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George Hanson - Society for Psychical Research Vol. 51, No. 792, October 1982 – 01 Dowsing: Introduction



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Originally published in the Journal of  the Society for Psychical Research Vol. 51, No. 792, October 1982, pp. 343-367. DOWSING: A REVIEW OF EXPERIMENTAL RESEARCH  by GEORGE P. HANSEN* 


Although considerable research has been done on dowsing, its status remains uncertain. This research is reviewed in an attempt to clarify this problem. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century work is summarized to provide historical background. The parapsychological work and the experimental investigations concerning human sensitivity to magnetic fields are reviewed; the results have not been consistent. In both areas the level of experimental control has varied enormously, and positive, although not conclusive results have been found with reasonably good controls by investigators from both standpoints. The work on the physiology of dowsing is also reviewed. The controversy regarding the cause of movement of the rod, the Soviet research, and sociological studies of water witching are also discussed. 

Dowsing is a term commonly used to denote the practice of locating underground water with a forked stick; however, in practice its use is really not so restricted. Dowsing is also used to determine answers to other questions such as the sex of an unborn child, and the location of pipes, or for foretelling the future. Numerous exotic instruments have been used by dowsers including scissors, pliers, crowbars, and even German sausages. Probably the three most common instruments are the forked stick or Y-rod, the pendulum, and the L-rod, usually made of a piece of wire or rod bent in the shape of the letter ‘L’ The terms water witching, rhabdomancy, radiesthesia, and water divining have also been used as synonyms for dowsing. 

   In this paper we shall consider dowsing to be a problem-solving technique which apparently utilizes a motor automatism in conjunction with a mechanical instrument to obtain information otherwise unknown to the dowser. Classically, dowsing has been used to solve location problems with the dowser standing or walking over the area of interest. Some dowsers do not use instruments but experience bodily sensations (such as a feeling of heat in the palm of the hand, or a sharp pain in the back). A few examples of this will be considered. Animals also seem to have abilities to find hidden objects (e.g. Rhine, 1971), but this topic will not be discussed here. 

   The historical origin of dowsing is unknown. Numerous references to water finders and similar terms have led some to think that it is thousands of years old.  The first published description of the dowsing rod is probably Georgius Agricola’s De re Metallica dated 1556 (translated in 1912 by the then future president of the United States Herbert Hoover). From an extensive survey of the literature, Barrett and Besterman (1926/1968) found the first unmistakable reference to the dowsing rod was in 1430; although many earlier works have been construed as referring to dowsing. Two major works on the history of dowsing are by Barrett and Besterman (1926/1968) and by Bird (1979). 

The dowsing rod has always been steeped in controversy. Martin Luther thought it the work of the devil. On the other hand, many medieval dowsers  baptised their rods along with a child so that they might address the rods by a Christian name. Today the U.S. Geological Survey asserts that dowsing does not deserve further study (Water Dowsing, 1977); it claims to have reviewed scientifically controlled tests; but gives no indication of what these tests were. Ellis (1917) wrote the only comprehensive report on water dowsing to be published by this body. Although a 28 page bibliography was included, no data were presented to evaluate dowsers’ claims; it was largely a historical review. In contrast, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has hired dowsers, and the Corps’ chief has said with qualifications that he would hire a dowser under some circumstances (Dowsing Can’t Work . . . And Bumblebees, of Course, Can’t Fly, 1968). The New York Times reported that the U.S. Marine Corps used dowsing in Vietnam (Baldwin, 1967). 

   Various sources describe anecdotal cases (e.g. Barrett, 1900; Besterman, 1938; Bird, 1975, 1977, 1979; Dykshoorn, 1974; Haines, 1926; Katz and Paulson, 1948, 1949; McMahan, 1947; Pease, 1884; and Wyman, 1977). In Water Witching U.S.A., Vogt and Hyman (1959) argue at some length that anecdotal evidence does not constitute rigorous scientific proof of the effectiveness of dowsing. 

   Today two major controversies remain unresolved concerning dowsing (apart from whether it works). The one most discussed is how the dowser obtained the information he is seeking. The second question concerns the cause of the rod’s movement; very little work has been done on this. Some work however has been devoted to studying the physiological correlates of dowsing reactions. 

   Several explanations have been put forward as to how the dowser gets results. Debunkers claim that dowsers are little more than good practical geologists (e.g. Riddick, 1951, 1952). Rawcliffe (1952/1959) suggests that a dowser may occasionally exercise the maximum powers of human observation (e.g. he may note the colour of soil and vegetation, slight differences in growth of plants such as direction of root structure, etc.), and that he processes all this information and moves the dowsing instrument accordingly; at the unconscious level. This is a ‘normal inference’ explanation. A second explanation is that dowsers react to some known type of radiation (e.g. electro-magnetic) in a little understood way—this is often called the physical theory. A third explanation is that the dowser uses some form of ESP. This has been called the psychical explanation; although to some extent this may be said to explain the unknown by the unknown. 

   Normal inference explanations may account for some of the anecdotal cases, but they are of little intrinsic interest. It is worth noting that experiments have demonstrated the helpful effect of dowsing in the presence of a person who knows where the hidden object is (e.g. Stratton, 1921; Foster, 1923). The dowser in fact may be able to ‘read’ subtle behaviour cues as to location. Such possibilities should of course be eliminated in experimental work. 

   This paper examines the scientific literature on dowsing in the light of these controversies. A brief review of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century studies gives some historical background. Experimental work assuming a biophysical basis for dowsing is considered; a section has also been included on experimental work concerning the physiological concomitants of dowsing. The parapsychological investigations are reviewed with special attention to adequacy of experimental controls. The controversy regarding the movement of the rod is discussed. Although most authorities believe that it is due to unconscious muscular action, some evidence indicates that PK may sometimes be involved. The scant information available from the Soviet bloc countries is reviewed; and there is a section on sociological studies of ‘water witching’. 

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