“Truth Is Elusive in Debate Over Lie Detectors”

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn comments on polygraphy. Excerpt:

The lie detector is a powerful tool. So powerful, in fact, that it doesn’t even have to exist to be effective.

This story of the telephone scam allegedly run by two Cook County Jail inmates underscores how the reputation of this technology is its strongest asset. According to federal prosecutors who indicted the men Thursday, the prisoners were able to extort money from random targets by claiming to be law-enforcement officials with a lie detector hooked up to the phone.

Their message: Our device says you’re lying when you deny being involved in the drug trade. Wire us money or we’ll arrest you.

At least a dozen victims fell for it.

The ruse put Douglas Williams in mind of an incident that occurred when he was a rookie police officer in Oklahoma City in 1970:

“We had a burglary suspect in the back of our squad car, but we didn’t have much on him and he said he was innocent,” Williams said. “So my partner told him, `I’m going to have to use our lie detector. Talk into this microphone. If what you say is true, nothing will happen. But if you’re lying, the red light will go on.'”

The “lie detector” was, you guessed it, nothing but a two-way radio. And at the suspect’s every denial, Williams said, his partner discreetly engaged the red light. “Finally he said, `You got me’ and he confessed.”

Actually, the truth is not so elusive in the debate over lie detectors. Proponents of polygraphic lie detection have failed to support their claims through peer-reviewed scientific research.

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