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10 | New Scientist | 22 February 2020


NASA has selected four possible
missions to visit some of our solar
system’s least understood worlds.
The proposals were chosen as part
of the space agency’s lower-cost
Discovery programme.
The first is called IVO (Io Volcano
Observer), a proposed craft that
would make close passes of Jupiter’s
moon Io, the most volcanically

active place in the solar system.
While we know that Io is covered
in massive volcanoes, IVO would
help us figure out where the magma
that supplies those volcanoes
comes from and how they erupt.
The second proposal is Trident,
a plan to fly past Neptune and
its biggest moon Triton. This
planetary satellite is strangely
active – it has icy volcanoes, for
example – despite being far from
the sun and therefore extremely
cold. Trident would look for a
subsurface ocean on Triton and

try to explain the moon’s activity.
The final two missions aim to
explore Venus, the second planet
from the sun. One is DAVINCI+
(Deep Atmosphere Venus
Investigation of Noble gases,
Chemistry, and Imaging Plus).
It aims to send a probe through
the planet’s atmosphere to measure
its composition from top to bottom,

and help us understand whether
Venus ever had surface oceans.
The other is VERITAS (Venus
Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR,
Topography, and Spectroscopy),
which would orbit Venus with
powerful radar instruments to
map the surface and look for active
processes such as plate tectonics.
Each mission will get $3 million
over the next nine months. At the
end of this development period,
one or two of them will be selected
to actually launch. ❚

A THIRD of the psychological
tests used in US court proceedings
aren’t generally accepted by
experts in the field, a study
has found. “A clinician has the
freedom to use whatever tool
they want and it’s the Wild West
out there,” says Tess Neal at
Arizona State University.
Neal’s team looked at the
validity of 364 psychological
assessments commonly used
in US courts. Assessments are
used in a range of circumstances,
from parental custody cases to
determining a person’s sanity.
In a custody case, for instance,
a psychologist might be asked
to assess whether a parent is
responsible enough to care
for their child.
The team compiled the list of
364 tests used in US courts based
on 22 previous surveys of forensic
mental health professionals.
“There’s way more variety out
there than we realised,” says Neal.
When the researchers looked
up the tests in widely accepted
textbooks to assess their scientific
validity, they found that 60 per
cent hadn’t received generally
favourable reviews. And 33 per
cent weren’t broadly accepted by

psychology experts, according to
nine previously published reviews
of the field (Psychological Science in
the Public Interest, doi.org/dmr9).
The most problematic tests
are usually those that are overly
subjective, says Neal. For instance,
the second most common
assessment used in US courts,
according to previous surveys,
was the Rorschach inkblot test,

in which people are asked what
images they see in abstract
patterns. This has been widely
criticised for letting clinicians
interpret responses based on
their own impressions of a
person. “There are questions
about its scientific
underpinnings,” says Neal.
Another problematic
personality test asks people to
complete sentences where only
the first few words are given,
which again is thought to be
too subjective.

No such wide-ranging and
systematic review has been done
in the UK. But Robert Forde, who
has written a book called Bad
Psychology: How forensic
psychology left science behind,
says there are concerns in the UK
too, particularly over decisions
by parole boards, which assess
prisoners on their risk of
reoffending before they can be
released. Parole boards tend to
be influenced by the scores that
psychologists give prisoners on
subjective factors, such as how
much remorse or empathy they
show, he says. “Those factors are
prone to bias.”
In UK Family Court cases,
a 2012 report found that a fifth
of psychologists who gave
evidence weren’t qualified to do
so, on the basis of their submitted
curriculum vitae. One problem is
that while some job titles such as
“forensic psychologist” are legally
protected in the UK, anyone can
call themselves a psychologist.
Even when people are qualified,
they may act as expert witnesses
outside their field of expertise,
says Ruth Tully of Tully Forensic
Psychology, a consultancy firm
based in Nottingham, UK. ❚

“Triton is strangely active,
with icy volcanoes, despite
being far from the sun
and extremely cold”

Space exploration

Clare Wilson





E^ S

T.^ J




Controversial tests used in court

Missions may go
to solar system’s
strangest moons

Leah Crane

The Rorschach inkblot
test has been widely

Common psychological assessments used in US court cases may be too subjective

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