Is forensic evidence trustworthy?

Science in fiction affects our ability to understand science in real life. For instance, you might already be familiar with the idea that detective shows on TV, particularly forensics shows like CSI, might be influencing what juries expect to see in a courtroom.

This is called the "CSI effect" and it's hotly debated. Some prosecutors think it has a real impact on jury decisions—if they don't get the fancy, scientific evidence they've been conditioned to expect then they won't convict. Meanwhile, though, empirical evidence seems to show a more complicated pattern. Surveys of more than 2000 Michigan jurors found that, while people were heavily expecting to see some high-tech forensic evidence during trials, that expectation probably had more to do with the general proliferation of technology throughout society. More interestingly, that broad expectation didn't seem to definitively influence how jurors voted during a specific trial. In other words: The jury is still out. (*Puts on sunglasses*)

A FRONTLINE documentary that airs tomorrow centers around an interesting corollary on this issue: Whether or not shows like CSI influence juries to expect more technology, they do present a wildly inaccurate portrait of how accurate that technology is. The reality is, many of the tools and techniques used in detective work have never been scientifically verified. We don't know that they actually tell us what they purport to tell us. Other forensic technologies do work, but only if you use them right—and there's no across-the-board standard guaranteeing that happens.

Even ideas you think you can trust implicitly—like fingerprint evidence—turn out to have serious flaws that are seriously under-appreciated by cops, lawyers, judges, and juries. Read the rest

Join a live Q&A about the first few days of the Fukushima nuclear crisis

Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown

Last night, PBS FRONTLINE aired a new documentary about what happened at the Fukushima nuclear power plant during the crucial first days of that crisis. Using amateur video shot during the earthquake and tsunami, interviews with power plant workers who were on the scene, and some astounding footage taken inside the power plant itself, the documentary is extremely powerful. It feels weird to say this, given the effect the meltdowns have had on Japan's energy situation and the lives of the people who lived and worked near the plant ... but it seems as though Fukushima could have been a lot worse. The documentary shows us the valiant risks taken by firemen and plant workers. It also shows us the moments where, in the midst of the Japanese government and utility company TEPCO doing a lot of things very wrong, individuals stepped up to make decisions that saved lives. Without those things, this would have been a very different (and much darker) story.

In about ten minutes, I'm going to be moderating a live Q&A with Dan Edge, the producer of Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown. I'll be asking him some questions about the story, and the process of filming a documentary like this. There will also be opportunities for you to ask Edge some questions, as well. (And I already know y'all are good at coming up with interview questions.)

You can follow along, or join in on the discussion, using the chat box embedded in this post. Read the rest

Frontline post-Fukushima documentary "Nuclear Aftershocks" airs tonight

[Video Link]

"Nuclear Aftershocks," the PBS Frontline documentary which Maggie described in a Boing Boing review as "brilliant," airs tonight online and on local PBS stations at 10pm. I've seen an advance copy, and I agree that it's excellent—though I'm admittedly biased, since I love everything Miles O'Brien does, and collaborate with him creatively from time to time. A preview of the documentary is above. They have some cool web extras up at the Frontline site, including a map of how much nuclear power each US state relies on. Read the rest

Truth and consequences: FRONTLINE's brilliant documentary on Fukushima

Nuclear Aftershocks is a new FRONTLINE documentary, airing tomorrow, January 17, at 10:00 pm Eastern. I watched an advance screener yesterday.

About halfway through Nuclear Aftershocks, a new FRONTLINE documentary about the physical and social fallout of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it becomes clear that correspondent Miles O'Brien and his production team are really going to piss some people off. In the best possible way.

The first part of the program is a pretty straightforward timeline, walking you through the earthquake and tsunami that led to meltdown at a Japanese nuclear power plant. It's a gripping story, and includes some particularly heart-wrenching details—Fukushima plant workers scavenging car batteries in a last-ditch attempt to restore backup power, the Japanese paleontologist who spent 20 years trying to warn the government and industry that tsunamis of this magnitude had happened before and would happen again. At the same time, though, it's pretty straightforward stuff. You might have heard the information elsewhere, it's just better explained here.

What makes Nuclear Aftershocks different is the point when the documentary shifts gears, and begins to talk about what happens next. What does Fukushima mean for the future of nuclear energy? What happens if places like Germany and Japan shut down their nuclear power plants? How does the fear of nuclear meltdown stack up against the consequences of a world with no nuclear energy? This is where Nuclear Aftershocks really gets good, and it starts with one fact.

Japanese officials evacuated areas around the crippled nuclear plant where humans would receive a radiation dose of 20 millisieverts per year. Read the rest