Open Letter to Senators on Kavanaugh and Polygraphs

Open Letter to Senators on Kavanaugh and Polygraphs

To: Senators
Re: After Kavanaugh, Address Polygraphs

Dear Senators Jeff Flake, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Joe Manchin,

A lot of people are asking you to vote one way or another on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. It’s an important issue, and one I hope you decide well.

But I’m writing to you about something different, related, and equally important: a larger issue the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings raise that is overlooked. Whichever way you vote, polygraphs will have affected your decision. That’s wrong, because this is an issue of great national importance, and polygraphs are junk science.

It’s also sadly unavoidable now for partisan reasons that this particular fraud will influence an issue of great national importance. If the Democrats succeed in blocking the nomination in part because one of Kavanaugh’s accusers passed a polygraph test, everyone loses because polygraphs are unreliable. Junk science should not affect national politics, but someone in Congress decided to use a polygraph to assess the accuser’s credibility regarding allegations of sexual assault. That was wrong and should never happen again.

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. That’s what Kavanaugh apparently did as a federal appeals court judge writing the opinion in my open records request case Sack v. DOD (2016). That case was a final defeat in my long graduate school quest to obtain records on bias in polygraphy.

When I say polygraphs are junk, I know what I’m talking about. The National Science Foundation supported my doctoral dissertation research on bias in polygraphy. That research somewhat expectedly found evidence of bias, and unexpectedly also found evidence that polygraph programs backfire. Instead of causing police departments that use them for recruit selection to hire more honest officers, they seem to make agencies hire more officers who are later better able to lie to get out of trouble when people complain that they have committed violence. This suggests that instead of exporting polygraphs as anti-corruption tools, the government should stop using them.

Evidence already shows polygraph programs are vulnerable to bias in some cases and contexts, and generate waste, fraud, and abuse. But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) could audit federal polygraph programs specifically for systematic bias—and efficacy. By either gaining data access that GAO theoretically cannot be denied, or conducting field experiments to obtain otherwise inaccessible data, or both, GAO could definitively answer questions that non-transparency has prevented other researchers from answering. This type of GAO audit could provide the rationale for immediately ending all government polygraph programs.

Your political trajectory will be forever affected by how you vote on the Kavanaugh nomination. And either way, polygraphs will have mattered. Please take steps to keep this pseudoscience from affecting national politics again in the future. Ask GAO to audit federal polygraph programs for bias and efficacy. Then take evidence-based action on the basis of the audit results, which seem likely to be bad news for polygraph programs based on a wealth of already available evidence.

Please consider putting the truth first. Pseudoscience should never influence the fate of the nation. We need institutional solutions to the corruption problems that are keeping the real evidence from setting the terms of the discussions that count.

Thanks and best regards,
Dr. Vera Wilde, Ph.D.

P.S. – References and more information are available on my website at www.verawil.de, which also has my contact information should you wish to discuss.

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