3000 km for skepticism

Gold takes a long walk.

Some time back I noticed that I was getting the first signs of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). I’m a web developer and spend way too much time in front of a keyboard and mouse. It’s a common enough thing among people in my industry. From what I can tell one of the best ‘treatments’ for it is to just stop for a bit. So I am.

In order to do something productive, or at least worthwhile, during this time I’m going for a sponsored walk to raise funds for the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Trust, Woman’s Refuge and our own NZ Skeptics Society. I’ve built a half-way decent website for it (intentionallyhomeless.org) and it’s able to take pledges for distance covered. Providing I finish the full trail I have already raised over $2000 as I write this.

The trail I’m following is called Te Araroa (The Long Pathway) and it was only recently completed and opened. It runs for 3000 km from Cape Reinga to Bluff, although I’m starting in the south and fleeing the (potentially) foul weather instead of heading into it.

I’ll be maintaining a journal on the website where you can follow the journey and, should you choose, you can pledge money to the charities or sponsor me personally.

I’m also looking for supply drops, couches and interesting things along the walk. One way to check the track would be to install Google Earth and load the trail using the .kmz file available at the official site (teararoa.org.nz). If you, as a resupply drop or couch, or the point of interest are close enough to the trail I’ll definitely make the stop.

The best way to contact me would be via the contact form on the Intentionally Homeless site or via [email protected]

Battling the Bands

Gold takes local action against PowerBalance, with encouraging results.

PowerBalance Bands are hideously expensive silicon rubber wristbands with a mylar hologram in them. PowerBalance, an American company, made a killing with these after convincing some popular sports personalities that they had the ability to improve their strength and performance. They achieved this by working “with the body’s natural energy field”. They were shut down in Australia due to the work of a number of people, including Richard Saunders of the Skeptic Zone podcast who did a great informal double blind test with the Today Tonight show and the local distributor1.

After this happened I found that these were all over the place on TradeMe. From memory there were on average 30+ listings for these at any given time. This was when I discovered something quite handy on TradeMe. The site has a Community Watch feature that allows you to report listings for all sorts of reasons. These are checked and the item is taken down if the complaint stands up. With the recent takedown of PowerBalance in Australia it wasn’t hard to convince TradeMe to remove the listings. Within a week the average number of listings was around 3-4 and I would hammer these every few days to keep the number low. As I write there are 10 listings if you search for “power balance bands” on TradeMe. I’ll submit complaints about these after I get this article off.

Recently a local skeptic, who we’ll refer to as Bob, started posting a listing which was a copy of the Corrective Notice from the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission2 with a description that explained exactly what PowerBalance bands are, how they fool you into thinking there is an effect (they use a 70-year-old stage magician’s trick that relies on applied kinesiology), and that any proceeds from the sale of the Notice would go to the NZ Skeptics Society as a donation. Despite being very clear about the fact that the product for sale is a printout of the Corrective Notice3 which PowerBalance were ordered to post on their site, the member has been instructed to no longer post these listings.

The Solution? Placebo Bands. The Skeptic Bros4 are a couple of guys from Australia who tracked down a manufacturer for these silicon bands, scraped the money together, had a Placebo Band design made up, ordered the first 1000 (minimum order) and crossed their fingers. The bands sold well. Bob currently has a supply of these that are being listed on TradeMe, so you’ll be able to get your own should you want one. Proceeds (after covering costs) will be donated to the NZ Skeptics Society.

The American company is still active, although they have also recently filed for Chapter 115.

  1. YouTube: goo.gl/dN1i8
  2. TGA ruling: goo.gl/bMVEp
  3. Retraction notice: goo.gl/j8mw4
  4. The Skeptic Bros: goo.gl/NUGWU
  5. Google News: goo.gl/o4XWx

Deconstructing Sex Abuse Industry Claims

ACC’s best-practice guidelines for identifying cases of sexual abuse are not credible.

Twenty years ago, New Zealand had a mere handful of people who claimed to be ‘counsellors’. Now they number in their thousands. The phrase, “victims were offered counselling”, has become commonplace, yet the only practical intervention they can make is to talk.

How did we suddenly produce so many wise folk who can provide counselling and therapy to so many? Is counselling science-based or evidence-free ideology? What did we do before we had counsellors?

Despite lofty claims of being trained health professionals, counselling is not registered under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003. Nor is it regulated by Government or any public process. It requires no specific or mandatory training, public examination, knowledge or skills. Selling counselling services to the public can be done by anyone, without control or accountability, much like psychics, spirit guides and mediums.

My particular concern here is sex abuse counselling, the industry it spawned and the part ACC plays. An ACC press release of 16 October 2009 advised that “[b]y law, ACC can only accept sensitive claims from those diagnosed with a mental injury resulting from the sexual abuse they’ve suffered.” There are two parts to this; firstly, sexual abuse must have occurred, and secondly, it caused a mental injury.

A Sexual Abuse Syndrome?

Do sexually assaulted people exhibit predictable behavioural characteristics that can accurately be profiled? The term ‘syndrome’ is defined in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as a “group of symptoms or pathological signs which consistently occur together, especially with an (originally) unknown cause”. There is yet no reliable scientific evidence that sexual abuse is a cause of any specific psychiatric, psychological or behavioural condition. Reactions to sexual abuse are generally idiosyncratic and therefore unpredictable.

The existence of a sexual abuse syndrome would mean the “(originally( unknown cause” could be determined from client behaviour alone. Police would have a field day! No such syndrome has yet been identified, making it impossible to properly conclude from client behaviour alone whether a sexual abuse event was experienced.

Science – and evidence-based diagnosis – should always precede treatment decisions and methods. To ensure correct treatment is given to sexual abuse victims, it is also necessary to define what behaviours are not indicative of sexual abuse, but that has not been achieved. If the possibility of sexual crimes arise, then it is essential to find the facts from other forms of evidence.


A recent president of the NZ Association of Counsellors declared that counsellors are not ideologically driven people – they are trained health professionals with high ethical standards who are not required to investigate crimes. Sexual abuse is a serious crime. But counsellors lack the skills, resources or authority to conduct external investigation of client claims.

To help it survive and grow, the industry created ideological myths and beliefs about abuse, amongst others, the fantasies of recovered memories, multiple personality disorder and satanic ritual abuse, and then invented scores of ‘counselling modalities’ to treat the claimed effects.

Counsellors believe that sexual abuse can be detected, confirmed or diagnosed from client behaviour.They created extensive lists of ‘effects’ and believe that clients presenting with a ‘cluster’of these ‘effects’ must have been sexually abused. In reality, the causes of those ‘effects’ are myriad. Test it for yourself – how many causes of (eg) ‘depression’ can you name?

The three glaring flaws in most sex abuse counselling cases are a lack of credible evidence that the client was in fact sexually abused, inability of counsellors to separate the effects of sexual abuse (if any) from the effects of other trauma in the client’s life, and a penchant to make treatment decisions on the basis that inevitable detrimental consequences arise from sexual abuse.

To them, allegations of abuse are proof of abuse, but absent externally corroborated evidence or other reliable markers of sexual abuse, a counsellor cannot know whether a client was in fact abused.

ACC’s Best-Practice Guidelines

There is much misguided and ill-informed thinking underscoring this vexed topic, as shown by ACC’s document Sexual Abuse and Mental Injury: Practice Guidelines for Aotearoa New Zealand, March 2008 (generally called the Massey Guidelines(.

It was developed for ACC by a research team from Massey University’s School of Psychology (Turitea Campus( and purports to describe best-practice guidelines for professionals from all disciplines providing therapeutic services to people who have experienced sexual abuse.

ACC’s October 2009 press release said, “[t]hese guidelines represent a significant landmark in the treatment of mental injury resulting from sexual abuse, because they’re developed by New Zealanders for New Zealanders; are evidence-based; and the product of four years’ extensive research and consultation.”

The Massey Guidelines declare that over 700 effects of sexual abuse have been identified, which are believed by counsellors to be reliable indicators of sexual abuse. The document states :

“No single effect can be seen as a trustworthy indicator of sexual abuse. Since effects never occur in isolation, it is useful to consider them in terms of what effects are more likely to co-occur.”

‘Effects’ present as ‘clusters’. If ‘pairs of effects’ had been specified, it would mean sets of two. However, the term ‘clusters’ means a group of three or more.

How skilled would counsellors need to be, to be able to determine retrospectively from ‘clusters of effects’ whether the client experienced sexual abuse? A reliable test would be to calculate the permutations to establish how big the task might be.

In the Massey Guidelines, no required order of choice of any single ‘effect’ is evident, and repeatability of any item is allowed (for example,’depression’ could appear in none, any, many or all clusters(. Under these conditions, the permutation formula to calculate the number of clusters is nPr, where n = 700 and r = 3, 4, 5…x, depending on how many effects make up a ‘cluster’.

Suppose any four effects are simultaneously presented as a cluster, then r = 4. The number of different ‘clusters’ able to be presented by a single client, and which the counsellor must be able to recognise, is therefore 7004 raised to the power of 4. That is, 238,047,385,800 possible clusters.

Full knowledge and awareness of that vast number of clusters is beyond ordinary human capacity. Counsellors would also need the ability, resources and authority to externally investigate each cluster and its individual components to ensure – before making treatment decisions – that the sole causewas in fact sexual abuse and not some other event or trauma in the client’s life.

The Guidelines say that for practical purposes in writing the document, the number of effects was conveniently reduced to 200! The number of possible clusters is consequently reduced. With just 200 effects presented in random clusters of four, a mere 1,552,438,800 clusters could exist.

Belief in the utility and reliability of these ‘clusters’ allows counsellors to assert that virtually any human behaviour is caused directly by sexual abuse, and conveniently removes the need for any other form of evidence of abuse.

Debate about the sex abuse industry is one about belief vs evidence. ACC supports the quaint notion of 700 ‘effects’ and believes mental injury is caused by sexual abuse which can be diagnosed from client behaviour alone. But no syndrome yet exists. Besides, counsellors and ACC fail to demand testable evidence of claimed sexual abuse.

I conclude the sex abuse industry is an ideological house of cards, based on myth, assumption and belief, and that ACC and sex abuse counsellors fail to meet legislative obligations. Moreover, every sexual abuse claim submitted to ACC without proper evidence of abuse and mental injury, constitutes a case of improperly using a document to obtain money, services and/or advantage.

Gordon Waugh is a retired Air Force officer with over 30 years of electronics engineering experience. He was a foundation and executive member of Casualties Of Sexual Allegations (COSA), a national organisation dedicated to helping men and their families damaged by false allegations of sexual abuse.

The 10 Myths of 1080

Sodium monofluoroacetate (1080) is a proven tool in the New Zealand pest control arsenal, but significant opposition to its use continues, much of it irrational. This article is based on a presentation to the 2011 NZ Skeptics Conference.

There is a brutal battle being waged every night in our forests. It’s our own little horror movie. NZ’s ‘mammal mafia’ of possums, stoats and rats has been accused of devouring more than 26.5 million birds in native forest annually. Landcare Research scientist Dr John Innes, quoted in the Waikato Times, said it was time opponents of 1080 “… got real about the facts. Most endemic forestbirds are disappearing because of predators – millions of forest birds are being killed by mammals every year.”

Myth One: Its all about 1080

No, its not. The real issues are around protection of our natural heritage, and while we do win many battles, it’s the war that still needs to be won. We know that where we do intervene we make a positive difference and we support a wide range of private initiatives, recognising we need all the help we can get.

Quite simply we have a toolkit approach to pest control and we used the best tool to fit the type of country and the type of pests we are trying to manage. 1080 is a crucial part of this toolkit. It is the only toxin registered for aerial control on the mainland, and it complements a range of other toxins and the widespread use of trapping.

Its main use is on difficult, challenging country where the costs of ground control, whether by toxins or trapping, are double or treble the cost of aerial 1080 use. For example in the case of the Cascade Valley in South Westland, trying to do pest control by ground methods would have cost an extra $1 million and we have the quotes to prove it. It can be applied over 25,000 ha in a single day and is highly effective, often achieving 99 percent kills.

But DOC is not addicted to 1080. DOC does around 550,000 ha annually of mammalian pest control and less than 30 percent is delivered by aerial 1080. In terms of stoat control, over 250,000 ha are controlled by ground trapping.

Myth Two: We need an independent inquiry

Why? We have already had two and both reconfirmed the need for 1080. Indeed the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) 2011 report went further than the Environmental Risk Management Agency’s (ERMA’s) 2007 review, and said we should be using more of it.

“My underlying concern is the decline in bird populations. In the future, the only place native birds will exist is on protected offshore islands and mainland sanctuaries. Without good pest control we will move to the functional extinctions of populations, where numbers are so low they are not viable,” said Dr Jan Wright, the current PCE.

Myth Three: We are poisoning paradise

Well if we are, we’re doing a terrible job of it. What does the science tell us?The latest studies on 1080 in soil measured degradation at 20, 10, and five degrees. Even at five degrees, 1080 disappeared in six to eight weeks (Dr Penny Fisher, Landcare Research). So the soil is not being poisoned and there are no lasting impacts from 1080 drops.

In a normal aerial 1080 drop there would be a pellet every 32 square metres and only 0.15 percent of each pellet is poison. A week after an operation it can be hard to find any 1080 pellets.

The pellets all biodegrade, and how long they remain depends on the rainfall and temperature. Importantly, 1080 does not bio-accumulate and does not persist in the soil. Studies show that no 1080 residues will remain and some of the most productive wildlife areas, for example the East Taupo forests such as Pureora and Tongariro, have had multiple 1080 drops.

The user agencies have also got much better at application. The dose rates have dropped over time from 20 kg to two kg (and some promising science research may allow us to drop it further( and the use of GPS systems specifically modified for NZ keep helicopter overflies to a minimum.

Myth Four: What about the water then?

The dispersal of 1080 in water after operations has been studied for nearly 20 years and there have been over 2400 tests. Over 96 percent of the tests showed no detection at all, and where there were slight traces, these soon dissolved and there have been no impacts on human health.

The most authoritative work on breakdown in water has been done by Alastair Suren of the National Institute for Water and Atmosphere (NIWA). His water trials show that after five hours half the 1080 was lost with the concentration down to 10 percent of original after 24 hours. The baits themselves remained intact for 48 hours and by 72 hours fragmentation was occurring.

Myth Five: It’s impacting on human health

1080 is a poison and must be managed accordingly. All risk is relative and nothing can be guaranteed as totally safe. What the department is saying is that the risks to health from 1080, for a population or an individual, are insignificant in a well managed operation done under strict protocols. Most New Zealanders will never come in contact with 1080. In terms of human health risks, the people who would be most at risk from using 1080 are those who process it into cereal baits and other formulations at the factory in Whanganui.

The workers’ health is being monitored closely. The department also runs a random testing system for aerial 1080 operations to ensure staff using the product are protected. There has only ever been one death from 1080 in NZ and that happened to a possum trapper in the 1960s. It is possible that he mistook the raspberry-based paste for something edible but it is not really known.

Myth Six: You can’t prove it works

Of course we can. There are a wealth of field and working reports done by staff showing the benefits of 1080 (see sidebar). The department currently has an active science research portfolio, focused on the impacts of 1080, partly as a response to recommendations made by ERMA.

These include a forest monitoring project to look at forest recovery in the wake of 1080, a study of the impact of 1080 on kea, and a three-site trial looking at the benefits and risks for a range of native birds, when using aerial 1080 for rat and stoat control. These will be formally published. The results so far from the latter trial are very encouraging and confirm what we have been saying.

• 14 kaka nests were monitored through the last 1080 drop in Whakapohai in South Westland, seven in the 1080 zone, seven in nearby areas that had not had 1080 for two or more years.

Four of seven nests fledged in the 1080 area, only three of seven fledged in the non-1080 – not much difference, but two nests in the non-1080 area were taken by possums and one by a stoat. No mammalian predators were identified killing nests in the 1080 zone though a kea got one of them.

• 36 riflemen were monitored through the last 1080 drop in Whakapohai. All survived. This is the first time riflemen have been monitored in 1080 drops.

• Comparing bird counts in two of the blocks that get 1080, and the other block that gets none, Kaka were heard nine times more often in the 1080 area, bellbirds six times more often. Kakariki and tomtits were heard significantly more often in the 1080 area, but the difference was not great.

Myth Seven: DOC ignores the native species by-kill

It certainly does not. We have always acknowledged that there may be a small by-kill but argue strongly that the benefits will comprehensively outweigh the losses – a claim which ERMA endorsed in its 2007 report on 1080. Eleven species of native bird have been intensively monitored, and several other bird species monitored using less precise techniques. None of these studies have identified population level mortality which threatens the viability of the species.

Kea are a concern. We know that in low predator environments kea will have 80-100 percent fledgling success, but in high predator environments this will be well below 40 percent.

We do lose birds, and the real question is whether individual losses can be made up for by fledgling successes.We recently lost seven kea in Okarito out of a total of 38 being monitored for the recent aerial 1080 operation which was aimed at protecting rowi, the country’s rarest kiwi, in their habitat.

The operation itself, over 30,000 ha, has been wonderfully successful in reducing rats by 99 percent and stoats just hovering above zero, so this should allow for a much greater fledging success not just for kea but for kiwi.In two previous 1080 operations where kea have been monitored we lost none at all.

Invertebrate populations have been monitored in nine aerial poisoning operations and none have shown significant population effects on any species studied, nor is there evidence to suggest poisoned invertebrates are a significant factor in secondary poisoning of other animals. Long-term monitoring of native land snails indicates substantial benefits to threatened populations in sites treated with aerial poisoning.

Myth Eight: It is not a humane poison

It can take the best part of a day for a possum to die from 1080. This is rated by most authorities as a ‘moderately humane’ toxin. The other element is to focus on what the bait is trying to achieve, which in the case of 1080 for conservation, is trying to protect our most vulnerable species. It is certainly more humane than the brodifacoum that goes into the common household Talon bait for rats, which can take four days to work.

Myth Nine: You don’t do any work on alternatives

Just two examples provide the comprehensive rebuttal to this claim. DOC, in conjunction with private firm Connovation has just produced a toxin specifically for stoats, known as PAPP. It’s the first stoat toxin ever produced and together we have invested over $1 million. It is humane, quick acting (30-45 minutes) and it works very well.

The government and the Green Party agreed to invest $4 million over three years into our self-resetting trap, which allows a trap to be reset 12 times. If successful and large-scale trials are going on, this should significantly improve the cost/efficiency of ground control. Overall the government has invested $3-4 million annually in new and improved methods of pest control.

Myth 10: We can do it all by fur trapping and promote an industry as well

The Department is committed to working with the possum fur harvesting industry so long as conservation objectives are not compromised. The reality is that there is often an inherent contradiction between trying to eliminate possums as the undoubted pests they are, and the needs of the possum trappers to have enough animals to make their industry economic. For the 1080 user agencies, the driver for the possum control operations is to slash numbers to as low a level as possible.

The current situation on public conservation land is that generally our possum contractors are able to recover fur if they so wish. Some do but most don’t because of the nature of our performance-based contracts and the need to do the job as promptly as possible.

Beyond this, there are literally millions of hectares of both public conservation land and private land, which are not subject to possum control management, and where possum fur trappers can go right now to get fur if they wish. They can get a permit from their local DOC office or get permission from the individual landowners and away they go. Fur price is the main driver of activity and the recent price lift to $135/kg has seen more trappers chasing the fur.

The Department is also working closely with the industry to extend its balloting system, which allows fur trappers not doing pest control the exclusive right to harvest possums off individual blocks of land for 4-8 months, thus giving them some business certainty.

In conclusion, if we didn’t have 1080 available for pest control we would have to invent it. But it is not a silver bullet and must be respected as the poison that it is. The real tragedy of 1080 is that its impact doesn’t last long enough.

1080 Success stories

• Kiwi populations in Tongariro Forest were boosted following a very successful aerial 1080 pest control operation in 2006.

• Mohua (yellowheads) were under threat from predators at the head of Lake Wakatipu. Ground operations controlled stoats, but 1080 aerial control in 2007 and 2009 was needed to control the threat from rats.

• An aerial 1080 pest control operation in Kahurangi National Park’s Anatoki River area in October 2009 significantly reduced predator numbers, curbing an expected explosion of rats and stoats.

• 1080 has been used once every four years to suppress possums in the Otira forest.

• A study during a rat plague in Fiordland in 2006 showed much reduced levels of rat predation on bats in areas treated with 1080.

For more details on these and other examples see TrakaBat’s channel on www.youtube.com

What is happening to skepticism?

Massive changes are transforming the skeptical movement.

A tidal wave of change is hitting skepticism. The people, the ideas and the place of skepticism in society are all changing. We need to understand what is happening, and this paper is a start.

First of all, what is skepticism? The word is used in many ways, but the Australian and NZ Skeptics roughly agree that it is the investigation of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims using a scientific approach1 Presumably both would also agree that it involves an interest in publicising the results of such investigations, and pressing for relevant improvements in education.

Most skeptics know that we face an overwhelming majority of the population who do not agree with us. Surveys in several countries show that about 80 percent of the population have one or more paranormal beliefs. I did a survey of a first-year science class at Griffith University, and found that just under 60 percent of the students had one or more paranormal beliefs2. Amazingly, one student had 14 such beliefs, another 12.

Now, it is clear that some paranormal beliefs can be extremely dangerous. Imagine a severely ill child, whose life is in danger. Medical science, promptly applied, could save the child’s life but the parents opt for pseudoscience instead. There have been cases of this, with horrible results, in both Australia and New Zealand3. There are many cases of gullible people being swindled out of their money by fake psychics4. In another way, creation science and intelligent design are a threat to modern science: they want to replace it by theories based upon one particular religion. Since so much of our current welfare depends upon science, the threat is obvious. Finally the anti-vaccination movements endanger us all. We have forgotten the terrifying epidemics of the past. Without vaccination, they might return. Clearly, skeptical work is important. However, there are several problems plaguing skepticism, and I want to look at them here.

Religion and skepticism

Religion around the world is going through great convulsions, and this has massive implications for skeptics. We are probably all aware of the steady decline of most of the older, liberal churches, and the rise in western countries of aggressive evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. In poorer countries, especially in Africa, Christianity is rapidly increasing the number of its adherents, and they are far more militant and fundamentalist than their first world brethren. Meanwhile, quietly and almost without fanfare, the proportion of non-believers in developed nations is increasing. In the United States, a strongly religious nation, the proportion of unbelievers has increased to about 17 percent. At the other extreme, in some Scandinavian countries, the proportion of unbelievers is nudging 50 percent5. In Australia, apparently, the proportion of nonbelievers is about 30 percent, and it is 25 percent in the conservative state of Queensland.

There is much skeptical work to be done analysing the claims of the fundamentalists, as their claims are so often false. Perhaps even more difficult than aggressive religion is the question of how skeptics should view the steadily increasing number of atheists and other nonbelievers in developed countries. I have done some informal polling about this, at skeptical conferences in Australia and New Zealand. My best estimate is that about 90 percent of the skeptics at these events would describe themselves as atheists. There is a big overlap between the two movements.

One plausible line of thought argues that atheists and skeptics should make common cause and ally against religion. The argument runs like this. Skepticism is about looking at the evidence for paranormal beliefs, and working out whether the evidence is strong enough to support the belief. Logically, if a person looks at the evidence for religious belief and finds it inadequate, is this not a skeptical process, and therefore are not skepticism and atheism the same?

On the other hand, many atheists have not arrived at their views through this kind of rational process. The two best-known are Stalin and Mao. Now both of these dictators were atheists, but neither can be described as a skeptic. Both supported the pseudoscience of Lysenkoism,6 and you could also argue that their murderous, dogmatic faith in Marxism-Leninism showed a marked lack of skepticism. It seems as if atheism can be arrived at without going through anything like a skeptical process of thought. What’s more, some very prominent skeptics have held religious beliefs. The late Martin Gardner, who helped found the modern movement, had religious beliefs. So does Dr Pamela Gay, one of the most prominent Americans popularising both science and skepticism.

So, while atheism and skepticism may sometimes stem from similar thought patterns, they may also be quite different. The dogmatic atheism taught in Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia is quite opposed to the evidence-seeking approach of skeptics, and so there is no guarantee whatsoever that a skeptic and an atheist have much in common.

Another point comes from Daniel Loxton, the Canadian skeptic7. Loxton points out that skeptics are the only people who specialise in investigating and (where necessary) debunking the bogus psychics, faith healers and all the rest. We have accumulated a good deal of expertise in doing this: it is a form of consumer protection. Loxton makes the key point: if skeptics do not investigate these dangerous paranormal claimants, who else will? There is plenty for skeptics to do in our current area of activity, so why not focus on that?

We are a small movement, and in my view it means that we should welcome genuine skeptical help from whatever quarter it comes. If someone wants to help us investigate the quacks and creation scientists and all the rest, we should welcome them. And if, on other nights of the week, they go off to church or to atheist meetings – or to witches’ covens, for that matter – we should not worry about it. We are doing something important, and we need all the help we can get.

The generation gap

Another set of problems come from within skepticism itself. Until recently, there was a pervasive image of the average skeptic, and it was somewhere near the truth. The average skeptic was overwhelmingly likely to be male, older than average, very intelligent, mostly conservative and grumpily critical of anything to do with the paranormal. Things have changed radically: there is now an influx of skeptics who are much younger, much less likely to be bearded, and who include a substantial minority of women.

This is wonderful. The problems arise because the different generations of skeptics seem to act very differently. The older skeptics subscribe to magazines, often attend local meetings and go to national and international conventions. The younger ones don’t do these things. Instead they blog and use Facebook (and, God help us, Twitter) all the time. The older and younger skeptics have broadly similar views, but they are separated by a gulf of communication. This means that the younger skeptics are likely to be unable to benefit from the (perfectly real) expertise of the old grumpies, and the oldsters won’t be exposed to the vigour and enthusiasm of the new wave.

What should be done? Kylie Sturgess, a colleague of mine, has tried to persuade younger skeptics to subscribe. No success. Also, many older skeptics find Facebook and the like bewildering. I confess, I have tried looking at a few blogs and Facebook sites. Sometimes they are interesting, but the issue of quality control keeps appearing.

What do I mean? Well, the words you read in this magazine, or in any skeptical magazine, have been scrutinised and perhaps modified by an editor. Probably the editor has rejected other material that didn’t seem good enough. There is no such safeguard in the world of blogs and Facebook. As a result, the quality is often very poor. Indeed, in most online discussions I have seen, there is usually at least one person who seems pig-ignorant, certifiably batty or stridently abusive (in some cases, all three). Although there is good material as well, I really wonder if it is worthwhile becoming involved in this morass. Perhaps it’s my impending old grumpyhood, but I really don’t get much out of it. Put crudely, electronic skepticism needs quality control.

Selling skepticism

I’ll mention a third issue as well: skepticism doesn’t sell, and I suspect the problem is increasing. Publishers are wary of accepting skeptical manuscripts, whereas pro-paranormal books sell by the million. I am used to going into bookshops and finding shelf after shelf of paranormal books, with no skeptical ones in sight.

Of course, this asymmetry in sales fits logically with the depressing statistics from opinion polls. Many, many people want the paranormal to be true, and apparently lack the critical thinking necessary to separate out the good from the bad and the bogus. What can we do?

One obvious solution is more education. If educated people are more skeptical, then they might buy more skeptical books, magazines and so on. However, this does not work very well. Assorted research indicates that education may reduce some paranormal beliefs, but has no effect on others. What’s more, even among highly educated people, there is often a large proportion that still hold paranormal beliefs8.

Explicitly skeptical education does work. For ten years now I have been teaching a skeptical course at Griffith University. I don’t try to affect my students’ beliefs, but they must understand the skeptical approach, even if they don’t accept it. Before-and-after surveys of belief have shown that the course reduces belief by large amounts: astrology, for instance, went from 30 percent acceptance to zero9.

A second possible remedy is to expand the size of the skeptical market. Skeptics are a tiny minority, but worldwide there are thousands and thousands of us. So if we each resolved to buy one more skeptical item each year, it would increase skeptical sales, and eventually increase the books published. So, if you bought a couple of skeptical books last year, resolve to buy three henceforth. Read the extra book yourself, or give it to someone as a present. Or both. You will know more, and help the skeptical movement as well. Start browsing at the Prometheus Books website. Surely, you will find something worth buying.10

Finally, I am going to try to unite skepticism a bit. Each week or two I will plunge into the blogosphere, or onto a Facebook site, and try my luck at communicating there. I will be polite, even to the abusers and lunatics. And maybe I will learn a little more about skepticism.

Wish me luck.


  1. Compare the aims of the Australian Skeptics and the NZ Skeptics on their websites: http://www.skeptics.com.au/about/our-aims/and skeptics.org.nz/SK:ABOUTrespectively.
  2. Martin Bridgstock: Paranormal Beliefs Among Science Students. Skeptic (Australia) 23, 1, 2003: 6-10.
  3. Caleb Moorhead in New Zealand (nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=2045066) and Gloria Thomas in Australia (dailytelegraph.com.au/news/homeopath-thomas-sam-guilty-of-daughter-glorias-death/story-e6freuy9-1225723018271) are obvious examples.
  4. Martin Bridgstock: Beyond Belief Melbourne, Cambridge University Press.2009: 2-3
  5. 5. eg Mark Chaves: American Religion New Jersey, Princeton University Press.2009; Amadu Jacky Kaba The Spread of Christianity and Islam in Africa. The Western Journal of Black Studies 29, 2: 2005: 553-570; Zuckerman, Phil: The virtues of godlessness.The Chronicle of Higher Education 55.21 2009.
  6. Loren R. Graham: Science in Russia and the Soviet Union. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 1993. William Hinton: 1984, Shenfan, London, Vintage
  7. Daniel Loxton: Where do we go from here? (first published 2007) www.skeptic.com/downloads/WhereDoWeGoFromHere.pdf
  8. Erich Goode: Paranormal Beliefs. Prospect Heights, Illinois, Waveland Press. 2000: 172-3.
  9. Martin Bridgstock and Alisa Taylor. Teaching Skepticism: does it affect paranormal belief? Skeptic (Australia) 27, 3 2007: 12-15.
  10. See www.prometheusbooks.com Put ‘skepticism’ in the search window and begin browsing.

Earthquake forecasts and earthquake predictions

Earth scientists can forecast the size and frequency of the aftershocks following Canterbury’s September 2010 earthquake. But this is very different from earthquake prediction. This article is based on a presentation to the 2011 NZ Skeptics Conference.

Since the moment of the magnitude 7.1 earthquake in Christchurch on 4 September, GNS scientists have been using models based on aftershock statistics to ‘forecast’ the expected range of aftershocks of given magnitudes. Not to be confused with earthquake ‘predictions’, which require specific magnitudes, locations, depths, times, and methodological reproducibility estimates to be useful, this forecast model is based on a modified version of the long-established Omori’s Law for aftershocks, which states that the rate of aftershocks is proportional to the inverse of time since the mainshock. Thus, depending on the values of parameters specific to certain regions, whatever the odds of an aftershock are on the first day, the second day will have approximately half the odds of the first day and the tenth day will have approximately one tenth the odds of the first day. These odds can be summed over various time scales, and the longer the time scale, the higher the probability, even though the probability decreases with time.

At present, these forecasts commonly look something like this:
“The expected number of aftershocks of magnitude 5.0 and above for the next month is 0-2, with an expected average of <1”.

Of course, one could dress this up differently using the same model applied over a full year, taking into account a reducing number of expected aftershocks, and the statement would look something like this:
“The probability of a magnitude 5.0 and above aftershock over the next year is ~82 percent”.

We have had 31 magnitude ≥ 5.0 events since September, the frequency of which has declined systematically following our large earthquakes in September and February. So to say that there is a near certainty of an event occurring somewhere in this range in the next year is no surprising conclusion, because the unfortunate reality of aftershock sequences is that earthquakes decrease in frequency but not magnitude. Remember also that this takes into account the entire aftershock zone, spanning an area from the eastern foothills of the Southern Alps, to offshore east of Christchurch, to Rangiora and throughout the Banks Peninsula; it doesn’t forecast the likelihood of one of these events occurring beneath your house. Large aftershocks have been recorded as far west as the Porter’s Pass area.

The probability of larger earthquakes (M<6) is a bit trickier, although the methodology behind the statement:
“There is a 10 per cent chance of a magnitude 6.0 to 6.4 quake in the next year”
is the same.

To generate an earthquake of M ≥ 6, it is helpful to know whether there are faults that are long enough and ‘connected’ enough to be able to do this, and whether these faults have ruptured in big earthquakes in the past. One way to explore this is to image faults in the subsurface using geophysical methods such as reflection seismic, gravity, and aeromagnetics. These can be combined with ‘relocations’ of aftershocks and by analysing the extent to which seismic waves are ‘guided’ by fault networks, which collectively help to refine the internal structure and strength of fault zones.

The Gap

The ‘Gap’ is a term used in reference to the region of intense and continuing aftershock activity between the eastern end of the Greendale Fault that ruptured in the 4 September Darfield earthquake and the western end of the Port Hills Fault that ruptured in the 22 February Christchurch earthquake.

Analysis of earthquake data and geophysical seismic reflection surveys indicates that the Gap is not a simple continuation of either the east-west striking Greendale or ENE-WSW striking Port Hills Faults. Instead, it is a complicated zone of NE-SW to E-W oriented, steeply SE dipping faults with a total length of up to 10-12 km that is defined by an array of aftershock earthquakes that range in depth from 2 km to greater than 10 km.

Preliminary interpretations of seismic surveys indicate that a series of faults in the Gap have ruptured at various times over the past several hundred thousand years. Based on the length of the aftershock zone and the types of deformation we see in the seismic sections, we estimate that this region has probably experienced major earthquakes in the range of Mw 6-6.3 in the geologic past. Such events appear to be very infrequent, ie, recurring only once every 10,000 years or more, because even sediments that are millions of years old are only subtly deformed. We do not see any evidence for a surface rupturing earthquake in the last 5000-10,000 years or so based on interpretations of air photos from this area.

The Gap has been seismically active throughout the Canterbury earthquake sequence, from immediately following the September mainshock to the present. There have been two earthquakes of M > 5 and 23 earthquakes of M > 4 in the gap since 4 September.

The total seismic energy release in this Gap (seismic moment) is less than the total energy released in the adjacent Port Hills and Greendale Faults. In the simplest interpretation, the total seismic energy release from the Gap would eventually fit a ‘smoothed’ profile between the Greendale and Port Hills Faults. This is not necessarily required, but it is something that would best fit our models for how fault slip accumulates across fault systems through time. ‘Filling the Gap’ could occur via a continuing series of smaller earthquakes, as has been the case so far, or via a larger event, possibly as large as a low magnitude 6 to high magnitude 5. From what we understand about the behaviour of earthquakes in this area to date, it seems most likely to us that this region will continue to release seismic energy in the form of smaller earthquakes rather than an isolated large one, although this possibility still remains.

The processes governing fault rupture are somewhat complicated, but our scientific understanding of these processes continues to improve. One could ask, “Why should the Gap behave one way during one earthquake sequence and a different way in another?” The answer is that the order and the direction in which adjacent faults rupture, the areas of these ruptures, and the processes that go on between large earthquakes, such as fault rock healing and fault closure, all influence the rupture behaviour of an individual fault segment. The overall pattern since September has been an eastward propagation of major earthquakes, starting with the Darfield earthquake in September, then the Port Hills fault rupture in the February earthquake, then the June earthquake even further east. If the sequence had started in the east and propagated west, it is entirely possible that some of these faults may have behaved differently.

Marine surveys by NIWA immediately offshore of Christchurch have revealed additional faults, some of which have had small earthquakes on them during this seismic sequence. The lengths of these faults suggest that some are capable of generating earthquakes as large as or larger than the 22 February event, however, the increased distance from Christchurch would reduce the impact on the city for a similar-sized event. In the face of our seismic realities, the best way forward is to take this opportunity to make Christchurch one of the world’s most earthquake-resilient cities.

Geologic analogies

This is my favourite geologic analogy for the Canterbury earthquake sequence. On April 23, 1992, the Mw 6.1 Joshua Tree earthquake rocked the Californian desert east of the San Andreas Fault. Two months later, on June 28, 1992, the Mw 7.3 Landers earthquake occurred in the same region, with an epicentre located approximately 40 km north of the Joshua Tree epicentre. Three hours after the Landers event, the Mw 6.2 ‘Big Bear’ aftershock occurred some 40 km to the west. On 16 October 1999, seven years after the Landers event, the Mw 7.1 Hector Mine earthquake occurred, with an epicentre some 40 km north of the Landers epicentre.
This area is adjacent to a section of the San Andreas Fault (America’s version of our Alpine Fault) that had not had a major earthquake since 1812 (one segment) and 1680 (another segment), just as our Alpine Fault does not appear to have ruptured in a major earthquake since 1717.

Palaeoseismologic estimates of the recurrence intervals of clusters of earthquakes in the Mojave Desert near the Landers rupture are in the range of 5000 to 15,000 years (Rockwell et al., 2000), similar to the expected range of recurrence intervals of active faults in our Canterbury Plains. So a situation like this is possible, although we would obviously prefer that the region settled down without the occurrence of any more big events.

Where to from here?

We’ll do our best to provide the best scientific information possible. Wait for the information to come from scientists regarding the earthquake history, likely lengths, and ‘connectivity’ of faults in our region. Then take into account whether you want to occupy your time with fear of the next big one, which may or may not eventuate in the next few years or more, or get on with your life while learning lessons about being prepared for earthquakes.

Could the magnitude and location have been predicted?

Generally, when considering the maximum magnitude in an aftershock sequence, seismologists refer to Bath’ s Law, which states:
“The average difference in magnitude between a mainshock and its largest aftershock is 1.2, regardless of the mainshock magnitude”.

This is a generalisation based on analysis of global earthquake datasets, recognising that each aftershock sequence is different and there are many exceptions to the rule. Let’s look at how Bath’s Law predicts the largest aftershock magnitude for some of New Zealand’s largest earthquakes.

Earthquake Date Magnitude Largest Aftershock(s)
Hawke’s Bay 1931 7.8 6.9, 5.9
Pahiatua 1934 7.5 5.7
Wairarapa June 1942 7.0 4.7
Wairarapa December 1942 6.0 4.7
Gisbourne 1966 6.2 5.0
Inangahua 1968 7.1 6.0
Arthur’s Pass 1994 6.7 6.1
Table 1. A comparison of the magnitude of some NZ earthquakes and their largest aftershocks

Table 1 shows mainshock-aftershock comparisons for some large New Zealand earthquakes.

The average difference between the largest aftershock and mainshock for this small New Zealand dataset is 1.2, consistent with Bath’ s Law. Prior to 22 February 2011, the largest difference between the 2010 Darfield 7.1 mainshock and largest aftershock (5.6(, that occurred only about 20 minutes after the mainshock, was 1.5. There was reason to be optimistic, as this difference had been seen from other events; however all scientists working on the Darfield earthquake acknowledged that a larger aftershock was still possible. Unfortunately, our fears were confirmed, with the 22 February magnitude 6.3 aftershock (0.8 point difference from mainshock, perhaps higher than predicted from a simplistic interpretation of Bath’s Law( and the June 13 6.0 event.

This illustrates that, while we can use historical examples to help us predict possible aftershock magnitudes, each sequence can be different, depending on the length (or more accurately, the potential rupture area) of faults throughout the area, the strength of the faults, how close they are to their breaking points, and how things like stress transfer and fluid pressures associated with the mainshock or other aftershocks influence these faults. This illustrates how important it is to know the location and length of other faults in the vicinity of Christchurch and offshore before we even discuss putting billions of dollars into a rebuild. This can be done relatively inexpensively with existing technology. Shouldn’t we know the location and magnitude potential of other faults throughout this region, and model how they may have been stressed or de-stressed following our big earthquakes before buildings are even designed?

To summarise, the magnitude of the 6.3 could not have been exactly predicted, but something within this magnitude range was always possible and all scientists involved in this event recognised this. We were hopeful it would not occur. A glance through some of the largest New Zealand earthquakes from the last century indicates considerable variability in the magnitude of the largest aftershock, but an aftershock of this large magnitude compared to the mainshock is not unprecedented (eg the 1994 Arthur’s Pass earthquake sequence(.

Earthquakes and the moon: should we worry?

  1. No one has predicted the recent earthquakes in Canterbury. Vague quotes about dates of ‘increased’ activity plus or minus several days, without magnitudes, locations, and exact times do not constitute prediction. Consider this: Ken Ring’s probability of getting a prediction correct based on perigee/apogee new moon/full moon for 2010 was 63 percent. That’s 230 out of 365 days that fall on some day that he would argue influences earthquake activity. For days that combine several factors of new moon/perigee etc, he missed out on several predictions and nothing unusual happened on those days. (ie 30 January, 14 February, 27 February, 29 March, 14 June, 12 July, 10 August, and so on for his liberal interpretation of the aftershock sequence). This does not constitute ‘prediction’. It is opportunistic and meaningless self-promotion.

  2. Consider your chances of getting a ‘prediction’ correct given this unscientific definition of prediction. On average, New Zealand gets around 330 earthquakes of M4-4.9 every year, 26 M5-5.9s per year, two M6-6.9s per year, and one M 7-7.9 every three years (see stats on Geonet). If unspecific about magnitude and location, then your chance of ‘predicting’ an earthquake that is likely to be locally felt and recorded is greater than 90 percent (based on the simplified method of assuming each earthquake occurs on a different day, which isn’t the case, but you get the picture). This of course goes up immediately following a major earthquake like our 7.1 where the occurrence of large events is high. We had 203 earthquakes greater than 4 in the Canterbury region close to the 7.1 rupture in the six months since 4 September. So one’s chances of ‘prediction’ are actually quite high.

  3. If we had been specifically predicting large earthquakes (M>6) on the faults near Christchurch that ruptured on 4 September and 22 February using the moon over the last several thousand years, we would have been wrong many thousands of times, with a success rate of ‘zero’, even invoking the broad criteria cast by invoking all of the possible moon scenarios listed above.

  4. There is no clear correlation between the largest aftershocks in the Darfield earthquake aftershock sequence and diurnal tides. Some of our largest earthquakes have occurred near high tide and some near low.

  5. Consider implementation of this ‘predictive’ strategy. Should we evacuate an area every time the moon is on its closest approach, is full or new, is moving rapidly, is at its maximum declination or is crossing the equator? Imagine the fear and frustration of such an approach, particularly given the unspecified times, locations, and magnitudes of the supposed ‘imminent’ events. Without a basic understanding of how faults generate earthquakes, where the faults are, at what stage they are at in the seismic cycle, and how they have been affected by prior activity, where should we evacuate and where should we go to? This would require several evacuations a month of ‘unspecified areas’ to other ‘unspecified areas’.

  6. Since humans first looked into the sky and felt the effects of earthquakes, they have wondered if the moon and planets are in some way responsible for major earthquakes. As early as 1897, scientists began to pose hypotheses about moon-earth earthquake connections and test them in honest and rigorous way. After all, the moon still gets earthquakes in the absence of plate tectonics, so perhaps there is some validity to this claim.

While some astrologers may feel isolated from the scientific community, this shows a true lack of appreciation for all of those dedicating significant effort to this issue. Many of these findings from studies comparing earthquake catalogues to tides have been published in high-quality journals such as Science (eg, Cochran et al, 2004) and some scientists have argued based on statistical data from global earthquakes for an influence of tides on earthquake activity under certain circumstances, such as beneath the oceans and within active volcanoes. Some scientists have even argued for a small correlation (perhaps an increased earthquake likelihood of 0.5 to 1 percent) between smaller, shallower continental earthquakes and ‘solid earth tides’ (changes in the shape of our planet due to the gravitational pull of the moon).

This is peer-reviewed but controversial research; it does not make it so, but it has undergone scrutiny and will continue to do so. This is the scientific process. To this end, I have a postgraduate student conducting high-level geologic and statistical research on the Canterbury aftershock sequence, including spatial, temporal, and mechanistic relationships with lunar parameters. You can bet that any results, regardless of the outcome, will be published for all to see and openly scrutinise.

Everyone take a bow

The NZ Skeptics cast the net wide for the 2011 Bent Spoon.

The NZ Skeptics have awarded their annual prize for journalistic gullibility to all those media outlets and personalities who took Ken Ring’s earthquake prediction claims at face value, thereby misinforming the public and contributing to 50,000 people leaving Christchurch with all the inconvenience, cost and emotional harm that caused.

We believe that it is the business of the professional media to ask pertinent questions on behalf of the public when presenting material as factual. We even have broadcasting standards which call for accurate reporting. Many, many media outlets and journalists failed the basic standards of their profession in failing to ask “where is the evidence?” in the face of Ken Ring’s claims to predict earthquakes. They did us all a disservice.

The group Bent Spoon award is an unusual one for the NZ Skeptics, but we felt that so little was asked by so many that it had to be a broader award this year. That said, we did single out some reporters and commentators whom we felt had made particularly poor journalistic efforts in this area. They include:
Marcus Lush (RadioLIVE), for giving great and unquestioning publicity for Ring’s claims that Christchurch would have a major earthquake – “one for the history books” – on 20 March, and continuing to support Ring’s promotion as an earthquake predictor and weather forecaster.
Closeup’s Mark Sainsbury for giving Ring another platform to air his ideas with very little in-depth critique (12 July).

The best thing about Ken’s failure on March 20 was his long silence afterwards. Yet there he was back on what is supposed to be a credible current affairs show with more vague pronouncements and self-justifications. Surely Closeup had another Kate-and-William clip they could have played instead to maintain their level of journalistic quality.

The Herald on Sunday’s Chloe Johnson, who provided uncritical publicity for Ring which continued long after his failures had been well and truly demonstrated (26 June).

It’s been sad to see the Herald name devalued by the tabloid approach of the Herald on Sunday, especially when the spin-off can sometimes do good stuff such as its hard-hitting editorial headlined “Charlatan Ring merits contempt” (20 March).

Brian Edwards, described by one commentator as providing ” banal and rigourless equivocations”, including such gems as “the evidence that the moon has some contributory influence on earthquakes seems slight … however, it is not impossible that it does”.

We’ve seen Edwards cogently skewer sloppy thinking in the past, so it was surprising to see just how wishy-washy he was in this particular case.

And what of the notorious John Campbell interview where the television interviewer lost his cool and boosted sympathy for Ring by shouting him down? This has given us the unusual situation of seeing nominations come in to give Campbell both the Bent Spoon and the society’s Bravo Award for critical thinking.

We appreciate what John was trying to do – introduce a little evidence and call into question some very dubious claims – but we knew he’d blown it as soon as he started to talk over the top of Ken.

Bravo Awards

The NZ Skeptics also applaud critical thinking with a number of Bravo Awards each year. This year’s recipients are:
Janna Sherman of the Greymouth Star for her item “Sceptics revel in Hokitika ‘earthquake’ non-event” (14 March). Ken Ring predicted an Alpine Fault rupture and/or an extreme weather event which would require Civil Defense to prepare for gales and heavy rain at the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival in March. As Sherman’s report noted:

“The 22nd annual Wildfoods Festival on Saturday was held under sunny skies, with temperatures climbing over 20 deg C.”

In science, a lack of evidence or a failed prediction can tell us a lot; in the media, we rarely see any stories about a non-event. That’s why it was great to see Sherman and the Star cover Ken’s failure – pseudo-scientists and psychics alike will only trumpet their successes as part of their self-promotion. To get the real picture, you need to hear about their failures too.

Philip Matthews, writing in the Marlborough Express, for a great article on 1080 that actually says there is really only one side to the story rather than introducing an alleged controversy with token ‘balance’ (22 June).

We don’t ask the Flat Earth Society to provide balance for a story on the International Space Station orbiting a spherical Earth. Why should we give a false impression of evidence-based ‘debate’ in other areas such as 1080 or immunisation? In discussing the entrenched views regarding the use of 1080, Matthews wrote:

“One of those ‘entrenched views’ is the weight of science; the other, emotive opinion. The debate is done a disservice by suggesting the views are somehow equivalent.”

The NZ Skeptics also commend Dr Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, who, while not in the media itself, did a great job of evaluating the evidence on 1080 and presenting a report clearly outlining the evidence.

As always, the Bent Spoon was awarded telepathically by those gathered for the annual NZ Skeptics Conference.

Inspiring Aussies and dodgy waiters

After almost 15 years of intermittently tagging along with her parents, Iris Riddell reports on her first official attendance at a NZ Skeptics Conference.

I attended my first ever Skeptics conference this year. Well, that’s not entirely true. Technically, I’ve been coming along since I was six years old, but critical analysis and conferences in general aren’t so interesting at that age. Rather, I attended my first ever Skeptics conference that I fully appreciated. I came away from the Christchurch get-together in August with my head in a spin, inspired by the lectures I’d witnessed and the people I’d spoken to.

One of those people and one of the biggest highlights for me was Kylie Sturgess, educator, writer, blogger and podcaster extraordinaire. She winged her way over from Australia with Dr Martin Bridgstock especially for the conference, and shared with us the results of a study they recently conducted, regarding what the average Queenslander believes in.

The session that really got me buzzing was one of theirs, about activism, the future of skepticism and the two cultures it is starting to sprout. Martin Bridgstock said skepticism is divided into two camps: he called the first group “the old grumpies” and cheerfully lumped himself in that category. The grumpies tend to be older people who belong to structured organisations, whereas the second group is far younger, and connect via podcasts, blogs and forums as well as casual social gatherings. I was so set off by this discussion that I’ve started making motions toward organising a Skeptics in the Pub event for Hamilton, but that’s another story.

I was surprised at the diverse age range at the Christchurch conference. There appeared to be a lot of people my own age (I’ve just turned 21) or not much older. Sure, there were still plenty of the “old grumpies” that Martin Bridgstock so proudly associates himself with, but there were definitely a lot of younger people, too. As someone often frustrated by the lack of critical thinking in the majority of my peer group, it gave me hope to see so many young skeptics.

The Friday night entertainment was a quiz on all things skeptical, with a bonus challenge to write a limerick as a group. These were gathered up and read out over the course of the next three days, and there were some very funny and clever ones to come out of the mix. I’ve never heard so many poems about alternative medicine, horoscopes and Ken Ring in one place.

I have to say, unfortunately, that the waiting staff at the venue for the Saturday night dinner were very unprofessional and had little respect for personal boundaries. I first noticed something amiss when I glanced up the table to see Gold, the chair-entity, receiving a rather sensuous head massage. “That’s odd,” I thought, and returned to my conversation. Moments later, one of them was looming over me. “Excuse me, ma’am. We’ve had a complaint about the state of the cutlery. Fancy a spit shine?” By the end of the meal they were zigzagging precariously up and down the unoccupied dining tables, a bottle of wine in each hand, singing loudly. I don’t think anyone was surprised when, once the food had been dispatched, they announced that they were members of a local theatre group, and the evening wound up with a short improv performance. For the record – the actual kitchen staff was polite, efficient, and served up some wonderful meals.

Some of the other notable lectures were earthquake expert Mark Quigley on forecasting quakes (see p 8 – there were at least three detectable aftershocks over the weekend, including one during a conference session), a wonderful photographic presentation by Simon Pollard on how different cultures commemorate the dead, and a talk by Puzzling World founder Stuart Landsborough on his psychic challenge and experiences with mediums. All around it was a thoroughly thought-provoking and inspiring conference, and a great experience for a first-timer like me … an almost first-timer, at least.

Some limericks – and a clerihew – from the Friday quiz night

Jenny McCarthy knew that she oughta
Do what was best for her daughter
But how to appease
Her daughter’s disease?
Give a 10C solution of water.

There once was a preacher named Ray
Who would eat a banana a day
He claimed they were godly
But skeptics looked oddly
At him and his fruity DNA.

To give me a homeopathic gin
Is an absolute mortal sin
I had a hangover so chronic
I needed a 14C tonic.

Sir Isaac Newton
Never slept on a futon
His 3 Laws of Motion
Were one hell of a notion.

Chemistry: an antidote to pseudoscientific thinking?

Having a basic knowledge of the principles of chemistry can help one evade the pitfalls of many pseudosciences – but it’s not infallible. This article is based on a presentation to the 2011 NZ Skeptics Conference.

2011 is the International Year of Chemistry and as such I have been involved in a number of activities to celebrate the many contributions chemistry has made to our world. It has also been a time of reflection, during which I have asked myself, can an understanding of chemistry act as an antidote to pseudoscientific thinking? But first let us start with a definition of what chemistry is.

Chemistry is the study of matter, where matter is the material in our universe which both has mass and occupies space. Matter includes all solids, liquids and gases, and chemistry explores not only the properties and composition of matter but also how it behaves and interacts. Therefore chemists also have to understand how matter and energy interact.

While in theory chemistry can be described as an isolated discipline, in its practice and application it often contributes to, and is supported by, other scientific disciplines including biology (pharmacology, molecular biology) and physics (materials science, astrochemistry).

Core Chemical Concepts

At the heart of chemistry are some central concepts which form the foundation of this discipline. Let us examine some of these.

1) Matter is made up of atoms

The most basic structural unit in chemistry is the atom. The atom itself is made up of a nucleus containing particles called protons and neutrons, around which smaller particles called electrons orbit.

2) Atoms with different numbers of protons give rise to the different elements

Atoms exist with different numbers of protons (neutrons and electrons). These different atoms afford the different chemical elements which are usually represented in the form of the periodic table (see diagram). Each element has different properties and is represented on the periodic table by a one or two- letter symbol. Ninety of the elements occur naturally and these elements can combine to form the fantastically diverse types of matter that make up our universe.

The atomic number (the number above each element) signifies the number of protons each atom has in its nucleus. You will see as you read across each row and then down the number of protons in the nucleus increases.

3) Atoms are really, really small

Atoms are so incredibly small that it can be hard to visualise how very small they are. For example, our lungs hold approximately 1,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000 gas atoms, while a grain of sand contains approximately 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms.

4) Matter cannot be created or destroyed, it can however be rearranged

All of the atoms in existence were created billions of years ago in the heart of stars early in the formation of the universe. I find this an extraordinary concept – that the atoms which make up our bodies have existed for billions of years during which time some of them may have formed part of the last Tyrannosaurus rex, the first flowering plant, or occupied the bodies of various historical figures. Carl Sagan puts this more eloquently and succinctly when he explains that “we are made of star stuff.”

5)Atoms combine to form molecules

The true diversity of the matter in our universe comes from the ability of atoms to combine to form molecules. Molecules can be simple, for example water, which is made up of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms, or complex, such as DNA, which can be made up of billions of atoms of the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Molecules are also incredibly small – a single aspirin tablet contains approximately 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of the active ingredient, acetylsalicylic acid.

6) The shape of a molecule is key to its properties

The shapes of molecules have a fundamental effect on their properties. Water molecules, for example, have a V-shape which allows water to exist as a liquid at room temperature and to dissolve many different compounds. Without these fundamental properties, life as we know it would not have been able to evolve on Earth.

The shape of molecules is a key consideration in the development of new drugs. Many drugs work by interacting with specially shaped receptor or active sites in the body. To activate or deactivate these sites, a molecule of complementary shape must be able to fit into the site. And by making subtle changes to the shapes of such molecules it is possible to tune the effect of the drug molecule.

7) Matter moves

It may not be obvious to the naked eye or even under a microscope but all matter moves. In liquids such as water, the individual molecules move relative to each other, only fleetingly and temporarily interacting with other water molecules. This can be observed by adding a drop of food colouring to a still glass of water. The movement of the water molecules alone slowly mixes the colouring throughout the glass without any need for external agitation.

What do these concepts tell us about homeopathy?

Homeopathy was developed just over 200 years ago and is based on three principles:
a) that diseases can be treated by using substances that produce the same symptoms as the disease; b) that the greater a substance is diluted the more potent it becomes;and
c) that homeopathic solutions are ‘activated’ by physically striking them against a solid surface.

If one considers these principles against the core chemical concepts discussed so far they make little sense. How can less of a substance be more potent? How could the variable striking of water solutions have any effect on water molecules which are already in motion relative to each other, and which are therefore unable to form any collective memory of an active substance? For homeopathy to work, key chemical concepts which underlie and explain much of what we know about the physical world would have to be turned on their heads. Such a challenge to well-established chemical concepts would require extraordinary evidence.

To date, no such evidence has been provided by homeopaths. Instead, over the past 200 years, repeated attempts to prove that homeopathy works have demonstrated little more than the placebo effect and the human propensity for confirmation bias.

More Chemical Concepts

8) The Earth is a closed system in terms of mass

Apart from the launch of the occasional deep space probe, the loss of helium into space, or the addition of the occasional meteor, the Earth retains a constant mass. Thus, our physical resources are limited.

9) Matter is continuously recycled

Although we have a limited resource in terms of matter, this matter is continuously recycled as these ancient and indestructible atoms are converted from one chemical compound to another. For example, the carbon in coal when burnt is converted to carbon dioxide which may then be converted by plants into sugars. Such recycling occurs for many elements, particularly in the biosphere of our planet.

10) Chemical compounds can store and release energy

Some chemical compounds are rich in energy and this energy can be released to produce energy-poor compounds. For example, when we burn coal or oil we release energy and produce energy-poor carbon dioxide, or when we consume sugars we use the energy released in our bodies and again produce carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide can be recycled through photosynthesis in plants to produce more sugars and other energy rich compounds for food. The same is not possible for coal or oil, and as such these are limited resources.

11) Systems are in equilibrium

The systems by which matter is continually recycled are very complex and interrelated. Such complex systems are usually in equilibrium – this means that if we change one variable the system will adjust itself to compensate. For example, as the amount of carbon dioxide has increased in our atmosphere, some of it has been removed by dissolving in the oceans.

The idea of system equilibrium is used by some to claim that an increase in carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere is harmless as the system can rebalance itself. This is potentially dangerous thinking. Most systems, particularly complex ones, can only buffer a certain amount of change, beyond which the system may undergo significant change as it attempts to rebalance itself. Such changes would not necessarily be conducive to human life.

What do these concepts tell us about our environment?

Fossil fuels are a non-sustainable source of energy that also release pollutants and increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Humanity would be better served developing alternative sources of energy which harness the power of the sun more directly, for example, through solar panels, hydroelectricity, wind turbines or biofuels. More attention needs to be paid to the effects of increasing carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, and its effect on the equilibrium of the Earth’s biosphere.

Chemophobia – Causes and Consequences

There are millions of different chemical compounds in existence and chemists use a standardised naming system in order to better catalogue and compare these fascinating compounds. Unfortunately, amongst non-chemists this chemical jargon can create concern and even fear. For example, most people when asked would turn down an offer to eat a mixture containing methylmethoxypyrazine, phenylacetaldehyde and b-tocopherol, at least until it is revealed that the aforementioned mixture is a chocolate bar, and all of the compounds are natural components of chocolate.

This caution or fear of the unknown is a natural instinct which has served human beings well throughout our evolution – allowing us to avoid poisonous foods and dangerous predators. However, in the modern world it can be used against us. Referring to compounds by their chemical names is a ploy used by various interest groups including alternative health gurus and anti-vaxers to try and create fear of mainstream medicines.

Furthermore, it has allowed the development of the myth of the ‘chemical-free’ product. To a chemist, the only thing that is chemical-free is a vacuum.

The term ‘chemical-free’ appears to be an invention of the marketing industry: an attempt to sell products by suggesting that if they contain only natural compounds they must be safe, healthy and/or environmentally friendly. This is, of course, very flawed reasoning. Nature produces a wide range of compounds that are toxic to humans. Tetrodotoxin from poorly prepared puffer fish, ricin from castor beans (used to assassinate a Bulgarian dissident in 1978), digitalis from foxgloves and arsenic in groundwater are all just as capable of knocking us off as any synthetic compound.

Indeed, when it comes to toxicity it is not whether something is natural or synthetic that is important. Rather it is the dose. Any substance is capable of being toxic. Consuming four litres of water in two hours can prove fatal, as can several hours’ exposure to a 100 percent oxygen atmosphere.

The idea that toxicity is dose-dependent is not new. In the 16th century the Swiss physician Paracelsus stated that “all things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” However, it remains a concept that is not well understood today. Special interests groups have used this to create fear around issues such as water fluoridation, vaccines, and environmental issues. For example, when DDT started to be detected in the environment at part per million levels, the resulting knee-jerk withdrawal of DDT from the marketplace resulted in a resurgence of malaria in many vulnerable populations. Following the introduction of DDT in Sri Lanka, by 1963 the number of cases dropped to 17. A few years after DDT use was banned, the number of cases increased to 2.5 million cases in 1968 and 1969.

Another consequence of chemophobia, is that it can encourage people to embrace ‘alternative’ treatments, such as homeopathy. An example of the terrible consequences of such erroneous thinking was the death of Gloria Thomas, aged nine months, in Australia in 2002, when her homeopath father refused to treat her eczema with conventional medicine. Instead, she was given homeopathic remedies until she died of septicaemia and malnutrition.

Absurd Chemical Therapies

One of the incredible hypocrisies of some alternative medicine practitioners is that they may also embrace absurd chemical therapies. Anti-vaxers who claim autistic children are really suffering from mercury poisoning sometimes promote the use of chelation therapy. Chelation therapy involves the intravenous use of chemical agents which bind to heavy metals in the blood. It is an invasive technique which can also strip the blood of important metal ions such as calcium. Indeed, there are examples of patients who have died because too much calcium has been stripped from their blood.

Other alternative treatments have included ‘miracle mineral solution’ as a treatment for everything from Aids to Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Such wide-reaching claims are an immediate warning sign, as is the revelation that ‘miracle mineral solution’ is, in fact, a 28 percent solution of bleach! Dilute solutions of dimethylsulphoxide (DMSO), an industrial solvent, have similarly been promoted as a cure-all, supported by, of course, only vague anecdotal evidence.

When challenged, those peddling these absurd therapies will often cry ‘conspiracy’, and claim they are being victimised by the all-powerful pharmaceutical industry.

Consequences of not understanding chemistry

We live in a world where important public debates are becoming contaminated with non-science and nonsense. Knowledge of chemistry can help us identify and challenge some of the non-science and nonsense when exploring important issues such as climate change, environmental issues, water fluoridation and vaccination.

Is chemistry an antidote to pseudoscientific thinking?

At the beginning of this article I posed the question, “Is chemistry an antidote to pseudoscientific thinking?” And while I hopefully have demonstrated that knowledge of chemistry can help identifiy and challenge pseudoscientific thinking, I cannot claim that it, alone, is an antidote. I know this because there are those who despite a background in chemistry still embrace pseudoscientific beliefs. These include:

  • David Rasnick – after training as a chemist and working in medicinal chemistry for 20 years Dr Rasnick became an Aids denialist and proponent of vitamin ‘therapies’.
  • Kary Mullis, Nobel prize-winning biochemist, is an Aids denialist, a believer in astrology, and claims to have met an extraterrestrial disguised as a fluorescent raccoon.
  • Lionel Milgrom, research chemist for 30 years, is now a practicing homeopath and prominent advocate of homeopathy.

The idea that those who have trained to an advanced level in chemistry (or any other science) can go on to embrace pseudoscience has always intrigued me. I’ve often wondered how such a transition could occur, and would suggest that perhaps one or more of the following factors may be involved:

1) Frustration with science

Progress in science is often slow and frustrating. The temptation to find an easier, albeit fallacy-based career may be appealing when faced with the many frustrations of laboratory work.

2) External bias

Religious and moral beliefs may introduce bias. For example, a number of Aids denialists are blatantly homophobic.

3) No understanding of the scientific method

While most scientists pick up the principles of the scientific method during their training, few that I am aware of are explicitly taught the scientific method.

4) Need for attention/notoriety

5) Financial motives

The peddling of pseudoscience can be quite lucrative, particularly when you can use academic qualifications to lend the appearance of legitimacy to one’s claims.

I suspect that in most cases, the embracing of pseudoscientific beliefs by scientists is a gradual process, where step by small step, they move away from the scientific method until eventually they find themselves no longer bound by its philosophy and rigour.


While an understanding of chemistry does not necessarily provide an antidote to pseudoscientific thinking, when coupled with the tools of rational thinking, it provides the skills to critically assess many areas where pseudoscientific beliefs persist including water fluoridation, environmental science, climate change, homeopathy and alternative medicines.

“Never let yourself be diverted by what you wish to believe, but look only and solely at what are the facts.” -Bertrand Russell

Fraud or Well-Meaning: it´s all the same to me

The paranormal field contains both con artists and the well-intentioned. It’s often impossible to tell one from the other, but in the end it makes little difference. This article is based on a presentation to the University of the Third Age.

People want reassurance about the future. We seek some kind of certainty, whether in the form of three-year political plans, saving for retirement, or looking for comfort in the various forms of crystal ball that try to make guesswork and psychological manipulation look like the truth.

We try to maintain a balance between wide-eyed credulity and close-minded cynicism as we´re bombarded with claim and counter-claim, miracles, astounding revelations, scientific discoveries, technological advancement, belief, faith and fact. We look for explanations.

One of the things that makes us vulnerable to con artists and well-intentioned loonies alike is our tendency to want to believe that someone is being straight with us. If they say they can predict earthquakes, then that’s what they are doing; if they say they can talk to the dead, then they really must be able to talk to the dead.

It’s not considered polite to express any form of scepticism or disbelief. And even those whose job is to do so, such as the members of the Fourth Estate, are often caught out by this. Something has to be really kooky sounding for our warning bells to go off, and there are people more than willing to dress up their favourite scam with all the trimmings of sophistry and science to get us to put hand to wallet, or simply just to believe in them and what they are telling us.

That said, it’s my belief that the vast majority of people in the very dodgy paranormal and pseudoscience businesses are not being deliberately fraudulent. Wilfully ignorant perhaps: unquestioning believers in their own egos and super-powers certainly.

I don’t know if forecaster Ken Ring is a fraud or really believes that he can predict the weather and earthquakes; whether he’s motivated by a desire to sell as many books as possible or simply wants to help the public. I can say the same about Paddy Freaney who said he saw a moa up in the Craigieburn mdash; it may have been a genuine sighting, or a mistake, or simply a clever marketing ploy to get more business for his nearby Bealey Hotel. And Deb Webber of Sensing Murder fame mdash; was it a desire to help desperate parents that saw her claim to psychically connect with missing Auckland toddler Aisling Symes or was it part of her pre-scheduled television appearance to hawk discounted entry tickets to her New Zealand tour?

You be the judge. But if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck… there may be something fowl there.

Sometimes the signs are just too too obvious. And it really helps to be aware of them. Think of a little applied scepticism as consumer protection for the mind.

How good is the information being provided? If the photos are blurry, reserve judgement as to whether you are seeing Bigfoot or a man in a gorilla suit. If the clinical trial has a sample size of 12, all carefully selected by the man looking to connect autism and vaccinations to sue Big Pharma, then it’s not Big Pharma you should be wary of. If the medium claims to be speaking to or about your dearly departed, listen closely to really see if they are telling you anything beyond the obvious.

On Sensing Murder Kelvin Cruickshank once pronounced this as an amazing revelation regarding the funeral of six-year-old murder victim Alicia O’Reilly:

“It sounds a little weird, but she must have been buried in a white coffin.”

But there’s nothing weird about a little girl being buried in a white coffin mdash; it’s a fairly common practice for children’s funerals. Not to mention the fact that the coffin was clearly seen in the widespread television coverage of the funeral. I think he phrased it that way to make it sound more amazing, as if he really was getting knowledge from the beyond, and few of us would stop and say “hang on a minute…”

We all have a lot in common, and the psychic industry exploits that to make the banal sound amazing. There’s a reason why mediums come up with the same names over and over again.

Mediums never come up with names like Piripi Te Aorangi or Sione, but concentrate on relatively common men’s names. A widow-heavy clientele makes that a necessary line but, more subtly, men often have traditional family names. So, instead of names like Dwayne or Dylan, mediums will ask about John or Michael, Charles or Richard, William or David.

It would be surprising if you couldn’t think of someone with the name John in your extended family. Mediums boost the odds by accepting middle names, nicknames, friends and colleagues, and they don’t even have to be dead to count as a hit. That can be explained away by saying the spirit world is watching over the living person. Mediums will commonly fire out a dozen names per reading, so it would be very surprising if they missed getting at least one apparent hit.

Some psychics hedge their bets even further by simply providing an initial. Few get quite as ludicrous as one desperate medium who, on not being able to get his subject to recall any special name beginning with “M”, finally blurted out, “Ah, it&39;s M for Mother&33;”

And we actually help them, with our willingness to suspend disbelief and to provide information, often without realising it. Cunning mediums, particularly those on the professional circuit, know how to exploit this fact, weaving our words into their patter and feeding it back to us as if it was something they knew all along.

TV3 flew me up to a book launch for medium Jeanette Wilson&59; the reporter was very excited that this woman was the real deal because she could provide actual names. We went to the launch and later this investigative journalist gushed about how Wilson had told one audience member that his father was called Frank. Fortunately, we&39;d caught that exchange on tape, so I got her to play it back. It went like this:
JW: Does the name Frank have any meaning for you?
Subject: My father was Frank.
JW: Yes, that&39;s right. I understand.

You don&39;t have to be foolish to be fooled. Those going to psychics or mediums are often desperate to believe, which makes them easy to exploit, but even those whose job depends on careful listening and recall can be easily misdirected.

I&39;ve done this sort of thing myself, when asked to impersonate a psychic and demonstrate the tricks and techniques used by the trade.

So you should listen for obvious cueing and changes of tack, or those spurious affirmations when an error is noted which flips it around to sound as if they knew all along.

Another example from Kelvin Cruickshank, this time looking at Alicia&39;s drawings. He spotted a depiction of her pet, something black and four-legged – her dog, he announced. Off-camera someone said “a cat”. The film crew knew there was a cat in the O’Reilly household, as it had been part of the mother’s story. “Oh cat is it?” said Cruickshank. “Oh it is too.”

What is psychic about that?

It can be really handy if you can identify a clear factual statement that can be checked out. This is harder than it sounds, as unequivocal statements are not part of the psychic stock in trade. It can also be difficult to check facts without having personal contacts or knowledge to draw upon. That said, there was something in the Sensing Murder programme about Alicia O&39;Reilly that could be checked.

Cruickshank made much of Alicia talking about children&39;s television show What Now?, and how that must have been a Saturday morning treat for her, adding that this clearly indicated her murder took place in the 1980s. This was made more dramatic by a voiceover noting that Alicia had been murdered in 1980. However, according to TVNZ, What Now? didn´t go on air until nine months after Alicia’s murder…

Con artists and True Believers alike will provide some kind of ad hoc explanation to either deny or explain away such errors. I often ask people, “how many times would it take for you to get things wrong before you would consider that maybe you aren&39;t doing what you think you are?” People with a vested interest in their own powers will very, very rarely face up to that.

Best yet, look for solid predictions, record them before the event and see how they stack up afterwards.

The most entertaining and regular examples of these are the tabloid predictions made at the beginning of every year. There are two things these regular features have in common:
1. a large proportion of predictions are wrong, even when plausible instead of downright silly;
2. they consistently miss the truly surprising, truly huge news events of the year.

Skeptics around the world track these and see how the “psychics to the stars” do, people who are touted as the best in the business. Back in 2004 the more plausible predictions involved the deaths of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro. All wrong. As were the really off-the-wall predictions of the discovery of live dinosaurs, and US General Colin Powell switching political parties to trounce George Bush and become a Democrat president.

What did the psychics miss that year? Just the massive Boxing Day tsunami that saw 214,000 people die across 11 countries. Surely it shouldn´t have been too difficult for just one of them to feel that sort of death and destruction reverberate through the cosmic ether?

However, of greater concern are those predictions which have a real personal impact on us and affect our behaviour and the behaviour of those around us.

Every year we get the prediction of San Francisco falling into the sea. It&39;s not there yet. But every year it comes back, along with other end-of-the-world scenarios, cometary impacts, giant bat attacks, the rising of Atlantis. They are invariably wrong.

I&39;ve lived through too many end-of-the-world predictions from Y2K to the Rapture to worry too much about them any more. What I do worry about is the very real psychological harm that inevitably accompanies such predictions, particularly when they are reported by an uncritical, uninformed media. Facts may whisper, but fear screams.

I worry about groups like the ominously named Ukrainian White Brotherhood who caused riots and bloodshed in their shaky nation in preparation for their earthquake apocalypse predicted in 2001.

I was worried about having a Minister of Civil Defence who believed that the end times were coming so there was no point preparing for natural disasters and emergencies when God had ordained it and the Bible had confirmed it. Yes, that was a New Zealand Cabinet Minister.

I felt sorry for the believers who sold their businesses and their homes in New Zealand and abroad, to meet the end of the world predicted by a Korean fraudster. I guess one thing to be said for him, at least he didn&39;t tell his followers to bring their world to a real end by mass suicide. It&39;s been known to happen.

I worry about the Cantabrians who ended up with unnecessary psychological stress heaped on an already deservedly anxious frame of mind because they believed in Ken Ring&39;s pronouncements regarding a massive earthquake happening on March 20 roundabout lunchtime. Some 50,000 people believed enough to flee the city that weekend and, despite the huge aftershock&39;s non-arrival, many still choose to believe in a former maths teacher-cum-magician than in real geologists.

Of course, it can be hard to be a judge when you are liable to only get part of the story. Particularly if the person at the centre of it controls the information.

Psychics will often talk about assisting police with missing persons&39; cases. What they don&39;t tell you is that there has been not one substantive case where psychically derived information has been of any significant use. That their &39;assistance&39; often comes down to making a phone call, or that they talked to a search and rescue person about their dream.

Deb Webber claimed to have seen Aisling Symes in a ditch. As one policeman put it, ” If she&39;s said there&39;s a body in a ditch in West Auckland, there are plenty of ditches and we can&39;t do much with that information.” And if police had actually limited their search only to ditches, as defined by almost every normal person and dictionary, then Aisling&39;s body would never have been found. That&39;s how truly useless her comment was. Yet there are people prepared to go on her three-year waiting list to pay her $250 for a half-hour reading. And who are willing to ignore the loud quacking that resulted when she was shown on camera talking to three non-existent dead people when an Australian television crew put her to the test.

People in this industry often claim to be doing it to give families closure, that they are just trying to help. They ignore or dismiss the harm and pain that they often cause. whatstheharm. net lists hundreds and hundreds of cases where families, parents, spouses, friends have all suffered unnecessarily through psychics and mediums exploiting their awful situations for money, marketing exposure and outright ego-boosting.

It&39;s rare for such families to speak out against this. Sometimes they have family members who want to believe. Sometimes they are desperate for any kind of help or assistance. Sometimes they think the extra publicity might turn up real information. Sometimes they have paid over so much money they don&39;t dare believe that it might all be for naught. Sometimes they are just too polite to call a duck a duck.

Here&39;s a heartfelt comment from one chap who had worked knowingly fraudulently as a fake medium, and who came to realise the damage that he had been doing:
“While aware of the fact that I was deceiving [my clients] I did not see or understand the seriousness of trifling with such sacred sentimentality and the baneful result which inevitably followed. To me it was a lark. I was a mystifier and as such my ambition was being gratified and my love for a mild sensation satisfied. After delving deep I realized the seriousness of it all… [W]hen I personally became afflicted with similar grief I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime.[

That was a very chastened and very honest Harry Houdini.

And, sadly, our ill-trained, inexperienced and under-resourced news media often doesn&39;t help us to assess the claims that are out there. Ken Ring was described in a number of publications as a lunar scientist, which sounds reasonably scientificky and gave him a spurious credibility. What you weren&39;t told was that he believes dolphins are beaming sonar signals to the Moon, and supports the idea that Indo/Egypto/European cultures were present in New Zealand thousands of years ago. Surely that says something about his credibility…
We get psychics who confidently state that missing people will be found near trees or water. Frankly it would be difficult to get away from one or the other in New Zealand. So that&39;s not much help either. And for all those pseudo-documentaries masquerading as reality TV, there have been no cases solved by mediums or their psychic brethren except in their own publicity material.
I have often been asked why the New Zealand Skeptics gives such people the oxygen of publicity. Why do we try to take a public stand against both the well-meaning if misguided individual and the charlatans and fraudsters alike? Why do we bother to point out when claimed scientific evidence is not actually scientific; why do we go behind the scenes to reveal the dodgy dealings of the professional medium; why do we try to make people aware of their own fallibility and vulnerabilities?

To paraphrase a famous quote that we all should bear in mind: For a dangerous idiocy to succeed requires only that good people say nothing.

Amber teething beads: something to chew on

A ‘natural’ way to manage teething pain has no plausible mechanism.

Parents, especially new parents like myself, are a vulnerable group. We tend to be full of anxiety that we are doing the ‘right thing’ by our children. Wherever you find a vulnerable group like this you also tend to find those who prey on such fears.

Being a new parent and a skeptic I have been on guard regarding dubious advice and practices, but so far I have actually been pleasantly surprised: I have not, as far as I’ ve noticed, been subjected to any dubious advice. But recently I was confronted by a practice of a fellow new parent that I found a little disturbing. I’ m taking about using necklaces of amber beads to reduce the pain of teething for babies.

Teething can be an especially stressful time for parents and children. The child may be experiencing pain as the new teeth break through the gums; this means an irritable child and frazzled parents. Anything that promises to relieve or prevent this harrowing time is gratefully embraced.

On to the amber beads. This practice disturbs me for several reasons. First is safety. The necklace, if left on the baby for long periods, may pose a strangling hazard if it becomes caught on something. Most advertise that they are made to break easily to prevent this and that the beads are individually knotted onto the necklace to prevent scattering on breakage. However, this still seems to leave a broken string of beads in reach of a baby, and as most people know – anything a baby can get its hands on goes straight into the mouth. So choking is also a concern.

Now, I’m not one to be a worry wart over every little potential hazard; used correctly under parental supervision I suspect that the likelihood of a tragedy of this kind is low. But not zero. This, coupled with the low probability that the necklace actually does anything, is what worries me. The second disturbing thing is that parents are accepting that the necklaces work via word of mouth, and apparently not consulting their doctors before subjecting their child to an intervention of unknown safety and efficacy.

I have three main points I believe parents should consider before trying these beads (in addition to the physical safety above). The first relates to basic plausibility. There are several explanations for how the beads are supposed to work floating around the intertubes, many of the tinfoil hat brigade variety ([… it generates pain relieving magnetic field[). Only one explanation I have found makes biological sense so that’s the one I’ll be focusing on.

Baltic amber is known to contain between three and eight percent succinic acid. According to proponents this is released from the beads and into your baby. The succinic acid then allegedly has an analgesic effect and so reduces the pain of teething. Here is where my first point regarding plausibility comes in.

Amber is tough. Really tough. This is a material that has persisted for thousands and in some cases millions of years unchanged. Suffering through innumerable climatic cycles of heating and cooling. Yet this same tough unchanging material will happily give up its chemical components upon the gentle heating it receives on being placed next to your baby’s skin? Colour me unconvinced. I found a 2010 paper on volatile degradation products from Baltic amber that doesn’t mention succinic acid as an identified component. Related to this point, amber has a hardness on the Mohs scale of between 1 and 3. Baltic amber, which is usually touted as the therapeutic variety (because of the high succinic acid content), is at the high end of this scale at 2 – 2.5. To put this in perspective, Tin has a hardness of about 1.5 and Gold is 2.5-3. But let’s say for argument’s sake that clinically relevant amounts of succinic acid are released by the amber and absorbed by your baby’s skin.

My second point then, relates directly to the claims made for succinic acid. Succinic acid is made in the body (and in plants) as part of the citric acid cycle (aka the Krebs cycle). It is also used in the food and beverage industry as a food acid (additive #363 to be precise). Interestingly, in this capacity there are recommendations from some quarters to avoid the substance ([avoid it, banned in some countries[, warnswww.foodreactions.org).

Even so, apart from its early use as a topical treatment for rheumatic pain, there is no evidence that I could find (searching Pubmed at least, where I would expect a decent study to be referenced) that it is effective as either an anti-inflammatory or general analgesic. Let me be clear on that. I don’t mean low-quality evidence, I don’t mean small, poorly designed trials with equivocal effects, I mean nothing. Zip. Nada. In fact if anyone knows of any let me know because I find this complete lack quite surprising. I’m open to the idea that I was looking in the wrong place or was using incorrect search terms. So, unless there is late breaking news, it fails on that count as well. But what do we care about evidence of efficacy anyway? Let’s throw this point out too, and move on to my final point to consider.

Let’s say that (a): the beads do indeed release succinic acid into your baby and (b): this succinic acid has an analgesic effect once it enters your baby’s body. Doesn’t the very fact that an unknown amount of a drug is being put into your baby’s body bother you? (If it has biologic activity that can be used in a therapeutic fashion, it’s a drug, no quibbling on that point please.)

What is that I hear? It’s natural? Oh, well, that’s okay then. No wait, it’s not. I don’t care what the origin of a compound is, the question is what are its effects on the body and do the benefits outweigh the risks. Let’s replace succinic acid with some other naturally occurring substance, salicylic acid. This is a compound with known anti-inflammatory properties. Would you be happy with a product that introduced unknown levels of this compound into your baby? What if I said that overdoses with this compound could lead to a one percent chance of death (emedicine.medscape.com/article/818242-overview#a0199)? It’s natural; it’s also the precursor to acetylsalicylic acid, otherwise known as Aspirin.

Now, lest I be accused of unnecessary fear-mongering and drawing false comparisons I would like to admit that at present there is no evidence to suggest that succinic acid is hazardous, nor even that it is potentially hazardous. This does not detract from my main point however. It isn’t whether this particular compound is safe or not but that the reasoning around its use (ie [It’s got to be good, it’s natural[) is faulty and cannot be used as a substitute for evidence.

Based on the complete lack of plausibility on any level of efficacy any potential for harm, however small, must tip the balance of the equation away from the use of this product. But don’t trust me; talk to your doctor. I suspect though that given the complete lack of reliable information on this topic they will be left to rely on their own philosophy of harm vs benefit. In the final analysis, there are not always clear answers, but developing good critical thinking skills will at least provide you with a small light in the darkness.

‘’Darwin’’s Dilemma’’: ID in NZ

Alison Campbell looks at a new ‘resource’ for New Zealand schools, helpfully provided by the creationist movement.

A little while ago Ken Perrott, who writes the Open Parachute blog, alerted me to an Intelligent Design website that appeared to be set up to provide ID ‘resources’ to teachers and others who might be interested. Today I found time to wander over and have a look at what was on offer (not much, at the moment(. The site’s owner is [idfilms[, who tells us that:
idfilms was established with the express purpose of reinvigorating and expanding the ID discussion in New Zealand and Australia. The people behind idfilms are committed to the search for truth about the origin of life and the universe, just like you.

The only resource currently on offer on the Products Page is a DVD entitled Darwin’s Dilemma, for which the blurb reads:
Darwin’s Dilemma explores one of the great mysteries in the history of life: The geologically-sudden appearance of dozens of major complex animal types in the fossil record without any trace of the gradual transitional steps Charles Darwin had predicted. Frequently described as [the Cambrian Explosion,[ the development of these new animal types required a massive increase in genetic information. [The big question that the Cambrian Explosion poses is where does all that new information come from?[ says Dr. Stephen Meyer, a featured expert in the documentary.

Interesting, given the subject matter, that one of the DVD’s [featured experts[ is neither a geneticist nor an evolutionary biologist…

[Darwin’s Dilemma[ isn’t a particularly accurate characterisation, given that discovery of the extensive Cambrian biota happened well after Darwin’s death. Nor is the idea of an [explosion[ all that accurate, as the evidence from palaeontology and molecular biology points to a rather more ancient origin for the various phyla found in Cambrian rocks.

The statement that [the development of these new animal types required a massive increase in genetic information[ suggests a lack of understanding of a particular suite of genes, the Hox genes. Major changes in morphology can come about as a result of small changes in the Hox genes, because they influence the arrangement and timing of development of various body parts. No need for [massive increases in genetic information[ here. However, that phrase is simply setting the stage for the claim that this increase in [information[ can only have come about through the agency of a designer, again ignoring the observed ability of mutations – such as the duplication of genes due to transposon activity – to do this all by themselves.

However, if we must look at [complex specified information[ (the catchphrase of Meyer’s colleague William Dembski for the way to recognise the work of the designer(, let’s ask a few questions about it. What exactly is complex specified information? How is it produced? How do we tell it apart from the bits of the genome that aren’t due to an external agency?

Well, the short answer would appear to be that even the ‘experts’ don’t know. How else are we to interpret the discussion associated with On the calculation of CSI, a post at Uncommon Descent? A concept that cannot be adequately explained can hardly form the basis of a sound teaching resource, let alone provide the impetus to change our view of how evolution works.