Scientific Method Applied to Forensic Science

Forensic science is often described as “a science about patterns of crime mechanisms, about collection of information about the crime and its participants, about rules of evidence gathering, researching, evaluating and applying, and eventually about those media and methods based on this knowledge necessary for judicial scrutiny conduction and crime prevention” (Raton, 2003). It makes it natural for this science to use not only specific forensic methods, but general scientific method tested by time and different branches of natural and physical knowledge as well.

The term “scientific method” means “a method of research in which a problem is identified, relevant data are gathered, a hypothesis is formulated from these data, and the hypothesis is empirically tested” (Flexner & Hauck, 1987). The matter is, many scientists fail to build a fundamental theory of how scientific method is applied to forensic science, while it is extremely important to differentiate the way it is applied to this science and the way it is applied to other sciences, as they differ to a great extent. “Forensic sciences study the past and not the present,” Dr. Thomas Young explains (Young, 2009).

The first stage, observation and description is intended to find out and completely reflect what happened. The activity of observation requires efficient and intentional direct perception of objects and phenomena with the use of senses. It includes the study of materials and products, structures and textures. It is especially significant during inspection, search, and other investigative actions. The purpose of observation depends on the character of the object or phenomena we examine. Sometimes we reveal some thing; sometimes we look for certain characteristics, properties and features this thing possesses. In other cases it can be the behavior of the suspect, accused etc. (Davis, 2005). According to these criteria, some facts revealed during observation and procedurally fixed can have the significance of evidence, while others (like the behavior of a defendant during the interrogation) can be just a kind of material to build versions. In this way the task is to describe a set of defined circumstances, to reconstruct the picture of the crime or a tort, to recreate the intricate variety of past conditions as full as possible, paying attention to timing and order of events. The prerogative are the actions intended to reveal and fix the traces of the crime or tort that change fast and the evidences which can be easily lost or changed on purpose.

When the expert has enough data to see what took place, he formulates a hypothesis or several of them to explain the observation. This process can be also called versification ”“ we look for versions. The gnoseological aspect interprets version as a form of transmission from unawareness to knowledge about the investigated event. That's why it is defined as a form and process of reflecting material world phenomena and empowering the objective nature of a studied object by thought itself. The process of cognition doesn't put borders between logical, psychological and cognitive aspects as they are all the parts of one process of mentality (Shafer, 2008). 

To have scientific power, hypotheses should be theoretically substantiated, allow specific order of verification and applicable methods to check the version. Hypothesis is a driving force of science development; hypothesis is one of the forms of science. Apart from the general theory of forensic science, the expert should apply his own professional experience. This stage is based on application of different logical constructions as an instrument. It is closely connected with the next action, consisting in building up predictions of other phenomena or concluding results. 

The media and methods of forming forensic predictions are intended for practical cognition of certain social phenomena which is a crime and aim at solving the question of guilt or guiltlessness of the subject. Hence they are to correspond to the strict criteria of reliability, legality, morality and acceptability. Each result, each consequence concluded from the proposed version should be carefully verified. Until the version is disproved and rejected, each fact logically coming from it should be checked in the light of its correspondence to the reality. Some part examined does not give the reason to take the version as something objectively true. If the examination provides contradicting data, you should never stop the tests. All the reasons of divergence should be found out.

Falsification is an essential constituent of the scientific method. The hypothesis should be ideally either disproved or falsified. If there is a possibility to disprove the hypothesis, the scientist can discard it and turn to another, more correct hypothesis. Alternatively, if the hypothesis is confirmed by the experimentation and the following observation, it still does not mean this confirmation proves the truth of the hypothesis, Thomas Young claims (Young, 2009). Among the other methods, some statistical methods (generating quantitative results) are applied. Though they are not very popular and, according to the results of the survey, only 7% of respondents rely on them. Quantitative methods don’t receive wide practical use because they fail to take to account individual features, and because this systems are not developed that well at all (Shafer, 2008).

The last and the very important stage includes the application of such scientific method as experiment. It is usually based on scientifically conducted test performed to study the verified phenomena and its links with other phenomena. The particular feature of the experiment is possibility and necessity to interfere in the process of testing, studying the phenomena from different sides and in different conditions. Through investigation experiment is applied in various forms. One of the most effective methods affirmed by the theory of forensic science is parallel (simultaneous) testing by several independent experimenters. It means that other investigators are permitted to check and try to falsify the hypothesis proposed by the scientist. This procedure provides the most optimal tempo of investigation and economization of working time of the team. It is also efficient to check up several versions across. Gradual verification threatens to take more time and even ruin precious evidences, miss the procedure deadline of investigation.

Considerable rule of examination consists in the following: test should go on until the version is disproved or until we achieve the situation when we can consider it to be the objective truth. The scientific method turns an assumption on any fact into a reliable piece of knowledge when we can prove this is the only fact to give such results. The hypothesis also turns into reliable knowledge when it is proved that all possible reasons of some fact except one are ruled out.

The forensic version is right under the following circumstances:

−            If all possible suppositions concerning the circumstances of the crime under detection were taken into account and no new data bring new versions. For instance, if there are three versions of murder (willful homicide, manslaughter, or an accident), disprove of the two versions except the first doesn’t prove the willful murder is true. It can turn to be a mistake and truth nay be in the suicide ”“ version missed by the investigator.

−            All the versions proposed concerning the situation were verified and all of them except the only one objectively proved were disproved and thrown away.

−            All the consequences (circumstances) logically concluded from the proved version were thoroughly studied and revealed by confirmation.

−            The version confirmed is absolutely coordinated with other circumstances of the case.

Only in the case all the conditions listed are observed, the version can be admitted as the one corresponding to reality and expressing the objective truth (Flexner & Hauck, 1987).

Eventually, when the hypothesis is confirmed repeatedly through times over time, this hypothesis has all the chances to become a theory. When we say a theory, we mean a common principle used by scientists to explicate phenomena and make predictions of further events.

All in all, we have seen the systematic approach provided by the general scientific method when applied to the forensic science. At the same time it is necessary to remember that forensic science itself is often defined as the application of science to law. It goes without saying, it is not ideal at all and has its own disadvantages consisting in certain limitations, but still it has demonstrated its sustainability in the sphere of crimes. “The scientific method has proven itself over time to be a reliable way to arrive at real, measurable, observable truth,” Dr. Thomas Young proclaims (Young, 2009).

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