Good Company

What name do you give to a quirky bunch of people who are scientifically literate, who question fads, and who want their beliefs to rest on evidence from the material world — the sort of evidence that does not require one to ignore or reject all the laws of physics and other knowledge we have and that we rely on daily when flying, taking antibiotics or using the computer?

The group’s shortened name is the New Zealand Skeptics and in September in Christchurch they held their annual conference. What a delightful and idiosyncratic event this was, not least because there are so few lawyers in this group. I spend my professional life training would-be lawyers and writing articles for lawyers and other legal academics. You might think lawyers are instinctively sceptical. But actually, they’re not. They’re trained to take authorities — statutes, the decisions of judges — largely at face value. Yes, lawyers get very good at undermining certainty, at injecting doubt into the clearest of statutory provisions. But that is a different mindset than what one finds at the annual Skeptics conference.

This year, there was a host of interesting papers delivered. An academic from Canterbury University rubbished the trendy acceptance by some — under the false guise of being open-minded-of the possibility of psychic and paranormal knowledge. In fact, not one single police department in the US has found police psychics to be useful; only two or three out of nearly 500 National Enquirer predictions came true in the last dozen years or so; and not one single reproducible ESP phenomenon has ever been recorded, despite a huge reward being on offer to anyone who can demonstrate (that’s the key word) such powers.

Not really a surprise though, once you realise that if it were true, you’d have to jettison or re-write all we know about the physical laws underlying our understanding of the universe, knowledge that has doubled life expectancy in the past century, led to untold material advances and helped lift huge numbers of people out of poverty. The same sort of mindset was brought to bear in papers on organics (vastly over-rated), herbal medicine (how do you spell “placebo”?) and “biodynamic” approaches to eradicating the painted apple moth, just to name three. But two of the talks at the conference cry out for special mention, and praise.

The first was a talk on the Liam Williams-Holloway case. This included the chance to see the Australian 60 Minutes segment which broadcasters here have refused to televise. The most memorable line from that segment came from one of the alternative medicine practitioners: “All we care about is the wealth of our patients – I mean health.” That whole sorry and saddening episode casts a cloud over a good many people, and leads me to wonder why the parents of Liam have not been charged with a criminal offence.

Finally, I must mention the talk given at the conference by Lynley Hood, author of the prize-winning book A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case. If anyone out there thinks Peter Ellis should have been convicted, or still thinks he is undeserving of a pardon, that person should read this book. (See this month’s lead article –ed.)

I’d like to see a Commission of Inquiry headed by a tough-minded overseas judge — maybe the English judge who, in the height of a similar hysteria over there, acquitted two similarly placed crèche workers who have just won a big defamation case.

But if you think that’s likely to happen here in New Zealand, if you think the vested interests might break ranks, you need a good dose of scepticism.