Thursday, May 2, 2013

World's Priciest Dowsing Rods

Hardcore skeptics can be a real annoyance to anyone trying to explore paranormal or even unusual phenomena, such as those who insist that acupuncture doesn't work even though recent scientific studies show that it clearly does. At the same time, however, those who are honestly examining the data and working to eliminate fraud perform a valuable public service by preventing confidence artists from enriching themselves on the basis of phony paranormal claims. In a victory for the skeptic movement, and which should be considered a victory for the paranormal movement as well, James McCormick, the maker of a "high tech" bomb detecting device that essentially works as a dowsing rod, was recently convicted for fraud.

The devices did nothing at all to detect bombs. They didn’t even have any working electronics in them. Instead they rely on what’s called the ideomotor effect; small movements of the human body we aren’t conscious of, but can be affected by what we want them to do. The classic examples of this are Ouija boards and dowsing rods, both of which have no paranormal ability at all. They simply reflect what our brains are telling our muscles to do.

This has been shown to be true over and again, so much and so thoroughly that there’s little room for doubt. These bomb sniffers worked the same way, as was brought to light by skeptics James Randi and Air Force Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack. And as with dowsing rods, the people who use them swear they work, despite proof that they can't work, and are no better than random chance at detecting objects. Flipping a coin would do as well.

Unlike skeptic Phil Plait, the author of this article, I'm convinced that there are people capable of dowsing. For that matter, a number of Thelemites perform divinations using the I Ching, which can be done by flipping a series of coins. The problem here is that success in dowsing has nothing to do with the rods themselves - as Plait correctly notes, a dowsing rod (or Ouija board or pendulum or whatever) moves based on picking up small movements of the user's muscles, not on its own. This means that even according to the magical paradigm, the material the rods are made from has nothing to do with how well they work and the dowsing itself is essentially a psychic ability that the individual using the device must possess.

The big story here, though, doesn't even revolve around whether or not dowsing works. As I see it, the fraud revolves around the price tag for these "high tech" devices - $16,500 to $60,000 each. This for a device that, even from the perspective of a true believer, is no more effective than a forked stick you can just pick up off the ground or a couple of bent coathangers. Furthermore, there's really no possible way that the manufacturer could not have known this. The "electronics" in the device were fake and talking to a dowser for five minutes should have made it clear to McCormick that the skill involved is of a psychic nature, not an inherent property of sticks or wires.

So regardless of my disagreement with Plait over the nature of dowsing, I'm glad to see this transparent fraud convicted and this ridiculous gadget off the market. Unfortunately, Iraqi security forces are still using them, which can only spell disaster unless every single individual using them happens to have heightened psychic ability - and even then, you're talking about a statistical rather than a deterministic method. Hopefully the skeptics can keep at it and manage to get the devices shelved, as their technological appearance leads the user to think that something other than psychic awareness might be going on. Not to mention that anyone who seems to be able to use it successfully could save an awful lot of money by switching to an ordinary stick.

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