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Dowsing for love and money.
January 7, 2005 12:02 PM   Subscribe

Dowsing can be used to find water, find caves, find landmines, heal yourself and others, and clear your house of bad energy. There are several studies that purport to prove that dowsing works (one ten year study found a 96% success rate among dowsers in arid regions). There are online lessons for how to dowse, from the Digital Dowsers Society. The Journal of Christian Research thinks it might be a tool of the devil. But the scientific evidence is at best equivocal (as you might expect.) Scroll down on this page for more experiment debunking. Also always check The Skeptics Dictionary.
posted by OmieWise (66 comments total)

 
Nicely put-together post.....*still reading*
posted by dougunderscorenelso at 12:07 PM on January 7, 2005


Interestingly, the kid nextdoor when I was growing up was taught "water witching" in the Boy Scouts. I bet they don't do that anymore.

Fascinating stuff. Thanks.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:12 PM on January 7, 2005


Fascinating.

My grandfather used to make dowsers for us* out of apple wood. He said that was the best material [Uncle John swore by weeping willow] and of course we 'always' found water.

Not hard to do when the farm is situated over an underground lake... but it was a lot of fun and would keep us busy for hours as we explored and perfected our dowsing skills.

There really is a kind of force that pulls on the dowsing rod, forcing the tip to point down when you get to the best possible place to dig for water.

Thanks for the reminder of gentler times OmieWise. :)

*Us being my siblings and myself.
posted by kamylyon at 12:28 PM on January 7, 2005 [1 favorite]


I used to be an environmental educator. As such, I learned that dowsing appears to "work" almost anywhere East of the plains, for the simple reason that the water table is usually 12' or shallower, on average, across the entire East Coast. No witchery to it -- walk around with a stick all you want, but dig anywhere and you'll find water.
posted by Miko at 12:32 PM on January 7, 2005


Oh pigs arse! It is utter rubbish, but rather than go on and on about it it all we need is for one - ONE! - person to do better than statistically possible and the JREF will cheerfully give that person $1,000,000 and the news will flash all over the world! It will be a triumph! Don't hold your breath waiting for it to happen.
here's all you need to know about dowsing.
posted by milkwood at 12:37 PM on January 7, 2005 [1 favorite]


Yes, please read that last link. :)
posted by madman at 12:37 PM on January 7, 2005


When I worked at Warren Wilson College in the mountains of Western North Carolina, there were some "good ole mountain boys" that were in charge of the maintenance operations. It was common to see them out with their dowsing rods, locating water lines and gas lines before digging for construction. They didn't think twice about it, and they could tell you how deep the line was and which way it was flowing.

I'm a believer.
posted by willc at 12:39 PM on January 7, 2005 [1 favorite]


I can remember trying this when I was young, and I can even remember the excited feeling of amazement I got when it seemed it was working for me.

However, being an experimenter at heart, when I would enlist the help of others to do a double blind test of myself or anyone else who claimed to be able to dowse accurately for water, I never got results better than chance. I tested maybe a dozen people (yeah, small sample, but they all thought they could do it.)

Interestingly, success rates went up considerably when the test was not double blind. Even testing myself and trying mightily to ignore the fact that I actually knew where the water was, my dowsing rods "magically" pulled hard towards wherever the water was. I was quite sad to discover that I couldn't actually do it.
posted by JAHxman at 12:41 PM on January 7, 2005


The real reason dowsing works is that its practitioners are simply tapping into parts of their brains that most of us don't use everyday. Personally, I've found that my purposefulness becomes decidedly more focused whenever I'm holding wood.
posted by pmbuko at 12:45 PM on January 7, 2005


... and when I swing a watch in a pendulum, it will move back and forth or right and left depending what I ask it. Oh, and the ouiji board. The psychomotor effect: your thoughts will slightly influence your muscles. The confirmation bias: failures are forgotten, successes are exaggerated.

Also the water table is only one or two feet below surface all round here too :)
posted by adzm at 12:48 PM on January 7, 2005


Personally, I've found that my purposefulness becomes decidedly more focused whenever I'm holding wood.
Not trying to make fun, but that made me smile.
posted by adzm at 12:53 PM on January 7, 2005


Stephen King wrote of dowsing in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre. His theory was that it's the person, not the dowsing rod, that detects the water. We have senses that we are unaware of, was the gist of his speculation.
posted by Darkman at 12:58 PM on January 7, 2005


How can we be expected to believe Stephen King could find water with stick when he can't even tell when cars are approaching at great speed.
posted by milkwood at 1:10 PM on January 7, 2005 [1 favorite]


Or maybe It is true for whilst he couldn't find water with a stick he could find a car with his head. Now I'm all confused.
posted by milkwood at 1:11 PM on January 7, 2005


I have no issue with exploring the history and folklore of dowsing. I will become concerned, however, when a critical mass of believers develops and suddenly the government decides to spend tax dollars investigating it.
posted by boymilo at 1:12 PM on January 7, 2005


Personally, I've found that my purposefulness becomes decidedly more focused whenever I'm holding wood.

same here -- and it's even better when someone else holds the wood.

i've been both saddened and amazed by how quickly we find "water" when that happens.
posted by lord_wolf at 1:14 PM on January 7, 2005 [1 favorite]


I imagine Dowsing works on much the same principles that Ouija Boards and The X-Files.

(Hint: "I want to believe!")
posted by basicchannel at 1:23 PM on January 7, 2005


Then there’s the pandemonium effect (for lack of a correct word). When the obstetrics ward at the hospital is going crazy and someone notices the full moon, word gets around and everyone says, “Sure enough”. But when there’s a full moon and things are peaceful, or when things are crazy and it’s a new moon or waxing crescent, that story doesn’t make the rounds. A guy once tried to dowse my water line, and I saw him glance at the taps on the house, figuring there was a straight line in from the road. That’s where the wand went down, but he was waaay off. Stories aren’t born equal.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:24 PM on January 7, 2005


Want to buy a bridge?
posted by caddis at 1:26 PM on January 7, 2005


Huh? This totally works. We did it in high school earth science class. Of course, the children of witches were a little better at it than me, but still...

Seriously, it works, and I'd like to know why.
posted by ParisParamus at 2:24 PM on January 7, 2005


the person, not the dowsing rod, that detects the water. We have senses that we are unaware of

Here's a thought experiment: would someone who has been successful in finding water through dowsing be as successful if he/she were blindfolded? (If he/she couldn't see the terrain, and be able to use intuition from past experiences?) Or - to be blunt - for those who are successful, is the stick even necessary?

Huh? This totally works. We did it in high school earth science class

How many places do you do the testing at? Who picked the places? Did you dig for water in places where the stick said there was no water?
posted by WestCoaster at 2:29 PM on January 7, 2005


I am simply amazed - and seriously dismayed - to see how many people here just accept this as true. Milkwood's link bears repeating.

Please read some of the articles on that page. Please.

And if you still insist on buying this crap, then you should really think twice before sneering at anyone else's unsupported, irrational, faith-over-science type of beliefs.
posted by John Smallberries at 2:39 PM on January 7, 2005


I'm simply not certain *why* it is so important to people to debunk something as harmless as dowsing. Seriously, some of you act personally affronted that someone could dare to hold what you call an "unsupported, irrational, faith-over-science" belief.

A quick story. When I was a teenager, my family's septic tank needed to be pumped out, but we didn't know where it was. It was a big property (a couple acres) and my father had put a lot of effort into landscaping. He didn't want to just go digging around looking for the lid. He asked an old farmer friend/water-witch from church to help.

The fellow came to our house, got out his metal rods, and made his selection within 5 minutes. The price? A cup of coffee and my father's thanks. He was absolutely accurate, we dug where he said, and there was the septic tank access hatch.

I've told this story a number of times, and been amazed at the lengths people will go to "explain away" this incident. "He probably pulled the records of your house from the city." "Maybe he knew the previous owners, and was fooling you." "Maybe he could tell by the relative length of grass where the feeder lines to the tank were."

Look, I know that one result is not a scientific survey, but I really have no emotional need to explain away anything. If he did one of the "reasonable explanations" above, then fine, he was worth the price we paid. All I know is that he did what he said he'd do. I seriously doubt he went and pulled records, since he had no incentive to do so, and it was an old farm property for which records were almost certainly not available. He was certainly not the original installer of the septic tank. If it was a perceptive ability to collate and theorize based on the lay of the land and the length of grass, then that is still an ability I don't have, and I admire it. If he instead has a super-awesome-mystical-sewage-finding-power, then I admire that as well. In any case, it was a successful and interesting experience.

It seems to me that the skeptics are married to an outcome, which is that anything which smacks of "special powers" must not exist. It doesn't seem to me that this is all that scientific of an attitude to take. But honestly, I don't even care whether dowsing is "real" or not, I am more interested in why the question of its reality gets under peoples' skin the way it seems that it does.
posted by Invoke at 3:47 PM on January 7, 2005 [1 favorite]


Dowsing for shit sounds more like "special needs" than "special powers".
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:58 PM on January 7, 2005


My grandfather can do it. Seriously. Don't know how or why, and don't really care.

As for finding a septic tank, just look for the extra green grass, duh.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 4:04 PM on January 7, 2005


I'm simply not certain *why* it is so important to people to debunk something as harmless as dowsing. Some people have no objection to "harmless" stupid beliefs such as a belief in dowsing. But consider that these beliefs are sometimes propounded by institutions which receive tax money (such as "alternative medicine" college degrees paid for with low-interest student loans). There's also the matter of a certain ex-president who let an astrologer guide important policy decisions. When it starts to affect my life, I get angry.
posted by QuietDesperation at 4:05 PM on January 7, 2005


It's even worse when it affects your afterlife.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 4:16 PM on January 7, 2005


adzm, perhaps my attempt at humor was a little too thickly veiled.
posted by pmbuko at 4:26 PM on January 7, 2005


In a gold mine, the tour guide handed out some metal 'divining' rods (brass coloured). I was totally skeptical, but as I strafed around they definitely swung around laterally, purportedly to a gold vein. (Which had obviously been partially mined.)

Presumably either the rods, or my head, was being attracted to the magnetic flux disturbance.
posted by yt at 4:35 PM on January 7, 2005


what you call an "unsupported, irrational, faith-over-science" belief.

No dude, irrational is not what "we call it". It's what it is.

I don't know about other people, but what drives me nuts is the way you just don't seem to care about whether beliefs are right or wrong.

If you can believe in something so clearly, demonstrably idiotic, then you might also believe in things that are dangerous and wrong, and what's worse, since you've shown that you are not even irrational, but don't even care about rationality, it's going to be very hard to persuade you otherwise.

You might, for example, believe in quacks who will kill you through mistreatment or lack of treatment. You might believe that Jews are responsible for all our misery and we'd be better off without them. Or you might believe that email from the nice Nigerian man and send him my money.

You may think that those are far-fetched examples, but you know, you've already demonstrated that you don't care about truth and you don't care for logic - as far I can tell, that means that you'll believe *anything at all*. And since that bursts my little bubble about the essential reasonableness of most people, I find it upsetting.

Dowsing itself is not totally harmless, since it leads to wasting funds on misguided drilling and excavation (not to mention paying the dowser). If you believe that it can diagnose medical problems (and some people do) then I'd say it has great potential for harm. But really, it's as a signifier for wilful ignorance that it's most annoying.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:47 PM on January 7, 2005


In a gold mine, the tour guide handed out some metal 'divining' rods (brass coloured). I was totally skeptical, but as I strafed around they definitely swung around laterally, purportedly to a gold vein. (Which had obviously been partially mined.)

And thus the need for double-blind studies.
posted by Bort at 4:55 PM on January 7, 2005


I loved this, from James Randi's site:

I must say that of all those who have ever tried to win the Pigasus Prize, and of those who I have otherwise tested in every part of the world, no claimants even approach the dowsers for honesty. These are persons who are genuinely, thoroughly, self-deceived. In only two instances one in Australia and the other in the U.K. did I ever encounter any cheating being tried by dowsers. And those cases were easily solved and immediately terminated.

I ask all those who wish to claim the prize based upon their dowsing skills to first try a double-blind test of their abilities. We at the JREF can advise you how to design such a test protocol. You will find, I assure you, that the description above of the ideomotor effect will be proven valid. And I know full well that you, as a dowser, will refuse this advice and believe that, for you, such a procedure is not necessary. I base this conclusion on my many years of handling dowsing claimants.

posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:06 PM on January 7, 2005


I've doused. I was shown how to by a backhoe operating digging to expose existing underground utilities. When he first showed me, I though he was bullshtting me, pulling a joke on an engineer. He walked across the ground holding two parralel pieces of 12 gauge copper wire, bent so that he could hold them lightly in his hands. As he crossed a pipe, perpendicullarly, the wires would rotate and cross each other. He gave me the rods and told to me try it. At first, I had no luck and I laughed, telling him he had been subconsciosly moving his hands and causing the wires to rotate. But he kept telling me that it was not bs and to keep trying. I found that if I kept the wires parallel to the ground, and held the wires as lightly as I could, the wires did seem to have a force exerted on them, causing them to rotate as they crossed a previous excavation, if I was crossing the location in a perpendicular direction.

This backhoe operator on two occasions found underground pipes that were not shown on the drawings. The underground pipes had not been identified before hand by the utility locator, because they were plastic and could not be found using magnetic detection equipment. I would never use dousing as a tool for preparing for an excavation, but if I had a choice between two equally competent backhoe operators, I would rather have one working for me that knew about dousing. I'm still very skeptical about it, I'm not sure if I'm subconsciously moving my hands and causing the rods to rotate, but I don't think that the practice of dousing should be completely dismissed. It is not a common practice, but you do run in to it if you have a job requiring digging, and it is not just used to locate water.
posted by obedo at 6:38 PM on January 7, 2005


Your hands don't need to turn to swing those bent rods. That's why they seem so magical. But a very slight tilt of your fists will swing them in any direction you (subconsciously) want. Bend a coat hanger and try it.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:46 PM on January 7, 2005


UPDATE: Dowsing only works in RED STATES.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:58 PM on January 7, 2005


That should have been "backhoe operator" not "backhoe operating". A backhoe didn't show me how to douse. w-g-p: I agree. By tilting your hands forward, you cause the wires to rotate but the degree in which they rotate when you cross a previous excvation seems to be more than just the hands tilting forward, they end up 180 degrees opposite each other. I don't want to appear to be saying that "dousing" should be used to find underground objects. But it is a pretty interesting human/mechanical phenomena.
posted by obedo at 7:19 PM on January 7, 2005


I should also say I do not trust my dousing abilities at all.
posted by obedo at 7:20 PM on January 7, 2005


As for finding a septic tank, just look for the extra green grass, duh.

No, that would show you the leach field. The grass over our tank was less green than elsewhere, because the roots ran into concrete not far underground. And no, I didn't douse when I needed to dig to the tank.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:26 PM on January 7, 2005


i_am_joe's_spleen, thanks for taking the time to try and answer my question. You appear to be assuming that I am a "believer" in dowsing, which is wrong. Not everything is black or white, at least for me. I simply said that I admired the guy, and appreciated his help regardless of whether it was achieved by super-secret-mystical powers or no.

You seem to have made some wild leaps in your attempt to explain your dislike of people who don't (dis)believe as strongly as you. I see that you managed to make it all the way to accusing such people of possibly being anti-Jew. I hope you understand that what you've written may be a bit hyperbolic, and may not adhere to the strict standards of rationality to claim to value so highly.

Personally, until you cross the line from thoughts to deeds and actually affect me by - for example - sending my money to the nice Nigerian man, I have very little interest in getting angry about what you believe.

The funny thing is, dowsing is an absolutely trivial example of the kind of thing which I'm guessing annoys you like this. I'm sure I could come up with some belief I actually hold strongly which would push you right off the edge. You see, I value science, truth and logic, I just don't require that every belief I hold must be based on double-blind studies. Some things simply work for me and for people I know, regardless of rigorous scientific proof. Oh, here's one, "Acupuncture & Chinese herbal medicine cured my wife of a problematic gastrointestinal condition a few years ago. We probably will use acupuncture in the future, although we would certainly not go to an acupuncturist for a broken ankle, appendicitis or a malignant tumor."
posted by Invoke at 7:51 PM on January 7, 2005 [1 favorite]


How many places do you do the testing at? Who picked the places? Did you dig for water in places where the stick said there was no water?"

He didn't dig. But the rods crossed each other at various junctures. Including over water pipes. And despite trying to make them not cross.

Then again, that was in 1979, so maybe the physics have since changed?
posted by ParisParamus at 8:53 PM on January 7, 2005


Seriously, it works, and I'd like to know why.

"We are witnessing here a very powerful psychological phenomenon known as the "ideomotor effect." This is defined as, "an involuntary body movement evoked by an idea or thought process rather than by sensory stimulation." The dowser is unknowingly moving the device of choice, exerting a small shaking, tilt or pressure to it, enough to disturb its state of balance. This has been shown any number of times to be true, but the demonstration has meant nothing to the dowsers, who will persist in their delusion no matter how many times it is shown to them that dowsing does not work. The defensive reaction of most dowsers, following their failure, is to claim that they should not have submitted to any test, and will never do so again."

I'm simply not certain *why* it is so important to people to debunk something as harmless as dowsing.

some of us value truth, and wish to understand the world we live in. People who propogate mythology and superstition muddy the waters and value their own fantasies and projections more than what actually is, which is unfortunate and hard to relate to. I can live with the fact that people delude themselves, but it depresses me a little bit, and my urge is to try to help them see more clearly, because I would want people to help me see more clearly.
posted by mdn at 8:56 PM on January 7, 2005


mdn, that seems to be a reasonable motive to investigate such matters. I still don't understand why many skeptics get so very emotional about it, however. We see that in this very discussion. The skeptics are the only ones in this thread who have been insulting and belittling to those who don't agree with them.
posted by Invoke at 9:58 PM on January 7, 2005


Mmm. Invoke, it's a bit hard to explain the sources of emotion in strictly rational terms, yeah?

However, I'm quite happy that what I wrote holds rational water, so to speak. Indeed I did say that people who hold irrational beliefs in the face of evidence otherwise might blame the Jews for the world's problems. What precisely is your problem with that? If you believe one stupid thing despite evidence, to me that increases the likelihood that you will believe others.

Perhaps I should make it clearer that believing in dowsing per se does not qualify anyone for my annoyance. Neither does insisting that their personal experience is what counts, if they are ignorant of concepts like "double blind trial" or experiments or science in general. But if an otherwise educated person persists in believing nonsense when they should no better, I find it irksome. As to why, I did my best to explain the emotional process above.

(Also, note I didn't say that you, personally, were a believer. That was "you", the impersonal pronoun.)

It interests me that on the one hand you can baldly say "some things work for me", as if that were a fact, but you carefully say "what you call unsupported", as though that were an opinion. To the extent that we can separate opinion from fact here, I would say that your opinion of what works, founded as it is in anecdotal report, is substantially inferior to repeated double blind trials and the eplantation offered by skeptics.

Like I said earlier, it is the wilful ignorance that is most troubling about this.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:25 PM on January 7, 2005


Because, in the end, Invoke, the reasons people believe things are also the reason they do things. When people hold on to irrational beliefs, despite copious data to the contrary, it shows a significant problem with their system for determining truth.

That's why some people get mighty upset at attempts to legitimize irrational beliefs. Because if you believe in dowsing, even though all of the available, verifiable, and repeatable evidence clearly indicates that dowsing does not work, what else will all the available means of science and testing be unable to convince you of? Creationism? That little space aliens called Thetans are ruining your life? Leeches can cure pneumonia?

Because, at it's heart, the reasons people believe these things, are the same reason that lots of people believe in dowsing, and no matter how much evidence is presented to the contrary, they continue to believe.

It's why 22% of the American Population believes that jesus is going to have his second coming sometime in the next 50 years. (I read this in this year's EDGE question, recently discussed here on Metafilter.) It's why Galileo was excommunicated and killed.

The scientific method, and it's implication that truth is verifiable, in a Popperian sense, is the foundation for modern society. It's the reason why we have antibiotics, Computers, Cars, etc. It is not something that should be lightly tossed away simply for the sake of anecdotal, even-with-chance dowsing stories.
posted by Freen at 10:44 PM on January 7, 2005


Anyone see the documentary Divining Mom? It's a lot of fun. I especially like how it doesn't take sides; it can either reaffirm the belief or prove nothing. I think it's doing the festival circuit now, so if you get a chance I'd recommend it.
posted by princelyfox at 10:58 PM on January 7, 2005


Whoops, missed the link.
posted by princelyfox at 10:59 PM on January 7, 2005


I'm simply not certain *why* it is so important to people to debunk something as harmless as dowsing

"Dowsing" may be harmless, but the stubborn belief in something that cannot be scientifically proven is not. Once you accept one piece of folklore as truth despite, and maybe even because it cannot withstand scientific scrutiny, you have, logically, to accept any fairy story that comes your way. Or are you going to pick and choose what you believe based on personal preference?

Tomorrow, for instance, perhaps you will choose to believe that the core of a nuclear reactor is hot not because nuclear fission releases energy, but because of the friction generated by millions of pixies rubbng against one another? Or that aircraft wings generate lift not because of the Coanda effect but because they're held up by the happy thoughts and good wishes of the passengers on board?

Science is not a big book of facts, it's a process, and beliefs about the way the natural world works don't mean squat unless they hold up to rational, skeptical inquiry and, as others have stated here, the double-blind study.

It's the apparent desire or even need for the existence of some phenomenon that science is somehow "powerless to explain" that is so irksome.

Incidentally, I have "seen" dowsing "work". We paid a well-drilling company $5K to drill us a well for our domestic water supply. Two guys turned up with a huge mobile drilling rig, and one of the guys walked around with a pair of "divining rods" before they decided where to drill. And yes, they did hit water first time, 240' down. But it's equally possible they could have hit water anywhere on our property, including all the places where the rods didn't move, so the fact that they hit water where the rods twitched proves nothing.
posted by kcds at 11:11 PM on January 7, 2005


Dowsing, as far as I learned, does not depend on the type of materials used for the "witching stick". Only on the location of underground "voids". I had a demonstration a long time ago, and the wire-and-pvc device did indeed swing crossed-over each other as I walked above the void.

Since I had little need to find undergruound "voids" I thought little of that experience before I met a guy who had just finished a mining degree at Univ. Nevada at Reno. He was due to return to a job in an aquifer drilling outfit on the east coast, for which he had worked for several summers before graduation. He let on that the "engineers" who ran the firm did indeed use dowsing, without the knowledge of their customers to find where to drill water wells. Perhaps water is everywhere in mountainous New England, but how strange that a scientific drilling outfit would even worry about something as "old-wives-tale" as dowsing.
posted by telstar at 1:18 AM on January 8, 2005


Dowsing for land mines? I mean - if you really trust your dowsing instincts then fine. Me? I'm going to bring me a big box of clever little landmine rats (.pdf) out to find them. And I'm going to bring an umbrella just in case.
posted by longbaugh at 3:00 AM on January 8, 2005


I had a demonstration a long time ago, and the wire-and-pvc device did indeed swing crossed-over each other as I walked above the void.

when you knew where the voids were? See the Randi experiment link. Dowsers seem to have 100% accuracy when the tests are open (ie, when they know where the material being sought is), although they still believe it is due to the 'force' or 'power' and not their foreknowledge. However, when the tests are blind, they get exactly the results chance would expect.

how strange that a scientific drilling outfit would even worry about something as "old-wives-tale" as dowsing.

yeah, that's pretty sad.
posted by mdn at 6:51 AM on January 8, 2005


Or that aircraft wings generate lift not because of the Coanda effect but because they're held up by the happy thoughts and good wishes of the passengers on board?

Oh great...

Next you'll tell me there's no such thing as Santa Claus!
posted by naomi at 9:05 AM on January 8, 2005


If it worked, if it was a dependable skill (regardless of the mechanism behind it), dowsing would be a monetarily valuable skill. Surely one skilled dowser, out of all the people who claim to be able to do it, would have come forward by now and convinced skeptical engineers that, despite their doubt, despite their attempts to disprove it, dowsing works better than guesswork. And that dowser would have become known for it by now, and dowsers would now be used openly and officially by everyone looking for water (or whatever).

(For similar reasons, I am sure people will never commonly travel backward in time and live to talk about it, because by now someone would have traveled and talked, and that traveler would have been able to convince people by making accurate, exact, verifiable predictions that would indeed have come true.)

((Also, prayer doesn't work.))
posted by pracowity at 10:13 AM on January 8, 2005


James Randi kind of looks like Santa Claus. I saw him give a fun but slightly too smug lecture that he propped up with some very impressive magic tricks. The audience, 300 or so skeptic nerds, sat yukking and hooting at the ignorance of the world outside the auditorium. Loads of dandruff in the air and coke-bottle glasses on every second person. Not a woman in sight.
posted by Panfilo at 10:50 AM on January 8, 2005


pracowity: In France there's this trend where people determine if a given land is in harmony with the Earth (feng-shui style I suppose); real estate value goes up if it's approved by a practitioner. I forget what it's called. So anyway, yeah, this sort of thing will nose into market recognition here and there, even though it isn't true.
posted by abcde at 10:57 AM on January 8, 2005


dowsing would be a monetarily valuable skill

Unfortunately, it can be (see here, eg). Just because it's used doesn't mean it's scientific. People have used all sorts of weird traditions and superstitions to do things, especially when there aren't fully reliable scientific methods (e.g., star athletes use their lucky shirts, etc). The market can't determine truth; it can only determine whether enough people consider it plausible enough to pay for it.

re: time travel, you're assuming a unified linear time, of course. Plenty of sci fi & speculation includes multiverse/multidimensional time, or some kind of meta-time, where time is this way until we go back and change it once we invent time travel...
posted by mdn at 11:17 AM on January 8, 2005


Unfortunately, it can be...

Yes, but I meant to say that it would be used "openly and officially by everyone," not just by a few folk who don't know better. Government building contractors, for example, would employ them like they employ electricians and plumbers, and taxpayers would know about it and wouldn't complain because dowsers would be recognized as inarguably useful folk.

(As for "time is this way until we go back and change it once we invent time travel" -- well, that's just a little too convenient a limitation, like saying "leprechauns are there, standing right there, quite visibly, unless of course you don't believe.")
posted by pracowity at 11:41 AM on January 8, 2005


like saying "leprechauns are there, standing right there, quite visibly, unless of course you don't believe."

I have no reason to think we could travel backward in time (although of course we can travel forward, and relativity shows we could hypothetically do this at different rates), but I don't think it's equivalent to leprechauns, because no one's claiming it's actually been done. It's just an idea, and your criticism is obvious enough that most people who speculate about it have come up with theories about how it would work.

Along with the physics style hypotheses, there is also the time-cop/history preservationist option, in which some future agency is responsible for 'correcting' history whenever someone travels back and messes something up or reveals time travel before it's invented. In this theory, we could just be living in a time after a clean-up, as opposed to a world fundamentally untouched by time travel :)

Anyway, it's just silly sci fi speculation. Didn't mean to sound like I was making a serious argument; I'm just saying people who play with the idea have certainly given thought to the problem you raise.
posted by mdn at 12:16 PM on January 8, 2005


I hold no ill will towards this "irrational belief." I find it kind of romantic, even - harnessing the ideomotor effect that arose from wisdom. Absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I don't believe in leprechauns or pixies, but lab gremlins are an other matter completely.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 12:46 PM on January 8, 2005 [1 favorite]


Randi was smug, and nerds liked him? Well of course he's full of shit. Dowsers are cool.

exists grinding teeth, resolves not to revisit thread and aggravate ulcer.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:18 PM on January 8, 2005


It's why Galileo was excommunicated and killed.

Galileo was neither excommunicated nor killed, although he was threatened with both.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:31 PM on January 8, 2005


Science is not a big book of facts, it's a process, and beliefs about the way the natural world works don't mean squat unless they hold up to rational, skeptical inquiry and, as others have stated here, the double-blind study.

It's the apparent desire or even need for the existence of some phenomenon that science is somehow "powerless to explain" that is so irksome.


Has science reached it's peak? Is the technology to explain the natural world completely? Of course not.

What's interesting is the dual-sided nature of the Scientific Method. On the pragmatic side, any phenomena must be scrutinized according to the principles and--importantly--the current technology, i.e., if it can't be verified in a laboratory, double-blind study, etc., then it's not "real". No one would argue that this is a sound and necessary process to verify natural phenomena.

But what about the phenomena we can't detect with our current technology? Hardcore skeptics never seem to get this point. I could list tons of natural phenomena we take for granted everyday that would have been mocked and simply disbelieved 100, 500, 1000 years ago.

Go back to the time of Christ and try to explain how magnetized iron points north--if you weren't stoned to death, you'd be considered a complete wingnut. Advances in science almost always occur because some wingnut thought outside the box, against current convention.

Just remember, skeptics, your assertion that dowsing is junk science may very well be correct, but imho you do a disservice to science by not considering the possibity of it being "real" given the proper measurements. Upset that people believe weird things? Well, there's others that are just as upset that skeptics can't think beyond the status quo.

As with a lot of "paranormal" phenomena, there's a ton of evidence either way that dowsing is real and tons of evidence that it's junk. Comes down to belief--whether you want to believe that or not.

This comment is sooo late. I home someone reads it. :(
posted by zardoz at 12:27 PM on January 9, 2005


This is my sandbox. Over there is the deep end, I'm not allowed to go in there. That's where I see the leprechaun, he tells me to burn things.

/Ralph Wiggum
posted by exlotuseater at 1:34 PM on January 9, 2005


but imho you do a disservice to science by not considering the possibity of it being "real" given the proper measurements

Sure, people should keep their minds open, but people aren't dismissing it just because they think it won't work. It has been tested under pretty good scientific conditions (see the Randi posts above) and shown (at least in those tests) to be ineffective. Randi offers a million dollars to anyone who can pass strict testing of such claims, and no one ever collects the money.

Dowsing works only under the sort of slack test conditions in which horses appear to count and people appear to read minds or communicate with the dead: Uncle Fred was convinced because he saw it work. But Uncle Fred is always fooled. The dowsers themselves are fooled: they think they can really do it, and they continue to think so even after they fail Randi's test.

But what about the phenomena we can't detect with our current technology?

Regardless of technology, we can always accurately test the results. You may think that the mechanism by which dowsing works is electromagnetic or chemical or psychic or divine, but if you can't make it show results (plain old water right where you said it would be) under reasonable test conditions, it doesn't work.

Comes down to belief--whether you want to believe that or not.

Believing it works won't make it work. It either works or it doesn't. If you continue to believe that it works despite good evidence to the contrary, that's your business (as long as you don't harm or cheat others through your belief).

the possibity of it being "real" given the proper measurements.

How would you test dowsing?
posted by pracowity at 1:51 PM on January 9, 2005


zardoz, pracowity already said it very well, but I'd like to just reiterate the difference between accepting weird phenomena we don't understand, and rejecting the existence of weird phenomena. As you correctly point out, we take for granted weird phenomena every day - if you grow up on the equator, ice is a miracle. We get used to things and accept them without noticing how amazing they are. However, that does not mean we understand the mechanism. We still don't really know if we understand how gravity works, for instance.

But in this case, it is not that it cannot be explained, but that dowsing cannot be shown to work under scientific conditions. It works the same way astrology works, which is to say, there are people who believe it works, and make use of it, but in double blind tests, it does no better than random chance.
posted by mdn at 7:46 PM on January 9, 2005


DevilsAdvocate: Yikes!!!!! You're right..... That perhaps should have been threatened with excomunication and death....
posted by Freen at 11:18 AM on January 10, 2005


Now the jury may be out on dousing, but worm gruntin' is real, right?
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 11:44 AM on January 10, 2005


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