Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Dowsing, SLIders, and Portuguese Water Dogs

I find that one of the most useful questions to ask someone who makes an outlandish claim is, "How could that possibly work?"

I bring this up in part because of a discussion I had with a student a couple of days ago over the practice of dowsing.  For those of you who don't know what this is, dowsing (also known as "water-witching") is the use of a forked stick, generally by a "sensitive," to find underground water.  Supposedly the stick will give a sharp downward pull if there's a source of water suitable for well-drilling underneath where you're standing.  I have found that this is the one woo-woo claim that elicits the most support when it comes up in my Critical Thinking classes -- almost every one of my students knows at least one person who will vouch for its truth.

Of course, the fact is, in upstate New York there's almost nowhere you could drill around here and not hit water, sooner or later, and most of the groundwater is pretty clean.  So dowsing would be a pretty safe proposition nearly everywhere.  But so, of course, would claiming that your dog was a "sensitive," and leading him around on a leash until he gets bored and sits down, and then drilling there because a source of underground water exerts a magnetic attraction on your dog's butt.

I hear that Portuguese Water Dogs are an especially good choice for this.

Be that as it may, I said to my student, "How could this possibly work?"  Of course, she had no ready answer for this, and neither does anyone else, but this hasn't stopped people from making one up -- that the Earth's "energies" interact with the "psychic fields" of the dowser's mind, causing the stick to move downwards.  One person's website even claimed that because willow trees like to grow near water, willow wood works the best for dowsing rods.  (And you laughed at my Portuguese Water Dog claim.  Please explain to me how the "willow wood" claim is any different.)

The demand of "show me the mechanism" is a pretty good first-order test for a lot of these claims, such as the recent spate of stories about people called SLIders (and we're not referring to the 90s science fiction TV series here).  SLIders are people who exhibit Street Light Interference -- street lights go off, or on, or flicker, when they walk past.  (Lest you think I'm making this up, here's a link to a recent story.)  Naysayers, of course, claim this is just Dart-Thrower's Bias -- the tendency of the human mind to notice and remember oddities (times that the street light went off as you passed) and ignore all of the background noise (times that the street lights stayed on).  Believers aren't buying it, and claim that the "electrical output of the brain" is interfering with the electrical flow in the street light.

How the electrical activity of the brain -- which, according to The Physics Factbook, runs at a total energy consumption rate of 20 to 40 Watts, or slightly less than a single typical incandescent light bulb -- could affect the activity of a 200 Watt high-pressure sodium vapor lamp running on conventional electrical current forty feet away, is never explained.  Any demand for a plausible mechanism quickly descends into the same kind of "sensitive psychic field" baloney that comes up with similar requests vis-à-vis dowsing.

This, of course, doesn't discourage die-hard SLIders from thinking they're doing something unusual, which makes you wonder why they don't constantly short out computers, televisions, cellphones, iPods, and so on.  You'd think that if they can affect something as simple, and powerful, as a street light, frying a laptop would be a relative cinch.  Yet even some of the pro-SLIder sites I looked at admitted that the effect had "proven difficult to replicate in a laboratory setting."

Yup, I'll just bet it is.  In any case, here's another nice thing to add to your skeptical toolkit -- "show me the mechanism."  If you think something weird is going on, you'd better have a plausible explanation for it that doesn't fly in the face of verified science.  And that goes double for all of you Portuguese Water Dogs.


  1. I have a friend who got banned from the computer room at Edinburgh University because he was deemed a human virus for computers. He only had to go in to crash systems. All the years I knew him, he was a disaster area when it came to electricals. His Masters and his Phd were in materials science related fields, and he never dared do any research on why he had this effect.
    The dowsing thing is an odd one. I've seen it work to find lost objects, have in fact done it myself to locate a pendant my daughter lost in a vast area of parkland where she spent a whole morning. I have no idea how it works, can offer you no proof or explanation and would be unable to replicate it for James Randy's Million $ challenge (my dad suggested I try)
    I remain skeptical but open, I guess.

  2. I can't explain it, I don't believe it, and I can't reproduce it, but I swear it happens to me! I will walking (or driving) and the streetlight next to me will go out. And it happens often enough, despite being random, that it has to be more than coincidence.

    Many years ago, a friend pointed out that we only consciously use about 20% of our brain power. Even with all the unconscious actions like heartbeats and breathing, there's probably another 20% left over. Where does that power go? (Sorry, I don't have a favorite woo-woo theory to go with it.)

  3. There's also the flip-side to this coin: not all plausible explanations are true. A true believer of the scientific method knows that the first plausible explanation of an event is usually not the one that stands up to scrutiny. Having a "mechanism" of explanation doesn't necessarily mean squat.

    And for the record, it's not my dog's bum that is the magnet; it's the other side that has an unbelievable, magnetic attraction to the grossest things possible. My dog isn't a water dowser, he's a road-kill specialist.

  4. has anyone been able to cause a reading on a voltmeter simply by holding the leads one in each hand? i can and it seems that my right is positive and left is negative when held in this manner i get a positive reading upon switching them around i read in the negatives i cant wear watches eventually the watch doesn't just stop working.... on more that one occasion the hands fly around wildly in either direction and yes i have witnesses to this as well ...light bulbs literally explode the touch pad on my laptop feels like the static buildup on the old tv's and i am death to electronics. Joking around with my grown son on a humid summer day in a department store i went to playfully push him away and 2 blue arcs shot out of my index and forefinger when i was about 2 inches away form contact with him at which point he ylled in pain and it felt like the ends of my fingers had blow out....yes i can douse wells as i believe i am able to feel the current or magnetic feild generated by underground rivers. i also have the effect on street lights and get wild jolts of shock fron kitchen sinks my car and just about anything metal i walk up to cashiers in stores and the cash register will either freeze up or completely shut off..usually when i am in a hurry or anxious about things or even happy and excited the frequency of these events increases. no i cant control it but its interesting that its only been the past 6 months to a year that i have been able to have any effect on a voltmeter. I always tried to make them move in an attempt to see if i could figure out how to control this but could never get any reading positive or negative but i noticed that all of a sudden when testing normal 1.5 volt household bateries the readings were totally out of whack i was getting readings of almost 3 volts with a single used AA battery thinking the voltmeter needed it battery changed maybe i did so but still inaccurate redings usually double the 1.5 asking a master electrician to make sure i wasnt just messing something u he got me to test the same batteries using his precision meter and same result anywhere from 1.7-3 volts on a used AA battery. it was at that time that i discovered that now i was actually causing a reading on the volt meter of anywhere fro .03 volts right up to 1.0 and the variation and fluctuation was very erratic and random then my buddy suggested one day that maybe i actually had a positive and negative polarity and that is 100% consistant left hand negative reading if holding the positive lead...and right hand positive when holding the positive lead but the readings are still not consistant as to amount of volts. needless to say i buy light bulbs by the large case cant have touch lamps and my kids wont allow me to touch any of there electronics and my laptop is the slowest running 700mg HD 6 GB ram on the face of the planet i also cause things like my cell phone and laptop to heat to seriously abnormal temps the cell so hot when talking or txting on it i cant touch it to my face and /or my hands and have to set it down and let it cool off. i also blow up and reverse polarity on batteries ihope this sheds some light on this odd and somewhat expensive 'gift' lol . Princeton University has a quantim physics/mechanics research facility dedicated to this phenomenon its called the P.E.A.R Research.