Forensics has always been a media favorite. I seldom missed an episode of the old TV series Quincy, starring Jack Klugman as a troublesome medical examiner who always solved the crime. Years later, novelist Patricia Cornwell lionized another ME, Kay Scarpetta, who gets into even more hot water than Quincy. In Ellis Peter's 20-volume Brother Cadfael series, a 12th-century monk and herbalist uses his knowledge of plants to reveal where and when a crime victim died.
There's more to forensics than hair, blood-stained gloves, and dead bodies, though. Take the tragic crash of TWA flight 800, which mysteriously plunged into the ocean not long after taking off from New York's JFK airport in 1996. Press reports following the crash pointed to several possible causes—scientists call them hypotheses. By painstakingly examining evidence, including the reconstructed plane, specialists concluded that an exploding fuel tank shattered the aircraft. Like other scientists, they couched their verdict in probabilities. Now civil engineers are using a similar approach to decipher how airliners brought down the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11. The results could lead to improved safety procedures and building specifications.
Few criticize a process that brings closure to tragic loss or identifies a perpetrator. Yet scientists in all disciplines follow the same rules in the trial and error search for insight. Whether it's molecular genetics, immunology, or plant pathology, researchers basically think the same way.
All scientists—forensic, evolutionary, or otherwise—pursue data wherever they lead. That's why hands-on forensic exercises to teach inquiry-based science is a good idea. According to Jeffrey Tomberlin, a PhD forensic entomologist in Tifton, Ga., "Students examining a forensic investigation are often asked to develop and test a number of hypotheses. Allowing them to work with scenarios ... will stimulate them to think and reason through questions, ideas, and the information gathered." When students learn the philosophical and methodological foundations of science, everybody profits. Besides, forensics is a hot career option—young people want to learn more about it.2
As for harming Johnny and Janey's tender psyches, blood stains in a forensics class don't stack up to the bloodshed in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven or Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan—or the real life, ghoulish happenings at a north Georgia crematory. Kids can take it.
1. B. Carton, "Gore curriculum: Your child studying murders?' Wall Street Journal, Feb. 19, 2001, page A1.
2. R. Lewis, "Where the bugs are: Forensic entomology," The Scientist, 15:10, Sept. 3, 2001.