Genesis and evolution of the polygraph, a spurious device that remains a pillar of US law enforcement and national security even though it doesn’t work—except when it does.
Alder (History/Northwestern Univ.), who received great acclaim for his history of the metric system (The Measure of All Things, 2002), meticulously traces the early fascination surrounding the supposed science—but mostly art—of identifying intentional deception. John Larson, a psychologist patterning his work after William Marston, a Harvard professor who noted blood-pressure changes correlated to intentional lying in research subjects, teamed in the early 1920s with legendary Berkeley police chief August Vollmer to bring polygraphic techniques to law enforcement. Larson’s initial foray, an attempt to solve a series of thefts at a local sorority house, was immediately beset with the ambiguities and shortcomings that have since plagued automated lie detection: “Larson unmasked midnight poker games,” Alder notes, “petty shoplifters, pregnancies, and attempted abortions, often without solving the original crime itself.” What followed as Larson, with his young protégé, tinkerer Leonarde Keeler, and Vollmer gravitated toward larger venues of crime in Los Angeles and Chicago, were decades of abuse of a technology that remains a uniquely American article of faith. One often repeated FBI ploy is calling in a suspect to inform him he failed his polygraph test from the day before—true or not—to elicit a confession. Yet Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling and O.J. Simpson both hired polygraphists to produce a record—Skilling liked his and published it; O.J. was reportedly not thrilled with his. And in today’s heightened atmosphere of terror threats, the CIA teaches the same agents who administer polygraph tests how to beat them. The essential contradiction persists: Most courts don’t accept polygraph test results as formal evidence, yet to refuse one (everybody’s right by law) is inevitably seen as an admission of guilt.
Quaintly detailed, if frustrating, Americana, with glimpses of Big Brother ever lurking in the background.