Evolutionary biology student discovers that UK water companies engage in dowsing

November 24, 2017 • 10:48 am

What is it with the UK? The National Health Service still subsidizes homeopathy in some parts of England, and now there are reliable reports (here and here) that a substantial number of British water companies—10 out of 12!—use dowsing (if you don’t know it, look here) to find water, in particular pipes and mains.

I’m proud to say that this ridiculous practice was discovered by an evolutionary biologist—Sally Le Page, a grad student at Oxford—and first published on her site at Medium. She got wind of this when she saw a man from a big Midlands water company, a company called in to install a pipe from the mains, walking around her parents’ yard dowsing. Further inquiries revealed that 83% of the 12 companies use a practice that has never been scientifically shown to work, and there have been plenty of tests. As Le Page notes:

Every properly conducted scientific test of water dowsing has found it no better than chance (e.g. herehere, and here, nicely described here). You’ll be just as likely to find water by going out and taking a good guess as you will by walking around with divining rods. And it’s not for lack of testing; there was even $1 million up for grabs for anyone who could provide rigorous evidence that you can find water using dowsing techniques.

Yes, a dude with a Y-shaped stick can have the stick suddenly point down, but as Le Page notes, that’s due to the ideomotor effect, the same subconscious wish-thinking that moves the cursor on a Ouija board. The main thing is that this movement has never shown any ability to find water in blind tests.

Le Page did what a good determined skeptic would do: she found out which companies used this ridiculous practice, and then tweeted them. Their replies are evasive and dumb; here are a few posted by the CBC:

Severn Trent:

Anglian Water:

Northumbrian Water:

Thames Water:

So they know this is happening and even seem credulous enough to believe that dowsing works. Now, as the BBC says, the companies don’t issue “divining rods” to their employees, but those companies are clearly (based on the above) aware that this practice is going on—on company time. The BBC adds this:

Ms Le Page said: “I can’t state this enough: there is no scientifically rigorous, doubly blind evidence that divining rods work.

“Isn’t it a bit silly that big companies are still using magic to do their jobs?”

In a statement issued later, Severn Trent said: “We don’t issue divining rods but we believe some of our engineers use them.”

All the companies emphasised they do not encourage the use of divining rods nor issue them to engineers, and said modern methods such as drones and listening devices were preferred.

Northern Ireland Water, Northumbrian Water, South West Water and Wessex Water said their engineers do not use them.

If you’re a patron of one of the following water companies, you may want to write or email them asking why your money is being used to subsidize superstitious woo (I could find only nine of the ten companies that dowse).

  • Anglian Water
  • Thames Water
  • Scottish Water
  • Southern Water
  • Welsh Water
  • United Utilities
  • Yorkshire Water
  • Severn Trent Water
  • Northumbrian Water

You go, Ms. Le Page. Here’s our latest hero, and a tweet showing she has a sense of humor:

Sally Le Page

And she works on Drosophila!

Here’s Sally, who has a YouTube channel, enthusing about her new fly paper in Proc. Roy. Soc.—her first publication. I well remember when I got my first paper published, as an undergrad. I carried a reprint around in my back pocket for a week—not to show anyone, but to take it out repeatedly and look at it.  I well understand her glee. When I sent it to my folks, they asked me how much I got paid for publishing it. When I responded that it was the opposite—I had to pay them to publish it (page charges—they were completely flummoxed.

73 thoughts on “Evolutionary biology student discovers that UK water companies engage in dowsing

  1. Well done to Sally Le Page!

    John Humphries, the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, is credulous enough to believe he can dowse simply because of a couple of anecdotes. Professor Richard Wiseman tried to disabuse him of this peculiar notion:


    And, like all true believers, he carries on believing even when he’s failed a test:

    When word spread around Carmarthenshire of my remarkable [dowsing] ability, an old friend with a nearby farm set up a test and challenged me to prove my ability. I failed.
    My explanation is that the atmosphere was polluted by negative, cynical, sneering, scornful vibes that impaired my magical powers. All I know is that when it mattered, it worked. And I stand by that.


    1. “Well done to Sally Le Page!”

      Hear, hear. I couldn’t imagine confronting a company about this myself, so it’s encouraging to see others not only do so, but do so with a good sense of humour too! Well done indeed.

    1. I believe that. This is exactly when and how nonsense (…nonsicence 🙂 makes its way into corporate business: when nothing is working well, they broaden their investment. And that broadening will include some high-risk, high-payoff investments. Are they making an investment error? IMO (and yours), yes. Wasting taxpayer money? IMO yes. Are scientists offering them some practical method of finding deep water that is effective and not exorbitant? My guess is no, otherwise they’d be using that instead.

          1. Yes I gathered it was grammar – but I couldn’t see the quote is all. Still can’t – is it in the video or do I need to see an optician? 🙂

  2. Pretty funny stuff. I suppose most all of these folks are religious so there you go. Generally, in the U.S. if someone is going to do any digging you call a phone number. That will result in all utilities being notified to come out and flag all the underground lines – electric, gas, water, sewage, you name it. Usually they can find these things with electronic instruments. Yes they do use lots of plastic today so what they do is bury a wire in the trench along with the water pipe so it can be found with the equipment.

    1. I doubt whether religion has anything to do with it, other than perhaps in a vague, “new-agey” sense. People who take any of the formal religions seriously are thin on the ground in most of the UK, and are regarded as oddballs by the majority of the population.

      1. Okay, but I do not think it is such a reach to believe that people who would believe one form of nonsense without evidence will likely believe another form of nonsense. Maybe a survey should be done to find out. I would just guess that dowsing might be a little thin on the ground as well.

        1. The two are often exclusive. That is, believing in religion-woo often absorbs enough wooish impulses that the religious don’t need other directions of woo (and the religions often frown upon the competition).

          Whereas believing in woo of all sorts satisfies the woo-ish impulse such that religion is no longer necessary for the individual.


    2. First, no, nothing to do with religion.

      Second, finding a leak can be quite difficult and is NOT the same problem as finding the location of the water pipe. Electronic pipe locators will – with luck – tell you the alignment of the pipe (or some adjacent pipe) but they can’t tell you where the leak is. If there’s a wet patch you can take samples and have them analysed (I believe usually residual chlorine will confirm if it’s leaking mains water rather than just ground water). But unless you can hear the leak hissing (as per aljones909 at #24) you can’t tell where the leak is – and the water could well be running along the buried trench for some distance before coming to the surface. At worst, the only resort may be to dig the entire length of line up, which is expensive.

      This is not ‘CSI’ – you can’t just plug some gadget into a computer, tap a few keys and bingo a ghostly 3-D image of the whole pipeline magically appears with the leak handily indicated by a blinking light. 🙁


  3. When they came to work on a friend’s septic tank, they used a divining rod. What probably happens is that they wind up digging in several places “located” by the divining rod, and eventually find the pipe. Success! Severn Trent says they now use drones, is that drones with divining rods?

    1. I’m not sure what they mean by drones, but to find my septic tank, the workers flushed a little plastic thingy with a radio transmitter in it down the toilet and then used a receiver carried over the ground to locate the transmitter. It gave a screeching sound when it came close to the thingy. Maybe the thingy is what is called a drone.

      1. Could be. I imagined it was some sort of surface topography visualization (like for Mayan cities) or radar. Or, you know, a divining rod.

        1. In England where it’s wetter, you can often see underground water sources, ditches etc in aerial photos due to slight changes in terrain, colour, shape, shadow etc similar to finding buildings etc on archaeological digs.

          1. Exactly what I was going to say.

            Aerial photos can sometimes pinpoint archaeological features dating back hundreds or even thousands of years. The reason is that, when (say) a trench was dug in prehistoric times, though long since filled in, the trench remains as a discontinuity in the ground, it may have a different moisture content from its surroundings, and this shows up in the overlying vegetation.

            And obviously this applies to more recent trenches for water pipes etc. I’ve seen our (Auckland) sewers on air photos, even ones that weren’t specifically taken for the purpose.


      2. “It gave a screeching sound when it came close to the thingy.”

        I’ll bet it did. Imagine how the thingy felt about its end of the operation. 🙂

  4. I had a personal experience with a dowser that I still cannot explain. The description of the location of underground water was accurate to the extreme (as to where to drill and how far down water was to be encountered, down to the exact depths of the first water and to the supply of sufficient water, and there was no way that preknowledge of the site could have applied (there was no water table per se). Our neighbor across the street had drilled almost 600 feet and gotten no water. We got all we could use at 160 feet.

    I certainly do not leap to supernatural explanations, but the lady supplying the service would not take a cash donation, even to her church (she claimed her gift was from her god), so I do not suspect charlatanism.

  5. I know I’m being picky, but I think she needs some commas in her ‘Breaking news’, or change the order, otherwise it could be read that her PhD is related to exposing magic.

    1. And on the topic of misunderstanding, perhaps because I didn’t immediately read the next line, it took a long, puzzled moment to realise she was not enthusing about her new flypaper.

  6. Dowsing is a “ridiculous practice”? Damn straight. Hell, I’m still iffy about using a stud finder when hanging a big screen on the wall.

    1. Answer: gazillions; more than I can count. Their lives are too brief to have favorites, though I once had a very tiny male (poor nutrition as a larva) that I called “Tiny” and kept in his own vial full of food.

      1. That was sweet, especially as they are pretty small to begin with, and, I’m guessing- sort of all “look alike.” Nice that you made Tiny’s remaining days happier.

  7. To be fair, the comparison to the NHS isn’t entirely appropriate, as the NHS is entirely state funded, whilst the water companies are private companies, answerable to shareholders. Plus I have to pay them for my water and sewage services.

    Even so, there’s no excuse for this stupidity.

  8. I am a skeptic of many practices but dowsing for water pipes does work; I have always been able to find poorly marked water lines on many different rural properties. However, my body may be more receptive as I produce a lot of electricity, have never been able to wear wrist-watches (the original analogues) as my electromagnetism will stop them. But there must be a linear metal pipe involved; finding where to DRILL for water is silly.

    1. “… I produce a lot of electricity …?

      “Electricity” is an interesting euphemism for what you produce a lotta.

    2. If you can actually do this, under controlled conditions, then there is a $1 million prize. As stated, all previous dowsers that have been tested have failed.

      As part of the testing procedure, you are asked to sign an agreement stating that you agree to the testing conditions, that they are fair, and additionally that if you fail you don’t have psychic abilities. Oddly enough, none of those who have agreed to be tested were willing to admit that they didn’t have psychic powers after they failed.

      1. Sounds like some heavy sledding for an undergrad.

        So was that an academic paper in your pocket, or were you just happy to see yourself published?

  9. Good on her, shame on the companies allowing such nonsense. I wish her well. I remember my first publication too. I thought it was a good paper and would be only the first in a series that would be “my life’s work”. Got a bunch now. Meh. Fat lot of good it’s done me.

  10. Their weak defensiveness cracks me up. Good grief, the surest sign that something’s iffy is when anecdote is trotted out in reaction to failed scientific testing. Of course you “see it working”; if you give the study of cognitive biases even a cursory glance, it’s all but inevitable you will (selective memory, confirmation bias, ignoring misses, assuming causal explanations from correlational evidence, wishful thinking, poor grasp of probability distribution and randomness, self-serving biases, etc.).

    I long for the day, the day when people are scientifically savvy enough to stop assuming eyewitness testimony trumps all. It’s getting embarrassing.

  11. To be fair to the NHS, taxpayer-funded homeopathy is on its last legs in the UK. It is still legal for GPs to prescribe homeopathic treatment, but it is strongly discouraged; and fewer than 7,000 prescriptions for homeopathic “medicines” were issued in England in 2016: down 96% in 20 years.


    This dowsing malarkey is another can of worms, however. The water companies deny putting any of their customers’ money into it; but when my next bill comes through I shall be asking them some questions.

  12. Le Page is one of many from the “Nerdfighter” generation of millennials who provide entertaining and popular videos that promote science. I came across her “Shed Science” videos years ago and it’s been fun watching her grow as a promoter of science, her primary influences being Dawkins and Attenborough.

    That group makes me hopeful for the otherwise denigrated millennial generation.

    1. Ha! Where are you? Here in Kent we have had bugger-all rain for 18 months; and the biggest reservoir hereabouts (Bewl Water, which I walked round a couple of weeks ago (13.5 miles)) is barely a third full.

    2. Many years ago in a TV programme I once saw, a dowser said “to be honest, in Britain, if you dig down in a random location in a field, you are almost certain to find water eventually”. He gave a figure of something like 90% probability.

  13. Good on her! I love seeing someone so obviously excited about their work too.

    When I was about seven, there was a (nother) drought in the town I grew up in, so my father decided we should have a well in the backyard. He got a dowser to come and see if we had water.

    I was very skeptical that it could work, and I kept questioning the woman. I don’t remember her answers, but I my response to each one was something like, “That doesn’t make sense.”

    To cut a long story short, she didn’t find water, and my father was very disappointed. She reassured him by saying that there might be water there, but (looking at me) “negative influences” were preventing her from finding it, and perhaps she could try again another time at a reduced rate. My father saw through her at that point.

  14. Having seen a relative use a dowsing rod, I suspect it can work in the sense of helping access memories of a water pipe buried decades before, or to intuitively assess subtle clues in landscape or vegetation.

    The rods help for making the actual decision, too, by putting the blame for potential failure on the rod, not the person.

    So do I think dowsing rods “work” to some extent. Not that they’d be my method of choice!

    1. Access memories of a water pipe buried decades before? I’m sorry but that seems even stranger than looking for the water.

      1. The man in question was young when a water pipe was run under the main farm yard to a chicken coop, an even that he more or less remembered. Decades later, there was need to dig up part of the pipe. Where did it run?

      2. Sedgequeen, I agree with you that even if it makes no sense and does not work under controlled conditions (ie when there are really no external cues), in the wild it might work as a psychological crutch to bring to the surface some subconscious human abilities that key in on very subtle cues. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I would not write it off as completely impossible.

  15. If some animal migrations involve the successful sensing of the Earth’s magnetic field strength/direction, then isn’t it possible that some peeps have ‘rediscovered’ this sense to an extent?

    Has this sense been studied [not in a ‘water witching’ context] in humans? With what result?

  16. Sally Le Page is my absolute favorite human being, next to Kink, of course!

    She published “Shed Science” videos for years where she went out and about and just did science. She’s a most excellent science presenter and I look forward to her becoming the next David Attenborough.

    I wonder if she contacted Severnus Trent by mistake. He teaches Water Divination at Hogwarts.

  17. This is in the Scottish Water region. A number of years ago we had a leak in the water main feeding our house. Our supply was OK but there was a constant pooling of water at the bottom of a slope. The chap from Scottish Water said it was definitely mains water, not a spring, but he couldn’t locate where the pipe was leaking. The leak could have been anywhere in a 40 metre stretch and it was going to be fairly expensive to replace the whole length (digging up drives etc). Each day as he was passing he would try and pinpoint the leak. It took about a week. It had been difficult because the pipe was about 3 feet underground. The technique he used was old – but not dowsing. He used a stiff wooden rod with some kind of cup attached to the end – no electronics. He’d been pressing the rod to the ground and listening. He could just hear the hiss of the leaking pipe and chalked where we’d find it. He was right.

  18. “What is it with the UK?”

    Very simple. It’s the natural human tendency to believe in woo.

    In the US much of the latent woo-credulity is soaked up by the churches.

    In England, where religion is much less prevalent (and much of that is C of E which is too wishy-washy to satisfy the woophilia) it branches out into homeopathy, horoscopes, colour therapy and so on.

    Insofar as most woo is neutral on what consenting adults do with their own or each others bodies, it’s relatively benign, IMO. Certainly compared with e.g. the ‘pro-life’ factions that plague the US.


    1. To illustrate your point…

      I present a video tour of the Somerset town of Glastonbury [pop 9,000] which has been the site of settlements going back to the Neolithic era & with links to Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail AND King Arthur [LOL].

      The video is just of the High Street where the only places not infused with crystal hippy woo & chants is the reasonably good chip shop [that’s fries you peasants!] & some of the pubs

      Here you go:

      1. To be fair, if there is any place in Britain that would be associated with ancient history, myths and legends, and concomitant woo and hippie-ness, it would be Glastonbury. I can’t think of any other place in Britain that would approach it in its mystic reputation.

        And also, of course, there’s the tourism aspect.

        It’s far from a typical British town in that respect.


        1. A *raspberry* in your general direction

          For being po-faced
          For not watching the video through [I know]

          I’ll not bother listing the woo facilities in all Brit towns evident from little white postcards in PO windows doing the old Tarot readings, right through to spa weekends in nowhere places – promising the impossible for the price of a skiing weekend in Austria

          Bllllllehzzz! 🙂

  19. I’m going to take a slightly different tack to the norm here.

    Firstly, if you test water dowsers in a double blind experiment, their abilities seem to go away. However, this is no more surprising than the fact that my ability to read goes away if you ask me to read something written on a card sealed in an opaque envelope.

    Underground water courses and buried pipes frequently leave visual traces on the surface. Both may change the colour of vegetation above them. The trench dug for the pipe may still be subtly visible. The ground might be more muddy. Suppose that diviners just pick up these visual cues subconsciously and this manifests through the ideomotor effect.

    All the double blind experiments I’ve seen on water divining were done in artificial conditions. I’d like to see some well designed experiments done out in the field (excuse the pun) to test the hypothesis above.

    1. Exactly, thank you. I have read some of the so-called experiments and wasn’t impressed with their designs. How about blinding the person with the divining rods as well so s/he doesn’t have visual cues? I bet that I will still find the water pipes.

      1. How about blinding the person with the divining rods as well so s/he doesn’t have visual cues? I bet that I will still find the water pipes.

        I bet you won’t, unless you can hear the water flowing through the pipes or feel the indentation of the trench.

        You seem to have got my argument exactly backwards.

Leave a Reply