History prof reveals truth about lie detectors

Stepping out of the classroom, associate professor of history John Baesler delivered the 12th installment of the annual Hoffman/Willertz lecture series on Thursday, Nov. 13, in the Rhea Miller Recital Hall.

Baesler focused on the creation of U.S. national security policy after World War II through the lens of the lie detector, arguing the technology served as a symbol, representing both American science and the toughness necessary to stand up to communism.

Throughout his lecture, Baesler discussed how the invasive technology was commonly used in national security despite lacking scientific support. Then, a central feature in policy, the detector was used in different ways than intended.

“(The lie detector) was used to extract confessions rather than being used as a witness itself,” Baesler said.

He noted this made particular decisions easier to defend.

The title of his lecture, “Immeasurable Security: The Lie Detector and the American Cold War,” was meant to poke at the irony inherent in claims that lie detectors provided immeasurable security despite supposedly measuring whether someone was lying.

“What the polygraph was good for remains elusive,” Baesler said.

Baesler noted that the consistent interest in the lie detector and polygraph tests were based less on whether or not they were effective, but more on the cultural obsession with finding out the truth. As a result, people were quickly amazed by the idea of lie detectors.

“The fear of unpredictable behavior was the root of the Cold War,” Baesler said. “(The lie detector) carved out new aspects of national security, showing that when national security is concerned, even experimental technologies can appear ready to go.”

History senior Tyler Henry took a particular interest in how Baesler discussed the role lie detectors played in the CIA’s enforcement of national security.

“It’s always interesting to learn about the CIA because I have interests in that myself,” he said.  “I’d say the most interesting part was seeing all of the ways the lie detector was used and the evolution of it … how it’s still a necessary thing to use, but how it’s not at the same time.”

Prior to Baesler’s lecture, two students, Zackary Slykhouse and Ruth Johnson, were acknowledged for their academic successes.

Slykhouse was awarded the William S. Hoffman & John R. Willertz Endowed Scholarship, and Johnson the Daisy Margaret van Benschoten Memorial Endowed Scholarship.

William Hoffman and John Willertz are credited with founding the department of history at SVSU. Their scholarship fund was established in 2002 to honor their contributions to the university and their discipline.

Hoffman joined the SVSU faculty in 1964 and taught until his retirement in 1997. He died shortly after.

Willertz joined the faculty in 1968 and taught until his death in 2002.

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