Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dowsing Hits Thailand

Yikes! The Thai military has purchased at least 500, and as many as 2,000, of these widgets at better than $30,000 each. Do the math. According to the brochure, they detect just about any bad stuff you can name...bombs, drugs, ivory, currency, whatever. "Poppy, cocoa, and marijuana planting areas." Detecting chocolate is nice, but what about coca, from which cocaine is derived? No mention. Hmmmmm. Distance is not an issue..."any thickness of wall can be penetrated, whether concrete, metal, brick or lead." No batteries too!

Similar devices have been used in Iraq, apparently. I'm guessing locales like Iraq and Thailand are good targets for the woo-meisters. Thailand is a world leader in woo, but dowsing has no tradition here; the device looks and feels like any other high-tech mystery box from the West, and few are aware of dowsing's very questionable history.

It was disappointing to see Thai media-darling/forensic scientist Khunying Pornthip defending the device. She gets trotted out every time there's a high-profile murder here in Thailand. Ask a Thai to play word association with her name, and the result is inevitable: "big hair."

I had assumed she was perfectly competent in her craft, but after her assessment of the glorified dowsing rod (well, it's not 100% accurate, it needs to be operated by someone in good physical condition, blah, blah, blah), I now have doubts. Having used the divining rod in the past as a means of detecting bomb residues on corpses, it seems she is now forced to defend its viability or risk humiliation and the wrath of victims' relatives. The military pu-yais ("big people") who ordered the device are in a similar predicament. If they actually recognize the error of their ways, one shouldn't expect a public retraction, but a quiet discontinuation of usage of the "GT-200."

At least in the case of the military, corruption is a reasonable assumption. Let's be generous to the generals, however, and give them the benefit of the doubt. How then, could numerous public figures claim that they've used and validated the device to their own satisfaction? Well, Buddhists (better than 90% of the Thai populace) are familiar with the power of the mind, but sometimes forget that its greatest power may be in its capacity for self-deceit. Witness a gaggle of dowsers exuding supreme confidence in their talents in a double-blinded test, performing no better than chance, and offering up the usual rationalizations (sun spots!) for their failures. It's a five part series, and highly entertaining:

Finally, here's a wonderful BBC expose of a near-identical widget. The company owner doesn't even deny that the ADE651 is, essentially, a dowsing rod.

In all seriousness, it's likely that lives are being lost over this dressed-up medieval artifact.

More on the travesty of the GT-200 here and here and here. It's no surprise to find that the purveyors of this scam have interesting relationships with the law, with the same concept reincarnating under a new name (e.g. "the MOLE", the ADE651, etc.) after the authorities clamp down.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Creating an Auspicious Environment for Biochemical Research

This is the 12th floor of the "Adulyadejwikrom" Building at Sirirat Hospital in Bangkok. Serious research is conducted here in the areas of dengue, thallasemia, and other maladies, making this scene a bit incongruous from my perspective.

Make no mistake, the goal here is to increase the level of good luck in the research facilities for the next year. The ceremony ends with the abbot touring the lab, sprinkling holy water on everyone and everything.

I gently questioned the lab director who organized the affair. Isn't this mix of science and superstition a tad odd? I didn't get a satisfactory answer, though he points out he's also organizing a weeklong meditation retreat that will be entirely devoid of superstition. He refers to meditation as a science of the self. I don't have a big problem with that, though I'm aware of various objections (e.g. in what sense are your "research" findings reproducible/falsifiable?) and would be interested to hear Acharn Pa-Thai's responses.

In fairness, if superstition is ever warranted in a science lab, this might be the place. Floors 3-6 of the building are a morgue. Students report seeing ghosts on the elevator. And floor 2 is a museum where, amongst pickled fetuses, you find the mummified remains of "See Uey", the legendary, cannibalistic, liver-eating, psycho-killer of 1940's Thailand.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Big Hand = Small Banana ???

The Seven Things You Can't Doo in a Thai Taxi

Alternatively, this post could be titled, "Just as I was about to crap in the taxi..."

In case you're wondering, image #6 is a durian fruit.