Water divination (or water witching or dowsing) was taught to me at a fairly young age by my Father. I turned out to be a natural at it. I’d simply take two heavy-gauge wires about two feet long and bend both into an ‘L’ shape. I would hold a wire in each hand – the short portion of the ‘L’ in my hand. I would hold my closed fists about a foot apart with the wires sticking out in front of me.
I should note here that many Amish don’t like the idea of water witching because they fear that it is a gift from the devil (just like magic supposedly is). My Father apparently didn’t share that view.
To find water I would start with the wires pointing away from me and parallel to each other. Then I would simply walk around slowly. If I crossed an underground water stream, the wires would slowly swing toward each other until they crossed.
I was quite good at divining for water. If I’d test myself by walking toward a jug of water that I had placed on the ground for exactly that purpose, the wires would cross when they went over the jug. The same held true when I divined near our well or above known underground water pipes.
I went as far as to walk around our property with pen and paper and map all the underground waterways beneath our property. I was so good at it that I even demonstrated my skill at school. Some of my fellow students were skeptical at first but they all believed me when half of them discovered that they too had the gift. Excitedly, we took turns with the wires – walking over bottles of water and proving ourselves over and over again.
Nobody knew exactly how water divination worked but it was my older brother’s notion that it had something to do with the Earth’s magnetic fields and how it flowed through water, metal, and the human body. To my mind, it seemed like a plausible explanation and so I ascribed to his “theory”.
It wasn’t until years later (I was probably around 20 years old) when I decided to look into the scientific research in the field of water divination. What I found troubled me greatly. For such a useful physical phenomenon I expected considerable and positive research being done on it. What I found instead, was that researchers consistently, statistically proved that there was no such thing (or at least they proved that “skilled” water diviners did no better than chance on average).
By this point in my life, I had grown quite fond of mathematics – even the rather indefinite field of statistics. It troubled me to think that mathematics didn’t agree with me.
So, I decided to take the matter into my own hands and test it myself. I found a jug, filled it with water, and placed it in the backyard. Then I found some wires, bent them into the appropriate shape, and started witching.
What I discovered was astounding. I had completely lost my talent. The simply wires refused to cooperate. They wouldn’t cross over the jug unless I really really willed them to.
My mind went back to rebuttals I had heard other water deviners make when questioned. “It doesn’t work unless you believe in it.” Still, why would it not work for believers who try it in front of scientists?
I was getting really suspicious now. I found a piece of wood and drilled holes so that I could place the wires into the piece of wood and in that way I could divine for water without touching the wires. What I discovered was quite interesting.
Since I had drilled the “holder” holes straight down into the wood (the holes were vertical and almost perfectly parallel), the wires could not cross. They would both swing one way or both swing the other way, but they would not cross.
I took them out of the piece of wood and held them in my hands once again. This time I was interested in the mechanics involved in getting the wires to cross. After playing around with them for a bit, I realized that when I held the wires and they crossed, it was not because they were swiveling due to some attraction between the long tips of the wires, they were crossing because the top of my fists tilted almost imperceptibly toward each other causing the tips of the wires to slowly fell toward each other by gravity’s force alone. In retrospect, this is all blindingly obvious but if you really believe in something it almost requires a punch in the face to accept the opposite.
At this point I started seriously considering the possibility that I had fooled myself all those years. Could it really be that it was only my will causing my fists to tilt imperceptibly and cause the wires to cross?
Back to the computer I went and to the Wikipedia article about water divination. After reading carefully the possible explanations, I learned about the ideomotor effect. The ideomotor effect described exactly what I had been starting to suspect – that the whole thing was my will causing my fists to tilt imperceptibly and the wires to cross.
It was at this point that I started seriously studying the ideas related to skepticism. What I learned about the placebo effect and the other myriad ways that the human mind fools itself, had even more of an effect on me than learning about the ideomotor effect. Within weeks my well rationalized belief system was crumbling and my mind kept going to the Weird Al song, Everything You Know is Wrong.
All Amish kids of my generation know Weird Al’s songs because of Amish Paradise. Check it out, I think it’s quite hilarious…