The quest for technology that can detect any lie is still plodding on. But while we may not be able to nail every falsehood, science is helping us tell when someone massages the truth. New Scientist reports that experts are now concocting “spin reading” software programs that analyze a person’s speech, voice, or facial expressions to sniff out his or her level of truthiness.
David Skillicorn, a math and computer science researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, has come up with a particularly timely trick: He developed an algorithm that “evaluates word usage within the text of a conversation or speech to determine when a person ‘presents themselves or their content in a way that does not necessarily reflect what they know to be true.’”
In other words, he created a Spin Detector. Here’s a quick summary of how it works:
The algorithm counts usage of first person nouns – “I” tends to indicate less spin than “we”, for example. It also searches out phrases that offer qualifications or clarifications of more general statements, since speeches that contain few such amendments tend to be high on spin. Finally, increased rates of action verbs such as “go” and “going”, and negatively charged words, such as “hate” and “enemy”, also indicate greater levels of spin. Skillicorn had his software tackle a database of 150 speeches from politicians involved in the 2008 US election race.
Yes, you say, but aren’t the speeches penned by speechwriters and not the candidates themselves? According to Skillcorn, it doesn’t matter: The speeches have all been individualized enough to register discrepancies, plus candidates often subconsciously make little changes to the script—substituting “I” for “we,” for example, or perhaps inserting a “my friends” or “Charlie” between every third word—that make a big difference in the algorithm.
So what were his results?
Each of the candidates had made speeches containing very high and very low levels of spin…depending on the occasion. In general…Obama’s speeches contain considerably higher spin than either McCain or Clinton. For example, for their speeches accepting their party’s nomination…Obama’s speech scored a spin value of 6.7 – where 0 is the average level of spin within all the political speeches analysed, and positive values represent higher spin. In contrast, McCain’s speech scored -7.58, while Hillary Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention scored 0.15. Skillicorn also found that Sarah Palin’s speeches contain slightly more spin than average.
Still, before everyone pounces on these findings to add some spin of their own, know this: When Skilllicorn looked at each speech in context, he found that Obama’s spin was heaviest when his intention was to motivate his audiences, such as the lengthy speech on race he gave following the Jeremiah Wright controversy. In these instances, spin serves less as spin than it does “stirring rhetoric”—at least, when it comes to the views of voters.
As for McCain, a voice analyst reportedly said that he “often smiles in a manner that commonly conveys sarcasm when addressing controversial statements,” and that his voice analysis profile “looks very much like someone who is clinically depressed.” We’ll let you spin that one however you see fit.