Two years ago, Radley Balko at The Washington Post wrote a really important article that bears revisting, A Brief History of Forensics. I’ve never been one to watch those forensics dramas on the television. Just the same, I didn’t know just how screwed up the state of forensics was. It seems that many parts of forensics are not settled science, or in fact, science of any kind at all.
Balko is most interested in bite mark analysis. Having managed a dental office for a couple of years, I found it interesting that this is a particularly gloomy area of pseudoscience. “There has yet to be any scientific research to support the notion that the marks we make when we bite with our teeth are unique. But even if we could somehow know that they are, we still wouldn’t know how those unique characteristics are distributed across all of humanity. And even if we knew those things, we still don’t know if human skin is capable of recording and preserving a bite in a way that would allow those markers to be identified.” That last one is the killer as far as I’m concerned: how is it that we could have been relying on such analysis without ever having answered such a fundamental question?
Forensic “Scientists” Don’t Look for Truth
The reason that Balko gives for this state of affairs is that forensic “scientists” are not interested in questioning the basis of their work. As he puts it, they are focused on “solving cases.” I don’t like that phrase. Better would be: “closing cases.” Because it really does seem that no one — not the prosecutors, the police, or the forensic “scientists” — are interested in finding the truth. As far as they are concerned, they already know the truth.
It’s like the line in The Usual Suspects, “To a cop the explanation is never that complicated. It’s always simple. There’s no mystery to the street, no arch-criminal behind it all. If you got a dead body and you think his brother did it, you’re gonna find out you’re right.” And that’s largely true, but it blinds them in cases where things aren’t simple. And it turns forensic “scientists” into little more than apologists, simply arguing for whatever theory the police are pushing.
Forensics Isn’t Science
The actual history of forensics is that of a field developed by people in the criminal justice system. And it has worked just the opposite of the way that science works. When a scientific theory becomes established, scientists have an incentive to beat away at it and find holes in it. That’s how you become a successful scientist. In forensics, once a theory becomes established, no one dares question it. Balko put it this way, “A fingerprint analyst testifying for the defense might disagree with a fingerprint analyst for the prosecution, but he isn’t going to call into question the premises on which the entire field of fingerprint analysis is based.” And in case you were wondering: yes, there are now people outside the field calling into question the reliability of fingerprints — evidence that has sent countless people to their deaths at the hands of the state.
Actual Scientific Forensics
The only kind of forensics that actually did come out of a scientific field and not criminal justice is DNA analysis. And this is really interesting: when forensic analysts are talking about bite marks, for example, they talk about certainty. The same goes for fingerprints, bullet lead composition, voice “prints,” and on and on. “[T]he one area of forensic science in which you will see experts testifying about probability is DNA Testing.” Of course, Balko is careful to note that this doesn’t mean that these other kinds of analyses are useless. But just like with eyewitness testimony, people are often convicted — even killed — because of the word of a single analyst based upon suspect science.
Balko thinks that the solution is to take forensics evidence out of the hands of judges who have no experience that would allow them to determine if these techniques were solid science or just pseudoscience. He wants to put it in the hands of scientific review boards. While I think that would certainly be an improvement, we have a much bigger problem. We have an entire justice system that is inherently unjust.
A Much Bigger Problem
People forget the first federal drug law — Harrison Narcotics Tax Act — was explicitly racist. It was a doctor who testified to the “fact” that, “Most of the attacks upon the white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain.” Similar things were said about the Chinese with regard to opium, and later, about Mexicans and “marijuana.” There will always be an underclass that the government will always oppress. To me, we need to rethink our harsh sentences in the light that many people convicted are innocent; the laws are unequally applied; and the laws themselves criminalize things that powerless people like to do.
Bearing all these things in mind, the powerful need to let go of their certainty. But that will never happen. Of course, it may also be that in a century, people will still be put to death based upon bad bite mark science. So let’s try to stop that, but we need to push much further.