17 April 2012


There has been considerable controversy over the use of lie detectors in UFO cases, particular that of the alleged Travis Walton abduction. His workmates who said that they saw him being abducted all passed lie detector tests, but after he had returned and was given a similar test, he failed it, so that whichever view you take of the affair, you can always quote a lie detector test to support your case. This inspires me to make a few remarks of my own.

A lie detector monitors various things such as breathing and sweating, which generally alter when a person is frightened. The rationale behind the test is that a liar will be afraid, and so be detected, whereas the truth-teller will remain calm. Though no doubt the measurements made by these devices are reliable, one may fairly doubt the theory involved.

Suppose that you are accused of a serious crime that you have not committed, and made to take a lie detector test. The result of this could help to send you to prison for years. Personally, I would be terrified at this, a fact that would be registered by the machine, and hence thought to be lying when I say that I am innocent.

Contrast the reaction of a guilty man. He has perhaps been in prison before, and knows that at least on the ‘inside’ he will be guaranteed a roof over his head and three meals a day – indeed, it is recognised that some men commit crimes since they want to go to prison. He will therefore be much calmer than the innocent suspect, and the whole procedure, frankly, is ridiculous.

The Chicago police murder squad use a method which is in effect the opposite of this in its philosophy. After a suspect has been arrested, late in the evening they look in his cell to see if he is asleep or awake. The innocent man, they reason, having just been arrested on suspicion of murder, will be agonising mentally as to what may happen to him, and so will get little sleep that night. The guilty man, by contrast, has been agonising ever since he committed the murder, so that it is a kind of relief to get arrested, hence he readily wanders off to dreamland. Although this is not admissible evidence in court, they find it an extremely useful rule of thumb – if the arrested man is awake, then they look for another suspect.

Normally, a subject taking a lie detector test will be asked to affirm the truth of some such statement as: “I was sitting at home watching television when the crime was committed.” In the case of Travis Walton, he was asked if it was true that he had had a frightening experience, and he immediately showed signs of fear. Actually, this is what one would expect if he were telling the truth.

The only good thing about lie detectors is that at least the test itself is not dangerous. This may be contrasted with the old northern European method of trying if a woman was a witch: the suspect would be stripped naked, tied up, and thrown into a river or lake. If she floated, she was a witch, but if she sank she was not, or so they thought. Needless to say, some of the innocent women drowned. At Coggeshall in Essex, in 1699, a mob used this method on a widow named Coman who had told the village vicar that she knew the devil personally, and she “swom like a cork”. Now, although witchcraft was still technically a capital offence in England, and would remain one until 1735, there had been no executions since 1682, probably because the courts had grown sceptical about the matter. But, since she was elderly, she died later from the effects of exposure. -- Gareth J. Medway

Readers may be interested in the following link, which has been submitted to us by Lindsay Samuels:


  1. I believe all the early abductees took lie-detector tests (even Betty Hill did, for a television programme).

    Abduction proponents seem to favour a peculiar folk psychology where hypnosis, functional amnesia, memory storage and truth-telling work just as we used to see it portrayed in old TV suspense and detective shows. If scientific findings cast doubt on the literal interpretation of abduction events, abduction buffs resort to conspiracy theory or evoke Thomas Kuhn.

  2. Anonymous19.4.12

    In the US lie detector tests are not admissible evidence in a court of law.
    If I was innocent I would still be afraid when taking one. Much of the test is also in the hands of the person administering it, that person reads
    it and judges it like a doctor with a test. Evidence from hypnosis is also
    not admissible in court too. Both tests are very subjective

  3. alanborky19.4.12

    The main detraction against lie detectors's they're entirely subject to the operator's interpretation which often boils down to them professionally intuiting the veracity - or otherwise - of the testee.

    But I remember a TV movie from the early 80s based on a supposedly true life case involving the murder of a hooker.

    Because the killer left no clues behind attention eventually turned to her teenage son even though his alibi'd already cleared him.

    But a subsequent lie detector test also cleared him and that was that - until a visiting 'expert' became involved who introduced the lad to Freud's concept of the Oedipus Complex.

    Having had a trailer trash level of education the gullible boy was led to believe all young men have a secret lust for their mothers - so secret in fact they don't even realise it - making them capable of actions so appalling they'll do anything to slake them.

    The lad's next lie detector test suddenly gave ambiguous results but nothing that'd implicate him in his mother's death.

    So now the 'expert' told him the Oedipus Complex was so powerful it'd not only make him capable of raping his mother but also of murdering her so he could deny to himself he'd done any such thing by which time he was bemusedly - and helpfully - reciting back then in that case that must've been precisely what he'd done with a new lie detector test now seemingly confirming the new version of events.

    If I remember right though the whole affair was subsequently exposed and the lad freed but even if this story's only apocryphal it does illustrate how bias friendly lie detector's potentially are.

    The thing is though even if the perfect lie detector could be developed all it'd ever prove was the subject was telling the truth about what they THOUGHT'd happened - not that those events ACTUALLY happened.