The Passions and the Interests in Forensic Science

by Roger Koppl

A front-page article  in yesterday’s Washington Post underlines the importance of establishing a substantive defense right to expertise in the US.

The article says, “Justice Department officials have known for years that flawed forensic work might have led to the convictions of potentially innocent people, but prosecutors failed to notify defendants or their attorneys even in many cases they knew were troubled.” The DoJ begin investigating in the 1990s “after reports that sloppy work by examiners at the FBI lab was producing unreliable forensic evidence in court trials.” As the Post article chronicles, the investigation was very narrowly drawn in spite of evidence that problems were likely more widespread. Continue reading

We should pay more attention to Radley Balko

by Roger Koppl

On June 14th, Radley Balko posted an article on Huffington Post entitled “Private Crime Labs Could Prevent Errors, Analyst Bias: Report.”  He explains some of the problems of forensic science in the US.  He suggests that “rivalrous redundancy” could improve the system and links to my 2007 Reason Foundation Report explaining how rivalrous redundancy works. 

For years, Radley has documented shocking problems in the American criminal justice system from no-knock warrants, to the snitch system, to forensic science.  He contributed to the July 2011 special issue of Reason magazine on “Criminal Injustice.”  The criminal justice system is the great fulcrum point where the power of the state meets the people.  We need to be more conscious of the problems of our criminal justice system and the risks to our liberties created by those problems.  And liberty loving scholars need to think harder about the nature of the problem and what to do about it.

Epistemic monopoly is still a bad thing

by Roger Koppl

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services has been distributing my op ed with Dan Krane on “Science rules the FBI should obey.”  We discuss an example of epistemic monopoly in action, namely, the FBI’s failure so far to release anonymized data from its vast NDIS (National DNA Index System) data set.  The NDIS data set contains the genetic profiles of more than 7 million people, most of whom have been convicted of serious crimes, such as rape.  It contains information on whether the practice of forensic DNA profiling aligns with DNA facts, but that information can be extracted only if scientists are allowed to study the data.  Why isn’t the FBI playing by the usual science rules requiring openness and data sharing?  Continue reading

Who will capture forensic science?

by Roger Koppl

Friday I spoke at a conference on  Forensic Science in the 21st Century: The National Academy of Sciences Report and Beyond  The report was a humdinger.  It says,  “The bottom line is simple: In a number of forensic science disciplines, forensic science professionals have yet to establish either the validity of their approachor the accuracy of their conclusions, and the courts have been utterly ineffective in addressing this problem.”  That’s strong stuff.  The report did a good job at identifying the unscientific nature of much of forensic science.  The report neglected problems that can arise in nuclear DNA analysis, but it is still impressively hard hitting.   Continue reading

Now it’s official: forensic science is a mess

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. 

A Gem in the Folded Palm of Forensic Science

by Roger Koppl

I’ve been railing against epistemic monopolies for a while now, particularly in forensic science.  This project complements Peart and Levy’s work on experts.  (See their symposium the 2008 Eastern Economics Journal, vol. 38 starting page 103.)  I keep insisting that we need redundancy to reduce error rates.  Economists, forensic scientists, and philosophers have all pressed me for data on error rates.  How big a problem is this really?  Continue reading