Most dowsers look for things hidden under the surface of the earth. Most claim to be able to detect moving water. Some believe they can find standing water, oil, precious metals, base metals, minerals, lost items, or people. Many dowsers believe their success rate is near perfect, over 90 per cent, but none have ever done better than chance in controlled tests.
Some proponents claim to be able to find water or minerals by dowsing a map. Like dowsing by walking, this method is unsupported by any scientific hypothesis, which leads most to classify it as pseudoscience, although some proponents claim it is some kind of extra-sensory perception. Magician Uri Geller claims to have done such dowsing for oil and mining companies.
When done using a pendulum, it is called radiesthesia.
There also seems to be a cultural preference attached to dowsing. While water dowsing is the most common, dowsers in Great Britain often look for ‘magical’ lines, called Leylines, connecting ancient monuments, such as Stonehenge. In Germany, and to a lesser extent the surrounding countries, dowsing is popular to detect so called ‘earth-rays’. These alleged rays supposedly emanate from deep within the earth. Being on an earth-ray hotspot is supposed to cause myriad negative effects, from sleeplessness to cancer. In the USA, dowsing for precious metals and oil seems to be more popular than elsewhere on the planet. This may be due to the history of the gold rushes that have taken place in the USA and the American dream of striking it rich.
History of dowsing
Dowsing has existed in various forms for thousands of years. The original use seems to have been for divination purposes – to divine the will of the gods, to foretell the future and divine guilt in trials. During the Middle Ages dowsing was associated with the Devil. In 1659 dowsing was declared Satanic by the Jesuit Gaspar Schott. In 1701 the Inquisition stopped using the dowsing rod in trials. Dowsing as practiced today probably originated in Germany during the 15th century, when it was used to find metals. The technique spread to England with German miners who came to England to work in the coal mines. An extensive book on the history of dowsing was published by Christopher Bird in 1979 under the title of The Divining Hand.
Most dowsers use simple brass rods bent in an “L” shape known as divining rods. According to dowsers who use divining rods, the choice of brass allows the rod to attune to the magnetic fields emanated by the target without the earth’s EM field interfering, as would be the case with a metal such as steel. The end of the rod to be held by the dowser is often encased in a material that provides a constant electrical impedance, to prevent the dowser’s own conductivity from interfering with the dowsing process.
According to skeptics, the L-shape is necessary to create an unstable system in which the tiniest (involuntary) movement on the part of the dowser causes the rod to move (see ideomotor effect). A similar unstable system can be made with a pendulum, which is also sometimes used in dowsing, particularly map dowsing.
Some books on dowsing insist that dowsing or divining rods should be made only from freshly cut twigs, because only these can tune into the forces of nature, while other books by different authors insist on the use of brass or steel rods. Dowsers say that what works for one dowser would not work for another. They claim that each novice dowser must experiment to find a tool that works for him.
Some rods also utilize a “witness chamber”, especially those claimed to be able to find minerals. The user places a sample of what he wishes to find in the witness chamber, usually located at the end of the rod, and the rod is supposed to respond only to material of the same type as that placed in the chamber.
In recent years, electronic dowsing rods, also known as long range locators have sprung up on the market, often costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The makers claim that these devices have specially tuned electronics that allow one to find anything from water to gold to humans (kidnapped or lost). In every known case, however, it has been found that the locator electronics are either totally nonfunctional or do not perform as claimed when tested under rigorous scientific conditions, such as a double-blind test. It has been found that there is always an electronics part and a moving indicator part which are unconnected, with the moving part clearly movable by the ideomotor effect. To people unfamiliar with the ideomotor effect, these devices often seem so convincing that even police and rescue teams have spent significant amounts of money on such devices.
Skeptics of dowsing and many supporters of it believe dowsing apparatus has no special powers but simply amplifies small but otherwise imperceptible movements of the hands, which has long been established to be the ideomotor effect. Most investigators believe the small movements arise from the expectations of the dowser. Supporters say the dowser has a subliminal sensitivity to the environment, perhaps via electroception, magnetoception, or telluric currents.
Dowsing is better classified as a paranormal belief than as pseudoscience. In pseudoscience, scientific sounding jargon is used and explanations are unable to be supported scientifically. Dowsers however give no coherent explanation of how it is done, apart from frequent mentioning of magnetic fields and auras. Dowsers ‘believe’ they can dowse, thus making it more a matter of faith than science. While every dowser who has ever tried to prove his/her claims has failed completely, they invariably continue to believe in their abilities.
There have been many investigations of the veracity of dowsing. The positive studies were mostly informal and did not meet scientific standards. These studies failed to exclude alternate explanations such as environmental clues in open terrain. A well-designed study would have blinded the dowser and the experimenter. Furthermore, any study must be carefully analyzed for statistical significance before conclusions can be drawn.
An early objective scientific test of dowsing was performed in Sydney, Australia, in 1980. The tests were supervised by James Randi and Dick Smith who offered a $40,000 reward to the first successful participant. The reward offer was an early version of what has since developed into Randi’s million dollar challenge, under which hundreds of dowsers have since been tested. As of 2006, they have all failed to demonstrate any objective dowsing ability.
In the Sydney test there were 16 contestants; not a large number, but entirely sufficient given the discrepancy between the 10 per cent success rate expected due to chance and the 92 per cent success rate the dowsers expected to deliver. The main experiment used a grid of 10 plastic pipes, four inches in diameter, buried parallel to each other a few inches below the soil surface. The position of the pipes was marked on the ground, and in each test water flowed in only one of them, so the dowsers simply had to select one of the 10 pipes.
The contestants agreed to all the procedures prior to the test. They were also allowed to dowse the field with no water running to determine whether there might be any interfering natural phenomena, and to dowse the field with water running in a known pipe to verify (subjectively) their sensitivity to it. Similar tests were designed for contestants who believed they could find brass or gold. In all, 111 trials were made. There were 15 successes, which is well within the range (around 11) expected by chance.
The most extensive scientific study of dowsing to date was done in Munich, Germany, in 1987 and 1988 and published in 1989. More than 500 dowsers participated in more than 10,000 double-blind tests.
In one series of tests, the dowsers were in a long, movable wagon with no windows. The idea was to recreate conditions as close as possible to the normal working conditions of dowsers — within the limits of scientifically controlled experiments — and to make as few assumptions as possible about the nature of dowsing. The dowsers were asked to identify the position on the floor of the wagon at which they detected a disturbance. The wagon was then moved and they were asked to find the same spot. If they were actually detecting something under the ground, whatever it was and whether or not it was the same thing other dowsers detected, the spot they picked should have been over the same spot on the ground regardless of where the wagon was standing. This setup was remarkable for its generality, although it was too complicated and expensive to be used to test large numbers of dowsers. Within statistical uncertainties, the participants failed to show any dowsing ability in this test.
The largest number of tests were done in a barn. On the ground floor, water was pumped through a pipe that could be moved in a direction perpendicular to the flow. The participants on the upper floor were asked to determine the position of the pipe. Some 500 dowsers were tested in this way. Of these, the 43 dowsers who seemed to be the best were chosen to undergo more extensive tests. Over two years, a total of 843 single tests were made with this group. This experimental setup and the data obtained from it were generally agreed by the dowsers, the experimenters, and the critics to be scientifically valid and a fair test of dowsing ability.
Of the 43 pre-selected and extensively tested candidates, at least 37 of them obviously showed no dowsing ability. The results from the remaining 6 were slightly better than chance. The authors concluded that this result is statistically significant and indicative of a weak but real dowsing ability. A number of scientists have strongly and in detail contended that these results are consistent with statistical fluctuations in the absence of any real ability.
More recently a scientific study was undertaken in Kassel, Germany, under the direction of the Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften (GWUP) [Society for the Scientific Investigation of the Parasciences]. The three-day test of some thirty dowsers involved plastic pipes through which a large flow of water could be controlled and directed. The pipes were buried 50 centimeters under a level field. On the surface, the position of each pipe was marked with a colored stripe, so all the dowsers had to do was tell whether there was water running through the pipe. All the dowsers signed a statement agreeing this was a fair test of their abilities and that they expected a 100% success rate. However, the results were no better than what would have been expected by chance.
- Australian Skeptics Divining Test
- Testing Dowsing: The Failure of the Munich Experiments
- GWUP-Psi-Tests 2004: Keine Million Dollar für PSI-Fähigkeiten (in German)
- ASD – American Society of Dowsers
- BSD – British Society of Dowsers
- CSD – Canadian Society of Dowsers
- Toronto Dowsers
Review of research evidence
- George P. Hansen. “Dowsing: A Review Of Experimental Research.” Originally published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Vol. 51, No. 792,October 1982, pp. 343-367. URL accessed on 2 January 2006.
- James Randi on Dowsing
- Australian Skeptics Divining Test
- The Skeptics Dictionary – Includes details of various scientific tests.
- CSICOP – The failure of the Munich experiment.