Are We Alone: bomb-sniffing magic wands version

By Phil Plait | April 9, 2010 7:41 am

arewealonelogoThe podcast "Are We Alone" is a great weekly ‘cast from the SETI Institute, and this week’s episode has Seth Shostak and me discussing the nonsense about Iraq using bomb-detecting dowsing rods (here’s a direct download of the MP3). These magic wands do not work, and their use has allowed cars loaded with bombs through checkpoints in the Middle East. This is a direct example of how magical, antiscientific thinking can do real harm, resulting in dangerous situations and even deaths… hundreds of them.


Comments (20)

  1. Will check this out though direct link appears to be broken! :)

    This one worked for me: Link

  2. er…. that direct link to .mp3 just 404s. oh. never mind.

  3. Peter F

    Heh, SETI itself would seem like a fairly good target for some skeptical sarcasm — 50 years on, and not a whiff of a ghost of a peep to indicate there are any signals to detect, anywhere in our sky…

    As a thought experiment or fictional device, alien civilizations are a fun concept to play with, but isn’t there more than a touch of magical thinking in this quest as well?

  4. Gary Ansorge

    In the late 1970s, an electronics instructor I knew told this story;

    “I was teaching electronics repair to Iranian jet pilots in the early 1970s. Their expenses were paid by the Iranian government and many bought fancy cars while they were in the US. One pilot bought a large van with cruise control, which the salesman explained as “like a planes auto pilot”. The pilot was familiar with these but was amazed we had such for cars. He was quite perturbed when he got on a freeway, set the cruise control and went to the back of the van to get a can of pop,,,and the van crashed.”

    Obviously, his cultural back ground inclined him toward accepting w/o question the “magic” of western science. To him, it was ALL fraking magic.

    3. Peter F:

    SETI isn’t magical thinking. It’s IMAGINATIVE thinking, derived from logic. The logic is that it is highly unlikely we are the only intelligent species in the universe, so we should at least look for others. You can’t find what you’re not looking for(unless an alien craft lands on the white house lawn).

    SETI knew their search would likely take a long time. There are somewhere around 200 BILLION stars to listen to, just in this galaxy. So far, we’ve listened to less than a ten thousandth of one percent of them. Is it any wonder we’ve not yet detected anything?

    Gary 7

  5. Cain

    @4 Gary
    Let me be the first to call BS on your electronics instructor

  6. It’s funny how people can look at other peoples “magical” beliefs and laugh at them, but when asked to critically examine their own magical beliefs, they have apoplectic fits…

    @Peter F (#3),
    This thread that won’t die at JREF may address many questions: (I contend that we aren’t taking the correct approach. Heck, even our own civlization isn’t detectable outside our own solar system due to that nasty inverse square law. But it’s the best we got for now, and we do tend to be much too human-centric in our thinking on how we approach these things.)

  7. Gary Ansorge
  8. Taper Xenophon

    @ Larian #5

    If you’re discussing SETI, I think you have a warped cultural view of the program. Popular media in the US have branded the SETI program as a bunch of “ULTRANERDS” who believe in UFO’s and alien abductions.

    SETI enthusiasts do not have magical beliefs, we do not claim there are little green men or humanlike aliens anywhere nearby. Our interest is scientific and academic, and SETI issues like the Fermi Paradox give insight into abiogenesis, evolution, technology, linguistics, and communications.

    I urge you to try to understand someone’s position before labeling it magical.

  9. This just made me realize… science is generally a humanist endeavour, isn’t it?

  10. Gary Ansorge

    10. Boomer;

    Science is neither pro nor anti humanist. Scientia (Latin for knowledge) is just about knowing and the scientific method is that philosophical method that allows us to verify that what we think we know correlates with reality.

    When we know how reality works, it generally points us toward humanism, because that correlates our behavior with the way things actually are, as opposed to the way we wish they were. As in those who wish teens were “good” and ignored their biological imperative to reproduce by abstaining from sex.

    Nearly every child will agree to not have sex,,,until those hormones kick in. Reality says “give them the tools (knowledge) to prevent STDs and pregnancy and most will abide by that knowledge. Keep them in the dark and you WILL have all kinds of problems.”

    Humanism acknowledges this biological reality and accepts it, turning our children from guilt ridden, helpless, sick and pregnant organisms into confident, self aware humans who can deal with both their desires and the consequences of same. THAT’S what it means to be a humanist.

    Gary 7

  11. Gary Ansorge

    5. Cain

    Urban legends get their start somewhere, though they are usually exaggerations of a simpler reality. I first heard this story in 1979 from someone who CLAIMED he was there. He was probably BSing but it made a good story none the less. I had a friend in Arabia(in the early ’80s) who taught Saudi Arabs electronics. He was showing off his prize student to his supervisor when the supervisor asked Abdullah “What is electricity?”

    Abdullah thought for a moment and replied “It is the force that makes things work.”

    The supervisor insisted “Yes, but what is it REALLY?”

    Abdullah thought for a moment longer and then replied “I don’t know man. I think it’s fraking magic.”

    ,,,and that’s straight from John Gravette who may still be working for Aramco. He is over a decade younger than me.

    Granted, this is anecdotal but I know John well. Surely he wouldn’t be pulling my leg???

    John was trying to illustrate the difference between American and Brit educational techniques. John actually tried to explain theory. His British supervisor had a tendency to just blow off students questions into the why of things saying “Just accept it man. It’s fraking magic,,,”.
    Which is exactly what Abdullah was doing. It’s all magic when you don’t understand the underlying theory.

    I expect Abdullah runs his own business today. He really was quite bright and energetic.

    GAry 7

  12. Gary Ansorge

    6. Larian LeQuella

    Some of the analyses I’ve seen (based on that nasty inverse square law) indicate the most powerful human radio transmissions would be indistinguishable from back ground noise at a distance of two light years from earth. If Berserkers exist, that’s probably a very good thing,,,

    Gary 7

  13. @Taper Xenophon(#8), sorry, that thread over at JREF was NOT started by ME, and if you wade through to page 20 or so, you will see that even though I think we are not doing it all that well, I still 100% SUPPORT SETI. :) And in discussing magic, I was referring to the “dowsing” rods and then some other bronze age myths repeated as facts because we all know humans and dinosaurs existed together less than 6000 years ago. ūüėČ Sorry if I caused confusion there.

    @Gary Ansorge (#12) yes, that is correct. Which sadly leaves MOST of our transmissions undetectable beyond the orbit of Pluto.

  14. jcm

    Anti-science and wishful thinking kills.

  15. Omnidirectional electromagnetic waves would die off faster than let say a directed beam at the Earth maybe from a alien version of SETI, also SETI is looking for a directed light signal towards Earth and also doing work with KEPLER. I wish I was better student, because I think it would a great place to work.

  16. Taper Xenophon

    @ Larian #13

    Awesome, sorry I misunderstood. :)

  17. Peter F

    I didn’t mean to suggest that SETI is a waste of time — I’d love for them to find alien transmissions (I think — the idea is honestly terrifying the more I think about it). I should have included a winking smiley face with my post ūüėČ

  18. Gary Ansorge

    17. Peter F:

    The historical results (on Earth) of a high tech society encountering a low tech one have not been,,,encouraging.

    I sincerely hope if we ever DO encounter a “high tech” alien society, it won’t be until we’re at commensurate tech levels, other wise, we may be screwed.

    Remember, just because the strangers are smiling, doesn’t mean they’re friendly. They might just be thinking how good you would taste.

    Also, when meeting an alien for the first time, smile(but don’t display your teeth. Amongst many critters, that’s a snarl), make eye contact(if at all possible) and display empty hands,,,but be prepared to run for cover,,,

    Gary 7

  19. #13 Larry

    “Which sadly leaves MOST of our transmissions undetectable beyond the orbit of Pluto.”

    When SETI had their kit on our Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope (70 meter) about ten years ago they used the Pioneer 10 transmitter as a calibration source. Pioneer was then well beyond the orbit of Pluto and its 8 watt transmitter was hardly new.

    So work out the range of a Megawatt transmitter at the focus of a 1,000 meter telescope – quite achievable with our current technology never mind alien technology

  20. Gary Ansorge

    19 dave.

    Sure, we COULD send a tight beam transmission toward the stars but the question is SHOULD we?

    Just because someone is technologically sophisticated, doesn’t mean they’re nice folk. If the Nazi empire had won WWII, we might well have settled the moon, with slave work gangs doing mining, all while building space based weaponry and going boldly with guns blazing.

    I’m in favor of caution, listening instead of transmitting, at least until we’re technologically sophisticated enough to protect our home base from anything short of a nova. It might also be prudent to base our long range communications transmitters in another stellar system, like a thousand LYs from earth, just in case we connect with the equivalent of the Nazi empire.

    Gary 7


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar