Can Scientific Testing Prove Dowsing Works?
By: Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon
Former American Society of Dowsers president Gordon MacLean is correct when he points out, “The precise cause of the dowsing reaction is no better understood today than it was in ancient times.” Yet dowsers often claim that their practice is scientific. They do so despite many other dowsers who correctly affirm, “Dowsing is witchery,” and that it “violates every principle of known science.”
In fact, universal scientific testing of dowsing disproves claims that dowsing merely represents a natural or learned sensitivity to radiations or other physical phenomena. For example, controlled tests conducted by famous magician and psychic debunker James Randi failed to provide any evidence that dowsers have a special ability to find water. Like other people claiming psychic powers, when their dowsing abilities are tested scientifically, they fail the tests. 
No one can deny that dowsing abilities have been examined in many countries around the world, or that the results debunk the scientific claims of dowsers. Tests in Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and elsewhere prove that dowsing does not work on the basis of its stated scientific claims:
<blockquote/>Although dowsers have compiled an impressive record of pseudo-scientific data, the mechanism of their art is not clear to themselves…. In 1954, a test in the Netherlands exposed dowsers to magnetic fields which were all stronger than the natural magnetic field of the earth. None of the test persons was able to indicate when a magnetic field was switched on or when it was off.</blockquote>
Here is the result of a controlled experiment with 75 dowsers in New Zealand: “No agreement, [and the] same results could be obtained with guessing.”
Equally disappointing are the results of a study conducted by Professor Gassmann at the renowned Federal Technical Institute of Zurich, Switzerland…. Sixteen well-known and experienced dowsers volunteered for the test. Among them were 11 engineers and technicians, one of them even a university professor. To find a strong radiation source, Professor Gassmann sent the 16 dowsers to 7 fields and asked them to localize the underground waterpipe running under each of them. The largest pipe carried as much as 4000 gallons per minute.</blockquote
When the drawings of the 16 dowsers were compared, the results were shattering:
Despite intensive research we did not find any criteria that would allow us to accept the findings of any of the dowsers as accurate or even as more reliable than the others. The large pipe was not found by any of them, several dowsers reported water pipes in places where there were none.
In 1984, Michael Martin, professor of philosophy at Boston University, tested Paul Sevigny, then president of the American Society of Dowsers. He reports that even after 40 trials, Sevigny performed at levels worse than chance. After Martin reviewed his results, as well as those of James Randi, plus a scholarly overview of the evidence for dowsing provided by Evon Vogt and Ray Hyman, he concluded, “The available evidence can be succinctly summarized: When dowsers perform under controlled conditions, they do not do better than one would expect by chance.”
The negative scientific results have caused some materialistic proponents of dowsing to attempt to explain its actual successes by natural means. In this case, dowsers would not be engaging in any kind of miraculous ability, and there would be some kind of rational explanation. For example, a common “natural” explanation involves the concept of “ideomotor action,” or the influence of the subconscious mind on muscle activities. Allegedly, this will lead to the manipulation of the dowser’s stick. However, the theory of muscular action is untenable, as one dowser points out: “Many people, not dowsers, insist that the dowsing rod moves because of ‘unconscious muscular action,’ on the part of the dowser. The dowser says that he feels the pull on the stick and cannot understand how his muscles can be working both ways at one time.”
We would agree that in some cases natural explanations may account for some of the more mundane phenomena of dowsing, but this is also true for most categories of occult practice. When, for whatever reason, supernatural agencies are not present, supernatural phenomena are not produced, and the practitioner can only be left to his own abilities. This may lead to attempts at “cold reading,” fraud, or wish fulfillment, especially if the practitioner has a financial or other personal stake in the outcome, such as his reputation.
But the critics who argue that nothing supernatural is ever involved in dowsing are wrong. Scientific or rationalistic explanations for dowsing phenomena simply do not do justice to the facts, nor are the arguments against dowsing in books such as Korem and Meier’s The Fakers entirely convincing. When supernatural phenomena are present, spiritistic activity is the most logical explanation for the results of dowsing. And when dowsing is practiced, such an influence may be present whether dowsing attempts are successful or not.
Given the historical and contemporary evidence linking spiritism to divination, all forms of successful divination that cannot be explained by natural causes, such as fraud, guessing, or coincidence, are most logically functions of spiritistic powers. As a form of divination, dowsing can be no different.
Ben Hester observes that in 500 years no one has been able to offer any physical explanation for dowsing. “A careful examination of the claims of dowsing as a truly physical phenomenon has shown no basis in fact. This same examination has also shown inconsistencies, contradictions and gross undependability in whatever [proposed] new classification it might fall.”
In other words, dowsing carries the same dilemma faced by the parapsychologist and his study of persons with psychic abilities: There is a genuine power, but the source of the power and its method of operation are uncontrollable and scientifically undemonstrable. Dowsing abilities are like psychic abilities in their unreliability and in the repeated failure of experimental testing to confirm that they operate on any known physical basis. Rationalists conclude that because dowsing cannot pass the standards of controlled scientific testing that dowsing powers do not exist. But this fails to account for the nature of dowsing itself:
Dowsing is an entirely subjective act depending on such things as the dowser’s will, frame of mind, emotional reaction to such external stimuli as public expectancy of failure, ridicule, condescension and even the factor of time. Skeptical testers have consistently refused to allow these factors to be considered in controlled testing. Yet, personal contact with dowsers reveals the fact that this sort of human experience cannot be forced into the objective, scientific framework…. [T]he expert dowser’s personal record (not the public test record) shows their successes beating the odds of chance. Further, dowsing cannot be scientifically tested without dowser participation—a mechanical device or setup is useless….
In addition, the dowsing fraternity is comprised of a majority of unexperienced learners or the inept, with only a few experts. It is evident that a true picture of dowsing can be found only by reliance on these experts….
Finally, unshakable belief in the act is an absolute necessity…. If this belief is shaken, the dowser cannot dowse. The device will not react.
The reason dowsing powers operate like psychic abilities is because they are psychic (i.e., spiritistic) abilities. They are not natural, latent human capacities. Nevertheless, a genuine occult power that operates in dowsing may lead scientific investigators to inadvertently find themselves converts to occult practice:
This is a perfect illustration of the curious dilemma in which the scientist is caught … Once he makes the step of observing that dowsing, for instance, does work, he is faced with an irresistible need to find out why. At that moment he is in deep trouble, for every bit of his scientific training demands that this “why” must be logically and physically explained. To do this, he has to break one of the most important commandments of science, that of objectivity. He cannot consider all of the observable facts and make them fit in a physical picture. He has crossed over into the emotional. Then if he has learned to dowse, himself, as most investigators do, he has entered the world of all-out subjectivity. He is lost to his peers. This is exactly the condition of the physicists writing in scientific journals on the subject of dowsing. A perfect example is Dr. Zaboj V. Harvalik, perhaps the foremost scientific investigator of dowsing in the western world. Quoting Christopher Bird again, on page 263 of The Divining Hand in an entire chapter devoted to Harvalik, Bird states, “During the ongoing process of his research, Harvalik himself has become so expert in remote, map, and information dowsing, the physics of which he cannot begin to explain….” Two paragraphs later Bird, adds, “The persisting question of whether dowsing is a physical or psychic art continues to trouble Harvalik.” However, one would never guess from the positive public statements made by Harvalik, that he has this reservation.
- Gordon MacLean, A Field Guide to Dowsing (Danville, VT: The American Society of Dowsers, 1976), p. 6.
- Ann Fleming, “Ideas About Dowsing,” and Harry Steinmetz, “Teleradiaesthesia: Fact or Fiction?” both in The American Dowser, August, 1978, p. 103.
- James Randi, “A Controlled Test of Dowsing Abilities,” Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 4, Number 1, Fall, 1979, pp. 16-20; James Randi, “The Great $10,000 Dowsing Challenge,” The Skeptical Inquirer, Summer 1984, pp. 329-3; Dick Smith, “Two Tests of Divining in Australia,” The Skeptical Inquirer, Summer, 1982, pp. 34-37.
- Smith, “Two Tests.”
- Samuel Pfeifer, M.D., Healing at Any Price? (Milton Keynes, England: Word Limited, 1988), pp. 99-100.
- Michael Martin, “A New Controlled Dowsing Experiment: Putting the President of the American Society of Dowsers to the Test,” Skeptical Inquirer, Winter, 1983-1984, p. 139.
- Evon Z. Vogt, and Ray Hyman, Water Witching USA, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979).
- Martin, “A New Controlled Dowsing Experiment,” p. 140.
- The American Dowser, August 1975, p. 101.
- Ben G. Hester, Dowsing: An Exposé of Hidden Occult Forces (1982; rev. ed., available from the author 4883 Hedrick Ave., Arlington, CA, 92505, 1984), p. 49.
- Ibid., p. 159.
- Ben Hester, “A New Look at Dowsing,” ms., 1993, pp. 1-3,
- Hester, Dowsing, pp. 93-94.
This article has been written for The John Ankerberg Show by Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©1999.
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Dr. John Ankerberg
Dr. John Ankerberg is founder and president of The John Ankerberg Show, the most-watched Christian worldview show in America. His television and radio programs are broadcast into 106 million American homes and are available in more than 200 nations in 12 languages. Author, co-author, or contributor of 158 books and study guides in 20 languages, his writings have sold more than 3 million copies and reach millions of readers each year online.
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Dr. John Weldon
Dr. John Weldon (born February 6, 1948) went to be with the Lord on August 30, 2014 following a long-time battle with cancer. John served for more than 20 years as a researcher for The John Ankerberg Show. During his tenure, he authored or coauthored more than 100 books, including the best-selling Facts On Series of books that has sold more than 2.5 million copies in 16 languages. His final book, published in July 2014 with Harvest House Publishers (coauthored with John Ankerberg), is especially fitting. How to Know You’re Going to Heaven offers a biblical and personal look at the way God has provided salvation through Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12) and the confidence the believer can have of eternity with Him in heaven (1 John 5:13). John’s life and work have touched countless others seeking to grow spiritually and better understand the Bible. His friends describe him as genuine, humble, and passionate to share the hope of eternal life with everyone he met. His work will continue through his many books, his online writings at The John Ankerberg Show website (JAshow.org), as well as through the many people John has personally influenced through his ministry.