Thursday, August 4, 2011

"Witch" Way to the Water?

The other day I was waiting for my gas tank to get filled (I live in Oregon where the citizens are not considered sufficient competent to pump their own gas), when I noticed a landscaping project being conducted at the church on the opposite corner. The grass had been sprayed out (dead), a couple of dump piles of topsoil here and there. But what caught my eye were the two guys wandering back and forth over the dead grass – They were “dowsing” presumably to locate the underground irrigation pipes.

One guy held two bent L-shaped metal rods, one in each hand; the other had a can of orange spray paint. The guy with the metal rods paced a few steps forward then backward. He would then direct the guy with the spray paint to mark the ground in front of his feet. These guys then wandered to another area of the dead grass and repeated the dousing – each time the dower was satisfied there was an irrigation pipe under his feet, the spray paint guy would mark it.

Had I the time I really would have loved to stop and talk with the guys and have them demonstrate for me their dowsing “skill”; unfortunately I had other time constraints. As I watching them dowsing and marking, the thought occurred to me that I would fully expect to find irrigation lines under a previously planted lawn. So what’s the surprise here?

Dowsing is among the more thoroughly debunked psychic phenomena. Most dowsers will provide enthusiastic confirmation that dowsing works. This is because they usually find water (or whatever they are dowsing for) where they expect to find it. This type of fallacious conclusions is called “post hoc” reasoning. Dowsers often will also misinterpret statistical results of their dowsing success. For example, a dowser may feel that if they successfully find water in 2 or 3 out of 10 tries, this is confirmation of their dowsing success. Of course such results are less than what one would expect from random chance.

Controlled scientific tests have been conducted on dowsers; not surprisingly, their success is never better random chance. Dowsers don’t just attempt to detect hidden water; dowsers claim they can find oil, gold or treasure or even detect illicit drugs. Modern dowsers have even tried to sell bogus dousing equipment to the US Military… to dowse for roadside bombs. Considering such dangers, unscientific bunk such as this tips the scale from the realm of silliness to being outright deadly.

I drove by the church landscaping project a few days later, there were holes dug up randomly all over the dead lawn. Perhaps they were just experiencing an invasion of over-sized gophers. Their psychic should have warned them about that.

37 comments:

Infidel753 said...

Modern dowsers have even tried to sell bogus dousing equipment to the US Military... to dowse for roadside bombs.

I really hope the military didn't go for this. It's bad enough that we sometimes lose people to friendly fire, but friendly stupidity.....

Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, was a gold dowser in his younger days. Apparently people took these things more seriously back then, since he was eventually convicted of running a scam. No wonder he then moved along to the field of religion, where standards of evidence don't apply at all.

Dawn @Lighten Up! said...

Damn. I wanna live in Oregon and be incapable of pumping gas.
I have seen the dowsers a-goin' at it. You are correct - they are ever-so convinced of their craft.

DJan said...

I heard about dowsing many years ago, but this is the first time in decades that I've heard of it actually being used. I had to laugh thinking about the human-sized gopher holes... :-)

Cognitive Dissenter said...

Given the fact that they were at a church I'm surprised they didn't pray about it. Is dowsing more accurate than prayer? Have any studies been done. (hehe)

Paul said...

If people are gullible to believe dowsers then let them waste their money Robert. Hell, people bought pet rocks too and go to Sedona for crystals and other New Age nonsense...Fakery produces a fair amount of cash flow truth be told...

Robert the Skeptic said...

Infidel I'm trying to determine if the US Military bought any of these bomb dowsing devices, other countries have, though.

Yes, Joseph Smith was a charlatan of the first magnitude.

Dawn It really is annoying to have to wait for a gas attendant to get around to your car. I try to turn it into a "Zen Moment" and chill. But still...

DJan I was surprised to see dowsing actually being used. These guys went about their work like it was really producing usable results. Amazing.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dissenter Well precisely... if you already ascribe to a set of myths, what's one more?

Paul If magic thinking is harmless, certainly I would agree with you. But people have died from bogus dowsing technology. Ask yourself this, do you want taxpayer dollars spent on pseudo-scientific technology that is completely ineffective?

Jon said...

Way back when I worked for a well drilling company, my boss said that if he found someone who could really dowse he would send him to Africa and we would all be fabulously wealthy. I'm still working. My old boss is collecting Social Insecurity.

wv: hedli. As in Hedli Lamar?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jon Interesting that you had direct experience with the dowsing/drilling industry!

alwaysinthebackrow said...

Just recently, I saw this as well. I thought to myself that they must have a metal detector on it or something, looking for water lines. It was beyond my imagination to think that they would be searching for water. Guess my imagination is just too limited.

Jayne said...

OMG, too funny. (Had no idea these things were still be utilized.) A guys gotta make a buck somehow, eh? ;)

Robert the Skeptic said...

BackRow If we have half the population of this country denying biological evolution, it is certainly not a stretch of the imagination that a cadre of nit-wits thinks they can find water with a couple of coat hangers and some magic.

Jayne These guys were working at a church landscaping project so I am guessing they are volunteer parishioners. I can't see a professional relying his ability to generate income on, as I said above, a couple of coat hangers and some magic.

TechnoBabe said...

Heh heh, nice. Holes all over the yard. Doing away with the spray paint showing the "exact" places. I would have enjoyed watching that play out.

Nance said...

Brilliant entry, Robert! Way to locate a gem of a topic and mine it well.

Now, on the church dowsers. First thought: Are you sh*ttin' me?! Second thought: Since not all turfscapers operate this way, we must consider their contractors. Must have consulted these guys for a recommendation.

Robert the Skeptic said...

TechnoBabe They seemed to believe there was some level of "technology" to their efforts.

Nance I went to the link you provided and seriously thought about registering. Then I thought... nahhhh.

Antares Cryptos said...

Seeing that would make me smile.

There must be a more effective, albeit less entertaining way to find pipes.;)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Cryptos Well I have used the free utility "locator" service in Oregon. They come out and mark all the underground utilities, gas water, electric, phone, cable.. before you do any excavation project. Donno if they can detect underground PVC pipe.

But I can't imaging a dowser being able to do so either.

John Myste said...

I dowsed to my faucet and behold, there was water.

I am going to say you as an untrained fellow, you are dowsing wrong.

If you need help, let me know.

Robert the Skeptic said...

John I must confess, it seems that half the time my paranormal skills work and half the time they don't! A bit of cosmic intervention would be appreciated.

secret agent woman said...

It boggles the mind how very, very gullible people are.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent It gets downright frightening when you realize how that gullibility is channeled into the political arena - policies and people's lives they effect become at stake.

Ahab said...

This kind of superstition still exists in our day and age? I'm disappointed that people still believe this.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Ahab Oh yes.. the woman who cuts my hair was raving about this great homeopathic remedy for insomnia.

KleinsteMotte said...

Well the part that gets me is why did they lay the dead grass before finding that old sprinkler system. And don't we have more modern equipment for detecting pipes and water? Maybe a sonoscope?
No self serves in your area? Lucky!!

Robert the Skeptic said...

KleinsteMotte No, the grass and the irrigation system was in place prior to their killing and redoing the landscaping. They were likely roto-tilling and didn't want to till up the pipes. Yes, there probably is a better way to detect irrigation pipes.

Rain said...

My mother-in-law, who had no interest in mysticism of any sort, could dowse using a fresh peach or fruit branch and evidently did although I never saw her do it.

I had just gotten an email from a friend where he said he swore by the system as he had one dowse his current well and got water at 81' a 35gpm well while neighbors who did not went down 200' for less flow. I have no idea of the validity of the dowsing as I have never found the wires moved for me and never had to drill a well although where we live, the water would be easy to get anywhere. We would need a dowser who could get water that didn't have high mineral content maybe ;) I would not see dowsing though as some spiritual system but maybe a sensitivity to an energy difference. I sure wouldn't think some god made it work if I believed in it.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain Please understand I am not picking on you specifically, we ALL are susceptible to this very common conclusion error of confusing corelation with causation. The appearance that something mystical is CAUSING the result just that... Only an appearance. We as humans are compelled to attepmt to draw conclusions where none may exist. It is normal and natural but it is wrong.

Suppose your mother had instead picked up a rock, closed her eyes, turned around three times, tossed the rock over head then drilled for water wherever it landed! If water was found what would it prove? The fact That the supposedly dowsed well your friend spoike of had a higher flow rate does not mean the dowsing was the determining factor.

Upon having then concluded that there must be causation, we then attempt to come up with an explanation - hence, your speculation about possible mineral content of the water or our ability to detect it, etc.

But we don't even have to go that far - we FIRST have to test if the causation really exists. We set up controls over the conditions and variables, We repeat them and objectively tabulate the results.

Repeated testing under controlled and observed conditions show dowsing returns results that are indistinguisable from drilling randomly by chance. Since it doesn't work, further conjectures about mineral content or mystical causes all become irrelevant, period!

Put it another way, if my head ache goes away after I eat a pear, was it the pair that effected the cure or did it go away in spite of eating a pear? Testing is all we have, anecdotal "apparent" cause-effects are not reliable.

John Myste said...

Put it another way, if my head ache goes away after I eat a pear, was it the pair that effected the cure or did it go away in spite of eating a pear?

That is a false dichotomy, sir. It was not the "pair." It as the "pear" that cured you.

Run the test again.

Robert the Skeptic said...

John Ahhh... but you see I ate TWO of them :)

Rain said...

You know I don't really care of dowsing works and it was my husband's mother who discussed her ability to do this. She and I weren't particularly close, therefore I have no need to prove her right or wrong. Frankly these kinds of things mean nothing to me whether they work or do not. I have no evidence either way and it was coincidental why I got the email regarding it as I hadn't read this first nor discussed it with the person who wrote their experience.

I've often gotten rid of headaches by drinking water; so a pear might well get rid of someone's headache and have a very real reason for it.

The difference between a fundamentalist and those who are not is the need to prove others wrong. I don't much care what someone else believes until they try to thrust the result of their belief/disbelief onto me. I don't need to know that life is one way or another which I guess means I'm not a fundamentalist in anything but you know what, atheists can be... I go by the evidence (as I see it) for where things hurt others. I don't much see that atheists generally do and many religions can. I doubt believing in dowsing falls under that category though. IF I had to drill a well, I probably would not use a dowser as how would I find one? Advertise? *s*

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain I've gotten rid of headaches by drinking water as well... mostly when using it to wash down a couple of Ibuprophan tablets.

I'm not sure what the thread about fundamentalism is about so will just skip down to your last question about where to find a dowser: American Society of Dowsers.

Though I found this recommendation on a water well drilling company web site: "The USGS (United States Geological Survey) has done much work in the area of researching and mapping of water resources through radar and satellite imagery... by drawing upon scientific knowledge and the drilling history of an area, we can usually make fairly accurate forecasts for drilling success."

Rain said...

My water drinking is not accompanied by aspirin when it rids me of a headache ;)

My only point with dowsing is not whether it works, which I have zero experience about, but that it doesn't have anything to do with psychic or spiritual abilities either way...

Rain said...

This morning, reading some of the blogs I tend to read, I came across this which applies to your subject here. This lady is no twinkie and pretty much only writes what she sees or observes with a very popular blog and no reason to lie about something. She pretty much came to the same conclusion I had for why it works for some people-- and not all.

Within' Wells

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain The movement of the rod, ouija board pointer, divining pendulum... anything held in the hand which "seemingly" responds to outward influences is called the Ideomotor effect.

So the dowsing rod moved when he got near the kitchen sink (where they would expect to find water). Wow, how amazing!! (LOL) An anecdote is NOT PROOF. What the article does not say is how many times he doused and FAILED, because nobody tracks the failures, on the successes.

You should watch this show that recently appeared on "Primetime". It shows actual tests of psychics in controlled test conditions.. their hits, and more importantly, the MISSES that we tend to ignore.

The appearance that something is connected does NOT mean there IS a connection. This is what makes magic and mentalism shows so fascinating.

Here's the thing, if someone can bury 10 buckets in a field, 5 empty and 5 containing water, and this dowser in the article you linked to can find more than random chance with his rod, he can become an instant millionaire!! Here's how!

Rain said...

I wasn't putting it here as proof. Just another story about it. I don't care if there is conclusive proof either way and won't put another such link here if you'd prefer not. It's neither here nor there to me and I haven't ever tried dowsing myself to test it. I would though, feel as she did, whether it worked or not, it's not psychic. It's just bodily awareness.

Rain said...

Incidentally on that ideomotor effect, I know people who used the ouija board and wanted me to operate one with them as they got rather into how it worked. I refused. I don't need to prove or disprove something that way but prefer to stay away from anyplace my subconscious might give me some messages I'd rather not have. The ones I know who did use the board didn't get the kind of messages I'd personally want.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain Yes, I understand... and I was just commenting on the story. You are always welcome here.