TV Forensic Science Good; Real Forensic Science Not So Good

Allison Loudermilk

David Caruso as CSI: Miami's Horatio Caine in all his forensic fineness (Cliff Lipson/CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

If our TV-watching habits are any indication, people love forensic science. I'm not sure how many "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" shows have been spawned, but people undoubtedly dig a diet of grisly crime-scene dramas and cheesy David Caruso one-liners. Nothing like a fortuitously obtained DNA sample to right the miscarriage of justice and send a show straight to successful syndication.

Unfortunately, our TV love for the topic isn't reflected in real life. Surprised? According to a congressionally mandated report drafted by the National Research Council (hint: click on the book to read it free), there are some "serious deficiencies" in the U.S. forensic science system. The science that gives meaning to bite marks, fingerprints, hair follicle DNA and even writing samples is practiced unevenly at the federal, state and local levels.

And while we tend to take nuclear DNA analysis as the bible, no other forensic methods hold up quite as well, according the report. That's kind of surprising because, hey, if your fingerprints match those found on the smoking gun, aren't you headed for the slammer? Well, no, especially if that fingerprint was smudged, improperly preserved or poorly analyzed.

Dr. Michael Baden, the high-profile forensic pathologist for the New York State Police tells New Scientist that he think the report is "long overdue." This from the guy who investigated the deaths of people like Sid Vicious and John Belushi.

So let's put the science back in forensic science, shall we? Suggestions, anyone?

For all you forensic science junkies who have been known to read Ms. Cornwell a time or two, we have plenty more articles: How Body Farms Work How Bloodstain Pattern Analysis Works How DNA Profiling Works