Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!


Forgot your password?
Privacy Government Politics Science

Scientist Organizes Resistance To Polygraphs 405

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.'"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Scientist Organizes Resistance To Polygraphs

Comments Filter:
  • Polygraphs ... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by b0s0z0ku ( 752509 ) on Monday January 01, 2007 @05:57PM (#17425266)
    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?


  • Richard Feynmann (Score:5, Interesting)

    by b0s0z0ku ( 752509 ) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:00PM (#17425298)
    I read his memoirs in high school. If half of what he claims that he did is true, I suspect that he'd have lasted about a day in the Los Alamos of today. Damn shame, really. A lot of the brightest people like to play with different consciousness states as well as being inveterate pranksters.


  • What a genius idea (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MillionthMonkey ( 240664 ) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:05PM (#17425344)
    From the DOE [fas.org]:
    I. Introduction

            DOE's existing counterintelligence polygraph regulations are set
    forth at 10 CFR part 709. Under section 3152(a) of the National Defense
    Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2002, Pub. L. 107-107 (NDAA for FY
    2002), DOE is obligated to prescribe revised regulations for a new
    counterintelligence polygraph program the stated purpose of which is
    ``* * * to minimize the potential for release or disclosure of
    classified data, materials, or information'' (42 U.S.C. 7383h-1(a).)
    Section 3152(b) requires DOE to ``* * * take into account the results
    of the Polygraph Review,'' which is defined by section 3152 (e) to mean
    ``* * * the review of the Committee to Review the Scientific Evidence
    on the Polygraph of the National Academy of Sciences'' (42 U.S.C.
    7383h-1(b), (e)).

    So they attached this to one of those emergency defense appropriation bills:

    (a) NEW COUNTERINTELLIGENCE POLYGRAPH PROGRAM REQUIRED.-The Secretary of Energy shall carry out, under regulations prescribed under this section, a new counterintelligence polygraph program for the Department of Energy. The purpose of the new program is to minimize the potential for release or disclosure of classified data, materials, or information.

    (b) AUTHORITIES AND LIMITATIONS.-(1) The Secretary shall prescribe regulations for the new counterintelligence polygraph program required by subsection (a) in accordance with the provisions of subchapter II of

    chapter 5 of title 5, United States Code (commonly referred to as the Administrative Procedures Act).

    (2) In prescribing regulations for the new program, the Secretary shall take into account the results of the Polygraph Review.

    (3) Not later than six months after obtaining the results of the Polygraph Review, the Secretary shall issue a notice of proposed rulemaking for the new program.

    (c) REPEAL OF EXISTING POLYGRAPH PROGRAM.-Effective 30 days after the Secretary submits to the congressional defense committees the Secretarys certification that the final rule for the new counterintelligence

    polygraph program required by subsection (a) has been fully implemented, section 3154 of the Department of Energy Facilities Safeguards, Security, and Counterintelligence Enhancement Act of 1999 (subtitle D of title XXI of Public Law 106-65; 42 U.S.C. 7383h) is repealed.

    (d) REPORT ON FURTHER ENHANCEMENT OF PERSONNEL SECURITY PROGRAM.-(1) Not later than January 1, 2003, the Administrator for Nuclear Security shall submit to Congress a report setting forth the recommendations of the Administrator for any legislative action that the Administrator considers appropriate in order to enhance the personnel security program of the Department of Energy.

    (2) Any recommendations under paragraph (1) regarding the use of polygraphs shall take into account the results of the Polygraph Review.

    (e) POLYGRAPH REVIEW DEFINED.-In this section, the term "Polygraph Review" means the review of the Committee to Review the Scientific Evidence on the Polygraph of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Your Congress at work.
  • Re:Polygraphs ... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by nuzak ( 959558 ) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:08PM (#17425386) Journal
    > I guess I can understand polygraphy IF it's at all accurate.

    It is not. It is junk pseudoscience, and has debunked over and over and over. And no, it is not just some psy-ops thing as one other poster said -- people actually put their faith in these things.
  • Re:Polygraphs ... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by polar red ( 215081 ) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:08PM (#17425388)
    a thought crosses my mind about caffeine being a drug,caffeine certainly displays some properties of drugs(addiction, stimulating effect) I like to see the first employer to try to eradicate caffeine at work !
  • Re:Polygraphs ... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by b0s0z0ku ( 752509 ) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:19PM (#17425498)
    I don't even think that the employers even CARE if the test is accurate...

    It also weeds out people that answers questions without thinking. From what I've heard, if you interview with the NSA or CIA and they ask "have you ever given money to a foreign organization?" and your answer is an unthinking "no", this weeds you out. After all, you buy stuff from foreign companies all of the time without even realizing it.


  • Re:Polygraphs ... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by miskatonic alumnus ( 668722 ) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:45PM (#17425750)
    Several years ago I read something somewhere that started off --- in the manner of a PBS documentary: (major paraphrasing) Imagine there was a drug discovered in the wild. It was given to people and their symptoms were an increase in blood pressure, hyperactivity, shakes, (extensive list of effects, leading the reader to consider that outlawing the substance might be a good idea, considering that several substances were outlawed already).

    Then, at the end: Surprise --- it's caffeine!

    I don't remember the source. Does anyone have the source for this?
  • Re:Bad Logic (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:48PM (#17425786)
    Of course this does not admit the possibility that there are other reasons why a scientist would agree to be polygraphed, including the possibility that someone working at a sensitive facility such as Los Alamos may just feel that it ain't worth the hassle to fight it.

    That is, of course, the reason most people in such positions accept the insult. It is a game of chicken and usually the individual feels that they have more to lose. But not always.

    I have a good friend who holds a handful of clearances. Part of the requirements for some of those clearances is an agreement to take a drug test if asked too. My friend is so straight, he rarely drinks and hasn't even smoked a single joint in his entire life. But he will never take a drug test because he feels they are insulting to him as a professional.

    If it comes down to it and he is asked to take a test, he will refuse and accept revocation of his clearance and 'loss' of his job. In his case, the loss of a job is of little consequence, he's got enough money in the bank to retire permanently if he wanted to. The programs he works on would suffer more by his leaving than he would.

    Unfortunately, most people are not in such a position, or at least don't feel like they are. So they cave to the pressure and accept the insult because they've got families to feed or careers they think will be ruined if they don't. In other words, freedom doesn't mean jackshit if you are afraid to exercise that freedom.
  • by Marrow ( 195242 ) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:55PM (#17425858)
    Considering the "brainscan" approach to polygraphs that the future may hold. I am kind of interested in
    how a 100% accurate polygraph or lie-detector would affect civilization. How it would affect law enforcement
    and judiciary. How would it affect business agreements and politics. If a really good lie detector were
    readily available, then what would it do to society, government, economies, education, religion...

    Its fun to imagine how the world would reshape itself. Would it be good, or a disaster.

  • by thestuckmud ( 955767 ) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:56PM (#17425862)
    What gives with Los Alamos? Instead of coddling their bullpen of 2000 watt minds they seem insistent on beating them into submission.
    I have to agree. Having worked in a highly secure yet reasonably managed environment, the respect accorded to staff members made me feel more secure than any level of invasive physical or psychological measures could. Treating people like criminals can encourage them to act that way.

    By the way, I recently found this [antipolygraph.org] site of polygraph criticisms.
  • Unionize (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jimhill ( 7277 ) on Monday January 01, 2007 @06:56PM (#17425868) Homepage

    Quite simply, LANL employees' biggest problem is that we aren't unionized. We stand idly by and watch management (LANS/NNSA/DOE) hammer us again and again and again with policies that decrease the quality of workplace life (without adding jack to the real safety and security of the institution). The "substantially equivalent" requirement for benefits between the last contractor and the current contractor has been revealed to be a stinking pile of bullshit. With a strong collective bargaining agreement, there'd be some pushback against this unrelenting spiral into hell. There is none, however, because nearly everyone in Los Alamos County believes that unions are dues-sucking liberal plots that exist solely to protect the slackers and lackwits. Efforts to unionize have been and will continue to be fruitless. And so, things will get worse.

    To specifically address the current outrage, Director Mike Anastasio's plan to expand random drug testing, one can say that it's true that LANL has had far, far too many security and safety incidents over the past decade. But I can't think of a single one in which the cause was traced back to drug use or alcohol overconsumption. This means we'll be spending money that the contractor doesn't have (they're facing a $150M + shortfall this year) to solve a problem that the lab doesn't have, and raping the Fourth Amendment in the process. (Yes, I know the workplace drug laws have been routinely upheld, but when the courts write that some things are too important for Constitutional protections to apply, what're you to think?) THIS is the kind of visionary thinking that made LANS the winning contractor?

    /Pee in cups for LANL

    //Take polygraphs for LANL

    ///Hates self for it

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 01, 2007 @07:49PM (#17426442)
    Define lying. You can't detect something 100% until you can get a 100% consensus on what it is.

    I'll humor the question and give the predictable answer of "social interaction is largely composed of lying." I've been what the hypocrites who accuse others of being liars call "brutally honest". It's not socially acceptable.

    Then there is the fact that it would not be capable of discerning lies that the teller believe to be true. So then we are left with measuring intent. People are capable of creating entire second personalities whose "intentions" are 100% congruent with what they say. Then they switch back to the intentions they act on when they are no longer being watched. Even if that was possible to beat, do we fire anyone who has a strong conviction to their own interests? There goes competitiveness.

    If it was possible, after a long series of misguided collosal failures in business and politics, and the economy slowly going downhill, even the gullible idiots would start to get disgusted with "honesty". Pursuit of trustworthiness is a misguided pursuit of performance. If people successfully found trustworthiness, but performance went downhill, its use would get confined and restricted to extremely limited circumstances where it actually contributes to performance. Kinda like the existing uses of polygraphs. *Gasp*

    Here's to faith, honesty, morals, and a lack of critical thinking.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 01, 2007 @08:27PM (#17426792)
    There is a fantastic book which examines exactly this as fiction...

    Truth Machine by James Halperin

    Highly recommended
  • by nsaspook ( 20301 ) on Monday January 01, 2007 @10:03PM (#17427758) Homepage
    Back in the day, you could lose it by getting the clap too many times.
    http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/doctrine/dod/dod d-5210_42.htm/ [fas.org]
  • by smenor ( 905244 ) on Monday January 01, 2007 @10:32PM (#17427984) Homepage

    It makes me wonder who actually administers these involuntary tests, surely not a card carrying member of the APA.

    Probably someone like this guy [affordablepolygraph.com].

  • by wasted ( 94866 ) on Monday January 01, 2007 @11:19PM (#17428308)
    ...I hear that you can beat them by curling your toes //It's not a lie if you believe it's true

    Whether or not you believe it is a lie is often not relevant. If the subject/victim knows that the purpose is to find out who committed a specific act, it is likely that there will be some sort of response when that question is asked, whether the subject/victim committed that act or not. I know of one case where the employee knew that he was going to be asked about taking money from the safe. They asked the question, he had a response, and the polygraph basta... er, company stated that he was guilty of taking money from the safe. The fact that he didn't have keys to the safe didn't even slow them down in making their assertion.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 01, 2007 @11:36PM (#17428418)
    If you do actually know how it works, you'll be more nervous about false positives than about any actual lying

    Exactly. I've taken the counter-inteligence poly several times. (and I'm breaking the rules by posting this) I was far more afraid of false positives - particularly since I know I didn't do anything! I've read a good bit about polygraphs - and the false alarm rate is absurdly high, particularly for "fishing expedition" types of exams such as the counter-intel poly.

    Now, the failure rate for these tests isn't nearly what the documented false alarm rates would suggest they should be. I've worked in jobs requiring polys for 12 years and I've never known anybody to "fail" one. Many called back for further interogation, but all eventually passed. So I can only suppose that either

    1. The government has perfected the polygraph.

    2. The actual results aren't as important as subjecting you to the process.

    Which do you believe??

    Actually, I suspect polys are a useful tool in self-eliminating untrustworthy people from sensitive jobs, or frightening people in those jobs from doing something wrong. But it doesn't do it by detecting these people - it's just the threat. Is it an invasion of privacy? I suppose - but you give up much of that when you agree to the background investigation and such. From what I've heard, the "lifestyle" poly was very invasive. Thankfully I've never had one. Don't know if they still do them or not.

    Interestingly, I was called back on my first poly. It seems I lie to well. They ask you questions and you are required to deliberately answer untruthfully. "Have you ever broken a traffic law", "Have you ever had an argument with a loved one", etc. It's supposed to give them a baseline on what your "untruthful" response looks like. Apparently mine didn't rise above the noise.

    Regarding the orginal article - I applaud the brave souls at LANL, but I don't expect they will get many signatures on their petition, and fewer that stick to it when push comes to shove. The average joe is more concerned about a steady paycheck then making a stand on principle. And I do suspect these guys will lose their jobs, or be transferred to less sensitive position.

  • by Durandal64 ( 658649 ) on Tuesday January 02, 2007 @03:06AM (#17429510)

    No, polygraphs are just bullshit, period. There is no scientific way to employ them because they make a fatally flawed assumption: that lying causes increases in vital measurements. There is absolutely no evidence at all to support this assumption. Increases in vitals like body temperature, perspiration and heart rate correlate with nervousness, not deception. Furthermore, a suspect reacting to the word "shotgun" is not informative in the slightest. The shotgun from Doom might've just been his favorite weapon in that game. Or he might have some other past traumatic experience with a shotgun. It means nothing.

    Polygraphs are just another interrogation tool to make the suspect feel more powerless and make the interrogator look more powerful. If the suspect believes that the interrogator is omniscient or the only person who can help him, he'll be more honest. Polygraphs are just another deception that actually works on street punks who don't know shit, but won't fool anyone with basic scientific knowledge.

  • by sco08y ( 615665 ) on Tuesday January 02, 2007 @04:00AM (#17429714)
    Its fun to imagine how the world would reshape itself. Would it be good, or a disaster.

    Did you ever watch Babylon 5? (If you didn't: psychics were relatively common and telepathic screening was standard procedure in the corporate world.)
  • Re:Polygraphs ... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Insightfill ( 554828 ) on Tuesday January 02, 2007 @12:55PM (#17432602) Homepage
    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.

    For larger organizations, esp. government or those that work with the government, it can be very difficult to fire anyone after hiring them, regardless of cause. For example, I understand that at Motorola, an employee who fails a drug test is offered firing or on-the-clock drug counselling. After class is complete, they are retested. If they fail, they are sent back to class, etc.

    BTW: it's worth mentioning that some would consider a drug user or abuser a BETTER candidate for some jobs, esp. commissioned sales. With a strong incentive to earn personal money, they can be pretty aggressive in sales.

  • by fishbowl ( 7759 ) on Tuesday January 02, 2007 @01:21PM (#17432924)
    "I will make a sworn deposition or affadavit with my attorney present at the interview, and will answer any questions at that time which my attorney agrees I am obligated to answer."

    A deposition is acceptable as evidence in the Supreme Court, with far less gray area for admissibility than a polygraph test. If anyone who wants to give you a polygraph test inists on it when you offer a deposition, I would assume they have a clandestine motive.

  • Re:Bogus statistics (Score:3, Interesting)

    by kripkenstein ( 913150 ) on Tuesday January 02, 2007 @01:26PM (#17433012) Homepage
    I'm unaware of any valid experimental design that uses a sample size of 1.

    True, and a good point - although the sample size isn't 1, in what I described, just one of the groups is of that size. But your argument is still strong (more on this later).

    From the false positive and false negative rates you have to compute the positive (and negative) predictive value -- that is, the probability that somebody who tests positive (or negative) really has (or does not have) what the test shows. To compute positive predictive value you need to know the prevalance in the population being tested. Suppose the prevalance is 1 in 1000 and you test at random. That means that for every true positive you'll get ten false positives. That is, the positive predictive value is 9%. A far cry from 99%!

    Yes, of course. I was referring to this issue when I mentioned the "prior for the Null Hypothesis" and the use of Bayes' theorem. Obviously without a prior, you can't calculate the probability that you want.

    The only thing different from the standard testing protocol is what you correctly pointed out, mentioned above, that there is only a single case in one of the groups. I must now confess to believing my statistics Professor a little too quickly when he described this - it does demand some thought. I'll have to get back to you on this one.

    I don't believe there is any physiological test of truthfulness that has shown anything even resembling a statistically significant result

    Well, again, "truthfulness" isn't the issue here. What we are testing for is mental content. The Stroop Effect which I mentioned is a great example for this, it is an highly accurate test which is very hard to fool. By a Stoop-type test you can check if someone knows a language; by Priming-type tests you can test whether someone is familiar with a particular stimulus (although in that one, familiarity means you react faster, so it is easier to fool - just slow down). In summary: "Truth" - no test for it (a problematic concept anyhow); objective measures of cognitive content (saw stimulus X before or not, etc.) - yes, we can test for (some) things like this.

    The controlled experiments for polygraphs have shown between 40% and 70% false positive and false negative rates which, for the sample sizes used, are indistinguishable from chance.

    Once more I must point out, that we are in 100% agreement about the commonly-used polygraph. I am not defending it. I am against it. Arguments against the polygraph are not arguments against what I am defending, since I am defending something different.

"If the code and the comments disagree, then both are probably wrong." -- Norm Schryer