I was bitterly disappointed by your article on divining rods [Metro, July 19]. I had come up to visit D.C. from Kentucky seeking my usual dose of enlightenment, if not from Washington itself, at least from its exalted Washington Post. What I got instead was the same affable gullibility that we rednecks find in our hometown newspapers. My beloved Post devoted a quarter-page to the efforts of local "dowsers" searching for water in drought-stricken Myersville, Md. It was a charming story, complete with a large color photograph of a dowser in action.
The only homage paid to science was a cryptic and inaccurate sentence: "No one is quite sure how it [dowsing] works, and scientists say there's no evidence that it does work, but science apparently has failed Myersville."
Well, actually, science "says" a lot more. Dowsing does not work. In fact, if any of those congenial gentlemen with magical devices in their hands needs some ready cash, there is a quick $100,000 to be made. This sum has been for some time a standing offer of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, available to anyone who can "dowse" successfully in a properly controlled experiment.
Here is the story of a typical experiment, variations of which have occurred on several occasions. Word of the $100,000 offer gets out, and a crowd of dowsers rapidly gathers, back-slapping and hand-shaking in exuberant anticipation of imminent riches. The design of the experiment is explained, and the contestants are asked if they have any objections. After objections are addressed, they go at it, still smiling and assured. The outcome? Always the same: No one does better than would be predicted by random chance alone. It is an old, old story, but not one that often makes the news.
Let me ask a few questions: Have any of your recent editorials lamented the catastrophic level of scientific illiteracy plaguing the American public? Do your journalists answer to any explicit standard of background research before they submit an article? Do the media have any responsibility for elevating the level of knowledge among the populace, or is it acceptable that even your paper merely reflect back to them their ignorance, provided such reflection is sufficiently entertaining?
-- John Gamel