TV shows that have forensic science as their main subject, like CSI, do wonders for spreading the science and educating people about the technology that is available. However, the same shows also create what is now referred to as the “CSI effect“, which is an elevated expectation of what real-life forensic science can deliver. The CSI effect is due in part to the creative licenses of the writers of these shows in their exaggeration of the abilities of forensics, and in part due to the way forensics is portrayed as an easy, exact, fast, and glamorous science. In reality, evidence collection and analysis can be a very long, tedious, and difficult task, and the evidence that is recovered may be incomplete or equivocal. That very often leaves jurors and others confused about the difference between real-life and television, and can be detrimental to those jurors who expect more from the science.
That being said, the shows on television do have an element of accuracy in them. They even hire professionals to act as technical advisers to ensure that they don’t depart too far from reality. For the most part, the techniques used on the shows to collect and analyze evidence are the correct techniques for that particular situation, however, in real-life it may not look as pretty as the state-of-the-art equipment on TV. Where the shows tend to go wrong is in their methodology, due to the time-constraints of fitting in a whole case in one hour. Time frames are completely skewed towards the quick-and-easy; it does not take 10 seconds to run a DNA sample or do a fingerprint comparison. The investigation is also misrepresented, since in real-life there is a complete division of labor, and the crime scene investigator will usually not analyze the evidence or interview witnesses or interrogate suspects. A CSI’s job is usually restricted just to evidence collection; then in the lab there are different people who will analyze a specific variety of evidence, such as molecular biology (DNA, serology, etc.), fingerprints, ballistics, documents, and so on. The detective will pull all the pieces of the puzzle together and conduct the investigation, without the scientists in tow.
TV shows like CSI should not be a source of forensic education in the strict sense, and I doubt people are watching the shows and taking notes on how to become a CSI. They should be valued for their entertainment and for the window they open onto the world of forensic science. Just like with most things in life, you should watch the shows with a critical mind, question the accuracy of what is being shown, and do some research to check your suspicions – this way you won’t fall for the CSI effect. And as always, if you have questions that you would like answered, don’t hesitate to send them my way.
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