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The "CSI effect": scientific education via television has its perils

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2006. The "CSI effect": scientific education vai television has its perils. the Exchange 13(2):8–9.

Not all scientific communication is deadly serious—some is purely for the sake of entertainment—but even the "just for fun" type can sometimes have significant real-world consequences. As any afficionado of television crime shows can attest, detectives have always relied on scientific principles to accomplish their work. These principles may be as simple and low-tech as the careful observation, hypothesis-formation, and rigorous application of logic that characterize Sherlock Holmes and his spiritual kin, or as "last century" as classical fingerprinting. The trust in science that has arisen over the past century or so has led to the adoption of scientific detection in literature and on the small screen, and the technology level is increasing steadily.

Lately, medical forensics has become the hot topic in television crime shows. The archetype of such shows may have been Quincy (www.imdb.com/title/tt0074042/), a mid-1970s show in which Jack Klugman played a medical examiner who investigated crimes, but today's hot show is CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The original show (www.imdb.com/title/tt0247082/) became so popular that it spun off two others shows, CSI: Miami and CSI: New York, not to mention imitators such as Bones (www.imdb.com/title/tt0460627/). Harmless entertainment? Perhaps not.

A recent CBC news story (www.cbc.ca/story/canada/national/2006/02/27/csi-effect-halifax.html) reveals that increasing public awareness of forensics as a result of these shows has forced police investigators to rely increasingly on scientific evidence rather than on witness testimony. Given the unreliability of human memory—what some have called the Rashomon effect, after Kurosawa's famous film that explored the consequences of viewing the same crime from several different viewpoints (www.imdb.com/title/tt0042876/)—this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does have certain unfortunate consequences. For one thing, as any medically literate viewer who watches House, MD (www.imdb.com/title/tt0412142/) can tell you, witty dialogue and infuriating characters make for entertaining viewing, but a poor technical education in a complex subject.

The CBC story quotes Staff Sgt. Tony McCulloch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) forensics unit as noting that the TV shows have raised unrealistic expectations about the nature of the evidence needed to build a case. This extends to the courtroom, where jurors now demand more formal scientific evidence and less human subjectivity. The problem, of course, is that even when evidence such as DNA fingerprinting is nominally available to investigators, it's too expensive or time-consuming to use in routine cases—and it's not always obvious which cases are routine and which will become far more significant with the passage of time. As a result, the view of reality has diverged between a television-educated audience that wants hard scientific data and the overworked police investigator, who may have neither time nor resources to perform every potentially relevant test. Because jury trials remain an important part of our legal system, investigators must work harder to muster a convincing case against a suspect. Furthermore, they must learn a lesson we technical communicators know all too well: that a message must be tailored to the expectations of the audience. Fail to present the expected evidence, even if that evidence is unobtainable and unnecessary in a practical sense, and even Sherlock Holmes might have difficulty persuading a modern jury. I'm sure that unethical defense lawyers will soon be using this situation (misrepresentation of science) to their advantage if they aren't already doing so.

Other misconceptions can be generated by the small and big screens. For example, screenwriters rarely take the time to learn about the nature of a coma, and perpetrate gross errors that cause a different set of problems. A recent paper by Eelco Wijdicks of the Mayo Clinic in the journal Neurology reports the results of a study of 30 movies depicting characters in prolonged comas. As summarized in a CBC news story (www.cbc.ca/story/science/national/2006/05/08/coma-movies060508.html), people generally receive unrealistic expectations about the likelihood of recovery from a coma. Moreover, these movies often depict a "Sleeping Beauty" effect in which recovery from a coma is sudden and complete. In reality, there can be severe physical consequences; for example, muscles require ongoing use to retain their tone, and spending weeks or months in a coma leads to serious muscle deterioration that may require years of physiotherapy to correct. That's quite apart from any personality or cognitive changes that would result from the injuries that caused the coma in the first place. Last but not least, the short duration of a TV show or movie makes it very difficult to portray the wrenching consequences for the family and friends of the comatose patient.

Of course, the opposite of the House effect can also occur. Screenwriters face a new dilemma that thoughtful scientists have always been keenly aware of: that television may be no more ethically neutral than science. A while ago, I read about a young thief who watched every episode of CSI and used what he learned to break into a long series of homes in his community. (Unfortunately, I couldn't track down the actual news story while I was writing this article, so exercise appropriate skepticism about the details.) Police were having a devil of a time catching this thief because he'd learned his trade so well from watching the pros commit crimes on TV. Of course, he apparently neglected the more obvious lesson, namely that all TV villains eventually come to justice, and investigators did finally catch the thief. But this case does raise the interesting question of just how much realism screenwriters should provide: enough to make a show feel real (verisimilitude), but perhaps not so much that TV viewers can "try this at home, kids".

What can we do, as scientific communicators. Provide appropriate and ongoing feedback to the worst offenders. This past week, I wrote to the producers of House M.D. to gently suggest that they need to hire a medical expert to edit out the more egregious medical violations—or possibly listen to the existing consultant if one exists. I don't watch CSI, so I can't comment on the quality of their forensics. But if you do watch the show and have issues with their science, take the time to send in your comments. Producers have no incentive to fix the problems with their science if they have the impression that nobody cares, and some are very eager to obtain constructive feedback from their audience. Put together enough letters of comment and the better ones may decide to clean up their act. It's a small investment of your time, but a laudable one.


My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.


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