By Paul Kieniewicz
A series of recent articles in the Guardian, expressed a measure of outrage that many water companies in the UK today still employ dowsers to locate underground pipes or leaks. The writers described dowsing as pseudoscience, a “medieval practice”, essentially witchcraft. The articles inspired an outpouring of protest in letters to the Guardian’s editor, and on social media defending the practice. Their general view was that water companies are not flaky outfits. Locating underground leaks and underground pipes is a difficult task, and water companies will use any technique that they think will work. Evidently, with many of those companies, dowsing has some sort of track record, though it may not have one in controlled laboratory tests. Such tests often showed that dowsing results are no better than chance.
I have tried my hand at dowsing, with mixed results. I’m not much good at locating hidden objects or water, but that doesn’t mean that other people are not good at it. I restrict my activities to detecting medical conditions, such as headaches and minor ailments, and then only in people I know. I tend to use a pendulum, that I’ve trained to move in a straight line when something is detected, in circles otherwise. This is not witchcraft, but a natural ability we all have in some measure. The hand is naturally sensitive to the body’s electric field, and any anomaly in that field can be picked up, as a sensation like tingling, heat or cold. Practitioners of Therapeutic Touch use this technique in their practice. What the pendulum does is to magnify small, hand movement even before we are conscious of them. You can train a pendulum to go any way to want, to respond to your reaction. I’m not entirely sure that the hand is responding only to the body’s electric field. Perhaps there’s an intuition that more easily explains why the hand pauses cover the correct location of pain, while the pendulum carries out its appropriate gyrations. The operator may be factoring in many different feelings that he/she is unconscious of. We are not (thank God) totally rational, but we do have an instinctual nature that we constantly use to great benefit. Ask a member of Human Resources who is interviewing a candidate for work, how they arrive at a decision. Often, it’s that intangible factor that they can’t easily explain.
I suggest that water dowsing works in a similar way to what I have just described. As many writers have pointed out, the movement of a twig is most likely controlled by involuntary muscle spasms of the operator, the well-studied ideomotor effect, But that doesn’t mean that dowsing doesn’t work, or that it is witchcraft. The operator is responding to a subconscious impulse. Maybe there’s also a discolouration of the ground, a change in vegetation that he or she isn’t even aware of. Or maybe — it’s something in the air.
Why the outrage? Clearly the authors of the original articles were disturbed that water dowsing is still used by water companies. The reason can’t be, as they stated, that customers’ money is being wasted. Were the dowsers employed pro bono, the outcry would be no less. Their use of the term “witchcraft” suggests a possible reason. I believe that the connection is the subconscious mind. We would like to believe that we behave like programmed, rational computers, relying on empirical, measurable data. In our culture, we have placed a supreme importance on analytical thought as the only tool for solving complex problems. However, our experience shows that though thought can build rockets to Mars, there are many classes of problems where thought doesn’t work well. Finding a life partner, hiring an employee, solving relationship issues, and yes, finding even a water leak. We have other abilities that work well in those situations, and we can’t always explain how those work. They involve that aspect of our personality that is largely unknown to us, which we call the subconscious. Our rational self, like the God of the Old Testament, believes that “there is no other God but I”. It is understandably outraged to hear that it may not have all the answers. That there may be an approach to truth that does not involve the rational “I”. It’s first line of defense is to deny that the subconscious exists, or that it has a meaningful role in our lives.
For over twenty years I prospected for oil and gas, with a measure of success. Of eight wells drilled, six were successful. I never used dowsing. I used standard geophysical techniques such a seismic data, gravity and magnetics, and well data. But the information was never enough to find oil. Some experience and intuition was required to make sense of conflicting information. There was also an ability that we geologists called, “a prospecting sense”. Some geologists could hone in on a prospect by its “smell”. They could find prospects faster than anyone else, even though everyone was looking at the same information. The chance of drilling a successful well was often no better than 50-50. But those people beat the chances.
I suggest that we have a bit more respect for water prospectors, and experienced water dowsers who know their craft. Even though we may not understand how dowsing works, it is undoubtedly real, and in the right hands can benefit us greatly.