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dowsing (a.k.a. water witching, radiesthesia)

From "An Essay on Blindness" by Dennis Diderot (1749). Courtesy of the Clendening History of Medicine Library, University of Kansas Medical CenterDowsing is the action of a person--called the dowser--using a rod, stick, or object hung from a string--called a dowsing rod, dowsing stick, doodlebug (when used to locate oil), divining rod, or pendulum--to locate such things as underground water, hidden metal, buried treasure, oil, lost persons or golf balls, etc. Since dowsing is not based upon any known scientific or empirical laws or forces of nature, it should be considered a type of divination and an example of magical thinking. The dowser tries to locate objects by occult means.

A French priest and dowser, Alex Bouly (1865-1958), coined the term radiesthesia in 1927 and founded The Society of Friends of Radiesthesia. The term 'radiesthesia' certainly sounds more dignified and scientific than 'dowsing.' The Latin word 'radius' may refer to a rod or a ray and the Greek 'aesthesis' may refer to sensing or feeling. Bouly apparently believed he and others had a special ability to sense emanations of some sort being released from underground water, buried bombs, and vibrations from microbes in test tubes. These special feelings, however, apparently require the use of a rod or pendulum to be felt by the dowser. Legend has it that Bouly could not only locate unexploded shells buried in the ground after World War I but that he could identify whether the shells were German, Austrian, or French. Apparently, different emanations flow from different manufacturers. Legend also has it that Bouly could identify cultures of microbes in test tubes with his pendulum as well as those who used a microscope.*

Catholic priest dowser


Other French Catholic priests followed in Bouly's mystical footsteps. Father Alexis Mermet claimed he discovered 'pendulum diagnosis' and published his discoveries in a book called How I Proceed in the Discovery of Near or Distant Water, Metals, Hidden Objects and Illnesses. Father Jean-Louis Bourdoux's contribution to this modern mysticism in the name of science was called Practical Notions of Radiesthesia for Missionaries. Bourdoux claimed that "thanks to the new science called radiesthesia, you will be able, without any medical training and hardly any funds, to succor both believers and pagans." Father Jean Jurion went even further by claiming he had cured a man of inoperable brain cancer using only a pendulum and homeopathic remedies.* [Info on French Catholic priests taken from Principles & Practice of Radiesthesia {1935} by Abbé Alexis Mermet.] I suppose it is not surprising to find that men who believe there are real demons that invade people and that can be exorcised by special rituals and incantations should also believe they can find underground water and bombs, and cure cancers, by waving a stick or holding a string with a coin dangling from its end. It is also not surprising to find New Age healers who trust their dowsing pendulums more than scientific medicine. Not to be outdone by a group of French priests, the English established The Radionic Association in 1943. These folks still flourish as teachers and offer a degree in radionics. They boast that "Medical Doctors, Homoeopaths [sic], Councellors [sic], and many other practitioners have found that dowsing, radionic analysis, and radionic treatment provide an important extension to their existing repertoire." Isn't it great to live in a world where some of our most devoted healers have no medical training?

Map dowsers use a dowsing device, usually a pendulum, over maps to locate oil, minerals, persons, water, etc. However, the prototype of a dowser is the field dowser who walks around an area using a forked stick to locate underground water. When above water, the rod points downward. (Some dowsers use two rods. The rods cross when above water.) Various theories have been given as to what causes the rods to move: electromagnetic or other subtle geological forces, suggestion from others or from geophysical observations, ESP and other paranormal explanations, etc. Most skeptics accept the explanation of William Carpenter (1852). The rod moves due to involuntary motor behavior, which Carpenter dubbed ideomotor action.

In the 16th century, Agricola described mining dowsers using a forked twig to find metals (De re metallica). He didn't think much of the practice. A miner, he wrote:

should not make us of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him, for ... there are natural indications of the veins which he can see for himself without the help of twigs. (Quoted in Zusne and Jones 1989: 106)

Despite this sage advice, dowsers continue to dowse, claiming that they have a special power and that what they are dowsing for emanates energy, rays, radiations, vibrations, and the like.

Does dowsing work?

Some people are less interested in why the rods move than in whether dowsing works. Obviously, many people believe it does. Dowsing and other forms of divination have been around for thousands of years. There are large societies of dowsers in America and Europe and dowsers practice their art every day in all parts of the world. There have even been scientists in recent years who have offered proof that dowsing works. There must be something to it, then, or so it seems.

Testing has been sparse, however. For one thing, it is difficult to establish a "baseline against which a diviner's performance may be compared" (Zusne and Jones 1989: 108). In 1949, an experiment was conducted in Maine by the American Society for Psychical Research. Twenty-seven dowsers "failed completely to estimate either the depth or the amount of water to be found in a field free of surface clues to water, whereas a geologist and an engineer successfully predicted the depth at which water would be found in 16 sites in the same field...." (Zusne and Jones 1989: 108; reported in Vogt and Hyman: 1967). There have been a few other controlled tests of dowsing and all produced only chance results (ibid.). [In addition to Vogt and Hyman, see R. A. Foulkes (1971) "Dowsing experiments," Nature, 229, pp.163-168); M. Martin (1983-1984). "A new controlled dowsing experiment." Skeptical Inquirer. 8(2), 138-140; J. Randi (1979). "A controlled test of dowsing abilities." Skeptical Inquirer. 4(1). 16-20; and D. Smith (1982). "Two tests of divining in Australia." Skeptical Inquirer. 4(4). 34-37.]

The testimonials of dowsers and those who observe them provide the main evidence for dowsing. The evidence is simple: dowsers find what they are dowsing for and they do this many times. What more proof of dowsing is needed? The fact that this pattern of dowsing and finding something occurs repeatedly leads many dowsers and their advocates to make the causal connection between dowsing and finding water, oil, minerals, golf balls, etc. This type of fallacious reasoning is known as post hoc reasoning and is a very common basis for belief in paranormal powers. It is essentially unscientific and invalid. Scientific thinking includes being constantly vigilant against self-deception and being careful not to rely upon insight or intuition in place of rigorous and precise empirical testing of theoretical and causal claims. Every controlled study of dowsers has shown that dowsers do no better than chance in finding what they are looking for.

Most dowsers do not consider it important to doubt their dowsing powers or to wonder if they are self-deceived. They never consider doing a controlled scientific test of their powers. They think that the fact that they have been successful over the years at dowsing is proof enough. When dowsers are scientifically tested and fail, they generally react with genuine surprise. Typical is what happened when James Randi tested some dowsers using a protocol they all agreed upon. If they could locate water in underground pipes at an 80% success rate they would get $10,000 (now the prize is over $1,000,000). All the dowsers failed the test, though each claimed to be highly successful in finding water using a variety of non-scientific instruments, including a pendulum. Says Randi, "the sad fact is that dowsers are no better at finding water than anyone else. Drill a well almost anywhere in an area where water is geologically possible, and you will find it."

Some of the strongest evidence for dowsing comes from Germany. Tests were done in a barn (Scheune is the German word for barn) and are referred to by J. T. Enright as the "Scheunen" experiments. In 1987 and 1988, more than 500 dowsers participated in more than 10,000 double-blind tests set up by physicists in a barn near Munich.  The researchers claim they empirically proved "a real dowsing phenomenon." Jim Enright of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography evaluated the data and concluded that the so-called "real dowsing phenomenon" can reasonably be attributed to chance. His argument is rather lengthy, but here is a taste of it:

The long and the short of it is that dowsing performance in the Scheunen experiments was not reproducible. It was not reproducible inter-individually: from a pool of some 500 self-proclaimed dowsers, the researchers selected for their critical experiments 43 candidates whom they considered most promising on the basis of preliminary testing; but the investigators themselves ended up being impressed with only a few of the performances of only a small handful from that select group. And, even more troublesome for the hypothesis, dowsing performance was not reproducible intra-individually: those few dowsers, who on one occasion or another seemed to do relatively well, were in their other comparable test series usually no more successful than the rest of the "unskilled" dowsers (Enright “Water Dowsing: the Scheunen Experiments,” Naturwissenschaften, vol. 82 1995).

The barn study itself is curious. It seems clearly to have been repudiated by another German study done in 1992 by a group of German scientists and skeptics. The Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften (GWUP) [Society for the Scientific Investigation of the Parasciences] set up a three-day controlled test of some thirty dowsers, mostly from Germany. The test was done at Kassel, north of Frankfurt, and televised by a local television station. The test involved plastic pipe buried 50 centimeters in a level field through which a large flow of water could be controlled and directed. On the surface, the position of the pipe was marked with a colored stripe, so all the dowsers had to do was tell whether there was water running through the pipe. All the dowsers signed a statement that they agreed the test was a fair test of their abilities and that they expected a 100% success rate. The results were what one would expect by chance (Randi 1995). Defenders of dowsing do not care for these results, and continue to claim that the barn study provides scientific proof of dowsing.

another German study

Further evidence for dowsing has been presented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) [the German Society for Technical Co-operation] sponsored by the German government. They claim, for example, that in some of their water dowsing efforts they had success rates above 80% "results which, according to responsible experts, could not be reached by means of classical methods, except with disproportionate input." Of particular interest is a report by University of Munich physicist Hans-Dieter Betz, "Unconventional Water Detection: Field Test of the Dowsing Technique in Dry Zones,"  published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration in 1995. (This is the same Betz who, with J. L. König, authored a book in 1989 on German government tests proving the ability of dowsers to detect E-rays.) The report covers a ten-year period and over 2000 drillings in Sri Lanka, Zaire, Kenya, Namibia, Yemen and other countries. Especially impressive was an overall success rate of 96 percent  achieved in 691 drillings in Sri Lanka. "Based on geological experience in that area, a success rate of 30-50 percent would be expected from conventional techniques alone," according to Betz. How he arrived at that statistic is unknown, especially since Sri Lanka gets 100-200 inches (2,500-5,000 mm) of rain a year.* "What is both puzzling yet enormously useful is that in hundreds of cases the dowsers were able to predict the depth of the water source and the yield of the well to within 10 or 20 percent. We carefully considered the statistics of these correlations, and they far exceeded lucky guesses."

Betz ruled out chance and the use of landscape and geological features by dowsers as explanations for their success. He also ruled out "some unknown biological sensitivity to water." Betz thinks that there may be "subtle electromagnetic gradients" resulting from fissures and water flows which create changes in the electrical properties of  rock and soil. Dowsers, he thinks, somehow sense these gradients in a hypersensitive state. "I'm a scientist," says Betz, "and those are my best plausible scientific hypotheses at this point....we have established that dowsing works, but have no idea how or why." Of course, it is possible that his dowsers are smarter than Betz and look for obvious signs of water like places where the grass is greener and lowest points in the terrain (Randi 1995).

There are some puzzling elements to Betz's conclusions, however. Most of his claims concern a single dowser named Schröter. Who observed this dowser or what conditions he worked under remain unknown. Betz is a physicist and what knowledge he has of hydrogeology is unknown. Furthermore, Betz's speculation that dowsers are hypersensitive to subtle electromagnetic gradients does not seem to be based upon scientific data. In any case, the hypothesis was not tested and I am not sure how one would go about testing such a claim. At the very least, one would expect that geological instruments would be able to detect such "electromagnetic gradients."

When others have done controlled tests of dowsers, the dowsers do no better than chance and no better than non-dowsers (Vogt and Hyman; Hyman; Enright 1995, 1996; Randi 1995). Some of Betz's data are certainly not scientific, e.g., the subjective evaluations of Schröter regarding his own dowsing activities. Much of the data is little more than a report that dowsing was used by Schröter and he was successful in locating water. Betz assumes that chance or scientific hydrogeological procedures would not have produced the same or better results. It may be true that in one area they had a 96% success rate using dowsing techniques and that  "no prospecting area with comparable sub-soil conditions is known where such outstanding results have ever been attained." However, this means nothing for establishing that dowsing had anything to do with the success. Analogous sub-soil condition seems to be an insufficient similarity to justify concluding that dowsing, rather than chance, or use of landscape or geological features, must account for the success rate.

Betz seems to have realized that without some sort of testing, reasonable people would not accept that it had been established that dowsing is a real phenomenon based upon the above types of data. He then presents what he calls "tests" to establish that dowsing is real. The first test involves Schröter again. A Norwegian drilling team dug two wells and each failed to hit water. The dowser came in and allegedly not only hit water but predicted the depth and flow. Apparently, we have the dowser's own word on this. In any case, this is not a test of dowsing, however impressive it might seem.

In the second test, Betz asserts that dowsers can tell how deep water is because "the relevant biological sensations during dowsing are sufficiently different to allow for the required process of distinction and elimination." He has no evidence for this claim. In any case, in this "test" Schröter again is asked to pick a place to dig a well and again he is successful. This time his well is near a well already dug and known to be a good site. Betz claims that there were some geological formations that would have made the dowser's predictions difficult, but again this was not a scientific test of dowsing.

The third test was a kind of contest between the dowser and a team of hydrogeologists. The scientific team, about whom we are told nothing significant, studied an area and picked 14 places to drill. The dowser then went over the same area after the scientific team had made their choices and he picked 7 sites to drill. (Why they did not both pick the same number of sites is not explained.) A site yielding 100 liters per minute was considered good. The hydrogeologists hit three good sources; the dowser hit six. Clearly, the dowser won the contest. This test does not prove anything about dowsing, however. Nevertheless, I think Herr Schröter should knock on James Randi's door and be allowed to prove his paranormal powers under controlled conditions. If he is as good as he and Betz say he is, he should walk away a very rich man.

Betz has written a very long report, which is little more than a testimonial to the paranormal dowsing powers of Herr Schröter and a reiteration of the claims made for the barn study. He would have done better to have set up a controlled, double-blind experiment with the dowser, one which does not allow the dowser himself to determine the conditions of the experiment and one which did not have as many uncontrollable variables as those rampant in the ten-year project.

dowsing for drugs and bombs

A modern twist to the ancient art of dowsing has been added by several entrepreneurs who have added a plastic handle to the dowsing rod and either fake or pointless electronic circuitry. These devices are not marketed as dowsing rods, but as machines capable of detecting drugs, bombs, or a variety of other things.

The Quadro QRS 250G "Detector" (the Quadro Tracker) is a plastic box with an antenna which was sold by Quadro Corp of Harleyville, South Carolina, as a detector of just about anything: drugs, weapons, golf balls, even lost coon dogs. The device sold for about $1,000 each, although some schools and government agencies spent as much as $8,000 on each worthless unit.

DielectroKinetic Laboratories (DKL) claims its LifeGuard "human presence detector" uses a very sophisticated technology that allows it to detect a human heartbeat through concrete or steel. Priced at between $6,000 and $14,000 each, the DKL LifeGuard is marketed to government agencies as a high-tech tool that can "locate survivors in the critical first minutes of an emergency."

The Treasure King System-2000 was a dowsing rod marketed to treasure hunters as "an operator body response long range locating instrument." If the user didn't find any treasure, it was said to be due to the user not being "conductive."

The ADE 651 is being used by Iraq's security forces despite warnings from the U.S. government that the devices are useless. Iraqi officials bought 800 of the devices from a company called ATSC (UK) Ltd. for $32 million in 2008, and an unspecified larger quantity for $53 million. They paid up to $60,000 apiece for the handheld wands. The Baghdad Operations Command purchased an additional 100 detection devices.

The British company Global Technical Ltd. has sold a dowsing rod it calls the GT 200 to both the Mexican military and police and to the Thai army. The Mexicans think the rod can detect drugs. The Thais think it can detect bombs. News reports in Thailand have reported the deaths of 3 police officers and one civilian due to the failure of the GT-200 Detection Device not finding hidden explosives.

Although the GT 200 is nothing more than a divining rod, Mexican defense officials praise the devices as a critical part of their efforts to combat drug traffickers. In November, 2009, at a checkpoint on the highway leading from Mexico City to Monterrey, the device pointed at a Volkswagen containing a man, a woman, and a child. Soldiers surrounded the vehicle and a search was conducted for illegal drugs. But all they found was a bottle of Tylenol — evidence, the soldier operating the device said, of how sensitive the GT 200 was.*

Even if you do not understand Thai, you will understand the message of this video:

Other dowsing rods sold as bomb detectors include the Sniffex, Scandec, MOLE, Alpha 6, ADE 100, PSD-22, HEDD1, and H3Tec.

Before purchasing a bomb or drug detection device, it might be wise to first read Guide for the Selection of Commercial Explosives Detection Systems for Law Enforcement Applications from the Department of Justice.

See also divination, feng shui, geomancy, ideomotor effect, ley lines, magical thinking, post hoc fallacy, Quadro QRS 250G "Detector", self-deception, and Dowsing for Dollars by Robert T. Carroll.

further reading

reader comments

books and articles

Carpenter, William B. "On the influence of suggestion in modifying and directing muscular movement, independently of volition." Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. 1852;1:147-153.

Christopher, Milbourne. ESP, Seers & Psychics (Thomas Y. Crowell Co. 1970).

Enright, J. T. "Dowsers Lost in a Barn." Naturwissenschaften, 83(6):275-277, 6/1996.

Enright, J. T. "Water Dowsing: the Scheunen Experiments," Naturwissenschaften, 82(8):360-369, 8/1995.

Feder, Kenneth L. Frauds, Mysteries and Myths, 3rd ed. (Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1998).

Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957).

Hyman, Ray.. "Dowsing," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996) pp. 222-233.

Randi, James. An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1995).

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982).

Vogt, Evon and Ray Hyman. Water Witching U.S.A. 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Zusne,  Leonard and Warren Jones. Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking 2nd edition. (Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. 1989).


Dowsing for machine guns "One of the main tactical problems in jungle warfare had proved to be the extreme difficulty of accurately locating the enemy’s automatic weapons in dense cover, even when they came into action – as they often did – at little more than point blank range. A temporary officer in the RAF, who in happier times had been an enthusiastic water-diviner, claimed to be able to solve this problem. The gift of dowsing, he asserted, was more widely distributed among the human race than most people realized, and it was particularly common among Indians, who formed at that time the bulk of the forces under British command confronting the Japanese."

What's the harm? The ADE-651 hoax

Testing Dowsing The Failure of the Munich Experiments by  J. T. Enright, Skeptical Inquirer, Jan/Feb 1999

Eric Kreig's Dowsing page

The American Society of Dowsers

Mass Media Funk 3


California farmers hire dowsers to find water

"With California in the grips of drought, farmers throughout the state are using a ... foolhardy tool for locating underground water....'There's no scientific basis to dowsing. If you want to go to a palm reader or a mentalist, then you're the same person who's going to go out and hire a dowser,' said Tom Ballard, a hydrogeologist...."

Apparently, farmers use this foolhardy method even when there isn't a drought.

Last updated 29-Oct-2015

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