James McCormick and the ADE 651 Bomb Detector: Don’t Think It Can’t Happen Here

This one hits close to home, mostly for reasons unrelated to my geographic location.  In fact, the sad and frustrating story takes place on the other side of the world, although I do see the same dangerous attitudes in the course of doing my own job far too often.

A little background on me, first.  I work in the field of underground detection, using electromagnetic instruments to locate subsurface utilities and other items of possible interest, such as storage tanks or building foundations, in support of future remediation or construction projects.  The principles behind these devices have been understood for hundreds of years and they pass trials every time an excavation is done to remove an identified gasoline tank or to repair a traced utility.  Most of the machines rely on the conductivity of the metallic objects to carry a signal, although the oft-touted ground penetrating radar (GPR) is also useful in finding non-metallic targets. The instruments unfortunately have unavoidable detection limits, as the resistance of the ground works to attenuate the signals.

So we laugh when we receive flyers for impossible products that claim to detect any material at preposterous depths, with no explanation of how such a miracle is performed.  It’s not so funny when similar “devices” are used in a FUCKING WAR ZONE to detect BOMBS at security checkpoints.  Such was the ADE 651, a plastic handgrip with a swiveling antenna and no electronics beyond a $20 novelty golf ball finder, that was sold to the Iraqi army by the despicable James McCormick for as much as $40,000 apiece.  McCormick was sentenced by a British court to 10 years in prison on fraud charges earlier this month, and at least 7 million pounds (almost 10 million dollars) of his over 75 million dollar fortune will be distributed to victims and surviving relatives of those killed by bombs that slipped by.  Hollow solace, to be sure, especially to the “hundreds and thousands” of Iraqi civilians who also perished.

The ADE 651 was supposedly powered by the user’s “static electricity,” and could detect nearly anything, including explosives, drugs and money, from thousands of feet away, simply by inserting the appropriate “programmed substance detection card” that could “tune in” to the particular material’s “frequency,” whatever that means.  Science-y sounding nonsense that tries to move something into the realm of “plausible” from “too good to be true.”  The ADE 651 doesn’t work.  It can’t work, unless they also change the laws of physics as they function.  Yet, as the Wall Street Journal notes, the Iraqi military still employs them!  And they’re not the only ones!  How can anyone continue to believe in their efficacy?

Does this look like a device that can locate ANYTHING?  From the BBC

Benjamin Radford offers some explanations.  Chief among them perhaps is that after spending a small fortune on the props, the officials no doubt want them to work.  They’re literally and figuratively invested in their performance.  It’s easy to say, “well, we haven’t had many bombings since we got it” when there aren’t many bombs to begin with, and when something does evade detection?  “Hey, no system’s perfect.”  Or the guy wasn’t using it right.  Operator error.  But man, you find one bomb (which can sure happen if you search enough people), and that confirmation bias kicks in, assuring you that the plastic stick can somehow do magic.

But if it doesn’t work, how were the “positive readings” even obtained?  The so-called antenna is mounted loosely and can easily swing when prompted, consciously or unconsciously.  The same phenomenon driving the spooky Ouija board, the ideomotor efffect, is likely to blame.  It’s been shown that a person’s expectations can subconsciously influence small, almost unnoticeable motions, in favor of what you want to find.  And I’ve seen it in person.  Many times, baselessly confident guys with “witching sticks, ” essentially two bent metal rods, have gone over what I’ve done and “confirmed” it when the pins pivot together.  “Yep, there it is!”  Funny how they’ve never tried that before I put paint on the ground for them to see.  Not once.

Well, except for when similar dowsers are EMPLOYED by the TOWN to mark utilities.  I’ve seen that, too.  Several years ago I was tasked with investigating multiple gas stations in a New Jersey city, and found that the publicly-funded water service markouts were often wildly inaccurate, sometimes not even entering the site building on the same side as depicted.  I offhandedly mentioned this to another public locator, and he confirmed the worst.  Tax dollars spent on the easily disproven and, more importantly, huge potential for damage and even loss of life fostered.

Image proudly promoted on dowsers.com.  Would you trust your life to these?


We’re good at fooling ourselves when we want something to be true, and there are terrible people who leap at the chance to take advantage of that.  James McCormick got 10 years in jail, but how is that enough when so many have died at his hands?  People often ask “what’s the harm” in believing unsubstantiated or improbable claims.  I can’t imagine a starker example.

And as unlikely as it may seem, such things can hit close to home.  The dowsers I encounter are completely convinced that their “methods” work, and no amount of reason or recounting of failed tests will convince them.  They’ve seen it, so they know!  We must all remain eternally vigilant in our own ways to keep crazy from endangering us and others.

Special thanks to Sharon Hill and Doubtful News for continuing to hound this story while it simmered in the background

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