Dows­ing con­tro­versy

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...

Fortean Times - - Contents -

“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.

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