What's the real deal with divining rods?

Dear Matt:

What's the real deal with divining rods? I've used a couple of wire coat hangers and straightened them out thus [clever illustration included], and I have found water pipes. But I'm puzzled as to how it works. Explain this to me as you would an eight-year-old.

-- Tim, San Diego

Actually, the eight-year-old and I would like you to explain to us exactly how you found the pipes. You make it sound like this happens all the time at your house, no big deal. Groundwater scientists consider dowsing a crock. Dowsers tested under controlled lab conditions have never beaten chance odds while searching for water or pipes or anything else, giving skeptics all the ammo they need. But a study done in the Middle East by the University of Munich, published by a Stanford University journal, produced some pretty impressive numbers for dowsers vs. hydrologists seeking water under field conditions. But when the same scientists took the same dowsers and tried to replicate their success in the lab -- nada.

So how does it work, if it works? The American Society of Dowsers admits they have no idea. Believers opine that there could be an electromagnetic energy field around your target, and when you encounter that field your muscles react to the charge and the dowsing rod moves. They're quite emphatic that the energy passes through the body of the dowser, not the rod itself, which is why a dowsing rod can be wood or metal or whatever suits you. All instructions for dowsers emphasize that you have to concentrate very hard on what you're looking for and have your mind wide open to the vibes. Dowsers believe it is a psychic phenomenon of some sort, but what sort they don't know.

The elves aren't too interested in finding old water pipes, but they sure perked up when we found ads for some dowsing kits that guaranteed to help you find lost pets and loved ones, dead bodies, ghosts, murderers, oil, minerals, archaeological sites, Earth's subterranean energy fields, human auras, stock market tips and lottery numbers, or locate buried treasure by simply dowsing over a map (no messy prospecting required!). Anyway, I've sent 'em off with some bent barbecue forks to find my car keys and the remote.

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