Columbian Government to use Polygraphs on Officials
Columbia’s government is going to utilize polygraph tests (also known as “lie detector” tests) on some of their civil servants as a means of stemming corruption and theft of public funds. As reported by Reuters:
Polygraphy will be used initially to test executives in the 72 government departments that have so far signed up to a transparency pact. The executives will be tested before and after concluding contracts for provision of goods and services to the government.
The country’s Vice President admits this is an attempt to restore investor confidence in government directed projects, worth tens of billions of dollars in contracts. It is unclear if this means the country’s leadership really believes in the abilities of the polygraph to detect lies, or if this simply gives the appearance of trying to solve Columbia’s corruption issues.
The question at hand is: do polygraphs work? The science says “no”.
Polygraphs are pseudoscientific devices when trying to determining if someone is lying. These tools measure and record several physiological responses such as blood pressure, pulse, respiration and skin conductivity while the subject is asked and answers a series of questions, on the theory that false answers will produce distinctive measurements.
The problem rests in the interpretation of the data. Polygraphers, the people trained to operate the polygraph, interpret the results. Their findings can be influenced by their preconceptions. If they think a person might be guilty before the test, they might be more likely to interpret the results to reflect their belief.
Another problem with polygraph tests are the high number of false negatives – upwards of 12% in some case studies. Couple that with a whopping 50% of false positives in some studies.
There are many additional factors at work against the reliability of polygraphy. The employ of countermeasures, how drugs affect the subject, the setting under which the test takes place, the psychology of the subject being tested, just to name a few. The basic notion here is that there are no scientific controls at work, and therefore, the polygraph can not be deemed a scientifically reliable lie-detection instrument.