Breaking NEWz you can UzE...
compiled by Jon Stimac
Jackson, Accuser's Prints Allegedly Found –
MONTEREY COUNTY HERALD,
CA - Dec. 12, 2004
...fingerprints belonging to both Michael Jackson and the boy
accusing him of child molestation were found on pornographic
Prints ID'd Stabbing Suspect –
BRIDGETON NEWS, NJ - Dec. 9, 2004
...suspect identified after police ran his
fingerprints through its automated fingerprint identification system...
Fingerprint, Photo System at Border Runs Smoothly –
YUMA SUN, AZ - Dec. 7, 2004
...initially feared that technology might slow visa issuance at US
ports; the first day showed exactly the opposite...
Budget Crunch Leaves Mississippi Crime Lab Short on Staff –
SUN HERALD, MS - Dec 6, 2004
... shortage of employees at the
Mississippi Crime Lab is limiting the agency's ability to test
The Fingerprint Society is
hosting the 30th Annual Fingerprint Society Lectures in Brighton, England from
Friday March 18th through Sunday, March 20th. The speakers program is
available on their website, (http://www.fpsociety.org.uk/),
but they need your registration by January 1. If you are planning to
attend, download an application form and get it in before the new year, or
contact David Charlton for more information.
Ed German brought us a report on the dedication of the Faulds Memorial in Beith, Scotland
on November 12.
Last week I also heard that NYPD Blue contained reference to the erroneous
identification of Brandon Mayfield. One of the detectives mentioned the
suspects fingerprints being found on a piece of evidence, and he replied that
they got it wrong, just like the FBI incorrectly identified that Oregon lawyer
in the Madrid Spain bombing. Be prepared to address this issue if/when you
are asked about it in court. Challenges to our discipline is also the
subject of this week's Detail.
Steve Scarborough responds to a recent criticism of fingerprint examination.
They Keep Putting
Fingerprints in Print
by Steve Scarborough
There has been a recent flurry of sensationalistic articles challenging the
validity and reliability of Fingerprint Science. Forensic scientists, as a rule,
discount these articles knowing that the Law of Fingerprints- fingerprints are
unique and permanent- is secure. When the California Association of Criminalists,
CAC News decided to do an article on this issue, Fingerprints in Print,
it was heralded with some hope that this issue would be examined thoroughly and
fairly. Instead, the resulting article contained the same sensationalism and
hyperbole as the other recent articles degrading the science and predicting the
end of fingerprints as a useful forensic tool. However, now might be a good time
to address all of these sensationalistic articles.
A consistent blunder running throughout these articles is the use of direct
statements about the “inadequacies” of fingerprints, not in quotes, as if they
are truisms. Upon examination these statements are the same exaggerations and
embellishments spewing from the few quacks purporting such mendacity. These
authors also fell into that trap. I suspect that some of these “critics” like
Simon Cole can give a very convincing interview in person, (though he hasn’t
given testimony in court) and they have a way of making outrageous statements
Here is an example from the CAC text. “Conventional fingerprint doctrine would
have us believe that the latter situation (that there are (unless this is in
quotes) no unexplainable differences can be found between the prints [prints in
question- from the Mayfield case] yet they do come from the same source) is
impossible.” In fact this statement does not exist in any Fingerprint Science
writings except in this article and in the ramblings of the few critics.
There are two reasons for these gross misstatements of fact and distortion of
the theories of Fingerprint Science. One is the Chemist View of the World and
the other is False Authority Syndrome (FAS). Let’s deal with the Chemist View
Fingerprint Science is just like one of the major segments of biology, and is an
observation science. Biology has two major branches, the molecular branch which
uses chemistry at its base and is perfectly adapted to error rates, validation
studies, calibration, decision documentation (machine printouts) and controls.
The other branch of biology is the observation branch, which observes, documents
and studies biology. This branch uses observation to make conclusions about
biology- exactly like the tenants of Fingerprint Science.
There was a time when biologists in the molecular branch of biology and chemists
did not accept the observation side of biology as a true science, thereby
creating the Chemist View of the World. Over the years this postulation has been
proven to be in itself unscientific and the observation branch of biology and
other observation sciences have been validated.
The Chemist View of the World suggests that every science should be like
chemistry and DNA and molecular branch of biology. The Chemist feels that
conclusions are not based upon observation but on data analysis accompanied by
error rates, validation studies, calibration, and machine printouts. This
principle is perfectly acceptable for these sciences and makes for perfectly
solid and tested conclusions. These principles do not apply to the observations
sciences and biology is only one among many. Trying to restrict observation
biology to these principles would be counter-productive. These principles should
also not be forced upon an observation science such as Fingerprints.
A common thread seen throughout the Daubert hearings, most critical articles and
writings and recent documentation requirements is the application of the
principles of chemistry to Fingerprint Science. The forced application of
principles that do not apply to a scientific discipline is destructive to all of
science. I suspect that early biologist were accused of not practicing “good
science,” when in fact, to apply those principles would have been bad science.
Machine print-outs are not appropriate for an observation science. A validation
study is hardly appropriate for a chance impression such as a fingerprint. The
eyes cannot be calibrated. And there is no such thing as an error rate when
observing something as unique as a snowflake, an asteroid, a tree, and a
beetle’s shell, the skin on a zebra and the human friction ridge skin.
Fortunately for some of us working in Fingerprints we have not been encumbered
by these restrictions and the chemists we work with and work for are not as
gullible as the writers of the CAC article or other forensic scientists.
They realize that you cannot translate the chemist view of the world to an
Another consistent thread in these critical articles is false authority syndrome
(see vmyths.com). The writers of the CAC
article have also fallen victim to FAS. False authority syndrome involves a
pseudo expert or false authority espousing some controversial opinion that is
believed and taken up by the media and perpetuated by other “authorities.”
There are similarities between this issue and the Y2K Hoax. In hindsight we can
now see that all the worry was unfounded but there were all too many in the
media and the computer industry that believed a few false authorities.
To borrow some thoughts from vmths.com: The U.S. Air Force highlights the
concept of False Authority Syndrome in Tongue & Quill, their official
publication on effective writing. They give the definition of the word
ultracrepidarian as a person who gives opinions beyond his scope of knowledge.
"Nonexpert opinion or assumed authority -- Don't be swayed (or try to
sway someone else) based on the opinion of an unqualified authority. The Air
Force is chock-full of people who, because of their position or authority in one
field, are quoted on subjects in other fields for which they have limited or no
experience. As this Air Force publication notes, False Authority Syndrome can
attack people in all fields of expertise.”
Vmyths.com also tells us that “Computer salesmen,
consultants, repairmen, and college computer teachers often succumb to False
Authority Syndrome. In many cases a person's job title sounds impressive, but
his or her job description at most may only include references to vague
"computer security" duties.”
Part of the syndrome is that the false authorities perpetuate myths about “their
science” (fingerprints) with other pseudo-experts and they in turn talk to the
media extending the myth, much like the Y2K Hoax. It becomes a morass of the
"blind leading the blind" techno-babble and is ironically pseudo-science
accusing a true science of being a pseudo-science.
It is interesting to note that False Authority Syndrome is nothing new to these
times. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in one of his Holmes stories: “…so aloof is he
from general suspicion, so immune from criticism, so admirable in his
self-effacement, …that he could haul you into court…Is he not the celebrated
author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid, a book …that it is said that no man in
the scientific press cable of criticizing it?” In fact in the early 1900s the
world abounded with FAS bringing us some interesting “sciences” such as
Another issue in the CAC article, one proffered by Cole is that critics within
the discipline are ostracized. This is more FAS mumbo jumbo. When in reality
those “critics,” of which there are only a handful, are no more “excommunicated”
then those astronomers who believe in UFOs or biologists who ignore the evidence
of evolution. Or the phrenologists of the early 1900s, the few quacks eventually
uncovered for what they are.
A startling aspect of the CAC article is pop-out text box with the text and
quotes over a photo of a fingerprint as if this is a quote from an expert. This
effect can lend credence to the statement- in this case that statement - “More
intriguing is the possibility that no unexplainable difference can be found
between the prints, yet they do originate from different sources.” When in
actuality it is text from the article and a statement apparently made only by
The implied emphasis of articles like this, and this article can be lumped in
with those appearing in other media, is that because there are fingerprint
comparison mistakes, the science is flawed. Of course, one point that they are
missing is that these mistakes are found by fingerprint examiners, using
scientific methodology and basing their conclusion on the uniqueness
(infallibility) of fingerprint science. In other words you can’t have it both
ways. If the science is flawed then the science can’t be used to verify the
mistakes. To belabor the point: If none of this is valid then the maybe there
were no mistakes at all?
The CAC article also states: “This suggests that the science / art (my
emphasis) of fingerprint comparison is perhaps not as reliable as conventional
wisdom would have us believe…” This statement is not directly attributed to Cole
by the authors, but it certainly represents a stance he espouses. Cole suggests
that Fingerprint Science is not a science but an art and thatthe scientific concepts well accepted by forensic science, other
scientific fields such as biometrics and the general public (conventional
wisdom) are not valid. [Sounds like a created response to Daubert doesn’t it?]
Remember the Syndrome calls for a spreading of the myth and it looks as if these
authors have bought into this false concept.
Here is another example. “The reaction of the fingerprint community, at least as
assessed from the web chatter, has been largely defensive; circle the wagons
against the attack that is sure to come.” The quotes are mine so this must be
thoughts of the CAC chemists. However, this notion is one that is constantly
advocated by Cole. A perception not supported by any evidence but largely from
lurking on the Internet.
A crucial factor of FAS is that by repeating the outrageous assumptions it gives
them credence. This occurs in the CAC article with Simon Cole’s new approach in
attacking Fingerprint Science. After hearing for so long that “the technology is
sound but it is the practitioner that can error,” apparently his new tact is to
equate the human mind with mechanical instruments such as those used to analyze
DNA. The “mind is the technology” is an interesting concept. However, this
concept is also not grounded in any scientific basis.
The authors were also sucked into the statement that “we note that it (a zero
error rate for the technology based upon the fact that fingerprints are unique)
would seem to be irreconcilable with the reported facts in this case.” The
facts in the case are that a mistake was made. The CAC authors have
perpetuated the FAS with regard to the Law of Fingerprints- which is that
fingerprint are unique. They are buying into the myth that fingerprints
are really not unique as purported by the false authorities.
A staggering example of FAS is also in the article when the authors state that
CSI syndrome is in the statement enlarged in a pop-out text. “…the preconception
that fingerprinting is infallible, otherwise known as C.S.I. syndrome…” The
quotes again are mine. I believe this misstatement comes from an
ultracrepidarian as it suits the critical cause. C.S.I. syndrome or effect is
commonly defined and used as the inflated expectations of juries and the public
with regard to the capabilities of forensic science.
One element of the false authority syndrome is the ability to convince people
that what they are saying is correct, that they are a voice of the consensus of
the scientific community. This gullibility also leads to another factor authors
may have not thought about. That is tainting of the jury pool. By restating as
fact, the outrageous claims of these few false authorities, & pseudo experts (ultracrepidarians),
they could be corrupting the jury pool. Just like the CSI syndrome can give a
false expectation to juries so can these articles give the wrong information to
the jury pool.
For the future, fingerprint examiners will not be taking the advice of the CAC
article’s authors (or is it Simon Cole’s advise?) to disabuse ourselves of the
basic tenants of Fingerprint Science. Fingerprints are absolute
and infallible. Any skepticism, if warranted, lies in the competence of the
forensic scientist bringing the identification forward. This same skepticism
should be applied to the pseudo experts and false authorities bringing forward
As my boss says, “As a forensic scientist we have to be open to the possibility
that our science can be proven wrong.” Fortunately for Fingerprint Science, we
are constantly reinforcing the positive. Every single day the Fingerprint
hypothesis is empirically tested and proved reliable and valid. This offers
daily support for the fact that the Law of Fingerprints is solid and
fingerprints are permanent and unique. As scientists were are confident that any
“critic” that tries to prove the fallibility of fingerprints will actually find
the opposite. Just as we testify to everyday.
To discuss this Detail, the
message board is always open: (http://www.clpex.com/phpBB/viewforum.php?f=2)
More formal latent print discussions are available at
UPDATES ON CLPEX.com
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Have a GREAT week!