“Faulty Lie Detector”

The St. Petersburg Times calls for dumping the polygraph in this editorial. Excerpt:

In a stark overreaction to the spying allegations against Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at the Los Alamos weapons lab in New Mexico, Congress ordered the Energy Department to begin a massive polygraph screening program for employees at the nation’s nuclear weapons labs. About 16,000 people in jobs with possible access to sensitive material were selected for security evaluations utilizing polygraph tests.

But the results of those tests have not been what Congress intended. Rather than flushing out spies in our midst, they have demoralized staff with false positive results and driven top scientists from our nuclear weapons program. Now, a study by the National Research Council suggests that polygraph tests are practically useless for security screening.

The 245-page report indicates that polygraph tests, which measure physiological changes of subjects as they are questioned, have little actual science backing up their validity. This reliability problem has always dogged the tests, which are not admissible in court except in rare instances. Even so, they continue to be widely used as an investigative technique.

The report’s findings would be little more than an interesting note if lie detector tests weren’t so damaging. In criminal investigations, they can create a rush to judgment. Police may abandon other leads and focus on making the evidence fit a certain suspect who failed a lie detector test, when in fact the results may be a false positive. Polygraph tests used as an employment screening device can harm morale, while offering little in the way of enhanced security.

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