Tuesday, January 16, 2007

CSI reality check

I am not a huge fan of the television shows CSI (Vegas, Miami, NYC or otherwise). Their McGyverizing of science and their lack of interesting character development turned me off immediately. Due to its popularity, I have given it way too many chances and it has always failed to pull me in. This is just not a very good show and simply a twisting of reality. Their science is bad, they treat it like magic or a convenient tool for the twisting of plot. Forensic people just don't do the things that they do on this show. Why watch a bad cop show like this when there are so many good ones like HBO's The Wire or Barry Levinson's old show Homicide: Life on the Street.

The New York Times' Times Talk Podcast recently had a show that not only supported much of my complaints about CSI but also challenged some of my beliefs about the show. There are some good aspects of the show that I hadn't considered. The talk consisted of mystery writer Linda Fairstein, forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee and the creator of the show, Anthony Zuiker.

One of the many things Dr. Lee pointed out is that even the most wealthiest of police departments don't have the equipment or personnel available that the CSI departments do on this show (even if some of these technologies did exist). One of the problems he sees, because of the popularity of the show, the general public has some unrealistic expectations of forensics. He has had privates citizens tell him at crime scenes "to spray the luminol" on the scene. On the show, luminol is similar to a magic potion where any forensic scientist can spray it on the crime scene, it will show them whatever the writer needs to move the show along. Where in reality luminol only works in complete darkness. It works in a lab, not with a dead body on the sidewalk in broad day light. These unrealistic expectations are not only annoying in his opinion but downright dangerous when the public brings these expectations into a court room as a jurist. When they look for the magic bullet of forensics and it doesn't show, what else do they go on. One of the guests pointed out that some prosecutors say in their opening dialogues that "this is not CSI" ...

Forensic scientists never talk to victim's families, don't talk to suspect and don't do any crime busting at all. They spend most of their time in labs and they file the reports for the police to use. A show based on real CSI's would be very boring. You want to see such a show, check out the Discovery Channel or Court TV, but you're not going to get anything like reality on a big network. This wouldn't bother me so much if CSI did the drama thing better, but they don't do that either. Why is this show so popular? I don't know. Maybe you do. Maybe the belief that detectives with amazing Star Trek like prowess are behind our neighborhood cops makes some people feeling safer than NYPD does.

One other thing I found very interesting was that since CSI has been on, criminals seem to getting more careful. For example, many rapists now are using condoms which makes identifying them much more difficult by limiting the possibilities of DNA tests. But one could see this as a positive because rapists are also less likely of getting their victims pregnant or infected with awful STDs.

The positive I did hear from this podcast is quite positive. It might just wipe out everything bad I just said. Everyone wants to be a forensic scientist now! When people ask little kids what they want to be when they grow up, forensic scientist is a very popular answer now. Why is this good? As a life long believer is education, I found this to be awesome. Anything that is getting kids into science is a good thing. Some high school science teachers are using CSI in their curriculum, using this interest to spark hopefully lifelong careers in science. With so few people going into science these days, this is a very good thing. What All the President's Men did to journalism 30 years ago, CSI is doing for science today. This alone makes me love this show regardless of how badly I think it sucks.

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