problem with cecil's explanation of dowsing

i agree completely with your explanation of “dowsing” as an “ideomotor” or physiological event etc. this is probably true in most of the cases, where the “water-diviner” is a fake.
however, i remember this documentary on some channel (either it was Discovery or the series “The things people do!” probably the latter, but i am not sure) which is about a water diviner who has a 90% + success rate. he wears a special apparatus on his hand while using the “forked branch”. this prevents him from using his fingers to move the branch and the only way he can move the branch is through his fingers(if not for that part of the apparatus that blocks his fingers.)
near the end of the documentary, the anchor tries to move the stick but is unable to do so because of the apparatus.

what is your take on this? i realize that i may not have provided enough info about the documentary and some of what i have said may be my “selective memory” or creativity(whatever) but i hope you get the gist of this, and help me out.

and just a thought, u mentioned that the cause is a psychological effect. however, is it even remotely possible that the trigger of the psychological effect is that there is water below? i mean, maybe water diviners (who are said to be born, not made) have some sort of susceptibility that allows them to use a dumb stick to find water precisely because of this effect. and this effect is not measurable on current instruments. this is just a thought please no smart comebacks!!! maybe some permutation of this is closer to the truth…???

“Never let the thirst for knowledge die.”
— unknown.

Ordinarily, Arnold Winkelreid, the moderator of this forum, would say this, but he’s on his honeymoon right now, so let me officially welcome you to the Straight Dope, jabberwalkie, and thank you for your comments, and point out that the column in question can either be found online at Does dowsing for water really work?, or in print (complete with illustration) on page 168 of Cecil’s first book, The Straight Dope.

Aw, Cecil, you’re such a party-pooper, demolishing one of my most cherished beliefs. I suppose next you’re gonna try to tell me that Ouija boards and Tarot cards don’t work, either.

Jabberwalkie, you’re suggesting that people who end up as water diviners do so because they may have some innate telepathic ability to sense where water is, said ability not being detectable with ordinary instruments?

Hmm–works for me, babe, but I doubt if Uncle Cecil will go for it.

I have four things to point out:

  1. The Discovery Channel is not a reliable, objective source. They air programs that somehow have a connection to science, but the programs themselves are produced by people who quite possibly are trying to persuade you to their beliefs. It’s my opinion that this (preconceived outcome, non-objectivity) is the opposite of science, and TDC should not air that kind of program.

  2. Debunking every person who claims to be a dowser would require a small army of James Randis.

  3. Instead, James Randi has had, for the past few years, a million dollar prize for the first person to demonstrate a paranormal skill. I believe that several dowsers have tried, but none has claimed the prize. If this guy really had the ability to find water (with 90% accuracy), he could slam-dunk an objective demonstration of his skills and claim the money.

  4. Underground water is pretty common. Maybe this 90% accuracy figure just means that in the area where he does this, water is available in 90% of locations.

Curt C :
1./ The exact same argument can be made against a (generally-considered-to-be) irrefutable channel such as BBC. They also air documentaries made by third parties.
2./ The opposite could be true : A single James Randi can easily come up with a dozen “scientifically proven” arguments that state why that person has not displayed a “paranormal” activity.
3./ Isn’t it possible that someone who truly has so-called supernatural “powers” would want to win a million dollars by proving his ability? That would be like offering Jesus a billion dollars to prove he is the son of god. (please, no flames!) I really doubt jesus would have any desire to do so…
4./ This is one point where u are definitely wrong. It was clearly mentioned that in that area none of the other “water diviners” have a success rate close to that person’s.

Of course, you could “explain away” all these points by restating your first point about TDC(which btw can be said about absolutely any public source of information…)

Jabberwalkie – you sound like someone who doesn’t want to give up his/her belieefs.

The Skeptical Inquirer has dealt extensively with this subject.

See, for example,

  1. I would never consider the BBC to be an irrefutable source. Science is not their specialty, reporting is.
  2. There you are just being silly. If what they are doing perfectly matches is a naturalistic explanation, then it is. I don’t know about a dozen different methods, however.
    In any case James Randi doesn’t usually go for explaining what natural phenomena are at work, since strangely enough, all the dowsers he has tested so far have failed in a controlled environment (see the German tests in the magazine on their site [magazine available in Adobe Acrobat format])
    3)Most of the psychics and diviners I know (ok, all) do it for money. This includes the water dowsers. If he doesn’t want to win the prize, then how about demonstrating he can do better then chance in a controlled setting? We do know he’s interested in demonstrating his ability since he did the show you watched. And I don’t think that fancy gadget was a controlled test. Controlled would be where we know where the water is, and can measure the chance of picking the right location (like in the German test at And measuring against other dowser’s successes may have been nothing more then a probability curve, or a better knowledge of the terrain.
  3. see 3 :slight_smile:

In addition to what others have said:

Regarding the “Randi Challenge,” the terms of what constitutes a successful demonstration must be agreed upon in writing prior to the test by both the JREF and the test subject. If the criteria are met, there is no weaseling. So far, no subject has met the criteria for any of the tests which have been conducted.

(A skeptical group in Northeast Ohio, not too long ago, vetted a candidate for the Randi Challenge, but he did not pass the preliminary test. A full account is given at .)

Nothing forces them to keep the money. The subject could quite easily turn around and give it all to charity.
4./ This is one point where u are definitely wrong. It was clearly mentioned that in that area none of the other “water diviners” have a success rate close to that person’s.

jabberwalkie said:

This paragraph is unclear how the apparatus works. Is it something that sits in his hand and keeps him from gripping the stick, but allows the stick to freely turn inside the apparatus? I’ve heard of things like this - pistol grips for divining rods. For example, the bent rod version, that sits freely in a grip. You hold the grip and the rod spins freely. Sure, you can’t move the stick with your fingers.

But that is unrelated to ideomotor effect in question. The effect comes from tipping the hand in different directions, or moving quickly or slowly and letting inertia play a role. The way dowsing works is to hold the rod (whichever form) in such a way that it is loosely supported but allowed to freely rotate. It balances precariously in the hand. Slight changes in position, elevation, orientation, etc will affect how it sits, and cause it to move. The effect does not rely on any conscious manipulation by the dowser. Thus the reason the dowsers are deluded into thinking it’s something mystical - they are not purposely making the stick move, it appears to move on its own.

As for the dowsers being psychically sensitive - that does beg the question of psychic powers. So far these have not passed any objected, thorough test. The closer scrutiny applied to psychic powers, the smaller the noticed effect. This implies (to anyone with brains) that the effect is not there, but an artifact of poorly designed observations.

That is why Randi has the challenge, and what the testing is about. He does not try to explain it away, he asks you to provide an explanation of what the paranormal effect is and your abilities. He then works with you to design a test. The applicant has as much say as JREF in the test, and they make every effort to cater to the claimed ability. The protocol includes a clear statement of what the results should be, and how to decide pass or fail. Clear guidelines, where any ability that is there will pass, non-ability (failing) registers as chance. If by some chance a test were to come in a questionable range, being close to but not definitively passing (and that assumes the pass/fail criteria designed allows wiggle room), they would redesign or refine the test and try again.

Dowsers make claims of accuracy - they all do. They may even believe them themselves. Testing does not bear out their claims. Usually this does not persuade them they are wrong, it just convinces them that testing is a bad idea. They would rather believe they have the power and James Randi’s presence disrupted it than accept they have been mistaken.

CurtC, small army?

jabberwalkie, if someone truly had supernatural powers, but they felt no need to win the million dollars for purely personal gain, they could easily take the prize money and donate it to charity. Thus they don’t gain, but help a worthy cause of their choice. Or they could use it to build a new facility to help other aspiring dowsers/psychics train in their abilities. The people in question don’t perform for free, they charge money. Given that these people sell their services, they obviously want money - the question is why do they not want Randi’s money? If they have the ability they claim, it should be a cake walk to get the million.

Why would Jesus want the million dollars? He liked to perform miracles, maybe for the publicity? Think about it - “Jesus wins Million Dollar JREF Prize!” “Son of God wins Prize, Baffles Skeptics!” “Religion 1, Science 0” See all the possibilities? The million itself may be worthless compared to the attention it generates.

[sorry, I laughed so hard when I heard the Discovery Channel being compared to the BBC that I forgot what I was gonna say]

*[you and me baby
we’re really just mammals
so let’s do it like they do on the…*BBC?]

Nope. Sorry. Doesn’t do it for me.

your jokes turn me on,
they are are really quite cheesy,
so lets do it like they do on …

(i’m not so good at this…)

You’re putting the cart before the horse here. At this point, there is no reason to speculate on the possible causes of dowsing ability, because no one has ever been able to demonstrate dowsing abilities under controlled conditions.

Let me repeat that. No one, and I mean no one, has ever been able to demonstrate dowsing abilities that that show a success rate of better than chance under controlled conditions. Many have tried, all have failed.

While it might be remotely possible that there is some unknown explanation for dowsing, it seems pointless to speculate on the cause of a phenomenon that apparently doesn’t exist.

Wow. In the past, when every single dowser I’ve ever seen claimed a success rate higher than anyone else, I’ve always doubted it. And to think in this case it’s actually true. Son of a gun.


Oh, I do think that dowsers, in the field, do have a greater than random chance possibility of finding water. I also believe most are not “frauds”. Here is how I believe their “power” works: they know the area, real well, and the thousand small indicators that show water, some of which are only in their subconsious. They find a good area, and then an “unconsious” involuntary movement causes the rods to react. If they stopped to think about it, it does not work as well, as those subliminal clues can’t be percieved if you concentrate on them. I would call this combination of all the senses, plus subliminal subconsious tallying of them, an almost 'true" “6th sense”.

I certainly agree that not all are frauds. But most? I don’t know. There certainly are frauds, and a fairly high proportion, I think. The rest I would put down as “mistaken” (deluded is such a negative sounding word). Although that is certainly just an opinion.

Again, a possible explanation, I suppose. However, we are again trying to explain events that don’t seem to occur. Those events being that dowsers are able to find water more often than someone guessing blindly. In fact, they don’t seem to be able to. So no explanation is needed, even one as simple as unconscious learning and behavior.

Consider this: In many places, and almost certainly in any area where anyone would consider digging a well, you can dig just about anywhere and eventually hit water. In any place that has been developed at all (even by older farming type cultures), or occupied for any period, you’ll find old ditches, waterways, and possibly even piping around here and there. Combine this with underground springs and rivers, along with the convenient ability to remember the hits and forget the misses, and you have all the explanation required for dowsing.

We don’t even need the unconscious training aspect to explain it. You can wander out just about anywhere on someone’s property, point at the ground and say “Dig there”, and your chances of finding something that you can say “See, I told you, water!” are pretty good.

The only evidence that dowsing works is anecdotal. In every study using controlled methods, the “best” dowsers score no better than chance. There is no need to explain a chance result as anything more than, well, chance.


all i can say is i agree with that quote by Einstein in someone’s sig. There really is no limit to my stupidity, or to be more precise, ingorance.
Thanks all of you for clearing my doubt(s) and thanks even more to the person who told me about JREF. I had no idea such a place existed!
I now declare this thread officially closed.