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  • Writer's pictureRuth Morgan

The hedgehog, the fox and forensic science?

Updated: Nov 8, 2018

There are many schools of thought that address leadership in complex environments. I have been really struck by the contrast first articulated by the Greek poet Archilochus who described the ‘hedgehog’ (that knows one big thing) and the ‘fox’ (that knows many things). This analogy has caught the imagination of scholars in many different fields in the last 100 years and it has some really valuable insights for forensic science.

In forensic science we are facing serious challenges. Some of these challenges are well broadcast, such as the quality standard failures in well known laboratories, or the ‘rogue scientists’ who have been exposed in malpractice. But there is a serious underlying issue that isn’t making the headlines. This is probably because it is one of those challenges that is difficult to pinpoint into one single issue, difficult to demonstrate as it impacts a broad range of fields, approaches and practices across the whole forensic science discipline, and it’s uncomfortable to consider given impact that forensic science has in the justice system and our society. Uncertainty is inherent to science and forensic science is no exception, but how we deal with that uncertainty in a ‘forensic’ setting is absolutely critical and at the moment it’s here that we are facing arguably the biggest (but hidden) challenge yet.

When it comes to complex challenges we need multi-faceted, interdisciplinary approaches that can address that complexity. To do that we need both hedgehog approaches to identify clearly defined solutions to specific challenges as well as the fox approach that looks to hold a range of different views to encompass the diverse factors that are contributing to the complexity. To date in forensic science we have arguably created a dichotomy between the two approaches. It is therefore, perhaps not surprising that some challenges are being addressed more effectively than others. To begin to address the complexity that infuses all forensic reconstruction, we need to understand better the mechanisms in play that dictate the behaviour of trace materials, and also the extrinsic and intrinsic factors that impact the human actors that are an inextricable part of the forensic reconstruction process. As we move forward with digital evidence, the cyber environment and the capacity technology is developing to measure and retain bioinformatic information, these issues are only going to grow.

We need to hold both the unifying approach of the hedgehog and the recognition of the disparate factors in play of the fox together to tackle the challenges we face in forensic science. We need to address these challenges to ensure that evidence recovery, analysis, interpretation and its presentation to investigators or the courts is transparent, robust, and reproducible. But it’s also more than that, as we look forward we need to have the frameworks that can incorporate the hedgehog and fox approaches so that forensic science in the future is equipped to offer science that is valuable and helpful to the justice system wherever the technological developments take us.


Check out my latest piece in Forensic Science International for a consideration of how the hedgehog and the fox are fundamental for developing good forensic reconstruction approaches, and the perils of having one over the other. Available at:

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