When someone needs to drill a well for water, the first obvious step is figuring out where to drill. It's a dicey prospect, however, because the drilling is expensive—and a misfire can leave a homeowner with a useless hole in the ground that cost $4,000 to $5,000. All kinds of tools can be used to make an educated guess—geological maps, landscape clues such as valleys or tree stands, neighbors' wells, etc.—"but none of it guarantees that a rig won't just turn dirt," writes Dan Schwartz at Outside. Which is why lots of people still turn to the somewhat mystical world of dowsers, people who use handheld rods (wooden or metal) or even devices such as pendulums to pinpoint the best spot to dig. As Schwartz writes: "The power is not in the device, for it merely channels, dowsers say; the power is out there, and an attuned hand and quieted mind can discern it."
To critics, though, "it's all hooey," kind of like using a Ouija board to hunt for water, writes Schwartz. And indeed, skeptics say the same "ideomotor effect" that explains Ouija boards is at play here—essentially hidden desires that make muscles move subconsciously. Schwartz cites a comprehensive study in the 1980s that ultimately concluded dowsing doesn't work. And yet. The story also includes interviews with people who swear up and down it does, and he provides plenty of examples of accurate strikes. Could that just be dumb luck, as critics say? The story is not out to debunk anything. It ends with Schwartz accompanying a dowser and watching in amazement as the metal rod in his hand rotates. "It. Is. Un. Canny," he writes. "I look for some sleight of hand but can’t detect any movement in his wrist." (Read the full story, which ends with Schwartz feeling this mysterious "tug" himself.)