The Bomb-Sniffing Gadget That's (Definitely Not) Saving IraqS

The promise of the ADE 651 is seductive: a handheld detector, which susses out bombs, guns, drugs, and human bodies from up to a kilometer away. And the Iraqi military swears by it! One problem: It doesn't seem to work.

To be able to instantly detect contraband like this would be a gamechanger in Iraq, where the (effectively) free transit of roadside bombs and IEDs is a constant threat, so the Iraqi government is willing to pay a premium for devices that promise as much—they've already bought 1,500 of the detectors, which are almost definitely just electric whisks with antennae, at a price of $16,500 to $60,000 each. Despite the steep price and fierce user loyalty, though, US government officials say the devices don't work at all:

Dale Murray, head of the National Explosive Engineering Sciences Security Center at Sandia Labs, which does testing for the Department of Defense, said the center had "tested several devices in this category, and none have ever performed better than random chance."

The device as even earned its own rhetorical "show us" bounty from the Capital "S" Skeptical James Randi Educational Foundation, which flags the ADE 651's manufacturer's claims that the device works with spooky-sounding "electrostatic magnetic ion attraction." This is by far the highest honor in pseudoscience.

ATSC, the company that manufactures the device out of the UK, wouldn't even talk to the New York Times, cementing an already obvious conclusion: This is a case of a bogus company taking advantage of credulous, vulnerable consumers by selling a device that seems like it works by virtue of being many users' only means of bomb detection, meaning that they'll never notice when it doesn't work—it's just one more shady car passing through a checkpoint; who knows if the massive bombing later that afternoon had anything to do with it!?—and will always notice when it "does," even if it's a function of pure chance.

You may have failed miserably at designing a universal contraband detector, ATSC, but hey, at least your scam is well engineered. [NYT]