RE: [asa] forensic science and wrongful convictions

From: Alexanian, Moorad <>
Date: Tue Sep 12 2006 - 10:00:42 EDT

Here is a letter that appeared in Physics Today, September 2002, which
may shed some light on this issue.




Mano Singham's Opinion article "Philosophy Is Essential to the
Intelligent Design Debate" emphasizes both the importance of "the
demarcation problem"--that is, the unambiguous distinction of science
from nonscience--and the nature of "origins science."

Science deals with the physical aspect of reality; its subject matter is
data that, in principle, can be collected solely by physical devices. If
physical devices cannot measure something, then that something is not
the subject matter of science. Of course, the whole of reality
encompasses more than the physical.

Physics is the prototype of experimental science, which yields laws of
nature based on data collected from repeatable experiments. In contrast,
origins science is more akin to forensic science, because it deals with
unique, nonrepeatable events. Nonetheless, for origins science to
qualify as science, extant evidentiary data must also be collectible by
physical devices.

Human consciousness and reasoning summarize all physical data into laws
and create the mathematical theories that lead to predictions. However,
the human element that creates the theories is totally absent from the
laws and theories themselves. Accordingly, human consciousness and
rationality are outside the bounds of science since they cannot be
detected by purely physical devices and can only be "detected" by the
self in humans.

Unraveling the mysteries of nature requires conscious, intelligent
beings. But no humanly conceived theory of nature, however complete, can
ever encompass all that exists or the creation process that brought
everything into being. This ontological problem is best answered by
supposing the existence of a Creator, which must be conscious and
intelligent to an infinitely higher degree. I believe this idea is the
underlying rationale for advocates of intelligent design to infer an
Intelligent Designer.

Human reasoning cannot avoid the fundamental question of origins, which
is outside the purview of science. John Wheeler (Physics Today, May
2002, page 28 <> ) said it
best: "Philosophy is too important to leave to the philosophers, and I
had better get busy on the most important question: How come existence?"

Moorad Alexanian


University of North Carolina

at Wilmington




From: [] On
Behalf Of David Opderbeck
Sent: Tuesday, September 12, 2006 9:23 AM
Subject: Re: [asa] forensic science and wrongful convictions


This is a very interesting point, which bears on my thoughts about all
this: the issue isn't really (or shouldn't be) whether we label some
type of historical investigation as "science" or not; the issue is one
of epistemology. A colleague of mine has published extensively on the
question of forensic evidence and the burden of proof in criminal cases
(see his online vita here:
His articles on the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard in criminal
cases are pertinent here.


I don't see how there can be any reasonable dispute about the fact that
non-repeatable historical events can be known with substantially less
certainty than repeatable events that are subject to laboratory
controls. But, we send people to the gallows based on what really is a
relatively low degree of certainty concerning non-repeatable historical
events. Despite the fact that we call it "beyond a reasonable doubt,"
in many criminal cases where there is a conviction, some degree of doubt
isn't unreasonable at all.


So, I continue to think that whether we call this or that "science" is
mostly posturing by both sides. IMHO, the real issue is what counts as
a warranted belief and the degrees of certainty with which warranted
beliefs can be held.


On 9/12/06, <
<> > wrote:

This is a reply to Moorad's post: something in the
web filtering prevents me from including the quotation.

I recall about 1 year ago there was an article in
Science Magazine about forensic science:

There were some rather surprising points, particularly

"What was unexpected is that
erroneous forensic science expert testimony
is the second most common contributing
factor to wrongful convictions, found in 63%
of those cases. "

However, the authors attribute most of this
to ignorance or lack of adequate training on the part of
the forensic scientists, pressure and vested interest (my words)
with respect to expert testimony, and inadequate
critical analysis. There is little failure attributed to the techniques

It would not be good to rely on forensic science alone, but neither
should we rely only on witnesses alone, or any other one thing in making

a conviction. I would expect that good detectives will search for as
avenues as possible to nail down their man. And that is also the best
to do good science. The more independent ways you can nail down
what is going on, the better.


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Received on Tue Sep 12 10:01:13 2006

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