Traitors, prejudice and the bullshit-industrial complex

30th January 2024 Off By mattpotterthewriter

And so here it is. On the train of the globally syndicated TV show The Traitors, as grimace follows fart, comes a wave of think pieces about “how to spot a liar” or “what guilty people look like”.

It’s as if we learned nothing from the Nicola Bulley case, during which the world’s spectators got high on “microexpressions” & “tells” – what the husband did with his eyes during the TV appeal for witnesses; minute interpretations of how the sister spoke, her choice of words, the expressions on her face – every one of which were revealed, at the case’s sad denouement, to have been utterly meaningless. And not just utterly meaningless. A distraction, and a waste of resources.

And yet here it is again. Weeks-long televised and written mock-tutorials in something that pretends to be detection.

Absolute madness. Sure, we’re living in a confusing and insecure world. But just as in previous eras of accelerating comms and urbanising confusion – like the 16th Century witchfinders, or the Victorian detective authors and Christians, desperate for an all-knowing figure who could make ure people didn’t just pull any old shit and get away with it despite the fact that suddenly we all lived in cities and nobody knew their neighbour, in this age of ubiquitous closeups, clips and faces, we’re clinging to something that never was true as protection. But like most pseudoscience, it’s frustrating too. Because it distracts from something far more interesting and rewarding of investigation.

Traitors the TV show is primarily interesting because of the way it generates a situation in which people who know precisely zero must keep generating theories out of thin air for the cameras regardless.It’s as if we can’t bear to call time on the bullshit-industrial complex that is the belief in personal nano-signal analysis. Every gambler’s got a tell! Every criminal will look shifty! Every person’s stress levels change when they lie! People cover their mouths! Beards – what are they hiding?

In fact, it is the Faithful, not the Traitors, who are the true subjects of the show. Their closest analogues are the test subjects who are figuratively placed in a silent and empty room, only to begin populating it with phantoms from inside their own minds; or who are shown meaningless Rorschach blots, only to try to discern which one of them is a monster.

We don’t have to do the same.

We are under no obligation to try & drag phrenology or any of that other pseudoscience into common use through “his eyes flickered, that proves it” ad-hoc reckons.

Looking at faces on television to see who’s “guilty-looking” or “may be lying” – let alone in a gameshow in which the actors are chosen at random – is a blank canvas for prejudice and foolishness. Look at the way ingroups on the show reject or suspect those from minorities again and again, on flimsy grounds.

This is baked into the ignoble history of Lie Detection. Polygraphs were invented to scare the poorly educated immigrant classes in 1920s America into thinking they would be found out if they lied. Even today have a success record that is barely better than chance. This despite massive, century-long investment in them by US law enforcement. The show of straps and wires was just that. Detection theatre, posing as science.

And who got stiffed and sent down in the US as a result? Mostly Black and immigrant men – regardless of whether there had been any crime committed, or whether they had been guilty.

This is a price we are all still paying in US law enforcement’s attempts to enlist AI to predict criminal behaviour. It’s based on training data pools including who was arrested and convicted. Only, that training data itself was constructed by police bias.

Still, given the stakes for business, the ability to detect true intentions is what a lot of us spend an inordinate amount of time striving for.

Why did people click on that article, but not that one? Was anyone persuaded into action by your big ad for your new car? Or did they just get it because their mate drives one? Why might you vote the way you do? Support the cause you support?

It’s full of hope and optimistic claims for the clarity of the data. They aren’t always right.

But always – always – they are better ways than “he blinked a bit and I just got a feeling”.