Having spent years discussing all things genealogy with fellow family history enthusiasts, the subject of dowsing for the location of graves has come up on several occasions. Not only are people still familiar with this practice, but many continue to practice dowsing and believe that it works. Dowsing is a type of divination, which is a ritualistic method by which to gain insight into a problem. In the case of dowsing, that problem can be the location of ground water, buried metals, graves, etc. The method in dowsing is to take a Y-shaped branch of wood called a divining rod, holding an end with each hand with the bend pointing out ahead.

The idea behind dowsing is that when whatever you are looking for is present in the ground, the bend of the diving rod will involuntarily move, shake, etc. An alternative method is to take two L-shaped metal rods of copper or other metal, holding the short end of one rod in each hand with the longer end pointing straight ahead. When there is something present in the ground, the rods are supposed to cross, forming an X. Dowsing was practiced even in ancient times by the Babylonians, Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, Romans, and likely others, and it has been opposed at times by intellectuals and religious leaders throughout history.

No Scientific Evidence

Despite the continued practice of dowsing, there is no scientific evidence or explanation to support its effectiveness. In fact, independent scientific studies in 1948, 1979, and 2006 all demonstrated that the accuracy of dowsers was no better than chance. The consensus is that dowsing relies on the ideomotor effect to give the illusion of success. The ideomotor effect is the influence of expectation or suggestion on an unconscious and involuntary motor behavior. In other words, whether they realize it or not, the dowser is actually controlling the movement of the rod(s). The ideomotor effect is also the explanation given to debunk messages said to come from Ouija boards.

Still Popular Today

Dowsing continues to be popular despite its critics. Supporters of the practice even have a few allies in the scientific community. An article entitled Finding Water With a Forked Stick May Not Be a Hoax was published in the November 1998 issue of Popular Mechanics and posted on their website on 7 December 2004. In this article, the author points to research performed by a physicist at the University of Munich where dowsers’ results were evaluated to be much better than chance in a field study performed in Africa and Western Asia. However, even this experiment is argued by some to actually disprove the effectiveness of dowsing rather than support it. Professor J.T. Enright has gone to great lengths to debunk dowsing, obtaining a grant from the National Science Foundation and writing a detailed article published in the January / February 1999 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer, journal of The Committee For Skeptical Inquiry.

Bottom Line

Dowsing with divining rods is an ancient mystical practice used to locate groundwater, graves, and other things beneath the surface. It is commonly believed that a phenomenon called the ideomotor effect causes subconscious movements of the hands to be interpreted as having external origins. Numerous scientific studies have shown that dowsing is no more accurate than chance.

An earlier version of this article was published at WafflesatNoon.com.