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Ian Rankin in Conversation with Prof Sue Black

Posted 23/10/2015

When RSE fellows forensic anthropologist Prof Sue Black and crime writer Ian Rankin met in conversation on 21 October, what came across was the real mutual respect they hold for each other’s work. Despite being in front of an audience of 250 local people at St Matthew’s Academy, Saltcoats, the conversation flowed and the topics were wide ranging. The pair told anecdotes about their lives, highlighted the people and events that have shaped their work and discussed how their disciplines intersect.

Together they explored the question, “Do crime writers have a responsibility to write good science?” Rankin admitted to “telling lies” in order to deliver a strong narrative, but said he was interested in portraying science in an accurate way. He said he thought audiences are used to hearing scientific language due to TV shows such as CSI and Bones, but questioned how realistic these portrayals are, when editing skips the mundane details - lack of funding, or defunct office machinery - that would scupper the neat resolution of each case within the allotted 42 minutes air time. 

The subject of fiction vs. reality continued as the pair discussed the challenge of presenting scientific findings in court when faced with lawyers who are excellent at dramatising the facts having done lots of research to back them up. Black said that there is huge responsibility on scientists to make science understandable and to remain un-biased under the cross-examination of a defence lawyer, even after hours in the witness box.

Expanding on the subject of making her field of science comprehensible, Black suggested that crime fiction is a good way to engage and inspire public interest in the subject; “When the kind of science we do, links in to the kind of writing that somebody like Ian does, you get a kind of magic, you get something that captures everybody’s imagination, regardless of whether you are 12 or you are 91.” She then went on to say, “there is no limit to learning, it is not age specific.”

Questions from the audience challenged the speakers with probes such as: “Are people inherently good, or inherently evil?” and; “What is the main deficiency in the area of forensic science at the moment?” To hear Black and Rankin’s replies or to watch the whole event, see the video:

Read the summary report of the conversation between Ian Rankin and Professor Sue Black.

The event was part of the Talk Science @ Irvine Bay series, facilitated by the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) and supported by Irvine Bay.  This exciting education programme for schools and the wider public includes talks, lectures and workshops given by RSE fellows.  Topics range from science to engineering, IT to manufacturing or entrepreneurship with one of the aims of the programme being to build on the ongoing regeneration of the Irvine Bay area.


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