Quirks and Quarks

A new book looks at forensic science beyond what we see on TV

A sociologist investigates the real criminologists beyond the TV world of CSI and Bones

A sociologist investigates the real criminologists beyond the TV world of CSI and Bones

The work of a criminologist begins at a crime scene (Grant Linton/CBC)

Anyone who watches television has a certain picture of forensic science. It may play out a little differently on CSI, NCIS or Bones, but the basics are the same. 

The forensic team arrives at a crime scene. They're attractive, well coiffed and perhaps charmingly quirky. They comb the scene, and quickly find tiny but intriguing fragments of evidence. These go back to their gleaming, high-tech lab and in a matter of minutes very clever machines and innovative techniques reveal critical details about the crime, the victim and the perpetrators. In less than an hour, the crime is solved and justice has prevailed.

But you don't have to be Sherlock to figure out that that is not the way it really happens in a real forensic science lab.

It is true that police investigations and courtroom proceedings make use of forensic science like DNA analysis, the chemistry of illegal drugs, and ballistics of bullets, but the pressures faced by real forensic scientists to turn fragments into facts are quite different from what we see on television. 

Writer and sociologist Beth Bechky spent 18 months in a major metropolitan crime lab studying how forensic scientists manage the challenge of delivering and communicating science, often under intense scrutiny. 

Blood, Powder, and Residue by Beth A. Bechky (Submitted by Beth Bechky)

Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald spoke with Beth Bechky about her book Blood, Powder, and Residue: How Crime Labs Translate Evidence Into Proof.

Here is part of their conversation. 

We've all watched the TV shows, forensic scientists have really glamorous jobs, don't they? 

I usually lead off telling people about this project by saying the exact opposite. 

You mentioned in your book no one wears leather pants and the crime lab. 

No. And no high heels either. 

What got you interested in understanding the real challenges facing forensic scientists? 

Actually two things. I've always been really interested in how different folks in technical jobs managed to communicate the different knowledge and expertise that they have with one another. And, you know, a few years ago, I was kind of a CSI and Bones addict. And watching those shows made me think, you know, I'm pretty positive that it doesn't happen the way we see it on TV. But it could be really interesting to look at what forensic scientists actually do.

Analyzing guns, bullet fragments and gun powder residue is a big part of forensic science (Submitted by Beth Bechky)

You spent a considerable amount of time in the crime lab alongside working criminologists. Tell me how that changed your perspective on these scientists. 

Well, I went in thinking I'm going to see some bench science. And certainly you see that in forensics. There are tons of folks sitting in gleaming laboratories looking through microscopes and doing very meticulous bench science. What you don't see on TV is an important and large part of the job — communicating and interpreting that evidence for the legal and criminal justice audience. There's a lot of time spent on writing reports and figuring out how to communicate things in an effective way to lay people who are then going to see their findings. 

What kind of specific pressures are forensic scientists under? 

Basically, forensic scientists have to then take their findings and translate them into something that's understandable by laypeople who don't understand the science at all. So the translation part can be hard work. And it's stressful because emotionally, as a forensic scientist, that your judgment has significant consequences. It's consequential for suspects, it's consequential for victims. It's consequential for their own careers.

They feel very strongly that it's very important not to make a mistake, to make sure that their findings are being presented properly and they have a great responsibility to feel like they're getting their analysis right. 

One of the many tools of the criminologist (Submitted by Beth Bechky)

Science is very precise and it has its way of speaking. It's not lay language. And science is also about probabilities, balance of evidence, words like, well, may and could are part of the scientific process. What challenges does this present for forensic scientists in particular in the courtroom? 

What you see is a clash between the culture of science and the culture of the courtroom or the culture of the legal system. When they get to the courtroom, what happens is they're in a system that's much more adversarial, where you have two attorneys who are trying to use the evidence to make an argument.

Rather than just to state the plain truth, and that means that the way that they ask questions about the findings can be complicated for forensic scientists to answer. In some cases, the lawyers don't understand the science.

So they're asking questions that, quite frankly, forensic scientists think are a little crazy. And sometimes they're trying to use my statement to make an argument that I don't think the findings completely agree with. So sometimes forensic scientists, when they talk about their experiences in the courtroom, they will say things like, 'I think the lawyers treat me like a puppet or a pawn in a game.' 

Forensic scientist examines a blood sample with a sterile collection stick (Shutterstock / Natasa Adzic)

One of the themes in your book is what you call the 'culture of anticipation'. What do you mean by that? 

My basic argument in terms of sociology of occupations is that they are constantly anticipating what it is that the other group is expecting of them. So partially it's that they're anticipating that they're going to have to explain their analysis in ways that are compelling to a jury and to a courtroom. So that's part of the culture of anticipation. And because they know these expectations exist, they spend a lot of time within the lab anticipating by using a bunch of different practices.

So whether it's thinking about their language and figuring out how am I going to say this in my report, they spend a lot of time practicing. They'll do mock court where they all sit together and talk about a case and the supervisors are the lawyers and the forensic scientists practice 'how am I going to say this on the stand so as not to be confusing?' They think about, for instance, different kinds of analogies that they might use on the stand. So to make things more legible to lay people. So in all those ways, they're kind of anticipating having to translate their work in ways that are compelling.

Written and produced by Mark Crawley