We’re always hearing about these amazing profilers who work to describe the culprits, sight unseen, in serial killer cases. They get highlighted in books and movies and television, and the media just slurps it up with gullible glee. I’ve always found them unbelievable. The noise they’re making is pure cold-reading, and there’s nothing different between them and psychic detectives — it’s an embarrassment that our law enforcement agencies still use them, along with lie detector tests and handwriting analysis.
So I was glad to see this critical article from Malcolm Gladwell, written several years ago. He makes the same argument, that these analyses are pure bunkum. Among many examples, here’s one about one of the first profilers, James Brussel, who was touted as incredibly insightful for making so many predictions about a serial bomber in New York in the 1940s.
James Brussel didn’t really see the Mad Bomber in that pile of pictures and photostats, then. That was an illusion. As the literary scholar Donald Foster pointed out in his 2000 book “Author Unknown,” Brussel cleaned up his predictions for his memoirs. He actually told the police to look for the bomber in White Plains, sending the N.Y.P.D.’s bomb unit on a wild goose chase in Westchester County, sifting through local records. Brussel also told the police to look for a man with a facial scar, which Metesky didn’t have. He told them to look for a man with a night job, and Metesky had been largely unemployed since leaving Con Edison in 1931. He told them to look for someone between forty and fifty, and Metesky was over fifty. He told them to look for someone who was an “expert in civil or military ordnance” and the closest Metesky came to that was a brief stint in a machine shop. And Brussel, despite what he wrote in his memoir, never said that the Bomber would be a Slav. He actually told the police to look for a man “born and educated in Germany,” a prediction so far off the mark that the Mad Bomber himself was moved to object. At the height of the police investigation, when the New York Journal American offered to print any communications from the Mad Bomber, Metesky wrote in huffily to say that “the nearest to my being ‘Teutonic’ is that my father boarded a liner in Hamburg for passage to this country–about sixty-five years ago.”
The true hero of the case wasn’t Brussel; it was a woman named Alice Kelly, who had been assigned to go through Con Edison’s personnel files. In January, 1957, she ran across an employee complaint from the early nineteen-thirties: a generator wiper at the Hell Gate plant had been knocked down by a backdraft of hot gases. The worker said that he was injured. The company said that he wasn’t. And in the flood of angry letters from the ex-employee Kelly spotted a threat–to “take justice in my own hands”–that had appeared in one of the Mad Bomber’s letters. The name on the file was George Metesky.
Brussel did not really understand the mind of the Mad Bomber. He seems to have understood only that, if you make a great number of predictions, the ones that were wrong will soon be forgotten, and the ones that turn out to be true will make you famous. The Hedunit is not a triumph of forensic analysis. It’s a party trick.
I also cannot abide Sherlock Holmes, in either book or movie form, because it is such hokum. I’m always growling to myself, “Wait, you cannot derive a simple linear chain of inferred causality from a single observation of a phenomenon with many different possible causes and variables! Holmes, you fraud!”, and then I end up throwing the book away or turning the television off. Even the latest film version with Robert Downey Jr., which was entertaining because they turned Holmes into a brawling thug, was infuriating whenever Holmes would get into a fight and calmly calculate exactly what was going to happen in the next 10 seconds. Yeah, right.