Click Here
 March 26, 2003

Pseudoscience applied to scientists

US government agencies still using discredited polygraphy in security checks. | By Peg Brickley


Life 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 Pittsburgh.

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 much else.

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 cardiovascular activity.

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 Los Alamos.

"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."

Links for this article
National Research Council, "The Polygraph and Lie Detection," National Academies Press, 2003
http://www4.nationalacademies.org/news.nsf/isbn/0309084369?Open Document 

Federation of American Scientists Government Secrecy Project: Polygraph Policy
http://www.fas.org/sgp/othergov/polygraph/ 

DOD Polygraph Institute
http://www.dodpi.army.mil/ 

Office of Inspector General, US Department of Health and Human Services
http://oig.hhs.gov/ 



News from The Scientist
BioMed Central
Elsewhere today

 
 
©2003, The Scientist Inc. in association with BioMed Central.
Mission Statement
Advertiser Information
Custom Reprints
Send Digital Ad
Masthead
Editorial Advisory Board
Press Releases
Privacy Policy
Link to Us
Contact Information
Technical Support
BioMed Central
Reader Service
Product Information
Funding Search
Science Books
Links
Jobs
Meetings
Announcements
Marketplace
Search Ads
daily news
upfront
feature
research
hot papers
lab consumer
profession
archives
BioMed Central
Browse Daily News Archives
Latest Headlines:
- Foul-ups test foreign students and schools
- Select-agent security checks
- Brightening NEON's prospects
- Gill specific glutamine synthetase
Receive News on your Handheld
Sign up for daily or weekly news alerts
Frontlines | Porcine Parts on the Horizon?
Frontlines | See-through Mummies
Snapshot | Scientists Want to be Noticed
First Person | Elizabeth Blackburn
Foundations | Discovery of the First Angiogenic Factor
So They Say
Science Seen | Tight Squeeze
5-Prime | Nonribosomal Peptide Synthesis
Editorial | Tobacco Settlement Spending Plans in Ashes
Opinion | A New Project Could Fulfill a Promise
Letters | On the Postdoc Plantation
Letters | Getting It Wrong
Letters | Reviewing Peer Review
Letters | Necessary Ambassadors
Letters | Null or Nil
Closing Bell | The Mythical Scientist Shortage
Browse Upfront Archives
Browse Opinion Archives
Nicotine Addiction | Depending on Cigarettes...
Nicotine Addiction | Public Health and Smoking Cessation
Nicotine Addiction | Can Science Make Cigarettes Safer?
Browse Feature Archives
Browse News Archives
Front Page
Obesity's Risks Include Cancer, Too
The Strange World of LPXTGase
Browse Research Archives
Deciphering Death's Circuitry
Browse Hot Papers Archives
Front Page
Quantitative Image Analysis Gives More Power to the Pathologist
Advancing with Gel Documentation Systems
Tools & Tech | MALDI-TOF Mass Spectrometry...
Tools & Tech | cDNA Library Construction...
Tools & Tech | ABI Poised...
Browse Lab Consumer Archives
Front Page
Postdocs: Pawing Out of Purgatory
Foreign Scientists Steer Away from States
Be a Stress Buster
Turning Points | Be Web Savvy and People Smart
How I Got This Job | Fascination and Faith
Browse Profession Archives
Browse by Issue Date
Browse Daily News Archives
Browse Past Cover Stories
Browse Upfront Archives
Browse Feature Archives
Browse Opinion Archives
Browse Research Archives
Browse Hot Papers Archives
Browse Lab Consumer Archives
Browse Profession Archives
Browse Leaders of Science
Browse News Archives