Google Analystics

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

A Crisis of Junk Science

When the noble science of Science degenerates into junk science the ripples of scepticism resulting from feelings of betrayal and anger have the potential to become a tsunami.
"In the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation admitted last April that hair identification testimony from its forensic scientists was flawed in 95 per cent of the 268 cases before 2000 it has reviewed so far. In 32 of those cases, the defendant was sentenced to death."
The above is from an op-ed by criminal defence lawyer, Daniel Brown, in today's Toronto Star.

Before Canadians feel too smug here's another snippet:
"Bad science is an alarming thread that runs through almost two dozen Canadian wrongful murder convictions exposed in recent years by the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC). The roll call of errors in these cases includes clothing fibres mistakenly believed to match one another; experts who incorrectly concluded that dog bites on a dead child were knife wounds inflicted by her mother; inept autopsies that misinterpreted the cause of death; biology samples contaminated by a government lab technician; and hair samples that anchored a murder conviction, yet later turned out to be worthless."

The only consolation for Canadians is that Canada does not have a death penalty. Innocent people have not been killed; they have simply languished in jail while their children were removed and placed in group homes, foster care or adoption.

In his piece, Brown observes,
"Wealthy defendants are able to afford top lawyers and expert witnesses, but indigent accused or those from marginalized communities frequently bear the brunt of bad science evidence. They cannot match cases assembled by well-funded police and prosecutors, sometimes pleading guilty to obtain a reduced sentence in the face of superficially overwhelming evidence."

The Alchemist by Pieter Bruegel

Brown makes some conclusions that I think are predictable and precisely to my first point about scepticism:
At precisely the time we ought to be exercising heightened skepticism, a mistaken belief is developing that wrongful convictions are a thing of the past.

And again…
Judges must be better trained to weed out junk science and unwarranted opinions offered by experts. And they must warn juries about the perils of placing too much reliance on science or picking sides in a battle of experts.
This reminds me of manufacturers relying on inspectors to 'inspect in' quality. As W. Edwards Deming pointed out decades ago, that is far too late in the production cycle and way too susceptible to error. Would we fly to our vacation spots knowing the plane we are on did not have adequate requirements and design review, risk and failure modes analysis, verification and validation prior to 'inspection'? Heck, let alone fly, we don't even allow cars on the road that have not been built according to this process, and yet we trust that our 'scientists' all use correct scientific methods and design of experiment even though they often do not bother with peer review. Hello?

Read the entire op-ed here: Junk science is undermining our justice system

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