Nearly everyone's heard of the CSI Effect – the hypothesis that the ubiquity of crime-scene-technician shows on TV has led juries to demand more tangible forensic evidence of crime, and has led them to disdain eyewitness evidence and circumstantial evidence that doesn't seem "scientific" enough. Whether the effect exists or not, it's become a staple of attorney conventional wisdom.
That conventional wisdom leads people to assume that the CSI Effect is good for the defense — it makes jurors more skeptical of prosecution cases and prosecution witnesses. This may or may not be true. But to the extent it's true, it's a double-edged sword: the glut of look-at-the-pretty-lab-technician shows on TV encourage a credulous approach to the sort of scientists who wind up on the stand.
Why is that a bad thing? Because some of the "scientists" who wind up on the stand — not to mention the "scientists" who convince police and prosecutors to bring charges in the first place — are hacks, or are relying upon scientific fads that do not stand the test of time.
To see the impact that credulity can have, consider the series this week jointly produced by NPR, Frontline, and Pro Publica In that series, "The Child Cases," those three journalistic entities identified two dozen citizens of the United States and Canada who were accused of the murder of children in their care and later cleared by more scrupulous scientific analysis. Each was a victim of junk science, rush to judgment, and our inability, as a society, to keep our head on straight when we perceive a threat to children.
The NPR/Frontline/ProPublica series is appalling, but ought not be surprising. Critical observers of the criminal justice system have known for some time that it relies upon junk science, particularly when kids are involved. When the flavor-of-the-week threat to children is British nannies thrashing kids around like a ShakeWeight, the system pushes the highly questionable "shaken baby syndrome." When we're in one of our periodic witch-hunts for elaborate, ritualized child abuse, the system relies upon highly questionable child-victim-interrogation techniques favored by "child advocates" but later widely recognized to be likely to produce false reports of abuse. Bite marks have risen and fallen again in the esteem of the scientific community. And, of course, all scientific testimony is subject to GIGO: if the scientific process of evidence collection is tainted, or the nuts and bolts of analysis are blundered, then the ultimate conclusions are not scientifically reliable.
Should we discourage jurors from favoring science-based evidence over circumstantial evidence or questionable eyewitness testimony? Absolutely not. But we should be concerned about the pendulum swinging too far towards unquestioning acceptance of people with degrees and lab coats and published papers. Scientists are no more entitled than law enforcement to our uncritical belief. Junk science, and the powerful temptation to use it to do something, anything, about crime, is always with us. Confronting it will require properly trained and funded defense attorneys and rationally skeptical jurors. The alternative is more innocent people convicted based on the modern equivalent of dowsing and phrenology.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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