Sunday, March 4, 2012

Science Fairs and Science Frauds

Last month, I volunteered to judge the exhibits in “Behavioral and Social Sciences” at the Austin Energy Regional Science Festival.  After the judging, I spent an hour walking the hall, looking at other exhibits and talking with the entrants.  Overall, I was impressed.  Woody Allen quipped that 85% of success is showing up and every exhibit was worthy of some positive acknowledgement.  Largely, these were winners at school science fairs; and competition gets tougher the further up the pyramid you go.  Of course, the bell curve applies: most exhibits were honest C+ efforts, midrange examples of high schools science.  What else could they be?  Some were outstanding; a few were tagged for us by the sponsor panel as being ineligible for award. 

Ineligibility is defined as failure to make the minimum benchmarks.  The rules and guidelines are provided on the local website – and they are the universal Intel International Science Fair rules and guidelines.  The materials for the judges are available to the exhibitors as well.  Among the many materials simple searching will uncover is a blog from Scientific American on what not to say at a science fair.  (“How to Answer the Five Most Common Questions from a Science Fair Judge,” by Dr. Maille Lyons, here.)

There was one exception.   And it bears on the “mass mediated hyper-reality of crime”  when television shows such as the CSI franchise inform us of what we tell them we believe.  “Criminal Eyewitness Identification” was a reasonable effort for a high school science fair project.  Having left the required log book and final paper (with reprint file) in the car after the first TV interview should have disqualified the entry for an award, but did not.  There was no “green warning tag” from the oversight committee.  The exhibitor was personable, even charming, conversant, and not at all nerdy, and garnered another television interview literally on the heels of the judges.  We judges noted the lack of data and methodology.  The poster display identified two different hypotheses being tested at the same time.  We even heard one of the Five Wrong Answers: “My cousin did it last year.”  The exhibitor seemed to believe that any criminal conviction is a correct conviction; and that convictions fail because witnesses cannot agree on identification of the perpetrator.  Like most of the others in the hall, this was a nice effort by an early high school student; and it could open the door to refinement, improvement, and well-earned recognition.  The judges could not give a place award; but the television cameras – shepherded in by the sponsor committee – were all the recognition required.  This was mass media, not science. 

We know that science collides with mass media in the courtroom.  It is an old story.  Tainting Evidence: Inside the Scandals at the FBI Crime Lab by John E. Kelly and Phillip K. Wearne (Free Press, 1999; 2002) is at once a shocking exposé and a tiresome rant.  Any large, old organization will have bad experiences.  The FBI is not alone in wanting to be perceived as the paragon of best practices.  We all think well of ourselves.  Moreover, the authors rely heavily on public documents which are evidence of internal controls and corrections.  The authors claim that too little is done too late; and that real champions of justice is Frederick Whitehurst, whose insistences led to retaliations by a bureaucracy that could not admit its errors.  And the evidence is damning.  In case after case, the FBI crime lab worked backwards, starting with the prosecution’s claims and finding evidence to support them.  Compounding the falsehoods, FBI agents – the lab was run mostly by field agents, not professional scientists – committed perjury, when testifying under oath. 

Tainting Evidence examines the Oklahoma City Bombing, the O. J. Simpson case, the first World Trade Center bombing, the Unabomber and Ruby Ridge, among other cases.  Of special interest to me was the case of former Green Beret doctor Jeffrey Robert MacDonald whose guilt was proclaimed by Robert Bidinotto, an investigative writer in his book, Criminal Justice? The Legal System versus Individual Responsibility.  I know Bob Bidinotto from Objectivist blogs where we disagreed on basic issues of criminology.  He believes that MacDonald talked himself into murdering his wife and daughters and only denied it to escape responsibility for his actions.  The evidence – or lack of it – suggests otherwise: and an innocent man has spent 15 years in prison while the perpetrators are among us.

That said, Kelly and Wearne imply, also that the people we think are guilty – Timothy McVeigh, Theodore Kaczynski, O. J. Simpson, Nidal Ayyad, and others – may only have been railroaded or left holding the bag.  It is a bit of a stretch.  But it does not excuse the documented errors, oversights, omissions, fabrications, and denials.  If the FBI lab failed in these high-visibility cases where all available resources were marshaled, what then of the day-to-day work?  When the laboratory begins with the conclusions needed by the prosecution, science has been excluded from the process.
Online Universities is a resource for students interested in going to college via the Internet. "'s goal is to assist students in finding the best online university that fits your needs and demands as a student."  They have a blog for February 27, 2012, “The 10 Greatest Cases of Fraud in University Research” (link here). 
A hundred years ago, criminologists sought to use biology to identify criminals, not in the pursuit of evidence, but in the prevention of crime by culling the population of genetic defectives.  The eugenics movement attracted Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and millions of others, many of them highly placed public officials.  Based on the work of Cesare Lombroso (among others), the theory was that physical measurements of body parts could reveal ratios and proportions indicative of criminality.  Today, we seek it in genes, but it remains pseudo-science, what Richard Feynman called “Cargo Cult Science” i.e., the outward forms without the inner substance.

Science Fair Science Fraud (2013)
Teaching Ethics to Student Engineers

Four Books about Bad Science
Misconduct in Scientific Research
Fantastic Voyages: Teaching Science with Science Fiction
Monsters from the Id (Science as Mankind's Last Hope)

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