The BBC’s John Humphrys has been mocked after arguing in favour of water divining, otherwise known as dowsing, a practice backed up by no scientific evidence and dismissed as ‘medieval witchcraft’ by experts.
The senior Radio 4 presenter was speaking to Richard Wiseman, a professor from the University of Hertfordshire who has spent 20 years researching the psychology of luck and the paranormal, about the maligned technique, which sees practitioners hold two ‘divining rods’ which supposedly detect the presence of water underground.
Mr Humphrys told the professor about his own attempt at water divining, saying: ‘Kapow, I felt a force I really did.’
Professor Wiseman explained: ‘It’s been tested many many times under many different circumstances and when people don’t know where the water is then they’re not very good at finding it with their rods that magically cross using forces we have no idea about.
‘Theres no evidence to think there’s anything to it.
Mr Humphrys replied with a story about his own successes with the practice on his farm in Wales.
He said: ‘Oh dear. I’m now going to have to tell you about a personal experience of my own.
‘I brought in a dowser for that little farm I bought in Wales. The well had run dry and it needed a bore hole.
‘I brought in a dowser and he found a wonderful supply. Now OK you could say that was a bit of luck and he knows the land and all that.
"Ok, so I know it's not science but explain it…"
— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) November 23, 2017
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‘However, a few years later we’d laid the pipe and all that and I brought in a man to plough the field above the house and the water stopped in the house. He cut through the pipe.
‘And the bloke said to me, ‘look go and dowse it’, and he gave me a bent coat hanger and all that and I felt a total fool walking up and down this field.
‘And then, kapow, the thing bent forward – I couldn’t stop it – I felt a force I really did.
‘And he dug down and I did it again thinking ‘this is just stupid’, but he dug down and there was the cut pipe where this had happening.
‘I know it’s not science but explain it.’
Professor Wiseman admitted it was ‘curious’ but pointed out that many people would have tried the practice and had no joy, and therefore wouldn’t be likely to speak about it on the radio.
Humphrys then admitted: ‘I’m half serious here.’
Twitter was unimpressed with the veteran broadcaster’s faith in water dowsing, pointing out that one person’s experience provides scant evidence for a debunked practice.
Did I genuinely just hear John Humphrys insisting to a baffled scientist that water divining was real because he did it once?!
— Olivia Rudgard (@OliviaRudgard) November 23, 2017
John Humphrys has gone full Grandpa Simpson talking about water divining on the Today programme.
— Owen Bennett (@owenjbennett) November 23, 2017
John Humphrys mocks 'thought for the day' yet believes in water dowsing! Oh dear, #r4today
— Dave Chapman (@Daveofanewcity) November 23, 2017
— Roger Highfield (@RogerHighfield) November 23, 2017
Oh my goodness – John Humphrys believes in water dowsing and is arguing for it on Radio 4 and it's not 1st April #BBCR4today
— Diniel (@DrDiniel) November 23, 2017
The discussion came a day after it emerged that almost all of the UK’s water companies use dowsing rods to detect leaks and pipes.
The revelation came after scientist Sally Le Page wrote an incredulous blog post after a Severn Trent engineer used two ‘bent tent pegs’ while working at her parents’ home.
She wrote: ‘Just because the rods move doesn’t mean they are moving in response to water underground. The rods move when the person subconsciously moves their hands.
‘Every properly conducted scientific test of water dowsing has found it no better than chance.’