Interview with Bruce M. Hood
March 5, 2010
Bruce M. Hood is the director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the experimental psychology department at the University of Bristol. His book Supersense: Why We Believe The Unbelievable has been featured in Time Magazine and been praised by the likes of Steven Pinker and Susan Blackmore.
Active on Twitter (with the account “Supersense”), and recently featured in the media for his investigations on dowsing-rod-like “bomb detecting” devices, he elaborated on his blog-posts and views about “interesting times for skeptics.”
Sturgess: On Twitter recently you wrote that it’s “interesting times for skeptical bloggers, libel laws, bomb-detectors and homeopathy—what’s next?”
Hood: Yes! I think I was pointing out, as a number of skeptics have done, that there appears to be a lot of activity this time of the year. I was just kind of giving a shout out to everyone involved, not just the people who are the most prominent figures in the whole thing, but everyone who is behind a campaign. Basically a pat-on-the-back.
Sturgess: I think you deserve a pat-on-the-back as well because of the GT200 bomb-detector! How have you become involved with investigating that?
Hood: People often ask: what does a psychology professor have to do with international frauds and bomb-detecting?! It was a weird set of coincidences and circumstances that got [me] to that situation. I’d written about it last year and the first time the “bomb went off” was in October 2009. I mean, James Randi had written about these devices a long time ago. And people have been blogging about it and there are certain bloggers who [have] dedicated their activities to these things, so I followed up with a blog-post on my site.
The strange thing was that nothing really much happened until the second explosion in December 2009, which really kind of hit home when I discovered that the company making that particular device—the one used in Iraq is the ADE651—were based locally! So this was no longer a kind of issue happing across the world, this was [in] my backyard.
So I guess it’s kind of unusual in that sense that I made a direct challenge to Jim McCormick who was the director [of ATSC, makers of the device]—and to my surprise he posted a comment on my site and challenged me to come down and test the validity of this device, which of course I accepted. And so that’s how it really got underway because I was suddenly in a situation where I was helping to expose what was clearly a piece of nonsense.
At that point I realized that people had been trying to shut these guys down for quite some time without much success. So what I thought was needed was something that was much higher profile, because it had been in The New York Times; it had been in The Guardian and, you know, Dr. Ben Goldacre had talked about it, but nothing was happening.
So, I contacted the BBC and by coincidence the Newsnight team [was] also interested; Caroline Hawley who is the Middle East correspondent—she’s worked out there and she knows all about these devices. When they discovered that I had this meeting set up with McCormick, they thought, “here’s an opportunity to catch him out.” So there was kind of a plan to spring onto it with a full camera-crew just to demonstrate it.
But he started stringing me along; it was quite clear by that point because he had just been called over to Baghdad to explain the device and there’s footage shown on television of him with the Iraq troops demonstrating that it can detect a grenade… in full view! What a big surprise!
He was already starting to get nervous; he did agree to meet with me if I signed a nondisclosure, which of course defeats the whole purpose. It’s like a gagging order, I wouldn’t have been able to say anything. So at that point, we decided to turn up at the offices in the West Country, where I’m based, and of course he didn’t appear on camera. At that point the police chief had instigated the arrest of McCormick for fraud and the Newsnight team produced a documentary about exposing it all!
So, my role was really bringing together a number of components of it—for example, they got their hands on the device cards, so they could show that it contained nothing but a security tag from a shop.
Sturgess: Wow, that’s an interesting development!
Hood: Yes, well, I don’t know if you saw it, but the GT200 is a similar device; there’s an interesting history there, too. Just this week they opened it up and there wasn’t even the security tag within; [the makers] didn’t bother with the pretence of there being any electronics in it! So that’s kind of how I got involved with it and of course the data [were] based on a well-known phenomenon known as the ideomotor effect. So that was my scientific contribution to it. But really, I felt as a professional and someone in academia that I couldn’t sit by and do nothing.
I think we had a very remarkable success. But still, there’s a lot to be done because these devices are still out there; they’re still being used in Iraq and we have the elections coming up this month, so I predict that there’ll be more atrocities. We do have to try to keep pressure on, particularly [on] the British government because they’re partly responsible for what’s happening. I mean, we knew about these devices ten years ago, and my personal opinion is that they should have stepped in and done something, done something to stop it.
Sturgess: So where do people normally go when they do want to step in and stop something in these cases?
Hood: It’s very hard to influence policy; to try to get real action is notoriously difficult. Unless you’re on the front page—I mean, Ministers of Parliament are notoriously difficult: they’re very retroactive; they’re not proactive in their activities in my experience.
So, it’s very difficult to make change. But in the case of the bomb detectors, that was a combination of pressure and basically publicity. That publicity was driven partly by the tide of opinion. A part, obviously, [was due to the fact] that it was a bit of ‘woo’! But it just goes to show you, people will believe things and usually when you charge—it was about twenty thousand dollars for each device—the cost of it seems to suggest that there must be something to it. There’s a number of factors going on [to make one] suspicious.
Sturgess: The political-lines: people always wonder who’s really making the decisions there and what people really can do.
Hood: Yeah, both the Iraq and Thai governments have said that they’re investigating, so we’ll see what happens there. But these are sold in over twenty countries! Even the UN brought fifteen of these devices! So, they’ve been very successfully sold.
Sturgess: One of the places people can read about this is your blog, and I’ve noticed that another post that has attracted quite a few comments, one called “Hopeopathy No Longer Available On The NHS” or the National Health Service in the U.K. What’s been the overall reaction?
Hood: It’s funny, because I seem to have got[ten] quite a bit of flack about that! As you’re aware, the Science and Technology committee made their judgment about homeopathy and there were recommendations that funding should be stopped. Although that’s a recommendation that has to be processed through government, I think that in all likelihood it will be a recommendation that will go ahead—one can’t tell for certain, there seems to be some reactions towards it from MPs.
But yes, this is a result of again, various campaigns—certainly the 10:23 campaign and those speaking about the lack of a scientific basis for homeopathy. I made comments that it’s clearly based on notions of sympathetic magic, you know, the notion of “like cures like”; and the idea of infinite dilutions are clearly nonsense and don’t have any scientific basis.
But my point was a little more subtle: look, you know, maybe we should also consider the fact there’s a real place for the placebo effect in modern healthcare. And homeopathy works from a placebo-point, although homeopaths claim that it’s stronger than placebo—I don’t think that can possibly be true. So, if it’s working as a placebo, then maybe we should consider it in that context; in which case I think there is a place for placebos in modern health care, because I think that frankly, there’s a substantial number of people who get better and yet you don’t want to be giving them active ingredients.
Indeed, [from] practices in the U.K. and in America, it’s quite clear that half the GP’s, the practitioners, are prescribing placebos. Now, they’re not inert. Typically they’re antibiotics or vitamins. Now, this is a typical patient and they’re expecting something; you have to give them some sort of intervention, and I made the point that there is a danger of giving out antibiotics, so maybe giving out homeopathy is a convenient way of giving out an inert substance that is not going to harm them and is probably going to make them feel better. So, that kind of gets into the ethics of giving treatments that actually don’t have any effect or are certainly not targeted to any complaint that the patient might have.
So, that was the point I was trying to make: that effectively, by removing homeopathy, you’re removing an opportunity to give patients something that is not going to do them any harm. Now, that raises a whole new set of issues—you might say “that’s not ethically right; doctors shouldn’t be doing it,” but the truth of the matter is that they do.
The other point is that if you’re able to use that strategy, then you get patients who have all matters of issues, so you have to send them for scans and blood-tests that ends up costing even more—so from a pragmatic view-point, I was just throwing out there the possibility that actually, it would be useful to have this course of action to give people something that is not going to do them any harm. Because people don’t like to think that it can all be in the head, that there’s a psychosomatic component. Not that homeopathy works—unfortunately some people have taken my position to mean that it’s somehow “supporting homeopathy.” I’m not supporting homeopathy; I’m supporting the opportunity to give placebos.
Sturgess: One of the points that was raised was “will this make homeopathy disappear or will it make it go underground or have it unchecked?”
Hood: I think that’s true. Imagine if you turned away a patient, if you said “sorry, there is no medical treatment for you.” That’s going to leave them very unsatisfied and then they’ll seek alternative treatment, and that’s when you’re going into the realms of alternative medicines, which are potentially dangerous. Certainly there are examples of people who have denied conventional medicine in favor of homeopathy and it has lead to deaths; I’m not saying it’s totally innocuous. But we do have to be aware if you don’t give people something, and if that’s not regulated, then it’s potentially dangerous.
Sturgess: I guess I’m not that surprised, since even in your book Supersense, you wrote “I might come up with concepts that may challenge the really hard-core skeptics out there,” so I think it’s really appreciated that you continue to question and raise awareness in this manner.
Hood: Well, that’s the beauty and the power of skepticism: to try and evaluate the evidence and to take a balanced view. I think that dogma, whether you’re a believer or nonbeliever, is not appropriate, and you need to have the flexibility to change with the evidence. That’s what a true skeptic should be, not someone who dismisses it off-hand.
Clearly there [are] issues with the scientific basis and evidence and so forth, but then there are more other subtle issues about the fact that you’re always going to have a hardcore portion of your society who are going to believe in this and it’s how you deal with that. If there’s a “scale of skepticism,” then I’m probably a moderate—I’m not at the far end! People believe weird stuff!
Sturgess: People do!
Hood: So, it will be interesting to see what happens with homeopathy; I suspect it will be removed from the NHS. I think that the cost to the NHS is not particularly high but then people [will] protest that any cost that supports supernatural thinking is wrong. But balance that with the costs of further investigations and having to give them something, then it turns out not to be a simple equation.