What's wrong with CSI's science?

As a hijack from twickster’s thread,, I wondered what specifically is wrong with the science in the CSI series (er, what’s the plural of series?).

I’m not doubting that there is something wrong; I’ve just always been curious about specific mistakes they make.

I can’t help you with CSI’s science, but I can tell you that the plural of “series” is “series” (i.e., the same as the singular).

The biggest flaw is the speed of the various tests. DNA testing takes weeks or months at most labs here in the real world (partially because the sequencing takes a lot of time, and partially because every DNA lab on Earth is backlogged with work).

In CSI-land, they can get a comparison of 20 different samples in about 3 hours. Not even close to reality.

It’s known as “dramatic license.” The events in the show are compressed to make them more interesting and dramatic.

Evidently, some types of people prefer dull to dramatic as long as it’s “accurate.” They think it’s better drama if the show spends most of the time showing people sitting around filling out paperwork and waiting for test results. :rolleyes:

I think you could more safely call it a franchise.

The ladies keep flipping their hair all over the place. And breathing over the eppendorf tubes.

Good writers could work that in to the plot. Lazy writers take “dramatic license.”

DNA testing as used in forensics doesn’t involve sequencing, just PCR fingerprinting based on some distinguishing genetic markers. It’s faster than full-scale sequencing, but still slower than what’s shown on TV.

My memory is a bit hazy on this, but I seem to recall from the first year (of the original CSI) that they perpetuated the vampire/porphyria myth. Even the Master got this one wrong, but rectified his error in 1999. The episode was broadcast several years later but still made the same mistake.

Please correct me if I’m remembering this one incorrectly.

On a general note, one thing that gets to me and really jars me out of my “suspension of disbelief” is how the shows so often have all of these highly unlikely things all coming together so the CSIs can solve the case.

A general example (made up for illustration, not from any one show):

A piece of tire tread is cut off one of the tires by a piece of broken glass at the murder scene. How did they find the vehicle? Well, it just so happens that the tread compound is very rare, and only two sets of tires in the Las Vegas area were sold with that compound. They find the two registered owners of these tires (by checking the records of the tire stores in Las Vegas who sell these unique tires); one was out of town and can prove it, the other one can’t. This one is in fact the murderer and they eventually prove it with DNA evidence in a few hours because the perp scraped his shin on a rock near to the body.

Fortunately, the tires in question did belong to a perp who was registered living in Las Vegas, and not from some out-of-towner.

Nothing in the above is impossible or unbelievable by itself (except the DNA results in hours), but taken all together, it is just too many long-shot coincidences for me.

I wish I could accept this, but I don’t know of a single show on television - cop show, drama, even sitcom - where time is not impossibly compressed for narrative reasons. 24 is supposedly in real time but they cheat on driving times to make it all work. Even Lost fudges most of the actual drudgery of survival to make it seem interesting.

If you can point out actual counter-examples I’d love to hear of them.

Not off the top of my head but as CSI doesn’t happen in real time I don’t see why the various tests couldn’t take place over a few weeks without us seeing them. There’s no reason that every crime has to be solved over the weekend.

Because allowing weeks to pass sets up its own set of implausibilities. People move around; crime scenes get cleaned up; injuries heal; police leave the force, etc. Worse, the thrust of the show’s plot is ruined: urgency is lost; coincidences no longer happen; parallel stories stop commenting on one another. You’re just trading one set of narrative problems for another.

I think what Chuck and I are annoyed about is your use of “lazy writers”. They exist, but most of the things that happen on television happen for reasons that go well beyond lazy writing. TV writing is its own genre, and its rules apply to itself alone.

I have enormous problems with much of the writing on television, but your complaint - and especially the fact that you can’t come up with any shows to prove your point - tells me you don’t know enough about the subject to properly criticize it.

I know, I know, everybody’s an expect when it comes to writing. But Chuck and I are pros and this attitude drives us crazy. If you don’t like this device, fine. Complain about it all you want. Just don’t call something lazy writing unless you can back it up.

Never wathced a soap opera have ya? Depending on the ‘story line’ (I use those terms very loosely) they may mess around with the planning of some event for weeks on the show, even though in reality it might take a couple of days, then time will miraculously leap forward so that it’s X-mas season on the show when it is in real life.


This is more hijack thn anything else, but on CSI why are they constantly using flashlights on crime scenes that appear to be perfectly well lit? Is there some actual police proceedure they are alluding to with this or is it merely stylistic? Drives me insane when they are at somes victims bright and cheery house with their flashlights on, but go back to the office where apparently the maintence budget doesn’t allow them to buy lightbulbs!!!



IANAS, but it seems pretty level headed and realistic to me.

Overall I agree that a lot of the scientific shortcuts taken in TV shows do more to pull me out of the story than propel me along it. Errors in fact are errors in fact (scientific or otherwise) and can be quite jarring. Imagine watching any show, and hearing them say that Mick Jagger was in the Beatles, or that penguins live in trees, and you’d stop following for a moment and wonder at the stupidity of it. Now imagine that the single factual error was critical to how the show progressed form that point on. Wouldn’t it sort of spoil the whole effect?

One of the first few episodes of CSY:NY had a segement where they determined someone’s location by looking at a photograph, and triangulating based on the buildings in the background, and the known height of the buildings relative to her height in the picture. Very cool math, except her feet weren’t visible in the picture. What if she’d been standing on a step? A difference of a few inches could have led to a search that was several city blocks away. The most annoying thing about this error is that it was so simple to avoid. Just have the picture show her feet. No change required to the story line at all.


The fact that I can’t come up with shows off the top of my head is more because I don’t watch a lot of TV. A more clear cut example of lazy writing in CSI is that they have the crime scene investigators do everything from interrogation to arrest. In Law and Order they actually have different people to do the different jobs, as in real life, and it doesn’t affect the stories in a bad way.

If DNA sequencing takes so long IRL instead of using it over and over they could come up with a different plot device (sorry, lab test) to catch the bad guys, which they do from time to time.

You know, the thread title is “What’s wrong with CSI’s science,” not “What’s wrong with CSI’s science and why does that make the show suck?” This is still the SDMB; you don’t have to hate a show to point out its factual shortcomings, and everyone gets to learn a little something about real science. That’s not such a bad thing.

The fact that they can take grainy security images and zoom them infinitely and still get clear pictures. (IDing people based of the reflection on someone else’s eye which at most is 4 pixels in the image.)


I agree with you. For instance, why can’t they just “invent” a new DNA analyzer, one that does it in an hour or even a few minutes? Mention it in one episode and there you have the compression needed to move the plot along, and no factual error to ruin the plausibililty.

Sure, it’s not real, but I am willing to “believe” this just like I am willing to “believe” that a movie set in Germany has the people speaking English. Just like I don’t having a problem with seeing someone get in his car in one scene and arrive at the other end of town in the next. As long as the show doesn’t SAY the dude did it in less than a second, I am perfectly all right with not having to watch the entire, boring, 45-minute drive.