Justice Lives

The Geller case has ended — the “psychic” is to begin a court-ordered payment of up to $120,000 to CSICOP USA.

Skeptics will be pleased to know that Uri Geller has paid the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal the first $40,000 of up to $120,000 as part of a settlement agreement for what the court described as a “frivolous complaint” made by Geller against CSICOP. The case began when Geller filed a $115 million suit against CSICOP and magician James Randi alleging defamation, invasion of privacy and tortious interference with prospective advantage. He filed suit because Randi has stated in an interview with the International Herald Tribune that Geller had “tricked even reputable scientists” with tricks that “are the kind that used to be on the back of cereal boxes when I was a kid. Apparently scientists don’t eat cornflakes anymore.”

CSICOP maintained that the suit was essentially a “gagging writ” designed to harass the organisation into inactivity. The court first ruled in favour of CSICOP in July 27 1993 but since then Geller has tried to overturn the decision by a series of court actions and appeals. He has now done his dash — evidently he was unable to foresee the outcome even though the decisions were not in sealed envelopes inside other sealed envelopes and concealed in remote places.

Paul Kurtz, CSICOP chairman said: “When the principles upon which CSICOP was founded are at stake, we are prepared to do battle all the way if it should prove necessary. We believe deeply in a free press, freedom of speech, and scientific enquiry, and the importance of dissent.” He characterised the Geller suit as the “kind of suit being used as a means of silencing debate on significant scientific issues.”

All in all it looks like a fair cop for CSICOP.

From a report in the Skeptical Enquirer, May/June 1995.

PC Chemistry in the Classroom.

One of the fictions of the “naive-greens” and other “irrationalists” is that “chemicals” are bad while natural products (non-chemicals?) are good. When asked if water is a chemical, and hence evil, and whether cyanide, nicotine or the botulism toxin, are natural and hence benign they change the subject. You might think that our classrooms are immune to such nonsense; in the November issue of Chemistry in New Zealand, Ian Millar of Carina Chemical Laboratories Ltd tells us we are wrong.

Mr Millar’s sister is a secondary school chemistry teacher and had received some official guide-lines titled “Chemical Safety Data Sheets for Teaching Laboratories” promoting the safe use of chemicals in schools. Mr Millar looked up a typical laboratory chemical to see what the data sheet had to say. Some excerpts follow:

  • Personal protection — dust respirator
  • Ventilation — extraction hood
  • Gloves — rubber or plastic
  • Eye — glasses, goggles or face shield
  • Other — plastic apron, sleeves, boots if handling large quantities
  • Disposal — dispose through local authorities if appropriate facilities are available, otherwise pass to a chemical disposal company
  • First Aid — irrigate thoroughly with water. Skin: wash off thoroughly with soap and water. Ingested: wash out mouth thoroughly with water. In severe cases obtain medical attention.

Now this chemical is clearly pretty nasty stuff and you might be thinking that it’s right and proper that our schools should be encouraging such sound practice.

But left to our own devices most of us would dispose of the stuff by throwing it into the sea — reasoning that the sea wouldn’t suffer too much damage as a result. After all this apparently dangerous chemical is nothing more than sodium chloride — better known as common salt.

Mr Miller points out that he enjoys bathing in a 3.5% solution of NaCl (the sea) and even eats it as table salt.

Can we now expect to see television chefs decked out in gloves, safety glasses, and plastic aprons, and calling in a chemical disposal company to clean up the kitchen afterwards? Should we ban children from our domestic kitchens because of the obvious risks to their health? These instructions are not only nonsense — they are dangerous nonsense. They are so ludicrous that they may well encourage people to ignore safety recommendations when handling genuinely dangerous chemicals such as cyanide or nitric acid. Or they may create a generation stricken with chemophobia.

To argue that it is good to err on the side of caution is wrong. This information is simply inaccurate. Nobody washes out their mouth after eating salt or taking in a mouthful of surf. I believe that this data sheet does not represent a simple error of judgement but unfortunately reflects an ideology which holds that all “chemicals” are bad and destructive of life and the environment.

I might have taken some comfort from the belief that whatever has been happening to the teaching of English, history, or anthropology, the objectivity of the process of science would make it immune to such victim-promoting political correctness. Could parents among our membership find out if the government’s chemical police have decided that NaCl is a politically incorrect “chemical” and needs all these precautions, while “Sea-Salt” is a “natural” product which can be used with safety?

Scientific Creationism

We need to immunise ourselves against this virus too.

Abridged by Owen McShane from Creationism: Why the Controversy by Brian Henderson

“Scientific” creationism claims to have every bit as much scientific evidence to back it as evolution and, according to some adherents, much more. “Scientific” creationists claim that science is suppressing the evidence of their hypothesis, in order to back up evolution, which in turn supports all manner of atheistic world-views, including New Age beliefs, communism, humanism and a myriad of other perceived evils. According to Tim LaHaye, a fundamentalist minister very much involved in the creationist movement, “Much of the evils in the world today can be traced to humanism, which has taken over our government, the UN, education, TV, and most of the other influential things in life.”

Duane Gish, vice-president of the Institute for Creation Research sums it up best when he says: “The scientific case for special creation, is much stronger than the case for evolution. The more I study and the more I learn, the more I become convinced that evolution is a false theory and that special creation offers a much more satisfactory interpretive framework for correlating and explaining the scientific evidence related to origins.”

He apparently has a rather strange definition of the word science, however, as he has this to say in Evolution? The Fossils Say No!: “We do not know how the Creator created, [or] what processes He used, for He used processes which are not now operating anywhere in the natural universe. This is why we refer to creation as special creation. We cannot discover by scientific investigation anything about the processes used by the Creator.”

So which is it? Is creationism scientific, as in the first quote, or inherently religious, as in the second? It seems that either is used depending on the intended audience. In 1974, Dr. Henry Morris, director of the Institute for Creation Research, wrote a science textbook intended for public school use. He really wrote two texts, one for public schools and one for private, Christian schools. The difference? The private school version had an additional chapter citing Biblical support for creationism. Despite repeated claims to the contrary, it seems clear that there is no substantive difference between Biblical, religious creationism and so-called “scientific” creationism.

But the question ultimately comes down to “is creationism scientific”? If, as Gish claims above, we cannot learn anything about the creative methods used, then creationism fails to be scientific. Even if we do not currently know, to say that we “can never” know will immediately remove creationism from the table of scientific endeavour.

However, perhaps Gish simply meant that we do not currently know anything about how the creation occurred, but believes that we can learn through scientific inquiry. If so, we come to our second part of the question, “How does science operate?” Scientists spend much of their time engaged in research and performing experiments to help better understand the workings of the universe. Do creationists perform similar research and experimentation designed to show how and why creation happened? Absolutely not! The amount of genuine scientific inquiry that has been performed by creationists over the past 20 years can be computed on the fingers of one hand. Most of their efforts are directed to discrediting evolution, as if by somehow doing so, the piecemeal ideas of “scientific creationism” will some how become scientifically valid.

On the evidence creationists are amateur, anachronistic philosophers of science, acting to alter the content of scientific knowledge piecemeal through plebiscite and lawsuit rather than systematically through influencing professional debates and research activities.

Ultimately, the purpose of scepticism is not, as has been suggested, to deny inquiry into “outside” realms of knowledge, for we would be as hypocritical as the pseudo-scientists if we did so. The purpose of scepticism should be to keep claims and claimants in all areas of inquiry, be it pseudo-science or scientific research, honest and even-handed. The record shows that “scientific” creationism has left forever the realm of scientific inquiry, and has headed forever down the road of scientific failure.

A Skeptical Miscellany

Picking Winners?

When the short list for the Booker prize was announced there was much chortling about the fact that Jill Paton Walsh had been unable to find a publisher in Britain for Knowledge of Angels. She had to publish it herself.

The Times Literary Supplement (9 Sep, 1994) points out that the English publishing houses could not justify their decision by claiming that they had a surplus of great and worthwhile books. Heinemann has just published what the TLS described as “a work of the purest bilge”. They refer to Nostradamus: his key to the centuries, prophecies of Britain and the world 1995-2010, by V.J. Hewitt.

This adventurous work is not Valerie Hewitt’s first appearance as a seer. In her earlier publication, Nostradamus: The end of the millenium, she predicted that George Bush would be re-elected in 1992, that the Prince of Wales would be crowned King Charles III on May 2 of the same year, and that California would be destroyed by an earthquake on 8 May 1993.

In spite of this unenviable track record, Valerie Hewitt seems to have no difficulty finding gullible publishers. Poetic justice could have won the day. Maybe they asked her, as Nostradamus’ UK agent, to pick the Booker Prize List as well.

An American Dilemma

In the September 16 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Prof Claude Rawson made a nice point during his review of The Beginning of the Journey — the marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling, by Diana Trilling. I’m sure the TLS won’t mind us quoting at length:

“[Diana] too persevered with analysis despite a series of discouraging experiences, including a date with her first psychiatrist, from which she had to be sent home by taxi in a drunken panic … Three of her analysts died on her, an occupational hazard in transactions not otherwise willingly terminated by either party. One was a drug addict who missed appointments and fell asleep during sessions … She was next treated by by Marianne Fris, wife of Ernst, who told her that Lionel was being mishandled by his analyst … At one point the Trillings shared the same analyst and became “sibling rivals, vying for the attention of the same father figure”

This (Stalinist) doctor turned out to be unqualified and had to be retrained. The next “analyst’s wife, herself a psychiatrist” maintained a courteous professional distance. When her husband fell under a car she demanded payment of bills already paid, maintaining professional behaviour to the end. Diana had seven analysts in all and still feels that she “was never properly analysed”.

You might think she was slow on the uptake, but the persistence with which busy and intelligent persons in the US lavish their time and money on analysis in the teeth of a continuous sense of the inefficacy of the whole thing is a cultural phenomenon that awaits explanation.

If you remain unconvinced, watch the wonderfully scary video called Whispers in the Dark. It’s hard to know who is the most terrifying — the psychiatrists or their patient/victims. (Not for children)

Science and the Citizen

On Tuesday 26 September, National Radio’s Morning Report carried an interview with a scientist discussing his research programme which I hope is better founded than it sounded — seeing that we are all paying for it.

Apparently some Danes have shown that males who eat organic food are more fertile than those who eat regular (inorganic?) food. Our local scientist plans to repeat the programme here because if they confirm the Danish findings, it will prove that — and wait for it — pesticides cause male infertility.

Where does one start being decently Skeptical?

Would it not be simpler and much more direct to dose people with pesticides — without greatly increasing the doses they are presumed to be absorbing from their normal fruit and veges — and then send them out into the world to multiply?

And surely any Skeptic can think of several reasons why organic food-eaters might be more fertile than the average member of the population. Do they wear organic ill-fitting underpants?

But there are even more interesting hypotheses to test. We know that we eat about 10,000 times as many natural pesticides as we do synthetic ones (J.D. Mann, New Zealand Skeptic 32). I buy organically grown potatoes because they taste so much better (even though they cost about twice as much), which suggests that they contain a greater and more concentrated range of compounds than the regular watery variety.

Maybe it’s these “special secret ingredients” in the organic fruit and vegetables which serve to boost fertility among Danish males, rather than any tendency for nasty chemicals to diminish the fertility off their less “green” brethren.

And what might these extra compounds be? I presume that the way to raise vegetables which are resistant to the normal range of pests and diseases is to grow them so robust and healthy that their natural defenses are good enough to provide adequate protection. (Any gardener knows that healthy plants are much less prone to disease than sickly ones.) So maybe the reason these Danish organophiles are more fertile is that they are taking in far more natural pesticides than the rest of their countrymen. (And yes they are men!)

Could be it be that our crafty bodies respond to this toxicologic challenge by producing extra sperm to improve the survival chances of our selfish genes?

Who approves funding this stuff — New Zealand On Earth?

New Zealand Skeptic will watch for the outcome with pitchfork drawn and at the ready.

Numero Uno?

I was driving my car when Kim Hill spent half an hour of public broadcasting time interviewing a woman who claimed to be a Pythagorean Numerologist. The woman claimed that she had not appreciated Pythagoras at school because the teachers focused on arithmetic and all that other dry stuff. But later she learned that Pythagorus was a genuine mystic at heart and was worthy of redemption.

Our numerologist explained to a somewhat sceptical — but not falling-about-the-floor laughing — Kim Hill that Pythagorean Numerology could identify all our personality traits by translating the letters of your born name into numbers and then combining these numbers with the numbers of your birthday.

Evidently we can then all be identified as five/sevens, tens/tens or whatever. As you would expect, a five person could be careful with money, but could be able to overcome this tendency by applying the determination which is also associated with five. These people would make wonderful economists — on the one hand this … but on the other hand that …

Kim Hill did raise the difficulty that Pythagoras used the Greek alphabet, but our numerologist explained that the system had been adjusted to fit the Roman alphabet.

Now if telepathy worked at all, Kim Hill would have heard my 10,000 watt telepathic messages saying “Ask her about the birthdays.” Even Pythagoras could not predict the assumed birthdate of Jesus Christ, so its difficult to imagine him building a numerology system based on his being born on the 30 September 582 BC or whenever. And I cannot conceive of any algorithm which would translate the calenders of Pythagorean times into the Gregorian calendar dates we use now.

Once again telepathy failed me, and we never heard how our numerologist dealt with this problem. However, we learned something about Pythagoras. Evidently he ran a University in which everyone would have been vegetarians, because vegetables, unlike meat, are such spiritual food. I suppose this explains the behaviour of that other famous vegetarian, Adolf Hitler. One of Kim Hill’s questions indicated that our numerologist’s extensive research seemed not to have revealed to her Pythagoras’s famous aversion to beans.

However, my frustration with all this nonsense was eased later on in the morning’s programme when Kim Hill read out a fax from an alert Skeptic who complained bitterly about the use of public radio to disseminate such garbage over the air waves. Well done.

Don’t these programmers realize that this sort of stuff makes it doubly hard to argue in favour of preserving public radio. The more National Radio sounds like No Idea On Air the harder it is for any of us to argue its case for survival.

We Used to Call it Bedlam

Karekare beach is surrounded by high cliffs which shield my house from television transmissions so that I gain most of my media information from radio and print.

Hence it was some time before I saw Satanic Memories, the so-called documentary which won for TV3 the Skeptics’ Bent Spoon Award. I found this programme so difficult to watch that it took me two sittings — the combination of fury and embarrassment was just too much to bear.

The programme clearly deserved the Skeptics’ major award. It exemplified all those aspects of the pseudoscience of the “New Age” which we Skeptics find so disturbing, distasteful and eventually downright dangerous.

We saw the expert hypnotherapist plant in his subjects’ mind the responses which would confirm their satanic memories. For example, he hints that the young man’s feet appear to be giving pain and, sure enough, he dutifully remembers being slung over a waterfall by the ankles. If a hypnotist implies the presence of the devil himself the subject will see him.

The other gross oversight was the failure of the documentary team to look for any evidence in support of the extraordinary claims being made. We followed this family as they re-visited small towns in which they claimed that killing and eating babies, and throwing young people over waterfalls, was as routine as Friday night fish and chips. Surely there must have been records of these deaths and disappearances. Even the general public would surely have noticed something was amiss given that the inhabitants of small country towns don’t miss much. But our intrepid television team never bothered to call into the local police station or newspaper office to check to see if there were any records referring to these remarkable memories of things past.

We also had first-hand evidence of the total lack of professional ethics among so many members of this new cabal. I cannot imagine any registered medical practitioner allowing the televised treatment of a genuine patient — even if the patient had given consent. And surely any registered psychiatrist would have to take the position that such consent could hardly be regarded as “informed”. But in this documentary we saw a disturbed patient endure quite severe mental trauma during her “therapy”, while her therapist seemed quite pleased by the opportunity for self-promotion.

What was surely the most sickening was the use of two disturbed people as characters in an “entertainment” designed to be broadcast into thousands of New Zealand homes. The mother had a long-standing record of mental illness and treatment. At least one of her sons seemed to be following the same path. Many viewers must have found this parading of their travails as a vehicle for home entertainment both embarrassing and distasteful. Many households would have found it great for a laugh and would have screeched with delight or with terror at the “exorcism” scenes in the hypnotist’s office.

When I was at school our teachers used to point out that we were much more civilised in our treatment and understanding of the mentally ill than our nineteenth-century forebears. We were shocked to learn that civilized people used to visit the insane asylums of the time as a source of entertainment. No trip to London was complete without a visit to Bedlam.

Well, I suppose we have made some advances. In those days the ladies and gentlemen of England had to take the coach to enjoy their Saturday afternoon’s entertainment at the human zoo. Thanks to modern science and to those who look after our interests in New Zealand On Air, we in New Zealand can now take our entertainment without having to leaving the sofas of our living rooms. Isn’t that wonderful?

The Challenge to Reason

Tertiary institutes around the country are beginning to offer courses, and even entire degrees, in subjects that are pure pseudoscience.

The Aoraki Polytechnic has applied to the New Zealand Qualifications Authority seeking approval for its proposed Bachelor’s Degree in Naturopathy. If approved it will be the first degree programme of its kind in this country.

With generous assistance from all of us, the Northland Polytechnic is offering a course in Astrology. (Only $25.40 on study-right, but the full $50.70 non-study-right). Evidently the tutor was a scientist until his teacher “who was recognised as an incarnate lama or tunku by the Tibetans” instructed him in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. After several months’ psychotherapy in Morocco he went to India where he was empowered by the Sakyapa Lama. Evidently this powered him to Kerikeri where he now lives in a bus.

In the meantime, the Auckland Institute of Technology Press has been pouring out a stream of pseudoscientific books dealing with subjects ranging from faces on Mars to conspiracies to repress benevolent inventions and most recently The Poisoning of New Zealand.

This last book promotes the homeopathic line that increased dilution increases potency. (Sadly it doesn’t work with alcohol.) This leads to the remarkable conclusion that while concentrations of pesticides in our food and water may be well below those found toxic in laboratory experiments, extreme dilutions, of say one part per billion, are much more dangerous than concentrations of one part per hundred thousand.

In sum we have tertiary educational institutions subsidised by taxpayers offering courses and publishing books which are based on pseudoscience and superstition.

Does this matter?

It depends on your point of view. The Minister of Education has suggested that if there is a demand for these subjects then maybe the institutions have a duty to offer them –although he sounded as though he did not want to be seen as putting himself in the way of an employment opportunity. And we have to admit that naturopathy signboards (untreated timber only) are springing up like daffodils around our suburbs.

Science and Democracy

I happen to believe, along with Karl Popper and his many disciples, that there is a connection between the proper functioning of democracy and the rational or scientific approach to solving problems and learning about the world.

Since the days of the Enlightenment we have tended to the view that rational thought is the best basis for political action. Democratic government knows that there is no Utopian model of the static perfect society, just as science knows that no theory is ever finally proven to be true. The scientific method progresses towards truth without ever reaching it, while the democratic process “muddles through” to a better world by a process of continual experiment, debate and reform.

It is no coincidence that those who attack democracy look to pseudoscience to support their cases. The Socialists looked to the pseudoscience of Marxism, the laissez-faire anarchists of the nineteenth century looked to social (pseudo) Darwinism, while the Nazis blended social Darwinism and eugenics (pseudo-genetics) to boost their nationalistic dreams of a master race.

These days the centralists find support in the pseudoscience of the apocalyptic environmentalists, whose message is that democracy is unable to meet the challenge of the forces which “threaten the planet”. They make these claims even though the centrally planned states of the Eastern block appear to have committed ecocide. The miracle is that they could pollute so much while producing so little.

University Unreason

Yet contemporary Western society now seems hell-bent on destroying its faith in reason. The deconstructionists and post-structuralists in our universities now argue that there is no knowable truth, that science is no different to any other body of knowledge or superstition, and that students should not be taught a body of knowledge but should be encouraged to construct their personal models of the world. American universities, cringing under a wave of political correctness and an extreme form of “multi-culturalism”, are abandoning programmes which present the history of Western Civilisation as anything other than the history of the rape and plunder of minorities and other victims by a conspiracy of middle-class white males.

Given this widespread attack on science and rationality, it comes as no surprise to find that our tertiary institutions appear to be ready and willing to mount degree courses in naturopathy, including homeopathy and iridology.

The test of a scientific theory is that it can be refuted by an experiment or trial. Homeopathy has been subject to numerous trials and has yet to demonstrate any benefit other than those attributable to the placebo effect. This is not surprising, given that homeopathic medicine is water in which a potent substance has been diluted to levels where there is virtually no chance that an original molecule of the potent substance survives.

These are truly “dilutions of grandeur”. Frequently this “diluted water” is absorbed into a sugar crystal for packaging and will have typically evaporated by the time the patient gets round to taking it. The argument that homeopathic medicine can do no harm is almost certainly sound –what harm can be done by a dose of evaporated diluted water?

Against all this evidence the belief in homeopathy survives.

This raises the question of how a tertiary institution can possibly teach such subjects within a genuine environment of learning and research. Universities and polytechnics are supposed to encourage free and informed debate. If students of homeopathy come to an examination armed with all the published refutations of the practice, would they be able to pass the course? Probably not. Homeopathy is a belief system like astrology or witchcraft. You either believe it or you don’t, and any refutational evidence is dismissed as somewhat irrelevant. The standard argument is that sceptical observers cause bad vibrations which interfere with the efficacy of the treatment.

Can we really tolerate a course within a tertiary institution which argues that healthy scepticism interferes with proper analysis?

Wheat Amongst the Chaff

The proper place to present the field of natural medicine, or its more legitimate cousin, the whole body approach to medicine, is within the school of medicine itself. At least it will be subject to debate, and the wheat can be sorted from the chaff. And there is real wheat in there. Modern medicine has gone too far in the pursuit of the science of medicine as opposed to the art of healing. The placebo effect is powerful and we need to learn how to harness its potential to achieve maximum benefit. But we will make no progress while such investigations are accompanied by nonsense such as iridology or EVA, and where belief cannot be subject to critical experiment and refutation.

Where does the AIT Press fit into this? There are a host of publishers making money out of publishing the latest hocus pocus on the works of Nostradamus or whatever else is providing the latest means of extracting dollars from the gullible. Many readers are trying consciously to make sense of the widely differing views of the world presented by the Uri Gellers on one hand and the Stephen Hawkings on the other. If they wander into a library or bookshop and find a book on repressed inventions, or the international conspiracy to poison us all with pesticides, such readers are likely to assume that books published by the Auckland Institute of Technology (which could be expected to share the aspirations of MIT — otherwise why did the ATI change their name to AIT?) will have been subject to a higher standard of editorial criticism and intellectual rigour than the latest piece of flim flam from the “Centre for Zodiacal Peace Freedom and Inner Radiance”.

Well, I am sorry, they would be wrong. It looks as though the AIT has decided if there is a buck in it, they publish. And no doubt their response to this criticism will be to blame the government for not giving them enough money to start with. Is this an excuse to abandon principles?

Surely this is simply bad business practice on the part of the AIT. The AIT teaches courses in business, which presumably advise students that the most important asset of a modern organisation is its intellectual property. I would have thought that a critical part of the intellectual property of any tertiary institution would be its reputation for intellectual rigour and honesty. This reputation must surely be debased by a publishing house which is fast becoming a bad joke among the critical and informed readers of this country. I certainly would not recommend attendance at AIT to anyone I know if these publications represent the polytechnic’s attitude to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.

So the Qualifications Authority should stand firm and give accreditation only to those courses in medicine, science and technology which admit to critical analysis and are prepared to expose themselves to the normal standards of the scientific process — which means that if a belief is disproved then it must be abandoned.

Do Believers Really Believe?

One of the problems with naturopathy and similar belief systems is that even people who don’t believe in them believe in them. This may sound like nonsense. But if you are one of the many readers who are upset by these arguments and have some belief in naturopathy in any of its manifestations, ask yourself this question:

You have just had a terrible car accident. You are lying in the road and feel your life ebbing away and you suspect that other members of your family are in a similar state. A crowd has gathered around, but no-one is equipped to deal with the carnage. Then you hear dimly that wonderful sound, “Step back, make way! Step back, make way!” At last, you think, help is at hand. And then the final chant is “Step back, make way, here I am — and I’m a qualified naturopath”.

What do you believe in now?

We have to recognize the inability of modern medicine to meet the unrealistic expectations it created in the fifties and sixties. These have created a market driven by those who believe that their chronic ailments must be able to be cured by some magic medicine and will keep on searching until they find it. During the process the body often cures itself — and so success is frequently found and the last treatment is declared effective.

This process has opened the door for the irrational to enter our institutions of higher learning and to further close the door on freedom of speech and expression. You may not think this is a bad thing — especially if it provides a few more people with work and earns some money for the education system.

But how would the Minister of Education respond to a proposal to set up the Divine School of Engineering, or the Natural Light School of Veterinary Science, or the Tantric School of Economics? How will you feel when the building inspector uses an EAV meter to decide whether your building is earthquake proof or an acupuncturist is called in to test your herd for bovine TB or a Tantric Guru is appointed Governor of the Reserve Bank?

How come we would be prepared to let these people play games with our health, but not with our buildings, our cattle or our economy?

Scary Headlines, Dodgy Science

The New Zealand Herald of 5 September carried the headline “Ozone gap to lift skin cancer 7 per cent”.

Then followed a report from Dr Richard McKenzie of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research at Lauder. He said that ozone loss in the past 15 years had caused an increase of 8-10% in the amount of harmful ultraviolet rays reaching Otago and Southland, and that UV levels were expected to rise another 2-3%, reaching a peak in about five years.

So far so good. We have no reason to question the quality of the research and his findings that ozone depletion over the southern region has increased UV penetration over the South Island plains. But Dr McKenzie is then reported as saying that:

Cancers caused by past depletion were only now beginning to appear as the disease often developed some years after exposure to the rays.

And that:

Small changes in UV can have large effects on life. There will be extra skin cancers and earlier deaths will result.

Surely Dr McKenzie has moved beyond his field of expertise. The recent increase in skin cancer is almost entirely attributable to the craze for sun-bathing and sun-tans which began in the 1920s and reached a peak during the early ’70s. Any impact of increased ultraviolet penetration is insignificant when compared to this “life-style” choice which encouraged young children to play at the beach all day, fully exposed to the sun, and teenagers to bask in full summer sun for hours on end in their quest for the perfect tan.

Furthermore, changes in the level of ultraviolet light reaching the ground are much more dependent on cloud cover, general atmospheric pollution, and geographic latitude than on any recorded or predicted variations within the ozone layer. A move from the Arctic to the equator increases annual exposure to UV by 4,000%. If Aucklanders are worried about a 10% increase in UV penetration they should move 200 km south to, say, Taupo.

I am prepared to bet $1,000 to $1 that there will be no increase in skin cancers attributable to increased UV over the next few years. The increases which occur will be attributable to the sun-burned baby-boomers growing up and contracting melanoma. This will peak and decline as a new generation of parents encourage their children to wear hats and use sun-blocks.

If Dr McKenzie can set up an experiment using a control population which stays where it is, in an atmosphere which remains as clear as it is today, and in which no-one reduces their exposure to intense sunlight or increases their use of sun protection, then that population might record the increase he forecasts. But such an experiment would be totally unethical, so the predicted outcome cannot happen. Hence my confidence in the bet.

In an interview Dr McKenzie conceded he was no expert in public health. Maybe he should have stuck to his field and let someone else draw the public-health conclusions. People have to deal with daily predictions of doom from all directions. There is no need to add a fear of UV-induced melanoma epidemics to the list. His forecast sounds unavoidable — and it’s not.

Your New Editor

At the last conference I was elected editor of the New Zealand Skeptic. Some of you will have read my pieces in Metro magazine or in NBR over the years, or heard my “Soapboxes” on World Service Radio. If you have wondered about my recent absence from the media, it is because I have been preparing to launch my own magazine.

The New Zealand Skeptics first took our lead from our US parent organisation and focused our scepticism on the paranormal. Over the years I have seen the Skeptics extend their arena to include almost any area of pseudoscience, and finally to become critical of pseudoscience within science itself. I believe this is a healthy development. Criticism which excludes self-criticism carries little moral weight.

I hope to reflect these developments in the content of the magazine. Naturally I welcome contributions. But please remember, the magazine is read mainly by other Skeptics who do not need to be told and told, and told again that astrology is nonsense. We have made the base case — we are now looking for contemporary or local developments, novel challenges to conventional wisdom, or for pseudoscience where we least expect it.

Embarrassing Predictions

By now we are aware that those who try to make long term forecasts in the field of economics or weather forecasting are up against it because of the uncertainties inherent in such systems, which are governed by the laws of deterministic chaos.

We also need to be aware that our forecasting is no more reliable if we depend on predicting future knowledge — a point famously made by Sir Karl Popper in The Poverty of Historicism.

Physicists must have enjoyed watching the embarrassment of Treasury officials and weather forecasters alike over the last few months. Tax forecasters underestimated the windfall in Wellington, while weather forecasters underestimated the rainfall in Auckland.

But do physicists do any better? I have taken a fresh look at Charles Panati’s book called Breakthroughs — astonishing advances coming in your lifetime, in medicine, science and technology.

The inside cover tells us that Mr Panati “is a physicist, has taught at Columbia University, has been head physicist at RCA in space communications and for six years was a science editor for Newsweek magazine” and so on. The book of scientific predictions was published in 1980.

The back cover tells us we should expect the following:

By 1982: a chemical on the market will enable dieters to eat heartily and not gain an ounce

By 1984: a liquid will painlessly spray away tooth decay

By 1985: A biofeedback technique will cure atherosclerosis, and a synthetic product, SPE, will prevent cholesterol from causing heart disease

By 1986: magnetic fields will be a major new medical tool for healing fractured bones, diagnosing and curing diseases

By 1988: a vaccine will prevent pregnancy

By 1989: physicists will have harnessed fusion power, a clean and almost limitless energy source

By 1990: interferon, a substance naturally produced by our bodies, will be the most effective treatment for cancer

By 1994: hurricanes will be tamed and production of rainfall over arid lands will be commonplace