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Water, Water Everywhere...

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Water, Water Everywhere...

Can people locate water or minerals hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the Earth simply by using their heads? Since ancient times, dowsers have claimed they can find water by using their senses - and a few special tools. Frontiers challenges an experienced dowser to undergo several trials of scientifically rigorous tests to find out if dowsing is reliable. It turns out the mind plays a role, but not quite the way dowsers say it does.

Curriculum Links
The Ancient Art of Dowsing
Activities: Dowsing and Science



magnetic fields


electromagnetic fields


paranormal beliefs,
ideomotor actions


Dowsing is the ancient practice of searching for water, metal or other objects, usually underground. It is also called water witching, divining and doodlebugging.

Dowsers believe that objects, including water, possess a natural magnetic, electromagnetic or other unknown "energy" they can detect with their senses. To a dowser, sensing this energy is natural and can be developed through practice.

While many dowsers use favorite tools like dowsing rods and pendulums, some say the tool is only an "interface" or "communication device" that acts as a connection between the hidden object or water and the subconscious.

Dowsing devices come in many shapes and sizes. For the experienced dowser, the choice of dowsing tool doesn't really matter, because the ability to sense things is all in the mind and the tools are merely responding to the mind's subconscious processes. Some dowsers operate totally free of a dowsing rod or other tool.

This ancient divining technique has many adherents, but it has never been scientifically proven. Dowsing, common since medieval times in Europe, in Colonial America and even today, is still practiced the same as it was 1,000 years ago, as you see on Frontiers.

Even though some dowsers claim they have a special ability to detect electrostatic fields associated with water, skeptics say that without scientific instruments (like the magnetometer shown in the story), it is impossible for a person to detect minute differences in magnetic or electric fields that may be associated with groundwater.


How can you find out if dowsing really works? Here are some scientific ways to evaluate dowsing.
  • Repeat the experiment in which Jay tries to locate hidden weights, which you see on Frontiers. You can make your own dowsing rods with coat hangers (many dowsers do).

    Hand with pendulum
  • How can you apply the scientific method to a dowsing experiment? Remember, the key to scientific testing is the ability to test and repeat an experiment. If a dowsing technique works every time when done exactly the same way, can we say it is scientifically valid? (Read more about the scientific method in Activity 1 for Healing Touch.)

  • Psychology tells us that the power of suggestion is very strong. How does the power of suggestion enable Alan Alda to "find" water after the dowser does? In this case, a phenomenon known as ideomotor action (subconscious thoughts cause involuntary movement) causes the rods to cross.

  • Try the pendulum activity Alan Alda demonstrates on the show. Try the same activity, but blindfolded. Does it make a difference if you can't see the pendulum?

  • You may know of other activities, such as hanging a sewing needle on a thread over your wrist to determine the answer to a question, or using a similar pendulum device to find out if a baby will be a boy or a girl. Do you think these predictive devices work? Design an experiment to find out.

  • See if your library has the book by Ray Hyman (psychologist seen in this episode) and Evon Z. Vogt, Water Witching, U.S.A. (University of Chicago Press, 1979).

  • You can learn more about dowsing from the American Society of Dowsers (

  • Read the chapter on "Baloney Detection" in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan.


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