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National Academy Reviewing Scientific
Evidence for Polygraphs

 Dianne Brown Maranto
APA Science Directorate

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has begun an 18-month study, funded by the Department of Energy (DOE), to review the scientific evidence for the reliability and validity of the polygraph. The Panel to Review the Scientific Evidence on the Polygraph met for the first time January 26 to plan the study. In January 2000, the DOE implemented a new policy requiring polygraph exams to screen employees and contractors who have access to sensitive or classified information about the design or production of nuclear weapons. Prompted by Congress on the heels of the Wen Ho Lee case, the policy could have led to thousands of DOE employees and contractors being subjected to polygraph tests. However, the Department scaled down its implementation, limiting the number of polygraph tests to approximately 800 annually.

Even reducing the numbers, the new policy was met with considerable resistance from DOE employees and scientists who question the validity of the polygraph in detecting deception. At the urging of Senate Democrats, DOE is now investing almost $1 million to evaluate the scientific evidence for the polygraph. The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on DOE Security issues February 8. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham (former Republican senator of Michigan) testified, noting the tension between the Departments need to attract and retain top-notch scientists and the need to screen this population for security purposes.

This is not the first time the polygraph test has come under public and scientific scrutiny. In 1988 Congress passed the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, prohibiting private sector employers from using the polygraph on employees or prospective employees. The federal government was exempted, particularly in cases of national defense and security. The Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Federal Bureau of Investigations, and Central Intelligence Agency use the polygraph in criminal investigations, counterintelligence cases, and foreign intelligence.

Psychologists testifying before the Congress in 1988 expressed caution against relying on the polygraph to detect deception. Their compelling testimony about the polygraphs poor reliability and validity ultimately led APAs Council to adopt a position of great reservation about the use of polygraph tests to detect deception. The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) published a report in 1983 concluding that, while there is some evidence for the validity of polygraph testing as an adjunct to criminal investigations, there is very little research or scientific evidence to establish polygraph test validity in screening situations. The same year, the Department of Defense produced a research summary attesting to the usefulness of the polygraph in criminal justice and counterintelligence operations.

The current NAS study plans to include an analysis of the effect of medications, sleep deprivation, and illness on the physiological responses measured. They also plan to examine the use of the polygraph with other measures. Psychologists are apt to be heavy contributors to the NAS study. Several psychologists have been appointed to the Panel, including John Cacioppo, PhD, James Blascovich, PhD, Richard Davison, PhD, and Paul Ekman, PhD. Furthermore, the study director will be soliciting scientific information from scientists conducting research in this area.

If you have information that is relevant to the study, you can contact the NAS study director, Paul Stern, at pstern@nas.edu. For more information on NASs study, check out their Web page at http://www.nas.edu/ and search under current projects. This panel is housed under NASs Division on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education.

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