See also: extract on obscure language; interview with Brian J Ford on misusing forensic science; or move to the 'Nonscience' home page.

by Brian J Ford, London: Wolfe, 1971

From pp 160-63:

Forensic Science

Without doubt, forensic science is another very jolly and interesting subject. It seems to attract many men with a somewhat macabre bent, naturally enough; and they write of their work in a quite characteristic fashion. Even in the most tragic and horrific cases, terms such as 'a remarkably good example' are found.

There is plenty of scope for humour, too; one standard textbook features a photograph of a murdered woman smothered in blood lying in pools of congealing fluid with lacerations over much of the upper part of the body. The corpse is thrust back, hanging over a lavatory pan and the face is cut and disfigured. The handle of a sheath-knife is seen protruding from the chest. And the caption of this scene? 'Fig 2: Injuries arousing suspicion'. ..

Yet the forensic specialist is just that - a true specialist. He does not concern himself with the work of others, mainly because he has other work to do. Thus his texts do not as a rule have anything to say on the methods of reviving the near-dead victim; they merely advise the specialist to make sure that the person is dead before starting his work.

There are large amounts of money to be made from this occupation. An appearance for the defence in a trial can be handsomely rewarded. There are many examples. Not long ago a wealthy man was blown to pieces in an explosion as he got into his car. Traces of odd fragments of wire were found, but much of the evidence had melted away (as was, no doubt, intended) in the ensuing blaze. None the less, there was clear evidence of foul play, and one of the suspects was an Expert in explosives. But, as the case was drawn together by the deft arguments in court, a forensic Expert was brought in by the defence. He asserted that a build-up of petrol vapour under the bonnet could have caused the blast. Could have, mind you. There were ample figures available to suggest that the force which could have been generated in such circumstances was nowhere near enough to result in the damage seen, but that - in a court of law - is immaterial. The important thing is that the Expert has said that the alternative explanation could have applied - and that is just the kind of reasonable doubt, as it is called, with which one cannot convict.

The fee for such a small service is very large (it can run into five figures) even though the amount of time involved is very small. The trick of Forensic Nonscience is to pick out whatever evidence you need to substantiate your particular point of view.' Thus if your client wishes to be seen as the innocent member of a motoring dispute, you might end your dissertation on an accident by saying: 'It was tragic that a peaceful afternoon excursion could have been brought to such a tragic end by means I have outlined.' Or if you have been brought in to discredit the same individual you might say: 'It would seem appropriate to bear in mind the evidence of recklessness to which I have alluded earlier since, though one hesitates to apportion blame absolutely, it is clear that without this form of thoughtless - one might say dangerous - behaviour, accidents of this kind would be very much The important thing to realise is that nothing has actually been said. The first (defensive) explanation is a self-evident truism, and says nothing that might actually apply to the facts of the case. The same is true of the second (accusative) explanation. It is obvious that accidents would be rarer without dangerous driving, and the fact that one can 'allude to evidence' in one's learned exposition does not mean for even a moment that anything of the sort actually happened. The best thing about being an Expert is that you can always get away with bland statements of inference which counsel can return to later in a more definite manner. Let us briefly consider an example - a hair found on a cardigan, for instance. The two approaches are:

The Expert in this situation puts the disclosure of the hair Into its proper context by arguing:

The role of counsel is then to allude to these arguments retrospectively and say: 'We have heard Expert evidence which clearly and unequivocally shows that the presence of a hair on the defendant's cardigan is neither here nor there. There is no reason to convince us it had anything to do with the victim. We all have stray hairs on our clothing, and one could not draw sinister implications from this! No doubt many people in this court-room have similar hairs about them at this moment, but would we claim that as evidence? Of course not. It is even possible that the wanted man is himself here today: but it is abundantly clear that he is not in the dock.'

In being called for the prosecution or the plaintiff the Expert's task is somewhat different. He would, in this position, argue:

The duty of counsel then is to add the touch of conviction thus:

'And finally there is the tell-tale hair on the cardigan worn by the defendant on the very night of the crime. In size, colour, shape--in short, in all the visible respects that are apparent to the searching eye of the Expert in his laboratory; with all the evidence of modern scientific knowledge--this hair was utterly identical with the victim's. One may, I suggest, draw one's own conclusions.'

In sampling hairs, incidentally, it pays to hunt around a little. Whether you wish to find a single hair similar to the specimen, or one that is quite different, you should not have to search for long.

But no matter if it is fragments of moss, particles of mud or dust or any other kind of microscopic evidence, it is an easy matter either to produce a totally dissimilar sample from the same source in order to show that they could not have had a common origin; OR find a similar sample in virtually any situation to suggest that the evidence is sound. I remember a classic piece of evidence used in court on one occasion was the superimposition of a skull on the full-face photograph of the victim before she was missing. The two were made to fit exactly, which of course can be done with any skull at all within reason. The court accepted that evidence. It would have been just as easy, of course, to prove the opposite.

That leads us to a postscript; a rule-of-thumb for the Expert who enters this field. Proof is not necessary. All you need is a statement that the evidence is 'compatible' with so-and-so; or that in your 'considered opinion' it is most unlikely to have done so; counsel can harden it up into evidence. The jury (and the judge, too, come to that) won't understand you anyway. Probably the best thing about being a Forensic Expert in Britain is that there isn't any national Forensic Service. Anyone can be called in at any time, and so the scope for original interpretation it considerable, and the chances of being argued with are slight. The Expert will get on well with the legal profession anyway, which make this kind of activity even more socially enjoyable. The modern legal business has a great deal in common with Applied Nonscience and its aims are similar, too. So you should feel quite at home. There are hundreds of successful murders committed each year which are never detected, and opportunities on both the defence and prosecution sides of lesser offences are legion. A doctor does not even have to see a dead body to register it as being dead, remember; which all serves to add to the fun.

See also: extract on obscure language; interview with Brian J Ford on misusing forensic science; or move to the 'Nonscience' home page.