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The Dowsing Delusion Is Still With Us PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Randi   

A January 1996 magazine article opened with the story of a Brooklyn attorney in a video store trying to decide whether she should rent the videotape Barney's Imagination Island for her daughter. The learned counselor, it said, took a small pendulum from her purse, suspended it over the tape, and said,

All right, now please tell me how much little Aliza would benefit from watching this tape, how much it would raise her social awareness, brighten her chakras, elevate her chi energy, and like that. And please let's try to be a little quicker about it.

Does that sound like an educated person having a conversation with a smple object? Well, that’s just what it is. No conversation with a pendulum has ever been known to result in an exchange, let alone an answer… The description continued:

The pendulum begins to swing, indicating a rating scale of 1-100. Sadly for Barney, the pendulum only gives the tape a 12.

Is this an article from some angel-eyed New Age rag? Perhaps a wacky satire in MAD Magazine? No such luck: it's from the January, 1996 issue of Smithsonian, the respected science and culture monthly published by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Titled "Urban New Agers Have Taken Over The Art Of Dowsing,", the seven-page piece actually went downhill from there, with scarcely a hint that a skeptical viewpoint about the subject even exists. Worse, this is not an isolated incident, but part of a disturbing trend: pseudoscience is beginning to creep into heretofore respectable publications. The article astonished me, and I cannot imagine who on the staff made the decision to run the piece. It was a highly positive article on dowsing, a seven-page paean to the inquiries that they claimed could be accomplished using pendulums and forked sticks – tasks such as choosing medications, vitamins and foods, finding water flowing underground, deciding upon which "Personal" ad to answer, and even – as we see – assessing videotapes for entertainment value!

There was, of course, the obligatory token skeptical content in the article, amounting in this case to 1.5 inches of type, in an article that ran 78 inches, with nine illustrations extolling the truth of this mythology! That was less than two percent of the entire piece, and that small portion was only mildly critical. No actual tests of the validity of the claim were mentioned, only uncontrolled demonstrations and stories of wonders. The article stated:

The relationship between dowsing and established science has always been distant, mutually suspicious.

Nonsense. There is no relationship. Science is logic, rationality, careful investigation, and experimentation – and that works: dowsing is wishful thinking, superstition and mythology that doesn't work. Was there any mention in this article of the numerous, comprehensive, carefully-controlled tests of dowsing that have been done – some by the JREF – tests that showed it was totally without merit? No, in the pages of this prestigious science magazine, only anecdotal experiences were given, and blatantly unproven "theories" and "facts" from wide-eyed wand-wavers who don't know logic from lingerie.

This article was of course embraced and celebrated by the American Society of Dowsers, an organization that adamantly refuses to allow their claims to be tested, and has vigorously avoided trying to win the JREF prize. No retraction will ever serve to neutralize this irresponsible attack on rationality. It’s happened before. When New Scientist magazine in the UK ran a very positive three-page piece on dowsing in December 1979 reporting experiments that gave 100% positive results, it began with the statement

Dowsing works; that much is certain.

What followed was a typically uncontrolled set of observations by a dedicated dowser. Then, some months later, when UK skeptic Denys Parsons repeated the experiments with the author of the article – this time double-blind – the results were: 121 correct, 129 wrong, a result well within statistical expectations with a probability of 50% success by chance alone. For some reason, the very detailed Parsons article lay about the New Scientist editor's desk for a full two years, and then the summarized results – but never the article itself – appeared on a back page of the magazine, and occupied less than one page. Typically, the dowsers have been citing the former article for years now; the subsequent refutation is never mentioned.