When antiscience kills: dowsing edition

By Phil Plait | November 4, 2009 11:16 am

I am no fan of pseudoscience, as you may have guessed. Dowsing is a practice that falls squarely in that field. It’s the idea that you can detect an object — usually water, but sometimes gold, or people, or whatever — using a y-shaped branch, or copper tubes, or some other simple device. Dowsers never really have a good explanation of how their devices work, but they tend to claim 100% accuracy.

However, James Randi has tested dowsers many, many times as part of the JREF’s Million Dollar Challenge. Not to keep you in suspense, but the money still sits in the bank. In other words, time and again, the dowsers fail. When a real, double-blind, statistical test is given, dowsers fail. Every single time.

That’s all well and good, and you might think it’s just another silly idea that nonsense-believers adhere to despite evidence. If someone wants to waste their money on a dowser, well, caveat emptor.

But what if your life depended on it? What if thousands of lives depended on it?

Such is the case in Iraq, where the military there is using what is essentially dowsing techniques to try to detect bombs in cars at military checkpoints. Let’s be very clear here: they are using provably useless antiscientific nonsense to try to find terrorists who carry explosives. They may as well use tea leaves, or palm reading, or seances.

This story just got major press; a reporter in Iraq wrote about it in the New York Times. It’s impossible to overstress how bad this situation is. Iraqi Major General Jehad al-Jabiri, who is the head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives, is a whole-hearted believer in this crap. He is such a believer that the Iraqi military are abandoning proven methods such as sniffer dogs.

Instead, the Iraqi have purchased hundreds of these so-called bomb-detection wands from a company called ATSC in the UK. The cost? Millions of dollars. Millions. On technology that James Randi has come right out and called "a totally fraudulent product". Bob Carroll of the Skeptic’s Dictionary agrees with Randi.

The NYT article also has expert advice from several explosives and military authorities (including long-time friend of the JREF Air Force Lt. Col (retired) Hal Bidlack), all of whom conclude that this device does nothing. Given the product description on the company’s own web page, I agree as well. The description makes no scientific sense at all; it claims it can detect ions from a distance without ever coming in contact with them, and that includes through lead, concrete, and more.

In other words, it’s magic.

This, however, won’t stop al-Jabiri, who chalks up any successes to the detector, and any failures to the operator. In a situation like that there is little hope he can be convinced him he’s wrong, especially when he says things like "I don’t care about Sandia or the Department of Justice or any of them. I know more about this issue than the Americans do. In fact, I know more about bombs than anyone in the world."

Really? Then why, as the NYT article indicates, did that dowsing wand fail on October 25, when terrorists detonated two tons of explosives killing 155 people? Four thousand pounds of explosives apparently got right past the magic wands’ sniffer. But at least they’re fast! Again, from the article:

Checking cars with dogs, however, is a slow process, whereas the wands take only a few seconds per vehicle. “Can you imagine dogs at all 400 checkpoints in Baghdad?” General Jabiri said. “The city would be a zoo.”

I suspect a zoo would be better than a slaughterhouse.

It’s arrogance and blind faith like that which has and will get people killed. And the people we’re talking about in many cases are our fighting men and women, people who have to put their own trust in the leaders in Iraq. This is not a game, not some lark. It’s real. And in this case, antiscience kills.

[This post, with minor variations, has been cross-posted on the JREF Swift blog.]

MORE ABOUT: dowsing, Iraq

Comments (104)

  1. These tragic wands are made by a UK company? Ugh!!

  2. Jack Mitcham

    Maybe al-Jabiri is secretly working for a terrorist sect, and WANTS the bombs to get past security?

  3. TSB

    It’s not unreasonable to suspect that there may be more to the adoption of these devices than true belief. As unscrupulous as ATSC is, it wouldn’t surprise me if some Iraqi officials are getting kickbacks.

    A coworker of mine used to work at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, and tells me that occasionally she’d get called upon to “test” (though it usually didn’t get that far) devices that weren’t much more believable than this. Companies would hire a retired officer who knew someone in the right place to get the company’s foot in the door. And a couple of years back, as I recall, the Navy actually bought a few such devices, though at least they did a thorough test and decided (once $50,000 poorer) that it was bunk.

  4. Gus Snarp

    Now will this company sue you and Randi based on UK libel laws? Why on earth are they allowed to sell these things? This company should be prosecuted for the deaths of all of those people

  5. Pieter Kok

    Just give it time, and the dogs will be back. I would imagine that the Iraqi public in general (which is on average highly educated) would raise a sh*t storm about this.

  6. So, on whose hands is the blood, when people die needlessly either due to missing a bomb or shooting up a car that had no bomb in it?

  7. Blondin

    It’s truly sickening to think that there individuals like Jim McCormick who care more about lining their pockets than human lives. As far as I’m concerned this sort of callous attitude puts McCormick and his cronies lower than the fanatics who strap on or plant the explosives.

  8. Strahlungsamt

    I wonder when they will replace all the Patriot Act checks at the airports with this stuff?

    Actually, the real scary stuff is when it doesn’t work and they start incarcerating random people to cover their asses. THAT’S when the sh*t will really hit the fan.

    Nothing more dangerous than great powers acting irresponsibly. Imagine Sylvia Browne running the DOD and using her psychic powers to guess when the Iranians are going to nuke?

  9. John Paul

    I haven’t read the Iraqi constitution, but could it be that racial/ethnic/religious profiling and/or search without probable cause is illegal in Iraq, and dowsing is a cover for these practices? If so, it’s not antiscience; it’s arguably good policing hidden behind superstition.

    In all likelihood, however, it’s good, old-fashioned political correctness at work. The only effective bomb-detection technology we have is dogs, and Muslims hate dogs. Bringing out dowsing rods is probably a gesture saying “Look, we’re actually doing something about the car bombings without offending your religious sensibilities or dismantling your vehicle.”

  10. Gary Ansorge

    Ah, the old “dowsing for explosives” shtick. Say, I have a terrorist detecting device that’s guaranteed 100 % effective. It’s called a Device for Uncovering MAd Bombers, D.U.M.B, for short. What it does is transmit a very high frequency pulse of EM, that triggers any explosive. Unfortunately, it will also cause fat tissue to combust. Oh well, at least it detects explosives,,,

    I wonder who I should apply with in Iraq to sell these?

    GAry 7

  11. Jeremy

    I actually would like to see TSA start using this technique. Imagine how much faster security at the airport would be if we used dowsing!

  12. Brandon

    To be fair, Phil, you do realize that it *is* possible to detect ions at a distance without ever touching them…

  13. Gary Ansorge

    Sylvia Brown: “I,,,I see a large city,,,,burning,,somewhere near water. Or is it land? Possibly a large,,,or small,,, nuclear device,,,but it may also be just a gasoline bomb,,,or possibly phosphorus. And I detect a name,,,starts with B,,or possibly E,,,”

    “Reporting on Faux Snooze, This just in:”

    ” Today, Sylvia Brown exploded. Details at 11.”

    Hey, just some wishful thinking,,,

    Gary 7

  14. I’d describe myself as a sceptic, but I confess I’m completely lost on the whole subject of dowsing for water.

    I know that it’s been shown not to work in controlled conditions on several occasions, and I have complete faith that those studies’ results are accurate. However, I also know that I’ve dowsed for water successfully in the past, as have others in my family – looking for water pipes, soakaways and the like.

    My question in short is: what gives? Or, to be more accurate, are there any good discussions on this subject out there? I’ve never been able to reconcile this one, and it bugs me.

  15. Z Ahwahl

    @Gary you can make fat tissue combust? Can I buy it? I could do with losing some pounds. ;)

    I feel dirty. My country is selling that thing? ugh.

  16. Gus Snarp

    So the Iraqi’s have spent $85 million on these things. Stunning. Production cost is probably a couple of bucks at most in plastic and wires, R&D cost is nil since they just made it up off the top of their heads. These guys are getting awfully rich off of letting people get blown up. Oh wait, there’s also the price of kick-backs, but given the state of the Iraqi economy, those are probably pretty small.

    Now, is that oil sale money that belongs to the Iraqis or is it my tax dollars being funneled through the Iraqis?

  17. Z Ahwahl

    @Steve Jones. you do know that the general prevalence of underground water means the likelihood of you NOT finding water if you dug down far far outweighs the chances of finding it. Even in the desert.

  18. JTDC

    Not through concrete, and certainly not at a distance of 3km, as they claim. They’d have to be pretty concentrated to get any sort of effect off of them, and given that the force goes as an inverse square (or worse), you’d have to be pretty damn close.

    They are lying, lying, lying. Their claims are provably false. The deterrent will only affect the really weakly interested anyhow. Those who are more interested will attempt, and then when they don’t get caught, get bolder and spread the word.

    The manufacturers should be shot.

  19. Chris

    “Proponents of the wand often argue that errors stem from the human operator, who they say must be rested, with a steady pulse and body temperature, before using the device.

    Then the operator must walk in place a few moments to “charge” the device, since it has no battery or other power source, and walk with the wand at right angles to the body. If there are explosives or drugs to the operator’s left, the wand is supposed to swivel to the operator’s left and point at them.”

    Seriously????

    “ATSC’s promotional material claims that its device can find guns, ammunition, drugs, truffles, human bodies and even contraband ivory at distances up to a kilometer, underground, through walls, underwater or even from airplanes three miles high.”

    Well in Iraq that thing should be consistently swiveling since you’ll always have bombs and guns withing a km.

  20. Jeff Fite

    I think this qualifies to be included at whatstheharm.net

  21. This is horrible.

    Just plain horrible.

    Yet these practices will still be in use aeons after we die because general ignorance is the biggest human factor in any decision ever made and ever will be made.

  22. Rig 9 cars with bombs, Sopranos-style. Leave 1 car alone. Give Major General Jehad al-Jabiri one of these dowsing rods and let him decide which car to get in and start.

    If he lives, let him run his checkpoints as he likes. If he dies (or declines) force him to follow some standards.

  23. @Steve Jones

    Pay a visit to the JREF site and look up “dowsing”. Also, look up “ideomotor effect” either on the JREF, skepdic or just google it.

  24. Jim

    My buddy received an official presentation on this “device” when he was there on assignment. Can’t provide details as the presentation was “classified” but he’s quite happy and relieved to be home now.

  25. Z Ahwahl

    @Steve Jones whoops! Talk about bad phrasing! What I MEANT to say was: glacial runoff means water is found virtually anywhere. groundwater is distributed pretty much uniformly. The High Plains aquifer in the US stretches from South Dakota to Texas. You will hit an aquifer simply by digging down in the eastern US and even though it’s drier in the west, well diggers still have about a 75% success rate.

  26. mike burkhart

    No one should be surprised the CIA spent millons on useing esp to see into the USSR and all it military bases (of course the Rusians did the same thing witch is surprising because spirtulaty was baned )(“religon is the opient of the masses” Karl Marxx) the thing is there is tecnology that dose a very good job of finding these things this is a waste time and money and Phill is right will get people killed what next ? how about hireing wicthdoctors to put a curse on all the terroists or make a deal with the gray aliens to blast all of them or give Ben Laden a free trip to the Devils triangle and hope he disappers

  27. @Gus Snarp,

    About: “Production cost is probably a couple of bucks at most in plastic and wires, R&D cost is nil since they just made it up off the top of their heads.”

    I used to say that I could have made a fortune as a spammer were it not for this pesky conscience. I guess I can add Dousing Explosives Detector Manufacturer to the list as well. Curse my parents for raising me right! I could have been a millionaire if they had just neglected to instill in me a sense of right and wrong!!!

  28. @mike burkhart,

    I don’t find it surprising at all that the Russians employed psychics during the cold war despite the spirituality/religion ban. When a government perceives a benefit from using something, ideological principles tend to go out the window. Of course, the fact that any so-called psychics would be useless is immaterial. What matters is that someone high up thought they would be useful and so ideology was set aside.

  29. Escuerd

    John Paul @9:

    “The only effective bomb-detection technology we have is dogs, and Muslims hate dogs.”

    That was my first thought too, though it wasn’t explicitly mentioned. I wonder if this was what was behind the comment about the place becoming a zoo if there were a dog at each of the checkpoints.

    But I doubt dogs are the only effective technology available. I’m sure we could train pigs to do it quite well. You know they’d just love that.

    “Bringing out dowsing rods is probably a gesture saying “Look, we’re actually doing something about the car bombings without offending your religious sensibilities or dismantling your vehicle.”

    Doesn’t Islam prohibit sorcery too? Would dowsing qualify?

  30. LL

    I have accumulated years worth of information and reports on these frauds. Please feel free to check out my blog http://sniffexquestions.blogspot.com/ which covers everything from the Quadro Tracker that James Randi exposed 15 years ago to the latest scam products.

  31. Ted

    So sad. I’d rather they actually searched for bombs properly, but the alternative approach (letting Darwin eliminate the woo-woo believers via high explosives) may also provide enough selection pressure. It may even open an ecological niche for bomb-sniffing dogs. :p

  32. Derek Baker

    I find it ironic that the webpage for your blog also has on rotation an advertizement for an “antioxidant superpill” at the top. What does this product claim to do? Who is profiting from the sale?

    Clearly, the exploitation of our very human tendencies to ‘fill in the blanks’, obey our own ‘wishful thinking’, and ‘trust the simple suggestion versus the more complex truth’ exists in every corner of western society as well.

  33. Bruno Domingues

    Incredible. Maybe this is deliberate. To destroy even more Iraq’s social fabric.

    People responsible for “Cumberland Industries UK” should get a real “Medieval” treatment like the one they are providing to their clients.

    Does anyone know a way to stop them? Sue them? Anything?

    This is yet another sad, sad, sad example of how we are losing sight of what’s important. The West at it’s worse…

  34. Josh

    Just a heads up: the link to the JREF edition of this article is the correct URL posted twice…

  35. Gus Snarp

    @Ted – unfortunately only a handful of woo believers will be killed compared to the hundreds of innocent people who don’t even know they are being “protected” by such lunacy who are killed by car bombs.

  36. David

    If the other side is equal as bad in their critical thinking skills then they will not try to get any bomb through. If they have better thinking skills then I would expect large body count on this one. When dealing with governments they never say they will fix a problem, only they will do something about it.

  37. @Ted,

    The only problem is that the woo-woo believers (the government officials buying these dousers) aren’t getting blown up. Innocent civilians are being blown up. Then, instead of admitting that the devices are worthless, the government just insists that the handlers didn’t use them properly. Perhaps the handler is fired, perhaps he’s sent to a training seminar where he learns how to properly channel his chi in relation to planetary alignment or something. Either way, the problem is declared “fixed” and the woo continues until someone else (again, innocent) dies.

  38. This is still one of my all-time favourites:

    Divining for Landmines using a Pendulum
    http://mypage.direct.ca/j/jliving/landmine.htm

    a. Hold your Bobber at the right edge of the start line, and tell it to ‘lead to the nearest mine within my search strip’; make a mental note of where your Bobber indicates a find…
    When the Lead Dowser has gone about 20 yards (20 metres) the next dowser starts; this is so that if a mine is exploded by one dowser, the next dowser will not be seriously injured.

    Uh-huh. Somehow, I’m just not convinced that the Pendulum is capable of answering truthfully.

  39. These people should look into the giant Namibian rats that are trained to sniff out landmines. Rats are less easily distracted, less likely to “burn out” (yes, drug and explosive-sniffing dogs get sick and tired of their jobs after about 5-6 years), cheaper to feed….

  40. Gary Ansorge

    15. Z Ahwahl

    It has the unfortunate effect of being selectively tuned to people with high body fat percentages, making the average American go up in a greasy puff of smoke.

    Ah well, such a slight bug,,,

    Dumbosity is eternal. Back in the early ’70s, some wag with Univac, obviously fed up with military security protocol, built a Write Only Memory, the Perfect Security Memory device.

    It was a block of wood with an input cable,

    but no output,,,

    Someone in the Defense Dept, hopefully just as a humorous aside, asked how much it would cost,,,

    GAry 7

  41. Zippy the Pinhead

    I like the part about “electrostatic magnetic ion attraction”, like that explains it all. Are they “magnetic ions” or “electrostatic magnetic ions”? And what do the magnetic ions electrostatically attract? All my years studying continuum electromechanics at MIT have not prepared me for this.

  42. JB of Brisbane

    Phil, I know you’re no fan of Scott Adams, but there was a Dilbert once in which Dogbert was demonstrating his “Human Stupidity Detector”, which looked remarkably like a forked stick, held in the classic dowsing fashion.

    Dogbert: It has a very simple interface. All I do is point it at people.
    Dilbert: Then what does it do?
    Dogbert: Why would it need to do anything else?

    I think someone in Iraq needs one of these pointed at him right now.

  43. breadfred

    I could not find a UK website. I DID however find this Bulgarian website, which has the same letters, in a different order, and the same product for sale: http://www.tasc.bg/

  44. Tometheus

    As someone who has published in the field of passive remote chemical detection, my first reaction was “but remote chemical detection is possible Phil”. Then, it went to “Wow, these guys have put us out of a job. Why haven’ t I seen this research before, that’s amazing!”. Followed by “But.. WHA-? Remote Detection, Penetration, AND Specificity?” Immediately proceeding to “Handheld? WITHOUT POWER?!”. Whereupon my head exploded, thus proving that they had indeed found explosives.

    I can see devices capable of fulfilling each of their individual claims (except perhaps drug sniffing in a plane 3km overhead), but everything combined and powered by walking… that’s just … wow.

    I’ve worked on projects for passive detection of chemicals remotely (km range) using the blackbody radiation. But that required a 12 inch lens, lots of integration time and high voltage power supplies. Oh, and a temperature differential between the target chemical plume and the background. I received an R&D 100 award for that. We’ve applied active THz detection of explosives signatures*. We can penetrate through clothing, but not through lead shielding or “inside the human body”. And definitely not handheld or powered by just walking. Mass spec? Check, been there, done that. But that requires, um, let me think, oh right… mass. X-Ray penetration? We’ve got the Advanced Photon Source here baby! Not something you could put in your pocket though. Now I know we’ve all been wasting our time and I should just go home and play with Lego. I’m depressed. Oh, wait.. I’m not. (I can still play with Lego though can’t I? The patent award this year gave me a nice bonus in my check that I still haven’t spent.)

    *”explosives signatures”. Not direct spectroscopy of the explosives themselves in this frequency range, mind you, but spectroscopic detection of signatures given off by daughter products as the explosives interacted with the atmosphere.

  45. While this is a serious subject, like all potentially fatal woo, it did bring to mind a trailer I’ve seen a lot recently. The Men Who Stare At Goats looks like it’s intended as basically a comedy and appears (as far as I can tell from the trailer) to be somewhat debunking the old ‘psychic warrior’ that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. did. One clue is the comment made that ‘he could kill with a touch’ “Then and there?” ‘eighteen years later’

    J/P=?

  46. Sam

    I understand the problem with dousing rods and how they work.

    However, could a dousing rod work to detect a bomb if, say, you suspect there is something wrong with this car or group of people, even on a subconscious level, and that influences your dousing? A dousing rod could then be a semi-accurate sub-concious translator.

    Thoughts?

  47. Cairnos

    OMG, have a read of the product description. Here are a few choice (what I will sarcastically refer to as) “sentences”:

    “The ADE651 identifies the existence of the programmed substance; it does not quantify the pictogram range and below.”

    “The trained Operator is able to decipher these levels and take four cubic meter area.”

    Darn I really wanted to know the range of my pictogram. I particulalry wanted to quantify it’s ‘below’.
    Take a four cubic meter area? Take it where? Out to dinner?

    Still, it has it’s plusses. Since it’s electrostatically powered “there are no battpower supplies to change or maintain”. Which is all good, I get so tired of having to maintain the ‘battpower supplies’ of the K15 Broomstick based Personal Transporter I picked up the other month

  48. JupiterIsBig

    The Cumberland Industries website even has Banners using “Lorum Ipsum”
    Fake Latin to look impressive – This is for an Explosive Ordinance Disposal kit – some hooks suction cups, handles and rope.
    http://www.cumberlandindustries.com/security4_eo.html
    Totally bogus quackery, although some of their products are probably real: conveyors, etc.

    I worked with a guy who researched dowsing from a physics perspective as a hobby. His theory was that there might be an effect to do with em radiation from the ionosphere and the ground plane. He never really got anywhere and I don’t know his final result because he died last year. At least he approached it from a sceptical point of view and never “believed” – he just looked for results and explanations. Scientific method and all that.

    What we need is E.E. “Doc” Smith. One of his stories written in the ’30s had a hero who had a thought control device and he turned all explosives on a planet into an inert substance in an instant. LOL

  49. Brown

    As has been noted already, many in the region view dogs as “unclean.” Notions of “clean” and “unclean” often tend to be based upon tradition or revelation deemed authoritative, rather than upon science.

    We might therefore expect to see a column on this topic from Christopher Hitchens, perhaps along lines similar to his Slate.com “Fighting Words” column of 28 September 2009.

  50. The Iraqi General’s stupidity seems to be rooted in his assumption that decreased number of bomb attacks means that his pet device is successful – success would equal increased detection and interception of those with guns and explosives. As an earlier commenter stated, in Bagdad today a device that can detect such at 3 kilometres would be twitching like mad. Looks like the cult of the individual is still alive and well in Iraq – and this General thinks he’s ‘the guy’.

  51. Steven

    Maybe this guy should start reading xkcd

    http://xkcd.com/373/

  52. Daniel J. Andrews

    Sam, I had the same thought. It very well could work like that. The problem is that human intuition isn’t reliable enough, and especially not reliable enough to base a life on.

    Police think they can tell when someone is lying or not. However, tests show they’re as easily misled as the average person.

    So police have this behavioural training and interrogation program (The Reid Method, or Inbau-Reid) that teaches them how to tell if someone is lying or hiding something (and get them to confess). But again nasty science spoils the party and it turns out they’re still no better at detecting lies than the average person who hasn’t been trained.

    What does happen though is that after the training the police are now far more confident that they can tell when a person is lying, and will insist that even an innocent person is lying/guilty because they, the police, have been trained to detect liars. Their confidence becomes even more misplaced due to confirmation bias where the only feedback they get is when a guilty party does confess thereby confirming the police officer’s original guess.

    For more information on this, check Police Interrogation and American Justice by Richard
    Leo. I see part of his book is also readable on-line.

  53. It should be mentioned that the fake circuitry in this device consists of old remote-control circuit boards – bought for about $1.50 from surplus stores who sell them to hobbyists who salvage the resistors and capacitors. Only a wire or two is connected, and then only to the battery and the “indicator light” on the instrument, and a simple meter that wags to and fro.
    It’s a total scam, and the US taxpayer is funding it, yet we can’t get ANY government agency to do anything about it…

  54. Are sniffer dogs really any better though? I have no doubt as to the lunacy of these devices being sold to the Iraqis, but I’ve seen some people saying sniffer dogs aren’t very accurate. Anecdotally, I have never taken drugs but I’ve had a dog alert next to me on one occasion only for its handler to find nothing and send me on my way.

    I’m more than willing to admit dogs may be good for this sort of thing, but I have my suspicions and I’m just questioning whether or not this is taken for granted without evidence. I’ve looked around on the net for a few studies and have found nothing (I’m away from my university library, or I’d do a search of the animal behavior journals) but maybe my Google-fu is simply weak today. Thoughts?

  55. @JB of Brisbane,

    You’re thinking of this comic: http://www.dilbert.com/strips/comic/1997-05-14/ (Thank you Google!) This might be the one time when dousing works!

  56. Gary Ansorge

    53. Chemist:

    ” Anecdotally, I have never taken drugs but I’ve had a dog alert next to me on one occasion only for its handler to find nothing and send me on my way.”

    Quit sitting next to hippies on the underground,,,

    48. JupiterIsBig

    “What we need is E.E. “Doc” Smith. One of his stories written in the ’30s had a hero who had a thought control device and he turned all explosives on a planet into an inert substance in an instant. LOL”

    Ah heck. THAT’S no fun. Blowy uppy is the AMERICAN way.

    Gary 7

  57. Hi Phil.

    I’m affraid to tell you here in Mexico, the Army, Navy a couple of police agencies and Pemex (mexican oil agency) are using the “GT200 Remote Substance Detection”. This device, as you can image, is just another dowsing rod.

    You can read about this on my blog here, in spanish: http://tinyurl.com/ykarkly or google-translated to english: http://tinyurl.com/yg5x8yl

    I hope you can talk about this, because mexican press (as you can see on one blog’ entries) is, until now, ignoring this.

    By the way, if you wish, you can see also a short video I made about how these so called hi tech devices works: http://tinyurl.com/lxo7xy

    Regards.

  58. StuartB

    @John Paradox:

    The film The Men Who Stare At Goats is clearly presented as a parody (I too have only seen the trailers): but the book of the same title it appears to be based on, by UK journalist Jon Ronson, is definitely not parody, and is thoroughly shocking in the wuju and hocus-pocus he uncovers within the US military. There was even an accompanying series in the UK where you saw film of him meeting some of these guys.

    Stuart

  59. Nigel Depledge

    Bruno Domingues (33) said:

    Does anyone know a way to stop them? Sue them? Anything?

    It would be simple enough to lodge a complaint with the Advertising Standards Agency (assuming they advertise this crap in the UK or online), but the most the ASA will ever do is ban an advert. They have no power to ban a product.

    IANAL, but I guess it would be possible to sue the manufacturer under the Trades Descriptions Act. A lot depends on the exact wording of what they claim for this stuff in the UK (or online). As far as I am aware, they are not committing a criminal offence (even if what they are doing should be a crime).

  60. clray

    It is not a matter of what works. It is not even a matter of some general’s beliefs. It is just a matter of corruption. An idea which is altogether missing from the article or comments here and at JREF. Are skeptics really so naive as not to see why these sorts of business transactions come into existence? You are barking up the wrong tree.

  61. Scottynuke

    FYI, Hadriel (#57) appears to be blogspam…

    Anyone care to offer an estimate on the probability of Gen. al-Jabiri’s personal income as a result of the contract? *SIGH*

  62. Dr Cy Coe in NL

    Has anyone ever taken a ADE651 or a Sniffer Whatsit Plus apart? Does it even have anything that can detect ions or magnetic fields (even if such components are not powered).

    I know there’s no real point as the things are clearly useless, but it may open the eyes of this Iraqi fella and his fellow dowsing enthousiasts.

    From the NYT article:
    “Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs,”

    Says it all really. This guy thinks there is such a thing as magic.

  63. tayga

    People here seem to be taking a purely physical approach ot this story. Dowsing is almost certainly BS but if the bombers believed in it wouldn’t it deter them?

    @The Chemist. My wife is a drugs dog handler. He has an excellent hit rate but does also indicate drugs when there are traces left after the bulk of the substance has been removed. AFAIK explosives dogs are also likely to produce a significant number of ‘false positives’. However, both drug and explosive dogs are seen as excellent deterrents.

  64. Todd

    Bomb-Sniffing Dowsing Rods.

    What’s the shorthand for that? BS Dowsing Rods? Sounds right to me.

  65. DeepField

    I am not sure everybody understands the difference between “probably” and “provably” in phrases such as “they are using provably useless antiscientific nonsense to try to find terrorists who carry explosives”. Many won’t notice, and some will consider it a typo, I’ma afraid. Not a very wise choice of words…

  66. Donovan Colbert

    “6. Jason Thibeault Says:
    November 4th, 2009 at 11:54 am
    So, on whose hands is the blood, when people die needlessly either due to missing a bomb or shooting up a car that had no bomb in it?”

    Why Jason, the answer to this is so obvious that the question hardly needs to be asked. On the militant extremists who plan and execute these bombings and the organizations that they belong to. That is on whose hands the blood is.

    This guy may be an idiot, or may be in collusion with the extremists – but the blame lies solely with the extremists. Why do we always look for someone ELSE to place the blame on?

  67. Lonnie

    To me to the key to this Official’s insistence on this techno-gimcrackery is his statement that a lot of dogs would turn the city into a ‘Zoo’

    Remember that this is a common problem with backward arabic countries– aside from their penchant for being culturally stuck in the 12th century. The Arabic Culture simply CANNOT accept that DOGS are valuable and Useful. These Nitwits still cling to this idea that ALL Dogs are Filthy and Unclean. Thus a Filthy and Unclean animal is incapable of finding explosives. Plus, a man who comes into contact with a Filthy and Unclean Dog becomes a Dog himself. Thus– add any idiotic supposition you want.

    Personally, if they are incapable of using Man’s Best Friend to help them keep alive, I hope no Americans, Men or Dogs, are caught in any resultant explosions.

    Nitwits!

  68. gwen

    I wonder if part of the problem is that the dogs are considered unclean in the Muslim faith.

  69. bubba

    What’s funnier – the article, or all these comments??

  70. Debi Brand

    Hey, admit it, like “the Surge,” the Wand works.

  71. when radio first came out, it claimed that the device could detect voices in the air and make them audible without touching anything, in other words, it was magic.

    same for television, lazers, electromagnetic forces, it goes on and on.

    we don’t know how it works, it must be freaky magic.

  72. John

    I tried dowsing when I was a kid.

    The rod we used was a wire coathanger bent into a kind of W shape, and if held correctly and with the right tension, amplifies tiny muscle movements.

    The idea being that subconscious prompts override any kind of conscious control of the rod, which is really weird when it happens as you try to compensate and it seems to move against your will.

    Of course, this could only work for divining if you’re trying to find something that part of you knows the location of, even if only at a subconscious level. Like if you forget where you put your keys for example.

    Unfortunately, most dowsing I read about uses devices that don’t seem to obey these principles, and always seems to involve detecting something impossible to locate otherwise.

    However if you lose your keys and have a wire coathanger to hand, you might just be able to put it to good use and have some fun at the same time.

  73. dubliners

    Better get Jennifer Oulette to teach you all how to un-wad your panties. Umm,let’s see $millions to irobot who produced…..uh, how’s bout Foster-Miller’s little robbie that took hundreds of millions, 4 years to get to Iraq and then turned its guns on US troops. Or the $billions on GPR/metal detectors which work great if NO water (so forget fields and waterways)is present or plastic mines are buried in dry sand. Oh yeah can’t be any Al cans around either. Oh, what happened to DOE’s melt ‘em all ray gun of 2004?
    And all those airborne platforms that were to find everything?

    Any officer that tries to save my kids’ lives has my vote. And gwen, keep your christian killing to yourself.

  74. James E.

    I am a US Military member. One thing I would like You all to keep in mind while combating pseudoscience is that it can kill. Sometimes it is hard to see the full breath of consequences but this story is a shining example and easy to see. The US Military has turned over a significant portion of the responsibility of border and checkpoint protection to the Iraq Military and Police. With this pseudoscience in place it is easy to see the effects. Citizens of Iraq, American civilians, and my brother in arms (both American, Iraq, and other allies) will be seriously injured and die as a result of this systems inability to find, track, and recover weapons of any kind. It saddens me and makes me extremely angry. I have a friend that is slated to deploy to Iraq. his life is now more endanger because of these devices and the lack of protection and false sense of security they provide.

    To any US Military reading this, be safe, be vigilant, and know what methods the checkpoints around you are using so you can compensate for their lack of security to keep your men and women safe.

  75. 67. tayga Says:
    @The Chemist. My wife is a drugs dog handler. He has an excellent hit rate but does also indicate drugs when there are traces left after the bulk of the substance has been removed. AFAIK explosives dogs are also likely to produce a significant number of ‘false positives’. However, both drug and explosive dogs are seen as excellent deterrents.

    Reminds me of the reports that every dollar (or multi) bill in the US has traces of Cocaine….

    @StuartB:
    Thanks, I wasn’t aware of the book (considering how many books are made into movies nowdays….). Since I don’t ‘go to the theater’ for movies (last movie I saw in theater was The Truman Show… I was sore for days afterwards because the googolplex had such terrible seats), I will put it on NetFlix…. the movie looks good.

    MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show had a report on these ‘bomb dowsing rods’.. you can see it online (the way I watch a LOT of stuff now) at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/#33629480

    OH.. there’s an article on SyFy Wyre that Emmerich is considering a TV series as a sequel to 2012! (link: http://scifiwire.com/2009/11/roland-emmerich-confirms.php)

    J/P=?

  76. I’m not saying that dowsing works 100% of the time, but it does work more often than it should if there were nothing to it (i.e. it is more accurate than chance).

    Part of the problem is that Thought influences Outcome, as demonstrated by the Heisenberg Principle.
    Belief is a type of thought.
    Skepticism taints the experiment.
    If it were done in an environment of enthusiasm instead of skepticism, you would find that dowsing totally works.

    Look no further than the experiments of Tom Lethbridge, archaeologist & former curator of Anglo-Saxon antiquities exhibit at the Archaeological Museum in Cambridge. He was a famous archaeologist, and made many of his best discoveries using “pendulum dowsing”.

    That being said, I probably wouldn’t want to bet my life on it.

  77. SinisterBill

    As was stated earlier in the post, considering the water table in the US is pretty much evenly distributed, your far more likely to hit water wherever you dig than not.

    Besides I’m not sure bringing up Tom Lethbridge helps your case much here.

  78. @ 16. Gus Snarp – “These guys are getting awfully rich off of letting people get blown up.”

    Meh. So are the guys who make predator drones, and the entire rest of the arms industry. Your point is?

    @78. James E. – “The US Military has turned over a significant portion of the responsibility of border and checkpoint protection to the Iraq Military and Police.”

    Really? They actually get to police their own country now? Will wonders never cease. You know, there’s a possibility that the bombings etc may calm down a little when the “insurgents”, aka “people that actually live there”, are living in their own country again, and not being policed by a foreign occupier.

    I suppose they’ll credit it to the dowsing, but whatever.

  79. Stephen

    @47. Cairnos
    I believe pictogram is a typo. I think it was meant to be picogram:

    picogram (plural picograms)

    1. A unit of mass equal to 0.000 000 000 001 grams.

    http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/picogram

    Or if you’re a wiki skeptic the google picogram to grams:
    1 picogram = 1.0 × 10-12 grams

    And I probably don’t fit in here very well. Whilst I do not believe in this little device to detect explosives and arms, I do believe in some metaphysical principles, though the jury is still out on dowsing. I also believe in the power of will.

  80. Narvi

    The jury is not out on dowsing. It was tested. It failed. Welcome to Reality, enjoy your stay.

  81. Nigel Depledge

    Benjamin (75) said:

    when radio first came out, it claimed that the device could detect voices in the air and make them audible without touching anything, in other words, it was magic.

    same for television, lazers, electromagnetic forces, it goes on and on.

    we don’t know how it works, it must be freaky magic.

    I can’t tell if this is meant to be ironic or if you really are that naïvely ignorant.

    When “radio” first came out, it was called “wireless telegraphy”, because that’s exactly what it does. In fact, my amateur radio licence still uses the term “wireless telegraphy”. It didn’t claim to detect “voices in the air” – it claimed to transmit and receive morse code. Only later were transmissions modulated to encode and transmit voices. And it was not “magic” to the educated middle classes of the time – its operation and applications were widely published and understood.

  82. Gonzo

    Why do we always look for someone ELSE to place the blame on?

    I don’t think anyone here is doing that. Nice job setting up a strawman and taking it down though.

    We live in a world in which we recognize that there is a risk that someone may do something harmful to others, blow them up, whatever. We recognize this risk. As a society, as a global village as whatever the heck you want to call it. But we realize that this risk is there.

    It absurd to the point of laughable to pretend that those we charge to interdict the world’s crazies, mostly police and military, bear no blame when they use techniques that they claim mitigate the risk, even nominally, even though they are demonstrably non-scientific.

    If a building blows up and the FBI was investigating the potential of that happening using magic, and then the magic fails – the building blows up anyway – people have every right to assign blame to the incompetence that allowed magic to be used to stop people with explosives. Of course the bomber bears the burden of blame, but so does the idiot who thought he could stop the bomber with magic.

  83. Nigel Depledge

    Dubliners (77) said:

    Better get Jennifer Oulette to teach you all how to un-wad your panties. Umm,let’s see $millions to irobot who produced…..uh, how’s bout Foster-Miller’s little robbie that took hundreds of millions, 4 years to get to Iraq and then turned its guns on US troops. Or the $billions on GPR/metal detectors which work great if NO water (so forget fields and waterways)is present or plastic mines are buried in dry sand. Oh yeah can’t be any Al cans around either. Oh, what happened to DOE’s melt ‘em all ray gun of 2004?
    And all those airborne platforms that were to find everything?

    Any officer that tries to save my kids’ lives has my vote.

    But you are confusing those things that don’t work yet (but are founded on genuine science) with something that will never work because it is founded on fantasy (dowsing). The two categories are qualitatively different.

  84. Nigel Depledge

    Derek Martin (80) said:

    I’m not saying that dowsing works 100% of the time, but it does work more often than it should if there were nothing to it (i.e. it is more accurate than chance).

    Please cite the appropriate double-blind trials that have demonstrated this.

    Part of the problem is that Thought influences Outcome, as demonstrated by the Heisenberg Principle.
    Belief is a type of thought.
    Skepticism taints the experiment.
    If it were done in an environment of enthusiasm instead of skepticism, you would find that dowsing totally works.

    And you will find that no experiment can produce a reliable result unless one approaches it with scepticism. Experiments must be performed in such a way that they convince sceptics, but you seem to require a priori belief in an outcome before you start your experiment.

    BTW, you have not understood the Uncertainty Principle.

    Look no further than the experiments of Tom Lethbridge, archaeologist & former curator of Anglo-Saxon antiquities exhibit at the Archaeological Museum in Cambridge. He was a famous archaeologist, and made many of his best discoveries using “pendulum dowsing”.

    I find myself feeling sceptical about this.

    That being said, I probably wouldn’t want to bet my life on it.

    Whereas I would bet my life on scientifically-proven methods (e.g. I do it every time I get into an aircraft). Case closed.

  85. Gus Snarp

    @PaulMurray – No, the guys who make predator drones are making a lot of money off blowing people up, not letting people get blown up. I don’t support this war, I don’t support the way it has been waged, nor the one in Afghanistan, but there is a difference between making a product that does what it claims (kills people) for the military (which may be morally wrong, but is legally right and is viewed as morally acceptable by a large number, perhaps the majority of the people of the nation) and making a product that you KNOW doesn’t do what you claim (protect people from being bombs) and intentionally selling that product at an over-inflated price to the gullible, all the while knowing when you see a news report about 100 innocent people killed by a car bomb, that people were counting on your product to prevent that bombing, even though you knew there was no way it could.

    @Donovan Colbert – the makers of this device, and any one who uses it in the face of all recommendations that it is ineffective, are guilty of negligent homicide, at the least. The bombers are of course guilty of a higher crime, but to say that no blame falls to the makers of this device flies in the face of reason and of the law.

    If this device were used in the U.S. and failed to detect a bomb that killed hundreds of people, I guarantee you that the manufacturers and those who selected the device would be prosecuted in criminal court and sued in civil court, successfully.

  86. Nice work Phil,

    In my research into the paranormal, I always take the stance that I don’t believe in anything but possibility. I was in over 20 different states last year alone researching and investigating reports of paranormal phenomena. I have worked with dowsing rods many times for many years (only becuase I take the approach of since we don’t have all the answers yet I will remain open to any possibility, HOWEVER I do not hold any information gathered by dowsing as objective, or quantitative [have yet to find it very useful either]). Some of your visitors might enjoy reading all about my crazy real life supernatural adventures in my free Legend Trippers Journal
    (http://www.w-files.com/legendtrippersjournal.html).

    For those of you who are a bit more scientifically minded, I just released
    some level headed scientific method op eds on http://www.GetGhostGear.com with
    links right on the home page. I think this crowd might really enjoy (and have plenty to comment on) my new op eds. I always love constructive feedback!

    Keep up the good work!
    Noah Voss

  87. sophia8

    Lonnie @ 71: Please stop demonstrating your bigotry and ignorance. I’d ask you for a cite for your statement that Muslims believe that touching a dog will make them as a dog – except that I’m certain you just pulled that statement out of some orifice or other.
    Muslims have always used dogs for hunting, farming and guarding. They have no problems whatsoever with working dogs; they even use guide dogs, which are allowed inside mosques. There’s even a hadith (an improving parable) about Muhammed giving water to a thirsty dog.
    Dogs are regarded as ‘unclean’ in Islam because, well, they’re not clean animals and (in ME countries at least), it’s rather easy to get diseases from them. It’s haram to touch dogs with bare hands and not wash straight away, to eat them, to keep them in your living quarters or to keep them as pets. It’s perfectly permissible to work with them.

  88. Benji

    Don’t the people in this UK company feel like they have blood on their hands?

  89. Dogs are too slow? Mission Accomplished! That place is getting more Western every day. Give me convenience or give me death!

  90. Techowiz

    GREAT NEWS, the scammer-in-chief behind this fraud, Jim McCormick has been arrested for fraud, check out the story at the link:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article6997859.ece

  91. Chip

    The Times of London quotes Jim McCormick as saying that part of the problem is that the device looks, “…a little primitive” . He goes on to say that, “…We are working on a new model that has flashing lights.” Let’s hope any work he does on that new model is done from within the walls of a British prison.

  92. All this scientific certainty makes me quiver with confidence. Trouble is, of course, when we ask where US DoD money goes it sounds like a graveyard around here. How many hundred $billion again on the super-tool the Future Combat System? Oh, and Foster-Miller robots that CNN has shown for four years. Who, again, did it turn it guns on first? I forgot. But I’m Dumb, real dumb, so you can help me. And how many iRobots are there saving lives? Or the DARPA $million prize robots, how many lives did they save? Why is so much money going to foreign companies to make metal detectors and GPRs? Especially for use in the fertile river vallies and dry sands. And those abol-loot-ly certain to work airborne sensors give us their track record. Those gosh-darn media always seem to leave out the part about the effect microwaves have on water, even slightly damp soil.

    And dammit, worst of all, the Iraqi foot soldiers are swearing by those tools. I would like the critics to explain to the Iraqi soldiers that everything about EM, especially earth-borne EM has already been thoroughly discovered and explained without doubt. Do any google search on it to settle any doubt.

    My solution is to get the CEO and his board to go to Iraq and Afghanistan and courageously demonstrate the success our money has bought.

    Taffy

  93. Janie Ruggles

    Just read the new ebook Bad Dogs, Running which uses this scam as background for spy fiction. Fascinating reading, but sobering to think the scammers still go unpunished.

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