Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
The In Brief story “‘Disloyal’ Taiwangeneral sacked” (April 22, 2011) demonstrates the type of misapplication of the polygraph test that habitually nags at me. An unnamed Taiwanese lieutenant general was reported to have been dismissed after failing a polygraph test described as a “loyalty test” as part of a security measure in that country following an espionage scandal in January.
Law enforcement professionals’ and the media’s custom of describing the polygraph test as a “lie detector test” effectively convinces the general public that it is so. But it is an act of misconception that is so common that to challenge it, as I am doing now, sounds not just crazy but suspicious. The fact is that the polygraph test detects and measures stress, not lies. The correlation of one with the other is a false correlation, although one that is made to sound reasonable based on a certain model of human behavior.
In short, we can never tell for certain if a person is lying. Why do we want to? Honesty is somewhat of a virtue, but absolute honesty would probably quickly lead to some degree of social deterioration, so it is appropriate to remain wary of the merits of total honesty as well as of devices that promise to discover it. It seems that the polygraph test is revered most as a “lie detector” by societies that are disposed to associate truth with fact - another correlation fallacy based on a certain epistemological model - and by societies, like America, that have a device fetish.
I dream of the day that people smarten up and the polygraph test will be discredited and then allowed to die as a bad idea - like the flat earth, phrenology, or super-size food servings.