Tag Archives: Morton Tavel

Lie Detectors and the First Amendment

Anyone who watches dramatized detective shows–especially those of the CSI variety–knows that the real starring role is played by technology: cool, highly sophisticated devices that virtually no real-life crime lab can afford. These shows are fun, but accuracy isn’t the strong suit of storylines that need to be resolved in an hour’s time. (Fingerprint identification isn’t the slam dunk that Abby’s computer makes it seem on NCIS.)

Even the popular culture shows that don’t rely on “gee whiz” gadgetry, however, routinely use lie detectors. So the general public can be forgiven for thinking that lie detectors work.

They don’t. At least, not reliably. As Morton Tavel has noted

In 2003, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), after a comprehensive review, issued a report entitled “The Polygraph and Lie Detection,” stating that the majority of polygraph research was “unreliable, unscientific and biased”, concluding that 57 of approximately 80 research studies—upon which the American Polygraph Association relies—were significantly flawed. It concluded that, although the test performed better than chance in catching lies—although far from perfect—perhaps most importantly, they found the test produced too many false positives.

In other words, nervous people who are telling the truth can easily fail the test. And many do.

This lack of reliability is widely understood in the legal community and among police officers; it’s why most courtrooms don’t admit lie detector results into evidence. It’s also why several ex-police officers have spoken out against their use, and why a subset of them has helped job applicants and others who face “screening” by detectors learn techniques that will help them pass.

And that brings us to a fascinating question. Is helping people pass a lie detector test a crime? What if you aren’t just helping Nervous Nellie tell the truth in a way that won’t trip the machine, but you are helping Sneaky Sam lie?

Douglas Gene Williams, a former Oklahoma City police polygraphist and the proprietor of Polygraph.com,  has been teaching individuals how to pass polygraph tests since 1979. He has recently been indicted for mail fraud and witness tampering for allegedly “persuad[ing] or attempting to persuade” two undercover agents posing as customers “to conceal material facts and make false statements with the intent to influence, delay, and prevent the testimony” of the undercover agents “in an official proceeding….”

Williams’ defenders say this is entrapment, that the attempt to shut him down is implicit acknowledgment that the tests don’t work, and that Williams has a free speech right to criticize their use by demonstrating their manifest unreliability. Others–including many polygraph critics and yours truly–say that helping guilty people fool the tests goes beyond advocacy, and is a bridge too far.

What say you?

 

Health and the Market

Well, I see that the Congressional GOP is threatening to shut down the government in October if the Democrats block repeal of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, and the partisan rhetoric is predictably flying.

A Democratic friend sent me an email listing the multiple sins of the Bush Administration, from wars of choice to decimation of the economy to the massive increase in the national debt; the message was something like “You didn’t get mad about any of these things, but now a black guy wants to provide healthcare to Americans who don’t have it, and that makes you mad!?” A Republican friend sent me a similarly incendiary message insisting that Obama is a “socialist” who hates capitalism and wants to destroy the market “that made American health care the best in the world.”

Let’s stipulate that not everyone who opposes Obamacare is a racist, and that American healthcare before the ACA was not only not the best in the world, but actually ranks around 37th. Other than that, my purpose is not to engage these arguments, but to point to a perfect example of the way “the market” works in areas like healthcare, where buyers and sellers are not on equal footing, and do not possess the sort of equivalent information that is necessary for markets to work.

I have previously referred to a book written my cousin, Morton Tavel, in which he takes on the “snake oil” aspects of the healthcare industry. He has now created a blog devoted to the subject, and his first post is a perfect example of “the market” in medicine–a discussion of all the ads about “low T”–testosterone deficiency. I encourage you to click through and read the whole post, but the bottom line is that  “low T” is extremely rare. The numbers the manufacturers are hyping are misleading at best and fraudulent at worst, and the “remedy” they are promoting is expensive, unnecessary and unlikely to restore the virility of the aging men who miss their morning erections.

Markets are wonderful where they work. And they work more often than they don’t. But in those areas where they don’t work, they enable the snake oil salesmen who prey on the unwary and drive up costs for everyone.

As with so many policy debates, this isn’t an “either-or” debate between all market all the time and socializing every aspect of the economy. We “socialize” functions that markets cannot efficiently provide–police and fire protection, infrastructure provision, national defense, public education. We leave to the market those economic areas where markets have proven their effectiveness.

The decision whether to leave an activity to the market or provide it through government should be based on evidence, not ideology. And as every other western industrialized country has long recognized, the evidence for government’s role in healthcare is overwhelming, just as the evidence for the market in consumer goods and manufacturing is overwhelming.

The evidence also tells us a lot about elected representatives who–having lost the argument–are willing to shut down the American government in order to protect the profits of health insurers and drug companies.

The Persistence of Snake Oil

Morton Tavel, a well-known Indianapolis cardiologist, has previously confined his writing to medical journals and textbooks. Recently, however, he has written a very readable book intended to discomfit most of its readers. “Snake Oil is Alive and Well: the Clash Between Myths and Reality” takes on the logical fallacies and medical frauds so near and dear to the hearts of most Americans.

Full disclosure here: I would never have come across this e-book on my own; the author is my cousin. That said, I downloaded it from Amazon a few weeks ago and have now finished reading it. And my connection to the author is absolutely irrelevant to my recommendation–honestly!

For most readers, the value of the book will lie in its clear explanations, especially its exhaustive lists of medical/dietary hocus-pocus and distinction between good and bad science. Most of us have fallen for at least some of the identified quackery at one time or another.

For me, however, the central “take-away” was a meditation on the unquenchable desire of most of us humans for quick and easy solutions to our problems.

That desire is in tension with the scientific method, which is slow and painstaking and requires empirical observation and the accumulation of evidence over time before (inevitably conditional) conclusions are drawn. We want answers and we want them NOW!

If you would enjoy a brief jaunt through the history of folks who have preyed upon that all-too-human desire for instant gratification, a look at some of the con men and quacks whose nostrums are usually intended to “cure” our solvency rather than our aches and pains, this is a good read.

Be warned, though: it won’t cure what ails you.