I met Doug Williams in August while developing a pilot for a TV show about myth busting. He’s the most vocal critic of polygraph machines in the world and authored the book From Cop to Crusader: My Fight Against the Dangerous Myth of “Lie Detection.” Williams” history in law enforcement brought him from the Oklahoma City Police Department to the White House where he served under Johnson and Nixon as a communications advisor (Johnson was cool, Nixon was a dick). He has issued thousands of polygraph tests over the years and even helped make the test part of federal law.
Doug started to realize the whole thing was a scam in the late 1970s and since then has devoted his entire life to giving everyone else the same epiphany. Unfortunately, the government doesn”t see it the same way and on May 12th, his trial will begin for the crime of “train[ing]… customers how to conceal misconduct and other disqualifying information.” He was busted by two undercover federal agents who took his course and decided the class had gone from simply “debunking” to “aiding and abetting.” The Feds are trying to say that Williams is hampering investigations, but all he’s doing is proving these machines don”t work by presenting evidence. 60 Minutes did the same thing in a 1986 episode where three out of three experts failed their own test. People are losing their jobs and going to prison based on the findings of a machine that appears to be totally unreliable. The only thing he’s hampering here is the abuse of power. The irony is, if it’s possible to beat a polygraph, it clearly isn”t a reliable piece of equipment. If it’s not possible to beat, his courses are irrelevant. You can teach someone to trick a police radar all you want. It’s still going to clock you if you”re going over the speed limit. This seems like common sense yet the state has won cases like this before. In 2013, an electrician named Chad Dixon was sentenced to 8 months in jail for helping people beat the machine.
When I first met Doug I thought he was some kind of conspiracy nut. He’s a bombastic Okie with shoulder-length gray hair and cowboy boots. I had just met a professional polygraph instructor in Britain who seemed way more legitimate. This was likely due to the British accent, which commands more intellectual authority than a Southern one. Even when the redneck is smarter. It’s an annoying assumption most of us make that probably has something to do with both the American Revolution and the Civil War.
Williams” technique is pretty intuitive. You relax during the scary questions and think of something horrifying during the normal or “control” questions. This gives you a consistent readout. I believe the reason the machine goes nuts when you”re asked, “Did you kill that man?” is because it’s a stressful thing to have to answer, no mater how innocent you are. All you have to do to counter this is think happy thoughts.
Though interrogations usually last hours, the actual test itself only takes about ten minutes. They put a cord around your chest and your waist and then they attach something to your finger. You also have to sit on a butt pad that is supposed to be able to tell if you clench your anus. This alone should tell you how bogus this whole thing is. Where’s the footpad for when I curl my toes? You feel like you”re in the electric chair with all this stuff on. Doug believes this is the whole point. “It’s about intimidation,” he says, as he tightened the cord that monitors my breathing.
We used real information for the test. The crime I was guilty of was reading my wife’s texts. When he asked me about that I denied it while also imagining sitting in a hammock and reading a book on the beach. When Doug asked me if my name was Gavin, I recalled the time my youngest had to have surgery and became totally panicked. The end result was every question had an equal reaction. We did the test a couple of times and I started experimenting. I clenched my butt for one of them and couldn”t see any difference on the read out.
I don”t see these machines as any more legitimate than the E-meter Scientologists use to read your ohms. At first, I thought the whole thing was funny but when I thought about all the innocent lives this thing has ruined, it became a lot less hilarious.
After leaving the meeting with Doug I went and met with two other interrogators. When they put the sensor on my finger I asked exactly what the thing reads and got a different answer each time. One said it measures the electromagnetic energy my finger gives out. The other said it measures moisture. I think it measures my heart rate and I also believe it’s the only thing that actually gives out a valid reading. All the other lines on the chart seemed to look equally erratic no matter what I did. When they asked the control question I pushed my toe against a tack I had hidden in my shoe. Williams doesn”t like this technique because it gives such a wildly inconsistent reading. The results showed a massive swerve on my finger-reading line when “Is your name Gavin?” was asked. Probably because my toe was in pain. This made every other question look flat by comparison. It also voided the entire test.