1993 Skeptics Conference

Science, Pseudoscience and Junk Science

Christchurch, September 3rd-5th

The programme for the 1993 Skeptics Conference is still under development, but it’s shaping up to be really interesting. It’ll be a rather omnivorous event, complete with meat and teeth. Come along for the usual humour and frivolity that make our conferences fun, but also be prepared to be challenged.

We know we’re a diverse group, but one of the common characteristics of Homo skepticus/skeptica is the tendency to talk and debate…at length…at the drop of a hat…on almost any subject.

Consequently, this year’s conference is looking at having a number of panel sessions to encourage participation from a range of speakers semi-simultaneously, with plenty of discussion time following to enable extended participation from the floor.

To date, three main panels are under development:

The Nature of Scientific Method — what are the characteristics of good science, what should we be looking for in science, how should science be conducted, and how can it be useful in everyday life?

Junk Science — having got some form of grounding in real science, we then turn our attention to junk science to see the way in which science is used and abused in everything from environmental issues to health research.

Teaching Critical Thinking — what is being done in schools to encourage critical thinking and/or an appreciation of the scientific method, what should be done and how can it be encouraged, is there room for this in the new curriculum, what is the place of science and technology?

There’ll also be a pile of speakers and unspeakable demonstrations throughout the conference, such as:

  • Ghosts
  • Police Use of Psychics
  • Acupuncture
  • Electric Medicine
  • Witches
  • Manufacturing Memory

Last, but by no means least, we are delighted to be able to tell you that we have a magical after-dinner speaker in the form of Margaret Mahy, internationally acclaimed children’s author and Skeptic. She’s living proof that you can be creative and rational at the same time! (Don’t forget to send in you filking and photography entries, even if you can’t make it to the conference itself!)

The Crackpot Index

On open access computer bulletin boards, any entity with a theory can expound on it at length. Many do — usually to a very unappreciative audience. A seemingly-large proportion of such expositions are surprisingly similar in style. The following scale (tentatively attributed to John Baez of Usenet sci.physics) will help readers establish just how crackpotted something is…

A simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics.

  1. A -5 point starting credit.
  2. 1 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false.
  3. 2 points for every statement that is logically inconsistent.
  4. 5 points for each such statement that is adhered to despite careful correction [by other readers].
  5. 5 points for using a thought experiment that contradicts the results of a widely accepted real experiment.
  6. 5 points for each word in all capital letters (except for those with defective keyboards).
  7. 10 points for each claim that quantum mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).
  8. 10 points for each favorable comparison of oneself to Einstein, or claim that special or general relativity are fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).
  9. 10 points for pointing out that one has gone to school, as if this were evidence of sanity.
  10. 20 points for suggesting that you deserve a Nobel prize.
  11. 20 points for each favorable comparison of oneself to Newton or claim that classical mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without evidence).
  12. 20 points for every use of science fiction works or myths as if they were fact.
  13. 20 points for defending yourself by bringing up (real or imagined) ridicule accorded to one’s past theories.
  14. 30 points for each favorable comparison of oneself to Galileo, claims that the Inquisition is hard at work on one’s case, etc..
  15. 30 points for claiming that the “scientific establishment” is engaged in a “conspiracy” to prevent one’s work from gaining its well-deserved fame, or suchlike.
  16. 40 points for claiming one has a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions.

Forum

Hail Guns?

Several of my friends are orchardists, and two of them lost their crop last year due to a hailstorm.

The hot topic at present is “hail guns.” Do they work? How do they work?

There seems to be a dearth of real information on the topic. The manufacturers make extravagant claims but it comes to mind that not too long ago mankind was firing arrows and cannons at the clouds just as confidently.

Does anyone out there have the answers?

Phil Spencer, Westbank, Motueka

OOS and 6000

(1) It hurts me to write this, but as a sufferer from RSI (now called “Occupational Overuse Syndrome” or OOS) I was annoyed by Dr John Welch’s description of it (Skeptic 27) as “essentially a conversion disorder” and a “delusion.” I can assure him the pain is no delusion. In my case it arose after I began transcribing long interviews (fast, repetitive typing, unlike creative work), and that is precisely what you would expect from an analysis provided by the ACC in terms of the metabolism of oxygen by the muscles.

I am grateful for the publications on ergonomics, which have helped me; pity about the forests, but there are plenty of worse ways they are used (such as those that clog my letterbox every day).

Stress and boredom may well be factors, but in my case, disabling pain is likely to have an effect exactly the reverse of “helping [me] sort out [my] … financial problems.”

(2) All power to Phil Spencer and the celebration of the Hexamillennium, but has he taken into account the lack of a year zero (which is going to drive the world crazy at midnight on December 31, 1999, just one year too soon)? The change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar? And the day that was lost when the sun stood still during the Battle of Jericho?

Congratulation to whoever typed out all those little slips saying “4004 BC”: I hope it didn’t give you RSI (OOS)

Hugh Young, Pukerua Bay

It was Bernard Howard who typed 300 little “4004 BC” slips and pasted them in every issue. We wish him well with the ACC. — Editor

TVNZ Newsman Writes Book!

The TVNZ fortnightly newsletter, Networks, recently carried the welcome news that a Senior Editor in TVNZ’s news division has written a book. The Astrologer and the Paradigm Shift will, according to Networks “clear up many common misconceptions about astrology.”

According to the author of the book, “Astrology is loosely grouped with modern New Age beliefs but it is in fact an ancient philosophical tradition out of which modern science arose.”

The newsman, a physics graduate, gave up his intention to pursue a scientific career when he found “physics didn’t address the connection between the human being and the environment, so was too divorced from reality.”

His book is 468 pages long. When asked how his colleagues felt about having the author of a book in their midst, he said that some of them didn’t know how to handle it, “although lots are intuitively sympathetic to where I’m coming from. I’ve done chart readings for several people” at TVNZ.

As is so often obvious, TVNZ news has no qualified specialist science or medical reporters. (In the recent flap over their carcinogenic potential, cellphones were in one TVNZ report repeatedly referred to as “radioactive.”) Nevertheless, it is heartening to learn that it now has a qualified astrologer to cast horoscopes for the staff.

Monkey Business

From Jerusalem comes news that Israel’s former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has ruled that trained monkeys may turn off lights or do other domestic chores forbidden to Jews on the sabbath. But only a borrowed monkey — or a dog or other animal capable of performing such tasks — can be used because their own beasts must be allowed to rest.

Skeptic Carl Wyant, who has sent us this information, says that it bugs him: “Apparently God doesn’t care if gentile monkeys get a day of rest or not.”

Magic Medicine Turns Businessman into Sex Zombie

Magic potions made from natural ingredients are generally hailed as environmentally friendly. But is this necessarily true? Not if you’re a rhinocerous!

Rhino horn is highly valued for its alleged power as an aphrodisiac and can sell for up to three times the price of gold.

In 1968 there were 18,000 rhinos cantering playfully on the plains of Kenya; now there are 400. Organic horn harvesters have hunted the rhino to virtual extinction. But hey, there are culturally sensitive traditions to uphold… not to mention the oldest tradition of them all — wrangling money from the gullible.

Forum

Confronting Creationism

The article on creationism by Barend Vlaardingerbroek (Skeptic 24) contains much with which I would agree, but there are also several points that could be contested.

The mainstream christian churches as allies? Census figures suggest that in NZ their membership is declining so fast that support would be limited. In America in the past they have been useful allies (at the Scopes trial in particular) but most of their rapidly ageing congregations have little interest in creationism and even less in biblical scholarship.

“If we live in a secular democracy…” Barend Vlaardingerbroek seems to assume that we do, but this is one of the points that creationists dispute. If we do not want our democracy to become less secular we will have to fight for it.

Writing articles in academic journals may indeed be preaching to the converted, but combating creationist propaganda in the media is essential. If lies are repeated often enough without any protest people will start to believe them.

Contrary to Barend Vlaardingerbroek’s view, there is an excellent case for attacking creationists through their religious beliefs, for this is their weakest point. Creationists, one should note, say as little as possible about creationism. Nearly all of their diatribe is an attempt to ridicule evolution. While it is necessary to point out their major distortions of science, our best strategy is to go on the attack and ridicule creationism.

A person who claims to believe that the biblical account of creation is infallibly true, when the first two chapters of Genesis contain two separate and contradictory accounts, has got to be on shaky ground. Pointing this out will sway the public towards skepticism more than any defense of evolution.

Nor does one have to be qualified in the area of biblical scholarship to take this approach, although obviously some reading is required. For an introduction to the first five chapters of Genesis, may I recommend Isaac Asimov’s In the Beginning.

It is always vital not to underestimate one’s opponents, but in the case of creationists it is easy to overestimate their knowledge of the bible. An overseas creationist on a New Zealand tour accidentally revealed in debate that he did not know the Old Testament had been written in Hebrew. The audience responded with scornful laughter, much to his discomfort. Does this story sound too much for good skeptics? I assure you I have witnesses.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek seems to assert the old proposition that one should not scoff at religion. But why not? The best weapon against ridiculous belief is ridicule, and there is excellent evidence to show that this is excellent PR. People enjoy being made to laugh.

Robert Ingersoll in nineteenth century America used this approach to attack the views nominally held by the majority of its citizens and he was enormously successful. He became both affluent and politically influential. Although described as the most hated man in the country, he was extremely popular. His lectures on Some Mistakes of Moses are a superb send-up of creationism.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to imagine that creationism will ever go away. There will always be flat-earth societies. But surely the tide turned several years ago and the creationists have long been fighting a losing battle in New Zealand? In America, their high-water mark was clearly at Little Rock on Jan 5th 1982 with the Overton judgement.

Jim Ring, Nelson

Homeopathy Works

I wish to protest the criticism of homeopathic medicine in Skeptic 25.[Skeptics Bite Watchdog]

Certainly, homeopathic medicines are just water. But what more is needed? The magical qualities of water are well documented. It cures everything! Not only is it very good for the digestive system, but — as any sports enthusiast will confirm — it is a superbly effective cure for any injury incurred on the field of play. Many is the time I have seen a player with serious injuries get up and run away with (if anything) even more agility than before, following the application of water to the injured area.

This is not just a vague impression. I have spent thousands of hours in front of the television in dedicated study of this phenomenon, and I have managed to establish this as scientific fact in the same exhaustive fashion as the esteemed Consumer magazine: I have found another person who believes in this treatment.

My friend Mike not only studies the Water Cure Phenomenon on television, but also drinks large quantities of liquids containing water while engaged in his scientific studies. He claims that he feels happier and more confident after consuming these water bearing fluids, and that’s hardly surprising.

He insists that on one occasion he even saw water used to successfully solve a problem involving decapitation. Bloody Australians!

I can’t help wondering why Syd Eru, the Rugby League player (Skeptic 25), did not simply cure his broken wrist with water at the time of the injury. He could have finished that game. Still, I think his case provides solid proof of the value of faith healing.

While the medical “profession” sneeringly suggested he would be out of action for six weeks, the faith healer’s involvement enabled him to take the field for the New Zealand Maori side on October 17th, only five weeks and six days after his wrist was broken.

Grant Gillatt, Lower Hutt

A Challenge

Being a priest in a Christian church, and a confirmed Skeptic (a situation I enjoy so much I don’t attempt to resolve it), I am fascinated by Carl Wyant’s article “Angelic Sexism and the Politically Correct” [Skeptic 25].

As far as I can see, it would be a great advantage all round if the Skeptics did show an interest in religion and big-time superstition.

Mind you, it may be difficult to express this in an informed manner. I found it difficult to recognise familiar territory in Carl Wyant’s article, and there may not be many readers of the Skeptic who are up to date with the latest religious trends. But who could not but profit from the refreshing effects of reasonable doubt?

However much the contrary might be wished, religion is very much part of New Zealand society, and is a deep-rooted and powerful force amongst us. Nothing so significant should be beyond investigation, or be regarded as untestable.

I devoutly and piously hope that you will see your way to permitting investigation and debate on these absorbing issues.

Leicester Kyle, Vicarage, Kerikeri

Forum

Unconvinced Environmentalist

Your main article in the March issue (Skeptic, #23), “The Skeptical Environmentalist” by Vincent Gray, is perhaps the worst I have ever read. It consists almost entirely of bald assertions, all un- referenced and mostly false, vilifying unspecified “environmentalists”. I shall take room to correct only the worst of these assertions; my main complaint about the piece is more formal, namely that it is unrelated to the NZCSICOP’s aims, and on that ground alone should never have been printed in the magazine.

On the level of fact, Gray is almost completely astray. He admits “there are still people without enough to eat” but claims there’s lately been a “reduction in the likelihood of famine”. This is but one of a dozen major falsehoods in the article. More people are starving than ever, half a billion are severely malnourished, and the prospect is for yet worse famines. The “world glut of food” which Gray asserts is a cruel myth”.

Gray asserts “Green policies are unlikely to help solve these problems. Indeed they may exacerbate them.” No reasoning, or fact, is offered to support these contentions. The truth, by contrast, is that erosion of ecosystems’ productive capacities has already proceeded very far. I entreat readers to seek out the reputable sources which I have mentioned, and ascertain the facts on these crucial matters.

Gray’s main method is the well known “straw man” technique. He claims we have made exaggerated statements which he then knocks down, but many of the statements I have never seen before. Yet others that he mocks are not exaggerated, e.g., that human activities have “depleted resources”. Why would anyone want to mock that accurate statement?

He tries to make out that environmentalists have avoided the issue of population growth (while also accusing us of scaremongering with the term “population explosion”). I would concede that some sections of the environmental movement have indeed underplayed this issue, but as a generality, he’s wrong. It has been widely agreed that the four main categories of environmental problem are pollution, overpopulation, resource depletion and militarism. To the extent that population growth has been insufficiently curbed, the blame must be found largely elsewhere, not in failure of advocacy by environmentalists.

Gray suggestes that because weather forecasting is of limited reliability (though not totally unreliable as his unspecified “one study” claims) climate projections, e.g. nuclear winter, must be implausible. This is fallacious. A major global perturbation, such as a huge sooty cloud spreading over much of the planet or a 30% increase in the carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere, will cause results more confidently predictable than the very delicate quasi- random day-to-day changes of mere weather. Artificial climate change (a more accurate term than “global warming”) is accordingly predicted by almost all the relevant experts who have examined the issue. Gray does readers a severe disservice by trying to present a different picture.

Perhaps his gravest accusation is “lack of attention to human welfare when it conflicts with environmental dogma”. The leading environmentalists (such as Edward Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist) have consistently maintained that it is only by taking care of Nature that humans can prosper. Trying to set up a phoney conflict “environment versus humanity” is an ignorant and mischievous distraction.

I cannot fathom why the editor of NZ Skeptic would contemplate such deceptive rubbish which furthermore is irrelevant to the purposes of NZCSICOP, to which I therefore do not renew my subscription.

Robert Mann, Editor, NZ Environment

CO2 and the Economy

While I agree with the points in Dr Gray’s article that some environmentalists use bad science and may appear to ignore population pressures on resources, I find the remainder of the article flawed.

The uncritical acceptance of the statement that a 20% reduction in CO2 will deepen New Zealand’s current recession, create more unemployment and inhibit exports is particularly disappointing.

Obviously a CO2 reduction strategy will produce growth and investment in some businesses, such as the large insulation manufacturer I work for and reduce the importance of othr businesses such as coal mining.

Overall, I see a net economic and social benefit to New Zealand from a considered strategy to reduce CO2 emissions. The research by many energy specialists both in New Zealand and overseas seems to support my understanding.

If global warming due to CO2 proceeds as predicted by a majority of the world’s climatologists, it will result in massive and costly environmental damge. After CFCs, acid rain and DDT, perhaps it is better to be cautious rather than careless.

I feel it was unfortunate that such a polarised view of environmentalists was published without a counter point.
Mark Stacey, Auckland

Scientific Reasoning

The views expressed by school teachers cited by M Carol Scott (Skeptic 23) exemplify a widespread shortcoming of science education at secondary and indeed tertiary level: its failure to inculcate scientific reasoning modes.

Science teaching appears to exhibit two main modes of transmission:

The “Gospel Truth” delivery style: “this is how things are,” usually employed when dealing with noncontroversial “hard facts,” such as acid/alkali reactions, Newton’s laws, or the digestive system of a rat.

  • The “Article of Faith” approach: “scientists believe that,” used when dealing with potentially controversial or non-deductively demonstrable models like stellar and biological evolution.

Laboratory work in educational institutions is usually only to illustrate what has been pre-taught; in my day “experiments” at school were “to prove that…” They were not at all experimental, and contained not a vestige of the epistemological processes which characterise “real” science in their design or execution. Since then, Discovery Learning methods have become more fashionable, but I would debate the assertion that they achieve little more than the Classical methods do in practice.

Do most degree holders in science really have a background in which scientific thinking was paid much formal attention to? To what extent do secondary science teacher training courses train aspirants to develop scientific reasoning processes in school pupils? In the case of my own first degree and teacher training, these questions are purely rhetorical. Now that I am on the other side of the lecturer’s bench, I am giving such matters a great deal of thought.

Science is not what scientists “believe” (that word describes the claims of both fundamentalists and palaeontologists!) and science is not an amorphous compendium of “facts.” It is an epistemological process which has evolved since the Renaissance. It is a way of thinking.

An introduction to science at first-year university level (compulsory for all BSC students) should feature a priming session of several weeks on the history and philosophy of science, and scienitific epistemology (The Scientific Method, as opposed to “scientific methods”). School science should similarly aim less for fact-cramming and more for cognitive development and the inculcation of scientific reasoning abilities.

Until we do just that, I believe that words like “evidence,” “theory,” and “chance” will remain forever incomprehensible to the general public, not to mention many of the teachers wbo produce that general public.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek, Goroka, PNG

If we are to teach epistemology in a basic science course, which epistemology is appropriate? In my experiance, Popperian falliblism is the most useful way to introduce philosophy of science to science students. Popper is hardly the last word (philosophical questions don’t have last words), but he does give students a useful structure for distinguishing legitimate science from religion and — most importantly — from pseudoscience. -DD

Light Hats

That photograph of the “light hat” (Skeptic 24) is a beauty! But as foolish as it seems, there may well be some reasonable scientific evidence to support its use.

There is a good body of scientific literature regarding seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and its treatment (including shining light on the patient and by taking a variety of medicines), despite the rather convenient-sounding acronym. There are four subtypes noted in DSM-III- R, the well-known psychiatry manual.

Research into the aetiology and treatment of SAD was sparse prior to the 1980s, but came of age rapidly in the middle of that decade, mainly under the impetus of Rosenthal and colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health, Maryland, in the United States. Numerous well-designed clinical studies were published by this group.

The mechanism of the action of “phototherapy” (shining light on the patient, as in the photograph) remains controversial. Many researchers agree on the involvement of melatonin, suggesting that undiminished melatonin secretion during the months of shorter photoperiod may have a depressant effect. This is based on the observation that light exposure during phototherapy suppresses melatonin secretion; the first treatments with phototherapy were based on the original biological observation that seasonal rhythms in animals depended on photoperiod. The mismatch of melatonin and photoperiod in the human has been described as a “phase delay,” and as a “desynchronisation between solar and biological clocks.” Phototherapy aims to artificially extend the sufferer’s photoperiod. The first report of a portable unit was I think in 1990.

Drug therapy is not usually the first line of treatment for recognised SAD, but at least four groups of compounds have been used: beta- blockers, serotonin precursors and serotonin releasing compounds, benzodiazepines and monoamine-oxidase inhibitors.

There are obvious difficulties in carrying out conventional blind cross-over placebo-controlled trials in the assessment of the usefulness of phototherapy, but results thus far have prompted some to suggest that it would be wise to screen patients with major depression for a seasonal component.

A line in Morin’s 1990 paper states that SAD frequently improves with “travel toward the equator”. Suffering as we are now through a Christchurch winter, it’s easy to agree!

John Britten, Christchurch

Forum

Reader Response

Also, as a NZCSICOP newcomer, I’d like to respond to Carl Wyant, who asked why skeptic groups rarely attack the Big Groups. Firstly, skeptics challenging religious beliefs or their legal implications do so elsehere as atheistic or political groups. Secondly, religious belief is untestable, so a skeptic cannot point to refuting evidence. The argument reduces to philosophy. Thirdly, pseudoscience is a lot more irritating than something not even pretending to be scientific.

I would like to comment on a note in the #22 Hokum Locum column. Dr Welch called tinted lenses developed (in 1983) by a “marriage guidance counsellor” a “quack” treatment. Firstly, Irlen is a psychologist and I haven’t heard of her being a counsellor.

It is true that favourable studies have not usually been judged to be up to full scientific scratch (see pro and critical papers in the Dec 1990 <I>Journal of Learning Disabilities<D>, including an experimentation validity paper by R. Parker). Criticisms I find in the literature are: a) the lenses do reduce distortion, but orthodox treatment may work better; b) longer term scientific studies have not been done; c) no complete mechanism has yet been found.

These valid points mean the onus is on the Irlen lens proponents to scientifically demonstrate their worth. But I feel the label “quack treatment” is unjustified.

Matthew Hobbs, Wellington

No Crusades

The letter from Carl Wyant (Forum, March 1992) asks, “…why the Skeptics are so quick to pounce on relatively trivial paranormalities … yet never appear to say anything about the seriously dangerous personalities, such as Christians, Muslims, among others.”

Like many, I started subscribing to The Skeptical Inquirer (the parent skeptical publication) after reading the famous “Metamagical Themas” article by Douglas P. Hofstadter in Scientific American around ten years ago.

It was refreshing and novel to encounter a skeptical approach to claims of the paranormal. Organised skepticism did not provide some sort of substitute religion without a god. Hofstadter wrote that the aim was “simply to combat nonsense”, while the methods used were the testing of claims coupled with rational debate.

Carl Wyant seems to suggest some sort of crusade against organised religion.

Now although I would agree with Bertrand Russell that the “great religions” have, on the whole, done more harm than good, I would not wish to belong to an organisation that set out to tackle what Carl Wyant calls “these Big Groups”. Past experience shows that enthusiasts who do so set out, quickly turn into just another religious group themselves.

While as for crusades, many will be skeptical as to the benefits provided by such endeavours.

It is fine to be skeptical about all religious claims, but let us not aim to try to destroy belief — this would be sheer folly. But when people make testable claims, whether religious or otherwise, let us test them.

Do not imagine that people will suddenly abandon irrational modes of thought, but let us try to increase the amount of rational discussion in New Zealand. These aims may be more modest than some would like, but they have the advantage of being attainable.

Jim Ring, Nelson

Environmental Skepticism

Dr Vincent Gray has written a very pertinent and timely article in “The Skeptical Environmentalist” (Skeptic #23).

Dr Gray’s criticisms of environmentalists are very much in line with a re-appraisal of the so-called greenhouse effect by American climatologists, meteorologists and geophysicists.

In February, the Washington-based Science and Environmental Project released a public statement signed by 43 prominent scientists. It said, in part:

We are disturbed that activists, anxious to stop energy and economic growth, are pushing ahead with drastic policies without taking notice of recent changes in the underlying science.

They further spoke of:

…the unsupported assumptions that catastrophic global warming follows from the burning of fossil fuels and requires immediate action. We do not agree.

The tragedy of “Green” scare stories is that their public credibility decreases each time a hoax is exposed. However, the media (Skeptic excluded) can always be relied on to seize the chance to scare the public out of their wits.

Mike Houlding, Tauranga

New Video Titles

Homeopathy – Medicine or Magic?

QED/BBC, 1990; 30 minutes

A very interesting look at the state of homeopathy in the UK in the ’90s, including its use by some “conventional” doctors and vets. Details are given of a few trials (some double and triple blind) that have been conducted claiming to give support to homeopathic techniques. Unfortunately, relatively little time is permitted for dissenting views, and I am sure many of our rural members will have other explanations for some of the “miraculous” animal cures presented. A thought-provoking programme nevertheless; it should be essential viewing for any skeptic confronting homeopathic enthusiasts.

Secrets of Sedona

48 Hours/CBS, 1991 60 minutes

A visit to Sedona, Arizona, a centre for “New Age” blather in the US. Topics covered include fire walking, astrology, UFOs, vortexes, pendulums, channelling, reincarnation, and New Age music — surely there is something for every skeptic in this one. The programme shows how some successful businessmen and women use New Age techniques to influence their business decisions, and the industry that has built up around this philosophy in a beautiful part of the American west.