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Detecting a Fake

BUSINESSMAN James McCormick was recently sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in prison in the United Kingdom for multiple counts of fraud in selling bogus explosives detectors. McCormick’s company ATSC (UK) sold the fake detectors to several countries including Iraq and Afghanistan, reportedly making more than $70 million.

Part of what facilitated McCormick’s ability to peddle these detectors—which had no power source (they supposedly ran on static electricity) and no true ability to detect explosives—were bribes to the right people in the countries that were buying the devices. But experts say there are psychological reasons that people may have continued using the devices even after experts questioned their validity.

Explosives detectors, sensors, and alarms tend to give off a certain percentage of false positives; it’s considered a part of security checks, whether that’s a check at an airport in New York or at a roadside in Iraq.

“Every now and then, the bomb detector would say there’s a bomb here and, of course, there wasn’t…you have to look at the psychology of the people that were using these devices and their superiors. And to them [the false positive] didn’t mean that the machine was bogus or faulty or defective, it just meant that like everything else, sometimes it’s wrong,” says Benjamin Radford, research fellow at the nonprofit Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a science-based paranormal investigator who often dispels myths through research and experiment.

“You can always explain an error away by saying ‘oh, that was human error, you didn’t use the device properly.’ And there’s a lot of what we call in our trade of psychology ‘superstitious behavior’ that arises” to explain why you believe in a device that doesn’t deliver, and “why you continue believing,” says Raj Persaud, a consultant psychiatrist.

The more dangerous failing, of course, is the false negative, in which bombs or other dangerous devices get through checkpoints because the detectors don’t work. “If there’s a bomb and explosion, the immediate reaction is tending to the injured, finding the culprit, all these other things. It’s not necessarily going back and saying ‘hold on here. How come this bomb detecting device didn’t work?’” says Radford.

Aside from the bribery, there are several factors that could have assisted in winning buyers for the detectors. The first is literally just the fear of looking stupid by not understanding McCormick’s explanation of how the detectors work, says Persaud. McCormick was promising that the detectors were capable of so much that it should have tipped people off, says Radford. “All along the way in this story, there were people who should have seen right through this, people who were scientifically literate. And unfortunately that really wasn’t the case,” he says.

McCormick was also using authority from other sources, such as a highly respected educational degree and Chamber of Commerce stickers and other endorsements. “Beware the invocation of authority from another source,” when evaluating someone’s assertions, says Persaud.

Persaud says the high stakes of the situation could also have added to users turning a blind eye after realizing the devices were likely fake, even though lives were at stake or perhaps because of that. “Once you said this guy’s device was fraudulent, … what was the alternative? You created a situation where you didn’t have something, and you needed something desperately.”

The other thing to remember, says Radford, is that most of the people using the devices on the ground were not the decision-makers buying the devices from McCormick. “Most of these security personnel, they do a good job, and they’re doing an important job. But the fact of the matter is that at the end of the day, it’s not their responsibility to ensure that the devices they’re using are scientifically valid.”

This is part of why it’s so important to have people in an organization who are critical thinkers and can question authority, says Radford. He notes that companies need people who will raise their hands and say “Are we sure that this thing works?”

A whistleblower from inside McCormick’s company revealed the fraud, writing to the British authorities that the devices were likely useless.