The Lie Detector in the Age of Alternative Facts

Russell Simmons, Stormy Daniels, he said, she said: Americans are desperately seeking truth in machines that are unable to provide it.

Tim Phillips Photos / Getty / Stephen Marques / Shutterstock / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

“I have submitted myself to multiple lie detector tests.”

That was Russell Simmons, responding to a lawsuit, filed last week, that accuses him of rape—the 16th allegation of sexual misconduct that has been made against the mogul since November. Adam Grandmaison, better known as Adam22, the founder of the hip-hop podcast No Jumper, recently addressed the accusations of rape and assault made against him with a similar reference to the lie detector: “I’m taking a polygraph this week fuck it,” he tweeted. The statements came not long after the actor Jeremy Piven, in an attempt to defend against his own #MeToo accusations, took—and passed—a polygraph test. As part of the lead-up to Stormy Daniels’s 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, her attorney, Michael Avenatti, claimed that his client had submitted to a polygraph in 2011 and given what that test found to be truthful answers to such questions as, “Around July 2006, did you have vaginal intercourse with Donald Trump?” and, “Around July 2006, did you have unprotected sex with Donald Trump?”

A report about the test results, provided to CNN by Avenatti, declared that the chance Daniels had lied on the test is “less than 1 percent.”

Is that a lie? (How can you tell for sure?) Is it one more alternative fact, an argument in the guise of a truth, casually flung into the world to tilt it, just a little bit, off its axis? Lying, at this point in cultural history, has the paradoxical distinction of being at once a common practice and a nearly universally agreed-upon violation of Americans’ tenuous social contract; both of those facts have allowed it to become easily weaponized. If you don’t like something someone says, you lie is an easy—and, if your goal is to stymie further discussion, effective—retort. So is bad faith. So is fake news.

Stormy Daniels insists that she has come forward now not, strictly, for a payout or on behalf of a political agenda, but rather to defend herself against allegations that she is, herself, lying; her suit claims that Trump’s lawyer has made statements “meant to convey that Ms. Clifford is a liar, someone who should not be trusted.” Cable news shows, after Daniels’s interview with Anderson Cooper, filled the air with analyses of her delivery (She came off as very credible, some pundits said, assessing the performance; How do we know she isn’t lying? asked others). CNN aired reactions from a panel of women Trump supporters who had assembled to watch the interview: “I don’t believe it because I haven’t seen any hard proof,” one of them said. “Should we believe the president of the United States or a stripper porn star?”

It was he said, she said, once again, playing out on a national scale: a kind of epistemic nihilism that was ritualized, carnivalized, and interrogated by Cooper. The Daniels interview was about sex and reputation and the intricacies of campaign finance law; it was also a pitch-perfect distillation of a moment of deep anxiety in America—not just about its government and its institutions, but also about its basic ability to tell, and discern, the truth. Fake news. Alternative facts. #MeToo stories being told; #MeToo stories being dismissed. Facebook spying, again. The president lying, again. The woman doubted, again. I don’t believe it because I haven’t seen any hard proof.

No wonder that lie detectors, in all the chaos, are having a moment. They promise order in a time of anxiety about the future of facts. They offer, seductively, that most elusive of things: certainty in a world that offers so little of it, objective truth in a time of subjective facts.

In all that, of course, they are lying.

In 19th-century America, many people believed that the physical body revealed truths about the immortal soul: Moral turpitude, they thought, was both visible and legible through either the pureness of beauty or the abnormality of “defect.” That belief has (mostly, though certainly not entirely) receded; in its place, though, has come a hunger to find other ways of making lies—and, for that matter, truth—easily observable. In a recent article, CNN described the workings of the contemporary lie detector:

First, the examiner hooks you up to a series of respiratory tubes, leg and arm monitors, a blood pressure cuff, and a fingertip sweat detector. Then, a record is made of your baseline vital signs by asking common questions designed to measure truth: “Are you human?” “Have you ever lied to someone?” (It’s assumed that we have all told white lies in our lives.)

“Though we think we might be hiding that response from the person we are lying to, inside, our bodies betray us,” CNN notes. “Our breathing is likely to change; our heartbeat and blood pressure can rise; our legs or arms may twitch. We may even start to sweat.”

The sheen of science surrounding the device doing all the measuring, however, is its own kind of white lie: Polygraphs—the name derives, perhaps appropriately, from the Greek for “many writings”—are notoriously unreliable. “Most psychologists agree that there is little evidence that polygraph tests can accurately detect lies,” the American Psychological Association notes. The results of polygraph tests are not admissible as evidence in most states’ legal proceedings—and when they are allowed to serve as silent testimony, in general, both parties must agree to their inclusion. In 2015, Doug Williams, a professional polygraph coach—he “makes his living,” NPR summed it up, “teaching people how to beat the test”—went on trial. He was charged with, among other things, witness tampering.

The crime drama Lie to Me ran on Fox from 2009 to 2011; though its plots revolved around the notion of lie-detection—through micro-expressions and other physical giveaways of deception—it mistrusted polygraphs. The Wire—in a scene recycled from David Simon’s Homicide: Life on the Street, which was in turn recycled from Simon’s book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streetspoked fun at the machines (and also, in the doubled manner of so many elements of the show, at the arbitrariness of the American justice system): Bunk arranged for a young suspect to be hooked up to the office copy machine, duct-taping his hands to the device so it could “read” his biochemical reactions to questions asked of him. As the “professor” administering the test—Landsman—informed his subject, gravely, right after he was “caught” in his lie: “The machine is never wrong, son.”

Indeed. The precarious efficacy of the polygraph test has, instead of keeping the device in the shadows of American pop culture, only amplified its mythic status. The machine—one that, working as it does with all those knobs and pins and silent squiggles, easily provides script-writers with dramatic and often hilarious moments—made a prominent appearance in Meet the Parents. (Greg, hooked up to Jack’s antique polygraph, nervously: “Now, these aren’t 100-percent accurate, right?”; Jack, the former CIA agent, tauntingly: “Oh, you’d be surprised how accurate they are.”) The device was there as fodder for humor, as well, in Ocean’s Thirteen (Livingston Dell, the team’s resident nerd, goes to extremes to pass one). It was there, too, as a recurring guest-star on classic sitcoms—as on Roseanne, when the title character’s boss, taking a work-mandated polygraph, was asked, “Do you consider Roseanne a good worker?” (He said yes; the machine proceeded to shoot off sparks, unable to contend with the severity of his lie.) And on Family Matters, when Harriette used a polygraph to ask Carl how many women he was serious about before she came along. (The police officer, trying to hedge, suffered repeated shocks.) It was there, more recently, on an episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, when Paula, an aspiring lawyer, made her cheating husband pass a polygraph test before she would take him back.

The polygraph has been there, as well, in more reality-style works of culture. The show Lie Detector, broadcast in 2005, used polygraphs in the service of finding, it claimed, “the truth behind real-life stories ripped from the headlines.” (The show’s premiere episode featured the examination-by-polygraph of Paula Jones, one of the women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.) From 2008 to 2009, the game show The Moment of Truth asked contestants hooked to a polygraph to answer a series of 21 questions of escalating embarrassment in exchange for prizes. Earlier this month, Vanity Fair hooked Jennifer Lawrence up to a lie detector for a stunt that doubled as a very literal take on investigative journalism. In a wood-paneled room, an unseen and extremely austere questioner asked the actor things like, “Would you date someone shorter than you?” (Yes) and “Should pineapple ever be on pizza?” (No—never) and “Do you know anyone in the Illuminati?” (No) and “Are you in the Illuminati?” (No).

“Were Ross and Rachel really on a break?” the disembodied voice asked Lawrence, fastidious and facetious at the same time. “Yes,” she replied, emphatically. The picture-in-picture screen displaying the needles of the polygraph as they quivered in reaction to Lawrence’s answers seemed to confirm it: She was telling the truth.

In his fantastic book The Truth Machine: A Social History of the Lie Detector, Geoffrey C. Bunn argues that the history of the lie detector doubles as the history of an attempt to contend with the rise of mass culture: the machine, as a manifestation of a widespread desire for order in an age of tumult. The device, Bunn suggests, is in many ways a work of science fiction that lurks, awkwardly, in the present reality—a machine that has been, from the beginning, in dialogue with pop culture and its myths.

The first recorded use of the term lie detector came in a work of fiction: Charles Walk’s 1909 novel, The Yellow Circle. But the scientific significance of such a machine was also heralded, breathlessly and often prematurely, in the American press. “A few years hence,” The New York Times wrote just before Walk provided a term for the device it described, “no innocent person will be kept in jail, nor, on the other hand, will any guilty person cheat the demands of justice.” The paper talked about machines that would accomplish the “curing” of liars, and—via a 1907 headline—“reduce knowledge of truth to exact science.” Collier’s, later, made a similar pronouncement: “The future looks dark for liars,” it announced in August of 1924, “for those scientific men now have a lie detector that actually works.”

It’s fitting, perhaps, that the circumstances surrounding the work of those scientific men are themselves in dispute. There are three principal figures who claim to have invented the machine Collier’s enthused about—and who fought each other for the credit, through battles waged in, primarily, the American media. There was William Moulton Marston, a professor, lawyer, and scientist whose graduate work had involved conceiving of ways to measure human emotion and who had created the systolic blood pressure test that could be used, he argued, to determine duplicity. There was Leonarde Keeler, a detective who created a portable machine—a metal bellows, a motor drive, a pneumograph to surround the chest, and a mechanical indicator to record a subject’s answers to questions—to be used by police departments looking for relatively reliable (and relatively humane) ways to interrogate suspects. There was John Augustus Larson, the police officer who created a “cardio-pneumo psychogram” for the same purpose.

The men were deeply connected to the popular culture of their times; Marston, for his part, would create Wonder Woman—the heroine’s lasso of truth a stand-in, and in some sense an advertisement, for the lie detector—and Keeler, the mechanized detective, would serve as an inspiration for the comic-book investigator Dick Tracy. That all three inventors were able to make credible claims to be the creators of the contemporary lie detector is a testament to the complexity of what The New York Times called the “mysterious little machine.” The device was essentially a series of machines, cobbled together: the Frankensteinian manifestation of an effort—popular, in particular, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the logics of the Enlightenment and the Romantic collided with each other—to create machines that would lay bare the truths of the human soul. Before the composite polygraph came the automatograph, a device designed to record “involuntary writings of the suspect.” And the pneumograph, a device that measures the force of respiration. And the sphygmograph, which measures the pulse. And the cardiograph, which measures the beatings of the heart.

During a time of faith in the objectivity of the machine, it was thought that such devices could eventually—maybe even inevitably—come to replace trials and juries, detectives and investigators. Before there was anxiety about robots taking human jobs, there was hope about machines taking them: thus mitigating human fallibility with the reliable workings of mechanical automation. Carl Jung subscribed to that optimism. The pioneering psychologist made use of a “galvanometer”—a device meant to measure electric currents—to test the way subjects’ skin reacted to the uttering of words: the deepest aspects of the human body, he hoped, suggested by the most superficial. “It is almost like sorcery,” Jung’s colleague, the Columbia professor Frederick Peterson, marveled—a machine claiming to excavate what the pair, in a paper they published about their investigations, referred to as the “buried complexes of the soul.”

The machine, and its many counterparts, were invented during a time that, like the current moment, was renegotiating its relationship with truth itself. “The Victorians were animated by the polarity of truth and deceit,” Bunn argues in The Truth Machine, “but lying was emphatically not construed purely as an attribute of the untrustworthy and vulgar classes. On the contrary, polite sectors of Victorian society considered the management of lying to be a valuable skill”: a form of social dexterity that allowed one to navigate interactions with other people with maximal grace.

It was an idea that would come to be reversed in the next century: In a classic study of the 1960s, survey respondents were asked to rate the general desirability of 555 different personality traits—and the one that rated at the very bottom, 555th out of 555, was “liar.” The shift was helped along, ironically, by fictions: the rise of literature that replaced Gothic monsters—dire warnings of what might come when humans forget their humanity—with detectives and lawyers. Luther Trant (an anagram for “learnt truth”). Sherlock Holmes. The triumph of the hyper-rational. The allure of the “confessing body.” The quiet and stabilizing assurance of evidence that is hiding in plain sight.

The lie detector arose from an era of industrialization, of urbanization—a time when humans were crowded together and chaotically exposed to each other. A time that would encourage a new brand of theorizing about the psychological workings of the crowd. A time that would invent financial credit as we conceive of it today—so much summarized in a single score—as part of a widespread effort both to scale, and to fast-track, trust. Today’s era is, in its way, similar: Because of the workings of the media, mass and social, Americans are newly aware of each other, newly close to each other, newly vulnerable to each other. And lies, as part of that, are easier to spread than ever before. On Facebook. By Facebook. On cable news. A flurry of assertions that may or may not be true, caught up in the whirling winds of the current iteration of mass culture.

And, so, with an almost thermodynamic inevitability: As soon as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students attempted to turn their tragedy into activism, critics came forward to denounce them as crisis actors—which is to say, as opportunistic liars. It is an effort that goes on, still: The conservative news and opinion site Red State, this week, had to scrub an article that claimed, wrongly but revealingly, that David Hogg, one of the prominent voices of the school’s activists, had not been present at the school on the day of the shootings. (He had been.) Many of the MSD students, being extremely savvy about the workings of the media, have in turn attempted to turn the rhetoric of bad faith against their accusers: “The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us,” Emma González has said. “And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and are prepared to call B.S.”

González, in this, is framing herself and her fellow young people as, essentially, human lie detectors. “We call B.S.” was a popular phrase on the buttons that, pinned to jackets and signs, studded a stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday’s March for Our Lives. The fact-check has, fittingly, become a rallying cry: The lies of adults—and of the institutions whose moral authority adults have been meant to preserve—have been a running theme in a campaign of weaponized youth.

In the early days of the lie detector, G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown likened the device to an embodiment of medieval superstition: a mingling of hope and misunderstanding and magic. That early assessment remains today. It is not the taking of the test that matters, in the popular imagination, so much as one’s stated willingness to take one—to, in the commonly used word, “submit” to it. The device itself, as a physical unit, suggests and enforces a certain humility—all those knobs and straps and hooks, meant to reduce a person to the effluvia of conscience. The sweat, the heat, the palpitations of the heart.

The lie detector isn’t used, today, so much as it is invoked: Summer Zervos, one of the women accusing Donald Trump of harassment—filing a lawsuit against him, she said, to restore her reputation after Trump’s denials of her allegations—recently took a polygraph test to prove her credibility, her lawyer, Gloria Allred, said. (Zervos passed it, Allred also noted.) A Florida state senator attempted to defend himself against accusations of harassment from six different women by taking—and passing—a polygraph test. A Colorado state representative, facing harassment accusations from several people, took a polygraph. He challenged one of his accusers to do the same. Woody Allen, faced with allegations that he had molested his adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow, was asked to take a polygraph test that would be administered by the Connecticut state police; he famously refused to do so.

Those cases hover, their accusations unresolved. And the machines they invoke are having a moment, in the end, not as silver-bullet enforcers of objective truth, but rather as the opposite: as reminders of questions that linger, of puzzles that stay that way, of he saying and she saying and the rest of them unsure where to go from there. This is a time of open secrets. It is a time that finds the products of American popular culture—and Americans along with them—particularly interested in true crime and crime procedurals. It is a time, as well, in which many of those procedurals will end with the central mystery unsolved. It is a time of declining trust in law enforcement, in government, in journalism, in the institutions that exist to ensure the stability of American life. Lie detectors are fitting metaphors for all that: They are, in their empty promises that truth can be made legible and laid bare, embodiments of a moment of deep epistemic anxiety. Here we are, desperately seeking truth in machines that we know are unable to provide it.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton began executing a strategy to respond more aggressively to his critics. As part of the effort, he called in to the radio station KMOX in St. Louis, denouncing the “violent personal attacks” that those critics had been waging against him, bemoaning the “constant, unremitting drumbeat of negativism and cynicism.” Clinton added, archly: “After I get off the radio today with you, Rush Limbaugh will have three hours to say whatever he wants and I won’t have any opportunity to respond. There is no truth detector.”

Limbaugh, thus summoned—machines are ever reliable in their machinations—took to the air later that day. He expressed both umbrage and delight at the president’s accusations against him, and against the others who were reshaping the American media. “There is no need for a truth detector,” Limbaugh assured his audience, gleefully, ruefully. “I am the truth detector.”