Spare the (dowsing) rod…

This article is crossposted from Subspecies.

Apparently it was a slow news day and everyone was tired of NHL speculation, so the Free Press decided to run a fluff piece about a guy who divines dead people. Little did I know that there was something more patently ridiculous than water dowsing. This guy goes to graveyards in the R.M. of Springfield, helping to cataloguing graves for the Manitoba Genealogical Society. The article throws out a lot of big numbers

An MGS initiative has so far catalogued 1,362 cemeteries in the province…There are still about 150 cemeteries to do. Most of the work has been with cemeteries outside the city… But it has also done the St. John’s Cathedral Cemetery in Winnipeg, with its roughly 12,000 graves, and Elmwood Cemetery that’s home to 51,000 graves… Mavins has catalogued the four main cemeteries in Springfield.

Wow, that’s a lot of graves! But oh wait, if you read carefully, those are graves being catalogued the usual way, that is “transcribing to paper all the information on headstones before weathering makes inscriptions illegible.” A skimmer could easily read that to mean that Mavins’ incredible divining ability has helped catalogue thousands and thousands of graves in Manitoba, or at the very least the ones in Springfield. But that’s not what is really meant here. It means that he’s spent a bunch of time in graveyards, writing down what headstones say, and then a bunch more time wandering the grass in graveyards with two metal rods. Although I assumed from the article that he had found bodies and they’d been exhumed from identification, I don’t think they’ve even gone that far. From the sounds of things, he just walks around places where bodies are likely to be, and when the ideomotor response kicks in, “identifies” the “body.”

"I dowse dead people" doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

Even if they have started to dig at some of the locations that he has identified, remember that he’s in a 150 year old graveyard that’s known to have unmarked graves. If you pick any area that seems reasonable, it’s likely that you will dig and find somebody. The fact that he identifies the body’s gender is also patently ridiculous – has anyone verified this, or are they going on his solemn word? Does he know how to distinguish an adolescent male from an adult female skeleton? Has he worked with any archeologists?

"I know there's got to be some corpses in this graveyard somewhere... if only there were an easier way of identifying them, like say if there were some sort of stone which we place over their head..."

In another case, Mavins said, a family knew it had a cemetery plot with five burials but didn’t know which family members were buried there. “I witched it and could tell them the number of adults, adolescents and babies,” he said. From that, the family determined the identities.

This leap in logic is precisely the problem. These bodies were identified with the assumption that his claims are true, and thus cannot be proof that he is legitimate. That’s circular reasoning, and that is not evidence, let alone good evidence.

Another thing – I wonder if this works while he’s walking over top of marked graves, too, or only when he’s thinking about it? What about over the recently deceased? Can he correctly guess the gender of a freshly buried individual or do they have to decompose first? And if it is something innate in the rods, could he correctly identify me as female, or would he need me to die first?

If this guy really had these magical abilities, perhaps he should call up the archeologists at the University of Manitoba – I’m sure they’d love the help in finding the lost tombs of the Pharaohs.