Ascience blogger asked Britain’s 12 water firms if they still used divining rods after her parents spotted an engineer wielding the dowsing tools. Ten admitted to dabbling in a practice dismissed as “witchcraft” by an academic specialist in water management. Many of the firms did not require divine intervention while backing away from their admissions after the story went big. A tweet from Welsh Water, in which it had admitted to water dowsing alongside a smiley face emoji, could no longer be traced. Others, swiftly highlighted more rigorous methods of finding leaks, such as drones and robots.
But there is a low-level tradition of business relying on magic and superstition. Consumers of increasingly vogueish biodynamic wines, for example, may not realise that their organic plonk has its roots in a spiritual agricultural movement founded by Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian schools founder, who espoused burying cow horns containing manure under plants, among other things.
Police forces around the world still use lie detectors, despite concerns about their reliability and appropriateness beyond the court of Jeremy Kyle. Superstition is rife in aviation, where some airlines skip row 13; while, in 2009, prior to the construction of London skyscraper the Heron Tower, a tortoise shell (ethically sourced, apparently) was buried below its foundations, according to the principles of feng shui, the ancient Chinese approach to “harmonising” space.
Even in high finance, an industry built on cold maths, there is a practice of applying astrology to the money markets. JP Morgan was known to be intrigued by the planets, although an oft-attributed quote – “Millionaires don’t use astrology, billionaires do” – is not thought to be his. But a Michigan-based “financial astrologer” claimed in a Forbes interview that he counts big Wall Street fund managers and traders among his clients.
But back on the hunt for a water, a spokesman for Ofwat, the industry regulator, said it expects firms to “think carefully about whether they are using the most efficient and cost-effective tools and resources”.