Today, for the files of “weird crossovers in science and superstition,” we have an item from the UK. Sally Le Page, an evolutionary biologist with the University of Oxford, penned a blog post revealing that ten out of the UK’s 12 water companies still use divining rods to find underground pipes and identify leaks.
This practice, also known as dowsing, involves a person holding two bent rods. When they walk over underground water, the rods will twitch to cross each other of their own volition. About 450 years ago when dowsing was invented, the phenomenon was credited to magic and witchcraft. Today, it’s widely regarded as the result of the ideomotor effect, which is the same reason Ouija boards just happen to spell out the name of your secret crush.
How reliable are divining rods? Let’s just say that famed skeptic James Randi pops up in the Wikipedia entry for dowsing.
To the (slight) credit of the UK’s water utilities, several of them told Le Page that divining rods were not standard-issue equipment. Most of them explained that they do primarily use contemporary and scientifically-tested processes for finding water below ground. But still. Yikes.