A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

Dowsing for Reliable Evidence

Posted by apgaylard on October 26, 2007

 Since my inner physicist was angered by the BBC Radio 4 programme “Questions, Questions” and their promotion of a frankly bonkers explanation for how dowsing “works”, I’ve been looking at what reliable information is around on this subject.

It’s certainly easy to find all sorts of claims made for all sorts of variants of this nonsense.  Many dowsers have prosaic concerns: they look for water, oil and minerals.  Some claim to help with archeological research.  Others say they can tell what’s ailing you, find missing persons and objects; even tell the gender of individuals from their writing over the internet.  A hardy few claim to dowse for land mines and other explosives!

There is no shortage of “research” reports claiming to have validated at least some of these remarkable claims.  Usually the methodological flaws just leap off the page, at other times it’s less clear.

Wouldn’t it be helpful if there was an independent testing service for these claims?  It would be excellent if there were strong incentives to maintain high standards and conduct rigorous tests.  It would be great if this service maintained open records of testing methods and results, so we could all understand the real status of dowsing.

The good news is that there is such a service: James Randi’s One Million Dollar Challenge.  It is open to: “to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.”  Dowsing qualifies.  Excellent.

Is the testing really independent?  The website says the the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF): “… does not involve itself in the testing procedure, other than helping to design the protocol and approving the conditions under which a test will take place. All tests are designed with the participation and approval of the applicant. In most cases, the applicant will be asked to perform a relatively simple preliminary test of the claim, which if successful, will be followed by the formal test.”

So here we have fair tests of claimed abilities with one million dollars at stake.  The prize is certainly large enough that people boasting a dowsing “ability” have no excuse for not giving it a go.  It is also large enough to ensure that those involved in the testing take care to do a thorough job.

The on-line archives show that since 2004 fourteen individuals claiming to have some type of dowsing ability who have applied.  They cover the full gamut of dowsing “abilities”. So how have dowsers faired? 

Success in preliminary testing


Failure in preliminary testing




Failed to agree protocol


Failed to make proper submission


Have not pursued application


Referred to German associate



The only test report contained in this archive is of Angela Patel, an English “location dowser”.  From reading the test report, she appeared to be a very pleasant and sincere woman.  She seemed happy with the procedure.  The result: this fair test produced a convincing failure.

The two withdrawals are interesting.  Randi advises people to test themselves in conditions that are as fair as possible, before submitting to the independent test.  Both Michael Leuthold (object location) and Carl Brauhart (sulfide mineralization) did this and found that their abilities had gone. 

From the publicly available correspondence, these both seem like sincere honest individuals.  They were both convinced enough to apply to be tested, but were not able to pass a fair test under their own control

These first three examples show that sincere and honest individuals can deceive themselves.  They clearly illustrate the power of self-deception and why personal statements about claimed abilities cannot be trusted.  I think that these cases also show that sincere and honest individuals are prepared to put their claims to a fair test and accept the results.

The failure of four applicants to agree a fair test protocol is also educational.  Some were not really able to define precisely what ability they were submitting for scrutiny.  One, Ryan Whisler, did not seem to be aware that his claim to telekinetically move a dowsing pendulum was undermined if he was holding it.  Elmer Baker did not want scrutinizing of a “signal amplifier” he was using to augment his dowsing rods.  These examples highlight the inability of some people to understand what would constitute a fair test of their claim.  It also shows, again, why self reported abilites cannot be trusted.

The testing conducted in Germany is very interesting.  It is clearly helpful to German dowsing applicants to be able to be tested close to home.  Unfortunately testing records for these applicants are not available on line.  However, JREF’s German associate, Dr. Martin Mahner was kind enough to provide me with a summary of his work testing dowsers.  He says that:

“… Since 2004 we’ve annually tested several dowsers (about 17 altogether). These people do not just dowse for water, but also for other objects like gold nuggets, homeopathic preparations, a bottle of coke or wine, …” Their methods included: “… using a pendulum, a dowsing rod or in rare cases just their bare hand. …”

How does he go about testing the dowsers?  He continued:

“The test is a double-blind setting where 10 buckets or boxes (plastic or paper, depending on the wishes of the dowsers) are used the hide the target. Only one of the boxes contains the (randomly assigned) target. That is, it is a 1-out-of-10 test. For statistical reasons we run the first part of the test 13 times. The dowsers need 7 hits to pass the test and enter the second part of the test, which would consist of another 18 runs (of which 10 must be successful). If they fail the first part, they are out. The chance expectancy of the first part is of course 1.3 hits.

This is a very fair test procedure.  Dowsers tend to rate their own accuracy very highly.  Seven “hits” from 13 tries would seem to be well within the (self) reported capabilities of dowsers.  What were the results?  Dr. Mahner continued:

“… The results of all these tests: 0-3 hits, which is just the typical variation around chance expectancy.”

Despite what you might google, the truth about dowsing is that whenever it is subjected to fair tests it fails.  There are many claims to the contrary, but these are false. 

So I’d like to suggest some ground rules for dealing with dowsing.

  1. Dowsers should not make any claims for abilities that they have not demonstrated in fair, independent, tests.

  2. Non-dowsers should never be tempted to give credence to claims of dowsing.  We should not trust the results of dowsing.  We should not trust our health or safety to dowsers.  Certainly, we should never part with any cash for dowsing services or courses.

  3. Journalists and broadcasters should not comment on dowsing without first checking the facts, rather than the propaganda.  They should then actually pass on the facts and not the propaganda!

  4. Scientists and others who want to research this topic should make sure that their tests are really fair and rigorous.  Dr. Mahner’s protocol is an excellent example.  Only in this way can they contribute to human knowledge, rather than superstition.

Some Good Links

Randi’s comments on dowsing

The Skeptics Dictionary (Robert Todd Carroll)

USGS Water Science for Schools

The Straight Dope

Summary of the Status of “Dowsing” Applicants for the One Million Dollar Challenge


Failure to agree test protocol. 13th July 2007

JAMES DAWSON, Dowsing for the Dead

“…applied for the Challenge with the claim that he can tell, with certain information, whether a person is alive or dead and what position they were in when they died.”

No further information.  12th July 2007


Seems to be telekinesis rather than anything else?

No protocol agreed.  8th February 2006.

DONNA DiMARCO, Pendulum Chiro-Dowser

Dowsing spine charts for energy?

No protocol agreed.  2nd February 2006

Herbert Preuss, Feng Shui Dowser

Standard claims of dowsing for water.  Several applications expired as the claimant neglected to agree to a test protocol.

Negotiations on protocol initiated with JREF’s German associate.  6th December 2005.


Claim documentation not submitted within required time.

Claim file closed.  Eligible to resubmit in June 2006.  14th June 2005

ANGELA PATEL, UK Dowser of Lost Persons

“… I can access full addresses of named persons deemed missing or in hiding and find people with the aid of a pendulum and an A-Z of England …”

Tested and Failed.  31st May 2005.

ELMER BAKER, Dowsing applicant

“…I … can locate lost coins or rings from a distance up to 100 yards, using my dowsing rods and signal amplifier to locate the area of the target.”

Would not allow scrutineering of his “signal amplifier“.

Not a paranormal claim.  File closed. 30th March 2005

Dr. GREIFF & Adolf SCHILLING, German Dowsers

“… The identification of a bucket filled with water between 10 to 15 empty buckets. For over 50 years Mr. Schilling is able to locate water veins in order to build fountains … The identification of a mobile phone under a bucket between 10 to 15 empty buckets …”

It is noted that JREF’s German associate had over 30 dowsing tests to attend to by February 2005.

Scheduled for tests in Germany, late summer 2005. 16th February 2005 

M. LEUTHOLD, Spokane “Dowser” (?)

“…I can detect exactly which of a series of coins or any other object of similar size is hidden in a paper bag, box, metal can, plastic container or otherwise concealed from direct view as deternmined [sic] by the examiners, provided I be allowed to hold in my hand a duplicate of each of the agreed-upon items to be hidden …”

Failed his own preliminary double-blind trials.

Withdrew application.  29th October 2004.


Large number of dowsing claims: “I can locate earth rays (?) and water bent in earth only with a gadget like divining rod, pendulum or metallic chain… find metallic [sic]  pieces and electrical lines hidden in earth or the walls of houses … a needle in a haystack … detect food or drink which conatin [sic] millet, linseed or sesame from food or drinks which do not contain any of these ingredients … distinguish between natural and conserved food, which was exposed to a production process … find trees or other plants which are influenced by earth rays coming from the depth … distinguish produced colors and other petrochemicals from naturally produced products and so on.”

Did not pursue application.  26th October 2004

SUE HOLLAND, internet sex dowser

I will demonstrate psychic ability by identifying the gender of of a male and female over the internet, as they type a neutral sentenmce [sic] to me, such as a nursery rhyme.”

Did not pursue application.  25th October 2004


“… I can detect power lines, groundwater and sulfide mineralization …”

Invited to chose one other than power lines, he chose sulfide mineralization, conducted his own pre-trial blindfold test and failed.

Withdrew application 21st October 2004.

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