A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

Credit Where It Is Due

Posted by apgaylard on November 8, 2007

I’ve been very critical of BBC Radio 4’s “Questions, Questions” piece on dowsing.  Today the BBC has done what it should have done in the first place: offer a factual explanation as part of this factual programme.

It should also be credited with a journalistic rarity: a correction being given the same prominence as the original error.

Apparently, there have been quite a number of complaints.  Congratulations to all those who cared enough to engage with this nonsense.

After mentioning a credulous article carried in the New Scientist in 2005 about Hans Schröter, a German water engineer, and his “outstanding success” in dowsing for water in Sri Lanka the programme moved swiftly into the real world.

It’s a shame that the claims by Schröter, and University of Munich physics professor Hans-Dieter Betz , were not scrutinised; but I guess you can’t win them all!  However, before any dowsers get carried away they should check the excellent debunking of these claims found here.

Randi’s million dollar challenge also got an honourable mention.  It’s an interesting aside that Randi directly challenged Betz in 2003, along with other “… duped academics …”, to put up a demonstration of dowsing and win the prize.  There don’t appear to have been any takers.  Academia must be better remunerated than I thought!

The main contributor was Christopher French, professor of Psychology at the University of London.  He has actually tested water dowsers recently.   This was shown on Dawkin’s Channel 4 series “Enemies of Reason“.

He described the testing.  The task for the dowsers was to distinguish between a bottle of water and one of sand.  Under open conditions (bottles in plain sight), all dowsers performed “very well“.  When the bottles were placed non-blind into containers, again all did very well. 

Finally, the real test: determine which of six containers contained the bottle of water.  Each dowser was given six trials.  A score of four or more, out of six, would show a statistically significant result.  What happened?  No dowser managed to reach this score.  The overall score for all dowsers was one success for every six tries: exactly what would be expected due to chance alone.

This agrees with recent tests of dowsers conducted in Germany.

French stated that all the dowsers said, in advance, that it was a fair test.

He summed up: “.. time after time after time dowsers fail the test when under proper controlled conditions ..”

It will not please the  “True Believers“, no doubt.  But this was a solid piece of work.  Just the sort of thing we should get as an answer from a factual programme.

I was even invited to provide a short pre-recorded comment.  Unfortunately I could not oblige; the offer was only at a few hours notice and I do have a day job.

I remain uneasy over two issues.  First, how was the original nonsense piece broadcast on the BBC’s premier voice network in the first place?

Second, a comment from the Chief Producer in response to my complaint:

“… I have reviewed the item concerned and have decided to run a follow up item on Questions Questions this week, which will more fully consider the concerns of sectors of the scientific extablishment [sic], with regards to dowsing.”

The phrase “… the concerns of sectors of the scientific extablishment [sic] …” seems to have undercurrents of post-modern relativism, or am I getting oversensitive?

The concerns of this group, whoever they may be, are neither here nor there.  The problem with the original piece was that it flatly contradicted what is known about magnetic fields and it ignored the overwhelming evidence that dowsing just does not work.

Anyway, a lesson that I will take from this is that complaining can actually achieve something positive. 

 Finally, credit where it is due: well done to the BBC for eventually getting it right. 

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