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Junk Science Lives on in Fiction

8 December 2018

From Crime Reads:

On the morning of October 12, 2017, a packed crowd in the Grand Centre Ballroom of the Sheraton Centre Toronto hotel stared politely at the grisly slide. It was the view from the dashboard of a taxi towards the front seat, soaked in blood, and the back seat, which had fared little better. The rapt audience listened as a detective from the Toronto Police Forensic Identification Services explained that the passenger had slit the driver’s throat before dashing out of the car. But he had left behind a footprint. And this detective had matched it. His lecture, after all, was on Forensic Footprints—a talk on “footprints that led to solved crimes,” and it was the opening lecture at Boucheron, packed with authors and fans of crime fiction looking for their next twist.

“But what about what we don’t know?” I asked, when the detective took questions. “Bite mark pathology has been debunked, spatter pattern has been questioned—are you ever less than sure you have gotten it right?” The lecturer assured me that his methods were rigorous, that any critique I had heard of spatter pattern analysis was spurious, and that forensic pattern analysis was the most reliable way to solve crimes.

The National Academy of Science disagrees. As long ago as 2009, an NAS panel issued a paper finding that “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.” The NAS panel did not critique merely novel practices such as bite mark evidence and spatter pattern analysis, but found that even humdrum pattern analysis including fingerprints, shell casings, shoe prints, and tire marks failed to meet basic scientific standards.

. . . .

The courts are only just beginning to catch on that they have been bamboozled for decades. Last year, Professor Paul Giannelli reviewed dozens of court casesthat admitted evidence based on four “discredited techniques” including bite mark analysis, microscopic hair comparisons, arson evidence, and bullet lead analysis, and two techniques that have been “misleadingly presented’ including firearms/toolmark identification and fingerprint examinations.

It is becoming clearer every day that the scientific techniques used to solve crimes are mostly garbage.

. . . .

But nowhere is discredited science more alive than in crime fiction. Last year, I had the honor to serve as a judge for the Edgar Awards in the paperback original category. I was exposed to a slew of great new authors. Anna Mazzola, who wrote the winning book, The Unseeing, is a criminal defense lawyer who brought a critical view of evidence to an historical novel about a possible wrongful conviction. Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket is a terrific story of brotherly rivalry that evolves into crime almost accidentally. And Kanae Minato’s Penance is an extraordinary telling of four women haunted by a crime they witnessed in childhood. These books, and the other finalists, were filled with surprises and twists grounded in human psychology, not whether a fingerprint or a bullet magically solved a crime.

But the finalists were six books among hundreds. And many of the other entries relied on forensic magic. There was the hair sent to a DNA lab for results in 24 hours (only in the most fortunate cases can DNA be extracted from hair at all, and labs are perpetually overburdened). There was the arson examiner drawing conclusions from the stumps of a burnt house. And there were spatter patterns, fingerprints, tire tracks, and bullet casings. Reliance on these methods has led to shattering consequences for the innocent, most of them young men of color. I am glad to say that I didn’t read a book that was solved through bite mark evidence. That is some progress.

More than just relying on bad science, though, turning a plot based on pattern evidence can descend into bad storytelling. Our age is complex. Solutions are rare. And stories that reflect that complexity will seem more true. Crime may be down, but most crimes still don’t get solved—the clearance rate for major index crimes for the NYPD last quarter was only 33%.Stories that reflect this reality are in turn more compelling.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

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18 Comments to “Junk Science Lives on in Fiction”

  1. It is becoming clearer every day that the scientific techniques used to solve crimes are mostly garbage.

    Detective: Was the shooter a man or a woman?
    Witness: A woman.
    Skeptic: That’s garbage.

  2. //scientific techniques used to solve crimes are mostly garbage.//

    PG,

    Eeh, bah gum!

    As a copper with 30 years experience….I really do think it is about time society dispensed with the Police, Lawyers and Courts entirely.

    It is perfectly clear that EVERYONE and his dog is as innocent as the wind blown snow.

    brendan

    • Apparently.
      Explains why Musk plans to move to Mars.
      The way things are headed it might be better to die on Mars than to live on Earth. 😉

  3. I love how they claim that psychological mysteries are more true to life and more scientific. Seriously? Who hasn’t read a psychological mystery and been amazed at how dumb it was, how farfetched, and how far from plausibility?

    Just as with science fiction, forensic mysteries have to deal with the rise and fall of scientific theories. The psychology of crime is just as much in its infancy as forensic science is.

  4. I got to see the CSI effect years ago when I got seated on a jury. A significant portion of the jurors thought about acquitting because the police did not look for fingerprints. CSI had convinced them this was normal procedure and they were mad it had not been done. While in that case I think the police should have taken prints, I had to explain that they typically did not take prints in most cases. We eventually convicted the defendant.

  5. I suspect Orson Scott Card’s rule for sci-fi applies to mysteries and thrillers as well. He said that a writer can get away with one piece of bolognium (or hand-wavium) per book. Readers will accept one off the wall, “trust me” idea. Everything else had better be hard science or logical extrapolation. So you can have one “junk forensics” plot piece in the book, but everything else needs to be real.

  6. Can you imagine if only 33% of mystery/crime fiction books ended with the mystery/crime solved? Let’s write romance books with epilogues with 50%+ ending in divorce.

  7. BobtheRegisterredFool

    1. Does the National Academy of Science really have any room to talk?
    2. Lots of science, and even more ‘science’ is pretty suspect.
    3. We’ve been having ‘science’ fads since the nineteenth century, and some of them involve applying it in grossly inappropriate ways. Law is as full of humans as every other endeavor. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century fads add some of the flavor to crime and mystery fiction of the era.
    4. Rehabilitation as a solution for every case is likewise based on science worth some suspicion.
    5. Measurement of humans is difficult and has many confounding factors. Assumptions of government that require perfect measurement are probably bad ones. Law enforcement is part of government.
    6. Every society has lots of disputes. If you do not want a lot of revenge killings, you settle things with an outside party, and by preference a party that decides things by some consistent set of criteria. Some of the word choice makes me think that Andrew Case, rather than having practical suggestion for alternate sets of criteria, simply has his head up his rear.
    7. Mystery/crime mostly does not purport to be science fiction. One might expect scientific rigor in hard science fiction. Lots of science fiction is also pretty soft.
    8. Incorrectly convicted and incorrectly cleared are related. By what criteria are these men innocent, whose convictions are complained of? DNA, often used to ‘clear’ people, also has issues. Full rigor would exclude evidence that clears as well as excluding evidence that convicts. Criticism for lack of full scientific rigor should include for both conviction and clearing. Excluding means that have some scientific rigor, but not full scientific rigor leaves behind means that we might not want to see used as the only criteria.
    9. Psychology is probably among the worst of the sciences.

    • “8. Incorrectly convicted and incorrectly cleared are related. By what criteria are these men innocent, whose convictions are complained of? DNA, often used to ‘clear’ people, also has issues. Full rigor would exclude evidence that clears as well as excluding evidence that convicts. …”

      Was already in a cell or otherwise known location when the crime elsewhere was known to have been committed, the blood-type is wrong – why would these not ‘clear’ a suspect and let them move on to more likely ones?

      And the only time I’d heard of ‘bite mark pathology’ being used was a house break-in by a hungry thief who took a bite out of a wedge of cheese and left the rest of it to be found. In that case the thief had very bad teeth – making matching him way too easy.

      But as someone else commented, TV CSI is just as bad as the old McGiver shows – where facts and science were never allowed to interfere with selling advertising time. 😉

      MYMV and your facts sound plausible.

    • Full rigor would exclude evidence that clears as well as excluding evidence that convicts.

      Full rigor would also reject the notion of innocent until proven guilty.

      • I disagree. Innocent until proven guilty is just a sensible null hypothesis to prevent people being convicted based on accusation alone.

        • Would guilty until proven innocent be a similarly sensible and null hypothesis to prevent people from being released based on denial alone?

  8. Read King’s, The Outsider, for an example of “Justice” gone wrong that hits too close to home. That book is an example of “Horror” where a monster feeds by destroying innocent people.

    Then there is the TV series, Castle. I only have the first season, because that’s all I need to understand the show. Their idea of police work is to go from person to person saying, “You’re guilty” and each time the person has to say, “No, you’re wrong”. Don’t get me wrong, I love Castle, but one season is enough. I watch it each time I need a taste of how to do stuff right.

    In The Long Ago, and The Far Away, there was a show called, The F.B.I. with Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. The show was intended as propaganda to convince people that The FBI could solve all cases, and would find the bad guys. The Cop shows of today, including CSI, are an attempt to do the same.

    The reality is, that Cops lie. They are trained to lie, they are paid to lie.

    Don’t Talk to Cops, Part 2
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08fZQWjDVKE

    Don’t Talk to Cops, Part 1
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8z7NC5sgik

    Now, saying all this, remember to understand the difference between Reality and Fiction. People want to read the Myth, the Fiction, they do not want to see the real world. It’s too depressing.

    The only series that dances between the two is the TV series, Jessie Stone Mysteries, with Tom Selleck. Those are compulsive viewing.

  9. I’m surprised by all of the vehement defenses of forensic methods… and attacks on the credibility of the NAS.

    Then again, I’m not a big mystery or crime fiction reader, so perhaps I’m missing something about cherished tropes?

    I *am* into science fiction, but as far as I know most fans are ok with the fact that FTL and time travel are not considered to be scientifically possible.

    • Several ‘ways’ of FTL without going ‘faster than the speed of light’, most place you in a bubble of ‘real space’ that somehow then keeps you safe while either ‘folding’ space between points or slipping into ‘sub-space’ where the rules of travel are different. Many of them agree that it gets harder to do too close to (or too deep into) a gravity well.

      Time travel’s a bit more fun because of the ‘killing your own grandfather before he knocked up grandma’ paradox, opening up parallel universes for ever ‘did/didn’t happen’ event (and you’ll never see your old universe again!)

      A good writer can semi-explain the rules of their universe to the point the reader can just go with the story.

      MYMV and your readers get roped into your craziness. 😉

      • There are many excellent ways to fit FTL and time travel into fiction! However, all of them require elements that do not exist in current scientific understanding of the universe. They are magic wrapped up in techno-babble for the sake of the setting.

        My point, if I had one, was that knowing our fictional tropes don’t work that way in the real world doesn’t ruin the enjoyment for most SF fans, so I’m surprised that a similar realization regarding forensics seems to threaten enjoyment of their genre for the small sample of people commenting here before me.

        • Who was that joker that wrote stories of firing a bullet-shaped ship to the moon long before we did send men there? He even thought the moon had air to breath.

          Which is why I like ‘future science fiction’, there are problems we may have overcome by then – new understandings on how things work. On the other hand, I can’t watch most movies without muttering ‘BS’ at things like the hero getting a car to start twenty years after the last gas was pumped into the tank and twenty-year-old car batteries still have enough juice to fire the engine up on the second try. 😉

          MYMV and the reader never notice any of your plot-holes! 😉

  10. We live in hopes of brighter days to come when the more scrupulous among us discover that fictional characters really don’t exist.

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