Science and Class

March 14, 2009 at 6:44 pm (Uncategorized)

It’s probably true to say that if  TV networks were not allowed to have programs dealing with the legal (including law enforcement) or medical professions, there would be very little to watch. I’ve never been a big fan of medical dramas. I’m sorry, but there’s just something about Hugh Laurie with an American accent  that throws me – I keep expecting him to burst out : Wacko Blackadder!; however,  I’m a sucker for the procedural police dramas).

The traditional police drama has featured the lone detective doggedly tracking leads, witnesses, and evidence, avoiding red herrings and ignoring the naysayers in the police department, until finally, the real culprit is brought to light. However, in recent years, the detective has taken a back seat to the forensic investigator.

In 2000, the first of the CSI franchise debuted, followed by Miami and New York versions a few years later. Bones, which introduced the forensic anthropologist  appeared in 2005. Even in shows which still focus on the detective, forensic evidence is front and centre. After all, as Gil Grissom, the former lead Las Vegas CSI used to say: people lie, evidence doesn’t.

I was reminded of those words, as I watched yet another person convicted of murder in Ontario, step forward to question the findings of disgraced forensic pathologist Charles Smith. Charles Randal Smith worked at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children for 24 years. For much of that time, he was employed in the hospital’s children’s forensic pathology unit. During his time at Sick Kids, it is estimated he performed over 1,000 autopsies. A 1999 segment on the CBC television program  The 5th Estate described Smith as one of three or four Canadians with this rare expertise in his field.

As an expert, Smith was often called upon to testify in criminal cases. In fact, his opinion was highly regarded, and in many cases contributed to convictions. However, Smith’s expert opinions turned out to be not so expert. A review of his cases in work, found 20 of Smith’s cases with questionable conclusions; 13 of the 20 resulted in criminal convictions. 

Some highlights then:

Brenda Waudby was convicted of the murder of her two-year old daughter. A crucial piece of evidence, a public hair found on the girl, went missing. The police found the evidence in Smith’s office five years later. Waudby’s conviction was overturned, and eventually, her babysitter was convicted of the crime. 

Louise Reynolds was charged with the second-degree murder of her seven-year old daughter in 1997. Smith wrote a ten page autopsy report arguing that Reynold had stabbed the girl eighty times with a pair of scissors. Other crown witnesses and experts disagreed with Smith, suggested a dog present in the house at the time was the most likely cause of the girl’s death.  (I’m no expert, but I wonder really how similar are bite marks and knife wounds) The crown abruptly dropped the case in 2001. Reynolds spend 22 months in detention. She is now suing Smith.

Tammy Marquardt was convicted of smothering her 2 year old son after he was found tangled in his bedsheets in 1993. Smith pronounced murder. Six other experts have disagreed pointing to the likelihood of an epileptic seizure for her son’s death. Marquardt was released to a halfway house two days ago, but has not been officially cleared.

And so it goes. Smith was reprimanded in Ontario, moved to Saskatchewan, where he worked briefly for the Saskatoon City hospital. He was fired for not revealing the stains he had left in Ontario. Smith won a subsequent court case over the dismissal, but was not reinstated. 

According to the CBC:   

As a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Smith says he has been fuelled by his life’s purpose — finding out the truth for parents who have lost babies.

By all accounts, Smith was a zealous advocate for the prosecution. Several defence attorneys complained that Smith acted more like a prosecutor than an expert witness.  To this day, Smith maintains his findings were never intentional. To this, Justice Stephen Gouge replied: I simply cannot accept such a sweeping attempt to escape moral responsibility.”

It’s true that rumours had earlier surfaced about Smith’s expert qualifications, but he had been protected. However, there is also a larger point about the absolute faith in the application of pure science, and also in the class of the accused. The people Smith accused were working class. They had no significant funds to pay for their own expert witnesses. but their convictions are also a part of a larger systematic bias within the legal system. 

Do working class people commit crimes? Of course. But the point is that the same benefit of the doubt is not usually given to them, as it is to other groups in society. We are taught to be suspicious about the lower classes, and to trust authority figures: the doctor, the police officer, the teacher without question   (see the famous Milgram experiment in Berkeley in 1963 ). There are dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of cases of people from working or lower class origins being convicted of crimes based on dubious evidence or so-called expert opinions from the police or their learned friends. (Yes, it’s fiction, but did anyone read or see Atonement?)

As an antidote to this view, there’s an excellent book published by the late Stephen Jay Gould called The Mismeasure of Man.  The book deals with 19th century pseudo-science and how it was used to justify all sorts of ludicrous conclusions 

I can still enjoy, the fantasy of pure objective science in the procedural drama, but outside of the idiot box, it can be a dangerous reality.


  1. chen019 said,

    Unfortunately, the Mismeasure of Man is more a work of propaganda than science. It is a popular book because it tells people what they want to hear, but it got seriously panned in specialist academic journals. Gould misrepresents the position of those he criticises and omits studies that contradict his argument. For instance, he omitted a large study by Van Dalen in 1974 showing a correlation between brain size and measured intelligence. Also, the study by Morton was re-measured by John Michael in 1986 and found to have been conducted with integrity.

    I’d recommend Nevan Sesardic or John Carroll’s articles below. Carroll’s article particularly focusses on factor analysis, also see David Bartholomew’s Measuring Intelligence: Facts and Fallacies.

    Also, see Ian Deary’s recent paper in Nature for an up to date take on psychometrics and intelligence.

    Philosophy of Science that Ignores Science: Race, IQ and Heritability, Philosophy of Science 67 (2000), pp.580-602.

    The neuroscience of human intelligence differences

    IJ Deary, L Penke, W Johnson – Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2010 –

    • fischerzed said,

      A couple of points then.

      First, I’ll confess that I’m not a scientist, and it’ll take me a little while to go through the links here. I’m also not familiar with the authors cited.

      Second, whether or not Gould’s book is “propaganda” (an extremely loaded term), Gould’s overall point still stands: that all sort of quackery has been dressed up in pseudo-scientific language to in order to justify all sorts of things. Rather than an objective discipline, science is all too often prey to the kinds of biases that plague other disciplines. This was, the original point in my post regarding Charles Smith’s work. It doesn’t surprise me then that Gould’s work was disliked in certain circles, although according to one of the reviews cited, it isn’t as widespread as you suggest.

      Third, I couldn’t find a reference to John Morgan’s re-measure of Morton (although, I may have been looking in the wrong places), but given the nature of Morton’s original conclusions, the seeming motivation and the scientific racism and defence of slavery it spawned, I wonder how “propagandistic” that was. Other authors who ventured into similar territory, often find themselves with fairly unpleasant followers. Phillipe Rushton who covered similar ground quickly found friends among rightist movements.

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