I’ve been reading Radley Balko for a while and have gotten especially incensed at the ridiculous “expertise” of bite-mark expert Michael West and uncertified forensic pathologist Steven Hayne (who claimed to be able to tell from a bullet’s trajectory that two people were simultaneously holding the same gun), and I also remember reading a bit from Roger Koppl on forensics, but it wasn’t until this recent post directing readers to a very good Popular Mechanics article that it sunk in that most forensics in practice could be pseudoscience. Bite marks, footprints, tire tracks, handwriting, fibers and bloodstain patterns could all be pretty much worthless while fingerprint and ballistics* analysts could often have no idea what the probability of a false positive is and fail to replicate results. But most jurors have no idea how accurate any of it is and just assume that experts must know what they’re talking about. We might later look back on much of it as we do Freudian analysis, or perhaps more relevant, recovered memories and facilitated communication. Now consider Robin Hanson’s take on the value of insight in psychotherapists and medical doctors. It is even harder for laymen to challenge their expertise if they possess genuine knowledge others don’t.
The past couple of posts have pointed out errors in Benson Bobrick’s East of the Sun. On the whole I still like the book and would recommend it to others. The errors have all been in asides about events outside the scope of the book which I assume he didn’t put much research into (the book does have endnotes, but infuriatingly no superscript in the main text indicating that a footnote exists for a particular passage). I have often heard elsewhere that people often trust certain sources (newspapers, for instance) until they cover an area in which the listener has domain-competence (to use a favorite term of Hopefully Anonymous). I don’t have any expertise when it comes to native americans, yet I am still assuming that Bobrick is giving me accurate information when it comes to Russia. It just so happens that I’m an american and have read enough about american history that I recall things contradicting what I’m reading. Unfortunately, I have read a lot less about Russia and cannot do the same here. It was over a year ago that I asked for recommended books on the topic and I reiterated that request a number of times elsewhere before finding this book. Now consider all the innumerable topics for which you don’t have time to read a whole book (I usually don’t, and it’s not like I have anything better to do than read) but will consume samples of in this new (kilo)byte-sized economy Tyler Cowen and Chris Anderson are telling us about.
*I should note that a ballistics expert shows up as the second commenter here disputing P.M’s reporting. I’d also like to note that I previously did not know red blood cells lacked nuclei.