Dowsing For Danger: Pseudoscience On The Frontline


Friend of the MSS and presenter of Righteous Indignation Trystan Swale offers his take on the pseudoscientific bomb-detection devices currently in use in Iraq.

As America continues to mourn deaths of its troops in Iraq, the New York Times has published an astonishing story regarding a device used by Iraq’s security forces in detecting explosives carried by vehicles at roadside checkpoints. Costing up to $60,000 per unit, the ADE651 is manufactured by British based ATSC who is believed to have shifted 1500 of the devices to the Iraqi authorities.

Despite claims by the manufacturers that the device can also detect illegal drugs, it seems the device is no more than useless for detecting either explosives or narcotics. Dale Murray of America’s National Explosive Engineering Sciences Security Center said the organisation had “tested several devices in this category, and none have ever performed better than random chance.”

Retired USAF Leiutenant Colonel Hal Bidlack condemned the detector as working ‘on the same principle as a ouija board’. Despite the price tag, the device is unpowered and is little more than a glorified dowsing rod sat inside a holder. The user walks with the antenna positioned at right angles to their body and walks vehicles, keeping them to his or her left. If explosives are detected, the antenna will swivel to the left.

As is common with dowsing, it seems the ADE651 produces plenty of false positives and has been totally ineffectual in other cases, such as he October 25th bombing in Baghdad where 155 people died after two tons of explosives passed through at least one checkpoint deploying the detector.

Iraq’s Major General Jehad-al-Jabiridefended use of the ADE651, retorting ‘I know more about this issue than the Americans do. In fact, I know more about bombs than anyone in the world. Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs’. The General has attributed the decline in bombings in Iraq to use of the detector although US officials believe the decline is more to do with their military surge and dissatisfaction of Iraqi dissidents with Al-Qaeda.

The Major General’s statement seems even more ludicrous when you examine the claims of the manufacturer. Working on ‘electrostatic magnetic ion attraction’, for which I’ll spare you the erroneous invocation of physics, the device can detect from a choice of things that are oh so bad: guns, ammunition, drugs, human bodies, contraband ivory and, my favourite, truffles up to a kilometer away underground. Above ground its operational range is three miles.

From a logistical viewpoint, and even if these devices did work, the user could potentially be getting false results from a huge range of other sources than a nearby car. That ATSC seem to be targetting the detectors at developing countries is morally abhorrent, and this may not be a politically correct point, but the general populous in these places tend to be less aware of science than in the west.

Hal Bidlack has rightly said the ADE651 is ‘laughable except someone down the street from you is counting on this to keep bombs off the streets’. To illustrate the point in their article the New York Times twice showed how effective the device is by driving a vehicle carrying two AK-47 rifles through nine police checkpoints using the ADE651.

Randi picked up on story last year and invited ATSC to take the $1m dollar challenge to show the effectiveness of the device. The manufacturers did not accept.

Don’t forget – Trystan will be speaking at our December Skeptics In The Pub Evening.

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  1. #1 by Michael on November 17, 2009 - 09:52

    for another example of this dowsing dross, see Michael Shermer’s TED talk at http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_shermer_on_believing_strange_things.html

    This is were a dowsing rod is sold to schools for detecting marijuana in kid’s lockers.

  2. #2 by Techowiz on December 4, 2009 - 15:25

    Hi guys on the UK skeps site we have been attacking the clowns behind the scam device ADE651, for a full run down on the device and the people behind it, check out our efforts below:

    http://www.skeptics.org.uk/forum/showthread.php?p=47058
    regards

  3. #3 by Techowiz on January 23, 2010 - 21:48

    Hi guys,
    The scammer in chief involved in this scam has now been arrested, see the link for the story:

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

    regards

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