The Skeptical Teacher

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

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.”

And how was it that this b.s. dowsing crap was even allowed to get such widespread use by security forces, despite the fact that it’s pure bunk?  Why is it that it was sanctioned by the U.S., U.K., and Iraqi governments & military?  And how is it that the fraud was exposed after going on for so very long?

At least partially, the answer to the last question can be traced back to one man, arch-skeptic James Randi, founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) – one of the largest & most active skeptic organizations in the world.  In fact, Randi was blowing the whistle on the ADE651 device back in the mid 90s.  Even after this bogus “bomb detector” scam was shut down by the FBI in the United States, it was simply moved to the U.K. and set up shop there, eventually selling the useless devices to Iraqi security forces for use in Iraq.  From the regular media reports of bomb carnage coming out of Iraq, we can see how well they’ve worked.  Sadly, there are a lot of people who’ve suffered and died due to this massive lack of critical thinking, basic skepticism, government incompetence, not to mention outright fraud & corruption.

Check out this Youtube video of Randi outlining the entire sordid affair…

When I first learned of this, I had to do a double take.  Even I, a hardened skeptic, had a difficult time believing that this idiocy resulted in this incredible waste of time, resources, money, and – worst of all – human life because of this storm of pseudoscientific flummery, fraud, lack of skepticism & questioning, and intellectually laziness on the part of those in various government agencies who should know better.  But there you have it – when we fail to be skeptical and hold those making important decisions to account, it should be no surprise that things like this can happen.

As I said: skepticism matters.

5 Responses to “Skepticism Matters – Bomb Dowsing Pseudoscience in Iraq”

  1. […] Skepticism Matters – Bomb Dowsing Pseudoscience in Iraq « The … […]

  2. On the bomb device: This is amazing. You really couldn’t even make this stuff up. What went through the minds of the people who approved this? Besides the chance to throw a little more profit some company’s way. TOG

  3. […] Skepticism Matters – Bomb Dowsing Pseudoscience in Iraq « The … […]

  4. […] has been a long-running skeptical campaign against a pseudoscientific fraudster, James McCormick, who sold bomb dowsing kits to the Iraqi military. Yes, you read that correctly, dowsing kits – as in “water witching”! And […]

  5. […] Skepticism Matters – Bomb Dowsing Pseudoscience in Iraq « The … […]

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