There’s a corner of television you can tuck yourself into when you want to feel safe. You’ll find sliced, bruised, beaten, torn, gagged, and tortured bodies there when you peer into its crevices. You might feel squeamish, but you won’t feel scared. Virgil is there, patting your shoulder, shining a light into the darkness to reveal things you always guessed were there anyway. Your guide will pick apart the bodies to reveal the certain truth that lies waiting to be exposed.
“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” reaffirms your faith in the existence of justice and the knowability of absolute truth. At first glance, the “CSI” geek teams appear to exemplify the kind of critical examination involved in any rigorous scientific investigation. They are careful to explore alternative hypotheses that could be supported by the evidence. They hesitate to commit to claims before all the facts are in.
There are several important differences, however, between television and real forensic teams. There are technical differences. For example, matching the DNA taken from a soda can to DNA samples found on a victim requires weeks of processing, not hours.
There are also differences in the availability and allocation of resources. Actual forensics teams in large cities work dozens of cases at a time, not one or two. And the victim’s class and race is never an issue on “CSI,” where the murderer of a poor minority woman working as a prostitute is pursued with the same tenacity as the murderer of a middle-class white family.
The main difference, however, lies in results. On “CSI,” it is always possible to arrive at a definite conclusion, which matches the actual truth as it occurred. In reality, the scientific method sometimes yields conclusive results and sometimes delineates a region of uncertainty. Uncertainty doesn’t fit the “CSI” fantasy, which demands that scientific investigations always yield a knowable right answer.
Placing “CSI” under the microscope reveals that it bears a closer family resemblance to the investigations of the Spanish Inquisition than to actual criminal forensics. The investigators of “CSI” impose justice by extracting confessions from the dissected bodies of the deceased, just as the Spanish Inquisition once imposed “justice” by extracting confessions from the tortured bodies of the living.
The chalk outline that demarcates the conflict between real and fantasy criminal investigations hints at the existence of two sciences in America.
One kind of science is what you should have learned in school but probably didn’t. Many students can describe Bohr’s atomic model, but few understand why that model is accepted and used. Instead of learning rigorous scientific methodology and analysis, students are asked to accept the fruits of the scientific method because teachers say it is true.
The other kind of science is a result of inadequate public science education. I’ll refer to as Science. This Science is often personified, as in the phrases, “Science tells us…” or “Science has proven…” Americans accept that the technological feats of our age are gifts we enjoy thanks to the application of the scientific method. They vaguely understand that the word “Science” gives an aura of legitimacy.
Most Americans know little about science. They only interact with Science, a personified force to who makes our lives possible, and whose authority can be invoked to justify a position.
Note these are the social functions of a religious deity.
“CSI” features Science the anthropomorphized legitimizing authority. But the Science featured on “CSI” dons an additional vestment that every self-respecting deity must wear.
We are accustomed to thanking Science for giving us technology. We have long been in the habit of invoking Her name to lend authority to a position. When we view “CSI,” Science also dons the religious social function of reassuring people there is justice and absolute truth in the world.
It is ironic that the enlightenment era should have culminated in the production of an additional deity to the hordes of gods humanity already worshiped. Instead of taking up the tools of scientific inquiry, we have chosen instead to follow our traditional habits and imagine from these tools a new deity.
Actual science is rarely so soothing. Still, viewers of “CSI” make pilgrimage to its narrative space to encounter not a laboratory, but a temple.