The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession

Ken Alder, Author
Ken Alder, Author . Free Press $27 (334p) ISBN 978-0-7432-5988-0
Reviewed on: 12/18/2006
Release date: 03/01/2007

Adler (The Measure of All Things ) spins a yarn of scientific innovation and personal vituperation set against the backdrop of mid-20th-century America. In a steady, workmanlike way, he weaves together the lives and careers of the triumvirate responsible for "America's mechanical conscience." Developed in 1921 by John Larson, a cop with a Ph.D. in physiology, the lie detector was championed by Berkeley police chief August Vollmer and further refined by Leonarde Keeler, a jack-of-all-trades and relentless self-promoter. Sadly, the three men, who had worked well together, fell prey to jealousy and infighting that destroyed their friendship. While painting a rich, complex portrait of these men, Adler 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." Adler's skepticism places him in line with the scientific community: study after study has found that polygraphing techniques "do not pass scientific muster." Though this account is densely packed with dramatic material, Adler fails to bring it fully to life. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Mar. 6)

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