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CSI: The truth isn't nearly as entertaining.
July 27, 2009 11:21 AM   Subscribe

CSI Myths: The Shaky Science Behind Forensics Forensic science was not developed by scientists. It was mostly created by cops, who were guided by little more than common sense. And as hundreds of criminal cases begin to unravel, many established forensic practices are coming under fire.
posted by Pragmatica (125 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
What a weird article. Saying their aren't accepted standards pretty much means "there's no governing body that decided what is and is not acceptable as far as standards for this sort of thing" which is pretty much accurate. Creation of the National Institute of Forensic Science may help, may not, probably will.

My sister works for a crime lab doing unsexy logisitcs and admin stuff and she says the biggest deal, the very biggest deal, is the backlog of DNA/rape kit stuff they have to deal with because they're so focused on (well-funded) terrorism/drug war stuff that they don't have the resources to commit to the actual science that could solve crimes. And then this article comes along with the "styled" blood-on-sneaker photo (hello, dried blood isn't usually red!) claiming that the problem is the pseudoscience passing for forensics. I think the problem goes much deeper than that.
posted by jessamyn at 11:30 AM on July 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


and hundreds of college grads with forensic science degrees who are realizing they will not: get to drive a yellow hummer, be able to put their past life behind them, have sex with their lab partner, kill with impunity, and, solve a case.
posted by parmanparman at 11:30 AM on July 27, 2009 [10 favorites]


previously

One of the prime reasons I didn't actually follow my interest in forensic anthro was because I got very tired of explaining to people that no, really, that stuff you see on tv isn't real. I honestly cannot watch any of the "CSI" type shows on TV (except early seasons of Bones) because of this, nor can I have conversations with my sister about those shows without wanting to strangle her.

If I ever do go back into anthro, one of the prime things I intend to do is finish up some work I started in Philosophy of Science of physical anthro on things like acceptability of use of formula and how race typing and sex typing formula actually aren't based on statistically significant data but for some strange reason seem to work anyway.
posted by strixus at 11:36 AM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


As the years ticked by, few listened as Brown proclaimed his innocence from his cell in the Elmira Correctional Facility. Then Brown got an unusual lucky break. His stepfather’s house burned down, taking with it all of his records from the trial. To replace his documents, Brown submitted an open records request to the county. The sheriff who processed Brown’s request mistakenly sent him the entire investigative file. It revealed another suspect: Barry Bench, the firefighter who discovered Kulakowski’s body. Bench’s brother had dated Kulakowski up until two months before the murder and Bench was reportedly upset that she continued to live in the family farmhouse. On the day before Christmas in 2003, Brown sent a letter to Bench letting him know he was seeking DNA testing. “Juries can make mistakes,” he wrote. But, “DNA is God’s creation, and God makes no mistakes.” Soon after receiving the message, Bench committed suicide by jumping in front of an Amtrak train. DNA tests confirmed that Bench was guilty of Kulakowski’s murder, and Brown was set free.
Bizarre. It sounds like in addition to bogus "forensic" analysis, there was some serious prosecutorial misconduct in this case. Browns defense should have access to those documents in the first place.

The basic problem is that there are a bunch of po-dunk jurisdictions doing prosecutions and trials and they are really doing a terrible job of it. They mix bogus forensics in with the rest of the bogus nonsense they pull.
posted by delmoi at 11:37 AM on July 27, 2009 [8 favorites]


A 2006 study by the University of Southampton in England asked six veteran fingerprint examiners to study prints taken from actual criminal cases. The experts were not told that they had previously examined the same prints. The researchers’ goal was to determine if contextual information—for example, some prints included a notation that the suspect had already confessed—would affect the results. But the experiment revealed a far more serious problem: The analyses of fingerprint examiners were often inconsistent regardless of context. Only two of the six experts reached the same conclusions on second examination as they had on the first.

Wow. That's devastating.

Don't expect anything to come of this, though. I can absolutely 100% -- no, 100,000% -- guarantee you that fingerprinting and ballistic evidence will never, under any circumstances, be widely questioned in American courts.

The truth is, we just love our jails too much. We just love putting people in prisons and throwing away the key. We, as a nation, just love it. It's like vitamins for our national character.
posted by Avenger at 11:37 AM on July 27, 2009 [36 favorites]


If you ever want to get off a jury for a criminal case mention that you not only know what a polymerase chain reaction is, but that you'd be running one today were it not for jury duty. IMHO, that's telling enough that they should just find out which lawyer moved for you dismissal and declare the case in the other's favor.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:40 AM on July 27, 2009 [12 favorites]


A 2006 study by the University of Southampton in England asked six veteran fingerprint examiners to study prints taken from actual criminal cases. The experts were not told that they had previously examined the same prints. The researchers’ goal was to determine if contextual information—for example, some prints included a notation that the suspect had already confessed—would affect the results. But the experiment revealed a far more serious problem: The analyses of fingerprint examiners were often inconsistent regardless of context. Only two of the six experts reached the same conclusions on second examination as they had on the first.
Holy shit.
posted by paisley henosis at 11:41 AM on July 27, 2009 [8 favorites]


Also, wtf is up with the computer systems they use on CSI? Is there a name for the TV trope where the good guys have some sleek futuristic looking OS which can match hair samples with the National Hair Sample Registry (!?!!?) while it quickly scans through the files and photos of everyone in America?

I mean, most police departments use Windows, right?
posted by Avenger at 11:41 AM on July 27, 2009 [19 favorites]


I know someone going into the forensic science field, and she's excited about her future in labwork. She got into it from her background in science, not her love of crime-solving TV shows. Her family enjoys all those crime solving shows, but things get heated when science gets meshed with fancy graphics and passed off as some sort of real-life scenario.

I think most college grads with forensic science degrees learned early on that they won't be doing the glamorous stuff seen on TV, because that's not what their classes were about. And ditto Avenger (except for that 100,000% bit - that's just bad math =), I'd like to believe they're taught to be critical of all their assumptions and conclusions, but I worry that people want an answer and will often squish the pieces to get them to match.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:42 AM on July 27, 2009


Also, wtf is up with the computer systems they use on CSI? Is there a name for the TV trope where the good guys have some sleek futuristic looking OS which can match hair samples with the National Hair Sample Registry (!?!!?) while it quickly scans through the files and photos of everyone in America?

This always bugs me. You have space-age science but you brute-force all your searches?
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:43 AM on July 27, 2009 [11 favorites]


I honestly cannot watch any of the "CSI" type shows on TV (except early seasons of Bones) because of this, nor can I have conversations with my sister about those shows without wanting to strangle her.

The *real* damage these shows do is simple: They convince the general public that forensic evidence is infallible, despite the fact that much of it is not. So, you get Forensic Expert X on the stand, he declares that thingamabob test #1 shows that the indicted was present, and bang, instant conviction.
posted by eriko at 11:44 AM on July 27, 2009 [17 favorites]


Pagliaro, a veteran analyst with the Connecticut State Police, has recently co-authored a book called The Real World of a Forensic Scientist. “I think this scrutiny is actually good,” she says. “It’s important for the public to have a realistic expectation of what the science can do.” As for the Barnes case, there is no suggestion of impropriety regarding her testimony, but none of the evidence she presented was based on statistically validated science. “You feel awful someone spent all that time in jail,” she says. “All you can do is look back and say, ‘Was that the best we could do?’”

Pagliaro then put on her sunglasses while The Who began to play.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:47 AM on July 27, 2009 [15 favorites]


Holy shit.

When conclusions rely on judgment calls ("this partial fingerprint looks mostly like that man's right ring finger"), there's the chance for being wrong. Placing fingerprint, ballistics, hair and fiber analysis under the header of "science" is a tricky, because it's not as accurate as DNA. These categories can have look-alikes, but you'd need more evidence to convict anyone (assuming no bias and whatnot).
posted by filthy light thief at 11:49 AM on July 27, 2009


Only two of the six experts reached the same conclusions on second examination as they had on the first.

Mythbusters should take this one on. Or not, considering they passed "do lie detectors work?"
posted by DU at 11:49 AM on July 27, 2009


This is especially interesting paired with the (debated) CSI Effect: inflated expectations based on seeing Avenger's National Hair Sample Registry (heh) and the realtime triangulation of IP addresses geolocating PCs to within 10 meters. It's like they didn't even dust the lawn for fingerprints!

(Re forensic anthro: my friend at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is bored, overworked and underpaid, but at least she's boiled one more human head than I ever will.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:49 AM on July 27, 2009


They convince the general public that forensic evidence is infallible

Yeah, that is a real problem. When I read this article I saw that the expert in the beginning said that the bites "were consistent with" which iirc is a basic way to say "the bites aren't clearly from someone else and could possibly be from Subject X" which to me is a red flag that they didn't have much evidence on the guy whatsoever. There are really good books on real forensic science which talks about some of these sorts of things and are worth reading for people who enjoy the science-y part of forensic science and not all the "let's check the nationwide dirt registry to see where the subject was walking before hekilled her!" nonsense.
posted by jessamyn at 11:49 AM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


The *real* damage these shows do is simple: They convince the general public that forensic evidence is infallible, despite the fact that much of it is not.

Without sounding too much the tinfoil haberdasher, I'm not entirely certain that isn't the point. I've often wondered if there's any useful data on the effects of perceived law enforcement omniscience on crime levels.
posted by Pragmatica at 11:50 AM on July 27, 2009 [9 favorites]


Also, my sister gets to sign for packages of body parts at the crime lab and buy heroin and semen through the mail, so there's that.
posted by jessamyn at 11:50 AM on July 27, 2009 [7 favorites]


My favorite CSI bullshit moment was one episode where it turned out a kid was lighting off pipe bombs engraved with a message, and the CSIs has "matched the toolmarks of a Dremel at his school's workshop to the engravings on the casings". Really. They're claiming with a straight face that a high-speed burr leaves "unique toolmarks" as it grinds away metal instead of performing just like all the other millions of high-speed Dremel burrs in the world.
posted by barc0001 at 11:51 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is there a name for the TV trope where the good guys have some sleek futuristic looking OS which can match hair samples with the National Hair Sample Registry (!?!!?) while it quickly scans through the files and photos of everyone in America?

Of course there is, Avenger.
posted by Iridic at 11:52 AM on July 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


The *real* damage these shows do is simple: They convince the general public that forensic evidence is infallible, despite the fact that much of it is not.

Pity they used "Won't Get Fooled Again" for the theme song, then, innit?
posted by joe lisboa at 11:53 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


There's a great documentary about the Michael Peterson murder case that deals with conflicting forensic analysis from experts. The main question the jury needed answer was whether Peterson's wife died in an accident or had been murdered, and the decision for the most part hinged on the forensic evidence. The documentary is heavily biased in Peterson's favor, but from the film it seemed pretty clear that both sides were trying to come up with analysis that would prove their side of the case, rather than objectively examining the evidence in a scientific way.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:55 AM on July 27, 2009


I mean, most police departments use Windows, right?

No, they use the Viewer Friendly Interface. And the National Hair Sample Registry is from, like, 1980. Nowadays, everybody uses the Magical Database.
posted by nooneyouknow at 12:00 PM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


My favorite CSI bullshit moment

It's hard to pick just one, isn't it? It's an eminently hootworthy show. MY favorite trope is when someone is killed due to "blunt force trauma." Cue a montage where George Eads practices hitting a dummy with a baseball bat, a golf club, a cue stick, a head of cabbage, a stuffed macaque, a copy of Bleak House, the concept of utilitarianism . . . etc. . .

"Grissom? I think it was a baseball bat. Plus, I found a bloody baseball bat at the scene."
posted by Skot at 12:02 PM on July 27, 2009 [31 favorites]


TRUE HOMICIDE INVESTIGATION STORY

(Okay, it's not actually about a homicide investigation, but listen to how fucked up this is.) I'm an avid reader of criminology textbooks; the best/most interesting book in my little collection is probably "Practical Homicide Investigation," 3rd edition. It is extremely detailed and well-researched and much beloved in the field.

And it has a chapter about psychics.

Not "this is bullshit and you should ignore it." A whole chapter that says, more or less "if you are really stuck, you might want to consult with a psychic." This is in the definitive homicide investigation handbook for professional law enforcement.

So, uh, no: I'm not very surprised by this.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:05 PM on July 27, 2009 [35 favorites]


The British fingerprint case is a shocker? Pfft. We can do better. How about the famous FBI fingerprint ID fuckup:

"The system returned 15 possible matches, including prints belonging to Mayfield, on file from a 1984 burglary arrest in Wichita, Kan., when Mayfield was a teenager.

Three separate FBI examiners narrowed the identification to Mayfield, according to Robert Jordan, the FBI agent in charge of Oregon. A court-appointed fingerprint expert agreed.

The FBI maintained its certainty even as Spanish authorities said by mid-April that the original image of the fingerprint taken directly from the bag did not match Mayfield’s, Wax said."


My faith in the FBI, CIA and local Keystone Kops as far as forensic abilities - and many other things - is exactly zero. This is par for the course.
posted by VikingSword at 12:11 PM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


"I need a report on all the walls ever made ever."
posted by Rhaomi at 12:11 PM on July 27, 2009 [11 favorites]


More stories of people exonerated by DNA evidence (like Roy Brown) are available at the Innocence Project website.
posted by prefpara at 12:11 PM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's a shame that this has to be brought up again. As long ago as the mid-70s there was a TV docudrama about the Sam Sheppard murder case that made the point that sometimes the "experts" just sort of make things up: The forensics expert that testified during the first trial that a bloodstain left on a pillow looked like it was made by a surgical instrument (Sheppard was a doctor) admitted, at the retrial, that he couldn't actually point to a real surgical instrument that would have made it.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:12 PM on July 27, 2009


Actually, the most irritating thing about CSI, besides the women all dressing like strippers, is that the analysts interview suspects....and no suspect ever ever just says "I'm going to call my lawyer now" when the squinty-eyed CSI dude poses his "gotcha" question. They just pull an "oh shit" face and confess, and maybe try to strangle the dude for good measure.

I mean, I have problems with Law & Order being too easy on the cops who don't follow procedure/honor suspect's rights, but CSI makes them look like the freakin' ACLU.
posted by emjaybee at 12:13 PM on July 27, 2009 [7 favorites]


I think most college grads with forensic science degrees learned early on that they won't be doing the glamorous stuff seen on TV, because that's not what their classes were about.

But that doesn't stop the thousands of kids who are marketed to and admitted by the multitude of colleges that now have forensic science programs. Some schools don't care if the kids even come to class after the 3rd week of the semester, as long as they get a new crop to bite the hook every year and spend their parents/scholarships/summer money (I'm looking at you, SUNY). This seems to be the same hook-and-disappoint scheme with all of the Sports Management programs.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 12:17 PM on July 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


Doesn't matter. In my fantasy, Abby Sciuto is a real scientist.
posted by njbradburn at 12:20 PM on July 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


Anyone know of a decent study on fingerprint matching? I mean, the "two out of six" thing sounds pretty horrific, but then six is a pretty crappy sample size, and it doesn't say if these were good prints or if they were fragmentary ones.

If I give 100 fingerprint experts a classic ink-pad copy of my prints and, say, a glass with my fingerprints on it (not blurred--nice clean prints), along with, say, 20 other glasses from people who aren't me, will they be able to pick my glass 100% of the time? 90% of the time? Does anyone know?

What I guess I'm asking is: is the problem with fingerprint matching really a problem of practitioners being too confident of their abilities in extreme cases, or is there something fundamentally awry with the very notion of fingerprint matching?
posted by yoink at 12:23 PM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Thanks for the post. This article is chilling.
posted by lunit at 12:26 PM on July 27, 2009


Here's a little help for that fantasy njbradburn -- according to Wikipedia, some of Abby's tattoos are actually Pauley Perrette's, and Perrette started getting her master's in criminal science before becoming an actress.
posted by natabat at 12:26 PM on July 27, 2009


Hey, I just had a two part AHA moment. We often go around and around on MeFi about how much Americans love to hate science. Except -- and this is the first "aha" bit -- when science is putting Bad Guys in Jail. And I thought, wow, this could be the gateway we need to re-establishing the credibility and pre-eminince of science-based curriculum in our schools! Just teach kids about physics (baseball bats hitting dummies), chemistry (PCR), statistical analysis (fingerprint matching) and so on!

And then I had the second AHA moment, which was this: the key element making these shows popular isn't the "science" part, it's the "bad guys go to jail" part. And that really depressed me because I then realized that it didn't have to be science, it could be anything. Like psychic cops. Or alien cops. Or priest cops. Or cops with moustaches. Or cops without moustaches. It's the COPS part, not the SCIENCE part.

Which probably also explains why the science is so shitty on these shows. Because it just doesn't matter.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:29 PM on July 27, 2009 [14 favorites]


I wish they would do this for Dexter.
posted by TonyDanza at 12:29 PM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


"I think most college grads with forensic science degrees learned early on that they won't be doing the glamorous stuff seen on TV, because that's not what their classes were about."

Oh, how I wish this were true. They dont actually learn this till their first lab work classes. I was amused as shit when over half of my first forensic methodology class (a 4000 class for seniors in undergrad who should have had at least 18 hours in anthro stuff already) dropped the first day after finding out that yes, we were working with real human bones. Of course, the funny story was the girl who stuck it out, until the first dental identification lecture, when the prof dumped a box of human teeth on the table (man those suckers BOUNCE) and she ran out of the room to vomit and never came back.

I call these "Human liver moments" because they are the moment where it stops being about stuff in books and actually about holding human livers in your hands, and I seriously think that the academic education process needs to get them over with asap in more fields. Every intro to bio anth class for majors should require you to go to a decomp autopsy.
posted by strixus at 12:30 PM on July 27, 2009 [9 favorites]


Those arguing that the real problem with CSI shows is that they encourage people to simply believe "expert witnesses": what about the situation where the defense wheels Expert B in to testify directly against the prosecution's Expert A?

What do people here think is the best solution? Myself, I think there should be an independent federal agency that provides an examination of all forensic evidence used in court if the defendent requests it. It should be given the evidence, as far as possible, blind (i.e., no "we're pretty sure this is the guy" stuff), and it should report its findings according to scientifically established confidence intervals ("there is a 25% chance that this fingerprint belongs to Person A" etc.).

But there'd be no public support for funding such an agency, there wouldn't be a DA in the land who would voluntarily use it, and many defendants would probably prefer to have "their" expert who will argue "the spatter pattern clearly shows that the prosecution's account is untenable!" than "the spatter pattern has a 10% chance of having been produced by the scenario the prosecution describes."
posted by yoink at 12:32 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


The ME I know relied quite a bit more on things like logic, knowledge of physiology and neurology, chemical and compositional tests, and so forth. Granted, this was a long time ago, but she never struck me as a Magic Database kinda gal. Most of it was just painstaking, go over every square inch of the body (and many cubic inches inside the body) kind of work. Remove every single bullet fragment, and so forth.

Stopping by the office for a quick round of tests on a fresh corpse between dinner and a movie adds a certain something to the evening. That certain something would be the smell of a bone saw as it hits someone's head.
posted by adipocere at 12:33 PM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


My medical examiner friend is driven to rage by CSI, because it's so ridiculously fake. It's always hilarious and informative. I have a terrible urge to try to make her watch an episode just to see how pissed she would get.

The way this type of research is funded has a lot to do with how it's conducted. It would be wonderful to see the system reformed, but that's going to require a lot of training and a signifigant updating of equipment, and that's going to cost money, tax money, in a time when most of the system has been starved. Its also going to require,as Jessamyn pointed out upthread, a proper re-evaluation of priorities - away from "terror" to the less glamorous, but more pressing, everyday crime. And I don't know if the government bodies responsible would be willing or able to do that.

I also think, due to legal and public scrutiny, that there is a lot of pressure to get a definitive result much more quickly than an accurate conclusion can be reached, which is not the fault of the researchers.

I'm sure, positive, that forensic professionals would love the opportunity to do their jobs with more precision. They really aren't some cabal of power-tripping charlatans and witch-doctors. They want the right people exonerated and arrested as much, if not more, than anyone. Forensics isn't strictly a science, there is an art to putting the pieces together, but I sincerely believe that the people who work in this field do want better science at their disposal.
posted by louche mustachio at 12:34 PM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's freakin' Television, people! I don't read comments where y'all think that Wile E. Coyote wouldn't really buy Acme rockets and rollerskates.

It's supposed to be entertainment. If you don't like it? Don't watch it. Suspend all belief before flipping the channel.

FWIW, I work in a field that quite often is depicted as pretty swoopy on TV. Because the writers and producers (not to mention the actors) are so far off as to appear stupid, I don't watch.

It's simple.
posted by Man with Lantern at 12:34 PM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


If any of you can prove to me that David Caruso is not, in fact, a fucking boiled shrimp, I will give you $100 cash money.
posted by Divine_Wino at 12:35 PM on July 27, 2009 [12 favorites]


*sigh* natabat.
posted by njbradburn at 12:36 PM on July 27, 2009


I honestly cannot watch any of the "CSI" type shows on TV...

You realize that's the same reaction doctors and lawyers have to watching the bogus medicine or law used in hospital or legal dramas, right?

Or, you know, the reaction that 85.3% of MetaFilter has to any computer technology ever used on television?

Exhibit A: this'a here thread here, yer honor.
posted by rokusan at 12:39 PM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


No, they use the Viewer Friendly Interface.

All computers running in a scientific institution display a spinning DNA helix, positioned in a top corner, at all times. Atoms with electrons orbiting them on fixed paths are a popular alternative.
posted by odinsdream at 12:40 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this article sounds about right. It's just 20th century whizbangery applied to the "science" of the polygraph test, which is pretty much a 1962-model Scientology e-meter dosed with a whole lot of social engineering done by an interrogator.

You're supposed to be impressed and extra-nervous because of the dazzling and powerful Science! being used. Get nervous enough and maybe you'll say something stupid.

(Which is why they're usually inadmissible in court.)
posted by rokusan at 12:40 PM on July 27, 2009


21st century, rather. Fuck I'm old.
posted by rokusan at 12:40 PM on July 27, 2009


CSI: The truth isn't nearly as entertaining.

Yes, and librarians don't travel the world in search of lost magical objects, and there isn't really a 3-fingered guy named Homer Simpson working at the local nuclear power plant.

Television isn't real. Sad but true.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:43 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's supposed to be entertainment. If you don't like it? Don't watch it. Suspend all belief before flipping the channel.

I
know enough to know that and you know enough to do that, but the whole of America does not. Sadly, a lot of people think that CSI departments work "just like on TV!"

I just learned early about police procedure when we had "career day" at my Jr. High, and the police officer who came made it very clear that "just so you know, kids, my job isn't really very much like 'Hill Street Blues' at all -- most of the time, it's more like 'Barney Miller'*." But today, without the show that show the boring paperwork side of police work, the only impression people get of "what police do all day" is entertainment, so the average schlub thinks that CSI is real, and so it's more about "other people think this is real" than "we don't like this."



* Wow, I've just realized how much that dates me. Oh well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:46 PM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


True story: a less-than-stellar university in Chile created a Forensic Science major and and marketed it to kids using images that looked almost like straight screen grabs from CSI.
42 of their graduates sued them for false advertising, i.e.: there's no place in Chile they can actually work as forensic scientists, and the university lost to the tune of about $700.000 USD.

I am not making this up.

posted by signal at 12:57 PM on July 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


On Barney Miller, they had a rotating cast of about 13 character actors who played every single resident of Greenwich Village. Once I noticed this fact, the show became terribly confusing.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:59 PM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


On Barney Miller, they had a rotating cast of about 13 character actors who played every single resident of Greenwich Village.

Well, I'm from a very small town, so even still....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:00 PM on July 27, 2009


... meaning that crime figures would be much lower - and prisons less crowded - if they could put the right person behind bars the first time...
posted by vvurdsmyth at 1:02 PM on July 27, 2009


I wanted to favorite Jessamyn's comment but then I was worried what the authorities might think I'm up to in my basement...

Although, if anyone wants to send David Boreanaz over to my house naked in a beer hat with comic book in hand (Bones reference, yo -- just got the 2nd and 3rd seasons for my anniversary present), I will forensically "examine" him so. hard.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 1:08 PM on July 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


I think the problem goes much deeper than that.
posted by jessamyn at 2:30 PM on July 27


And you'd be right. The problem in forensics is that science technically has no special place in criminal law. The DA puts on their case, the defense puts on theirs, the jury weighs the evidence, and renders a verdict.

Science is a search for the truth. A criminal trial is a pursuit of justice, which is related to the truth but tempered by mercy and compassion. Furthermore, the pursuit of justice in a trial is required to be "speedy" under the 6th Amendment. The scientific pursuit of truth can and has taken lifetimes.

In science, we don't weigh evidence. We form a hypothesis and test it based on observations. In law, if you present mediocre case that the world is round and someone else presents an elaborate spectacular presentation that it is flat, the jury may weigh the evidence and conclude that the world is NOT ROUND beyond a reasonable doubt. Or perhaps a better example is one where on one hand the prosecution has blood found at the crime scene that matches the defendants', but on the other hand one of the cops in an completely unrelated matter once used the word "nigger" in an interview, so the jury, in service of justice, finds him not guilty. Perhaps it is justice to let a black killer free if the investigating officer is a racist, perhaps not. The jury seemed to think so.

What forensics does is create a system to present in court evidence that masquerades as scientific fact, to graft the truth-seeking apparatus of science into the justice-seeking apparatus of the law. But there are no real facts in a courtroom, only evidence and arguments. And they two sides aren't even having the same argument. I argued that based on A, B, C, D, we can conclude X. You argue that Based on A, B, E, F, G, we conclude NOT-X. Some evidence is wrong (eyewitness testimony), some evidence may be true but inadmissible under the rules of evidence (a polygraph).

Consider:

Here's an oily splotch on a glass and here's a splotch made by taking the accused's thumb, pressing it onto an ink pad, and then pressing it on a paper. Here's is Dr. Shmoe to tell you that they match.

That sounds like "hey, there was a fingerprint at the scene left by the accused's finger." That's the conclusion the prosecution wants you to form. That's the lawyers closing argument, but that is what the scientist on the stand will be careful not to say.

But the proper response to this is for the defense to get Dr. Moe to say, (a) the splotch isn't a fingerprint, or there isn't enough of the splotch to say for sure whether it's a print or not, (b) when the cops took the accused's prints they did it wrong, used the wrong finger, etc., (c) Dr. Shmoe isn't comparing them correctly, he's ignoring the parts that don't match up and only talking to you about the parts that do, etc. You take the "facts" and you turn them back into subjective arguments.

Key to forensics is the notion that the court can designate someone as an expert witness, whose opinion about the evidence is deemed by the court to be reliable above and beyond that of ordinary people (i.e. the idiot jurors). The requirements for someone being designated as an expert are well known and often gamed, and are boringly presented here. It suffices to say that people have started peer-reviewed journals in all kinds of goofy nonsense to conform to the Daubert standards and hold themselves out as experts.

For purposes of this conversation, it doesn't matter though, because courtrooms often turn into battles between experts, like Drs. Shmoe and Moe above. The jury is left just as confused as if no scientists had been presented evidence, but the difference is Drs. Shmoe and Moe can laugh about it afterwards as they spend their $850/hr fees on hookers and blow.

The advantage of forensics is that it presents a system in which facts and opinions purporting to be scientific can be introduced at trial. This is necessary, because the alternative is ham-handed pseudo-scientific experiments performed to p0ull off a Perry Mason climax at the trial. Like what you saw in OJ's trial - OJ standing up and trying to put on a glove to prove that it fit (or didn't as it turned out). But that was not a scientific way of determining whether a glove fit. It would have been more scientific to take a rubber cast of his hand and have someone fit the same model and size glove on it (but not the real one found at the scene). Or to do measurements. But you don't try to get a defendant to put on a glove impregnated with dried blood in front of a jury. Especially when OJ is already wearing rubber gloves underneath. That is beyond retarded.

Forensics is needed because both the courts and the jury are functionally scientifically illiterate, and chock full of biases and prejudices. There are jurors who think mental illness are faked, that white cops can't be trusted, judges who don't trust eggheads, judges who demand defendants stand trial in shackles, etc.

The situations where the science is incontrovertible - DNA at the scene matches defendants DNA, HD video of the crime with, etc. don't go to trial, they get plead out. That's where forensics works.

A corollary to all this is the notion that an accused rapist can be exonerated years after the fact with a DNA test of the rape kit that was not available at the time. This is nonsense. First, just because the semen doesn't match does not mean the convicted did not rape her. It means that she had sex with someone else (consensual or not) and that there is no evidence that he did not rape her. Furthermore, this is dangerous ground. Is this a trial? If there is no match, does the prosecution get to question the witness under oath to find the cause of the discrepancy?

We have a system of justice. It is as much about the systematic approach to justice as it is about the justice itself.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:08 PM on July 27, 2009 [17 favorites]


Only two of the six experts reached the same conclusions on second examination as they had on the first.

An episode of Numb3rs asked, how do we know fingerprinting is correct?

One of the scientists responded that fingerprinting is "99.9 percent accurate."

And the math guy responded, well, that means for every million tests, there's 1,000 mistakes...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:09 PM on July 27, 2009 [6 favorites]


That is beyond retarded.

Indeed. But nobody ever actually said Christopher Darden wasn't retarded.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:11 PM on July 27, 2009


Also, in CSI's defense, the show always ends with a confession and therefore the case at issue never goes to trial. But I don't watch it so maybe not all shows are like this. I usually don't stick around past the hot girls clubbing or the naughty dominatrixes. As far as formulaic procedurals go, Law & Order handles forensic science ambiguity much better.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:13 PM on July 27, 2009


conversations with my sister about those shows without wanting to strangle her

I hope they still have that big fat reward for leads in that unsolved murder in my town...
posted by digsrus at 1:15 PM on July 27, 2009


And it has a chapter about psychics.

If Tarot cards are good enough for AskMe, they're good enough for homicide.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:18 PM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


CSI Myths: Everything, everywhere, is liberally coated in semen.

I always imagined the world of CSI must be very... sticky. But then, it is Las Vegas, so it's possible that this is just accurate local color.
posted by rusty at 1:20 PM on July 27, 2009


If I give 100 fingerprint experts a classic ink-pad copy of my prints and, say, a glass with my fingerprints on it (not blurred--nice clean prints), along with, say, 20 other glasses from people who aren't me, will they be able to pick my glass 100% of the time? 90% of the time? Does anyone know?

I think it would be more interesting to give the experts 21 glasses, but none of them have your fingerprint on it.

"He cites a series of tests conducted by the CTI (Collaborative Testing Service) a private testing service from 1995 to 2001 where false positive (misidentifications) rates ranged from 20% to 3%."
posted by ryoshu at 1:20 PM on July 27, 2009


seanmpuckett: And then I had the second AHA moment, which was this: the key element making these shows popular isn't the "science" part, it's the "bad guys go to jail" part. And that really depressed me because I then realized that it didn't have to be science, it could be anything. Like psychic cops. Or alien cops. Or priest cops. Or cops with moustaches. Or cops without moustaches. It's the COPS part, not the SCIENCE part.

It seems to me that putting bad guys to jail is not always as important as taking them to justice - by any means necessary. In many cases, they simply shoot and kill the bad guy (they always do this on Criminal Minds); the cases never go to trial. I suspect that it's because people don't actually trust the courts to put the bad guys in jail: it's a common belief that courts tend to turn bad guys loose because of some "loophole" or other. Crime shows only tend to reinforce this belief.
posted by daniel_charms at 1:26 PM on July 27, 2009


"He cites a series of tests conducted by the CTI (Collaborative Testing Service) a private testing service from 1995 to 2001 where false positive (misidentifications) rates ranged from 20% to 3%."

O.k., but while 20% is very bad, 3% is rather good (if I were on a jury and knew that a fingerprint put the accused in the frame with 97% accuracy, I'd consider that a pretty important piece of evidence). So is the 20% the result of sloppy practices (which could be improved) or the result of some essential limitation in the nature of fingerprint evidence?
posted by yoink at 1:28 PM on July 27, 2009


Divine_Wino: If any of you can prove to me that David Caruso is not, in fact, a fucking boiled shrimp, I will give you $100 cash money.

My favorite thing about David Caruso is how he always says everything in his sinister 'Gotcha' voice while his head is angled down (so he can peer over her sunglasses, even if he isn't wearing them) and he's slowly turning away from whomever he's addressing. Always. Like, 100% of the time. But because CSI: Miami is so heavily edited, it looks badass and stuff. BUT: Go rent Session 9, which features Caruso in many wide shots, and he does the same freaking thing he does on CSI except he looks completely insane because of it.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:31 PM on July 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


...This is nonsense. First, just because the semen doesn't match does not mean the convicted did not rape her. It means that she had sex with someone else (consensual or not) and that there is no evidence that he did not rape her. Furthermore, this is dangerous ground. Is this a trial? If there is no match, does the prosecution get to question the witness under oath to find the cause of the discrepancy?

This is a bit of a mischaracterization of DNA exonerations, though maybe I am misreading this portion of your comment. DNA exonerations occur in very specific instances: where the identity of the perpetrator was an issue at trial, and where the DNA evidence collected could not have come from anyone but the perpetrator, and does not match the person convicted of the crime. People are not exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing simply because someone else’s DNA was found in a rape kit unless there is good reason to believe that no one but the alleged perpetrator could have left the DNA. If a rape victim has had consensual sex prior to the attack that sexual partner’s DNA has to be tested or there isn’t going to be an exoneration.

I would also argue that, at least under the federal rules of evidence, truth, and not simply justice, is an important goal in our legal system, especially in considerations of admissibility of evidence at trial.
posted by Doug at 1:39 PM on July 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


Trial by jury makes about as much sense in this day and age as does the pony express. Did you know that 51% of the public believe in ghosts? So if you go on trial and you look over at a jury of your peers, odds are that about half of them think Slimer may jump out at them at any moment. Yes they believe CSI is real, yes they read their horoscope that morning, yes they will understand roughly 4 out of every 500 words the judge and the attorneys use. No they have no business deciding anything. I've said it before and I'll say it again, democracy simply doesn't work
posted by ND¢ at 1:48 PM on July 27, 2009 [8 favorites]


No they don't manage to highlight the period when copying the Kent Brockman quote.
posted by ND¢ at 1:48 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Remember, "trial by jury" is actually "trial by twelve people who weren't smart enough to be removed by either prosecution or defense".
posted by notsnot at 1:51 PM on July 27, 2009


Is there a name for the TV trope where the good guys have some sleek futuristic looking OS which can match hair samples with the National Hair Sample Registry

When I reported my car being hit-and-ran to the LAPD the guy took a picture with a Polaroid camera. They're actually closer to 'quirky-hipster-analog" than "brave new world."
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:02 PM on July 27, 2009


Only two of the six experts reached the same conclusions on second examination as they had on the first.

Here (PDF) is some source data for that, and that paragraph in the article is borderline misleading. It makes it sound like a 33% success rate. But actually each expert did eight fingerprints, and they are only counted as "reached the same conclusions" if they got them all right. Two of them did, but overall they got 89% (42 of 47) of the results the same as their prior analysis.
posted by smackfu at 2:03 PM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Or people who thrill at the chance for $8 a day and/or free lunch! Or people who LOVE the criminal justice system!
posted by kathrineg at 2:03 PM on July 27, 2009


Man, I don't know about you guys but now I feel a shit-ton better about watching Fringe.
posted by Shepherd at 2:10 PM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also, wtf is up with the computer systems they use on CSI?

My pet theory is that CSI: Miami is actually meant to be part of the Star Trek canon. It seems obvious to me that some kind of time traveling future spaceship fell into the hands of people around the 1980s or so, and the result is the kind of portable, huge, holographic screen, faster than the speed of light computers, programmed in some kind of advanced "do what I want, not what I say" language that we see on the show.
posted by Naberius at 2:16 PM on July 27, 2009


Related: those weary of the CSI shows should check out The First 48, in which cases are solved pretty realistically: detectives talk to everyone involved until they catch somebody in a lie.
posted by droob at 2:18 PM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Here (PDF) is some source data for that, and that paragraph in the article is borderline misleading.

I think you're being overly generous there. That's just out and out misleading. Pretty ironic in an article about dodgy prosecutions misusing evidence to make their case.
posted by yoink at 2:23 PM on July 27, 2009


Or, you know, those of us who do jury duty despite how much it inconveniences us* because we're concerned about civic responsibility and all that rot.

* Criminal court jury duty in New Orleans (Orleans Parish) is a minimum of eight days, typically two-a-week for a month, with no dismissal after you serve on a trial. I pulled my stint in May and served twice. There were some duds in the pool but most of the people I spoke with were conscientious, intelligent, and took their responsibility as jurors seriously.

To bring this back on point, I was concerned that two people in my first trial couldn't get past the fact that the police didn't dust the crime scene for prints. Even when it was pointed out that fingerprint analysis is reserved for much bigger cases didn't seem to faze them - they were convinced the police had dropped the ball.
posted by djeo at 2:24 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, CSI Seinäjoki solves a car theft with a blood from a mosquito. (Though the evidence may not be enough for prosecution.)
posted by Free word order! at 2:29 PM on July 27, 2009


A corollary to all this is the notion that an accused rapist can be exonerated years after the fact with a DNA test of the rape kit that was not available at the time. This is nonsense. First, just because the semen doesn't match does not mean the convicted did not rape her. It means that she had sex with someone else (consensual or not) and that there is no evidence that he did not rape her.
It also means it's no longer "beyond a reasonable doubt".
posted by vsync at 2:29 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I enjoy all of the CSI shows, although it mystifies me why the original show is "CSI:" in the on-screen graphics with nothing after the colon. That aside, it's a good show.

CSI:NY isn't quite as good, but still OK. There's always a crucial piece of evidence than can have only one possible origin, and one of the team will always know the exact one place in Manhattan where the evidence originated, without doing any research.

CSI:Miami is a crap show and a guilty pleasure. David Caruso is terrible, but his over-the-top cheeseball one-liners are funny. All three shows have basically the same lineup, but all of the actors on CSI:Miami are younger and hotter and they all dress like they're in a nightclub that requires designer clothes.

Jim Carrey does David Caruso
posted by kirkaracha at 2:47 PM on July 27, 2009


Man with Lantern : Suspend all belief before flipping the channel... FWIW, I work in a field that quite often is depicted as pretty swoopy on TV. Because the writers and producers (not to mention the actors) are so far off as to appear stupid, I don't watch.

I think part of the problem with this is that not everyone watching understands that what they are seeing is grossly exaggerated, particularly in light of the fact that so many shows make use of the same conventions, leading people watching to believe that since every program is consistently showing the same thing, these techniques must be real.

Even this wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for the fact that these same viewers might one day be expected to sit on an impartial jury and listen to evidence provided by someone who speaks like an authority, but is actually using questionable science and techniques.

Or shorter: if you can come up with a convincing way to get people who watch TV to suspend their disbelief, I'm listening, because the faith people put in what they see can be pretty surprising, even when they claim to "know better".

[My personal windmill to tilt against is the Foley sound effects they give to things like guns. Glocks don't have manual safeties or hammers, so why is it making that 'clicking' noise when you take it out and point it at someone? Grrr.]
posted by quin at 2:50 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh right, science. That's the thing that happens on cop shows when the techno-lite soundtrack suddenly comes on and we see pan-zooms of phosphorescent test tubes for six seconds...
posted by inoculatedcities at 2:50 PM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter: require you to go to a decomp autopsy.
posted by fcummins at 3:03 PM on July 27, 2009


Glocks don't have manual safeties or hammers, so why is it making that 'clicking' noise when you take it out and point it at someone? Grrr.

The same reason that revolvers contain 43 bullets?
posted by rokusan at 3:10 PM on July 27, 2009


quin: [My personal windmill to tilt against is the Foley sound effects they give to things like guns. Glocks don't have manual safeties or hammers, so why is it making that 'clicking' noise when you take it out and point it at someone? Grrr.]

And anytime you move a blade of any kind in any way whatsoever, even (especially!) if it doesn't touch anything, even if you're just shifting your grip on the blade, it makes the noise of steel brushing against steel.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:10 PM on July 27, 2009


Google should totally have a "CSI option," where whenever you do a search, it makes a mechanical chattering noise the whole time, and then when it finds a result, it spawns a child window that does a somersaulting motion before appearing in front of you with a new gloooop noise.
posted by Skot at 3:20 PM on July 27, 2009 [12 favorites]


Way up there, seanmpuckett contemplates teaching forensics in high school as a way to get kids interested in biology/chemistry/physics...

My friend, that day came long ago. Google "high school forensic science syllabus" and see for yourself.

Sadly, I think your second "AHA" moment is also true--that ultimately the students are more motivated by the idea of catching the bad guy. Or maybe feeling smarter than/superior to the bad guy. (Or for that matter wanting to *be* the bad guy, and are hoping to find ways to get around being caught--see occasional news stories of criminals splashing victims with bleach, etc, in hopes of destroying evidence.)
posted by Sublimity at 3:51 PM on July 27, 2009


Man, I don't know about you guys but now I feel a shit-ton better about watching Fringe.

And Warehouse 13

Though I must admit a guilty pleasure for watching CSI: Miami for all it's greasy, oozy, cheesy-ness.
posted by Nauip at 3:55 PM on July 27, 2009


“I think part of the problem with this is that not everyone watching understands that what they are seeing is grossly exaggerated…”

CSI: Reality!

*cue vaguely wistful, but tension building opening of Baba O'Riley *
Guy looking into a microscope
* F-C-Bb power chords*
Guy still looking into a microscope.
* Out here in the fields! *
Guy still looking into a microscope.
* I fought for my meals!*
Guy changes slides. Looks into microscope.
*I get my back in to my living! *
Guy leaves microscope, slow motion walk down hall
* I don’t need to fight! To prove I’m right! *
Guy at vending machine.
* I don’t neeeed to be forgiven! YEAH-A –A – AHUH!*
Guy takes bill, smooths it on his pants. Tries to get it to go in again.
*Power Chord Crescendo! *
Guy looking into microscope with bag of chips next to him
posted by Smedleyman at 4:34 PM on July 27, 2009 [11 favorites]


A 2006 study by the University of Southampton in England asked six veteran fingerprint examiners to study prints taken from actual criminal cases. The experts were not told that they had previously examined the same prints. The researchers’ goal was to determine if contextual information—for example, some prints included a notation that the suspect had already confessed—would affect the results. But the experiment revealed a far more serious problem: The analyses of fingerprint examiners were often inconsistent regardless of context. Only two of the six experts reached the same conclusions on second examination as they had on the first.

I read this study a while back and thought there was something wrong with this description of it, so I looked it up. Here's the abstract:

We investigated whether experts can objectively focus on feature information in fingerprints without being misled by extraneous information, such as context. We took fingerprints that have previously been examined and assessed by latent print experts to make positive identification of suspects. Then we presented these same fingerprints again, to the same experts, but gave a context that suggested that they were a no-match, and hence the suspects could not be identified.Within this new context, most of the fingerprint experts made different judgements, thus contradicting their own previous identification decisions. Cognitive aspects involved in biometric identification can explain why experts are vulnerable to make erroneous identifications.

The OMG phrase from the article ("But the experiment revealed a far more serious problem") is misleading. The "far more serious problem" is what the researchers were looking at in the first place, so let's mark one up for hyperbole. The study showed that the fingerprint experts could be influenced by context, which is more of a duh than a eureka.

BTW, the study was done in 2005 and included 5 subjects. It's kind of amusing that someone trying to indict forensics for mistakes would make such elementary mistakes themselves. (Unless they are referring to another Bigger! Newer! UofS fingerprint study on exactly the same subject, in which case I withdraw my snark.)
posted by joaquim at 4:48 PM on July 27, 2009


There's a famous example from a rape trial in the UK a few years ago in which a woman was raped and (fairly crude) DNA analysis performed based on a semen sample. A man who'd been in the right city but didn't match descriptions was brought in and found to have a matching DNA profile. The prosecution reasoned that

1) Only one person in a million will have a DNA profile which matches that of the crime stain.

2) The Defendant has a DNA profile which matches the crime stain.

3) Ergo there is a million to one probability that the Defendant left the crime stain and is guilty of the crime.


...which is nonsense. It actually means that, if you sample 1 million men chosen at random, you'd expect one of them to match that profile. So you'd expect ~31 men in the UK to match, of whom ~4 would've been in Manchester on that day. This is an obvious flaw in reasoning that a high school stats student should spot, but the defence lawyer, judge and jury didn't spot it. There was no other evidence, the victim said that the defendant didn't look like her attacker and the defendant's girlfriend provided an alibi; despite this, the misunderstood statistics led to his conviction.(1, 2)

Modern DNA fingerprinting techniques are much more specific and should eliminate this problem. But this highlights a lack of education in probabilities and the limitations of scientific evidence. Yoink's suggested study would be fascinating. I'd love to see the results passed to a jury to see how well they cope with e.g. "this fingerprint is about 80% reliable while the pieces of contradictory evidence A B & C are independent and each about 20% reliable". Given how badly untrained people deal with thinking about probabilities, the answer would probably be a bit scary.

Also, while my career in science hasn't (yet) afforded me the opportunity to drive a yellow hummer, kill people with impunity or solve a case, having sex with one's hot lab partner is both possible and jolly good fun.
posted by metaBugs at 4:48 PM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


"Grissom? I think it was a baseball bat. Plus, I found a bloody baseball bat at the scene."

Early photo of Grissom with baseball bat.

Seriously though, I think one of the problems is that some of these experts get caught up in their own hype, and develop a bad case of hubris.

Some years ago, a fingerprint examiner from Conroe, TX named Jimmy Chilcutt declared that certain ridges on a purported Sasquatch footprint cast were "dermal ridges". He did this on national TV, and in fact declared "I stake my reputation on it". After several years of investigation, I, and several others who have duplicated my methodology, have concluded that the textures are in fact "desiccation ridges", an artifact of the casting process.

The relevant explanation is found on my website.

If you find my explanation tl:dr, then take a look at the photos found on just one page, to see how surprisingly close a purely inorganic process can mimic a biological process.
posted by Tube at 4:51 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Cole, Simon A. 2007. "The Fingerprint Controversy." The Skeptical Enquirer 31.4 (July/August, 2007).

Lillenfield, Scott O., Landfield, Kristen. 2008. "Science and Pseudoscience in Law Enforcement: A User-Friendly Primer." Criminal Justice and Behavior 35.10:1215-1230.

I remember reading the former and being shocked. The latter cites it. As I recall the biggest problem with fingerprints is not that there's no evidence that they are as unique as everybody claims (there isn't), but that bulk matching algorithms use just a fixed set of points, and there is definitely evidence that those fixed points are not unique.
posted by djfiander at 4:51 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


CSI: Reality!

See, this is why I like ReGenesis. When they have science action montages, they're generally composed of people centrifuging samples, and maybe micropipetting. Occasionally, they have someone peering gravely into an Ehrlenmeyer flask full of a suspciously Koolaid-like fluid, but that's the absolute worst case.

That isn't to say that ReGenesis isn't stupid-- it's plenty stupid. But it's an advanced, Law and Order grade of stupid, as opposed to the hopeless, mouth-breathing David Caruso kind.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 4:53 PM on July 27, 2009


I just learned early about police procedure when we had "career day" at my Jr. High, and the police officer who came made it very clear that "just so you know, kids, my job isn't really very much like 'Hill Street Blues' at all -- most of the time, it's more like 'Barney Miller'*." But today, without the show that show the boring paperwork side of police work, the only impression people get of "what police do all day" is entertainment, so the average schlub thinks that CSI is real, and so it's more about "other people think this is real" than "we don't like this."

Here in New Zealand, police and lawyers have started complaining that suspects expect to "have their phone call", amongst other things that exist on American TV but not in the New Zealand legal system.
posted by rodgerd at 5:01 PM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


1) Only one person in a million will have a DNA profile which matches that of the crime stain.

2) The Defendant has a DNA profile which matches the crime stain.

3) Ergo there is a million to one probability that the Defendant left the crime stain and is guilty of the crime.


You know, I really had to stop and think about why this wasn't correct. It wasn't until I translated it into "one person in six" that I saw how absurd it was (the disjunction between "one person in six could have left this clue" and "there is a one in six chance that you left this clue" is immediately obvious). Shows how big numbers can mess with your gut sense of odds. "One in a million" just sounds so compelling.
posted by yoink at 5:05 PM on July 27, 2009


Here in New Zealand, police and lawyers have started complaining that suspects expect to "have their phone call", amongst other things that exist on American TV but not in the New Zealand legal system.

Er, that one you are allowed in the New Zealand legal system.
posted by yoink at 5:08 PM on July 27, 2009


Also, wtf is up with the computer systems they use on CSI?

To Hollywood, "computer" translates roughly to "magic box that advances the plot." No real attention seems to be paid to what is actually possible. Hacker movies have suffered this syndrome for years.

Also, the flip side to making people believe in the omnipotence of law enforcement is creating thorough, hyper-paranoid criminals. I recall reading a news story about a murderer who went the whole nine yards (carefully chopping up and disposing of the body, bleaching everything near the crime scene, establishing a believable alibi, etc.) after committing his crime. He claimed to have learned everything from watching CSI.
posted by Avelwood at 5:19 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I recall reading a news story about a murderer who went the whole nine yards (carefully chopping up and disposing of the body, bleaching everything near the crime scene, establishing a believable alibi, etc.) after committing his crime. He claimed to have learned everything from watching CSI.

Odd, then, that you were reading a news story about him.
posted by Pragmatica at 5:27 PM on July 27, 2009


If any of you can prove to me that David Caruso is not, in fact, a fucking boiled shrimp, I will give you $100 cash money.

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

There you have it! Now, please give me my hundre...oh, wait. Shit. He is a boiled shrimp.
posted by Pecinpah at 5:27 PM on July 27, 2009


Odd, then, that you were reading a news story about him.

I believe he confessed or turned himself in after cooling down and realizing what he had done or some such. I'll try to find the story.
posted by Avelwood at 5:31 PM on July 27, 2009


MetaFilter: liberally coated in semen
posted by bwg at 5:46 PM on July 27, 2009


I loved my forensic anthro classes. If there had been an option to continue studying it, I would have. But that was way before CSI and forensic science classes galore, unfortunately. For me, watching CSI is fun because of the crazy forensics stuff they do - it's so much fun to nitpick!

And my question was going to be along the lines of Avelwood's. It would be interesting to see what types of ideas criminals are taking from these kinds of shows, and if it's having any measurable impact on criminal cases or not.
posted by gemmy at 5:49 PM on July 27, 2009


oh, wait. Shit. He is a boiled shrimp.

I'm sayin' yo.
posted by Divine_Wino at 5:53 PM on July 27, 2009


It would be interesting to see what types of ideas criminals are taking from these kinds of shows, and if it's having any measurable impact on criminal cases or not.

I'd have thought that to the extent that the shows suggest that CSI investigators are essentially magicians it would make the "calculating" criminal abandon crime as a losing proposition.

I think any criminal bright enough to actually learn something useful from CSI type programs is bright enough to use Google to find out that actual CSI practices are not much like the TV programs.
posted by yoink at 5:56 PM on July 27, 2009


(Re forensic anthro: my friend at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is bored, overworked and underpaid, but at least she's boiled one more human head than I ever will.)

posted by chesty_a_arthur


The scary thing? She's actually boiled three human heads.
posted by Amanojaku at 6:14 PM on July 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


My medical examiner friend is driven to rage by CSI, because it's so ridiculously fake. It's always hilarious and informative. I have a terrible urge to try to make her watch an episode just to see how pissed she would get.

I just wanted to say that a podcast by actual medical examiners done as a commentary track for CSI episodes would probably be really cool and informative. Also, it would make me start watching CSI again, so I guess that's a wash.
posted by heathkit at 6:17 PM on July 27, 2009


Along the same lines: "House" Medical Reviews

(Honestly a bit tedious.)
posted by smackfu at 6:22 PM on July 27, 2009


No, there's more! You see? When the left tire mark goes up on the curb and the right tire mark stays flat and even? Well, the '64 Skylark had a solid rear axle, so when the left tire would go up on the curb, the right tire would tilt out and ride along its edge. But that didn't happen here. The tire mark stayed flat and even. This car had an independent rear suspension. Now, in the '60's, there were only two other cars made in America that had positraction, and independent rear suspension, and enough power to make these marks. One was the Corvette, which could never be confused with the Buick Skylark. The other had the same body length, height, width, weight, wheel base, and wheel track as the '64 Skylark, and that was the 1963 Pontiac Tempest.
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:34 PM on July 27, 2009 [8 favorites]


Saxon, you have brought shame upon me by making me realize I recognize that quote.
posted by COBRA! at 6:46 PM on July 27, 2009


Of course you'd recognize it; it won an Oscar.
posted by smackfu at 6:59 PM on July 27, 2009


Or priest cops

Man, whats your problem with the Father Dowling Mysteries?
Although to address your larger claim, most peeps find science neat-in-passing, and I suspect students would be no different, with shows like CSI helping with that. Most people do not, however, find science neat-in-detail. People who do are scientists.
posted by Diablevert at 7:58 PM on July 27, 2009


Television gets one thing correct. People who work in hospitals ARE having that much sex with each other, in vacant patient rooms, supply closets, and the on-call room. However, in real life these people are not actually attractive.
posted by little e at 10:33 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


The truth is, we just love our jails too much. We just love putting people in prisons and throwing away the key. We, as a nation, just love it. It's like vitamins for our national character.

This only works when there's money.

There's no money.
posted by krinklyfig at 11:35 PM on July 27, 2009


Er, that one you are allowed in the New Zealand legal system.

You can give them a name to call, and if they don't get through, they'll grab the duty soliciter. Or so a top criminal defence barrister told me. I'm fairly sure he knows.
posted by rodgerd at 11:55 PM on July 27, 2009


I think part of the problem with this is that not everyone watching understands that what they are seeing is grossly exaggerated…”

You're talking about an entire genre of shows that don't acknowledge the existence of light switches. I'd give people a bit more credit than that.
posted by fshgrl at 1:31 AM on July 28, 2009


"They're claiming with a straight face that a high-speed burr leaves 'unique toolmarks' as it grinds away metal instead of performing just like all the other millions of high-speed Dremel burrs in the world."

Not to mention the complete lack of acknowledgement that the burr itself will be effected by rubbing up against a piece of metal at thousands of rpm. Burrs wear out which means the marks they make, even if unique, change over time.
posted by Mitheral at 11:48 AM on July 28, 2009


Finally, I had to admit to myself that CSI: Miami was not a parody. But for a while there I thought I had seen what no one else was seeing.
posted by wrapper at 12:13 PM on July 28, 2009


"You're talking about an entire genre of shows that don't acknowledge the existence of light switches."

But flashlights in the dark are so much more dramatic!.

"They're claiming with a straight face that a high-speed burr leaves 'unique toolmarks'"

On the Miami incarnation they were able to tell from marks on the bullet that a silencer had been used. Never mind that the bullet would never come into contact with the silencer.
posted by Tenuki at 12:13 PM on July 28, 2009


On the Miami incarnation they were able to tell from marks on the bullet that a silencer had been used. Never mind that the bullet would never come into contact with the silencer.

It's quantum. You wouldn't understand.
posted by yoink at 12:56 PM on July 28, 2009


This is a little late and no one will read it, but to follow up on my earlier comment about "Practical Homicide Investigation," there are other books that purport to discuss forensic science that are marred by just ridiculous pseudo-science and outright fraud.

One of them - although clearly intended for the layperson - is "Bodies We've Buried," by Jarret Hallcox and Amy Welch. It's a pretty compelling read about the National Forensics Academy until you find out, horrifyingly, that one of their techniques is USING A DOWSING ROD TO FIND CORPSES.

Imagine this for a moment. Your child is missing. could be alive, could be dead, buried somewhere, rotting. And then the investigators roll up and start wandering around with forked sticks, claiming that this, somehow, will help, even though there is not one recorded case where dowsing for a corpse actually worked.

It's written up by the James Randi Educational Foundation here.

Arpad Vass has no credibility, and yet his techniques are being taught to students of forensic "science." It's basically a broken discipline, promoted and developed by law enforcement and hucksters to serve their own ends rather than those of victims and the public.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 5:53 AM on July 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


Imagine this for a moment. Your child is missing. could be alive, could be dead, buried somewhere, rotting. And then the investigators roll up and start wandering around with forked sticks, claiming that this, somehow, will help, even though there is not one recorded case where dowsing for a corpse actually worked.

I'd wager, though, that by the time the police are calling in guys with dowsing rods, that the situation has been dragging on so long and the family is so desperate that they are in the flail-y, emotional, "hell, we'll do ANYTHING to get SOME kind of closure" stage. True, rational thought would probably dismiss this as bunkum, but I have a hunch rational thought really isn't taking place at this stage.


For the record, I'm actually still trying to wrap my head around the fact that you read forensic science textbooks for the hell of it. You just keep unfolding like a flower, my friend. (grin)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:32 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Dowsing rods?!

For the record, I'm actually still trying to wrap my head around the fact that you read forensic science textbooks for the hell of it. (EmpressCallipygos)

Me, too.

posted by ocherdraco at 6:53 AM on July 29, 2009


DNA Evidence Can Be Fabricated, Scientists Show
posted by homunculus at 2:01 PM on August 18, 2009


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