Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Why there probably won't be a "CSI Orono"

I work in the biometric industry, and one of the things that we talk about a lot is something called "the CSI effect." I'm not at this year's IAI conference in Spokane, but I bet it's being discussed up there this week.

Basically, "the CSI effect" is an assumption by a layperson that everything that you see on TV shows is the exact truth. Taking my specialty of automated fingerprint identification systems as an example, someone who watches TV might assume that once a crime scene (latent) fingerprint is captured, you just scan it right into the system, wait thirty seconds, and watch a big ol' "HIT" message display on your computer screen. If they can do it that fast on TV, they can certainly do it that fast in real life, can't they?

But it goes well beyond that. Not only can someone assume that all of these forensic technologies are very quick, one may also assume that any crime scene investigator can call upon any of these technologies at any time, for any case. Thus when the real court cases arrive, the jurors are left wondering why the police didn't run DNA tests on the purse left by the jaywalker. After all, they'd run that test on TV.

So let's say that you see one of these shows on TV and decide that you want to go to school and major in forensics so that you can do things just like the TV stars do. If you go to the University of Maine at Orono and take a class from Irv Kornfield, you'll be in for a bit of a shock.

Kornfield has taught a wildly popular course on forensic science since 2003. While any number of crime scene investigation television dramas may pique students’ interest in the course, Kornfield quickly replaces slow-motion camera shots with cold, hard science. In fact, the first assignment of the year is to watch one of these shows and record the absurdities.

“I disabuse them of the notion that they can become crime scene investigators,” as no such position exists in the real world, Kornfield said.

And he has another surprise for his students.

Despite what the television shows depict, one of the main messages Kornfield wants his students to take home is that DNA evidence is only a piece of the puzzle when solving a crime.

“On its own, DNA is insufficient to decide if someone is guilty or innocent,” Kornfield said.

And Kornfield also shares something that I've known for over 15 years.

“In general, the people who commit crimes are not very smart.”

Hey, if they WERE smart, no company could make money selling automated fingerprint identification systems, could they?

(H/T Forensic Magazine. And let me make it explicitly clear for FCC disclosure purposes that I am employed by an automated fingerprint identification systems vendor.)
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