A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

Questionable Dowsing – Setting The Record Straight

Posted by apgaylard on October 15, 2007

Well, I complained about the outrageous presentation of myth as fact that was the BBC Radio 4Questions, Questions” piece on dowsing.  Yesterday I had a very polite reply.

“… Thank you for your e-mail regarding ‘Questions, Questions’. I note your concerns over the feature on dowsing; specifically, that you considered that there was an absence of factual evidence. I further note your criticisms of contributors and contributions made.

Audience response such as yours is welcomed by the BBC because it regularly informs the review and improvement of the programming and services that we offer. Please be assured that I have included your comments in the daily audience log. This internal document is made available to production teams and senior management.

Thank you for taking the time to contact BBC Information … “

Now I don’t think it is acceptable to only note in private an error broadcast to the public.  It is particularly unacceptable when the programme was billed as “factual”.

Unfortunately the e-mail did not contain a valid return address, so I cannot debate the point any further without escalating the complaint to the next level.  So that is what I have done.  It may be fighting a small and pedantic fight, but I believe it’s a worthwhile one.

I have reproduced my letter below and will write about what happens next.

 cectic.com.  All contents are copyright © 2007, Rudis Muiznieks.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.

“… 14 October 2007

Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU)

BBC,

Media Centre,

Media Village,

201 Wood Lane

London W12 7TQ

Dear Madam or Sir:

Radio 4, “Questions, Questions” (4th October 2007)

I have recently complained about the coverage of dowsing in the Radio 4 programme “Questions, Questions” broadcast on 4th October 2007.

Given that this programme is advertised as “factual” I believe that this segment of the broadcast represented a failure in the programme makers’ duty to be accurate and balanced.

An interviewee, Michael Guest, introduced as the Vice President of the British Society of Dowsers was asked to “explain” how dowsing works.  He stated that it was explained by “… the Earths’ magnetism and our reaction to it …” He elaborated that an underground stream effects the magnetic background.  This can be detected by human beings.  How?  Dowsers’ tensed muscles are relaxed by passing over the “reaction” of the magnetic field to the water.  This causes the rod reaction.

This is just not true.  There is no possible way that small changes in the earth’s magnetic field could induce muscle reactions.  I explore the physics of this claim in detail on my blog.

This counterfactual claim went unchallenged and uncorrected.  It was allowed to remain as a central part of the answers the programme provided.  This is a clear breach of the requirement for accuracy.

Mr Guest moved on to assert that dowsing for depth information, from a map and at a distance was something that: “… skilled dowsers do … all the time …” No evidence was asked for or offered.  Of course, there is no sound evidence for “standard” dowsing being more than luck or intuition, let alone these more speculative forms.  Once again the programme was inaccurate, allowing unproven assertions to be taken as part of the “answer”.

We also heard from a Mr Tony Faulkner, introduced as a retired electrical engineer, who was claimed to have conducted controlled experiments to try “… to substantiate why the dowsing he had seen could have worked.”  His statements went unchallenged.  He was not required to detail his tests and results in any way.  Critically good science is about trying to falsify your hypothesis, not confirm it.  The approach attributed to this contributor is merely the path to self deception.  This is not the basis of obtaining accurate answers suitable for a Radio 4 factual programme.

There was just one rational voice on the programme, a New York psychologist called Terrence Hines.  The journalist responsible for the package said of him that he: “… refuses to accept anecdotal reports, claiming they are unreliable.”  The implication of this was that he was being unfair.  Actually his position is absolutely right.  Anecdotes do tend to be unreliable, this is why the elements of the scientific method were developed: to reduce the chances that investigators fool themselves.  To have a “factual” programme inferring that anecdotes are data is very irresponsible.  Contrasting the treatment of this contributor, the only sceptical voice, with the three dowsing advocates heard on the programme indicates a pro-dowsing bias in the programme.

This impression was confirmed by the closing remarks from the journalist responsible: “… In my own brief experience I and many like me have seen the rods work.”

The facts that did not make it into this piece were as telling as the myths that it peddled.  James Randi, the well known debunker of the “paranormal” offers a one-million dollar prize to anyone who can, in a fair test, demonstrate their paranormal “ability”.  Dowsing qualifies.  Randi says of this: “…By far the most common claim made for the Million Dollar Challenge offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is dowsing.”.  They have all failed.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica classes dowsing as “occultism”, suggesting that there is no credible evidence base for the practise.

A recent Channel 4 programme (“Enemies of Reason“, Richard Dawkins) included a fair test of the abilities of a group of dowsers.  They failed to record results better than would be expected by chance alone.  This type of evaluation has been performed many times; always with the same result.

That such readily available pieces of information were not at least included, demonstrates the total lack of balance in this piece.  Instead we were subjected to a broadcast operating under the central fallacious premise that dowsing worked and including only token dissent.

The response to my initial complaint is not acceptable.  It asks me to be “assured that I have included your comments in the daily audience log. This internal document is made available to production teams and senior management.”  It offers no prospect of a public correction.

The “answer” this package provided to the listeners on the “question” of dowsing included elements that were false, misleading and biased.  The only acceptable response can be a public correction as part of a subsequent programme in the series.

Not to offer a public correction is to leave the BBC in the position of passing off untruths as part of factual programming.  This violates the BBC’s regulatory obligation for accuracy and impartiality (See BBC’s “Agreement” page 20, Clause 44 – note pdf).

It may seem a small concern.  But belief in dowsing is widespread.  Unscrupulous individuals are even selling dowsing devices to the military for detecting explosivesMedical dowsing is also practised.  These practises have the potential to do real harm.  Such charlatans can only prosper while people believe that this practise works.  This programme, unfortunately, contributed to the perpetuation of the dowsing myth.”

About these ads

4 Responses to “Questionable Dowsing – Setting The Record Straight”

  1. nigp said

    Dowsing is used in the military. Certainly US Marines were taught dowsing to locate enemy boobytraps and tunnels. General George Patton used a dowser to locate water for his army in the desert in WW2. It has been used, successfully, in many situations and at differing times. I think you are overly ambitious in claiming that there are unscrupulous people trying to sell the army anything in the way of expensive devices. From what I can gather, you object to it because it cannot be ‘proved’ according to scientific principles and it must, therefore, be practiced only by unscrupulous charlatans.
    It is not my intention to relieve you of your views and open up your eyes to new possibilities. That would take far too long.
    Instead I would ask you to consider that there are other things going on in the physical world which are not obvious or clearly accepted by traditional science as it stands today.
    I, for one would argue strongly against the opinions of Michael Guest as quoted in your letter, but I can offer no other explanation to replace it. That does not, however, make dowsing go away.
    Whether it is an occult science or not is neither here nor there. Occultism is merely a label and labels change with time and new knowledge.
    What strikes me as more odd than anything reported in your letter is the tone of the letter itself. It appears to be so vehemently against what is an innocent practice as to make the object of its attention all the stronger because of the emotions shown.
    I think science has done and continues to do quite remarkable things for society. However, I am not ready yet, and doubt I ever will be ready, to accept that the scientific outlook is the only yardstick to judge truth by.
    And please, try to avoid such emotional phrasing shown in your last paragraph! ‘These practises have the potential to do real harm.’ Well, that puts dowsing right up with driving a car and ski-ing and drinking alcohol.
    Dowsing, sadly for you, is not a myth. Just because it cannot be proved to your satisfaction in a strictly controlled scientific environment still does not invalidate it. If so many people use it, believe in it, practice it, shouldn’t science be trying harder to understand it rather than trying to demolish it?
    Ah, but that would involve accepting it first, wouldn’t it? And we can’t have that, can we?

  2. apgaylard said

    nigp: It’s hard to know quite where to start with your comment. First thanks for stopping by and taking the time to express your views.

    Now the reason that I got into this topic was that the BBC Radio 4 programme is billed as factual, that is based on facts. A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality. So the programme makers had already conceded that there is such a thing as objective reality. That is observations of the physical world that are the same for you, me and anyone else.

    This is then the domain of science. Science is a body of objective knowledge along with a set of reliable tools for determining it: the scientific method. Simply put the scientific method is concerned with reducing the chances that we are fooling ourselves that something is real when what we have seen are the results of inherent biases or the play of random chance. It also provides a way to understand the mechanisms that are at work. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s the best way we have of getting to what is real in the context of the physical world.

    It’s certainly better than relying on anecdotes and self-reported successes, which is where your comments (shown in bold) start:

    Dowsing is used in the military. Certainly US Marines were taught dowsing to locate enemy booby traps and tunnels. General George Patton used a dowser to locate water for his army in the desert in WW2. It has been used, successfully, in many situations and at differing times.

    The tendency for self-deception is very strong. That’s why science uses the double-blind methodology where neither the experimenter or the subject know the expected result (like where the water is or is the water running or not). Once this methodology is applied dowsers fail.

    I have no doubt that the military have used dowsing. Use does not necessarily imply success. People persist in using failed strategies, it’s part of the human condition.

    Neither do I doubt that dowsers can and do find water. In the UK the water table is sufficiently high that if you dig anywhere there are good odds of striking water at some point. I also think that it is highly plausible that some people are very good at spotting flora, fauna, topological and geological features that may indicate the presence of water. But that’s field craft, not dowsing.

    I also think a good tactician can probably say where a competent enemy is likely to place mines etc. But that’s tactical skill, not dowsing.

    When fair tests are done, removing the potential for these other skills to come into play, dowsing does not work.

    I think you are overly ambitious in claiming that there are unscrupulous people trying to sell the army anything in the way of expensive devices.

    You are certainly entitled to your view, but I’d refer you to the blogs on Sniffex and other similar devices.

    From what I can gather, you object to it because it cannot be ‘proved’ according to scientific principles and it must, therefore, be practiced only by unscrupulous charlatans.

    In science nothing is proven. Hypotheses are tested and we attempt to break (falsify) them. If they pass rigorous checks then the explanation will be considered the best presently available. It’s a protection against self-deception. In the case of dowsing, many practitioners make very easily testable claims. Subjected to fair tests they fail. It is then very reasonable to conclude that the hypothesis that dowsing works (better than chance) is falsified.

    I think that people only become charlatans when they persist in making claims that have been falsified. I also think it’s unethical to make claims for products and services that have not been properly tested.

    It is not my intention to relieve you of your views and open up your eyes to new possibilities. That would take far too long. Instead I would ask you to consider that there are other things going on in the physical world which are not obvious or clearly accepted by traditional science as it stands today.

    I wondered when the fallacy of the open mind would crop up. To be open minded is to be open to the possibility that the results of experiments may surprise you and make you let go of a cherished theory. It is not open minded to accept whatever is offered uncritically; or to persist in believing that which has been falsified. That’s just being credulous.

    I have no doubt that the body of scientific knowledge will continue to change, as it has always done. With dowsing, it doesn’t matter what traditional science accepts. All that matters is the quality of evidence you are prepared to accept. You, for instance, seem happy with anecdote and self-reported success. I would rather stick with fair tests that limit the chances of being fooled or fooling myself.

    I, for one would argue strongly against the opinions of Michael Guest as quoted in your letter, but I can offer no other explanation to replace it. That does not, however, make dowsing go away.

    I am glad that we can agree on at least one thing. I know why I reject Guest’s theory of dowsing (extreme physical implausibility) but I can’t see why you do. Surely, with your ethos you have to be open to the possibility that the scientific understanding of magnetism and nerve function is wrong?

    Of course this bogus theory does not make dowsing go away. Testing under fair conditions makes dowsing go away.

    Whether it is an occult science or not is neither here nor there. Occultism is merely a label and labels change with time and new knowledge.

    The precise point I was making here was that if an authoritative reference work (Encyclopaedia Britannica) classes dowsing as “occultism”, it provides an insight into the evidence base for the practise.

    What strikes me as more odd than anything reported in your letter is the tone of the letter itself. It appears to be so vehemently against what is an innocent practice as to make the object of its attention all the stronger because of the emotions shown.

    Probably a combination of my annoyance with “factual” programming peddling nonsense and a lack of facility with the written word. Actually, I don’t think that water dowsing is much more than a waste of time and money.

    I think science has done and continues to do quite remarkable things for society. However, I am not ready yet, and doubt I ever will be ready, to accept that the scientific outlook is the only yardstick to judge truth by.

    I don’t think science is the only valid form of human knowledge. But I do think that truth should be both objective and subject to fair tests. If something fails a fair test then it’s not true. So if dowsers cannot find water, bombs, minerals etc more reliably than someone making educated guesses or relying on chance then it’s just not true.

    I wonder what your preferred yardstick is in this case? All you have offered are some anecdotes?

    And please, try to avoid such emotional phrasing shown in your last paragraph! ‘These practises have the potential to do real harm.’ Well, that puts dowsing right up with driving a car and ski-ing and drinking alcohol.

    It’s my blog and I’ll write in any style I please. However, read in context, it’s pretty obvious that I was going after dowsing for explosives and medical diagnoses. If you don’t think that security services dowsing for bombs or pendulum dowsers offering medical diagnoses are dangerous, then I’m at a loss. Would you really trust your safety to such practises?

    Dowsing, sadly for you, is not a myth. Just because it cannot be proved to your satisfaction in a strictly controlled scientific environment still does not invalidate it.

    As I said, I’m a believer in objective reality. Dowsers make some pretty straightforward claims. Fair testing falsifies them. Just remember that what you call a “strictly controlled scientific environment” is just the real world minus clues that would enable a dowser to get a result without dowsing. So I’d say, objectively, that dowsing is a myth for both me and you. The difference is that you have chosen to believe in it on the basis, as far as I can tell, of anecdotes and self-reported sucesses.

    I wonder, is there any piece of evidence or possible observation that could invalidate dowsing in your view?

    If so many people use it, believe in it, practice it, shouldn’t science be trying harder to understand it rather than trying to demolish it?

    Here we have the appeal to popularity. It’s a common fallacious argument. Lots of people believe in lots of very strange and mutually contradictory things.

    To get to the core of your point: there is nothing here to understand. The scientific method has been used to look at dowsing. Dowsing has failed, and continues to fail, in all it’s bizare manefestations.

    I don’t see how you could expect, or even want, science to be used to understand dowsing. You don’t like the way science controls for the play of extraneous factors, bias and chance. Remove these controls and you don’t have a scientific investigation.

    I’m not demolishing dowsing; it does it for itself. I’m just reporting on the results.

    Ah, but that would involve accepting it first, wouldn’t it? And we can’t have that, can we?

    Exactly, It’s good to be able to conclude on some common ground. I am not going to judge something either way until I’ve seen the evidence. That’s prejudice: a preconceived judgment or opinion. I’ve spent some time looking at the evidence and it shows that dowsing fails when properly tested.

  3. genewitch said

    Nice reply. I’m curious, do you have like a fallacy guide? I studied logic for a few years in college but i can never remember the tale-tell signs of logical fallacies (except red herring, strawman, ad bacculum, ad hominem, and a few others) without consulting something. i usually use wikipedia, but there are a few sites that i’ve lost the bookmarks to. Any ideas?

    Logical fallacies are so prominent in day to day life it’s good to be a person that understands why they don’t work (and also try to eliminate them from your own speech).

    My favorite one on all these linked blogs is the “appeal to the open mind” hehehe.

  4. apgaylard said

    Genewitch:
    Thanks. For lists of fallacies I quite like:

    http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/

    http://philosophy.lander.edu/logic/fallacy_topics.html

    They’re listed on my blogroll (right hand border) under Logical Fallacies

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 609 other followers

%d bloggers like this: