Thursday, January 29, 2009

I’ll Be Damned

I can’t claim to be one of the major actors: But I was there, and part of the Greek chorus, when DKL LifeGuard began to come crashing down.

To set the scene, it was the quarterly meeting of the Appalachian Search & Rescue Conference’s board of directors at the University of Virginia, where our sister team the Blue Ridge Mountain Rescue Group is based. At this particular meeting, two guest speakers presented a rescue device they were selling: the DKL LifeGuard, an artifice for detecting the heartbeats of hidden and/or trapped disaster victims, lost persons, what have you. The device detected human, and only human, heartbeats, they said.

Today I can’t remember with certainty what tweaked my skeptical bone that day. I’ve heard too much of the ensuing story, learned too many amazing things about what this device was — or rather, wasn’t — to sort out the source of my own concern. But I do remember thinking that the way of using the device (a gun-like detector pivot-mounted on a pistol grip) [1], moving it in a straight line from side to side (without, mind you, making an arc), would inevitably keep its business end pointed at whatever you were facing.

It may be a little hard to believe, but that was how it worked: You pointed it at your suspected subject’s location, moved it side to side, and if a human heart beat behind a wall, or trees, or whatever, the thing would supposedly point at the source.

Something other than Newtonian mechanics lay behind my disquiet, though. While the head rep talked to us, his assistant was standing behind him, waving the damned thing at us like a long-haired 1970s magician. Without looking back, senior guy says, “Joe [or whatever his name was], quit it.”

A bell went off in my head; a whiff of snake oil (or maybe cat shit).

Well, if these guys had planned to dazzle the natives, they’d picked the wrong village. ASRC has always been a bit of a geek kingdom within search and rescue, and on that day we had some people there who were far more qualified than me to see the holes in the LifeGuard story. When, following the presentation, a group of us shared lunch, Keith Conover, MD, emergency physician and a founder of my own Allegheny Mountain Rescue Group as well as the ASRC itself, pointed out that, since animal and human EKGs are electromagnetically indistinguishable, the claim that the device can distinguish between them was ridiculous on the face of it. A lifelong HAM, he also pointed out that the length of the device’s antenna was wrong [2].

It got worse. Gene Harrison, another founder of the ASRC, was also there. I’m not sure Gene has a website; at the time, at least, he worked for Mitre, a nonprofit organization that advises Free World governments on technical issues, often at the highest levels of secrecy. Gene worked on communications in a manner that would have obligated him to kill us if he’d told us more. He, too, was buying none of it.

And they both, I believe, used the same word, a word many of us were thinking but didn’t dare voice:


Some of the folks at that little lunch were scandalized: not by the presentation, but by the baldness of that conclusion. I was among a third group, who shared grave doubts about the “technology” but shied from the harshness of the word, as apt as it turned out to be.

I won’t retell the whole story, because Keith does it so well and completely on his website; but subsequent revelations included an evaluation by Sandia National Laboratories that showed the damned things weren’t any better than random chance, and that the devices contained an open circuit bridged by a human hair — yes, an old dowsing standard. Keith was one of the heroes of the story, pushing this with the authorities (some of DKL’s defenders among whom turned out to have been early purchasers, possibly desperate to avoid embarrassment) and pushing back, quite effectively, when DKL’s lawyers threatened.

I’ve wanted to use the LifeGuard story for a while on this blog, but had resisted precisely because it’s such a high-powered context: You present any scientific finding next to it, and the concept of fraud hangs over the whole enterprise. I wanted to be very careful before loading anybody’s research with that kind of context.

Hadn’t occurred to me that I might use it in a completely opposite way: To frame the story of a scientific finding (two findings, in this case) that forced me to re-evaluate something I’d thought was hooey, but may in fact be absolutely legitimate.

I’m talking about aromatherapy, a hippie-dippy, loosey-goosey, on-the-face-of-it ludicrous alternative therapy that I’d thought was on par with homeopathy — but which, I am amazed to learn, may have some significant scientific backing [3].

In a slightly elderly (2005) report just indexed on MEDLINE (“MEDLINE Daily Update,” no less), Mamoru Tanida and crew from Osaka and Niigata universities report that rats who smelled essential oil of grapefruit — or its major component limonene — experienced an increase in blood pressure, a reduction in vagal gastric nerve activity, and an increase in nerve activity to the kidneys. The important thing here is that the Osakans could prevent all of the above effects with classical interventions for blocking the sense of smell, such as bathing the nasal cavity with zinc sulfate or surgically damaging the olfactory bulbs. So we can be pretty sure the effect is working through the sense of smell rather than, say, the limonene being absorbed and acting in the bloodstream or elsewhere.

Takakazu Oka and company from the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Kitakyushu and Yamaguchi University, in a year-old piece from PsycINFO, showed that “green odor” — a 50/50 combination of 3Z-hexenol (leaf alcohol) and 2E-hexenal (leaf aldehyde) that invokes the smell of green leaves — prevents changes in blood pressure in humans caused by immersing the hand in slushy ice water. Interestingly, most of the 19 subjects’ blood pressure rose from the unpleasant “cold-pressor test,” and green odor prevented that rise; but the smell kept blood pressure steady even among the two subjects who showed an atypical fall in blood pressure from cold pressor alone. Significance here is that they were reproducing in humans an effect previously seen only in animals.

Your next thought may well be my own: What if it’s all in their heads? Oka’s department at UOEH is, in fact, the Psychosomatic Medicine Division. But we get into deep water when we talk about psychosomatic effects in animals — not that I think they don’t exist, it just gets tricky to define them. And more importantly, as long as a real physiological response begins with a smell, I think that this argument reduces to a squabble about which circuitry it follows: Does it go through the higher brain, or does it exist at a more reflexive level? Either way, clearly, it’s statistically robust enough to be real.

And aromatherapy, in my eyes, has leaped many, many notches above the now-defunct LifeGard. I’ll be damned.

[1] Ten of 10 for cool, though: The larger version looked like a Klingon disruptor.
[2] Wild, but true: if your receiver’s antenna isn’t close to an even fraction of the wavelength you want to pick up, it can’t capture the radio waves. If your transmitter’s antenna is the wrong size, the radio waves can’t get out, and will bounce around inside your radio, eventually frying the works.
[3] Disclaimer: though it’s obviously new to me, there appears to be a body of literature on this topic of which I was blissfully unaware. Apologies to the aromatherapy folks.


Heather Houlahan said...

The thing about DKL was not that it was a fraud.

Not that it was an obvious fraud. (It was not just the techies who saw the problems at the ASRC meeting.)

But that it was a stubborn fraud.

Confronted with the evidence, the DKL wingnuts dug in their heels and screeched that they were being persecuted. That Sandia was trying to discredit them because they were developing "a competing product."

Confronted with the evidence, the FBI was ... strangely silent. Had they already blown taxpayer dollars on a bank of Klingon disruptors of their own? Coming from the agency that believes in bullet-tracking bloodhounds, one is moved to wonder ...

Confronted with the evidence, the Culver City, CA police department allowed a lunatic who was on their payroll to harass, libel, and attack both Keith and myself (who had delivered the news about the first Sandia experiment to the SAR dog world.) They presumably continued to put officer and civilian lives in danger by using the gizmo to "detect" hostage-takers through walls and other mumbo-jumbo.

They were the Blagojevich of dowsing Rods. (See, I make bad pun, kthxby.)

Dan said...

Wow. I was just wondering what happened with the DKL device a couple of weeks ago. What a scam that was! I was peripherally involved in some of the ... discussion, if you could call it that.
Aromatherapy ... would never have guessed. Thanks for the heads-up.

Steve Bodio said...

I'm more boggled that aromatherapy works than disillusioned by the other!

Ken Chiacchia said...

Re. aromatherapy, the Devil may still be in the details. We know beyond a doubt that chemicals found in herbs can have pharmaceutical applications. In practice, herbal medicine can be hit or miss depending on the skill and lore of the practitioner (who can either get the lore wrong or be following a mistaken bit of lore), the state of taxonomic knowledge (even the scientists may have confusions over the identity of closely related species with different levels of bioactive compounds), and the quality of them materials (the same plant raised in different places, in different years, prepared in different ways, and stored differently can have wide variations in active compounds).

So I think the point that hit me was that there was a serious *baisis* here, all the above caveats notwithstanding.