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The Muddle of Truth

What Really Happened on Fox’s TV show Moment of Truth:
Travis Walton responds to Michael Shermer

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article by Travis Walton explains his side of what happened on this dreadful Fox television show on which I also appeared and described in last week’s Skepticblog. To understand Walton’s explanation you should read that article first, but if you don’t have time the upshot of the story is that Travis Walton claims that on November 5, 1975 he was abducted into a UFO in an Arizona national forest during a logging job and that his co-workers witnessed the event. According to the late UFO investigator Philip Klass, Walton passed one polygraph test (published) but failed another (unpublished), and in his opinion Walton and his associates made up the story as an excuse for failing to complete the logging job on time. Walton’s side of the story is recounted in detail in his 1978 book The Walton Experience, later reissued as Fire in the Sky, the title of the 1993 film based on the book. —Michael Shermer

With the recent airing overseas of the canceled Fox television show, Moment of Truth some people may have been mislead into believing that some shocking new revelation about the famous logging crew UFO case has come to light. Quite the contrary. Now that the airing of the show ends the “gag clause” in my contract (with its $1 million penalty) I am free to reveal that Moment of Truth has used testing methods that the producers were informed from the beginning were long ago completely discredited by every polygraph expert, lie detector school, and polygraph professional association in existence. I’ll quote here specific condemnations of the show’s methods by four of the world’s most highly respected polygraph experts who agree: “the polygraph aspect of the show has no validity whatsoever.” I will reveal other blatant deceptions the show has committed. And I will provide details of how, after the show, I underwent two of the most rigorous new polygraph tests available anywhere in the world.

I should have seen it coming. I should have known better. But there were unique circumstances. The company where I had worked for almost a decade announced a corporate headquarters decision to downsize by permanently terminating the 50 most recently hired workers, regardless of their performance. My hire date put me on that list. I came home that day to receive a phone call inviting me to be a “contestant” on a show I’d never seen that offered the possibility of winning up to $100,000. An opportunity to solve my layoff problem? I was wary. I began taping our negotiations. I watched an episode. I knew the examiner was their man, with every incentive to keep his employers from having to pay out big prize money. I wrote emails to a few of my friends about my apprehensions. I wrestled with doubt. I learned the show specialized in setting “contestants” up for dramatically devastating revelations (a la Jerry Springer). Still, it appeared I was on the brink of financial problems and all I had to do was answer 25 questions truthfully. What could be easier than that?

Impossible, I later learned. In all the show’s years almost no contestants had ever won the top prize. But I didn’t know that yet, so I asked, does the examiner use modern accepted methodology? I was assured he did. This was a lie—as far from true as you can get. The producer telling me this untruth may have believed it simply because the higher ups said so. Or they all—producers and network—may have been deceived by the examiner, who, with his training absolutely had to know his methods were bogus. We went back and forth. I sent them my refusal. They came back and were very persuasive and said they were planning on responding to criticisms by making sure more prizes would be awarded. I so very foolishly yielded to the temptation. Even after arriving for taping I learned such disappointing details and got such bad vibes that I announced I was going home. But my objections were negotiated away. I found out a major portion of episodes already taped never aired because the “contestants” withdrew and walked out.

By then I felt trapped into something I suspected was rigged from the ground up. My confidence in the examiner (essential for proper testing) was destroyed when he lied to me. He said he knew Arizona Department of Public Safety polygraph examiner Cy Gilson, who previously tested the woods crew, and was using the same method and equipment he did. His ancient polygraph machine was obviously not the state of the art computer-assisted equipment Cy Gilson uses. The final nail was learning that he only goes through the questions once! What?! Item #5 of the American Polygraph Association’s Standards and Principles of Practice that I quoted in my 1996 book Fire in the Sky (which I had loaned the producer) specifically prohibits rendering an examiner’s conclusion on the basis of a single run of the list. Modern method requires three separate runs through the same identical list of questions, sometimes four. Without these comparison charts there is no way to discern deception from random fluctuations in the subject’s responses. For example, even though crewman Allen Dalis “basically told the truth” according to the sheriff’s files in his first test with Cy Gilson, he was given an “inconclusive” just because he only did the list twice, storming out before the third run. (Allen passed a second test with Gilson in 1993 with flying colors). And modern methods limit relevant questions to three or four per test. The show’s rogue examiner was doing over 50 questions! Even more damning, the examiner had the option to pick the 25 questions to be used in the show, further removing objective comparison.

Fire in the Sky (book cover)

Earlier, a fake segment pretending to be my test was filmed with an actor in place of the examiner while my arm with the sensors attached rested comfortably on a table as per proper procedure. Later their actual “test” required me to hold my arm perfectly still while balancing it on a narrow one inch wide steel chair arm for the entire 50+ questions, a very long time, and excruciating. This was guaranteed to cause random stress reactions in their “contestants,” totally unrelated to deception. And, of course, with no comparison charts, there could be no way to see if this “reaction” was repeated all three times at the same question. Also, the test was done, as per examiner’s instructions, with my shoes removed, with my eyes closed, with a panel of at least six strangers staring at me. This sort of distraction was never part of any test I had ever heard of. Every test I know of consisted of the examiner and the subject alone in a room without interruptions.

When the “false” verdict (to the question “Were you abducted into a UFO on November 5, 1975?”) was announced the audience started booing. The host, Mark L. Walberg, turned to them and asked, “How many still believe he is telling the truth?” The audience erupted in cheering, long and loud. He asked how many now disbelieved and got only a few scattered calls from the back. They cut this out. Not long after the show I wrote one of the show staff and said, “They could edit that out or cut the volume…but that would be deceptive, wouldn’t it?” My prediction was right. They also rearranged the reaction shots of my family, even re-using some, moving them from after the verdict to before, creating another false perception.

By the way, not only was I judged truthful on other questions consistent with the reality of my incident, but fellow crewman Ken Petersen was also on the show and was paid a prize for passing his test question about witnessing the incident. So of course that too was deceptively edited out.

The United States GAO (Government Accounting Office) discovered that the method upon which Moment of Truth based their method (and further degraded) yielded up to 80% false positives (truth tellers judged to be liars). This method is illegal in some states to the point of revoking the license of anyone using it. The Moment of Truth examiner, in fact, regularly committed most of the 13 Activities of Unethical Examiners listed on the American Association of Police Polygraph Examiners website.

Cleve Backster is one of the pioneers in polygraph research and development, and is recognized as one of the top experts in the field. Techniques currently widely used in polygraph bear his name. He has administered hundreds of polygraph training courses and advanced seminars to law enforcement personnel at the municipal, state, and federal levels. Backster has been an interrogation instructor for the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps, an interrogation specialist with the CIA and has been a guest instructor at Fort Gordon, the U.S. Department of Defense Polygraph School, the Canadian Police College Polygraph Examiner School, and the FBI Academy. He has held numerous high ranking posts in polygraph professional associations, and has testified as an expert witness before the U.S. Congress in 1964 and 1974. Backster Associates said, “Moment of Truth uses a technique in polygraph that was discarded years ago.”

Arizona State Police polygraph examiner Cy Gilson, who tested the entire woods crew, said, “there can be no validity to the test results in such a procedure. The pseudo examiner is a whore and the show’s producer is the pimp.”

Dr. David Raskin has authored hundreds of scientific papers on polygraph. As a court recognized expert he has testified in cases such as the Howard Hughes will, Jeffrey (Fatal Vision) McDonald, serial killer Ted Bundy, the DeLorean affair, and the McMartin preschool case. Raskin has testified before British Parliament, the Israeli Kineset, and four times before the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate with regard to Watergate and Iran/Contra. Dr. David Raskin said, “I have always thought those programs are a disgrace. They trick people into participating and then use unprofessional and inaccurate methods merely for the purpose of entertaining their audiences. Any polygraph examiner who participates in such charades should not be allowed to practice. I have been asked to be the principal in such shows and have always refused. It is unfortunate that they lured you into being abused by them. I agree with the criticisms by Mr. Martin.”

R. Michael Martin, President of Global Polygraph Network and court certified polygraph expert, created a website, The Truth About the Moment of Truth when the show first aired (and of course long before my show) in the U.S. He writes: “FOX TV has intentionally blocked us from publishing this information on their public internet forum….” His site gives reasons: “the polygraph aspect of the show has no validity whatsoever.” “This test format will not determine truth or deception.” And in conclusion, “Due to the vague, subjective, futuristic nature, and sheer volume, of relevant questions asked on The Moment of Truth, there can be little more than chance accuracy in determining truth or deception to these questions. In other words, they could simply flip a coin and achieve the same accuracy levels.”

I came home after Moment of Truth and sought out the most rigorous new testing I could find. Polygraph evidence is admissible in court in New Mexico and so is tightly regulated by state law. I chose the firm with the highest recommendations, one that does work for the New Mexico State Prison, the Albuquerque Police Dept., even the United States Marshal’s Service. They applied the most refined and validated modern methods using state-of-the-art computer assisted, five trace equipment with digital readout. I passed two separate tests flawlessly with “a finding of: TRUTHFUL TO THE ABOVE RELEVANT QUESTIONS.” (Additional details in my updated edition of Fire in the Sky.)

To a rational person there could be no doubt that my passing five tests from three separate examiners, each of whom have strong service in law enforcement, completely eclipses the phony pretend “test” by the rogue examiner scamming the public on Moment of Truth. I challenge skeptics to find a single legitimate polygraph examiner who will publicly stand by the methods used there. Nevertheless, bafflingly, there will be people who do some dumb thing like try to pretend that contending verdicts make it all too confusing, so we should just throw it all out and consider the case unsupported by anything. A sneaky kind of intellectual dishonesty that really means they are going against the recognized experts and essentially accepting the claim by the discredited polygraph operator. To a skeptic a failed verdict, even from the worst operators, is eagerly embraced, while passed verdicts, regardless of superior credentials, just has to be doubted.

Sigh, it never ends.

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Travis Walton’s Alien Abduction Lie Detection Test

A Moment of Truth (or not) for the most famous
UFO abduction case in history

The Moment of Truth

Because I have a teenage daughter I am relatively current on what’s popular in pop culture. American Idol is the ne plus ultra in the reality television genre (don’t let yourself get hooked), and because Fox incestuously promotes its other shows I was vaguely familiar with The Moment of Truth, a game show in which contestants have to tell the truth under the watchful wires of a lie detector in order to win cash prizes. Contestants are put through a battery of questions while hooked up to the polygraph, but are not told whether the examiner determined from the readings whether or not they told the truth. Later, in front of millions of viewers and a live studio audience, with their friends, co-workers, family, spouses, or boyfriends and girlfriends (or ex’s) sitting on the set with them, they are asked the same questions again. After each answer a female voice says “That answer is…” and after a long pause a “true” means the contestant continues up the ladder to $25,000, $100,000, $200,000 all the way to half a million bucks. A “false” sends you packing for home.

One night a woman was faced with her husband and ex-boyfriend and was asked if she wished she had married the other guy. “Yes,” she said. “That answer is…true,” sounded the voice. She won the money but lost the husband. I remember thinking to myself, “you’d have to be a real pinhead to go on this show.”

On July 31, 2008, I appeared on The Moment of Truth (watch Part 1 on YouTube. I appear at about 7 min. 35 secs. in Part 2.) The contestant was Travis Walton, arguably the most famous alien abductee in Earth history. I agreed to appear only if there were no sexual allusions (alien probes aside). My question for Mr. Walton: “Do you have any evidence to support your claim of being abducted?” Of course he answered in the affirmative, because for three decades Travis Walton has been telling people that on the evening of November 5, 1975, he was “zapped” into a UFO while working as a logger in an Arizona National Forest. His evidence? His co-workers said they saw it happen. Five days later Walton called from a nearby payphone to report that the aliens had let him go.

And none too soon, because Walton and his co-workers were about to miss their deadline of November 10th to finish the logging job, after which they would be docked 10 percent of the contract, unless an “Act of God” prevented completion. Enter the UFO. Why aliens? For years Travis and his older brother Duane had talked about the UFOs that they had seen in Arizona, and they even made a pact that if either one were ever abducted they would insist that the aliens abduct the other one as well. Coincidentally (not!), two weeks before Walton’s abduction, with the logging deadline growing near, NBC aired their prime-time made-for-television movie The UFO Incident, about the 1961 Betty and Barney Hill abduction case.

In the considered opinion of the late aviation journalist Philip Klass, in his 1988 book UFO-Abductions (Prometheus Books), Walton and his buddies just made up the story as an excuse to account for their pending job incompletion. In his investigation of the case, Klass discovered that during the five days that Walton was missing none of his family or co-workers showed any concern whatsoever for his safety during several interviews by media and interrogations by law enforcement agents. His brother Duane confessed: “He’s not even missing. He knows where he’s at, and I know where he’s at.”

Although Walton passed a polygraph test arranged by a UFO organization, Klass learned that Walton dictated to the examiner what questions would be asked. Further investigation by Klass led him to an earlier unpublished polygraph test of Walton, conducted by Jack McCarthy, one of the top polygraph examiners in Arizona. McCarthy gave Klass his assessment of Walton’s story: “Gross deception!” He added that Walton employed polygraph countermeasures, such as holding his breath.

Now, 33 years later, Walton was once again in the polygraph hot seat. His affirmative answer to my question passed the truth test, because of course Walton believes he has evidence in the form of his friends’ corroborative story. The next question, for $100,000, was refreshingly straight-forward: “Were you abducted by a UFO on November 5, 1975.” Without hesitation he barked “Yes.” The voice in the sky once again boomed: “That answer is…”

Fire in the Sky (book cover)

False.” I couldn’t believe it. Neither could Walton, whose jaw dropped faster than a crashed flying saucer. At last, after a bestselling book and popular film about his abduction, Fire in the Sky, after countless UFO conferences and media appearances, it took a Fox reality television show to bring the case to a head. What does this mean? To be fair and balanced (!), possibly nothing, because the polygraph test is unreliable. In fact, I even thoroughly debunked it myself in a two-part special for the Fox Family channel (watch Part 1 and Part 2 on YouTube).

Given the shortcomings of both reality television and the polygraph, I wrote to Travis and asked him for his account of his experience on Moment of Truth. I had met Walton once before at my office in Altadena, California, where we filmed a segment for a television special on UFOs. I found him to be an exceptionally likeable man, a nice guy, and I found his account of this television show to be most illuminating. As he wrote me on August 21, 2009:

I normally would not have ever agreed to be on such a show. After my fellow crewmen and I passed polygraph tests from the Arizona state police polygraph examiner I wrote in my book that I was done addressing that aspect of it. There the matter rested until last year when I received the bad news from my employer of 11 years that over a hundred of those most recently hired (which included me) would be permanently laid off. Coincidentally I came home that day to receive a phone call from The Moment of Truth inviting me to be a contestant with the possibility of winning up to $100,000.

I’m no fool. I knew that the show’s public lure was to familiarize the audience with the contestant’s friends& family and then shockingly disgrace him with a key “failed” question. I wrote to several friends about my misgivings. The examiner was their man, with a vested interest in giving his employer the scandalous Jerry Springer type “entertainment” that has been the show’s stock in trade — to say nothing of saving them from awarding any prize money. I was made even more uneasy to learn that up to then very few had won much of anything. The outrageous demands set down in their contract was the clincher. I declined their offer.

But they persisted, modifying the standard contract to satisfy my objections. They said the rules were being changed to insure more prizes would be awarded. My looming layoff pushed me to reconsider. I inquired as to whether good, accepted modern polygraph methods were being used. They assured me that was the case. I should have known better, but I figured all I had to do was tell the truth, even if I had to make public something embarrassing like a personal business or marital mistake and I would win top prize.

I didn’t became aware of the shocking truth about the polygraph procedure they were using until it was too late. It did no good to tell them what I’d written in my book (page 322) years earlier, that “The American Polygraph Association’s Standards and Principles of Practice item #5 states: “A member shall not provide a conclusive decision or report based on chart analysis without having collected at least two (2) separate charts in which each relevant question is asked on each chart. A chart is one presentation of the question list.” There many other violations of accepted procedure.

We came back home and my wife had me retested with the most rigorous new tests we could find — in New Mexico where it is stringently regulated by the state because results are admissible in court there. A firm highly recommended by other examiners, one that does work for the Albuquerque Police Dept, the NM State Prison, and the U.S. Marshal’s office. The most accepted methods on state-of-the-art computerized equipment. I passed two different new tests flawlessly. Then I found a website that was even more devastating of any claim of legitimacy for The Moment of Truth: The Truth About the Moment of Truth. Written by a court certified polygraph expert back in 2004 shortly after the show debuted, he began with, “…the polygraph aspect of the show has no validity whatsoever.” and “This test format will NOT determine truth or deception.” In fact I wrote years ago that the GAO tests showed such methods would yield as high as 80% false positives. He wrote in conclusion, “Due to the vague, subjective, futuristic nature, and sheer volume, of relevant questions asked on The Moment of Truth, there can be little more than chance accuracy in determining truth or deception to these questions. In other words, they could simply flip a coin and achieve the same accuracy levels.”, saying you’ll get the same opinion from any accredited polygraph school. I then proceeded to gather several more equally damning judgments from some of the very top experts in the world in polygraph, plus I had several international mediaforums lined up. So there’s a bit of a let down because I was geared up to defend myself in a way that would have unfortunately demolished the show and seriously hurt Fox. Too bad, because I think that the producers I dealt with are good, well intentioned people who had been duped by a dishonest examiner.

Check out that website and tell me what you think.

I think the polygraph is not a reliable determiner of truth. I think Travis Walton was not abducted by aliens. In both cases, the power of deception and self-deception is all we need to understand what really happened in 1975 and after.

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Polygraph & Lie Detection Part 1

Can the polygraph machine really scientifically measure if someone is lying, or are all those graphs and numbers just pseudoscience in the service of law enforcement? Can we tell if someone is lying to us by their body language or facial expressions? Michael Shermer puts both the polygraph and lie detection to the test in this dramatic episode that features O.J.’s jury consultant lie detection expert.

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Polygraph & Lie Detection Part 2

Can the polygraph machine really scientifically measure if someone is lying, or are all those graphs and numbers just pseudoscience in the service of law enforcement? Can we tell if someone is lying to us by their body language or facial expressions? Michael Shermer puts both the polygraph and lie detection to the test in this dramatic episode that features O.J.’s jury consultant lie detection expert.

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