A rabid fan of forensic science shows like Bones, Criminal Minds, and the various CSIs stumbles upon a copy of the National Forensic Journal at the library. Thrilled to dive into some real-world reading connected to his fiction fandom, he cracks open the journal to find an exciting article all about . . . a college debate team?
As great (and disgusting) as those TV shows are, they might be giving us a skewed idea of what forensic really means.
In English, forensic, which is etymologically related to forum, began as an adjective meaning “belonging to, used in, or suitable to courts or to public discussion and debate.” From this, the noun forensic was derived, meaning simply “an argumentative exercise,” whether inside a court of law or out.
This was a common sense of the word when, in 1924, Melvin Tolson helped found Wiley College’s wildly successful debate team,* which was at first called “The Alpha Phi Omega Forensic Society.” This was simply a debate team; there were no corpses and no perps, and the only things dissected were premises and conclusions.
The word forensic only indicated legal or public debates. It was a science of argument, not of test tubes and microscopes.
But as technological methods advanced, science offered the courts new types of evidence, the kind based on fingerprints and fiber samples and blood splatter that are always throwing curveballs at the protagonists in those police procedural shows. When people call this type of scientific evidence collection “forensics,” what they usually mean is “forensic science,” the application of science to civil and criminal law.
Forensic doesn’t describe the science itself, but the purpose and application of that science: to detect a crime, and especially to uncover evidence that can be used in court.
Forensic science isn’t a single branch of scientific study like, say, podiatry or entomology. It’s a broad label that covers many disciplines. For example, forensic pathologists (like David McCallum’s “Ducky” on NCIS) examine bodies to discover cause of death. Forensic anthropologists (Emily Deschanel’s Temperance Brennan on Bones) examine bones (surprise!) to determine age, gender, and other physical features. Forensic psychologists (Aisha Tyler’s Tara Lewis in Criminal Minds) study crimes and criminals in order to identify common traits and red-flag actions.
They’re all forensic scientists because, though their knowledge and methods differ greatly, they all direct their efforts toward the same purpose: to aid the cause of justice.
Put another way, were Temperance Brennan to use the same methods to identify bones from an ancient burial site that she uses to identify murder victims, that wouldn’t be forensic anthropology. That would just be anthropology.
The “debate” meaning of forensic hasn’t disappeared, though. The National Forensic Association — publisher of the aforementioned National Forensic Journal — is an academic association that promotes intercollegiate speech and debate education and hosts national debate championships.
Our fictional library denizen would likely find more gore and excitement in something like Forensic Magazine, which examines all types of physical and digital crime scene evidence collection, or even in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, an academic periodical chock full of studies with names like “Differential Decomposition Among Pig, Rabbit, and Human Remains” and “Characterizing the Performance of Pipe Bombs.”
Or, he can just go back home and watch Bones reruns.
* This group’s early history was dramatized in the 2007 Denzel Washington movie The Great Debaters.