Sunday, December 13, 2009

Confessions of a Detected Liar

I wrote this ten or fifteen years ago as an article that I hoped to sell. Either I sent it to Newsweek, then forgot it, or I didn't get around to researching markets. Peter Watts' border adventures reminded me of it:


Confessions of a Detected Liar

by Will Shetterly


Don't trust me; I can't pass a lie detector test.

Like most people, I believed polygraphs were usually accurate. They call them lie detectors, right? The polygraph industry thrives on the promise behind that popular tag for their machines: they detect lies and liars.

I lost my faith in polygraphs in 1981. My fiancee and I had visited my family in Canada and were returning to the US. A customs agent searched the car, as almost always happened when I, then a young guy who looked a bit hip, crossed the border. The agent looked under the passenger seat, frowned, and showed me a small block of hashish in Saran wrap.

He asked if I knew what it was. I suspected I did--I grew up in the '60s and '70s, after all. But I couldn't be sure, so I reached for it to take a better look. When he jerked it away before I touched it, I realized I was in trouble.

I had no idea how the hashish had gotten there. I was driving my parents' car; I knew the hashish couldn't belong to them. I had lost interest in recreational drugs years earlier. I didn't think it could belong to my fiancee, yet there it was.

I soon found out how much trouble I was in. Taking drugs across the border is a federal offense. This was before the RICO laws went into effect, so the police didn't seize my parents' car, but my fiancee and I were both strip-searched. As the driver, I was presumed responsible, even though the hashish was under the passenger seat.

My parents hired a lawyer, who told us that the charges would be dropped if I passed a polygraph. So I went down to the police station a few weeks later, took a polygraph test, and left confident that this was all over. Shortly after, I learned I had failed the test.

I was baffled. I briefly wondered if the hashish was mine and my mind was playing tricks on me. There was the evidence, after all: the lie detector had told me, and the world, that I had lied. Fortunately, my parents still trusted me, though modern science told them not to. They continued to spend money on the lawyer.

Wanting to understand what had gone wrong with the polygraph, I decided to hire a private operator to give me a second test. Somewhere in my files, I still have the letter from him. He said that my test showed evidence of an intent to deceive.

At this point, I began to research polygraphs. I learned that its critics think the test is wrong as often as half of the time—it's no better than guesswork. Its defenders, including the American Polygraph Association, think polygraphs have an 85-95% accuracy rate.

Before I was tested, if you'd asked me how accurate polygraphs are, I probably would've offered a percentage close to that. Ninety-five per cent sounds pretty good, if you don't think about it. But who among us would risk our reputation for honesty on a test that's wrong at least one time out of twenty?

The answer is that many of us are forced to. Look in the yellow pages under "lie detection services" (there's no category for the more accurate "polygraph services") and you'll find a thriving business catering to civil, criminal, business, and domestic investigations. Want to know if someone is embezzling, taking drugs, or sleeping around? Like psychics, phrenologists, and others who claim that their profitable business is a science, polygraph artists promise an easy answer. And, like most easy answers, it's often a wrong one. People unjustly lose jobs, lovers, and reputations every day, thanks to polygraph tests.

For me, there was a happy ending. A friend of the family had lost the hashish several months before my arrest when she was riding in my parents' car. She did not come forward immediately because she thought she had lost it while playing volleyball, not while riding to the game, and she thought I had been arrested for having marijuana, not hashish. When she realized the truth, she told us, we consulted with the lawyers, and the following was worked out:

Our friend gave a full report of the incident to the Ontario Provincial Police. Because the hashish was not found in Ontario, the O.P.P. did not charge her. The O.P.P. sent a copy of their report to the prosecutor in the U.S. That report was accepted, and the charges against me were dropped. My fiancee and I got married, and I suppose it was a happy ending for everyone, if you don't count the four thousand dollars or so spent on my defense. That, I suppose, was part of the happy ending for the lawyer.

But I was one of the lucky ones. Without our friend's statement, I would have been convicted. The hashish was in my car, after all. My only defense was my word. And the judge, prosecutor, and defender all knew the polygraph test showed I lie.

Will Shetterly is a novelist. But since he can't pass a lie detector test, you might want to go to the bookstore and verify that for yourself.

ETA: Possibly of interest: AntiPolygraph.org