Saturday, November 17, 2007

Criminal Profiling = Cold Reading

This week, the New Yorker published an article about criminal profiling written by Malcom Gladwell. The article has been linked to many times by prominent skeptical bloggers, so I was prompted to read what the whole hubub was about.

As you may recall, I took a sexual abuse of humans class taught by an ex-FBI agent. He taught the psychological profiling used by the FBI profilers at quantico as though it is a scientific fact. The class was and continues to be offered at ISU as a psychology credit class, so I assumed it was based on something valid. Apparently, it isn't.

The article in the New Yorker states that criminal profiling is nothing more than the cold readings that your typical psychics and palm readers use to fool people into believing in a connection to some mystical magical world. Robert Todd Carroll adds more insight into how people come to deceive themselves into believing these cold readings/profiles.

Apparently, criminal profiling is not scientific enough to be used in the courtrooms of the UK, or the US. Profiling is not a scientific process, nor does it stand up to scientific scrutiny. It is based on the gut feelings of the FBI officers who promote it. (Alison 2002)

One of my most directed questions of that semester was, if you can profile the crime scene and get a suspect out of it, then why can't you profile the offender before the crime is committed? I now have my answer. You can't profile the crime scene accurately and scientifically.

That is the rule of science. It has to give you the tools to make accurate predictions, and criminal profile is a long way from even being close. That doesn't mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater, however.

If scientists would do accurate prison studies of enough murderers and rapists, they could generate better profiling data. I have no doubt that all of these criminals share some early childhood experiences that would shout "here is where it came from!" I continue to argue that we can prevent the crimes in the first place if we can stop the maladaptive teaching that takes place early in life.

I feel like I wasted time and money in that class now. I think I will chat with the department head about it and show her the science that refutes the validity of that class. Nothing good ever comes from misinformation.


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