The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for February 15th, 2010

Skepticism Matters – Bomb Dowsing Pseudoscience in Iraq

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 15, 2010

Sometimes we skeptics have to deal with the criticism that “this skepticism stuff isn’t important”, “who cares if someone believes in ghosts?”, or “why do you want to trample on what people believe?”.  My answer is simple: skepticism matters because when sloppy & irrational thinking is allowed to go unchecked the results can be disastrous.  Case in point: believe it or not, there are “bomb detection devices” in use now in Iraq, with the at least tacit approval of both the United States and British military, that are based upon the pseudoscience of dowsing! And, like any device based upon dowsing, they don’t work, which means people (both military & civilian) are getting killed.

Really folks, you can’t make this stuff up.  Check out some of the recent media coverage on this…

UK bans export of fraudulent bomb detector; arrests director of manufacturer

The government of the United Kingdom has banned the export of the ADE 651, which is advertised by the manufacturer, ATSC Ltd., as a hand-held “remote portable substance detector.” However, critics say it is just a “glorified dowsing rod.”

In a statement, the Department for Business said, “Tests have shown that the technology used in the ADE651 and similar devices is not suitable for bomb detection. As non-military technology it does not need an export license, and we would not normally need to monitor its sale and use abroad.”

The statement went on to say, “However, it is clearly of concern that it is being used as bomb detection equipment. As soon as it was brought to the attention of the Export Control Organisation and Lord Mandelson we acted urgently to put in place export restrictions which will come into force next week. We will be making an order, under the Export Control Act 2002, banning the export of this type of device to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Adding, “The reason the ban is limited to these two countries is that our legal power to control these goods is based on the risk that they could cause harm to UK and other friendly forces.” The statement closed by saying, “The British Embassy Baghdad has raised our concerns about the ADE651 with the Iraqi authorities.”

Meanwhile, the Avon and Somerset Police have arrested the managing director of the manufacturer, ATSC, 53-year old Jim McCormick on suspicion of fraud. McCormick is a former police officer from Merseyside. He has been released on bail.

These two events come after an investigation by the BBC’s Newsnight program where they tested and revealed the device as a fraud.

The device, manufactured by ATSC Ltd. which operates from a former dairy in Sparkford, Somerset, contains an antenna attached to plastic hand grip which is attached to black box. It requires no battery or other power source, and is supposedly powered solely by the user’s static electricity, the manufacturer claims. It can supposedly detect minute traces of explosives, drugs, human bodies, money and even elephants provided it has the right card.

The black box of the device is intended to read “programmed substance detection cards” that are supplied with the device. The device supposedly works on the principle of “electrostatic magnetic ion attraction”.

Newsnight brought the device to Sidney Alford, a renowned explosives expert who advises all branches of the UK military. Alford opened up the card reader of the device which was empty. Alford said, “Speaking as a professional, I would say that’s an empty plastic case.” Alford believes that the selling of the device is “absolutely immoral”. He added, “It could result in people being killed in the dozens, if not hundreds.”

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Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

“Toyota Terror” and Media Scare-Mongering

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 15, 2010

Yes, we’ve all been hearing in the media lately about how Toyota is issuing major recalls for many of its most popular vehicles, such as the Camry & Prius.  The problems, we are told, range from sticky accelerator pedals to brakes that don’t function properly.  In addition, the media have made a really big point of noting that the accelerator problem has likely led to a whopping 19 deaths over the last decade!!!  ZOMG!!!11!1

Errr… that’s it?  19 deaths in a decade?  Really, that’s the big news?  Not to sound cold & heartless, but this seems so like the making of a molehill into a mountain in an effort by the media to keep a story going, when it’s obviously well past its “sell by” date.  To get a little perspective, let’s take a look at this responsible article by NPR on this issue…

Most Auto Accidents Caused By Drivers, Not Defects

Driving a Toyota may feel pretty risky these days, given all the scary stories about sudden acceleration, failing brakes and recalled vehicles. But that feeling has a lot more to do with emotion than statistics, experts say. That’s because defective vehicles are almost never the cause of serious crashes.

“The whole history of U.S. traffic safety in the U.S. has been one focusing on the vehicle, one of the least important factors,” says Leonard Evans, a physicist who worked for General Motors for three decades and wrote the book Traffic Safety.

To Err Is Human

Studies show that the vehicle itself is the sole cause of an accident only about 2 percent of the time. Drivers, on the other hand, are wholly to blame more than half the time and partly to blame more 90 percent of the time.

A look at data on Toyotas from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirms this pattern. The data show that in the decade ending in 2008, about 22,000 people were killed in vehicles made by Toyota or Lexus, Evans says. “All these people were killed because of factors that had absolutely nothing to do with any vehicle defect,” he says.

During that same period it’s possible, though not yet certain, that accelerator problems in Toyotas played a role in an additional 19 deaths, or about two each year, Evans says. And even if an accelerator does stick, drivers should be able to prevent most crashes by simply stepping on the brakes, Evans says. “The weakest brakes are stronger than the strongest engine,” he says.

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Posted in mathematics, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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