Colloidal Silver

Composed of particles of silver suspended in another medium, such as water, colloidal silver is taken orally, and is claimed to cure at least 650 different conditions, including bacterial, viral and fungal infections, leukaemia, Lyme disease, cancer, malaria, HIV and impaired immune systems.

Three main products

There are three different forms, each with vociferous proponents.

Non-ionic colloidal silver contains metallic silver particles which are said to ionise and become active once ingested.

Ionic colloidal silver claims to be 0.006-0.015 microns in diameter (highly unlikely), and is sold at a concentration of 1×103 – 1×106 ppm. Its small particle size is said to make it capable of crossing cell membranes and accessing viruses. The claimed particle size is unlikely, although people working on nanotechnology do make such particles, but not with medicinal uses in mind. One product claims to contain hydrogen peroxide and deionised water in addition to ionic silver.

Colloidal silver protein is made from a mixture of silver nitrate, sodium hydroxide, gelatine and water. Mild silver protein (19-23% silver) is said to be less ionisable and thus less effective than strong silver protein (7.5-8.5% silver), which is said to be bactericidal. Health food shops may be selling further dilutions of these two forms of colloidal silver protein.

Silver does not occur normally in humans and in its elemental form is not considered to be extremely toxic, though most of its salts are. Colloidal silver products show some antibacterial activity in laboratory tests, but this does not mean they are effective if swallowed. Silver products were used in the past to treat gonorrhea and for infections of the nose and throat, but have been discontinued because they were ineffective and toxic. By 1960, warnings were made that there is no justification for its internal use, either theoretically or practically.

Colloidal silver creams for topical use sometimes contain manuka honey, so any beneficial effects from the silver alone would be hard to prove.

What happens inside?

When swallowed, silver enters the gut. Once there, smaller particles could form a complex with proteins, while larger particles could simply be excreted. Some may enter the blood and any that is systemically absorbed concentrates in the skin, liver, spleen, and adrenals, with lesser deposits in the muscle and brain.

Colloidal silver is said to work by binding to pathogens and thereby causing the body to get rid of them, though there is no way in which it could differentiate between human and pathogenic cells. It is also claimed that, as a foreign body, it activates the immune system and that kills all pathogens. In fact, beneficial CD4 and CD8 cells of the immune system are actually destroyed by colloidal silver. Claims that it is stored in the Kupfer cells of the liver where it increases their action are unlikely, as it is more likely to inactivate or kill such cells.

Colloidal silver is said to be able to pulverise pathogens by Brownian motion, which is characteristic of colloidal silver particles. All this is claimed to happen within six minutes of making contact with the pathogen.

One of the more outlandish claims is that colloidal silver interferes with mitosis, and that one of the daughter cells becomes a stem cell that can migrate within the body and cure anything!

Serious effects

Contrary to what is claimed by proponents, silver does accumulate in the body. Silver salts can cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in cells of the brain and spinal cord. Systemic toxicity increases where mucous membranes are disrupted in the gut or on the skin, such as in burns.

Large amounts of absorbed silver accumulate in the skin causing argyria. The first sign of this is a slate-blue/grey pigmentation of the gums. Such discolouration can spread to other skin areas and is irreversible.

A candidate for the US Senate turned his skin blue by taking colloidal silver for about two years as a precaution to there being no antibiotics available after the turn of the millennium. He has been nicknamed “Papa Smurf”, and although the disfigurement is permanent, it is not considered medically serious – he just looks ridiculous. There are over 300 cases of argyria in the medical literature and certainly thousands more which have gone unreported. It is usually self-limiting in that when people’s skin starts to turn grey, they are usually willing to follow advice to stop taking silver products.

When used as eye drops, it turns the white of the eye bluish-grey or brownish-black. Silver nitrate eye drops have been used to kill gonococci bacteria in newborns, and this is often quoted in support of the product. However, these drops were used once, not repeatedly, and have been superceded by antibiotics.

Skin discolouration is the most common side effect, and one which can have a profound psychological effect. Physiological effects are more difficult to assess, due to the relatively small number of cases that have been covered in the medical literature.

There are suggestions that ingestion of silver can have serious medical consequences, such as neurological defects after prolonged use, including problems with walking and reduced senses of taste and smell. There is also the possibility of silver accumulation affecting the developing foetus, causing anomalies in the ear, face and neck. Customers are being duped, purchasing either a useless medication or simply very expensive water. Selling silver products can be lucrative. Albert Barnes invented argyrol, a silver drug used as eye and nose drops in the early 20th century. The fortune he made funded one of the greatest collections of modern art, which is displayed at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

In Australia in 2000, the Federal Court granted injunctions against a manufacturer of devices to make colloidal silver, banning them from making misleading claims about the benefits of taking these products, and enforcing the payment of refunds to purchasers.


Channelling claims that spirit entities can speak by using the body of a person, the channeller. Some channelled spirits are said to be those of dead loved ones, others are more exotic folk such as Nepalese lamas, Native American shamans, Altantean priests or even Cro-magnon warriors!

Spirits of the dead

People channelling the spirits of the dead are simply a new version of the 18th-century spiritualist medium. In some cases, channellers have been discovered to have extensively researched people to be able to produce seemingly inexplicable details about them, allegedly provided by a recently departed loved one. In other cases, the channellers are practicing what stage magicians everywhere recognise as “cold reading”.

James van Praagh and John Edward both rely on rapid-fire delivery of generalised questions and statements which are typically used to “home in” on someone in a large audience. Thus throwing a line out such as “does anyone know a John?” is likely to elicit a response from someone (from most people in fact!). Using ambiguous statements such as “do you understand that?” or “does this have meaning for you?” helps provide a spurious sense of accuracy or detail. And people will invariably provide feedback, verbally or nonverbally, which is then built into the patter. There are many books available on “cold reading” which teach how to do this, and it can be very, very compelling and mystifying to those who don’t know the basic techniques involved.

Modern ancient spirits

An easier version of channelling which doesn’t rely on trying to elicit personal details, is where an allegedly ancient spirit – sometimes one from a different planet – provides pearls of wisdom to an audience seeking enlightenment.

Modern channelling made its first major appearance in 1972 with the publication of Seth Speaks by Jane Roberts and Robert Butts, which detailed the wisdom of Seth, an “unseen entity”. But the really big boost came in 1987, with the ABC mini-series based on actress Shirley MacLaine’s book Out on a Limb. This depicted her conversing with spirits through channeller Kevin Ryerson, who claimed to channel “John”, a contemporary of Jesus. Like many channelled entities, “John” was not able to speak the language of his own era, but instead sounded like a B-grade Elizabethan. And, like many channelled entities, John made outrageous, but affirming statements (he told MacLaine that she is co-creator of the world with God!).

One of the most famous channellers was J.Z. Knight, who succeeded in taking legal steps to lay claim to her 35,000-year-old Cro-magnon spirit “Ramtha”, preventing other channellers from tapping into this lucrative market. She has been able to charge patrons US$1,000 a seminar to receive such wisdom as “[we must] open our minds to new frontiers of potential”, and has sold tapes, books and accessories as part of the business. Ramtha, too, has a liking for Elizabethan-accented platitudes, despite having apparently lived in Lemuria and Atlantis. However, “he” fared badly in predicting a series of natural disasters that didn’t happen (California and Florida did not fall into the ocean, and acid rain did not poison New England’s water supply). Followers who had shifted house to be safe were not happy with him. Then Knight was served an injunction. She had been telling followers that Ramtha recommended they buy her Arabian horses, at up to US$250,000 each. Knight was discovered practicing Ramtha voices, and then Ramtha began making homophobic comments. Small wonder that Ramtha’s popularity has waned in recent years.

An example of how easy it is to fool people was the infamous 1988 Australian tour of “Carlos”, a 2,000-year-old spirit allegedly channelled by artist José Oliver. The tour was a hoax intended to demonstrate how easy it is to fool people and show how gullible and uncritical the mass media are when covering paranormal or supernatural topics. José was trained by his friend, master magician James “The Amazing” Randi, to perform as a channeller. Carlos developed a large following and, even when the hoax was revealed, many continued to believe in him.

As James Randi noted in an interview with Australia’s ABC:

“All [José] had to do was look at videotapes of other people speaking in strange voices, and he picked it up right away, and eventually we got it into the Sydney Opera House with a fair audience there, all handling crystals and beads and whatnot, and with charmed looks on their faces, attracted and enthralled by this man out on stage, José Oliver doing the Spirit of Carlos that was 35,000 years old.

“He felt like an awful fool doing it, especially since all of the material that we produced was spurious. In the press releases we invented magazines, we invented towns and cities and radio stations and TV channels and whatnot, that didn’t exist. And one phone call by the media back to the United States would have revealed the whole thing as a hoax.”

Deliberate deception?

Cases like “Carlos” show how easy it can be to fool thousands of people, but are the “real” channellers perpetuating a similar kind of hoax? At face value, it’s hard to tell. There are always at least three basic hypotheses to explain any paranormal claim:

  1. the alleged phenomenon is genuine
  2. the claimant is perpetrating a deliberate deception
  3. the claimant is sincere but self-deceived

Skeptics concentrate on looking for evidence which will allow the first hypothesis to be rejected or accepted. Channellers have consistently failed to provide any evidence that can’t be more simply explained by mundane methods, such as cold reading. Their wise pronouncements are banal and commonplace. They have no knowledge that isn’t available to the person involved (i.e. no inexplicable language skills or answers to arcane questions). Some of their pronouncements are blatantly wrong.

Many channellers have made a good living out of their alleged abilities; some have become very wealthy indeed. For others, the attraction may be the sense of power inherent in gaining a devout following. Just whether deception is involved – intentional or self-deluding – is for you to decide, but it’s what the evidence points to…


Echinacea is one of the top selling herbal products in the USA, with sales worth more $US300 million dollars annually. A member of the daisy family, it is claimed to treat abscesses, burns, eczema, liver cancer, urinary tract infections, varicose leg ulcers, boils, and gingivitis, but mostly it is used to treat upper respiratory infections. It is:

  • sold as capsules, pills, tinctures, teas, creams for topical use, and toothpaste, or in combination with other compounds
  • marketed to children as fizzy tablets also containing vitamin C
  • purported to support and promote the natural powers of resistance of the body, especially in infections of the nose and throat
  • unproven in many clinical trials to prevent or ameliorate the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections
  • unproven in its claimed immune-enhancing effects
  • a known cause of asthma and anaphylaxis in allergic patients

Echinacea was used by American Indians to treat snake bite and relieve fever, and was incorporated into a 19th century wonder cure called Meyer’s Blood Purifier. With the advent of sulfa antibiotics, echinacea lost its popularity as an anti-infective agent. Most recent research has been carried out in Germany, where echinacea extracts are injected, a procedure not pursued in the US or elsewhere.

Echinacea is a member of the Asteraceae [Compositae] family, which includes sunflowers, daisies and the potent allergen, ragweed. Three species are used medicinally — E. angustifolia, E. pallida and E. purpurea, the latter being the most commonly used in New Zealand. These ‘coneflowers’ are perennial herbs, and production involves drying the roots or juicing the stems, flowers and roots, or ethanolic extraction of various compounds. The method of manufacture, the time of harvest and the part of the plant harvested are all variables that need to be taken into account when attributing clinical efficacy to echinacea. The root is said to contain the highest levels of active components and the stem to be less desirable. Claimed potency is said to depend on how long the herb is stored before use and how finely it is powdered and processed.

Studies show that there are indeed many potentially pharmacologically active compounds in echinacea, but whether there is sufficient present in crude extracts to be effective is debatable. Echinacoside is claimed to be a natural antibiotic comparable to penicillin, but its concentration is not likely to be sufficient to have any significant effect. Polysaccharides, such as heteroxylan and arabinoglycan, are touted as having major pharmacologic effects on the immune system, though these are likely to be digestively destroyed when taken orally. Echinacea has a pungent smell and taste caused by echinacein, an isobutylamide that is responsible for a tingling sensation if fresh stems are chewed. Echinacein is said to counteract the invasion of tissues by bacteria. This may be so if injected, but orally administered preparations are not so likely to function. Clinical trials are hampered by the fact that many of these products lack appropriate quality control and cannot be standardised because the active ingredient(s) has not been defined.

In a recent study of 40 healthy male volunteers who were administered the freshly expressed juice of E. purpurea or placebo, echinacea did not enhance the immune system as measured by the phagocytic activity of white blood cells and the production of cytokines. Researchers were surprised to find that echinacea decreased the levels of serum ferritin, as that had not been predicted. They concluded that the ‘immune stimulation’ does not result from oral intake. Pharmacies and health food shops in Wellington were found to recommend echinacea most commonly as a treatment for a patient presenting with obvious symptoms of asthma following a chest infection.

Lack of efficacy in preventing upper respiratory infection was reported in a trial of 302 volunteers in Germany. They received oral ethanolic extracts of echinacea roots, or placebo, for 12 weeks. The number of volunteers who became infected and the length of time until they became ill did not differ significantly between the two groups. Even if there is a relative risk reduction attributable to taking echinacea, there are dangers in taking it for any length of time. The recommended treatment period is less than 8 weeks because of the risk of liver poisoning. In fact, people who use other hepatotoxic drugs, such as anabolic steroids, methotrexate or ketoconazole, are warned not to take echinacea.

Several other trials back up these results, including one where 117 volunteers were treated with echinacea and then challenged with a rhinovirus. Similar numbers of people caught colds whether they took echinacea or placebo and the severity of symptoms did not differ.

A 2002 Australian study of adverse drug reactions found that 51 cases including examples of anaphylaxis, acute asthma and skin rashes were attributable to echinacea ingestion. Several patients required hospitalisation. Americans with known sensitivity to ragweed are warned not to take echinacea. Patients with immune diseases, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis or AIDs are likely to suffer adverse reactions to echinacea, though there are no warnings on containers available in supermarkets, pharmacies and health food shops.


Douglas J. Echinacea – the purple coneflowers.

Executive Summary Echinacea.

Echinacea – RxList Herbal FAQ.

Healey B, Burgess C, Siebers R, Beasley R, Weatherall M, Holt S. Do natural health food stores require regulation? NZMJ 13 September 2002;115 (1161)

Melchart D, Walther E, Linde K, Brandmaier R, Lersch C. Echinacea root extracts for upper respiratory infections. Arch Fam Med 1998;7(6):541-5

Mullins RJ, Heddle R. Adverse reactions associated with Echinacea: the Australian experience. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 2002;88(1):42-51

Schwartz E, Metzler J, Diedrich JP, Freudenstein J, Bode C, Bode JC. Oral stimulation of freshly expressed juice of Echinacea purpurea herbs fail to stimulate the non-specific immune response in healthy young men: results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study.

J Immunother 2002;25(5):413-20 Turner RB, Riker DK, Gangemi JD. Ineffectiveness of Echinacea for prevention of experimental rhinovirus colds. Antimicrob Agents Chemother 2002;44(6):1708-9

Magnetic Therapy Products

The seemingly magical properties of magnets have been puzzling humanity for centuries, but the magnetic therapy market got its first big boost in the 1700s when Dr Franz Anton Mesmer started to impress the European gentry under the sponsorship of Marie Antoinette. As greater understanding of magnetism and electricity developed, more and more products were produced which relied on a connection between this mysterious “vital force” and the human body. Magnetic belts, cravats, wrist-bands, corsets and a host of other products designed to wrap around the human body were sold to boost sexual performance (always a crowd-pleaser), promote hair growth and stave off aging. More recently, such products have focused on claims to provide healing powers for a broad range of medical complaints. These days, the world-wide magnetic therapy market has been estimated as worth close to two billion dollars.

While high-field pulsed magnets have a role to play in certain clinical applications, there is little to no evidence that the small static magnets used in the likes of mattress underlays, insoles or bracelets do anything therapeutic to the human body.

One study commonly used to support magnet therapy claims is the Baylor study which compared the effects of magnets and sham magnets on the knee pain of 50 post-polio patients; 29 in the magnet groups had lower pain scores compared with 21 in the control group. There were a lot of flaws in the study, however, including significant differences in the test groups in both gender and age, no measurement of the pressure used to evaluate the pain scores, no systematic follow-up. It is not an adequate basis on which to make medical claims.

Magnetic insoles can be found in retail and mail order catalogues, usually accompanied by carefully worded statements such as “people believe that these can help reduce pain”. A study by the New York College of Podiatric Medicine found that magnets did not have any effect on healing heel pain. Over a 4-week period, 19 patients wore a moulded insole containing a magnetic foil, while 15 patients wore the same type of insole with no magnetic foil. In both groups, 60% of both groups reported improvement! A similar lack of difference in pain or mobility ratings was found in a study looking at magnet use for treating chronic back pain.

Having better foot support or a change in mattress softness may well produce a positive result whether magnets are involved or not. It can be difficult in assessing the effects of a treatment to determine just what is having the effect, hence the need for carefully designed trials.

“A single study on something like magnets and pain relief should rarely be taken by anybody as significant scientific evidence of a causal connection between the two. Likewise, a single study of this issue that finds nothing significant should not be taken as proof that magnets are useless. However, when dozens of studies find little support that magnets are effective in warding off pain, then it seems reasonable to conclude that there is no good reason to believe in magnet therapy.”

Bob Carroll

Various claims for magnet products are made. Some say that the electromagnetic field helps circulate blood, some claim magnets affect the iron in red blood cells. Studies involving reasonably strong magnets (1000 gauss) show no change in the amount or speed of blood flow. More abstract claims state that magnets restore an imbalance in body energy or accelerate the body’s healing processes in some usually undefined, unmeasurable fashion.

It is true that the very powerful magnets in medical MRI machines can produce tiny changes detectable by such equipment, but this is a temporary effect only and produced under extreme field strengths of 10,000-30,000 gauss. If blood were strongly attracted to magnets, it would tend to pool and possibly even ooze through the skin when a person is exposed to an MRI scan! The magnets in consumer “health” products are much weaker. Some have the field strength of a fridge magnet, or around 100 gauss, ranging on up to 1,000 gauss, and this is simply far too weak to produce any measurable effect within the body.

One interesting test is to see whether the magnets in one of these products can pick up a paper clip while contained within the velcro strap or lining used within the product. Few if any, appear to have a strong enough field to do so. Few, if any, have a strong enough field to penetrate the skin, let alone affect the iron in blood which is strongly bound in haemoglobin molecules.

In the US, marketing claims by companies selling magnetic devices have been subject to a host of legal and regulatory actions, primarily aimed at preventing them from making claims that such products relieve pain or can cure, treat or mitigate any disease, or can effect any change in the human body.

One of the obvious warning signs that this is a questionable form of therapy is that much of the marketing material for these products relies on testimonials and anecdotes, often relating to conditions which come and go, such as arthritis, back pain, muscular strain and the like. People suffering from these conditions are very vulnerable to products touting pain relief or a cure.

The California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, on filing a lawsuit against a magnetic mattress pad manufacturer for false health claims and fraudulent business practices said this:

“We will not allow companies to hawk unproven products as a cure-all to the elderly and those with serious illnesses who are desperately searching for pain relief. These types of scams serve as an important reminder for consumers to check into claims made by companies and talk with your health care provider before making costly medical decisions.”

This is good advice.


The Medical Messiahs: A Social History of Health Quackery in Twentieth-Century America Chapter 11: The Gadget Boom

Magnetic Mattress Pad Sellers Sued

Lawsuit Against Magnet Product

FDA Warning Letter regarding misleading claims for magnetic products

Skeptic’s Dictionary: magnet therapy

Consumer magazine, November 2003

Psychics and the Police

Whenever a person, especially a child, goes missing, the psychics/mediums won’t be too far behind. Most of them no doubt believe sincerely in their special powers and that they are only there to help, but they can cause a great deal of harm — emotional, psychological, even economic — and interfere with the real investigation.

Every time a media outlet reports on a medium’s involvement approvingly, they provide more marketing material for this industry and more tacit approval for the psychological manipulation of desperate vulnerable people. Law Professor Christine Corcos, author of a book on the 1944 trial of psychic Helen Duncan, notes:

“Law enforcement officials who allow non-law enforcement trained personnel to participate…are putting both the cases and their jobs at risk. The fact is that few, if any, police departments actually admit to using psychics. Most officials [say] that psychics simply waste time predicting that bodies or missing persons will be found near water, or trees, or buildings with red roofs. Experienced detectives combing particular areas can do as well, and will not raise false hopes among the families and friends of the victims.”

I Sleuth Dead People

Few families are prepared to reject any possible chance of finding missing loved ones, or to publicly criticise. But those who don’t want to be manipulated have reported being badgered and tormented by people claiming to have useful information which turns out to be hurtful hype. The NZ Skeptics received this comment following celeb psychic Deb Webber commenting on a missing child case as part of a publicity tour:

“With regard to psychics, mediums and the like, I can tell you that in the months and years following my sister’s disappearance, my family was contacted by no less than 100 of these people. No two of them were able to agree on the location of my sister, alive or dead.”

And the police were obliged to follow up each and every one of them, on the chance that the information was real, i.e. someone pretending to be a psychic to convey something they knew about the case. So not only do these freaks inflict profound emotional harm, they are also an enormous waste of police resources.

Psychics Strike Out

A survey of the New Zealand police force concluded that, unlike practical shows like Crimewatch or public appeals for witnesses, there had never been any accurate, useful psychically derived information that was instrumental in leading to a successful conclusion.

In 1975, 18-year-old hitchhiker Mona Blades went missing. British psychic-medium Doris Stokes claimed to have assisted the New Zealand police to recover her body, but this is untrue as the body has never been found and the case remains open. In 1983, the Kirsa Jensen case saw over a hundred contacts from psychics and others. Ian Holyoake, the officer in charge, said:

“[It] did not advance the investigation one bit. Most of the information was not specific as to any area where a body might be located, but some was quite graphic in detail and disturbing by its very nature”.

In 1992, the disappearance of 2-year-old Amber-Lee Cruickshank brought “letters from clairvoyants, card readers, star watchers, prayer groups, crystal readers, palm readers, spiritualists, people who have visions, premonitions and total lunatics”. None of them assisted the search. Initial claims saw her being found “near water or trees”; a 2007 episode of Sensing Murder claimed she had been abducted.

In 1992, clairvoyants and a Spiritualist medium told the family of missing Wellington man Michael Kelly that he was still alive. They appealed to racist stereotypes by saying he had been assaulted and abducted by “rough-looking” tattooed Maoris, and dumped at various locations. Police received calls from people worried about Maoris, and private searches were made. Kelly’s body was eventually found at the bottom of a light shaft in central Wellington where he had fallen.

In 1998, Nelson clairvoyant Margaret Birkin and four other psychics went out on a boat to look for missing Blenheim friends Ben Smart and Olivia Hope. Birken stated that she knew where the pair was to be found. Despite additional searches with professional divers and support by the Holmes show, she failed to locate the pair, whose bodies remain undiscovered.

In December 2001, psychic Kathy Bartlett joined searchers looking for missing teenager Elon Oved. Her examination of the “aura” at the scene was of no help, and it was another anguishing couple of months for his family before his body was found by a search-and-rescue team member.

In March 2003, a $20,000 reward was offered for information on missing woman Sara Niethe. Several psychics called police saying that they had had visions of where she and her car could be found, but neither has ever been located.

Sensing Murder? Sensing Nonsense

The exploitainment TV show Sensing Murder titillates viewers with the idea that psychics can provide new information about unsolved cases, but not one murder has been solved and many grieving people have been exploited. What has been revealed are the usual tricks and techniques common in the psychic industry:

  • extravagant claims with no supporting evidence In the episode “A Bump in the Dark”, about the rape and murder of Alicia O’Reilly, the psychics were said to have established “key facts” about the girl’s personality. One had said Alicia was a little shy, her mother described her as out-going.
  • truisms touted as amazing revelations: Psychic Kelvin Cruickshank said “It sounds a little weird, but she must have been buried in a white coffin.” However, this is common for children.
  • obvious cueing or spurious affirmations: Cruickshank, in looking at Alicia’s drawings, spots “her dog”. Off-camera someone says “a cat” (the film crew knew there was a pet cat). “O cat is it?” says Cruickshank, “oh it is too.”
  • bare-faced errors going unchallenged: Cruickshank made much of Alicia talking about children’s TV show “What Now?”, a Saturday morning treat in the 80s. A dramatic voice-over noted that Alicia had been murdered in 1980, apparently supporting his claim. However, “What Now?” didn’t start on air until nine months after Alicia’s murder. Perhaps the implication there is that TVNZ shows are good enough to appeal to spirits in the after-life! What do you think?

UFOs and Aliens

Most skeptics believe that the universe harbours life-forms other than our own, but the evidence for them having visited here, either in the ancient past or in the present, is not convincing.

In 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold saw nine crescent-shaped objects that “flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water”. A newspaper article used the term “flying saucer”, and people started to report seeing saucer-shaped objects.

In the early 1960s, Betty and Barney Hill reported that they had been abducted by aliens, describing them as men with big noses, dark or black hair and eyes, and a relaxed human appearance. Some years later, when the couple were put under hypnotic regression, they said that the aliens were small, had grey skin, large black wrap-around eyes.

This second description matched an alien character in the science fiction series “The Outer Limits.” The programme had screened 12 days before the interview. It formed the basis for the now-classic “Grey” alien, popularised by writers like Whitley Streiber and Budd Hopkins.

On December 6th 1952, people from all over New Zealand reported seeing two UFOs, making this one of the most well-documented UFO sightings of all time. It was, in fact, a sophisticated hoax planned by some Otago University students and not revealed as such for 20 years.

These three incidents reveal common problems with UFO sightings and alien abductions — misreporting, malleable memory and outright hoaxes.


Surprisingly few people these days are familiar with the night sky, and even experts have difficulty judging the size and distance of objects. It can be easy to mistake the very bright planets (Venus and Jupiter) for objects within our atmosphere, especially when glimpsed from a moving vehicle. About 80% of UFO sightings are thought to be either Venus or Jupiter. Even the Moon can trick people, particularly when seen under unusual conditions. Add to that aircraft, advertising blimps, clouds, flocks of birds and other aerial objects, and you can eliminate the vast amount of sightings as natural phenomena.

Malleable Memory

Memories can change, blending new information with old. This is particularly so under certain conditions, such as hypnotic regression or other techniques used by people “treating” alleged alien abductees. It is possible to produce, for example, the full range of symptoms reported by abductees (such as paralysis, a feeling of being watched, floating, sexual manipulation) through such techniques and via a relatively common experience known as sleep paralysis. An earlier age reported similar experiences but saw them as resulting from visiting demons.

A major problem occurs when no independent verification exists. Confabulations – where false memories are built up from other memories and fantasies – can occur readily and can be difficult to tell from real recall. This area is a very difficult one as it can appear to call into question people’s truthfulness when, in fact, they may genuinely believe in the experience they “remember”. This aspect has obvious parallels with other areas of memory-related inquiry such as “recovered” memory of alleged long-past sexual abuse or Satanic Ritual Abuse.


There is entertainment to be had in producing a UFO hoax and, these days, the potential for a lucrative income via media sales. Sometimes hoaxes are done for the latter, sometimes by people who want to be accepted in the UFO community and see an encounter as a form of “entry” pass.

A hoax perpetrated by a group of Otago University students in 1952 was regarded as one of the strongest cases for the existence of UFOs for over 20 years, until the carefully planned set-up was revealed.

One set of UFO photographs taken in Venezuela in 1966 by Inake Oses is still often reproduced in UFO books, despite the fact that Oses has stated that he faked them to get revenge on some ufologist friends who had scorned him for not believing.

The often-mentioned MJ12 documents, sometimes called the Majestic Report, which allegedly contains papers relating to a high-powered US cover-up of UFO information, is generally recognised, even by UFO supporters, as fake. However, this doesn’t stop it being referenced regularly.

By the very nature of unidentified flying objects – a less biased name would be unidentified visual phenomena – not all will be identifiable. However, the fact that we can’t tell what 100% of these things are, does not mean that the remaining 1% therefore have to be UFOs. They are merely unidentifiable using the available information.

Surveys of skeptical organisations show that around 80-90% of members believe that there is life on other planets; many support the scientific search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Given the vastness of space and the common existence of the appropriate elements required, it seems reasonable to believe that other life has evolved elsewhere. Skeptics, however, do not generally believe that other lifeforms have visited Earth either in the past (as ancient astronauts) or now.

Some alien abductee proponents claim that as many as 5 million Americans have been abducted. In the past 30 years since the Hills’ alleged encounter, this would amount to roughly one every minute every night of every year. Yet no physical evidence has ever been found. If aliens had visited this planet in the numbers implied, then it would be reasonable to expect some hard evidence by now – not grainy photos, out-of-focus films, uncorroborated encounters and vague skin markings.

Whole books have been written about the alleged crash of an alien craft at Roswell in 1947, where alien bodies were said to have been found by the military. It appears that there had been a cover-up, but of a secret surveillance balloon operation, not of an alien encounter.

Odd-looking materials and strange scripts on recovered artefacts were apparently the product of the factory which produced the balloons for the military. Eyewitness claims have changed or been contradictory; most of the reports are, in fact, second and third hand; basic errors of fact have been accepted without much in the way of questioning. The infamous Roswell autopsy film touted in 1995 is accepted, even by UFO supporters, as most likely a hoax.


Two hundred years ago, medical understanding was minimal and treatments tended to be ineffective; sometimes brutal. So it’s not surprising that a therapy which combined the maximum solicitude for the patient with the minimum amount of actually doing anything proved popular. Thus was homeopathy born, developed by physician Samuel Hahnemann. It’s now a $200 million industry in the US alone and one of the most popular alternative health approaches – but is it really medicine?

Like cures like

Hahnemann believed that symptoms of disease could be cured by giving the patient small doses of substances that caused such symptoms in healthy people: thus homeopaths use tiny doses of caffeine against insomnia, or onion extract for the weepy eyes of hay fever. Sometimes they match substances with personalities — oyster shells, for fearful patients who feel better when constipated! Hahnemann used a huge range of extracts from plants, animals and chemicals to produce artificially induced symptoms to drive out disease — he believed no-one could be infected with two diseases at the same time. So arsenic is used to treat symptoms similar to arsenic poisoning, such as vomiting and diarrhoea. There are now over 2,000 extracts in use, many dating back to Hahnemann, and there are many different preparations for the same complaint (250 for treating headaches alone).

Dilutions of grandeur

While it may seem reasonable that such extracts would have some physiological effect, the homeopathic concept of serial dilution ensures that none of these substances actually comes into contact with the patient.

In a serial dilution, one part of the substance is mixed with nine parts of water. This diluted solution is then diluted again with another nine parts of water, and so on many many times. At each stage the mixture is vigorously shaken (in homeopathic jargon, “succussed”), to impart an “active spirit” to it. Homeopaths claim that this process alters the physical nature of the water molecules so that it “remembers” the extract that was in it. How it remembers which substance was the important one is not that clear…. This “potentised” solution is also believed to have the power to affect the water within a patient. Solid drugs are typically diluted with lactose (milk sugar) in a similar manner, with long and vigorous grinding.

Practitioners describe a twelvefold repetition of the above dilution as 12X (X=ten). A more rapid dilution is obtained by using 99 parts of water or lactose at each step. A 2C (C=100) caffeine dilution is 99.99% water and just 0.01% caffeine; a 6C solution would have 0.000 000 000 1%. Greater dilutions are believed to be more potent, which is like saying that if you add lots more tonic to your gin and tonic, it will get stronger (and this means something like an oceanful of tonic).!

Basic chemistry tells us that homeopathic remedies can’t contain any molecules at all of the original substance. A 30C solution would have one molecule of the original substance in a minimum of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water.

Observations of the real world has shown us that drugs have a “dose-response” relationship — the higher the dose, the greater the effect, quite the opposite of the homeopathic “law of infinitesimals”.

Over the past 30 years, a large number of studies have compared homeopathic treatments with placebos (materials known to have no effect on the condition being treated). They have shown consistently that there are no benefits to homeopathy beyond the psychological value of the placebo effect, where people feel better because they think they are getting treatment.

Regular reviews of homeopathic claims show that that the most positive results come from companies producing or selling homeopathic preparations, reported in homeopathic-supportive magazines, rather than in the gold standard of independent, peer-reviewed objective testing that medicines should be held to. The US National Council Against Health Fraud has warned that there are “serious questions about the trustworthiness of homeopathic researchers”.

Danger exists

The lack of side effects is one commonly cited advantage of homeopathy. However, use of homeopathy as an alternative to conventional medicine can have disastrous consequences. In one case in the New Zealand Coroner’s Court, a mother refused antibiotics for her baby’s ear infection, preferring to take homeopathic advice. Two weeks after the initial consultation, the baby was taken again to the homeopath, who expressed concern about its poor health but who did not suggest seeking conventional medical treatment. The mother, a registered nurse, commented that the symptoms looked like meningitis and, two days later, took her baby to her GP. The doctor insisted on the baby being hospitalised immediately.It took some time to convince the mother to do this. The Wellington Hospital paediatrician reported a “great sense of frustration in dealing with the mother, who opposed him every step of the way”. Despite intensive treatment, the child died a week later from brain damage due to bacterial meningitis.

While such documented cases are rare, particularly as there is little consumer protection or oversight of this industry, the website lists many cases where homeopathic practices have caused people harm.

One major concern has been the industry marketing homeopathic preparations as “vaccines”, particularly during the New Zealand meningitis campaign, citing its “like cures like” approach that sounds vaguely like genuine vaccination practice.

It is rare for the pseudoscience underpinning homeopathy to be clearly explained in media coverage, so people are under-informed and left with the impression that there is something to it.

In most cases, homeopathic preparations are used to treat conditions that are minor or which get better spontaneously. But relying on the placebo effect – where it’s your psychological response making you feel better — can be dangerous for your health and your wallet.

The most effective practice of homeopaths is the lengthy time they spend with their clients to establish a case history and a personal relationship that can improve health outcomes. That too is a form of placebo effect.

There are campaigns to discourage pharmacies from selling homeopathic products alongside tested effective medicines, as it is unethical and unsafe for them to do so.


Astrology started as a farming calendar thousands of years ago, when people noticed that certain stars appeared in the sky at certain times of the year and thought that there was a relationship between the star and things that happened on Earth.

The Egyptians, for example, thought that the star Sirius caused the Nile to flood every year and that if they didn’t see it, the river wouldn’t flood. In Tudor England it was a treasonous offence to cast the monarch’s astrological chart, lest any badly placed planet result in regicide.

The idea is that the positions of the heavenly bodies at the time of your birth somehow influence your personality, physical characteristics, health, profession and future. Codified by Ptolemy in the second century AD, astrology reflects the Earth-centred nature of beliefs at that time, where everything was supposed to revolve around us, literally.

In the thousands of years since the zodiac was first drawn up, we’ve discovered that the Earth is not at the centre of all things. Also during that time the Earth has wobbled on its axis like a giant top. This “precession of the equinoxes”, as it is called, means that the Sun is no longer in the sign of the zodiac claimed for it.

If you think you’re a fiery Aries ram, you are, in fact, a wet Piscean fish! In the past 300 years, three extra planets were discovered and had to be given special ad hoc powers in the astrological scene. There are, in fact, two extra constellations within the region of the zodiac, but Cetus (the Whale) and Ophiuchus (the Serpent) have been ignored in favour of the mystical total of 12 revered by the Babylonians.

There have been a large number of tests of astrological claims. One involved checking the birthdates of 22,000 scientists. They should have clustered in the two signs said to produce the personality type typical of scientists, but the distribution was as random as the general population.

Much has been made of the “Mars effect” claimed by French researcher Michel Gauquelin, who said that he found sportspeople and politicians were characterised by having Mars in a particular position in their charts. However, analysis indicates that the individuals in his sample sets had been selected to fit the hypothesis.

Different astrologers do star charts in different ways. Some make changes if you’ve been born premature or by Caesarean delivery or out of wedlock (or even if your chart doesn’t suit!). They use a variety of house systems to divide up the chart.

Yet there is no physical mechanism by which the stars or planets can affect a baby. Any infinitesimal magnetic or gravitational effect would be completely swamped by nearby machines or people! Instead of having anything to do with science or astronomy, astrology has a great deal to do with psychology.

It’s easy to believe the things astrologers write. Statements in astrological readings, whether newspaper columns or personalised interviews, tend to be generalisations that apply to almost everyone, positive statements that we like to identify with, or a combination of two opposites so that at least one half will be right: Some examples are:

  • You have a good sense of humour but sometimes it is unappreciated.
  • You can be very forgiving but can also hold a grudge for a long time.

Psychologists call this the “Barnum Effect” after US showman Phineas T. Barnum. Where a vague, positive generalisation is taken to have a personal, specific meaning to the individual, this is sometimes called “personal validation”. Such statements are almost always couched positively because people are more likely to reject a negative comment.

It is very rare for any specific statements to be made because these are easy to check or be proven wrong. For example, in the week before her death, three major UK astrologers predicted that Princess Diana would marry Dodi and have two children and a happy life!

None gave any warning about a motor accident.

After a major event, some astrologers will change what they had said or claim to have predicted the event beforehand. Famous astrologer Jeanne Dixon is often quoted as having predicted the assassination of US President John Kennedy in Dallas. What she was on record as having predicted in 1956 was that the 1960 election would be won by a Democrat and that he would be assassinated or would die in office, “although not necessarily in his first term”. In 1960, she predicted that JFK would not win the presidency.

The “Jeanne Dixon effect” refers to the media’s tendency to hype or exaggerate a few correct predictions by a psychic, guaranteeing that they will be remembered, while forgetting or ignoring the far more numerous incorrect predictions.

In personal readings, astrologers (and others, like psychics and mediums, who also do these kinds of interviews) can learn a lot from your body language and responses. People will often nod or volunteer more information to a general comment, thus providing a lead which the astrologer can follow. Magicians call this “cold reading” and find it very effective in convincing people that they have psychic powers.

When astrologers find that they have said something you disagree with, they will often find something in your chart which “explains” why you are different (“Oh yes, your Moon is in Cancer, that’s why you’re such a home Scorpio.”). It’s also relatively easy to make informed guesses about a person based on their age, gender, ethnicity, etc., taking advantage of the many common experiences we all share.

Some astrologers genuinely believe that they can use the stars to find out about a person or to foretell the future. Others are more consciously aware of the applied psychology involved. And there are some who are in it for the money and who will use all the tricks available.

Whatever their beliefs, astrology is a form of intellectual dishonesty and stereotyping.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following:

  • understand the logical connections between ideas
  • identify, construct and evaluate arguments
  • detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
  • solve problems systematically
  • identify the relevance and importance of ideas
  • reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values

Critical Thinking Web

Pseudo-scientists want the mana of science but don’t abide by the rules by which the scientific community earned its authority in the first place. Knowing those rules – the basis of the scientific method – gives you a powerful tool for assessing claims, whether they come from used-car salesmen or faith healers. What do you see?

It requires careful observation to sort out what we think we see or what we want to see from what we actually see. Is it really a Face on Mars or just a geological formation? A pseudo-science often requires people to make their own interpretations to sort the desired phenomenon from the “noise”. The “noise concept” doesn’t apply just to things like satanic words buried backwards in rock music, but also to virtually any phenomenon that is at the very edge of the measurable.

Statistical support is often claimed for the merest hint of, say, psychokinesis in a series of dice rolls, or positive health results from homeopathic prescriptions. It doesn’t necessarily imply fraud by the “researcher”, being part of an uncertain world can often be enough, particularly for someone who is searching to prove their point.

Pseudo-sciences tend to remain barren — they don’t develop or change a great deal beyond their initial formation. Astrology has stayed pretty static over the past 3,000 years, homeopathy over the last 200 or so.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Science understands the importance of repeatability of observations or experiments, and that this needs to be done by many people in different places to eliminate bias. Be skeptical about experiments that only work when the “right” people or “right” vibrations are present.

An unwillingness to provide evidence, to let others look at your work or to give them a chance to repeat it should raise warning signs, whether it’s an alien autopsy film distributor not letting the film be analysed by independent photographic experts or a researcher withdrawing test samples from a study.

Failure can be Good

A so-called “failed” experiment can be as informative as one which succeeds; disproof can be as important as proof and good science will look for both.

The success of failure was demonstrated with the first-ever scientific tests of Rudolf Steiner’s “peppering” approach to pest control which showed that there was no effect from the special potion of homeopathically diluted possum testicle ash. Yet this failure has been ignored and the biodynamic approach is still touted by those who believe in it.

The Bellman’s Fallacy (taken from Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark: “what I say three times is true”) demonstrates how ideas which don’t measure up nonetheless are believed through sheer dint of repetition. Such ideas can be very difficult to eradicate — everyone has heard that ships disappear in the Bermuda Triangle, or that the US military has alien bodies in storage.

The mere fact that we hear something over and over again does not automatically make it true.

How did that happen?

Science makes us aware of the need for an understanding of how something could possibly work (a causative mechanism) – coincidence is not enough.

Iridology began when a young lad observed that an owl with a broken wing had a mark in its eye – that has been extended to the belief that all manner of illnesses produce effects in the eye. What sort of mechanism is there for a liver disease to produce a mark on the eye? There are no physical connections, and the anatomical explanations provided by iridologists are not borne out by fact. Combine this with the failure of iridology to pass basic tests of diagnostic ability, and you have good cause to class this as a pseudo-science.

We do need to evaluate ideas that don’t have mechanisms, rather than dismiss them out of hand, as further gains in knowledge might provide support. Plate tectonic theory showed us that, where it took some time to establish it as a credible explanation for the movement of continents. We also need to be able to evaluate the likelihood of that mechanism appearing and the explanatory appeal of the idea involved to be sure that it is worth putting on the “maybe” shelf for further consideration.

Simple is best

The simplest explanations are often the best, most likely explanations. Consider the extremely complex system built up by followers of the Earth-centered view of the solar system, and compare this to the simple Sun-based system which replaced it. If you have to keep adding ad hoc elements to try and explain things that don’t agree with your theory, then it is likely that the theory is wrong.

A friend of a friend said…

There is a significant difference between an anecdotal report – what a friend says or, worse still, a quote from some person touting the treatment or product – and a scientific double-blind trial when it comes to assessing the validity of a claim.

Many claims for the effectiveness of alternative medicines or therapies rely on reports from happy customers – you don’t get to hear about any unhappy experiences. Poor record-keeping and people’s reluctance to complain makes it very difficult to assess objectively the level of problems encountered. Double-blind trials provide a form of “gold standard” for experimental work. These are trials where those involved (subjects and experimenters) do not know who is getting what until after the tests and results are recorded. A control group is used to provide an untreated sample whose results can be compared to the test group.

Sources and special pleading

Examine information sources. Avoid judging topics based solely on media portrayals, particularly when they are presented as a conflict or controversy. Be cautious of special pleading by single individuals, particularly when they start saying things like “they laughed at Einstein you know” claiming this as validation of their ideas. Pseudo-scientists often use criticism of their ideas by the scientific “establishment” as evidence that they are important because they are controversial. Be cautious of people who are insistent on using an academic title, as many people with dubious qualifications or even self-awarded ones will often insist on using a title or a series of letters after their name.

Watch out for people using complicated language or terms they can’t or won’t explain. In trying to gain the mana of science, many pseudo-sciences adopt the language of science. So you find terms like “bio-energetic field”, “quantum dynamics”, “fluid plasma” etc bandied about. Ask for explanations of these terms. Never be afraid to ask questions – they can be a powerful tool to protect you from harm. And don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.


Is there good evidence supporting the claims that people make to be able to contact the dead, or tell your fortune or see the future? Any careful, sustained observation of any of the myriad approaches out there, regardless of culture or modality, indicates that there is not.

There are occasional “hits” where chance, statistics, psychology, common experiences and sheer luck combine to make what sounds like a very compelling case. However, when you start to look at the factors involved, it usually becomes very clear, very quickly, that there is no more to it than those to-be-expected random factors. The burden of proof rests on those making extraordinary claims. You have to ask is what this person is doing so extraordinarily compelling that we have to overturn all we think we know about how the universe works in order to explain it? Or are there other, simpler, more likely explanations?

There are general practices used by all psychics/mediums whatever their flavour (clairvoyants, astrologers, mediums, Western, Chinese, Indian, Amerindian etc). Magicians call it “cold reading” and know the techniques well, without claiming special powers.

Add to this an awareness of basic stereotypes and common experiences (“you had a special toy as a child”, “you have money concerns”, “you’d like to travel in the future”, “you still think about a failed relationship”), and you can provide a very compelling, apparently personalised, reading of even a total stranger or someone over the phone. Anyone visiting a medium is clearly interested in contacting a dead loved one. So the medium’s traditional opening line of “you have lost someone important to you – a relative or close friend” is hardly surprising. The visitor will then often respond eagerly with something like “yes, my mother” and this information is then used to build a convincing-sounding patter. This works whether the medium is a scam artist out to take some poor widow’s nest egg, or someone who genuinely believes they are talking to spirits. A psychic/fortune-teller/medium should be able to provide information that is:

  1. detailed
  2. surprising
  3. definitive

Most make very general statements that can be readily “retranslated” because they fit a whole host of possible outcomes, and they pick things that happen all the time to improve their chances of being right. You can buy books with common statements and experiences to use. For example, mention needles, and it can be interpreted as Granny’s knitting, Uncle’s hospital stay, Mother’s embroidery or even Father’s tattoos!

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!

Every year the media runs psychic predictions for the year ahead. Checking these out shows that a large proportion of predictions are wrong, even when not just plain silly, and none ever seem to include the huge news events of the year that are truly surprising.

In 1997, psychics said Diana, Princess of Wales, would:

  • be crowned Queen of England
  • move to South Africa and train as a marathon runner for the 2000 Olympics
  • gain vast amounts of weight
  • marry again and have two more children

What they didn’t predict was Diana’s sudden shocking death.

For 2001, psychics predicted that:

  • the US Supreme Court judges would all vanish
  • the Mississippi River would form a new ocean
  • Tipper Gore, the Vice-President’s wife, would join the Taliban
  • Pope John Paul II would die; his successor would be Italian

And the big story they missed — the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York.

In 2004, psychics said:

  • Osama bin Laden would die of kidney disease
  • Saddam Hussein would be shot to death.
  • Fidel Castro would die.
  • Hollywood would be hit by a huge earthquake

What did the psychics miss? The massive Boxing Day tsunami which saw over 200,000 people die across a dozen countries.

The following year, 2005, saw the usual mix of the banal and bizarre, including that:

  • terrorists would start World War III by shooting a nuclear missile into China
  • a Nazi flag would be found on the dark [sic] side of the Moon
  • the winner of a new reality TV show would gain fame by killing and eating a contestant
  • the San Andreas Fault in California would have a massive rupture on June 17 with a death toll reaching 4,568,304

The last prediction was said to have been made by noted US psychic Edgar Cayce in 1941. As with previous years, California remained reasonably steady. However, the psychics missed the August arrival of Hurricane Katrina, with its devastating impact in the southern US, and failed to warn of the massive earthquake that hit Pakistan and India in October, killing 73,000 people.

People wonder why psychics get into this game. For the deliberately manipulative, it’s the lure of easy money, low overheads, no responsibility or consumer protection comeback. For those who believe in their own talents, it’s a desire to help people, as well as a big boost to the ego to think that you have special powers. In either case, they are exploiting vulnerable people.

Authors Ben Radford and Bob Carroll note that:

If psychic power existed…professions that involve deception would be worthless. There wouldn’t be any need for undercover work or spies. Every child molester would be identified immediately. No double agent could ever get away with it. Psychics would be on demand for high paying jobs in banks, businesses and government, Most psychics would be very, very rich. and since psychics are such altruistic persons, giving up their time to help others talk to the deceased or figure out what to do with their lives, they would be winning lotteries right and left and giving part of their winnings to help the needy. We wouldn’t need trials of accused persons: psychics could tell us who is guilty and who is not. Of course, the operative word here is IF. IF psychic power existed, the world would be very different.

Many groups and organisations, such as Wanaka’s Puzzling World, have standing challenges for psychics to demonstrate their powers under controlled conditions, with big prizes available for their favourite charity. None have done so. But they still take money from the punters and claim special powers. Is that ethical?