When antiscience kills: dowsing edition

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Nov. 4 2009 11:16 AM

When antiscience kills: dowsing edition

I am no fan of pseudoscience, as you may have guessed. Dowsing is a practice that falls squarely in that field. It's the idea that you can detect an object -- usually water, but sometimes gold, or people, or whatever -- using a y-shaped branch, or copper tubes, or some other simple device. Dowsers never really have a good explanation of how their devices work, but they tend to claim 100% accuracy.

However, James Randi has tested dowsers many, many times as part of the JREF's Million Dollar Challenge. Not to keep you in suspense, but the money still sits in the bank. In other words, time and again, the dowsers fail. When a real, double-blind, statistical test is given, dowsers fail. Every single time.

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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That's all well and good, and you might think it's just another silly idea that nonsense-believers adhere to despite evidence. If someone wants to waste their money on a dowser, well, caveat emptor.

But what if your life depended on it? What if thousands of lives depended on it?

Such is the case in Iraq, where the military there is using what is essentially dowsing techniques to try to detect bombs in cars at military checkpoints. Let's be very clear here: they are using provably useless antiscientific nonsense to try to find terrorists who carry explosives. They may as well use tea leaves, or palm reading, or seances.

This story just got major press; a reporter in Iraq wrote about it in the New York Times. It's impossible to overstress how bad this situation is. Iraqi Major General Jehad al-Jabiri, who is the head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives, is a whole-hearted believer in this crap. He is such a believer that the Iraqi military are abandoning proven methods such as sniffer dogs.

Instead, the Iraqi have purchased hundreds of these so-called bomb-detection wands from a company called ATSC in the UK. The cost? Millions of dollars. Millions. On technology that James Randi has come right out and called "a totally fraudulent product". Bob Carroll of the Skeptic's Dictionary agrees with Randi.

The NYT article also has expert advice from several explosives and military authorities (including long-time friend of the JREF Air Force Lt. Col (retired) Hal Bidlack), all of whom conclude that this device does nothing. Given the product description on the company's own web page, I agree as well. The description makes no scientific sense at all; it claims it can detect ions from a distance without ever coming in contact with them, and that includes through lead, concrete, and more.

In other words, it's magic.

This, however, won't stop al-Jabiri, who chalks up any successes to the detector, and any failures to the operator. In a situation like that there is little hope he can be convinced him he's wrong, especially when he says things like "I don’t care about Sandia or the Department of Justice or any of them. I know more about this issue than the Americans do. In fact, I know more about bombs than anyone in the world."

Really? Then why, as the NYT article indicates, did that dowsing wand fail on October 25, when terrorists detonated two tons of explosives killing 155 people? Four thousand pounds of explosives apparently got right past the magic wands' sniffer. But at least they're fast! Again, from the article:

Checking cars with dogs, however, is a slow process, whereas the wands take only a few seconds per vehicle. “Can you imagine dogs at all 400 checkpoints in Baghdad?” General Jabiri said. “The city would be a zoo.”

I suspect a zoo would be better than a slaughterhouse.

It's arrogance and blind faith like that which has and will get people killed. And the people we're talking about in many cases are our fighting men and women, people who have to put their own trust in the leaders in Iraq. This is not a game, not some lark. It's real. And in this case, antiscience kills.

[This post, with minor variations, has been cross-posted on the JREF Swift blog.]

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