Murder Mystery

I grew up watching a lot of Law and Order. As might be inferred from the title, the show was formulaic to a fault – you could set you watch on the half hour when the lawyers take over the case from the police – and you knew for sure a dead body would be found (usually much to the distress of the discoverers) in the first two minutes. Before the opening credits roll, the normal order of life is brought to a dramatic halt by an unsolved (presumed) murder, and everything has to stop until it is resolved. Other crime shows, especially Bones, have followed a similar template.

I suspect that a strong evolutionary psychology dynamic is a work. There is just something about murder that just can’t be ignored. Likely, societies in which the individuals just shrugged their shoulders when a murder was on the loose (or even treated homicide like more venal crimes such as theft) suffered an evolutionary disadvantage. Mystery novels exploit the visceral attention-commanding nature of murder. The board game Clue is almost a parody of this concept. The whole point of the game is to figure out which guest murdered the host – cheekily named “Mr. Boddy” in the US edition –  about whom nothing else is known. Another extreme example of the murder vs. theft balance is the novel Angels and Demons,  in which a unknown worker at the LHC is killed – which buries the lede that some antimatter , literally the most explosive stuff possible, was also stolen.

Take the ancient biological imperative to solve murders and now mix in modern science. Forensic science, at least as it is portrayed on TV, appears to promise perfect and definitive knowledge. On CSI, for example the solutions to crimes roll off the lab printers just in time for the closing credits.

Now, however, many flaws are apparent, whether due to incompetence, malice, or just the inherent limitations of the methods. Opponents of the death penalty can point to the case in which an almost certainly innocent man was executed based in part on junk arson forensics. Regarding hair follicle matching, the FBI recently admitted that “nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.”

DNA evidence is still the gold standard of forensics, but computation errors that have recently come to light have created arguments about the difference between 1 in 110 quadrillion, versus 1 in 1 quadrillion. The difference, in all reality, is probably moot, since there is at least as big a chance the test was botched or falsified.

In the end, a jury really has to consider the epistemology of doubt in “reasonable doubt,” which is often much larger than we would like to believe.