Thursday, August 09, 2007

Folk Magic

I had an experience this week that I just need to get off my chest. I am an engineer for a major utility in the Atlanta area. Yesterday a contractor called me looking for some assistance in identifying a fiber optic cable that was buried along the right of way. I looked at our facility records and could find no such buried cable in that area. He assured me that it was there because he had “located” it. Now in my industry, typically, when somebody says they have located a cable they are usually referring to a technique that uses a number of devices that will induce a powerful electrical signal on the sheath of the cable from an access point like a splice location or terminal. They then use another device that is specifically tuned to that signal and they walk along the suspected route of the cable and make spray paint marks to indicate where they pick up the strongest signal. I asked this contractor which type of “locator” he was using. He responded by saying, ”I have a little method that I use.” At that point I suspected the worst and asked him, “Please tell me you aren’t dowsing for cables.” His response, “Hey my little wire has never been wrong”.
Cable dowsing is a curious blend of country folk magic and modern technology. The idea is that you take a bent piece of wire and hold it loosely in one hand so it can swing freely. Then you walk around where you think your target is and the wire will abruptly swing to line up parallel to the cable. It is folk magic. There is zero proof that it works. Quite the opposite in countless test of water and cable dowsing there has been failure after failure after failure. It is country voodoo and nothing more. If any ready of this can produce any single double blind controlled test that has shown statistically significant positive result I will gladly eat crow.
For the most part I’m just content to let live and let live with other people’s faith. And make no mistake about, absent the scientific proof to support it, this is just his faith we are talking about. However this time I did not have that option. Improperly located facilities can cause serious service interruptions when they are cut. But much more serious is that this is potentially very dangerous. There are gas, water, power and other utilities in the same area. How have they been located? Are backhoe operators relying on other people’s faith for the precision details the need to work safely?
I discussed the issue with several coworkers and the solution I came up with was to call him back and say, “I don’t care if you use a little wire, a rain dance or you just drop down on your knees and pray to know where the cable is. Take that information to put you in the ballpark. But I cannot help you until you have verified the location using a company approved method.”
A couple of friends soon began to speculate as to the mechanism of how it might work. I had to interject and tell them that this speculation was premature at best. It is wasted effort to speculate on “how” something works until you know “if” it works. I have never seen evidence of this and refused to speculate until I had seen evidence that we were talking about a real phenomenon.
I have since relayed this store to several friends and I was very shocked at the large percentage of them that completely toss logic and evidence aside in favor of paranormal explanations. I like to think that I am open minded to new discoveries, however so far I have seen no real evidence that dowsing has any measurable results.


  1. Snowman2:07 PM

    Man, all you do is complain about the phone company - Don't you know that that job is taken by Captain Soapbox??? Besides - If I believe in something enough, doesn't that make it true???


  2. For the record I haven't vented about work on my blog for a couple months. It was not my intent to de-throne Captian Soapbox. I don't think I have what it takes for that battle.

  3. Yikes. Apparently a teacher at my school has photographic "evidence" of a ghost. I don't even want to know who it is or I won't be able to take them seriously again.

    You should tell that guy to call back after he wins James Randi's $1 million.