Now it’s official: forensic science is a mess

March 7, 2009

by Roger Koppl

The NAS released a much-anticipated report on forensic science last month.  The report said, “With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, however, no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”  That’s a much stronger statement than we might have expected.  The report identified several of the big problems with forensic including attachment to law enforcement.  The report advises Congress to create a new home for forensic science: the National Institute for Forensic Science (NIFS).  Basically, NIFS would take over forensic science and make sure everybody plays fair and does the right thing. 

The NAS proposal to create NIFS is a much better idea than many ThinkMarkets readers might at first imagine.  You might think it’s a bad idea to create another bloated government bureaucracy centralizing authority in Washington.  But we need to remember where authority exists today and what constrains that authority.  As the NAS report notes, the current system is “fragmented.” The opposite of liberty is arbitrary authority, and in many parts of our “fragmented” system, local authorities have unchecked discretionary authority.  Reason magazine’s Radley Balko gives us a jaw-dropping example of the abuse of forensic-science authority in Mississippi.  Sadly, other examples exist.  NIFS will have problems of its own, but it should be better than such arbitrary local authority.

The report is far from perfect.  It recommends research on “observer effects” in forensic science, but fails to recommend “sequential unmasking” as a corrective.  Nor does it recognize the importance of epistemic monopoly and the need for a defense right to forensic expertise.  It makes it impossible to pretend all is well in forensic science, however, and that’s a good beginning. 

4 Responses to “Now it’s official: forensic science is a mess”

  1. Bogdan Enache Says:

    I know nothing about forensics, but in the long run, as it were, centralisation creates the condition for compounded arbitrary power and inefficiency. It’s a though problem to devise effective systems of checks and balances where they are needed most, like in justice or politics. Montesquieu, for instance, didn’t even believed justice can be independent in the classical liberal system of government/state powers. Competition – therefore fragmentation or division – is probably the best guarantee along with the political culture. The strong federalism in the US, for instance, probably accounts much for the fact that it is virtually the only successful presidential system in the world (in all other places where such a system was adopted, like Latin America, it engendered all sorts of Caesars). Also, in Western Europe, the existence or absence of strong local traditions, regional constituencies and politicians directly accountable to them probably accounts much for why Brittan was historically more liberal than France and liberalism grew deeper roots there. In Central in Eastern Europe the transition form small, regional autocracies to centralised national – and generally authoritarian, even if sometimes democratic – states that did all they could to erase the local identities, institutions and allegiances is equally responsible for the easy slip of to region’s into totalitarianism, either of the left or of the right, in the 20th century…

  2. koppl Says:

    Hi Bogdan,

    As I read your comment, it looks as if you are equating “fragmentation or division” with “competition.” Is that right? If so, I think that would be a mistake. The old manorial lords had arbitrary authority on the manor. Division did not create the sort of competition that might have protected their subjects. The system of debt peonage in the American South after the Civil War might be another example. Once Reconstruction ended, the local authorities, formal and informal, were free to oppress black people in their jurisdictions. Federal Civil Rights legislation provides a third counter-example.

    We need competition in forensic science analysis and interpretation. To that end, IMHO, we need redundant testing and a defense right to forensic expertise. Meanwhile, NIFS can play a constructive role by encouraging best practices, discouraging the use of inappropriate techniques, and so on.

    I think it is important to recognize that we are often talking about pretty simple stuff. Fingerprint examiners should not be able to say their conclusions are 100% certain and their science has an error rate of zero. A medical examiner should not be allowed to conduct 1,500 autopsies per year. A DNA examiner should not be able to decide how to disentangle the genetic information in a mixed sample based on an examination of the genetic profile of the police subject. In other words, we should not give them the answer key. These are the sorts of issues we’re dealing with. Mostly, it’s basic stuff. Plus some unknown percent of the time we have plain old fraud, as Balko’s shocking video (linked above) illustrates. NIFS may be helpful in that regard as well.

  3. Bob Murphy Says:

    Heh I saw a news story about the report and thought, “Koppl must be all over this!”

  4. m c joshi Says:

    No i donot agree. mistake lies in the mind set. what went wrong is we forget to appreciate the branches/ faculties due to which this specialized field emerged, grew and diversified. we forgot the contribution, ethics, mannererism and protocol of the so called old branches of forensic science- document, ballastics, etc. forensic science is least understood and most misunderstood science. we should be proud of our old literature, procedures, treasurer and forensic culture and new generations should be brought around this. in view of latest hi-tech branches we should never let down the old branches since the modern branchses of foremsic science are the progenies of the past. get quick fame and name syndrome should be curtailed and a true teacher and taught relationship must be inculcated in the institutions/ labs


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