Forensics for Ducks

by Prof Ryan Spox

Things that annoyed me today:

Mostly it was the breathtaking stupidity of what passes for a Law Lord in Scotland. Bear with us on this one. We are referring to a rather obscure but very tragic case involving the decomposed body of a dead child, a mother convicted of murder, a conviction quashed on appeal and the stupendous arrogance of a bunch of old men in silly wigs. (Conviction Appealed)

The details of the case need not concern us. What does is that, due to the decomposed state of the dead child’s body, establishing a cause of death was not strictly possible. Consequently the prosecution turned to a so-called “expert” witness for, well, an expert opinion which could be deduced from the rather pathetic skeletal remains. It is the evidence of this expert witness which has so upset the appeal court judges that they just tossed the whole case out. Asked to infer a cause of death from the bones, the expert did just that, and stating what, in their expert opinion, the cause of death could have been. That’s an expert opinion. That’s the kind of opinion you get from experts. They don’t say what definitely did happen, they just say what they can infer from the evidence. Like everything in science there is an implicit probability attached to any statement, a fact with which the legal profession in general seem to have enormous difficulty in coming to terms. They’re quite happy with the concept of “reasonable doubt” in a legal case but utterly incapable of grasping the notion of probabilities of causes and effect when it comes to scientific opinion. Still, that’s lawyers for you. Never the brightest buttons on the coat, they make economists look like innovative thinkers.

So upset were they by their inability to grasp basic scientific concepts that the appeal court judges went on to dismiss the evidence on the basis that the principal expert has “no medical qualifications.” Well, that’s just shocking, isn’t it? Here’s some fly-by-night chancer masquerading as an expert and offering opinions that can only be trusted if they are pronounced by a proper qualified physician with a medical degree and everything. Because, let’s face it, what other kind of person could possibly know anything about inferring cause of death from a mere pile of sad little bones?

Well, possibly Dr Sue Black, Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology at the University of Dundee and generally regarded as one of the world’s leading practitioners in her field which, amongst other things, involves being an expert in inferring causes of death based purely on skeletal remains. You might, naively, think that she knows what she’s talking about. But that’s not good enough for the Scottish Law Lords because, in their view, she’s not a proper doctor! Why, the woman’s never prescribed an anti-depressant in her life! (Quack! Quack!)

Just to clarify their views on letting such amateurs interfere in areas that should only be entrusted to someone who gets to call themselves “doctor” because of a post-medieval convention, rather than because they studied their specialist subject long enough and well enough to earn an actual PhD, one top law dog, Lord Clarke, helpfully added:

“Putting matters colloquially, it cannot be right for a trial judge to allow an obvious ‘quack’ doctor to speak to a subject in a supposed expert way in relation to which he has no qualifications.”

Wow. Just “Wow!” What can you say to that? Now, we are expert in many areas, but Scots Law is not one of them. Consequently we really do not know if a respected Professor at a Scottish University is able to take any sort of legal action against an ignorant and opinionated Law Lord who has used a court judgment to publicly slight their entire professional reputation. But we really hope she can. And does. And if she can’t, next time the Scottish justice system seeks her help, we trust she will just tell them to go jump in the sea.

And then, when their bones finally wash ashore, perhaps she can examine their skulls for signs of cretinism.