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James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

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dowsing Also known as “rhabdomancy,” “water-witching,” and “divining,” this notion is first described in print in the 1540 Latin folio of Georgius Agricola (Georg Bauer, 1490/4?-1555) on mining, titled De re Metallica, published at Basel, Switzerland.
      The process can take many forms. The traditional method is to use a flexible green forked stick, in early writings often referred to as the “virgula furcata.” Hazel and willow are the preferred woods. The Y is inverted and the forked parts are grasped, one in each hand, palms up, usually with the thumbs pointing away from the body in opposite directions and the elbows tightly against the body. The forked portions are spread apart, with the main stem pointing out from the dowser's body. The dowser attempts to keep the stick parallel with the ground, and as he walks about, it is believed that subtle influences from water, metal, oil or any other substance will cause the stem of the stick to either rise or depress from the horizontal position.

From Agricola's De re Metallica (1540), this illustration shows the traditional forked stick used in dowsing attempts.

      This, as with all other forms and methods of dowsing, uses a system which is in very unstable equilibrium. Since force is being applied to the stick, the tendency is for the stem to whip up or down unless care is taken to balance it. There is thus potential energy stored in the system, and the slightest inclination, tensing, or relaxation of either hand or both hands, must result in the stick moving violently. This motion is taken by dowsers as evidence that there is a supernatural external force acting upon the device.
      Another popular method uses two straight, stiff wires about twelve to twenty-four inches long, each bent sharply at one end at a right angle to provide a handle which is held vertically in the fist so that the main portion is pointing straight ahead and parallel to the ground. The object is to hold the two rods parallel to one another, and the “dowsing reaction” is said to occur when the rods diverge or when they cross, depending on which dowser is consulted. Again, the tiniest inclination of the hand or the arm will cause great fluctuations in this system.
      Sometimes only one wire, or a “bobber” made of a single flexible wand, weighted at the far end, is employed. Pendulums are also frequently used.
      Though these are the major devices employed, individual operators have come up with an array of others, including exotic variations on the standard ones. Single flexible “whip” models, bobbing springs, jointed sticks, combinations of string and metal foil——in fact, anything that will respond to a slight increase or easing of the applied force through a twitch, slope, or bounce by the operator——can be used. In many cases, the operator will insist on holding against or fastening to the device a sample of the same kind of material that is being sought for, to “tune” it to that substance.
      Sometimes dowsers disagree completely. Some instructions tell learners never to try dowsing with rubber footwear, while others insist that it helps immeasurably. Some practitioners say that when rods cross, that specifically indicates water; others say that water makes the rods diverge to 180 degrees. Many say that metal rods are not suitable at all for dowsing, while others adore them.
      The explanation of dowsing is that the operator is actually undergoing what is known to psychology as the ideomotor effect.
      Dowsers are, generally speaking, very honest, sincere people, and almost always seem absolutely convinced of their abilities. That conviction is not well founded, since all properly performed, comprehensive tests of this particular claim have produced negative results.
      The fallacy of dowsing was recognized by early writers such as Reginald Scot, in his book The Discouerie of Witchcraft (1584). Scot described a process (known as coscinomancy) that was used even in ancient Greece “to find out a Thief”:  

      Stick a pair of Sheers in the rind [rim] of a Sieve, and let two persons set the top of each of their Forefingers upon the upper part of the Sheers, holding it with the Sieve up from the ground steadily, and ask Peter and Paul whether A. B. or C. hath stoln the thing lost, and at the nomination of the guilty person, the Sieve will turn round. This is a great practice in all Countries, and indeed a very bable [babble, foolish talk].

      In a marginal observance to this quote, Scot notes:  

      These be meer toys to mock Apes, and have no commendable device [purpose].

      And the actual cause of the movement of the device was also apparent to Scot:  

      For with the beating of the pulse some cause of that motion ariseth, some other cause by the slight [very small movement] of the fingers, some other by the wind gathered in the Sieve to be staid [steadied], &c. at the pleasure of the holders. Some cause may be the imagination, which upon the conceit [fanciful notion] at the naming of the party, altereth the common course of the pulse, as may well be conceived by a Ring held steadily by a thred betwixt the finger and the thumb, over or rather in a goblet or glass; which within short space will strike against the side thereof so many strokes as the holder thinketh it a clock, and then will stay: the which who so proveth [tests] shall find true.

      In one stroke, author Scot has here correctly defined the causes of the movement of both the dowsing stick (in this case of a similarly unbalanced system) and the pendulum phenomenon. Ben Jonson was familiar with this system when he described, in his Alchemist (1610), the hero of the piece “searching for things lost with a sieve and shears.”
      In modern times, the British Society of Dowsers (BSD), at the founding of the society in 1933, stated that it was organized  

      to encourage the study of all matters connected with the perception of radiation by the human organism with or without an instrument.

      And, in a pamphlet issued by the BSD, they claim that their purpose is  

      to spread information among the members and the public on the use and value of dowsing in all its forms.

      When contacted for a proposed test, Sir Charles J. Jessel, president of the BSD, said that he was not willing for the BSD to be a participant in any presentation that would “put [dowsing] to the test.” He said he favored an approach that would seek to “find out, in a genuine fashion, about the subject.” He wrote that “the dowsing faculty . . . does not always behave to order when real need is not being expressed or fulfilled.” This is not in line with the demonstrated fact that in all attempts to find a test object, the dowsers are always 100 percent successful when they know in advance where the object is, but obtain only chance results when they do not know. Though there is no “real need” involved here, the “dowsing faculty” does always “work” under the first condition.
      In addition, the secretary of the BSD and the editor of the BSD journal refuse to even discuss the problem. Similar responses are offered by the American Society of Dowsers when offers are made to officially test the phenomenon with their cooperation and monitoring.
      Kenneth Roberts, an American journalist who accepted every claim made for dowsing, wrote in 1953:  

      [The dowsing rod] may rank with electricity and atomic power. . . . Why . . . shouldn't scientists . . . devote more of their energies to developing an invaluable, even though mysterious, phenomenon that, properly utilized, would turn deserts into lands of plenty, feed the hungry, cure the sick and change the face of the world?

      The Encyclopedia Americana states:  

      Controlled field and laboratory tests have failed to establish the validity of dowsing, and judged by scientific standards the practice has little basis in fact.

      At Kassel, north of Frankfurt, Germany, the scientific group Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften (GWUP) in 1992 set up a very efficient and effective site for testing dowsing in cooperation with a local television station. A plastic pipe of suitable size was buried fifty centimeters beneath a level section of field, through which a very large flow of water could be directed from a switching valve. The test area was protected by a large tent, and the position of the buried pipe was prominently marked by a broad red and white stripe. The challenge for the dowsers was not to find the pipe, but only to say whether water was flowing in it or not.
      In response to advertisements, GWUP obtained thirty dowsers, mostly from Germany but also from Denmark, Austria, and France. Each dowser was required to perform ten “open” trials in which he or she would know whether or not the water was flowing, and they would have to obtain 100 percent results at that time. This set of trials would provide GWUP with a baseline from which to judge the subsequent twenty “closed” trials which immediately followed, in which they did not know the answer. In all cases, both with the open and closed tests, the “on” or “off” condition was decided by the random selection of a marked ball from a bag.
      Each dowser was asked to make, in advance, a statement expressing any objections he might have to the procedure and stating his or her expected success rate. Each and every problem was satisfied and each dowser expected 100 percent success, as attested by the signatures. Then each subject was asked to use his or her dowsing ability to scan the area in which the test was to be performed, to see if any underground distraction was present.
      At the end of three days of testing, GWUP announced the results of almost a thousand bits of data to the assembled dowsers. A summary of their results produced just what would be expected according to chance.
      Recall that in these tests each dowser had been asked to scan the test area in advance for any anomalies that might distract the powers. It was noted that none of the thirty dowsers found the same anomalies, though all but one found some anomaly, and some found several. Obviously, only one of the dowsers could have been right, and probably all were wrong.
      It is perhaps significant that the German word for the dowsing rod is Wünschelrute, which translates as “wishing stick.” Occasionally, the art is referred to in English as “jowsing” or “josing.”
      The American Society of Dowsers, Inc., can be reached at Danville, VT 05828. However, inquiries indicating doubt or challenging their convictions will not be answered in a positive fashion.

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