Documents Show Law Enforcement Agencies Are Still Throwing Tax Dollars At Junk Science
from the made-from-the-finest-snakes dept
Recently, 269 gigabytes of internal law enforcement documents were liberated by hacker collective Anonymous — and released by transparency activists Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoSecrets). The trove contained plenty of sensitive law enforcement data, but also a lot of stuff law enforcement considers “sensitive” just because it doesn’t want to let the public know what it’s been spending their tax dollars on.
The documents highlighted in this report by Jordan Smith of The Intercept show law enforcement agencies are spending thousands of dollars to maximize the Dunning-Kruger effect. People are still peddling junk science and discredited techniques to law enforcement agencies and We the People are picking up the tab.
The training session was billed as “cutting edge,” and dozens of law enforcement professionals signed up to learn about “New Tools for Detecting Deception” from a human lie detector who calls herself “Eyes for Lies.” Her real name is Renee Ellory, and she claims that she’s one of just 50 people identified by scientists as having the ability to spot deception “with exceptional accuracy.”
Training participants would learn how to “identify anger, contempt, and disgust before words are even spoken.” Course objectives were broad: Learn to differentiate between “real” and “fake emotional displays”; “recognize hidden emotions”; identify the “ways our subconscious brain leaks information when we lie”; “analyze body language that indicates deception”; gain tips to use when interviewing a psychopath; “identify the key features of expressions that reveal danger for you!”
Big if true. But it isn’t. And Renee Ellory herself would probably recognize that fact if her career didn’t depend on her remaining ignorant of scientific studies directly contradicting the claims made in her courses. But she’s been able to do a lot of damage to a lot of law enforcement officers, who now believe — with zero facts in evidence — they can detect lies just looking for “universal facial expressions” and fleeting “microexpressions” on subjects’ faces.
Ellory proudly touts her selection as one of only 50 “truth wizards” who can “spot deception with exceptional accuracy” in her marketing materials [PDF]. This is based on the Wizards Project (I am not making this up) run by Paul Ekman and researchers at the University of California. This “wizard” designation is as worthless as the pseudoscience behind it.
While the theory of universal expressions dates back to Charles Darwin, research has been mixed, and Ekman’s work in this area has been repeatedly challenged by scientists in recent years as unreliable, in part because of methodological issues.
Where microexpressions are concerned — also an area of Ekman’s studies — subsequent research has found them “rare and nondiagnostic,” Kukucka said, and that training individuals to see them doesn’t actually work.
It’s still just a coin toss, no matter how much training officers receive. This is the same junk science the TSA thinks will help it catch terrorists. The problem here is trainees believe they’re actually better at detecting lies after having their heads filled with unproven assertions all day long by someone who fervently believes they can detect lies better than 99.9999999% of the population. Years of training can’t make these results replicable. A day or two of training does nothing more than make officers believe they can do something they actually can’t: detect lies just by looking at facial expressions.
When reached for comment, Ellory offered several — most of them defensive But this one’s remarkable in its level of self-regard:
“I find at times with my gift, it’s akin to seeing color in a world where other people live in a colorblind world. Seeing color is ‘real’ but trying to convince a color blind person color exists is nearly impossible,” she wrote. “I tell people in my classes what I teach will be common knowledge in 100 years, but we are still in the dark ages when it comes to understanding human behavior and deception,” she continued. “At a point, I learned, I can’t change the world alone. But I can educate those who are open to learning and they have thanked me endlessly.”
Renee Ellory isn’t the only “expert” telling cops they can detect lies using techniques never proven to detect lies. Steven Rhoads, former police chief and, um, “retired Christian rodeo clown,” heads the very sketchy-sounding “Subconscious Communication Training Institute.” Documents [PDF] contained in the DDoSecrets stash show Rhoads and his acolytes have been infecting everyone from local cops to ICE agents with his proprietary brand of pseudoscience bullshit.
The trainings feature lessons in how body language — including “facial gestures and human emotions,” “eye movement and gaze behavior,” and “gestures involving the torso” — can be used in interrogations and reveals not only deception but danger for officers. “As a very general rule of thumb the left side of the body is more apt to reveal known deception than is the right side of the body,” reads material for a 2018 training called “Subconscious Communication for Detecting Danger,” found in files connected to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center.
Rhoads says his system is scientific because, unlike Ellory’s, it relies on a baseline. Cops can’t just walk up to a perp and stare down the left side of the detainee’s body until it starts confessing. Cops have to establish a baseline for emotions, expressions, and responses. But that takes only about 20 questions. You know, like a polygraph machine — that other “science” that has repeatedly proven to be highly inaccurate.
It’s sadly unsurprising pseudoscience purveyors are still finding willing buyers of their bullshit in the law enforcement community. Cops are just as susceptible to cognitive biases as the people they police. They believe they’re smarter than the people they deal with. Training like this only increases their self-deception. Even if the trainers and their methods were legit, it would still be a problem. You can’t crank out experts in human behavior over the course of a couple of 8-hour sessions. But the Dunning-Kruger effect also affects those doing the training and selling this junk science: they appear to believe they can.
All of this adds up to worse policing. When reasonable suspicion involves judgment calls based on secondhand bad science, peoples’ rights are being violated by officers who now believe they’re capable of detecting lies just by looking at a person.