Life as a TV Show

There are those who believe the light of science and technology will bring salvation and redemption. Sometimes that light can turn into a blinding klieg light.

One of the more amusing stories of the year was reported last month by the Associated Press. Senior officials at the U.S. Justice Department wrote to the court that they were not going to hand over to the League for Public Decency the names of the foreign lobbyists working in Washington. The reason: the computer with the information is so old that if they were to even try to copy the lists off the machine, it would crash. No doubt that was the most stupid technological excuse every presented to a court. It represents the extreme edge of the scale on which at one end there is total lack of faith in technology and at the other end, blind trust in science and technology.

And there is representation for both extremes. In recent weeks, lawyers have been complaining about the "CSI effect." CSI, the acronym for "Crimes Scenes Investigation," is a TV show (also shown in Israel with no little success), that has long been at the top of the list of the most popular TV shows in the U.S. Some 30 million people watch it religiously. The series follows two forensic investigation units working in Miami and Las Vegas. It does for forensic science what "L.A. Law" did for lawyers, what "ER" does for doctors and what "The West Wing" does for government officials: it makes them sexy.

Each week, the audience watches as the unit's members solve crimes using the most sophisticated technology. They use ultraviolet light to retrieve DNA samples from a pillow, they check computerized databases and compare what they find to photographs from the scene, which amazingly can always be enlarged 28 times without losing any of the sharpness. It's enough for the CSI folks to come up with a partial print of a tire to identify the car, color and year of manufacturing.

At American universities they say the grandeur and sophistication shown in the series has resulted in registration for chemistry classes, with a major in forensics, skyrocketing. At the University of Florida, in 1999, there were three students majoring in forensic sciences. In 2002, there were 27. The number of students majoring in criminology has also shot up.

So what is the CSI effect? It turns out that prosecutors lately have been forced to bring in expert witnesses to explain to juries that it is common not to find unequivocal scientific evidence pointing clearly to the crime and its perpetrator. The reason they need to do so is that in a poll of some 600 jurors, some 70 percent said they watched "CSI," where the technology and sciences star as a kind of "modern Colombo."

And there's another side to the coin. Defense attorneys are complaining that jurors are so taken with new technologies used for criminal identification that all it takes is a small amount of scientific testimony to persuade them of the defendant's guilt. In effect, the jurors' knowledge has increased so much that at one trial they told the judge that the police had forgotten to conduct a DNA test on some drops of blood that were on a jacket presented as evidence. The judge explained to the jury that there is no need to conduct a DNA test if the defendant admitted to wearing the jacket.

Apparently, they haven't reached that chapter yet in "CSI."

A series like "CSI" does teach the audience about new concepts but it is far from being a documentary; it presents the people in the unit as artists of advanced technology, which in some cases is far from capable of doing the things ascribed to it in the show. In addition, it makes us forget the great advantage of a legal system based on people and not on computers examining evidence: our ability to judge the broader context of the case and not only the numbers that emerge from the analysis of the chemical makeup of the murder victim's hair.

There are those who believe the light of science and technology will bring salvation and redemption. Sometimes that light can turn into a blinding klieg light.