A Daytime TV Polygraph Led to a Suicide

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There’s a lot of pseudoscience in daytime TV, like Dr. Oz shilling magical beans that will make you lose weight or live forever or whatever, and Dr. Phil doing whatever it is that he does. But there’s one particular pseudoscience that goes back decades, and became an essential tool for a particular show format. In the US, most people know of that format as being the Jerry Springer-style (though he wasn’t the only one, as there was also Sally Jesse, Ricki Lake, Geraldo, and Maury Povich, the man famous for telling men they are or are not the fathers of their kids.

And the common bit of pseudoscience those shows often used was (and still is) the polygraph.

I last talked about the problems with the polygraph in September, when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford used a “lie detector” to prove she was telling the truth about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulting her. Here’s the summary: all the scientific evidence we have shows us that polygraphs are not good at telling truths from lies. They measure your stress response, which can make it seem like a true statement is false simply because you’re nervous that someone may think you’re lying about something important. In fact, that happens about 50% of the time. It can also think a lie is the truth, if the person telling the lie is a confident enough liar.

I’m talking about it again because last week in England, a man killed himself after taking a polygraph on the Jeremy Kyle Show, which is the UK’s answer to Jerry Springer. The polygraph operator suggested that the man was in fact cheating on his girlfriend, and a week later he was dead.

It’s a tough circumstance, because not everyone who fails a polygraph on daytime television will kill themselves — in order to go that far, you need to have some mental health issues, and deeper personal problems. Then again, maybe you need those to go on such a show in the first place. And that’s the larger issue, I think: the entire format of these shows is to take advantage of people, usually poor and without access to good mental health care, and put them on stage and make them dance for our entertainment.

Those types of shows seem to have fallen out of favor here in the US since their heyday in the late ‘90s, in part because of some similar awful consequences. Jenny Jones once did a show in which people came on to reveal their secret gay crushes on their friends, and a few days afterward one of those “friends” murdered the man who confessed his crush.

So now we get much more prim and proper medical pseudoscience than polygraph pseudoscience, but it’s still there. Maury Povich is still on the air after 27 seasons of churning out this garbage. And if history is anything to go by, Jeremy Kyle will be replaced by another Jeremy Kyle/Jerry Springer mashup. In fact, that’s how he got his job — Vanessa Feltz used to have that timeslot, with an identical show. She was canceled when the public learned that many of her guests were just actors, which, ironically, is the only way in which a show like that can even begin to qualify as “ethical.” She was replaced with Trisha Goddard, who was then replaced with Jeremy Kyle.

What are the chances that ITV, now that they’ve canceled Jeremy Kyle, will fill that slot with anything that might benefit humanity in any conceivable way? It’s not a bet I’d take, and I assure you I’m telling the truth.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. What your article fails to address is that the outcome of a polygraph examination is reliant on not only the most up to date equipment but also the polygraph examiner. Most accredited examiners are forensic psychologists and therefore have other skills to determine whether or not someone is being deceptive. The industry needs to be regulated and the polygraph should never be used for entertainment purposes.

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