Dowsers: Water Seekers from Namibia

In search of the wish effect

Dreading is still popular in southern Africa. Geologist Eberhard Braune estimates that more than half of the boreholes are via a rod. But he also says, “As a scientist, I’ve never been able to endorse this method.” Braune spent his youth on a farm in what was then German South-West Africa. He later worked at the waterside office of the neighboring South Africa and taught as a professor at the University of the Western Cape. With scientific method, one can hope for an average success rate of 80 to 90 percent. On the other hand, looking for water with a fishing rod is nothing more than trial and error. “You can win,” says Braune, “but you can also lose.”

The most complex research on wands to date was conducted in Germany in the 1980s. The federal government donated 400,000 Deutsche Mark to test the method. Hope: If dowsers could also detect radiation that could potentially cause disease, the entire population could benefit. The Munich physicists Hans-Dieter Betz and Herbert König were hired. In extensive test series, they put the skills of 500 dowsers to the test. With 43 particularly sensitive candidates, they finally conducted the well-known “barn experiment” outside Munich. On the ground floor of the hut, scientists installed a water pipe that could be moved freely. Dowsers should locate the “stimulus zone” on the first floor. Betz and König conducted a total of 843 double-blind tests in the barn. Result: The average probability of hitting the test persons was similar to the expected chances.

Nevertheless, the survey caused euphoria among the fans. Because some – albeit few – surveyed sites so frequently located that Betz and König found their ability proven “with a probability bordering on certainty.” American scientist James Thomas Enright suppressed enthusiasm in the mid-nineties. In his review of the German “Wünschelruten Report” he concludes that the interpretation of the Munich physicists “can only be regarded as the result of wishful thinking”. In the end, subjects were carefully selected and the experimental atmosphere was “benevolent”.

You will continue to wish

As Braune explains, people with seemingly supernatural abilities were also tested in Namibia. When Angola shook the unrest in 1974, the famous dowser fled to a neighboring country. He then offered his services to the Water Authority in Windhoek. Geologists sent him to look for water at several test sites around Windhoek. “The Angolan man had completely failed, he was almost sympathetic,” says Braune. Like geologist Bittner, Braune also believes that dowsers don’t have a sixth sense – just good knowledge of the area. “It was obvious that the complex environment around Windhoek, with all its hard rock, was something that a dowser in sandy Angola had never experienced,” says Braune.

As a government scientist, he had to stick to his textbooks anyway. They were based on the findings of the United States Geological Survey, a research agency of the US Department of the Interior. As early as 1917, experts demystified the method, concluding soberly: “The natural explanation for successful dowsing is that in many areas the groundwater is so close to the land surface that it would be difficult to drill a well without water. «Further research is a waste of public money, said the American authority. Also in Namibia, the fishing rod is mainly used on farms. State and industry rely on scientific method, explains hydrogeologist Bittner: “Here you need results that can be reproduced at any time.”

The question remains: how to explain the wand movements? In this context, experts refer to the Carpenter effect, also known as the ideomotor law. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, the English scientist William Benjamin Carpenter described that the perception of movement triggers a psychomotor impulse. He observes and even thinks about the movement – and involuntarily wants to do it. Skeptics believe that the carpenter effect may explain various occult practices: a swinging pendulum, such as a seemingly inexplicable movement of the back of a glass, or a swinging a wand.

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