Guest Post: DP Lyle

The CSI Effect

You’ve no doubt heard of the CSI Effect but what exactly is it and does it actually exist? Both the definition and whether it is real or not are controversial with experts weighing in on both sides of the issue.

It derives from the many CSI or forensic science shows on TV, both fictional and documentary-FFD 500X629style. Many point to the CBS series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as the beginning of the effect, which then expanded with the appearance of the “CSI clones” and other shows such as Bones, NCIS, Cold Case, and Forensic Files.

The CSI Effect is basically the impact of these shows on the public, criminals, law enforcement officials, juries, and courts as they have created a level of expectation that simply isn’t realistic. They portray crime labs as being fully equipped and staffed, and magically able to uncover the most esoteric evidence. They make the very rare seem commonplace. They suggest that all these wonderful tools are widely available and frequently employed in criminal cases. The truth is vastly different. DNA is involved in perhaps 1% of cases and it isn’t available in 20 minutes. Crime labs do not have plasma screens TVs and holographic image generators. The lab techs, though talented and dedicated, aren’t prescient and can’t magically solve complex crimes by simply “seeing” the solution in a microscope, or within their minds. It doesn’t work that way.

So how does all this information—or is it misinformation–affect the public, criminals, and the police and courts? Simply put, they teach criminals how to avoid leaving evidence at a crime scene and unrealistically raise the expectations of the public.

Criminals alter their behavior as these shows teach them not to leave behind fingerprints and DNA, to hide from surveillance cameras, to avoid using cellphones and computers in their criminal activities, and a host of other things. Fortunately, these shows are not always accurate and don’t cover all contingencies, proving the old adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The criminal thinks he has thought of everything but while focusing on one bit of evidence others are ignored.

The public, and thus juries, comes away from these shows believing that high-tech investigations are involved in every case and if the police or prosecutors fail to make DNA or blood analysis part of the case they must have done something wrong. Defense attorneys latch on to this and use it to undermine the police investigation. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, juries wanted confessions and eyewitnesses, both of which we now know can be false and erroneous. Now, after the saturation of our psyche with forensic science, they expect DNA and other sophisticated evidence. This not only makes gaining a conviction more difficult but also gives prosecutors pause before filing charges in cases without such evidence.

So, it can be said that the CSI Effect alters the criminal justice system in many ways. It helps criminals avoid detection, creates unrealistic expectations in the public and in juries, and makes prosecution of some crimes problematic.

But there are positive aspects in that this increased interest in forensic science has led to more people choosing this as a career and indeed the number of colleges offering forensic science curricula and degrees has mushroomed.

For more on this and all things forensic science check out my latest forensic book—an updated 2nd Edition of Forensics for Dummies due from Wiley on 2-29-16.



DP Lyle, MD is the Macavity and Benjamin Franklin Silver Award winning and Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Scribe, Silver Falchion, and USA Best Book Award nominated author of many non-fiction books as well as numerous works of fiction, including the Samantha Cody, Dub Walker, and Jake Longly thriller series as well as the Royal Pains media tie-in novels. His essay on Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island appears in Thrillers: 100 Must Reads and his short story “Even Steven” in ITW’s anthology Thriller 3: Love Is Murder.

His next projects include an update of Forensics for Dummies (February, 2016) and Deep Six, the first in his new Jake Longly comedic thriller series (July, 2016).

He has served as Guest of Honor at Killer Nashville, SleuthFest, and other writer’s conference. He teaches extensively, is International Thriller Writer’s VP for Education, and runs CraftFest, Master CraftFest, and ITW’s online Thriller School.

Along with Jan Burke, he is the co-host of Crime and Science Radio. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.

Crime and Science Radio:–science-radio.html

14 thoughts on “Guest Post: DP Lyle”

  1. When I was in college the double helix was just beginning to be unraveled. Look at it now! Thank you for writing THE book that lets us lay writers have a chance at getting it right. Looking forward to adding the updated edition to my bookshelf.


  2. Welcome! I had to pause a moment while I went and pre-ordered the book. Forensics is fascinating. So much information – and so many ways to create problems for our characters with it. Or surprise for our readers!


  3. CSI effect is alive and well. I’ve heard too many anecdotes from my fellow trial attorneys not to think so. Juries expect DNA and forensics in every case whether it’s needed or not. The consequence is that the police look sloppy if it hasn’t been done and juries are more likely to acquit.


  4. Welcome, DP, and thanks for the thoughtful post! It’s interesting to hear the implications of the CSI Effect, both the positives and the negatives. I know as a mystery writer it’s really tough to discern truth from fiction when it comes to crime scenes, so books like yours are much appreciated!


  5. Forensic science is a wonderful tool, and I so appreciate how you share your knowledge. It becomes tricky to figure out ways that our sleuths can use these tools while still using their special investigative skills. Thanks for visiting, and I can’t wait to check out your new books!


  6. So interesting. And intimidating. This is why I stay away from forensics when I write. But I love to read about it in other books. Amazing how a popular TV show has influenced the criminal justice system.


  7. Hey, Doug, great to see you here! And what a terrific reason to replace my original copy of Forensics for Dummies. It’s got stickies stuck everywhere and is getting a little battered.

    I was told by the Chief Investigator in Denver that not only are their applicants for forensic science interns up, but there are more women than ever interested in entering the field. Pretty cool, huh?


  8. Thanks for the post. I have been fortunate to hear you speak several times in Orange County, and I have learned something every time (and enjoyed myself as well). Thanks for the tip on the new book.


  9. Loved your post on the CSI effect. As soon as I post my comment, I’m going to order your book – Forensics for Dummies, 2nd edition. I’m so excited. Also I’ve signed up for WPA in August. I can’t wait. (I also noticed I watched all but one of the shows you’ve helped on. Thanks!!)

    Thanks for sharing.


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