Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The CSI effect

I've recently gotten into the show Dexter. Yeah, I'm years behind the curve, but in getting into the show I'm breaking one of my tv watching rules. You see Dexter is a forensic scientist.

Of course he's also a serial killer but that's besides the point.

Now as a forensic scientist myself you may wonder why I would avoid watching tv shows that feature my occupation. Well, I'll tell you. I watch TV for entertainment, as a relaxing end to the day. Watching forensic shows on TV are not relaxing because I spend most of my time scoffing or variously yelling at the screen.

This quote really sums it up. "If you really portrayed what crime scene investigators do," said Jay Siegel, a professor of forensic science at Michigan State University, "the show would die after three episodes because it would be so boring." Yup, forensics in the real world is boring.

On shows like CSI the people involved seem to do everything in the case. They investigate the scene, they do all the laboratory testing in the blink of an eye, arrest the suspects and practically argue the cases in court. Of course, this whole time they are only working on one case at a time. In the real world, forensic scientists may actually not know much about the case they have in their hands. It's a number. It's one of many that have to be processed.

I found that when asked about cases I was involved in on the laboratory side of things, people were often surprised how little I knew about the details of the case. All I focused on was the sample number and what the sample was to be tested for. That's typical. There is simply no time to be that heavily involved in all aspects of the case, but it makes for good TV if you could be.

Beyond the unrealistic expectation of how deeply involved forensic scientists are in a case there is a deeper problem with shows like CSI. CSI shows laboratory instrumentation as definitive and more universal than it actually is. The scientist simply places a drop of blood in a high tech piece of equipment and you suddenly have every drug the person was on, the full DNA spectrum and oh, here's a picture and their criminal record! Let's get 'em!

In the real world, there are a variety of methods, a variety of instrumentation and all have their limitations.

I often encountered officers or attorneys who didn't understand why we couldn't simply check the blood for everything present. How do you explain that some drugs are basic, some are acidic and they require different different extractions, different methods, a lot of time and oh yeah, hope you don't run out of blood; when CSI has shown them how easy it is? I've encountered jurors who expected the blood alcohol sample to be tested for DNA. How do explain it's not necessary and a huge waste of resources when CSI shows them that it's easy and is done in every case?

There are some good things about shows like CSI. Jurors do have some idea of what forensics is so the evidence can be explained with perhaps less detail then if they had never heard of it. And of course, it gets generations of new forensic scientists coming on board who hopefully aren't disappointed with the realities of the work.

Courts have actually started studying the "CSI effect" and so far the results are undecided. Hopefully people can realize and remember that these shows are fiction. Just as cop shows don't show the officers driving around aimlessly on a slow day, so too do forensic shows not show scientists fighting with their machines, working their way through a backlog of nameless samples or watching the clock for quitting time. Neither make good TV.

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