Science Behind 'Lie To Me' May Be Questionable Even For TV Show Premise

Screening Passengers by Observation Technique or (SPOT) is a real, but apparently pseudo-scientific program run by the TSA that claims to train security personnel to detect tiny facial cues that will identify terrorists and other criminals as they pass through the airport. The trouble, it seems, is that the likelihood that all of this is a bunch of bs is rather high.

From Nature:

Yet a growing number of researchers are dubious — not just about the projects themselves, but about the science on which they are based. “Simply put, people (including professional lie-catchers with extensive experience of assessing veracity) would achieve similar hit rates if they flipped a coin,” noted a 2007 report1 from a committee of credibility-assessment experts who reviewed research on portal screening.

“No scientific evidence exists to support the detection or inference of future behaviour, including intent,” declares a 2008 report prepared by the JASON defence advisory group. And the TSA had no business deploying SPOT across the nation’s airports “without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment”, stated a two-year review of the programme released on 20 May by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the US Congress.

In response to such concerns, the TSA has commissioned an independent study that it hopes will produce evidence to show that SPOT works, and the DHS is promising rigorous peer review of its technology programme. For critics, however, this is too little, too late.

Nature says that the man behind the concept of SPOT, Paul Ekman, (also the inspiration behind the TV show Lie To Me) avoids publishing his work in peer reviewed journals because “those papers are closely followed by scientists in countries such as Syria, Iran and China, which the United States views as a potential threat.”

As for why the system cannot be properly field tested, he claims any test would be “totally bogus” because the system doesn’t work on anyone who isn’t experiencing the actual emotions that a terrorist would be feeling.

You can check out the whole article here, though we don’t recommend it if you really like the TV show.

The men who stare at airline passengers [Economist via Fark]
Airport security: Intent to deceive? [Nature]