This morning started with the thought that I would make a lousy prosecutor. I was thinking about recent cases where we are presented with an overwhelming set of evidence of guilt. The crime was so remote that my interest in the specific case was just casual curiosity and a desire to read about something.
I pick up the bias of the reporting that I should care one way or another. There is a big contradiction in the idea of objective journalism when it comes to reporting crime stories that are the bulk of what we want journalists to write about. If a prosecutor or police issue a statement describing the evidence of a crime, then how is it possible to report on that objectively? I guess the report is an objective statement of the fact that it was an official statement. But when it is in print or read by a newsreader it comes out as a verdict against the accused. Typical examples are news stories where drugs are found in some vehicle or in someone’s possession. How can this be reported with an objective point of view? Rarely if ever is there even an attempt to offer some other explanation for how this could be explained in any way that would suggest the possibility of innocence.
Certainly I would make a lousy journalist even if I weren’t as lazy as this blog readily attests and was willing to get out and cover some story. Maybe I could be trained to think like a journalist and accept the idea of reporting on an official account is itself objective, but I think I would leave out most of the details most readers would want to know, such as what exactly is the evidence. I never seriously considered that profession.
The point of this musing is that I couldn’t be prosecutor. I’m not sure I could be a defender, or at least an effective one, but I’m sure I couldn’t prosecute. A prosecutor must take present himself completely certain and convinced the evidence leave no reasonable doubt of guilt. I don’t think I can ever be so certain to assert that others must agree with me and for me to persist in arguing until they agree.
I guess this ties into my early postings about my suspicions about models generating data. In a recent post, I discussed how models restrain what we permit to admit into the acceptable data pool. It is hard to have access to the direct observation unaffected by any preconceived models. I described model-affected categories as dark data (invented data we accept because the model says should exist) or forbidden data (observations we reject because the model says should not exist).
My background is as a data science, and data as it appears in databases. My bias is to see everything as immaterial data. My experience is that the data in databases includes dark data manufactured by models or excludes observations that don’t fit the models. I find value in being a incorrigible skeptic.
Criminal evidence is often very tangible and durable. It may be the actual materials or live verbal testimony of people confirming their observations (either as witnesses or as forensic experts).
In criminal cases, the hard physical evidence is hard to refute. This evidence wasn’t manufactured for the case, and it is plausibly connected to the event. There is more room for caution in interpreting testimony of those who connect the evidence to the crime scene. Just like there is room for caution for hearing witness testimony. Our criminal justice system depends on cautious weighing of credibility of testimony.
Perhaps I could be a decent juror. The question relies on the meaning adjective reasonable in the phrase “beyond reasonable doubt”. I can’t imagine myself ever being completely free of doubt. On the other hand, my quality of a juror may be diminished by setting the standard for reasonableness too high. I like to think that I can be reasonable but it may take more effort to get me to that point than it would to take for others.
So what if I am shown a case of a routine traffic stop where the officer notices the driver being visibly nervous, the officer is granted permission to search the car and finds contraband. The car is registered to the driver and the driver claims to be on his usual route. During the trial, there will be additional information presented by follow-up investigations about prior police records, search of home, drug testing of suspect, etc. I’ll assume the best case of a very competent defense that appropriately challenges each piece of evidence and testimony and likewise the court and prosecutor are both ethical and competent. The case presented is consistent with what normally would result in a guilty verdict.
I submit that even then I could harbor some doubt. The question is up to me to decide whether my doubt is reasonable. I do have some idea that some of my doubts are unreasonable. But it is not hard for me to imagine doubts that I find reasonable and that everyone else will find unreasonable.
The point about not being able to be a prosecutor is that I can never see myself being completely free of doubt, or at least sufficiently free to feel confident to argue that everyone else must agree with me.
I’m always eager to find another angle where the facts can fit a completely different story, one that may suggest a different kind of guilt or a different kind of problem much more important than this particular case.
This is not a post about being involved in a criminal procedure or even attempting to be an objective reporter for one. I’m using this as an analogy for autobiographical purposes. At least in my fantasies, I’d like to find something more fundamentally important than the outcome of a particular case.
I’d fancy myself to be like the first dissenter in the movie “12 Angry Men”. This movie was released a couple years before I was born but I think I saw it for the first time only a few years ago. Of course, the movie is directed in a way to get the audience to be dissenter #2 out of the 13 (the audience being the 13th juror). Certainly the director would have no trouble getting me in that slot. I imagine that task would have harder at the time it was released, but the movie remains compelling today (even after excluding the apparent jury misconduct that would justify a mistrial).
My point is not so much about the actual case, but it is about uncovering flaws in the data. Perhaps the analogy to data science is not too far off. Although the trial itself involved tangible evidence and testimony, the actual deliberation at least ought to be just the data from the collective memory of the juries.
A jury chamber has some similarities to an analyst looking at the results of a database query. The query returned the relevant results from a database where there is assurance that the data is acceptable for analysis. As with the jury, the immediate job is to do the analysis, to answer the question as efficiently as possible. The analysis usually delights in a clean result that will produce a report that will almost certainly satisfy his audience.
In such a scenario, the analyst is expected to complete the project quickly. It would be a performance issue if the analyst would hesitate and consider that perhaps the data may be wrong. Perhaps the reason why the results are so clean is because there was manufactured data that conforms with an preexisting theory, or because there were observations rejected because it would not fit with the preexisting theory. Both of these elements are illustrated in that movie. And like the juries, a data analyst is more or less instructed to stay within the bounds of the pre-approved data available. An analyst’s encouragement is the typically short deadline to produce his results. His evaluation is based on his productivity in volume and timeliness.
However, I believe there is a benefit of the analyst to be cautious of the influence of preexisting models. As a data scientist who is part of the broader historical science enterprise, there is a duty to challenge the data because it may result in new hypotheses.
Allow me to jump to a different movie, the musical version of Dr Doolittle that came out when I was a child. I saw it as a child and I haven’t seen it since. In fact, I may have seen it only once and at a theater. I think it did influence my young mind about the possibility of talking to animals. I recall immediately dismissing the idea that such conversation would be anything like a human language. But I did not dismiss the idea that it is possible to exchange ideas with animals.
Communicating with animals is different than training where an animal responds appropriately to a gesture or command, or conversely the handler responds appropriately to an animal’s expression of its nature.
Any exchange of an idea across different species would be a personal communication between two individuals. Given that personal context and the relatively limited amount of information involved, it would be hard to convince a third party that it happened. I didn’t care to convince anyone else, I just wanted to confirm it for myself.
At around this same age, our family relocated from a suburban neighborhood to a rural one and one where we had enough land for a hobby farm. That being a hobby farm, we always had just a couple animals at a time with the exception of chickens that we couldn’t have enough of. Over a short span of a few years we at different times had horses, pigs, sheep, and cows in addition to the ever present chickens. My father had a full time job with a long commute to the city so most of the days I had plenty of animal husbandry chores. I took advantage of the opportunities to try to build a relationship with the animals that would result in something more than the expected animal behaviors. I was looking for an expression of the animal to in effect say “now, I want to tell you what I think”.
I found such evidence with every animal with the exception of the caged rabbits (despite their being solely my responsibility) and the horses (that we had only briefly).
Nearly all of these examples are hard to describe. Like I said earlier, it was communicated at an individual level and with a small content that would be unconvincing to a third party. But what I was looking for was something unexpected. Getting familiar with animals means understanding their normal behaviors. Perhaps hidden in those behaviors are attempts to express thoughts. For example, bringing out fresh feed results in a kind of frenzy that is predictable but ambiguous. Obviously they are delighted for the presence of fresh food, but perhaps they were also welcoming me to their pen. The ambiguity was that when I would leave, the frenzy would cease and the food would be ignored (although it would eventually disappear later in the day).
I sought examples of behaviors that shouted to me “it didn’t have to do that”. Those events did occur. It takes a long time until there was a response like I mentioned before: the animal telling me it is time for to express his opinion of the situation. The message didn’t have any utility beyond getting the message across.
The most vivid examples involved playing with a common domesticated animal: the cat. One example is the following. I had a relative with a farm that had abundant feral cats. He welcomed the feral cat population for their pest control talents. Being young, I wanted to see if I could make entice a feral cat to let me pet it. Although not tame, these cats were at least used to having people around so their preference was just to avoid people rather than to confront them. Still, I undertook this project in secret because it was not advised.
I spent considerable time slowly pursuing one cat. Usually, I would take a few steps toward it and it would move a comparable distance away from me and then stop and stare at me. Eventually I ended up cornering it in a loft in the barn but I was in a precarious position where I couldn’t quickly retreat either. So in sense we ended up cornering each other and the cat had the upper hand. It could have taken an aggressive posture or even attacked. I would not have been able to defend myself without risking falling off the edge of the loft. Instead the cat stared with same look as always only this time it started to vocalize a sound as if trying to mimic human speech. Perhaps by complete coincidence the sound matched a command in English spoken slowly and deliberately “Go Away”. I can hear it to this day. It was not unlike a sound any cat may make at any time but it was enunciated in a peculiar way and repeated multiple times. It is questionable that really sounded like the English, but that’s the message I received. I obeyed. I hoped that it would perceive my retreat as my respecting its wishes.
This is about the closest to a coherent example I could come up with, but there were many other cases where I couldn’t think of any other explanation than the animal trying to tell me something in an unexpected way.
My point is not so much whether this is real. Instead it is an illustration of my eagerness to look at things differently. Is there some way that we can exchange ideas with animals? Or with the feral cat example, there may be some possible other relationship between human and cat that is neither feral nor tame.
Another way of describing this eagerness is my readiness to seek observations that do not conform to accepted models. Like a prospector panning for gold, I’m hooked on the idea of finding new models by the equivalent of panning the observations. Like that prospector, I can keep up the enthusiasm despite finding only fool’s gold.