• Total Nerd

TV Shows Like Law And Order: SVU And CSI Are Putting Real, Innocent People Behind Bars

Everybody loves those dazzling displays of forensics on Law and Order when Ice-T spots a hair at a crime scene and takes it back to the lab to process through the database containing the DNA of every single human on the planet. However, that's not how forensic science actually works. In fact, that kind of scenework assumes said "science" works at all, while in reality forensic methods are far from foolproof. Jurors (and even judges) have been falling victim to the "CSI effect" since procedural crime dramas rose to prominence in the early 2000s.

Forensics in real life compared to forensics on CSI suffer from a major discrepancy: while jurors generally accept such evidence as absolute fact in both cases, only in one is it absolute. It may seem cool when Mark Harmon determines the killer from a blood spatter, but such evidence is as subjective as a Rorschach test, only with much graver consequences. 

That's why it's important to examine the dangers of forensic science brought about by the weird and fantastic cases on CSI (though sometimes real life can be stranger than fiction, as seen in these creepy forensic cases).

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  • Even Forensic Scientists Are Subject To Inherent Biases

    Of course, jurors aren't inoculated from feeling confirmation bias vis-à-vis forensic science when the forensic scientist themselves are susceptible to such flawed thinking. Confirmation bias, simply put, means that humans have a tendency to interpret evidence in a way that reinforces or affirms already-held beliefs. Jeff Kukucka of the Huffington Post hypothesized this inherent human trait permeates both forensic science and its practitioners.

    He pointed to the Madrid train bombings of 2004, in which an American Muslim man named Brandon Mayfield was detained after three FBI fingerprint experts erroneously concluded Mayfield's prints matched old ones on a bag containing a bomb. After the Spanish authorities identified and apprehended the real perpetrator, the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General reviewed the case and found the FBI agents' “...'Loss of objectivity' led examiners to see 'similarities... that were not in fact present.'”

  • Forensic Scientists Are Very Vulnerable To Confirmation Bias

    Photo: CSI/CBS

    After the Madrid train bombings, Senior Cognitive Neuroscience Researcher and Harvard graduate Itiel Dror, Ph.D. and his colleagues devised a series of tests to determine if forensic scientists always reach objective conclusions. TL;DR: all scientists do not always reach objective conclusions. According to the Huffington Post:

    "They presented five fingerprint experts with prints that, unbeknownst to them, they had deemed a 'match' earlier in their career. When told that these prints were taken from the Mayfield case, four of the five experts now concluded that they did not match, suggesting that their judgments were sensitive to context. In a follow-up study, Dror and David Charlton gave experts case files containing prints that they had (unknowingly) examined before, along with additional evidence that implied guilt (i.e., a confession) or innocence (i.e., an iron-clad alibi). When given this new information, experts changed 17 percent of their own prior judgments."

  • Sometimes, Forensic Scientists Are Pressured By Colleagues

    Even if forensic scientists are supposed to reach objective conclusions on their own, sometimes their colleagues make it impossible. "Techs at many state-funded crime labs have cops and prosecutors breathing down their necks for results — cops and prosecutors who may work in the same building," reported The Atlantic

    What's more, the pressure imposed by those colleagues usually comes in the form of confirmation bias, which can be contagious, especially when emotions come into play. As attorney Bicka Barlow put it,

    “An analyst might be told, ‘Okay, we have a suspect. Here’s the DNA. Look at the vaginal swab, and compare it to the suspect.’And they do, but they’re also being told all sorts of totally irrelevant things: The victim was six years old, the victim was traumatized, it was a hideous crime.”

  • Many Forensic "Sciences" Do Not Even Meet The Fundamental Requirements Of Science

    "In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published a congressionally commissioned report on the state of forensic science in the courtroom. The report was highly critical of a wide range of forensic specialties, from fingerprints to hair and fiber analysis to blood spatter analysis. It found that many of the claims forensic analysts have been making in courtrooms for decades lacked any scientific foundation to back them up,"

    reported Radley Balko of the Washington Post. As John Oliver put it on Last Week Tonight, the NAS report found that such sciences, "Do not meet the fundamental requirements of science."

    Think about that: people are being convicted of crimes based on purported "scientific fact," when indeed the evidence is often anything but by its very definition. It's no different than anti-vaccinators who endanger their children and others by refusing to inoculate them.