U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks at the American Academy of Forensic Science plenary session Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. (Photo: Seth Augenstein)

SEATTLE — Facts are all-important in the pursuit of truth and justice, said Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. deputy attorney general, in remarks to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences plenary session Wednesday morning.

The Department of Justice is proceeding with a series of initiatives to improve the empirical foundations of forensic sciences, Rosenstein told the AAFS membership in the biggest meeting of the week-long conference in Seattle. (The AAFS says the total registration as of Wednesday night for the conference is nearly 3,200 people.)

“The new measures will advance the practice of reliable and responsible forensic science in federal courts,” said Rosenstein, who has been in the national limelight in part because of the ongoing federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. “Our Department is committed to leading by example.”

The DOJ is moving forward with several initiatives to improve forensic standards, he announced.

The Council of Federal Forensic Laboratory Directors will be reinstituted with a completely new charter, and begin meeting in May.

The “Uniform Language” standards for federal court testimony, as proposed last year, are beginning to emerge. The first document, guiding the expert testimony of latent fingerprint examiners, is now available, with more to come.

All courtroom testimony by Department experts will be “robustly” monitored for being up to date and in line with current scientific principles, the deputy AG added.

In addition, the DOJ’s laboratories will be posting their quality management standards online, Rosenstein said. 

“We realize that scientific knowledge must be constantly advanced by those who seek the truth,” said Rosenstein in his remarks. “As our knowledge of nature advances, the writings that reflect our current state of that knowledge need to change.”

The initiatives come in the wake of the decision of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to disband the National Commission on Forensic Science last April. That move was celebrated by some in the forensic community, but derided by others as a “step backward.”

But Rosenstein also addressed what he termed a general willful blindness toward facts in the U.S., he said. Combating misinformation is not limited to so-called fake news—it also extends to the crime scenes and forensic laboratories of America, Rosenstein said.

“In a world that is sometimes buried in a blizzard of conflicting opinions cast as facts, it is easy to fall prey to confirmation bias. But people who seek the truth always remain open to the possibility that it may not match anyone’s preconceptions,” said Rosenstein. “Fair-minded investigators must never reach a conclusion first and ignore contradictory facts.”

The plenary session’s other speakers at the 70th annual meeting focused on the scientific rigor of forensic science. Itiel Dror, a neuroscience researcher from University College London, spoke about how presupposing facts of cases can lead to a “cognitive contamination” every bit as damaging to an investigation as the physical variety. Rush Holt, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and former New Jersey congressman, urged the scientists in the crowd to “prevent a retreat from good thinking” in the reform of forensic science.

“The traditional American reverence for evidence is eroding,” Holt lamented.

“Many people passionately believe things that just are not true,” added Rosenstein.