'CSI' episode wasn't what the doctors ordered
Group says show misled;
CBS says there are 'limits' to drama's accuracy
By Dan Vergano USA TODAY
Crime drama CSI: Miami may stand for Criminal Scientific Illiteracy, a physicians group suggests.
In a letter to CBS, the Society of Nuclear Medicine says a recent episode of the highly rated series that touts its scientific accuracy was riddled with errors and may have needlessly scared real patients treated with radioactive medicine. The society represents 16,000 physicians and scientists.
In the crime drama's Feb. 10 episode, titled ''Dead Woman Walking,'' an addict dies, his flesh melting away, after an injection of radioactive iodine. A lawyer is given a week to live after a similar dosing.
About 16 million Americans each year receive radioactive medicinal doses similar to those described on the show, but without any harm, the society says.
Over the past decade, movies and TV shows, including ER and the CSI series in particular, have taken steps to increase the authenticity of their shows' science. But in this case, ''they fell far short of their goal of presenting accurate scientific information,'' society chief Michael Gelfand says. He notes:
* Radioactive iodine is distributed as a pill, not as an injection, to treat an overactive thyroid. It would not cause melting flesh, only minor skin burns at worst.
* Descriptions of alpha, beta and gamma radiation doses were ''the exact opposite of the actual facts'' in terms of the harm they can do, Gelfand says. For example, gamma-emitting radiopharmaceuticals do not ''burn you from the inside out,'' as a character on the show says.
* The lawyer receives four times the six-month dose of radioactive iodine for a typical patient. Such a dose probably wouldn't kill someone by itself, Gelfand says, and with treatment the recipient would survive.
''The writers, producers and researchers for CSI: Miami go to great lengths to make each episode as scientifically accurate as possible within the limits of a 44-minute TV drama,'' CBS spokesman Chris Ender says. ''Let's be clear here. We're doing a dramatic television show, not a documentary.''
Gelfand says that the society asked CBS to add a disclaimer to the show before airing it but that the network rejected the request.
Popular Fox show 24 recently had a character suffer radiation poisoning, but that occurred at a terrorist lab and did not involve medicinal doses of radioactivity.
''CSI is a show that depicts its science as reality. They have a duty to not mislead the public and scare patients,'' says virologist Anne Simon of the University of Maryland in College Park, author of The Real Science Behind the X-Files.
Speeding up events on shows to fit episode time frames is one thing, but botching the science around a medical matter is a problem, says Simon, who was an adviser to the The X-Files.
Accuracy on TV still takes a back seat to an exciting story, says Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. ''The stuff is ultimately for entertainment. Nobody reads Shakespeare to learn English history.
''Writers take liberties on every drama, otherwise it would be deadly boring,'' Thompson says. ''That's why people watch ER and don't go down to the emergency room and sit in the lobby to be entertained.''
Sent: Tuesday February 11, 2003 10:39 PM
Subject: RE: CSI Miami I-131 Espisode
For what its worth, they contacted me also. I tried to appeal to their claim that they wanted to do a "technically accurate show", and suggested that the scenario itself was too unrealistic. After my response to them, they never responded back again.