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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.

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9 Comments sorted by

  1. Luke Weston

    Physicist / electronic engineer

    It's worth noting here that "CSI" is probably one of the worst TV shows in production today in terms of its unrealistic and often nonsensical portrayal of science and technology.

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    1. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Luke Weston

      I know that there are a lot of researchers that would love the GC-Mass Spec that CSI use. A month of work done in 5mins; hell yes!

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    2. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      It's amazing stuff, that CSI-style GC/MS.
      You just get any old crap - bit of wood, bit of metal, bit of fibre, dirt, blood, whatever - and you just chuck it in the GC/MS (well maybe they'll cut to the obligatory pippeting scene for just a second) and the printer prints out whodunit! And prints out the identity of a specific complex mixture of complex compounds, like some very specific brand of paint or whatever it is!

      And let's not get started on that magical instant VNTR fingerprinting. That's some damn fast PCR!

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  2. lyndal breen

    logged in via Twitter

    My daughter made a huge effort to get into a Bachelor Applied Science (Forensics) which she really enjoyed. The broad nature of the course gave her skills in areas such as technical photography as well as more obvious physics and chemistry strands. She was never afraid of maggots and won a prize for her final year study on decomposition in carrion. However, she has never achieved a job in Forensic Services / Aust Federal Police or similar. But, as forensics is basically a chemistry degree, it has led her to a very satisfying job in air quality monitoring.

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  3. Stuart Purvis-Smith

    Clinical Cytogeneticist (retired)

    Many thanks for your timely and helpful viewpoint.

    As a Plan-it Youth mentor helping year 10 students to face the challenges of senior school - career aspirations, subject choices, social distractions and in some cases, disengagement from school education - I am aware of an increasing interest in forensic science as a career especially among girls.

    A few years ago it seemed that the stereotypic teenager aspired to work in hair and beauty (if a girl) and boys were looking at a motor vehicle…

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  4. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    A similar TV-effect has occurred with emergency medicine and resuscitation in general.

    It has been formally demonstrated that the success rates of CPR are hugely higher in TV shows like in "ER" than in real life, creating false expectations.

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    1. Ahmad Samarji

      Academic: Forensic Science Education, STEM Education, and ICTE at Victoria University

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Dear Sue,
      Totally agree, that's why I am arguing in this article that whilst we can still enjoy TV dramas, we cannot rely on it as being the major drive of public interest towards science. I believe that the general public and our students deserve to be informed about the true- yet still exciting- nature of science with all its certainties and uncertainties!

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  5. Wilson Zorn

    logged in via Twitter

    I wouldn't focus on forensics, and I wouldn't even worry so much about it, specifically. It seems to me the kind of people who actually believe forensic science on TV dramas is realistic are simply not thinking and are among those who take much of what they read/see at first glance as true. And that is the larger issue, informing far more contentious and serious day-to-day issues than (even) a jury's appreciation or (shudder) a policeperson who actually believes this stuff. Or, if I'm incorrect, we at least need to do more than assume either from effect or our own (mine included) beliefs, and study more seriously the types of people who buy into this as well as the depth of such belief. The latter matters as much or more, as we may find that most have a very casual surface belief immediately dispelled as soon as given real data, in which case it's less of an issue than people developing heartfelt beliefs from, of all things, popular fiction.

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    1. Wilson Zorn

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Wilson Zorn

      PS - sorry, that should have read "As I may be incorrect" instead of "If I'm incorrect," above.

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