Last week, Rob Nordland filed a great story about the Iraqi police's use of the ADE 651, a bomb-detecting device that costs "$16,500 to $60,000 each" (love that margin of error) and does not, strictly speaking, detect bombs. The people at the James Randi Educational Foundation, never ones to decline a bet on a sure thing, offered a million dollars to the manufacturer if it could prove the device worked better than chance. The manufacturer, based in London, has not taken up the challenge, and the overall impression of the sneering article is that the Iraqi security forces are being blown up, and allowing their countrymen to be blown up, because they are too scientifically illiterate to know they've been had.
I'm sympathetic to Andrew Exum, who calls the deployment of these stupid toys "deadly idiocy." But Mauro De Lorenzo writes in to flag this passage from Nordland's report, and suggest a parallel:
Proponents of the wand often argue that errors stem from the human operator, who they say must be rested, with a steady pulse and body temperature, before using the device. Then the operator must walk in place a few moments to "charge" the device, since it has no battery or other power source, and walk with the wand at right angles to the body [...]. If, as often happens, no explosives or weapons are found, the police may blame a false positive on other things found in the car, like perfume, air fresheners or gold fillings in the driver's teeth.
Scientifically, this is preposterous. But who can deny that the prerequisites the Iraqis name for the proper operation of the device will make for better bomb searches? This magic wand (it is nothing less) forces Iraqi police to keep cool, to meditate themselves into a confident trance, and to approach suspicious vehicles with authority. Call it the Stone Soup theory of checkpoint bomb detection.