Time for a new name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Email: [email protected]

And I didn’t even wish upon a star

I HAD a dream. One of those ones which are slightly alarming in that they come true. In my dream a friend happily announced she was pregnant and when I chanced to bump into her the next day, she told me – excitedly – the good news.

Continue reading

The Wedge’s thin edge gets blunted

The decision by Judge John Jones ruling that the promotion of Intelligent Design (ID) in schools is a violation of the constitutional ban on teaching religion, is at least a temporary victory for scientific integrity (Newsfront, p10). Previous attempts to get creationism into the American classroom have been more ambitious, notably a Louisiana act which would have mandated for biblical literalism to be granted equal time alongside evolutionary theory, finally struck down in a majority Supreme Court decision in 1987. The proposal in Dover, Pennsylvania, was modest by comparison. It required that teachers read a 159-word statement declaring evolution “a theory … [t]he theory is not a fact”, and stating that ID is “an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.” The book, Of Pandas and People, was recommended for students who wished to understand what ID involves.

Continue reading

A small success story

Just once in a while, speaking up can make a difference.

As I entered my favourite local pharmacy, I was disturbed to read a sign on the window announcing that a certain iridologist would be holding consultations at this shop at a future date. I asked the pharmacist if he really felt this was helping the community or his image. He asked what the problem was. I said that I had to rely on his professional expertise for assistance in choosing between competing products, and his promotion of iridology would make me (and others) dubious about his professional judgment. I’m afraid I described the field of iridology with some strong epithets, moderated only by the presence of female assistants and shoppers.

After promising him more factual information, I went home and dug out the Truth Kit on Iridology prepared by Dr John Welch a few years ago. I left this with the chemist, promising him that he’d be unhappy when reading it. My expectations were minimal, for I’d also noted an ad in a local oldfolks publication promising that this pharmacy regularly had visits from the iridologist. There was clearly some degree of commitment by the pharmacy.

To my utter surprise, on a later visit to the shop, the Truth Kit was returned with a comment that the iridologist would not be returning again. The pharmacist had not stopped with the truth kit, but had (very properly) obtained an independent opinion about iridology. We agreed that a ‘discipline’ purporting to diagnose illness, that would misdiagnose nonexistent problems while missing actual disorders, was not acceptable.

This was my first success in modifying a misleading action by a chemist shop. I’ve had total failures: another chemist was selling oxygenated vitamin water, and my protestations that these claims were nonsense were met by the statement that “many people think it’s very powerful”. Success was due to the fact that iridology makes specific claims for efficacy and accuracy, and these claims had been demolished by the Truth Kit.

Most health products are sold with no real claim to do anything. The labels will say, for example, “This plant is traditionally used to treat xxxx,” or “This product supports liver/heart/circulation/brain function”. Cleverly worded but meaningless statements like this are neither provable nor disprovable.

On the other hand, it’s not the job of skeptics to stop people from wasting their money on magic water or enchanted inositol pills. (If that is our self-appointed task, perhaps we should start by investigating the claims of financial advisers compared with their actual results.)

Dare to Disbelieve

Apparently mediums and the paranormal have replaced cop shows as the latest television drama genre of choice — if you are to believe TV3’s marketing, whether news or promo puff pieces, there’s fact behind the fiction. Yeah right….

TV3 has been heavily promoting their Dare to Believe (DTB) low-budget exploitainment series with performer Jeanette Wilson, stating on its website that the show reunites New Zealanders with loved ones who have ‘passed’. The channel shouldn’t get a free run to exploit the grieving or recently bereaved in the name of mass entertainment and economic gain. To date, there’s nothing more to it than the usual banalities, generalities and classic cold reading spiels seen time and time again.

Apologists for the industry often claim that it doesn’t matter whether such performers are genuine or not, as all they are doing is simply providing ‘comfort’. Deception and delusion, no matter how well intended, are nonetheless exploitative. That exploitation can take many forms, whether causing unnecessary heartbreak for distraught parents of missing children, fleecing little old ladies out of their retirement savings, or breaking up relationships through inappropriate advice — all of which we have seen occur here and overseas.

What can you do? Write to TV3 and ask them where’s the evidence for them stating unequivocally that the spirits of dead people are lining up on demand. Challenge them to produce a real test of Wilson’s capabilities. Better broadcasters and real investigative reporters overseas have done this. Tell TV3 how they look sooo last century and, frankly, ignorant, in breathlessly promoting the same old tired spiels as somehow cutting-edge. This sort of stuff was old hat to Houdini.

20/20 did a poor job last year in its initial promo item on Wilson, and got the Bent Spoon Award for it, a sad thing to see in a once well-regarded current affairs programme. Perhaps it’s not surprising that an ‘infotainment’ tabloid news show like Nightline can be used as a promotional vehicle for the debut show of Dare to Believe.

If you have concerns about this approach to news, or the poor judgement shown by TV3 in supporting DTB as a programming choice, or what this says about TV3/CanWest as a company, by all means let TV3 know.

Or try a different tack. Write to the advertisers in the surrounding timeslots and express your disappointment that they are being seen in conjunction with this form of low quality exploitainment, how it hurts their image to be associated with it, how you’ll be switching to a competitor when making future purchases of their products or services.

Or just turn the TV off….

Currents of fear

Given his ratings, only a tiny handful of you probably saw Paul Holmes in his new slot on Prime a few weeks back, talking to Don Maisch, described as an Australian expert on the health effects of magnetic fields. More precisely, he’s doing a PhD in the Arts Faculty of Wollongong University on changes in the health status of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome patients following removal of excessive 50 Hz magnetic field exposure.

Continue reading

Electoral transparency vital for democracy

In the Autumn 2004 issue of the NZ Skeptic, we reported on Vicki Hyde’s prediction in the Dominion Post that George Bush would win the US presidential election. Given that this was at the height of the scandals over Abu Ghraib prisoners and the lack of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, it seemed a bold claim indeed, on a par with her prediction that the All Blacks would miss the 1999 World Cup final. But once again, history has shown our chair-entity to be better at the prophecy game than almost any of the professional seers.

Continue reading

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 [email protected]

Get Your Facts Straight

A couple of months ago we were visiting my brother, and got talking about a friend of his, who had enrolled in a counselling course. It turned out that the course had come to be dominated by some rather staunch Maori elements, and my brother’s friend, as one of only two non-Maori on the course, was embroiled in a dispute in which racial lines were very clearly drawn. But he was confident he had ammunition which would knock the course leaders off their perch, in the form of a book, Ancient Celtic New Zealand (see Feature Article). This purported to show that Europeans had in fact colonised this country thousands of years ago, and had established a thriving neolithic culture, until they were displaced by Maori early in the last millennium.

Whatever position one takes on New Zealand’s so-called race debate, it is essential it is based on sound history. There is of course room for disagreement on the interpretation of events, and the weight that should be accorded to each, which is why the debate exists at all. But claims of ancient Celts in New Zealand fly in the face of almost two centuries of scholarship, and can only confuse the issue. Yet such beliefs appear to be quite widespread; there is currently a variation on this theme being championed in the Letters page of one of Hamilton’s weekly newspapers.

A similar situation applies in the arguments surrounding immunisation, which have flared up again in the wake of the meningococcal vaccination programme. Though it probably puts me in a minority among Skeptics, I have to admit to reservations about vaccinating very young children against a whole host of diseases, while acknowledging vaccination does have a valuable role to play in disease prevention. This is not the place to go into my reasons, but they have very little to do with the arguments promoted by the anti-immunisation lobby, who generally show a very poor understanding of science. Some still cling to the ideas of Antoine Béchamp, a contemporary of Pasteur, who believed the basic unit of life was something called a microzyma. All living cells are associations of microzymas, he said, and they remain imperishable after the death of the organism; disease is due to imbalances in the vital forces of the host, while the bacteria we mistakenly believe to be pathogenic have been formed by microzymas to rebuild dead or diseased tissue. Again, there can be no reasonable debate if one side remains stuck in the 19th century.

Almost time for the conference again. Hopefully by now you’ll have received your registration form in the mail; if not, there’s another form with this issue, and the latest information on what looks a very interesting and enjoyable line-up of speakers and events.

Annette's signature

Space Ships and Mad Cows

It was a dark and stormy night. But (almost) without flinching we set off to hear Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Kevin Grazier speaking about the Cassini mission to Saturn.

During the talk (see article), he mentioned how there was opposition to the mission, stemming from the nuclear power source required for travel so far from the sun (the plutonium is encased in ceramic designed to survive re-entry at 11km per second, in the event of an accident). At a party he overheard one guest declaring that Cassini carried a nuclear warhead, which the scientists planned to fire into Saturn’s atmosphere, setting it alight. He has an interesting life. As well as his fulltime Nasa job, he lectures at UCLA, gives public addresses at Griffiths Observatory and tours the US giving talks to school students, and is a member of the screenwriter’s guild. We thought he was worth a profile.

He enthralled the crowd for over an hour and fired up this family to keep a close eye on Cassini’s odyssey. We also had great fun making our very own paper model of the space probe (saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/kids/models/pprmdl.pdf). Making the real one must have been even more difficult. Recommend this a good thing for a skeptic to do on a rainy day. Speaking of spacecraft, one of our members almost saw a UFO on a recent visit to the west coast, but his sceptical facilities got in the way of what could have been a really exciting discovery (see article).

Another thing to do on inclement days is visit the new website on evolution, put together by Waikato University biological sciences staff. Skeptics members were invited to comment, on the site, and all were very complimentary. Public understanding of evolutionary theory is very poor, and this should be a very useful educational tool.

The lead article this issue provides insight into the consumer response to BSE. It’s interesting that, in spite of the wave of panic which overtook British beef eaters, concern over beef consumption dropped dramatically when the price was right.

Finally, founding member and long-time stalwart Bernard Howard brings us up to date on the latest health fad from Europe. Bernard is recovering after two weeks in hospital; our thoughts are with you, Bernard, get well soon.

Annette's signature

Back From the Dead?

I’ve just witnessed a miracle. Probably. On January 2 I took part in a trip to the outer Hauraki Gulf to search for a bird that until recently had not been seen since the nineteenth century. Three specimens of the bird, the New Zealand Storm Petrel, sitting in museums in Paris and London, were believed to be the only representatives of yet another of this country’s extinct species.

Then in January 2003 a bird matching the New Zealand Storm Petrel’s description was photographed off Whitianga. By itself that didn’t mean too much; sometimes you get strange individuals of common species, and this bird’s resemblance to the lost petrel may have been coincidence. But in November two British birdwatchers saw 10 or 20 birds just north of Little Barrier Island that looked just the same, and took some amazing photos (http://www.wrybill-tours.com/idproblems/stormpet3.htm). And our trip found at least three in the same area. Needless to say, we were over the moon. Here’s one of our pictures; not as good as the ones on the website, but clearly it’s the same thing.

So can a species really go more than a century without being recorded, less than 100km from Auckland? That’s what we skeptics would call an extraordinary claim, and quite correctly the Ornithological Society’s Rare Birds Committee isn’t rushing to confirm the bird’s continued existence.

But with every week that goes by, the case is looking stronger. Trips are now going out regularly, and amassing considerable documentary evidence. In the latest development, TV3 News has shown film of the bird. It’s all developing in a way that’s very different from sightings of moa, lake monsters, or Bigfoot, which are invariably isolated events with no follow-up. There’s definitely a bird out there in the outer gulf that wasn’t there before (at least not in any numbers), it looks just like the museum specimens, and not really like any other known species.

Possibly it’s an unexpected dividend of the rat eradication programme on our offshore islands; maybe a tiny population was able to hang on until the rats were gone, and they’ve bred up in the intervening years to the point where people are starting to see them.

Whatever the explanation, it looks like the biggest thing to happen in New Zealand ornithology since David Crockett rediscovered the Chatham Island Taiko in 1978, a mere 111 years after its last sighting. And it’s a reminder that however much we think we know about the world around us, nature can still spring surprises.

Annette's signature

Have Your Say

Environmental issues have played an increasing role in skeptical subject matter over recent years, ranging from calls for biodynamic possum peppering earning Jeanette Fitzsimons the Bent Spoon last year, to skepticism about global warming, from pooh-poohing of environmental impacts on taniwha habitat to wondering just how much paranoia and hypochondria is at the root of the health issues of moth-ridden Aucklanders in the infamous spray zone.

That’s why I was pleased to be able to invite Bruce Taylor from the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to speak at the conference, as I was aware of their attempt to encourage feedback on the role science should — must! — play in environmental decision-making.

There were certainly some strong feelings expressed, most notably concerning the impression that government organisations appear to bow before political correctness and potential vote-pandering, rather than sticking to scientific facts when making environmental decisions. Having read the document, I had been surprised by just how strong the support was for science at the heart of such decision-making.

As a group, we are very conscious of those times when credible scientific evidence is also all too easily cast aside in favour of a consultative culture — look at the amount of time spent pandering to the Steiner lobby with their proposals re going after painted apple moth, or Jeanette Fitzsimons with her silly support for possum peppering (a stand which made some of the more scientifically literate Greens cringe, but which I suspect was taken for political reasons).

Important as it is to consult, to hear other views, and to take into account factors outside that of the technical or scientific, it’s also important not to waste time and energy and resources on the patently incredible, particularly in an area as important as environmental policy or protection.

If I say cosmic astral influences can be used to control possums, is that equally valid to, say, the evidence for supporting 1080 or fertility controls? I’m confident that the Skeptics as a group would give a resounding “no” and argue that part of the responsibility our public servants and elected representatives have is to protect us, our country, our lives and our wallets from these subjective views where they clash with reality.

Yes, science can identify issues and areas of knowledge (and non- knowledge), but ultimately we are making political and social decisions. And we have a chance to flag why we think science needs to be a part of that process and how we can get better public engagement with decision-making that it recognises the importance of the underpinning of good science.

What should trouble us is the public indifference to science, and that this indifference and, in some cases, outright hostility, is a result not of ignorance but of a sense of powerlessness.

Some social scientists are now arguing that instead of public education programs aimed at boosting science literacy per se, we should be more concerned with public engagement strategies that get citizens directly involved in science policy-making.

Research has shown that knowledge, trust, efficacy, and deliberation are all closely related. Enhanced knowledge of politics leads to an increased belief among individuals that they can make a difference in politics, and also leads to increased trust in political institutions. Deliberating or discussing politics with others enhances knowledge, and, more vitally, gets people involved.

When members of the public take part in discussions that make them feel they can influence real decisions, lack of scientific knowledge is not necessarily a problem. In many countries around the world, consensus conferences, citizens’ juries, deliberative polls, and hui have all been used to give people a feeling that they will be listened to, as well as told what’s what scientifically.

And these efforts have indicated that people involved in such discussions quickly become adept at quizzing experts, mastering a brief, asking questions and unmasking political assumptions masquerading as scientific conclusions. It’s often very small-scale — in the tens, rather than the thousands, of people involved, but it’s a start.

I know, I’m an optimist, but I think that most of us are in the belief that we can make rational, informed decisions. Or, at the very least, recognise when we are being irrational. Maybe what we should be demanding are announcements which take this tack:

“Yes, this is an irrational decision and we are making it irrationally because we want to, in the face of what evidence we have because the loudest voices say we should do it this way.”

That at least would be intellectually honest and ethical!

Someone at the conference asked what the level of response had been to the report and I think I wasn’t the only one surprised to hear that the majority (over 80% I think) had come from the scientific community. Assumptions that the process would have been captured by the vocal political environmental lobby were unfounded… so let’s test those other assumptions.

I urge you to read Bruce’s piece (Page 3, this issue), better yet take a look at the report (available at: http://www.pce.govt.nz/reports/allreports/1_877274_09_7.shtml)

See what you think, and let Bruce know.