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So much for science


February 23, 2016
By Dorothy Cotton

Sitting on the beach on the Caribbean isle of St. Hotness, I realized I had been grossly mislead by the media. While the island itself looked pretty well the way it had in the brochures and TV commercials, the people on the beach did not.

None of the men had six pack abs. Most looked sort of dough-boy soft, had a paunch and were white as ghosts (Canadians, I assume). As for the women, I was able to conduct a more detailed anatomical survey than one can do in most places, as many people on this beach were topless. (Not me, for the record. My bathing suits tend to look more like green garbage bags and cover me from double chins to stovepipe ankles).

My observation was that women do not have perky breasts; not even young women. Breasts, as it turns out, do not defy gravity and they point downward rather than upward unless artificially supported.

Now where would I get the strange idea that the beach should be full of gorgeous people with perfect body parts? Well, the media of course. On the one hand, it’s hard to fault them. Who would buy tickets to a winter resort whose ads feature beaches full of droopy women and flabby men? Would you have liked the show Baywatch as much if Pamela Anderson was built like Roseanne?

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On the other hand, the portrayal of false information does have a negative effect. It contributes to body image problems, may make some people self conscious enough to avoid going to these resorts and generally makes us feel unattractive.

So yes, TV and the media do have an effect – both positive and negative. In a more relevant example (now that I have your attention), consider the CSI effect. It’s been described as a phenomenon in which people who watch CSI-like TV shows come to have increased – and pretty unrealistic – expectations of the amount and nature of forensic evidence available in your typical trial. It is posited that when these folks become jurors, this is a problem since they may be more reluctant to convict if there is not significant forensic evidence.

There are a number of ways in which the CSI effect can play out. It can alter people’s perceptions of:

  1. The cast of characters and the real nature of forensic scientists
  2. The actual value and reliability of evidence
  3. The capacity of the system <1>

TV shows would have you believe that your typical “criminologist” is a former hooker in leather pants who works 24/7 on only one case, is also a gun-toting police officer and works in a state of the art lab with an unlimited budget. Sounds pretty glamourous! I wonder how many young people were lured into forensic science programs at college and university only to discover that the work is tedious, the resources scant and the co-workers merely normal people, few of whom look good in leather pants (and generally, you don’t get a gun).

TV shows would have you believe that evidence is always there, always accurate – and always definitive. They neglect to mention details like the fact that even the best DNA evidence in the world won’t tell you whether sex was consensual.

TV shows would have you believe that every test is available in every case – and can be conducted after the next commercial break (or at least within the next 45 minutes). Curiously, the number of forensic laboratory tests requested has increased dramatically in recent years, even as the number of crimes has decreased. That means way more tests per crime and longer delays before you get the results.

The increase is to some extent a reflection of the increased expectation of jurors. It’s kind of ironic actually. The higher people’s expectations, the less likely they are to be met because higher expectations lead to more tests, and more tests lead to slower turn around times.

That’s the theory anyhow, and it’s what the media would have you believe about the media – because it’s mostly the media that talks about the CSI effect. Another circle – but do people really believe this stuff? The research on whether there really is a CSI effect is a bit sketchy.

There are lots of articles and research pieces about whether people THINK there is a CSI effect. Most involved in the trial process seem to think so – like defense lawyers, crowns and judges. If you ask jurors – or potential jurors – they tend to say that yes, there could be such an effect but since they are aware of it, they can self correct.

Correcting that bias might be easier said than done. Can legal professionals correct for a potential CSI effect in the courtroom? Many report changing their strategies to address these presumed biases – but some research shows that when a prosecutor tried to educate a jury about the CSI effect and warn them against using their ‘knowledge’ in making decisions, it backfired. The jurors became more skeptical of the prosecutor’s case.

People are pretty variable in their TV viewing habits so not everyone would have seen the shows. People vary in their gullibility; some might buy the CSI hype but others do not. For many potential jurors, CSI-type shows and other crime dramas may be their only exposure to the criminal justice system. If they have no other knowledge, then TV knowledge might have to suffice so you need different corrections for different people. What about people who never watch TV and might have never heard of DNA evidence and dismiss it as hocus pocus?

So yeah, TV likely has an effect. There is a whole area of psychology that focusses on this phenomenon. It is called “cultivation theory” and posits that the more time people spend watching TV, the more likely they are to believe the social reality that is on TV. It’s not just CSI. It is violence in children’s shows, body image portrayals, gender roles… don’t even get me going about reality TV.

In the US, potential jurors have been asked whether they watch CSI-like shows as part of the jury selection process. I wonder what the right answer is. I suppose it depends on which side of the case you are on – and how much forensic evidence there is in the case. Another circular argument.

So much for science.

<1> With credit to Simon Cole’s article “A surfeit of science: The CSI Effect and the media appropriation of the public understanding of science” in vol 24(2) 130-146.


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