Where truth is a valuable commodity

Abstract: There is big money in finding the liars out there.

Even a cursory glance at our daily newspapers would give credence to the opinion of the famous poet and essayist WH Auden that politics cannot be a science because “in politics, there is a distinction, unknown to science, between Truth and Justice.” However, the race is on in science to design, manufacture and roll out what would be the greatest threat to politics as we know it: an accurate lie-detector.

With the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, it is neuroscience – the study of the brain and the nervous system – that has been dubbed ‘the new genetics’. Like the world’s oceans, the brain remains largely unexamined – something of a mystery – and this is why neuroscientists are busy trawling through reams of studies in an attempt to get to know better, that which makes us human.

And to be human also means to lie. Unlike other mammals that use deception either to evade capture or to lure in prey, humans seem wired to be enthusiastically elastic with the truth. Beyond the annoying disruption of normal social discourse, this poses significant problems for formal civic structures – such as courts, policing and security operations – where lying can have serious consequences.

This is why, just as the quest to map the human genome saw research organisations pitted against each other in a race for reputational glory, neurotechnology companies around the world are competing furiously for the design of the lie-detection equivalent of DNA testing; except the prize is far more valuable.

It’s been estimated that in the US alone there are approximately thirty million civil and criminal cases every year, at least ten percent of which involve substantial amounts of money; and here’s the catch: their outcome invariably boils down to the balance of disputed testimonies. It’s been suggested that if science can produce the technology to test, unequivocally, whether someone is lying, it could not only save time and money, it could completely revolutionise the justice system.

What about the polygraph? As a device that measures parameters such as respiration, blood pressure and skin conductivity, as involuntary physiological reactions to the stress of lying, it has limited applications. It may be used as part of portfolio of tests in interviews for screening procedures, but there are few courts of law that will admit its application as evidence, especially where a verdict hangs on the question of reasonable doubt. It can also be beaten.

According to neurologists, the secret to whether or not someone is lying is locked away in the source of any lie: the brain, and to find it requires some careful scanning. However, a lie is not like a tumour or a blood clot that casts a dark smudge or shadow as it digs itself in. Instead it manifests itself as a feint trickle of activity scurrying across multiple regions of the brain.

But no two paths are the same, and a lie can also take on various shapes and sizes. It can be spontaneous or rehearsed. It could also be a brief, single burst of casual invention to deflect suspicion, or part of a richly textured fabrication designed to emotionally manipulate others.

Accordingly, the act of lying involves several independent mental operations. Not only does the truth need to be suppressed, but the lie also needs to be constructed in a way as to be presented as the possible truth. Because this involves the neurological equivalent of dual bookkeeping, it is believed that some form of physiological trace is always left behind. If this is the case then the neurological equivalent of forensic accounting should be able to follow the trail to its genesis.

What has become clear however, is that, even neurologically, lying is very clever in its subterfuge, and that any attempt to throw a spotlight on it will require searching other neural functions such as memory, the construction of reality, and emotions.

But aggressive, unrelenting scientific enquiry has a habit of digging around in even the darkest recesses of our natural world; and, if it’s fuelled by illimitable financial support, sooner or later it’ll blow the lid on any trickery. In the US alone there are about fifty laboratories examining the neurology of lying, and they’re all eyeing the market for a machine that could provide scientific proof if someone were lying. According to the company Cephos – one of the main drivers in the business of lie-detection – truth is a valuable commodity.

This may sound like science fiction, but it’s actually closer to fact. Some prototypes are, it is claimed, “in the final stages of testing”, and some have even had their day in court, although qualification for the legal standards of scientific evidence – the equivalent of DNA testing – is a highly rigorous procedure.

It’s only a matter of time, which means that the days of empty promises, duplicity and double-dealing – the traditional tools of the trade of politicians – are numbered.

So where could they then go to exercise their deviousness and conspiracy at the expense of the masses, away from prying eyes, and protected by a brotherhood of secrecy and the promise of rescue should things go awry?

There’s always investment banking.

Originally published in the November edition of Leadership