CSI: Common Scientific Illiteracy.

I don’t watch CSI. Ok, that’s not totally true or this post wouldn’t exist. I almost never watch it. I did catch a re-run while I was eating lunch on the weekend, an episode called “Overload” (some guy was electrocuted and fell off a building — I can’t exactly remember why).

In one scene, the lead character says, in what I assume is his typical “know it all” tone, “Terminal velocity is 9.81 metres per second per second”.

No, it ain’t — the acceleration due to gravity (on Earth) is 9.81 m/s2. The second time unit gives it away — this isn’t a velocity, it is a rate of change of a velocity.

So what?

Well, any kid in high school physics could have picked out that error. But here we have a screenwriter (probably a team of them), a director, producers, all the actors, sound techs, cameramen, editors, and post-production people involved in the scene, and evidently not one of them knows even the most basic physics concepts. More seriously, the producers of the show must assume that it doesn’t matter whether basic facts are checked because the audience is likely similarly uninformed. This really isn’t artistic license, and it adds nothing to the drama. It’s just a goofy mistake that could have been prevented — as Carl Sagan recommended in The Demon-Haunted World — by hiring a grad student to check the script.

Nitpicking? Maybe. But I think it’s a sad situation when no one involved in a science-themed show is even qualified to nitpick.

5 thoughts on “CSI: Common Scientific Illiteracy.

  1. In the Star Trek: Enterprise episode "Breaking the Ice", Malcolm and Travis are rigging some explosives to blow the surface ice on some comet and, just before they trigger it, Captain Archer makes a point of telling a nearby Vulcan ship that they are about to make a "loud noise".

    The explosives go off, the bang duly made, and nothing further is made of it.

    Add in the fact that by the time of the Enterprise series, they'd surely have received several thousand letters on the subject of whether noise travels in space…

    To be quite frank, I can't fathom it.

  2. I think they used 'terminal velocity' because it sounded cool! I remember watching some overdone medical-themed show where the doctor calls for epinephrine which, apparently doesn't work, so he reaches for an alternative: adrenaline. First, I laughed, only to realise that I was weeping…

  3. Reminds me of this passage –

    “Since the 1950’s hundreds of laboratory experiments have shown that Earth’s simplest chemical compounds, including water and volcanic gases, could have reacted to form many of the molecular building blocks of life, including the molecules that make up proteins, DNA, and cell membranes.” – The National Academy of Science – Science, Evolution, & Creationism (2008) – p. 21

    While the statement has some validity, it is very misleading. Generating amino acids is trivial compared to generating a protein. It is like saying that in 100’s of laboratory experiments scientists combined hydrogen gas and oxygen gas and got a liquid, water, a requirement of all known life.

    Oh wait. There is as of yet no well articulated theory of how Earth’s vast amount of surface water was generated. It is kind of like physics. Matter and energy are trivial until you can explain where the space came from.

    Life is good,


  4. To be quite frank, I can't stand to watch CSI, and totally agree with your re-interpretation of the abbreviation. The 'forensics' researchers need training in basic usage of a micropipetter. And yes, the DNA double helix molecule looks cool, but no geneticist ever looks at the double helix when their researching paternity, or sourcing a blood stain to identify a criminal.

    The worst episode, the name escapes me, was one where a mother and father lost their eldest son to a rare nervous disorder. Their second son, a baby, had started developing similar neurological symptoms to their first child… and so, they killed the baby and made it look like a SIDS death, because they didn't want to go through the medical torment all over again.

    The forensics team did their duty, and found out that the baby's symptoms were not due to any heritable disorder, but were actually due to organophosphate toxicity. Organophosphates are neurotoxic, and so were the likely culprit.
    The mother worked for a landscaping business and was exposed to a lot of pesticides in the process. When the CSIers came to her house, one of the guys went to her back garden and pulled a spray-bottle of "Weedkiller" out of her shed, as though it was the culprit. But "Weedkiller" is a herbicide.

    The dunderhead writers should have known: Organophosphates = Insecticides, NOT herbicides. I wanted to hurl a brick at my television. To this day, I have never willingly watched the show.

  5. The "Infinite resolution" security cameras bother me the most. In one episode of CSI:Las Vegas, they used a security camera to zoom in to read the writing on a prescription bottle.

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