Is this a joke?

July 18th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, evidence, evidence based policy, government reports, politics | 64 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, 18 July 2009, The Guardian.

We’d all like to help the police to do their job well. They, in turn, would like to have a massive database with DNA profiles from everyone who has been arrested, but not convicted of a crime.

We worry that this is intrusive, but some of us are willing to make concessions, on our principles, and the invasion into our privacy, in the name of preventing crimes. To do this, we’d like to know the evidence on whether this database is helpful, to help us make an informed decision.

Luckily the Home Office have now published a consultation paper on the subject. They defend their database by arguing that innocent people who have been arrested are as likely to commit crimes in the future as guilty people. “This”, they say, “is obviously a controversial assertion”. That’s not true: it’s a simple matter of fact, and you could easily assemble some good quality evidence to see if it’s true or not.

The Home Office have assembled some evidence. It is not good quality. In fact, this study from the Jill Dando Institute, attached to their consultation paper as an appendix, is possibly the most unclear and badly presented piece of research I have ever seen in a professional environment. Or I am having a bad day. Join me in my struggle to understand their work.

They want to show that the level of criminal activity in a group of people who have been arrested, but on whom no further action has been taken, is the same as the level of criminal activity in people who have been arrested and convicted of a crime, or who accept a caution.

On page 30 they explain their methods, haphazardly, scattered about in the text. They describe some people “sampled on 1st June 2004, 1st June 2005 and 1st June 2006”. These dates are never mentioned again. I have no idea what their plan was there. They then leap to talking about Table 2. This contains data on people each from a “sample” in 1996, 1995, and 1994, followed up for 30 months, 42 months, and 54 months respectively. Are these anything to do with the people from 2004, 2005, and 2006? I have no idea.

In fact I have no idea what “sample” means, perhaps that was the date they were first arrested. I don’t know why they were only followed up for 30, 42, and 54 months, instead of all the way to 2009. Crucially I also don’t know what the numbers in the table mean, because they don’t explain this properly. I think it is the number of people, from the original group, who have subsequently been arrested again.

Anyway. Then they start to discuss the results from this table. They say that these figures show that arrested non-convicted people are the same as convicted people. There are no statistics conducted on these figures, so there is absolutely no indication of how wide the error margins are, and whether these are chance findings. To give you a hint about the impact of noise on their data, more people are subsequently re-arrested over the 42 month period than over the 54 month period, which seems surprising, given that the people in the 54 month group had a much longer period of time over which to get arrested.

This is before we even get on to the other problems. At a few hundred people, this study seems pretty small for one that is supposed to give compelling evidence that there is no difference between two groups, because to prove a negative like this, you’d generally want a large sample, to minimise the chance of missing a true difference in the noise.

There is no evidence that they have done a “power calculation” to determine the sample size they’d need, and in any case, their comparison group feels a bit rigged to me. In their “convicted” sample they only count people who had a non-custodial sentence, and exclude people who got a custodial sentence, on the grounds that those people would be incapable of committing a crime during their incarceration. This also has the effect, however, of making the “criminal” group not quite so criminal, and so a bit more likely to be similar to innocent people.

I could go on. Table 1 is so thoroughly “not as described” as to be uninterpretible. In the text they talk about different cells on the table which are “solid red”, “stippled yellow”, and “blank”. In fact the whole thing is just blue.

This research was incomprehensible and unreadable. Anybody who claims to have been persuaded by the data quoted here is telling you, loudly and clearly in the subtitles, that they don’t need to understand a piece of research in order to find it compelling. Such people are not to be trusted, and if research of this callibre is what guides our policy on huge intrusions into the personal privacy of millions of innocent people, then they might as well be channeling spirits.


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64 Responses



  1. drunkenoaf said,

    July 18, 2009 at 1:19 am

    I suspect the civil service is a bad science goldmine — which is rather worrying when they’re unelected and have a huge influence over our lives. Imagine Yes, Minister, with hacker being advised by some fuckwits. Worrying.

  2. freejag said,

    July 18, 2009 at 1:38 am

    GCSE Geography seems to have given me a better undestanding of statistics and data analysis than our friends in the Home Office. Comforting, eh?

  3. Sili said,

    July 18, 2009 at 1:44 am

    Wouldn’t having a database stuffed with ten times as many demostrably innocent people as proven offenders not give so many false positives as to drown out any genuine hits? Thus making the damn thing completely useless?

    What are the rates of type I and II errors for the DNA tests they use?

  4. David Mery said,

    July 18, 2009 at 2:06 am

    This contains data on people each from a sample in 1996, 1995, and 1994, followed up for 30 months, 42 months, and 54 months respectively. Are these anything to do with the people from 2004, 2005, and 2006? I have no idea.

    As pointed earlier on the Grauniad, that’s one mistake that you can figure out with the data in the research, it’s 2004, 2005 and 2006. Here’s more details from my post Sentenced to genetic probation:

    The data in the text and the tables don’t match, but if you put that aside and try to figure out what was likely meant you soon realise that there’s little to support the Home Office. First key data is about those re-arrested within three specified periods. Let’s skip the fact that the “data underwent substantial and lengthy editing” to exclude irrelevant categories and “on the basis of lack of clarity as to the case outcome”. After all this editing, the data appear to come from 532 cases from three samples in June over three consecutive years (either 1994-1996, according to the table, or 2004-2006, according to the text). However, an attentive reader will spot: “Given that data came only from the first of a month, and aware that errors of estimation will be magnified by multiplying the figures to give a monthly total…”, so this data is in fact an estimation based on approximately 18 cases (532 divided by the number of days in June) taken over three days at one year interval, or 7, 8 and 3 samples for the respective days. And even among these few cases, one day may have to be discounted as a footnote explains: “The writer was concerned by the smaller number of cases in 2004. His best guess is that the date fell on the day following a Bank Holiday.” (This is also a hint indicating that the text is right as May 31st was Spring bank holiday in 2004. This erroneous table is repeated in the main consultation document.)

    I just posted about several other issues at Home Office’s arrogant approach to the DNA consultation</a. (Also Information retained in the National DNA Database profile records includes mentions of some inconsistencies in the numbers for DNA profiles unreconciled with the PNC.)

    br -d

  5. mark said,

    July 18, 2009 at 2:15 am

    “We’d all like to help the police to do their job well.” Speak for yourself. I don’t mind helping them when they’re trying to catch murderers and rapists, but a lot of the time, in common with a lot of the population, I wouldn’t help the filth.

  6. kliddle said,

    July 18, 2009 at 2:19 am

    Evidence based policy is conspicious by it’s abscence in most cases. In the UK little effort is expended on policy research but it is on occassion used. Conversley in the US a metric fuck-ton of research is done and nigh on none is used…

  7. Pro-reason said,

    July 18, 2009 at 2:20 am

    It’s ‘uninterpretable’ and ‘channelling’.

  8. samarkeolog said,

    July 18, 2009 at 4:50 am

    If the innocent are as likely to be guilty as the previously-found-to-be-guilty… wouldn’t the logical conclusion of their “research” be that we should all be on the database?

    If not, are they claiming that innocent people caught in a dragnet are somehow more criminal than innocent people not randomly caught up in something (criminalising people by social and geographical network)?

  9. Michael Gray said,

    July 18, 2009 at 7:55 am

    Bad Statistics certainly!

    Bad idea: even more so, as such a data-base remaining benign forever relies on zero misuse of said data.

    This, amongst many other things, assumes that all police employees and contractors are 100% trustworthy, understand & respect their legal limitations regarding such data 100%, that the data must be 100% protected from unauthorised access, that zero accidents will happen, such as fires in computer rooms, or laptops being left on trains, etc.
    And these conditions must stay valid 100% of the time, even when the employee is say, intoxicated or otherwise decision compromised.

    How realistic is that, I ask?
    The JREF’s Pigasus comes to mind…

  10. ciaobellaciao said,

    July 18, 2009 at 9:25 am

    As an aside, I’d be very interested in propah scientists’ views on the validity of DNA and fingerprint evidence; I’ve heard wildly conflicting claims about the reliability of both of these techniques, but never heard anyone who actually knows what they’re talking about.
    Anyone?

  11. raven23 said,

    July 18, 2009 at 10:20 am

    Ah, government consultations, or “here is your conclusion, please provide a method”.

    IN the recent Badman report on Home Education, they asked 90 Local Authorities for the number of HE families referred to social service. 25 responded. Badman took the MEDIAN response and MULTIPLIED by the number of authorities locally to arrive at an enormous figure for children referred to social services when home educated.

    I would write this off as ignorance… but the report author, Graham Badman, is a former maths teacher.

    Multiplying the median result of a self-selected non-representative sample with no adjustment for, for example, population size…

    MEanwhile, for a summary by people who have done the hard work and maths with FOI requests: ahed.pbworks.com/LiesDamnedLiesStatistics

  12. Bob said,

    July 18, 2009 at 10:29 am

    A more cynical person than I might suspect that such obfuscation is a deliberate ploy. Still, if they are going to use statistics to bolster an unconvincing argument, they ought to at least try to make the statistics convincing.

    samarkeolog said
    “If the innocent are as likely to be guilty as the previously-found-to-be-guilty… wouldn’t the logical conclusion of their “research” be that we should all be on the database?”

    Quite. This is what some politicians believe should happen.

    The rallying cry of supporters of such over-the-top measures is “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”, so why hide the truth in a morass of badly presented research? I’m sure they would fail to see the irony.

  13. richmond said,

    July 18, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Ironic this. The author of the Jill Dando Institute report is one of the cleverest, most literate and numerate crime scientists in the world. He was asked to do a quick response to help the Met and HMG respond to a European Court judgement, but he couldn’t get access to the proper data, and did some back of the envelope stuff as a first-draft background. He knew it was a mish-mash and set about doing some proper research (which has now, separately, been submitted to a peer reviewed journal). The Jill Dando Institute was asked by the HO if his notes could be published as an Appendix, and in the name of openness they said yes. He has been grievously upset ever since – long before Ben’s review. Hence the irony: this is not a story of a bad scientist but a good egg and just the sort of person who would read Bad Science with relish.

  14. Mojo said,

    July 18, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    They defend their database by arguing that innocent people who have been arrested are as likely to commit crimes in the future as guilty people.

    Well obviously they’re wrong ‘uns. Why else would the police have arrested them?

    See, for example the dictum of Frog LJ in the case of R v. Haddock (1927), reported in Herbert, AP: Misleading Cases in the Common Law at p.42:

    It is a principle of English law that a person who appears in a police court has done something undesirable, and citizens who take it upon themselves to do unusual actions which attract the attention of the police should be careful to bring these actions into one of the recognised categories of crimes and offences, for it is intolerable that the police should be put to the pains of inventing reasons for finding them undesirable.

    We can probably abandon all those expensive and time-consuming trials on the same basis.

  15. HolfordWatch said,

    July 18, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    @ciaobellaciao

    Haven’t updated the figures but 20.07.08 there was a discussion about the LATimes How Reliable Is DNA Evidence which is a thought-provoking read.

    State crime lab analyst Kathryn Troyer was running tests on Arizona’s DNA database when she stumbled across two felons with remarkably similar genetic profiles.

    The men matched at nine of the 13 locations on chromosomes, or loci, commonly used to distinguish people.

    The FBI estimated the odds of unrelated people sharing those genetic markers to be as remote as 1 in 113 billion. But the mug shots of the two felons suggested that they were not related: One was black, the other white.

    In the years after her 2001 discovery, Troyer found dozens of similar matches — each seeming to defy impossible odds.

    As word spread, these findings by a little-known lab worker raised questions about the accuracy of the FBI’s DNA statistics and ignited a legal fight over whether the nation’s genetic databases ought to be opened to wider scrutiny.

    The FBI laboratory, which administers the national DNA database system, tried to stop distribution of Troyer’s results and began an aggressive behind-the-scenes campaign to block similar searches elsewhere, even those ordered by courts, a Times investigation found.

    At stake is the credibility of the compelling odds often cited in DNA cases, which can suggest an all but certain link between a suspect and a crime scene.

    This piece excited discussion for various reasons as it seems apparent that some of the reported statistics are a trifle odd. “The FBI estimated the odds of unrelated people sharing those genetic markers to be as remote as 1 in 113 billion.”

    This was probably supposed to be set in context against the population of Earth which stood at 6,711,259,934 as of 12:41 GMT 20 July 2008 (World Population Clock.

    However, very troubling. FBI and others may wish to withhold such information from juries in case it confuses them. However, it seems essential that there should be robust scrutiny if we are to disentangle the statistical probabilities of finding such a match and whether the underlying assumptions are flawed or something that might be rectified by stipulating a match on more points than is currently acceptable in various legal jurisdictions for a ‘match’.

  16. HolfordWatch said,

    July 18, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    @ciaobellaciao

    As for fingerprints, there is a lot of discussion on some of the sites that discuss the case of PC Shirley McKie and the significance of that for the reliability of fingerprint identification.

  17. Paula Thomas said,

    July 18, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    The Jill Dando Institute’s website appears to be locked! Ixs this normal?

  18. Grendel said,

    July 18, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Having worked in a similar role (but not in the UK) I am sorely tempted to suggest that we are observing yet another instance of a Policy person dabbling in statistics rather than a statistician dabbling in policy – in any case it delivers bad policy and worse outcomes for society.

    This approach generally results in law enforcement focusing on the ‘knowns’, which while they might seem the most likely suspect, are rarely the only suspects.

  19. HolfordWatch said,

    July 18, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    @Grendel

    we are observing yet another instance of a Policy person dabbling in statistics rather than a statistician dabbling in policy

    That sounds like policy-based evidence-making in action – the right words in the wrong order.

  20. samarkeolog said,

    July 18, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Yes, Bob, but the very idea that everyone is equally criminal(ised) is absurd.

    If they did insist upon that (and I know that some of them do, or at least insist upon an action only justifiable by that logic), then the police too would have to be on the database, but precisely by their police-incriminated criminality, could not be trusted with maintaining and accessing the database.

    The marginally less ricockulous alternative, that they are claiming that the then innocent people they arrest are as likely to commit a crime as proved past offenders, relies upon the assumption that one’s coming to the police’s attention is a predictor of criminality and guilt.

    That is dependent upon and artificially fabricates evidence for the lazy presumptions of “bad areas”, “bad crowds”, “bad communities”, who should be policed accordingly (and apart from miscarriages of justice, etc., that, squaring the circle, really produces reactive criminality).

  21. Paula Thomas said,

    July 18, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    The Jill Dando Institute’s website is now unlocked. The only paper I can find on DNA is this one. Is it the one you are referring to Ben?

  22. David Mery said,

    July 18, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    @Paula Thomas.

    No, the JDI paper Ben is referring to is the one published in the annex of the consultation, which is available with the consultation at the link Ben includes in his third paragraph.

  23. Paula Thomas said,

    July 18, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    @David Mery

    #hits forehead with hand# of course it is – how stupid of me!

  24. I used to be a scentist but now I just work in government said,

    July 18, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    Welcome to the world of Home Office research – you could write one of these stories most days. In fact if anyone can be bothered, they can complain about misuse of statistics in government to the UK Statistics Authority ( www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/ ). The UKSA has recently had dealings with the HO and would probably be quite interested in this one.

  25. Psythe said,

    July 19, 2009 at 12:18 am

    I’m not saying that this report isn’t an example of bad science, but I would like to point a few things out about DNA databases – either gleaned from a recent Science Cafe lecture I went to on the subject, or extrapolated from this and A-level Law. The argument I will put is that rather than worrying about potentially innocent people being put on the database, EVERYONE should be on there.

    Although I believe that police currently keep the entire tissue sample from which the DNA fingerprint is taken, there is no good scientific reason to do so. If only the tiny proportion of the genome used for matching, and this in digital form, it would be impossible for the police to use the samples to plant false evidence. The markers are selected for their variability rather than their intrinsic interest, so concerns with the information being used to perform research without the consent of the donor, or select/deselect donors for insurance or jobs on the basis of DNA are far fetched.

    The given risk of a false positive match (according to the lecturer) is given at 1 in a billion. This however drops to 1 in ten thousand if the two samples (ie the true criminal and the accused) is related. Where the first might seem to be reasonable, the second maybe would not (although when compared to the bastion of justice, the jury, one unfair conviction in 10000 is a drop in the ocean*).

    Let us then consider a hypothetical situation where a suspect is accused of a crime. I’m going to make them asian, not because asians are more likely to commit crime but because they have a tendency to have quite large families, meaning that the risk of false positives is higher.

    In the current situation, the jury is told that there is DNA evidence matching the suspect to the scene of the crime. There are no other matches in the database. A sizable proportion of them will hear “DNA” and think “he did it then”. They might be told of the chances of a false positive, but quite a lot of them are probably so unable to deal with large numbers that they play the lottery so this is of dubious benefit. The guy is probably going down.

    In the situation where everybody else in the family is on the database, any defence lawyer worth his salt will point out that in actual fact there are four matches in the database who can be shown to have been in the area at the time – the suspect, his mother and two brothers. Instantly it can be shown that relying on DNA evidence alone will, rather than being right 99.99% of the time, be wrong 75% of the time.

    I’d also point out that currently 2% of the white male population but 9% of the black male population is on the database – the reasons for this are ambiguous but some police are known to target blacks. Putting the other 98%/81% on would remove this bias.

    At the risk of moving from bad science to bad politics, the other argument against this is that is an infringement of human rights. The only “right” I see it infringing is the right to commit a crime and get away with it.

    DNA database or no DNA database, no-one has a “right to privacy” which stops them being investigated for a crime, BUT for those who are innocent DNA would enable them to be quickly ruled out and would arguably actually protect their privacy (ie nobody has to ask me what the hell I was doing in that brothel, because I don’t match the sample found in the dead prostitute)

    *I’d refer the interested reader to studies done by Richard Wiseman on the ability of people to work out whether somebody is lying by watching them talk. If you’re still convinced juries are a good idea, check out the Berkeley webcasts (webcast.berkeley.edu) on Sociology, particularly those on conformity.

  26. CoralBloom said,

    July 19, 2009 at 1:30 am

    An experienced police officer would have been useful to have around at the concept stage of the paper, in addition to someone who could analyse the numbers.

    The civil servants seem to be suggesting that if they lock up all the burglars, then the risk of having your home broken into is unchanged…. The police officer would then proceed to cough and twist around in his chair, since he knows from his experience that when he manages to have the little toads convicted, he has less problems in his city.

    Seems they are suggesting we are all as untrustworthy as each other…. and that we, the entire population aren’t behind bars simply because we haven’t been caught.

    hmm, all those pensioners on the bus with those bus passes, so risky you know!

    Remind me, what was Henry Allingham, who passed away less than 24 hours ago, fighting in two World Wars for?

  27. elspeth2009 said,

    July 19, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    It actually doesn’t matter to me whether or not people arrested but not convicted are more likely to commit a crime in the future. Being innocent until proven guilty is still important. Also, isn’t DNA evidence much less reliable than it’s supposed to be, or is that just an urban myth?

  28. Suw said,

    July 19, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    @Psythe that’s a really nice argument you’ve got there. Sadly, it’s not quite that clean and tidy.

    Whilst the data currently held is limited, it’s unlikely to remain that way as science has a tendency to keep making DNA analysis easier and cheaper. The gov’t will expand the data it gathers as soon as it is economical to do so. And as they keep samples, they can re-analyse them and update old records whenever they feel like it.

    If you have everyone’s DNA on a database, then you create a very valuable asset that a variety of organisations and people will have interest in. Police databases are well known for being broken into, often by the police themselves who aren’t averse to earning a little bit of cash on the side.

    Criminals will be interested in data for identity theft, and the gov’t isn’t exactly well known for its IT security expertise.

    Businesses like insurance companies will be interested in DNA data for “personalised premiums” — and who knows how strapped for cash the government might be, and how willing to sell data on.

    Mission creep will almost certainly occur, as the government and police start using data for things that it was never intended for. Given the opportunity, they’ll data mine and start targeting “risky” people before they’ve even done anything. And given the fact that dodgy stories like “violence gene discovered” aren’t beyond imagining, the data mining itself is likely to be based on bad science.

    The big problem with big databases is that they become attractive targets for all sorts of shenanigans. We don’t just have to worry about the current government (and dear lord, I do), but have to consider misuse and abuse from future governments and police forces.

    Far better to keep the data held to a minimum, and to enact laws that protect the population from the abuse of their information — and when I say population, I mean everyone, not just innocent people. DNA data is not infallible, and it should be presented as one bit of evidence amongst everything else. Creating a massive database and thinking that it will help catch the perp of every crime is foolish thinking, and leads people to over-estimate the reliability of DNA evidence.

    If you want a bit more info on the DNA database, then pop along to the ORG wiki: www.openrightsgroup.org/orgwiki/index.php/DNA_database

    Or take a look at Genewatch UK: www.genewatch.org/

  29. David Mery said,

    July 19, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    @richmond

    set about doing some proper research (which has now, separately, been submitted to a peer reviewed journal)

    Can you provide some more information? Where and when this is likely to be published? Is the draft available? It would be useful to have this work available in some form before the end of the consultation (August 7th).

  30. SimonW said,

    July 19, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    “(ie nobody has to ask me what the hell I was doing in that brothel, because I don’t match the sample found in the dead prostitute)”

    Psythe, now the police have evidence you were at the crime scene. As a minimum you will be interviewed and questioned as a potential witness, and likely everyone will know you were at the brothel where the prostitute was killed, and the police were interviewing you. At the very least it might end your marriage, and make getting a girlfriend tricky.

    Then the police will insist you reveal who else you took to the brothel and interview them. No doubt revealing that you named them. Possibly checking what you did before and after to confirm your alibi.

    All this would likely not progress the investigation, but you may trip up and reveal something that allows them to charge you with another offence, which means they’ll be able to claim they have made a number of arrests/charges in relation to the investigation. So it looks like they are making progress to their superiors and the public.

    Tip: when the police start asking questions, ask for a solicitor.

  31. David Mery said,

    July 20, 2009 at 1:39 am

    DNA database plans based on ‘flawed science’, warn experts:

    [...]
    The proposals, set out as part of a government consultation after the existing DNA database was found in breach of human rights last year, are based on exaggerated scientific claims and ignore the realities of persistent offending, two leading criminologists have said. “There is a flaw in the scientific evidence that sustains the government’s argument,” said Keith Soothill, emeritus professor of social research at Lancaster University.

    Soothill and fellow professor Brian Francis last week published a paper arguing that key aspects of the government’s proposals – which change the current periods for retaining DNA from all people arrested to six years, and 12 years for serious and violent crime arrests – have not been proved.
    [...]

  32. Psythe said,

    July 20, 2009 at 3:50 am

    SimonW, my assumption was that the police already know (from eyewitness reports etc) that I was at the brothel, but are able to rule me out as the perpetrator of the rape/murder on DNA evidence without having to go to the trouble of interviewing me (which could cut into valuable doughnut time)

    They might still want to question/arrest me, but with a universal database they’d probably be a bit more interested in collaring the chap(s) who _did_ match the DNA evidence first of all.

  33. David Mery said,

    July 20, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    @Psythe,

    They might still want to question/arrest me, but with a universal database they’d probably be a bit more interested in collaring the chap(s) who _did_ match the DNA evidence first of all.

    This would be logical, but then there’s reality! See what happened to Kevin Reynolds. His DNA profile was on the NDNAD and his fingerprints were on record from a previous arrest, he was innocent. When he was suspected of the murder of Sally Anne Bowman, that didn’t stop the police from taking a new DNA sample (both DNA profiles have the exact same SGM+ figures), detaining him for 36 hours and wreck his father’s home when the DNA profile already on file could have eliminated him from the list of suspects immediately.

  34. mikewhit said,

    July 20, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    “But the mug shots of the two felons suggested that they were not related: One was black, the other white.”

    Non sequitur – you must have seen cases of same-parent siblings where not all children appear “the same race” based on skin colour.

  35. mikewhit said,

    July 20, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    I’m going to make them asian, not because asians are more likely to commit crime but because they have a tendency to have quite large families – except in China, where they have a ‘one child’ policy !!

  36. Health Pain said,

    July 20, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    Responsible Use of Narcotics

    It is ultimately the patient’s responsibility to use narcotics responsibly.

    A few years ago, narcotics were only prescribed after surgery, severe trauma, or for terminal cancer because of a concern over the possibility of addiction. Recently, they have been cautiously prescribed to treat moderate to severe non-malignant chronic pain in conjunction with other modalities such as physical therapy, cortisone and trigger point injections, muscle stretching, meditation, or aqua therapy. Unfortunately, the upsurge of narcotics as medical treatment also increased associated cases of abuse and addiction.

    Derived from either opium (made from poppy plants) or similar synthetic compounds, narcotics not only block pain signals and reduce pain, but they affect other neurotransmitters, which can cause addiction. When taken for short periods, only minor side effects such as nausea, constipation, sedation and unclear thinking are noted.

    However, when narcotics are taken for several weeks to months, these side effects can become more challenging: loss of effectiveness due to built-up tolerance, possible addiction, or overuse for a temporary “high,” not for pain. Because of the potential for addiction, whether physical (anxiety, irritability, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and insomnia) or psychological (compulsive use, craving the drug and needing it to “feel good,” narcotics are considered controlled substances, which means that the FDA and DEA govern their distribution, prescription, and use and classify them into different schedules as per the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

    While weak narcotics such as Tramadol (Ultram) and Schedule IV opioid analgesics such as Darvon or Darvocet N 100 have a low risk for physical dependency and addiction with mild side effects such as dizziness, sedation, headache, nausea and constipation, Schedule III opioids analgesics such as Lortab, Tylenol #3, Vicodin and Vicoprofen have a low to moderate potential of physical or psychological dependence. Demerol, Dilaudid, Duragesic, Oxycontin and Percocet, which cannot be automatically refilled, fall under Schedule II because of their high abuse potential, and possible severe physical or psychological dependency.
    In view of the fact that narcotics can be addictive, they should only be prescribed when no other alternative is available and should only be taken as directed by your doctor. Most often, patients are required to consent to adhere to certain rules regarding the use of their prescription listed in a “Narcotic Agreement” between the patient and physician. Often, violation of this contract, especially selling, sharing, or trading the medication, attempting to obtain duplicate pain medication prescriptions from different physicians, and attempting to have the medication refilled early, at night, or on the weekend, to mention a few, would result in the patient’s discharge from the practice.

    So, take responsibility for your actions and know all your treatment options. Narcotics are rarely your sole savior.
    www.findrxonline.com/rss/articles/medical-teatment-narcotics.html

  37. Health Pain said,

    July 20, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Orthopedic doctor “Lee” Kadosa, one of several local professionals accused three years ago of taking part in an underage prostitution ring, is facing trouble again.

    This time, Kadosa is accused of billing Medicaid for services he never provided, and of writing prescriptions for powerful drugs including Vicodin to patients who didn’t need them.

    Kadosa, a physician with the American Spine and Pain Rehabilitation Institute, was arrested Friday and taken to the Orient Road Jail. He is charged with Medicaid fraud and assisting in obtaining a controlled substance, both third-degree felonies.

    If convicted, Kadosa, 59, faces up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine for each charge. He is being held in lieu of $100,000 bail, according to jail records.

  38. oliver said,

    July 20, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    There was an excellent piece on the Food Programme on Radio 4 just about the situation between PR, food companies and science, in this case about Watercress. I can really recommend it – good, comprehensive, journalism.

  39. oliver said,

    July 20, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    Link: www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00ln1b5/Food_Programme_Watercress/

  40. mikewhit said,

    July 20, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    @HealthPain:
    Your use of non-generic drug names plus a link to a well-known drugs site suggests you are a link spammer.

    Ben – should that post be removed ?

  41. SteveGJ said,

    July 20, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    @@Psythe

    Your example where there are four members of the family that “might” have left a matching sample thereby meaning that there is a 75% chance that the wrong person will have been picked makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. If I accept that the chance of a match between two close relatives is 1 in 10,000 as you state, then the chance of any of the wrong relatives rather than the “true” culprit are each 1:10,000. As there are three others, then the chance of a any “wrong” relative being picked is (near enough) 3:10,000 meaning that the “right” relative is going to be picked 99.97% of the time. That’s quite apart from one of the examples of a relative being chosen being a woman which, given the nature of the crime you allude too, doesn’t seem to be feasible.

    However, getting to the point you make about forcing everybody to give a DNA sample only denying people the right to commit a DNA detectable crime. Well all I can say it is a very dangerous line to force any adult to do anything against their will on the basis of the harm they might cause. There is any number of things the State could decide would result in some public good by infringing on individual rights. Many we might say would have only minimal impact on people provided, that is, that they kept to the law. For instance, I’m sure that the police would love the ability to trawl through everybody’s emails without having to show reasonable suspicion of a crime; ditto with telephone calls. After all, if you aren’t breaking the law, what would you have to fear? But then just how many people would be happy that the state could just read your primate emails without due legal process?

    Unlike some people, I wouldn’t deny that retaining DNA samples of arrested people, or even those from the entire populace, would lead to the clearing up of some crimes. I think it undoubtedly true that some dangerous people would not only be convicted, but it’s almost certain that some very serious crimes, including murders and rapes will be prevented. However, it simply isn’t enough I feel to make that claim without, first of all, quantifying the effect and also recognising the impact on individual freedom. Once the state starts to treat all citizens as potential criminals, we are on dangerous and uncomfortable grounds.

    On Ben’s analysis, then I too would agree that the attached “notes” from the Jill Dando Foundation is the basis for nothing very much at all. I’m not wholly certain that, as Ben claims, you could establish for sure that those arrested, yet not convicted or cautioned, are as likely to commit crimes as those who were. It could be that those not convicted are just cleverer at not leaving evidence. Undoubtedly there are a considerable number of criminals who manage that. However, I think it is unlikely; there will be the innocent among those arrested, but I certainly wouldn’t go the other way and say that the “criminal tendency” profile of the arrested with “no further action” is the same as that of the “not arrested at all”. It seems to me that for that argument to be true, the police would then have to be as likely to arrest an innocent person as a suspect where they can’t get sufficient evidence. Now they may be incompetent, but that bad?

    Anyway, the point about this is that forcing all adults to provide forensic evidence on the basis of a crime that they might commit in the future, without there being a compelling case for an overriding social benefit is fundamentally a bad thing. There are those who would say that saving one life is enough, but on that criterion the state could take even more control. When Jack Straw was Home Secretary we had the truly appalling idea that people with severe personality disorders could be detained indefinitely on the basis of a serious crime that they may commit in the future. This was despite the fact that psychologists are singularly less than 100% accurate in forecasting just who will commit such crimes.

  42. longdehua said,

    July 21, 2009 at 9:46 am

    Notwithstanding all of the dodgy stuff mentioned in Ben’s article, the figures reported in “Table 2″ are for subsequent re-arrest, not for conviction.

    So, 40% of people arrested and not charged are arrested again within the next roughly-four-years-give-or-take-a-bit. Does this convince us that they should have their DNA kept on record or that the officers have a personal dislike for a number of people in their community and drag them down the station on a regular basis?

  43. killary45 said,

    July 21, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Can someone clear up whether the police actually store DNA or just a DNA profile?

    I had always thought that the police simply stored the data from a very small part of the DNA molecule and that this data was stored in digital form. It is no more necessary to store DNA for purposes of police records than it is to keep fingers in order to compare fingerprints.

    I cannot see any logical difference between the retention of a DNA profile and a fingerprint, but I can understand why people would not the authorities to keep in storage samples of our actual DNA. I would not want there to be a cold storage facility somewhere with a million test tubes each one containing the DNA of someone who has been in contact with the police. So someone please tell me that no such place exists.

  44. David Mery said,

    July 21, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    See Making innocents into honorary criminals for a round up of three recent articles with links to them, including the excellent one by Soothill and Francis.

  45. David Mery said,

    July 21, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    @killary45,

    At arrest, two samples are taken (usually buccal scrapes). Those are sent to one of three private labs under contract with the National Police Improvement Agency, which is the custodian of the National DNA Database (NDNAD). The labs analyses one sample and derive a DNA profile, the other sample is put in a freezer. The DNA profile, a series of 20 numbers plus sex information is uploaded to the NDNAD.

    Samples are kept in the labs freezer and profiles on the NDNAD. (There are also mentions of it on the Police National Record.) These are kept for either forever or until the subject reaches 100-year old (my reading of the step-down model is forever, but some contracts may state a 100-year retention period), anyway the DNA profiling technique is too young to figure that one out yet.

    To find out all the info kept in the NDNAD, check out Information retained in the National DNA Database profile records.

    There are many differences between retention of DNA profiles and fingerprint. Here’s an example. Some research (without consent) was done on both DNA samples and DNA profiles. One such research that was exposed via FoI requests a year or two ago by GeneWatch UK concerned attempts to predict visible ethnicity from DNA profiles. The DNA profiles supposedly contain only what is called non-coding information, however allegedly the research did find some correlation (though I don’t think it was ever peer-reviewed). Other reasons include that the database has a racial bias. All this is probably trumped by the fact that there’s no evidence it is helpful to retain profiles on such a scale. When the database doubled in size, the number of detections didn’t increase. Ben wrote about the needle in haystack problem, here’s a post about how this is an issue in the NDNAD context: Growth of the National DNA Database increases the risk of miscarriages.

    For a rapid overview of the NDNAD, check out the Reclaim your DNA website.

  46. irishaxeman said,

    July 21, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    Speaking as someone with three serving police people as siblings, I have two issues:
    1. Groups targeted by police drives will have repetitive arrest records (more exposed in the target community, more pulls) plus sheets of minor derived offences (e.g. pulled for burglary, done for minor possession). Re-arrest and conviction stats are inherently shaped by policy at command levels. If a nice middle-class bunch like the posters here received the scrutiny that some in society get, you’d have big collateral damage crime sheets (those expenses, sir, run the one about the moat by me again….). This type of ‘scientific research’ will never be anything but stinky.
    2. The ‘conservative’ position of minimising retention of any data (as well as presuming innocence) is the rational best possible position in the absence of incontrovertible scientific evidence and (physically and morally) impregnable records. For previous penetration of police records, try ‘Flat Earth News’ by Nick Davies.

  47. bish said,

    July 22, 2009 at 11:08 am

    @Psythe

    Ignoring for the moment the other retorts posted above, and simply taking your reasoning and maths at face value, another problem emerges – if assembling a comprehensive DNA database of the entire country has the effect of dramatically reducing the number of convictions attained solely or largely on the back of DNA evidence, this begs the question – then why spend so much public money on doing it in the first place? If a comprehensive database would make crimes even harder to prove, what would be the use?

    Back on BG’s original column; it’s alarming – but not exactly surprising – to see the Civil Service chucking together reports that appear to support the government’s position. It often seems the question isn’t whether or not we should have DNA databases, ID Cards and Telescreens, but rather when they can squeeze them into existence without too much fuss; using Iraq as a template, the primary tactic is to assemble as much incomprehensible and/or misleading ‘evidence’ as possible, and wait until the public acquiesce from exhaustion and a sense of hopelessness. When you have government ministers asserting (and perhaps believing) that “the first duty of the state is to protect its public”, it’s not at all surprising that they’ll bend the rules of good practice to ensure that their best intentions are realised…

    All the same it’s nice to see someone flagging up the gibberish, for what good it might do.

  48. speedkermit said,

    July 22, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    I don’t see why anyone would expect that the average piece of research from the Home Office wouldn’t be as biased as any other produced by a private organisation with a vested interest in the result turning out a particular way. Of course, it *ought* to be different, but they are in the business of garnering votes, not informing the public in an objective and unbiased way.

    Does anyone remember Jacqui Smith criticising Professor Nutt for having the bare-faced cheek to state the plain fact that horse-riding is more dangerous than cannabis? They are simply not interested in having that ‘open and honest debate’ they are always going on about.

  49. Delster said,

    July 23, 2009 at 8:58 am

    While having a partial record of everyone’s DNA on a data base would indeed help police to pick out likely candidates for closer investigation i would be worried what else the data could be used for.

    Government departments have a reputation for losing large chunks of data…the lost laptop effect….so how long before the partial data ended up in somewhere else. Also what assurance would we have that only the partial sequence would be stored?

    If the full sequence is stored then i’m sure that health insurance companies would have a keen interest in the data. With the researchers of various countries finding markers for various ailments the human body can fall victim too this data could become very valuable…so how much am i bid for this cough cough *lost* cough laptop?

    In case anybody ask’s my DNA has been at least partially sequenced in a medical study organised through the british blood service and i have no idea where the data ended up.

  50. MedsVsTherapy said,

    July 23, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    The “Keeping the Right People In” report is from former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who has since resigned — she looked very bad for BANNING conservative American radio talk show host Michael Savage from ENTERING the U.K. Her argument was that his talk incites people to violence. (He talks bad about liberals, Muslims, etc., but never as far as anyone can tell advocates vigilantism or murder for anything or anyone.) 1. He has been on the radio for years, and no one in U.S. has EVER linked his show to violence. 2. His show does not play in UK, 3. At the time she banned him, he had absolutely NO plans to go to UK whatsoever. Ridiculous.

    I guess that was her “Keeping the Right (Wing) People Out” report.

  51. JoanCrawford said,

    July 24, 2009 at 9:16 am

    @36, 37, 40 (Mike Whit, Health Pain)

    Mike, you are dead right. The other giveaway, of course, is that the post has cock-all to do with the topic under discussion.

  52. ferguskane said,

    July 25, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    The chances of a false positive depends on the test used, and is based on the number of DNA markers tested, combined with the natural variability of such markers. It is fairly easy to decrease the chances of such a false positive, one just increases the number of markers used. Thus, false positives should not be a major problem

    The essential problem with a national DNA database, is not that of a false positive match. I believe the real danger is of finding a true match, but with the wrong samples and leading to the wrong conclusions. If every UK citizen is in a DNA database, then one may assume that any hair fibre, skin sample or blood spot in a crime scene will match to someone. The problem is, did that person commit the crime?

    A national DNA database, would reduce the emphasis on real policework. A DNA match is a MUCH more powerful finding if the suspect is identified BEFORE the match. If the suspect is identified based on a match, then the rest of the evidence can be fitted around the DNA evidence. The onus then falls upon the suspect to provide an alibi. I’m not suggesting that fitting of the evidence would be done deliberately, but the DNA evidence would inevitably result in a bias in the investigation.

    In the end, a jury may be asked to make a decision largely based on DNA evidence from a search of a national database. Given the state of understanding of science and statistics, not only in the general public, but also within the legal profession, this is not a pleasing prospect.

    On a slightly different tack, it has been said that private citizens should always work to minimise the power of the state. I think this sentiment is generally right, and should be applied here.

  53. bagpuss said,

    July 27, 2009 at 11:45 am

    Psythe, your reasoning has a fundamental flaw.

    Your entire argument is based on the assumption of holding the DNA of everyone, but who is this everyone and how do we ensure that we obtain a DNA sample from them?

    I think it’s generally agreed that we do not have a comprehensive list of everyone living in this country. So how do we identify everyone, including those who are likely to be reluctant to make themselves known since they’re here illegally, and persuade them all to come forward to donate a DNA sample? And even if we could somehow achieve this miracle, there will undoubtedly be a way for people to appear to be giving a sample, but to actually give a fake one – say by paying someone else to pose as them.

    And that’s before we even consider people coming to the country on a temporary basis – tourists, business travellers, etc. Are we to stop everyone at the border and demand a DNA sample for the database? That might have a rather serious impact on the tourist industry and on business in general.

    So, at the “best”, we’ll only ever have an almost-complete database. Criminals will, of course, have the greatest incentive to find some way of avoiding their DNA being on the database, so the holes in the database are likely to be significant, even if they’re only small.

    So now, a DNA sample is taken from a crime scene, but it only matches to one person on the database. This person is, in fact, innocent but we know that they must be guilty, because they’re the only match on this “complete” database. Of course, the real culprit was someone who is already back home in some other country, or is the bloke who paid someone a few quid to impersonate him when his sample was taken, or is someone we have no idea has been living here for the last 5 years. Unfortunately, the innocent match was at home asleep, alone, at the time the crime was committed. They happen to live reasonably close to the crime (hardly unlikely – pretty much everyone in London, and plenty in the surrounding counties would live sufficiently close to a crime in London) and has absolutely no way of proving that they weren’t actually raping someone on the other side of the city.

    So we lock them up and throw away the key, while the real culprit goes on happily committing more crimes. And the innocent man gets to enjoy Her Majesty’s hospitality, with no-one even questioning his guilt unless the real culprit is careless enough to leave his DNA lying around at a crime scene again, while our innocent guy is inside.

  54. mikewhit said,

    July 28, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    @bagpuss:”or is the bloke who paid someone a few quid to impersonate him when his sample was taken”

    So how does this guy get away with not giving a sample when it’s really his turn – presumably a match for someone already on the system would be flagged ?

  55. HolfordWatch said,

    July 28, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    Aug. 2009: Popular Mechanics has some good articles on the state of the scientific evidence that underpins popular forensic science.

    CSI Myths: The Shaky Science Behind Forensics

    The truth about 4 common forensic methods: Problems with fingerprinting, ballistics & fiber analysis forensics

  56. bagpuss said,

    July 30, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    @mikewhit – Firstly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the system isn’t set up to flag matches and even if it is, it might not prove a problem. After all, there will be genuine coincidental matches.

    But more importantly, you are making the assumption that the person paid will also be on the database under their own right. If they’re currently living in the country without the authorities knowing, or are a temporary visitor, then they won’t be.

    My post wasn’t intended to be an accurate description of what would happen if a universal database were implemented. It was intended to point out just a few of the more obvious possible and probable flaws that will make it impossible for a database of “everyone” ever to exist. Even if that particular one is impossible in practice (and I doubt that) it doesn’t detract from my fundamental point.

  57. Psythe said,

    July 30, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    Sorry for lateness of this reply – forgot I don’t get an email prompt when someone replies to me here!

    Suw – you were concerned about the alternative uses of the DNA data. I agree wholeheartedly with you, and am most certainly NOT an advocate of the current system where the entire DNA sample gets kept. Another poster made the point that the more DNA you have the more you reduce the risk of a false positive, but there is nothing to stop you checking as many base locations as necessary on your test sample and your suspect once you have identified him – you don’t need to keep the sample for this.

    If only the very small amount of DNA needed for the initial marking technique is kept then data misuse is not a major issue – it is currently useless to insurance companies. You can make a good guess at ethnicity from it but I’m not sure how useful this will be to anyone. The only “naughty” use I can think of is proving someone was somewhere legitimately, but privately – for use in blackmail. It wouldn’t help the tabloids, even if it did get out, as it would be illegal for non-law enforcement agencies to use this data.

    David Mery – you mention a situation where someone got arrested and had his home searched despite the presence of previous DNA evidence. I agree this is pretty stupid, but it is n=1; we’re presumably agreed on the dangers of drawing conclusions from such evidence.

    SteveGJ – you’re absolutely right; my logic was flawed (or at least it didn’t convert very well into prose; it was so long ago I can’t remember now :-) )

    The fact remains that if there are multiple matches it would be better for the jury to know about them, which may or may not be the case with the current system, but should (in the majority of cases) be the case with a universal database.

    SteveGJ also suggests that forcing citizens to do something against their will is a very dangerous line to take. I’d argue that, rather than being forced to do something against our will, agreeing to do things that we would rather not do is a price we pay for living in society, with its privileges that we would rather not do without. A database of DNA markers only is minimally dangerous and can provide large benefits.

    A carte blanche to investigate email is considerably more dangerous (and is, I believe, pretty much done anyway by the USA via Echelon; its not illegal for THEM to spy on UK citizens, and not illegal for them to share the information they get with the UK authorities).

    Bish – yes, a DNA database could cause some convictions to be quashed, but only the unsafe ones which relied on DNA matches alone in cases where there was more than one match. One would also expect it to bring many more criminals to justice.

    FergusKane is concerned that one might get the right match on the wrong sample. However I’d argue that the average jury should be able to understand the logic that a skin sample, for instance, ties a person only to the site and not to the crime. Certain samples are harder to explain away than others – skin samples under the nails of the deceased, for instance.

    Bagpuss wonders how we will get a sample from “everyone”. I agree that a truly universal DNA database is not feasible – foreign visitors would as (s)he says likely remain exempt in the current climate. Posing for another could be made tricky by following up apparent duplicates, although this would admittedly increase the expense of the project. Taking a photograph of people at the time of sampling would reduce the cost (on the basis that if you have a match between a 5′ model and a 7′ wrestler you probably don’t need to follow it up) but would probably double the outcry. Getting the DNA sample at birth or entry into the UK would reduce the risk of people slipping through the net.

    Miscarriages of justice such as the one you describe can still occur, but at a rate of less than one in a billion. Assuming a hundred thousand cases in the UK per year which use DNA evidence this would be one case per ten thousand years (I’m sure SteveGJ will check my math :-) )

    Compare this to the potential 1 in 2 miscarriages of justice currently taking place when one relies on a jury.

  58. Psythe said,

    July 30, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    That last link of David Mery’s – the one about the DNA database leading to miscarriages – begged a sceptical investigation. Turns out it’s talking about miscarriages of justice rather than pregnancies – doh!

    It does make the point though that matches made on less than the normal ten loci have a higher risk of false positives.

    Does anyone know how big these loci are? They must be more than one base pair long (4^10 is just over a million).

    It also makes the point that a new technique, LtDNA, can use up the sample in getting its match, meaning that if the only match is a false negative further testing on the sample to exonerate the innocent suspect is not possible. I have to admit this is pretty scary.

    Having a universal database would still dilute the effect of this on the jury – the question would be; would you get more innocent people convicted as a result of this (due to crimes committed by people who were not on the database) than you would acquit from the realisation that the DNA evidence corresponded to multiple potential suspects and as such could not be relied upon?

    This sort of risk analysis does come into play at the level of the jury, rather than at the investigation level, where the data will show police which suspects to concentrate on and, potentially, obtain confessions from criminals who like the jury believe that DNA is incontrovertible – but not from the innocent who know it can’t be because they didn’t do it. Yes, this means that the innocent get questioned, but that’s pretty much the accepted situation with regard to police investigations.

  59. MedsVsTherapy said,

    August 5, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    How much will the false positive rate drop when this genetic data is combined with 20,000 in-home govt surveillance cameras?

    “They will be monitored to ensure that children attend school, go to bed on time and eat proper meals. Private security guards will also be sent round to carry out home checks, while parents will be given help to combat drug and alcohol addiction.”

    www.express.co.uk/posts/view/115736/Sin-bins-for-worst-families

  60. HungryHobo said,

    August 6, 2009 at 12:09 am

    ‘If I accept that the chance of a match between two close relatives is 1 in 10,000 as you state, then the chance of any of the wrong relatives rather than the “true” culprit are each 1:10,000. As there are three others, then the chance of a any “wrong” relative being picked is (near enough) 3:10,000 meaning that the “right” relative is going to be picked 99.97% of the time.’

    when I read this it struck me that by that arithmetic the chances of any 2 people having the same birthday in a class of 20 would be 20/365 rather than about 50/50 as it really is…

  61. MedsVsTherapy said,

    August 6, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    birthday: isn’t it around 189/365?
    for the first case, you have 19 possible matches. 19/365. for the second case having a different bday, you would have 18 possible matches – – given that the bday of the first case does not match the second case. Third case: you have already established the likelihood that there is a match with either of the first two, so now establish the likelihood of the third case with any remaining cases: 17/365?

  62. David Mery said,

    August 7, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Reminder: you have until the end of today to send in your response to the Home Office consultation, if you haven’t done so already.

  63. heavens said,

    August 12, 2009 at 12:20 am

    Delster (and others): Today’s news says that a full DNA sequence costs ‘only’ US $50,000 per person. I think that fact alone addresses the “but they might do a full DNA sequence, instead of only those little cheap bits used for identification”.

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