Water Witching

Thanks, Cecil.
It’s nice to read a reasonable, skeptical explanation for this supposedly paranormal behavior.
I’m a retired science teacher and in my science classes I would demonstrate this by using two welding rods bent in “L” shapes.
Taking the short end of the rods in my hands and holding the rods parallel with the floor, I would walk around the room “looking for water” until I would very subtly move my hands to make the wires cross. (It’s very easy to do.)
I would make sure all the kids clearly saw the spot where the wires crossed and then I’d ask how many thought this was all a fake. I would then tell the class that it was possible that some of them were “Water Witchers,” too, and if they were a “witch” this would work whether they believed it or not. And if they weren’t a “witch” I couldn’t make them into one.
I would then pick one of the most skeptical students to come up and try.
Sure enough, in almost every case, the wires would cross at the spot where mine had.
The look on the kid’s face was priceless.
Rarely, it didn’t work and I would just tell the kid he/she wasn’t a witch and pick another student to try.
I would then show them how I had crossed the wires and I’d go into the rational explanation for this , the ideomotor response, telling them how their subconscious mind had influenced their behavior.
I’d then have them try several other experiments with this, like the ring hanging from a string and swaying over a hand in response to yes or no questions.
After that I would even have a kid bring a Quija board to class the next day and have them try that-- making sure the ideomotor response explanation was clear in their minds.
On one occasion a Fundamentalist Christian parent confronted me, saying Ouija Boards were evil and I was “inviting Satan into the classroom” and if I did this she would take her kid out of class. I got the backing of my principal and went ahead with the lesson. (My principal sat in on the class and complimented me after it was over.)
Sure enough, she made her kid go to the school library that day, instead. (I guess the library was far enough away that her kids were safe from Satan and that evil teacher.)
I continued to do this lesson for years, with no further objections.
There’s so much paranormal nonsense going around. (Search: Skeptical Dictionary)
Thanks, Cecil, for trying to dispel some of it.


Link to column: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/159/does-dowsing-for-water-really-work

I’m normally a dyed-in-wool, 100% sceptic about such things and an atheist to boot!
Hard, scientifically-proven facts is what I deal in. However, I’m baffled by this “divining” business, especially as something seems to happen when I try the bent metal rods trick. Walking around with a couple of bent metal coat-hangers, I found that the rods swung inwards every now and again quite strongly, for no good reason. (As a matter of interest, I got my equally sceptical mother to try it and the rods swung outwards in her case!). Baffling. The crunch came when a farmer friend of mine, who knew I’d been experimenting and had also tried it himself with limited success, asked me to try and find the run of a water pipe that fed somewhere across a field to some stables. It was probably a good couple of hundred yards from two roads that met at right-angles and formed two sides of the field boundary, where I thought a main water pipe would probably be and I suspected the location of some sort of cut-off valve somewhere (but where?) to branch off to feed the stable block. There was absolutely no indication from the lie of the land where the pipe was or where it went, as it had been ploughed (UK spelling!) several times and that’s the reason he wanted to know the location. Thought he might hit it at some stage. I actually didn’t want to do it, being a sceptic, and not being sure that any good would come of it but we eventually decided to give it a go with a pair of bent welding rods and a completely open mind! Although I was initially only in it for laughs, I started from the stable end, walking back and forth, rods started crossing, and I turned round and doubled back to double check where they crossed, putting large stones down as markers every twenty feet or so. The route appeared to be on a curve, ending up at the road and, unbelievably, on digging down in several places, it was absolutely spot-on. I really don’t know what to make of it other than both he and I were completely oblivious of the location. For all I know, it could have gone off in the opposite direction! Very strange. I get the impression that it’s not just water but other underground “structures” that cause this odd effect, if, indeed, that’s what it can be called.
I don’t doubt that I shall get verbally slaughtered by other sceptics out there but I can only state the facts of the case.

To reply reasonably to your response, I would have to have been there and seen what you did and how you did it.
All I can say is there have been numerous scientific, double-blind-type of investigations of “witching” or “dowsing” and every time the results are no more than chance.
Coincidence in your case?
Who can say?
Perhaps you’d like to know that a Committee for Scientific Investigation member, the magician The Great Randi, offers $1 million to anyone who can prove a paranormal event.
Again, check The Skeptics Dictionary.

Have we just thrown the last clod down on the grave of the paragraph?

Dowsing is almost certainly bullshit, but I have done it and have no explanation.

To Oslo Ostragoth: Glad someone equally sceptical has given a go and found some sort of effect. Note the carefully chosen words! My experience with the water pipe finding seemed quite surreal! I didn’t believe it would work at all. I haven’t tried it since and will give it another go some time but, believe me, I am still just as sceptical as anyone else, despite appearing to have results! There has got to be some sort of rational explanation.

I did it once when I was a kid, and I had total faith in it. I gave my friend a nail and asked her to stick it in the ground somewhere in her back yard while I stayed in the garage with my face to the wall so I couldn’t see her. She pushed the nail into the lawn up to its head. I took a couple of wire coat hangers and walked “plow lines” across her yard. The hangers crossed, I noted the location, and kept going. That one particular place was the only spot on the lawn where they crossed. I went back to the spot and looked closer and there was the head of the nail at the roots of the grass.

Coincidence? I doubt it. It was a large lawn and only one nail. You’ll have to just take my word for it that I didn’t watch where she put it, but I can tell you that we were both surprised that it worked.

Link to column, so we’re all on the same page:

That’s one of the best things about the SDMB. :cool:

More likely that you the person who put the nail in the ground left clues (foot prints, disturbed grass, they were looking towards the spot) and you picked up on it. There are plenty of ways for this to work without invoking the supernatural or non-existing forces. There’s no way to go back and examine this specific incident, but it’s pretty easy to show that you won’'t replicate this performance if we control for those factors.

I have also been doing dowsing experiments, as described in the OP, with students for a decade. Hundreds of them, and it works a treat.

As for the case of the water pipe, there is no way we can explain something told as an anecdote. The very nature of anecdotes, and the retelling of them, leads to the story gradually changing, and significant points being left out. Not deliberately - far from it - it is the nature of the way the human mind works. What is significant is often not noticed, a fact magicians rely on.

Was the water pipe incident a long time ago? Did you check that the pipe didn’t go off in other directions as well? (Water diviners never check that there is no water where they rods didn’t cross - which would almost always show the problem with making a causal link where there is none. ) As Cecil suggests, where water divining is popular (as in Australia) you will hit a water table if you dig almost anywhere water divining ‘works’.

If you hold divining rods correctly, they will twitch whenever you expect them to - it’s the ideomotor response. Hold a pendulum - anything on the end of a chain - and think ‘go around in circles’ really telling it to. And it will, even though you don’t feel like you are moving your hand. Think it to stop, and it will. Think it to go back and forth, or side to side, and it will. It depends on how strong your ideomotor response is, how well that will work. With a dozen kids in a row, I can guarantee half will work really well. Usually most of them.

That’s why people who do water dowsing really believe it and are (usually) not deliberate frauds - they attribute the reaction to some external force because that’s what it feels like.

Have you tried holding the things with thick gloves on? Does it still ‘work’?

Can you still do it? Can you do it under proper conditions where unconscious clues and coincidence are ruled out? If so, have you applied for the Million Dollars? If you can repeat what you just did just two more times, you can win it! Is it worth just a few hours of your time to win a million?

I think there may be a bigger issue here: Are there such a things as paranormal events?
If you look at the “Skeptic’s Dictionary,” there are literally hundreds of listings of “paranormal” things that people believe and people claim to be able to do, from reading auras to remote viewing. When examined scientifically these have no basis in fact, but are still strongly believed. I think this has implications far beyond water dowsing: Why do people believe in nonsense?
You see it every day on TV and in the news, where, for example, “psychic abilities” or astrology are presented as fact, but when examined scientifically, don’t exist. It’s a multimillion (perhaps multibillion) dollar business
I think this kind of thinking is doing serious damage and I wish this topic would be discussed publicly by psychologists and psychiatrists.
I think believing in paranormal nonsense shows a lack of critical thinking skills that carries over into other areas-- like politics, for example.

It’s not just the supernatural, after all. Even putting aside magic-based “science” like “homeopathic medicine”, and a number of religions based on demonstrably false history, there are the “truthers” and the “birthers” (and the dozen or so other lunatic attacks on the current US President), and there are the Shakespeare deniers, and the promotors who give minor historic figures an importance far beyond anything that we actually know (Hypatia, Crispus Attucks, Ada Byron Lovelace…), and many others. There are several known reasons:[ul]
[li]Pattern recognition gone awry,[/li][li]The comfort of thinking that hard problems have easy solutions,[/li][li]A preference for the dramatic,[/li][li]Snobbery,[/li][li]Group loyalty overriding reason, and[/li][li]What C. S. Lewis called the phenomenon of the “Inner Ring”.[/li][/ul]
I personally suspect one more thing that I call (faute de mieux) “intellectual hysteresis”: it’s easier to make up a mind than to change it.

It’s not quite that easy anymore. Someone applying for the challenge needs to get the media and at least one credible academic interested first. See rule 12 of the latest challenge rules.

It’s not quite that easy anymore. Someone applying for the challenge needs to get the media and at least one credible academic interested first. See rule 12 of the latest challenge rules.
I’m sure for a million dollars it’s well worth the effort.I believe dowsers have tried the “pretest” more than any of the other confused /phony would be paranormalists.

  1. Have you seen the popular media lately? Standards are so lax that you could probably get a story in about your “ability” with a minimum of effort and/or sleight of hand.
  2. Getting a member of academia to vouch for you just means convincing someone with a degree and no training whatsoever in magic tricks and recognizing them for what they are that you have said “ability”. You should check out some of the dubious “abilities” that have gotten both media and academic creds-it’ll blow your mind.

So all questions on a column go in one thread?

I read in a book somewhere that scientists found that the brains of people who claimed to be good at water dowsing had an unusually high concentration of… something. Whatever it was, it apparently caused muscle twitching around water. Does this sound familiar to anyone? I’m sorry I don’t remember which molecule or which book, but it was a long time ago.

It sounds familiar to me. As hooey. :slight_smile: The human body is around 60% water by weight, it would always be twitching. I’ve never heard of this one.