Genetics Intelligent Design

Cop shows give a misleading picture of the gloomy state of forensic science today

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File:Handcuffs-Black.jpg From ScienceDaily:

Many of the “forensic science” methods commonly used in criminal cases and portrayed in popular police TV dramas have never been scientifically validated and may lead to unjust verdicts, according to an editorial in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We wanted to alert people that this is a continuing and a major issue: that many of the forensic techniques used today to put people in jail have no scientific backing,” says senior author Arturo Casadevall, MD, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and the Alfred & Jill Sommer Professor and Chair of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The structure of the field of forensic science inhibits vital reforms. Almost all publicly funded laboratories, whether federal, state, or local, are associated with law enforcement. At the very least, this creates an inherent conflict-of-interest and leads to legitimate concerns of objectivity and bias. The linkage of forensic laboratories with prosecutorial entities dates back as far as 13th century China, was pervasive in Europe in the mid-late 19th century, and spread from there to the United States

Some forensic methods have been rooted in science. Medicolegal death investigation emerged from medical science, because death investigation was connected to the protection of public health. Techniques of analytical chemistry were applied to the certain types of evidence, such as seized drug analysis, toxicological analysis, and aspects of instrumental analysis applied to trace evidence. More recently, molecular biology gave rise to DNA typing to forensic applications.

The evolution of other forensic disciplines, particularly those related to pattern evidence, followed a different course, having been developed primarily within law enforcement environments or at the behest of law enforcement. Disciplines, such as fingerprints, firearms, and tool marks, blood-stain pattern analysis, tread-impression analysis, and bite mark analysis matured largely outside of the traditional scientific community during a time when admissibility standards for scientific evidence had yet to be formulated. Thus, admissibility of such evidence rightly or wrongly created judicial precedent in decisions that often did not—or could not—involve the level of research that would today be needed to establish scientific validity. Paper. open access – Suzanne Bell, Sunita Sah, Thomas D. Albright, S. James Gates, M. Bonner Denton, Arturo Casadevall. A call for more science in forensic science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2018; 201712161 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1712161115 More.

Red what they have to say about DNA and fingerprinting evidence.

Also, re forensic handwriting analysis: Can estimates from forensic handwriting experts be trusted in court? From ScienceDaily:

“The overall error rate even for experts is large enough as to raise questions about whether their estimates can be sufficiently trustworthy for presentation in courts,” notes Martire. “We suggest that a cautious approach should be taken before endorsing the use of experience-based likelihood ratios for forensic purposes in the future.” Paper. open access – Kristy A. Martire, Bethany Growns, Danielle J. Navarro. What do the experts know? Calibration, precision, and the wisdom of crowds among forensic handwriting experts. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2018; DOI: 10.3758/s13423-018-1448-3 More.

Historical footnote: In 2009, it came out that DNA evidence caused British Isles police to spend 15 years pursuing a phantom serial killer:

The only clues that “The Woman Without a Face” left behind at 40 different crime scenes were DNA traces. These were collected on cotton swabs, supplied to the police in a number of European countries. Now police investigators have established that in all probability the DNA had not been left by their quarry but by a woman working for the German medical company supplying the swabs, who had inadvertently contaminated them.

None of this involves deliberate manipulation of evidence, which has apparently occurred as well. Rather, over-reliance on the “power of science,” which likely stems from the public taste for cop shows in which such evidence is presented as irrefutable Fact is part of the pattern of complacency.

Reform largely depends on our willingness to let go of demands from science for false certainty.

We will deal with “lie detector” tests another time.

Added: Heather Zeiger writes to say,

Even if lawyers and forensic experts know about the error rates and false positives in DNA testing, they still have to deal with a jury, most of whom have seen shows like CSI. It is much harder to convince a jury that their favorite narratives aren’t how things actually work in real life. If one lawyer says, “look, this is what the scientists say” and the other lawyer says, “this is not conclusive” people are going to believe the scientists.

Here’s an interesting article from The Atlantic on this issue. It re-iterates what the UD post says. This is part of a trend where there is too much confidence in DNA studies, whether it is commercial genetic tests or forensic tests. It is as though we forget the human factor in collecting evidence, or the fact that these tests are not always conclusive.

Note: Zeiger (@hzeiger) has also written on blind faith in DNA:

Then there is the problem of the technique being too sensitive to the point that much is made over very little evidence. One example mentioned by The Atlantic was the case of Lukis Anderson, a homeless man in California with a history of non-violent crimes. He was implicated in the murder of a millionaire at his mansion because some of Anderson’s DNA was found under the millionaire’s fingernail. It turns out that Anderson had been taken to the hospital earlier that day by the same paramedics who picked up the millionaire. The same oxygen monitor had been used on the fingers of Anderson and the victim. More.

Goof-ups in science are still goof-ups. And they can have serious consequences.

See also: Flawed forensics: DNA analysis is NOT The Truth, as in endless cop show reruns

Forensics files: What? We can’t trust forensic science?/a>

Forensic DNA evidence in doubt? (low copy analysis)

and

Is forensics really a science.? Yes, and it suffers from the same problems as any other.

23 Replies to “Cop shows give a misleading picture of the gloomy state of forensic science today

  1. 1
    Allan Keith says:

    There is a push internationally to require the accreditation of forensic laboratories to ISO/IEC 17025 and for forensic field testing to ISO/IEC 17020. Although accreditation is not a cure-all for all laboratory problems, it does have a large emphasis on impartiality that must be met. As well, it has been shown to improve the quality of laboratory results.

  2. 2
    bornagain77 says:

    It is humorous that a Darwinist would be in favor of scientific rigor.

    If anything, a Darwinist should embrace unrestrained story telling that is unconstrained by evidence. Scientific rigor is not a friend of Darwinian fairy stories.

    Shoot, if Darwinism were true, there would be no point to investigate to see which person did a murder for there are no persons in which to commit murders, only neuronal illusions who are under the illusion that they had the free will necessary to do anything other than the murder that they ‘deterministically’ committed.

    Not to mention, there isn’t any objective morality in the Darwinian worldview to determine even if murder is evil or not.

    i.e. No people, no morality, equals no possible murders. It is all just particles randomly colliding into each other. Everything else is an illusion!

    Some particles get lucky, some don’t. Don’t cry or care about it. Your sense of injustice is an illusion for there is no justice if Darwinism is true!

    I sure do wish atheists, if they existed, would stop pretending they existed and that their lives have meaning and purpose.

    These neuronal illusions really need to embrace their non-existence and leave the rest of us real people alone with their pointless chatterings that their lives have real meaning and purpose. 🙂

  3. 3
    Allan Keith says:

    BA77,

    It is humorous that a Darwinist would be in favor of scientific rigor.

    If you have anything of substance to say about the OP or my comment in reference to the OP, I will respond in kind. If not,…

  4. 4
    bornagain77 says:

    A neuronal illusion asking for “anything of substance”???

    Too funny!!!

  5. 5
    polistra says:

    This is an overblown concern. Juries rarely rely solely on “science”; they try to handle the big picture. Plea bargains rarely rely on “science” at all because the criminal knows what he did and knows how to pick the better sentence.

    “Bloomberg Distinguished Professor” tells me all I need to know about this study. Bloomberg’s purpose in life is to generate universal chaos and violence by destroying law enforcement and morality and self-defense.

  6. 6
    tribune7 says:

    Good point, Allan @1

    There is a push internationally to require the accreditation of forensic laboratories to ISO/IEC 17025 and for forensic field testing to ISO/IEC 17020. Although accreditation is not a cure-all for all laboratory problems, it does have a large emphasis on impartiality that must be met. As well, it has been shown to improve the quality of laboratory results.

  7. 7
    News says:

    Good point indeed, Allan Keith at 1. There are social problems and then there are social problems that bring the law into disrepute. It must be horrifying to be informed that “science proves” one committed a crime, knowing that it isn’t and can’t be true. Being a Darwinist would hardly make it easier. 😉

    polistra at 4, unfortunately, people plea bargain for a variety of reasons, not necessarily because they know they are guilty. They may not be able to afford a long, complex defense, for example. The plea bargain may mean a year in jail and a criminal record for an innocent person but may be judged better than losing one’s home and savings. All the more reason for more rigorous science.

  8. 8
    Origenes says:

    BA77: I sure do wish atheists, if they existed, would stop pretending they existed and that their lives have meaning and purpose.

    Seconded.

  9. 9
    Allan Keith says:

    A laboratory result means absolutely nothing without its associated uncertainty value.

    What drives me crazy about those CSI type shows is when they inject something into a GC-MS or HPLC and then reach over to the printer to get the results. Ignoring the fact that it can take several minutes to several hours for a sample to be processed. Or when they look through a microscope and conclude what elements or compounds the sample is made of.

  10. 10
    ET says:

    CSI shows have 1 hour to solve the case- maybe two hours if it is a continued show.

    But yes, they make it look easy and simple, which is far from reality.

  11. 11
    asauber says:

    Ooohhh its not just cop shows that are completely stupid these days…

    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2018/05/01/climate-change-hits-cbs-series-madame-secretary-with-hilarious-results/

    It’s a race to the bottom. Whats stupider… actual empty suit govt types with delusions of grandeur or the actors who pretend to be them on TV or the is it the viewers?

    Andrew

  12. 12
    vmahuna says:

    A major problem is that reports coming from government (i.e., prosecution) labs is generally unchallenged. Perhaps 10 years ago now, it turned out that the Ballistician (SINGULAR) for the District of Columbia had been faking his tests for years. Once exposed, he simply resigned. NO ONE applied to replace him, and there was a back log of several YEARS’ worth of alleged crime weapons he’d never touched. I don’t know how this worked out, but Ballistics should be the simplest and most objective of forensic exams.

    Within the last year, a leading DNA guy simply quit (from the FBI?) when it was discovered that he’d been faking his tests for years. Dozens (hundreds) of cases were immediately appealed and the convicted defendants were all released.

  13. 13
    Allan Keith says:

    vmahuna@12, that is why I was suggesting accreditation. It is no guarantee, but a third party, impartial process whereby documents and records are revised, analysts are interviews an observed performing the tests, adds a level of confidence that doesn’t always exist.

  14. 14
    Allan Keith says:

    How far do you think a forensics lab’s testimony would go if their last accreditation assessment had fifty deficiencies?

  15. 15
    kairosfocus says:

    AK, the impartiality, sadly, is exactly the question; especially given the involvement of government. Who accredits the accrediters? Notice, the mess with peer review and lack of reproducibility of findings. KF

  16. 16
    Allan Keith says:

    Kairosfocus,

    AK, the impartiality, sadly, is exactly the question; especially given the involvement of government. Who accredits the accrediters? Notice, the mess with peer review and lack of reproducibility of findings. KF

    There is an international mutual recognition arrangement for accreditation bodies. It is not government run.

    Accreditation bodies themselves must conform to an international standard (ISO/IEC 17011) which has a strong impartiality component. These accreditation bodies are evaluated every few years. These evaluations involve five to seven evaluators from different countries spending a week at the accreditation body, reviewing all documentation, reviewing records of laboratory assessments, and witnessing the conduct of laboratory assessments by the accreditation body. As one of these evaluators, I have participated in several evaluations and I can assure you that they are very thorough and impartial.

    The fact that the forensic laboratories are operated and funded by government (usually the police) is irrelevant as long as they operate independently. Most municipalities operate testing laboratories for the testing of wastewater and drinking water, even though they are also responsible for wastewater and drinking water. To my knowledge, this close relationship has not caused any problems.

    But the main point is that it has been shown that accredited laboratories produce better quality data than non-accredited laboratories. As such, why wouldn’t governments require the use of accredited laboratories for forensic analysis as many do for environmental testing, calibrations, etc.?

  17. 17
    ET says:

    People are fallible and biased. ISO accreditation would help but so would having three different labs run the tests on the same evidence independently and then checking all of the results to see if they matched.

    How many people are in jail based on faked data?

    That could not have happened had 3 labs worked independently. I don’t know if ISO would have prevented it but an ISO audit most like would have.

  18. 18
    Allan Keith says:

    ET@17, accreditation is a great tool to improve the quality of data. Unfortunately it will not stop intentionally fraudulent activity.

  19. 19
    ET says:

    I have worked for a few ISO companies and yes it does help but it isn’t a cure-all.

    Six sigma helps too and I would have all forensic lab personnel be six sigma certified.

    ISO plus six sigma would be a welcome and huge improvement.

  20. 20
    tribune7 says:

    Most municipalities operate testing laboratories for the testing of wastewater and drinking water, even though they are also responsible for wastewater and drinking water. To my knowledge, this close relationship has not caused any problems.

    It most certainly has: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/04/20/465545378/lead-laced-water-in-flint-a-step-by-step-look-at-the-makings-of-a-crisis

  21. 21
    Allan Keith says:

    Tribune7, It most certainly has: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/04/20/465545378/lead-laced-water-in-flint-a-step-by-step-look-at-the-makings-of-a-crisis
    I didn’t see anything in this article that the laboratory did anything wrong or that there was any problem with the quality of the laboratory data.

  22. 22
    tribune7 says:

    Allan as per the article:

    In a press release, the city characterized it as a temporary switch and aimed to ease resident concerns about the water quality. Here’s an excerpt:

    “Even with a proven track record of providing perfectly good water for Flint, there still remains lingering uncertainty about the quality of the water. In an effort to dispel myths and promote the truth about the Flint River and its viability as a residential water resource, there have been numerous studies and tests conducted on its water by several independent organizations. … Michael Prysby of the Michigan DEQ Office of Drinking Water verified that ‘the quality of the water being put out meets all of our drinking water standards and Flint water is safe to drink.’

    If there were numerous studies and tests by several independent organizations along with the DEQ and they verified that the water was safe to drink, obviously there was a problem with the quality of the laboratory data.

    One of the problems with claims of scientific authority is the strong temptation to misuse this authority — as it is with any authority — for expediency and even personal benefit.

  23. 23
    Allan Keith says:

    Tribune7,

    If there were numerous studies and tests by several independent organizations along with the DEQ and they verified that the water was safe to drink, obviously there was a problem with the quality of the laboratory data.

    Not necessarily. Testing water from the plant may be well within the drinking water guidelines yet not meet them when coming out of a house’s tap.

    For example, In my city, the water plant, which also operated the testing lab, made a small change to to the treatment process that resulted in the finished water having lower levels of all of the drinking water parameters of concerned. This was also confirmed in samples analyzed from the distribution system. The water quality from the plant and in the distribution system remained very good for several months. However, as the source water got warmer we started seeing elevated lead levels in parts of the distribution system even though the finished water still had lead levels that were non-detectable. This baffled us for a few weeks until we followed it up with more comprehensive testing. It turns out that in the areas where lead was being found, nitrate was also elevated. Not above drinking water levels but still higher than they were in lead free parts of the distribution system. To make a long story less long, the cause of the elevated lead levels in parts of the distribution system was the small change that was made to the treatment process. It resulted in the water having slightly less buffering capacity than we had in the past (i.e., softer water). As the source water warmed, the nitrification that naturally occurs with the breakdown of chloramines was sped up resulting in a lower pH. The lower pH resulted in leaching of lead from the parts of the city that still have lead service lines from the mains to the houses.

    Another example took place in Walkerton Ontario. In this case the municipality used an external commercial laboratory to provide testing support for its drinking water plant. The town obtains its water from a well system. The well was contaminated with E. coli 0157. The system is supposed to automatically chlorinate the water before it is distributed but the system was not working. The lab testing clearly showed that there was E. coli in the drinking water. The utility manager did not report this to the medical officer of health or issue a boil water order. This resulted in seven people dying and over 2000 hospitalized.

    In both cases there were serious issues with water quality. The former example demonstrates an ethical and impartial treatment of the problem. The latter example, not so much. But in both cases, there was no question about the quality of the analytical results.

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