Lie Detectors: Still Lacking in Truthiness…Just Like Torture

We’ve all seen those intense moments in movies and television where the smart and determined interrogator uses his wits (and maybe his fists) to reveal the lies of a suspect and saves the day in the end.  The hero knows when someone is lying and is right every time.  Reality, however, is far different.  Not only are those interrogators less accurate than the fantasy, the most advanced lie detecting machines currently being developed are still far from perfect according to a recent BBC article.

The countless scenes we’ve witnessed in entertainment have led many of us to believe most interrogators or lie detectors are virtually flawless when it comes to detecting lies and truth.  A twitch of the eye.  Irregular heartbeat or breathing.  A seemingly insignificant hand movement.  Subtle sweating.  Things like this are what we believe the average person can’t pick up but the well trained interrogator or well oiled machine can and that is what makes the difference.  This is simply not true.  If people or polygraphs were as near flawless as we believe in detecting deception, no one would still be developing new types of lie detectors.  But they are, which brings up another question.

If we can’t accurately tell when someone is lying and when they are telling the truth, how can we be sure about picking when, how, and who in regards to torturing people?

Torture is a debate that has been out of the mainstream media’s ADD-like news cycle for a short time but still gets mentioned on occasion, mostly by conservative advocates believing it’s still a useful tactic.  Ignoring the moral issue surrounding the use of torture (as well as quite a few others as to why it is such an awful idea) let’s focus solely on the effect of lying and detecting lies.

While watching the debate over the years, I always thought the ability to detect lying was generally pushed aside too often for other arguments about torture.  With so much error involved in detecting lying it makes one wonder how we can be sure who to torture in the first place.  We know that mistakes were made in this respect, for example the well documented death of the taxi driver tortured at Bagram.  If an interrogator is presented with ten suspects and told all could potentially be terrorists, what do they look for when deciding who to torture?  The one with the most defiant look?  The one least willing to return a stare?  The one wearing a tee-shirt that says “I’m hiding a nuke in my rectum”?

Even after that potentially flawed decision has been made, how do they know when to stop?  If they get a tiny morsel of info that is or seems accurate, an interrogator would probably suspect someone knows more without actually being sure.  Here’s where an even bigger problem could come into play: the confidence of the interrogator to detect lying.  If this person feels their training (along with the influence of Jack Bauer’s image dancing in his head) has made them better than anyone at detecting lying, they may request torture more readily than a more objective interrogator simply because of their own arrogance.  This just complicates an already complicated issue.

The truth is we just aren’t as accurate as we have been led to believe when it comes to detecting lying and innocent people, whether through capital punishment within U.S. borders or torture abroad, have paid the ultimate price for that misjudgement.  Will this debate forever fizzle in America or will we eventually lie to ourselves once again and condone torture with the knowledge we will be constantly making mistakes along the way?  Only time will tell.

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