The distinction between discriminability and reliability in forensic science

Andrew M. Smith, Tess M.S. Neal

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Forensic science plays an increasingly important role in the criminal justice system; yet, many forensic procedures have not been subject to the empirical scrutiny that is expected in other scientific disciplines. Over the past two decades, the scientific community has done well to bridge the gap, but have likely only scratched the tip of the iceberg. We offer the discriminability-reliability distinction as a critical framework to guide future research on diagnostic-testing procedures in the forensic science domain. We argue that the primary concern of the scientist ought to be maximizing discriminability and that the primary concern of the criminal justice system ought to be assessing the reliability of evidence. We argue that Receiver Operating Characteristic (ROC) analysis is uniquely equipped for determining which of two procedures or conditions has better discriminability and we also demonstrate how estimates of reliability can be extracted from this Signal Detection framework.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)319-331
Number of pages13
JournalScience and Justice
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2021


  • Bayesian
  • Discriminability
  • Forensic science
  • ROC analysis
  • Reliability
  • Signal detection theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


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