Cops and spooks all over the world rely on a junk-science "walking polygraph" method to steer their investigation

SCAN (Scientific Content Analysis) is a lie-detecting method invented by Avinoam Sapir, a former Israeli spook turned polygraph examiner that involves picking out small textual details from writing samples to determine when someone is lying. Sapir has used his method to determine the veracity of the Book of Genesis, and to conclude that Anita Hill might be a secret lesbian and that James Comey was likely sexually assaulted as a child.

SCAN has no empirical support, and is so outlandish that it has hardly been studied by third parties at all. However, each time it was studied, it was found to perform no better than chance. For example, an Obama-era deep dive into investigation methods, the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which drew experts from many fields who concluded that "SCAN did not distinguish truth-tellers from liars above the level of chance" and challenged SCAN's core assumptions, such as: "Both gaps in memory and spontaneous corrections have been shown to be indicators of truth, contrary to what is claimed by SCAN."

Despite this, SCAN is widely deployed in the US and abroad, with customers in "Australia, Belgium, Canada, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Africa and the United Kingdom," and within dozens (if not more) of US police departments, as well as the FBI, the CIA and the DIA.

Why would a tool with "no empirical support" be so widely used by police departments and spies? The best explanation is offered by Northwestern University law prof Steven Drizin, whose research focuses on wrongful convictions: "A lot has to do with hubris — a belief on the part of police officers that they can tell when someone is lying to them with a high degree of accuracy. These tools play in to that belief and confirm that belief."

SCAN is genuinely laughable in its methods. Sapir's site advertises that it can "Turn every investigator into a 'walking polygraph'!" and that SCAN can uncover lies in a simple, three-step process:

1. Give the subject a pen and paper.

2. Ask the subject to write down his/her version of what happened.

3. Analyze the statement and solve the case.

SCAN is laughable, but popular: one academic, University of Portsmouth psych professor Aldert Vrij, ended up including a chapter on the failings of SCAN after he gave an international symposium to 100+ law enforcement personnel who told him that SCAN was their most frequently used lie-detection tool.

Sapir gets a lot of government and police business through his company, Laboratory for Scientific Interrogation (LSI). According to purchase order data from GovSpend.com, the DoD spent $97,000 on SCAN in 2015, $41k in 2014, and $16k in 2012 (all these contracts are no-bid because SCAN training has "only one source" -- Sapir and LSI). Propublica's initial round of public records requests turned up 40 agencies that have paid LSI for SCAN training. Hilariously, the Middlesex County, NJ Prosecutor's Office declined to say who had gotten SCAN training because "It is better for the public good not to release the names of the particular people with this specialized skill."

SCAN has all the hallmarks of a junk-science scam, including claims by the inventor that he has secret and/or nonspecific studies to prove his product's efficacy, and a website filled with anonymous testimonials.

But most telling is when Sapir himself uses SCAN to analyze testimony: he published an ebook that uses SCAN to analyze James Comey's memoir, "A Higher Loyalty," and concluded that Comey was likely a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, because the book contains 14 instances of a door opening or closing: "This activity when it enters an 'open statement' is correlated very strongly to child abuse in the speaker’s past." This is due to the fact that child abuse starts when the door opens and it ends when the door is closed."

He used similar tactics to conclude that Anita Hill had a "problem with sexual identity" because during her televised testimony during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, she "never called herself a woman" (Hill used words like "person" or "individual"). He also believes that Magic Johnson may be gay because he said, "I'm not gay." Sapir explained, "So let’s go on from there. So, you know, I have a calculator. See I have a calculator? I take two. We punch two. Why do we punch two? Because she said you might be either gay or bisexual. That’s two. And he denied one. Yeah? We deduct one, what is the total?"

All of this would just be an indictment of cops' susceptibility to grifters who reassure them that they can "just know" when someone is lying, but for the fact that SCAN is widely used at the start of investigations to decide whom to focus on, which, in turn, leads to indictments (and 97% of US federal indictments result in a plea bargain, which means that being indicted is virtually synonymous with being convicted).

That means that America's overstuffed prisons almost certainly contain innocent people who were put there by this ridiculous junk science, and Sapir's making bank off of it.

Those steps appear on the website for Sapir’s company, based in Phoenix. “SCAN Unlocks the Mystery!” the homepage says, alongside a logo of a question mark stamped on someone’s brain. The site includes dozens of testimonials with no names attached. “Since January when I first attended your course, everybody I meet just walks up to me and confesses!” one says. Acronyms abound (VIEW: Verbal Inquiry - the Effective Witness; REASON: REport Automated SOlution Notes), as do products for sale. “Coming Soon! SCAN Analysis of the Mueller Report,” the website teased this year. LSI offers guidebooks, software, kits, discount packages, cassette tapes of seminars and, for computer wallpaper, a picture of a KGB interrogation room.

SCAN saves time, the site says. It saves money. Police can fax a questionnaire to a hundred people at once, the site says. Those hundred people can fax it back “and then, in less than an hour, the investigator will be able to review the questionnaires and solve the case.” “Past students … have reported a dramatic increase in the amount of information obtained from people,” the site says. “Thus, costly and time-consuming outside investigation was reduced to a minimum.”

SCAN works, the site says. “Analysis of statements has been found to be highly accurate and supported by a validation survey conducted in a U.S. governmental agency. In that survey, when SCAN was compared to other methods, the validity of SCAN reached above 95%,” the site says, without identifying the agency or citing or linking to any survey.

Why Are Cops Around the World Using This Outlandish Mind-Reading Tool? [Ken Armstrong and Christian Sheckler/Propublica]