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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.


Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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Why don’t we learn from our mistakes – even when it matters most?

Juan Rivera served ten years of prison time until DNA evidence overturned his sentence. But even now, some maintain his guilt.

On the afternoon of 17 August 1992, an 11-year-old girl called Holly Staker walked from her home to a neighbour’s apartment in Waukegan, a small town in Illinois. She had been asked to babysit two children, a girl aged two and a boy of five. By 8pm Holly was dead. An unidentified intruder had broken into the apartment, violently raped her, and stabbed her 27 times. The local police force pursued 600 leads and interviewed 200 people, but within a few weeks the trail had run cold.

Then, through the testimony of a jailhouse informant, police happened upon a new suspect: Juan Rivera, a 19-year-old man who lived a few miles south of the murder scene. Over four days, Rivera, who had a history of psychological problems, was subjected to a gruelling examination by the Lake County Task Force. At one point it seemed to get too much for Rivera. Officers saw him pulling out a clump of hair and banging his head on the wall.

On the third day, as the interviewers’ tone became aggressive, Rivera finally nodded his head when asked if he had committed the crime. By this time, his hands and feet were tied together, and he was confined to a padded cell. On the basis of his confession, police prepared a statement for Rivera to sign.

There were no witnesses to the crime. There was no physical evidence. But there was a brutally murdered young girl, a community still in mourning, and that signed confession. The jury didn’t take long to make up their minds. Rivera was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Many journalists who covered the case were uneasy. They could see that the case hinged on the confession of a disturbed young man, who had retracted hours after signing it. But the police and prosecutors felt vindicated. It had been a troubling crime. A man had been sentenced. Holly’s family could find closure.

Or could they?


Eight years earlier, in 1984, Alec Jeffreys, a British scientist, had the insight that would lead to DNA fingerprinting – a technique that would transform the criminal justice system. In the absence of contamination, and provided the test is administered correctly, the odds of two unrelated people having matching DNA is roughly one in a billion. In certain cases, such as rape, it would in time be possible to identify the attacker conclusively, based on DNA extracted from the crime scene. After all, if the police swabbed the sperm found in the victim, they could narrow the number of potential suspects to just one. This is why DNA fingerprinting has helped to secure thousands of convictions – it has a unique power in establishing guilt.

But it also has implications for cases that have already been tried: the power to exonerate. If the DNA from the sperm in a rape victim has been stored, and if it does not match that of the person serving time in prison, the conclusion is difficult to deny: it came from a different man, the real criminal.

In August 1989, just months after DNA fingerprinting technology became advanced enough for use in the criminal justice system, Gary Dotson, who had been convicted of a 1977 rape in Chicago, was released from jail, having consistently proclaimed his innocence. Underwear worn by the victim had been sent for DNA testing, which showed that the semen belonged to a different man. Dotson had served more than ten years in jail.

The first DNA exoneration in the UK involved Michael Shirley, a young sailor who had been convicted of the rape and murder of Linda Cook, a barmaid working in Portsmouth, in December 1986. A simple DNA test performed in 2001, after police finally admitted they had stored swabs from the crime, proved that the semen found in the victim did not belong to Shirley. He had served 16 years at the time of his release.

By 2005, in the United States alone, the convictions of more than 300 people had been overturned following DNA tests. It seemed that the criminal justice system was getting it wrong repeatedly. In situations where evidence had been kept, clients of the Innocence Project, an American charity that helps prisoners who say they were wrongfully convicted, were exonerated in almost half the cases. A study led by Samuel R Gross, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, concluded: “If we reviewed prison sentences with the same level of care that we devote to death sentences, there would have been over 28,500 non-death-row exonerations [in the US] in the past 15 years rather than the 255 that have in fact occurred.”

At that point, Juan Rivera, the man convicted of killing Holly Staker, had been in jail for almost 13 years. His lawyers decided to apply for a DNA test. It hadn’t been performed at the trial because techniques were not, at that time, sufficiently advanced to analyse very small samples of tissue. When the results came back they were conclusive: the semen found inside Holly Staker did not belong to Rivera.

He was yet another victim of wrongful conviction.


When a system produces an error, it is a tragedy for the person on the wrong side of the mistake. But it is also a precious learning opportunity, a chance to figure out what went wrong, and make reforms to the system to ensure that the same mistakes don’t happen again.

Aviation is a powerful model in this respect. Every plane is equipped with two black boxes, which record vital information. If an accident occurs, these boxes are recovered, the failure analysed, and reforms implemented. Pilots report near-miss events, too, which are statistically analysed in order to help prevent accidents.

In 1912, eight of the 14 qualified US army pilots died in crashes. In 2014, the accident rate for major airlines had dropped to just one crash for every 8.3 million take-offs. That’s the power of learning from mistakes.

Broadly speaking, this is how science works. Scientists make testable predictions; when these fail, the theories are reformed. As the philosopher Karl Popper put it: “The history of science . . . is a history . . . of error. But science is one of the very few human activities – perhaps the only one – in which errors are systematically criticised and fairly often, in time, corrected. This is why . . . we can speak clearly and sensibly about making progress there.”

But there is a practical problem with adopting this model of progress. Many people don’t like to admit to their mistakes. They do not meet their failures with intellectual honesty and a willingness to understand what went wrong, but with back covering and defensiveness. This has a simple consequence: if mistakes are not learned from, they will be made again and again. And again.

In his famous studies of “cognitive dissonance” in the 1950s, the sociologist Leon Festinger discovered the array of tactics used by people to spin, reframe and cover up their mistakes. A classic example involved a small group of cult members. They had left their families to live with a housewife called “Marian Keech” (real name: Dorothy Martin), who had predicted the world would end before dawn on 21 December 1954. She had also prophesied that the members of the cult would be saved from the looming apocalypse by a spaceship that would land at Keech’s small house in suburban Minnesota at midnight.

Neither the apocalypse nor the spaceship materialised (Keech’s husband, who was a non-believer, had gone to his bedroom and slept through the whole thing). This was an unambiguous failure. Keech had said the world would end, and that a spaceship would save true believers. Neither had happened. The cult members could have responded by altering their beliefs about Keech’s supernatural insights.

Instead, they altered the “evidence”. At first, the cult members kept checking outside to see if the spaceship had landed. Then, as the clock ticked past midnight, they became sullen and bemused. Ultimately, however, they became defiant. Just as Festinger had predicted before he infiltrated the cult, the faith of hardcore members was unaffected by what should have been a crushing disappointment. In fact, their faith seemed to grow stronger.

How is this possible? As Festinger recounted in his book When Prophecy Fails, first published in 1956, they simply redefined the failure. “The godlike figure is so impressed with our faith that he has decided to give the planet a second chance,” they proclaimed (I am paraphrasing only a little). “We saved the world!” Far from abandoning the cult, members went out on a recruitment drive. As Festinger put it: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” They were “jubilant”.

This may sound bizarre, but it is, in fact, commonplace. Festinger showed that this behaviour, though seemingly extreme, provides an insight into psychological mechanisms that are universal. When we are confronted with evidence that challenges our deeply held beliefs we are more likely to reframe the evidence than we are to alter our beliefs. We simply invent new reasons, new justifications, new explanations. Sometimes we ignore the evidence altogether.

Think, for example, of health care. In her book After Harm, published in 2005, the American researcher Nancy Berlinger investigated how doctors reframe their mistakes. “Observing more senior physicians, students learn that their mentors and supervisors believe in, practise and reward the concealment of errors,” she wrote. “They learn how to talk about unanticipated outcomes until a ‘mistake’ morphs into a ‘complication’. Above all, they learn not to tell the patient anything.”

This is partly about fear of litigation, but also about the protecting ego. Think of the language associated with senior physicians. Surgeons work in a “theatre”. This is the stage where they “perform”. How dare they fluff their lines? As the safety expert James Reason put it: “After a long education, you are expected to get it right. The consequence is that medical errors are marginalised and stigmatised.”

But if doctors do not learn from their mistakes, they are destined to repeat them. A report by the UK National Audit Office in 2005 estimated that up to 34,000 people are killed each year as a result of human error in the health-care system. It put the overall number of patient incidents (fatal and non-fatal) at 974,000. In the US, annually, 400,000 people die because of preventable error in hospitals alone. That is the equivalent of two jumbo jets crashing every day.

Another example is economics. In 2010, a group of influential thinkers, including Michael J Boskin, a former chairman of the US president’s Council of Economic Advisers, and the historian Niall Ferguson, wrote an open letter to the chairman of the Federal Reserve. The signatories were worried that a second tranche of quantitative easing would “risk currency debasement and inflation” and “distort financial markets”. The letter was published in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.

At the time, inflation was running at 1.5 per cent, but what happened in the aftermath? Did inflation soar? In fact, by December 2014, inflation had not merely stayed at historically low levels, but had fallen to 0.8 per cent (soon after that, it fell into negative territory). The US economy was creating jobs at a fast rate, too, while unemployment had dropped and companies were reporting record profits.

This was a stark error in prediction, an opportunity to revise theoretical assumptions (just as mistakes in medicine provide an opportunity to revise procedures). But the signatories saw it differently. David Malpass, a deputy assistant secretary to the Treasury under Ronald Reagan, said “the letter was correct as stated”. John Taylor, an economics professor, said: “The letter mentioned many things – the risk of inflation . . . to employment . . . – and all have happened.”

Again, like revered clinicians, these prestigious thinkers could not bear that they had got things wrong. So, instead of learning from their mistake, they spun it. Some of the signatories came up with detailed graphs and tables to show that they were right all along.

Consider that if inflation had soared, they would have claimed this as a vindication for their prediction (as the cult members would have said the apocalypse had materialised). Yet these eminent thinkers also claimed vindication when inflation fell (just like the cult members when the spaceship didn’t turn up). Heads I win; tails I don’t lose.

And this is why it is the social pundits with the most prestigious reputations – as measured by how often they tour the television studios – who often make the worst predictions. They have the most to lose from mistakes and are therefore the most likely to come up with ex post explanations for why they were right all along. And because these pundits are clever, their rationalisations sound plausible.

But it is also why they don’t learn from their mistakes. After all, if you can’t admit when you are wrong, how can you ever put things right?


This brings us back to the criminal justice system. Many of these DNA cases show unequivocal failures. They demonstrate almost beyond doubt that mistakes were made by the police, prosecution and courts. This should have led to an acknowledgement of error, and meaningful reform. In fact, the astonishing thing is not that the system – or at least the people behind it – learned, but the extent to which it continued to evade and deny.

When the DNA results came back for Juan Rivera, state prosecutors offered a new story to account for the evidence – a very different story from the one that they had presented at the original trial. Holly, an 11-year-old child, had had consensual sex with a lover a few hours before the attack, prosecutors claimed. This accounted for the semen. And Rivera? He had happened upon Holly after intercourse had taken place, and murdered her.

“It was a grotesque way of squaring the new evidence with their unshakeable belief that Rivera was guilty,” Steven Art, one of the jailed man’s lawyers, told me. “But it was also totally inconsistent with the overwhelming evidence that Holly had been raped, quite brutally. There were signs of vaginal and anal trauma and stab wounds in her genitals.”

The prosecutor’s new story may have seemed outlandish, but the consequences were very real. Rivera was not released from prison for another six years. “I got stabbed twice and endured three attempted rapes,” he told me during a phone interview last year. “People wanted to hurt me; they thought that I was a child rapist. But perhaps the toughest thing of all was knowing that I was innocent.”

Rivera’s experience was far from unusual. The vast majority of exonerations through DNA evidence were met with breathtaking obstruction. Nothing seemed to budge prosecutors from their conviction that the man who had been sent to prison was guilty. Even after the test had been performed. Even after the conviction had been overturned. Even after the prisoner had been released from jail.

The problem was not the strength of the evidence, which was often overwhelming; it was the psychological difficulty in accepting it.

The process often took a distinctive path. First the prosecutors would try to deny access to DNA evidence. When that strategy was batted away, and the test excluded the convict as the source of the DNA, they would claim that it had not been carried out correctly. This didn’t last long, either, because when the test was redone it would invariably come back with the same result. The next stage in rape cases was for the prosecutor to argue that the semen belonged to a different man who was not the murderer. In other words, the victim had consensual sex with another man, but was subsequently raped by the prisoner, who used a condom.

The presence of an entirely new man, not mentioned at the initial trial, for whom there were no eyewitnesses, and who the victim often couldn’t remember having sex with, may seem like a desperate ploy to evade the evidence. But it has been used so often that it has been given a name by defence lawyers: “the unindicted co-ejaculator”.

In an adversarial system you would expect any new evidence secured by the defence to be looked at with healthy scepticism by prosecutors. You would expect them to give it scrutiny and to look at the wider context to be sure it stacks up. But in case after case, the sense of denial from prosecutors and police went a lot further.

And this explains, in turn, why the system was making so many mistakes. Proper investigation into wrongful convictions by the Innocence Project in recent years has discovered profound weaknesses in forensic science, police detection methods, eyewitness testimony and more. If these investigations had taken place earlier, and reforms been introduced, untold suffering could have been averted. But these opportunities were missed repeatedly, on both sides of the Atlantic.

This is why legal campaigners argue that the most robust way to improve the system, so as to reduce wrongful convictions and simultaneously increase rightful convictions, is to establish innocence commissions. These are independent bodies, mandated to investigate wrongful convictions and to recommend reforms, along the lines of air accident investigation teams. As of publication, only 11 states in the US had such commissions.

In the UK, a reform commission of sorts was set up in 1995 after a series of spectacular miscarriages of justice, including the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. The Criminal Cases Review Commission, an independent body, has the authority to refer questionable verdicts to the Court of Appeal. Between 1997 and the end of October 2013 it referred 538 cases in total.

Of these, 70 per cent succeeded at appeal.


More than 20 years after Juan Rivera was sentenced, a DNA test was conducted on a bloodstained piece of timber that had been used in a different murder. In January 2000, a man called Delwin Foxworth, who also lived in Lake County, was beaten savagely with a plank, doused with gasoline and set on fire. He died of his injuries, having suffered burns over 80 per cent of his body.

The DNA of the blood found on the wood matched that of the semen found in Holly Staker. Police are now almost certain that the man who got away with the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in 1992 went on to commit another murder eight years later. Foxworth may be yet another victim of the wrongful conviction of Juan Rivera; it allowed the real culprit to get away with it, and kill again. (The murderer has never been found.)

But what about those who were responsible for sending Rivera to jail? How do they feel about it today? Perhaps it should come as no surprise that even now many remain convinced of his guilt. In October 2014, Charles Fagan, an investigator who helped obtain Rivera’s confessions, was asked if he still believed that he committed the murder. “I think so,” he told a local newspaper.

And what of the prosecutors? Even after Rivera was released, Lake County lawyers wanted to put him back on trial. Only with a further conviction would they be able to say that they had been right all along. Only with a conviction could they quell their dissonance. Rivera walking around free was like an accusation against their competence.

It was left to the Illinois Appellate Court to take what might otherwise seem to be an astonishing step: it barred Lake County from ever prosecuting Juan Rivera for the murder of Holly Staker again.

Matthew Syed’s latest book is “Black Box Thinking: the Surprising Truth About Success” (John Murray)

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain