Not being deeply engrossed by the sort of general tech stuff that typically appears at Wired, this would never have come onto my radar but for Radley Balko’s twit: “This article is badly misinformed.” That’s sort of like saying that 2 Girls 1 Cup is inappropriate for a kid’s birthday party. At risk is that readers of Wired aren’t lawyers, or likely remotely aware of the scope and depth of issues at the intersection of law and science. It was a post about “forensic science.” Oh boy.
For those who believe Wired to be a credible source, and aren’t put off by a freelancer, Emma Grey Ellis, who has nothing in her background to suggest she’s qualified to write on the subject, offering a “think piece” on something about which she’s incapable of intelligent thought, this presents a problem. Every person who reads it is likely to be stupider for having done so. Not that they’ll realize it, and they will bask in the certainty of Dunning-Kruger that they are now well-informed.
Radley runs through a twitstorm of problems with the article. Like Ellis, he’s not a lawyer. Unlike Ellis, he knows forensic science well. Indeed, having put in serious effort to debunk junk science, he’s worthy of being called an expert on the subject. It’s not that Ellis, not merely a non-expert, but exceptionally shallow, isn’t allowed to expound on her baseless views, but that the attributed credibility of appearing in Wired suggests to the unwary that she knows what she’s talking about. She does not.
While the post is long and simplistic, one fundamental point Ellis raises is so utterly absurd as to demand further attention.
This isn’t a problem cops and lawyers working with chemists, physicists and other “pure” scientists can crack. Everyone sees only their part of the process, and the other side’s shortcomings. Only forensic scientists with a deep understanding of science and the law can do the rigorous work needed to ensure the field meets the standards of science.
No, this doesn’t come from an advertisement of the Bite Mark Analysts Association of America. Believe it or not, there is an actual group that has adopted the formalities to pretend bite mark analysis is real, called American Board of Forensic Odontology, whose members are called “Diplomates” and who take the witness stand as experts and point to their white paper on proper methodology to explain to the ignorant judge and jurors that what they do is real and serious science. Except it’s entirely bullshit.
Prosecutors want you to believe in bite mark evidence, because they use it to make their case. They know it’s a lie, but they also know it serves their end of obtaining convictions where real evidence fails. They put on very serious faces when they explain how this will save you children from being murdered. You don’t want your children murdered, do you?
Yet, Ellis offers her deeply-considered opinion that if some people get together, invent a discipline that sounds to the unaware as if it might be science-y, then they should be left alone to create their cottage industry. Create an association. Create cool names for its members. Create a set of guidelines. Maybe even create some degree-like qualifications. Start a magazine among its members, to create the impression that it’s peer-reviewed, and boom, you have an expert witness of sufficient apparent credibility to put a guy on death row.
The only thing lacking from this scenario is that there is no “pure” science behind any of this. It’s Potemkin science, and Ellis tells readers that if it looks like science, then it must be science. While Ellis makes some decent points amidst her recitation of erroneous claims, she focused almost entirely on the problems arising from technicians performing tests they’re not qualified to perform, or the inherent problems of evidence collection and maintenance.
These are certainly problems, but at no time does it dawn on Ellis that the subject matter field itself can’t pass, and has never passed, scientific rigor. Some people just made it up and Ellis bought it. And now that it appeared in Wired, her readers may have no doubt that it’s real science, and that the only reason lawyers challenge it is that they’re lawyers. And what do lawyers know about forensic science, as compared with a freelance writer like Ellis?
The commission’s problems mirrored those of forensic science at large: too many cooks, and too few of them graduates of culinary school. Only about a third of its 37 members were forensic scientists, and the lawyers outnumbered them. Law enforcement officers and scientists in other fields split the remaining seats.
There was a reason why there were lawyers on the commission: we’re the ones who deal with junk science in the courtroom. And this is where Ellis, and so many others, demonstrate their wholesale ignorance of what we’re talking about. While the unaware think DNA and lab-testing narcotics when they talk about forensic science, lawyers deal with the full panoply of faux science: duct tape analysis, bullet analysis, hair analysis, fiber analysis, even fingerprint analysis, beloved since 1910 until someone figured out that it’s premised on a scientific falsehood.* And of course, the beloved doggy sniff, because who doesn’t love doggies?
It’s not that there is no science behind DNA or narcotics testing, putting aside a wealth of issues surrounding the validity of testing, the “certainty” of results and the stream of lab scandals. It’s that Ellis suffers from the same ignorance that so many others do, from legislators to jurors, and most unfortunately, judges. They’re not scientists. They are either unfamiliar with, or don’t really care too much about, scientific method, proving that a claim of scientific validity is, in fact, accurate. And they bring the validation of junk science they read in posts on Wired with them to their acceptance of forensic science into the courtroom.
As much as Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ dismissal of the National Commission on Forensic Science is a terrible thing, his Obama administration predecessors didn’t care for what it had to offer either. But none of this prevents a judge from doing his job as gatekeeper of scientific-sounding lies from going to the jury, which is taught by posts like this to believe that forensic “scientists” are real in the first place.
It’s not as if the system doesn’t provide a fail-safe to prevent the lies from going before the jury. it’s that too many people are as clueless as Ellis as to what the problems are. And they wear robes. And once the lies are uttered in official voices from “experts” on the witness stand, the jury of Wired readers have no reason not to believe. After all, it’s science.
*Fingerprint hacks? Sure! Why not? (H/T Pat Maupin)