From the archives: A dowsing-dedicated day in the country Denys Parsons The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 2, Issue 5, from 1988.

Mike Hutchinson alerted me to the intention of BBC Oxford to do a feature on dowsing on the afternoon of 14 July 1988. According to the Radio Times, listeners were “to take part in some rather unusual field experiments this week using the much-derided but usually accurate skills of water divining.”

I telephoned the presenter/producer, David Freeman, and asked if anybody of a critical turn of mind was to be present. He replied “Oh, Michael Shallis, the dowser is ‘proper’ – he has a PhD in physics.”

Anyhow, I was invited to attend on the day. Dr Michael Shallis, a lecturer in physical sciences in the Department of External Studies in Oxford, was quoted in the Radio Times as saying, “Anyone can dowse or map dowse, providing they are guided by someone who knows what they are doing.”

In turn I alerted the Oxford Mail and hydrogeologists at the Institute of Hydrology at Wallingford, but neither sent observers.

Mike and I reported at midday at Radio Oxford, 242 Banbury Road – ‘over Allied Carpets’ we had been told, and it was! Waiting to join the party were a couple of BBC television producers who had come to investigate whether there might be a programme in this for them later on, and also Nicholas Booth, who had written a book on Mars, and who worked for the journal Astronomy Now – what has that to do with dowsing, I asked. Nothing, he was just going to talk about his book on the programme. The venue for the programme was the village of Binsey on the outskirts of Oxford and we drove out there with the astronomer and a girl physics student, who was interested in the subject.

We had a snack at a pub named The Perch and there we were introduced to Dr Shallis, and the programme started promptly at 1:10 pm with the presenter’s microphone linked to an estate car fitted with a five metre high radio mast. The announcement of the dowsing item had attracted a handful of spectators including a member of the British Society of Dowsers, whom I shall call Bridget.

Attention centred on a low electric cattle fence. Dr Shallis issued angled dowsing rods made from clothes hangers to sundry volunteers. They were told that the fence current was switched off and Dr Shallis showed that the rods gave no reaction (did not cross over each other) above the electric wire. A few minutes later the presenter’s secretary, Anne, announced that the farmer had switched the current on. Why did you tell them, I asked; now they will all get the dowsing reaction, and they did. Anne explained that she was concerned about the party receiving electric shocks, which was understandable. Well, I suggested, now ask the farmer to switch off without telling the dowsers and see what happens. She said she could not tell the farmer what to do.

Ghost dowsing rods – Riverside Cemetery. Photo by Tim Evanson, via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Meanwhile it was a joy to watch the brilliant way in which David Freeman kept the show running in a lively manner. The whole programme, from 1:10 to 3:30 pm, was entirely unplanned and unscripted. David rushed all over the place with his microphone, keeping up a constant commentary but frequently drawing in spectators, including myself, for comments on what had happened so far. “Now we’ll have a short break for music,” he would say at intervals, or “Now Nicholas Booth is going to tell us about his book on Mars.”

The next dowsing item was a search for keys. Nicholas hid his bunch of keys somewhere in a tufty patch of rough grass, a patch forming a triangle with sides of about 20 metres. Shallis walked slowly over this patch for 20 minutes without finding the keys, but Mike and I noticed that his rods frequently crossed and he would look down and disturb tufts of grass with his foot.

Meanwhile Bridget from the British Society of Dowsers was really stealing Shallis’ thunder and almost monopolising the microphone. “Dowsing is entirely a matter of sympathy,” she said more than once. At the end of the abortive search for the keys, David Freeman said into the microphone, “Well, that seems to prove what Denys Parsons said earlier, that dowsing does not work.”

I intervened to say “No, that’s going too far. You can’t condemn a man on the basis of one failure. Anyhow Michael Shallis classed this part of the programme as a ‘game’, which it is. For a proper test of dowsing you need a long series of double blind tests.”

“Now it’s time for Dick to tell us about mountain biking, and he’s brought along several models to demonstrate.” Most of us were shivering by this time and those wise enough to have brought them donned anoraks and the like. Next David announced we would attempt some map dowsing. This was the signal for the rain to pelt down with some force. The dowsers and David climbed into the van that had brought the bicycles, and the rest of us huddled together at the tailgate under umbrellas.

Shallis announced that he had prepared two maps, a genuine map and an imaginary map. On the real map he had dowsed a real well, and on the imaginary map he had dowsed an imaginary well. In both cases, he said, recent tests with more than 100 of his students had shown that a fair number had indicated each well on the same square of the 40-square map, a 1 in 40 chance, and the odds against this degree of success were 47,000 to 1.

Here I made the point, on the air, that psychologists and magicians were familiar with the fact that, when asked to pinpoint an area in a pattern of objects, many people would go for the same part of the design – for example, nobody chooses the corner squares or the centre squares. This remark was backed up by Nicholas, the astronomer, who was also asked to comment. Volunteers in the van, however, who tried the map dowsing, did not seem to be able to locate the correct squares.

After the broadcast was over I had a short conversation with Shallis. I said that surely the only way to test a phenomenon such as dowsing was to tot up successes against failures. He replied, “Not necessarily. After all the discovery of a single meteorite showed that meteorites existed.” I could not quite follow the logic of this reply.

At around 4 pm, Mike and I, slightly damp, made our way back to London. We agreed it had all been ‘good clean fun’, but we realised that our small contribution had been only a drop in the ocean of determined credulity of dowsers, the general public, and indeed the media.

The post From the archives: A dowsing-dedicated day in the country appeared first on The Skeptic.

From the archives in 1988, Denys Parsons attends a rather disappointing display of dowsing, alongside BBC Oxford
The post From the archives: A dowsing-dedicated day in the country appeared first on The Skeptic.