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Science and society: The assured results of modern forensic science …

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We’ve all seen the detective films where the forensic scientist is always a source of useful information about the crime, right? I’m a great fan of such films myself, Brit lit P.D. James being one of my favourite mystery stars. For psychological insight, she is rarely matched.

However, in real life, if you are accused of a crime to which forensic evidence is relevant, things may be quite different. If you know you are innocent, you might be well advised to pray hard that the forensic team is any help.

In “C.S.Oy” in Slate (August 12, 2008) Radley Balko and Roger Koppl reveal,

A study of the first 86 DNA exonerations garnered by the Innocence Project estimated that faulty forensic science played a role in more than 50 percent of the wrongful convictions.

Here are two of their recommendations for reform:

Expert independence. Crime labs, DNA labs, and medical examiners shouldn’t serve under the same bureaucracy as district attorneys and police agencies. If these experts must work for the government, they should report to an independent state agency, if not the courts themselves. There should be a wall of separation between analysis and interpretation. Thus, an independent medical examiner would, for instance, perform and videotape the actual procedure in an autopsy. The prosecution and defense would then each bring in their own experts to interpret the results in court. When the same expert performs both the analysis and interpretation, defense experts are often at a disadvantage, having to rely on the notes and photos of the same expert whose testimony they’re disputing.


Mask the evidence. A 2006 U.K. study by researchers at the University of Southampton found that the error rate of fingerprint analysts doubled when they were first told the circumstances of the case they were working on. Crime lab technicians and medical examiners should never be permitted to consult with police or prosecutors before performing their analysis. A dramatic child murder case, for example, may induce a greater subconscious bias to find a match than a burglary case. To the extent that it’s possible, evidence should be stripped of all context before being sent to the lab…

Incompetent or corrupt investigators can pervert the course of justice by definition, but Balko and Koppl reveal a deeper, more serious problem: Well-meaning and competent investigators who are influenced by their bosses’ views or cultural assumptions may be far more damaging in the long run because … everyone believes them!

After all, science is modern society’s source of truth! And they are usually sincere and competent, and not corrupt …

But they may not recognize their own cognitive biases. Nor might others.

Balko and Koppl add

Every other scientific field properly requires peer review, statistical analysis, and redundancy to ensure quality and accuracy. It’s past time we applied the same quality-control measures to criminal forensics, particularly given the fundamental nature of what’s at stake.

I myself would place more confidence in statistical analysis and redundancy than in peer review (who are the peers?) but it is all worth a try, in principle.

Domoman: "Maybe there is no way to get rid of biases." In a sense, I don't believe in the absolute objectivity of science. Not only in the sense that it is not completely objective (which is very obvious), but also in the sense that it should not even try to be absolutely objective. In many ways, subjectivity in science can be a source of inspiration, and not only a bias. The problem is that subjective inspiration and intuition must express itself through honesty and desire for truth. Then the subjectivity of vision, while guiding the scientist, will accept fair confrontation with reality, and the result will be good and will lead to further progress. Nnoel: "isn’t science not about going beyond the obvious to find the truth?" Yes and no. That is the other side of the same problem. Science is certainly about finding the truth, but it is not necessarily about going beyond the obvious. Sometimes, many times indeed, the obvious is also the truth. Science allows us, often, to go "beyond the obvious", in the sense that it gives us ibsight about aspects of reality which are not intuitively evident. Most times, that enriches our understanding of the obvious without denying in any way the truth which was "obvious" at the first approach. Other times (but they are not many) science goes "beyond the obvious" in the sense that it really denies the obvious perspective, and supports views of reality which are completely counter-intuitive. Relativity and quantum mechanics are, for some aspects, a very good example of that. But we have to remember that, when science denies the obvious, it has to do that with very strong reasons, usually deep mathemathical reasons. Mathematics is indeed the kind of abstract science which, when applied to physical reality, has sometimes the power to deny the obvious. But that's not the case with darwinism. Darwinism "denies the obvious" without any reason, least of all a mathemathical reason. It denies it out of dogma, and of a phylosophical committment to a weird worldview, which is strict "naturalism" and materialism. When Domoman says: "Biologists wouldn’t have to remind themselves that things weren’t designed if they didn’t look designed", he is perfectly right. The simplest explanation of things looking designed is, obviously, that they are designed. In the case of biological beings, that explanation is exactly the right explanation. Benying the obvious, in that case, is not science: it is simply dogma, unreasonable dogma. So strong a dogma, so intolerant a dogma, that when ID exposes the incontrovertible mathemathical reasons why darwinism is wrong, not denying, but rather reaffirming the obvious on a rigorous scientific level, the only argument of darwinists is to stick to their conformistic thought, without answering, or giving all the "obvious" wrong answers. gpuccio
Nnoel, I'm confused about your question actually... lol Could you clarify? And honestly I'm not sure what could be done to rid of biases in the scientific community. I think based off of a lot of quotes from scientists though, we can conclude that they obviously see signs of design, even if they don't accept it. Such is the reason I quoted Francis Crick. Maybe there is no way to get rid of biases. :( Domoman
'didn't look designed' Domoman, you may not have chosen your words very carefully, but isn't science not about going beyond the obvious to find the truth? O'Leary, I can absolutely agree, a 'strong bias' would surely influence the results. This is a very thought provoking article, but how could it be equated to ID/evolution research? On the one hand, is not religion a strong bias to reach a certain conclusion ? On the other hand, is the desire for recognition and fame from his 'peer-reviewed pals' a strong enough bias to perhaps fake some research? What recommendations could be made to ensure both sides are playing fair? Nnoel
The really interesting thing is what happens when people have a bias and still think the evidence points in the opposite direction of their biases and wants. For instance, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule said, ""Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved." So here you have somebody who would clearly want to see evidence of evolution, yet he says he sees the exact opposite. (Biologists wouldn't have to remind themselves that things weren't designed if they didn't look designed.) Doesn't this strengthen the case that organisms really, and very obviously, appear designed? Domoman
Nnoel, I suspect the problem here is not so much having a goal - as such - as having a strong bias in favour of a given result. If the goal is only "carry out all these procedures and report the results" - without knowing anything about the case - whatever biases one has in making decisions will be predictable based on one's personal characteristics, and can be allowed for. However, if one "knows" that the subject of the investigation is a "heinous child murderer" and "it's high time he got what he deserves", a new and more disturbing set of biases arises. Witch hunts follow. In a witch hunt, all evidence favours the prosecution - because anything that favours the defense is not evidence. O'Leary
It honestly sounds like having a 'Goal' in mind when examining evidence is the problem being highlighted, much like the situation when trying to prove evolution or ID using evidence. If you start with the conclusion ('we came from monkeys' or 'the bible is right') then you are more likely come to your favoured conclusion regardless of evidence. I cant think of a solution tho, it could be a problem on both sides. Nnoel
"To the extent that it’s possible, evidence should be stripped of all context before being sent to the lab…" I totally agree. This should also apply to radiometric dating of rocks and fossils. (apologies in advance if this ends up hijacking the topic.) StephenA
It may be worth a try, but only if you've got the other big dogs in your corner as well. Ben Z
I totally agree. You're a genius. Ben Z

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