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 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 Document 

Federation of American Scientists Government Secrecy Project: Polygraph Policy 

DOD Polygraph Institute 

Office of Inspector General, US Department of Health and Human Services 

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