From Sherlock Holmes to CSI, detective stories and police procedurals have long been wildly popular, and with good reason. They showcase seemingly superhuman powers of observation, psychological insight and the ability to see through lies and find objective truth. We all wish we had such powers.
And while some people are far more perceptive or logical than others, no one could live up to the fictional characters we idolize in these dramas. Anyone who tells you that these superhuman abilities exist is trying to sell you something. Unfortunately, as a news report released last summer shows, law enforcement agencies around the country are buying versions of these stories and using taxpayer resources to do so.
Leaked records suggest faulty seminars
In June, hackers engaged in a project dubbed BlueLeaks, in which law enforcement documents were obtained and posted online. Among other revelations, the leaks showed that dozens of law enforcement agencies around the country hosted seminars that promised “New Tools for Detecting Deception.” The leader of one such seminar billed herself as a human lie-detector and claimed she is one of just 50 people who has been identified as having “exceptional accuracy” when it comes to detecting deception.
Debunked psychological theories and outdated practices
This course and others promise that participants can learn to:
- Spot the difference between real emotional displays and fake ones
- Recognize a suspect’s “hidden emotions”
- Pick up on the information “leaked” by our subconscious when we lie
- Read body language with incredible precision
Sound too good to be true? That’s because it is. Many actual psychologists familiar with these seminars say that many of the techniques being taught aren’t new, and they aren’t scientifically sound. In some cases, the techniques and theories have always been junk science. In other cases, the material being taught was once considered true but was discredited a long time ago.
The fact of the matter is that while psychology has come a long way in deciphering how the mind works and why we do some of the things we do, there does not yet exist a reliable way to spot liars, to “read” people or to develop anything like a sixth sense for what’s true and what isn’t.
Why these theories are so dangerous
At best, seminars like those described above are a waste of time and money. At worst, they can inspire terrible police work and wrongful convictions based on nothing more than magical thinking. In order to be useful, any forensic tool needs to be accurate, reliable and grounded in scientific principles. DNA analysis is an example of a sound forensic tool.
But the history of the U.S. criminal justice system (including recent history) is littered with forensic tools and psychological theories that were bogus but nonetheless accepted as evidence. Sadly, these bogus tools are most often used in high-stakes cases like those alleging rape and murder.
A good criminal defense attorney attacks the evidence
Jurors often find evidence convincing if it seems to have the endorsement of scientists or psychologists. For this reason, it is critical to attack bogus evidence at every opportunity. A good criminal defense attorney will first fight to prevent bad evidence from being presented at trial. If it is admitted anyway, he or she will work hard to show that it is scientifically unsound and should not be trusted.