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In The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession, Ken Alder depicts the polygraph as an apparatus whose effectiveness as a lie detector rests on the gullibility of its audience, including those who have submitted to its use and those who have simply seen or heard of its existence. The narrative, however, does not center on the development of different versions of the polygraph, each attempting a more accurate detection of physiological changes, but on the actors and observers who have been touched by it. Consequently, the "machine" remains elusive, no more than a reflective glass for the intentions, aspirations, and fears of the diverse characters whose lives have intersected with its development. This treatment of the "machine" as no more than a specter diminishes the importance of the actual apparatus constructed for the purpose of detecting lies. Needless to say, a meticulous description of the different technical realizations of the polygraph is conspicuously and regrettably absent in Alder's narrative. Yet, the narrative remains intense because of the vividness of the characters that Alder casts from a history of newspaper articles and countless manuscripts discovered in public archives and private collections.
Alder's masterful narrative relies not only on his clever selection of iconoclastic characters, which is mostly determined by the historical events in which they appear, but also on his detailed treatment of each character. The human figures that surround the polygraph are a heterogeneous collection, from peripheral actors who take a temporary but memorable central stage in the narrative to those that appear to shepherd the destiny of the apparatus throughout time. Nevertheless, they all appear concrete, almost touchable. Even more captivating, the reader can hear their thoughts and understand their motivations while observing their actions at a safe distance. Each character seems to struggle between internal motivating forces and external events. In this struggle, the historical context, always artfully reported by Alder, is used to provide the boundaries of the battlefield over which internal forces (i.e., the traits of the actors) tend to triumph.
Alder's chronicle of the marketing of the polygraph as a detector of human deception does not depict conventional marketing as essential (or even necessary) to the fame of the polygraph. On the contrary, it shows how the polygraph fed a pre-existing desire for a mechanical (i.e., objective) device capable of uncovering the secrets of the mind, and this desire sustained the public's curiosity and faith in its applications. It is this fascination, rather than the science generating the "machine", that poses the most captivating conundrum to the readers. How can an apparatus advertised as capable of detecting deception become so relevant in the minds of the naïve public and the law enforcement community despite its demonstrable ineffectiveness? A simple answer to this question does not exist. Rather there is a mosaic of reasonable accounts that revolve around the basic human interest in the uncovering and perhaps eradication of deception in others (though not in oneself). First, there is the magic trick that the polygraph performed based only on the subjects' expectation that the mysterious machine would uncover their secrets and deliver them to others. Second, there are the interrogation techniques and settings where the deception pertaining to the effectiveness of the machine was perpetrated by its owners. Third, there is the publicity surrounding the alleged "successes" of the polygraph in the form of theatrical confessions, which fed the public's notion of the infallibility of the "machine. Most importantly, there is the public's timeless desire to know the veracity of the experiences that comprise the fiber of social relationships in spite of the customary deception that envelops them. People are aware of their deception of others, and generally justify it as necessary for the preservation of social relationships (e.g., the customary pleasantries exchanged between the two parties of a business transaction). This self-awareness not only increases the sophistication with which deception is applied to interpersonal exchanges, but also makes those who use it curious of the possible deception exercised by others on them.
Erving Goffman has provided an explicit account of deception as the essential ingredient of one's social life, which fits neatly with the notion of the lie detector as capable of usurping that surface of fakeness that colors and preserves such a life. Thus, the real appeal of a lie detector does not rest so much on the possibility of eliminating unlawful behavior and preserving the existing social order, which exposing the contents of the minds of others may seem to offer to those who control the "machine". Rather, it lies mostly in the (false) certitude that an ostensibly scientific device can give the few who use it some unspoiled inside knowledge of what these others are about (e.g., their memories, thoughts and feelings). Consequently, the device offers an enticing promise of greater social control over those who submit to its largely mysterious, but unavoidable, workings.
Of course, it not all about the anatomy of social exchanges that the lie detector machine and its illusory promises can reveal and, in some sense, shape. The polygraph, although not admitted in courts of law in the US, has been used and frequently misused by public and private institutions to judge the "honesty" of individuals, from job candidates to political opponents whose thoughts and actions were perceived as a threat. Alder offers an engaging narrative of the multitude of uses and misapplications to which the polygraph has been subjected across time and in response to historical events. To it, Alder adds a captivating portrait of the clashes between market-oriented research, embodied by the actions of Leonarde Keeler, and science driven research, embodied by the actions of John Larson. The former, whose primary goals appear to be self-promotion and financial gain, emerges as one of the underlying motivations for the misuse of the polygraph, whereas the latter, whose goal appears to be the acquisition of unbiased knowledge, plays a redeeming role in treating the polygraph as an agent of discovery. Notwithstanding his intentions, John Larson remains as much a victim of the chimera of a lie detector as most of the individuals who submitted to it, incapable of controlling the offspring of the monster that he helped create.
The author's narrative offers a cautionary message. In it, readers are reminded that the allure of the polygraph is not entirely an obsolete matter and that apparatuses and techniques that claim to provide a window into one's internal life should be subjected to rigorous scientific examination with regard to the data they produce and the uses to which they should be confined. Alder's book provides a historical context for the work of cognitive researchers, such as Elizabeth Loftus, who have demonstrated in countless publications the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, and who can be said to subscribe to the same cautionary message. In light of the consequences that arise from mistaking falsehood for truth inside and outside of courts of law, some recounted in Alder's book, this is a message that should not be forgotten.
In summary, The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession is an engaging and informative read. It appears to be the ideal textbook for college-level seminars in a variety of disciplines, including political science, history, sociology and psychology. The book provides a fertile ground for a multidisciplinary examination of a largely misunderstood device that has fascinated, and mostly misled, the American public. The book also offers to those who are captivated by the idea of a device that can objectively detect trickery the opportunity to examine the deleterious consequences that such a device, if ever constructed, might have on themselves and others. All in all, a read that will not be difficult to commit to memory!
© 2007 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Dowling College, New York.