American Liars and the Enforcers of Honesty

by Oliver Ho

1 October 2009

A hard-boiled history of the lie detector revels in the seedy deceptions at the roots of the search for a truth-telling machine (plus: it exposes the kinky origins of Wonder Woman).

The strange story of the lie detector begins with the hard-boiled world of tough-talking cops and gangsters in the ‘20s, and involves murderers, tabloid journalists, kinky sex and mad scientists. But author Ken Alder seeks to transcend the tale’s noir elements, reaching into scientific, political, legal, psychological and even philosophical territories.

In describing the dubious development of the lie detector, Alder’s ambitious book traces a seedy history of pop culture from the ‘20s to present day, and asks “why, despite the avalanche of scientific denunciations, does the United States—and only the United States—continue to make significant use of the lie detector?”

Only in America has the campaign to expose lies taken a techno-scientific turn. The polygraph is a banal assemblage of medical technologies, a concatenation of physiological instruments available throughout the developed world for more than a century. Yet only in America has it been repurposed for interrogation.

cover art

The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession

Ken Alder

(University of Nebraska Press)
US: Apr 2009

Redefining Lies
According to Alder, the answer is complex and somewhat cynical, but he seems to identify a trait that runs throughout US cultural history, and it boils down to a desire for objectivity:

The lie detector belonged to this same American strain of the Enlightenment project to replace personal discretion with objective measures, and political conflict with science. It proposed to do this by redefining its object of inquiry—the lie—in narrow yes-or-no terms.

However, Alder seems to argue that in reality people are less interested in objectivity than in the image of it. Even though the term “lie detector” was inaccurate and misleading, it worked to capture the imagination.

In order for the machine to work, people had to believe that it “knew” when they were lying; or as Alder writes: “... persuading Americans of the machine’s potency was itself a prerequisite for the machine’s success.”

A Cast Worthy of Raymond Chandler
“Lies are designed to damage our grasp of reality, ” writes Harry G. Frankfurt, in his treatise, On Truth. “So they are intended, in a very real way, to make us crazy.”

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On Truth

Harry G. Frankfurt

(Knopf Doubleday)
US: Oct 2006

Following the strange tales and eccentrics that populate this book, the craziness fundamental to the act of lying seems to affect everyone involved in the business of lie detection. By far, the most entertaining aspects of the book are its characters, and when he tells their stories, Alder seems to enjoy piling on the hard-boiled language and tone.

At the start, in Jazz Age California, we meet famed Berkeley police chief August Vollmer, who is eager to reform corruption through scientific police procedure. He teams John Larson, “the nation’s first cop with a doctorate”, with Leonarde Keeler, “a high school-age enthusiast, with less integrity but considerably greater charm” to work on the machine.

The device came around at a perfect time in American history, according to Alder, combining a growth in media, a fascination with technology, a skyrocketing national crime rate, and revelations of corruptions in police and government across the country:

To a nation obsessed by criminal disorder and political corruption, the device seemed to light the way toward an honest society. Adultery, murder, conspiracy, espionage—the bright lamp of the lie detector would piece the human opacity which allowed these secret vices to flourish.

A Risky Prospect
The story of the lie detector involves many players, from the world’s first all-female detective agency, to the inventor of Wonder Woman, to famed murderers Leopold and Loeb, to William James, and many more. The book could have focused solely on the interesting characters and been successful.

By expanding the scope of the story to include an examination of pseudo-science, legal history, and even a bit of a polemic on American culture, Alder risks spreading the book too thinly, trying to make the lie detector a metaphor for a key flaw in the character of America.

But whenever the story takes a turn for the dry, another interesting bit comes up, many of which (aside from the characters and their noir-esque exploits) involve examining the notion of lying itself.

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On Bullshit

Harry G. Frankfurt

(Princeton University Press)
US: Jan 2005

What Are Lies, Anyway?
Returning to Frankfurt (Harry G.), he writes in his mini-epic essay, On Bullshit: “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth.”

In other words, if a person believes he’s telling the truth, then how would a machine touted as a “lie detector” know the difference?

“People sometimes call a polygraph a lie detector but this title is misleading. A polygraph does not detect lies, but only physiological activity that is assumed to accompany telling a lie,” writes Aldert Vrij in his textbook, Detecting Lies and Deceit.

Succeeding by Pretense
Alder describes how lie detection depends on liars exhibiting a physiological response when telling a lie: increased heart rate, voice stress, sweating, increased blinking, changes to brain activity, facial expressions: all of these and more have been put forward as methods to determining that someone is lying.

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Detecting Lies and Deceit: Pitfalls and Opportunities

Aldert Vrij

(Wiley, John & Sons)
US: Mar 2008

“Throughout history it has been assumed that lying is accompanied by physiological activity within the liar’s body,” writes Vrij. “[But] not a single nonverbal, verbal, or psychological response is uniquely associated with deception ... This means that there is no single response that the lie detector can truly rely upon.”

That has never stopped people from believing that they could tell a lie from the truth, a belief that’s been fundamental to the business of lie detection. “To a nation eager for justice that is swift and sure, it hardly matters that the lie detector succeeds by pretense,” Alder writes.

The Deception of Lie Detection
Here’s how to work a lie detector, according to Alder:

First, maneuver subjects into taking the test by telling them that only guilty people feared it ... Then convince the subject that the lie detector worked, and repeat the questions until a full confession was forthcoming. It wasn’t science, but it did the trick.

It’s a process familiar to police dramas, where investigators manipulate a suspect into believing that they know the truth, or will know when the suspect is lying.

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Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions from Facial Expressions

(I S H K)
US: Sep 2003

Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen write in Unmasking the Face: “Everyone has had the experience of being able, or thinking he was able, to tell what someone said was a lie from the look on his face.”

That belief on both sides—questioner and suspect—has always been a key factor to any police investigation. The lie detector added an element of “science” to the process, and the media loved it.

During the 1920s nothing moved print better than tales of true crime, and here was a new angle on noir stories of depravity: an instrument that let readers peer directly into the criminal soul. The machine’s judgment could be delivered to the morning doorstep, a front-page deus ex machina that resolved the mystery of whodunnit—at least until the next morning’s paper.

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