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Sticking it to the skeptics

I think of myself as a "born-again skeptic." I have a hard time believing in the supernatural, the incredible, the spiritual. And for the most part, my skepticism has been borne out. Anyone notice how the UFO sightings and alien abductions all seemed to fade away once camcorders and digital cameras became virtually omnipresent? (Thank you, Bob Saget and the porn industry.)

But one phenomenon that's always left my doubts a little shaky has been dowsing. I've seen repeated scientific tests of dowsers who, using only a forked stick, have consistently been able to find water deep underground. There seem to be people who just have an ability to find water, beyond any current scientific explanation.

That's why I was intrigued by this story in the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune. It's a bit of a disappointment, though -- it has a brief history of dowsing and a few anecdotes, but nothing really substantial.

There's definitely something unusual about dowsing. There's something about it that seems to work, something beyond current scientific research to explain. But as the old saying says, "if it's stupid but it works, then it's not stupid."


Comments (18)

I'm surprised at you Jay. ... (Below threshold)

I'm surprised at you Jay. Nothing but anecdotal evidence and you believe it? Dowsing is as much baloney as homeopathy and accupuncture.

The Straight Dope did a great takedown of this a number of years ago:

http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a1_168.html

Believe it's baloney if you... (Below threshold)

Believe it's baloney if you want to, I don't know how it works but I know it does work. I built over 40 homes in rural Ector and Midland County, Texas and got tired of paying to have dry holes drilled. Water is spotty there, I was able to buy the land cheap in the first place because the owners had tried so many times before without finding any. I hired a dowser and used the same water well driller and only had one dry hole after, even when we went back to the same lots. I was 1 for 11 before the dowser, hit good wells every time but 1 after, and 6 of them were within 25' of dry holes, some as close as 10'. Same equipment, same operator, the only difference was the dowser. 1 in 11 vs. 42 in 43 seems pretty convincing to me.

Check this:<a href="... (Below threshold)

Check this:
http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/research/1281661.html

Now comes a massive set of data that suggests there may be some validity to dowsers' claims. The encouraging words are contained in a study financed by the German government and published in the Journal Of Scientific Exploration, which is a peer-reviewed scientific journal published at Stanford University.

The project was conducted by the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit in the hope of finding cheaper and more reliable ways of locating drinking water supplies in Third World countries.

Researchers analyzed the successes and failures of dowsers in attempting to locate water at more than 2000 sites in arid regions of Sri Lanka, Zaire, Kenya, Namibia and Yemen over a 10-year period. To do this, researchers teamed geological experts with experienced dowsers and then set up a scientific study group to evaluate the results. Drill crews guided by dowsers didn't hit water every time, but their success rate was impressive. In Sri Lanka, for example, they drilled 691 holes and had an overall success rate of 96 percent.

"In hundreds of cases the dowsers were able to predict the depth of the water source and the yield of the well to within 10 percent or 20 percent," says Hans-Dieter Betz, a physicist at the University of Munich, who headed the research group.

"We carefully considered the statistics of these correlations, and they far exceeded lucky guesses," he says. What's more, virtually all of the sites in Sri Lanka were in regions where the odds of finding water by random drilling were extremely low. As for a USGS notion that dowsers get subtle clues from the landscape and geology, Betz points out that the underground sources were often more than 100 ft. deep and so narrow that misplacing the drill only a few feet would mean digging a dry hole.

The link they give in the article doesn't work. These two do:

http://www.scientificexploration.org/jse/abstracts/v9n1a1.php

http://www.scientificexploration.org/jse/abstracts/v9n2a1.php

Come ON, guys! How can some... (Below threshold)
fatman:

Come ON, guys! How can somebody find water when they're half asleep?

Oh wait, that's DOWSING...sorry.

Hey, look at that! Westfor... (Below threshold)
Cardinals Nation:

Hey, look at that! Westford and Salem are only 28 miles from each other.

Go figure.

Scientific discovery often ... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:

Scientific discovery often starts with observed phenomena that can't be explained by current scientific knowledge. The farther out of the scientific mainstream such phenomena is, the more anecdotal evidence accumulates and the larger the non-scientific practice grows. Homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic and a host of other healing arts likely have a single scientific explanation, as described by John E. Sarno M.D., but even that explanation can require a long time for mainstream scientists to accept.

If we had a scientific understanding of dowsing we might find ways to apply it to the war on terror, such as locating explosive devices and maybe even people who doin’t want to be found. However, few real scientists are willing to delve into such areas because the scientific community likes to label individuals who do so as crackpots.

The Skeptical Inquirer (can... (Below threshold)

The Skeptical Inquirer (can be found generally here: http://www.csicop.org/si/) has had articles on dowsing and in any controlled situation, it doesn't produce results above chance (if the old demon memory serves me correctly).
Absent good, hard testable results, I won't accpt "water witches" any mroe than I will "real" witches.

Here's the SI article on do... (Below threshold)

Here's the SI article on dowsing:
http://www.csicop.org/si/9901/dowsing.html

Jay, even if dowsing is bon... (Below threshold)

Jay, even if dowsing is bona fide, you can still be a skeptic about the supernatural. After all, there very well could be a natural explanation for dowsing. If so, it falls within the boundaries of legitimate scientific investigation. Although, if the above SI article is correct, dowsing has so far failed under controlled conditions.

They don't call it "natural philosophy" for nothing.

I used to know an old man i... (Below threshold)
cirby:

I used to know an old man in East Texas who was a "dowser." He'd go out to a plot of land, wander around for a bit, pick up a stick, and draw an "X" on the ground. He came up with water as often as not.

Of course, he wasn't doing it by supernatural means. It was just 50 years or so of experience actually paying attention to what sort of ground layout tended to make good wells in that area.

Here's why scientific studi... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:

Here's why scientific studies must be peer reviewed and repeated to establish or disprove a theory. The SI article states “Another potential problem is that among those who think that they have dowsing skill, some may be mistaken or perhaps are even deliberate frauds. To avoid these potential pitfalls, some 500 candidate dowsers were recruited for preliminary testing. That group was winnowed down to forty-three individuals for the final, critical experiments: those who seemed to be most successful in the preliminary tests.”

Without knowing how 500 candidates were winnowed down to 43 for the final experiment, the experiment itself becomes suspect. Perhaps the preliminary testing eliminated those who would have succeeded in the critical experiments. Also, anything that may have to do with the human brain may not be completely under conscience control. For example, some people have a problem giving a urine sample if the protocol requires an observer. If your selection criteria inadvertently selected such people for critical experiments, your study could conclude that people have no conscience control over balder movements dispute mountains of antidotal evidence.

I think cirby has it correc... (Below threshold)
cajun:

I think cirby has it correct, experience with the lay of the land has more to do with it than the supernatural. In addition to the SI articles, lots of testing has been done at the JREF, that's the James Randi group down in Florida. They offer $1,000,000 to anyone that can pass a double-blind controlled test, so far, I don't think anyone has made it passed the prelims.

I, too, think that it is li... (Below threshold)

I, too, think that it is likely the result of natural phenomena, having seen it work firsthand. I think that most dowsers would say that they aren't relying on any "supernatural" influence, they just know that if they get the right forked piece, and if they hold it just right, it works. Related, but not to water, is the practice I've seen in use by utility workers (!) of holding two bent metal rods parallel and waiting for them to cross, indicating a buried cable. Again, maybe not currently scientifically explicible, but not necessarily supernatural.

Unless you (like I do sometimes) envision God sitting and looking at us on Earth, saying, "You guys think you can figure out everything? Try this one!"

I remember that a number of... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:

I remember that a number of years ago (and that's why I'm short on details) that a person challenged meteorologists to a contest. They could use their multi-billion dollar equipment and meteorological theories to predict the weather for a given area of the country while he would use a match box containing a beetle. In the end, the man with the beetle did a significantly better job of predicting the weather. This contest proved metrology is a bunch of humbug as well as the JREF challenge proves dowsing is humbug.

When dowsing works at all (... (Below threshold)

When dowsing works at all (and it usually doesn't) it's not supernatural. They're just people who've gotten good at conciously or subconciously looking for surface cues that indicate underground water. It's like cold-reading, except with geography. This explains why dowsers fail miserably under controlled conditions, like a level plot of ground with concealed underground pipes. With no physical cues to inform their decisions they discover that their sticks and wires and other silly props don't really do anything at all.

Criminologists make the cla... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:

Criminologists make the claim that they can often determine which person handled various objects. However, in a controlled experiment their results were no better than random chance. The experiment started with a number of people handling a number of objects. Then to remove any visual clues, all the objects were washed in hot soapy water and wiped dry.

Dowsing may be as simple as the unconscious mind using visual cues to find whatever a person is looking for, or it could be linked to an as yet undiscovered phenomenon. Undiscovered doesn't mean supernatural, it just means unknown at this time. We may find that the act of leveling a plot of ground and concealing various pipes in it is like wiping the fingerprints off objects and then seeing if criminologists can figure out who touched them.

I watched a dowser back in ... (Below threshold)
Dave Hamilton:

I watched a dowser back in 1972 find water for my father in law who was building a new house on a rural lot he owned.

The forked stick literally twisted in the dowser's hands and pointed straight down when he found the spot where subsequently drilling took place. Of course the good water was down there. I believe. I saw it happen.

Hi Folks,Been read... (Below threshold)

Hi Folks,

Been reading the thread .
I ususally dont get involved in
controversial topics but.....

One day twenty years ago I didnt have a clue
what dowsing was . I am a builder and saw an
old timer locate a well in an area of sulphur
water [ rotten egg smell ] . We hit good water,
all the neighbors were in awe as they had the
rotten egg water . I since tried it and now,
well I _know_ it works, because I actually tried it
and practiced , instead of just discussing it :)
Now in our discussion group we have , Doctors,
Lawyers , Scientists, Physicists, Laypersons, Teachers, Treasure Hunters all involved .
Sometimes yo just have to experience things to
_know_ what it is all about . All else is talk.

Have a good dowsing day ! > geodowser - http://www.dowsingworks.com > international society of dowsing research > http://groups.yahoo.com/group/digital-dowsers/




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