Last week I found myself in a doctor’s waiting room for a few minutes, and the staff had the TV tuned to one of those daily Dr. Phil/Maury/Jerry/Montel type freak circuses where the host knows everything and fixes all human problems in 30 minutes. I tried to read my book and ignore it, but you know how hard it is not to look at a trainwreck. I was sort of doing okay up until I heard the host use a term that has griped me for years: “lie detector.” Yes, somebody is lying. We’ll find out who right after these messages.
I’d have thought we’d have this polygraph nonsense well behind us by now. There is such an accumulation of hard, scientific evidence demonstrating the unreliability of the process that it’s always a bit of a shock to hear the words spoken aloud.* I know, I know – I’m not exactly talking about a show aimed at the Northeastern Liberal Intelligentsia here. That genre of syndicated afternoon entertainment targets society’s least adept thinkers by and large, so I should expect a medicine show to be a medicine show, complete with Amazing Displays of Alchemy, Phrenology, Astrology, Polygraphy, Parapsychology and Theoretical Economics.
Unfortunately, the polygraph isn’t restricted to the domain of tabloid television. It’s also regularly accorded a measure of credibility in official contexts. It is sometimes allowed in court cases, it is routinely employed by law enforcement and you can be denied employment if you are deemed to have “failed” a test. In other words, we still allow people’s lives to be jacked by charlatans with Ouija boards.
I think I’ve always taken this silliness personally because there was a period of a few days back in the mid-’80s when it was, in fact, personal. I was a bartender for a restaurant in the now-defunct Darryl’s chain, and the geniuses who ran the place concluded that there was some unacceptable behavior going on behind the bar. I was never sure where the suspicion came from, but I have always imagined that their liquor costs spiked a few pennies one week and they freaked out. Anyway, they decided to administer “lie detectors” to all of us so as to root out the perpetrator(s).
You have to understand: nothing illegal was going on. Sure, there was the usual stuff you find at a bar – somebody buys a regular a drink in a way that isn’t sanctioned by management, for instance. But there was no substantive bad behavior. If there had been the other bartenders would have known about it. We worked in exceedingly tight quarters and it would have been damned hard not to be noticed. We wouldn’t have ratted our guilty co-worker out, mind you, but we’d have known what was going on.
We all immediately realized we were the subjects of a witch hunt and I, for one, was terrified. I was innocent of any crime more serious than jaywalking, but all of a sudden they were going to use the scientific equivalent of biorhythm analysis to deprive me of my livelihood.
On the day of the test I was so nervous that it’s amazing the machine didn’t accuse me of lying about my name. But I soldiered through. During the exam I was asked a few “fire questions” – that is, have you ever _________, where that blank is a firing offense. Have you ever given away a free drink without a manager’s approval? Have you ever overpoured a drink? Etc. In three or four cases I had, in fact, committed the offense in question.
Of course I’ve overpoured a drink, dumbass. Every bartender has overpoured a drink. And sure, I’d given away a drink or two. That builds relationships and gets customers back to the bar, and the cost is nonexistent compared to the benefit. On a busy night there may be no time to track down a manager and make the case for approval, so yes, I had made a decision to act in a way that benefited me, the restaurant and the customer.
But if I answered truthfully, I was toast. So I lied. On three or four questions, I lied to the lie detector. Guess what? It couldn’t catch me. And a few days later I found myself being personally congratulated by the Regional Manager for my honesty and integrity.
One of my colleagues, who was a really good, really popular bartender, broke. He couldn’t bring himself to lie, so he admitted his transgressions. The management liked him a lot so they didn’t fire him, but they did kick him back to the wait staff. Could have been worse, I suppose.
In any case, this is why my disgust with the purveyors of polygraphy is so acute. It’s more than an intellectual disdain for people who aren’t smart enough to understand even the rudiments of scientific and statistical analyses. It’s a personal, firsthand understanding that transcends the research and it’s an empathetic response for the anxiety that innocent people suffer.
The polygraph is my bitch. And anytime I hear the term “lie detector,” I know I’m listening to a pseudoscience-pandering huckster’s dupe. I can’t help it. If you use the term, my mind intuitively slots you into the category of “people who watch afternoon TV and believe it.”
That may be unfair, but it’s an observation that has stronger supporting evidence than the polygraph does.
* Forgive my laziness in citing Wikipedia here, but I’m on a time budget this morning. This section does a decent job of pulling together the data. Click the links for more from the original sources.