The Communication of Science through Crime Fiction
Background: Science can be communicated informally through fictional media. Crime fiction in print media has contained elements of forensic science since the first detective stories, for example, Sherlock Holmes. Modern day crime fiction includes visual media, such as the television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, as well as print media. All influence and potentially educate readers of the genre. Aim: The aim of the research reported in this thesis was to explore reader expectations and author approaches to science communication through crime fiction, and therefore if forensic science could be communicated through print crime fiction. It did this in three ways. The communication of science through the crime fiction of Ngaio Marsh was analysed first. Then the attitudes of writers of crime fiction towards the science that they included in their novels was investigated. Thirdly, the attitude of readers to the science they encountered while reading crime fiction was surveyed. Methods: Part one: The body of work, research methods and factors that influenced New Zealand crime writer Ngaio Marsh were examined as a case study. This gave a historic perspective to the question can science be communicated through crime fiction, and informed the questions for the subsequent contemporary writer and reader surveys. Part two: Writers of crime fiction were surveyed using an online anonymous online survey to examine their attitudes towards the science they include in their novels. There were 43 responses to this survey. Part three: Readers of crime fiction were surveyed using an anonymous online survey to examine their attitudes towards the forensic science they encountered whilst reading crime novels. There were 1024 responses to this survey. Results: The case study of Ngaio Marsh demonstrated the author ensured the accuracy of the science included in her novels. It also indicated she understood the potential flow-on effects of her writing, such as educating criminals and inspiring copycat crime. The author survey indicated most of the authors who included science in their crime fiction researched it thoroughly and ensured that it was accurate in the context of the story. Many reported an ethical obligation to provide accurate information to their readers, but were aware of potential flow-on effects. The reader survey demonstrated that readers expected the science they encountered in crime fiction to be true and accurate, and believed that the writers of crime fiction took care to ensure it was factually correct. Many liked to learn some forensic science (80%), and enjoyed learning about forensic science through reading crime fiction. Conclusion: The combined results of the case study, author survey and reader survey indicated that forensic science can be communicated through crime fiction. This is contingent upon the scientific information being true, accurate, and relevant in the context of the story. The writers of crime fiction felt a responsibility to provide accurate scientific information although some were wary of the potential for that information to be used in the perpetration of a crime. Writers ensured the science they included in their fiction was correct, but were concerned a reader would point out a factual error in their work. Readers enjoyed learning about forensic science but it had to fit within the context of the story. Readers indicated it was important that the forensic science in crime fiction was true and accurate, and believed most writers took care to ensure it was. The readers’ expectation of accuracy and the authors’ sense of obligation to deliver accurate forensic science in their fiction aligned, demonstrating that science could be communicated through crime fiction.
Advisor: Medlicott, Natalie J; Heydon, Susan; Duncan, Warwick
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: School of Pharmacy
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Science communication; Forensic science; Crime fiction; Crime writers; CSI; Media; Accuracy; Ngaio Marsh; Science; Copycat crime; crime fiction readers
Research Type: Thesis