Anti-Science

Divining Intervention

Eric in Las Vegas wrote to alert us to a particularly ridiculous bit of superstition popping up on Anderson Cooper last night: divining (or dowsing) rods. Oh, Anderson. Sexy, silver-haired Sylvia-bashing Anderson. This is not the way to start off my morning.

The body of Marine Maria Lauerbach was found on Friday in the backyard of the man investigators believe killed her. Here is the video of the local Sheriff responding to reporter questions about the find.

If you’ll notice, everything was going well until someone shouted out the question, “Did you find that by divining, Sheriff?” After a pause, the Sheriff confirms it. Holy mother of monkeys.

Obviously, that one is now going to go down in the history books (like maybe The Decline and Fall of Rationalism) as a win for superstition. But wait — is it? No, of course it isn’t. What site do you think you’re reading?

As the Sheriff says in the video, there were two spots they suspected might contain the body. That’s probably because they had already narrowed it down to a single backyard, and it was a shallow grave dug by someone not in the grave-digging profession — it probably wasn’t incredibly difficult to detect ground that had been disturbed. He claims that the use of a “rod” helped them choose which of the two sites to dig, saving them from digging them both. They may as well have used a coin flip — with a 50/50 shot, there’s nothing paranormal about having a “dowser” guess which site to dig.

Let me pause for a second to explain what dowsing is, for those of you just joining us. Dowsing rods can be created out of any stick-like object, like coat hangers, metal rods you can buy, wooden dowels, or, well, sticks. The “dowser” holds these objects and wanders around until he knows (or suspects) he is near to whatever it is he is seeking. That’s when the ideomotor effect takes control: the dowser’s hands will move slightly, unbeknownst to him, causing the sticks to swing. The ideomotor effect is also what makes an Ouija board planchette to move. I recently saw the effect in action at the psychic fair, where they were selling pendulums that had crystals on the end of a string. The idea is that you hold the pendulum over your palm and ask a question. A “yes” answer moves left and right, and a “no” answer moves forward and back. A “maybe” moves around in a counterclockwise circle, and a clockwise circle means you just got ripped off paying $30 for a rock on a string.

Dowsers claim to be able to find all manner of things with their magical sticks: water, gold, bodies, dirt, whatever. But again and again, they are tested under strict no-peeksies conditions and they fail. The ideomotor effect is remarkably convincing, and the vast majority of dowsers really believe they have this special ability. The simple fact is that dowsing has never, ever been shown to work.

Check out this great video from 1980, in which James Randi travels to Australia to test some dowsers:

I’ll wrap up with the concluding paragraph of Eric’s note:

Always wanting to be open minded, I decided to get a divining rod and try this out for myself. Unbelievably, on my first try, the rod lead me to a spot where I found a fanny pack that actually looks cool when I put it on. Chicks totally dig it.

Thanks to Eric for writing in, and best of luck on his future career as a dowser/lady’s man.

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PS: Got lots of responses to my call for writers yesterday. I’ll be responding soon, thank you all!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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3 Comments

  1. Chances are, even if there were two potential sites, it might well not have been a 50/50 choice – one might have looked a slightly likelier one, and it's a fair bet that if that was the case, that'd be the one a dowser would have detected.

    In any case, as far as I can see, dowsing didn't save them *any* work at all, since they'd have to dig up the second possible site whether they had a positive or negative outcome at the first site they dug.

    It possibly didn't even save them any *time* either, since there may well have been enough people to start digging two tentative test-holes at the same time – I guess if you were being careful, you wouldn't have a mass assault with spades on a potential evidence scene, maybe only one person working cautiously per site.

  2. I used to be a database administrator for a cemetery. It was my job to go through all their old manual records, and make sure that there was a corresponding entry in the database. Some of the records dated back to the mid 1800s. One day, shortly after I started the job, one of the records said "rod test done:" with the date, and the result that a burial was found.

    I asked one of my co-workers what a rod test was, and she said that they basically take a metal rod, and stick it in the ground, and see if they hit something. Rod tests are used to determine if a plot is suitable for burial, or if there's too much rock under the ground for a burial. Also, if it goes clunk-clunk-clunk, like hitting against a wooden box, then you know there's a casket there already.

    I said "I suppose these days, they use subterranean sonar or something." And she said "no, they still just use a metal rod." Which of course makes sense, because the high tech equipment was probably too expensive for our outfit.

    So I wouldn't be extremely surprised if they really did use a rod to help them choose which of the two sites to dig. Not exactly the best forensic approach I can imagine. But more believable than dowsing for a body.

    As for the Sheriff's claim to the press; he was just answering a stupid question. And they just found a body, so it's entirely possible that he was running on autopilot, and didn't realize what he was being asked. What he actually said was "that rod let me know there was a cavity in the ground" which, if they just did a "rod test", would not be entirely false.

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