Last night, the World Science Festival and NYSCI presented the first WSF event outside of their normal spring programming. The panel was organized around the themes presented in the iBook that NYSCI produced called “False Conviction: Innocence Guilt and Science” authored by Jim Dwyer. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/false-conviction/id780517691?mt=11
It was held at the Cardozo Law School and had about 225 people in attendance,
Here is a summary of the event:
I had the opportunity to frame the discussion at the outset, and here is the text of my introduction.
I met peter neufeld 4 years ago at the google campus in silicon valley at a conference called Sci Foo. Somehow we both found ourselves in this conference of very high-end scientists, big data and big think types, and as a result we both totally stood out from the crowd.
Peter introduced himself as the co-founder of the Innocence Project, which of course I knew about. I assumed he was there to talk about new DNA analysis techniques or some similar specific set of technologies.
But it turns out he had a much bigger agenda, which was to look critically at the underpinnings of science, the fundamental attributes of the way scientific knowledge is generated and used, and to apply to that to the most profoundly personal and social questions of innocence and guilt.
In Peter’s recounting I began to hear what we at the NY Hall of Science are always looking for: a way to connect science with personal experience. At the core of innocence projects work and and peters narrative narrative is a very powerful emotional response, a horrified personal identification, to the psychic distress of being imprisoned for 25 when you know you are innocent.
As Peter and I talked , we realized that the power of that narrative, its kind of breathless, pit in the pendulum grip, could be the mainspring for a profound examination of the role of science in society.
By now, most of you as sophisticated science and criminology people recognize that CSI style forensic science is a bit of a fantasy. But I bet you didn’t know that most of what we think of forensic physical science, hair identification, fingerprint ID, various chemical assays are themselves suspect and for a very specific reason: They were all born in the crime lab and the courtroom, in litigious contexts, and therefore lack the fundamental qualities and processes that make good science. DNA identification, by contrast, was born in the laboratory and has been subject to the rigors of peer review science because it did not originate in order to bolster one side or another in a court room.
As cognitive science evolves, scientists are demonstrating how unreliable we are as witnesses or at recalling and interpreting any facts from our day to day lives, including the facts of a crime. Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that the testimony of an eyewitness, once held as the gold standard of prosecutorial evidence, is terribly unreliable. In our guts, we want to trust our eyes, and so do juries. But we are wrong.
So, untold hundreds or thousands of innocent people are serving decades in prison because of a fundamental misapprehension of science. False confidence in physical science born of the courtroom, and the false trust we place in our own perceptions, has forced the reopening of thousands of criminal convictions.
Peter and I were very fortunate to work with Jim Dwyer, who captures the pathos of the wrongly convicted prisoner married with cutting edge research in the physical and cognitive science, and spins an extraordinarily compelling narrative in False Conviction: Innocence Guilt and Science. This ibook, available at the apple ibook store for a special World Science Festival price of $2.99, uses state of the art interactivity and compelling media to enrich this narrative. It is the rich and moving exploration of the real impact of science on our public and private lives.
We are grateful to the alfred p sloan foundation for supporting the collaboration among The New York Hall of Science, the Innocence Project, and Jim Dwyer, and grateful to the World Science Festival for this opportunity to share this important work with you this evening.