Iraq still embracing the magic

By Phil Plait | February 23, 2010 6:02 pm

Oh, FFSMS. After countless tests showing them useless, articles about them being useless, challenges from Randi and others to prove they are not useless, and the company head arrested for suspicion of fraud because they’re useless, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki has ordered that the (useless) magic wand dowsing rod bomb-sniffers should still be utilized.


At least al-Maliki wanted them tested. Still. This angers me:

The survey, ordered by Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, found the British device, known as ADE651, generally worked. However some of the gadgets, found to be ineff­ective, would be replaced.

A government spokesman later said only 50% of the devices worked.

"Replaced?" With what, fairy dust? Unicorn horns? And I’d love to know how those tests were done. I bet it would’ve been cheaper to send a dozen of the wands to Randi and let him take a look. And if they did work, not only would Iraq get the wands back, but Randi would include a check for a million bucks which they could use to buy more of the kits.

I have to say, it’s been a good year for skeptics, but we clearly have a long way to go. Thailand and Iraq are both relying on provably worthless junk to find bombs, and what will happen instead is that those bombs will find people. Hundreds of them, thousands. That’s what happens when we turn their backs on reality and instead rely on superstition and antiscience. It’s way too late in this world to do such a thing, and when people in power do it, a lot of lives will be lost.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, JREF, Politics
MORE ABOUT: ADE651, Iraq, Randi, Thailand

Comments (40)

  1. Lyontamer73

    WTH??? Are they *looking* for ways to sneak bombs through?

  2. zap

    I’m terrible at deciphering internet lingo, what is FFSMS?

  3. DownHouse
  4. How they were tested? Easy. They rigged a dummy with a bomb, and another dummy with a homeopathic bomb. They used the ADE651 on the dummies. If they detected the dummy with the homeopathic bomb, they worked — for we all know those are the ones that REALLY do the damage. If they detected the one with the non-homeopathic bomb, they didn’t work and had to be replaced.

    Simple and effective.

  5. notovny

    I suspect that each device was brought into a room with two boxes, one containing a bomb, the other empty. The man operating the device used it to check both boxes, then announced which one contained the bomb. If he was correct, obviously, the device worked. If he was wrong, then clearly, the device was defective.

    The devices, unfortunately, could not be checked more than once, because of kung-fu lasers and starvation.

  6. Occam’s Razor tells me there is a much simpler solution than belief in magic involved here: bribery.

  7. I’m good at finding other people’s money with dowsing rods. Maybe I should put in a bid for the contract. I can guess the presence of bombs like no one else!

  8. gopi

    Only half worked? Presumably this means they did a test with a 50% chance if you guessed randomly.

  9. Shig

    I think David Brin put it best: “Fool my leader once, shame on you. Fool my leader twice, shame on my leader. Fool my leader three times, and I begin to suspect you’re in cahoots.”

  10. 50% huh? About the statistical number of if you GUESSED if something was a bomb or not?

  11. Thad Hatchett

    I’ve got a quarter that when flipped is right 50% of the time (heads = bomb, tails = clear …or is it the other way round?). I’d sell it to them for way less than a million bucks.

  12. Daniel Schealler

    I found myself wondering if al-Maliki could possibly be this foolish, and I had a thought.

    Having these devices on your security forces would give you an excuse to search or arrest anybody.

    Point-and-click. You’re nicked, mate: You’re carrying a concealed explosive device. How do I know? My very expensive imported bomb detector here says you have one, and its been tested and approved for use by the government. You’re coming with me. Come along peacefully, sir, we don’t want to have to use force to overcome any violent resistance.

    Step into the back of this truck.

  13. Levi in NY

    @ zap:

    FFSMS = “Fast Forward Short Message Service”

    No, just kidding, it’s “For Flying Spaghetti Monster’s Sake”

  14. Doug

    I suspect this is more a case of the Iraq government not willing to admit they were duped ahead of an election. They can claim they devices do work but have shoddy workmanship, and then get rid of them after the election. If questioned on this later, they can claim they wore out or the like.

  15. t-storm

    Question, no sarcasm or snark here I promise. If we are supposedly running things over there, how are we letting this happen? I assume our military is smarter than this, correct?

    I would think that the operator who knows for a fact they don’t work isn’t around to give his report that they don’t work.

  16. Katharine

    t-storm, no, our military is not in fact smarter than this.

  17. Congratulations Iraq, you just discovered the rate of success by random choice between two options!

  18. amphiox

    It works by encouraging a mobile “detection unit” to approach the vicinity of bombs while carrying it.

    A positive detection is signaled by a loud bang.

    It, and the “detection unit”, are single-use devices.

  19. I’m still confused. Then what is this about?

    I jumped for joy when I read that

  20. OtherRob

    Thad Hatchett #12:

    I’ve got a quarter that when flipped is right 50% of the time (heads = bomb, tails = clear …or is it the other way round?).

    If you suddenly find your tail flipping over your head, you’ve found the bomb…

  21. Markle

    James McCormick said in the Times Online article that the devices were sold for “$8,000 each, a total of £12 million. The balance went on training and on middlemen.” The total package was £53 million. There’s your smoking gun^h^h^h crater in the street. £41 million went into somebody’s pocket. A bit to McCormick or his pals for enhanced profits(sorry, ahem, training), the rest on kickbacks.

    This is Iraq, where instead of having $17,000/year E-3s driving trucks around we hired DynCorp/Blackwater/Haliburton/KBR to have civilians drive them for $120,000/year

  22. kevbo

    It’s things like this that make me actually appreciate the Mexican’s truly random ‘pase non pase’ test…

  23. Survey, not test.

    He asked the generals. They, steering between admitting they’re idiots and wanting to dissociate themselves from these now disreputable items, said ‘they work half the time’.

    Survey done.

    They’ll be replaced by the same thing, made in some country other than the UK.

  24. ruidh

    Perhaps the Iraquis are interested in another feature of the device. If you have a dowsing rod device which reacts to the operator, they can use it to point to people they suspect/don’t like/want to interrogate further and have it “alert”. Instant probable cause for a repressive regime.

  25. Ad Hominid

    15. Doug Says:

    I suspect this is more a case of the Iraq government not willing to admit they were duped ahead of an election.

    We have a winner!

    Bribery could well have played a role in the initial purchase but with the manufacturer jailed and the company essentially shut down, even the most venal kleptocrat would realize that the gravy train had been derailed. At this point, they are desperately trying to cover their backsides, at least long enough to get past the election.

    As for the devices being used to justify repressive and unjustified detentions, that is easy enough to do with systems that actually work for their intended purpose if the operator is corrupt and has targeted someone.

  26. Tom K.

    Wow, if Wikpedia knows about this why not everybody. They might as well use Spock ‘s Tri-corder. I am sure they believe that worked on TV too.

  27. Antti

    #2: I read it as FFS:MS, meaning: For Further Study: Mass Spectrometry.

  28. Doug

    Hey there’s another Doug writing on these threads. Well, that’s ok, so far he has said sensible things. But aside from me and him, how to tell us apart? Hmmmm. I could be “Doug from Pasadena”. Assuming HE’S not from Pasadena, too.

  29. eigenvector

    The good news is that at least they did find a 50% success rate. Imagine if, for two possibilities, bomb/no bomb, they had only found a 45% success rate!?

  30. I have a way to increase the proficiency of the device. First explain exactly how the device works to each person you are testing, and then tell the people that there is no possible way for this device to actually work. If they have a panicked look in their face, or start calling you words like ‘fool’, ‘incompetent’, or ‘your stupidity will kill us all’, then you know they don’t have a bomb and you can let them pass. However, if they burst out laughing after the device has been explained, then you can safely assume that they have a bomb. This will work for several reasons. One, they know they are going to die, so that they are not threaten at all by the complete lack of competence, and therefor don’t get the horrified look that one would expect. Secondly, getting a bomb through security is a nerve racking ordeal. If all of a sudden, this pressure is released because of the obvious lack of an actual security check point, they can help to to sigh or laugh in relief.

    It will improve the device to a astounding 67% accuracy rate. So if you have less than 3 bomb attempts, the odds are pretty good it will work.

  31. Ginger Yellow

    You could call it the Monty Hall device.

  32. Sharkweek

    Real life is becoming better at coming up with black satire than any artist. Voltare, Swift, Heller, they all wish they could come up with something like this. For me, this story went from ‘would be funny if it weren’t so tragic’ to ‘hilarious despite being so tragic’ exactly when the huckster said they needed to add flashing lights.

  33. Shawn

    A government spokesman later said only 50% of the devices worked.

    I’m picturing a test with 2 boxes: one with a bomb and one without. They test each detector with the operator blinded and find that half of them work. :) That’s good science!

  34. nomuse

    I’m a nice guy and all, but this makes me want to see Jim McCormick used as a bomb detector. Just send him ahead of all those poor people his fraud is getting killed.

  35. Sylvia

    I have a patented b.s. detector that I’ll sell them for a fraction of the price. The deluxe model even delivers a loud razzberry when unsafe levels of b.s. are detected. The unit is voice-activated…

  36. Sylvia

    Of course, what they really need to be using are interociters …

  37. Can you please send an e-mail to me the code for this script or please tell me in detail concerning this script?


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