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Science montages in TV and movies

Heh. Leave it to xkcd to sum it up perfectly:


(Click for full comic)

You know, I happen to love CSI:Miami as much as the next guy. In fact, it’s one of my guilty TV pleasures. But any time there’s a lab scene on that show (or any of the other CSI shows) it cracks me up. Beautiful people in pristine white lab coats delivering DNA sequences in an hour! Loud rock music blaring over cuts so fast that they induce seizures and would be considered too hyperactive even for a music video or a Michael Bay movie. Multi-colored Eppendorf tubes back lit so that they glow. These sorts of scenes have become the science cliches of movies and TVs, much as images of people furiously typing away at keyboards to effortlessly bring up information about virtually anything have become the computer cliches of our time.

Science is exciting. There is the thrill of discovery that is hard to match. But in many cases actually watching someone do science is about as exciting as, well, watching someone type at his keyboard. Back in the day when I was in the lab a lot more than I am now, I couldn’t imagine someone wanting to watch me do a Northern blot or set up a PCR reaction unless that person was a trainee to whom I was teaching the technique. What worries me about these shows is that people will think doing science is actually like CSI all the time and may be sorely disappointed when they find out that there’s a lot of slow, painstaking drudgery required to get to the exciting results.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

50 replies on “Science montages in TV and movies”

I like the female scientists with their cleavages, lip gloss and long hair hanging all over the place. Right! Sure we are an attractive bunch but hair in the specimen is not kosher.

I’ve already run into the problem in the lab (analyzing soil samples, but still test-tubey stuff) where the students begin the give up because it takes a week to run all the samples through one test.

What worries me more is the “CSI effect” in the courtroom– juries have begun to expect every crime scene to be littered with DNA, uniquely identifiable fibers from the perp’s clothing, ect.

I love the “lets go” part of the cartoon. I know a lot of scientist, and I knew a few cops, and I swear I’ve never seen the scientists grab their sidearms and run out of the lab to catch a bad guy, and I remain firm in my conviction that the two professions should be kept as separate as possible.

Of course, they do tend to overlap more in archaeology now that I think about it. I have actually arrested people. But that is an entirely different sort of thing …

Even the “Actual Science Montage” is fairly unrealistic. More realistic final panels might include any of the following:

“OK. That’s the end of Step 1. Only 17 more to go.”

“Crap! One of the controls didn’t work. We’re going to have to run the whole thing again.”

“Hmmm. That’s kind of a weird result. What do you suppose that means?”

“Nope, that didn’t work either. What do you think we should try next?”

“What worries me about these shows is that people will think doing science is actually like CSI all the time and may be sorely disappointed when they find out that there’s a lot of slow, painstaking drudgery required to get to the exciting results.”

I wouldn’t worry too much about it. It’s like that with most of TV’s favorite professions. Even lawyers who are litigators may only spend about 1% of their time in a courtroom; the rest is document review, legal research, letters and conference calls and other drudge work. Most doctors probably spend way more time than they would like dealing with insurance paperwork and conducting routine exams and tests that don’t lead to magical “House” epiphanies or dramatic life-saving moments. The average cop might not get in one shootout or car chase in his or her entire career.

If making science “sexy” attracts some initial interest that it otherwise wouldn’t, that’s not a bad thing. Anyone with half a brain will realize pretty quickly that no profession lives up to its hype.

Except blogging, of course. That’s non-stop excitement!

Has anyone gasped at how Sigourney Weaver holds her Eppendorf pipette in Avatar? They are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make this movie and they cannot invest in someone who teaches their protagonist how to hold a pipette?! VERY irritating!

Have you watched the two other CSI’s? They are sooo much better.

David Carusso… worse actor ever!

Yes, I’ve watched the other two CSIs.

To me, CSI: MIami rules over the other two exactly because of its pure cheesiness and David Caruso’s hamming it up. I love it when he takes off his sunglasses portentously right before laying down one of his hilarious bon mots.

Oh yes, the glowing lab equipment! We used to read ads in SCIENCE and watch tv shows where folks were in the labs and could never get over the blue glowing liquid that always showed up in the Ehrlenmeyer flask somewhere in the image. Too cool, but what is it? A laboratory lava lamp?

As a former clinical lab grunt, the CSI folks just make me howl! Why doesn’t anyone ever have a dirty labcoat? Why is it that the folks running the trace compound/substance analyses often don’t wear gloves? As a former lab safety officer during his bench days in grad school, my husband just runs through the “Whoa, I’d be filing a safety report on that activity”, “Wow, why aren’t they doing that under a hood?”, “Isn’t there something on the MSDS about using that compound to do that test?”, etc., etc., etc.

Not that I don’t like cheesy TV (I’m a Doctor Who fan like Orac), but CSI is something I couldn’t even pretend to enjoy, not so much for the bad science as for the 2 (or possibly 1.5) dimensional characters I’ve read xkcd for a little while, but did you know there’s like an extra little joke if you hold your mouse still over the comic for a second? I suddenly have a sad impulse to read them all again to check all those captions. Oh, and as an analytical chemist, that comic is so going to be my desktop.

What worries me about these shows is that people will think doing science is actually like CSI all the time and may be sorely disappointed when they find out that there’s a lot of slow, painstaking drudgery required to get to the exciting results.

I wouldn’t worry about that. Anyone who can make it through enough schooling to reach a point where exciting results are a possibility already has the required level of patience.

The fancy lighting is rampant in even non-fiction TV.

I think even on, say, NOVA, you occasionally get shots of a researcher in a darkened lab with, maybe, a dramatic wash of red light on the wall behind as she peers into a microscope or noodles on a computer or looks at the camera and talks about quarks.

And I suspect universities do the same kind of thing when putting together promotional materials. Probably helps hide the mess.

I’m less worried about people thinking that science occurs under such dramatic lighting or that science moves that fast than I am worried that people are getting some very bad science from the show. The episode with the GMO crop was so utterly ridiculous that I couldn’t watch it anymore. That’s sad because it is pure comedy gold.

Archaeology and paleontology had this problem for a while. It’s still better IMHO to show “Science is cool!” if that’s what it takes to get it some respect. At least the sexy lighting approach helps counter the evil-mad-white-coat-German-accent shtick. Although, the GloFish did rather cement the two aspects…

CSI’s lab technique and speediness amuses me and everyone in my lab. Especially when they look at an IR result and can tell me it’s blue pen ink.

I know the guy who set up all their “instruments”. It only consists of an auto sampler they had beefed up for speed and the software bundle. The “results” they show are actually just the test pattern the software spits out.

Molecular biology is pipetting very tiny amounts of clear liquid from one tube to another. Eventually, something will glow or turn blue, but that’s the CLIMAX of the action-packed thrill that is mobio.

In CSI: I always wonder why they turn the light off in the lab while they are doing assays.

My company (large SF research equipment company) puts colored lights in all our instruments now, just so it will look cool for the CSI generation.

I was giving a seminar at the Baltimore City PD crime lab on a PCR technology my company was hocking and was shocked when only one of them had more than an MT certification or BS in Biology. And NONE of them looked like the women of CSI.

Ah well, authenticity is boring.

I cursed those bastards every time we did an ELISA – which took us ALL DAY. 🙂 So much micropipetting…

Don’t even get me started about Western blots.

this is why I love EUReKA on SyFy. All the science fiction, none of the “brutalized and sexually assaulted jane doe #347” crap. But then again, they’re saving the world on that show, not simply bagging a perp. Make the switch, Orac. It’s happy. It’s fun. You need it after the horror stories you read all day on the Huffington Post.

I feel the same way when I see movies about musicians – they go straight to the hookers and blow and never get into, you know, the PRACTICING, which is a major, major part of a musician’s life.

Probably because the producers think it’s more interesting to watch Charlie Parker mess up his life than perfect the E flat minor scale. Whatever.

I had a very “movie science” moment earlier this afternoon: I coded a genetic algorithm to solve a network modularity problem (as an example for a lecture I’ll be giving this Thursday). Multicolored dots crawling over a network as numbers scroll past in green-on-black text, plus a playlist of thumping techno on my headphones — nothing keeps the coding rhythm going quite like a dose of Infected Mushroom and a spin with Orbital!

Of course, I was coding this example for an introductory lecture, so the whole point was to make it look cool. (-:

Ah, le sigh…

Thirty five years ago when I a seventeen year old college freshman I started off majoring in oceanography. I had dreams of going out to sea, measuring stuff and all sorts of adventure. In high school I was in Explorer Scouts, a post that specialized in oceanography (I got to tour the Silas Bent!).

Then the university’s Ocean department treated us freshman to a picnic and actually told us the facts. They told us that we had to get a PhD before even dreaming of a job, and that going to sea was a very little part of the job. Most of it was spent at long hours in an onshore lab and/or going over the data other people collected. Hoping that somehow that someone would let you be an author of a paper, that somehow would get published.

Then I walked through the musty stacks of the library’s science section (okay, I did handle a hundred year old journal).

That next week I switched to the College of Engineering. I may, or may not have been influenced by my high school physics teacher and by my first boyfriend (who was just starting his junior year as a civil engineer). So instead of analyzing data, I created predictions of data with computer time series simulations (hey, it is faster!).

But after being gainfully unemployed for over twenty years due to issues with my oldest child, I started to check out jobs. Some have been with the same university. Ah, there are job openings for mechanical engineers with certain math creds that actually require weeks on a ship in the Pacific. Unfortunately that is not so attractive to me anymore.

It’s fun to consider how the movie science cliches have changed. Where are all the spinning tape drives, flying card sorters, blitzing jacob’s ladders and the gurney slowly rising towards the open skylight? Think of that kind of stuff as convention and metaphor. Does movie sex even look more than vaguely like actual sex? (Outside the porn world, of course.) Does movie violence look more than vaguely like actual violence? Why should it be all that different than science? Art is representational.

P.S. See if you can find Mae Berenbaum’s hilarious essay on her X-Files incarnation as the hot, hot, hot, entomologist, Bambi Berenbaum.

I’m a real life forensic scientist, and the only CSI I watch is the Miami variety. Such amazingly awful cheese; it’s so much fun to watch!

(My fave bad science is when they track down gasoline to a specific service station b/c it tolulene in it, which made it rare. IRL, almost all gas has tolulene).

One has to wonder what the hell Lawrence Fishburne was thinking. Isn’t he still an A-lister? The only one that’s doing well in movies that deserves to be on a TV show is Alec Baldwin, but 30 Rock is special. Very special.

#28 Dave,

I’m into photography (of the digital variety) and all these shows (not even Numb3rs gets a pass here) at some point or another do the “zoom in and enhance that license plate at 5 km” effect, but the most hilarious one was on the Miami one when they zoomed into the picture of an eye of a person, and from its reflection they could read the newspaper headline he/she was reading!

Yeah I used to watch all these for a while, when I first got HDTV, cause they’re all so pretty.

Freaky, I was ignoring CSI:NY on New Zealand TV when I started reading this post. The thing that gets me is all the Minority Report type displays where they tie in all sorts of obscure data to pinpoint the bad guy. It looks cool, but I’m always thinking ‘where’s this data from and how can they access and collate it in real time?’. And I thought the UK was the 1984ish surveillance state.

I was a little freaked out with Larry Fishburne taking over from Will Graham (sorry William Peterson)

We now have two of the cast of King of New York playing crime scene investigators; can the introduction of Christopher Walken as a New York Lab technician (and the inevitable three part cross over) be far behind?

“So, the victim was shot 47 times at close range and a briefcase full of tampons dumped at the scene.”

Andyo @30:

Oh yeah, the photoanalysis people here just love those ones! I sometimes do presentations to high school groups, and I refer to that as the most abused part of forensics by TV. But remember, when it comes to a choice between telling a story or being scientifically accurate, guess which one wins?

Re Sigourney and the pipetter: yeah. When I saw the scene I leaned over and whispered to the person next to me : well it’s obvious SHE has never used a micropipette before!

I loathe CSI: Miami and CSI: NY. I’ll have to try to watch for the sheer purpose of mocking – that might help…

I used to watch the original, though, and they had one episode that was brilliant. Some TV people are visiting the lab to do research for a CSI-like show. The best scene (from probably faulty memory): One of the characters tells another he’s going to do some drawn-out research task that one of the TV people is going to be observing for the show. She says like “What? I can’t imagine anyone wanting to watch us do something like that on television.” He replies: “Yeah, but when they have it on the show it’ll be edited down to like 30 seconds with cool techno music playing.” Then they show him in the lab, edited down to like 30 seconds with techno music playing. It was awesome.

This is why I like Bones. With the exception of the sparkly instant 3-D rendering computer, the science on that show is relatively solid. I suppose that’s what happens when you have an actual scientist working as a consultant – she still doesn’t know jack about computers, so some of the computer-related stuff is completely ridiculous.

Pauley Perrette on NCIS was actually working on her Masters Degree in Criminal Science before she got into acting.

Of course CSI is going to push the limits of what actually can be done right now, but that is to jazz things up. Basically, CSI is the application of the scientist press release. You know, when the press release comes out and says, “This discovery could lead to X, Y, and Z”? CSI goes out and uses it for X, Y, and Z.

BTW, I’m not just making this up. It is exactly what happened with a colleague. He put out a press release on some cool new instrumentation with potential applications. The producers of CSI saw the story (it made the NYT) and said, cool, can we use it in the show? Sure, they said, and supplied the show with an actual instrument.

The application shown in the show was of course well beyond anything that it had been used for, and probably beyond what it was capable of doing, but was certainly in the realm of speculation of what we would like it to be able to do, someday.

Short answer: I don’t think CSI is any more bullshit than the random scientific press release.

I once described CSI: Miami as “the dumbest show on television”… while watching it.
“Supernatural” did a parody of CSI Miami a month or so ago.
And, finally, here’s a line I thought up as a punchline for a CSI parody: “The forensic evidence is conclusive… This bullet was fired from A gun!”

The thing that always gets me is how clean all the TV/movie labs are. I used to work in a physics lab studying energy transfer in solids, and after a nasty incident where a janitor got Windex on a diffraction grating for a spectrometer, the janitorial staff weren’t allowed in to clean. So the only cleaning was what was done by the grad students and postdocs … that is, not much.

As for CSI:Miasma, I can’t stand to watch it. But it’s not David Caruso’s over-the-top ham-fisted one-note performance that bothers me, it’s the rest of the regular cast. They are so dreadful you could use their affects as optical flats.

Karl @34

Thanks, that’s a great mashup. It seems I was wrong, it was Warrick!

This is one of the reasons why I like Southland and Criminal Minds so much. Instant DNA results? Hah! Try a multi-year backlog for testing instead, assuming the person is even in a database somewhere. Even the rush ones can’t necessarily come fast enough to save the day. And Magic Camera Enhancement just isn’t happening. Instead they have to rely on actual police work, which is good, since LAPD detectives and the FBI agent are actual police officers and can, you know, arrest people, unlike CSI techs.

it is unfortunately the same thing in almost ANY TV genre.

Cops/ CSI’s that enter and investigate huge dark homes with a small handheld flash light instead of doing something flipping on the lights.. while wearing gloves of course. Modern day versions of the famous BAT COMPUTER… push two buttons, enter a few keystrokes, the machine instantly yields whatever you need. Answers. MASSIVE Database searches in a flash. Gas Chromotography that matches a trace of dirt to a specific pavement compound only used in a limited area, as well as determining the trace components of the sole of the sneaker worn by the ‘perp.’ Same machine, same small glass vials in same autoloader after alcohol wash of a swabette, yields DNA/gunpowder residue/paint color sample matching/ tidal basin water matching.
One small shining moment, the original NCIS has a quirky but lovable lab geek, who often is telling the team members the study is “STILL RUNNING”… or ” NO RESULTS YET”…
and she is actually in a smallish basement lab, lots of cool machines, but not a lot of laser backlit neon light show. yes, she does eventually produce results or a match.. but the tire tread database or fingerprint search or ballistics matching program takes its time and churns on in the background. The new NCIS- in LA, of course, has better computers, and is able to obtain lightning fast data from anywhere, or any surveillance camera, with incredible resolution AND no search warrants/ access squabbles/ protocol issues. Perhaps if NCIS LA was on the TSA job, the terrorist data matching WOULD actually happen.

Alas, the CSI technoFabLab is no doubt down the street from the fabulous hospital where the nurses and doctors are all either fighting or sexually entangled, and all seemingly work a happy rotational schedule of the ED/OB/Medicine/Surgical ICU/ Medical Imaging suites, as befits the case of the week. Those places don’t exist either! And the lawyers all solve crimes/ win cases/ have sex AND fabulous personal lives. Same city, different office building, I guess.


I do like that Abby grouses about the time labs take, but it does seem like matches come faster and faster each season. The one episode that I almost walked away from the show for, they used a GPR and got high-quality X-ray images of graves (as opposed to a series of squiggly lines requiring lots of interpretation).

What bothers me about the CSI shows isn’t so much that they get the high tech cutting edge 21st century science wrong, but they mess up the high school, F=MA stuff that was old in the 18th century.

The last time I had to sit and watch it (I’ll do anything for a girl, and I am not real proud of it), a person involved in an auto accident (a rag top Jeep with the top down, as I remember) was thrown *up* into a tree. Where the body stayed for a coupla days, and nobody smelled a thing. On a main street…

I used to enjoy Criminal Minds, but it’s become silly with the databases. I’ve written a query or two in my life, and there is no way you’ll run a query, in real time, to find the one left handed guy who used to be a woman, with a parking ticket on 3rd Street two days ago, who purchased a .45 handgun in the week leading up to the latest series of killings, *and* get it right the first time.

JOHNNIE: dont apologize..we all watch some TV here, and it all is full of nonsensical components. Like the fellows/residents that work (suffer) with Dr. House.. who apparently are also certified to perform EVERY possible invasive diagnostic procedure as well as operating the MRI/ Nuclear Medicine scanner/ CT/ and intergalactic transporter device.

but I digress.

AND.. While a very satisfied MAC user, I would be very intrigued in obtaining the computer used in CSI with the virtual keyboards and 3D projected displays… with the VERY cool interface technology… they just sort of toss a bad guy’s cell phone onto the table top and it accesses, downloads, and analyses all calling records, with cross reference for users identity of all other phone numbers… now THAT is cool! I have trouble getting my phone to remember my earpiece!

The last slide of both cartoons pretty much says it all.

Most of the time in analysis, conclusions are the same.
I can tell that there is no fluorine on these samples so they do not match the originals. keep looking…..

Oh and by the way, there are 3 other customers in front of you so you won’t get your analysis until next week.

What worries me about these shows is that people will think doing science is actually like CSI all the time and may be sorely disappointed when they find out that there’s a lot of slow, painstaking drudgery required to get to the exciting results.

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