Before You Throw Your Life Away Looking for “Truth”

You might want to figure this out about yourself

Photo credit: Author

In March 2012, 34-year-old Annie Dookhan, petite and pretty with long dark hair and a lazy right eye, resigned from her job as chemist at the Massachusetts Drug Abuse Lab after it was discovered that she’d been manipulating test results for nearly a decade.

It was Dookhan’s job to provide the scientific evidence needed to convict people who had been arrested on drug possession charges. But in addition to forging signatures and failing to maintain proper chain-of-custody procedures to protect the state’s evidence, she was also known to “dry lab” the drug samples she was supposed to be testing — in other words, she’d just look at the sample and smell it or whatever, and then she’d lie about doing a required scientific test. Most alarmingly, Dookhan admitted to contaminating negative samples with known positive samples in order to match the drug police had checked off on the sample bag.

Dookhan’s “scientific evidence” was used to convict thousands of people on charges of drug possession.

In January 2015, Benjamin Keegan, a Massachusetts defense attorney, estimated that as many as 40,000 people may have been falsely convicted as a result of Dookhan’s actions; in April 2017, the state dropped more than 21,000 criminal drug charges involving her work.

Not all of those who had their charges dropped were innocent of drug possession. In fact, most of them probably weren’t. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that Annie Dookhan stood at the crucial intersection between law and science; it was her job to provide the evidence that, when combined with the testimony of police officers, showed “beyond a reasonable doubt” that someone was in possession of an illegal substance. And she failed. Or, in her own words according to the detectives who interviewed her when she got caught: “I messed up. I messed up bad.”

Two Kinds of Truth

I’m not sure what Dookhan thought she was doing all those years if she was a drug lab chemist who wasn’t doing proper chemistry.

Instead, let me offer a guess, of sorts: rather than doing the work of a scientist, Dookhan was in fact doing the work of an artist, that is to say, she was interpreting her role as a drug lab chemist, and this interpretation was heavily weighted toward processing samples quickly and getting people into jail rather than doing science.

By dry-labbing and taking other shortcuts, Dookhan’s performance metrics seemed incredible to those around her. I imagine her careening through the lab, samples coming in faster than she can appropriately test them, and in no time at all she’s deciding that what really matters is her own perception of success as a chemist. For her, success has little to do with doing a proper job. Instead, success lies in productivity and the positive confirmation that test results for drug samples match what has been alleged…. so she groups together fifteen or twenty drug samples that look like marijuana and say “marijuana” on the bag, tests one or two of them, then sends them all forward to the next stage in the evidence process having certified that every single one of them is scientifically validated marijuana.

Two different kinds of possible truth are revealed here: an interpretive truth and an objective truth. While the first is the domain of the artist, the second is the domain of the scientist.

That artists have business seeking truth is well known.

But the artist has a different set of tools than the scientist.

While it is the job of the scientist to provide objective evidence and analysis, it is the job of the artist to invent, to fabricate, to be subjective in the service of truth. To feel the truth rather than to present it through the scientific method.

It’s uncommon for scientists to engage in fabrication as part of their work, but it’s not hard to find examples of scientific malpractice either.

Wikipedia contains over 60 examples, mostly from the last two decades, of biomedical fraud by researchers around the world. Often the fraud involved — can you guess? — making up results in order to “prove” the original thesis of the researchers. Creating, like Annie Dookhan, an interpretive rather than objective truth.

The fact that art can lie and still seem to be true is one reason why we are tempted by it, one reason we love it.

Before he was ousted from the show House of Cards over allegations of sexual abuse, actor Kevin Spacey portrayed a lying slimeball of a President named Frank Underwood.

As President Underwood made abundantly clear to the audience in dramatic asides, he had no compunction about lying directly to people’s faces to save his own skin and advance his political power.

We don’t like this character.

But in a way we do like him.

And what we like is that he reveals a sort of truth, something we feel in our guts to be true — that many politicians are lying scumbags — even though most of us have never met a real politician who will so candidly admit to this.

Artists Are Everywhere

In addition to science, the realm of journalism is an area where professionals who are supposed to be objective are instead engaged in creating art.

Take any hot-button issue in American politics today and you’ll find tension between interpretive and objective truth.

After the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, for example, conservative news media went wild when 17-year-old Parkland survivor Colton Habb alleged that a CNN producer had solicited his participation in a town hall-style discussion on gun control with politicians, only to demand that Habb limit his participation to a specific CNN-authorized question.

“It ended up being all scripted,” Habb charged.

The discussion became even more distorted when a conservative media outlet released emails between Habb’s father and CNN that appeared to show the CNN producer demanding that Habb strictly adhere to the network’s content demands. The only problem? The email had been doctored by Habb’s father, and when CNN released the actual email, it became clear that the CNN producer was simply trying to get Habb to focus on asking a single question Habb himself had written in order to get the maximum impact out of the moment and give others a turn to speak.

While frenzied reporting on the doctored email proved to be nothing more than a massive artistic flourish by the conservative news media, overall the non-story did point toward a certain truth — that much of the news, and indeed many town halls, interviews, and the like are very closely managed and monitored by show producers so that people don’t end up embarrassing themselves or the network on-air.

Given how well the doctored email seemed to fit into the existing narrative about the manipulative news media, is it any wonder that right-wingers felt Colton Habb’s story had the ring of truth?

The legal profession is yet another area where those who are supposed to pursue the truth often end up creating elaborate interpretations instead.

Take, for example, the infamous moment in 1997’s “Trial of the Century” when criminal prosecutor Chris Darden invited O.J. Simpson to try on a pair of leather gloves that were similar to ones purchased by his murdered ex-wife. The same type of gloves had been found at the murder scene, one of them blood-stained, and the prosecution made the incredibly foolish gamble to have O.J. Simpson try them on in court order to prove that he was the killer.

In front of the breathless court room, the jury, and the entire nation, O.J. approached the jury with the confidence of an innocent man and struggled valiantly to pull the gloves on past his knuckles.

“They’re too small,” Simpson said.

And just like that, in the same way a sculptor who has tapped a bit too hard with his chisel might watch his beautiful work-in-progress crumble before his very eyes, the prosecution’s case collapsed.

Was O.J. guilty of murdering his ex-wife?

The world will probably never know.

What is certain, however, is that more than just a few innocent people have been sent to jail or even executed based on the dramatic stunts and rhetoric of overzealous prosecutors who were engaged in the creation of performance art instead of the sober pursuit of justice.

It’s enough to make me wonder how many scientists, journalists, and lawyers might have made better artists than professional interpreters of facts.

Or visa versa — how many aspiring artists would have made better scientists, journalists, or lawyers.

I’m more than just a writer. Don’t bother looking for me on Twitter. This is my home at the moment.

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