Chip Smith reminded me recently of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. Probably executed for a crime he didn’t commit, though one should expect both Type I and II error, and so doesn’t alter my support for the death penalty. I’ve been thinking again about the view among the investigators of his alleged crime that detecting the signs of arson is a craft rather than hard-science handed down as folk knowledge among police. Actual scientists claim they didn’t have a real understanding of arson and were treating their hunches as authoritative. I’ve cited Balko before on bogus forensics, but didn’t include arson there.

Since I’ve been reading James Scott, this brings to mind again the dark side of tacit knowledge. One of Scott’s books, “Weapons of the Weak“, I think is largely about obfuscation. In “The Art of Not Being Governed” he discusses the “orality” of illiterate hill peoples as a way to avoid fixed histories or identities that could reduce their flexibility. Of course similar things may benefit the literate, the strong, the authorities. One may argue that if they were sufficiently strong relative to their subjects, authorities would not have to deceive but assert their arbitrary demands and have them treated as absolute law backed solely by their personal authority. But how often is that the case?

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