Feeling that experts aren’t right

Posted on July 3, 2016. Filed under: All, life | Tags: , , , , , |

A little thought provoked by an exchange on Facebook. This is a slightly expanded copy of what I wrote in that exchange and is by no means complete.

The most dangerous phrase I’ve ever heard is “I feel”. Few people seem to believe or decide anything any more, they always seem to “feel”.

I wish more people would challenge any apparent decision that begins with “I feel” or “I felt” (or that other weaselly phrase “I’m passionate about”). It may be a correct decision, but arrived at entirely by accident. It’s like trying to navigate from London to Adelaide by always following the prettiest or easiest road – it might get you there eventually, but it makes it a lot harder, takes longer than it should and probably leads to a lot of dead-ends and backtracking that others already knew about. We don’t accept “gut instinct” or “feeling that he’s a wrong ‘un” in the criminal justice system these days, so why should we accept it elsewhere?

Evidence is hard work. Thinking and rationalising is harder. Emotions are easy – go for the one that generates the warm fuzzy “feeling”. But then, when scientists are so often portrayed as being on the autistic spectrum (cf Sheldon Cooper), it makes it easy for those who are not in that world to claim that scientists and other experts just don’t understand the things that matter to them. The truth is, we often do understand them – but we can see other options and points of view clearly too.

“Shoulders of giants” is a bloody good metaphor – but needs to be explained a bit more clearly. The view’s pretty good from up here.

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Research, funding and reputation

Posted on March 20, 2014. Filed under: Education, forensic | Tags: , , , , , |

I had an interesting conversation, last night, with some fascinating figures from the world of forensic science. Since the whole event was under Chatham House rules, I’m not going to disclose who was present or even what most of our discussion was about, but there was one thing we touched on where I have a fundamental disagreement with at least one senior figure. That area is academic research in forensic science.

The view taken is that the problem lies in funding – in order to stimulate forensic science research, money needs to be available. Well, great – yes, that can help and I’m delighted that FoSciSIG is looking at this. I was certainly lucky enough, during my academic career, to be awarded some EPSRC funding for a project on Cyberprofiling, and I think we did achieve something, but we had a bigger problem. We really struggled to get our results published and to be taken seriously.

Our problem was that, at that time, there was no well-recognised journal for digital forensics, so we had to either target more mainstream computing & info. sec. journals, or go for more general forensic science. In the case of the former, we had problems because our research was very much applied research and hence didn’t have quite the level of generality and “blue sky” content that was expected, and for the latter, we were up against reviewers who were more familiar with “conventional” biology, chemistry and physics type forensic science. In either case, we had to consider the “reputation” value of where we were going to publish too. It’s been a common problem for forensic science researchers for years and it has a nasty knock-on effect.

In order to get published, you often have to seek out a journal for the scientific area, rather than the forensic, and modify your writing to suit that journal. Pressure is often brought to bear to get your work in something with a high “impact” rating rather than the most appropriate channel for dissemination. As a result, your work can be categorised under the more general science, and the forensic nature is often missed. When research managers look at your output, you are no longer a forensic scientist, so the department doesn’t see any benefit in supporting forensic science and that message spreads. Don’t believe me ? Look at the Research Assessments.

The net effect is that, contrary to what senior academics might say, forensic science can be seen as something which is a spin-off from other research, something of an accidental side-effect which just happens because of good science, not something that deserves to be a discipline in its own right influenced by the needs of investigators and courts, so departmental management don’t encourage it, and without their backing there’s no call for funding bodies to take it more seriously.

Out in the practitioner world, one message we all receive very quickly is that the forensic sciences cannot stand on their own – we have to work in teams, with results from different sciences being integrated and influencing the investigative strategy. Heck, that’s even a fundamental message in most degree programmes now.

I was lucky enough to be a computer scientist in a department full of biologists, chemists, physicists and crime scene specialists once. I learnt a hell of a lot from and it changed my approach to digital investigations. If we could just achieve something similar in the research world, we might do something really significant.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please do share them in the comments.

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    About

    This is the weblog of Angus M. Marshall, forensic scientist, author of Digital Forensics : digital evidence in criminal investigations and MD at n-gate ltd.

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