What Obamacare has wrought

If you are paying attention, there’s been pretty much a steady drumbeat of good news on Obamacare.  No, the program is not perfect, but it has lived up to its promises quite well– in some areas even better than expected.  And let’s not forget that Republicans predicted that it would literally (yes, the real use of the word) doom the economy.  Of course, consistent, but modest improvement in the health care situation does not get a lot of big time news stories.  Anyway, John F. was nice enough to sum it all up in a recent FB status:

Other than dramatically improving the rates of people without access to health care, the lowest increase in health care spending in 50 years, the numbers of insurers who increasingly want to participate in the exchange, the high customer satisfaction rates, the reduction in medical errors, the lives saved of tens of thousands of people who otherwise would have died or gone bankrupt, and the enrollment of 11.4 million Americans, millions of which are gaining access to cost effective, stable, and quality health care for the first time in their lives, Obamacare is an utter disaster, destroying our economy, just as predicted.

(Somewhat misleading) Map of the day

In this interesting Wonkblog piece on how to eliminate biases among whites (short version: expose them to smart minorities) there’s this map of implicit racism by state:

At first, I was thinking– whoa, look at the racist South.  Of course.  But on closer inspection, these are pretty small difference and by making a cut at .40 and a fairly dramatic color shift from blue to red right there, it way oversells the amount of difference.  For example, we can see by color that there’s slightly less racism in Nebraska (.399) than in North Dakota (.391), but this also about the same amount of difference with Kentucky (.408) which looks dramatically different by being a shade of red than a shade of pink.  Of course, I don’t doubt that there’s more implicit racism in these states, but the color scheme of this map way oversells it.

Witch trials in modern-day America

Really?  No.  Metaphorically?  Absolutely.  Bite mark matching analysis has been thoroughly discredited by science.  It’s about as scientifically meaningful as astrology or analyzing entrails (haruspicy!!).  Yet the American “justice” system chooses to keep pretending otherwise. (There is still some appropriate use of forensic dentistry in identifying remains. but that is not what’s going on in courtrooms). It’s really quite shocking and appalling.  Radley Balko has a four-part series on the matter (first two parts are up so far).  Here’s some bits from part 1:

The field of forensics has reached an important moment. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published a congressionally commissioned report on the state of forensic science in the courtroom. The report was highly critical of a wide range of forensic specialties, from fingerprints to hair and fiber analysis to blood spatter analysis. It found that many of the claims forensic analysts have been making in courtrooms for decades lacked any scientific foundation to back them up. Yet judges and juries have taken and continue to take those claims as foolproof science, often because the experts themselves frame them that way…

Bite mark analysis is also part of this group. But even within the pattern matching disciplines, the NAS report singled out bite mark matching for some especially harsh criticism. The report found “no evidence of an existing scientific basis for identifying an individual to the exclusion of all others.” The problem is that this is precisely what bite mark analysts do — and what they have been doing for decades. [emphasis mine]

Naturally, Balko catalogs innocent person after innocent person who spent decades locked away based solely on bite mark evidence.  Seriously.  And in a particularly egregious case that frames his story, the victim (that is the wrongly convicted) even had a separate expert questioning the state’s expert.  How does that possibly result in a conviction?

“I thought that was the very definition of reasonable doubt,” Richardson says. “The only physical evidence against me was Dr. Titunik’s testimony. But my own expert was just as qualified as he was and was saying the very opposite. And they were both using the same report. How could that not be reasonable doubt?”

And here’s the oh-so-depressing concluision to part 1:

Meanwhile, every time someone has challenged the science of bite mark matching in court since 2009, the court has ruled the other way. In short, the scientific community has declared that bite mark matching isn’t reliable and has no scientific foundation for its underlying premises, and that until and unless further testing indicates otherwise, it shouldn’t be used in the courtroom. And so far, the criminal justice system has said it doesn’t care. [emphasis mine] If bite mark matching is a bellwether issue for meaningful forensics reform, the prospects for meaningful reform appear to be dim.

Ugh.  Part 2 traces the history of its use in the courtroom.  And, great historical irony, it actually started with the Salem Witch Trials.  How damn appropriate.  In modern times, it all went horribly wrong when a California appeals court decided that it sounds like science, and damnit, that’s enough:

In Marx, the judges actually accepted that there was no scientific research to support bite mark matching. There is “no established science of identifying persons from bite marks” and “no evidence of systemic, orderly experimentation in the area,” the court wrote. But the judges’ reasoning then took a peculiar turn. Because there was no science to analyze, the court declined to hold a Frye hearing. Instead, the judges simply invented their own test for evidence that wasn’t scientific, but was nevertheless presented with a science-like veneer. They found that because the trial judge saw the bite mark evidence and concurred that it seemed sound, that was good enough for them. (Marx was convicted at a bench trial, not a jury trial.) The appeals court judges wrote that the evidence was admissible because to not admit it would be to “abandon common sense.”

Arrrgghhhh!!  These are appeals court judges.  Again, further evidence that you don’t have to be smart at all to be successful in the legal field.  Anyway, this Marx decision basically opened the floodgates and without the science ever being put to scrutiny, courts across the country have decided to accept it.  And when you get down to it, it is largely because the bite mark analysts are great in talking with high certainly using scientific jargon.  There’s a great example, from Balko, but I’ve already gone on long enough.  It’s long, but very, very much worth your time to read.

Anyway, in this time when there’s so much attention to anti-science views in the realm of vaccines and medicine, I would love some focus on the anti-science views and horrid scientific illiteracy in the justice system that literally ruins people’s lives.

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