Dowsing in the News
November 28, 2017
I’ve taken a break from blogging because I haven’t felt the urge to write for a while. But just now I’m intrigued by the row about British water companies using ‘divining’ techniques. It’s the kind of thing that interests me: an example of the great gulf that exists between science and experience – or theory and practice – in matters of this kind.
It started when a couple in the Midlands needed to identify the path of the mains pipes near their home for a building project, and got the local water company to send a technician. They were surprised to see him walking around with ‘divining’ rods. As it happens, their daughter is an evolutionary biologist and blogger, Sally Le Page. She tweeted the company to ask what on earth it was thinking, using occult techniques when there is ‘zero evidence they work’. It tweeted back that in fact it finds some of the older methods are just as effective as the new ones, although it also uses drones and satellites.
This got someone else hot and bothered, and he contacted his local water company, which confirmed that yes, some of its technicians still used dowsing rods when they needed to. Le Page then tweeted the UK’s other water companies, and most of them said the same. A total of ten out of twelve confirmed that they use dowsing.
All this then got into the mainstream press. I first saw it in the Guardian, which has now run several pieces, essentially crying ‘witchcraft!’ As with homeopathy, the outrage is about people resorting to superstitious practices, along with high-minded complaints about wasting taxpayers money, risking damage to lives and property, and so on.
The water companies naturally took fright, and ordered their PR people to do an about-turn. As a result, some companies now say they don’t actually equip their technicians with dowsing rods, but they understand some use them on their own initiative. Others have decided they disapprove of the practice, and blame ‘rogue engineers’.
As it happens, I went into this subject recently when the Psi Encyclopedia (which I edit) uploaded an entry on dowsing, the preferred term to ‘divining’, as its author points out. The article mentioned some interesting evidence in its favour, but didn’t give much detail, so I expanded it somewhat, and in view of the current brouhaha I now think it should be presented in much more depth in a separate entry. It comes in two lengthy articles by a German geophysicist named Hans-Dieter Betz, published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration in 1995.
Betz starts by describing a 1980s water-drilling project in Sri Lanka carried out by a German development agency, Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), and funded by the German government. Using conventional methods to locate potable water sources for rural communities in Third World countries is time-consuming and costly, especially as they often come to nothing. This applied here, where the aim was to provide drinking water for the town of Vavuniya and poor rural villages in the north of the island. So the project manager, Hans Schröter, used dowsing techniques to identify promising sites, and in most cases drilling revealed usable water strata that, it’s claimed, could not have been identified by means of conventional geo-electrical measurements.
The value of this result has to be highly appreciated: in a terrain largely unknown from a hydrogeological point of view, proving to be particularly difficult on account of its principally crystalline bedrock of variable and mostly light fracture intensity, 654 wells have been successfully constructed within a short time and without any noteworthy precursory studies, partly under very difficult imposed conditions, and with a small staff and two relatively simple and medium-capacity rigs… Within the final evaluation of the entire program, only 27 of the 691 drillings can be considered as classical dry holes; that constitutes a failure rate of 4%. Not only for that particular area, a success rate of 96% must be considered as being untypically high; no prospecting area with comparable sub-soil conditions is known where such outstanding results have ever been attained.
But was Schröter’s dowsing really the cause of this success? To try to find out, GTZ carried out a simple field experiment near Vavuniya. Two bore holes had been drilled in a school yard by in a separate project funded by Norway; both turned out to be dry. GTZ asked Schröter to dowse for alternatives in the same area. There was no vegetation, and no other visual clues to enable intelligent guessing, as confirmed by sceptical hydrologists. Betz writes:
After a short time, Schröter found, thanks to his subjective dowsing reaction, a place where he supposed that drinking water could be found at a depth of as low as 35m and with a yield of at least 10 l/minute. The allegedly productive spot was located some 30m from the one and 80m from the other dry borehole. A light mobile drilling rig could immediately carry out the test drilling and finished it by dawn of the same day. The result was unequivocal: water was found just as predicted. In this case, the value of the dowsing technique was confirmed, regarding not only the location but, to general surprise, also the depth and deliverable water quantity.
In a second test, Schröter was asked to reverse the process and identify a dry site near to a successful borehole, one that would yield less than 5 litres per minute at a comparable depth, ie 50 metres. Drilling at the site he indicated produced water at 13 litres per minute near the surface, but none in the hard rock below, which was the target area. (Betz makes the point that skilled dowsers seem able to distinguish the depths at which water can be found.)
In a third test, in rural villages in Sri Lanka, a direct comparison was made between conventional methods and dowsing. The aim was to identify drilling sites in a particular area that would provide at least 100 litres of water per minute. Fourteen sites were identified by conventional methods – mainly geo-electrical procedures, supplemented by the study of geological maps and aerial photographs, and information supplied by local experts based on previous explorations. This took several weeks of intensive work. Schröter was then asked to inspect the same area and identify drilling sites by dowsing alone, without benefiting from any of the available data. Within a few days he had come up with seven positions.
Drilling then began on all 21 sites, carried out by the same team using the same equipment and to the same depth. Of the fourteen sites identified by conventional methods, three were found to be above the target, producing 300-400 litres per minute; the rest were below. Of the seven identified by Schröter by dowsing alone, six were above the target (150-400 l/m); one was below.
For practical purposes, this was a clear win for dowsing over conventional methods – 86% compared with 21% - and you can see why GTZ were so keen to persevere with it. (Betz goes on to point out that the company’s success was far greater than that achieved by a Norwegian company in the same area a couple of years earlier.) The rest of his first paper documents similarly successful activity involving dowsing in other countries: the Philippines, Dominican Republic, Congo, Niger, Yemen, Verde Island, Kenya, Egypt and Namibia.
In his second paper Betz describes three other high performing dowsers in Germany (briefly summarised in the Psi Encyclopedia article). He goes on to report in detail on two scientific studies which he carried out at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian’s University, with Schröter among the subjects. One was in a barn, and involved trying to trace the path of concealed water pipes. Most of the subjects performed at chance, although there were significant results in a few cases, but nothing spectacular. A second similar experiment was carried out outside in fields. Here too the results were poor in most cases, but highly significant in a few (naturally including Schröter).
The first of these experiments was scrutinised by Jim Enright, a sceptical behavioural physiologist. Enright rejigged the stats used by Betz in order to get an insignificant result, and larded his piece with the usual sort of polemic to drive home his point, reassuring those who feel insulted by the idea that something as crazy as dowsing might actually work. In his rebuttal, Betz rejected Enright’s cleaned up stats as ‘crude and illegitimate’, which Enright in his turn dismissed ‘feeble’.
As is often the case in these sorts of quarrels, I have no idea who’s in the right – once researchers start fighting over stats, it’s hard to follow. Of course there’s a history of sceptics doing this to discredit findings they don’t like, and there have been notable instances when professional statisticians have sided with the researchers. I’m also curious about the earlier ‘failed studies’ listed on Wikipedia. As Guy Lyon Playfair points out in his book on twin telepathy, early, supposedly negative experiments in that area were found to be positive on later reinterpretations, and here it would be interesting to know how the research was carried out, with what assumptions, and so on.
But as far as I can tell – and I still feel woefully uninformed on this topic –the large-scale double blind experiments in controlled conditions that would validate dowsing to doubters just don’t exist. So I can’t blame the critics for being snooty about it. At the same time, there does seem to be at least some evidence that dowsing works in real-life situations. Clearly, the phenomenon applies to certain gifted people, and therefore isn’t likely to show up in controlled studies carried out with multiple subjects. But in that case, I wonder, if something like dowsing really is true, how would we know?
One way is simply to trust the experts, which brings us back the water companies, and their (initial) airy admission that some of their engineers use dowsing because it works. They get results from it. The technician who was seen using ‘divining rods’ to find buried water pipes presumably did so because it had worked on previous occasions, and at least was worth a try. There’s a strong business rationale, too, if it means getting a quick result with a minimum of expense, in what is a costly and time-consuming activity.
In a situation like this, it seems to me, something that works, and that saves time and money, is at risk of being prohibited because of the prejudices of a few people, who rage against the idea of solutions being applied for which they can think of no conceivable explanation. If it really was down to guesswork and subconscious clues, as they argue, it surely wouldn’t be adopted in professional situations.
This dynamic is repeated over and over in different contexts. US government security agencies in the Star Gate program didn’t keep spending money on remote viewing in the hope that it might help them find bad guys, locate enemy activity, release hostages, and so on, but because it actually did so. It’s also why some detectives sometimes work informally with psychics, because it gives them leads and helps them locate bodies. Businesses use dowsing to find oil and minerals. They don’t need to know how it works, or take fright at the lack of a meaningful theory, or the absence of validation by controlled double blind studies. They’re driven by profit and just get on with it
None of this interests sceptical scientists, who focus on their own agenda as evolutionary psychologists, behavioural physiologists or whatever. But surely if they started to ask why some professionals persist in ‘superstitious practices’, with genuine interest – and listened to the answers – some meaningful science might eventually come out of it.
Well said, Robert. Clear, concise and to the point - as always. Like me, you must get well-and-truly tired of the skeptics. Somehow, they all begin to remind me of Donald Trump, to the point where no fresh stupidity surprises me anymore.
Posted by: Julie Baxter | November 29, 2017 at 12:56 PM
Thank you for your diligent scholarship.
Posted by: James Oeming | November 29, 2017 at 03:03 PM
Great piece, Robert! How cool—and persuasive—that 10 out of 12 UK water companies use dowsing. It's hard to explain away a fact like that. Good to see you blogging again!
Posted by: Bruce Siegel | November 29, 2017 at 08:41 PM
Great piece, Rob
Sally le Page was interviewed about this on the Jeremy Vine show last week (see link - the piece starts at about 36:50 - after the OMD track).
They did a test of dowsing live on air - with Vine having a go himself. It wasn't that scientific, to be fair, which didn't please le Page - but it worked, which pleased her even less. Vine, and his producer (who has a science PhD herself), countered that it was as scientific as possible under the circumstances. I found it extremely funny. Le Page complained about it not being blind, but the producer said that it was and that she felt offended by le Page's comments.
It sounded to me that le Page has more than a passing acquaintance with Skepticism, because she was babbling on about the million dollar challenge etc.
Posted by: Steve Hume | November 29, 2017 at 11:35 PM
Thanks. That's interesting.
But is there an error with the flow rates in the description of the Vavuniya experiment? It says Schroter considered a viable well could be found yielding at least 10 l/min, but also that when asked to find a dry well he was successful because he found one yielded 13 l/min. Should the first figure perhaps be 100 l/min?
Posted by: Chris | November 30, 2017 at 08:56 AM
Actually, looking at the paper, the target for the "dry" borehole was 5 l/min, not 15 l/min. But the test was judged a success because although 13 l/min was found superficially, the underlying rock was dry.
Posted by: Chris | November 30, 2017 at 09:46 AM
In the 1970s I was helping my parents clean out my grandparents' home. In the basement, I found some bent iron rods, with copper pipe handles and asked my mother what they were. My mother's explanation: my grandfather had been the water commissioner for the city in the 40s through 60s. When crews in the field failed to find pipes, they'd send for my grandmother, who could find them with the rods. No one in my very normal family thought this was strange at all--it's just what happened.
As time went on, I discovered a couple other strange things in my family, that no one thought to be very special. For instance, my father was deaf, but an operation on the bones in his middle ear could fix it for a couple of years, before calcification set in again and the operation repeated. However, he gave up on the surgery because, he complained, every time he had it he left his body and watched the operation from above, only snapping back hours later in the recovery room. He said that this happened to him in the night when he was a child, it scared him, and he wasn't going to go through it intentionally. I didn't hear about this until my mother asked me about the Robert Monroe book I was reading when I visited one Christmas, and she commented that I might want to ask my father about that.
My family was totally normal whitebread, midwest, small-town protestant. Now I wonder what other weird things I would have heard, had I known to ask.
Posted by: Michael D | November 30, 2017 at 01:48 PM
I think that those who criticise these arcane methods should try it for themselves. That's not saying that they would be successful, for I think that arcana and belief go hand in hand. Belief endorses and strengthens probability. Yet, critics may be pleasantly surprised, or not, accordingly.
I have never tried this myself, yet I have no doubt that it works; for, I have belief.
The same can be said for ley line's, which I believe can be detected using similar methods.
Posted by: Stuart Certain | December 02, 2017 at 01:08 AM
Michael D,...I think that there are probably many who have had similar 'out-of-body' experiences that your father spoke of. I think that many children have these experiences too. Yet, as they grow older, they rationalise their experience as being the substance of dreams. Or, they forget about it; until the topic comes up in conversation. Some of these memories are often written off as being the product of over-imagination. When a child, I used to have the sensation of flying. These occurred after I had fallen asleep. I can still remember the ecstasy of flying over the rooftops and above fields. In some of these dreams, I met up with other children of my own age. Some I even knew. We would soar and swoop together. These sensations were wonderful, and they were so vivid that I felt that they must be true. So excited did I become, that I even mentioned it, at the time, to friends of mine. You can imagine my surprise when they told me that they had experienced the same thing ! Some even remembered us meeting and flying off together! We met 'on the wing' you might say. Unfortunately, these occurrences could not be planned, however; as we made arrangements to meet up 'upon the wing' and yet, having done so, the same experience would fail to materialise. It was unpredictable. Yet; I still consider those experiences as real. As children, of course, we were not able to easily control these astral-projections. As an adult, it is easier if one is minded, yet still takes discipline to achieve.
Like your father, I too would have the experience of watching medics attending to me, whilst under anaesthesia. In my case, it was while at the dentist. So, although the experience was interesting to me, I quickly came to dislike it.
Posted by: Stuart Certain | December 02, 2017 at 04:40 AM
Chris, thanks for pointing that out, corrected now.
Posted by: Robert McLuhan | December 02, 2017 at 11:08 AM
People were warned that these Harry Potter book would promote witchcraft. And now look what's happened. Even the water companies are now using witchcraft! :-@
Posted by: Ian Wardell | December 02, 2017 at 11:59 AM
There was recently an article on Gizmodo about divining and the author was highly critical about the whole subject stating it was superstition and not based on any scientific principals. There were a number of comments from engineers and those working for various utilities on how they had people on staff who used these techniques, successfully. Replies to these comments were extremely hateful and, in my opinion, ignorant. Several people brought up Randi's "million dollar challenge" not realizing that Randi had put a "fix" in place so that no matter what, no one could ever win.
I have witnessed myself employees with the local water company using L-rods to locate pipes successfully when their electronic devices previously failed to do so. I am very much a "science" type of guy and do not suffer fools gladly. However, unlike a lot of my peers, I do not believe that we have discovered everything this amazing universe has to offer and I try to keep an open mind on subjects that people have used effectively for centuries that currently do not appear to have any basis if science.
Posted by: Zontar | December 02, 2017 at 05:38 PM
Posted by: Julie Baxter | November 29, 2017 at 12:56 PM
"Well said, Robert. Clear, concise and to the point - as always. Like me, you must get well-and-truly tired of the skeptics. Somehow, they all begin to remind me of Donald Trump, to the point where no fresh stupidity surprises me anymore. "
Don't think it is any of those sceptics business and if they don't like it, then tough.
I would be quite happy for my local company to use dowsing!
Posted by: Llewellyn | December 02, 2017 at 06:02 PM
(Then) popular author Kenneth Roberts wrote the book "Henry Gross and His Dowsing Rod" (1951), still available at least as a used book. Fascinating. Covers a lot of ground. Investigations apparently made possible by Roberts' wealth from book sales.
Of course entirely inadmissible evidence, by any righteous skeptic's standard.
Great read, highly recommended!
Posted by: David Babcock | December 02, 2017 at 07:28 PM
Apparently it works for gas pipes as well. In 1970 I moved to a new home and a city inspection resulted in a requirement that the landlord install a new (gas) water heater. Installation required turning the gas off at the street. Unfortunately the street had been regraded and the access point for the shutoff valve was buried. The workers fist dug a trench at a point where a direct line from the gas meter to the street would have put the valve, but excavation of about a meter on each side of that point did not turn up the valve. They contacted the water department and an engineer was dispatched who installed a transmitter at the meter, but was unable to follow the pipe. The engineer made another call, and a grizzled worker arrived in a beat-up panel truck. I remember wondering who he could be, since he matched neither the rough coveralls of the water department workers nor the neat uniform of the engineer. He proceeded to take two bent pieces of wire and walk in parallel lines across the front of the house, making marks in the grass with his heel where the wires moved in his hands. When he was done the marks went straight toward the road at first, then made a nearly right angled turn, went straight for perhaps 10 feet or so, then made another sharper turn to end at the road in front of the neighbor's property. Digging there produced the valve less than a meter below the road surface. They shut off the gas, the water heater was replaced, and we all lived happily ever after. What surprised me at the time was that neither the workers nor the engineer behaved as if what had taken place was in any way unusual.
Posted by: ozinor | December 02, 2017 at 09:22 PM
Dowsing being used by the American military in Vietnam is mentioned briefly during this New Thinking Allowed interview...
Posted by: Steve Hume | December 02, 2017 at 11:42 PM
Those who decry these practices, need to realise that they are not original purveyors of their own self-held and self-righteous sentiments, but rather; the product and scrag end of an ongoing attempt to limit an interest in the occult. An attempt that takes root in the seventeenth century, and which follows on from an attempt to crush belief in witchcraft.
Pseudodoxia Epidemica, published in 1646 by a Thomas Browne (Dr. of Phyfick) would seem to be an attempt to court favour with those in Royal circles, who were determined to put an end to these practices.
Arcana Microcosmi, produced in 1651 by Alexander Ross, attempted to refute the claims made by Browne.
The fact that Ross was Chaplain-in-Ordinary to Charles I. shows the conflict that must have arisen within court. A conflict born from an attempt to resolve the issues concerning mysticism and Christianity.
One could suggest; that conflict shows the actual beginnings of the sceptical mindset. Of the sceptical movement.
I feel that it is useful to know one’s enemy. And in that, I am assured by the fact that skeptics are losing the argument; and is evidenced by how far they have strayed from their own, metaphysical, and spiritual, roots.
Posted by: Stuart Certain | December 03, 2017 at 01:06 AM
Great story, ozinor. I had no idea that dowsing is also used to find gas lines. But seeing how the same technique is used for different purposes, how does the dowser know what his device is locating? Does the outcome depend on his *intention*—whether that's to find water or a gas line (or possibly something else)? Is the dowser ever surprised to find out that he's zeroed in on the wrong thing?
Posted by: Bruce Siegel | December 03, 2017 at 09:03 PM
There is, as I remember, a different type of rod for different types of dowsing. Metal rods can be used for finding metal gas-pipes and water carrying pipes; whereas, a naturally divided branch of the Hazel tree, or bush, would be used for finding natural water sources, such as underground streams.
In the metal rod type, the hands need to remain free of contact with the rods; necessitating the use of sheaths upon the held part. These allow the rods to swing freely. The hazel branch is to be held with bare hands. There is also (by necessity) a difference in the way that signal reception is shown. The metal rods will cross at the point of detection. Whereas; the hazel rod will dip towards the source.
I don't know of what experiments have been performed by the scientific community, regarding this phenomena. Or, indeed, as to what criteria is used. Sure, they may state that any disturbance in magnetic fields is too small to have any effect upon the metal rods, yet, I wouldn't be surprised if they have failed to take into account the forward motion involved. I think that it is necessary to be walking forwards, and to cross the point of interference. Metal rods held statically above the source, are unlikely to produce a result. Yet, a forward motion may be likely to cause a 'pendulum' affect? A Hazel rod, however, will dip towards the source and does not need forward motion to achieve this.
Posted by: Stuart Certain | December 03, 2017 at 10:42 PM
Here's Smithsonian's attempt to debunk dowsing. Ironically, it's totally drowned out by a host of commenters who speak of their success at it.
Posted by: Bruce Siegel | December 04, 2017 at 02:24 AM
BS,...would have liked to have seen this link. Unfortunately, the video has been replaced with an advert.
Posted by: Stuart Certain | December 04, 2017 at 02:42 AM
I don’t know that I ever gave much serious thought to dowsing or water witching. I do recall that my great grandfather A.A. Doyle was able to witch for water. I think that if there is any validity to water witching that it does not involve anything paranormal or supernatural. Maybe magnetism, gravitational or other electrical wave forms are involved somehow but maybe not. It may have been a ritualistic kind of thing that everyone was expected to do before digging a well to insure success like crossing one’s fingers for good luck.
I have seen metal---copper I think---L-shaped dowsing rods and I learned how to make a ‘witching wand’ out of a small Y-shaped branch or twig. Most of the dowsers I am aware of, were men, men of the fields; most of them being framers and intimately acquainted with the ways of the earth. That is, they were familiar with the lay of the land, plant and animal species and of lakes, rivers and streams and usually had some experience looking for sources of water.
They may not have known it but nevertheless understood that the water table in non-mountainous areas is more or less congruent with the contour of the land and one can identify the general depth of the water table by looking at the level of natural lakes rivers and streams in the area. In good farming areas water generally is everywhere under the land. It’s just that it may be not easily accessible due to the depth of the water table in the area or other geological features e.g., solid rock. In the old days it was important to consult one of these men of nature before starting to dig a well, because most water wells of the common individual rural family were hand-dug and brick lined. It took a lot of human effort to hand-dig a well so anything that could be done to improve the odds of finding water was appreciated. The knowledge of nature’s ways held by these old dowsers was invaluable. I think that the ‘dowsing ceremony’ may have been just for show.
Vegetation in the area is another clue dowsers could use to identify possible good locations of ground water as some plants are more likely found in areas with adequate ground water nearer the surface. And just simple topography of an area, that is, drainage patterns, sometimes suggests where water can be more easily found without having to dig too deep into the ground. I have two very good producing water wells, both drilled, but it is obvious to me that the location of these good producing wells would have been easily discernible to any old codger schooled in the ways of nature.
There was no ‘city water’ back then so even homes in the city obtained water from a dug water well. Three sets of my grandparents living in the city all had dug wells right outside of their back doors---sometimes not far from the privy. One had to use a hand pump to pull up water from the well. And often an old sock was placed over the spout to filter out the sediment which might have included bugs, toads and other vermin having gotten into the well through the brick lining or cracked well lid. On small city lots, there were few options for locating a well. One just had to dig in a convenient place and hope that water would be found. Usually it was. - AOD
Posted by: Amos Oliver Doyle | December 09, 2017 at 06:37 PM
"Vegetation in the area is another clue dowsers could use"
Amos, it's my impression that real dowsers use conventional clues to the same degree the best psychics and mediums do when they're on their game: not at all. In both cases, there's something deeper at work.
Posted by: Bruce Siegel | December 10, 2017 at 05:01 AM