When Einstein was asked why he didn’t shave with shaving cream instead of soap, he said, “What? Two soaps?”
IN a recent newspaper story concerning the possible location of a Revolutionary War burial ground, it was casually mentioned that a dowser had gone over the ground and had located three possible graves. Nowhere in the story was there any hint that dowsing is anything less than an accurate and responsible procedure.
Is there any harm in believing in such foolish things as dowsing, astrology, numerology, and the like? Sometimes I feel there is no harm in such pseudoscience, but then again I fear that we believe no superstition except to our disadvantage. Once when I said to a woman, “Of course, there’s nothing to astrology,” she replied, “Don’t tell me that; there’s real money in it.” She was right, of course, there is real money in it for the astrologers and others who are bilking the credulous. But when I think of harm, I’m not really thinking of money wasted on superstitions; I’m thinking that believing in absurd things prevents one from thinking straight about other things. Perhaps not.
On my computer I have a biorhythm program that I nearly always use to demonstrate the computer because I have found that almost everyone likes it. Now this is no more nor less foolish than astrology. I have it on the computer because it was interesting to program. Am I contributing to the spread of superstition and pseudoscience? I always make a point of saying that it is nonsense, but that may not be heeded. Of course, otherwise respectable newspapers publish astrological maunderings every day without any indication that it is nonsense.
When I was a child, any farmer who wanted to dig a well would have the local water witch go over his land with his peach wand to decide where the well should be. (In spite of the name I think water witches were always male.) If he dug where the water witch indicated, he was virtually assured of finding water, and these successes were told as proofs that the water witching was an accurate and useful procedure. Every farmer in the area knew the water table was six to nine feet below the surface and that if you dug a hole that deep you would almost certainly encounter water. How then could they believe that finding water where the water witch indicated was proof of his competence? If they had asked the water witch where there was no water for the purpose of drilling a dry hole, a success would have meant something.
Water witching is one form of dowsing. Dowsers claim they can find all kinds of things in addition to water: Revolutionary War graves, metals, ores, gas, oil, buried mines. Some of them do not need to go to the actual site but can do their dowsing over a map or an aerial photograph. This is really utter confusion of symbols with things and must be a considerable embarrassment to more sensible dowsers.
James S. Trefil in an excellent article (a), “A Consumer’s Guide to Pseudoscience,” says that he had almost placed dowsing in the “forget it” category but had found that he could locate a water main with the wand and so had put it in the “probably will never amount to anything” category. Perhaps Trefil did not know that dowsing is one of the few such foolishnesses to receive an actual test. The test showed that dowsers could locate water or other objects no better than by chance.
One of the reasons that so many people are persuaded that there is something to dowsing is that they have tried it as Trefil did and found that the wand did move with no volition on their part. To be fair to Trefil, he did say there was “probably a neurological explanation” for the movement of the wand.
There are several forms of dowsing wands. The one found on the cover (from the first book on metallurgy (b)) is by far the most common. It is made by cutting a peach, or other wood depending on the local custom, fork in the shape of a Y. To use the wand one holds it horizontally and spreads the top of the Y slightly. As one walks along, the wand will sooner or later dip decisively indicating to believers that the desired object has been located. All wands have this in common – they are used in a state of quasi-equilibrium.
When one pulls the arms of the Y apart, tensions are set up in the stick so that the unintentional tremors of one’s muscles cause the stick to fly up or turn down in a movement not under the conscious control of the operator. Another dowsing wand is an L-shaped piece of metal rod that has one leg inserted in a pipe. Again one is dealing with a system of quasi-equilibrium, and any tremor may cause the rod to turn without the operator suspecting he is responsible. Plumb bobs or pendulums are sometimes used in dowsing in place of a wand. It is of course very difficult to control a plum bob while standing still, much less while walking over the site to be dowsed.
In 1971 the British Army and Ministry of Defence conducted a series of experiments on dowsing. (c) They used only dowsers recognized as capable by other dowsers and conducted experiments that these dowsers claimed they should be successful in.
The first test was of dowsing over maps. In an area of 384 acres containing 6.7 miles of road, 20 inert, plastic mines were buried in the roadway and 7 dowsers attempted to dowse over a map of the area and locate the mines. Fifty people on the engineering staff were asked to guess where the mines were. The guesses were as accurate as the dowsing results. The analysis in this article shows that none of the dowsers did better than pure chance would dictate. An on-site experiment involving 20 dowsers was then conducted, again using plastic mines. No results were obtained that were better than chance.
Since dowsing for water is more common than for mines, experiments were also conducted in this capability. Most dowsers claim to be able to detect running water rather than static pools of underground water so a test was conducted over a buried 2-inch pipe, and the water turned on and off by a stopcock that the dowser could not see. The dowser was asked to say whether the water was flowing or not in a series of 25 trials, the stopcock being turned on or off for each trial in accordance with a pre-arranged random sequence.
Two series were run by the dowser. The dowser’s answer was correct 25 times out of 50 – exactly what one would expect from chance. Another trial involved the detection of water flowing at the rate of 80,000 gallons per hour through a 42-inch main buried 8 feet. Again the results were what chance would dictate.
It should be noted that not only did the average dowser do no better than chance, but that no dowser did better than chance in tests that were judged by the dowsers to be fair before they were conducted.
Foulkes comments in the conclusion of the article that he is sure that dowsers will continue to maintain their claims and to say that scientists dismiss their powers out of prejudice. I’m sure he is right, but there is now no reason to dismiss dowsing out of prejudice; dowsing can surely now be dismissed out of experimental evidence.
How can one tell what to believe? It is often pointed out that in our high-technology areas such as electronics, for example, some things that seem incredible are quite true. But it’s even worse than that. The documented activity of some insects is almost beyond belief, and we accept them only on the faith that biologists are not conspiring to delude us. James S. Trefil, in the above cited article, gives a checklist which may be helpful. The following numbered statements are his; the discussion of each follows his argument.
1. Are the facts really what the proponents say they are? A good example is the continuing exploitation of the “Bermuda Triangle Mystery” in sensational books and printed-for-idiots newspapers. Lawrence Kusche (d) has shown that there simply is no Bermuda Triangle Mystery. So one good way to investigate is to read other books on the subject, if they exist. However libraries are properly quite catholic so the fact that a book is in your library does not mean that it is not utter nonsense. So one may well find books by the advocates of such absurdities as pendulum power or pyramid power in one’s library.
2. Do the proponents try to overload your circuits? If you read a book about the secrets of the Great Pyramid, for instance, you will find claim after claim after claim until you are overwhelmed with the burden of refuting all of them. The only defense is to pick a few claims and investigate them. Chances are they are not right.
3. Given the proposed facts, is there a simpler explanation? In scientific fields, the principle known as Occam’s Razor demands that the simplest model or paradigm that fits the facts must be used. The importance of this becomes obvious with a little thought, and it is particularly useful in sorting out pseudoscience because characteristically the proponents of pseudoscience do not observe Occam’s Razor but, in fact, usually offer wildly complex explanations when simpler ones would serve.
Does the who thing boil down to proving a negative? Most such negatives are unprovable. No one has shown that astrology is not true; how could they? The experiments reported herein do not prove that dowsing is impossible; they do prove it didn’t happen during these experiments. How could you prove there is no Easter Bunny?
5. Are established scientists working on the theory or phenomenon? This is only an indicator since obviously if something is at the forefront of knowledge, few people will be working on it, and further there is nothing so silly that some PhD and some MD will not believe it. After all every absurd reducing scheme has its MD sponsor. But generally if something is being worked on by a number of scientists, there is probably something to it. Now and then even this is not enough; many scientists were taken in by the polywater episode a few years ago. (e)
6. Can you test the theory yourself? Usually this is not possible, but in the more simple-minded hoaxes such as pyramid power and pendulum power it is quite easy to make some of the tests described in the books to see if they work. It may be a matter of judgment whether a razor blade is made sharper by being placed in a pyramid, but as James Trefil points out, it was not difficult for him to prove that raw hamburger placed in a pyramid is not preserved as the proponents claim but undeniably stinks after a few days.
Why do people believe in the absurdities of pseudoscience? Well, it is true that, in many instances, the line is hard to draw, and people do not want to take the time or trouble to try to determine whether something really makes sense. A surprising number of people will believe anything that appears in print, perhaps as a result of our years with textbooks in school. At least we amateur printers have no such trouble because we know that half of what we print is nonsense.
Frequently pseudoscience seems to be more fun than science and a lot easier to learn. You could become an astrologer a lot more easily and more quickly than you could become a biologist, for instance. Also pseudoscience is very profitable for many people. Why do you think all those astrology books are published? Pseudoscience represents to some people a defense against know-it-all scientists. It’s a way of protesting against our technological society.
The only absolutely certain thing that one can say about dowsing and other such foolishness is that they will be always with us.
(a) Saturday Review, April 29, 1978
(b) Agricola, Georgius, De Re Metallica, 1556
(c) Foulkes, R. A., “Dowsing Experiments,” Nature, Vol. 229, Jan 15, 1971.
(d) Kusche, Lawrence, The Bermuda Triangle Mystery — Solved, Harper and Row, 1975.
(e) Kohman, Girard T., “The Rise and Fall of Polywater,” Boxwooder 37, July 1972
Hand set in Deepdene. Display type is Royal Script. Text paper is Hammermill Ledger, subs. 32; cover is Hammermill Cover, Antique Finish, Gold, 65 lb. Edited and published by Jake Warner and 500 copies were printed by him on a 10 x 15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770