Richard G. Petty, MD

The CSI Effect

Over the last three or four years, American lawyers and law enforcement have been struggling with something that has become known as the CSI Effect.

Following the phenomenal success of the TV show CSI and its spin-offs, a major problem has been developing in courtrooms across America. Jurors are drawn form the ranks of television viewers, and they may have unrealistic expectations about the nature and quality of the evidence that they will be asked to examine. It is being claimed that cases are being lost because the evidence offered might fall far short of what the television-trained jurors have learned to expect.

I have not been able to find any god evidence for the CSI effect, and it may just be a case of attorneys who are upset about losing a case, but I don’t think so. I’ve spoken to quite a number of lawyers as well as physicians who do legal work, and there does seem to have been quite a shift in the courtroom. Most jurors now appear to rate scientific evidence much more highly than eye-witness accounts and confessions by defendants.

Even allowing for artistic license, I’m constantly astonished by the largesse of whoever is funding the CSI laboratories! I spent years working in basic research, and know only too well how hard it can be to make ends meet. Many of the reagents that they slosh around on the set would cost thousands of dollars in the real world.

One very good consequence of CSI is that it seems to be enhancing the status of scientists. At least it is in the United States. The idea of the super-smart well equipped team being able to out-fox the villain is very popular. I’ve recently had to spend a bit of time in England, and the difference in the cops and robbers shows is remarkable. The current crop of English detectives seem to be conflicted and charismatic, and it is they with a combination of street smarts and intuition who solve the crimes, with only an occasional nod toward the backroom boffins. (And yes, I know, “boffin” is a Britishism. Guilty as charged M’lud.)

I recently read that all over the United States, young people are flocking to enroll in science courses. So long as they have something to do with forensic science. A University in West Virginia now boasts 500 students studying forensic science, compared with only four in the 2000-2001 academic year. Another positive for CSI and for science is the key role of female and minority investigators, who all play equal roles in bringing the guilty to book.

The jurors’ demand for scientific evidence reflects a broader trend in society. In these uncertain times, people like to have certainty: The kind that you can get from a printout or a picture. It’s the same in medicine, where people demand certain diagnoses where none might be available. The combination of defensive medicine and the patient demand for certainty have between them fueled an unprecedented rise in the number of tests being ordered, to the exclusion of common sense and clinical skills. I’m a huge fan of what the new technologies are helping us do for people. But it is essential for us to remember that tests are meant to complement and not replace clinical skills.

There is still no good way of understanding a person and his or her distress by doing a scan, inserting a scope or taking a blood test. They all need to be used together. But even when we do that, medical decision making, just like weighing the evidence in court, remains a balance not just of objective data, but also of experience and intuition.

And we need to continue to explain that not all in this world is certain and predictable.

“Uncertainty and expectation are the joys of life. Security is an insipid thing, though the overtaking and possessing of a wish discovers the folly of the chase.”

–William Congreve (English Playwright, 1670-1729)

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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