Five Posts on Polygraphs: A Summary

This introduction curates the next five posts. My name is Dr. Vera Wilde, and I’m a transparency activist and polygraph researcher. I hold a Ph.D in American Politics from the University of Virginia, and was also the appellant in Sack v. DOD, a 2016 federal appellate court ruling authored by Judge Brett Kavanaugh. (As a sidenote: Information environment overload, urgency, and other factors mean that it makes most sense to publish this all now and hope the message gets where it needs to go instead of going to gatekeepers, if it needs to get somewhere…)

The first of these posts, “Deference to Deception,” is about how Kavanaugh’s judicial history as a judge shows he would compromise the independent judiciary. He exhibited undue deference to a dishonest executive branch in Sack v. DOD (2016), one of my polygraph open records cases. He wrote an opinion for the majority granting DOD’s request to maintain secrecy because they call polygraphs an important tool for law enforcement. But the scientific consensus for ninety years has been that polygraphs are unreliable. This suggests Kavanaugh would be a dysfunctional Supreme Court Justice when it comes to checking abusive executive branch power, because he failed to do so in the past.

The second, “Deceiving Due Process: Polygraphs Put Junk Science in the Limelight,” is about how polygraphs continue to play a central role in this national saga. That’s wrong, because they’re junk science. Polygraphs don’t belong anywhere near important issues. Yet people on both sides of the aisle continue to be guilty of using polygraphs for their purposes when it serves them, and then suddenly remembering that they’re unreliable when it doesn’t. That’s also how polygraph programs sometimes seem to work in several agencies: They provide cover to target people under falsely neutral, scientific pretenses.

The third, “Bad Apples and Bad Barrels: Bias and Corruption in Polygraphy,” summarizes my original research. Polygraphs are vulnerable to bias, abuse, and fraud. As anti-corruption programs, they backfire. There’s a government office—the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—that helps address such problems. They just need one Congressperson to ask them to do it.

The fourth, “Truth Matters: The way polygraphs are currently being used in politics, everyone loses,” takes a broader view of why, if polygraphs are junk science and Kavanaugh defended them as a federal judge, everyone loses no matter what happens next in his confirmation hearings. If the Democrats succeed in blocking the nomination because one of Kavanaugh’s accusers passed a polygraph test, everyone loses because junk science affected national politics. Conversely, if the Republicans succeed in ramming the confirmation through before the midterms, the newest Supreme Court Justice will be one who knowingly let the executive branch lie in Court and bowed down to, instead of balancing, its abuse of power in the polygraph case Sack v. DOD.

And the fifth is an open letter to apparent swing Senators on the Kavanaugh confirmation vote. If other people think it’s right and important, then they’re gratefully welcome to use the same sorts of arguments to reach out to the same sorts of people. A swing Senator—whose political trajectory will be forever affected by how he or she votes on the Kavanaugh nomination—should step back after making this decision, and recognize that junk science adversely affects national politics. Ask GAO to audit federal polygraph programs for bias and efficacy. Bring science back.

A sixth post is implied, agitating for better institutions to imbue policy with science. It was unclear to whom one would address such agitation, however, if not to the people who authorize public institutions in a liberal democratic society. And how that might work in an anti-intellectual democratic society deepens the puzzle. One cannot simply call for a revolution of scientists, for scientific institutions, too, are vulnerable to corruption—and scientists to human error.

However, as a growing cadre of people are noticing, the corruption entrenching all of our most dire collective action problems as a civilization today is not an information problem. From climate change and mass surveillance to campaign finance reform and drug policy, contemporary institutions failing to integrate scientific evidence into public policy is the number one threat to humanity among other species. If we channeled a little bit of the resources America currently spends on national security into solving this problem—which is also in itself a national security and fiscal responsibility problem—then it would pay dividends in savings and in lives.