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Scientific Spin Detector

We've written before about how mathematics can bring us amazing revelations. Now a mathematician in Canada says that he can use math to tell when a politician is lying. With our own election coming up in 2008, this is something we can use.

Stu Hutson writes in New Scientist that a hard-fought election for the post of prime minister is taking place in Canada right now. Mathematician David Skillicorn created an algorithm which reveals which candidate is telling the truth in his campaign speeches, and which one is using more "spin." An algorithm is a set of step-by-step instructions which results in the solution to a specific problem.

According to Skillicorn's formula, current Prime Minister Paul Martin spins his speeches much more than his opponents Stephen Harper and Jack Layton. Skillicorn defines "spin" as when a person says something he doesn't really believe.

Here's how Skillicorn developed his algorithm: he analyzed the usage patterns of a group of around 100 words that are often linked to lying, when used by politicians. He then determined how often these words were used in the candidates' political speeches. Martin ranked 124, Layton 88 and Harper 73. The higher the number, the more spin they used.

The algorithm is based on one that was created at the University of Texas by James Pennebaker. While studying the lies of hundreds of participants, he uncovered word patterns linked to deception. One of these is the use of fewer personal pronouns, such as I, we, me and us. Another is a decrease in the use of the words "however" and "unless." These patterns are probably subconscious. This may sound like a plot from the TV show Numbers, but it's happening in real life.

The CIA has studied facial and body clues that reveal when people are lying. Paul Marks writes in New Scientist that the US Department of Defense has developed a Remote Personnel Assessment device (RPA) that can be used on someone without that person realizing that he is being given a lie detector test. The RPA will use microwave or laser beams that are bounced off a person's skin to measure their stress level. The machine will measure the heart rate and what is called the galvanic skin response and can be used on subjects who are in motion, such as inside an airport. It can be hidden inside a pocket and will be a lie detector that's impossible to beat.

Art credit: http://www.freeimages.co.uk

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