October 19, 2008

Pseudoscience in policing

The October issue of Criminal Justice and Behavior is a special issue on Pseudoscientific Policing Practices and Beliefs. There are some great articles and, best of all, Sage is offering free access to those of you without access to academic databases through the end of this month.

As those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know, criminal profiling is one of my pet peeves (See last year's post, "Of profiling, astrology, and magic.") So, my favorite article in the current issue is "The Criminal Profiling Illusion: What's Behind the Smoke and Mirrors?"

The idea that police can deduce a suspect's characteristics from the crime scene has no strong empirical support and may indeed be an illusion, say the authors, Brent Snook, Richard M. Cullen, Craig Bennell, Paul J. Taylor, and Paul Gendreau, who go on to argue that the technique should not be used as an investigative tool:
There is a belief that criminal profilers can predict a criminal's characteristics from crime scene evidence. In this article, the authors argue that this belief may be an illusion and explain how people may have been misled into believing that criminal profiling (CP) works despite no sound theoretical grounding and no strong empirical support for this possibility. Potentially responsible for this illusory belief is the information that people acquire about CP, which is heavily influenced by anecdotes, repetition of the message that profiling works, the expert profiler label, and a disproportionate emphasis on correct predictions. Also potentially responsible are aspects of information processing such as reasoning errors, creating meaning out of ambiguous information, imitating good ideas, and inferring fact from fiction. The authors conclude that CP should not be used as an investigative tool because it lacks scientific support.
There's quite a lineup of scholarly experts behind the other articles in the special issue, too:
Check it all out here.
Photo credit: Troy & Patrice