The Guardian’s Ian Sample on Polygraph Use by the British Ministry of Justice

The Guardian’s science editor, Ian Sample, sits for a polygraph “test” and reports on the British Ministry of Justice’s growing reliance on the pseudoscience of polygraphy. Excerpt:

The Ministry of Justice introduced compulsory lie detector tests for sex offenders in 2014. But now the controversial technique is poised to become more widespread in the British justice system.

The domestic abuse bill and the counter-terrorism and sentencing bill, both passing through the Lords, provide for regular, mandatory testing of domestic abuse offenders, suspected terrorists and convicted terrorists on release. While failing a test would not in itself mean prison time, fresh disclosures, investigations prompted by failed tests, attempting to beat the polygraph, refusing a test or remaining silent in a test, could all trigger a recall. Loss of liberty in such circumstances is determined not by court but by probation officers, the former lord chief justice, Lord Thomas, has noted. Tests are expected to start in the spring.

For Don Grubin, emeritus professor of forensic psychiatry at Newcastle University and director of Behavioural Measures which runs the Heaton Mount training course, the polygraph is a means of gaining fresh information, an additional tool to help manage offenders. “What you’re looking for is information to indicate there’s an increased risk,” he says. But debate in the Lords and beyond has raised serious questions around the polygraph’s place in the legal system.

Marion Oswald, vice-chancellor’s senior fellow in law at Northumbria University calls the polygraph “an oppressive interrogation tool”, a phrase Grubin finds “over the top”. Oswald wants an immediate moratorium on polygraphs, an independent review of their usage across police forces and the probation service, and if tests resume, continuing independent oversight. “There’s a really high risk of people relying too much on these polygraph outputs,” she says. But Grubin argues there’s no evidence of this being an issue, adding that the risk is no greater than for other measures, such as criminal record checks and tagging.

It is not “over the top” to characterize the polygraph as “an oppressive interrogation tool.” It is precisely that. Indeed, former police polygraph operator Doug Williams has aptly characterized the polygraph as a “psychological billy club.”

Because polygraphy has no scientific basis, any reliance on polygraph chart readings is over-reliance.

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