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 According to the late UFO investigator Philip Klass, Walton passed one polygraph test (published) but failed another (unpublished), and in his opinion Walton and his associates made up the story as an excuse for failing to complete the logging job on time.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.
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.