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Divining for Water
A survey of field tests worldwide

By Geoffrey Dean

What follows is an abridged version of a survey prepared in 1984 with the help of TC Bestow (senior hydrogeologist WA Dept of Mines), Michael Cobb (principal geologist groundwater branch, SA Dept of Mines and Energy), John Lattanzio (statistician, Monash University), KH Morgan (consulting hydrogeologist WA), David Roberts (senior hydrogeologist NSW Water Resources Commission), GR Ryan (consulting geologist WA), and Paul Whincup (consulting hydrogeologist WA). Unpublished details of tests by Australian Skeptics were provided by Dick Smith and James Randi. Dr Dean is a technical editor in Perth and a co-founder of WA Skeptics.

There is no doubt that water diviners do successfully find water. But success could be due to factors other than divining ability. For example, diviners may unconsciously follow cues from soil type, vegetation, and topography. Or the underground water may be so extensive that they can hardly miss it. Or they may tend to remember hits and forget misses. Obviously such factors have to be excluded before we can decide whether divining works for the reasons claimed by diviners, namely "things not fully understood".

Tests with buried pipes
Can diviners find the location of buried pipes containing flowing water, or tell whether water is flowing in buried pipes whose locations is known? Many such tests have been made. The answer is no. Afterwards the diviners always find excuses even though they always get the right answer when they test pipes with visible outflows. In New Zealand tests were made of 17 diviners according to their individual claims to detect minerals, diagnose disease, track people, discover lost objects, and detect electric fields. No diviner performed better than chance. Some notable failures occurred. Thus a person diagnosed by 7 health diviners to have 27 different ailments was in fact completely healthy, and a leg diagnosed as varicosed by a blindfolded diviner was in fact wooden.

Foulkes RA (1971). Dowsing experiments. Nature 229, 163-168
Martin M (1983). A new controlled dowsing experiment. Skeptical Inquirer 8(2), 138-140
Ongley PA (1948). New Zealand diviners. New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology Section B, 30, 38-54
Rangi J (1979). A controlled test of dowsing abilities. Skeptical Inquirer 4(1), 16-20
Randi J (1982). The 1980 divining tests. the Skeptic 2(1), 2-6

Tests with containers
In March 2001 the Victorian skeptics tested a record 52 water diviners who had turned up for a shot at the Australian Skeptics $100,000 prize for a demonstration of paranormal ability. The samples were 20 two-litre plastic bottles, some containing water and the rest containing sand, in opaque paper bags and laid out one metre apart in a long curve on a bowling green. As a control, the diviners tested containers that had their contents clearly visible. All diviners confirmed that their divining abilities were working well. All were confident of success.

Test of 52 diviners Overall the results were slightly worse than expected
by chance. The most successful diviner (14 hits) was a
beginner. Afterwards some diviners complained about
underground streams but in different places. Others
said the sand was damp (it wasn't). The most popular
excuse: "If I hadn't changed my mind I would have been
right". From the Skeptic 21(4), 40-43, Summer 2001.

A simple field test
Let any diviner find underground water on any site. Mark the position with markers. Then see if the marked position can be verified, but first secretly move the markers. If the position is verified then that diviner's ability is disproved. Such tests have been reported from Victoris and South Australia. In each case the diviner's ability was disproved. In a related UK test an experienced diviner trained a large number of junior army officers over what he claimed was an underground stream. He held one end of a forked stick while the officer held the other, and judged 25% of the officers to be highly sensitive. But a subsequent boring found no water at all.

Foulkes RA (1971). Dowsing experiments. Nature 229, 163-168
Lovibond SR (1952). The water diviner's frame of reference. Australian Journal of Psychology 4, 62-73

Another simple field test
Let any blindfolded diviner find underground water on any flat site free of obstructions. Then see if the position can be reproduced when the blindfold is removed. Take care to avoid surface cues, onlooker feedback, and markers that can be seen by peeking down the nose. Such tests have been been reported Victoria and South Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, involving a total of 87 diviners. None performed better than chance.

Lovibond SR (1952). The water diviner's frame of reference. Australian Journal of Psychology 4, 62-73
Ongley PA (1948). New Zealand diviners. New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology Section B, 30, 38-54
Dale LA et al (1951). Dowsing: a field experiment in water divining. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 45, 3-16

An unusually rigorous test
Ideally a test should pit diviners against hydrogeologists and then test every selected location by drilling. The cost would be very high and the incentive low (given that other tests are uniformly negative). But the Dale et al (1951) blindfold test did all of these things. It was an unusually rigorous test. The test site and procedure are shown below.

US blindfold divining test The Dale et al blindfold test took place in Maine during August 1949. A
sandy field was carefully chosen where visual cues to the presence of
water were absent, where water was present at depths not over 5 metres,
and where the ground was soft enough for test pipes to be driven down
without drilling. The field was level enough to be walked on when
blind-folded. In places low bushes upset free movement but not seriously. A
total of 27 water diviners recruited by ads in newspapers were blindfolded
and then led to the test site where each had to (1) divine the best place to
sink a well and (2) estimate the depth and how fast the water would flow in
when pumped out. Each diviner then went through the procedure again
but without a blindfold. About nine diviners were tested per day. As a
control, a geologist and water engineer each estimated the depth and flow
at 16 points located evenly over the field based on what they knew about
underground water in general. At each of those points, and at each of the
sites selected by diviners, a pipe was driven into the ground until it
touched water. A pump then removed water to measure how fast water
flowed in. Both controls accurately estimated depth, which ranged from
1 to 3 metres, and the engineer fairly accurately estimated flow, which
ranged from 2 to 20 litres/minute. But the diviners' estimates of depth and
flow were wildly high and even the best showed no relation with reality.
Worse, the diviners agreed neither with each other nor with themselves
when blindfolded. The largest discrepancies are shown in red.

Underground streams?
One persistent notion that has resisted change is the diviner's belief that underground water flows in streams. But other than in caves or in large cracks in solid rock, such streams do not occur. Instead water moves underground by percolation over wide areas. One WA hydrogeologist had a revealing experience with a very narrow but pronounced rock fracture that was apparent from aerial photographs but not on the ground. The fracture was not detected by a professional diviner, who pronounced the area dry. Yet drilling only 20 metres into the fracture produced an abundant flow of good water. The narrowness of the fracture and the abundance of water meant that it was as near to an underground stream as it is possible to get. Yet the diviner failed to detect it.

Morgan KH, consulting hydrogeologist, personal communication September 1984

Field statistics
Statistical surveys of divining are rare. A 1952 survey in New Mexico found no difference between 29 divined and 32 undivined sites, which yielded water in 80% of sites in each case. In the 1950s the farmers in Central Australia demanded that the government employ diviners because geologists were not finding enough water. So the government did. A subsequent check of the records showed that the geologists' success rate was 1 in 3 but the diviners' success rate was only 1 in 12.

Vogt EZ and Hyman R (1979). Water Witching USA. 2nd edition, University of Chicago Press.
Ryan GR, consulting geologist WA, personal communication September 1984

Between 1918 and 1945 (the last year for which records were kept) the NSW Water Resources Commission was obliged to drill on whatever site the farmer specified. Of 1832 divined sites, 70.4% yielded ample usable water and 14.7% yielded no water. Which may seem like convincing support for divining. But 1858 undivined sites performed even better -- 83.9% yielded ample usable water and only 7.4% yielded no water. It was not reported whether the divined and undivined sites were equally difficult.

Williamson WH (1980). Water Divining: Fact or Fiuction? Pamphlet issued by the NSW Water Resources Commission. The NSW results are also cited in Ward LK (1946). The Occurrence, Composition, Testing and Utilization of Underground Water in South Australia and the Search for Future Supplies Bulletin No 23, Geological Survey of South Australia, Section 14 (pages 123-149), The unreliability of divining or dowsing in the location of water supplies.

Why the rods move
The reactions of the forked twig, divining rod, or pendulum can be easily explained. The diviner receives from visual cues the idea that the stream is here. The idea produces subconscious muscle reactions, which the divining device transforms into a visible signal. Thus the previously inactive twig suddenly jerks, the rods swing, and the pendulum rotates. If the device is mechanically isolated from the diviner, nothing happens. In other words the rods are reacting not to mysterious forces but to suggestions produced in the mind of the diviner by visual cues. This explanation is confirmed by a large body of research that is summarised in the following book:

Water Witching USA Vogt EZ and Hyman R (1979). Water Witching USA
2nd edition, University of Chicago Press. Over 110
references. Covers every conceivable aspect of
water divining (called water witching in the USA)
in a sympathetic yet critical manner. Almost all
experimental studies are summarised, albeit without
the present coverage of Australian experience and
findings. Unfortunately there is no index. The cover
picture shows a diviner at work with a forked stick
held under tension so that the slightest movement
of the hands causes it to twist.

The case for divining would be strengthened if a causal mechanism could be found. There is some evidence (albeit inconsistent) that human beings are sensitive to small variations in the geomagnetic field, the same field that causes magnets in compasses to point northwards, which led Hansen (1981) to conclude that the status of divining "remains uncertain". However, although small potentials called streaming potentials typically around 10 mV may accompany groundwater flow, the associated current is so tiny (typically 0.01 millionths of an amp per square metre) that the magnetic field it theoretically generates is at least a thousand times less than the sensitivity of modern magnetometers, which is typically one millionth of the earth's geomagnetic field (which is about half a gauss), the same sensitivity that has been claimed for the best diviners. It is possible that localised iron (magnetite) deposits in ancient stream beds could coincide with areas of high soil permeability, and therefore with the maximum stream flow, but such situations are hardly common. There are further complications.

Pole-mounted magnetometer First, any signals from underground will be contaminated by
signals from surface clutter, and from any ironware on the
person such as keyrings and especially divining rods made
from wire coathangers, unless the magnetometer is raised on
a 2-metre pole. But we don't see diviners walking on 2-metre
stilts. Second, the geomagnetic field varies between day and
night by a few hundred millionths due to changes in the electric
currents circulating in the ionosphere, suddenly by up to a few
thousand millionths when there is a solar flare, and by even
more when certain ore bodies are encountered, none of which
is going to help a magnetic diviner. Picture of person with a
magnetometer in the rain is from Milson (1996) page 8.

Finally diviners claim they can detect metals such as brass and gold which are nonmagnetic, in which case their divining response cannot involve magnetic fields. Of course it is easy to become preoccupied with finding an explanation for divining. But as shown by test after test, there seems to be nothing to explain.

Hansen GP (1981). Dowsing: A review of the experimental evidence. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 51, 343-367. A highly sympathetic review with 139 references including historical origins.
Milson J (1996), Field Geophysics 2nd edition, Wiley,

The ultimate question
Ultimately the question may be a practical one. Yes, diviners do successfully find water, but do they outperform hydrogeologists? The comparison is not as easy as it seems because a hydrogeologist will decide where to drill based on accumulated geological knowledge plus his local experience of soils, vegetation, and the geology underlying surface features, and if any of these are lacking then his failure rate can be high. A further complication is that the aim is not merely to find water but to find water of adequate quality and quantity. It is easy to find water in almost any valley simply by drilling a hole, but the water may be too salty to use. Nevertheless the experience of Australian state governments, most of whom employed diviners up to the 1970s, is that an experienced hydrogeologist with local knowledge will consistently outperform a diviner.

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