Are you familiar with the board game called Ouija? Released in the 19th century, it is still available for purchase and consists of a planchette and a board on which letters, numbers, and the words “yes”, “no”, and “good bye” are printed. This seemingly innocent parlour game invites bored individuals and impressionable children to lightly rest their fingers on the planchette, ask questions to dead spirits and other assorted supernatural entities, and be amazed as the planchette moves along the board, spelling out the answer.
I remember owning the game as a teenager and playing it on separate occasions with my best friend and with my cousin. And it worked. The planchette would move, seemingly of its own accord, and spell out answers to the questions that were asked. It’s funny, though: the trick never worked when I was alone. Of course, I kept asking my co-spiritualist if he or she was doing it. “No, I’m not, I swear!”
The phenomenon at work in these types of do-it-yourself séances is identical to the cause of a related paranormal phenomenon: dowsing.
Also known as divination or “water witching”, dowsing consists of finding objects, traditionally water, that cannot be detected by our five senses. Bill Cox, who was lucky enough to secure the domain name “dowsing.com” and thus help his online credibility, writes on his website:
“Dowsing is an intuitional science and can be learned. Divining is not just a gift miraculously bestowed upon a ‘few’.[…] One develops one’s own intuitive apparatus through ESP But it is NOT Extra Sensory Perception. It is Extended Sensory Perception. There’s nothing extra about it. True Dowsing is an extension of one’s natural, feeling, intuitive perceptions”1.
What does Bill claim can be found by dowsing? Underground water, minerals, oil, ore, buried objects, hidden treasures, lost valuables, missing persons, missing pets, downed aircrafts, lost vessels at sea, telluric currents, energy rings, spirals and ley lines, crystals, blessed objects, symbols, signature emanations, the human aura, archaeological artefacts, mechanical defects in equipment, lost survey markers, buried pipes, purity in foods, purity in soils for planting, etc. Basically, move over Saint Anthony: we’ve got ourselves a new patron for lost objects.
Dowsing is traditionally done with the help of a device the movements of which are said to be influenced not by its holder but rather by… something else. This mysterious mover is claimed by different practitioners to be water energy, earth energy, spirits, or even the “super-conscious”. It is not clear to anyone, including dowsers themselves, just what they are communicating with when trying to find underground water, but one man, Lloyd Youngblood, knows who holds the answer.
That’s right. According to Mr. Youngblood, writing for the American Society of Dowsers, Inc., Moses knew how dowsing worked but never bothered to tell his biographer. “I am persuaded that Moses and the ancient priesthood clearly understood the mechanism by which it worked, however, they never released such critical data to the masses”2. Until such day when Moses can be reanimated and questioned, we must contend with raised shoulders when trying to understand how divination might work.
The reason Moses is invoked is that the Bible mentioned his use of a “rod” to bring water to his people. Indeed, a dowser is usually helped in his or her divination by a sidekick of sorts, or perhaps a “sidestick”. Three main types of dowsing aids are in use.
For the beginner, a wide array of Y-shaped rods are available for purchase, fabrication, or finding! They come in metal, wood and, now, even plastic to make it easier on your hands! The Y-rod is limited in movement. Holding the V-shaped segment in both hands, the remaining end will either point up if nothing is found or drop to the ground when you have found something.
For the modern dowser, endow yourself with a pair of L-rods! Similar in shape to a policeman’s side-handle baton, L-rods, usually made of wire, cross each other when the dowser walks over an interesting spot.
If, however, you pride yourself on your hardcore traditionalism, may we suggest a pendulum? Not only suited for that “professorial” look (and an ideal partner for that Ph.D. degree from a non-accredited university), the pendulum is highly programmable and can yield up to 360 different answers! By default, a front-and-back swing indicates “yes”, while a left-and-right swing denotes a “no”; however, if held over a 360-degree circular chart, the pendulum can be used to gather minute details! Caveat emptor: not useful in high winds.
Dowsing is a lot like playing a game of “Hot or Cold” with your rod: you ask a loose question, wait for the “yes” or “no” answer derived from the behaviour of your rod or pendulum, and continue asking questions, further narrowing down the answer. Let’s say a dowser claims to have found an underground vein of water. How deep is the vein? A dowser may ask, “Is it deeper than thirty feet?” If the divination stick says “no”, the dowser could ask, “Is it deeper than twenty feet?”, and keep on refining these answers until he or she gets to the precise number of feet at which the supposed vein can be found.
By now, it should be obvious that dowsing is not scientific. Nothing in our current understanding of the laws of physics could allow for such a phenomenon by which the mere presence of something hidden is communicated to a held object, irrespective of the material composition of the artefact and the detector. The closest leap one can make to the sane world of science is to the metal detector. Such an apparatus works not because it taps into the “super-conscious”, but because of the electromagnetic properties of metals. Similarly, de-mining efforts also capitalize on the metallic composition of some mines as well as to the olfactory emanations of the explosives themselves, which is why trained animals such as dogs can also be used in these situations. But can underground water affect the movements of metallic rods?
The claims, already dubious, are stretched even further when one learns of map and information dowsing as alternatives to divination in the field. This involves gathering information about a piece of land potentially miles away using a map proxy. And information dowsing? Think Ouija. You ask any question to your pendulum and it answers back. Don’t believe me? An article published by the American Society of Dowsers, Inc., claims you can divine your workout schedule this way. The author writes that he or she asks his or her pendulum the following questions: should I work out for fewer than 90 minutes today? should I work out for fewer than 60 minutes? should I not work out today? Why pay a professional when divination can do the job? And just so we don’t forget, the author reminds us about “dowsing your supplements and dowsing your protein intake for maximum muscle gains”3.
Just a bit of harmless naïveté, one might say, but what if dowsing was promoted in healthcare? It appears that dowsers, not content with divining for water, can now cure ADHD4! The treatment is accomplished with a pendulum by asking some unnamed higher power to please balance your brain for the day. This is another tell-tale clue that the nonsense you are reading about is pseudoscience: these money-grubbing snake-oil merchants always find new ways to use their technique… and thus expand their market. While practising the brain-balancing technique is free, the author does recommend a book the Society sells on the subject….
But pulling back from these ridiculous claims for a bit, does the basic practice of dowsing for water work? As always, we can use scientific knowledge to argue against charlatans and deluded individuals until we turn blue, their retort will always be, “Science doesn’t know everything.” Fine, point to the opposing team. Science, unlike faith-based believers, is the first to admit its non-omniscience. Let’s thus ascertain whether dowsers are better at finding hidden water than they would by sheer chance alone.
Evolutionary biologist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins hosted a fantastically concise demonstration of a double-blinded study of dowsing for the documentary The Enemies of Reason. It is only five minutes in length and well worth watching:
The take-home messages of this experiment are that a) dowsing did not work despite the tested individuals claiming to be dowsers with solid track records and b) evidence does nothing to convince these individuals that the technique is inaccurate. Their excuses? God is having a laugh; the entire test is wrong; the bottles of water are being moved around in between tests, thus leaving multiple, confusing “ghost images”. At least one person admits, “In that case, I can’t do this”, and points for her. Then again, outside the testing tent, she criticizes the layout of the testing grounds, claiming that she is used to walking above the water, not next to it. While her belief was briefly shaken by the evidence, her mind quickly snapped back into the shape that is most comforting to her (and her livelihood).
One might interject upon watching the video and ask for a more serious experiment on a larger scale. I thus present to you the findings of the biggest double-blinded study ever undertaken with the express purpose of proving that dowsing works: the 1986 Scheunen trial.
Done over the course of two years and to the tune of a quarter of million of American dollars (invested by the German government), the experiment tested 500 dowsers in a barn outside of Munich. On the ground floor of the barn (or Scheune), a 10-meter line on which rides a cart. On the cart rests a pipe hooked up on both sides to a hose. With the faucet turned on, water flows through the pipe; because the pipe is essentially mobile, this water source can be moved around over this 10-meter line. On the floor above, the line is duplicated and the dowsers are tested. Can they figure out where the pipe is during the test with the aid of their dowsing rod?
Here are a few more words on the experimental set-up. The location of that cart along the line was randomly generated by a computer at the beginning of each test. The entire set-up was inspected by a professional magician to ensure the tested subjects could not cheat their way to success. And the trial was double-blinded: neither the dowser nor the researcher who was up on the floor above knew where the cart was during the trials.
You might wonder why the researcher standing next to the dowser should not know the position of the cart. This is so the scientist could not influence the predictions made with conscious or subconscious gestures and facial expressions. These particular researchers might indeed have been tempted to help the dowsers, because the trial was not set up to debunk dowsing, but to prove once and for all that dowsing worked, so that dowsers could be hired by the German government and make themselves useful. Before the trial began, the principal investigators publicly stated that dowsing was probably real. Dowsers in the past have explained their lack of success in controlled trials by the “skeptical atmosphere” in the room which threw them off. No such problem here.
Out of the 500 initial testees, only 43 were retained for the stricter final experiments. During the preliminary assays, these 500 individuals were even given feedback by the experimenter regarding their guesses! The trial only became double-blinded during the final experiments. In spite of the feedback, 457 of the initial lot did no better than chance and were thus eliminated. So dowsing does not seem to work for the majority of people; but maybe a lucky few really had some kind of a gift.
The lucky 43 were subjected to a total of 843 single tests. They would come back on separate days and try it again, and their predictions as to the location of the water running through the pipe on the cart was recorded, as was the actual location of the cart. When one plots this data, as J.T. Enright did in response to the German paper5, one sees that the totality of the guesses made by the lucky 43 over the course of their 843 tests is a random mess:
“Ah ha!” I hear you say, “but what if a few dowsers were really good? Their data is going to get lost among the frauds!” Sure. Enright looked at the best of the best. There were six of them who did very well in one series of tests. The problem? When they were brought back for the other series, they did no better than chance. Given the number of trials performed and the number of individuals tested, some of them were bound to do well in one test by chance alone. They could not, however, reproduce their results. In fact, Enright goes on to prove that the dowsers would have done better by betting each time that the cart was at the mid-line.
The Americans, for once, were brighter than the Germans: they had already concluded in 1917 that further testing of dowsing “. . .would be a misuse of public funds”5.
The remaining question is: if dowsing does not work, what force overwhelms the rod or pendulum? Are all these dowsers scam artists?
Probably not. The majority of them are simply the victim of the “ideomotor effect”. In short, suggestions and expectations can trigger muscle movements which bypass our will. Thus, while we are responsible for these twitches, it feels as if we are not. It’s the same effect at work when playing Ouija: our desire for answers triggers minuscule muscle contractions in our fingers which are not willed by the “executive centre” of our brain. Thus moveth the planchette. Thus moveth the rod.
What’s the harm? Belief without evidence can lead people to spend a lot of money on something that ultimately proves useless or worse, harms them. Take Mexico. In 2010, Britain warned Mexico that the plastic wands they had purchased from Britain’s own Global Technical Limited to detect drugs and to the cost of 10 million American dollars “may be ineffective”6. They were divining rods, nothing more. However, a member of the Mexican anti-drug unit was reported as saying, “We’ve had success with it. It works with molecules. It functions with the energy of the body”6.
Sadly, many countries imported these “magic wands” from Britain and started to use them to detect explosives. In 2010, BBC Newsnight reported on a number of deaths related to the use of a “magic wand” exported out of Great Britain and into countries such as Iraq, Thailand, and Kenya7. When one of these so-called bomb-detecting wands was disassembled, it was shown to be an empty plastic casing. No functioning electronics were present; rather, it was a true dowsing rod, primitive and utterly useless. People died because such an instrument failed to detect roadside bombs.
A slightly more insidious consequence of using dowsing rods in law enforcement and military operations is its potential to justify racism. Because dowsing rods are at the mercy of the ideomotor reflex, itself influenced by subconscious expectations, it is easy to accuse a person of a different race or religious creed of carrying, let’s say, explosives if the country you are defending is experiencing an insurgency. Take Thailand, for example. Thai military task forces in the southern provinces used the GT200, a British-made dowsing rod, to conduct arrests of Malay Muslims suspected of being insurgents. In a report by Human Rights Watch dated February 2010, it was estimated that 10% of suspected insurgents arrested by the Thai military since 2007 were arrested solely because the GT200 “detected” traces of explosives on these individuals8 . This “evidence” often led to wrongful arrest followed by torture. No, these dowsing rods cannot be held responsible for any inhumane treatment, but their use legally justified the wrongful arrest of individuals who were most likely targeted because of their looks.
In short, dowsing defies the laws of physics as we currently understand them and simply does not allow for a more accurate detection of water than would be expected by chance. In recent years, this innocent, centuries-old game of witching has taken on a darker connotation with the sale of expensive divining rods to armed organizations around the world with the promise to detect drugs and bombs… and ivory. While shooting the BBC documentary Last Chance to See in Kenya, actor and television presenter Stephen Fry noticed that park rangers were equipped with such devices to help track down ivory poachers. I will leave you with his comment:
“I was horrified. They had spent a vast sum of money on a modern equivalent of a hazel twig divining rod. There was no possibility that such a thing could work.”7
1. Bill Cox. “Dowsing FAQ by Bill Cox.” Accessed October 1, 2013. http://www.dowsing.com/dowsing-faq.html
2. Lloyd Youngblood. “Dowsing: Ancient History.” Accessed October 1, 2013. http://www.dowsers.org/dowsing/about-asd/history-of-dowsing
3. The American Society of Dowsers, Inc. “Dowsing Your Workout Schedule.” Accessed October 1 2013. http://www.dowsers.org/dowsing/articles/everyday-dowsing/dowsing-your-workout-schedule
4. The American Society of Dowsers, Inc. “Dowsing for ADD/ADHD: Basic Dowsing Techniques.” Accessed October 1 2013. http://www.dowsers.org/dowsing/articles/personal-well-being/dowsing-for-add-adhd
5. J.T. Enright. “Testing Dowsing: The Failure of the Munich Experiments.” Accessed October 3 2013. http://www.csicop.org/si/show/testing_dowsing_the_failure_of_the_munich_experiments/
6. Marc Lacy. “Mexico Is Warned on Drug Detector.” Accessed October 5 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/16/world/americas/16mexico.html?_r=1&
7. Caroline Hawley & Meirion Jones. “UK warns world about useless ‘bomb detectors’.” Accessed October 5 2013. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/8481774.stm
8. Human Rights Watch. “Thailand: Stop Using Discredited Explosives Detector.” Accessed October 5 2013. http://www.hrw.org/news/2010/02/17/thailand-stop-using-discredited-explosives-detector