Bad Science

Ethical Bankruptcy

In a homicide case the prosecution demonstrates a laser reconstruction of
a bullet’s path through a woman which indicates her husband fired a rifle
from his shoulder height. The husband’s story is that he was cleaning the
weapon while it lay on a tabletop. The defense attorney finds a firearms
expert who will claim that, while the weapon was not malfunctioning before
the incident, was not malfunctioning when collected from the crime scene,
and is not malfunctioning now at the time of trial, it may have suddenly
malfunctioned and fired all by itself as a result of a buildup of dirt and
powder within the weapon’s mechanism on the day of the shooting. The expert
does not address the issue of the shooting reconstruction, but the jury does
and returns a guilty verdict.

No Scientific Methodology

A city truck driver runs a stop sign and causes an accident with serious
injuries. Instead of relying on the skidmarks, crush damage, and scene evidence,
the city authorities order a traffic investigator to conduct acceleration
tests to determine the maximum possible speed the truck could have achieved
in the one-block distance leading up to the crash. Because the truck involved
was disabled in the accident, the traffic investigator uses a motorcycle
to run the one-block acceleration test and reports back a peak speed of 35
miles-per-hour for the city truck.

Too Many Cooks Spoil The Broth

A city bus rear-ends and crushes a carload of teenagers, killing four. The
first traffic investigators at the scene measure the skidmarks of the bus
and determine that the bus driver was speeding. A national civil rights leader
says the bus driver is being made a scapegoat by the city solely because
he is a racial minority. The follow-up investigation by city authorities
reports that the original traffic investigators, who have been abruptly removed
from the case, must have been measuring tire marks tracked through melted
roadway tar and that, on second thought, the city bus driver was not really
speeding. A local television station gets a radar gun and reports that most
drivers, including all city bus drivers, regularly exceed the speed limit
on this section of road. Tire tracks in tar look nothing like skidmarks to
the trained eye of the traffic investigator. Excessive speed aside, it is
unlawful to follow another vehicle at an unsafe distance in that state.

Pursuit of the Inconsequential

In the faked robbery of a fast food restaurant, the night manager shoots
to death an employee in a walk-in cooler, hides the “stolen” money and a
.357 Magnum revolver, and calls the police. The crime scene personnel notice
fallen dust on a restroom floor and discover the money hidden in a ceiling
panel. The revolver is found among the night manager’s possessions. In
preparation for trial, the prosecutor asks for a shooting sound test to be
done inside the restaurant’s cooler. This, he says, will determine whether
or not the fatal shots could have been heard by a teenage girl who was having
sex with a man (not her boyfriend) in her boyfriend’s van parked across the
street from the restaurant. The girl, who incidentally had a full-length
cast on her leg at the time (another mystery altogether), did not recall
hearing much of anything, least of all gunfire. Her partner that night also
somehow missed the sounds. The crime scene investigator refused to participate
in such an experiment, arguing that it was invalid, irrelevant, and silly
. . . and what would it prove anyway? The prosecutor suggested that the defense
might use the fact that the girl had not heard the shots to argue that the
time of the murder was somehow different. “Then let the defense make a sound
test,” the investigator says, leaving. The prosecutor is insistent. After
being turned down by the police firearms trainer and the state regional
laboratory examiners, the prosecutor gets three detectives to fire the shots
for the sound test. To duplicate the sounds of a .357 Magnum, they load the
weapon with light .38 Special target loads; they fire the quieter ammunition
into a sandbagged pipe inside the walk-in cooler so as not to make holes
in the walls. It is several months later, and the air temperature is sixty
degrees lower than the night of the murder. By the time the test begins,
the noisy morning rush hour traffic has clogged the street in front of the
restaurant. To duplicate the hearing of the busy girl with the cast on her
leg and other things on her mind, they use the prosecutor’s ears as he stands
across the street. (Later there were several profane allegations about what
the prosecutor had to endure to fully recreate the event.) The results of
the test? “It sounded like a hand clap,” said one of the detectives stationed
in the restaurant’s dining room. So, apparently, one can induce deafness
by making love to a girl in a full-length leg cast, the same as one can by
cutting all six legs off an ant.

Examples of truly Bad Science are everywhere. So, what can one do to avoid
ambush by the Bad Scientists? Three small philosophical exercises come to
mind. The first is a methodological battle plan called “Ockham’s Razor,”
named after the 14th century philosopher William of Ockham. In philosophy,
it says that a problem should be stated in its basic and simplest terms.
In science, according to Ockham’s Razor, the theory that fits the facts of
a problem with the fewest number of assumptions is the one that should be
selected. This is the great-grandfather of the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple,
Stupid) theory, and it works well against Bad Scientists.

The second tactic is termed “reductio ad absurdum,” which is the disproof
of a proposition (or stupid experiment) by showing the absurdity to which
it leads when carried out to its logical conclusion. A good example of such
a situation is the aforementioned case of the prosecutor who argued that
seven fingerprints identified by two print examiners make a total of fourteen
little traces of the burglar defendant. The reduction ad absurdum of that
case is the notion that a third print examiner would up the ante to twenty-one
clues, or that a dozen examiners identifying a single fingerprint would make
for 12 traces of the suspect. The clues multiply like bunny rabbits. The
mind boggles. Think of where the Bad Scientist is trying to lead you and
look to the dark at the end of the tunnel.

The final fallback is to common sense, the bane of Bad Scientists the world
over. It was Thomas Huxley who said, “Science is simply common sense at its
best–that is, rigidly accurate in observation and merciless to fallacy in
logic.” This is where juries trod on the best laid plans of eloquent attorneys.
They step back for a moment and resort to instinct, to common sense. Lawyers,
especially those True Believers who do the prosecuting, are notoriously bad
at feigning common sense. They are better at reduction ad absurdum. Cops,
on the other hand, are excellent at instinct and common sense, but poor on
seeing the absurdity of a proposition’s logical conclusion.

Lastly, one needs to stand one’s ground. And this means more than just Do
Not Testify To Methods Beyond Your Expertise or Do Not Selectively Ignore
Evidence To The Contrary or Do Not Overstate Your Qualifications. Standing
your ground means you have to get in the face of anyone who even hints at
being a Bad Scientist. You’ll need to gently redirect the novice Bad Scientist
at times, showing him the light and letting him know where you stand. With
the more seasoned advocates (prosecution OR defense), you may need a chainsaw
to carve out your turf in the Bad Scientist’s office, be it a medical examiner’s
office, a lawyer’s office, or a supervisor’s office. Draw the line. Let them
know that Enough Is Enough. After all, you’re the bastard child of both Science
and Forensics. They’ll expect you to be incorrigible. J. Robert Oppenheimer
said it best when he wrote: “The scientist is free, and must be free to ask
any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek any evidence, to correct any

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