“Pseudoscience Applied to Scientists: US Government Agencies Still Using Discredited Polygraphy in Security Checks”

Peggy Brickley reports for The Scientist. Excerpt:

Life scientists who work on sensitive government projects could find themselves hooked-up to polygraph machines in spite of continued criticism of the science behind such lie-detector tests.

“It’s everywhere — every three- and four-letter agency you can imagine, including the US Postal Service,” said Stephen E. Fienberg, chairman of the statistics department at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Fienberg led a panel appointed by the National Academies of Science to evaluate the worth of polygraphy. Released in October, their report concluded that almost a century of research has produced a pseudoscience good for tricking naive people into blurting out the truth, but not much else.

So Fienberg was surprised to find his panel’s report cited in favor of potentially raising the number of lie detector tests the Department of Defense (DOD) is allowed to administer. In the annual report it filed with Congress in January, DOD stated it had administered more than 11,500 of the tests in fiscal year 2002. Of that total, 4,219 were “counterintelligence-scope polygraph,” or CSP, exams, subject to a 5,000-exam-per-year limit under a Public Law 100-180, passed in 1991.

In its January report, DOD put Congress on notice that it might ask for authorization to conduct more than the allowed 5,000 polygraph exams per year, and cited the NAS report in support, according to Steven Aftergood, who monitors polygraph policy for the Federation of American Scientists.

“[I]t is important to note that the NRC Report also concluded that the polygraph technique is the best tool currently available to detect deception and assess credibility,” the DOD FY2002 report stated. “The Department will continue to use the polygraph technique as it has in the past, until improved technologies or methodologies are developed as a result of scientific research.”

Fienberg called DOD’s reference to the NAS report “disingenuous.” A DOD spokesman said it was drawn directly from the NAS panel’s conclusion that, while more promising technologies are on the horizon, none yet has supplanted polygraphy.

For discussion of this article, see the AntiPolygraph.org message board thread, Polygraph article.

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