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The Truth Machine

, 256 pages

18 halftones

April 2012



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The Truth Machine

A Social History of the Lie Detector

How do you trap someone in a lie? For centuries, all manner of truth-seekers have used the lie detector. In this eye-opening book, Geoffrey C. Bunn unpacks the history of this device and explores the interesting and often surprising connection between technology and popular culture.

Lie detectors and other truth-telling machines are deeply embedded in everyday American life. Well-known brands such as Isuzu, Pepsi Cola, and Snapple have advertised their products with the help of the "truth machine," and the device has also appeared in countless movies and television shows. The Charles Lindbergh "crime of the century" in 1935 first brought lie detectors to the public’s attention. Since then, they have factored into the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas sexual harassment controversy, the Oklahoma City and Atlanta Olympics bombings, and one of the most infamous criminal cases in modern memory: the O. J. Simpson murder trial. The use of the lie detector in these instances brings up many intriguing questions that Bunn addresses: How did the lie detector become so important? Who uses it? How reliable are its results? Bunn reveals just how difficult it is to answer this last question. A lie detector expert concluded that O. J. Simpson was "one hundred percent lying" in a video recording in which he proclaimed his innocence; a tabloid newspaper subjected the same recording to a second round of evaluation, which determined Simpson to be "absolutely truthful."

Bunn finds fascinating the lie detector’s ability to straddle the realms of serious science and sheer fantasy. He examines how the machine emerged as a technology of truth, transporting readers back to the obscure origins of criminology itself, ultimately concluding that the lie detector owes as much to popular culture as it does to factual science.

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

" The Truth Machine surpasses all previous studies of lie detectors in illuminating the historical and cultural contexts in which this controversial device originated. In clear and compelling style Geoffrey Bunn examines how and why the lie detector was finally 'invented' in the United States despite its being based upon far earlier European technological innovations. In the process Bunn offers a fascinating case study in the evolution of 'truth' itself. The book could hardly be more timely."

"Any with an interest in criminal justice or general social issues will find this a compelling account."

"To paraphrase Dragnet, there are many histories to tell of the lie detector; this is a good one."

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