Posts Tagged ‘guardian’

dowserCurious incident recently – a science blogger learns of a water-company engineer dowsing a field for a broken water pipe. She blogs it with a skeptical slant. It’s picked up by the news media who add their own spin: UK water companies wasting money on “witchcraft”. Nice one!

That little “ping” of Witchcraft on the radar then brings out the great showboating battleship, HMS Skeptic, guns blazing. Arch celebrity skeptic and CSICOP* notary Richard Wiseman is on the BBC’s Today program, reminding us of the idea-motor and confirmation bias stuff – how we’re all so thick we can’t tell when we’re being duped. Presenter John Humphrys mischievously recounts his own successful experience of dowsing, and thereby earns further snippy headlines in the following days’ newspapers. Wiseman responds by saying Humphries would have kept his anecdote to himself had it been unsuccessful (confirmation bias), and a fair point, though this hardly discredits the idea either since Humphrys’ attempt was successful.

When asked, most UK water companies admitted the use of dowsing, but then quailed at the sight of HMS Skeptic anchored ominously offshore, so they back-tracked, emphasising instead how they invest vast sums in proper scientific solutions. Their field engineers “might” employ a bit of dowsing on the side, they said – but in a strictly personal capacity. I smiled at that, imagining the emails then sent to all those engineers to get with the corporate message, and to get rid of those bits of bent coat hanger.

It’s a while since I studied the paranormal in any depth, but it’s a fascinating subject. It’s an area in which the gullible can easily find themselves lost and duped, but equally, it’s a field that could yield the most profound advances in our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Also of interest to me is that cohort of professional celebrity skeptics and their oftentimes simplistic arguments which start from a baseline of: this cannot possibly be true and thereafter work towards a rational explanation, no matter how weak. When all else fails, they call into question the honesty or the sanity of the persons presenting evidence in favour of paranormal phenomenon, also those simply writing about it in anything other than derogatory terms. Anyone actually claiming paranormal prowess will be mercilessly torn to shreds.

True, dowsing has been debunked by scientific trials – at least those trials selectively quoted by skeptics. Skeptical debunkers it seems are as prone to confirmation bias as anyone else, since other studies do lend credence to its efficacy. In more prosaic terms water company engineers probably use it on the quiet because it has worked for them in the past, and they are not uncomfortable using it again simply on the basis they have no rational explanation for how it works. Engineers are pragmatic people.

Me? I have some technical training, which I mention here only to demonstrate that, although I regularly indulge in literary fantasy, I am not entirely without the ability to think critically. In spite of that I once made a twitching stick from a birch twig, held it like dowsers do while I walked a stretch of path through a meadow. Why? Well, I was curious, and why not? What happened? Well, mostly nothing. But at various points the stick twitched in a very disconcerting manner, no matter how steadily I tried to hold it.

My explanation, part technical, part speculative, is that it was responding to the unconscious movement of my hands. This is programmable to a degree by the idea-motor effect, just like the skeptics say, but not in all instances. To dismiss it as such is a little disingenuous. Personally I favour the idea that the body is responding to discontinuities in the local geomagnetic field, caused in turn by anomalies in underlying geology. Although hardly proven, it is, at least, an interesting avenue for study, how the body might be sensitive in this way, and how it might connect to the electromagnetic energy matrix of its environment.

Nor is this as far-fetched as it sounds, since recent squeaky clean scientific studies suggest birds navigate the earth by seeing, or sensing its magnetic field using quantum coherence effects. It’s not a great leap then to suggest we might also possess the same ability, perhaps unconscious, or in most of us atrophied beyond all practical use. Yes, it sounds a little strange, but only if you’re thinking along narrow lines, and only if you adopt the rather unscientific position that anything straying beyond the materialistic and strictly mechanistic paradigm is all “witchcraft” and can’t possibly be true.

Skeptics should also bear in mind witchcraft is a well established spiritual practice, and as such, to use that term in a pejorative way is disrespectful to those practising it. So mind your language, and remember the more shrill one is, the more likely you are to win over only those as shrill as yourself. And that’s no victory for common sense at all. It’s simply another form of fundamentalism.

View at Medium.com

*CSICOP – Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

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