Plagues and polygraphs

by John Quiggin on April 18, 2006

Following our seminar on The Republican War on Science I heard from John Mangels, science writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who pointed me to this series of reports (free registration required) on Dr Thomas Butler, an infectious disease researcher who (apparently mistakenly) reported missing 30 vials of plague bacteria, and ended up being railroaded into prison by an FBI determined to get a conviction even after it became apparent that the events they were supposedly investigating had never occurred.

It’s an amazing story, which as Mangels says is a metaphor for the clash between science and the Bush administration, and between fear and reason in the post-9/11 world. Much of is the kind of thing that can happen anywhere once the wheels of criminal investigation are set turning.

I was struck, though, by one particularly American feature of the story – the crucial role of the polygraph or “lie detector”. This method is (literally) a piece of witchdoctor magic, tricked out with enough electronic gadgetry to impress the class of believers in technology, as opposed to science, we discussed in the seminar. This group plays a much bigger role in the US than elsewhere, which may be why the polygraph is taken seriously only in the US.

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John Quiggin » Blog Archive » Plague and polygraph
04.18.06 at 4:41 am

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1

Brendan 04.18.06 at 5:04 am

I think the seeming paradox of the extreme Right’s worship of technology in the US (the extreme right of course normally being fundamentally opposed to the values of science) is solved when you realise that to Glenn Reynolds etc. technology is really just a kind of magic. Hence his championing of the barmier nano-technology theorists and lunatics like Kurzweil. These people champion science not versus superstition, but actually as a kind of superstition, or technology as wish fulfilment.

All this is deeply adolescent, but then the roots of this kind of thinking are in the thought processes of adolescents (14 year olds boys, specifically). Worship of technology (especially the technology of war), love of ‘gizmos’, wide eyed views of the future and so on. I mean a machine that can actually tell you whether or not someone is telling the truth? Kewl!!!

2

lurker 04.18.06 at 5:36 am

I won’t be as forgiving as Brenden. This passionate techno-superstition is a conscious tactic to abdicate responsibility, “Either God directed me to kill you or the machines pronounced you guilty. I had nothing to do with it”. Authority without accountability.

3

abb1 04.18.06 at 7:04 am

If they are sweating while questioned by the authority, they are probably guilty of something anyhow.

4

Nick 04.18.06 at 7:41 am

No, abb1, that’s not it. “If they want a lawyer, they’re guilty of something.” Get your boilerplate straight.

5

Tim Worstall 04.18.06 at 7:54 am

Lie detectors don’t work true, but that hasn’t stopped the Russians beginning to deploy them in their airports. Fools.

Interested in another point though. If this is a metaphor for the clash between science and the Bush administration…..and it can happen anywhere once the wheels of a criminal investigation are set turning…

Are you saying that wherever there is a criminal investigation then there is the clash between science and the Bush etc? Or is that paragraph simply a touch over wrought?

6

CKR 04.18.06 at 8:37 am

The National Academy of Science, at the request of the government, investigated the reliability of polygraphs and found them severely wanting. The CIA and DOE, and probably others, still use them.

7

jet 04.18.06 at 8:39 am

Poor guy should have read this. The more you lie at a polygraph, the better your chances are of beating it. Perfect truthfulness just gets a guilty sign over your head.

But it is silly to link this to the Bush admistration’s “war on science”. This has been going on far longer than Bush has been in power. Don’t blame the war on terror, blame the war on drugs.

8

Dylan 04.18.06 at 8:43 am

Polygraphs are so passe. Real men use brain scans, which apparently really do work, even if you can’t fit the equipment into a briefcase.

9

Matt 04.18.06 at 8:59 am

Tim,
I’m not sure if the story about the Russian airports is true or not. First, the only place it was the Moony times, not the most reliable source. It’s not been in any of the Russian papers I follow, as far as I’ve seen, and the airport it was supposed to be placed at, in the future, is a privet one, not the main state one. So, I think it’s a phoney story.

10

L. Ron Hubbard 04.18.06 at 9:02 am

I agree on the uselessness of the polygraph.

It doesn’t even measure thetans or extract funds from the test subject so how could it possibly be useful?
As an extreme patriot (who will sue your ass if you say otherwise) I might be willing to share my unique technology with a major contractor (Halliburton?), on consideration of whether they come up with adequate funds.

11

phred 04.18.06 at 10:09 am

That series of articles is amazing. It needs to be a book.

Oh, and Jet’s claim that it this has been going on a long time and that it is therefore “silly to link this to the Bush administration’s ‘War on Science'” doesn’t add up. The WoS exacerbates already extant tendencies, and brings them to areas where they can do real harm – e.g., studies of infectious diseases.

12

derek 04.18.06 at 10:44 am

I swear, America is the country that adopted electricity as its god. I first noticed this when I read about the history of the electric chair in the early twentieth century, that torture device masquerading as a a method of execution. Apparently no amount of grand guignol horror persuaded Americans that a simple hanging would be infinitely less undignified. Because electricity was “clean and modern”, you see.

Then there’s the whole voting machine thing. I’ve given up talking to Americans about it, because even the sceptics just make up illogical reasons why they have to use electronic vote recorders, and can’t use a simple pencil. All the contrived reasons are just a cover for a cargo-cult devotion to the electronic machine, which must be faster, more accurate, and more secure than a paper ballot (it’s none of those).

13

brooksfoe 04.18.06 at 11:38 am

I don’t think most Americans actually do think the polygraph works. It’s more that the machine has been adopted by a psychotic subculture at particular organizations (FBI, DoD) that believes it does work. And there’s little that those of us who are sane can do to pry these machines out of their sweaty, clammy little hands. Other than perhaps accusing them all of being terrorists and forcing them to submit to lie detector tests.

14

Fitz 04.18.06 at 11:52 am

As an attorney I agree with your assessment of the polygraph. I also agree with your assessment concerning the case against the researcher with the missing plague and the fear factors surrounding 9/11. However, I don’t see any connection with any perceived “war on science”? We can talk about metaphors, but they are thin ones indeed. In fact the very metaphor of a Republican “war” against science seems rather pale. But I suppose that’s your bailiwick and your sticking to it.

15

Peter 04.18.06 at 12:18 pm

Former CIA man, Robert Baer, has a nice vignette in one of his books (I think, “See No Evil”) about being escorted to an internal polygraph test to assess his alleged involvement in something. Realizing the seriousness of the situation he was in, he immediately informed his handlers that he’d once been accused of murder, which was true. This ensured that he got a more senior (and therefore wiser) polygraph operator, who could perhaps tell the difference between stress caused by guilt and stressed caused by anxiety over being accused and polygraphed. It worked, he passed the test.

16

Brendan 04.18.06 at 1:31 pm

‘I swear, America is the country that adopted electricity as its god. ‘

Not just electricity, but technology in all its forms. In some documentary about the death penalty I remember seeing some guy (i forget who) pointed out the horror, the unbelievable cultural insensitity of using THE GAS CHAMBER as a method of execution, after WW2. The fact that most proponents of such barbarism can’t even seem to see why this would be considered problematic speaks volumes about certain people’s lack of understanding of cultural connotations.

But I suppose to some people gas chamber=technology=hygiene=progress= etc. etc. etc.

Compare and contrast the horror shown in the West when hostages are executed BY BEHEADING.

17

Tim B. 04.18.06 at 1:44 pm

When you say “This method is (literally) a piece of witchdoctor magic….,” should I infer that the administrator of the polygraph is decked out in shaman headdress and body paint while working the electronic gadgetry?

18

Slocum 04.18.06 at 2:35 pm

This method is (literally) a piece of witchdoctor magic, tricked out with enough electronic gadgetry to impress the class of believers in technology, as opposed to science, we discussed in the seminar. This group plays a much bigger role in the US than elsewhere…

Really? And how do you square this ‘believers in technology’ theory with the fact that the UK has something on the order of, say, 1000 times more surveillence cameras per sq mile than the US does?

This, for example, sounds a LOT more like naive faith in the ability of technology to fight crime (and has far more potential for abuse) than use of polygraph:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1789157.stm

19

john m. 04.18.06 at 2:40 pm

….and the completely meaningless statistic award goes to:

“And how do you square this ‘believers in technology’ theory with the fact that the UK has something on the order of, say, 1000 times more surveillence cameras per sq mile than the US does?”

20

nick s 04.18.06 at 2:45 pm

And how do you square this ‘believers in technology’ theory with the fact that the UK has something on the order of, say, 1000 times more surveillence cameras per sq mile than the US does?

Oh, that’s a different type of neurosis altogether.

Compare the reaction to the automated CCTV scanning of numberplates for the congestion charge in London and the belief that some bloke with a load of screens can supplant an engaged community. Perhaps you’re under the misconception that CCTV cameras in the UK are sentient?

21

John Quiggin 04.18.06 at 3:34 pm

“When you say “This method is (literally) a piece of witchdoctor magic….,” should I infer that the administrator of the polygraph is decked out in shaman headdress and body paint while working the electronic gadgetry?”

The gadgetry serves the function of the headdress and body paint, but the magical method is the same.

22

Slocum 04.18.06 at 3:54 pm

Compare the reaction to the automated CCTV scanning of numberplates for the congestion charge in London and the belief that some bloke with a load of screens can supplant an engaged community. Perhaps you’re under the misconception that CCTV cameras in the UK are sentient?

The use of surveillance cameras is hardly limited to enforcing the congestion charge. And ‘sentient’ cameras are not required if there are sentient security personnel watching the live feed or reviewing the tapes. But beyond that, the idea that AI software will be analyzing and interpreting the video is definitely part of the plan:

“CCTV cameras that can predict behaviour could play a vital role in the fight against crime.”

“Camera software, dubbed Cromatica, is being developed at London’s Kingston University to help improve security on public transport systems but it could be used on a wider scale.”

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1953770.stm

Now I don’t think it’ll actually work (or work well–not as well as polygraph machines) but that strengthens rather than weakens the case that this is an instance of naive faith in crime-fighting technology.

23

ogmb 04.18.06 at 4:50 pm

So, I think it’s a phoney story.

It’s not phoney if it is truthy.

24

Neil 04.18.06 at 6:20 pm

Dylan,

Brain scans have about the same degree of accuracy, and the same problems, as traditional methods. See, for instance, Wolpe, et al. 2005. Emerging Neurotechnologies for Lie-Detection: Promises and Perils. American J. Bioethics.

25

eudoxis 04.18.06 at 8:18 pm

Too bad that in the US, we can’t rely on the absolute accuracy and precision of solid and reliable jurists as they do elsewhere.

Really, don’t most people understand that lie detection is generally a bit of witchdoctoring and highly operator dependent?

Even with recent advances in brain imaging with success rates of roughtly 85%, operators have to know how to interpret what they are looking at.
All of the tools used for lie detection, from polygraphy (least reliable to brain wave scanning to PET to MRI (most reliable) are more consistently reliable than an average individual who might try to determine truth from deception.

Strange that the Butler case would be tied in with a complaint about right-wing-nutter-technophily via polygraphy, which didn’t play a role in a conviction. Rather, government scapegoating, university disloyalty, secret defense research in bioweapons, and loose cannon investigators all warant far more attention than lie detection for Butler. He wasn’t a victim of incorrectly applied polygraph tests, he was a victim of far more corrupt and insidious processes.

26

Matt Weiner 04.18.06 at 8:28 pm

the fact that the UK has something on the order of, say, 1000 times more surveillence cameras per sq mile than the US does?

I don’t doubt that the UK has more surveillance cameras, but aren’t per capita statistics more meaningful? There are no cameras in most of western Nebraska in part because there is nothing much else in western Nebraska (probably some sort of military base to prove me wrong). The UK has a lot less empty space than the US.

27

Matt Weiner 04.18.06 at 8:29 pm

Oh hey, that’s a Texas Tech scientist. I should find out more about this.

28

Neil 04.18.06 at 9:51 pm

Club forces players to take lie detector tests

Players at a Romanian first division soccer club will be forced to take lie detector tests after losing two matches.

Last week National Bucharest surprisingly lost 1-0 at home against Vaslui and 2-0 at Jiul Petrosani to dent their chances of playing in European competition next season.

“It’s about a moral audit which will allow our players to show they played honestly against Vaslui and Petrosani,” the club’s main shareholder Constantin Iacov said.

“I think it’s normal to check your employees from time to time,” he added.

“I’ll be the first to undergo the polygraph test and the team’s coaches soon after me.”

-Reuters

29

Dan Kervick 04.18.06 at 9:54 pm

The usefulness of the lie detector for its main purpose – creating discomfort in the subject of interrogation and extracting confessions – does not depend on its actual rate of accuracy, but on the beliefs of the subject of interrogation. If there is some percentage of Americans who believe that the lie detector is unfailingly accurate, and another percentage who believe that it is generally quite accurate, and another percentage who believe it is more often accurate than not, then the polygraph might very well be useful in these cases in extracting a confession, even if all of these people in fact have a false belief about polygraphs.

And if the subject does not believe in the power of polygraphs, but believes that their interrogator does or might believe in their power, the use of the polygraph is likely to make the subject nervous and anxious, and the anxiety itself may help to trip them up as they seek to remember their lie and make it sound credible. A polygraph can thus be a useful tool of interrogation, even if it is at bottom a crock. the same is true of hot lights, alleged “psychic” investigators, ouija boards and juju beans.

I think the situation with polygraphs is similar to the use of hypnosis in psychotherapy. Some patients actually believe in the power of hypnosis, and can be persuaded that they are in a “hypnotic trance”. This can be useful in getting them to reveal things they are hiding. Putative hypnosis sessions can also be useful with subjects who don’t believe in the power of hypnosis. You may have a situation in which the patient has some secret they would like to share with the therapist, but is too embarrassed to impart it. So the therapist and patient participate in a little confession game based on the following unspoken understanding on the part of the patient: “I want to tell you something, but I’m embarrassed. So you pretend to hypnotize me, and pretend you believe in hypnotic trances. I will also pretend to believe in hypnosis and pretend to be in such a trance. Then I can tell you my secret with a distant, faraway stare, and you can pretend to believe I am speaking from the depths of my trance. We thereby avoid the discomfort of direct face-to-face confession. We will both know that we are both dissembling, and know we know it – but we can tactfully avoid articulating our knowledge. I can also pretend not to remember what I just told you after I’ve finished telling you, and you can pretend to believe me.

30

Glenn Bridgman 04.18.06 at 11:33 pm

This sounds suspiciously like David Brooks sociology to me.

31

cm 04.18.06 at 11:35 pm

slocum: I believe the general consensus is that CCTV is rather effective at pushing the targeted crime from the surveilled areas where it is not tolerated into unsurveilled areas/neighborhoods where it is tolerated by policymakers. People of importance can then move around in protected areas, and the riffraff frequents the no-go zones. We have seen that in enough dystopian movies.

32

Matt Weiner 04.18.06 at 11:51 pm

Dan K–
That sounds like a useful tool for eliciting false confessions, as may have happened in the linked story. If I believe lie detectors are accurate, and you tell me the detector says I’m lying, I may generate memories that support what the lie detector says.

33

Tim Worstall 04.19.06 at 5:01 am

Re the Russian airport. Domededovo I thought and as I don’t read the Moonie Times it couldn’t have been there I saw it. Most likely The Telegraph in London. Whether that boosts the credibility of the story is entirely up to you of course.

34

Dan Kervick 04.19.06 at 6:29 am

Dan K—That sounds like a useful tool for eliciting false confessions, as may have happened in the linked story. If I believe lie detectors are accurate, and you tell me the detector says I’m lying, I may generate memories that support what the lie detector says.

Yes, that’s definitely possible. But the polygraph could also help in eliciting true confessions, before it is even used. If you are guilty and not too bright, and believe your interrogators are in the possession of a Magic Truth Machine, you may conclude that lying is futile.

35

Ginger Yellow 04.19.06 at 6:29 am

It is true though that the British government (for quite some time) has had a disastrous fascination with the potential for technology to solve its ills, usually resulting in extremely expensive cock-ups when unproven technology or IT is implemented on a massive scale. See biometric ID cards, the NHS IT system, the passport IT system, the criminal records IT system, the initial problems with the congestion charge, the proposals for road charging by satellite monitoring of every car in the country, and so on, and so on.

36

George Maschke 04.19.06 at 7:47 am

I’m a co-founder of AntiPolygraph.org, a non-profit, public interest website dedicated to exposing and ending waste, fraud, and abuse associated with the use of lie detectors. We have a great deal of on-line documentation of polygraph policy and practice that you may find interesting. See especially our e-book, The Lie Behind the Lie Detector. And with regard to the case at hand, see the discussion thread, The Polygraph and the Case of Dr. Thomas C. Butler.

37

RS 04.20.06 at 4:56 am

“Even with recent advances in brain imaging with success rates of roughtly 85%, operators have to know how to interpret what they are looking at.
All of the tools used for lie detection, from polygraphy (least reliable to brain wave scanning to PET to MRI (most reliable) are more consistently reliable than an average individual who might try to determine truth from deception.”

I doubt MRI’d be much use, structural brain changes associated with lying ;-)

I haven’t followed the literature closely, but it was always my impression that the brain scanning lie detection stuff was all post hoc – much like a lot of these gene arrays for detecting diseases – they show that you can divide the two groups up by characteristics of the brain scan, but this is partly a result of the surfeit of data (i.e. they’re overfitting) – but that they haven’t really shown that these characteristics are actually generalisable.

38

eudoxis 04.20.06 at 9:39 am

I doubt MRI’d be much use, structural brain changes associated with lying ;-)

That would be funny, but, of course, we’re talking about functional MRI, where changes in brain activity are measured.

There’s no question that there are neural correlates of lying. Still, any modality that can accurately measure those correlates is dependent on an interpreter because the neural feature of interest has variability in and between subjects.

There is no gold standard to lie detection. It’s all witch-doctoring. Yet, any modality that can measure neural correlates normally invisible to the observer, even an expert observer, is going to be useful in lie detection.

“I haven’t followed the literature closely, but it was always my impression that the brain scanning lie detection stuff was all post hoc – much like a lot of these gene arrays for detecting diseases…

I suspect there’s some profound misunderstanding on your part between the initial investigation into a physical correlate to disease or lying and the implementation of a practical differentiation tool. Or, perhaps you’re addressing the fact that any such tool will pick up artifact and that there isn’t anything that is 100% efficient, in which case, I agree.

39

Nabakov 04.21.06 at 7:34 am

I’ve always found the Voight-Kampff Empathy Test much more reliable than any polygraph.

40

RS 04.22.06 at 7:24 am

“That would be funny, but, of course, we’re talking about functional MRI, where changes in brain activity are measured.” Hence the smiley.

“I suspect there’s some profound misunderstanding on your part between the initial investigation into a physical correlate to disease or lying and the implementation of a practical differentiation tool.”

I suspect that there’s some profound misunderstanding on your part between the initial investigation into a physical correlate to disease or lying and the implementation of a practical differentiation tool too.

i.e. it is very easy to find activation differences between two conditions in a study using fMRI due to the dangers of small sample sizes versus lots of signal noise. One of the most heavily trailed studies did 6vs5 or something equally ridiculous. You need to have shown that this pattern is the same in multiple experiments, and even then, the true test really is creating something that works in practice. Recent attempts to characterise malignancy based on gene expression profiles have proved not to work in practice, even though initial experiments showed that cell malignancy could be discriminated based on these expression patterns – why did they fail? Because they assayed too many genes, with too much variation to be sure that the expression patterns between the two groups weren’t simply due to chance – that is they overfit the data. The next step is to take your newly discovered patterns and see how well they classify a whole new set of cells, might turn out they don’t work well on a new sample at all, and ou’ll have to go back to the drawing board. The same with these fMRI studies, you need to show that you can distinguish lying reliably, and blind. They haven’t done this yet, so their technique is just as reliable as a brain scan for schizophrenia – i.e. it isn’t.

41

SL Aronovitz 04.23.06 at 11:01 am

In the movie “Touch of Evil” (1958) starring Orsen Wells and Charlton Heston, there is a scene in the middle of the film where Vargas (Heston’s character) is confronts one of the police officers under investigation for planting false evidence. The officer defends himself and his partner(paraphrasing here)saying “But you have to understand, being a cop is hard work!”

Heston’s response is classic and profound (not paraphrasing):

“The only place where police work is easy is in a police state!”

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