Monday, 20 October 2014

ABC botches headline: New CSIRO chief endorses dowsing

Today the ABC carried an interview with Larry Marshall, the new head of Australia's premier scientific research body, CSIRO. They chose to run with the headline New CSIRO head wants to help farmers find water. Reading into the interview with Larry Marshall, we find:
He's interested in the development of technology that would make it easier for farmers to dowse or divine for water on their properties.

"I've seen people do this with close to 80 per cent accuracy and I've no idea how they do it," he said.

"When I see that as a scientist, it makes me question, 'is there instrumentality that we could create that would enable a machine to find that water?'

"I've always wondered whether there's something in the electromagnetic field, or gravitation anomaly."

Dr Marshall believes the CSIRO can 'push the envelope' with such projects and contribute to improving agricultural productivity.
Yes, our new head of CSIRO thinks there's something to water dowsing. He's right that dowsers can sometimes find water in the natural environment, but only by picking up on environmental cues - the lie of the land, watercourses, vegetation, etc. All the stuff with the rods, the actual dowsing part, is utter bullshit. It's just the ideomotor effect at work. This has been established by many controlled tests of dowsers in which they fail dismally, then make excuses. There's nothing "in the electromagnetic field, or gravitation anomaly."

CSIRO rightly copped a bit of mocking on social media:
Somebody at CSIRO noticed, and tried to walk back their boss's comments:
He may not have been saying divining is the answer, but he was certainly suggesting that it's part of the answer and that there's something unexplained going on. There isn't. Dowsing itself does not work. It's embarassing that the head of CSIRO doesn't know that, and felt comfortable uttering such nonsense.

CSIRO shouldn't deny he said what he did or that he believes it, they need to own up to the fact that he said something and believes something stupid, and he needs to learn from it.


  1. Hey Larry, how about putting CSIRO scientists onto turning base metal into gold? Or did you attempt that under Geoff Garrett's 'leadership'?

  2. Nominee: Dr Larry Marshall
    Nominated by: Peter Rowney
    Date: 20/10/2014

    I would like to nominate newly appointed head of the CSIRO, Dr Larry Marshall for the Australian Skeptic’s prestigious Bent Spoon Award for the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle.

    It was recently reported that Dr Marshall is promoting the “technology” of divining or dowsing for water, as a solution to Australia’s drought problems. He claims that he’s “seen people do this with close to 80 per cent accuracy” but has “no idea how they do it,” and that “the CSIRO can ‘push the envelope’ with such projects and contribute to improving agricultural productivity”.

    Perhaps Dr Marshall is unaware of the Australian Skeptic’s prize of $100,000 for anyone who can successfully locate underground water by divining or dowsing with a consistent success rate above that of random chance. With recent funding cuts the CSIRO could certainly do with the extra money.

    The fact that a diviner can sometimes find water is no more impressive than a fisherman sometimes catching fish or a punter sometimes backing a winner. In Australia there have been several conclusive blind trials done on dowsing and divining, clearly showing that even sincere practitioners suffer from confirmation bias, an effect that the head of any science organisation should be familiar with.

    I feel that Dr Marshall is an ideal candidate for the Bent Spoon Award. As the head of the CSIRO and a spokesman for science in Australia he is responsible for representing science as an evidence based discipline and not one based on anecdotes and confirmation bias.