It’s said that desperate times call for desperate measures. In California, where farmlands have been ravaged by an ongoing drought, the desperation is certainly palpable. With government irrigation assistance cut off or strictly limited, farmers are looking for anything that will help their plants to grow. Even, as it turns out, magic:
With nearly 50 percent of the state in “exceptional drought” — the highest intensity on the scale — and no immediate relief in sight, Californians are increasingly turning to spiritual methods and even magic in their desperation to bring an end to the dry spell. At greatest risk is the state’s central farming valley, a region that provides fully half the nation’s fruit and vegetables. Already, hundreds of thousands of acres have been fallowed, and farmers say if they can’t find water to sustain their remaining crops, the drought could destroy their livelihoods, cause mass unemployment and damage the land in ways that could take decades to recover.
Across the Central Valley, churches are admonishing their parishioners to pray for rain. Native American tribal leaders have been called in to say blessings on the land in hopes that water will come. But perhaps nothing is more unorthodox or popular than the water witches — even though the practice has been scorned by scientists and government officials who say there’s no evidence that water divining, as it is also known, actually works. They’ve dismissed the dowsers’ occasional success as the equivalent of a fortunate roll of the dice — nothing but pure, simple luck. But as the drought is expected to only get worse in coming months, it’s a gamble that many California farmers seem increasingly willing to take.
One can hardly blame the farmers for seeking out a solution in a world where traditional mechanisms have failed them, but as it turns out, this solution is no more than the theatrics of charlatans. The Denver Post even spoke with James Randi years ago about this very issue:
Remember that 96 percent of the Earth’s surface has water within a drillable distance, says James Randi, a dowsing skeptic and soldier in a battle against superstition.
“Anyone can find water,” he says.
Randi’s eponymous foundation in Florida seeks to debunk paranormal and supernatural claims by promoting critical thinking. Since 1964, he has offered cash to anyone who can prove any paranormal or supernatural event. The cash prize has reached $1.1 million and hundreds of applicants have vied for the award. More than 80 percent were dowsers.
“All have failed. This is the world’s most popular and pervasive delusion,” says Randi, who explains the movement of a dowser’s rods as an unconscious, involuntary motion triggered by a thought. “Yes, it is very convincing because you feel the sticks twisting in your hands and you seem to think it is from an outside power. There is not an outside power at all.”
The science behind finding water is pretty simple. Water, as hydrologist Graham Foggs points out, is “ubiquitous” — meaning, essentially, anyone with a rudimentary understanding of an aquifer would be successful at “divining” a water source. It’s not magic or luck; it’s science. At one depth or another, you’ll find water underground. While the so-called water witches claim their ability to suss out water resources mystical, the reality is that they do not consistently find the plentiful reservoirs they claim.
But again, these folks are desperate. Convincing them that what they see as their last hope is actually a hoax is likely a fool’s errand.
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