from the script-writers-appears-to-have-dropped-off-the-deep-end-of-farce dept
We [waves flattened palm parallel to the floor in circular motion meant to demonstrate the encompassing nature of the rest of this sentence] the People of this United States have seen some shit. This faaaaaaaaaaarrrr surpasses anything we’ve seen before.
By shit, I am referring to the gobsmackingly inane, incredibly insane garbage law enforcement passes off as “science” to secure convictions. Here’s a particularly astounding “for instance:” there’s an FBI “forensics expert” who claims he can recognize people by the patterns of the wrinkles in their mass-produced jeans and shirts. That’s the claim the malleable Dr. Richard Vorder Bruegge has not only made in his science-y sounding paper (“Photographic Identification of Denim Trousers from Bank Surveillance Film“) but also in court, where he has insisted the odds of wrinkle duplication in mass-produced clothing is 1-in-650 billion.
That’s just on the far end of the law enforcement bullshit spectrum. There’s plenty of other stuff that’s all been considered the gold standard of evidence that has failed to add up to anything when any actual scientific scrutiny is applied to it. Bite mark analysis, blood spatter analysis, bullet matching, hair matching, DNA… all of it is suspect or, at the very least, not nearly as accurate as law enforcement forensic experts assert in court.
But at least most of that stuff has some science to it, even if it’s not nearly as capable of producing bulletproof matches as law enforcement techs believe it is. Microscopes, labs, lab coats, software, specialized hardware, chain of custody, documentation, clipboards, things utilizing radiation or ions or spectroscopes or whatever… that all goes into examining evidence and generating leads or overly confident statements in court.
This has none of this. Worse, the legacy of this mockery of police investigative work carries with it a history of con artists utilizing showmanship to bilk rubes out of money. And yet, law enforcement agencies are actually spending tax dollars to send budding investigators to “learn” from someone who should have been laughed out of business immediately. This is not just a farce, it’s law enforcement malpractice.
Five crime scene investigators wearing white Tyvek suits and purple Latex gloves pace through a Tennessee woodland in a slow wave, searching for areas of sunken ground and other clues that might indicate a gravesite. The chill morning air is scented with loam, leaves, pine needles — and a hint of human decay.
The agents mark three suspicious depressions in the dirt with red flags and discuss their options for investigating further. One student asks about dowsing rods.
“You want to use some?” replies Arpad Vass, an instructor at the National Forensic Academy in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where law enforcement officers come to learn how to use science to solve crimes — at least in theory. “I use them on everything.”
You read that right: Arpad Vass, “forensic instructor,” is handing out divining rods to students hoping to become better crime scene investigators. I wish this were a joke. It is, very sadly, an actual thing that is happening with the blessing of the University of Tennessee and is capable of subjecting students from all over the nation to this stupidity.
Vass, a 62-year-old wearing a blue CSI-Death Valley cap, is teaching his students witching, aka divining or dowsing. It’s a centuries-old practice in which a person walks a straight line holding two bent pieces of metal, or sometimes a Y-shaped twig, until they signal the presence of whatever is being sought underground. Water witches dowse for groundwater. Others use divining rods for seeking precious gems, oil, gold. Or, as in this case, human remains.
The Marshall Project undersells the next sentence.
Dowsing for the dead is not exactly endorsed by scientists or forensic experts.
Fact: dowsing for fucking anything has never been endorsed by scientists of forensic experts. In fact, anyone pushing dowsing as a scientific solution for any problem whatsoever is trying to deceive you. It’s a simple as that. Here’s a much more succinct (and harsher) appraisal of dowsing and dowsing apparati, taken from this NPR report on a man who separated victims from $38 million with a modified golf ball retriever he claimed could be used to detect IEDs.
SIEGEL: As you report, James McCormick was ultimately convicted by a British court for selling devices like the ADE651. What was or is the ADE651?
HIGGENBOTHAM: Well, it was essentially a touted up dousing rod. A plastic pistol grip with a plastic hinge in it on which was mounted what looked a lot like a telescopic car antenna.
SIEGEL: And it actually was adapted from a golf ball retriever.
SIEGEL: What’s the real science behind it?
HIGGENBOTHAM: There is no science.
That pulled punch from The Marshall Project kind of takes some of the power out of the follow-up.
Outside experts I spoke with — professional forensic anthropologists and lawyers, as well as law enforcement officers involved with police training reforms — say they’re alarmed that a leading training program is teaching the pseudoscience of witching.
Alarmed? They should be fucking apoplectic! This is insanity. That this has gone longer than Vass’ first attempt to introduce dowsing into forensic science is an indictment of both the University of Tennessee and the law enforcement agencies that still pay to have officers and investigators subjected to cop-washed black arts by a “scientist” deep in throes of self-delusion. Dowsing “works” like a Ouija board “works.” It’s an illusion that relies on self-deception. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, science.
It does not magically become a science just because Vass is capable of using science-y words or has a background in actual science.
If you’re not completely stupefied yet, brace yourself. It gets even worse and much, much more idiotic.
In particular, some experts are distressed that a Vass trainee recently got witching results admitted as evidence in a Georgia murder trial. This could set a legal precedent and allow witching-based evidence to be used in other cases, says Chris Fabricant, a lead attorney for the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners. “The search for the truth is never advanced through junk science.”
Yes. This is a thing that actually happened during the 21st century in an American court room. There’s video of it, as people who were born around the middle of the last century might say. (h/t Lowering The Bar)
This so-called “expert” (GBI agent Todd Crosby) throws around some scientific terms during his demonstration of dowsing for dead people, but none of it adds up to actual science. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent is simply parroting Vass’ pseudoscience spiel. But (as Lowering the Bar points out) he can’t even pronounce the term he’s abusing correctly.
Here’s Vass himself, spouting equal parts jargon and bullshit.
He says the metal rods can detect “piezoelectricity,” an electric charge that builds in certain solid materials such as crystals (it’s the reason quartz watches work). Bones under mechanical stress can also produce these charges, which is why, Vass says, some people can find them with dowsing rods. But not everyone, he told me, because “if people don’t have the right voltage, it’s not going to work.” (No peer-reviewed published research has illustrated that piezoelectricity can be used to detect buried remains.)
Blind tests of dowsing during actual scientific research have shown dowsing is no better than a coin toss when it comes to detecting whatever is supposed to be detected. Most of the “detection” is guided by the person handling the, um, dowsing tools, who (sometimes unconsciously) manipulate the rods to point to where they expect stuff to be found.
Vass, of course, says these trials, which use actual scientific principles, are the real bullshit here. Those scientists and researchers simply don’t know as much dowser-specific science as he does.
Vass called the study “useless,” writing that he teaches students the proper way to dowse and some of “the 17 scientific principles that make the rods work, which took me years to figure out.”
Anyone who claims they’re the only person who knows certain specific science is a huckster. There’s nothing in this statement that wouldn’t look out of place on the dust jacket of a self-help book written by Dr. Oz, or L. Ron Hubbard, or Gwyneth Paltrow. UNLEASH THE HIDDEN POWER OF THESE 17 SCIENTIFIC PRINCIPLES TO [INSERT LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE HERE]!!!
This is all equal parts regrettable and laughable. But the laughter tends to get choked off by the real world consequences of tax dollars being spent to immerse crime scene investigators in the never-not-been-debunked method of dowsing for evidence. Crimes will go unsolved. Families of victims will never have closure. Rights will be violated. Innocent people will be jailed. And somehow, the law enforcement community (along with the management of the University of Tennessee) are cool with these potential outcomes. If there’s any justice in the world (and there sure as shit isn’t much of it), this report will result in Vass being tossed out of the academy and forbidden from introducing his spin on witchcraft into the already suspect world of law enforcement forensics.