Thursday, September 24, 2009

Exercise Science

There's been a lot of hubbub lately about barefoot running, since some guy wrote a book and has been on various talk shows. I love to run, but constantly worry about injuries and whatnot. I also love to learn the truth of matters. I started searching for real information about barefoot running. There's a lot of junk out there from believers and people trying to sell books or fancy "barefoot shoes". I finally came across a blog by two doctors of exercise science. Ross and Jonathan at take care to hunt down and critique studies on many facets of exercise, and address exactly the questions and criticisms I would have reading the studies. They are readable, thorough, and open to reader questions and comments. They qualify their comments, and don't claim certainty when there's no good support. If you want to know the truth about how much to drink while you exercise, how to run, or a wide variety of other exercise topics, dig through their archives. We need more folks like them. Don't just listen to Gatorade or Nike.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Willingham's Execution - The Injustice System

Big fuss right now about Texas wrongfully executing another man. The New Yorker article is quite long, and reminiscent of Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line. To summarize: a guy's house burns down with his three kids in it. He has a criminal record and likes rock music, so some biased cops pressure witnesses to say certain things, and the cops evaluate the scene with a bunch of invalid beliefs. The guy, Willingham, is convicted of murdering his kids, and is executed 12 years later. Right before he was executed, a scientist who actually knows what he's doing sends a report to the authorities showing that Willingham's testimony matches the evidence and the original arson investigators were as wrong as they could possibly be. The authorities promptly ignored the report completely.

What does this case mean?
Well, not a whole lot by itself. Remember that this sort of thing is very rare, and constructing a perfect system is practically impossible. Your chances of getting wrongfully jailed are low, and executed even lower. If you're going to worry about something, worry about your diet and driving habits. However, it is yet another example of many of the pervasive problems in our justice system, which we have a moral and ethical imperative to improve. The original article is very thorough in pointing them out. What is most disturbing is that we as a society have known about these problems for decades, but the justice system largely refuses to fix itself.

1) Eyewitness testimony is fallible and easy to manipulate. Even how a question is worded affects witnesses' responses. Our memories are not recordings, but are loose connections between salient concepts. Memories require attention to be stored, aided by rehersal and thinking about the meanings of the information, but warped by biases. They are altered over time through a cycle of recall and restoring, affected each time by attention, biases, and thoughts again. Experiments on witness recall are sadlarious (Alan Alda watched a good one on Scientific American Frontier once) as people so frequently report remembering things that never happened, forget what did, and change many details.

2) Expert testimony is also subject to manipulation and bias. Any lawyer can cherry-pick an "expert" to do what he wants. The two psychology experts in this case were an MFT way out of his specialty and an obviously corrupt psychologist who lost his license because of his inappropriate testimonies. Real psychological evaluation is a long and deep process involving interviews and standardized instruments. Anyone who claims to be able to determine sociopathy by looking at the posters in a guy's house is a charlatan and fraud. But cops and juries don't know that. The average person doesn't know much at all about specialized professions, and take an "expert's" word. I think that expert testimony is definitely vital when it is done correctly, and there needs to be a process by which it can be included in trials with safeguards. Any expert should be able to back up what he says with citations subject to the scrutiny of peers.

3) Cops are ignorant and overconfident. It is unfortunate that our society's body of knowledge regarding how memories are manipulated, how witnesses should be questioned, how fires should be investigated, etc... is completely passed over by police who believe that they know what they're doing, believe they are always right, and believe that they don't need to study more about what they do. Judges and cops think they are good at detecting lies, but they aren't. When these people are allowed to act on their self-serving beliefs instead of empirically validated information, the justice system fails.

What would help?
We need a system, a culture, that applies the information and empirical methods that we have. We know that this would lead to the most accurate outcomes. We need better training of police, judges, and juries to monitor and cast off their overconfidence and biases. We need more accountability and tracking, so that it's more obvious that something is wrong if a prosecutor, judge, expert, or region has abnormal rates of convictions. We need to stop telling jurors to make "gut" decisions. I'd prefer having only well-educated citizens as jurors who are more likely to understand and evaluate information, and less likely to make decisions out of an emotional drive for revenge, sympathy, or just which lawyer was most attractive.

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