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I told the witch doctor

August 27th, 2004

From what I’ve seen, lie-detectors are little more than a 20th century version of methods known to witch-doctors since time immemorial. If the subject believes the witch-doctor has the power to detect lies, they will give themselves away with cues that can be picked up by an alert human or mechanical observer. So when Mike Scrafton volunteered to take a polygraph test to show that he was telling the truth and the PM was lying, I didn’t put too much weight on the results. (As a way of keeping the story alive, and dramatizing it for a big TV audience, it was great, though). I wasn’t too surprised when Howard dismissed it as a gimmick.

But following a letter in yesterday’s Fin, I’ve discovered that the Howard government actually takes lie detectors very seriously, and has been trying them out in ASIO .This is being done, at least in part,at the behest of the US

On June 25 [2002], the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, signed a new, legally binding, pact with the US to protect classified information. Although no details were spelled out in the pact, the US wants Australian officials who have access to highly classified US intelligence material to be subjected to the same polygraph tests that routinely apply to American officials.

Whatever the merits of integrated defence in general, in this case I think we’d be better off hiring some witch-doctors.

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  1. August 27th, 2004 at 16:43 | #1

    thats really rather clever…if you believe it might catch you, you look all nervous so it does…

  2. August 27th, 2004 at 21:20 | #2

    A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its polygraph.
    – Mark Twain misquoted

  3. August 27th, 2004 at 22:30 | #3

    Just loved howard’s denigration of lie detectors,knowing that our intelligence sevices are being exhorted to use them in the war on terror.
    Is the rodent being anti american on this?

  4. Brian Bahnisch
    August 27th, 2004 at 23:48 | #4

    John, I heard the bloke who did the polygraph on Scrafton being interviewed. The machine itself seems to record your emotional response to the question.

    The real skill, however, was in the pattern of questions being asked. They seem to try to establish a profile of how you respond to various types of questions and come at you from diverse angles.

    I got the impression that its use in criminal investigations would not be to establish evidence. Rather it would be used to assess the profitability of different lines of enquiry.

    But then I might have got it all wrong!

  5. August 28th, 2004 at 12:42 | #5

    Interesting piece on lie detectors on the ABC’s Law Report this week: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/lawrpt/stories/s1182654.htm.

  6. tipper
    August 28th, 2004 at 15:36 | #6

    Polygraphs belong in the museum. With the new breed of lie detector, all you need do is don a pair of glasses and peer quizzically at the miscreant about to receive the third degree. Should be a boom for current affairs interviewers, when the have snaky guests like flip-flop Lathem trying to perform his stunt-a-day routine.

  7. Hannibal Lecturer
    August 29th, 2004 at 16:12 | #7

    I believe the polygraph (many graphs? Sounds like a economics thesis) measures changes in blood pressure and skin conductivity. In other words nervousness reflected in increased sweating and heart rate.

    If you are a cold-blooded liar, then it is useless. If you are a nervous nellie, then you are obviously guilty.

    The idea that a purely human issue like truth/falsehood has a physical manifestation is charmingly mediaeval. More like a test by trial (if the fire doesn’t burn you, or the dunking doesn’t drown you then the gods must be protecting you. Or possibly you are a witch. Or a newt…or a very small pebble) than a scientific principal.

    I presume it is like the TV cop shows. Somebody (in an impossibly expensive suit) yells at you and tells you they know everything and posits a very unkind motive and you fold up and confess everything because you’d rather go to jail to life than have anybody think badly about you.

    As bad science, loved by US conservatives, I expect John Lott will shortly be publishing a paper proving its validity on TechCentral Station. We can then enjoy Tim Lambert demolishing said paper after finding that Lott forgot to convert percentages, and the subsequent hysterical abuse he will cop.

  8. August 29th, 2004 at 19:23 | #8

    A good way for an ordinary person to beat a lie detector test is (or so I’m told) to put a pin in your shoe and let it prick you whenever you answer a question. That way the signal to noise ratio drops significantly, and it becomes next to impossible to tell the truth from the lies.

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