Pseudoscience applied to scientists
US government agencies still using discredited polygraphy in security checks. |
scientists who work on sensitive government projects could find
themselves hooked-up to polygraph machines in spite of continued
criticism of the science behind such lie-detector tests.
"It's everywhere — every three- and four-letter agency you can
imagine, including the US Postal Service," said Stephen E. Fienberg,
chairman of the statistics department at Carnegie-Mellon University in
Fienberg led a panel appointed by the National Academies of Science to evaluate the worth of polygraphy. Released in October, their report
concluded that almost a century of research has produced a pseudoscience
good for tricking naive people into blurting out the truth, but not
So Fienberg was surprised to find his panel's report cited in favor
of potentially raising the number of lie detector tests the Department
of Defense (DOD) is allowed to administer. In the annual report it
filed with Congress in January, DOD stated it had administered more
than 11,500 of the tests in fiscal year 2002. Of that total, 4,219 were
"counterintelligence-scope polygraph," or CSP, exams, subject to a
5,000-exam-per-year limit under a Public Law 100-180, passed in 1991.
In its January report, DOD put Congress on notice that it might ask
for authorization to conduct more than the allowed 5,000 polygraph
exams per year, and cited the NAS report in support, according to
Steven Aftergood, who monitors polygraph policy for the Federation of American Scientists.
"[I]t is important to note that the NRC Report also concluded that
the polygraph technique is the best tool currently available to detect
deception and assess credibility," the DOD FY2002 report stated. "The
Department will continue to use the polygraph technique as it has in
the past, until improved technologies or methodologies are developed as
a result of scientific research."
Fienberg called DOD's reference to the NAS report "disingenuous." A
DOD spokesman said it was drawn directly from the NAS panel's
conclusion that, while more promising technologies are on the horizon,
none yet has supplanted polygraphy.
Authorization papers on their way to Congress now do not contemplate
a hike in DOD's lie-detector test limits, the spokesman said. That
necessary next step in getting approval could be three or four years
off, he added. Meanwhile, DOD's Polygraph Institute
continues to research new technologies, funding studies such as one
being conducted by Washington School of Medicine and Boeing using
"laser Doppler vibrometry" technology for remote sensing of
As Fienberg noted, the defense agency is only one of many government
agencies that use polygraph examinations on employees and contractors.
Don White, a spokesman for the Office of Inspector General
(OIG) at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency
would not discuss whether lie detector tests were in their
investigative arsenal. But the DOD spokesman did name OIG as one of the
government bodies that use polygraphs.
Fienberg's panel was summoned to study polygraphy at a time when
scientists were protesting the use of lie detector tests at Los Alamos
National Laboratory, run jointly by the University of California and
the Department of Energy (DOE).
Those protests pre-dated Sept. 11, 2001, and so far resistance has
stymied DOE's use of polygraphs, said Jelger Kalmijn, a UC researcher
and president of University Professional and Technical Employees union
at UC, which represents thousands of life scientists, some of them at
"At this point, we have been successful in keeping the use of mass
polygraph testing at bay," Kalmijn said. "It causes so much more
turmoil than it solves. The big concern is that you're going to chase
away scientific talent. It's not an environment scientists want to work
in, where pseudoscience can end your career."