Episode 94: The Goofy Pseudoscience Copaganda of TV Forensics

Citations Needed | November 27, 2019 | Transcript


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: Since the early 2000s, a spate of forensics-focused TV shows and films have emerged on the pop culture scene. Years after Law & Order premiered in the nineties, shows like CSI, NCIS, and The Mentalist followed, trumpeting the scientific merit of analyzing blood-spatter patterns, reading facial and bodily cues, and using the latest fingerprint-matching technology to catch the bad guy.

Adam: Yet what these procedurals neglect to acknowledge is that many of these popular forensic techniques are deeply unscientific and entirely political. Spatter pattern-matching, firearms analysis, hair analysis, fingerprint and bite mark analysis — they’re all pretty much bullshit with little scientific with little scientific merit and they’ve helped contribute to the wrongful convictions of thousands of people. Indeed, a 2019 study by the Innocence Project found that quote unquote “forensic science” contributed to 45 percent of wrongful convictions in the United States later overturned through DNA evidence and false or misleading forensic evidence was a contributing factor in 24 percent of all wrongful convictions nationally, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, which tracks both DNA and non-DNA exonerations.

Nima: The general population — informed almost entirely by reality TV, television dramas, and movies — assumes that the point of forensics is to “catch the bad guy” but it can’t be stressed enough how much this is not the case. It’s a marketing tool to lend scientific verisimilitude to what is very often just circumstantial, hunch-based police work.

Adam: Today we will breakdown how TV and film depictions of forensics helps mislead the general public — and by extension jurors — into thinking the opposite; how sexed-up police tech is more than just overproduced creative license, but part of an actively harmful media culture of uncritical police deference.

Nima: We will be joined later on the show by Aviva Shen, Senior Editor at Slate. Previously Senior Editor at ThinkProgress and The Appeal, her work has also appeared in The Guardian, CityLab, Scientific American, and Smithsonian Magazine.

[Begin Clip]

Aviva Shen: The courtroom is always a theater and prosecutors know this really well. I think the point is not to conclusively prove someone scientifically did it. It’s to convince a jury that this is the right person. And so that involves trotting out an expert, calling him an expert, having him dressed up in a white coat, saying to the jury, ‘I have determined that this is the person who did this with reasonable scientific certainty.’

[End Clip]

Adam: So before he began to just want to say yes, we know that John Oliver did an episode on this topic, so please don’t tell us that. If you haven’t, definitely check it out. It’s very well done. He sort of briefly touches on the pop culture components of it, which we’ll be talking about, which we actually think is a primary driver and we will hope to show in this episode is a major driver of kind of polluting the well and how people — and ultimately of course juries — perceive the validity of these techniques, which we also hope to show are total bullshit.

Nima: So we have to start obviously with Law & Order, the most popular crime procedural, the mother of them all, Law & Order was really founded on the basic notion that prosecutors had just gotten a bad rap. A 2002 Houston Chronicle article entitled quote “Television’s scales of justice tipping to prosecutors” end quote, reveals just how much Dick Wolf, the creator and executive producer of the Law & Order franchise, really began the centering and valorization of prosecutors which, really up until that point, was not the industry. So what I mean by this is like the heroic lawyers that we had seen through pop culture, through TV and film, you have, oh I dunno, Atticus Finch to begin with, but then on TV you have your Perry Mason of the eponymous Perry Mason show, which ran from the late fifties to the mid sixties he was a criminal defense attorney. Ben Matlocke, the protagonist of what else, Matlocke, from the mid eighties to the early nineties also a criminal defense attorney. So lesser known courtroom dramas from the sixties and seventies also revolved around defense attorneys from The Defenders, which was like a early sixties show, Judd, for the Defense in the late sixties, The Trials of O’Brien in the mid sixties, Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law from the early seventies, The Storefront Lawyers which ran like a season in 1970 to 1971 and Hawkins also around that time.

Adam: So beginning in the mid nineties, when the nineties iteration of tough on crime began, the media began to reflect that and in many ways of course informed it. It’s a feedback loop as always. And then there was an interview with Dick Wolf with the Houston Chronicle, where he said quote:

“Doing cop shows, you talk to a lot of cops and prosecutors and learn about what they do… I’ve also visited a lot of prisons, and no one in prison is guilty, of course, so you start to see that the myth is wrong. The noble lawyer is an attractive myth, but a dangerous one. It puts all the nobility on one side, and it dismisses the prosecutors’ deep passion and enjoyment for what they’re doing. Every prosecutor I’ve ever talked to views their profession as a calling — as much as a police officer or a firefighter. They stay with it, even though any one of them could multiply his or her salary many times by simply quitting and going to work in a nearby law firm.”

So here you have Dick Wolf, he sorta from the beginning, the project of Law & Order was to basically write a love letter to prosecutors and the valoration of prosecutors. My other job, when I’m not with my man Nima here, I work for The Appeal, I do a podcast for them and I write for them and their whole thing is to sort of reform prosecutors. And one of the most daunting tasks you have, and this really can’t be overstated, is eroding this veneration and default assumption that prosecutors are neutral bureaucrats like a county clerk or a dog catcher who have no skin in the game and are just there to execute justice. What’s the opening line of Law & Order? There are two equal but important parts of the criminal justice system. Now, when I first heard that, I’m like, well, okay, it’s going to be the defense and the prosecutor, nope, the police and the prosecutor, those represent “the people,” right?

Nima: Right. Which is really literally like the same people.

Adam: Yeah. Now there’s always cops and robbers, of course there was Dragnet, but this was the first time that really the idea that the prosecutor was this infallible, good, inherently good force and it was just really passionate and underpaid people sort of kind of like The West Wing, right? They’re always kind of working hard and they care too much, really began to sort of rise with the rise of the tough on crime, the sort of bad-ass prosecutor, a sort of trope that Kamala Harris tried to ride to the presidency but sort of backed the wrong horse as it were. And then turns out Ferguson happens and Black Lives Matter happens and suddenly we’re not so hot on prosecutors anymore, but that’s a separate episode. So then the article would go on to say, quote:

“Wolf presented assistant district attorneys such as Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) and Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) as society’s devoted and caring servants. And lawyers for the defense, more often than not, now were being shown as opportunists using technicalities to send rapists and murderers back on the streets.”

Nima: Yeah so there was like an early New York Times review of Law & Order, which really kind of laid this out, right? The switch from the noble defense attorney to now the noble prosecutor and how the ethics of law and some of the problems inherent in these systems were just not part of the story that Law & Order was telling. So The Times wrote this quote:

“Unlike, say, ‘L.A. Law,’ where creases in the judicial process are exploited and matters of conscience debated endlessly, on ‘Law and Order’ the prosecutors are positively conviction-happy and favor harsh sentences. In one signal moment, Assistant District Attorney Stone (Mr. Moriarty) says, ‘In the criminal justice system, if it’s legal, it’s ethical.’”

Adam: And so this kind of gets us to, you begin to see the fetishization of forensics, ballistics, fingerprint analysis, which of course had existed in shows, but now became essential to kind of catching the bad guy as the field of forensics itself began to explode. What the tough on crime trend of the ‘90s and early 2000s, which sort of began in earnest, a bit later we’re going to go through with our guest and examine different pop culture examples of bad forensics and she’s going to explain to us why those are bullshit. But before we do, we want to sort of give a bit of history about the rise of forensics and police work and also what studies show how that forensics affected juries to sort of establish the stakes here that this is not just us dumping on pop culture, that there’s actually quite a bit of evidence that it negatively affects juries over time.

Nima: So while it’s popularly classified as a “science” — forensic “science” — the field of forensics actually developed entirely separately from traditional scientific fields. It was driven by police work. So, many sciences are born of lab experimentations and research, then documented in scientific journals, subject to peer review in an effort to correct flaws and establish scientific method. This is not the case with forensics. Most forensic techniques from bite mark analysis to blood spatter have been invented wholesale by law enforcement agencies themselves during criminal investigations. And actually in some cases have close relationships to other forms of dangerous pseudoscience. So like the first documented case of forensic firearms examination for example, was in 1835 when Henry Goddard, who was working at Scotland Yard in London, applied ballistic analysis to supposedly link a bullet recovered from a victim to the actual culprits gun. Meanwhile, fingerprinting as a method of identification was popularized, though not actually discovered, by a eugenesist named Francis Galton, incidentally a relative of Charles Darwin or maybe not incidentally if you know anything about Darwin. Uh, so the method of identifying criminals by their fingerprints had actually been introduced in the 1860s by British imperialist William James Herschel in India. But Francis Galton published his own book in 1892 called Finger Prints to provide a taxonomic system for fingerprint matching that would later be accepted for courtroom use. By many accounts Galton’s pattern classification system is still in use today and according to something called the Eugenics Archive, Galton’s interest in fingerprints stemmed — from what else? — his attempts to ascertain whether mental characteristics could actually be determined from facial features and unique biographical data. So Galton also coined the term “eugenics.” He did that, the same guy, in a different book that was published in 1883.

Adam: Yeah, and so fingerprints of course are probably the most popular form of forensics. They have some merit but they have a ton of flaws and there’s a lot of bullshit that goes into how they’re sort of implemented. Balko, a writer for The Washington Post and a major sort of leading critic of faulty forensics notes that quote:

“A fingerprint analyst testifying for the defense might disagree with a fingerprint analyst for the prosecution, but he isn’t going to call into question the premises on which the entire field of fingerprint analysis is based. He’d be undermining his own legitimacy.”

So one of the problems we’re going to talk about here and confront as in this entire episode is the idea that precedent is the most important thing in law. So once fingerprints are admitted, if a defense attorney wants to question them, they look like a wacko if they question the entire premise of the field, because it’s already been, there’s precedent for it. So they can only question it on a case by case basis. And so one of the things is that these techniques emerge and exist largely through inertia and just now in the last probably five years or so, especially with all the work done by places like the Innocence Project, just now are we beginning to really question the fundamental assumptions about these things that exist, sort of like the Queen of England, they just exist because they’re old because they’ve been around.

Nima: There have actually been a lot of studies and reports showing that these techniques that fall under the category of forensic science are at best flawed and at worse, incredibly dangerous. So for instance, fingerprints, as I was talking about earlier, contrary to popular belief, it is not actually known or proven that all fingerprints are unique, rendering the fictional depiction of a match, virtually meaningless. UCLA School of Law Dean Jennifer Mnookin has posited that the massive size of the FBI’s fingerprint database may make erroneous matches even more likely.

Adam: Then there’s hair analysis. The FBI’s overstated the accuracy of hair analysis for decades. In 2015, The Washington Post reported that the Justice Department and FBI had formerly acknowledged that quote, “nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.” This is what the FBI openly admits to so it’s probably much more severe than that. Hair analysis, as John Oliver notes in his segment on this, is total bullshit. It is, of all these, probably the most bullshit other than maybe teeth marks.

Nima: Yeah maybe bite marks. That’s, that is really, really, really bullshit. But bloodstain pattern analysis, blood spatter analysis, is another really problematic pseudoscience in itself. A 2018 ProPublica report chronicled how blood spatter analysis became established as a forensic method through a series of precedents, as Adam was saying, just through a series of precedents throughout the US despite actually having no scientific justification for why it is hailed as authoritative, right? So it’s just the fact that it was admitted in court that then set precedent for it to then be allowed in other cases moving forward.

Adam: Fire pattern matching as well is total bullshit. Fire pattern analysis has put a lot of people in jail erroneously. Lie detection, this is an insidious cousin of forensic science. It is the idea that you can perceive people lying by taking a polygraph using body language analysis and this is something relied on very much so by career prosecutors. There was an MSNBC contributor, Joyce Vance, a now kind of infamous tweet in October of 2019 saying quote “As a prosecutor, I was taught that when a witness looks down & to the right as they answer, it’s a signal they are not being truthful.” This led to a torrent of outrage by legal experts and law reformers who really like have a problem, this is, by the way, this is a very commonly held thing as we’ll discuss with our guest, it’s very popular in television shows. But studies have shown that body language cues, particularly correlation between eye movement and lying, reveal nothing and have no scientific basis. The idea that Vance or the prosecutors were taught this, it kind of originated in the 1970s by a now debunk self-help philosophy known as Neuro-Linguistic Programming, this form of pop psychology spread throughout the business seminars and TED Talks and other channels, but has zero scientific backing. A 2012 experiment conducted in the UK in which 32 people were told true and false stories found no differences between the directions of their eye movements. These clues are also rooted in an ableist logic that discriminates against people who might be uncomfortable or have trouble making eye contact in general, so they will oftentimes accuse people of lying who simply have social anxiety disorders.

Nima: The Innocence Project has cataloged DNA exoneration cases in which unvalidated or improper forensic science contributed to the underlying wrongful conviction. Of the first 225 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing all the way up through February 1st of 2009 more than 50 percent of those, so 116 cases, involved unvalidated or improper forensic science.

Adam: And this has had a negative effect on the perception of jurors. Obviously both the pop culture would discuss, but also news programs. The New York Times recently did a piece in November of last year called “Catching Killers by Matching Tiny Marks on Bullets.” Jessica Brand, who again works at the Justice Collaborative, roundly condemned this piece as having no basis at all. The article discusses how law enforcement agencies are using quote “tiny marks on bullets” and ejected shell casings as evidence in criminal cases. Uh, the whole thing had sort of a fawning PR tone, but several criminal justice experts have condemned the piece as being basically just total pseudoscience. And again, we cannot stress this enough and this is one of the things that journalists keep missing when they talk about this, is that they’re not finding people that they otherwise would not have found with these techniques. They’re confirming people they already think did it. And this is going to come up in our discussion of bite marks specifically is that it’s not as if they’re taking the evidence and using it to find a clue. They’re basically doing parallel construction. They already have someone and they’re manipulating this techno woo woo to reinforce their preexisting theory.

Nima: Which winds up being incredibly compelling to a jury, right?

Adam: Right. Cause the jury doesn’t make a distinction and the way it plays out on TV shows is the opposite. In TV shows, it’s usually, they usually sort of catch someone they otherwise would not have caught as opposed to just confirming their theory.

Nima: So then the jury thinks that that’s how these people were actually found as opposed to what the prosecution is doing to allegedly prove the guilt that is their job to prove.

Adam: Yeah. And so one of the things that emerged in the early two thousands, it was called the “CSI Effect.” What courts and court reporters and court journalists and prosecutors were noticing is that juries kept asking questions about forensics that were clearly informed by CSI, which was an immensely popular show, has, you know, several spin-offs and prosecutors very savily tried to make the CSI Effect something that worked against their favor. They said that in all these credulous media repeated it, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly said that it was actually harming prosecutor’s ability to do their job because people had high expectations about what forensics could do. Now, intuitively, this sounds like bullshit, which was later confirmed that basically prosecutors got ahead of the story and said, ‘oh no, no, no, it’s actually hurting us.’ And Media reports suggested that it was actually working against prosecutor’s favor, but then people, and this was repeated in CBS News, US News and World Report, The LA Times and some of them like NPR would sort of say, ‘oh, prosecutors say it works against them, defense attorneys say it works against them, but who knows…both sides.” But there was multiple studies that came out in the two thousands that examine this and found that of course, it’s quite the opposite, that the sexed up forensics gave people an undue deference to prosecutors and the kind of mythos and sexy imagery of forensic science.

Nima: So for instance, there was a 2003 study from the California State University at Bakersfield, which concluded that, quote:

“heavy [crime drama] viewers may perceive crime as threatening, offenders as violent, brutal or ruthless and victims as helpless. These inaccurate presentations, as well as the portrayal of crime as inevitable/non-preventable may lead to an increase in the fear of crime.”

The report added quote:

“Regular viewers of crime drama are more likely to fear crime. Television portrayal of crime and justice is largely sensational, violent and fear producing. Viewers may receive a ‘distorted’ image of the typical crime or criminal, which may produce fear or anxiety about criminal activity.”

Adam: Kimberlianne Podlas, Assistant Professor of Media Law at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, published a study called “‘The CSI Effect’: Exposing the Media Myth” in 2005. Podlas asked 306 undergraduates and graduate students to select a verdict of guilty or not guilty based on a hypothetical rape case. Her findings refuted much of the media reports around the CSI Effect. Podlas said quote:

“Although not the focus of the instant study, the data hints at…a pro-prosecution effect. Interestingly, in some instances, a lower proportion of CSI viewers rendered ‘not guilty’ verdicts relying on CSI reasons. Consequently, CSI viewers might be more stringent in assessing evidence, more educated in concepts of proof, or better prepared for jury duty. Furthermore, an astounding numbers of respondents, generally, rendered ‘guilty’ verdicts. Based on the criminal law scenario, however, such ‘guilty’ verdicts were completely unfounded.

“Although the media warns that a ‘CSI Effect’ is seducing jurors into legally-unjustifiable ‘not guilty’ verdicts and unwarranted demands for proof of guilt beyond any and all doubt, the empirical results here suggest otherwise. Indeed, the data strongly denies the existence of any negative effect of CSI on ‘not guilty’ verdicts, provided that ‘negative’ is defined as improper.”

She ultimately concluded:

“If there is any effect of CSI, it is to exalt the infallibility of forensic evidence, favor the prosecution, or pre-dispose jurors toward findings of guilt.”

So again, you had this problem where people knew there was an effect and then they somehow spun it as we’re working against them. But data since then has shown, and of course I think common sense kind of shows, that that’s obviously not the case.

Nima: Well, because obviously the shows that depict forensic science, they’re not bringing that into the courtroom and then they’re just like all these acquittals, right? Like it doesn’t go that way. It is always about conviction. And so the heroes of the TV show are doing the thing that is always going to have the effect of putting people in prison. So obviously the CSI Effect is going to be pro=prosecutor, pro-police not the other way around. And you see that this is, you know, rampant in our media this idea, this like fantastical notion that these things work is really deeply embedded. The CBS affiliate KPIX in San Francisco in February 2017 had this article, quote, “Scientists Find Way To Use DNA In Hair Samples To Solve Crimes.” July of 2017 VICE News had this story, quote, “Police Can Now Track Bullet Casings Like Fingerprints” end quote. ABC Action News from August 2018 quote “Local sheriff’s office finding more criminals through advances in fingerprint technology” end quote. Time at the beginning of 2019 quote, “How to Tell If Someone Is Lying to You, According to Body Language Experts.”

Adam: Yeah, and so there’s always media willing to sort of do the next credulous sexy tech thing and they’ll always qualify it with, you know, ‘the data’s not in yet,’ but they’re always happy to do the promotion and of course they’re always conflating solving crime with getting convictions and those are not the same thing.

Nima: To discuss this more, we’re going to be joined by Aviva Shen, Senior editor at Slate.com. Previously senior editor at ThinkProgress and The Appeal, Aviva’s work has also appeared in The Guardian, CityLab, Scientific American, and Smithsonian Magazine. She’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Aviva Shen. Aviva, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Aviva Shen: Thanks for having me.

Adam: I think a lot of people have kind of gotten the memo that it’s all bullshit. I know that a lot of people listening for the first time may think, ‘okay, well this can’t be the case. This is sort of too common. This has been around for so long. I’ve seen it in all these shows.’ Can we sort of give a primer on how the conversation around forensics has shifted in recent years? We note at the top of the show that there’s been more mainstream push back against these systems. There’s been attempts to kind of bring in some kind of neutral scientific rigor to the process. Can we talk about the degree to which these standards are changing in some jurisdictions and the extent to which I think for the most part they’re more or less kept the same?

Aviva Shen: Yeah. I think it’s important to recognize that most of these fields, if not all of them, started as law enforcement just kind of making things up and telling their friends basically what worked for them and that’s kind of where all of this came from. And that was really not questioned for a long time until I think most people put the real turning point in 2009, so 10 years ago, the National Academy of Science put out this really big report basically determining that most fields of forensic science, aside from DNA, were completely unproven and some of them were downright fabricated. And it wasn’t going so far to say that every field was totally made up, but it was saying there is no scientific basis for any of these techniques. And so that was sort of the big generating point of all of this discussion. And that’s when there was a lot more kind of rigorous challenge and more policymakers started talking about it. But still things had been really slow to actually change on the ground for the people who are being convicted with these methods.

Adam: It seems like one thing people have a hard time getting their head around is this idea that the sort of technological theater of it, that there’s a difference between convicting people and finding the guilty party and that these techniques are very valuable at convicting people, but the way they’re presented in pop culture generally is that they’ll sort of use the technique and that’ll eliminate a suspect or kind of lead them to a suspect they didn’t have. But what people don’t really appreciate is that many times, and I think it’s fair to say the vast majority of times based on what I’ve read, is that they already have a guy and they need to lend some kind of scientific verisimilitude to their case and they use these techniques to do that.

Aviva Shen: Right.

Adam: To what extent is there kind of a theater involved in this and is that something that people maybe have a hard time kind of rewiring their brain? Cause I think we usually assume that these are gotcha techniques to find people they hadn’t thought of but it is sort of parallel construction. They already kind of have the person they want and they make things look like they’re the person who did it.

Aviva Shen: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I think the court room is always a theater and prosecutors know this really well. I think the point is not to conclusively prove someone scientifically did it, it’s to convince a jury that this is the right person. And so that involves trotting out an expert, calling him an expert, having him dress up in a white coat saying to the jury, I have determined that this is the person who did this with reasonable scientific certainty. Or sometimes they’ll even make up a percentage like ‘I am 99.5 percent sure based on the fact that I looked at this bullet and it matches that gun according to what my eyeballs are telling me.’ And I think, you know, jurors are really persuaded by that kind of thing and we’ve seen over and over again hundreds of people potentially being exonerated based on different junk science being used in their trials.

Nima: Yeah, I think we’ve seen the National Registry of Exonerations has documented over 550 cases just in the past 30 years in which someone was convicted on false or misleading forensic evidence and later cleared, obviously that is probably a drop in the bucket compared to how many people have actually been put in prison because of really just this kind of junk science. And as we talk about theater and we talk about convincing juries and, you know, what are juries if not just people, right? And so how do you, how do you convince people? And so much of that as we’ve been talking about on this episode is through pop culture, namely TV crime shows, forensic shows. And so today for this interview Aviva, we thought it would be really fun to do something a little different rather than just ask you questions and you have already given us amazing answers, but we wanted to watch a few of these clips from TV with you, making sure to describe what’s happening to our listening audience. So we would love to kind of go through some clips of TV forensics, both including like drama series, cop series and also some reality TV. And we just want to dissect why each of these clips is problematic and how real life prosecutors attempt to push very similar pseudoscience if not junk science in the courtroom. So we thought we would start off by one of the most notable well known elements of forensic science: fingerprinting. This is used endlessly in shows like say CSI. So why don’t we start with that one?

Adam: Technically this is CSI Miami.

Nima: Oh, sorry. Right. With Caruso.

[Begin CSI Miami Clip]

Woman: Is that Kathleen Newberry’s shirt?

Caine: As a matter of fact it is. See once it dried, the pattern revealed itself. You see this discoloration right here?

Woman: Looks like the tread from a boot.

Caine: What I initially thought was a “V” is actually a “W.”

Adam: Oh. Okay.

Woman: And that’s the logo for Woodridge hunting boots.

Caine: Yes, it is. [Printer beeping]

Nima: I love his breathy voice.

Caine: The stain has diesel fuel in it.

Woman: Fortunately, that fuel preserved the pattern for us.

Caine: Let’s bring in Mr. Ted Wallace.

[End CSI Miami Clip]

Adam: (Laughing.)

Nima: (Laughing) Oh yeah.

Aviva Shen: (Laughing) The breathy voice, he does sound kind of like turned on by what he is seeing.

Adam: He’s like looking at her and it’s like a 12 degree angle. He’s like, he’s like, looking out the window and like glancing back at her for literally no reason.

Nima: It’s so good. So when we talk about fingerprinting, boot printing, what are you seeing here and uh, how was the assumed authority of fingerprints often misunderstood?

Aviva Shen: Yeah, well I guess the listeners can’t see, but again, it’s with the white coat and the fancy lab, it’s like all very, very scientific. There’s a computer that just spits out exactly who this fingerprint belongs to within seconds. I mean, I think, yeah, like it is sort of conventional wisdom that we’re all taught that everyone has a unique fingerprint that’ll identify them. But obviously we don’t know that for sure because you’d have to test every single person in the world. And so there’s no real way to tell that this fingerprint didn’t belong to someone else. And, and also it’s so hard to get a full perfect fingerprint like he seems to be doing by running this through so many interesting solutions and fancy lights and things like that. Like the best often that you get is a partial print or maybe a smudged print and you run that through a database maybe and just make a guess basically, or you have a computer now make a guess. But it’s still, again, just pattern matching that it doesn’t conclusively prove that this print could only belong to this person, even though that is sort of what people assume. And I think it also, you know, people who might know about other kinds of junk science like might not actually realize that fingerprints fall into this category too.

Adam: Yeah. So the FBI found that fingerprint, did their own study, found that there is an error in one out of 300 cases. There was another study that said it’s as high as one in every 18 cases. And a third study said 169 fingerprint examiners found that 7.5 percent false negative rates. So we’re talking pretty significant. And of course that’s driven by the fact that again, we have this idea that they take a fingerprint and he does this where he puts it into the little machine, this kind of sexy UI and then outcomes 99.5 percent with this like fingerprint database they have. But of course many times, and we’ll talk about this with teeth marks too but, they already have a guy, they have his fingerprint and they’re trying to make it sort of look like the thing they found at the crime scene.

Aviva Shen: Right. This is another thing about this clip that I guess listeners can’t see is like, it’s like a nice blonde lady who comes up on the screen, which is rarely the case in real criminal labs.

Adam: Right, exactly. It’s some poor black kid they found. Um, all right, so let’s move on to the next ones. Next up is bite mark analysis. This is mega bullshit. So we’re gonna watch a scene from Law & Order SVU where they, they have the smug doctor who’s a suspect, who of course did it, if you’re a doctor in Law & Order the odds that you did at or about a 100 percent, and they can’t get his teeth marks cause the victim has bite marks and so their brilliant plan is to give him a stick of gum.

[Begin Law & Order SVU Clip]

Woman #1: He didn’t have one scratch on him.

Woman #2: Maybe she didn’t hit skin. He on the other hand, left us three good impressions on this gum. Canine, premolar and molar.

Woman #1: Thought he’d never spit it out.

Woman #2: Thank god, he didn’t swallow it. The deepest bite marks were on Gabrielle’s breasts. This is my computer generated recreation of one pre-slash. [beep, beep, beep].

Woman #1: It looks like a match.

Woman #2: Enough to compel an order for a full forensic cast. I think you found your guy.

[End Law & Order SVU Clip]

Nima: (Laughing)

Adam: (Laughing) So, lets talk about bite marks.

Aviva Shen: There’s so much wrong with that. (Laughs.)

Nima: (Laughs) Yeah.

Adam: Which are one of the ones on here that was actually had, I know Texas banned the use of bite marks. This is now becoming, I think it’s kind of widely accepted now that it’s total bullshit.

Nima: But not wide enough that there aren’t still many people in prison who were convicted because of this bullshit.

Adam: Yes, there are literally hundreds of people convicted primarily or secondarily based on bite marks.

Aviva Shen: Right. And I think Radley Balko and Chris Fabricant of the Innocence Project have done a lot of work on this, but besides the obvious kind of scientific problems with it, where you’re literally just looking at a mark and trying to compare it to someone’s mouth, there’s so many racist implications. I went to a forensics conference a few years ago where there was a forensic odontologist who showed slides of bites and he was just talking about how this perpetrator was such an animal and he was so out of control. And I think it’s clearly dehumanizing and it’s also scary for people to imagine like who is this person who is just going around biting people? And a lot of times the bite marks don’t even turn out to be actual bite marks. They’re just, you know, scars or just marks on people’s skin that a jury can be convinced has something to do with the crime.

Nima: As long as you have the gum to prove it.

Aviva Shen: (Chuckles.) Right. Yeah. That’s another thing that was so wild about that and so kind of problematic, as Law & Order always is, because that is actually something that NYPD is doing that, you know, there was a New York Times report a couple of months ago that was talking about how they gave a 12 year old boy a soda and then took his DNA from it and they have something like 80,000 people in this database that they’ve just collected. And I think it’s things like this in pop culture that kind of makes people okay with that kind of thing because you think that everyone in that database is inherently criminal in some way.

Nima: Yeah. Which brings us to maybe one of my favorite genres of crime show evident say in The Mentalist and Lie to Me, the idea that you can read people’s physical traits or characteristics or ticks.

Adam: Which was like the coolest thing in 2008, that was like, there was like 18 shows about some bad ass white guy who came in and be like, ‘he looks at the floor, he killed Kennedy.’

Nima: (Laughs) Exactly. So this is, this is often called demeanor evidence, so we’re going to listen to a couple of clips. We’re going to start with The Mentalist.

[Begin The Mentalist Clip]

Jane: This campsite, you want it. You wish you owned it.

Man: I do. How’d you know?

Jane: Pupil dilation

Lisbon: Pupil dilation?

Jane: When someone sees something they want, their pupils dilate.

Adam: Sure, why not?

Man: Pupil dilation.

Nima: Pupil dilation. Just keep saying it.

Man: That’s fantastic.

Jane: Yes, it is.

[End The Mentalist Clip]

Adam: Then we have Lie to Me, which is like this on steroids.

Nima: So, this is Tim Roth giving a lecture about his use of demeanor evidence.

[Begin Lie to Me Clip]

Lightman: Now what you just saw there was a brief expression of happiness on his face, which he was trying his best to conceal. It lasted for less than a fifth of a second. That’s what we call a micro-expression. Now look at his mouth. The suspect is secretly happy about the locations we are searching, which tells me we have the wrong locations…Now I tell him of our new plan, and…classic one-sided shrug. Translation: ‘I have absolutely no confidence in what I just said.’ The body contradicts the words. He’s lying. Yeah.

Man #1: When you accuse a suspect and they act surprised, is there a way to tell if it’s real or if he’s just trying to look innocent?

Lightman: (Things smashing, glass breaking) Now that’s real surprise. It lasts for less than a second when it comes across the face.

Nima: What you didn’t see is Tim Roth like destroying something to freak everyone out.

Lightman: He’s lying. Now I call out this target is actually Lawton and watch it again. Concealed scorn. One personal tip, you see this micro expression in your spouse’s face, your marriage is coming to an end. Trust me. Yeah.

Man #2: Don’t these micro expressions vary depending on the person.

Lightman: Let’s leave this up and we’ll go to the Kato Kaelin footage from the OJ trial.

Lawyer (on screen): Mr. Kaelin you’ve gotten a lot of money for your appearance on Current Affair didn’t you?

Kato Kaelin (on screen): Um, yeah.

Lightman: Scorn. Scorn. Huge scorn. Shame, shame and shame. Contempt. These expressions are universal.

[End Lie to Me Clip]

Adam: He’s you’re showing pictures of people showing similar emotions. It’s all very dramatic.

Nima: Huge scorn was Dick Cheney and then the final shame was Bill Clinton incidentally.

Adam: So this is not technically forensics, but it is a common police tactic that leads to arrests and later of course ends up putting people in jail. So Joyce Vance, who is a MSNBC contributor and a was a US attorney under Barack Obama — other than maybe CIA agents ex-prosecutors are now on MSNBC more than anyone — there was some bullshit story about Mike Pence or Belieber or whatever Ukraine investigation subject was being interviewed on Face the Nation and she said, quote, “As a prosecutor, I was taught that when a witness looks down & to the right as they answer, it’s a signal they are not being truthful.”

Nima: Oh yeah. Cut and dry. (Laughing)

Aviva Shen: Yes.

Adam: So this of course is total pseudoscience, but can we talk about this whole cottage industry that emerged of like micro expressions and the extent to which you could sort of tease truth based on people’s like physical expressions.

Aviva Shen: Right, because all humans have the same exact expressions and facial tics.

Adam: Based on whether or not they are lying.

Aviva Shen: Yeah, I mean I think hopefully people get that that’s not true, but it is sort of what, what fuels the belief in lie detectors and things like that where, you know, you just assume that people are readable in some way, In a much more common, maybe this isn’t forensics, but in a much more common kind of iteration of this, a defendant’s remorse is usually part of what determines what their sentence is.

Adam: And for parole boards too.

Aviva Shen: Right, exactly. If they’re not acting in a way that people conventionally understand to be remorseful and if they’re not like sobbing or, you know, if they seem like they’re sitting up too straight or looking kind of cocky.

Nima: Right, too defensive, or too confident, yeah.

Aviva Shen: Right. Then maybe they’ll get a few more years and it’s purely based on how we perceive other people’s body language too.

Adam: The Smithsonian did a study or rather did a meta study and determined that it was total bullshit. I know that some have argued — and I think quite convincingly that it’s also ableist — that people who have social anxiety disorders or have autism are not gonna like respond in the same way.

Nima: If you’re on like the autism spectrum, then obviously you’re the quote unquote perceived “normalcy” of how you interact is really gonna work against you. Or depending on what your IQ is like that, I mean, which is in itself a problematic metric, but like, you know, you can see that like on Making a Murderer, you can see how these tapes of people acting in a certain way that doesn’t comport with what either the cops expect or mainstream America expects, can condemn people to prison for the rest of their lives.

Aviva Shen: Right. And I think also leaving aside autism or disabilities, a police interrogation is deeply traumatic. Or being in front of a judge is deeply traumatic. People’s reactions might not be how they normally might otherwise react to something. The pressure that they’re being put under. There are some assumptions about how putting someone under pressure is going to show you, make them crack and like show you who, who they truly are. But it could be exactly the opposite as we’ve seen time and again with false confessions and things like that.

Nima: No, totally. It’s like, you know, if someone has like nervous laughter, then it’s like ‘they’re laughing in the face of the crime, put them away forever.’

Aviva Shen: Exactly.

Nima: This actually brings us to I think possibly my favorite one of these, which is blood spatter analysis. Probably just because I’ve watched every episode of Dexter and so the, so the fact that this is also, you know, largely junk science is totally fascinating. So we’re going to actually watch a clip from Dexter.

Adam: Yeah. So if you look at this clip, he’s got this blood and he puts this like, these pieces of red yarn directed towards a single point that is supposed to determine the sort of the origin of the slashing or the intrusion.

Nima: And obviously the best part is that Dexter himself is a serial killer, but he also works as a blood spatter analyst for the Miami PD.

Adam: Right.

Nima: So yeah, it’s all pretty great. Let’s watch.


[Begin Dexter Clip]

Dexter: Look at the blood spatter. Look at the patterns. It tells a story. You see this big pond of blood right there? That’s when the initial stab, the male victim was standing right here when the killer plunged his knife into the shoulder, severing the carotid artery, and (raspberry). Notice the long, thick, heavy drips?

Man: Yeah, nice.

Dexter: Now, over here, you have nice, clean sprays of blood. And that can only happen when you’re holding something light and moving quick. Nice, sharp slices through the body. No splashes, no drips. Clean and easy. This guy knew how to use a blade.

Man: So we’re looking for a sushi chef?

Dexter: Yeah, sushi chef is possible. Wouldn’t be my first choice, but hey, you never know. (Camera shutter clicks.)

Man: Now what?

Dexter: Now I eat.

[End Dexter Clip]

Nima: All right. I think actually all of these techniques really speak to what Dexter says at the beginning of that clip. It’s that it’s the storytelling aspect to it, that these things really create stories for juries or investigators to then try and understand what happened in a way that is much more accessible to them. Humans are storytelling, pattern-seeking animals, right? And so like this idea of story that you can follow the trickle of blood and you can work your way back and like paint this whole picture of what actually happened, I think that’s what makes these things so compelling, despite the fact that they are completely non-scientific.

Aviva Shen: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, overall it makes people think there’s a lot more rigor going into police work than just ‘we picked this guy up on the side of the road because he was wearing similar clothes and that was it, that’s all we have.’

Adam: ProPublica had a really good review of bloodstain pattern analysis and one of the things that they document, which I found interesting, was that the degree to which so much of this, and this is the problem with a lot of these, it’s just based on precedent that something gets precedent in Texas or Arkansas and then a later prosecutor will say, this court upheld it and the judge goes, ‘well, okay,’ so this, this idea of like the mother’s milk of law is precedent, but then you get this feedback loop where the reference point is not some objective or neutral science ot’s what other judges have bought into and no judge in the, in the course the problem because no judge wants to sort of buck the trend. Blood pattern analysis started in Mississippi, worked to Michigan, California, Ohio, etcetera, etcetera, over from the fifties, sixties and seventies as sort of being admissible. Now it’s admissible in pretty much every state except for strangely enough North Dakota. To what extent is there this fear of breaking the mold for both prosecutors, but obviously defense attorneys, of kind of breaking the mold and saying, ‘guys, this is bullshit.’ Is that something that if they said that they would just sort of be dismissed out of court or would they say, ‘well that’s not, you can’t really litigate that here?’

Aviva Shen: Yeah, I mean I would guess probably some defense attorneys would raise that, but yeah, I think ProPublica identified that core issue, which is that the way that precedent works in courts is that it’s the inverse of the scientific method where you start with a hypothesis and see if you can prove it and then other scientists attempt to independently replicate your results. So right now those two fields are going in opposite directions where there’s more scientific recognition that these fields are not grounded in real science and can’t necessarily be replicated but then courts are not really responding to that. And it may be that the defense attorneys are, I don’t really know how much defense attorneys are raising these things. I think in a lot of cases they might not. Maybe there are like tactical grounds or, you know, they don’t want to anger the judge. But I think it’s really on the judges to recognize this. Like that is the judge’s job to assess the evidence and decide whether it is legitimate enough to admit. And I think if the courtroom is a place of performance or if it’s a theater, like the judge is supposed to be, sorry to use kind of a corny analogy that we’ve been using, but if the courtroom is a theater, the judge is supposed to be the director and the judge has power to reject that and maybe that sets a precedent. Maybe it doesn’t. But I think it’s really on the judges to actually take that step because the defense attorney can raise it but they might not get anywhere.

Nima: It doesn’t have to be accepted.

Aviva Shen: Right.

Nima: So this actually brings us to, let’s do the second blood spatter clip. This is from the show 48 Hours, This is not a drama show, it’s not scripted. It is a reality show.

[Begin 48 Hours Clip]

Man: I think what’s important for us is that our viewers understand each of the terms cause we’re talking about these terms in the interviews and I just want to be able to illustrate them.

Woman: Okay.

Man: When we talk about impact spatter, what does that mean?

Woman: Impact spatter is for supplied to liquid blood. So I’m going to pour some of our artificial blood here into my hand and I’m going to punch it and that’s force going into a blood source.

Man: The force impacts the blood and the blood spatters.

Woman: Yes, and then the blood breaks up into smaller drops.

Man: It’s impact. That’s one way blood gets out.

Woman: You can see how it’s radiating out. We have some smaller stains with some directionality up to the top.

[End 48 Hours Clip]

Nima: In the clip, this 48 Hours clip, they’re both, you know, there’s this man and this woman both wearing lab coats in like a, you know, pristine environment. I mean it basically looks like the Dexter Morgan kill room.

Adam: So the 2009 National Academy of Science study you referenced said quote, “The uncertainties associated with blood pattern analysis are enormous and that the experts opinions were generally more subjective than scientific.” Subsequently, the Department of Justice, not exactly a liberal organization, raised questions about the experts methods and conclusion, but a, it’s still practiced. It’s still extremely common despite the National Academy of Science and the Department of Justice saying ‘eh kind of bullshit.’

Aviva Shen: Yeah. I wonder how many people have tried to go into blood spatter analysis thanks to Dexter.

Adam: Well, apparently it receives a lot of money. There’s a lot of money that goes into studying it because I think there’s this weird thing where, and you come up against this a lot in this where there’s a sort of crisis where you come to this head,, where everyone realizes that there’s basically hundreds and thousands of people in jail based on bullshit. There’s a fundamental crisis of forensics where if that happens you have potentially a massive civil rights lawsuit and so there’s all this money, interestingly enough, after the Department of Justice study that goes into like proving all these things, so now there’s this cottage market of going back and being like, actually they’re correct because the alternative is just too much.

Nima: The implications are so stark and terrifying.

Adam: Yes.

Aviva Shen: Yeah. Yeah. I think it is sort of an existential question for forensics at this point after that study and a couple other big ones that have been done since then, where is any of it valid? And yeah, there is a lot resting on this idea of like, well, can we actually create some kind of scientific basis for these things? Can we create some kind of standard that actually works and can be replicated objectively? And maybe that’s worth spending money on. But I can think of some other things that might be better to spend money on.

Adam: Yeah, the DoJ has granted lots of money to basically going back and proving these things. It’s under the auspices of like cleaning it up, but really it’s a bit of preserving the status quo, which you know, makes sense. Right?

Aviva Shen: Right. I think under Obama there was, they created this National Commission on Forensic Science, which was a lot of actual scientists who were trying to figure out, you know, if there was any real basis to any of these things and try to come up with real basis for them. But as soon as Jeff Sessions came into office, he immediately disbanded that commission. So it basically just sent a message to every prosecutor in the country and every lab in the country. This is kind of a free for all now.

Nima: So let’s do this final clip from the show The First 48, which documents recently committed crimes and the detectives that are trying to use forensics or use their investigations in the first two days of the crime being committed, which is apparently the window in which it is most likely to catch the suspect. So, this is about ballistics from The First 48.


[Begin The First 48 Clip]

Man: This is called a comparison microscope. Basically is two microscopes that are mounted together with an optical bridge. It allows me to see an object mounted on the right and left stages side by side in the field of view and to look for marks that have been transferred in the firing in a firearm.

Adam: So he’s like shooting a gun into water.

Man: Well in comparing the evidence cartridge cases to the standards fired in the gun I’ve determined that the marks match.

[End The First 48 Clip]

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Well, you know what’s funny with these things is they always —

Nima: Matching patterns. Matching patterns.

Adam: Is they always have these lab coats on and like gloves, but it’s like you’re not, you don’t need that.

Aviva Shen: Using your eyeballs to look at two different things. That’s it.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: There’s always the like the trappings of science that they do that’s so funny to me because it’s like there’s no reason why the guy needs a lab coat. It’s literally just to play, it’s theater.

Nima: Right. The bullet he’s examining is the one he just fired.

Aviva Shen: (Laughs.)

Nima: (Laughing) Like it’s not, he doesn’t need to keep that pristine. He’s just looking at it.

Adam: It’s weird. He has a picture of the other bullet. He doesn’t, he’s not like, there’s no evidence that needs to be preserved. Anyway.

Aviva Shen: And it’s just impossible to match an individual bullet to an individual gun. There’s just no way, at least as far as we know at this point, maybe someone will magically come up with a way to do that.

Adam: So I want to get a verdict here of, of all this stuff we talked about and even this stuff we didn’t have time to talk about, of all these techniques and tactics, both forensics and also kind of police work. What is the biggest bullshit?

Aviva Shen: I mean, I think you’re right that bite mark is definitely the most bullshit of these, but I don’t know, there’s just so many weird, there’s such a proliferation of weird pseudoscience in law enforcement that we just don’t know anything about really. Like, I don’t know, like one of my personal favorites is police hypnotism.

Adam: Right.

Nima: Oh, that’s a good one.

Aviva Shen: Which is, you know, there’s more recognition that that is not a real thing.

Adam: How common is that still? Is that?

Aviva Shen: Well there are still some states where it’s admissible and it’s used and it’s something that you can get accredited for. I think Dallas News had an article about how it was still being used in Texas and it was sort of phrased as, you know, ‘we’re just raising questions about whether or not this is a legitimate practice,’ but you know, obviously you get a lot of problems with that when you have police who are, who probably do have a suspect in mind, essentially leading a witness to remember something that maybe they don’t remember. But I think there’s just a lot of weird little things like that that we just don’t know about really because it’s so local and it’s only really playing out in state or county courtrooms or labs that people are getting grants to come up with other kind of weird experimental crime solving sciences. And so it is, like you said, a kind of a cottage industry that’s popped up.

Nima: So I know a lot of these clips are absurd primetime dramas and as we were saying, the storytelling aspect of these lends itself to making for compelling drama. But what responsibility really is there perhaps in those writing and producing these shows to not just fawn over the latest trend or the most interesting, weirdest piece of forensic science, but to actually acknowledge that by doing that they’re creating this like PR effect that’s very pro-police, pro-prosecutor that really does have very damaging effects.

Aviva Shen: Yeah, I do have some optimism on this question. I think it is a really tempting story for media to think that you can just, like Sherlock Holmes, like notice a detail of how someone glanced to the right and find the criminal. And I think all of this is kind of, is dressed up to suggest that criminal procedure is just above bias and there are just people who are objectively criminal and objectively victims too and you can just tell who they are if you look hard enough. But I think that maybe more recently there’s some signs for cautious optimism just because there is more widespread recognition that these shows are kind of based on BS. And I think there’s a really good and terrifying story to tell too about how all of this can be used against you and suddenly your whole life gets turned around. And, you know, I think there is some tiny shift in pop culture that there’s, you know the Netflix show about the Central Park Five was really popular.

Adam: Yeah that was kind of the first ever, and I think, there was like the first time you ever really saw, and I keep referencing it actually in a lot of the work I do in terms of media criticism cause there’s not, there is not a, at least there hasn’t been since like the sixties there hasn’t, there’s not like a pop culture anecdote. There’s not like something else you can turn to and be like, ‘here’s an example of good pop culture that shows how police make shit up’ and you know, star view and turn on the lights and don’t let you sleep and then get, you know what I mean? Like there’s not really a, there’s so much, it’s just a torrent of just nonstop copaganda and that’s the first time I saw a pop culture product and apparently the highest streamed thing that Netflix ever had.

Nima: This is When They See Us, the Ava DuVerney.

Aviva Shen: When They See Us, yeah.

Adam: That was, it’s like, that was it. It’s like one versus the other thousands of, but it’s a threshold I think. I do think there’s going to be more effort. There are shows now that are even trying to focus on, on defense attorneys finally after, you know, cause we talked about that at the beginning of the show in the sixties that was pretty common and then basically went away in the nineties and two thousands.

Aviva Shen: Yeah. And I think, like you said, the popularity of that show and the fact that Linda Fairstein, who was the inspiration for Olivia Benson on Law & Order SVU and was responsible for the prosecution of these five kid, you know, she’s been completely ostracized so.

Adam: And they’re good friends. You know, they’re all buddies like Dick Wolf’s friends with her, they’re all friends together.

Aviva Shen: Right. Totally. It’s like the same people who are all putting this media out. But yeah. So I don’t know, I guess I, I am optimistic that maybe media is latching onto the fact that there is another exciting and horrible story to tell that is maybe a little more interesting and maybe connecting more to people than the who-done-it kind of typical true crime narrative.

Adam: Can we talk about like what the state of this is? Like what are the efforts of reformers to try to like bring attention to this? Setting aside the pop culture aspect just to sort of, the substance of this and if this is a big of an existential crisis as we make it out to be, could there be a sort of like moment where there’s a tipping point where we really do start talking about letting people out of jail or will we just keep trying to negotiate it slowly sort of chip at it over the next 10, 15 years?

Aviva Shen: Yeah. I really don’t know if I can give you optimism on that cause I just feel like we’ve taken like major steps back. We have the information now to do with what we will. Some states are starting to ban certain kinds of practices. I think maybe that could keep going. Texas, you know, was the first they passed the first law in the nation to allow people to challenge their convictions based on if their trials-

Adam: Texas. Of all places.

Aviva Shen: Yeah. I mean they have a lot of it, uh, based on the basis if new scientific evidence or false or misleading evidence was used in their convictions. So that’s really encouraging. But, you know, I think it really comes back to what we were talking about earlier about the judges and letting go of this theater in the courtroom because the tools are there to challenge these things. We have the information that these fields are bullshit. And so it really just, you just have to get a few judges to turn the tide and then suddenly you have a body of precedent that you can rely on.

Adam: Yeah. And like any kind of criminal justice quote unquote “reform” things you always talk about like how can we fix this in the future? But the thing that you always sort of forget is that there are, you know, thousands of people in jail based on this technique.

Nima: Yeah there are people suffering right now.

Adam: We’re like, we’re joking here, but it’s actually, again the, there’s a feedback loop. Pop culture informs our general feeling about these and jury pools make up people who consume these products unfortunately. And so I think it’s like, how do you, I don’t think scolding potential television writers into quote unquote “doing better” is going to do much difference, but it could do some difference. Like, you know, just sort of general critically thinking about how you contribute to those things I think can be valuable, which is a bit a bit scoldy but I don’t know.

Aviva Shen: And I think the media does really like stories about wrongful convictions and there are just so many and they’re so obvious here, you know, people are just clearly like I think you know Liliana Segura has done a lot of really great storytelling and Pamela Colloff has also done some and so I think there are models, it’s maybe harder to get those stories but they are out there and I think it definitely is the responsibility of the media to find them and tell those stories.

Nima: Well that is a perfect place for us to leave it. Thank you so much Aviva Shen for taking the time to talk about forensic science with us. Aviva, Senior editor at Slate. Previously Senior Editor at ThinkProgress and The Appeal, her work has also appeared in The Guardian, CityLab, Scientific American, and Smithsonian Magazine and elsewhere. Aviva, thank you so much again for talking to us today on Citations Needed.

Aviva Shen: Thanks.


Adam: Pop culture stuff is interesting cause it’s obviously difficult to show causality, but um, you know, the, the kind of general leap we make, the general supposition we make on the show is a pop culture does actually influence how people think about the world.

Nima: I think that’s an understatement.

Adam: Yeah. I mean look, it’s, it’s, there are other, there are other proxies you can use to measure these things. All the President’s Men comes out and then journalism school applications go at 50 percent the next year. I mean there’s, you know, obviously these sort of other things you can use as a proxy Top Gun and Naval Academy applications blah, blah, blah. I think that so much of the tough on crime thing was fueled by this, you know, one of the things they did really well was this idea of like victim’s rights that they’re standing up for victims. Because I think intuitively people don’t like bullies. Well, most people don’t, but you know, a lot of, some people do, but most people don’t. And so you have to kind of massage that with this reverse, it’s sort of like how the right-wing is defined by a kind of perverse class war. Like they’re like ‘we’re actually standing up for victims’ and that these smarmy overpaid defense lawyers and one of the things that, there’s a paradox in Law & Order where I think something like 95 percent of the people that commit crimes in the show are white. But in, you know, obviously in reality the people who get locked up by the NYPD are black. Whether or not they quote unquote “do crime” is a separate issue. And on one hand you can say, well they’re not showing African Americans as criminal so that’s sort of good. But on the other hand you have this weird paradox where it actually makes people believe that the police are these like race neutral people going around arresting Upper Westside doctors instead of doing what they really do, which is what we saw in When They See Us, which is really just railroading poor black kids.

Nima: Exactly. Just like rounding up people of color. Of course.

Adam: Now, of course that doesn’t make for good drama. No one wants to watch like some cop stranglehold a black kid for 22 episodes a season. At some point you’re like, man, this seems kind of sick. Um, so there’s this weird thing where it works the perception of like how these techniques are used and again, they’re used as these earnest good faith discovery techniques.

Nima: As opposed to just like kind of working backwards. Exactly. No, I think that, you know, the reason why, um, the focus on pop culture is so important is yeah, is this kind of sensemaking and cultural work that really has huge effects on the way that we all perceive things. You know, I’m reminded of the Rebecca Solnit comment that, quote, “Politics rise out of culture and you can change some particular consequences through legislation and opposition but to change the causes is cultural work.” End quote.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: And so, yeah, you know, like how are we perceiving the world? And I think so much of that perception is shaped by media, both pop culture, entertainment and news media as we discuss on this show.

Adam: If you work in the industry, you want to write like dude, you know, think critically about whether or not you’re basically just doing public relations for the police and to know that there are other ways of doing it. Anyway. Basically what I’m saying is let’s reboot Matlock, I think is what I’m —

Nima: Right. Bring the defense attorneys back is really what we’re saying.

Adam: Bring back Matlock, who evidently never had a guilty client ever. Bring him back!

Nima: You heard it here folks. Matlock is the answer. That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. We are 100% listener funded and cannot thank you enough if you already do support us through Patreon and especially those who support us at the Critic-level. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Research and writing by Julianne Tveten. Newsletter is by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions by Morgan McAslan. And the music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, November 28, 2019.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.