A Load of Old Rope

IN an article entitled “Unravelling The Indian Rope-trick”, in Nature, English researchers Richard Wiseman and Peter Lamont describe their systematic investigation of one of the world’s best known paranormal exhibitions. There are many accounts, some first-hand, yet when investigators have searched for performances of the trick, even offering rewards, no one has come forward with a demonstration.

Continue reading

George Errington

THE committee notes with sadness the sudden death of George Errington. George and his wife Helen joined NZCSICOP in 1986 and have been active, enthusiastic members. He was a “behind the scenes” worker who shunned the limelight. For that reason, his loss is perhaps particularly keenly felt by the Secretary; he gave his time and creative and engineering skills generously to the increasingly onerous task of preparing this newsletter for distribution. His last contribution to the New Zealand Skeptics was to assist in devising a new system for managing our growing membership and subscription list. He will be greatly missed.

Continue reading

The Hippopotamus

The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry; Arrow Books Ltd, 1995; xi + 356 pp; $19.95 pbk

Readers familiar with Stephen Fry only for his TV comic appearances (A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder) may be surprised to meet him as author of a novel, and even more surprised that such a novel should be reviewed in New Zealand Skeptic. Squash your doubts — this book is full of paranormal mysteries to delight the skeptical reader.

The story is of the miraculous happenings at Swafford Hall, a country house in Norfolk; a cancer cure, a veterinary marvel, the transformation of an ugly duckling into a swan, the laying on of hands, general sorcery and the liberal dispensing of Reichian energy, ie “healing” in its widest sense, and definitely in quotation marks, all seem to be associated with the adolescent younger son of the house.

So, why should a novel about bizarre events at an English country house, written by a comic actor, be strongly recommended to this magazine’s readers?

It is impossible to be detailed without giving away the “whodunnit” aspects of the book. I can only ask you to accept my word that this is a greatly entertaining book, which at the same time has a serious message about the need for the skeptical attitude. It is a welcome contrast to the usual story of the paranormal, where the skeptic is portrayed as a head-in-the-sand ostrich, convinced of his stupidity only long after everyone else has recognised the truly paranormal nature of what is taking place.

The biographical note in the book says of Fry “His hobbies include cooking his god-children and leaving out commas.” Though surely not of a cannibalistic nature, Fry’s fascination with this curious relationship enters the story, where the god-daughter and god-son of the hippopotamus are central.

And so to the beast himself, Ted Wallace, burned-out poet, drunken journalist, just dismissed, as the story opens, for writing a scurrilous review of a play by a popular dramatist. He is, therefore, available to be sent to observe the miracles at Swafford as they happen, by the aforementioned god-daughter, healed leukaemia sufferer.

Many chapters consist of letters exchanged between these two (Haha, you Eng. Lit. students will exclaim, an Epistolary Novel). Put aside your prudish sensibilities when you pick up The Hippopotamus; the language is strong and fruity, and there is plenty of explicit sex of not only the hetero- and homo- type, but of the bestial also. Definitely not to be put in the hands of your traditional maiden aunt.

The plot of the story is tightly constructed, and the revelations in the final scene, though cleverly prepared for earlier, come as a succession of surprises. Fry’s writing is at times scatological, at others poetic, but always lively, with a writer’s enormous enjoyment in the use of words.

Roswell Autopsy

Post-mortem on the autopsy or autopsy on the post-mortem?

Post-mortem undoubtedly. There could hardly be a deader duck than the supposed Roswell autopsy film, whatever species of being or inanimate object we saw being carved up.

I will leave to others discussion of the murky provenance of this film, and the many anachronisms said to infect it. Instead, I offer some thoughts on biological aspects.

The cadaver pictured, if genuinely extra-terrestrial, represents perhaps the most important piece of biological material ever to come into human possession. To merely carry out the crude dissection shown would be only the tiniest beginning of any investigation which researchers of fifty years ago would have carried out. One might almost say that anatomists, histologists and biochemists, both then and now, would kill for the possession of a few grams of the “meat” on that slab.

By the late 1940s, the essential similarities of all terrestrial life-forms had been established — the aqueous environment necessary for cellular activity, the universal genetic code of nucleic acids, the cellular machinery of proteins built up from a few L-amino acids, the resemblances in energy metabolism, and many other features. Were the object the body of a genuine extra-terrestrial, I cannot conceive that the medical and scientific people involved in the autopsy would not have seized on this, the first opportunity in human history to investigate such a thing, and make a thorough microscopic, chemical and biochemical analysis of what they had in the hand. If the autopsy was genuine, where is all this information? Are we to believe that someone has been sitting on it for nearly fifty years, when publication, either official or by a “leak”, would yield instant fame and fortune?

Some knowledge of extra-terrestrial biology could be expected to confer an advantage on those holding it, by offering a different perspective on how we ourselves work. There appears no evidence of this in American research publications; scientists in the US, as everywhere else, are groping at the frontier between the known and the unknown, using only our knowledge of Earth-based biology.

Should mankind ever have the opportunity to investigate extra-terrestrial life-forms, scientists the world over would say with Wordsworth “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive …”. The prospect is vastly grander and more exciting than anything seen in the Roswell “autopsy”.

Good News From Germany!

Sorry — not a 50% price reduction on BMWs, not even gratis cases of Bernkastler Beerenauslese. But:

For only the price of a stamp, learn of two life-prolonging offers from Herr Wolfgang Dog of Bavaria.

  1. By the latest technique of laser surgery, applied to the palms of your hands, have those vital life-lines extended;
  2. Inform Herr Dog of the date, time and place of manufacture of your car, and he will send you an “Autohoroscope”, indicating the best and worst days for going on journeys or having the car serviced.

Herr Dog describes himself as a certificated Diplomate in Inspiration Moderating and as a Magical Energiser; he is attached to the Institute for Holistic Transformation Metaphysics in Hersbruck. Operating from the same address is G. Hund, seller of games and books on magic. Before rushing to take advantage of the above-mentioned advances in pseudoscience, readers should note that Wolfgang Hund (=Dog) is a member of GWUP, the German Skeptics Organisation.

With acknowledgement to Skeptiker, 1/95

Christchurch Pesticide Scare

The media were quick to cry “Wolf” when concerns were raised about the fungicide Benlate.

On 9 December, 1993, the people of Canterbury read an alarming headline in the Christchurch Press: “Herbicide scare after babies born with defects”. Three City Council staff “who worked with herbicides gave birth to babies with defects”. In this first report neither the nature of the defects nor a specific herbicide were mentioned.

Several comments by Council officials and others, intended to soothe public fears, were quoted in the report — “coincidence”, “a link between the defects and herbicides was unlikely”, “the substances … did not absorb well through the skin”. An occupational health expert had been asked to investigate and report urgently; a fourth parks employee of the Council, who had worked in the same area as the other mothers, had given birth to a healthy baby.

During 1993 the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Helen Hughes, had been investigating the use and disposal of dangerous chemicals in New Zealand, and the report arising from these enquiries was published only a few days after the story in the Press. The Commissioner was quoted as saying that the controls recommended by her office would have been even stronger had she known of the Christchurch birth defects.

Despite the encouraging noises emerging from the Civic Offices and other official buildings, public anxiety increased almost to the level of hysteria.

Within a week the substance under suspicion had been identified as benomyl (a fungicide, not a herbicide), made by Du Pont and sold under the name “Benlate”. Sales plummeted, TV cameras were taken to garden centres to picture staff sweeping the stuff from the shelves, and only eight days after the first report, Du Pont’s New Zealand Manager was buying whole pages of advertising space in the newspapers to rebut the accusations made against his company’s product.

During the week journalists interviewed some of the people involved, and a few personal and medical details emerged. Two of the three babies were blind; the mother of one, born in 1990, was “in anguish” after slowly rebuilding her life; the parents of the other were in a more belligerent mood, threatening legal action against Du Pont. The Wellington bureaucracy was also quick to act; the Ministry for the Environment’s representative on the Pesticides Board announced she would press the Board to de-register benomyl, and recommend the Department of Health should ban its use.

Further comments intended to lessen public anxiety came from the City Council, including the announcement that Benlate was being withdrawn from use in the Parks Department. Then, less than ten days after the first report, the matter sank from public view while New Zealanders attended to the serious business of the Christmas-New Year summer holiday period. Behind the scenes, however, Dr John Alchin, Occupational Physician, was very busy. Before the issue became public, the City Council had asked him to investigate the birth defects. His report, 74 pages long, was submitted on 15 April, 1994, and reported in the Press the following day. The sub-editor’s summary of Alchin’s summary read, “Report on birth defects finds no pesticide link.”

Alchin’s investigation had been very thorough. He had examined the hospital obstetric and paediatric records, the medical and ante-natal records of the family doctors, and the notes of the obstetricians and paediatricians concerned. He had interviewed the parents at length and scrutinised City Council procedures. He instituted wide searches of two computerised medical databases, and talked to several New Zealand experts in epidemiology, environmental health, medical genetics and toxicology.

Concerning the two babies who were born blind, he noted: (1) one was born in 1990, the other in 1993; (2) their blindness resulted from two quite distinct congenital defects; (3) birth defects are not uncommon, there is roughly a 1 in 1000 chance of any two babies being born with major anomalies; (4) the two mothers had had minimal exposure to pesticides during pregnancy; and (5) other studies show no linkage of human birth defects to pesticide exposure. In view of the emphasis given to Benlate in the media reports, it is odd to note that Alchin could not confirm that either mother had been exposed to this material during pregnancy.

The third baby in the study was said in early reports to have “severe epilepsy”. Dr Alchin found he began having seizures at three or four days old, but from three months at least until nine months, had had none. His mother’s exposure, if any, had been to Roundup (glyphosate), not to Benlate. Alchin considers neonatal seizures to be common, and no evidence links their occurrence to pesticide exposure.

It seems that we have here another case of “chemophobia”, an irrational fear of exposure to chemicals, particularly synthetic, biologically active substances. What was presented initially as almost an epidemic of birth defects associated with horticultural sprays is seen on careful examination to be nothing of the kind.

Those of us who were born more or less whole, and have borne/sired healthy children, can hardly imagine the depth of pain suffered by the parents of these two blind babies, nor appreciate the handicap with which the infants start out in life. To seek some cause for such an affliction, any cause rather than no cause at all (chance), is perhaps natural. Nonetheless, to pin blame on something baselessly can in the long run only be harmful and an impediment to understanding.

Despite the thorough investigation, and Alchin’s exoneration of the pesticides, not everyone was convinced. A spokesman for the Toxins Action Group was quick (too quick even to have read the document) to label it a “whitewash”, and, at last report, the parents of one of the blind babies were continuing their legal action. Before the findings were announced, the Soil & Health Association had decided the eye defects were caused by Benlate, and was demanding its withdrawal.

The City Council emerges creditably from this affair. Its arrangements for proper handling of the wide range of horticultural materials used in our parks and gardens seem to be carefully designed with safety in mind, a thorough investigation was promptly set up as soon as an apparent problem appeared, and Council officials tried, though with little success, to counter the inappropriate public response.

As a Christchurch ratepayer, I feel my contribution to the costs of the enquiry was well worthwhile. It is good to know that this scare was unfounded; one can hope, but not with much optimism, that such scares may not occur again with so little cause.

1993 and All That

That arbitrary slice of the continuum of time known as 1993 has been a busy one for the New Zealand Skeptics. High spot of the year was the visit of James Randi in early July. Unfortunately, his timetable allowed only four public appearances, one each in Christchurch and Auckland and two in Wellington.

However, those unable to see him in person had plenty of opportunity to see him on TV, hear him on radio and read about him in newspapers and magazines. He was tireless in submitting himself to the punishing round of interviews, etc, arranged by our enthusiastic Media Representative. Every interviewer wanted to see him bend spoons, and he left behind him a trail of bent and broken cutlery, the bill for which was not negligible.

The Annual Conference, held in Christchurch in September, offered an interesting programme, and attracted good audiences of members and others. As with the Randi visit, a gratifying degree of attention from the media was earned. Outstanding in this respect were the contributions of Professor Michael Hill on “Satanic Panics” and of Assistant Commissioner Ian Holyoake on “Police Use of Psychics”. Mike Dickison on “Maori Science” and Feike de Bock on “The Manna Machine” also received notice. Margaret Mahy honoured us with a splendid after-dinner speech.

At the Annual General meeting of NZCSICOP the reports from the Chair, Treasurer and Media Representative were presented and accepted. The reports indicate a generally satisfactory year’s activity, but a wide- ranging discussion on funding and our public image dispelled any sense of complacency.

The officers were elected unchanged, and the Committee for the year will be Kerry Chamberlain, Mike Dickison, Warwick Don, Heather Mackay and Hugh Young. A request from a skeptic group in the US for our mailing list, in return for a subscription to their magazine, was discussed in light of recent privacy legislation in New Zealand. It was agreed on the voices to provide the list on condition it not be passed on.

(The publishers of The Skeptic in the US have decided not to use the list due to the sorts of qualms raised by the AGM. Keep an eye out for an ad concerning this informative and entertaining new publication. You may want to subscribe.)

At the local level, activity has been patchy. In Wellington Prof Peter Munz spoke on “The Historical Survival of Superstition” and in Christchurch we hosted the Craigieburn Moa Spotters. The rest is silence.

Recruitment of new members has been brisk, and would have been even better if people knew how to get in touch with us (see a letter in the Listener, 13 November 1993). This is a weakness to be worked on. Nonetheless, membership now stands at over 300.