May 01, 2006

Walking sticks and the polygraph

Is the polygraph like a walking stick? How can I make such an outrageous comparison? Like most of us, I never had any real use for a walking stick. My father-in-law owned a very nice one carved out of ivory but as far as I know, he never used it. When he died, I inherited it and, not knowing what to do with it, I kept it in the corner of my home-office, unused, until one day I developed bursitis in my shoulder. The walking stick suddenly had some functional use to me when I discovered that it was just heavy enough for me to use it to swing my arm around in order to break up the calcium deposits in my shoulder. Thus, my useless white elephant was transformed into a sort of medical device. The CIA and the FBI seem to have discovered a similar principle with the polygraph (see here).

The polygraph is disallowed in most US courtrooms and has been largely discredited as any kind of useful indicator of truthfulness. It measures emotions but has no known ability to detect lying. But never mind that. These agencies have discovered a totally new use for it as an intimidation device that is now being shared by many of the nation's employers. It's currently being administered in tens of thousands of job interviews as well as police interrogations. The claim is that when people are subjected to the polygraph, they allegedly admit admit to things that they might not otherwise talk about. The FBI's security program is said to fail some 25% of all applicants, based on intimidation growing out of preceding polygraph tests. Like my walking stick, the polygraph has emerged from its cloud of failure into an allegedly functional asset. It's no longer used for its original dubious scientific value and has been renamed "an investigative tool." If the subjects believe in the polygraph's highly questionable ability to ferret out lies, it works the same way as if it actually had the scientific credibility to do so. Therefore, the government can justify keeping all of its machines and operators in business.

Ethical issues are suggested here, and not just for the few prosecutors who still manage to sneak questionable polygraph evidence into their cases. Are "intimidation tools" acceptable in the hiring process? Some say, "no." For example, a former scientist at Sandia National Laboratories resigned because he believed that this use of polygraphs was unethical. Should employers directly or indirectly lie about what the polygraph can and can't do in order to induce applicants to reveal embarrassing things about themselves? Should polygraph operators be allowed to pretend that their machines are suggesting lies and then tell subjects such things as: "I'm getting a strange reading. Tell you what, I'm going to turn the machine off and ask you about what you want to get off your chest."?

Is all fair in love and war? It may be legal to permit police investigators to lie to the suspects they interrogate but is it equally okay to lie to prospective employees? I have to admit that converting my walking stick into a medical device worked pretty well for me. It was functional and posed no ethical issues. However functional the transformation of the polygraph into an investigative tool seems to be, it looks like it stretches of the limits of ethical practice. Stay tuned on this one.

Posted by Roger Shuy at May 1, 2006 01:18 PM