Travels in ceremony country

Some claim our society is too materialistic and lacks spiritual values. But what would it be like to live in a society that rejects materialism?

Arnhem Land in tropical Australia has a curious status. Although the government has overall responsibility, the indigenous inhabitants are considered to be in control over the area where they live. Outsiders must seek permission to enter a tribal area and a permit is issued on payment of a fee. Twenty years ago the tourist fee was relatively modest, but for a mining concession the fee is substantial as one might expect. We paid $65 for two of us per day on our first visit, although fees have risen greatly over time.

Very few tourists visit because the fee is for entry only and there are no hotels, restaurants, shops or similar facilities. There are very few roads, or even tracks for four-wheel drive vehicles. However it is possible to fly in and stay at the small mining town of Nhulunbuy within Arnhem Land where there is accommodation, shops and restaurants. No permit is needed provided one stays within the town perimeter.

A tiny number of operators in Nhulunbuy will offer tours with a vehicle and guide, and assistance in obtaining the necessary permits. The tribespeople are generally not unfriendly but shy, and few will attempt much of a conversation even if they have sufficient English. As Australian citizens they are eligible for benefits so individuals have some income though very few have jobs (and those who do are nearly all women). A good deal of their income is spent on alcohol. Getting drunk is not frowned upon within the tribal system. Religion puts a high value on a trance-like state and it is not clear how inebriation differs from this (even to me). Violence when drunk can be punished, especially if somebody is harmed.

On one of our visits, a chief’s drunken son had just beaten a woman to death. A meeting of elders had decided that the spearing would take place immediately and that the official trial (that would presumably result in a conviction for manslaughter) would occur when he got out of hospital. On some previous occasions, the spearing took place when the offender got out of prison and this was thought to be unfair.

Some but not all children go to school. On one tiny island in the Gulf of Carpentaria I met a group of young boys living on their own to prepare for the ‘circumcision’ ceremony that would admit them to full tribal membership. They had spears and knives (but no clothes), and were living on fish and other seafood that they could catch or collect. Water was in short supply and the gifts of cold cans of soft drink were more than welcome. These boys (around 12 years old at my guess) could speak some English. But they could not reach a consensus as to how long they had been on the island, how long since they had seen an adult, how long they expected to stay or even whether they had ever been to school. I got the impression that they were not supposed to have any contact with me, but soft drinks overwhelmed any moral inhibitions.

Anthropologists have described this island sequestration of pre-initiates, but I doubt they interviewed the boys on an island. The written descriptions simply add to my scepticism of anthropologists. What I observed differed from the anthropological accounts in a number of important ways.

I have become friendly with one (white) Australian who had been initiated into one tribe and could act as interpreter. However my friendship has not progressed to the stage where I felt able to ask him if he had undergone the severe penile mutilation that the young boys are supposed to endure. The ceremony involves more than simple circumcision as understood by us.

On one trip my friend had recently taken a guy on an eco-tour. They first visited the tribe for permission and found a man apparently completing a painting on bark. In some parts of Australia paintings are made to sell to tourists but these are of variable quality. The tourist was excited at finding an authentic work of art, which he thought beautiful. The artist showed little reluctance to sell, and little interest in a price. But his work was not complete and he insisted it had to be finished. It was agreed that the tourist would return at the end of his visit.

Some days later the guide and tourist returned and the artist produced his now-complete painting. It was nothing like the one that had been admired and the tourist did not like it. But, explained the artist, the one he had liked was still there, it was just underneath. In fact there were four layers of painting; none of these were intended to be viewed by human eyes. Painting is done to satisfy the artist and please the spirits who are not limited by human sense organs. The artist had some understanding that the tourist might wish to own something that pleased the spirits. He could not understand why the new owner might want to view the painting.

There are many rock paintings across the tropical North. However the access to some sites has been restricted or stopped altogether. This is not because the tribes think the paintings may be damaged by tourists, in fact they paint over some old examples. This does not ‘damage’ them as they are still there for the spirits. But viewing by non-initiates desecrates the site. Actually photography and video desecrates them even more but we were not aware of this on our earliest trips!

Most tribes are small; one we encountered consisted of about 40 individuals. All receive some assistance from the government and those whose lands contain valuable minerals get money from their leases. In fact the amounts from leases can be enormous when considered against the standard of the material possessions of the tribe, apart from its land.

A giant aluminium company built a village for one tiny tribe on the edge of a huge lagoon called Bradshaw Harbour. There were vast resources for fishing and gathering of food, but after a few years when the senior elder had died, the tribe abandoned their houses and moved to the edge of Nhulunbuy where they could camp within easy access to alcohol.

Of course there are outsiders with a mission to help the local people, medics, teachers, social workers and religious enthusiasts, but the curious status of the place allows the locals to determine what kind of help they will accept. These are tribal societies, so it is the elders, ie the older men, who decide.

Most outsiders would like to see the available money spent on material things like housing, hygiene, education, medicine, etc. That is, those things upon which our society puts great value. But the elders put the greatest value on their religion. This involves complex and lengthy ‘ceremonies’, when a tribe invites its neighbours to a session of feasting and ritual generally lasting many days. In earlier times this presumably had the practical result of reducing tension and the risk of intertribal war.

Initiated men are called ‘warriors’ in English translation, even though they may be young teenagers. I have been on a fishing/hunting trip with a ‘warrior’ whose grandmother told me was 13. He carried two spears and a ‘throwing stick’ (his term) sometimes called an atlatl or woomera by outsiders. However it was a sacred object, no uninitiated person could touch it or even learn its proper name and he did not know any other western names for the object.

We went fishing in one spot; part of our concession was to take along a tribal member. A woman agreed; she would spend her time gathering food on a sacred beach. But she wanted to also take her daughter who she thought had just become fertile. It was necessary also to take a warrior, because a girl not so accompanied would become pregnant by walking on this sacred beach. This had happened to her as a teenager so she was certain it was true. Our guide (in the woman’s hearing), explained that the tribespeople were perfectly aware of the connection between sex and pregnancy but they had sex all the time and pregnancy did not always result so some other factor must be involved. I decided this was similar to attitudes in rural Ireland where prayers to the Virgin are thought important in such matters.

Before money was introduced, the cost in resources of putting on a ceremony was considerable relative to the economic status of a tribe. However the number of people who could attend was limited to those tribes in the vicinity: within walking distance. Generally it is estimated most tribes held a ceremony only once a year, while they probably attended between two and four more, held by their neighbours.

Mining royalties mean that the tribes (though not the individual) have considerable discretionary income and a very large percentage of this is spent on travel costs, to allow the people to attend distant ceremonies and on catering for the greatly enlarged numbers who attend the local ceremony. If sufficient funds allow they may also increase the number of ceremonies held. These days food is purchased as well as gathered, in fact close to a supermarket in Nhulunbuy very little is gathered, while very large amounts of alcoholic drink will be needed.

At first the travel range was increased by four-wheel drive transport, but with unskilled drivers and a complete lack of mechanics for maintenance, these had only a brief useful life. Where mining roads have been installed, ground vehicles may still be of use, but road maintenance is costly and without upkeep no road is likely to survive even a single wet season.

Travel by air is more feasible and tribes now often hire air transport. This makes the whole of Arnhem Land within the range of any tribe living within one day’s walk of a bush airstrip.

Outside Arnhem Land, in Western Australia, taxpayers provide subsidy for tribal transport where there are no mining concessions. In 2007 we were at a small, isolated fishing camp (four anglers) in an uninhabited area when we had a visit from the ‘traditional owners’ plus social workers and government officials. They came supposedly to see that the region was being looked after properly. There is never any litter around at fishing camps in the Kimberley, so after this group had left one of the guides went round to pick up all the litter they had dropped – mainly cigarette butts.

There was no road access and no place for a landing strip. A helicopter was kept on the ground while the party was visiting. When it came time for them to leave it had developed a fault. Another chopper with a mechanic had to come to examine it, while a third very large machine came to pick up the party (they all had to travel at once instead of being ferried, as night was approaching). None of the visitors had been there before – it is actually Government land – ie public land and it could not support a permanent settlement now or in the recent past.

The main concern of the traditional owners was to ensure that tourist operators did not take people to visit ancient sites and in particular did not photograph, or even view, ancient rock art. Such visitors offended against the traditional spiritual values, but these people expressed no interest in charging fees to allow tourists to do these touristy things.

Further reading: Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. M Abley, 2003. The Elements of the Aborigine Tradition. James G Cowan, 1992.

Magic for Mosquitoes

While we were in Fiji recently there was a dengue fever alert. This unpleasant virus is carried by mosquitoes and naturally we were careful to use insect repellent.

We stayed in a Suva hotel; in the swimming pool area there was a large sign stating that guests should not worry about infections carried by insects because the pool area was protected by a MAGNETIC MOSQUITO DEFFENDER.

I searched diligently but could find no evidence of magnets, either electrical or solid state. However we decided that an invisible MAGNETIC MOSQUITO DEFFENDER would probably work as well as one that could be seen.

Some years ago I wrote in this journal that it was safe to drink tap water in Fiji. This is no longer the case, particularly in Suva.

The monster in the Nelson Lakes

A visit to Lake Rotoroa in Nelson Lakes National Park is rewarded with a remarkable sighting.

Sea monsters are real enough; I have even caught one. Years ago a friend and I found a live oarfish (Regalecus glesne) stranded on a reef in Tasman Bay. This is one of the candidates for sightings of the Great Sea Serpent and at over 5m long it was certainly impressive. It was still alive though injured by its struggles on the rocks.

However the oceans are large enough to support populations of giant creatures, and new ones are still being found. The colossal squid is a fairly recent example.

Lake monsters however are supernatural beasts. Enthusiasts seem to imagine they are seeking a single individual that could hide in a large body of water. But animals exist as populations and no lake is large enough to support a population of giant creatures. Lakes are also ephemeral; very few are more than tens of thousands of years old; Lake Baikal is a rare exception to these rules.

However this has not stopped people from claiming sightings of monsters in lakes. They have suggested plesiosaurs (which died out around 65 million years ago) exist in lakes that are less than 20,000 years old. The Loch Ness Monster is perhaps the best known of all these myths. It was a deliberate fabrication or rather a series of fabrications for the simple purpose of making money. There is an extensive literature on the subject.

It is perhaps odd that New Zealand with a large number of lakes has had so few claimed sightings of lake monsters. The Taniwha is part of Maori superstition, but few claim to have seen one, much less describe it.

The overseas literature includes a large number of sightings in lakes which were thought mysterious by the observer. Otters, clumps of vegetation, ducks seen in mist, offer simple explanations for many sightings, but these are rejected by those of mystical leanings. One favourite is an odd number (usually three or five) of dark humps showing above the surface and apparently moving through the water. Anybody used to small boats will recognise this common phenomenon as the intersection of two wakes from craft that may not be visible.

However nearly 40 years ago I did see monsters in Rotoroa in Nelson Lakes National Park. It was a very close encounter yet for some time I could not identify what I was seeing.

We used to have an annual fishing trip to the head of Rotoroa, which is accessible only by boat or a walk of nearly 18km. One year we had a weekend of heavy rain; both the D’Urville and Sabine Rivers were unfishable and pouring muddy water into the lake. I fished the lake edge with some success on the Saturday but the next day, which was calm and cloudy, I decided to experiment. We drifted at the edge of the deep water and jigged. That is, we bounced small heavy lures vertically under the boat and close to the bottom. I had not brought my small portable echo sounder and we were not very successful because the technique works best where there is a sharp change of depth. The sounder is needed to find the right spots.

The water was gin-clear once away from the river mouth and we could see many vertical metres down, though not to the bottom which we discovered was about 60 metres below by measuring the length of line needed to reach it.

I was peering over the stern when a huge pale green-brown object rose out of the depths. It got to within a few metres of the surface then turned down and dived out of sight. I was literally speechless. Then another one rose. This time I looked for a head, fins, anything, but it seemed featureless. Down it went like the first but soon another came up – there was an endless procession of monsters.

I looked up and saw that we had drifted to about 250 metres directly off the mouth of the D’Urville River and the truth dawned. The monsters were waves of muddy water appearing much greener than the brown river when seen through the clear upper water of the lake. It was April (our trips were always at this time of year); the lake surface water was warm, but the river water very cold.

In summer, surface water warms up but unless the lake is shallow, the main body of water stays cold. The warm water floats on the denser cold water and there is often a sharp temperature gradient called the thermocline.

Under the calm conditions, dense, cold, river water was not mixing with the lake surface but flowing in below the warm water. What I was seeing were ‘thermocline waves’, a well-known phenomenon but one which is rarely so dramatically visible. Furthermore, relatively small, fast-moving thermocline waves like these are probably not terribly common. The lake surface was glassy, so I had not been thinking about waves.

This was a remarkably convincing monster display and I expected that eventually somebody else would spot this phenomenon and claim they had seen genuine lake monsters. I would then be able to counter with a rational explanation. However I have never seen such a claim either in NZ or overseas. Mind you I have not looked too hard; ‘Lake Monsters’ in a web search produces over 7.5 million results and it is clearly not worth wading through such a huge amount of nonsense.

The mythical origins of circumcision

In our last issue, Hugh Young looked at the practice of circumcision. But how did such a bizarre tradition ever get started?

Hugh Young’s article on circumcision (Skeptic 86) was excellent but it is worth looking further at the origins of the practice. Some parents claim they have the right to circumcise their sons because it is a necessary part of their religion. But is it?

According to the Old Testament, circumcision started as a Jewish custom. God instructed Abraham, as a mark of a covenant between them, to adopt this practice for all males of his extended family. In this story Abraham had lived in Egypt, he had Egyptian slaves and a half-Egyptian son, Ishmael.

However the story ignores the fact that circumcision had been an Egyptian custom for many centuries. It seems probable that Ishmael’s Egyptian mother (even though she was a slave) would have tried to insist on her son being circumcised according to ancient custom; it seems incredible that she would not have at least mentioned this to the child’s father. How could Abraham (and of course God), have been ignorant that circumcision was an ancient Egyptian practice?

Centuries later, in the story of Moses’ childhood, he is discovered as a baby by an Egyptian princess who instantly recognises he is a Jewish child. Generations of Christians have claimed this is because she saw he was circumcised but this cannot be true. All Egyptian boys were circumcised; it is possible that some Jewish babies were not.

Jesus supposedly said (John 7.22.) “Moses gave you the law of circumcision (not that it originated with Moses but with the patriarchs)”. This reflects an ignorance of the Bible shared by many modern Christians and Jews.

According to Exodus, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land but it was a slow journey. In this story Moses was entirely opposed to the Egyptian custom of circumcision and while he ruled (for about 40 years) Israelites were not allowed to circumcise male babies. Clearly Moses had no knowledge of any prior agreement with God about circumcision, nor did God enlighten him on the subject although (according to the story) they met more than once. Only after Moses’ death did the Israelites resume the Egyptian practice (Joshua 5). Furthermore Moses refused to circumcise his own sons, which caused some marital disharmony (Exodus 4).

The precedent of Moses is very important when dealing with modern Jews who insist circumcision is necessary for the proper practise of their religion. If uncircumcised boys were good enough for Moses, why are they not good enough for you?

Herodotus writing about 450BC states clearly that the Egyptians and Ethiopians were the first to use circumcision, but it is unknown as to which of them started the practise, while all other nations admit they learned it from the Egyptians either directly or indirectly. The inhabitants of Palestine he calls ‘Syrians’ and ‘Phoenicians’ and both circumcise their sons, (although some Phoenicians under Greek influence had stopped the practice). Did a separate Jewish state exist in the middle of the 5th century BC? If so Herodotus was clearly unaware of it. It is certainly a myth that circumcision distinguished Jews from their neighbours in Palestine.

Jewish ritual circumcision is (or was) odder than one might imagine. Originally it was supposed to have been done with a stone knife, but by Roman times a steel blade was acceptable. The operator was and is called a ‘mohel’ and there are three parts to the operation. The first part, the cutting of the foreskin was called the ‘milah’. In the second phase called the ‘periah’, the mohel used his thumb nail and index finger to separate the inner lining of the foreskin from the glans. The third part is the ‘mesisah’ and until the 19th century this involved the mohel sucking the blood from the wound by taking the penis in his mouth. This raises some interesting questions about the circumcision of adults. According to Acts 16.3, Paul personally circumcised Timothy; however according to his own letters, Paul was vehemently opposed to circumcision. Reading these to get Paul’s opinion on the subject, it is difficult to believe that Paul circumcised anybody. Consider: Philippians 3.1-3 (most but not all Bible scholars accept this letter as authentic): “Beware of those dogs and their malpractices. Beware of those who insist on mutilation – ‘circumcision’ I will not call it; we are the circumcised, whose worship is spiritual”.

Galatians is regarded as authentic by all serious Bible scholars and there Paul wrote: Gal.5.2-3. “… if you receive circumcision, Christ will do you no good at all.” and, “… every man who received circumcision is under obligation to keep the whole law.”

The details of the mesisah sound so strange that it seems almost unbelievable. Indeed open-minded skeptics may imagine it is just another anti-Semitic ‘blood libel’. They can easily check via the internet that these details come from unprejudiced Jewish sources. The Jewish abhorrence about tasting blood may seem to cast doubt on the story, but one should remember that in religion there is a close relationship between sacred and banned practices. A practice may be offensive unless it is involved in a sacred ritual.

There is however an obvious medical explanation. The periah using a nail and finger is obviously so unhygienic that infection would be likely without proper cleaning. Sucking the wound is an excellent mode of cleaning (compared with alternatives available when the custom originated) and we might expect it would have become widely used once it became obvious that it reduced the risk of infection. However once medical hygiene became understood during the 19th century it became permissible to use a swab for the completion of the operation.

As one might expect there are conservative groups of Jews that cling to old custom. Christopher Hitchens in Op-Ed Free Inquiry Feb/March 2006 states that a primitive sect of Hasidic Jews in New York still have mohels who perform circumcision in the traditional manner. The mohel “sucks off the foreskin and spits it out in a mouthful of blood”.

Hitchens also states that the practice has caused several cases of genital herpes and at least two deaths. There has been pressure to outlaw the custom but the New York health authorities have decided to “be neutral”. Hitchens in this article is protesting the views of liberals who justify the health authority action as part of “free exercise of religion”.

Jim Ring is a Nelson skeptic, who says there is nothing like a childhood in the Exclusive Brethren for instilling a deep knowledge of obscure parts of the Bible.

Who believed stones fall from the sky?

It’s often said that scientists long rejected the idea of meteorites, but the evidence for this assertion is far from convincing.

Pseudoscience constantly attempts to discredit science. One method is to complain that scientists have failed to accept facts that were both plain and obvious. Then, if science does not accept homeopathy, telepathy etc, this is to be expected and no reason to doubt the truthof these beliefs.

For many years scientists refused, against contrary evidence, to believe that stones could fall from the sky. True or false?

In 1807 a meteorite fell in Weston, Connecticut and was investigated by Professors Silliman and Kingsley of Yale (a fact). Thomas Jefferson, then President was informed and said, “Gentlemen, I would rather believe that those two Yankee Professors would lie than to believe that stones fell from heaven.”

Jefferson corresponded with the leading scientists of his time. According to Asimov he was “the closest approach to a scientist-in-office among all the Presidents of the US.” Did he really say this?

The story comes from a 1933 book by Harvey Harlow Nininger and has been quoted many times without question-even by Paul Kurtz in A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology and Asimov in his biographical sketch of Silliman. Nininger is something of a hero in the US, which is perhaps why this legend is so readily accepted, but he gave no early source for his story.

Proof needed

In the 18th century, science established that such things as fossils and stone artefacts had a terrestrial origin, though previously they were believed to have fallen to earth. Sceptical scientists began to question the idea of solid objects falling from the sky-some proof was needed. In the last decade of the 18th century two large falls of stones in Europe were observed by many people, and one of these followed the sighting of a large fireball that disappeared with a bang. The German physicist Ernst Florens Friedrick Chladni published a book translated as On the Origin of the Mass of Iron Discovered by Pallas and Others Similar to It. This carefully established a good case for the extra-terrestrial origin of meteorites.

Closer to the end of the century, Joseph Banks the president of the Royal Society, and the French mineralogist, Jackie-Louis Bournon then in England, obtained some pieces of rock, said to have fallen from the sky. These were analysed and found to be iron with a high percentage of nickel. This alloy had never been found in any rock that was definitely of earthly origin.These two scientists presented their theory to the Royal Society in London and the Institut de France in Paris respectively and it was well received by both. The latter heard also from Nicolas Louis Vauquelin who had reached similar conclusions. One of the remarkable features of this cooperation is that Britain and France were at war.

By a fortunate coincidence a shower of stones fell near L’Aigle in Normandy on April 26th 1803. Nearly 3000 were found and the incident was investigated by Jean Baptiste Biot. Analysis showed these objects had a similar composition to previous meteorites. All major French scientists and most others around the world were convinced and Chladni received belated honour.

Well perhaps not so belated. Chladni did not really have to wait very long; it took about 10 years for acceptance of his theory. The story that scientists would not believe his story, in spite of overwhelming evidence is about as far from the truth as is possible. Also it is most unlikely that Jefferson was not fully aware of these scientific discoveries.

Giant rocks

It did take longer to establish that huge rocks, large enough to make enormous craters, could also fall. These craters were often argued to be of volcanic origin because there was clear evidence that molten rock had flowed. It was only after the work of Joule in the middle of the 19th century that it became possible to understand the huge quantity of heat that would be released in such strikes. The rock in and around the crater would be melted by the release of energy.

In 1902 Daniel Moreau Barringer, a geologist and mining engineer, decided that the great crater in Arizona was caused by a meteor strike (though many thought it volcanic) and ought to contain a large and valuable amount of nickel/iron buried near its centre. He spent 30 years and a fortune without success, which gave some comfort to those who favoured the volcanic theory. But then in the 1950s Eugene Shoemaker showed by analysis of the data and further calculation, that most of the metal would have vaporised and this more or less settled the issue.

Years ago Fleur and I visited Meteor Crater, Arizona; I consider it one of the most dramatic natural features I have ever seen. Most geological phenomena have been produced slowly over millions of years. The idea of this one being produced in an instant is hard to comprehend. These days it is a major tourist attraction and it is not possible to explore the crater; one can only examine it from a viewing platform in company with a large number of other spectators.

We have also visited remote Wolfe Crater in WA, a much older feature on the edge of the true desert, which is gradually disappearing under wind-borne sand. This is not a tourist attraction; it is too far from tourist routes and reached via a track usable only by 4-wheel drive vehicles. We had the crater to ourselves and could wander at will. In a guide book we were amused to find the suggestion that it might be of volcanic origin. The idea that large stones cannot fall from the sky dies hard-at least among non-scientists.

Lamarck’s ghost rises again

Attacks on Darwinian evolutionary theory have come from within the scientific community as well as from creationists. Much of this is the normal process of scientific scrutiny, but some bear all the hallmarks of pseudoscience.

Continue reading

A Little Light Reading

Jim Ring finds some material to pass the time on a recent flight.

Queensland is the home of young-earth creationism in Australia so it was perhaps not surprising that I found Creation Magazine for sale in the Brisbane airport. None of the other four Australian airports we visited displayed it. Curiosity overcame my reluctance to provide money for their cause.

This was volume 27 but I feel sure it has not been running for 27 years in this format. “Peer reviewed by leading creationary (sic) experts”. As there are no adverts there is no legal necessity for listing the numbers of copies sold or estimated readership. I would like to know these figures.

The cover picture with a caption “DINGO: Australia’s Wild Native Dog” suggested a wild-life theme and the glossy cover was just like hundreds of other magazines on the rack. However a few key words-fossil, God, Darwin, massive flood, evolution, suggested otherwise. Not to mention the web page address for Answers in Genesis (branches outside of the US have recently re-branded themselves as Creation Ministries International-ed.).

With all the present attention on Intelligent Design it is worth reminding ourselves that young-earth creationists are still very much around.

A letter page called Feedback (borrowed from New Scientist?) gives some indication of the readership. A letter from Lower Hutt thinks pet budgies prove a creator. I cannot quite follow the argument but apparently teaching one to say “Hello, God made me” is important.

The editorial attacks other publications-National Geographic, Time, and Scientific American, because they do not take creationist views seriously. I imagine these editors are trembling in their shoes. In contrast the editor remembers a young farmer who said, “When I drive around the countryside I see evidence for Noah’s flood everywhere.”

A number of news items taken (with acknowledgment) from New Scientist, Science, Nature, etc have the theme that new discoveries discredit science by proving that older ideas were wrong. If one believes that all answers lie in Genesis I suppose this is logical, but to me it is an entirely alien idea.

An article on UFOs and aliens surprised me but perhaps belief in a completely unsupportable worldview opens one’s mind to more nonsense. Some famous pictures described as “genuinely unexplained sightings” help to plug a book for AiG. This apparently links abductions with demonology, and shows how “belief in evolution has opened the door to alien visitations.” The book is claimed to provide answers for Christians puzzled by UFO phenomena.

The lead article on Dingoes is quite good until it gets to the historical problem. When did humans and dingoes actually arrive in Australia? Australians convinced that the earth is only about 6000 years old have huge problems in compressing their history to make it fit.

The second major article is on how the (Irish) Giant’s Causeway was produced by the biblical flood about 4500BP over a very short period. This is hilarious because it is obviously meant to be serious. The author is a staffer at AiG with a BSc (Hons) in geology and the article has references to recent geological articles and journals. However he brushes over the problem of geological dates with “Once we realise the dates assigned to the causeway are not measured, but just someone’s opinion, we can look at the evidence in a different light.” He is in agreement with modern opinion that the Causeway was produced by a huge eruption followed by a flood. However, according to Richard Fortey in The Earth: An Intimate History that flood was the opening of the Atlantic Ocean.

All this is benign but three pages of material towards the back are not. The headlines for three articles:

  • Darwin’s Impact-The Bloodstained Legacy of Evolution
  • Evolution and Social Evil
  • America’s Evolutionists: Hitler’s Inspiration?

-would disgrace any publication.

While A Timeline of Evolution Inspired Terror features Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Pol Pot. I am not sure how Mao escaped here but he is mentioned in the text. Somehow Darwin is responsible for the behaviour of these men.

This would be funny if it was not serious; it is a timely reminder that it is important to keep creationists out of schools.

Self-Esteem: too much of a Good Thing?

The idea that low self-esteem is the cause of violent behaviour has been current for some time. Many years ago I attended numerous education meetings where I heard that certain (male) individuals “lacked self-esteem” when it seemed patently obvious that this was not true. I argued that these individuals greatly esteemed many of their own behaviours – it was just that these behaviours were those the counsellors thought should be deplored.

The result was that schools developed programmes to encourage pupils to make lists of their wonderful features and to compose poems of self-celebration. Parents and teachers were afraid to criticise children, or to let them take part in exams and competitions as this could turn them into violent thugs. It became important above all that children never experienced failure.

Scientific American (April 2001) had an article entitled Violent Pride: Do people turn violent because of self-hate or self-love? by Roy F Baumeister. This dealt with the problem of violent young men and characterised them as being usually egoists with a grandiose sense of personal superiority and entitlement; yet counselling textbooks say such people really suffer from low self-esteem.

Although it was a “well-known fact” that low self-esteem causes violence, Baumeister was unable to find a formal statement of the theory, let alone any evidence to support it. According to Baumeister: “…we found no indicators that aggressive male bullies are anxious and insecure under a tough surface.”

Self-esteem can be measured using a questionnaire with such examples as:

  • How well do you get along with other people?
  • Are you generally successful in your work or studies?

Baumeister et al also tested for narcissistic tendencies in a similar manner. People with high self-esteem were not necessarily narcissistic – most could recognise that they genuinely were good at some things but not all.

A study on men imprisoned for violent crimes showed these had the highest mean score for narcissism (among prisoners), though their score for self-esteem was about in the middle. Narcissism correlated very strongly with violent behaviour.

The idea that low self-esteem is the underlying cause of “just about every psychological problem” originates with Nathaniel Branden (originally Nathan Blumenthal), psychotherapist and author of several books on the subject. According to Branden: “faulty self-esteem [is] a flawed self-concept, intellectual self-doubt, a sense of unworthiness or guilt, an experience or inadequacy, a feeling that ‘something is wrong with me’ or that ‘I am not enough.’ ” But of course if the concept is made as broad as this everybody must experience low self-esteem at times.

Nash published Branden’s first book on the topic, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, late in 1969, but it was taken up by Bantam and over a million paperback copies were sold worldwide. In 1977 Branden started a series of intensive “workshop” courses to teach his ideas. The course was called Self-Esteem and the Art of Being. Originally the attendees were psychotherapy students. These people spread the gospel and the idea really took off.

Branden had been a member of the Ayn Rand inner circle and, although 20-odd years younger, was her lover for a considerable period. This grand idea, of the importance of low self-esteem, was formulated by or with Rand sometime in 1955, certainly before the spring of 1956. But we have only Branden’s word that he had any involvement then – about 14 years before he published anything on the subject. Rand would later claim that Branden had stolen her idea; after Branden rejected her sexually she became extremely bitter. However when Atlas Shrugged (which seems to have introduced the idea) was published, it was dedicated to both her husband and her lover!

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged contains a speech by John Galt, Rand’s superman hero that sets out three principles as the supreme and ruling values of human life:

  1. Reason
  2. Purpose
  3. Self-esteem

I regret that I was unaware of the Ayn Rand connection around 25 years ago, when I was involved in education and attacking the idea that low self-esteem was the problem with difficult boys. Rand’s anti-communism of course made her “Right Wing”. The “Left Wing” trendy types that were pushing faulty self-esteem as the cause of problems with difficult adolescents would have been horrified at the connection. I had found Atlas Shrugged and other Rand books unreadable; recently I had to read some Rand to write this essay but did not enjoy the experience. I still have not finished any of her books.

Rand frequently used archaic meanings for common English words. Few skeptics would quibble about basing their ideas on reason, but today this means that we organise our ideas to avoid contradictions. Rand’s philosophy involved a resurrection of the mediaeval idea of Rationalism, which meant something quite different – that one can acquire true knowledge of the world simply through thought. Modern science has rejected this idea – and Rand largely rejected science.

The Baumeister studies are very relevant to New Zealand today, but I suspect that few teachers or social workers involved with difficult and violent young males have even heard of them. Jim Ring is a Nelson Skeptic.

Should You Sue Your Doctor?

Increased litigation will do nothing to reduce the rate of medical misadventure

In a recent decision the Privy Council has ruled that a New Zealand patient dissatisfied with a diagnosis can take legal action against the doctor responsible. Without commenting on any individual case, surely such actions must make doctors more careful and overall will improve the standard of medical treatment?

Not so; litigation in medical matters has had a disastrous effect overseas. New Zealand has been largely protected by the Accident Compensation scheme (with all its faults), so many people here do not realise what a terrible step is being contemplated. In particular medical litigation will make medicine more expensive. The US has in many ways an excellent medical system, with one major flaw; it hosts a whole branch of the legal profession as a parasite. Thus it is enormously expensive, and so unaffordable for many people.

I recommend an article originally published by the New Yorker in 1999 and reprinted in The Best American Science Writing 2000 (ed. James Gleick): When Doctors Make Mistakes, by Atul Gawande. This is partly an account of how the author made a medical error and of why errors occur, but explains how litigation does nothing to improve a medical system. It also contains a lot of interesting data.

It was estimated that in the US around 120 000 patients die each year, at least partly because of errors during medical care. In November 1999 (after the publication of this article) the National Academy of Sciences reported that medical errors caused between 44 000 and 98 000 deaths per year.

A 1995 study on hospital drug administration found that an error occurred about once per admission. Although nearly all were minor and did not cause a problem, about 1 per cent had serious consequences. In New York State another review of 30 000 admissions found that nearly 4 per cent suffered complications from treatment that prolonged their hospital stay, resulted in disability, or caused death.

Thus errors in the USA are not rare, but would they be more frequent without the threat of litigation? The evidence suggests not and it contains some surprises. Some in the legal profession have claimed that their role is to find and expel incompetent and dangerous doctors. However most surgeons are sued at least once in their careers. Repeat offenders are not the problem, practically all make some mistakes. A study on the perpetrators of medical error found no group of dangerous doctors. Instead errors were normally distributed across the profession. This implies a single population so it is pointless to look for a subset that could be eliminated to leave behind a better performing profession.

It is hardly surprising that litigation fails to reduce medical error rates when one sees how it is applied. In the US only 2 per cent of patients who received sub-standard care ever sued, while only a small minority of those who did sue had actually been the victim of sub-standard care. Many of those who sued successfully, were not actually victims. It was found that the chances of a patient winning a suit depended primarily on how poor the outcome was, regardless of whether the outcome was caused by error or negligence.

The sums awarded as compensation are often huge; but even if a surgeon wins and so pays no compensation, his/her legal costs are still enormous. Thus doctors must carry enough insurance to cover these possibilities. Even the best surgeon must prepare for the worst as he or she can expect to be sued at least once in a career. The insurance premiums are naturally very high, and of course these must be covered by the fees charged.

Closer to home in Australia there has recently been a crisis in the medical profession, with groups of surgeons threatening to cease work unless some Government action was taken. The problem grew with ever-increasing sums being awarded to successful litigants. Surgeons in particular were required to take out ever-larger insurance policies. A relatively small insurance company offered cut rate policies — but a few cases with very high awards against medical staff showed that they had miscalculated; they had set their premiums far too low. The financial collapse of this company and then the insolvency of a very large insurance company resulted in a number of medical staff being without any insurance cover. The new policies being offered them involved premiums far higher than those they had been paying. Their professional fees were too low to allow them to meet these extra charges.

The Government had to take emergency measures to ensure that surgery could continue. This example from just across the Tasman shows clearly how medical litigation has a dramatic effect on the cost of medical services.

Some recent actions suggest that people in New Zealand are already aware of the dangers they might face. In the far North, long-standing obstetrical practices were suddenly stopped resulting in public protest. But members of a hospital board may feel they could be held liable if procedures they had allowed, resulted in misadventure. In the same district, obstetricians had allowed anaesthetic procedures by midwives after a telephone consultation; this was also stopped. Perhaps they could be liable for any unfortunate result. One can hardly blame medical staff — to be held liable for one’s own action taken in good faith is bad enough; to be held liable for somebody else’s mistake is a dreadful possibility.

In his essay Atul Gawande identifies how medical misadventures can be reduced. This is done not by targeting individuals but by targeting practices. One lesson is that small hospitals are the least safe — something which is known to be the case in New Zealand but has never been properly explained to the public.

The major lesson is that everybody makes mistakes at times; the system must be organised to make it more difficult to make mistakes, and to ensure that the consequences of mistakes are made as benign as is possible. Forcing medical staff to be defensive, so that they will not admit error for fear of horrendous legal consequences is the very worst method for tackling the problem of medical misadventure.

The Price of Water

Insecurities about water quality have led to a boom in sales of bottled water. But the health benefits of the phenomenon are probably minimal.

We were surprised to hear recently that sales of drinking water are now the fifth largest earner of overseas currency for Fiji. A little investigation suggested that that figure may well be correct, but threw up further surprises.

Much of Fiji has high rainfall, but water is in short supply in some areas. Villagers can easily dig shallow wells, and Aid agencies have dug deep wells for some villages. But deep water is often mineralised. We have stayed on islands were rain is the only supply of drinking water. As populations have grown, water extraction has allowed intrusion of salt water, and the well water is brackish. After weeks of washing in brackish water, a fresh shower is a great luxury. Tourist resorts build de-salination plants but that is not an option for villagers.

According to the Australian Financial Review, Aid money was used to develop a mountain spring as a source of export water. The main market is the USA where Fiji water is now the 6th highest-selling bottled water after advertising endorsements from Tiger Woods and Elle Macpherson. Good luck to the entrepreneurs, but I wonder if the contributors realised the destination of their charitable dollars.

Something is odd about a third world country exporting drinking water to the USA. Fifty years ago American travellers had one main grumble about Europe; the tap water was unsafe to drink. This implied that the tap water was drinkable back home where the only people refusing US tap water were right-wing conspiracy theorists who claimed that somebody (either the government or the commies) were adding chemicals to damage the mental health of citizens.

Bottled water was then almost entirely ‘mineral water’, either naturally carbonated water from a few famous springs or the much cheaper alternative invented by Schweppes. Scandals about contamination of some famous springs damaged the market, but some genius discovered that bottled drinking water did not need to be carbonated and any source of clean water would do.

Until that time the manufacturers of soft drinks were regarded as the epitome of value improvers; the addition of carbon dioxide and a few drops of syrup converted water at low cost to a marketable product. But the drinking water industry changed this perception. All the costs are in bottling and transport, the cost of the water in the bottle is as near zero as makes no difference.

The industry started in the USA but then took Europe by storm, 15 years ago British sales of bottled water had reached £216 million and London restaurants were charging £1 per glass. It took longer to reach Australia and NZ but the sight of all those tourists clutching their bottles had an effect.

Have a look in your local supermarket, there are a variety of brands and unless you buy it in very large containers it is more expensive than petrol. Marketing has been closely targeted, using magazines and radio stations rather than TV. The sales people know their main clientele, young, affluent travellers.

By a strange bit of timing the tap water in Europe had become safe to drink just before bottled water became popular. In fact one of the priorities of government has been the provision of safe tap water (it is even safe to drink on the main Fiji island), but as it became safe, tourists stopped drinking it.

So what is the motive? At least partly it is fashion, backpackers have been seen furtively refilling their bottles at the tap so later they can be seen with the right brand. But most clearly believe it is healthier to drink ‘natural spring water’. Some brands will tell you they are ‘fat free’! Ironically the quality standards on most tap water is probably higher than those on much bottled water. But backpackers are all aware of the high incidence of ‘traveller’s diarrhoea’, one estimate is 20 million cases per year world-wide, though it could be much higher.

Herbert DuPont is Chief of Internal Medicine at St Luke’s Episcopal Hospital Houston Texas and an expert in diseases of the alimentary tract. His opinion is that although “Most people think it (diarrhoea) is caused by the water”, it is not. “Bad food is responsible for 90% of traveller’s diarrhoea.”

Even in the USA, eating out is twice as dangerous as eating at home. Scientific American July 2000 contained some amazing statistics. A large percentage of outbreaks of food poisoning could not be traced to a particular source, however of those that could be so traced, the most dangerous foods were not those I would have suspected:

Food that caused a problem % of outbreaks
Salads 12.4
Fruit and vegetables 6.0
Beef 2.3
Chicken 2.1
Fish (including shellfish) 1.3
Milk and eggs 1.0
Pork 0.4

Vegetarians beware; the most dangerous items are those generally considered the most healthy! However going back to Professor DuPont, he warned that the really dangerous items were sauces and condiments, particularly if they were not properly refrigerated. I suspect (without any evidence) that this may be the case here.

It seems obvious that these percentages would be quite different in other countries, but if you cannot trust the salads in the USA, those bought from street vendors in Asia must be pretty dodgy.

In the past, epidemics of the great water-born diseases, typhoid and cholera, killed millions- and they were a threat to the traveller. But in countries were most of the bottled water is being drunk, this is no longer the case. The last major outbreak of cholera from a public water supply was in a South American country where activists had opposed chlorination. Chlorine of course is a chemical, and a poison, and they should not be putting it in our drinking water! I suspect that if travellers were questioned, many would give ‘chlorination’ as a reason for not drinking tap water. I just wonder, how safe is bottled water?

Behind the Screen

Mass screening programmes have generated considerable controversy in this country. But these programmes have inherent limitations, which need to be better understood

In 1996 the Skeptical Inquirer published an article by John Allen Paulos on health statistics. Among other things this dealt with screening programmes. Evaluating these requires some knowledge of conditional probabilities, which are notoriously difficult for humans to understand.

Paulos presented his statistics in the form of a table; a modified version of this is shown in the table below.

Have the
Do not have
the condition
Test Positive 990 9,990 10,980
Test Negative 10 989,010 989,020
Totals 1,000 999,000 1,000,000
Table 1

Of the million people screened, one thousand (0.1%) will have the condition. Of these 1% will falsely test negative (10) and 99% will correctly exhibit the condition. So far it looks good, but 1% of those who do not have the condition also test positive, so that the total number who test positive is 10980. Remember that this is a very accurate test. So what are the odds that a random person who is told by their doctor that s/he has tested positive, actually has the condition? The answer is 990/10980 or 9%.

In this hypothetical case the test is 99% accurate, a much higher accuracy rate than any practical test available for mass screening. Yet over 90% of those who test positive have been diagnosed incorrectly.

In the real world (where tests must be cheap and easy to run) a very good test might achieve 10% false negatives and positives. To some extent the total percentage of false results is fixed, but screening programmes wish to reduce the number of false negatives to the absolute minimum; in some countries they could be sued for failing to detect the condition. This can only be done by increasing the chance of false positives or inventing a better test. Any practical test is likely to have its results swamped with false positives.

Consider a more practical example where the base rate is the same as previously, but there are 10% false negatives and positives, ie the test is 90% accurate. Again 1 million people are tested (see Table 2 below).

Have the
Do not have
the condition
Test Positive 900 99,000 100,800
Test Negative 100 889,100 899,200
Totals 1,000 999,000 1,000,000
Table 2. Base rate is 0.1%. Level of false positives=10%; level of false negatives=10%

This time the total number testing positive is 100800. But nearly one hundred thousand of them do not have the condition. The odds that any person who tested positive actually has the condition is 900/100800, or a little under 1%. This time, although 90% of these people have been correctly diagnosed, 99% of those who test positive have been diagnosed incorrectly.

In both these cases the incidence of the condition in the original population was 0.1%. In the first example the screened population testing positive had an incidence two orders of magnitude higher than the original population, but this was unrealistic. In the second example those testing positive in the screened population had an incidence one order of magnitude higher than the general population.

This is what a good mass screening test can do – to raise the incidence of the condition by one order of magnitude above the general population. However any person who tests positive is unlikely to have the condition and all who test positive must now be further investigated with a better test.

So screening programmes should not be aimed at the general population, unless the condition has a very high incidence. Targeted screening does not often improve the accuracy of the tests, but it aims at a sub-population with a higher incidence of the condition. For example, screening for breast cancer (a relatively common condition anyway) is aimed at a particular age group.

Humans find it very difficult to assess screening, and doctors (unless specifically trained) are little better than the rest of the population. It has been shown fairly convincingly that data are most readily understood when presented in tables as above. For example the data in Table 3 was presented to doctors in the UK. Suppose they had a patient who screened positive; what was the probability that that person actually had the condition?

When presented with the raw data, 95% of them gave an answer that was an order of magnitude too large. When shown the table (modified here for consistency with previous examples) about half correctly assessed the probability of a positive test indicating the presence of the disease.

Have the
Do not have
the condition
Test Positive 8,00 99,000 107,000
Test Negative 2,000 891,000 893,000
Totals 10,000 990,000 1,000,000
Table 3. Base rate is 1%. False negative rate=20%; False positive rate=10%

This time the total number who test positive is 107 000. But nearly one hundred thousand of them do not have the condition. The odds that any person who tested positive actually has the condition are 8000/107 000 or about 7.5%. Now remember that nearly half the UK doctors, even when shown this table could not deduce the correct result. If your doctor suggests you should have a screening test, how good is this advice?

Patients are supposed to be supplied with information so that they can make an informed decision. Anybody who presents for a screening test in NZ may find it impossible to do this. My wife attempted to get the data on breast screening from our local group. She had to explain the meaning of “false negative”, “false positive” and “base rate”. The last is a particularly slippery concept. From UK figures the chances of a 40-year-old woman developing breast cancer by the age of 60 is nearly 4% (this is the commonest form of cancer in women). However, when a sample of women in the 40-60 age group are screened, the number who should test positive is only about 0.2%. Only when they are screened each year, will the total of correct positives approach 4%.

The number of false positives (again using overseas figures) is about 20 times the number of correct positives so a women in a screening programme for 20 years will have a very good chance of at least one positive result, but a fairly low probability of actually having breast cancer. I do not think NZ women are well prepared for this.

The Nelson group eventually claimed that the statistics my wife wanted on NZ breast cancer screening did not seem to be available. But, they added, “we (the local lab) have never had a false negative.” From the recent experience of a close friend, who developed a malignancy a few months after a screening test, we know this to be untrue. What they meant was that they had never seen a target and failed to diagnose it correctly as a possible malignancy requiring biopsy. This may have been true but it is no way to collect statistics.

Screening for breast cancer is generally aimed at the older age group. In the US a frequently quoted figure is that a woman now has a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer, which is higher than in the past. This figure is correct but it is a lifetime incidence risk; the reason it has risen is that on average women are living longer. The (breast cancer) mortality risk for women in the US is one in 28. A large number who develop the condition do so very late in life and die of some other condition before the breast cancer proves fatal.

Common Condition

Breast cancer is a relatively common condition and would appear well suited for a screening programme. The evaluation of early programmes seemed to show they offered considerable benefit in reducing the risk of death. However later programmes showed less benefit. In fact as techniques improved, screening apparently became less effective. This caused some alarm and a study published in 1999 by the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Copenhagen looked at programmes world wide, and attempted to better match screened populations with control groups. The authors claimed that women in screening programmes had no better chance of survival than unscreened populations. The reactions of those running screening programmes (including those in NZ) were to ignore this finding and advise their clients to do the same.

If there are doubts as to the efficacy of screening for breast cancer, there must be greater doubts about screening for other cancers in women, for other cancers are rarer. Any other screening programme should be very closely targeted. Unfortunately the risk factors for a disease may make targeting difficult. In New Zealand we have seen cases where people outside the target group have asked to be admitted into the screening programme, so they also “can enjoy the benefits”. Better education is needed.

Late-onset diabetes is more common among Polynesians than among New Zealanders in general, and Polynesians have very sensibly accepted that this is true. Testing Polynesians over a certain age for diabetes makes sense, particularly as a test is quick, cheap and easy to apply. Testing only those over a certain body mass would be even more sensible but may get into problems of political correctness.

Cervical cancer is quite rare so it is a poor candidate for a mass screening programme aimed at a large percentage of the female population. The initial screening is fast and cheap. If the targeted group has an incidence that is one order of magnitude higher than the general population, then the targeting is as good as most tests. Screening the whole female population for cervical cancer is a very dubious use of resources.

My wife and I were the only non-locals travelling on a bus in Fiji when we heard a radio interview urging “all women” to have cervical screening done regularly. The remarkably detailed description of the test caused incredible embarrassment to the Fijian and Indian passengers; we had the greatest difficulty in concealing our amusement at the reaction. The process was subsidised by an overseas charity. In Fiji, where personal hygiene standards are very high, and (outside Suva) promiscuity rates pretty low, and where most people pay for nearly all health procedures, this seemed an incredibly poor use of international aid.

Assessment Impossible

Screening for cervical cancer has been in place in NZ for some time. Unfortunately we cannot assess the efficacy of the programme because proper records are not available. An attempt at an assessment was defeated by a provision of the Privacy Act. The recent case of a Gisborne lab was really a complaint that there were too many false negatives coming from a particular source. However this was complicated by a general assumption among the public and media that it is possible to eliminate false negatives. It should be realised that reducing false negatives can only be achieved by increasing the percentage of false positives. As can be seen from the data above, it is false positives that bedevil screening programmes.

Efforts to sue labs for false negatives are likely to doom any screening programme. To some extent this has happened in the US with many labs refusing to conduct breast xray examinations, as the legal risks from the inevitable false negatives are horrendous.

Large sums are being spent in NZ on screening programmes; taxation provides the funds. Those running the programmes are convinced of their benefits, but it is legitimate to ask questions. Is this spending justified?

Some Post-Scripts:

January 15 2000 New Scientist P3: Ole Olsen & Peter Gøtzsche of the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Copenhagen published the original meta-analysis of seven clinical trials in 2000. The resulting storm of protest, particularly from cancer charities, caused them to take another look. They have now reached the same conclusion: mammograms do not reduce breast cancer deaths and are unwarranted.

October 2001: In recent TV interviews some people concerned with breast cancer screening in NZ were asked to comment on this meta-analysis. Once again the NZ commentators stated firmly that they were certain that screening programmes in NZ “had saved lives” but suggested no evidence to support their view.

March 23 2002 New Scientist P6: The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) funded by the WHO claims to have reviewed all the available evidence. They conclude that screening women below the age of 50 is not worthwhile. However, screening women aged from 50-69 every two years reduces the risk of dying of breast cancer by 35%.

According to New Scientist, the figures from Britain are that of 1000 women aged 50, 20 will get breast cancer by the age of 60 (2%); of these six will die. Screening every two years would cut the death rate to four. [It is obvious that these are calculations, not the result of a controlled study!]

The IARC states that organised programmes of manual breast examination do not bring survival benefits (they call for more studies on these). If NZ has similar rates then screening programmes aimed at 50-60 year old women should save approximately 50 lives per annum.