Normal Topic $210k DOJ Grant for Polygraph Reliability Study (Read 1385 times)
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$210k DOJ Grant for Polygraph Reliability Study
Oct 1st, 2005 at 5:35pm
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Mark Karpf reports for the Daily Nebraskan:


UNK gets grant for polygraph study

September 30, 2005

Lying is often a tough thing to do, especially now that the University of Nebraska at Kearney has received a $210,282 grant for research in polygraph technology.

Beth Tiehen, press secretary for Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican of Nebraska, said the grant is from the U.S. Department of Justice and the money would be used to determine the reliability of polygraphs.

“Hagel made a direct request for the project funding,” Tiehen said.

A polygraph is a machine that measures and records different variables – heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and skin conductivity – while a series of questions are asked by an expert, who also operates the machine.

While the procedure is done in an attempt to detect lies, there are many criticisms as to the reliability of such tests.

There has been almost no research done on the reliability of polygraphs, and there are only three projects – UNK’s included –currently investigating the technology, said John Falconer, director of sponsored programs at UNK.Said Falconer: “The question is, can you detect who did or didn’t lie? You have to know if the tool is working in order to put faith in it.”

The UNK research project will deal with both true and false confessions and the reliability of polygraphs to determine truthfulness, Falconer said.

Falconer said polygraphs are used in many different settings, with the most notable being police criminal investigations. However, many governmental agencies use them when interviewing a perspective employee.

A 1988 law outlawed polygraphs in most employee interviews by private businesses and organizations.

Falconer said the study would be a two-year project in which a professional polygraph examiner will administer tests to people who may or may not be forthright in their answers.

“The research will be in Nebraska, but the results will help everyone,” he said.

Sgt. Tyler Schmidt of the University Police at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said the department uses a polygraph test about five times a year.

He said polygraphs are used case by case, and that UNL contracts out the tests because of the high cost of employing an officer trained in polygraph administration.

The Lincoln Police Department has its own polygraph test and examiner and uses polygraphs for both criminal investigations and pre-employment screening, said Officer Katherine Finnell.

Finnell said in 2004, the department conducted 69 tests for criminal investigations and 38 for employment screenings. Because the police are a governmental department, such screenings are legal.Finnell said polygraphs can’t be used as the sole determining factor, but that they use it as a tool in investigating a crime.

“We use results of our polygraph exams and we consider them in the context of the complete investigation,” Finnell said. “They are not used to determine someone’s guilt or innocence.”

Only four years ago, the Department of Energy spent roughly four times as much as the Department of Justice is now spending to fund a research review by the National Academy of Sciences, which published its findings in its report, The Polygraph and Lie Detection. Key findings of that report included:

  • Almost a century of research in scientific psychology and physiology provides little basis for the expectation that a polygraph test could have extremely high accuracy (p. 212);
  • The theoretical rationale for the polygraph is quite weak, especially in terms of differential fear, arousal, or other emotional states that are triggered in response to relevant or comparison questions (p. 213);
  • Research on the polygraph has not progressed over time in the manner of a typical scientific field. It has not accumulated knowledge or strengthened its scientific underpinnings in any significant manner (p. 213);
  • The inherent ambiguity of the physiological measures used in the polygraph suggest that further investments in improving polygraph technique and interpretation will bring only modest improvements in accuracy (p. 213);
  • Polygraph testing yields an unacceptable choice for…employee security screening between too many loyal employees falsely judged deceptive and too many major security threats left undetected. Its accuracy in distinguishing actual or potential security violators from innocent test takers is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies. (p. 219);
  • Overconfidence in the polygraph--a belief in its accuracy not justified by the evidence--presents a danger to national security objectives. (p. 219).

But the Department of Energy, the Department of Justice, and all other federal agencies that rely on polygraph screening have willfully ignored the findings of the nation's premiere scientific organization, just as they ignored the overwhelmingly negative findings of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment in 1983 and a 1976 U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Operations report (The Use of Polygraphs and Similar Devices by Federal Agencies, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, Report No. 94-795. Reprinted in Polygraph, Vol. 5 [1976], No. 1, pp. 2–58) that concluded: "It is the recommendation of the committee that the use of polygraphs and similar devices be discontinued by all Government agencies for all purposes."

If government agencies are going to ignore the results of taxpayer-funded research, then why bother?

George W. Maschke
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$210k DOJ Grant for Polygraph Reliability Study

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