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NYT gives 'water witches' the both-sides treatment (thewhyaxis.substack.com)
83 points by jashkenas 5 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 88 comments





As much as I like to criticize the NYT, I think this is unfair. The original article makes it clear that it's BS. The article says clearly, "scientists and groundwater experts make clear that the dowsers’ methods are unscientific and amount to a kind of hocus-pocus".

What I think people don't understand here is that the NYT doesn't just come out and call people assholes. A traditional journalist is not supposed to insert themselves into the frame to that extent. The highfalutin' journalist approach to the problem is to paint a sympathetic picture of the asshole in ways that make it clear that they are an asshole.


I don't think that does make it clear that it's BS, unless you come from a very particular pro-science mindset that's common in our circles but far from universal. You'll note that quote is immediately followed by two wineyard managers explaining how their professional experience suggests the scientists are wrong. I'm confident a substantial number of people would read this article and see it as an example of scientists ignoring the value of practical experience and traditional wisdom.

Compare something like their Aduhelm article from today (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/19/health/alzheimers-drug-ad...). The NYT isn't quite insulting Biogen, true, but they're being much more confrontational and not giving Biogen any space to frame the story how they might prefer.


I think this depends a lot on whom you think things aren't being made clear to. Given who the NYT audience is (72% have a university degree, 91% identify as Democrats), I think most of the readership is going to be in the pro-science mindset.

More that that, regular readers of anything learn to interpret in context. E.g., I've long read The Economist. People reading one article there might see them as dull. But as a regular reader, I know they can be brutal; you just have know which particular dry turns of phrase indicate the brutality. I think most NYT subscribers will know how to parse NYT articles and pick up the condescension and undermining in the article.


I'm not saying you're wrong, but I don't really see it as a complete defense. I would expect the point of a paper of record to be that you can take its reporting at face value. If you have to be familiar with its cultural conventions to understand what the reporters are really trying to say, doesn't that still boil down to, I'd better be careful when reading the paper or I might end up misinformed?

If nothing else this should be clear already from these past years. Very few journalist has the kind of absolutely maniacal approach to understanding the world, placing a particular story in it and then effectively communicating it that would be required for blindly trusting a paper of record.

I don't think that the typical view of Gell-Mann amnesia is correct. I think there are issues, topics that are pretty much reliably communicated. Probably local issues, politics, and maybe that's it. Everything else that requires deeper context just gets at least one thing wrong. How wrong is of course an important question, and is usually paper and journalist dependent. (But for example anything involving economics, psychology, AI, the sciences... are suspect.)


I think you're packing a lot into "face value". Off the top of my head, I can't think of a source that I don't understand better once I've read a bunch of it. Words get meaning through context, through expected shared understanding.

Exercises in "true" simplicity end up having their own problems. For example, Up Goer Five [1] and Thing Explainer [2]. Or less cartoonishly, Simple English Wikipedia [3]. There are reasons that more advanced topic are covered in more advanced ways.

[1] https://xkcd.com/1133/

[2] https://xkcd.com/thing-explainer/

[3] https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page


I agree the story seems to be about the desperation of these people.

I kinda wonder if ANY portrayal of these people would be ok with the author if it didn't constantly have notes about how foolish they were ...


What's better?

Making a strong case for the desperation of the drought and advocating for practical solutions? Or helping con artists steal huge sums of money from desperate people?


I don't understand where you're coming from / what you think a given journalist's role might be.

Sometimes it's just documenting what people are up to / what their lives are like, what they do... even if foolish.

Are you saying that NYT is supposed to be advocating for solutions you like and not writing about these people?


They could be documenting how people are being scammed in desperate times. That would document what people are truly up to.

They absolutely were. There's at least half a dozen mentions that the technique doesn't work and multiple quotes from geologists. There's no reason to believe that the witches themselves are intentional scammers as opposed to true believers in what they're doing, but it's made abundantly clear that they're providing a worthless service.

The truth matters!

I have a bunch of lies I'd like the Times to publish to promote my business. How do I get an article?


Almost uniquely, you cannot get the Times to write about your business--what publicists call a "placement". The Times tells stories that fit the narrative its editors have chosen, and only those stories. If they wrote about dowsers, it was because it fit into (e.g.) the California drought story line.

That approach just helps con artists rip off desperate ignorant people, promoting a worldview that magic is a viable alternative to scientific reality, a view held by a dangerously large and easily exploited percentage of the population.

I don't think so. The NYT's customers know how to read an NYT article like this. I expect very few will come away with the notion that they should hire a dowser, and that the bulk would read it as intended.

If you have evidence otherwise, I'd be interested to see it.


You lack major introspective skills and self awareness if you think your beliefs are the "correct" ones and the rest of the world is full of fools. This kind of attitude has been on the rise and is a large part why public trust of our institutions is falling. No one needs to be protected from bad ideas they are fully capable of reaching that conclusion on their own.

"Scientific reality" is in the eyes of the beholder, unfortunately. Plenty of people will happily accept 'the science says' type statements if it's something they already believe in.

Show them something that goes against those beliefs, and suddenly you'll be fielding skepticisms of sample sizes, P-values, the ideological leanings of the principal investigators, etc.

People do not live their lives governed by scientific knowledge, and ignoring that isn't going to change the status quo.


They shouldn't have ran the story at all. At best, it's juvenile.

Why's that? As a California resident, I'm very interested in local pseudoscience. As the article suggests, there's an important contrast between the Bay Area's high-tech reputation and what's happening in the region.

Why not though? It's happening. They report things that are happening. The story says about half a dozen times that the technique doesn't work and quotes as many geologists as it does witches. Popular belief in superstition is still newsworthy. As is reporting on religious movements or QAnon.

Imagine the article was about a right wing anti-trans activist. The criticism would be that the NYT was providing a platform to someone that doesn’t deserve it.

But this water witch is clearly a fraud. They are giving a platform to someone who does not deserve it because that are ripping off people. They are humanizing a fraudster.


>They are humanizing a fraudster.

So? Fraudsters are human, though, as obvious a statement as that is.


For sure. And I want to caution against seeing all dowsers as fraudsters. Fraud for me is in the "knows or should have known it's a lie" bucket. But I'm sure a lot of dowsers believe in what they're doing.

As one of the sciencey experts explains, it's perfectly plausible that some dowsers do a decent job because they have a subconscious knowledge of landforms and how they relate to water. So this may not be fraud so much as ignorance of how they actually work.

Given the extent to which the tech industry is coughing up "AI" solutions that are also driven by neural networks, only some of which actually work and the rest work for mysterious reasons, I think we can treat dowsers as human.


I would think that TERFs etc cause and contribute to a significantly larger amount of human suffering than water dousers, though.

That used to be the case but in the last ten to fifteen years the prestige press has been moving away from these norms (under the influence of a generation of journalism professors that became dominant ten to fifteen years before that.)

There are two subsequent sentences in the first paragraph. One is complete bullshit, while the other has correct reasoning. It really doesn't help when skeptic articles do this.

> The very notion of dowsing — that an above-ground stick will react to the presence of something hundreds of feet below — breaks the laws of physics.

Really? It breaks the laws of physics? Tell that to my gravimeter. Oh you are saying a human with a simple wooden stick is not a gravimeter? Idk they are quite complicated. They can be many things. Maybe they can be a gravimeter too?

> Every single controlled test of the practice has failed, yielding results indistinguishable from chance.

This is the important bit. We know that "dowsing" doesn't work because we tried it many times, carefully, and so far it never worked better than chance. It has nothing to do with breaking the laws of physics.


A human with stick (in the colloquial sense, they ones used by Dow sets) would absolutely not be able to perceive the differences in gravity with/without the presence of underground water. The signal to noise ratio would be too high to know the difference. In that sense I don’t think it’s too much of a exaggeration to say it defies the law of physics IMO

Animals can do all sorts of weird things that might have once been believed to be impossible:

"Birds Can See Earth's Magnetic Fields, And Now We Know How That's Possible" (https://www.sciencealert.com/birds-see-magnetic-fields-crypt...)

The only reason you can state with confidence that a human with stick can't detect water underground is that they've never been able to do it.


Being able to sense Earth's (extremely strong) magnetic field was never "believed to be impossible." The paper is just about resolving the specific mechanism in birds' bodies that allows them to do it.

The gravitational variation caused by water deep below the surface is infinitesimal. Its effect on a stick in your hands cannot be felt. You experience far more variation in gravity due to the moon's orbit, and you can't feel that either.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272887140_Subsurfac...

> The gravity variation computed from the total water storage (sum of soil moisture and ground water) using the Bouguer approximation was 12 µgal peak-to-peak (1 µgal== 1 x 10-8ms-2).

That's a 0.0000012% difference. You'd experience vastly more difference in force due to the motion of air against the stick as you moved, or the accumulation of dust on the stick over time. Or the local humidity and pressure. Or the position of the moon. Or your elevation. Or your latitude. Or...

Meanwhile, it turns out that if you're over a groundwater deposit, you can dig pretty much anywhere and hit water eventually.


> The signal to noise ratio would be too high to know the difference.

That's a very good reasoning why it is an unlikely thing to be. But the sensitivity of humans to gravitational differences is not a law of physics. This is a very important distinction. The phrase "breaks the laws of physics" is not just a rhetorical flourish.

If I point at a go-kart looking thing and say "that thing can go 0.8 Mach" that's a practical impossibility. For many reasons it is very unlikely, to be true. But does not break the laws of physics. (Who knows, maybe it has a nuke under it, which can loft it that fast for one glorious moment of go-karting fame.)

If I point at the same go-kart looking object and say "that thing can go 1.2c" that is a whole different ballpark. It might still happen, but if it happens that will make us re-evaluate nearly everything we think we know about how the universe works. This is what it means that something "breaks the laws of physics".


plants can apparently sense water tens of feet away, through solid earth and metal pipes


A long enough, massive enough stick could theoretically be a gravimeter. You'd just have to be so impossibly perceptive (or use an interferometer) that you'd notice the difference in gravity each half of the stick experiences.

No question dowsing is pseudoscience. But it's interesting that the dowsing concept of hanging weights off a stick is quite similar to the first scientific gravimeter, which used a pendulum in the 1670s.

Also Clarke's first and second laws in action: "LaCoste's most famous invention is the ship, and aircraft-mounted gravimeter. …this invention was considered impossible until LaCoste demonstrated it." Clarke's third law is asking the black brick in your hand "Siri, what's the local gravity here?"


No it is not. But can a human+stick system act like one? I'm open to the explanation how it would break the "laws of physics".

Simple: The change in gravity is so small that it is not physically perceptible by the human nervous system.

That first sentence hit me the same way. We have all kinds of above ground fancy sticks that react to the presence of things hundreds of feet below. It doesn't break any laws of physics!

What matters is that, as you note, we've tested this pretty thoroughly and under controlled conditions, and have strong evidence that dowsing is bullshit.


The article is essentially repeating Adam Savage's words on the topic in his video linked in the article, re "laws of physics".

This is the same defense used by practitioners of astrology -- that humans are somehow able to unconsciously perceive and be affected by infinitesimal gravitational forces.

It's bunk.


This isn’t both sides treatment, this is reporting on the desperation of vineyard managers in a drought that would shell out around $1000 (when geologists charge several times that) for bogus services. Other commenters have problems with the NYT including the personal wacky views of some dowsers and vineyard managers but what’s the alternative? Omitting them? I want to know as a reader the people behind throwing money away for these dowsers and why, and I got that information instead of being babied by a reporter.

Not once does the article mention efficacy of geologists or dowsers because I didn’t think that’s what the article was about. It read more like, “Hey some vineyards are hiring crazy people and here are some of their claims that are widely disputed. Weird world right?.” An example is when they contrast the different feelings dowsers get: one feels hot like a battery, another feels cold chills, and yet another just swings a pendulum on a map and marks it with a sharpie like a magic spell.

People who read this and think they want a dowser will find another article or blog to succumb to confirmation bias anyway. Let’s not take our frustration with misinformation out on normal reporting.


I think you're importing context from somewhere else here. I gave the article another read-over to be sure, and I didn't see anything about desperation or cost differentials. The dowsers and vineyard managers seem to me to be making a direct claim that dowsing is the most effective way to find water and geologists don't know what they're talking about.

Spot on that I am bringing the national discussion around the California drought into context while reading the article.

On costs: > Some California farmers who pay for the service, however, say it often provides a cheaper alternative to traditional methods, such as hiring a geologist or prospector.

> He planned to charge at least $1,400 for his visit. A geologist had quoted the same site at a minimum of $6,500

On desperation:

> (The Subtitle) Amid California’s drought, desperate landowners and managers are turning to those who practice an ancient, disputed method for locating water.

> His busy schedule is a sign of the desperation of ranchers, vineyard owners and land managers as California reels from a crippling drought that has depleted aquifers, shrunken crops and forced some farmers to sell off their water rights.

> “There are economic issues, personal beliefs and desperation factors going into the decision to try dowsing,” Ben Frech, a spokesman for the National Ground Water Association, said in an email. While the group understood that despair could lead to “exploring all options,” ultimately, he said, the method was a waste of time and money.

On the flip side, although one manager claims that they’ve never hired a geologist, they didn’t claim geologists “don’t know what they’re talking about”. Instead, they allude to the success of dowsers, which is later explained as a product of luck, the multitude of underground wells in California, and that “years of experience in the industry would also have developed a familiarity with the landscape”. I don’t think this is a case where vineyards and farmers are rejecting science, they’re welcoming what they see as a viable cheaper alternative to find water before they drill. It’s easy to read between the lines and think that these vineyard managers are the kinds of people who would reject science altogether, but that’s not in the article, it’s importing context.


I'm an atheist. But this is perhaps a trickier issue than it might seem at first glance.

Yes, the claims of "water witches" are objectively untrue.

In a very real sense, it is fraudulent to charge for such "services."

However, the supernatural claims of any religion are equally untrue. And just about any major organized religion expects money from its followers either directly or indirectly in terms of donations, tithing, tax breaks, etc. In an objective sense these practices are all just as fraudulent as a "water witch" charging for their services.

And this is where the trickiness arises - do we want to single out some religions for debunking, while allowing others' claims to go unquestioned?

I don't like the idea of marks forking over money for these fraudulent water dowsing services provided by "water witches", nor the idea of a publication like the NYT lending any credence whatsoever to such antiscience.

But I'm also not in love with giving established world religions a free pass while picking on the smaller and less centralized religions. It's not too long ago that we literally burned "witches" here in America, and unfortunately it is common throughout history.


I don't believe dowsing is real - but Arthur C. Clarke had made a statement at one point that it didn't seem completely outside the realm of possibility that there could be an evolutionary advantage for people to have some subconscious ability to notice environmental signals of the presence of water (assuming such signals exist.)

These statements were made back in the days of "In Search Of ...", etc., when there were a lot of books and shows about pseudo-scientific phenomena like The Bermuda Triangle, Ancient Astronauts, Bigfoot, etc. It really wasn't all that long ago that it wasn't considered complete insane to be studying these phenomena and have details published in peer-review journals

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parapsychology_research_at_SRI


>(assuming such signals exist.)

They most certainly do.

I've done a decent amount of reading on using ecological cues to infer stuff about what's below ground. For applications such as mining, construction and farming the science is well understood. The dowsers are probably just taking a good guess about the substrate based on what they can see above. Between plant life, evidence of erosion, soil type, climate and everything else you can observe at the surface you can combine things you know about those things and use logic in order to rule things out and make some surprisingly accurate predictions about environmental conditions that you cannot directly observe.

The dowsers can probably "detect" water better than a random guess even if they can't explain how because they're probably observing the ecology on a subconscious level and have a lot of practice. That said, I'd bet money on the scientists being right about the whole rods and gravity thing being pure BS.


https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/debunking-dows...

Dowers are not better than chance. They’re exactly the same as chance!


So you're saying that even though scientists have completely debunked the idea that water witches' success rate is above random chance, you would still bet money on the unscientific idea that the dowsers do better than chance.

Does this give you any insight into a person who would bet their life on the unscientific idea that vaccines are dangerous?

I don't understand either position, so I'm looking to you for more details.


A similar explanation, the "ideomotor effect," has been put forward for the Ouija board and several other divination techniques that sometimes seem to do better than chance or produce other kinds of "spooky" results.

The idea is that you have subconscious thought processes, sensory awareness, or knowledge, and when you put yourself into an observation/motor feedback loop this subtile cognition can influence fine motor responses which are then amplified by feedback as you observe your own movements. You're putting weak neural "noise" through a feedback amplifier, but the noise is not random and could contain information. There is no way to control for this because the test is not blind.

It's become popular in recent years to chase "chains of synchronicity." A very entertaining semi-documentary about this can be found here:

https://www.hellier.tv

There's even an app for it called Randonautica.

A very similar phenomenon could be at work in that. It might start with subconsciously biased paradolia and as you follow a "chain of synchronicities" you are running an amplification and filtration feedback loop similar to what happens when you watch a planchette move across a Ouija board or watch a dowsing rod move. You've grabbed a set of weak neural signals and amplified them.

It's not supernatural but it might be neurologically and cognitively interesting. I've had the intuition for a long time that all creativity probably involves processes like this. An artist or a musician doesn't just emerge with a fully formed work from nowhere. They "noodle around..."

BTW...

Hellier is a great bit of independent film. I've compared it to the cult sci-fi film "Primer" in terms of quality, originality, and creativity on a shoestring budget, and if you liked that film you'll probably like it. Also heard it described by someone as "like Ghost Hunters or Paranormal State but for thinking people." It's a fun ride if you suspend disbelief. There's a scene in season two where a practicing witch uses a transcranial magnetic stimulation device to try to talk to aliens. It's worth it just for that, gives it a hint of "post-cyberpunk."

Edit:

Has anyone ever experimented with these techniques as a cognitive or creativity enhancer without the "woo woo" assumptions? Treat it like a brain hack to get at subconscious thought processes, sort of like what you can do with psychedelics but without the drugs.


Thanks for splitting the gap in an illuminating way.

My experience with "chains of synchronicity" is they quickly become obsessive and drained of subconscious lifeblood. For me it's word games, chains of acronyms and anagrams, reading meaning into licence plates. I noticed the same tendency in Scott Alexander (of the late SSC)'s fiction, where he plays with words in an almost numerological way.

I can see how it would be fun as an activity, but the view from the tic/compulsion side of the line is less pleasant.


I read the article. I think it made it pretty clear that dowsing had no basis in science.

To me the article was more about the people / desperation...

Sometimes I think people believe that almost any portrayal that isn't entirely negative of a thing they don't like is 'both sides'.


I'm putting myself in the mind of someone hundreds of years ago that literally has no idea where to dig a well.

If it is all to chance anyway, there are probably a lot worse ways to "flip a coin". At least you can feel like you're divining where to dig.

How that ever persisted into the 20th Century and to now is perplexing but probably says a lot about human nature.


> How that ever persisted into the 20th Century and to now is perplexing but probably says a lot about human nature.

Because if it costs $1,400, and if it works then you make hundreds of millions of dollars, then even if you believe the chances of it working are close to zero it's still economically rational to try. Those kinds of returns are literally like getting a chance to go back to 2010 to buy bitcoin.


Why pay $1400 when you can get the same results for free?

Do you hire a lottery number picker service?


> Why pay $1400 when you can get the same results for free?

You can increase your chances of finding water just by accurately reading the geology, the plant cover, the soil type, etc. Even if dowsing doesn't "work", that doesn't mean that dowsers don't have real skills that would be expensive for you to acquire.

Similarly, just because psychic powers might not be real, it would be a huge mistake to think that you're going to be able to cold read someone as well as a professional psychic.


There are four main explanations for how rods move during dowsing.

1. Random chance.

2. The operator is a sensor and the rods the indicator. The person moves the rods unconsciously in response to some internal perception.

3. The rods are moved from outside by supernatural forces.

4. The person moves the rod unconsciously and doesn't sense anything external.

I have tried dowsing and think its a either 2 or 4. It's definitely the operator moving the rods. The question then becomes why.

It's within the realm of nature that organisms can sense light, magnetism, humidity, heat etc. It's also likely that we could indicate where things are from a kind of unconscious intuition or a guess of where something could be.

If you were to do an experiment, I'd suggest using buried electrical wires indoors or outside, as these someone should have actual plans for.

In my experiments with a group of people using a pendulum, the targets identified were basically the same as when asked a different group of people consciously to choose. In other words, #4.


The cost of a free thought is that some people will believe in some weird stuff.

I think this is much preferable to the alternative of a controlled ecosystem of ideas, for which there are no positive historical examples and many negative ones.


The point is that a respected mainstream newspaper is spreading crap in a fairly uncritical way.

The alternative isn't "Ban this sick filth!" but to apply pressure to the Times and other outlets which frame pseudoscientific crap as being on a level with actual knowledge.


It's true that people are people, and everyone has a weird thought now and then. It's natural. That's just how people are. Everyone all over the place has ideas like this.

The New York Times goes on and on about 12 people on Facebook repeating weird ideas about vaccines being dangerous. They are Republicans so that must be condemned. Because it's not scientific.

On the other hand, water witching is new age. So they're Democrats. So it's OK for the New York Times to give a wink and a nod to the idea that these Democrats just might know more than scientists.

It inconceivable how a Republican would believe an unscientific idea about vaccines being bad. It's natural to see how a Democrat would believe an unscientific idea about water witching being good.


I recall reading somewhere (maybe in "The Straight Dope"?) that experienced dowsers that have worked for a long time in a given area learn to pick up on surface features and on geological formations that are correlated with subsurface water.

Their dowsing rods are not reacting to the water. They are reacting to the dowser's unconscious recognition of those features and formations. The way they hold them makes them very sensitive to very slight movements on the part of the dowser, so that they have no idea that they are the ones moving the rods.

PS: yup, it was in "The Straight Dope" [1].

[1] https://www.straightdope.com/21341336/does-dowsing-for-water...


The Times is known for much worse.

E.g., throughout 43's two terms, the stories were always whatever vice-43 or his enablers insisted was true, and never that vice-43 and his enablers were known to be lying when they said it. It is what got us mired in Iraq.

When a public figure expresses what is factually true or false, and is in fact false, it is actual news that they are doing that. That is the "lede": Public Official Openly Lying to Public. It is not surprising that they do, but it is still news when they do it, and in the public interest to get on record. What they are lying about is trivial except insofar as it reveals that they are trying to draw our attention away from something else.

Finding what that something else is would be a useful activity for a reporter.


I used the services of such a 'water witch' in India. Not because I trust them, but because of the social 'pressure'. Since friends and relatives use them, I just used them.

When acquifers were not depleted, every 'water witch' was right. Once acquifers are depleted, they are useless. That's how I look at them.


I think what they're calling the both-sides treatment is misnamed to make it sound better than it is. One quote from each side isn't an equal treatment of both sides, it's a biased treatment towards the side with less to say.

This statement is something of a revelation to me: "One quote from each side isn't an equal treatment of both sides, it's a biased treatment towards the side with less to say."

I'd like to dive deeper into this, can you recommend any resources?

If you just made it up, then yeah, I very much agree. "There's no evidence for this" will always struggle to measure up against "romantic notion\fallacy\charisma for thing reader wants to be true"


I think the diving-deeper would be the idea of representative sampling in survey or experimental design.

I read a paper once about an ancient tribe of hunters who had exhausted the local fauna and consulted the wisdom of the spirits through an oracle bone ceremony for the next bounty.

In essence, the oracle bone would give them a random direction. If there was nothing, they'd ask again, if there was something, they would keep asking. Doesn't matter. The important function of consulting the oracle bones was that they were randomly distributing their hunting patterns without overexhausting one particular area within range. This allows the population of game to stabilize over time.

tldr

If you're looking for answers, searching at random and searching frequently is probably the most efficient method instead of wasting time figuring out how to find it.

"Science is a differential equation. Religion is a boundary condition." -Alan Turing


Indeed, that is the purpose and action of the Horoscope column running in every newspaper.

It doesn't matter which "sign" gets which advice; all that matters is that different people get different advice, and get different advice this week than they got last week. The whole birthdate apparatus is purely a randomizing device.

It is a remarkably sophisticated psychological technology that keeps people from getting stuck in ruts, and not paralyzed by indecision. It just doesn't do what its promoters think it does.


I think Co-star is fascinating for this reason because it's not so much the science of belief but the charisma of truth. People like it mostly because it's kind of sassy. For the most part, sun-moon-rising offers a quick and dirty way to assess relationship compatibility in a dating-app world where rejecting everyone and accepting everyone is tedious and exhausting. It's also a particular love language of understanding and explaining what it is you look for and being aware of how people explain themselves, for those that use it.

Technically, astrology is based on algorithms observing data of the planets positions. For the most part, to the naked eye, and to human sensibility, the planets seem to behave in harmony, resonance and stability. In reality, the long-term behavior varies chaotically. It's an n-body problem, which is as of this time of writing, unsolved. Generally, that doesn't mean it hasn't been answered, rather it means that solutions satisfying specific conditions cannot be determined by the criteria of uniqueness or existence.

But yeah, if you're going to make short term observations of a chaotic system, a sporadically random system is basically just numerical approximation. You don't need to rationalize irrationality, because you can't.


Planetary motion is absolutely predictable, to the millisecond decades in advance. It just doesn't correlate with anything else, making it useful for randomizing the "else".

The sun's apparent motion correlates with sleep schedules, decreasingly, and the moon's with tides and animal behavior, making those less useful for the purpose.


From NYT

> A version of this article appears in print on July 17, 2021, Section A, Page 10 of the New York edition with the headline: In Tech’s Backyard, the Hottest Search Engine Uses 2 Steel Rods. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Bold choice, trying to upsell me with a monstrously bullshit headline


This is one reason why I shy away from reading anything posted on substack.

It usually lacks any substance, and often - like this post - just says stuff.


Another shallow clickbait article from substack, purposely lying about the tone of the article for clicks.

Wow, if this isn't a thinly-veiled "Hey guys look at this ha ha can you imagine being fair and impartial and presenting more than one side to this story? Guess we don't have to do it for anything else either!" attempt it makes me cringe.

The amount of mental gymnastics I have been seeing around the, uh, "blessing" of hypocrisy has been Olympian. "Whataboutism," "both-sidesism," and so on. Make no mistake, the author has zero interest in dowsing as a topic, it's just the camel's nose in the tent to get you used to the idea that only one side need be represented in a story.


It's what they do best!

Yes, water dowsing is bullshit, and that has broad consensus. So, the author uses that to basically make the argument that journalism should no longer be objective (the current prevailing trend amongst journalists, it seems), and to report only the "truth" that the reporter believes in. This is why "journalism" is crap nowadays, and why so many people have lost faith in it. Because, writing about Covid's possible lab leak, or wondering about the new vaccines are really similar to writing about water dowsing, right?

It's classic Strawman arguing (and even has a Trump reference for a bonus point).


Objective doesn’t mean "promote baseless claims" - it means to impartially judge claims (regardless of who makes them) based on evidence, and use claims that are evidently true to support a line of reason.

Not everything has two sides - sometimes there is only one side that is evidently true and sometimes there are many evidently supported positions - so reporters and journalists shouldn’t treat everything as having two sides.

Proponents of dowsing have no evidence to support their claims and a whole body of evidence to disprove their claims. Their claims should not be presented as an alternative alongside fact in a news article.


I met a dowser as a teenager on a school trip. He gave us pairs of L-shaped metal rods held loosely in plastic holders. We walked round an ancient stone circle. Every so often the rods would just swing sideways to face left and right. He said those were the ley lines. I was quite impressed. Anyone want to debunk this?

> Anyone want to debunk this?

There is no need to debunk every claim. I could say "the rods are held in an unstable way" and "your mind makes your body do things without you noticing" but that's just a guess at what happened. I wasn't there, and it's not necessary. Claims can be made vastly quicker than debunkings can.

It's the other way around: people who claim they can do water sensing should submit to controlled experiments. After that, we'd know what their performance was given the experimental circumstandes.


Debunk your misremembering an event from ten or more years ago? Hard pass on that one, it practically debunks itself.

Beside, the burden lies with you to convince others, not the other way around.


Who said I was convinced or wanted to convince others? I was just curious. Chill! I don't believe in dowsing, I just had an interesting experience which I wanted to pass on.

Try the experiment again. But use balanced "T" shaped rods instead of "L". Ley lines should rotate the rods regardless, right? This removes gravity from the equation.

Also, non ferrous.

Also, film it from above so you can see if several people, on several passes, get the same movement at the same location. Ley lines shouldn't move, right?

Sounds like you could solve this in an afternoon.


Debunk what? There is no provable statement that was made, other than "sometimes these sticks move around."

no, you're expected to "bunk" it, we're not expected to "de-bunk" it.

Same as a Ouija board probably. Hold something very delicate with a awkward grip and tiny muscle spasms will result in exaggerated movement. There's no physical interaction that connects underground water to your hands or to the rods. If it detects anything it would be magnetic deposits or electrical fields, but more likely it's just exploiting the edges of your physical perception. Like an optical illusion but for your motor neurons.

Wind? Gravity? Leverage in how the metal leans on the plastic?

How could a ley line do nothing but make a metal bar wiggle arbitrarily and inconsistently?

Did you find any water?


For starters, try subtracting the word "just" from your statement. It means you have already decided things about what you saw. Things you can't prove.

And second, how about you go and read some things from skeptics about dowsing and then ask that question? One of the most tedious things on the internet is somebody who basically says, "Please argue me out of my own ignorance." Sorry, but your ignorance is your problem, and it's rude to inflict your problems on others.


The solution is to make public outlets liable for misinformation that is published.

The problem becomes, by what standard do we judge misinformation?

I'm sure most people would be against presenting dousing as a legitimate belief, but it's all on a sliding scale. How many people would balk at authoritatively declaring astrology nonsense? And soon you're on the mainstream religions, where the vast majority see nothing objectionable in making provably nonsensical claims about the nature of reality.

Fact checking works as long as there is no widespread societal investment in the outcome, would be my cynical take. I don't see a workable alternative to letting everyone spread whatever they like and rely on a resilient immune response in the form of education and critical thinking.


Cool. Can I be the one to define what's misinformation and what isn't.

No, we already have a tool to combat misinformation.

It's called education and publishing better and more trustworthy studies.




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