At the DOE, Dowsing for Dollars

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"Further testing of dowsing...would be a misuse of public funds."
— U.S. Geological Survey report, 1917

Somehow or other, that decades-old admonition has fallen on deaf ears at the U.S. Department of Energy, which has been misusing public funds for just that purpose.

Dowsing? Its many practitioners describe it as an ancient art of searching for hidden things, using a mystical sixth sense that enables them to discern otherwise imperceptible radiation from water, precious metals, bodies, gold and other objects that are out of sight, usually underground. For most dowsers, that sixth "sense" is stimulated and amplified by a hand-held, Y-shaped dowsing or divining rod, or two parallel rods, or a pendulum, devices that then supposedly swing on their own to point out the location of the hidden objects.

Untold thousands of people practice or believe in dowsing. An American Society of Dowsers is flourishing, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter has defended the producers of a questionable dousing device, and these mystical gadgets have even found their way into a Tom Clancy novel, "Rainbow Six", where the good guys use them to divine the location of terrorists. All that aside, dowsing and dowsing devices have failed every rigorous test designed to test their validity. In other words, there is no dowsing sixth sense, only dowsing nonsense.

All this doesn't seem to faze the Department of Energy, which in recent years has wasted time and taxpayers' money in embarrassing efforts to confirm the legitimacy of some high-tech dowsing devices. The latest egregious example came to light when the DOE's Inspector General reported the testing of a dowsing procedure called Passive Magnetic Resonance Anomaly Mapping (PMRAM). Using its device, the manufacturer claimed, one could map the underground location of groundwater, faults, fractures, buried objects and chemicals.

The Inspector General's report was a model of straightfaced restraint. It called the PMRAM technology "unique in that it combines an electronic system and a human operator into a single bio-sensory unit by connecting the operator at the wrists to an electronic system, which is harnessed to the body." Unique indeed. The report went on to note that "the technology relies on the ability of the world's only qualified operator, a resident of the Ukraine, to sense changes in magnetic fields."

That stipulation alone should have raised warning flags. But the Department's Office of Environmental Management had already spent more than $400,000 testing PMRAM when its request for additional funding was brought to the attention of the Office of Science and Technology (OST), which had not been previously consulted. After conducting a peer review of the test results to date, the OST did not mince words. The technology, it charged, "appeared to be implausible, did not allow for a scientifically-based evaluation, provided no useful information during three field evaluations, and appeared inadequate as a site-characterization tool."

The Inspector General's conclusion: "Had a peer review been performed prior to testing, the Department could have avoided spending $408,750 on this technology."

But there is evidently a dowsing cabal at the DOE. Within the past few years the Department has not hesitated to spend taxpayer dollars testing other dowsing devices. One was called the Quadro Tracker, a contraption with lights and buttons that, when examined at the Sandia National Laboratory, was found to contain in its handle ants, yes ants, embedded in epoxy. When the Quadro Tracker folks attempted to sell fraudulent franchises, the FBI finally put them out of business. Another DOE candidate was the DKL Lifeguard, a supposedly high-tech device that turned out to contain unpowered and unconnected electronic circuitry, and was determined to be worthless by scientists at Sandia.

Why does the DOE continue to believe in dowsing? Part of the problem may lie with the appointment of scientifically-illiterate politicians to head a department that oversees such advanced scientific institutions as the National Laboratories. For the Clinton Administration it was Bill Richardson, a New Mexico congressman intent largely on pursuing his Vice-Presidential aspirations. Under George Bush, it is Spencer Abraham, whose appointment as Energy Secretary was a consolation prize after he was defeated in his bid for reelection as Senator from Michigan. The Department of Energy, and the nation, deserve better.