Home Science in Art & Culture An Investigation of Crime Scene Investigation (CSI)

An Investigation of Crime Scene Investigation (CSI)

by Eva Amsen

This is an edited version of an article I wrote in May 2005 for another blog.

Screen Shot 2015-07-19 at 13.48.02 In the popular TV show CSI a team of forensic investigators solve mysterious crimes with the help of trace evidence analysis. The basic scientific principles are usually correct, but the show takes a lot of liberties when it shows the crime-solving process. I discussed the show with real labworkers:

Graduate students/postdocs: This group’s most common critique on CSI is that their experiments work on the first try. You never see them report back that they will need to rerun some samples; it always works! The CSI labworkers don’t spend any time on data analysis either: They just throw a Q-tip with some skin cells in an eppendorf tube, add liquid, spin it down, and the printer will spit out a two-page report that literally tells you that the suspect or victim had Maybelline mascara on her hands (including batch number and colour).
One episode stood out to this group in another aspect. In episode 524 a science grad student commits a clever murder using dry ice. The CSI investigators get on the right track in an interview: “I talked to your advisor, and he said you only need 2 pounds of dry ice for your experiments, but you checked out 40 pounds.” Now, in reality nobody’s advisor would know exactly how much material their students would need for their experiments, and even if this girl really only needed 2 pounds of dry ice, it’s not like she didn’t need to repeat her work 20 times.

Technicians: Real technicians notice all kinds of things that are wrong on CSI. They mention that in one of the series, nobody wears gloves, for example. And they always use material from the same company (Eppendorf), which probably means they sponsored the show, but in reality you would expect them to sometimes need something else.
Mostly the technicians are bothered by the fact that the techs on CSI do everything. Real life technicians do NOT draw conclusions on who killed who. They take the samples, run the standard protocol, and hand in the data. They do not work outside the lab, they do not talk with the investigators about the case, and they most certainly do not get promoted to field agent! Likewise, the agents have no business in the lab, yet the show always sees them barging in and looking at the samples.

Ex-RCMP forensic analyst: I happened to know a former forensic analist, so I asked him about the forensic aspect of the CSI series. How realistic is it, aside from the fact that they solve everything way too fast and without any bumps? According to him, the biggest liberty that the CSI series takes is that every crime gets solved. In reality, only about half of the crimes get solved through forensic evidence. The samples they take and the things they look for are quite true to life, but in a real forensic lab they often find fingerprints and DNA without knowing who they belong to. If you don’t have a suspect, and there are no prints on file, you can’t make a match. The series always has a suspect, and that is the biggest liberty it’s taking, according to the ex-RCMPer.

Despite the inconsistencies in the show, everyone I talked to likes watching CSI. Or maybe it’s because of the inconsistencies: people like nitpicking on little details.

Screen Shot 2015-07-19 at 13.46.51
-Labcoat is on but open.
-Data are conveniently on one sheet of paper
-Data are being discussed right there in the lab.

Screen Shot 2015-07-19 at 13.47.26
-Field investigator in lab.
-Coffee in lab.

Screen Shot 2015-07-19 at 13.47.43
-Gloves on while working at computer.
-Touching face with gloves.




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pim March 17, 2006 - 6:41 AM

Actually last month I saw a guy near some of the labs here having a glove on only one hand and using that handkeep his mobile phone he was talking to. This was in the hallway, so you shouldn’t wear gloves there anyway. He’s probably not doing biological research, but still I guess it’s not uncommon for people to use their gloves in the wrong way, for whatever reasons.

pim March 17, 2006 - 6:45 AM

Another point of interest concerning CSI:

According to this article:
A nasty side effect of CSI is that people that form the jury in US court cases often also have watched CSI, and therefore expect that for any crime there will be 100% conclusive evidence. In real court cases however, most crimes are solved not by actual physical/chemical evidence (just as you pointed out, this often leads to nowhere), but more by psychology and a bit of luck that the person in question will convence.

Leona February 3, 2008 - 11:04 PM

No experience working in a lab – so this is insightful but *hilarious* at the same time. I think it goes for any cop show where there’s a lab scene, not just csi.

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