Monday, March 5, 2007

The truth about inconvient evidence

What follows is actually about the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”), and a very simple fact about it that I have never seen discussed in any of the voluminous commentary about this organization. I say this because when you start reading this you will think I am on about crime and detection. I am simply drawing a parallel to a common human weakness that infects both worlds.

Suppose you walked out your door one day and were greeted by the sight of a crowd, police cars, news media, and yellow police tape, around your neighbour’s house, a few doors down the street. You hustle down in time to hear the chief of police giving a statement.

He tells the assembly that your neighbour, Mrs. Smith, has been discovered by a cleaning lady, slashed to death in her bedroom. Her husband’s whereabouts are unknown and the police are seeking him. At this very moment criminal investigators are examining the evidence in the house. Any help that the neighbours can give that will shed light on this horrible crime would be greatly appreciated. He then states that there will be a solid police effort to hunt down and prosecute Mr. Smith for this murder.

His last statement leaves you shaking your head. Surely, he is prejudging the outcome of the investigation! Mrs. Smith might have been killed by the cleaning lady, another relative, a jealous lover, an intruder, a co-worker, a contract killer, almost anybody. There might have been more than one person complicit in her death, even if her husband was somehow involved.

What worries you, because you know this happens more often than it should, is that the police and the prosecutors will look only for and at evidence that implicates Mr. Smith and will ignore exculpatory evidence or evidence that points to another perpetrator if they have decided at the outset that he is the only one worth pursuing.

Several years ago in Toronto, the police and the prosecutor concentrated all their investigative and prosecutorial efforts to bring to justice a nurse, Susan Nelles, for her alleged murder of several babies at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. The reason they focused their efforts on her was because Ms. Nelles said she wanted to contact a lawyer before she spoke to the police.

As it turned out, nurse Nelles was not in the hospital when a couple of the children died. But, so determined were police and the prosecutors to nail Nelles, they ignored the evidence that eventually a judge said exonerated her.

Best-selling novelist, John Grisham, has recently published his first non-fiction book, An Innocent Man, about just such an event in Oklahoma with more sinister results.

Do you ever watch Law and Order? How many times have you seen the police and prosecutors on that show wake up to the fact that they are going after the wrong suspect halfway or three-quarters of the way through the episode.

At least on this show, the cops and the assistant district attorneys know enough to shift gears. It is common when mistakes are made and criticism appears for authorities to stubbornly cling to their first wrong conclusions and vehemently deny that they could have made a mistake. Grisham’s book is chilling insight into that kind of behaviour and its horrible consequences.

We expect investigators of crimes to keep an open mind and look at all the evidence, even if they have early suspicions about the identity of the perpetrators. We expect them to draw their conclusions only after the evidence overwhelming leads in one direction.

Although science plays an increasingly important role in criminal prosecutions, as any fan of the TV show, CSI, knows, it is not without its flaws as well.

Currently, in Canada, we are being treated to the umpteenth legal review of the conviction for murder of now 61 year old Steven Truscott. He was 14 years old when he was accused of raping and killing 12 year old Lynn Harper in 1959. His prosecution was based solely on circumstantial evidence and one of the key pieces of evidence was the conclusion of the pathologist about the time of Harper’s death based on 1959 knowledge about the rate of digestion and the examination of the contents of Harper’s stomach. Science has moved on and that evidence is now highly suspect.

Likewise, in The Innocent Man, Grisham refers to the problems with matching hair samples found at crime scenes. Prior to DNA becoming the mainstay of forensic science in the 1990s, this kind of evidence had a questionable history in criminal prosecutions. So much so, that Grisham recounts a U.S. nationwide test in 1978 involving 240 of the best crime labs in the country. A majority of the labs proved to be wrong 4 out of 5 times. In another test, accuracy increased when the tester had no idea which sample was the one of interest to the police, and correspondingly declined when the prime suspect was known to the tester.

Author Michael Crichton, in testimony before the U.S. Senate on the issue of climate change, referred to the “double-blind method testing of drugs”. This is a formal process carried out in the medical field to eliminate any possibility of a drug’s efficacy being influenced by the knowledge of those taking the drug and those actually administering it. It is the gold standard in the scientific field. It prevents the kinds of errors Grisham outlined in the hair testing in the crime labs.

One of the reasons why criminal investigations must be done so thoroughly is that the standard of proof to obtain a conviction is “beyond a reasonable doubt”. In some legal jurisdictions in the United States it is sometimes enough to introduce reasonable doubt by being able to construct an alternative theory of the crime pointing to another suspect. Elsewhere, the interpretation of that standard is very high hurdle for the prosecution to meet.

Notwithstanding that, since Truscott’s conviction, Canada abolished the death penalty years ago, simply because it was known that, despite all the money and effort expended by the state to meet the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard, mistakes are still made and innocent people are convicted.

Contrast that social norm or social expectation we demand from our system of criminal justice with the situation we find ourselves in after nearly 30 years of environmental climate change advocacy.

Here is the mandate of the International Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”) taken directly from its website:

The role of the IPCC is to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.

Note that it does not say “understanding climate change”. It says specifically “human-induced climate change”. In other words, the husband, Mr. Smith, was already pre-determined to be the perpetrator of the climate crime and that fact has been communicated to the science labs around the globe. Is it any wonder that they produce results that fit the pre-ordained conclusions and dismiss any exculpatory evidence or evidence pointing to another culprit?

This has been the underlying bias of the global climate change industry since the first international climate change conference in 1979, which led directly to the formation of the IPCC. Is it any wonder, that having climbed out on a limb to claim that humans induce climate change the authorities running this show have dug in their heels and stubbornly defended their turf despite a growing chorus of dissent?

The basis of science is scepticism, not consensus. Scientists look at data and formulate a hypothesis about the implications of the data. They publish the hypothesis in scientific journals or other credible publications. By doing so they invite other scientists to examine and test the hypothesis and prove them wrong or inadequate. If repeated challenges tend to support the hypothesis then it gravitates to the level of a theory, which means it becomes the conventional scientific wisdom on that subject. But that does not elevate it to the status of truth. All theories are only tentative. With advancing knowledge they can be disproved at any time.

The problem with climate science is that it has been taken over by environmental activists who don’t want alternative hypotheses raised or examined.

When advancing knowledge is ignored or deliberately sidelined because of ideological forces, then science is no longer science. The scientific community has failed to protect its integrity by forgetting its basic principles. And we will all pay a price for that.

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