X Marks the Spot
For millennia, dowsing has been employed to locate water and other underground resources. But can it really work or is it just folklore? Clare Hunt finds out more...
Without water there is no life, so it’s unsurprising that searching for water has always been and continues to be a primary human preoccupation. Even before formalised agricultural or mass-scale urban dwelling, people needed water to sustain themselves, their livestock and whatever ad-hoc crops they grew. And growing populations, intensive farming systems and the demands of industry mean that water is more in demand today than ever before. As a means of locating water, dowsing (also known as water divining or water witching) has been known and recognized across the world throughout history – appearing in Chinese inscriptions from about 2500BC and cropping up in the art and writing of all cultures ever since.
But while most of us associate dowsing with the divination of water, it’s also considered by its exponents to be a valuable tool in the discovery of many other valuable resources buried underground. Specialist dowsers seek to locate not just groundwater sources, they also search for anything from cables and pipes, oil, minerals, precious metals and gems to archaeological artefacts, ruins and live ordnance.
As well as historical documentary evidence of dowsing being practiced through the ages for domestic purposes, there’s also anecdotal suggestion that it has been exploited by oil and gas companies as well as by governments. Military applications may have been as diverse as seeking water supplies for encampments, locating unexploded bombs and pin-pointing the locations of enemy tunnels during the Vietnam conflict in the 1960s. Of course, verifying these claims or ascertaining how successful they were is another matter altogether. Mainly because dowsing isn’t exactly scientific and does have a tang of the New Age about it. Neither being things normally associated with the military.
But dowsing does enjoy a credibility that other forms of folk divination – from the casting of runes to the reading of tea-leaves, palms, tarot cards or crystal balls – absolutely do not. Why? Most likely because those practices attempt to predict the future. And more often than not that future simply doesn’t come true. Dowsing, on the other hand, claims the ability to pin point actual, physically manifest items and the apparent success of dowsers to do so explains why dowsing as a form of divination is taken very seriously – often by people otherwise cynical of New Age or supernatural beliefs.
Dowsing in practice
To help with detection dowsers typically employ an instrument. A freshly cut ‘wand’ or forked twig of wood may circle or oscillate when in the vicinity of the sought-after substance, pairs of L-shaped metal rods may cross to mark the right spot and a pendulum may swing to indicate success. Holding the instrument with a light grip, the dowser walks slowly over the search area, focussing his or her mind on the item being sought and remaining intently alert to any twitches that indicate a required change in direction or signal successful detection. Some dowsers also to work remotely, far from the physical location, using site plans and maps to locate oil, gas, gold or minerals.
Even the experts admit that no-one really knows how or why dowsing works. And this lack of certainty is one of the reasons it makes scientific empiricists very uneasy indeed. Edwina Cole, an archaeological dowser associated with the British Society of Dowsers (BSD – www.britishdowsers.com) observes that dowsing “appears to work rather like resistivity… with changes in the subsoil beneath our feet. Rods are only an indicator of these changes and some dowsers can feel the changes in their bodies and don’t need sticks or twigs.” Essentially pretty much anyone can learn how to dowse, though as with anything there are some who have greater natural aptitude than others and practice is required. Having intent is clearly vital to success, as are open-mindedness and a lack of inhibition. Peter Golding of the BSD’s water division says “it’s unlikely that a sceptic could ever be confident enough to learn how to dowse. One must approach it with an open, receptive state of mind very similar to when at prayer. If a person really wants to learn, they can be taught the rudiments very quickly.”
Professional dowsers believe that the practice can work in partnership with modern geophysical surveying and drilling. Where geophysics can suggest that something is down there, a dowser is attuned to the location of a specific substance meaning a pre-survey by a dowser can save time, money and be less invasive. Peter Taylor of Global Discovery seeks water, minerals, oil and gas by site visits and map dowsing. He observes: “Surveying and geophysics can only quote and mention what they think are anomalies. A professional dowser/diviner should be able to find in most cases the subject source they are looking for… determining what mineral might well be beneath the ground.”
The flip side of the coin
Despite the certainty of its exponents, there’s a sizeable community of sceptics who believe that dowsing is little more than self-deception, that it draws validation from its long history and that its successes are explained away by the statistics of chance. Ben Radford (www.benjaminradford.com), deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, says “I don’t believe dowsing per se is fraudulent – that is, for the most part it’s not a scam, hoax, or intentional deception. Instead it’s a form of self-deception that often convinces others. There’s no intent to deceive, it’s more of a mistake or misunderstanding. I’ve met many dowsers over the years and without exception they have been credible, down-to-earth people. They seem sincere because they are sincere: they really believe they have this power, and have convinced themselves over and over with their results. In this way they often convince other people, especially those who haven’t researched skeptical or science-based explanations...Unless dowsers keep careful track of all of their claims – both correct and wrong – it can be easy to misremember their success rate. ”
It’s the failure of the dowsers to provide scientific evidence of their skills that’s the trump card of the sceptics. Various controlled trials have been conducted to examine the veracity of the claim that dowsers can find water, with the sceptics adhering to the conclusion that random chance dictates whatever successes dowsers achieve – on the basis that it’s statistically very likely you’ll hit water wherever you dig, it just depends how deep you go. And while they accept that not even scientists can be right 100% of the time, they’re dismissive of the reliability of dowsing as a tool for exploration. Ben Radford says: “… in September 2015 the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation abandoned drilling in the Alaskan waters after spending $7 billion searching fruitlessly for oil. Why would they do that if all they need is to have a dowser on hand to point them directly where to drill? Any dowser who could reliably and successfully do what they claim could easily become a multi-millionaire consulting agent...”
To believe or disbelieve
So should we put the apparent successes of dowsing down to chance, self-deception and dogged belief? Or should we look back at the long history of its practice and listen to the validated stories told by credible individuals of the success of dowsing? Is it a sixth sense in which we’ve lost faith because we now believe in science above all else?
One thing’s for certain: dowsers do not claim to be scientists. Even they cannot explain the exact mechanics of how they do what they do. So should we dismiss dowsing out of hand because it’s little more than hypothetical? Or can we accept that not everything in life can be 100% rational and scientific?
The Successes of our Experts
“When dowsing a valley at a farm in Gloucestershire my dowsing predicted a massive yield of twenty-two gallons per minute at a depth of no more than twenty feet. The driller, farmer and I were amazed when the drill struck the aquifer and twenty-two gallons per minute came gushing out of the borehole. Like all dowsers, no matter how experienced, we sometimes get it wrong resulting in a poor yield or a completely dry borehole. We learn from our failures, not from our successes!”
Peter Golding (www.petergolding.net)
“My biggest find in this country for water was a spring where we hit 25,000 litres per hour. It is still producing today and as far as I am aware it is still producing 25,000 litres per hour. Another big find was with an oil and gas company where I proved to them in 1993 that remote viewing would work to find and locate oil fields. I also helped find a gold pod of 260oz, again remotely and then on site. Yes I have been wrong – it can happen – but not a lot, I think 4 times in 30 years. You never take it for granted, you do the best that you can.”
Peter Taylor (www.waterdowsing.co.uk)
“We have had success at St Cross near Winchester, at St Elizabeth's College next to Winchester College and at Bishops Sutton in Hampshire, amongst others. Our dowsing results were confirmed by resistivity survey and excavation. Each time that happens it is exciting! Yes, we have been wrong occasionally, but not often and then it is probably because we are asking the wrong questions.”
Edwina Cole (www.hads.uk)