Dowsing: An unethical geologic delusion

Last week, I was preparing a talk about ethics to a group of future professional geologists. It’s a tough topic but really is the foundation of any avocation; one is expected to follow the ethical code of that profession to be included as a valid member.

One item they may have found a bit odd is my discussion of frauds, hoaxes and delusions. There have been only a few really well known frauds in geology. Frauds are perpetuated by greed and a need for professional recognition. Some examples are forged fossils or mineral speculation schemes. Hoaxes are sometimes jokes gone wrong or attempts to obtain notoriety or some minor monetary rewards. Again, fake fossils are common. Both frauds and hoaxes are intentional deception. Trust can be scientists’ Achilles heel. We don’t expect other scientists to lie or be less than honest in their work. So, it can be very easy to take advantage of them. [I am reminded of Randi’s successes in exposing how scientists are so easily scammed by conjuring tricks and shoddy controls.]

Delusion is slightly different from frauds and hoaxes in that one is not being deceived by another, but by oneself. It is an honest belief that one has found a truth or is doing something real. The delusion that immediately comes to my mind regarding geological practice is dowsing.

Dowsing is still an extremely common practice in well drilling. Professional well drillers (who do not abide by an ethical code, really) and consultants, will regularly employ dowsers who use all sorts of wooden or metal implements to find the best location for water supply wells or monitoring wells. Their justification is that dowsing is a very old and reliable technique – invoking the fallacious argument from antiquity or appeal to tradition. But, it’s been well-established that dowsing fails.

Use of a divining rod derived from ideas about magic in around the 15th century. The practice of using a diving rod to find water is also called water witching, revealing its magical origin. I’ll speculate that it is used less for metal prospecting today since development of a mineral deposit is a huge economic investment compaired to a well costing a few thousand dollars.

The ethical argument regarding dowsing must be viewed in terms of the ethical code of a professional scientist. If your profession, as a scientist (geologist), requires that you use sound, objective processes, informed by the best evidence, to the best of your ability, use of dowsing is a breach of professional ethics. Saying “I don’t know how it works but I’ve seen there is something to it!” is irresponsible. To endorse a practice that would defy our current laws of physics is to sanction use of magic over materialism. It has no place in geologic practice nor any redeeming value outside of science. Not only should it not be used, it should be outwardly disparaged.

My favorite reference on the use of a forked twig and other magical implements is in Agricola’s De Re Metallica. Written in the 16th century, Agricola clarified that it was a silly practice, writing “the manipulation is the cause of the twig’s twisting motion”. He concludes, “Therefore a miner, since we think he ought to be a good and serious man, should not make use of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him, for as I have said before, there are the natural indications of the veins which he can see for himself without the help of twigs.”*What's brown and sticky? A stick.

In other words, use your professional skills and training, not some silly superstition to find what you are looking for.
*H.C. Hoover & L.H. Hoover translation of 1950.

14 thoughts on “Dowsing: An unethical geologic delusion

  1. Dowsing is still very commonly used by utility marking companies, especially in cases where electronic detecting equipment fails. Apparently it is taught as an “alternative” detecting method by many training centers, and since there is no regulation on the methods used, utility markers are free to use whatever method they see fit, even superstition or random guessing.

  2. I’ve used Dowsing techniques to locate and mark the spot for the well company to drill a well at our 2400 foot elevation West Virginia mountaintop property. Neighbors on both sides had to drill over 550 feet to find water, we found water at 120 feet and it pushed its way up to 70 feet at 11 gallons a minute. Not too bad when the well drillers brought up two trucks full of pipe expecting to go down over 500 feet. In the end, I’m not sure if the dowsing worked or not, but I’m not going to drill multiple test wells just to test the theory. If you’re going to drill a well, I would recommend using a Dowser to possibly increase your chances.

    A few years I witnessed a Fairfax County, VA. Utility worker marking underground utility lines at a major intersection using Dowsing techniques. I phoned the county to inquire about the ramifications of using Dowsing techniques around areas where sewer lines and major underground electrical wires run. The county worker explained the Dowser out performed electronic detection equipment and the Dowser has passed all their testing requirements. It’s impossible for the Scientific Community to know all the answers of the Universe, so some things such as Dowsing should be accepted until they can be proven wrong.

  3. William:

    There is no evidence to suggest dowsing will “increase your chances”. And, no one is claiming to know “all the answers of the Universe”. The scientific community requires evidence to support an assertion that a claim is true. Dowsers have CONSISTENTLY failed to do so. So have psychics and faith healers. They continue with story after story of how it works. This is no different than story after story of a prayer that came true, a voodoo curse that worked, or some athlete’s reliance on lucky socks. Stating that dowsing should be accepted until it is proven wrong is a logical fallacy. You are making the claim it works, therefore you have the burden of proof. Otherwise, we’d have to accept every the claims of EVERY religion, EVERY monster, EVERY so-called cure… until proven wrong. That makes no sense. Prove that a leprechaun doesn’t live in my walls. Prove that toys do not come alive when I’m not watching. See how silly that sounds? Walking around with a stick or other non-electronic implement and claiming it allows one to mysteriously and remotely sense what is underground is compariably silly.

  4. Points well taken thank you.

    Would you mind commenting on the use of dowsing by municipalities like Fairfax County, Virginia? I’ve seen the County approved dowser working at the intersection using the metal dowsing rods and then spray painting to mark where the underground lines are. Subsequent excavation seemed to prove he was correct on the underground line placement. If my thinking is correct, your first response to me can also be used to answer this question.

    Thank you.

  5. William:

    Since my main point was about dowsing for groundwater, I think you are entering quite a different realm of the discussion here. Dowsing is difficult to grasp as a topic because it’s sooooo heterogeneous. People dowse on the ground, over maps; with wires, sticks, or pendulums; for water, oil, explosives, metals, pipes, burial sites, ghosts; tapping into magnetic fields, earth energies/ley lines, psychic energy, etc…. I’m sure I’ve missed some variation.

    How can we possibly get a coherant explanation for how it MIGHT work when there is so much variation at the foundation of even GETTING it to work? Right there is a huge flag that the explanation is about the subjective rather than the objective. The explanation is likely to lie in what people believe, not what actually is. If it actually IS something, shouldn’t we be getting consistent results? Shouldn’t we have been able to hone this explanation and method precisely over the past 400 years?

    I don’t have any information on using dowsers to find pipelines in the real world. That seems quite bonkers to me and it raises a huge amount of questions that would have to be answered before I could reliably use that information. You’ve given me just a story – one I can’t confirm is even valid. Too much detailed information is missing. However, I do know that if I call my utility company before I dig, they use maps and information about line installation to figure out where things are buried. Not dowsing. Hell, I can pretty much tell you how the utlilty lines run in my neighborhood. It is not that hard to figure out perpendicular connections and flow paths considering the visible hookup locations. Various geophysical companies advertise their utility mapping services. They use ground penetrating radar and remote sensing devices that pick up on the signal from metal piping.

    But, I just downloaded a pile of papers and will be checking it out further. I’ll let you know what I find.

  6. A 10 year, multi-national study sponsored by the German government found that the success rate of experienced dowsers in finding water was as high as 96% against an expected 30 – 50% using conventional techniques. In addition to locating the water sources, the dowsers were able to predict the depth of the water and the yield of the well to within 10 to 20%.
    This ten year project involved over 2000 drillings in Sri Lanka, Zaire, Kenya, Namibia, Yemen and other countries and is thus the most ambitious experiment with water dowsing ever carried out.
    Full article, available online, was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Scientific Exploration:
    Betz, Hans-Dieter ‘Unconventional Water Detection: Field Test of the Dowsing Technique in Dry Zones’ Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 9, No. I, pp. 1-43, 1995

  7. This is not what I would call a peer reviewed journal since there is a clear bias. However I do have this article and will look at it. If dowsing can be shown to work under scientific conditions, why do the rest of the simplest double-blind studies consistently fail? For centuries!

  8. One of the interesting factors in dousing has to do with the intentionality of the practitioner. That is why double-blind experiments don’t work. The same dilemma shows up in experiments with therapeutic touch. The impact of sliding one’s hand over the area of the wound is negligible, unless there is an intention of working with the field. Then, repeated blind experiments indicated a clear impact, repeated many times, of improved healing time. That led to such techniques being accepted and taught in very conventional health science programs (eg., Bachelors in Nursing).

  9. I see your point here. TT and dowsing are similar in this respect. However, this is special pleading. You have to allow for softer controls in a test for the power to work. In science, that’s cheating.

    How would one explain “intentionality” scientifically? Another sense of this effect is “bias”. Bias is why people with intention get it to work. They make it work no matter what. Science makes attempts to eliminates bias, because, frankly, it ruins the experimental results and gives you something less than the truth.

    A scientific test looks for something that either works or doesn’t in a physical sense, not some metaphysical sense. Once you go outside physical laws to try to explain something, it’s no longer science, it’s magical thinking. Some people are OK explaining the world through non-scientific, metaphysical means but it’s highly unreliable.

    It’s abhorrent that nursing schools teach nonsense such as therapeutic touch. This method was debunked by a young girl, Emily Rosa, in a test that had nothing to do with intentionality. It was a simple test to see if the practitioner could even tell if there was an “energy field” present. They failed at that. If they can’t even find the field, how can they manipulate it?

  10. I use dowsing rods to find alien ships. I had a friend who didn’t believe my dowsing stories until I had him follow me into the woods to watch me dowse. Sure enough after an hour we found an alien ship. He was completely floored. Of course the aliens are sensitive to the dowsing rods because they interpret it as if they are being attacked. They are sensitive to Earth Rays and dowsing bends these waves causing a disturbance that the aliens can feel… much like a bee or wasp flying past your ear. The ship immediately left the area. Government agencies still use dowsing…it’s effects are actually well known. I’ve even had other dowsers tell me this isn’t possible. IMO they were frauds. If they really knew anything about dowsing they’d already know this to be true.

  11. Mr. or Mrs. Idoubtit;
    I work at a water treatment plant, and we use dowsing all the time. I am totally skeptical because 1) I see too many misses that are blown off by “well, it must be a spring” or “maybe there’s a wire down there” or some other excuse, and 2) I have far too many questions. Note, the main reason that I hear for why it works is because of electromagnetic fields.

    Why do the dowsers hands always move when they “locate”?
    How accurate can it be when you are HOLDING IT IN YOUR HANDS?!
    What about the ideo-motor effect?
    Why is there no consistency in dowsing? For instance, one guy claims he can find deep wells, and that it works by picking up the electromagnetic field of the water in the well. In our area, the water table is not far from the surface, maybe 30 feet. You’re telling me that he can find water at 400 feet and the rods will cross over a small 2 foot area, but the entire valley for miles around don’t make it cross with water only 30 feet down? How much sense does that make?! The rods should be crossed all the time. If the rods are so sensitive to water, what happens when you go over the ocean?
    Why are airplanes able to fly over the ocean?
    Why would the rods move at all, being conductors and not ferrous (some of our rods are aluminum, some use copper too)? Wouldn’t it have to be ferrous metal to be moved by an electromagnetic field? I mean, that’s how electric motors work, what is the difference here?
    If you can find a wire in the ground with no current in it, what happens when you try to find 440V 3 phase? Is there any relevance? Is the pull stronger? How much stronger? (if a wire with 2V can move the rods, would a 440V pull it out of your hand? Could it be lethal?)
    Are scientific tests always failed by dowsers? (within margin of chance usually) Why?
    How do forked sticks work? Do they have a pull to electromagnetic fields?

    Like I said, we use it in this utility ALL THE TIME. I don’t believe it, but I see it done very often. Most of the time, it’s “accurate” because we already know where the water pipe is. In times where we don’t, there are very often misses. Every time that I’ve seen a water dowser cross the rods, you can see their hands ever so slighty tilt. It’s called the ideomotor effect. Recently we had a contractor dig up a pipe, and no one witched the pipe until he found it, then everyone’s rods crossed right over. They didn’t cross their rods before he dug because they didn’t know where the pipe was. It’s all in their mind. If you do a scientific double blind test, they won’t know and therefore are only as accurate as chance. If you need a way to take a guess, by all means, use the rods. Don’t expect them to be accurate, they aren’t.

Comments are closed.