CSI: Forensic Science on TV vs. Real Life


Eight years ago, CBS debuted a new kind of crime drama, called CSI. The original show followed crime scene investigators in Las Vegas as they used fingerprints and DNA to help the police solve grisly murders and other crimes.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation quickly became the most-watched program on TV, and it remains a top-five program. It is credited for being largely responsible for helping CBS become the most watched network in America and has spawned two spin-offs: CSI: Miami and CSI: New York.

More interestingly, the popularity of the CSI franchise, as well as other shows like Bones, Dexter, and the Law & Order franchise, has created a fascination with forensic science by the American public.

Among other effects, this fascination with crime scene forensics has actually led to a rise in enrollment in forensic science and criminalistics programs. But is working as a forensic science technician really like what we see William Peterson, David Caruso, and Gary Sinise do every week? Well, not exactly.

CSI: Real Life

The series has CSIs interrogating suspects and arresting people. This doesn’t necessarily happen in real life. Forensic science technicians are not the police. They help the police solve crimes more passively, by collecting and analyzing the physical evidence of a crime scene, and interpreting what occurred during the crime for the benefit of investigating detectives and officers. Slapping on the cuffs? They leave that to the other guys.

In real life, forensic science technicians come in a few different forms. They can be crime scene analysts, who pick over crime scenes to process and collect evidence, or they can be lab analysts, who stay in the crime lab and run tests on the evidence collected in the field.

CSIs can also specialize in certain areas of forensics, such as fingerprints, DNA analysis, firearm testing, or trace evidence (such as hair, body fluids, and fibers). One somewhat accurate example of this is the main character of the Showtime series Dexter, who is a blood spatter specialist. Though this CSI adaptation throws in a very original premise twist (Dexter also happens to be a serial killer), the work he does in front of his colleagues is more on the mark.

So if you ever decide to consider a career in forensics, make sure you know what to expect. (One plus side: not having to work with Horatio Caine.)

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