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Dowsing for Dollars: Fighting High-Tech Promises with Low-Tech Critical Thinking Skills
Robert Todd Carroll
DielectroKinetic Laboratories (DKL) claims its LifeGuard "human presence detector" uses a very sophisticated new technology that allows it to detect a human heartbeat through concrete or steel. Priced at between $6,000 and $14,000 each, the DKL LifeGuard is being marketed to law enforcement agencies as a high-tech tool that can "locate survivors in the critical first minutes of an emergency." The LifeGuard is another expensive but useless "high-tech" product marketed primarily by appealing to scientific ignorance. Some low-tech critical thinking skills are needed to evaluate these high-tech promises.
There have been numerous "high tech" inventions marketed in recent years that have not lived up to their inventors' promises. For example, Bob Pearson markets an invention he calls the Inset Fuel Stabilizer, which is little more than a 7-inch piece of stainless steel with a bolt-like valve on each end. He claims the device uses "revolutionary technology" to align fuel and air molecules "in an energy field" so that they completely burn, thereby leading to great fuel savings and greatly reduced air pollution. The city of Naperville, Illinois, among others, spent $1,500 each for Stabilizers for the city's maintenance and police vehicles. In 1994, the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) tested the Inset Fuel Stabilizer and found it to be of no benefit. Inset responded by suing NJIT and continued to market their useless product on the Internet for years after being exposed.
Not long ago, "high-tech" laundry balls and disks were the rage. Their promoters promised the devices would clean clothes cheaply without soap and without pollution, thereby saving money and the environment. For example, the ABI Laundry Ball ($75 retail) from TradeNet Marketing, Inc., claimed to use "IE Crystals" to emit a charge into the water that breaks the bonds between molecules, enabling the individual water molecules to penetrate the fabric and get clothes clean for about five cents per load. The Oregon State Attorney General ended the Laundry Ball scheme but American Technologies Group, which supplied TradeNet with its "high-tech" IE Crystals, continues to flourish with other "IE Crystal" products that are the equals of the laundry balls.1
One would think that the experience with Inset Fuel Stabilizer, Laundry Balls, the Quadro Tracker,2 and a host of other similar products would provide a valuable lesson about useless, allegedly high-tech, devices. Apparently, the only lesson being learned is that there is good money to be had in this field, despite the likelihood of eventually being caught and shut down, often by the very agencies targeted as the primary market for the questionable devices. The recent entry of DielectroKinetic Laboratories' (DKL) LifeGuard into the marketplace of high-priced dowsing sticks aimed at law enforcement's share of our tax dollars is yet another reminder that the price of a free market is eternal vigilance.
On its Web site (www.dklabs.com), DKL says it is interested in the "science of saving lives""and that the LifeGuard takes "a well-established principle of physics" and applies it "to the latest understanding of human physiology." According to a government scientist who witnessed a demonstration of the LifeGuard, "Each has a box which swivels on a pistol grip and has an antenna pointing out the front. You swing the antenna back and forth, and the device is supposed to generate a tug on your hand whenever the antenna is pointing toward a person." According to DKL,
DKL's new line of LifeGuard instruments can locate and track any living human being more than 500 meters away in the open and at shorter distances through concrete walls, steel bulkheads, heavy foliage, earthworks, or up to 10 feet of water. All three LifeGuard models can detect and lock onto a person in three to five seconds, and they can distinguish a human from any other animal, even a gorilla or an orangutan.
Yet, in the only double-blind test of the device, it took 4.5 hours to detect 25 test targets, an average of 11 minutes per test, and there were only six successes. DKL's response was to have their own tests done, tests which should have been done long before the product was put on the market. More about the DKL tests later.
How could such devices as the Quadro Tracker, the Inset Fuel Stabilizer, Laundry Balls, and the DKL LifeGuard be taken seriously? There are several reasons.
1. Wishful thinking
We want to believe the claims made by the promoters of these products. We let wishful thinking interfere with the ability to think critically. We're too willing to trust those with an economic interest in their claims and too lazy or proud to seek out the proper experts to help us evaluate the claims and the products. But wishful thinking is only part of the story.
2. Scientific ignorance
The pitch for such products is couched in scientific jargon. DKL claims that it
uses dielectrokinetics, a relatively new discipline of physics, to locate and track the unique, ultra-low frequency electric field generated by the beating of the human heart. DKL's scientists and engineers have used newly available dielectric materials and DKL's patent-approved electronic circuitry to take advantage of the principles of dielectrophoresis and of the human heart's unique physiological properties. The result is a new line of detectors with unprecedented capabilities.
Such jargon sounds good to one who is ignorant of physics and lacking in basic scientific competence. Dielectrophoresis is the motion of electrically polarized matter in nonuniform fields. Such motion exists but it is extremely weak. It is highly unlikely that the amount of energy emitted by any given human heartbeat is powerful enough to cause the two-pound LifeGuard 500 yards away to swivel. However, if this were possible, the likelihood that other electric fields would not affect such a device is also about zero. DKL claims, however, that they have "patent-pending polarization filters to eliminate all other signals." What is absolutely zero in probability is that DKL discovered how to do this without anyone in the scientific community being aware of it until they marketed their product. This application of science, if it were true, would be an achievement recognized and applauded the world over.
Such devices as the LifeGuard get taken seriously because they are peddled to non-scientists as a device on the cutting edge of modern science and technology. Their target consumers and investors, in other words, are not usually competent to evaluate the scientific claims made by the promoters. Human pride may play a role here in duping some people; they are too embarrassed to admit that they don't understand what the seller is talking about. Such embarrassment rarely occurs in the sellers of these products. For example, one expert on sensor technologies, attending a government-sponsored technology exhibition, pointed out to the DKL people that the antenna on their LifeGuard was omni-directional and that it was pointing its weakest direction at the target. The DKL representative responded with: "Well, yeah, the antenna is omni-directional, but the electronics are directional." Such a response might satisfy a non-scientist but it is total nonsense to an electronics engineer.
The potential buyer or investor who is not competent to evaluate such claims should seek out experts who are. One must be careful to choose the right experts, however.
3. Using the wrong experts
Purchasing agents or investors who seek out scientists from the company doing the selling, or non-scientists who peddle such merchandise, are more likely to be duped into buying and investing in useless devices than those who seek the opinion of independent scientific sources. Anyone with an economic interest in selling the product should be viewed skeptically. One has to balance keeping an open mind with a healthy dose of skepticism when considering Aamazing" new technologies. For example, before the Department of Energy's Office of Safeguards and Security would invest in DKL, they hired Sandia Labs to test the LifeGuard. Sandia is the same outfit that sent the Quadro Tracker on the road to infamy and oblivion. Their tests showed that the device performed no better than expected from random chance.
The test operator (the one who used the LifeGuard in the test) was a DKL representative. The only time the test operator did well in detecting his targets was when he had prior knowledge of the target's location. The LifeGuard was successful ten out of ten times when the operator knew where the target was. Each trial took approximately three minutes for both set up and trial. It may seem ludicrous to test a dowser by telling him where the objects are before he dowses, but it establishes a baseline. The operator will not be as likely to come up with an ad hoc hypothesis to explain away his failure in a double-blind test. Only when he agrees that his device is working should the test proceed to the second stage, the double-blind test.3
In the main test of the LifeGuard, when neither the test operator nor the investigator keeping track of the operator's results knew which of five possible locations contained the target, the operator performed poorly. He got six out of 25 and took about four times longer than when he knew where the target was located. The Sandia test protocols and results are posted on the Internet in PDF format at <http://infoserve.sandia.gov/sand_doc/1998/980977.pdf. A press release by Ken Frazier summarizing the Sandia study is available at </www.sandia.gov/LabNews/LN04-24-98/detector_story.html. (DKL issued a lengthy rebuttal to the Sandia tests, which was posted on their website but has since been removed. Among other things, DKL charged that Sandia mounted "a coordinated and vigorous effort to discredit this new technology." It is unfortunate the DKL rebuttal has been taken down. It is a paradigm of paranoid poppycock.4)
As mentioned above, DKL finally tested their device after the results of the Sandia tests were published. One test was done by LAW, "the U.S. arm of LAWGIBB Group," which describes itself as a business management consulting firm that "is committed to delivering consistently superior service that adds clear business value for clients of all sizes, in all industries." Neither DKL nor LAW has published their study, however. I have contacted both DKL and the LAWGIBB group in an attempt to get a copy of this study, but to no avail. DKL has posted on their Internet site an "Executive Summary" of the study, but it does not mention who actually designed the test, who participated, how it was set up, etc. All they have posted is a glowing report and a chart of data claiming the LifeGuard worked as advertised. Here is an excerpt from the LAW report:
In a series of tests that simulate real world conditions LAW found that in the hands of a fully trained operator the DKL LifeGuard Models 1.0 and 2.0 can detect human, non-uniform electrical fields through barriers with approximately 80 to 100 percent reliability. The two LifeGuard models successfully detected both moving and stationary human electrical fields through barriers that included wood, dirt, metal, and concrete.
Our testing found the DKL LifeGuard does not detect dogs or cats, nor does it detect people who are deceased.
A 100 percent accuracy was achieved in 25 tests through a 1.75-inch thick solid wooden door.
There is one conclusion of the report, however, that should be noted:
LAW agrees with DKL that the instruments get the best results with a trained, skilled and experienced operator.
This claim is interesting because the second test touted by DKL as proving their device works did not use a trained operator at all.
The second test was done by Dr. Joseph P. Dougherty of Advanced Materials Technology. He is a faculty member at Pennsylvania State's Center for Dielectric Studies, a joint effort of the National Science Foundation and Penn State. Dougherty's test involved no operator and tested the LifeGuard "as an autonomous device."
The standard commercial LifeGuard Model 2.0 was mounted on a tripod and an electrical jack through the enclosure connected an output from internal circuits to an analog to digital converter input connected to a computer. The LifeGuard Model 2.0 circuits, enabled the device to function as a very effective charge perturbation sensor which could detect the motion of test subjects even through walls and doors.
A double-blind protocol was used where the human target assistant would randomly (based on a coin flip) go to one of two pre-selected locations either within the range of the sensor or outside the range of the sensor. The DKL LifeGuard Model 2.0 performed flawlessly, accurately detecting the correct position of the human target 25 out of 25 times.
In short, he tested the device as a motion detector, not as a human heartbeat detector. Furthermore, the test range was an astounding two to three feet! He did not test dogs and cats to see if the device could tell the difference between them and humans.
The tripod was placed approximately one foot from a plasterboard wall which had a standard hollow core wooden office door immediately adjacent to the tripod.
Based on the coin flip, the target subject would then go to one of two pre-selected locations either within the range of the sensor or outside the range of the sensor. The in-range location was approximately 2 to 3 feet from the sensor which was located facing the other side of the wall. The out-of range position was approximately 45 feet away from the location of the "DKL LifeGuard Model 2.0" .It was demonstrated that at about 15 feet, it was even possible to detect a single big toe (mine) being raised within a shoe.
What Doughterty tested was not what Sandia Labs tested, nor is motion detection at 2-3 feet a new and exciting technology that will allow rescuers to find motionless people buried in deep rubble. This new test shows that the LifeGuard can detect motion through a door when the subject is about two feet from the door or fifteen feet if you are looking for big toes. At $6,000 to $14,000 a unit, that seems a bit expensive.
One of the main identifiers of a questionable device is the lack of proper testing before marketing. Makeshift testing after the product has been marketed is another sign that there is something amiss with the product. A trustworthy company spends time and money on properly designed tests of its product, not on attacking tests it has failed. If the main selling points for a device are jargon, testimonials, and charges of conspiracies against the maker of the product, the device is likely to be worthless.
4. Self-deception and selective thinking
Numerous studies have demonstrated that people generally give an excessive amount of value to confirmatory information, i.e., data which is positive or which supports a position. We easily deceive ourselves when we want something to be true. If we have invested a good deal of time, money, etc., in a project or activity, we do not want it to fail. We cling to any little bit of data that seems to support our efforts. We do not seek out contrary data and we vigorously attack those supplying such data. We easily fool ourselves and others into thinking we have a product that works, but until we put our ideas to the test by devising rigorous controlled studies, we cannot be sure we are not deceiving ourselves. These psychological facts about self-deception apply to both those who develop such devices as the DKL LifeGuard and those who would invest in such a company or buy one of its products. In short, it is possible that Howard Sidman and the other co-founders of DKL are basically honest people who have deceived themselves, rather than crooks who are deceiving other ex-navy folk to invest in and promote their products.5
Tony Daniels, a former head of the Washington field office of the FBI, who now runs his own consulting firm, is promoting DKL LifeGuards to his clients. He says they "will definitely give law enforcement officials an edge. It will save lives and it'll save serious injuries."6 When told that scientific tests had shown that the LifeGuard does not work as claimed, his response was that such tests are irrelevant.7 Do they work is all that matters. What he means is do people who use them testify to their effectiveness. There are people who do. For example, a Los Angeles narcotics task force says it has been 100% successful in using the device.
How can it be the case that the device works in the field but not under scientifically controlled conditions? One explanation is that those in the field deceive themselves about what is actually happening when they use the device. Something similar has been shown with water dowsers. The dowsers are absolutely certain that they have a special ability to find water with their dowsing rods, but when tested under controlled conditions they fail to perform. Dowsers are unaware of the ideomotor effect and they generally only take note of successes. Police officers may be unaware that they are subconsciously moving the LifeGuard. Furthermore, they use it in situations where the device can't fail. If they find their suspect, that is proof the LifeGuard works. If they don't find anyone, that doesn't prove the LifeGuard doesn't work. The suspect may have left the area they are searching. Furthermore, the officers may fail to consider the obvious: the LifeGuard does not detect the presence of other officers, but it should. To avoid self-deception we should not rely on testimonials and must require properly designed tests of new products.
5. Reliance on testimonials instead of scientific studies
Testimonials and anecdotes are generally unreliable measures of new technologies. Double-blind and/or control group studies are necessary to rule out self-deception and a host of other psychological and logical hindrances to critical thinking. Investors, buyers and journalists who took an early favorable view of DKL should have noticed that in lieu of doing scientific studies DKL sought testimonials and favorable articles or stories in the mass media. DKL did not do any studies until after their product failed the Sandia Labs tests, and the quality of those tests DKL has done is questionable at best. Nevertheless, DKL has not lacked for testimonial support. In fact, they were recently chosen one of the top ten products of the year by National Fire & Rescue magazine, a group which did not do any scientific testing of the device they recommend. Rather, they relied upon a demonstration of the LifeGuard by a company representative.
6. Mass Media Manipulation
Reliance on testimonials instead of scientific tests should be red flags to journalists doing articles on new technologies. A minimal understanding of the proper way to test causal hypotheses should be required of journalists who review "amazing" technological products and of purchasing agents who might consider spending someone else's money on a potentially useless product. The mass media often give such devices credibility by doing promotional pieces under the guise of investigative journalism. Those who market questionable high-tech devices spend much more money on marketing than on scientific research. A good part of marketing involves getting the story out by manipulating the news media. DKL, for example, succeeded in getting Beth Berselli of the Washington Post to do a very favorable piece entitled "A Real Find for Rescuers - In a Search, LifeGuard Detects Heartbeats; Now DKL Has to Locate Buyers" (January 19, 1998).
In Berselli's article, almost all of the information about the product came from Howard Sidman, one of the founders of DKL, and Michael G. Charapp, the company's attorney. Sidman's explanation as to how the device works, as well as his assurance that it works, went unquestioned by Ms. Berselli. She even accepted Sidman's pitch that the only way the Lifeguard can be proved to work is if there is testimony from satisfied customers, but without customers there can't be any testimonies. Apparently, neither Sidman nor Berselli ever heard of a double-blind or controlled experiment. "How can DKL sell the LifeGuard," Berselli writes, "until it has a track record? But how can it develop a track record until a lot of customers are using it?" Easy. Demonstrate that the thing works under controlled conditions.
The closest Bereselli gets to demonstrating that she is not totally gullible is to note that "Though the technology is unproved, the concept behind it has supporters." For example, Joe Dougherty is quoted as saying "It's doable." Dougherty was one of those hired by DKL to test the product after it had been marketed. What he found to be doable was that the product could detect movement two feet behind a door and in his big toe at fifteen feet!
Sidman claims that he and his investors have put half a million dollars into DKL. He is on the road trying to sell it to police departments and other government agencies, no doubt hoping they will be ready to spend the taxpayer's money on unproved and questionable devices as they did with the Quadro Tracker. We are told near the end of the Washington Post article that "DKL officials say they understand the hesitancy of potential customers but are confident that testing, marketing and a public education campaign will attract customers." When Sidman told Berselli that the only way to prove the LifeGuard works is by getting testimonials from satisfied customers, she should have recognized the error. Any device that can do what Sidman says the LifeGuard can do would have trouble keeping up with the orders and awards ceremonies.
DKL cites Berselli's article in support of their product, but they make no mention of an article by Thomas Maugh published in the Los Angeles Times (September 24, 1998). In "A Detector With Detractors," Maugh, balanced company claims with the comments of skeptical scientists. Unlike Berselli, Maugh was not manipulated by DKL. For the time being, DKL is ignoring Maugh's article.
7. Reliance on lawyers instead of scientific evidence and arguments
A scientist should respond to legitimate criticism of his or her scientific claims by refuting criticism with scientific evidence and arguments. When a company responds to a scientific test of their product by suing or threatening to sue scientific investigators for making defamatory statements, it is likely the company is more interested in selling their product than in telling the truth. This was the response of Quadro and Inset when independent agencies published reports that showed their products to be ineffective.
When DKL was called "useless and a fraud" on the Internet by Keith Conover, M.D., a Search and Rescue activist, DKL responded by threatening to sue him (See <www.pitt.edu/~kconover/lawyer-letter.htm for a copy of the threatening letter from DKL's lawyers.) Dr. Conover has also written to the FBI. If the FBI finds the device to be a fraud I imagine that will be the end of DKL .until someone else resurrects it with another name.
If a company is sued for fraud by a government agency, there is a very good chance that the company is promoting a junk product, junk science, or both. Scientists brought in to test and testify for the prosecution in fraud trials are to be trusted more than scientists from the company marketing the product. For example, the Oregon attorney general had the magic laundry balls mentioned above tested by Structure Probe, Inc., an independent analytical laboratory specializing in the application of electron microscopy to problem-solving for industry, government, academia, and the law. These laundry balls were being touted as on the cutting edge of a new science which made it possible to have ice crystals at room temperature (so-called IE Crystals). Andrew W. Blackwood of Structure Probe concluded, however, that
The SuperGlobe sample analyzed was essentially water plus a blue dye, and may possibly also contain some peroxide. The container is polyethylene, an insulating material. Any claim that the container can both isolate the water and permit the emission of an electric field, as claimed in some of the promotional materials, conflicts with basic scientific principles, including the laws of thermodynamics and the conventional understanding of electricity. . . . (cited by the Oregon Dept of Justice)
Evidence from independent scientific investigation is almost always more reliable than testimony from a lawyer defending his or her high-tech client against charges of fraud.
8. Failure to consider the obvious, such as lack of guarantees, a company's track record, or the actual value of the product
One might expect the guarantee or warranty of an extraordinary product to be as grand as the product itself, but many such products are marketed using a number of weasel words. Some have no guarantee at all, such as the DKL LifeGuards. On the other hand, Inset guarantees that "the Fuel Stabilizer will reduce air pollution emissions to the level required by the Federal Clean Air Act and State emissions standards." For most cars, this guarantee means nothing, since they are already at that level or can be made so with a minor tune up. The Inset sells for about $1,600. For those cars that are in such bad shape that they can't meet these standards, the cost of the Inset would be more than the car is worth. It should be obvious that the device, even if it works as promoted, is not worth the money.
American Technologies Group (ATG) has already been exposed for its false and misleading claims about IE Crystals and laundry balls. So one should be skeptical of ATG's new product, The Force7, which uses these same IE Crystals to make automobiles use fuel more efficiently and burn more cleanly. In fact, there seems to be no end to potential application of these magic crystals, according to ATG, including fighting cancer and calcium carbonate buildup on kitchen faucets. The likelihood of a magic technology, shown to be fraudulently marketed in one case, being useful as a gas additive, cancer cure, kitchen cleaner, etc., is very slim.
Finally, even if the DKL LifeGuard works as claimed it would be of little practical use, since by design only one person can use it in the field, unless they partner with an orangutan or a dog. The device should continually receive signals from all the rescue workers, except the one holding the device who, according to DKL, is a ground and "part of the LifeGuard's dielectric array." Since most rescue and law enforcement operations involving searches will involve more than one person, they will have to leave their LifeGuards behind or they will waste precious time detecting each other as if they were Keystone cops.
There certainly are many high-tech inventions that live up to their manufacturer's claims. Distinguishing them from devices more likely to disappoint than satisfy is not beyond the ability of the average non-expert. We must guard against the tendency to believe in something just because we want to believe. We must not let pride or laziness prevent us from making inquiries and demanding support from disinterested, qualified experts. We must take with a grain of salt the testimonials provided by those with an economic stake in a product. We must not forget that there is a natural tendency to be selective in our thinking and it is easy to deceive ourselves about products that seem to work but have not been adequately tested. We must remember that interested parties often manipulate journalists into promoting their products under the guise of an investigative report. We must remember that an emphasis on marketing and legal troubles, and charges of conspiracies, often indicates that there is some serious problem with the science or technology. Finally, there are some obvious tip-offs to high-tech promises that are too-good-to-be-true, such as astounding promises backed by no guarantee, or claims that a single discovery or invention can solve numerous unrelated problems, or the fact that even if the amazing product works as advertised it would still not give good value.
1. The Oregon Attorney General's press release of November 12, 1997, concerning the agreement reached with the companies involved in the laundry ball scheme.
2. This brainchild of Wade Quattlebaum sold for more than $1,000 each. Some schools and government agencies paid as much as $8,000 for this "high-tech" dowsing rod. All the Quadro Tracker could detect, however, were suckers easily parted from other people's money (i.e., our tax dollars). Sandia Labs of Albuquerque, New Mexico, took a Quadro Tracker apart and discovered nothing inside. Each device probably cost about $2 to make. For their trouble, Sandia was threatened with a lawsuit by Quadro. However, it was the FBI who had asked Sandia to test the Tracker and on January 24, 1996, the Justice Department obtained a restraining order preventing Quadro Corporation from selling their "molecular locator." (See Skeptical Inquirer, "The Case of the Quadro Tracker," by C. Eugene Emery, Jr. Vol. 21, No. 1, January/February 1997.)
3.DKL, however, managed to come up with several ad hoc hypotheses as to why their LifeGuard failed the test: the subjects were too low, the test was unfair, they should have counted as a success detection of boxes on either side of the test box, etc.
4. As evidence of Sandia's conspiracy to discredit them, DKL notes that had they been able to count adjacencies (i.e., when the actual crate containing a human presence was next to the one identified by the operator) as hits. In a press release, Sandia notes that the DKL literature claims that the device has an accuracy of ± 5° @ 20 meters and the test layout provided over 30° of angular separation. Even so, if adjacencies were counted as hits, the operator would have gotten 17 out of 25 correct, rather than 6. "Given completely random chance and the actual sequence of locations used in placing the Test Target in crates, 17 or more combined hits and adjacencies can be shown to occur with probability of 0.092. Therefore, the results are still not inconsistent with random chance." (The Sandia press release responding to DKL's complaints is posted on the Internet at www.sandia.gov/media/hudet.htm.)
5. One of the investors in DKL is Jim Bryant, Captain U.S. Navy, retired, who has responded vigorously to my and others' criticisms of DKL on the Internet. Tom Clancy's new novel, Rainbow Six. Mentions the LifeGuard and DKL in several places. According to one who has read the book, the final pages relate how the fictional SAS team uses the Lifeguard to locate enemy assets in the jungles of Brazil. According to a source who has talked to Howard Sidman, founder of DKL, Clancy met with Sidman and discussed where DKL expects the LifeGuard to go in the next two years.
6. "A Real Find for Rescuers - In a Search, LifeGuard Detects Heartbeats; Now DKL Has to Locate Buyers, " by Beth Berselli, Washington Post, January 19, 1998.
7. "A Detector With Detractors," by Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1998.
The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science By Robert L. Park