Science on TV: not always doing it right

I’ve been offline for a couple of days because I took a long weekend/mini-vacation time to visit a dear friend who lives in another city. One of the things we did while chilling in the evenings was to watch some episodes of CSI: Miami from a few seasons ago. Oh, people, let me tell you: that is one entertaining show in which the way science happens is really, really wrong. Like, I had to run into the living room from the kitchen, where I was cooking dinner, because I heard dialogue that unambiguously communicated to me that they were showing something wrong on screen. Some stuff we discussed:

– They almost never show centrifuges being loaded correctly. Centrifuges are the machines we use to spin tubes full of stuff, and the spinning helps to separate that stuff, mostly by size or weight (although this is only the start of an explanation); if you only load one sample, it’s like loading one pillow and nothing else in a washing machine. (Or, as I recently learned, loading long-sleeved shirts and tights in a front-loading washer – they got tangled in a knot that unbalanced the machine!)

– DNA test results can be fast, but the technology that I’m familiar with takes a few minutes to a few hours to get the DNA out of a sample and ready to analyze, and then a few more hours to actually analyze. (We can talk about microsatellites, the main thing they discuss on crime shows, in more detail later.) Not the very literal less than one minute we saw in one episode, which included matching the sample to a person.

– Speaking of which, comparing samples to databases can take a few minutes or a few hours, depending on the search algorithm and the size of the database. (I am a fan of how sometimes the characters on NCIS talk about this.)

…and all of the DNA sample stuff depends on their not being a backlog of samples, which just isn’t normally true, from what I hear.

Red blood cells don’t have DNA in them. (Cool, huh?) Some of the bloody cotton swabs they show almost certainly lack sufficient DNA for the kind of testing they do without special treatment of the samples first. (Which, as someone who has tried to get DNA out of small numbers of cells in the past, is SUPER cool that we can now do.)

xkcd #386
You know about xkcd, right? I’m using this with the artist’s permission, because he’s given it to anyone who gives him credit. Click through for more math/science/tech hilarity!

P.S. Yes, this is totally me, and kind of why I write this blog.

Thankfully, my friend is super awesome and while she laughed at me, a little bit, she also asked some great questions about how the biology part of what they showed actually works.

Anyways, it’s a fun show, even if they talk about biology in some very bad ways, and one of the best parts is David Caruso’s sunglasses and the hilarious stuff he says as he puts them on.

Silhouette sunglasses
Got this pic from Matti Blume via Wikimedia Commons

Hope you’re all having fun and finding good science out there! Stay tuned for more biology news conversations in a few days – my day job is calling…


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