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When Antiscience Kills: Dowsing for Bombs PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Phil Plait   

We at the JREF are no fans of pseudoscience, as you may imagine. Dowsing is a practice that falls squarely in that field. It's the idea that you can detect an object -- usually water, but sometimes gold, or people, or whatever -- using a y-shaped branch, or copper tubes, or some other simple device. Dowsers never really have a good explanation of how their devices work, but they tend to claim 100% accuracy.

However, the JREF has tested dowsers many, many times as part of our Million Dollar Challenge. Not to keep you in suspense, but the money still sits in the bank. In other words, time and again, the dowsers fail. When a real, double-blind, statistical test is given, dowsers fail. Every single time.

That's all well and good, and you might think it's just another silly idea that nonsense-believers adhere to despite evidence. If someone wants to waste their money on a dowser, well, caveat emptor.

But what if your life depended on it? What if thousands of lives depended on it?

Such is the case in Iraq, where the military there is using what is essentially dowsing techniques to try to detect bombs in cars at military checkpoints. Let's be very clear here: they are using provably useless antiscientific nonsense to try to find terrorists who carry explosives. They may as well use tea leaves, or palm reading, or seances.

This story just got major press; a reporter in Iraq wrote about it in the New York Times. It's impossible to overstress how bad this situation is. Iraqi Major General Jehad al-Jabiri, who is the head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives, is a whole-hearted believer in this garbage. He is such a believer that the Iraqi military are abandoning proven methods such as sniffer dogs. Instead, the Iraqi have purchased hundreds of these so-called bomb-detection wands from a company called ATSC in the UK. The cost? Millions of dollars. Millions. On technology that James Randi has come right out and called "a totally fraudulent product". Bob Carroll of the Skeptic's Dictionary agrees with Randi.

The NYT article also has expert advice from several explosives and military authorities (including long-time friend of the JREF Air Force Lt. Col (retired) Hal Bidlack), all of whom conclude that this device does nothing. Given the product description on the company's own web page, it's not hard to see why. The description makes no scientific sense at all; it claims it can detect ions from a distance without ever coming in contact with them, and that includes through lead, concrete, and more.

In other words, it's magic.

This, however, won't stop al-Jabiri, who chalks up any successes to the detector, and any failures to the operator. In a situation like that there is little hope he can be convinced him he's wrong, especially when he says things like "I don’t care about Sandia or the Department of Justice or any of them. I know more about this issue than the Americans do. In fact, I know more about bombs than anyone in the world."

Really? Then why, as the NYT article indicates, did that dowsing wand fail on October 25, when terrorists detonated two tons of explosives killing 155 people? Four thousand pounds of explosives apparently got right past the magic wands' sniffer. But at least they're fast! Again, from the article:

Checking cars with dogs, however, is a slow process, whereas the wands take only a few seconds per vehicle. “Can you imagine dogs at all 400 checkpoints in Baghdad?” General Jabiri said. “The city would be a zoo.”

I suspect a zoo would be better than a slaughterhouse.

It's arrogance and blind faith like that which has and will get people killed. And the people we're talking about in many cases are our fighting men and women, people who have to put their own trust in the leaders in Iraq. This is not a game, not some lark. It's real. And in this case, antiscience kills.

Oringially published, with some minor variations, on the Bad Astronomy blog.

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written by esquel, November 04, 2009
bOINGbOING linked to this as well; the comments indicate a well developed BS detector among their readership.
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Baffling and asinine.
written by warreno, November 04, 2009
Particularly when one remembers that dogs can do a far better job at detecting explosives than any boxful of Hollywood wiring ever made.

Too bad the nitwits who use these devices probably won't have to directly suffer the consequences of their stupidity.
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written by Gumba Masta, November 04, 2009
My only explanation is that I guess they really, really don't like dogs there. Or at least less desirable than a few hundred dead people.
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Dogs are unclean
written by pxatkins, November 04, 2009
I believe strict muslims are required to wash their hands seven times if they touch a dog.
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Dogs' nose knows
written by Kuroyume, November 04, 2009
Whether or not dogs are deemed 'unclean' should not be a factor in determining methodologies to find explosives. Canine olfactory has 40 times the receptors of human olfactory and can distinguish different chemicals more readily (training helps) with less particles required. If it were possible to train and use them, heck, I'd use 400 turkey vultures since they have probably the best olfactory system on the planet (of a living species). Maybe we can have them use bears instead. At least the death-rate of bear maulings will be insignificant to that of bombings.

Thanks for the article, Phil. I hate to say it but you know that this stupidity won't be stopped until enough people are killed - or Gen. al-Jabiri is replaced.
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Something doesn't add up here, Phil. First of all if a dog can sniff out bombs, why can't a device. Secondly, the device does not look like dowsing rods. Thirdly, many passionate families would hav, Lowly rated comment [Show]
It seems it is the Iraqis who have faith it it and not the US military., Lowly rated comment [Show]
Bears might be a good idea.
written by rwpikul, November 04, 2009
Think of the deterrence factor:

"Just what do you feed him?"

"Would-be suicide bombers."
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@Bill
written by Nonchev, November 04, 2009
Or you could say, in a weird way, it saves lives and yet it doesn't work... smilies/tongue.gif
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Are they serious?!?!
written by Nonchev, November 04, 2009
Just read the features and benefits in the brochure of the device.
Quote: "Ignores all concealment methods"
Well, surely, since it basically works on the transporters being aware that there is a concealed explosive around and passing that nervousness to the "detector"!!! Maybe if they did try the oldest methods (stuck the goods while the transporter cannot see it and thus is unaware) ... a.k.a. double-blinded test smilies/wink.gif.
Maybe it is a good case that the manufacturer should be prosecuted by your government for selling it abroad, even though the sale is not happening in USA. You know, the same way if gun manufacturers are prosecuted if they sell weapons to "enemies" or "terrorists"...
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written by littlejohn, November 04, 2009
My understanding is that dogs are actually very good at detecting the nitrogen compounds used in most explosives. Do Muslims really have that big a problem with dogs? I'd live with pet cockroaches if it would keep bombs away.
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written by Steel Rat, November 04, 2009
My homeowner's association (a small rural community) is considering dowsing to find underground pipes for house water supplies and yard irrigation. One of the board members has done it before and it "worked" for him, because he found water where one might expect to find water even without dowsing.

He's a nice guy, so I'm trying to convince him without being insulting or sarcastic.
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written by outsorcerer, November 04, 2009
I am in the US military and was in Baghdad when those bombs went off. Please write your Senator and tell them about this nonsense, and encourage them to pass it along to the Iraqi government. US soldiers lives are at stake here, as well as Iraqi civilians.

The problem with the skeptic movement that I see, is that we don't scream loud enough in the face of fake science, and here is an example that we could make of fraud and pseudo science at the same time, all while saving lives...if that doesn't motivate you to get involved, I don't know what can...

As a side note, we use dogs for bomb detection here because they aren't nearly as offensive to Muslims as the pigs, who have a superior sense of smell, that we wanted to use are.
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written by rjh02, November 04, 2009
This has been discussed in the forums for some time now. See http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=128253
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written by rjh02, November 04, 2009
The link is http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=128253
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written by Steel Rat, November 04, 2009
Finally aren't we basically looking down our nose at what might amount to another cultures "lie detector"?


You're basically saying bluffing will win out. There's a cheaper way. Just go to radio shack and buy some project boxes, add a couple buttons and a couple lights, and tell people it detects bombs. $10 instead of several thousand. If your "lie detector" hypothesis works, it will work no matter what the device looks like.
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written by Bill Thompson, November 04, 2009
ok oK
I have changed my mind.

It is disturbing that the Iraqis swear by this thingy.

Since we have warned them, so it seems, and since it comes from an overseas company, what can we really do?
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@Bill Thompson
written by outsorcerer, November 04, 2009
Regarding your theory that the subconcious would help pick up on subtle hints, etc...

I find the opposite to be true. When people have complete blind faith in an object like this, that they are told "works"--they tend to let their guard down, thinking the technology will not fail them...after all with such "foolproof" technology, why would you need to be constantly on a high state of alert? The technology would theoretically catch the bombs for you....
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written by rjh02, November 04, 2009
It would also not take long for the "enemy" to work out the device does not work. They will send some level person with explosives through a checkpoint known to use this device to see if it detects the explosives. If it does not detect the explosives then it is business as usual for them. Except they know they will not get properly search and the Government does not know it. Which makes the "enemy" even more dangerous.
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written by TDjazz, November 05, 2009
Maybe the U.S. military should set up demonstrations to show the Iraqis that these devices don't work. If the Iraqis see dummies being blown up (from a safe distance, of course) after dowsing fails to find bombs, maybe then they will give up these useless devices.

But we all know how difficult it is to change erroneous beliefs.
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Where is ATSC?
written by RobbieD, November 05, 2009
The article says ATSC are in the UK, but all I can find is a mail address that is a forwarding service. I suspect these guys are offshore from UK otherwise the bold claims they make for their device would probably fall foul of UK law.

But where are they?? Anyone have any ideas??
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written by dlorde, November 05, 2009
Check the forum thread above for more details and links to the people who are trying to track these scammers down (also http://sniffexquestions.blogspot.com/). There are several companies involved in selling this junk around the world, at least one of which has been banned in the US, and they morph and mutate to try and keep ahead of scam-busters.

And yes, Bill Thompson, the lives of Allied soldiers, and advisers, Iraqi police and Iraqi civilians are all at serious risk. If you discard known methods of bomb detection for magic wands, that's what happens.
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written by deavman, November 05, 2009
As someone who lives in the Middle East and owner of three dogs, I would go with the fear of dogs theory among Arabs in general and Muslims in particular. I am always amazed at the utter fear expressed by Muslims when I walk around with my 4yr old pincher.They either move to the other side of the street or just freeze right there on the side of the pavement.
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written by cthulhu_4_president, November 05, 2009
I find Bill Thompson's ethnocentric diatribes and casual disregard for human life quite disturbing.

It should be plainly obvious that the issue is not as simple as asking if "any Americans are getting blown up.." as the undetected (and undetectable, if this practice persists) presence of explosives puts ALL at risk, and, sooner or later, an American will get blown up. If that is what it takes for one to develop an opinion on this issue, then they have other issues that must be worked out first.

I also fail to see where hypothetical 'human rights' or pride enter the picture. The motivation in seeking out a successful way to find explosives is one of SURVIVAL. They bought the dowsing devices because they want to SURVIVE an attempted terrorist attack, and the company making the dowsing devices lied to them and conviced them that this was the best way to SURVIVE. I keep putting emphasis on surviving, becuase the fact that they took the initiative to sniff out explosives indicates that they do want to live, and would probably not accept lives lost in an attack as simply 'the cost of pride'.

Unless I'm missing something, and I would like to know if I am, the opinion you share can be interpreted in a classic blame-the-victim mentality (if the girl was so proud that she saved up the money to buy a new miniskirt, and then was sexually assaulted because a predator found her attractive, is this an acceptable cost of her pride?).
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We Americans are using similarly pseudoscientific devices...
written by George Maschke, November 05, 2009
While we Americans might be tempted to look down our noses at the foolish Iraqis dowsing for explosives, it's worth bearing in mind that the U.S. Government has long made a similar pseudoscience -- polygraphy -- the cornerstone of its personnel security policy. And when the National Academy of Sciences in 2002 released a landmark report (http://www.nap.edu/books/0309084369/html/) warning of the danger of misplaced reliance on the polygraph, our government's response was to actually INCREASE its reliance on the lie detector! Indeed, the U.S. military is even now using a hand-held "lie detector" to dowse for terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan (https://antipolygraph.org/cgi-bin/forums/YaBB.pl?num=1207756058).
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written by Bill Thompson, November 05, 2009
In this case, I urge everyone reading this to do all they can with any spare time they have to put an end to this. I will do the same.

Why are you still reading this?
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written by H.H., November 05, 2009
I think we should also consider the possibility that the Iraqis know the devices don't work. I have a family relative who works for TSA. He explained that many of the things they require airline passengers to do--take off their shoes, limit the size of liquids, etc--are admittedly ineffective tactics for stopping terrorists. But they accomplish what he called "security theater." It gives other the passengers confidence in their safety and calms them.

So maybe the Iraqis don't have the money for real bomb sniffing equipment. But rather than do nothing, this is something visible they can use, something to wave around and make the rest of populace feel better. Plus, the devices can still serve as a deterrent if the terrorists think they work, even if they really don't. So maybe they figure that a sham bomb detector is better than admitting that they have no way of detecting bombs.
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@HH
written by outsorcerer, November 05, 2009
We have given them plenty of equipment, and are indirectly funding the Iraqi's purchase of more equipment...money is not an object here.
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Bill
written by cthulhu_4_president, November 06, 2009
I was perplexed by your position before, but now I'm just downright confused. I still have no idea what a culture's placement of 'human rights' has to do with their ability to detect explosives, and why we should not be concerned that influence from a culture that is utopian in comparison will probably kill their citizens. When I ask, I'm told that the matrix has me and to invest in a vacation so that maybe I'll find human life less valuable when I return.
As I said in my first post, I want to know if I'm mistaken on your position, but if you can't phrase your responses in ways other than "You're progressive ideas are wrong, trust me because I've been more places than you," then this probably isn't a useful area of discussion, as all we've managed to do so far is banter about subjective assessments on different cultures value of life.

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written by Bill Thompson, November 09, 2009
HH has a good point.

If they decide that this is what they need and can afford or whatever, then, after we have warned them, it is out of our hands.

And I did not say that you should go on a "vacation so that maybe you will find human life less valuable when I return". That is funny.

We do not have the authority to force them not to use these devices. Just consider The Prime Directive. Maybe that will help you to understand.
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written by cthulhu_4_president, November 09, 2009
And I did not say that you should go on a "vacation so that maybe you will find human life less valuable when I return". That is funny.


I'm glad you think it's funny, but I wasn't trying to be. If you'll notice, I asked for clarification of your position in my previous two posts, and in the absence of that clarification I placed my own analysis of your position. If I am in error, please enlighten me. So far, all you've done is call me wrong with no reason given whatsoever. Keep laughing, though. I suppose it's easier than actually having to explain your position.

Just consider The Prime Directive. Maybe that will help you to understand.


I really do hate to break it to you, but Star Trek and The Matrix are works of fiction, and have little or no relevance in this discussion. However, if I recall correctly, the Prime Directive deals with minimizing any effect that an advanced culture has on a substantially less developed culture. In this analogy, the Prime Directive was first broken when the company sold the Iraquis the device, hence action should be taken to undo that damage. Is this not in the spirit of the Prime Directive?

If you would like to (finally) explain your position without using fictional references or vague fortune-cookie advice ('take a vacation..'), then I eagerly wait.
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written by Bill Thompson, November 09, 2009
We do not have the right to impose what we consider
to be Human Rights on another culture. That is not
fiction.
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written by baaadbeet, November 17, 2009
Since al-Jabiri has total confidence in his belief in the wand, he knows more about bombs and detection 'than anyone' and any wand failure is due to the operator....there is a simple way for his to prove and demonstrate its effectiveness. Just place 10 dummy bombs and 1 live one, appropriately spaced.

The live bomb will have a proximity detector that will activate a 60 second timer and go off 30 seconds after someone approaches it, unless that person hits a 'one time use only' remote kill switch.

He gets to walk up to each 'bomb' and wand it for a minute or so, but can only use his 'kill switch' once when he has found the 'actual' bomb. If he can do it, excellent! By a million magic wands! If he fails...well.... 60 second proximity timer...tick tick tick

Do these guys ever put their money where their mouth is?

HE HIMSELF must then
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written by Bill Thompson, November 17, 2009
No one has considered a plausible and likely outcome to a foreign influence forcing them to stop using the wands and that is that whatever they replace the wands with -- which is conceivably nothing at all -- would prove more detrimental than the wands.
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written by baaadbeet, November 17, 2009
Oops, I forgot one strong possibility of effectivity with the magic wands.

If the Islamist terrorists who build and deploy the bombs are equally superstitous about the magic wands as al-jabiri is, then they could have a strong 'deterrent' effect in spite of having no genuine physical function whatsoever. A bit like the placebo effect, but a different category of mind influence directing behaviour.
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Police action taken!
written by JimD, January 22, 2010
Read http://www.theregister.co.uk/2...ctor_bust/ for the full article...
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Ooops... Original report was in the Times...
written by JimD, January 22, 2010
I forgot to mention... (Shame I couldn't edit the last post)

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And here's the Times article...
written by JimD, January 22, 2010
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/t...ttr=797084
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Favourite quote, and I'll shut up now!
written by JimD, January 22, 2010
McCormick hit back, however, telling the paper that “we have been dealing with doubters for ten years. One of the problems we have is that the machine does look a little primitive. We are working on a new model that has flashing lights.”

'cos that'll fix everything, won't it?
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Beware of hubris
written by sporkbender, January 30, 2010
I find the apparent assumption of some here that Iraqis have fallen victim to this scam because they are somehow fundamentally backward to be mind blowingly arrogant. If westerners were immune to such beliefs then I guess there would be little use for this website..
Also I find the whole Prime Directive angle (i.e. they have a separate culture so we shouldn't interfere) similarly arrogant and so full of inconsistencies that I barely know where to start. Although I will say that I suppose their ancestors violated it when they taught Europeans mathematics (who at the time were busy foraging for muck a la Monty Python)...
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written by Jeb, February 06, 2010
Dowsing For Landmines at Sandhurst!!!!!!!

"This paper is written by John Living, who was educated at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham. He was commissioned as an officer in the Corps of Royal Engineers, and was taught dowsing at the School of Military Engineering, Chatham - reported to have the world's largest collection of material on dowsing.

John Living has been a Member of the Institute of Royal Engineers, Member of the Institute of Engineers, Jamaica, Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers (and Chartered Civil Engineer) in the United Kingdom, and a Professional Engineer registered in the Provinces of Ontario and Alberta, in Canada.

He has more than 40 years experience of dowsing, and is a member of the Canadian Society of Dowsers, the Canadian Society of Questers and the American Society of Dowsers. John Living can be contacted by email at ‘jliving@direct.ca’."

PENDULUM DOWSING

http://mypage.direct.ca/j/jliving/landmine.htm
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written by Bill Thompson, February 06, 2010
You said:

"This paper is written by John Living, who was educated at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham...."This paper is written by John Living, who was educated at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham....he has more than 40 years..."

Argument from Authority is a logical fallacy. I suggest you bone up on critical thinking and logic. While you are at it, have a look at Dr. Sagan's Baloney Detection kit.

I read reports from professors at BYU supporting Joe Smith too. Arguments from Authority hold no water. Arguments from Authority carry no weight. You have to consider the argument not the person who is making the point.
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written by Jeb, February 06, 2010
Bill I think you should check out the web site Evolving thoughts google for Evolving Thoughts Dowsing for Bombs and check my comments on the subject.

While you are doing that think on this. What exactly is in my post lead you to reach the conclusion based on youre ability to engage in critical and logical thinking that I support the opinion of Mr Living?

I came across this paper late last night. As it was not mentioned by any of the reporters covering this story as far as I am aware. I contacted them and then posted on all the blogs covering the story. It took some time and I omited commenting as I am dyslexic so writing eats into more time.

You may like the blog, John is an excellent philosopher of biology and is kind enough from time to time to help me with my own research into the subject.

As I omited to leave any comments on a number of sites it will be interesting to note how many other people jump to the same rash conclusion as you or if you remain an isolated case.

Treat it like a little mini survey into the critical and logical abilities of sceptical and science site readers.

The are you as bad as bill test.
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written by Jeb, February 06, 2010
p.s note the two funny little lines at the start and end of the words that look like this" "

If you actualy look at the link it may lead you to understand the relevance and meaning of these symbols.

This subject is now the matter of a criminal investigation in the U.K and despite the claims of Living with regard to being trained at a military institution in the art of dowsing for landmines perhaps warrents further investigation into the truth or falsehood of such claims?

This of course may have already been done and the information may even be on this site. I dont know its the first time Ive visited and that was my first post
Thanks for such an interesting welcome.
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written by Jeb, February 07, 2010
I should note that the subject under investigation is the company responsible for selling the bomb wand and the scientific credibility of the device the company has sold and not Mr Living.
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written by Bill Thompson, February 07, 2010
J, I considered this after I made my post. I thought that you might not be supporting the magic wands. In that case, I am adding more ammunition to your side of the argument.
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written by Jeb, February 07, 2010
Cheers bill sorry if my comments seemed Harsh. I can be just as guilty of doing the same thing at times. I think we are all capable of becoming zombie skeptics at times and not taking time to fully look at context.

I dont want to look like I am trying to give folks like this guy a platform to air their opinions. As I am extremly concerned to see issues like this one appear. But I do think that disscusion and to a certain extent the reporting Ive seen is a bit crude.

I think the things that motivate beliefs like this are complex. Ive not looked at this issue in detail but i study things that are not unsimilar from a historical perspective. I think to deal with such things we have to understand them fully and draw them out into the full light of day.

Such thoughts as these contain grave errors but I don't think the people that believe them are stupid. I think their are a range of factors and it would be nice to see the wider background of such beliefs and errors investigated and perhaps discussed in a bit more detail in the reporting.

I suspect that these views are part of the wider back drop of belief and examining them full, may perhaps help to explain how such things form in culture and repeat.

But they do certainly need to be exposed and rejected.

If we can come to a fuller understanding perhaps we can limit the chances of them repeating as well in a sightly diffrent context or place in the future?
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