A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: dowsing

29 Jan 2010
In regards to your article about dowsing. A cousin of mine was a dowser. He did, in fact, find the place where the city of Oroville, CA, should drill their fresh water wells, which test drillings had failed to locate. Just some information for your consideration, that's all.


Someone Who Knows Dowsing Works

reply: Right. And I know a guy who was told a tinfoil cap would make his headache go away. It worked! Another guy was told that if he brought an umbrella to work, it wouldn't rain. Guess what? It didn't rain! I could go on all night with such stories. Read the following story. This guy found a bomb with his dowser, so it must work, right? No, not if you understand how to test such a claim.

'Bomb detector' maker Jim McCormick arrested


11 August 2009
I am a skeptic of the highest sort. I never believed in dowsing after watching my Dad try to find a good spot to dig a well and absolutely nothing happened. Years later a friend of mine (a highly scientific and skeptical mind) told me that he could dowse. Three of us went outside with him in the pouring rain and he told us that anyone could find water here, today.

He had dowsed springs that fed trout ponds that he had dug by a backhoe and the operator told him "good luck". The trout ponds were always full. Anyway he took a green stick fork and showed us how to hold up upright and very tightly in our hands and to walk over the ground. For all three of us the stick dipped down at the same spot, came up again once we passed over it and actually ripped the bark off the stick as we tried to not let it dip. I couldn't believe it. One of the people was my brother who then told about "dowsing" aluminum sprinkler pipes at our Dad's orchard. Taking two bent acetylene torch type welding rods and holding them straight out in front of you with the bent part in your fists walk over the pipe and the rods bend inward towards each other. My Dad accused my brothers of twisting the rods themselves as they approached and passed over the pipes. The pipes were on the surface of the ground and clearly visible. So they took short pieces of PVC pipe in their fists and then inserted the rods in those. The same thing happened. My Dad couldn't do it. It just wouldn't work for him. My sister did it too only for her the rods turned OUTward away from each other. Hmmmm..... I have also seen a natural gas utility worker using metal rods to dowse the location of buried pipes and marking the pavement so that they could be excavated and tapped into for another customer hook-up. Obviously, he knew approximately where the pipes were but he accurately marked the surface and the pipes were found directly underneath.

Does dowsing work? I dunno. It sure seemed to in these cases.

Rick Kwitkoski Sorrento, BC, Canada

reply: Does dowsing work? If you mean, do dowsers find what they're looking for, the answer is "yes, sometimes." If you mean, "do dowsers with great reputations in their art, when tested under controlled conditions, do better than would be expected by chance guessing?" then the answer is a resounding "NO." That's the short answer.

The long answer is that a "skeptic of the highest sort" would know the short answer and would be able to explain the apparent supportive evidence for dowsing by reference to selective thinking, confirmation bias, lack of controls, observational knowledge, and the ideomotor effect.

Another reader was less charitable in responding to Mr. Kwitkoski. Alan wrote:

He falsely labels himself as a "skeptic of the highest sort" and then proceeds to describe an impossible scenario where "[insert ridiculous phenomenon] actually ripped the bark off the stick as we tried to not let it dip".

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of physics knows this to be impossible. It's at best a self-delusion, but in my (admittedly cynical) mind, it is simply a lie. It seems to me that engaging in discourse with those with essentially rational (but perhaps misguided) points of view would be far more appropriate than posting comments from an obvious troll.


14 Jul 2000 
Your book is very interesting. I have been a skeptic most of my life. As I get older, I seem to find more cases where valid problem and solutions are being presented with totally false explanations. It is quite easy to toss out the solution because the explanation is wrong. A case in point which you have covered: dowsing.

A couple years back I needed to locate some pipes and wires on my country home. A friend offered to dowse for them, I declined. My brother offered an electronic cable finder which works by inducing a radio current in the cable or pipe and uses a sensitive detector to locate the path and depth of the cable. It works wonderfully. While using it, my brother told me that while it works well at following a cable, its not very good at initially locating from distances more than 10 feet or if the detector is not at right angles to the cable. He said they often use a simple dowsing rod to find the approximate cable location. I thought, oh sure.

After we found the pipes and wires, he pointed out that you could see where they ran. A simple explanation: the dirt used to fill in the trench did not match the surrounding topsoil and so the vegetation had a slightly different color. But not enough to clue in a dowser I would guess. A few days later, I was driving my tractor over one of the marked locations, when I noticed a pronounce bump. The lights came on in my head: my 3 ton tractor was a dowser and I was a dowsing rod.

It is impossible to fill a trench level with the surrounding land. The dirt does not compress enough, so you end up with a mound and if you fill it level, it will settle and you get a depression. So any buried object will leave a mark, albeit very slight. If you are walking balancing a dowsing rod, it will respond faster than you can correct your stance (unconsciously usually) as you step up or down on the trench. The rod does not move, you do. A simple matter of gravity and inertia. So now I would say dowsing is a valid way to find buried objects, though certainly not by any of the explanations usually offered. Quite obviously, a cup of coffee would work just as well and I would not doubt somebody would explain the coffee is attracted to water or something just as goofy. I also suspect that underground streams and other forms of water may cause depressions or be caused by depressions. This may explain the long time use of dowsing to find water.

My real point is that I had dismissed dowsing because of the way it was explained. If I had tried it and it had worked, I might have deduced my theory earlier or at least admitted I did not know how it worked. Perhaps skeptics need to look more closely at widely held notions even when the explanations are impossible.
Al Ruf

reply: The skeptics I've read maintain that some successful dowsing is the result of using visual cues, including, but not limited to, depressions.

16 Nov 1998
I used to sell water conditioning equipment to farmers. After being in an area for a while I usually had a pretty good idea of how deep and what kind of water was available. I encountered a newly built house [whose occupants were] very impressed that the dowser was able to tell them that they would find 50 gallons per minute of water a 80 feet. I further impressed them by holding my test kit over the place the well was to be drilled and announcing that their water would have 8 grains of hardness and 5ppm of iron. After the well was drilled I came back to a sure sale. I was able to sell them the same equipment I sold to all their neighbours who tapped into the same aquifer. Scientific dowsing!

(After all, there were TEST TUBES in my test kit)!
Tim Boettcher

I must begin by giving my applause for an informative and insightful web site. I too consider myself a skeptic on such matters; however, I have witnessed certain phenomena for which I can provide no rational explanation.

reply: The absence of a rational explanation doesn't mean there isn't one. On the other hand, there may be some things which we cannot explain rationally. It doesn't follow from either of these premises that there is always a paranormal explanation, if only we were clever enough to grasp it.

During the summer of 1993, I visited Stonehenge where I observed a man and woman using divining rods to determine the whereabouts and intensity of "lei (?) lines" around the monolith. I approached the couple and enquired about their activities and, after some discussion, I was invited to "try out" the divining rods.

reply: You probably don't recall all the details of the discussion, but my guess would be that what was said to you by the couple influenced you when you tried to do what they were doing. You may not have been conscious of their influence...you may even have consciously tried to resist being influenced. The mind is a funny thing. When I play golf, I sometimes get paired with someone who analyzes everything. I tell myself that I am ignoring what is said, that I will just hit the ball and not think about what I am doing, yet I inevitably find myself responding to my partner's analysis, despite all my efforts to ignore him.

Holding a rod in each hand, I was instructed to walk past the headstone. As I did so, the rods, which were both pointing directly forward, moved distinctly in an outward direction; as I passed the stone, they then moved back to their original position. I can assure you that I made no active effort whatsoever to influence the movement of the rods.

reply: Even experienced dowsers do not consciously make an effort to influence the movement of their sticks, wires, rods, etc. Yet, influence them they do, nonetheless.

While this experience does not make me a "believer," I am quite interested in any insights you might provide.

reply: I doubt if what I've said counts as an insight into anything, but my guess would be that you were influenced by what the couple said, even though you were unaware of this influence.

10 Jul 1996
I thought I would comment on dowsing. I'm a Hoosier by birth and upbringing and worked as a geologist in KY before earning my Ph.D. at Ind. Univ. While in Ky I was exposed to "dowsing." I thought you might be interested in knowing that in KY practitioners are called "water witches" and they use a "divining rod."

--Clay Harris
Asst. Prof. of Geology

reply: I'm surprised they don't call it a "bedeviling rod."

Fri 8 Nov 1996
First, I have really enjoyed your dictionary, I don't always agree but it is most interesting.

Secondly, I take some issue with your position on dowsing. Having worked for 20 plus years in the construction business, it is not unusual for two pieces of copper wire (solid - #10) to be used as divining rods in order to find a pipe. Both plumbers and electricians have used this method with a high degree of success. I have personally used the method both on job sites and at homes to locate a buried pipe when the approximate location is known within 10' to 15'.

The use of the copper wires narrows the search to within a foot on either side of the location where the wires cross. The best explanation I have heard is that both water and/or conducting metals in the pipe create a small localized flux in the magnetic field thus enabling dowsing to be possible. I don't claim to have the final answer but it works for me.


reply: Your experience has been duplicated thousands of times, so why do I remain skeptical? What is "a high degree of success"? You and other dowsers found water or wires most of the time you used this method. If you do not compare how often you find water or wires without using this method, you do not have strong evidence that it was the dowsing that was responsible for your success. It may have been something else, such as the knowledge that comes from experience. I am sure it has occurred to you that electricians and plumbers have had numerous non-dowsing experiences in their trades and that what they learned from those experiences have helped them locate wires and pipes numerous times.

I don't doubt that the best explanation you have heard is that conducting metals in pipes causes a small localized flux in the magnetic field. But I doubt if this theory has been tested. If you decide to test it, I suggest you let non-plumbers and non-electricians do the dowsing. That will silence the skeptical critics who will claim that it was knowledge, not magic, that accounts for the success, if there is any.

14 Jan 1997
I am by my own admission, at least an agnostic and probably an atheist. I am very skeptical of the "supernatural". However, there are undoubtedly many things in this universe that are unknown to us.

reply: Well, we at least agree on that!

If I may continue. When I way a child some 40+ years ago, my grandfather bent 2 pieces of wire into "L" shapes and witched for water. When I was 16 (30 years ago) I worked for the Soil Conservation Service for the summer. Much of there work had to do with tiling on farms in the county. We had to go out and use long metal probes to locate tile. I was not as "smart" as I am now, so I bent two pieces of wire into "L" shapes, held one in each hand and walked in a straight line until the wires crossed. Then I would probe at that point and locate the drainage tile. So rather than poking many holes in the ground probing for the tile, I would locate the tile within a foot. That summer, I worked with different teams of surveyors on many farms in the county. I would always witch for the tile and always locate it.

Great! Did you ever try any other techniques, e.g., did you ever look to see where the drainage tile drained? Did you do any visual observation of the lay of the land? Did you ever try just poking holes using "intuition" or coin toss?

Now, I realize that this should have been impossible and maybe it was. But, I was there and did that.

Why should it have been impossible? People stick holes in the ground and find what they are looking for all the time. I've even seen it done myself. If one has a little knowledge and experience, one tends to be "luckier" than those who lack both.

I've thought of trying it again, maybe when the snow departs the Midwest I go out in the country and again try it. Although, now I know it can't work.
Forever Skeptical,


reply: A better reason for not trying it might be that farmers might frown on your digging up their tile to prove the impossible! You'd be looked upon just like those pranksters who make designs in wheat fields.

2 Feb 1997
As a natural born skeptic myself I usually set out with the purpose of debunking claims that don't seem plausible. However, when it comes to witching or dowsing my grandfather had a widely known reputation as a successful witcher and my father also the ability to a high degree. Growing up I was always skeptical of his claims that the green branch he preferred to use was actually moving of its own accord, mainly because I had tried it on numerous occasions with no success. The branch never made any movement for me whatsoever. Then one day my father was using two brass rods bent at 90 deg. for a hand hold and the hand hold was inserted inside two short pieces of copper tubing thus allowing the brass rods to pivot freely inside while one held the pieces of tubing. Well, I decided to try this method and sure enough when I used them they would swing back and forth across each other in the exact same places where my Father had the rods move. Power of suggestion probably?

That was my first thought however upon further experimentation we noticed that over some places the rods would cross back and forth 15 times, sometimes in another spot maybe 25 times before becoming still etc. Well, this made me wonder if it had anything to do with the depth or size of the body of water we were supposedly detecting. So we did further experimentation to try to see if there was a connection in this phenomena. We had a 3rd. party blindfold us and take us to various bridges over creeks , rivers etc. He did not tell us where we were at any time. Upon arrival at each location he would give one of us the rods and point us toward the stream , we would walk and stop as soon as he saw the rods make a complete swing. Then the process would be repeated with the other of us. He also silently counted the number of swings of the rods each time. Anyway, to shorten the story after the experiments we measured the height from the place we were standing each time to the water's surface. In each case there was a direct correlation between the number of swings of the rods and the number of feet to the water, it always worked to approximately 13 something inches for each swing of the rods.

Several years later I decided to have a well drilled on my property. I and my father both witched till we found the strongest and broadest area. Using my calculations I determined we should hit water at 42 ft. The driller hit water on the 1st attempt at approximately 40ft. and, no, I did not know of any other wells in the area at that depth. Most in the area were at approx. 72ft. I can't explain these effects but do know from my experiences that there is some kind of physical phenomena occurring
Thank You Sincerely
Doug Conaway

reply: Most readers will probably recognize the flaws in your "controlled" experiment. You may have been blindfolded but your other senses were working as you "dowsed" for bodies of water. As for your personal well, well there is not much to say. If your story is true, all we know for sure is that you hit water and you were only off by two feet in your calculations. Was this luck, coincidence, application of knowledge and experience, or magic? We'll never know.

22 Apr 1997
We agree that the rod turns because of the person holding it. Why? I think it is quite simple. Make yourself a rod, preferably from a young tree with the sap flowing. I guess you know that one has to hold the rod in a special way. Do so. Now put some pressure inwards-upwards. Not too much: essentially it is enough to tighten the grip on the rod. It will turn downwards. The force is such that the bark will come off in your hands.

I once played a joke on a "rod-skeptic". I "found" water by the method above. He then passed the same patch without the rod moving. I got into a spiel about how I could transfer my powers to him. We walked the path again and when we came to the place I put my hand on his arm and whispered: "don't you feel it". Sure enough, the rod moved. Because he unconsciously tensed up and increased pressure.

Regards, Pelle Nilsson

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