Accreditation vs. Certification

For a long time now, various groups have recommended that forensic service providers become accredited and/or certified,1,2,3 with accreditation taking a front seat in the discussions.

While these terms have very specific meaning and purpose they are sometimes confused.  I have discussed certification elsewhere but, until now, I have not discussed accreditation, at length.  This post, hopefully, will resolve that and provide my view of these two things.

Each has clear benefits, but there are also some negative aspects.

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Practical Issues when applying the logical approach to FDE work

Applying the logical approach to evidence evaluation in forensic work can be a challenge. I am the first person to admit that is the case. However, I would argue that (1) a challenge is not something to be avoided — it’s something to take on, and (2) the traditional way of doing things is not easy — it too is a challenge. In fact, it is very important to understand that the logical approach is no more difficult or challenging than what has always been done by forensic document examiners. Indeed, in many ways it is simpler and more straight-forward than our ‘traditional’ approach to such things. This post will touch upon some of the practical issues faced by examiners when applying the logical approach to FDE work.

After studying and using this approach for some time I can assure you that it is not a particularly difficult approach to apply. In select aspects it differs from the traditional approach and, as a result, it feels unfamiliar. Often, this relates to the need to consider things more fully; giving consideration to things we tend to ‘quickly assess’ (or dismiss) when using the traditional approach. But it does not change most things that we do. In fact, it primarily affects the evaluation element of the work; not the elements of analysis or comparison. It requires a different way of thinking about the evaluation process which starts with the focus of the evaluation.

The earliest workshops I presented on this topic were focused, for the most part, on the theory and philosophical bases of the approach, plus the benefits of using it. I did not try to delve into the practical side of things, mainly due to time constraints, but also because I was simply trying to convey its value. FDE’s are, however, a practical lot so I feel that my approach has had limited impact. The most common feedback has been, “I can’t see how it will work in practice…”

That is a fair enough criticism, all things considered. More recently, I have been involved in workshops designed expressly for hands-on practice — after all, there really is nothing like hands-on activities to make something real and tangible. More of those workshops are needed, but they are time-consuming to create. For now, here are some thoughts on these issues deriving mainly from feedback received to date during those workshops.

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Science vs Pseudoscience

Years ago, in 2013 to be precise, I was invited to speak at the ICA conference held in Montréal, Québec.  The conference had a special session on “distinguishing between science and pseudoscience in forensic acoustics”. Now, I am definitely not an expert in forensic acoustics.  In fact, I know almost nothing about the field other than what I’ve read from time to time. So I wasn’t there to tell the audience anything about forensic acoustics, per se.

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ASQDE 2020 Online Conference

ASQDE logoThe 78th Annual General Meeting of the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners (ASQDE, Inc) was held August 10th through 14th, 2020.  It was a new type of meeting necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The meeting was originally planned to be held in Frankenmuth, Michigan but a (very wise) decision was made to hold an entirely virtual meeting instead.  The theme for this year was “Future-Proofing Questioned Documents”.
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David H. Kaye’s “Forensic Science, Statistics & the Law” Blog

David H. Kaye (DHK) is one of my favourite writers. He is truly prolific and always manages to provide great insights for the reader. His grasp of statistics, logic, and the law is second-to-none, and his ability to communicate those very challenging topics to his audience is equally impressive.

As a mini introduction, David “…is Distinguished Professor, and Weiss Family Scholar in the School of Law, a graduate faculty member of Penn State’s Forensic Science Program, and a Regents’ Professor Emeritus, ASU.” If you would like to see a list of his publications check out 

Yes, DHK has written many things on many topics.1  But I would like to focus on his less formal writings from his blog  Forensic Science, Statistics & the Law.

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Measurement Science and Standards in Forensic Handwriting Analysis Conference

The expression “better late than never” applies to this post. Over the span of two days in June 2013 the Measurement Science and Standards in Forensic Handwriting Analysis (MSSFHA) conference was held. It explored the (then) current state of forensic handwriting analysis, aka, forensic handwriting examination (FHE). Presentations varied in content but most discussed recent advancements in measurement science and quantitative analyses as it relates to FHE.

NIST Forensic logo

The conference was organized by NIST’s Law Enforcement Standards Office (OLES) in collaboration with the AAFS — Questioned Document Section, the ABFDE, the ASQDE, the FBI Laboratory, the NIJ and SWGDOC.

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Certification — ABFDE

What is certification? In my opinion, professional certification is a designation that indicates the holder of the certification has appropriate and adequate qualifications to do some particular, generally well-defined, job or task. As an example I am a forensic document examiner and I have received professional certification from the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, Inc.

An internet search for ‘certification’ produces a huge list of possibilities, with more such programs being developed all the time as people become attuned to issues of quality and competency. Indeed, almost every profession has some type of certification and a few have several (consider all of the ‘certifications’ in the computing industry). Most, if not all, certification programs are aimed at improving the quality in a given profession by setting minimum standards for the job. The basic idea is that someone meeting or exceeding those standards will produce quality output on the job. Certification programs are generally created or are administered by a professional society, a college or university, or some private body set up expressly for that purpose.

Forensic Document Examination is no exception so it may be worthwhile discussing certification options as well as the pros and cons that I see for those options.

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R. v. Mohan — Canada’s Daubert?

It is safe to say that pretty much everyone working in the forensic sciences has heard of the Daubert ruling or, more specifically, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993).1 It was a pivotal ruling that, together with two subsequent rulings General Electric Co. v Joiner, 522 U.S. 136 (1997)2 and Kumho Tire Co., Ltd. v Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137 (1999),3 has greatly affected many legal jurisdictions in the United States. And, as is often the case, whatever happens in the USA tends to have influence elsewhere.

R. v. Mohan — Canada's Daubert

Shortly after that, in Canada, there was a key Supreme Court ruling that addressed admissibility of forensic expertise — R. v. Mohan, [1994] 2 S.C.R. 9.4

That ruling laid out the test for the admissibility of ‘novel’ expert evidence (see Mohan, page 4) in Canada.

Subsequently, the factors explained in that ruling have been applied, just as those in Daubert were, to many types of traditional forensic science evidence. It is, perhaps, rather ironic that rulings intended to liberalize the admission of new (and potentially) helpful evidence would lead to challenges of all forms and types of evidence.

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Statistics — Worse than a lie

It has oft been said that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”.  That phrase, according to Mark Twain, came from Benjamin Disraeli. Interestingly, it has never been found in Disraeli’s written works so that attribution is likely incorrect.

A lie, perhaps, by Twain?

Lies - Mallett

But I digress.  The source of the statement doesn’t really matter.  It is enough that the phrase reflects the belief that many people have when they think about statistics.1

It is a catchy little phrase.  Yet most reasonable people know that numbers — and statistics are simply numbers after all — cannot do anything on their own.  Hence, statistics can no more lie than they can sing or dance.

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