When it comes to evaluating the science to determine whether an effect has been found under controlled conditions, the first step is always to find the original studies and see what they say. (On Wikipedia, this is not allowed, by the way. They rely on second sources. So the Wikipedia dowsing entry favors skeptical commentary over original research.)
Dowsing is the practice of using a pointer or pendulum to find objects of interest that may be hidden or obscured, such as underground water, treasure or lost items. There is no known mechanism, other than the ideomotor effect which explains anything about the process. And the ideomotor effect doesn’t explain much.
As with all things psychic, skepticism abounds. One only need look to the Wikipedia entry on dowsing to see this, where they’ve taken the questionable approach of granting skepticism 100% credibility while giving 0% credibility to anyone else. But I digress.
Anthropologist Jonathan Woolley wrote in 2018:
dowsing is first and foremost a customary practice that has a fundamentally different relationship to the scientific theories that purport to explain it. The tradition of divining for minerals or treasure using wooden or metal rods dates back over 500 years, well before any widespread theories about ‘energy’ arose in academic or public consciousness in western Europe (United States National Museum 1846: 325-326; Vogt & Hyman 2000).
Although the Earth Energies Hypothesis has proved to be a popular explanation amongst dowsers and their scientific supporters since it was first developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it is by no means the only explanation practitioners of dowsing invoke. Furthermore, the assumption that the practice of dowsing rests upon a theory is also problematic: dowsing is a practice wherein what is known is not held consciously as knowledge. Dowsing must be understood as such, especially if one wishes to challenge it.
The wires crossed: What dowsing reveals about environmental knowledge in Britain
Is Dowsing Real?
The main question here is this: Is dowsing real? Most people reading this will be looking for a response to that question and I will do my best to answer. I personally don’t have any attachment to dowsing; It’s a curiosity to me. As a parapsychology journalist with many years of experience though, I have a general idea of what the research is going to look like before I start.
The short answer is that there isn’t a lot of science on dowsing. Because parapsychology has to overcome the usual skepticism, the answer someone gives will depend on how much trust they put in either side. If you think the skeptics are more credible, then there isn’t enough evidence. If you think the researchers are more credible, then there is enough evidence. The social norm is to accept the skepticism by default, but this doesn’t have anything to do with what the science shows. The answer someone chooses depends on the credibility they assign to either side. If you think the researchers are more credible, then there is enough evidence. The social norm is to accept the skepticism by default, but this doesn’t have anything to do with what the science shows.parapsychology endures, the answer someone chooses depends on the credibility they assign to either side. If you think the skeptics are more credible, then there isn’t enough evidence. If you think the researchers are more credible, then there is enough evidence. The social norm is to accept the skepticism by default, but this doesn’t have anything to do with what the science shows.
Our Ancestors Weren’t Stupid
Dowsing has been around for a very long time. A depiction of a dowsing rod appears in a book written in Latin by a German, Georgius Agricola, in 1556 and translated into English by future president of the United States, Herbert Hoover. The U. S. has several professional dowsing organizations to this day. It would be beyond arrogant to assume that our ancestors would be using a method that was no better than chance.
There was even a time when dowsing was considered normal and geologic engineering was regarded as pseudoscience.
The first time oil drillers needed to find oil, they didn’t turn to geologists, they turned to dowsers, who they regarded as much more efficient. The dowsers were referred to as “oil wizards”. Rochelle Raineri Zuck writes for the Journal of American Studies (2012):
After more than 140 years, the oil industry still pits its wizards against the forces of nature and geology, staking its success on the combined efforts of science and psychometrics.
What they lacked in sophisticated experiments and advanced statistics they more than made up for in practical assessments and good sense. They found a way to get stuff done and esoteric theories about how it worked didn’t much matter to them. If dowsing didn’t produce results, then they would have moved on to something else.
What Science Says About Dowsing
When it comes to evaluating the science to determine whether an effect has been found under controlled conditions, the first step is always to find the original studies and see what they say. (On Wikipedia, this is not allowed, by the way. They rely on second sources. So the Wikiipedia dowsing entry favors skeptical commentary over original research.)
The scientific studies are peer reviewed, which means that they were at least fact checked and reviewed by two other people with sufficient expertise and experience to fully understand the subject matter. More eyeballs are better.
I found Some Explorations with Dowsing Techniques (Osis, 1960)
DOWSING: A REVIEW OF EXPERIMENTAL RESEARCH by GEORGE P. HANSEN published in 1982.
In this review, George Hansen does a very thorough exploration of the literature up to that point. (I talked to him once on the phone years ago, trying to persuade him to do an interview online. He impressed me as a no-bullshit, take-no-crap kind of guy. That really stood out about him. He can be very skeptical, but he’s not in any way dogmatic.)
His conclusion was that although there was some evidence indicating that dowsing was probably real, some of it dating to the 1920’s, the documentation of those studies was too sketchy or the studies not rigorous enough for any firm conclusions.
The Big Study On Dowsing
Which brings us to the most recent and hotly debated study, -that was almost 30 years ago-.
Unconventional Water Detection: Field Test of the Dowsing Technique in Dry Zones: Part l* Betz, H-D. (1995a)
Unconventional Water Detection: Field Test of the Dowsing Technique in Dry Zones: Part 2* Betz, H-D. (1995b)
This large study, part one and part two, showed successful dowsing. This is frequently lost in the endless debates about whether dowsing is real. Skeptics call it a failed study, but this is grossly misleading. The outcome is contested by skeptical claims that it wasn’t successful, but that is mere controversy, which can’t be taken at face value. Skeptics aren’t automatically right.
The skepticism can be found in this article: Water Dowsing – the Scheunen Experiments in which a skeptic claims to have redone the statistics and corrected mistakes which then showed no effect. Betz rebutted this and the skeptic responded.
This pattern of successful study -> withering skepticism -> rebuttal -> rebuttal to the rebuttal is so common in parapsychology that you can find this cycle in pretty much every area of parapsychological research. This is important for understanding the research in context. When everything is contested all the time, which is unheard of in any other area of science, this says more about the nature of the skepticism than it does about the research.
Being Skeptical of Skeptics
In fact, digging through criticisms and rebuttals almost always favors the researchers and exposes flaws in the skeptical criticism. It’s quite rare for the skeptic to make a good point. Personally, this has led me to grow very cynical about psi skepticism over the years. I don’t trust the motives of the skeptics and I operate on the assumption that they are not working in good faith.
That seems to be the case here as well. The tone of his article is somewhat, though not overly condescending; which is typical skeptic language. Enright is using some familiar, if unconvincing skeptical arguments. For instance, in psi testing, it’s very common for a few individuals to much better than most others. Enright thinks they might be cheating, but provides no explanation of how this could have occurred. He misinterprets psi missing, another common psi phenomenon, gets corrected on some basic facts and claims that some dowsers were singled out when the entire experiment was double blind.
Enright disputes this and other things in his predictable rebuttal to the rebuttal.
So who is right? Betz or his skeptic, J.T. Enright? Well, it comes down to the validity of the statistics. Betz wrote in his rebuttal:
Enright (1995) does not find an error in our analysis, but argues that it was customized afterwards and thus not valid; other evaluations would not give significant results. In a rejoinder Betz et al. (1996) showed that the initial analysis remains valid and other statistical procedures yield significance as well. In particular, Ertel (1996) presented a completely different evaluation which reveals very high statistical significance. Although none of these calculations were shown to be incorrect, Enright continues to debate the data.
Betz’s publication was peer reviewed and Enright’s reubuttal was not; it was published in the Skeptical Inquirer, a popular magazine known for its heavy bias against psychic research. Enright’s comments do not appear to have been fact checked by a disinterested party and are therefore suspect.
One serious piece of criticism I have against this sort of skepticism is that Enright gathered information and then launched his attack, failing to mention information that may have damaged his argument. Betz continues:
Ertel's analysis (1996) of the barn experiment was presented to Enright prior to publication. From January to March 1996 an extensive scientific exchange occurred between Enright and Ertel . In continued emails with data attachments Ertel answered numerous questions in great detail. I was kept informed by Ertel, because several aspects of the data had to be clarified, and Enright was aware of this connection. Finally, on May 27 Enright mailed: the matter is resolved indicating that his doubts regarding our data and Ertel's way of handling them were removed. Not the faintest objection had he raised to our study.
This is an example of why it’s important to read the rebuttals to criticism in parapsychology. Too often, there are objections raised by researchers that shed light on the process and some of the questionable practices of skeptics. This has happened before.
It’s important that Enright’s statistics were not vetted, (one of the problems of non peer reviewed criticism) but Betz’s were. Betz described Enright’s statistical methods as “crude, even illegitimate.” According to his rebuttal, Betz got his statistics analyzed by a third party which confirmed his results. Enright did not do this for his statistics.
When it comes to the statistical analysis, which is the main point of dispute, Betz has the greater claim to legitimacy.
Enright’s treatment of the subject was that he was right. He allowed for no ambiguity on this matter, which is typical of the skeptical zealotry that I am familiar with. It is suggestive of someone who had his mind made up before he started and then worked backwards to justify that conclusion. He would not be the first skeptic to do this.
The enduring story that “there is no evidence for dowsing” isn’t actually true. The truth is that there was a large peer reviewed study with positive results and that a skeptic disputed it in a non peer reviewed criticism. The whole narrative of Betz’s study being discredited is pure hype that is repeatedly reinforced by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry through the Skeptical Inquirer and their Wikipedia people, The Guerrilla Skeptics.
There is a real bias in the sciences against anything that smacks of psychic ability and a media organization that reinforces those biases by repeating their talking points over and over again in the media.
So based on my understanding of the field, I’d wager that Betz’s research is probably sound and that the skeptical objections are probably untrue. It’s the way to bet.
Roughly half the world has at least one psychic experience. Psychic ability is found in every culture on earth, in every social and economic group and throughout history. It’s relatively common and therefore something that science should expect to find. Psychic ability itself has a substantial amount of scientific evidence backing up its existence. So operating on the assumption that dowsing is impossible is not scientific.
Neither does physics demonstrate that psychic ability can’t exist. It’s yet another skeptic talking point and it’s wrong.
Underlying this skepticism is an assumption that materialism (a belief that the universe is made of material) is true. However, this assumption has come under increasing scrutiny.
To put this in the simplest way possible, the problem with materialism (which is the basis for assuming that dowsing is impossible) is that we do not know whether we are living in a material universe or an extremely realistic dream. To view the physical world objectively, we would have to somehow get outside of our consciousness. But this is impossible. We experience our physical reality; which can’t be done without consciousness. We are stuck using our minds to experience the material world, which in turn makes it impossible to prove that the material world exists outside of our minds.
If you instead work with the assumption that idealism (a belief that the universe is made out of ideas) is true, -and there is no rational explanation of why this wouldn’t be true- then dowsing has a theoretical basis for functioning. The mind and our physical reality are not separate, so dowsing is just another form of awareness.
To sum this up, it’s not unreasonable to believe that the scientific evidence for dowsing is pretty good. It has very practical uses and it’s very doubtful that it would have gained acceptance with merely chance results. That’s just not how the world works.
As long as you don’t handwave idealism or psychic ability as impossible, it’s not much of a stretch to accept that dowsing is real.