Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cognition in the Wild

My posts usually attempt to impart some kind of pseudo-wisdom to unwitting students thinking of doing a PhD. Now I just want to tell you about a freakin’ awesome time I had.

I do basic cognitive psychology research in a lab on human identification of complex visual patterns. But I also try to make it so my findings can be applied in the wild. It turns out that fingerprints are a kind of complex visual pattern and, contrary to what you see on CSI, it’s a human fingerprint expert who decides whether a crime-scene print belongs to a suspect or not.

But, despite its 100 year history, there have been no properly controlled experiments on the identification accuracy of fingerprint examiners. They have even claimed to be infallible, but mistakes made to date have resulted in innocent people being wrongly accused. So, in my PhD, I’m trying to determine how accurate fingerprint examiners are and explore the psychology that affects matching accuracy.

Off the back of this, I was invited by some lawyers to a workshop to help figure out what forensic examiners should be claiming in court and even how best to present their claims to the jury. It was all expenses paid with fine wine, food and my own beach view room in Sydney. I was the only kid in the group and felt privileged to be there.

As Katie said last week, it’s hard to say no (even when you probably should be focusing on your research). But in this case, I just couldn’t resist ;-)

My Sydney view. Lawyers sure know how to spend their money.

Matt Thompson
(Post title stolen from Ed Hutchins)

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