The Island of Doubt

This past weekend in the New Age capital of the New South (Asheville, N.C.), members of the Appalachian chapter of the American Society of Dowsers were scheduled to hold a quarterly meeting. I know this because the alternative weekly in these parts, the Mountain X Press, decided to devote a few scarce column inches to the subject in its current edition. I have no idea how the meeting went or what goes on at such things, nor do I really care all that much. But I am a little curious as to what drives these “water witches” and adherents of other fields of non-expertise.

According to the X Press, local dowser and president of the Appalachian chapter Richard Crutchfield, “dowsing is way of tapping into your subconscious ability to get information that you can’t normally get through your logical mind.” His writings, however, imply that he’s talking about something more empirical. One of his essays, for example, says there are some chambers in the hills in these parts that exhibit a “powerful auric field associated with sacred work that can be detected and even measured.”

With what tools? Presumably a dowsing rod. And what units would these measurements involve? Teslas? Gauss? Dowsimeters? Crutchfield doesn’t say. Fortunately, and despite the obvious pandering to its less-rational readers, the X Press is responsible enough to include a few lines of context:

Of course, one thing dowsing has never been good at finding is scientific proof that the technique works. A brief Internet search reveals that you don’t exactly need a forked stick to find skeptics.

“The general public is pretty skeptical,” Crutchfield admits. “I suspect that if you tried to sell dowsing to the state officials that are in charge of water resources, they’d just sort of shake their heads at you. But, people who call me up are willing to trust me, and word gets around.”

I’ve seen a dowser in action first-hand, while in the field researching a story on a group of people who would like the federal government to pay for a new $600-million road through the already overstressed Great Smoky Mountains National Park so they can more easily pay visits to the graves of their ancestors.

We had just completed a most enjoyable hour-long hike (after an enjoyable short ferry-ride across Fontana Lake courtesy of the National Park Service), and had arrived at a small cemetery containing four or five graves. One member of our group, a descendant of one of those buried more than a century ago, whipped out some metal rods and began dowsing for the dead. Apparently, it’s not just water and sacred chambers, but the dearly departed that radiate energy field detectable by those with the patience to find them.

The dowser reported another body was there, beyond the east-most marked grave. His announcement was greeted by a series of nods and impressed acknowledgements from the rest of the family. Of course, we didn’t start digging to assess the merits of his dowsing ability. So I guess we’ll never know.

The Skeptic’s dictionary offers a decent summary of why this sort of thing persists in the 21st century. It’s basically the same mechanism behind the Ouija Board effect — let your fingers do the talking and sooner or later something “meaningful” will turn up.

I don’t think it’s enough that media reports on dowsing and similar activities are accompanied by the obligatory reference to skeptics. Why should even “alternative” weeklies give such stuff even a passing mention as if there’s even a smidgen of respectable science involved? Let’s treat water witches for what they are: kooks with a loose grip on reality.


  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    February 26, 2007

    It’s called the ideomotor effect. If anyone out there wonders why so many find it convincing, they should get a forked stick or bend up a couple of coat hangers and check it out for themselves. Put a silver dollar on the floor and walk over it, you should get a reaction as you pass over the coin. The effect really happens, and it really is convincing.

    The next step should be to try some blind trials, such as a coin hidden in one of several film canisters. Most dowsers never subject their skills to controlled trials.