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Design Filter Is Best Bet for Finding Liars

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Photo: Mantid may imitate a leaf or a flower to avoid being eaten, by Luc Viatour, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Accusations of lying are being bandied about recklessly in these days of hyper-partisan political contests, giving self-appointed fact-checkers job security. But who fact-checks the fact-checkers? Even they are accused of lying. An infinite regress threatens. At some level, one must believe that objective truth exists, otherwise such exercises are hopeless. Indeed, science itself — and every other kind of scholarly activity — depends on the prior assumption of objective truth. To test this, ask if a postmodernist is telling the truth about the subjectivity of truth!

That is a problem for philosophers to debate. For present purposes, assuming the existence of objective truth, what can we say about lie detection, a subtopic of forensic science? Even though its subject matter often involves crime, forensics is a category of intelligent design science in action (see here). In this article on the ARN website, William Dembski gives an illustration of lie detection in an incident concerning biased election ballots (a timely subject) that led to the conviction of a county clerk named Nicholas Caputo who swore he was listing candidates’ names in a random order. There were far too many times his party’s candidates appeared higher on the ballot than could be expected by chance (40 out of 41), so the court ruled he was guilty of intentionally rigging the election. 

Liars in the Courtroom

Because liars are ubiquitous, courtrooms around the world are tasked with separating the wheat of truth from the chaff in the evidence and testimony in order to reach a verdict. Witnesses are instructed to tell “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” But it’s a challenging task trusting witnesses who have taken that oath because liars are so ingenious. On top of deliberate lying, witnesses may be innocently mistaken. What “really” happened in the objectively real world?

Adding to the difficulty, the forensic scientist must be able to trust the tools used to sift the true from the false. Are the ones telling them to trust the tools liars, too? In medieval times, courts used “trial by ordeal” to get the witness to confess or used torture or drugs — tools for lie detection frowned on today, that were trusted then.

What brings the subject of forensics to attention this time is a recent study from the University of Portsmouth that calls into question a popular lie-detection technique. It makes you wonder if progress has been made since medieval times. The intent of what follows is not to fact-check the authors’ conclusions, but to point out the challenge of trusting tools that purport to identify lies. They ask, “Lie detection — Have the experts got it wrong?” The article proposes an alarming thought: the tool intended to identify a liar makes him a better liar!

A widely adopted police interview technique, used by both the FBI and British police, to spot if a suspect is lying, is not fit for use, a report out today concludes. In fact, there is evidence that the technique helps liars become even better liars. [Emphasis added.]

The researchers analyzed an interviewing technique for teasing out a liar’s deception called the “Model Statement.”

The Model Statement technique has been built on the insight that longer, more detailed statements typically contain more clues to deception that shorter statements. Although there are many different techniques used — Model Statement is becoming increasingly popular.

The problem, they found, is that liars can adjust the length of their statements to match those of truth-tellers. 

Lead researcher, Cody Porter, Senior Teaching Fellow in Psychology and Offending Behaviour, University of Portsmouth says, “In my opinion it is dangerous for Model Statement to be used in practice now because there are many sources that show that while the Model Statement technique supports truth tellers to say more it also supports liars to do the same. The outcome is that it becomes impossible to tell the difference between someone telling the truth and someone who is lying.

Can Darwinism Help?

So much for trust in the Model Statement tool. How would a Darwinist approach the problem of lie detection? The advice would likely be a non-starter. Darwinism is about fitness, not truth. In fact, Darwinism rewards deception if it increases the organism’s fitness (check this Royal Society paper arguing that “Cooperation creates selection for tactical deception”). The liar who gets away with the crime by lying in court is a hero on the fitness scale. He is just as clever as the mantid imitating a leaf or a flower to avoid being eaten. If this argument seems unfair to some respectable evolutionary professor voicing an objection, let him or her consider the voluminous literature on “evolutionary game theory,” where “cooperators” and “cheaters” co-exist in all evolutionary social groups from bacteria to humans. The cooperators obey the conventional social order, and the cheaters take advantage of weaknesses in it. But the distinctions are academic; if the cheaters increase in fitness and gain a majority, the old cooperators are now the new cheaters. Truth has nothing to do with it. Might makes right.

The situation gets worse when pondered more deeply. If truth has nothing to do with it, then truth has nothing to do with anything that any organism, including the naked ape, does in the material world. Otherwise one would have to postulate the introduction from outside of the notion that “truth exists and is objectively good” into a world of purposeless and aimless material processes. Consequently, one could assert that the authors of a paper on evolutionary game theory are only trying to increase their fitness; they are not describing “truth” with a capital T. Even worse, if the notion that “truth is good” were blended into a society’s social order, it too would be subject to natural selection as a strategy for increasing fitness, which would be self-defeating. Truth that evolves cannot be true, because something claimed to be true today could be false tomorrow. Unless “truth” is objective, timeless, and universal, no claim can ever be argued to be true — including the arguments in Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution Is True. On what non-question-begging basis can Coyne respond to the argument that he is just trying to increase his reproductive fitness? One could almost say it requires the Return of the God Hypothesis (Stephen Meyer’s upcoming book) to argue that anything at all is true.

Can Intelligent Design Help?

Since Darwinism is a non-starter for successful lie detection, the only possible approach to separate truth-tellers from liars is to start with the assumption of objective, non-evolving truth. As fallible humans, we may strive for truth without reaching it many times, but one must believe it is “out there” in the world. Moreover, that assumption must be grounded in a necessary and sufficient cause to account for it. That’s the philosophical groundwork for forensics. 

ID advocates, however — like everyone — must have a practical answer. Liars exist. They plague our courtrooms and frustrate police investigators trying to find out what happened. How can the investigator get at the truth? This is urgent, because bad design inferences can land a person in jail.

ID theory’s Design Filter applies here as well, but with slight modifications. In forensic lie detection, all the players have minds and intentions, so intelligent design is already present as a potential cause. The investigator is not expecting natural law (like gravity or electromagnetics) to figure into the filter when interviewing a witness. The challenge is to distinguish truthful design from deceitful design. 

Each piece of physical evidence can be run through the traditional Design Filter (natural law, chance, specification), but in an interview with a potential liar, the investigator must consider whether the interviewer had motivation to commit the crime and the means to do it. In the case of the city clerk who was cheating, the “law” step concerns whether the suspect’s actions were normal and natural for clerks in that line of work. The “chance” step concerns whether the suspect’s actions were improbable unless he had foresight and intention to favor a particular outcome. The “specification” step concerns whether the outcome matched a motivation he could be reasonably expected to have. In the case of Caputo, a clerk knowing the “law” of listing candidates randomly should have known how to achieve that. The actual listings on the ballots should have been explainable by “chance” using mathematical probability calculations. And the “specification” showed that a Democrat or a Republican would tend to be motivated to favor his own party. 

It’s Still a Tough Job

Dealing with intelligent minds capable of lying adds extra challenges to ID investigators. It’s not as easy as inferring whether Mount Rushmore was designed, or a megalith was built by an ancient civilization, or whether a signal in space represents beings wishing to make contact. Those come from well-intentioned minds. When an evil mind is trying to trick the investigator, though, the methods to deceive can seem endless. Fortunately, experience with enough liars can reveal patterns that most of them will tend to use. There will always be some “perfect crimes” that end up in the cold case file. The Design Filter is the best bet for finding most of the clever deceivers in our world.