Friday, 30 January 2015

Naming Jack The Ripper: A case study in bad science

Naming Jack the RipperNaming Jack the Ripper by Russell Edwards
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Beginning at the end of the 2014 news story that underpins this book, Dr Louelainen - Russell's Edwards's scientific associate - made a scientific error in recording and analyzing DNA analysis results. The scarf that is the star of this book cannot in fact be linked by DNA to the Riper victim Catherine Eddowes.

I pre-ordered this book on my Kindle and read it cover to cover inside seven hours.

`Naming Jack the Ripper' is over 300 pages in length and fairly well trips along with background details of the Ripper's killings, the times he murdered in and the unfortunate social circumstances of his victims. At face value, I very much like the book and I like the author's voice. Its well written and will undoubtedly sell well.

The story in this book is essentially that the author - Russell Edwards, who is a businessman - obtained a shawl at the reserve price after it failed to sell at auction. The scarf was blood-stained, supposedly with the blood of the Ripper's victim Catherine Eddowes. To cut to the chase, DNA analysis of the scarf purportedly found that stains on it matched the DNA of Ripper suspect Aaron Kosminski and one of his victims named Catherine Eddowes.

However, there are some big problems with this book. Those problems all stem from the fact that many key scientific protocols seem to have been non-existent in the handling of the scarf and the modern DNA samples used to establish the provenance of supposedly old 19th century DNA on it. In this respect I am reminded of what led scientists astray in the case of the Piltdown Man fraud.

The author, Edwards, frequently has the entire shawl in his lone and sole possession along with modern DNA samples that are used to match allegedly old DNA samples on the shawl. Surely, with the shawl, being in two pieces, he should have begun from the start by securing one piece away with a trustworthy independent third party (such as a highly notable and entirely independent solicitor at the very least, but an independent and esteemed academic body at best). Furthermore, Edwards, the author, should not have been the one to collect and be in possession of the DNA samples from the victim's and suspect's modern day genetic descendants. Why Edwards's scientific collaborator, Dr Louhelainen, failed to stop this scientific faux pas requires public explanation. Because, most unfortunately, we learn, it is the author himself who collects a DNA swab from a surviving genetic descendant of Eddowes and also from the surviving genetic descendant of the author's sole chief suspect - Aaron Kaminski. Moreover - to repeat the essential point for emphasis - it is the author who has these DNA swabs and the shawl in his possession together for some time before handing them over to Dr Louhelainen to see if the blood on the scarf contains DNA matching that of Eddowes' modern genetic descendant, and the same for Kaminski's. The author clearly says he would not trust the SUSPECT's decedents DND sample to the post: see here and earlier he wrote that he had the VICTIM'S descendent's DNA in his own domestic freezer for several weeks at the same time he was in possession of the shawl - see here:

I'm no expert on DNA analysis, but since we are told that Dr Louhelainen took samples of his own DNA and Edwards's in order to rule them out, it seems that he was unable to tell the age of the DNA he was examining. If so, then this means that we cannot rule out the possibility that the author - Edwards - could possibly have taken small amounts of DNA from Eddowes's descendant's sample and used it to contaminate the blood stain on the shawl before he handed both over to Dr Louhelainen to examine. Moreover, since research proves that scientists do - most unfortunately - commit science fraud far more frequently than we would wish or imagine - we cannot rule out the possibility that Dr Louhelainen (who we are informed was working on the shawl alone and in his own time) might have deliberately or accidentally contaminated the blood stain on the shawl with the DNA sample taken from the victim's living descendant.

When it comes to the DNA sample from an unnamed descendant of the Ripper suspect - Aaron Kaminski - the book becomes rather unclear. We are told that a number of microscope slides taken from the shawl were collected from a possible semen stain that contained no sperm. The slides do nonetheless contain cells that may or may not have come from the inside of a male urethra at ejaculation, or else some other unrelated part of their body. We are told that one cell found, amongst others, on these slides was a very significant match to the DNA of Kosminski's surviving genetic descendant who gave the author, Edwards, a DNA sample.

Most importantly, what we are not told in the book, however, is whether as part of this analysis Dr Louelainen needed to take other samples from the shawl after Edwards was in sole and lone possession of both it and the modern Kosminski's genetic descendant's DNA sample. Moreover, we are not told whether or not it would have been possible at any time for the author to contaminate any of those slides, anyway, with modern Kosminski descendant DNA.

Finally, since Dr Louelainen was working in his own time and alone, we cannot, I'm afraid to say, rule out the possibility that he deliberately or accidentally contaminated the slides with modern DNA.

Acknowledging the possibility that the author committed a research fraud, or that his scientific associate did the same - or negligently contaminated the entire shawl - is not an act of character defamation. On the contrary, it is a reflection of the demands placed upon scientific discovery by the orthodox scientific community. Nullius in Verba is the motto of the Royal Society. It means we should not take the word alone of anyone that something is true. Researchers create or adopt specific research designs in order to ensure that their findings can be independently replicated. What concerns me - from what the author writes in his book - is that the question of contamination with modern DNA may now always hang over the shawl. If that is indeed the case (and of that I am far from certain) then the claimed results in this book cannot be independently replicated if expert DNA scientists cannot distinguish between modern and Victorian DNA.

I was drawn to read the book because Edwards himself and his scientific associate - Dr Jari Louhelainen - relied in no small part on the 'big data' science that facilitated the DNA checks, identification of victim and suspect modern day descendants and related research around the textile industry, fabric dying and other facts. I am, for reasons of my own recent research endeavours Nullius in Verba - Darwin's Greatest Secret very interested in the role of big data analysis in solving problems - including the detection of crimes. Consequently, I very much wanted to find that Edwards really had unquestionably cracked the case of who was Jack the Ripper. Unfortunately, the book has raised a number of questions that need answering before I am in a position to raise a glass to Edwards and Louhelainen. But I sincerely hope that one day I will.

In the meantime, whilst I most certainly recommend you buy and cherish this book, our skeptical alarm bells should sound, because in his quest for modern DNA to detect the Ripper Edwards most "fortunately", it so rapidly turned out, initially set about solely looking for a suitable genetic descendant of Aaron Kosminski - a Polish Jew who has been favored by only some Ripperologists, and allegedly others in the police service named by Edwards, as the most likely person to have been the Ripper. Edwards makes a fairly plausible case (in places creative, insightful unusual but not at all irrational) for why he focused first on Kosminski - and I won't give too much about that away here (you should read the book) - but, unfortunately, his initial choice of suspect should not be enough to allay our suspicions in light of the unfortunately undeniable multiple opportunities for science fraud that I believe existed.

I apologize profoundly to both Russell Edwards and Dr Jari Louhelainen for pointing my finger of suspicious skepticism their way. I sincerely hope that neither committed any kind of science fraud. Moreover, I sincerely hope that the forensic tests used were done properly and will be considered reliable by the expert scientific community under peer review.

Meanwhile, we have some facts that might allay all my horribly nagging suspicions if more research is undertaken. Firstly, we are left with the fact that Edwards tells us that before he bought the shawl that Scotland Yard's "Black Museum" took a sample of stained cloth from it. Secondly, we are told that, also before he bought the shawl, two other samples of fabric were cut from it and have been framed and that they remain in the possession of other parties known to the author. These "independent" other samples from the shawl provide one possible route for scientists to conduct a second round of tests, in properly controlled scientific conditions, to rule out the possibility of fraud or other route of contamination of the old stains with modern DNA from the genetic descendants of Eddowes and Kosminski. Until such analysis is conducted, I am afraid that we cannot yet safely concur with the final words of Edwards's otherwise excellent book: "Aaron Kosminski is Jack the Ripper."

In sum, this story - as it currently stands- is potentially (at least) not too dissimilar to the story of Charles Dawson supplying, by various clever contrivances, Arthur Smith Woodward of the British Museum with absolutely ALL of the forensic physical evidence - which he obtained and solely possessed - for Piltdown Man. And just look how badly that turned out. History has some hard lessons to teach us. We would be foolish to ignore them.

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