Skepticism Saves

I realize that sometimes skepticism may not seem practical–that it is a nice pastime for cranky old men and Armchair Philosophers, but really, what’s the point?

This is the point: the ADE 651 

I recently heard about this device while listening to the podcast For Good Reason with D.J. Grothe. It was an old podcast from 2010 (so placing this post in

en:Image:RANDI.jpg (Original text : James Randi)

“Current Events” may be a bit misleading…but think of it as an example of what I’m hoping to achieve with this blog. Also, there are recent developments in the story that makes it a bit more “current”) where he was interviewing magician and skeptic, James Randi. They were talking about “why skepticism matters” and this topic came up. The ADE 651 is supposed to be a bomb detection device, but as the BBC has reported, it is considered by critics to be a “glorified dousing rod”. But critics might say that, mightn’t they? So, what did the BBC find out?

Newsnight obtained a set of cards for the ADE-651 and took them to Cambridge University’s Computer Laboratory where Dr Markus Kuhn dissected a card supposed to detect TNT.

It contained nothing but the type of anti-theft tag used to prevent stealing in high street stores.

Dr Kuhn said it was “impossible” that it could detect anything at all and that the card had “absolutely nothing to do with the detection of TNT”.

“There is nothing to program in these cards. There is no memory. There is no microcontroller. There is no way any form of information can be stored,” he added. –BBC News

So, a $60K dowsing rod. And what is a dowsing rod? What is “dowsing”?

The quick answer is that no one really knows – not even experienced dowsers. Some theorize there is a psychic connection established between the dowser and the sought object. All things, living and inanimate, the theory suggests, possess an energy force. The dowser, by concentrating on the hidden object, is somehow able to tune in to the energy force or “vibration” of the object which, in turn, forces the dowsing rod or stick to move. The dowsing tool may act as a kind of amplifier or antenna for tuning into the energy. –About

The About column seems pretty supportive of the practice, while other sources, like the New Scientist, and of course, the James Randi Educational Foundation, are a bit more…skeptical.

The Iraqi government spend $85Mil on these devices, produced by Englishman, Jim McCormick. One Iraqi general strongly defended its use. But, of course, if I had spent $85Mil of my country’s money on a device, I might be pretty defensive, too…especially if I was getting some of that money given back to me.

This failure to be skeptical, from many, has led to the death of hundreds. “Hmmm, that’s odd, cars, trucks, and busses stuffed with explosives have gotten through our checkpoints, despite the use of our magical (and magically expensive) detection devices!” Of course, the real bad guy here is Jim McCormick, whose trial began on March 6, 2013. It seems he based his design on bogus golf ball detectors.  But if numerous people hadn’t been “asleep at the wheel”, so to speak, this terrible human being couldn’t have profited massively while people died.

ADE651 en Pachuca

How did this happen? I don’t know. It is obvious there was a lot of credulity involved. James Randi, in the For Good Reason interview, suggested that a good deal of “political correctness” was probably the cause of people’s lack of skepticism. One has to be “open-minded”, you know…rather reminds me of an old quip about “if you’re too open-minded your brain will fall out”. For years I just thought it was a play on words about “open-minded” being equated with “open-skulled”. But now I see a deeper truth in the saying–if you’re too open-minded, your brain really will “fall out”; you will stop using your brain, stop being skeptical, stop asking the important questions like “does this bomb detector really work? Where is the evidence?”

In this case, some people being too open-minded has caused other people’s brains to fall out…onto the street. So please, please be skeptical–it could easily save someone’s life.

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7 responses to “Skepticism Saves”

  1. Tech Savvy says :

    Another way to put it: If you are sufficiently open minded, someone will throw a bunch of trash in it.

    Of course, skepticism could save someone’s life. Or it could facilitate Physics experiments.

    Decades ago (true story), the Eastern Washington State College Science Department in Cheney, Washington (United States), went to build a brand new science building. It was well known that the campus had quite a lot of natural springs, which made laying a foundation for a building problematic. We’re talking a build a block long here. So with all the science professors, some of them with advanced degrees in Physics determined the perfect way to insure that the building would be built on solid ground.

    And how do you thing these vaunted experienced technically advanced scientists went about determining where the foundation was to be laid?

    They hired a water witcher.

    The wooden rod bent down near the top of a hill. Surely, this would be an excellent place to set a massive science building.

    They hired the architects, contractors and builders and constructed a brand new impressive building. The foundation, as it were, was floating above an active spring, so the entire building experienced minor tremors as students and faculty entered and left the building.

    It was mighty tough to perform sensitive experiments involving measurement of earth movement. The Physics professor had to come in at 2:00 AM on the weekend to perform the experiments.

    You know, we would have expected the science department would be skeptical of a water witcher and used bone fide geological measurements.

    But they didn’t and so the College (now transformed into a University) had a building which would shake, rattle and roll.

    And it was fine when they had only 3,500 students, but today they have over 11,000.

    I haven’t been there for awhile, but I think they built a new building. For sure, they built a new field house. I understand the old one went up in a spectacular fire and it burned for days.

    It should be mentioned that the old field house was right next to the science building.


    • eSell says :

      See?? Even physicists used dowsing, so it MUST be true! (simply anticipating the “appeal to authority” argument)

      Yes, one would have expected some skepticism out of them.

      • Tech Savvy says :

        Oh, I don’t know… maybe they should have worked next door in the field house teaching college students how to be fit — you know: “Physicists”.

  2. Tech Savvy says :

    Of course, Eric, since I worked in IT, I could certainly relate other stories which illustrates the need for skepticism.

    Consider this ad from EDS (which backfired rather badly):

    Yep, that’s my experience in IT.

    • eSell says :

      It certainly is entertaining. I am a little surprised it backfired…I mean, it is obvious they were using it as an allegory or some such. Did people think they were saying “we do miracles”? Oh well.

      • Tech Savvy says :

        EDS: Employees work long hours up to 7 days a week, often have to postpone vacations and there is little time for planning projects — and they have to be well groomed and wear business suits — they have to dedicate their whole lives to it (and while Ross Perot was still running things — the goal was to make him a billionaire: Imagine all your efforts to make someone else rich).

        It’s sort of like being in the PCG.

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  1. The Randi Show – ADE 651 | Illuminutti - May 31, 2013

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