Forensic Pseudoscience — Oppression of the Poor

Radley Balko - Forensic PseudoscienceTwo 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.

5 thoughts on “Forensic Pseudoscience — Oppression of the Poor

  1. Can’t university researchers get grants for double-blind and factor-sampled studies of forensic tests? It seems like it would not even be that expensive or complicated.

    • A): That’s hilarious! It’s brilliant.

      B): It makes me think of the weight we still place on eyewitness testimony. Which is provenly unreliable. It’s a documented problem; eyewitness testimony is not very solid, for numerable reasons.

      When I was a mere youngling, I had this weekend night shift job in Santa Barbara. The bus did not go all the way to my job, I had to get off the bus at UCSB and walk about a mile to work. Which was fine. Nights and early mornings are always quite pleasant in Southern California. I was walking through student housing neighborhoods, so the worst you’d encounter at night is someone vomiting on your shoes, and it’s quite quiet in the morning. And a little walking is always good for you. Sometimes I’d walk on the beach, except when there were warnings in the local paper about too much washed-up black goo from offshore oil rigs. On those days, I would not walk on the beach.

      One time, I am walking back to the bus from work. Three cop cars race in, sirens blazing, and knock me face down onto the street, one officer keeping my head on the pavement courtesy of his boot.

      Apparently, and I am not making this up, there’d been some kind of serial masturbator going around student housing. College kids what they are on weekends, this guy found many unlocked doors at sorority homes. He’d find a sleeping teen, and whack it. More than once, his loudness woke up the teen, she’d scream, he’d flee, she’d sensibly call the police. It was quite a problem. I don’t know if they ever caught the guy. I hope so. Perhaps they didn’t, and he’s now in the Trump administration.

      So, I’m walking back from work, and I get stomped by these cops. Because I did not then nor do not now resemble a rich college kid (UCSB is a VERY rich college). Alas, I lack the fashion sense.

      The cops drag over some traumatized girl who’d called in the latest creepezoid episode. Had her stare at my face underneath the boot. Asked, “is this the guy?” (I know, there are supposed to be lineups, right? Well, TV cop dramas do not always speak truth.)

      Happily, the lady said “no.” But given her level of shock and fear, she might easily have said “yes.” And then I would have a very different life today. (Whomever you were, madam, I thank you.)

      Eyewitness testimony is unreliable. And we still rely on it.

      The cop who stomped on my face gave me a ride the rest of the way to the bus stop. He was very apologetic and friendly. “So what do you do?”, he asked. I told him I assisted adults with disabilities. “I couldn’t do that job,” he said. “You’re not allowed to hit them.”

      Ah, I’m getting old. One thought streams into another. What glorious memories we accumulate! But, basically, eyewitness testimony is worthless, as are polygraphs, and thanks a lot for sharing the clip, it made me smile.

      • If you have Tru TV, you can watch the full “Adam Ruins Forensics” episode, which goes into the flaws of eyewitness testimony and police line-ups. They put some of the clips on Youtube, but a lot is cut out. There might be full episodes on Youtube, but sped-up and compressed.

        • Agh! I wish I could. That sounds wonderful. You know how these streaming services are; you have Premium on one and Basic on another, nobody honest can afford them all. I’ll try to remember that one, though! “Ruins Forensics” is a pretty memorable title.

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