophisticated time-stamping may prove critical.
  8. One camera may not be enough.
  9. A camera encourages second-guessing.
  10. A camera can never replace a thorough investigation.

I know some are going to read that list, especially because the article is titled “for your [police] protection”, assume there’s bias and these are just trying to give police “outs”, and then dismiss the article.

So let’s go back and look at this list in the context of powerlifting videos.

The camera does not follow the eyes of the judges nor does the camera see what the judges see. There may be bodies blocking the view (happens all the time when the video comes from audience members and there are lots of burly guys crowding around the squatter to spot the lift). One camera isn’t enough, when there are 3 judges precisely to judge multiple angles. Cameras only record in 2-D, and if you’ve seen some powerlifters, these guys are certainly bulging out in many places. Cameras certainly encourage second-guessing (look at all the armchair judges).

It doesn’t matter what you’re filming, these limitations apply.

We must also remember that these videos are often interpreted through the bias of the viewer.

Let’s go back to squat depth. Brandon Morrison wrote an article examining the rulebook of 10 powerlifting federations to compare how they defined legal squat depth. What you find is while everyone strives for the same basic idea, there’s a lot of variance in definition.

One thing that will be the same across all feds is the fact that the line which separates the champ from the chump, the white lights from the red lights and 9/9 from bombing out is an imaginary and invisible line whose axis through disputed points is in the heads of the three individual judges who preside over your lift. No, it’s not perfect; it’s subjective. Deal with it.

Emphasis added.

Often the armchair judges insert their own interpretation of the rules or what they feel is right or wrong. A great example is Shao Chu’s 400# bench press:

Is that a legit bench press? Sure is, because it’s within the rules of the game. But hopefully even if you don’t know much about lifting weights you can see why that lift might be considered controversial (was it even a lift? did the bar even move?).

And so it goes with police interactions, because everyone is a lawyer and legal expert, right? And even if you know the law, do you know all the laws? That video may have been filmed in a different city, in a different state, in a different country, where laws are different from what you may know. As well, do you know the police’s operating procedure and rules and regulations they must abide by (beyond the law)?

When you view the video, are you viewing it through an objective lens, or the lens of your personal bias, (lack of) experience, and/or (lack of) knowledge? I hate to tell you, but it’s probably the latter no matter how much you strive for it (or believe it to be) the former. Doesn’t matter if it’s a dashcam video or a powerlifting video.

I think video is a good thing. I think video is a solid tool towards helping us preserve history and protect ourselves. Given the proliferation of cameras, either because our governments are putting more out “on the streets” or simply because everyone’s got a smartphone in their pocket, we’re going to see more and more video and relying more on video to help us find Truth.

But in doing so, we must take video for what it is. It is not The One Source, it is not (unbiased) Truth. It has limitations, and we must remember that in our quest for Truth.

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