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
By WILLIAM GRIMES

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.”

The lie detector and its strange, persistent grip on the American imagination offers rich material for Mr. Alder to work with. How many stories require William James, Gertrude Stein and Dick Tracy for the telling, not to mention criminals like the Torso Murderer of Cleveland? Stir into the mix a mutually hostile coterie of inventors, scientific visionaries and outright hucksters, and you have the ingredients for a heady brew.

It is perhaps a little too potent. Mr. Alder often seems intoxicated by his own subject. He zigs and zags chronologically, trying to keep track of the principal characters. His account of the lie detector’s invention and early history is difficult to follow and often confusing on the specifics. Mr. Alder never seems sure whether he is writing serious history or indulging in a pop-cultural romp, with a pulp flavor.

The chapter epigraphs come from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. “Double indemnity; the postman always rings twice: everyone knows that fate comes back to bite you,” Mr. Alder writes at one point, strapping on his snubnose .38.

It’s hard to blame him. The lie detector, in its infancy, offers a whirlwind tour of Jazz Age America, making stops at college sorority houses, prisons, Chicago police stations and the fledgling crime labs operated by reformers keen to put policing on a scientific footing (and where Chester Gould, Dick Tracy’s creator, learned some valuable lessons). The period atmosphere is rich, the case studies enormously entertaining, especially the one involving a missing canary.

August Vollmer, the moral center of Mr. Alder’s story, saw the lie detector as yet another instrument in his campaign to clean up police corruption and create a professional police force that relied on scientific methods rather than brute force to fight crime. As Berkeley’s police chief, he gave the green light to Mr. Larson and his invention in the early 1920s and assigned a young researcher named Leonarde Keeler to make technical improvements to the machine, which was bulky and prone to breakdowns.

Mr. Larson and Mr. Keeler, both of them wild, willful and unstable, would become Mr. Vollmer’s delinquent sons, at each other’s throats in a bitter struggle to control the future of the lie detector (also called the emotograph and the respondograph early on). The more reflective (and skeptical) Mr. Larson saw the machine as an aid to scientific research and penal reform. Mr. Keeler saw it as a crime-fighting tool and promoted it accordingly, constantly volunteering to solve celebrated crimes and basking in the ensuing publicity.

He was not alone. As the lie detector captured the public imagination, imitators entered the field. Orlando Scott, a Chicago doctor, promoted the “Thought-Wave Detector,” a machine that, he claimed, tapped into the brain’s electrical currents. As the suspect sweated and squirmed, a giant needle would swing back and forth between “true” and “false” on a large dial. Mr. Scott’s National Detection of Deception Laboratories operated under the motto “Diogenes searched for them — We find them.”

Despite charlatans like Mr. Scott, the lie detector made headway in its search for acceptance and respect. A landmark legal decision in 1923 barred lie-detector tests from being introduced as evidence in the courtroom, but elsewhere — in banks, factories and departments of government — the magic machine carved out a role for itself, offering a clean technological solution to messy human problems.

Advertisers flirted with it briefly in a series of tests to discover how consumers truly felt about their razors, cigarettes and gasoline. With an eye to the censors, film executives applied its findings to the editing of films like “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Frankenstein.” During the cold war it was used by the State Department to weed out Communist sympathizers and, in far greater numbers, homosexuals.

Amazingly the lie detector, largely spurned by the rest of the world, lives on in the United States, although new technologies have appeared on the horizon: machines that measure minute changes in facial expression, vocal pitch or heat around the eyes. None of them, Mr. Alder notes, address a central problem pointed out by Montaigne four centuries ago, the inconvenient fact that “the reverse side of the truth has a hundred thousand shapes and no defined limits.”

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