Senator Rand Paul wants the federal government to administer ‘lie detector tests’ in order to determine who leaked former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s communications transcripts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. (See end of post for video).
Well Sen. Paul… A polygraph test is not a lie detector test. There is no such thing as a machine that you can hook up to someone to prove they are telling the truth or lying. You’ve watched too much TV.
I get kind of irritated when I hear people say these things.
I try not to get too political on this blog so I want to state that I am not taking political sides; left, right, or center. I’m on the side of science… Science is not politics and fact is not up to a vote. This post is more about the pseudoscience of polygraphs and the danger of treating it like an infallible ‘lie detector.’
Movies and TV throughout the years continue to reinforce people’s false belief in its reliability. “Despite claims of 90% validity by polygraph advocates, the National Research Council has found no evidence of effectiveness.” The polygraph has a long history of false positives and negatives, and yet continues to be seen in popular culture and media, used for security clearances and pre-employment interviews, and viewed with absolute unchallenged certainty.
Many known spies and serial killers in history have beaten the polygraph test multiple times. Double-agent Aldrich Ames, passed two polygraph tests while spying for the Soviet Union. Also, Leandro Aragoncillo whom the FBI labeled the first known case of espionage within the history of the White House. From 1999 to 2001, Aragoncillo was assigned under Vice President Al Gore and then later under Vice President Dick Cheney and he passed a polygraph. In addition, Karl Koecher, and Ana Montes… the list goes on and I’m not even mentioning the serial killers who beat it.
This kind of track record does not give me confidence in using this device to rout out security leaks. Unfortunately our government refuses to shake that unfounded trust in the polygraph. Faith in this machine can be dangerous.
The only people who fail polygraph tests are nervous people which is why the interrogator is actually more important than the polygraph. The polygraph is a prop to induce anxiety and panic into the witness/suspect. A well trained interrogator can leverage that fear and false faith in the polygraph to induce a response that supports the conclusion they likely have already come to.
Penn & Teller had a excellent very in depth episode of ‘Bulls**t’ on this very subject. I can’t embed that video… it is a Showtime show and they want $1.99 per view on YouTube (it’s worth it if you want to see). Or, here is ‘Adam Ruins Everything’ on Polygraphs, in case you haven’t seen it. It’s not as detailed P&T Bulls**t but Adam does a fine job of explaining things.
“I would bring them all in. They would have to take lie detector tests and I would say… including the political people…” Rand said on ABC’s This Week.
— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) March 19, 2017