John Kennedy of Gore asks :-

Is there a scientific explanation for water divining?

Vicki Hyde, an astronomer and member of the New Zealand Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal Inc (NZ Skeptics - www.skeptics.org.nz), responded.

The short answer is no scientific explanation is needed because water divining has never been shown to work under any sort of controlled conditions.

Water diviners, or dowsers, typically use a forked stick or rod in attempting to locate underground water. When above water, the rod points downward. Some use crossed rods, coat-hangers or pendulums, and some dowsers look for gold or oil or buried treasure.

Why does the rod react? Dowsers have provided many explanations, from psychic ones to the geophysical. But the real explanation is psychological. The rod moves due to involuntary and unconscious motor behaviour on the part of the dowser (assuming the dowser is a sincere one, rather than a con artist out to make easy money off drought- desperate farmers).

This "ideomotor action" was explained over 150 years ago, and occurs in many phenomena attributed to spiritual or paranormal forces. As psychologist Ray Hyman put it ''honest, intelligent people can unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations''.

The scientific question is can dowsers reliably tell when water is below their rods? In 1980, Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith and the Australian Skeptics tested this with a classic double-blind scientific study developed in conjunction with dowsers, and offering a $40,000 prize.

Eight dowsers tried to detect the presence of water, and ten dowsed for metal. (A $A22,000 gold ingot was loaned by a local bank for the gold dowsers!) The experimental design, agreed on by all, was such that sheer chance would produce a success rate of 10 per cent.

The water dowsers expected an 86 per cent success rate. The gold people were even more confident, predicting a 99 per cent success rate. But in 111 tries at dowsing, only 15 "struck it lucky". That is an overall success rate of 13.5 per cent. Such a poor showing is well within the expected range, indicating that any success was more a matter of guesswork than paranormal powers. The only studies which claim significant results are, significantly, ones run by dowsing enthusiasts.

For more information see www.skepdic.com/dowsing and www.skeptics.com.au/journal/divining