Cops Are Being ‘Trained’ To Use Literal Witchcraft To Find Dead Bodies

from the script-writers-appears-to-have-dropped-off-the-deep-end-of-farce dept

We [waves flattened palm parallel to the floor in circular motion meant to demonstrate the encompassing nature of the rest of this sentence] the People of this United States have seen some shit. This faaaaaaaaaaarrrr surpasses anything we’ve seen before.

By shit, I am referring to the gobsmackingly inane, incredibly insane garbage law enforcement passes off as “science” to secure convictions. Here’s a particularly astounding “for instance:” there’s an FBI “forensics expert” who claims he can recognize people by the patterns of the wrinkles in their mass-produced jeans and shirts. That’s the claim the malleable Dr. Richard Vorder Bruegge has not only made in his science-y sounding paper (“Photographic Identification of Denim Trousers from Bank Surveillance Film“) but also in court, where he has insisted the odds of wrinkle duplication in mass-produced clothing is 1-in-650 billion.

That’s just on the far end of the law enforcement bullshit spectrum. There’s plenty of other stuff that’s all been considered the gold standard of evidence that has failed to add up to anything when any actual scientific scrutiny is applied to it. Bite mark analysis, blood spatter analysis, bullet matching, hair matching, DNA… all of it is suspect or, at the very least, not nearly as accurate as law enforcement forensic experts assert in court.

But at least most of that stuff has some science to it, even if it’s not nearly as capable of producing bulletproof matches as law enforcement techs believe it is. Microscopes, labs, lab coats, software, specialized hardware, chain of custody, documentation, clipboards, things utilizing radiation or ions or spectroscopes or whatever… that all goes into examining evidence and generating leads or overly confident statements in court.

This has none of this. Worse, the legacy of this mockery of police investigative work carries with it a history of con artists utilizing showmanship to bilk rubes out of money. And yet, law enforcement agencies are actually spending tax dollars to send budding investigators to “learn” from someone who should have been laughed out of business immediately. This is not just a farce, it’s law enforcement malpractice.

Here’s Rene Ebersole with a jawdropper of a report for The Marshall Project:

Five crime scene investigators wearing white Tyvek suits and purple Latex gloves pace through a Tennessee woodland in a slow wave, searching for areas of sunken ground and other clues that might indicate a gravesite. The chill morning air is scented with loam, leaves, pine needles — and a hint of human decay.

The agents mark three suspicious depressions in the dirt with red flags and discuss their options for investigating further. One student asks about dowsing rods.

“You want to use some?” replies Arpad Vass, an instructor at the National Forensic Academy in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where law enforcement officers come to learn how to use science to solve crimes — at least in theory. “I use them on everything.”

You read that right: Arpad Vass, “forensic instructor,” is handing out divining rods to students hoping to become better crime scene investigators. I wish this were a joke. It is, very sadly, an actual thing that is happening with the blessing of the University of Tennessee and is capable of subjecting students from all over the nation to this stupidity.

Vass, a 62-year-old wearing a blue CSI-Death Valley cap, is teaching his students witching, aka divining or dowsing. It’s a centuries-old practice in which a person walks a straight line holding two bent pieces of metal, or sometimes a Y-shaped twig, until they signal the presence of whatever is being sought underground. Water witches dowse for groundwater. Others use divining rods for seeking precious gems, oil, gold. Or, as in this case, human remains.

The Marshall Project undersells the next sentence.

Dowsing for the dead is not exactly endorsed by scientists or forensic experts.

Fact: dowsing for fucking anything has never been endorsed by scientists of forensic experts. In fact, anyone pushing dowsing as a scientific solution for any problem whatsoever is trying to deceive you. It’s a simple as that. Here’s a much more succinct (and harsher) appraisal of dowsing and dowsing apparati, taken from this NPR report on a man who separated victims from $38 million with a modified golf ball retriever he claimed could be used to detect IEDs.

SIEGEL: As you report, James McCormick was ultimately convicted by a British court for selling devices like the ADE651. What was or is the ADE651?

HIGGENBOTHAM: Well, it was essentially a touted up dousing rod. A plastic pistol grip with a plastic hinge in it on which was mounted what looked a lot like a telescopic car antenna.

SIEGEL: And it actually was adapted from a golf ball retriever.


SIEGEL: What’s the real science behind it?

HIGGENBOTHAM: There is no science.

That pulled punch from The Marshall Project kind of takes some of the power out of the follow-up.

Outside experts I spoke with — professional forensic anthropologists and lawyers, as well as law enforcement officers involved with police training reforms — say they’re alarmed that a leading training program is teaching the pseudoscience of witching.

Alarmed? They should be fucking apoplectic! This is insanity. That this has gone longer than Vass’ first attempt to introduce dowsing into forensic science is an indictment of both the University of Tennessee and the law enforcement agencies that still pay to have officers and investigators subjected to cop-washed black arts by a “scientist” deep in throes of self-delusion. Dowsing “works” like a Ouija board “works.” It’s an illusion that relies on self-deception. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, science.

It does not magically become a science just because Vass is capable of using science-y words or has a background in actual science.

If you’re not completely stupefied yet, brace yourself. It gets even worse and much, much more idiotic.

In particular, some experts are distressed that a Vass trainee recently got witching results admitted as evidence in a Georgia murder trial. This could set a legal precedent and allow witching-based evidence to be used in other cases, says Chris Fabricant, a lead attorney for the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners. “The search for the truth is never advanced through junk science.”

Yes. This is a thing that actually happened during the 21st century in an American court room. There’s video of it, as people who were born around the middle of the last century might say. (h/t Lowering The Bar)

This so-called “expert” (GBI agent Todd Crosby) throws around some scientific terms during his demonstration of dowsing for dead people, but none of it adds up to actual science. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent is simply parroting Vass’ pseudoscience spiel. But (as Lowering the Bar points out) he can’t even pronounce the term he’s abusing correctly.

Here’s Vass himself, spouting equal parts jargon and bullshit.

He says the metal rods can detect “piezoelectricity,” an electric charge that builds in certain solid materials such as crystals (it’s the reason quartz watches work). Bones under mechanical stress can also produce these charges, which is why, Vass says, some people can find them with dowsing rods. But not everyone, he told me, because “if people don’t have the right voltage, it’s not going to work.” (No peer-reviewed published research has illustrated that piezoelectricity can be used to detect buried remains.)

Blind tests of dowsing during actual scientific research have shown dowsing is no better than a coin toss when it comes to detecting whatever is supposed to be detected. Most of the “detection” is guided by the person handling the, um, dowsing tools, who (sometimes unconsciously) manipulate the rods to point to where they expect stuff to be found.

Vass, of course, says these trials, which use actual scientific principles, are the real bullshit here. Those scientists and researchers simply don’t know as much dowser-specific science as he does.

Vass called the study “useless,” writing that he teaches students the proper way to dowse and some of “the 17 scientific principles that make the rods work, which took me years to figure out.”


Anyone who claims they’re the only person who knows certain specific science is a huckster. There’s nothing in this statement that wouldn’t look out of place on the dust jacket of a self-help book written by Dr. Oz, or L. Ron Hubbard, or Gwyneth Paltrow. UNLEASH THE HIDDEN POWER OF THESE 17 SCIENTIFIC PRINCIPLES TO [INSERT LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE HERE]!!!

This is all equal parts regrettable and laughable. But the laughter tends to get choked off by the real world consequences of tax dollars being spent to immerse crime scene investigators in the never-not-been-debunked method of dowsing for evidence. Crimes will go unsolved. Families of victims will never have closure. Rights will be violated. Innocent people will be jailed. And somehow, the law enforcement community (along with the management of the University of Tennessee) are cool with these potential outcomes. If there’s any justice in the world (and there sure as shit isn’t much of it), this report will result in Vass being tossed out of the academy and forbidden from introducing his spin on witchcraft into the already suspect world of law enforcement forensics.

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Comments on “Cops Are Being ‘Trained’ To Use Literal Witchcraft To Find Dead Bodies”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Ben Jones says:

GBI is a joke

they have no primary investigative authority. they are basically there to give the appearance of a state investigative agency, because the state police are literally just traffic cops. The GBI are literally just state-paid go-fers for proper cops, and a political tool for the governor to wield when expedient

A while back I had to deal with one on a computer crimes case. Now, bear in mind this was the lead GBI agent on this case, and when trying to explain my expertise with P2P file transfer systems, he said that bittorrent (which is coming up on its 20th birthday) “…is an online message board that you go to to download stuff”.
Dude looked like a dollar-tree Luke wilson, but had less technical knowledge than shanghai noon Owen wilson, but tried to cover it with BS dominance games like he’s Jethro Gibbs. Maybe he forgot which role he was supposed to play in idiocracy?

GBI is where all the people get shunted that they don’t want compromising an investigation, so they have an agency that can’t investigate on their own.

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CauseOfBSOD (profile) says:


If you are gonna be an idiot, at least don’t be an asshole to the person who knows more than you because they corrected you.

In fact, don’t be an asshole in general.

Also, how did this guy not only have such little knowledge of what he was talking about, but also not even bothering to do a cursory check of what he was talking about, in this kind of context?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Any department or agency that sends employees to that program for any reason other than investigation into someone either insane or running a blatant scam is one that can and should be shut down for having demonstrated a complete and utter disconnect from reality.

Anyone who thinks dowsing should be used for anything beyond a prank on gullible people never mind in court is in dire need of psychiatric evaluation because they clearly have some serious mental issues to work through.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
David says:

Wiping the foam off your mouth

Most of the “detection” is guided by the person handling the, um, dowsing tools, who (sometimes unconsciously) manipulate the rods to point to where they expect stuff to be found.

Well, that is the actual crux of the matter: it is a focusing tool for the person that helps them assert what they subconsciously want to believe or guess, possibly by channeling reactions from others.

It doesn’t stand up to double-blind tests because it relies on the knowledge actually being apparent to someone, just like Hans the calculating wonder horse depended on someone knowing the answer to the mathematical questions it was clomping its hooves to.

So if some divinator manages to find a corpse, that primarily makes themselves suspect, followed by the rest of the search party they might have taken cues from.

I fondly think of an anecdote about the physicist Niels Bohr who had a horseshoe hanging above his office door. When a visitor asked him whether he believed in that kind of stuff, Bohr laughed it off “For sure not, that would be superstition. But they say it works even if you don’t believe in it.”

At any rate, once money comes into play with unverifiable business, you can be sure it will attract genuine frauds like a honeypot attracts flies, so there really is no point in spending taxpayer money on such stuff.

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Anonymous Coward says:

The proper way to dowse:

Vass called the study “useless,” writing that he teaches students the proper way to dowse and some of “the 17 scientific principles that make the rods work, which took me years to figure out.”

Dump a bucket of cold water on Arpad “My Science Is Real And Yours Is Not” Vass’s head.

David says:


Well yeah, the combination “the 17 scientific principles” combined with “which took me years to figure out” is sort of a dumpster fire of hubris. I mean, it took Einstein decades to iron out the consequences of two scientific principles (the equivalences of unaccelerated and accelerated reference frames). So counting those of these 17 ways of waving your hands deserving to be called “scientific principles” will pretty certainly require defining your counting numbers in a manner that includes “zero”.

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David says:


Oh, there is a lot of things not understood by science. What science is pretty good at, however, is falsifying quantifiable claims using testable conditions.

And the claims made around dowsing, its methods and results, as made by the dowsers themselves, have not produced viable results.

Now hope and belief may do wonders, and science takes some care to screen hope and belief from the results by using double-blind testing. And under objective scrutiny under such conditions, a lot of hypotheses and claims have shown not to hold water.

There are no dependable and/or statistically significant ways to produce hope and belief.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Rocky says:


So, by this argument, if I create a fake nuclear power plant that doesn’t work we can assume that nuclear power doesn’t work?

If you create a fake nuclear power plant you have created a fake nuclear power plant, period.

If you genuinely think everything in the world is understood by science then you don’t understand science.

If you genuinely think you made a logical argument here, you don’t understand logical arguments at all.

Nobody has said that everything has to be understood by science because in some instances there’s nothing to understand to begin with. Dowsing is one of the things science has actually proved to be pure hogwash, ie there’s nothing to understand.

I’m just waiting for someone to bring up Uri Geller and his mental powers of cutlery-bending…

That One Guy (profile) says:


As the great Tim Minchin put it, ‘Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.’

‘We don’t know how everything works’ does not and never has meant ‘We can’t prove when something doesn’t work’. When ‘dowsing’ has been put to the test and demonstrated to be able to provide consistent and verifiable results then and only then can it be added to the list of ‘things worth taking seriously’.

CauseOfBSOD (profile) says:


Science may not be able to tell you what won’t work ahead of time every time, but scientific method can show if something like dowsing works or not. It has shown that dowsing, at least with any current or previous method, does not work.

While there may be some functional method of dowsing or similar (and I personally think that this is unlikely), we have not been able to find one to my knowledge.

In other words, science can’t tell you upfront if your fusion reactor design will work, but it can tell you if it didn’t work. And as there was a lot of evidence to support the possibility of nuclear energy, we tried it with fission and were successful, and are trying it with fusion, as we know for a fact it is possible (go outside next time you have a sunny day, that sunlight is produced by fusion). We do know we haven’t been able to recreate it yet but we don’t know whether it is possible to recreate practically on Earth yet. Dowsing, on the other hand, does not even have any reliable evidence to support its possibility, and every scientific study where there wasn’t a conflict of interest has shown it does not work, and the lack of any evidence to suggest it is possible suggests that it is impossible, and can be ruled out until evidence suggests it may be possible.

Also, if you want to find a functional method of dowsing, go ahead, but don’t expect much funding without evidence. I would instead work on practical nuclear fusion (Not the type that tweenagers do for a science fair because it is possible, but the type which gives a net gain of energy or otherwise gives us some benefit), then once we have halted global heating, war, and have fixed all the other issues we’ve created, then I absolutely won’t stop you trying to get dowsing to actually work. But for now, we not only have no evidence it will even work, but we also don’t have the time and resources to sink into what is effectively searching for a needle in a haystack of unknown size, where the needle may or may not exist, and there may be any number of needles. You might find it tomorrow, you might find it in a few decades, you might never find it. With nuclear power, we at least know that there is at least one needle, and, the more people search for it (in the case of practical fusion) the faster it will be found.

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Maxander (profile) says:

The defence calls... the victim.

The defene calls Linda and Terry Jamison, they will proceed to channel the victim so he can testify, in this court regarding my clients being present at his demise or not.

They are the best in their field and more than 20 scientific principles are used to ensure their methods abide by the high standards of this court.

Shaun Wilson (profile) says:

Personal experience with dowsing

As a child on a holiday with my parents we once had a dowsing demonstration where presenter walked over a creek showing the dowsing rods dipping each time. When it was our turn to try, my parents, apparently having not paid enough attention, had the road turn UP instead of down and exclaimed in amazement each time. As I knew how this worked I walked across without the rod twitching at all, but personally I think my parents reaction was better proof of this fraud. I also remember the presenter giving us a bit of a sour look as he couldn’t correct my parents without admitting the whole thing was fake.

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Bobvious says:

Arpad Vass?

Oh! I thought it said Vapid Ass.

Never mind.

While we’re at it. If you detect bones by their piezoelectrickery, shouldn’t the diviners be using auto-ossuarial emissions isolation shields to prevent their own perturbations from interfering with the emissions of the deceased? The signal to noise ratio must be severely compromised.

Even worse is the metacarpal-carpal-phalangic triboelectric flex-field which fluctuates with each heart pulse and the quadricep correction loop. This subharmonic ring-modulation extends from the palmar region and into the 2nd and 3rd cosmic transmo-capitulators. These had better urgently be added to the other 17 scientific principles.

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Bobvious says:

Re: Re: verse tachyon pulse

Only if you use a 7th-tuple orthopantomographic Tensor Hilbertian with the phase corrector in free-synchro and the capture-and-release hysteresis concentrator coupled to the Bose-Einstein Condensate distillation enhancer, which must be obverse to the evanescent Paulian offset in the ground plane.

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Valis (profile) says:

Why so surprised?

This is completely normal in dumb-fuck USA. I was gobsmacked on my visit to the USA how incredibly ignorant, backwards, uninformed, uneducated and superstitious US Americans are. Absolutely astonishing how thick these people all are. We keep getting bombarded with US propaganda about how great this country is, hahahahahahahahaha! Dumber than dumb, the USA.

Bill Stewart says:

Re: Why so surprised?

I’m guessing you’re European, and I keep hearing about European companies using handwriting analysis as part of their hiring processes.

Plus some of you believe that Covid is over, or that masks don’t help, or that you’re rid of Boris Johnson and Nigel Fromage just because the UK left EU in a flurry of Brexit nonsense.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“I’m guessing you’re European”

Yeah, just like an ignorant American to assume that there’s USA, Europe and nothing else of note 😉

I’m in Europe myself, but there’s nothing in his comment to indicate he’s from here and not Canada, Australia, South Africa, India, or any other country where English is spoken.

“I keep hearing about European companies using handwriting analysis as part of their hiring processes”

LOL, I’d love a citation for that. Maybe it changes depending on industry, but it’s a good couple of decades since I submitted anything handwritten for any kind of job, and I’ve been employed in 4 countries over that time, 3 of them in the EU.

“Plus some of you believe that Covid is over, or that masks don’t help”

We have morons over here as well. They don’t tend to be as loud as the US brands of idiot, but they do exist. My personal experience is that even tourists over here will be a lot more willing to wear masks and take sensible precautions than people in some parts of the US and I’ve never seen anything close to the videos I’ve seen of people being personally berated for wearing a mask in the US, let alone assaulted or killed like occasionally happens there. But I’ll also accept that my limited travel during the pandemic isn’t as wide a sampling as I’d like to make a definitive judgement.

“you’re rid of Boris Johnson and Nigel Fromage just because the UK left EU in a flurry of Brexit nonsense”

Farage is basically irrelevant although he continues to make stupid noises, while Johnson isn’t a permanent fixture and we’ll see if his party edges him out before the public have a chance to. But, whether or not he’s replaced with a functional adult, it’s unlikely he’ll be anywhere near negotiations by the end of the decade, and unlike Brexiteer types, the EU are capable of planning things long term.

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Anonymous Coward says:

the People of this United States have seen some shit. This faaaaaaaaaaarrrr surpasses anything we’ve seen before.

Then you haven’t been paying attention. Penn and Teller did an episode of Bullshit about “ESP”, including police psychics, in 2003. The history of that goes back much farther, and dowsing was one of the things the police were having people do.

But how surprised can we really be, when a huge proportion of the population believes there’s an invisible man in the sky who controls everything and who sometimes grants favors if asked? Even government leaders openly make such claims. It’s printed on the money. Judges sometimes have to be slapped down when they sentence people to programs in which one is required to express belief in such things (e.g., “12-step programs”). The only reason people tolerate this stuff more than dowsing or voodoo or Zeus or Scientology is that it’s more common. If there were a million dowsers, this article would be called out as religiously insensitive.

Lostinlodos (profile) says:

Ignorance on display.

Talk about totally not having a clue on a topic when writing an article.

No, I’m not going to say divination is science.

“witching, aka divining or dowsing”

Uh, no. All three of these are entirely separate topics.

Witching is a term used by Judeo-islamo-christian believers to cover any number of magick, spell casting, and cursing practices.

Divining, divination, is calling on the dead or the non-human for knowledge.

And dowsing is a practice claiming to use unproven scientific methods and beliefs to find underground water.
Dumping water on something. Sometimes also called christening or baptising.

See, we can always learn.

Lostinlodos (profile) says:

Re: Oh, Paul T et al

Before you attack me, the entirety of the preceding was tongue in cheek. Or, being cheeky.

The only point of the comment beyond humour was people in general need to put more effort into understanding what they denounce.

Because any person can turn water into wine with 4 strawberries and a few months time! (Grape wine tastes like sour arse).

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