At the last conference I was elected editor of the New Zealand Skeptic. Some of you will have read my pieces in Metro magazine or in NBR over the years, or heard my “Soapboxes” on World Service Radio. If you have wondered about my recent absence from the media, it is because I have been preparing to launch my own magazine.
The New Zealand Skeptics first took our lead from our US parent organisation and focused our scepticism on the paranormal. Over the years I have seen the Skeptics extend their arena to include almost any area of pseudoscience, and finally to become critical of pseudoscience within science itself. I believe this is a healthy development. Criticism which excludes self-criticism carries little moral weight.
I hope to reflect these developments in the content of the magazine. Naturally I welcome contributions. But please remember, the magazine is read mainly by other Skeptics who do not need to be told and told, and told again that astrology is nonsense. We have made the base case — we are now looking for contemporary or local developments, novel challenges to conventional wisdom, or for pseudoscience where we least expect it.
By now we are aware that those who try to make long term forecasts in the field of economics or weather forecasting are up against it because of the uncertainties inherent in such systems, which are governed by the laws of deterministic chaos.
We also need to be aware that our forecasting is no more reliable if we depend on predicting future knowledge — a point famously made by Sir Karl Popper in The Poverty of Historicism.
Physicists must have enjoyed watching the embarrassment of Treasury officials and weather forecasters alike over the last few months. Tax forecasters underestimated the windfall in Wellington, while weather forecasters underestimated the rainfall in Auckland.
But do physicists do any better? I have taken a fresh look at Charles Panati’s book called Breakthroughs — astonishing advances coming in your lifetime, in medicine, science and technology.
The inside cover tells us that Mr Panati “is a physicist, has taught at Columbia University, has been head physicist at RCA in space communications and for six years was a science editor for Newsweek magazine” and so on. The book of scientific predictions was published in 1980.
The back cover tells us we should expect the following:
By 1982: a chemical on the market will enable dieters to eat heartily and not gain an ounce
By 1984: a liquid will painlessly spray away tooth decay
By 1985: A biofeedback technique will cure atherosclerosis, and a synthetic product, SPE, will prevent cholesterol from causing heart disease
By 1986: magnetic fields will be a major new medical tool for healing fractured bones, diagnosing and curing diseases
By 1988: a vaccine will prevent pregnancy
By 1989: physicists will have harnessed fusion power, a clean and almost limitless energy source
By 1990: interferon, a substance naturally produced by our bodies, will be the most effective treatment for cancer
By 1994: hurricanes will be tamed and production of rainfall over arid lands will be commonplace