Last Word on The Conference

Proceedings on Saturday were meant to be opened with a talk from Elric Hooper, but we were denied the opportunity to hear that leader of New Zealand theatre. In order to keep appointments in the USA in the following week, he had been forced to fly out on 11 September, the only day on which seats were available.

Although disappointing, this did tie in neatly with the theme of the previous evening. After all, we all know what happens on 11 September, don’t we? Se we avoid travelling then.

A Skeptical View of Linguistic Gaffes

Mind the Gaffe, by RL Trask. Penguin, 2002. $24.95.

Mind the Gap! The book title is intended to remind all who have waited on curved London Underground railway platforms of the risk a careless step poses. The risks Dr Trask warns of are those which can label the writer as illiterate, ignorant of the nuances of English usage, or at least possessed of cloth ears. In offering this review to New Zealand Skeptic I do not imply that readers are particularly in need of the author’s advice; rather, his comments have a distinctly skeptical slant, which should be music to skeptical ears (see entry: cliches). Consider the following entries in his alphabetical list.

  • Alternative

“…has acquired a new sense of ‘non-standard’ …A good example is alternative medicine…a collection of practices which are neither underpinned by scientific understanding nor validated by careful testing.”

  • Militant

“When Richard Dawkins says he has no use for religion he is labelled a ‘militant atheist’, but the earnest people who call at awkward hours to talk about the Bible are never called ‘militant Christians’.”

  • Morphic

“A meaningless word with no existence outside pseudo-scientific drivel.” (Take that, Sheldrake!)

  • Natural

“Anyone who tells you that natural things are good by definition should be invited to spend a year in a remote third-world village with no running water, no sewers, no electricity and no medical treatment, but plenty of vermin and diseases.”

  • New Age

“Bookshops today are obliged to devote a depressingly large amount of shelf-space to books churned out by crackpots and charlatans… This coy label is overly respectful, in that it suggests the books have some detectable content.”

  • Quantum

“…every third charlatan finds that he can sell books by wrapping his content-free dross in a warm, fuzzy, pseudo-mystical cloud of blather featuring the word quantum very prominently. …seems to sell piles of books which would have served us better by remaining as trees”.

  • Uncertainty principle

“…brandished constantly by New Age charlatans… These frauds want their readers to believe that Heisenberg’s great achievement somehow licenses and justifies whatever brand of content-free mumbo-jumbo they happen to be peddling.”

There are more examples; those interested in modern philosophy should see the entries for feminism, hermeneutic, situated knowledge and theory.

The author was born and educated in the US, but now teaches linguistics at Sussex University in the UK. He is thus an expert guide in that area where, unfortunately, “two peoples are divided by a common language”.

Writer’’s last book entertaining and moving

Snake Oil And Other Preoccupations, by John Diamond. Vintage, 2001, $29.95

I recently reviewed for NZ Skeptic this author’s previous book (C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too), which described his experiences of his throat cancer and its treatment. That was written when he was still unsure whether it had been cured, and I admitted to moist eyes on reading of the gruelling time he had.

The success of that book, and his steadfast convictions about cancer treatments, led him to write another book, which was to be “an uncomplimentary look at the world of complementary medicine”. Unfortunately the cancer was not cured, and, in the middle of writing chapter six, he was taken to hospital for the last time. His brother-in-law describes how, the day after his death, they found his computer still switched on, the last words he had typed were “Let me explain why”. That he was never to do so brought on in your reviewer another attack of unmanliness.

Wisely, and luckily for the many who appreciate Diamond’s views and style, his executors have published the unfinished material, 82 pages, and filled out the book with a varied selection of his weekly columns in several magazines. Of the 60 or so of these, almost half are connected to the “Snake Oil” theme, and widen the coverage of “C”. Read about the role of the tongue in swallowing (you never miss it until you haven’t got it), and the problem of replying to a hearty friend’s enquiry after your health (“Oh, fine thanks…..well,actually, no. I’ve got cancer”).

The other items are light-hearted, entertaining pieces, remarkably so considering the pain he was in during the writing. Try “Does my bottom look too big?” (wise advice for those outside, and inside, the changing rooms in ladies’ dress shops). Diamond (of Jewish birth) confirms the view that Jewish jokes are invented by Jews; “The week before you know when”, is a spoof “The night before Christmas” bemoaning the way Jews are missing the commercial opportunities.

Diamond’s skill with words is matched by the Introduction contributed by Dawkins, another master. The light-hearted but erudite tone of his writing is the more remarkable considering what he was enduring. All who read and admired the earlier book will be both moved and amused by this one.

A Classic Updated

The Psychology of the Psychic, 2nd edition, by David Marks. Prometheus Books.

When David Marks and Richard Kammann published the first edition of this book in 1980, it rapidly became a standard source for all interested in psychic phenomena. It combined a thorough critical appraisal of paranormal claims with a study of the mind of the typical “believer”. Especially, it offered a comprehensive exposé of Uri Geller, based on close observation on many occasions. The authors were at that time in the psychology department of the University of Otago. Later, after the untimely death of Kammann, Marks was instrumental in launching New Zealand Skeptics, for which achievement he is our first, and so far only, Honorary Member.

Over a professional career spanning three decades Marks has contributed widely both to academic psychology and to practical topics such as the giving up of smoking. This is in addition to his long-time work on the paranormal, the subject of this book. Where many others who should have known better were persuaded, his persistence and patience exposed the emptiness of many claims. Now professor at the City University, London, he has revised and brought the book up to date. He writes persuasively of the “tingles” and “tangles” of parapsychology – “tingles” are those feelings we get when something apparently paranormal suddenly confronts us, “tangles” are what parapsychologists get into when they try to study these phenomena in the controlled conditions of the laboratory.

Six chapters, five mostly unchanged from the first edition, deal exhaustively with Uri Geller. The sixth traces the ups and downs of his reputation since then. Two decades have done nothing to change the author’s opinion that Geller has no psychic power, but is an accomplished conjuror and showman. He wonders whether, some day, Geller may make a public admission of this, so lifting from his shoulders the albatross of “The Great Psychic Lie”.

Two chapters on remote viewing are reprinted from edition one, followed by three covering subsequent research in this area, including the “psychic spying” attempted during Cold War days. Again, conclusions are as before. A related topic, the Ganzfeld, has been held up for years as the best, and most convincing evidence, for ESP. Thorough investigations by Marks and others has “left this claim…in tatters”.

Chapters on “Psychic Staring” and “Psychic Pets” consider some of the ideas of Rupert Sheldrake, “this latter-day Dr Who”. Marks finds no validity in either.

So far, this accounts for two-thirds of the book, what so many believe about the paranormal, and why they shouldn’t. The rest attempts to answer the questions, why they believe, and why they are so resistant to acceptance of contrary evidence. The author looks at coincidences and oddmatches, self-perpetuating beliefs and superstition.

Like many who have spent years looking for well-authenticated paranormal events, Marks has changed during the time of his researches; starting as “part believer”, progressing through “skeptic” to “disbeliever”, but always “keeping the door open” for what might make him change his mind.

As well as two appendices and an index, the book has an extensive bibliography. Every skeptic should have a copy, and press non-skeptical friends to read it.

A Century of Skepticism

When I spoke at the conference two and a half years ago, argument was rife as to when the next millennium would begin. Now, there is no doubt we are well launched into the third thousand-year period since something important was supposed to have happened.

To understand what skeptics thought a thousand years ago is difficult; the state of skeptical thought a hundred years ago is more accessible. We can consider what progress, if any, people like us have made in that time. My claim to cover this topic is based on my observation of the field during two-thirds of the period.

Some of my comparisons will reflect merely a change in taste or style, others the replacement of one superstition or fad by another. For example, then they had ectoplasm, now we have bent spoons; then table rapping, now psychokinesis. There is not time to look at every paranormal fad or pseudoscientific belief, so I will pick just a few examples to consider.

To start at the depressing end, consider the increase in acceptance of astrology. My reading of early skeptical literature suggests that our comrades of one hundred years ago did not rate astrology among the prevalent intellectual weaknesses of the population, and even fifty years earlier, a commentator thought that astrology and other nonsenses would die out once universal education was introduced. Even a cursory survey of the present position makes us far less optimistic, in spite of well over one hundred years of compulsory schooling.

“It is to be hoped that the day is not far distant when lawgivers will teach the people by some more direct means, and prevent the recurrence of delusions like these [haunted houses]… by securing to every child born within their dominions an education in accordance with the advancing state of civilisation… If ghosts and witches are not yet altogether exploded, it is the fault, not of the ignorant people, as of the law and the government that have neglected to enlighten them.”
C. Mackay, 1840s

Astrology and Palmistry

Rawcliffe, in the preface to his “Illusions and Delusions of the Occult of the Early 20th Century”, wrote dismissively “No attempt has been made to enter into the question of such groundless occult practices as astrology, palmistry or similar naive forms of divination”. Compare what a commentator of the present day wrote:- astrology is “The only “science” editors of British newspapers and television current affairs programmes seem to understand”.

I now turn to the matter of health. Then, as now, dubious or fraudulent medical treatments were concerning those of a critical turn of mind. During the century the vast advances in understanding of how our bodies work have caused a shift in emphasis; what have not changed are people’s yearning for health coupled with widespread ignorance of how to achieve it, and the hijacking of new scientific discoveries by practitioners of pseudomedicine.

Medical Vibrations

The discovery of radio waves, and the spread of broadcasting early last century, brought in their train a host of quacks trading on people’s fascination with new but poorly understood science. Foremost among these in the USA was Adam Abrams, a genuine doctor with a medical degree from Heidelberg, no less. His theory was that each disease had its specific vibration frequency, and cure required treatment with waves of identical frequency. (Where have we heard that more recently?) Very conveniently for the therapist, presence of the actual sufferer where the gadgetry was located was unnecessary, a drop of blood, or even a signature, could serve just as easily! A commentator on Dr Abrams in the late 1950s thought that this therapy would by that time have been laughed out of existence, and his gadgets found rusting in American rubbish dumps. How wrong he was! In recent years we have seen the “Dermatron”, a worthless gadget used by at least one medical person in New Zealand to ‘diagnose’ toxic conditions, and the equally useless “Quantum Booster” which so impressed us at our Conference two years ago.

Perhaps the only claim to progress we can make here is that the numbers of these devices are fewer than the thousands of those sold by Abrams and his imitators.

Apart from the increase in sophistication of the quackster’s approach, I notice also a greatly reduced robustness in the attitude of authority. Perhaps because he was a “genuine” doctor, the Journal of the American Medical Association carried an obituary of the above-mentioned Dr Abrams in 1924. Far from acknowledging him as “one of their own”, the obituarist described him as “the dean of all twentieth century charlatans”, and the same association was equally damning of many other “healers”. At that time also mail-order shopping was big business (who has not heard of the Sears Roebuck Catalogue?), so that prevention of passage of patent medicines, etc. through the mails could seriously dent the trade. In the USA such action was possible by virtue of a law against “using the mails to defraud”. So a determined Post Office official, if he could persuade his Head Office to act, could put a stop to the patent medicine producers. Compared with these attitudes, authority today appears very feeble.

Enter Radioactivity

To the list of pseudo-electromagnetic treatments used 100 years ago, in 1903 was added radioactive materials, with the award to Marie Curie of the Nobel Prize. Claims were soon made for the healing properties of “Radium Water”. One such medicine, claimed to cure rheumatism and cancer, was “Waters of Life”, from California. A large shipment was impounded by Federal agents on its way East, and was found to contain nothing but ordinary spring water (no radium, thankfully!). The decision to condemn this water as “misbranded” was upheld by the courts. Compare this with the reaction of our own government to a similar case in New Zealand, the “Infinity Moods of Yellow Remember”. The Commerce Commission intends to take no action, and the Health Ministry feels powerless because “water is not a medicine”, and so the advertising of this stuff does not breach the Medicines Act. In this instance, we have clearly slipped backwards.

“Oxygen” has been a word to conjure with for almost two centuries after its role in our metabolism had been discovered. Its essential nature was widely recognised, and this attracted many fraudulent therapies. Such a one was the ‘Oxydonor’ in the USA. A disc fastened to the patient’s body led by a wire to a metal rod, hollow but sealed, immersed in a bowl of water; the rod caused oxygen to flow into the body, so healing whatever malady the patient had been convinced he or she was suffering from. An unsporting skeptic opened some of the metal rods; some were empty, some filled with carbon.

Now, we have ozone and hyperbaric oxygen therapies, and even polyatomic oxygen therapy. It is claimed that ozone inactivates HIV and cures AIDS, and the allegation that there is a conspiracy between the Food & Drug Admin-istration and the drug companies to put the oxygen therapists out of business will be a familiar story to skeptics.

For about two centuries the world of pseudomedicine has flourished by the sale of “patent medicines”. This is an odd title; a “Patent” is granted by governments, a guarantee of exclusive rights in exchange for disclosure. These medicines, on the contrary, were prepared according to secret recipes, usually with a basis in herbs. Some patent medicines are directed universally, eg cures for “listlessness”, “sluggish liver”, etc., others were targeted to one sex, such as to “weak men” (we can guess what weakness was implied.). Or we can consider those referred to delicately as for “female complaints”, or even for “female irregularities” (and we can guess what those did). As usual, current science is used inappropriately in advertising these things. Then it was vague ideas about the liver, kidney or nerves, now we are bombarded by anxiety-causing tales of vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

The overriding concern of women today, according to the advertisers, is not irregularity, but shape. Here are a few headlines from the front covers of British women’s magazines (Table 1).

Table 1. Headlines from Women’s Magazines, 2001
Healthy Eating. 12 Diet Myths (read this and shed lbs).
English Woman’s Weekly, 24.8.01
Slim and Smiling! Together Danny and Jan lost 61/2 stone
EWW, 7.8.01
Last-minute Diet Plan. Lose pounds in no time at all!
EWW, 14.8.01
50 low-cal treats to help you slim.
EWW, 28.8.01
Low Cal Low Carb High Energy
Good Housekeeping, 6.01

Do not think that investigative journalism started with the Watergate men. Early in the last century SH Adams looked into the patent medicine racket in America, and his damning reports, published in Collier’s Magazine, caused such a stir the Food and Drugs Act was passed soon afterwards. The requirement to publish the ingredients exposed many of the dangers and hypocrisy of the patent medicines; the dangers could include high concentrations of opium (morphine), the hypocrisy was the presence of high concentrations of alcohol in medicines sold in “dry” districts, sometimes with the unknowing support of Temperance enthusiasts. Consider the analyses in Table 2.

Table 2. Alcohol content of a range of beverages
Beer 5-6
White wine 13.5
Sherry 18.6
Whisky, Brandy 37.5
Hostetter’s Bitters
(A popular USA patent medicine)

Has the view of the psychic ability of animals changed in 100 years? Then, there were three widely reported examples, all from Germany! Clever Hans, the calculating horse, is probably best known, but there was also Muhamad, who could not only do simple arithmetic, he could work out square roots, hold a conversation, and knew his master’s telephone number.

Thirdly there was Lola, the super-intelligent dog, who held long conversations with his mistress by tapping her palm with his paw. All these, of course, are either entirely imaginary or the response of the animal to unconscious cues. Slightly different in recent times, is Sheldrake’s dog, who “knew” when his mistress left her work, and went to wait at the door for her. A careful observation of the animal revealed what Sheldrake had not troubled to find, that the dog was just restless, and went often to the door at times unrelated to what the absent lady was doing.

Some who are credited with the most astute intellects are taken in by simple fraud; brains are not the same as sense. Then, the creator of the super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes took for real the pictures of fairies cut out of a children’s book. More recently, children were able to convince an eminent physicist that they were “Gellerian” spoon benders. On the whole, though, I think there is improvement in this area. I know of no present day equivalents of William Crookes and Oliver Lodge, both scientists of the highest eminence, but both deceived by mediums into belief in spiritualism.


So we see that, though the detail has changed, credulity and gullibility have not diminished, despite the advances in education and knowledge which optimists predicted. New Zealand Skeptics is in no danger of running out of targets for our investigations. We need not disband and go home to put our feet up by the fire just yet.

Because Cowards get Cancer too

Because Cowards get Cancer too, by John Diamond, Random House, 1998

So John Diamond is dead; at age 47 killed by his tongue cancer. He may not be well known in New Zealand, but was a popular newspaper columnist and broadcaster in Britain. Soon after developing cancer in 1997 he used his weekly columns in the Times and the Daily Telegraph to report the course of his disease. This book, written after he had endured some terrible experiences, appeared when he was still unsure whether he was “cured”. Of the many books I have reviewed, this is the first to bring tears to my eyes.

Of special interest to Skeptics is that, to put it mildly, he was critical of “alternative” therapies. “…where I stand on alternative medicine is roughly where the Pope stands on getting drunk on the communion wine and pulling a couple of nuns.” Because of his public position, his candour on this brought in many letters of advice and abuse. He was particularly enraged by those which told him to take “a positive attitude”, or to “take control of his illness”.

The trouble started with a lump. No need to worry, said the doctors, you have a 92% chance it’s harmless. Unfortunately, Diamond was of the other 8%. The lump became a tumour; no need to worry, said the doctors again, radiotherapy will give you an x% chance of a cure. Again unfortunately, Diamond was of the (100-x)%. And so, to the surgery, described in almost unbearable detail. Because of the effect of the surgery on his speech and ability to swallow, this man, who previously had spent much of his working day in a broadcasting studio or on the telephone, was reduced, in his words, to “a honking, dribbling fool”. A dreadful fate.

Despite the fact that conventional medicine did not, in the long run, save him, Diamond never accepted that alternative treatments would serve him better. Although he earlier admitted that, in extremis, he might visit “that well of alternative solace”, there is no sign that he ever wavered in his opposition to those he called “scatterers of pixie dust”.

Diamond’s writing is full of insights expressed with wit. What text-book could explain for the general reader the difference between cancer cells and normal cells as pithily as this:- “A cancer cell is the one that never grows up…[it] bears all the nastier traits of reckless youth…[a member] of some wacky religious cult obsessed with immortality.” And metastasis: “.. spreading the good word round the body…to share the secret of eternal cellular life with other cells.” These apparently light-hearted words were written by the “honking, dribbling fool”.

He disliked the warlike metaphors used in discussing disease; “battle” and “brave” he avoided in his writing, claiming that this stigmatised those who succumbed to the disease as cowards or losers.

The Canterbury Public Library has five copies of this book, and I have had to join a longish queue of borrowers. It is gratifying that the author’s views and experiences are being widely read; I hope readers are as impressed as I, and accept the message. No doubt some of us who hold “alternative medicine” in derision will also die of cancer. Let us look to John Diamond as our inspiration when courage and steadfastness may falter.

Telling Lies for Father Moon

Reviewed by Bernard Howard with acknowledgement to Ian Plimer

Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong, by Jonathan Wells

This is an important book. Look out for it, for example, in places where young minds could be influenced, such as high school libraries, or other places where creationists might care to spend US$27.95. The text may be unremarkable, the usual misquotations, selective omission, distortions, etc. The important thing is the credentials of the author; surely the holder of a doctorate in biology from one of the USA’s finest universities cannot be wrong?

However, there is more to Dr Wells than his biography in the book tells. Thanks to some astute websearching on the part of the biologist who reviewed it for Nature, we are now aware of the following:

  1. Wells has been a member of the Unification Church (the Moonies) for upward of 25 years.
  2. He was chosen by the founder of the church, Sun Myung Moon, to study for a Ph.D., in preparation for his life’s work, destroying Darwinism.
  3. He appears to have gone through the entire post-graduate programme of course work and a substantial research project without his teachers or supervisor knowing of his beliefs and intentions.

Distasteful though it may seem, it could be possible for a student to go through an undergraduate course, passing examinations on existing knowledge without accepting its validity. The situation is greatly different when tackling a research project for a post-graduate qualification. Those of us who have been through this academic mill know the dedication required, not only of time, but of the mind, to the search for new knowledge. I find it hard to credit that one could do research in developmental biology, as Wells did, while believing that growth of a life is something quite different.

But perhaps one should not be surprised. With the example of Australian geologist Dr Andrew Snelling before us, who believes the Earth is billions of years old when writing for geological journals, but only a few thousand when concocting creationist literature, the capacity of creationists for deception or self-deception seems limitless.

In preparing this note, I am indebted to Dr J. Coyne, University of Chicago, for his excellent review in Nature, and for subsequent correspondence.

Health, Wealth and Wellbeing through Critical Thinking and Bluebottle Farming

Bernard Howard reports from the Skeptics’ World Convention, Sydney, 10-12 November 2000

John Clarke’s gaze had been mercifully averted, so we were spared a TV series “The Congress”, showing all that could go wrong in planning an international conference. Heart-thumping, hair-tearing and nail-biting there may have been among members of the organising committee, but to the visitor the Third International Skeptics Congress proceeded very smoothly. There was a report that James Randi had found himself at the point of leaving Beijing without an Australian entry visa, but the revered face and voice arrived as planned. A catastrophe averted; an international skeptics meeting without our GOM is unthinkable.

The three days of the meeting were devoted to, respectively, “Wealth”, “Wellbeing”, and “Health”, broadly interpreted. A brief report cannot mention each of the many speakers, so I apologise in advance to those omitted. On day one, after initial formalities, and an address by Paul Kurtz, Founder and current Chairman of CSICOP, we heard of the many ways the unwary can be separated from their money. Apart from names familiar to skeptics, we heard from two Australians eminent in public affairs. First, Nicholas Cowdery QC is Director of Public Prosecutions for New South Wales, and shared some of his experiences of scams. Apart from some amusing episodes, he told of his astonishment when visiting South Africa to encounter a health campaign entitled “Raping a virgin does not cure AIDS”. The local witch doctors have been advising the ignorant otherwise, to the distress and shame of hundreds of ten year old females. Second, you would not think that anyone would send their life savings to a PO Box in hope of making a fortune investing in a bluebottle farm. And you would expect there could not be a more humourless, dead boring bureaucracy than the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. Both of these assumptions are wrong; the hundreds of Australians tempted by bluebottle farms and similar bizarre schemes were lucky that the PO Box they mailed their cheques to actually belonged to the Commission. Alan Cameron AM, the Chairman of the Commission, explained this imaginative method of assessing people’s gullibility. Sadly, it is regularly found to be high. This was my “top spot” of Day One. Randi was in top form in his evening presentation; in addition to showing us the video clips of his “Psychic Surgery” and the exposure of the fraudulent Peter Popoff, which he had shown during his tour of New Zealnd, he recounted a very disturbing episode at a meeting of evangelist Benny Hinn.

“Wellbeing” on day two covered many aspects of irrationality and critical thinking; from creationism to nuclear power; the “ten per cent of our brain myth”, psychic sleuths, and belief in magic. I liked Roland Seidel’s maxim; “Science tells us about the natural world, everything else tells us what it is like to be human”. My highlight of the day was Richard Wiseman’s two presentations. As well as having devised many ingenious tests of psychic claims, he is a deft conjuror and showman, and a frequent performer on UK television. He showed several film clips of fake seances, Rupert Sheldrake’s “psychic dog” (just a restless dog), and Sai Baba. We know the latter Indian “godman” is merely a conjuror; what was clear from the film is what a bad one he is, a real fumbler. A great contrast to the dazzling displays at the Congress from Bob Steiner, Steve Walker, Peter Rodgers, and Richard Wiseman. Skepticism and magicianship are natural partners.

Saturday evening’s Dinner afloat gave further opportunity for socialising and enjoying Sydney’s wonderful harbour. I found Darling Harbour by night a beautiful sight. Later, on a daytime bus tour, I thought it hideous.

And so to day three, “Health”. Dietary supplements, herbalism, immunisation, therapeutic touch, veterinary quackery, and, of course, cancer. “Raising a Skeptical Family” by our own Chair-Entity, was received very warmly. We often get the impression that Australians are very ignorant of events in New Zealand, and I was surprised to find that the Liam Williams-Holloway case had been followed closely over there. Once more, the Australian Skeptics demonstrated the respect in which they are held; in addition to the distinguished visitors we heard on day two, today we heard from Rosemary Stanton, the country’s leading nutritionist, Dr Gillian Shenfield, Professor John Dwyer and other prominent medical people. Prof Dwyer’s view that “Doctors must take a leadership role in protecting the public from quackery” sat uneasily in my mind with Dr Joe Proietto’s survey of a group of medical students, who, having read a hopelessly flawed journal article, were nevertheless prepared to recommend the therapy described.

My interest in the Health sessions meant I had to miss the concurrent session on “Cults & Crypto-religion”. This included speakers from China on Qigong and the Falun Gong. These, presented through an interpreter, were criticised afterwards as being nothing more than Chinese Government propaganda. Spouting “the Party line” has not died with the decline of Communism in the West.

The Australian Skeptics’ wealthy patron Dick Smith has long been a source of envy. I was surprised to find, advertised in the refreshment area of the Congress, “Dick Smith’s Australian Foods”. In selling his electronic business and moving into foods, he has jumped a level in the Periodic Table, from a silicon-based product to a carbon-based one. If the biscuits and cakes at morning and afternoon tea were his, I hope we may enjoy them here soon.

This was in every way a most successful event, of which our trans-Tasman friends should be proud. Paul Kurtz commented that, in all the skeptics conventions he had attended, he had never heard so much laughter from the audience. The Australian Skeptics have the same attitude as that which has inspired us from our foundation, “Take the work seriously, but not ourselves”. I am unlikely to be able to travel far to another international gathering, and I am grateful to our Australian friends for bringing this one within reach.

A Message From Your Ex

Members attending the Annual Dinner on 26 August last saw a bemused retiring NZCSICOP Secretary, even more tongue-tied than usual, responding to an unexpected gift. A collection of skeptical books, each signed by its distinguished author, and inscribed with flattering comments. Now that he has recovered somewhat from the shock, he wishes to send this message to fellow members; Thank you for your support and good wishes, and for this splendid gift.

Not everyone is so fortunate as to be able to take up a new absorbing task almost simultaneously with laying down an old one, yet that was my happy situation, when NZCSICOP was born within weeks of my retirement from full-time work. Membership has been a source of great satisfaction to me, not only to have been involved in whatever success we may have had, but in all the friendships made. The NZ Skeptics have been happily free from schism, in-fighting and general bitchiness. I thank you all for that.

I confidently now step aside in favour of Claire Le Couteur, whom I wish well. Though no longer involved in the day-to-day affairs of NZ Skeptics, my commitment to our principles remains as strong as before, and I hope for a close association for further years.

UFOs & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery

UFOs & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery, by Robert E. Bartholomew & George S. Howard; 1998. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, US. ISBN 1-57392-200-5

Readers of NZ Skeptic will have seen R.E. Bartholomew’s article “The Great Zeppelin Scare of 1909” in last autumn’s issue, no 47. This covered the same event as one of the chapters in this book. Several other chapters describe similar episodes which occurred in other times and other places, and in a final section all these are woven into a coherent story. Each chapter is supported by a copious list of references, most of them newspaper reports pubished during the development and decay of the case concerned.

In addition to detailed factual accounts, each episode is placed in its social and historical setting, with an explanation of why the different experiences took the form they did.

Previous psychological commentators have labelled the “experiencers” of the events described in this book, mostly on very little evidence, as in some way mentally sick. Bartholomew and Howard disagree; their careful psychological analysis of over one hundred such people found no evidence of psychopathology, but rather “Fantasy Prone Personality” (FPP).

“While functioning as normal, healthy adults, FPPs experience rich fantasy lives, scoring dramatically higher…on hypnotic susceptibility, psychic ability, healing, out-of-body experiences, religious visions, and apparitional experiences. In our study, “abductees” and “contactees” evidence a similar pattern of characteristics to FPPs.”

The experiences of these individuals mirrored the concerns of the society in which they lived. Thus, in late 19th century, United States, the achievement of powered flight was thought to be imminent, and a host of “airship” sightings were reported.

Just before World War I, when the British were very nervous of Germany’s growing military strength especially its lead in airship development, zeppelins were seen by thousands all over England.

In Sweden in 1946, fear of the German V-rockets recently acquired by the USSR was widespread, and hundreds of reports of missile sightings were published. And so for other cases, including, of course, the 1947 sighting of “flying saucers” in the western US and all that flowed from it.

The objects in the latter case were described by aviator Kenneth Arnold as skipping along “like a saucer would…across the water”, and this gave rise to a deluge of “flying saucer” sightings, although Arnold had said the objects he saw were crescent- not saucer-shaped.

These objects were at first almost everywhere considered to be of terrestrial origin, as secret weapons or aircraft, either “ours” or “theirs” of the cold war. Only after a few years did belief suddenly switch to an extra-terrestial origin; the authors ascribe this to two best-selling books.

Wherever and whenever the events described in this book occurred, some common features are apparent. Firstly, the technology imputed to the “visitors” is just a little ahead of contemporary achievement. Thus:

  • the US airship sightings of the 1890s preceded the Wright brothers’ flight by almost a decade
  • early reports of aeroplanes were all sightings at night, at a time when night flying had barely been attempted
  • the New Zealand Zeppelin scare of 1909 occurred many years before flights of such dirigibles in the Antipodes were possible

A second common theme is the way these stories wax and wane. Initial incidents were widely reported, and the numbers rose rapidly. After a while, as physical evidence obstinately refused to reveal itself, editors denounced the reports as hoaxes or the reporters as deluded (despite the prominence many of these same editors had given the initial reports).

Following these skeptical editorials, the number of incidents being claimed fell greatly — were they still being experienced, but by people now shunning ridicule, or did the editorial expressions of disbelief change the FPPs’ inclination to fantasise?

The extent and depth of the newspaper reports on which most of this book is based are truly amazing. Think of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of papers in the UK and US of similar circulation to the Geraldine Guardian and Clutha Leader (both quoted largely in the chapter on the New Zealand Zeppelin Scare), think of over 100 years of publishing, and contemplate the enormous database which provides these stories.

The reliance on this local reporting has one disadvantage — the notoriously monoglot English-speaking world gets told in this book very little of UFOs and “aliens” as reported in foreign language newspapers.

The main impression left by this book is to confirm the conclusion that our minds and senses can easily deceive us. So often “seeing is believing” should be read “believing is seeing”. The bizarre examples described here provide a wide background of rationality against which to view, and judge, the further phenomena which are sure to be presented to us.

The World Will End Last Week

IT IS WELL, at the start of a discussion, to declare an interest. So, I begin by admitting that my fascination with the year 2000 was aroused nearly 70 years ago. Like many mechanically-minded lads of the 20s and 30s, I was a keen reader of “The Meccano Magazine”. One issue of about 1930 looked forward to the distant future, and to what life would be like in 2000. I have forgotten the text, but a picture remains in my mind of tall, elegant buildings lining a wide street, along which glided, speedily but noiselessly, clean streamlined trains. The pictures and accompanying description appealed to the young Howard, and I dreamed how wonderful it would be to grow so phenomenally ancient as to be around at that splendid time.

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