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Scientist Organizes Resistance To Polygraphs 405

Posted by kdawson
from the drugs-lies-and-security-clearances dept.
George Maschke writes "Brad Holian, a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is using a blog to organize resistance to plans for random polygraph and drug testing of Lab scientists. Holian writes: 'Polygraphy is an insulting affront to scientists, since a committee of the National Academy of Sciences has declared that, beyond being inadmissible in court, there is no scientific basis for polygraphs. In my opinion, by agreeing to be polygraphed, one thereby seriously jeopardizes his or her claim to being a scientist, which is presumably the principal reason for employment for many scientists at Los Alamos.'"
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Scientist Organizes Resistance To Polygraphs

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  • by PurifyYourMind (776223) on Monday January 01, 2007 @05:56PM (#17425252) Homepage
    The idea is to convince people to *believe* that the polygraph machine is scientific and will detect their lies so that they're more likely to not lie, or are nervous while questioning, or even don't take the test at all and just spill it beforehand. It's psychological intimidation, kind of like forcing confessions of bad thoughts in a cult environment. That's one reason you see those "you shall not be subjected to polygraphs at work" posters at your job... a nasty employer could really intimidate people (e.g. union organizers) with it.
  • Re:Polygraphs ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ximenes (10) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:11PM (#17425414)
    I don't think this is about work performance at all, rather its about ferreting out people who are more susceptible to being forced into stealing government secrets or who might do so on their own without coercion.

    If I have a serious heroin problem, I may get myself into so much debt and other trouble that I wind up being used by some foreign spy group or something (if I worked at Los Alamos of course). Or maybe I don't want my habit getting out and therefore can be blackmailed. That sort of thing. This is similar to how homosexual people have been targetted in prior decades; not because a gay person can't do the work, but because having this secret you really want to keep means you can be blackmailed with it.
  • Re:Polygraphs ... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Giometrix (932993) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:16PM (#17425480) Homepage
    "I guess I can understand polygraphy IF it's at all accurate. After all, they are dealing with dangerous (from a proliferation standpoint) materials and experiments critical to national security. As for drug testing, I think it should only happen if an employee is exhibiting other problems at work, if then. And it also depends what drug is being tested for. Is there any evidence that enjoying the occasional herbal treat harms work performance in any material way?"

    They are NOT accurate. A friend of mine lied for a large number of questions (stupid stuff he did in college), and he passed with flying colors.

    Is he the exception to the rule? Maybe, but I doubt it. I just think the polygraph "works" on psychological level rather than a physiological level, and that anybody that understands this can easily beat the test.

    I don't even think that the employers even CARE if the test is accurate. First, it weeds out a lot of the types of people that the employer doesn't want, such as drug users. Many people won't apply for the job if they think they will fail the polygraph. Second, from my understanding, the person giving the polygraph tries to intimidate you, and I imagine a lot of people "crack" and tell the truth when being intimidated while strapped to a machine. So even though the test may not be so accurate, it still gives employers decent results (from their point of view).

    I wouldn't be so adverse to these types of exams if they didn't categorize you as a criminal or drug addict because you did something stupid years ago. Instead of asking "Have you ever smoked marijuana?," wouldn't it be more fair (and relevant to the employer) to ask "have you smoked marijuana in the past 5 years?"

    People do stupid things growing up; but most people DO grow up. Personally, I think we should judge people on the things they do as adults, not as teenagers or college students.
  • Re:Polygraphs ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by b0s0z0ku (752509) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:16PM (#17425482)
    Have I met, worked with, or been exposed to obvious stoners that are clearly and continually unfocused, un-energetic, bad on short-term memory, and always looking for free food at meetings?

    There's a huge difference between drug use and drug *abuse*. Profile based on behaviour, not based on chemical testing. If someone's a lazy obnoxious git, by all means fire him if he doesn't shape up, regardless of the reason.

    This is like the difference between a red-faced drunkard and someone that has a glass of wine at dinner.

    -b.

  • by A beautiful mind (821714) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:22PM (#17425530)
    So polygraph is a very expensive baseball bat?

    "It would be a shame if something were to happen with your kneecaps..."
  • Re:Bad Logic (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ettlz (639203) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:23PM (#17425540) Journal
    Bad logic? Not quite. I understood this as "by agreeing to be polygraphed, one [endorses pseudoscience and] thereby seriously jeopardizes his or her claim to being a scientist" (insertion mine).
  • by Mock (29603) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:24PM (#17425544)
    I mean, really...

    Isn't it kind of obvious when someone's personal life is interfering with their professional life?
    Is it so hard to take the cue from the rest of the world, where such nonsense is not even considered (with no apparent ill effects)?
  • Re:Polygraphs ... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by king-manic (409855) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:25PM (#17425554)
    I guess I can understand polygraphy IF it's at all accurate. After all, they are dealing with dangerous (from a proliferation standpoint) materials and experiments critical to national security. As for drug testing, I think it should only happen if an employee is exhibiting other problems at work, if then. And it also depends what drug is being tested for. Is there any evidence that enjoying the occasional herbal treat harms work performance in any material way?

    I think a drug test is meaningless. I know a significant numbe rof recreational pot and E users to function fine at work. I think a credit check is better. One check and it will tell you the likelyhood of Scientist x selling yoru secrets to the chinese/russians/islamists/EU. People who tend to do these things tend to have financial problems ot start with.
  • by b0s0z0ku (752509) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:26PM (#17425568)
    However, it is illegal, so someone who smokes pot is already showing that they have a penchant for ignoring laws that they don't think apply to them.

    Oh, for gahd's sake, just because you break a few minor laws does *not* mean that you'd be more likely sell out your country to the enemy-of-the-day. By your "slippery slope" logic, anyone who gets caught for speeding should be pre-emptively shot. After all, who's to say when they'll move from speeding to treason?

    -b.

  • by DiamondGeezer (872237) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:33PM (#17425634) Homepage
    Name a spy caught after failing a polygraph test.

    Neither can I. It never happened.

    TFA is completely correct on polygraphs.
  • by westlake (615356) on Monday January 01, 2007 @07:01PM (#17425922)
    Isn't it kind of obvious when someone's personal life is interfering with their professional life?

    Not always, and, more importantly, not always soon enough.

    The point of random drug testing in a facility like Los Almos is to identify the user before he becomes a security risk, before he becomes a danger to himself and others.

  • Re:Bad Logic (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MillionthMonkey (240664) on Monday January 01, 2007 @07:05PM (#17425976)
    a committee of the National Academy of Sciences has declared that, beyond being inadmissible in court, there is no scientific basis for polygraphs
    Le'me see: because there is no scientific basis for polygraphs (because they are not admissible in court--having nothing to do with the science of polygraphs, but because of court standards for admission of evidence), if you agree to something this unscientific, then you cannot possibly claim to be a scientist.
    Huh?

    There is no scientific basis for polygraphs. Therefore they fail to meet court standards for admission of evidence. And therefore they are not admissable in court. This guy is formulating what is at least partially a legal argument as well as a scientific and political argument and so it is very relevant for him to point out the complete NAS opinion that polygraphs are not admissable in court, in addition to having no scientific basis. The NAS position he cites specifically says "beyond", not "because of". While the author does use established legal standards to support his argument in a rhetorical sense, he is not relying on them as proof of anything scientific.

    I don't know where you divined the information that polygraphs fail to meet court standards for admission of evidence for any reason other than their lack of a scientific basis. Specifically, those standards keep polygraphs out of courtrooms because of their high error rate, as one would expect from a technology built on top of a pseudoscience.

    As for the rest of your argument, the choice of whether or not to consent to a stupid polygraph is simply not on par with one's freedom of religion.
  • by Per Abrahamsen (1397) on Monday January 01, 2007 @07:23PM (#17426152) Homepage
    His unauthorized tests of the security system (safe-cracking, letters to his wife) would have landed him in jail today.

    I don't believe he his written any books about his youth. A non-scientist friend of his wrote

    - Surely you are joking, mister Feynmann
    - What do you care what other people think

    based on conversation with Feynmann, those two books were very popular in college.
  • by mysqlrocks (783488) on Monday January 01, 2007 @07:38PM (#17426304) Homepage Journal
    I am kind of interested in how a 100% accurate polygraph or lie-detector would affect civilization.
    One of the fundamental problems with polygraphs is that there is no such thing as an absolute truth. If one could invent a "100% accurate" polygraph all it would really measure is if the subject believes he or she is telling the truth or not (which is all that current polygraphers claim that it can measure anyways). So, someone that could truly convince themselves that something is true could still fake a polygraph exam. Therefore, there will never be a "100% accurate" polygraph because the fundamental concept of polygraphs is flawed.
  • Re:A valid point (Score:3, Insightful)

    by dhaines (323241) on Monday January 01, 2007 @08:02PM (#17426570)
    Fair enough. But if it's a matter of national security, then let's be sure the Congress, the cabinet and the Commander-in-Chief are subject to identical questions, investigation and consequences.
  • by amRadioHed (463061) on Monday January 01, 2007 @08:17PM (#17426706)

    Oh, and yes, speeding is also breaking the law. People who lightly dismiss it as such demonstrate contempt for the rule of law.
    It could be argued that people who make laws banning plants which turn a large percent of the population into criminals are the ones who show contempt for the rule of law.
  • Re:Bad Logic (Score:2, Insightful)

    by 10101001 10101001 (732688) on Monday January 01, 2007 @08:50PM (#17427080) Journal
    Le'me see: because there is no scientific basis for polygraphs (because they are not admissible in court

    Reread what was said. There is no scientific basis for polygraphs *and* they're not admissible in court. The latter issue is important because when it comes time to actually, you know, justify a firing, pointing at a polygraph as a basis fails completely because it's not admissible. Ie, from just that standpoint it is fundamentally a waste of time.

    ... if you agree to something this unscientific, then you cannot possibly claim to be a scientist.

    No. More precisely, if you agree to something that's unscientific, acting as if it *is* scientific, then one seriously jeopardizes their claim of being a scientist. It doesn't mean it's impossible that you're a scientist; perhaps you're carrying out a study, as impartial as you can, to test the hypothesis that a polygraph is a valid test of what it claims to be a test of.

    By that logic because religion has no scientific basis, anyone who is religious cannot also be a scientist.

    Now you're mixing up things. Religion isn't scientific. Religion is founded on a study or otherwise communion with the supernatural. The supernatural, by definition, is not a repeatable experimental space. So, one is not likely a scientist if they believe religion is scientific. But, one can continue to believe that one's religion is true. It's perfectly acceptable to believe that science might not be capable of explaining all phenomenon. The issue is when you start rejecting the phenomenon that science *can* explain or start rejecting the claims that can be refuted.

    I mean, we can't at all be sure, at the minimal, that some of the axioms of science are true (especially those extremely long-term consistency assumptions). Science is both a model and a system. If you can develop a better model and system to explain more things or everything, feel free. But certainly there's nothing illogical about pointing out that one is doing such outside the model and system of science. It doesn't make your model incorrect. It most certainly makes it unscientific. Having said all that, polygraphs sure seem to not be correct.

  • by MillionthMonkey (240664) on Tuesday January 02, 2007 @12:49AM (#17428878)
    The National Defense Authorization Act of 2002 passed the House as HR 2586 and the Senate as S. 1438. While the actual policy with respect to polygraphs is established and implemented by the DOE, this rider to the Act set the parameters to guide that policy.

    Although I don't think it was one of the "emergency" bills, just the yearly defense budget bill for 2002. I'm not sure our habit of having yearly defense budget emergency bills extends further back than 2003 and I'm too lazy to look it up. Still, whether it was or not, as a major defense budget allocation, it was "must-pass" legislation of the sort that often has questionable unrelated riders added- to do questionable stuff like build $200 million bridges to uninhabited parts of Alaska.
  • Re:Bad Logic (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tom's a-cold (253195) on Tuesday January 02, 2007 @01:51AM (#17429198) Homepage
    By that logic because religion has no scientific basis, anyone who is religious cannot also be a scientist.
    Yeah, that's right. There are some scientists who also happen to be religious, but that's only because of the amazing human ability to compartmentalize conflicting aspects of their lives and turn a blind eye to the inherent hypocrisy.

    The guy's right, by the way. For similar reasons, I've walked off jobs because I refuse to be piss-tested. I don't do drugs, I'm an infrequent drinker, nearest to a chemical vice is drinking too much espresso, but as a matter of principle, it's none of their goddamned business. And I've never gone a day without being employed. The only reason not to stand up to the bastards is cowardice, or the all-American tendency to grovel before any authority, no matter how illegitimate or irrational.

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