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Get real, forensic scientists: the CSI effect is waning

You’ve heard of the so-called CSI effect – the manner in which the exaggerated portrayal of forensic science on crime television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation influences public perception…

TV portrayals of forensic science sometimes border on the criminal. Derek Bridges

You’ve heard of the so-called CSI effect – the manner in which the exaggerated portrayal of forensic science on crime television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation influences public perception.

As a researcher in forensic science education, I don’t think this effect is exaggerated. On the contrary, I would argue that, since the second half of the 20th century, public interest towards science has been hugely impacted by the media and TV shows. Much worse, I would argue that we, as educators, may be heavily relying on this.

For the last few years, forensic scientists and members of the judiciary have shared anecdotes about jury members being astonished if there was no forensic evidence (particularly DNA) presented in a case – even if the case does not require such evidence – because that’s what they’ve become used to seeing on TV.

CSI: NY. mlhradio

Anecdotes are also shared by forensic scientists about how they have been approached by police investigators, who expect them to finish their forensic testing and analysis of the evidence in minutes.

The CSI effect has been the focus of a number of articles worldwide – such as this one and this one – and an Australian study conducted by Judith Fordham in 2006, as outlined in her 2011 article on The Conversation.

While not an empirically-confirmed syndrome, such anecdotal evidence spurred Max Houck, director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University, to remark back in 2002 that:

every third person on the planet wants to be a forensic scientist.

In Australia, the number of education institutes offering forensic science qualifications has boomed from one university in 1994 to nearly 20 in 2005.

In the UK, the number of students enrolled in forensic science majors have increased from 2,191 in 2002-03 to 5,664 in 2007-08 as reported by the Skills for Justice organisation in 2009.

What I see

Some Year-12 students, I would contend, are taken in by TV shows to the extent they start enquiring about forensic science courses before even considering whether they truly enjoy science or whether there are job opportunities for them when they graduate.

Some students, in my experience, want to become forensic experts without considering whether or not they are prepared to work at 2am picking blowfly larvae from a corpse with a pair of tweezers.

The fact forensic science is very specialised and forensic investigations can be challenging, time-consuming and complicated is often overlooked by movie and TV show makers – and consequently students and the public at large.

This sad state of affairs no doubt fed into the decision by Victoria Police earlier this year to publish a statement with the heading: Is Forensic Science really like the television show CSI?

The document warns some of the techniques and results displayed on TV are “not common or realistic” and that:

(unfortunately!) there are no jobs available in Australia like those depicted on CSI.

Wonders of the Solar System. BBC

A study I published last year shows that, in the last decade, a number of science courses worldwide (some of which are chemistry courses) started employing the adjective “forensic” in their titles to attract enrolments, benefiting from the growing public attention towards forensics.

And some of those courses referred, directly or indirectly, to the CSI show on their websites for marketing purposes.

But research in 2009 reported a downturn in student enrolments and a corresponding drop in entry scores for forensic science in Australia.

The Big Bang Theory. CBS

This might suggest the public mood is about to move to the next interesting thing. Those responsible for forensic science courses that were initially chemistry or biology courses and only enjoyed the “forensic flavour” without a properly designed curriculum and well-established connections with the industry stakeholders (law enforcement agencies, forensic laboratories, etc) might soon find themselves in a very uneasy situation.

In short, such courses might be at a high risk of closure.

And in their place, who knows? Maybe a spike in astrophysics-flavoured courses, given the current popularity of shows such as The Big Bang Theory and Wonders of the Solar System.

Keeping the fire going

Public interest in science is essential for a number of reasons, not least to ensure enough students enrol and specialise in the various science disciplines and science applications.

That this interest is influenced to a certain extent by TV dramas, creating false expectations and misinformed opinions in some instances, seems self-evident.

The problem comes when we, as educators, rely on this unrealistic packaging of science as an integral part of our recruitment strategy.

So what’s to be done? Conversations must be had between students, teachers, parents, scientists, science educators, and policy makers about maintaining a sustainable interest in science, independent of TV dramas.

We need, if I can put it bluntly, to get real. And quickly.