Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

The Forensic Fringe

Posted by Neal on October 17, 2008

My wife and I have watched several episodes of Fringe now, mostly out of curiosity due to Glen’s being on the writing staff. Parts of each episode reveal more of the show’s overall “mythology” (hey, Ben, how long has mythology been used to refer to the slowly revealed backstory in a TV show that prominently features weirdness?), but each episode also has one particular mystery or problem to solve, and the solution always involves some kind of fringe science. In this respect, it’s like Numbers, where each week the solution comes from some kind of mathematics. Also as in Numbers, the progression from having the crazy idea that just might work, to actually implementing it, to solving the problem, is really fast. And the crazy idea always works.

This is a greater barrier to disbelief-suspension in Fringe than it is in Numbers, because in Numbers, the mathematical concepts are sound, but in Fringe, it’s all based on pseudoscience. What I’d like to see on this show is a situation where eccentric scientist Walter Bishop thinks they just might be able to enable agent Olivia Dunham to use, let’s say, telekinesis in order to avert some disaster. He and his team, in less time than it takes to buy, have delivered, and install a high-definition TV and connect it to your cable box, gather and set up equipment that it would take well-funded university labs weeks just to acquire. They hook up Dunham to the device, and … it just doesn’t work. Bishop’s son Peter is stunned.

“I can’t believe it didn’t work!” he says.

“Well, this is fringe science we’re talking here,” says Dunham’s assistant Astrid (a linguistics major, BTW). “Just because they call it fringe science doesn’t mean it’s not bullshit.”

But aside from Astrid’s major in college, what does any of this have to do with linguistics? During one of the episodes, I got to thinking, “This isn’t so much fringe science as forensic science.”

But on second thought: “Wait, no, this baloney is definitely fringe science.”

I thought about it some more: “No, no, they’re using it to solve crimes. It’s forensic science!”

Suddenly I realized: It didn’t have to be one or the other. It was both! It was … forensic fringe science! Fringe forensic science! Wow, this is like sweet mashed potatoes all over again. I got zero hits for both fringe forensic science and forensic fringe science, both in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and with Google. For some reason, there doesn’t seem to be much call for such a term. But if there ever were, what would determine which f-word came first?


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9 Responses to “The Forensic Fringe”

  1. The Ridger said

    My two cents is that they both work, but (of course) don’t mean the same thing. And the show, the two episodes of it I watched before I quit, seems like forensic fringe to me.

  2. Viola said

    I like both.

    I like Fringe too, even though it seems a bit of a stretch. And, I prefer to compare it to a cross between Numbers and X-Files. WITHOUT the Cigarette Man. WITH the half-hippiefied, open-minded, drug-manufacturing and partaking….MAD SCIENTIST. *Maniacal Laughing*

    Um…I kinda like the 3-D type location thingy that pops up in funny places at the beginning of scenes too.

  3. Ran said

    Arguments for “forensic fringe science”:

    – “Fringe” is an attributive noun, whereas “forensic” is an adjective. I believe that for some reason, Adj+N+N works better than N+Adj+N in nearly all cases. (Put another way, attributive nouns seem to me to have difficulty attaching to an adjective-plus-noun.)

    – “Fringe” is a core-er element, since “fringe science” is debatably science. In “mashed sweet potatoes”, you have to keep “sweet potatoes” together because sweet potatoes aren’t really potatoes; a similar logic might apply here (depending on one’s attitude toward fringe science).

    – To judge from the Google counts, “forensic” is already quite comfortable modifying terms for specific classes of science, as in “forensic entomology”, “forensic linguistics”, etc. Conversely, “fringe entomology” and “fringe linguistics” are almost nonexistent (even after accounting for the rarity of “fringe science” relative to “forensic science”). So, it makes sense to keep “fringe science” together and add the “forensic” afterward.

    – To me at least, “fringe forensic science” sounds like “forensic science at the fringes of forensic science”, but what is meant is “forensic science at the fringes of science”. We’re not trying to describe forensic quantum mechanics.

  4. Glen said

    “For some reason, there doesn’t seem to be much call for such a term.”

    Unfortunately, there really is good reason for such a term. There are some forensic techniques, including ear-print analysis and “crazed glass” arson analysis, that have little or no scientific basis whatsoever. Even some of the most accepted techniques, like fingerprint analysis, have much less experimental backing than you might think. (I learned all this in the process of writing a paper on the subject of bias in forensics: http://www.bioforensics.com/conference08/Bayesian_Bias/index.html)

  5. Glen said

    Also, looking back on the comment I just wrote, I wonder if the following might be a FLOP coordination: “little or no scientific basis whatsoever.” The ‘whatsoever’ would seem to apply only to the phrase ‘no scientific basis,’ and not to ‘little scientific basis.’ Or would it be okay to say, “little scientific basis whatsoever”? Hmm.

  6. Hannah said

    I feel like “Forensic Fringe Science” sounds more like “fringe science used to do forensic things,” whereas “Fridge Forensic Science” sounds more like “something that is only on the fringe of being forensic science.” I would assume the first one would work best in the context of the show, but…

  7. Hannah said

    …also, I appear to have just written about “fridge” science.

    That’s a different topic all together.

  8. Blar said

    I had an idea for a show (or storybook series) like that, except instead of relying on fringe science the key to solving each crime would be philosophy (“Well, according to Lao Tzu, …”). Of course, each episode would require a different philosophical doctrine; next time it’s on to “Based on Plato’s theory of Forms, we should expect …” as if there was no Tao. Also, I figured that the crimesolvers would be kids.

    On the more important linguistic matter at hand, I agree with the other commenters who think that “fringe forensic science” sounds like it refers to alleged forensic techniques that don’t really work (like ear-print analysis). “Forensic fringe science” sounds awkward but seems acceptable for the content of Fringe. Or what about “forensic pseudoscience?”

  9. [...] by Neal on January 27, 2010 I’m looking forward to watching tomorrow’s episode of Fringe. I’m particularly enjoying the story arc about the alternate universe where onion rings [...]

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