Monday, December 07, 2009

The Problem With Forensic Science


I should say "problems". I think they're two-fold:
  1. There's no such thing as "forensic science" - there's just science. The term "forensic" refers to how the science is used, not to the underlying scientific concepts or procedures. Instead, the term is treated as a brand - as something that sets the science apart from routine, day-to-day science (and, it seems, often exempts "forensic science" from the scientific method).

  2. Forensic science is driven by police and prosecutors. Crime scene investigation is performed by police officers, who have attended a weeks-long police training course and perhaps some additional seminars. The evidence they collect is submitted to government funded "crime laboratories" that are sometimes deplorable. The credentialed professionals who may form the backbone of a prosecutor's case may turn out to be well-spoken incompetents.

Criminal defendants typically have no money to hire experts of their own. On those rare occasions when the court grants an indigent defendant money to hire an expert, the funds are typically not just inadequate but grossly inadequate to hire a quality expert. The not-so-quality experts? Very often retired from the police side, without either the self-awareness or the capacity to question the "science" they learned on the job. Judges are often former prosecutors, and many have little to no background in math or science. Prosecutors? Well, let's just say it's a rare prosecutor who is wiling to admit losing a case because of weak scientific evidence or their poor presentation of the case, rather than spinning about the "OJ Simpson Effect" or its successor, the "CSI Effect".

Occasionally I read about hopes to shake up the system, bring in real science, and there have been modest improvements in some areas, such as fire science as applied by arson investigators. Absent a scandal there's little to no movement for reform from within the system. Yet we have these scandals on a cyclical basis, and promises of reform (or potential for reform) never seem to take root. What is probably the best solution, adequately and independently funding defense experts, isn't going to happen.

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