Handwriting and forensic “science”

So, I really enjoyed watching the Jinx, and I certainly think Robert Durst likely killed all those people, but I was not entirely persuaded by the handwriting analysis that proved to be so crucial to how events ultimately unfolded.  The handwriting expert was given a target item and an item known to come from Durst and looked for similarities and found them.  I get that this is how a lot of forensic “science” works, but the problem is that it’s not actually science.  Oh, I do think it is indicative and telling.  But that’s it; nothing more.  Certainly not “scientific” evidence that would prove something beyond a reasonable doubt (e.g., DNA).

Actual science (and good social science!) seeks to disconfirm hypotheses, not confirm them, as is the case in the handwriting analysis.  A genuinely scientific analysis would try and rule out everybody except Durst, leaving no conclusion but that he must be the writer.  That’s how DNA works, you are essentially ruling out billions of other people until the only reasonable conclusion is that you have the DNA of the actual subject.  And, that’s what science is about– ruling out other possible explanations until you are left with a sole reasonable one.  And, of course, why science is never truly done, because you can always find more explanations to rule out.

Anyway, I’ve written plenty about the lack of science in forensic science, but actually seeing that handwriting analysis seeking confirmation, rather than disproof, really struck me while watching the Jinx.  And this forum in the NYT about the matter and how we judge forensic science gave me a good excuse to write about it.  For me, this is the key contributor:

The National Commission on Forensic Science was formed in response to widespread concerns that forensic evidence that lacked any meaningful scientific basis was being regularly permitted in trials. The concerns were not just about the “expert” witnesses, but about the judges who, according to the National Academy of Sciences report that led to the commission’s creation, have been “utterly ineffective” in assessing the quality of research behind the evidence.

And, it wasn’t that long ago, but can never really link too often to Radley Balko’s terrific series on how much junk forensic science there is and how it gets way to much respect from judges.

Infographic of the day

Via a really interesting Vox post on the death penalty.  All the ways Americans have performed legal executions through history:

Quick hits (part II)

1) This nice post from the Economist on how females are out-classing males in education throughout the developed world has been sitting open in my browser deserving it’s own post for too long.  So, here it is.

2) Jamelle Bouie makes a good case that Patty Murray should be the next Democratic leader in the Senate.

3) Republicans of late have been suggesting they actually care about inequality. John Cassidy just says follow the money in their latest proposed budget:

As long as a Democrat occupies the White House, there’s practically no chance that G.O.P. spending cuts will be enacted, marking the Price budget as more of a political wish list than an actual funding bill. But wish lists matter, too, especially for a Party that is supposedly trying to change its public image. And in 2015, it seems, the most that the Republicans can hope for is to shower more gifts on the wealthiest households in America, while depriving poor families of health care, food stamps, and college tuition.

4) So apparently “the left” has a problem with Mark Kleiman’s great idea for prison reform.  I’m very much with Kleiman.  It’s good to have people suggesting we need to radically re-think our incarceration nation, but I’m not a big fan of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.  And Kleiman’s proposals would be a very good improvement.

5) Back to John Cassidy as I enjoyed his take on Ted Cruz.   Also, I have to say that Cruz’s “imagine a world without the IRS” is just preposterous pandering to the most ignorant.  So, is that a world without any federal income tax (how does that work?) or a world where people get to cheat on their taxes with impunity (ask Greece how well that works out)?

6) I was just commenting in class the other day how the NFL is a model of socialism.

7) Philip Gourevetich sure knows how to write about tragedy (he wrote the definitive book on the Rwandan genocide), so he certainly has a thoughtful commentary on the recent horrible air crash tragedy.

8) As if our completely over-reliance on prison isn’t enough, we make life way too hard for former prisoners to get jobs.  Most importantly, we’re pretty stupid about what the statistics actually show:

Consider that over-reliance on background checks inevitably screens out qualified, trustworthy job applicants. More than one in four adults in America has a criminal record, and the vast majority of them currently pose no threat to public safety and will not go on to commit crimes in the future: Most recidivism occurs within three years of an arrest, and beyond that point, recidivism rates begin to decrease so dramatically that a criminal record no longer indicates that a person is more likely to be arrested than someone without a record. At the same time, some individuals who commit violent crimes—such as the San Francisco Uber driver charged with attacking a passenger with a hammer—have no prior criminal record that would show up on a background check.

9) America’s police kill way too many people. It doesn’t have to be this way.  And a great Vox interview with an enlightened police chief on how we need to change police training and culture so less people needlessly die.

10) With all the focus on the corrupting potential of money in campaigns, it’s easy to overlook the hugely distorting effects of all the money in lobbying.

Quick hits (part I)

[This was supposed to auto-publish this morning, as usual, but somehow didn’t]

1) Since it’s been Ted Cruz week, here’s a nice piece putting him into context of the Paranoid Style in American politics.

2) I’d read that redheads are typically more susceptible to pain, but I had not read before that it is tied to a particular genetic mutation in about 70% or redheads.  Not that I’m tough or anything, but I think I am in the other 30%.

3) Nice piece from Bill Ayers on how to make sense of scientific controversies.  Suffice it to say, that an understanding of the scientific method (yeah, social science in addition to “real” science) helps.

4) Nice to see at least one prosecutor who erroneously convicted an innocent man of murder feels bad about it.  Now, prosecutors need to read this and think about being more careful before it’s too late.

5) Totally deserving of it’s own post, but as you’ve noticed, I’ve had a hard time getting to things this week.  Any way, the way police handle the mentally ill in this country is just appalling.  Police were dispatched and told they were dealing with a mentally ill person.  Then, he basically seems to get shot (there’s a video) for carrying a screwdriver.  Worst part, the way police endlessly defend this action.  Whether legally justified or not, for this situation to end up with a man dead, is just horrible policing.

6) Adam Davidson on the myth of job-stealing immigrants.  My favorite part about this is that most of what Davidson does is summarize the research of mainstream economists from across the political spectrum, but oh boy does that enrage the commenters.

7) Some interesting research on receptiveness to scientific expertise.  So apparently, it’s not the Republicans are resistant to listening to science, just that Democrats are particularly receptive.  (Hmmm, something seems weird about that formulation).  Also, the religious not liking science so much.

8) Dogs can actually know the difference between words, not just tone of voice.  Cool.

9) A trailer for Monty Python and the Holy Grail cut in the form of a modern thriller.  Fun.

10) Enjoyed this NYT editorial on the coal industry versus the Clean Air Act.  For some reason I don’t really trust the coal industry’s preferred interpretation of the coal industry.

11) One of my great recent regrets?  That I got an episode behind on the Jinx and had the stunning, stunning ending ruined for me by the news coverage.  That was some ending even knowing it was coming.  Enjoyed this story about Durst’s younger brother.

12) Loved this essay from a Biology professor on what it’s like teaching evolution at the University of Kentucky.

The future of incarceration?

Great piece by Mark Kleiman and colleagues in Vox about how to re-think incarceration.  I’m actually teaching Prisons in my Criminal Justice Policy class this week and this one goes straight into required reading.  It actually builds on ideas in Kleiman’s great book, When Brute Force Fails.  Our current system of incarcerating of way too many people is absurdly costly in both dollars and the needless damage to human lives.  So, here’s the proposal:

America’s prison state is a disaster. One percent of the adult population is behind bars, and corrections is squeezing higher education out of state budgets. We have five times as many people in prison as we ever had before 1980, and five times as many (per capita) as any other advanced democracy.

What’s worse is that it is, in this era, a completely unnecessary disaster. It’s simply not true that to punish someone and control his behavior you need to lock him up and pay for his room and board.

While it lasts, prison is horrible for the prisoner and expensive for the state. And things often don’t get better when it ends: of the people released from prison today, about 60 percent will be back inside within three years…

For the transition from prison to life outside to be successful, it needs to be gradual. If someone needed to be locked up yesterday, he shouldn’t be completely at liberty today. And he shouldn’t be asked to go from utter dependency to total self-sufficiency in one flying leap. He needs both more control and more support. Neither alone is likely to do the job.

Of course, both control and support cost money. But so does prison. The trick is to start the re-entry process before what would otherwise have been the release date, so the money you spend in the community is balanced by the money you’re not spending on a cell. The average cost of holding a prisoner comes to about $2,600 per month. At the same time, even very intrusive supervision leaves a released offender freer than he would have been on the inside. So even a program that looks expensive and intrusive compared with ordinary re-entry or parole is cheap and liberating compared with a cellblock…

Start with housing. A substantial fraction of prison releasees go from a cellblock to living under a bridge: not a good way to start free life. Spend some of the money that would otherwise have financed a prison cell to rent a small, sparsely furnished efficiency apartment. In some ways, that apartment is still a cell and the offender still a prisoner. He can’t leave it or have visitors except as specifically permitted. The unit has cameras inside and is subject to search. But he doesn’t need guards, and doesn’t have to worry about prison gangs or inmate-on-inmate assault.

Drug testing and sanctions can avoid relapse to problem drug use; GPS monitoring can show where the re-entrant is all the time, which in turn makes it easy to know whether he’s at work when he’s supposed to be at work and at home when he’s supposed to be at home. This makes curfews enforceable and keeps him away from personal “no-go” zones (the street corner where he used to deal, the vicinity of his victim’s residence). GPS would also place him at the scene of any new crime he might commit, thus drastically reducing his chances of getting away with it and therefore his willingness to take the gamble.

Start with housing. A substantial fraction of prison releasees go from a cellblock to living under a bridge: not a good way to start free life. Spend some of the money that would otherwise have financed a prison cell to rent a small, sparsely furnished efficiency apartment. In some ways, that apartment is still a cell and the offender still a prisoner. He can’t leave it or have visitors except as specifically permitted. The unit has cameras inside and is subject to search. But he doesn’t need guards, and doesn’t have to worry about prison gangs or inmate-on-inmate assault.

Drug testing and sanctions can avoid relapse to problem drug use; GPS monitoring can show where the re-entrant is all the time, which in turn makes it easy to know whether he’s at work when he’s supposed to be at work and at home when he’s supposed to be at home. This makes curfews enforceable and keeps him away from personal “no-go” zones (the street corner where he used to deal, the vicinity of his victim’s residence). GPS would also place him at the scene of any new crime he might commit, thus drastically reducing his chances of getting away with it and therefore his willingness to take the gamble.

The apartment functions as a prison without bars. [emphasis mine]

It’s well worth reading through the whole thing, but suffice it to say, this proposal is win, win, win, win.  Better for the prisoners, better for society, less recidivism, less financial expense, etc.  The only downside, if you see it that way, is that it is less punitive.  Alas, that certainly makes it harder (though not nearly as much as status quo bias).  I think most Americans (and polling suggests as much) would prefer a criminal justice system with much less recidivism that is less economically costly if the “cost” is that prisoners suffer less.

Anyway, the technology is there to make this feasible in a way it wasn’t not long ago.  Here’s somewhere where we can truly leverage technological advancements for substantial improvements over existing policy.  The only thing lacking at the moment, oh-so-sadly, seems to be political will.

Quick hits (part II)

1) The Republican Senate’s delay on confirming Lorretta Lynch for Attorney General is literally historic in its wrongness.

2) There’s new research that says, no, it’s actually liberals who are happier, not conservatives.  When actually reading about it, I find it entirely unconvincing.

3) Help an NCSU professor do some cool citizen science on heartbeats.

4) Loved this history of the origins of Mad Men (my co-favorite show ever, with The Wire).

5) The good news on Obamacare just keeps coming.

6) The real story of the Irish famine and exodus.  It’s not just the potato blight, but why that was so deadly.

7) Good to know that racism in America is over and the only problem is Democrats spreading “phony racial narratives.”  Or so says old white guy who happens to be a US Senator.

8) Lincoln Peirce, creator of Big Nate comics, came to my son’s elementary school last week.  My son loves Big Nate books and Wimpy Kid books head-and-shoulders above any others.  I really enjoyed reading about the connection between these two authors.

9) So, apparently contestants on the Bachelor(ette) are basically not allowed to have any access to the outside world:

Contestants can’t have cell phones, use the internet, watch movies, or even read books, so they have no choice but to talk to each other, and to stew about their feelings for their Bachelor or Bachelorette, the object of their competitive affection.

That’s like being in solitary confinement, but with other people.  As if there weren’t enough problems with it, I have to wonder what kind of person would subject themselves to such conditions.  No books even??!!

10) Read a lot of good stuff on Robert “Bowling Alone” Putnam’s new book about poverty in America.  It’s important stuff.  Here’s a nice summary.

11) There’s been a lively debate among academics about the group-based nature of the Democratic versus Republican parties. Seth Masket does a nice job summarizing the issues and splitting the baby.

12) How climate change denying scientists are much like scientists of 50 years ago who tried to convince people that cigarettes are harmless.

13) Love my cereal for breakfast.  Thus, loved this Wonkblog post on the most popular cereals.

14) One of my students/advisees with no prior experience with animation software, made this awesome video on redistricting in NC.

15) What happens to a Texas prosecutor who gets a man put to death based on false testimony?  You know– nothing.

16) Speaking of Texas “justice,” Dahlia Lithwick writes

Last week I wrote about thesuspension of David Dow, one of the country’s most prominent capital defense attorneys. He was benched for an entire year by Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals—the state’s highest criminal appeals court—for allegedly filing a late petition in a death penalty case. The sanction was doubly bonkers, I argued, because other death penalty lawyers never seem to be sanctioned for sleeping, drinking, or otherwise rendering themselves incompetent at trial. In any event, Dow was barred from appearing before the CCA for 12 months. Which means that his death row clients—whom he represents pro bono, and who may not find other lawyers to do so—literally have their lives on the line because a motion may or may not have been filed a few hours late. Or, as one lawyer quipped after the piece was posted: “Apparently Texas finally found one lawyer to be incompetent: the one who is actually good at his job.”

 

Quick hits (part I)

So, this was supposed to be last week’s quick hits part II and then I was going to do a mid-week quick hits, but whatever, here it is.

1) Are we teaching our children that there are no moral facts?

2) On a similar note, great Lawrence Krauss piece on the importance of teaching doubt and skepticism:

One thing is certain: if our educational system does not honestly and explicitly promote the central tenet of science—that nothing is sacred—then we encourage myth and prejudice to endure. We need to equip our children with tools to avoid the mistakes of the past while constructing a better, and more sustainable, world for themselves and future generations. We won’t do that by dodging inevitable and important questions about facts and faith. Instead of punting on those questions, we owe it to the next generation to plant the seeds of doubt.

3) Do parents create narcissists by praising too much?  Maybe.  I like how the research makes an important conceptual and measurement distinction between narcissism and self esteem:

Of course, self-esteem and narcissism are two very different things. The difference has to do with how you value yourself compared to other people. “Self-esteem basically means you’re a person of worth equal with other people,” Bushman tells Shots. “Narcissism means you think you’re better than other people.”

4) Josh Barro writes about Marco Rubio’s “puppies and rainbows” tax plan.  I think that about gets it.

5) Love the Vox guide to using science to win at rock, paper, scissors.

6) NYT and Deadspin on what’s wrong with the Blurred Lines copyright ruling.  After listening to the two songs, I’ve got to agree (unlike that guy where I was like, “he totally stole ‘Won’t back down’ and just made it slower.”

7) Pi, primes, and cryptography.

8) The world’s most painful insect sting.  No thanks.

9) Synthetic genes in place of vaccines?  Just maybe.

10) Somehow, I had missed John Oliver on Ayn Rand.  As good as you would expect.

11) The really cool part of Apple’s latest product announcement is actually their battery innovations.

12) Time to end the ethanol rip-off.  Indeed.

13) Companies are doing a lot less screening of employees for drug use because– surprise, surprise– it doesn’t really work in improving workplace safety or productivity.

14) So, all this oil we are now shipping throughout the country by railroad.  The infrastructure is simply not meant for it and it is thus a very dangerous and bad idea.  Of course, we’re doing a ton of it anyway.

15) Advice to the unmarried: don’t spend so damn much on your wedding.  It’s crazy how much Americans now spend on weddings.  You know what matters?  That you have a good enough party with your family, friends, loved ones about you.  Nobody remembers how fancy the venue or the food or whatever is.  Just have a good time and save  your money.

16) Yes, a movie with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence did just go straight to video.  I had no idea.  That said, this is one of those rare books that I finished that I should have just given up on.

17) So, the estrogen replacement Premarin is still made from the urine of female horses.  It’s no fun for the horses, but this system makes the manufacturer way more money.

18) Safe to say if General Petraeus had been an enlisted soldier, he would not have gotten off so easily.

19) I gave up on Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, in part, because I was pretty well persuaded by his case and felt like I was getting beaten over the head with it.  Sure you need good data, but you also need to make it a good story.  Anyway, according to this essay in the Guardian, Pinker is wrong and humans have not become dramatically less violent.

20) The case for free range parenting from a German parent who has moved to America.  Why do we have to be so uniquely dumb and paranoid in this country?!

21) A fascinating case of evolution in California Scrub Jays that calls into question just exactly what it means to be a species and our understandings of how speciation happens.  Good stuff.

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