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G o o d   M o r n i n g !
Monday, December 13, 2004

The purpose of the Detail is to help keep you informed of the current state of affairs in the latent print community, to provide an avenue to circulate original fingerprint-related articles, and to announce important events as they happen in our field.

Breaking NEWz you can UzE...
compiled by Jon Stimac

Jackson, Accuser's Prints Allegedly Found MONTEREY COUNTY HERALD, CA - Dec. 12, 2004 ...fingerprints belonging to both Michael Jackson and the boy accusing him of child molestation were found on pornographic magazines...

Prints ID'd Stabbing Suspect BRIDGETON NEWS, NJ  - Dec. 9, 2004 ...suspect identified after police ran his fingerprints through its automated fingerprint identification system...

Fingerprint, Photo System at Border Runs Smoothly   YUMA SUN, AZ - Dec. 7, 2004 ...initially feared that  technology might slow visa issuance at US ports; the first day showed exactly the opposite...

Budget Crunch Leaves Mississippi Crime Lab Short on Staff   SUN HERALD, MS  - Dec 6, 2004 ... shortage of employees at the Mississippi Crime Lab is limiting the agency's ability to test evidence...

The Fingerprint Society is hosting the 30th Annual Fingerprint Society Lectures in Brighton, England from Friday March 18th through Sunday, March 20th.  The speakers program is available on their website, (, but they need your registration by January 1.  If you are planning to attend, download an application form and get it in before the new year, or contact David Charlton for more information.

Last week
Ed German brought us a report on the dedication of the Faulds Memorial in Beith, Scotland on November 12.

Last week I also heard that NYPD Blue contained reference to the erroneous identification of Brandon Mayfield.  One of the detectives mentioned the suspects fingerprints being found on a piece of evidence, and he replied that they got it wrong, just like the FBI incorrectly identified that Oregon lawyer in the Madrid Spain bombing.  Be prepared to address this issue if/when you are asked about it in court.  Challenges to our discipline is also the subject of this week's Detail.

This week

Steve Scarborough responds to a recent criticism of fingerprint examination.

They Keep Putting Fingerprints in Print
by Steve Scarborough

There has been a recent flurry of sensationalistic articles challenging the validity and reliability of Fingerprint Science. Forensic scientists, as a rule, discount these articles knowing that the Law of Fingerprints- fingerprints are unique and permanent- is secure. When the California Association of Criminalists, CAC News decided to do an article on this issue, Fingerprints in Print, it was heralded with some hope that this issue would be examined thoroughly and fairly. Instead, the resulting article contained the same sensationalism and hyperbole as the other recent articles degrading the science and predicting the end of fingerprints as a useful forensic tool. However, now might be a good time to address all of these sensationalistic articles.

A consistent blunder running throughout these articles is the use of direct statements about the “inadequacies” of fingerprints, not in quotes, as if they are truisms. Upon examination these statements are the same exaggerations and embellishments spewing from the few quacks purporting such mendacity. These authors also fell into that trap. I suspect that some of these “critics” like Simon Cole can give a very convincing interview in person, (though he hasn’t given testimony in court) and they have a way of making outrageous statements seem acceptable.

Here is an example from the CAC text. “Conventional fingerprint doctrine would have us believe that the latter situation (that there are (unless this is in quotes) no unexplainable differences can be found between the prints [prints in question- from the Mayfield case] yet they do come from the same source) is impossible.”  In fact this statement does not exist in any Fingerprint Science writings except in this article and in the ramblings of the few critics.

There are two reasons for these gross misstatements of fact and distortion of the theories of Fingerprint Science. One is the Chemist View of the World and the other is False Authority Syndrome (FAS). Let’s deal with the Chemist View first.

Fingerprint Science is just like one of the major segments of biology, and is an observation science. Biology has two major branches, the molecular branch which uses chemistry at its base and is perfectly adapted to error rates, validation studies, calibration, decision documentation (machine printouts) and controls. The other branch of biology is the observation branch, which observes, documents and studies biology. This branch uses observation to make conclusions about biology- exactly like the tenants of Fingerprint Science.

There was a time when biologists in the molecular branch of biology and chemists did not accept the observation side of biology as a true science, thereby creating the Chemist View of the World. Over the years this postulation has been proven to be in itself unscientific and the observation branch of biology and other observation sciences have been validated.

The Chemist View of the World suggests that every science should be like chemistry and DNA and molecular branch of biology. The Chemist feels that conclusions are not based upon observation but on data analysis accompanied by error rates, validation studies, calibration, and machine printouts. This principle is perfectly acceptable for these sciences and makes for perfectly solid and tested conclusions. These principles do not apply to the observations sciences and biology is only one among many. Trying to restrict observation biology to these principles would be counter-productive. These principles should also not be forced upon an observation science such as Fingerprints.

A common thread seen throughout the Daubert hearings, most critical articles and writings and recent documentation requirements is the application of the principles of chemistry to Fingerprint Science. The forced application of principles that do not apply to a scientific discipline is destructive to all of science. I suspect that early biologist were accused of not practicing “good science,” when in fact, to apply those principles would have been bad science.  Machine print-outs are not appropriate for an observation science. A validation study is hardly appropriate for a chance impression such as a fingerprint.  The eyes cannot be calibrated. And there is no such thing as an error rate when observing something as unique as a snowflake, an asteroid, a tree, and a beetle’s shell, the skin on a zebra and the human friction ridge skin.

Fortunately for some of us working in Fingerprints we have not been encumbered by these restrictions and the chemists we work with and work for are not as gullible as the writers of the CAC article or other forensic scientists.  They realize that you cannot translate the chemist view of the world to an observation science.

Another consistent thread in these critical articles is false authority syndrome (see The writers of the CAC article have also fallen victim to FAS. False authority syndrome involves a pseudo expert or false authority espousing some controversial opinion that is believed and taken up by the media and perpetuated by other “authorities.”  There are similarities between this issue and the Y2K Hoax. In hindsight we can now see that all the worry was unfounded but there were all too many in the media and the computer industry that believed a few false authorities.  

To borrow some thoughts from The U.S. Air Force highlights the concept of False Authority Syndrome in Tongue & Quill, their official publication on effective writing. They give the definition of the word ultracrepidarian as a person who gives opinions beyond his scope of knowledge.

"Nonexpert opinion or assumed authority -- Don't be swayed (or try to sway someone else) based on the opinion of an unqualified authority. The Air Force is chock-full of people who, because of their position or authority in one field, are quoted on subjects in other fields for which they have limited or no experience.  As this Air Force publication notes, False Authority Syndrome can attack people in all fields of expertise.” also tells us that “Computer salesmen, consultants, repairmen, and college computer teachers often succumb to False Authority Syndrome. In many cases a person's job title sounds impressive, but his or her job description at most may only include references to vague "computer security" duties.”

Part of the syndrome is that the false authorities perpetuate myths about “their science” (fingerprints) with other pseudo-experts and they in turn talk to the media extending the myth, much like the Y2K Hoax. It becomes a morass of the "blind leading the blind" techno-babble and is ironically pseudo-science accusing a true science of being a pseudo-science.

It is interesting to note that False Authority Syndrome is nothing new to these times. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in one of his Holmes stories: “…so aloof is he from general suspicion, so immune from criticism, so admirable in his self-effacement, …that he could haul you into court…Is he not the celebrated author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid, a book …that it is said that no man in the scientific press cable of criticizing it?” In fact in the early 1900s the world abounded with FAS bringing us some interesting “sciences” such as phrenology.

Another issue in the CAC article, one proffered by Cole is that critics within the discipline are ostracized. This is more FAS mumbo jumbo. When in reality those “critics,” of which there are only a handful, are no more “excommunicated” then those astronomers who believe in UFOs or biologists who ignore the evidence of evolution. Or the phrenologists of the early 1900s, the few quacks eventually uncovered for what they are.

A startling aspect of the CAC article is pop-out text box with the text and quotes over a photo of a fingerprint as if this is a quote from an expert. This effect can lend credence to the statement- in this case that statement - “More intriguing is the possibility that no unexplainable difference can be found between the prints, yet they do originate from different sources.” When in actuality it is text from the article and a statement apparently made only by the authors.

The implied emphasis of articles like this, and this article can be lumped in with those appearing in other media, is that because there are fingerprint comparison mistakes, the science is flawed. Of course, one point that they are missing is that these mistakes are found by fingerprint examiners, using scientific methodology and basing their conclusion on the uniqueness (infallibility) of fingerprint science. In other words you can’t have it both ways. If the science is flawed then the science can’t be used to verify the mistakes. To belabor the point: If none of this is valid then the maybe there were no mistakes at all?

The CAC article also states: “This suggests that the science / art (my emphasis) of fingerprint comparison is perhaps not as reliable as conventional wisdom would have us believe…” This statement is not directly attributed to Cole by the authors, but it certainly represents a stance he espouses.  Cole suggests that Fingerprint Science is not a science but an art and that the scientific concepts well accepted by forensic science, other scientific fields such as biometrics and the general public (conventional wisdom) are not valid. [Sounds like a created response to Daubert doesn’t it?] Remember the Syndrome calls for a spreading of the myth and it looks as if these authors have bought into this false concept.

Here is another example. “The reaction of the fingerprint community, at least as assessed from the web chatter, has been largely defensive; circle the wagons against the attack that is sure to come.” The quotes are mine so this must be thoughts of the CAC chemists.  However, this notion is one that is constantly advocated by Cole. A perception not supported by any evidence but largely from lurking on the Internet.

A crucial factor of FAS is that by repeating the outrageous assumptions it gives them credence. This occurs in the CAC article with Simon Cole’s new approach in attacking Fingerprint Science. After hearing for so long that “the technology is sound but it is the practitioner that can error,” apparently his new tact is to equate the human mind with mechanical instruments such as those used to analyze DNA. The “mind is the technology” is an interesting concept. However, this concept is also not grounded in any scientific basis.

The authors were also sucked into the statement that “we note that it (a zero error rate for the technology based upon the fact that fingerprints are unique) would seem to be irreconcilable with the reported facts in this case.” The facts in the case are that a mistake was made. The CAC authors have perpetuated the FAS with regard to the Law of Fingerprints- which is that fingerprint are unique. They are buying into the myth that fingerprints are really not unique as purported by the false authorities.

A staggering example of FAS is also in the article when the authors state that CSI syndrome is in the statement enlarged in a pop-out text. “…the preconception that fingerprinting is infallible, otherwise known as C.S.I. syndrome…” The quotes again are mine.  I believe this misstatement comes from an ultracrepidarian as it suits the critical cause. C.S.I. syndrome or effect is commonly defined and used as the inflated expectations of juries and the public with regard to the capabilities of forensic science.

One element of the false authority syndrome is the ability to convince people that what they are saying is correct, that they are a voice of the consensus of the scientific community.  This gullibility also leads to another factor authors may have not thought about. That is tainting of the jury pool. By restating as fact, the outrageous claims of these few false authorities, & pseudo experts (ultracrepidarians), they could be corrupting the jury pool.  Just like the CSI syndrome can give a false expectation to juries so can these articles give the wrong information to the jury pool. 

For the future, fingerprint examiners will not be taking the advice of the CAC article’s authors (or is it Simon Cole’s advise?) to disabuse ourselves of the basic tenants of Fingerprint Science. Fingerprints are absolute and infallible.  Any skepticism, if warranted, lies in the competence of the forensic scientist bringing the identification forward. This same skepticism should be applied to the pseudo experts and false authorities bringing forward these criticisms.

As my boss says, “As a forensic scientist we have to be open to the possibility that our science can be proven wrong.” Fortunately for Fingerprint Science, we are constantly reinforcing the positive. Every single day the Fingerprint hypothesis is empirically tested and proved reliable and valid. This offers daily support for the fact that the Law of Fingerprints is solid and fingerprints are permanent and unique. As scientists were are confident that any “critic” that tries to prove the fallibility of fingerprints will actually find the opposite. Just as we testify to everyday.



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