Dowsing is a form of superstition that’s been around for at least 700 years. Claims regarding the capabilities and effectiveness of dowsing have changed little over this time period despite advances in scientific testing.
Besides water, dowsers now claim to be able to locate drugs, explosives, money, missing persons, golf balls and lost dogs. There is even a dowsing Bigfoot detector. They can certainly locate money since people, organizations and governments spend millions of dollars each year on this form of divination. There are about 20,000 dowsers working in the United States and even more in western Europe.
Locally, there are dowsers operating on farms and ranches in the Santa Ynez Valley. A few years ago, the Santa Barbara News-Press published a long article on a dowser who was 100 percent accurate. I was surprised since scientific testing of human abilities rarely produces a perfect success rate. As I continued reading, I finally realized, “Oh! This guy is finding water in the Santa Ynez River Valley.” Any 5-year-old with a stick can find an aquifer in a river valley.
Dowsing “ability” is produced by the ideomotor effect: “The influence of suggestion or expectation on involuntary and unconscious motor behavior” (The Skeptic’s Dictionary). This is the same effect that produces movement on Ouija boards or facilitated communication boards. The many forms of dowsing rods are not producing any real effect at all and are merely a distraction. The dowser is unconsciously moving the dowsing rod.
For example, a “golf ball detector” is used by golfers who have some idea of where the ball went. They are unconsciously moving the dowsing apparatus to the likely area and are increasing their chance of finding the ball. Dowsing “success” is also influenced by human proclivity to “remember the hits and forget the misses” (Michael Shermer, Skeptic Magazine).
There seem to be three levels of dowsing deception. The first is the water dowser who is probably following a family tradition, truly believes in his craft and has learned to be a fairly good amateur hydrologist. He’s fooling himself as much as he’s fooling the farmers and ranchers who pay him.
The second level of dowsing deceptors are the small-time scam artists who knowingly sell plastic boxes containing fancy circuit boards and wires as detectors for golf balls, dogs, drugs, etc. In 2006, a school district was taken in ($8,000) by a company that promised remote marijuana detection in the school lockers. The principal diligently walked the halls with a small plastic black box with a projecting piece of wire. They paid hundreds of dollars for a box that supposedly contained circuitry that could feel the “electromagnetic forces” and “oscillating frequencies” of the marijuana.
As the principal walked the halls and opened lockers that his “marijuana detector” pointed at, he opened many lockers with no marijuana — and promptly discarded those failures. By random chance and perhaps by his personal knowledge of the unmotivated, problem students, the principal eventually found a locker that actually contained marijuana. The principal “remembered the hits and forgot the misses” and confirmed his own bias that his $8,000 investment really worked.
The third level of dowsers market expensive detectors that have even gotten some of their users killed. It’s difficult to comprehend that our willingness to believe in this seemingly harmless superstition can kill police officers and military personnel.
Over the last few years, the governments of England, Thailand and Iraq spent millions of dollars on the Sniffex explosive detector, which again was nothing more than a very expensive looking plastic box with a protruding wire that sold for $6,000 to $14,000 each.
Here’s the explanation from Sniffex about how the explosive detector works: “The frequency chip is oscillated by static electricity produced by the body [of the user] inhaling and exhaling gases into and out of the lung cavity. This static electricity is propagated on the surface of the body to the tracker which utilizes the charge to oscillate the chip. ... All matter contains exact molecular frequencies. When a magnetic field is created by a contained electrically charged body moving through space at a perpendicular angle moving to its direction, and that field is brought into alignment with another exact field, resonating at the identical frequency modulation, then both objects attract, just as two bodies are attracted toward each other in a gravitational field.”
I’ve read this explanation 10 times and I still don’t know what it means. This is pure mumbo-jumbo, flim-flam and using scientific jargon to deceive. Most unfortunately, several allied police and military bomb disposal experts were killed before this scam was exposed: “The ADE 651 explosive detector was used by Iraqi security forces despite warnings from our government that the devices were useless. In 2008, Iraq purchased 800 detectors from the ATSC Ltd. Company for $32 million. They later spent an additional $53 million on bogus detectors that sold for $60,000 each.
“The Quadro QRS 250G Detector (the Quadro Tracker) is a plastic box with an antenna which was sold by Quadro Corp. of Harleyville, S.C., as a detector of just about anything: drugs, weapons, golf balls, even lost 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.
“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 three police officers and one civilian due to the failure of the GT-200 Detection Device not finding hidden explosives.” (The Skeptics’ Dictionary)
Why do we continue to get scammed by these pseudoscientific devices, procedures and quackery? We fall for these scams again and again, over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years, because as a social animal we have evolved over millions of years to put significant value on personal stories (i.e. anecdotal testimony) that a certain procedure or cure “works.” We trust the storyteller, and the stories are often very dramatic, get us very excited and give us hope.
The only way to make an actual causal connection between events is to do scientific measurement and testing. Unless we experiment and collect evidence, we will always be victims of this type of fraud.
— Victor Dominocielo, a California-credentialed teacher for 36 years, is the human biology and health teacher at a local middle school. The opinions expressed are his own.