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)
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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
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Completely fails to present any of the "recent" (1970 to present) research that contradicts points made about early (1920 to 1940) Lie Detection. Read morePublished 7 months ago by Stanley M. slowik
"The Lie Detectors" is on the ROROTOKO list of cutting-edge intellectual nonfiction. Professor Alder's book interview ran here as cover feature on July 13, 2009.Published on August 25, 2009 by ROROTOKO