Forensic Science: Not As Seen On TV

July 19, 2016

Why do TV shows have science consultants when they clearly don’t listen to what their consultants tell them?

I have often wondered this. Generally while watching forensics procedurals.

I still haven’t recovered from that episode of Bones where Dr. Jack Hodgins, in shocking defiance of sterile protocol, sorts through a fecal sample and then grabs a lamp with his dirty glove. GAH!

The one that really gets me, though, is “zoom and enhance,” a ubiquitous trope so blatantly impossible that every seventh grader in every class I’ve ever visited knows it could never happen. As does anyone who’s tapped on a cell phone pic and watched it pixilate.

(I have a friend who does special effects for these shows. He HATES “zoom and enhance,” because he’s the guy that has to stitch together the distance shot and the completely separate close shot to make it look like that actually works.)

Lighten up, Lindsey, you say – these shows are for entertainment, not education! Thing is though, a lot of viewers, particularly young ones, don’t make that distinction. And the inaccuracies in television dramas create misconceptions about how forensic science works in the real world.

Case in point, the CSI Effect. Many lawyers and judges contest that watching TV crime shows has biased jurors’ reactions to evidence presented in real trials. Jurors have acquitted people due to a lack of DNA evidence, despite the fact that not all crimes naturally involve the transfer of DNA. Regardless of the weight of other evidence, jurors expect forensic evidence in every trial. Police and CSIs know that, and have dramatically increased the volume of evidence they collect at crime scenes…. which seems like a good thing until you realize that real-life crime labs (unlike the ones on TV) have small staffs, limited budgets, and enormous backlogs of unprocessed evidence.

It is possible that the CSI Effect is not a real thing (scientific studies of the phenomenon are mixed). But if a fictional effect has created a real shift in evidence-gathering behaviour, that creates a real life problem, the ramifications of which are not yet fully known.

I blame Hollywood. But I still watch forensic shows, because they are some of the only shows on TV where scientists get to be stars.

Are you a fan of forensic shows? Which ones are your favourites? Have you given up on shows because they just can’t get the science right?

DFSWant me to talk to your seventh graders about forensic fact and fiction? I’m a member of the Nova Scotia Writers in the Schools Program and the Writers’ Union of Canada, both of which offer subsidies to help bring writers into the classroom. Contact me for details.

You can also pre-order my new forensic book for grades 3-6, Discover Forensic Science.

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