Steiner Preschools: More taxpayer-funded loopiness

Rudolf Steiner kindergartens look set to cash in on free early childhood education initiatives.

The plan of Education Minister Steve Maharey to provide 20 hours of free early childhood education reminds us that New Zealand has a wide variety of preschools, based on diverse philosophies. Perhaps the weirdest is Waldorf-Steiner schooling, which was founded by the loopy Austrian, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).

Hundreds of schools and even more kindergartens in scores of countries follow Steiner’s system. Established in 1950, the Hastings Rudolf Steiner School and Kindergarten was the first Waldorf centre of education in New Zealand. The Federation of Rudolf Steiner Waldorf Schools was formed as an incorporated society in 1988 and lobbies the government. Today, the country has 10 Steiner-Waldorf schools or school initiatives and almost 40 Waldorf kindergarten groups. The Government gave most of them money from you and me even before Maharey’s scheme started.

The education they offer is based on the notions of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy. He believed humanity is living in the post-Atlantis period, which started with the sinking of Atlantis in 7227 BC. After the current European-American epoch ends in the year 3573, humans will regain the psychic powers they had before the time of the ancient Greeks. Steiner claimed to be the earthly ambassador of the world-encompassing spirit of our time, St Michael. According to Steiner, a hierarchy of angels and archangels influence earthly developments. Seven leading archangels take turns to guide the evolution of humanity for 354 years at a time. St Michael’s stint as “time spirit” started in late November 1879, and Steiner declared that he himself had accepted the mission of being the Michaelic Initiate, to help guide the spiritual life of the Western World. This was an event of world historic importance that took place unnoticed. Anthroposophists regard Steiner with awe and reverence. They are as gullible as Mormons.

Anthroposophy can involve bizarre behaviour. For example, some anthroposophists sit alone or in groups to read to departed souls in order to form links from our sense-perceptible world to the “so-called dead”. They claim to receive messages of “Thank you”. Some anthroposophists ask questions of Steiner himself. Occasionally statements are circulated that allegedly came from him. The feeling that such a message evokes of loosening one’s being from the physical body is a sign that the communication is genuine.

Steiner devoted time to many interests, including education, poetry, architecture, jewellery design, astrology, biodynamic agriculture, reincarnation, karma, medicine and the creation of what he called a new art, eurythmy (mime and movement). All these topics he treated in spiritual terms. Eurythmy, for example, is supposed to manifest spiritual states of being, calling upon influences from past lives and preparing for future lives.

The benefits of anthroposophical medicine are wildly exaggerated. The pricey Helios Therapeutic Retreat in Hawkes Bay sells eurythmy, massage, music and art therapy. Although perhaps nice, these pursuits will not cure any diseases. Patients who need a loan to meet the thousands of dollars in fees are referred to a finance company in Napier. In 1921 Steiner himself started a business called Weleda that has spread internationally, selling useless ‘natural’ medicines with a spiritual approach. Waldorf schools have a reputation for opposing childhood vaccinations.

Waldorf kindergartens are based on the belief that there is a spiritual side to all of life. They focus on free play, art and craft, fairy stories, myths, eurythmy, and circle time for festivals such as Michaelmas. Waldorf teachers use the ancient idea of four temperaments (choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine) to categorise children. They might seat pupils in the classroom according to their supposed type. The Steiner approach is sometimes called racist. He believed that souls pass through stages, including racial stages, with African races being lower than Asian races and European races being the highest form. Steiner education stresses fantasy and dreaminess, which anthroposophists associate with spontaneous clairvoyance. Other quirks of the system include teaching reading late and the banning of computers until high school. Television, radio and recorded music are excluded. While this approach can stimulate imaginations, it also is based on false and nutty ideas. I wonder how many New Age people and followers of alternative healers were handicapped in grasping reality because they went to a Steiner school.

History repeats

A visit to the birthplace of science prompts some thoughts on spatial and temporal patterns in alternative medicine.

There is no special reason for skeptics in New Zealand to follow news from Greece. Last year, however, Waikato University signed an agreement for staff exchanges with Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, and I put my hand up to go. The GNP per head in Greece is about the same as in New Zealand, and teaching at Aristotle University is in English, so exchanges between the two institutions are feasible. As someone who is as good at learning foreign languages as chiropractors are at curing diseases, I was delighted that learning Greek was not necessary. Plus, when I visited there in 2004, a barman refused to let me pay for my drinks because Kiwis and Greeks fought alongside each other in the 1941 Battle of Greece. Now, a mention of anything Greekish makes me take notice. What I have learned is that Greece-arguably the birthplace of science – has repeatedly faced issues similar to those that occupy us in New Zealand.

For example, after World War II, Greece was struggling to rebuild after great suffering. For example, thousands of Jewish men, women and children in Thessaloniki had been packed on to trains and killed in gas chambers. A civil war then had restarted widespread suffering. In 1952, the good news broke of a drink, made from the root of the wild cucumber, which supposedly cured cancer. Mass hysteria swept the country, with crowds going out to uproot a weed that thrived in vacant lots and fields. Some scientists spoke out.

“A disease that is as serious, chronic and incurable as cancer gives rise to profiteers who prey on sick people seeking a cure after having been disappointed by the medical establishment,” wrote university professor Dr G Papayiannopoulos (No, I don’t know how to say his name.). The Supreme Health Council declared the consumption of the brew to be useless and even dangerous.

“It is extremely sad that the daily press has been promoting cures for cancer without any scientific basis,” said the council.

In 1955, a Thessaloniki drinks manufacturer called Georgiadis claimed to have found a drug to cure cancer. Two patients who drank the concoction died suddenly, however. Athens University’s toxicology laboratory found that the brew did not combat cancer and was a mixture of wild cucumber, strawberry essence, sugar and alcohol. Georgiadis was charged with practising medicine without a licence. (Why does this not happen in New Zealand, instead of quacks enjoying public funding?)

In 1975, a newspaper reported that a 36-year-old lawyer from the Greek Island of Kos, Giorgos Kamateros, claimed that the water of his home village cured cancer. He distributed the water in tanker trucks around Athens and in the countryside. Headlines reported daily that the water cured everything: that it had brought a mad woman to her senses, that it had restored the sight of a blind woman. Studies found no curative properties in the water, but Kamateros continued to claim that the secret lay in the minerals dissolved in the water. According to the Institute for Minerals and Mining Exploration, the minerals were simply calcium, carbon and quartz. The parents of 18 children being treated for cancer at the Aglaia Kyriakou Hospital stopped their treatment and gave them the special water. The condition of the children worsened, and one died. A few days later, the death of a cancer patient a day after drinking the water brought an end to the story. Scientists found high levels of radiation in the water. Kamateros held marches with hundreds of fervent supporters. He was charged, and the consumption of his water was banned.

In February of this year, 2007, a state television channel announced the therapeutic powers of the juice of olive leaves. Several chat shows said a thick, green drink made from olive leaves and water, mixed in a blender, was doing wonders for cancer patients. Several electrical appliance stores reported selling out of blenders. Health officials publicly warned that drinking the olive beverage could be harmful. Zoe Bazou, a member of a Athens-Piraeus cancer victims group, Keff, said patients who had tired of strong chemo-therapy treatments or been fooled by profiteers were turning to alternative medicines.

“The result is death,” she said.

Back in New Zealand, the Lake Taupo Primary Health Organisation announced in March that, starting in July, traditional Maori medicine will be funded from the public purse. The PHO has signed an agreement with Nga Ringa Whakahaere o te Iwi Maori, the national body for traditional Maori providers, who sell massages, poultices, natural medicines, spiritual healing, bath therapy and other services. “What does it matter if it makes them feel better?” said the PHO’s chief executive, Jeremy Mihaka-Dyer. Useless Chinese and Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine already waste our taxes.

The more we look, the more we find that history repeats itself, not only from time to time, but also from place to place.

Zetetic Astronomy and other madness

In the 21st century, there are still people who believe the Earth is flat.

Mad people are among us. Reading letters to the editor and discussing issues at universities can be frustrating exercises because some people are oblivious to facts and reason. Some odd people, including radical postmodernists, are proudly hostile to science and empirical evidence. They say there are no facts, only perceptions. They describe scientific method as a mere ploy, used by elites to claim falsely that they are in sole possession of knowledge. Views that are based on empirical evidence supposedly are products of a paradigm that is no more valid than any other way of arriving at a belief.

Academics, who are reputed to have great intellects, can flaunt lunacy. I once heard a paper on religious history where the speaker tried to justify her weird conclusions by saying, “Of course, there are nonrational ways of knowing.” A university dean once urged me not to contradict the fanciful claim of the Mormon Church that a lost tribe of Israel settled America; Latter Day Saints have their own paradigm, which we must respect, she said. Another academic insisted that I should be charged with harassment if I told a group of Polynesian students that their culture’s belief in a flat earth is false.

It is hard to believe that some first-world people think the world is flat. After all, belief in a flat earth is so ridiculous that it is sometimes used in debates as an obvious example of pseudoscience or dogmatic thinking. Yet, apparently some Polynesian people are Flat Earthers, and the internet includes sites devoted to promoting this theory. There is no way of knowing how many of these sites, if any, are genuine. Given the lunacy on show in letters to the editor and universities, however, it would not be surprising if some of the writers are sincere.

Trying to follow the reasoning of Flat Earthers is instructive for Skeptics because it shows us what we are up against. Years ago, I came across a couple of books that astounded me because their authors were so immovable. One book was written by a Catholic who had an answer to every accusation ever hurled at his religion. No matter what the objection — the cruelty of the Inquisition, papal collusion with Nazism, the corrupt selling of indulgences — he staunchly made the case that the Catholic Church was God’s true church. The other book was a course in selling life insurance. No matter what objection the prospective customer raised, the book gave the insurance agent a model answer. For example, if the potential buyer objected that he could not afford insurance, the salesman was to tell him that he could not afford not to have insurance. Chiropractors take a similar line. No matter what the symptom, a regular crack of the back is the recommended treatment.

Today’s Flat Earthers sustain a line of argument that was started in the mid-nineteenth century by the English inventor, Samuel Birley Rowbotham (1816-1884). Starting with a pamphlet in 1849, he developed his ideas over three decades into a 430-page book, Earth Not a Globe, which he published under the pseudonym Parallax. Rowbotham insisted that the Earth is flat, with the North Pole at its centre. The land is surrounded by a waste of ice and snow, bordered by a huge, circular cliff of ice. The Sun, the Moon and the planets — in fact, all celestial bodies — also are flat. The Sun and Moon, each about 50km in diameter, circle the Earth and are only several hundred kilometres above us. Each functions as a spotlight, with the sun radiating hot light, the moon sending out cold light. Because they are spotlights, they give out light over only a limited area at a time, thus explaining why some parts of the Earth are dark when others are in light. Rowbotham called his model Zetetic Astronomy.

He was a tenacious debater, and modern followers of Rowbotham continue his practice of never being stuck for an answer. Doesn’t Nasa have photos to prove the Earth is a sphere? No, Nasa is part of a conspiracy; the photos are fakes, made by computers.

How do satellites orbit the Earth? They don’t. Satellite signals come from radio towers.

What about gravity? Well, the Earth is accelerating upward, as is every celestial body. This movement produces the effect known as gravity.

Debating Flat Earthers is a waste of time. So, I suggest, is arguing with Creationists, New Agers and other mad people. Their crazy minds are set. Our efforts will be most fruitful when we aim at educating people who are open to sensible ideas. Thankfully, that includes most of the population.

President Bush to Scientists and the Sick: ‘Drop Dead’

In George W Bush’s America, it’s okay to throw human embryos in the trash, but not to use them as a source of stem cells.

A political question on the minds of scientists in the United States is: How big will the Republican losses be in November?

History shows that Republicans are almost certain to lose ground. The party that holds the White House almost always loses seats in the midterm Congressional elections held in the sixth year of a two-term presidency. This year should be no different. President Bush is suffering from low approval ratings, and there is widespread discontent about the war in Iraq. Perhaps 2006 will be one of those landmark years in which control of Congress switches parties. If Democrats in the House of Representatives gain 15 seats-a number that is within reach&mdashthen Republicans will lose power there for the first time since 1994. Democrats need to gain six seats in the Senate to take control there-a less likely prospect but still possible.

The elections are particularly important to scientists because the Bush Administration has hindered scientific knowledge, usually to please backers who are fundamentalist Christians. The religious supporters of George W Bush and other Republicans are generous, organised and, thus, powerful.

President Bush opposes human embryonic stem-cell research because his Christian sponsors say clusters of cells have souls in the image of their god and deserve the same rights as other humans. The likelihood that stem-cell research might lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of devastating medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injury does not matter to them.

In July of this year, President Bush used his first veto when he struck down the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, which would have removed some restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research. The bill proposed to let the federal government fund research using surplus embryos generated by in vitro fertilisation (IVF) procedures. Bush claimed he opposed such research because it involves the destruction of human life. The president’s message echoed anti-abortionists and evoked images of mad scientists killing babies for hideous experiments. On religious grounds, the Bush Administration considers spare embryos from IVF procedures as the equivalent of human beings. However, early in its existence as a blastocyst, the embryo is not a fixed individual, as shown by the fact that it can spontaneously separate into many parts. The embryos have no prospect of developing the capacities and properties of persons because they will not be implanted in a womb. These surplus clusters of cells are usually discarded as medical waste, about 400 000 per year in the United States. President Bush knows this, but he did not seek to ban IVF.

His self-righteous posturing insulted the countries that have started embryonic stem-cell programmes, such as Britain, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Canada, South Africa and France. Meanwhile, scientists in the country with the world’s biggest laboratories have their hands tied by dogma.

In Bush’s home state of Texas, Republican politicians are divided on the issue. Former state lawmaker Randy Graf says no taxes should go to embryonic stem-cell research. (He also says Creationism makes at least as much sense to him as evolution. On the question of the age of the Earth, Graf is blunt: “I don’t know, and I don’t care. I’ve got my Christian faith, and I’m very comfortable with that.”) Auto-shop manager Mike Jenkins says he is against federal funding for stem-cell research because the government will waste the money. He also opposes government support of aids and cancer research for the same reason. On the other hand, Mike Hellon, former chair of the Arizona Republican Party, said, “It is inconsistent to say it’s okay to throw embryos in the trash, but it’s not okay to harvest stem cells.”

The six Democrats seeking the seat all support federal funding of stem-cell research. Retired federal bureaucrat Francine Shacter says the opposition to stem-cell research reflects the Bush Administration’s anti-science bent: “I have lived on the outskirts of the scientific world my entire life. One of the things I deplore about this Administration is the dumbing down of science. There’s a fundamental dishonesty there that disturbs me very badly.” Jeff Latas, a pilot, says watching his son fight leukaemia has given him a firsthand look at the importance of stem-cell research: “By vetoing to satisfy a very small sector of the conservative side of the Republican Party, essentially, you’re signing a death warrant to millions of Americans.”

Perhaps the November elections will get Republicans off the back of scientists.

Keeping it in perspective

The promotion of critical thinking can seem an uphill struggle, but at least we don’t get torn limb from limb for trying.

As skeptics, we fight to uphold certain freedoms: freedom of enquiry, freedom of speech, academic freedom. The battles are worth waging to enjoy the blessings these principles bring, including knowledge and understanding, and because the alternative is darkness.

Skeptics skirmish in public debates, across the kitchen table, and in the workplace. While I think every academic should be a skeptic, I work alongside lecturers who oppose our organisation and who are hostile to science. Some of them believe in Creationism, homeopathy, or the Book of Mormon as a divinely inspired history of ancient America. Such lecturers exasperate me. University managers who do not appreciate academic freedom irk me. Being a skeptic can be tiring and frustrating.

Still, we need to keep our battles in perspective. In parts of the world, debating a university speech code is the farthest thing from the concerns of millions of people. For example, the girls and women of Afghanistan would be overjoyed to have any education at all. Five years after being ousted by the United States, the Taliban still control large parts of Afghanistan. They invoke societal codes in the name of custom and religion as justification for denying women their rights, including the right to an education.

The director of education at Ghazni, Fatima Mustaq, says she has received death threats for refusing to send girls home from school. The threats are also against her husband and their eight children. During the Taliban’s rule, she and her sister secretly taught girls at their home. “They found out and raided us. We managed to persuade them that we were only teaching the Koran. But they spied and found out we were teaching algebra. So they came and beat us. Can you imagine, beating someone for teaching algebra?”

In November, gunmen came for Mohammed Halim and dragged him from his home at Ghazni while his children cried and his wife begged for mercy. The 46-year-old schoolteacher was then partly disembowelled before being torn apart with his legs and arms tied to motorbikes. His remains were put on display as a warning to others to stop educating girls. Halim was one of four teachers killed in rapid succession at Ghazni for defying a Taliban order to not teach girls.

Before they can hope to gain an education, Afghan women and girls need protection from abduction and rape by armed men, being traded to settle disputes and debts, and forced and underage marriage. By being married as young as 12, females are denied their right to education and the freedom to decide the course that they wish their lives to take. A ban on interaction between unrelated men and women greatly inhibits women’s access to the workplace, courts, and schools, because these places are segregated or exclusively male.

Afghan women get almost no protection from the state. In fact, a report issued in November by the Pentagon and the US State Department found that the police force in Afghanistan is largely incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement. Violence against Afghan women is normal. It is tolerated at the highest levels of government. Some judges disregard the law and rely on tradition to hold women responsible for being attacked, thus sanctioning brutality. The perpetrators of violence against women are rarely charged. If cases are prosecuted, the men are usually let go or punished lightly. Women who report rape risk being accused of having committed the crime of having sex outside marriage.

Violence against women by family members also is common. It ranges from forced deprivation of education to beatings, sexual violence and killings. Many acts of violence involve traditional crimes of honour, when a female is punished by her family for shaming them; perhaps she got raped. Punishment can mean being stoned or burned or beaten to death.

Glimmers of progress are visible in Afghanistan. In 2004 a new constitution was adopted which proclaimed that “the citizens of Afghanistan-whether man or woman-have equal rights before the law.” It also provides for a minimum representation of women in both houses of parliament.

In 2005 the first woman was appointed as governor of a province. Over 40 percent of women were registered as voters in 2004. Women are officially allowed to seek employment-albeit with permission from family members. One in five girls now attends primary school. Nearly all the younger women interviewed recently by Amnesty International expressed their wish for the future as simply being able to continue their education. As skeptics in New Zealand look to soldier on in 2007, we can be thankful for the freedoms we enjoy.

Defrauding the dying

Mexican cancer clinics continue to do a roaring trade, despite their poor track record.

When civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the world lost a voice for decency and truth. The death of his widow earlier this year, however, was attended by greed and lies. The family of Coretta Scott King rushed her to Hospital Santa Monica at Rosarito Beach, Mexico, on 26 January. She died five days later. The underlying cause of her death was ovarian cancer. King’s death in one of alternative medicine’s dodgiest facilities highlights a relationship between quacks and Mexicans that is evil.

Hospital Santa Monica is located near crashing surf, 25 kilometres south of San Diego. The climate there may be the best in the world, consistently pleasant. Cruise ships call at beach resorts along the coast, unloading passengers who like the sunshine and the cheap peso. The region also has about 20 alternative medical clinics for desperate patients, almost all from the United States. Coretta Scott King was barely alive when she arrived in Mexico, but like the tourists, she had money. She was one of perhaps 10,000 paying US citizens who check into some Mexican clinic every year. Mexican locals and authorities welcome money from both the tourists and the sick.

Sadly, Hospital Santa Monica and the dozens of similar facilities sell patients only false hope. Kurt W Donsbach founded the Rosarito Beach facility. “The major patient clientele is comprised of cancer patients who have been told that there is no more hope, all traditional therapies having failed,” he boasts on his website. Donsbach claims to use “wholistic” techniques to treat the “whole” person; body, mind and spirit. He repeats the usual twaddle favoured by quacks: about how orthodox doctors treat only symptoms, not the disease; about detoxing the body and boosting the immune system; about avoiding standard treatments because they make cancer worse. Hospital Santa Monica offers “a very eclectic approach,” he says, including ultraviolet blood purification, mag-ray lamps, hydrogen peroxide solutions dripped into veins, ozone gas blown into the colon, a microwave hyperthermia machine (with a rectal probe), induced hypoglycemia by administering insulin, shark cartilage, a Rife frequency generator machine (remember Liam Williams-Holloway?), magnet therapy and other nonsense. Deluded groups such as the so-called Cancer Control Society, based in Pasadena, California, run trips to such Mexican clinics, taking thousands of cancer patients there for useless treatment.

Donsbach fails to reveal on his website that he has a criminal record but no medical degree. Born in 1933, he graduated in 1957 from a chiropractic college in Oregon. By the late 1960s he was running a health-food store in California, selling supplements that he said treated cancer. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he was repeatedly in legal trouble for practising medicine without a licence, selling unapproved drugs and related wrongs. In 1979 he founded a correspondence school – the nonaccredited Donsbach University – that awarded bogus degrees in nutrition, and he sold his own supplements. Officials in New York said the products were useless and sued him. Under pressure in the US, Donsbach started the Mexican clinic in 1983. In 1996 he pleaded guilty to charges of smuggling $250,000 worth of unapproved, adulterated or misbranded medicines from Mexico into the US. Sentenced to prison, he avoided serving time by plea bargaining. In other words, Kurt W Donsbach’s life has been devoted to a range of health-related scams.

The Mexican medical clinics are a blot on the page of human history, but they continue to exist because they attract money. Mexico is a very corrupt country, and bribes and fraud allow unconscionable activity to thrive there. Mexican officials claim they can investigate the facilities only if there are complaints, which are rare because the clinics usually treat non-Mexicans and do not advertise in Mexico. Sometimes clinics get shut down, but they re-open. A week after Coretta Scott King died, the Mexican government closed Hospital Santa Monica, saying it lacked authority to carry out some of its treatments and that several of its unconventional practices put patients at high risk. Patients from the US, Canada, Australia and Italy were at the facility when it was closed. Interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Donsbach was shameless. He blamed the closure on the US medical establishment and predicted that his clinic would reopen soon: “The moment they close down a clinic, they open it up very quickly, the same place, same people.” Immoral quacks and their allies continue to fleece the dying.

David Lange vs the scholars

Checking facts should be part and parcel of academic life, but too often it isn’t done.

The late David Lange opened his 1990 book Nuclear Free: the New Zealand Way with a remarkable story. He wrote that on a winter evening in 1962, he was 20 years old and walking home near Auckland when he saw a blood-red moon and shafts of light in the sky:

They were red and white. They extended across the night like the ribs of a fan. They were spinning, they were intermingling. The sky was diffused with a ghastly brush of red. It was an unnerving spectacle. Lange’s book says he soon learned from the radio that the United States had tested a nuclear bomb by launching it on a rocket and exploding it above Johnston Atoll, which lies in the North Pacific, about 1300km southwest of Hawaii. The sight of a nuclear explosion disturbed him, Lange wrote, and he was haunted thereafter by the fear of nuclear war.

Scholars have dismissed Lange’s story. In a 1994 article in the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, historian GP Taylor from Sheffield University denied that Lange or anyone else in New Zealand could have seen any such display. In the perverse article — the point of which was to justify France’s bombing of the Rainbow Warrior — Taylor wrote:

His religious upbringing coupled with a lively imagination seem to have affected Lange here. Johnston Island is over 4000 miles from New Zealand and the impression he gives of what he saw was impossible from that distance.

It would have been easy for Taylor to check the facts. He simply had to look in the New Zealand Herald for the winter days of 1962 to see if there were reports of a spectacle in the evening sky. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History is a refereed periodical, and it would have been easy for the anonymous referees of Taylor’s article also to check his claim that Lange’s story was false. None of these scholars did the job. In fact, a big photograph of the sight covered the top of the front page of the Herald on 10 July 1962. The photo was captioned: “The spectacle in the Auckland sky shortly after 9 o’clock last night.” Under the headline ‘Aurora’ Lights N.Z. Sky, the newspaper described the sight:

A deep red “aurora” striped with jets of white light swept in a broad band over the New Zealand sky after 9 p.m. last night — seconds after a United States task force exploded a high altitude nuclear device of “megaton-plus” power over Johnston Island — 4000 miles to the north.

Watchers from Whangarei to Central Otago reported the eerie glow. An astronomer theorised in his Herald column that the results of the blast were visible in the South Pacific because:

“the electrons released by the bomb dropped quickly to the level where auroras normally occur, between 80 and 120 miles, and then dashed rapidly along the line of magnetic force which links Johnston Atoll with the north and south magnetic poles and which travels over New Zealand.”

After finding the story on the front page of the Herald, I wrote an article about the effect of the sight on David Lange and on the development of anti-nuclear attitudes in New Zealanders. My article mentioned how GP Taylor — and, by implication, the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History — got it wrong. I submitted the article to the journal. The referees rejected the article and did not even suggest how I might revise it to make it acceptable. Neither did the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History print a correction to their earlier article.

This year, Victoria University political scientist Jon Johansson published a book, Two Titans, about Rob Muldoon and David Lange’s respective prime ministerships. Johansson repeats Taylor’s blunder, writing on page 142:

Lange’s connection of an unusually red sky to a nuclear test is also, one must add, highly implausible. The earth’s rotation alone renders Lange’s anecdote an illusory one, but illusion is also part of the anti-nuclear story, notwithstanding its central position in New Zealand’s contemporary political culture.

Neither Taylor nor Johansson nor the referees in Britain or New Zealand bothered to check whether or not the former prime minister of New Zealand was telling the truth before they alleged he was deluded. As for my article? It was published in Auckland University’s e-journal Asia Pacific Cultural Studies and is online at

The article will earn me a small tick on my PBRF report. Had Taylor published his article recently in New Zealand, then he also would get a tick. His tick would probably be bigger than mine because of the status of the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History. Johansson’s book will earn him a big tick. Hopefully, the substantial issue of David Lange’s reputation will not be lost.

Mormons still opposing science

Raymond Richards
The Mormon church: anti-science and pro-repression. Still.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often called the Mormon church, has long been an enemy of science and the free exchange of ideas. It is hostile to the theory of evolution, for example, and to Mormons and non-Mormons who reject the church’s claim to be the fount of absolute truth. The latest news shows that the situation is not getting any better. The Mormon church still opposes some important scientific advances and people who discuss them. The church does this because the discoveries contradict traditional Mormon doctrines and because the science undermines the claim of church leaders to be the infallible voice of God.

That the Book of Mormon is full of nonsense should come as no surprise to any skeptic. After all, it was dictated in 1830 by Joe Smith, who was not a scholar or researcher; he was a farmer’s son with an interest in the weird and a teller of tall tales. Smith had been arrested for taking money in return for using a ‘magic’ stone to look for buried treasure. He then used the same stone to pretend to translate the ancient history of America from hieroglyphics on ancient, gold plates he dug up. He said an angel showed him where to find them.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, insists the Book of Mormon is the truest book ever written and that its revelations trump research. Because the book is divinely inspired scripture, what it says goes. Scholars supposedly have it all wrong. So, when the Lord’s word says America was settled about 600 B.C. by a tribe of Israelites known as Lamanites who crossed the seas from Arabia, the matter is concluded. The Lamanites supposedly were the ancestors of the Native Americans.

Mormons who doubt this fantasy are guilty of the sin of apostasy, and the church seeks to banish them in periodic purges. In 1993, six Mormon scholars were stripped of their church membership for questioning church teaching. Others excommunicated since then include David Wright, a professor of Hebrew studies at Brandeis University who was thrown out in 1994 for writing articles that said the Book of Mormon is a 19th-century creation of Joe Smith, not an ancient text. Margaret Toscano, a classics professor at the University of Utah, was excommunicated in 2000 for writing on feminist issues after being ordered not to. The last few years have seen two famous cases of the church censoring the same scientific information. In 2002, Thomas W Murphy was a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington and chair of the Anthropology Department at Edmonds Community College. He published an article about how DNA evidence destroys the Book of Mormon claim that Native Americans are descended from Israelites. He was ordered to recant or face excommunication in a trial for apostasy. After an outpouring of public support for Murphy – a modern Galileo – the church postponed indefinitely his trial.

Most recent was the case of Simon Southerton, a geneticist who works in Australia. He was raised a Mormon, but after training as a scientist, he saw that DNA evidence contradicts history told in the Book of Mormon. Scientists have developed DNA testing to the stage where the genetic code in a drop of saliva can yield traces of racial ancestry that entered a person’s family tree thousands of years ago. Native Americans have been tracked back to Siberia before their migration to America over 14,000 years ago. They are Mongoloid in origin, not Semitic. In 1998 Southerton decided to leave the church because he could no longer believe some of its teachings. Last year, he published Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA and the Book of Mormon. His book tells how DNA data about Native Americans does not support the Mormon belief that the continent’s early inhabitants were descendants of Israelites. Church leaders discussed the book at length with him. He told them it was odd for the church to pursue someone who had not been active in the church for seven years. After a three-hour meeting on 31 July 2005 in Canberra, church authorities excommunicated Southerton – for “having an inappropriate relationship with a woman.” Southerton does not deny the relationship, which occurred two years ago, while he was separated. He refused to discuss his personal life at the meeting, instead asking his inquisitors why he was not answering to charges of apostasy. The church representatives said that if he tried to talk about DNA, then the meeting would be completed in his absence. It is easy to read between the lines.

Dr Simon Southerton’s excommunication makes him the seventh author from the Salt Lake City-based publisher Signature Books to be expelled from the church after writing a work contrary to Mormon dogma. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which claims to have 12 million members around the world, remains a force for ignorance and repression.

The Tertiary anti-Education Commission

New Zealand’s tertiary institutions have some strange ways of measuring academic performance

The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) is gaining a reputation as a Mickey Mouse government organisation that harms the reputation and integrity of New Zealand’s tertiary institutions.

In April, I called publicly for the acting chair of the TEC, Kaye Turner, to resign. Her defence of the teaching of homeopathy at New Zealand’s tertiary institutions is an embarrassment. She insisted that the TEC would continue to support the teaching of homeopathy because students want it and there are jobs for people with qualifications in the subject. Thus, skeptics and other taxpayers are forced to support courses in mumbo-jumbo if the courses sell. Dr Turner expressed indignation that I called homeopathy nonsense, and she called it an alternative to antibiotics. The TEC thus helps to spread dangerous twaddle; quackery can be a matter of life and death.

The TEC is also responsible for another abomination afflicting our tertiary institutions: the Performance-based Research Fund (PBRF). The PBRF process ranks academic staff from “A” for world class to “R” for research-inactive. It then allocates millions of dollars to polytechnics, universities, private training establishments, wananga and colleges of education, according to their rankings.

The most important part of the PBRF round requires staff to list their Research Outputs over the previous six years. A panel of experts then examines each list and awards a grade of A, B, C or the dreaded R. There are major problems with this procedure that generate unfair and invalid results.

First, the PBRF process assumes that there is a single model of what constitutes good research. This assumption may hold true in mathematics, medicine and the hard sciences, where other scholars can replicate work. In these subjects, the process of peer-review can work well.

But there are other areas of academic endeavour, such as the Arts and Social Sciences, where there is no agreed model. Scholars who rely on empirical research clash with radical postmodernists and academics who insist that there are ways of knowing other than the rational. Politically Correct fashions come and go. A peer-reviewer rejected one of my history articles on the grounds that it did not contain ‘a feminist/pacifist perspective’.

And on what grounds will the panellists rate the research? The history of intellectual activity is full of examples of work that was dismissed by experts at the time, only to be recognised later as insightful. On the other hand, peer-reviewed journals have published garbage. The hoax perpetrated in 1996 by Alan Sokal is telling; he deliberately submitted a nonsensical article to the peer-reviewed journal Social Text, which published it. And in September 2001 the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal, published a paper about how a Columbia University study showed the power of Christians’ prayers to help patients at a fertility clinic to conceive (see NZ Skeptic 75).

The PBRF process distorts research activity because it rewards academics for churning out quick projects, such as articles, at the expense of big efforts. Books in, say, history, often take years to produce. The scholar has to read first all the books and articles relevant to the field, then piles of documents that may be kept in far-flung collections. Then the writing begins, with each key assertion carefully footnoted to a reliable source. It is not uncommon for such efforts to take ten or more years, and sometimes a lifetime. But the PBRF process focuses on a six-year period. Scholars who are devoting time to long-term projects receive the inaccurate and offensive label of Research Inactive, as if they spend their time snoozing in a hammock. A Waikato University senior manager pointedly urged a historian to abandon a lengthy biography because it was an unwise research choice in the PBRF environment.

The PBRF process is distorting work at universities because it pressures academics to play a game. The university tearooms are full of talk about how to work the system. Some academics team up with friends who are referees in order to publish a couple of articles each year. The PBRF discourages in-depth projects and those aspects of the job such as teaching preparation and community service that do not help PBRF scores. It frustrates academic freedom by shaping research plans to fit its arbitrary scheme.

The PBRF also encourages departments to downgrade the importance of teaching so that the trend will be for them to become like some overseas departments I have seen, where graduate students do much of the teaching while lecturers lock themselves away to turn out articles. The TEC’s latest plan, to introduce ratings for teaching, inspires no confidence. Perhaps lecturers will score well by teaching homeopathy to lots of students.

While thinking about this subject I benefited from discussions with Dr Ron Smith of Waikato University.

Deadly Ignorance

Pseudoscientific beliefs can be dangerous when they form the basis of government policy

In my last column, I mentioned that conspiracy thinker Phillip Day travels the world (he again toured New Zealand late last year) with his message that there is no Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids) is not sexually transmitted and that the “highly poisonous Aids medications” are part of a “calculated and inhumane population control agenda which has been sanctioned at the highest political levels.”

So absurd are these claims that readers may doubt whether people such as Day attract much of a following. Why should Skeptics bother to speak up? Sadly, misinformation can be deadly to entire populations when policy makers adopt it. A shocking example is the case of Aids in the Republic of South Africa.

In 1982 the first cases of HIV were diagnosed in South Africa. The government was very slow to respond to the growing crisis. By 1998, when 50% of adult medical admissions to hospital in Gauteng province were Aids related, there was still no national treatment plan, public education about Aids was almost nonexistent, and superstitions were widespread. When health worker Gugu Dlamini made her HIV status public on World Aids day, she was stoned to death by a mob that included her neighbours.

The reason for the government’s slow response became clear: ignorance among the leadership of the ruling African National Congress. The South African president, Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president in 1999, shocked the world health community when he said Aids is caused by poverty, not by HIV. By 2000, 10% of South Africans were HIV positive, but in May of that year he appointed a panel and charged them with solving the country’s Aids problems. One of the panel members chosen by Mbeki was American scientific outcast Peter Duesberg, who says Aids is caused by anti-Aids drugs, such as AZT, but not by HIV! Mbeki ruled out providing AZT to HIV positive pregnant women, claiming the drug did more harm than good. In fact, the drug has been proven effective in drastically cutting the transmission of the deadly virus to the baby in childbirth. Thousands of HIV positive babies continued to be born every month. Duesberg said he doubted South Africa was experiencing an Aids epidemic, and the panel debated whether Aids is spread by sex or not. Mbeki thus wasted precious time and resources. In July 2000, about 5000 doctors and scientists took the extraordinary step of releasing The Durban Declaration as a rebuke to Mbeki. The document said the link between HIV and Aids is “clear-cut, exhaustive and unambiguous.” South Africa’s doctors appealed for an end to the debate which they said was confusing people who should be fighting Aids, which was spreading faster in South Africa than anywhere else on Earth.

Mbeki continued to downplay the threat of Aids. His government continued to ban doctors from providing antiretroviral drugs to HIV infected women, thus ensuring that the disease was passed on to thousands more babies. The cheap or free drugs that pharmaceutical companies had been offering for five years were not accepted.

Indeed, the Ministry of Health at great expense distributed a pamphlet justifying this deadly nonsense. In 2001, Mbeki again refused to link HIV with Aids, even though he agreed “that’s what the scientists say.”

Progress slowly came. President Mbeki found himself increasingly isolated as members of his cabinet and government supporters stated that they accepted the link between HIV and Aids. He also came under fierce international criticism from scientists and medical experts for his ignorance and lack of action.

In November 2003, the government reversed its position on the antiretroviral drugs and planned to quadruple its spending on HIV/Aids. President Mbeki, however, continues to lash out at efforts to provide scientific treatment. Phillip Day praises Mbeki’s bizarre beliefs.

The World Health Organisation says Aids is the biggest cause of death in South Africa, where it affects nearly six million people, more than in any other country. About one million people died in South Africa last year from Aids.

No society in history has had to deal with an epidemic like this. There is no containing an epidemic that has already infected 30% of adults in Durban. By 2010, life spans will probably be reduced in South Africa from about 70 years (in the absence of Aids) to about 36. Millions of deaths from Aids that have occurred in South Africa and millions that will happen were avoidable. When leaders fall for crank ideas, the results can be massively tragic.
Dr Raymond Richards is a Senior Lecturer in History and American Studies at Waikato University. He can be reached at

Credence is Beyond Belief

The Break Free tour will be coming soon to a city near you. The week-long tour of lectures and book selling will start in Christchurch at the end of November and proceed to Wellington, Taupo, Hamilton and Auckland. The person who will head the tour is Phillip Day, who supposedly is “an award-winning author, health researcher and world-class speaker.”

Day may be a good speaker. He certainly has had enough practice, since his tours regularly take him from his base in Britain to several countries. He has been in New Zealand before. Day also runs websites that sell books by himself and a few associates. But what awards he has won or research he has conducted is unclear. What he says is not worth hearing and often is dangerous.

Phillip Day says and writes a lot about many things. He leads Credence, which claims to be “an independent research organisation dedicated to reporting contentious issues that may harm the public. [Their] goal is to report properly annotated and verified information of tremendous benefit to humanity.”

Day also runs the Campaign for Truth in Medicine (CTM) and the Campaign for Truth in Europe (CTE). He manages a website called Eclub to publicize these efforts.

Day’s CTE hates the European Union and denounces Britain’s “own conniving politicians” for permitting “the destruction of Britain by giving their consent to be ruled by an unelected, unaccountable European autocracy dominated by Germany and France.” The EU wants to hijack the success of British athletes, Day complains, by making them compete under the European flag at future Olympics. While such political views may be merely quirky, they offer a glimpse of a mindset gripped by conspiracies.

Day accuses the British government of conducting “a programme of coercion and terrorism against the British farming industry” because it slaughtered animals during the recent foot-and-mouth crisis. According to Day, the disease is no worse than a bad cold for an animal, is not caused by a virus, and can be cured by good housing, bedding and food. The reality of the so-called outbreak, he says, is the British government’s criminal and treasonous decision to rid an independent Britain of its livestock industry in order to promote a European federalist agenda.

Doctors top Phillip Day’s list of people who harm the public. He sees a “slaughter of the citizenry.” He quotes approvingly an alternative therapist who charges, “The most dangerous place on planet Earth is the hospital – next is the doctor’s office – followed closely by the dentist’s office.” Although he lacks a suitable qualification, Day knows better than doctors. His tour promises to show audiences how to “BREAK FREE from cancer, addiction, and depression.” Sadly, Day also quotes Dr Bill Reeder, an alternative therapist who offers questionable chelation therapy near Hamilton, who says he will be “directing all my cancer patients to your site.”

Perhaps the most dangerous misinformation Phillip Day spreads concerns cancer. He condemns prescription drugs, radiation and chemotherapy. He says mammographies do not detect cancer – they cause it. Police officers supposedly get testicular cancer by sitting in their squad cars with a speed gun in their lap. Day insists cancer is a deficiency disease. He recommends apricot seeds/laetrile/Amygdalin/vitamin B-17 as a cure for cancer, praising the work of Ernst Krebs. In fact, Krebs and laetrile long have been discredited. Ernst T Krebs, Jr never earned a graduate degree. Starting in the 1950s, he and his father sold quack “cures” for major diseases, especially cancer. Krebs spent time in jail. Laetrile, sometimes called amygdalin or vitamin B-17 (it is not a vitamin), has been rigorously tested in the US by the National Cancer Institute and the Food and Drug Administration. The tests showed it to be medically useless. It even contains cyanide and has killed people. It is now illegal to sell laetrile in the US. In the mind of Phillip Day, laetrile is outlawed only to protect “the multi-billion dollar, world-wide cancer industry.”

Day says there is no HIV virus – the “highly poisonous Aids medications” are part of a “calculated and inhumane population control agenda which has been sanctioned at the highest political levels.” He praises South African President Thabo Mbeki’s bizarre views on Aids, which have led the South African government to refuse medication to people with HIV. Tragically, the World Health Organisation says Aids is the biggest cause of death in South Africa.

Also dangerous is Phillip Day’s insistence that children do not need any vaccinations. Good food, water and love supposedly are sufficient.

Yes, the Break Free tour is coming to New Zealand. People who value evidence, critical thinking and reason may want to attend – to witness a bad example.
Dr Raymond Richards is a Senior Lecturer in History and American Studies at Waikato University . He can be reached at