Forensics? What's in a word?
Updated: Sep 24, 2019
The term ‘forensics’ has become a widely used term. I’ve recently been working on some SEO (search engine optimisation) and so the term ‘forensics’ has got me thinking about what it really means, how it is understood, how it is used, and whether any of that matters.
‘Forensics’ is a bit of an odd word, because technically, ‘forensics’ doesn’t really mean anything. ‘Forensic’ as a term was originally an adjective to describe ‘belonging to, used in, or suitable for the courts’. As a result, the term ‘forensic science’ came to be used to describe the science applied to questions of law. So far so good. However, alongside ‘forensic science’, ‘forensics’ has become established as a term, and generally speaking it’s used as a synonymous (but shortened) version of ‘forensic science’, even though technically the term in and of itself is meaningless.
As time has passed, ‘forensics’ has now come to have its own (often contested) meaning. Whilst it is still used interchangeably with ‘forensic science’ in many instances, a ‘forensics’ approach or model has also emerged within forensic science that has become a dominant approach and understanding of what ‘forensic science’ is about. Within ‘forensics’ the focus is predominantly on how the parent disciplines (such as chemistry, biology, computer science, geology) can assist in the exploitation of evidence within the criminal justice system. In this approach, the crime scene is considered to be a distinct activity generally addressed by the police in an operational and processing capacity and ‘forensics’ is now a widely used term within policing.
This is of course a very important part of forensic science, but forensic science is not and cannot only be concerned with the crime scene, and the identification of what materials ‘are’ (often referred to as ‘source attribution’). It’s not enough for us to know that a particle that is collected from a jacket is gunshot residue, or an exhibit has person X’s DNA on it. If we want to be able to reconstruct events, and apply good science to the reconstruction of a crime event, we need to know more.
For starters, we need to know what the possible circumstances are that could have led to the transfer of that evidence, and how long it has been there. In short, we need to know what that evidence means, and to do that we need to be considering the whole picture.
We need to have a good understanding of how and when materials, such as gunshot residue or fibres or GPS data, can be generated, and how and when that material can be deposited or collected (perhaps at the crime scene). Then we can be developing the best approaches for analysing materials in the lab and interpreting the findings in a way that is robust, transparent, and reproducible, that conveys the significance and weight of those findings within the context of a specific case, and can clearly present where the uncertainty lies.
So why get so pedantic about a shorthand term? Terms (and so names) carry weight and they are key factors in defining the identity and nature of a discipline over time (see my blog on what is in a name). ‘Forensics’ is catchy and convenient, but apart from the fact that as a term it technically doesn’t mean anything, it also defines a paradigm in forensic science that many (including me) argue is too narrow in only addressing the crime scene and analysis of exhibits and specimens, and so limits forensic science in terms of its capabilities now and it’s development going forward. So let’s take that extra millisecond, drop the ‘s’ and add in ‘science’. Forensic science will thank us.
Some of these ideas can be found in this recent (open access) article in Forensic Science International: Synergy https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2589871X19301445