Monday, July 30, 2007

Mecklenburg and The Big Picture

I agree with Ben. It just isn't right that, faced with a fight between prosecutors and scientists over a purely scientific issue, a respected newspaper looks at the dispute and basically calls it a draw. But I want to make sure we don't get too discouraged over this development. It seems to me that this story is just a fairly extreme example of the media's need to find two conflicting viewpoints, present them both no matter what the objective merit, and let readers decide where the "truth" lies without further explanation.

"Scientists: Earth is round. Prosecutors: Earth is flat. Media: Time will tell who's right. "

There is a bigger picture here, though, and it's important not to miss it. A study like the Mecklenburg Report, which cost lots of money, got huge publicity and was supported by powerful interests, could have set the reform movement back many years, or killed it altogether. The response could easily have been delay, confusion, disappearing resources, and a strengthening of resolve against reforms. Some suspect that that was precisely the goal of Mecklenburg, since it clearly wasn't designed to create any usable scientific data.

In the short term, of course, Mecklenburg did succeed in setting back reform -- as some of the quotes from the Tribune story make painfully clear. But that, fortunately, was not the end of the story or anything close. In the long run, Mecklenburg did not kill the reform movement, and it did not even set it back very far because of the remarkable response of the scientific community. In fact, in many ways the Mecklenburg report strengthened the hand of reformers.

The Mecklenburg Report was released only a little more than a year ago. In that time, scientists from around the country (many of whom are new to the field) have reviewed its results, discredited them, and repudiated them. In other words, in a very short time, Mecklenburg has created more awareness of the identification research and, after much scrutiny, more recognition of its scientifically-rigorous underpinnings. The controversy has also spurred a host of field studies that, because of the serious protocols, will create good, usable data -- data that can be used to make procedures better and to figure out if there are principles that do or do not translate from the lab to the field. Absent Mecklenburg, it is hard to imagine these studies coming into being so quickly, and their results will answer a question that, Mecklenburg or not, would have always been used to critique the lab results -- namely, the question of whether the laboratory results can translate into real world procedures.

This is all for the good. Although we already have field studies and real-world results that support many of the reforms, its always better to know more, particularly when we can know more quickly. Because of the resources and attention Mecklenburg has focused on the issue, we will in very short order have more good scientific results from the field. Those results will then inform the progress of which procedures to reform and how, and their existence will take away from the skeptics their current refrain about Mecklenburg being the "only" field study that has attempted to determine how reforms work in the real world. Those reports will prevent anyone's ability to delay longer by seeking field studies or the results from field studies.

It's highly unlikely that the goal of the Mecklenburg report was to highlight the rigorous nature of eyewitness identification science. It's also unlikely that anyone anticipated a response to Mecklenburg that was this fast, this focused or this rigorous. But it's looking like that will be the result, and that very soon there will be no lingering questions about whether and how the scientific principles work in the real world.

The media might say that only time will tell. My money is on the science.

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