Dowsing and the Doctrine of Naive Analogy
One of my earliest involvements with BCRA, over 20 years ago, was to listen to John Wilcock give a talk on dowsing. John prefaced his remarks by explaining that he approached the problem as a scientist, and maintained a healthy scientific scepticism. However, the recent article by Wilcock and Bagley [ref. 1] makes me doubt that the authors understand the scientific approach after all. They actively proclaim their professional qualifications, hoping we will be take them seriously as a result, and then they dream up ‘scientific’ explanations that, to quote a phrase from the famous physicist Niels Bohr are “not even wrong”!
John Newman [ref 2] quoted, in his comment on the article, Langmuir’s concept of ‘Pathological Science’. I have a similar description, which I have called the Doctrine of Naive Analogy. I have collected several examples of this, over the years, where the proponents of dubious scientific theories have clearly not understood the principles on which they base their assertions. A classic example of this doctrine is Hately’s crossed field antenna, for which (as he told me personally some years ago) he was thrown out of the IEE (now IET) – and rightly so!
Followers of the Doctrine (as Wilcock and Bagley clearly are) disregard several basic principles of science. They assert that ‘any hypothesis has value until disproved’, which is clearly Bad Science, and they do not obey the axiom quod supplantandum, prius bene sciendum, or ‘Whatever you hope to supplant, you will first know thoroughly’. Instead, they, produce hypotheses in ignorance of basic physics – the Naive Analogy.
I should say, at this point, that my objection to Wilcock and Bagley’s creed is not that ‘dowsing doesnt work’, it is that they are claiming to be scientists, but exposing themselves as fools. If we are to have a debate about dowsing, it has to be done on a scientific basis – quod supplantandum, prius bene sciendum. We do not have to limit ourselves to conventionally held wisdom – I am not afraid of the suggestion that dowsing may be paranormal – Im just saying that the Naive Analogies of Wilcock and Bagley should not be considered a good starting point.
John Newman listed a number of tell-tale signs of pathological science. To that list I would add: the use of overly complicated explanations that, on close inspection, do not actually make sense. Wilcock and Bagley’s spiral wavefront, ... modulating the Larmor frequency – quod supplantandum, prius bene sciendum. I struggled to understand and, for a while, I questioned my own detailed knowledge of this field. Then I re-read the article and noted this paragraph...
In other words Wilcock and Bagley’s experiments amount to nothing, and this is why their ‘scientific’ explanation does not make sense – it is not based on any proper results, let alone on a proper understanding of electromagnetic theory.It should be pointed out that there is a certain philosophical ‘circularity’ in our experimental work because we used dowsing to investigate that which we are dowsing. Some people will use this to reject our results, but we decided we should ignore such an eventuality and press on, gaining understanding as we go.
So, how can they recover from their faux pas? Wilcock and Bagley do not appear to understand how proton precession at the Larmor frequency takes place – or at least, it is not clear, from their article that they are not simply making another Naive Analogy. Or, perhaps I’m being unfair, and they are just no good at explaining themselves? This matter is easily rectified without needing to do any dowsing. They both claim to be scientists; they both flaunt their credentials as members of a professional body for electronic engineers, so here’s a straightforward exercise for them – 1) Write down the magnetic moment of a bucket of water in which all the protons are precessing in the most favourable manner. 2) Explain how you would achieve this unusual state of affairs. 3) Calculate the magnetic field that results from this, and show how you would detect it using a small search coil and an amplifier.
This is a fundamental and very helpful exercise, which would give them the credence they need – quod supplantandum, prius bene sciendum. The next stage, of course is to build (or have built for them) the search coil / amplifier and use it to make the measurements. But this may not be necessary, because the real problem with Wilcock and Bagley’s hypotheses is that they have totally failed to understand signal to noise ratio. Just how is a very small electromagnetic signal supposed to travel through many metres of rock and then somehow be distinguishable in the human body from all the other background noise in that frequency band? Any hypothesis that it does so does not “stand until disproved” as Wilcock and Bagley would say, because it is a hypothesis of Naive Analogy. You may as well say that it is “valid” to hypothesise that dew is caused by the fairies watering the grass – does that “stand until disproved”?
Once again, let me state that this letter is not an attack on dowsing. It is an accusation of lax scientific principles from two people who claim to be scientists and ought to know better. If they are going to hypothesise that dowsing is explainable by an electromagnetic phenomenon then they really need to understand the principles more thoroughly than they have demonstrated. Alternatively, they need to ‘come clean’ and hypothesise that dowsing is paranormal. There is nothing inherently wrong with that approach – the British scientist Rupert Sheldrake has made a career by showing that the scientific method can be applied to such phenomena. Devising some Sheldrake-style experiments that truly tested dowsing would gain Wilcock and Bagley some needed respect. As it is, they do not do much to get dowsing accepted as a valid phenomenon (assuming it is) by inventing such dubious physics.
1. Wilcock, John and Geoff Bagley (2013), Why Won’t Dowsing Go Away?, CREGJ 79, pp4-8 (Sept 2012) & CREGJ 80, pp16-19 (Dec 2012)
2. Newman, John (2013), Letter: Dowsing – Maybe not?, CREGJ 81, p19 (March 2013)