Skepticism

No, NY Times, “Water Witching” Isn’t a Real Thing WTF

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Guys, I think I’ve discovered a new feeling that there isn’t yet a German word for: I’m infuriated and yet reassured in a nostalgic sense. Infuriated because the New York Times is publishing absolute bullshit; reassured in a nostalgic sense because the bullshit is so outdated it’s downright CHARMING. Like, it’s not related to the pandemic, or abortion. It’s harmful, like most bullshit is harmful, but it’s probably not going to directly get anyone killed. And honestly that’s just so nice these days. Anyway, I’m talking about WATER WITCHING. Also known as “dowsing,” but let’s be honest, “water witching” sounds way cooler.

Two Rods and a ‘Sixth Sense’: In Drought, Water Witches are Swamped,” reads the absolutely BONKERS headline in America’s paper of record The New York Times, which has won 132 Pulitzer Prizes in the past century, more than any other outlet. Just saying. Hey baby, who has two rods, a sixth sense, and a pair of sensible shoes for walking around parched vineyards? THIS GUY.

Meet Rob Thompson. No, not Rob Thomas, lead singer of Matchbox Twenty. Rob Thompson, water witch. Warlock? Is “witch” gendered? Apparently not.

Besides the headline, there are a few early clues that this article is not going to be terribly critical of Mr. Thompson: first, this sentence describes him as having the “lumbering gait of a bear.” I can only see him in these still pictures but that seems…unduly flattering.

Second, and most importantly, ctrl+f “ideomotor” returns zero results.

The ideomotor effect is a fun phenomenon that doesn’t just explain dowsing but also ouija boards, some shady types of facilitated communication, some shady types of chiropractic “alternative therapies” like applied kinesiology, and surfing. Yes, really. Simply put, it’s a usually small subconscious movement that your body makes in response to your own thoughts. I’ll start with the example that you may find most surprising, even if you’re a skeptic who is familiar with this concept: surfing! When I first started surfing, I went through this phase where suddenly I just couldn’t stand up on my board even though I’d previously done it many times. Was it the waves? My positioning? My muscles? Maybe, but I was able to fix it pretty quickly by hearing one piece of advice: look where you want to go. I was looking down at my feet, and I was inevitably falling into the water. Once I stopped staring at my feet and started looking at the beach, I was back to getting up on my board and surfing down the line. 

People who ride motorcycles or fly fighter jets may also know this phenomenon, which specifically is known as “target fixation” — staring at your goal can cause you to unconsciously steer toward it, which can be really dangerous in those situations. Your muscles are doing things based on your thoughts, but unbeknownst to you.

It’s a bit less dangerous and more fun when it comes to Ouija boards. If you give several “believers” an Ouija board, they will ask the spirit a question, like “are you here?” They want a spirit to be there, so their muscles will subconsciously start to move the planchette to “yes.” A really fun way to test this is to sit a bunch of believers down at an Ouija board, let them look at it, and then blindfold them before they ask the first “yes” or “no” question. Then turn the board around and watch the planchette move over to where “yes” used to be. And I promise, they aren’t (consciously) cheating! To them, it seems like the “spirit” is really moving the planchette.

Dowsing is the same. There’s a reason why dowsing uses “tools” that move very, very easily, like pendulums and metal rods bent at 90 degree angles  — because it’s controlled by your own subconscious muscle reflexes. Let’s say I’m a dowser who can find rare coins, like this cool ass “memento mori” coin my friend Alicia got me for Christmas last year. I can hide the coin under one of three cups and hold a pendulum over each cup, looking for the pendulum to swing over the correct one. If I know which cup it is and I’m expecting the pendulum to swing over the correct cup, my muscles will make it swing over that cup. Again, completely subconsciously! But, if I don’t know which cup is correct, either the pendulum will suddenly stop working OR it will be faulty approximately 66% of the time.

In fact, because like the “magnetic skin” story this is YET ANOTHER phenomenon that has already been debunked repeatedly for the past several decades, please enjoy YET ANOTHER clip of James “the Amazing” Randi exposing dowsing for the quackery it is 42 years ago in Australia.

My favorite is this guy (who says he can dowse for marijuana if someone just gives him a quarter. Yeah sure buddy, I bet you can.)

And because these things simply never die, here’s ANOTHER CLIP of Randi murdering a dowser on national television in 1991.

I kind of feel for dowsers because I really think that, unlike psychic mediums who get paid for their scam, dowsers really truly believe they have this power. The ideomotor effect is really convincing for the people who are experiencing it. The problem is that for the ones who have made it a career, they have too much riding on them continuing to do it even after they learn what’s happening. And for those that get extra attention thanks to, I don’t know, a completely boneheaded credulous New York Times writer, they’re definitely in it for life. So now Rob Thompson, and others like him, can continue to exploit the people of California who are desperate for water in the middle of a drought. And thanks to climate change, these droughts are only going to get worse and worse. 

Meanwhile, the New York Times does offer a sentence or two to the actual scientists who are standing by willing to help:

“Hydrogeologists use a combination of satellite imagery, geology, drilling data, geophysical instruments and other hydrologic tools to assess water sources, said Timothy Parker, a Sacramento-based groundwater management consultant, and hydrogeologist. “Compared to dowsing, which is a person with a stick,” he added.”

God damn, he wrecked them. Too bad the New York Times didn’t build a feature around him.

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Wow, dowsing? It’s like they’re releasing Skepti-Cola Classic. Next week in the New York Times: Bigfoot! Spoonbending! Psychic surgery!

    This reminds me of back in college almost 20 years ago. I took a sociology class called “Science, Knowledge, and the New Age,” which, uh, turned out to be the exact OPPOSITE of what I thought it was going to be, and I ended up being the token skeptic in the class (and that includes the teacher.) At one point we were talking about, sigh, auras, and we were using small dowsing rods to detect them on each other. They were of the L-shaped metal rod type, with the shorter part of the L in a metal tube that you held on to. We were supposed to face each other in pairs, and the partner with the rods held them pointed towards the other partner, them would walk towards them. When the rods turned away from the person to either side, that’s where their aura started. I made a point of walking very slowly so that the momentum wouldn’t cause the rods to turn in my hands (which they did very easily, due to those metal tubes.) They didn’t spin, and I ended up poking my partner in the chest.

  2. Randi reported that dowsers were the most consistently sincere and self-deceived category of challengers for the Randi Prize. They failed, without fail, and rationalized away their failure. No matter how carefully they planned their own test protocols, they ALWAYS ‘multiplied entities’ to produce a rationale for their failure after the fact.
    I don’t know if a single one made a career change afterward.

  3. Gah! The bay area local evening news just credulously parroted this story and the “reporter” and in studio anchors gamely went along with it. There was only single skeptical sentence in the entire three minute segment, which was immediately counter balanced with an unsupported claim that the dowser had “40 years of success”. Very embarrassing for what passes for news at KPIX.

    Video: https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/video/5876141-california-drought-farmers-turn-to-centuries-old-dousing-to-find-water/

    1. Hmm, maybe they actually did mean “dousing”, which means to soak something with a liquid, typically water. (Dousing with gasoline or liquid nitrogen would probably not help the farm very much.) … Err, no. The link is spelled “…-dousing-…”, but the headline is spelled “dowsing”, and the picture is a guy holding bent metal rods. The so-called skeptics the reporter mentioned clearly know no more about dowsing and the ideomotor effect than the reporter or the dowser does (or my spell checker, which wants to change it to “motorcade!”)

      Dousing, on the other hand is very scientific, and dousing Covid deniers and mask-refusers in my swimming pool full of Purell is highly effective, especially when I hold their heads under for at least five minutes.

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