Scientism: Believing that all correct answers come from science (and, in practice, that the answers offered on behalf of whatever counts for science in given situation is correct).
How does that play out in the criminal justice system? From Kelly Servick at Science:
… for decades, forensic examiners have sometimes claimed in court that close but not identical ballistic markings could conclusively link evidence to a suspect—and judges and juries have trusted their expertise. Examiners have made similar statements for other forms of so-called pattern evidence, such as fingerprints, shoeprints, tire tracks, and bite marks.
But such claims are ill-founded, a committee at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded in 2009. “No forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source,” the panel wrote. In other words: Judges and juries were sometimes sending people to jail based on bogus science.
What happens when the public accepts scientism: Jurors treat someone’s findings as an oracle.
In a 2013 study, for instance, online participants had to rate the likelihood of a defendant’s guilt in a hypothetical robbery based on different kinds of testimony from a fingerprint examiner. It didn’t seem to matter whether they were simply told that a print at the scene “matched” or was “individualized” to the defendant, or whether the examiner offered further justification—the chance of an error is “so remote that it is considered to be a practical impossibility,” for example. In all those cases, jurors rated the likelihood of guilt at about 4.5 on a 7-point scale. “As a lawyer, I would have thought the specific wording would have mattered more than it did,” Garrett says. But if subjects were told that the print could have come from someone else, they seemed to discount the fingerprint evidence altogether.
What’s troubling, Gertner says, is that when judges accept junk science, an appeals court rarely overrules them. Attaching a numerical probability to evidence, as CSAFE hopes to do, “would certainly be interesting,” she says. But even a standard practice of critically evaluating evidence would be a step forward. “The pattern now is that the judges who care about these issues are enforcing them, and the judges who don’t care about these issues are not.” More.
What complicates the situation in a modern Western society is that the accused is much more likely to be guilty in real life than in TV whodunits. After all, the whodunit’s story premise is that the accused isn’t guilty. But in real life the prosecution must typically show some results for its crime-fighting budget, and naturally prefers good cases to bad ones.
So the fact that the prosecution’s basic contention of guilt is probably true anyway invests the methods by which the accused is found guilty with a sense of authority that goes beyond those methods’ examined validity.
See also: Forensic DNA evidence in doubt? There is no magic truth machine. That’s the reason courts try to err on the side of innocence.
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