Ben Goldacre, Saturday 14 November 2009, The Guardian
It’s always interesting when people take pseudoscience out of its natural habitat – Islington – and off into a place where the stakes are quite high. Like the polio vaccine scare in Nigeria. Or Aids denialism in South Africa. Or detecting bombs in Iraq, where the New York Times and magician James Randi have uncovered a nonsense of truly epic proportions.
A British company called ATSC are selling a device which can detect guns, ammunition, bombs, drugs, contraband ivory, and truffles. The bomb detection equipment that you see in airports weighs several tons, and can only operate over tiny distances. The ADE 651 uses “electrostatic magnetic ion attraction” and can detect these things from a kilometre away, through walls, under the ground, underwater, or even from an aeroplane 5km overhead.
ATSC’s device is pocket sized and portable. You simply take a piece of plastic-coated cardboard for your chosen target, which has been through “the proprietary process of electro-static matching of the ionic charge and structure of the substance”, pop it into a holder connected to a wand, and start detecting. There are no batteries and no power source: you hold the device to “charge” it with the energy of your body, becoming perfectly relaxed, with a steady pulse and blood pressure. Then you walk with the wand at right angles to your body. If there is a bomb on your left, the wand will drift to the left, and point at it. Like a dowsing rod.
Similar devices have been tested repeatedly and shown to perform no better than chance. No police force or security service anywhere in the developed world uses them. But in 2008, the Iraqi government’s Ministry of the Interior bought 800 of these devices – the ADE 651 – for $32m. That’s $40,000 each, rather brilliantly, and they’ve ordered a further shipment at $53m. These devices are being used at hundreds of checkpoints in Iraq, to look for bombs.
Dale Murray, head of the National Explosive Engineering Sciences Security Center at Sandia Labs, which does testing for the Department of Defense, has tested various similar devices, and they perform at the level of chance. On Tuesday, two people working for The New York Times went through 9 Iraqi police checkpoints which were using the device, and none found the rifles and ammunition they were carrying (with licenses).
Major General Jehad al-Jabiri is head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives. “I don’t care about Sandia or the Department of Justice or any of them,” he says. “Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs.”
How would you know? There are no independent tests of the ADE651 that I could find. The simplest explanation is that nobody could really be bothered. Magician James Randi can. He has carried a cheque for $1m in his jacket pocket for many years, in an admirably expensive act of passive aggression, and he will give this cheque to anyone who can provide proof of supernatural phenomena. Last year he invited the manufacturers of the ADE 651 to come forward, and see if their device works better than chance. They have not.
I guess if you’ve trousered $85m, you don’t care about The Amazing Randi and his puny cheque. We all have our excuses. General Jabiri, meanwhile, challenged an NYT reporter to test the ADE 651, placing a grenade and a machine pistol in plain view in his office. Every time a policeman used it, the wand pointed at the explosives. Every time the reporter used the device, it failed to detect anything. “You need more training,” said the general.