The Iraqi government finally after an explosion in Baghdad killed more than 150 people. The British businessman jailed in 2013 for selling the detectors to Iraq, James McCormick, saw $10 million in assets (including a yacht) earlier this month.
In the judge's own words, McCormick was a "callous confidence trickster." But there's more to this story than just a device that can't do what it claims. They were just the latest version of a type of pseudoscience that just keeps turning up in the military, decade after decade.
McCormick was CEO of Advanced Tactical Security & Communications Ltd, whose products include the hand-held ADE 651. This simple device consisted of an antenna attached loosely to a handgrip. The detector has a "substance detection card" that supposedly could be tuned to detect anything, including explosives, banknotes, or human bodies. This claim ought to have aroused suspicion, but the Iraqi government bought thousands of them. Advertising material claimed the detector used "." Later, though, McCormick admitted it worked the same way as water dowsing. Others agree, with the BBC describing the device as "."
Dowsing, which dates back centuries, is a supposed way of locating water or minerals underground using a divining rod. Traditionally this was a Y-shaped willow or hazel twig. The ends of the Y were held in each hand, and when the wand passed over water, it was supposed to move of its own accord. The practice, known as "water witching," was once common in the U.S. and still persists. There is even an . Adherents claim that dowsing can find water, oil, gold or minerals, so it's not surprising they believe it can find bombs, too.
In 1966, Louis Matacia, an operations analyst at the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, Virginia, suggested that dowsing would be useful for finding booby traps and Viet Cong tunnels. The New York Times reported that Marine Corps engineers trained in the technique had . A Major Hardracker showed reporters how two coat-hanger wires could be used to locate objects underground. The wires were loosely held, one in each hand, lying parallel. When there was an object of interest below, the wires crossed over. Asked to try his hand, the reporter found a tunnel himself, although another Marine officer said it did not work for him because he was "not psychic enough."
"The Marine engineers at Camp Pendleton say they don't know why it works, but are convinced it does," was the reporter's conclusion.
In 1968, the Chicago Tribune carried a colorful account of Lance Corp D E Isgris successfully using a pair of brass rods. The U.S. Army's looked at several low-cost ways of improving military operations and this included some experiments with dowsing. The researchers concluded that dowsing remained unproven but showed "some feasibility and should be further investigated through a series of carefully controlled experiments."
Lots of other armies used dowsers; the British Army Engineers , after which it was replaced by more scientific methods. In some places, dowsing for bombs has never gone out of fashion. When George W. Bush visited Estonia in 2006, the local security forces . In countries of the former Soviet Union this technique, cloaked under the name 'biophysical' detection, has a measure of respectability. Dowsing comes in and out of fashion in other fields. During the 1990's dowsing was fashionable and almost respectable in archaeology, though a suggested it was of little use.
And it proved popular in Iraq. When the initial complaints about the ADE 651 were made, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani ordered the device to be tested. "We conducted several tests on them, and found them successful,"
The reason dowsing or divining just won't go away—the reason it just keeps hanging around and convincing people—is that it really can be better than chance. But the explanation for this has nothing to do with a divining rod or McCormick's phony detector.
Back in 1853, the great physicist Michael Faraday was ." Sitters would place their hands on a table and ask questions, and the table would move, rapping out once for yes and twice for no. The implication was that these sounds were answers from the spirit world. Faraday, though, built apparatus to measure the forces involved, and soon proved that the sitters themselves were "quite unwittingly" moving the table.
In dowsing, as in table turning and Ouija Boards and countless other examples of this psychic smoke and mirrors, someone unconsciously provides the motive force as they anticipate the result of their action. If you expect the answer to a question to be "yes," then you nudge the Ouija planchette towards "yes" without even meaning to. A side effect of the ideomotor effect is that it can extract information you know, but do not know that you know. For example, a team at the University of British Columbia found that when subjects did not know an answer to a question like "What is the capital of Hungary?" but had to guess from among multiple choices, their guesses were 50 percent accurate. But when they used a Ouija board to answer, the ideomotor effect kicked in and their answers .
This may explain why so many people believe in dowsing, and why it can work better than chance. If there are cues that you have not noticed consciously, but which have been tagged by your unconscious mind, dowsing may reveal that unconscious insight.
The British Colombia study results suggest that, in theory, dowsing might provide a marginal edge for detecting IEDs. By harnessing unconscious knowledge, a person might be slightly more likely to spot a bomb and save lives. In that sense, dowsing might be better than nothing, but it's an idea best left in the past. McCormick was a criminal because he charged up to $60,000 for a device that was no more effective than a pair of old coat hangers. For that price, you can get a real bomb detector that really saves lives.