"That you may ruminate"

Posts Tagged ‘pseudoscience’

…On Some Damn Fine Judging.

Posted by Steve on August 27, 2009

I have often been critical, here on this blog, of the American legal system, the judiciary of multiple countries, and multiple tenets of American common law. So, I feel like I ought to try and balance that by giving props when I can. So, this is by no means news since it’s about a case that was decided back in May, but Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals of Maryland, totally hit one out of the park when it unanimously upheld Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Stuart R. Berger’s ruling on the inadmissibility of junk pseudoscience in Blackwell v. Wyeth. They ruled that in Maryland, in order to be an expert witness you have to actually 1) be an expert 2) who used legitimate methods 3) in a legitimate field 4) that’s relevant to the testimony you’ll offer. If there’s a court ruling that more strongly and explicitly establishes adherence to the scientific method as a prerequisite for testimony on scientific matters, I’m not aware of it. So Maryland Judiciary, a tip of the hat to you.

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Posted in The Law | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

…On Chinese Democracy and Indian Courts.

Posted by Steve on October 26, 2008

On Wednesday morning, I heard the title track from the new Axl Rose & Studio Band Guns N’ Roses album on Y101 in Richmond, where I was working all week (which is why I didn’t post any. Posting to a personal blog while in company-paid-for housing on a company-paid-for internet connection using a client-owned laptop just doesn’t seem appropriate to me) and will be again all next week. Got to say, it’s what I expected: Rose’s voice, which while at times annoying (Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door would’ve been so much better with damn near any other singer) was distinct, has been destroyed and is mostly gone, and the important parts of Guns N’ Roses aren’t there anymore. Guns N’ Roses was good back then because of Izzy Stradlin and Slash, and that was it. What we have here is a band by that name, but no Slash and no Stradlin. In short, no good.

As to the title, well, I imagine Rose had some sort of irony in mind, given China’s long history (China has the oldest written history of any extant civilization) of being not democratic. I guess it’s as good as any album title – those aren’t really things I care about.

Onwards from China to their neighbor, India, and old news: courts in India allow snake oil as evidence and base convictions on it. The specific snake oil? The claim that an EEG, fMRI, or other brain-imaging technology can be used to determine whether or not a person has memories of committing a crime. Um… no. It can’t. Back when Niels Birbaumer and his research assistants developed a system that allowed paralyzed patients to type with EEG in a lab setting, it took months of training each patient, and then around 80 seconds just to get a single letter. I think that’s a good illustration of how little use EEG’s got for much more precise determinations than, “Yeah, this brain’s been damaged”. Granted, Birbaumer’s team used a different EEG brain wave (which, bear in mind, just means the voltage difference between an electrode on the scalp over the brain and an electrode somewhere like the earlobe or the chin, not a measurement of the activity in any specific set of neurons) than this Indian approach. Good thing (in a way) an American has patented a system based on the same underlying EEG wave – and far better that it’s been been thoroughly debunked (PDF, I recommend you download and then read – always works better for me with PDFs on the internet).

My hope is that this sort of snake oil would be excluded in all U.S. courts under Federal Rule of Evidence #702 (especially subpart 2: the requirement that “the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods”) and its state analogues. That may not be the case, what with “widely accepted” being optional, rather than mandatory, under the Daubert test. Although, as of 1998, at least in civil cases, the rule was pretty much “brain scans are inadmissible except as the answer to the yes no question, ‘Is some unspecified thing wrong with this brain at this time?'”. That’s where it should stay – indefinitely. Because face it, a machine that can actually detect guilt or innocence is every bit as realistic, and likely to happen in the same time frame, as a machine that lets Scotty beam us from place to place.

And, as an aside, it appears the accuracy of DNA profiling, which of course doesn’t use the entirety of a person’s DNA, has possibly been severely overstated.

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