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The Muddle of Truth

by Michael Shermer, Aug 21 2012

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 According to the late UFO investigator Philip Klass, Walton passed one polygraph test (published) but failed another (unpublished), and in his opinion Walton and his associates made up the story as an excuse for failing to complete the logging job on time.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

Fire in the Sky (book cover)

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.

37 Responses to “The Muddle of Truth”

  1. Carl says:

    Skeptics in general don’t take polygraph tests seriously in the first place.

  2. In my own investigation of this story, I did not find it necessary to introduce the excuse of covering up the logging job not being completed on time. I found that the National Enquirer’s $100,000 prize, and some fun attention gained for a few young guys, was reason enough for their fanciful tale.

  3. LovleAnjel says:

    I had figured Moment of Truth was edited for effect, but to go to these lengths to keep the prize money from contestants, and make them look like idiots to boot! It’s a scam. Regardless of my opinion on Mr. Walton’s abduction, that show owes him and all of its contestants apologies.

  4. Jim Shaver says:

    Travis Walton said:

    “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.”

    BS! Most skeptics would agree with you that the show Moment of Truth is sensationalistic in its format and unscientific in its methodology. It neither proves nor disproves anything.

    From your writing, it appears to me that you are a clever man, Mr. Walton. Putting all polygraph tests and television shows aside, I don’t believe you were abducted by aliens, and I don’t believe you believe you were.

    • tmac57 says:

      On top of that,Travis Walton embraced the validation of parts of his story by the flawed tests,while rejecting the parts that showed he was deceptive.A skeptic might view this as cherry picking…no?

    • rick says:

      did you even read the above blog? did you see the part were he says “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.”” i suppose your just gonna conveniently ignore all that in order to support your baseless beliefs right? that’s called blind faith btw, not scientific logical or intelligent by any means

  5. Max says:

    Using the proper procedure, the subject knows all the questions in advance and has all the answers memorized, so why would the relevant questions make him nervous? It’s not like he’s caught off-guard and has to come up with a lie on the spot.

  6. Michael Brady says:

    Let me get this straight, a person who achieved his 15 minutes of fame and derived some measure of financial recompense for claiming to have been abducted by aliens is concerned that a gotcha reality show chose the wrong polygrapher for the pseudoscientific denouement of their fishwrap TV show? Is this knot even worth trying to untangle?

  7. d brown says:

    Polygraph tests may not show the truth. But if done right it can show what needs to be looked at. But its only one tool and can be misused. Maybe even often misused

  8. Chris Howard says:

    I’ve heard that “passing” a polygraph can mean that the test subject believes what they are saying, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that what they are reporting actually happened in objective reality. Is that true, or just another urban legend?

    • Max says:

      Well yeah, it’s like reading a poker player only tells you if he thinks his hand is strong, but he may be wrong about that, especially if he’s an amateur.

      • Jim Shaver says:

        Also, the poker player may be good at being deceptive.

      • Phea says:

        A decent poker player must not only be deceptive, but manipulative and aggressive as well.

        One tell, a lot of beginners exhibit, is their betting hand will shake when they have a good hand, and are making or calling a large bet. Like stage-fright, it’s pretty much an involuntary reaction to nervousness.

        While I have no direct, or indirect experience with polygraphs, I do know that lying glibly is almost impossible for someone who’s nervous.

      • tmac57 says:

        I would really like to see the claims of professional poker players put to the test to see if they really do have any ability above chance at reading another player’s confidence in their hand.
        I have no doubt that they believe that they do,but has anybody ever attempted to put that to a rigorous statistical test? Maybe they are remembering the hits,and forgetting the misses,and their superior results are more about their better managing the mechanics of the game,psyching out their opponents ,and regression to the mean.
        I suspect that they overestimate their ability,but I would like to know,one way or the other.It would be interesting.

      • Erikthebassist says:

        I’m not a pro but I’ve played with plenty of them. No poker player worth their salt thinks “tells” really exist. Decisions are based on math, hand history and little else. In fact, a player who sits down with sunglasses, an iPod and a hoodie is a good poker player’s favorite kind of victim because it means he actually thinks he can read your hand based on your mannerisms, which means he can be manipulated.

        If I’m making a decision about a bet, I always put my opponent on the best two cards possible to start, then decide if there’s enough money in the pot or my opponents stack to make the risk of trying to catch my cards profitable. Only then do I think about how this player has previously played and let that weight my decision slightly. If I know nothing about the player I always assume he’s got the goods and go from there.

      • Max says:

        Players wearing sunglasses at WSOP main event table:
        5,5,5,3,5,3,3,5,1 (and 1 hoodie in 2011)

      • Erikthebassist says:

        How many of the sunglasses players are profitable regulars on the circuit? And how many profitable pro’s wear sunglasses on a regular basis? The final table at the Wsop is generally made up of a majority of lucky first timers and a few profitable pro’s.

      • Nick Johnson says:

        I think you’re wrong. Phil Gordon’s Little Green Book details a number of simple and reliable tells, such as looking at their chips or your chips when a card comes out, or even something as simple as looking at their cards again when three of the same suit come out on the flop – which tells you with near certainty that they have exactly one of that suit. I’ve also had players tell me later that I started breathing more deeply when I hit big, which I find entirely plausible.

        Of course, a good player can identify and eliminate most or all of those, but there may well be more subtle cues I’m not aware of.

      • Nick Johnson says:

        Reading a hand isn’t as hard as you’d expect. In a lot of hands, the cards on the board combined with the way a player is playing can narrow down the set of cards they could have (assuming they’re a sane player) to a very few options – it’s just a matter of knowing the game well enough to be able to figure out what those are.

      • Erikthebassist says:


        Looking at my chips can mean anything. How much do I want to risk on a bluff? How much do I think I get my opponent to put in the middle because I have the nuts? Your adrenaline spikes whether you hit big or are on a stone cold bluff, so your breathing is going to change, you might get flushed in the face or your jugular might be bulging out of the side of your neck, none of that tells me whether you hit big or are bluffing at a big pot.

        I look at my cards after almost every flop, about the only time I don’t is when I have rags and am only in the hand because I was an unraised big blind. Too many times I’ve been mistaken about the cards I had in my hand and played them wrong. After hundreds of hands they have a tendency to start to look the same so I always double check before I bet or call.

        Of course you can read a players hand, but it’s based on what you know about that player and how he’s played in the past combined with how he’s playing the current hand. Again, if you think you can know what I’m holding based on my breathing or where my eyes dart during a hand, I’d love to play cards with you sometime.

      • Phea says:

        Tmac, I’ve played poker 40+ years and am a bit above average. I do know what it takes to be good, very good, and world class.

        The very best players are very smart,(most are geniuses), have superb memories, and are good at reading people, the same traits that a good “psychic” should have.

        The main way poker players figure out a good guess of what someone holds is not all that mysterious, but it isn’t easy either.

        First, based on previous experience, you determine his playing style, which, along with stuff like his position, chip stack, and other players, allows you to put him on a “hand range.” Tight players are easier to put on a hand range than loose/aggressive players.

        Next, as more cards are exposed, and bets are made, more information is gained, which good players use to further narrow down what cards might be held.

        Much like chess, poker actually becomes a game of subtle levels of out thinking an opponent. Where the beginning player only concerns himself with what HE has, and soon begins to wonder what his opponent holds, the expert goes way beyond that. What do I think he has, what does he think, I think he has, what do I want him to think, I think he has, and so on.

        All I can say is there are world class poker players just like there are world class athletes, and they are just as amazing. The difference is it’s mush easier to actually see and measure the abilities, (at least physically), of the athlete. .

  9. BillG says:

    “Polygraph evidence is admissible in court in New Mexico…” is what shocked me most about this post. Is this still valid?

    Polygraph is likely no different than body language, eye movement or nervous ticks that some claim as traits of lying – in which I find to be total bull s…! Many functional people have social phobias, panic attacks or bipolar disorders, even in small degrees, that is far removed or independent of lying or telling the truth.

    • Max says:

      If certain questions trigger a panic attack, that’s suspicious.
      The employees on Shermer’s show apparently sucked at lying. Watch them squirm.

    • LovleAnjel says:

      I don’t think a panic attack could be mistaken for a lie. And what does bipolar disorder have to do with anything?

      • BillG says:

        Panic attacks don’t have to be blatant – rapid breathing sweating, etc. that could be perceived as a lie. I challenge you to research bi-polar as mood swings or anti-social behavior can all present misperceptions, such as bogus lie detections.

  10. Rickenbacker says:

    So, reality TV is bullshit. Who knew!

  11. Mustang55 says:

    Unfortunately, we rally around fire, not facts. Those with visions of greatness and other worlds, etc. are far more appealing than the cold, hard, grounded truth of our situation. We’re only human, and that’s about it.

  12. rick says:

    keep your head up travis, some people wont believe what they dont want to believe even when it is smacking them in the face and biting them on the ass, these people are having an inner struggle with their own conscious and have to discredit anything that contradicts themselves for fear of threat to their own perceived ego

  13. jamdfh says:

    Without going into details, I am sure that in the actual account of Travis Walton himself, he lets the cat out of the bag. Originally, I thought the movie was just a movie and never read the actual account or had any interest until recently while channel surfing on cable. Amazingly, none of the authorities or skeptics alike (especially Klass) have brought up the one crucial and, what I believe, damning piece of evidence that any engineer would have questioned at least by the end of the 1980’s. Polygraph’s and eyewitness testimony is irrelevant in this case and was from the beginning. Volumes have been written and government money wasted by overlooking the obvious!

  14. r says:

    I hate this show screw you!