What is truth?
My friend Nastassia recently returned to London from visiting her parents in Moscow. At a dumpling party, as guests kneaded dough at the table, a recently qualified ornithologist had told a weird story. Her new job involved feeding birds of prey, with mice she’d kill by swinging them against a wall – and that wasn’t the weird bit. Moscow Zoo wouldn’t take her on until she passed a lie detector test to show she wasn’t a thief or drug addict. ‘Unbelievable!’ Nastassia said.
Quite normal too, apparently. Since Russia acknowledged in 1993 that its security agents use polygraphy, the technique has developed into a sprawling industry. A company that claims to be at the cutting-edge promises it can ‘help to achieve a 100 per cent result’ in detecting crimes from corruption to murder. Its website indicates that would-be polygraphologists can almost immediately start to train others. All it takes is a two-week course and a machine of your own: prices start at around £900.
Though polygraphy is only marginally more accurate than guesswork, correctly identifying lies about two-thirds of the time, it’s overvalued and under-regulated everywhere. But the reliance some Russians place on calibrated measurements of perspiration, breathing, pulse rate and blood pressure is excessive, all the same. Polygraph tests have been used to corroborate claims by champion skaters that rivals contaminated their bodily fluids with banned substances, and to bolster a charge that the under-19 handball team had ‘betrayed the motherland’ by throwing matches at the European championships. Lie detection even served to acquit three cosmonauts of drilling a hole in the International Space Station – and to imply that the true driller was a Nasa astronaut with psychological problems.
The widespread use of polygraphy reflects high levels of distrust and corruption that aren’t ignored even by state-owned media. When the Duma proposed in 2009 to subject senior bureaucrats to lie detector tests, Russia Today spoke of ‘a bold mission of sweeping out the halls of power’. And though the mission was aborted – the law didn’t pass – it’s a reminder of polygraphy’s allure. Promises to detect falsehoods are the flipside of cynicism. They reflect a residual hope that honesty is attainable, facts are ascertainable and liars should be held accountable.
Again, such aspirations aren’t confined to Russia. It’s hard everywhere to differentiate honesty and good faith from deception. Western mindsets that have experienced the Iraq War, Brexit, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson certainly have epistemological issues of their own. And now, over Ukraine, the troubled perspectives are colliding.
‘It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth,’ Harry Frankfurt wrote in his monograph On Bullshit. ‘Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.’ The editor-in-chief of RT (formerly Russia Today) warns that Ukraine’s government has secretly murdered thousands of children and might be preparing to gas civilians in camps. The UK government fears a ‘whiff of Munich’ and ‘the biggest war in Europe since 1945’. President Biden is ‘convinced’ that Vladimir Putin will invade ‘in the coming days’. Where’s the truth? The polygraphs are silent – and they haven’t built a bullshit detector powerful enough.
The arguments are equivocal, for sure. Since his 2008 war with Georgia, Putin has assumed that threatening postures by a restrengthened military will bring political advantage, but half the national army can’t remain poised to invade for ever: not even gas exports are valuable enough to support that. Setting plans in motion, on the other hand, would involve wanton destruction or a sustained occupation that could only jeopardise his hold on power. And though Putin has been canny enough in the past to forestall discontent and unpopularity, positioning himself between Russia’s ultra-nationalists and liberals, the balancing act is more precarious now than it’s ever been. The expectations he’s unleashing, fuelled by escalating rhetoric, mean that carefully calculated manoeuvring could easily end in accidental catastrophe.
Then there’s the Madman Theory: the idea that it sometimes pays dividends in international relations to act bonkers. It’s most closely associated with Richard Nixon, but the strategy has older precedents – and one in particular has been doing the rounds in Russia. According to Nastassia, a lot of Muscovites have been favourably comparing Putin’s stance to the successful US negotiating position during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That’s certainly contentious. The superpowers came close to a nuclear exchange in 1962, and Russia has no more right to kick neighbouring states around than America does. The parallel has long been popular though. Perhaps it’s even true. Whatever that means.