Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
The article “Truth pays in new U.S. game show” (January 19th) is more testimony to the ridiculous place, trust and importance of the polygraph test in the American consciousness, American police investigations, American politics and entertainment. Here is an inconvenient truth: the polygraph test does not detect lies, it detects stress. It is presumed that stress indicates that a person is lying. But that is only a presumption. We can never know for sure when a person is lying. And what does it matter? The thinking behind the polygraph seems to be that complete honesty is a good thing, and that its use leads to the discovery of truth for the good of society. But here is another inconvenient truth: truth and honesty are not the same things. Total honest would undoubtedly quickly lead to social disaster, since we need to lie to each other just to be civil to each other and live side-by-side with people we despise - and there are many of those. What is the point of making a T.V. game show around the polygraph test? Is it to make fun of the fantastic freak show that is our common, everyday lives? We don’t need a polygraph test for that. Just reading the newspaper is enough. And, lying does not make a person evil, bad or criminal. It only makes us human. The American fascination with the polygraph is an indication of their trust in gadgets, and it is a mistaken denigration of the common fictions that we depend upon, often without realizing it. The idea that a polygraph test tells us if a person is lying is one of those common fictions.
Published on Tuesday, January 22, 2008 as “Fueling the polygraph test.”
I have written against the polygraph test before. As I write, the polygraph test measures stress in a subject, not truth. Truth is another thing entirely. But it is one of the myths of American culture that is so ingrained that challenging it and rooting it out are difficult.