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Criminal Minds, Cont.

Last Saturday's neurocriminology essay in the WSJ by Adrian Raine (noted here) gets four thumbs-down in today's letters to the editor.  Chuck Klein of Georgetown, Ohio suggests, "Perhaps we should study the minds of the scientists to learn why they so resist executing these murderers. Might there be something missing in their frontal lobe that negates the practicality of executing killers?"

Meanwhile, in the Books section, Michael Gazzaniga reviews The Anatomy of Violence by, you guessed it, Adrian Raine.  Gazzaniga says Raine's discussion of the science is useful for those not familiar with it, but he is skeptical of the policy leaps.  He recites the history of the pseudoscience of phrenology and of the days when Freudian psychoanalytic theories held sway.  "As psychoanalysts' fairy tales about the nature of human behavior lost influence, their role in the courts began to recede as well." 

In all of these earlier attempts to explain the causes of antisocial behavior and violence, the hope was to provide a scientific explanation for the acts of the defendant--such that, at sentencing, justice could be served. Now our ability to observe what is happening within the brain has much improved, but the question remains how to explain or make use of this in the courts.
The problem with the new "broken-brain-made-me-do-it" argument that Mr. Raine urges throughout the book is that, most of the time, most people who have the very same lesions or experience, or who have the same genetic glitches befall them, do not engage in antisocial behavior. Take, for example, the patient who commits a violent act at some point following an injury to, say, the left frontal lobe. Since it is hard to understand why people do the things they do, especially when the act is out of character, we all naturally jump to the conclusion that the brain injury must be the "cause" of the act. This sort of primitive reasoning is so ingrained in our minds that studies now show that a mere verbal statement that a defendant has a brain injury is sufficient evidence for a jury to view the defendant as having at least some kind of excuse. This attitude exists, even though most people incurring the same lesion don't go on to maim and hurt. Remember, we are all potential killers, yet the vast majority of us never kill. That is because we have multiple inhibitory systems stopping us from carrying out such bizarre fantasies.

How is a judge or jury supposed to think about the new science of "neurocriminology" that Mr. Raine proposes? Is the duty of the scientist to teach about the technological details of how brain scanners work, or the way to properly think about the scientific data? For example, should the judge or jury be reminded that science works by probabilities and never certainties?

In this case, one would need to know the base rates for violent behavior: In the normal population, it's only a few percent. Patients with frontal lobe lesions do have an increased incidence, up to 13%. Yet, it does not jump to 100% or even to 80%. In fact 87% of such patients are not any different than a normal person. I can only imagine how a good prosecutor would take apart the expert's testimony claiming the frontal-lobe damage caused the violence in the defendant: "Dr. Smarty-pants, are you not talking about averaged data? How does that apply to the defendant?"
Addressing the adverse expert witness as "Dr. Smarty-pants" is contraindicated, but the rest is probably a good tip.

The tag line says, "Mr. Gazzaniga's latest book is 'Who's in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.' "  The review makes me more interested in reading Gazzaniga's book than Raines's.  Maybe that was the idea.

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