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by Peter Moskos

August 19, 2013

Busting the Polygraph Busters

The feds are really going after people who tell how and why lie detector tests are flawed?! Does anybody know what the actual crime these people are being charged with?

I always tell my students that anybody who ever has to take a polygraph test buy and read Doug Williams's manual on why the test is flawed and how to pass it. I did. I passed. Best $20 you could possible spend (and cheaper than what I paid for it, I think).

Lie detectors are, and I can't say this too strongly, bullshit. That's why they're not admissible in court. That's why employers can't give them to you as a condition of employment (the government naturally exempted themselves). You don't take the test for the NYPD, but you do for the feds and Baltimore (at least in 1999).

The basic problem with the lie detector test is this -- brace yourself here: the lie detector test does not know if you are lying. How could it? And if you think about it, that's a pretty major flaw for a lie detector test. Results are based on a pseudo-science that may or may not be more reliable than phrenology.

Here's why it matters -- and pay attention -- you can easily tell the truth and fail a polygraph test (and vice versa). That's why you should never go into a lie detector test unprepared. If you're taking the test, you need to pass. You can't leave it to chance and the mindset of some idiot who makes a living administering a flawed test.

[There's one situation where a lie detector test is useful: if one person knows the specifics of a crime, those details could be used to indicate who was involved and who wasn't. But this isn't how the test is used as a condition for employment in law enforcement.]

This American Life did a nice segment on the polygraph back in 2005. Definitely worth listening to, if you care about such matters. It doesn't tell you how to pass the test (use Doug Williams for that), but This American Life does illustrate the absurdity of the the test and the pitfalls of failing!


Anonymous said...

"Does anybody know what the actual crime these people are being charged with?"

I believe the charge would be embarrassing the government. Other perpetrators of this heinous crime include Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning.

Dave in IL

*Disclaimer: The above should not be construed as legal advice. Commenter Dave in IL is a non-attorney loudmouth, a civil libertarian...wretch...and a--pausing for dry heave--"free thinker."

PCM said...

Without passing judgement on whether they did good or not, Snowden and Manning did do acts that clearly violate laws I know about (you know, the "top secret" thing).

How is what these guys are doing a crime?!

Anonymous said...

My bad, that was a poor comparison. A little post-NSA scandal frustration being vented there.

Yes, Snowden and Manning did take documents and I'm sure they broke rules related to their security clearances. Their law-breaking appears to have been in the grand tradition of civil disobedience.

On the other hand, the polygraph guy is simply offering advice and critiquing bad science, so the government has no case as far as I can tell.

Dave in IL

PCM said...

But according to the story somebody pled guilty(?). To what?!

Anonymous said...

"Dixon has pleaded guilty to federal charges of obstructing an agency proceeding and wire fraud."

Well, not an expert, but the wire fraud part makes it sound like they're accusing Dixon of shady advertising or an attempt to defraud, probably via email. As for the obstructing part, that could be a catch all for pissing off the feds. Kind of like how state D.C. charges are used sometimes.

Dave in IL

Anonymous said...

Another anecdote illustrating the worthlessness of polygraphs: In my army days, I took a counter intelligence polygraph in order to gain an additional level on my security clearance. At the time I was scheduled to take it, my wife was pregnant and due within a couple of weeks. The pregnancy was absolutely normal, and when asked I did not report any particular stress due to my impending fatherhood. The polygraph tester refused to conduct the test explaining that the added stress of the completely normal impending birth could affect the results of the test. I then had to wait several months for another tester to come to my station.

For those that don't know, a counter intelligence polygraph is nothing more than variations on "Are you a spy?" Had I failed the test, I would not have lost my clearance or my job. I would have merely not received the higher level allowing me additional access and training. I still would have deployed with my unit. I still would have done the same job, using the same computers in the same room with the same personnel. One of our unit members did not pass the polygraph and that was the result. There were essentially zero negative consequences from failing the test.

The fact that a non-stressful, non-related situation was acknowledged by a test administrator as being stressful enough to affect the test with with essentially zero consequences should demonstrate that the test is too fickle to be trusted with anything important.