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A Forensic Examination of ‘Forensics’

By Sean Cavanagh — October 29, 2009 2 min read
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“Dear editors,” the letter reads, “Please do not continue to encourage the improper use of the word ‘forensics.’ The courses referred to in the article ... are courses in forensic science. Forensics is to argue in a court of law. It is also used, and has been for the past 100+ years, to refer to debate.”

A reader from Colorado takes exception to my use of the word “forensics” as shorthand for the study of “forensic science” in schools. I wrote about the proliferation of classes on that topic this week.

Ask teachers and students today what’s meant by forensics, and I’ll bet that most of them will associate it with the study of crime scenes, criminal evidence, “CSI,” and so on.

Yet this was not always so, and it should not be the case today, the reader contends. He explains that his school offers “forensics” classes that focus on the study of debate—in addition to forensic-science classes, which look at “finding evidence for argument in criminal cases.” (A colleague in my office recently said a similar thing, observing that she could remember when forensics meant “debate.”)

But it appears that the definition of “forensics” has evolved over time.

An edition of the 1985 American Heritage Dictionary defines “forensics” as simply “the study or practice of formal debate; argumentation.” It defines “forensic,” as an adjective, as 1) “pertaining to or employed in legal proceedings or argumentation: forensic medicine; 2) Of, pertaining to, or employed in the debate or argument; rhetorical.” No mention of crime scenes, blood spatter, fingerprint analysis, etc.

Yet when I consult my own 2001 edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, it defines “forensic” (from the Latin term forensis, for public) as 1) “of, characteristic of, or suitable for a law court, public debate, or formal argumentation; 2) specializing in or having to do with the application of scientific, esp. medical, knowledge to legal matters, as in the investigation of a crime.” Used as a noun, it refers to “debate or formal argumentation.”

So it seems the definition has shifted a bit toward the CSI-side-of-things in recent years. Even so, to the reader from Colorado, I say point taken! You may be waging a lonely, and ultimately futile battle against the weight of popular culture and journalistic imprecision, but it’s a distinction worth noting. Of course, if you really want your argument carried to a larger audience, you’d lobby the creators of “CSI” to slip some relevant dialogue on this subject onto the show.

I’ll pose this question to teachers and school administrators: Do you refer to the debate classes and activities in your schools as “forensics”? Or simply “debate”?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.