It’s no secret – real science is hot on prime time these days. Ever since screenwriter Michael Crichton decided his medical drama ER should include some clinically-correct speaking doctors, jargon like “We need a CBC, STAT!”, or “He’s in V-Fib” sounds oddly familiar. Nowadays, the producers of science-heavy television series such as Breaking Bad and Numb3rs do not start recording without having some post-doc checking their scripts’ scientific accuracy.
Now you would think this is a good thing – learning stuff while you’re watching your favorite show. But in case of the hit series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, that focuses on forensic research at crime scenes, creating a science-savvy audience leads to some real life problems in Court.
It’s called the CSI effect: the theory that jurors who, because of what (they think) they know about forensic science from TV, demand more forensic evidence in criminal trials in order to render a verdict. An alternative hypothesis, which runs in the opposite direction, is that CSI has fooled the public into thinking that forensic science is far more effective and accurate than it actually is. In this case, the CSI effect causes a jury to be fairly easily convinced of a defendant’s guilt once forensic evidence is presented.
Does the CSI effect really exist? According to a 2006 study, CSI viewers are more critical of forensic evidence presented in trial than non-CSI viewers. The participants were asked to render a verdict in a simulated trial that included the ‘testimony’ of a forensic scientist. However, the study did not find a significant difference in conviction rate: 29% of the non-CSI viewers said they would convict the defendant, compared to 18 % of the CSI viewers.
In another paper, submitted in 2009, researchers analyzed actual acquittal rates in criminal trials that occurred over the last decade. They did not find any evidence suggesting that jurors are either more or less likely to convict a defendant: acquittal rates had stayed more or less the same since CSI was first aired.
Still, the CSI effect cannot be relegated to the realm of fiction completely. Last year, a research psychologist at Iowa State University finished a dissertation based on two studies that “provide support for the existence of the CSI effect.” Both studies suggest that “heavy crime drama viewers are more knowledgeable about the criminal justice system and hold greater expectations for scientific evidence.”
So the jury is still out, it seems. Either way, watching CSI has an upside too: last year a serial rapist was convicted after one of his victims pulled out a hair and left it at his car, the crime scene. Something she had seen on television. The police found it and was able to tie the suspect to the rapes. I rest my case.
N.J. Schweitzer, Michael J. Saks (2006). The CSI Effect: Popular Fiction About Forensic Science Affects the Public’s Expectations about Real Forensic Science Jurimetrics
Simon A. Cole, Rachel Dioso-Villa (2009). Investigating the ‘CSI Effect’ Effect: Media and Litigation Crisis in Criminal Law Stanford Law Review