The Myth of Forensic Science and its Consequences

I don’t think ballistics analysis is as effective as they portray it on TV though…


It’s not. I’m just putting that one out there as a universal statement, without doing additional research on ballistics analysis, because I am that confident that this statement is correct.

The issue isn’t ballistics, it’s the presentation of forensics as a whole. Forensic Science enjoys an extremely unrealistic presentation in popular media. This isn’t unique to forensics, but because the field is far more esoteric, a lot of people get their only primer on Forensics from shows like CSI. This is a very real problem.

TV frequently presents forensics as infallible. This should not be surprising. Most fiction works off some variation of protagonist/antagonist conflict, and if your fiction starts is building off of the framework of police hunting, “the bad guy,” then forensics becomes a convenient form of deus ex machina. One that is completely socially acceptable in modern media. Of course the hair samples collected can put the, “bad guy,” at the scene.

This has real world consequences, because juries; real world juries in America today, are very likely to accept forensic evidence as absolute proof, even when they shouldn’t. They’ve been primed by decades of TV to accept anything a forensic scientist says as factual, and in the vast majority of cases those experts are testifying on behalf of the state.

There’s, also, an inverse, where cases which lack forensic evidence are much harder to convict, with juries skeptical of prosecutions which lack forensic support.

But, hey, you got hair and fiber, right? Turns out, the FBI’s elite hair and fiber techs were full of shit the entire time. For over 20 years, the FBI presented an image of forensic hair and fiber matches a new method in crime fighting science, but in reality it was only slightly more advanced than looking at the materials and going, “yep, looks similar.” It was entirely subjective, and not even remotely scientific, but this resulted in convictions (and more than a few executions.)

It’s also not the only story like this, with bite matching as another highly subjective and un-scientific form of forensic matching. You can get lucky and have a very distinct bite pattern, but it’s not a definitive, “oh, yeah, this was definitely this individual,” unless it’s something distinct to that person’s mouth.

One that might be a surprise is fingerprint matching. Fingerprint matching is shockingly subjective. We’re all told that, “every fingerprint is unique,” but that’s never been confirmed. It’s unlikely that you’ll find duplicate finger prints, but when you’re only looking at partials, the chances of a duplicate is much higher. Modern forensics uses a point matching system of identifying specific “features” in the print itself, but that system is entirely subjective. So, when someone is reporting that they have a 10pt match, what they’re also saying is that there’s possibly large parts of the print that do not match. But, the forensic tech is the sole arbiter of that decision.

Combine this with the fact that most forensics labs are directly affiliated with law enforcement organizations, and you have a very clear conflict of interest.

In the case of ballistics, it’s entirely subjective. There’s no point system. There’s no procedure. Just a forensic tech looking at two bullets and saying, “yep, looks similar.” However, thanks to a generation of loyal TV viewers indoctrinated by prime time crime dramas, they’re ready to accept that the forensic scientist speaks with authority.

Still probably shouldn’t use the same firearm for multiple assassinations, because if that tech decides your assassin’s weapon was the one used, the jury’s going to be entirely too happy to convict.


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