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Dowsing for fun and profit: A test of a $1-million claimant

The “Holy Grail” of the paranormal world must surely be the US$1 million prize offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) “to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event” (

Though this prize has been advertised for four years now (at the time of writing in 2001), it continues to remain unclaimed.

This doesn’t mean paranormalists haven’t tried. Roughly 150 have gone through the stringent application process, only to fail when tested in a controlled environment. Dowsers number about 20% of the applicants. In fact, so many covet this prize that the JREF prefers applicants to be first screened locally before proceeding to the next level of testing (should it be warranted).

Dr. Szato locates one of the test pipes by means of a magnetometer, verifying the detailed maps of the test sites.

The claimant, “R.A.”, traverses one of the three sites chosen on the grounds of York University to test his claim of detecting pipes through dowsing.

With all testing completed, Drs. De Robertis and Szeto show the claimant a detailed map of the objects buried underground.

In July 2001, Andrew Harter from JREF contacted one of us to inquire whether we would test a “local” dowser who had applied for the one million dollars. We agreed to test this claimant from eastern Ontario—whom we will refer to as R.A.—after receiving his notarized statement that he could locate metal and concrete pipes buried underground and that these pipes did not have to contain water of any kind.

According to JREF’s rules, the applicant is responsible for all costs associated with the test. It would have been extremely time consuming to locate or design a site that required the control of running water. Without the need for water, we hoped to perform the test at no cost to the applicant and with a modest investment of our own time.

Identifying a suitable test site is by no means straightforward. In the first place, it is very difficult to locate accurate plans showing underground pipes. And even if you do, you needn’t be a dowser to locate pipes at most sites: they almost always run parallel or perpendicular to roads or sidewalks, or follow the cardinal directions, N/S or E/W. Moreover, there are normally ample aboveground clues such as sewer-head or electrical-head covers that are connected by a straight line underground.

In the end, we selected three sites, each about 225 square metres in area, on York University’s main campus whose area is much greater than 1 square kilometre. Two of these were chosen from the “York Environmental Site.” For the third site, we are grateful to Rob Mooy, Superintendent of Facilities, Planning & Construction at York, for taking the time to help us obtain the relevant underground drawings and for confirming their accuracy.

The test was performed in the early afternoon of Saturday 20 October 2001—a cool, dry, windy day. Prior to this, we had drawn up a series of conditions under which the test was to be performed that was agreeable to both the claimant (R.A.) and the testers (authors). It should be noted that only the authors knew the location of the sites in advance in order to ensure the integrity of the test. (Even had the claimant guessed that the test would take place at York University, the vast area of the campus combined with the public unavailability of up-to-date underground drawings offered no a priori advantage.)

R.A. was an affable man who had an engineering degree and had run a successful business before his recent retirement. Just before the test, he informed us that he had located underground pipes using dowsing over the past forty years with 100% accuracy.

He admitted that he didn’t know why dowsing works; only that it did for him.

The conditions agreed to in advance were straightforward. We stipulated that the claimant could only use dowsing rods to locate pipes, that there were between 1-9 pipes in total at the three grass-covered sites, and that each pipe was at least 2 metres long and buried within 2 metres of the ground.

Interpretation of the outcome would be informed by well-defined probability (binomial) calculations. The probability of any randomly selected location being within one metre from a pipe happened to be about 5%.

R.A. employed two bronze brazing (divining) “L-shaped” rods for the test. These were held loosely in each hand and parallel to the ground. He traversed each site in a raster or grid pattern, first E-W, then N-S. The rods are normally parallel to one another until a pipe is allegedly crossed at which point they diverge. R.A. marked each spot the rods diverged with a golf ball on the ground and then continued traversing the site. After the site was dowsed once, R.A. checked one or more of the aberrant marks to ensure maximal accuracy. It should be noted that we stipulated in advance that marks had to be at least one metre apart.

The claimant registered 9 hits at site 1, 7 hits at site 2 (a blank area), and 8 hits at site 3. Even though we generously included an imaginary border 1 metre in width around each edge of the real pipes to account for “edge effects,” R.A. managed to be successful with only 2 out of 24 marks. And the two marks that were “hits” were part of a “pipe” that ran nearly perpendicular to the real pipe. Given the conditions, the probability of getting 2 or fewer out of 24 correct by random guessing is about 88%, not at all an unlikely event that a skeptic would associate with a feat of paranormal ability.

R.A. took the results well, though he was clearly dejected as he left the York campus that day.

As per our agreement with the claimant, we reported the results to JREF and to our membership.

Though this required a few days’ work on our part, we had fun. (Had the claimant been correct with 22 out of 24 marks, we would have had even more fun.) But this experience certainly illustrates how difficult it is to carry out the simplest of tests on a purported paranormalist. We can now understand why paranormal claims are tested so infrequently; it is not easy to do things right, and the answer is always the same. Check James Randi’s bank account.

One response to “Dowsing for fun and profit: A test of a $1-million claimant”

  1. MarkJay52 says:

    I can douse exactly as the gentleman above. what a gimme!! I could find EVERY pipe in those areas! Let’s make this a REAALL contest. How about a bic pen ina hectare area! Or even better; aneedle in a haystack. Get with me I’ll prove it to you!!

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