Monday, February 25, 2013

The Downsides of DNA Testing: Law Enforcement Versus Rights

Your DNA uniquely identifies you with far more potential certainty than a fingerprint, because it is the chemical signature of your genetic makeup.  And because technology has been developed to produce measureable quantities of DNA from as few as six skin cells, DNA testing has become a must-have tool in the toolbox of law enforcement agencies ranging from the county sheriff’s office to the FBI.  Because DNA evidence is relatively easy to collect, even from unsuspecting suspects, it has proved invaluable in thousands of criminal cases, both to exonerate the innocent and to convict the guilty.

So why would anyone want to put any restrictions on the use of DNA for law enforcement?  Prof. Erin Murphy, of the New York University School of Law, comes up with a host of reasons in a recent article in Scientific American.  Most of them have to do with protecting the rights of innocent people, including the right not to be convicted of a crime you didn’t commit.

How could that happen, if DNA testing is so accurate?  For one thing, the ideal precision of DNA testing assumes ideal conditions:  a “clean” sample uncontaminated by the DNA of anyone other than the criminal, a perfectly conducted error-free laboratory analysis, and flawless record-keeping practices.  In the real world of limited budgets, limited training, and messy crime scenes, none of these conditions can be guaranteed. 

Murphy cites a research study in which researchers submitted the same samples to seventeen different DNA labs for analysis.  Some labs said yes, the defendant was quite possibly the one who committed the crime.  Others said in effect “No way!”  So for whatever reasons, the results of DNA testing in that case were cloudy, to say the least.

Even if labs are run properly and samples taken carefully, DNA data contains a great deal more potential information about a person than the old-style fingerprints ever did.  After all, DNA is the genetic code for making your body.  It contains information about your sex, your heritage (which can often be interpreted in terms of race), and a host of other data which is only now beginning to be accessible through tests that are becoming easier and cheaper all the time.  Murphy points out that it may soon be possible to screen DNA for a person’s potential to commit violent crime.

The last possibility raises the disquieting specter of predictive law enforcement.  We have already seen what happens to those convicted of sex offenses with minors.  Because there is a scientific consensus that recidivism in this particular population is almost 100%, such people are subject to the modern-day equivalent of Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter:  they are prevented from living in certain areas, their addresses are matters of public record in many cases, and their civil rights are infringed to a degree that is unprecedented for most other types of crimes. 

Nothing I have written exculpates sex offenders from their often heinous crimes.  But the way we treat them sends the message that we hold the deliverances of science to be of far more importance and predictive power than an individual’s will or intent to reform. 

It is not much of a stretch to imagine a future in which everyone, without exception, is required to submit a DNA sample to a nationwide database, much as you now have to be photographed to obtain a driver’s license.  If experts develop a consensus that certain DNA data is a good predictor of the potential for violent crime, we could move well down the road to the creation of an instant criminal class whose only crime is being born with the wrong DNA.  In some respects, that already happens with race, but at least most people admit that it is wrong for a law enforcement official to pull someone over merely for “DWB” (driving while black).  If scientists and crime labs tell legislators that pre-emptively watching, or even locking up, certain people with certain kinds of DNA would lead to greater good for a greater number of people, the rights of those born with the wrong kind of DNA could be toast.

It can’t happen here, you say?  In a society whose basic judgments of right and wrong are increasingly based upon nothing greater than the deliverances of the legal system, anything can happen if the lawyers and the judges say it can.  And if such a system passed muster by the U. S. Supreme Court, we’d be stuck with it.

Murphy ends her article with a call for an accounting of the full costs, as well as the benefits, of the DNA database that government agencies have accumulated so far.  While there is a widespread impression that DNA testing has been a boon for law enforcement, there are few studies that try to discover exactly what kinds of investigations benefit the most and what the overall error rate is when DNA evidence is used.  Furthermore, she favors a ban against indiscriminate taking of DNA samples from persons who have not formally been charged with a crime.  Because it’s so easy, some law enforcement agencies routinely take DNA samples from almost anyone they stop, whether they are charged or not.  I agree with Murphy that these are probably unconstitutional “searches and seizures” that violate Article 4 of the Bill of Rights.  Once again, the rapid advance of technology, this time in the form of inexpensive DNA testing, has outstripped the ability of the legal system to keep up with it, and to protect the rights of the general public against a small but determined cadre of officials.  

DNA testing is truly a marvelous tool, but as with many other technological advances, it needs to be used with care.  Now is the time to implement regulations and controls to ensure that the rights of both the innocent and the guilty are guarded from its improper use in the future.

Sources:  Prof. Erin Murphy’s article  “The Government Wants Your DNA” appears on pp. 72-77 of the March 2013 edition of Scientific American.  In preparing this piece I referred to a Wikipedia article on the Houston DNA crime lab, which was shown to be in scandalous shape in 2003 in a series of news reports.  It has since been reformed and obtained national accreditation a few years later.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Engineering the Future: Do We Know What We’re Doing?

I assume many of my readers are either engineers, or interested in engineering and its effects on society, so what I am about to say may surprise you.  It is simply this:  engineers are playing a role in American society that may end American society as we have known it up to now.  Let me explain.

George Friedman runs a consulting company in Austin called Stratfor, which keeps an eye on geopolitical trends and charges what are no doubt hefty fees to corporate clients for doing so.  Something—possibly altruism—moved him to write a piece for the Austin American-Statesman that offers his considered opinion (for free) on a subject of interest to all Americans:  the future of American society. 

His argument hinges on two numbers:  the percentage of U. S. gross national product (GNP) going to wages, presumably to lower- and middle-class wage earners; and the percentage of GNP going to corporate profits after taxes.  Statisticians have been keeping tabs on these numbers since 1947, shortly after World War II.  Both of these numbers are currently at extreme levels, smashing all records since the collecting of these statistics began.  But they are going in opposite directions:  the fraction of GNP going to corporate profits is now the highest it’s ever been since 1947—about 11%—and the portion of GNP going to wages is the lowest it’s ever been. 

Rather than taking a simple cheap shot at excess profits, Friedman sees in these numbers support for a contention that corporate America is becoming a victim of its own success.  In 1947, lifetime employment of wage-earners working for large corporations was the norm, and over that lifetime the average hourly worker with only a high-school education could expect to get married, buy a house, a couple of cars, have some kids, and maybe put one or two of the kids through college.  And that is pretty much what happened.  Today, by contrast, a person starting out even with an advanced college degree can expect during one’s career to work for many companies, most of which will get bought out, restructured, or moved offshore at some point, and even engineers with good starting salaries will be fortunate to be continuously employed without large gaps in employment or having to do extensive retraining at several points.

The cause of job instability and rapid change is the streamlining that corporate America underwent in the 1980s, when foreign competition wrought havoc with the old-style gray-flannel-suit world of lifetime employment.  The new-model corporation emerged leaner, meaner, and more efficient, if you measure efficiency (productivity, really) by the return on investment in capital and labor.  Engineers made these productivity gains possible with all the technology, communications systems, and automation improvements that have come online in the last several decades. 

But the labor involved in a typical firm today is vastly different than the labor of sixty years ago.  In 1947, a healthy young man with a tenth-grade education and good hand-eye coordination could get one of those lifetime jobs I mentioned earlier.  Today, to earn the money that would make that 1947 lifestyle possible (upgraded to 2013, of course), he would have to compete with “symbolic manipulators” (in George Gill’s phrase) who hold Ph. Ds and still have to change jobs every few years to get a raise.  That is simply not possible.

Not only is the high-school dropout of today unable to get a decent job; he can’t afford many of the things that today’s economy makes.  That drying up of the domestic market is what Mr. Friedman sees as the really ominous cloud on the horizon.  Already, many U. S. companies are finding that their growth markets are mainly overseas.  We assume that this is because domestic markets are simply saturated, but maybe they are actually shrinking because the less-employed U. S. workers can’t afford to buy the things that the corporations make.   The result?  Millions of young people who can’t get a decent job, can’t afford stable relationships and the other promises of the American dream, and who may turn America into something closer to one of those countries where mobs of unemployed young men create continual civil unrest.

Mr. Friedman poses no solution in his article.  But another writer poses something that, while not exactly a solution, is a clearer diagnosis of the problem.  In The Ways of Judgment, Oliver O’Donovan talks about a different kind of “communication” than the one that engineers are used to discussing.  Way back in the 17th century, the word used to mean “anything good that two or more people have in common.”  Communication meant not just talk, but trade, education, the town or country where people live together, institutions of all kinds—in short, the whole social fabric of benevolent interaction among human beings. 

The essence of this meaning of the word “communication,” O’Donovan says, is work. By “work,” he means “every human activity that enhances the material of communication, developing its social meaning, converting material goods into spiritual forces by the alchemy of communication.”

To O’Donovan, just as “work is the essence of social communication, unemployment is the paradigm of social breakdown.”  O’Donovan means by unemployment not simply being out of a job, but not having a job that makes the world a better place.  Mr. Friedman’s underlying basis for his discussion is GNP—in other words, the economy—as it is for most politicians these days.  But every discussion that starts by assuming economics is the highest good, mistakes a means (money) for an end.  That end, in O’Donovan’s view, is not making money, but social communication, the fruitful interaction of people who have something in common.

We may be facing a future in which the coming generation increasingly cannot find work that allows them an adequate means of social communication.  A big factor in this problem is the deterioration of the family structure, which is both a cause and an effect of economic changes.  The family is probably the most vital and intimate form of social communication of all.  Any nation which neglects the preservation and encouragement of the family will sooner or later end up running on fumes, because mentally and physically healthy, disciplined, competent workers capable of long-range planning do not simply grow on trees.  They typically come from healthy families, and the fewer of those there are, the fewer upstanding citizens we will have to work with in the future.  

I have no grand plans or solutions that will give enough meaningful, remunerative work to enough people that we in America can continue to hope for a better future for most, if not all, of our children.  But if we find a way to do this, I have a feeling it will be the kind of thing that happens not with a government program, or a clever academic insight, but by changing one soul at a time.

Sources:  George Friedman’s article “Crisis that afflicts middle class threatens root of U. S. power” appeared in the Feb. 17, 2013 print edition of the Austin American-Statesman.  The quotations from Oliver O’Donovan’s book The Way of Judgment (Eerdmans, 2005) appear on pp. 250-251.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Close Calls with Asteroids: The Burden of Knowledge

When something blew up over a remote part of Siberia near a river named Tunguska on June 30, 1908, the news took days to reach the rest of the world.  More than a decade later, expeditions to the area found that entire forests of trees were flattened over hundreds of square miles.  The scientific consensus of the cause of the “Tunguska event,” as it came to be called, is that an outer-space object roughly 100 meters (300 feet) in diameter exploded in the atmosphere with a force equal to a medium-size hydrogen bomb.  If you were a benevolent Deity wishing to give mankind a wake-up call without doing serious damage, it would be hard to find a less-populated land mass over which to blow up a fast-moving meteorite.  But the next one may not be so relatively harmless.

This week, we will have a close call with something similar.  Asteroid 2012 DA14 is going to zoom within about 28,000 kilometers (roughly 17,000 miles) of earth about half past one in the afternoon on Tuesday (Central Standard Time).  This is closer than the orbits of some satellites, although due to the object’s south-to-north trajectory, we don’t have to worry about losing any DirecTV shows.  We know this thing isn’t going to hit us, and we know so much about its trajectory, because advanced radar tracking systems have defined its orbit precisely enough to allow such predictions.  Although the object was discovered by optical telescopes a year or so ago, the last time it was in our vicinity, radar tracking provides the best information on orbital parameters because it gives you continuous direct readouts of distance and direction. 

While we don’t have to worry about 2012 DA14 hitting us this time, there’s always the possibility that either it or another larger object will some day show up on our doorstep, so to speak, and head directly towards us.  This leads to the intriguing question of how scientists who first figure out such dire news should handle it.  

Seismologists in Italy can serve as an example of what can happen if you keep quiet or minimize something that later turns out to be a genuine hazard.  Back on Oct. 29, 2012, I blogged about the conviction of some seismologists who were held responsible for the deaths of victims of the L’Aquila earthquake of Apr. 6, 2009.  So downplaying a collision with an asteroid, for instance, can lead to trouble if you can be charged with understating a known danger.

On the other hand, suppose you calculate that the thing is going to hit a populated area—New York, say, or Mexico City.  If even an object as small as the Tunguska meteorite headed toward one of these places, it would definitely lead to millions of fatalities, because the blast effects are similar to a multi-megaton hydrogen bomb.  You call a news conference, announce the dire news, the authorities order mass evacuations (in which some panic leads to fatalities, incidentally)—and then the thing hiccups and lands in the Pacific Ocean in pieces so small that we don’t even get a tsunami out of it.  Now you’re in hot water for being the worst Chicken Little of all time.  You said the sky was falling, and it didn’t.  Nobody wants predictions of mass disaster to be realized, but in this case if you as a scientist reach conclusions that point that way, it’s your obligation to speak out.  But you’d better seek out some advice about dealing with the media first.

Once such a disaster appears to be in the offing, humanity would face the question of what to do about it.  A science-fiction movie called “Armageddon” (1998) posed one answer, which has actually been studied for real in some detail:  send a mission to the oncoming rock to blow it into an orbit that will miss the Earth.  There are a lot of technical problems with this idea.  For one thing, we have no experience with blowing up extraterrestrial objects, and we could easily make things worse if the attempt went awry.  Instead of one large rock wiping out one city, we could have dozens of smaller radioactive rocks wiping out lots of cities.  For another thing, depending on how soon we figured out the object’s presence and trajectory, there might simply not be enough time to mount our defense.  Once the space race wound down, our ability to do space projects fast and correctly lagged, and it’s not clear we as a species could get our collective act together fast enough to agree on a path to pursue, let alone carry it out. 

If it looked like a truly mega-scale ending-life-as-we-know-it event was coming, the social effects would be interesting, to say the least.  The title “Armageddon,” of course, is from the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, which refers to a battlefield on which “the kings of the earth” gather, presumably for a final contest with the people of God, although the context does not make it clear exactly what goes on.  But if you believe in Biblical prophecy, you will have to admit that there are clear indications of some kind of astronomical goings-on that are supposed to happen toward the end of the show:  the sun being darkened, the moon turning to blood, and so on.  It is probably a waste of time to try and figure out exactly what kind of orbital mechanics is required to produce the effects described in an apocalyptic work such as Revelation.  But the basic message—that history will end with some sort of widespread natural cataclysm on Earth—is still clear, and worth considering.

Tomorrow, unless the calculations were way off, we can watch video coverage of the flyby of 2012 DA14 and wipe our collective brow and say, “Whew!  That was close.”  But it’s a gentle reminder that, no matter how clever we are with our doings here, there are some things that are still beyond our control. 

Sources:  I found descriptions of the asteroid 2012 DA14 and its near miss on the NASA website  I also referred to the Internet Movie Database ( for information on “Armageddon,” and to Wikipedia’s “Tunguska event” for information on that phenomenon.  The single reference to Armageddon in the New Testament occurs in Rev. 16:16.

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Worth of Work

Most professional engineers work for pay, and that leads to an interesting question:  which is more important, the work or the pay you get for it?  I bring up that question after reading an essay on work by the well-known medievalist C. S. Lewis. 

In the essay, Lewis distinguished between two types of work.  The first type is work that is worth doing for its own sake.  Some professions are automatically included in this classification:  teachers (Lewis was a professor at Oxford), doctors, pastors, and other members of the helping professions, for instance.  As long as members of these groups do their work faithfully and competently, they should have no problem looking themselves in the mirror and saying, “I’m glad I do what I do, because it makes the world a better place.”  There are other types of work that can fit into this first category, and I’ll get to those in a minute.

The second kind of work is done merely to get a paycheck.  The thing you do for the paycheck is almost irrelevant:  it is simply a means to the end of getting money.  Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong about earning money.  In a fallen world, money and economics are inescapable aspects of existence.  But if you make money your No. 1 priority and aren’t too particular about how you get it, you can end up doing things that, at best, are unnecessary for the world’s betterment, and at worst, positively harm others.  Scam operators, burglars, and drug dealers all get money, but the legal system has objections to their methods.

Where do engineers fit into all this?  There is no easy general answer to that question.  I think the question of pay is high on the list of most young engineering graduates early in their careers.  It’s the first thing they often mention when you ask them what they’ll do after graduation:  “go out and earn some bucks!”  But with their special expertise and competencies in design, engineers at least have a chance to wind up doing the first kind of job:  one that is intrinsically worth doing on its own merits, regardless of the pay scale. 

Besides engineering tasks that serve the obvious helping professions, I think a wide variety of other kinds of engineering jobs are worth doing on their own.  What if the thing you help create doesn’t directly help people, in the sense of medical treatments and so on, but is a thing of beauty—an artistic creation that helps others see the world in a way they had not seen it before?  Take, for example, the platoons of engineers needed to make an animated film these days, the kind that takes the natural world seriously and attempts to portray it the way it really looks and acts. 

If you peruse the output of the Association of Computing Machinery’s annual SIGGRAPH conferences (many examples of which are on YouTube), you will find an amazing array of animations of everything from hair blowing in the wind, to cannonballs blasting through realistic curtains, to ribbons tying themselves into realistic knots.  These things wind up in almost unnoticeable corners of animated films, but they add realism and depth as the engineers behind the scenes overcome the challenges of using great but limited computing power to portray the way physical objects really interact with each other.  The audience gets to see only those simulations that worked.  The ones that blow up or produce screen confetti end up on the digital cutting-room floor, and serve as stepping stones along the way to success. 

A less straightforward example of engineering that is worth doing is the work of engineers who create machines that do work formerly done by people.  The chairman of Foxconn, the company that makes iPhones and employs over a million people worldwide, says that he wants to replace as many of his workers as he can with robots.  Three-dimensional printers that turn CAD drawings into working machines with moving parts are on the market now—my school is thinking of buying one, so you know they can’t be that expensive.  The story of technological unemployment is at least as old as the Industrial Revolution, but signs are that it’s going to be a huge factor in the worldwide economy in the next few years.   And engineers are behind all the technology that will let Foxconn run with more robots than people, if that ever comes to pass.

Does this mean that engineers will eventually work themselves out of a job, like the mythical snake that started eating its own tail until it disappeared?  Some people think so.  A group calling itself the Transhumanists believe computers will soon become smarter than people and basically take over the world, leaving behind the old-fashioned “meat-cage” models of people who are based in natural biology.

Those of us with a Christian worldview know this isn’t possible, however, because machines don’t have spirits.  You could in principle have a world full of machines busily making other machines and exchanging bits and so on, but without humans there would be no spirit and no life.  There might be a great deal going on in that world, but without anyone to see it, it would be a dead world, as dead as the moon. 

The thing called a human being is an amalgam of spirit and matter, and exists because of love.  To the extent we recognize that fact, we are guided into the right occupation and work for the right reasons.  To the extent we forget it, we play into the hands of those for whom money is everything, and for whom love is simply another overhead expense to be eliminated.

Sources:  C. S. Lewis’s essay “Good Work and Good Works” appears as chapter 5 in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1959).  I learned of Foxconn’s plans and interesting facts on 3-D printing from an article by Michael Ventura that appeared in the online edition of the Austin Chronicle on Jan. 25, 2013 at