A bullshit lie detector company run by a charlatan has managed to semi-successfully censor a peer reviewed academic article. And I don't like it one bit. But first, some background, and then we'll get to the censorship stuff.
Five years ago I wrote a Language Log post entitled "BS conditional semantics and the Pinocchio effect" about the nonsense spouted by a lie detection company, Nemesysco. I was disturbed by the marketing literature of the company, which suggested a 98% success rate in detecting evil intent of airline passengers, and included crap like this:
The LVA uses a patented and unique technology to detect "Brain activity finger prints" using the voice as a "medium" to the brain and analyzes the complete emotional structure of your subject. Using wide range spectrum analysis and micro-changes in the speech waveform itself (not micro tremors!) we can learn about any anomaly in the brain activity, and furthermore, classify it accordingly. Stress ("fight or flight" paradigm) is only a small part of this emotional structure
The 98% figure, as I pointed out, and as Mark Liberman made even clearer in a follow up post, is meaningless. There is no type of lie detector in existence whose performance can reasonably be compared to the performance of finger printing. It is meaningless to talk about someone's "complete emotional structure", and there is no interesting sense in which any current technology can analyze it. It is not the case that looking at speech will provide information about "any anomaly in the brain activity": at most it will tell you about some anomalies. Oh, the delicious irony, a lie detector company that engages in wanton deception.
So, ok, Nemesysco, as I said in my earlier post, is clearly trying to pull the wool over people's eyes. Disturbing, yes, but it doesn't follow from the fact that its marketing is wildly misleading that the company's technology is of no merit. However, we now know that the company's technology is, in fact, of no merit. How do we know? Because two phoneticians, Anders Eriksson and Francisco Lacerda, studied the company's technology, based largely on the original patent, and and provided a thorough analysis in a 2007 article Charlatanry in forensic speech science: A problem to be taken seriously, which appeared in the International Journal of Speech Language and the Law (IJSLL), vol 14.2 2007, 169–193, Equinox Publishing. Eriksson and Lacerda conclude, regarding the original technology on which Nemesysco's products are based, Layered Voice Analysis (LVA), that:
Any qualified speech scientist with some computer background can see at a glance, by consulting the documents, that the methods on which the program is based have no scientific validity.
OK, now for the censorship stuff. This is ugly. But complicated. As reported on the AAAS's Science website, Nemesysco's lawyers wrote to the publisher of IJSLL, and forced it to retract the Eriksson and Lacerda article, ceasing to distribute the article electronically. (See Brouhaha Over Controversial Forensic Technology: Journal Caves to Legal Threat, cached version here)
Nemesysco's point seems to have been that the article was unnecessarily personal. And here's the complication: it was indeed not necessary for the article to revolve as much as it did around the character of the founder of Nemesysco, Amir Liberman (still no relation!). The article clearly suggests Amir Liberman is a charlatan. Now, I'm convinced that Amir Liberman is in fact a charlatan. And I also think that the article is well-researched, and makes no unsubstantiated claims. Furthermore, and although this is unconventional in scientific journals, the article is greatly enhanced as regards its narrative structure by having a real live bad guy as the central character. But I'm not a lawyer, and can't evaluate whether any case against the journal would have had legal merit. So, I'm not going to debate the legal ins and outs. You can read around the web (e.g. on wikipedia) and, if you understand such things, decide for yourself. Whatever the legal issues, the possibility of such censorship is very disturbing.
The only thing about this affair that pleases me is that Nemesysco's action has without doubt brought more attention to the article, not less: you can find the original article online here. I imagine thousands of people have downloaded it. If enough of us to do the same, Nemesysco's censorship will obviously have failed to achieve its main objective. Having been withdrawn by the publisher, the article has perhaps lost the (anyway illusory) aura of scholarly perfection that a published peer reviewed article carries. But it won't have disappeared. And maybe, as a result of all this attention, some potential purchaser of Nemesysco's products, be it an insurance company or a government body, will think to ask a linguist before spending the money of customers, stockholders or taxpayers on bullshit that gives speech technology a bad name. Or maybe, just maybe, companies like Nemesysco will be encouraged to stop bullshitting, and start presenting customers with enough information to perform a fair assessment of their products.
(Hat tip to Robin Cooper, and the Facebook group Support Francisco Lacerda and Anders Eriksson, from which I learned of the Nemesysco censorship.)