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Iraqi still believes in magic

by Phil Plait, Feb 24 2010

Oh, FFSMS. After countless tests showing them useless, articles about them being useless, challenges from Randi and others to prove they are not useless, and the company head arrested for suspicion of fraud because they’re useless, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki has ordered that the (useless) magic wand dowsing rod bomb-sniffers should still be utilized.


At least al-Maliki wanted them tested. Still. This angers me:

The survey, ordered by Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, found the British device, known as ADE651, generally worked. However some of the gadgets, found to be ineff­ective, would be replaced.

A government spokesman later said only 50% of the devices worked.

"Replaced?" With what, fairy dust? Unicorn horns? And I’d love to know how those tests were done. I bet it would’ve been cheaper to send a dozen of the wands to Randi and let him take a look. And if they did work, not only would Iraq get the wands back, but Randi would include a check for a million bucks which they could use to buy more of the kits.

I have to say, it’s been a good year for skeptics, but we clearly have a long way to go. Thailand and Iraq are both relying on provably worthless junk to find bombs, and what will happen instead is that those bombs will find people. Hundreds of them, thousands. That’s what happens when we turn their backs on reality and instead rely on superstition and antiscience. It’s way too late in this world to do such a thing, and when people in power do it, a lot of lives will be lost.

Originally published on The Bad Astronomy Blog.

23 Responses to “Iraqi still believes in magic”

  1. stargazer9915 says:

    These are the people we are protecting? Survival of the fittest just flew right out the window. I think our only hope is that the bombs they don’t detect go and blow up whatever building the sniffers are being held.

    Does trying to understand this make anybody elses brain hurt?

  2. Robo Sapien says:

    I read somewhere (here, perhaps) that cultural roots play a big role in the critical thinking ability of a population. It was demonstrated that people of undeveloped countries (I don’t know the status of Iraq as developed or not) on average score lower on IQ tests, even though the genetic makeup of the group could be nearly identical to a test group from a developed nation. This isn’t because one group is smarter than the other, but because the lower scoring group comes from a dogmatic culture whose practices do not reinforce critical thinking.

    • Max says:

      IQ tests just test pattern recognition, not critical thinking.

      • Jason M says:

        Neither of you are right on this score, IMO.

        IQ tests don’t assess critical thinking, although IQ is weakly correlated with critical thinking ability.

        Some IQ test use pattern recognition (i.e. Raven’s Progressive Matrices), but that is not what they test. You’re conflating the stimulus used for measurement with what the tests are trying to measure. IQ tests are generally reliable measures of intelligence, which can be defined as: “a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience.”

        That’s the first part of the definition from the article “Mainstream Science on Intelligence”. Google it up if you’re interested.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Thanks for clearing that up. Testing methods aside, I’m sure you get the point. The way of life there seems to be a heavy influence on way of thinking.

      • Max says:

        The ability to recognize patterns does correlate with abstract and inductive thinking, but pattern recognition without critical thinking results in pareidolia.
        I would guess that culture has a bigger impact on critical thinking skills than on pattern recognition skills.

  3. Ebenezer Clipperlock says:

    ‘only 50% of the devices worked’ – lemme guess, they tested each device only once?
    This device has cost Iraq tens of millions of dollars and more importantly, thousands of lives. I don’t know what to make of this. On the one hand you want to protect the fledgling democracy, on the other hand you see Iraq punch itself in the face… how to carry on in the face of such futility?
    And thanks to the Internet I discovered that Belgium uses these toys too. … No, I just can’t parse this.

  4. Neil says:

    Not that I condone this train of thought at all but, how much difference is there between a religious political leader and a superstitious one? Don’t they both basically believe in magic?

    I would hope however, that even a supposed Christian like Barack Obama would not be satisfied with a 50% success rate on bomb detectors.

    Now, about that virgin birth and resurrection thingy.

  5. Max says:

    Too bad they can’t replace brains found to be ineffective.
    Hand the best, most expensive, dowsing rods to Jim McCormick and his customers, and send them through a minefield.

  6. BKsea says:

    One thought on this is that it is only necessary that the bombers think these devices could work. If a would be bomber alters their target or appears more nervous, it might lead to preventing the bombing even if the devices are just a sham. In that case, it would be very important for high level people to express a belief in the devices.

  7. Dwight says:

    I know and you know tease things are junk, and Im sure he knows they are junk, but Nouri al-Maliki does not want to loose face, and Im sure some palms were greased. The truth of the mater is bribes were paid and no one want to admit being at fault. I would bet good money on that!

  8. Charles G. says:

    Sorry Phil, I’m usually pretty good with the abbreviations but what does FFSMS mean? A google search on this one left me empty-handed.

  9. Charles G. says:

    For Flying Spaghetti Monster’s sake?

  10. Rogue Medic says:

    Isn’t it fraud to misrepresent what these can do?

    If fraud leads to a death, isn’t that felony murder?

    I am assuming that this would be a felony, because I cannot imagine that the amount of money involved is small.

    Since these appear to have led to many deaths, maybe they should offer to have the manufacturer demonstrate their faith in the ability of the dowsers by finding all of the bombs in a densely packed mine field. Each corporate officer should have to do this, or admit that they are guilty of murder.

    They either work or they don’t, but that does not mean that 50% are defective. They are all defective/ineffective. Limited understanding means that they are only aware that half are defective/ineffective.

    Magic is 100% defective/ineffective on bombs.

    Why limit things? Magic is 100% ineffective at anything other than deception.

    • Max says:

      Does the UK prohibit cruel and unusual punishment? IMO, the punishment should fit the crime, so a cruel and unusual crime deserves a fitting punishment.

  11. Tracie says:

    Rogue, I detect a strong western bias in your opening legal arguments. The idea of ‘fraud’ changes based on cultural perspective. Sure, making and selling something like this ridiculously expensive and mostly ineffective dowsing rod for landmines/bombs is deplorable, but I’m sure (as is also pointed out) that Mr. Al-Maliki has a cultural motivation for saying that he believes they DO work.

    No matter the culture, sham products like this are created and sold every day. Granted, they usually DON’T purport to detect deadly weapons. The suggestion that the maker of this sham product should be forced to save his own butt by with it, actually does have some appeal. Eye-for-an-eye justice applies in both western and eastern cultures, I believe.

    • Rogue Medic says:

      11 @Tracie,

      I think that we have plenty of magical thinking in the west.

      I am not a lawyer, so I was only presenting a lay opinion of what I supposed might be one form of the legal ramifications.

      I am less interested in blowing people up, than in having them admit that their product is useless and gets people killed. As 13 @Andrew points out, these do not have to malfunction to bring about the death of people not even using the magic wand. Kind of like the quote from Full Metal Jacket. When asked how he can tell who are VC (Viet Cong), the door gunner (while shooting a bunch of people in a rice paddy) responds – Anyone who runs, is a VC. Anyone who stands still, is a well-disciplined VC!

      In other words, a bomb detector could be claimed to detect amounts of explosive that a genuine explosive detector would not be able to, since it is magic. This would allow the detention, torture, and execution of anyone.

      You do not have any bomb we can find, but obviously you have been working with explosives, because our magic wand says so. Try reasoning with that, after you have been caught by one of these magic wands.

      Any response to being examined with a magic wand could also be explained as a sign of guilt. Fear? You must be guilty of something. No fear? Even worse. You are so experienced at blowing people up, that you do not even express fear.

      It is not important to kill the manufacturers of the devices. They would only be replaced. It would be much more important to have a confession of the deception/fraud/whatever you want to call it. Even that is likely to be ignored by many, because that is the way cognitive dissonance works.

      • Max says:

        “It would be much more important to have a confession of the deception/fraud/whatever you want to call it.”

        Polygraph them ;-)

      • Rogue Medic says:

        Why believe that the polygraph is any more accurate than these magic sticks?

        The polygraph will only indicate that the person’s heart rate/blood pressure/skin moisture/whatever is being measured change. The polygraph does not have any way of knowing why these measurements changed. The presumption is that the person is experiencing stress due to agitation/anxiety and that this is the result of telling a lie. Maybe. Maybe not.

        If your reference to the polygraph was a sarcastic reference to its superstitious basis, then in the words of Gilda Radner, “Never mind.”

      • Max says:

        Note the sarcastic wink. Most of what you said above about the magic bomb detector applies to the magic lie detector.

  12. kabol says:

    too bad al-quaeda didn’t buy bombs that work on the same principle that this guy’s bogus process uses to find bombs.

    well, there’s a quandary for the “they’re just stupid” folks.

  13. Andrew says:

    Whether intended or not, devices like the ADE 651 provide authorities with something they will generally be very unwilling to give up once they have it, on-demand probable cause. The operator can get a positive result from the device whenever he wants and the best part is that it takes no conscious effort. The operator can target individuals or groups he doesn’t like with a clear conscience. What more could you ask for?