Are Lie Detector Tests Complete Bullshit?

Lie detectors have been under fire since they were invented in the early 1920s, but the feds just indicted a guy who makes a living dishing out tips on how to fool them.

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Nov 18 2014, 12:00am

A lie detector test at an FBI recruiting event. Photo via Flickr user ​Michael Wyszomierski​

Doug Williams might be the world's loudest critic of the polygraph machine. A former cop who now refers to himself as a "crusader," he sells manuals that teach people the ins and outs of the test for $15.57.

"It is time to put to a stop this government sponsored sadism perpetrated by those who use this insidious Orwellian instrument of torture called the lie detector!" the author writes on his  ​si​te, which also explains his life goal of proving the test is "bullshit" that ruins lives and careers. He doesn't talk about cheating the test, but, instead, passing it. Ostensibly, his goal is keep innocent people from incriminating themselves.

But while all the talk about Orwell might make Williams sound like a well-intentioned activist at best—and a delusional conspiracy theorist at worst—don't be fooled: The guy's definitely out to make money, too.

"It would assist me greatly in the crusade if you would purchase this book," Williams notes (in bright red front) in his online tirade. He also offers sessions—$1,000 locally in Oklahoma and $5,000 if he has to go out of town.

In fact, according to the feds, Williams is far more interested in cash than truth. On Friday, the Department of Justice indi​cted the 69-year-old on two counts of mail fraud and three counts of witness tampering. They say he agreed to train people for government positions despite being told they were involved in crimes like drug smuggling. "I don't give a damn if you're the biggest fucking heroin dealer in the United States," he ​apparently told one undercover officer.

But even though the lie detector's greatest antagonist is a little kooky, there might be something to the idea that we should consider jettisoning polygraph tests.

Lie detectors have been under fire since they were invented in the early 1920s. The same year that the polygraph hit the scene in 1921, a 19-year-old named James Frye was arrested for the murder of a physician. The Washington, DC resident was given a crude blood pressure exam that supposedly proved his innocence, but a judge prevented the test administrator from testifying in court. Many states still adhere to the so-called Frye Standard, which says scientific evidence can't be admitted in court unless its gained "general acceptance" in the research community.

That still hasn't happened for the lie detector test. Len Saxe, a researcher at Brandeis University who put together a  re​port on the polygraph for Congress in 2003, says the test is still pseudoscience. Most often, he told me, it's used by law enforcement to coerce confessions. If someone claims to be a polygraph expert and sits a suspect down to take a test, maybe one out of 20 times, the interviewee will decide not to even bother trying. But the test doesn't work the way it's supposed to, and the idea that an increased heart rate proves a subject is lying is a long-propagated myth.

"There's no such thing as Pinocchio," he says. "But there is a thing called stage fright or being concerned when getting questioned about something that could lead to your arrest."

The scientific community largely agrees. Last year, Psychology Today published a ​skeptical take on the lie detector test that read in part, "The lie detector can be considered a modern variant of the old technique of trial by ordeal. A suspected witch was thrown into a raging river on the premise that if she floated she was harnessing demonic powers."

Although his site provides a phone number and the instructions to call anytime from 9 AM to 9 PM for help, no one is picking up anymore. Williams's site adds he's unavailable for comment at this time.

Still, what matters is not whether Williams is some kind of grifter but rather that scientists don't believe the test works. And yet we're still using it.

Although private-sector employers haven't been able to give polygraphs to applicants since 1988, federal judges have discretion in whether or not to admit lie detector results as evidence. People convicted of sex crimes are continually required to take them to make sure they haven't re-offended. And what's almost scarier is that while a lie detector can produce a false negative, the opposite can happen as well.

Saxe, the Brandeis polygraph researcher, is still haunted by a case from 20 years ago. A woman said she was raped and the cops made her take the test. "As you can imagine, she was very nervous," he told me. "She was just raped." According to the test results, she was lying. Later on, the rapist ended up murdering someone else. 

"I think the people who support polygraph testing believe they're uncovering the truth, but they're going about it in the wrong way," Saxe says. "In that case, 'passing' the polygraph as [Williams] puts it would have stopped a very dangerous man."

Follow Allie Conti on ​Twitter.

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