Dowsing—Scientific or Occult?
“AMAZING!” exclaimed a dairy farmer in the Midwestern United States. A slender peach limb was jerking and twisting violently in his hands. He dug his fingernails into the bark to hold the branch steady, but the downward force was strong. “It even left pieces of bark in my hands,” he gasped, awestruck. He was still more amazed later when he found water by digging in the exact spot that the limb had pointed out. What was going on here?
The farmer was practicing what is often called dowsing, water witching, or water divining. Often, the dowser holds a forked branch in his hands and paces about, concentrating on his search for water. Suddenly, his dowsing rod may behave erratically. Some rods jerk toward the ground, others snap upward, even striking the dowser’s face or chest, while still others just barely move. In any such case, the dowser feels that there is water below. Dowsing is practiced around the world. According to one estimate, some 25,000 dowsers ply their trade in the United States alone.
Is It Scientific?
Is there some scientific principle that makes dowsing work? The question has long been controversial. Over 70 years ago, the Watchtower magazine reasoned this way: “We would not wish to be in an attitude of disregarding any of nature’s laws, but it seems passing strange that a small trickle of water fifteen or twenty feet [5 or 6 m] below the surface of the earth would have magnetic power enough to bend a willow withe when a whole creek full of water will in no wise affect the same stick. . . . There must therefore be something other than the operation of natural laws.”
Still, many dowsers insist that dowsing is a science. In fact, The American Society of Dowsers calls itself “a non-profit, educational and scientific Society.” Over the years, more than a few scientists have emerged to call upon some new branch of science to explain dowsing. In the 1700’s it was “emanations” from atomic particles that made dowsing work. In the 1800’s it was electricity. In our century it has been everything from radioactivity to electromagnetism to human psychology.
More recently, in 1979, the reputable New Scientist magazine published seemingly plausible theories on dowsing. An energy consultant and a geologist speculated that the human body itself might be supersensitive to subtle changes in electric, magnetic, or electromagnetic fields caused by underground water or ore.a
But such theories have failed to win wide acceptance among scientists. In fact, in The Encyclopedia Americana, Harvard University scientists E. Z. Vogt and L. K. Barrett dismiss dowsing this way: “Controlled field and laboratory tests have failed to establish the validity of dowsing, and judged by scientific standards the practice has little basis in fact.” In November 1990, dowsers submitted to 720 experiments in Kassel, Germany. Although they were pleased with the conditions of the tests and were confident of success, the dowsers failed; they had only fluky successes in detecting underground water and metals. The monthly magazine Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau concluded that when judged scientifically, dowsing is “as reliable as flipping a coin.” Other such experiments have ended similarly.
Dowsers explain such failures in strange terms. Some complain, for instance, that the tests make them doubt their abilities or lead them to dowse for motives that are not right or serious enough. Such factors, they claim, make them lose their powers temporarily. In fact, a number of dowsers have found that after a lifetime of successful dowsing, it is the one time when they really need to prove themselves that their powers suddenly vanish—or mislead them. Some therefore conclude that the force behind dowsing has a perverse sense of humor.
Does this sound like science to you? After all, natural forces (those measurable by methods known to science) do not have a sense of humor, perverse or otherwise; nor are they whimsical. They are constant. They do not fluctuate according to the mood, mind-set, or motives of those who test or measure them. Thus, to most scientists dowsing is a superstition—nothing more. In fact, even prominent dowsers have agreed that no force known to science can account for dowsing.
Is It Fake?
But does this absence of a scientific explanation mean that all reported cases of successful dowsing are either remarkable coincidences or outright fakes? What about the farmer’s experience mentioned at the outset—was it just a fluke, an isolated case?
Actually, the field of dowsing has produced innumerable well-attested stories. For instance, a woman in Vermont called a dowser when the water supply to her house was cut off. Apparently a long pipe running from a distant spring to the house had developed a leak. The woman did not even know where the pipe was—it had been buried 30 years previously—let alone where the cracked section might be. But the dowser mentally asked his rod, and it bobbed over a certain spot. Six inches [15 cm] from there, the leaking piece of pipe was found.
Probably the most famous story concerns the noted American dowser Henry Gross. Geologists were convinced that fresh water could not be found underground in Bermuda. The Saturday Evening Post reported: “Gross spread out a map of Bermuda in [novelist Kenneth] Roberts’s home in Kennebunkport, Maine, and passing his divining rod over it, marked three places where fresh water was to be found . . . To check his findings, Gross and Roberts flew to Bermuda, persuaded the government to provide drilling equipment, and went to work. A few months later, in April 1950, all three wells had come in as Gross had said they would.”
Dowsers claim to have found water for wells by the thousands. Reporters have accompanied dowsers, have seen the rods jerk so violently that the dowser’s hands blistered, and have heard dowsers predict even the depth of the water below. They have seen the wells drilled and the predictions verified. While science may not supply viable reasons why this phenomenon works, it clearly does work—at least for some people, sometimes. Why?
A Revealing History
The history of dowsing is quite revealing in this regard. The practice may well have been around for thousands of years. But it was in 1556, when physician Georgius Agricola wrote his landmark work on mining, De Re Metallica, that the first detailed description of dowsing was recorded. German miners were using the practice to find veins of metal ore. But even then there was controversy over whether dowsing was a natural or an occult phenomenon. Agricola noted that some objected to the practice, since “the twigs [dowsing rods] will not move for everybody, but only for those who employ incantations and craft.” As dowsing spread across Europe, the controversy spread with it. Martin Luther condemned it, and other church leaders later followed suit. To appease such clergymen, some dowsers had their rods baptized, and they invoked their Trinitarian God when dowsing.
For many dowsers, looking for water and mineral deposits was not enough. They found more and more uses for the rod. In 17th-century France, Jacques Aymar began dowsing to find criminals! Reportedly, he was dowsing for water one day when his rod jerked violently at the grave of a murdered woman. The rod then lurched toward the woman’s husband, who promptly fled. Aymar—and many imitators—used the dowsing rod to flush out criminals all over Europe. Catholic zealots even enlisted Aymar and his dowsing rod to help them hunt down Protestants to slaughter.
The Occult Connection
Not surprisingly, even in Aymar’s day there were “experts” who thought they could explain such feats scientifically. They theorized that Aymar’s dowsing rod was picking up mysterious “emanations” unique to murderers, which they dubbed “murderous matter.” Clearly, though, Aymar’s feats had little to do with science. The force behind what Aymar did was intelligent. It could pick out criminals, differentiate between Protestant and Catholic, and find water and minerals as well.
Similarly, how could anything but an intelligent force be behind map dowsing, where the rod points out water sources on a mere map of a distant location? Some dowsers have found lost wallets, passports, jewelry, and even people by dowsing with a pendulum over a map. Some watch for the dowsing instrument’s response to yes or no questions. In the 1960’s some U.S. Marines used dowsing rods to locate tunnels, land mines, and booby traps in Vietnam. Today, the dowsing rod is increasingly popular as a tool of the paranormal. It is used to predict the future, to look for ‘ghosts,’ and to investigate ‘past lives.’
Author Ben G. Hester was originally convinced that dowsing was simply a “not-yet-understood physical phenomenon.” But after eight years of investigating the subject, he wrote the book Dowsing—an Exposé of Hidden Occult Forces. In it he equates the dowsing rod with such devices as Ouija boards. He found that some dowsers claim the ability to heal people—or make them sick—with a dowsing rod! Similarly, dowser Robert H. Leftwich wrote in his book Dowsing—The Ancient Art of Rhabdomancy: “The energies being tapped probably belong to powers that . . . are closely allied to those practised in witchcraft. Careless experimentation can therefore be dangerous.”
To true Christians, the foregoing has an unpleasant ring to it. Whether real or fake, dowsing in such cases as noted above is clearly not science; it seems to be the occult. As scientists Evon Z. Vogt and Ray Hyman summed up in Water Witching U.S.A.: “We therefore conclude that water witching is a clear-cut case of magical divination.”
Should a Christian Dabble in Dowsing?
Of course, if dowsing is really an act of divination, a true Christian would want nothing to do with it. God’s people were commanded, as we read in the Bible at Deuteronomy 18:10: “There should not be found in you . . . anyone who employs divination, a practicer of magic or anyone who looks for omens or a sorcerer.” The prophet Hosea bemoaned the Israelites’ failure to heed this command, writing: “My people consult their block of wood, a rod answers their questions.”—Hosea 4:12, The Jerusalem Bible.
Some might object, though, that they only indulge in the simplest form of dowsing: locating water. But is water dowsing clean of all association with the occult? It is interesting to note that dowsing instructors commonly teach students to tell the rod directly what they are looking for, as if it were an intelligent entity. One dowsing instructor even tells his students to name the rod and address it by name! Dowsers often ask their dowsing rods how far down the water source lies. The rod begins to bob, and the dowser counts the number of times it does so. The final tally equals the depth, in feet [meters], of the water source! Does this not suggest that a hidden intelligence is at work?
Furthermore, water dowsing is associated with another practice that Jehovah’s Witnesses have long been careful to avoid—ESP (extrasensory perception). The Watchtower noted that connection back in 1962. Shortly thereafter, the American Society of Dowsers responded with a letter: “We agree with the theory that dowsing is a form of ESP and that engaging in any form of ESP can lead to ‘possession’ or the involvement with ‘wicked spirit forces’ unless proper precautions are taken. We must take exception, however, to your dogmatic advice of total abstinence.”b
What do you think? If even the most ardent proponents of water dowsing admit that it carries a risk of involvement with wicked spirit forces or even of possession, should not a Christian want to abstain from such a practice?
‘But doesn’t dowsing do a lot of good?’ some might ask. ‘Is that not proof that the force behind dowsing is benevolent?’ Sadly, no. Remember, “Satan himself keeps transforming himself into an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14) Even in Bible times demons occasionally tried to gain favor and influence by uttering truths.—Acts 16:16-18.
Granted, we cannot assert dogmatically that each and every case of dowsing (and ESP as well) is scientifically unexplainable and must be caused by demons. Without a doubt, there is much about the human mind and the forces of nature that still eludes the grasp of science. And no doubt there are a great many dowsing and ESP feats that can be explained away as plain, old-fashioned fakery. But since the history and current practice of dowsing is so inextricably intertwined with the occult, ESP, and spiritism, it is clearly too dangerous to be dismissed as a harmless trick.
No, when it comes to dowsing, “quit touching the unclean thing” still seems appropriate counsel.—2 Corinthians 6:17.
a One such theory was reported on in the June 22, 1979, issue of Awake!
b In 1989 an extensive report on dowsing in The New Yorker magazine noted that today even the more conservative of American dowsers agree—tacitly—that ESP is the force behind dowsing.
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Is It a Dowsing Rod?
DOWSING rods today take many forms besides the forked branch. Some dowsers use a pair of metal rods that form a cross when “detecting” the desired material. Others use a stick held bowed in their hands. Others use metal coat hangers. And some use no tool at all; they simply wait for a feeling of nausea or a tingly feeling in their hands. There are also many high-tech dowsing rods on the market, with handles and a chamber in which to place a sample of the material being sought. Of course, there are also legitimate metal detectors. They need a power source, such as batteries, and are therefore easily distinguished from dowsing rods.
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Woodcut of dowser from Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metallica