REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

A Dowsing Rod, By Any Other Name...

Dateline NBC featured two good segments in February. On the 14th, the program discussed the Quadro Tracker, a device the manufacturer claims can find everything from drugs and guns to golf balls.

Quadro sold more than 1,000 of these devices to schools and police departments, with price tags running from $400 to $8,000! Certainly if police departments bought them to help look for illegal drugs and weapons, it must work, right? Wrong. Indeed, the Quadro Tracker is apparently nothing more than a glorified dowsing rod.

The device has a slot in which you can put "chips" to detect different substances. However, when the Justice Department has a scientist at Sandia National Labs test it, he could find no circuits, conductors, etc. in these "chips." What is Quadro's response to such a test? The Vice President of the company said that the scientists don't know what they're doing and need to "open their mind." He said, "We're able to read the frequency of a particular substance and record that frequency in carbon crystals and put those crystals into a frequency card. Then we use our body's magnetic field and our body's static current to oscillate this frequency to make it communicate with the substance at a distance away." Of course, the way this actually works is a trade secret, but he claims it's "high school and first-year college physics." Funny, I've taken a lot of high school and college physics, and never learned about any of this. But then, I've never heard of "neutral, unaligned electrons" either, nor have the scientists at Sandia, and that is one part of Quadro's supposed scientific discussion of this device. The fact is that this little description sounds scientific, but is actually scientifically meaningless.

Dateline interviewed James "The Amazing" Randi on this subject (and on others — see below) and he gave a much better description of the device. It's a dowsing rod. It uses the idiomotor reaction of the person holding it to point where the operator subconsciously thinks it should point.

Dateline asked Quadro to take part in a test with Randi. Quadro replied that there was "no way" they would do so. Gosh, I wonder why...

So, Dateline went ahead and tested it without them. They did a test with a school security officer who had purchased several of the devices. He had been impressed because it worked quite well when the Quadro representatives were around. But since then, it just doesn't seem to work when they're not present. Since the device is supposed to be able to find hidden drugs in lockers, Dateline hid marijuana in one of a bank of lockers and asked the security officer to find it. He couldn't. Then, they told him it was in a certain locker, but actually gave the marijuana to the reporter to hold in her pocket. Surprise! He walked right past her towards the lockers he was told held the drugs.

In response, the Quadro Vice President said there is generally a 90% success rate with trained operators, and so perhaps this security officer wasn't properly trained.

So Dateline found a properly trained individual — trained by Quadro themselves. They hid marijuana in one of 10 small containers and asked him to find it. They did five tests, and he found it only once. Quadro blamed the experiment this time, since they couldn't blame the training.

Looking at some of Quadro's other claims, we see some interesting inconsistencies. They claim the device has been "thoroughly tested by universities." When asked, the Vice President said those universities were University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas A&M. But when Dateline asked those schools about such testing, both said they could find no evidence of any university-sanctioned research into the Quadro Tracker.

Quadro also claimed they were working with the National Institute of Justice — the Justice Department. That department said is "has no such relationship with Quadro Corporation and does not endorse the Quadro Tracker in any way."

Indeed, the FBI raided and shut down the company, saying it was a fraud. Perhaps the company officials will be asked to back up their claims in a court of law. Unfortunately, if they could convince schools and police departments to buy the device, I wonder how difficult it will be to convince a jury to buy their BS.

Oh, one more thing. Even though they were shut down, they are still allowed to make and sell the Tracker that supposedly finds golf balls. So, somehow it's fraud to say it can find drugs and guns, but it's okay to use the same device to find golf balls.

Dateline: Randi

On the 23rd, Dateline NBC featured a segment on James "The Amazing" Randi. In fact, his discussion about the Quadro Tracker, above, originally came from this interview. He started the interview the way he starts his lectures, "I'm a liar, a cheat, a charlatan, and a fake, but at least I admit it up front." Indeed, all magicians must be all of these things, as a magic show wouldn't be very entertaining if the magician came out and said, "I'm now going to deal cards from the bottom of the deck so you pick the one I want you to pick; then I'll retrieve a copy of that card from my coat pocket, and you'll be astounded." However, that's entertainment. When "psychics" do the same thing, and tell you it's real, they're still being liars, cheats, charlatans, and fakes, but they're aren't admitting it.

Randi said that his field is a narrow one: How people are fooled and how people fool themselves. Indeed, much, if not all, of skepticism can be summarized by this narrow description.

The reporter who did this story was obviously somewhat skeptical herself, though they did intersperse a pro-paranormal interview in the segment (see below). She asked the standard question of just what is the problem with people believing things not supported by science. Isn't it just good-natured fun? He replied, "It's a very dangerous thing to believe in nonsense." I would suggest that this could become REALL's new motto.

Randi says that his experience as a magician makes him better equipped than many scientists to deal with paranormal claims, because the claimants often use the same techniques as magicians — namely misdirection. Randi went a long way in showing the truth of this statement when he initiated the Alpha Project, in which two teenage boys claimed to have psychic powers and were tested by a leading institute. In fact, they were amateur magicians, but convinced the scientists that they were the genuine article (this wasn't mentioned in the segment, but REALL recently showed a video of a presentation given by one of the participants).

Several of Randi's older investigations were mentioned. His well-known exposť of "faith healer" Peter Popoff was shown. For those who don't know about it, Popoff claimed that God spoke to him and told him about the people in his audience. He used this to prove his abilities, and people believed him. However, Randi found that it wasn't God speaking to Popoff, but Popoff's wife. She got information from "prayer cards" filled out before the show began and read it to Popoff via radio signals to his wireless earpiece. Randi intercepted those signals and played them on the Tonight Show (among other places). Popoff went off the air, but is now back on cable again. As Randi says, there is no shaking the True Believer.

The reporter asked Randi if he's ever seen faith healing work. He responded that he knows of several people who have gone to faith healers and then recovered, but that doesn't mean the faith healing was the reason. He further noted that the percentage of those who recovered after seeing a faith healer is almost exactly the same as the percentage of people who spontaneously recover for reasons we still don't know. We see here the correlation vs. causation question (see "What If I Weren't A Skeptic" in this issue).

The other older investigation Dateline discussed was Uri Geller. Most of you know that name quite well, but for those who don't, Geller claims to have all sorts of psychic powers and is best-known for his spoon-bending. Randi noted that if Geller is using his mind and psychic powers to bend a spoon, he's doing it the hard way. He then proceeded to bend (and break) a spoon for the reporter, using only simple magic.

In 1973, Geller made an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Randi helped Carson prepare. He instructed that Geller and his associates should not be allowed to touch any of the props beforehand. One trick he was supposed to do was to determine which metal container held water. Randi told Carson to make sure the water was lukewarm (that part wasn't mentioned on the show), so there would be no condensation.

Surprise, surprise — Geller couldn't perform his wonderful feats. He claimed he didn't feel strong and that Carson was "pushing" him. He never again appeared on the show.

As most of us also know, Randi has had an outstanding offer to pay anybody who can prove paranormal powers in a scientific test. The payoff used to be $10,000, but has recently been upped to more than a half million dollars as others have joined in to pledge their money. Randi says he is willing to be shown that psychic abilities exist, but he hasn't seen it yet.

It is at this point that Dateline switched over to the interview with a scientist from the Institute for Parapsychology. He claims they have found some evidence for psychokinesis and ESP, but it is a "difficult, elusive human ability to study." He says subjects of their tests have "connected" at a level greater than chance, but admits they don't have enough evidence to prove it, although he's convinced. When a scientist convinces himself while admitting there isn't enough evidence to prove something, I say we have a problem.

Moving from the lab to the real world, Dateline sent out staffers with hidden cameras to "psychics" they found in the Yellow Pages. They found that the predictions they got tended to be so general, they can't be wrong, such as, "You feel comfortable with it all, and you don't feel comfortable with it." Oh, that explains everything. In one case, they sent three staffers to the same tarot card reader and were told all three times that she found "negativity" which required them to buy all sorts of items from her at a rather large sum.

Next, they took a very brief look at psychic predictions in the tabloids. They noted that one prominent tabloid psychic predicted that Rush Limbaugh would become a Democrat. 'Nuff said.

Finally, they took Randi to a college class. Several weeks beforehand, they asked students to submit specific data about their birth date, time, location, etc. Randi came in and was introduced as an astrology expert, and handed out what he said were individualized horoscopes. The students all rated the accuracy quite highly (8 of 12 ranked it at 4 out of 5; the other 4 ranked it at 5). Then Randi had them hand the horoscopes to the person behind them. When they started reading the other horoscopes, they found that all of them were exactly the same, with only a few sentences, taken out of "real" horoscopes, in different order. Unfortunately, the True Believers in the room weren't convinced.

The story ended on this note. Randi said that people's willingness to believe is far greater than his ability to persuade, but that won't stop him from trying. Randi, you took the words right out of my mouth.

More Dowsing -- From People Who Should Know Better

Dowsing seems to be the hot item all of a sudden. Smithsonian magazine, of all people, published a pro-dowsing article in its January issue.

It starts with a discussion of a woman who dowses not for water, but for videotapes. Yes, this is how she selects the tape she's going to rent — with a dowsing chart and a pendulum. When the pendulum begins to swing, the author is astounded! "Is [the woman] doing this herself? I can't detect any initiating movement in her hand although I've heard of a parlor trick that produces similar results with a suspended weight." A parlor trick? Come on! Pick up a pendulum and try to hold it straight. Just the slightest accidental motion will start it swinging, and if you expect it to move, it certainly will. See my reference to idiomotor reaction, above ("A Dowsing Rod, By Any Other Name...").

Then we follow this woman to a health food store, where she dowses vitamins for her children. Yes, she shops this way every day. Oh, she says she respects science, but then she goes off and mangles it. She says everything in the universe has an individual energy, and by asking a dowsing instrument just the right questions, you can pick up on the goodness or badness and truth or untruth of those energies. What happened to that respect for science?

The author occasionally makes light of the dowsers, such as when he talks about one diagnosing his sleeplessness at the dowsing convention as being due to "seven noxious streams" flowing through the earth under his bed, or about a psychic surgeon there who dowsed some "blockages" in his intestine and said he would remove for free (what a guy!), but even so, his favorable opinion on dowsers comes through loud and clear. Indeed, he used two dowsers to help him find lost items.

One helped him find his lost notebooks, which contained "a third of the notes and quotes for this article" (some things are better off lost). A dowser found it in a hall the author had run through earlier. Imagine that — he lost it while he'd been in a hurry. A second dowser told him, over the phone, where he had put an insurance folder. Her questions sounded a lot like those you'd expect from a "psychic." She asked if he were messy and if he had any neat file cabinets. Neither of these questions takes a lot of dowsing, just common sense. She told him to look in the file cabinet, and he said he already had. She told him to look again. He found it. Well, then, my wife and mother must both be adept dowsers, because both of them have told me to look in places I'd already searched and, lo and behold, I found what I was looking for there!

As is standard with these types of articles, the author throws in a couple quotes from scientists. "The fact about dowsing is, it's hard not to find water under most of Earth's surface, provided you drill deeply enough," said Jack Fischer at the U.S. Geological Survey — as quoted from a 1983 Smithsonian article. Kevin McCray, executive director of the National Ground Water Association, said, "There are no scientifically accepted studies that support the validity of dowsing." He adds, "Whenever dowsers are subjected to scientifically rigorous tests of their ability, they score no better than you or I would. Probably the dowsers who are good at finding underground water are also good at reading the landscape and knowing where water might be. But then they're using normal, sensory clues, not the extrasensory means claimed by dowsing."

But rather than listen to the scientists, the author had the dowser who found his notebooks dowse for water on a site where the people were going to drill a well. The dowser gave all sorts of specific information, but, alas, we shall never know, because the owners decided to listen to their contractor and drill elsewhere. So the quotes from scientists were essentially ignored, which is, again, standard with these types of articles.

What is not standard here is that I expect to see an article like this in the Chicago Tribune Tempo section, not in Smithsonian magazine. I don't know if this is part of a search for new readers, but I find it rather disheartening that a magazine that is supposed to feature science has instead chosen to ignore it.

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