Odontology Section March 2015 – Transformation: Embracing Change

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Source: Iain A Pretty, DDS, Section Chair

 “A man with conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point” – Leon Festinger; When Prophecy Fails

I was delighted when I saw President Weedn’s theme for the 68th Annual Scientific Meeting in Las Vegas, NV, Transformation: Embracing Change. There is no doubt that forensic science is a discipline subject to change and, perhaps, more so than any other science given the multitude of stakeholders involved in the delivery, utilization, and assessment of the work.

Forensic science is influenced by research results, by the judicial system, by the consumers of our work (attorneys and their clients), and by the broader political context and policy. No other science is subject to so many influences, many of which are in conflict with each other and no other science is subject to the speed of change that can be required by science presented in Court.

A single research finding, an exoneration, a Frye hearing, or the testimony of a single expert can lead to significant changes in a forensic discipline that might need to be adopted rapidly – often with little or no formal evaluation of their impact. This said, many have been critical of forensic science’s apparent slow uptake on the NAS Report and its recommendations.

However quick judicial rulings may be implemented, or top down policies imposed – science is, in the main, a slow process. The scientific method itself mandates a careful and methodical approach to generating and then testing hypotheses. Without such an approach results can be flawed and interpretation wide of the mark. Such errors can lead, in the case of forensic science, to miscarriages of justice.

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences is one vehicle for changing forensic sciences in a careful, evidenced based approach. Jointly, with the Journal of Forensic Sciences, the Academy offers a venue for researchers and practitioners to come together, exchange ideas, thoughts and findings, and, through friendly critical appraisal, determine if change is needed and if so, what that change might look like. The Academy, through its committees and the accrediting board, then offers the mechanisms by which any change can be enacted. The multidisciplinary nature of the Academy ensures that we can test the impact of change across many sections and learn from, and inform, each other. A virtuous circle perhaps.

However, this rather simplistic view of change ignores the resistance, present in almost all of us, to any disruption of the status quo. Indeed, the current climate suggests that changes in forensic sciences will tend to be ones that limit, constrain, and perhaps even dismiss certain analysis techniques or evidence. Such changes are rarely welcomed when compared to those that expand or push forward techniques. Many personal beliefs in our work are based on many years of experience, and often, a commitment to the judicial process – a real desire to help and inform. Such convictions, while admirable, can present a barrier to change. The so called “backfire effect” can be seen; when asked, we would tend to state that if presented with new facts we would alter our opinions, and incorporate the new information into our thinking and practice. The reality is that when our deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, our previously held beliefs simply get stronger.

Is it therefore essential that we consider how we not only strengthen our science through research endeavors but, also, how do we present these findings, and convince our colleagues that change may be required? And we shouldn’t merely consider change in the context of science, there are many other changes that might improve our disciplines that take place outside of scientific discourse. Of course the answer to enacting change is via effective leadership. This is not to be misinterpreted as those who we see in obvious leadership roles (although these individuals are a key part of the process) but for all of us to consider. How might we lead change in our sections to improve science, processes, membership, collegiality, public information and awareness or abstract submissions?

“Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” – Harry S Truman

This is why the theme for the 68th Annual Meeting is so apropos; our President Victor Weedn is not asking us to consider change, or think about what we might need to change, but rather to embrace change – to make the difference and to transform our science, our sections and the Academy for the better. It is no doubt a challenge, but it is one that we should all consider how we might play our part in strengthening and improving, for all, our sections and the broader forensic science community. Our section, for example, recently changed our educational requirements for promotion. We didn’t lower the bar, or bring in complex processes, we simplified things and, in doing so, we hope to make our section more accessible to people across North America and internationally. One way of encouraging change is to hear the views of many, rather than the few, and fresh thinking brings with it fresh approaches.

I do hope that 2015-16 is a year that brings changes to our respective sciences, sections, and the Academy as a whole. I have confidence in knowing that the membership and leadership will ensure that these are for the good.