On this blog and in the Obama citizenship debate, there is a lot of talk about experts. Birthers have put forward a number of people they call experts by virtue of their own claims or their “above average” familiarity with something (scanners, typesetting, photography, Adobe Photoshop). Anti-birthers deny the expertise of those people, saying that none of them are “certified document examiners,” no recognized scientific methodology was used, and that they are biased.
Most recently Mike Zullo has claimed that a “certified document examiner” (and a Democrat to boot), Reed Hayes, has done a report that in some way says the PDF of Obama’s long form birth certificate released by the White House is not authentic. Mr. Hayes is certified by a national organization, the National Association of Document Examiners. Mr. Hayes describes himself as “court qualified” which I understand to mean that one or more courts have allowed his testimony as an expert witness. I hasten to add that Mr. Hayes’ report has not been published, but in an email to RealtyCheck, he seems to confirm Zullo’s general claim.
Mr. Hayes’ report on Obama’s birth certificate either will or will not be published. If it is, there will be a debate over his certification, his methodology and his expertise. Certification is what I want to focus on (the others unknown at this point). The NADE certification requirements appear to be quite stringent, including a proctored written exam, an oral exam, references, and the submission of a work-up on an assigned case. Once certified, the member may provide services from this list:
- Handwriting Identification
- Deciphering Obliterations
- Detecting Alterations
- Restoring Faded Writing
- Investigating Line Sequence
- Development of Indented Writing
- Ink Differentiation
- Examinations and Reports
- Document Photography
- Exhibit Preparation
- Deposition and Court Testimony
Nowhere is the NADE certification related to electronic documents, so for the purpose the PDF file from the White House, I would not call Mr. Hayes “certified,” and unless he has testified in court about electronic documents (and no one claims he has), I would not call Mr. Hayes “court qualified” for the purpose of authenticating Obama’s birth certificate in electronic form.
Let’s put aside Mr. Hayes and the NADE completely for the rest of this discussion.
I, probably along with most people, thought that a certification in forensics by a recognized national organization is an assurance of expertise. I thought that all such organizations have stringent training requirements, do rigorous testing, have continuing education requirements, and discipline members for misconduct. I was wrong. The largest forensic certification organization in the US, the American College of Forensic Examiners Institute, is, according to a recent Frontline/Pro Publica documentary, little more than a diploma mill with an open-book test so easy that 99% of those who take it pass. A Journalism major from UC Berkeley with no forensic training watched a couple of videos, read a small packet of material, took the open-book test and became a Certified Forensic Consultant in a day.
Even among experts, highly-regarded and rigorously trained fingerprint experts, it has been shown that the same expert will determine that a pair of prints match, and later that they don’t match based on other information about the crime. If the best experts can be influenced by bias, how could we ever expect the birthers to get it right. The point is that certification does not guarantee expertise, nor does having ones testimony admitted in court guarantee expertise (I once sat on a jury and heard two court qualified expert witnesses come to different conclusions). Even real experts can be influenced by bias.
I watched the Frontline/Pro Publica documentary, The Real CSI: How reliable is the science behind forensics? and I am still a little stunned by what I learned about forensic certification, and what is and is not real science in the field. I strongly recommend you watch this. Also see the National Academy of Science report mentioned in the video, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: a Path Forward.