DNA

How CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Taught Us—and Tricked Us: Virginia Postrel

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Over at Bloomberg View, former Reason editor Virginia Postrel has a sharp take on the landmark show CSI, which has been cancelled after a 15-year run and launching countless imitators:

On "CSI," the tedious job of processing evidence—kept off-screen in most cop shows—was glamorized in dramatically lit montages, as mysterious and alluring as studio-era Hollywood portraits. But here the work, not the actor, was the star….

By following the evidence, rather than prejudice and emotion, the forensics team defended the innocent, sometimes against their own police colleagues. (One of the show's recurring tropes was that police Capt. Jim Brass, an otherwise sympathetic character, inevitably rushed to judgment about the perpetrator, only to be proven wrong.) Grissom's insistence that "there is no room for subjectivity in this department" assured everyone of fair treatment—and promised the audience that justice would be done.

It was all a fantasy, of course. No police department has the resources of the "CSI" crime lab, nor is real-world forensic analysis as quick, certain and without prejudice as the show's glamorous version might have us believe. But building a hit TV show around that ideal, and giving it cinematic production values, was a culturally significant achievement.

Read the whole thing.

The point about "real-world forensic analysis" being less than certain or untainted by human limitations is key to me. I lived in Los Angeles during the O.J. Simpson trial for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, which provided an introduction both to the supposed inerrancy of "scientific" crime-scene data and exactly how mucked-up it could all be. It's fascinating that the very story that brought DNA analysis to national attention ended with the (obviously guilty IMO) killer being acquitted because the police were shown to be buffoons and worse in the way they conducted themselves.

Fast-forward to today, when CSI is getting bounced in the wake of a massive scandal involving FBI analysis of hair samples (the two events are unrelated). As Peter Neufeld, one of the founders of the Innocence Project who was also on Simpson's defense team back in the day noted,

"These findings confirm that FBI microscopic hair analysts committed widespread, systematic error, grossly exaggerating the significance of their data under oath with the consequence of unfairly bolstering the prosecutions' case." 

Indeed, in up to 3,000 cases, the FBI experts were dishing out what Syracuse University's Roger Koppl calls "clap-trap in court" in a recent Reason piece. Koppl notes that many sorts of forensic analysis that seem indisputable are beyond flawed, and not simply because humans are involved. When it comes to malarkey like bite-mark analysis, the "science" is basically a couple of steps below astrology.

On television shows, forensic evidence is super-scientific and infallible. And yet we have seen over and over again in the real world decidedly unscientific techniques being used. A 2009 study by the National Academy of Sciences was blunt and plainspoken: "The bottom line is simple: in a number of forensic science disciplines, forensic science professionals have yet to establish either the validity of their approach or the accuracy of their conclusions, and the courts have been utterly ineffective in addressing this problem." 

Subjective judgment is a big part of the problem. In hair microscopy, bullet-lead analysis, and fingerprints the forensic scientist is asked to make a subjective judgment of similarity. Even many cases of DNA analysis require subjective judgment. That doesn't seem very scientific. 

Read Koppl here.

And read former Reasoner Radley Balko, now at the Wash Post, on bite-mark analysis.

None of the various versions of CSI made our list of the "Best Libertarian TV Shows Ever." Click below to see what did.

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  1. Is this where we are supposed to leave misogynistic jokes?

    1. She never reads the comments because she knows what she’ll find there.

      1. Misogynistic jokes and SugarFree stories?

        1. Hey, what is your mom, chopped liver?

          1. She identifies as chopped liver, so that counts as a micro-aggression!

            1. OT: HeteroPatriarch, if you haven’t seen it yet, DA: Inquisition is now on sale on Origin. $40 for basic version is pretty good deal.

              1. Unfortunately its not a very good game.

                1. It’s not?

              2. Sweet.

    2. I don’t think I ever apologized for that incident. I guess I lost some perspective and, as a result, said things that I’ve come to regret. I’m sorry that I upset Ms. Postrel. It won’t happen again.

      1. You are a monster!

      2. You apologized, in a non-apology sort of way. Tonio blamed it on being gay.

        1. That’s his excuse for everything!

          1. Well, not everything, Hugh. Your mother was…a special case.

        2. No, CT gave a proper apology. His last two sentences contain an unqualified acceptance of responsibility, an apology to the offended person, and a statement of contrition and a declaration that he will do better.

      3. Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.

        1. Now she’s got Caleb in her talons.

  2. If a jury can’t trust science, what can it trust?

    1. The prosecutor. Duh.

      1. Prosecutors fucking love science!

  3. If you can, go re-watch those first 2 or 3 seasons of CSI. William Petersen was amazing.

    Speaking of shows that have gone on longer than they should have, I heard Harry Shearer is leaving The Simpsons.

    1. Good lord, he’s taking half the cast with him.

  4. Forensic analysis on cop shows is always unimpeachable.

  5. Re DNA: why can’t they just sequence the whole damn thing?

    1. Cyto, please describe, in detail, the interrelationship between forensic science, allopathy and derpathy and their combined effects on John Bolton’s weltanshauung.

      1. I’m sure you are at the center of it all, especially derpathy.

        1. Ah, you didn’t know that I have been a sub rosa advisor to Mr. Bolton!

          1. So you’re a bottom? TMI, bruh….

            1. Don’t tell Warty, please.

              1. Your…secret…is safe with me. No homo.

    2. Because it’s still not all that inexpensive to sequence a whole genome? Current estimate is about $8,000 with absolutely state-of-the-art single molecule techniques. How many labs have access to that sort of equipment? Once we get to in the hundreds of dollar regime with more mass-market equipment, this will happen.

      1. That should be pretty soon. The DNA extraction and preservation is the only tricky part.

        1. I think you underestimate how long it will take to permeate the CSI community. Sure, next-gen techniques will make sequencing absurdly inexpensive. Startups will make fortunes doing way more than 23andMe ever could. This will all happen very quickly. But the private sector moves far more quickly than the public sector, and that’s true even for cities, counties, states, and federal agencies that are on the leading edge; what about backwater jurisdictions or those that don’t care at all about due process? I doubt we’ll see much activity there anytime soon. And that’s probably where it’s most needed.

          1. Except startups will have to sequence genomes in back alleys to keep out of the watchful eye of the Eliot Nesses at the FDA.

        2. Cytotoxic, in case you hadn’t heard of this government agency getting involved in genomic sequencing:

          http://www.research.va.gov/mvp/

          I’m about to run so I won’t start a rant about stupid regulation keeping the veterans themselves from benefiting…but I’m sure the data will be made available to various pharma cronies.

          1. I recall a Law & Order episode some time ago that touched on “forging” of genetic material to implicate someone else in a crime.

            1. Remember, before you go commit that next murder, take a bus trip with a handvac first.

      2. You mean to say the Microsoft Cloud doesn’t already make this possible? That nice Asian fellow told me that’s how he’s going to cure cancer!

  6. Gillespie, do you not know that questioning the veracity of scientists and the current state if the art techniques makes you anti-science?

  7. which provided an introduction both to the supposed inerrancy of “scientific” crime-scene data and exactly how mucked-up it could all be.

    When you say ‘mucked-up’, you mean Johnny Cochran’d?

    1. “If you can convict this twit,
      you must be a nitwit.”

      J. Cochrane

        1. “If Chewbacca lives on Endor you must acquit!”

    2. IT DOES NOT! MAKE! SENSE!

  8. “These findings confirm that FBI microscopic hair analysts committed widespread, systematic error, grossly exaggerating the significance of their data under oath with the consequence of unfairly bolstering the prosecutions’ case.”

    I think it was right here on Reason where I began to learn the intracacies of ‘samples match’ vs. ‘samples compare’.

    And we expect the people not smart enough to get out of jury duty (I’m looking at you, Welch) to understanding these nuances.

    1. *intricacies

      Edit buttons are a human right.

      1. They’re a privilege we’ve not yet earned.

  9. I loved the moments when you got to know more about Gil Grissom’s character. I particularly liked the episode in which he reveals that he relieves work-related stress by riding roller coasters.

  10. I don’t see anything good to come out of these shows. If anything, they have created a false impression among the populace that when the Police determine a suspect, they have this raft of physical evidence behind the charges.

    On the other hand, shows like the old NYPD Blue at least acknowledged that 80% of police investigation is some detective interviewing people and then following up on their hunches. The flaw with those shows is they made the detectives nearly omnipotent in their ability to read a suspect and determine their innocence or guilt.

    1. I agree. All these police procedurals do is create a false sense that the cops are actually honest, respect rights, and want justice not power. It’s a total load and I swear part of the reason it has taken people so long to wake up to cop abuses is that they get epic shittons of free positive PR from the networks year round.

    2. You mean everything isn’t covered in semen?

      1. You’ve obviously never been to Warty’s basement. Hard to get reliable DNA from it though, since all Warty’s bodily fluids are as acidic as xenomorph blood.

        1. There’s a lot of DNA there, and it’s all comingled.

          The horror…

    1. Is that Gary Sineasy there?

      1. Yes, Gary Sinise was in CSI:NY.

    2. Beautiful.

  11. These TV shows that stay around for decades, such as the 850 variations of CSI and that insidious NCIS are perfect examples of what is causing folks to “cut the cable” and ditch the long dead alphabet soup of broadcast networks.

    Shows like Breaking Bad show them how it’s done: Do maybe 5 seasons of really quality stuff, then stick a fork in it and move on.

    Les Moonves should go eat a 12 gauge, as Netflix is showing him and his ass-wipe wife Julie Chen to be the worthless sphincters they truly are.

    1. Isn’t NCIS and the Big Bang Theory some of the few shows that people still actually watch on Network TV?

      1. Big Bang seems (from when I sometimes drop in to watch a segment) to have dropped all but the most notional connection to science and turned into a standard sex/relationship sit-com. Am I missing something?

        1. I haven’t seen anything new in the past few years, but sex/relationship sitcom with a patina of nerdiness was all it’s ever been.

          1. Agreed. I’ll occasionally catch a rerun, but I was done with BBT after one season. If I wanted to watch Friends: Nerd Edition, I’d turn on BBT more often.

            To the larger point, the instant that I have a live sports option available, i’m cutting the cable and never looking back. I did without cable for a few years before getting married, and it was fine. Netflix and Amazon Prime are superior in all ways (except sports) to cable.

    2. So, re: loving CBS, based on these comments I’m marking Alger down as “Maybe”….

  12. You Know Who Else complained about how entertainment was culturally corrupting?

    1. Bill Cosby?

    2. Jack Thompson?

    3. Andrei Zhdanov?

    4. The authors of CanCon?

    5. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

    6. John Calvin?

    7. Barbara Bush?

      (on the Simpsons)

    8. Redneck antisemites with conspiracy theories about Hollywood?

    9. Jesse Jackson?

    10. Fredric Wertham? (A progressive, by the way.)

    11. Anita Sarkeesian?

      1. Nice.

  13. “The CSI franchise is the Adam Lanza of TV shows” – Sheldon Richman

    1. That’s absurd, Al. Everyone knows that the Law & Order franchise is the Adam Lanza of TV shows. CSI is more of a John Wayne Gacy.

      1. I shall ponder this, on the TV Guide of Woe…

        1. He had a new one today:
          Bin Laden was just a helpless old man.

          We’ll see how that gets incorporated into the Reason memes.

          1. Doesn’t need a new meme.

            You know who else was a helpless old man at the end?

            1. Everyone.

            2. The Colonel Sanders character from The Matrix?

            3. Emperor Palpatine?

            4. Mr. Magoo?

            5. FDR?

            6. Yoda?

            7. Ebenezer Scrooge?

  14. When it comes to malarkey like bite-mark analysis, the “science” is basically a couple of steps below astrology.

    That is a smear against the FBI’s first-rate team of Forensic Astrologers.

  15. Now there’s a CSI: Psi Bear. Where will it end?

  16. *My* CSI team exposes fake monsters by recognizing that the obvious suspect is a red herring, then trapping the monster and pulling its mask off.

  17. Proposed: all of Nick’s future articles are links to Virginia’s current or past articles.

    1. It would cut down on the spelling errors considerably.

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  19. I’d nominate another show: VEEP.

    It’s not great, but it depicts the venality of politics pretty well, and it’s kinda funny.

  20. CSI isn’t even the worst offender when it comes to warping public perception of law enforcement. Setting aside the universal pro-cop bias of these shows (it’s called LAW & ORDER, people!), the rights of the innocent are rarely championed. Think of how many suspects they churn through on a typical SVU- is any attention paid to the consequences the falsely accused may face? I mean, Stabler and Benson just told your boss they think you’re a serial rapist. Even though you were exhonorated by a 3rd act plot twist (turns out it was the guest star all along), do you think you’ll still have a job monday morning? And good luck with your custody dispute! Hope that goes well.

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  22. My vote for current worst offender goes to CHICAGO PD. This show is Law- without the Order (unlike Wolf Dick’s other shows; it fails even to try to provide balance), and it embodies what I find to be a disturbingly cavalier attitude towards police intimidation and violence. I don’t follow it, but every episode I’ve ever seen seems to involve The Brave Dectectives Of Chicago’s Blah-Blah Unit roughing up some perp or suspect in extreme close-up.
    See also- THE MYSTERIES OF LAURA; where last week, the lead detective stole a piece of evidence through deception (aided by Steve Guttenberg, no less) that the evidence holder had insisted that she provide a warrant for. This same show spent most of a recent episode showing Our Heroes luxuriating in the booty (ooh- when did we get that new TV?) that they had recieved from a recent civil asset forfeiture (which, of course, was justified- it was from a Drug Dealer, you see).

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