Debunking TV Crime Shows and the CSI Effect

You watch crime shows, I know you do, if you watch TV at all, because the only other thing to watch is hockey (What? Reality shows? Screw that. Nobody watches those things!) Okay, there’s doctor shows but they are mostly soap operas constructed around puzzles that the doctor/detective has to solve. Some crime shows have lawyer characters, some have cops or detectives, Law and Order has both. But they’re all the same — the lawyers have to solve the crimes because otherwise their innocent client goes to the hoosegow and the police are incompetent unless they are the main characters and then they usually have a cool lab and double as scientists and stuff.

So how good are these shows? How much info can you take away from, say, Bones or CSI that is reliable. Well, not a lot. Kristina Killgrove, a bioarchaeologist, takes Bones episodes apart. A program that doesn’t have too many errors might get a B-, most get D or lower. You really think Temperance Brennan can tell the sex of a skeleton by its jaw? You poor fool.

Don't be taken in: they really don't know what they're doing.

Scott, a family practitioner in Illinois, critiques House, a show he enjoys. Here’s some medical stuff on one episode:

Hemothorax occurs when there is bleeding into the pleura (the membrane around the lung) which causes the lung to collapse. It is bleeding outsideof the lung. It is completely different from bleeding that occurs within the lung, which is what this patient had.

It is true that immune suppressants can worsen infections, but it’s not true that antibiotics worsen transplant rejection. Antibiotics are a routine part of post-transplant treatment. For example, I have several post-transplant patients, and most have been on a daily antibiotics since their operation.

Electrophysiology studies and angiograms are not used to diagnose long QT syndrome (but then, neither is scaring the patient to death).

If the lung transplant is rejecting almost immediately, then it is hyperacute rejection, which does not respond to immune suppressants.

Oliguria does not automatically indicate kidney failure. There are several other causes of decreased urinary flow, a urinary blockage for instance (though I will admit that renal insufficiency (i.e. kidney failure) is the most likely).
allFor supposed experts, they don’t pay a lot of attention to the most basic statistics available on ICU patients such as their I/Os (ins and outs).

Fabry’s is an x-linked recessive disease, so it generally does not show up in women.

It would save a lot of time and effort if they waited for a diagnosis before starting treatments. Both the amyloidosis and Goodpasture treatments were started – and these are not benign non-risky treatments – without proof of diagnosis.

Since she’s already had at least one arrhythmic episode, Della is going to be on heart monitors. Heart monitors would cause the alarms in the heart monitoring station to start going off the minute she showed a flatline (which is what unhooking her leads would show). She would have been found long before she made it down the stairs.

And after all that, the episode got a B and a C. Scott is a kind grader.

There’s other expert critics around. Fringe, for instance, which usually gets a failing science grade, has a couple of good blogs assessing that failure. Here’s one. And many episodes of MacGyver have been deconstructed on Mythbusters. But the show that has drawn the most attention is CSI in its various locales.


One thing I’ve learned from CSI is that if I yell “Enhance!” at my computer while clicking a bunch of keys, then I can zoom into a sharp focused image of incredibly tiny details in a photo, no matter how low-res and grainy it is. (And what is it with that typing? If these guys are running UNIX, then they should have macros operating with a keystroke or two. If they’re using Windows — and most of them seem to be – then they should have drop-down menus and a mouseclick. Instead they just clatter all over the keyboard and try to look competetent.)

Some claim that juries determine verdicts by looking for evidence which would have been discovered by forensic scientists, except that the evidence doesn’t exist and so they come to the wrong decision and free a criminal– the so-called “CSI Effect.”

“Some jurors are expecting that some of the technology used on the shows is real, and it’s not,” says Professor Carol Henderson, Director of the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law at Stetson University College of Law. “In fact, they’re sometimes disappointed if some of the new technologies that they think exist are not used. This is causing quite a bit of concern for prosecutors trying the cases, as well as some of the jurors.  They just want this evidence that may not exist.”  The CSI effect has been blamed for acquittals in some recent cases. “Unrealistic expectations are really harming the jury system,” Henderson says.

Others debate whether this “CSI effect” actually exists – “…despite numerous media stories and law enforcement warnings of a “CSI Effect” crippling our criminal justice system, no such effect exists…”

 On the other hand, the possibility of a CSI Effect may create “CSI Infection“:

[Tamara Lawson has coined] a new phrase, “CSI Infection,” by focusing on the significant legal impact that the fear of “CSI Infected Jurors” has made upon the criminal justice system. The CSI Infection is the ubiquitous “It” factor that scholars cannot conclusively prove nor effectively explain away; however, practitioners overwhelmingly confirm the CSI Effect’s impact on criminal jury trials. The CSI Effect’s existence, the CSI Effect’s true or perceived impact on acquittals and convictions, and how to define the CSI Effect, permeates criminal trials. For example, litigators base their motions on the CSI Effect and build their trial strategies around the CSI Effect, transforming the legal arguments of trial lawyers on both sides of a case. Specifically, voir dire questions, jury instructions, as well as opening statements and closing arguments have been modified and correspondingly challenged on appeal – all because of the CSI Effect.

So, even if the CSI Effect doesn’t influence juries, the possibility that it might changes the way lawyers operate in court.

Of course, no matter what juries or lawyers think, forensic science itself is under fire as unreliable. A 2009 National Academy of Sciences paper addressed the problem and there are many efforts being made to make forensic science better. Meanwhile people have gone to prison because of evidence produced from bad science, not to mention bad scientists. So maybe the problem is not that CSI Effect leads to the guilty set free but rather to the innocent being imprisoned.

Speaking of bad science, how about profiling like in Criminal Minds? Largely bullshit. The thing that’s scary about this is the general application of profiling for people applying for jobs or buying airline tickets.

So don’t believe any of that stuff you see on TV. If you’re watching a show for the characters and the drama, fine. Just treat it as fantasy. The “scientists” are really magicians who can wave a wand or chant a spell like “Enhance!” and reveal the truth. Oh, and those shows where lawyers are the main characters? Nothing that you see has any resemblance to anything remotely like genuine legal practice. Period.