A slow, deliberative search is likely to yield better results, but.....it's not as romantic as slinging a hession sack over our shoulder, and riding out into the dark. Taking a chance, and pushing out past the pack, underneath the stars.
There's nothing with this inductive approach to exploration. In fact, it's a key component of the scientific spirit.
Proto-sciences like alchemy and phrenology ultimately turned out to be false, but they played a small part in the foundation of contemporary and well-checked fields of science like chemistry and neuroscience. They're pseudoscience now, but they were once valid fields of wonder.
It's this stirring spirit of pushing forward that was cited by the new head of the CSIRO, when citing the ancient art of 'water dowsing' as a potential research area for water identification within the commonwealth science organisation. Kylie Sturgess, podcaster and blogger for the Token Skeptic, transcribed the interview:
"this is a little bit ‘out there’, but something that has always fascinated me, I don’t know if you've ever seen farmers find water, and as a scientist I can’t explain how they do this, but there’s a number of tricks when people dowse for water, and I can tell you, I've seen people do this with close to 80% accuracy"
The story appeared on ABC Rural, and the response on social media was far from sympathetic:
Is someone actually going to have to explain to the head of the CSIRO that dowsing for water is pseudoscience? http://t.co/ho9VJ2GwYb
— Katie Mack (@AstroKatie) October 20, 2014
New CSIRO chief kicks off his tenure by stating a desire to chase psuedoscience. http://t.co/A7o84AKocS
— Dr Darren Saunders (@whereisdaz) October 20, 2014
There's a wealth of evidence demonstrating that dowsing/divining, a method through which vibrating bent metal rods are said to 'turn' in the direction of things desired by those who wield the rods, is, frankly, a pseudoscience.
This great video, featuring British psychologist Christopher French, demonstrates that despite repeated failed attempts to prove their claims, their belief continues unabated:
The Australian Skeptics community has been testing the claims of dowsers and water diviners for three decades now, and they've consistently found that the claims of dowsers failed under testing:
"One thing must be made clear — dowsers on the whole are very honest folk. They believe in what they do. Unfortunately their belief is poorly placed. They cannot perform as they think they can"
A particular comprehensive set of experiments in the late 90's (the Munich experiments) demonstrated conclusively that even in conditions sympathetic to the dowers, their success at locating water using the rotating rods is no better than chance:
|"It is difficult to imagine a set of experimental results that would represent a more persuasive disproof of the ability of dowsers to do what they claim. The experiments thus can and should be considered a decisive failure by the dowsers."|
The most interesting component of the research is at the end, where the authors write:
"Because of the vigour, however, with which Professor Betz and colleagues defended their positive conclusions (Betz et al. 1996), and in view of the discouraging history of other claims about the occult, one may have residual doubts, as do I, about whether reason will prevail in this arena (Enright 1996)"
Kylie Sturgess is similarly pessimistic:
"Maybe I’m too optimistic that the skeptical really can make a difference. Excuse me while I go be depressed for a while…"
My own initial response to the news wasn't exactly optimistic, either:
Ok everyone let's just cancel science "New CSIRO head wants to make water divining easier" http://t.co/b55i6fu4QD pic.twitter.com/WBfg46NB1L
— Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0) October 20, 2014
Even writing this a mere half-day after hastily casting those words into the twitter-sphere, I'm not sure I can stand by them.
I don't think the pronouncements of the head of the CSIRO (so far removed from the enormous and dedicated efforts of Australia's skeptics community) mean we ought to 'cancel science', nor do they mean we should spiral dejectedly into a cynical expectation of the eternal existence of the pseudoscience of dowsing.
The spirit Marshall summons during his interview with the ABC is exploratory. The head of an institution like the CSIRO ought to wield a caution that goes above and beyond even the most cynical scientists, but past this fairly significant transgression, we ought to consider that this declaration stemmed from an inductive spirit, something that's important in scientific inquiry.
The other thing that comes to mind is the fact that most dowsers, and Marshall himself, seem to be genuinely convinced by the power of the technique. Nearly every case of testing performed by skeptics and scientists acknowledges that those doing the dowsing are fervent and honest in their belief.
I suspect Marshall's remarks came from a good place, rather than any sinister plans for pseudoscientific domination. They also serve as an important and unmissable reminder that no one's immune to the vulnerability of the human mind to ignore the misses, remember the hits, and reach past the pack, into the dark and the unexplored.