Water Witching in California

A severe drought is currently ravaging California’s farms, and pseudoscience is winning the day among the most desperate of the state’s farmers, who are turning in desperation to a very old form of superstition as a means of finding water. They are seeking aid from dowsers.

The U.S. Drought Monitor’s website monitors drought conditions throughout the United States using an intensity scale ranging from D0 (“Abnormally Dry”) to D4 (“Exceptional Drought”). As of this writing, almost half of California (43.53 percent) is currently experiencing level D3 drought, which is described as “Extreme Drought.” A considerable swath of land in the center of the state and coastline is at level D4 (22.37 percent).

To put the severity of California’s drought conditions in perspective, consider that the scant water levels currently at the state’s disposal are characteristic of hot California summers, not early spring. If the drought is this bad in March, how much worse will California’s situation be this July? Add to this the finding of meteorologists who have forecast increasing dryness throughout California in the coming months, and we have a recipe for a level of desperation that will buy the promises and claimed abilities of the dowsers.

Dowsers, also known as “water witches,” use divining rods made of copper, wood, whalebone, or even coat hangers to locate all manner of objects and natural resources, including hidden metal, buried treasure, oil, “energy,” and even lost golf balls. When psychics fail to locate missing persons, dowsers may be called in to do the job with their rods. Throughout its history, water has been the most common thing dowsers have searched for. The term “water witch” brings to one’s mind connotations of pre-scientific magical arts, and for very good reason. Dowsing has been practiced for thousands of years, stretching as far back as the early 15th century.

Becoming a dowser is as simple as finding a wire coat hanger. Here is what you do: Cut the coat hanger into two equal pieces. Straighten the pieces out and make a 90-degree bend at one end of each. Now you have a handle to hold on to, and the long end is pointing out in front of you. Loosely hold one of these straightened coat hangers in each of your hands and start walking around. If you are searching for water or whatever else in the right place, the two wands will quite suddenly move in one of at least four ways: (1) converge and cross each other, (2) swing outward and point away from each other, (3) point down towards the earth or (4) point up towards the sky. At that point, you have found water or whatever else you are looking for.

Alternatively, a dowser can use a single forked object such as a wishbone twig. Your hands grasp the two open ends and holding the point where the wishbone’s twigs meet in the middle up towards the sky. Again you walk around deliberately, and when the wishbone starts to move and point downwards, you have supposedly found your quarry.

A recent news article by NBC San Diego, the latest in an ongoing series reporting on the latest developments of the California drought, includes a good description of the work of one popular California dowser named Marc Mondavi:

Mondavi doesn’t just believe in dowsing, he practices it.

On a recent afternoon, standing in this family’s Charles Krug vineyard holding two copper divining rods, Mondavi walked slowly forward through the dormant vines.

After about 40 feet, the rods quickly crossed and Mondavi – a popular dowser in the world famous wine region – stopped. “This is the edge of our underground stream,” he said during the demonstration. Mondavi said he was introduced to “witching” by the father of an old girlfriend, and realized he had a proclivity for the practice.

There is a large skeptical literature on dowsing which shows conclusively that a psychological phenomenon called the ideomotor effect is at work, wherein the subject makes very subtle and subconscious movements of his or her hands, whether the subject is aware of the movement or not. The ideomotor effect is the phenomenon responsible for the movement of dowsing devices, which are not actually detecting material of any kind. Dowsing has been tested thoroughly and scientifically many times in the last several decades, and in every single case without exception, dowsers have performed no better than chance at finding that for which they claim 100 percent success at finding when they are not subjected to a double-blind test (in other words, when they know beforehand what they are looking for). In a 1996 article on dowsing written for The Connecticut Skeptic, the late Perry DeAngelis describes one such test performed by the redoubtable James Randi:

The Man of a Thousand Tests, James “The Amazing” Randi, put 11 dowsers to the test for his then Fifty Thousand dollar psychic challenge. The water dowsing test involved ten identical pipes, one of which would have water flowing through it. Thus, chance would dictate a ten percent rate of success. Before the test began, Randi had them all dowse the surrounding area to assure that conditions were right for dowsing. Then, he inquired as to what they believed their rate of success would be. They all said about 80%. So, it was agreed that an 80% or higher rate of success would win the prize.

The dowsers went to work. Later, they all traveled together to a local diner, the dowsers discussing how they would split up the sum between all of them. However, upon the tabulated results being announced at the diner, the faces of joy turned to disbelief. Their rate of success was a paltry 12%, not significantly different from chance. Randi folded up his check, thanked the challengers, and headed for home.

Today’s dowsers, such as Marc Mondavi, must completely ignore or reject these and other scientific findings, and this they seem to do with ease. They are not about to allow science and evidence get in the way of enjoying what has become a very lucrative industry. For example, the NBC San Diego article notes that Mondavi charges up to $500 per site visit, and that sum just covers the initial scavenging. He charges more money on top of the initial fee “if a well he discovers ends up pumping more than 50 gallons per minute.” Mondavi and his fellow dowsers are willing and eager to take advantage of farmers in California desperate to get water in any way they can:

With more farmers relying on groundwater to irrigate crops, Mondavi’s phone has been ringing often as growers worry about extended years of dryness.

He had six witching jobs lined up over a recent weekend, three homes whose springs were running dry and three vineyards. It’s so popular that he’s even created a line of wines called “The Divining Rod” that will be sold nationwide this year.

This situation serves as a case study for understanding the ways in pseudoscience appeals to the needs of people who are primed by dire straits and circumstances to believe in the empty promises of charlatans. Only critical thinking, skepticism, and a strong dose of scientific literacy can diminish the attractiveness of charlatans in the minds of people. Advocates of critical thinking and skepticism have a difficult job to undertake in the face of the industry and marketing prowess that irrational and magical thinking has built for itself.

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