Dispatches From The Junk Science Front
In 2008 I pointed out that the TSA's pseudo-scientific "behavior detection" program seemed almost indistinguishable from random chance. Five years and millions of gropes-by-government-agents later, the General Accounting Office agrees:
The program called Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) trains TSA officers to identify suspicious behavior that could reveal a terrorist. While it has been criticized for years for alleged racial profiling, TSA officials say it is a key part of screening airline passengers.
The Government Accountability Office reviewed 400 studies over 60 years that found people are only slightly better than chance at spotting deceptive behavior. And a Department of Homeland Security study in April 2011 intended to validate the program was unable to demonstrate its effectiveness because of unreliable data, according to the new GAO report.
The program has cost a billion dollars. The TSA can't demonstrate that it works using accepted scientific means. The TSA's reaction is unsurprising: "yeah, well, our other methods are even worse:"
Behavior Detection Officers also operate a program called Managed Inclusion which evaluates passengers at the checkpoints and allows some to enter the faster Pre-Check lanes.
"Defunding the program is not the answer," Pistole said. "There would be fewer passengers going through expedited screening, there would be increased pat downs, there would be longer lines, and more frustration by the traveling public."
Or, put another way, a piece of shit is better than no piece of anything:
The union representing TSA officers defended the program.
"An imperfect deterrent to terrorist attacks is better than no deterrent at all, " said American Federation of Government Employees National President David Cox, speaking in a conference call after the hearing. "Is it a perfect program? No, but until we have a better program, we shouldn't just trash and burn this program."
That's so sciency! "Well, I can't prove this hypothesis. But until I come up with a better hypothesis, I think we should stick with this one."
Meanwhile, in Texas . . .
. . . did you just say "aw, shit, this is gonna be awful, because it's Texas?" Perhaps you did. Perhaps you are not completely unjustified in leaping to that conclusion. But you're wrong. Texas, it turns out, passed an innovative law to allow prisoners to attack convictions premised on discredited junk science spouted by prosecution "experts." Last week, using that law, a Texas court overturned the convictions of four women caught up in the "ritualized child abuse" scare of the 1980s and 1990s:
Indeed, at the original trial of the San Antonio Four, a pediatrician testified that the victims exhibited physical signs of sexual abuse. This expert testimony provided the prosecution with much needed corroboration of the two girls' stories. Such medical testimony, however, has now been debunked by new understandings in the field of pediatrics. If the two girls had been physically examined using today's standards, the medical testimony would no longer corroborate the allegations of sexual abuse.
Like many of the defendants in ritualized-abuse cases, the San Antonio Four faced bizarre and fanciful claims that should have triggered skepticism — had not "think of the children!" drowned out all critical thought. Like many such defendants, junk science and bizarre and facially questionable allegations combined with innate identity-based hostility:
A witness for the prosecution, pediatrician Nancy Kellogg, testified that the two young girls’ injuries were used in satanic rituals prevalent among lesbians.
I don't claim to be a scientist. I'm functionally scientifically illiterate. But I know enough to understand that science is about questioning and proving, and that when it's the government that shows up with the snake oil, we too often accept it without scrutiny. That may be because the government usually packages junk science with fear.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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