Dowsing: What’s The Harm?

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 “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.

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.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Am I the only one watching this in horror? For 40000 pounds each they could afford at least some bits of electronics, circuit boards and real data cards. But an empty box and and a RFID security device? They spent more on the packing crate than the device. You can’t even pretend there is some magic electronics running the machine.
    This man needs to be tried for a few hundred counts of murder.

  2. That’s not even RFID. RFID can hold data; that’s just a circuit that creates an electromagnetic resonance when subjected to a certain frequency.

    I really really really wanna see that guy in prison.

  3. Amen to that. Speaking of dowsing…

    We actually had a dowser show up after a local fencing company accidentally cut an unmarked electrical line in our back yard. Did you know that you supposedly can ‘dowse’ for electrical current? LOL The fence company sent him!

    He was ‘able’ to trace the line for us ‘using’ a wire coathanger, which couldn’t have been too hard as it was a straight shot between an out building and our house’s fuse box. I could have traced it myself.

    At least, they didn’t try to charge us anything for it. My wife took pictures of the guy on the sly…

  4. I work in the environmental restoration field and we often have to drill or excavate into the subsurface. Much of my work is at high-tech government facilities, which are responsible for “clearing” the areas for utilities before we start work. These are typically very complex facilities with a tangled mess of buried utilities of all sorts. Believe it or not, the staff often use dowsing for this purpose. They come out with their favorite brass rods, coat hangars, or whatever, walk the sites and paint the locations where the magic wands indicate that utilities are present. Keep in mind that these are sometimes aerospace facilities full of real-life rocket scientists! We always get a good laugh at the irony when we see the dowsing rods come out, but we also cringe because we know we will have to re-clear the site with proper, scientific methods. This is a serious issue for us, because hitting a utility could result in serious injuries and disruption to the facility operations.
    By the way, I’ve been told by a civil engineer at one of the facilities that dowsing is described in one of his engineering textbooks as a suitable method for locating subsurface utilities. I’ve also questioned the utility clearing staff as to why they don’t use magnetometers or other electrical sensors, and they reply that it’s too unreliable in such a cluttered environment. True enough, but not an excuse to rely on witchcraft.

  5. (from the nytimes article)
    ““One of the problems we have is that the machine does look primitive. We are working on a new model that has flashing lights.”

    Yes, that’s the solution. Put some flashing lights on it. That will definitely make it work better. I suggest hanging tinsel off of the box. The breeze makes it move around and they are affected by electrical fields (he can call them “secondary sensors”), AND it’s shiny! It’s a win-win.


  6. @slightlymadscience: I honestly can’t tell whether he thinks he’s being clever and facetious with that remark or if he’s tacitly admitting that it’s a fraud.
    That is, adding lights that you admit do nothing to your device that you claim does something in order to make it look more like it does something – hmm, kinda suggests you know that it doesn’t matter what you add to it*, doesn’t it?

    *Short, that is, of actual explosives-detecting sensors of some kind, of course.

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