Saturday, November 17, 2007

The FBI in Movies, the FBI in Reality

In Broken, Richard Gid Powers suggests that the FBI has never actually had a mission, and many of it failures can be attributed to its flailing about in the effort to find one. J. Edgar Hoover's insistence on chasing a tiny number of radicals while completely ignoring the much more serious problem of organized crime was not simply due to his cynicism; it was also due to the confusion in the definition of a federal crime, and his unwillingness to embarrass himself trying and failig to solve an actually difficult problem. It was also the beginning of the FBI's self-promotion through popular entertainment ("The Untouchables" and all that).

Now, I'm a sucker for crime shows, but there is a powerful whiff of bullshit in the depiction of the profiling of serial killers in such movies as The Silence of the Lambs (not to mention something really repulsive, not to mention factually incorrect, in the depiction of them as evil geniuses in SotL, the contemptible Seven...I could go on), and that whiff emanates from John Douglas, the FBI's "eminent" profiler, the model for SotL's Jack Crawford. Malcolm Gladwell recently argued in The New Yorker that what these profilers do is not so different from the "cold readings" that psychics such as John Edward do, namely, spew enough predictions that some of them have to stick. Even about such simple, empirically verifiable aspects of a killer's identity as, oh, his age, his skin color, his intelligence...Douglas is usually wrong. Even if he were right, how would his colleagues go about looking for an unusually intelligent, unmarried white man whom no evidence links to the crime? Profiling's basis in research is rather weak; imprisoned serial killers are *not* reliable sources, and the more intelligent ones have ample opportunity to construct ex post facto justifications for details of the crime if that will keep some psychologist talking to them. Even if this were not so, "research" on imprisoned serial killers has not been conducted according to proper research protocols, and the findings would be impossible to replicate. Gladwell: "Not long ago, a group of psychologists at the University of Liverpool decided to test the FBI's assumptions [that a criminal typology can be deduced from crime-scene details]...When they looked at a sample of a hundred serial crimes, however, they couldn't find any support for the FBI's distinction [between 'organized' and 'disorganized' killings and therefore killers]. Crimes don't fall into one camp or the other. It turns out that they're almost always a mixture of a few key organized traits [emphasis mine—TN] and a random array of disorganized traits. Laurence Alison, one of the leaders of the Liverpool group and the author of The Forensic Psychologist's Casebook,'The whole business is a lot more complicated than the FBI imagines.'"

No comments: