September 5, 2019 - 12:20pm

Boris is a liar. Politicians all lie. We hear complaints like this all of the time. Wouldn’t it be great if we could wire them all up to a perfect lie-detector? Imagine how this would improve our politics.

Well, be careful what you wish for.

There is a terrific long read in the Guardian today about the history of the lie detector test. At one time we would once dunk women in rivers to ascertain the truth about them being witches; whereas waterboarding in the twentieth century was not much better, we also developed more scientific-sounding means – Polygraphs for instance – though they too were often highly unreliable. Indeed, many of these were useful to the police or the military not because they worked but because many people feared that they worked. Imagine the power we would grant to the authorities if such a machine could be developed.

And what do we do with these technologies if they do succeed? A machine that reliably sorts truth from falsehood could have profound implications for human conduct. The creators of these tools argue that by weeding out deception they can create a fairer, safer world. But the ways lie detectors have been used in the past suggests such claims may be far too optimistic.
- Amit Katwala, The Guardian

Of course, people did used to believe there was such a thing. The omniscient all-seeing God. “You know my sitting and my rising, my going about and lying down” says the Psalmist, “Whether shall I free from thy presence?” There is more than a hint of terror in that question. And if the Psalmist imagines the need for escape from an all-seeing eye, even a perfectly loving one, imagine the dread we would have at the existence of such a weapon (for such it would be) in less benevolent hands – commercial, political, military.

Lying is many things, sometimes and obviously the worst form of cheating, but it is also, and often, an everyday way of protecting our inner space. Everybody lies, as Dr House often insisted. We may demand the truth from our political leaders. But what if one day they had the means of demanding it from us? That would be fascism on a scale unprecedented in human history. The truth wouldn’t set us free. The truth would destroy us.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.