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Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
The existence of several types of potential error rates makes it absolutely critical for all involved in the analysis to be explicit and precise in the particular rate or rates referenced in a specific setting. The estimation of such error rates requires rigorously developed and conducted scientific studies. Additional factors may play a role in analyses involving human interpretation, such as the experience, training, and inherent ability of the interpreter, the protocol for conducting the interpretation, and biases from a variety of sources, as discussed in the next section. The assessment of the accuracy of the conclusions from forensic analyses and the estimation of relevant error rates are key components of the mission of forensic science.
Sources of Bias
Human judgment is subject to many different types of bias, because we unconsciously pick up cues from our environment and factor them in an unstated way into our mental analyses. Those mental analyses might also be affected by unwarranted assumptions and a degree of overconfidence that we do not even recognize in ourselves. Such cognitive biases are not the result of character flaws; instead, they are common features of decision making, and they cannot be willed away.9 A familiar example is how the common desire to please others (or avoid conflict) can skew one’s judgment if co-workers or supervisors suggest that they are hoping for, or have reached, a particular outcome. Science takes great pains to avoid biases by using strict protocols to minimize their effects. The 1996 National Academies DNA report, for example, notes, “[l]aboratory procedures should be designed with safeguards to detect bias and to identify cases of true ambiguity. Potential ambiguities should be documented.”10
A somewhat obvious cognitive bias that may arise in forensic science is a willingness to ignore base rate information in assessing the probative value of information. For example, suppose carpet fibers from a crime scene are found to match carpet fibers found in a suspect’s home. The probative value of this information depends on the rate at which such fibers are found in homes in addition to that of the suspect. If the carpet fibers are extremely common, the presence of matching fibers in the suspect’s home will be of little probative value.11
A common cognitive bias is the tendency for conclusions to be affected by how a question is framed or how data are presented. In a police line-up,
See, e.g., M.J. Saks, D.M. Risinger, R. Rosenthal, and W.C. Thompson. 2003. Context effects in forensic science: A review and application of the science of science to crime laboratory practice in the United States. Science and Justice 43(2):77-90.
NRC. 1996. The Evaluation of Forensic DNA Evidence. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
C. Guthrie, J.J. Rachlinski, and A.J. Wistrich. 2001. Inside the judicial mind. CornellLaw Review 86:777-830.