Stupid And Deadly

This first appeared in the November 2010 issue of The North Texas Skeptic.

Consider, for a moment, that Darwin could have been right all along.

OK, forget Darwin. Consider for a moment that there is a species on this planet so incompetent it deserves to go extinct right now.

That would be us.

Recent developments bear this out. I will elaborate. I made a joke a few years back about dowsing for land mines, but I should have been more circumspect.1 The truth turns out to be ludicrous beyond belief.

In a recent blog post, Bob Park alerted us to a scam that just will not go away. In the UK a company known as ATSC has for several years marketed their ADE 651, a device for detecting dangerous explosives, including bombs carried by enemy agents. The technology would be undeniably beneficial, if only it worked. In reality, the device is little more than a dressed up water dowser. Its evolution is akin to the genesis of Intelligent Design from young-Earth creationism.

We should have been warned, because ADE 651 has an antecedent dating back more than ten years. In his post from 12 January 1996 Bob Park highlighted the remarkable Quadro Tracker.2

What’s cuckoo: high-tech dowsing rod locates timid laboratory.

The Quadro Corporation, which markets the QRS 250G Detector, a dowsing rod with an antenna that outperforms old fashioned willow branches, says the device can locate anything from weapons to buried treasure–well worth the price of $995 each. But a Sandia National Labs scientist thought it might be a good idea to test one. It failed to locate anything; dissection found just plastic! Sandia sources tell WN that management directed scientists to remain silent in the face of a threat of legal action by Quadro.

An entry in Wikipedia notes that between 1993 and 1996 “[a]round 1,000 were sold to police departments and school districts around the United States on the basis that it could detect hidden drugs, explosives, weapons and lost golf balls.”3

Developments unfolded, and the FBI obtained a permanent injunction to keep the device from being marketed in the United States. Principles of Quadro Corp. of Harleyville, South Carolina, were brought to trial for fraud but were acquitted on all charges.

Move forward and across the pond.

In the UK ATSC Limited has the following product description on their Web site:4

ADE651® is the latest generation of long-range detector products offered by ATSC. As with other ADE™ substance detectors, it incorporates long-range electromagnetic attraction to enable the effective identification of even the most difficult substances including explosive and narcotic materials. Unlike other trace detectors, that are limited by the need to have actual physical contact with the item sampled, the ADE651® is able to detect programmed substances at long distances safely and without the need to have actual physical contact with the substance. As such, the ADE651® continues to set standards for the detection of substances.

As with Quadro, ATSC seems to have sailed right past the consciousness of all concerned—then somebody woke up. The Independent reported on 23 January this year:5

Hundreds of people have been killed in horrific bombings in Iraq after a British company supplied “bogus” equipment which failed to detect explosive devices.

The head of the company, which has made tens of millions of pounds from the sale of the detectors, has now been arrested and the British Government has announced a ban on their export to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Accounts of the ADE 651 indicate it works through the user’s expectations, much like the traditional “water witch” dowsing rod. The ADE 651, like all such devices, requires physical contact with the operator, and this allows subtle, usually subconscious, operator actions to affect the device and to influence indications of detection. In what may be an oversimplification: The operator expects there is no bomb, the device confirms his expectation—reality notwithstanding.

What is so bizarre about the Quadro-ADE 651 is how easy it should have been to falsify its claims. Put some explosive in a vehicle, or not. Don’t tell the operator. Is the device correct significantly better than chance?

In about twenty minutes a conscientious appraiser would have rejected these devices and sent their purveyors packing. Instead, numerous government agencies, representing budgets of billions of dollars annually, saw only the glitter and the promise of an easy fix. And they pulled out, not theirs but the taxpayer’s, checkbook.

The legion of the duped is impressive. An item on Wikipedia reports the following purchasers/users of the ADE 651. Some of these reports derive from ATSC promotional materials and not from actual observation:6

Iraqi Police Service and Iraqi Army: The Interior Ministry purchased 800 items in 2008 for $32 million and 700 in 2009 for $53 million. Top price was $60,000 per unit.

Mexican state of Colima: One was purchased for $60,000.

  • Lebanese Army
  • Chinese Police
  • Royal Thai Police
  • Interior Ministry of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraqi Kurdistan
  • Hotels in Jordan: Required by the government
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Indian police
  • Police in the Belgian municipal region of Geel-Laakdal-Meerhout (Used to detect drugs)
  • A Belgian drug squad
  • A Hong Kong correctional facility
  • Chittagong Navy (Bangladesh)
  • Pakistan’s Airport Security force: To detect bombs at the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi

It does not warm the heart to learn that superstitious nonsense is not the exclusive purview of uneducated yokels from the outback. Sit down at a conference table to discuss project planning at a high-tech concern in this country or elsewhere, and it is possible the person sitting next to you is ready to buy into the Quadro Tracker, the ADE 651 or the next baseless gimmick to follow. The fictional Jed Clampett would have been able to hold his own with this crowd.

People ask me, and other skeptics, why we take such a passion for the truth. What’s the harm, they say, if people have their little myths, their little fantasies? Sometimes I shrug off these annoying complaints with a glib remark. Such as, “Because people can die.”

References:
1 http://www.ntskeptics.org/2000/2000september/september2000.htm#ink
2 http://bobpark.physics.umd.edu/WN96/wn011296.html
3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quadro_Tracker
4 http://www.atscltd.com/products-services.html
5 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/head-of-bomb-detector-company-arrested-in-fraudinvestigation-1876388.html
6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ADE_651

3 thoughts on “Stupid And Deadly

  1. When India was still the dominion of the British, they used to deplore the backwardness and backward thought of the Indians. There was plenty of evidence that Indians were gullible and superstitious. Charlatans never failed to make a buck based on this asset.

    The ‘Indian police’ also seemed to have spent some money on procuring these dowsing rods made by a British company. Lovely! The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  2. Pingback: Stranger in a Strange Land | Skeptical Analysis

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