Yesterday, I wrote about the November 13 article in the New York Times that described how police had turned to sophisticated science involving isotope analysis to determine the geographic origin of corpses. The article focused on the case of a Jane Doe in a 41-year-old murder case in Florida. The science is fascinating; it allows the authorities to pinpoint where the victim came from with startling precision. The Jane Doe in Florida, who had been thought to be a white or Native American woman from North America, grew up in Greece and had probably been in the U.S. for less than a year.
Why, I asked, had law enforcement so heartily embraced the science that could do this work, even as most of law enforcement continues to ignore or resist more basic science on traditional methods of investigation, like eyewitness identification, interrogation of suspects, and old-school forensics? Here are a few possible reasons:
1) In the Jane Doe case and the others discussed, there was no real alternative. The cases were old, and most ways of investigating that could be tried had been tried, with no results.
2) The colder a serious case gets,the more likely that police will be open to trying new or untested approaches.
3) The type of science used — hard science, chemical analysis, very traditional sorts of science work — is appealing, in a way that the sorter science challenging eyewitness identification, for instance, is not.
4) The science described in the article does not challenge what police already do and believe in. Therefore, it does not disrupt the status quo or challenge existing ideas about police expertise, while science about eyewitness identification, interrogation and traditional forensics challenges those things very directly.
My gut is that answers 1) and 4) probably do the most to explain what we see here. What do you think?