Thursday, June 7, 2012

CSI Effect?

Radical skepticism and unquestioning credulity are strange bedfellows in today’s society.  We can’t rely on our own recollections because sometimes we make mistakes.  We don’t trust the testimony of others.  It’s not that we necessarily think others are liars, it’s just that everyone has their own perspective on the world – their personal narrative.

But at the same time we are experiencing the triumph of scientific knowledge, often to the detriment of other types of knowledge.  Science is concerned with accuracy, verifiability, and certainty.  And science is indeed magnificent.  The problem is that other types of knowledge have been downgraded.  If scientific evidence is triple A rated, other forms of evidence have junk status.

The CSI Effect

Criminal lawyers have commented on the existence of what they have termed the CSI effect.  They have theorized that juries have been influenced by the rash of criminal forensic T.V. shows such as CSI, and now expect heightened scientific evidence to be presented at trial.  Jurors prone to the CSI effect are also theorized to be more likely to dismiss other forms of evidence such as eyewitness or circumstantial evidence.

This has led to juries acquitting in cases where scientific evidence, such as DNA, is not presented, even where other forms of evidence are presented to the jury.  For example, in a case in Baltimore the defendant was acquitted of murder even though there were two witnesses to the alleged crime.  The jury felt there was a lack of physical evidence. (i)  In another case, the jury questioned why a bloody coat had not been tested for DNA, even though the defendant had admitted that he owned the coat. (ii)

There is much debate over the existence of the “CSI effect” (iii), but it points to a preference for scientific evidence over other types of evidence such as personal testimony.  However, there are many things in life that cannot be proved with scientific exactness.

Think about how you would prove what you had for breakfast this morning, or the whole historical endeavor.  Are we to say that if it cannot be proven scientifically it never happened?  Of course not.

Science is wonderful, and its proper use in the courtroom improves the administration of justice – no question.  But, to place scientific knowledge on a pedestal all by itself goes too far.

When many people claim that the central claims of Christianity cannot be proved because there is no scientific evidence, are they falling victim to a CSI effect?   There may be firm historical evidence that Jesus existed.  There may be eyewitness reports, from those who changed the whole course of their lives and died defending it, that Jesus rose from the dead.  But, where’s the DNA, the video evidence. 

I submit to you ladies and gentlemen of the jury, two people may have seen the defendant shoot the victim, but we all know memories are not infallible.  If he’s guilty where’s the DNA?

We need balance.  Blind allegiance to science allied to thoroughgoing skepticism of other forms of evidence can lead us to some strange places.


(i)             Jeffrey Heindrick, Everyone’s an Expert: The CSI’s Negative Effect on Juries, Arizona State University – The Triple Helix Fall 2006, available at

(ii)             Ibid.

(iii)            See Hon. Donald E. Shelton, The ‘CSI Effect’: Does It Really Exist?, National Institute of Justice Journal No. 259, March 2008, available at