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‘CSI effect’ breaks reality’s speed limit

CSI aficionados beware: Real studies and careers in forensics are nothing like the TV show.

CSI aficionados beware: Real studies and careers in forensics are nothing like the TV show.

Contrary to the breakneck pace of results gathering and analysis of crime scenes portrayed in shows like CSI: Miami and CSI: NY, real forensic science takes a great deal of patience and labour-intensive work.

Dr. Martin Evison, director of the University of Toronto’s forensic science program, says the “CSI effect” — the instantaneous, logic-defying results portrayed on shows like CSI — can give many people the wrong idea of what forensics is really like.

“The first thing we tell students is that (forensic science) is not like CSI at all. A lot of it is very mechanistic, routine and laborious. However there is a reward at the end of the day — if you do it thoroughly and professionally, a forensic scientist can contribute to solving some quite serious crimes,” Evison said.

The biggest exaggerations Evison says shows like CSI make are the speed at which analysis happens, the types of methods available and the exactness of the end results.

“It never happens at the touch of a button and a lot of what you see (on television) is science fantasy. The results can be rather more ambiguous than you can get from CSI,” he said.

The “CSI effect” is so pronounced, Evison says, that it influenced the University of Toronto’s own admission policies. Students cannot enter the forensic science program directly from high school — they have to apply formally to the program after at least one year of post-secondary studies. Evison says the process is necessary to make sure that only people with an interest in real forensics rather than flashy TV theatrics get in.

“We try to guarantee that we admit those kinds of students who are academically good and have the right level of interest and maturity,” Evison said.

Evison says the “CSI effect” has also had a direct influence on the way evidence in presented in the courtroom.

“If there is a phenomenon that typifies the way policing is changing it’s a move away from eyewitness evidence and confessions and more towards physical evidence, which science is expected to provide,” Evison said.

While U of T is the only major medical university in Canada to offer a forensic science program, several undergraduate universities offer similar programs, including the University of Windsor and Trent University in Ontario and St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia.

Evison says forensics can be a highly rewarding field when matched to the right type of person.
“Forensic science suits problem-solving and patient personalities, people who are willing to do the meticulous work until they find something that hopefully contributes to solving a crime.

You’re not going to be paid the same salary as the actors on CSI, but you will do socially useful work,” Evison said.

 
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