Iowa State statistician organizes symposium to discuss stronger science behind forensics

AMES, Iowa – The forensic evidence presented in courtrooms needs to be backed by more statistical and scientific study, said the organizer of a symposium on the forensic sciences.

“A lot of science hasn’t been brought to bear in forensics,” said Alicia Carriquiry, an Iowa State University statistician, Distinguished Professor in Liberal Arts and Sciences and director of the new Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence (CSAFE) based at Iowa State.

Carriquiry has organized a panel that will discuss “Forensic Sciences: Toward a Stronger Scientific Framework” during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Feb. 11-15 in Washington, D.C. The symposium is scheduled for 3-4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 14, in the Hoover Room of the Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel.

Also serving on the panel will be:

  • Christophe Champod, a professor in the Institute of Police Science at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. He’ll speak about the development of European guidelines for uniform forensic evaluation.
  • Karen Kafadar, Commonwealth Professor and Chair of Statistics at the University of Virginia and a co-director of CSAFE. She’ll speak about the reliability of eyewitness identification.
  • And Hal Stern, the Ted and Janice Smith Family Foundation Dean of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences and professor of statistics at the University of California, Irvine and a co-director of CSAFE. He’ll speak about probability models to assess the value of evidence.

“Forensic techniques once considered unassailable are now being questioned,” Carriquiry wrote in a symposium summary. “At issue is the reliance by forensic scientists on subjective interpretation of analytical results, a lack of realistic error rates associated with many forensic tools and a widespread practice of expressing strong conclusions (often favoring the prosecution) that are not justified by the forensic evidence.”

The National Institute of Standards and Technology established CSAFE last year with a five-year grant of up to $20 million.

The center’s primary goal will be to build a statistically sound and scientifically solid foundation under two branches of forensics: pattern evidence (including fingerprints and bullet marks) and digital evidence (including data from cell phones and computers).

“Statistics really does have an important role to play in forensic sciences,” Carriquiry said. “We need to understand the limitations of this evidence.”