Of Con Tricks and Conferences

Many moons ago I packed into a dimmed lecture theatre along with 400 other keen-eyed stage I psych students to listen to a presentation on psychic ability.

The mood was festive – it was almost the last lecture of the year and promised to be a good one. Some bloke was going to demonstrate their prowess with telepathy and fix some broken watches. Students packed into the aisles and I’m sure there were a few economics or accounting students present.

I distinctly recall being suspicious. Honest. Probably aided by my brother sitting next to me who was trying to work out the tricks. What I remember most of all is the utter gullibility of the majority of the other students – they swallowed it hook, line and little lead balls. It was, of course, a setup brilliantly executed by Otago University psychologist David Marks. I was so impressed I went out and bought his book, Psychology Of The Psychic (written with the late Richard Kammann) – one of the earliest books on the topic that I ever read. (Could the person I lent it to please return it?) It was this incident, somewhere back in the early 80s, that first sparked my interest in skepticism.

So it is with considerable delight that I see Dr David Marks will give a presentation at the next skeptic’s conference (the one in Dunedin, the one you are about to register for straight away…). Dr Marks is these days professor of psychology at Middlesex University and we are grateful to the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists who have helped with financing his visit to this country. I also note he is pencilled in for Saturday night’s entertainment which alone could be worth driving 800km to listen to.

Unhappily the Taylor/Riddell household won’t be attending – having just settled in following six months in the deep south we’re not ready to turn round and go back again.

Which is a shame because the theme of this year’s conference is one close to our hearts – Evolution, Creationism and Education.

Another distinguished speaker who will need no introduction to most members is Australia’s Ian Plimer, professor of Earth Science at Melbourne University. His talk on the evolution of creationism will be a highlight of the programme.

Conference organiser Warwick Don has put together an excellent weekend – if only it was in Hamilton!

But welcome to the 56th issue of the NZ Skeptic in which we examine medical matters, with Dr David Cole looking at the history of black box devices and Dr Bill Morris’s article on the pill.

We also welcome back Dr (am I the only non doctor in these parts?) John Welch who for many years wrote the Hokum Locum and is picking up his pen again. Many thanks to Dr Neil McKenzie for his contributions.

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Fear and Loathing in Tuatapere

That was never six months just then — it felt much longer. Banised to the depths of New Zealand, in Tuatapere (almost as far south west as you can get in the South Island), life took on a gentler pace. Momentous things did happen — the stoat population declined by 300 around where we were, and the yellowheads had a successful breeding season.

This, of course, was the reason for being in Tuatapere, town of instant coffee and swedes. David landed a contract with DoC monitoring and generally keeping an eye on the little native bush canary, which is highly vulnerable to predation. Rarer than 100 dollar notes they are, and as they prefer to hang out on the tops of mighty beech trees, they’re tricky to keep an eye on.

While things were quite in Tuataps (lulled to sleep by the roaring of stags in the paddock next door), events, of course, developed in the outside world.

The new millenium came and went without so much as a whimper. Our nine-year-old daughter Iris rather enjoyed the cockroach ads that were run well before the event, at a cost I hate to think about. Entertaining but on the redundant side perhaps.

After the non-event, folk from the Y2K Readiness Commission were heard to say there were no problems because of all the preparation work but what of all those countries where zilch was spent with the same result. The world was also gratifyingly free of doomsday cult hysteria over the period, although recent events in Uganda have somewhat blotted the global copybook.

Then came the release of Peter Ellis, the victim of the Christchurch Creche fiasco. The NZ Skeptic predicted a year or so before it all flared up that this country would experience a similar accusation to those plaguing the northern hemisphere — modern day witch hunts with all the fervour and hysteria of the Middle Ages. It is sad for Peter that we were right on this one; eight years gone out of his life.

Then there’s Liam, where things have developed, tragically, as we all expected they would.

Basically, things stumble along much as they always have and always will.

After spending so much time involved in threatened species work, it was interesting to hear recently about work on immunocontraception, which has now reached the stage of field trials with genetically modified carrots. These contain a protein which hopefully fools female possums into believing they’re already pregnant.

It could be a very effective, environmentally safe means of pest control which would mean wonderful times for birds like the yellowhead and parakeets. However, the recent public reaction agains genetic experiments bodes badly for the future, and at the very least guarantees the process will not be a straight-forward one.

We will have to wait and see. It’s ironic that the environmental movement may stand in the way of a technology which could be of huge benefit to the New Zealand environment.

Anyway, we’re on our way home now and will probably be there by the time this hits letterboxes. Speaking of which, be sure to send those dynamic, pithy contributions to Gordonton, and not Tuatapere.

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Parental Rights

It’s my right as a parent to decide what is best for my child. After all, I’m a caring parent who dearly loves her children and would do only what is best for them.

Sounds reasonable? But what if I truly believe I should beat my child. People do. I may want to withhold a life-saving blood transfusion from them. Jehovah Witness parents believe this sincerely. Or I may decide that my child will be better off having quantum-boosted radio waves or happy thoughts beamed at his cancerous growth, rather than nasty chemotherapy.

After all, in commenting on just such a case, the Health and Disability Commissioner has said that parents have the right to choose what treatment is given to their child. I wonder if the commissioner will uphold the rights of people who believe their child’s diabetes will be aided by prayer, rather than by insulin. Somehow I doubt it. Certainly the police aren’t impressed by such arguments – they’ve arrested the parents of one boy who died when prayer failed to cure his cancer.

Yet, in the case of Liam Williams-Holloway, it seemed something was different. Certainly there seemed to be strong public support for a loving, well-intentioned family hounded into hiding by uncaring oncologists. At least this was how the case was presented, for the most part, by the media. I suspect that that had an effect on Robyn Stent’s attitude and probably also on the uncharacteristic silence at the time from the Commissioner for Children.

One constant refrain was that the decision to stop chemotherapy was an informed one. I was therefore dismayed to see the family citing the book “Suppressed Inventions and other Discoveries”, as a reference. As its name suggests, this book deals with a vast range of conspiracy theories, from NASA’s suppression of evidence for intelligent life on Mars through to the perpetual fruitless quest for free energy sources. It is the stuff of which fortunes are made by those prepared to rip off the vulnerable, and you can’t get much more vulnerable than being the parent of a child diagnosed with cancer.

Of course you want your child to be cured. Of course watching them go through an intensive course of chemotherapy is hard. But that doesn’t mean we should let our hopes get in the way of our critical faculties. Surely it becomes even more important then that you question what is going on. By all means question what the medical establishment does and doesn’t want to do.

But, and this is an important “but” that seems to have escaped the attention of the Health Commissioner and other commentators, you also have to question those claiming to have cures through alternative routes. Hold them up to the same scrutiny, demand the same level of evidence and challenge their claims equally enthusiastically.

I will be interested to see what happens when the inevitable outcome occurs and Liam dies. I suspect that public sympathy will be vast and so will the silence on the parents’s culpability. After all, they were caring, well-meaning, well-informed white middle class people, not religious Islanders. I predict that the police will not darken their doorway…

Vicki Hyde, Chair-entity

Of War and Medicine

WINTER is here, and it’s time for all good skeptics to heed the call and flock to Auckland for the annual conference, where illuminating conversation and inspired addresses await. And then the same good skeptics can generate battle strategies to cope with all the fuss about the Millennium and the imminent end of the world. In the meantime, here’s a copy of the Skeptic to read while making these important plans.

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Bernard Howard has pointed out a typing error in his Summer editorial: there were seven founding member of the NZ Skeptics, but only five were named. The piece should have included Mr Ray Carr and Dr Jim Woolnough (both of Auckland and both now deceased). Dr Howard goes on to say that Dr Woolnough was a distinguished physician who put his career on the line by carrying out an abortion in the “bad, old days”, and Mr Carr was a long time humanist and skeptic. Sincere apologies for the omission.

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The Omen

EVERYTHING was roses and buttercups until that fateful day. An omen, it was, for sure. In July, on Friday, only 17 days before the 13th, we had born on our humble dairy farm a calfie. She had four legs, nice black and white patches, a cute butt and two heads, four eyes, four ears and two tongues.

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Keeping an Open Mind While Staying in a Hippy Hole

IT’S nothing short of a miracle that this issue has made it to the mailbox. For the last six months the family, including our cat and retired cattle dog, have been living in a small housetruck. (Just as well we farmed out the rabbits, mice and fish). The reason for our spartan existence is we are in the middle of building a rammed earth house. Not only do we fill buckets with the best of the builders, we, or should I say I, also feed them. (Nothing is too good for our boys.)

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