Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the "Diamond Owl" intellectual game "What? Where? When?"
Liberal Arts
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NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to distinguish truth from falsehood?

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to distinguish truth from falsehood?
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Photo: Invasion. Pavel Apalkin




In medieval Thailand, if during the trial one person argued something and the other contradicted him, they were forced to take some kind of magic remedy, and according to the results they had to make a decision, justifying one and accusing the other.

What is this miracle remedy?

The answer is a little later.




SEven one of the first sets of laws in the world — the Hammurabi Code, which was in force in Ancient Mesopotamia — had the attempts to solve one of the most important problems of justice: how to establish the truth if the testimony of one participant in the process directly contradicts the testimony of another?

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to distinguish truth from falsehood?
Hammurabi’s laws

Of course, the judges strictly admonished the accused and witnesses to tell only the truth, but what did they have to do in case the authority of the judges (that is, the king himself, on whose behalf the judges were acting) was insufficient to intimidate the liars? Above the authority of the king was only the authority of the gods.

In order to appeal to this supreme authority, the participants of the trial were forced to take terrible oaths, calling terrible disasters on their heads if their words turned out to be a lie. Did anyone dare to violate them? I’m afraid they did so — as it is now …

Then it was decided to let the gods punish the liars on their own. The person who gave testimony was simply thrown into the river (most likely, tied up). If he drowned, it was believed that the god of the river punished him for lying, so he deserves it. If he popped up, his words were recognized as true — god himself confirmed!




In some ways, such procedure was quite convenient — the drowned villain and oathbreaker got what he merited and obviously could not complain, the righteous man who got out from the river clearly did not want to complain. And the judges were just happy — god punished the villain, and no one can object to this.

However, from time to time there were cases, in which new circumstances were discovered and it turned out that the one who was justified by the god of the river was irrefutably incriminated, and the convicted person turned out to be innocent of anything. Moreover, it was usually too late to change the sentence — by this time the villain, caught by the god of the river, was usually already executed, so that they left everything as it was. But judges questioned the sentence…

In any case, the jurisdiction of the divine court, which, with greater confidence in it, could be extended to any theft of chicken and the selling of diluted beer, was limited to cases of blasphemy — god knows better there. In other situations, they adhered to the more modern principles — the prosecutor had to prove his point, and without this, the defendant was simply acquitted.

Nevertheless, there were enough accusations of blasphemy (if a witness or an accused lies under oath — isn’t that blasphemy?), and this practice did not go out of use. The guilty person was deprived not only of his life, but also at home, handing him over to the accuser (and vice versa, of course).




In the Middle Ages, when religion took even greater place in the life of society than in Ancient Mesopotamia, the practice of divine judgment was adopted and became very popular. It has even received a special name — “trial by ordeal” (from the Latin ordalium — sentence, court).

Several Ordeals were recognized. For example, the Ordeal, similar to the Babylonian one, was called “the test of water” and completely changed the meaning. Now it was believed that if a suspect drowns, god justifies him, taking his soul to heaven, and the one who emerges is guilty.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to distinguish truth from falsehood?
Trial by water – Switzerland, 16th century

It turned out a little inconvenient — the righteous man was deliberately sentenced to the death penalty by drowning, and the slanderer had to be additionally executed later, as a result no one was left alive. To change this, they began to tie the rope to the recipient, so that in case of obvious drowning, they could have time to pull him out — sometimes too late, but then he had Christian burial.

Such process is described, for example, in “The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak”. The innocent Katlina was thrown into the canal, and she drowned. The people began to shout “Innocent!”. So she had even been managed to be pulled out, but after three days she died of a cold. At least she was buried on the territory of church!




The disadvantages of water ordeal were clearly visible to medieval lawyers, and they began to look for other options. There was a proposal to simply replace one of the respected forces of nature of that time, of which the world allegedly consists, with another, opposite to it — to use fire instead of water.

One of the first ordeals with the usage of fire rather than water was the offer for the suspect — to get a ring out of a jug filled with boiling water. If he gets it, it is clear that God saved him from being burned, and did it for a reason, the suspect is not guilty. And if he does not get it, everything is also pretty clear, and therefore he didn’t get it, because he was guilty.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to distinguish truth from falsehood?
Ordeal of boiling water

The Church even developed special rules for conducting such ordeal. The law of the end of the 10th century requires heating water to it’s boiling point, and the subject must immerse the hand up to the wrist in case of a light charge, and up to the elbow with a heavy charge (what is the difference for the God?).

There have also been more severe cases of fire ordeal. During the first crusade, the monk Pierre Barthélemy, who had allegedly found the Spear of Destiny (with which Christ was pierced on the cross), declared that God ordered to take a city by storm and he was personally ready to confirm this with an ordeal of fire.

With this spear in his hands (later the Pope recognized it as a fake), he walked between two fires and survived, but it seems that he was so burned that he died two weeks later. And the Spear of Destiny has remained — it is in Etchmiadzin, and in Rome, and in Vienna, and in Krakow (an obvious copy of the Viennese) — which one is the real one?

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to distinguish truth from falsehood?
Armenian, Vatican’s, Viennese and Krakow’s Spear of Destiny — where is the real one?




In general, tests by fire were not always ordeals. Ordeal is when two people are tested, and when there’s only one is more likely to be called just torture. And the results of these ordeals suffered from the same vices as Hammurabi did. Medieval knightly culture tried to fix this.

A new kind of ordeal has appeared, this time it was pure — a judicial duel. Procedural opponents competed not in the courtroom with speeches and evidence, but on the battlefield with weapons in their hands. Whoever won, god justified, and whoever lost, that does not need to be executed …

Legal battles were not always one-on-one battles. Let’s say, straightening things out in 1396, the Scottish clans Chattan and Quhele sent 30 fighters on each side — topless, with a sword, battle ax, dagger and bow with three arrows. The battle lasted until the evening, and everyone died, except for 8 members of the Chattan clan, who won.

In fact, this could mean that a strong and skillful warrior is always right, even when he is wrong. In Scandinavia, the popular fights — holmgangs quickly turned into a way of earning money for berserkers and simply strong warriors. If you like someone’s property or a woman — you challenge him to fight you, the one who refuses will be branded a nithing (coward), the consenting person will simply be killed.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to distinguish truth from falsehood?


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What if one of the opponents is woman? Does it even make sense to fight? Sometimes it was found: a man was placed in a pit, from which he fought with a sword against a woman who was trying to hit him harder with her shirt, in which a heavy stone was wrapped — the chances are equal.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to distinguish truth from falsehood?
The duel of a man and a woman

There were even cases of a duel between man and animal. In 1372, the dog of the royal favorite, who was found murdered by someone, began to rush at a certain Robert Maker for no apparent reason. The king decided that he should fight the dog in a judicial duel.

In front of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame Maker with a mallet met a dog. Maker, swatting with his club, did not allow the dog to approach him, but the animal, attacking him from different sides, picked the moment, jumped and grabbed Maker’s throat. They were taken apart, Maker confessed to the murder and was hanged — it’s said…

To eliminate the deliberate inequality, the participants in such fights were allowed to fight not personally, but to hire a substitute. It was decent for children, old people, cripples and women, and also for priests. Woman versus woman was obliged to fight personally.

Remember “Ivanhoe”? The Templars falsely accuse Rebecca of York of witchcraft, and Briand de Boisguilbert is waiting for someone, who will agree to become her protector — if Boisguilbert wins, Rebecca is burned. Still weak after being wounded, Ivanhoe defends Rebecca and wins — isn’t it a miracle of god?

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to distinguish truth from falsehood?
Ivanhoe and Boisguilbert




How did the ailing Ivanhoe defeat the mighty Boisguilbert? We will not talk about miracles — there is obviously no sense in it. Maybe the fact is that Boisguilbert knew perfectly well that he was wrong and was so worried that he died of a heart attack? What is described in the novel is very similar to this …

Considerations like these give not only certainty, but a certain strength to all the arguments of the defenders of the ordeals. Knowing that he was deliberately guilty and taking a false oath, he could not help feeling excited because of this. Perhaps the ordeals were helping this excitement to issue itself?

A typical example of such ordeal is the requirement of Middle Eastern Bedouins to lick a red-hot iron after an oath. A person’s tongue is wet — the steam generated when touching iron can be enough to save them from a serious burn. But what if saliva has dried up from fear of God’s punishment?

The same with other requirements to take a red-hot iron into your hand — physicists declare that when the body comes into contact with such iron or boiling water, a special perspiration is formed on the skin, which prevents it from burning, but it’s neutralized by the cold sweat of a person that is trembling with fear.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to distinguish truth from falsehood?
Hot Iron Trial

The Chinese custom of offering the accused and the prosecutor each mouthful of rice works in a similar way. The guilty person’s saliva dries out from fear, and the rice remains dry. Well, an innocent person can also be very agitated, but such test is better than nothing.

And in Christian Europe, the test of the cross appeared — both stood at the cross with their hands up and the guilty one was the first to drop his hands or fall, paralyzed by fear. They could also offer to eat the consecrated bread or cheese, with which the criminal choked, because of horror.

The technologies of Ancient India also worked, when the suspect was introduced to a list of words, including those, which concerned the committed crime, and he answered with any random expression and quietly banged the gong. The blow after the word related to the crime involuntarily turned out to be louder.

And in some parts of Africa, suspects passed each other a small bird’s egg with fragile shell. More often than not, it was the culprit, whose hands trembled with fear, managed to crush him — because he was afraid. And what to do with a cynical villain who does not care?




So it turns out that when a person lies, it really affects his physiological reactions? So, it can be objectively established and firmly known when a person is telling the truth and when not? In theory, this is true, but how can you achieve this?

The scientific approach to the problem began when the Italian Angelo Mosso, in 1877, proved that the heart rate changes when a person experiences fear. Soon the famous criminologist Lombroso tried to use it practically, but did not succeed.

Something that works was first created by the American William Marston, who believed his wife, that her blood pressure always rises when she is angry or agitated. He takes out a loan, organizes a laboratory, and in 1920 creates a device that he first called a polygraph.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to distinguish truth from falsehood?
First polygraph of William Marston

Later, Leonarde Keeler combined blood pressure, respiration and heart rate meters in his device. At first, he used it to determine the strength of love, and then began to use it during interrogations and even achieved certain results that received recognition.




The very possibility to establish exactly whether a person is telling the truth or not, turned out to be so seductive that polygraphs began to be actively used in practice. In the twentieth century, people still laughed at the “lie detectors” (as polygraphs were often called), but nowadays they are used very widely. Let’s say, the TV program “Lie Detector” has been running for the 12th season.

As for the results, it is more difficult. In a number of countries, polygraph readings are officially prohibited from being accepted as evidence. In the United States, this issue is left to the discretion of individual states, and most of them completely banned it because there are too many mistakes.

Nevertheless, polygraph researches are being used more and more. It is believed that, even though they are not accurate enough, it is better than nothing at all. Well, it doesn’t make a lot of sense — for example, the famous Soviet spy Aldrich Ames was tested with  polygraph and was not exposed.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to distinguish truth from falsehood?
Aldrich Ames

The report of US National Academy of Sciences in 2003 says that mass polygraph tests produce results that are easily confused with random guessing. But testing a small number of people about a particular event is better than guessing at random. The problem is that these devices are simply not perfect enough yet. Good or bad — decide for yourself.




The mysterious substance used in medieval Thailand to find out who is right is also a type of polygraph that uses physiological reactions.

This is an ordinary laxative — the same reaction to the fear of exposure is combined with the action of the drug and reveals the guilty one, acting faster than that of the innocent. At least, sometimes …




Judges often gravitate towards finding a solution to the problem of guilt, not really thinking about whether this is the right solution. They threw the suspects into the water, and someone drowned — that person is guilty and punished, and if he is innocent, this is his problem, not the problem of the judge.

In Babylon, when tested by water, the person, who didn’t drown was considered innocent, but in medieval Europe, on the contrary — and nothing controversial! The main thing was the was you are going to make a deal. And it has been used for centuries …

A judicial duel is a dangerous thing, just allow it! In Scandinavia, for example, the most shameless were simply earning money using this type of tribe, threatening to fight weaker people in order to simply rob them — is there a lot of benefit from such a fight for law and order?

When the trend towards ordeals ended in European countries, they, generally, were replaced with ordinary tortures — there weren’t two people suffering, but one loser, who usually had no choice but to confess or die a painful death. No, the ordeals were still better!

The polygraph is not particularly perfect yet, but we want to know the truth so much, that it is already being actively used. Which of this is more, benefit or harm — I do not know. Decide for yourself.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to distinguish truth from falsehood?
Modern polygraph


All illustrations from open sources

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