Plague and polygraph
Following the Crooked Timber seminar on The Republican War on Science I heard from John Mangels, science writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who pointed me to this series of reports (free registration required) on Dr Thomas Butler, an infectious disease researcher who (apparently mistakenly) reported missing 30 vials of plague bacteria, and ended up being railroaded into prison by an FBI determined to get a conviction even after it became apparent that the events they were supposedly investigating had never occurred.
It’s an amazing story, which as Mangels says is a metaphor for the clash between science and the Bush administration, and between fear and reason in the post-9/11 world. Much of is the kind of thing that can happen anywhere once the wheels of criminal investigation are set turning.
I was struck, though, by one particularly American feature of the story – the crucial role of the polygraph or “lie detector”. This method is (literally) a piece of witchdoctor magic, tricked out with enough electronic gadgetry to impress the class of believers in technology, as opposed to science, we discussed in the seminar. This group plays a much bigger role in the US than elsewhere, which may be why the polygraph is taken seriously only in the US.