Investigating pseudo-science and the paranormal from a responsible scientific viewpoint

Australian Skeptics Divining Test

By James Randi

In July 1980, Dick Smith and I engaged in a series of tests of dowsers — diviners of water, metal, etc — in Sydney. For weeks, Prior to the tests, we exchanged long letters discussing protocol and physical design. By the time I reached Australia the Prize money for a successful demonstration of dowsing had mounted to $40,000 from a modest beginning with my own offer of $10,000.

The rules were precise and simple. All contestants had to agree to them in advance, and to sign certain documents. Dick Smith had arranged for a plot of land to be used, which was dug up and leveled. A grid of ten plastic pipes, four inches in diameter, was buried a few inches below the soil, witnessed by a panel of independent judges. A system was arranged whereby valves could be opened to allow water to flow through one pipe at a time, the pipe being chosen by the selection of a numbered counter from a bag by one of the judges. Neither Smith nor I had any hand in this selection, which was left entirely to the judges.

One portion of pipe — that section leading into the grid — was left exposed for half its length, while the other half was buried to the same depth as the grid. Claimants were required to show that their dowsing instruments reacted to the exposed length of pipe while water was flowing through it, then to the buried section as well. Water was caused to flow through one section of the grid at that stage, and the claimants were informed which section had water flowing in it. Since white lines were evident where each numbered pipe was located, claimants were asked to show that their instruments reacted at that pipe, and at no other.

Then the test began. A pipe was selected by the agreed random means, water was caused to flow in it, and all those who were aware of which pipe was correct, were required to leave the area. This was to prevent conscious, or unconscious, “cueing” of the claimant. Each claimant then made 5 or 10 attempts, the number being decided by the claimant. No results were announced at the time.

From my long experience in testing persons who have paranormal or other similar claims, I was well aware that all facts and possibilities — so far as possible — must be brought out in advance of the tests themselves. To ensure that complete understanding was attained between claimants and the judges, I prepared documents to that end. These are the documents as presented.

Preliminary Statement of Information by Mr Randi

Claimants will be required to locate which of a selected number of pipes buried below ground at a stated depth, have water flowing in them. This must be done a significant number of times, in accordance with the rule-, to be stated clearly in a signed statement.

Claimants will be asked to dowse the area used, to determine if there are any anomalies present such as natural water which might inhibit or confuse the results. If this is felt to be the case, it may be necessary to use only part of the pipe layout, in which circumstance the rules will be adjusted.

Only the first contestant who passes the test will be awarded the prize money. Order of performance of the contestants will be determined by lot.

Every effort will be made to adapt the rules and procedures to the needs of the claimants, short of violating the proper scientific protocol needed.

Claimants will be taken to the test area individually, will be asked to perform, and will be returned a neutral area upon finishing the test, No communication will be allowed between those already tested and those yet to be tested until all tests are finished.

The completion of the tests, clearly stated and witnessed, shall constitute a total cessation of activity. No further attempts by the claimants after the announcement of the results will be contemplated except with the full agreement of ALL parties, and then only under exceptional circumstances.

Mr Randi’s cheque for USS10,000 shall be in the hands of an agreed party at all times after the commencement of the tests, to be surrendered either to the successful claimant or to Mr Randi, depending upon the results.

Any attempt by any claimant or agent of the claimant, to determine details about the physical operation of the test area not already made clear to all present, shall be deemed an attempt to violate the protocol, and at the discretion of Mr Randi, that claimant or all claimants, shall be summarily dismissed from contention. It is not expected this will be necessary.

All witnesses to the tests must be approved by Mr Randi and Mr Smith in advance, and these will be furnished with an appropriate identification. By “witness” is meant those in close proximity to the point of action.

These tests are serious attempts to determine whether or not there exists in the claimants an ability to perform as claimed. We are not playing games. We are involved in a scientific effort. All persons not so convinced are invited to absent themselves from the tests. Any violation of protocol will result in the violator being asked to leave.

Next are three official documents prepared to establish a complete understanding between the parties concerned, for the protection of ALL persons, it is essential to have everything clearly understood and agreed to in advance so that recourse may not be made to facts or procedures that were not fully established.

Document Number One: PRELIMINARY QUESTIONNAIRE

Name:

Address:

My performance of dowsing is usually .….…% correct.

I estimate that my performance in the present test will be .…..% correct.

I hereby state I have not been asked to invest or deposit any amount of money or valuables in order to participate in these tests, other than any personal expenses I may have incurred.

I shall make a statement immediately following the tests, stating how successful I believe I have been.

I understand no results will be announced to me until after all claimants have been tested.

Should I fail to pass the tests, I surrender all further claims against Mr Randi and Mr Smith, their associates or any other persons connected with the tests, including the media representatives.

I agree that any and all photos, recordings and/or statements made by me may be used by Mr Randi or Mr Smith in reporting the results of these tests.

This questionnaire, and the Rules for “Test” and “Formal Agreement” documents that follow, are signed by me freely and willingly, without reservation.

Date.….….….….……

Signed: (Claimant) Witnessed: (James Randi) (Dick Smith)

Document Number Two: RULES FOR TEST

Name:

Address

Claimant (above) has examined the layout and the established system, and agrees that it is satisfactory.

Claimants will perform in an order to be established by lot.

Claimants will demonstrate that the dowsing reaction is present and working, using the exposed portion of the pipe and a selected portion of the buried pipe. He will dowse the area for natural water as well, and appropriate adjustments will be made.

After (3) has been established, the formal test will begin.

A number will be selected by random means, designating which of the concealed pipes will be used on any attempt in the test, unknown to the claimant, water will be caused to flow in that pipe and that pipe only, (Since the choice is random, any one pipe may be used more than once.)

Claimant will locate the pipe in which he/she believes the water is flowing, and will announce this clearly, No multiple choices are allowed and the decision is final.

There will be .…. attempts made by the claimant to constitute one complete set of tests. This number will be decided based on the answer to item (2) in the Preliminary Questionnaire.

All data will be recorded by the designated person, and the record will then be signed by Mr Randi and Mr Smith to establish an official record.

The right is reserved to ask the claimant to repeat — once — the same set of tests in order to establish a more satisfactory statistical sample or to ensure security of the protocol , at the discretion of Mr Randi, There is very little possibility that this rule will be invoked.

Date .….….….….…..1980

Signed (Claimant) Witnessed (James Randi) (Dick Smith)

Document Number Three: FORMAL AGREEMENT

Name:

Address:

I agree that the rules as outlined in the accompanying Document Number Two (Rules for Test) are fair and proper.

I shall perform to the best of my ability, not stopping short of the agreed number of trials unless conditions such as inclement weather prevent the tests from continuing, in which case I agree to return when conditions are more favourable. The term “conditions” does not apply to emotional or physical variables that I feel might inhibit my performance.

I feel able to perform on this occasion. There are no geographical, meteorological or personal, emotional or physical influences that might inhibit my abilities to perform.

Mr Randi agrees to surrender his cheque for US$10,000 to the first claimant who passes the test by achieving the estimated percentage of successes as stated in the “Preliminary Questionnaire” item (2).

If item (9) in the Rules is invoked by Mr Randi, claimant must perform, and the results of both tests will be averaged to arrive at a final percentage, based upon which the prize will or will not be awarded. This is to protect against the possibility of a “fluke” statistical occurrence, which is very unlikely to occur.

Date.….…..1980

Signed: (Claimant) Witnessed: (James Randi) (Dick Smith)

Results and Conclusions

There were sixteen contestants in all. Eight tried for the water via the buried grid, three tried for brass and seven tried for gold. For the latter a $22,000 ingot of gold was obtained from a local bank, on loan, The brass and gold were concealed in one of the boxes with the procedures and protocol similar to the water divining tests, Two of the contestants did two kinds of tests, for water and brass.

When the results were tabulated, 111 tries had been made, with an expected 10% success rate by chance alone, There were 15 successes, 13.5%, a figure well within expectation.

But what had the dowsers declared as their expected success rate? It averaged out to better than 92%! Surely a poor performance, and one in which every rule , precaution and Procedure had been carefully and fully approved and agreed to in advance by all parties concerned.

Looking at the tests on specific substances, the water tests showed 50 tests total with 11 correct or 22%. The dowsers claimed they would have 86% success. As for the brass tests, they claimed 87% — and got zero. Gold seemed more attractive, and they expected 99%, but obtained 11%.

The tests had been done using forked sticks, L-shaped metal rods, pendulums and other varied means. Only two dowsers said there were natural streams running underground in the area and both agreed these would not interfere with the tests. But — and it’s a very big “but” — they also disagreed with one another about where these streams flowed, and thus also disagreed with all the others who said there were no streams! Besides, the “underground river” notion that dowsers maintain is sheer fiction, not supported at all by geological research.

By far the most important fact that emerges is this: The participants were all able to show strong reactions when they knew where the sought-after substance was, but failed grandly when they actually underwent a proper test.

Why then, do the instruments show such positive reactions, and what makes them move? The answer lies, not in mysterious electro-magnetic or “psychic” forces, but in “ideomotor reaction”.

Whether it is a forked stick clenched in both hands and bent apart in a horizontal position, or a small pendulum held at the fingertips, the dowsing instrument is in a state of unbalance or stress. Any slight movement or outside influence can start it moving, and subsequent dramatic motions of the device are taken as evidence of strange forces at work. Actually it is the dowser himself who initiates the movement — mostly unconsciously.

The human mind is such a marvelous device, rationalisations of any failures are easily come by, The diviner detects nothing except his own hunches and guesses, often based on the knowledge of the terrain or situation, and frequently from clues provided unwittingly by bystanders. We carefully guarded against any of these elements becoming active in our investigations. Any success of the dowsers in our tests were to show evidence of true dowsing ability, not clever guessing.

The ideomotor reaction is quite a strong one, and anyone can fall victim to it, As an example, whilst I was participating in an interview with Dick Smith at his office, I showed a reporter how strongly a large magnet would attract a bent iron wire even through a cardboard box, He held the wire –and noted the strong attraction, until I pointed out to him that I had secretly removed the magnet from the box. He had been allowing his expectation to convince him of the magnetic pull that was not there. His bent wire dowsing device had been swinging very positively towards the box, repeatedly, but ceased when he knew the truth.

The reward money was not paid out, since no claimant came even close to achieving his claimed success rate — though most were sure they had! As expected, in spite of the careful statements we demanded of them, the claimants followed the announcement of the results with cries of “foul” for a multitude of reasons, These included the suspicion of buried magnets in the ground (though they had all tested for that possibility) and the interference of portable radio transmitters (though these had been present and in use in all tests, including the preliminaries where participants knew the results, and were therefore successful.

I regard the Australian results as the most definitive, properly conducted and designed, tests ever done of dowsing claims. Thanks to Dick Smith, we were able to invest in the correct equipment and personnel for a proper series of tests, It would have been desirable to do more tests with each individual to obtain more definite statistical results. But we were limited as to time and patience of the participants.

However there are certain aspects of this matter, from a psychological point of view, that need to be considered. The evidence for the success of the dowsing process is in the opinion of those who support this notion, very strong. That is because something happens to the stick, pendulum or other device, and it appears to be beyond the control of the dowser. As already explained, it is a perfectly natural reaction, recognised by psychologists — but it is very convincing to even the most sophisticated observer. The test of dowsing is, therefore, not whether the rod moves — but whether such movement actually shows us something we did not previously know.

The Australian Journal of Psychology, in 1952, published a very comprehensive discussion on dowsing, and the conclusion they arrived at was that claims of dowsers were simply not valid. Australian government departments have tested dowsers and discovered — not to their surprise — that they cannot do what they claim they can. In September of 1980, Dick Smith officiated over a set of tests done at Perth, and the dowsers failed miserably, In October of 1980, the dowsers again failed completely at Gosford.

One thing must be made clear — dowsers on the whole are very honest folk. They believe in what they do. Unfortunately their belief is poorly placed. They CANNOT perform as they think they can. Having a string of successful wells to which one can point, proves nothing. A better test would be to ask the dowser whether he can find a DRY spot within 100 metres of a well he has dowsed. With more than 90% of the world’s land mass above reachable supplies of water, this should be quite difficult.

Diviners are often believers in various cult matters, such as faith-healing and spiritualism. Some, however, refuse to accept their claimed powers as anything supernatural, They tend to think anyone can do what they do. And in this belief, they are quite correct. Any person can be seized by the idiomotor-reaction enthusiasm. But the test, as always, is whether or not they can then discover water, oil, gold or other substance solely by means of this twitching of a forked stick. Tests done in Australia and many other countries of the world indicate that belief in water dowsing, and in all forms of divining, are false and fanciful.

Though diviners will continue to be hired by believers in such powers, and wells will be dug with great precision on spots located by forked-stick folks, these water supplies will not prove that dowsing works. They will only prove that there is a great deal of water down under the earth, and we do not need silly folks wiggling sticks to tell us that.

Divining is a delusion, and must be recognised as such.

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