Thinking about Thinking: Dowsing for Explosives


The star of this posting is the ADE 651, a device used in many places to dowse for explosive devices. Before we get into it, first let’s establish a solid foundation by giving you a good understanding of the actual reliability and credibility of dowsing. The other day I was writing about Ley Lines. As part of that posting I explained that related to the belief in Ley Lines was an observation that people who practise dowsing could detect these ley lines. I promised there that I would post about dowsing another day. Today is that day, so let’s get into it.

Dowsing 101

Via the use of a diving rod, some practise what is called dowsing. The goal is to locate something under the ground such as a source of water. It need not be water, other things such as buried treasure, or even oil can also be supposedly located like this.

Carefully holding the diving rod, which can be as simple as a y shaped twig, the dowser will walk in a specific location looking for something under the ground. When detected, the diving rod reacts by moving up or down.

The history of this practise goes back quite far. It dates to at least the middle ages. We know this because in 1518 Martin Luther condemned it as an act that went against the commandments of God.

Use of a divining Rod observed in Great Britain in the late 18th century

Traditionally hazel divining rod were used, but these days things have changed a bit. Modern practitioners generally use a pair of simple L-shaped metal rods (see below). You hold one in each hand. As you walk the area being searched, the rods will swing and cross as you pass over whatever it is you are searching for. This reveals that what you are looking for is directly underneath.

Does This actually work?

This is perhaps the most important question. Once you have established that, you can then move on and begin to explore it and try to work out why it works. That first step is however rather important.

If we confirmed that it really does work, then that would be a truly fascinating discovery.

How can we test it?

The best way is to utilise a scientific approach, one that results in removing all human bias so that we objectively test it. This involves blinding both the candidate being tested, and also the people conducting the test. This is commonly referred to as double blinding. But wait, how could that actually be done, how can we test for something under the ground that neither the tester, nor the candidate knows the location of, and also removes all other clues as well?

There is a good example.

In 1990 a proper double-blind test was conducted in Germany. This was run by the Gesellschaft zur Wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften (Society for the Scientific Investigation of the Parasciences).

What they did was to setup a series of pipes in a field. These were buried at a depth of roughly two feet down. They did not make it too challenging, the location of the pipes was marked on the surface. The catch here was this. Water would flow randomly through some of the pipes, not all of them. The dowsers being tested were asked to detect which pipes the water was actually flowing through.

Over a period of three days about 30 dowsers participated. They all agreed that it was a fair test of their abilities and even signed a statement prior to the test confirming this. They were also highly motivated. There was a prize of $10,000 on offer if they were able to successfully demonstrate that their claimed dowsing ability was real.

What happened?

I’m sure you can guess. Nobody demonstrated anything beyond random chance and so nobody won the prize.

If curious to know more, there is a translation of a posting here by those that ran this and explains it all in detail with pictures.

An interesting backstory is that the Hessische Rundfunk TV network paid for it all. They planned a TV special, but when it became apparent that all 30 of dowsers being tested had failed spectacularly, they lost interest and so there was no TV show.

The above was not the only test

Over time there have been many other tests. Each and every time that careful and rigorous scientific controls have been applied it has failed. There are no exceptions to this.

Some might suggest, “But but but … dowsers often find water successfully, so it just must workright“.

Well … the problem there is that if you are in a location where water is possible, then random chance has a high probability of finding it. This will be especially true for experienced dowsers who are familiar with the most probable surface clues.

But the rods do react, why does that happen?

They do indeed.

This is generally attributed to the ideomotor response. Dowsers might not consciously do this, but subconscious motions can and do cause this to happen.

OK, let’s move on to the star of the show, the ADE 651

The Truly Dark Side to Dowsing – ADE 651

Permit me to introduce you to the ADE 651. This was a device produced by ATSC, a UK based company. It was a very expensive bit of equipment that was sold for the detection of explosives. When challenged on BBC Newsnight about how this actually worked, the con-man “inventor”, James McCormick, explained

“the theory behind dowsing and the theory behind how we actually detect explosives is very similar”

This was just dowsing?

Yep, here is the ADE 651 …

It is literally just a metal dowsing rod with a plastic handle.

These were sold for the staggering sum of $60,000 each.

The “inventor” of this has simply purchased golf ball finders that supposedly worked using dowsing from the US. (Yes, that also was a scam). He simply repurposed it as an explosive or drugs finder scam.

We might think that dowsing is harmless and quaint. However, seriously embracing a belief in dowsing as something real and then sexing it all up with a bit of meaningless techno-babble means that you can sell it to people who then depend upon it for life and death scenarios. It resulted in outcomes with fatal consequences.

Did people actually die because they depended upon this bogus piece of pseudoscientific nonsense being real?


Thousands of people were killed and injured in devastating car bomb attacks in Baghdad such as the 25 October and 8 December 2009 Baghdad bombings. The bombers had passed through checkpoints where ADE 651 was being utilised instead of visual checks. Nothing was detected because these super expensive dowsing rods did nothing meaningful.

Was it just the police in Iraq who were conned into buying these?

Nope, here are some more examples …

Since it did not actually work, what happened?

The inevitable.

The End Game

On 23 April 2013, the director of ATSC, James McCormick who was the “inventor” of this device scam was convicted of fraud by misrepresentation and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Sometimes actions really do have consequences.

The lesson for the day here is this. Understanding what is actually true really does matter.

If it was not already there, then you can now add dowsing to your list of things that are sincerely believed in by many, but does not actually work.

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