Hot-footing it in Fiji

New Zealand Skeptics walk happily on red-hot embers, protected by the laws of physics. Fijian firewalkers, however, are said to stroll across white-hot stones. How do they do it?

Fijian firewalking is an ancient tradition. It was originally confined to a few villages on the island of Beqa (pronounced Mbengga). The ceremony achieved fame with a demonstration for visiting European dignitaries in 1885.

As John Campbell explains in Skeptic 15, firewalking is explained by science, not mysticism. Although the firewalker’s skin is in contact with glowing carbon at a temperature of around 700oC, very little heat energy is transferred. No injury occurs because though the surface of the charcoal is at this temperature, the charcoal has a low heat capacity and heat is not conducted through it sufficiently rapidly to raise the skin temperature to a dangerous level. Each foot only contacts the hot charcoal twice for a brief instant. Of course, if skin and hot carbon were in contact for longer, or if the walker attempted to take too many steps on the hot coals, burns would ensue. Faith in one’s firewalking abilities has no effect on the outcome.

Beqa Firewalking

Several published accounts of the Beqa firewalkers describe a ceremony with features that cannot be accounted for by this explanation. Many of these descriptions are rather informal (as well as unbelievable). Others are by anthropologists interested in rituals and beliefs associated with the ceremony. These describe human behaviour in minute detail until it gets to the part which would most interest a physical scientist. Some writers seem unaware that they are describing events which are commonly thought impossible.

Accounts agree that flat stones or rocks are heated using wood fuel in a fire-pit. The wood is then raked away, leaving the stones glowing white-hot. After various rituals, the walkers enter the pit and walk round and round on the glowing stones. The men (only men can do this!) have anklets of dried leaves; afterwards neither these anklets nor the soles of their feet show any effect from the heat.

According to Beqa: Island of Firewalkers (published by the Institute of Pacific Studies), the men even gather in the centre of the pit and chant! If these accounts are reasonably accurate then we are dealing with a miracle.

Profit Potential

About 1960 the villagers of Rukua on Beqa discovered that firewalking had commercial potential. The income of this village jumped from about $400 per year to about $6500 with this discovery, and other villages quickly followed their example. Contracts with tourist hotels guaranteed $400 per performance.

The original ceremony had involved the whole village. Firewalkers had to respect certain tabu — in particular, abstinence from all sexual contact for a period of one month. Costumes were made and burned afterwards. About six tonnes of firewood were consumed.

Modifications

It was quickly discovered that costumes could be modified so that they could be re-used and a much smaller fire satisfied the tourists. If the walkers abstained from sex for only two weeks they were not injured by the smaller fire — this seems quite logical.

More hotels featured the ceremony and teams performed twice a week. The sexual abstinence tabu was reduced to one night or dropped altogether.

Traditionally the fire pit was large. Beqa: Island of Firewalkers contains some photos from the thirties and I have an old postcard of the ceremony. These suggest the hot area was around five metres in diameter (the pits are circular) and the walkers may have needed ten or a dozen steps to cross the hot stones.

The modern pit is about 2.5 metres, but in the two examples I have seen, the hot area was less than two metres in diameter. Apparently the cost of firewood is a big problem.

I have a postcard showing the preparation of a fire pit for a modern performance. The caption reads, “the fire-walkers the cross the pit walking on the white-hot stones.”

Skeptics can safely walk on red-hot charcoal, but “white hot” implies much higher temperatures. For example, mild steel is tapped from a furnace at about 1600oC. This molten metal is glowing brightly but it looks yellow rather than white.

Rock, unlike carbon, has a high thermal capacity, that is, it stores plenty of heat energy which can be released to human skin. This implies that hot rock is more hostile to human feet than carbon at a similar temperature.

Anybody with some knowledge of science should be dubious of the published accounts of Beqa fire-walking. Could the rocks really be white hot?

The anklets worn by the walkers provide a clue. If dead leaves were brought close to an object radiating at a temperature high enough to be glowing white, they would burst into flames. In fact, human skin could be damaged before contact.

Examining the Pit

In Fiji, I have twice had a good look at a fire-pit immediately before the ceremony. When the fire was dying down, any unburnt wood was raked aside and the stones brushed clear of glowing embers. White ash covered the stones which lay in a bed of glowing charcoal. They were so close together that little of the hot charcoal could be seen, but the white sides of the irregular rocks reflected the glow in a spectacular fashion. The rocks themselves were not glowing.

Obviously, the rock upper surfaces were at a temperature well below the 700oC of glowing carbon. This could explain why the Beqa people can stand relatively prolonged contact. The modern walkers cross the pit, circle round the edge and re-cross. All the tourists I have questioned agree on that point. I am sure anybody could do the same.

The photographs I have of the old ceremony with the large pit do not show any activity that could be construed as “walking round and round in the pit.” The old postcard shows a line of about fifteen people, some holding hands. About four or five are crossing the hot rocks. The rest appear to have crossed and are circling back around the edge.

In the pit they seem to be taking short steps, and perhaps few people have feet that could stand such lengthy exposure. However, these people probably never wore any kind of footwear. Certainly some modern Fijians can stand barefoot on a sun-heated surface that would cause me pain.

On the other hand, it is doubtful that Beqa people could have crossed such a large pit, so slowly, if they had had to walk on glowing charcoal rather than the relatively cool rock.

So how did this myth arise, that Fijians could walk barefoot across white-hot rocks?

Poor observation and inaccurate reporting, plus the will to believe, seem adequate explanations. The rocks are certainly white as they are covered in white ash; they are certainly hot, as they are heated in a fire. They are not, however, white-hot.

Forum

Confronting Creationism

The article on creationism by Barend Vlaardingerbroek (Skeptic 24) contains much with which I would agree, but there are also several points that could be contested.

The mainstream christian churches as allies? Census figures suggest that in NZ their membership is declining so fast that support would be limited. In America in the past they have been useful allies (at the Scopes trial in particular) but most of their rapidly ageing congregations have little interest in creationism and even less in biblical scholarship.

“If we live in a secular democracy…” Barend Vlaardingerbroek seems to assume that we do, but this is one of the points that creationists dispute. If we do not want our democracy to become less secular we will have to fight for it.

Writing articles in academic journals may indeed be preaching to the converted, but combating creationist propaganda in the media is essential. If lies are repeated often enough without any protest people will start to believe them.

Contrary to Barend Vlaardingerbroek’s view, there is an excellent case for attacking creationists through their religious beliefs, for this is their weakest point. Creationists, one should note, say as little as possible about creationism. Nearly all of their diatribe is an attempt to ridicule evolution. While it is necessary to point out their major distortions of science, our best strategy is to go on the attack and ridicule creationism.

A person who claims to believe that the biblical account of creation is infallibly true, when the first two chapters of Genesis contain two separate and contradictory accounts, has got to be on shaky ground. Pointing this out will sway the public towards skepticism more than any defense of evolution.

Nor does one have to be qualified in the area of biblical scholarship to take this approach, although obviously some reading is required. For an introduction to the first five chapters of Genesis, may I recommend Isaac Asimov’s In the Beginning.

It is always vital not to underestimate one’s opponents, but in the case of creationists it is easy to overestimate their knowledge of the bible. An overseas creationist on a New Zealand tour accidentally revealed in debate that he did not know the Old Testament had been written in Hebrew. The audience responded with scornful laughter, much to his discomfort. Does this story sound too much for good skeptics? I assure you I have witnesses.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek seems to assert the old proposition that one should not scoff at religion. But why not? The best weapon against ridiculous belief is ridicule, and there is excellent evidence to show that this is excellent PR. People enjoy being made to laugh.

Robert Ingersoll in nineteenth century America used this approach to attack the views nominally held by the majority of its citizens and he was enormously successful. He became both affluent and politically influential. Although described as the most hated man in the country, he was extremely popular. His lectures on Some Mistakes of Moses are a superb send-up of creationism.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to imagine that creationism will ever go away. There will always be flat-earth societies. But surely the tide turned several years ago and the creationists have long been fighting a losing battle in New Zealand? In America, their high-water mark was clearly at Little Rock on Jan 5th 1982 with the Overton judgement.

Jim Ring, Nelson

Homeopathy Works

I wish to protest the criticism of homeopathic medicine in Skeptic 25.[Skeptics Bite Watchdog]

Certainly, homeopathic medicines are just water. But what more is needed? The magical qualities of water are well documented. It cures everything! Not only is it very good for the digestive system, but — as any sports enthusiast will confirm — it is a superbly effective cure for any injury incurred on the field of play. Many is the time I have seen a player with serious injuries get up and run away with (if anything) even more agility than before, following the application of water to the injured area.

This is not just a vague impression. I have spent thousands of hours in front of the television in dedicated study of this phenomenon, and I have managed to establish this as scientific fact in the same exhaustive fashion as the esteemed Consumer magazine: I have found another person who believes in this treatment.

My friend Mike not only studies the Water Cure Phenomenon on television, but also drinks large quantities of liquids containing water while engaged in his scientific studies. He claims that he feels happier and more confident after consuming these water bearing fluids, and that’s hardly surprising.

He insists that on one occasion he even saw water used to successfully solve a problem involving decapitation. Bloody Australians!

I can’t help wondering why Syd Eru, the Rugby League player (Skeptic 25), did not simply cure his broken wrist with water at the time of the injury. He could have finished that game. Still, I think his case provides solid proof of the value of faith healing.

While the medical “profession” sneeringly suggested he would be out of action for six weeks, the faith healer’s involvement enabled him to take the field for the New Zealand Maori side on October 17th, only five weeks and six days after his wrist was broken.

Grant Gillatt, Lower Hutt

A Challenge

Being a priest in a Christian church, and a confirmed Skeptic (a situation I enjoy so much I don’t attempt to resolve it), I am fascinated by Carl Wyant’s article “Angelic Sexism and the Politically Correct” [Skeptic 25].

As far as I can see, it would be a great advantage all round if the Skeptics did show an interest in religion and big-time superstition.

Mind you, it may be difficult to express this in an informed manner. I found it difficult to recognise familiar territory in Carl Wyant’s article, and there may not be many readers of the Skeptic who are up to date with the latest religious trends. But who could not but profit from the refreshing effects of reasonable doubt?

However much the contrary might be wished, religion is very much part of New Zealand society, and is a deep-rooted and powerful force amongst us. Nothing so significant should be beyond investigation, or be regarded as untestable.

I devoutly and piously hope that you will see your way to permitting investigation and debate on these absorbing issues.

Leicester Kyle, Vicarage, Kerikeri

When Faith-Healing Works

Sometimes feeling better isn’t a good sign at all… Carl Wyant recalls an occasion when faith healing showed itself better at handling symptoms than causes.

The following story is true; the names have been changed to protect the lame-brained. It’s not a terribly dramatic story of its type — that is, no one died — but it illustrates an important point. Over the years I have found, as a general rule of thumb, that most “natural healers” know hardly anything about the human body.

Once upon a time there was an attractive, young married couple, Jack and Jill, and Jack’s mother, a charming, vivacious 50-ish woman, with a growing reputation as a “spiritual healer.” I was deep into my Zen phase at the time, and too caught-up in the mysteries of the void and the unfathomable wisdom of one hand clapping to remember every last detail of the case, but here’s the basic gist.

Stomach Ache

Jack and Jill were around at our place, when late in the day Jill began to complain of a bad lower stomach pain. Being an occasional pancreatitis sufferer, I tend to take bad stomach pains seriously, so I suggested she see a doctor. But of course, being budding New Agers, they said, “we’ll see what mom says”; which is what I figured they’d say. I forgot about it.

When I saw Jack a couple of days later I asked him how Jill was. “She’s fine,” he said. “She had a few sessions with mom and it just went away. Tension, apparently, from a block in her sexual energies.”

Jack’s mom specialised in blockages of the “life airs” or vapours, ethers, chi, or whatever term is popular at the time. She was able to determine where these alleged blockages were by studying the client’s aura and then healed them by focusing her energy on the trouble spots.

Admittedly, I’m not a doctor, but somehow the kind of pain Jill had been describing, to my uncultured, insensitive, skeptical ear at least, didn’t sound like an everyday, run-of-the-mill type of pain, and for a minute I was almost disappointed that my more fearful diagnosis was so far off the mark.

More Than a Stomach Ache

Some days later I was informed that Jill was in the hospital recuperating from an operation to remove a burst appendix. Jack’s mom had miraculously stopped the pain sure enough, but not the progression of the appendicitis.

One would think that if a person was genuinely interested in healing people they would endeavour to learn as much about the body and its problems as possible. But most occult and natural healers don’t do this. For them, the main premise of New Age healing is that modern western science is all hogwash because it lacks the “spiritual” dimension. It’s not worth knowing.

This “no need to know” theme is a common one among paranormalists. Indeed, most religions would burn every book on Earth right now if they had the chance. Throughout history, religions have always hit the libraries.

It would behoove us to remember that despite the alleged “spiritual” dimension, the body is still a machine of sorts, and just as we take our cars to people who know a lot about cars, rather than, say, windmill systems, we should take our bodies to people who know a lot about bodies rather than, say, ritualistic superstition and fairytales.

Luckily there are people available who do try and find out as much as they can about the body; they’re called doctors.

Hokum Locum

More on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

An American study reported in the GP Weekly (2 Sep 1992) found that chronic fatigue syndrome was indistinguishable from depressive disorders. (Refer also Skeptic 21) Patients diagnosed as having CFS were likely to believe that their illness had a viral cause, but it is more likely that CFS is a new age variant of the 19th century neurasthenia.1

A large study reported in the BMJ is worth looking at in detail. 200 patients with CFS were studied. Many of the patients had tried alternative therapies which were “not helpful,” namely diets (27%), homeopathy (20%), hypnosis (5%). This has been confirmed in NZ by Murdoch, writing in the NZ Family Physician (Autumn 1992).

Again, most patients believed that their illness was caused by a virus and the study found that most patients had an emotional disorder. Despite this, most patients had recovered after two years and this outcome is also confirmed by Murdoch in an unpublished survey of New Zealanders with CFS. At all stages in the illness, “functional impairment was associated with several patient factors, including belief in a viral cause, leaving or changing employment, coping with illness by avoidance of exercise and alcohol, membership of a patient organisation, and emotional disorder.” The authors acknowledge that these factors may reflect a more severe illness and call for more prospective studies.

Despite the high incidence of emotional disorder, very few of the patients had been referred to a psychiatric outpatient clinic.

Despite the considerable evidence against an infectious cause of CFS, an Australian doctor has been treating patients with intravenous gamma globulin2 in what is described as a placebo controlled trial. Unfortunately, no reference is given to the trial and until I can get these details I will have to reserve judgement. Watch this space!

Clearly patients resist the suggestion that chronic fatigue has a psychological basis, and unfortunately some members of the medical profession continue to foster this belief. Of concern is the activity of quacks touting EAV, homeopathy, anti-candida diets and other useless nostrums. Patients should not be allowed DSW benefits unless they have willingly cooperated with a program of cognitive based psychotherapy.

References:

1. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. American Family Physician March 1992 p1205.
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2. Acceptance and treatment of CFS is improving. NZ Doctor International Oct 1st 1992.
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Follow up of patients presenting with fatigue to an infectious diseases clinic. British Medical Journal July 18th 1992 (also reported in New Zealand Medical Journal Sep 9th 1992, p366)

Chronic fatigue syndrome. The Lancet May 30th 1992, p1349

Psychiatric diagnosis and CFS link. GP Weekly Sep 2nd 1992

Fake GP

I was only mildly surprised to read in the BMJ (June 27th 1992, p1652) that a doctor with no medical qualifications had worked for 30 years as a general practitioner. All that is required to be a successful GP is the ability to listen sympathetically to patients. This is more effective than the millions of dollars wasted on drugs such as tranquilisers and antidepressants.

It took some time before the local chemists became suspicious and I quote one of them:

“If one 5 ml spoonful of hair shampoo is to be taken three times a day you tend to think there is something wrong. Time and time again there were inhalers to be injected, tablets to be rubbed in — all very unusual.”

Unfortunately no information was given as to whether any patients had been harmed and, conversely nothing from grateful patients. How on earth did he last 30 years before being exposed? I conclude that he must have been helping enough of his patients to forestall complaints about his eccentric prescribing. The English have a reputation for eccentricity and they certainly must have indulged themselves with this doctor!

Fishy Tale?

In a tribute to anthropomorphism, a Dr Motha will be birthing mothers in the company of dolphins who can “make ultrasonic communications with the fetuses.” All becomes clear when we are told that Dr Motha runs an alternative medicine clinic “including aromatherapy and reflexology.”

Personally I have always thought that dolphin intelligence was over rated since reading Restaurant at the End of the Universe when, at the end of the world, dolphin squeaks were translated as “goodbye and thanks for all the fish.”
GP Weekly August 19th 1992

Fringe Medicine and the Medical Practitioner

The New Zealand Medical Council normally does not involve itself in criticising unorthodox treatments unless the patient suffers harm. Doctors practising quackery are protected by a clause in Section 58, subsection 4 (2) of the medical registration legislation, which states: “no person shall be guilty of infamous conduct merely because of the adoption and practice of any theory of medicine or surgery if in doing so he has acted honestly and in good faith.” I find this statement disappointing, because a medical degree surely implies a knowledge and acceptance of scientific principles.

This clause has been dropped from the same legislation in Australia, Britain and Canada. However, the Medical Council has made it quite clear that quack doctors have to satisfy the doctrine of informed consent by fully briefing their patients “that these treatments are not part of conventional medicine and hence he or she is not practising as a registered medical practitioner in providing these therapies.” The medical registration authorities in Ontario, Canada obtained a change in their act which allowed them to ban such unproven remedies as amnion implants and chelation therapy. They also erased from the register a doctor who combined pendulum dowsing with a form of vega testing. I look forward to similarly robust attitudes towards dealing with quackery by our own authorities.

Having enjoyed the study of general science, I am amazed at the capacity of some doctors to believe in quackery. As H. L. Mencken said, “How is it possible for a human brain to be divided into two insulated halves, one functioning normally, naturally, and even brilliantly, and the other capable of ghastly balderdash?” The reference quoted below is well worth reading.

Unorthodoxy and the Registered Medical Practitioner. David Cole. Patient Management Vol 21 No 9.

Irlen Lenses

In Skeptic 22 I criticised the promotion of Irlen lenses in New Zealand and called these a quack remedy. Since then I have been criticised by Matthew Hobbs (Skeptic 24 — nice to have some feedback) on the grounds that it remains to be seen whether these lenses are a proven remedy for reading difficulties such as scotopic sensitivity.

My use of quack in this context is straight from the Concise English Dictionary: “one who offers wonderful remedies or devices.” Firstly, there is no evidence of the existence of the condition “scotopic sensitivity” and secondly, as the coloured lenses have not been tested they should not be used, as efficacy has not been established.

An article in the Marlborough Express (Sep 24th 1992) outlined how a 10 year old with reading difficulties was fitted with coloured plastic lenses. After six months his reading had improved 100 percent. What alternative explanation is there for this improvement, and how was the improvement measured? It is most likely that his reading disorder was related to aberrant conditioning. The more his parents expressed concern, the more reinforcement was given to the “poor reading.” The coloured lenses are a placebo associated with a change in management which, along with the passage of time, has lead to an improvement in his reading.

Faith Healing

Dr Keith Davidson kindly informed me of the source of the quote mentioned in Skeptic 24 “Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better.” It came from someone called Emile Cove. Keith also sent me a cutting from the Christchurch Press detailing the activities of an American faith-healer by the name of Morris Cerullo.

The article demonstrates the obscene side of evangelical fervor. People were warned “Cynicism will sour you, bring cancer to you, and disable you.” The audience revelled in an atmosphere of mass hysteria and were told by an expert on “biblical economics” that there was no pressure to give money but the amount given would determine how far God would move towards miracles! The cartoon that came with the article is great. It shows Cerullo gesticulating while his shadow is the outline of a devil.

The evidence for faith healing is not good. As most deluded beliefs rest on faith, and faith is not amenable to testing, it is unlikely that testing will ever be done. In fact believers are on record as saying that testing claims of faith healing would be disrespectful to God.

Skeptics and Consumerism

Members of the NZ Skeptics have enjoyed some media exposure lately. Denis Dutton has been conducting a vigorous rebuttal of acupuncture beliefs (Patient Management, September 1992) and Vicki Hyde is “Eyeing Alternative Medicine” in the August edition of the NZ Science Monthly.

Consumer magazine were so unhappy with our criticisms of their alternative medicine story that they came out fighting and awarded us with a magnifying glass. I have used it in vain to re-examine their original article, but I have not changed my mind about its feeble journalism. Consumer journalists should read NZSM to see how their story should have been treated.

A new development is Maori medicine, or rongoa, (NZ Doctor, August 20th 1992) Given reasons for its use by Maori are an inability to pay for prescriptions and a belief that rongoa can provide something that western medicine cannot. The Bay of Plenty Area Health Board has provided $15,000 for traditional Maori remedies, such as red matipo to purify the blood and para blue gum for asthma. These treatments are administered in an atmosphere of “love and kindness.”

I doubt whether any of these remedies will ever be subjected to a clinical trial, because such treatments have to have some kind of rational basis to start with, and any results are clearly explained by the very powerful and under-rated placebo effect. At a time when Maori health has never been worse (e.g. smoking-related disease) I find it incredible that an AHB can waste money on this nonsense.

Homeopathy

After our little tiff with Consumer magazine, I wrote to the School of Pharmacy in Dunedin to ask whether they would consider doing some tests of homeopathic solutions. Peter Hayes (Lecturer) kindly replied to my letter and enclosed a copy of a paper entitled “A case for homeopathy” written by a Scottish pharmacist, Dr Steven Kayne.

It is fascinating to read the intellectual rationalisations used by otherwise intelligent people in order to indulge their deluded beliefs.

Kayne concedes that increasing dilutions leave no discernible molecules in solution and then goes on to say “chemical analysis is therefore inappropriate”!!!

He further concedes that he cannot explain the mechanism of action but goes on to say “it is extremely difficult not to be impressed when one sees therapeutic efficacy clearly demonstrated.”

Evidently he discounts the placebo effect and refers to “published work in human and veterinary environments.” None of the references quoted support these claims. Furthermore, he says “It is inconceivable that consumers would continue to buy these [homeopathic] products if it was all a giant confidence trick.” He obviously needs to have a chat to some of our skeptical psychologists.

Finally, he refers to the enormous volume of circumstantial evidence “that the remedies actually work — patients do get better.” This is called the “Bellman’s fallacy” — because something has been said many times it must be true. His last word is “homeopathy should be available because patients want it, because it is safe and because it works.”

The Dean of the Pharmacy School also wrote and pointed out “because of patients’ belief in complementary medicine, I doubt that even if we were to show that they were purchasing pure water, it would cause any change in attitudes.”

I am forced to agree with him, but I could not help wondering what would happen if I started selling pure water labeled as various homeopathic remedies. I could make a fortune and it would be difficult to be prosecuted for fraud. Anybody want to go into business?

Open-mindedness

The same day that I was writing all this, I received an article from Bernard Howard written by one of my favourite skeptics, Petr Skrabanek. One of his best articles on the philosophy of skepticism is “Demarcation of the Absurd,” The Lancet April 26th 1986, in which he argues that it is possible to be too open minded.

Briefly, he argues that we need a demarcation of the absurd so that we don’t bother spending our whole lives on the look-out for flying pigs. Instead, we accept that the probability is so low that we don’t waste our time either looking or testing for airborne swine.

The article that Bernard sent is called “Why we must keep the lid on the black magic box” (Healthwatch Newsletter Summer 1992) and in it Skrabanek argues that testing of irrational beliefs can give them spurious respectability and “no amount of testing will convince a believer that he is mistaken.” Skrabanek also reviews the development of “black-box” quackery, which I have already mentioned can be practised in NZ with impunity due to our feeble medical registration legislation.

That reminds me of a television program on water divining where James Randi tested the top water diviners in Australia. None of them detected water flowing through one of ten pipes any better than chance. At the conclusion of the experiment he asked them about their beliefs which were totally unshaken!

Dr Jim Woolnough

The New Zealand Skeptics lost one of its founders with the recent death of Dr Jim Woolnough, aged 77.

Jim was not only a passionate Skeptic, but a courageous fighter for the rights of New Zealand women to obtain safe, legal abortions. He was indicted in 1974 for performing abortions for the Auckland Medical Aid Centre; his acquittal on appeal in 1975 resulted in the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act of 1977, which made abortion legal in most cases.

Jim will be missed.

Bands of Hope

Lewis Jones

Can a cotton wristband and a plastic button alleviate seasickness? The British Consumer’s Association thinks so, but scientific evidence indicates otherwise.

The sea has always brought out the best in me. Such as a good lunch. So all those ads for Sea Bands have been striking a responsive chord. You know the things. They keep coming up in those glossy colour brochures that fall out of your magazines and into your waste paper basket.

How the Royal Navy Fights Seasickness — you can’t speak plainer than that. If the navy doesn’t know about being seasick, who does? “The Royal Fleet Auxiliary tested the system in 1986, and declare it a useful, drowsiness and side-effect free alternative to drugs.”

At this point you look at the accompanying photograph and see what looks like a cotton wristband with an inset plastic button the size of an asprin. You look closer and examine the picture in careful detail to see what a Sea Band really is. It turns out to be a cotton wristband with an inset plastic button the size of an asprin.

Curiosity eventually got the better of me, and I decided to follow the Sea Band trail and see where it lead. When I contacted the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s Principal Medical Officer, Dr Driver, I struck lucky right away. It was Dr Driver who tested the Sea Bands aboard Sir Lancelot in the South Atlantic. Of the 17 people tested, two-thirds said they thought the Sea Bands effective and one-third didn’t. This is a very small sample, so how about a control group? Well, another test had been planned on the good ship Tristram, without the plastic buttons, but there wasn’t enough bad weather. Dr Driver emphasised that such evidence as there was, was anecdotal.

Consumers’ Association Test

Then the British Consumers’ Association (CA) decided to hand out Sea Bands to 27 passengers on a cross-channel ferry. About two-thirds thought they felt less ill than usual, and one third didn’t. Still no control group. And again the sample was small. The CA admitted this was not a controlled clinical trial, but couldn’t resist going on to enthuse about results that were “quite dramatic.” They reported giving Sea Bands to children who felt sea-sick, and within minutes, “They were up and frisking around again.” And there was one young girl who stopped being seasick when she put the bands on, but was sick again when she took them off to fill in the questionnaire.

The CA don’t agree that they were misleading their readers, in spite of a forthright picture-caption saying, “Sea Bands might work for you” (and so might touching wood). They saw it as an advantage that Sea Bands do not produce side effects (neither does touching wood).

Naval Assessment

Enter the Institute of Naval Medicine (INM), who tested Sea Bands against the drug hycosine, sometimes known as scopalomine. (At sea, this gives good control of symptoms for some hours). But the INM also tested against two placebos. One was a dummy drug (Vitamin C), and the other was a dummy band (the Sea band with the plastic button reversed so that it didn’t press against the wrist. Eighteen male volunteers were exposed to a “cross coupled nauseogenic motion challenge.” In other words, they were blindfolded and rotated in a chair while they performed head movements to commands from a loudspeaker above them.

This may sound pretty innocuous, but in fact it’s a fairly severe test. It will bring on the first symptoms of vomiting within 15 to 20 minutes on average. Each subject was tested on the motion challenge on four separate occasions, with at least a week between each. The results? The hycosine had an effect. But Sea Bands? No better than the dummy remedies. In fact, it emerges that the US Naval Aerospace people had tested Sea Bands back in 1982. The results then? No benefit.

You can browse through Gray’s Anatomy until your thumb is sore, without ever finding any connection between your wrist and being seasick. So why on earth did anyone think there was anything in the idea in the first place?

The Acupuncture Connection

It turns out that a Mr D.S.J. Choy had come up with a “seasickness strap” in New York in 1982. The idea was to find a way of pressing against the Nei Guan or P6 acupressure point, which is situated two Chinese inches away from the wrist crease. Why? At the end of the trail we open The Treatment of Disease by Acupuncture by Felix Mann, President of the Medical Acupuncture Society. He lists the ailments you can cure by pressure on the wonderful P6 point:

“Headache, insomnia, dizziness, palpitation of heart, epilepsy, madness, easily frigthened, swelling under armpits, cramp of elbow, cardiac pain, vomiting, middle regions blocked full and swollen, spleen and stomach not harmonised, stomach very painful, gastritis, enteritis, swelling of abdomen, diarrhoea, hiccoughs, coughing, depleted and weary, summer-heat diseases, rheumatism of foot, jaundice, irregular periods, post-partum bleeding and dizziness, spermatorrhoea, nearly pulseless.”

It’s difficult enough to come up with a remedy that can make a firm claim to cure one specific ailment. Remedies that claim to cure everything from hiccups to madness can only expect to be taken seriously by mediaeval visitors from a time warp.

Sea Bands does list a medical advisor: Dr Stainton-Ellis, a retired medical man. But Dr Stainton-Ellis said he had little contact with the company, and it is not clear that he is actually called upon to do anything. He told me that Sea Bands “are now being used in pregnancy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.”

In fact, in these areas Sea Bands have not so much been “used” as put under test, usually by the same small group of enthusiasts. These studies have been heavily criticised for their statistics, their poor methodology, their lack of double-blind controls, and the fact that other researchers have been unable to reproduce the results. But acupressure is a mere ghostly cousin of acupuncture. So is it worth considering acupuncture itself before a sea voyage?

Dr Peter Skrabanek has surveyed the needle scene, and reported to the medical journal The Lancet on 26 May 1984: “numerous controlled trials have shown that the claims for acupuncture have no scientific validity<193> Let us leave quackupuncture to quacks and let us tell the misinformed patient the truth, so that he or she can choose.”

This article appeared recently in the The Skeptic (UK) and is reprinted by permission of the author.

Update

Bernard Howard

1) After seeing Sea Bands advertised in the magazine of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, Mr Jones made a formal complaint to the British Advertising Standards Authority, on the basis of the facts in the article above. The Authority’s response:

CONCLUSION: Complaint upheld. The advertisers failed to provide evidence for any of the claims. The Authority was concerned that the advertisers were unable to support the claims for the product as required by the Code, and requested that they cease making any claims for the wrist band until adequate substantiation could be made available.

2) Of a similar nature are “Isocones,” which are said to induce sleep in insomniacs by pressing on the acupressure point in the wrist. Unlike the Sea Bands, you must use a fresh Isocone each night on each wrist. Whether the acupressure points concerned with seasickness and sleeplessness are identical is not revealed by the advertisements for these products. If the points are different, it must require skill to press the right spot to produce the desired effect; if identical, the effect produced must depend entirely on the expectations of the subject, that is, our old friend the placebo effect.

3) For those interested, a member reports seeing Isocones for sale in a New Zealand pharmacy. Whether Sea Bands are available here is something we have not bothered to discover

Angelic Sexism and the Politically Correct

Are Skeptics pussy-footing around by not attacking the major source of superstition and pseudoscience — religion?

With the reintroduction of serious Islam in Afghanistan, women are now required by law to cover themselves from head to foot.

“Yeah? So what?” you may ask. Well, supposing it read like this: “Intergalactic messengers impose harsh dress-code on Afghani sheilas”.

Some months ago, I wrote a letter of genuine inquiry to the Skeptic. My question revolved around NZCSICOP’s apparent lack of interest in religion and big-time superstition. I figured it was a mundane question and would no doubt bring me a pre-written blurb on the subject in the return mail. Little did I know that when I mailed that accursed letter I was blundering into a csicopian missile-testing range.

To correct any possible misunderstanding, I should first explain that far from trying to “destroy belief” or run an anti-God show, my interest in this caper is to protect people’s right to believe whatever they want. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to charge psychic batteries with the AEtherius Society, astral travel to Jupiter with Ankar 22, or even embrace the “satanic manifestations” of NZCSICOP, go for it. Furthermore, I happen to believe in, dare I say it, God. But when it comes to putting a gun to someone’s head and saying “believe or die”, call me a spoil-sport, but this is where I have to draw the line.

God and religion are totally different issues. God is so far out of the human ball-park it’s practically pointless to even speculate on it. Religion, on the other hand, is available for investigation and the claim that “religious beliefs are untestable” is not altogether true.

Religion doesn’t have anything to do with God, but it has everything to do with channeling. And I strongly suspect that the channeling syndrome can be explained in terms of divided consciousness or multiple-personality disorders.

Traditionally, religious channels receive telepathic messages from angels, The resulting revelations rarely, if ever, contain information beyond the general knowledge of the day. When the “prophet” dies, the chief followers promptly introduce legislation declaring that “the truth” has been revealed and further revelation is unnecessary and will henceforth be regarded as blasphemy; thus guarding their own interests against spiritual interlopers. Consequently religions start out as revolutionary movements, but quickly turn into oppressive, reactionary regimes.

Today the tradition continues, but instead of angels we get “the word” from extraterrestrial Space Brothers. Uri Geller, for example, gets his power from the supernatural intelligence Hoova. And like the forefathers, he is not partial to being examined on the subject. You must simply believe.

If religions were the warm fuzzy creations New Zealanders seem to think they are, there wouldn’t be a problem. But religions are not cute and cuddly. It’s noteworthy that every time issues like the death penalty or corporal punishment appear in the news, New Zealand’s own sanitised, user-friendly brand of Christianity is the first one out there, in a near paroxysm of blood lust, fully endorsing them.

One respondent’s suggestion that “those challenging religious beliefs [can] do so elsewhere as atheistic or political groups” is a moot point; it could likewise be said that skeptical time is wasted on pseudoscience because the information is already covered by the scientific community.

Could some Skeptics possibly be suffering from the weird new-age malady known as political correctness? Holy smoke! Islam doesn’t just sue its critics, it kills them. I have a whole file of writers who have been snuffed or jailed by the fun-loving followers of The Prophet. Yet, mysteriously, it is not politically correct to say anything about it.

The invariable reply to all this is, “but that’s what those people believe. It’s OK for them to enslave women, kill writers and practice zany medicine.”

Great! But why don’t the “beliefs” of Europeans and Americans command the same “respect”?

I fully support the notion of freedom of belief and have never advocated a “crusade against organised religion”. I do feel, however, that the components of religion at least, fall easily within the scope of NZCSICOP. But no worries! I have promised The Editor that I’ll never mention the subject again. La illah il-Allah!

Cold Reading for Fun and Profit

After seeing a demonstration of cold reading at the Skeptics Conference in 1989 I thought this was something I could have fun with, so I boned up on the list of commonplaces provided at the time:

  • most men have an unopened bottle of aftershave in their bathroom cabinet
  • most women have kept one of a pair of earrings after losing the other
  • most people can remember with embarassment being singled out at school, etc…

I tried it out on some friends and they were quite impressed, so I put it to practical use at the annual Lesbian and Gay Fair.

In 1990, I was Signor Momoque (Momoka was a name I was given on an island in the southern Solomons in 1975); in 1991, Madame Momoque; and in 1992. Swami Momokananda.

The Momoques offered gestalt palm reading (using both palms; the patter involved “integrating the emotional and intuitive left and right sides of the brain” — or right and left, whatever). The Swami offered chakra reflexology (the wrist, the ball of the thumb and the five fingertips corresponding to the seven “chakras” spaced along the spinal column.

To prepare the client, I used incense, a “crystal” (glass) ball dimly illuminated from below, a “crystal” (cut lead glass) hanging from a thread, and three stones — agate, quartz and greenstone. I “cleansed” the stones and the seven “chakra points of the hand” with drops of water from an elegant little bottle, and invited the client to choose one stone. (“Ah, you chose agate/quartz/greenstone. This indicates firmness/clarity/that you are close to the land…”) This preparation is an important part of sucking the client in. It doesn’t matter too much just what you do, as long as you do it with some confidence, and what the client assumes is the confidence of a skilled practitioner is really just the confidence of a little practice.

At first, I took myself too seriously, agonising over every statement. I found (as others have) that my greatest ally was the client and their sometimes pathetic, even desperate desire to believe, and to re- interpret what I said in the light of their condition.

Some lesbians thought this presentation was racist (an Indian client did not, and the turban and bindi (“caste mark”) were provided by a practising Hindu), so next year I will give the human race away, and either Morka, the friendly killer whale, will offer lateral line meridian readings, or MOKA-7, the robot, will practice cybernetic phrenology. (By mixing two disciplines, I will protect myself against criticism from “experts” in either).

What turned these into demonstrations of practical skepticism (and not your average fraud) is that at the end I gave each client an interesting-looking spill, with strict instructions not to open it until a particular time (well after the fair was safely over).

Two clients later told me they counted down to the correct moment before opening theirs. One of these is a well-known Wellington naturopath and New Age person who was vastly impressed with the accuracy of my reading.

Inside, the spills said:

CONGRATULATIONS
You have enjoyed a “cold reading”. I have no special powers, and it was not your hand that told me anything. I used some generalities that are true for everyone, fished a bit, and guessed what I could from your clothes, manner, walk, etc.

The same techniques could be used equally well in the guise of crystal gazing, astrology, tea-leaf reading, etc.

In return, I hope I encouraged you to feel good about yourself (and I hope you go on feeling good about yourself). Isn’t that worth $2 to the Aids Foundation.

By asking clients to “cross my palm with gold” (and thank heaven for the “gold” $1 and $2 coins!) I raised about $30 for the Aids Foundation at each fair — as well as spreading a little light where it is most needed.

Consumer Bites Back

Not surprisingly, the awarding of the Bent Spoon to Consumer magazine saw a vigorous defence mounted by the Consumers’ Institute.

David Russell, chief executive of the institute, has said on a number of occasions that he considered that the institute had been “publically defamed” by the Skeptics, and that comments concerning the article were “extreme and defamatory.”

In the early days following the announcement, Mr Russell debated the issue with Dr Gordon Hewitt on Morning Report. He laughed off Kim Hill’s question of suing NZCSICOP over the alleged defamation.

The impression gained from Mr Russell during the debate was that the magazine had deliberately taken a soft line on alternative therapies because many people believed in them. Dr Hewitt picked up this point and challenged it by asking if Consumers’ Institute would then ignore taking action against a dangerous toaster merely because a lot of people used it.

The analogy was rejected, not answered. Mr Russell continued with this line elsewhere, stating that “given the strong public interest in [natural therapies] and surveys which indicate a large degree of satisfaction with natural therapies, we cannot see anything wrong with explaining to our members what is involved in a few of the more commonly-used therapies.”

One could argue that people were strongly interested in some of the various pyramid schemes that have appeared on the New Zealand scene, and that many were very supportive of them. This does not mean that they should be left uncriticised. In addition, NZCSICOP would have welcomed a real explanation of just what is involved in the therapies Consumer covered, but this was not done, as an examination of the article’s text clearly shows.

An astounding statement was made by David Hindley, research writer for the chief executive, in response to a letter of complaint made independently of the Skeptics. In it, Mr Hindley said:

If you are aware of recent research which conflicts with our findings, we would be very grateful if you could pass on details to us.

This suggests that Consumer‘s in-house research team came up with no such material, a suggestion which has extremely disturbing implications for the thoroughness of research and preparation put into the magazine’s material.

One point mentioned in the radio interview which, unfortunately, was not taken up was the suggestion Mr Russell made that alternative therapies can’t do anyone any harm, implying that one need not be concerned about them. There’s a dead baby in Wellington to disprove that. The unmonitored nature of alternative therapies and therapists means that there is very little hard data on the harm being done. Cases which end up in Coroner’s Court, however, cannot and should not be ignored.

The idea that “it’s all harmless anyway” had been repeated in other areas where Mr Russell has said that “our research into natural therapies indicates that, so long as the practitioner has the best training available, potential side effects are limited.” It would be startling to find direct side effects from water solutions and sugar tablets, foot massage or sniffing essential oils.

Mr Russell is apparently unaware that the vast majority of alternative therapists in New Zealand have very little in the way of actual medical training, and citing examples of such training from Britain or Europe is hardly applicable.

One could also question whethre there is any benefit in training in health-related practices which have no substantive evidence to support them. No matter how much time one spends training as a homeopath, this has no effect whatsoever on the fact that the materials used are dilute water and the methodology used medieval.

Nevertheless, Mr Russell states that he has “no qualms” about stating that there are “good” and “bad” homeopaths based on the level of training required in Europe.

A typical response has been to attack conventional medicine as not being adequate in some areas, in the apparent belief that adopting untested, unproven, undemonstrated therapies is somehow an answer to perceived inadequacies in orthodox medicine.

The language became stronger following the NZCSICOP conference, when renewed media interest was shown in the Bent Spoon Award. The Dominion reported Mr Russell as calling Skeptics “narrow-minded bigots.” [No we’re not suing for defamation either.] The report went on to quote him as saying:

In the 19th century, they would have been dismissing the discovery of penicillin because they did not have the evidence to prove it.

We can certainly agree with Mr Russell on this point, given that penicillin wasn’t discovered in the 19th century — it was first found in 1929 and not isolated until 1940…

However, questions of historical accuracy aside, the discovery and development of penicillin provides a perfect example of the sort of practice which Skeptics worldwide applaud. It produced miraculous cures but, unlike those of a more questionable nature, it did so under tested, controlled conditions time and time again. Within a few years of its mass production, penicillin had demonstratably saved thousands of lives, and it continues to do so.

The significance of penicillin was recognised in double-quick time, with the scientists involved awarded Nobel Prizes within four years of the substance’s purification. We would be interested to hear of Nobel Prizes, or any other recognised scientific awards, made for the “discoveries” of alternative therapists.

What is more, the incredible benefits of penicillin led to the search for, and discover of, other antibiotics which have also made obvious and effective contributions towards the good health and longer lives of a large proportion of this planet’s population.

What homeopathic remedy has had similar success? Consumer said that these remedies stimulate the body to heal illnesses, but there has been no clear evidence of this in the 200 years since their invention.

Mr Russell used the same analogy in the most recent issue of Consumer (September 1992), correcting his dating lapse. In this editorial, the Skeptics were accused of having a “surprisingly poor understanding…of how scientific knowledge is developed, and an even poorer ability to read properly.”

We feel that, on the contrary, Consumer and, by association, Consumers’ Institute have displayed an ignorance of basic scientific principles and scientific history, an unjustifiable defensiveness which has made them unwilling to admit any form of deficiency, and a degree of credulity unacceptable in a consumers’ protection organisation.

The editorial said that Consumers’ Institute is sending a magnifying glass to NZCSICOP to redress our reading problems — let’s hope that in the future their errors are so subtle we need the magnifying glass!

Skeptics Crush Baby Rabbits

The abuse of the Skeptics as “arrogant, narrow-minded bigots” by defenders of Consumer is annoying, but it doesn’t yet surpass an art teacher who wrote an article for a Wellington paper in 1986. Overseas — or rather underseas — skeptics, he warned, had once tried to disprove ESP by going down in two submarines. In one, skeptics rushed baby rabbits to death, while in the other submarine skeptics measured the reactions of their mother to see if she was getting the terrible psychic vibes. Despite her pathetic shudders, delivered on cue, those awful skeptics still wouldn’t believe in ESP!

This malicious little fabrication might inure skeptics to other accusations. But it still comes as a shock — even for arrogant, bigoted, narrow-minded baby rabbit crushers — to be capped politically correct. Carl Wyant suggests it (see p. 15), claiming that our failure to attack religion betrays a politically correct solicitude for the sensitivities of other cultures. Okay, we give in. If Carl can supply the Teheran postal address of the Hashemi Rafsanjani, I’ll send the good cleric the next Skeptic, along with Carl’s address if the fellow has any further questions or lines of enquity. And thanks for the suggestion, Carl.

A second blast comes from Frank Haden (see p. 13), who left the Wellington conference feeling that “the group is in grave danger of being subverted by believers.” Maori-bashers and gay-bashers were subject to ridicule, he writes, along with the Round Table and Treasury incompetents. That there are no Skeptic defenders of Maori or gay-bashing is hardly disturbing, but Haden’s charge of political bias does have some basis, given what both Jack Shallcrass and Brian Easton had to say in Wellington. Their talks were political, though this was unusual for a Skeptics conference.

A more important point of clarification for Frank Haden. The Skeptics are not interested in “universal disbelief,” as he call it. Radical Pyrrhonian skepticism is pointless, except to bait believers. Skeptics accept the intellectual credibility of modern science, not because they’re by temperament obedient, but because of all the human enterprises of the last millenium, science is among the most successful. Skeptics tend to be what philosophic parlance calls pragmatists and “scientific realists”: they view the world as existing independently of our beliefs and desires, having its own intractable nature. We’re right about it, or wrong, but the world itself must determine that. We don’t construct reality, we discover it. The Skeptics’ call is not for disbelief, but for evidence.

To the contrary, it’s one of the delusions of extremist political correctness that it can freely alter reality by relabeling it. It’s not nice to be crippled, so we make it better by calling it “disabled,” and when that seems tired we go on to “physically challenged.” The names change but, alas, the condition does not, and you’d have to be optically challenged not to see it. An interesting foyer argument developed at the conference with Frank on the one side and Hugh Young and Vicki Hyde on the other, but I cannot see that politically correct language has much bearing on the mission of the Skeptics.

Still, if there are Skeptics worried about political correctness, they will be happy to know that our new leader, Vicki Hyde is (1) a woman of (2) Maori descent (Ngati Maniapoto). She’s never crushed a rabbit, but watch out bunnies — she (3) owns a ferret, and he’s said to be a dedicated skeptic.

Forum

Unconvinced Environmentalist

Your main article in the March issue (Skeptic, #23), “The Skeptical Environmentalist” by Vincent Gray, is perhaps the worst I have ever read. It consists almost entirely of bald assertions, all un- referenced and mostly false, vilifying unspecified “environmentalists”. I shall take room to correct only the worst of these assertions; my main complaint about the piece is more formal, namely that it is unrelated to the NZCSICOP’s aims, and on that ground alone should never have been printed in the magazine.

On the level of fact, Gray is almost completely astray. He admits “there are still people without enough to eat” but claims there’s lately been a “reduction in the likelihood of famine”. This is but one of a dozen major falsehoods in the article. More people are starving than ever, half a billion are severely malnourished, and the prospect is for yet worse famines. The “world glut of food” which Gray asserts is a cruel myth”.

Gray asserts “Green policies are unlikely to help solve these problems. Indeed they may exacerbate them.” No reasoning, or fact, is offered to support these contentions. The truth, by contrast, is that erosion of ecosystems’ productive capacities has already proceeded very far. I entreat readers to seek out the reputable sources which I have mentioned, and ascertain the facts on these crucial matters.

Gray’s main method is the well known “straw man” technique. He claims we have made exaggerated statements which he then knocks down, but many of the statements I have never seen before. Yet others that he mocks are not exaggerated, e.g., that human activities have “depleted resources”. Why would anyone want to mock that accurate statement?

He tries to make out that environmentalists have avoided the issue of population growth (while also accusing us of scaremongering with the term “population explosion”). I would concede that some sections of the environmental movement have indeed underplayed this issue, but as a generality, he’s wrong. It has been widely agreed that the four main categories of environmental problem are pollution, overpopulation, resource depletion and militarism. To the extent that population growth has been insufficiently curbed, the blame must be found largely elsewhere, not in failure of advocacy by environmentalists.

Gray suggestes that because weather forecasting is of limited reliability (though not totally unreliable as his unspecified “one study” claims) climate projections, e.g. nuclear winter, must be implausible. This is fallacious. A major global perturbation, such as a huge sooty cloud spreading over much of the planet or a 30% increase in the carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere, will cause results more confidently predictable than the very delicate quasi- random day-to-day changes of mere weather. Artificial climate change (a more accurate term than “global warming”) is accordingly predicted by almost all the relevant experts who have examined the issue. Gray does readers a severe disservice by trying to present a different picture.

Perhaps his gravest accusation is “lack of attention to human welfare when it conflicts with environmental dogma”. The leading environmentalists (such as Edward Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist) have consistently maintained that it is only by taking care of Nature that humans can prosper. Trying to set up a phoney conflict “environment versus humanity” is an ignorant and mischievous distraction.

I cannot fathom why the editor of NZ Skeptic would contemplate such deceptive rubbish which furthermore is irrelevant to the purposes of NZCSICOP, to which I therefore do not renew my subscription.

Robert Mann, Editor, NZ Environment

CO2 and the Economy

While I agree with the points in Dr Gray’s article that some environmentalists use bad science and may appear to ignore population pressures on resources, I find the remainder of the article flawed.

The uncritical acceptance of the statement that a 20% reduction in CO2 will deepen New Zealand’s current recession, create more unemployment and inhibit exports is particularly disappointing.

Obviously a CO2 reduction strategy will produce growth and investment in some businesses, such as the large insulation manufacturer I work for and reduce the importance of othr businesses such as coal mining.

Overall, I see a net economic and social benefit to New Zealand from a considered strategy to reduce CO2 emissions. The research by many energy specialists both in New Zealand and overseas seems to support my understanding.

If global warming due to CO2 proceeds as predicted by a majority of the world’s climatologists, it will result in massive and costly environmental damge. After CFCs, acid rain and DDT, perhaps it is better to be cautious rather than careless.

I feel it was unfortunate that such a polarised view of environmentalists was published without a counter point.
Mark Stacey, Auckland

Scientific Reasoning

The views expressed by school teachers cited by M Carol Scott (Skeptic 23) exemplify a widespread shortcoming of science education at secondary and indeed tertiary level: its failure to inculcate scientific reasoning modes.

Science teaching appears to exhibit two main modes of transmission:

The “Gospel Truth” delivery style: “this is how things are,” usually employed when dealing with noncontroversial “hard facts,” such as acid/alkali reactions, Newton’s laws, or the digestive system of a rat.

  • The “Article of Faith” approach: “scientists believe that,” used when dealing with potentially controversial or non-deductively demonstrable models like stellar and biological evolution.

Laboratory work in educational institutions is usually only to illustrate what has been pre-taught; in my day “experiments” at school were “to prove that…” They were not at all experimental, and contained not a vestige of the epistemological processes which characterise “real” science in their design or execution. Since then, Discovery Learning methods have become more fashionable, but I would debate the assertion that they achieve little more than the Classical methods do in practice.

Do most degree holders in science really have a background in which scientific thinking was paid much formal attention to? To what extent do secondary science teacher training courses train aspirants to develop scientific reasoning processes in school pupils? In the case of my own first degree and teacher training, these questions are purely rhetorical. Now that I am on the other side of the lecturer’s bench, I am giving such matters a great deal of thought.

Science is not what scientists “believe” (that word describes the claims of both fundamentalists and palaeontologists!) and science is not an amorphous compendium of “facts.” It is an epistemological process which has evolved since the Renaissance. It is a way of thinking.

An introduction to science at first-year university level (compulsory for all BSC students) should feature a priming session of several weeks on the history and philosophy of science, and scienitific epistemology (The Scientific Method, as opposed to “scientific methods”). School science should similarly aim less for fact-cramming and more for cognitive development and the inculcation of scientific reasoning abilities.

Until we do just that, I believe that words like “evidence,” “theory,” and “chance” will remain forever incomprehensible to the general public, not to mention many of the teachers wbo produce that general public.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek, Goroka, PNG

If we are to teach epistemology in a basic science course, which epistemology is appropriate? In my experiance, Popperian falliblism is the most useful way to introduce philosophy of science to science students. Popper is hardly the last word (philosophical questions don’t have last words), but he does give students a useful structure for distinguishing legitimate science from religion and — most importantly — from pseudoscience. -DD

Light Hats

That photograph of the “light hat” (Skeptic 24) is a beauty! But as foolish as it seems, there may well be some reasonable scientific evidence to support its use.

There is a good body of scientific literature regarding seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and its treatment (including shining light on the patient and by taking a variety of medicines), despite the rather convenient-sounding acronym. There are four subtypes noted in DSM-III- R, the well-known psychiatry manual.

Research into the aetiology and treatment of SAD was sparse prior to the 1980s, but came of age rapidly in the middle of that decade, mainly under the impetus of Rosenthal and colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health, Maryland, in the United States. Numerous well-designed clinical studies were published by this group.

The mechanism of the action of “phototherapy” (shining light on the patient, as in the photograph) remains controversial. Many researchers agree on the involvement of melatonin, suggesting that undiminished melatonin secretion during the months of shorter photoperiod may have a depressant effect. This is based on the observation that light exposure during phototherapy suppresses melatonin secretion; the first treatments with phototherapy were based on the original biological observation that seasonal rhythms in animals depended on photoperiod. The mismatch of melatonin and photoperiod in the human has been described as a “phase delay,” and as a “desynchronisation between solar and biological clocks.” Phototherapy aims to artificially extend the sufferer’s photoperiod. The first report of a portable unit was I think in 1990.

Drug therapy is not usually the first line of treatment for recognised SAD, but at least four groups of compounds have been used: beta- blockers, serotonin precursors and serotonin releasing compounds, benzodiazepines and monoamine-oxidase inhibitors.

There are obvious difficulties in carrying out conventional blind cross-over placebo-controlled trials in the assessment of the usefulness of phototherapy, but results thus far have prompted some to suggest that it would be wise to screen patients with major depression for a seasonal component.

A line in Morin’s 1990 paper states that SAD frequently improves with “travel toward the equator”. Suffering as we are now through a Christchurch winter, it’s easy to agree!

John Britten, Christchurch

Equine Pseudoscience

Do horses really have a distinct set of personality types or is it just a load of equine excreta?

There are times when I think all taxonomy is pseudoscience. It certainly seems to have a predisposition that way. For example, people have been classified by their star signs, the pattern of whorls and loops on the skin of their finger tips, their birthplace, shape of head, colour of skin, handwriting, and so on. Some of these are without doubt useful in given situations, others seem arbitrary to say the least.

When it comes to classifying species, we have a workable system based on evolutionary principles. It is well understood despite at times being difficult to apply. However, how do we fare classifying individuals of species other than our own?

Take horses for example. Why horses?

Well, for me they are an vere present factor in the equation of life. My partner and three daughters are besotted with the creatures.

On any non-working day they can be found washing them, grooming them, dressing them, undressing them, riding them, talking to them (or about them), or any combination of the aforementioned.

Consequently there are a lot of horse books in our home. Recently I picked up one entitled Professor Beery’s Illustrated Course in Horse Training; Book 2 Disposition and Subjection (published in 1962). What a load of … pseudoscience! It begins with a classification of horses into four types by disposition;

  1. Teachable, kind
  2. Stubborn, wilful
  3. Nervous, ambitious, determined
  4. Treacherous, ill-tempered, resentful

Now there’s a nice piece of anthropomorphism. Apparently, according to Professor Beery, each kind of disposition is indicated externally by certain lines of the head.

Type 1 is characterised by a kind eye, a deep forehead and plenty of room between the ears.

Type 2 is recognised by a bulge below the line of the eyes and a heavy jowl.

Horses of type 3 have their eyes set far out to the side and forward, and are favoured with forehead furrows.

Type 4 have a prominent forehead (indicating treachery), a dished face, small eyes, and long narrow ears which are hairy inside. Some of these descriptions sound more like people I’ve met, but that’s another story.

Professor Beery assures us that type 1 horses are worthy of the utmost confidence when trained, and make perfect family horses. The type 2 variety take a long time to train and have no feelings when their senses are aroused (whatever that means). Type 3s act through fear and are liable to shy, or run away. They surrender unconditionally. Type 4 resist like bulldogs and are liable to kick, bite and bolt.

The impact of the theory is somewhat lessened by a strong implication that through good training a horse can overcome these natural tendencies. After all, as Professor Beery says, “Because a horse has certain natural inclinations there is no reason wby he should be spoiled or vicious. Many a man has become a public benefactor who would have been a criminal, if he had allowed his natural desires to govern him.”

Horses are not seen as being of one type. They may combine characteristics of two or more types. They can be described as being, for example, 3-2; a combination of types 3 and 2 with 3 predominating. An added complication is the fact that the lines of the head may not be immediately obvious, the eye may deceive. In many cases a horse’s true disposition can only be ascertained by running a hand down its face.

No head can be fully read from any one angle. The book describes many combinations of types viewed from the side, top, front and bottom of a horse’s head. Apparently some characteristics can only be discerned when lying flat on your back scrutinising the underside of the horse’s jaw.

An interesting paragraph describes how to classify mules, the majority of which are said to be 3-2 types, all having a smattering of 4. Professor Beery exhorts us to “Never allow a mule to get the better of you.”

Knowing that Arab horses have typically a dished face, I was intrigued to see how the author would handle their classification. He tells us not to let this one characteristic cause us to misjudge the horse’s disposition. Apparently, only an exaggeratedly dished face indicates that the Arab is treacherous, ill-tempered and resentful.

This is not a review and I am not recommending that you buy the book (although it is available from the Beery School of Horsemanship, Pleasant Hill, Ohio, USA). It’s just that a lot of the style seems familiar. What do you think? All those in favour say “Yes.” All those against say “Neigh.”