Prime Time Science

Sometimes fantasy beats reality—at least on TV.

For decades, the science community has been waiting for a popular TV program that features scientists as engaging dramatic characters and the work of science as exciting as well as intellectually rigorous. Other professionals had established themselves in the spotlight. Lawyers were everywhere from Perry Mason to L.A. Law to The Practice. Physicians from Dr. Kildare to the team on ER have been mainstays of TV programming, though biomedical researchers remained off-camera. Even high school teachers became TV regulars while scientists remained on the sidelines.

Science finally made it onto the little screen with CSI (Crime Scene Investigator), a show so popular that it quickly gave birth to the spin-off CSI: Miami and now a group of imitators. Of course, the Las Vegas crime lab is not exactly Los Alamos National Laboratory or the National Institutes of Health, but scientists should be pleased that tens of millions of viewers, particularly young people, are tuning in every week to see people in lab coats looking into microscopes, performing chemical analyses, and creating models on computers. Even better, they are asking pressing questions, posing hypotheses, designing experiments, and evaluating the results scrupulously to see if they support the hypotheses. Not only that, these are attractive people with romantic interests and family problems.

Most of the action takes place in a laboratory building that could be featured in Architectural Digest and that is outfitted with technology that could come from the 2010 Sharper Image catalog. The show’s Web site explains the use of gas chromotographs, microspectrophotometers, and thermocyclers. Although the lighting is better suited to a dance club than a lab, it looks great on TV. The computer graphics are better than video games. The images of bullets ripping through internal organs are gripping, even frightening. The music that plays while the stars stare intently at computer screens or carefully drip reagents into a beaker makes it clear that their work is both fascinating and way cool.

But why did the networks have to pick forensic science? As the articles in this issue make clear, forensic science as it has been practiced is not exactly the poster child for how science should be done. Wishful thinking has replaced rigor in the evaluation of polygraphs, fingerprinting, hair analysis, ballistics, handwriting identification, and other forensic procedures. The forensic science community has cast a veil over its work, avoided asking the hard questions, and kept mum about known weaknesses in the science underlying the techniques used in police investigations and offered as evidence in court.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter. Although this may come as a shock, TV is not reality. To paraphrase the late film critic Pauline Kael, TV is a little world without much gravity. Even the more literate and serious shows, such as West Wing and The Sopranos, which try to create characters with some semblance to human beings, are simply imaginary worlds of brilliantly witty White House staffers and introspective mobsters.

Of course, the CSI lab is not realistic, but it creates an appealing fantasy that scientists should applaud. It will stimulate youthful interest in forensic science and in all science. It promotes the virtues of care, skeptical empiricism, and honesty. As forensic scientists bask in their newfound celebrity, they might even be moved to practice these virtues a bit more actively in their own work.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “Prime Time Science.” Issues in Science and Technology 20, no. 1 (Fall 2003).

Vol. XX, No. 1, Fall 2003