Bloody Dowsing Again

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Dubious Dick
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Bloody Dowsing Again

Post by Dubious Dick » Mon Oct 26, 2015 5:54 pm

Check out the following story, and then let the dolts at Birmingham Mail and Severn Trent Water know what you think (emails below):

http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/we ... ak-7512323

I have written explaining that dowsing has zero credible evidence base. That the German study quoted has been comprehensively debunked, and that while a water leak story may be fairly harmless in and of itself, as most here know, harmless beliefs can translate into dangerous ones very easily (ref: the explosives detectors).

Of course they bloody had to quote the British Society of Dowsers. That well known hotbed of rationality and sense, whose president, Gardner, gave evidence for the defence at the trial of Gary Bolton last year. Bolton being the now convicted fraudster who peddled the GT200.

media@severntrent.co.uk

liv.garfield@severntrent.co.uk The Chief Executive

david.brookes@trinitymirror.com Editor, Birmingham Mail

Dubious Dick
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Re: Bloody Dowsing Again

Post by Dubious Dick » Mon Oct 26, 2015 5:55 pm

I have received the following response from Severn Trent Water, and have replied to that. I am not expecting anything from the useless Birmingham Mail, but if so will let you know.

Theirs first:

Thanks for your email. Firstly let me explain where this story came from. We were contacted by the Birmingham Mail after the social club contacted them to share their delight when we managed to find and fix an ongoing leak for them. We had been out several times to try and locate the leak and even the most sensitive equipment hadn’t found it. So one of our technicians thought he would try the rods as a last resort. We know that there is no scientific explanation for why the rods appeared to signpost the location of the leak, and it may well be a completely happy coincidence – but the leak was found and fixed. The very fact that we used the rods to finally find the leak is the reason the Birmingham Mail took an interest.

We’d like to reassure you that the use of dowsing rods is not one of our official leak detection techniques and we don’t provide them as equipment for our technicians. We do issue our technicians with incredibly sensitive, hi-tech equipment in order to detect and locate leaks. This equipment ranges from a Correlator, which can detect sound emitted by water passing through leaks in pipes, all the way to gas detection equipment. These are backed up by more traditional methods, such as the use of a listening stick – used to manually listen for the sounds created by leaks. We put a lot of time, effort and money into research and development of better leak detection techniques and technologies, and as you quite rightly point out, there is little or no evidence to support the fact that dowsing rods are effective.

We can’t control what is written in the media, but what we can do is try and steer the story best we can, which is why we provided a quote to the paper.

Hope that helps to answer your query.

My response:

Thank you for your response.

I must refute your assertion that "there is little or no evidence that dowsing rods are effective". In fact there is zero credible evidence. I would point you in the direction of the James Randi Educational Foundation (randi.org) Million Dollar Challenge, available to anyone who is able to pass a properly controlled double blind test. Dowsers make up a high proportion of those who go in for the challenge, and as yet, total failure.

The problem with the Birmingham Mail piece, and the quote Severn Trent provided is that they left the clear impression that dowsing does work. The problem with the Severn Trent quote was that it was unclear and equivocal.

I urge Severn Trent to make it a policy that engineers are not allowed, even unofficially, to carry or use dowsing rods while on duty. If you do allow them to do so then you are tacitly endorsing dowsing, and situations like the one in the story can arise.

As a final point, dowsers claim that they can detect water underground, and this includes in pipes. Hence why the story simply does not add up, because there is no reason why the rods should swing just at the leak, as opposed to all along the pipe.

I trust that Severn Trent wants to support only evidenced based measures, and that your company will take action in order not to be seen to be supporting woo, whether implicitly or explicitly.

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Zep
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Re: Bloody Dowsing Again

Post by Zep » Mon Oct 26, 2015 5:56 pm

Also, any water leak that has been running for a while has highly detectable attributes: wet dark ground, accelerated plant and algae growth where the pipe and soil are wet, damp smell in enclosed spaces, etc. So even just walking along the pipe and looking would likely have found a reasonable leak (because tiny leaks below a certain rate are not worth the effort to find and fix).

I suspect the chances are fair the Severn Trent engineer already had a good idea where the leak was (a social club would be just one building), just that it took a couple of visits to actually locate it precisely. And when he was walking along with the rods he was also going slower and looking more closely. So the chances were high that he would have found it without the rods anyway. I.e. correlation is not causation.

Dubious Dick
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Re: Bloody Dowsing Again

Post by Dubious Dick » Mon Oct 26, 2015 5:57 pm

Zep wrote:Also, any water leak that has been running for a while has highly detectable attributes: wet dark ground, accelerated plant and algae growth where the pipe and soil are wet, damp smell in enclosed spaces, etc. So even just walking along the pipe and looking would likely have found a reasonable leak (because tiny leaks below a certain rate are not worth the effort to find and fix).

I suspect the chances are fair the Severn Trent engineer already had a good idea where the leak was (a social club would be just one building), just that it took a couple of visits to actually locate it precisely. And when he was walking along with the rods he was also going slower and looking more closely. So the chances were high that he would have found it without the rods anyway. I.e. correlation is not causation.
Well put. I have now received the following from the Leakage Manager at Severn Trent (great job title, upon which much humour could no doubt be wrung):

'My name is Mark Garth and I am the Leakage Manager at Severn Trent. Grace from our Media Team has passed me your details.

I’m afraid the words you quoted in your mail below (about there being little or no evidence to support dowsing) were my words – and on reflection you are quite right, they could have been more unequivocal. As a scientist, I’m happy to say that we do not support dowsing in any way; we hold absolutely no beliefs that dowsing works, nor do we issue divining rods, or support their use by our technicians – officially or otherwise.

Do I detect from your earlier email that you have a keen interest in science & technology? If you would be interested, I would like to invite you to spend an hour or two with us at Severn Trent, where we could show you the range of evidence-based techniques we use, and perhaps give you a demonstration?

If you have any further questions about leakage detection or you would like to accept the invitation for a demonstration, please feel free to contact me directly. Alternatively, you could supply a telephone number and I would be more than happy to give you a call.'

I am not sure whether to take up his offer of a demo of their work (funnily enough the same offer I received from all the fake detector peddlars at one time or another - though I am not suggesting that Severn Trent demos are rigged!). What I am interested in doing is getting them to stop engineers carrying dowsing rods, even unofficially, as was suggested in the original article, and it would seem from the tone of his email that this may be an achievable goal.

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chaggle
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Re: Bloody Dowsing Again

Post by chaggle » Mon Oct 26, 2015 5:59 pm

Dubious Dick wrote:
Zep wrote:Also, any water leak that has been running for a while has highly detectable attributes: wet dark ground, accelerated plant and algae growth where the pipe and soil are wet, damp smell in enclosed spaces, etc. So even just walking along the pipe and looking would likely have found a reasonable leak (because tiny leaks below a certain rate are not worth the effort to find and fix).

I suspect the chances are fair the Severn Trent engineer already had a good idea where the leak was (a social club would be just one building), just that it took a couple of visits to actually locate it precisely. And when he was walking along with the rods he was also going slower and looking more closely. So the chances were high that he would have found it without the rods anyway. I.e. correlation is not causation.
Well put. I have now received the following from the Leakage Manager at Severn Trent (great job title, upon which much humour could no doubt be wrung):

'My name is Mark Garth and I am the Leakage Manager at Severn Trent. Grace from our Media Team has passed me your details.

I’m afraid the words you quoted in your mail below (about there being little or no evidence to support dowsing) were my words – and on reflection you are quite right, they could have been more unequivocal. As a scientist, I’m happy to say that we do not support dowsing in any way; we hold absolutely no beliefs that dowsing works, nor do we issue divining rods, or support their use by our technicians – officially or otherwise.

Do I detect from your earlier email that you have a keen interest in science & technology? If you would be interested, I would like to invite you to spend an hour or two with us at Severn Trent, where we could show you the range of evidence-based techniques we use, and perhaps give you a demonstration?

If you have any further questions about leakage detection or you would like to accept the invitation for a demonstration, please feel free to contact me directly. Alternatively, you could supply a telephone number and I would be more than happy to give you a call.'

I am not sure whether to take up his offer of a demo of their work (funnily enough the same offer I received from all the fake detector peddlars at one time or another - though I am not suggesting that Severn Trent demos are rigged!). What I am interested in doing is getting them to stop engineers carrying dowsing rods, even unofficially, as was suggested in the original article, and it would seem from the tone of his email that this may be an achievable goal.
Good of him to invite you and might be interesting. If I were nearer Coventry (I assume he is based at head office) I'd come along with you. While there you could take the opportunity to make your point.
Don't blame me - I voted remain :con

Matt
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Re: Bloody Dowsing Again

Post by Matt » Mon Oct 26, 2015 6:01 pm

Dubious Dick wrote: What I am interested in doing is getting them to stop engineers carrying dowsing rods, even unofficially, as was suggested in the original article, and it would seem from the tone of his email that this may be an achievable goal.
Why would you want to impose such a dramatic infringement on the liberty of their staff?

Here's my take on the situation. Dowsing doesn't work by magic. I'm sure we can agree on that. We can try to remove the possibility for other, non magical causes to have any effect by constructing double blind challenges. When we do so, dowsing works no better than can be explained by chance alone. We find that for dowsing to work, the apparatus must be held by a conscious being; who must have some way of deducing the answer. No-one is accusing anybody of cheating here; the most likely explanation for any apparent success in uncontrolled circumstance is merely that they are finding a way to access their own subconscious knowledge. Not magical knowledge, simple intuition based upon accumulated heuristics. This in turn links to the ideomotor effect.

This is where our subconscious mind moves our bodies without us being aware of it. It can encapsulate things like body language, micro expressions and in this case the subtle movements that are magnified by dowsing apparatus. When we look for these movements in other people, they can be quite obvious but the dowser will typically not only be unaware of them but often quite certain that they’re holding completely still. Yet when the apparatus is held in-place on a fixed mount, the magic disappears.

Of course this in turn is boosted by what skeptics call confirmation bias and everyone else knows as the common human attraction towards a good story.

When we say that magic isn't real or that dowsing doesn't work under controlled conditions that's not to say that the scenario outlined in the news article isn't real and whilst I'm sure that there's a fair number of dowsing failures that go unreported, I don’t have any reason to believe that this occasion was just an outlandish fluke. After all these were not by any means controlled conditions.

Just imagine yourself trying to submit this sort of set-up for James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge. You’re a man with years of professional experience of finding leaks in water pipes; being tested in an environment familiar to you. After first surveying the area with a myriad of evidence based techniques you say that you still can’t be sure where the leak is. We’re simply expected to take your word for that but then after whipping out the dowsing rods you’re suddenly confident in a location that's later confirmed. Brilliant! Will that be cheque or cash sir?

No I don’t think so. I’ve spent some time looking at challenge applications being discussed on James Randi’s online forum. I’m sure that after they’d finished laughing at you and calling you all the names permissible under their forum membership agreement they'd present you with the standard double blind protocol.

Yes you too could be dowsing over thirty upturned buckets in a marquee with invigilators kept separate from the people who planted the bottles of evian under three of those buckets. Not exactly the same set-up is it? And we all know why. If the James Randi Educational Foundation would only accept that original "in the wild" type of protocol then the million would gone within weeks. So what do you deduce that fact? Surely that the sceptical elite doesn’t consider the scenario outlined in the article to be a paranormal event. It's not magic; it’s a parlour trick being used as a decision making tool. Not entirely dissimilar to the executive decision making technique I use from time to time to pick between heads and tails.

So then what’s the harm if a few leak detection engineers fall back on intuition when all else has failed?

Allow me to answer my own question. Perhaps we have a clear success story here but dowsing, even in the wild, under uncontrolled conditions where other potential sources of information abound, still won’t have a 100% success rate.

Imagine what happens when the water board digs up your prized petunias on the basis of some twig trembler getting their wires crossed. The water board could be liable for reckless negligence not just towards your herbaceous border but also the abundant clean water we so often take for granted.

Image

Both the water board and their engineers have a certain duty of care that perhaps shouldn’t be entrusted to what amounts to an inexplicable hunch even if it is from a relatively experienced source who has exhausted other options. But that’s not the real harm. No procedure is going to have a 100% success rate anyway and we’re not even certain that disallowing dowsing would improve performance. If it could be objectively proven that adding dowsing to the arsenal of methods at the engineer’s disposal had a positive effect, it wouldn’t shake my belief in a rational and mechanistic universe. I wouldn’t even be surprised. It would just suggest that these experienced engineers were subconsciously picking up cues such as well hydrated flora or had some heuristic insight as to where a pipe travelling a certain course is likely to fail.

No, the harm in such cases isn’t in their potential for failure but in their occasional newsworthy success and the potential misattribution of the reasons for that success. Articles such as this promote magical thinking in place of the true cause of action which in turn gives people greater faith in the results of ideomotor powered devices than gut instinct should reasonably be granted. A small collection of such issues is collected on Tim Farley’s What the Harm site.

Tim misses the most prominent example of harm of recent years.. I mean of course the cynical frauds perpetrated by Gary Bolton, James McCormick and so on, through their fake bomb detectors. Initially they attempted to distract and misdirect from the real cause of their detectors’ apparent usefulness in unblinded tests with techno bafflegab and quantum gobbledy gook. This charade was eventually demolished and their devices revealed to be nothing more than dowsing rods. At which point they were more than happy for the true believers to step forward and attempt to confer legitimacy upon dowsing with the same sort of magical thinking that is largely unchallenged by the article in the OP
.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-23768203
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-22532249

The harm here from Bolton and McCormick’s scams have clearly measurable components. An estimated £50m spent on McCormick’s scam alone. This money was diverted from security budgets in countries such as Iraq where those budgets can make a tangible difference in terms of lives lost. Not only will security forces be depending on the unreliable information provided by these scam devices, the effective security measures that could have been purchased in their place will be lacking. How many people have died because a suicide bomber passed through a checkpoint manned by guards equipped with a £10,000 plastic novelty toy rather than a trained sniffer dog? Not only that but how many people have suffered from false positives? Remember that whatever action these devices do display is derived from the operators gut feeling. Then ask yourself if you know anyone who is repeatedly stopped by the authorities because their face doesn’t fit. As a young man I remember a friend losing enthusiasm for his XR3i after being stopped 3 times in a week for “matching a description.” Of course each time he was polite, obedient and once his paperwork was all shown to be in order and no evidence of illegal activity was observed he was sent upon his way. How different might events have been if those police officers were equipped with a device that turned their unconscious thoughts into “tangible evidence” and reinforced those prejudices through fraudulent training? It’s a worrying thought.

Also much of that £50 million was allegedly reinvested back into the scam in the form of bribes that funded corrupt decision makers still in power. At the very least the money has enhanced the power of the people who keep these devices in operation today despite the manufacturers’ convictions. What other harm can money cause in the hands of corrupt authorities?

So the practice of dowsing for water leaks doesn’t in itself do much, if any, direct harm. Not when compared to dowsing for terrorism. It may even be useful when in experienced hands and used as a last resort, though not for the magical reasons commonly proposed. However what we’re suggesting is that the harm it might do is indirect. Unchallenged claims that dowsing works by unknown mysterious means may contribute to a culture of magical and uncritical thinking that in turn increases the incidence of cynical frauds and sincere believers leaving a trail of damage and suffering behind them.

I must admit I have a few small problems with this and similar arguments. Every time someone suggests transferring culpability through the agency of a nebulous “culture” I shudder a little. It’s not that I disagree as such, it’s just that it’s such a vaguely defined statement that it’s not entirely clear what I’m being asked to agree with.

One potential problem is quickly dismissed. The society is to blame trope doesn’t necessarily diminish the culpability of the primary defendant. Blame is not a zero sum game, we can assign some to those who contribute to a “Culture of ...” without taking any blame away from those who commit crimes in that context. It can be argued that those who contribute to these negative cultures do increase the statistical likelihood of offences being committed but it is the offender who makes a choice of which category they fall into. Offenders can argue all they like that they’re simply a product of genes that they didn’t choose or that the choices they did make were the product of the environment they were brought up in. Meanwhile society can happily smile, agree and say that the same applies to their choice to punish offenders as if they did have free will so as to produce a more positive environment that doesn’t reinforce negative behaviour.

My problem starts with how the impact of particular contributions to these cultures might be assessed. I may well see the linkage as being plausible and even probable but still unproven to any reasonable standard. Such harm seems unquantifiable. When a child dies of a preventable disease how many anti vaxxers do we apportion the blame amongst? Is it just the most strident and influential, or are those who just nod along at fault too? We can argue that millions suffer and die every year in the Third world directly due to anti vax campaigners interfering with the ongoing work to wipe out communicable disease. Do we assign the blame just for the current generation or for all the mortality and morbidity projected to happen past that date at which polio for example could have been totally wiped out. How many people tell rape jokes that contribute to rape culture? Do all jokes that mention rape contribute equally or are some perhaps worthwhile consciousness raisers. Where does intent fall into your ethical model? Please don’t answer any of those questions. I won’t respond if you do, for reasons that I am about to discuss.

The second problem with the concept that some ideas contribute to a culture in which offences are more likely to occur is that it can make it very difficult to discuss those ideas. I might be broadly sympathetic to an idea but in order to understand it better I like to take the skeptical approach and that means attacking the idea to see how well it holds up. How do you do that when the authorities on that idea are of the sincere belief that presenting the counterpoint is tantamount to taking partial responsibility for all future rapes? Or on the flipside how do you explore a counterpoint should it involve accusing somebody of playing their part in genocide.

I don’t expect quite the same level of emotional involvement from anti dowsing activists who I admire greatly for their tenacity in shining the spotlight on the bomb detector frauds but I’m about to suggest that they might be wrong to promote the idea that dowsing doesn’t work.

You see that’s how the message gets read. If we’re lucky enough that a skeptic will be called upon to give a quote it’ll be published as the caveat in paragraph 19.

We’ll get an 18 paragraph narrative of how science is baffled but along comes ancient wisdom and it shines through with its mysterious and inexplicable ways then one paragraph where someone presented as an old stick in the mud simply denies it all. “Dowsing doesn’t work; bah Humbug!”

Firstly of course that’s not really true. My preferred class of skeptic gives a fuller and more accurate statement. For example “there’s no credible evidence that dowsing works under controlled conditions.” But whether by a stroke of the editors red pen or the reader’s internal filters the takeway message is always “but there’s some people who simply don’t believe the facts as reported could possibly have happened.”

This doesn’t weave itself right into the fabric of the story, it’s a little background colour that readers can happily set aside if they choose to. It’s unconvincing. It’s also a missed opportunity.

You see for me the problem with the article isn’t the lack of this negative message that dowsing doesn’t work. What’s missing is the fascinating story about exactly how it is that dowsing does in fact work (or can at least seem that way) and how exploiting the ideomotor effect can even be an interesting and effective technique when properly understood. Not only that but it’s a more useful piece of information.

By analogy I can tell you that Sydney is not the capital of Australia. That’s great if somebody asks you if Sydney is the capital of Australia. Always assuming that you were interested enough in what I had to say to remember it accurately. However that sort of negative information is completely useless if somebody asks you if Melbourne is the capital of Australia.

By contrast what if I told you positive information instead? For example that the capital of Australia is Canberra? Maybe I could give you a little background on Canberra being chosen as it’s halfway between the two largest population centres or Melbourne and Sydney and avoids picking one of these two over the other. Perhaps then you’ve even learned something about the value of compromise. Moreover even if my message is edited back to just the “Capital is Canberra” when someone suggests that Brisbane is the capital of Australia you can not only try to knock out that piece of misinformation you can plug the gap that it leaves with some actual facts that prevent further nonsense from taking its place.

So imagine that you’re a civil servant who’s receiving a demonstration of the GT200 Bomb detector. What use to you is the information that dowsing doesn’t work? Well maybe not so much because Gary Bolton is doing a great job of distraction and misdirection and hasn’t once used the word dowsing. Instead you’re being asked the asses the value of an “attracting field” utilising “dia/para magnetism” mediated by a “Substance Sensor Card” inserted into a technical looking device. Who’s talking about magic here? Science baby! It works bitches! Except I can tell right now that this is nothing of the sort. It is in fact pseudoscience of the most pungent kind but I can hardly list every imaginable nonsense that might be used to disguise dowsing. The list would be limitless. Even if I could, how would you ever remember it all?

What might be far more useful to you however is for you to know about and be able to recognise the ideomotor effect. Just like knowing where the capital of Australia really is, can be useful when someone claims it’s Alice Springs, knowing what the ideomotor effect really is may help you when someone dresses it up as “dia/para magnetism” If that’s the case you can start to ask some interesting questions like: is there a fixed mount version? No? Why does the device that uses magnetic fields need to be handheld then?

So rather than pushing a message about what dowsing isn’t; a more interesting and more useful message (in my humble opinion) should be about what dowsing actually is. I think your Mr Garth had pretty much the right idea. His focus was understandably different. Not on whether magic is real or not but what his employer was prepared to take responsibility for. He didn’t focus on the negative – dowsing is not supported by Severn Trent but rather on the positive message that he wanted to present. The methods they do support and how successful they are.
That’s clearly the message he’s still trying to push in his invitation for you to come and see a demonstration and I’d suggest that whether your chosen message is that dowsing should be banned or that dowsing is well modelled by some fascinating science you’ll only find your new friend useful in as much as you can align your goals with his own.

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