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Robert Todd Carroll

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dowsing (a.k.a. water witching)

Dowsing is the action of a person--called the dowser--using a rod, stick or other device--called a dowsing rod, dowsing stick, doodlebug (when used to locate oil) or divining rod--to locate such things as underground water, hidden metal, buried treasure, oil, lost persons or golf balls, etc. Since dowsing is not based upon any known scientific or empirical laws or forces of nature, it should be considered a type of divination. The dowser tries to locate objects by occult means.

Map dowsers use a dowsing device, usually a pendulum, over maps to locate oil, minerals, persons, water, etc. Clearly, such dowsers are not relying on geophysical forces to move their pendulums. Other dowsers take their divining rods to the field. The prototype of a dowser is the field dowser who walks around an area using a forked stick to locate underground water. When above water, the rod points downward. (Some dowsers use two rods. The rods cross when above water.) Various theories have been given as to what causes the rods to move: electromagnetic or other subtle geological forces, suggestion from others or from geophysical observations, ESP and other paranormal explanations, etc. Most skeptics accept the explanation of William Carpenter (1852). The rod moves due to involuntary motor behavior, which Carpenter dubbed "ideomotor action."

Does dowsing work?

Of more interest than why the rods move, however, is the issue of whether dowsing works. Obviously, many people believe it does. Dowsing and other forms of divination have been around for thousands of years. There are large societies of dowsers in American and Europe. Thousands of dowsers practice their art every day in all parts of the world. There have even been scientists in recent years who have offered proof that dowsing works. There must be something to it, then, or so it seems. However, close scrutiny of the data, including the so-called scientific proofs of dowsing, reveal that there is no more evidence to support dowsing than there is to support astrology.

The most common reason for believing in dowsing is based upon experiences and anecdotes of dowsers and those who observe them. The evidence is simple: dowsers find what they are dowsing for and they do this many times. What more proof of dowsing is needed? The fact that this pattern of dowsing and finding occurs repeatedly lead many dowsers and their advocates to make the causal connection between dowsing and finding water, oil, minerals, golf balls, etc. This type of fallacious reasoning is known as post hoc reasoning and is a very common basis for belief in paranormal powers. It is essentially unscientific and invalid. Scientific thinking includes being constantly vigilant against self-deception and being careful not to rely upon insight or intuition in place of rigorous and precise empirical testing of theoretical and causal claims. Every controlled study of dowsers, including the "Scheunen" study [see below], has shown that dowsers do no better than chance in finding what they are looking for. Most dowsers do not consider it important to doubt their dowsing powers or to wonder if they are self-deceived. They never consider doing a controlled scientific test of their powers. They think that the fact that they have been successful over the years at dowsing is proof enough. When dowsers are scientifically tested and fail, they generally react with genuine surprise. Typical is what happened when James Randi tested some dowsers using a protocol they all agreed upon. If they could locate water in underground pipes at an 80% success rate they would get $10,000 (now the prize is over $1,000,000). All the dowsers failed the test, though each claimed to be highly successful in finding water using a variety of non-scientific instruments, including a pendulum. Says Randi, "the sad fact is that dowsers are no better at finding water than anyone else. Drill a well almost anywhere in an area where water is geologically possible, and you will find it."

Some of the strongest evidence for dowsing comes from Germany and the so-called "Scheunen" or "Barn" experiment. In 1987 and 1988, more than 500 dowsers participated in more than 10,000 double-blind tests set up by physicists in a barn near Munich. (Scheune is the German word for barn.) The researchers claim they empirically proved "a real dowsing phenomenon." Jim Enright of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography evaluated the data and concluded that the so-called "real dowsing phenomenon" can reasonably be attributed to chance. His argument is rather lengthy, but here is a taste of it:

The long and the short of it is that dowsing performance in the Scheunen experiments was not reproducible. It was not reproducible inter-individually: from a pool of some 500 self-proclaimed dowsers, the researchers selected for their critical experiments 43 candidates whom they considered most promising on the basis of preliminary testing; but the investigators themselves ended up being impressed with only a few of the performances of only a small handful from that select group. And, even more troublesome for the hypothesis, dowsing performance was not reproducible intra-individually: those few dowsers, who on one occasion or another seemed to do relatively well, were in their other comparable test series usually no more successful than the rest of the "unskilled" dowsers.

The Barn study itself is curious. It seems clearly to have been repudiated by another German study done in 1992 by a group of German scientists and skeptics. The Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften (GWUP) [Society for the Scientific Investigation of the Parasciences] set up a three-day controlled test of some thirty dowsers, mostly from Germany. The test was done at Kassel, north of Frankfurt, and televised by a local television station. The test involved plastic pipe buried 50 centimeters in a level field through which a large flow of water could be controlled and directed. On the surface, the position of the pipe was marked with a colored stripe, so all the dowsers had to do was tell whether or not there was water running through the pipe. All the dowsers signed a statement that they agreed the test was a fair test of their abilities and that they expected a 100% success rate. The results were what one would expect by chance (Randi, 1995). Defenders of dowsing do not care for these results, and continue to claim that the Barn study provides scientific proof of dowsing.

another German study

Further evidence for dowsing has been presented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft fE Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) [the German Society for Technical Co-operation] sponsored by the German government. They claim, for example, that in some of their water dowsing efforts they had success rates above 80% "results which, according to responsible experts, could not be reached by means of classical methods, except with disproportionate input." Of particular interest is a report by University of Munich physicist Hans-Dieter Betz, "Water Dowsing in Arid Regions: Report on a Ten-Year German Government Project," published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration in 1995. (This is the same Betz who, with J.L. König, authored a book in 1989 on German government tests proving the ability of dowsers to detect E-rays.) The report covers a ten-year period and over 2000 drillings in Sri Lanka, Zaire, Kenya, Namibia, Yemen and other countries. Especially impressive was an overall success rate of 96 percent  achieved in 691 drillings in Sri Lanka. "Based on geological experience in that area, a success rate of 30-50 percent would be expected from conventional techniques alone," according to Betz.  "What is both puzzling yet enormously useful is that 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 or 20 percent. We carefully considered the statistics of these correlations, and they far exceeded lucky guesses."

Betz ruled out chance and the use of landscape and geological features by dowsers as explanations for their success. He also ruled out "some unknown biological sensitivity to water." Betz thinks that there may be "subtle electromagnetic gradients" resulting from fissures and water flows which create changes in the electrical properties of  rock and soil. Dowsers, he thinks, somehow sense these gradients in a hypersensitive state. "I'm a scientist," says Betz,"and those are my best plausible scientific hypotheses at this point....we have established that dowsing works, but have no idea how or why."

There are some puzzling elements to Betz's conclusions, however. Most of his claims concern a single dowser named Schröter. Who observed this dowser or what conditions he worked under remain unknown. Betz is a physicist and what knowledge he has of hydrogeology is unknown. Furthermore, Betz's speculation that dowsers are hypersensitive to subtle electromagnetic gradients does not seem to be based upon scientific data. In any case, the hypothesis was not tested and I am not sure how one would go about testing such a claim. At the very least, one would expect that geological instruments would be able to detect such "electromagnetic gradients."

When others have done controlled tests of dowsers, the dowsers do no better than chance and no better than non-dowsers (Vogt and Hyman; Hyman; Enright 1995, 1996; Randi 1995). Some of Betz's data are certainly not scientific, e.g., the subjective evaluations Schröter regarding his own dowsing activities. Much of the data is little more than a report that dowsing was used by Schröter and he was successful in locating water. Betz assumes that chance or scientific hydrogeological procedures would not have produced the same or better results. It may be true that in one area they had a 96% success rate using dowsing techniques and that  "no prospecting area with comparable sub-soil conditions is known where such outstanding results have ever been attained." However, this means nothing for establishing that dowsing had anything to do with the success. Analogous sub-soil condition seems to be an insufficient similarity to justify concluding that dowsing, rather than chance or use of landscape or geological features, must account for the success rate.

Betz seems to have realized that without some sort of testing, reasonable people would not accept that it had been established that dowsing is a real phenomenon based upon the above types of data. He then presents what he calls "tests" to establish that dowsing is real. The first test involves Schröter again. A Norwegian drilling team dug two wells and each failed to hit water. The dowser came in and allegedly not only hit water but predicted the depth and flow. Apparently, we have the dowser's own word on this. In any case, this is not a test of dowsing, however impressive it might seem.

In the second test, Betz asserts that dowsers can tell how deep water is because "the relevant biological sensations during dowsing are sufficiently different to allow for the required process of distinction and elimination." He has no evidence for this claim. In any case, in this "test" Schröter again is asked to pick a place to dig a well and again he is successful. This time his well is near a well already dug and known to be a good site. Betz claims that there were some geological formations that would have made the dowser's predictions difficult, but again this was not a scientific test of dowsing.

The third test was a kind of contest between the dowser and a team of hydrogeologists. The scientific team, about whom we are told nothing significant, studied an area and picked 14 places to drill. The dowser then went over the same area after the scientific team had made their choices, and he picked 7 sites to drill. (Why they did not both pick the same number of sites is not explained.) A site yielding 100 liters per minute was considered good. The hydrogeologists hit three good sources; the dowser hit six. Clearly, the dowser won the contest. This test does not prove anything about dowsing, however. Nevertheless, I think Herr Schröter should knock on James Randi's door and be allowed to prove his paranormal powers under controlled conditions. If he is as good as he and Betz say he is, he should walk away a very rich man.

Betz has written a very long report, which is little more than a testimonial to the paranormal dowsing powers of Herr Schröter and a reiteration of the claims made for the Barn study. He would have done better to have set up a controlled, double-blind experiment with the dowser, one which does not allow the dowser himself to determine the conditions of the experiment and one which did not have as many uncontrollable variables as those rampant in the ten-year project.

See related entries on divination, feng shui, geomancy and ley lines.

further reading

reader comments


Enright, J. T. "Dowsers Lost in a Barn." Naturwissenschaften, 83(6):275-277, 6/1996.

Enright, J. T. "Water Dowsing: the Scheunen Experiments," Naturwissenschaften, 82(8):360-369, 8/1995.

Feder, Kenneth L. Frauds, Mysteries and Myths, ch. 3, (Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1990). $15.96

Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957), ch. 9.

Hyman, Ray.. "Dowsing," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996) pp. 222-233. $104.96

Randi, James. An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1995). $11.96

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982), especially chapters 10 and 13.

Vogt, Evon and Ray Hyman. Water Witching U.S.A. 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

©copyright 1998
Robert Todd Carroll

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Last updated 11/21/98

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