Forensic Science & Lying + Tiny Sneak Peek at Liar

There were two fascinating articles in the New York Times yesterday both of which related strongly to Liar, my novel that comes out in October in both Australia and the USA.

Article the first by Natalie Angier is about a school were forensic science is one of the classes you can take and it’s insanely popular. This is increasingly the case all over the USA:

And though the forensic menu at New Rochelle is unusually extensive, schools everywhere are capitalizing on the subject’s sex appeal to inspire respect for the power of the scientific mind-set generally. According to an informal survey of 285 high school and middle school teachers conducted in 2007 by the National Science Teachers Association, 75 percent replied yes when asked, “Do you or other teachers in your district use forensic investigation in the science classroom?” A third of the respondents said the subject was woven into the regular science curriculum, a quarter listed forensics as a stand-alone course at their school, and one-fifth replied, we do both. Bring out your dead!

I really wish I had known about these classes before I wrote Liar because I definitely would have added forensic science to the curriculum of my invented school. When you read the novel you’ll know why it would have worked so well. Mmmm . . . maggots. You all know this novel is my first mystery/thriller, right?

The other article by Benedict Carey is about new techniques for determining whether people are lying or not. As you can imagine I did a lot of research on why people lie and how lies can be detected when I was writing Liar. The method the article discusses focusses on what people say when questioned not on how they say it:

In part, the work grows out of a frustration with other methods. Liars do not avert their eyes in an interview on average any more than people telling the truth do, researchers report; they do not fidget, sweat or slump in a chair any more often. They may produce distinct, fleeting changes in expression, experts say, but it is not clear yet how useful it is to analyze those.

Nor have technological advances proved very helpful. No brain-imaging machine can reliably distinguish a doctored story from the truthful one, for instance; ditto for polygraphs, which track changes in physiology as an indirect measure of lying.

“Focusing on content is a very good idea,” given the limitations of what is currently being done, said Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

It turns out that details are key:

In several studies, Dr. Colwell and Dr. Hiscock-Anisman have reported one consistent difference: People telling the truth tend to add 20 to 30 percent more external detail than do those who are lying. “This is how memory works, by association,” Dr. Hiscock-Anisman said. “If you’re telling the truth, this mental reinstatement of contexts triggers more and more external details.”

Unsurprisingly that’s one of the things successful liars talk about. Micah, the liar who is the protagonist of my next novel, puts it this way:

Details. They’re the key to lying.

The more detailed you are the more people believe. Not piled on one after another after another—don’t tell too much. Ever. Too many details, that’s too many things that can be checked.

Let them tease the information out of you. Lightly sprinkle it. One detail here, the smell of peanuts roasting; one there, the crunch of gray snow underfoot.

Verisimilitude, one of my English teachers called it. The details that give something the appearance of being real. It’s at the heart of a good lie, a story that has wings.

That’s also a description of writing fiction. There’s a lot of overlap between the techniques of the skilled liar and the skilled story teller. Though the study cited above makes it sound like Micah’s wrong: more details need to be piled on to be really convincing. Most people don’t tell what’s happened to them in the ordered way a story is written. They often spill out too many details that get in the way of the story. Micah’s right, though, that too many details leave you vulnerable cause they can be checked. Tricky situation for the liar.

I wonder if we’ll ever be in a position where we can absolutely know whether someone is lying or not?

The article mentions some of the limitations of the new technique:

It applies only to a person talking about what happened during a specific time — not to individual facts, like, “Did you see a red suitcase on the floor?” It may be poorly suited, too, for someone who has been traumatized and is not interested in talking, Dr. Morgan said. And it is not likely to flag the person who changes one small but crucial detail in a story—“Sure, I was there, I threw some punches, but I know nothing about no knife”—or, for that matter, the expert or pathological liar.

But it’s a huge step forward that more and more law enforcement around the world are shying away from coercion and phony science (i.e. lie detector machines) and looking closely at the words actually said and the context in which they’re said. Who knows maybe one day false arrest and imprisonment will be impossible.

Yes, I woke up in a utopian kind of mood.


  1. Sazz on #

    That article was gross. I wish I didn’t read it. Maggots. Rotting chickens. Gross.

  2. caitlin on #

    Yes, nothing beats the ickiness of maggots, but Liar is stunning. I envy all who have yet to read it. I started reading Liar last week around 10ish p.m. and could not stop reading until I finished it.

  3. Kathleen on #

    That’s so cool. I definitely would have done forensic science if it had been a suject when I was in school.

    Justine, is there a point in your writing/editing process when you have to make yourself stop researching?

    I’ve been doing a lot of historical/scientific research for my story and there is always so much more to learn. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve missing something or that a scientist somewhere is writing a breakthrough paper that will destroy my entire plot. Is this feeling just part of the fiction writing gig?

  4. Elodie on #

    On that last, false arrest being impossible thought– wouldn’t we end up running into the issue that someone who truly believes they aren’t lying wouldn’t show any of the signs of lying?

  5. Delia on #

    The characters in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado had something, then, with their details adding verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative?

    Liar is prime, by the way. Thanks for sharing.

  6. cristina on #

    awesome! I cant wait to read liar! Me wants now!

  7. Jen Hubert on #

    HA! I picked the same two articles out of the same paper to read–and I hadn’t even written a book about a liar:) Am currently reading the ARC now and can’t put it down. Deb came through! I’m seeing quite a bit of Red (as in Little) so far…but have some questions about the cover. Who is that girl supposed to be? Surely not Micah, who is described as short-haired and dusky-skinned. Can’t wait to finish–itching to pick it up again right now!

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