Justice Yet to be Done

It was sad to see – two shelves of Lynley Hood’s A City Possessed, heavily discounted at Whitcoulls.

Released only last October it hasn’t taken long for the book to hit the bargain bin. Perhaps it will encourage more people to read it (I know of one person who’s snapped up a copy), but what impact has Hood’s meticulously researched examination of the Civic Creche fiasco had?

Justice minister Phil Goff continues to refuse to read the book, opening himself and the judicial system to ridicule in the process. I particularly liked the www.menz.org.nz website’s take on it, which had Goff reverting to Dr Seuss: “I will not read that book by Hood, I will not, will not, say it’s good. I will just say the courts are right, I do not want to see the light…I will not read it, so I say, I wish that book would go away. I will not read it, not a bit, In case I have to act on it.”

Yet the issue won’t go away. Goff says it’s important that the judiciary is independent of interference and that the findings they come up with can’t be overturned on a political whim – an important democratic principle. Yet it is clear that the judiciary has failed to do its job, and there are major systemic failures which need to be remedied.

Meanwhile the sex abuse industry grinds on, destroying more lives. The Dominion (December 4, 2001) reports that social welfare psychologist Prue Vincent was fined $5000 and censured for botching a sex abuse investigation that left a man wrongly accused of molesting his young children. Vincent however, has been allowed to continue practising.

Her victim, the report said, spent $82,000 proclaiming his innocence in five hearings. He has never been told what he was supposed to have done to his children and since that day (“…Father’s Day. A bit poetic”) has been shut out of their lives.

The sexual abuse counsellors continue to ply their trade under the cover of the Family Court, immune from public scrutiny. Felicity Goodyear Smith’s critique of this court at the skeptics’ conference in Auckland a few years back still stands. As long as it continues to operate in secrecy lives will continue to be wrecked.

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Maxicrop, Mormons and Mediaeval Horror Stories

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night but a gaggle of skeptics got together recently to listen to ghost stories in Hamilton. Professional story teller Andrew Wright sent shivers down the groups’ skeptical spines as they listened to his rendition of one of the oldest known horror stories, Lord Fox, a BlueBeard variation.

The occasion was the Skeptics’ annual conference and I’m told founder member Bernard Howard’s opening talk the next morning on the changes seen in the Twentieth Century set the mood nicely for the material that followed. I missed this, due to being glued to the registration desk but look forward to reading it – we will run some of the addresses in coming issues. Another one I missed was John Welch talking about Gulf War Syndrome — which we have in this issue (see opposite). John also enthralled delegates with his demonstration of an antique black box Amazing Electrical Device.

An interesting session in the afternoon was held with representatives from the offices of the Commissioner for Children and the Health and Disability Commissioner. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect to come out of this was that the standard of treatment given by alternative practitioners is assessed only relative to standards set in that field. So an iridologist’s work is only compared with that of other iridologists (see Pippa MacKay’s article).

Nick Kim gave two very different presentations, one featuring his wonderful cartoons, and a more sobering piece on forensic science. He showed you can be convicted, in a British court, just for handling a banknote that has passed through the hands of a bomb maker.

Mike Clear, as well as warming the crowd up on Friday night, presented his findings on the intrusion of alternative therapies into the world of cats, dogs and chickens. Then followed two talks which, for me, were the highlights of the conference. Waikato University history lecturer Raymond Richards spoke about his experiences following a lecture he gave in 1998 and subsequent years on the Mormon church. Following complaints from the Mormon community, the university entertained charges of harassment against him. In a similar vein, former Agresearch scientist Doug Edmeades spoke of his involvement in the long-running Maxicrop case and the way in which commercial pressures impact on science.

During the conference a TV2 film crew did some filming for a documentary, Do You Believe In the Paranormal, which screened recently. “Madame Vicki” did a wonderful palm reading job and Denis Dutton (whose skeptical view of the Greenhouse Effect was another conference highlight) inserted pithy remarks at strategic moments. You can get a copy from the Skeptics video library and it’s well worth a view.

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Placebos All in Researchers’ Minds?

The placebo effect has long been of interest to skeptics for its presumed role in alternative medicine. The Skeptics’ Dictionary (http://www.skepdic.com) has a lengthy entry, describing a placebo as an inert substance, or fake surgery or therapy, used as a control in an experiment or given to a patient for its probable beneficial effect. It goes on to add the effect has at least three components.

The first is psychological, due either to a real effect caused by belief, or to a subjective delusion – “if I believe the pill will help, then it will help.” Alternatively, the effect may be largely illusory – an illness or injury will often get better by itself, whether it is treated or not.

As a third alternative, the process of treatment, involving attention, care, and affection may itself trigger physical reactions in the body which promote healing, regardless of the nature of the treatment.

The second alternative has received a boost from a study published in May in the New England Journal of Medicine. Danish researchers Asbjorn Hrobjartsson and Peter C. Gotzsche performed a meta-study of 114 studies in which the experimental design included a genuine treatment, a placebo, and no treatment at all. In these studies, they found a slight effect of placebos on subjective outcomes, such as pain, reported by patients, but no significant effect on binary outcomes. Even the slightly positive subjective outcome result could be a reporting effect – patients want to please the doctor, so say they feel slightly better.

Reaction to the report has been mixed. Some researchers have said it confirms what they’d suspected all along, there is no placebo effect, it’s an illusion due to the simple fact that people often get better without treatment. Others argue that the metanalysis used is inappropriate for such a disparate group of studies. But however it turns out in the end, the affair raises some interesting points. One is the origin of the oft-repeated claim that, on average, a placebo effect will help 35% of patients. This has attained almost the status of an urban legend, but Hrobjartson eventually tracked its origin to a single 1955 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Its author, Boston anaesthesiologist Henry Beecher, based his claim on a review of 12 studies, and, like other articles read by Hrobjartsson, it did not distinguish between the placebo effect and the natural course of the disease.

It’s hard to accept there is nothing to the placebo effect at all. There are reports of people developing addictions to placebos, or demonstrating adverse side effects, and trials showing patients with placebos do better than others simply left on waiting lists. But it’s a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon. If we are going to assert that an alternative health treatment is “just a placebo”, we need to be careful about what we mean by that. Does it mean the patient is experiencing a subjective delusion, or genuine healing through care and support, or simply going through the natural course of an illness? The Danish study won’t be the last word on this subject, but it has very nicely focused an issue which has had some very fuzzy edges.

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My Life of Hell – Sub-editor Tells All

My brain hurts. I haven’t used it in some years, so there’s no surprise really. After managing to avoid external employment for a goodly time, a job has finally got its teeth into me and won’t let go. Which is not to say I’ve been totally lazy at home these past years, there’s been free-lunch work to do and projects such as the NZ Skeptic to help pass time. But all of these could be done in the privacy of one’s own home, dressed in striped jarmies if the mood took and it often did.

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No Will for Bill?

Another year, another millennium. We saw the old century out in a very quiet manner, watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 with friends in Auckland. A few fireworks exploded from the top of the Sky Tower — and then it was bed time. Given that this was the day when the old century really ticked over, there was far less hooplah this time — the cockroaches were especially quiet.

Psychics, however, as always, have generated a fair swag of material to be ignored or fretted over, some of which has already passed its use-by-date.

Scanning the Internet for news of things to come, we turned up an interesting site, http://www.psychicpathways.com, where anyone can register their prophecies. One Sollog Immanuel Adonai Adoni warned there was going to be an earthquake over 7.0 on the Richter scale, located within five hundred miles of Jerusalem. This event would take place between December 29 and January 1.

Other contributors reckoned we can look forward to Christ revealing the truth of God before June this year and Demi Moore perishing in a nasty accident. And, apparently, on January 17 thousands will die after eating tainted beef at MacDonalds in the North West, near the Microsoft headquarters: this would include Bill Gates, who will die without leaving a will. By now you’ll all know if this one worked out: as I write (January 4) it’s still in the future.

But these are amateurs. The professional psychics are out there in abundance, usually with a stack of merchandise to peddle. Eklal Kueshana, for example, has a book, The Ultimate Frontier, which tells of the establishment in October 2001 of a new nation heralding a Golden Age of spiritual enlightenment. But then, he also warns there will be a cataclysmic reapportionment of Earth’s continents in AD 2000.

It’s amazing these people don’t go back and revise their sites and remove their errors. Do they have no sense of embarrassment? There are still warnings that the Cassini Space Probe will crash to Earth during a fly-by in August 1999, releasing clouds of plutonium into the atmosphere and causing “mega-pandemics” of lung cancer. This is tied to Nostradamus’ famous prophecy about a King of Terror falling from the sky in July 1999…sigh.

You can tell the seasoned professionals — people like Nancy Bradley (“who’s [sic] accuracy rate is an incredible 99.6%”), who stick to things like (for 2000) “There will be floods, strong winds, tornadoes and severe storms in America” or “Major movie actress will die unexpectedly under strange circumstances.” Well, Hedy Lamarr died last year, but no real surprise there. Bradley’s list for 2000 included such gems as “Yeltsin to die…Al Gore will be the next president of the United States… extreme health problems may be fatal to Christopher Reeve…Y2K problem — be certain to prepay your insurance to cover the period…” These from a list of 82 predictions — makes you wonder where the figure of 99.6% comes from.

With a new century sparkling and gleaming before us, it would be nice to think people will get wise to such obvious lunacy. But that is a vain hope given human nature.

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A Spell Away From School

I wished I’d tried this one when I was at Gisborne Girl’s High. An Oklahoma student has been suspended from school for casting a spell against a teacher, reports the Dominion (Monday October 30). The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on behalf of the student and also charged the school with repeatedly violating her rights by seizing notebooks she used to write horror stories and barring her from drawing or wearing signs of the pagan religion Wicca. No mention was made of how the teacher was faring…

Chinese Herbal Remedies Defended

Chinese doctors are less than impressed by the findings of a study published in Thorax Journal which said their treatments were a waste of money and may not be safe. Wellington doctor Jun Wu said he’d never had problems with side effects in his clinic and English medicine had only been used for 100 years.

“Chinese people have just used herbal medicines for thousands of years and they have been very successful.”

The Evening Post (Monday November 6) says the study found none of the herbal treatments used by asthmatics had been proved to work and some could even trigger potentially dangerous reactions.

Medium Help

A friend of Terri King consulted a clairvoyant to try and find out about his disappearance, says the Evening Post (Friday May 4).

Michelle King (no relation) said in Porirua District Court that she showed some of Mr King’s belongings to the clairvoyant, who wanted to “feel his energies”. These included photographs of another of Mr King’s friends, the man who has now been accused of his murder, the court was told. However, what the clairvoyant said to the witness was suppressed by the judge so we don’t know how the medium performed…

More To Us Than Computers Made of Meat

The first scientific study of near-death experiences has found evidence to suggest that consciousness or “the soul” can continue to exist after the brain has ceased to function, reports the NZ Herald (Monday October 30).

Based on a year-long study of heart attack survivors at Southampton General Hospital’s cardiac unit, the study says that a number of people have almost certainly had near-death experiences. These include seeing bright lights and heavenly beings after they were pronounced clinically dead. Authors Dr Peter Fenwick and Dr Sam Parnia emphasise more research is needed.

During the study period 63 cardiac arrest patients survived and were interviewed within a week. Of those, 56 had no recollection of their period of unconsciousness. Seven survivors had memories, although only four of those passed the Grayson scale, the strict medical criteria for assessing such experiences. By examining medical records, the researchers said the contention of many critics that near-death experiences were the result of a collapse of brain functions caused by lack of oxygen was highly unlikely. None of those who had experiences had low levels of oxygen. Researchers also ruled out claims that unusual combinations of drugs were to blame because the resuscitation procedure was the same in every case. The Bishop of Basingstoke, the Rt Rev Geoffrey Rowell said: “These near-death experiences counter the materialist view that we are nothing more than computers made of meat”.

Have No Fear – The Harmoniser Will Soon Be Here

Fret no more about those harmful radiation emissions – a Mobile Phone Personal Harmoniser will soon be on the market. Created by The Centre for Implosion Research, England, the device is a flat twin spiral of hollow copper containing energized water, which can be placed inside the cover of a mobile phone or carried.

While not being able to block or reduce emissions, the harmoniser strengthens the immune system. Its secret, says The Press (12 November 2000), is based on the simple fact that 70% of every human is made of water. But wait – there’s more. Carrying a harmoniser also protects from general environmental electromagnetic pollution caused by radio transmitters and high-voltage power lines. Mobile phone sales for one British distributor increased by 150% in just three months since the device went on sale there…

Telepathy Trial Draws a Blank

If you’ve already read David Marks’s article, you won’t be at all surprised that the world’s biggest psychic experiment has failed to come up with any evidence for telepathy (Dominion, January 4). During the course of 10 experiments, several hundred people failed to project a set of images to volunteers in a sealed room several hundred metres away. The trial, by Richard Wiseman, aimed to see whether a large number of people could boost the strength of telepathic signals. Receivers were placed in a ganzfeld state. The last time an ESP experiment was carried out on this scale was during a Grateful Dead concert, 30 years ago. On that occasion it was reported the participants needed little help getting onto the sort of relaxed, out-of-body state required.


…and the Evening Post (01-01-01 – just had to write the date that way) reports that babies born on that date will experience a high life. Wellington astrologer Alison Maciver (wisely) warns that high temperatures and knocks to the head will need to be checked out and (don’t need to be a brain surgeon to guess this -) she says right from the start the New Year’s babies will make their presence felt and be heard. Here’s another gem – “sleep will be necessary for good health”. Numerologist Julian Ching said a child with 01-01-01 (got it in again!) as its birthdate would go far in life and would be a decisive, independent leader with above average intelligence.

Black Cats Banned

Summer solstice was celebrated with a ceremony and potluck dinner by some of Wellington’s witches late last year. About 16 people attended the ceremony but most left their black cats behind. Wiccan Association Wellington chairperson Jude said there was a lot of misunderstanding about modern witches. “…there’s no demon worshipping. We like to get out into nature and a lot of us have an interest in herbs. It’s very pagan.” Sounds like a good excuse for a picnic to me.

Putting Their Bigfoot In It?

Finally, the Evening Post (20 December 2000) tells of a 36 year hunt for Russia’s very own “snezhny chelovek” or Bigfoot. He’s said to be nearly 3m tall, adores water melon and doesn’t smell too good. Dmitri Bayanov has been looking for him for more than three decades. “And I’ll keep searching until my dying day,” he said. The search began after members of the Soviet Academy of Science advanced the theory that a manlike primate may originally have migrated from Asia to North America.

Reluctant tool of destiny

The gunman who shot Pope John Paul in 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca, says his action was predestined and seeks an early release, according to a report in the Evening Post.

The Pope revealed in June last year that one of the Vatican’s most closely guarded secrets foretold the failed attempt on his life. The divine explanation is a godsend for Agca, whose motives have never been fully clarified.

“It is clear, I was predestined,” he said from prison. The attack had been prophesied in a message which three Portuguese shepherd children said they had received from the Virgin Mary in apparitions in 1917.

Science Friction: The Maxicrop Case And The Aftermath

It was a Ngatea farmer who finally got to Doug Edmeades on an Autumn day in 1985.

Then employed as a scientist for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) Dr Edmeades had amassed a considerable amount of information on liquid fertilisers and concluded they were useless. At this field day, he was put on the spot when the farmer asked how good the products were, and in particular Maxicrop. When told the answer, the farmer exploded and asked what MAF scientists – public servants funded by the taxpayer – were doing about it. At a time when fertiliser costs were rising (and farm returns shrinking) advertising for these products was everywhere yet the other side of the story remained untold. Dr Edmeades got his chance to redress the balance when asked to take part in Fair Go.

This appearance kicked off the Maxicrop trial, with the High Court ruling the product cannot and does not work. Yet despite this favourable outcome, Dr Edmeades became involved in a battle with MAF, on a similar subject that resulted in him leaving.

Science Friction is not just about the Maxicrop case, although this makes for fascinating reading. It is about the role of science in today’s increasingly commercialised world. Dr Edmeades believes under current conditions scientists are less likely to speak honestly and openly about various issues affecting society. And he ponders the implications of this.

Clearly written, with touches of humour, Dr Edmeades has produced a compelling book that is highly informative and raises important questions. He even manages to make soil sound interesting! Definitely worth a read.

A Good Time Was Had By All

It’s all over – the cheering and clapping are fading and the crowds have all returned home, with thoughts about the next one. I am, of course, not talking about that sporting thing on the TV from across the Ditch, but the annual Skeptics’ Conference where, for a full two days, passions soared and speakers spoke.

The Dunedin conference also officially marked the stepping down of another founding member, Professor Bernard Howard.

Prof. Howard has been treasurer since a fateful summer afternoon in 1986 when he arrived at the first meeting of what was to become the NZCSICOP a few minutes late, and found himself appointed mere seconds after taking his seat. The NZ Skeptics is an unusual group – I’m often asked what do we do and where do we do it. Other than the annual conference we’re rather a loose organisation, made up of very individual individuals. But we are fortunate indeed in the calibre of many who choose to be involved and Bernard Howard’s contribution has been priceless in helping form what we are and how we go about it. I wish I had been at the Dunedin conference to add my hands to the applause when the presentation took place. It would have been a special moment.

The conference did receive a certain amount of coverage in the papers – from pieces on Ian Plimer’s and David Marks’s talks to the announcement of the Bent Spoon Award going to Wellington Hospital (about 60 nurses have been through a Healing Touch training programme which teaches the basics of energy healing).

On other matters, it was interesting following the circus surrounding the visit of American psychologist Professor Elizabeth Loftus. As most will know, Prof. Loftus has argued since 1993 that it is unlikely people can suppress memories of a traumatic event and later “recover” them. She gave the keynote address at the NZ Psychological Society’s conference in Hamilton in late August but her presence provoked some interesting reactions from colleagues. Before she even set foot in the country Dr John Read resigned from his role as the society’s director of scientific affairs and spoke out against her on Kim Hill’s programme on National Radio. And during the address itself psychologists handed out anti-Loftus material to delegates attending the lecture. Loftus said she didn’t wear her best jacket when she spoke on the Waikato campus – fear of flying tomatoes. Loftus said NZ was four or five years behind the States in recognising the need for scepticism on the issue. “If NZ follows the US and repealed limitations on adults suing for abuse suffered as a child,” she says, “then NZ therapists will have plenty to worry about.”

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Taking a leaf from the UK Skeptic, we’re turning our news clippings into a column. Which means I get to read them – never used to before! Many thanks to all those who’ve sent in material, and please keep it coming.

Luck of the Dragon

Visiting Malaysian woman Lillian Too got herself and her range of Feng Shui jewellery in The Evening Post on Wednesday 30 and in the Dominion the next day. In a half page spread she chats about how Feng Shui is much, much more than making sure the loo is not by the front entrance and the bed not in a coffin position. It’s also about having your mind in balance. Readers will be pleased to learn that Stephen Hawking is a dragon and tiger brain genius who practises inner Feng Shui. Everyone can be a winner, particularly if they buy one of Too’s dragon headed, tortoise-bodied rings to wear. For instant wealth one should buy an Arowana fish symbol. (It doesn’t say whose wealth we’re talking about here – a three-legged toad costs from $733 and a dragon bangle $6999.)

Magnetic Qualities

On the subject of adornments, a Malaysian man has discovered he has magnetic power – the ability to hold metallic objects to his body without using his hands.

Liew Thow Lin, 69, dressed only in his trousers, featured in The Dominion on Monday 31 July with a handful of forks sticking to his ample belly. Also attached was what appeared to be an iron holding up three bricks. Very handy if he runs out of shelf space in the garden shed.

Eyewitness Evidence Questioned

Something most of us have known for a while – The Evening Post carried a report on Thursday 10 August stating wrongful convictions could be more common than previously thought.

Two Victoria University researchers say false identification of suspects by eyewitnesses is the problem. In the United States, mistaken eyewitness identification is responsible for 80 percent of wrongful convictions.

Psychology senior lecturer Maryanne Garry and masters student Kellie Fitzmaurice have received $12 000 to apply the US research to this country. They will also seek to identify people in prisons who may have been wrongly convicted.

Moon Studies

Find yourself howling at the moon? You may have lunar fever. A Timaru rest home has undertaken three months’ research into the effects of the moon on its 37 residents. They found some lunar cycle links, The Evening Post reported on Wednesday 26 July.

One resident becomes incontinent only at the full moon and others became more aggressive at that time. However, Strathallan Life Care Village manager Jan Hide has since discovered the need to conduct such studies for a longer period of time with fewer people in order to detect accurate trends. So to keep scientists happy (who like things in black and white) Hide will carry it on for a further six months. There may be something to this, says she who often becomes grumpy near a full moon. Watch this space for results.

“Star” Student

Former Victoria University education professor Adrienne Alton-Lee has been awarded $90,000 by the Employment Court, the NZ Herald reported on Friday 21 July.

The row was over a postgraduate student who claimed to have experienced interplanetary travel. Dr Alton-Lee challenged faculty staff who wanted to send the student out to teach in a school. Chief Judge Tom Goddard ordered the university to pay $11 735 which had been withheld from the second year’s funding of Dr Alton-Lee’s research (she financed this by selling her house), $25 000 for stress, $10 000 for loss of advancement and $15 000 because a premature announcement concerning her contract was made.

The student was in fact sent out to a school and only lasted one day when she continued to assert she had just returned to Earth…

Selma the Serpent Won’t Be Hurt Scientists Promise

The hunt is on for Nessie’s cousin – The Evening Post (Thursday 3 August) reported an international team of monster hunters have unveiled a giant trap for catching a serpent in a lake in Norway.

The trap, comprising a metal frame with nylon netting, will be lowered into Seljord lake full of live whitefish to catch Selma the Serpent. If Selma falls for it, she will be checked out by two University of Oslo biologists, who were on standby with a helicopter and good intentions.

“We’ll take a DNA sample, document the serpent and then release it into the lake. We will be very careful not to hurt it.” Selma was first spotted around 1750.

Same Old New Age

Dream catchers, acupuncture, palmistry and spiritual surgery were all the go in Tauranga recently during the Healthy Life Expo, says the Bay Of Plenty Times (Monday 8 August.)

Acupuncturist Neil Denyer treated a local for sinus problems and palm reader Peace Life saw some good things in the hands of a client. Times reporter Val Sherriff was sent to check it out and discovered all this and more being demonstrated to hundreds of Tauranga folk.

Organisers said things had been very busy and would have continued that way if not for the Saturday footie game which drew people away (I’m sure it had nothing to do with the ethereal music supplied by Jeff Clarkson.)

Cereology Comes Full Circle

A British researcher has come up with another theory about one of the world’s lingering mysteries – crop circles are the result of the earth’s magnetic fields.

According to The Evening Post of Friday 11 August fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic fields lead to corn fields being “electrocuted”, collapsing in patterns. The paper says the researcher is funded by an American billionaire who is well known for his paranormal beliefs. Colin Andrews acknowledged that some 80 percent of the designs were caused by hoaxes with lawn rollers.

“The other 20 percent remain quite another thing.”

The piece goes on to say Andrews couldn’t explain why only corn would be zapped and not other crops, nor why no circles were discovered before 1981.

Doug Bower, the man who claims to be Britain’s original crop circle creator, said he made his first design in 1978 after leaving a pub. Media attention to his work took a little time to catch on, he says. Since then, around 10,000 crop circles have been charted around the world, including New Zealand.


Finally, The Dominion (Thursday August 31) reported new Nelson-Marlborough health board director Mere Wetere is frightened for herself and her family following a Maori curse being placed on her.

It says the curse was placed on Ms Wetere by a woman at a hui at Nelson’s Whakatu Marae the day after she was appointed to the board by Health Minister Annette King.

Ngati Tama representative John Mitchell said the curse was used by a tohunga or priest to bring pain, bad luck, misadventure or even death to the victim. He doubted anyone in the district could be regarded as a serious practitioner of traditional Maori ways and questioned why the curse had been placed on Ms Wetere when she had no control over the appointment process. The power of such curses to do real harm was apparently taken for granted by all concerned.

Of Con Tricks and Conferences

Many moons ago I packed into a dimmed lecture theatre along with 400 other keen-eyed stage I psych students to listen to a presentation on psychic ability.

The mood was festive – it was almost the last lecture of the year and promised to be a good one. Some bloke was going to demonstrate their prowess with telepathy and fix some broken watches. Students packed into the aisles and I’m sure there were a few economics or accounting students present.

I distinctly recall being suspicious. Honest. Probably aided by my brother sitting next to me who was trying to work out the tricks. What I remember most of all is the utter gullibility of the majority of the other students – they swallowed it hook, line and little lead balls. It was, of course, a setup brilliantly executed by Otago University psychologist David Marks. I was so impressed I went out and bought his book, Psychology Of The Psychic (written with the late Richard Kammann) – one of the earliest books on the topic that I ever read. (Could the person I lent it to please return it?) It was this incident, somewhere back in the early 80s, that first sparked my interest in skepticism.

So it is with considerable delight that I see Dr David Marks will give a presentation at the next skeptic’s conference (the one in Dunedin, the one you are about to register for straight away…). Dr Marks is these days professor of psychology at Middlesex University and we are grateful to the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists who have helped with financing his visit to this country. I also note he is pencilled in for Saturday night’s entertainment which alone could be worth driving 800km to listen to.

Unhappily the Taylor/Riddell household won’t be attending – having just settled in following six months in the deep south we’re not ready to turn round and go back again.

Which is a shame because the theme of this year’s conference is one close to our hearts – Evolution, Creationism and Education.

Another distinguished speaker who will need no introduction to most members is Australia’s Ian Plimer, professor of Earth Science at Melbourne University. His talk on the evolution of creationism will be a highlight of the programme.

Conference organiser Warwick Don has put together an excellent weekend – if only it was in Hamilton!

But welcome to the 56th issue of the NZ Skeptic in which we examine medical matters, with Dr David Cole looking at the history of black box devices and Dr Bill Morris’s article on the pill.

We also welcome back Dr (am I the only non doctor in these parts?) John Welch who for many years wrote the Hokum Locum and is picking up his pen again. Many thanks to Dr Neil McKenzie for his contributions.

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Fear and Loathing in Tuatapere

That was never six months just then — it felt much longer. Banised to the depths of New Zealand, in Tuatapere (almost as far south west as you can get in the South Island), life took on a gentler pace. Momentous things did happen — the stoat population declined by 300 around where we were, and the yellowheads had a successful breeding season.

This, of course, was the reason for being in Tuatapere, town of instant coffee and swedes. David landed a contract with DoC monitoring and generally keeping an eye on the little native bush canary, which is highly vulnerable to predation. Rarer than 100 dollar notes they are, and as they prefer to hang out on the tops of mighty beech trees, they’re tricky to keep an eye on.

While things were quite in Tuataps (lulled to sleep by the roaring of stags in the paddock next door), events, of course, developed in the outside world.

The new millenium came and went without so much as a whimper. Our nine-year-old daughter Iris rather enjoyed the cockroach ads that were run well before the event, at a cost I hate to think about. Entertaining but on the redundant side perhaps.

After the non-event, folk from the Y2K Readiness Commission were heard to say there were no problems because of all the preparation work but what of all those countries where zilch was spent with the same result. The world was also gratifyingly free of doomsday cult hysteria over the period, although recent events in Uganda have somewhat blotted the global copybook.

Then came the release of Peter Ellis, the victim of the Christchurch Creche fiasco. The NZ Skeptic predicted a year or so before it all flared up that this country would experience a similar accusation to those plaguing the northern hemisphere — modern day witch hunts with all the fervour and hysteria of the Middle Ages. It is sad for Peter that we were right on this one; eight years gone out of his life.

Then there’s Liam, where things have developed, tragically, as we all expected they would.

Basically, things stumble along much as they always have and always will.

After spending so much time involved in threatened species work, it was interesting to hear recently about work on immunocontraception, which has now reached the stage of field trials with genetically modified carrots. These contain a protein which hopefully fools female possums into believing they’re already pregnant.

It could be a very effective, environmentally safe means of pest control which would mean wonderful times for birds like the yellowhead and parakeets. However, the recent public reaction agains genetic experiments bodes badly for the future, and at the very least guarantees the process will not be a straight-forward one.

We will have to wait and see. It’s ironic that the environmental movement may stand in the way of a technology which could be of huge benefit to the New Zealand environment.

Anyway, we’re on our way home now and will probably be there by the time this hits letterboxes. Speaking of which, be sure to send those dynamic, pithy contributions to Gordonton, and not Tuatapere.

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