I met a friend of my husband’s the other day at the pub. He was a sweet older gentleman, and we made light conversation until Sid got off work. When Sid got to our table, he said, “Are you talking about dowsing again?” The man laughed and assured Sid that one day he would convince him that dowsing is real, and that he’d even teach Sid himself how to do it.
I was a bit afraid that it was going to turn into an argument, but everyone stayed friendly. I think that’s because dowsing is generally known (amongst rational people) as a kooky belief that otherwise nice, normal people hold. Dowsing is based on the ideomotor effect, which I described ages ago (click the link to also see a video of Randi testing dowsers):
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 â€œdowserâ€ holds these objects and wanders around until he knows (or suspects) he is near to whatever it is he is seeking. Thatâ€™s when the ideomotor effect takes control: the dowserâ€™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.
Fellow Skepchick Karen discussed this idea in her post on Spirit Writing, as well.
So, while farmers dowsing for water in their gardens can generally be considered harmless, there is a great deal of harm when the material you are dowsing for is a deadly explosive. After the jump, enjoy a video busting the myths of the bomb-dowsing millionaire charlatan.
Jim McCormick is the managing director of ATSC, and by selling empty plastic boxes that look like high-tech dowsing machines to locate bombs in Iraq, he may be directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people. In the video above, a Newsnight journalist enlists a bomb expert to examine the innards of a dowsing device (it’s empty), a computer engineer to take apart one of the cards meant to attune the device (it’s a theft prevention tag with no memory), and Skepchick guest-blogger Professor Bruce Hood, who demonstrates and explains the “dowsing effect” on camera. Go Bruce! He was contacted by the journalists after he called out the company on his site and they agreed to demonstrate their device for him.
They never got around to following through on that offer. Why, you ask?
Just after the taping of this episode, apparently, McCormick was arrested on suspicion of fraud, a suspicion that I think we now all share. He’s now out on bail and has told the New York Times that his company is still “fully operational.”
Prior to this, there was a New York Times article on the company back in November, and James Randi challenged McCormick to claim the Million Dollar Prize way the hell back in October of 2008.
I think this is a great example of skeptics leading the way in investigative reporting, exposing these frauds to the world before the mainstream media picks it up and something finally gets done about it.
So, it turns out that like most pseudoscientific and supernatural beliefs, dowsing has a darker, more deadly side. Someone tell Tim Farley that it’s time to update the What’s the Harm dowsing page.