Are Forensic Police Investigations Good Enough for Reality?

On "CSI," it's all too easy: the investigators use hairs, threads, dirt or whatever other minutia they find during evidence collection and tie it to their suspect, all within a tidy hour of television. In reality, however, too many people are sent up the river based on junk science—so says the National Academy of Sciences.

The Academy this week released their Congressionally-mandated report into the state of American forensic sciences. And their conclusions might kick TV-style forensic evidence to the curb, for now. Only nuclear DNA tests have been reliably shown to connect evidence to suspect, the report says. The rest can't be trusted—there are too few peer reviewed studies, too few strong and specific standards for evidence, and too little funding or leadership for the country's forensics labs.

Independence, the report says, is the key for forensic science to improve. The study leaders call for Congress to create a National Institute of Forensic Science to deal with the field's legitimacy problems, and for forensics labs to be independent of law enforcement agencies. The latter, they say, would not only let the scientists set their own budget, but keep them further away from pressure by prosecutors.

Harry T. Edwards, chief judge emeritus of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, says that anything short of total overhaul is not enough. "Not only does the forensic science community lack adequate resources, talent, and mandatory standards; it also lacks the necessary governance structure to address its current weaknesses.  Inefficiencies in the current system cannot be remedied simply by increasing the staff within existing crime laboratories and medical examiner offices."

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Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

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Flickr user Tom Simpson
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