Sunday, January 28, 2007

You couldn’t make it up! In my last blog I bemoaned the activities of British cabinet ministers and, in particular, Dr John Reid, our Home Secretary. I woke up this morning to hear on the news yet another fiasco emanating from his Department. The police, who are meant to keep track of anyone ever convicted of a sexual offence, could not account for several hundred of their charges. Hardly surprising, given that the vast resources that would be needed to do so in a country where, in the last census, some 1 million people are thought to have disappeared, leading one local council to take legal action to force the government to at least make a slightly more accurate estimate. So what was Dr Reid’s response? He let it be known that he would be introducing legislation to require convicted sex offenders to take lie detector tests, with the goal of identifying those who are likely to offend in the future. So once more we are confronted, simultaneously, by evidence that one policy is unworkable while, to divert attention from the most recent failure, another populist idea that is equally unworkable is floated.
Or maybe I am being too cynical. Maybe lie detectors, or polygraphs, actually work. Unfortunately, as Dr Reid might have realised if he had spent even a few minutes on Google, the
evidence is entirely to the contrary. An exhaustive review by the US National Academy of Sciences concluded that their results are only slightly better than would be obtained by chance and that, of those identified as “lying”, 99.5% would be misclassified, as would 20% of those identified as “truthful”. So much for the science. What about the legal situation. Here we can look to a detailed examination by the Canadian Supreme Court, invoking several principles that are equally valid in English law. It concluded that the use of a lie detector conflicted with these principles and thus was inadmissible. Indeed, one of the Supreme Court Justices spoke of “evidence cloaked under the mystique of science”.
Should we be surprised? In a recent
letter to The Times I wrote about the ideology-rich evidence-poor zone surrounding the prime minister. I was then writing about health policy but I could have been writing about almost any area of current government policy.

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