Science Talk

CSI Reality and Coke/Pepsi Espionage

In this episode, Max Houck, director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University and author of the July Scientific American article "CSI: Reality," talks about the effect the CSI shows have had in the real world and about real crime scene investigation versus what's portrayed on TV. And John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, talks about the recent Coke/Pepsi espionage case and the realities of secret soda formulas in the age of high-tech chemistry labs. Plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this podcast include;;; and the Scientific American Digital Archive,

Science Talk July 12, 2006 -- CSI Reality and Coke–Pepsi Espionage

Welcome to Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting July 12th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, crime and punishment. We will talk to Max Houck, the author of an article in the July issue of Scientific American called "CSI: Reality." We will talk about the effect the CSI shows have had in the real world, and about real crime scene investigation versus what's portrayed on TV. Also, there has been a big corporate espionage case involving Coke and Pepsi. We will hear from John Sicher, the editor and publisher of Beverage Digest about that. Plus, we will test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, Max Houck. He is a trace evidence expert and forensic anthropologist. He was with the FBI lab for a decade before becoming the director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University and he was on the road visiting family in Sherwood, Michigan when I caught up with him via phone.

Steve: Hi Professor Houck, how are you?

Houck: I am great Steve. How are you?

Steve: Pretty good. Thanks for talking to us today. Firstly, you talk in your article in the current issue of Scientific American about the CSI effect or the alleged CSI effect. Let's talk about what the CSI effect is and whether or not it's real.

Houck: Well, the CSI effect has been defined as an overreaching set of expectations about forensic science based on popular media—perceptions of forensic science from television and the movies—and it got tagged with CSI effect for good because of the popularity of that show.

Steve: Rather than just define it, let's talk in terms of an example of what this so-called CSI effect is. The jurors in a case, having presumably been exposed to television, have this different set of expectations than jurors in the past may have had. Is that basically it?

Houck: Pretty much. There's also the expectation that there will always be physical evidence and that physical evidence will always be useful in the case.

Steve: So, people expect DNA evidence in every single case regardless of whether it's even necessary for a particular charge to be proven.

Houck: Exactly, or fingerprints or gunshot residue or you know, whatever kind of evidence they project that they should see, whether it's actually there or not.

Steve: Okay, so we have anecdotal evidence for a CSI effect. There are prosecutors who come back and say my jury is just, you know, wild for physical evidence that we just don't have, and we have eye-witness testimony for example and they are discounting that because we don't have blood or gunshot evidence.

Houck: Exactly; and you know some of that has been put down to post talk reasoning and maybe some sour grapes probably for [a] prosecutor who may not have got the case that he or she wanted. But there are discrete examples of jurors making statements after cases—for example the Robert Blake case—saying, "Well, we expected to find x and y and they just never showed that so, we didn't think we should find them guilty."

Steve: Right and he was acquitted—the actor Robert Blake—when there was pretty strong circumstantial evidence that he was in fact guilty.

Houck: Right. And they were looking for types of evidence that wouldn't necessarily be there under those circumstances. So, they in essence ignored the real evidence and were pining away for evidence that didn't exist.

Steve: Is there a quantifiable CSI effect though, have there been studies to show that it does in fact exist and jurors are in fact being influenced by television?

Houck: There are no studies that factually prove that there is a CSI effect—as in a higher proportion of cases now going in a certain direction as opposed to prior to that television show being on the air or the effect being defined. It is—as you said earlier—it's all anecdotal, although some of the anecdotes are fairly straightforward in terms of what the juror's expectations were and what the prosecutor found. But no one yet has published a study, a real actual study on the CSI effect. There are some indications with studies or surveys of students and that sort of thing, and I know there are a few people who are doing graduate research for their degrees in this area, but it's kind of hard. It's one of those moving targets, you know? The society grabs an idea and starts running with it and by the time you can set up a study, you may be halfway through or maybe near the end of the effect.

Steve: We are seeing changes in behavior on the parts of some law enforcement agencies and some prosecutors based on the presumption of a CSI effect—[a] lot more evidence being collected.

Houck: Definitely. You are seeing two areas of activity; one, on the law enforcement end—they watch TV too and it may have been a while since they were a[t] [the]happy academy, so they may think some of this stuff actually happened; and so they want to over-collect the evidence just to make sure that they don't miss anything. And because of, you know, those lab guys are real smart and they can figure the stuff out. So, over-collect at the crime scene and bring in way more evidence than they probably need to the laboratory.

Steve: And what happens to all that evidence?

Houck: Well, that's were we get backlogs, because the more evidence you have, the more items you have to sort through and catalog and warehouse before you can get down to that handful of things that you really do have to analyze. And if that happens in every case—if you start getting in two or three times more evidence that you normally would in every case—you very quickly develop a backlog. On the legal end of it, you now have attorneys, when they pull juries, to see if it is suitable for setting [sitting] on a jury, we will ask them, "Do you watch a lot of CSI? Do you watch a lot of television?" Which to me is sort of ironic because now you have got a TV show about forensic science and law enforcement and the law actually affecting what attorneys do because they are afraid of something that might happen—tenuous, it seems very tenuous—and the attorneys are very keen on making sure that they avoid the effect even though it hasn't been defined.

Steve: So, in those terms, there really is a CSI effect.

Houck: Yes. It's sort of a circular reasoning. If [W]e want to avoid the CSI effect and we kind of create one and then we avoid it because we now are avoiding the things we created.

Steve: Right—a self-fulfilling kind of belief system.

Houck: Exactly.

Steve: So, overall have the CSI or Law and Order or all the crime shows that show a lot of evidence gathering, have they helped or hurt the real profession of crime scene investigation?

Houck: I think overall on a balance it has helped. It has raised the profile of forensic science enormously. More people are aware of it now than ever before. More students, even down to the high-school level, are interested in it. They think it's cool, it's neat, they are going into science. So, even if they don't go into forensic science, they may end up studying chemistry or physics or biology or mathematics or something like that, and there has been more awareness rise of the real situation that the nation's crime laboratories are in. So, I think overall on the balance, it has had a positive effect, although I am sure there are some prosecutors who would argue with me on that.

Steve: Give me a quick survey of some of the major differences between the way crime scene investigation is portrayed on television and how it is in real life.

Houck: Sure. The main differences are what you see in TV, the people do everything. There are cops who do the crime scene, they do the lab work, they interview suspects, they arrest people—and that just doesn't happen. Forensic science, law enforcement—all are traditionally difficult careers that they require their own specialized education and training. But [the] reality is that forensic science is much more segmented and professionalized than what you see on TV. Second of all, the crime laboratories that you see on TV typically are way better outfitted and much bigger and much better staffed than the real forensic laboratories you may have down the road. And I would say the third main aspect is that the methods that they utilize on the television show, while maybe included in some reality, gets lost in the wash necessary for good entertainment. You don't do a DNA analysis in half an hour; it takes days practically, weeks realistically. A funny little note, the writers from CSI used to call me a lot. They don't anymore and I am not sure why, but they used to call me a lot. My wife, who is also a forensic scientist, told me once, she said the next time one of them called, tell them to get a new spectrum. And I said what do you mean? She says, well they keep using the same spectrum for evidence on the show.

Steve: Every time, they generate an aspect you would see the exact same spectrum.

Houck: The exact same spectrum every time—and I said, "Oh, by the way my wife said get a new spectrum and said she noticed, that's what we do for [a] living, of course we got to notice. It's paper, it's cheap, it's a crap—print out a new one."

Steve: Why don't they just turn the lights on when they go to the crime scene? What's with the flashlights?

Houck: Yeah, whenever I was at a scene, we turn on the lights. And I guess it's a dramatic effect, but you know, having worked in the field, you realize that the things that happen to people, horrible as they are, have enough inherent drama that you could probably do a show that isn't quite so slick and still make it realistic and entertaining.

Steve: Professor Houck thanks very much.

Houck: Anytime, Steve. Thank you.

Steve: Max Houck's article called "CSI: Reality" is in the July issue of Scientific American and on our Web site, and if you go all the way back to the end of the February 8th podcast—that's the first podcast—you can hear a short performance of the nonexistent TV show, CSI: Reality, brought to you exclusively by the Scientific American Players. We will be right back.

For breaking news about science and technology, visit today.

Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories. Only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Global warming could stomp on the U.S. wine industry, causing big reductions in suitable wine-grape-growing areas over the next century.

Story number 2: Within the next few weeks, inhalable insulin will be available for diabetics.

Story number 3: The same genes can behave very differently in males and females, according to a new mouse study.

Story number 4: I[A]n audio daily double, this clip is an actual sound bite of Alaska senator Ted Stevens explaining the information super-highway in a discussion of net neutrality. "You can't drive a car on a highway, which is very hard to do when you are after 45 to drive on any modern highway, and if you are going to have to stay home, you need radio and television to go along".

We will be back with the answer, but first, I heard last week about this espionage case involving Coke and Pepsi and thought, you know, this is a chemistry story. So, to find out more I called John Sicher. He is the editor and publisher of Beverage Digest in Bedford Hills, New York. We spoke this past Friday.

Steve: Mr. Sicher thanks very much for talking to me today.

Sicher: My pleasure. Good morning.

Steve: Good morning. Briefly summarize this Coke–Pepsi corporate espionage case.

Sicher: Sure. Basically, what the government is alleging is this: A Coke employee and two other individuals attempted to sell Coke information to Pepsi. The information included a sample of a new product and certain other information. We don't know the specifics. Pepsi received a letter, informed Coke. Coke informed the FBI. The FBI conducted basically a sting operation and arrested these three individuals, I guess, two days ago, and that's where things stand now. They have appeared in court yesterday, Thursday, and it will proceed from there.

Steve: So, can you tell me from a scientific point of view—what I am interested in is, with modern chemical analytical technology, once the product has been produced, it should be fairly straightforward for any competitor to do an analysis and figure out exactly what's in the product and in what quantities.

Sicher: You are absolutely right. I mean, the secret formula of Coke is certainly still locked in a bank vault in Atlanta; however, there's no doubt in my mind from talking to flavor technologists and food technologists over the years that anybody with a modest amount of money and access to a high-tech chemistry lab could certainly breakdown the ingredients and find out what exactly the formula for Coke, Pepsi, or packed [practicality] any other beverage ha[i]s. But here's the point—if you and I decided that we are going to start a new cola next year, you and I could certainly come up with a product that tastes probably exactly like Coke or Pepsi for that much. What we couldn't do is, we couldn't call it Coke, and the real power behind Coke is the brand. The secret formula is a wonderful myth. It's a bit of lore, but that is not key. What's key is the brand.

Steve: Right, so whatever corporate secrets are worth stealing are probably in the marketing department and not in the actual food processing department.

Sicher: That's right. I mean, I don't know exactly what product is alleged to have—was tried to be sold. But here's what happens now in the beverage business: Both Coke and Pepsi are in a mode now where they are rapidly introducing new products all the time. This year, for example, Coke introduced several new versions of Coca-Cola—Black Cherry, Vanilla Coke, and Coke Black. They are always introducing new products—Vanilla Coke, Lime Coke, Pepsi, etc. The secret here is not what the formula is or what the ingredients are; the secret is what move is each company going to make next year? So, what's at stake here is the product that has been alleged to have been tried to be sold would give the competitor some knowledge on what Coke might have been planning for next year; [it] has nothing to do with the ingredients or the formula.

Steve: Okay; are all these new products really just designed to get me to buy good old Coke or Pepsi?

Sicher: No, not really. I mean, the American consumer is actually becoming a little bit more like the Japanese consumer. The Japanese consumer for some time has really had a love affair with innovation and new products; some successful products in Japan actually have a lifecycle of less than one year. We are not there in the United States yet, but American consumers are clearly in an experimenting mode. They are like nobody. They like new things, they like new products, and the beverage companies, all of them have been responsive to that. So, we are in a period right now where the companies are rapidly at line extending their core brands in order to create, you know, diversification for the consumer.

Steve: And what does this mean for any kind of a small company that is trying, like as you were talking about, if we wanted to start a cola company. What does this mean for anybody trying to get [in] here on the ground floor?

Sicher: One would have to have their head examined to start a cola company in the U.S. because Coke and Pepsi so dominate that business. Where the opportunities are, [are] in niches of the beverage business w[h]ere Coke and Pepsi and Cadbury aren't dominant. The secret today, if you want to get into [the] beverage business, is [to] find a niche where Coke and Pepsi don't already have dominance with one or more of their products.

Steve: And finding a good chemist is secondary.

Sicher: No—you have to market and distribute a product; having a financial staying power is very important. Having said that, there is definitely a move in the U.S. towards functional beverages—beverages which do more than just refresh and taste good—and we are seeing huge growth in areas like sports drinks, which hydrate; energy drinks, which provide function. Americans [are]beginning to look for more than just good taste and refreshment from their beverages. So, ingredient technology is actually becoming more important just at this point in time.

Steve: Mr. Sicher, very interesting. Thank you very much.

Sicher: Anytime. Take care.

Steve: Beverage Digest's Web site [is] Their home page includes a handy measurement converter, I discovered; units include quarts and gallons as well as the more exotic hectoliters, beer barrels, and 12 packs—seriously.

Now, it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories.

Story number 1: Global warming could severely reduce arable wine grape lands.

Story number 2: Inhalable insulin for diabetics.

Story number 3: The same genes can act differently in males and females of the same species.

Story number 4: This clip is actually senator Ted Stevens explaining the Internet. 'You can't drive a car on a highway, which is very hard to do when you are after 45, to drive on any modern highway."

Time's up.

Story number 1 is true. The areas good for growing wine grapes could be cut by 50 percent or even more by the end of the century if the Earth continues to heat up. That's according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and NASA, whatever those guys know.

Story number 2 is true. The Boston Globe reports that inhalable insulin should become available some time this month with a few different inhaler versions expected from various companies in the next few years.

Story number 3 is true. The same genes behave very differently in males and females, in mice anyway, according to a new study in the August issue of the journal Gnome Research. But what's true for mice genes is usually true for ours too. Researchers studied gene activity in brain, muscle, liver and fat tissue and so[aw] widely different activity levels. Surprise—male and female brains saw the lowest differences in activity.

All of which means that the clip alleged to be senator Ted Stevens explaining the Internet is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS, because that was actually baseball great Casey Stengel testifying before congress 48 years ago this week. Now, we will hear recent comments from senator Ted Stevens on the Internet and net neutrality followed by more from Casey's testimony from 1958.

Stevens: And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand those tubes can be filled, and if they are filled when you put your message in, it gets in line, it's going to be delayed by anyone who puts in that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.

Stengel: Now, I would say I would know, but I would say the reason why they wanted for us just to keep baseball going as high as baseball sports that has gone into baseball and from the baseball angle.

Steve: I don't know, Stevens and Stengel just remind me of each other. You can hear all of Ted Stevens’ fascinating comments about net neutrality at and check out Scientific American editor in chief John Rennie on Stevens at our blog, It's the July 4th entry titled "Ted Stevens Takes Us Down the Tubes"; and the May 31st podcast dealt with net neutrality. You can find that at; and you can read all of Casey Stengel's brilliant 1958 congressional testimony at that's P as in play ball. Don't miss Mickey Mantle's testimony immediately after Casey's. We will be right back.

Rennie: Hi, I am John Rennie, editor in chief of Scientific American. Our magazine is now available in a digital edition. Not only does your Scientific American digital subscription includes the full contents of every new printed issue, it also entitles you to access our digital archives from 1993 to the present. For more information, visit

Well that's it for this edition of the Scientific American podcast. Our e-mail address is And also remember that science news [is] updated daily on the Scientific American Web site, For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Dinosaurs

Get the
latest special collector's edition, Dinosaurs!

Limited Time Offer!

Purchase Now >


Email this Article