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The Dowsing Phenomenon: Beliefs, Biases, and Scientific Studies

For centuries, people in various parts of the world have claimed to possess a unique skill that allows them to locate the presence of water below ground. At least as early as the 1500s, miners in the high Harz mountains of northern Germany near Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia were known to have used forked hazel rods to detect where copper and other metals could be successfully mined. Accounts of such practices appeared in 1556 in the writings of the early mineralogist Georgius Agricola.

This skill, known as dowsing, is generally classified as a form of divination—a supernatural method of acquiring information about the world—although some have argued that there may be more solid foundations that support the idea.

Dowsing has been used for more than just the location of groundwater throughout time. The practice has also been relied upon as a tool for finding precious stones, as well as resources like oil and a host of other things. Generally, the practice employs the use of a single Y-shaped twig, or alternatively a pair of L-shaped ones (although sometimes metal rods are used in place of wooden ones, particularly when using L-shaped varieties).

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Image from Agricola’s 1557 Treatise on Mining (public domain).

While dowsing remains in use today, modern science does not acknowledge it as an actual method for locating water and instead recognizes it as a pseudoscientific claim which is essentially no more likely to produce water with any degree of success than randomly guessing where water might be. The possible influence of ideomotor response also likely plays a role, according to past scientific studies that compare the movement of dowsing rods to the seemingly mysterious movement of a planchette, the pointing device used with Ouija boards.

Despite this, dowsing still sees attention in a variety of areas in modern times and is even occasionally referenced on U.S. government websites and scientific publications.

According to a USGS fact page on dowsing, “Water dowsers practice mainly in rural or suburban communities where residents are uncertain as to how to locate the best and cheapest supply of groundwater.” On account of the costs and other issues drilling may present, the USGS says that “homeowners are understandably reluctant to gamble on a dry hole and turn to the water dowser for advice.”

However, the idea that water is any more likely to be found using dowsing than through simple guesswork remains in question. “Some water exists under the Earth’s surface almost everywhere,” the fact page says, which the USGS attributes primarily to the success some dowsers claim to have.

“To locate groundwater accurately,” the USGS adds, “as to depth, quantity, and quality, several techniques must be used. Hydrologic, geologic, and geophysical knowledge is needed to determine the depths and extent of the different water-bearing strata and the quantity and quality of water found in each. The area must be thoroughly tested and studied to determine these facts.”

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(Credit: USGS/Public Domain).

In other parts of the world, scientists appear to have been somewhat more open to the efficacy of dowsing, even if the mechanisms that might make it successful aren’t very well understood. In 1974 N.N. Sochevanov and V.S. Matveev, a pair of Russian geologists with Moscow’s All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Hydrogeology and Engineering Geology, wrote extensively about the resourcefulness of several methods used to complete mineral surveys in the Soviet Union. Among these had been a method simply designated “BPM,” which had proven successful in the retrieval of mineralogical data from both land and air, and despite its accuracy, was also relatively inexpensive.

“In a more recent paper, Sochevanov and three other Moscow geologists list many further applications of BPM, particularly to the successful siting of water wells,” read an article published in New Scientist shortly after the Russian studies.

“When it is added that BPM prospecting equipment is extraordinarily cheap, lightweight, and simple in design, it seems astonishing that such an important new method should have been so ignored in the West. Ignored by the scientific community, that is to say.”

Of course, this mysterious new process of “BPM”, which stood for bio-physical method, was “simply a respectable name for water and mineral divining or dowsing!”

The results of the Soviet study are interesting and can of course be interpreted in a couple of ways. Perhaps the simplest explanation had been that they were simply wrong and that another simpler explanation exists for the apparent successes (such as random chance compared with the instances where dowsing proved useful). Another case might be that the Soviet scientists were indeed correct and had been more open to the possibility that dowsing could be effective (and/or less hindered by the expectation that it would fruitless, as western scientists would tend to think). Hence, the results of their studies provided better results than those in America because more were carried out, and more time was put into them as well.

Still another possibility might be that biases affecting the Soviet scientists in question had differed from scientists who have studied it elsewhere: in other words, could it be that biases against the efficacy of dowsing in the West might have some influence on the outcome of studies attempting to gauge its effects?

This showcases the interesting way that in some instances, differing cultural attitudes may affect the outcome of various kinds of research. Is it possible that differing attitudes and biases between the East and West could account for such different results?

In his New Scientist article from 1979, geologist Tom Williamson noted that “One way out of this impasse might be to shift attention away from the claims of practicing water diviners towards a study of the dowsing reactions of ordinary people.” Williamson went on to note that while skeptical interpretations would likely fall back on the usual presumptions about the ideomotor effect and other potential factors that influence alleged dowsers, “the hypothesis that some dowsing reactions are direct physiological responses to small changes in the environment should also be considered.”

Considering how useful the practice appears to have been throughout time, indeed maybe such physiological factors should be considered, and thoroughly explored before ruling out any possibility that an unknown mechanism may yet be at the heart of the dowsing phenomenon.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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