Forensic Science: Fact and Fiction


Glamorized in books, movies, television, and recently in the news media, forensic science has gathered a popular following. Making forensic science interesting and appealing to a large audience is easy to do because the work is just that--interesting and appealing. The fictional forensic scientist collects evidence at crime scenes, analyzes it in a high-tech lab, and draws on objective science to reconstruct the details of the crime. It is a very satisfying story. Science uncovers lies and reveals the truth. Justice is done as innocents are set free and the guilty are convicted.

The reality of forensic science does retain many of the traits that make the field so appealing in this fictional setting. In the real world, scientific analysis of physical evidence does play a role in the prosecution of criminals. However, popular media rarely exposes the public and, more importantly, prospective forensic science students to actual forensic work. When considering a career in forensic science it is important to have a clearer picture of what forensic science is, and is not, and what it demands of its practitioners.

Hollywood focuses on the most interesting aspects of the forensic investigation. Science becomes a gimmick--a technological toy that the hero uses to find evidence the criminal surely hoped was undetectable. In reality, forensic scientists spend a great deal of time in the laboratory, working with evidence collected from crime scenes. For the forensic scientist, the goal is to objectively analyze submitted evidence and return an interpretation to the investigator. Although there are opportunities for investigative field-based work, most forensic scientists work in laboratories processing evidence. The work is just as demanding as the work in any other analytical laboratory, but rarely requires the scientist to outsmart or chase down nefarious evil doers.

Despite these common misconceptions, forensics work is still very rewarding. Unlike other analytical laboratories that may be working on a small part of a larger puzzle, the forensic scientist often get to follow their cases, including the analysis of evidence in the laboratory and the interpretation of the analytical findings in a courtroom.

It is satisfying to see one's work having a direct impact that clearly serves society. Nonetheless, forensic scientists must be very cautious. With so much emphasis placed on effective testimony, forensic scientists must clearly present the certainties and limitations of their scientific findings. Perhaps, the most important quality of a forensic scientist is the ability to provide authoritative testimony that does not mislead a jury. Participating in a single erroneous conviction through "authoritative testimony" renders the forensic contribution to just convictions markedly insignificant.

A misconception about the work of forensic scientists leads to misconceptions about forensic education. Students weary of the "hard" sciences may think they can pursue a career in forensics and avoid the stringent training required for more traditional science disciplines. This is not the case. Prospective students should be aware that the forensic scientist is a scientist first.

Forensic scientists are chemists and biologists with supplemental training on applying their science to forensics and the criminal justice system. It would indeed be unjustifiable if the forensic scientists that are called on to help resolve issues in the criminal justice system had less scientific knowledge or skill than those working in equivalent analytical laboratories.

Although the bulk of forensic work is laboratory based, many students expect their education in forensic science to take the form of a "job-training" program. It is common for prospective students to expect forensic science education to be centered on the "standard operating procedures" used in crime laboratories. Crime laboratory protocols are important to forensics work and can be more effectively taught in the crime laboratory during the probationary employment period. These protocols, along with classes on courtroom proceedings and evidence handling, are commonly addressed in a forensic science program to create an environment that is not available in traditional scientific programs. However, they are not often the core of the forensic program.

The excitement of today?s forensic science is the continuous grappling with the most advanced knowledge and technologies to provide definitive interpretations of criminal acts. The mission of a forensic science program is to advance a student?s knowledge and skill in problem solving by emphasizing basic science and new technologies. The work of a forensic scientist is unique in that the scientist will collect samples under many adverse conditions. Each sample possesses a unique challenge to the analyst. The forensic scientist must have knowledge of the current practices in the field, understand the underlying scientific principles behind these practices, and be equipped with advanced scientific knowledge and skill. Only when both the basic science and the nature of forensic science is understood, will the forensic scientist have the ability to determine the best method for analyzing varying types of evidence.

Forensic science is for serious scientists who wish to apply their knowledge and skills in a field that directly benefits society through facilitating the prevalence of justice.

Jason G. Linville is a graduate student in the Forensic Science Doctoral Training Program from the department of biology. Ray H. Liu is a professor and director of the Graduate Program in Forensic Science in the department of justice sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), as well as the committee chair of UAB's Forensic Science Doctoral Training Program.

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