Debunking Hollywood Myths About Forensic Science

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By Alexis Blue, University Communications March 13, 2014

Forensic anthropologist Alexis Gray will talk at the UA about how forensic science in real life differs from what we see on TV.

Think your crime-solving skills are sharp after binging on all those episodes of "CSI"? Think again, says forensic anthropologist Alexis Gray.

Gray, the forensic anthropologist for San Bernadino County in California, will give a talk at the University of Arizona on March 27 about the ways in which forensic science and anthropology are portrayed on television versus what it's like in real life.

Gray knows a thing or two about the difference. In 2010, she was asked to consult for the Fox TV show "Bones," a crime comedy-drama that centers on a fictional forensic anthropologist named Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan, played by Emily Deschanel.

Gray got a call from one of the show's writers after doing an interview with a magazine in which she criticized the series' depiction of forensic science. She was invited to tour the "Bones" set and point out ways in which the show could be more realistic.

Among her initial observations: The autopsy tables on set didn't have drains, as they would in real life. The bones were stored in lightboxes, which would never really be done. And the main character's collection of skulls was arranged illogically.

While a few of her suggestions made it to the small screen – and she did a handful of follow-up consulting calls with the show – Gray knows it's unlikely Hollywood will ever entirely change its ways.

That's why she makes it a goal to educate the public about how forensic anthropology really works.

"I'd love to be able to teach people what we really do," said Gray, who teaches in California at Norco College and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Gray says the "CSI effect" – the exaggerated portrayal of forensic science in crime dramas – has had a significant impact in courtrooms and in classrooms.

For example, jurors in court sometimes have unrealistic expectations about crime scene investigation and law enforcement's abilities to analyze and process DNA testing because of what they've seen on television.

At the same time, a growing number of students, especially young women, are showing an interest in careers in forensic anthropology without understanding what the work really entails, Gray said.

Those students often change their mind when introduced to the realities of the field, which involve long and inconsistent hours and highly charged emotional moments, Gray said.

Forensic anthropologists are called on when a body can't be identified for any number of reasons. The remains may have been badly burned or damaged, or a person was not carrying identification at the time of death, Gray explained.

It's challenging work – a job Gray continues to do because of the rewarding feeling of being able to help put people at ease by letting them know what happened to their loved ones.

"That's absolutely the driving force of every day for me," Gray said. "I cannot imagine what it would be like to not know where my son is, and I don't want anyone to have to deal with that."

Gray's lecture, titled "The CSI Effect: Forensic Archaeology and Science on TV," will take place at the Arizona State Museum from 5:30-7 p.m. on March 27. The talk is part of the museum's "Murder and Mayhem: Archaeological Mysteries and Thrillers" series, which was kicked off earlier this month to celebrate Arizona Archeology Awareness Month.

Other remaining lectures in the series include "Archaeology and the Movies: Metropolis to Raiders," by UA Regents' Professor of Anthropology David Soren, at 5:30 p.m. today, and "Art Dealer Diaries: A Murder Mystery Series," by author J. Mark Sublette – a former physician and founder of Tucson's Medicine Man Gallery – at 5:30 p.m. on April 3.

All lectures will take place at the Arizona State Museum. The cost is $10 per lecture, and pre-registration is required by contacting Darlene Lizarraga at 520-626-8381.

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