The 1995 Bent Spoon

This year’s Bent Spoon Award has ruffled a few feathers. In a controversial decision, what the Skeptics described as an “alarmist” Justice Department report on domestic violence in New Zealand has received the award.

“The report, entitled Hitting Home, paints a disturbing picture of New Zealand men as abusers of wives and partners, until you examine the fine print,” said Skeptics head Vicki Hyde.

“Since the report defines ‘abuse’ to include criticising your partner’s family, it is not surprising that half the men surveyed were guilty of some form of psychological abuse…By so exaggerating the extent of abuse, the report trivializes the real domestic violence that goes on in New Zealand,” Ms Hyde said.

For example, Hitting Home refers repeatedly to one particularly disturbing statistic, which was singled out in the Justice Department press release: “when they were shown some typical circumstances in which abuse occurs, 10% [of New Zealand men] said they approved and 56% did not really disapprove of hitting a woman. And in at least one circumstance, six out of ten men say the woman has only herself to blame for being hit.” This indeed would be alarming, were it true that bashing women was behaviour 60% of New Zealand males were willing to turn a blind eye to.

In fact, these figures were arrived at by showing men a list of possible provocations, including finding a partner “in bed with another man,” “physically abusing their child,” and hitting the man first in an argument. From the fact that the disapproval rating of respondents, once shown such circumstances, declined from “moderate to extreme” to “little or moderate” (even though 95%-98% disapproved), we’re served up the false conclusion that “56% did not really disapprove of hitting a woman.” They did disapprove, overwhelmingly, but not at the same level of disapproval as “she hasn’t cleaned the house,” and other trivial items on the list.

The report also inflates conclusions about the prevalence of abuse by its peculiar definition of “abuse” which runs the gamut from “Used a knife or gun on her” to “Kicked something” to “Put down her family and friends” to “Tried to keep her from doing something she wanted to do.” From this starting point, the report finds widespread “abuse” in New Zealand, as it would be a rare couple where a man had not at some time slammed a door or insulted a relation during an argument with his partner. Despite a title suggesting it is about domestic violence, Hitting Home is actually about abuse, understood as virtually any demonstration of anger. Even letting off steam to avoid “abuse” can be classified as “abuse.”

One of the report’s authors told the Listener that “Overall, the research found that New Zealand rates of abuse are about twice as high as rates based on what women say.” This is no surprise as the report’s inflated definition of abuse includes behaviours that even the “victims” didn’t think of as abuse.

In the press release, Vicki Hyde said, “It’s taken society a long time to recognize that domestic violence is a serious problem. It is vital, if we are to address this issue effectively, that research provides accurate, meaningful information on which policies can be based. By limiting its scope to men only and by defining abuse so broadly, Hitting Home misses the mark. It’s a great shame, since we desperately need well-founded social policies. This will disadvantage the women most vulnerable to serious violence. Surely, you can’t classify the experience of being strangled or threatened with a knife alongside hearing a rude comment about your brother.”

At our recent conference, Skeptic Hugh Young challenged the award.. His remarks and others follow. Further contributions will appear in the next Skeptic.

The Skeptics awards for excellence went to journalists with TVNZ, Metro, and the Listener.

“TVNZ’s Assignment series shows that we can still have thoroughly researched, critical documentaries on television,” according to Ms Hyde. The Skeptics praised Assignment‘s “The Doctor Who Cried Abuse,” an investigation of a Dunedin physician whose unwarranted diagnoses had wrecked havoc on New Zealand families. “Ellis Through the Looking Glass,” an examination of the Christchurch Civic Creche case, was singled out for accolades.

Vincent Heeringa of Metro magazine received an award for his article “Weird Science,” on the Auckland Institute of Technology Press and Listener journalist Noel O’Hare, author of a cover story on False Memory Syndrome received a Skeptics award for the second year running.

Oh, What a Lovely World!

Late in his life, in answer to a question, Freud compared the human condition approximately to the contents of a baby’s nappy. When I first heard this story, it seemed to mark a bitter old man. That was when I was in high school in the late 1950s. Higher education was spreading in the world’s democracies. Ignorance and superstition, the plague of the human species since the caves, were on the way out. Reason, knowledge and tolerance would rule the future of the world. Or so it seemed. Does it look like that today, even to high school students? A few news items:

  • A British insurance salesman is convicted of double murder on the testimony from one of his victims, who was contacted during deliberations by three jurors using a Ouija board. Because British law normally does not allow even appeal courts to question jury deliberations, the conviction may stand.
  • Australian medical schools are being filled by significant intakes of Darwin-doubting fundamentalists, possibly 20%-25% of students. These wholesome young people will in the course of time advance, attaining places on the policy boards of hospitals, using their authority to determine health policies.
  • In South Africa a woman was forced by a mob to douse her mother in petrol and set her alight, before she and the rest of her family were killed. Her crime: being a witch. There is a steep increase in killing of witches in South Africa.
  • The Oz Skeptics have awarded their annual Bent Spoon to the Australian Attorney General, who has made it possible for workers in his department to take sick leave with a note from an iridologist, naturopath, homeopath or other alternative practitioner.
  • Freud’s doctrine of repression is itself responsible for the smell of nappy-contents that surrounds “recovered memory” therapy, probably the most vicious pseudoscientific fad ever to be adopted by the counselling industry. The fashion to blame all of life’s disappointments on “repressed” episodes of incest has caused more human suffering than any single issue to confront the New Zealand Skeptics.
  • Not that the therapists want to stop beating the drum of victimhood. When the BBC went across the Channel to give its extensive coverage to the D-Day commemorations, it made free counselling available to all its employees who might be upset by the experience. I’m not making this up. It’s more than the survivors of Omaha Beach got, but we’re so much more sensitive these days!

The meliorism of the 1950s has evaporated. Why? Some talk of abandonment of moral standards, others the rise of the nuclear threat — or the decline of the nuclear family, while others will blame it on the fall of religion — or of communism. My candidate is the degradation of education in its broadest sense — the failure of the modern democracies to give sufficient knowledge and critical, analytical abilities to young people at all levels. The dumbing down of public education, with its mantras in praise of self-esteem rather than hard-won knowledge is bad enough. But even school is being replaced by television, with all its shallowness and sentimentality, as the major enculturating force. Ignorance, prejudice, and superstitions thrive in ways that would have amazed me thirty years ago.

The next time someone tells you how much better the world is becoming with instant global communications, innovative educational methodologies, and your therapy needs covered by ACC — think skeptically!

Bread, circuses, and garbage

Did you catch TV3’s Inside New Zealand documentary programme a few weeks ago on “Satanic Ritual Abuse”? If so, you won’t have forgotten it, try as you might to “repress” the memory. It was one of the most sublimely awful hours of television ever to be broadcast in Godzone — silly, irresponsible and sleazy. A middle-aged woman led a camera crew around the North Island to the sites where as a child she claims to have been been sexually abused in the late 1940s and 1950s by her mum and dad, the parish priest, town dignitaries, and no doubt the local dog catcher and all the dogs.

Therapists testfied that her stories ought to be taken seriously, despite the fact that she only “remembered” them a couple of years ago. The police have not been so gullible, but that didn’t stop TV3 from presenting the whole sorry fantasy, defaming the dead (and the lady’s mum, who is in a resthome with Alzheimer’s) with stories of sadistic sexual rituals, where babies were killed, blood drunk, and a good time had by all.

Two years ago I would have sworn that television in this country had scraped bottom, but when considering commercial television, there is more garbage in heaven and the broadcast day than is dreamt of in your philosophy.

TVNZ squanders two hours of prime time on a pseudodocumentary, apparently on Egyptology, in which Charlton Heston seems to start reasonably enough but which ends with Sphinx-building aliens and the “Face on Mars,” and has regular offerings on the paranormal, proving what every New Ager has always wanted to believe about quack medicine, clairvoyancy, and ESP. The “news” goes infotainment wherever possible and any possible decent programming is cleverly scheduled at a time sufficiently inconvenient — say, 7.30 am — that precious few will see it. But TVNZ can always say, “Oh, we do have fine educational programmes — you elitist snobs can tape them”.

The latest assault on the taste and intelligence of New Zealanders comes at 7.00 pm on weeknights. TV3 is trying to draw viewers away from TVNZ’s Shortland Street and Wheel of Fortune by screening Hard Copy. This deplorable offering is bad enough at any time of day, but it is particularly egregious in this spot, because it carries segments that are rated “AO”. Thus the spirit of competition drives TV3 to flout the “watershed” code which requires that Adults Only material must not be shown before 8.30 pm. By their standards it may seem a small infraction, but it is just another symptom of the degradation of public discourse and entertainment.

New Zealand remains the only English-speaking country in the world without an intelligent, noncommercial alternative to junk television. What a tragedy — especially for young people, whose eyes and minds might be opened to worlds of science, history, and cultural understanding were families given a choice away from the cheap game shows, shallow soaps, and violent entertainment that dominates our evening television.

The current Broadcasting Minister, Maurice Wiiliamson, doesn’t want the change (he’s for competition), and neither does the Labour Broadcasting Spokesperson, Steve Maharey, who doesn’t like anything that smacks of “elitism”. Both these chaps tell us New Zealand cannot afford a noncommercial television channel, which misses the point entirely. All that’s needed is a nightly prime-time band of two or three hours for high-quality programmes presented without commercial interruption in the body of the programme. Such an arrangment is eminently affordable for New Zealand.

Williamson and Maharey, however, are happy for their private reasons that we’re to be fed this junk. And every night that passes squanders yet another opportunity to open people’s minds to something better, to make a constructive contribution to knowledge and understanding in New Zealand.

Skeptics Meet Moa Spotters

It was a surprise to many outside observers, especially those who don’t well understand the Skeptics. Paddy Freaney, Rochelle Rafferty, and Sam Waby, the trio who gained world attention early this year by their claim to have glimpsed a living moa in the Southern Alps, were invited to put their case before a meeting of Canterbury Skeptics.

The discussion was serious, friendly and good-natured, without sarcasm or hostility. Sam Waby began with a passionate defense of the claim. He’s been stalking deer up there for 30 years, he explained, but when he sighted the big bird, his rifle didn’t even go near his shoulder. He spoke with intense conviction, and was backed up by Rochelle who also said the beast was unmistakably not a deer. Beside describing his encounter and short chase after the animal, Paddy Freaney complained with some bitterness about the failure of Department of Conservation investigators to take the claim seriously.

In their coherence, consistency and sense of sincerity, these three were remarkable. No one forced them to front up. The very fact that they accepted the Skeptics’ invitation in the first place has to be seen favourably. Were the episode a hoax, it would have been far easier to have been “too busy” to accept the Skeptics’ invitation.

On the other hand, the difficulties with the story seem intractable. The apparent bird was large. Paddy claims recently to have seen damage to bushes possibly consistent with moa browsing, but where are the droppings? The site was a remote, unvisited area, but it is still implausible that a bird that large could survive undetected for so long. He readily acknowledges these problems, but sticks to the story.

After an evening in which careful intelligent questions were asked by an audience of about fifty, it was very hard to imagine the trio was lying. I had an experience immediately after the meeting that is worth relating. A handful of us remained in the bar of the University Staff Club. At one point I overheard Freaney and Rafferty talking privately in a corner of the room. She complained that he hadn’t given her enough chance to speak, to which he responded with friendly but exasperated surprise that she didn’t even want to come along at first.

The tone and content of this exchange (I don’t repeat it all) was not what you’d conceive of as coming from two lying conspirators — unless they were accomplished and well-rehearsed actors who even in private even put it on for themselves.

That’s logically possible, but few Skeptics left the meeting thinking the moa sighting was an intentional hoax. Pace Waby’s passion, still a deer perhaps, or something else. As Vicki Hyde points out, there are only three possibilities: it was a hoax, a moa, or something else. If the first is to be eliminated, and the second seems still remote, we’re driven to the third. Still, as I pointed out in an editorial earlier this year, hope for a living moa glimmers in the heart of even the driest Skeptic.

This is the one point on which all in the room agreed — New Zealand needs a moa. The big bird remains a splendid and tantalising possibility. Paddy is continuing the search. The Skeptics wish him luck.

The Easy Conclusion

In the years since the Skeptics’ beginnings in 1985 we’ve seen paranormal and pseudoscientific fads come and go. The Shroud of Turin was big back then, till carbon dating did it in (except in the minds of the hard-core Shroud Crowd, who now claim that rising from the dead involves an emission of neutrons which increases the atomic weight of the carbon in your winding cloth). Uri Geller is more feeble than ever, UFO sightings are in decline, and Bigfoot has made himself even scarcer than usual. But quackery in the name of “alternative” medicine still flourishes, and cold readers (such as the lamentable James Byrne) periodically meander on stage.

However, there haven’t been any significant new trends in the pseudoscience until the recent arrival of False Memory Syndrome (see reprint, “The New Victims of Sex Abuse”, p. 12). In a sense, this fad was a disaster waiting to happen. In the 1950s, hypnotic regression was used to help people discover their past lives. Harmless, perhaps, and a even comfort for someone to learn of having once been a rich courtesan in Atlantis or, better still, a Chinese Empress (but oh those aching feet!). In the 1980s, this same structure of therapeutic hypnosis was being used to help people remember how they were spirited to the planet Zork in a flying saucer in order to be subjected to medical procedures.

The sorry new development sets out from UFO abduction, but is much more sinister because it attaches itself to a demonstrably real social problem: sexual abuse. By incorporating the concept of hypnotic recovery of repressed memories into the current hysteria over sex abuse, the lives of thousands of families are being destroyed.

Consider a phone call I recently received. An articulate widow in her seventies, who with her husband raised five children, had seen my newspaper article on False Memory Syndrome and wanted to tell me her story. One of the children, a woman in her middle thirties, is a troubled soul who had been visiting a counsellor for the last year. The daughter’s therapy has “disclosed” that her mother and late father sexually abused her in her childhood. The abuse began before she was three (a remarkable memory to have, since the hard-wiring for long-term memory doesn’t even exist till after then). Her father had regularly raped her till she was seventeen. She had “forgotten” all this until just now.

Her brother says it’s rubbish, and the mother is shattered, but the daughter fully believes it, having been manipulated by her therapist to confabulate pseudomemories. The daughter has now denied her mother access to the grandchildren. This distraught old woman, who knew nothing about FMS or that others have had the same thing happen to them, had been contemplating suicide. (Fortunately, I’ve been able to get her some competent help.)

Hers is not a unique case, and if something isn’t done to bring the problem of FMS to public attention we will see many more cases in New Zealand. We’re working on it.

This issue of the Skeptic is coming to you a few weeks late because the last two months have been among the busiest in our history. The spectacularly successful visit of James Randi, along with a very well covered annual conference have helped us to boost Skeptics membership to about 350. Thanks to everyone who helped in organising those events.

One a per capita basis, we are probably the strongest national Skeptics organisation in the world. It would be temptingly easy to conclude from this that New Zealanders are simply more sensible and intelligent than people elsewhere. So why argue? For once, we’ll take the easy, tempting conclusion!

Trivialising Sex Abuse

Do you ever feel dirty or ashamed? Do you have no sense of your interests or goals? Do you sometimes feel powerless, like a victim, have phobias, arthritis, or wear baggy clothes? According to two recent books, The Courage to Heal, (over 500,000 copies sold) and Secret Survivors, if your answer to any of these questions is yes, you may well be a victim of incest.

Never mind that you cannot remember being subjected to sex abuse by a family member: if you have doubts you were abused or think it’s maybe your imagination, then you probably suffer from “post-incest syndrome.” Denial is just a symptom; you’re blocking memories. As one author puts it, in the realm of sex abuse, “If you have any suspicion at all, if you have any memory, no matter how vague, it probably really happened.” In fact, there are platoons of therapists eager to use hypnosis to discover your forgotten episodes of violation and victimisation.

This distressing new turn in victim fashions is recounted in a stunning New York Times Book Review article by social psychologist Carol Tavris (write or phone me if you’d like a copy). She shows how the current spate of “incest-survivor books encourage women to incorporate the language of victimhood and survival into the sole organising narrative of their identity” — often with the encouragement of dubious therapists.

The mechanics of memory, Tavris rightly explains, are subtle and complex. Regressive hypnosis is more likely to generate fantasy “memories” than to recover recall of actual events. It’s a matter of memory by creative suggestion. When a troubled client is searching for the cause of a current malaise, such “digging” into the past can carry over into mere persuasion.

To the Skeptics it has a familiar ring: “experts” who hypnotise patients/victims to “discover” that they were raped in previous lives, or were abducted by UFOs and taken to the planet Zork to be subjected to weird medical experiments. But there is a difference: the man who raped me when I was a housewife in Atlantis is no more available for prosecution than the little gray Zorkian who abducted me. But dear old dad — well, there he is, and mum too. After the therapists come … the lawyers.

The definition of abuse in this new victimology is as expandable as a hot-air balloon, according to Tavris. She tells how one of the gurus of this new victimology “didn’t like the way her mother would plant a wet' kiss on her, look at her in ways that made her feelqueasy’ and walk in on her in the bathroom.” It wasn’t until years later, the guru claims, “that I came to terms with my mother’s behavior and saw it for what it really was — sexual abuse.”

Skeptics will find this new trend in victimhood disturbing for two reasons. First, the creative incitement of pseudomemories of sex abuse can lead to false accusations against parents and other — with devastating results for individuals and families. Second, it is no secret whatsoever that there is appalling sex abuse going on in our society. To use sex abuse as a principle explaining every incidence of adult unhappiness trivialises a serious human problem. In a world in which every unhappy soul is a “victim,” the needs of real victims will be ignored.

We’ll present more on this important topic at the Skeptics annual meeting in September in Christchurch. Mark your calendar!

Moa Mania

Some Skeptics have been surprised that our organisation has been so restrained in its response to the purported moa sighting near Cragieburn. As we see it, the whole issue is fraught with difficulty.

The notion of a colony of large moas escaping detection till now, despite its location in the Southern Alps accessible to Christchurch, almost defies the imagination. Almost, but not entirely: there is a lot of dense country out there, and the notion of a surviving moa — or two, or twenty — cannot be classed with Bigfoot or UFO abductions.

To this, we have to add the perceived credibility of the witnesses. The Press reporter who broke the story, Dave Wilson, is a previous winner of one of the Skeptics’ “excellence in journalism” awards. He’s an intelligent, persistent, hard-headed bloke who has spent a lot of time interviewing the trio who saw the beast, and he’s strongly inclined to the view that they are at least sincere. Wilson is a world away, for instance, from the cynical, exploitative Australian journalists who a few years ago got their hands on a family that had seen a blinding light on sky over the Nullarbor desert. Wilson has, to the contrary, been careful and measured in his approach.

The New Zealand Skeptics, it seems to me, cannot simply disregard Wilson’s convictions on this issue. If the trio is lying, it’s a particularly skillful and cruel hoax on Wilson personally, not to mention the rest of us. Still, for my part, I found the watery “footprint” of the beast, a photograph of which the three trampers produced at the very beginning of the flap, cause for the most skepticism. It was all wrong for a print left by a running bird, or a standing moa. The fuzzy photograph of the bird itself was plausible; the footprint looked outright fake.

If the sighting is not a hoax, then something like a loose emu still is far more likely than a moa. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal in the hearts of most skeptics that something as wondrous as the recovery of the moa might just turn out to be true. Wouldn’t we all cheer?

When I was musing on this the other day, Vicki Hyde brought me back down to earth with a stern lecture on the real, numerical probabilities of there being large, undetected moas in one of our more accessible parks. She was right, of course. But then I never claimed to have a skeptic’s soul. If anything, I more-and-more consider myself temperamentally gullible, and in need of occasional dressings-down by more tough-minded types like Vicki. Nevertheless, if the Skeptics are to err in this case or any other, better perhaps to be slightly on the side of a splendid possibility, than to dismiss without any consideration some extraordinary claim.

One of the highlights of our upcoming conference will be a symposium on cryptozoology. Dave Wilson will be there, and we may even be able to bring along the moa spotters themselves. Meanwhile, Vicki is organising a “fuzzy-photo” contest for Skeptics who can produce evidence demonstrating the existence of some extinct or extraterrestrial beast. Or perhaps a tossed hubcap, a floating log, or a chicken-wire moa.

Tattooed Maoris Did It!

The failure of clairvoyants to locate the missing Wellington man, Michael Kelly, or to know the manner of his death, will not startle many skeptics. No major missing persons case in the history of New Zealand has been solved with paranormal help, despite the fact that police have been deluged with clairvoyant tips over the years — from Mona Blades to Kirsa Jensen, Teresa Cormack, Luisa Damodron, Heidi Paakkonen or Michael Kelly.

Nor are we surprised that self-described psychics were called in by a desperate family. When all leads go cold, people are vulnerable to the suggestion that paranormal powers can help.

What ought to worry us is the media-generated atmosphere in which such delusion can flourish. Both the Dominion and the Evening Post published straight accounts of the clairvoyants’ visions of Michael Kelly’s “abductors” (See News Front). Kelly was supposedly robbed by two or three “rough-looking, tattooed Maoris,” about 26 years old. All the clairvoyants agreed on a description of their car. I’ll bet it was a Holden in need of body work.

No sooner had the Dominion published these psychic delusions than police phones started ringing hot with reports of suspicious-looking Maoris motoring about Wellington.

Both the Dominion and the Evening Post richly deserve a Bent Spoon for treating psychic fantasies as though they were news, but they’re not the only guilty parties. The Holmes show recently featured an item on a clairvoyant who was “helping” in the search for a toddler missing near the shore of Lake Wakitipu. Just as Michael Kelly’s family was told foul play was involved in his disappearance, so the mother of this little drowning victim has been given psychic visions implying abduction by a man. This psychic search also failed, but that fact didn’t make it onto Holmes.

Particularly upsetting in the Kelly case is that the clairvoyants were at last report still insisting another person was involved in the death, implying foul play. To the family’s anguish can now be added the burden of disquiet about the coroner’s findings.

Holmes, the Dominion, the Evening Post — why, even Sharon Crosbie gave at least one skeptic an attack of near-clinical depression on a recent morning when she provided fifteen minutes of unchallenged air-time to a visiting American “clairvoyant.” This huckster told Sharon that she got into the psychic business 25 years ago when she had a seven-hour conversation in French with her daughter, though neither of them had ever spoken the language before. Seems they simply “flipped back to the year 1654 in the south of France.” Sharon fairly giggled and gushed while the woman babbled on about akashic past lives and predicted “many, many changes on the planet … a lot of earthquake activity in New Zealand,” all because “we’re moving into a higher level of vibration.”

Let’s give Sharon credit: two days later she had the good grace to read on air a letter from Peter Lange excoriating her for the interview. Sharon’s an intelligent woman and, what the hell, we all have our off days. (Though the Press Association carried our official condemnation of the use of clairvoyants in police investigations, neither the Dominion nor the Evening Post chose to publish the story — guess they’re having an off month.)

It’s the continual tacit validation of claims to psychic power in gullible broadcast interviews and published articles that leads anguished, vulnerable families of missing persons to resort to clairvoyants. “There must be something in it — after all, I heard a woman on the radio just the other morning…”

But critical intelligence isn’t dead yet. The reliable Kim Hill recently interviewed Dave Allman, promoter of the Elliott Wave Theory, a form of share market voodoo that’s been around for a long time. Like Sharon’s psychic, Allman was a nonstop talker. When she could finally get a word in, Kim brought the interview to a close. “I was going to ask you if it’s an art or a science,” she sighed, “but I guess it’s a religion.”

Skeptics Crush Baby Rabbits

The abuse of the Skeptics as “arrogant, narrow-minded bigots” by defenders of Consumer is annoying, but it doesn’t yet surpass an art teacher who wrote an article for a Wellington paper in 1986. Overseas — or rather underseas — skeptics, he warned, had once tried to disprove ESP by going down in two submarines. In one, skeptics rushed baby rabbits to death, while in the other submarine skeptics measured the reactions of their mother to see if she was getting the terrible psychic vibes. Despite her pathetic shudders, delivered on cue, those awful skeptics still wouldn’t believe in ESP!

This malicious little fabrication might inure skeptics to other accusations. But it still comes as a shock — even for arrogant, bigoted, narrow-minded baby rabbit crushers — to be capped politically correct. Carl Wyant suggests it (see p. 15), claiming that our failure to attack religion betrays a politically correct solicitude for the sensitivities of other cultures. Okay, we give in. If Carl can supply the Teheran postal address of the Hashemi Rafsanjani, I’ll send the good cleric the next Skeptic, along with Carl’s address if the fellow has any further questions or lines of enquity. And thanks for the suggestion, Carl.

A second blast comes from Frank Haden (see p. 13), who left the Wellington conference feeling that “the group is in grave danger of being subverted by believers.” Maori-bashers and gay-bashers were subject to ridicule, he writes, along with the Round Table and Treasury incompetents. That there are no Skeptic defenders of Maori or gay-bashing is hardly disturbing, but Haden’s charge of political bias does have some basis, given what both Jack Shallcrass and Brian Easton had to say in Wellington. Their talks were political, though this was unusual for a Skeptics conference.

A more important point of clarification for Frank Haden. The Skeptics are not interested in “universal disbelief,” as he call it. Radical Pyrrhonian skepticism is pointless, except to bait believers. Skeptics accept the intellectual credibility of modern science, not because they’re by temperament obedient, but because of all the human enterprises of the last millenium, science is among the most successful. Skeptics tend to be what philosophic parlance calls pragmatists and “scientific realists”: they view the world as existing independently of our beliefs and desires, having its own intractable nature. We’re right about it, or wrong, but the world itself must determine that. We don’t construct reality, we discover it. The Skeptics’ call is not for disbelief, but for evidence.

To the contrary, it’s one of the delusions of extremist political correctness that it can freely alter reality by relabeling it. It’s not nice to be crippled, so we make it better by calling it “disabled,” and when that seems tired we go on to “physically challenged.” The names change but, alas, the condition does not, and you’d have to be optically challenged not to see it. An interesting foyer argument developed at the conference with Frank on the one side and Hugh Young and Vicki Hyde on the other, but I cannot see that politically correct language has much bearing on the mission of the Skeptics.

Still, if there are Skeptics worried about political correctness, they will be happy to know that our new leader, Vicki Hyde is (1) a woman of (2) Maori descent (Ngati Maniapoto). She’s never crushed a rabbit, but watch out bunnies — she (3) owns a ferret, and he’s said to be a dedicated skeptic.

Once When My Back Was Crook

I was struggling with the vacuum hose to reach an awkward corner of the kitchen.

“What’s wrong? Afraid to bend your back?” my wife asked. I felt a little pain and it didn’t go away. It got worse, seemed to improve for a day, stayed barely tolerable for a week, and then became intense.

It spread, and by the following weekend I was virtually immobile — unable to roll over in bed, racked with unbearable pain every time I moved. I finally phoned Skeptic Barrie Tait, who agreed to see me the next morning. My panic was dictated by an important conference I had to attend on Monday morning in Wellington. Things were looking bleak.

Dr Tait was the soul of courtesy and good-humoured professionalism. He’s the head of Musculoskeletal Medicine at Christchurch Hospital. I bragged about that. People always want to convince everyone — especially themselves — that their doctor is a genius.

Finally, after a gentle, thorough and obviously expert examination, Barrie took the crucial first step on the road to my recovery — he gave my disease a name.

“It’s lumbar dysfunction,” he said with quiet authority. I tried to translate from the Latin and kept coming up with something that seemed to mean “back not working too well.” What could he do for it, I asked eagerly.

“Nothing,” he said. Take pain killers and anti-inflammatories and your back will gradually heal itself. There was no specific medicine or treatment. I should go ahead and walk as much as possible.

Which is what I did. I stopped by the chemist and, by the time I was limping up to Victoria University things were improving. As the hours wore on, my back got better and better, and at home later that evening I was virtually able to turn cartwheels. The pain was gone. After over two weeks of agony, my tortured back was miraculously “cured”.

Over the years, the Skeptics have been relatively unsuccessful in altering the general public credulousness toward alternative medicine. In light of my experience, it’s not hard to see why.

What if Barrie had twirled a pendulum over me, said a mantra, given me chiropractic manipulation, a homeopathic preparation, or analysed my irises? And what if — like most desperate, pain-wracked patients — I’d wanted to believe it?

Barrie would have had a convert for life. The psychological evidence of my spectacular “cure”, coming as it did after weeks of suffering, was overwhelming. Who cares what the Skeptics think about alternative medicine when sufferers are similarly “cured” on a daily basis by chiropractors and other healers?

And it’s not just back pain that has spontaneous remission, but countless other afflictions. This — combined with the fact that people want to believe in their healer, orthodox or quack — means there will always be an army of satisfied customers ready to testify that some placebo cured them after all the marvels of scientific medicine had failed.

Having said all that, and accepting it at a rational level, I still in my heart believe Barrie Tait is a medical genius. I can’t help it. You see, once when my back was crook…