Surprise - Criminal Profilers Got It Wrong?

I stopped watching the news about the Washington D.C. sniper before the story had even really begun to bloom because I knew that the cable news channels were going to blow it with ridiculous speculation. Why not, I thought, devote every half hour to the sniper and the rest to the bombings in Bali or other world events? But no one listened to me.

So now the post-mortems of the media are starting to come out and the criticisms are focusing on the complete failure of the profilers to pick out the real culprits. The Washington Post summarizes it well:

Almost everything the sniper “profilers” and pundits told the media over the past three weeks turns out to have been off the mark, considering the very real profiles of the two people arrested early yesterday. The men and women who had been described on the air and in print as “forensic psychologists” and “former FBI investigators” took many swings at the who and why of the sniper case – and mostly missed.

About their failure I completely agree, but later in the article they attribute the problem to a cause I have to question.

Criminal profilers may be the logical outgrowths of a society that believes that all of human reality can be quantified, a culture that has a touching faith in the truth-revealing ability of statistical analysis.

It’s part of the same belief system that has given us governance by polls, insurance by actuarial tables, newspapers by readership surveys and just about everything else by focus groups. It has also given us criminal investigation by number-crunching spreadsheets and computer-enhanced conjecture.

To me the belief in profilers is the opposite of a trend toward science or statistics. The profiler as portrayed by the media is the updated detective - a lone rational figure in a world gone mad who is capable of understanding the mind of the killer. In shows like Profiler or movies like The Silence of the Lambs the profiler never uses science or statistics to solve the case, he or she uses their intuition and their “understanding” of the killer. It’s psychic powers clothed in the guise of rationality. There is no quantification in the pronouncements of the profilers I’ve seen on TV, it is all qualities and vagueness.

The real source of the problem is the media and it’s unending appetite for blather. Of course this criticism may never see the day since MSNBC was congratulating itself last Friday.