Woo Bombdetectors -- the End of Dowsing for Death

Many people regard magical beliefs as a bit of harmless fun and in most cases that is true. However, there are those who are prepared to take advantage of other's gullibility with lethal consequences. In 2009, I was shocked to read a New York Times report that a British company ATSC Ltd had been selling bomb-detecting devices to security forces around the world. The devices were nothing more than dowsing rods, a supernatural practice believed to reveal the location of water and minerals that has been around for hundreds of years. Despite the claims of various associations and practitioners, dowsing is nothing more than a psychological phenomena known as the "ideomotor effect." Simply put, when you are aware of the location of a potential target, you make imperceptible body movements that make finely balanced rods or pendulums point in the same direction. There is no evidence that these devices or the user can detect sources through supernatural powers.

Nevertheless many people believe that dowsing works.

The founder of ATSC Ltd, Jim McCormick, had decided to exploit this belief. His sophisticated dowsing rod, the AED 651, did not only reveal water and minerals but could detect concealed explosives, narcotics, weapons, human bodies, illegal ivory and even truffles whether they were underground, underwater and even at a distance of three miles from a plane. The key to the system was "programmed substance detection cards" which each carried the "frequency" of the substance they're supposed to detect. This was achieved by a technology based on "nuclear quadruple resonance." According to their website:

ADE651® is the latest generation of long-range detector products offered by ATSC. As with other ADE™ substance detectors, it incorporates long-range electromagnetic attraction to enable the effective identification of even the most difficult substances including explosive and narcotic materials. Unlike other trace detectors, that are limited by the need to have actual physical contact with the item sampled, the ADE651® is able to detect programmed substances at long distances safely and without the need to have actual physical contact with the substance. As such, the ADE651® continues to set standards for the detection of substances.

Clearly bulls**t, but not if you think dowsing can work. The reason that the device hit the headlines in 2009 was that the New York Times revealed that the Iraqi authorities had invested $80 million to use them at security checkpoints rather than conducting thorough searches of potential suicide bombers. As a consequence, thousands of lives were lost in Baghdad due to car bombers driving undetected through checkpoints.

The reason I got involved was that it turned out that Jim McCormick lived locally to me in Somerset. So I blogged about it, to help raise awareness. In the month I got involved over 1,000 had been killed. To my utter surprise, I received a comment from Mr McCormick defending his actions and the device and issuing me an invitation to check out his device. This was an opportunity to expose a fraud that was too good to miss. Maybe he really believed the device worked but I was dubious. As a former police officer with connections to security forces around the world, I thought that Jim McCormick had cynically exploited desperate situations to profit. I started to receive emails from former colleagues who told me that McCormick was running a scam. Another individual who worked for the company that manufactured the "substance cards" that were supposed to identify targets contacted me and told me they were nothing more than laminated cards with a shop security tag inserted.

When it became known that I was in contact with the elusive Mr McCormick, the BBC Newsnight team contacted me and we set about trying to set up a sting to confront the fraudster. I corresponded with Jim via email to organize a meeting but he failed to show. In any event, we decided to go ahead with the broadcast in Jan 2010. The following day, McCormick was arrested and an export order ban was imposed.

That was nearly two and a half years ago. Yesterday after a trial lasting 6 weeks at the Old Bailey in London, the jury found Jim McCormick guilty on three counts of fraud. He will be sentenced next week and efforts will be made to reclaim the estimated $60m he has invested in luxury homes - he bought Nicholas Cage's house in Bath, England.

Not only was McCormick facing prosecution but five others - Gary Bolton; Samuel Tree; Joan Tree; Simon Sherrard and Anthony Williamson were also facing various fraud charges relating to a variety of bogus bomb-detecting devices. Now that McCormick has been found guilty, it remains to be seen what will happen to the others but their prospects do not look good.

Clearly this scam could not have worked on magical beliefs alone. It beggars belief but I hope this is the end of a fraudulent scam, based on the magical belief in dowsing that has indirectly cost thousands of lives.