Thursday, February 26, 2009

Narco-analysis, Brain Mapping and other frauds

News has just come in that S Malini, the Assistant Director of Bangalore's Forensic Science Laboratory, has been sacked after it was found that her credentials were forged. I'm not surprised at all. I've written more than once about how the narco analysis and 'brain mapping' pioneered by that facility were voodoo techniques. What's shocking is how long the media swallowed the idea that these tests were scientific, and how much credibility they were given by the judicial community. This, despite a study by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences showing that 'brain mapping' is untrustworthy; and a recent paper published by Nawaz Irani, a researcher at the forensic lab at Kalina in Bombay, which demonstrated that narco analysis is equally useless.
Some day journalists will write about how thousands of suspects were injected with drugs that caused debilitating side effects, and failed to produce any credible information for investigators. Perhaps there will even be demands for compensation filed. For the moment, I hope judges across the nation agree to an immediate moratorium on narco analysis and brain mapping till forensic scientists of proven credentials attest to their efficacy.
Here are the two columns I wrote in Time Out about the issue. The first was published in 2006, the second in 2008. Some irrelevant text has been cut out and replaced by ellipses.

Bheja Fry

It now seems standard Bombay police practice to fly the accused in high profile cases down to the Karnataka State Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Bangalore... The Bangalore lab’s USP is what the police call ‘brain mapping’...

A little digging told me that ‘brain mapping’ is a misnomer for tests conducted in Bangalore, which are more akin to ‘brain fingerprinting’. Neurologists have known for decades that seeing a familiar image triggers a characteristic, measurable neural response called a P300. An inventor named Lawrence Farwell has created a memory-detector machine based on this involuntary response. He calls the procedure brain fingerprinting. If, for instance, an accused in a homicide claims he’s never visited the victim’s house, his brain could trip him up by sending out P300 waves when shown photographs of the home’s interior. However, finding material to which only a guilty brain will respond is exceptionally difficult and has restricted the use of brain fingerprinting. In the above instance, policemen might have shown the suspect pictures of the home during questioning, or images may have appeared in the media.

To make matters murkier, it turns out that the Bangalore forensic lab doesn’t use Farwell’s patented method but a variant called Brain Electrical Activation Fingerprinting developed by Dr. C R Mukundan, formerly of NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neural Sciences). Three years ago, Mukundan received a grant of Rs.70 lakhs (bizarrely, from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting) to evolve an indigenous brain fingerprinting technique. BEAF involves recreating the crime through auditory stimuli, an extremely imprecise process which could never hope to provide unambiguous results. Unlike Farwell, who has been writing research papers for twenty years, Mukundan appears to have published nothing about BEAF’s efficacy in respected peer-reviewed journals. What he has done is to start a company called Brainex to market his unproven machine. This sounds to me like voodoo science, somewhere between herbal fuel and cold fusion.

The BEAF route is significantly more expensive than the default technique used by police, which, of course, is to beat up suspects till they say whatever cops want them to say. But I suspect it will fare as pathetically in court as forced confessions have done for years.

Forensic technology can help get many criminals convicted, but its judicious use requires well-trained, honest, professionals, which the police utterly lack. Case in point: the Marine Drive rape where, despite all circumstances being favourable, no clinching DNA evidence has been found tying constable Sunil More to the crime.

Bheja Fry Redux

In a column published two years ago, I criticised the police for their increasing reliance on ‘narco-analysis’ and brain scans in criminal investigations. Since then, two additional labs have been set up for Brain Electrical Oscillation Signature (BEOS) testing, including one in Bombay. This year, a judge in the Sewri sessions court and another in Pune accepted BEOS evidence while handing out life sentences in murder cases.

Meanwhile, the inventor of BEOS, C. R. Mukundan, has yet to publish a single paper about the technique in a peer-reviewed journal. Last year, the central government appointed a committee of six experts to probe Mukundan’s system. The committee, led by the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, D. Nagaraja, concluded that BEOS was unreliable as an investigative tool and should not be used as evidence in court. The Directorate of Forensic Sciences immediately rejected the experts’ conclusion and reaffirmed its commitment to quack technology.

When BEOS or narco-analysis are mentioned in the media, they are invariably referred to as “scientific tests’. I’d like to know what exactly is scientific about drugging people and prompting them to babble by asking leading questions. From the incoherent ramblings thus produced, officers pick and choose what they please. Arun Ferreira, accused of links with radical left wing groups, stated Naxalism in Maharashtra was being funded by Bal Thackeray. Naturally, this revelation was ignored. The police wouldn’t touch Bal Thackeray if he invited top Naxals for dinner and wrote them a cheque before a dozen cameras. In the Aarushi Talwar murder investigation, on the other hand, the dope-induced confession of Dr. Talwar’s compounder Krishna led to the arrest of two other underlings, Rajkumar and Vijay Mandal. Both revealed their guilt while under the influence of Sodium Pentothal and in a lab with electrodes attached to their skulls. Unfortunately, the police ended up with no hard evidence of any kind and couldn’t even file a chargesheet in the stipulated period.

If they’d stuck to established forensic tools like fingerprinting and DNA matching, they could have charged or absolved the trio with authority. DNA profiling is not something outlandish from episodes of CSI, it’s incredibly easy and inexpensive. A town near Tel Aviv uses it to fine dog owners who fail to clean up behind their pets. All pooches are brought in for mouth swabs, creating a database against which unscooped poop is compared.

Perhaps the most novel defence of narco-analysis has come from IPS officer turned civil rights activist Y. P. Singh. He argues it reduces the chance of detainees being tortured for information. Isn’t that a great option to give arrested suspects in a liberal democracy: do you want your body bashed or your brain addled? I believe the investigating officer usually fills in the answer: both of the above.


Karun said...

Interesting to see that the courts actually took note of the evidence.

I used to be under the impression that results of narco tests were not admissible in court. And were instead used to gather clues which the investigating agencies could follow up on to gather evidence which was admissible.

Girish Shahane said...

Karun, The judgments I mention admitted 'evidence' gathered during brain fingerprinting.
Here's the link:

DS said...

This whole episode is so the liar leading the liar leading the liar... with apologies to Breughel.

Like you , and I remember yr previous column, find this whole narco testing dubious anyway and by no means shd results fr these tests be admissible in courts ever.

Girish Shahane said...

And some detainees have been put through narco six or seven times! With the permission of a judge each time. You'd know better than me how the procedure can affect the brain, particularly if administered repeatedly by an unqualified person.

Yusuke said...

This article is so interesting, and surprise me.
I want to know and check this topic in detail,
and especially about BEOS.

You said that Dr.Mukundan published a single paper about BEOS testing.

I have looked for the paper, but haven't find out the article and related ones.

So, could you mind telling me the title of a paper and URL from which we can download?

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks, Yusuke. I wrote that, as far as I can tell, Dr.Mukundan has yet to publish a single paper on his technique in a peer reviewed journal. Which means he has NOT published anything on BEOS to the best of my knowledge.

Yusuke said...

Thanks to quick response, Girish Shahane.
OK. That is also good news for me.

If you find some related article some time, please pick up that topic if possible.

Anyway, I thank you for your kindness!

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to see how educated people are so misinformed about the way the law works.
Forensic Labs are not controlled by the police. They work independently and are usually honest people, you wont find them minting money like the police.
Just because there is one rotten apple represented by the Bangalore Lab, it does not make all of them bad.
If cases fail, it is usually because the cops have not been taught to handle evidence, or scan crime scenes.
Spend some time, read the real judgments, and you will find people getting off on technicalities.
"The evidence was not sealed"
"The evidence was not collected in time"
"The paper work was not made properly"
It is a different question if these failures are planted or are genuine mistakes.
The Judicial system operates on technicalities. If the cops dont get the documents right the case falls apart.
Or one court will sentence the person to silence the media, and 6 months later the higher court next acquits the person. And the other way too.
New technologies will keep evolving - Thankfully.
Else the police would have to keep beating people up to get information.
Is that what people want ?
Be more pragmatic about science, and encourage its use. Just because you dont understand something it does not make it Voodoo. Feels like some people still live in the medieval era.
Learn more about the judicial system, and law, and how people really get acquitted.
Dont trust reporters. 99% of the time they lie, and misrepresent facts. Anything to make a headline.
People should push for more autonomy of the legal and forensic system.
More accountability of the media.
In 100% of the cases i have seen in the news, the reports in the papers and the actual judgments or findings differ - why ?
As long as there are educated people who dont think beyond what they read on a website, or a newspaper, this country is doomed to failure.
Of course the media is responsible too. They would sell their mothers to make a headline, like what we saw in the mumbai attacks, and with india tv.
Most reporters dont know the difference between narco and other techniques.
It is well known that developed countries also use Narco clandestinely. Do a small search on the internet. Of course that does not make it right, and its rampant use should be stopped, but it may still be needed in cases of National interest.
Learn, educate yourself on the subject - then comment.

Girish Shahane said...

You have not said a single thing that actually responds to or negates with proof what I have written. Just a series of general comments with no evidence to back them up. Typical.

Anonymous said...

When most facts in the articles are wrong, what Proof can be presented :)

The Bangalore Lab uses the Lawrence Farewell P300 technique - They call it Brain Mapping, and it has nothing to do with BEOS - even remotely - So this Fact/Proof stated is wrong !!

Grants - Check with the ministry about grants provided 3 years ago and to whom - you wont find any in this area. There was a grant provided 10 years ago to the Bangalore Lab (not to any person - catch our govt doing that), and nothing after that. So this Fact/Proof stated is also wrong !!

Which case has treated Lie Detection / BEOS as evidence ? check the Judgement of the pune case (it is available online too). The Judge specifically calls these technologies - links, and not material evidence. Read the court judgments to know what really happens in these cases, you will find the media is off the mark most of the time, and misrepresent the cases to sensationalize them.
Eg recently the convict in the Pune case was granted bail, as the material evidence was not sealed properly - which is a procedural technicality, what did the media report - that forensic tests failed. Who wants to know if some clerk somewhere forgot to sign a register, make is sound good dudes. Interesting isnt it. No wonder they call it trial by media.
One more Fact/Proof stated which is wrong.

Please give us links to the papers published by Dr Farwell - you seem to know a lot about him, have you really checked, try harder you will learn many interesting facts ? Everyone has been looking for these so called papers by Dr Farwell. Just because a foreigner puts up a website, and makes CLAIMS - will you believe anything he says? Typical.
A search for Mukundan EEG reveals he has even written a book on his technology, and published several papers over the past decades.

Will have to check on this committee thing, but knowing NIMHANS, they don't do any work in this area, and have not expertise in it - so is there a real report out there, who were the committee members ? were they qualified ? did they participate in the study ? then sign the report and publish it ? Were the findings examined ? Or is it just another printout floating around :) we see lots of them dont we .. What do we know about Committees in India, and when are they made. They must have wanted something. Think a little.

The fact that you choose to club Narco with Lie detection indicates a lot.

What more Proof needs to be negated ?

Positive informed journalism can make a big difference in society. But i suppose when people get paid by the word, articles better be long and very very sensational.

Try not to color everything under the umbrella of Narco - if possible - of course it may not pay as much per word, or may even get rejected for being too mundane.

Girish Shahane said...

Your thinking is so muddled, I don't even know if it is worth responding, but I'll play along for now.

1) 'Brain Mapping' is the phrase used internationally for a procedure of neuroimaging, usually involving MRI. The Bangalore technique does not produce an image of the brain, so it is INCORRECT to refer to that as 'brain mapping' as is regularly done in the media. If you'd actually bothered to read those columns I reproduced, this is all explained.
2) You say that Mukundan's research has nothing to do with BEOS. Here are links to the MAN HIMSELF speaking of his BEOS technique:

You see, this is how evidence is presented. You have done none of this in your two rambling notes.

3)Of course the judge does not call BEOS material evidence. If you knew what material evidence is, you would understand why. But he does take the results into account in coming to his final conclusion, which is dangerous since the procedure is entirely useless.

4) You want papers by Dr.Farwell. here is a list of papers he has published:

5) Now, similarly, instead of merely asserting that Mukundan has published several papers in the past (I never said he hadn't), please show me evidence of ONE SINGLE paper he has published ABOUT HIS CONTROVERSIAL TECHNIQUE in an established PEER REVIEWED PUBLICATION. The papers you refer to are about other issues.

6) The top neuroscientists in India rubbish Mukundan's work after a thorough study, and you airily dismiss their report because they 'have no expertise' in this area. Which area are you talking about? If you are speaking of Mukundan's particular branch of interest, NOBODY has expertise in it because it is voodoo science. It's like saying no IIT engineers are qualified to judge the efficacy of herbal petrol because none of them has worked in that area. You clearly don't understand how peer review is carried out.

7) I club together Narco, lie detection and brain fingerprinting because they are clubbed together by the police and media as 'scientific techniques'.

8) Being paid by the word: actually, those columns are less than 500 words each. I always had to condense my argument to fit the word length, so the bit about being 'very long' is garbage, like your other assertions.

I'm not trying to 'colour' anything. I'm out there, putting my name to what I write, providing specific evidence to back it up. You do none of those things. Unless you bolster your claims with actual links (if you don't know how that is done, check above), this conversation is over.

Aditya - Kidsworld said...

Interesting. But this is the bets and light method to dig out the truth.