Thursday, October 16, 2014

Paul Ekman's Lie Detection program is a bunch of baloney

The Chronicle of Higher Education
"On the public-policy front, Ekman’s work helped inspire an immense federal program in American airports called SPOT, for Screening of Passengers by Observational Techniques. Costing about $200-million annually—$900-million in all since 2007—the program, run by the Transportation Security Administration, deploys more than 3,000 officers to look for behavioral cues in the faces and body language of airline passengers. Those deemed suspicious are pulled aside and, if they display more signs of duplicity during an interview, are referred to law enforcement.
But Ekman’s lie-detection work has recently taken some hard blows. He has long had academic critics (unmentioned in Blink) who say he has not proved that his behavior-based lie-detection techniques actually work. In November 2013, the Government Accountability Office took things up a notch by recommending that Congress cut the funding of the TSA program. The watchdog agency argued that neither scholarship in general nor specific analyses of SPOT offered any proof that malign intent could be divined by looking at body language or facial cues.
Plenty of academics share this negative view of SPOT. "I really don’t think the current program at TSA is doing anything to protect us," says Charles R. Honts, a professor of psychology at Boise State University, who has consulted with the Department of Defense on behavioral observation.
This is the rare social-science debate in which lives are at stake. If the GAO is to be believed, a 10-year government investment has been a waste, and possibly a dangerous one, if it provided a false sense of security. Is the science behind the SPOT program so misbegotten that it should be abandoned? Or might it be a promising program with a few flaws? Ekman argues that the GAO failed to consider the most up-to-date and pertinent research on the subject, and that pulling behavioral-detection officers out of airports would amount to "open season for terrorists." But his critics say the world’s most famous lie detector has been stretching the truth a bit himself, offering an exaggerated account of his findings to a credulous press and policy makers."

This would have certainly fit Carl Sagan's definition of "A Celebration of Ignorance."

The U.S. government spends millions on a "spot the terrorist by examining body language" program that doesn't work. Before that, it spent millions on a "combat-harden our soldiers' minds" program that doesn't work. Why is any of this a surprise? For nearly 50 years, the U.S. government has been spending billions a year on a free pre-school for poor children program that doesn't work. Should we blame psychologists such as Paul Ekman and Martin Seligman for lining up at the money-filled troughs?

Aside from incinerating hundreds of thousands of Japanese women and children and going to the moon and then stopping ingloriously, what has the federal government ever done that worked?

Oh wait, I forgot about Teddy:

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