Word Play by Kevin Fahy
by Kevin Fahy
Several years ago, there was a pair of especially disturbing homicides committed in the small town where I live. As the weeks passed by following the killings and no arrests were made, local citizens grew impatient, and began to question the capability of local law enforcement.
As discontent gradually turned to outrage, the police chief finally came out in the newspaper to defend his department. He said that the problem was that people had watched “too much ‘CSI.’” They expected immediate, cutting-edge forensic analysis, and they expected it to point unequivocally to a killer.
Since that time, the so-called “CSI Effect” (referring to the CBS television program, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”) has gained wide notoriety, to the point of cover stories in national news magazines. It is most often mentioned in relation to juries, which have come to expect slam-dunk presentations of physical evidence from prosecutors, but defense attorneys are wary of it as well. They fear that their clients will be presumed guilty, due to the infallibility of crime lab technicians.
Though they are no doubt flattered by the portrayal, those technicians also have some reservations about “CSI.” They say that people are often disappointed that their methods aren’t fast and flashy, that they don’t personally confront suspects, and that they possess neither the glamour nor the swagger of their television counterparts. One tech even complained that a bystander had told him he wasn’t dusting for fingerprints the right way.
For some reason this feels like a confession, but I watch “CSI” myself. Mostly I watch sports and news on TV, which is more a comment on my attention span than the quality of network programming, but a couple seasons back I overheard some co-workers discussing the previous night’s episode of “CSI” and it sounded intriguing. The next week I tuned in, and have been a fan ever since.
In some ways the show is campy and even silly, but I like that. The whole combination of film noir with upscale kitchen décor, kind of like “The Maltese Falcon” meets Martha Stewart, meshes nicely with the slow motion animation of bullets squishing through layers of soft tissue.
I recently read an article about the Sherlock Holmes stories, which remain nearly as popular now as they were a century ago. In many ways they weren’t very well written (even the author didn’t think much of them), but people just love to be amazed by brilliant deductive reasoning, especially when performed by eccentric characters. CSI has all of that, capped off by the absurd but satisfying “Perry Mason moment,” when a killer confesses to a lab worker.
The popularity of the show has had a big impact on high school kids, lending a certain cachet to science classes and sending aspiring investigators rushing to their guidance counselors. Some are discouraged by the prospect of four years of college chemistry, but many are not.
Colleges that offer forensic science programs are besieged with applicants. West Virginia University, for example, graduated just four students from their forensic program in 1999. Now it has the highest enrollment of any major in the whole school, with around 400 students.
Nor is the effect confined to older students. A quick search of the Internet revealed that elementary classrooms are very much under the influence. To make science lessons more attractive to kids, teachers are turning topics into mysteries and groups of children into teams of investigators. There might even be a “CSI of the week” who gets his or her picture posted on the bulletin board.
Publishers have gotten into the act as well, coming out with materials that present lesson plans in the form of crime scenes. They often seem to have titles like “Classroom Science Investigations.”
When I was a kid, toy stores sold chemistry sets, complete with microscopes, test tubes, and so forth, but they were expensive. Only one kid in my neighborhood was affluent enough to receive such a thing as a birthday present, and the rest of us had to stand around and watch as he performed experiments. One time, as we were all standing around watching, he set his parents’ garage on fire and we were all lucky to escape with our lives.
These days science kits are a lot easier for most parents to afford, and probably a lot safer, but in many ways things aren’t a lot different from 40 years ago. Chemistry sets are still hot, followed by astronomy, dinosaurs, live creature habitats, rock explorations, electronics sets, rocketry kits, and so forth. I also expect that kids still use all these educational products in ways their parents didn’t intend. How many telescopes get pointed at the neighbors rather than the heavens?
Perhaps that is the beauty of the “CSI Effect” as it applies to children. Those little investigators running around in your stores this summer may actually use science toys to learn about science, having seen just how cool a scientist can be.
By the way, our local murder case was finally solved, thanks to the help of the state police crime lab. It took about two years.