Questionable Dowsing – Setting The Record Straight
Posted by apgaylard on October 15, 2007
“… 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.
“… 14 October 2007
Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU)
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 explosives. Medical 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.”
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