- Published: June 8, 2015
As a neuroscientist in training, I have come to understand science as a dynamic continuum of knowledge rather than a static pyramid of building blocks. It is exciting to read a research paper that claims to have the answer to cure an awful human disease, but becomes less exciting when that treatment never comes to fruition, or when you read another paper that contradicts those findings, or when your mentor points out striking flaws in experimental design. I would like to think of science in its ideal, as a pure, accurate process, but the incredible complexities surrounding the workings of life makes any biological science tricky to deconstruct. This is an even greater problem in the field of neuroscience, as the nervous system is one of the most complex biological constructions. This creates a field ripe for research, but fraught with difficulties.
These understandings must lead us to caution when applying the findings of researchers to determine the fates of accused criminals. A paper by Ioannidis in PLoS Medicine addresses that most published research findings are in fact false1. This is not particularly surprising, given the pressure to publish and the bias towards publishing only positive results.
Although great care is taken before approving drugs for human use, it is easy to fear that, based on the blood- lust shown by the general public towards criminals, there could be much less care to screen methods before using them to lock people away. What if what science tells us is wrong? One common example of this fear lies in the possible use of fMRI for lie detection, which has been mentioned by a couple of posts previously. Functional MRI, while it is expanding and informing and entire field, is a limited instrument. What if fMRI leads to falsely accused victims because of an abnormal brain activation pattern not accounted for in any of the test groups? Using fMRI lie detection as evidence to sway a jury seems very premature, but should also not be a huge concern. Due to the nature of fMRI scanning, (which requires absolute stillness and cooperation), this technology could only be used on consenting people, and will probably serve more as proof of innocence rather than guilt if it does come into common use.
The fact remains, however, that any headline-making breakthrough should be weighed carefully, as science, although an excellent ideal, is fallible. If an enormous advance in science is implemented into the legal system, but later found to be incorrect, public trust in research could be lost. It is therefore in the best interest of both science and the public that scientists be conservative in their claims, and exceedingly thorough in their research.
- Ioannidis JP. Why most published research findings are false. PLoS Med. 2005 Aug;2(8):e124.