How do we get today’s youth interested in Science and Math?

I have lamented on this blog about the sad state of affairs that underlies the science in forensic science. In my personal opinion, I think the root of the problem really is four-fold:

  1. Criminal Defense attorneys not learning science: I squarely point the finger (and even wag it) at most at my colleagues and predecessors. It is part of our role to be the all important check to the advocacy of the government’s scientists. Yet, for too long we have sat stupefied on the sidelines like a bunch of tourists in the courtroom for almost 100 years allowing unchallenged into evidence various methods, assays and whole disciplines. Now we have a mess on our hands. It is primarily our fault. Shame on the criminal defense bar. We all need to wake up!
  2. Judges and appellate court justices who choose not become educated on the science: In part because of number one above (after all, judges and justices can only rule based upon the record that is developed), we have judges and appellate court justices that are not scientific skeptics. In fact, some of them are unabashed modern Luddites. However, they all still have the duty that some have failed to honor to be the “gatekeeper” of scientific evidence per Daubert and Frye. They allow unscientific arguments such as “It must be valid because we have been doing it like this for xx years” to substitute for scientific proof of validity. Shame I say.
  3. The new model of prosecution and prosecution agencies: There has developed a frightening new model over the last ten years where the prosecution seeks conviction at all costs instead of justice. Perhaps it is the fault of television dramas, but it is still a choice they make. In terms of determining the fair prosecution of the merits of any given case, this new model features “confirmation over investigation.” The latter is the proper way where detectives and scientists work to seek to collect all the data first, and then interpret the data to arrive at a data-driven-decision; whereas the former (the new model) focuses on a conclusion then seeks information to support its preconceived notion. The criminal justice system should be about fair investigation where the total universe of possibilities are explored, and must not be an exercise in contorted confirmation to arrive at a preconceived conclusion.
  4. The massive dumbing down of instrumentation by the manufacturers: It used to be that forensic science had classically trained scientists at the helm as the activities undertaken in the early years were not a full time vocation. The initial forensic science world was populated by and large by the academics found at universities and colleges who were part time consultants. As requests for greater forensic analysis increased, this model had to change. Forensics no longer became an occasional event used in an odd case. In fact, it became a substitute for investigation at times. Why spend hours canvassing a neighborhood for witnesses or seek other evidence when it is easier to search for and examine a fingerprint left at a scene of a crime? This fundamental change in the call for forensic science in terms of sheer volume of analysis over the years ran squarely into the lack of true scientists to do the meaningful analysis. In other words, demand was up, but supply did not keep pace. Also this lack of supply in terms of credentialed scientists ran squarely into budget constraints. More demand for forensic science services means more expenditure. At or around this time, perhaps coincidentally, the manufacturers simplified the instrumentation. It was dumbed down to such a degree that it became so very easy to get a result (regardless of whether to not it is a valid and true result), any result, that technicians replaced scientists in the laboratory. Why pay for an expensive PhD holder when you can train nearly anyone to simply push a button? Fewer and fewer credentialed scientists who have been formally trained in the core concepts of science are in forensic science nowadays. More and more folks are simply being trained in a process or that all they have to do is follow the steps of an instruction. They don’t have the ability to answer the fundamental question of: “Why am I doing this as opposed to something else?” or “Why is this done in this particular order?” In other words, there are few true experts, and a lot of busy bees.

I have seen a move in the last several years to address number one. It is slowly changing, perhaps not fast enough, but there is a change. This will take time. I think number three is something that will also be corrected over the long run as problem number one is being addressed, but also requires education of prosecutors and prosecuting agencies. Fortunately, over a rather short period of time number two will be corrected as mandatory retirements or retirements come.

The real troubling part for me is the fourth point above. How do we change that? How do we reverse the trend against science and math education?

When you have a person in power like the former Senate Minority Leader (United States Senator from Mississippi Trent Lott) who at the height of his power makes comments like this, how do we encourage kids to get interested in science and math?

How do we get today’s youth interested in Science and Math?

Satire on the lack of science in the Classroom
Satire on the lack of science in the Classroom

It is a big problem. How do you cross-examine someone who has only been taught selectively and non-substantively and only in how to follow a procedure or how to follow instructions? The government chooses to mis-educate (or consciously fails to educate fully) the analyst in terms of the underlying science that is essential to understand the meaning of the process that the analyst is performing that results in the testing and calibration in the forensic science laboratory. How is that fair? How is that right? Why is that allowed to happen?

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