Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Of Fallible Heroes and Infallible Technology

Editor's note: If The Outfit ever held a monthly dinner party with Chicago's most interesting people (and that's actually a really good idea) Lori Andrews might be the first person I'd invite. Lori is an attorney, law professor, historian, and novelist who advises government agencies around the world about genetic technologies. She also chaired the federal advisory committee on the legal and ethical implications of the Human Genome Project. In her terrific new thriller, Immunity, set during a provocative presidential race, geneticist Alexandra Blake and a rogue DEA agent track the killer behind a lethal new biotoxin. When she told me she was speaking a lot lately about the effectiveness of DNA testing, I asked her if she would guest blog here at The Outfit. If you want to hear more, Lori will read from the book tomorrow (Thursday, September 11) at 12:30 PM at the State Street Borders (150 N State) in Chicago. -kg


By Lori Andrews

I’m one of the people least dazzled by technology of anyone I know. I don’t have an iPhone, iPod, or Blackberry. I still have a VCR. In my day job as a law professor, I undertake extensive government-funded studies of the effects of technologies on consumers and society. Will nanotechnologies lead to lung damage, like a new asbestos? Will use of sperm from the Nobel Prize sperm bank cause parents to reject their child if “E=mc2” isn’t the first thing out of his mouth?

But in my crime fiction, I fall into the same trap as CSI, Law and Order, and many other mystery writers who make it seem like crimes can be solved with the flip of a switch. In my latest book alone, a new date rape drug is identified by its chemical components, surveillance tapes finger the criminal, and a smack-talking computer that runs on DNA rather than the binary code helps solve the crime.

So I wonder: Why do we make our characters fallible and our technology infallible? And, is there anything we can do to change that?

We’ve made great strides making the city of Chicago a character in our books, pointing out its dark underside, as well as its heart-wrenchingly beautiful traits. But other than in a few cases (Kevin’s book dealing with cloning, Cast of Shadows, for example), we don’t treat technology as a character, subjecting it to our scrutiny and cynicism.

But maybe it’s time we started. There’s certainly plenty of material.

DNA forensics is not as reliable as most people think. We each have a 3 billion-character long string of DNA, which includes within it around 25,000 genes. If DNA forensics tested all 25,000 genes, then it would be a great way to identify people. But it only tests 13 snippets of DNA, called loci (and it used to test only 9). A variety of people might have similar genetic profiles when only 9 or 13 segments are looked at-–if they are relatives, for example, or if they belong to the same ethnic group, like the Native Americans in my latest book.

In July, the Los Angeles Times caused a panic in the forensic community with its article, The Verdict is Out on DNA Profiles. The FBI claimed that a match between a crime scene sample and DNA in CODIS had the odds of one in 113 billion. But a technician working in the Arizona Department of Public Safety Crime Laboratory, Kathryn Troyer, found 122 men in the Arizona database that matched at 9 loci, 20 at 10 loci, one match at 11 loci, and one match at 12 loci. Laboratory workers from other states claimed to have seen similar matches in their own crime labs.

In the wake of the Troyer discovery, criminal defendants have tried to compel crime labs to disclose how many other people in the forensic databases have DNA matching theirs at a significant number of loci. The FBI’s response to such court orders has been to intimidate labs by threatening to take away their National DNA Index System privileges if they comply with the request. In essence, the FBI is trying to prevent defendants from learning if there are flaws in the technology that is being used to convict them.

Plus, DNA forensics can be thrown off by human error and technological shortcomings. In one study, 45 laboratories were asked whether particular DNA samples matched. The labs were presumably using their best techniques since they knew they were being studied. Yet, in the 223 tests, matches were identified in 18 cases where they did not exist. Mistakes do occur in forensic DNA testing, yet jurors are often told that errors are nearly impossible. This means they might be convicting innocent people—or letting guilty ones off the hook.

The fallibility of technology could be an exciting subplot in a crime fiction. I think we shy away from it because it is hard to explain science. And the glitz of gadgets, the seduction of technology, is just too strong. We ooh and aah when Q in the James Bond movies unveils a pen that converts into a lethal stun gun or a car that can fire a missile. And if the right technology is not at hand, we pin our hopes on a hero like MacGyver who can fashion his own.

21 comments:

ab said...

Good idea! It's frightening that there can be so many mistakes. Why is FBI trying to stop the truth from coming out?

Michael Dymmoch said...

We as a nation love a quick fix (hence the ads--a pill for every problem). And science has become the religion of many who don't understand how the scientific method works.

Add to that our worship of the bottom line (no worries about how it was derived) and the current practice of excluding from juries anyone who knows anything about science or recent history, and the situation is inevitable.

(The FBI isn't so much trying to hide the truth, as it's covering its collective ass.)

ab said...

Get it - and I suppose the FBI collective is a pretty big one.

Picks By Pat said...

In Virginia, DNA re-checking from past cases have resulted in several persons being released from jail when it was discovered the original lab tests were erroneous. DNA can be a great tool, but it is subject to flaws and misuse, like any other tool. The FBI's reaction to the DNA challenges is the most frightening development of all, but very typical! And it's not the first time their image has been bruised because of their own mistakes. Remember Ruby Ridge, or the case of John J. Connolly, the FBI agent who helped a mob informant commit murder?

Jim said...

dgdfsfdfdfdf

Sandra said...

I wish to point out that the dna testing system is completely unregulated, without verifiable standards industry wide, and the best yet, has no clinical trial studies done to verify their claimed accuracy rate. How it has managed to get into court as evidence without these being in place is without regard for the rights of anyone this "evidence" is being used against. Shame on our judicial system for permitting it. I intend to challenge this court admissability on the 27th Feb 2009 in the supreme court of canada. I will continue to hammer away at this issue until it is rectified and some excuse for justice exists.
Sandra Olson (carey)

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