Sustained Outrage

Here’s another look at stories we’re reading this week:

The presentation of “scientific facts,” or forensic analysis, is coming under heightened scrutiny in courtrooms across America, Newsweek reported. A number of “elite crime labs” have faced scandals involving mishandled evidence or overstated forensic testimony, including the FBI’s conclusions during the investigation of anthrax sent via mailings in 2001. (West Virginia faced its own scandal when State Police trooper and serologist Fred Zain exaggerated and falsified test results in numerous cases in the 1990s.) “Part of the problem is what social scientists call ‘context bias,'” Beth Schwartzapfel wrote. “Most forensics labs are located within police departments, so analysts may see themselves as working ‘for’ the prosecution.” Also, many of the scientific standards cited are highly subjective, rather than scientifically valid and reliable.

As scientists struggle to determine the effects of the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a lack of an overarching plan may be causing a “fog of research” akin to the fog of war described by soldiers who struggle to get a comprehensive understanding of a battlefield, according to this piece by NPR. But unlike in the military, where there are generals, there is no command structure for the work being done in the Gulf, so scientists may not identify gaps in their research until it’s too late. Additionally, much of the work is hidden from public scrutiny by the Oil Pollution Act, making it difficult for the work to be peer-reviewed in the larger scientific community.

The U.S. Department of Justice has invoked national security to keep details of its dealings with a computer programmer who claimed his software could identify coded messages in Al Jazeera broadcasts, the New York Times reported. Dennis Montgomery also claimed that his programs could identify terrorists using footage from Predator drones and single out the sounds of enemy submarines, but some maintain that he was simply a con man who hoodwinked the government, which is now hiding its embarrassment behind classified information. Montgomery’s assertion that he had found information about international flights hidden in the crawl at the bottom of Al Jazeera broadcasts led to the grounding of flights from England and France, but the intelligence was never verified, and a secret French report concluded that the technology was bogus.