Last week, I was preparing a talk about ethics to a group of future professional geologists. It’s a tough topic but really is the foundation of any avocation; one is expected to follow the ethical code of that profession to be included as a valid member.
One item they may have found a bit odd is my discussion of frauds, hoaxes and delusions. There have been only a few really well known frauds in geology. Frauds are perpetuated by greed and a need for professional recognition. Some examples are forged fossils or mineral speculation schemes. Hoaxes are sometimes jokes gone wrong or attempts to obtain notoriety or some minor monetary rewards. Again, fake fossils are common. Both frauds and hoaxes are intentional deception. Trust can be scientists’ Achilles heel. We don’t expect other scientists to lie or be less than honest in their work. So, it can be very easy to take advantage of them. [I am reminded of Randi’s successes in exposing how scientists are so easily scammed by conjuring tricks and shoddy controls.]
Delusion is slightly different from frauds and hoaxes in that one is not being deceived by another, but by oneself. It is an honest belief that one has found a truth or is doing something real. The delusion that immediately comes to my mind regarding geological practice is dowsing.
Dowsing is still an extremely common practice in well drilling. Professional well drillers (who do not abide by an ethical code, really) and consultants, will regularly employ dowsers who use all sorts of wooden or metal implements to find the best location for water supply wells or monitoring wells. Their justification is that dowsing is a very old and reliable technique – invoking the fallacious argument from antiquity or appeal to tradition. But, it’s been well-established that dowsing fails.
Use of a divining rod derived from ideas about magic in around the 15th century. The practice of using a diving rod to find water is also called water witching, revealing its magical origin. I’ll speculate that it is used less for metal prospecting today since development of a mineral deposit is a huge economic investment compaired to a well costing a few thousand dollars.
The ethical argument regarding dowsing must be viewed in terms of the ethical code of a professional scientist. If your profession, as a scientist (geologist), requires that you use sound, objective processes, informed by the best evidence, to the best of your ability, use of dowsing is a breach of professional ethics. Saying “I don’t know how it works but I’ve seen there is something to it!” is irresponsible. To endorse a practice that would defy our current laws of physics is to sanction use of magic over materialism. It has no place in geologic practice nor any redeeming value outside of science. Not only should it not be used, it should be outwardly disparaged.
My favorite reference on the use of a forked twig and other magical implements is in Agricola’s De Re Metallica. Written in the 16th century, Agricola clarified that it was a silly practice, writing “the manipulation is the cause of the twig’s twisting motion”. He concludes, “Therefore a miner, since we think he ought to be a good and serious man, should not make use of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him, for as I have said before, there are the natural indications of the veins which he can see for himself without the help of twigs.”*
In other words, use your professional skills and training, not some silly superstition to find what you are looking for.
*H.C. Hoover & L.H. Hoover translation of 1950.