Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4 Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
Thank you for printing the Washington Post article “Use of polygraphs on the rise despite reliability fears” (Japan Times, Wednesday, May 3, 2006). The thrust of that article is in total agreement with and support of my contention previously published in this column (“Challenging an American icon,” Japan Times, July 3, 2002). The polygraph detects stress, not lies, but it is a common society-wide belief verging on an ideological pillar in America that detecting lies is what it really does. Therefore, anyone who refuses or declines to submit to a polygraph is liable to be viewed as a social miscreant and political suspect, duly targeted for sanctions.
Why do Americans fancy the polygraph test at the FBI, the CIA, local police stations, courts of law, in entertainment, too? Or, why do they fancy the machine that victims are strapped to, with its wires and gauges, needles and graphs? Sure they love the technique of it, by which I mean the sum of the machinery and the appearance of expertise that the technology spawns. In that way it is just a common fetish grown large: a technology fetish. But more importantly, perhaps, is the way belief in the lie detector synchronizes with a tradition of absolutist ethics that Americans seem more closely attached to than many oher Western societies. More than others, Americans believe in the fiction that frames things in black-and-white dualities, and they want to believe that the polygraph detects lies because they believe that there is truth out there which we humans have failed to uncover because we lack the precision of machinery. The suggestion that the eradication of deception is not a panacea for the moral ills of society might strike polygraph cheerleaders as a surprise.
It’s all well and good for Americans to use the polygraph on themselves. I don’t mind. But I do mind that they will begin exporting that silliness to the rest of the world by the force of their culture.
Published on Wednesday, May 17, 2006 as “An expert best kept in check.”