The myth of the neutral scientist doing forensic science

One of the most ridiculous claims that I hear in court is a claim by a forensic technician or expert witness (regardless of what particular discipline he or she is from) that somehow he or she is a neutral and detached scientist doing science, and therefore he or she has no bias whatsoever. This total lack of bias is argued in that the person gets the same paycheck every pay period if they turn in results that are consistent with conviction or inconsistent with conviction. Therefore, they are not any different than an automaton. This is more than Spock, greater than a robot (that could have been programmed by someone who may be biased), but a true autonomous machine that is impervious to external stimuli or internal emotions or stimuli to do anything other than the task at hand. As it is simply put “They don’t have a dog in the fight” or so the saying goes.

The forensic scientist as an automaton
The forensic scientist as an automaton

Hogwash. Simply put, everyone is biased about nearly everything. In the common vernacular the word “bias” has taken on a very negative connotation. In science, bias also has a negative connotation meaning the degree of difference from the true value. However, in reality bias is not a bad thing necessarily. It is a very important function of our evolution as a species. Bias is what keeps us from getting into cars with strangers. It is part of what keeps us safe and sound.

In the courtroom and the laboratory, the people who scare me the most are those who ascribe to this claim that they are totally free of bias. What is worse perhaps are the folks who work in private laboratories who claim that because they work in a for-profit laboratory setting that they are immune from all forms of bias.

If you are biased, I am totally fine with that. I don’t see that as a flaw. Embrace it. Declare it. However, you have to institute remediation measures designed to mitigate it. You are a flawed person and a flawed scientist/technician/expert if you believe that you have no bias.

As no one is free from bias, forensic laboratories need to start teaching everyone who works there that they are biased and stop the foolish claim. If we are interested in promoting error free work that is the highest quality, then we need to acknowledge it and take steps to mitigate it.

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