To the annoyance of scientists and sceptics, many people – including employees of the UK’s major water companies, it turns out – continue to dowse because it works...
“Isn’t it a bit silly that big companies are using magic?”
Water companies are continuing to use divining rods to find underground pipes, an Oxford University scientist has found. Sally Le Page began asking questions about the practice when her parents reported seeing an engineer from Severn Trent “walking around holding two bent tent pegs to locate a mains pipe” near their home in Stratford-upon-Avon. She contacted all the UK’s water companies, and a majority confirmed engineers still use the centuries-old technique. However, a number said the equipment was not standardissue equipment. A dowser will typically hold the rods, usually shaped like the letter L or Y, while walking over land and being alert for any movement to find water. Evolutionary biologist Ms Le Page first contacted Severn Trent Water via Twitter. It replied: “We’ve found that some of the older methods are just as effective as the new ones, but we do use drones as well, and now satellites.” Other companies that gave a similar response were Anglian Water, Thames Water, Scottish Water, Southern Water, Welsh Water, United Utilities, Northumbrian Water, South West Water, and Yorkshire Water. Only two – Northern Ireland Water and Wessex Water – said their engineers do not use them. Ms Le Page said: “I can’t state this enough: there is no scientifically rigorous, doubly blind evidence that divining rods work. Isn’t it a bit silly that big companies are still using magic to do their jobs?” (A fortean, of course, would answer that just because a phenomenon has yet to be explained scientifically does not prove it is a delusion.) All the companies emphasised they do not encourage the use of divining rods nor issue them to engineers, and said modern methods such as drones and listening devices were preferred.
Following publicity of Ms Le Page’s findings, Christopher Hassall, a specialist in water management at the Leeds University school of biology, expressed alarm at the continuing use of what he dismissed as witchcraft. (This prompts us to recall Fort’s dictum: “Witchcraft always has a hard time until it becomes established and changes its name”.) For materialist reductionists, centuries of anecdotal evidence count for nothing. While several studies have appeared to show that twitching twigs are no better than chance at finding water, invoking the ideomotor effect (muscle movement caused by subconscious mental activity) fails to account for dowsers with consistently successful track records.
Several water firms have hastily distanced themselves from their own admissions that they use divining rods to detect leaks. Other companies did not deny that some of their engineers are still using diving rods, but stressed that they do not spend money on the practice. The industry’s trade body, Water UK, blamed individual engineers. It said: “The reality is that water companies are spending millions of pounds each year on innovative leakage detection schemes such as thermal imaging drones, sonic listening devices and other high-tech electronic mapping equipment, which has helped reduce leakages by a third since the 1990s, and it’s unlikely that a few individuals doing some unofficial divining has had much impact.”
The BBC Radio 4 presenter John Humphrys then waded into
the controversy. In about 1983, the old well that served his farmhouse in west Wales was on its last legs; the little water that came out of the taps was brown and almost certainly undrinkable. Getting mains water would have been prohibitively expensive, so a new borehole was required; but the dairy farm covered 140 acres and boreholes were expensive, so to avoid trial and error Humphrys was persuaded to seek the help of a man well known in the locality for his dowsing gift. The dowser, accompanied by a sceptical Humphrys, walked slowly round the farm and in the corner of the top field the former stopped and said: “Plenty here, but too far down. Cost too much to get it.” In the opposite corner of the field he stopped again. “Ah… much better. Maybe 80ft [24m] but probably less. Ideal. Drill here.” He had done without dowsing rods and refused any remuneration.
The drilling company soon proved him correct – but was it just a lucky guess? A few months after the new water supply was connected to the house, Humphrys called in a contractor to plough the top field, after which the taps ran dry. The tractor driver said he must have accidentally cut the pipe from the tank and persuaded Humphrys to try dowsing for the leak using a bent coathanger. Despite feeling a “total fool”, Humphrys crisscrossed the field and the coathanger twisted in his hands. “That’s it,” said the tractor driver, but Humphrys thought he had just lost his grip. He recalled: “OK [the driver] said, go back to the hedge and walk it again. I did. And the same thing happened at the same place. The driver got a spade, dug a hole and there it was: the severed pipe, water gushing from it.”
The following letter, from Richard Ellam of Bristol,
appeared in the Guardian: “As a hippyish young man I was taught to dowse in the early 1980s by a straightlaced quantity surveyor, who carried dowsing rods in the back of his car. A few years later I met a National Grid engineer, who also used dowsing to find lost underground cables. Both these men worked in environments where the success or failure of dowsing would be quickly apparent to their colleagues, and repeated failures would be mocked. If you tell a bunch of builders to dig a hole to find a pipe and it’s not there you may be forgiven once, but twice is pushing it. These men dowsed because it worked. They didn’t know why or how, but knew it worked. This is a difference between science and technology – technologists cheerfully do all kinds of things that they don’t understand scientifically, because they work.” Guardian, 20+23+28 Nov; BBC News, 21 Nov; D.Telegraph, 22 Nov; D.Mail, 22+24 Nov 2017.
ABOVE: According to UK water companies, many employees continue to use divining rods to locate leaking pipes.
ABOVE: Traditional methods of divining, using forked twigs and rods; bent coathangers appear to work too. BELOW: John Humphrys, whose own experiences with water divining have made him a believer.