Normal Topic The Cult of Polygraph (Read 6181 times)
Paste Member Name in Quick Reply Box George W. Maschke
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Make-believe science yields
make-believe security.

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The Cult of Polygraph
Oct 30th, 2002 at 10:27am
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Some members of the polygraph community are wont to liken to some kind of a cult, with me as guru. Take for example this recent offering from "george" in the message thread How Many People Passed Using Countermeasures:

"Four days after my first post the Maschke cult is still at it...."

Interestingly, the National Academy of Sciences' recently released report, The Polygraph and Lie Detection likens the polygraph community to a shamanistic priesthood in a subchapter titled, The Lie Detection Mystique. It makes for interesting reading:


In order to frame a scientific discussion about the polygraph, we consider the role of this method of detecting deception in American culture and compare it with methods of detecting deception that have been accepted in other cultures. The polygraph, perhaps more than any other apparently humane interrogation technique, arouses strong emotions. There is a mystique surrounding the polygraph that may account for much of its usefulness: that is, a culturally shared belief that the polygraph device is nearly infallible. Practitioners believe that criminals sometimes prefer to admit their crimes and that potential spies sometimes avoid certain job positions rather than face a polygraph examination, which they expect will reveal the truth about them. The mystique shows in other ways, too. People accused of crimes voluntarily submit to polygraph tests and publicize "passing" results because they believe a polygraph test can confer credibility that they cannot get otherwise. In popular culture and media, the polygraph device is often represented as a magic mind-reading machine. These facts reflect the widespread mystique or belief that the polygraph test is a highly valid technique for detecting deception-despite the continuing lack of consensus in the scientific community about the validity of polygraph testing.

Ritualized Lie Detection Across Cultures

Ritualized lie detection techniques in many groups, societies, and cultures through the ages share several characteristics that help create a mystique that enables the techniques to be effective. Lie detection rituals involve a socially certified administrator (an examiner or interrogator) and some device or procedure that purportedly can objectively and publicly identify lying on the part of the examinee. The administrator--in some cultures, a priest or shaman--has completed a secret or semi-secret training process. The keeping of the secrets of the ritual within a small, select group adds to the mystique (e.g., the belief that keepers of the secrets have good reason not to publicize them and should be trusted), and, consequently, adds to the power of the technique. The belief structure of the endorsing society includes beliefs about the special powers of the officials authorized to perform the ritual and about the ritual's ability to divine or elicit concealed truths. The examinee, as a member of the society or culture, generally accepts the importance of the lie detection ritual and believes that it is very accurate. Hence, if he or she is telling the truth, there is little or no reason to fear the examination, but if he or she is lying, there is reason to fear it. Many procedures and techniques have been used in lie detection rituals, including ones that in our society would be regarded as quite primitive and unscientific, such as immersion in water or placing a wafer on the tongue (see Kleinmuntz and Szucko, 1984). Despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting the validity of such techniques, they apparently are useful, as judged by their ability to elicit confessions of truths that are not forthcoming when other methods are used. Some or all of this usefulness is attributed to mystique-the systems of beliefs that surround and support the techniques.

The polygraph testing procedures currently used in the criminal justice system and in several government agencies in the United States and other countries fit this prototype ritual. A polygraph examiner subculture exists, complete with its own institutions (e.g., professional societies), norms, values, etc. Examiners are trained and certified expert by various training institutes, including some private ones and, importantly, by the U.S. Department of Defense Polygraph Institute. Members of the polygraph examiner culture have a particular jargon and shared lore that are generally unknown to others. They also maintain secrets because to reveal too much of their knowledge would enable targets of investigations to "beat" polygraph tests. The polygraph device or instrument is purported to have the power to discriminate lies from truths in the hands of a certified and experienced examiner.

The polygraph examination follows standardized, ritual-like procedures and usually occurs in a setting designed to evoke associations with science, medicine, or law enforcement, institutions whose certified practitioners are believed to have special powers to uncover truths. Claims that polygraph testing is a scientific method, together with the establishment of research programs to improve polygraph testing, are useful for building credibility in a society that confers credibility on scientific activities. Moreover, potential examinees are assumed to believe in the validity of polygraph testing, and its validity is supported by popular culture.

These similarities between current polygraph detection of deception procedures and the lie detection rituals of other and former cultures say nothing directly about the validity or invalidity of the polygraph testing for distinguishing truth from deception. They do, however, suggest that some of the value or utility of the polygraph for eliciting admissions and confessions undoubtedly comes from attributes other than the validity of the testing itself. Polygraph testing may work, in part, because it capitalizes on the mystique that is common to lie-detection rituals in many societies. Any investigation into the scientific validity of polygraph detection of deception must try to identify and distinguish between two kinds of scientific evidence: evidence bearing on the effects of the polygraph ritual and mystique and evidence bearing on the validity of polygraph testing and the polygraph device for detecting deception.

Any scientific investigation must also deal with some of the cognitive and organizational phenomena that go along with a ritual that has a mystique, a "priesthood," and a set of secrets. One of these is the difficulty of gaining access to information. Some information of interest to this study, such as the polygraph test records of known spies, is classified for national security reasons. Other information, such as the precise ways particular pieces of polygraph equipment measure physiological responses, is guarded by equipment manufacturers as trade secrets. Some manufacturers ignored our requests for such information, even though we offered to sign legally binding promises of nondisclosure. Information about computer scoring algorithms for polygraph tests was similarly withheld by some algorithm developers. All of this behavior makes scientific analysis difficult. Some of these "secrets" probably have good practical justification, but they are also very much like the activities of a priesthood keeping its secrets in order to keep its power.

Another aspect of the polygraph mystique that creates difficulties for scientific analysis is the strong, apparently unshakeable, beliefs of many practitioners in its efficacy on the basis of their experiences. We have heard numerous anecdotes about admissions of serious crimes and security violations that have been elicited in polygraph examinations even after background checks and ordinary interviews had yielded nothing. Many of these admissions have been later corroborated by other convincing evidence, indicating that the polygraph examination sometimes reveals truths that might otherwise have remained concealed indefinitely. We do not doubt the veracity of these anecdotes. However, they do not constitute evidence that the polygraph instrument conveys information that, in the context of the polygraph test, accurately identifies the locus of deception. Rather, they signify that something in the polygraph examination can have this result. It may be the test, the interviewer's skills, the examinee's expectation of detection, or some combination of these or other factors. From a scientific standpoint, these anecdotes are compelling indications that there is a phenomenon in need of explanation; they do not, however, demonstrate that the polygraph test is a valid indicator of deception.

Practical Implications

From a practical standpoint, it can make a considerable difference whether decisions that rely on polygraph evidence are resting on a scientifically proven device and procedures (that is, on the test), on the judgments of examiners, or on the expectation that guilty examinees will be sufficiently fearful of detection to confess. For example, if the apparent successes depend only on examinees' fear of detection and not on the test itself, the examination would fail with welltrained spies who know the test's limitations and do not respond to the mystique.

Polygraph examiners and the decision makers who use their reports do not always make such distinctions. The belief among many agency officials that the important questions about polygraph testing validity have already been favorably resolved makes it difficult to conduct scientific analysis of the components of polygraph testing, including the polygraph instrument itself, in those agencies. It also creates resistance to scientific evidence critical of the test's validity among practitioners whose personal experience has convinced them of the polygraph's utility. Finally, placing polygraph's detection of deception within the anthropological and historical context of lie detection rituals strongly suggests that the mystique will outlive current lie detection techniques, including the polygraph test. We surmise that if the mystique of lie detection no longer attaches to the polygraph, a new technique or instrument will take its place and assume its mystique. Indeed, some people argue that the mystique has already been dispelled, as exemplified by the controversy over polygraph security screening that led to the request for this study. It is therefore not surprising that in the current context of heightened concern about espionage and terrorism, there is a lot of publicity about new devices and techniques for the psychophysiological detection of deception. This interest reflects both the need for security and at least latent doubts about the validity of polygraph testing procedures. As discussed in this report, the scientific criteria that should be used to evaluate new devices and procedures are the same as those that apply to the polygraph.

« Last Edit: Mar 16th, 2008 at 7:59am by George W. Maschke »  

George W. Maschke
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Re: The Cult of Polygraph
Reply #1 - Oct 30th, 2002 at 12:29pm
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Poor george...busted for his delusional thinking!
wittle georgie..did you think you could substitute Maschke for polygraph and sound like a thinking man?
(Admitted member of the Antipolygraph "cult", but my worship is to JUSTICE, not the man, woman, or people who share their knowledge with us)
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The Cult of Polygraph

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