New frontiers in pseudoscience

High-tech dowsing rods have a storied history.

Their reason for being is simple enough. You can't really make a lot of money by selling the regular kind of dowsing rod or divining pendulum, you see, since anybody can make their own from coat-hanger wire, a stick, or any old thing on the end of a string.

(Pendulum enthusiasts often seem to believe that their pendulum needs a bob made from some exotic mineral or other, but there's not a lot of money to be made there, either.)

But you sure can make a lot of money if you make a special technomalogical box with some lights on it and an antenna sticking out which does, in essence, the same thing as a dowsing rod.

Which is nothing, of course. But plenty of people believe in dowsing, despite the repeated failure of dowsers to actually detect any darn thing in controlled tests.

But people insist on continuing to believe in dowsing, especially if it's dressed up with modern trappings. So other people are pleased to make decorated dowsing rods and sell them, or just their special expertise, for enormous prices.

There've been a few high-tech dowsing doodads over the years. The Quadro Tracker, the DKL LifeGuard, various and sundry other "Locator" devices; the list goes on. Several of these devices have been purchased - or, at least, the their promotors hired at great expense - by business and governmental entities. Not once have these things actually managed to find human life signs under rubble (in the case of the LifeGuard) or... well, just about anything (in the case of the Quadro Tracker), but hope springs eternal.

South African ex-cop Danie Krugel's incredible human-locator, though, is a significant step forward in the modern scam artists' constant struggle to further improve their money-to-effort ratio.

You just give him anything from the body of a lost person - a bit of hair, say, with or without the roots that contain the actual DNA - and his magic box will locate said person, by means of super-scientific quantum GPS DNA resonance. Apparently his box can also find oil or, um, bacteria.

Many dowsers and pendulumists believe they can do their thing over a mere map, without having to actually go to the place where people are trying to find oil or water or the Lost Treasure of the Aztecs or whatever. Danie Krugel is running the same sort of operation; he's not leaving the house if you don't provide a camera crew (and, I suspect, a substantial fee...).

And, apparently, the money rolls in!

Some terribly cynical people have reached the conclusion that Mr Krugel's magic box is a bit of a rip-off. Ben Goldacre just commented on it; he's less than impressed with some recent uncritical coverage of it in the UK papers. Apparently Mr Krugel has located "traces" of the missing child Madeleine McCann "on a resort beach", and in so doing catapulted himself into the same exalted category as those "psychics" who make money by stringing along grief-stricken families and annoying the police. (Sometimes they manage to parley this sort of thing into considerable celebrity.)

This South African blogger is also less than entirely impressed by Mr Krugel. Here's her post about Krugel's performance on a South African show, mentioned in glowing terms on the above-linked Canada Free Press article.

In brief, he actually achieved such amazing feats as saying that the body of a girl abducted by a now-dead paedophile was somewhere close to the paedophile's house - the location of which was public knowledge. They went there, they "narrowed it down", they dug up an old dumping ground and found 101 kinds of random junk including some little bits of bone that almost certainly had nothing to do with the missing girl, they handed those bits of bone over to the distraught parents, then they declared victory and went home.

Every now and then, a psychic says a missing person is dead (and often that the body is "near water", a claim that could mean it's just about anywhere except the middle of the Kalahari...), but that person later turns up alive and well.

Even that, though, seldom seems to dent the psychic's popularity.

The vendors of techno-dowsing gear often make more definite claims about their equipment, which can lead to problems when it clearly fails to, say, find people trapped under rubble.

Danie Krugel's playing it smart, by hybridising psychic-detective claims with techno-gibberish. People who'd never think of retaining the services of a psychic may be more kindly disposed to his "scientific" equivalent.

(A few days later, Ben Goldacre wrote a Guardian column about Krugel, who did not distinguish himself in a phone interview. And the day after that, the Observer apologised, more or less, for printing such abject bullshit.)

UPDATE: A couple of years after I wrote the above, it came to light that a different version of these idiotic electro-dowsing-rod things has been sold, at the usual outrageous prices, to the Iraqi government. They use them to detect bombs at security checkpoints. Or, you know, to not detect bombs at security checkpoints.

2 Responses to “New frontiers in pseudoscience”

  1. Bern Says:

    Hey, sorta off-topic, but I saw a news story recently on the Beeb's website that mentioned they can now recover DNA from the shaft of the hair, not just the root.

    So there ya go - maybe he's not such a complete crock of shite after all, just very, very nearly so...

  2. Popup Says:

    Update: For once a person linked to selling these dowsing rods to military (The one you linked to in late 2009) has been arrested for fraud.
    Unfortunately it's only the seller that's arrested. They really ought to do something about the buyers as well. (Not to mention the middlemen. Apparently the Iraqi army paid USD85M, and the seller only got about USD20M, with the rest probably lining the pockets of Iraqi generals.)

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