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Current Forensic Sciences Not as Objective as Most Believe

by Ed Lyon

Television may well be the most effective propaganda tool in the world, especially when it comes to portraying forensic scientists and their laboratories as dispassionate and dedicated professionals and their laboratories as pristine and state-of-the-art on shows like CSI and FBI. Long time CLN and PLN readers know better as article after article has dispelled that belief as pure myth, approaching urban legend status.

On April 2, 2021, Michigan Democrat Governor Gretchen Whitmer created a forensic sciences commission to recommend improvements to that state’s forensic science community in an effort to eliminate wrongful convictions stemming from bad forensic science, which accounts for 20% of the state’s wrongful convictions.

Forensic Magazine has weighed in on that subject in an article published in February 2021 entitled “The Forensic Sciences’ Toxic Entanglement with the Myth of Objectivity,” by academic authors Chaunesey Clemmons and Allysha P. Winburn. Clemmons is a co-founder of the Coalition for Equity in Anthropology, an independent group committed to dismantling the intersectional barriers confronted by underrepresented persons. 

The article opens with a damning critique: “‘Scientific objectivity.’ It’s a concept as old as the Enlightenment and a mainstay of mid-20th­century approaches to science, thought to be a core tenet of forensic scientific analysis and testimony. It’s also a myth—and it’s dangerous.”

Subjective conclusions are those made by scientists who allow their personal theories and values, often influenced by their backgrounds to guide their work. They are not consistently reliable.

Objectivity in scientific decisions began in the 17th century.

It requires a dispassionate scientist who collects facts and hard data to reach consistently reliable conclusions based solely on those facts and data, absent any influence from their personally held values, experiences, beliefs, and/or backgrounds.

Objectivity is the platinum standard, the holy grail for forensic scientists. This is essential since it is their courtroom testimony that can send a defendant to prison or in some cases death row. Absolute certainty with a total absence of error are paramount in this arena. From the latter third of the 20th century to the present, research in Social Studies of Science and Science and Technology Studies posit that true, 100% scientific objectivity is all but impossible and “scientific data is ‘necessarily theory-laden.’” Publications identifying mindsets like implicit bias, which is a bias a person has but is not aware of having it, will influence a scientist’s conclusions and decisions regarding evidence like single and mixed donor DNA analysis and latent fingerprints.

Knowledge of a suspect’s “alleged confession or decomposed remains clad in gender­specific clothing have been known to improperly influence a forensic scientist’s conclusions. These studies therefore strive to prove objective forensic science is impossible.

This research has been met and countered with objectivity-oriented quality control practices like “blind analysis, blended­blind analysis, peer review and the linear sequential unmasking of case relevant data” to counter the effects of “cognitive bias.” The end product of these procedures is a form of “mitigated objectivity,” which is more realistic, humanistic and more readily open to the scientific discipline’s critique and improvement. And hopefully, to more accurate, reliable courtroom testimony. 



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