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Authors: Geoffrey C. Bunn

The Truth Machine

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The Truth Machine

Merritt Roe Smith, Series Editor

The Truth Machine

A Social History of the Lie Detector

Geoffrey C. Bunn

© 2012 The Johns Hopkins University Press
All rights reserved. Published 2012
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3 1

The Johns Hopkins University Press
2715 North Charles Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21218-4363

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Bunn, G. C. (Geoffrey C.)
The truth machine : a social history of the lie detector / Geoffrey C. Bunn.
p. cm. — (Johns Hopkins studies in the history of technology)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
-13: 978-1-4214-0530-8 (hdbk. : alk. paper)
-13: 978-1-4214-0651-0 (electronic)
-10: 1-4214-0530-x (hdbk. : alk. paper)
-10: 1-4214-0651-9 (electronic)
1. Lie detectors and detection—History. 2. Lie detectors and detection—
United States—History. I. Title.
HV8078.B86 2012
363.25 4—dc23       2011044971

A catalog record for this book is available from the British Library.

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The Johns Hopkins University Press uses environmentally friendly book materials,
including recycled text paper that is composed of at least 30 percent post-consumer waste,
whenever possible.

What therefore is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which become poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage seem to a nation fixed, canonic and binding; truths are illusions of which one has forgotten they
illusions, worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses; coins which have their obverse effaced and now are no longer of account as coins but merely as metal.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1873)

It is so easy to do wrong! Everything the Devil makes runs easily. It is only God's machinery which has friction. The lie is spontaneous;—the truth requires thought. Yet the offhand production is born with the seeds of decay in it, and its other name is “Death.” Its history is always cyclical, and returns upon itself; for the path of a lie is so tortuous that, sooner or later, it is bound to intersect its own course. Then comes discovery, humiliation, pain—retribution. The hyperbola of deception has never yet been plotted.

—Milton L. Severy,
The Mystery of June 13th



Plotting the Hyperbola of Deception 1

Chapter 1

“A thieves' quarter, a devil's den”: The Birth of Criminal Man

Chapter 2

“A vast plain under a flaming sky”: The Emergence of Criminology

Chapter 3

“Supposing that Truth is a woman—what then?”:
The Enigma of Female Criminality

Chapter 4

“Fearful errors lurk in our nuptial couches”:
The Critique of Criminal Anthropology

Chapter 5

“To Classify and Analyze Emotional Persons”:
The Mistake of the Machines

Chapter 6

“Some of the darndest lies you ever heard”:
Who Invented the Lie Detector?

Chapter 7

“A trick of burlesque employed … against dishonesty”:
The Quest for Euphoric Security

Chapter 8

“A bally hoo side show at the fair”:
The Spectacular Power of Expertise


The Hazards of the Will to Truth



Essay on Sources


The Truth Machine

Plotting the Hyperbola of Deception

An increased liberalism in the definition of “fact” can have grave
repercussions, while the idea that truth is concealed and even
perverted by the processes that are meant to establish it makes
excellent sense.

—Paul Feyerabend,
Against Method

On January 30, 1995, not long after O.J. Simpson had released
I Want to Tell You
, the book he hoped would clear his name, the tabloid television show
Hard Copy
revealed that they had subjected the double murder suspect to a lie detector test. The former football star had recorded himself on tape, reading aloud various passages from his book: “I want to state unequivocally that I did not commit these horrible crimes.”
Hard Copy
hired lie detector expert Ernie Rizzo to use a “Psychological Stress Evaluator” to subject Simpson's voice to stress analysis. According to the show's “Hollywood Reporter,” Diane Dimond, the test could separate “fact from fiction.” Used by the police, the military, and big business, the instrument had been shown to be “95 percent accurate.” As a result of Rizzo's analysis, he concluded that Simpson was “one hundred percent deceitful … one hundred percent lying.”
One week after
Hard Copy's
deception test, supermarket tabloid newspaper the
subjected the same tape recording of Simpson's voice to “Verimetrics,” a hightech lie detector favored by police investigators.
But this time Jack Harwood, a “Veteran investigator,” proclaimed Simpson “absolutely truthful,” noting that the “lie test shows O.J. didn't do it!”

One type of lie detector, identical statements from a single suspect, and two equally emphatic yet contradictory verdicts. When Simpson said, “I would take a bullet for Nicole,” Harwood claimed, “the former football hero was being completely honest,” while according to Rizzo he was “absolutely lying.” How can two experts both claim scientific validity for their respective instruments, analyze the same material, and reach completely different conclusions?

Early histories of the lie detector celebrated the many famous and infamous cases in which it had been used during the twentieth century.
More recent studies have either challenged the instrument's scientific status, or questioned its legitimacy on grounds that this practice constitutes an assault on civil liberties.
David Lykken was one of the first psychologists to dispute claims about the machine, arguing, “the lie detector has no more place in the courts or in business than a psychic or tarot cards.”
According to Lykken, by 1980 more than one million lie detector tests were performed annually in the United States.

The classic polygraph examination involves simultaneously measuring a suspect's blood pressure, breathing rate, and electrical skin conductance as a series of questions that require yes or no answers are asked. But the person can also be subjected to more covert scrutiny: “behavior symptoms” are observed before and after the test is performed; cameras behind two-way mirrors may record gestures and nuances of expression. Talkativeness and enthusiasm may be noted, to be incorporated into the examiner's final assessment of truth or deception. It seems that no lie detector examination takes place under “objective” scientific conditions divorced from the wider social context. And symbols lend insight into the values that underscore the lie detector test. What better emblem of masculine professional power than the
, that mandatory accessory of every polygrapher? From the black briefcase comes the
, at once a graphic calculus of guilt and a sacred scroll inscribed with the truth. Consider also the
, a seat for the sovereign subject with whom no eye contact must be made, but also a constraining device, reminiscent of the electric chair.

The demarcation between the supposed rationality of the male polygrapher and the supposed apparent emotionality of a female subject is a salient feature of lie detector discourse. The instrument was designed to reveal the supposed invisible pathologies of the female body, an approach with a long precedent in criminology, a history that this book examines. For the science of “pupillometrics”—the attempt to detect dishonesty by recording changes in pupil size—the gaze of the subject becomes the important characteristic of the deception test. In a recapitulation of criminal anthropology's fruitless search for visible stigmata of criminality, almost every body part has been subjected to testing: the hand, arm, skin, lungs, heart, muscles, voice, stomach, and brain have all been examined at some point in the history of this technology. Sometimes it has not just been the human body that has attracted pioneers. In the late 1960s, Cleve Backster achieved international notoriety for attaching his polygraph to a philodendron plant, claiming it could detect “apprehension, fear, pleasure, and relief.”
A former Central Intelligence Agency interrogator and director of the Leonarde Keeler Polygraph Institute of Chicago, it was Backster who introduced the “Backster Zone Comparison Polygraph,” which became the standard polygraph model used at the U.S. Army's Polygraph School. By 1969 it seems he had single-handedly created the urban legend that plants had emotions: “We have found this same phenomenon in the amoeba, the paramecium, and other single-cell organisms, in fact, in every kind of cell we have tested: fresh fruits and vegetables,
cultures, yeasts, scrapings from the roof of the mouth of a human, blood samples, even spermatozoa.”

BOOK: The Truth Machine
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