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Last week I had a third encounter with  a dowsing “practitioner” in my seven year real estate career.  This time, however I made the mistake of being skeptical of a piece of wood determining a leech field location, and was met with a pretty strong reaction by the “expert.” Apparently snake oil salesmen can be a bit sensitive.

I know. Calling him a snake oil salesman is a bit much. I have no problem with dowsing and its proponents. I do have a bit of an issue though when someone is convinced of a leech field being too close to a well simply because a  coat hanger or a cherry branch told them so. I mean really? And after doing a bit of research on dowsing I am satisfied my reaction was justified. Dowsing has an interesting and rich history. It just isn’t very effective in finding underground water.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with dowsing, it is a practice or “divination” where a person attempts to locate underground substances using copper or wire rods, or a Y shaped stick. Advocates claim you can discover anything from water to valuable metals to human remains with nothing more than these items. How does it work? Well that is where things get a little hazy.

There have been a lot of theories over the years as to why it works. Some believe that whatever you are attempting to find gives off some sort of corpuscle that rises from the unearthed object and enters the dowsing rod, causing it to turn or twist in the hand. Others believe it is paranormal. That something is controlling the rods, or the holder’s hand and causes it to move directly over the item that is being searched for.  In the sixteenth century when everything seemed to be blamed on Satan,  dowsing was considered evil, and those practicing it were determined to be witches.  Even today, fundamentalist Christians call it “water witching” and say it is full blooded demonic . And that it is one of Satan’s “practical devices” used to lure people into his kingdom. I am not sure how a kid using a cherry branch to look for buried treasure will end up in an eternity of fire and brimstone, but that is an answer I probably will never be able to get.

Throughout the 19th century, dowsing made its return and by the 20th century it was a fairly popular practice in locating underground water. Entrepreneurs–who realized the overhead was small–hung a shingle and proclaimed themselves dowsing experts.  Dowsing societies sprung up.  However no-one could explain how or why it worked.

During the fifties and sixties several independent studies were done and all determined the same thing.  Dowsing is as effective as flipping a coin. There is just no merit in the practice whatsoever.  Richard Dawkins did a documentary on dowsing with a properly controlled double blind study a few years back. Again with results that dowsing simply does not work.

It is funny how heated people get on this subject however. Locally here in Sullivan County, there are some staunch advocates, and any attempt at a conversation based on science is meet with withering disapproval and the immediate label of an unbeliever.

Listen. I am all about unexplained phenomena. I would love for Roswell, and Area 51 and crop circles and dowsing to be explained by some mysterious otherworld source. The problem I have is when someone pronounces it as fact, and begins to insist that a leech field needs to be moved because a coat hanger told them so. It is on the same line of credibility as someone in a Spiderman costume exclaiming his spidey sense has told him where the septic is. We need a bit more evidence before any sort of concession is going to be made by the sellers.

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