Drought Brings On a Downpour of Pseudoscience

When we're desperate for water, we'll believe just about anything.

by Brian Merchant
Aug 27 2014, 10:15pm

A dowser, dowsing. Image/Wikimedia

Across drought-stricken California, farmers, vintners, and plenty of others are desperate for water. So, many of them are calling dowsers

These 'water witches', draped in dubious pseudoscience or self-assembled mythologies—or both—typically use divining rods and some sort of practiced intuition to "find" water. The professional variety do so for a fee (sometimes a 'suggested donation'). And business is booming.

The phenomenon is nothing new, of course, as humans have a long, weird history of trying to conjure water out of the ether through mystic or technic means. But for a modernized society that would scoff at the notion of rain dances—and occasionally delights at mocking their caricature—we're still rather susceptible to hokum of precisely the same order.

"Pretty much all the farmers I know won't drill a well if they don't have a dowser," the successful winemaker Marc Mondavi recently told the San Francisco Chronicle. He, too, is a dowser. He spends his weekends swinging a rod around his property to locate hidden water stores. 

It's actually been a fairly widespread practice in America since the late 19th century (though it dates to the 1500s as a practice to find rare metals). It's popular enough nationwide that there's a body called the American Society of Dowsers that convenes annually.

Here is how the ASD website describes its work: 

Water dowsing, then, involves the expansion of your normal expectations to include a new language... that of talking with the Earth. When... you begin accepting that your physical body can, and is now, absorbing energies from the Earth, then you begin to speak this new language. At your basic dowsing level, then, you have 'felt,'-- or been signalled of -- flowing water inside the Earth. [sic]

Image: The Northern California Dowsers

But it's easy to pick on dowsing, with its New Age trappings and crystals and wands. The truth is, when we're desperate for water, we'll believe just about anything.

At the turn of the 20th century, rainmaking, or pluviculture, was a cottage industry overrun with con men and swindlers who used fraudulent methodologies and devices they claimed could create rain. They traveled across the West, where settlers had just began tending land they'd bought from the government and knew almost nothing about. Many landed in arid places unfit to grow the crops they were used to growing, and many grew desperate—so they turned to pluvicluturists.

There's a chapter in Jeff Goodell's book on geoengineering, How to Cool the Planet, dedicated to this cast of characters, the most famous of which was Charles Hatfield. In some ways, Hatfield really was a proto-geoengineer; he claimed his secret mixture of chemicals, when mixed into galvanizing tanks and released into the atmosphere, could beckon forth a downpour. But he had no training as a scientist, and his rainmaking successes were dubious at best.

Hatfield is perhaps most famous for accepting a $10,000 job in 1915 from the city of San Diego, which had grown too fast to keep up with water demand. He set up a tower with his galvanizing tanks, and, coincidentally, a storm opened up and flooded the city, causing so much damage it refused to pay him.

The idea has never been recognized by science, primarily because it's absolutely insane.

Anecdotes like those help rainmakers earn their mythological stripes; Hatfield failed plenty, and some astute observers suggested that he was merely smart enough to only take jobs when he recognized a storm system approaching.

Of course, all kinds of pseudoscientific devices have been assembled in the name of rainmaking—the most famous might be Wilhelm Reich's cloudbuster. Reich, one of history's most illustrious scientists-cum-pseudoscientists, believed that drought was caused by too much "orgone"—which he believed, according to Atlas Obscura, was "an omnipresent libidinal life force responsible for gravity, weather patterns, emotions, and health"—accumulating in the atmosphere.

So, he built a cloudbuster—basically, a bunch of hollow tubes connected to hoses—that would ostensibly suck the orgone out of the sky to create rain. In 1953, in the midst of another major drought, New England blueberry farmers asked the eccentric inventor to aim the contraption over their crops. By some accounts, it rained. Of course, the idea has never been recognized by science, primarily because it's absolutely insane. 

Willhelm Reich's Cloudbuster today. Image/Flickr

Today, cloudbusting is probably best known for the hit Kate Bush song the pseudoscience inspired.

With climate change sweeping the globe, and more and more populous regions succumbing to more frequent drought, there's only going to be further desperation for rain. This is partly why geoeningeering has become such a heated topic of late.

The modern era of rainmaking is, occasionally, more scientifically informed. Weather modification has been a hot topic for decades, with the infamous Operation Popeye deployed to rain out the enemy in the Vietnam war, and scientific institutions dedicated to tinkering with drawing more water from clouds.

The Desert Research Institute has found that seeding clouds with silver iodide, potassium iodide, or dry ice can squeeze more moisture out of clouds in the winter.

That's perhaps why China has a vast infrastructure dedicated to its national rainmaking project, and why it fires off artillery rounds full of chemicals into skies across the nation. Famously, it did so right before its Summer Olympic Games debut to attempt to ensure a dry opening ceremony. Scientists remain divided over the efficacy of such efforts—some suggest that the net precipitation isn't changed much, just the location where it falls—but at least there's a scientific basis for the endeavor.

Which brings us back to dowsing. It's interesting that of the two primary feats of rainmaking—one based in mythology and a quasi-religious framework, one pseudoscience turned bona fide science—it's dowsing that farmers are still tapping in the midst of epic drought. Sure, a few have asked about cloud seeding. But the hucksters stick to the wands and the rods.

It's a bit of an anachronistic paradox—I'm sure some of the same farmers that hire dowsers use crop management software and harness energy from photovoltaic arrays—and a reminder that as far as we like to imagine we've advanced, a little desperation can make room for a lot of pseudoscience. That's not likely ever to change.

Sometimes, we just have to believe we know that something good is gonna happen. Especially when we're thirsty.