The tone of voice to use when talking about forensic mistakes

Remember my post that discussed the tone of voice that a company chooses to use when talking about the benefits of the company and its offerings?

Or perhaps you saw the repurposed version of the post, a page section entitled “Don’t use that tone of voice with me!”

The tone of voice that a firm uses does not only extend to benefit statements, but to all communications from a company. Sometimes the tone of voice attracts potential clients. Sometimes it repels them.

For example, a book was published a couple of months ago. Check the tone of voice in these excerpts from the book advertisement.

“That’s not my fingerprint, your honor,” said the defendant, after FBI experts reported a “100-percent identification.” They were wrong. It is shocking how often they are. Autopsy of a Crime Lab is the first book to catalog the sources of error and the faulty science behind a range of well-known forensic evidence, from fingerprints and firearms to forensic algorithms. In this devastating forensic takedown, noted legal expert Brandon L. Garrett poses the questions that should be asked in courtrooms every day: Where are the studies that validate the basic premises of widely accepted techniques such as fingerprinting? How can experts testify with 100 percent certainty about a fingerprint, when there is no such thing as a 100 percent match? Where is the quality control in the laboratories and at the crime scenes? Should we so readily adopt powerful new technologies like facial recognition software and rapid DNA machines? And why have judges been so reluctant to consider the weaknesses of so many long-accepted methods?

Note that author Brandon Garrett is NOT making this stuff up. People in the identity industry are well aware of the Brandon Mayfield case and others that started a series of reforms beginning in 2009, including changes in courtroom testimony and increased testing of forensic techniques by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and others.

It’s obvious that I, with my biases resulting from over 25 years in the identity industry, am not going to enjoy phrases such as “devastating forensic takedown,” especially when I know that some sectors of the forensics profession have been working on correcting these mistakes for 12 years now, and have cooperated with the Innocence Project to rectify some of these mistakes.

So from my perspective, here are my two concerns about language that could be considered inflammatory:

  • Inflammatory language focusing on anecdotal incidents leads to improper conclusions. Yes, there are anecdotal instances in which fingerprint examiners made incorrect decisions. Yes, there are anecdotal instances in which police agencies did not use facial recognition computer results solely as investigative leads, resulting in false arrests. But anecdotal incidents are not in my view substantive enough to ban fingerprint recognition or facial recognition entirely, as some (not all) who read Garrett’s book are going to want to do (and have done, in certain jurisdictions).
  • Inflammatory language prompts inflammatory language from “the other side.” Some forensic practitioners and criminal justice stakeholders may not be pleased to learn that they’ve been targeted by a “devastating forensic takedown.” And sometimes the responses can get nasty: “enemies” of forensic techniques “love criminals.”

Of course, it may be near to impossible to have a reasoned discussion of forensic and police techniques these days. And I’ll confess that it’s hard to sell books by taking a nuanced tone in the book blurb. But if would be nice if we could all just get along.

P.S. Garrett was interviewed on TV in connection to the Derek Chauvin trial, and did not (IMHO) come off as a wild-eyed “defund the police” hack. His major point was that Chauvin’s actions were not made in a split second, but in a course of several minutes.

Words matter, or the latest from Simon A. Cole

I’m going to stop talking about writing text for a bit and look at the latest goings-on in the forensic world. Why? After seeing a recent LinkedIn post from Itiel Dror, I began wondering what Simon A. Cole was doing these days.

Cole is probably most famous for his book Suspect Identities, which (among other things) questioned the way in which fingerprint evidence was presented as irrefutable. Cole’s book was published in 2001, and in the following years, additional questions on fingerprint conclusions (such as the contradictory conclusions in the Brandon Mayfield case) culminated in the 2009 release of a landmark report from the National Academy of Sciences, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. Among other things, this report changed the way in which forensic scientists expressed their conclusions.

Which brings us back to the question of what Simon A. Cole is doing these days.

OK, I lied. I DIDN’T stop talking about writing text. Because Cole’s forensic studies are all about the words that are used when talking about forensic conclusions.

Earlier this year, Cole co-authored a paper entitled “How Can a Forensic Result Be a ‘Decision’? A Critical Analysis of Ongoing Reforms of Forensic Reporting Formats for Federal Examiners.” As the beginning of the abstract to this paper reveals, Cole and his co-author Alex Biedermann believe that the choice of words is very important.

The decade since the publication of the 2009 National Research Council report on forensic science has seen the increasing use of a new word to describe forensic results. What were once called “facts,” “determinations,” “conclusions,” or “opinions,” are increasingly described as “decisions.”

Cole’s and Biedermann’s paper looks at that one word, “decisions,” from both a lay perspective and a scientific perspective. It also looks at other words that could be used, such as “interpretation” and “findings.” In the conclusion, the paper leans toward the latter.

…we tend to think that “findings” is the most appropriate of all the reporting terms floating around. “Findings” does the best job of conveying—to the expert and customer alike—that the report concerns the evidence alone. Not the evidence combined with other evidence. And, not the evidence combined with preferences. “Findings” helps more clearly distinguish between the analysis of the evidence and the inference to be drawn from that analysis. And, “findings” is commonly used in other fields of science to describe the analysis of (empirical) evidence.

The whole discussion might seem like a bunch of quibbling, but if I’m in court being charged with a murder I didn’t commit, it makes a huge difference to me whether a fingerprint comparison is reported as a “fact,” a “likelihood ratio,” a “decision,” a “finding”…or an “interpretation”…or an “opinion.” That list of possible words covers the entire spectrum.

Even if you’re not a forensic examiner (and I’m not), this precision in word choice is admirable. Especially when the life or death of a person is potentially at stake.