Via The Skeptic’s Dictionary
Dowsing is the action of a person–called the dowser–using a rod, stick or other device–called a dowsing rod, dowsing stick, doodlebug (when used to locate oil), or divining rod–to locate such things as underground water, hidden metal, buried treasure, oil, lost persons or golf balls, etc. Since dowsing is not based upon any known scientific or empirical laws or forces of nature, it should be considered a type of divination and an example of magical thinking. The dowser tries to locate objects by occult means.
Map dowsers use a dowsing device, usually a pendulum, over maps to locate oil, minerals, persons, water, etc. However, the prototype of a dowser is the field dowser who walks around an area using a forked stick to locate underground water. When above water, the rod points downward. (Some dowsers use two rods. The rods cross when above water.) Various theories have been given as to what causes the rods to move: electromagnetic or other subtle geological forces, suggestion from others or from geophysical observations, ESP and other paranormal explanations, etc. Most skeptics accept the explanation of William Carpenter (1852). The rod moves due to involuntary motor behavior, which Carpenter dubbed ideomotor action.
In the 16th century, Agricola described mining dowsers using a forked twig to find metals (De re metallica). He didn’t think much of the practice. A miner, he wrote:
should not make us of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him, for … there are natural indications of the veins which he can see for himself without the help of twigs. (Quoted in Zusne and Jones 1989: 106)
Despite this sage advice, dowsers continue to dowse, claiming that they have a special power and that what they are dowsing for emanates energy, rays, radiations, vibrations, and the like.
Does dowsing work?
Some people are less interested in why the rods move than in whether dowsing works. Obviously, many people believe it does. Dowsing and other forms of divination have been around for thousands of years. There are large societies of dowsers in America and Europe and dowsers practice their art every day in all parts of the world. There have even been scientists in recent years who have offered proof that dowsing works. There must be something to it, then, or so it seems.
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