A matter of life and death

The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young. – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).

In 2011, I gave a talk at the NZ Skeptics conference in Christchurch titled ‘Biology and Mortality: the Mysterious Fears of Our Nature’. I used my photographs to show how memorial art is an expression of one of the mysteries of life, which is what happens to us once we are dead. This article arose from a bizarre story about a man from California and how he planned to spend eternity. Along the way, it embraced embalming, shoes for the afterlife, crypts and cryonics.

On August 30 1986, at the age of 81, Richard F (Freddie) Poncher from Los Angeles, California died. As is the tradition for American funerals, his body was dressed and made up, so that he looked asleep, rather than dead. After the funeral, the coffin was closed and slid into a crypt he had bought in a community mausoleum called the Corridor of Memories in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, Los Angeles. Crypts in community mausoleums look like rows of marble-fronted filing cabinets and this one was four crypts high. He had one person above him and two below. End of story, except for one small detail: Freddie insisted that after the funeral, his body was to be rotated, so he would spend eternity face down in his coffin. Why would he want his body to appear as if it was lying on top of the person who was below him and face up? After all, they were both dead. But planning for eternity is big business in the United States, and preservatives, the right shoes and cryonics may help you get to the other side.

I’ll get back to Freddie, but first a few words from Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. In 1831, 13 years after it had first been published in 1818, Mary wrote an introduction to a revised version of her book. She explained how she had wanted to tell a story that spoke to the “mysterious fears of our nature”. As Victor Frankenstein wrote:

“I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain.”

Faith can conjure up an afterlife, a reward beyond the grave, but what if science, rather than the supernatural, could become our savior?

Once the sparks started to fly, Frankenstein’s creation showed us that being dead wasn’t necessarily life-threatening. Mary’s story was about reanimation rather than resurrection, with a warning about the dangers of dabbling in God’s laboratory. It was an afterlife where you had both feet on the ground, but just remember to be careful what you wish for.

Looking your best

This brings me to the blooming cheek of death, mortuary footwear and life in the freezer. In the United States, most people are embalmed before being made up with cosmetics for corpses, which can create a life-like glow. Then you can be displayed to family and friends who say how well and undead you look. It’s not reanimation at Victor’s level, but the wonders of the eye and brain appear intact.

The essence of the ritual is nicely summed up in Frederick and Strubs, Principles and Practice of Embalming: “A funeral service is a social function at which the deceased is the guest of honour and the centre of attention … A poorly prepared body in a beautiful casket is just as incongruous as a young lady appearing at a party in a costly gown and with her hair in curlers.” Embalming slows down decay long enough that, with a mask of makeup, the guest of honour looks like they have just nodded off. And when you are in a padded coffin with a comfortable pillow, in a room called the Slumber Room, the corruption of death is nowhere to be seen. Botoxed and buffed, you are in good shape to head off to the afterlife.

But don’t forget, you will need sensible shoes. In her 1963 book, The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford quotes from a catalogue of Practical Burial Footwear, which said: “The No. 280 reflects character and station in life. It is superb in styling and provides a formal reflection of successful living.” A sole for a soul. I prefer Woody Allen’s view: “I don’t believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear”.

Freddie and Marilyn

Now back to Freddie. Pillows, shoes and underwear were not on his afterlife bucket list. He was so insistent that he be placed upside down in his coffin, that he told his wife, “If I croak, if you don’t put me upside down over Marilyn, I’ll haunt you the rest of your life”. That’s right: the person lying under him was Marilyn Monroe, who died in 1962. She was still enough of a sex symbol, 24 years after her death, that Freddie was flipped in his coffin, toupée and all, in a creepy and comic gesture. Happy Birthday Mr Poncher, Happy Birthday to you. Had the Corridor of Memories become the Corridor of Mammaries?

Unfortunately, for Freddie, eternity as he planned it was threatened, when in 2009 his wife, Elsie, decided to sell his crypt to help pay off the rest of the mortgage on her Beverley Hills home. She owned the crypt next door, which Freddie had bought for her, and she was going to have him moved off Marilyn and into less racy real estate. Eventually, she planned to join him, in a reduced state, as cremated ashes. Here is the advertisement for the crypt as it appeared on Ebay:

“Here is a once in a lifetime and into eternity opportunity to spend your eternal days directly above Marilyn Monroe. This crypt in the famous Westwood Cemetery in West Los Angeles currently occupied above Marilyn Monroe is being vacated so as to make room for a new resident. ‘Spending Eternity next to Marilyn Monroe is too sweet to pass up’, recently quoted by Hugh Heffner (sic), who has reserved his place in eternity next to her. The lucky bidder will be deeded a piece of real estate that he or she will make their last address. And below you will be Marilyn Monroe. In fact the person occupying the address right now is looking face down on her.”

The ad noted, “Local pick-up offered” and “No returns accepted”.

It appears that spending eternity above Marilyn was not the multi-million dollar drawcard that Elsie had hoped it would be, and for now Freddie remains in his crypt.

When it comes to cryonics, being dead is cool, as your crypt is a lot colder than those of Marilyn and Freddie. In what is another Frankenstein-like stab at reanimation, the dead are injected with cryoprotectants (antifreeze) and frozen in the hope that at sometime in the future, science will be able to wake them up. One scientist said that the chances of a cryonically-frozen person being reanimated, and remembering being the person they used to be, was as likely as making a cow out of hamburger meat that will remember being the cow it used to be. Unfortunately, mush is mush, and to me, selling cryonics is a bit like asking a parachute manufacturer if their product is any good and being told that none of their customers have ever complained. Whether it’s being reanimated or resurrected, I think that most of us would like to think that we could cheat mortality and spend eternity being happy, healthy and undead. The odds aren’t good and I’m sure that the goods would be odd.

Best Time Ever!

Michael Edmonds reflects on the 2012 NZ Skeptics Conference.

Having just driven four and a half hours back to Christchurch from the NZ Skeptics conference in Dunedin I should be tired. However, I am still on a bit of a buzz from a really great conference, although a glass of Coca-Cola and a handful of M&Ms might also have something to do with it.

This was my third NZ Skeptics conference, and knowing a few more people certainly helped enjoy the conference, not to mention meeting up with Siouxsie Wiles and Dave Winter, two of my fellow Scibloggers who made it along – Dave’s talk outlining some of the common misunderstandings regarding evolution was delivered with energy and enthusiasm and was really interesting.

Other speakers included Professor of Science Communication Jean Fleming, who made some salient comments about engaging those with unusual views in dialogue rather than just telling them they are wrong. This approach was used the very next day when another speaker delivered a rather controversial medical approach, the Marshall Protocol, in treating chronic disease. Members of the audience asked polite yet probing questions in order to tease out possible erroneous thinking. It was fascinating to watch and made me proud to consider myself a skeptic (and Siouxsie asked some excellent questions, while maintaining composed in the face of someone who criticised the use of mouse models in research).

Professor Richard Walter described some fascinating ‘alternative’ archaeologies which have been developed in NZ, including claims that New Zealand was settled by ancient Celts, Chinese and other races. This sounds funny but the right wing, racist undertones implied by some of these alternatives is also a little scary.

Anthropologist David Veart delivered an enlightening and entertaining talk looking at the history of fad diets (and associated beliefs) in New Zealand. Who knew that cornflakes were originally developed to help suppress masturbatory urges? (Though as one conference goer tweeted – possibly providing far too much information – “cornflakes never stopped me …”). One part of the talk that was very interesting to me personally was that of Ulric Williams, a medical doctor in my home town of Wanganui, who pushed the eating of non-processed food (generally good) as well as an anti-vaccine agenda (quite bad) which resulted in Wanganui having one of the highest levels of polio in the early 20th century.

Fellow Cantabrian Mark Ottley gave a fascinating talk about Well-Being – how it is measured, and how the government is now using various measures of well-being as well as looking at our GDP in assessing how New Zealand is performing, and the direction in which we should be heading.

My own talk on how to make a good Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) complaint seemed to go down well, so hopefully when skeptics come across advertisements flogging off dodgy alternative medicine products or services they will know exactly how to knock them on the head using the ASA.

The final talk for the conference was by Associate Professor Colin Gavaghan who, with humour and eloquence, described the complexities that occur when law and medicine come together in dealing with dodgy therapies, patients and doctors. I haven’t managed to cover all conference speakers, so apologise to those I have not mentioned. The cola and chocolate appear to be rapidly wearing off. So I will finish with a big thanks to those who organised the conference, particularly Katie and Warwick – I had a fantastic time.

And thanks to my fellow SciBloggers who finally taught me how to twitter properly (I think), though it will be a long time before I am anywhere close to the skills of Queen of the Tweets, Siouxsie, who can get off five while I am still writing one.

Also one final word – Siouxsie and fellow skeptical podcaster, Craig, managed to corner, corral and coerce many of the speakers to do podcasts for their Completely Unnecessary Skeptical Podcast (CUSP –thecusp.org.nz). I recommend taking a look or a listen sometime. Michael Edmonds is manager of science programmes at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT).

Consumer wins Bent Spoon again

Vicki Hyde announces the Bent Spoon and Bravo Awards for 2012.

CONSUMER magazine has won its second Bent Spoon Award from the NZ Skeptics for continuing to promote homeopathic products as a viable alternative to evidence-based medical treatments.

In its September 11 2011 review of anti-snoring products, Consumer consulted a medical herbalist who was quoted as saying that “all homeopathic remedies may work wonders for one person and do nothing for another” and that “homeopathy is best prescribed on an individual basis, after extensive consultation”.

Homeopathy is known to exploit the well-recognised placebo effect where the body heals itself in many cases. Any “wonders” worked can be attributed to that effect, as homeopathic solutions are made up solely of water – a fact not known by 94 percent of New Zealanders purchasing such products.

Yet again Consumer has failed to point out that there are no active ingredients in a standard homeopathic product. Surely this should raise consumer protection alarm bells, akin to someone buying a microwave and receiving a cardboard box which they’re told will heat food via the cosmic power of the universe if you think hard enough…

Consumer did note that another expert had pointed out that “the efficacy of homeopathic remedies had not been demonstrated convincingly in evidence-based medicine.” This caveat was not adequate as far as the NZ Skeptics were concerned, particularly as the homeopathic products had a prominent place at the head of the list.

We’ve seen the homeopathic industry use selective quotes as part of their marketing and advertising strategy to get unwitting customers to pay $10 for a teaspoon of water. No doubt Consumer’s inclusion of homeopathic products will be used to boost business, despite the admission by the NZ Homeopathic Council that homeopathic products have no active ingredients. Disturbingly, Consumer‘s expert doesn’t seem to be aware of this admission, stating that ‘extra’ active ingredients could help.

A number of people had raised concerns about Consumer‘s willingness to feature such dubious products, with one nominator saying that the article had “destroyed Consumer NZ’s reputation as a organisation New Zealanders can trust”.

Consumer last won the Bent Spoon in 1992 for a similarly lacklustre examination of non-evidence-based health products. We’d hoped they’d learned something by now as our country’s main consumer advocate. What’s next – endorsing rubber bracelets as power-boosters for our athletes? Approving the sale of specially trapped sunlight in bottles to treat the blues? They should leave such shonky stuff to the tabloid press.

In addition to the Bent Spoon, the NZ Skeptics’ Bravo Awards praise a number of attempts to encourage critical thinking over the past year. These included:

  • Margo White, for her health columns in the New Zealand Listener. It’s great to see informed writing on health issues, based on research and evidence, rather than the large amount of low-grade items we usually get, based on press releases and thinly disguised advertorial material. A number of White’s columns were nominated for a Bravo, such as the item ‘Lies, Lies and Eyes’ which reported research indicating there is no evidence for the claims by proponents of neurolinguistic programming (NLP) to be able to tell if a person is lying or not simply by looking at the direction in which they glance.
  • Whanganui District Health Board member Clive Solomon, for supporting evidence-based medicine as the core focus for hospital care (see p3, this issue)
  • The awards were psychically conferred at the NZ Skeptics Conference in Dunedin.

Snake oil, water and acid – a very sad mix

A fiasco over a ‘Natural Therapy Clinic’ at Wanganui Hospital was finally resolved satisfactorily – but for the wrong reasons.

The attempted introduction of ‘natural therapy’ to Wanganui Hospital has been yet another appalling demonstration of the failed leadership, governance and management structure of the Whanganui District Health Board.

Whilst clearly recognising all our rights to pursue personal and spiritual health, wellbeing, happiness and pleasure, my view is this: New Zealand hospitals, established with public funds and administered by the Ministry of Health, must follow the principles of evidence-based care.

I have a high level of interest and involvement in things spiritual and religious. I am an ardent advocate of patient and broader human rights and strongly support and respect our indigenous people and the Treaty of Waitangi.

However, and a big however, as a trained scientist, specialist General Surgeon and third term elected member of the Whanganui DHB, I have been appalled at what has unfolded in the attempted introduction of ‘natural therapies’ to our public hospital here.

I think I understand the sentiments that might have driven this initiative. Indeed I also have a degree of sympathy with its proponents, who almost certainly meant well.

The arrogance of thinking within Western medicine that excludes possible benefits of other modalities of healing is not warranted. An environment lacking in empathy and caring is all too common in our public hospitals and also needs to be dealt with. So too, the awful health statistics of our under-privileged population – in which Maori are sadly over-represented.

However, even a cursory examination of what has transpired in this failed process reveals serious and very worrying realities of the state of stewardship of the provision of medical care in New Zealand.

The initiative to establish a ‘Natural Therapy Clinic’ at Wanganui Hospital saw the formal establishment of the service via an early morning blessing at Te Piringa Whanau on Monday 23 July at 7.45am. The service was led by local kaumatua John Maihi and Wanganui Hospital chaplain Rev Graham Juden.

Despite obvious months of planning and detailed preparation, this was announced via a press release of 19 July1, just three days before the formal launch.

This was the first word of this initiative breathed to members of the Whanganui District Health Board. Not a single mention of it was made by the CEO Julie Patterson to her board – not even a hint in her weekly email updates to board members, the last one appearing just days before the launch. For a board that runs on the premise of ‘no surprises’ from its CEO, this is disturbing.

This is especially concerning since the media release in January 2012 suggesting (with the blessing of local obstetric specialists) that Wanganui might soon have no obstetric service was also never formally discussed at a board meeting. This created six months of chaos and anxiety for our community.

Termination

Fortunately, like the absurd idea of not providing an acute obstetric service to a city of 45,000 people, the ‘Natural Therapy Clinic’ idea has been terminated.

Interestingly, the scheme was cancelled just days before it was to be presented to the board. The only way I was able to get it to the board table at all was to link the idea of allowing non-accredited ‘practitioners’ loose on our patients with the recent case of alleged sexual abuse of one of our patients by a mental health care assistant in our organisation.

The CEO reported at the time2:

” Almost 12 months ago we received a complaint from a young woman, one of our mental health clients. The complaint alleged that she had been raped by a Health Care Assistant (HCA). The staff member was immediately suspended and the complaint investigated. It was found that the staff member had had inappropriate contact with the woman (texting and meeting her away from the unit) and a strong suspicion that there had been a consensual sexual relationship. The staff member resigned but was informed in writing that the outcome of the investigation was that he would have been dismissed. As this person was part of the unregulated workforce, we had no other levers.”

How much more blatant a lesson does one need to realise the obvious pitfalls of not only allowing, but encouraging, unregulated workers access to our patients?

The ‘paper’ which was finally presented to the board was the usual inept documentation supplied for board members and was lacking in even the rudiments of scientific form or rigour.

The claim that the pilot programme received “overwhelmingly positive feedback from staff”3, is perhaps one of the more obvious areas of deception in all this.

A survey of the 75 staff members who chose to use the service at its pilot stage apparently showed a positive response. However, of course, this is a self-selected group of less than seven percent of hospital staff members who wanted to avail themselves of the service in the first place. The views of the other 93 percent of staff are not canvassed or recorded.

But this is characteristic of DHB doublespeak.

The first media release of 19 July concerned me on a number of levels. The fact that the board had not been consulted was one. Board sets policy; management is tasked with implementing it.

All too often in our fragile district, management has implemented unjustifiable actions and then looked to the board for support after the fact. That support has understandably and correctly for the most part not been forthcoming.

An open-ended field

The second concern was the lack of definition of ‘Natural Therapy’ and the open-ended inclusion of all comers, including traditional Maori healing, Christian prayer, massage, Reiki and meditation training, as treatment modalities.

More recently, and again without prior notification, we learn through the media3 that ‘colour therapy’ was also included in this array.

None of these can seriously or accurately be considered to be therapies any more than a warm bubble bath or hairdressing could be. That does not mean that they necessarily infer harm – of course the latter two do not. Furthermore, it does not mean that hairdressers and bubble bath are not allowed or even encouraged in our hospitals: of course they are. They simply are not therapies. They are nice things and we can choose to use them in or out of hospital if we wish at our own whim.

The provision of Traditional Maori Health is already recognised by our Ministry of Health and appropriately funded and provided outside of hospitals. One could well argue that this is a legitimate part of the history and culture of New Zealand and like the Maori language is worthy of respect and support. I agree. This is a noble sentiment, and one supported by our government, but any serious practitioner of traditional Maori healing would no sooner practise his art in a backroom of Wanganui Hospital then I would perform a laparotomy in the staff canteen.

Confusion

It is curious that the reported formal line of the organisation as to why the project was shelved was to “avoid confusion and anxiety in the community which we are here to serve”. That confusion, however, has been created by the management team of what is supposed to be a first-world public hospital formally suggesting through one of its most prominent specialists that the likes of ‘colour therapy’, prayer and body rubs might have any serious therapeutic benefit.

Indeed, in a study of some 1200 patients published in the American Heart Journal4 prayer clearly has been tested and shown to have no such effect.

My greatest concern, until recently, was that this project was initiated and sustained by a medical specialist colleague Dr Chris Cresswell, who is a Fellow of the Australasian College of Emergency Medicine (FACEM) and boasts vocational registration with the New Zealand Medical Council.

Code of Ethics

Our own Medical Association of New Zealand code of ethics requires us to “[a]dhere to the scientific basis for medical practice while acknowledging the limits of current knowledge.”5

It is entirely inappropriate for us to use our acquired medical positions and titles to actively promote in a formal way practices that clearly are not evidence based.

The issue is not that these modalities have no value. For individuals they clearly do. It is not that they might do harm; they probably will not. The issue is a gross breach of our commitment to our patients to apply best practice and evidence-based models to their care.

Furthermore, the notion that individuals who are essentially unaccountable and unrecognised by professional bodies and standards should be unleashed on our patients is at best irresponsible. That one of our senior doctors &#8212 Dr Cressell &#8212 in his professional capacity was using his medical qualifications and status to promote these people and suspect modalities should be a matter for the Medical Council to act on. These are not acceptable treatment options. They might well be nice and comforting and like hand-holding and hairdressing, patients are at liberty to use them at their own behest even in our hospitals. They are not to be formally prescribed by doctors using their medical credentials to promote snake oil. These are not therapies; these are not credentialed practitioners. These are at best warm fuzzies and do not require ‘clinics’ endorsed by our doctors. They have no place in our hospitals any more than homeopathy, devil worship or nail painting does.

I was surprised that the hospital CEO, Clinical Board and Association of Senior Medical Staff supported this poorly conceived idea at the outset. They did. They most certainly did.

Not one of my medical colleagues locally spoke out against this plan. Not one spoke out in support of high-quality, first-world, evidence-based medical care of which we should be unambiguously proud.

Common sense?

Then suddenly, the idea was dropped. I thought some common sense had prevailed.

The real and greatest concern, though, is this. Our CEO and board chair refused in the public section of our board meeting to properly explain why the project was so suddenly stopped in its tracks.

The answer lies not in medical ethics, science, patient concern or professionalism. Astoundingly, it seems, it lies not in a rational, scientific concern for evidence-based practice and a concern for who precisely we allow to have access to our patients. It lies, rather, in religiously based paranoia and bigotry.

A Wizard at the hospital

On 6 September 2012 an advertisement article appeared in the Wanganui River City Press titled ‘Dreams, magic, healing and medicine’6.

This promoted a talk to be given by Dr Cresswell on a number of topics including the ‘Natural Therapy Clinic’ and his proud introduction of it to Wanganui Hospital.

Sadly for Dr Cresswell and the ‘Natural Therapy Clinic’ the article disclosed the fact that Dr Cresswell is an ordained Wizard in the Whanganui School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a clearly unchristian organisation and the meeting was part of Theosophy Wanganui.

I guess that degree of open mindedness, free spirit and lateral thinking on the part of Dr Creswell is what led him on his natural therapy crusade. I must confess to a degree of admiration, kinship and support for his wide raging interests, but alas, like business and pleasure, some things are best not mixed.

We can deduce it was the wizardry of Dr Cresswell that drove the medical professionals to object to the scheme. Not science, not ethics, not professionalism. Rather, we are told, “it was contrary to their religious beliefs”.

I’ve been told more than once my problem is that I think too much.

That’s probably true, but what has happened is not only mind boggling and sad, but frighteningly revealing on a whole number of levels.

A well-meaning ‘good guy’ doctor probably crossed the bounds of professionalism by formally elevating feel-good modalities to therapies. An ill-informed management team jumped on the bandwagon and Maori health was usurped in an attempt to ooze credibility over other unrelated claptrap practices.

The Health Board members were never consulted and some well-deserved bad press followed. Sadly, the Medical Council of New Zealand and the Ministry of Health provided no guidance and remained silent whilst all this unfolded. Happily, some very influential Wanganui senior doctors killed the project after previously supporting it. Sadly, it seems it was because of their own religious and personal bigotry that a silly idea was ended.

Great result, bad motivation. Very bad motivation.

Medical ethics

Vicki Hyde of the NZ Skeptics7 points out:

“It’s rare for public figures to come out against these ‘soft’ services. It´s easier to ignore the ethical and evidential issues associated with claims that these kinds of practices actually help to treat illness or disability beyond exploiting the well-recognised placebo effect.”

It is imperative that as doctors, our first responsibility must be to our patients. Of course, we need to be cognisant of our limitations, humble, not arrogant and open to all the needs of our patients. But we are trusted as a profession and that trust can only be maintained if we adhere to defined standards based on evidence and ongoing re-evaluation and scrutiny. We should not promote, via our medical qualifications, unproven modalities at the level of treatment modalities. But neither can we allow our own specific religious affiliations to affect our professional conduct with respect to our colleagues who might hold different or indeed no religious affinities.

As trained medical practitioners we must boldly uphold the scientific basis of our profession and never be compromised by political correctness or political claptrap and doublespeak.

Saving grace?

The supposed saving grace in all of this is that ( we are told) no taxpayer money was spent on this project. My Official Information Act application will shed some light on that. But note, apart from the media releases, the following occurred8:

  • A credentialing committee was established, including Dr Cherryl Smith (Co-Director of Te Atawhai o Te Ao), Dr Chris Cresswell, Gilbert Taurua and Runesu Masaisai (WDHB Clinical Therapies Manager).
  • Dr Chris Cresswell was to extend his professional development on natural therapy as part of his credentialing requirements as recommended by the clinical board.
  • An independent legal opinion was sought which resulted in the WDHB’s insurance company providing approved cover for the pilot.
  • Therapists were required to become honorary DHB staff ensuring compliance with all WDHB expectations, policies and procedures.
  • Systems were established to obtain confidentiality agreements from all therapists.
  • Therapists were required to be police checked.
  • Therapists were referee checked and cleared by both steering committee and credentialing committee.
  • A memorandum of understanding was developed specific to the therapists collective.
  • Informed patient consent expectations and documentation were established.
  • The orientation programme for therapists included: WDHB purpose, values and behaviours, fire and emergency evacuation, infection prevention and control, manual handling, patient safety and service quality including complaints, privacy and the code of rights, CPR and smoking cessation.

That appears to be a lot of taxpayer funded work to me.

Some appointed members of the Whanganui DHB tried to excuse this whole debacle by suggesting that this was all just a staff benefit scheme and never intended for patients. They clearly never read their press releases and have been patently out of touch with this important process, or worse, have compromised their own integrity in order to cover for a failing and flailing management.

To add insult to all these injuries, in an attempted justification of the failed project, Julie Patterson made the public comment that “in areas like ‘chronic pain’, Western Medicine has nothing to offer.” Really?

With views like that from high earning health bureaucrats, doctors, nurses, the Medical Council and the Ministry of Health have sure got a lot of work to do.

In the face of all of this nonsense, we cannot and should not remain silent.

References
1. Whanganui District Health Board Press Release 19th August 2012.
2. Weekly update, CEO Whanganui District Health Board 21st May 2010.
3. Wanganui Chronicle 26th September 2012. Hospital Ditches Natural Therapy, Anne-Marie Emerson.
4. Benson H et al. 2006: Am Heart J. 2006 151(4):934-42.
5. Medical Association of New Zealand Code of Ethics. www.nzma.org.nz/sites/all/files/CodeOfEthics.pdf
6. River City Press Sept 6th 2012 Dreams, magic, healing and medicine.
7. NZ Skeptics press release 24th August 2012,www.scoop.co.nz/stories/AK1208/S00554/consumer-wins-bent-spoon-again.htm
8. Wanganui District Health Board Meeting 28th September 2012 Item 10.2.
Clive Solomon is a Consultant General Surgeon, elected member of the Whanganui DHB (third term) and a Wanganui District Councillor. [Editor’s note: Organisations referred to in this article differ in their preferred spelling of Wanganui or Whanganui.]

Travelling on…


NZ Skeptic Chair-entity Gold stopped by the NZ Skeptic offices recently on his way from Bluff to Cape Reinga. Looking rather hairier than when he started, and having “worn out a foot” in Palmerston North, he is now travelling by cycle. The original plan was to follow Te Araroa, the walkway that runs the length of the country, but since swapping feet for wheels he has detoured through Napier and Rotorua. The journey is raising money for the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal, Women’s Refuge and, of course, the NZ Skeptics, as well as giving the web programmer a chance to recover from the OOS that was threatening his career. He’ll be settling in Wellington at the completion of the ride.

You can read about his travels at intentionallyhomeless.org

Sensing Murder: overtaken by events

The discovery of a long-missing body offers a rare chance to put the psychic stars of Sensing Murder to the test.

On Saturday 19 May 2012 the remains of Auckland teenager Jane Furlong were found in sand dunes at Port Waikato’s Sunset Beach.

Jane was only 17 went she went missing while working as a prostitute on Karangahape Rd in central Auckland, on the night of 26 May 1993. While the discovery gives her friends and family a chance to say farewell, mystery still surrounds her disappearance, and her killer remains at large.

The Jane Furlong case was the subject of the sixth episode of the second season of the television programme Sensing Murder, which screened in New Zealand on 9 October 2007. On the programme, two ‘psychics’, Australian Deb Webber and New Zealander Kelvin Cruickshank, attempted to contact Jane’s spirit and uncover fresh evidence about the case. They made specific and falsifiable claims about where the body was hidden; the discovery of Jane’s remains provides a rare opportunity to assess the information this pair came up with.

The programme’s narrator, New Zealand-born Australian actress Rebecca Gibney, tells us Webber and Cruickshank were both filmed non-stop for a day, kept separate and under constant supervision. The only information they were provided with was a photo of Jane, which both claimed they didn’t look at until they had come up with (very accurate) physical descriptions, including age (though both picked her as 16), ethnicity, even hairstyle. Both picked that she worked as a prostitute and dressed accordingly, was academically bright but had trouble at school. Webber even got the name ‘Jayne’, after having the name handed to her on a piece of paper, face down – we are told that Jane changed the spelling in her teens. (One has to ask whether the name was written in Webber’s presence: stage mentalists are able to interpret writing or drawing by watching the movements of the top of the pen, a technique known as pencil reading.(

Cruickshank gets that she had two siblings, that there was a Judy in the family (her mother’s name was Judith), and that she had a 19-year-old boyfriend, correctly described by Webber as rough-looking with tattoos. Later, both lead the camera crew (independently on separate nights) to the precise point on Karangahape Rd where Jane plied her trade.

On the face of it, this is amazing. If we have been given a fair representation of events there would seem little doubt that these two have genuine psychic ability. But there are other possibilities. One is that Webber and Cruickshank have been provided with all the information from the start. Another is that Webber and Cruickshank are filmed for a combined total of perhaps 16 hours, of which less than 30 minutes ends up on the screen, so there is plenty of opportunity for selective editing. Both are skilled cold readers (I have attended one of Cruickshank’s mediumship shows and can attest to his ability) , and we are told by Gibney that “only correct statements are confirmed during the readings”. So they are given feedback on how they’re doing, and over the course of the day’s filming are able to home in on correct details.

But could they really be psychic? On the evidence from this early part of the show it’s a possibility but we can’t be sure, because all of this information could have been obtained by non-psychic means.

However Cruickshank and Webber go on to give details about where Jane’s body was hidden. In 2007 nobody knew where that was, but now we do. So let’s look at a transcription of the bits of the show relating to that and see how well they did. ‘KC’ is Kelvin Cruickshank, ‘RG’ is Rebecca Gibney, and ‘DW’ is Deb Webber. Quotes are complete; three dots denote a pause, not an ellipsis.

KC: Just wanted to say dump or dumped. How are you covered? She’s saying to me I’m so covered up it’s not funny. She says they did a jolly good job of covering me up. Lots of dirt, lots of puddles, lots of water, I can hear dripping, I can hear hammers, even jack hammers, the concrete … jrr jrr jrr jrr. You know the… the sound of building.

[DW gives unverified details about the murderer.]

KC: Church, cemetery, where you taking me girlfriend? I feel like she’s hidden. She said, I just asked her were you moved from where you were killed? She shook her head … So … So the possibility at the time of her passing there may have been a building in dis…mount, which means being broken down and replaced ’cause things have changed since that sort of scenario … the surroundings have all changed and so I can’t make out whether I’m in or out.

[DW and KC say Jane is still missing.]

RG: Both psychics have picked up that Jane’s body is missing. Deb is given a map of Auckland and asked to identify areas that are significant to the case.

DW: She’s saying to me you don’t get much work out of the city. Where are you working? Yeah work? That’s what I’m looking for.

RG: Deb is indicating the area where Jane worked.

DW: Do you go over a bridge or something to get to her? ‘Cause she keeps taking me something over a bridge. Something’s happening around in this area, I don’t know what it is though.

RG: Deb is pointing at the Auckland Domain, a large park area near the central city.

DW: Still again, it’s like part of her doesn’t want to be found.

KW: She’s not outside of the city, she’s inside the city, she’s making reference to a park… She’s giving me the images of the hospital and then the museum and then she brings me back over to the university. Little bit of a triangle.

RG: Kelvin is also given a map.

KC: There’s the university, Domain, the hospital, where’s that? Right here … so … if we put two and two together like, there’s the triangle of the university like that, it sort of looks like this [makes a triangle with hands over the map].

RG: Significantly at the center of Kelvin’s triangle lies the Auckland Domain. The same park area identified by Deb.

KW: Honestly, I’m going to say this to you again, ’cause she’s talking about it being right underneath the noses of where she was last seen, it’s not far from there. She keeps saying I was not removed from the city. So wherever that area is, we’d probably need to locate it. Have a scout around with it, try and work with her a little bit more.

[DW and KC on separate evenings go to Jane’s “patch” on Karangahape Rd.]

DW: I think this is where she was last seen. And she keeps showing me the image of the car, coming in. It’s taken off, it’s turning around, and headed back down out that way.

RG: Deb is pointing in the direction of the Auckland Domain.


[DW says Jane knew something was not right, KC continues to explore Karangahape Rd.]

RG: Meanwhile Deb asks Jane’s spirit to show her where she was killed. She directs the crew to drive over the Grafton Bridge.

DW: She was on this road. I keep asking her when did he get violent with you and she said he was creepy anyway, right from the beginning. But it’s when they got down the road a bit, that’s when he started.

RG: Kelvin has reached the old Symonds St cemetery.

KC: Why have you brought me here girl? Definitely been pulled here, I don’t know why. I’ve brought these with me just in case, try and link in with her [Holds up bracelets(?)].

DW: Left.

RG: Deb heads into the Auckland Domain, the area both she and Kelvin identified on the map as being significant to the case.

DW: Oh, this is a bit … She’s definitely been in here before. She’s been in here. No, I think a few times but she’s definitely been in here with him. It’s really weird, I don’t think she came out the other side of it.

RG: Just when it seems Deb is about to make a breakthrough, Jane closes down on her.

DW: Getting all that stuff I got at the beginning, about the anger and the bitterness. You know, no one really cares if she gets found or not, she feels. She’s not connecting with her body, she doesn’t care. Show me, go show me Jayne. It’s like, the only thing I keep getting is that she’s lost, so until her soul’s ready to acknowledge it, it’s lost. Shock does that to a soul. Well, I can certainly say this, it’s not a very pleasant place to be at night, in here. Too much goes on in here.

RG: At the cemetery Jane is shutting down on Kelvin too.

KC: I’m getting close to a lot of people man, but this one I’m struggling with. She’s very very hard to get that door open. She comes in, she gives me a little bit, and she disappears, she comes in and gives me a little bit more and disappears, and that’s been paramount as you’ve been watching it all night. Didn’t have much in life and everything I did have was taken from me. What does it matter where I am. What does anyone care?

Next, we are introduced to Duncan Holland of Corporate Risks, an investigation and security consultancy, who is described as a former detective leading a team of investigators. He is solid-looking, authoritative, and speaks of the police and “we” in close conjunction. Many viewers would probably get the impression he is a policeman. Below are excerpts of his concluding commentary. Ellipses in this transcript indicate segments not relevant to the body’s location, or where clips of DW and KC had been inserted for dramatic or illustrative purposes.

Both psychics identified the Auckland Domain as being significant. … To get to the Auckland Domain from K Road where Jane worked the car would have driven past the Symonds St cemetery and the Grafton Bridge. … Psychic Deb Webber led the crew to the Auckland Domain, the same area she and Kelvin identified on the map. … The Auckland Domain, which is less than five minutes drive from K Road has always been a popular spot for sex workers to take clients; it is also one of the most dangerous spots. Numerous rapes and attacks on prostitutes have taken place in the domain. The New Zealand Prostitutes collective warns sex workers not to travel too far out of the city with clients. …

It is quite likely Jane went with her killer to the Auckland Domain, she may have been murdered and possibly even buried there. …

If the psychics are correct and Jane’s body was well covered, it is quite feasible that her body could be hidden in the domain and remain undetected for 14 years. The Auckland Domain covers 75 ha of land, some of it rough and inaccessible terrain and bush. In 1995 the body of murdered vagrant Betty Marusich was found in dense bush in the Auckland Domain; no attempt was made to cover or bury her yet it still took two weeks for her body to be found.

Kelvin presented another interesting scenario. … During our investigations we were approached by an anonymous source who told us that Jane’s body had been buried in concrete. Police confirmed they had investigated this theory but were unable to find any evidence. New Zealand police deal in factual evidence but are open to all sources of information. The psychics have revealed potential lines of inquiry which we believe warrant further investigation in the hunt for Jane Furlong’s body and her killer.

So there you have it. Both Webber and Cruickshank identify the same general area as the location of Jane’s remains, but then Jane inconveniently (or perhaps not) shuts down on them. Note that Cruickshank actually gives two alternatives: the Symonds St cemetery and a construction site, location unspecified. Interestingly Holland says there had been a tip-off that Jane had been buried in concrete.

Cruickshank and Webber also had plenty to say about the killer, though as the crime remains unsolved it’s impossible to assess this material. Much of it was contradictory, though the show glosses over this – Cruickshank indicated a motorcycle gang and “payback” being involved (Jane was due to testify in an assault case involving a gang), while Webber gave details about a balding businessman with an accent.

Was there collusion between Webber and Cruickshank for them both to pick locations that were so close together? Not necessarily. Both had somehow deduced she was a Karangahape Rd prostitute (most likely by cold reading their interviewers; we can now be fairly sure neither has any psychic ability), and the likeliest place for the body to be hidden would be the closest piece of rough ground – the Grafton Gully/Auckland Domain area.

In any case, Jane’s remains were more than 80 km away, at Port Waikato. The pattern is clear: Webber and Cruickshank can come up with amazingly accurate information if that information is already known and if they are provided with feedback, although we have no way of knowing how many of their misses were edited from the many hours of filmed footage. But when new information that was not previously available comes to light, their pronouncements can be seen for the fantasies they are.

Things that visit by night

Annette Taylor has personal experience of a phenomenon that lies behind many tales of ghosts, demonic possession, and alien abduction.

I was asleep. Marley, our cat, was faster asleep by my side.

Suddenly I was awake, at the sound of another cat’s tread in the room. Then something jumped up and landed on the bed, and padded right up to me, wanting under the covers.

I lay absolutely, perfectly still. In fact, I couldn’t move. The cat moved to the end of the bed and settled down. The minutes ticked by, and I worried about an all-out cat fight flaring up. I wondered, for a second, if this could be Willow come a-visiting. The thing was, we’d buried her in the garden not two weeks before (I’m not going to reference Monty Python here), and I was fairly certain it wasn’t poor old Willow, even while half asleep.

Then I came fully awake, groped in the dark for the cat I was convinced was lying there and found only Marley, snoring her head off.

It seemed so real, right down to the whiff of a slightly damp moggy and the pressure of her landing on the bed. A tad confused, I fell asleep. The next morning it had all the weight of a dream.

I was missing my cat and possibly, in a sense, she did come to say hello, but very much in a dream. My dad used to drop by at night after he died, too. We had good chats, but those were definitely dreams. I never thought for a moment he was a spirit hanging about.

This was different. At the time, I was certain there was a cat in the room, on my bed, and I couldn’t move a muscle. In retrospect, I’m deeply disappointed the cat wasn’t unspeakably evil, with glowing coal eyes, yellow fangs and claws of death; that would have ticked every box for being a classic case of sleep paralysis.

No better image conveys the terror this phenomenon can bring than The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli.

The victim lies helpless on the darkened bed, and gleefully perched on her is the terrifying incubus, peering straight out of the picture. I’ll have you too, it seems to gloat.

The work, painted in 1781, is said to have influenced writers such as Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe and it is still as full of menace today. Hypnopompic dreaming – or more properly Isolated Sleep Paralysis – occurs mainly upon awakening from sleep. It includes a range of visual and auditory experiences:

  • a sense of evil in the room
  • being paralysed or frozen
  • shortness of breath or pressure, as if something or someone is sitting on you
  • being touched

I had all but the first, and the additional olfactory bonus of the smell of damp moggy.

Most people report the experience as being intensely frightening and while mine wasn’t scary, it was definitely disturbing.

Sleep paralysis, also known as night terrors, has been implicated in a lot of things of interest to skeptics, such as alien abductions. Carl Sagan, in The Demon-Haunted World, says it is telling that alien abductions occur mainly on falling asleep or when waking up. “Abduction therapists are puzzled when their patients describe crying out in terror while their spouses sleep leadenly beside them. But isn’t this typical of dreams, our shouts for help unheard?” he writes.

Before we had visits from flying saucers, these vivid dreams were linked with the supernatural – witchcraft, demons, ghosties and things that go bump in the night.

The term hypnopompic comes from 19th century psychic researcher and poet Frederic Myers. He was a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research in 1883 and influenced Carl Jung, among others. He believed apparitions were not hallucinations, but really existed in the ‘metetherial’ dream-like world, which lies beyond everyday existence. It’s a good word, even if these days most (rational) people consider such dreams to be normal phenomena, rather than supernatural.

I mentioned my dream to a friend, who made the comment it would be nice to think that the visitor really was my cat Willow. But no. To allow that comforting thought traction ushers in a flood of superstitions which I really have no time for. It was a genuinely interesting occurrence, in and of itself.

Sleep Paralysis is reported very frequently among people with sleep disorders, and otherwise occurs frequently in 6 percent of the population; and occasionally in 60 percent. When it occurs repeatedly it is categorised as Recurrent Sleep Paralysis. But I’m not going to be putting out a saucer of milk any time soon.

Amber teething beads revisited

Darcy Cowan takes another look at a subject that just won’t go away.

The page views for my amber teething necklace post (printed in NZ Skeptic 100) are about to pass the 20,000 mark. Interest in the article has just kept increasing over the last year or so, as opposed to the majority of my posts which slip into internet obscurity within days. In anticipation of the occasion I thought I’d cover some of the comments that this post has gathered over the last few months.

Many of the comments are along the lines of “It worked for me”, and “Try it yourself”.

To the first, a bunch of individuals making claims of efficacy without adequate control for bias, natural history and various other contingencies is not a compelling argument to me. Plenty of others swear by practices based on personal experience that have no hope of working; why should this one get more credibility?

As to the second, three words for you: Anecdote, and Confirmation Bias. I know enough to realise that I am not immune to the wiles of confirmation bias, which would make any personal trial I made just another anecdote – something I don’t accept from others, so what would make my own experience any more valid? I realise that for most people this sort of reasoning is at best foreign and at worst incomprehensible. The general thinking appears to be: “If I try something and it seems to work, then it works – QED”.

No.
Related to this point are appeals to the placebo effect, the idea being that simply trying something helps, somehow. This may be true. But the placebo effect seems now to be the ‘go-to’ explanation for all things unexplained. It started off being understood as simply the improvement seen in the control group for clinical studies. Therefore by definition the placebo response was what happened when people weren’t treated. It was the catch-all for everything that could affect the outcome that wasn’t due to the treatment itself: poor method design, confirmation bias, reporting bias, observer effect on the patients, regression to the mean, natural history of the disease, etc, etc. More recently there has been some work to see if there is a real change due to people thinking they are getting an active treatment, the so-called ‘placebo response/effect’. Results have been mixed. It is true that people will report less pain and their brains will show less activation in pain-related areas. But people are susceptible to what they are told. If you tell people a cheap wine is expensive they will enjoy it more. Is there a placebo wine effect? Possibly, but the wine didn’t change and neither did any underlying physiology in relation to placebo medical treatments.
In fact recent studies of asthma showed that while people reported feeling better while taking a placebo, their ability to perform on objective measures remained the same, while those on active medications improved. If you feel better while still having a life-threatening condition are you better? I don’t think so.

So in appealing to the placebo effect you have to concede that:
1. the amber beads don’t have any active ingredient, and
2. don’t make any difference to the underlying condition.
ie, they do nothing.

Now notice in my original piece this is not what I said. I merely pointed out there is no good reason to think they are doing anything, not that they definitely aren’t – a subtle distinction I admit.

In essence the argument is: “If you think it works then it does”. I would counter by asking why not use something that we know works, and then you can capitalise on both effects: you will think it works and it will actually work too. Double goodness.

One poster asserted that amber necklaces were registered with the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia as a Medical Device, so this must mean they have therapeutic properties.

This one was my favourite as it was almost laughably easy to dismantle. After only a few minutes I found it was completely untrue (the TGA has an on-line register of such devices). Not only that but there were suppliers (www.allaboutamber.com.au) admitting that they couldn’t claim therapeutic benefits because they were not on the register. This company still promotes the therapeutic benefits of Hazelwood Jewellery, however:

Hazelwood products are believed to help to create an alkaline environment in your body, which may help, precent[sic] and appease many of the symptoms caused by being to acidic. Hazelwood, being an alkaline wood, has the natural property of absorbing and neutralizing the body’s acidity through contact with the skin. By doing so, the necklaces can also help with digestion, constipation, eczema, migraines, acid reflux, heart burn, nausea, arthritis, skin problems, etc. If you suffer from one of these issues, it is highly probable that you are suffering from an acidity imbalance, and hazelwood may be able to help you alleviate these symptoms in a natural way. Most people who suffer from an unbalanced pH are unbalanced towards the acidic. This condition forces the body to borrow minerals – including calcium, sodium, potassium and magnesium – from vital organs and bones to buffer (neutralize) the acid and safely remove it from the body.

Hmm, perhaps another post is in order. And a complaint.

A complaint was made against one supplier for making claims for the product and this was upheld by the Therapeutic Products Advertising Complaints Resolution Panel, in part because the necklaces are not on the register.

“The Panel noted, without making any formal finding, that the advertisement appeared likely to breach section 42DL(1)(g) of the Act, which prohibits the publication of advertisements for therapeutic goods that are not included in the Register.”

The website involved changed their wording to get around the regulations. Spot the difference:

OLD: “natural pain relief provided by Amber works by placing the necklace on your body, this allows your skin to warm the amber beads, releasing healing oils which are then absorbed into the blood stream.” NEW: “Amber is believed to soothe naturally, when Amber is worn next to the skin it is warm and it is reputed to release natural oils that can care for the skin.”

What a difference a few words make.

At the time the comment was made alleging the necklaces were on the register, I suspected that intended therapeutic benefits would be enough to fulfil the therapeutic benefits category.

This is supported both in the declaration of the supplier above and from the wording from the complaint; just prior to the excerpt above it states:

“Therapeutic goods are defined in the Act to include goods that are represented in any way to be for therapeutic use. Therapeutic use is defined to include use in or in connection with influencing, inhibiting, or modifying a physiological process in persons.

In representing the advertised products to have an “active ingredient”, to release “healing oils which are then absorbed into the blood stream”, and to relieve teething in infants, the advertisement clearly constituted an advertisement for therapeutic goods.” [Emphasis added]

Lets say though that the product had been registered with the TGA or will sometime in the near future. I would note that unless the administration was in possession of studies that are not published elsewhere there is no way they could be sure that an actual benefit is occurring. And that brings us right back where we are now.

As an extra note on the activities of the Australian government on this topic I found it amusing to see that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission issued a safety warning about Amber teething beads at the end of September last year. I say amusing because, while it’s not impossible, I do find it unlikely that one branch of the government is condoning their use while another warns against them. Luckily this is not actually the case.

Finally, I am not intending to address every conceivable objection to my arguments, merely a survey of what has been proffered so far. I am not really convinced by anything I have yet seen but I remain open to changing my mind so long as the evidence is of good quality. It doesn’t have to be much: a good start would be something that suggests succinic acid has the analgesic properties attributed to it. Then we could address whether succinic acid is released from the beads at ambient/skin temperature. Finally we would need to tackle whether the succinic acid is absorbed topically in any significant dose (decent dose-response curves could be obtained at stage one of this theoretical research programme).

All three of these items would need to be looked at in order to state that amber beads have good plausibility for what they are marketed for.
Darcy Cowan lives in Hamilton, where he works at an environmental chemical testing laboratory and writes the Scepticon blog.

The magic of morality: scientifically determined human values

Ethics and morality are often regarded as beyond the reach of scientific inquiry. But certain values appear to be shared by all humans as species-typical adaptations. This article is based on a presentation to the 2011 NZ Skeptics conference in Christchurch.

It was a pleasure to speak at the annual New Zealand Skeptics conference last year and hear from people representing a rich variety of scientific disciplines and other community organisations. A special thank-you to everyone who travelled from outside of Canterbury to support us following the recent earthquakes. I’m sure your lives are richer for visiting what is left of our city and sharing a few mild aftershocks with us! We enjoyed the morale boost from the weekend of friendly visitors, thoughtful presentations, light-hearted poetry, feasting and court theatre jesters, and the general atmosphere of proactive prosociality.

Relating to all these matters in the broadest possible sense, I discussed the subject of morality and morale. The theme of the conference was ‘building on solid science’, and I suggested that human wellbeing might be built upon a body of six core values. While my talk and this article are insufficient to address the topic fairly, I think a useful introduction can still be made, while avoiding an approach that would be either too complex or simplistic. I also mentioned the matter of priority – there may be many things that are important, but if everything is important, then nothing is important. Here I am aiming for what is most important.

I welcome questions, criticisms, assistance, and general sceptical inquiry of the points I make. Working as a clinical psychologist in a hospital injury and trauma service following the earthquakes, I cannot guarantee I will have time to respond individually to such feedback, but I will read it all and please know that I sincerely appreciate it.

What is Morality?

Morality is a subject that addresses big questions of existence. Who am I? Why am I here? What should I do? With varying degrees of awareness, everyone learns answers to such questions through processes of imitation, instruction, and inference. The answers take the form of moral models, which are ideas about human nature and right and wrong. Such models are explicit (acted upon with reflection), or implicit (acted upon without reflection), and impact the wellbeing of humanity’s billions on a daily basis.

Historically, considerable scepticism about moral models has been evident. “Those who promise us paradise on earth never roduced anything but a hell,” stated our own Professor Sir Karl Popper, summarising prior efforts of a utopian character. However, within many academic disciplines there has been an even stronger statement, a Humean consensus that science must concern itself with answering descriptive ”is’ or ‘fact’ questions, rather than prescriptive ‘ought’ or ‘value’ questions. This has been accepted as a truism by many, with attempts at scientifically based moral or value reasoning criticised as ‘scientism’ or the ‘naturalistic fallacy’, with dire predictions.

Challenges to these charges of scientism have arisen in recent years (Baschetti, 2007; Brinkmann, 2009; Kristjansson, 2010(, perhaps most influentially and eloquently from the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, in his 2010 book The Moral Landscape. In his book, Harris attacks moral relativism with a perceptive argument for scientific moral realism. As Harris explains, every single scientific ‘is’ statement ultimately rests upon implicit ‘ought’ statements – “all the way down” (p 203).

What logic can prove logic itself? What if you don’t value logic or empiricism? In such a case you destroy all of science, not just moral claims. 2+2=4, but only if you value mathematics. If people do not share such values there may sometimes be no way to convince them. However, there is also no need for the rest of us to take their arguments seriously either – any more than we need to convince everyone that physics or medicine can be helpful before we use it to improve at least our own wellbeing. Harris also argues that moral claims are universally claims about the wellbeing of conscious creatures (real or imagined), an area increasingly well illuminated by neuroscience and other sciences of the mind. In reality there is no choice but to go from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ and science offers the safest path to action, due to the collaborative scepticism and empiricism of scientific peer review process. These points and more are elaborated upon in his book, and I recommend reading it to examine the case in persuasive detail.

Ultimate, Universal, Unavoidable

The Moral Landscape argues that a science of human wellbeing is possible, based upon neuroscience and other sciences of the mind. Indeed, this is the very field of clinical psychology, broadly defined. Given evidence emerging and converging from the scientific literature, I would like to advance further and suggest that human wellbeing may be associated with six core moral values that are ultimate, universal, andunavoidable. I will briefly summarise and explain what I mean by this.

I use the word ultimate in the sense of evolutionary origins (Scott-Phillips et al, 2011) and values coded at the level of the genotype (Yamagata et al, 2006) that develop through processes of epigenesis (feedback effects of culture/environment upon genetic expression). Simply put, social organisms including humans must develop systems to (1) perceive patterns in their environment: (2) allocate time between competing needs: (3) regulate social relationships: (4) value inclusive fitness: (5) defend against threat: and (6) maximise all of these abilities within homeostatic limits. Certain system organisations tend toward Nash equilibrium or evolutionarily stable strategies, that outcompete other strategies. In other words, these values may not only be how life is, but how life must be, for reasons ultimately reducible to the laws of chemistry, physics and mathematics. Historically, evolutionary modelling using game theory simulations has been a prominent scientific tool in exploring the nature of such systems, for example in the domain of social relationships (Axelrod & Hamilton, 1981).

Six values also appear to be universally shared by humans as species-typical adaptations, as suggested by psycholexical and cross-cultural research. Psycholexical theory posits that because languages evolved, they are likely to contain words for patterns in the world (including patterns of valued personality) that are important to human wellbeing.

Across world languages, the thousands of words for describing personality appear to cluster in six main domains (Lee & Ashton, 2008). Additionally, across world ethical codes, philosophies and religions, six core values seem to be shared. They apply across the literature traditions of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Athenian philosophy, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and also seem integral to oral traditions ranging from the Masai of the African savannah, to the Inughuit of Arctic environs (Dahlsgaard, et al, 2005). Specific expression of these varies, as do a range of non-shared values. However, the cross-cultural nature of these six core values refutes claims of moral exclusivity by any one tradition, and given the thriving of societies lacking the non-shared values, these appear less generally important and perhaps even obfuscating or detrimental in some cases (Paul, 2009).

Six values also seem unavoidable, in the sense that people must develop them to at least a minimum degree to survive, and to a higher degree to thrive. Failure leads to high levels of dependence or institutionalisation – ranging from requirements for supported living arrangements, to psychiatric hospitalisation or prison. For example, low levels of intelligence characterise intellectual disability and dementia, and low levels of altruism characterise psychopathy. Conversely, high-level development of such values aides flourishing – enhanced wellbeing via autonomy, social connection and competence. These patterns of negatively and positively developed characteristics are the focus of psychiatry and clinical or applied psychology.

I.T.E.A.C.H.

I have used the mnemonic I.T.E.A.C.H. to summarise six values, each letter representing a value word. An important caution is that this word set is only one possibility from hundreds of potential words across the six domains (Ashton et al, 2004). It is selected for memetic reasons, including being easy to remember, descriptive and prescriptive – and with the star for associations with light and enlightenment, bright and magical things, aspiration and inspiration, and matching the embodied metaphors of our intuitive folk psychology (Blackmore, 1999; Seitz, 2005; Winne & Nesbit, 2010). You probably have your own meaning attached to these words, but that meaning is not what I mean, or at least not only. Instead they refer to diverse but related phenomena across physical, biological, psychological and sociological levels of knowledge (Henriques, 2003), with consilience or ‘unity of knowledge’ as an aim (Wilson, 1998). “Words are only tools for our use” as the biologist Richard Dawkins has said (Dawkins, 2006). Nonetheless we must choose some words to use and these seem adequate. Choose your own if you prefer.

To briefly summarise these values then, Intelligence might be parsimoniously defined as pattern recognition, with some other words that cluster in this psycholexical domain being knowledgeable, perceptive, educated, curious. Temperance refers to the ability to temporally sequence actions adaptively, with some other words in this domain being conscientious, self-disciplined, organised, systematic. Equality refers to the ability to maintain mutualistic or non-zero-sum social relationships, with some other words in this domain being just, fair, honest, humble. Altruism refers to helping, with some other words in this domain being kind, warm, generous, compassionate. Courage refers to the ability to tolerate distress, with some other words in this domain being resilient, tough, intrepid, and brave. Lastly, Holism may refer to the ability to integrate the other five virtues, transcend prior limitations, and connect as part of a larger socio-cultural, and even evolutionary and cosmological perspective. I suspect other words in this domain reflect the frequent social context or status of such endeavours, with words such as extroverted, vivacious, inspiring, and spirited.

Building a Stronger Culture

The Moral Landscape argues that we should build morality upon solid science. In this article I have provided a brief glimpse of how, suggesting attendance to six core values. Development of such values is associated with increased wellbeing and decreased physical and mental health problems, as demonstrated by many randomised placebo controlled clinical trials (the scientific gold standard) of psychological interventions. The evidence is good enough to begin applying scientific approaches to wellbeing on a larger cultural scale than is currently the case (Henriques, 2005; Seligman, 2011). Data collected on the way can be used to adjust and amend approaches, via evolutionary processes of cultural variation, selection and retention. This is temperate scientific progress, rather than hotly impulsive or coldly compulsive dogma.

At the conference I was asked about development of these values, and about the role of the golden rule (“consider yourself and treat others accordingly”, as stated by Confucius for example) – widely known as a culturally universal endorsement of altruism. As suggested by its position in the star, altruism is central to the development of other values through valuing the wellbeing of self and others. Mammalian brains do not self-assemble like those of many reptiles, but rely upon nurturance to reach their full potential (Hrdy, 2009). Altruism has ultimate origins in evolutionary processes such as kin selection (Hamilton, 1964) and (together with equality) reciprocal altruism (Trivers, 1971). Parallel to this, skeptical inquiry is a process fostering the accurate pattern recognition that characterises intelligence. Yet, as I said at the conference, altruism alone is as useless as a body without head or limbs, incapable of seeing wisely or acting effectively – and intelligence alone is as a head detached from body and limbs, potentially lost in autistic pattern seeking or psychopathy. And even head (I) and heart (A) are lame, without arming methodically for action (T), standing as two to exceed the power of one (E), stepping forward despite distress (C), and reaching forever higher to transcend what has gone before (H). Simplified even further – head and heart, standing together, standing strong, and reaching out to help.

We aim to build our most important cultural institutions upon solid science rather than superficial superstition. Our challenge is to speak comprehensively but comprehensibly and reach as many people as possible. At the conference, chemist Michael Edmonds spoke of our chemical origins in the heart of stars as “starstuff”, and biologist Alison Campbell of our biological origins in the great evolutionary tree of life. In this manner an evolutionary cosmology to which we all belong is now introduced at new entrant level in our schools, providing fertile ground for sustaining knowledge to grow.

In terms of physics we are matter and energy, creating and destroying, yet neither created nor destroyed. Awareness emerging, submerging and re-emerging, evolving as it is revolving. As a psychologist, I am aware that to grow starstuff into flourishing form, human genes need memetic light. Symbolic linguistic devices such as these words, the “Bright-Star” above or Humanist symbol below, are examples of memes that might aid the teaching of scientifically based morality and brighter prospects for individual and collective wellbeing.

“When will you attain this joy?
It will begin when you think for yourself,

When you truly take responsibility for your own life,

When you join the fellowship of all who have stood up as free individuals and said,

‘We are of the company of those who seek the true and the right, and live accordingly;

‘In our human world, in the short time we each have,

‘We see our duty to make and find something good for ourselves and our companions in the human predicament.’

Let us help one another, therefore; let us build the city together,

Where the best future might inhabit, and the true promise of humanity be realised at last.”

The Good Book 9:4-11(Grayling, 2011).

References

Ashton, M.C., Lee, K., & Goldberg, L.R.(2004).Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(5), 707-721.

Axelrod, R., & Hamilton, W.D.(1981).Science, 211,1390-1396.

Baschetti, R.(2007).Medical Hypotheses, 68, 4-8.

Blackmore, S.(1999).The Meme Machine.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brinkmann, S.(2009).New Ideas in Psychology, 27, 1-17.

Dahlsgaard, K., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P.(2005).Review of General Psychology, 9(3), 203-213.

Dawkins, R.(2006).The Selfish Gene (30th Anniversary ed.).Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grayling, A.C.(2011).The Good Book: A secular bible.London: Bloomsbury.

Hamilton, W.D.(1964).Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7,1-52.

Harris, S.(2010).The Moral Landscape: How science can determine human values.New York: Free Press.

Henriques, G.(2003).Review of General Psychology 7(2), 150-182.

Henriques, G.R.(2005).Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61,121-139.

Hrdy, S.B.(2009).Mothers and Others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding.Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard.

Kristjansson, K.(2010).Review of General Psychology, 14v4), 296-310.

Lee, K., & Ashton, M.C.(2008).Journal of Personality, 76(5), 1001-1054.

Paul, G.(2009).Evolutionary Psychology, 7(3), 398-441

Scott-Phillips, T.C., Dickins, T.E., & West, S.A.(2011).Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(1),38-47.

Seitz, J.A.(2005).New Ideas in Psychology, 23,74-95.

Seligman, M.E.P.(2011).Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing.New York: Free Press.

Trivers, R.l.(1971).Quarterly Review of Biology, 46,35-57.

Wilson, E.O.(1998).Consilience: The unity of knowledge.New York: Random House.

Winne, P.H., & Nesbit, J.C.(2010).Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 653-678.

Yamagata, S., Suzuki, A., Ando, J., Ono, Y., Kijima, N., Yoshimura, K., et al.(2006).Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 987-998.

Confessions of a New Age Skeptic

How should a skeptic relate to those who have other belief systems?

What does a skeptic and atheist do when they are part of a broader group that is quite loose on empirical evidence and critical thinking? A lot of us experience this to some degree, but I’ve wrestled with my engagement with a particular group I’m fond of for the last 20 years.

Convergence: Beyond 2000 (previously, “Towards 2000”) is an annual camping event that takes place in North Canterbury over the New Year break. Its tag line is: “Gathering every year for a co-creative festival celebrating nature, spirituality, love, and healing”. The event is alcohol and drug-free, has good facilities, and includes about 350 people.

Convergence is a place where the cultural norm is one of suspension of disbelief. All of the typical energy healing models are practised and taught there in workshop context by volunteer facilitators. Reiki, guru aspirants, channelers, tarot card readers, Mayan calendar adherents, fairy lovers, tantric energy, The Secret, massage healers … well, where do you stop?

I found myself coming along to the events first in 1992. I’d migrated from Canada and my flatmate and all his friends, who were a playful, friendly bunch, went every year and I was drawn into it. I was still coming out of 12 years of study and work as a mechanical engineer installing computer systems into paper mills and was quite happy to regress into a less linear approach to my perception of life and how to live it.

My first year I was quite guarded, being aware that there are people out there that attempt to get people away to events “just-like-this” with the aim of drawing them into some sect or other. All the warmth, playfulness and affection that seemed to be happening was pretty overwhelming and I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb. Fortunately, it wasn’t a sect, and I wasn’t pressured to be “one of us”, and I was generally engaged with at a warm, receptive level.

At Convergence in the first few years I remember often feeling discomfort while the friend I might be walking or talking with would leap joyfully into the arms of someone they knew from previous events. It took a lot of self-reassurance to stick with it, and in time I found myself being outrageously affectionate as well, and carrying that forward into my life. I’ve made a lot of friends at Convergence, and found my last two partners there as well (having a child with both of them). So, there have been a lot of good times inside my relationship with the group.

My other exposures to “hooey” weren’t disturbing. I’d lived already for a few years on a hippy commune near Motueka where I’d seen any number of loose approaches to life. In a way, it made me feel more sane being around people that I was genuinely very fond of but that obviously had one or two screws loose and rattling around.

This Xmas, having recently turned 50 and after having gobbled up the the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (and other skeptic podcasts) I joined the ranks of the NZ Skeptics. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I’m an atheist, a humanist, and I’m going to share that when it is relevant.

It’s still a learning experience for me. When do I say something? If a friend talks about the great course in acupuncture that they are in their final year of do I say what I believe? No, I haven’t, not often. But I do wonder the cost in not saying something. Did we lose an opportunity for intimacy? Did I miss giving them a test to their chosen life path, possibly sparing them some wasted years of hand-waving healing modalities? I’m still not clear on that one, being new to this.

“What’s the harm” is a classic response. I’ve reflected on my hippy years and now realise there was harm. The anti-vax/DIY home-birthing (without adequate support) crowd had three kids that are still paying the price. I’ve supported the deaf community as a social worker and found that there are years during which a lot of them go through milestone birthdays (anti-vax again). I’ve had my kids treated with bogus, outwardly professional therapies (waste of cash and time).

This year, when I went to Convergence I found the issue of my personal beliefs much more emotionally charged. I told quite a few people that I met that I had ‘come out’ as a skeptic. In saying this, I found others that shared my feelings.

Encouraged by my gathering support, in front of the whole crowd I ‘testified’ as an atheist/critical thinker and offered a workshop on the issue. The crowd barked with laughter and good will as I did it humorously. It turned out the others I’d spoken to prior to the meeting had initiated a workshop already!

In the workshop people spoke about the fear of diverging from the group norm, and holding their tongue while others spoke about their wild unfounded beliefs. They mentioned the discomfort of “having to” participate in opening rituals (blessing to the four directions…yadda yadda). And not knowing others that felt the same. We agreed that our general perspective was a healthy one for the fesitival, and one to be openly celebrated.

Next year we’ll open with a workshop for sceptics. It’s a beautiful event, and the acceptance is big enough to include critical thinking. And who knows, we may make us a few converts!
www.convergence.net.nz/wordpress/

Every picture tells a story – sometimes they’re whoppers

Pictures don’t lie, right? Of course they do. And they were deceiving us long before Photoshop made the manipulation of images almost child’s play.

Today, nobody would bat an eye at a ghostly image of Abraham Lincoln standing behind his grief-stricken widow, apparently comforting her. But back in the 1860s when William Mumler produced the first ‘spirit photographs’ the public was stunned. These photos appeared to show dead relatives hovering around the living subject who had posed for the picture. Photography was magical enough, so it didn’t seem such a stretch that the camera could see things that the human eye could not

Mumler discovered ‘double exposure’ accidentally when he mistakenly used a previously exposed but undeveloped photographic plate. He immediately recognised the financial potential of this discovery and reinvented himself as a psychic medium who specialised in communicating with the other side through photographs. By today’s standards his efforts were amateurish but in the heyday of spiritualism they were readily accepted as authentic. Only when Mumler made the mistake of using images of people who were still alive as his ‘ghosts’, did his little scam crumble. But by this time many other ‘spirit photographers’ had recognised the lucrative nature of the business and had gotten into the game. And amazingly, the clever ruse even snared luminaries like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir William Crookes. Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a physician and Crookes was a pioneer in chemistry and physics. One would think they would have known better.

Conan Doyle was a staunch believer in spiritualism, a position his famous detective would have taken a dim view of. But it was Sir Arthur’s championing of another type of fake photograph that best demonstrates the extent of his credulity. In 1917 two young girls produced a photo that purported to show fairies dancing in the woods. Conan Doyle was convinced the pictures were real and refused to believe that he had been fooled by the simple trick of hanging cardboard cutouts by a thread in front of the camera. It was inconceivable to him that a couple of uneducated girls could put one over on someone of his stature. The pictures therefore had to be evidence of the existence of fairies! In 1983 Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths finally admitted that they had faked the photographs but nevertheless maintained they had actually seen real fairies.

By the time the ladies had unburdened their souls, Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin had outdone the ‘Cottingley fairies’. In 1967 these two thrilled the world by capturing the first images of the fabled Bigfoot. Their short film shows a creature lumbering across the woods, looking very much like a man in a gorilla suit. There is good reason for that. It is a man dressed in a gorilla suit. The elaborate hoax was described in detail at a recent conference on magic history by Phillip Morris, a man who should know, since it was his costume company that provided and altered the gorilla suit used to stage the scene. Needless to say there are legions of Bigfoot believers who don’t buy Morris’ claim and remain convinced that some sort of giant ape-like creature prowls the Pacific Northwest.

With such ample historical evidence about photographic manipulation, it’s surprising how few people question the authenticity of a series of photographs being circulated on the internet purporting to show the results of a student’s science fair experiment. The pictures depict plants supposedly watered either with microwaved water, or with water that has been heated on a stove top. And guess what! The microwave-watered plants wither while the others flourish!

One can come up with all sorts of possible explanations for the difference. Was the soil the same in the two plants? Were they given equal amounts of water? Could they have been exposed to different lighting conditions? Was there some difference in the seeds? But how about a simpler possibility? Fraud. It isn?t very hard to set up two plants side by side and ensure that one thrives while the other dies. Just water one and not the other. Of course the possibility that this is the way the pictures were created does not prove the case.

Heating water in a microwave oven does nothing other than raise its temperature. Any talk about “the structure or energy of the water being compromised” is plain bunk. But absurdly implausible arguments don’t prove that the pictures are fraudulent either. What proves it is the good old standard of science: reproducibility. Or lack of.

I did the experiment. I watered plants with microwaved water, kettle-boiled water, and stove-top boiled water, feeling pretty silly about it, but I did it. The results? As expected, no difference. I didn’t take any pictures because, after all, how would you know that they are not faked? So here is the choice. You can take my word that the experiment cannot be reproduced, accept that science tells us that microwaves do nothing to water other than heat it, or take at face value some pictures in a circulating email that purport to show an effect that has eluded scientists around the world but was discovered by a student pursuing a science fair project. Better yet, do the experiment yourself!

As you might guess, I don’t believe in spirit photographs, fairies, Bigfoot or plants succumbing to the evils of microwaved water. And I would have put goats that climb trees into the same ‘unbelievable’ category. But I would have been wrong. It seems that some Moroccan goats have learned to climb the argan tree in search of its olive-like fruit. Legend has it that the undigested seeds that pass through the goats used to be collected and pressed into “argan oil,” a traditional food flavouring. Highly questionable. The oil, also used in the cosmetic industry, is actually pressed from fruit that has been picked by human hands, making the tree-climbing goats a nuisance. Still, one can appreciate their remarkable athleticism. Easy to find pictures of their exploits on line. And pictures don’t lie? Right?

School of thought

Adam van Langenberg gives practical suggestions on how to run a high school skeptical society, based on his own successful experience.

In late 2010 I was fortunate enough to see noted US skeptics Rebecca Watson and Brian Dunning speak at the La Notte restaurant in Melbourne. As entertaining as these talks were, what really grabbed my attention was local skeptic Richard Saunders’ demonstration of the Power Balance scam. The more he demonstrated, the angrier I became. Angry because I’m a high school teacher and a lot of my students (and a few of our teachers) were wearing these things. Five minutes earlier I didn’t even know what they were; I had assumed they were one of those charity bands you see everywhere. Now my protective instincts were kicking in and I wanted to help my kids from getting sucked into this scam.

At school the next day I showed several of my classes the applied kinesiology techniques the salespeople were using. The students thought the tricks were very cool and a lot of embarrassed bracelet wearers suddenly started justifying their fashion choices:

“It was a gift!”

“I found it on the footpath!”

Mostly, though, they stopped wearing them.

The success of this led me to create the McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society. We meet once a week and spend our lunch hour discussing specific pseudosciences, critical thinking techniques and debating the merits of scepticism. A brief speech at a school assembly brought over 100 students to the first sessions (a mass Zener ESP experiment) but numbers are now more stable with 20 – 40 kids on average.

One of the things that has surprised me about the group is how young most of the students in it are. By far, the majority are in year 7 and 8. I typically have around 20 students at those levels each week and about 5 – 10 from other year levels. I was a little worried that this might lessen the amount of deep discussion we could have but, as you’ll read later, I needn’t have been.

Favourite topics so far have included three weeks on logical fallacies and a month spent teaching the children how to cold read. I may have created some monsters here because they turned out to be quite gifted at it.

I truly believe that critical thinking and scepticism belongs in our school’s curriculum. Until that day comes, we are relying on teachers to inject it into their classrooms themselves. Unfortunately I don’t see a lot of this. I know at least one science teacher who fervently believes that aliens have been landing on the Earth for many years and I worry about how many of their students have been taught to believe this.

I think that a sceptical society is the next best thing, as it brings the concept of scepticism into the community. People refer to me as “Mr Sceptic” (and occasionally “the dream crusher”) and many students and teachers have approached me for my thoughts on various ideas. “Sceptical” is now a word being used more and more at my school. My ultimate goal is to have every student understand what scepticism is and just how rewarding it can be.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I consider to be important when running a group like this. What follows are my ideas.

Make the sessions fun and relevant

Hopefully this one is a no-brainer. Children can have very short attention spans and if they’re not enjoying themselves, why would they continue? They’re forced to be in my maths classes so I can be as boring as I like but the sceptical society is totally optional. This is why I try to make my talks funny. It’s why I throw in as many jokes as I can. If you’re being funny, kids will listen because they want to hear the next joke. And if you can sneak in a bit of good stuff between the jokes they’ll probably learn something too.

There are plenty of fun activities around the internet that you can run. There’s an ESP experiment on the JREF site and Richard Saunders has videos up of water dowsing and ‘can you tell if somebody is staring at you?’ experiments. There are lots of astrological ideas as well, such as having astrological descriptors up around the room and asking students to try to guess which one is theirs. Activities like this can be real drawcards and get kids coming along who might not have ordinarily been interested.

That’s a key point – a ‘sceptical society’ probably won’t draw a huge crowd, but an experiment to see if anybody is psychic probably will.

Relevancy is also very important. We talked about Power Balance bands because all of the kids knew about them. They’ll all be aware of psychics, aliens and ghosts so those are topics that come up a lot. The vaccine debate probably isn’t at the front of their minds and it doesn’t come up as often, but it does come up occasionally and you’ll be pleased to know that the anti-vaccination mindset makes them very angry.

It’s important to follow the news and select the things that you think will interest them.

Don’t make it a science club

Be aware that to most teenagers ‘science’ means sitting in a classroom while a teacher talks about a bunch of boring stuff. You might get to do the odd experiment but there often isn’t that sense of mystery and beauty that we know science is all about.

So when I say don’t make it a science club, what I really mean is don’t make it an obvious science club. Sneak the science in. Make it a club about ghost hunting and astrology debunking and homeopathy ridiculing. While you’re doing that, briefly explain how you could use this thing called ‘single blinding’ to make an experiment. Then maybe throw in some ‘double blinding’ to show them how to make it better.

The next thing you know, your kids have learnt a bit of science and they’ve learnt why it’s important. If you’ve done your job right they’ll also have learnt why it’s just so damn cool.

Probably don’t make it a secular club

A few people from the sceptical community have gotten upset with me about this, some suggesting that if I’m not actively turning my students against religion then I’m basically wasting my time. Let me explain why I think this is a bad idea.

First of all, I think it’s a really fast way to get yourself shut down. Sure, a lot of schools have Christian, Muslim and Jewish societies so you could argue discrimination if you came under attack but I don’t think you’d get very far. Sometimes it only takes one angry phone call from a parent to get something cancelled.

More importantly, you don’t want to exclude religious people from your group. A lot of the kids who come along to my club are Christian or Jewish. The last thing I want is for them to feel unwelcome. I steer clear of religious topics for that reason alone. If somebody brings up testable religious claims (such as creationism) I’m always happy to discuss them, but I will never make them the focus of the session.

A lot of my children come from very religious families, who could quickly make a complaint and ban their kids from turning up. My kids all know that I believe in the big bang and the theory of evolution. My kids also know that I can have a respectful conversation with them about it, even if they disagree with me. There are plenty of other topics out there worth discussing.

Prepare to be asked about anything

One day I had an entire session planned around psychics. About five minutes in, a kid asked me if I thought it was alright to tell little kids that Santa exists. Normally I would have told them to wait until the end but most people in the room seemed genuinely interested in my answer. This answer turned into a conversation about the history of Santa, the philosophy of lying and funny Santa stories.

Should I have stopped the discussion and gone back to the psychics? Absolutely not. I knew I could always talk about psychics next week. Children’s minds are so inquisitive and always on the go. The most surprising things can interest them without warning. Go with it. The trick is to have as much knowledge as you can on many different topics. Being a specialist in a particular field is great, but it doesn’t really help when running something like this for kids. In my position, it is better to know a little about a lot of topics, rather than vice versa. Of course, the more I know about as much as possible, the better I can do my job.

Don’t dumb things down

If there’s one thing that never ceases to amaze me about children, it is their almost unlimited capacity for impressively inventive cruelty. If there’s one other thing, it’s how much they actually understand. A couple of months ago a boy in my class started talking about transvestites. He wanted to know whether all transvestites were gay. A few others responded by suggesting that some of them probably are but not all of them. What followed was a wonderfully respectful and inquisitive classroom discussion. I sat back and watched, marvelling at how mature and understanding they were being. What really impressed me was that these children were 12.

Don’t assume that kids can’t handle ‘grown up’ topics. Medical minutiae might go over their heads but it doesn’t mean that they can’t ponder the issues involved. Want to talk about the ethics involved in prescribing placebos? They can handle it. Want to discuss terminally ill people reaching out to alternative medicine as a last resort? Go for it, just be prepared to handle some potentially delicate questions.

Children are easily influenced, so influence wisely

Children pick up everything, from diseases to attitudes. I don’t like angry, condescending adults so I don’t want my kids turning into them. We all know that you don’t change people’s beliefs with ridicule and personal attacks, so why start developing those habits in kids now?

When we discussed homeopathy, some of my students started laughing at people who use it. Obviously, anybody who believes in homeopathy is an idiot and deserves to be ridiculed. I don?t blame them for thinking this way because they are still very young, but it needed to be stamped out immediately. What if the patients were referred to a homeopath by a GP? What if they have no idea how it works? What if they’re at death’s door and are desperately trying something different as a last resort?

If you teach kids to look down on victims of pseudoscience, you are teaching them to be insensitive and arrogant. Kids need to understand that all people should be treated with respect and that everybody is worth listening to. Unless, of course, they’re a filthy scumbag con-artist who is knowingly ripping people off. In that case, go right ahead and tear them a new one.