“It’s Our Job to Know Stuff”: The Epistemology of CSI

Curator's Note

This compilation of brief clips begins with a paradigmatic scene from episode 101 of CSI, "Cool Change," which lays out the show's most basic philosophical premises: "It's our job to know stuff," Grissom points out, but the importance of the origins of that knowledge is made clear as well. When Sara hints that Grissom might have relied on computer simulations for his data rather than tossing dummies off a building, Grissom responds somewhat defensively: "No, thank you. I'm a scientist. I like to see it." So does the audience, of course, but when we get to "see it," the irony is that (as in the second clip) it's made possible precisely by the sophisticated computer simulations that Grissom eschews. The third clip is from episode 105, "Friends and Lovers." I find this scene curious: As an academic, of course, the first question I ask is why the story Grissom tells Warrick revolves around a Harvard philosopher. Why is the professor the butt of this oddly scatological anecdote? Is this a cautionary tale about the damage that can be done when philosophy oversteps its bounds and interferes in the empirical process, focusing on the role of subjectivity in the production of knowledge? How, then, does the show reconcile the too-apparent contradiction between its rejection of computer simulation as a basis for evidence and its uses of that simulation? And how does the relationship between subjectivity and evidence play out in a show that is as much, if not more, about relationships as about scientific discovery?


Great thoughts and clips to kick off this week, Kathleen. "Seeing it" is of course the very raison d'etre of film, television, and related forms past and present (e.g., video games). In many forms and genres (e.g., documentary, horror, physical comedy, SF, action, porn) "seeing it" functions as a key narrative device. Such is the case with detective stories, and all the moreso with CSI, explicitly premised on "seeing it." In all of these forms, the normative truth claims of visual evidence have been structured by their formal techniques. Hence, on CSI, "our" evidence is always enhanced by impossible visions inside bodies, or of ghostly re-enactments, all glammed up with CGI. There's a whole history of film and television graphics here (especially in 1980s-90s news production) that prepped the audience for this expectation. As for your last question, and the last clip, the show is precisely about the relationship of subjectivity and (objective) evidence. In the same episode, Grissom himself becomes unglued at the drug dealer in question, and is unable to rectify the objective and subjective. This was an early episode, and as with all of the first season, effectively sets up CSI's vocabulary and grammar on this issue. We see all of our principals grimly (and sometimes joyfully, as when Sara and Grissom played "tape me up") gather the evidence and wrestle with their flawed subjectivities.

Grissom's preference for "seeing it" in a "natural" setting is interesting in this episode because it seems inconsistent with his approach other episodes. In another first season episode, "Pledging Mr. Johnson," Willows and Grissom take different paths to answering the same question (Where is the missing boat?). As Greg and Warrick watch Grissom applying his experimental method in a "lab" setting, they engage in the following exchange: GREG SANDERS: What's Grissom doing in the garage? WARRICK: Oh, he's working that Wendy Barger case -- you know, the floater? GREG SANDERS: Oh. WARRICK: Only clue he's got is a missing boat which sucks, 'cause ... it's missing. GREG SANDERS: (chuckles) He thinks he's going to find it in a bathtub? WARRICK: It's a simulation tank. He's re-creating the conditions the night she died. Body was dumped, like, a half mile from Calville Bay. They think the boat must have drifted with the currents. GREG SANDERS: And let me guess -- Catherine got bored. WARRICK: Well, you know Grissom. Shortest distance between two points is science. And for Catherine, it's pounding the pavement. (twiztv.com) Willows and Grissom eventually locate the boat almost simultaneously. Here, we see how CSI gives a nod to the intuitive police work of the past while recognizing that Grissom's scientific approach is also effective. Of course, Catherine's forensic background is used to enhance her intuitive skills so ultimately science gets the nod but in the end science is consistently presented in such a way that denies the investigator's influence over the outcome. After all, science is objective right?

Kathleen, I agree with you that CSI is as much about relationships as it is about science. I believe that that is the strength of the show and what keeps the viewers riveted. It is not just the science at work and the objective presentation of evidence that is featured here, but rather the opportunity to watch the CSIs both as scientists and as ordinary men and women. Particularly, the viewers can watch the private lives of these scientists in action as they get involved with each other (as Derek mentions above, Sara & Grissom), or with suspects (Grissom and Lady Heather). In the process of watching the CSIs, the viewers identify with them. This is particularly true when the CSIs cross the boundaries between the objective and the subjective spheres in which all of us are required to function. These are two very different and separate spheres: the professional or objective sphere and the private or subjective sphere. Because we are humans who can maintain the illusion of objectivity for only so long, the boundaries between both spheres sometimes get blurred. We usually feel guilty about this. Seeing the professional scientists of CSI Las Vegas fall and cross the boundaries of these two spheres reassure us viewers that we are not bad people after all. If these paragons of objectivity and professionalism can "sin" by letting subjectivity rule them from time to time, then so can we. By forgiving them their flaws (after all, they are only human), we are able to forgive ourselves.This cements our relationship with the CSI characters.

One of the things that fascinates me about the show, though, is the overwhelming *force* presented by the empirical; however much the CSIs might struggle with their own subjectivities, and however many different experimental paths might lead to the solution, the truth is always singular, scientifically provable, and objective. Whatever the desires of the individuals involved, they always have to bow to the evidence. Which is why one of the most important lines for me in the third clip is that "the evidence only knows one thing: the truth." It's key to the movement of power in the series, I think, that whatever the CSIs might know (and it's their job to know stuff), the evidence has the only consciousness that really matters...

True. It is interesting that in spite of being set in Las Vegas, the city of illusion and artifice, science does reign supreme in the show. Science seems to be the new religion of modern society. We worship at its altar with the sacraments of technology. Truth as handed down by the high priest of CSI, Gil Grissom, is absolute and final. There is no room for magic and emotion in the end. The episode "Abra-Cadaver" where we see two magicians at work:The Amazing Zephyr and Gil Grissom, the CSI head magician and high priest, underscores this. Science wins because Zephyr's illusion and tricks are shown as outdated and superseded by those of science. It is the "reality" of the magician of science that prevails. When Zephyr challenges Grissom with "Nothing is as it seems, is it?" Grissom counters with" That is the conflict of magic: the burden of knowledge versus the mystique of wonder....There are no secrets, only hidden answers." One question remains:" Is science always telling the truth?" In other words, "Does science never hide answers? "

The bottom line of Grissom's story to Warrick was about the evidence alone. "It is what it is"--and hoping it will be what you want it to be won't change the facts, as supported by the evidence. As far as the computer simulations are concerned, Grissom has been (and remains) "old school" about certain procedures and testing methods, choosing ones (based on his experiences and considerable knowledge) that he believes will yield more reliable results, deciding on a case-by-case basis which ones he will utilize. If he thinks the computer simulations are just as good, or better, he'll use those instead. He rarely (if ever) rejects anything immediately--"I don't rule anything out" ("Blood Drops"), and with Grissom that applies not only to evidence, but also the varied ways in which the evidentiary scenario may be verified. Given that, I see no conflict--sometimes Grissom (and others as well) prefer old school, sometimes not, so I think that clears the way for the characters to use the simulations to help solve the cases, and for the show to use them to educate and entertain. As far as the relationships are concerned, I've always been intrigued and pleased by the characters and their development. As in real life, all these people have their issues--Grissom is an "emotionally unavailable" workaholic, Sara struggles with her childhood history of domestic abuse and the murder of her father by her mother, Catherine is an ex-stripper single mom who is missing her daughter's childhood and puberty because of her dedication to her job, Warrick is a gambling addict, Nick can be too empathetic--and yet, they are all about the job, and having each other's backs. Personal problems aside, they are all about finding the truth, helping the families/loved ones find closure, putting the guilty party away, and looking out for one another.. Subjectivity sometimes enters in to the fray--but usually only with each other. Emotions run high on some cases, true--but Grissom always tries to keep his team grounded and focused. (I don't really think the Harvard philosopher had much to do with it.) I know what you're thinking. Simplistic. That may be true, but sometimes--"It is what it is."

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