FROM TORTURE TO LIE DETECTOR — THE QUEST FOR TRUST

One of the most powerful weapons of the DC comics universe is Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth.

It makes people tell the truth.

Lies have haunted human society since the earliest days of history. Unlike computers, where erroneous lines of command will not be accepted and often crash the system, human language leaves a vast expanse for lying [1]. Since our noses don’t grow when we tell a lie, while most of our society is built on language and communication, deliberately telling something not the truth will be difficult to detect and make things tremendously worse. Thus, lying has long been shunned and sometimes viewed as a crime, while the effort to identify lies is urgently required in any field, especially in criminology.

In 1921 John A. Larson created the Polygraph, also known as the “Lie Detector” by measuring blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate. Few people know that a version of this machine was previously developed by the psychologist/comic book author William Moulton Marston — also the man who created Wonder Woman [2].

Like Wonder Woman, since its appearance, Polygraph has been portrayed as powerful in books and movies. But is the power of this machine really as described, or is it just a fiction product?

1. The dawn of the quest for trust

One of the problems that make lying so complicated is that people don’t always lie on purpose, and lies don’t always have negative consequences. Not only can we not know if other people are lying or not, more seriously we can’t even know if we are lying or not. It’s easier if you steal the money and then deny it — that’s a basic lie, but how do you know you’re not lying when you promise investors that after two years the company you are raising capital for will profit; or more complicated, how do you know that the basis of your belief isn’t an elaborated lie in the first place, like believing that God is real, or, on the other hand, believing that God isn’t?

However, what is more consistent is that whether intentionally or unintentionally, for good or evil, building everything from a foundation of lies is not the way to create a secure world. Thus, from the beginning of civilization, lying on the one hand was banned in almost every country, religious organization, and community; at the same time, great brains also focus on the pursuit of absolute truth. There are two common ways to identify lies that still exist today. One is a theoretical method based on logic and philosophy. The second is a technical method that can force others to admit it. The first way, though peaceful, is complicated, time-consuming, and only a few people can do it, and is only useful when people want to trace the root of the truth. The second way is more popular, because it’s quick, easy to apply and anyone can do it, but it doesn’t always show the truth, sometimes even creates lies, or it is itself a lie, nothing more.

The first method will be presented briefly, partly because that is not the article’s main content, and partly because it is a broad and complex topic in itself. Knowing that we are creatures that live within the language and that this society is built by language: you cannot say anything that your language does not allow, things that cannot be expressed in language therefore also do not exist or not that important. Thus, even what we think is influenced by language, while what cannot be expressed by language (assuming such a thing exists) an individual cannot describe it to others, therefore, they are meaningless. That is, a popular philosophical view holds that human society lies within language, or is constructed by language. We express everything with language and understand everything through it. What cannot be expressed can be considered non-existent because it is personal, so personal that it cannot be uttered, while what can be said out loud, recorded, redrawn (i.e. expressed through language) will all be non-personal things, as long as other people can understand, and become “things dictated by language”. Knowing that language is understood in a broad sense here, and all of what I have just said, or trying to imagine something abstract and vague, like “nothingness”, “emptiness”… were all dictated by language from the very beginning.

Thus philosophers since the dawn of time have worked extensively with words to define lies and truth. I will go right to the controversial part of the famous Liar’s Paradox, which says: “This is a lie” (you can read about this at [3]). The current prevailing view is that this is also the first landmark in mankind’s interest in truth. By using logic and working with words, specifically lies, philosophers have found solutions and built many systems to determine the truth of a claim. A statement to be considered valid, or more likely to reflect the truth, must not first contradict other statements of the same level. That is, from the vast expanse of language we have found a way to get rid of the lies, and the few ones remaining will be the truth.

This method has so far appeared in superstructures such as scientific theory, doctrines, philosophy, theology, legal system, or anything of foundational nature and has a vast influence on society.

The second way, which is “applied” and more common, is to use violence and force individuals to admit their lies and then tell the truth. Maybe we should learn to ask questions like “why not torture to ask if someone is telling the truth”, instead of torturing to check if someone is lying or not. Because (1) truth has great value and carries the highest power, there does not exist any truth that is unfavorable to its holder, thus proving that someone holds the truth also holds power, (2) the truth is of great value and it’s the only thing one side wants to hide and the other wants to find out. So in addition to wanting to extract information and torture to find out the truth in your favor, torture with the initial purpose of “proving this person is lying” is also used most of the time, especially distinctive in past societies, to conceal the truth from the public. Although the world is not easy to distinguish between right and wrong, it is always possible to distinguish between those who hold the truth and those who lie.

2. Gods and kings will decide

In theocratic societies, the verification of the truth is left to the gods. In the ancient Roman Empire, the person being questioned would have to place his hand on a marble mask called Bocca della Verità (The Mouth of Truth), carved with a depiction of the sea titan god Oceanus’ face with eyes, nose, and palate are open. Respondents will have to put their hands in Bocca della Verita’s mouth and take an oath of either answering a question, if they only tell the truth, they can easily pull their hand out, if they lie, their hands will get stuck because “Oceanus is biting the liar” [4]. Around 1500 BC, Indian monks would dip a donkey’s tail in oil lamp residue and place it in a dark tent. The suspects were then brought inside and were told that “the donkey tail magic” would reveal who the liar was because the donkey’s tail hair would become tangled if it touched the liar’s hand. When the suspect stepped out, the monks examined their hands. Those who have clean hands free of oil residue are liars (for fear of the donkey’s tail becoming tangled when they touch it, so they avoid it). More gruesome trials are said to belong to the Middle Ages when suspects had to walk barefoot across a strip of burning embers or dip their hands into a cauldron of boiling water. If the leg is not burned, or the hand comes out healthy, they will be declared innocent, due to divine protection. Suspects may even be thrown into the water in the belief that the sacred river will testify: those who are rejected by the river and float up will be convicted and burned alive; while the person who was kept by the gods and survived was acquitted, and the accuser had all his property confiscated [5].

A variety of other lie-detecting methods stretching from Greece, India to China are related to the mouth and salivary glands. Around 1000 BC, in India and Greece, the suspect was given bread or cereal to swallow, the gods would choke the liar while the innocent would swallow without any problem. It is said that suspects are often afraid of choking to death, so they quickly throw up the bread when they feel uncomfortable, and bow their heads in confession. Similarly in ancient China, the suspect when questioned would have to chew on a handful of dried rice, then spit it out to check for moisture, if it was still dry, they were judged to be a liar [6]. Arabs use a red hot knife and press on the suspect’s tongue, if the suspect’s tongue is burned, it means he is lying. It is thought that if someone is lying, the stress will stop the salivary glands leading to dry mouth. Because if you’re telling the truth, there’s no reason why stress should lead to a change in saliva flow. This challenge is based on a correct physiological expression of the body, that panic, fear or stress often tends to stop the salivary glands from secreting, and the suspect often feels dry mouth leading to unconscious behavior, like drink a lot of water or swallow saliva continuously [7].

However, based only on unfounded beliefs and conjecture, we find today that these forms themselves are a type of lie, used to get the alleged guilty person to confess, hiding under the belief that the gods will protect the innocent from worldly punishments. Most of the time, it targets one group and protects the other.

In Greece, only slaves or temporary immigrants were tortured, this changed only until the Roman era. But because torture was supposed to be “inquiring the truth” and not punishment, it was also applied to witnesses, with some exceptions such as pregnant women, or as Emperor Marcus Aurelius ordered, exempt recognized patriots or high-ranking officers of the court from torture; or that the wardens should not torture them more than necessary, but only use them when the accused is about to confess. It is impossible not to mention the Spanish Inquisition, the court system is said to have applied all the brutal torture methods to force the accused to confess to potentially committing crimes against the church. So there is almost no chance of pardoning the suspect, and most end up on the pyre.

Another method is trial-by-combat, which is no stranger to fans of the Game of Thrones series. The honest person is said to be empowered by the gods, and vice versa. In cases where the defendant is unwilling or unfit to fight, they are allowed to recruit a gladiator (or “champion”) to fight on their behalf. Initially, gladiators were often family members, later replacing the accused with a skilled gladiator became the norm, and could be recruited for a lucrative sum. In order to promote fairness, many courts have attempted to select fighters who are similar in age, body size, and strength. The one who stands at the end will represent the divine judgment, if the defendant’s fighter wins, he will be acquitted regardless of any disgruntled opposition. However, this form soon revealed many weaknesses and injustices. At around 1100, the thief Anselm stole sacred treasures from the church of León and sold them to a merchant. The merchant later reported Anselm to the authorities, but Anselm denied the accusations and challenged him to a duel. As a result of the merchant’s defeat, Anselm was declared innocent. Not long after, Anselm was arrested for another theft and had to confess to previous crimes [9].

3. The emergence of science and the birth of the Polygraph

Since the discredit of the gods, marked by the Age of Enlightenment, as well as the understanding of the world and humanity gradually became more civilized, the lie test is therefore also gradually more scientific, although still not perfect.

The dawn of science and psychiatry, with its series of scandals (which you can read about in article [10]), people resorted to “truth serums” such as Ethanol, Scopolamine, Sodium Thiopental… and hypnosis, with the belief that it can “help access hidden parts of the mind, thereby causing the suspect to speak the truth unconsciously” have been applied. But then its uselessness and immorality were pointed out and gradually eliminated — closely related to the demise of both psychoanalysis and early psychiatry (which you can read about in article [11]).

In 1870, physiologist Franz Joseph Gall realized an ability to detect lies based on the defendant’s emotions, by examining specific regions of the brain and making many assumptions regarding relationships between them, as well as the size of the brain. Gall founded the discipline “Phrenology” — Phrenology, exonerating many previous victims of early psychiatry, but Phrenology itself is also pseudoscientific and adversely affects society due to its creation. The trend of “phrenological foretelling” causes many consequences (which you can read about in the article [12]).

Contemporaneous with Phrenology is Graphology — “Handwriting study”, founded by J.H. Michon, once considered a useful method of lie detection, was widely used during World War I to verify the authenticity of documents and signatures [13]. Michon hypothesized that certain peculiarities of handwriting might be related to certain personality traits. Once again, Graphology was later proven useless and removed, but it soon had an adverse effect on society, creating the stereotype of “you are your own handwriting” that still affects modern society.

In the dawn of science, although the gods were gone, science was too dangerous and entrusted with faith no different from gods, due to the same mechanism of “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”. However, at least science leaves room for it to develop on its own, while you cannot and must not deny the gods in a theocracy.

So later on, in addition to the old systems that were gradually proven to be obsolete and eliminated, scientific lie detection gained new achievements. In 1881, Italian criminologist and physician Cesare Lombroso invented a device that could record changes in the blood pressure of a suspect and interpret it into a chart. In 1914, psychologist Vittorio Benussi published findings on respiratory rate changes when people lie. A year later, American lawyer and psychologist William M. Marston (author of Wonder Woman) invented a method of intermittent systolic blood pressure testing with the aim of detecting changes in blood pressure. as well as breathing rate when giving testimony. And finally, in 1921, based on the foundation of his predecessors and independent research, the American police and physiologist John A. Larson of California invented a device that could measure simultaneously continuous changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate to aid in lie detection, today known as the Lie detector — Polygraph [15].

Polygraph works on the principle of recording respiratory rate, blood pressure changes as well as differences in the bioelectrical response of the skin. The respiratory changes will be received by two pneumatic rubber tubes placed around the thoracic and abdominal areas. Palm sweating, or skin bioelectricity, is obtained from stainless steel electrodes attached to the fingertips of the person being examined. The change in blood pressure is obtained by an inflated pressure ring that surrounds the upper arm. The polygraph lie detector test starts in the usual way as the investigator asks certain truth questions like “Are you sitting in this room?” or questions about gender, age.

After this series of obvious questions, the investigator recorded the physiological parameters when the person being questioned was telling the truth that was displayed graphically. Using those parameters as a basis for comparison, the investigator will begin to ask key questions such as “Did you kill the victim?” or “Is this action intentional?”. Then, if the current parameter deviates relatively enough from the originally obtained parameter, it is likely that the other person is lying. However, how they work depends more on the set of questions than on the machine itself.

Co-researcher and project sponsor with Larson, entrepreneur Leonarde Keeler based on the features of Polygraph and developed a lie detection test that includes two types of commonly used questionnaires, the Question Set. The Control Question Test (CQT) and The Guilty Knowledge Test (GKT) [16]. A common test on Polygraph is usually the CQT, which consists of control questions, related questions & unrelated questions.

- Related questions are usually in the form of “Did you do it?” — and this type of question is often answered with “No”.

- Subsequent control questions will refer to past unintended acts but related to the subject of crime or similar in scope such as “Have you ever embezzled company assets?”. This type of question is intended to instill in the interviewee’s mind that the investigator is still suspicious with the initial “No” answer.

- Irrelevant question type will focus on neutral issues to which the answer is usually obvious and known facts, such as “Are you sitting across from me?”, with the aim of creating gaps between questions as well as opening up the possibility that the suspect will return when answer with forced positive.

And this entire sequence of three CQT forms of questions is often repeated three or four times. The establishment applies CQT based on the suspect’s willingness to take the Polygraph test in a spirit of denial. Therefore, the more suspects lie, the clearer and more detailed answers are given than honest individuals. Gradually, the liar will be under heavy pressure to recreate a story that is not true, from then on, when the CQT is repeated over and over, it will gradually approach the loopholes when the liar makes a mistake.

The GKT test is less applicable, using a series of multiple-choice questions where each multiple-choice question contains at least one answer relevant to the crime being investigated, along with several neutral options. The purpose of GKT is to identify an innocent suspect who cannot distinguish the characteristics of the crime under investigation, compared with a guilty suspect who often avoids a series of answers that involve him. From here will form the difference between which answer is random, and which answer is intentionally avoided.

Basically, CQT will be more convenient and easier to operate than GKT, and will be widely adopted by law enforcement agencies. Opponents of the CQT argue that the GKT is standardized and has a more scientific basis, but in many cases, the GKT cannot replace the CQT because of the difficulty associated with collecting a sufficient number of appropriate questions. (questions that can identify a suspect as guilty but immune to an innocent person). On the other hand, GKT will be most effective when used immediately after the first interrogation as a method of exclusion. And at this time, the CQT will promote its strengths when the scope of the crime is narrowed and the suspect has been gradually identified.

Working effectively based on scientific parameters and principles of measurement, Polygraph has gradually been applied to criminal science and has had initial usefulness in interrogation. The device was later brought by Keeler to applications beyond the realm of law enforcement. After the Wall Street crash of 1929, Keeler improved and introduced a version of Polygraph hidden in a desk drawer to allow companies to secretly interrogate employees. The US government quickly applied Polygraph to the anti-Communist movement of the 1950s to detect and eliminate those who carried this ideology. In 1951, Keeler opened the first Polygraph school called “Keeler Institute”, [17], companies also quickly access this technology, sometimes to interview employees.

Starting with the Berkeley County, California police department in the 1930s, nearly 20 years later, the popularity of the lie detector has spread throughout the United States. Even in 1940, the Reid technique was invented on Polygraph to make it easier for suspects to confess to crimes (investigators would assume a knowledgeable attitude while making sure that suspects know for certain that they are guilty, before helping them to come up with morally acceptable justifications for the crime they have committed) [18].

4. Box of Truth?

As recently as 2003, a study by the National Academy of Sciences in the US looked at more than 80 tests for the accuracy of Polygraph, with 57 of them “unsatisfactory”. Another previous review by the US National Research Commission also found that the lie detector was 85% accurate when interrogating guilty people, but the results fell to 50% when assessing the wrong people… the innocent people [19]. This disparity speaks to the instability of the way Polygraph works. Because from the very beginning, determining whether someone is a liar or not through this device depends on how the investigator receives and evaluates the obtained parameters.

Polygraph was also studied by curious people and found a way to beat it. One of the most common ways is to increase the response to a stimulus in the first place, such as when answering obvious questions intentionally gasping for breath, biting your tongue, thinking about traumatic or scary situations. Thus, the body parameters obtained initially will not be accurate compared to the normal state, and when moving to the core questions, it is difficult for the investigator to notice the changes because they are now nearly identical. In particular, people who are trained to control emotions like spies and Zen masters can completely lie while their physical signs are still normal. These techniques are so effective that one person went to jail for teaching how to bypass a Polygraph machine to candidates for the FBI entrance exam [20]. The most notorious is the case of Aldrich Hazen Ames, who spent 31 years as a counterintelligence agent for the CIA while actually being a double agent for the KGB. Before being convicted in 1994, Ames passed 2 Polygraph tests and came out completely clean [21].

Because of the obvious inadequacies, in 1998, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling restricting the use of Polygraph in legal proceedings [22]. Defense attorneys will no longer use the results of a client’s lying test as proof of innocence, or the police will no longer be able to assume the suspect is guilty based on the failed result. Congress declared, “People have been misled by the myth that a metal box in the hands of an investigator can tell the truth or lie.”

Still, the lie detector myth lives on well into the public eye, becoming a new god and serving its own purposes. Just like the suspects who were afraid of being punished by the gods to death by choking on bread when they began to feel their throats dry and difficult to swallow, and then knelt down to admit their mistakes in the hope of a lower sentence; The fear of Polygraph has led many to accept confessions upon hearing its name, hoping for leniency. It is possible to confirm that Polygraph exists based on belief, or indeed a placebo effect. Investigators believe they can spot the liar, and the suspects assume that they are gradually confessing. Dr. Andy Balmer commented: “The creators and users of Polygraph know that the real power of this device lies in the way it makes people believe in its effectiveness” [23].

Although, this belief is not just only useful and good. The difference is so great that it is almost equal to the result of a coin toss when applied to an innocent person, while being completely trusted by its users, has created an unjustified corner and makes Polygraph no different from a psychological torture device, are used to indirectly coerce or create questions favorable to the investigation that ignores the human rights of the person being questioned, while master criminals can easily bypass it. Therefore, the machine itself is only big in the public mind and plays a very limited role in criminology, as well as the investigation — solving — sentencing process.

Up to this point, the Lasso of Truth is still a product of fiction, but the fact that such a tool with such a simple function exists in the superhero universe, also shows how hard the pursuit of truth is in reality.

Humanity’s quest for truth is still long, and on that journey, many lies have been created.

___________

References:

[1] https://www.facebook.com/teammonsterbox/photos/2873799376234143

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[3] https://www.facebook.com/teammonsterbox/photos/2939617109652369

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[10], [11] https://www.facebook.com/teammonsterbox/photos/2923745657906181

[12] https://www.facebook.com/teammonsterbox/photos/2793009920979756

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[14] Nelson R. Scientific basis for polygraph testing. Polygraph. 2015; 44(1):28–61.

[15] Lie Detectors: A Social History. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company; 2004

[16] Trial by Polygraph: Reconsidering the Use of the Guilty Knowledge Technique in Court: Gershon Ben-Shakhar, M. Bar-Hillel, and Mordechai Kremnitzer, ResearchGate, Nov-2002. [Online]. Available: https://www.researchgate.net/.../11051729_Trial_by.... [Accessed: 07-Jul-2021]

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