Bill Softky Asks, “Will There Ever Be a Real ‘Lie Detector?'”

Software engineer Bill Softky ponders the question in on-line British technology publication, The Register in his article, “Will There Ever Be a Real ‘Lie Detector?'” Softky begins by dispensing with the delusion that the polygraph can detect lies:

Lie detectors figure prominently in the sauciest dramas, like espionage and murder, but they deeply polarize opinion. They pit pro-polygraph groups like the CIA, the Department of Energy and police forces against America’s National Academy of Sciences, much of the FBI, and now the US Congressional Research Service. The agencies in favor of lie detectors keep their supporting data secret of obfuscated. The critics have marshaled much better arguments.

They have countless earnest references on the site, including an amusing 1941 screed on “How to Beat the Lie Detector”, or an elegant essay in Science Magazine. My favorite: a letter by the convicted CIA double-agent Aldrich Ames – written from prison! – with the authority of someone who kept his traitorous career intact by successfully beating polygraphs time and time again: “Like most junk science that just won’t die… because of the usefulness or profit their practitioners enjoy, the polygraph stays with us,” he wrote.

So it’s clear the old lie detector technology is bunk, pure and simple. Will there ever be a new technology which does in fact detect lies? No, and here’s why….

Softky goes on to discuss such technologies as “brain fingerprinting” (which is specifically not offered as a method of lie detection) and fMRI (which is). He concludes:

The present brand of lie detection still hasn’t proved itself scientifically in seventy years of trying, so it should be shelved before it derails even more careers or mistakenly vets even more spies. The new methods may be better, but we should test them as carefully as we do drugs before we give them an equivalent chance to do serious damage.

Very well said!

Writer David Wallace-Wells Reviews The Lie Detectors

David Wallace-Wells, writing for Washington Monthly, reviews Ken Alder’s new book, The Lie Detectors in an article titled, “The Big Lie: How America became obsessed with the polygraph—even though it has never really worked”:

In May 1922, a wealthy family of four was driving home to San Francisco from a day trip in the Santa Cruz mountains when a second car forced them off the road. A gunman stuck a revolver through the driver’s window and demanded money. The father, Henry Wilkins, handed him three $100 bills, but the bandit lunged for Anna Wilkins’s diamond rings. Enraged, Henry reached for a gun stowed in his glove compartment, his two young children bunkered in the backseat, but the robber shot first, killing Anna Wilkins and disappearing before Henry could respond. “My daddy loved my mother,” the Wilkinses’ eight-year-old son testified. “She died to save the bandit’s bullet from hitting him.”
The police were not so sure. A few days after the murder, two brothers, local ex-convicts, tried to buy gas with a conspicuous $100 bill, and were picked up. Wilkins claimed he didn’t know the men, but police later discovered Wilkins had previously employed one of them himself, in his auto shop. They told Wilkins that the best chance of clearing his name was to submit to examination on an oracular device that had come to be known in the tabloid press as “the lie detector.”

The machine, a Rube Goldberg contraption of tubes, pumps, wires, and meters designed to monitor the subject’s vital signs and record on smoke-blackened paper telltale jumps in blood pressure and breathing rate, was then chiefly known for finding thieves among honest sorority sisters in a series of breathlessly reported penny-ante Berkeley capers. Wilkins submitted and, as the city watched, passed the test; the police dropped the investigation, and Wilkins was invited to leave the courthouse unmolested. From there he went to meet one of the convicts he had earlier failed to identify. Money changed hands, and Wilkins was heard boasting about his performance on the polygraph. A month later, the other brother, already in jail on other charges, admitted that Wilkins had indeed paid the men to kill his wife and orchestrated the incident on the road. Furious and humiliated, San Francisco police vowed never to employ the lie detector again; at the next meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, their captain declared that future use of the polygraph could not be countenanced.

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A Polygraph Showdown

Chicago Tribune staff reporter Jason George reports:

A polygraph showdown
`Detector of Deception’ vs. The Skeptical Professor

By Jason George
Tribune staff reporter
March 15, 2007

Fred Hunter’s Hinsdale office sits far from the concrete courthouses where you imagine most polygraphers ply their trade. A Ferrari dealership is stationed around the corner, and a McDonalds that could be mistaken for Williams-Sonoma gleams from across the street.

Yet walk inside Hunter’s office, and you will come upon the same iconic machine made famous in film scenes of sweaty interrogations and double-agent double-crosses.

The polygraph — literally “many writings” — reflects the age-old belief that telltale signs in the body betray a liar. And despite what people commonly call it, the polygraph is no lie detector — 1920s newspapermen, not polygraph examiners, first affixed that title.

In truth, the machine merely creates charts from physiological data it collects in four typical ways: rubber tubes across the chest and across the stomach both measure respiratory activity; metal plates on the fingers record sweating ; and a blood-pressure cuff monitors cardiovascular activity. It is up to the person operating the machine — the “detector of deception,” as the 103 licensed Illinois polygraph examiners are called — to interpret the charts and declare signs of deceit.

To skeptics, that interpretation is nothing more than educated, inaccurate guesswork. But to Hunter, the technology does what it’s supposed to. He has been reading polygraph charts for 42 years and is past president of the Illinois Polygraph Society. And he estimates that he has administered 30,000 polygraph exams during his career, on everyone from bank employees to sex offenders.

“Whoever punches my dance card,” he says. “I’ve done everything but looking for spies.”

So as a believer in the polygraph, Hunter was delighted one recent morning at the chance to hook up Ken Alder, a skeptic and author of the new book “The Lie Detectors, The History of an American Obsession” (Free Press, 352 pages, $27).

“This is like coming over to the dark side for you, isn’t it?” Hunter chuckled as he tightened the blood-pressure cuff on Alder’s arm. Continue reading “A Polygraph Showdown”

New York Times Book Review of Ken Alder’s The Lie Detectors

William Grimes reviews Ken Alders’ newly released book, The Lie Detectors, (which has previously been mentioned on this blog):

March 2, 2007
Books of The Times
The Tangled Web of the Truth Machine

Its inventor called it the cardio-pneumo-psychograph. To a clutch of coeds in Berkeley, Calif., in 1921, it was a newfangled magic box that was somehow going to look into their minds and find out who was pilfering cash and jewelry at their college boardinghouse. To the newspaper-reading public and future generations, it was the lie detector, a contraption with dubious scientific credentials, a shady ethical aura and, as it turned out, amazing longevity.

In “The Measure of All Things” Ken Alder, a professor of history and the humanities at Northwestern University, chronicled the quest of two French scientists to calibrate the meter. In “The Lie Detectors” he tells a similar tale of obsession and self-delusion, this time with a purely American setting.

In an era that gave birth to scientific industrial management, time-motion studies and the I.Q. test, a small group of American scientists, inventors and social reformers pursued the dream of a mechanical device that would separate truth from deception by recording involuntary bodily responses like blood pressure and pulse rate.

The lie detector, billed as “a mechanical instrument of the future” by one of its earliest proponents, would in theory replace traditional police interrogations (heavily dependent on the third degree) and jury deliberations. It would allow private companies and the government to weed out thieves and spies. It would shine a high-intensity beam into the deepest recesses of the psyche, advancing the work of psychologists and psychiatrists. That was the promise. But toward the end of his life John Larson, inventor of the machine, despaired. He called his work “a Frankenstein’s monster, which I have spent over 40 years in combating.”

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