Jeff Sessions Urged to Abandon Proposal for Pseudoscientific Lie Detector Tests

September 14, 2017

Polygraph “lie detector” tests are based on junk science, and should have no role in determining who is fit to serve in the federal government, the Center for Inquiry said today. Responding to reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions intends to subject National Security Council staff to polygraph tests as a way to root out leakers, CFI urged Mr. Sessions to reject this unreliable and scientifically baseless practice.

A polygraph test involves the questioning of a subject while the machine measures and records their blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and other readings. Broadly, greater physiological responses are supposed to indicate an intent to deceive on the part of the person being questioned. But over three decades of study of polygraph results the tests have shown an average error rate of over fifty percent. Federal courts no longer accept polygraph results as admissible evidence, though many state courts still do.

“The continued use of polygraph lie detection has the potential to cause much harm to those many innocents who are falsely judged dishonest by its results. A single failure could conceivably ruin one’s life,” wrote Morton E. Tavel, MD,in an article forSkeptical Inquirermagazinein which he plainly made the case for an end to the use of polygraphs, which he called “a perversion of science.”

Skeptical Inquireris published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a program of the Center for Inquiry.

In a separate articleon polygraphs forSkeptical Inquirer, physician and physicist Alan P. Zelicoff wrote, “The truth is this: The polygraph is a ruse, carefully constructed as a tool of intimidation, and used as an excuse to conduct an illegal inquisition under psychologically and physically unpleasant circumstances.”

Wrote Zelicoff, “Perhaps polygraphers would do better with Wonder Woman’s lasso than they have been doing with their box.”

“How can the Attorney General of the United States, someone who we expect to have expertise in the carriage of justice, subject the men and women tasked with maintaining our nation’s security to what is literally no better than a coin toss?” said Nicholas Little, Legal Director of the Center for Inquiry. “Attorney General Sessions should know better, and we strongly urge him to abandon this course of action.”

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web