Scientific Research, Criminal investigations and Tunnel Vision

In the February 29, 2016 edition of The New Yorker, an article by Dana Goodyear entitled “The Stress Test” perfectly describes the phenomenon of tunnel vision as applied to scientific researchers. The motivations of scientists and police and prosecutors are close if not identical:

Delusion and fraud exist along a spectrum of deceit–first you fool yourself, then others–and one measure of a scientist is his ability to see that he is mistaken.

Why are scientific researchers and law enforcement officials susceptible to tunnel vision? In the case of research, publishing the results of their supposedly experiments, such as the ability to grow stem cells, can lead to a Nobel prize, prestige, power and money. Do suchpeople fake results to get the rewards? Yes, they do. Do scientists plagiarize from others’ research? Yes, they do, despite the likeliness of being found out. A scientist who has published a groundbreaking experiment cannot prevent other scientists from attempting to replicate the results. Nor can that scientist be immune from the consequences of having cheated; often they lose academic positions and face humiliation among their colleagues.

Of course the major difference between researchers and law enforcement officials is the degree of scrutiny allowed in analyzing the results of an investigation and a trial. While an experiment is subject to immediate verification, a wrongful conviction takes a decade or three to come to light. Laws protect prosecutors and police from malfeasance, even if they knowingly cheated to gain a conviction. The conviction is more protected than the prisoner. Somehow, in this society, correctness in scientific experiments is considered far more important than correctness in verdicts. That bias is caused in large part by tough on crime politicians who think nothing of the possible victimization of innocent persons, especially those who populate the ‘underclass’.

So when prosecutors knowingly use faulty evidence, false confessions, bribed witnesses, faked lab reports and the like, they are conspiring in a wrongful conviction. It doesn’t matter if this work is done consciously for ambition’s sake or a product of self-delusion or even discovered; the perpetrator in the DA’s office is free to carry on to the next case. Only when a large body of these cases is associated with a single individual–say a cop like Louis Scarcella–is the person singled out and disgraced. Mostly the officials within that office who supported the rogue cop are left unscathed.

The difference between false scientific research and false convictions, then, is that the scientist faces consequences while the law enforcement individuals do not.

Delusion and fraud exist along a spectrum of deceit–first you fool yourself, then others–and one measure of a scientist is his ability to see that he is mistaken.

To this statement I would add: the true measure of a good law enforcement official is his or her ability to see that he or she is mistaken. 

As Rubin Carter said: “It should be a mark of distinction to admit error.” Sadly, it is no such thing. Admitting error within a corrupt system is treated as a sign of disloyalty to the group. That is why whistleblowers face being ostracized.

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About ken

I am a former Toronto teacher and writer now living in Vancouver. I work with Dr. Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, with whom I published Eye of the Hurricane: My path from Darkness to Freedom (Chicago review Press, 2011), as Director of Media Relations and as an advocate for wrongly convicted prisoners. Other publication credits include Songs of Aging Children (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992) a book of short stories about troubled youth, and Taking Steam, a play co-authored with the late Brian Shein, staged at New York's Jewish Repertory Theatre and Toronto in 1983. Life Without (Quattro Books, 2012) is a novella about a New York cab driver wrongly convicted of killing his pregnant wife. Gary Geddes (Lt. Governor's Award for Literary Excellence) described it as "one of the most brilliant and harrowing short novels I've read since I went on a John Hawkes binge."

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