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The Little Bomb-Detecting Device That Couldn't 217

Posted by timothy
from the oh-ye-of-little-faith dept.
theodp writes "Widely deployed in Iraq and promoted by military leaders, BusinessWeek reports the ADE 651 bomb-detecting device had one little problem: it wouldn't detect explosives (earlier Slashdot story). 'The ADE 651,' reports Adam Higginbotham, 'was modeled on a novelty trinket conceived decades before by a former used-car salesman from South Carolina, which was purported to detect golf balls. It wasn't even good at that.' One thing the ADE 651 did excel at, however, was making money — estimates suggest that the authorities in Baghdad bought more than 6,000 useless bomb detectors, at a cost of at least $38 million. Even though ADE 651 manufacturer James McCormick was found guilty of three counts of fraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison in May, the ADE 651 is still being used at thousands of checkpoints across Baghdad. Elsewhere, authorities have never stopped believing in the detectors. Why? According to Sandia Labs' Dale Murray, the ideomotor effect is so persuasive that for anyone who wants or needs to believe in it, even conclusive scientific evidence undermining the technology it exploits has little power."
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The Little Bomb-Detecting Device That Couldn't

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  • by 93 Escort Wagon (326346) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @06:12PM (#44280073)

    But, back when I did, I can tell you: a functional golf ball detector would've been very handy.

  • I knew it (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lesincompetent (2836253) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @06:16PM (#44280101)
    James randi too was amazed at how basically all dowsers keep believing they have their special powers even after they've been thoroughly debunked.
    • by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @07:46PM (#44280557)

      Some people don't even think it is special powers, just a thing you do. My grandpa did the dowsing thing to decide where to put the various wells on his property. Not because he thought he had special powers, it was just how he'd learned you select your well spot. Anyone could do it. He figured it worked since every time he'd drill that spot, and before long have a functional well.

      For him it wasn't magical or special powers, it was just the standard process. Get Y shaped stick, walk around, it signals where the well goes, put it there.

      • by PPH (736903) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @08:03PM (#44280657)

        That's the ideomotor effect. You know, possibly subconsciously, where the water is likely to be (read Blink! by Malcolm Gladwell) based on experience. So when you walk to that spot, the stick points down.

        I've had well drillers dowse for wells before. I didn't give them any crap for their show. Because they had a track record for finding water. Why? Probably 30 or 40 years drilling wells. But even if they think its the stick, that's fine with me. Same as with the baseball players with the lucky socks.

        • by master_kaos (1027308) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @08:50PM (#44280831)
          I was a skeptic to, but my grandfather was one (they called it water witching around here). There were a few locally, but my grandfather was the most known and best, everyone within a half hour radius would call my grandfather when they needed a well dug out (and this was 30+ years ago). He would use any standard stick that was laying around. He never charged the people money (people were a lot more neighborly back then instead of just looking out for themselves), so wasn't like he was out scamming them, very religious so not a liar.

          Not once did he screw it up, he hit water every time. I was a skeptic to before I seen it, and it didn't seem like it would work for just anyone. I tried it along with a lot of my relatives, and it wouldn't do a thing, my one uncle it did it a bit.

          It was funny one time this guy tried digging a well on his property twice kept getting dry, my grandfather went out and did the dowsing told him here this is where you got to dig(they guy didn't like my grandfather for some reason, and was a major skeptic), the guy ignored my grandfathers advice, dug up 3 more spots in the following 2 years, kept hitting dry again. Finally fed up he called my grandfather back to confirm the location, grandfather goes back, exact same spot detects water, guy digs there and sure enough hits water.
          • by black3d (1648913) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @09:23PM (#44280977)

            Right, which is the exact ideometer effect that's being discussed here. There are other (subconcious) cues at work which lead him to believe where the water will be - or just pure coincidence. Aside from the obvious fact there's no actual mechanism at work, it can be easily disproven. Take a dowser out until they find a spot "with water", then blindfold them and drive them around to re-test various random spots including this one. The vast majority of the time, they'll get it wrong - suddenly not able to detect water at the spot they previously said it was at, or detect water in places they previously said it wasn't. Also fun is taking them to an area known to be entirely over a natural aquifier and watch them wander around until they "find" water in some exclusive spot.
             
            Map-based dowsing is even easier to disprove - again, aside from the obvious lack of any mechanism (ie, it doesn't really need proof, but just to satisfy the idiots out there we have to go through it). Give a map-dowser a map without orientation or contour lines and suddenly their "abilities" go away. Give them a fully-detailed map but blind-fold them, and similarly, they're no longer able to "detect" where the water is.
             
            In all cases, it's either fraudulent, subconcious, or simply luck. Likewise, stories about "other people" are steeped in grandeur. A guy who gets it right "a couple of times" is suddenly a legendary dowser, and every re-telling by both others and himself get better and better each time.

            • by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @11:52PM (#44281569)

              In plenty of places, you can put a well wherever you like and it'll work. I'm quite sure that's the case on my grandfather's property. There's a lot of homes there with their own wells, there's presumably a big aquifer or the like underneath (I've never bothered to check to see what). So the reason dowsing worked was that any spot was fine.

              He did it just because he believed it was how it was done. Of course each time it 'worked' and as such he kept doing it.

              What I found interesting about the thing was that it was a 'common man' kind of thing for him and others. He wasn't a huckster that went around dowsing for people, he did it himself, for his wells, and just using whatever Y shaped stick he'd come across. To him, it wasn't mystical, it was just a process one did like so much else in farming and ranching and it was something anyone could, and would, do.

              I think that might have something to do with why dowsers keep believing in it. There seems to be a real strong cultural thing that dowsing just works, and so they believe that must be the case.

              • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

                by Anonymous Coward

                I don't need to use dowsing for anything here. Sycraft-fu is master_kaos. You should really use two different browsers to keep your names straight.

          • by dcollins (135727) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @09:43PM (#44281073) Homepage

            "... very religious so not a liar."

            Yeah, because that obviates any concern that someone might be self-deluded into believing in magical things.

            (Btw, I also have relatives said to be wonderful dowsers... and I don't believe it a bit from them either.)

          • by GrahamCox (741991) on Monday July 15, 2013 @12:38AM (#44281725) Homepage
            very religious so not a liar

            Can you explain the logic of this part of your statement? I can't discern any.
          • The guy who installed my septic system used to help his father-in-law drill water wells. A guy wanted a well and fancied himself a water witcher. He told them where to drill. When the first hole came up dry he claimed they drilled off of his mark. When the second hole came up dry he said they were drilling slightly crooked. When the third hole came up dry the driller made the guy an offer - let him pick his own spot to drill the next hole: if it comes up dry too the guy doesn't owe him a dime but if he hits

        • I imagine anywhere on his property would have worked. In total he ended up putting in 4 wells in different locations, spread around, for different purposes. Seems like a safe bet there was an aquifer or the like below all of it. I'm sure he could have chosen any spot, and he already knew the area he wanted it in. He just dowsed for the specific spot.

        • by symbolset (646467) *

          There is something to this. If you have an approved mechanism for intuitively detecting bombs they you have probable cause to terminate a prospective bomber, and if your intuition is right more than half the time on average, you're a hero. Since some few are more accurate with intuition and some less, and the metrics are classified, you are free to open fire indiscriminately anywhere anywhen.

          Um, no. That is not how we win the hearts and minds of the people. Since the goal isn't to develop a subject col

          • Sounds like an 'ethnic detector.'

            • by symbolset (646467) *
              If the operator is ethnically biased, yes. The operation of the gear is more a measure of the operator than the operational goals. That is exactly the problem.
          • by TheCarp (96830) <sjc&carpanet,net> on Monday July 15, 2013 @10:09AM (#44283981) Homepage

            > There is something to this. If you have an approved mechanism for intuitively detecting bombs they
            > you have probable cause to terminate a prospective bomber, and if your intuition is right more than
            > half the time on average, you're a hero. Since some few are more accurate with intuition and some
            > less, and the metrics are classified, you are free to open fire indiscriminately anywhere anywhen.

            Half the time? Nah, I think you are overestimating how accurate you need to be, because, even if you find nothing, you can, like the scammer of these did, claim that it hit on some residue and you just got them at the wrong time.

            In fact, this is very much the way drug dogs are used. Dogs, it turns out, have great snouts and can detect all manner of things, and do great in really blind trials. However, they are even better at playing "Clever Hans" ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clever_Hans [wikipedia.org] ), that is, if the handler is given any clues as to where their might be hits, the animals false positive rate goes through the roof...in exactly the places where the handler expects to find something.

            So.... dogs are great at finding bombs or drugs in random packages... but in one of their most common use cases, sniffing a suspects car, they are just about guaranteed a hit, because their handler is expecting one. A hit, that can be explained away and dismissed when nothing is found, so their real hit rate can be far lower than chance without bringing them into question.

            One study used no drugs or explosives at all, but flagged several points with information for the handler indicating the type of hit expected to set his expectations. If the dogs were 100% effective, there would have been not a single hit amongst any of the trials...the results?

            from http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2011/02/animal_behaviour [economist.com]

            The findings, which Dr Lit reports in Animal Cognition, reveal that of 144 searches, only 21 were clean (no alerts). All the others raised one alert or more. In total, the teams raised 225 alerts, all of them false. While the sheer number of false alerts struck Dr Lit as fascinating, it was where they took place that was of greatest interest.

        • He's charismatic and everything but I wouldn't read Malcolm Gladwell if I were looking for factual information [wikipedia.org].
      • Usually the geology of a region is so that digging at one place or 3 meter away from there make no difference.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 14, 2013 @06:21PM (#44280127)

    Nobody can prove your claims to the contary for the make belive threats you countered

  • nothing new... (Score:5, Informative)

    by gandhi_2 (1108023) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @06:27PM (#44280163) Homepage

    In Ramadi '05 we had these cool spray kits.
    It was a little plastic case with several sprays and swabs with some instructions for various kinds of explosive testing.

    One day we caught these dudes out on the desert who would dig up UXO's and sell them to local insurgents who would use them for IEDs.
    Lat Long: 33.16845,43.635263
    We had been trying to catch them for a while but they were on motorcycles... try catching a motorcycle in an up-armor hmmwv.

    When we caught them, they didn't have any explosives on them. So we though, hey... why not try out this kit?

    They tested positive for 2 kinds of explosives. So we detained them, shipped them off to the detention facility with all the appropriate paper work and evidence... as best we could since we aren't investigators by trade.

    So we are back at the OP, thinking how bad-ass we are. Then we get the idea to play with the kit some more. We tested our hands, HESCO barriers, lunch meat, hmmwv windows... everything tested positive. Guess the kits didn't really work as advertised but every unit had one.

    Of course, maybe our kit was bad. Or maybe we didn't use the kit correctly. Or there was really explosive residue on everything.

    At least the kits weren't WHY we detained them. They were going to be detained anyway. But the Military being dazzled by salesmen or shiny new stuff is nothing new.

    • Re:nothing new... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by bfandreas (603438) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @06:37PM (#44280223)
      This bomb detector thing was a mixture of greed, negligence, incompetence and corruption. I can't even begin to imagine the mindset that enables somebody to make money by directly endangering lives. Every aspect of this war stinks.
      • by Shavano (2541114)
        Is there another war you are thinking of that doesn't/didn't stink?
    • by Obfuscant (592200)

      We tested our hands, HESCO barriers, lunch meat, hmmwv windows... everything tested positive.

      Hmm, everything you mentioned but one is something is in a combat environment where roadside explosives are not uncommon, and where weapons are fired on a regular basis. Sounds like detecting explosives on such items would be normal.

      But lunch meat? Well, once you remember that many explosives are nitro-compounds (nitrate, etc.) and lunch meat contains nitrates as preservatives ... and that the CIA is putting nitrates in your koolaid to keep your, shall we say, libidos, from running amok...

      • Re:nothing new... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by gandhi_2 (1108023) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @07:01PM (#44280329) Homepage

        Ahh. the salt peter myth.

        No, I "broke one off" there many a time my friend.

        The kits tested for nitrate-based and some others I don't remember. Octyl-based? Wished I still had the little hand-out.

        We had a VBIED there later on. So I can see residue then. But not before. We DID fire our weapons all the time, but not over the lunch meat! There are nitrates in lunch meats, but if lunch meat causes a false-positive then your kit isn't really worth much.

    • While were on the subject of Nothing new...

      Man accused of selling golf ball finders as bomb detectors [slashdot.org]
      Kenya Police: Our fake bomb detectors are real [slashdot.org]

      Still not as bad as the .NET Firefox Plugin dupes [slashdot.org] But it's only got three more to go.

    • by arth1 (260657)

      So we are back at the OP, thinking how bad-ass we are. Then we get the idea to play with the kit some more. We tested our hands, HESCO barriers, lunch meat, hmmwv windows... everything tested positive

      Ah. We had the same problem with exploding cans of lunch meat. No, really, after being transported on a Hercules and stored in heat for a couple of days, we would often enough hear a "pop" or "pffft". And if we didn't clean the "savory juices", the stench would start.
      The guys who smuggled in pizza made a fortune.

  • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @06:35PM (#44280209)

    According to Sandia Labs' Dale Murray, the ideomotor effect is so persuasive that for anyone who wants or needs to believe in it, even conclusive scientific evidence undermining the technology it exploits has little power."

    That explains a LOT about how the US Congress thinks/works.

    • Re:Thank you... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by jd2112 (1535857) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @06:38PM (#44280233)

      According to Sandia Labs' Dale Murray, the ideomotor effect is so persuasive that for anyone who wants or needs to believe in it, even conclusive scientific evidence undermining the technology it exploits has little power."

      That explains a LOT about how the US Congress thinks/works.

      ...And those who elect them.

  • I wish (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Going_Digital (1485615) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @06:38PM (#44280229)
    If only people would believe the evidence then we wouldn't be lumbered with all the paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today. There are clearly enough stupid people around though to make these cons pay.
  • wtf (Score:5, Informative)

    by Flozzin (626330) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @06:45PM (#44280257)
    Why do we get this story about once every 3 months? This has been shoved into the ground. Let's finally bury it for god's sake.
    • by Tom (822)

      This one actually had an informative bit in it. I didn't know the guy responsible is in jail. I'm very happy that he is.

  • It says in the article the device can detect bombs,guns, ammunition, drugs and elephants.
    My question is: Why are Iraqis trying to smuggle elephants through checkpoints?

    • by PPH (736903)

      And no elephants were smuggled through. The device is a success!

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      It says in the article the device can detect bombs,guns, ammunition, drugs and elephants. My question is: Why are Iraqis trying to smuggle elephants through checkpoints?

      They were trying to cross the Alps, but got a little lost on the way.

      My question is: How do you "smuggle" an elephants?

      Oh, no, sir, that's not an elephant. It's just a big dog. Let me show you...
      Roll over, Fido! Good dog... Play dead!... Fetch!...
      See? Just a big dog... Can I go now?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Quasimodem (719423)
      They hide guns and ammunition in their trunks.
      • by BlueStrat (756137)

        It says in the article the device can detect bombs,guns, ammunition, drugs and elephants.

        My question is: Why are Iraqis trying to smuggle elephants through checkpoints?

        They hide guns and ammunition in their trunks.

        A "packing" pachyderm?

        Boy, those ivory poachers are in for a BIG surprise!

        Everyone has heard that elephants never forget.

        What they never told anyone was that elephants also never miss.

        Strat

  • by jonfr (888673) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @06:54PM (#44280305) Homepage

    This was not a bomb detection device, this was just a scam and nothing else. But corruption does not care about such facts and never is going to.

  • by Seumas (6865) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @07:06PM (#44280351)

    The real reason they continue to use these isn't because they somehow have convinced themselves that it works. It's probably not even directly a scam insofar as they're shoving money to some business cohort through the military industrial complex. I would suspect that what this is really about is that it's far cheaper to stick a device in a young man's hand and convince him that it's there to protect him, so that he'll actually continue to actively do his job, and have him wind up being blown up -- than it is to spend money on any sort of real device. The man is disposable. The worthless device is the placebo to motivate him to feel safe in doing his job. And when he dies, it was a far cheaper investment than the amount that any sort of real device would cost to produce, purchase, train on, and deploy.

    • This, right here. The motivation behind every malfunctioning piece of carp employed by the armies of all creed and color, including the various "SOPs" and similar procedure nonsense that thought-challenged jarheads think might save them from investing the activity of a few neurons and yet still keep them alive. I remember once my unit entertained a bunch of US marines for a joint drill. We made them a little IED scenario with a bunch of charges and mines and stuff (all rigged with pops, no real boom-boom).
  • The 'bomb' detectors' work great. Sure, they have a high rate of failure, but all those false positives are a great reason to riffle through somebody's stuff looking for any old 'contraband' you're after.
    • by Firethorn (177587) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @09:10PM (#44280917) Homepage Journal

      Now, while they're technologically incapable of their purpose, I wonder if they might actually be somewhat effective in real life? IE a different type of placebo?

      It says that they're being used at a number of checkpoints. Now, one of the things I know about is that the insurgents/terrorists tend to observe such places before they target them. Often at some distance, but eh.

      The ones doing the observing are often no more educated than those working the checkpoint, often less. So they see the operators using their 'bomb detector' in all seriousness. They think 'crap! They'd find our bomb, time to figure out a different plan!' and either delay or go elsewhere. So the end result is that they still have fewer attacks against that checkpoint.

      • by gl4ss (559668)

        if the attack is against that checkpoint it doesn't matter if they run a bomb detector..

        • Still, placement is critical with bombs. Less the larger they are, but that costs more resources.

          What if they're trying to get something beyond the point? What if they want to hit the center of the point?

          If they figure they're going to be caught early they'll most likely change their plans.

      • by Sockatume (732728)

        Unfortunately That's not the case; there's at least one instance where a successful bombing was performed because this device gave the all clear at a checkpoint.

      • Because if the insurgent are a bit skeptical, and knows those detector are crap, then they will more likely try THOSE check point fully knowing there is no real detector.
  • "Use the Force, Luke!"

  • by Tom (822) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @07:20PM (#44280437) Homepage Journal

    Read "The Golden Bough" and you'll find why this works. It's the same reason magic and religion used to be big things (and guarantee their providers a work-free life):

    In a situation where forces you can't control determine your survival, you will grasp at any straw that gives you the illusion of control. It's a normal human reaction. It works even if you know about it. You want to believe, at least unconsciously.

    It's probably the oldest scam in the history of mankind.

    • by PPH (736903)

      ... religion used to be big things (and guarantee their providers a work-free life)

      What do you mean "used to"?

      • by Tom (822)

        In the same sense that Microsoft used to dominate the software world - with big power comes a certain refuses-to-die-quickly element. Due to the large installed base and lock-in effects, it takes a long time to go away, even after its dominance has been solidly broken.

  • by vovick (1397387) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @07:53PM (#44280611)

    There may be valid reasons the Iraqi forces are using these fake detectors. If the look of these devices makes some clueless criminals afraid of smuggling explosives, they are serving their purpose in preventing crime.

    • If the idea was to intimidate people through the use of "security theater", there are cheaper ways to do so. Fake surveillance cameras are cheap. These bogus bomb detectors were not.

      Also, it sounds like you are making the common mistake of assuming the bad guys are morons. They can read the internet too; this $hit's been splashed all over the New York Times... if they know the devices are bogus then they'll target checkpoints that have them, knowing they don't work.

      And believing you are screening for exp

  • And in other news... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by sirwired (27582) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @10:17PM (#44281227)

    Shocker: In the face of conclusive evidence understandable to anybody with an IQ higher than a kumquat, people still believe in:

    Ponzi schemes
    Homeopathy
    Dowsing
    Young-earth creationism
    Psychics

    Never underestimate the stubbornness of otherwise-rational people.

  • So did the authorities actually test them?

    They have sample explosives for bomb dogs to find surely they could test the detectors in the same way. Its not an expensive test process.

    • To save you actually reading:
      - yes, they tested them
      - those authorities that knew how to test (i.e. blind tests) knew they didn't work
      - those that didn't know how to test properly fell for the Ideomotor Effect

      Disassembly of the devices showed they had NO active components - hence the lack of a power source (supposedly run on static electricity !!)

      But more importantly, one can infer that there was a lot of corruption in the sales processes to a number of third-world and war-torn countries ... hardly an incen

  • Even though ADE 651 manufacturer James McCormick was found guilty of three counts of fraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison in May, the ADE 651 is still being used at thousands of checkpoints across Baghdad. Elsewhere, authorities have never stopped believing in the detectors. Why? According to Sandia Labs' Dale Murray, the ideomotor effect is so persuasive that for anyone who wants or needs to believe in it, even conclusive scientific evidence undermining the technology it exploits has little power.

    It

    • by GrahamCox (741991)
      It's an example of the corrupt reverse of what economists call the "velocity of money".

      If they're going to use a scientific metaphor to bolster their pseudo-science, they should have at least called it the "momentum of money". A product of both its mass (the amount) and how fast it is moved.
  • by runeghost (2509522) on Sunday July 14, 2013 @11:26PM (#44281483)

    The point of this device, just like drug sniffing dogs, is not its ability to actually detect what it's supposed to be looking for. Its purpose to give the police, military, or other arm of the state a plausible excuse to detain and/or search anyone they want.

    • by gl4ss (559668)

      you could get quite a bit cheaper for that.

  • $3.8M per year for ten years. Get out, retire young. I would take that deal in a frickin' heartbeat.

    Hmm...

    Hey, Uncle Sam, I hear you need some replacement bomb detectors. Have you taken a look at my brand of detectors that work by the difficult-to-disprove tachyon flux method? Sure, they cost 50% more, but I guarantee at least one of us won't regret your buying them as I sip mohitos on my private beach a decade from now...
  • as I was a 9-year old kid going through his tackle box before our fishing trip.
    His answer "Fishermen".

  • The sort of person who continues to believe these things work is the sort of person who believes that magnet motors can deliver "free" power.

  • For the same reason other decision makers never question their wrong decisions: Their career hangs on it. So if they admit they fucked up royally, it's their end.

    For reference, ask any tech who ever had to suffer from some idiot PHB who had some markedroid talk him into buying some expensive, useless tech. Anyone here who didn't ever try to talk some sense into a PHB to finally dump something that keeps sinking money because there is simply NO way this could EVER work but said PHB keeps pumping more money i

  • Bomb-detector, golf ball finder, little difference. In both cases if they turn out to be fake you could lose your balls.

Stupidity, like virtue, is its own reward.

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