Sunday, April 22, 2007

Lyons reviews Alder on the History of Lie Detectors

The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession by Ken Alder is reviewed by Stephen J. Lyons, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in today's Chicago Tribune. Lyons writes, in part:
In "The Lie Detectors," his well-researched history of American lie detection in the 20th Century, Ken Alder writes that although our quest [for truth] puts too much trust in suspect science (the polygraph) and often devolves toward the paranoid (Joseph McCarthy testing for gays and commies), it is also a sign of a nation that is simply trying "to fashion a just society."
Alder, Northwestern university professor and author of "The Measure of All Things," writes that this great project of democracy "drew its legitimization from two noble half-truths about our public life: that democracy depends on transparency in public life, and that justice depends on equal treatment for all."
Setting aside Abu Ghraib's horrors and Chicago's own notorious third-degree tactics, these are indeed noble pursuits. Yet Alder quite convincingly shows that the early purveyors of the main instrument of sorting fact from fiction -- the cumbersome and unreliable lie detector -- did not always have democracy's best interests at heart. And that would be asking a lot. The lie detector has always been more sizzle than substance, more scare tactic than foolproof. One study found the machine's accuracy to be only 53 percent -- about the same rate as assessing culpability by old-fashioned, non-mechanized guesswork. Despite its lack of legal and scientific standing, the use of the lie detector in this country persists.

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