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Earth Science

Drought Inspires a Boom In Pseudoscience, From Rain Machines To 'Water Witches' 266

Posted by timothy
from the hi-cousin-barry dept.
merbs (2708203) writes Across drought-stricken California, farmers are desperate for water. Now, many of them are calling dowsers. These "water witches," draped in dubious pseudoscience or self-assembled mythologies—or both—typically use divining rods and some sort of practiced intuition to "find" water. The professional variety do so for a fee. And business is booming. They're just part of a storied tradition of pseudoscientific hucksters exploiting our thirst for water, with everything from cloudbusters to rainmachines to New Age rituals.
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Drought Inspires a Boom In Pseudoscience, From Rain Machines To 'Water Witches'

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  • 1st post (Score:5, Funny)

    by deadweight (681827) on Thursday August 28, 2014 @05:56PM (#47779341)
    Dowsers? They need THIS http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A... [wikipedia.org]
    • by istartedi (132515)

      That might actually be useful if 1. The person being searched believes it works. 2. The person doing the searching knows how to read the expressions and gestures of the person being searched.

      I'm given to understand that the highly effective Israeli airport security uses that kind of technique, although AFAIK props aren't involved. They ask you a question and it's not so much the answer they're looking for as it is the way you answer.

    • Amazing the TSA doesn't have 100 of these in every airport.
      • by sjames (1099)

        They would, but nothing says respect my authoriti like a groping and a rapey scan.

    • by TheCarp (96830)

      I had a forehead smacking moment last year when I mentioned this jokingly last year while camping at a friend's event. I said "They were basically selling dowsing rods for explosives" and one of my friend's pipes in, with all seriousness: "Oh that is fine, dowsing works!".....sigh.....

  • Here in Sacramento, I saw somebody from the county water district using dousing rods while on the job. I'm not sure if he was looking for a pipe or what, and I was sadly too preoccupied to inquire with the water district to see if it's standard procedure, but, shit. I felt bad for my county.
    • Re:Eww.. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by epyT-R (613989) on Thursday August 28, 2014 @06:22PM (#47779623)

      just your county? that employee is a canary. you should feel bad for the whole country.

    • When I was a little kid we watched a phone company employe use a dowsing rod to look for a buried wire.
      • How do you know it was a dowsing rod, and not him looking for the wire by its induced magnetic field, like one of these [fujitecom.com]?

    • Just to put this report in context. There is no such thing as 'the Sacramento County Water District'.

      Closest is 'Sacramento Suburban Water District'. It's balkanized as hell. I've got tasty river water. Other neighborhoods get well water. Don't buy a house anywhere without tasting the water first.

      Weigh the rest of this 'data' appropriately.

    • by Nethead (1563)

      Seen that too, and the guy found the pipe. This was on an Indian rez and a tribal utility worker. Not that I go for that stuff but it was an impressive display of what the subconscious can do.

  • by mythosaz (572040) on Thursday August 28, 2014 @05:59PM (#47779389)

    ...unless someone was taught it over a series of Sundays. :/

    I suppose ignorance on things like this is generational, and we'll stamp it out slowly, like racism or smoking.

    • by khallow (566160)
      I doubt it. For example, there's UFOs and New Age crystal healing.
      • by mythosaz (572040)

        Both of those are fairly recent innovations. The fad will fade in a few generations, probably (sadly) to replaced by new fad pseudoscience.

      • UFOs actually exist. Yes, they do. Not to say that they are aliens but there's a long and well documented history of flying objects we can't identify.

        So how about we spend a few generations stamping out atttitudes like yours and then we can view the world as it really is.

        • by khallow (566160)
          You know I'm not speaking of UFOs in the literal definition, but of the social phenomenon. And who knows, there may actually be aliens, humans from the future, beings from alternate dimensions, or whatever. That doesn't mean much since we don't have actual evidence of these guys, but rather a huge load of hysterical tales and remarkably poor and often doctored photographic evidence.
          • Either there are multiple groups of aliens, each running around a different content. Or the Aliens are a mixture of folklore, hucksters and psychos.

            There are persistently different types of aliens reported, separated by earthbound culture.

            Western Europe: Greys...anal probes.

            South America/Africa: Big headed, sharp toothed, hungry...no anal probes.

            Asia: Yet another variation, which I forget.

    • by Type44Q (1233630)

      I suppose ignorance on things like this is generational, and we'll stamp it out slowly, like racism or smoking.

      I hate to break it to you, but... ignorance is on the rise.

    • by onkelonkel (560274) on Thursday August 28, 2014 @07:52PM (#47780313)
      Too true. People believe, because they were taught to believe, from an early age by people they trust. The vast majority of Christians (insert religion of your choice here) are Christian by an accident of birth. They are Christian because they had Christian parents. Had they been born in Mumbai, to Hindu parents, they would be Hindus.

      If you want a good laugh ask a Christian why they believe in God and Jesus and the Holy spirit, but not in Zeus or Odin or Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. If you get anything other than circular logic or "because" let me know.
      • I got an honest answer once.

        It might all be bullshit, but it helps me cope.

      • by LordLimecat (1103839) on Friday August 29, 2014 @07:51AM (#47783237)

        Too true. People believe, because they were taught to believe, from an early age by people they trust. The vast majority of Christians (insert religion of your choice here) are Christian by an accident of birth.

        You have a source for that? Anecdotally from my church a large percentage of folks joining came to faith later in life (college, etc). Looking at a poll on this [pewforum.org] indicates that thats about right-- 40% or so tend to switch from what they were raised with, 60% do not. Im really not sure in what world "60%" forms a vast majority, but whatever.

        Its sort of hillarious to hear people talk of ignorance and then bust out anecdotal and unsupported "facts" like this.

        If you want a good laugh ask a Christian why they believe in God and Jesus and the Holy spirit, but not in Zeus or Odin or Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. If you get anything other than circular logic or "because" let me know.

        Do you mock Stephen Hawkings declaration that the universe self-created itself because "there is such a thing as gravity", for being circular reasoning? Why not?

        • by SparkleMotion88 (1013083) on Friday August 29, 2014 @12:45PM (#47785313)

          You have a source for that?

          The poll that you supplied supports GP's argument. From the data, 40% of people change religion after birth, but over half of that is caused by people switching "within the same tradition" (e.g. changing from Baptist to Methodist or Agnostic to Atheist), and most of the rest is people leaving the church altogether. Only 4% of people in the survey were raised outside of religion and later joined a religion. So of all religious people in the survey, 96% got there by being born, and the other 4% were raised non-religious and then later became affiliated with a religion. By any reasonable definition, 96% is a "vast majority".

          As to your anecdote, some denominations (e.g. Charismatic) cater to the "born again" crowd and so will be composed of a lot of converts, which others (Catholic, Episcopal) are composed almost entirely of people who were born or married into the faith.

    • ...unless someone was taught it over a series of Sundays. :/

      I suppose ignorance on things like this is generational, and we'll stamp it out slowly, like racism or smoking.

      Oh yes, I'm sure it's the massive fundamentalist Christian population of California that's doing all the dowsing, rather than minuscule population of oh so scientific crystal-using copper-bracelet-wearing leftist nutbars.

      The Christian affinity for witches and divining and such being so well established and all.

      Thanks Slashdot, for all the "insight"!

      • by reikae (80981)

        This will sound like the "nobody cares about Jews" joke, but how does leftist fit in there? Desire for increased social equality seems Christian to me.

  • by quietwalker (969769) <pdughi@gmail.com> on Thursday August 28, 2014 @06:02PM (#47779413)

    People who are suffering, ignorant, and afraid are more willing to turn to the supernatural - be it religion or superstitions - as a 'solution' to their problems.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by polyphemus (473112)

      People who are suffering, ignorant, and afraid are more willing to turn to the supernatural - be it religion or superstitions - as a 'solution' to their problems.

      Definitely.

      I see parallels between this and any number of other situations that make people desperate:

      * Cancer patients turning to stem cell "remedies" from quacks who don't bother looking for evidence

      * People with autistic children who can't find a cause so they blame vaccines

      * People who can't see any obvious good options, so they turn to psychics

      Fear is a wonderful tool if you're a charlatan, as it makes your victims less likely to pause and ask whether you're actually qualified to do (or to know) any of

    • People who are suffering, ignorant, and afraid are more willing to turn to the supernatural - be it religion or superstitions - as a 'solution' to their problems.

      This.

      There's an old Russian proverb: "Pray to God, but continue to row to shore."

      If a problem requires action to solve, you can't just pray it away. On the other hand, if you're powerless to do anything about a problem, you may turn to a spiritual salve in order to cope. I have no problem with spiritual practitioners who offer the salve. But if they claim to solve the problem, then I burn with contempt for them.

    • by bunratty (545641)
      One could even say it's the opiate of the masses.
      • Have you been paying attention:

        Synthetic opioids are the opium of the masses. Duh.

        Bread, circuses and oxycontin.

    • Im sure thats exactly why Christians in Egypt, Syria, and first century Rome turned to Christianity: to reduce their suffering.

  • What's the problem? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by blue9steel (2758287) on Thursday August 28, 2014 @06:12PM (#47779501)
    As long as the contract stipulates payment only after confirmation of findings, who cares if they use geology or dowsing?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Let's say I'm a farmer, but I don't want to hire a geologist because a dowser is cheaper. The dowser causes me to dig 3 wells and find water only on the third. Then I pay their flat fee. I have expended resources and time to dig those two previous wells, causing me not to have those resources or time to do other things with. A dowser is less effective than a geologist and bears, at the minimum, a higher opportunity cost over the average (of instances of people searching for water with a dowser instead of a

      • by idontgno (624372) on Thursday August 28, 2014 @06:49PM (#47779825) Journal

        A dowser is less effective than a geologist and bears, at the minimum, a higher opportunity cost over the average (of instances of people searching for water with a dowser instead of a geologist).

        A fine economic analysis, but you're forgetting the balance-of-costs comparison.

        If what you saved using a dowser (who, by your own scenario, is cheaper than a geologist) is more than the cost of two wasted wells, the dowser was a cost-effective alternative. In that case.

        If, on the other hand, the dowser wasn't much cheaper, or you had to sink 5 dry wells, or your dowser never finds water, the dowser was a net loss.

        I think that on balance, the latter scenarios are more likely. If you're thinking about choosing dowsing, you're better off just throwing darts at a large map of your property and saving that cost for the same effectiveness.

        But if you're going to do an economic analysis, show all your work.

        • It seems like specifying a contract where you're going to pay for the well digging and he gets as many tries as he wants to select well sites isn't likely to lead to a good outcome whether he's a dowser or a geologist. Pay for performance seems like a lot better model than pay for consultation in this instance. Of course, I dare you to find a dowser who would actually agree to that kind of contract, heh.
          • It seems like specifying a contract where you're going to pay for the well digging and he gets as many tries as he wants to select well sites isn't likely to lead to a good outcome whether he's a dowser or a geologist. Pay for performance seems like a lot better model than pay for consultation in this instance. Of course, I dare you to find a dowser who would actually agree to that kind of contract, heh.

            Better still is payment based on past performance. Whether he's a dowser or a geologist, how many times in the past has he succeeded as a fraction of his attempts? If dowsing is a crock (and I think it is) and study of geology actually improves the probability of finding water, then the geologist should win over time. Unless, of course, the dowser has actually acquired an intuitive sense of geology, and the dowsing rod is just a prop.

            Of course, I doubt you will find a dowser who is willing to compare his

        • by mythosaz (572040)

          He also forgot the third column in his test: "Use neither a geologist nor a dowser" Since that'll be just as accurate as using a dowser, it'll be the winning column for sure.

      • "A dowser is less effective than a geologist and bears, at the minimum, a higher opportunity cost over the average (of instances of people searching for water with a dowser instead of a geologist)."

        Wait, a dowser is less effective than bears, at the minimum? What kind of low bar do bears set? Where does one go to hire a bear to find water and how do they go about it?
      • by mjwx (966435)

        TL;DR: It's called wasting your time. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

        Tell that to my Casio, I'll let you know when its 88:88

  • Devil's Advocate (Score:2, Informative)

    by ihtoit (3393327)

    OK, if someone claims to be able to find water with a stick, takes your money then doesn't find water, are they committing fraud?

    Let's test this: Did they *guarantee* to find water? If yes, then fraud happened.
    If no, then fraud did not happen.
    Why? Because they only claimed to be able to find water, they did not guarantee that there would be water under the test area.
    HOWEVER, if it is known that water is under the test area (and this can be proved contemporaneously with the dowsing), then fraud did occur bec

    • Disclaimer: I don't know shit from shinola about the (pseudo)science of divining water with rods in one's hands.

      Water well drillers have been the contractors of choice to locate underground reservoirs wherever I've lived, and they usually relied on knowledge of aquifers in their respective locales.

      Caveat: They often require payment to drill the well whether they find water or not, and there's no guarantee on the volume your new well might produce.

      • by Stumbles (602007)
        Your caveat is exactly right. I used to help a brother in law that had his own residential well drilling business. There were many times a hole ended up dry or could not produce enough for a home and we would have to move the rig elsewhere. And yes, the customer had to pay for the dead hole. Running a drill rig is not cheap.
  • by nblender (741424) on Thursday August 28, 2014 @06:32PM (#47779691)

    I was looking at an acreage and asked the realtor if he knew where the septic field was.. He said no but would find it. He grabbed a wire coat hanger out of the closet, bent it into some divining sticks, and went outside trudging through 2' deep snow... My wife and I just kind of glanced at one another and rolled our eyes... Thing is, he honestly thought he was helping...

  • by BenSchuarmer (922752) on Thursday August 28, 2014 @06:36PM (#47779725)
    but it's California, so they may be hard to find.
  • by ericloewe (2129490) on Thursday August 28, 2014 @06:42PM (#47779769)

    It sounds like a typical reaction:

    "No, I'm afraid we can't fix this. We're going to have to work around our problem... Conserve water, reuse wa.... No, no! Don't pay the fucking witch doctor for a rain dance!"

  • ... look up Water Witch in Google Play.

    It's free.

    If you download it in the next 15 minutes, it's ABSOLUTELY free.

  • In San Diego, California, USA where I live we have an initiative to build the worlds largest Desalination plant of its kind, yet are plagued by the state constantly forcing setbacks. Partially EPA related, partially playing card material for the Governor Jerry Brown.

    China has a similar design going into effect right now and achieving an effective and profitable desalination design. Still, it comes down to two things:

    1) Economy of scale in desalination (how much) There is currently a break point in efficienc

    • by sjames (1099)

      I have to wonder why not back to the ocean (sufficiently diluted to avoid a high concentration area, of course) the water the sludge came out of will end up back there, why not the sludge?

      • by Megane (129182)
        After that oil well break in the Gulf of Mexico, the EPA wouldn't even allow a ship which would suck in oily water and spit out less oily water, because the less oily water had oil in it. You think they're going to allow anybody to put seawater sludge from desalination back into the sea?
  • uh no (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Charliemopps (1157495) on Thursday August 28, 2014 @07:29PM (#47780115)

    This has nothing to do with farmers, or droughts.

    Plenty of people here on Slashdot believe in:
    Ghosts
    Vaccines cause Autism
    Sugar is poisonous
    Gluten sensitivity
    Alien visitors
    Wifi allergies

    and on and on and on...

    Some people are desperate for water, others are desperate to explain their childs ailments, desperate to explain their own ailments, desperate to live in a world different than our own. Desperate people will believe strange things. Myth is the anesthesia for anguish.

  • I called the local call-before-you-dig number because I was having foundation work done and you have to have an underground lines located before you can so much as plant bedding plants around here. A lady showed up and followed procedure for the gas and electrical lines then she pulled out her water witching wands to locate the rest of the stuff. Crazy. I called and left a complaint but they never got back to me. One day she's going to have some equipment malfunction and she's going to use her wands to loca

    • by PPH (736903)

      she's going to use her wands to locate an electrical line

      But you saw her 'follow procedure' for the dangerous stuff. Everything else (water, sewer, cable, telephone) will be a nuisance if it's cut. But it won't kill anyone.

      I don't know why she dowses for some stuff, but uses tech for the important stuff. I've been in the utility business for long enough that I can usually spot the water meters, sewer clean-outs and network interface boxes and make an educated guess about where stuff was installed. The witching wands are probably her way of keeping most customers

    • by sjames (1099)

      Probably because gas and electric are easy to find using a defined procedure. They are also the most important to find.

  • I know it sounds batshit crazy. I know it's not science. I know I'll be moderated to "shutup dumbass". I'll say it anyway.

    I grew up in rural Oregon. My family moved there in the early 70's, from California. We bought a big chunk of land, with nothing but trees on it. We pitched two tents, and started searching for the best house site. We filled 5 gallon bottles at the neighbors for a while, until we decided where to build the house.

    The neighbor's father was a well witcher. We assumed that it was part of a b

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