By adopting the trappings of science, the forensic disciplines co-opted science’s authority while abandoning its methods.
These overblown and largely imaginary numbers—and forensic testimony offered with the certainty O’Neil claimed—are dangerous, because they give a false sense of scientific precision to juries and contribute to wrongful convictions. When examiners testify that they can make a match “to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty,” they are making what sounds like a statistical statement. Dr. Searls’s point was that they hadn’t done the studies required to back up such a statement, so there was no way for O’Neil to support his claims—the “match” was simply what he subjectively judged to be true.
The fact is that it takes time to measure time; the challenge of Olympic timing through the decades has been to make that measurement as quickly as possible. Watches capable of discerning hundredths of a second were in regular use in the Olympics by 1948. But what good is such refinement if, when an athlete crosses the finish line, the judge drops a tenth of a second or more merely clicking the stopwatch? (Human thought takes time to propagate and enact, too.) The weakness of this link became terribly apparent during the 1960 Summer Olympics, in Rome, when two swimmers, the American Lance Larson and the Australian John Devitt, seemingly tied in the hundred-metre freestyle. A half-dozen judges, peering through the waves at the finish, reached a stalemate: three declared Larson the winner, the other three Devitt. Though Omega’s stopwatches indicated that Larson had the faster time, by at least a tenth of a second, a referee broke the tie and awarded Devitt gold.
Some observations are unsubtle and the metaphors are occasionally overcooked. But these are forgivable blips in a book with the compassion to capture the loneliness of a trans woman with AIDS who rides the subway at rush hour to feel the warmth of “human bodies all against her”, and the sensuousness to convey the beauty of young gay lovers mimicking Fred and Ginger on a hot rooftop as the sun sets. The New York of “The House of Impossible Beauties” may not warrant much nostalgia, but it is a moving place to visit.
People move in and out of the narrative with their own baggage and preoccupations. What they choose to tell us is very subjective and not always directly relevant, and this clamor of voices gives the novel satisfying depth and texture. There’s a sense here that we’re brushing up against many lives, many versions of the truth.