Monday, October 13, 2008

Dowsing the Drought

Much of California has been suffering from a drought for the past couple of years, necessitating water rationing and cutbacks on farming across the state.  Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures, so it seems many Californians have thrown out their better judgment and reasoning skills to hire dowsers, or “water witches”, to find some relief underground.  Dowsers are those people who believe that by gingerly holding a y-shaped willow stick or a couple of bent coat hangers, they can find things that normally go unseen, like underground wells.  They can’t explain how dowsing works in their day-to-day lives, nor can they explain why it never works under controlled scientific study.  Still, dowsers are in high demand in California, since people need water and are unwilling to pay for real things like seismic testing or electromagnetic imaging.  The New York Times has profiled one such water witch, Phil Stine, who works in exchange for gift certificates and has a long list of satisfied customers.  The profile doesn’t mention this, but it’s well known that dowsing is simply a misinterpretation of the ideomotor effect, the phenomenon whereby subtle, unconscious movements of the hands can make loosely-held objects appear to move of their own accord.  The profile also fails to mention that water can be found under the most of the world’s surfaces, so tricks like Mr. Stine’s aren’t all that impressive.  Now if he could only dowse for oil…  More details here.

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