Pseudoscience is an insurmountable obstacle that will never cease to exist. When I think of snake oil salesmen and charlatans, I imagine them peddling “cures” from town to town in the 17th and 18th centuries. From personal experience, I know how easy it is to believe this sort of quackery would never exist in today’s modern world. Yet, even with our knowledge and experiments, pseudoscientific claims and merchandise continue to line the pockets of deceivers.
Worst of all, in our society such scams deter consumers from products that have been proven to be effective. These days, rather than snake oil salesman preaching to the public on the streets, we have ‘natural cures‘ salesmen preaching on late night television infomercials. Instead of fortune-tellers, we have psychic call-lines. Today, the vatican still has an official exorcist, ghost-hunters have television shows, and newspapers continue to print daily horoscopes. Obviously, none of these things are based on reality yet they continue to persist in this more advanced society.
At this point you might be asking yourself if there is any harm in this. Why not let people have faith in their beliefs? After all, it might bring them enjoyment from a benign false assumption. My answer to this outlook is that, time and time again, it has been shown that what seem to be benign pseudoscientific beliefs do ultimately cause a lot of harm to many people. To use a recent example of this, I would like to present to you exhibit A: The dowsing rod.
Dowsing has existed since the 15th century. Back then, people would use special rods that would be held loosely with their hands to detect water or precious metals in the ground. While walking, the dowsing rod would be pointed to different spots and would swivel if the object being searched for were present there. Any sort of movement by the rod would signify a positive signal. Many of these dowsing rods were simple tree branches, while others were made of more specific metals and were said to work better.
From a scientific perspective, the dowsing rod works like an ouija board. When a person holds the rod over a promising location, his subconscious secretly moves his hands in a way that makes it seem like the dowsing rod has a positive signal. This is termed the idiomotor effect, which on wikipedia is defined as, “a psychological phenomenon wherein a subject makes motions unconsciously.” For centuries, hopeful searchers believed that a stick was pointing them in the right direction while unknowingly making the decisions for themselves. Who knows how many people attempted to find water in harsh environments using such a rod. The good news is that today people understand much more and wouldn’t be so thick as to use a rod to guide their life-dependent decisions. Right?
Wrong. Enter the ADE 651 “remote portable substance detector.”
This nifty invention utilizes only the best modern technology. According to its makers, it uses “electrostatic magnetic ion detection.” I’ll quickly point this out as a red flag. It is not uncommon for today’s charlatans to mask their devices and cures in what sounds like sophisticated scientific jargon. It sounds nice, but it means nothing! So how’s it work? Well, since this ‘electrostatic magnetic ion detector’ is so sophisticated, we can imagine its parts to be very advanced. Here’s what wikipedia has to say about it:
“The ADE 651 consists of a swivelling antenna mounted via a hinge to a plastic handgrip. It requires no battery or other power source, its manufacturer stating that it is powered solely by the user’s static electricity. To use the device, the operator must walk for a few moments to “charge” it before holding it at right angles to the body. After a substance-specific “programmed substance detection card” is inserted, the device is supposed to swivel in the user’s hand to point its antenna in the direction of the target substance. The cards are claimed to be designed to “tune into” the “frequency” of a particular explosive or other substance named on the card.”
Does this sound familiar? It turns out that the ADE 651 is nothing more than a dowsing rod marketed as a high-end tool. The manufacturers claim that it can detect anything from bank notes to human bodies and does so through walls, underground, underwater, and even in airplanes 5 km high. That is SOME device! It is a wonder that every police officer doesn’t have one of these on them…
Now I know that there are plenty of people out there who would believe in this sort of quackery. Not many people can think critically when overwhelmed with scientific jargon. But surely there would not be entire organizations buying into this stuff! By now you probably know where I’m going with this.
Enter the Iraqi Police Service and Iraqi Army. In a place as dangerous as Iraq, a detector of all substances would be an incredible advantage to the police force. It is unfortunate that the Iraqi military and police force have bought into these claims. They have embraced the ADE 651 not for precious minerals or water detection, but to detect bombs.
How a country’s government can so severely lack critical thinking is beyond me. Iraqi police and militia are roaming the streets with a shaky antennae attached to a plastic handle, thinking they’re actually detecting explosives. It is so sad, and so dangerous.
Adding insult to injury, not only did they get fooled into this con, but they got completely ripped off! How much does a magical antenna cost? Oh, let’s see here… in 2008 the Iraqi militia bought 800 of such dowsing rods for a mere $32 million dollars. And what’s a great con-artist do when he has someone hooked? He takes advantage of his victim’s gullibility and takes even more money. That’s exactly what ATSC (UK) Ltd.’s owner and ADE 651’s developer, Jim McCormick, did. In 2009, his company charged the Iraqi military a substantially higher amount of $53 million dollars for only 700 of these devices. I wonder how much more they’ll pay this year. To give the Iraqi government some credit, I’ll point out that the Mexican government bought a single ADE 651 for $60,000 dollars.
To be honest, I was surprised by how much it even cost the company to make one of these. The manufacturing cost of $250 was much more than I expected for a dowsing rod. I think the biggest winners here could be the British and Romanian manufacturers who assembled the product for ATSC (UK) Ltd. I wouldn’t be surprised if they payed only a few dollars to create the device.
The more serious side of this is, of course, the lives that may have been lost due to this scam. I mentioned earlier how one of the problems with scam products in a technologically advanced society is that they are used in place of products that really do work. Allowing a shaman in the middle of an African desert to use cow blood as a cure won’t do much except to allow him to keep his faith, but allowing people to treat diseases with homeopathic products in countries with proper pharmacies on every street causes serious indirect harm. The same goes for this situation. Imagine how much better equipped the Iraqi military would be with a combined $85 million dollars of tested and approved bomb-detection equipment. Or how much more efficient the soldiers would have been searching cars using their instincts and experience instead of the movement of a flimsy antenna. Who knows how many bombs may have been missed because of this?
That is why it is so important for people to understand how much pseudoscience and fraud there is in our more advanced society and how important critical thinking skills are. A few critical thinkers is all that would have been needed to prevent this from happening. Now it’s too late and we can only speculate on the damage that was done.
Luckily, there won’t any new ADE 651’s sent to Iraq because the whole company producing them is under investigation. Jim McCormick was arrested in January, and it was made illegal in England to export the devices out of the country. I’m curious if the Iraqi government will continue to use the dowsing rods they already own. It’s easy to picture a police task force 10 years from now using rusted dowsing rods to find terrorists. After all, it must be so hard, psychologically, to admit that you spent over $85 million on a piece of plastic with a swiveling antenna on it.