Thai military chief defends use of magic wands

By Phil Plait | February 23, 2010 10:00 am

Some people cannot learn.

Thai army chief General Anupong Paojinda is defending the use of what are essentially magic wands to detect bombs, even though the specific device they use has been tested repeatedly and failed to perform. This device is essentially the same as the ones used in Iraq and Afghanistan which have been proven worthless, and for which the head of the manufacturing company, Jim McCormick, has been arrested for suspicion of fraud.

Paojinda is convinced the dowsing rods work, even though it’s little more than an antenna glued to a plastic box. In the meantime, thousands of people are dying in bomb attacks in Thailand near the Malaysian border. Incredibly, the devices cost millions of dollars, when it would be far cheaper and far more effective to employ sniffing dogs at the checkpoints.

Antiscience kills. You might think that dowsing rods are a cute diversion or at worst a waste of money, but in fact believing in them is leading directly to the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of people across the world.

Tip o’ the crystal pendulum to BABloggees Claude Works and Jimmy Reynolds.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Debunking, Politics, Science

Comments (42)

  1. Ron

    Thailand is a beautiful place, but they have some very stupid laws. You can be arrested and sent to prison for saying “the king is a fink” as if he were some sort of God. Maybe someone in the king’s family ordered the dowsing rods and they fear insulting the old guy.

  2. This is yet another example of why we do the things we do. Eternal vigilance…

  3. R2K

    Then you suggest dogs, which while far more accurate, also have a pretty poor record. One study gave them a mid 40s% success rate. Stopping bombs probably is going to rely on stopping the people who make the bombs. Sadly, that is hard work.

  4. drow

    @3: 40% is better than 0%.

  5. Amy F.

    @R2K True, but I’ll take 40% over 0% any day.

  6. sec

    I’m banging my head on my desk even more. Grrr.

  7. Douglas Troy

    So here’s my idea … take the Thai Army Chief, stick him in the center of a field full of bombs, but with a single, winding, path out. Give him that “magic wand”, and let him find his way out.

    Shouldn’t take long before you need a new Army Chief.

  8. I’m not sure you would take 40%. That means its mostly wrong. Would you really not mind people being detained with a system that is mostly wrong? (further, no offense r2k but what were the test condtions that gave that stat?) In fact, the wand is not 0%, its not always wrong. Its wrong only the same amount as random chance.

    I think R2K’s point was simply that a system that relies on dogs is also bad, and may not be much better than a magic wand, when the consequence is detention or worse.

  9. Gil

    @7 the interpretation of whether 40% is successful depends on precisely what that stat refers to. ’40% of bombs are found’ vs ’40% of the time the dog alerts there is a bomb’ are very different in terms of success and utility. You’d rather have the dog alert too often and drive his percent correct down than have him under alert and miss bombs.

  10. ambulocetacean

    *Thousands* of people being killed in bomb attacks in southern Thailand? I must have missed that.

    There aren’t even thousands of people being killed in bomb attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan…

  11. Miko

    It’d be cheaper still to just send all of the troops home. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t really want the military here either, as the prospect of them setting up checkpoints in the U.S. is both realistic and scary. But I don’t think it’s moral to force them on the people of some unsuspecting nation half way around the world just because we want to get rid of them.

    Stopping bombs probably is going to rely on stopping the people who make the bombs.

    Impossible. Every time you detain someone at a checkpoint, another bomber is born. The only way to stop people (as a group) from making bombs is to take away the reason that they want to make bombs. The fact is that technology has advanced to the point where wars are now unwinnable. We’ll stay in Iraq/etc. until eventually attrition runs so high that we give up, and then the war will end. This sounds bad to those who support our military and want it to “win” the wars it’s fighting now, but it’s actually great news, since it means that we can disband the U.S. military without fearing for our safety. This realization is the only good that can possibly come from the Iraq war.

    I’m not sure you would take 40%. That means its mostly wrong. Would you really not mind people being detained with a system that is mostly wrong?

    This is an issue if the rate of false positives and rate of false negatives are both 40%, but that’s not the only way to interpret a 40% accuracy rate.

    In fact, the wand is not 0%, its not always wrong. Its wrong only the same amount as random chance.

    Given the number of people who pass through a checkpoint vs. the number of people with bombs, random chance is pretty close to 0%.

  12. rpsms

    On the other hand, I think these dowsning rods are pretty good at detecting kickbacks.

  13. Katharine

    The wand is only as right as a broken clock is, in that random chance does not mean it works.

  14. Greg in Austin

    R2K said,

    “One study gave them a mid 40s% success rate”

    Which study? What is the success rate of the dowsing rods (magic wands?)

    8)

  15. Rift

    Maybe these are the new ones with blinking lights? :P

  16. DaveS

    Miko@11, I think maybe you have an unreasonable paranoia about the US military. Decommissioning/discharging soldiers makes you fear for your safety? I work with veterans every day, and they are no more threat to me than non-veterans. Less, I’d wager. In the US we have citizen-soldiers who report to the President. They’re not Hessians.

  17. Russ

    Wow Miko, can I get a pair of your rose colored glasses? All we need to do is give everyone what everyone wants. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?

  18. Daffy

    Russ, those rose colored glasses fit eyes on both sides of that issue. The way we are approaching things in the Mid-East isn’t working.

  19. Danno

    @ Katharine
    But a broken clock is guaranteed to be right two times a day!

  20. Forckus Aurelius

    Miko, I’m so glad you have exercised the freedoms I have devoted my life to support and defend. I am particularly pleased you chose not to support any of your beliefs with facts, common sense, or a liberal dose of reality. Please don’t take this as criticism: Learn what the real problem is, then offer suggestions and solutions. I’d recommend The War of Ideas by Dr. Walid Phares, for starters.

  21. Any border agent who used a rod and found a bomb was likely using the powerful intuitive assessment of human behavior they have developed doing their job and unconsciously transmitting that thought pattern to the device (in the same way that Quija boards work.)

    This “success” would then be attributed to the effectiveness of the device instead of to the shrewd instinct of the agent who made the find. This both falsely elevates the prestige of the phony device and detracts from the effectiveness of the agent who is denied both the confirmation of his own instincts and the praise he should have received for his good judgment.

  22. Ad Hominid

    @Miko
    “It’d be cheaper still to just send all of the troops home. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t really want the military here either, as the prospect of them setting up checkpoints in the U.S. is both realistic and scary.”

    Miko, you do understand that this is in Thailand and we are talking about the Thai army? They are already home.
    Where do you get the idea that detaining someone at a checkpoint automatically creates another terrorist? What data support this? Would you start killing police officers over an unwarranted traffic stop? People are not so simple-minded as that and they are not unaware of the threat. Those who support terrorist objectives, the terrorists’ many propagandists and supporters, will say otherwise of course, but their objective is to undermine anti-terrorist measures. It seems to work on a certain number of Americans and others, if your post is any indication.
    Fighting terrorists only creates more terrorists among those who are sympathetically committed to the terrorists in the first place. Millions of people have been negatively affected by the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of them; again, quite likely in the millions; have suffered a great deal more than being detained at a checkpoint. Yet there are not millions of terrorists.

  23. M

    It’s times like this I think William K Clifford should be more well known.

    http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/w_k_clifford/ethics_of_belief.html

  24. Russ

    Daffy, you are making the assumption that you have to choose either or. You don’t. You can respect the rights, beliefs, wishes, etc of the majority of a populace and still fight against those who say, think that blowing up students is a good way to express their distaste to idea of educating women.

  25. What makes it worse is that religion has some blame in the use of these devices. Malaysia and Thailand have a large population on muslims and dogs are seen as unclean by some of the more strict adherants. Having a dog sniffing their belongings could be seen as offensive by some muslims. The dowsing rods are seen as some to be a way around that irrational fear of dogs. However, the rods are ineffective and expensive while the dogs are relatively inexpensive compared to the rods and are very effective. I wonder if there is a way to train a goat to sniff out bombs.

  26. ScottW

    I wonder if the folks using these magic wands simply aren’t using them right.

    I mean, when they’re waving them trying to detect bombs, are they shouting “Petronus!” in the proper fashion?

  27. metaphysician

    Okay, stupid question. I haven’t tracked back every link, but is this really an issue of pseudoscience? It seems just as likely the general in question is just doing CYA over a bad purchasing decision.

  28. Roger Ebert just linked to this article on Twitter:

    http://twitter.com/ebertchicago/status/9542072926

  29. Rob

    10. ambulocetacean – from an earlier AFP wire story on the topic – “Thailand’s security forces had bought the scanner for use in its far south, where a six-year separatist insurgency has claimed more than 4,100 lives.” I note that the same sentence is in the article linked by BA here.

  30. ianam

    “One study gave them a mid 40s% success rate.”

    BS. You offer no citation, and your claim is meaningless. Is that 40% correct positives (which would be much better than 0 correct positives), 40% correct negatives (which would imply either dogs that bark at nearly everyone or a heck of a lot of people with bombs), or 40% of each — which is worse than a coin flip?

  31. Gary Ansorge

    I’m beginning to think these gadgets are the ingenious output of Al-Quaidi. So little effort. So much money.

    Gary 7

  32. Gary Ansorge

    25. Russ:

    “of the majority of a populace and still fight against those who say, think that blowing up students is a good way to express their distaste to idea of educating women.”

    Ah, democracy, an example of quantum mechanics in action.

    26. Robert Madewell

    Goats, you say? ,,,and how long have YOU been in the desert, maty?

    I expect a really good sniffer is part of the predator sensory expertise. As bad as goats smell, I doubt a good nose would be a survival advantage.

    GAry 7

  33. Russ

    Would rats cause the same offense as dogs? They are apparently good for sniffing out land mines.

    http://www.herorat.org/en/landminesstink

    Monkeys maybe? I’m pretty sure its monkeys, rats, dogs, and pigs that go on the list of offensive animals, kind of ironic that those would also be the most likely species for detecting explosives.

  34. Gary Ansorge

    For those unfamiliar with Muslims, please note: PIGS are forbidden; DOGS are just scary, because the only dog in the Arabian desert is the Saluki, which runs in packs and have been known to pull a grown man off his camel and EAT him,,,and, I expect, eat the camel too.

    Maybe humans can be taught to sniff out explosives. That should satisfy everyone.

    GAry 7

  35. Brian Too

    Dowsing rods DO work. For instance, they make a very fine idiot detector. Oh look, it’s going off right now!

  36. ambulocetacean

    Rob @ 30. Yes, the situation in Thailand is terrible, and thousands have died over the past several years. But most of those 4000 people killed weren’t killed by bombs.

    For one thing, that figure includes large numbers of people killed (deliberately and inadvertantly) by the Thai military and police. I’m under the impression that most of the people killed by the Muslim separatists have been shot, beheaded and/or burned.

    Most bomb attacks in Thailand seem to kill no more than a few people (which is still terrible, yes), and separatists don’t seem to have been able to make the sorts of big bombs that routinely kill 200 or 300 people at a time in Pakistan. I love Thailand and hope to hell they don’t get them.

    I could be wrong, though. Do you have any links that contradict this?

    Perhaps I’m being nitpicky or pedantic, but I don’t think it’s all that accurate to say “thousands of people *are dying* of bomb attacks in Thailand. Thousands of people have died from bombs in Iraq but we don’t say that thousands of people *are dying* of bombs in Iraq.

    The main point remains, though, that the scum who are selling divining rods as bomb detectors should go directly to jail.

  37. drewski

    @ ScottW – I’m not sure, in this context, that an ethereal animal totem will be all that more effective, even if it is a dog.

  38. This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 2/24/2010, at The Unreligious Right

  39. ShinJi

    Given that this is happening in Thailand, antiscience probably has little to do with it. The simpler explanation is that the people who make the rods are giving a huge bribe to some big man in the military. Life is cheap there, and safety standards nonexistent.

    For it to be an antiscience thing, the people who bought the rods would have to actually believe they work. The poor soldiers might, but not the higher-ups.

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