As you probably know by now, I am interested in traditional remedies and ancient beliefs. I like to keep an open mind and try and discover whether things might be true or not, rather than just dismissing them out of hand. I’ve always been fascinated by dowsing, or water divining, and was reminded to look into this ancient practice last week when I drove past a sign for a dowsing convention in deepest Dartmoor! Actually, given it is such an ancient and fascinating landscape, I shouldn’t have been that surprised… What did surprise me, once I started looking into it, is that there is no scientific evidence that dowsing works – I had always thought there was.
Dowsing is a type of ‘divination’ used to locate ground water, buried metals or ores, gemstones, oil, gravesites and many other objects and materials without the use of scientific apparatus. Dowsers, or water witchers, claim that their divining rods cross over when the presence of water is detected below ground. It is regarded as a pseudoscience after numerous studies showed it was no better than chance at finding water.
A Y-shaped twig or rod, or two L-shaped ones — individually called a dowsing rod, divining rod or witching rod — are usually used for dowsing. The scientific explanation for what happens when people dowse is that ‘ideomotor movements’ – muscle movements caused by subconscious mental activity – make anything held in the hands move. It looks and feels as if the movements are involuntary.
Dowsing has been around for a long time and originated in Germany in the 16thCentury. In 1662, dowsing was declared to be ‘superstitious, or rather satanic’ by a Jesuit, Gaspar Schott, though he later noted that he wasn’t sure that the devil was always responsible for the movement of the rod! Nothing like sitting on the fence! In the South of France in the 17th century, it was used in tracking criminals and heretics. Its abuse led to a decree of the Inquisition in 1701, forbidding its employment for purposes of justice.
And there you have it – a bit of a cranky practice with no place in today’s world. But hold on a minute… in 2017, 10 of the 12 water companies in the UK admitted they are still using dowsing despite the lack of scientific evidence for its effectiveness! This discovery was made by the science blogger Sally Le Page after her parents reported seeing an engineer from Severn Trent Water “walking around holding two bent tent pegs to locate a pipe” near their home in Stratford-upon-Avon. The disclosure prompted calls for the regulator, OFWAT, to stop companies passing the cost of a ‘discredited medieval practice’ on to their customers. Extraordinary!
Some water companies, however, insisted the practice could be as effective as modern methods. Sally Le Page asked Severn Trent why it was still using divining rods to find pipes when there was no evidence that it worked. Replying on Twitter, the company said: “We’ve found that some of the older methods are just as effective than the new ones, but we do use drones as well, and now satellites.” Well, that’s all right then!
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