Another Law Enforcement Investigation Tool Found To Be A Junk Science Coin Toss

from the Detective-Mesmer-is-on-the-case dept

Ken Armstrong of ProPublica and Christian Sheckler of the South Bend Tribune have uncovered more pseudoscience cops rely on to put people behind bars. It’s called SCAN, and it’s the creation of Avinoam Sapir.

SCAN stands for Scientific Content Analysis. What’s “scientific” about it is undetermined. Sapir believes it is. Sapir’s background as a polygraph examiner for Israeli law enforcement apparently turned him into a “human lie detector.” Sapir appears to believe his own press, as long as it’s positive.

Here’s how SCAN works. Or, rather, here’s how SCAN operates.

1. Give the subject a pen and paper.

2. Ask the subject to write down his/her version of what happened.

3. Analyze the statement and solve the case.

Those are the steps according to Sapir’s site. Law enforcement agencies around the world have spent money purchasing Sapir’s SCAN products and training. The scientific breakthrough they’re buying has no science backing it. According to Sapir, different words or tense changes in people’s written statements can let officers know whether or not suspects are lying.

How does anyone know if SCAN works? Just ask Sapir, apparently.

SCAN works, the site says. “Analysis of statements has been found to be highly accurate and supported by a validation survey conducted in a U.S. governmental agency. In that survey, when SCAN was compared to other methods, the validity of SCAN reached above 95%,” the site says, without identifying the agency or citing or linking to any survey.

SCAN’s junk science may be in wide use but it hasn’t really made headlines like other forensic pseudoscience — bite mark analysis, blue jeans analysis, etc. — but it’s no less questionable or potentially dangerous. No one runs SCAN on confessions. They only use the tool to “analyze” statements made by suspects and witnesses. These analyses are rarely introduced as evidence in court.

Good thing, too. It seems unlikely stuff like this would be considered admissible evidence.

After the person writes a statement, the SCAN investigator looks for signs of deception, analyzing, among other things, pronouns used, changes in vocabulary, what’s left out and how much of a statement is devoted to what happened before, during and after an event. Indications of truthfulness include use of the past tense, first-person singular (“I went to the store”); pronouns, such as “my,” which signal commitment; and direct denials, the best being: “I did not do it.” Signs of deception include lack of memory, spontaneous corrections and swapping one word in for another — for example, writing “kids” in one place and “children” in another.

It’s not exactly handwriting analysis, which has its own problems. It’s its own animal, one that’s only available through Sapir. He’s offered up some bizarre analysis of his own — applying his proprietary SCAN to things like Anita Hill’s statements about Clarence Thomas, Magic Johnson’s disclosure that he has HIV, and James Comey’s memoir. His conclusions? Anita Hill had sexual identity issues, Johnson “admitted” to being bisexual, and James Comey is a victim of child abuse.

Comey’s statement on Sapir and the SCAN analysis of his memoirs?

“No comment. Never heard of the alleged tool. (And by using the word ‘never’ in conjunction with the word ‘heard,’ I mean only ‘never heard’ and not to suggest childhood trauma. Yikes.) I’m sorry about your five bucks.”

The “five bucks” refers to the amount ProPublica spent to obtain Sapir’s analysis of Comey’s memoirs. He also sells an analysis of the Mueller Report.

Law enforcement agencies rely on this dubious technique to solve crimes. Their reliance on Sapir’s assertions SCAN actually has something to do with science is misplaced. SCAN is apparently used by the FBI (despite Comey’s denial), CIA and US Army Intelligence. A government study commissioned to find which, if any, interrogation methods produced usable intelligence had this to say about SCAN:

Studies commonly cited in support of SCAN were scientifically flawed, the review said. “When all 12 SCAN criteria were used in a laboratory study, SCAN did not distinguish truth-tellers from liars above the level of chance,” the review said. The synopsis also specifically challenged two of those 12 criteria, noting: “Both gaps in memory and spontaneous corrections have been shown to be indicators of truth, contrary to what is claimed by SCAN.”

Four more studies — conducted over a span of twenty years — arrived at the same conclusion:

Each of those studies (in 1996, 2012, 2014 and 2015) concluded that SCAN failed to help discriminate between truthful and fabricated statements. The 2016 study found the same. Raters trained in SCAN evaluated 234 statements — 117 true, 117 false. Their results in trying to separate fact from fiction were about the same as chance.

This is what scientists think about SCAN, something Sapir says can turn normal cops into “walking polygraphs.” If law enforcement experts were upfront about the dubiousness of SCAN conclusions, it wouldn’t be an issue. But they’re not. Much like every other pseudoscience deployed by investigators, experts testifying in court routinely overstate the certainty of their conclusions. SCAN is a coin toss, but no one presenting this analysis in court is ever going to admit this under oath.

Cops apparently believe it’s a coin flip worth investing in. ProPublica’s investigation found at least 40 agencies had purchased SCAN training in the last decade. Sapir’s website claims agencies in 49 states utilize SCAN. Very few agencies want to talk about their SCAN expenditures and the CIA has refused to confirm or deny the existence of SCAN use records.

The agencies that do believe SCAN works really believe it works. But these are statements of faith. They have no evidence it works, only the word of its creator who says it works. And if you’re spending money to train investigators to deploy SCAN analysis, you kind of have to believe it works because the alternative is knowingly throwing money down a hole. Fervently believing something is scientific just isn’t good enough when people’s freedom is on the line. But not good enough has been good enough for plenty of agencies and the junk science their investigations rely on for years now, and it’s not going to change just because another emperor has been discovered wandering naked.

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Comments on “Another Law Enforcement Investigation Tool Found To Be A Junk Science Coin Toss”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Signs of deception include lack of memory, spontaneous corrections and swapping one word in for another — for example, writing “kids” in one place and “children” in another.

So someone who’s taken a creative writing course where they teach you to not use the same words again and again are going to be highly suspect. You can’t win for trying with these folks.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"So someone who’s taken a creative writing course where they teach you to not use the same words again and again are going to be highly suspect. You can’t win for trying with these folks."

Ironically SCAN seems to be a reinvention of the tools used by early soviet and maoist commissars in finding intellectual "subversives" to be shot as detrimental to the People’s Revolution.

Imagine that. US law enforcement adopts, wholesale, the tool of choice used by communist dictatorships fifty years ago to catch dissidents.

They’re behind the times though. Not even China uses a tool that blunt today.

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Fools and their (read: taxpayers') money

“Analysis of statements has been found to be highly accurate and supported by a [validation survey conducted in a U.S. governmental agency]†. [In that survey, when SCAN was compared to other methods, the validity of SCAN reached above 95%]†,” the site says, without identifying the agency or citing or linking to any survey.

†Left out: agency, survey, examples of other methods, number of methods SCAN was tested against

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Ah Q. says:

Re: Fools and their (read: taxpayers') money

Yeah, the world has definitely flipped.

Even the poorest of people strive to get basic education for the kids, and most first grade students have the education level of American third graders, with more virtuoso musicians, linguists, and memorization savants than any culture I have studied.

Watching American cops kill democracies dissidents BEFORE they become mainstream is interesting (shooting them in the back, OMFG/LAWD ), but pales in comparison to whats coming there soon, as the country Israelifies itself.

Avinoam Sapir and his kindred in the worlds zionist police apparatus are a symptom of the larger disease as true and actual conspiracists and religious cabbalists seek to preserve their upper hand by cheating the poor, the black, and the defenseless, while hiding behind claims of race supremacy cuz ’ OG G _d fanboys .

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Fools and their (read: taxpayers') money

"…but pales in comparison to whats coming there soon, as the country Israelifies itself."

"Avinoam Sapir and his kindred in the worlds zionist police apparatus…"

Whoops, spotted another bigot wrapping an otherwise good argument around "because of the global jewish conspiracy".

Do I win the "spot-the-bigot" bingo now?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Yet another pseudoscientific product designed to justify investigators’ snap judgements, just like the behavioral detection bunk the TSA keeps trying out.

The fact is that most law enforcement officers really believe that their evidence free hunches should be taken seriously, as if they have some sort of sixth sense or inerrant intuition that lets them sniff out the bad guys. But since courts don’t always respect mere hunches, you get these LEO equivalents of dowsing, and while they always come apart eventually, there’s always new ones showing up to replace them.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

experts testifying in court routinely overstate the certainty of their conclusions.

… and courts routinely let them get away with it. They qualify absolute, obvious quacks as "experts", as well as letting people who might legitimately be "experts" to some degree misrepresent not only the certainty of their conclusions, but the value of whatever expertise they do in fact possess.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Jason says:

It’s depressing that people will accept something with little if any evidence backing it up as long as some nominally authoritative person shouts "science!" but when actual scientists who spend their careers becoming true experts in their field present reams of evidence they have it derided or dismissed.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Uriel-238 (profile) says:

This seems an indication of a moral hazard

Law enforcement administrators, prosecutors and judges are assessed by their count of convictions, which makes it a moral hazard to allow them any device or tool that allows them to convict a warm body. They cannot be left to decide for themselves if a given tool or technique can be used to determine the facts of the case.

Law enforcement tools should be confirmed by a board that tests for ethical concerns and scientific veracity, that err to the side of false exonerations, and then voted as acceptable forensic methods in a court of law.

Any less and our court is corrupt by definition and should fail (and set free) any inmate or detainee that demands a writ of habeus corpus. A court that uses false detection tools cannot be a fair court, and thus cannot serve as a legitimate court of the people.

At least this is the case in a society governed by the people, for the people. It is possible the United States no longer qualifies.

R/O/G/S says:

Re: This seems an indication of a moral hazard

The US has never been a Democracy, and as this demonstrates, court are Not democratic. Where do you get the idea that voting is what courts do?

re: err to the side of false exonerations, and then voted as acceptable forensic methods in a court of law.

The real issue is the hidden cancer of “people of faith ” occulted all along the process,i.e. religious whackjobs being allowed to testify in courts about any other warm bodies purported sins -but questioning the religion and bias of the sanctified ponerologist testifying is Verbotten.

This became the norm back in the Satanic Panic era which saw hundreds of false convictions because of FBI ponerologists like Kee McFarlane, working their magic spells in family courts and other DVIC gray areas of law.

Religion cloaked in junk science is the problem that afflicts democracy in the US, long before we get to race and class.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Personanongrata says:

Hocus Pocus - Alakazam!

Sapir’s background as a polygraph examiner for Israeli law enforcement apparently turned him into a "human lie detector."

Polygraphs are pseudoscience steeped in specious sophistry.

The use of Polygraphs tests are a sticky wicket in US courts for good reason.

Italicized/bold text was excerpt from material found within the:

Justice Manuel 262. Polygraphs—Introduction at Trial

Neither the United States Code nor the Federal Rules of Evidence have a specific provision concerning the admissibility of polygraph examination results. In 1991, however, the President promulgated Military Rule of Evidence 707(a), which bars the admission of polygraph results, the opinion of the polygraph examiner, or any reference to an offer to take, failure to take, or taking of a polygraph examination in courts martial. Five years later, the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces struck down the rule as an unconstitutional restriction on the defendant’s right to present a defense in a case in which the defendant sought to corroborate his testimony with the results of a polygraph test administered by an investigative arm of the Air Force. United States v. Scheffer, 41 M.J. 683 (1996). The Solicitor General has filed a certiorari petition in the Supreme Court seeking review of the decision. United States v. Scheffer, No. 96-1133, petition for writ of certiorari filed January 16, 1997. If the petition is granted, the Supreme Court can be expected to decide the constitutional question during its 1997 Term. The Court’s decision, if any, could affect the arguments that are available to federal prosecutors seeking to exclude polygraph results in the civilian courts.

Italicized/bold text was excerpted from


A polygraph examination of respondent airman indicated, in the opinion of the Air Force examiner administering the test, that there was “no deception” in respondent’s denial that he had used drugs since enlisting. Urinalysis, however, revealed the presence of methamphetamine, and respondent was tried by general court-martial for using that drug and for other offenses. In denying his motion to introduce the polygraph evidence to support his testimony that he did not knowingly use drugs, the military judge relied on Military Rule of Evidence 707, which makes polygraph evidence inadmissible in court-martial proceedings. Respondent was convicted on all counts, and the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces reversed, holding that a per se exclusion of polygraph evidence offered by an accused to support his credibility violates his Sixth Amendment right to present a defense.

Held: The judgment is reversed.

Italicized/bold text was excerpted from a report titled:

The Truth About Lie Detectors (aka Polygraph Tests)

Most psychologists agree that there is little evidence that polygraph tests can accurately detect lies.

The development of currently used "lie detection" technologies has been based on ideas about physiological functioning but has, for the most part, been independent of systematic psychological research. Early theorists believed that deception required effort and, thus, could be assessed by monitoring physiological changes. But such propositions have not been proven and basic research remains limited on the nature of deceptiveness. Efforts to develop actual tests have always outpaced theory-based basic research. Without a better theoretical understanding of the mechanisms by which deception functions, however, development of a lie detection technology seems highly problematic.

Italicized/bold text was excerpted from a report titled:

NSA Whistleblower Reveals How To Beat a Polygraph Test

The federal government currently administers polygraphs to government employees in a number of agencies, including the NSA and CIA. The polygraphs work by measuring and recording a person’s physiological responses—changes in a person’s pulse, breathing and blood pressure—to lying versus telling the truth.

Tice, who is now working on a Ph.D. in global security studies, says the NSA "routinely uses polygraphs to terrorize the rank and file of NSA employees" and to "gather very personal information on them that they can use to blackmail them into participating in illegal and unethical conduct."

First, Tice says, a person can trick the tester on "probable-lie" questions. During a polygraph’s pre-test interview, the tester usually asks a person to answer questions they are likely to lie about. These include questions like: ‘Have you ever stolen money?,’ ‘Have you ever lied to your parents?,’ or ‘Have you ever cheated on a test?’. Most people have done these at least once, but lie about it. So the tester uses a person’s response to a likely lie as a way to establish how a person physically reacts while lying.

Tice says to trick the tester, a person should lie in response to these questions like most other people would, but also bite their tongue hard while doing so, which will set off other physiological reactions in the body. The tester’s "needles will fly everywhere," says Tice, "and he will think, ‘This guy is a nervous nelly. He has a strong physical reaction when he’s lying.’"

**Tice says it’s also easy to beat a polygraph while telling a real lie by daydreaming to calm the nerves.**

"Think of a warm summer night… or drinking a beer, whatever calms you. You’re throwing them off," he says. "The needle might nip a little [because you’re lying], but not off the charts." And since the person has already convinced the tester that they have off-the-charts physiological reactions while lying, Tice says, a small reaction likely won’t tip the tester off.

Lets ditch the polygraph and return to the use of phrenology.

Italicized/bold text was excerpted from found in the category of:

Phrenology pseudoscientific practice

Phrenology, the study of the conformation of the skull as indicative of mental faculties and traits of character, especially according to the hypotheses of Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828), a German doctor, and such 19th-century adherents as Johann Kaspar Spurzheim (1776–1832) and George Combe (1788–1858). Phrenology enjoyed great popular appeal well into the 20th century but has been wholly discredited by scientific research.

The Witch Doctor is in.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Hocus Pocus - Alakazam!

"Lets ditch the polygraph and return to the use of phrenology."

Or better yet…

It works like this. Phrenology, as everyone knows, is a way of reading someone’s character, aptitude and abilities by examining the bumps and hollows on their head.*

Therefore – according to the kind of logical thinking that characterizes the Ankh-Morpork mind – it should be possible to mould someone’s character by giving them carefully graded bumps in all the right places. You can go into a shop and order an artistic temperament with a tendency to introspection and a side order of hysteria.

What you actually get is hit on the head with a selection of different size mallets, but it creates employment and keeps the money in circulation, and that’s the main thing.”

    • Terry Pratchett, the discworld series.*

Would probably work better than this SCAN method, in all honesty. I have to admit that the thought of grabbing a hammer and providing the people who bought and peddled the method in the OP with a more honest and discerning personality by way of reverse phrenology is very tempting.

Anyone know someone with a pseudoscientific diploma who’d be willing to sell the concept of "retrophrenology" to US law enforcement?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: The failed science of handwriting analysis

Arthur Leigh Allen, the late and only suspect in the Zodiac Killer investigations was determined a negative match for the Zodiac Killer, even though there was other circumstantial evidence pointing towards him. But since he was ruled out, he wasn’t fully investigated until decades later.

Handwriting analysis has since been discontinued as a forensic tool, though one can get their own (or relatives’) handwriting analyzed by private companies and get a horoscope-like report from it.

Allen perished from natural causes, leaving the Zodiac Killer case permanently open. Law enforcement, seeking to find tools to secure convictions (rather than determine truth) have failed to learn their lesson.

bobob says:

That’s interesting — An analysis of of US citizens’ generally poor writing skills by cops whose writing skills are at best, no better than the writing skills of those they are analyzing. So, if I mismatch tenses, will that be noticed as being wrong? If I don’t mismatch tenses, will that been jusged as being an indicator I’m lying because the person making the judgment doesn’t even know what is correct?

If I use kids and children in the same written statement, isn’t that generally considered better in a narrative to avoid using the same word over and over? In addition, a skilled writer generally takes advantage of the nuances in different words that have the same general meaning, but also have some nuanced differences. Is that a sign of deception when read by someone with a poorer vocabulary?

On the other hand, I guess the guy who invented this scam has found a way to make a buck in the gig economy.

Wyrm (profile) says:


SCAN is a coin toss…

It’s actually significantly worse than a coin toss.
It takes indicators of truth and label them as indicators of lie, and vice-versa.

It is already well-known that human memory is unreliable, with gaps and a severe lack of chronological ordering. Someone lying generally has a more "complete" story ready to be told than a honest witness or suspect.
That’s not to say that lies don’t have flaws, particularly when scrutinized, but it’s harder to reveal in a single written deposition.

Also… "I didn’t do it" is the best sign of innocence?
Trump must be the most innocent person on Earth, then. And this scan guy is likely the single best detective on the planet. (/s, for those who missed it.)

bobob says:

Re: worse

Actually, a coin toss is as bad as it can get. If it were "worse than a coin toss," then by making the opposite conclusion, it would be better than a coin toss. A coin toss literally means that no matter how long the string of a sequence of heads and tails you have, your prediction of the next toss will still be 50-50.

Wyrm (profile) says:

Re: Re: worse

If it’s just about "finding a liar", I agree with you that it could likely be fixed to have better results than a coin toss. It’s probably not just "reversing the current conclusion", but multiple "hints" are definitely read as the opposite of what they more often mean.

However, the probably can go lower than 50/50 given that this so-called "scientific method" tried to guess much more than just "who’s lying". The examples given include finding childhood trauma from Comey’s memoir. So, save for Comey actually writing "I was not beaten as a child" and SCAN finding that to be a lie, this is a wild guess with a probability lower than 50%.

R/O/G/S says:

Avinoam Sapir and Israeli Mind Control

Now: this is a complete ROGS Bingo, in re Avinoam Sapir, whose junk science put Ricky Joyner and many others behind bars, and led to the suicide of a dirty rapist pig named Retuzko.

Avinoam Sapir, Svengali Scientist At a Glance:

“His master’s thesis was on “Interrogation in Jewish Law.” He served in Israeli military intelligence Unit 8200 (a high-tech spy agency akin to America’s NSA)

So, squad 8200 is actually a unit that is on record waging influence and psychological operations,and they are integral to manufacturing terrorists, much as we saw with Rita Katz and SITE intelligence in the recent Pensacola shooting.

These guys and gals are actually practicing the Svengali science of “othering ” and ponerology, and they get away with it because we cant talk about religion in a court room (or in the internet, apparently, where the hasbara rats attack and cyberstalk people).

So, a brief run through the ROGS Bingo card has:

-coded signifiers of mystical meanings, and the number 12, with their target being the number 13

  • a ponerologist at the helm

-false convictions

-Mossadi jihadis

-Ich /Du policing

-Actual MIND CONTROL OPERATIONS AND OPERATORS, and even ProPublica has adopted my slant on it.


….I feel vindicated in my overall thesis of “what is gang stalking and who does it?” Yeah – its these guys and gals waging #Israelification and proselytizing via policing.

Now how about Ricky Joyner, et al ?

R/O/G/S says:

Mr. Cushing , I just realized that you linked to your earlier work, regarding Kern county.

You know about that counties link to the Satanic Panics of the 1980-90s, right? The FBI and its local conspiracists ran so much junk science and ponerology through the lives of ordinary people that its stunning these actual conspiracists are not assassinated yet .

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: The Satanic Panic

Keep in mind that during the 80s it was a common belief in the US that Satan was fully active and meddling in US politics through Rock & Roll, Tabletop Role-Playing Games and oversized marital aids. I suspect that The Exorcist (1973) kicked off the Satan craze.

Also, though the Kern County sexual abuse case was one of the early efforts of using Recovered Memory Therapy which hadn’t been debunked yet. So yes, we had been using unproven forensic science even then, but to be fair this was before CSI presented to US culture the notion that forensic science was valid (and used to substantiate truth of guilt or innocence).

The whole SRA scare (according to journalist Sarah Marshall) arose from our general believe that known people were safe, and child abuse was a thing done by strangers offering candy from creepy vans. In the process of coming to terms with the notion that child sexual abusers are typically people familiar with the victims (curiously a lot of youth pastors), the whole SRA fiction arose much like Greytech being stowed and studied in Area 51 — in other words, SRAs and giant Satanic conspiracies are explanations that arose when we weren’t yet ready to confront the reality that we can’t trust all our friends and family not to molest our kids.

Though the Satanic panic was half right: religious institutions do seem to be consistent haven for predators, given they are driven to cover up such offenses to protect their reputations for family safety. This is why church rape hotlines don’t inform law enforcement but the church legal team.

In the new century, the FBI rules out supernatural effects including Satan, demonic possession or otherworldly beings. In the 1980s there was less certainty to that effect.

ROGueS says:

Re: Re: The Satanic Panic

I missed this comment. Good analysis.

Yeah, but the FBI today is as sectarian as it ever was.

Asian FBI, Mexican FBI, and especially, Jewish-Israel FBI which appears to be overseeing the manufactured terrorist mass shootings, according to the evidence.

Trevor Aaronson covered the Asian FBI in Las Vegas awhile ago, that FBI clique centered around CA, San Francisco, San Mateo, Oakland, San Bernardino, etc; but branching out elsewhere too.

Its a narrative worth following, because despite the PR, its same old same old, but with ethnic faces.

Cults and sects dominate the FBI narrative, and guide their pseudo "investigations."

They actually do NOT rule out these supernatural hoaxes, and in fact, create new mythologies and narratives.

The latest is the mass shooter, "radicalized" online, and offline, which they do not discuss anywhere. Purposely.

Satan/Shatan, donthchaknow….

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