Everyone knows that I spend a (likely unhealthy) large amount of time browsing Amazon. Recently, I came across this item. It was listed in the Industrial and Scientific section and had, as of September 2020, a 5 star rating with 23 positive reviews with zero negative reviews. Everyone seemed very happy with their purchase with some reporting how easy and accurate they are at detecting water, gold, and ghosts. I’m not really sure how ghosts got wrapped up in there but hey, it’s 2020 and anything goes. With that being said, let’s talk about dowsing.
Dowsing is the practice of using a focus item to detect the presence of a particular thing. Most commonly, you’ll see people using a Y shaped rod to find water. Sometimes they’re trying to find ghosts, gold, or any other object that people think that dowsing will help them find. Instead of the rod, sometimes there are two bent metal rods (as seen in the Amazon link) or a suspended crystal. The tool being used doesn’t really matter since ultimately the entire thing is based on one flawed assumption: that dowsing is real.
Dowsing first came around in the 1400s. When and where, it isn’t quite known. Some think it started as a Germanic practice but there’s nothing firm recorded on the topic until 1518 when it was officially recorded as a sin by Martin Luther. Martin Luther decided that it was an occult practice that constituted witchcraft. By 1662, dowsing was determined to work by invoking Satan to lead the dowser to treasure. By 1701, it was illegal under penalty of death. Consorting with demons was considered a pretty hefty crime back then. I guess the demons found their way into the sticks then whispered the temptation of gold and free water into the ears of farmers? Who knows.
Unfortunately, people still believe in this type of thing hundreds of years later. Dowsing was used in the Vietnam War by the military to locate hidden tunnels and is actually still in use in the Afghanistan War. Yes, in 2015 people still believe in this. There is actually an American Society of Dowsers that holds regular seminars. Not only that, dowsing has spread to the realm of alternative medicine as a treatment for pain. I tried reading articles about this to understand the belief system but it was far too nonsensical to draw any conclusions from. The rod points to where the pain radiates from… or something? Some places are too deep for even a badger of science to burrow.
At this point, you’re probably wondering what people are actually doing. Fundamentally, they’re aiming a tool of some sort and following it towards where they think the treasure is. If it actually worked, the dowsing rod would be drawn towards a treasure chest, water, or whatever the dowser wants. How? The best explanation is psychic powers. The worst explanations involve demons and angels. The reality is a little known effect called the “ideomotor phenomenon.”
What is the ideomotor phenomenon? Well, think back to when you were a kid. Do you remember Ouija boards? Those operated on the same principle. The ideomotor effect is where the individual makes small, unconscious motions. A more common example is emotional crying. Tear duct action is not a conscious decision, at least not usually. Anyway, the idea is that a subject will unconsciously take actions in certain situations. When operating at Ouija board, the players unconsciously move the letter selector to spell out words that they are expecting.
Similarly, dowsers will move their rods towards where they think there may be water. In some cases, they may actually find it due to subconscious intuition. After all, low points in the terrain are likely spots to put a well. Sedimentary rock also could be a sign. As a result, that provides a confirmation bias that what they’re doing actually works.
Ultimately, human intuition is just as effective as dowsing. The rods provide no more particular advantage than any other ritual prop. In summary, this is just another form of divination with no scientific basis.