Your Guide To Good — And Bad — TV Forensics : Short Wave Raychelle Burks is a forensic chemist AND a big fan of murder mysteries. Today, we talk pop culture forensics with Raychelle and what signs to look for to know whether or not a tv crime show is getting the science right.

Follow Maddie on Twitter @maddie_sofia. Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.

A Short Wave Guide To Good — And Bad — TV Forensics

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: ...From NPR.

Today Raychelle Burks is a chemistry professor at St. Edward's University or, as she says in her Twitter bio, #chemistryblackademic (ph) in the ivory tower. But way back when...

RAYCHELLE BURKS: I wanted to be a lawyer when I was little.

SOFIA: Little grade-school Raychelle wasn't that interested in science.

BURKS: I was, like, a little Alex P. Keaton kid.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

BURKS: Brief case, little ribbon around the neck, you know, blouse. And I used to go to the library every Saturday and read law books. I was a really fun kid.

SOFIA: Yeah, it sounds like it (laughter).

But then on an eighth-grade school trip to Washington, D.C., some folks from the FBI introduced Raychelle to a field of science she had never heard of before - forensic science. And all of a sudden, science seemed like a pretty good idea.

BURKS: Once I thought it could be useful, like, it could be applied - and I just hadn't made that connection - and be used to, you know, solve crimes and things, then I just became, like, a whole, you know, forensic, science, crime, chemistry just nut.

SOFIA: Yeah.

BURKS: So that's kind of really what got me into it, is that school trip.

SOFIA: The power of school trips, people.

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SOFIA: After that trip, she talked with her grandmother and her mom, and they introduced Raychelle to a super fun genre, one that combined her love of forensic science with her love of pop culture.

I heard you love a good old-fashioned murder mystery.

BURKS: Ooh, I do so much.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

BURKS: Oh, so much.

SOFIA: Agatha Christie, "Murder, She Wrote" led her to "Law & Order" and "NCIS" and made her the murder mystery nerd she is now.

I'm Maddie Sofia. Today on the show - pop culture forensics with forensic chemist Raychelle Burks. We'll give you the good, the bad and the real bad. I'm looking at you, "CSI."

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SOFIA: So we've got forensic chemist Raychelle Burks with us to talk about forensics in pop culture. And before her latest gig in academia, she worked in a crime lab. She's even been pulled in to consult on TV shows like "Madam Secretary," which we'll get to a bit later.

OK, what are some of the telltale signs that a show or a movie is getting forensics right? Like, if I'm watching a show, what am I looking for?

BURKS: You hardly ever see crime scene people. They're not any of the main characters. And they might be, like, a person in the background, and you're like, what's that person doing over in the corner? And, you know, they might be like, Bob, you find anything? No. Like, you know - or, like, very kind of throwaway, kind of a "Law & Order" scenario, where, every once in a while, somebody would pop up and be like, here's the toxicology report. But it's very kind of in the background. Your job is to provide some level of technical scientific skill and report out, but you're not going around investigating (laughter).

SOFIA: Right. Right.

BURKS: You're not interviewing suspects. You're not (laughter)...

SOFIA: Right. So if the forensic science people are, like, in the plot, investigating people, you're like, that's not real; that's not how that works.

BURKS: Yeah.

SOFIA: What are some of your favorite shows that are doing this right? Like, just give us a list of - like, if you're looking for decent forensic representation...

BURKS: (Laughter).

SOFIA: ...What are some of those - what are some of those shows?

BURKS: You know, the classic "Law & Order." You know, it's tricky because the "CSIs" are coming from such a (laughter) interesting place. I'm not going to recommend any of those.

SOFIA: Yeah. OK.

BURKS: I - you know, again, I would say something even like "The Wire."

SOFIA: OK.

BURKS: Where, again, everything - it kind of pops up in the ancillary, right? Something comes up or you realize how important it is because it hasn't been done well or it has and the outcome of a trial. And any kind of shortcuts are because who wants to stare at somebody doing paperwork for 20 hours out of a workweek?

SOFIA: Right. Right. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that's true. I feel like, if I just saw somebody crunching data for four hours...

BURKS: Yeah.

SOFIA: ...I'd be like, this show is doing it right, but also, I don't like it (laughter).

BURKS: Yeah, exactly. So even though, like, the "CSIs" - you know, and I love me some "CSI: Miami" because, wow, what a dream - that...

(LAUGHTER)

BURKS: You know, like, for some reason, of all the "CSIs," that one was just like moi (ph).

SOFIA: Yeah.

BURKS: (Laughter) But...

SOFIA: Yeah. But we got to - I mean, we got to talk about it a little bit. So let's talk a little bit of trash. What are some of the shows that are the worst offenders in terms of bad forensic science?

BURKS: One of the ones I saw - and it was a "CSI: Miami" episode...

SOFIA: (Laughter).

BURKS: ...Is every database ever that you could ever want exists, and they are all magically connected.

(LAUGHTER)

BURKS: And my favorite is that, you know, you inject something into an instrument and beep, beep, beep...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CSI: MIAMI")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) FTIR results.

BURKS: ...It comes out, and it's - raspberry extract only produced by this manufacturer between this year and this year, and they only sell it here.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CSI: MIAMI")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) This hair spray from your bathroom, it contains raspberry leaf extract.

BURKS: And I'm like, what? What?

SOFIA: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CSI: MIAMI")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Long odds.

SOFIA: OK. OK, I got one more for you. This one is from "CSI: New York," one of your personal favorites.

BURKS: Ooh. Yay.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CSI: NEW YORK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) ...The image should still reflect off my cornea.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Corneal imaging.

BURKS: Oh, my God.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CSI: NEW YORK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Let's magnify and see if we can get a reflection off her eye.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) OK. Magnification times 100, for starters.

BURKS: Times 100 (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CSI: NEW YORK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Good. Good. Reverse the image.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) That's the best reflection of what she was seeing that we've got.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yes, it is.

BURKS: Oh, my. Like, I love that scene so much.

SOFIA: I mean...

BURKS: You know, the whole time I'm just thinking of that lyric, flip it and reverse it, from Missy Elliott.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

BURKS: I'm just like, yes, I want you to magnify it to 100, I want you to flip it, I want you to reverse it and enhance.

SOFIA: And that's the last thing she saw before she was murdered.

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: OK. So what are some of the other signs that a show is doing forensic science really badly?

BURKS: Things happen instantaneously.

SOFIA: Yeah.

BURKS: People are too cute. No, I'm just kidding.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

BURKS: But, like, you know, again, part of the scene is - is that they should really be in comfortable shoes and clothes. Their hair should be back. And why are they touching everything bare-handed? Like...

SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah.

BURKS: ...Contamination is a big issue. But I think, also, the main thing is with forensic science, like with any analytical thing, is that it comes down to the people. If a show is highlighting what a computer can do - the computer says, the computer says that - what is this, "Star Trek?" Which I love.

(LAUGHTER)

BURKS: But people make decisions. People write algorithms. And a person is going to identify a sample, a chemical - a person.

SOFIA: Yeah.

BURKS: They do the work. So whenever I see a show that's, like, the computer said X, Y, Z, I'm like, did they, though? Because that's an abdication of responsibility, and that's the scary part of the job. So that's the part that always, you know, sets off my Spidey sense, is that - does that mean that the machine is going to take the blame?

SOFIA: Right. I - you know, I hadn't really thought about that with these shows because - so you're saying, like, as a person that has worked in crime labs, like, that's a scary part, is...

BURKS: Yeah.

SOFIA: ...Because it really is your decision.

BURKS: Yeah. I mean, and again, a decision is based on a technique and a methodology and your training and your expertise and your knowledge. But it comes down to the buck stops at the analyst, not the machine.

SOFIA: Gotcha. Gotcha.

BURKS: I tell the machine what to do.

SOFIA: So you've done consulting on shows, you know, like "Madam Secretary," which is a cool show. What was that like? What did they want you to kind of bring to the table for them?

BURKS: So they wanted to think about, OK, how would you commit this kind of almost a mass poisoning?

SOFIA: OK. And you, a chemist - your chemistry right in there.

BURKS: Yes. And also, you know, I design systems to detect those things.

SOFIA: Sure. Sure.

BURKS: So because of that, I have to know how, in an environment, in a crowd, in a room, how that would work. And, you know, with nerve agents, with chemical weapons, like sarin, like Novichok, it doesn't have to be high-tech. It can be very fast and very lethal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MADAM SECRETARY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Peter, are you all right? You're bleeding.

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)

BURKS: So my motto wasn't like, well, that's totally not going to (laughter) - you know?

SOFIA: Yeah.

BURKS: But it was more like, OK, how close can we get?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MADAM SECRETARY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) The Swiss police have a high degree of confidence the chemical agent was sarin. Colorless, odorless, highly soluble.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) The entire U.N. Security Council just gone?

SOFIA: So they're asking you, like, help us make this, like, scientifically as realistic as possible within this setting.

BURKS: Yes, but also saying - and this is how it would look when they found the people, how the investigators would be dressed...

SOFIA: Yeah. OK.

BURKS: ...Because if you were investigating and you suspect that, given the context, that that's a chemical weapon, you're not going to send in your crime scene team. They're not going to be, like, a CSI, where everyone's glammed up, right?

SOFIA: Yeah.

BURKS: No, they're in full personal protection equipment, oxygen tanks maybe.

SOFIA: Yeah.

BURKS: Right? Because you don't - you know, you've got to protect these people. But there are some really fast color tests...

SOFIA: Yeah.

BURKS: ...That would give them a real quick answer.

SOFIA: Right.

BURKS: And again, it was - in my mind, it was, how can we make the story work but still sneak in a bit of real science...

SOFIA: Yeah, love that.

BURKS: ...And real kind of forensic science?

SOFIA: Is it possible for you to enjoy watching these crime- and forensic-filled TV shows and movies? Or has your knowledge of the actual practice ruined it for you?

BURKS: No, I love it. And, you know, it's kind of like, is it a good story? And I think that you might almost be, like - not a hate watch - but again, you're almost watching it in two minds.

SOFIA: Right.

BURKS: The mind of the fan, of the genre, the superfan of the whodunit and all of that. And then I also have, like, my scientist hat. And I think if the story is good, the dual mine is totally - actually...

SOFIA: Yeah.

BURKS: ...It's actually fun because I tuck those moments away. And I use a lot of pop culture in my classrooms and in talks, and it's always a great way to connect with students and audience members because if you love a genre, you love it - warts and all, right?

SOFIA: Yeah. Right.

BURKS: And that gives us common ground to say, we love it, right? Or wasn't that bananas? And then we can really have a good conversation.

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SOFIA: So I obviously have saved my most important question for last.

BURKS: (Laughter).

SOFIA: Who would you want to play you in a murder mystery movie?

BURKS: Oh, Angela Bassett.

SOFIA: Boom - right off the top. How...

BURKS: Yeah.

SOFIA: Why not? She - what can't she do?

BURKS: Yeah. All my friends would be like, you don't - you're not going to get - no.

SOFIA: Angela Bassett, if you're out there, you've got a fan.

BURKS: (Laughter).

SOFIA: All right, Dr. Raychelle Burks, thank you for your brain today.

BURKS: Thank you.

SOFIA: So much fun.

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SOFIA: Today's episode was produced by Brit Hanson, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Emily Vaughn. And a very special thanks to Alex Drewenskus for the sound engineering help.

I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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