Sherlock Wakened Forensic Science

Dr. John Bartlit
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

Column of March 5,  2017,  Los Alamos Monitor

Image Sherlock Holmes, the fabled stalker of clues, was a charismatic spur to science in the cause of catching wrongdoers and clearing the innocent. His popular intrigues taught methods of close observation and simple physics. See the hidden footprint there. So how could this speck of blood land here? ... Elementary, my dear Watson. 

Sherlock Holmes readers delight in how the master sleuth and his doctor friend used their specialized fields of knowledge to solve dark mysteries. Two of their specialties were exotic poisons and animal behaviors. Any full-blooded Holmes fan can name classic cases of each.  

Ballistics, fingerprints and handwriting bring other facts to bear that can weigh for or against a crime suspect. Newer tools include DNA evidence and a range of smart cameras and phones. All such advances for probing and proving the story are now known as “forensic science.”  

The term “forensic” itself tells a story. Forensic is from the Latin forensis, meaning “of or before the forum.” In history, Romans decided whether an accused person was guilty or not guilty by speeches made before the forum. Deciding guilt in court still involves forensics, meaning speech or argument. All the while, scientific evidence in court keeps growing more powerful, more common and touches more facets. A most fitting term is forensic science.    

Forensic science works equally well whether it catches a wrongdoer or clears the not-guilty. DNA evidence is often in the news for pointing out the truth in court more reliably than speeches alone. By 2016, DNA evidence had freed some 350 innocent citizens who had been wrongly sent to prison, of which 20 had served time on death row. Increasingly, we hear the foes in policing disputes call for body-worn cameras to defend their disparate renditions of truth. How rarely do opposing sides see value in the same remedy? Think on it.  

The future will bring steady news of more inventions and skills. No end is in sight. Prime clues are the names of organizations. An e-search of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences finds a goldmine of links to other groups and to sciences that bring weighty new evidence to court.  

Forensic science entails such a wide range of know-how that specialties spring up. The International Society of Environmental Forensics is concerned with legal evidence of wrongdoing to the land, air or water. The focus is on lawsuits and related forums  

If the tools of forensics also were used in air and water regulation, as they well could be, the data from them would avoid many lawsuits and their high costs. Keep in mind that any tool able to give evidence of guilt has equal power to show evidence of innocence. By their nature, tools have no urge to prove one but not the other. Smart tools have been explored here before as a means of regulating faster and more fairly at less cost. Some circles know the idea by its newer name of regulatory engineering. More and more clues lead in that direction.  

Another huge task of growing importance also has two different names. Its name in today’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)  is nuclear safeguards and verification. Another fitting name would be forensic science of arms control. The national lab in town provides the latest tools and training for the IAEA.  

People and nations talk of banning nuclear weapons. Such a ban can be only as real as the enforcement is able, which is as strong as the detecting craft of forensic science. President Reagan was famously fond of the Russian proverb “Trust, but verify” in his nuclear arms negotiations with Soviet President Gorbachev.  

Forensic science, in forms old and new, leads the way in keener verifying. Speech alone cannot detect all available tracks of truth.