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George Hanson - Society for Psychical Research Vol. 51, No. 792, October 1982 – 02 Dowsing: Early Research



Type of Spiritual Experience


The experiment described could simply have been telepathy

A description of the experience

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* 


   From the earliest days of the Society for Psychical Research, and perhaps before, there was a controversy as to whether dowsing was a physical or psychical phenomenon. Sir William F. Barrett, professor of physics, at the Royal College of Science in Dublin and a principle founder of the SPR, led research on the phenomenon and published two lengthy articles in the Society’s Proceedings (Barrett, 1897-98, 1900-01). He favoured the psychical explanation; although he also conducted experiments which indicated that some individuals were sensitive to magnetic fields (Barrett, 1884). Continental investigators largely supported the physical hypothesis. Carl von Klinckowstroem, a German research scientist, argued that dowsing could be explained in purely physical terms although the actual physical stimulus (or stimuli) has yet to be defined (Klinckowstroem, 1912, 1925, 1959; Besterman, France, and Klinckowstroem, 1931). Charles Richet, Nobel prize winner and former President of the SPR, suggested that dowsers respond to some type of radiation emanating from various materials (the prevailing view of French dowsers of his day, e.g. Mager, 1931), but claimed that it resembled cryptaesthesia, his term for ESP (Richet, 1923). 

   One of the experiments conducted by Barrett to test the physical theory was to determine if dowsers could detect the presence of radium salts (Barrett, 1910). Radium salts were placed in a lead case behind the dowsers with the lid sometimes open and sometimes closed. The dowsers involved registered reactions (sometimes quite violent ones) with the lid both open and closed. It was concluded that radioactivity was not the dowsers’ source of information. It is not clear whether Barrett’s rather strongly stated conclusions were completely warranted. No indication was given whether or not the dowsers had more hits than chance would predict. The experiment was apparently not conducted double blind; thus misleading sensory cues could have biassed the results. 

   Barrett also conducted a number of experiments which supported the psychical theory. Here is a description of one: 

   A coin was to be hidden in some part of the room in the absence of the dowsers and while all those present in the room looked out of the window, the person hiding the coin was then to leave the room, and one of the dowsers called in to try and find the coin. This was done five times; first the coin was hidden by Sir William Barrett beneath an article lying on a chair in the large Council Room, 45 other chairs being similarly covered. The odds against finding the coin at the first venture were thus 45 to 1, but when Mr. Young was called in he immediately indicated the correct chair. Mr. Young again left the room, accompanied by a guardian, and the coin was hidden under another chair, which was again correctly indicated by Mr. Young. The odds against two such consecutive successes being due to chance coincidence are 2,025 to 1. (Barrett and Besterman, 1926/1968, p. 258). 

At the end of five trials, Barrett concluded that the odds against chance occurrence were 80,000,000 to 1. Although these results are impressive and some precautions were taken, not all normal influences were ruled out. There is no indication that the chair selection process was random. The hiding of the coin may have slightly disturbed the original positions of the chairs thus giving a clue. Overall, the methodology of Barrett’s experiments (at the same level as other investigators of his time) is inadequate by today’s standards. 

   The work done by investigators over 50 years ago can be considered only exploratory. The procedures and results are difficult to evaluate because often few details are given and afford no firm basis for conclusions. Nevertheless the anecdotal material collected and the experimental results obtained have suggested further areas of investigation. 

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