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


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.