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The Lie Detectors
The History of an American Obsession
By Ken Alder
Free Press, 334 pp, $27.00
ISBN: 0-7432-5988-2

The art of deception

By John W. Nelson
web posted July 16, 2007

The Lie DetectorsBy the 1980s, historian Ken Alder tells us in the opening pages of his latest book, there were anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 polygraph operators in the United States testing two million people a year.  Do the math and that works out to around 5,479 people subjected to what is popularly (and misleadingly) called a "lie detector" test every day of the week.  That's the kind of number I would be quick to question – that is, if I weren't a member of that harried group myself.

My own encounter with the polygraph was the result of a short-lived attempt twenty years ago to follow my father and his into law enforcement.  Soon after passing the entrance exam for the local police force, I sat facing the department's polygraph operator, a genial man by all appearances who casually explained the mechanics of the procedure while he set about calibrating his briefcase-sized instrument.  The test itself would only come later, I learned.  In preparation it was in my best interest to unburden myself and clear my clearly troubled mind; since the polygraph measures feelings of guilt or anxiety, the examiner urged me to admit any previous criminal mischief and fully describe the circumstances on the form in front of me.  I was free to use the back.

Not wanting to appear the underachiever, I scanned my brief and uneventful history for some notable transgression.  Twelve years of Catholic school had left me with a finely-honed sense of guilt if nothing else, so under the "Thievery" section of the questionnaire I dutifully recorded: one piece of quartz lifted from a classmate's rock collection during Show and Tell.  (Looking back on that event now, I see my 9 year-old left hand engaged in an artful bit of misdirection that would be the envy of any magician while my right deftly pockets the coveted hunk of quartz.  As my first and last heist, there will be no end to the embellishments to come.)  My conscience thus scrubbed, I was wired up to the machine and the test began in earnest.

When the grilling was over, I watched the examiner digest the results scratched onto the roll of paper sprawling across the desk.  That was when I noticed the frown.  It seemed the veracity of one of my answers had been deemed "indeterminate."  The question: Had I ever committed any illegal sex acts?  (Well, have you, punk? said the examiner's probing stare.)  As a young man having a devil of a time trying to commit the legal variety, I responded with a burst of nervous laughter while I tugged at my collar like Rodney Dangerfield and tried to quiet the growing fear that I had just been irreparably fingered as a pervert – and a criminal one at that.

In the end, my outing as a modern-day Marquis de Sade didn't derail my application since the examiner admitted that there could be any number of reasons why the polygraph would register a heightened response to that question.  (Did I mention the twelve years of Catholic school?)  What it did succeed in doing, however, was drive home to me the dubious nature of the proceedings.  I knew what I had detected in that room, and it was the unmistakable "whiff of hokum" that Alder claims has trailed the polygraph since its invention in the 1920s.

Readers of The Lie Detectors will be disappointed if they expect to find a Randi-like unraveling of the polygraph's claims to scientific validity.  Alder's account of the storied device (originally called the "cardio-pneumo-psychogram") is instead a colorful social history that takes its unreliability as a given.  Indeed, considering the "avalanche of scientific denunciations" heaped upon it, the more interesting question that emerges is the reason for its continued use by the CIA, the FBI, NSA, and other law enforcement agencies across the United States.  (Alder may be correct in branding it a uniquely American obsession, but that doesn't mean those countries to have shunned it are any less susceptible to the lure of pseudoscience.  Just ask anyone in France who's had to submit a pre-employment handwriting sample so a "trained" graphologist could divine the applicant's character from the loops and swirls and squiggles.)

If law enforcement's interest in the polygraph hasn't waned since its sensational debut in a Jazz Age burglary case among sorority sisters at the University of California – and how could that be anything but sensational? – it's because the polygraph delivers.  It just doesn't deliver what its credulous advocates and operators ("consummate anti-professionals" in Alder's stern judgment) claim, a point which Alder takes such obvious pleasure in hammering home throughout the book that one begins to wonder if he hasn't had a tense stand-off or two with the box himself.  

Born in the heyday of organized crime, graft, political cronyism, and police brutality, the polygraph's promise, as well as its allure, was its incorruptibility; what better way to positively identify crooks and cheats, eliminate prejudice, and assure the impartial administration of justice than by means of an ultramodern machine free from human influence and incapable of error?  As August Vollmer, Chief of the Berkeley Police Department from 1906 to 1932 and the polygraph's chief patron at the time, couched it in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner: "So far we have never made a mistake with our machine.  I will not say that it is infallible, but thus far, it has proved so."

Vollmer could rightly point to the polygraph's effectiveness in eliciting confessions, but that had less to do with the device itself than with the manner in which it was employed. As The Lie Detectors reveals, what was originally conceived as a corrective to "curbside justice" and physically coercive interrogation techniques could easily be used to extend those practices by functioning as a kind of "psychological rubber hose."  To take one of the more extreme examples on offer: Decasto Earl Mayer, a suspect in a murder case, was made to undergo a polygraph test in 1929 for seven days in a row, eight hours a day.  This was after he had been "forcibly injected" with truth serum (itself promoted as an antidote to abusive interrogations and just as unreliable).  The marathon session ended with Mayer smashing the polygraph in anger ("I know what that machine is.  I know it's recording the truth.  I can't beat it."), confessing to the crime, and then, alas, recanting the following day.

Today's polygraphers are shrewd enough not to claim that the device is infallible though they frequently cite an accuracy rate of 93–98%.  The website of the American Polygraph Association trumpets it as "the gold standard among the methods available for verification of truthfulness," which isn't saying much considering the alternatives.  For Alder, it's not the baseless claims of accuracy that account for the device's longevity but the nature of the ruse itself, "the charade that it is the polygraph machine and not the examiner which assesses the subject's veracity."  In a more charitable moment, he characterizes it as "placebo science," i.e., the effectiveness of the polygraph is conditioned on the subject's belief that it works as advertised in the same way that an oath sworn on the Bible only has force over the Believer, the latter "by reference to the all-seeing eye of God, the other to the all-seeing eye of Science."

The tension between the polygraph's uncritical enthusiasts and those more scientifically-minded in their approach is illustrated by the contrast between its two most well-known historical practitioners and the main protagonists in The Lie Detectors: John Augustus Larson, a member of Vollmer's police department at Berkeley and the first police officer in the country with a Ph.D., and Leonarde Keeler, an ambitious young man with a streak of hucksterism whom Vollmer enlisted to deal with the practical matters of designing and marketing the machine.  As Keeler began popularizing "The Magic Lie Detector" and selling his services to banks and businesses as a means of verifying and maintaining the honesty of their employees (for who would dare steal when they could be retested at any time?), Larson labored to secure the polygraph on a scientific footing – a futile quest which ended in the regret that he had ever had a hand in creating this "Frankenstein's monster."

With an academic background in physiology, Larson was aware of the polygraph's limitations and knew its central flaw, namely, that "without a theory to explain how deception produced bodily responses distinct from the anxiety of innocent subjects, there was no way to draw inverse inferences from a record alone."  Which is precisely what my own examiner had (perhaps unwittingly) revealed, for if there could be any number of reasons why the polygraph would register a heightened response to a question about my sexual proclivities, there could be any number of reasons why it would register a heightened response to any other question.

Presenting this problem from a different angle, Alder introduces the reader – at least this reader – to the "polygraph of arousal."  Formally known as the penile plethysmograph, this ominous-sounding device works by placing a "fluid-filled tube around the subject's penis to register tumescence" while he is exposed to certain visual stimuli, e.g., photos of other naughty bits.  Alder criticizes the device, used on occasion to assess the potential for recidivism among convicted sex offenders up for parole or release, for simply inverting "the assumptions and fallacies of the standard lie detector, so that bodily reaction equals desire, and that desire equals criminal propensity [...] as if a specific response to a particular stimulus can be read as implying a specific cause or deed, when multiple factors could be responsible – for instance, the experience of having something strapped around one's penis."  You don't say?

The details of the collaboration between Larson and Keeler and their eventual antagonism make for thin gruel at times, but The Lie Detectors carries the reader along with the kind of  interesting asides and historical ties that one hopes to find in a work like this.  Did you know that the first person to experiment with lie detection techniques, Harvard psychologist and lawyer William Moulton Marston, was also the creator of the comic book character Wonder Woman – armed with the Lasso of Truth?  Or that Hollywood studios actively used the machine to gauge viewer reactions and adjust the emotional impact of particular scenes?  (Alder suggests unconvincingly that it might be due to Keeler's activities at Universal in 1931 – as opposed to the objections of Boris Karloff or those of the censors at the time – that original audiences never saw Karloff's Frankenstein actually throw little Maria into the water.)  The polygraph even made an appearance in the case of Leopold and Loeb as Larson couldn't resist using his device on the notorious pair (though only the latter agreed to sit for him).      

Connections get a little tenuous, however, when Alder highlights the use of the polygraph during the cold war in a chapter called "Pinkos."  (You can see where this is going.)  He dismisses the CIA's exaggerated warnings regarding Soviet mind control and brainwashing techniques with good reason: blunter instruments like grinding poverty and forced-labor camps were far more effective methods of taming the populace.  But as befitting the villain of the story, the polygraph is held up as the great leveller between America's cold warriors and their communist foes.  Alder cites both British psychiatrist William Sargant, who charged (in Alder's words) that "the American lie detector elicited confessions much as the Soviet Union converted people to its cause," and journalists Stewart and Joseph Alsop, who worried that "the lie detector test would erode psychological privacy to the point where 'we begin palely to imitate the system we fear'."

Those were fond exaggerations of their own, of course.  Cold war abuses of the polygraph were real, especially during America's "Red Scare," but Alder weakens his critique of the period by advancing the leftist bromide that McCarthyism was a witch hunt in the absence of witches.  The "huge advantage" of the so-called "Lavender Scare," he says sarcastically, was that "there actually were homosexuals working for the U.S. government" [emphasis added].  (He concludes his account of the polygraph's role in the Alger Hiss affair by stating simply that "Hiss was convicted of perjury in January 1950."  True, but the larger misdeed – being, in fact, a communist spy – goes unmentioned.)     

There are other passages that grate, but Alder deserves credit for confronting the shaky practice of credibility assessment (as today's practitioners are wont to call it) and its starring device, which has credibility problems of its own.  He also knows how to craft a fine story.  If I said I didn't enjoy it, I'd be lying. ESR

John W. Nelson writes from Houston, Texas.  He can be reached at jwnelson2@hotmail.com.

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