The police could always use horoscopes, dowsing, and psychics to find culprits

I imagine the police would find a way to use astrology to simplify investigations.

“The victim was murdered on the 19th of November, at 6am, Chief!”

The chief consults a complex chart on the wall. “The killer had to have been a Virgo, with Mercury in the sixth house. That narrows it down! Quick, use the database to round up all the suspects!”

OK, maybe slightly exaggerated, but you’ve got to admit it’s not much of a reach for an institution that still uses handwriting analysis and lie detector tests. Now it’s revealed that they’ve also been using something called Scientific Content Analysis, or SCAN, a totally made up scheme for reading between the letters and lines of interview transcripts to get the interpretation the police want.

How does it work? Well, you need to spend a fair bit of money and get training to really understand it, but basically it’s a set of rules for plucking out quirks in a text and leaping to conclusions.

For Avinoam Sapir, the creator of SCAN, sifting truth from deception is as simple as one, two, three.

1. Give the subject a pen and paper.

2. Ask the subject to write down his/her version of what happened.

3. Analyze the statement and solve the case.

Those steps appear on the website for Sapir’s company, based in Phoenix. “SCAN Unlocks the Mystery!” the homepage says, alongside a logo of a question mark stamped on someone’s brain. The site includes dozens of testimonials with no names attached. “Since January when I first attended your course, everybody I meet just walks up to me and confesses!” one says. Acronyms abound (VIEW: Verbal Inquiry – the Effective Witness; REASON: REport Automated SOlution Notes), as do products for sale. “Coming Soon! SCAN Analysis of the Mueller Report,” the website teased this year. LSI offers guidebooks, software, kits, discount packages, cassette tapes of seminars and, for computer wallpaper, a picture of a KGB interrogation room.

It’s a classic pseudoscientific scam. Identify a population of gullible marks, in this case police departments all across the country. Promise an easy solution to a difficult problem. Require them to learn arcane and irrelevant rules for interpreting data. Get paid. Avinoam Sapir has been raking in the dough for decades with this scam.

One other interesting twist is that he’s marketing only to the police, so the general public is largely unaware of the garbage the police are using to snare putative “criminals”. And it’s working! There are people languishing in jail, convicted of serious crimes, because they used shorthand, abbreviations, and had sloppy handwriting!

He noted that while summarizing the day Hernandez disappeared, Joyner had not used the word “I,” writing, for example, “went home,” not, “I went home.” “That in itself is a signal of deception,” the detective wrote. Instead of writing “my girlfriend,” Joyner had written “a girlfriend.” What’s more, the detective wrote, Joyner’s handwriting was larger and more spread out in the answer’s last two lines than in the previous seven.

When asked why the police should believe his answers, Joyner had written, “I have nothing to hide.”

“This is not the same as stating I did not lie,” the detective wrote.

Well, at least they’re not using craniometry to determine guilt. I don’t think. Maybe there are cops wandering around passing judgment on the shapes of skulls, and we’re just waiting for ProPublica to do an expose.


  1. mamba says

    Ever hear about the REID method for interrogation?
    The cops love it because it makes the guilty confess 80% of the time…and makes the innocent confess about the same rate!

    Those that study it notice there are 2 major things wrong:

    1) There is no provision for innocence. At all. The entire technique is to get confessions from guilty people, NOT determine if the person is guilty in the first place.
    2) Everything is a sign of guilt because of the above, innocent people get pressured to confess all the time.

    But if you ask a cop about this technique, they will tell you it’s great for interrogations. As in “they already know you did it” mentality. Everything you can possibly do in an interview is treated as a sign of deception. Fidgeting? nervous about giving out incriminating information. NOT fidgeting? You are controlling yourself unnaturally to avoid giving out incriminating information. Looking at the cop? You’re controlling your eye movements, while NOT looking at the cop is a sign you’re deceptive. See the problem?

    I asked a cop once what an INNOCENT person would look like under interrogation. They had NO response. It literally never occurred to them as they were trained to detect GUILT, not innocence. They just replied something like “I’d know you’re lying”. when I pointed out that’s not an answer to my question, they walked away…

  2. says

    Joyner had not used the word “I,” writing, for example, “went home,” not, “I went home.” “That in itself is a signal of deception,” the detective wrote. Instead of writing “my girlfriend,” Joyner had written “a girlfriend.”

    In my native language skipping the subject is very common because of how the grammar works.

    When people communicate in their non-native languages, their sentence constructions are routinely influenced by what is the norm in their native language. Thus some non-native English speakers would be automatically guilty with this kind of analysis.

  3. jrkrideau says

    One other interesting twist is that he’s marketing only to the police
    Err, you might want to check that. There is some suggestion that he has been marketing to the CIA, the State department, other gullible US government agencies and possibly some private organizations.

    A number of US agencies are reported to use polygraphs, so why not this bit of crap.

    I think it is fair to call purchasers gullible but this type of pseudo-scientific garbage has real appeal for the police since it helps reduce uncertainty in areas of investigation where even the best investigators may be groping about in a fog. I would consider it a great way to reduce cognitive dissonance for a police officer and for prosecutors.

    And what is this knocking of astrology? Galileo was court astrologer in Florence for years.

    If it was not so serious it would be hilarious. I am torn between laughter and tears. Laughter at the sheer imbecility of the thing from a professional standpoint and tears that crucial life–shattering decisions are being made using this piece of crap.

    @ 2 Erlend Meyer
    That looks like the authentic site address to me.

    There is no pronoun “we” in the statement.

    From the workbook:

    If the pronoun “we” did not enter the statement it means that the person is likely to be under a lot of pressure.

    I know nothing about Korean but is “we” used in normal conversation or writing? Heck, it hardly exists in Latin. And what happens if one omits “the”? “The” does not exist in some language. Such things can give some “different” translations.

    Come to think of it, most scientific styles from at least the 1960’s to the 1990’0 discouraged the use of I or We so all scientific writers were under pressure and this was before the worst of Publish or Perish .

  4. microraptor says

    Andreas @4: Yes, but they’d probably already be considered guilty automatically by virtue of being non-American.

  5. jrkrideau says

    @ 3 mamba
    Ever hear about the REID method for interrogation?
    Oh yes. It gets great results as in your clearance rate goes up nicely.

    I have noticed that people who study false memory syndrome and false confessions do not seem to impressed.

    Overall forensic “sciences” and the parasites such as SCAN or Reid lack just about any pretense to being scientific, with the exception of DNA testing which can be f**ed up apparently by accident. But, at least the science seems sold even if the implementation may not be.

  6. jrkrideau says

    @ 6 microraptor
    Andreas @4: Yes, but they’d probably already be considered guilty automatically by virtue of being non-American.

    Not necessarily.
    LSI provides SCAN training throughout the US and Canada, and also in Mexico, the UK, Israel, Australia, and other countries.

    And we can get some interesting language mixtures. I knew a Canadian who grew up speaking Japanese at home, French with his friends and English in school.

    @ 4 Andreas Avester
    Thus some non-native English speakers would be automatically guilty with this kind of analysis.

    I think that there are wide enough differences in English that it would be a shambles getting an Australian to score a work from someone from rural Newfoundland or Glasgow.

  7. zenlike says

    Speaking about the deplorable REID technique, the company that “owns” it is using the “justice” system to try to suppress a Netflix documentary that exposes it for the horrible scam that it is.

  8. says


    Yes b’y, g’wan wit ya! They thinks they can know ya by lookin’ at ya? I ‘llow’s they gets nothin’ doin’ dat. Wish in one hand, shit in t’other, see which’n fills up first, but least I tells the difference!

  9. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    To OP
    Don’t forget bite analysis, fiber analysis, and practically every forensic science used by police. One notable exception is DNA analysis, almost the only forensic science that has any any science and evidence behind it.

  10. dianne says

    @11: Depending on how it is used and with what quality controls. PCR is very, very easy to screw up if you don’t do the controls right. Take DNA evidence seriously but not as absolute proof.

  11. blf says

    The mildly deranged penguin points out the only form of indirect innocence / guilt analysis which is reliable is Trial by Cheese: If the suspect eats the cheese, they are either innocent, guilty, or hungry, and if they do not eat the cheese, they are innocent, guilty, have no appreciation of fine foods, or the mildly deranged penguin got to the cheese first. Trial by Cheese is demonstratively more accurate than lie detectors, eyewitnesses, or lawyers, albeit those bars are so low deep mining equipment is insufficient.

  12. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    To dianne
    Of course. Or the lab tech just takes the results, which is fairly common.

  13. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    And the mendacity to say that “I have nothing to hide” isn’t synonymous with “I am not lying” is why one always shuts up and hires an attorney.

  14. zenlike says

    @Crip Dyke: I see Tamsyn already beat me to it.

    I haven’t seen the doc myself (yet), but from what I read about it, it probably doesn’t contain much more information that anyone reading up on the topic already knows, but documentaries like these are important to reach a wider audience.

  15. zenlike says

    @Crip Dyke.

    Woops, that’s on me I guess to falsely call it a documentary and muddy the waters. Docu-drama is probably more accurate?

    As I said, I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently (and according to the linked article from Tamsyn), it is mentioned by name in the series.

  16. says


    It’s good! There’s a ton in there that doesn’t have to do with the interrogations, and what there is about the interrogations covers a bunch of things, including not allowing parents to be present. I’m sure you’re right about REID being mentioned, there’s just so much important stuff in there that I don’t remember it standing out.

    I’d give it a watch if I were you and I had time, though it sounds like you didn’t need my recommendation to be interested.

  17. says

    Oh, and yes – Docu-Drama is much more accurate.

    They tried to stay close to what actually happened and what was actually said, but they didn’t let imperfect knowledge stop them from recreating full scenes with continuous dialog and narrative. It’s always a bit hard to know where the “Docu-” ends and “Drama” begins in a DocuDrama rather than an “inspired by true events” fictionalization. This seems a bit more documentary than, say, Unbelievable (also an excellent show deserving a watch), but both are clearly DocuDramas rather than “inspired by”s.