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Is anatomy destiny? One more time on ‘ugly criminals’

Friday, August 27, 2010
posted by Douglas Keene

We wrote about this back in May but another publication has picked up the Ugly Criminals paper. This paper asks if appearance (attractive or ugly) results in being either law-abiding or not. Or is it more related to being seen by others as guilty or not. Reading the Ugly Criminals paper, it becomes quite clear that there are some disturbing ways that attractiveness is related to both criminal history and incarceration.

The Fortean Times article questions if anthropometrics is about to make a comeback. (Anthropometrics was originally the practice of measuring criminal’s faces to identify criminal facial traits for profiling.) The authors in the Fortean Times piece suggest that perhaps we should make efforts to understand rather than condemn the unattractive. They also admit they think this is unlikely. Commenters on the Fortean Times website mock the idea that the ugly are criminals. This makes it all the more disturbing that somehow, the unattractive are over-represented in our prisons since juries (made up of individual citizens) often have a hand in sending them there.

So how far has the ‘brain craze’ spread? Pretty far, it would seem. We can (sometimes, at least) understand the application to the law. But how about to career counseling?  Neurocritic blog writes about the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation (JOCRF). As Neurocritic writes:

“The Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation is a nonprofit scientific research and educational organization with two primary commitments: to study human abilities and to provide people with a knowledge of their aptitudes that will help them in making decisions about school and work. Since 1922, hundreds of thousands of people have used our aptitude testing service to learn more about themselves and to derive more satisfaction from their lives.”

And then goes on to describe an ongoing research project the Foundation is involved in looking at aptitudes and brain areas.  Forty participants in the Foundation’s aptitude testing program were also given MRI’s and the volume of gray and white matter in various brain areas was measured. Ultimately, the authors concluded the sample size gave results that were simply too small to interpret meaningfully.

But that isn’t how the media saw it! Neurocritic goes on to point out that multiple websites picked up this project and presented it in such bold terms as “Brain Scans Could Guide Career Choices“.  It didn’t matter what the JOCRF researchers actually said. The information was sensationalized. (And in truth, Neurocritic blog didn’t make it horribly clear that the sensationalizing was done outside the control of the Johnson O’Connor personnel.)

It’s part of what happens when research is done that hits on a hot topic in the world. Right now, anything about the brain and using the brain to predict our criminality; our career choices; our facial features; and more—is hot. And it obviously is interpreted in ways that sell papers or result in website URL clicks.  Our longing for a rational basis for what we want to believe is pretty powerful.

The stronger our longing to find meaning in the data, the more easily we are misled.  When I was in graduate school there was a geeky joke about people so determined to validate their hypothesis that they “drew the curve and then plotted the data”.  In a world dominated by unsubstantiated reports of sensational rumor selling as science, you can’t be too cautious.  Find out what was really said. In the courtroom, when you show jurors what was really said and how it got distorted and confused—they are often able to dismiss all the hyperbole based on an incorrect interpretation of the facts.  If you want to debunk an appealing theory, you might want to discuss with your witness other examples of how headlines distort facts, and provide anecdotes to the jurors.  But to tell that sort of clarifying story, you have to go beyond the sensational headline of ‘ugly criminals’ or ‘career counseling by brain scan’ and allow for what may simply be a false validation of what we would love to see proved.

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