Another cracker of a conference

THE 2009 annual NZ Skeptics Conference in Wellington was its usual mix of good times and thought-provoking material, though with some unique touches. The Kingsgate Hotel was a rather more luxurious venue than we’re used to; the few problems that arose were mostly due to the high number of late enrolments, making this one of the largest gatherings in recent years.

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mp3 blues

HAVING recently joined the happy hordes of mp3 player owners, our household has been getting an object lesson in the nature of random events. For those who have yet to succumb to the charms of these amazing little gadgets, they can hold thousands of songs in memory and play them back in many different ways. You can, for example, just play a single album, or make up a playlist of songs for a party, or to encapsulate a particular mood.

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A good excuse for a party

FEBRUARY 12 is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, and the old guy, or at least his ideas, are still in pretty good shape. While evolutionary theory has been broadened and elaborated extensively in the 150 years since The Origin of Species was published in 1859, Darwin’s fundamental concept of natural selection remains central to our understanding of life’s diversity. New Scientist noted that 2009 is also the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the telescope, and used this as an excuse to ask a panel of eight whether Galileo or Darwin had done more to knock man off his pedestal. Opinion was divided, but Darwin was favoured by a small majority. One comment in the introduction by Michael Brooks was that Galileo has had more impact in the long term. His rationale for saying this was that far more people believe the Earth goes round the sun than believe people are descended from animals via natural selection, with the figures in the US being 80 percent and 50 percent respectively. Perhaps this is just a

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Ominous trends in the schoolroom

Another annual conference has come and gone, with the usual collection of thought-provoking presentations. This issue we present two highlights, from Waikato University biology lecturer and science communicator Alison Campbell, and Greek Honorary Consul Nikos Petousis.

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Some things do change

It always helps keep matters in perspective to read about skeptical episodes from days gone by. I’ve recently been reading The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero, by William Kalush and Larry Sloman; Houdini, of course, is regarded as one of the godfathers of the modern skeptical movement. Though he made his reputation from his magic act and, particularly, his miraculous-seeming escapes, he devoted much of his later life to an ongoing battle with fraudulent mediums. Always open to the possibility of communicating with the dead, he nevertheless knew better than anyone, from his background in magic, how easy it was to fool an observer unversed in the techniques of deception. Indeed, in his early years, struggling to put food on his table, he had performed a spiritualist act himself, before developing a full appreciation of the ethical issues involved with preying on the bereaved.

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Culture wars heat up

Those of you with broadband might enjoy one of the latest shots in the US ‘culture wars’ over creation and evolution. Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, is a two-hour documentary on the famous Dover, Pennsylvania trial which ruled that Intelligent Design was merely creationism repackaged, and that teaching it in a school classroom violated the US’s constitutional separation of church and state. It can be viewed on the Public Broadcasting Service website (

It took about a century from the publication of The Origin of Species for an organised creationist movement to arise, and then a couple of decades before the scientific community realised it wasn’t going to go away and started to produce detailed responses to creationism. This has expanded in recent years to include more general critiques of religion, from such authors as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.

Now, we may be starting to see the beginnings of another swing of the pendulum. February sees the release of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a film by economist and game-show host Ben Stein. Its thesis is that scientific institutions across America are in the grip of an atheist cabal who persecute anyone who dares to suggest the universe may have had a designer. In one much-publicised case, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, co-author of The Privileged Planet, was denied tenure at Iowa State University. More recently, one Nathaniel Abraham has filed a US$500,000 suit for wrongful dismissal from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He was fired in 2004 after declaring he rejected evolution-when his job specification required him to work on evolutionary aspects of zebrafish embryology.

Set against that is the case of Christine Comer, the Texas Education Agency’s director of science, who was forced to resign in December after forwarding an email advertising an upcoming talk by Barbara Forrest, co-author of Inside Creationism’s Trojan Horse. This was deemed incompatible with the agency’s avowed neutrality on the creation/evolution issue. Her boss, chairman of the State Board of Education Don McLeroy, has retained his job despite having lectured favourably about intelligent design.

Francis Collins, author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, has told the New York Times that many of his scientific colleagues were “a bit puzzled” by his faith, but generally were very respectful. If the problems claimed in Expelled actually existed, he was certain he would know about it, he said. Ben Stein claims open debate is being shut down; the reality is that there is more debate on this issue than ever, and the creationist/ID side, for now at least, is finding the scrutiny uncomfortable.

The dangers of flying

I must make a point of never again flying while the All Blacks are playing in the World Cup. I was over the Atlantic for the 1995 final, and flying home from the South Island during this tournament’s quarter-final. The conclusion is plain: if I’m flying, the All Blacks lose. I know this is nonsense, but the power of coincidence is such that when two rare events coincide twice, it’s hard not to feel they must be linked. Even when the main reason for my trip south was to attend the 2007 New Zealand Skeptics’ Conference, where the pitfalls of such superstitious thinking were repeatedly exposed. As always, the event was a hugely enjoyable occasion, with lots of good company, interesting presentations and fine food.

The conference kicked off on Friday evening with a competition to build the best Rife machine, from a pile of assorted components. All of the creations worked as well as the genuine article, an example of which one member had brought along.

Saturday dawned fine, calm and clear (despite a forecast from Ken Ring that the weekend would be “mostly dry, cloudy, and annoyingly windy), and began with a history of magic from local magician Geoff Diggs, who explained why magicians have not come so far since the days they were rated only slightly above freak shows and the man who lifts steel anvils with his private parts. This was followed by a session on alternative medicine. After lunch came talks on psychic hotlines (see NZ Skeptic 84), creationism in Australasia, and a presentation on a recent documentary about big cats in Canterbury which was entertaining if not entirely persuasive. The day concluded with a discussion on the proposal to change the society’s official name from the New Zealand Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (Inc.) to the simpler and more familiar NZ Skeptics. Then it was time for dinner, and the presentation of the annual Bent Spoon and Bravo Awards (see p18). The day finished as it began, with a magician, this time Michael Woolf, who baffled all with his prediction of that day’s Christchurch Press headline several days in advance.

The name change proposal drew widespread support, and was duly actioned at the AGM the following morning. Full details in next issue. More illuminating presentations followed on economics, the dangers (or otherwise) of sodium in food, and the poor correlation between naturalness and goodness. Expect to see some of these items in the next few issues of the NZ Skeptic.

Then it was off to explore the wonders of the mainland. A highlight of the trip was Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World in Wanaka. Stuart, a skeptic of long standing, has a challenge to psychics-see the details at

But it’s good to be home. Now if only we could have avoided that flight.

An Aussie takeover?

The Letters to the Editor columns have been spilling over with irate readers concerned about yet another attack on New Zealand’s sovereignty. The cause of all the anger is the proposed Therapeutic Goods Act, which would see a trans-Tasman agency take over the regulation of therapeutic products – a term which includes not only medicines and medical devices, but also complementary medicines and dietary supplements. No one seems too concerned that the new Australia New Zealand Therapeutic Products Authority will be regulating medicines; the fuss is all about what this move will do to the alternative health industry.

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