Ignorance is bliss

Forensic scientists are not immune to cognitive biases:

Dr Dror’s and Dr Hampikian’s experiment presented data from a real case to 17 DNA examiners working in an accredited government laboratory in North America. The case involved a gang rape in the state of Georgia, in which one of the rapists testified against three other suspects in exchange for a lighter sentence, as part of a plea bargain. All three denied involvement, but the two DNA examiners in the original case both found that they could not exclude one of the three from having been involved, based on an analysis of swabs taken from the victim.

As is almost always true in forensic-science laboratories, these examiners knew what the case was about. And their findings were crucial to the outcome because in Georgia, as in many other states, a plea bargain cannot be accepted without corroborating evidence. However, of the 17 examiners Dr Dror and Dr Hampikian approached—who, unlike the original two, knew nothing about the context of the crime—only one thought that the same suspect could not be excluded. Twelve others excluded him, and four abstained.

Though they cannot prove it, Dr Dror and Dr Hampikian suspect the difference in contextual information given to the examiners was the cause of the different results. The original pair may have subliminally interpreted ambiguous information in a way helpful to the prosecution, even though they did not consciously realise what they were doing.

And DNA data are ambiguous more often than is generally realised. Dr Dror thinks that in about 25% of cases, tiny samples or the mixing of material from more than one person can lead to such ambiguity. Moreover, such is DNA’s reputation that, when faced with claims that the molecule puts a defendant in a place where a crime has been committed, that defendant will often agree to a plea-bargain he might otherwise not have accepted.

This one example does not prove the existence of a systematic problem. But it does point to a sloppy approach to science.

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