In February 2021, cognitive psychologist Itiel Dror set off a firestorm in the forensics community. In a paper, he suggested forensic pathologists were more likely to pronounce a child’s death a murder versus an accident if the victim was Black and brought to the hospital by the mother’s boyfriend than if they were white and brought in by the grandmother. It was the latest of Dror’s many experiments suggesting forensic scientists are subconsciously influenced by cognitive biases—biases that can put innocent people in jail.
Dror, a researcher at University College London (UCL), has spent decades using real-world cases and data to show how experts in fields as diverse as hospital care and aviation can reverse themselves when presented with the same evidence in different contexts. But his most public work has involved forensic science, a field reckoning with a history of unscientific methods. In 2009, the National Research Council published a groundbreaking report that most forensic sciences—including the analysis of bullets, hair, bite marks, and even fingerprints—are based more on tradition than on quantifiable science. Since then, hundreds of studies and legal cases have revealed flaws in forensic sciences.
Dror’s work forms a connective tissue among them. He has shown that most problems with forensics do not originate with “bad apple” technicians who have infiltrated crime labs. Rather they come from the same kind of subconscious bias that affects everyone’s daily decisions—the shortcuts and generalizations our brains rely on to process reality. “We don’t actually see the environment,” Dror says. “We perceive stimuli from the environment that our brain represents to us,” shaped by feelings and past experience.
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