Popular Mechanics on the Flaws in Forensic Science

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

Popular Mechanics has a terrific cover story this month on the crumbling integrity of forensic science. Here’s a taste:

The scientific method is instrumental to our understanding of the physical world. To scientists, the process is sacrosanct: Research your topic, generate a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, analyze your data and then publish the results for peer review. Forensic science, however, was not developed by scientists. It was created by cops—often guided by little more than common sense—looking for reliable ways to match patterns from clues with evidence tied to suspects. What research has been done understandably focuses on finding new techniques for putting criminals in jail.

In the academic community the legal sciences get a comparative trickle of federal funding. In 2007, the National Institute of Justice awarded 21 grants for forensic research (excluding DNA) totaling $6.6 million; the National Institutes of Health awarded 37,275 grants totaling $15 billion. And without a wealth of statistically defensible research to back up their evidence, forensic examiners generally rely upon their own intuition and the experience of their colleagues. “You can’t take a few case studies and say, ‘Oh, it worked on these people; it must be reliable,’” says Karen Kafadar, an Indiana University statistics professor and a member of the NAS committee. “That is hardly a placebo-controlled, double-blind randomized trial.”

The article includes a skeptical look at four common forensic specialties, including fingerprint analysis, ballistic evidence, trace evidence, and biological evidence, and explains how none are as certain as they’re often portrayed in the courtroom.

For more on this, be sure to check out the paper Roger Koppl wrote for the Reason Foundation on how to introduce real scientific rigor to the forensic process, or the piece on the same topic that Koppl and I co-wrote for Slate.

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16 Responses to “Popular Mechanics on the Flaws in Forensic Science”

  1. #1 |  Cornellian | 

    In my opinion, trigonometry should be dumped from the high school math curriculum and replaced with statistics.

    Statistics so completely permeates all the information we receive today (including the information in this post) that I don’t see how one can be an informed citizen without some basic knowledge of it.

  2. #2 |  Joe | 

    I agree on statistics but I would not dump trigonometry.

    I would dump social studies, oh wait we also need American History. And we can’t dump P/E because kids are getting fat and lazy.

    Sorry kids you are losing a study period.

  3. #3 |  Les | 

    Personally, I think besides reading, writing, and basic math (up to pre-algebra), everything should be an elective, with no electives necessary for graduation.

  4. #4 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    “Forensic science, however, was not developed by scientists. It was created by cops—often guided by little more than common sense—looking for reliable ways to match patterns from clues with evidence tied to suspects”

    This looks like an interesting article, and I plan to check this story out. Forensic science does need to be treated like other sciences. DNA and forensic biology meet this standard, in my opinion, while other techniques (bite marks, some arson techniques, etc.) don’t measure up. However, I don’t quite agree with this quote.

    Forensic science techniques weren’t cooked up in a police precinct over coffee and doughnuts. These techniques have been studied and applied by people from all walks of life since ancient times.

    Take fingerprints, for instance. Fingerprints were used for business transactions in ancient Babylonia and China. The uniqueness of friction ridge skin has been noted by anatomy professors, medical doctors, anthropologists (like Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin), magistrates, police and laymen alike.

    In 1247, Tz’u Sung wrote “The Washing Away of Wrongs” in China. The book detailed early forensic medicine. One popular passage describes the use of forensic entymology in a death investigation (blow flies were attracted to remaining blood and soft tissue on a sickle that was used in a murder).

    Many influential forensic practitioners were never police officers. Edmund Locard, who developed the Locard Exchange Principle (“every contact leaves a trace,” etc.) was a medical doctor who convinced the police in Lyon, France to set up a crime lab. Paul Kirk, author of “Crime Investigation” (1953) and a participant in the Manhattan Project, had a Ph.D. in BioChemisry and specialized in Microscopy. Barry A.J. Fisher, author of “Techniques of Crime Scene Investigation” and director of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Crime Laboratory, has a MS in Chemistry and an MBA. And even forensic scientists who were police officers, like Henry Lee, often perform investigations and provide testimony for the defense and the prosection.

    I am all for a thorough examination of the field of forensic science and I believe major changes are warranted, but I just thought that quote was a misleading way to begin the discussion.

  5. #5 |  Cornellian | 

    If I were going to revamp the whole curriculum I’d eliminate pretty much everything that wasn’t math (including statistics), history, English, science and civics.

  6. #6 |  qwints | 

    Didn’t somebody recently bring a Daubert challenge against fingerprint analysis?

  7. #7 |  qwints | 

    Quick search found this article: http://www.fd.org/Publications/SpecTop/fingerprintlawreview.pdf.

    Apparently latent fingerprint analysis is much less reliable than using fingerprints for identification.

  8. #8 |  Doubts About Forensic Science « Wintry Smile | 

    [...] a topic you’re interested in, The Agitator is probably the place to go.  August 2nd: He just posted about the article, and linked to a few more resources. Possibly related posts: (automatically [...]

  9. #9 |  Ron | 

    Why not eliminate schools altogether? I can’t think of too many things more inimical to libertarian ideals than forced government indoctrination.

  10. #10 |  damaged justice | 

    Why not eliminate schools altogether? I can’t think of too many things more inimical to libertarian ideals than forced government indoctrination.

    So quit forcing people to attend them, dumbass.

  11. #11 |  Dave Krueger | 

    #9 Ron

    Why not eliminate schools altogether? I can’t think of too many things more inimical to libertarian ideals than forced government indoctrination.

    I’m all for eliminating government schools. In the modern world where failure is the primary requisite for funding, this admittedly wouldn’t be a popular concept, but I like the idea of an enterprise depending on its ability to satisfy paying customers in order to survive.

    I also like the idea of a teacher’s job depending on her performance as evaluated by the school which depends on its teachers for its reputation and capacity to attract customers. I like the idea of school administration being a support function rather than a jobs program for clerical workers. I like the idea of a school being able to throw troublemakers out on their asses rather than letting them burden the entire school with their requirement for constant supervision. I like the idea that the school sets the dress code and behavioral rules based on what it believes is needed to make the school run effectively and efficiently. But, most of all, I like the idea that a school can teach the curriculum that its customer base values rather than getting direction based on politics from a central office in the state or federal capitol.

    By the way, libertarians don’t promote the elimination of schools altogether. Your comment says far more about your own ignorance than it does about libertarians.

  12. #12 |  Washington Planner » Monday required reading | 

    [...] Balko points to the huge problems in forensic science, and the systemic overreach of criminal prosecution as a [...]

  13. #13 |  Chet | 

    I like the idea of an enterprise depending on its ability to satisfy paying customers in order to survive.

    I don’t like the idea of entire areas of the country going completely without schools because no company believes it can turn a profit on a class size so small.

    And I don’t like the idea of local communities determining curriculum. For one thing, people move. And you know what? 2+2=4, and evolution is true, regardless of where in the country you live.

  14. #14 |  Chance | 

    I don’t like the idea of entire areas of the country going completely without schools because no company believes it can turn a profit on a class size so small.

    And I don’t like the idea of local communities determining curriculum. For one thing, people move. And you know what? 2+2=4, and evolution is true, regardless of where in the country you live.

    Right on.

  15. #15 |  FBIS_LLC | 

    I deal mainly with fingerprints, Prof. Koppl has some good insights and suggestions. Since the current system depends on an adverserial evaluation of evidence, defense attorneys need to utilize independent forensic experts more to get an unbiased opinion. I do realize that didn’t work in the Madrid bombing case, independent examiner erred as well but using the independent examiner will lessen the liklihood of error.

  16. #16 |  Dexter the quack « Entitled to an Opinion | 

    [...] and I also remember reading a bit from Roger Koppl on forensics, but it wasn’t until this recent post directing readers to a very good Popular Mechanics article that it sunk in that most forensics in [...]

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