Barbara Spellman

Challenges to reasoning in forensic science decisions

CO-AUTHORS Heidi Eldridge and Paul Bieber
Forensic Science International: Synergy

UVA Law Faculty Affiliations


The success of forensic science depends heavily on human reasoning abilities. Although we typically navigate our lives well using those abilities, decades of psychological science research shows that human reasoning is not always rational. In addition, forensic science often demands that its practitioners reason in non-natural ways. This article addresses how characteristics of human reasoning (either specific to an individual or in general) and characteristics of situations (either specific to a case or in general in a lab) can contribute to errors before, during, or after forensic analyses. In feature comparison judgments, such as fingerprints or firearms, a main challenge is to avoid biases from extraneous knowledge or arising from the comparison method itself. In causal and process judgments, for example fire scenes or pathology, a main challenge is to keep multiple potential hypotheses open as the investigation continues. Considering the contributions to forensic science judgments by persons, situations, and their interaction, reveals ways to develop procedures to decrease errors and improve accuracy.


Barbara A. Spellman, Heidi Eldridge & Paul Bieber, Challenges to reasoning in forensic science decisions, 4 Forensic Science International: Synergy 1–18 (2022).

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