UFO Update

Dr J.F. De Bock gave the 1992 Conference an update on the study of UFOs.<>

The study of UFOs (UFOlogy) started out as research on unidentified atmospheric (or aerial) phenomena, but rapidly became invested with questionable researchers holding preoccupied, but popular, convictions that the earth is being invaded by extraterrestrials in their flying-saucer shaped spaceships.

The alleged recovery of aliens and their saucer in the 1947 Roswell Incident, and the photos of a hovering spaceship in the 1981 Gulf Breeze case, fuel the belief in extraterrestrial visitation. However, both cases are so invested with fraud, swindle, deception and contradiction that arriving at the truth is seemingly an impossible task.

To further cloud the credibility of serious UFO researchers, UFOlogy is forced to absorb subjects such as contactees, crop circles, Men in Black and cattle mutilations.

“True” UFOlogy is a continued unbiased research into verified sightings and encounters of mostly unidentified lights, occasionally exhibiting a physical reality by leaving a variety of tangible proof of exchange with the environment.

In 1989, during a UFO chase by two Belgian Fl6 fighters, the elusive unidentified object demonstrated seemingly controlled and deliberately evasive action, momentarily appearing to swing the balance in favour of the belief in alien visitation. Unfortunately, one finds that the case was reported by dubious researchers being too over-zealous to promote the extraterrestrial hypothesis. When the dust dies down, one is left with a confirmed sighting of a repetitive and common but puzzling occurrence of an unknown atmospheric phenomenon.

How to Make the Miraculous Blood of St Januarius

Brew up a miracle for fun and profit, in the comfort of your own kitchen.

The blood, in a phial in a church in Naples, is reverently turned over several times during services every few months. It has seldom failed to liquefy since 1389. (It has also accidentally liquefied when the monstrance holding the phial was being cleaned!) Three Italian scientists are quoted in the Skeptical Inquirer (Vol 16, No 3, Spring 1992, p236) as having duplicated the “blood.” The relevant data (Nature vol 353, p507) are:

“To a solution of 25g FeCl3.6H2O in 100 ml of water we slowly added 10g CaCO3, and dialysed this solution for 4 days against distilled water from a Spectra/por tubing (parchment or animal gut works just as well; a simple procedure1 even allows us to avoid this dialysis step). The resulting solution was allowed to evaporate from a crystallisation disc to a volume of 100ml (containing about 7.5% of FeO(OH). Addition of 1.7g NaCl yielded dark brownish thixotropic sol which set in about 1 hour to a gel. The gel could be easily liquefied by gentle shaking, and the liquefaction-solidification cycle was highly repeatable.”

Thixotropy is the property that interests us, that of setting to a gel or shaking to a sol(ution). I had always imagined the warmth of the priest’s hands was the main secular reason for the liquefaction, but apparently not.

I rang my old chemistry master, Alex Wooff, in Christchurch, to find out what the dialysis would involve. Dialysis is a differential diffusion through a membrane. You put the mix in a tube (rather like a sausage skin with the ends tied, I gather) and the tube in a tank of distilled water. Certain acidic by-products pass out through the tube walls, and what you want stays inside. (Someone who speaks French could look up what Herr Doktor Guthknecht had to say in 1946 about avoiding that.)

Alan Wooff also explained that the calcium carbonate would have to be precipitated — common chalk wouldn’t do; “You wouldn’t want lumps in it.”

Perhaps (I like to give people the benefit of every possible doubt) the 14th century originators of this pious fraud did not use sausage skin — let alone Spectra/por tubing — but stripped a blood-filled vein from the saint’s leg, say, and piously washed it in a mountain stream, like kaanga pirau.

If some reaction turned the iron in the haemoglobin into FeO(OH)– a reaction with the chalky deposits of the saintly artherosclerosis, perhaps? — and all unknowing they dialysed it out, perhaps they would get the result that the faithful see in Naples to this day.


Denise of Salmond Smith Biolab (Freephone 0800-807-809) told me they could get precipitated calcium carbonate (CaCO3) from England for $22.86 a kilo, in six or eight weeks by air freight at $39. They have hydrous ferric chloride (FeCl3.6H2O) in stock at $47.22 for 250 grams. The minimum order of dialysis tubing (10mm diam, 32mm flat) is 30 metres at $60. Geoff Meadows of Clark Products Ltd quoted $36.59 for 20 l of deionised water.

The limiting dimension is the volume of the tubing, 2.35 litres. That divides into 78 samples of 30 ml each.

That’s $205.67 (plus the cost of the phials) to produce 78 phials of miraculous blood. Perhaps 20 skeptics might pay $10 each for them, so I’d be lucky to break even. That is, if all the kitchen chemistry worked out.

Of course, if I sold them outside a church at $1000 a phial…?

Anyone got access to a chemistry lab?

1. Guthknecht, R. Bull Soc. Chim. Fr. 13, 55-60 (1946)
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This is a summary of a talk given at the 1992 Skeptics conference by Dr Eric Geiringer.

[An E-meter is a device used by members of the Church of Scientology, and some related groups or individuals, to “diagnose” illnesses. The subject grasps a pair of metal electrodes connected to an Ohm-meter, and an “auditor” asks questions and interprets the meter’s readings.]

The resistance the skin offers to the passage of an electric current is inversely proportional to the amount of electrolyte in the neighbourhood, and that essentially means sodium chloride in the sweat.

The skin is an important regulator of the sodium chloride content of the tissues, which must remain constant within narrow limits.

The amount of sweat and its salt concentration (0.1-0.37%) will vary in different people and at different times in the same person with:

  • fluid intake
  • clothes
  • stage of menstrual cycle
  • amount of salt in the tissues
  • amount of salt in food
  • the circum-ambient temperature
  • the number of sweat glands
  • their topical distribution
  • adrenal activity
  • anterior pituitary activity
  • posterior pituitary activity
  • hormone output of heart muscle
  • kidney function

and a number of other factors, all playing a part at any given moment in determining how much salt will meet the electrodes.

To this must be added the psychic state of the subject at the time of measurement, because as with blushing (which is also part of the hypothalamic heat regulating mechanism) sweating will be brought on by joy, fear, embarrassment or pain.

The effect of these variables on the final reading is, of course, additive and gives a composite reading of little, if any, specific value.

E-meter operators may claim that the refinements which they have introduced into the machine and the method standardise subjects to all these variables, and can therefore isolate idiosyncratic differences and enable specific physical or mental disorders to be diagnosed, but it would be up to them to substantiate such an extraordinary claim.

Although Scientology in toto is a dangerous, exploitative and mischievous humbug, we must concede that, by recording and utilising psychic sweating to loaded questions, their use of the E-meter is on a par with the use of lie-detectors<|>–<|>i.e. a crude, nonspecific but marginally valid means of spotting emotionally sensitive areas in a significant number of subjects.

It is the imaginative use, or pretended use, of these Ohm-meters and Volt-meters to diagnose specific mental or physical disorders by homeopaths and acupuncturists which constitutes their real danger.

Hot-footing it in Fiji

New Zealand Skeptics walk happily on red-hot embers, protected by the laws of physics. Fijian firewalkers, however, are said to stroll across white-hot stones. How do they do it?

Fijian firewalking is an ancient tradition. It was originally confined to a few villages on the island of Beqa (pronounced Mbengga). The ceremony achieved fame with a demonstration for visiting European dignitaries in 1885.

As John Campbell explains in Skeptic 15, firewalking is explained by science, not mysticism. Although the firewalker’s skin is in contact with glowing carbon at a temperature of around 700oC, very little heat energy is transferred. No injury occurs because though the surface of the charcoal is at this temperature, the charcoal has a low heat capacity and heat is not conducted through it sufficiently rapidly to raise the skin temperature to a dangerous level. Each foot only contacts the hot charcoal twice for a brief instant. Of course, if skin and hot carbon were in contact for longer, or if the walker attempted to take too many steps on the hot coals, burns would ensue. Faith in one’s firewalking abilities has no effect on the outcome.

Beqa Firewalking

Several published accounts of the Beqa firewalkers describe a ceremony with features that cannot be accounted for by this explanation. Many of these descriptions are rather informal (as well as unbelievable). Others are by anthropologists interested in rituals and beliefs associated with the ceremony. These describe human behaviour in minute detail until it gets to the part which would most interest a physical scientist. Some writers seem unaware that they are describing events which are commonly thought impossible.

Accounts agree that flat stones or rocks are heated using wood fuel in a fire-pit. The wood is then raked away, leaving the stones glowing white-hot. After various rituals, the walkers enter the pit and walk round and round on the glowing stones. The men (only men can do this!) have anklets of dried leaves; afterwards neither these anklets nor the soles of their feet show any effect from the heat.

According to Beqa: Island of Firewalkers (published by the Institute of Pacific Studies), the men even gather in the centre of the pit and chant! If these accounts are reasonably accurate then we are dealing with a miracle.

Profit Potential

About 1960 the villagers of Rukua on Beqa discovered that firewalking had commercial potential. The income of this village jumped from about $400 per year to about $6500 with this discovery, and other villages quickly followed their example. Contracts with tourist hotels guaranteed $400 per performance.

The original ceremony had involved the whole village. Firewalkers had to respect certain tabu — in particular, abstinence from all sexual contact for a period of one month. Costumes were made and burned afterwards. About six tonnes of firewood were consumed.


It was quickly discovered that costumes could be modified so that they could be re-used and a much smaller fire satisfied the tourists. If the walkers abstained from sex for only two weeks they were not injured by the smaller fire — this seems quite logical.

More hotels featured the ceremony and teams performed twice a week. The sexual abstinence tabu was reduced to one night or dropped altogether.

Traditionally the fire pit was large. Beqa: Island of Firewalkers contains some photos from the thirties and I have an old postcard of the ceremony. These suggest the hot area was around five metres in diameter (the pits are circular) and the walkers may have needed ten or a dozen steps to cross the hot stones.

The modern pit is about 2.5 metres, but in the two examples I have seen, the hot area was less than two metres in diameter. Apparently the cost of firewood is a big problem.

I have a postcard showing the preparation of a fire pit for a modern performance. The caption reads, “the fire-walkers the cross the pit walking on the white-hot stones.”

Skeptics can safely walk on red-hot charcoal, but “white hot” implies much higher temperatures. For example, mild steel is tapped from a furnace at about 1600oC. This molten metal is glowing brightly but it looks yellow rather than white.

Rock, unlike carbon, has a high thermal capacity, that is, it stores plenty of heat energy which can be released to human skin. This implies that hot rock is more hostile to human feet than carbon at a similar temperature.

Anybody with some knowledge of science should be dubious of the published accounts of Beqa fire-walking. Could the rocks really be white hot?

The anklets worn by the walkers provide a clue. If dead leaves were brought close to an object radiating at a temperature high enough to be glowing white, they would burst into flames. In fact, human skin could be damaged before contact.

Examining the Pit

In Fiji, I have twice had a good look at a fire-pit immediately before the ceremony. When the fire was dying down, any unburnt wood was raked aside and the stones brushed clear of glowing embers. White ash covered the stones which lay in a bed of glowing charcoal. They were so close together that little of the hot charcoal could be seen, but the white sides of the irregular rocks reflected the glow in a spectacular fashion. The rocks themselves were not glowing.

Obviously, the rock upper surfaces were at a temperature well below the 700oC of glowing carbon. This could explain why the Beqa people can stand relatively prolonged contact. The modern walkers cross the pit, circle round the edge and re-cross. All the tourists I have questioned agree on that point. I am sure anybody could do the same.

The photographs I have of the old ceremony with the large pit do not show any activity that could be construed as “walking round and round in the pit.” The old postcard shows a line of about fifteen people, some holding hands. About four or five are crossing the hot rocks. The rest appear to have crossed and are circling back around the edge.

In the pit they seem to be taking short steps, and perhaps few people have feet that could stand such lengthy exposure. However, these people probably never wore any kind of footwear. Certainly some modern Fijians can stand barefoot on a sun-heated surface that would cause me pain.

On the other hand, it is doubtful that Beqa people could have crossed such a large pit, so slowly, if they had had to walk on glowing charcoal rather than the relatively cool rock.

So how did this myth arise, that Fijians could walk barefoot across white-hot rocks?

Poor observation and inaccurate reporting, plus the will to believe, seem adequate explanations. The rocks are certainly white as they are covered in white ash; they are certainly hot, as they are heated in a fire. They are not, however, white-hot.

Bands of Hope

Lewis Jones

Can a cotton wristband and a plastic button alleviate seasickness? The British Consumer’s Association thinks so, but scientific evidence indicates otherwise.

The sea has always brought out the best in me. Such as a good lunch. So all those ads for Sea Bands have been striking a responsive chord. You know the things. They keep coming up in those glossy colour brochures that fall out of your magazines and into your waste paper basket.

How the Royal Navy Fights Seasickness — you can’t speak plainer than that. If the navy doesn’t know about being seasick, who does? “The Royal Fleet Auxiliary tested the system in 1986, and declare it a useful, drowsiness and side-effect free alternative to drugs.”

At this point you look at the accompanying photograph and see what looks like a cotton wristband with an inset plastic button the size of an asprin. You look closer and examine the picture in careful detail to see what a Sea Band really is. It turns out to be a cotton wristband with an inset plastic button the size of an asprin.

Curiosity eventually got the better of me, and I decided to follow the Sea Band trail and see where it lead. When I contacted the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s Principal Medical Officer, Dr Driver, I struck lucky right away. It was Dr Driver who tested the Sea Bands aboard Sir Lancelot in the South Atlantic. Of the 17 people tested, two-thirds said they thought the Sea Bands effective and one-third didn’t. This is a very small sample, so how about a control group? Well, another test had been planned on the good ship Tristram, without the plastic buttons, but there wasn’t enough bad weather. Dr Driver emphasised that such evidence as there was, was anecdotal.

Consumers’ Association Test

Then the British Consumers’ Association (CA) decided to hand out Sea Bands to 27 passengers on a cross-channel ferry. About two-thirds thought they felt less ill than usual, and one third didn’t. Still no control group. And again the sample was small. The CA admitted this was not a controlled clinical trial, but couldn’t resist going on to enthuse about results that were “quite dramatic.” They reported giving Sea Bands to children who felt sea-sick, and within minutes, “They were up and frisking around again.” And there was one young girl who stopped being seasick when she put the bands on, but was sick again when she took them off to fill in the questionnaire.

The CA don’t agree that they were misleading their readers, in spite of a forthright picture-caption saying, “Sea Bands might work for you” (and so might touching wood). They saw it as an advantage that Sea Bands do not produce side effects (neither does touching wood).

Naval Assessment

Enter the Institute of Naval Medicine (INM), who tested Sea Bands against the drug hycosine, sometimes known as scopalomine. (At sea, this gives good control of symptoms for some hours). But the INM also tested against two placebos. One was a dummy drug (Vitamin C), and the other was a dummy band (the Sea band with the plastic button reversed so that it didn’t press against the wrist. Eighteen male volunteers were exposed to a “cross coupled nauseogenic motion challenge.” In other words, they were blindfolded and rotated in a chair while they performed head movements to commands from a loudspeaker above them.

This may sound pretty innocuous, but in fact it’s a fairly severe test. It will bring on the first symptoms of vomiting within 15 to 20 minutes on average. Each subject was tested on the motion challenge on four separate occasions, with at least a week between each. The results? The hycosine had an effect. But Sea Bands? No better than the dummy remedies. In fact, it emerges that the US Naval Aerospace people had tested Sea Bands back in 1982. The results then? No benefit.

You can browse through Gray’s Anatomy until your thumb is sore, without ever finding any connection between your wrist and being seasick. So why on earth did anyone think there was anything in the idea in the first place?

The Acupuncture Connection

It turns out that a Mr D.S.J. Choy had come up with a “seasickness strap” in New York in 1982. The idea was to find a way of pressing against the Nei Guan or P6 acupressure point, which is situated two Chinese inches away from the wrist crease. Why? At the end of the trail we open The Treatment of Disease by Acupuncture by Felix Mann, President of the Medical Acupuncture Society. He lists the ailments you can cure by pressure on the wonderful P6 point:

“Headache, insomnia, dizziness, palpitation of heart, epilepsy, madness, easily frigthened, swelling under armpits, cramp of elbow, cardiac pain, vomiting, middle regions blocked full and swollen, spleen and stomach not harmonised, stomach very painful, gastritis, enteritis, swelling of abdomen, diarrhoea, hiccoughs, coughing, depleted and weary, summer-heat diseases, rheumatism of foot, jaundice, irregular periods, post-partum bleeding and dizziness, spermatorrhoea, nearly pulseless.”

It’s difficult enough to come up with a remedy that can make a firm claim to cure one specific ailment. Remedies that claim to cure everything from hiccups to madness can only expect to be taken seriously by mediaeval visitors from a time warp.

Sea Bands does list a medical advisor: Dr Stainton-Ellis, a retired medical man. But Dr Stainton-Ellis said he had little contact with the company, and it is not clear that he is actually called upon to do anything. He told me that Sea Bands “are now being used in pregnancy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.”

In fact, in these areas Sea Bands have not so much been “used” as put under test, usually by the same small group of enthusiasts. These studies have been heavily criticised for their statistics, their poor methodology, their lack of double-blind controls, and the fact that other researchers have been unable to reproduce the results. But acupressure is a mere ghostly cousin of acupuncture. So is it worth considering acupuncture itself before a sea voyage?

Dr Peter Skrabanek has surveyed the needle scene, and reported to the medical journal The Lancet on 26 May 1984: “numerous controlled trials have shown that the claims for acupuncture have no scientific validity<193> Let us leave quackupuncture to quacks and let us tell the misinformed patient the truth, so that he or she can choose.”

This article appeared recently in the The Skeptic (UK) and is reprinted by permission of the author.


Bernard Howard

1) After seeing Sea Bands advertised in the magazine of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, Mr Jones made a formal complaint to the British Advertising Standards Authority, on the basis of the facts in the article above. The Authority’s response:

CONCLUSION: Complaint upheld. The advertisers failed to provide evidence for any of the claims. The Authority was concerned that the advertisers were unable to support the claims for the product as required by the Code, and requested that they cease making any claims for the wrist band until adequate substantiation could be made available.

2) Of a similar nature are “Isocones,” which are said to induce sleep in insomniacs by pressing on the acupressure point in the wrist. Unlike the Sea Bands, you must use a fresh Isocone each night on each wrist. Whether the acupressure points concerned with seasickness and sleeplessness are identical is not revealed by the advertisements for these products. If the points are different, it must require skill to press the right spot to produce the desired effect; if identical, the effect produced must depend entirely on the expectations of the subject, that is, our old friend the placebo effect.

3) For those interested, a member reports seeing Isocones for sale in a New Zealand pharmacy. Whether Sea Bands are available here is something we have not bothered to discover

Cold Reading for Fun and Profit

After seeing a demonstration of cold reading at the Skeptics Conference in 1989 I thought this was something I could have fun with, so I boned up on the list of commonplaces provided at the time:

  • most men have an unopened bottle of aftershave in their bathroom cabinet
  • most women have kept one of a pair of earrings after losing the other
  • most people can remember with embarassment being singled out at school, etc…

I tried it out on some friends and they were quite impressed, so I put it to practical use at the annual Lesbian and Gay Fair.

In 1990, I was Signor Momoque (Momoka was a name I was given on an island in the southern Solomons in 1975); in 1991, Madame Momoque; and in 1992. Swami Momokananda.

The Momoques offered gestalt palm reading (using both palms; the patter involved “integrating the emotional and intuitive left and right sides of the brain” — or right and left, whatever). The Swami offered chakra reflexology (the wrist, the ball of the thumb and the five fingertips corresponding to the seven “chakras” spaced along the spinal column.

To prepare the client, I used incense, a “crystal” (glass) ball dimly illuminated from below, a “crystal” (cut lead glass) hanging from a thread, and three stones — agate, quartz and greenstone. I “cleansed” the stones and the seven “chakra points of the hand” with drops of water from an elegant little bottle, and invited the client to choose one stone. (“Ah, you chose agate/quartz/greenstone. This indicates firmness/clarity/that you are close to the land…”) This preparation is an important part of sucking the client in. It doesn’t matter too much just what you do, as long as you do it with some confidence, and what the client assumes is the confidence of a skilled practitioner is really just the confidence of a little practice.

At first, I took myself too seriously, agonising over every statement. I found (as others have) that my greatest ally was the client and their sometimes pathetic, even desperate desire to believe, and to re- interpret what I said in the light of their condition.

Some lesbians thought this presentation was racist (an Indian client did not, and the turban and bindi (“caste mark”) were provided by a practising Hindu), so next year I will give the human race away, and either Morka, the friendly killer whale, will offer lateral line meridian readings, or MOKA-7, the robot, will practice cybernetic phrenology. (By mixing two disciplines, I will protect myself against criticism from “experts” in either).

What turned these into demonstrations of practical skepticism (and not your average fraud) is that at the end I gave each client an interesting-looking spill, with strict instructions not to open it until a particular time (well after the fair was safely over).

Two clients later told me they counted down to the correct moment before opening theirs. One of these is a well-known Wellington naturopath and New Age person who was vastly impressed with the accuracy of my reading.

Inside, the spills said:

You have enjoyed a “cold reading”. I have no special powers, and it was not your hand that told me anything. I used some generalities that are true for everyone, fished a bit, and guessed what I could from your clothes, manner, walk, etc.

The same techniques could be used equally well in the guise of crystal gazing, astrology, tea-leaf reading, etc.

In return, I hope I encouraged you to feel good about yourself (and I hope you go on feeling good about yourself). Isn’t that worth $2 to the Aids Foundation.

By asking clients to “cross my palm with gold” (and thank heaven for the “gold” $1 and $2 coins!) I raised about $30 for the Aids Foundation at each fair — as well as spreading a little light where it is most needed.

Consumer Bites Back

Not surprisingly, the awarding of the Bent Spoon to Consumer magazine saw a vigorous defence mounted by the Consumers’ Institute.

David Russell, chief executive of the institute, has said on a number of occasions that he considered that the institute had been “publically defamed” by the Skeptics, and that comments concerning the article were “extreme and defamatory.”

In the early days following the announcement, Mr Russell debated the issue with Dr Gordon Hewitt on Morning Report. He laughed off Kim Hill’s question of suing NZCSICOP over the alleged defamation.

The impression gained from Mr Russell during the debate was that the magazine had deliberately taken a soft line on alternative therapies because many people believed in them. Dr Hewitt picked up this point and challenged it by asking if Consumers’ Institute would then ignore taking action against a dangerous toaster merely because a lot of people used it.

The analogy was rejected, not answered. Mr Russell continued with this line elsewhere, stating that “given the strong public interest in [natural therapies] and surveys which indicate a large degree of satisfaction with natural therapies, we cannot see anything wrong with explaining to our members what is involved in a few of the more commonly-used therapies.”

One could argue that people were strongly interested in some of the various pyramid schemes that have appeared on the New Zealand scene, and that many were very supportive of them. This does not mean that they should be left uncriticised. In addition, NZCSICOP would have welcomed a real explanation of just what is involved in the therapies Consumer covered, but this was not done, as an examination of the article’s text clearly shows.

An astounding statement was made by David Hindley, research writer for the chief executive, in response to a letter of complaint made independently of the Skeptics. In it, Mr Hindley said:

If you are aware of recent research which conflicts with our findings, we would be very grateful if you could pass on details to us.

This suggests that Consumer‘s in-house research team came up with no such material, a suggestion which has extremely disturbing implications for the thoroughness of research and preparation put into the magazine’s material.

One point mentioned in the radio interview which, unfortunately, was not taken up was the suggestion Mr Russell made that alternative therapies can’t do anyone any harm, implying that one need not be concerned about them. There’s a dead baby in Wellington to disprove that. The unmonitored nature of alternative therapies and therapists means that there is very little hard data on the harm being done. Cases which end up in Coroner’s Court, however, cannot and should not be ignored.

The idea that “it’s all harmless anyway” had been repeated in other areas where Mr Russell has said that “our research into natural therapies indicates that, so long as the practitioner has the best training available, potential side effects are limited.” It would be startling to find direct side effects from water solutions and sugar tablets, foot massage or sniffing essential oils.

Mr Russell is apparently unaware that the vast majority of alternative therapists in New Zealand have very little in the way of actual medical training, and citing examples of such training from Britain or Europe is hardly applicable.

One could also question whethre there is any benefit in training in health-related practices which have no substantive evidence to support them. No matter how much time one spends training as a homeopath, this has no effect whatsoever on the fact that the materials used are dilute water and the methodology used medieval.

Nevertheless, Mr Russell states that he has “no qualms” about stating that there are “good” and “bad” homeopaths based on the level of training required in Europe.

A typical response has been to attack conventional medicine as not being adequate in some areas, in the apparent belief that adopting untested, unproven, undemonstrated therapies is somehow an answer to perceived inadequacies in orthodox medicine.

The language became stronger following the NZCSICOP conference, when renewed media interest was shown in the Bent Spoon Award. The Dominion reported Mr Russell as calling Skeptics “narrow-minded bigots.” [No we’re not suing for defamation either.] The report went on to quote him as saying:

In the 19th century, they would have been dismissing the discovery of penicillin because they did not have the evidence to prove it.

We can certainly agree with Mr Russell on this point, given that penicillin wasn’t discovered in the 19th century — it was first found in 1929 and not isolated until 1940…

However, questions of historical accuracy aside, the discovery and development of penicillin provides a perfect example of the sort of practice which Skeptics worldwide applaud. It produced miraculous cures but, unlike those of a more questionable nature, it did so under tested, controlled conditions time and time again. Within a few years of its mass production, penicillin had demonstratably saved thousands of lives, and it continues to do so.

The significance of penicillin was recognised in double-quick time, with the scientists involved awarded Nobel Prizes within four years of the substance’s purification. We would be interested to hear of Nobel Prizes, or any other recognised scientific awards, made for the “discoveries” of alternative therapists.

What is more, the incredible benefits of penicillin led to the search for, and discover of, other antibiotics which have also made obvious and effective contributions towards the good health and longer lives of a large proportion of this planet’s population.

What homeopathic remedy has had similar success? Consumer said that these remedies stimulate the body to heal illnesses, but there has been no clear evidence of this in the 200 years since their invention.

Mr Russell used the same analogy in the most recent issue of Consumer (September 1992), correcting his dating lapse. In this editorial, the Skeptics were accused of having a “surprisingly poor understanding…of how scientific knowledge is developed, and an even poorer ability to read properly.”

We feel that, on the contrary, Consumer and, by association, Consumers’ Institute have displayed an ignorance of basic scientific principles and scientific history, an unjustifiable defensiveness which has made them unwilling to admit any form of deficiency, and a degree of credulity unacceptable in a consumers’ protection organisation.

The editorial said that Consumers’ Institute is sending a magnifying glass to NZCSICOP to redress our reading problems — let’s hope that in the future their errors are so subtle we need the magnifying glass!

The Homoscope

At the Skeptics Conference in Christchurch in 1989, Denis Dutton mentioned that women’s magazines offered horoscopes but men’s magazines did not. There were two significant exceptions: the feminist magazine Broadsheet did not, but the gay (and nominally lesbian) Pink Triangle did — a particularly bland and space-wasting one:

“Appeal to the highest motive.” “Stay calm at work.” “The deeper issues of life affect you.”

Pink Triangle folded early last year, and when the fortnightly newsheet Man to Man (which this week attracted the attention of the Rugby Union over its TV advertising) went tabloid in June, I decided to forestall the “real” astrologers by offering them an alternative — a Homoscope.

These undermine conventional horoscopes in three ways:

  • by being preposterously specific:

There will be a power cut on Tuesday and you will spend so long resetting all the clocks you will miss “The Simpsons”.

You will absent-mindedly leave a condom among some papers you send to your handsome but deeply-closeted Chief Executive Officer on August 18. August 19 will be an interesting day.

  • by being absurdly general:

With so many planets in trinary aspect, it would be very unpropitious to lie down in the middle of the motorway on September 15. Your lucky number: 3.1415926535898.

Lucky Leo! Your lucky numbers: 10 20 30 40 39 29 19 9 2 12 22 32 38 28 18 8 3 13 23 33 37 27 17 7 4 14 24 34 36 26 16 6 5 15 25 35 31 21 11 and 1. Six of these could make you very, very lucky.

  • by attributing ridiculous exactness to the stars:

September 17 will be a good day for experimenting with new foods. However, because Sirius will be in the fourth house, avoid chocolate prawns.

Since the moon will be in Saturn on October 27, and it would be inauspicious to use your hairdryer in the bath on that day.

The editor tells me that readers still eagerly check their own signs first. Ah well.

Maybe you too can quietly spread skepticism and undermine gullibility by offering some parody of “the real thing” in your area.

Equine Pseudoscience

Do horses really have a distinct set of personality types or is it just a load of equine excreta?

There are times when I think all taxonomy is pseudoscience. It certainly seems to have a predisposition that way. For example, people have been classified by their star signs, the pattern of whorls and loops on the skin of their finger tips, their birthplace, shape of head, colour of skin, handwriting, and so on. Some of these are without doubt useful in given situations, others seem arbitrary to say the least.

When it comes to classifying species, we have a workable system based on evolutionary principles. It is well understood despite at times being difficult to apply. However, how do we fare classifying individuals of species other than our own?

Take horses for example. Why horses?

Well, for me they are an vere present factor in the equation of life. My partner and three daughters are besotted with the creatures.

On any non-working day they can be found washing them, grooming them, dressing them, undressing them, riding them, talking to them (or about them), or any combination of the aforementioned.

Consequently there are a lot of horse books in our home. Recently I picked up one entitled Professor Beery’s Illustrated Course in Horse Training; Book 2 Disposition and Subjection (published in 1962). What a load of … pseudoscience! It begins with a classification of horses into four types by disposition;

  1. Teachable, kind
  2. Stubborn, wilful
  3. Nervous, ambitious, determined
  4. Treacherous, ill-tempered, resentful

Now there’s a nice piece of anthropomorphism. Apparently, according to Professor Beery, each kind of disposition is indicated externally by certain lines of the head.

Type 1 is characterised by a kind eye, a deep forehead and plenty of room between the ears.

Type 2 is recognised by a bulge below the line of the eyes and a heavy jowl.

Horses of type 3 have their eyes set far out to the side and forward, and are favoured with forehead furrows.

Type 4 have a prominent forehead (indicating treachery), a dished face, small eyes, and long narrow ears which are hairy inside. Some of these descriptions sound more like people I’ve met, but that’s another story.

Professor Beery assures us that type 1 horses are worthy of the utmost confidence when trained, and make perfect family horses. The type 2 variety take a long time to train and have no feelings when their senses are aroused (whatever that means). Type 3s act through fear and are liable to shy, or run away. They surrender unconditionally. Type 4 resist like bulldogs and are liable to kick, bite and bolt.

The impact of the theory is somewhat lessened by a strong implication that through good training a horse can overcome these natural tendencies. After all, as Professor Beery says, “Because a horse has certain natural inclinations there is no reason wby he should be spoiled or vicious. Many a man has become a public benefactor who would have been a criminal, if he had allowed his natural desires to govern him.”

Horses are not seen as being of one type. They may combine characteristics of two or more types. They can be described as being, for example, 3-2; a combination of types 3 and 2 with 3 predominating. An added complication is the fact that the lines of the head may not be immediately obvious, the eye may deceive. In many cases a horse’s true disposition can only be ascertained by running a hand down its face.

No head can be fully read from any one angle. The book describes many combinations of types viewed from the side, top, front and bottom of a horse’s head. Apparently some characteristics can only be discerned when lying flat on your back scrutinising the underside of the horse’s jaw.

An interesting paragraph describes how to classify mules, the majority of which are said to be 3-2 types, all having a smattering of 4. Professor Beery exhorts us to “Never allow a mule to get the better of you.”

Knowing that Arab horses have typically a dished face, I was intrigued to see how the author would handle their classification. He tells us not to let this one characteristic cause us to misjudge the horse’s disposition. Apparently, only an exaggeratedly dished face indicates that the Arab is treacherous, ill-tempered and resentful.

This is not a review and I am not recommending that you buy the book (although it is available from the Beery School of Horsemanship, Pleasant Hill, Ohio, USA). It’s just that a lot of the style seems familiar. What do you think? All those in favour say “Yes.” All those against say “Neigh.”

Skeptics Bite Watchdog

The Bent Spoon Award this year created more controversy than usual when it was awarded to Consumer magazine. Why did we feel it necessary to bite our consumer watchdog?

I was pleased when my copy of Consumer magazine arrived with a lead story on the natural way to health. I had had a survey a couple of months previously asking what I’d like to see in the magazine, and had replied that it was about time that an objective, hard-headed look at alternative medicine was done.

I was shocked and disappointed, therefore, when I found that the article did not meet Consumer‘s usual high standards, but was a startling blend of unsupported claims and sketchy, superficial statements. I really didn’t expect Consumer, of all publications, to produce something that so obviously deserved a Bent Spoon Award.

I wasn’t alone in this. Many Skeptics, it seems, are subscribers to Consumer — I put that down to the institute offering consumer protection for one’s physical environment, and the Skeptics providing such protection for one’s mental environment. And it soon became obvious from the phonecalls and faxes that a large number of you (and plenty of interested observers) were as disappointed as I. What to do?

We embarked on what has been perhaps one of the saddest Bent Spoon awards — sad in its implications for Consumers’ Institute and sad in that Consumer‘s apparent endorsement of what has been described as “controversial, even bogus, treatments” will make it so much harder in the future to debate these issues factually.

So what was in the article that virtually forced us to challenge Consumer and take on ourselves a great deal of misinformed abuse from the Institute?

The article, in the July 1992 issue, was titled “The Natural Way to Health — your guide to acupuncture, osteopathy, homeopathy and other natural therapies.”

“Natural therapies are popular and often effective,” it opened, with the caveat that going to an “untrained” therapist can be a waste of money and may be dangerous.

However, after that brief warning, the article continued:

When it comes to health, even Mother Teresa, Tina Turner and Queen Elizabeth have something in common. They all get help from non-conventional medicine, and homeopathy in particular. The Royal Family has consulted a homeopath for several generations.

Apparently an elderly nun, a former rock star and a clan of inbred blue-bloods are sufficient to validate some very questionable practices.

It noted that some practices, such as osteopathy and acupuncture, have their own professional bodies and are used by conventional doctors. It recommended looking for a trained, registered practitioner. After all, it added, “the best non-conventional therapists can offer highly effective treatment.”

This suggests that natural therapies are effective and the only caution necessary is to avoid untrained practitioners who may have got their fancy certificates through mail-order.

The article did say that radical treatment — such as having all your teeth pulled out — should lead you to seek a second opinion with your own GP or dentist.

It also ended with a case study of one therapist, pointing out problems such as the rejection of conventional medicine, promising cures and charging high prices. There was additional discussion of the Medicines Act, where it was stated, somewhat naively, that the Act limits what an alternative therapist can advertise or claim in the form of cures or treatment of certain illnesses. At least it did point out that the Institute was aware of cases where this law has been broken, but that it was not aware of any prosecutions.

Consumer recommended tightening up the Act and enforcing it more rigorously to “protect the public from untrained or improperly trained practitioners,” again suggesting that one need have no concern if one’s practitioner is trained in alternative therapies.

David Russell, chief executive of Consumers’ Institute, vigorously defended the article by pointing to these disclaimers. Dr Gordon Hewitt, head of the health professions school at the Central Institute of Technology and a Skeptic, in debating with Mr Russell on National Radio, compared this to two slices of thin bread, surrounding some very dubious meat.

It is obvious which part will be remembered, particularly by alternative therapists keen to cash in on the very supportive statements within the body of the text.

So what smelled rotten?

Acupuncture and Osteopathy

The acupuncture section talked about the flow of “life energy force” throughout the body, and that illness follows when the flow is blocked. It mentioned acupuncture’s successful use to treat a variety of complaints including headaches, sports injuries and muscular inflammation.

It supported this with the statement that stimulation of the acupuncture points releases endorphins, and that the World Health Organisation lists 71 disorders successfully treated by acupuncture.

In the Bent Spoon press release, our own Dr John Welch — himself trained in acupuncture — said that the section paid no regard to the large and growing scientific literature showing that it is clinically ineffective for diseases the magazine lists. There is now a Skeptic Truth Kit on acupuncture available for those interested in reading further about this.

The osteopathy section talked about the large body of scientific research behind the therapy, implying that its efficacy has been established but avoiding stating this definitively.

One Skeptic, in writing to Consumer independently before the award was announced, said that such a statement was exactly the type which Consumer has criticised advertisers for making.

“If there is any scientific basis for so contentious a therapy as osteopathy, then you owe it to your readers to explain it,” he added.

Consumer quoted a 1986 survey by its UK counterpart which showed that 82% of respondents who had visited osteopaths claimed to have been cured or improved by the treatment.

As one who is highly skeptical of survey techniques, I find the wording of this interesting. “Respondents” suggests that the responding to the survey was voluntary, which immediately skews results.

The other interesting point to note is that the material in the Skeptic Truth Kit on chiropractic explains that any form of back manipulation can produce apparently good results, but more from the nature of back pain itself than from actual efficacy. That is, pain is often a chimeric thing, disappearing of its own accord.

Once again, registered osteopaths are recommended as providing some form of protection, but the article does also mention that “improperly trained people advertising their services as osteopaths” can cause serious problems. There is no control over the use of the term “osteopath” — the implication is that someone with little or no training can use it legitimately — but this important point appeared not to be worthy of comment or criticism by our consumer watchdog.


Consumer said that “many [homeopathic] remedies work only in specific cases” and that “a few remedies can be used widely.” There was no supporting information for these blanket claims. The institute was much more rigorous in recent tests of cough medicines, but did not subject homeopathic claims to the same criteria. Why not?

The magazine said that a homeopath will find the right treatment by conducting a detailed interview. Yes, but this is because homeopaths believe that certain extracts “match” certain personality types. Oyster shells, for example, are said to suit patients who are fearful and who feel better when constipated. This sort of dubious anthropomorphic alchemy was not mentioned.

While it may initially seem reasonable that such extracts could have some physiological effect, none of these substances actually come anywhere near the patient. This is because homeopaths believe that a preparation becomes much stronger when highly dilute — something akin to having sweeter coffee by putting less and less sugar in it.

Homeopathic preparations are diluted in 100-fold steps, commonly 30 times, but sometimes as much as 120 times. This is like stirring a teaspoonful of sugar into the Pacific Ocean — only that would give you a much higher concentration than that of most homeopathic solutions.

And how did Consumer report this? It said merely that the substances are “diluted in a particular way many times”. Hardly indicative of the true situation. If I tried selling a microwave that worked without being plugged in, I am sure that Consumer would be more than a little suspicious.

Even homeopaths admit that there is no substance in their solutions. They believe that shaking the solutions during dilution will “potentialise” them, causing physical changes in the water’s structure so that it remembers the substance long after it has disappeared. Presumably water at the base of any waterfall would be incredibly potentised through being violently shaken and thus highly dangerous in a homeopathic sense.

There is no physical mechanism for changing the basic molecular structure of water in this fashion. Consumer used the term “potentise” in its passing reference to the dilution process, but did not mention the idea that shaking water gives it these fantastic properties.

The magazine did note that the “scientific evidence is not conclusive,” but quoted only one positive study without any details, ignoring that a great many scientific trials, and basic science itself, are all against homeopathy.

In fact, the literature review which Consumer quotes is by no means as positive as suggested. The article says that the Dutch review of 107 (it was actually 105) homeopathic trials showed that 81 indicated that homeopathy worked and 21 did not. Consumer did not quote the review’s conclusions which said:

At the moment, the evidence of clinical trials is positive but not sufficient to draw definitive conclusions because most trials are of low methodological quality and because of the unknown role of publication bias.

The doctors themselves noted that the most poorly performed trials produced the most positive results, and said that the inferences seemed to be over-optimistic at times. They also voiced concerns about the failure to submit negative results for publication. In addition, the most important positive trial in the review was reworked by the researchers involved and was found to show no firm evidence for the efficacy of homeopathic treatments.

You’d only know about this, however, if you had access to back issues of the British Medical Journal (Vol 302, 9 February 1991; 316-323; 2 March, 1991; 529; 23 March, 1992; 727).

Consumer also said that “homeopathy is taken seriously in many European countries”, as if this was enough to endorse it. Certainly homeopathy deserves to be taken seriously because serious problems can result from it, particularly with regard to the sometimes disastrous consequences of the anti-orthodox attitudes which are common to many alternative medicine followers.

Last year, a Wellington nurse refused antibiotics for her baby’s earache, preferring to have it treated homeopathically. Two weeks later, after a number of unsuccessful treatments, the child was taken back to her regular doctor who had her hospitalised immediately. Both the doctor and the hospital’s paediatrician had great difficulty in persuading the woman to allow conventional medicine to be used. It was all too late anyway, as the baby died. (See Skeptic #22 for Coroner’s Court report.)

Presumably the way to avoid this is to find a good homeopath, and Consumer provides addresses for finding ones with the “best” qualifications. It is to be hoped that those qualifications include learning how to recognise when real treatment is needed.

Other Therapies

Consumer then goes on to briefly look at other popular therapies which one can learn in a weekend or through books. These therapies are “often very gentle,” Consumer says. So’s my ferret, but he can be very dangerous too…

Aromatherapy, using plant oils in massages and baths, is said to help insomnia, anxiety, boils, rashes, acne, colds and chest infections. The magazine suggests reading a book or attending a workshop before embarking on this form of treatment, but notes that it is one of the easiest natural therapies to use yourself.

British nurses use lavender oil to massage patients and help them to relax, Consumer tells us. One wonders if the natural therapeutic properties are really anything to do with the specific type of oil used — surely the massage itself has a part to play?

A form of massage, reflexology, is said to help in psychological as well as physical areas. This may well be so, but is it really because of direct links between the extremities and other body organs and tissues, as suggested? There is no anatomical basis for many of the claims of reflexologists, but this is not mentioned.

Consumer does mention that “the crystalline deposits that reflexologists say they can feel has not been scientifically proven.” This implies that there is some real, substantive basis for these claims, and final, conclusive proof is all that is lacking. In fact, the overwhelming evidence of anatomy, physiology, radiology and so forth suggests that such claims are entirely without foundation.

Again, Consumer uses a single positive example which it calls “intriguing” to suggest that reflexology may be an effective diagnostic aid. Surely Consumers Institute, of all organisations, recognises that one personal anecdote — printed in an alternative health magazine to boot — is not adequate. I very much doubt that they would let a manufacturer get away with extraordinary claims “backed up” by just one happy customer.

In the section on herbal remedies, the article stated that “few manufacturers can afford clinical trials of their product.” What amounts to a grave omission on the part of people selling untested “medicines” is passed by with no comment.

Does this mean that Consumers’ Institute would find it acceptable that clothing manufacturers save money by ceasing to test their products for fire resistance? Struggling toy manufacturers no longer checking to see whether their latest product can be swallowed by toddlers? Surely not. Yet herbalists are apparently permitted such gross irresponsibility towards the consumer.

The section goes on to say that traditional folklore rather than scientific evidence will often be the basis for selecting a herbal treatment. Consumer then says that a better option is to go to an experienced herbalist, implying that they won’t be working on traditional folklore lines.

Certainly, as the article says, some modern drugs are based on plant extracts, but these are compounds which have been rigorously tested through clinical trials, not a mish-mash of “natural” ingredients. Consumer suggests that herbal experts will protect you from dangerous overdoses or inappropriate uses.

I wonder whether people will take the trouble to check whether their local health shop owner is a member of the New Zealand Natural Health Practitioners Accreditation Board before stocking up on their comfrey tea. Given comments I have heard from nutritionists and other health professionals, as well as personal experience, I am not particularly sanguine about the education or expertise of many health shop owners.


Perhaps one of the most disappointing things about the article was that there was no discussion of one of the primary ways in which many of these alternative therapies work — the placebo effect.

It is generally recognised that a significant proportion of medical conditions will get better with time, regardless of whether alternative or orthodox remedies are prescribed. Combine this with the provision of some form of treatment and you have a very powerful, though not necessarily valid, conjunction of “treatment” and “cure”.

In addition, people will respond to someone taking an active interest in their condition, and healers take advantage of this, whether by design or accident. The intense personal focus of alternative therapies has a strong advantage over the generally perceived impersonality of much of conventional medicine these days.

Yet there was no discussion of this vital point in the Consumer review. Nor was there any discussion of what is meant by “natural”, bar the note in the herbal discussion that suggests it involves being untested.

I wonder what Consumer would say if I sold “natural” iodine, extracted lovingly from organic kelp, and charged a small fortune for it, claiming that it is somehow more “natural” and healthier for you than the synthesised version…

It will be quite some time before many of us will be able to see Consumer‘s advertising boast — “Get the facts you need from the source you can trust” — without feeling a little betrayed.

Why Creationists Do So Well

Creationists are winning hands-down in the publicity stakes, despite, one presumes, no real assistance in the form of Divine Guidance.

Volumes of perceptive articles by competent scientists and philosophers have been written about the indefensibility of creationism. Still, the beast not only manages to stay alive, but also to deliver a nasty shock now and again by conducting successful forays into the science education arena. Why?

It is my opinion that the answers are found in the way science and creationism tend to conduct their campaigns: it is the latter camp which has consistently outsmarted its opponent in the public relations field. This adds a lot of points to the scoreboard in a democracy.

In the course of some twenty years of studying creationist literature and tactics, and people’s responses thereto, I have noticed a number of things about public perceptions of the issue.

Newton’s Law of Public Relations

There is a widely-held (mis)interpretation of the democratic ideal to the effect that for every view there is an opposite and equally valid view. (I call this Newton’s Third Law of Public Relations.) A corollary of this misconstruction being the simplistic sequitur that there are “two sides to every story,” creationism’s appeal to heed what is presented as “the other side of the story” finds many willing ears.

Also arising from this gem of common philosophy is the perception that science and religion represent the above “two sides.” The creationist case is highly dependent on the continuing popular belief that science and religion are mutually exclusive antagonists in the area of origins, and people must “believe one or the other.”

The 1960s are not that distant in time, and creationism skilfully manipulates the latent anti-establishmentism present in general society. People love an underdog (creationism) taking on an orthodoxy perceived as aloof and patronising (science), especially when that underdog is seen to challenge the ivory tower on its own terms and the establishment appears to be worried.

Creationism makes sense to many, if not most, people. Everything has a purpose, doesn’t it? Pure chance can’t possibly lead to something like the human eye, can it? You can’t really reconstruct an ape-man from a single tooth, can you? (Creationists love the 1934 Nebraska Man débacle.) That Aussie Doctor-guy found Noah’s Ark, didn’t he?

The list goes on, and the common theme is clear. The creationist PR machine identifies and manipulates public ignorance and misconceptions to its immense advantage.

Tentative Science

The one thing most people do know about science is that it is tentative — thereby opening the way for another gem of popular wisdom, the “but you don’t know everything” argument which when applied to any area of controversy involving science is regarded as creating an instant niche for an opposing view, no matter how absurd. (This principle also applies very much to the orthodox/fringe medicine debate.)

Furthermore, any perceived weakness in the orthodox case becomes a plus-point for the challenger. The creationist case relies heavily on using science’s tentativeness (portrayed as uncertainty) and occasional blunders (Nebraska Man) to bolster its public image.

People prefer certainty. A naked ape arising fortuitously on an inconsequential planet in a far corner of the universe is just too much for most people to handle — especially when placed in opposition to the creationist Linus’s Blanket of “you are so special.”

Science’s response to creationism has frequently been counterproductive in that it has reinforced the public misconceptions which creationists have turned into assets.

The ridicule levelled at creationism by some exasperated scientists and science educators reinforces the image of science as a patronising, superior Olympus inhabited by an esoteric elite who harbour undemocratic views.

And there is more than a vestige of 19thcentury anti-religiosity (especially anti-Christianity) left in the scientific community.

When scientists turn their literary skills into a diatribe against Christian scriptures and belief, the result is definitely good PR for creationists.

Catch-22 Situation

Of course, we are in a three-way Catch 22 situation when it comes to replying to creationism:

  • If we ignore the creationists, we “haven’t got an answer” and seek to shield ourselves from valid criticism.
  • If we respond to creationism at all, they’ve “got us worried.”
  • If we respond by writing articles most people don’t understand we’re “snobs” and/or trying to “put up a smokescreen.”

Finally, if we try to argue at the intellectual level creationism operates at, we lose the match because we have tried to play it by the opposition’s rules, which are stacked so heavily in its favour from the kick-off.

The upshot is that we cannot defeat creationism on scientific grounds, and should stop trying to do so. Writing articles in academic journals may make us feel better, but we are preaching to the converted and only reinforcing our negative image by alienating the general public even more.

More importantly, a scientific response to a pseudoscientific argument publicly perceived as a scientific argument merely reinforces the opinion that there is a case to answer.

Creationism is not a scientific argument, but a religious one. However, we must appreciate that we are dealing with a vocal fringe minority who are not representative of Christianity as a whole, and we must therefore correctly identify the enemy — fundamentalism — and also identify our allies, the mainstream Christian churches.

Scientists should not venture into the area of biblical scholarship unless they are qualified in that area, for the public appreciates only too well that an expert in one field may be a layman in others. This is where we need an alliance with mainstream religion.

Such an alliance would put paid to the popular misconception that science and religion are incompatible. (Anselm, Teilhard de Chardin and new Zealand’s own John Morton appear to have had little impact on public thinking) and that creationism represents the battle of good, Bible-believing Christians against the tyrannical reign of atheistic scientists.

I believe that this aspect of the creationist case in the public eye is at the same time its Achilles’ Heel, and can be used against it.

For if we live in a secular democracy and creationism is a religious view, then while the right to profess that religious view is safeguarded, the right to foist it on others through state educational apparatus is an infringement of democratic principles.

Once this is understood by the general public, I suspect creationism will rapidly lose the positive public image it appears to have built up so painstakingly.

D is for Dog, and for Doctor

A colouring book for young patients of chiropractors says “A is for alligator and adjustment. B is for bells and for back. C is for caterpillar and for chiropractor. D is for dog and for doctor.” The latter two may have more in common than is apparent at first glance.

It is as much of a surprise to the medical profession to find that their standards of back care are under attack as it would be to a high-rise executive to be attacked through his office window by fighter planes.

The orthopaedic surgeon, secure in his strength and apparently limited in his intellect, seems ill-equipped to withstand the challenges mounted against him from a variey of paramedical platforms. The face of the enemy may be unfamiliar, but the threat to the doctor’s authority is absolutely clear. The battleground is the low back. The opposing forces clash at the point of pain.

The public has little confidence in the medical profession’s ability to diagnose or manage back pain. Recently, on my way to conduct a seminar, I took a taxi from my hotel. The driver, seeing my carousel full of slides, observed I was going to give a lecture. When I responded to his questions that my topic was back pain, he observed I must be a chiropractor.

The medical profession is justifiably under attack because the conventional medical management for back pain is often wrong.

Prolonged bedrest beyond five days is of no proven value, and admitting a patient to hospital merely to sit on him is boring for the physician and makes it difficult for the patient to breathe. Getting high on drugs seems somehow more appropriate on the street than in the clinic. The prescription of modalities, such as traction, to treat a structural spinal abnormality leads to lengthy treatment producing temporary alteration but which ends precisely where it began, with a structural spinal abnormality.

Medicine’s fascination with excessive and even unnecessary investigations proceeds towards one of two unfortunate conclusions.

The patient is told, “The results of your tests were negative. Get lost.”

Or, the surgeon is seduced into operating on an x-ray. When the radiograph, rather than the patient, demands treatment, I recommend that the surgeon content himself with the film, a view box and a pair of scissors.
Faced with this apparent lack of medical success, there is little wonder that many patients seek out alternative treatment, searching for “a backache remedy that works”.
Therapeutic touch is one such alternative. It is a non-invasive therapy utilising “the body’s own electromagnetic field” which assists the client (no longer the patient) to return to “a more balanced state of body, mind and creative spirit”. I suspect the client/patient is not the only one who is being creative.

Polarised Haemoglobin

The Magnetic Four Season Band is typical of the commercially available remedies to relieve backaches. Naturally, since over 80% of backache subsides spontaneously within three months, the Four Season Band comes with a money-back guarantee.

The advertisement also explains the Band’s mode of action to relieve back pain, namely the polarisation of haemoglobin by small magnets. I have no idea what that means, but I feel better already just knowing my haemoglobin has been polarised.

The lack of proof or scientific validity seems no deterrent to the method, and the picture is confused, as it is with so many spurious treatments, by the coincidental subsidence of pain or some unrelated additional benefit.

In the case of the Magnetic Four Season Band, for example, you might use the magnets to attach yourself to the outside of a bus and be allowed to travel for half-fare.

Skull Manipulations

Perhaps striking closer to home is the practice of craniosacral therapy. Instruction in this art form throughout North America generates an annual revenue of more than three million dollars.

The therapy is based on a philosophy expounded in 1908 by an osteopathic student, who felt that since suture lines were visible on the human skull, God had intended there to be movement. The fact that no movement can be demonstrated and that the suture lines commonly fuse over the age of 50 was, and is, considered irrelevant.

Having spent considerable time and money, and having been required to memorise, for example, the over 20 articulations at the base of the skull (none of which move) as potential sources of pathology, it is little wonder that the initiated are reluctant to dismiss the technique as a waste of time.

Furthermore, patients find it comforting to lie in a darkened room, listening to soft music and having their heads massaged. But transient relaxation does not justify a belief in the repetitive expansion and contraction of the skull every five to ten seconds, nor does it establish cranioscaral’s link, as described in one of their texts, with Phillipine psychic surgery.

And I have great difficulty in accepting craniosacral’s “Laws of the Lines of Gravity”, which state:

Man deals with himself in such a manner that his brain becomes more perfect because he arranges his lines of gravity in a different manner from any other creature. Also, the gravity lines pass through his diaphragm, and no animal has this diaphragm-gravity relationship.

I advise patients who wish to have the bones of their skull rearranged to choose their therapist carefully.

Whiplash Worries

Clearly we are on the road to confusion, and it is the patient who may become the accident victim. And what motor vehicle injury is more classic than whiplash?

Every one of us who has ever worked in an Emergency Room has treated this problem, and yet whiplash is not a diagnosis. It describes only a particular mechanism, commonly seen in rear-end collisions, which may lead to a variety of neck injuries.

The pathology after an acceleration-deceleration injury may be as simple as a minor muscle haematoma or as devastating as a cervical fracture with cord damage.

Each is a distinct entity requiring specific treatment, and the diagnosis should reflect the individual conditions — not the common physical cause.

Whiplash to the chiropractor offers a different vista. Gone is the range of diagnoses, to be replaced by the ubiquitous vertebral subluxations. Anatomical reality is replaced with a line drawing where the neck bows like a willow in the wind.

In case of accident, medical attention is not recommended, but the admonition to see a chiropractor follows immediately after advice to remain at the scene of the accident until all information has been collected, and before being instructed to notify your insurance company.

Thorough examination by a chiropractor is presented as a wise precaution to determine the presence or absence of injuries.

As an example, headaches are a current complaint after a whiplash-type injury, and according to matrial supplied by the chiropractor:

Most headaches result from spinal subluxations, in other words, malfunctioning vertebrae. These subluxations cause irritation of the delicate nerves and arteries that supply the head and face area, causing pain. Subluxed neck vertebrae can also interfere with the blood circulation to the brain.

The chiropractor’s adjustment keeps the body free of nerve interference and allows normal blood flow. This allows the body to use its own inherent healing ability to maintain a state of health.

A Blow to the Head

For minor cervicel adjustments, a chiropractor may employ the activator gun. This instrument closely resembles a dental implement which used to be used to pound an artificial crown on a tooth. A spring-loaded plunger is propelled a centimetre or so beyond the end of the barrel.

Patients are told that contact with the skin and subcutaneous tissues creates a subtle pressure wave, sufficient to restore minor subluxations without the discomfort or potential risk of a full adjustment. In Ontario, each trigger pull is worth $10.

Market Forces

In health care, as in any retail business, effective marketing means listening to consumer demands. Giving the client/patient what he or she wants is the name of the game.

When the validity of treatment is not an issue, everything from electric pain management to dietary regulation can have a place in the control of back pain. When you treat a self-limiting condition, easy access, lucid explanations, emotional support and physical contact are powerful weapons.

It should come as little surprise that most sociological studies rank the chiropractor well above the doctor in the ability to control back pain.

And where is the doctor? Has the battle been lost by default? Medical training provides little knowledge or skill to justify the restoration of public confidence.

The modern medical attitude says, “Well, Bob, it looks like a paper cut, but just to be sure, let’s do lots of tests.”

Even the doctor confronted by a patient on whose back clings a large, green monster may be reluctant to make a definite diagnosis.

Although the doctor thinks he has found the trouble, he may refuse to make a commitment until all the investigations are complete, all the while muttering under his breath about the complexity of back pain and the possibility of arthritis or cancer.

D is certainly for Dog, and seems an appropriate mark for the doctor’s attempt at back care.

The fundamentals of patient back education are too often left to junior colleagues without the depth of knowledge necessary to answer questions or the depth of experience necessary to command respect.

A concerned patient requires a clear understanding of the problem, but the lesson in consumer satisfaction so clearly demonstrated by the chiropractor is lost on the physician.

Doctors Gullible Too

Equally quick to criticise the chiropractor for non-scientific methodology, the doctor is equally vulnerable to promotions based on scant medical research — an appeal through showmanship rather than science.

Consider the cold laser. Lasers are high energy light beams which travel in perfectly straight lines. They can be used to signal satellites or to burn holes in bricks. When the energy of the beam is reduced below the combustion point there is no known effect.

Laser surgery relies on the laser’s ability to vapourise tissue. Laser therapy relies on the laser’s unseen ability to increase the energy-containing capacity of the mitochondria within the cell. There is no way to measure this!

Lasers are said to normalise Brownian movement, the random particle movement typified by dust motes in a beam of light. Since random motion is an element of quantum mechanics, and cannot be measured in the living body, there is no way this theory can be tested.

Furthermore, I find it difficult, even in a large scale model, to differentiate between normal random movement and abnormal random movement.

Finally, the laser is heralded as being able to increase the nervous system’s light-carrying capacity, or bioluminascence. This capacity, unknown to the neurophysiologists and anatomists, is well recognised by those who sell medical lasers for $10,000 apiece. Still, lighting up the nervous system has a great deal of appeal.

Having purchased my own expensive equipment, in order to keep up with the clinic across the street, I intend to treat all my joggers so that they can run safely in the dark.

Mind-Body Interaction

The back is an emotional target, and is subject to storng mind-body interaction. Dreaming he is falling, Jerry forgets the well known “always wake up before you land” rule and is flattened like a pancake in his own bed. Here is mind-body interaction in the home.

Six months of inactivity with a bad back, too much beer and too much televisio, and we have the perfect male specimen poised to return to the job. Here is mind-body interaction in the workplace.

Lack of physical stamina limits performance. Strength requires exercise. The willingness to actively participate in the recovery process is a positive mind-body interaction.

Using exercise to control back pain is not a new idea. One manual published in the 1920s pictures the author, complete with bow tie, demonstrating his own routines.

But modern medicine’s love of technology threatens to make even this simple idea unmanageably complex. A bride in her wedding gown standing next to a computerised exercise machine smiles out from a glossy advertisement and exclaims, “Superb! I passed my dorsal stress test. Have you?” I haven’t the faintest idea what she is talking about. I think I prefer the man in the bow tie.

Active, Healthy Machines

Given the choice, of course, many of the doctor’s patients also prefer technology to exercise. One case in point is the passive exercise studio, where you can assure yourself of a healthy, attractive body, painlessly, without perspiration, without the discomfort of strained muscle and bruised joints, and never be out of breath.

The answer, of course, is the machines do all the work. An electric table folds in the middle, helping you with your sit-ups. After a busy day at the clinic, the machines are in great shape.

The same appeal possessed by passive exercise motivates many patients to visit the chiropractor. It is far easier to let something or someone else do the work and take the responsibility than to take charge of your own problems. But chiropractic is not unique in its emphasis on passive techniques. Nor is it alone in its apparent disregard for anatomical considerations.

Manual therapy, performed by a broad spectrum of experts, remains shrouded in folklore and mystery. Thoracic manipulation, as a means of moving the thoracic vertebrae independently, disregards the intervening skin, fat and muscle present in the average living patient.

This same disregard for proven functional anatomy appears in the descriptions of the neurolymphatic reflexes. For example, symptoms of conjunctivitis (an eye complaint) may be treated with pressure on the appropriate reflex location, the upper humerus at the deltoid insertion (arm-shoulder connection).

As surprising as this sounds at first, it is in fact one of the better recognised non-anatomical connections. The next time you meet someone whose eyes are red and bleary from a previous evening’s party, punch her or him sharply over the outer shoulder and watch the eyes fly open. You have just demonstrated a neurolymphatic reflex.

Fallacious anatomy can be used to justify massage or manipulation which brings only temporary pain relief, and yet the patient’s comfort may be enhanced through the erroneous belief that some structural malalignment has been correxted. But when applied in a more sinister fashion, anatomical misinformation can create unwarranted fear and justify the continuation of unnecessary treatment.

Anatomical Misinformation

Dozens of medical conditions are purported to arise because of minor vertebral malalignments. The anatomy seems reasonable, the terms sound familiar, and the medical problems are easily recognised, and yet something is amiss. To accept the diagnosis you must believe. But there are several conflicting belief systems at work in the realm of back pain.

Where better to indoctrinate the true believer than in childhood. Convincing new parents that their infant’s spine requires manipulation to ensure normal growth not only increases current practice, but fosters the child’s lifelong adherence to the principle. “Bring your children for an adjustment. Teach them the benefits of chiropractic.”

Without the knowledge that most back attacks subside spontaneously within 12 weeks, that back pain is a self-limiting condition, and that most back disorders can be controlled through simple measures of self- help, a chiropractic schedule of adjustments outlining intensive care for 13 weeks, reconstructive care for two to two and a half years, and maintenance care for a lifetime seems almost reasonable.

Dependency a Problem

Dependency can be a serious problem, but patients readily accept the idea that their back can somehow be straightened, pressed and cleaned in time for them to pick it up before the shop closes. Passive acquiescence and dependency are the antithesis of active participation and self control.

For those who allow back pain to dominate their lives, the statistics paint an ominous picture. Anyone remaining off work with a bad back for more than six months has only a 50% chance of returning to work on a regular, full-time basis.

Remain off the job for a year, and the chance falls to 25%.

Remain unemployed because of a bad back for two years, and there is virtually no statistical probability that you will ever return to your previous employment in a regular productive capacity.

It is the doctors, far more than the chiropractors, who have been guilty of creating dependency. It is little wonder that many patients will use more than the “apple a day” to keep the doctor away from their backs. The medical profession possesses the potential to eliminate back pain as a major socio-economic problem, but we have yet to demonstrate our understanding of the solution.

Too many meetings, too many publications, and too much time and effort are addressed to the perfect surgical solution while neglecting the simple fundamentals of intelligent and effective back care.

Patients need a simple answer to what can be a simple problem. Most need support, not surgery. They need a platform from which they can achieve their own success.

Joint Responsibility

This is not a popular message. There are too many vested interests and too many strongly held differences of opinion to gain consensus. But whether we like it or not, the battle has been joined and will continue. Both the doctor and the chiropractor have a responsibility to promote better back care.

No longer can the physician place unwarranted emphasis on investigative procedures and invasive therapies.

No longer can the chiropractor hide behind non-diagnoses like “concomitant intervertabral subluxation complexes,” nor report that “the form of treatment given is chiropractic care”.

No longer can the physical therapist be allowed to treat patients solely with modalities possessing no proven therapeutic value, providing temporary pain relief at the risk of long-term dependency.

Dr Hill presented this at a conference of the NZ Society of Physiotherapists.