“Lying About Polygraphs”

Noted skeptic James Randi comments on polygraphy in this week’s Swift newsletter:

We’ve assailed the use of polygraph (“lie detector”) technology here, many times. It is simply an area of failed technology, one that seemed promising, but then proved to be not only faulty, but quite dangerous to those upon whom was inflicted. State and federal governments, however, opted to embrace it despite the facts. Why are we not surprised? We can’t forget that jailed nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee was misled by federal investigators who told him he had failed a Department of Energy lie-detector test. During a lengthy interrogation, FBI agents pressured Lee to admit to passing nuclear weapons secrets to China. Lee said he had not and insisted he was telling the truth. His interrogators, however, never told him that DOE polygraph operators had actually given him a high score for honesty. Lee is only one victim of this mis-use of technology.

Now, in the latest reality check, Dr. Stephen E. Fienberg, chairman of the statistics department at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, 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.”

Fienberg headed up a panel appointed by the National Academies of Science to evaluate the worth of polygraphy, and found it used by “every three- and four-letter agency you can imagine, including the US Postal Service.” The report was released last October, but the US Department of Defense (DOD) happily found a loophole that allowed them to notify Congress that it might ask for authorization to conduct more than the 5,000 polygraph exams now allowed per year under Public Law 100-180, passed in 1991, because the NAS report said that the polygraph technique is “the best tool currently available to detect deception and assess credibility.” “Yes sir, we’re still going to remove your appendix, even though we have to use a pickaxe — the best available tool, don’tcha know?”

As Fienberg noted, the DOD is only one of many government agencies that use polygraph examinations on employees and contractors. When asked, a spokesman for the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Health and Human Services would not discuss whether polygraph tests were in their investigative arsenal, but the DOD spokesman did name OIG as one of the government bodies that use polygraphs.

Fienberg’s panel was organized at a time when scientists were protesting the use of lie detector tests at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and as a science recruiter has warned, the use of this failed technology “causes so much more turmoil than it solves. The big concern is that you’re going to chase away scientific talent. It’s not an environment scientists want to work in, where pseudoscience can end your career.”

I would add that any responsible scientist would balk at working for an organization that uses pseudoscience to test his suitability for the position. That would also apply to tarot cards, tea leaves, and fortune-cookies as tools of the Truth Trade. Not much sillier, folks!

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