Intelligent Design in Action: Forensic Science - Evolution News & Views

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Intelligent Design in Action: Forensic Science


In the past we've considered archaeology and cryptology as examples of intelligent design science in action. Forensic science is another. It seeks to tease apart purposeful causes from accidental ones in human events. For instance, in a murder trial, evidence is examined to determine whether the victim died of natural causes or was killed intentionally. The more perfect the crime, the more difficult the task.

But establishing guilt or innocence is not the job of the forensics team -- nor is it to identify the murderer or his motive. Their job is just to establish whether the killing was accidental or "intelligently designed" (in this case, by evil design). An accused person's life may be on the line. Maybe the defendant's presence was coincidental when the victim had a natural heart attack. How would anyone know? As with all intelligent design science, evidence is key to making a proper design inference.

Nuclear Forensics

Forensics applies to much more than crime scene investigations. In Nature last month, Klaus Meyer argued that the proliferation of nuclear materials requires the expansion of "nuclear forensics" -- the ability to characterize nuclear materials to deter illicit trafficking and terrorism. More specialists are needed with better techniques in this important work.

Meyer lists some of the questions nuclear forensics experts ask:

Officials detect unlawful nuclear materials at borders, seaports and airports or in state territories by measuring radiation directly or acting on tip-offs from police or intelligence work. Whenever such a sample is intercepted, agencies want to know: which laws have been broken? When and where was the material produced? What was the intended use? Where was the material stolen or diverted? Is more of it at large? Nuclear-forensic scientists try to answer these questions. (Emphasis added.)

No one would think these "nuclear-forensic scientists" are unscientific because they believe someone acted by design. No, they are concerned with evaluating empirical evidence and making design inferences. Let's say 300 grams of plutonium oxide are intercepted, as happened at the Munich airport in 1994. Identifying the material, and knowing about the improbability of its being found at an airport by purely natural causes -- or even accidental causes, such as an everyday passenger losing it -- justifies an inference of design.

There's a lot a nuclear-forensic scientist can infer by direct examination of radioactive material. Meyer explains:

The chemical and physical signatures of a radioactive material -- from its appearance and microstructure to its elemental and isotopic composition -- shed light on its origin and history. For example, the isotope ratios of strontium impurities in a sample of natural uranium may indicate whether it was mined in Australia or Namibia. The presence of daughter products from nuclear decays reveal the production date of the material, and products, such as uranium-236, of neutron reactions indicate that it was irradiated in a power plant.

Nuclear forensics is a relatively new field, a small and specialized branch of forensics. Meyer argues that better methods for identifying "signatures" for nuclear materials will increase the robustness of its answers, and thus their credibility. Generally, this is true of all intelligent design sciences. The more robust the methods, the greater the credibility of the design inference. Meyer's fear is that, without enough experts in the field, smugglers and terrorists might evade prosecution. Here's an intelligent-design science with far-reaching implications for international security.

Consider this real-world case of nuclear forensics in action. It's ready for screenplay treatment:

A few years ago in a European country, a radiation detector at a scrap-metal recycling facility triggered an alarm. A piece of steel in a shipment from south Asia had a greenish deposit that a rapid on-site measurement showed was natural uranium.

A sample was sent to our nuclear-research laboratory in Karlsruhe, Germany, where my team and I identified the green material as uranium tetrafluoride, an intermediate product of uranium processing encountered typically during isotope enrichment. Dating suggested that it was produced in 1978. But chemical impurities, in particular the pattern of the rare-Earth elements (including lanthanum, neodymium and samarium), indicated that the uranium came from a sandstone subtype found not in the suspected country of origin, but in China, Australia, Niger or the Czech Republic....

The plot thickened from there. Additional clues pointed to Niger as the country of origin. "Thus, the origin and history of the material showed that uranium processing and isotopic enrichment had already been achieved at a very early stage in the country's nuclear activities."

This example illustrates how precise inferences can be drawn from empirical evidence, based on the elimination of small probabilities -- just as Bill Dembski describes in The Design Inference. The improbability of the material coming from any other location or time allowed the forensics team to draw robust conclusions. Details about the material, including the shape of pellets, their composition, and the amount of decay of parent isotopes provided "signatures" the scientists used to pinpoint the source and infer intentional causes from natural causes, without knowing the identity or motives of the perpetrators. This is exactly the approach Stephen Meyer used in Signature in the Cell to infer design in the genetic code.

As with intelligent design in biology, forensics relies on specialists in many fields. Nuclear forensics needs "skilled radiochemists, nuclear physicists and nuclear engineers with hands-on experience in the nuclear fuel cycle and in production or analysis of nuclear material," Klaus Meyer advises. In the same way, inferring design for the cell, the earth, and the universe draws on specialists in fields as diverse as biochemistry and cosmology. Yet one can reach robust inferences with sufficient, if not exhaustive, information: "Measurements of a few parameters may provide enough information for law-enforcement purposes," Meyer says. In the same way, calculations of small probabilities can reach a sufficient level beyond which further evidence for design becomes superfluous.

Historical Forensics

Another story on forensics appears in the same issue of Nature. Alison Abbott reviews a new book by Christian Jennings, Bosnia's Million Bones: Solving the World's Greatest Forensic Puzzle. In this instance, the perpetrators were known: Bosnian Serbs murdered some 100,000 of their neighbors during the shameful years of 1992-1995. What was unknown were the identities of thousands of victims whose bodies had been dumped in mass graves and then reburied elsewhere. Grieving families wanted to give their loved ones proper burials.

Sorting out those identities was the "world's greatest forensic puzzle" Jennings describes in his book. The Serbs, wanting to disguise their atrocities, had bulldozed the first mass graves and redistributed them to some 30 or more remote sites. Jennings's book "tells the story of how innovative DNA forensic science solved the grisly conundrum of identifying each bone so that grieving families might find some closure."

Notice that it is called "DNA forensic science," not religion or mythology.

The task, a "masterwork from hell," required identifying the remote burial sites from aerial and ground-based searches for disturbed earth, digging up the remains, then methodically reading the "signatures" for identification. Here we see a question being put forward for detecting design: was this patch of ground disturbed naturally -- say by a landslide, tornado or animal stampede -- or was it disturbed intentionally to disguise a mass grave? Multiple clues were required to establish the design inference:

They pieced together some evidence of when and how the mass killings had taken place from clues such as the bodies' states of decay, the times and dates on their self-winding watches, and the characteristic patterns of damage caused to skulls by bullets. Analysis of the colors and textures of soils pointed to where some of the bones had first been dumped. For example, chips of glass indicated burial near a glass factory in the area.

From there, DNA analysis was the only sure way to identify the victims. "The task of identifying the bones was exquisitely difficult," Abbott says, but the forensic methods worked. "Through that analysis, more than 80% of the remains were returned to their families for burial."

Both papers in Nature affirm forensics as a legitimate science. Forensics is all about design detection (natural vs. intentional causation), reading signatures, and making design inferences. Sometimes the designer is known; sometimes not. Either way, the identity and motives of the designer are irrelevant to the validity of a design inference. Only the evidence matters. Forensic scientists follow the evidence where it leads. The implications are for others to consider.

Photo: Alaska, Bering Sea, Punuk Island; Captain Budd Christman, NOAA Corps.