Monthly Archives: May 2004

Verifying Evidentiary Science

The “problems with fingerprinting” have been highlighted in one recent essay on Slate (Printing Problems – The inexact science of fingerprint analysis by David Feige, 2004/05/27) and one article in the NYT (Can Prints Lie? Yes, Man Finds to His Dismay by Benjamin Weiser, 2004/05/31). The problem with the problems with fingerprinting, though, is that these articles aren’t about problems with fingerprinting — these articles are about problems with evidentiary science.

Specifically, the real problem is that attorneys continue to present, and judges and juries continue to hear, some kinds of evidentiary science as foolproof — absolute — and weigh them inappropriately highly. Of course any piece of evidence is supposed to be weighed with all the other evidence to determine whether all the evidence reaches a particular standard of guilt (no reasonable doubt, for instance, or preponderance of the evidence). But some kinds of evidence — fingerprinting, DNA — are, in practice, treated as nearly infallible. Unfortunately, this kind of evidence is completely fallible. All evidence exists in a context, and evidence derived from analysis exists in an analytic context — in other words, a human-mediated context. And humans are nothing if not fallible.

One way to ameliorate this problem might be to require cross-checks for the use of these kinds of evidence — sort of peer review of the results. In the case discussed in the NYT, the problem was a database problem — suspect A’s prints were filed in suspect B’s record. Once suspect A’s prints were lifted from a new crime scene, suspect B’s name matched. Suspect B begged for a photo ID match but the judges told him that the fingerprint records were infallible. So what’s the problem here? A database problem. What would be a useful cross-check? A database cross-check of some sort; for example, a photo ID; or use of a separate database.

Hmm. This suggests another good reason for not having one giant identifying database … because if those records are screwed up the right way it would be really, really difficult to prove. … But that’s another rant.

Compassionate Bush’s WarRoom blog had this posting on the 14th, based on an LA Times op-ed piece by Lawrence Weschler (registration required, grr). The author goes through the G.W. Bush reelection website. He looks at the various tabs — economy, health care, compassion — and then looks at the compassion tab and the attached photo album. It’s a bunch of pictures of Bush with African-Americans who have bravely endured Bush compassion hard times. Amazingly enough the pictures include Colin Powell. I guess you could say that Colin is having a pretty hard time in the Bush administration, as a conservative who is nevertheless not entirely insane.

And can I just ask: is this site just entirely designed by M$ designers? It’s really unattractive. john kerry’s website isn’t nearly so corporately ugly. … also, get a load of the lamest website quiz ever on the gwb website: “How many working families are benefiting from President Bush’s Jobs and Growth Act? 12 million – 23 million – 34 million – 18 million” Notice how they mix the numbers up — just to keep it fun!

More blowback …

More reporting from Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker (2004-05-24 issue, posted 2004-05-15). This one begins by noting:

The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focussed on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s decision embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of élite combat units, and hurt America’s prospects in the war on terror.

And concludes with this quote from Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch:

“In an odd way,” Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said, “the sexual abuses at Abu Ghraib have become a diversion for the prisoner abuse and the violation of the Geneva Conventions that is authorized.” Since September 11th, Roth added, the military has systematically used third-degree techniques around the world on detainees. “Some jags hate this and are horrified that the tolerance of mistreatment will come back and haunt us in the next war,” Roth told me. “We’re giving the world a ready-made excuse to ignore the Geneva Conventions. Rumsfeld has lowered the bar.”