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The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession Hardcover – March 6, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Adler (The Measure of All Things) spins a yarn of scientific innovation and personal vituperation set against the backdrop of mid-20th-century America. In a steady, workmanlike way, he weaves together the lives and careers of the triumvirate responsible for "America's mechanical conscience." Developed in 1921 by John Larson, a cop with a Ph.D. in physiology, the lie detector was championed by Berkeley police chief August Vollmer and further refined by Leonarde Keeler, a jack-of-all-trades and relentless self-promoter. Sadly, the three men, who had worked well together, fell prey to jealousy and infighting that destroyed their friendship. While painting a rich, complex portrait of these men, Adler remains admirably skeptical of the machine itself, which he says is a uniquely American invention, designed to satisfy "a nation obsessed by criminal disorder and political corruption." Adler's skepticism places him in line with the scientific community: study after study has found that polygraphing techniques "do not pass scientific muster." Though this account is densely packed with dramatic material, Adler fails to bring it fully to life. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Mar. 6)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

A historian of science whose account of the meter (The Measure of All Things, 2002) was hugely popular, Alder here wires up another fascinating story. A two-track approach guides his tale of the polygraph: the lives of two men who in the 1920s launched the "cardio-pneumo-psychograph," as one of them dubbed the machine, and American society's peculiar receptivity to a device that has never passed scientific muster. The polygraph has, however, acquired a reputation for squeezing admissions from its subjects. Precisely how it sort of sorts liars from truth tellers divided Alder's two central characters. John Larson obsessed about creating an objective protocol for the polygraph, while Leonarde Keeler developed interrogation techniques that exploited the subject's anxiety about the machine. Over time, Keeler's practicality won over business, law enforcement, and the national security complex, while Larson's pursuit of perfection made him an increasingly eccentric figure. This engrossing portrait of two lives ruled by the lie detector is enhanced by Alder's cultural clarity about the credence accorded to the mechanical confessional. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Edition edition (March 6, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743259882
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743259880
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,560,023 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Frederick S. Goethel VINE VOICE on April 11, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"The Lie Detectors" is the historical story of both the "lie detector" machine and the men who invented, researched and promoted the use of the machine. The men (and women) behind the machine were, in many ways, much more interesting than the machine itself, which has changed little since its invention.

Covered by the book are how the machine works, why it doesn't really work, why there was fighting between different factions involved with it's development and why the courts have not allowed the machine to be used in criminal cases. Also included are some of the high profile cases where the machine was used and how the machine either helped or hindered those cases.

The book is an interesting read, although it is a little "dense" in some areas. It is heavily researched and documented, and as well written as any historical work of its kind can be. If you are looking for a book primarily about the plain mechanics and operation of the machine, look elsewhere. If, however, you want to read the entire story behind the machine then this book is for you.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Lisa J. Steele on July 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Let me start by admitting that this book validates my preconceptions about the polygraph's unreliablity. There are numerous studies showing that the polygraph does not reliabily detect lies, yet the American government, police investigators, and employers spend millions of dollars using it -- perhaps engendering a false sense of security that it provides meaningful protection from criminals, spies, and thieves.

Alder discusses the polygraph's origins including the complex relationship between John Larson, its inventor (a police officer with a Ph.D. in physiology, August Vollmer (police chief and reformer), and Leonarde Keeler (a relentless self-promoter who popularized the device). He also discusses Keeler's wife, one of the first female forensic specialists and later a private detective.

As discussed in the book, the polygraph has long been excluded from American courtrooms, but it it a favorite tool of many police investigators and can have a profound affect on which suspects are prosecuted and on plea agreements. The polygraph's use by employers, security agencies, and for various political purposes is also discussed, with concerns raised about the misuse of the device for political grandstanding and coercion.

Alder mentions the variety of studies and tests that show that the polygraph does not work reliablity as a lie detector, although it can be a powerful bluff to elicit confessions (true and false). He also mentions problems with various other techniques and questions the underlying theory that lies cause measurable physical reactions. However, a reader interested in the scientific criticism of the lie detector and other methods would be better served by reading the sources in Alder's endnotes.

There's a wealth of good material about 1920-40s policing, particularly in Chicago, and about the origins of forensics in Chicago with a cameo by Calvin Goddard, among others.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By G. Poirier on November 25, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This book recounts the story of the lie detector, from its early development and use in the early twentieth century up to the present. However, the main focus is on the first half of the twentieth century and on the two individuals who developed it and used it the most. Although the sociological, psychological, philosophical and legal aspects of the use of the lie detector are discussed at length, there are very few details on the technical and scientific sides. I would have appreciated perhaps a few paragraphs detailing the device's technical aspects, the charts produced and their meaning and at least some hard statistical data on the device's performance. On this last point, the author does point out that success rate is strongly dependent on the operator and on the interrogation techniques; consequently, hard statistical data may be more complicated to come by, although some quasi-qualitative and conflicting figures are provided throughout the text. I found the writing style to be quite scholarly and most of it quite engaging, although some of the philosophical and sociological discussions were less so. Overall, I found the book to be quite interesting and, indeed, fascinating in many sections. This book would likely be of most interest to sociology and psychology buffs, as well as those interested in the workings of the legal system.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By John H. Dexter on February 6, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"The Lie Detectors; The History of an American Obsession is well-written, thoroughly researched history of the development and use of the polygraph in the USA. The authors have presented a balanced story of two dedicated lie detectors intent on improving the science of law enforcement. And what the authors indicate is that they have not brought any science to law enforcement at all. They have brought an updated method for frightening interrogation and intimidating test subjects into all sorts of admissions, some true, some false. These are the jabs. The missing knockout punch is that they never really do the statistical research to demonstrate how dangerous the testing is. Remember that TV crime reporter who seems to have caused a suicide by just proposing a lie detector test? No mention of that result in the book. Only occasional jabs; a reference here or there about the polygraph being right about 52% of the time. I was hoping to read why the lie detector test is a danger to anyone who submits to it and a real danger to any society that relies on it. But the history is fascinating. It's worth the read.
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