Living in Interesting Times

Had an email the other day from someone we hadn’t heard from in a while. Among other things, he took the opportunity to ask why we heard so little from the Skeptics in the media, and made unfavourable comparisons with the Consumer’s Institute. Given the breadth of that organisation’s support base and consequent level of funding, that hardly seemed fair.

I guess the media have a lot of calls on their attention, and a rational voice often seems to be the last thing they want to hear. But there has been a lot of often unrecognised activity from individual members, and this is reflected in the makeup of this issue. Bill Keir, for example, has been investigating claims about New Zealand prehistory. By an amazing coincidence (how do Skeptics explain this kind of thing?) our email correspondent also wanted to know why the society wasn’t challenging the conventional archaeological paradigm when there was so much evidence that the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans and others had colonised this country at least 2000 years ago. Bill’s article had arrived a couple of days previously and it was very nice having it on hand to refute a couple of points straight away.

In a similar vein, Alastair Brickell reports on the evolving (if that is the appropriate word) situation with the most active of the New Zealand creationist groups, Answers in Genesis. And several society members were signatories to the widely publicised Peter Ellis petition.

Bob Brockie is just one of several columnists and journalists in the society. We republish one of his columns from the Dominion Post in this issue; look for more in the future. Of primary concern to the society has been the Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) discussion document, also reported in this issue. Again, individual members have sent in submissions alongside the official one from the society.

Then, of course, there’s the annual conference which is once again upon us. This is always an enjoyable event, and once again the organisers have come up with a first-rate lineup of speakers. Hope to see as many of you as possible in September.

Finally, thanks to all of you who alerted us to the absence of apostrophes and other punctuational oddities in the last issue. The gremlins responsible have been rounded up and disposed of humanely.

Annette's signature

Never Mind That White Powder, Just Pass Me a Face Mask

These are nervous times. By an astounding coincidence, as I wrote that line and paused to think of what to put next, I had a call from a friend to tell me there was a Sars case at the Waikato Hospital and to ask whether, in my other role as a subeditor at the Waikato Times, I would want to pass that on.

Astounding because I was about to add that the Sars panic seems to have taken over from the terrorism panic (although just the other day someone caused an alert after discovering “white powder” – almost certainly crystallised sugar – on his chewing gum) as the concern of the month.

True, it’s early days, but Sars doesn’t seem to have what it takes to be a true pandemic. It’s just not contagious enough – if a country with resources as limited as Vietnam’s can control and eliminate it, the rest of the world should be able to handle it too. It’s hard not to conclude that there has been a substantial over-reaction to the outbreak.

Now alright, I’m not that old, but I’m sure it never used to be like this. Death and disease used to be all part of life. People got, say, tuberculosis, went to the Sanatorium, and if they were lucky they came out again a few months later. If not, the rest of the community would gather around the bereaved family. Miners died of foul lung diseases and that’s just the way things were.

In one sense, then, the current panics are a good thing. They show that human life is more highly valued than it was in the past. They are perhaps also a symptom of the secularisation of society. At one time the bulk of the population would have believed that physical death was only the beginning of an immortal life in the hereafter, and therefore not a cause for prolonged grief. With that certainty gone for most of us, we are acutely aware that this life is all we have, and are terrified at the prospect of having it snatched away from us.

The sophistication of our modern, secular society, then, is only skin deep. As Carl Sagan said, “…the candle flickers, and the darkness gathers, the demons begin to stir.”

No doubt some would have predicted that following the decline of religious beliefs we would enter a brave new world of rational thought as a species. The hysteria over Sars, white powder and cellphone towers show this is not the case. Human nature remains the same as it ever was.

Annette's signature

The Future Isn’t What it Used to Be

For almost half a century, it’s seemed like human destiny to go into Space. When we were kids, everyone wanted to be an astronaut when they grew up. The loss of the Columbia space shuttle hasn’t extinguished that dream, but it firmly reminds us that leaving the Earth behind is a very difficult thing to do. If things were just a little bit different – if our species were as big as elephants, or aquatic, or if the Earth’s gravity were much stronger, it may have been impossible. As it is, raising a human being into low Earth orbit, to say nothing of going further, is a hugely expensive proposition. And once up there, the lack of gravity leads to muscle wasting and other physiological problems. Food and air also need to be brought up from the planet below.

Perhaps in the future the problems will be overcome. Science fiction writers envisage space elevators riding smoothly and cheaply to staging posts in geostationary orbit. Perhaps raw materials can be mined from the moon or the asteroids rather than dragged out of Earth’s gravity well. Rotating, wheel-shaped space stations may be able to simulate gravity. We may be able to establish artificial life-supporting ecosystems on these stations. But ultimately, it has to be asked why humans need to be in Space at all. It would be far easier to establish colonies under the sea, but this has not been done, and there are no serious plans to do so. We don’t need the living space. There are no natural resources that are worth the expense of going to fetch them, nothing on which to base an economy, no realistic prospect of trade with Mother Earth.

Space is like Antarctica. Hostile, no place for humans to live on an extended basis, but oh, so fascinating. We go into Space for the same reason we go to Antarctica, to learn more about the world around us, and about ourselves. And that, ultimately, is reason enough.

Arthur C Clarke dreamed of manned communications centres high above the Earth. Though the principle of telecommunications satellites in geostationary orbit has become a reality, the giant stations of Clarke’s imagination have not, and never will. Clarke, or anyone else in the 1940s, could not have realised how small, reliable and efficient electronic componentry would become. You don’t need people on hand to replace burned-out valves.

More than anything else, this electronics revolution is the reason the manned space programme is struggling. There’s no commercial reason for live humans to be there, and even the scientific rationale is looking shaky. The solar system is already being explored, courtesy of Voyager, Pathfinder and company, and far more efficiently than humans could hope to do; what’s more their advantage will only become more pronounced. And hardly anyone grieves overmuch when a robot crashes and burns in the frozen wastes of Mars.

It’s funny how things work out. Back in the 60s everyone assumed that by now we’d have been to Mars and established permanent bases on the Moon. I guess it just goes to show there’s no such thing as destiny.

Annette's signature

Good Company

What name do you give to a quirky bunch of people who are scientifically literate, who question fads, and who want their beliefs to rest on evidence from the material world — the sort of evidence that does not require one to ignore or reject all the laws of physics and other knowledge we have and that we rely on daily when flying, taking antibiotics or using the computer?

The group’s shortened name is the New Zealand Skeptics and in September in Christchurch they held their annual conference. What a delightful and idiosyncratic event this was, not least because there are so few lawyers in this group. I spend my professional life training would-be lawyers and writing articles for lawyers and other legal academics. You might think lawyers are instinctively sceptical. But actually, they’re not. They’re trained to take authorities — statutes, the decisions of judges — largely at face value. Yes, lawyers get very good at undermining certainty, at injecting doubt into the clearest of statutory provisions. But that is a different mindset than what one finds at the annual Skeptics conference.

This year, there was a host of interesting papers delivered. An academic from Canterbury University rubbished the trendy acceptance by some — under the false guise of being open-minded-of the possibility of psychic and paranormal knowledge. In fact, not one single police department in the US has found police psychics to be useful; only two or three out of nearly 500 National Enquirer predictions came true in the last dozen years or so; and not one single reproducible ESP phenomenon has ever been recorded, despite a huge reward being on offer to anyone who can demonstrate (that’s the key word) such powers.

Not really a surprise though, once you realise that if it were true, you’d have to jettison or re-write all we know about the physical laws underlying our understanding of the universe, knowledge that has doubled life expectancy in the past century, led to untold material advances and helped lift huge numbers of people out of poverty. The same sort of mindset was brought to bear in papers on organics (vastly over-rated), herbal medicine (how do you spell “placebo”?) and “biodynamic” approaches to eradicating the painted apple moth, just to name three. But two of the talks at the conference cry out for special mention, and praise.

The first was a talk on the Liam Williams-Holloway case. This included the chance to see the Australian 60 Minutes segment which broadcasters here have refused to televise. The most memorable line from that segment came from one of the alternative medicine practitioners: “All we care about is the wealth of our patients – I mean health.” That whole sorry and saddening episode casts a cloud over a good many people, and leads me to wonder why the parents of Liam have not been charged with a criminal offence.

Finally, I must mention the talk given at the conference by Lynley Hood, author of the prize-winning book A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case. If anyone out there thinks Peter Ellis should have been convicted, or still thinks he is undeserving of a pardon, that person should read this book. (See this month’s lead article –ed.)

I’d like to see a Commission of Inquiry headed by a tough-minded overseas judge — maybe the English judge who, in the height of a similar hysteria over there, acquitted two similarly placed crèche workers who have just won a big defamation case.

But if you think that’s likely to happen here in New Zealand, if you think the vested interests might break ranks, you need a good dose of scepticism.

The Answer’’s not 42

Hamilton is a progressive place where the difficult issues are tackled. Rather than being a cow town (we’re not! we’re not!), we sit around of a Friday evening and debate the Big Questions.

We had a phone call awhile back from someone from the Methodist Centre who wanted a skeptic to contribute to an evening entitled, “What Is Truth?” With four days’ notice, we politely declined. However, a talk was coming up the following month looking at scientific and religious perspectives on the origin of the universe. And the month after that it was creation vs evolution.

We toddled along to the first of these and my other half David was keen to get his teeth into the next one. So we found ourselves, one recent wintery evening, ensconced amongst a group of fundamentalists. We did have support – two Coromandel skeptics came and cheered, as did some Auckland friends.

Rather than go into the evidence, David’s plan was to explain how creationists really are not interested in this at all – for them the word of God is the yardstick by which all truth is measured and all evidence has to be harmonised with it. (See the Answers In Genesis Statement of Faith). It’s also important not to dignify the creationist position by giving the impression that there is a serious scientific debate about its validity.

The previous month someone from the local astronomical society had tried to encapsulate 15 billion years of cosmic history in 20 minutes, which led one person in the audience to say that it would take more faith to believe all that than the simple message in Genesis. It’s fair to say most people didn’t understand one word.

So – how did we do. Well, of course we won outright. But seriously – there was a lively, mostly enjoyable, discussion following and I got the feeling that a few people were jarred out of their former complacency. Pointing out that the human eye, rather than being an example of Intelligent Design, is in fact very poorly designed, had particular impact. A fun night was had by all, but is it worth doing this kind of thing? The answer has to be yes, if only to keep abreast of creationist tactics. They are an increasingly active bunch and it’s necessary to counter their twaddle if scientific standards are to be maintained (see Warwick Don’s article, this issue).

The annual conference is, of course, not far off now and if you haven’t done so already, you really need to book. It’s promising to be another rip-snorter, and kicks off on Friday the 13th! Black cats not welcome. See here for the registration form. So go to it.

Annette's signature

Good Work All Round

With winter almost upon us, the time has come to curl up in front of a nice screen and browse the internet. Speaking of which, congratulations are in order to our chair-entity Vicki Hyde and media spokesman Denis Dutton for having their websites nominated in the sixth annual Webby Awards.

These are coming to be regarded as the web equivalents of the Oscars; Vicki’s Sci-TechDaily Review is up for an award in the science category against such luminaries as NASA, while Denis’ Arts & Letters Daily is taking on the BBC and other heavyweights in the news category. The public is entitled to vote for these (at, so if you’re reading this before the closing date of June 7, you know what to do.

It’s been a busy time for us skeptics overall. The Auckland members, led by Felicity Goodyear-Smith, have combined with the Rationalists to hold two meetings, on GM foods and immunisation. These have been well attended, and have done a lot to raise the level of debate on these issues; hopefully more will follow.

And there’s been the old possum peppering story, which the Greens were promoting as an environmentally benign means of pest control, despite a well-designed trial of this technique some years back showing it has no effect whatsoever. The society’s press release in response to the matter got a fair bit of coverage.

There’s plenty of variety this issue. We have a nice introduction to the philosophy of science in the lead article, some reflections of a former psychic researcher, and we re-examine last year’s soy sauce scare.

And John Riddell’s column, in which he confesses to being taken in by a scam, is a beaut. It all came about because of his weakness for fishing, he says…

Speaking about being active, the annual get-together is being planned once again and it’s time to consider a trip to sunny Christchurch to take part in the Skeptics Conference 2002. More details are to be found tucked up on page 8, but circle it in your diary now and book your tickets.

Annette's signature

Justice Yet to be Done

It was sad to see – two shelves of Lynley Hood’s A City Possessed, heavily discounted at Whitcoulls.

Released only last October it hasn’t taken long for the book to hit the bargain bin. Perhaps it will encourage more people to read it (I know of one person who’s snapped up a copy), but what impact has Hood’s meticulously researched examination of the Civic Creche fiasco had?

Justice minister Phil Goff continues to refuse to read the book, opening himself and the judicial system to ridicule in the process. I particularly liked the website’s take on it, which had Goff reverting to Dr Seuss: “I will not read that book by Hood, I will not, will not, say it’s good. I will just say the courts are right, I do not want to see the light…I will not read it, so I say, I wish that book would go away. I will not read it, not a bit, In case I have to act on it.”

Yet the issue won’t go away. Goff says it’s important that the judiciary is independent of interference and that the findings they come up with can’t be overturned on a political whim – an important democratic principle. Yet it is clear that the judiciary has failed to do its job, and there are major systemic failures which need to be remedied.

Meanwhile the sex abuse industry grinds on, destroying more lives. The Dominion (December 4, 2001) reports that social welfare psychologist Prue Vincent was fined $5000 and censured for botching a sex abuse investigation that left a man wrongly accused of molesting his young children. Vincent however, has been allowed to continue practising.

Her victim, the report said, spent $82,000 proclaiming his innocence in five hearings. He has never been told what he was supposed to have done to his children and since that day (“…Father’s Day. A bit poetic”) has been shut out of their lives.

The sexual abuse counsellors continue to ply their trade under the cover of the Family Court, immune from public scrutiny. Felicity Goodyear Smith’s critique of this court at the skeptics’ conference in Auckland a few years back still stands. As long as it continues to operate in secrecy lives will continue to be wrecked.

Annette's signature

Maxicrop, Mormons and Mediaeval Horror Stories

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night but a gaggle of skeptics got together recently to listen to ghost stories in Hamilton. Professional story teller Andrew Wright sent shivers down the groups’ skeptical spines as they listened to his rendition of one of the oldest known horror stories, Lord Fox, a BlueBeard variation.

The occasion was the Skeptics’ annual conference and I’m told founder member Bernard Howard’s opening talk the next morning on the changes seen in the Twentieth Century set the mood nicely for the material that followed. I missed this, due to being glued to the registration desk but look forward to reading it – we will run some of the addresses in coming issues. Another one I missed was John Welch talking about Gulf War Syndrome — which we have in this issue (see opposite). John also enthralled delegates with his demonstration of an antique black box Amazing Electrical Device.

An interesting session in the afternoon was held with representatives from the offices of the Commissioner for Children and the Health and Disability Commissioner. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect to come out of this was that the standard of treatment given by alternative practitioners is assessed only relative to standards set in that field. So an iridologist’s work is only compared with that of other iridologists (see Pippa MacKay’s article).

Nick Kim gave two very different presentations, one featuring his wonderful cartoons, and a more sobering piece on forensic science. He showed you can be convicted, in a British court, just for handling a banknote that has passed through the hands of a bomb maker.

Mike Clear, as well as warming the crowd up on Friday night, presented his findings on the intrusion of alternative therapies into the world of cats, dogs and chickens. Then followed two talks which, for me, were the highlights of the conference. Waikato University history lecturer Raymond Richards spoke about his experiences following a lecture he gave in 1998 and subsequent years on the Mormon church. Following complaints from the Mormon community, the university entertained charges of harassment against him. In a similar vein, former Agresearch scientist Doug Edmeades spoke of his involvement in the long-running Maxicrop case and the way in which commercial pressures impact on science.

During the conference a TV2 film crew did some filming for a documentary, Do You Believe In the Paranormal, which screened recently. “Madame Vicki” did a wonderful palm reading job and Denis Dutton (whose skeptical view of the Greenhouse Effect was another conference highlight) inserted pithy remarks at strategic moments. You can get a copy from the Skeptics video library and it’s well worth a view.

Annette's signature

Placebos All in Researchers’ Minds?

The placebo effect has long been of interest to skeptics for its presumed role in alternative medicine. The Skeptics’ Dictionary ( has a lengthy entry, describing a placebo as an inert substance, or fake surgery or therapy, used as a control in an experiment or given to a patient for its probable beneficial effect. It goes on to add the effect has at least three components.

The first is psychological, due either to a real effect caused by belief, or to a subjective delusion – “if I believe the pill will help, then it will help.” Alternatively, the effect may be largely illusory – an illness or injury will often get better by itself, whether it is treated or not.

As a third alternative, the process of treatment, involving attention, care, and affection may itself trigger physical reactions in the body which promote healing, regardless of the nature of the treatment.

The second alternative has received a boost from a study published in May in the New England Journal of Medicine. Danish researchers Asbjorn Hrobjartsson and Peter C. Gotzsche performed a meta-study of 114 studies in which the experimental design included a genuine treatment, a placebo, and no treatment at all. In these studies, they found a slight effect of placebos on subjective outcomes, such as pain, reported by patients, but no significant effect on binary outcomes. Even the slightly positive subjective outcome result could be a reporting effect – patients want to please the doctor, so say they feel slightly better.

Reaction to the report has been mixed. Some researchers have said it confirms what they’d suspected all along, there is no placebo effect, it’s an illusion due to the simple fact that people often get better without treatment. Others argue that the metanalysis used is inappropriate for such a disparate group of studies. But however it turns out in the end, the affair raises some interesting points. One is the origin of the oft-repeated claim that, on average, a placebo effect will help 35% of patients. This has attained almost the status of an urban legend, but Hrobjartson eventually tracked its origin to a single 1955 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Its author, Boston anaesthesiologist Henry Beecher, based his claim on a review of 12 studies, and, like other articles read by Hrobjartsson, it did not distinguish between the placebo effect and the natural course of the disease.

It’s hard to accept there is nothing to the placebo effect at all. There are reports of people developing addictions to placebos, or demonstrating adverse side effects, and trials showing patients with placebos do better than others simply left on waiting lists. But it’s a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon. If we are going to assert that an alternative health treatment is “just a placebo”, we need to be careful about what we mean by that. Does it mean the patient is experiencing a subjective delusion, or genuine healing through care and support, or simply going through the natural course of an illness? The Danish study won’t be the last word on this subject, but it has very nicely focused an issue which has had some very fuzzy edges.

Annette's signature

My Life of Hell – Sub-editor Tells All

My brain hurts. I haven’t used it in some years, so there’s no surprise really. After managing to avoid external employment for a goodly time, a job has finally got its teeth into me and won’t let go. Which is not to say I’ve been totally lazy at home these past years, there’s been free-lunch work to do and projects such as the NZ Skeptic to help pass time. But all of these could be done in the privacy of one’s own home, dressed in striped jarmies if the mood took and it often did.

Continue reading

No Will for Bill?

Another year, another millennium. We saw the old century out in a very quiet manner, watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 with friends in Auckland. A few fireworks exploded from the top of the Sky Tower — and then it was bed time. Given that this was the day when the old century really ticked over, there was far less hooplah this time — the cockroaches were especially quiet.

Psychics, however, as always, have generated a fair swag of material to be ignored or fretted over, some of which has already passed its use-by-date.

Scanning the Internet for news of things to come, we turned up an interesting site,, where anyone can register their prophecies. One Sollog Immanuel Adonai Adoni warned there was going to be an earthquake over 7.0 on the Richter scale, located within five hundred miles of Jerusalem. This event would take place between December 29 and January 1.

Other contributors reckoned we can look forward to Christ revealing the truth of God before June this year and Demi Moore perishing in a nasty accident. And, apparently, on January 17 thousands will die after eating tainted beef at MacDonalds in the North West, near the Microsoft headquarters: this would include Bill Gates, who will die without leaving a will. By now you’ll all know if this one worked out: as I write (January 4) it’s still in the future.

But these are amateurs. The professional psychics are out there in abundance, usually with a stack of merchandise to peddle. Eklal Kueshana, for example, has a book, The Ultimate Frontier, which tells of the establishment in October 2001 of a new nation heralding a Golden Age of spiritual enlightenment. But then, he also warns there will be a cataclysmic reapportionment of Earth’s continents in AD 2000.

It’s amazing these people don’t go back and revise their sites and remove their errors. Do they have no sense of embarrassment? There are still warnings that the Cassini Space Probe will crash to Earth during a fly-by in August 1999, releasing clouds of plutonium into the atmosphere and causing “mega-pandemics” of lung cancer. This is tied to Nostradamus’ famous prophecy about a King of Terror falling from the sky in July 1999…sigh.

You can tell the seasoned professionals — people like Nancy Bradley (“who’s [sic] accuracy rate is an incredible 99.6%”), who stick to things like (for 2000) “There will be floods, strong winds, tornadoes and severe storms in America” or “Major movie actress will die unexpectedly under strange circumstances.” Well, Hedy Lamarr died last year, but no real surprise there. Bradley’s list for 2000 included such gems as “Yeltsin to die…Al Gore will be the next president of the United States… extreme health problems may be fatal to Christopher Reeve…Y2K problem — be certain to prepay your insurance to cover the period…” These from a list of 82 predictions — makes you wonder where the figure of 99.6% comes from.

With a new century sparkling and gleaming before us, it would be nice to think people will get wise to such obvious lunacy. But that is a vain hope given human nature.

Annette's signature

A Good Time Was Had By All

It’s all over – the cheering and clapping are fading and the crowds have all returned home, with thoughts about the next one. I am, of course, not talking about that sporting thing on the TV from across the Ditch, but the annual Skeptics’ Conference where, for a full two days, passions soared and speakers spoke.

The Dunedin conference also officially marked the stepping down of another founding member, Professor Bernard Howard.

Prof. Howard has been treasurer since a fateful summer afternoon in 1986 when he arrived at the first meeting of what was to become the NZCSICOP a few minutes late, and found himself appointed mere seconds after taking his seat. The NZ Skeptics is an unusual group – I’m often asked what do we do and where do we do it. Other than the annual conference we’re rather a loose organisation, made up of very individual individuals. But we are fortunate indeed in the calibre of many who choose to be involved and Bernard Howard’s contribution has been priceless in helping form what we are and how we go about it. I wish I had been at the Dunedin conference to add my hands to the applause when the presentation took place. It would have been a special moment.

The conference did receive a certain amount of coverage in the papers – from pieces on Ian Plimer’s and David Marks’s talks to the announcement of the Bent Spoon Award going to Wellington Hospital (about 60 nurses have been through a Healing Touch training programme which teaches the basics of energy healing).

On other matters, it was interesting following the circus surrounding the visit of American psychologist Professor Elizabeth Loftus. As most will know, Prof. Loftus has argued since 1993 that it is unlikely people can suppress memories of a traumatic event and later “recover” them. She gave the keynote address at the NZ Psychological Society’s conference in Hamilton in late August but her presence provoked some interesting reactions from colleagues. Before she even set foot in the country Dr John Read resigned from his role as the society’s director of scientific affairs and spoke out against her on Kim Hill’s programme on National Radio. And during the address itself psychologists handed out anti-Loftus material to delegates attending the lecture. Loftus said she didn’t wear her best jacket when she spoke on the Waikato campus – fear of flying tomatoes. Loftus said NZ was four or five years behind the States in recognising the need for scepticism on the issue. “If NZ follows the US and repealed limitations on adults suing for abuse suffered as a child,” she says, “then NZ therapists will have plenty to worry about.”

Annette's signature