Oct 09 2008

Dowsing for Journalists

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Comments: 41

There is good and bad journalism out there. Recently the quality of science journalism has taken a hit, most likely due to decreasing revenues for major news outlets. But every now and then I run across a piece of journalism at a major outlet that is so horrific I have to comment.

Yesterday in the New York Times, Jesse McKinley published a terrible piece about dowsing that was virtually devoid of any useful information. McKinley informed us that there is a drought in California – if you didn’t already know that, then you learned something new. Otherwise the piece was worse than useless, utter drivel.

McKinley seems to think it’s news that there are people who dowse – who walk around with sticks and think they can find water by the movement of these sticks. He gives us riveting anecdotes to reveal this amazing information:

“A neighbor’s well had gone dry, and this old fellow came out and he witched it, quite a ways away from the other well. Doggone it, I’ll be darned if they didn’t get water. That made a believer out of me.”

Aw, shucks. But if you were hoping for more technical information, don’t fret none, McKinley obliges.

“It’s got to have leaves on it, and it can’t really be bigger than your finger,” Mr. Stine said. “And you got to find one with a fork in it.”

Oh, the dowsing rod needs to have a fork in it! I learned that from Bugs Bunny (or some other cartoon character) probably when I was four or five. Unless you have been living in a cave, you have likely absorbed from the culture more information about dowsing than McKinley presents in this brain-dead article.

McKinley does not even do a good job and the mindless “balance” that incompetent reporters think substitutes for real journalism – you know, actual information and perspective.  This is all we get.

Thomas Harter, a hydrologist at the University of California, Davis, who runs workshops with farmers looking to drill wells, said there was no scientific evidence that dowsers had special talent at finding water. They are, however, usually much cheaper than the various scientific tools, like electromagnetic imaging or seismic studies, that can help find aquifers.

“It’s worth a bottle of whiskey to have a guy come out,” Dr. Harter said.

But Dr. Harter also said men like Mr. Stine, who worked in the irrigation business for nearly half a century, could have an intuitive sense of where water was, simply by dint of knowing the territory.

OK – there is one notion in there with some value: perhaps dowsers may just be using their knowledge of the land to get a feel where there is more likely to be water, and they are just confirming this knowledge with the dowsing. But be careful, or you may miss this subtle point in all the anecdotes. The point is useless by itself, however, because McKinley does not put it in perspective.

First, there is no reason to think that these dowsers do any better than chance at looking for water. Has there every been any controlled study? McKinley doesn’t tell us, probably because he never bothered to find out (don’t get crazy, now, that might take some actual journalistic investigation). McKinley could easily have learned about the fact that James Randi has tested numerous dowsers under controlled conditions, and they have all failed. In fact there has never been a well-controlled study that shows that dowsing is anything more than self-deception.

He writes:

On Mr. Assali’s and Mr. Cotta’s land, Mr. Stine worked fast, practically speed-walking. And then, after about 150 feet, the willow bowed suddenly — inexplicably — toward Mr. Stine’s chest.

Inexplicably?  It is only inexplicable in that McKinley has apparently never heard of the ideomotor effect – which is an explanation for the movement of dowsing rods. The rods move by subconscious muscles movements of the dowsers. This is well established.

McKinley missed the real story here. He could have taught his readers about the need for controlled observations, the potential for self-deception, and the nature of the ideomotor effect. He could have told us how much time and money dowsing potentially wastes, and if he were ambitious maybe we could have learned something about scientific methods for finding underground water.

Instead McKinley gave us Bugs Bunny level, gee-golly, grade A nonsense.

How does such an article get into the New York Times? Well, it probably has something to do with the decreasing resources I mentioned above. McKinley used to be the arts reporter for the times, now he is doing general reporting. Further, I can predict what McKinley would say in his defense – this is a “fluff” piece. Fluff pieces are for “human interest” (read “carnival freak show”)  and therefore do not require any journalistic standards. They are to entertain only.

Further, journalists generally do not consider it their job to teach the public science. Sharon Begley, the science editor for Newsweek, told me in an interview that, while science reporters try to get the story right, they are not responsible for the poor science education in this country and the general level of scientific illiteracy. I disagree with her – the public learns much more from the mass media (right or wrong) than from the classroom. The press is one of the few professions protected in the Constitution for a reason – the job comes with a public responsibility.

McKinley should stick to writing stories about kittens, art shows, or something else within his sphere of competence (assuming he has one). Science stories are not fluff pieces simply because there is bad science involved. How many people will read his article and as a result hand out money to a con-artist with a dowsing stick? Also – any such story, even if the topic itself is not consequential, is an opportunity to either educate the public about science and critical thinking or to confuse them. It doesn’t really matter what the topic is if the reader walks away less critical and more confused about science in general.

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