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Wellington ratepayers foot bill for pseudo-science

Wellington ratepayers are funding a pseudo-scientific method to find buried water pipes. The contractor, Downer and the Wellington City Council are not concerned at the public's perception their money has been spent on disproved science.

Rather than use electronic equipment, a Downer contractor working on a Wellington City Council project used two copper rods to tell him where pipes lay.

The method, known as dowsing, has been scientifically proven to give results no better than random chance. Sometimes called water divining, or water witching, it involves rods, or a forked stick.

When water is present, the rods or stick is said to move in the dowser’s hands. Some practitioners believe this is because of a power of the rods, others think water can send energy through the ground, which the dowser senses.

“I was shocked to see dowsing rods being used. I actually asked him who was contracting this work that they were doing. He said it was the Wellington City Council.”

Gold (who goes by one name) was returning from lunch in January and walking down Willis Street in central Wellington when he witnessed the dowsing.

“There was this guy in a high-vis vest using dowsing rods. He was stepping out onto the road until they crossed over each other and then bent over and painted an X on the ground.

“I was shocked to see dowsing rods being used. I actually asked him who was contracting this work that they were doing. He said it was the Wellington City Council.”

Gold said three of four other Downer staff were present.

“Any of them would have seen him doing this and nobody was looking at him sideways going 'What are you doing? Don't be so embarrassing' or anything like that.”

Dowsing rods represent another “tool in the tool bag”, according to Downer management.

New Zealand Skeptic's chair Craig Shearer contacted the company when he was made aware of the dowsing. He said initially the company wasn’t aware staff were using it, but said checking confirmed it was used daily.

Downer told Shearer the method is safe, and it has no plan to ban staff from using it - the choice to use it was up to individual employees.

“We sort of made the point to them this is a pseudo-science and in the modern age we didn’t think companies should be promoting this. Particularly when public money is being spent,” said Shearer.

He asked Downer if records of accuracy were kept and was told they weren't.

“I think probably what's going on is that the employee is using intuition and past experience to come up with an idea about where things might be located.”

Downer's general manager of business excellence & reputation Brooke Dahlberg confirmed to Newsroom Downer doesn't keep records of accuracy.

"We do not actively promote this practice [dowsing], however from time to time, our teams may use this practice if it is safe, there is no additional cost to the customer and when used in conjunction with technology and service plans."

When asked if Downer was concerned about the public perception ratepayer money was being used on a technique considered pseudo-science, she said "no".

Wellington City Council, which is responsible for the use of its ratepayers' money was contacted by Newsroom and asked whether it had discussed the issue with Downer's, how it felt about ratepayer money being used for pseudo-science and if any mechanism was going to be put in place to stop it happening in the future.

Its response was: "We have spoken with Downer, and we are happy with the response they have given you."

When pressed for its response, rather that Downer’s, it said it had no further comment to make.

Other councils do not use dowsing.

When Auckland’s Watercare was asked several questions in 2017 through an Official Information Act request, a curt, 12-word response was given: “Watercare does not use this technique; the company uses sophisticated electronic devices.”

Yesterday Watercare confirmed to Newsroom this is still the case.

Several other Official Information Act requests were made in 2017 about the use of dowsing to various councils through the FYI website. Responses ranged from no, to not being aware if it had been used. A few councils said in the past it may have been used. 

“I am connected to the magnetic field, the north and south pole." 

Scientists think the movement of dowsing rods or sticks is due to what’s called the ideomotor response where people’s subconscious minds influence their bodies to move, without them consciously realising it's happening. This is similar to how scientists explain how Ouija boards appear to work.

Several studies have been completed to test whether dowsing works. Among them, a 1948 New Zealand study tested 75 dowsers. None had results more reliable than chance. In 1991, a German study offered a US$10,000 prize. Thirty dowsers were tested for their ability to find pipes with running water buried under a field. Their results were no better than chance and the prize was never given out. 

A 1990 study of 500 dowsers found six of the test subjects had a high rate of success finding water pipes. However, the statistical methods of the study have since generated criticism.

Professional dowsers do operate in New Zealand. Grant Burchall says he has a 99.9 percent success rate and can find hot or cold water.

He offers his services in New Zealand and abroad, and says he can even dowse from a helicopter.

He describes his ability as a “gift” which came to him late in life.

“I am connected to the magnetic field, the north and south pole. I can go onto a property, it doesn’t matter what size it is, I will find every bit of water on that property there. I can decipher if it’s hot or cold, and how deep it is to get to it.”

He said he had no problem finding water in pipes.

“If that pipe wasn’t there the extra effort needed to dig up and discover it wasn't there, that's a cost of using dowsing rods.”

Gold, who witnessed Downer's dowser in action, said he's since seen the footpath and part of the road was excavated close to where the Downer contractor marked the spot. He doesn't know if a water pipe was found.

“If that pipe wasn’t there the extra effort needed to dig up and discover it wasn't there, that's a cost of using dowsing rods.”

NZ Skeptic’s chair Shearer said he’s speaking with media now after giving Downer time to respond to emails regarding the January incident and talking internally with other NZ Skeptic members.

He said he received lengthy responses back from Downer, which stressed safety and oddly included two paragraphs about Downer's health and safety strategy.

“We were pleased they got back to us with a serious response. I think it would be good if they took our concerns more seriously and looked into the practice and realised that it actually provided no value. It just makes them look silly.”

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