It’s a staple of current prime time television. As police mill around the cordoned off area around a murder victim, the all-knowing crime-scene investigator arrives, ducks under the yellow tape and begins to collect evidence that within the next 60 minutes will lead the arrest and conviction of a cold-blooded killer.
But the scenario played out each week on three CBS network television shows and re-enforced by a multitude of network and cable television shows that glamorize forensics investigations bears little semblance to reality, according to Dr. Greg Buck an assistant professor of microbiology at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. During the American Association of Anatomists sponsored “Experimental Biology 2005” meeting in San Diego earlier this month, Buck set out to dispel the misconceptions about forensic science by presenting a tongue-in-check panel discussion he called “CSI: San Diego. The three experts who made up the panel sent a clear message to anyone considering the field of forensic science. “What you see isn’t what you get.”
Buck believes that, like the 1970s explosion of journalism schools following the release of “All The President’s Men” and the increase in law school applications during the run of the highly-successful television drama “L.A. Law” in the 1980s, much of the current interest in college science courses is media driven. That is a problem, he says, because too many students are disappointed when reality hits them in the class.
“It’s image driven,” he said. “Students look at what’s going on in television shows and think that’s what really happens. But forensics is merely the legal application of science in the classroom and there’s strong disillusionment on the part of some students.”
Linda Ramon, an admissions counselor at A&M-Corpus Christi, has seen that disillusionment in the faces of prospective students when they learn that the first requirement for being a crime scene investigator is a strong science background.
“Prospective students are constantly asking us if we have a CSI program. When we talk with them further, it becomes clear that they are asking about “CSI,” the popular CBS network television show,” Ramon said. “They think CSI is a criminal justice course, and they’re disappointed when they learn that the field requires a lot of biology, chemistry, anatomy and other science courses. The truly sad thing is that most of these prospective students are struggling with their high school science courses.
Ramon recalls how earlier this year a prospective student approached her and a recruiter for another university and asked them about majoring in CSI.
“As I was preparing to start my speech on CSI, the other recruiter pointed out flatly that “CSI” is a television program, and, if that’s what the student wants to study, he or she needs to major in theatre.”
The public’s faddish preoccupation with forensic science has become such a problem for at least one of the scientists who participated in the panel discussion that he finds himself besieged by curious strangers at social events. Dr. Harrell Gill-King, director of the Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology at the University of North Texas, jokes that he was a forensic scientist “before it was cool.” He has become wary of mentioning what he does for a living because strangers assume that means he’s a crime scene investigator and invariably inform him that they’d to be one. When they do, he tries to set them straight.
“It’s not what you think,” he tells them. “The shows tout the crime scene investigator as the hub around which the entire case evolves and who calls all the shots both at the crime scene and in the laboratory. On television, the crime scene investigator pulls up in a great car and an expensive suit. Who wouldn’t want to be that person? But, in reality, the crime scene investigator is the least-trained, most poorly-paid person on the forensic team.”
Dr. David Glassman, a panel member, is a physical anthropologist at the University of Southern Indiana and the vice president of the American Board of Anthropology. Glassman has worked with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies on forensic identification cases for 25 years and stresses that the real work of a forensic scientist doesn’t make for good television.
“In television shows, the investigators and viewers watch intently while near magical technology and instrumentation provides the answers. In actual practice,” he said, “most answers come from minute differences that occur between different ages, ancestry, backgrounds and injuries. Being able to do that requires years of experience.”
The final panel member, Dr. Mark Teaford, is a physical anthropologist at Johns Hopkins School of medicine where he teaches anatomy to medical students. Teaford, who specializes in being able to ascertain a body’s age, health, nutrition, and even stress levels by examining the teeth, points out that the popularity of forensic crime shows has also its negative affects.
“While interest in forensic anthropology has increased, especially among the number of students seeking to enroll in classes at universities, there are also signs in the laboratory that the increased awareness of how investigations work may be giving criminals information on how to make identification of victims more difficult.”