Science Fiction: If We Fail to Fire Up Our "Little Grey Cells," Following the Evidence Is Likely to Lead to Forensic Fundamentalism

By McCormick, Patrick | U.S. Catholic, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Science Fiction: If We Fail to Fire Up Our "Little Grey Cells," Following the Evidence Is Likely to Lead to Forensic Fundamentalism


McCormick, Patrick, U.S. Catholic


DON'T LOOK NOW, BUT JERRY BRUCKHEIMER'S hit show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is replicating itself faster than the bugs Gil Grissom (William Petersen) finds under victims' toenails. In the beginning Grissom and his science geeks took on the villains of Las Vegas. Then Horatio Caine (David Caruso) unleashed his microbe hunters on the felons of Miami. Now Mac Taylor (Gary Sinise) and friends are looking for worms in the Big Apple. Maybe next season Mickey and Goofy will be taking on Cruella DeVil's DNA in CSI: Disneyland.

A lot of adolescent males (of any age) are going to like shows about Las Vegas or Miami, places where showgirls and other women don't wear much clothing. Many of the same teens will also be attracted to shows with plenty of high-tech gore--worms and bugs crawling out of open wounds and all sorts of seeping and pooling body fluids. Guh-ross! As long as there are high school boys who throng to The O.C. and Night of the Living Dead, Bruckheimer shouldn't have any problems recruiting viewers for CSI.

But the fundamental appeal of CSI runs deeper than bikinis or bullet holes. Grissom and his Miami and New York knock-offs are overgrown science geeks preaching the gospel of DNA in a world mired in confusion, ambiguity, and uncertainty. Armed with microscopes, scanners, and an encyclopedic knowledge, these lab-coated cops are not just waging war on crime and drugs, they are declaring victory over ignorance, error, and failure.

Three nights a week these phlegmatic nerds sort through the mess and mayhem of murder, undistracted and undeterred by lying witnesses or dead-end leads. "Follow the evidence," Grissom tells his bloodhound investigators. "It's the only thing that can't lie." And at the end of their spectrometer is always the unique spoor of their killer, the incontrovertible evidence of his guilt, as well as irrefutable proof of the success and surety of our scientific know-how. Like the mythic Canadian Mountie, the CSI brainiacs always get their man--because in the world of fingerprint and DNA analysis there is no room for interpretation, ambiguity, or error.

THE POPULARITY OF THE GEEK DETECTIVE IS NOTHING NEW. Arthur Conan Doyle gave us Sherlock Holmes, whose 221 B Baker apartment was regularly filled with the smoke and smells of some experiment and whose desk always had a stack of obscure but relevant scientific monographs. Like Grissom, Holmes loved putting his crime scene evidence under the magnifying glass, checking out footprints, soil samples, and the wear pattern on a pair of boots.

Agatha Christie's master detective, Hercule Poirot, did not share Holmes' penchant for lab work, but he, too, had limitless faith in "the little grey cells" of his very clever brain and was supremely confident in the ability of human intelligence to solve life's most daunting mysteries. So, too, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe relied solely on his brain power to solve the crimes that made their way to his Bronx brownstone.

Still it seems ironic that shows like CSI are so popular at a time when our ability to discover the truth of the matter seems so frail. Perhaps we cling to the unshakeable faith of these nerdy investigators because we want to live in a world where we base our judgments on clear, certain, and correct data. Maybe we love these shows because we want to inhabit a moral universe where the difference between guilt and innocence and right and wrong is a matter of black and white, a question of a negative or positive lab result.

But our world makes the faith of the CSI nerds a lie.

In spite of all the scientific evidence gathered by real-world crime sleuths, most crimes go unpunished. In Race to Incarcerate (New Press) and Crime and Punishment in America (Owl Books) Marc Mauer and Elliott Currie report that the majority of crimes, violent and otherwise, do not even come to the attention of the police or courts and of those that do only a small fraction result in conviction and punishment. …

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