"Dowsing" is the popular name for the attempt to detect hidden things – traditionally water or gold – underground, and is such a classic example of silliness that we’re a bit surprised that we haven’t, as far as we remember, covered it before. Practitioners of dowsing often use dowsing rods, which moves up and down – ostensibly outside of the practitioner’s control – due to the ideomotor effect, which is exacerbated by anticipation on the part of the practitioner. The technique is popular enough to have led to some spectacularly hilarious/sad events, ideas and money wasting.
Tommy Hanson, LeRoy Bull and Craig Elliot are merely three of (probably) many dowsers, but they had the (mis)fortune of being featured in a 2000 CNN article (a version here). Hanson at least admits that he doesn’t know how dowsing works (we do), but responds to skeptics by proclaiming that “people are negative about what they don’t understand.” Apparently people are sometimes positive about what they don’t understand, too.
Meanwhile, Bull – a “master dowser” who appears to a member of the American Society of Dowsers – claims that about 496 out of 500 people can get at least a bit of a dowsing reaction, but hasn’t actually published his data (he seems very much opposed to doing a scientific study). He also doesn’t restrict himself to searching for water, but can also determine whether vegetables are fresh by using a pendulum. “We’ve been standing around with our hands on our hips waiting for the scientific community to come bumbling along,” laments Bull, but still won’t perform the scientific study; further investigation is actually not necessary: “For those who don’t believe, no amount of evidence is enough. And for those who do believe, no evidence is necessary,” he concludes sagely, even if it is, if you think about it, an utterly silly thing to say.
Elliot, on his side, thinks dowsing works as long as you don't have “monkey thoughts.”
Diagnosis: Reasonably harmless, but good grief this is silly.
Hat tip: Skepdic, Mass Media Bunk 13.