Dowsing for Death

News that three British government departments promoted the sale of useless bomb detectors to security forces around the world has caused shock and outrage.

But this is just the latest example of otherwise skeptical military and defence officials who have been taken for a ride by purveyors of woo – including claims about Remote Viewing and UFOs.

Bogus bomb detectors are still being used at checkpoints in Baghdad (credit:

Bogus bomb detectors are still being used at checkpoints in Baghdad (credit:

On 23 August Kent businessman Gary Bolton was jailed for seven years at the Old Bailey for fraud after selling thousands of the devices – priced at £10,000 – to Iraq, Mexico and other regions where they are still being used to detect explosives and drugs.

But the court heard the ‘detectors’ were nothing more than empty boxes with plastic handles and aerials acting as antennae. As Doubtful News reported,

‘…[they] are nothing but glorified dowsing rods that have no basis in reality and did not work, [but] they were sold to security companies and military organisations for an inflated price (never mind they didn’t actually detect bombs or drugs)…’

It has been reported that lives have been lost in Iraq and other places as a result of this long-running fraud, while those who benefited lived in luxury (Bolton’s company had an annual turnover of £3 million).

This scam continued for a decade, and despite a damning report by Home Office scientists in 2001 that was widely circulated across the British military, three departments  – including the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office – continued to allow the detectors to be sold and promoted to ‘customers’ abroad.

But Bolton. 47, has now joined another member of the bomb-detecting scam, James McCormick, behind bars.

McCormick – who was jailed for 10 years in April – was  the founding member of the British company, ATSC Ltd, that exploited the belief in the power of dowsing rods to detect substances such as drugs, explosives and even truffles buried underground. According to The Guardian, he boasted of being an expert ‘like Q in James Bond’, but the gadget he ‘invented’ was based upon a novelty golf-ball finder.

After his conviction it was estimated that he had invested $60 million in luxury homes, including Nicholas Cage’s former house in Bath.

Examples of the fake bomb detectors manufactured by ATSC Ltd (credit:

Examples of the fake bomb detectors manufactured by ATSC Ltd (credit:

During Bolton’s six-week trial it emerged that in 1999 he paid the Royal Engineers Exports Support Team (REEST) to test an early version of the invention. They found it to be accurate ‘only about 30% of the time’ –  the Old Bailey heard, but Bolton altered this report and another produced by the Dutch navy, to sell his products in Malta, Egypt and South Africa.

On his arrest last year Bolton admitted he had ‘no background in science, research, training or specifically security’ and, like McCormick, claimed he simply believed in the power of the devices to detect bombs and other substances.

Bolton called the President of the British Society of Dowsers, Grahame Gardner, as a witness in his defence. Gardner said that dowsing rods had also been used by US troops in Vietnam to locate booby traps. He said dowsing worked by ‘amplifying a person’s subconscious response’ to ‘earth energy’ into ‘subconscious muscle movements.’

To put this in context, Gardner and a fellow dowser, Geoffrey Crockford, are responsible for a ‘forensic survey’ that claims to show, through the agency of a ‘bilocation survey’, that a UFO landed at Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk, in 1980 after developing engine trouble. As one blogger noted, ‘a belief in one lot of nonsense is often accompanied with other, equally absurd, notions’.

Psychologist Bruce Hood, writing in Huff Post Science, says that many people regard magical beliefs as harmless fun, but there are always those – either through greed or delusion – who are happy to take advantage of other people’s gullibility, in this case with fatal consequences.

He says of the so-called ‘bomb detectors’:

“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’.

The hard facts do not, of course, deter people from continuing to believe that dowsing actually works.

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2 Responses to Dowsing for Death

  1. Squinting Pedagogue says:

    Nasty stuff indeed, but, I don’t think that the ‘woo’ element is the problem, ill-informed folks do by all kinds of crap, when a bit of proper research or a more critical mind wouldn’t allow them to.

    People are gullible, it’s as simple as that, the military has often been on the receiving end of gullibility and/or greed. Take small-arms procurement, from the Custer and Isandlwana disasters, to Vietnam and the Gulf Wars/War on Terror, the British and American militaries had to put up with shoddy guns that were not the best in field trials, but were taken up just because someone somewhere ‘took a bung’. British troops have that awful, awful rifle – once dubbed the Meccano gun by the poor sods using it. It was cheaper than alternatives {well that was the early day story} was British, and was crap. One of the first things troops noticed, apart from jamming and the magazine falling out, was that you can’t shoot ‘left of cover’, taking an important tactic away from troops in the field, and making the Bull-pup design unusable to left-handed shooters.

    It goes on all the time, Dr Clarke, woo is not the issue here,IMO.

    I have an intense dislike for woo-woo myself, but, for me, no intervention in life is totally without risk, for sure surgery and legal tested medicines are killing more people a year in the UK than all the woo-woo craziness combined, we never speak of the positivity of some woo, the fact – admittedly usually for a fee lol – that some bereaved person is helped through a difficult time by someone who seems to care, I’ve been their a few times, the mainstream, especially our healthcare professionals, don’t really give a stuff about how you feel, take a few pills and some counselling, often by someone who does not understand the feelings you have.

    Personally, I think that we should be looking at why so many folks are going to the dark-side of woo, look to our mainstream institutions and see why they are considered ‘bonkers’ by the ‘bonkers’ people lol

    Anyway, I digress.

    These folks in the article are frauds, they’d have found another means of making money even if crazy dowsing had never existed. IMO, if they knowingly sold such devices knowing full well that people would die because of their ineffective non-existant abilities, I can’t see how just fraud is strong enough a conviction for them, you are sending people to their deaths. Is there a legal mechanism to really make these bar stewards pay for what they have done?

    That said, part of the blame has to go on the ignorance and naivety of the nations buying this rubbish, do not their own procurement departments have a means of testing stuff tht you are paying good money for? In the case of the forged report by the REEST, should a country just read such a thing and take it as ‘Gospel’? I think the clue is, how many British IED teams used these things? How many sniffer dogs did they replace?

    It’s funny, when I buy stuff online I can be researching for hours, getting the best deal, and checking feedback, if possible ‘ll go and see the object of my desires in action. I won’t pay out a penny until I am as near as I can be that what I am buying, is what I want and is fit for purpose. So far, in my 53 years, I have yet to be disappointed by my policy. Sure, I miss the occasional bargain while staring at the gift-horse lol Yet, these procurement teams across the world take the word of a conman over something that costs £10,000 a unit. Beggars belief.

    It’s almost as if they want to be conned…

    • Ross says:

      “It’s almost as if they want to be conned…” That about sums it up for the military. “How good bad music and bad reasons sound when one marches against an enemy!”–Friedrich Nietzsche

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