In this fascinating history of the lie detector, Ken Alder exposes some persistent truths about our culture: why we long to know the secret thoughts of our fellow citizens; why we believe in popular science; and why we embrace “truthiness.” For centuries people searched in vain for a way to unmask liars, seeking clues in the body’s outward signs: in blushing cheeks and shifty eyes. Not until the 1920s did a cop with a PhD team up with an entrepreneurial high school student and claim to have invented a foolproof machine capable of peering directly into the human heart. Scientists repudiated the technique, and judges banned its results from criminal trials, but in a few years their polygraph had transformed police work, seized headlines, and enthralled the nation.
In this book, Alder explains why America—and only America—has embraced this mechanical method of reading the human soul. Over the course of the twentieth century, the lie detector became integral to our justice system, employment markets, and national security apparatus, transforming each into a game of bluff and bluster. The lie detector device may not reliably read the human mind, but this lively account shows that the instrument’s history offers a unique window into the American soul.
“The lie detector and its strange persistent grip on the American imagination offers rich material for Mr. Alder to work with. How many stories require William James, Gertrude Stein and Dick Tracy for the telling, not to mention criminals like the Torso Murderer of Cleveland? Stir into the mix a mutually hostile coterie of inventors, scientific visionaries and outright hucksters, and you have the ingredients for a heady brew.”—William Grimes, New York Times
“A rollicking good time.”— Robin Marantz Henig, Wall Street Journal
“This engrossing portrait of two lives ruled by the lie detector is enhanced by Alder's cultural clarity about the credence accorded to the mechanical confessional.”—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist
“Alder spins a yarn of scientific innovation and personal vituperation set against the backdrop of mid-20th-century America. . . . While painting a rich, complex portrait of these men, Alder remains admirably skeptical of the machine itself, which he says is a uniquely American invention, designed to satisfy “a nation obsessed by criminal disorder and political corruption.’”—Publishers Weekly
“[Alder] offers us a rich history, organized around the careers of the individuals who conceived, developed and marketed the lie detector. He does not shy away from discussing larger questions about the culture that embraced the machine and allowed it to flourish, but he patiently waits until the developments in his story beg such discussion. The result is a fluent tale, personal yet pensive, well researched yet far from stuffy. This is Alder’s distinct style, and it has made him of the very few academic historians of science who have been able to cross over and attract large numbers of lay readers.”—Tal Golan, American Scientist
“[A] revealing, colloquial social history.”—David Wallace-Wells, Washington Monthly
"In The Lie Detectors, Alder has penned the definitive account of the device's invention and its explosion on the American stage."—Jon M. Sands, Jurimetrics