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Monday, October 30, 2006

Lying the groundwork

Four years ago, I blogged about a William Safire op-ed in the NY Times concerning lie detectors. Safire pointed out that polygraphs are worse than useless. They are used by prosecutors to intimidate prisoners into false confessions or plea bargains, and they are especially dangerous when used to screen potential employees in sensitive jobs:

Because professional spies are trained to defeat the device; because pathological liars do not cause its needles to spike; and because our counterspies relax when a potential suspect "passes"--the system breeds the opposite of security.
Safire's article is now behind the Times' pay-per-view wall, so I can't quote it exactly (except for what I quoted four years ago). But one of his points, I believe, was that the general belief among the public that polygraphs do work was critical for how they were used. The phrase "refused to take a lie-detector test" is often deemed to be incriminating, even though polygraph evidence isn't admissible in court. Anyway, sooner or later it is remotely possible that people will become more generally aware of the defects of polygraphs, thereby rendering them completely useless. Never fear--a new generation of high-tech "lie detectors" is being developed, and the Washington Post's Joel Garreau is right there to spread the propaganda so that the new machines can have the same (negative) effect on justice that the old ones did (emphasis added):
The Siemens Magnetom Trio at the University of Pennsylvania is a 10-foot-tall, 14-ton "functional magnetic resonance imaging" machine -- fMRI, for short. It promises to be the most formidable lie detector ever built. By peering directly into our brains, its keepers aim to set a new gold standard for the recognition of honesty in everyone from politicians to criminals to lovers.
In the pipeline are several cheaper, faster, easier-to-use brain-examining technologies, all intended as major improvements on the unreliable chicken-scratching polygraph we use now. Some seem to identify mental preparations for telling a lie even before the liar opens his mouth -- verging on mind-reading. Another is meant to work from across the room, even if you do not wish to cooperate. Think of it as the "mental detector" at your airport screening, and not without good reason. Much of this research is being funded by the military as part of the anti-terror juggernaut.
The Magnetom Trio knows your thoughts better than you do. Surrender to the power of the Magnetom Trio--confess your sins.

Heck--the intimidation factor is working already. From the Post article:
The firm planned to scan for lies the brain of its first customer yesterday. But at the last minute, with NBC and CBS camera crews standing by to record the event, she decided she didn't want to put to the test her assertion that she had not cheated on her husband while he was in alcohol rehab, according to Joel T. Huizenga, the company's founder.
The article does show that using lies to "detect lies" is an old, old trick:
According to an ancient tale from India, a village turns out to have a thief. To determine who it is, a wise man puts into a dark tent a donkey he says has magical powers: if a guilty man pulls his tail, the donkey will sing. When every man in the village, one after the other, has entered the tent to pull the donkey's tail, the wise man then lines them all up, and sure enough, the identity of the thief is obvious. Turns out the wise man had covered the donkey's tail with lamp black, and only one man had clean hands.
More likely, the man with clean hands pulled on the wrong part of the donkey, while the real liar (and maybe criminal as well), the "wise man," got off scott free.

Towards the end of the article, Garreau points out the many flaws of polygraphs, and even hints at reasons why the expensive new behemoths may not work, either. But you wouldn't know it from the article's subtitle ("Tell a Whopper and Watch the Screen Light Up: Thanks (or No Thanks) to Sophisticated Scanning, The Lie May Be on Its Last Legs"), nor from the first paragraph ("gold standard for the recognition of honesty"). Safire was wrong about a lot of things, but he was very right on this. And newer, fancier, more expensive "lie detectors" only make the problem worse. What are you going to do when you're hauled in to the Ministry of Truth and told that the Magnetom Trio has already convicted you?