Time for a new name?

Over the last few years, there have been frequent suggestions that the Skeptics organisation in New Zealand should have a new name. At present, our formal name is the New Zealand Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal Inc. Originally, this was an adaptation of the name of our sister organisation in the US, the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. The American organisation has recently changed its formal name to Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. This has been a prompt for our committee to re-open the issue here. The reasons put forward for change, both here and in the US, can be summarised as:

The present name is very cumbersome, and few people can remember it, let alone use it.

Because of its length, it is very seldom used by the media.

Perhaps most importantly, the emphasis on ‘paranormal’ does not accurately reflect the current breadth of our interests.

On this last point, it is interesting to note that over the last several years there have been very few, if any, journal articles or conference presentations on paranormal issues, particularly if one takes the common perception of ‘paranormal’ as being substantially equivalent to ‘supernatural’. To quote one of the arguments put forward for the USA change, “We have never been limited to just the ‘paranormal’. From the beginning we have been concerned with all manner of empirical claims credulously accepted without sufficient critical examination. Our goal has been to provide scientific examinations of these claims, so that reliable, fact based, verified information can be used in making judgments about them.”

If it is accepted that there is a case for change here, we are then faced with the choice of a new name. The first obvious thought is to once again mirror the US name. We would then become the New Zealand Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. However, the word ‘Committee’ seems inappropriate in New Zealand usage. Our organisation is a large and broad-based national society, and is legally a registered incorporated society. This leads to an option ‘New Zealand Society for Skeptical Inquiry Inc’.

Another suggestion is ‘Skeptical Enquiry New Zealand (Inc)’ (SENZ).

(It is probably worth noting here that the use of the word ‘inquiry’ in any new name would be in line with the traditional distinction that reserves ‘inquiry’ as pertaining to ‘a formal investigation’ rather than simply asking for information or clarification, the traditional meaning of ‘enquiry’. However, ‘Skeptical Inquiry New Zealand’ would be an unfortunate choice as it would leave us with the acronym SINZ.)

It has also been suggested by some that we should move away from the term ‘skeptic’ completely, because it has negative connotations and is commonly misunderstood. To quote one of our committee members, “I get fed up with explaining to people that sceptic does not mean cynic and we are not party-poopers!” However, it is difficult to come up with a suitable alternative. Terms such as ‘Society for Science and Reason’, ‘Sense About Science’ and ‘Common Sense About Nonsense’ have arisen, but none of these seem to properly reflect our raison d’être.

If we are to change the name, it will require a resolution at our next AGM. For the moment, the committee invites discussion and suggestions on whether we need a name change and what it should be.

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Genealogy and gender

Genealogy as normally practised gives us a very misleading view of our genetic heritage. This article was originally presented at the 2005 Skeptics Conference in Rotorua.

Over recent years, there has been a huge surge of interest in tracing family genealogies. Genealogy has always been important for Maori, but pakeha New Zealanders seem to have come to it more recently. For many New Zealanders of European ancestry, there is a fascination in learning about our roots in the old world, and in discovering what caused our forebears to uproot themselves and come to the other side of the globe.

I imagine that most people reading this have found themselves involved at some level in a family genealogical search. I certainly have, and this has caused me to give a lot of thought to what it all really means, and what it tells me about myself.

Alas, I suspect that in some cases, the underlying motivation for tracing genealogy could be the hope of unearthing a famous ancestor, or a rich maiden great-aunt with a fortune looking for a home. I have seen several examples where New Zealand families have paid many thousands of dollars to have their genealogy researched by the appropriate authorities in Britain. In each case, the pattern of the resulting family tree has been similar. The family line was traced back several generations to a male ancestor in the 19th Century, then a single dotted line projected back hypothetically several centuries to a male of the same or similar surname with some claim to fame or prestige, with no evidence of an actual relationship. For example, one discovered a supposed ancestor who was Lord Mayor of London, while another claimed that the current family descended from a noble in Cromwell’s court with a name that was only vaguely similar.

I am not knocking genealogy. Personally, I am interested to increase my abysmal knowledge of where my various grandparents and great-grandparents originated, and how and why they came to New Zealand. However, the more that I get involved, the more I have become sceptical about the traditional approach to genealogy. I have come to the conclusion that genealogy as often practised is a very artificial and largely meaningless construct driven by ancient religious tradition and a huge historical gender bias.

My interest was first piqued a few years ago when I read an account of the lives of Nicholas and Alexandra, the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia. Nicholas was the last Tsar of the Romanov dynasty, which had ruled Russia for some 300 years. For the Romanovs, the tradition was that the eldest son and heir would be found a suitable bride among the royal houses of Europe, and this continued through the generations. This meant that the Russian Romanov blood was diluted 50% at each generation. Someone calculated that, as a result, the last Tsar, the supreme ruler of Russia, had only 1/128 Russian blood. Of course, with the amount of interbreeding that occurred among the royal families of Europe, this was probably not strictly accurate. Nevertheless, it makes the point that, because of the historical tradition of a male-dominated patrilineal society and a corresponding lack of recognition of the female contribution, our view of heredity can be very skewed. While I am sure that some Russians were conscious that their ruler was not totally Russian, I imagine that the Tsar was not promoted as being “99% Russia-free.”

Surnames are irrelevant

The normal way people research their genealogy is to trace one surname back through the centuries, which of course means following the male line. There are many internet sites devoted to tracing a particular family line. I find this approach to genealogy to be rather pointless and artificial. The fact that we carry a particular surname has little relevance in genetic or historical terms, nor do I find that it means much at a personal interest level. We are all in fact the product of an almost infinite mixing of genes. Probably the easiest way to demonstrate the point is to use my own genealogy back to my great-grandparents’ generation as an example.

If I construct a conventional “top-down” Garratt family tree with the apex as my great-grandfather George Garratt and his wife Jane (nee Higbed), I find that at my generation I have eight first cousins, none named Garratt, and a multitude of second cousins. Some of those have the Garratt surname. However, the only common relatives I have with those Garratt second cousins are great-grandparents George and Jane. I share none of my other six great-grandparents with them.

If I work in the opposite direction and trace my background as far back as my eight great-grandparents, it becomes apparent that while my name is Garratt, I am equally a Higbed, a Dunne, a Sears, a Woodley, an Ayers, a Waghorne, and a Turner. I would like to find out more about each of these lines, and how they came to be in New Zealand. Interestingly, I have found that it is much harder to trace the backgrounds of my female great-grandparents than those of the males. Even enquiries to elderly aunts tend to bring blank stares when I ask about their mothers’ backgrounds. I presume that this is because in those earlier generations the wives’ identities were considered to be subsumed in that of their husbands.

Personally, I find there is little point in trying to track back further than my great-grandparents, as any meaningful relationship of those historical people to myself becomes very tenuous. If we go a few generations further back, the numbers increase exponentially to the point that I realise that I am actually the mix of a huge number of unknown people.

Biblical underpinnings

Whatever our individual religious beliefs, there can be no doubting that many of our societal values and traditions are driven by biblical and Christian heritage. In our Christian-based society, the gender-biased view of heredity that virtually ignores the contribution of women to the mix is very ancient. If we go back to the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, we learn that they had sons Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel, then went out and took a wife, but there is no mention of who she was and where she came from. The most common explanation in Christian circles is that she was his sister, but that this creates no moral problem because God had not at that stage declared incest to be a sin. However, this begs the question of why Genesis chooses to completely omit any reference to female children of Adam and Eve. Whoever Cain’s wife was, she was clearly heroically prolific, because Cain’s next recorded move was to build a city.

According to the Bible story, at 130 years old Adam and Eve had another son called Seth. From that point, the genealogy of Adam and Eve’s descendants through Seth are recorded through dozens of generations of males begat by males, with very little reference to who they were all doing the begetting with. Eventually, we reach Noah, who (after living 500 years) had three sons. Presumably, in the course of 500 years he also had some daughters. However, there is no mention of them. In any case, they were dead out of luck. It was only Noah and his wife (unnamed), his sons and their wives (also unnamed) that got tickets for places in the Ark.

After the flood, human history was nearly back to square one, as it was now up to Noah’s sons and their wives to start the system going again. They and succeeding generations all produced prolific numbers of sons, but no recorded daughters. If in fact the successive male generations had managed to keep the lineage going without the help of females, this would have been a miracle that would overshadow the virgin birth.

Following the flood, the Bible’s genealogy then follows the male descendants of Noah’s son Shem through many generations, eventually reaching Abraham.

A small theological problem

We can now skip a few thousand years to where we find an account of 14 generations from Abraham to King David, again all through begettings by male descendants with little recorded help from any females. Then there are another 27 or 28 begettings to reach Joseph then on to Jesus, who, apparently on the basis of this genealogy, is referred to throughout the remainder of the New Testament as the son of David. This seems to be contradictory, as the New Testament gospels make it clear that Joseph was not the father of Jesus.

Without entering into the theological argument about this, it does provide an illustration of a major paradox in the tradition of tracing genealogy and descent through the male line. Motherhood is certain, fatherhood is not. It is naïve to believe that all those dozens or hundreds of generations from Adam to Jesus traces a true bloodline in times when contraception was not available.

We can now jump forward another two thousand years to the gospel according to Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code. This is based on the theory put forward in the earlier book Holy Blood, Holy Grail – that Mary Magdalene was pregnant at the time of the crucifixion, fled to France, gave birth to the child, who then bred with local kings. The suggestion is that there are direct descendants of Christ still alive, and that it is the holy bloodline that is the mystical Holy Grail. It is assumed that if this is proven true, it will somehow destroy the Roman Catholic church, although I cannot quite understand how. Supposedly, the church is in mortal fear that Christ’s descendants will lay claim to the church.

If this is true, I find it is interesting to do some mathematics. If we assume that in the intervening 2000 years, there has been an average of four generations each century, then there have been 80 generations since that time. If we ignore the effects of possible intermarriage among the holy descendants, we find that the bloodline dilution is so great that if there are in fact current direct descendants of Christ, there is statistically little chance that their blood will contain one holy corpuscle. (It may be that they have all become homeopaths.)

The great genetic pyramid scheme

Even more interesting is to try to estimate how many current direct descendants of Christ there may be to lay claim to the church. As we are in the 21st Century, it is important that we take a politically correct gender-neutral and age-neutral approach by including direct descendants through all siblings of both sexes at each generation. I have to confess that when I tried to do this, the mathematics quickly got out of hand. If we assume that all marriages are to people outside the family, we soon get into the pyramid scheme trap, where there are simply not enough people around to provide a pool of new recruits. My calculations show that, without interbreeding, Christ’s direct descendants would by now be sufficient to populate the galaxy, not just this world. Suffice to say that, on this basis, by about 400AD Christ’s direct descendants outnumbered the entire population of France at that time.

Now, this is of course all theoretical nonsense which ignores the reality of intermarriage within the extended family. However, after 2000 years, if the Holy Blood/Holy Grail theory is correct, there must be many millions of people out there with an equal right to claim direct lineage from Christ and to inherit the church. In fact, it is certain that many skeptics are included. Are you ready to claim your share of the Vatican treasury?

In the television series, The History of Britain, there was often reference to the exploits of some British nobleman of 500 or 1000 years ago. The presenter would then interview the current holder of the title, being the current eldest son of the family. The first reaction was to think “Wow, isn’t it amazing that he is the current incarnation of that long-lost notable.” However, on brief reflection I realised that any surviving blood link after all those generations was virtually zero, if one takes into account the genetic contributions of the wives down the centuries. The chances of a surviving genetic link reduce even further unless one assumes that the successive generations of wives were all faithful to their lords, and did not produce the eldest son by a dalliance with a passing knight or a gamekeeper called Mellors. It is probably fair to assume that a large proportion of the hereditary peers sitting in the House of Lords have no blood connection with the original holder of the title.

For that current nobleman, his view of say 500 years of genealogy is that he is the authentic carrier of the aristocratic bloodline (and the land, money, prestige and title). My view of my genealogy over the last 500 years is quite different. If I look back 500 years, mathematics tell me there were hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of people back then who are equally my direct ancestors. I know that I can never trace them, but that does not change the reality. I console myself by believing that among all those ancestors, there must have been some of fame or notoriety.

We’re all related

Looking at genealogy this way raises another interesting point. My eight great-grandparents all either emigrated to New Zealand or were born here. A large proportion of living New Zealanders also had forebears resident in New Zealand at that time, say the mid to late 19th Century. Let us assume conservatively that there are a million fourth and fifth generation New Zealanders who could identify eight ancestors living in New Zealand in 1870. (This does not seem unreasonable, given that the fifth generation group would only need to have had one half of their 16 great-great grandparents in New Zealand.) This gives us a theoretical eight million ancestors at a time when the total population of New Zealand was around 250,000. This means of course that there is a very high incidence of sharing of ancestors of that period. As a result, there is a very high chance that any two New Zealanders are related at some level. This of course provides an explanation of apparent coincidences in discovering relatives.

One may ask whether all this has any importance. Personally, I find my approach to genealogy to be more meaningful in helping me to understand who I am and how I came to be here. Also, I believe that it is more valuable than the traditional approach in helping to understand our genetic makeup, for example in tracing and understanding hereditary conditions.

However, I think that there is a deeper issue. New Zealand has always been at the forefront of the fight to ensure gender equality. However, the notion that wives are mere child-producing chattels and housekeepers for their husbands dies hard in some sectors of New Zealand society. We live in a country where it is still possible to produce an aspiring male Prime Minister with archaic attitudes to the role and place of women. The traditional approach to genealogy serves to reinforce historical attitudes about the subservience and assumed unimportance of women that have no place in the 21st Century.

Skeptics and the environment

When it comes to environmental issues, it’s not always easy for a skeptic to decide where to stand

Over the last few years, there has been a growing community of “environmental skeptics”, who question the validity of global environmental concerns. Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist is a major contribution to this strand of thought. At the 2004 Skeptics’ Conference in Christchurch, Lance Kennedy presented some of the ideas that he espouses in his book Ecomyth. The final speaker of the conference, Owen McShane, presented his version of environmental skepticism, and an abridged version of his presentation appeared in Issue 74 of this journal.

Writers such as Lomborg, Kennedy and McShane provide interesting food for thought, and illustrate that in the environmental field, as in others, there is a need for careful critical thinking. However, there is a significant difference. In general, we skeptics tend to be skeptical about beliefs that run counter to mainstream scientific thought – astrology, paranormal phenomena, UFOs, creation science and alternative medical practices are examples. In contrast, environmental skeptics often bravely challenge the opinions of scientists who are specialists in the fields concerned. In this respect, environmental skeptics are somewhat equivalent to alternative medical practitioners or creation scientists. This does not mean that they are necessarily wrong, but it does mean that they have to demonstrate very good evidence to prove that the experts are wrong. For environmental skeptics, the adage “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof” applies to them rather than the objects of their skepticism.

In practice, environmental skeptics are often inconsistent and selective in their attitudes to science and professionals. For example, in his chapter on global warming, Kennedy largely ignores and discounts the work of the 2000+ climate scientists who make up the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yet in his chapter on nature conservation, he states “We should question what enables the amateur environmentalists to set themselves up as ‘experts’ and deny the analysis and planning of professionals.” Having made this statement, it is interesting that he feels that he is qualified to state categorically that “Global warming and its consequences are an unproven theory.” This statement is suspiciously similar to those made by “creation scientists” in criticism of evolution theory. In fact, I see parallels between the history of the evolution debate and the current climate change debate. It may be that in 100 years’ time, those that continue to deny the reality of climate change will be seen as the lunatic fringe minority and objects of ridicule for skeptics of the time.

In other ways also, environmental skeptics display some of the characteristics of those who we as skeptics would normally challenge. For example, I believe that the refusal to accept the reality of global environmental problems is very similar to the refusal of most people to accept that there is no life after death. It seems that humans instinctively reject unpalatable news.

In a similar manner to people such as proponents of quack medicine, environmental skeptics are selective in their use of scientific information. In his talk to the conference, Lance Kennedy stressed the need to employ good science, and that it is essential to “rely on the numbers”. Unfortunately, his book does not provide a good demonstration of this. For example, his chapter on global warming includes the graph in Figure 1. It is virtually meaningless, with no indication of the origin of the data, no data on the vertical axis and in fact no indication at all of what it purports to illustrate.

Environmental skeptics often ignore rather than challenge the mainstream environmental science community. They focus much of their criticism on sometimes admittedly questionable claims by the more visible and extreme environmental lobby groups. Greenpeace, WWF and the World Resources Institute are favourite targets. The skeptics often fail to clarify that, at a less visible level, there is a huge body of rational and responsible scientists world-wide who confirm a high degree of real cause for environmental concern. This is somewhat akin to condemning the whole world of Islam by quoting Muslim philosophies as espoused by Al Qaeda.

In the fields that we are traditionally involved in, we skeptics get frustrated about the willingness of the media to give time and credence to mediums, alternative health practitioners and the like, without seeking an informed balanced viewpoint. In the environmental field, it is the professional practitioners who can be frustrated by the coverage given to the environmental skeptics (and, for that matter, the antics of radical environmental lobbyists).

Environmental Management

I suspect that if the human lifespan was really the 500-800 years claimed for the Old Testament patriarchs, self-interest would assure that we would have quite a different attitude to the future state of the world.

Owen McShane states that “We are rich enough to care about the environment…Truly poor people focus on finding tomorrow’s breakfast.” In fact, the great majority of environmental aid projects in developing countries through UN and other reputable international agencies focus on the impacts of environmental degradation on people. They explicitly address and focus on the need to protect and improve the welfare of those in poverty. None of the many international environmental projects that I encountered in 10 years’ work in around 15 poor countries was based on the ecocentric anti-people philosophy that Owen McShane criticises.

As just one example of the direct impact of environmental mismanagement on human welfare, I mention Muinak, a village in northern Uzbekistan. Up until the 1960s, Muinak was the home for a fleet of fishing trawlers and a fish factory, as part of a fishing industry that took some 40,000 tonnes of fish per year from the Aral Sea. Under the direction of Soviet central planning in Moscow, the waters from the two major rivers feeding the Aral Sea were taken for irrigation of cotton crops. The Aral Sea is now a remnant of its former self, and the fishing industry is gone. When I visited Muinak about four years ago, the trawlers were rusting hulks in the sand. Muinak was over 100 kilometres from the water’s edge, and was fast becoming a ghost town. Most poignantly, the town’s World War II memorial, built on the sea cliffs overlooking the point where local soldiers embarked to cross the Aral Sea to join the war effort, now looks out over desert stretching to the horizon and beyond.

A particular concern that I have is that environmental skeptics (and for that matter some environmental lobbyists) tend to think in time scales that are far too short. A profound influence on my thinking was the marvellous “Time-Line” installation by Bill Taylor that we saw at Victoria University at the 2003 Skeptics Conference (NZ Skeptic 70). In brief, the 4.6 billion year life of Earth was represented by a cord 4.6 km long. On this basis, the 2000 years since the dawn of the Christian era occupied the final two millimetres.

I find it amazing and somewhat sobering to consider that, on this scale, the dawn of the Industrial Revolution occurred only 0.15 millimetres ago. There is no question that in that instant of geological time, humans have wrought major changes to our global environment. For example, it is an accepted fact that recent human activity has caused measurable changes to the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, and in particular the concentration of the so-called “greenhouse gases”. The debate is not about whether these changes have occurred, but whether they are causing climate change. To me, that is almost academic. The fact that, in such a blink of time, we have caused measurable changes to the atmosphere that sustains all life is adequate cause for concern.

The Resource Management Act requires us to consider the needs of future generations. Owen McShane talked about the difficulty of this concept, because the future generations are walking away in front of us, so that we never get there. To me, this indicated that he sees “future generations” in the very short term, meaning our immediate successors, our children and grandchildren. I see things quite differently and in a longer term. Given the headlong pace of change and impact in just the last hundred years, my concern is for the way the 20th and 21st Century generations might be viewed in say 500 years (0.5 mm), 1000 years (1 mm), or even longer.

Environmental skeptics tend to airily dismiss energy concerns by saying that we have enough fossil fuels to last part or all of this century. Again, this is short term thinking. While one may argue about the remaining life of reserves of fossil fuels, the inescapable fact is that they are a finite resource. There is no doubt whatsoever that, on a geological or evolutionary time-scale, the period in which humans have been able to develop and maintain a lifestyle that relied on one-off extraction of fossil fuels will be a mere instant of history.

Loss of Forests

On the subject of forest loss, Lance Kennedy states that world forest cover has increased from 1950 to the present — from 40 million to 43 million square kilometres. In fact, the 2000 Global Forest Resources Assessment by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN puts the current figure at 39 million. More importantly, its best assessment is that there was a net global forest loss in the 1990s of about 2.2%. This is equivalent to an area the size of New Zealand each three years. Again, this apparently small percentage figure is very serious if considered in any form of medium or long-term time frame. For tropical forests, environmental skeptics accept that there is a rate of loss of about 0.5% per year, but dismiss this as being of little cause for concern. Again, this is in fact a very high rate of loss both in absolute area and if considered in the context of even a medium time frame of say 100 years.

Some environmental skeptics dismiss concerns about any future scarcity of fossil fuels and their polluting effect by suggesting that they will be replaced by hydrogen as a source of energy for transport. In reality, hydrogen is not a fundamental energy source, but only a medium to transport energy, somewhat equivalent to electrical cables or batteries. Production of hydrogen itself requires huge energy inputs. Current technologies to produce hydrogen either use fossil fuels as a base (with large energy losses on the way through), or require electrical energy to produce it by electrolysis of water, again with energy losses in the process. For the moment, there seems little prospect of achieving the required dramatic increase in electricity production other than by using fossil fuels or nuclear energy, which of course is no more than a relocation of the same problem.

Both Lomborg and Kennedy ridicule pessimistic writers of previous decades. They paint a rosy picture of the current situation and point out how much better things are than such writers’ forecasts. What seems to escape them is that all such earlier predictions had an underlying message, “If we don’t change our ways, … will happen.” In fact, the improvements that Lomborg and Kennedy are now trumpeting are in nearly every case because governments and society responded to the concerns that grew so rapidly in the 60s and 70s, and did change their ways.

Ironically, having criticised the weaknesses in earlier predictions, Lomborg and Kennedy are willing to make or embrace unsubstantiated predictions that suit their arguments. For example, in discussing oil prices, Lomborg said that “It is also expected that the oil price will once again decline from $27 to the low $20s until 2020.” As I write this, the price is hovering in the mid-$50s.

Kennedy’s optimistic predictions are of a more general nature, apparently based more on a touching faith in science and technology rather than on rational analysis. They read rather like the confident predictions of a clairvoyant or an evangelist. For example, in discussing the predicted world population size in the middle of this century, he states “The world will be able to nourish such numbers by the time growth reaches this point. This ability will come from improvements in biotechnology and in other sciences, and in the increase of prosperity and agricultural efficiency in developing nations. The pessimists will again be wrong.”

This article is not a call to ignore and ridicule the work and beliefs of environmental skeptics. In this as in other fields there is a need for critical thinking. Having worked in the environmental field for some 30 years both in New Zealand and elsewhere, I have my own doubts about certain aspects. I have my own concerns about both the philosophy and application of the Resource Management Act. However, skeptics do need to appreciate that environmental skepticism is of a different character to skepticism as we usually understand it, and needs to be approached with caution. It is easy to criticise mediums, psychics, homeopaths and spoon benders, with little fear of exposing ourselves to credible scientific challenge. If we do join in the environmental skepticism debate, let us be sure that we do so with the same quality of informed critical thinking and respect for all the facts that we espouse in our other activities.