In our society today, there exists a phenomenon of yesterday. The ancient "art" of dowsing still persists in this age of high technology. In Connecticut alone, there are 100 members of the American Society of Dowsers. There are more than 5000 nationally. The Gordon McClean chapter (named for a now deceased dowser of local renown), located at 118 Able Street, New Britain, CT, is one of some 60 chapters spread throughout America. My inquiries with them proved most enlightening, yet before I divulge my findings, let me say a word about the history of this art.
Unsurprisingly, dowsing can be traced all the way back to man's time in the caves. On cave paintings near Tassili, Algeria, there are depictions of herders holding divining sticks pointed toward the skies. Egyptian priest carvings show these same rods. There are statues of the Chinese Emperor Hwang-Yu from 2200 BC holding such devices. Even the great thinker Confucius spoke of the practice.
However, it was not until 1556 that an entire book was written on the subject of dowsing. The tome in question is known as the "De Re Metallica", written by Georgius Agricola, a German. This book was not about water witching (the locating of subterranean water), but about finding precious metals. It was designed with miners in mind, and was widely distributed for its time.
In the United States, the practice was brought over with the pilgrims and has been here ever since. The good citizens of our state have paid countless thousands for these con artists to tell them where to dig wells on their land, when, in fact, there is water in almost all areas of the state at depth.
The government has not been entirely silent on the subject, though nearly so. In 1976, the U.S. Geological Survey released Water Supply Paper #416, an official government bulletin. It stated, "Water witching has been thoroughly discredited. To all inquiries, therefore, the Survey gives the advice not to spend any money for the services of a water witch for locating underground water." Pretty straight forward and quite damning. That was twenty years ago, however, and in order to get a more up-to-date response, I called the National Water Information Clearing House at 1-800-426-9000. I was told that the Survey publishes a pamphlet simply entitled "Water Dowsing." They were kind enough to mail it to me, and after perusing it, I can tell you that their position on the matter is surprisingly unchanged! Who'd have imagined?
The dowsers are still going strong, however, and each Fall they congregate in Danville, Vermont, wherein the headquarters of the national society rests. The town has a population in the hundreds, and annually it is invaded by thousands. All manner of lectures and displays of dowsing may be enjoyed there, and the gathering seems to grow every year. Pseudoscience marches on. The Gordon McClean chapter attended this year's festivities, assuring all the faithful that dowsing was alive and well in Connecticut, which brings me back to my conversation with one Richard Paskowski.
Mr. Paskowski is the chapter president for the Connecticut group. He informed me that he was a water witch. That is, his specialty was in dowsing for water, as opposed to metals or missing people. Most dowsers are quite specialized, according to Mr. Paskowski, who states that someone good at the finding of water, is probably not good at locating missing persons. As a matter of fact, Mr. Paskowski informed me that anything with a "yes or no" answer can be divined for. Anything.
Mr. Paskowski also informed me that there are even members who dowse the stock market. When I asked how I could get in on the ground floor of such lucrative information, he emitted a muffled chuckle. I inquired about the items he used to proffer his art. He said that he uses many things: birch twigs, whale bone, and even hangers. He only makes one clear inquiry at a time. Ambiguity in the question can often be one of the stated reason for dowsing's failure under test conditions. More on those later.
Literature on dowsing states that occasionally the reaction of the dowsing implement is so strong as to be ripped from the dowser's hand or even knock the hapless diviner over! When I asked Mr. Paskowski if he had ever had such an incident, he said that other than a few scrapes, his activities have left him unscarred.
I then asked Mr. Paskowski what he thought about the US Geological Survey's rather strong denouncement of his craft. This brought cynical laughter, as he began to weave his tale of conspiracy. Be it UFO's or abductions, demons or dowsers, there is always a conspiracy. It is the one constant in the realm of the paranormal. If they are discredited in any way, it is THE CONSPIRACY! Beware, it is everywhere.
In any event, when he was done explaining how geologists and drillers earn their living off the duping of the American public, I asked him whether or not he would submit to a test. He said that there was only one specific test to which he would submit himself. If a geologist or a hydrologist declares that a particular piece of ground is without water, and then a drill truck bores a few dry wells to prove this, he would come forth and find water.
Well, not being a hydrologist myself, I called the Department of Geology at Yale. There I spoke with Professor Robert Gordon, a Connecticut Hydrologist. I explained Mr. Paskowski's test to him, and he said that the test was pretty much meaningless because there is subterranean water in virtually every area of the state, at some depth. After thanking Professor Gordon I passed his analysis onto Mr. Paskowski, who said that it figured (remember the conspiracy). I then asked if he would submit himself to a very simple test instituted by the Connecticut Skeptical Society. We would dig ten identical holes, fill three with water, cover them, and ask him to find the ones with water. He said no, because the water had to be flowing. It was this flow that created the "force" that he tapped into. Sadly, our static holes would not supply the needed force.
C'est la Vie!
There are three ways (two and a half really), that dowsers claim their power works. The first is "Physical." That is, a "force" emanates from the object attempting to be located. The dowser is simply attuned to this force and thus detects it. It is this attuning that specializes dowsers. One attuned to say gold may not be attuned at all to red shoes.
The second way is "Psychical." This is simply the power of the conscious self. It somehow reaches forth and connects with that which is attempting to be found, thus revealing said object. This is how map dowsers work. A specialized dowser can dowse a map in California, and locate a missing person in New York. Now that's impressive!
The third way is simply a combination of the above two, the interpretation which Mr. Paskowski endorses. There are emanations, and he detects them with his consciousness. He states that the subconscious knows the answer to all questions and that you simply have to gain a good rapport with your mind.
As I stated earlier, with no surprise to skeptics, dowsers have failed to provide convincing evidence under test conditions. They list several reasons for their failures. Amongst these are vague questions, overconfidence, exaggerated expectations, and, of course, remanence.
Yes, remanence. Come on, you know remanence! The "stuff" left behind from previous matter. "Well, there used to be water here." Etcetera.
The Man of a Thousand Tests, James "The Amazing" Randi, put 11 dowsers to the test for his then Fifty Thousand dollar psychic challenge. The water dowsing test involved ten identical pipes, one of which would have water flowing through it. Thus, chance would dictate a ten percent rate of success. Before the test began, Randi had them all dowse the surrounding area to assure that conditions were right for dowsing. Then, he inquired as to what they believed their rate of success would be. They all said about 80%. So, it was agreed that an 80% or higher rate of success would win the prize.
The dowsers went to work. Later, they all traveled together to a local diner, the dowsers discussing how they would split up the sum between all of them. However, upon the tabulated results being announced at the diner, the faces of joy turned to disbelief. Their rate of success was a paltry 12%, not significantly different from chance. Randi folded up his check, thanked the challengers, and headed for home.
The Connecticut Skeptical Society does not as of yet have the funds for such a challenge (although we have pledged $10,000 in support of the Randi Challenge). We can, however, continue our modest investigations into such local phenomenon. And as our membership continues to grow and others join us in our struggle to cast the light of reason on local paranormal claimants, we can all see these people for what they truly are.
You know, Burros are very good at finding water, and in Mexico they call dowsers "Burros". We can learn a lot from Mexico.