Just because someone is using fancy digital tools and spouting scientific talk does not mean that we should grant that person credibility. Junk forensics abound in the field and the problem is made worse when uncritical journalists repeat unfounded claims.
Not even the FBI is immune from junk forensics. Nonprofit news organization ProPublica published a series about the extremely flawed operations of the FBI’s Forensic Audio, Video and Image Analysis Unit which claims that the FBI has used “unproven techniques and baseless science” in thousands of criminal cases.
Radley Balko points out how the forensic pattern-matching is like the emperor’s new clothes in this article from the Washington Post:
You might remember that during the Obama administration, a number of scientific bodies pointed out that pattern-matching fields of forensics have a problem: There is no science to them. As these studies and reports came out, Justice Department and FBI officials assured us over and over that they had all of this under control. The Trump administration has taken an even harder line. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions allowed the Commission on Forensic Science to expire, and instead installed a former prosecutor (and defender of the status quo) named Ted Hunt to oversee the Justice Department’s use of forensic evidence.
But my fellow journalists share some of the blame in all of this, too. I’ve noticed in covering this issue that journalists seem to love stories about how new “science” and new expertise are being used to solve crimes. We swallow them up, often without a hint of skepticism. That tends to legitimize those fields. Back in 1982, for example, the Economist wrote about how computers might be used to process scientific data in criminal trials. With awed prose and little skepticism, the magazine rattled off a litany of forensic fields now known to be devoid of science, including arson investigation, “voice print” identification and ballistics identification.
The lesson here is when a self-proclaimed expert starts claiming he or she can solve crimes by using some new method of analysis, we journalists ought to be skeptical. We ought to ask if this new method is subjective or objective, if it has a rate of error, and if the proponent of this new field would be willing to be subjected to blind testing (or if such testing is even possible). We tend to be suckers for new technology and niche expertise, and that enthusiasm can cloud our natural skepticism. Flattering profiles of people peddling pseudoscience give those peddlers legitimacy, both with courts and with juries, and that false legitimacy has contributed to wrongful convictions. Whether it’s a bite-mark analyst, a guy who claims he can identify a specific pair of blue jeans in a grainy security video, or someone who, say, claims he can solve crimes by analyzing knots, some dubiety is in order.