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The Oscar Pistorius trial and the role of forensic bias

Conflicting interpretations of forensic evidence


Published: 11 September 2014 (GMT+10)

The trial of South African Olympic and Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, charged with the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, has received a great deal of international media coverage recently. The judge1 in the case allowed the proceedings to be open to live television coverage, unusual for the South African criminal court system. This provided an insight into the nature of forensic interpretation which is also of relevance to the origins debate.

Both the prosecution and defence called expert witnesses to offer testimony on their behalf. Various forensic experts presented evidence on the trajectory of the bullets and the order in which they struck the victim, the source of screams heard on the night of her death, whether loud noises heard by neighbours were from gunshots or a cricket bat striking the bathroom door behind which the victim was cowering, the period before death she had last eaten based on her stomach content, and various other items of evidence relevant to the criminal investigation.

What was of great interest was that the experts appearing for both sides in the Oscar Pistorius trial presented conflicting interpretations of the exact same evidence. In all of the evidence listed above, the experts had differing opinions on the rates of processes, the order of events, the height from which shots were fired and their order, which bullet holes in the door corresponded with wounds in the victim, whether screams heard could be attributed to a male or female, and so on. And this is interpretation of evidence that was collected within hours and days of the shooting.

A legal commentator on one of the shows covering the trial made the observation that while expert evidence was meant to be impartial and objective, the two parties involved would hardly pay for and present evidence unless it was favourable to their case. This is an example of ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune’. And these ‘pipers’ are paid handsomely; up to about R15,000 a day (roughly US$1,500), an amount equal to about ¼ of the annual household income in South Africa. This is not to imply that these witnesses were necessarily being deliberately dishonest. It is just that bias obviously does play a significant role when it comes to interpreting such things as the past processes and time periods which resulted in the evidence which is observed in the present.

CMI regularly points out the fact that in the matter of origins, investigation of the past is not the same as observational, repeatable, experimental science. We often refer to this as historical, origins or forensic science. We observe phenomena such as fossils, canyons, rocks, living cells and DNA in the present. We can measure and observe the height, width, shape, quantities and processes going on in these phenomena in the present; but we cannot observe or repeat the nature, rate or time of processes in the past that led to the origin of those phenomena. Time is the most precious of commodities; once a moment is gone, it is gone forever. Things that happened thousands, or in the case of evolutionary belief millions of years ago, cannot be replayed. If an event that occurred just a few hours, days or months ago cannot be reconstructed from forensic evidence with any measure of certainty, as in this criminal trial, often with contradictory interpretations, the idea that ancient history can be reliably known from forensic evidence alone, is absurd.

And crime forensics even has the benefit of being able to carry out control experiments to monitor the rate of some processes. Cadavers are buried and their rate of decay observed, food eaten at a known time prior to death can be examined in the stomach to try and establish rates of digestion, the distance certain sounds can carry can be measured, the time taken for muddy shoe prints to harden can be measured. These observations can then be applied to a particular crime scene. But even then each crime takes place in different circumstances, and every victim is unique; making absolute certainty on the interpretation of forensic evidence elusive. When it comes to the origin of our vast universe and amazingly complex earth, and the breath-taking diversity of life, we do not even have the benefits of a control experiment. There is only one universe and we are living in it. We do not have another one that we have objectively observed to see how it formed. What utter hubris to imagine that we can tell an accurate story about the past times and processes that resulted in such a universe, merely by observing it in the present! If such storytelling is ambiguous at best for an event that occurred a year ago, how much more so for events alleged to be outside of recorded history?

One of the expert witnesses for the defence in the Oscar Pistorius trial described himself as a ‘forensic geologist’. With a Masters degree in geology and extensive experience in the mining industry (mineralogy), academia and crime forensics, he seemed to offer credible expertise. However, the prosecution very quickly undermined his credibility in offering evidence on ballistics and acoustics, areas outside of his field of expertise. In an interview prior to his appearance, he said that when he was approached by the Pistorius team, “’I almost turned it down,’ says Dixon, ‘because of the past, you know, you sort of tend to be on one side’.”2 Hardly a reassurance of objectivity, even though the same article says that “Dixon says in his field there is no room for prejudice”. Possibly he is a product of an intellectual paradigm that believes itself capable of reliably telling big stories about the distant past based purely on observations in the present. He therefore had the seemingly misguided confidence that he could accurately tell stories about the recent past based on the same principle. Both notions are misguided.

CMI, along with other organisations and individuals supporting the biblical account of creation and the Flood, often point out that unprovable assumptions play a huge role when it comes to establishing the past history of something based on the interpretation of forensic evidence. These are philosophical assumptions, the most dominant today in the matter of origins being philosophical naturalism, or materialism; the belief that all the phenomena in the universe, including its origin, can and must be accounted for by purely natural and material causes. A ‘divine foot’ is not allowed in the door.3

Another assumption that has played a major role in the development of evolutionary theory over the past 200 years is that of uniformitarianism, the idea that processes observable in the present are the key to interpreting the past. Even many secular geologists and biologists are increasingly rejecting this notion, at least in its purest, most dogmatic form, and invoking other explanations. These include multiple major catastrophes in the case of geology, and unscientific concepts such as panspermia (life seeded from outer space) or versions of the Gaia hypothesis (the entire earth, including the biosphere, is a ‘living’, self-regulating entity)4 in accounting for life.

Further, with the lure of prestige, fame and fortune accompanying evolutionary ‘discoveries’ in academia today, and with most universities firmly ensconced within the reigning materialist paradigm, one would have to be naïve not to believe that much of the evolutionary interpretation is also influenced by the rewards that come with telling the ‘right’ stories. Materialistic bias in a materialistic world–much as there was bias on display within criminal forensic interpretation during the Pistorius trial.

Another marked feature of the Oscar Pistorius trial has been the weight placed on either validating or discrediting eyewitness testimony, most notably the accounts given by various (ear) witnesses of the screams and loud bangs they heard that terrible night, as well as what lights were visible in the house. Again, legal commentators pointed to these testimonies as being the most important in weighing the evidence against Pistorius. That is because, when it comes to the past, an objective, reliable eyewitness account of events carries the most weight. When it comes to origins, the claimed evolution from the Big Bang onward had no eyewitnesses and has never been observed in the field or repeated in a laboratory.5

By contrast, creation had the ultimate, most reliable and truthful eyewitness possible, the eternal Creator God Himself. And He has given us an account of that supernatural, six-day, once-off event—primarily in the book of Genesis, but confirmed by many other passages of the inspired Word of God. Noah and his family were eyewitnesses of the Flood judgment about 1650 years after creation, and God (and possibly Noah himself) ensured that the account was also recorded for us in the Bible. As in a court of law, let us take the objective, unbiased account of the ultimate eyewitness at His plain meaning when evaluating the evidence for where this wonderful universe, including mice and men, has come from. When we do so, we will find that all of the ‘forensic’ evidence available to humanity as made in God’s image makes perfect sense when interpreted in the light of that record.

References and notes

  1. Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa, Gauteng Division, High Court of South Africa. Return to text.
  2. Time magazine online article, Oscar Pistorius Hires Dream Team Ahead of Murder Trial, 7 February 2014. Return to text.
  3. Richard Lewontin, Billions and billions of demons (review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, 1997), The New York Review, p. 31, 9 January 1997. Return to text.
  4. creation.com/slaying-dragon. Return to text.
  5. There are many articles on creation.com showing that the variation and adaptation seen in nature, and often involving natural selection, provides no evidence of goo-to-you evolution, showing rather an overall downhill trend in the living world. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

Damien S.
This is also a response to R.M. I have read somewhere (I'm pretty sure it was in a Creation magazine) that if the whole earth was levelled out, as in the mountains were flattened and the valleys under the ocean were filled in, the water on earth would cover the earth to a depth of, I think it was, 2 miles (2,7 km). In other words there would be no dry land anywhere. If God wanted to cover the whole Earth with water to wipe out sinful man, how easy would it be for Him to do it given that fact? 40 days of rain was just part of what was required to ensure the Earth was fully covered by water.
Garth B.
The response to R.M. leaves out probably one of the most significant factors allowing the water to cover the whole earth, and that is the re-shaping/deformation of the surface. Other passages in the bible imply that the land sank down and the ocean floor rose up causing the ocean to pour over the land.
J.D. G.
There is one more thing I would say in reply to R.M.: you are forgetting that not all of the water came from rain and existing oceans, it also came from the "fountains of the great deep" (Genesis 7:11).
Jennifer H.
excellent excellent excellent - another excellent article presented on CMI. Spot on. I am printing this out so that I may pass it out. I do not care if they are all 'thrown away' - for that ONE soul that may see it and think a SECOND TIME and pursue the truth - it is worth it all. I know that it matters not how many attend a function, or read something, God knows EXACTLY who, what, where, how and why - to God be the glory :)
Alf C.
This is reminiscent of the conflicting forensic evidence presented in the Azaria Chamberlain case. Great article and great points.
Len H.
Great article! Your articles always seem to put a perspective that makes sense and applicable to everyday life. Thanks again.
Phil M.
There is no such thing as forensic bias when it comes to origins. Bias – yes. Forensic bias – no. It cannot be over-emphasised that the forensics methodology cannot be applied to origins. Forensics must rely on observed historical precedent from which to construct an historical framework-of-best-fit around a given situation or set of circumstances or data. Now creation and darwinism are both historical novelty, which by definition, implies there is no observed historical precedent. Both are therefore outside the scope of forensic determination. In any case, creation already has an observed recorded historical framework and therefore does not require one to be constructed. Darwinism has no recorded historical framework, and with no observed historical precedent, must rely on human imagination to construct their historical framework. And in doing so, darwinism has to incorporate into its molecules-to-man scenario natural processes which have been assigned capabilities beyond the observable and demonstrable, making the darwinian molecules-to-man scenario not only historical novelty, but scientific novelty as well. Darwinism is scientific novelty, historical novelty and philosophical novelty.
Marc Ambler
I think uniformitarian geologists would disagree with you. They would argue that they do indeed have a precedent (or more correctly, a postcedent), the idea that 'the present is key to the past', which is uniformitarian orthodoxy.
Phil B.
there are 3 sides to every story the defendants the complaintifs and the truth and the Lord knows that and it will be accounted for at its appointed time in his soveregn will regardles of what the outcome is here and now on earth the rest falls on the individuals own soul searching and repentance as to what his eternity holds every one has the oppertunity to be redeemed and forgiven by the Grace of God alone.
Peter D.
Magnificent article.

In terms of method, legitimacy and certainty, I don't see any great difference between making predictions about the past or predictions about the future -- and that's a sobering notion given how woeful people are at accurately predicting future events.

In fact in the 'financial world' it's an ongoing joke at just how routinely dreadful market prognosticators and economists can be in their predictions. And analogous I think to the confidence so often shown by scientists, when 2 economists -- one educated at Yale, the other at Harvard, both wearing $200 silk ties -- can eloquently and most convincingly argue their opposing cases, based on the mountain of current evidence, only for them both to turn out to be wrong, again!

(Yet they pop-up on television a few months later with their confidence undented and with their latest forecasts just as eloquently and convincingly delivered as their last. Ha. People!).

Basically, humans love making predictions, about absolutely everything. But we're really, really bad at it. Seriously, economists can't even agree on a data event due to take place in 30 minutes time, let alone 30 years. How the heck do we know what the weathers going to be doing in 50 years time! And let's not start mocking expert sporting prognosticators ... although I'd sooner accept their prediction for an NRL or Super Bowl champ in 30 seasons time than I would some 'scientific' predictions based on a fragment of a fragment of a tooth found in a swamp somewhere.

How long was WW1 supposed to last according to the "expert consensus", 6 months?
R. M.
While this article correctly points out some of the limitations of forensic science, it neglected to point out one of its great strengths. This is the capacity of testable, repeatable, science to analyze the quantitative claims made for events that occurred in the past.
Here is an example. The Bible is quite explicit in saying that during Noah’s flood it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, and that this rain was enough to cover the highest places on the earth. Assuming that the mountains were much lower back then (I chose 2 mi.), and that the rain fell from a height 1 mile, standard physics requires that the rain would have to fall at the rate of 132 inches/hour for the entire 40 days. Furthermore, the kinetic energy of the falling rain, all of which would be converted to heat, would raise the temperature of the flood waters to the boiling point in a few days. Add this to the creationist-claimed thermal burden produced by hypothetical volcanism, runaway plate tectonics, and accelerated radioactive decay, and the earth would have become intolerably hot long before the rain had stopped.
These calculations used standard physics for the energy relationships involved. These concepts are found in any college freshman physics text, and they may be checked by anyone who can do the simple calculations. Their forensic value is that they show that the data presented in Genesis lead to an impossible situation. There are then several possibilities. My calculations could be incorrect, the simple laws of physics could have changed radically, or miracles could be invoked to produce more favorable results. Or that that the numerical data presented in Genesis are in error. In any event, this does point out a value of forensic science that the article neglected to cover.
Marc Ambler
Or it could mean that you have been very selective in your chosen parameters. While mountains 2 mi. (approx 3,2 km) high may sound reasonable, the Bible makes it clear that the topography of the world today bears little resemblance to the antediluvian world. Current mountain ranges probably formed during the tectonic upheaval of the recessive stage of the Flood and thereafter. Peter says that 'the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.' You also assume that the starting point of the Flood was no water and that the whole event took place in a thermos flask. The world already had an ocean prior to the Flood and your calculations do not take into account the mixing of the rainfall with the pre-existing water. You also do not seem to account for the cooling effects of evaporation.
S. I.
I am enjoying your articles and have always had a questioning mind and do not accept things readily. The general secular populous seem to be of the view that evolution is fact and science. I have never held this view. On the question of evidence of a flood which would explain reason for how things happened in the past, the one question that seems to always come up and therefore makes it a hard sell that God put animals on the Ark. If the Ark evidence was found it would enhance tremendously the story from the Bible, and is true after all. It would help a lot if there were evidence of the Ark and know about having the faith. But it's about getting sick of the scoffers, sceptics, and put downs and looking at you sideways, as thou your were mad to even suggest such an event took place. Of all the evidence that has been presented this is the smoking gun that is needed to silence the sceptics and to again for people to reaccess their thinking about our origins. For people like Richard Dawkins who have made money on his world view it probably wouldn't make any difference. I went to the CMI lectures recently and bought DVDs and Mags. The lectures were very impressive pity more people were not there to hear the presentations. Funny not so far away from the venue I saw the sports ovals absolutely flooded with people playing and watching sport.
Marc Ambler
It would be kind of cool if confirmed remnants of the ark were ever found. This however is unlikely. Think of the value of the timber of the ark for building materials after the flood. And Jesus also said that "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Luke 16:31. If His resurrection from the grave will not convict people, finding the ark is probably not going to do it either.

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