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Forget Bones and CSI: The Real Business of Forensics is Grueling and Not At All Glamorous

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When Allison tells people she is a forensic scientist, “they don’t really understand. Everyone’s watched CSI, and they think they know every- thing about it. I try to tell them it is not as glamorous, and it doesn’t happen in fifteen minutes. Because a lot of people have the misconception that a crime occurs, and within two days they find the suspects and within a week and a half they are convicted and in jail. And it just doesn’t happen that quickly or easily.”


Contrary to the popular image, forensic science is not a glamorous job. Despite the crimes involved, the work resembles that of bench scientists or laboratory technicians. When dusting the whorls of a finger- print on the handle of a knife, scrutinizing a slide under a microscope to locate sperm in a sample, or test-firing a gun to see if it was used in a crime, forensic scientists look like lab scientists. Of course, the science is more complicated and time-consuming, and less sexy, than what we see on television. Day in, day out, Allison makes sure her work table is sterile, her notes are meticulous, her samples uncontaminated, and her instruments calibrated and working properly.

The intricacies of the science are also embedded in the links between the work of forensic scientists and investigators, attorneys, judges, and juries. The science in a crime laboratory serves a specific function: to analyze the evidence on which the criminal justice system relies. The work forensic scientists do is constrained by this function. Unlike other scientists, they perform their work only for the criminal justice system. They struggle with the knowledge that the work they do is not ordinary science, but a science used by a complex system that assesses guilt or innocence. The people it affects are real, and the stakes are high.

In light of this knowledge, it makes sense that forensic scientists also refer to themselves as “criminalists.” Every day, criminalists work in the shadow of the criminal justice system, which controls their budget, sets their agenda, and requires more evidence processed ever faster. Criminal justice permeates criminalists’ ways of working and thinking; they write reports knowing a jury will hear their conclusions, worry about how to explain contamination on the stand, and analyze evidence for the purpose of addressing questions of criminal law. Criminalists do not relinquish their scientific standards, or allow outsiders—attorneys, politicians, journalists—to misuse science for their own ends. But criminal justice concerns penetrate their daily work.

Criminalists know that their work might end up in a court of law. What they worry about most is appearing in court themselves. Testifying is exceptionally rare, but the possibility looms. Despite all the thought and care criminalists put into preparing for court, they know that appearing on the witness stand can be risky and fraught. The courtroom is commanded by people who are not scientists, and they may willfully or ignorantly use the science in ways that criminalists do not intend. Defense attorneys can turn a small lapse in lab procedure into a challenge to the criminalist’s job performance; prosecutors mistakenly believe they can twist a scrap of evidence into the missing link their case needed. And the jurors, of course, may misunderstand the intricate science completely.

Testifying is not just where the science meets the law, but is the main venue in which the science is represented in public. The courtroom is where outsiders judge, undermine, and occasionally attack the hard work of the crime laboratory—all part of the theater of criminal trials. In the lab, criminalists can spend hours or days polishing a report with the help of colleagues, making sure the science is presented accurately and impartially. In court, one misinterpretation could lead to important cases lost, innocent people convicted, and severe repercussions for their careers.

Given their understanding of all of these consequences, criminalists approach testifying with a mix of determination and concern. Anca, in a crime lab’s DNA unit, noted that criminalists should always be nervous when they go to court:

I don’t care how many years of experience you’ve had because there’s so much riding on your testimony and it doesn’t matter how good you are at what you do here. It’s relaying it to the jury that’s the important thing, and you could be a great scientist but you could be a really bad witness, so [it’s both] being able to do the analysis and the work and explaining it and relaying the message. I think that’s it: Did I do a good enough job to relay the message? Did I explain it well enough? Could I have done it better?

In the words of Tom, a firearms examiner, “I walk in there with a sense of responsibility. I’m nervous. I think if you’re not nervous in some capacity, maybe you aren’t taking it seriously enough.”


What is the value of studying criminalists? One goal is to illuminate the inner workings of the American criminal justice system from an unexpected perspective. Seeing how messy crime scenes are transformed into clean scientific reports and courtroom evidence is key to understanding how ideals of justice are put into practice in the United States. There is also value in revealing how diverse methods of science are conducted in the real world with real consequences. The work itself is fascinating, difficult, and worthy of study: criminalists’ translation of their expert knowledge is just as important as the science itself. Ultimately, studying criminalists matters because their struggles reveal the struggles of expert workers in numerous occupations around the world.

Expert work is currently under siege. Commentators warn that work- place applications of digital technologies—algorithms, big data, artificial intelligence—are going to gut the work of professionals, everyone from lawyers to doctors to criminalists. These technologies track and amass data, processing and calculating information at lightning speeds, which reduces the need for the people who traditionally worked with data. Consequently, pundits and scholars suggest, the work of experts will necessarily move away from thinking and processing information, which will radically change their occupations. At the core of their argument is an image of expert work as merely the cognitive processing of a body of knowledge. If expert work is simply pattern-finding and clear- cut decision-making, it can be easily overtaken by the power of algorithmic technologies. With machines doing the work of analyzing data, we can expect a future with fewer jobs for experts, and those jobs that remain will require different, and less complicated, skills.

Yet, in this study of criminalists, I show how this conception critically misconstrues the work of experts. In fact, expert work does not just entail the mastery of a large, complex body of knowledge. Instead, expert work relies on interpreting and translating knowledge. Experts sit at interfaces where they must communicate knowledge to others who need it but may be unable to easily understand it. Cultivating the skills of interpretation and translation are all the more critical in our digital age. The ability to holistically understand data and what it can and can- not tell us is a vital human trait in the world of big data.

Professionals and experts develop their craft through hands-on learning within a community of like-minded others. Problems in the real world rarely present themselves in neat packages that fit either the for- mal knowledge found in a textbook or the information processed through machine learning. However, through extended apprenticeships, experts are able to contextualize and enrich their knowledge with daily practice under the guidance of seasoned colleagues. Expertise goes beyond formal knowledge to skills that are both tacit and embodied; expert work is a form of visceral knowing. Across a spectrum of fields, expert workers hone their skills through this process of learning by doing. And they figure out how to apply what they know to the specific problems at hand. Their interpretation of the problems they face is central to their expertise.

Moreover, expertise is often useless in isolation; it is through translation that expert workers create value. In this process, experts translate their knowledge of the material world into more mobile forms, usually by inscribing it into documents, images, or other representations that can be used for communicating. Experts are regularly called on to apply their knowledge beyond their own domains, sharing what they know with outside communities. Engineers need construction crews or production workers to execute their plans, and doctors must explain their diagnoses to patients. To make an impact, experts must convince others of the legitimacy of their knowledge, generate support for their ideas, and maintain their power in ways that that draw on shared language, materials, and conventions. Engineers bolster their expertise with drawings and prototypes, using these to convince others to sup- port their designs. Similarly, doctors interpret the language of medical records in collaboration with patients to help them understand their conditions. In these settings, and others like them, the fundamental burden on experts is to translate their particular esoteric knowledge in a manner that persuades nonexpert audiences.

These acts of translation also depend on the broader context of social relations. Experts are embedded in a set of relationships with interested parties who have perspectives about what knowledge is relevant and whose expertise is valuable. These structures matter in how expertise is taken up, used, and assessed. When politicians and journalists talk about climate science, this affects the influence that climatologists have in convincing the public to accept the evidence of climate change. Public opinion then affects the future institutional funding for climate research as well as the ability to garner further evidence. Such chains of influence also impact the everyday practices of scientific experts, who have to decide how and when they should talk to journalists or participate in government-sponsored activities.

This conception of expert work is the foundation for my study of criminalists. Expertise is an interpretive skill developed through daily practical experience in a particular community, which needs to be translated to a set of people who do not share those experiences. Criminalists are expert science workers who are called on regularly to translate their findings for outside audiences. Unlike climate scientists, who can choose whether and how to participate in public science, criminalists do not have the autonomy to walk away from their audiences. They have to work in a state of anticipation and translation; their work is organized solely to produce findings for the criminal justice system.

Criminalists are a model case of what happens to expert workers like teachers, doctors, or engineers who have “good jobs,” but are required to work within systems beyond their control. Perhaps securing expertise once promised some level of autonomy; this was particularly true for professionals, who often worked in partnerships managed through the collegial interactions of a set of peers. Today, being an expert worker often means that you report to nonexperts, or must justify your existence to those who do not know your field. Working with and depending on those outside of their occupational boundaries influences experts’ work practices. Watching criminalists adapt to new technologies, invent new ways to communicate their science, and struggle to show how their subjective yet informed judgments are better than allegedly objective machines or automated algorithms is valuable; it offers lessons for other expert workers.

It is also important to understand the real way science is practiced, and the messy ways that knowledge is produced. Many want to believe that the work of criminalists is flawless, and that science itself is flawless. For example: The bullet is a match. It is his DNA. But looking at the real work criminalists do shows that even the most prized science— including DNA analysis—is interpretive, using tacit and subjective judgments to draw conclusions in context.


Unlike crime shows or courtroom pronouncements, the evidence rarely speaks for itself. Criminalists need to translate the realities of the science to outside audiences. Thus, instead of stating hard-and-fast truths, what criminalists say instead is more like the following: These specific markings, at these particular locations, on this bullet found at the crime scene, match the markings on a bullet fired from the gun belonging to the suspect. The probability of selecting the observed DNA profile from a population of random unrelated individuals is expected to be 1 in 325,000 based on the alleles present in this sample.

With this book, my hope is that by describing in detail the world of forensic science, you can see what is important (and representative) about the work of criminalists. In showing how vital interpretation is to the expertise and the judgments criminalists make about evidence, I make an argument for the value of communities of expertise, negotiated interpretations, and translation skills writ large. Examining how criminalists are situated within the worlds of criminal justice and the public, and the different expectations produced within these worlds, illustrates the challenges of working in a culture of anticipation. Criminalists are not simply free to do science; they cannot ignore the translation work that navigating worlds requires. In exploring the ways criminalists inter- act with these worlds—writing reports, talking to attorneys, testifying in court—I demonstrate what translating looks like for a set of experts, whose occupation is captive to another, and who have a commitment to serving the criminal justice community.

And, now, into the crime lab.



From Blood, Powder, and Residue: How Crime Labs Translate Evidence into Proof by Beth A. Bechky. Copyright © 2021 by Beth A. Bechky. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Princeton University Press. 

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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