Spectacular science: the lie detector's ambivalent powers

Hist Psychol. 2007 May;10(2):156-78. doi: 10.1037/1093-4510.10.2.156.


Spectacular science is a mode of scientific inquiry that is created and sustained by popular culture. In this article, I provide evidence for this claim by examining the history of the lie detector. Throughout the 20th century, the technology was nurtured by newspaper and magazine articles, movies, comic books, television shows, and advertisements. Analysis of this rich archive reveals the instrument to be, on the one hand, an automatically functioning machine, the epitome of science. But on the other hand, the lie detector is also a totemistic object that requires the skills of a charismatic magician to work at all. Nevertheless, the instrument was untroubled by such apparent contradictions, because it operated according to a spectacular mode of governance.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Lie Detection / psychology*
  • Male
  • Power, Psychological
  • Psychology / history*
  • United States