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Dowsing is Bunkum

25 November 2017
Inside science

Oh dear. The mainstream thought vigilantes have been out in force after the parents of a precocious biology student witnessed a man from the water company using a dowsing rod to locate the water pipe in order to make a connection to their house. Wow. This went viral – on Twitter and on numerous blogs. Lots of people who had never heard of Sally Le Page now do – courtesy of a little piece of condescension by people who think they are superior to the little people (like the technicians that work for water utilities). I wonder who fixes their cars when they go wrong – do they call in a biology student? It was down to The Guardian, however, to make a meal out of it, demanding water companies do not pass on the cost of water divining to their customers. As dowsing rods are usually made of hazel branches from your common countryside hedge, or broken metal coat hangers, one does wonder what costs they are talking about. Whatever, the cost is peanuts in comparison to The Guardian's love affair with wind turbines and solar panels. They also have the cheek to add a request for money at the end of the piece – to finance this rubbish. How does the cost of a broken coat hanger compare with a donation?

To get at the story all you need do is put sally le page and water divining into your search engine. You have a pick of various blogs that have picked up on the story. Try for example https://arstechnica.com/science/2017/11/british-water-utilities-admit-th… … which has a lot of comments, mostly ignorant of the subject in hand. What will Sally do when she finds out civil engineers on major building projects also use dowsing rods to find where water pipes and electricity cables may run. Will she get on her high horse over that?

The most amusing place to go is https://wattsupwiththat.com/2017/11/24/grauniad-water-divining-is-bunk-s… … where the author suggests it might be because water divining actually works – in the right hands. Why would a water technician, or come to that a civil engineer, use a dowsing rod if it didn't work (not necessarily all the time, but some of the time). Let's face facts, if you are out in the dark and the weather is a bit miff why not get your dowsing rod out of the back of the van rather than call in the heavy squad with all the bells and whistles. You want to find a leak as quickly as you can – and if it has worked before it may do the trick again. Seems a logical thing to do to me. Why be pompous and snotty in the nose about it. One can understand the average Guardian reader sniffing loudly and blowing into a handkerchief but let's face facts, your average water technician doesn't read the Guardian (and neither does your average motor mechanic or plumber or various other trades that biology students are none the wiser about). Sally Le Page claimed a German experiment proved dowsing was no better than random chance. However, the actual German experiment showed a few dowsers displayed an extraordinary high rate of success. Lots of others were not so proficient – see https://link.springer.com/article/10/1007%2FBF01149600?Ll=true … and there are pages of comments to read through at WattsUp, both in support of dowsing and against it. Obviously, it is a skill that some people are able to develop and others can't (or don't have the time or inclination). Indeed, some people are  able to dowse without a rod or any equipment at all. They are able to find their prey simply by sense and intuition.

It is pretty revealing that it is science bloggers that have picked up on this story – and a young one to boot. No doubt she thinks modern technology is superior to anything her grandparents might have had at hand. In some ways that is true but her grandparents would have used different methodologies. I noticed this recently when aiding an abetting an archaeologist map out an enclosure in woodland. He used GPS and the job was done in a jiffy. A few decades ago the method was much more laborious and took hours (and sometimes more than one visit to the site) – but they still achieved their goal. Going back a few centuries ago dowsing was used to decide where to dig a well and it must have worked to some degree otherwise they would not have continued using the method. The fact it is still used today by some water technicians confirms it must work – otherwise they would not use it. What these silly people might achieve by squawking so much is that office bods at water utilities may ban the use of dowsing – which may raise costs to consumers. Is that an improvement? Okay if you are well heeled, as the average Guardian reader, but a headache for the less well paid (which is most of us). What seems likely is that dowsers can pick up on earth's magnetic field and subtle differences. Pigeons use the magnetic field to navigate and why can't humans have a similar ability. Racing pigeons didn't always find their way home – so they were not always good navigators, just as some humans can get lost in a forest or on the high fells – and others do not. Seems a lot of noise about nothing of importance – but that is the 'scientism' of the The Guardian on display (as opposed to actual science).

On Friday Nov 24th (2017) the Daily Mail, apparently having a pop at its snooty rival, had an article by of all people the BBCs John Humphreys, and he described his experience of dowsing (after first declaring his scepticism). It seems he was enlightened when he wanted to find a fresh source of water on a farm he had purchased in Carmarthenshire. The water from the taps was brown and undrinkable and he didn't have the money to call in the professionals and their expensive equipment. A local advised he used a dowser he recommended. He thought he would give it a try. The old boy turned up without a dowsing rod and walked around his fields before finally settling down for a location for a new source of fresh water. Humphreys brought in a driller and lo and behold, water came gushing up – at the very spot the dowser had pointed out. However, even more revealing was the fact the dowser refused any kind of payment from Humphreys. He said it was a gift that he had been born with – and it was a free service he provided. I wonder what the Guardian thinks of that. They want a donation for reading their stuff. Different worlds – different mindsets. I much prefer the old boy's attitude to the politically correct nonsense that claims dowsing is bunkum.


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