Lie Detection and a Truthful Society

Margaret Talbot writes in the July 2, 2007 New Yorker, Duped: Can Brain Scans Uncover Lies? (print only for now)

It’s one of those lovely New Yorker pieces that seems to meander, while you gradually discover it all hangs together.

In this case, the glue that binds is the idea that our inner states have outer manifestations. If only we could read the "telltale signs" that reveal one’s innermost thoughts, why…we could win at poker…we could convict lying felons, and release those falsely convicted…convince our sceptical spouses…create foolproof hiring tests…and so on.

In this context, Talbot places the several-centuries old lie detector machine. Its most recent manifestation comes in the form of brain scans. Meet Joel Huizenga, whose San Diego company No Lie MRI is marketing functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.

Talbot’s scepticism (born of first-hand experience-she was a victim of Stephen Glass’s deceptions at the New Republic) points out eerie paralells with past eras’ obsessions with phrenology and physiognomy, and raises questions about our social willingness to accept technologies that get things wrong at least one out of every ten times, at best. (We demand better odds for new drug development, or even radon detectors).

Philosophically, Talbot raises one big issue and skirts another.

She poses the question of the linkage between internal intent and external manifestation. There are three sources of error. First, every symptom of lying can also be a symptom of something else. Second, it is possible to fake or suppress any physical symptom.

The most interesting is the third case: the liar who truly believes he is not lying. He usually goes by the name sociopath, but I have to plead guilty too. I once told a story so many times that I truly forgot I had gotten it from someone else. When accused of plagiarism, I was genuinely astonished and outraged; I surely would have passed any lie detector test. Yet I was wrong.

No lie detector can distinguish "truthful" lies from the other sort. From there, it’s a short path to varying forms of semi-conscious self-delusion-cults and quasi-religions, not to mention garden-variety schizophrenia.

Talbot doesn’t raise one other fascinating issue. What if it really, truly were possible to create a lie detector-one so good, so widely acknowledged as accurate and so widely and cheaply available that anyone could instantly assess the truth-telling of anyone else?

In such a world, wouldn’t everyone tell the truth? And what would that world look like?

That’s the premise of a fascinating quasi-science fiction book published back in 1996 by James Halperin (see reviews ). It’s available for free at (look past the rare coins to the bottom of the page).

Halperin envisions a US society where lying just doesn’t pay. In that world, there are virtually no prisons. A radical reduction in the number of lawyers. Smaller police departments. 180-degree changes in the concept of bargaining. The Pope and Unitarians on opposite sides of cryonics. Mandatory capital punishment for a few crimes, but very few instances of it. World government. Kevorkian’s birthday a global holiday. It all makes sense (if you read the book).

The writing style makes Ayn Rand sound like Shakespeare, but the ideas are far-reaching and fascinating.

We seek lie detectors like dogs chase cars. There’s passion in the chase, but – what would we do if we ever really caught one?