Who's Afraid of the Polygraph? an Inter-Disciplinary Unit

Article excerpt

The polygraph (lie detector) may be an ideal vehicle for converting aspects of a physiology course into an interdisciplinary course, enabling discussion of interrelationships between science, technology and society (STS) and social dilemmas arising from technological developments. The authors present a way of incorporating the polygraph into a pre-service teacher education physiology course. They briefly present the scientific, technological and social aspects of the polygraph as well as a suggested sequence of suitable lessons and activities. Some of the activities presented here are laboratory experiments using 'hands on' approach and ICT.

Polygraphs 'lie detectors' are better known in Australia for their occasional cameos in American television police drama. Does an understanding of these devices have a legitimate place in the curriculum of Australian schools? Do they represent a valid confluence of scientific analysis, applied technology and social purpose? In an excellent and wide-ranging article on the topic Ben Clarke, a Law lecturer at Notre Dame University contends that

'It is doubtful that results from lie detector tests will ever be held admissible in Australian criminal courts. While proponents of polygraph evidence claim that test results are a definitive indication of the veracity of an accused's denial of guilt, such the results are hearsay and amount to a self-serving statement which is inadmissible at both common law, and pursuant to statutory rules of evidence. Further, there does not appear to be any general acceptance of the validity and reliability of polygraphs within the Australian scientific community.'

Notwithstanding the trenchant criticism above, polygraphs were used to some apparent effect in a recent case in Western Australia. On 10 October 2006, the West Australian Police Commission Karl O'Callaghan announced that, following a cold case review, Andrew Mallard, previously convicted and imprisoned for the murder of Perth jeweller Pamela Lawrence, had been 'eliminated as a person of interest in the case'. It would appear that police errors in this case cost Andrew Mallard 12 years of his life. It is interesting to note that Andrew Mallard, in building a case for overturning his conviction, subjected himself to- -and successfully passed--two independently administered polygraph tests. However the polygraph evidence was not allowed to be part of Mallard's High Court appeal. Other, more conclusive, evidence eventually freed Andrew Mallard--but the polygraphs got him publicity at a critical time.

Clarke, B.(2000). Trial by ordeal? Polygraph testing in Australia E Law Murdoch University http://www.murdoch.edu.au/elaw/issues/v7nl/clarke71 text. html#The%Australian%20Approach. T. (accessed November 2007). http://www.andrewmallard.com/(accessed November 2007)


Many pre-service teacher education courses apply a I science, technology and society (STS) approach to teaching. That is, they integrate scientific understandings, technology applications and societal implications (Yager, 1984; 1990a; Aikenhead, 2003). The STS approach demands a significantly greater effort from teacher educators, including using more diverse teaching-learning methods and continuous learning and updating, not only in the scientific fields, but also in technology and society. However, teaching (and learning) using this approach is typically more relevant, interesting and dynamic.

The lie detector is often mentioned in the media in connection with famous court cases, in politics and in the public service and is therefore a good example for demonstrating the STS approach: it is relevant to our lives; illustrates ethical dilemmas, and uses technological developments based on physiological reactions.

This article describes a computerised polygraph lab. The students obtain hands-on experience in data collecting, presentation and analysis. The hands-on experiences are intended to make the lessons more relevant and exciting to the students. …