Saturday, December 5, 2009

Communicating Forensic Science and the CSI Effect

Our guest lecturer this past week for our Thursday forum was Dr. Scott Fairgrieve, Associate professor of Forensic science at Laurentian and Forensic Anthropologist for the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario. He talked to us about the importance of science communication in his field.

I never really thought of science communication in law or forensic science, but it makes sense. Every time Dr. Fairgrieve is explaining evidence in court, it is science communication. It is especially tough because you are communicating to a jury who come with a lot of preconceptions.

Dr. Fairgrieve called this the "CSI effect". Thanks to shows like CSI, NCIS, Bones etc, forensic science has become sexy and entertaining. In the real world, however, cases are not wrapped up in 1 hr time slots. He mentioned one incident where his report took an entire year after the case began. Processing DNA so quickly is also a bit of an exaggeration. (I'm not picking on the science of CSI, I know it is a show... but it still bugs me when they do not balance the centrifuge.)

He anecdotally mentioned that juries seem to place a lot more emphasis on forensic evidence because of CSI. At the same time, he needs to dispel TV forensic myths so that they have an understanding of the science. It is skill that needs to be developed in all forensic scientists that have to present evidence. In the forensic program, his students go through a "moot court" where they practice being expert witnesses.

Various personnel of the law need to understand the forensic science, from the police officers initially approaching a crime scene to the lawyers and judges in court. Imagine trying to defend or prosecute a person if you didn't understand the forensic evidence or how it was obtained!

To help promote understanding of his field, he was involved with developing a forensic science DVD for law personnel and forensic science students called "Forensic field techniques for human remains: An introduction".

Lastly, Dr. Fairgrieve has to work with the media. Since he works mainly on homicide cases, the media often contact him for comments. Although he is not allowed to discuss current cases, he sees these as opportunities to dispel misconceptions. It is a skill to deal with media who are trying to extract details out of you on current cases. After all, they are just trying to do their job. 

It was really interesting hearing about Dr. Fairgrieve's experiences, and it just goes to show that science communication is truly everywhere.

If you are interested in the forensic sciences program at Laurentian, visit their website. They also have forensic science podcasts and a promotional video posted that were developed by Dr. Fairgrieve and previous SciComm students.

- Justin

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