Surly Curmudgeon

   The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.
-- Robert A. Heinlein
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    Friday, February 20, 2009

    This is why I don't watch CSI

    I have long suspected that shows like CSI and NCIS are overstating the wondrousness of forensic science. To put it more bluntly, I worry that they are nothing more than pro-state propaganda in the vein of COPS and this disgusting new show Homeland Security.

    A new report from the National Academy of Sciences on the state of forensics should strike fear into the heart of every American who, as a result of watching these shows, trusts courtroom science to exonerate them should they ever find themselves accused. As Reason reports:

    The problem with criminal forensics is the government monopoly on courtroom science in criminal trials. In too many states, forensic evidence is sent only to state-owned or state-operated crime labs. There’s no competition, no peer review, and in some cases, crime lab workers either report to or can be pressured by prosecutors when test results don’t confirm preexisting theories about how a crime may have occurred. This sort of bias can creep in unintentionally, or it can be more overt. But studies show it’s always there. The only way to compensate for it is to bring competitors into the game, other labs who gain by revealing another lab’s mistakes. Every other area of science is steered by the peer review process. It’s really unconscionable that criminal forensics—where there’s so much at stake—has existed and evolved so long without it.

    As I've noted previously on this site, Reason's Radley Balko took investigative journalism to new heights when he exposed Mississippi's Dr. Stephen Hayne, a medical examiner whose testimonies would be laughable if they weren't given in the grave circumstances of a criminal trial. It appears that the NAS is going to do one better and shake the forensic industry to the core by exposing the junk science used across the country to throw people in jail.

    The Reason article does note that the NAS recommends a new federal bureaucracy to oversee all the examiner's labs, and that this would be the worst possible solution. The answer to pro-government bias is not more government, but more competition. Labs need to compete with each other on accuracy, and defendants should be given compulsory access to the physical evidence so that they can have "defense labs" work it over. Failing that, we need some sort of double-blind system that prevents prosecutors and other government workers from having any contact at all with those processing the physical evidence.

    Justice is not blind... right now it's being coached by prosecutors looking for wins. That should scare everyone.

    Posted by Tom, 2/20/2009 5:43:13 PM (Permalink). 1 Comment. Leave a comment...

    At least the early CSI shows were based on compliling the proudest and strangest moments of decades of crime lab work and presenting them as everyday occurences. As they run out of actual events to be inspired by, the shows just become more and more fantasy but sadly they do feed the desire to worship science as a divine force that can solve all problems in a one hour episode.

    The great irony of course is that one of the primary tenants of science is not to have faith in science. Science deals with that for which faith is unnecessary as that which can be observed does not have to be taken on faith.

    -- Mike