If you bring up forensics in a conversation, those involved will often start thinking of scenes from the television show CSI (Crime Scene Investigation). It’s synonymous with scouring crime scenes for minute clues to help criminal investigators create leads in various cases.
Because of the misunderstanding that’s developed about criminal investigations and forensics, many don’t realize that there is an acute difference between forensics and forensic science.
Currently, forensic science gets shortened in most discussions to “forensics.” The word “forensic” actually relates to debates, and comes from the Latin word “forensis” or “of or before the forum.” This concept became most prominent in ancient Rome where both the accused and the accuser involved in a judicial case had to advance their arguments in front of a public forum. This led to the usage of the term “forensics” for both public debate and the presentation of legal evidence.
This concept of “evidence” is what has caused it to run parallel and merge with forensic science. As the judicial system evolved, so, too, did the evidence that was required in cases. No longer was it a matter of verbal debate; instead other forms of evidence were necessary. The concept, that being “forensic” or “before the forum” still holds true. The only thing that has changed is the type of evidence that’s being presented.
While some modern dictionaries will actually merge the two and provide similar or identical definitions, they are quite separate by origin and practical application.
The term forensics refers to public debate which includes the presentation of evidence and rhetoric. Forensic Science is something different. It deals specifically with the gathering, identification, research, and scientific interpretation of evidence to determine such things as who was involved in a crime.
In addition to confusing the terms forensics and forensic science, people often mistake forensic science for criminalistics. However, it’s important to keep these terms in context too. Forensic science involves any discipline that can be applied to evidence. Criminalistics is just one of the subdivisions of forensic science.
Some of the disciplines that fall under the umbrella of “forensic science” are:
Criminalistics itself is the scientific discipline which brings together various natural sciences such as biology and chemistry to the examination, identification, and comparison of certain types of evidence. Criminalists deal with biological evidence including DNA and bodily fluids, trace evidence such as fibers, hair, and soil, and impression evidence such as fingerprints and tire tracks. They also are involved with ballistics, drug analysis, crime scene photography and reconstruction.
As you can see, the forensic sciences deal specifically with the research and examination of evidence so that such evidence can be admitted to and used within the legal system. Forensics on the other hand should be viewed not as the science behind the evidence, but as the presentation and use of the research once it’s completed.