Mass Media Bunk is a commentary on articles in the mass media that provide false, misleading, or deceptive information regarding scientific matters or alleged paranormal or supernatural events.

Robert Todd Carroll

©copyright 2006





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July 23, 2001. The Sacramento Bee jumped on the polygraph liewagon this morning with a piece by Ralph Montaño about California's two polygraph examiners for the state Department of Justice, Douglas Mansfield and Jeannie Overall. Since the 1970s, California's state attorney general's office has provided free polygraph exams for local law enforcement to use in their battles against crime. Let me state up front that I believe there is a place for the so-called "lie detector"---on a shelf in a museum of quack machines, between the phrenology psychograph and the penile plethysmograph. I fully expect law enforcement agencies to begin calling for federal funding so they can hire graphologists, phrenologists, personologists and physiognomists to help them separate the liars from the truthtellers.

It doesn't appease me that defenders of the polygraph admit that the practice of using the machine as part of an interrogation or interview is "not perfect" or "not an exact science." Polygraphy is junk science, pseudoscience, an abuse of technology. It doesn't appease me that many defenders of the polygraph know it is junk science but defend its use because many people confess to crimes during interviews done before or after being given the test. The machine may not be able to detect lies accurately but, as Richard Nixon said, "it scares the hell out of people." The end justifies the means. It is probably pointless to engage such defenders in the niceties of ethical principles, but they seem to be capable of utilitarian evaluation and ought to recognize that the harm done to innocent people whose careers and lives are ruined by these tests doesn't outweigh the benefits of conning a few naive criminals. They ought to also recognize that the benefits don't outweigh the harm done to the nation by some of those who pass the polygraph and then are not scrutinized by more intelligent means of detecting criminals.

California's state investigators do some 400 tests a year. Yet, the strongest endorsement Mr. Mansfield can regurgitate is: "You would be surprised how many people just confess ... during interviews." Some defenders of the polygraph are able to rationalize this snake oil by spinning theories out of thin air. Mansfield's theory is that "nervous tension" overlays some other kind of tension that is released "involuntarily." The examiner's job is to get the subject to relax, thereby stripping away "nervous tension" and revealing the tension that is involuntarily released when a person lies. I think James Randi will give a million dollars to anybody who can prove this theory about different kinds of tensions.

Defenders of the polygraph try very hard to dupe the rest of the world into thinking these tests are "objective" and "scientific." Just because they measure changes in blood pressure, respiration, heart rate, etc., does not make them objective or scientific. The correlations made with these measurements are subjective and no more scientific or objective than any person's determination of lying by how a person twitches or blinks or sweats, etc.

The Sacramento Police Department has used the polygraph for decades and has its own expert but the strongest defense given for it (by Lt. Steven Campas) is: "We feel it is a useful tool in establishing the veracity of witnesses and helping solve crimes." I don't doubt that it is. Nevertheless, it is a con to use it.

The Sacramento Country Sheriff's Department doesn't use the polygraph, apparently because they can't afford it. They use something cheaper, but equally inadmissible in court and equally pseudoscientific: the voice stress analyzer. Mansfield claims that the voice stress analyzer isn't as accurate as the polygraph because the latter measures four things, while the former only analyzes one thing. Why four pieces of non-sense would make more sense than one piece of non-sense has been sent to the logic lab for signs of casuistry and magical thinking. The results will not be released to the public until they have been examined and approved by Aldrich Ames, Clifford Irving, Mdaweni Mahlangu, Joseph Ellis, Bill (I-did-not-have-sex-with-that-woman) Clinton, and The Institute of Analytic Interviewing.

July 19, 2001. Slate's William Saletan's "Polygraph Theism" reads like a PR piece for the American Polygraph Association. No skepticism is shown regarding the machine or the theories upon which it is built. If errors occur, such as in the case Aldrich Ames, it is due to "human failure." Perhaps even more sinister, however, is Saletan's attempt to defend the polygraph by arguing that taken in context the devise "can reveal the truth." The context is not laid out quite accurately by Saletan, however, for he does not mention that this context must involve lying and deception. People must be lied to and deceived into believing that the so-called "lie detector" can accurately detect lies before it can be effectively used. Saletan makes this "social process" sound subtle and innocuous:

We think the polygraph can reveal the truth. And it can—but only as part of an enterprise older, larger, and subtler than itself. The verbal and social elements of investigation are just as influential inside the polygraph room as they are outside it. By focusing our attention and faith on the machine, we allow its users—police and suspects alike—to manipulate those elements to their advantage.

Faith in the machine is just another way of saying false beliefs inculcated by interested parties into the minds of an ignorant public.

Saletan makes no comment on the claim by the American Polygraph's Association that "the machine's average accuracy in real-life 'field examinations,' where livelihoods and jail time are at stake, is 98 percent." If this were true, there would probably be little objection to allowing into the courtrooms of America testimony gained while using the polygraph; for, such accuracy would undoubtedly be greater than any other method people use to decide whether someone is lying.

Consider this seemingly good defense of the polygraph that Saletan passes on:

In the old days, cops questioned suspects while scrutinizing them for signs of nervousness or evasiveness. A polygraph basically systematizes that scrutiny. It replaces rough observations—sweaty foreheads, blinking eyes, fidgeting fingers—with quantitative data such as pulse and respiratory response. To the extent that these data can be compared among thousands of suspects, and specific elevations of blood pressure or perspiration can be correlated with answers that turn out to be false, the polygraph measures responses more reliably than the unaided human eye does.

Even if we grant that the polygraph measures these responses more reliably than the human eye does, the claim is of little value unless the reliability of "the unaided human eye" is known to be very good. It isn't. A little bit better than worthless is still not very good.

Saletan seems to think that the only thing that can go wrong with a polygraph test is that the interrogator might not ask the right questions. At least, his only two examples of polygraph's known to have gone wrong (with Ames and with Teamsters President Ron Carey) both involve allegations of poor questioning technique.

The weakest part of Saletan's panegyric to the polygraph may be in how he depicts critics of the polygraph. "Critics dismiss the lie detector as an empty, pseudo-omniscient box used by cops to bully suspects into confessions." That's it. Only one other criticism is considered. Critics of the polygraph have said quite a bit more than that the machine is just another device used by police to browbeat suspects.

The other criticism considered is the one Saletan obviously thinks is the most important, since much of his article is based on it. That is, the polygraph can be used to manipulate the truth by those who administer the test. Much of Saletan's article focuses on Gary Condit's self-serving polygraph test administered by his own chosen polygrapher. While this is an important criticism, it is too obvious to bother spending much time on when there are more fundamental reasons for rejecting the polygraph as a pseudoscientific piece of junk science.

Saletan concludes his article with the cryptic comment that "Polygraphs don't reveal truth. People with polygraphs reveal truth. And if we're not careful, they bury it." What the hell does that mean?

If the reader wants an intelligent and skeptical appraisal of the polygraph, I suggest "Polygraph Testing and the DOE National Laboratories" by  Steven Aftergood in Science Magazine or "The truth about the polygraph" by Susan McCarthy in

I also recommend "Polygraphs and the National Labs: Dangerous Ruse Undermines National Security," by Alan P. Zelicoff,  Skeptical Inquirer, July/August 2001 (vol 25 no 4).

further reading

June 28, 2001. A story from Reuters with no byline begins 

A British scientist studying heart attack patients says he is finding evidence that suggests that consciousness may continue after the brain has stopped functioning and a patient is clinically dead.

I would have thought that the author would have wanted to take credit for such an earth shattering revelation. Perhaps he or she is humble. Unlikely for a journalist, but possible nonetheless.

The writer goes on

The research, presented to scientists last week at the California Institute of Technology, resurrects the debate over whether there is life after death and whether there is such a thing as the human soul.

This is inspired writing and certainly transcends the typical boring news story about Cheney's health or Dubbya's hardwire impediments. I am impressed that a scientist presented this research to other scientists, at CIT no less. I'm impressed because usually scientists leave the metaphysics to others who may not wear white coats but are surrounded by people who do.

I tell you sincerely that I was trembling at the thought that I might have to revise my life's work by the time I finished the article, so it was with great anticipation that I read on, seeking the scientist's evidence that suggests consciousness may continue after brain death. (I could have supplied the author with many examples of just what he was looking for, but I doubt if they constituted the kind of evidence he would have counted as authentic.)

According to the alleged scientist himself, Sam Parnia, ''the studies are very significant." I say alleged scientist because Sam is a doctor at Southampton General Hospital in England who studies near-death experiences. He is chairman of Horizon Research Foundation (formerly called the International Association of Near Death Studies), whose motto is "Science at the Horizon of Life." He is a clinical research fellow working towards a PhD in the molecular biology of asthma. He is a medical school graduate with specialties in internal medicine and respiratory illnesses. He is trained in medicine and is working on a Ph.D., but these hardly make one a scientist. And calling something science doesn't make it science any more than calling something a cigar makes it a cigar. So, these heart attack patients were not his patients, I assume. Thank goodness, because I don't know about you, but I don't think studying NDEs is an attribute most of us seek when we are in need of a cardiologist. Perhaps the doctor might get a little too enthusiastic in his desire to see an NDE patient. He might subconsciously slip with the anesthesia or the scalpel. If the plaque on your doctor's door read 

J. M. Godman, M.D., 
Specializing in near-death experiences

would this inspire confidence in his or her talents? I'd be out the door faster than you could say resurrection.

Parnia studied "63 heart attack patients who were deemed clinically dead but were later revived." The patients "were interviewed within a week of their experiences. Of those, 56 said they had no recollection of the time they were unconscious and seven reported having memories." Now, just because 56 of 67 said they couldn't remember having thoughts when they were dead does not prove that they weren't thinking when their brains shut down. Just because 84% of those surveyed don't recollect anything during their dead time, doesn't mean much when the other 16% reported that they had some memories of when they were dead. Four subjects "reported lucid memories of thinking, reasoning, moving about and communicating with others after doctors determined their brains were not functioning." Of course, these same four claimed that they were lizards  in their past lives. Not really. Actually, Dr. Parnia doesn't seem to have inquired much into the minds of his subjects outside of the lab. He doesn't seem to have much interest in whether some of his subjects are, shall we say, a bit more imaginative or fantasy-prone or religious or disturbed than the others.

Well, I don't know about you, but that settles it for me. If four people reported that they remember vividly that they were vividly thinking, even moving around while dead, then it must be true. There is some kind of scientific law that states this, but for the moment I've misplaced it in my memory. Others, however, may be more demanding.

Does Dr. Parnia have any more evidence that suggests that there may be consciousness without a functioning brain? Actually, no. All his evidence is in the form of reports from people. He could have 3,500 such reports and they'd still add up to nothing. (In fact, he says he "and his colleagues have found more than 3,500 people with lucid memories that apparently occurred at times they were thought to be clinically dead." Perhaps they found them at Piccadilly Circus or in the bowels of a London Clinic for the Terminally Holy. He doesn't say. Nor does he mention how they got lost in the first place.) How does he know that these reports are accurate accounts of experiences during brain dead time? How could he know any such thing? By definition of 'brain dead', all machines hooked to the brain show nothing going on. Parnia can be sure that his subjects report that they were thinking when they were dead, but beyond that, he has NO evidence that suggests anything may or may not be the case in this or any other possible world. Anyway, Raymond Moody has already ridden this pony to death.

Still, the article does provide some comic relief in this miserable vale of tears. For example, 

One, who called himself a lapsed Catholic and Pagan, reported a close encounter with a mystical being.

Is this subject both a lapsed Catholic and a lapsed Pagan? And why is Pagan capitalized? Anyway, I don't think it gets much more scientific than this when you're an internist who specializes in near-death experiences.

The biggest yuk, however, has to be Dr. Parnia's speculation that

human consciousness may work independently of the brain, using the gray matter as a mechanism to manifest the thoughts, just as a television set translates waves in the air into picture and sound.

Let's hold that thought. The brain's gray matter is like a TV. Just what is it that gray matter is "translating" into thoughts? And, if consciousness is using the brain to manifest thoughts, does that mean that television transmitters are like consciousness? Or, that consciousness is like a television transmitter? If so, who is controlling the consciousness? Is there an analogue to the television studio for consciousness? Let me guess. The analogue is on an alien ship where all our thoughts are programmed. Finally, everything is starting to make sense.

Dr. Parnia has a partner in this "scientific" enterprise by the name of Peter Fenwick who is a "Consultant Neuro-psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry, London." They reason that there are only three possible explanations for the NDEs reported:  they can be explained physiologically, they are psychological, or they are genuinely transcendental.

Psychological explanations are not applicable for cardiac arrest [according to Fenwick]. He also rules out anoxia and hypercardia. The experiences of patients who have had these are almost always confusional, and they lack the narrative quality of NDEs. Temporal lobe seizure is similarly ruled out for the same reasons. They are not characteristically similar phenomenologically. Hence, Fenwick leans towards the transcendental interpretation. We resist such an interpretation, he says, because of our metaphysical assumptions, namely, that the external world is independent. His research has led him to accept some kind of mind/body dualism.*

I don't think these "scientists" should be so quick to dismiss psychological and physiological explanations. The patients are administered an anesthesia and are most likely given other drugs as well. Can they really be so sure that the physiological changes due to cardiac arrest in addition to these drugs don't affect some people in such a way that they dream or hallucinate what they report as an NDE? They seem to know that they can't dismiss every case of anoxia, hypercardia or temporal lobe seizure as different from NDEs in "narrative quality." 

Finally, there isn't really any need to explain why we resist the transcendental interpretation and think the external world is independent of our brains or minds, especially if we are really doing science. We should resist the transcendental interpretation if we are scientists. It should be obvious to any fair-minded scientist that it is because of their own metaphysical assumptions that Parnia and Fenwick can take seriously the notion that NDEs are evidence of mind/body dualism or transcendent experiences. And it probably should be stated by the Reuter's author that being trained in medicine, even psychiatric medicine, does not make one a scientist.
[thanks to Joe Littrell, Max Clixby and Stuart I. Yaniger]






©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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