John Baesler was recently featured by the Smithsonian Museum of History Online for writing an article on lie detector tests titled “Why Lie Detector Tests Can’t Be Trusted.”
Baesler, a history professor, first wrote about lie detector tests in his book, “Clearer Than Truth: The Polygraph and the American Cold War,” published in 2018.
His new piece was originally published online through Zocalo Public Square.
Baesler didn’t find out he was featured by the Smithsonian until SVSU contacted him about doing a press release.
“I felt very flattered,” Baesler said. “I had written the article for a different website. Apparently, the Smithsonian picked it up from there, so I actually didn’t know that. It is an incredible honor that someone there found it and thought, ‘Oh, we should publish that.’”
Baesler took interest in lie detector tests because of their use in the Cold War. They were developed to use against communists during interrogations.
“It was seen as scientific in the sense that it was not what the communists were doing,” Baesler said. “In the Cold War, Americans worked with the belief that we are the free world and they are the totalitarians. They do things like brain washing, torturing … We don’t do that, we have scientific methods. Now a lot of people who have taken a lie detector test will say it is very much like torture.”
The U.S. retaliated with supposedly scientific means for extracting truth. Despite flaws, many national security sectors still use the tests today.
“I was interested in national security in the history of the Cold War,” Baesler said. “So, I settled on the lie detector. It is still used … to vet people for jobs in federal government and security agencies like the CIA.”
In his article, Baesler mentions the infamous American pilot, Francis Gary Powers. While many remember the pilot for his plane crash over the USSR and subsequent brief stint as a prisoner, Baesler was more interested in Powers’ connection to the lie detector test.
Baesler talked about the test’s accuracy, bringing forth many instances of the test offering inconclusive results.
“I found out that the technology is very flawed,” he said. “It has the trappings of a scientific process, but it is based on the very questionable premise that a few physiological responses can uncover if someone is deceptive or not.”
His article goes on to say that the tests were never able to successfully uncover any communist spies. Despite the flaws of the lie detector test, it is still widely used.
Baesler theorized this has something to do with convenience.
“My main theory is that the lie detector provides bureaucratic convenience because it’s fast,” said Baesler. “A background check can take months. The flaws are not necessarily a problem if security is really an issue. That means that if a few innocent people are being misdiagnosed as being deceptive, people will say, ‘Well, that’s the price we pay for security.’”
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