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.