From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Discovery by Dowsing

Anecdotes vs. data


Along life's way, I've heard many interesting stories about water dowsers, and I've had a few personal experiences with the art.
  • When I was growing up in Nebraska, my dad always called the Gudgel brothers* when he needed a new well. My dad showed them the general site, and they used a dowsing stick to determine the best spot before they drilled.
  • At his ranch in Kansas, my brother successfully dowsed for underground water pipes and avoided some unnecessary exploratory digging. 
  • Telling me about my brother's dowsing, my father put two wires in my hand and tried to show me how to use them. He wanted me to feel the electric current in the ceiling fan overhead. I was unable to sense it.
  • I watched my Mennonite neighbor hold his pocket watch by its chain (a pendulum) and follow the underground water vein on which our old well in the yard was hand-dug. (At least, he said so.)

Woodcut from Georgius Agricolas'
"De re metallica libri XII"
(Wikimedia image, from a 16th
century German mining manual.)
Dowsers find many sorts of anomalies in the earth -- water and water pipes, sewer lines, septic tanks, buried cables, oil, veins of ore, graves, caves, tunnels, buried treasure, lost objects, and much more**. An internet search for "dowsing" will find hundreds (thousands!) of success stories.

Water dowsing is such a common practice that the U.S. Geological Survey, a branch of the Department of the Interior, has even published a pamphlet about it. In the early 1900s, they also published a book about the history of dowsing. While they discourage reliance on dowsing to find water, they don't outright condemn it.

But many scientists doubt that dowsers can find much of anything with their rods, sticks, pendulums, and so on. Stories abound, but stories are not data. When put to the test, it seems that dowsers find things mainly when they dowse in locations where it would be hard not to find those things.

During the 1980s, an extensive, well-funded study of water dowsing was conducted by a group of physicists in Munich, Germany. The group included members who were skeptical to dowsing and members who were sympathetic, so the study could not be called "unfriendly." Variables were carefully controlled, and double blinds were employed. The results were conclusive -- the dowsers were unable to detect water. In fact,  "it is difficult to imagine a set of experimental results that would represent a more persuasive disproof of the ability of dowsers to do what they claim." (J. T. Enright, "Testing Dowsing: The Failure of the Munich Experiments." Published in Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 23.1, January / February 1999)

I've read a dozen success stories tonight about grave dowsing, but I have to wonder how many of the found graves were opened to see if remains were actually there. A report by the Iowa State Archaeologist lists cemetery after cemetery where grave dowsing failed. In some cases, graves were indicated by dowsers, but no remains were found when the ground was excavated. In other cases, remains were found where dowsers said there were no graves. The State Archaeologist advises, "My final recommendation is for cemetery caretakers to stop using dowsing."

I had always imagined that dowsing was a natural ability that you might be born with, just as one might have an inborn talent for dancing or for learning foreign languages. I'm a bit disappointed at the lack of scientific evidence for dowsing. If I had to locate an underground pipe -- well, I guess I'd call 811 -- or my brother.

-----------------------
* When my dad was growing up, his family and the Gudgels were neighbors in the Nebraska Sandhills, south of Wood Lake and Johnstown. Amos Gudgel was one of the homesteaders of eastern Cherry County. His sons who were well-drillers were Francis and/or Bill (as I recall!)  I could definitely be wrong about their names, so please don't hesitate to set me straight.


** I learned in my recent reading about dowsing that it's not just a popular way to find water on the farm. Dowsing is also a New-Age, "spiritual", pagan art, practiced for power. Some even claim that they can predict the future, influence the actions of others, and find success and love through dowsing. To them, it really is "witching", another name that dowsing is sometimes called.

3 comments:

Collagemama said...

Thought-provoking...I can't completely discount dowsing, even with the scientific data. I've just dowsed around in my memory for a quote:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Genevieve said...

Great quote, Collagemama, and most appropriate. The old Dept. of the Interior book about dowsing warns in the forewood never to pay a dowser, and that seems like good advice to me.

Genevieve said...

Forewood? Oops, I mean "foreword".

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.