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Is There a Scientific Basis Behind Water Witching and Dowsing Rods?

These L-Shaped wire rods are one form of a divining rod used to dowse for water.

These L-Shaped wire rods are one form of a divining rod used to dowse for water.

By Joan Whetzel

The art of dowsing - a.k.a. water witching, water finding, doodle bugging, or divining (referring to the interpretation of results) - has been around for millennia and is used mainly to locate ground water, but also to help locate buried metals and ores, gemstones, petroleum oil, and graves among other things. Some dowsers look for Ley lines, which are earth radiation currents.

Defining Water Witching and Dowsing Rods

Dowsing and water witching are defined as the locating of ground water or underground streams through the use of a divining rod. Water witching is the oldest form of dowsing. This "art form" has been around since ancient Egypt, where it was used to locate the best site for the town's sanctuary. It first came into use in America in the early 19th century. It gained the name water witching because the dowsers' abilities appeared to be unnatural or supernatural, as if their ability to find water were was because they practiced witchcraft, and because the dowsers practiced in rural areas where there were no hydrologists, geologists, or other scientists to debunk their skills or acknowledge them as legitimate. So the dowsers or diviners (later, water witches) became someone to be feared.

The Appeal of Water Dowsing

People have needed water for raising crops and domesticated animals since time immemorial. Having a good water supplied ensured a productive future in agriculture. Having someone around who could easily locate the best water supplies and the best locations for well placement was a benefit to the community as a whole. Water dowsers with the best success rates meant word would get out that he or she had skills, ensuring his place within the community. Even today, in some rural communities around the world, a water dowser with a good track record is a revered and highly sought after member of the community.

The people who make use of the water dowser's services don't usually care how it works, about the science behind dowsing. They are usually only interested in the results. Which, of course, annoys those who want a rational explanation. Dowsers and their clients may attempt to explain successful dowsing as the subconscious ability to read the clues offered up by the terrain and to explain away the dowsing failures and low success rates of their competitors. Luck, to the dowsers and their clients, is a key component of their dowsing skills. Many dowsers will only accept payment if their dowsing has successfully produced water in sufficient quantities for their clients.

Needless to say, dowsers have their detractors who argue that the dowsers are preying on the gullibility, trustfulness, and innocence of their clients who are, basically, paying for the dowser to "get lucky" on their property; that the dowser is gambling with other peoples' money. The supposition is that with all the hydrologists and geologists out there, who spent years training for this very important job (finding water), why would anyone trust some old geezer with nothing but a stick and a complete lack of scientific evidence to find their water, much less pay this guy?

How Does Dowsing Work?

Dowsing generally uses one of 4 methods to locate the water: (1) L-shaped or Y-shaped dowsing rod, (2) a pendulum, (3) a lecherantenne, or (4) a bobber (biotensor) along with kinesiology (manual muscle testing) and having a rudimentary understanding of the terrain to achieve the best results.

1) L-shaped or Y-shaped Dowsing Rod Traditionally a straight or forked tree branch or twig, usually from a hazel tree, though peach and willow twigs are also acceptable. Some dowsers prefer them to be freshly cut. The forked ends of the dowsing rods are clutched palms-down, and dowser slowly walks over the areas that suggest ground water. If the dowsing rod dips or twitches, it is considered a sign that water is there and that the client should dig in that spot.

2) A Pendulum These are usually made with a crystal or metal dangling from the end of a chain. One approach to using the pendulum produces a "yes" if the pendulum swings over the site from front-to-back and a "no" if it swings left-to-right over the site. Another method has the dowser write the words "yes" and "no" and other words arranged in a circle on a pad of paper and as he or she travels for one spot to another, the pendulum is swung over the pad and the dowser waits for the pendulum to sing more toward one answer.

3) A Lecher AntennaThis divining wand, based on the lecher line, comes in many forms and sizes. It works by vibrating vertically in response to the dowser's hand. It makes use of a magnet for detecting electromagnetism, a metal ring used to search for volumes and auras, a colored glass tile used in various forms of research surrounding color and auras, and the mass (a disk with small indentations to hold tiny earth samples) which is connected to the Lecher Antenna by a wire connector. The dowser senses electromagnetic changes obtained from the Lecher Antenna magnet.

4) A Bobber (Biotensor) Made from a flexible metal rod, a piece of plastic, coiled wire, or a wooden twig. A weight at the end of the device is required for this instrument to work. The bobber works in response to the dowser's questions. The dowser holds the bobber in his or her hand, pointing it away from him or herself, and placing the thumb on top of it and holds his or her forearm level with the ground. The bobber will bob up-and-down" for a "yes" answer or swivel back-and-forth for a "no" answer.

The key to using any of these dowsing instruments is to be relaxed yet concentrating on the water and the dowser. It is also important to know that no dowsing instrument can be forced to give an answer. An effort to force a dowsing instrument to give any kind of answer is said to only produce a false result. The dowsers must take a few deep breaths and calm their minds, taking on the neutral state of mind of wanting to know or find the truth, wanting an answer to be given for a specific question. In this frame of mind, the dowser doesn't wish for a "yes" or "no" answer, only an answer, whatever that answer might be.

Bovis Scale

Many dowsers use the Bovis scale, which is a scale of percentages, in conjunction with a biometer reading to ascertain a value for any water that is discovered. The Bovis scale makes use of electronic wavelengths, especially red light wavelength (6,5000 Angstroms). The biometer measures doesn't measure wavelengths, but calculates subtle energy in vibrational quality units called Bovis units. Basically the biometer measures radiation intensity. Using the Bovis scale, bottled water has a Bovis reading of 2,500 units and coconut water has a Bovis reading of 16,000 Bovis units.

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Commercial and "High-Tech" Dowsing Devices

There have been a few high-tech dowsing gadgets marketed to the military and police for the purpose of finding water. None of them has been found to be helpful in the search for water.

Scientific Explanations

Scientists have been trying find a scientific explanation for dowsing for a long time. Early scientific testing and explanations were based on the concept that divining rods and other dowsing instruments were physically influenced by certain substances. These explanations have not been backed up by modern science and modern scientific testing.

Even supporters of dowsing do not believe that the dowsing instruments have no power. The claim is that the instruments only magnify slight movements from the dowser's hand caused by the influence of that person's subconscious mind on his or her body without any conscious decision to take action. Basically, this explanation is saying that dowsing rod is a conduit for the dowser's subconscious perceptions and that the reading may be susceptible to confirmation bias.

Currently, scientists feel that there is no scientific evidence to prove that dowsing is an effective method for locating ground water or underground streams. Scientists hold that the explanation for positive results from dowsing can be explained as being derived from sensory cues, expectancy effects on the part of the dowser and the dowser's clients, and basic probability. So does does dowsing work? It all boils down to who you ask and whether you believe the explanation that you receive.

Resources Water Witching.

All About Dowsing. Water Witching Works… But How

Wikipedia. Dowsing.

Leylines and Dowsing. What Is Dowsing?

Stenulson, Bruce K. Dowsing.

Energy Detective. Dowsing Manual.

Ferrad, Renee. Lecher Antenna.

Hathaway, Michael R., DCH. Dowsing with a Bobber.

Dawkins Debunks Dowsing


How does Dowsing Work - Paul S. Smith

Water Dowsing Expert Jack Coel Proves Skill


Joan Whetzel (author) on November 05, 2012:

Yeah it's been awhile since I heard about dowsing too. But the subject has always kind of fascinated me.

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff from Long Island, New York on November 05, 2012:

Fascinating hub on what some call a superstition. Your use of photos and videos is super. I hadn't heard a reference to dowsing in a long time. I recall a lot of talk about it in my youth.

JoanCA on November 04, 2012:

This brings back memories. When I was a child, I heard about dowsing and I actually tried to do it several times. I wasn't really aware of this being used in less developed countries in modern times. That's very interesting. It shouldn't be too surprising that there isn't a scientific basis for it. Excellent hub!

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