Wizard of water
Water means life in agrarian societies, and few needs are more NM compelling than locating it. For centuries, adepts of the practice called dowsing have led the search, oftentimes holding a rudimentary tool, a Y-shaped stick with a projecting end. The dowser walks across a landscape, waiting for the stick to move seemingly of its own volition, swerving down toward the ground. When it does — eureka!—the dowser has divined his precious hidden quarry. Dowsing goes by many names—divining, water witching, radies-thesia—and it employs a variety of tools in addition to the classic forked stick: a pair of L-shaped brass rods is the choice of many dowsers, while radiesthesia refers to the practice of dangling an object over a map and noting its movements to reveal hidden targets. Thanks to the apparent success of many venerable dowsers, their methods are used to search for treasures in addition to water: gems and minerals, gold and oil. Because dowsers often find water, their art is one of the most widely accepted forms of unexplained phenomena. The mystery of dowsing boils down to a single question: How does the dowser receive his information? Many practitioners are convinced that a good dowser has the power to sense forces that others cannot. They argue that mankind will eventually come to understand these forces, whether they are magnetic, radioactive, electrical or perhaps not yet known to science. For their part, scientists—who realized long ago that seemingly quaint folk practices can be doorways to discovery— have created blind tests that subject dowsing to rigorous scrutiny.
Sadly for believers, these tests have failed to establish that dowsing really works, much less that it holds clues to hidden forces. In test after test, dowsers of good reputation failed to find their quarry more often than random participants did. Scientists draw a number of conclusions from these tests: they suspect that master dowsers rely on an acquired knowledge of geography and topography to help them find their targets. They ascribe the sudden downturn of the divining rod to the ideomotor effect, an involuntary body movement evoked by a thought process rather than by outside simulation. In short, they argue, the dowser reacts to internal cues rather than external forces. Yet the art of dowsing remains one of the more puzzling of mysterious phenomena, simply because it so often seems to work in the field, if not under scientific conditions. Confusion prevails: the U.S. Geological Survey declared in 1977 that dowsing was a pseudo-science, yet the Army Corps of Engineers has employed dowsers. And one can join reputable dowsing societies in nations around the world. Perhaps that is what makes the failure to explain dowsing through science so frustrating. Its proponents are not the kooks or cranks familiar to those exploring unexplained phenomena: they are more often down-to-earth folks, who say dowsing works for them and that science will catch up some day. Even James Randi, the former magician who is a professional skeptic of parapsychology. has good words for them. On his website, www.randi.org, the oft-scornful Randi compares them to other advocates of the paranormal and declares, “No claimants even approach the dowsers for honesty. These are persons who are genuinely, thoroughly, self-deceived.” Or maybe just ahead of their time?
HOT ROD This dowser uses the classic Y-shaped stick as a divining rod. The tool was first described by German scholar and metallurgist Georgius Agricola in 1556