Famed Magician Battles Bogus Bomb Detectors
Randi, who's also the founder of the James Randi Education Foundation, has set his sights on "dowsing rod" bomb detectors being used -- most famously in Iraq -- to detect explosives. "All of these various devices, of all kinds, are made on the same principle," he told AOL News. "There's nothing inside, or some dummy device, like discarded circuit boards from a TV remote controller."
At issue are a slew of reports about bomb-detecting devices that use a swiveling antenna attached to a small box. The devices operate similar to dowsing rods, which supposedly locate materials without the use any known scientific principle.
In one case, The New York Times exposed a device called the ADE 651, which was used widely by Iraqi security forces despite testing that showed it to be useless. The head of the British company that sold the devices was recently arrested in the United Kingdom, and the Iraqi government has announced that they will sue the company that sold them the bogus detectors.
In Thailand, a national political controversy has erupted over the army's use of a similar dowsing rod, called the GT200. That device, similar to the ADE 651, uses an antenna attached to a small box.
"It's a dummy, complete fraud and fake," said Randi, who has pursued similar questionable bomb detectors, like the Quadro, made in the United States.
Randi said devices like the ADE 651 or GT200 are classic dowsing rods, which use an antenna that swings back and forth, allegedly pointing to where the explosives -- or whatever the substance being detected -- are supposedly located. The antenna responds to very slight movements of the human hand, making people think it's being directed by the device, when in fact it is responding to their own movements.
According to Randi, people come to believe in the dowsing rods because they don't understand the ideomotor effect -- a subconscious reflex that triggers human movement. Psychologists have used this effect to help explain Ouija Boards and facilitated writing, as well as dowsing rods.
In the case of the bogus bomb detectors, it takes only the slightest movement of the hand to cause the antenna to swivel and seemingly "point" to an area that has the suspected explosives. "You say, 'Oh, come on, people must know they are making it point in a specific direction,' but they don't," Randi said. "It's a strange psychological thing, a weakness of the human psyche."
The James Randi Education Foundation, which offers a million-dollar prize "to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event," includes dowsing rods as a potential contender, Randi said. But so far, there have been no takers among the dowsing rod makers for the million-dollar challenge, according to Randi, who said he's willing to fly anywhere in the world, including Baghdad, to test the claims.
It isn't just developing countries that have fallen victim to the dowsing rod scam, however. Randi said that about four or five months ago, he even saw officers from the Department of Homeland Security using dowsing rods at Miami International Airport. They were checking people coming from a flight to Columbia, he said.
"I walked up and ask them if these were approved methods," he recalled, "and they said, 'No, no, no, it's unofficial.'"