Sunday, June 3, 2012

Geoffrey C. Bunn's "The Truth Machine"

Geoffrey C. Bunn is a senior lecturer in psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University and coeditor of Psychology in Britain: Historical Essays and Personal Reflections.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Truth Machine: A Social History of the Lie Detector, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Truth Machine is the point at which I start to ask “Who invented the lie detector?” The narrative has arrived at 1907 and I’m now discussing the contributions of Carl Jung, the psychodynamic psychiatrist, and Hugo Münsterberg, Harvard University’s Professor of Psychology. Both scientists have been credited with inventing the lie detector. But did they? It is certainly true that by 1907 both were using a range of physiological instruments in an attempt to analyse criminal minds. But in this chapter I argue that neither Jung nor Münsterberg considered ‘the lie’ sufficiently interesting for it to warrant special scientific scrutiny.

Jung and Münsterberg were, however, intensely concerned with untangling the complex pathologies of psychiatric patients, degenerate criminals and feeble-minded children. They were not particularly interested in ‘detecting the lie’ as such. Jung and Münsterberg hoped that physiological instruments would bring the pathologies of criminality to light in order to help find suitable cures. Münsterberg’s investigations certainly encompassed the liar, but the Professor was seeking cures for the deeper ills that rendered the liar untrustworthy in the first place.

In fact it was the novelists who dreamed up the idea of the lie detector. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, fiction writers had described how the very same instruments used by the scientists could be used to wrest guilty secrets from the minds of otherwise normal wrongdoers. Pulp fiction was entirely at ease with the notion that a criminal was merely someone who had been caught, as opposed to someone who was biologically flawed.

Unlike scientific criminology, which had assembled itself around the charismatic figure of the degenerate oddity, pulp fiction’s plot twists inevitably fingered the person whom the reader least suspected. To a considerable extent then, the lie detector was an invention of those writers for whom the key plot device was simply the presence or absence of guilt. The lie detector was effectively a by-product of the whodunit. Its origins lie (so to speak), not with the tinkering of scientists in their laboratories, but within the imaginations of writers.
Learn more about The Truth Machine at the the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue