Is forensic science truly scientific?

There is a fundamental question before us today:  In the world of forensic science as practiced today, is it truly scientific?

Or does forensic science create a veneer of science that whitewashes what in reality is science fiction?

We have blogged on it before:

The scientific framework of forensic science is it wrong?

The sci­en­tific method teaches us a lin­earized and prag­matic scheme of attempt­ing to truly find the truth (or as near to the truth as we as humans are capa­ble of achiev­ing). The sci­en­tific method can be explained as follows:

  1. Define a question
  2. Gather infor­ma­tion and resources (Make an observe)
  3. Form an explana­tory and fal­si­fi­able hypothesis
  4. Test the hypoth­e­sis by per­form­ing an exper­i­ment and col­lect­ing data in a repro­ducible manner
  5. Ana­lyze the data
  6. Inter­pret the data and draw con­clu­sions that serve as a start­ing point for new hypothesis
  7. Pub­lish results
  8. Retest (fre­quently done by other scientists)

The glo­ri­ous part of true sci­ence is that we can pre­form exper­i­ments and try to fal­sify our exper­i­ments. In true sci­ence there is great joy in fal­si­fy­ing the hypothesis.

This is largely lack­ing in foren­sic science.

In foren­sic sci­ence, the state crime lab­o­ra­tory starts out with a hypoth­e­sis that it wishes to prove rather than the fal­si­fi­able hypoth­e­sis that it is seek­ing to disprove.

What is lost in a lot of pol­i­tics of crime is that a state crime lab­o­ra­tory is the people’s lab­o­ra­tory paid for by our tax­payer money. It is not the state’s crime lab­o­ra­tory. It is the people’s lab­o­ra­tory. There­fore, it should exist to aid the cit­i­zens and not the pros­e­cut­ing author­ity. As such, as they are the people’s lab­o­ra­tory, and if they are per­form­ing legit­i­mate true sci­ence they should start with a fal­si­fi­able hypoth­e­sis that is con­sis­tent not with guilt (as they now do) but that of inno­cence. It’s job should be to try to exon­er­ate the peo­ple who are accused of a crime.

For exam­ple, in the con­text of blood alco­hol, the lab­o­ra­tory should start out with the hypoth­e­sis that there is no ethanol in the blood sam­ple and then look to design an exper­i­ment that seeks to fal­sify that hypoth­e­sis. If there is deter­mined to be ethanol in the sam­ple, then the lab­o­ra­tory should work hard to try to dis­prove this by really scru­ti­niz­ing the data to look for error that will inval­i­date the result. As it exists in the US today, the crime lab­o­ra­tory does the oppo­site of this. The crime lab­o­ra­tory starts out with the notion that there must be ethanol in the blood and there­fore sets up exper­i­ments to con­firm this notion and totally ignores data that is con­trary to inno­cence or would make the con­clu­sion non-validated or invalid even if it obvi­ously exists. If they get a num­ber, they like it and seek to jus­tify it against all data to the contrary.

There is great joy in a true exper­i­ment deigned and con­ducted correctly.

As my great friend and fellow traveller on the road of educating lawyers in science Ron Moore instructs us:

At the end of the day we (in forensic science) are expressing opinions. Not empirical immutable facts. As such, it all really comes down to human integrity and bias. Forensic science is a human endeavor. And as such, it is subject to human error and manipulation. That is a scary thought.

This is true.

The difference between forensic science and true science is truly the difference between confirmation versus investigation.

The historical way that forensic science developed was a process used to “solve a crime.” As such, the idea was presented with an answer suggested based upon context. Such as:

  • Is this and this a match?
  • Is this fingerprint left behind the scene sourced to this suspect?
  • Is there arsenic in the stomach contents of the decedent because we found an arsenic bottle next to the bottle?
  • What drugs are in this motorist’s blood because I saw his car weave on the road?

This is seeking to confirm a hypothesis. It is the direct antithesis of true science.

In true science, we investigate. We entertain all possibilities no matter how remote and seek to falsify the hypothesis. As such, the re-made frame should be presented thusly:

  • Such and such are not a match.
  • This fingerprint left behind the scene cannot be sourced to this suspect.
  • There is no arsenic in the stomach contents of the decedent.
  • There are no drugs are in this motorist’s blood.

Also there is bias and undisclosed bias.

  • Should crime laboratory forensic scientists receive and accept awards from prosecutors for convictions?
  • Should crime laboratory forensic scientists receive and accept awards from advocacy groups such as the Citizen Assistance Award from MADD for convictions?
  • Should crime laboratories accept money and donations from certain political and “victim’s rights” groups?
  • Is it right and ethical that crime laboratory personnel develop questions and ready made scripts for prosecutors to use in trials?
  • Should crime laboratories have biased posters hanging up in their laboratory?

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