Dowsing, is it Science?



Through this essay, I will be demonstrating that dowsing is a pseudoscience based on the scientific methods proposed by Rudolph Carnap, and Karl Popper. In addition I will briefly be talking about Paul Thagard, and his idea that something is only science if it aims to improve and be the best it can be. I will also show that dowsing does not hold up to Thagard's method either. I will be doing this by highlighting key points and the criteria of each method, and pointing out examples of where dowsing fails to hold up to this. I will begin by outlining various topics discussed in this essay.

What is Pseudoscience? - an OED definition

As stated by the Oxford English Dictionary, pseudoscience is:

"A pretended or spurious science; a collection of related beliefs about the world mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method or as having the status that scientific truths now have"

In other words, pseudoscience is a claim or belief that presents itself as scientific, but does not meet the criteria of a scientific method such as falsifiability. These pseudosciences often boast to be scientific, and thus are interpreted as such by people who fall in to believing them. These people often fully support and wholly believe the pseudoscience to be truth.

Demarcation of Science: What is Science?

Now that we have established what a pseudoscience is, we must lay out how we determine what is science. To do so we will look at two methods, verifiability, and falsifiability.
The first way in which we determine what is science we will look at is the method of verifiability. This is a method proposed by Rudolph Carnap. This method aims to show that a statement, a scientific claim, must be able to be verified or it has no meaning. This means that for something to be scientific, we must be able to verify the truth behind it. Although this method is no longer the method of choice, there is a second method we will be looking at in order to prove dowsing is a pseudoscience.
This second method is falsifiability. Falsifiability is proposed by Karl Popper, which instead of proving that something exists, it aims to show that something could potentially be false. In the case where something cannot hold to the criteria of falsifiability, it is not science. In this case, if the thing that is not science but said thing promotes itself as a science, it is a pseudoscience.

The Methods of Demarcation

1. Verifiability, Rudolf Carnap

2. Falsifiability, Karl Popper

3. Self-improvement, Paul Thagard

Carnap's Criterion of Science

Verifiability is the method explained by Rudolf Carnap, this method aims to prove something based on a given criteria. In this he says for a sentence to be true it must either come from the world, or from the logical structure of the sentence. If it comes from the world, it must come from our senses. This statement must be in principle verifiable, and therefore must be syntactically well formed and not contain meaningless words. One problem of dowsing is nothing can hold such meaning. This comes from a lack of standard, and in cases where it does not work when being tested, those being tested usually say that some arbitrary condition that they are used to has not been met. (See: Video in table of contents) Scientific or meaningful sentences in verifiability tests must also explain only statements of affairs, not just emotion. These statements must be cold and impersonal, which is another condition that dowsing cannot meet.
While verifiability is no longer a well versed way of demarcation, it is a good way to show many flaws of dowsing. Verifiability allows to show many flaws dowsing has, as it fails in all of its conditions, as well as other methods of demarcation. Other such being Popper’s use of falsifiability.

Popper's Criterion of Science

Popper, unlike Carnap uses falsification as a demarcation method, the opposite of what Carnap proposes. Popper has issues with induction, and therefore has problems with verifiability. This is due to our limited ability in testing, and how we can, by these limits, only test a finite set when it comes to proving something. He uses this to show that we cannot verify anything, so instead everything must be falsifiable.
Falsifiability means that something is testable, and is open to adverse evidence. With this, conditions must be met, this thing must be: testable, refutable, overthrown by adverse evidence, make risky predictions, and have the potential to be falsified. The last meaning that an experiment could be imagined in which it would conflict with the claim being tested. Dowsing fails in all the above mentioned cases. Two problems are covered by one thing, there simply are no risky predictions because it is impossible to think of a way in which dowsing could be proven false. This is because people simply change the way dowsing works, adding conditions that need to be met.

A Third Option to Explore: Paul Thagard

Thagard proposes a fairly simple explanation as to what pseudoscience is the following.

"A Theory or discipline which purports to be scientific is pseudoscientific if and only if:

1. It has been less progressive than alternative theories over a long time and faces many unsolved problems; but

2. The community of practitioners makes little attempt to develop the theory towards solutions of the problems, shows no concern for attempts to evaluate the theory in relation to others, and is selective in considering confirmations and disconfirmations."

Essentially Thagard is saying that it is pseudoscience if it is not as progressive as other theories, and the community does not attempt to improve their theory to make it more relevant. In doing so, they often disregard what people say that disconfirms their own theory.

What is Dowsing

Dowsing is a technique used in an attempt to locate things under ground. In dowsing, rods are used by a person who is trying to find water, hidden metal, buried treasure, oil, or any number of things that are not normally detectable by human senses. These things are usually under ground, except in some cases where dowsing is said to work to detect people and other above ground things. There are a few ways which dowsing is said to work, which will be discussed later in this paper.

Brief Overview of the Problem of Induction

Induction is passing from the singular statement to the universal statement. This can be seen with verifiability in results of experiments. Taking the results from one observed experiment, and extrapolating it to the universal, the theory, that this can be repeated infinite times. This becomes a problem as verifiability is doing just this, verifying based on an extrapolation to the universal. In essence Popper is saying in the problem of induction that no matter how many times we observe an event, it cannot confirm that given the same variables, the result will always be the same. For example: just because we see five white swans, does not mean that all swans are white.

Some Problems of Pseudoscience

1. Lying to people and tricking them into false beliefs

2. In ties with number one, pseudoscience leads to wishful thinking

3. Investment in pseudoscience, and endorsement by officials

These problems in detail

Pseudoscience promises people something they cannot reliably get, at least not through said pseudoscience. Because of this, people buy into schemes developed by people to find something they may not get. A big problem is that we see seemingly respectable people endorsing said product or otherwise pseudoscience. Those who are tricked into believing a pseudoscience often truly believe in what it is that they are doing because of this, which leads to the second problem.
By offering something they could not normally have, those who endorse pseudosciences lead to the wishful thinking of people. These people may say "maybe this will finally be the time X will happen", they may end up relying on it in some way. This is something that may end up costing them. However what happens when it turns out that this pseudoscience does not work, this thing that lied to them that is disguised as a science? It seems as though it could potentially teach people to lose faith in actual sciences. There are however, those who are not turned away by this, and this is where it comes to cost them.
Often times pseudosciences lure you in and charge you money for whatever services they provide. Whether you see a psychic charging per session, or you are offering a "high tech" dowsing devices for tens of thousands of dollars, those who fall in to believing these things end up paying the price. The problem is they believe them because they are treated as though they are sciences.

Example of Funding in, and Endorsement of Dowsing

A major reason to distinguish science from pseudo-science is funding and money. Money is always a cost to someone, when a government puts money into something it does not come from nothing. Funding comes from taxes, taxes which the people pay for it. The reason for this to be brought up in the case of dowsing, is we see just this. A former head of the Washington FBI field office, who now runs his own consulting firm has endorsed "high tech" dowsing devices to his clients.
This "high tech" dowsing devices, the DielectroKinetic Laboratories "LifeGuard" are said to detect human presence, and is marketed towards law enforcement agencies.

Explanations of Dowsing

Dowsing is also known as divination in some cases, God’s intervention. This by both previous methods is not scientific. Carnap essentially says that God is an impossibility in science, and is always a pseudoscience.
Dowsing is explained through a range of options including: electromagnetic or other subtle geological forces, other forms of geophysical observation, extra sensory perception, other paranormal explanations, and more. However one much more plausible explanation comes from William Carpenter. He proposes a method that most nonbelievers accept, involuntary motor behaviour.
About what was mentioned above, paranormal explanations, many who dowse claim they have some sort of special powers. These powers allow them to pick up emanated energies, rays, radiation and other such things. Some dowsers and dowsing communities such as "The Canadian Society of Dowsers" claim that these energies come from a "seventh dimension". See the following quote from Their website

"We are used to thinking about three dimensions, and realize that the fourth dimensional life is at hand. Dowsers use the energies of higher dimensions in their work, even though we may not always describe things in these terms. The seventh dimension is an energy plane of infinite refinement characterized by creativity, light, tone, geometrics and pure expression, and very much worth reaching for!"

"Proof" of Dowsing - Nothing but Testimonials

Testimonials for Dowsing

Canadian Society of Dowsers

"I discovered dowsing, or divining, in 1986 from a kindly old man who helped me find my septic tank with two bent-up coat hangers. This was no big deal to him, but I was spellbound. I've been dowsing ever since. I immediately saw dowsing as a tool to increase spirituality. Dowsing gives us the ability to explore the unseen world of the subtle but powerful energies that are hidden behind all of life. When you dowse for water, you're really detecting the energy field of the water rather than the physical water. Since everything is ultimately energy, everything can be dowsed. With dowsing, you can explore and unlock the secrets of the universe."

-- Joey Korn

"Dowsing is one of those aspects of the so called 'fringe sciences' that has direct and practical uses in everyday problems - despite its being somewhat temperamental and unreliable. ... Metal-detectors are often used for this, but they're a lot more difficult to use than one is led to believe, and, they're limited both in range and in what they can find. A cheap magnetic metal- detector (about £10) will have trouble, finding anything other than ferromagnetic materials a few inches below the surface; an expensive sonar- or radar-type detector (more like £100) can detect any metal and some other types of 'discontinuity', down to (at best) about five feet below the surface. Neither type is capable of discriminating easily between one substance and another. And beyond these limitations, if you have to use conventional tools, instruments get expensive - thousands of pounds, or more."

-- Tom Graves

"One of the major benefits of the study of geomancy is the awareness of the power of divination. While I started my training in this field as a dowser (my mother first taught me over forty years ago), I have since learned that there are many different kinds of divination, and to choose to limit oneself to only one tool is, well, really limiting. Some dowsers limit themselves to not only a single tool, but, say, "Only Y rods made of apple will work!" If you believe it, it's true. If you don't, it isn't."

-- Sig Lonegren

This website, as with all other "proof" of dowsing is riddled with personal experience and belief. These personal statements often agree that dowsing is not always a solid technique, yet still firmly believe in it. (See: Graves - "despite its being somewhat temperamental and unreliable") This in itself makes it impossible for it to be falsifiable as Popper suggests a science should be. In fact all "evidence" of dowsing seems to be anecdotal, and this is even admitted by the Canadian Society of Dowsers later on in the very same page.
"I wish I could give you a rational explanation for dowsing. But to date, there is no explanation, scientific or otherwise, as to how dowsing works. There are just theories."

"Trying to scientifically test a subjective art like dowsing is nigh on impossible. If dowsing worked because of magnetism between the object being searched for and the dowser's tool (rod, pendulum, etc.), then science should have been able to find the connection. They haven't."

Dowsing as a Pseudoscience

Under Verifiability

When it comes to verifiability, dowsing is simply impossible to verify. Verifiability contests that science must be syntactically well formed, and not contain any meaningless words. That is to say that for something to be science, the steps involved must contain meaning. Dowsing fails in this criteria by lacking any substantial baseline of testing. By this, I mean to say that those being tested when it comes to dowsing do not have one way they can all agree upon to be tested. Some may say they need to lay something out on the ground, others may say that God is not playing well that day. Each of these people can easily come up with a reason for dowsing not to work in a testing environment. This all ties in to the other criteria of verifiability, the cold and impersonal. Dowsing seems to be a very personal subject, which changes based on which person is asked. In addition, on the count of verifiability it is simply impossible for God to have any scientific grounds. There is no way to prove him, or divination for that matter.
Since Divination is not possible, yet one of the main explanations of dowsing is divination, dowsing cannot hold up in the verifiability test.

Under Falsifiability

Due to the problems Popper has with verifiability, mainly induction, he suggests we otherwise use falsification to demarcate science. As stated above, according to Popper science must be: testable, refutable, overthrown by adverse evidence, make risky predictions, and have the potential to be falsified. As mentioned when discussing verifiability, there is just no way to establish a firm baseline of dowsing. This is the primary reason testing and the testability of dowsing has been sparse. It is very difficult to test without a baseline. So difficult that even when creating what seem to be reliable tests, those being tested often come up with excuses. These excuses are the lack of baseline mentioned, these excuses are used to explain why these people fail to pass the tests.The testability criteria is fairly tied to why the other criteria fail.

Both being refutable and overthrown by adverse evidence can be shown to fail in the same way. The baseline is impossible to establish because people constantly change conditions, or make excuses when dowsing does not work for them. The "science" of dowsing is presented with adverse evidence to refute it, but those who dowse simply change what dowsing is. By doing this they make it impossible to meet these two criteria.

Again we can see the next two criteria are tied together as well as to the first. One may say that Dowsing could be falsified by showing that a person falsely detects where something is. This seems like a simple test that should be quite easy to do, however we again see this predicament of testability. We cannot set up a reliable test, simply because there is no baseline to test. When we do set up tests, and they seem to prove dowsing false, the conditions of those being tested change. If this "science" cannot be falsified, then there are no risky predictions that it makes. If this is the case, dowsing must be a pseudoscience. The reason for this being that it fails not only one, but all the criteria Popper sets of for falsifiability, and yet claims itself to be scientific.

Expanding on the six criteria Popper lays out

1. Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky prediction.
As mentioned above, risky predictions cannot be made because there is no way to falsify them. This is the equivalent to saying "I am holding a ball, but only I can feel it", there is simply no risk involved in saying that because there is no way to disprove it. However if we look at this in more detail, we can see through our testimonials that those who believe in dowsing say themselves that it does not always work. This is equivalent to saying "You may find water if you use dowsing", this is a prediction that takes no risk, as it does not say something will happen for sure.

2. Every good scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.

Here it would seem that the prohibition should be "if I use dowsing rods, there is no way I will falsely identify water", however every time it fails, there is a reason. Whether it be a lack of God's intervention, or certain conditions have not been met for that specific person, there is usually a reason for the failure of dowsing. Since this is the case, it is not adhering to this prohibition. Again we see it saying "If I use dowsing rods, I will probably not falsely identify water" as opposed to absolute, risky predictions.

3. A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is nonscientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.

Again, refutability relies on testability, which relies on a baseline. This baseline is a fluctuating one between dowsers, as they often have various criteria that changes based on who you test. Upon performing some test to which there seems to be adequate preparation, dowsers simply toss something out as an inconsistency in their routine when they fail to find what they are seeking. In other words, when we attempt to make it falsifiable, and testable, dowsing is changed so that it cannot be falsified. While it may appear that we have proven it to be false, dowsers refuse to admit to this.

4. Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.<br>

Dowsers do not test their theories as many of them see no way of doing so. They simply say there are energies that they follow, and for any time they fail, it could be classified as an inconsistency in the energy.

5. Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory <br>

As shown earlier, dowsers rely heavily on stories and personal experience. They saw someone do it, and instantly became amazed and enthralled in it. They are using confirming evidence, without it being the result of an actual test.

6. Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers — for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by reinterpreting the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. <br>

This is very much the case when it comes to dowsing, under tests as shown in this video, and mentioned throughout this essay, people simply refuse to admit that dowsing does not work. They truly believe in what they are doing, and will say anything is the cause of their failure.

Thagard's Alternative

Thagard's criteria have already been covered heavily in the earlier explanations why dowsing is a pseudoscience, but here I will apply it directly. For the first criteria, Thagard says there must be other theories that do what dowsing does, and science does offer alternatives. These alternatives could involve statistics and drilling or other such methods which prove to be acceptable. The second criteria is that a pseudoscience must not show concerns to evaluate its own theory in relation to others, and there is no attempt to improve the theory. You may argue that dowsing once was said to detect things by way of the intervention of God, and now they say that they detect energies from the seventh dimension, however this is not really a change. Both of these options come down to one thing: the supernatural. The supernatural in itself is not a science, but a pseudoscience, and cannot be used as criteria for a science.


In conclusion, from what has been shown here, dowsing is a pseudoscience. Through establishing what science is with Carnap, Popper, and Thagard, as well as defining pseudoscience, we can come to this conclusion. Science as shown must hold up to certain criteria, all of which in every method, dowsing has failed. In addition, we can see that dowsing claims to be at least somewhat scientific, as it gives explanations how it works by scientific terms. They attempt to use the theories of science, for example multiple dimensions up to and above seven to show how it works. They also attribute it to electromagnetics and other scientific theories. However in this, they never meet any of the criteria laid out, and we can even see it fail to meet all six of Popper's criteria. Dowsing simply fails to meet any criteria of science, yet boasts itself to have scientific groundings.

Video on Debunking Dowsing

ref: YouTube


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