What’s the Harm?

The oft-heard mantra of supporters of the pseudo-sciences tends to be ‘what’s the harm?’ Though this question has already been answered quite thoroughly, this New York Times article (mirrored here) is yet another good example of exactly what the harms of pseudo-scientific beliefs can be.

According to the article, Iraqi security forces have a new bomb-detecting device:

The small hand-held wand, with a telescopic antenna on a swivel, is being used at hundreds of checkpoints in Iraq. But the device works on the same principle as a Ouija board — the power of suggestion — said a retired United States Air Force officer, Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, who described the wand as nothing more than an explosives divining rod.

That’s right: the Iraqi military is divining for explosives. For those unfamiliar with the concept, divining is the attempt to gain insight into a question — often the location of a sought-after item — using a divining rod, or some sort of similar divining device. Most divining rods share a trait, whereby very subtle movements on behalf of the person wielding the device translate into very noticeable movements in the device. Often, the user’s movements are subconscious, leading to the belief that some type of mysterious force or power is responsible for the movement of the divining rod. This is known as the ideomotor effect, and is the same principle behind why Ouija boards work.

In every properly controlled test done to date (including a preliminary test for the JREF’s million dollar challenge, carried out this year at TAM) the act of divining has failed to pass basic scrutiny.

I think that Col. Bidlack sums up the practice quite nicely:

To detect materials, the operator puts an array of plastic-coated cardboard cards with bar codes into a holder connected to the wand by a cable. It would be laughable, Colonel Bidlack said, “except someone down the street from you is counting on this to keep bombs off the streets.”

The coverage of this issue by the New York Times was skeptically sound. It’s always refreshing to see a blatantly rational article dealing with issues in pseudo-science. Now if only someone would talk some sense into the Iraqi military.

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  • Mitchell Gerskup

    Mitchell Gerskup recently graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in Economics and Philosophy. An avid atheist and skeptic, he has served as the President of the University of Toronto Secular Alliance, helping to promote science, reason and critical thinking around Toronto. He also volunteers with the Centre for Inquiry’s Ontario branch, and currently sits on the CFI’s Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism. Mitchell is also an accomplished competitive debater, having debated all across Canada. In addition to issues of economics and philosophy, Mitchell is interested in the fields of science and technology.