Thursday, November 01, 2012

Only Human

I realize that this is not a very timely post, but I've been thinking off and on about one of our local running news stories, of Annie Dookhan, the forensic chemist arrested last month for falsifying data. If you missed it, she had worked in one of the state's drug labs, and managed to deliver an unbelievable amount of throughput, with an astounding number of positives to a starved organization. Massachusetts is now re-investigating hundreds of drug cases, and has already overturned a few dozen convictions. They're calling it a scandal, but having worked in at least one place like that, and being married to someone who's been working in an equivalent medical industry position for a few years, the whole situation seems tragic, but it doesn't seem terribly shocking. Not so much a scandal, as an inevitable artifact of institutional mandates, in this case on behalf of the ever-awful War on Drugs. I'd call all the re-investigation unfortunate, but frankly, I'm happy that these people can get this overturned.

Character is part of her story, although all I can really do is speculate about Dookhan herself. By all reports, she was a studious sort, a person who had a habit of quietly applying herself. She did well on tests, didn't miss a homework assignment, but didn't draw a lot of attention. She'd apparently been going through some personal issues, but even before that, she already had a reputation for churning out a much higher level of test output than her colleagues. One of them called her "Superwoman." My thought is that she was mostly doing what she saw as her job, and wasn't a creative enough (or empathetic enough) thinker to work through the consequences.  I also suspect that her supervisors and coworkers had some idea that something was amiss, but had little incentive to call her on it.

Workaday analytical chemistry doesn't normally require many serious judgement calls. The method is to turn around as many tests in as short a time, and with as much accuracy, as possible. Someone can be smart in terms of manipulating complex machines and in terms of processing numerical test data to efficiently generate results, but it doesn't necessarily require much wisdom of interpretation. Absent any kind of habitual check or cultural pressure for accuracy, then someone like Dookhan can flourish in an analytical environment by just appearing to be conscientious. And when there's a backlog, or when the lab isn't sufficiently staffed (or sufficiently equipped) to meet test demand, then second thoughts don't thrive. Anyone who calls attention to flaws or otherwise slows down the system had better do so only with damn good reason.

The medical labs don't seem so bad, if you were worried. Even if sloppy work ever gets done on suspect machines, confirming trials are routine, and there's not any particular pressure to produce one result over another. That doesn't say that everyone working in there is thinking in an abstract way about what getting things right will mean to the patients (although my wife is one of those people)--they're often just focused on the task level--but there are some safeguards for medical testing. Other industries or companies are not the same.  When there is pressure to go one way, and when there's little or no consequences to getting it wrong, then things can easily go much differently. I worked one college summer in a QC lab for a small chemical retailer (which I won't name; evidently they are still somehow in business). Our job in that environment was, explicitly, to provide an "inspected" label so that customers could be reassured they weren't receiving a pile of degraded shit. Which they often enough were. Our analyses were cursory (and if no physical data were available, then we'd call down lab manager "Elsa" to tell us "oh, yeah, that's okay," and that's what would go into our notebook), and would only get rejected if it was real obvious garbage, and in that case one of the more senior chemists would recrystallize or distill it and sell it anyway. There, the pressure was to get stuff out the door, regardless of quality, and that is what we did. In the drug lab, I doubt that falsifying tests was encouraged, but on the other hand, turning out positives is simply what they were paid to do.

It's good to remember what are the actual interests of the employers when it comes to judging scandal. Often enough, people working in the trenches have no encouragement whatsoever to redirect the organization. It was a common theme on The Wire (gather so many arrests); it's sometimes used as a sharp criticism of politics and journalism, and of advertiser-funded media; this is one of the best-articulated examples of employers interest in recent memory. It's a common refrain: be aware of who is paying these people, and what are their goals.

Also, it gets me all skeptical of science education as a route to real impartial science philosophy (thanks, Arch).  Yes, I absolutely think that we're better off when we value training in the natural sciences over training in less empirical fields, and I've said so often enough. But that's not to say it's a panacea. It doesn't necessarily lead to critical thinking. Or to better understanding of each other.  Technical education gets us Annie Dookhans too.


Michael said...

Wow. If there are really 136,000 criminal cases that need to be reviewed, $8.72million isn't going to cover 18 months of litigation.

Keifus said...

I feel bad in a way, in that she appears to be someone who was really just nudged out of her depth. On the other hand, people went to jail because of that.

I don't think all the cases rode, necessarily, on the drug evidence (they've reported that many were actually convicted for violent crimes). I don't have any idea if that really speeds up the review.

Michael said...

I would think that there would have been a disproportionately large number of defendants who were screaming that the tests were false positives or something. Maybe they don't track who is doing which tests, and therefore wouldn't have noticed that the disputed cases were trending heavily towards her tests.

Knowing a thing or two about lawyers myself, I'm tempted to predict that those convicted of violent crimes will move for a mistrial anyway. They biased the jury! (or the judge)

There's a meningitis shot in here somewhere, but I'll pass out of respect for those people.

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