Dr. Young Addresses The Big Question

Chapter 3: The Forensic Scientific Method and the Inferential Test

In the previous chapter, I demonstrated that one cannot reliably determine past events from physical evidence with the Scientific Method. Unfortunately, this has not stopped modern scientists from claiming that they can!

Attempts to apply the Scientific Method to past events regarding our origins began in the 18th and 19th centuries. Charles Darwin was not the only one who tried. There were also several others. Speculations have been offered by such “luminaries” as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Georges Cuvier (even though he was a “creationist”), Erasmus Darwin, James Hutton, Robert Chambers, Charles Lyell, Alfred Wallace, and Thomas Huxley. Many of these were scientists who lived during the Victorian Era of nineteenth- century England. Although the speculations of these men were capable of being falsified and actually have been falsified in many ways, no one seems to want to talk about that. Instead, their untested hypotheses (at least, hypotheses not tested by them) are repeated over and over again and have become the mainstream in thinking among modern scientists and educators. These untested hypotheses have become the new dogma. Much of modern science flowed from the Enlightenment, when thinkers, philosophers and other intellectuals rejected dogma foisted upon the masses by the Church. Now, the dogma of the Church has been replaced in the minds of many intellectuals by the dogma of Science, so-called. It is now the orthodoxy for the secular man and woman.

But this orthodoxy is nothing more than a mythology — a collection of speculations by people who were not present to witness what happened. It has become the fashionable way to explain the cosmos. In the 20th century, we added the Big Bang Theory — a simplistic explanation for a very, very complex universe. When scientists invent hypotheses, they like to assume the very simplest of explanations with the fewest assumptions, thanks to William of Ockham (Ockham’s razor). Their assumptions eliminate the need for God as a creator. This assumption of “no God” by scientists, of course, is without any support — scientific or otherwise. Such an assumption flies in the face of the exceeding complexity of life and the universe, and the existence and maintenance of both.

To maintain this mythology, scientists who claim expertise in these topics offer experimental and observational studies filled with logical fallacies. I will cover more of this at a later time.

But so what? What is the real harm here?

A few people may be harmed. In order to get a job, keep a job, or advance in a job, biological and physical scientists may be forced to espouse the dogma or at least keep their beliefs on the “down low.” Other scientists and students who were believers may find that they make a shipwreck of their faith once they accept the mythology. Still, one can make an argument that what happened a long time ago has little impact on our lives today. Can any scientist be held to account for being wrong about what happened in the past — particularly when no witness is currently living to contradict him or her? Except for a few, is anyone losing a job because of scientists being wrong about past events? Is anyone losing his or her life? Is anyone being thrown in jail? Is anyone’s career and reputation being destroyed?

The answer to all those questions in the paragraph above — believe it or not — is YES!!!

Paleontologists, geologists, and evolutionary biologists are not the only scientists who talk about the past. Forensic scientists also apply science to past events. Currently, forensic science is held in great disrepute. In 2009, a monograph published by the National Academy of Sciences, entitled, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States,” has “flamed” the forensic sciences — the application of science to legal matters — as being “not scientific enough” 5. This is because recently DNA technology has falsified a great number of opinions offered in the courtroom by forensic pathologists and other scientists, thanks to the work of the Innocence Project. Also, Dr. Charles Smith in Canada, who for 24 years offered clear and convincing opinions that put many in jail, had his career destroyed when he was found to be horribly mistaken on many child death cases. 6

I did not know Dr. Smith personally but I had seen him at professional meetings year after year. He did not look like the devil incarnate to me but simply a mild-mannered, Clark-Kent type of guy who got caught after affirming the consequent for past events over and over again. He is a victim of Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes is a fictional detective written about by another scientist and physician who lived during the Victorian Era of England, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes claimed to get all the answers by “reasoning backwards” 7. He would look at clues from the crime scene and weave a story from those clues to explain what happened to cause those clues. Essentially, he affirmed the consequent for past events. Conan Doyle, when he wrote Sherlock Holmes short stories and novels, was serious: he thought he offered to the world the application of science to crime solving. What he did instead was offer what other Victorian era scientists, including Charles Darwin, had been espousing for many years. The significant difference, however, between evolutionary biology and crime solving is the difference between the remote past and the recent past: there is still enough evidence around in a recent past case eventually to destroy the unwary scientist! Although no one really cares what Darwinian biologists have to say, forensic pathologists are examined through a very public lens by the media. The public holds the forensic pathologist accountable for wrong interpretations about past events — unlike other scientists.

Our failure as forensic pathologists has always disturbed me. I remember conferences where a room full of pathologists would all come to different conclusions after looking at the same crime scene and the same autopsy findings. If scientists perform this poorly with their science, how was it that we ever put a man on the moon? I began to consider the questions, “How do I know when I really know?” and “How do I know when I do not know?” After all, pathologists are supposed to offer opinions in court “to a reasonable degree of medical certainty.” When am I certain, and when am I just guessing?

My thinking on this topic became even more intense when I found myself after 2007 consulting on cases where forensic pathologists and child abuse pediatricians were inferring improperly, leading to false accusations of child abuse, strangulation, and other crimes. It gradually occurred to me that the major reason for failure was — as I have already stated — that the Scientific Method that we have all come to know, love and use does not work for past events! My thinking developed over time, and the articles on my website reflect my growing understanding. 8

If the Scientific Method does not work for past events, what scientific method will work?

Elementary, my dear reader. Consider the Forensic Scientific Method (FSM). It is summarized as follows:

  1. Acquisition of primary witness and other anamnestic evidence
  2. Anticipation of future questions
  3. Acquisition of physical evidence
  4. Comparison of consistency of alleged events (hypothesis) with physical findings, obtaining additional data as needed
  5. Assessment only to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, recognizing the limitations of science

The following is an explanation in detail of each step from the perspective of a forensic pathologist:

1. Acquisition of primary witness and other anamnestic evidence: Rather than try to use Q to surmise P, the scientist needs to learn P — to learn in detail the past events as alleged by primary eyewitnesses. The information requires primary accounts, not hearsay. The scientist needs to obtain the information from direct witness statements if possible rather than through some other filter. The word, “anamnestic,” means “memory”. Such evidence includes documentation from nurses, paramedics, emergency department doctors, and other first and subsequent responders. This should allow a continuous timeline of events to be constructed, all from primary witness accounts.

2. Anticipation of future questions: Anticipating what questions will be asked is important. The scientist needs to know the issues and the likely questions to be asked of him or her at a later date in order to make the proper inquiries and a proper collection of physical evidence. One example of this is recognizing a potential homicide so that evidence at the crime scene and the autopsy can be preserved properly. Failure to preserve evidence properly may lead to problems in the courtroom when defense attorneys ask questions.

3. Acquisition of physical evidence: For a pathologist, this would include an autopsy, imaging (radiographs, computerized tomography scans), and specimens for laboratory testing.

4. Comparison of consistency of alleged events (hypothesis) with physical findings, obtaining additional data as needed: Note that the hypothesis is not generated by the imagination of the scientist (as with the usual Scientific Method). The hypothesis is derived from the accounts of the eyewitnesses. “P” as alleged is the hypothesis to be tested. Since “What happened?” and “Who is responsible for what happened?” are the important questions to be considered in a past event case, the hypothesis is the answer to those two questions as indicated through witness accounts. The comparison of anamnestic with physical evidence involves MP and MT in the following ways:

MP:

  1. P is alleged.
  2. If P, then Q (Appropriate conditional statements of science are discerned from P).
  3. Therefore, Q (P as alleged by a witness or witnesses is sufficient to explain the physical evidence according to science, and I can state that to a reasonable degree of medical or scientific certainty because it is a deductive inference which can guarantee certainty).

MT:

  1. P is alleged.
  2. If P, then Q (Appropriate conditional statements of science are discerned from P).
  3. Not Q (The physical evidence is not what would be anticipated scientifically from P).
  4. Therefore, not P (P as alleged by a witness or witnesses is negated or falsified by the physical evidence according to science, and I can state that to a reasonable degree of medical or scientific certainty because it is a deductive inference which can guarantee certainty).

The classic statement of MT does not include “P is alleged;” however, applying the appropriate conditional statement (P → Q) would not be possible without P being alleged first. This demonstrates the importance of knowing P for a forensic analysis as it is alleged.

Also, it is important to obtain additional data if it is needed. Just because something is initially falsified does not mean a scientist has learned enough or a mistake was not made. Perhaps in the laboratory, for example, an instrument was improperly calibrated, a solution improperly constituted, or a finding improperly interpreted. It is important to try not to commit the fallacy of incomplete evidence by making sure to follow up on all leads. Witnesses may lie for all kinds of reasons, so it is important to confront witnesses with additional information to see how they may respond to it.

5. Assessment only to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, recognizing the limitations of science: The “limitations of science” can be summarized by the Inferential Test for Expert Testimony:

One can be reasonably certain if witness accounts of the past are consistent or not consistent with physical evidence in the present, but one cannot reliably surmise past events from physical evidence unless there is only one plausible explanation for that evidence.

In other words, one can claim reasonable certainty for a scientific opinion when MP or MT is used with witness accounts or when the circumstantial evidence (physical evidence without sufficient witness accounts) has only one plausible explanation. On the other hand, we cannot claim reasonable certainty if we affirm the consequent by “surmising past events from physical evidence.”

One more point. A witness account may be “sufficient to explain” the physical evidence through MP, but it does not mean that the witness account or accounts are true. Witness accounts may be false and still be “sufficient to explain” the physical evidence. For example, let us say a man at autopsy has hardening and blockage of the coronary arteries (the arteries supplying blood to the heart muscle). One witness says he saw the man clutch his chest and die suddenly without provocation. Another witness says a thief pulled a gun on the man without touching him, causing the man to clutch his chest and die suddenly. Both accounts are consistent with (sufficient to explain) the physical evidence at autopsy, but one account is false and one account is true. One describes a homicide (even without touching) and the other a natural death. We just cannot tell from the physical evidence which account is true, even though both accounts are consistent.

This document demonstrates that the Inferential Test is a theorem that is always true 9. Such a demonstration using deductive logic is even better than peer review!

I will address The Big Question in the next two chapters using the FSM and the IT. The Big Question in truth is not just an issue for natural and physical scientists. It is a forensic scientific issue because it involves past events. How would I as a forensic scientist address The Big Question? Keep reading!

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