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Photo of Ray Hyman Water, Water Everywhere -- Ray Hyman

What's behind the claim that people can locate water hundreds of feet below the surface of the Earth simply by using the ancient art of dowsing? After watching a test of dowsing on Beyond Science? viewers learned more from cognitive psychologist Ray Hyman.

QIf there's really nothing to dowsing, I'm curious why it has been practiced around the world for hundreds of years and why people, like the ski lodge operators on the show, would put money on the line based on a worthless prediction. Seems like the whole idea of idea of dowsing would have been discarded long ago. Any insights?

Many pseudoscientific beliefs have been around for ages. Astrology and other divination systems have been around at least since recorded history. One theory is that, by definition, pseudoscientific beliefs and claims are formulated such that they cannot be falsified. By contrast, a scientific hypothesis has to be phrased in such a way that it can be falsified by empirical observations. Many philosophers and historians of science have pointed out that scientific hypothesis have a relatively short life span compared with pseudoscientific beliefs. The dowser for the ski-lodge, as you saw on the program, was not dissuaded by the obvious failure of his dowsing efforts. He behaved like every dowser I have investigated. He maintained his belief in dowsing by blaming the way the drilling was done. When Vogt and I did our research on dowsing we collected the various excuses that dowsers gave when the drilled hole did not support what their dowsing rod had indicated. They would blame the driller for crushing the underground "vain"; they would claim that nearby radio towers had interfered with their rod; they would talk about negative vibes from skeptical observers, etc. All of these excuses were used to turn obvious failures into "successes";. Most dowsers do not count obvious failures as failures because they easily generate excuses to dismiss these failures as irrelevant or even turn them into "successes"; As a result the dowsers and their supporters maintain the belief that dowsing "works";. I refer to such belief systems as self-sealing belief systems. No matter how many ways we find to poke a hole in their claims, they have ready-made ways to seal these holes and protect their belief.

There are other reasons why the belief persists. If you are interested in pursuing this further you might find a copy of the book by Vogt and Hyman WATER WITCHING USA to see how we try to explain the persistence of this belief. A more recent and popular book on how and why people get to belief false things is Tom Gilovich's HOW WE BELIEVE WHAT ISN'T SO.

Q We're curious about how you got involved in the psychology behind palm reading. (You're pretty convincing as a palm reader, too!) What got you started in exploring this area and are you still discovering new things about how we fool ourselves?

When I was in high school and college, I performed magic shows both for fun and for money. Since I could not travel, I found myself performing for the same audiences again and again. So I began looking or new things I could do. I did hypnotic demonstrations, a memory act, and ";mind reading"; demonstrations. One summer, while working with a carnival, I became interested in the lady who read palms. I decided that this was something else I could try. I read some books on it and then advertised my services as a palm reader, in addition to being a magician, mindreader, hypnotist, etc. When I first began doing palm reading for money, I did not believe that it really worked. However, I was amazed when my clients insisted that everything I was telling them was uncannily accurate. By the time I began college, I was a true believer. I had no doubts that palmistry worked. When I was a sophomore in college, a friend suggested that I try and read my next client's palm by telling her the opposite of what the lines said. If her heart line indicated that she did not like to display her emotions, I would tell her that she was the sort of person who displays her emotions openly. If her head line said she was a practical person, I would tell her she was imaginative and somewhat impractical. To my astonishment, this client was thrilled at how accurately I had captured her personality. So I tried the same experiment on my next few clients. The results were the same! By now, I was coming to realization that whatever was happening in a palm reading session, it had nothing to do with the lines in the hand.

I was majoring in journalism when I came to this realization. I immediately changed my major to psychology. I wanted to find out not only why other people could come to believe what isn't so, but how I myself had so strongly believed in this false system. Since then I have devoted myself to studying why people believe in things that are not so. I have discovered that being smart, educated, competent, and honest are no barriers to being fooled. Indeed, in some ways smart people are often easier to fool than less talented individuals. This is partly because they believe that they are immune to being fooled.

I am now working on a book on how smart people go wrong. I am focusing on cases where outstanding scientists and scholars have been badly fooled by fake psychics or crude hoaxes.

Q I was very surprised that the hydrologist on the show, who has scientific training, also relies on dowsing and practices it himself. Is it usual for both scientific and pseudoscientific practices to be used when people are looking for water?

Back in the 1950s when my colleague Evon Z. Vogt and I began our investigation of water dowsing, we were intrigued by the fact that many educated individuals, including some with engineering or scientific training, were proponents of water witching. Indeed, we chose this topic to study just because it was a practice that most geologists and water scientists dismissed as a pseudoscience and yet had widespread support among many educated people. Indeed, many of our academic colleagues were strong believers in dowsing. One reason is that today scientists and engineers are experts in a narrow domain. Geologists, for example, have no knowledge of ideomotor action -- the psychological factor behind the movement of the rod. Consequently, when a dowser hands them a rod and tells the observer to try it, the observer is startled when the rod, seemingly of its own accord, turns down or reacts over the same spot that the dowser had just discovered. This person knows that he or she did not consciously make the rod move. Yet, it did move. This experience can be quite compelling. Indeed, Vogt and I found that many dowsers became dowsers through such an experience. Most people do not realize how their nonconscious expectations can control the movement of the rod. They firmly believe that some outside force has controlled the rod.

The reason I did the demonstration where I had Alan Alda hold a pendulum over my hand was to make this point. Alan was visibly shaken when the pendulum moved back and forth over my hand and then moved in a circular pattern over a female hand. He knew he was not consciously making it move. Yet it moved precisely as I had suggested it would move. If you are interested in ideomotor action and the psychology of how an educated person can become a firm believer in the reality of dowsing, you might find the early book by Vogt and Hyman WATER WITCHING USA a good start (most libraries should have a copy).

A more general observation: Being trained as a scientist does not immunize someone from being taken in by a pseudoscientific system. Training in any scientific area today is highly specialized. Being trained as a quantum physicist does little to prepare one to make astronomical observations or do study DNA. Being trained as a molecular chemist does little to prepare one for dealing with data on brain functioning or cognitive psychology. As a consequence, I have seen a phony psychic badly fool physicists. This same phony psychic did not fool psychologists who are trained to observe behavior. I can imagine some other phony psychic whose trickery depended upon physical principles who might easily fool psychologists but not physicists.

Hopefully, educators will become better at teaching science in such a way that students will be better at applying scientific principles to various claims they encounter in the contemporary world.

Q Great show. Thanks. I was wondering if anyone has put electrodes on the fingers or hands of a water witcher to see if there is any increase in electrical stimulation as a result of their contact with water or metal, whatever it is they find. Would there be a heightened sense of stimulation that could be measured?? Again, thanks for the great show.

I believe there have been a few attempts to use such physiological indicators. Most of the tests of dowsing ability, however, had concentrated on seeing whether the dowser's rod reacted to a hidden target under controlled and double-blind conditions. Many such studies have been done. All that have been done under controlled scientific conditions have failed to find any evidence that dowsing works. Some years ago, I met a former government scientist who believed that he had found a physiological indicator of a dowsing reaction in people. He claimed, in fact, that the dowser's spleen (or some organ close to the spleen) was reacting to subtle changes in gravitational forces. These gravitational changes were so subtle that no current scientific instrument could register them. So how did he know that the dowser was reacting to them? He simply assumed that when the dowser's rod moved, there was a change in the gravitational forces at that point. Unfortunately, we had no independent way to verify this.

Another way to respond to your question: I have no doubt that there would be, in fact, physiological changes in the muscles and motor nerves when the dowser expected he/she was in the presence of a target substance. Your question asks whether such reactions might be detected in the presence of a hidden target even when the dowser had not normal means of knowing where the target is. I suspect such experiments might have been done, but I do not know of any. If they had been done and the results had been in favor of dowser, no doubt we would have heard of them.

Q On a global level, do you have any idea of the approximate percentage of water wells drilled using dowsing as the water location system? Is dowsing as prevalent in other countries as in the US?

Vogt and I conducted a survey of the entire continental United States in 1955. At that time we estimated that approximately 25,000 dowsers were practicing in this country. We did not survey other countries. We did, however, communicate with authorities in other countries. We found that dowsing was practiced mainly in Western Europe and countries that had been colonized by Western European countries such as Canada, USA, India, Africa, etc. In all the non-European countries the people who dowsed were either colonialists or native inhabitants who had been taught the practice by Europeans.

Dowsing, as we know it, originated in Germany around 1400 as a technique for locating underground ores. The practice spread to England when German miners were imported to develop the coal mines. Around 1700 the French began using dowsing to find underground water. As a way to find water, the practice quickly spread throughout Europe and the North American continent.

Today dowsing is probably taken more seriously in Western Europe than it is in the U.S.A. The German government has supported the use of dowsing to locate "Earth Rays" which are alleged to be a health hazard. Similar uses of dowsing are rampant in Britain. Needless to say, all these uses of dowsing are highly controversial.

Q I am a school counselor. I work in what is considered the Bible belt of the U.S. (Oklahoma). In our area, palm reading is considered witch craft, but I am wondering if in fact our bodies do give us clues to our lives...Thank you for your response.

Compared to astrology, numerology, and tarot card readings palmistry and face reading has a superficial plausibility. The lines of the hand, after all, have an obvious connection with the person. Unfortunately there is no evidence to support the particular claims of palmistry or face reading. Yes, in some cases, a trained medical diagnostician can infer some things about the medical status of a patient from the texture of the skin and other surface body indicators. However, none of these indicators are part of the palmistry and face reading lore. The palmists do claim that they can detect medical problems from the hands--especially heart, head, and liver problems. The indicators they use, however, have been found to have no connection with actual medical status.

QWhat are the dowsing rods usually made of?

The original dowsing rods consisted of forked twigs taken from a tree or bush. However, early in the history of dowsing, other devices were widely used. In our book WATER WITCHING USA we displayed a block print from the 1700s that depicted a variety of instruments that had been used for dowsing -- pitch forks, a sausage, keys suspended from a Bible, etc. In rare circumstances, especially in Spain, dowsers did not use any instrument other than their extended hands. In the early days of the United States, a forked twig from the witch hazel tree was widely popular. And some authorities suggest this is why the practice of dowsing became known as water WITCHING in the U.S.A.

In 1955 we found that the particular variety of forked twig depended upon the part of the country where dowsing was practiced. In the Southwest, where trees were not very common, bailing wire and other metal objects became popular for dowsing. Today the most popular dowsing tool seems to be two metal rods that are bent at right angles. Some commercial devices are sold on the market--sometimes made of metal and sometimes of plastic.

QWhat makes the dowsing rods "work"? Do you think people unconsciously loosen their hands so the rod turns?

The term we used in our book, and also on the Scientific American Frontiers show, is IDEOMOTOR ACTION. This term was coined in the middle 1800s by the physiologist William Carpenter. He used the term to describe how our ideas of an expected movement can actually cause our muscles -- unconsciously -- to produce the expected movement. Carpenter used this concept to account for how the dowsing rod moves, how tables seem to move of their own accord during seances, how the pendulum moves to answer questions, and automatic writing. Later, others used the concept to explain how the ouija board works.

Dowsers used to insist that the rod was moved by some outside force acting directly on the rod. Later some dowsers argued that an outside force acted on the muscles of the dowser. The rod served mainly as a way to amplify and better detect the slight movement of the muscles that were reacting directly to the alleged force generated by the underground water. Indeed, during the early part of this century the dowsers argued with one another as to which explanation was correct. Psychologists and skeptics argued that neither explanation was correct. Instead, the rod moved because the dowsers expectations subconsciously were transmitted to his/her muscles. Today, most dowsers accept the psychological explanation that their muscles are moving the rod because of signals from their unconscious. However, they differ from the skeptics in that they believe their unconscious is in touch with special forces or psychic information that guides the rod.

Q My Biology and Physical Science Classes would like to know if you have any information about dowsing and Native Americans. We have a large Native American population in our community.

We tried to collect information about ethnic backgrounds of dowsers in our 1955 survey. As best we could tell, the practice is almost non-existent among Native Americans. I believe we did find one Native American who dowsed, but he had been taught how to do so by a non-Native American. The practice originated with Germans in the mining regions of Germany and then was carried by Western Europeans around the world.

QMy question is how were the dowsers selected for the test? I have been dowsing for over 30 years and yes some of the claims are false. But I have located and mapped septic systems and water mains. Not related to water aspect, but just as strange is my ability to locate metal and glass objects buried up to three feet in the ground. In closing I would like say that there should be more research done and with test subjects that claim science not "ESP". I look forward to your response.

The dowser, Jay, who was tested on the program had contacted me a few years ago and asked to be tested. When the Scientific American Frontiers contacted me and said they would like to do a segment on dowsing, I called Jay and he agreed to participate. In the many larger scale tests of dowsers, dowsers have been obtained by advertising in newspapers or other media. Other times they have contacted scientists and requested that they be tested. Many dowsers have been tested in this country and in others. In all the scientifically controlled studies, they have been unable to perform better than a control comparison. After Vogt and I published the first edition of our book on water witching, we received several letters from dowsers who claimed, as you do, that we tested the wrong dowsers.

QDo you have any idea of the "success rates" of dowsing -- that is, the rate claimed by dowsers and the actual rate?

I'm not sure what you are asking. "Success rate" is a very elusive term when it comes to dowsing. Some dowsers simply claim to find a suitable location. Others claim to dowse such attributes as depth, rate of flow, potatability, etc. Furthermore, as you saw on the program, dowsers and their critics differ about what counts as a "success" and what counts as a "failure." Although the well dowsed for the ski resort failed to produce a meaningful amount of water even after drilling beyond 600 feet, the hydrologist-dowser did not admit that this was a failure for dowsing. Instead, he had ready-made excuses about the drilling being slightly off the mark. Vogt and I found that many diviners claimed they never failed. When we looked into the matter, we found that many of their clients reported several failures. When we confronted the dowsers with this discrepancy, they replied with various excuses that enabled them to dismiss the apparent failure as really not a failure. They would tell us the drill rig was positioned so it crushed the delicate "vein" in which the water flowed, that the driller did not drill correctly, that power lines or other radiation interfered with the dowsing reaction, etc.

Another problem with "success rate" is what to compare it with. In a few situations, we were able to find records kept by city or state officials of drilled wells and their outcome. In one case, for example, we found the dowsed wells yielded a "success rate" of 70%. However, we found that the success rate for the non-dowsed well in the same city was also 70%. We discovered the same outcome in several thousand wells drilled over a number of years in New South Wales, Australia.

In every case, where dowsers have been tested under conditions where we can unambiguously determine success and failure and where we have an objective control comparison, the dowsers have never done better than the control comparison.

QDo you think communities should make efforts to shut down palm readers and not allow dowsers to operate? After all, aren't they taking money for something that is unproven and therefore operating somewhat fraudulent businesses?

This is a tricky and difficult problem. It involves issues about free speech and freedom of choice. Most palm readers and dowsers are not deliberate frauds. They truly believe in what they are doing. My preference is to try to cope with the problem through education rather than government control. The problem, as I see it, is not that people are reading palms and dowsing even though both practices are invalid. The problem is that both the practitioners and their clients do not understand: 1) the scientific basis for deciding whether such practices work or do not work; and 2) the psychological reasons why they can believe that these practices "work", when, in fact, they do not. So the real problem is an educational system that has failed, and continues to fail, to educate students in critical thinking, scientific methodology, and the psychological reasons that allow others to fool them and that allow people to fool themselves.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.