Comets

THE other day I was doing a spot of painting with the help of a friend. She was telling me about a fancy dress party she’d gone to, and how some friends had dressed up all in green, as aliens.

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Introducing the New Editor

THE OTHER NIGHT, after a particularly fine feed of nachos, my friend pulled out her numerology book and proceeded to do my chart. I’d done some things wrong in a past life, and there were a number of lessons I hadn’t picked up on — but generally I was happy to learn my soul was a fairly evolved one.

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Skeptical Health

At the Skeptics’ conference we were treated to one official’s view of the status of scientific medicine relative to alternative treatment systems and beliefs. This presentation reinforced many of our fears that modern medicine is truly the victim of its own success. Now that so many of us live to old age, and find that pharmaceuticals and surgery can do little to prevent inevitable decline, we are encouraged to turn to away from “Western orthodoxy” towards “alternative” systems of other, more “spiritual and “holistic cultures”.

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On Experts and Walls

Surely the Kaimanawa Wall story was one of the great beat-ups of all time. Here was a natural rock outcrop, which experts immediately told us was of a kind common in the area, raised to status of “great mystery” and worthy of the other “X Files puzzles” of Easter Island, South America and so on.

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The Joys of Cold Reading – You Win Some and Lose Some

When Brian Edwards interviewed Uri Geller some years ago, Dr David Marks of Otago University used the printed transcript to demonstrate that Brian had been the victim of highly skilled “cold reading”, rather than the witness to remarkable extra-sensory powers as he appeared to believe at the time.

Brian has obviously learned the lesson. When Ms Rosemary Altea, the famous seer and spiritual healer, tried her techniques on a recent Top of the Morning show, he simply refused to be drawn and our world-famous connection to the spiritual world was left floundering.

Ms Altea claims to see dead relatives standing beside the living who then reveal remarkable truths and pass on meaningful communications. In this case, Dr Edwards’ father was standing by and telling her some remarkable truths about Brian’s current life so that she could pass them on — even though he would presumably know them already. (As it turns out, no one can be certain that Brian’s father is dead. One wonders how Ms Altea will explain her visions should he turn up alive and well.)

The revelations from the other world began with suggestions of “moving” or “relocating”. Given that most people in New Zealand move house once every four years this was a reasonable shot. When Brian said he hadn’t moved, the “moving” visions were replaced with messages regarding sloping land with some steps to a garden. Which is also a fair stab in the semi-dark, given that it is common knowledge that Brian lives in the country on a 13 acre lot — and in Auckland it would be near impossible to find 13 acres of flat land. When this also appeared to be a dead end Brian appeared to put her out of her misery by telling her that they were building a water garden at the bottom of a slope in their property. “Fish?” she “saw” — “No fish”, said Brian.

Maybe Brian’s father was moving from cell to cell — the connection seemed less than satisfactory.

Later in the interview Ms Altea claimed that she could always establish her veracity by giving people some information she could not possibly know without information from the other side — like the fact that the Edwards were building a water-garden. “No — I told you that” said Brian, closing the trap.

She moved on, while Brian continued to keep his lip quite firmly buttoned — except to set further traps. She rambled on about his father, passing on the normal platitudinous messages — such as the fact that he had receding hair — until Brian pointed out that he never knew his father and knew little about him except that he had spent six months in prison for bigamy. Brian wanted to know where his father had been for the last 57 years, but Ms Altea refused to discuss this, except to say that there was something unpleasant involved. (Death maybe?)

This session was not going too well. Finally Ms Altea explained, with a measure of exasperation “Of course I don’t have to prove anything. I know that what I experience is true, and I just tell people what I see.” Well, so do five year olds making up their own fantasies. But they don’t go on the Oprah show, write books, tour the world and make large sums of money. Maybe there is a case for different standards of evidence.

During her introduction to us all, Ms Altea had promised to conclude the interview with a final “pearl of wisdom” but, knowing that she had picked up so little, she suddenly prepared to leave. The cruel Brian reminded her that she had promised him some special and truly meaningful message from his long lost father. “He loves you!” came the stunning revelation as she escaped from the studio. Given that his father didn’t want him, and had pressured his mother to have him placed in an orphanage, this (as Brian put it to me, when I checked facts with him), seems to run against the evidence.

This interview revealed how cold-reading really works by demonstrating how dreadfully it fails if the subject simply refuses to respond with the normal enthusiastic response to any hint of a “hit”. At the end of the session, listeners must have been wondering how this “famous spiritualist” had become so famous, and how she had ever managed to get on to the Oprah Winfrey show. On the other hand it may have confirmed what many of us believe it takes to get on to the Opray Winfrey show…

One thing — we can be sure that this particular interview will never appear in Rosemary Altea’s CV.

Skeptical Early Warning System.

One of the arguments presented in favour of this year’s Bent Spoon award was that the NZ Skeptics increasingly provide an early warning system against strange notions from abroad. For example, Skeptical activities helped New Zealand develop some early immunity to the worst excesses of the “repressed memory” virus. While many members supported the Hitting Home award on similar grounds, some members may have wondered whether Hitting Home was no more than a local aberration and that we were seeing international demons where none existed.

It seems not.

In Massachusetts, USA, a feminist coalition has promoted the view that there has been a widespread epidemic of violence against women in the community and have succeeded in instituting legislative changes in response. But it turns out that the range of violent and abusive behaviour by males which has contributed to the epidemic includes the following:

  • claiming the truth
  • emotional withholding
  • telling jokes
  • changing the subject of a conversation.

Given these definitions, it should come as no surprise that abuse against women has reached extraordinary new levels.

The further lesson from Massachusetts is that such extended definitions have significance well beyond boosting statistics and writing reports. They have been applied to the administration of justice through vehicles such such as the Restraining Order legislation, Section 209A which allows a Massachusetts woman “in fear of abuse” to be granted an emergency restraining order against a husband or partner which can:

  • order the man immediately out of the home
  • order no contact between the man and the woman and any children
  • grant temporary custody of children to the victim
  • order the man to pay child support

Inevitably Section 209A, which was intended to protect women in genuinely violent and dangerous relationships, has been seized on as a powerful weapon in divorce and custody battles within the civil courts, where they have become weapons of domestic war rather than instruments of justice.

During the Hitting Home debate, several Skeptics wondered what could be the point of extending definitions of violence to include verbal sparring and the like, given that the justice system has no mechanism to intervene in such matters. The Massachusetts experience suggests that we were missing the point. These definitions have found their home in the adversarial legal environment where any weapon is legitimate if it assists the prosecution of the case.

Many of us have taken comfort from the fact that we live outside the culture of routine violence displayed so powerfully in Once Were Warriors. But only a brave, or foolish, man or woman could believe that divorce or custody disputes will never intrude into their family lives. During the public debate the Minister of Justice gave an assurance that Hitting Home (which focused on violence by men against women) was to be followed by similar studies focusing on violence by women against men and on violence within other relationships. The Ministry’s staff, when pressed on the matter, revealed that while this was what they had told the Minister, no funds were available for the job.

So, in the absence of local evidence, we must turn to US statistics and studies to test the common-sense assumption that most domestic violence is committed by men against women.

In 1975 and again in 1985, Murray A. Strauss and Richard J. Gelles led one of the largest and most respected studies in family violence. They concluded that not only are men just as likely to be the victims of domestic violence as women, but that between 1975 and 1985, the overall rate of domestic violence by men against women decreased, while women’s violence against men increased. Responding to accusations of gender bias in reporting, Strauss re-computed the assault rates based solely on the responses of the women in the 1985 study and confirmed that, even according to women, men are more likely than women to be assaulted by their partner.

There is no question that men on average are bigger and stronger than women, and hence they can do more damage in a fist-fight. However according to Professors R.L. McNeely and Cormae Richey Mann, “the average man’s size and strength are neutralised by guns and knives, boiling water, bricks, fireplace pokers and baseball bats.” Their opinion is endorsed by a 1984 study of 6,200 cases which found that 86% of female-on-male violence involved weapons, as compared to 25% of cases of male-on-female violence. (McLeod, Justice Quarterly (2) 1984 pp. 171-193.)

Several other US and Canadian studies reach similar conclusions while the following Justice Department statistics (1994) suggest that men receive no special favours from the “patriarchal” justice system of the US:

Men Women
Proportion of murder victims in domestic violence 55% 45%
Acquitted for murder of a spouse 1.4% 12.9%
Receive probation for murdering a spouse 1.6% 16%
Average sentence for murdering spouse (years) 17 years 6 years

These statistics and data have been collected off the Internet and are subject to bias or even corruption by those who put together the material. However, for what it’s worth, during the time I lived in the United States I was exposed to only one example of genuine domestic violence. A recently married couple living in the apartment beneath me became embroiled in a typical domestic screaming match. The young wife telephoned her mother seeking assistance. Mother drove round to the rescue, wielding a pistol with which she attempted to shoot the son-in-law. Instead she shot her own daughter.

American women turn to guns and knives. The English and Europeans appear to favour poison. How do New Zealand women redress the sexual balance of power? Or have they been conditioned to literally “take it on the chin”? At present we do not know and Hitting Home tells us less than half the story.

For me the strongest lesson of the exercise has been that the scope of such exercises is even more important than the internal integrity of the study itself. Telling half the story may well be less informative — and indeed be more damaging to public policy — than telling no story at all.

The Boundaries of Skepticism

The Skeptics began in simpler times. Some of us recall when the burning issues of Skeptical enquiry were whether Uri Geller bent spoons, whether Russians were using telepaths to communicate with submarines and whether Lyall Watson had stumbled on a Philosopher’s Stone called Supernature. He certainly seemed to be turning something into gold.

In those days we were often criticised for being a bunch of kill-joys who seemed to want to lock granny up for reading the tea leaves. “What’s the harm?” they used to say. Our critics failed to understand that we weren’t too fussed about Granny reading the tea-leaves or Granddad’s secret number system for betting on the horses. We were much more concerned about the readiness to waive normal standards of evidence and rational thought when remarkable claims were being made.

Otherwise-rigorous interviewers such as Brian Edwards and Gordon Dryden would seem to close down their inquiring minds as soon as their latest psychic guest walked into the broadcasting studio. And soon even Brian began to realise that some of these people were rogues and charlatans determined to relieve people of their money — even if it meant taking advantage of people in acute distress. Mr Edwards finally mounted one of the great debunkings of all times when with Don Zealando he unmasked the secrets of the Filipino psychic surgeons and hence closed down a major money-spinner for Air New Zealand.

But generally people thought it was the spoon bending and such fancies that offended us — whereas for the genuine Skeptic is was always the lack of evidence, the corruption of evidence or straight out false claims and fraud. We were trying to counter pseudo-science.

And it was not long before this meant that the Skeptics were taking a stand against pseudoscience in medicine. And then we began to take on pseudoscience in mental health, especially as we saw counsellors and therapists proliferate and break up families and send people to gaol using therapies based on nonsense theories.

Finally many of began to realise that we were standing up to a widespread onslaught on the whole notion that rationality and the scientific method had any particular validity at all. New Zealanders were being told we should respect all beliefs and values because we should pass no judgement.

And as we began to take on these larger issues others who had stood in the wings came to join us. On the other hand, many decided they liked us even less.

The Uri Gellers were an easy target. We now find that advocacy movements claim such a high moral ground that they believe that faking the evidence or redefining the language is legitimate if it promotes their worthy cause. Once again the ends are claimed to justify the means. The age of “urban myths” is now upon us. The environmental movement, the neo-Luddite movement, the alternative medicine movement, and a host of special interest lobbies now clamber to secure their particular group rights, rather than their rights as individuals. They have all have been prepared to “fudge the figures” in order to help their particular cause. Most recently we have seen Greenpeace forced into apologising to Shell over the Brent Spar debacle.

So this year there was something inevitable about the decision to award the Bent Spoon to the Justice Department for its report Hitting Home. This award has not been without controversy. This too was inevitable, not only because of the emotions which surround the topic of domestic violence, but also because for many it took us as far away from our origins as we may ever want to go.

We have decided to make Education the theme for next year’s conference. Whether we come to regret this or not will depend on how successful we are in confining the debate to the assault on science and rationality rather than providing a forum for every parent concerned over why Johnny can or cannot read. But what is the limit to the Skeptical agenda? Do we have anything to say about housing policy? Only if someone has cooked the statistical books. (Remember New York’s 300,000 homeless — a “wild stab” invented during a radio show.) Do we have anything to say about sport? Only if someone says that more women are murdered during the Rugby World Cup than during any other time of year. Do we have anything to say about economics? Only if someone claims that the ghost of Maynard Keynes has been communicating directly with Winston Peters. And only if — almost everything else in economics lies in religious territory as opposed to superstition.

Certainly we should not push out the boundaries for its own sake; we have plenty to occupy us in more comfortable territory. But nor should we — or indeed could we — return to the days when the most pressing issue was whether your pilot was humming happily to the harmonics of 351.

Our members expect us to be in tune with the times. And as these are more disputatious times we will probably never again be able to assume the comfortable unanimity of the past. But no Skeptic has ever shied away from robust debate. We have demonstrated in conferences and AGMs that because we are philosophically attached to reason and the traditions of the Enlightenment we can enjoy differences of opinion without resorting to personal vilification and — dare I say it — abuse.

Postmodernism

Postmodern thinkers claim to have broken the fetters of logic that have characterised rational discourse since the enlightenment. They claim to have ushered in a new age of freedom of communication, that rationality is no longer the only, or even the major, “communicative virtue” and that social, psychological, political and historical considerations must all take precedence over logic and reason.

Freed from the confines of logic, discourse can now become open, honest, sincere, politically sensitive and historically conditioned. While premoderns and moderns judged a speaker’s claims on how well it was based on the facts of the case and the logic of the argument, the postmoderns “play the believing game” which accepts the speaker’s claims according to the degree of sincerity exhibited by the speaker. Hence expertise and authority are no longer possessed only by an elite few. Communication is truly democratic. We are all informed; we are all rational.

Hence we find educational curricula based on the premise that anyone can teach anyone else and the great sin is lecturing or instructing. Richard Rorty the American postmodernist has said our only task is to keep the conversation going.

The postmodernists conclude that there is no Truth to be aspired to, but that there are at any time a great many “little truths”. Each of these little truths depends on the social, psychological, political and other contexts of their utterance. Person A speaks as a woman, as an oriental, as an unemployed person, as a mother and so on. Person B speaks as a male, or as a Maori, or as an artist and so on. One person’s X is another’s NOT-X depending on who (and where, and when and what gender, race, and age) they both are.

This new age of Postmodernism has helped to foster the “New Age” of healing crystals, channelling, UFO abductions and the other beliefs of the Shirley Maclaine tribe because we are encouraged to ignore nonsense, unreason, and irrationality.

These postmoderns see science as “no more than the handmaiden of technology” according to Rorty. And technology is viewed as evil itself, because it is perceived to be the cause of most of today’s economic, environmental and medical ills.

Education has contributed to this evil advance and must be reformed in the postmodernist image. The enlightenment tradition must be rejected on moral grounds. There can be no separation of teacher (master) and student (slave) when there are no universal standards of truth. School children must be allowed to discover their own reality while facilitators encourage their creative and free ranging thought.

Postmoderns at first appear to be superbly tolerant. After all, if all ideas are equally true then your truths are equal to mine. We are truly all equal before this lore. My idea that Jim Anderton’s recent move in and out of party leadership reflects a similar trauma in one of his earlier lives and your idea that it reflects a complex interaction between public and private life are on a par with each other. Each deserves to be tolerated and given due recognition.

But just as Doris Lessing found that her Marxist friends seemed to love humanity but hated people so too this universal tolerance for ideas seems to go hand in hand with a remarkable intolerance for individual expressions of thought.

This apparent anomaly has its own internal logic. The philosophy that seeks only “local” truths rather than aspiring to universal truths not only repudiates science but divides people according to their “locality”, which means dividing them according to who, where, when, and what colour, gender they are or what political beliefs they hold. The natural result of such division is an intolerance that tends to manifest itself in racism, nationalism, sexism and all the expressions of hostility and intolerance which we identify as Political Correctness. It’s not the Truth that counts–but the Politics which give rise to your local truth.

When my truth and your truth are allowed to differ depending on the differences between us, then the differences between us can no longer even claim to be ignored–simply because these differences play far too great a role in our social discourse. Universities used to be places where we could escape the petty confines in which we had been bound by race, nation, status or class. Some universities of today seem determined to reinforce these schisms rather than to replace them with the ideal of the universal community of scholars.

Academic discourse too frequently focuses on where its students “are coming from” rather than on where they might be trying to go.

In more innocent times the Skeptics existed to challenge pseudoscience and the paranormal by applying the universally accepted standards of scientific method and logical argument which had been accepted since the Enlightenment.

We now face a large and more challenging task–which is to challenge those ideas which would challenge the utility of science and logic itself.

PC Chemistry in the Classroom.

One of the fictions of the “naive-greens” and other “irrationalists” is that “chemicals” are bad while natural products (non-chemicals?) are good. When asked if water is a chemical, and hence evil, and whether cyanide, nicotine or the botulism toxin, are natural and hence benign they change the subject. You might think that our classrooms are immune to such nonsense; in the November issue of Chemistry in New Zealand, Ian Millar of Carina Chemical Laboratories Ltd tells us we are wrong.

Mr Millar’s sister is a secondary school chemistry teacher and had received some official guide-lines titled “Chemical Safety Data Sheets for Teaching Laboratories” promoting the safe use of chemicals in schools. Mr Millar looked up a typical laboratory chemical to see what the data sheet had to say. Some excerpts follow:

  • Personal protection — dust respirator
  • Ventilation — extraction hood
  • Gloves — rubber or plastic
  • Eye — glasses, goggles or face shield
  • Other — plastic apron, sleeves, boots if handling large quantities
  • Disposal — dispose through local authorities if appropriate facilities are available, otherwise pass to a chemical disposal company
  • First Aid — irrigate thoroughly with water. Skin: wash off thoroughly with soap and water. Ingested: wash out mouth thoroughly with water. In severe cases obtain medical attention.

Now this chemical is clearly pretty nasty stuff and you might be thinking that it’s right and proper that our schools should be encouraging such sound practice.

But left to our own devices most of us would dispose of the stuff by throwing it into the sea — reasoning that the sea wouldn’t suffer too much damage as a result. After all this apparently dangerous chemical is nothing more than sodium chloride — better known as common salt.

Mr Miller points out that he enjoys bathing in a 3.5% solution of NaCl (the sea) and even eats it as table salt.

Can we now expect to see television chefs decked out in gloves, safety glasses, and plastic aprons, and calling in a chemical disposal company to clean up the kitchen afterwards? Should we ban children from our domestic kitchens because of the obvious risks to their health? These instructions are not only nonsense — they are dangerous nonsense. They are so ludicrous that they may well encourage people to ignore safety recommendations when handling genuinely dangerous chemicals such as cyanide or nitric acid. Or they may create a generation stricken with chemophobia.

To argue that it is good to err on the side of caution is wrong. This information is simply inaccurate. Nobody washes out their mouth after eating salt or taking in a mouthful of surf. I believe that this data sheet does not represent a simple error of judgement but unfortunately reflects an ideology which holds that all “chemicals” are bad and destructive of life and the environment.

I might have taken some comfort from the belief that whatever has been happening to the teaching of English, history, or anthropology, the objectivity of the process of science would make it immune to such victim-promoting political correctness. Could parents among our membership find out if the government’s chemical police have decided that NaCl is a politically incorrect “chemical” and needs all these precautions, while “Sea-Salt” is a “natural” product which can be used with safety?

We Used to Call it Bedlam

Karekare beach is surrounded by high cliffs which shield my house from television transmissions so that I gain most of my media information from radio and print.

Hence it was some time before I saw Satanic Memories, the so-called documentary which won for TV3 the Skeptics’ Bent Spoon Award. I found this programme so difficult to watch that it took me two sittings — the combination of fury and embarrassment was just too much to bear.

The programme clearly deserved the Skeptics’ major award. It exemplified all those aspects of the pseudoscience of the “New Age” which we Skeptics find so disturbing, distasteful and eventually downright dangerous.

We saw the expert hypnotherapist plant in his subjects’ mind the responses which would confirm their satanic memories. For example, he hints that the young man’s feet appear to be giving pain and, sure enough, he dutifully remembers being slung over a waterfall by the ankles. If a hypnotist implies the presence of the devil himself the subject will see him.

The other gross oversight was the failure of the documentary team to look for any evidence in support of the extraordinary claims being made. We followed this family as they re-visited small towns in which they claimed that killing and eating babies, and throwing young people over waterfalls, was as routine as Friday night fish and chips. Surely there must have been records of these deaths and disappearances. Even the general public would surely have noticed something was amiss given that the inhabitants of small country towns don’t miss much. But our intrepid television team never bothered to call into the local police station or newspaper office to check to see if there were any records referring to these remarkable memories of things past.

We also had first-hand evidence of the total lack of professional ethics among so many members of this new cabal. I cannot imagine any registered medical practitioner allowing the televised treatment of a genuine patient — even if the patient had given consent. And surely any registered psychiatrist would have to take the position that such consent could hardly be regarded as “informed”. But in this documentary we saw a disturbed patient endure quite severe mental trauma during her “therapy”, while her therapist seemed quite pleased by the opportunity for self-promotion.

What was surely the most sickening was the use of two disturbed people as characters in an “entertainment” designed to be broadcast into thousands of New Zealand homes. The mother had a long-standing record of mental illness and treatment. At least one of her sons seemed to be following the same path. Many viewers must have found this parading of their travails as a vehicle for home entertainment both embarrassing and distasteful. Many households would have found it great for a laugh and would have screeched with delight or with terror at the “exorcism” scenes in the hypnotist’s office.

When I was at school our teachers used to point out that we were much more civilised in our treatment and understanding of the mentally ill than our nineteenth-century forebears. We were shocked to learn that civilized people used to visit the insane asylums of the time as a source of entertainment. No trip to London was complete without a visit to Bedlam.

Well, I suppose we have made some advances. In those days the ladies and gentlemen of England had to take the coach to enjoy their Saturday afternoon’s entertainment at the human zoo. Thanks to modern science and to those who look after our interests in New Zealand On Air, we in New Zealand can now take our entertainment without having to leaving the sofas of our living rooms. Isn’t that wonderful?