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Dubious tests

From the earliest days of the industrial age right down to today's computer-oriented society, many individuals have sought to solve social problems by exploiting the latest technology. Sometimes the results are beneficial. Telephones have certainly linked together isolated rural communities. Sometimes the results are mixed: the use, for example, of television as a teaching aid. Sometimes the results are downright dubious. Such is the case with the increasing use of lie detector tests in government and private industry. Now, an Office of Technology Assessment study panel raises a badly needed warning against the current widespread use of lie detector tests.

The panel found no scientifically valid evidence to support polygraph tests.

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When the machine is used for routine screening, the polygraph's success in detecting a liar is no better than random guessing. Only when prime suspects in criminal cases have already been identified by prior investigation have the machines shown any significant detection skill.

Clearly, as the report notes, innocent people run a significant risk of being mislabeled ''liars'' when the machines are used for screening. This is to say nothing of the demeaning nature of the testing. And the tests are too often a substitute for solid police legwork and investigation.

Both the US government and private industry should avoid use of the polygraph for personnel screening. Given the lack of scientific evidence supporting the accuracy of polygraph tests, even its selected use in highly sensitive agencies should be questioned.

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