‘Organic’ water?

Either this water is alive, or it contains carbon. Either way I’m not drinking it.
Hugh Young

Clairvoyants agree on missing man

Clairvoyants agree on missing man

By CORINNE AMBLER Police Reporter

Police will join friends of missing Wellington man Michael Kelly today in a search of an area where clairvoyants think he might be found.

Three clairvoyants independently said Mr Kelly was in the same area of greater Wellington, and friends had been searching there, close friend George Allan said.

Ms Allan said she had been dealing with a Wellington clairvoyant, one from Tauranga, and two women from the Spiritualist Church. A clairvoyant from Christchurch had also come to Wellington of her own accord, saying she had strong feelings about where Mr Kelly, 23, could be found.

At a meeting last night suggestions from the clairvoyants were considered and it was decided to check the nominated area today.

Ms Allan said the clairvoyants thought Mr Kelly had been robbed somewhere near Ecstasy Plus nightclub by two men. He had been dumped in bushes near Oriental Parade, where he lay for a few days before the men panicked and took him away.

Ms Allan was told a third man was possibly involved and one clairvoyant could give detailed descriptions of the three, who were rough-looking Maoris, aged about 26. She could describe their tattoos and would recognise them if she saw them.

The clairvoyants thought Mr Kelly was near farmland and saw trees, buildings and cattle grates. Ms Allan said the women felt the third man had not wanted to hurt Mr Kelly, but one of the men wanted him dead.

All three clairvoyants had independently given the same description of the men’s car and police were following that up. …
From the Dominion, 12 November 1992.

Natural ebullience may have led to Kelly’s death


Michael Kelly, whose body was found at the bottom of a light shaft in a Wellington inner-city building yesterday, may have contributed to his death by his ebullient nature. His friends had told police that he had sometimes climbed buildings – and on one occasion a crane – after drinking.

Mr Kelly, 23, who started a police hunt when he went missing four weeks ago, was found at the foot of a three-storey shaft in the Moore Wilson building in Tory St by a worker who opened an internal window on to the shaft. He had last been seen on October 18 outside Ecstasy Plus nightclub on the corner of Tory St and Courtenay Place.

Detective Inspector Lloyd Jones said police were searching for clues to reconstruct the events that led to Mr Kelly’s fall. Mr Jones said Mr Kelly’s death was seeming “less like foul play, misadventure is more apparent.”…
From the Dominion, 17 November 1992.

Both articles reprinted in NZ Skeptic 26.

Consumer Wins Bent Spoon Again

Consumer magazine has won its second Bent Spoon Award from the NZ Skeptics for continuing to promote homeopathic products as a viable alternative to evidence-based medical treatments.

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No missing content

Renee Maunder (Forum, NZ Skeptic 103) laments that I failed to supply a detailed list of references in my article on ACC and sexual abuse claims (NZ Skeptic 102). In my copy, I saw the Health Practitioners Competency Assurance Act 2003, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, ACC legislation, public utterances by the NZ Association of Counsellors and similar organisations, ACC Press Releases, ACC’s Best Practice Guidelines, the pseudo-research by Massey University (paid for by ACC) and the Crimes Act. She mocks my comments about syndromes.

My article defined a syndrome as “a group of symptoms or pathology which consistently occur together, especially with an (originally) unknown cause.” A syndrome permits cause to be determined from symptoms or effects. It would be fair to say (for example) that medical practitioners might expect to find maybe four, six or a dozen symptoms that, through the medium of syndromes, lead to establishing the cause of a disease or disability. The keynote is predictability and certainty.

No-one has yet been able to formulate a “sexual abuse syndrome” because any effects which may occur are idiosyncratic and unpredictable.

These matters lie at the heart of the ACC Sensitive Claim process. Evidence of cause and effect is imperative. In the absence of evidence external to complainant allegations, the attribution of psychological conditions to sexual abuse is unscientific, unethical, and downright dangerous. But ACC and its counsellors make that attribution thousands of times each year.

Ms Maunder seems to think I suggested a “mental injury” should be a “syndrome” in order to be real. No I didn’t. The “narrow definition of mental injury” used belongs to s.27 of the AC Act and is entirely subjective – “a clinically significant behavioural, cognitive, or psychological dysfunction” can mean pretty much anything. In terms of the ACC legislation, cover for “mental injury caused by certain criminal offences” requires credible, testable evidence of several aspects, but ACC and its counsellors fail to meet that criterion.

The three main aspects are :

  1. Evidence that the alleged Schedule 3 criminal sexual offence actually did occur;
  2. Evidence that a s.27 “mental injury” actually exists; and
  3. Evidence that the alleged offence caused the mental injury – and that the injury was not due to some other trauma in the claimant’s life.

Ms Maunder sees anomalies around my comments about “proper evidence”. Pretty simple, really. Every such claim is an allegation of a serious crime. Unless ACC has credible evidence of the three aspects noted above, it has no business approving cover for claims.

Ms Maunder suggests my comments are “obviously absurd” unless I show that only ACC-registered counsellors can refer “patients” for claims. It is common knowledge that counselling is an unregulated activity. Anyone can do it. A person wanting to be registered on the ACC gravy train as a counsellor must jump through the hoops set up by the Counselling Costs Regulations.

Finally, she says “Mr Waugh refers twice to laws that are being broken, but never actually sets out which statutes these are.” Concealing a crime is itself a crime. ACC’s Guidelines for Therapists Working with Adult Survivors of Sexual Abuse 2001 states: “The therapist is asked to bear witness to a crime…” In my opinion, witnesses to such crimes have an obligation to report them.

The Crimes Act 1961: Part 10: Crimes against rights of property: s.228(b) makes it an offence to dishonestly use a document for pecuniary gain. In the absence of credible evidence of criminal sexual offences and/or proof that claimed mental injuries were caused by such offences, it is dishonest to submit documentation for monetary compensation or other valuable considerations. ACC abets this deceit and is therefore also culpable.

The obvious starting point for these claims is clear evidence that the claimant did experience a criminal sexual offence. The almost foolproof way to do that is by a conviction or an admission of guilt. But in the ACC system, the alleged offender does not even have to be identified or advised of the allegations, and if he has been, he cannot defend himself. Shades of The Trial by Franz Kafka??

Gordon Waugh (abridged)

Sodium toxicity?

Siouxsie Wiles in her article in the latest NZ Skeptic (103) claims that ingestion of 62 mg of sodium carries a “considerable risk of side effects including lethargy, weakness, irritability, seizures, coma and even death.” I doubt it. The recommended daily intake of sodium is round about 2000 mg; a slice of commercially baked bread contains somewhat more than 62 mg sodium.

Alan Hart

Siouxsie Wiles replies:

Apologies, the reference to 62 mg of sodium per phenylbutyrate tablet was completely meaningless without referring to how many tablets are prescribed. While it is difficult to see what Burzynski actually prescribes in terms of sodium phenylbutyrate, the doses he describes for the antineoplastins (which remember are metabolites of sodium phenylbutyrate) vary hugely from less than 100 mg per kg body weight per day up to 25 g per kg body weight per day ( and he has stated on many occasions that high doses are needed to be effective.

To put that in perspective, if we took a person weighing 70 kg, the 100 mg dose would be about half the recommended daily sodium intake, while the 25 g dose could be as much as 100 times the recommended daily intake. As these doses will be on top of what people are getting in their diet, it is hard to see how patients aren’t being put at risk of the side effects of sodium toxicity.

Morality or instinct?

Mark Ottley (“Scientifically determined morality”, NZ Skeptic 103) makes a lot of fuss about something which is no more than the development of instinct. Societies evolve in the same way as individuals and any behaviour which assists prosperity of the society or its survival will be selected by evolution and eventually incorporated in the genes of the individuals. This is called an instinct. Birds have an instinct to build nests. All organisms have an instinct to reproduce.

Morality is what people do. All societies attempt to discourage behaviour that harms the society and encourage behaviour that benefits it. Over time, all societies develop a basic approved morality which may be enforced by laws, education, or religion, and over the course of time some of it will be instinctive. Some will require education or training. It is not surprising that all successful societies have similar instincts of basic morality.

A tendency to cooperate, obedience to the laws, nurturing of children, concern for human life and for the family, have evolved in all successful societies. A constant problem is genetic variability, where some individuals are less reliable.

Another is the clash with other instincts. The most basic instinct of all is selfishness. Without it none of us would be here at all. So all societies have to try and control it, or devise safe procedures to permit its indulgence.

There is also the instinct to kill others, animals or humans. Without it we could never have fed ourselves or fend off enemies. So we promote ‘sports’ which safely indulge the killer instinct. although we have not given up killing approved enemies.

There are degrees of adherence to officially or legally encouraged morality and Mark Ottley has surveyed some of those that are promoted. Without some diversity, no society would be able to make the changes that are going to be needed for future survival.

Vincent Gray

Mark Ottley replies:

Thank you to Dr Gray for taking the time to provide feedback. I am especially grateful that he largely interpreted my article as I intended it to be interpreted.

Dr Gray outlines a descriptive evolutionary account of morality popularised since at least the 1970s. Ideally aspects could be clarified further by recent research and important ultimate/proximate distinctions. As one example, human ‘genetic selfishness’ typically develops into a stronger basic instinct for altruism than for selfishness – given that the ‘self’ is always a dead end but kin are not (Kenrick, Griskevicius, Neuberg, & Schaller 2010). However, to describe such considerations in detail was not my main objective.

Instead, my article “makes a lot of fuss” (definitely!) about two main points, both of which I regard as relatively novel and important and thus worth sharing with fellow skeptics. The first is that research from a range of fields (biological, psycholexical, cross-cultural, psychiatric and so on) has resulted in an unsought empirical convergence over the past decade, suggesting a six factor model of personality and morality. Six factors, not more and not less. The utility of a scientific model includes clarity of concept, parsimony, consilience, predictive accuracy and so on, and this model appears to possess such qualities given my reading and clinical practice to date.

The second point is that we have advanced to a point where evidence-based morality is feasible not just in theory, but in practice. Cultural practices either enhance or detract from human wellbeing. These variables of cultural practice and wellbeing are increasingly well understood, measurable and controllable. Positive implementation requires effective dissemination, hence further fuss over the descriptive and prescriptive symbolism I.T.E.A.C.H. in my article.

Dr Gray is absolutely correct that we must retain some diversity to make moral progress, and I highlighted the importance of “evolutionary processes of cultural variation, selection and retention” in my article. What we have in the way of evidence-based morality is a beginning not an end. However, it is an important beginning to acknowledge and advocate for in a world where most advocate non-evidence-based moral models (often from a superstitious and religious point of view), or deny the possibility altogether (often from a philosophical or scientism point of view).

Sensing Murder Strikes Out Again

The discovery of the body of missing prostitute Jayne Furlong on the beach at Port Waikato directly contradicts the claims by the Sensing Murder exploitainment show that self-proclaimed psychics Deb Webber and Kelvin Cruickhank were able to “tune …

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Sex abuse article missing content?

I’ve just been reading my Summer 2012 edition of New Zealand Skeptic, but I think there is a piece missing from my version.

On page 15-17 there is an article by Gordon Waugh that is missing both a chunk of text and his references. There is clearly a gap between the first section which ends with “it caused mental injury” and the next which starts with “Do sexually assaulted people exhibit …”. In the later section he talks at length about the lack of a defined ‘syndrome’ caused by sexual abuses. This doesn’t make any sense unless there is a paragraph on why the ‘mental injury’ should be a ‘syndrome’ in order to be real. There’s no specific ‘falling off a ladder’ syndrome, either, but I wouldn’t argue that that means people aren’t injured in falls. Without Mr Waugh’s explanation of why he is using this narrow definition of ‘mental injury’ his argument becomes ridiculous.

I’m also concerned that his references have been lost. He talks about what counsellors believe and think, but the survey or research that backs this up is missing. I find it hard to believe an author calling for ACC to demand testable evidence in relation to sexual abuse cases would fail to provide the evidence to back up his own assertions. He also talks only about counsellors, and I assume that the section of his article that deals with what it means to be an ACC registered counsellor is also missing. Without it, it looks as though anybody can can set themselves up and start referring patients for claims. This is obviously absurd and without the missing section Mr Waugh’s credibility takes a serious knock.

Perhaps these could be printed alongside part two of this article, which I assume will be covering the legislative aspects. Mr Waugh refers twice to laws that are being broken, but never actually sets out which statutes these are. He also calls for the criminalisation of ACC claims that fail to provide “proper evidence” of sexual abuse and I assume he will talk more about how “proper evidence” is defined and how it would be collected. And how its collection will be consistent with the evidence required by other types of injury.

Renee Maunder

Peppering is back

Not possums … rabbits!

I was horrified to see a Country Calendar this morning (made in 2011) where the increase in rabbits was being discussed. One of the farmers said he had been told to shoot a rabbit, skin it, burn the skin, and scatter the ash in order to have the desired effect. He just hoped the rabbits would go elsewhere! He admitted his other farmer friends were doubtful but were waiting to see what happened. He said he was four weeks into the trial but that positive results might not show up until at least six weeks.

Well, this might work if he shot lots of rabbits to get the skins to burn … shooting would remove a few.

Else I have this mental picture of hundreds of little bunnies all sitting in Easter baskets and madly paddling away back to England…

Louette McInnes

Keith Garratt – Submission to the Natural Health Products Bill


My name is Keith Garratt. I make this submission as a concerned member of the public.

In general, I applaud the intent of creating greater control and certainty regarding products referred to as “natural health products”.  However, there are some features of the Bill that are unsatisfactory or disturbing, and which have the potential to detract from achieving its objectives.

In considering this legislation and its purpose, I believe that the following points are important:

  • As stated by Hon. Jonathan Coleman in introducing the Bill, the need is for a scheme “that gives the public an assurance that the natural health products they use are true to label and can provide the health benefits claimed for them.”
  • By definition, the products which are the target of this legislation have not to date been shown by proper controlled scientific testing to have a proven therapeutic benefit or a medical effect. If they had, they would be defined as medicines and be subject to the Medicines Act.
  • Regulation is necessary because there is no doubt that there are many companies and people who either in good faith or knowingly are marketing and supplying products that do not provide a health benefit.
  • Unfortunately, there is a proportion of unscrupulous operators and suppliers within the natural health products industry who target unwell, desperate and vulnerable people with false hopes of health benefits, and who must be captured by this legislation.
  • If all natural health providers were already operating in good faith and providing accurate information to consumers, the need for this legislation would not have arisen.


The definition of “health benefit” is very puzzling. It includes “(b) nutritional support” and “(c) vitamin or mineral supplementation” as health benefits. These are not health benefits in themselves, but merely possible means to achieve a health benefit. In fact, many medical experts suggest that dietary, vitamin and mineral supplements are unnecessary to good health if a normal balanced diet is consumed.

Also, the inclusion of “nutritional support” is confusing and contradictory, given that Section 6 specifically excludes food from the ambit of the Bill, and the definition of “food” in Section 5 specifically mentions “any ingredient or nutrient” and appears to clearly include dietary supplements. It is hard to conceive how nutritional support can be offered without the use of food.

(d) lists “affecting or maintaining the structure or function of the body” as a health benefit. This seems ludicrous. If I drink a pint a day of whiskey (a natural product) for a long period, I will certainly affect the structure and function of my liver to the point where I will die.

Can I suggest that (b), (c) and (d) be deleted. Clauses (a) and (e) provide an adequate definition of “health benefit” for the purposes of the Bill.


This is the key section of the Bill, but contains several areas of concern. In particular, I believe it needs strengthening to ensure that some of the most concerning elements of the natural health products industry are captured by the requirements of the Bill.


6(1)(a)(ii) defines a natural health product as one that is intended by the sponsor to bring about a health benefit. The problem I see here is that the very people who should be the prime target of the legislation, the charlatans who knowingly tout useless quack medicines, have no intention of providing a health benefit, but only of relieving gullible and vulnerable people of hard-earned cash. The clause needs to be amended to clarify that it is a claim to provide a health benefit that is important, not an intention. It would be most unfortunate if a charlatan could escape the severe penalties in this Bill simply by admitting that there was never any intention to provide a health benefit.


There is some contradiction as to whether homeopathic products are to be captured by the legislation. The preamble notes to the Bill state that natural health products include homeopathic remedies. However, I note from Hansard that Sue Kedgely stated that “low-risk products like homeopathy products will be exempt“.  I believe that they must be included. While I agree that they pose a low physical risk, they do pose serious risks in other ways. Homeopathic products are displayed, marketed and often verbally promoted by staff in many pharmacies, providing them with credibility, and encouraging people to rely on them rather than conventional medicine. The website documents many cases worldwide where people have suffered or died through reliance on homeopathic treatments.

The definition of natural health products currently in the Bill may not capture homeopathic products. Homeopathic products are prepared by sequential 1:100 dilution of the original substance, routinely up to 30 iterations (referred to by homeopaths as potencies). In a press release on 30 January 2010, Mary Glaisyer, Media spokesperson for the New Zealand Council of Homeopaths, admitted that “In homeopathic remedies above the 12th potency no molecule of the material substance remains.” ( Homeopaths claim that, despite this, the water used retains a “memory” of the original substance. The credibility of this claim is of course highly debatable, but for the purposes of the Bill the simple fact is that homeopathic remedies do not in fact contain the original substances in any material way. This means that homeopathic remedies contain no natural health product ingredients and are therefore not captured by the current definition. Again, this seems to leave open the possibility of a technical defence in court.

The definition therefore needs amendment to clarify that homeopathic products are captured.


A feature of the natural healing sector is that products are often presented or marketed in a manner that skirts around the requirements of fair trading and truth in advertising requirements by vague and misleading implications of efficacy. Also, as mentioned above regarding homeopathy, natural health products are widely displayed and marketed in pharmacies without specific or actionable claims of therapeutic properties, but in a manner that in many cases gives a false credibility and a false impression of efficacy.


To address these three issues, I propose that Clause 6 be amended along the following lines:

  • Amend (1)(a) to “that is claimed by the sponsor of the product to bring about a health benefit to the person to whom the product is administered.”
  • Delete (1)(a)(ii) and renumber the remainder of (a) as (b), with subsequent amendments to the numbering of later clauses (b), (c) and (d).
  • In the present (b), insert after “contains only natural health product ingredients” “or is prepared by dilution of one or more natural health product ingredients”.
  • Add a new clause (1)(f): “that is presented, promoted, located or displayed in such a manner that any person might reasonably infer that it is intended to provide a health benefit.”


The implication of 10(4) is that the members of the advisory committee will be natural health products practitioners or producers. This is somewhat akin to having an advisory committee on drug abuse made up of drug producers and sellers. Given that we are dealing here with public health, it would seem important that the committee includes people with the scientific and medical skills required to objectively assess the efficacy of products and the accuracy of any claims for their health benefits.

It would appear that an effective and efficient solution that would reduce duplication and achieve greater consistency would be to extend the functions of the Medicines Classification Committee established under Clause 9 of the Medicines Act.


13(3)(b)(ii) requires the sponsor to hold evidence to support the health benefit claims made for the product. This is good, but 13(8)(b) provides that this can be “evidence based on traditional use of a substance or product”. This is very concerning, and brief consideration demonstrates that it is in fact ridiculous. If we look only in Western culture, we can find many examples of traditional uses that have been discarded in the light of modern knowledge. In my own childhood, the traditional treatment for burns was butter, and traditional treatments for wounds were mercurochrome or pure iodine.  These are all now recognized as ineffective and potentially harmful.

Up until about 100 years ago, laudanum was the traditional treatment for many ailments, and available without prescription. This was a tincture of opium equivalent to high doses of morphine, and was addictive. As the active ingredient was produced from poppies, laudanum would qualify as a natural health product under the provisions of this Bill.

There would be a major problem in defining what is meant by “traditional use”. A brief glance at an Oxford Dictionary reveals that “tradition” has various shades of meaning.

Evidence based on traditional use is clearly inappropriate, and I urge that section 13(8)(b) is deleted, and that the Bill should specify that the only acceptable evidence for efficacy is double-blinded placebo-controlled scientific research.

I should note also that alternative health providers frequently provide anecdotal accounts as supposed evidence of efficacy. This is also unacceptable. The body is a self-healing mechanism, so there will always be examples of apparent cures that are in fact not a result of treatment, whether alternative or conventional.

6. CLAUSE 6(1) AND 6(3)

Taken together, these clauses appear to have the effect of excluding substances to be administered intravenously or to eyes or ears from the definition of “natural health product”. This is presumably in recognition that such administration of unproven substances in these ways is dangerous. However, I fear that these clauses as worded could be interpreted to exempt such substances from registration and regulation rather than to provide greater restriction on their use. If those clauses are removed, they would need to prove effectiveness and safety in the same manner as any other substances. Alternatively, a clause such as follow may be appropriate:

“Nothing in this Act or its administration is to be construed to permit the manufacture, sale or administration of substances to be administered by injection or parenteral infusion or to the eyes and ears.”

7. CLAUSE 13

Clause 13(6)(a) exempts from notification a product that is prepared by a practitioner for a particular person. This seems illogical. I believe such products are less likely to be prepared under controlled conditions and less likely to be of proven effectiveness. As an example, I have a friend who some years ago acquired a severe auto-immune disorder. She recovered under conventional medical treatment, but now spends many hundreds of dollars a year on a herbal concoction prepared by a backyard practitioner, with no evidence that it has any beneficial effect.


The basic objectives of the Bill are commendable. However, I believe that there are some concerning anomalies, contradictions, weaknesses and potential loopholes that need to be rectified if it is to properly meet its objectives. The amendments that I have proposed are designed to achieve that.

Keith Garratt
9 February 2012


‘Suckers’ feed on alternative health patients – literally

The NZ Herald (10-14 January) must have been having trouble filling its pages during the silly season, looking at its recent series on alternative therapies.

Each day for the best part of a week, the paper sent its reporters out to try a range of “alternative relaxation and remedies”.

Reporter Andrew Koubaridis must have drawn the short straw – while others in the series got to try out Japanese and Korean variants of spa therapies, he had two leeches sucking blood from his arm for more than an hour.

“I couldn’t take my eyes off the little suckers,” he said.

Mehdi Jaffari, who runs the Life Clinic Hirudotherapy centre on Auckland’s North Shore, says he learned the practice from his Iranian father and that the art had been passed down for generations in his family. Leeches can treat problems ranging from arthritis, diabetes, endometriosis, hepatitis and high blood pressure to bronchitis, he claims. They can even help reduce wrinkles, apparently.

“Their saliva has enzymes that helps break blood clots, and widens blood vessels to stop bacteria growth and prevent inflammation. It also helps blood circulation and flow,” Jaffari says.

The article refers to the UMR Research survey on the beliefs of New Zealanders (see Editorial, p 2), which found a majority believed in alternative remedies. Nearly three out of four believed arnica reduces bruising and slightly over half believed that homeopathic remedies are scientifically proven.

In the same series, Lincoln Tan and Amelia Wade checked out Ayurveda, a traditional Indian system of medicine.

“The human body is made up of five basic elements,” says Ayurveda specialist Priya Punjabi, “and whenever there is any disorder, these elements become imbalanced and they affect bodily channels and tissues, creating illnesses in the system.”

The elements are earth, water, fire, air and sky. This is obviously a huge advance on the traditional western view that there are only four elements.

Paranormal investigators open for business

A paranormal investigation team has been given front page coverage by the Waikato Times (10 December).

The group, who call themselves the Quantum Foundation (what is it with that word quantum?) say they’re not ghost hunters, but are called in to “paranormal hot spots” where they try to put clients’ minds at rest. Nor are they ghostbusters. “We don’t get rid of whatever’s there.We can call in people to do that,” said co- founder Tracey Royce.

Royce and fellow investigator Lisa Austen said they took a scientific, research- based approach to the supernatural, and sought natural explanations for alleged hauntings.

They use equipment such as cameras, digital recorders and electromagnetic field readers and spend up to eight weeks reviewing content. They have carried out 10 investigations in 16 months, and do not charge for their services.

Most of what they collect is mundane, and they seemed to recognise that ‘orbs’ are artifacts caused by dust particles reflecting light through a camera lens (NZ Skeptic 94(. But both say they have had experiences they can’t explain, including a sighting of a “full-blown apparition” of a ghostly figure, that drive them on.

Recently they investigated Diggers Bar in central Hamilton, where they captured “electronic voice phenomena”, including laughing, a voice saying “it’s coming”, and one instance of aggressive swearing. Someone swearing around a bar late at night in central Hamilton? How could there be a natural explanation for that?

David Riddell (who’s he?v) of the NZ Skeptics reportedly said gullible people were often suckered in by folks with fancy equipment, though I have it on good authority he said no such thing. But he did suggest that we are awash with electromagnetic fields, and a recorder is likely to pick up all sorts of things if left on overnight. Even if something couldn’t be explained it didn’t mean it was from another world. “A lot of people, when faced with something they can’t explain, automatically say [it] must be something supernatural. But sometimes it is okay to say you simply don’t know what it is.”

Conspiracy theorists get a roasting

Also in the Waikato Times (19 December), freelance writer Joshua Drummond has got stuck into conspiracy theorists with a nice piece of old-fashioned debunking. The three most terrifying words in the English language, he says, are “Did you know?”

“‘Did you know,’ said an idiot to me one day, ‘that 9/11 was an inside job?'”

Over the next half-hour, says Drummond, he was subjected to a sloppy paraphrasing of an internet documentary called Loose Change. This alleges a government conspiracy which was somehow, “as these things commonly are, both tremendously competent and massively incompetent at the same time.”

He goes on to list a number of other currently popular conspiracy theories, including “the ever-popular primate change denial, courtesy of creationists, who may not like being labelled conspiracy theorists,but that is what they are.”

Drummond says conspiracy theorists waste their time on nonsense when far better examples of true wrongdoing lie right in front of their unseeing eyes. Drug companies, for example, may act in highly questionable ways in their endless quest for higher profits – “but it doesn’t follow that vaccination doesn’t work.”

Vitamin supplements unnecessary

A major study of vitamin supplements has found taking the pills does nothing for people’s health (NZ Herald, 27 December).

The study, by researchers at Nancy University in France, followed 8000 people for more than six years. Those taking supplements were just as likely to have developed cancer or heart disease as those who took an identical-looking dummy pill. There was hardly any difference in how healthy members of the treatment and control groups reported themselves feeling.

Catherine Collins, chief dietician at St George’s Hospital in London, said it was the worried well who were taking these pills to try and protect themselves against Alzheimer’s disease, heart attacks and strokes.

“But they are wasting their money. This was a large study following people up for a long period of time assessing everything from their mobility and blood pressure to whether they were happy or felt pain.”

Other recent studies have indicated that, for some people, vitamin supplements could actually be harmful. One last year found pills containing vitamin E, ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, selenium and zinc increased the risk of malignant melanoma four-fold.

Another discovered women on a daily multi-vitamin pill increased their risk of breast cancer by up to 20 percent.

While the evidence that vitamins can do harm is still limited, the latest study seems to confirm that many people are at the very least taking them unnecessarily.

Split for Scientology?

Scientology has had a rough few years, and now a schism seems to be opening up within the so-called ‘church’ (NZ Herald, 7 January).

Debbie Cook, a former senior member of Sea Org, Scientology’s equivalent of the clergy, has circulated an email severely criticising the management style and financial policies of the group’s current leader, David Miscavige. She says Miscavige’s dictatorial leadership style is at odds with the doctrines laid down by the church’s founder, science-fiction author L Ron Hubbard, and that he has become obsessed with fundraising. His regime is now “hoarding” a cash reserve of more than US$1 billion, she claims, and has spent tens of millions more on a portfolio of large, upmarket buildings which largely sit empty.

Cook left the Scientology payroll in 2008, but says she remains “completely dedicated” to its beliefs. Her criticisms strike a chord with many disaffected recent defectors, but her highly respected status within the usually secretive world of Scientology may give her views weight among more active members, the article says.


Compartmentalising the mind

Michael Edmonds’ article in the latest issue (NZ Skeptic 101) was very interesting, especially laying out the groundwork for non-chemists. If I still had science classes, I would have them all read it and may pass it on to some friends to use.

Michael Edmonds wondered why some people, trained to a high level in chemistry, could turn to pseudoscience. He suggested that external bias, such as religious beliefs, could be one reason. That still does not really explain how those people could ‘switch tracks’ like that and go from apparently working in ‘science’ mode to denying the science that didn’t fit their beliefs. I had the experience of working with someone like that for quite a few years, and it took me a long time to sort out how this could happen.

Dr V was an excellent chemist and knew details of even obscure reactions. He regularly caught mistakes in science exams, including bursary papers here. He was an extremely well organised person and would happily put in much extra effort to do demonstrations other teachers wouldn’t attempt or be bothered to do.

We had a ‘hydrogen organ’ that he used and showed me how to set up. My class jumped a full 30cm off their stools when it went off. He once nearly deafened himself when his went off prematurely, and he enjoyed telling this story with a laugh at his own mistake. He once fell in the river collecting marsh gas to show his class how cleanly it burned. You can imagine his classes enjoyed things like this.

He was always willing to help younger teachers with chemistry reactions and demonstrations and enjoyed designing new demonstrations of chemical principles. However, his knowledge of biology was more limited. He refused to do dissections, taught reproduction to the limited extent defined by the syllabus (just the basic structures and the names of the parts of the reproductive system), and flatly refused to mention evolution.

In discussions, he would argue against radioactive dating, saying we couldn’t know that the radioactive decay rates hadn’t changed over time.

Another day, he would argue that the earth couldn’t be more than 10,000 years old – on the basis that if you extrapolated the changes recorded in the magnetic field over the last 60 years, you could not go back more than 10,000 years before the field became ridiculously strong.

How could he make this switch? It was literally like he had switched to a different part of his mind/way of thinking. Yes, he enjoyed arguing.

That, alone, wouldn’t explain things. What he did, I finally realized, was compartmentalise things in his mind, just like he did with equipment in his lab, like having lots of little drawers to pull out. Pull out one drawer for describing an acid reaction. Pull out another for dealing with a plant structure. Pull out another for dealing with his religion. There had to be some mental capacity to do this, since I am unable to compartmentalise the world in that way. This is the only way that I could understand or explain his ability to switch tracks in thinking.

Having heard a recent TED talk by Oliver Sacks on hallucinations in people with vision impairment (Charles Bonnet syndrome), and how specific parts of the brain generated specific types of hallucinations (observations by MRI of people during hallucinations, including Oliver Sacks, himself, who has some visual impairment(, I can understand better how my former colleague could compartmentalise.

Louette McInnes,

Natural Health Products Bill

I was disappointed to read that some therapies are not covered in the new Bill, in particular subluxations which can be seen on an X-ray only by a chiropractor, and ear candling which not only is complete baloney but also in a number of people has resulted in burns to the ear and even perforated ear drums.

Only today a flyer came in the letter box for craniosacral therapy…

However I guess many of these mumbo-jumbo therapies are really a type of psychotherapy involving a belief system and the Laying On Of Hands which therefore makes people feel better, which I suppose can be OK in the scheme of things… And of course something like 80 percent of complaints get better over a couple of weeks anyway.

Bill Tucker


As someone currently enduring a bout of shingles I have a few comments to make on the excellent article on the bad science behind the vaccine scare (NZ Skeptic 100). Further to benefits of vaccination mentioned in the article I think the point should be made that viruses can actually be eradicated from humanity which is ironic since they cannot, unlike bacteria, be killed as they are not living entities. Bacteriological diseases on the other hand are treatable and curable but the infectious agents cannot be eradicated.

Of course we are beginning to reach a point where some bacteria are resistant to most, if not all, current antibiotics thanks to misapplication, abuse and ill-informed prescription by doctors who should know better.

The damage done by the originator of the vaccination scare is incalculable. I don’t think being struck off the medical register is enough – I have long held the opinion that anyone earning a degree on the back of research which is later invalidated should be stripped of their degree and in the case of this man I think an apt reward would be the loss of his doctorate and professorship. He has demonstrated an inability to do good research and should not be overseeing students doing theirs.

I further think that vaccination should be done by law and the decision taken out of the hands of well-meaning but deluded parents who don’t realize that they don’t know what they are doing. Vaccination is a public health issue and there is no reason it shouldn’t be mandated in order to prevent children from contracting diseases they need not suffer and as a useful step to eradicating infectious agents. The payback in terms of saving tax expenditure and avoiding misery for children is huge.

I was lucky that my parents saw we were vaccinated against everything for which vaccines had been developed at the time and I am delighted that the common ‘wisdom’ of ‘once you’ve had it you are immune for life’ has been effectively thrown out forever. I well remember my best friend’s mother being crippled as a result of having contracted poliomyelitis in her childhood. It was a tragedy which need never be repeated in this day and age.

And anyone who thinks that talk of eradication is mere cant should think again – look what has happened to smallpox with a bit of directed will and determination. And in case anyone reading this doesn’t know it, the condition I am currently suffering from is caused by the chickenpox virus I contracted over 50 years ago. It has been lying dormant in my nervous system where the body’s immune system cannot get at it. I have so far suffered relatively lightly but a bout of severe nerve pain could ensue. I am not looking forward to the possibility and am hoping for the best but am prepared for the worst.

Malcolm Watts

Placebo effect quantified

It’s not often that we obtain numerical information about the strength of a placebo effect. Thus we should applaud the manufacturers of Voltaren for their webpage hcp/ efficacy.aspx (“Direct route to relief”).

Under a caption “Patients experienced a 51% improvement in [osteoarthritis] knee pain …” is a bar graph that shows both a 51 percent improvement with Voltaren gel and a 39 percent improvement with placebo gel. (Treatment period was 12 weeks.)

Similarly, “a 46% improvement in … hand pain …” turns out to be 47 percent improvement after six weeks of using Voltaren gel versus 40 percent improvement with placebo.

To simple-minded people like me, this sounds like a Voltaren effect of 12 percent for knee pain and 7 percent improvement for hand pain. I’m not knocking Voltaren, which I use myself, but clearly external use of the gel is not necessarily superior to taking this medication by mouth.

To the practitioners of alternative medicine, these results are wonderful. Regardless of treatment, after four to six weeks hand pain will be significantly reduced. Similarly a few months of quack therapy will reduce knee pain by almost half.

Jay D Mann