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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 24.4 > Forensic Pseudoscience

Forensic Pseudoscience

Reviews of Forensic Science Reform: Protecting the Innocent, edited by Wendy J. Koen and C. Michael Bowers; The Psychology and Sociology of Wrongful Convictions: Forensic Science Reform, edited by Wendy J. Koen and C. Michael Bowers; and Blinding as a Solution to Bias: Strengthening Biomedical Science, Forensic Science, and Law, edited by Christopher T. Robertson and Aaron S. Kesselheim
London: Academic Press/ Elsevier. 2017. 366 pp. $150. ISBN 13: 978-0128027196
London: Academic Press/ Elsevier. 2018. 382 pp. $125. ISBN 13: 978-0128026557
London: Academic Press/ Elsevier. 2016. 371 pp. $99.95. ISBN 9780128024607

ALTHOUGH THERE HAS FOR SOME TIME been doubt about the various forensic techniques that are still presented as useful on TV crime shows, it wasn’t until 2009 and the publication of the National Science Foundation’s report titled Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward that the problems with these techniques generated considerable public and professional attention. The first two books reviewed here provide comprehensive and up-to-date discussions of the problems with specific forensic techniques and the psychological and sociological phenomena that can lead to miscarriages of justice. The third shows how the technique of blinding, well known in studies of medical and psychological therapies, can make some, but not all, of the techniques discussed in the first two books less error prone.

Forensic Science Reform is a comprehensive review of nearly a dozen wellknown forensic techniques and methods. All 11 chapters are organized in an interesting and, as far as I know, unique way. Each begins with a case study showing how the use or misuse of the approach being discussed led to a specific, and serious, miscarriage of justice. The case study is, with one exception, followed by a review of the literature on that specific technique.

The list of methods and concepts that are invalid or just don’t work as advertised is long and some will be familiar from popular culture. The topic of the first chapter, compositional bullet lead analysis (CBLA), will not be so familiar. The idea is that a metallurgical analysis of a bullet found at a crime scene can reveal whether said bullet came from the same batch as a bullet, or bullets, found later belonging to a suspect. It seems a reasonable hypothesis, like so many in the area of forensics. The trouble is that it’s not. The technique made several incorrect assumptions about the metallurgy of lead bullet manufacture. The most problematic was that the “few small samples taken from the bullets [involved in a crime] are compositionally representative of the source from which they originated” (p. 9). Since the original source, a vat of molten lead that produced thousands of bullets, was itself not homogeneous (source homogeneity was another assumption), this basic assumption was false. The technique was abandoned by the FBI in 2005. But 2500 cases where CBLA was used, some of which resulted in convictions, remain “in review limbo” (p. 21).

Chapter 6 covers a related topic— the identification of the firearm from which a bullet was fired, or a shell casing ejected based on the “tool marks” found on the bullet or casing. The 2009 NSF report was highly critical of tool mark analyses because of the lack of information on the reliability and validity of opinions based on such analyses. Since then the situation has improved somewhat with additional research. The bulk of chapter 6 concerns how judges have responded to legitimate concerns raised by the defense about the validity of firearms identification testimony by experts. These responses have frequently been inadequate.

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UNDERSTANDING FLAT EARTHERS WHO SAYS THE EARTH IS FLAT, AND WHY? COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Water Fluoridation: Public Health, Not Poison, by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: Are You in the 43 Percent?, by Carol Tavris DEBATE Does God Exist? A Rebuttal of Theologian Brian Huffling • God is Not a Moral Being: A Response to Gary Whittenberger on the Problem of Evil ARTICLES Understanding Flat Earthers • Shroud of Turin Update • The Girl Who Smelled Blue: The Colorful Case of Willetta Huggins • How to Navigate Contentious Conversations • How Much Longer Will Cancer Screening Myths Survive? • Nationalistic Pseudohistory in the Balkans • “Prove that I am Wrong!” What QAnon, Descartes, and Brains in Vats Have in Common REVIEWS Reviews of Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness • The Human Swarm: How Tolerance of Strangers Creates Society • Darwin’s Apostles: The Men Who Fought to Have Evolution Accepted, Their Times, and How the Battle Continues • Forensic Science Reform: Protecting the Innocent • The Psychology and Sociology of Wrongful Convictions: Forensic Science Reform • Blinding as a Solution to Bias: Strengthening Biomedical Science, Forensic Science, and Law JUNIOR SKEPTIC Victorian England’s Jurassic Park, by Daniel Loxton