Iraqi Army Using… Dowsing Rods?! November 9, 2009

Iraqi Army Using… Dowsing Rods?!

This post is by Jesse Galef

If you ever wanted a find situation desperately in need of more skepticism (and who hasn’t?), look no further: The Iraqi army is spending $16,500 to $60,000 per dowsing rod and trying to use them to detect explosives. This foolishness is not only a vast waste of money for what is essentially a wobbly stick of metal, but it puts people’s lives in danger.  Um… Iraq, you know the whole “security” thing?  You’re doing it wrong.  The rods are normally being used in place of physical inspections of vehicles and show no signs of working: (via PZ Myers)

The Iraqis, however, believe passionately in them. “Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs,” said Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri, head of theMinistry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives.

Dale Murray, head of the National Explosive Engineering Sciences Security Center at Sandia Labs, which does testing for the Department of Defense, said the center had “tested several devices in this category, and none have ever performed better than random chance.”

The Justice Department has warned against buying a variety of products that claim to detect explosives at a distance with a portable device. Normal remote explosives detection machinery, often employed in airports, weighs tons and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. The ADE 651’s clients are mostly in developing countries; no major country’s military or police force is a customer, according to the manufacturer.

Whew, General Jabiri just cares about whether the wands work! I’m sure that as soon as things are explained, he’ll see the light of reason, righ–

“I don’t care about Sandia or the Department of Justice or any of them,” General Jabiri said. “I know more about this issue than the Americans do. In fact, I know more about bombs than anyone in the world.”

He attributed the decrease in bombings in Baghdad since 2007 to the use of the wands at checkpoints. American military officials credit the surge in American forces, as well as the Awakening movement, in which Iraqi insurgents turned against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, for the decrease.

Oh dear.  Why bother with a sensible, naturalistic explanation when we can use unsubstantiated supernatural mumbo-jumbo?  Oh, that’s right: because there are people counting on these devices to keep explosives off the street.  I suppose bombings would go down if people believed the wands to work… but I wouldn’t want to pin my hopes on only having gullible enemies.

How can he possibly defend the use of unscientific nonsense?

Proponents of the wand often argue that errors stem from the human operator, who they say must be rested, with a steady pulse and body temperature, before using the device.

Then the operator must walk in place a few moments to “charge” the device, since it has no battery or other power source, and walk with the wand at right angles to the body. If there are explosives or drugs to the operator’s left, the wand is supposed to swivel to the operator’s left and point at them.

If, as often happens, no explosives or weapons are found, the police may blame a false positive on other things found in the car, like perfume, air fresheners or gold fillings in the driver’s teeth.

The James Randi Educational Foundation gets a shoutout, which is nice to see because I first learned about the phenomenon by watching James Randi videos.  The rods work by the Ideomotor Effect:

Enjoy the video and either laugh or cry, whatever helps you get by.
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  • “I don’t care about Sandia or the Department of Justice or any of them,” General Jabiri said. “I know more about this issue than the Americans do. In fact, I know more about bombs than anyone in the world.”

    Please, please tell me this is fake. It can’t be real, right? Right? Someone so foolish could never attain such a rank, right? My hope for humanity is ever dwindling..

  • Matt

    Gotta love James Randi. He’s still going strong for 81. Furthermore, the man looks absolutely terrific for his age. I’m proud to see that he’s still serving as a reasonable skeptic in an increasingly unreasonable world.

  • JulietEcho

    He attributed the decrease in bombings in Baghdad since 2007 to the use of the wands at checkpoints.

    Even if direct causation was found there, it would be due to belief by bomb-smugglers in the effectiveness of the devices – not in the actual effectiveness.

  • Staceyjw

    This is a terrible tragedy. Point to this when you are told that pseudoscience harms no one- I hear this crap in CA all the time.

    I’m sure the buyers of these rods also think that its a conspiracy that our bomb detection equipment costs so much, and that the rich countries must be hiding the truth about these rods so they can make money.
    Its common for conspiracy thoeries to include monetary motives. Unfortunately,the Iraqui’s probably have plenty of reason to believe we want to make $ off them with no regard to their well being ;(

    The company that sells them should be sued everytime they fail to detect a bomb, esp when someone dies.


  • Alan E.

    “And clearly I’m not moving my hands” as his hands are moved. I know how work, torque, and momentum work too. Also, how can we tell that they are level without being able to see the level bubble?

  • Sue

    Aside from the lunacy of trying to use them at all, how can a dowsing rod cost $60,000? Every dowsing rod I’ve seen was either a stick or some bent wire.

  • Narvi

    @Sue: It doesn’t cost $60,000 to make. They’re just selling for massive profit.

  • Sue

    I’ve now read the article and see it includes a bar code reader. Those are quite expensive. Although the bent wire would work just as well.

  • curran

    It amazes me how otherwise smart people can be so blindingly stupid. Reminds me of guy on local tv who talks to his crystal and pendulums. Hopefully it doesn’t take a large bodycount before they realize they’re a bunch of suckers.

  • @Sue; they’re probably buying them from Halliburton.

    That said, my grandfather raised 2 1/2 families by drilling water wells that he located with a forked peach limb. The misses he had could be counted on one hand in over 60 years…the last location he did at age 90, leaning on his walker.

    Now, before you think that I attribute any woo to this, I don’t. I truly believe that my grandfather recognized the lay of the land in the area he worked and had an innate recognition of the formations that would indicate the presence of water. I don’t believe he’d have been able to find anything if he’d been taken to an area unfamiliar to him and asked to do the same thing. Neither of his children and none of his grand-, great-grand or great-great-grandchildren have ever been able to duplicate this and I truly believe that it is because we never had the opportunity to learn the land as he did.

  • Valdyr

    In fact, I know more about bombs than anyone in the world.

    Said with such straight-faced goofy arrogance that I’m hoping this is a mistranslation.

  • So… who wants to start a dowsing rod business where we undercut the competitors and sell them for only $15,000 each? We can guarantee that ours work just as well as the ones selling for $60,000 each. We could buy broom sticks, and maybe add some Arabic lettering and a crescent or two on them or something.

  • Two words: Natural Selection

  • Edmond

    Yo, pirate Jeff! I’d be in for that! I was thinking the same thing as I was reading the comments!

  • Richard Wade

    We’re trying to rebuild a country for these superstitious fruitcakes? What the hell for? We gotta get outa there. Back to the good ol’ USA where folks are sensible and eat their biscuit gods, fight over pulling the plug on grandma, and perform exorcisms for Vice Presidential candidates.

  • Richard Wade

    In fact, I know more about bombs than anyone in the worlBOOM!

    I guess he does now.

  • Well, nos just in Iraq are using this nonsense. In Mexico, the Army, Navy a couple of police agencies and Pemex (mexican oil agency) are using the “GT200 Remote Substance Detection”. This device, as you can image, is just another dowsing rod.

    You can read about this on my blog here, (in spanish).


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