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The Lie Detector’s Ugly Truth: Skeptical Inquirer on Polygraph Pseudoscience

December 9, 2015

When it comes to the ability of a polygraph machine to tell truth from lies, we have been severely misled. Add to that the ease with which the human memory can be manipulated to sincerely believe that which has never happened, and the implications for criminal justice become enormous. In Skeptical Inquirer, experts separate fact from fiction about the ways we determine, well, what’s fact and what’s fiction.

The “lie detector” is a ubiquitous tool in Hollywood crime drama, and it is frequently looked to as a mechanical authority by talking heads on television, but Morton E. Tavel of the Indiana University School of Medicine lays out a sobering case for its outright abandonment by law enforcement. He cites studies in which nearly half of subjects are falsely judged to be dishonest and points out the lack of any studies that show lying can be linked to any measurable emotional response.

Considering the impact the perception of having lied to law enforcement can have on a person’s life, be it legal jeopardy or social stigma, Tavel asks, “How can we, as a society, react to such a perversion of science? The logical solution is to completely abandon this method of testing.”

Also weighing heavily on our criminal justice system is its reliance on the human memory, something that cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has shown is troublingly malleable. In her address to Goldsmiths College at the University of London, reprinted in Skeptical Inquirer, Loftus explains how entire events can be implanted into people’s minds through such pseudoscientific means as “recovered memory therapy,” making them believe they have had experiences that never occurred, such as abuse by relatives or having been in a Satanic cult, “accusations that can cause untold misery for innocent people and their families.”

Also in the January/February 2016 issue of Skeptical Inquirer: Charles Reichardt looks at how Americans’ knowledge of basic scientific facts has not increased as education levels have gone up and religiosity has gone down; Russ Dobler profiles artists who express a love of science through music and comedy; Matthew C. Nisbet counters the idea that popular entertainment hurts the public’s attitude toward science and scientists; and much more!

Skeptical Inquirer is available on newsstands, in the Apple App Store, or on Pocketmags for Android, Kindle, and other platforms. For more information, visit