On Giants' Shoulders

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Vindication Raises Some Questions

Once upon a time there were doctors who thought you could diagnose people's personalities by the bumps on their head (this was known as phrenology). We laugh at the notion now. Once upon a time people believed that pouring alcohol into certain sections of the front of the brain was good medicine, we cringe at the thought. Once upon a time people believed you could determine someone's guilt or innocence depending on whether they drowned when you threw them into water, now we see that as foolishness. Once upon a time people believed that if you hooked people up to a machine and asked them questions in a threatening manner you could determine if they were telling the truth. Oh wait, some people still believe that...

Today the paper announced the news that John and Patsy Ramsey (and their son Burke as well) have been cleared in the murder of their daughter Jon Benet. A lot of the reason that people believed the Ramsey's to be guilty was because of inconclusive polygraph test results. There's a tendency among police officials and some other government people to think that anything but a blazingly clear polygraph indicates deception. Of course, they realize that some guilty people have a result that indicates they're telling the truth, but don't confuse them with facts when their minds are already made up.

John and Patsy Ramsey didn't suddenly become not the perpetrators of their daughter's murder today. It's just that it's only now that the evidence that cleared them has become available. Yet when they took those polygraph tests they were telling the truth. The machine simply wasn't able to demonstrate that fact, for whatever reason. Some people are not good subjects for the machine, some operators are inept, some operators are so busy trying to illicit an emotional response that they render their results meaningless.

Yet, the polygraph is being depended on more and more for things like pre-employment screening. Some candidates lie and get past the machine anyway, some candidates are scrupulously honest and get inconclusive results with the result that they aren't hired, some lucky candidates take the test and pass it while telling the truth. I imagine that some people had the right shape head bumps when phrenology was all the rage as well. I also imagine that a lot of the people who didn't drown when thrown in the water were simply people who had somehow learned to swim. Of course, the ones who did drown, didn't exactly profit by their demonstrated innocence.... I suspect that a couple of hundred years from now people will be laughing at their foolish ancestors for believing that truth could be determined by a machine. It's just that today, for people unjustly accused of crimes, or being denied jobs there's really nothing to laugh about.

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