On dowsing

Posted on January 18, 2012

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Image: Journal of Commerce

Dateline: 2 November 2011 // Posted by: John Paul Carroll

Source: Journal of Commerce

Story: “Dowsers continue tradition of locating underground water”

Summary: An article was published in the Journal of Commerce (a construction industry newspaper from Western Canada) on claims by dowsers that they can locate underground water. The article gives an explanation of dowsing by firstly defining what dowsing is. According to this article, “dowsing is the art of finding water with the human body alone”, although most dowsers use some form of simple tool or an object to assist them. This is generally in the form of the letter “L”. This is generally a stick or a cloths hanger; however there are more sophisticated apparatus now available for sale to dowsers.

The article centres its claim on two dowsers, Lloyd Nuttall and Susan Collins.  Thus, this article includes statements from these individuals which support dowsing, describing it as a legitimate and effective method of locating underground water. According to Lloyd Nuttall he can tell the waters depth, hardness, and quality by the use of dowsing. Susan Collins contends that she simply walks around and gets the feeling of water and then uses the dowsing rods in order to amplify what she already knows. These testimonies are used in order to present the reader with the claim that dowsing can genuinely help people locate underground water.

Why is this PseudoNews? Dowsing is widely regarded as being pseudoscientific. Research studies conducted in the area suggest that there has been no substantial evidence that dowsers are able to find underground water.

The article leads the reader to believe that dowsers use magnetic fields in order to find underground water. However, some dowsers use nearby magnetic fields as an excuse when they are unable to find underground water (James Randi Educational Fund).  For this reason, the use of magnetic fields to find underground water amongst dowsers comes into disrepute as there is not a general consensus amongst dowsers in regards to the earth’s magnetic field. This is because some dowsers claim the earth’s magnetic field allows them to find underground water, while other dowsers claim it disorientates them while they are in search of underground water and use this as an excuse for the fact that they are unable to find underground water.

The article also leads the reader to believe that it is the person, and not the dowsing rods that locate the underground water. According to Susan Collins, the dowsing rods only amplify the sensation. However, again most dowsers do not agree. For example, Sarah Saxon claims that dowsers make use of the abilities of the dowsing rods in order to find underground water. For this reason, there are no concise instructions available on how to dowse for water. As a result of this, there are contradictions as to whether the earth’s magnetic field helps dowsers find water or is it psychic powers that help dowsers find water?

What features of pseudoscience are on show? Firstly, proponents of dowsing appear to rely heavily on the argument that if something is not proven to be false, then it must be true, a construction known as an argument from ignorance. This is because, when many dowsers have been questioned and challenged to prove their abilities, they have indeed found water. However, this does not truly test the validity of dowsing. There is no way in which to insert an accurate control. For example, if a member of the public were to dowse for water and find it, it could then be said that this individual processed the ability to dowse. Therefore, it is impossible to measure the abilities of being able to use the earth’s magnetic fields in order to find underground water. For that reason, it is impossible to insert an accurate control. Thus it is impossible to disprove dowsing.

Explanations of dowsing also lack parsimony. This is because there is no scientific theory to provide evidence to the fact that dowsing works due to the earth’s magnetic fields. There is no evidence in which to state that the earth’s magnetic field has a greater effect on some people as it has on others. Therefore, there is no evidence to suggest that some people have a greater ability in regards to dowsing as other, as the news article contends. Thus, in order for dowsing to be considered as a legitimate method of locating underground water, we must ignore the fact that there is no scientific knowledge to complement dowsing and as a result, it is impossible to provide evidence that it is a legitimate method of finding underground water.

Such explanations of dowsing also avoid falsifiability. This is due to the fact that it cannot be proven as wrong. In the article, Susan Collins contends that some people are more influenced by the earth’s magnetic field then others. This leads to them having the ability to dowse for underground water. However, there is no way by which to prove dowsing wrong as it is impossible to clearly differentiate the effect on the earth’s magnetic field in different people. Therefore it is pseudoscientific as it avoids falsifiability.

The moral of the story: Dowsing traditionally has been widely believed to be an effective way of finding underground water for centuries. However it is impossible to prove or disprove. While some people may have leaded us to believe that they have found underground water through dowsing, it is clear that this was merely luck. Thus, people believe dowsing to be through purely because it cannot be proven and this creates mysticism around the area which makes people more prone to believe in it.

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