Forensic "science" isn't a science


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OT: It sure seems like something is broken with Boingboing’s layout and formatting. Clicking anywhere on this story on the main page (including on the link to the actual story) brings you directly to the comments page. In general the behavior of the new layout has been pretty unpredictable. Are y’all still experimenting or what?


When it comes to doing “science”, the good Dr. Steven Hayne is among the more impressive specimens. (conducting 80% of the autopsies in Mississippi yourself?), though Dr. Michael West (also of Mississippi) arguably beats him in sheer audacity.

The obvious solution is to revive the office of the Witchsmeller Pursuivant.

What? You mean CSI: (city name) isn’t true?!?!

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Doesn’t an article like this one come out about every nine months or so?

Y’know, one that starts with a sentence like “Jurors, these days, expect evidence to be just like on CSI…”

Yeah, and the cops in NYC are just as principled as the cops on ‘Blue Bloods’.

I am a Forensic Scientist in Canada and I think that the National Academy of Science report was a good thing because it brought interest and resources into improving Forensic Science in general. Any science should constantly strive to improve itself. Having said that, some of the language in this article is not fair to the majority of Forensic Scientists who are diligent and ethical in their profession. Applying science to the analysis of crimes and crime scenes has distinct challenges and it will always appear to be somehow less rigorous than the controlled setting of a research environment. Yes, Forensic Scientists are susceptible to Cognitive Biases, we all are. The answer to dealing with Cognitive Biases is training, experience and critical thinking.

One of the things that I have always been concerned about when testifying is how to make the testimony fair and objective when you have no idea of the level of understanding and background that the judge and jury may have. I want the judgement to be based on the evidence and not because I have wrapped myself in the mantle of science. A judge can at least ask questions if so inclined but the jury just stares at you - who knows what they are thinking or what they have understood.

In our society technology rules and it is this uncritical acceptance of technology that gives rise to issues such as the CSI Effect. Science and technology complement each other but they are not the same thing. Technology is its own proof, whereas science must constantly prove itself. In this day and age technology has become so sophisticated that very few people understand more than a fraction of it in any detail, so they simply accept it. Because people equate Science and Technology they are treating Science the same way - simply accepting it, but this is not how Science works, it has to be constantly challenged. We are not teaching people the skills to critically evaluate Science in any form. Teaching people how to become critical thinkers has to become a priority.

Thank you for encouraging a discussion on this issue. Note that the opinions expressed in this post are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.


CSI is true! The labs are full of cutting edge technology, the employees are upbeat and attractively quirky, and the labs are inexplicably lit like discos.


There was a reply about this problem in another topic. Answer was: it’s a known glitch, and they’re working on it.

Ahh… they fooled you! The next one out is (drum roll):

CSI: Cyber!!!

I read the conclusions of the report itself after reading terms like “scathing” in the article. I have to agree with you. The report was actually constructive. It spoke about the fact that little consistency exists in the field of forensics, and gave ways to rectify this. It heavily focused on the fact the constancy does not exist in forensics, and it was suggested that, “[a]s part of the accreditation and certification processes, laboratories and forensic scientists should be required to utilize model laboratory reports when summarizing the results of their analyses.” The NIFS is well aware of the failings in the production of consistent forensics reports and data, and also recognizes that new science changes what stands as accepted fact.

Conclusions and recommendations begin on page 188.

Do you think it would be a good idea, or even possible, for forensic lab technicians to be blinded when testing for matches?

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Yes, using blind or anonymous samples has been done for a long time but it would depend on the lab or even the discipline as to how or whether it was implemented. A standard objective way of naming known and questioned samples would be a very good thing.

In some labs there are different units that receive and input the exhibits, sample the exhibits, analyze the exhibits and interpret the data. Every sample just becomes a number.


Zooms in and enhances


I’m glad (not surprised) to know that actual forensic scientists are looking at reports like this in a positive light to figure out how to improve their work. Everything you say about science’s constant need to improve is true.

I actually think, though, that worst parts of the article aren’t really a result of the report itself. Here’s the quote that is probably the most troubling:

One option would be to permit anybody convicted on the basis of biological evidence to subject that evidence to DNA analysis—which is, after all, the one form of forensics that scientists agree actually works. But in 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that convicts had no such constitutional right, even where they can show a reasonable probability that DNA analysis would prove their innocence.

There is a big problem that we think the job of the courts is to convict people, not to come to the truth. It’s also important to realize that this article is from the US where this problem seems to be much worse. In theory we should be just as happy when a court case exonerates a person as when it convicts them.

Take someone like Charles Smith. His results consistently showed what the police and the Crown Attorney’s wanted them to show: that there was a bad person who needed to be arrested and convicted. It is not a leap to think that this is why he became responsible for conducting the majority of investigations into suspicious deaths of children.

There is a lot of pressure in the system to get results, and results don’t mean the truth. While I don’t doubt that the majority of the people in the field are there to do the best science they can do (they probably genuinely like doing science) there are always going to be some that are there to catch the bad guys CSI style. It is not the fault of the former that prosecutors are more interested in the opinions of the latter, but it is still a huge risk in the system.

So when I hear that bite mark analysis doesn’t work, I’m not at all surprised. The system is not set up to incent good science.


Do you think it would be a good idea, or even possible, for forensic lab technicians to be blinded when testing for matches?

Pretty sure they’ll still smell the Sulphur.


She blinded me with science

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I seem to recall some comedy where the Concerned Citizen and the cops are replaying a grainy VHS security camera video. Citizen thinks he sees something and says “Zoom in on that!” and the cop just looks him like he’s an idiot and says “It doesn’t do that.”

Crime Cops did this:

And then there’s this compilation available:

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