By Michael

Some of you may have heard this embarrassing story from back in October. The incoming Chief of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Dr. Larry Marshall, was being interviewed by ABC Rural about what to expect at CSIRO under his leadership from the start of 2015. The interview covered his vision of how CSIRO’s scientists will continue to deal with the challenges that face the agricultural industry in Australia.

On top of that list of challenges is water scarcity, and it has been ever since there has been an agricultural industry in Australia. It was during this part of the interview that Dr. Marshall brings up water-dowsing by saying, “I’ve seen people do this with close to 80 per cent accuracy and I’ve no idea how they do it.”

Before I go on to what I took from this interview and the reaction to it, I want to briefly describe what water-dowsing (or water-divining) is.

The basic concept works like this: a stick or metal rods (sometimes just a pendulum swinging over a map) in the hands of a dowser will be attracted to areas where groundwater is present. The dowser then uses the movements of their instrument to suggest where their client should drill for water. Dowsing has also been used to find mineral deposits and archaeological sites.

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Generic water-dowsing photo #1
Source

So how does water-dowsing supposedly work? The website of the Dowsers Society of New South Wales (unfortunately it’s a thing) isn’t that helpful in explaining how but they do mention things like “energy lines”, “energy fields” and “chakras”. So in a nutshell: magic.

The United States Geological Survey explains it much better here: “the natural explanation of ‘successful’ water dowsing is that in many areas underground water is so prevalent close to the land surface that it would be hard to drill a well and not find water.”

So Dr. Marshall should really be surprised that water-dowsers are unsuccessful 20% of the time.

The Dowsers Society of New South Wales give the second part of the explanation on their website: “pendulums are subject to suggestion.” The movements of the stick/rods/pendulum in the dowser’s hands have been found to be caused by phenomenon known as the ideomotor response. This effect causes the dowser to subconsciously move their body without consciously deciding to. Much like when people scare themselves with Ouija boards.

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Now that I have covered the main points on what water-dowsing is, I’ll explain why I think the Dr. Marshall interview on ABC Rural is such bad press coverage for groundwater science in Australia and for CSIRO.

Firstly, water-dowsing is junk science that should have died off long ago. Unfortunately, other junk sciences like homeopathy, astrology and fortune telling have lived longer lives than they should have as well. One of the main reasons for their continued existence is people in highly regarded positions, like the Chief of CSIRO, sometimes giving great public endorsements.

Look at the Dr. Oz fiasco in the USA for a very recent example of an apparently credible person misleading the public. Unfortunately, it hasn’t taken too long for Dr. Marshall’s statements to be used as a shining endorsement for water-dowsing in a recent column published in Fairfax newspapers (see here). This article will no doubt give the false impression to the public that water-dowsing is still something worth investigating.

If I haven’t been clear already – it is not.

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Generic water-dowsing photo #2
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My second issue comes from Dr. Marshall’s and CSIRO’s response to criticism after the interview (see here, here and here). The critics aren’t being petty either. Water-dowsers can cost farmers thousands of dollars on badly placed wells, so it isn’t just harmless fun. However, Dr. Marshall’s only response so far has been to miss the point of the criticism and say that it’s CSIRO’s job to “push the envelope”. Apparently without any regard to how many people let him know that the envelope is empty.

The response from CSIRO’s twitter account during National Water Week was just as unimpressive: “Larry’s interested in helping farmers access water but wasn’t saying divining is the answer.” Again, they have missed the point of the criticism. We know he doesn’t think water-dowsing is the answer but he definitely gave it endorsement by giving the false impression that it actually works.

Lastly, the former Chief of CSIRO Land and Water, Dr. John Williams, pointed out another problem with the interview in a statement to Science Insider. He pointed out that Dr. Marshall’s focus on water scarcity was in the wrong direction. Dr. Marshall gave the impression that there is a problem with finding water in Australia. The problem isn’t finding water (scientists are aware of most of the productive aquifers), the problem is how we manage what we’ve got, and as Dr. Williams noted, “there isn’t much of it, and we don’t know how it’s replenished.”

What we do need is to develop new and improved methods of accurately estimating aquifer recharge rates, more robust modeling techniques for predicting catchment responses to water use and climate change, and better methods for managing and identifying water quality problems. Water-dowsing will never play a part in solving any of those problems.

The reason I put off writing this blog post until now was because I was interested in how Dr. Marshall might respond after such an obvious mistake. I was hoping he might finally listen to, and understand, some of the criticism that came after the interview. Unfortunately, we have now begun 2015 and he still hasn’t given a well thought out response. I guess we can only hope that farmers keep themselves up-to-date with all the great science that CSIRO Land and Water researchers are working on. I’m not doubting his sincerity about wanting to help farmers in areas where water is scarce. But if he really wants to make a constructive contribution to the discussion on water security in Australia he needs to set the record straight and understand that water-dowsing has no place even being mentioned.