Fiction is bad for you, part 2: the CSI effect


Over at BngBng, Maggie Koerth-Baker points out the tendency for jurors to treat “forensic” evidence as the word of God, possibly because they’ve been watching too much Jerry Bruckheimer:

Whether or not shows like CSI influence juries to expect more technology, they do present a wildly inaccurate portrait of how accurate that technology is. The reality is, many of the tools and techniques used in detective work have never been scientifically verified. We don’t know that they actually tell us what they purport to tell us. Other forensic technologies do work, but only if you use them right—and there’s no across-the-board standard guaranteeing that happens.

There are (we’re told) two sides to this coin: On the one hand, jurors expect whiz-bang sciencey shit and are disappoint if they don’t get it; on the other, they’ll cheerfully line up behind any “expert” in a lab coat because they totally saw that episode where it was the only clue that led to a conviction.  So yeah, that two hours of TV you watch every night after work to “relax” could easily fuck up a real criminal trial should you ever get called up for jury duty.

Oh, but not your fiction addiction.  You, being an erudite educated sort, don’t lower yourself to populartelevised fiction.  You read literature and like to pronounce it lit-ra-chah.  Tango sierra, motherfucker, you’re still importing someone else’s prejudices into your head by way of a compelling and self-consistent story, which might be the biggest security hole in our rational heads.  Maybe you’re reading Shelley and come away with an ineffable distrust of godless demon science.  Maybe you’re reading Shakespeare and come away with a vague loathing of Jewish bankers.  Maybe Heinlein gives you the warm fuzzies for military crypto-dictatorship, or Palahaniuk makes you long for anarcho-primitivism, or Dostoevsky leaves you feeling wistful for Leninist slaughter.  (I’m picking books from my own shelves, by the way, being one of the aforementioned erudite educated sorts.)

You might quite understandably object that you’re not so deeply affected by the fiction you consume, that of course you can keep fantasy and reality straight in your head.  The question is, how do you know which bits are pure fantasy if you’ve never been confronted with their reality?  Pretty much everyone I know who isn’t immersed in the world of telling computers what to do has imported their perception of computer crime directly from Hollywood.  They’re not stupid; they’re just reasoning from the only data they have, which happen to be laughably wrong.  As it is with technology, so it is with philosophy; go talk to a high-school Randroid and see if I’m all that far off-base.


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