Animal welfare issues whacked with Bent Spoon

Concerns over animal welfare issues on farms have seen Rural Women New Zealand and Fonterra rapped with the Bent Spoon, the annual recognition of gullibility and a lack of critical thinking awarded by the NZ Skeptics.

Rural Women New Zealand gave the Supreme prize in its Enterprising Rural Women Award to Homeopathic Farm Support, a company which follows the homeopathic practice of diluting substances until there is no active material left and then claiming that the water somehow “remembers” what was once in it. Homeopathic Farm Support provides a line of such products, claiming that homeopathy can be used to “prevent and treat symptoms of acute and chronic animal ailments” including mastitis, post-calving haemorrhage, pinkeye, scours, first aid and even emotional problems in livestock.

We had lots of members, including a number of vets, contact us very concerned that Rural Women New Zealand has applauded the use of magic water for treating serious cattle ailments, and that this potentially dangerous practice is apparently supported by a third of farmers supplying Fonterra. Rather than lauding the determination of the business owner to succeed in the face of little belief in alternative methods of healing, Rural Women New Zealand should be calling on their members to think long and hard about the welfare issues for their animals, and show that women can succeed in the hard graft of real farming. Fonterra should publicly distance itself from this or it will cop more criticism for tacitly supporting unacceptable New Zealand farm practices.

There have been many studies of homeopathy, but the only ones which show any convincing results are those produced by homeopathic businesses and other vested interests. This is akin to reading tobacco company journals which say that smoking is fine for your health. Studies that have been conducted by independent parties with proper controls and peer review, whether on animals or humans, have not found any benefit from homeopathic treatments., a website tracking the physical and economic harm of a lack of critical thinking, has over 400 case studies of people who have died or been harmed by a belief in homeopathy.

We know that animals respond to human contact, and that this can certainly play a role in the stories of response to alternative treatments, in much the same way that people respond to such. But we can’t afford to let treatment of serious health issues reply on wishful thinking or the placebo effect. That’s clearly unethical.

A discussion paper on the ethics of homeopathics in veterinary use noted that “it would also seem clearly unethical to employ an unproven therapy such as homeopathy in cases where an acceptable and effective treatment already exists or where the patient is at risk for greater suffering if the unproven therapy fails.”

Others have raised the concern that the use of any substance, homeopathic or otherwise, without any actual data or evidence-based diagnostics, is a form of unapproved animal experimentation.

Fonterra has stated publicly that nearly 3000 of its 10,500 farmer shareholders are Homeopathic Farm Support customers, and Fonterra has worked with the company on organic programmes. Fonterra did not respond to repeated inquiries from the NZ Skeptics regarding their level of support for alternative treatments and the animal welfare issues that result.

Organic farmers don’ t have to buy into the wishful thinking of homeopathy in order to be successful. And if they want to build a serious export market, they can’t afford to ignore the welfare issues involved in treating suffering animals with nothing but water. Let’s hope that if there’s a foot-and-mouth outbreak we don’t have calls to treat it homeopathically – that could very well kill our country’s agricultural reputation for good.

A central principle of homeopathy is that every being is unique and the treatment must be tailored to the individual on all levels, physical, emotional and mental. The NZ Skeptics have previously called upon the New Zealand Council of Homeopaths to join them in criticising pharmacies for selling homeopathic products. NZHC did not respond to the request.

The Homeopathic Council should be concerned at products being flogged off over the counter with no questions asked other than ‘ do you want vitamins with that?’ We’ re appalled that you can sell water for $10 a teaspoon, and it’s distressing that this sort of exploitation is also being practised in our farming sector.

In addition to the Bent Spoon, the NZ Skeptics have praise for a number of attempts to encourage critical thinking over the past year.

Lynley Boniface gains a Bravo Award for her Dominion Post column, “Why psychics should butt out of the Aisling Symes case”, castigating TVNZ for giving airtime to self-proclaimed psychic Deb Webber to promote her national tour and speculate on the then-unfolding tragedy of the missing Auckland toddler.

We see distraught families exploited regularly by the psychic industry. It just adds insult to injury to see such exploitainment supported by our state-funded television.

3 News reporter Jane Luscombe gets a Bravo for her informative look at the belief that amber teething necklaces leach a substance to help babies with pain and depression.

All too often we see television reporters take the easy option and swallow claims with nary a raised eyebrow. It was great to see a report where some research had been undertaken to show the claims were unfounded and a clear warning that the practice itself was a dangerous one.

Kate Newton of the Dominion Post also gained a Bravo for her item on Victoria University’s embarrassment over the homeopathy course it was offering in its distance education programme. The NZ Skeptics have been concerned at the increasing willingness of universities to provide facilities for the promotion of touring psychics, neurolinguistic programmers and other purveyors of dubious services.

Kate Newton also took the trouble to point out that homeopathic products are watered down to the point where no molecules of active ingredients remain. The homeopathic industry is very careful to downplay that aspect in their products and services, and it’s an important point to get across to the general public. Most homeopathic users think they are getting something in the expensive sugar pills and water drops they are buying, but they aren’t.

The awards were psychically conferred at this year’s conference dinner.

NearZero Inc: A sadly prophetic company name

Many people lost a lot of money investing in non-existent data compression software because well:established principles of information theory were ignored. This article is based on a presentation to the 2010 NZ Skeptics conference.

In the late 1990s, Nelson man Philip Whitley claimed to have invented a new data compression technology worth billions of dollars. Over the next decade money was raised on a number of occasions to develop this technology, culminating in a company called NearZero Inc raising $5.3 million from shareholders. According to a well:established body of theory, Whitley’s claims were obviously false. Unsurprisingly, within a few months of NearZero’s formation, it was in liquidation, with its funds gone.

I thought the saga of NearZero could be of interest to skeptics as it involves claims that were clearly false according to well&#8211established theory, and those claims cost investors a lot of money.

But first, a quick introduction to how data is stored by computers, and how that data can be compressed. Computers store data digitally, using the digits 0 and 1 in a binary code. A piece of storage capable of storing a 0 or a 1 is known as a bit (short for binary digit). With 1 bit we can store two values: 0 and 1. While this might be enough to store a simple data value (such as whether someone is male or female), for most pieces of data we need to store a larger range of values. With each bit we add, the number of possible values doubles; by the time we get to 8 bits we have 256 different values. The byte (a group of 8 bits) has proved to be a very useful unit of storage; storage sizes are usually quoted in bytes.

Character data is usually stored 1 byte per character (in European languages). Lower case ‘a’ is represented as 01100001, for example. A picture is a grid of dots. Each dot is called a pixel, and usually 4 bytes are used to encode the colour of a pixel. Standards are needed so that everyone interprets bit patterns in the same way.

Data representation methods are often chosen based on how easy it is to process the data. Often, the same data can be stored more compactly at the cost of making it harder to process. The process of translating a piece of data into a more compact form (and back again) is known as data compression. Compressing data allows us to put more data onto a data storage device, and to send it more quickly across a communications link. The size ratio between the compressed version and the uncompressed version is known as the compression ratio.

In ‘lossless’ compression, the uncompressed data is always identical (bit for bit) to the original data we started with. A compression method designed to work with any type of data must be lossless.

In ‘lossy’ compression, we are willing to accept small differences between the original data and the uncompressed data. In some situations we do not want to risk data being changed by compression, and lossless methods must be used. With images and sound, small changes that are difficult for humans to detect are tolerable if they lead to big space savings. The JPG image format and mp3 video/audio format have lossy compression methods built in to them. Users can choose the tradeoff between quality and space.

A question of pattern

For it to be possible to compress data, there must be some pattern to the data for the compression method to exploit. Letter frequencies in English text are well known, and could be the basis for a text compression method. We can do better if we take context into account. The most frequent letter is ‘e’ (12.7 percent), but if we know the next letter is the first in a word then ‘t’ is the most likely (16.7 percent). If we know the previous letter was (q) then the next will almost certainly be (u). A compression method that takes context into account will do better than one that doesn’t, as the context-based one will be a better predictor of the next symbol.

Likewise images are not random collections of coloured dots (pixels). Rather, pictures typically include large areas that have much the same colour. Sequences of frames in a movie often differ little from each other, and this can be exploited by compression methods.

The effectiveness of a compression method depends on how predictable / random the data is, and how good the compression method is at exploiting whatever predictability exists. If data are random, then no compression is possible. In these cases compression methods can actually create a compressed file larger than the original, because the compression methods have some costs. A compressed file is much more random than the uncompressed version, because the compression method has removed patterns that were present in the original.

In many branches of computer science it is important to establish the best possible way in which something could be done, to serve as a benchmark for current methods. In information theory, Shannon’s entropy is a measure of the underlying information content of a piece of data. A 1000-character extract from a book has more information content than 1000 letter ‘x’ characters, even though both might be represented using 1000 characters. To quote Wikipedia: ” Shannon’ s entropy represents an absolute limit on the best possible lossless compression of any communication” . Modern compression algorithms are so good that ” The performance of existing data compression algorithms is often used as a rough estimate of the entropy of a block of data” . In other words, it is not possible to achieve large improvements over current compression techniques.

The claims

It is time to have a look at Philip Whitley’ s claims. He claimed that he could compress (losslessly) any file to under seven percent of its original size, but this is not credible. Compression potential varies widely depending on patterns in the original file. Many files are already compressed, so have little potential for further compression. Even for uncompressed files, seven percent is achievable only in exceptional cases (English text entropy means the best achievable for English text is around 15 percent).

If it was possible to compress any file to less than seven percent of its original size then it would be possible to compress any file down to 1 bit. The first compression takes you down to under seven percent of the original file. Given that Whitley claimed his technique worked on any file, we could then compress the compressed file, reducing it to less than 0.5 percent of the original size, and so on.

Initial tests of Whitley’s technology were done on one computer. This made it easy to cheat. The ‘compression’ program can easily save a copy of the original file somewhere on disk as well as producing the ‘compressed’ version. Then, when the compressed version is ‘expanded’, the hidden copy can be restored. Whitley remained in control of the equipment, ostensibly to prevent anybody from stealing his software.

Critical assessment

Philip Whitley’s company Astute Software paid Tim Bell (an associate professor of computer science at the University of Canterbury) for an opinion on the technology. Tim Bell has an international reputation in the field of data compression; Microsoft has used him as an expert witness, and he has co-authored two well-known compression textbooks. An irony of the NearZero case is that New Zealand has more expertise in this field than you might expect for a small country (the co-authors of the two text books are New Zealand-born or live in New Zealand).

Tim Bell’s views were blunt: “The claims they were making at the time defied what is mathematically possible, and were very similar to claims made by other companies around the world that had defrauded investors.” One of his criticisms was that the tests were not two-computer tests. In such a test the compression is performed on one computer and the compressed file is transferred to a second computer, where it is decompressed. A two-computer test prevents the hidden-file form of cheating. It is reasonably easy to monitor the network cable between two computers, to check that the original file is not sent in addition to the compressed file (though the tester must be alert for other possible communication paths, such as wireless networks).

A two-computer test was subsequently conducted, and described in a 14-page report by Titus Kahu of Logical Networks. At first glance the report looks impressive, but on closer reading flaws quickly emerge. The two computers used were Whitley’s. The major flaw was that Kahu was limited to testing a set of 24 files selected by Whitley. The obvious form of cheating this allows is that the set of files can be placed on the second computer before the tests. Then all that the first computer needs to do is to include in the ‘compressed’ data details of which file is required (a number between 1 and 24 would suffice). The receiving computer can then locate the required file in its hiding place.

Titus Kahu did check the receiving computer to see if files with the names of those used in the test were present, but you would expect that someone setting out to deceive would at the very least rename the files.

The report makes for interesting reading. The files were of a number of types, including text files, pictures in JPG and GIF formats, MP3 audio files, and tar files. A tar file is a way of collecting a number of files together into a single file (zip files in Windows serve the same purpose).

One would expect text files to compress well, but JPG, GIF and MP3 files to compress poorly (they are all compressed formats). How well a tar file will compress depends on the files that it contains.

A simple comparison

To get some data to compare with the results in the report, I ran some tests using gzip (a widely used lossless compression method) on some text, tar and JPG files. I managed to locate two of the tar files used in the Titus Kahu tests: Calgary.tar and Canterbury.tar. Gzip achieved savings of 67.24 percent and 73.80 percent (so Calgary.tar was compressed to about one third of its original size, and Canterbury.tar to about one quarter). I also located three text files that were later versions of text files used by Kahu: on these Gzip achieved savings of 63.08 percent, 62.05 percent, and 70.77 percent. I also compressed a JPG file using gzip, and achieved a saving of 2.34 percent.

There are no great surprises in my results. There was quite a variation in the compression achieved, even amongst files of the same data type (the three text files for example). Compressing a JPG file gave little extra compression (not enough to make it worth further compression with gzip).

By comparison, savings in the report were 93.52 percent for four files and 93.53 percent for the other 20. I suspect that the difference in the fourth significant figure is due to rounding the file size to the nearest byte. These results are not remotely believable. The compression achieved is too good to be true even for data that compresses well (such as text), let alone for data formats that are already compressed. The incredible consistency of the compression achieved is also not credible.


Having looked at some background, it is time to look at the chain of events that culminated in NearZero Inc’s rise and fall. Philip Whitley’s early forays into business were not promising. In 1995 he was adjudged bankrupt (discharged in 1998). In 1997 he became a shareholder in Nelic Computing Ltd, which went into liquidation in 1999, owing unsecured creditors $70,000.

In 1999 Philip Whitley formed a software company (Astute Software) with a number of Nelson investors (who put in $292,000). Astute worked on a number of projects, and developed the data compression technology. In early 2001 the ‘one-computer’ tests were done, and Tim Bell’s opinion was sought. In mid 2001 the logical Networks ‘two-computer’ tests were done by Titus Kahu. In 2002, a Mr Cohen (an investor) asked for a (long-awaited) copy of the compression technology; he was told by Philip Whitley the only copies had been accidentally burnt when cleaning out his safe. Later in 2002 work stopped due to Whitley becoming ill.

In 2005 Whitley resumed work on the technology. Some of the original investors put in a further $125,000. On 10 July 2006, NearZero was incorporated in Nevada, with Philip Whitley as president, treasurer and sole director. Later in 2006 Titus Kahu became engineering director for Syntiro (a Philip Whitley company doing development work for NearZero) on the generous salary of $250,000 a year.

In February to April 2007 NearZero share purchase meetings were held in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. A total of 490 investors invested $5.3 million. The investment opportunity brochure forecast that the near-term NearZero market capitalisation would be US$482 billion to $780 billion, and was expected to exceed one trillion US dollars. Note that the largest company in the world, Petrochina, is a US$405 billion company, and the largest US companies, including Exxon Mobil, Apple and Microsoft, are in the 200 to 300 billion bracket.

Things quickly went wrong. In May 2007, the Securities Commission started investigating the legality of the NearZero share offer (there is no registered prospectus, for example). Also in May, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) were appointed as interim liquidators for NearZero, and moved to sell houses and cars. In June, PWC said $218,000 went to Richmond City Football Club, $523,000 on vehicles, $852,000 on property, $683,000 to US-based company secretary Sherif Safwat, and $270,000 on household expenses. They found little evidence of money spent developing compression technology.

In June Whitley invited investors to contribute money to fund legal action to prevent liquidation. Also in June PWC found no evidence of any compression technology. Whitley claimed to have wiped it; PWC found no evidence of use of wiping software.

Then in July Whitley made some rather curious statements in an affidavit sworn in relation to the liquidation: “I will however say that it isn’t binary and therefore not subject to Shannon’s Law of algorithmic limitation.” If there was a real technology that was not based on binary it is hard to see it being of widespread use in computer and communication systems that store, transmit and process all data in binary. The affidavit continues: “Shannon’s Law is attached to this affidavit as Annexure “Y” and it can be seen that this is a 1948 paper”. Claude Shannon founded information theory, which is the basis of how digital computers represent data (according to one tribute, the digital revolution started with information theory). Shannon coined the term bit, and introduced the concept of information entropy referred to earlier. It is interesting that Shannon’s fundamental research results are dismissed as being in “a 1948 paper”.

He also stated: “In regard to the item 3/ I have never asserted that the technology is based on an algorithm”. In computer science, an algorithm is simply a description of how to do something in a series of steps. A common analogy is to say that a cooking recipe is an algorithm for preparing food. If Philip Whitley’s compression technology is not based on an algorithm then that implies it cannot be described as a sequence of steps, and therefore cannot actually be implemented!

In November, Associate Judge Christiansen ordered NearZero’s liquidation, and ruled that the compression technology had no value. Then in August 2008 Whitley faced the much more serious charge of making fraudulent claims about his technology.

In September 2008 all shareholders were given the option of keeping their shares or getting their money back. They proved to be remarkably loyal: $3.1m voted to stay in; $2.2m voted for reimbursement. I’m not sure whether there was any money to reimburse those who voted that way (probably not). In August 2009 Philip Whitley was convicted and fined for making allotments without having a registered prospectus.

The trial

In February 2010 the fraud trial began in Nelson. Whitley was charged with making a false statement as a promoter between July 2006 and May 2007. There were many sad stories in the Nelson Mail about wasted money and time (and resulting stress). Some of the information to emerge in the trial:

  • Philip Whitley hired a team of seven body guards headed by “Oz” (Oswald Van Leeuwen), who was on a salary of $300,000. This level of security was needed because of the (supposed) enormous value of the compression technology
  • According to Sherif Safwat, Philip Whitley believed a Chechnyan hit team had arrived in New Zealand on a Russian fishing boat.
  • Philip Whitley: “The [security guards] said that the Russians were trying to penetrate and we ended up with security guards living in my house, camped on the floor … I couldn’t go out of the house without having security … it just built up inside me to the point where I just lost it from a point of paranoia.”

In his summing up on May 27, the defence lawyer said:

  • “Whitley had a distorted view of reality which led him to believe his data compression technology was real.”
  • “… [we are] not challenging the evidence of … Prof Bell that Whitley’s claimed invention was mathematically impossible.”

In July Philip Whitley was found guilty on two counts of fraud (but maintains he still has his inventions).

On August 10, 2010, he was sentenced to five years and three months in prison.

The NearZero mess should not have happened. New Zealand has more researchers in this field than you would expect for a country of this size. One of the most prominent, Tim Bell, clearly stated in 2001 that the claims were false. However, investors still committed (and lost) millions of dollars over a number of years. Compression claims are easily tested (much more easily than medical claims, for example). Whitley refused to allow his technology to be independently tested using the excuse of protecting his intellectual property. Many people have been harmed, especially the investors. Moreover, this type of case is not good for the reputation of the IT industry, which struggles to attract investment.

I was asked at the conference how non-technical NearZero investors could have protected themselves. I had no answers at the time, but have given it some thought since. Some things they could have done:

  • Google the names of the company principals.
  • Check to see how the predicted market capitalisation compared to that of existing companies. Finding that the lowest estimate would make NearZero the biggest company in the world should have lead to some scepticism.
  • Google the terms ‘data compression’ and ‘scam’.

Much of the information in this article is based on the Nelson Mail’s extensive reporting of the issue, for which they are to be congratulated. Another good source of information was, a website set up by and for NearZero’s shareholders in 2007 in response to the liquidation of NearZero. An article by Matt Philp on Philip Whitley and NearZero appeared in the October 2010 issue of North & South.

The changing of the guard

After 17 years as chair-entity of the NZ Skeptics, Vicki Hyde has stepped down. Annette Taylor talks to her about life, the universe and taniwhas.

Vicki Hyde can’t quite remember who came up with the title. She’s sure Hugh Young had a hand in it, and possibly Frank Haden as well.

“The question was should it be madam chair, or chair person, or what. This was at our AGM in 1992. Someone suggested chairbeing, but it was pointed out that didn’t allow for the possibility there might be an incorporeal soul. Then we went for Chair-entity. It was a bit of light-hearted amusement that has served well over the years.”

Some journalists stop dead in their tracks when hearing the title for the first time, she says.

“Many newspapers and TV won’t use it; they don’t seem to be able to cope with the term, and just say ‘chair’. Ginette McDonald accused us of being politically correct. However it’s a way of saying we’re not completely po-faced about things, and that we don’t take ourselves seriously all the time. Which is a good point to start from.”

The standard charge she often hears is that skeptics are naysayers, boring or humourless. “I always say no, we’re actually excited about the wonder and mystery of the universe. We just want to get rid of things that aren’t real mysteries, so we can delight in those that are.”

When it comes down to defining exactly what a skeptic is, she points out the political attitudes of members are diverse, and there’s a surprising range of religious diversity as well.

“We’re not all hard-line atheists. Our brief is not to go after religious beliefs per se. If someone wants to believe in God, that’s fine, it’s a belief. Otherwise we just become blurred in with the rationalists and humanists. But if someone comes up with what they say is a piece of Noah’s Ark, that’s scientifically testable.”

She was a little sad when the society’s formal name, the New Zealand Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, was changed to the NZ Skeptics in 2007. “It was especially valuable in interviews; I was able to use it to point out what it was we did, and didn’t do. As a consequence I’m still explaining to people that no, we don’t go after capitalism, or religion, we’re not sceptical about everything and anything under the sun.”

Vicki’s introduction to the Skeptics was as a freelance writer for Pacific Way magazine, covering the firewalk at the Christchurch conference in 1990.

“I got talking with Denis Dutton and others, over that weekend, and thought this is interesting.”

She started helping with the magazine, and in 1992 was nominated for the chair, which had been held by Warwick Don.

“Denis raced off to The Dominion and said ‘Look, look, we’ve got a new chairperson at the Skeptics. She’s female, pregnant and of Maori descent; how much more politically correct can you get?'”

Vicki, who was 30, says it was like inheriting a whole group of aunts and uncles.

“We have changed from the early days, and particularly over the last few years. Back then the demographics of the group was late 50s, early 60s, and it remained that way for some time.”

Now members are younger, and there are more women involved, which she puts down to the internet. “We’re able to do more outreach; there are email groups and blogs, podcasts… We have 1500 people on our Skeptic Alert email list, three times more than paid members.”

Then there are initiatives like Skeptics in the Pub, which has provided another place for like-minded people to meet. “I think we’re still attracting the same kind of people, but through different ways. People who are interested in the world and how it works, and want to sit down and chat.”

As for our fellow kiwis, she thinks we’re a fairly down-to-earth bunch. “I don’t know if it’s our colonial heritage or the kiwi attitude of the proof is in the pudding, but in general we’re a bit more pragmatic. What is interesting is we don’t feel under siege from the religious right as much as Americans do.”

While attending the World Skeptics Conference in Burbank, California in 2002 she says there was a distinct feeling a war was being fought. “There’s a strong overlap between the rationalists and skeptics there; they have very close ties. We’re living in a country where, in the last election debate, both the then-prime minister and the leader of the opposition could both say, no, we don’t believe in God, on national TV, and it’s no biggie.”

She will continue as the society’s media spokesperson. “This requires the ability to be rung at 6am on Friday the 13th by some morning radio journo who wants to talk about superstitions. And to be nice to them.”

The job requires knowing a lot about all sorts of things. “Pseudoscience and the paranormal can present in all sorts of ways. Most of the time I have an idea what they’re talking about but sometimes they’ll ask a question about some obscure cult, or a multi-level marketing venture.”

The issues have changed over the years, she says. The original focus was on psychics, UFOs and astrology, with the occasional taniwha thrown in.

“We’ve shifted more and more into questions of what’s the potential harm of, say, an alternative medicine. While there is much we can laugh at, some things make you very sober, such as the Liam Williams-Holloway case. In addition to the wee boy dying, the fallout of this was that oncologists started getting parents asking about other cures for their child’s cancer. It actually increased interest in these claimed cures and made it a lot harder for the doctors.”

It was interesting, a few years later, to see the reaction to a Pacific Island family charged with manslaughter over their 14-year-old son’s death. “He decided to remove himself from the cancer treatment. They were then put through the courts. The only differences I can see with what they were doing, and Liam’s parents, is that this was a 14-year-old, who was able to make some form of informed decision on his own treatment. And they were doing it on religious grounds. We seem to have a lot less tolerance for that, oddly enough, than we do for people who are trying alternative health.”

Another “lowlight” was the false memory fad of the 90s, with its offshoot claims of Satanic ritual abuse and organised abuse of young children.

“We knew it was coming; we’d seen it first in the US. I predicted we’d have something similar within six months and the Peter Ellis case broke several months afterwards.”

The decision to donate funds from the Skeptics to Ellis’s defence resulted in at least one member resigning, she remembers. “This step was taken not because we all felt implicitly he was innocent, but that there were sufficient questions which should have been raised and had not been. We felt we needed to take a stand. I wrote an article for the NZ Skeptic about why we were supporting a convicted child abuser, explaining the background. As the saying goes, ‘for evil to succeed requires only that good people do nothing’. For people to be exploited by psychics or the latest would-be cancer cure, all it needs is for people not to ask ‘where is the evidence?'”

The Skeptics are not here to castigate Granny for reading tea leaves, Hyde says. “But if a psychic bounces up on national TV, talking about a missing child case, and promotes their two-for-one ticket offer for their upcoming tour – you have to point out that people are being exploited.”

The future looks good for the Skeptics, she unhesitatingly predicts. “There’s a whole host of bloggers out there, and podcasts and the like, that are pulling in people and ideas. I think this can work really well with our more formal group. We are useful because we have established communication channels and long-term relationships with the media, as well as a small fighting fund. And the informal groups are great because they provide social connections, enthusiasm and new blood. Which,” she says, “is one of the reasons why I’m looking forward to working with Gold; he’s got all that.”

And, sadly, there will always be a need for skeptics.

“It can be frustrating, but you just keep boxing on. If you can get one person to stop and think about something, it’s worthwhile. That’s all we try to do. To get people to think.”

The Unfortunate Experiment: Revisiting the Cartwright Report

This article is a response to ‘Truth is the daughter of time, and not of authority’: Aspects of the Cartwright Affair by Martin Wallace, NZ Skeptic 96.

The Cartwright Inquiry1 was held after the publication of “An Unfortunate Experiment at National Women’s” in Metro magazine in June 1987. The events leading up to the publication of the article and the findings of the subsequent inquiry have been contested ever since.

The inquiry heard from 67 witnesses, many doctors, 84 patients and relatives, and four nurses. In addition, 1200 patient records were reviewed, with 226 used as exhibits. The final report released in August 1988 has had a long-lasting impact. It recommended many changes in the practice of medicine and research, including measures designed to protect patients’ rights and a national cervical screening programme. These have since been implemented. The Medical Council announced in 1990 that four doctors were to face disciplinary charges resulting from the inquiry’s findings of disgraceful conduct and conduct unbecoming a medical practitioner. Charges against Dr Herbert Green were dropped due to ill health.

The report of the Committee of Inquiry has withstood many challenges, including judicial reviews and many articles alleging its findings to be flawed. Yet there have been allegations of a miscarriage of justice, charges of a witch-hunt, even a feminist conspiracy.

Where does this leave Dr McIndoe and others who had mounting concerns for so many years? Why did so many women develop cancer? In this article I will explore the findings of the Cartwright Inquiry, its context, the research and the criticisms, and attempt to find a more nuanced understanding of the “unfortunate experiment” and its ongoing effects. Page numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the Cartwright Report. CIN3 and CIS are interchangeable terms for a lesion of the cervical epithelium which can be a precursor to invasive cancer.

The Findings of the Inquiry

The report found that Green, rather than developing a hypothesis, aimed to prove a point (p 21) that even at the time was known not to be the case. A 1961 compilation of studies from Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Warsaw, and New York showed CIS progressed to invasive cancer in 28.3 percent of cases (p 23). As at 1958 the official policy was “… treatment of carcinoma of the cervix Stage 0, [CIS] should be adequate cone biopsy … provided the immediate follow-up is negative and … the pathologist is satisfied that the cone biopsy has included all the carcinomatous tissue” (p 26). Standard treatment of the time involved excising all affected tissue and the ‘conservative’ treatment of conisation was in use well prior to 1966.

Green’s initial proposal stated “… It is considered that the time has come to diagnose and treat by lesser procedures than hitherto, a selected group of patients with positive (A3-A5) smears. Including the four 1965 cases, there are at present under clinical, colposcopic, and cytological observation, 8 patients who have not had a cone or ring biopsy. All of these continue to have positive smears in which there is no clinical or colposcopic evidence of invasive cancer”… The minutes then record that “… Professor Green said his aim was to attempt to prove that carcinoma-in-situ (CIS) is not a premalignant disease”… (p 22). This appeared to come about because of concern about unnecessarily extensive surgery for CIS between 1949 and 1962. During this period, some centres were beginning to use cone biopsy as effective treatment; however there were limitations to its use (p 27).

There were some questions over whether the work was a research project. The inquiry concluded this was the case and that a research protocol, however flawed, was put in place (p 69). Green published in peer-reviewed journals on his hypothesis and findings. By 1969, three cases of invasive disease had occurred in patients with positive cytology monitored for more than a year, and this should have made it clear that following patients with persistent CIS was unsafe (p 52).

Green then explained those patients by concluding that they’d had invasive cancer that was missed at the outset. The report contends this was dangerous to the patients as it demonstrated that the proposal was incapable of testing the hypothesis. These patients were reclassified by Green and the patients removed from the study (p 55). In addition, patients over the age of 35 were included in the research in breach of the protocol vp 49).

There were many subsequent issues, including lack of patient consent (p 136). Patients also had to return for repeated tests and other invasive procedures, often receiving general anaesthetics in the process (p 42-49). A collection of cervices from foetuses and stillborn infants and another of baby uteri in wax were collected by Green for research which was later abandoned. This did not appear to comply with the Human Tissue Act (1964) as no consent was obtained from the parents of the stillborn infants (p 141).

As part of an earlier 1963 trial to test whether abnormal cytology in women later developing CIS or invasive cancer was present at birth (pp 34 & 140), 2,244 new-born babies had their vaginas swabbed without formal consent from the parents (there was a decision to abandon this trial soon after it started but this wasn’t communicated to nursing staff until 1966).

Procedures such as vaginal examinations and IUD insertions/removals on hysterectomy cases were performed by students without patient knowledge or consent while they were under anaesthetic (p 172). There was a further study on carcinoma of the cervix treatment, where patients either had radiotherapy alone or hysterectomy and radiation (p 170). The method of randomisation was by coin toss.

The Research

The idea that patients were divided into two experimental groups arose from McIndoe et al (1984)2. The patients were divided retrospectively into two groups which overlapped strongly but not completely with groups defined by Green, that he called “special series”. In his 1969 paper, cited in the report (p 40-41) he stated: “The only way to settle the question as to what happens to carcinoma in situ is to follow adequately diagnosed but untreated lesions indefinitely … it is being attempted at NWH by means of 2 series of cases. (I) A group of 27 women … are being followed, without ‘treatment’, by clinical, colposcopic, and cytologic examination after initial histological diagnosis of carcinoma in situ … has been established by punch biopsy … (II) A group of 25 women who have had a hysterectomy (4 for cervical carcinoma in situ) and who now have histologically-proven vaginal carcinoma in situ, has been accumulated …” This was done semi-randomly, with cases presenting themselves fortuitously.

The outcome for the group of 25 who were included in the punch biopsy “special series” was summarised in the McIndoe et al (1984) paper. Nine out of 10 women who were monitored with continuing positive smears developed invasive cancer. Only one out of 15 women who had normal follow-up cytology later developed invasive cancer. While Coney and Bunkle may have made a mistake, it’s clear the judge didn’t. The report states: “Green’s 1966 proposal was not a randomised control trial, but it was experimental research combined with patient care” (p 63).

Green’s interpretation of the data in his 1974 paper is suspect, having concluded that the progression rate was 7-10/750 (0.9 to 1.3 percent) or 6/96 (6.3 percent) of ‘incompletely treated’ lesions (p 54). These were explained by suggesting that either invasive cancer was missed at the start, or over-diagnosed at the end. Dr Jordan (expert witness) deemed this interpretation incorrect as of the 750 cases, 96 had continuing positive cytology, meaning that the other 654 patients could be considered free of disease. Of that 96, 52 patients had not been assessed further, making it impossible to know whether or not this group already had unsuspected invasion. Of the 44 patients remaining with ongoing carcinoma in situ who had more investigations, seven were found with invasive carcinoma. The incidence of known progression was therefore 7/44 (16 percent), which approximates McIndoe et al (1984) findings. This means that the proportion of invasive cancer cases in those inadequately treated was much higher compared with those who had returned to negative cytology, even before any cases where slides were re-read and excluded are considered.

McIndoe et al (1984) covered the follow-up data for 948 patients with a histological diagnosis of CIS patients who had been followed for a minimum of five years; there was a further paper in 1986 regarding CIS of the vulva. The same method used by Dr Green to group women by cytology after diagnosis and treatment was used, but using the correct denominators and the original diagnosis. Patients who were diagnosed with invasive cancer within one year were excluded to avoid the possibility the cancer had been missed initially. The management was cone biopsy or amputation of the cervix in 673 patients, with 250 managed by hysterectomy. The only biopsies in 25 women were punch biopsy (11), wedge preceded by punch biopsy (7) and wedge biopsy alone (7). Twelve out of 817 (1.5 percent) of group 1 patients developed invasive cancer. Given the lengthy follow-up with negative cytology for group 1 patients, the authors concluded these represented the development of new carcinoma. There were marked differences in the completeness of excision between the two groups and the second group shows markedly different results, with 29/131 (22 percent or 24.8-fold higher chance) with positive cytology developing invasive cancer. At 10 years this was 18 percent rising to 36 percent after 20 years, irrespective of the initial management or histologic completeness of excision. This needs to be explained, as those figures strongly suggest the progression of CIS to invasion when it is and was a totally curable lesion. The answer is that a prospective investigation, as done by Green, has to establish that invasive disease is not present, while conserving affected tissue that is required for later study. The argument has been posed that women in the second group did get cone biopsies and hysterectomies. This ignores the fact that while many women were treated with various procedures, there was evidence of continuing disease, demonstrating that the intervention was inadequate. This was not followed up, posing a high risk of development of invasive disease.

This differs from group 1 patients, who were successfully treated at the outset. It’s pertinent to point out that the Cartwright Report did not rely on this study (or the Metro article) to reach its conclusions, but on review of patient records.

There have been two follow-up studies. McCredie et al (2008)3 examined medical records, cytology and histopathology for all women diagnosed with CIN3 between 1955 and 1976, whose treatment was reviewed by judicial inquiry. This paper gave a direct estimate of the rate of progression from CIN3 to invasive cancer. For 143 women that were managed by only punch or wedge biopsy the cumulative incidence was 31.3 percent at 30 years and 50.3 percent in a subgroup who had persistent disease at 24 months.

The cancer risk for 593 women who received adequate treatment and who were treated conventionally for recurrent disease was 0.7 percent at 30 years. These findings support McIndoe et al (1984) and extend the period of follow-up.

McCredie et al (2010)4, described the management and outcomes for women during the period 1965-74 and makes comparisons with women diagnosed 1955-64 and 1975-76. This showed that women diagnosed with CIN3 in 1965-74 were less likely to have treatment with curative intent (51 percent vs 95 percent and 85 percent), had more follow-up biopsies, were more likely to have positive cytology during follow-up and positive smears that were not followed by curative treatment within six months, as well as a higher risk of cancer of the cervix or vaginal vault.

Those women initially managed by punch or wedge biopsy alone in the period 1965-74 had a cancer risk 10 times higher that women treated with intention to cure. This was despite the 1955-64 group being largely unscreened, which would have delayed diagnosis. This study is important as it shows the medical experience of the women, where they were subjected to many interventions that were not meant to treat but rather to monitor.

Whistle blowing

Scientific misconduct happens, and for those trying to address it the risks are high. Brian Martin5 looked at several cases, and stated: “In each case it was hard to mobilize institutions to take action against prestigious figures. Formal procedures, even when invoked, were slow and often indecisive.”

McIndoe and others encountered similar difficulties and ultimately failed to get Green’s proposal reviewed. The concept of “clinical freedom” (p 127), where the doctor was the arbiter of the best course of action for the patient, was one major issue to emerge from the report. Colleagues tended to be very reluctant to intrude upon this, and this meant that the proposal could continue with little oversight or intervention. McIndoe had mounting concerns, particularly after 1969, which were disregarded or treated lightly.

These concerns were shared by pathologist-in-charge Dr McLean, and were raised internally with Medical Superintendent Dr Warren, who consulted with the Superintendent-in-Chief, Dr Moody and an internal working party set up to look at the issue in 1975. Twenty-nine cases that had developed invasive disease were referred to it; however only 13 were examined, and having set up its own terms of reference it only considered whether the protocol had been adhered to and disregarded concerns about patient safety (p 83).

The 1966 proposal effectively ceased when McIndoe withdrew colposcopic services and Green reverted to cone biopsy in most new cases (p 88), but it was never formally terminated. While Green himself did not take any steps to prevent the review of records by McIndoe and colleagues, Bonham did, and wrote a letter to the Medical Superintendent (p 92).

There are some important lessons to be learned from this, including that those with the authority to deal with the situation should make the best effort to achieve a balanced view of the situation and assess it fairly to allow the claimant a fair hearing.


The potential risks of Green’s proposal outweighed any benefits such as avoiding hysterectomy or cone biopsy. Invasive cancer could not be ruled out because there were poor safeguards against the risk of progression. This was unethical from the outset, regardless of the issue of informed consent. In addition, patients that developed invasive disease had their slides reclassified and were removed by Dr Green from the study. This would be considered research misconduct then and now as it manipulated the data.

It does not matter if the initial motivations were sincere; they ultimately fail on these points. This proposal had a very human cost. Moreover Green’s views had long-term effects, including influence on undergraduate and postgraduate medical students, and support for the attitude that cervical screening was not worthwhile. This ‘atypical’ viewpoint was also promoted in the scientific literature and in the press, creating confusion within the medical scene and with the public.

It can be incredibly hard to admit our failings and let go of old loyalties. In the aftermath of the report many doctors objected to cervical screening, ‘unworkable’ consent forms and the intrusion of lay committees on practice6. It’s true this had negative effects on the perception of doctors overall, particularly in regard to practices that were widespread in hospitals at the time, and there were times that unfair criticisms were aired. This impacted on the nursing profession as well, for nurses are meant to be patient advocates.

This was also about power. The really unfortunate thing is that medical responsibilities to patients are almost totally ignored in the midst of the argument, when they should be brought to the forefront. Likewise respect, justice and beneficence were lacking for the patients involved. No doctor raised concerns about the lack of consent, even though from the 1950s there was the growing expectation that this be sought, particularly with participants in research.

The Medical Association working party that examined this stated that it was “regrettable that the trial deteriorated scientifically and ethically and did not change as scientific knowledge advanced or as adverse results were observed”7. They found it deplorable that patients involved did not know they were part of a trial, and that it took a magazine article for it to be investigated.

Unfortunately, instead of addressing this and examining whether Dr Green made any errors or misinterpretations himself, the findings in McIndoe et al (1984) and other papers were not accepted. There is the unfortunate implication that, rather than there being mounting and valid concerns over decades, that Green was unfairly toppled and the resulting inquiry was a whitewash.

The report couldn’t have been written without the assistance of the medical community as expert witnesses and advisors. It’s not surprising that there would be loyalty for a colleague, but perhaps instead of attempting to rehabilitate Green it’s time McIndoe and his colleagues were vindicated. Morality did not totally fail and attempts were made to prevent patients being harmed8.

Acknowledgements: many thanks to Dr. Margaret McCredie of Otago University who assisted me with my research.

  1. The Cartwright Report:
  2. W.A. Mcindoe; M.R. McLean; R.W. Jones; P.R. Mullins 1984: J. Am. Coll. Obst. 64(4).
  3. M.R.E. McCredie; K.J. Sharples; C. Paul; J. Baranyai; G. Medley; R.W. Jones; D.C. Skegg 2008: The Lancet Oncology DOI:10.1016/S1470-2045(08)70103-7
  4. M.R.E. McCredie; C. Paul; K.J. Sharples; J. Baranyai; G. Medley; D.C. Skegg; R.W. Jones 2010: A&NZ J. Obst. Gyn. DOI:10.1111/j.1479-828X.2010.01170.x
  5. B. Martin 1989: Thought and Action 5(2), 95-102.
  6. J. Manning (Ed.) 2009: The Cartwright Papers: Essays on the Cervical Cancer Inquiry 1987-88. Bridget Williams Books Ltd.
  7. L. Bryder 2009: A History of the “Unfortunate Experiment” at National Women’s Hospital. Auckland University Press.
  8. C. Paul 2000: BMJ 320, 499-503.

The fallibility of eyewitness memory

Eyewitness testimony is commonly regarded as very high quality evidence. But recent research has shown there are many ways memories of events can become contaminated. This article is based on a presentation to the NZ Skeptics conference in Wellington, 27 September 2009.

In 2003, a woman was tragically attacked and raped after leaving a bar in Christchurch. She remembered her assailant as a man with “rat- like” features. Later, she chose the police suspect from a photographic lineup, indicating that she was “90 percent sure” that he was her assailant. This identification became the central piece of evidence that convicted Aaron Farmer. But, in June 2007, Mr Farmer was exonerated after DNA proved that he could not have been the rapist – he had spent almost three years in prison.

Unfortunately, Mr Farmer’s case is not an isolated incident. Decades of legal and psychological research have shown that eyewitness identification error is the leading cause of wrongful conviction. Recently the former High Court judge, Sir Thomas Thorp, published an extensive review of legal research on miscarriages of justice. In that paper, he estimated that there are at least 20 innocent people in New Zealand prisons, and he emphasised eyewitness error as a leading cause of convictions. This conclusion fits neatly with exoneration data from the Innocence Project, based in New York. Since 1992, the Innocence Project has exonerated over 250 wrongfully convicted people, over 75 percent of whom were identified by at least one eyewitness.

How can human memory be so fragile as to lead a witness to choose an innocent person from a lineup? Over 30 years of research has shed light on this question. Ultimately, this research has shown that memory can go wrong in several ways. The best way to understand these errors is to think of memory as a three-stage process:
[1] encoding,
[2] retention, and
[3] recall.

At the encoding stage, information is perceived and transferred from the environment, through our senses. These perceptual processes allow us to lay down memory traces. Next, those traces are retained for a period of time. Of course this retention stage can last for anywhere between seconds and years, until finally we recall that information from memory. It is important to know that any one of these three stages can go awry.


Encoding depends heavily on our ability to pay attention to information in the environment. However, our attentional systems are limited. We can only pay attention to a few things at once. Anything that does not receive the requisite amount of attention does not have the chance to make it through the encoding phase of memory.

Furthermore, many variables, such as stress, can limit our attentional processes even more. As a result, witnesses will often not pay attention to details that could be forensically relevant. For example, a witness under stress may pay particular attention to the weapon being brandished by the offender, rather than paying attention to his facial details. If this is the case, those facial details may never be stored in memory, and if information is not stored, it cannot be recalled later.


The information that makes it into memory can be distorted easily. Perhaps the best known psychological science research in this field is the misinformation effect pioneered by Elizabeth Loftus. This research shows that a simple suggestion can change witnesses’ memories. In a typical misinformation experiment, there are three stages.

First, participants watch a simulated crime, such as a man stealing a maths book from a bookstore. After a delay, participants are exposed to post- event information (PEI), which is usually a narrative describing the simulated crime. For some participants, the PEI is accurate but generic (eg, “the man stole a book”), and for others the details are misleading (eg, “the man stole a science book”).

Finally, participants are questioned to determine their memory’s accuracy for the event. These participants are often specifically told to ignore everything they read in the narrative and only rely on what they saw during the event. Typically, those participants who read misleading details during the PEI have less accurate memories than those who read generic information.

This research shows the ease with which a person’s memory can be changed. Decades of research have shown that people can come to remember having seen a crime when in fact they have seen an innocuous event. Using this paradigm people can even come to remember having seen an innocuous event, when in fact they have seen a crime. Witnesses can often be exposed to misleading details from co- witnesses, suggestive interviewing techniques or sometimes, media reports of the crime. Any of these sources can lead witnesses to remember details that did not happen.


Psychological science has also shown that the way we test witnesses can also affect their memories for what they have seen. Some of the most prolific research in this field has examined the way that we test witnesses’ memories for offenders’ faces using the lineup technique. Photographic lineups are the most common method of testing eyewitness recall for offenders.

Usually, a lineup depicts a police suspect surrounded by known innocent people – known as distracters. A witness chooses a person from a lineup in the same way that a person chooses an option from multiple- choice question. When people choose the correct answer from a multiple- choice question it is considered evidence that they recognised the correct answer by relying on memory; and when witnesses choose the suspect from a montage, it is considered evidence that they recognised the suspect from the crime scene.

However, people do not always rely on their memory in either multiple- choice questions or lineups. A multiple-choice question can be biased towards the correct answer, as in this example:

What is the capital of Burundi?

Most people cannot rely solely on their memory to answer this question. Now consider these choices:

(a) Paris;
(b) Sydney;
(c) Wellington;
(d) Bujumbura.

You probably chose the correct answer (d), not because you had a memory for Burundi’s capital, but because you used a process of elimination to choose that answer. Similarly, a lineup is sometimes constructed so that witnesses do not need to rely on their memory for the offender; instead, they use a process of elimination – the suspect becomes the Bujumbura of the lineup.

Lineup bias

The danger arises when the wrong person is suspected of a crime and then included in a biased lineup. Research shows that witnesses will often choose from a lineup, even when the actual offender is not present. If the lineup has been constructed in a biased way (like the multiple choice question above), witnesses are even more likely to choose from the lineup. It is misidentifications like these that often lead to wrongful convictions.

Taken together, this research shows that witnesses’ memories are susceptible to several sources of error. As such, we need to ensure that we collect and test witnesses’ memories with scientifically valid interview and lineup techniques. Scientific recommendations regarding best practice procedures for witness evidence have been available for several decades, but few jurisdictions worldwide have taken them up. This lack of recognition for scientific validation is surprising given the relatively fast uptake of forensic science methods, such as DNA testing.

As a result, the best way to think of witness memory evidence is like biological evidence at a crime scene. If we were unlucky enough to stumble across a bloody crime scene, most people would be careful not to contaminate the scene by trampling through the blood spatter patterns, or handling any evidence. Similarly, we should treat witness memory with the same caution. When a witness has been exposed to a crime, we should not contaminate their memories with suggestive questioning and biased lineups. Instead, we should collect and preserve their memories with scenically valid techniques. Only then can we hope to reduce the increasing number of wrongful convictions caused by erroneous witness evidence.

The great continental demolition derby

When creationists try to harmonise their worldview with certain inescapable facts of geology, the result is chaos.
Recently I had forwarded to me a document bearing the title Debunking Evolution: problems, errors, and lies exposed, in plain language for non-scientists.
The content was depressingly familiar, and can largely be guessed from the title, although the way it crams in so many technical, sciencey-sounding terms into its almost 15,000 words rather works against its claim to be “plain language”. The author is given as one John Michael Fischer; despite this tract being widely disseminated across the internet (often copied and pasted into forum discussion threads) I have not been able to find any information on him or his background.

A full rebuttal of all this material would be even longer than the original; there’s certainly not enough space for it in this publication. In any case, most of it is standard creationist fare that’s been refuted over and over again – no macroevolution (only microevolution), irreducible complexity, the tornado in a junkyard (or a minor variant), no fossil ancestors for Cambrian species, no transitional fossils, the demise of the Tree of Life (as reported in a New Scientist cover story), Ernst Haeckel’s embryo drawings, lack of true vestigial organs, and how the Second Law of Thermodynamics precludes evolution.

Only a couple of arguments are comparatively new. Fischer gets very excited about recent findings that “increasing biological complexity is correlated with an increasing number of non-protein-coding DNA sequences and not, as previously assumed, with an increasing number of protein-coding genes.” Cells contain many short sequences of RNA which don’t code for functional proteins but play a variety of roles in regulating cellular processes and protein synthesis. He concludes from this that the ‘junk’ DNA which makes up most of the genome isn’t really junk after all, but must have been inserted by a Designer to fulfill essential biological functions.

Developmental biologist and blogger PZ Myers disagrees, and as usual is not shy about saying why( Most of the RNA transcripts are from regions of DNA near known genes, suggesting that they’re artefacts, like an extended transcription of a gene. Occasionally one of them may be co-opted for a new function, but there’s no indication of design; the genome is still mostly dead in transcription terms. “Don’t look for demolition of the concept of junk DNA here,” Myers says.

This is all very well, but once Fischer has single-handedly demolished evolutionary theory, what would he replace it with? The answer is on his website (, which is the ultimate source for Debunking Evolution. Navigating around the site is a bit of a challenge, but it’s clear his real passion is for geology, rather than biology, though he shows no greater aptitude for that discipline.

The home page bears the title ‘Shock Dynamics’, which Fischer describes as “[a] new geology theory featuring impact-powered rapid continental drift as an alternative to plate tectonics. The key to creation geology.” What he is proposing is that in the few thousand years of the Earth’s history allowed by the creationists’ timescale, our planet has been subjected to three major meteoritic events, one involving multiple impacts. The most recent of these was “in the time of Peleg” (Gen. 10:25), in whose days, the Bible tells us, “the Earth was divided”. An enormous meteorite, Fischer says, struck the Earth just north of what is now Madagascar, driving the initially joined continents to their present locations in a matter of hours.

According to Bishop Ussher’s chronology, Peleg was born in 2247 BC, 101 years after the Flood, and lived 339 years. To put this in perspective, the Pyramid of Djoser in Egypt was built between 2630 and 2611 BC.

Continental Drift is a big issue for creationists. If all land animals are really descended from a single boatload that landed on a mountaintop in eastern Turkey, then explaining how they all got to their current locations takes some doing. How did kiwi and moa get to New Zealand? Or lemurs to Madagascar, or sloths to the Amazon? The problem looks slightly less insuperable if, at the time of the Flood, all the world’s land masses were joined. The 1000-plus landsnail species found only in New Zealand could then simply have crawled here, being careful not to leave any relatives along the way. Several creationists have therefore tried to come up with scenarios in which rapid, post-Flood continental movement may have occurred.

Fischer argues the energy of an incoming meteorite triggered the continents to slide up to 9000km (in the case of Australia) over a period of 26 hours. Yes, that’s right. Australia must have averaged a speed of almost 350 km/hr; given that accelerating and decelerating a continental landmass must take a while, the maximum velocity must have been considerably greater. How was this achieved? Fischer suggests a phenomenon called acoustic fluidisation may be involved. In this process vibrations from landslides, earthquakes or meteorite impacts “fluidise” loose debris so that it flows like a liquid. It’s a real phenomenon, and has been used to explain the effects of some earthquakes, or the long distances landslides sometimes flow across plains from their points of origin. Here then is Fischer’s scenario:

“The giant meteorite explodes, penetrating the continental crust. The force pushes up low mountains, and the landmass slides away like a ship on water, fluidizing the contact layer. Behind the landmass, a surface layer of oceanic crust is melting and cooling to form the mid-ocean spreading ridge with transform faults, pulled open by the landmass.
“When the leading edge loses enough energy, the contact layer at the leading edge solidifies. The momentum of the landmass carries it forward like a car hitting a wall, piling up high mountains. The formerly fluidized contact layer in front is a Benioff zone, called subduction zones in Plate Tectonics.”

Strictly speaking a Benioff zone is a deep, active seismic area within a subduction zone, but we know what he means.
One thing he doesn’t explain is why other meteorite impacts didn’t produce the same effect. And this is a problem, because Fischer invokes lots of big meteorites. The Flood was brought about by a whole swarm of meteorite strikes. As these struck the ocean they raised enormous splashes, which Noah interpreted as “the fountains of the deep” (Fischer differs from other creationists in asserting that the Flood story is an eyewitness account written by Noah, rather than divinely authored). They also unleashed the enormous volcanic event of the Siberian Traps (generally regarded as 250 million years old) and collapsed the waters above the heavens referred to in the first chapter of Genesis (Fischer calls the waters a “vapor canopy”), the ultimate cause of the Flood. This is an interesting one, because according to Psalm 148, those waters are still there:

“Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens.
“Let them praise the name of the LORD: for he commanded and they were created.

“He hath also stablished them for ever and ever: he hath made a decree which shall not pass.” (KJV)

So we have the ultimate irony: in order to uphold the literal truth of one part of the Bible, Fischer piles absurdity on absurdity, and in the end only succeeds in contradicting another part. (The vapour canopy, by the way, is pretty much standard creationist doctrine these days; few creationists ever seem to read anything in their Bibles beyond Genesis.)

But Fischer doesn’t stop there. The Flood kills off the dinosaurs, which are on a different landmass – people only live on Mesopotamia, or possibly East Antarctica, where dinosaur remains have not been found. I’m not sure how the landmasses can be undivided and yet there are two of them. Successive waves of ocean water deposit massive amounts of sediment, forming the geological column and fossil record. After the Flood the Chicxulub meteorite (generally credited with the demise of the dinosaurs) hits the Earth, but doesn’t seem to do much except spread around some iridium and shocked quartz.

The Flood survivors spread and multiply for several hundred years. Then the Shock Dynamics meteorite scatters the continents, raises all the mountain chains (the landmasses used to be low-lying; the Flood story describes how the tops of the mountains could be seen as the waters receded, but I think we can assume they were only little mountains) and wipes out many large mammal species. The force of the impact is enough to speed up the Earth’s rotation, so that the number of days in a year increases from 360 to 365.2. All those sliding continents heat the oceans, which causes massive evaporation, which in turn causes cooling, bringing on the Ice Ages. You’d think the Chinese, the Egyptians, and the other civilisations of the time would have noticed.

Other scenarios

The internet (and creationist literature) is awash with material like this. Shock Dynamics theory is not merely the work of a lone crackpot, but a fairly representative example of a mode of thought that remains very widespread. Fischer is not the only one pushing a literal division of the Earth in the time of Peleg, although other creationists have come up with different mechanisms.

The Associates for Spiritual Knowledge, for example ( favour an expanding Earth pushing the continents apart. The Associates for Biblical Research (< A HREF=””> ) don’t propose a mechanism at all, merely suggesting the continents drifted apart during Peleg’s lifetime.

Other creationists disagree. These include the most active group locally, Creation Ministries International (CMI), who maintain the division in Peleg’s time was purely a cultural one. They say the continents were separated at the time of the Flood (, and the animals later migrated via land bridges during the post-Flood Ice Age, or were moved around by people. This, they argue, avoids the problem of another (post-Flood) catastrophe that would accompany such a division, and destroy most land life. Those sloths dragged themselves across Siberia and over a Bering Strait land bridge to get to the Amazon, apparently. Or maybe the first Americans took them along as pets, packing plenty of Cecropia leaves to feed them on the journey.

One way rapid continental drift may have been triggered at the time of the Flood is set out in something called Hydroplate Theory, the brainchild of one Dr Walt Brown, who explains all in his book In the Beginning. This states that before the Flood there was a massive amount of water underneath the crust. Pressure on the water caused the plates to break and separate; the escaping water then flooded the whole earth, and the continental plates flew apart at speeds of up to 72 km/hr ( Others believe the Earth is hollow ( Rodney M Cluff, author of World Top Secret: Our Earth Is Hollow! claims:

“Located at 87.7 degrees North and South Latitude are Polar Openings that lead into the hollow interior of our planet where the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel today dwell in perfect harmony, with life spans equal to those of the Methuselahs of the Bible, whose only desire is to live in peace. Their flying saucers in defense of their country at times are seen on our surface world. They don’t come to destroy, they are waiting… Waiting for us to discover that world peace is the only answer, not without God, but WITH Him.” [ellipsis and emphasis in original]

Then there are the geocentrists. A 1999 Gallup poll found 18 percent of Americans, when asked whether the Earth revolved around the sun or the sun around the Earth, picked the latter, while another three percent had no opinion. Poll results in Britain and Germany are similar. Probably for most of these people it’s just not a question they’ve given much thought to, but the Association for Biblical Astronomy ( have devoted a lot of time and effort to it. In their view, whenever the Bible and astronomy are at variance, it is always astronomy “- that is, our ‘reading’ of the ‘Book of Nature,’ not our reading of the Holy Bible – that is wrong.” Key passages in the Bible indicate the Earth is motionless at the centre of the universe and that’s the end of it; the Earth neither rotates daily nor revolves around the sun. The geocentrists regard more liberal groups, such as the Institute for Creation Research, CMI and Answers in Genesis, as accommodationists.

Though they may disagree vehemently among themselves, all these groups are united by their belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. What’s more, they insist that only faith in the infallibility of scripture can provide the philosophical underpinnings that allow a person to avoid straying into error. CMI’s Jonathan Sarfati, for example, writes:

“[W]e are not merely asking opponents to consider biblical presuppositions as an alternative way of looking at the evidence. Nor are we merely saying that they are ‘nicer’, nor even that they provide a superior framework that better explains the data (although both of these are true as well). Rather, the claim is even stronger: that the biblical framework is the only one that provides the foundation for science, voluntary will, logic and morality.”

This just doesn’t wash. The clearest sign that “biblical presuppositions” are no foundation for science and logic is the plethora of nonsensical scenarios that creationists have concocted in their attempts to harmonise the evidence of geology with their preconceived notions of a Flood, a six-day creation and a 6000-year-old Earth. Science, which allows the freedom to adapt our views on the Earth’s history in the light of fresh information, remains the best philosophical framework for investigating the world around us. ‘Creation science’ is no alternative.

Truth is the daughter of time, and not of authority: Aspects of the Cartwright Affair

The ‘Unfortunate Experiment’ at National Women’s Hospital has entered the national folklore as a notorious case of medical misconduct. But there is still disagreement about what actually happened.

It is 22 years since the Cartwright Inquiry published its findings. Arguments about the whole affair persist, with repeated public support from those who say it was a valuable and proper exposure of damaging improprieties by the medical profession, and from those who say that the inquiry and the events which led to it are based on an erroneous interpretation of a scientific paper, and selective evidence gathering at the Inquiry.

If indeed an error has been made, then the vilification of the medical people involved, which has occurred and which still goes on, must be redressed.

I want to consider two aspects of this affair, and if the evidence shows a miscarriage of justice, to offer reasons as to why this might have happened.

I shall:

  • consider the contention that an unethical experiment was performed at National Women’s Hospital (NWH) by Professor Green and his associates, and whether or not the Inquiry made a fair and just assessment of the current (1988) internationally accepted management of carcinoma-in-situ of the cervix (CIN3);
  • discuss what factors in our scientific literary world might be contributing to error.
  • describe unwelcome aspects of our human behaviour which allow an issue of this magnitude to survive in our society, unresolved for 22 years, and how writers have described these for many centuries. I have chosen as my title a quotation from Aulus Gellius in his Attic Nights, written in c.150 CE to emphasise the long-standing nature of the problem.

It is important to have a clear outline of the sequence of events over time at NWH and here is a timeline for reference:

1966: Green proposed to the NWH Medical Committee that CIN3 should be managed by cone biopsy if indicated and regular review. This was in response to considerable doubt worldwide about the natural history of the condition, for which many advocated hysterectomy. The committee agreed.

1973: Editorial in the British Medical Journal, “Uncertainties of Cervical Cytology.”1

1974: Article in New Zealand Medical Journal (NZMJ) by Green showing evidence that “The proportion progressing to invasion must be small.”2

1975: The NWH Medical Committee reviewed the management protocol and agreed it should continue.

1982: Professor Green retired.

1984: “The Invasive Potential of Carcinoma-in-situ of the cervix” was published.3 This was the paper on which Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle based their Metro article.

1985: A letter to the NZMJ by Skrabanek and Jamieson was critical of a national cervical screening programme for CIN3 as a detection and treatment method for carcinoma of the cervix (14 August).

1986: A letter from David Skegg was published in the NZMJ supporting a cervical screening programme. “The case for the effectiveness of screening does not rest on the unfortunate experiment at NWH in which women with abnormal smears were treated conservatively and a proportion have developed invasive cancer” (22 January).

1987: “An Unfortunate Experiment at National Women’s” appeared in the June issue of an Auckland magazine,Metro. Within 10 days the Minister of Health (Michael Bassett) has announced the inquiry, and that it was to be chaired by Sylvia Cartwright.

1987/1988: The inquiry sat, and published its report in 1988.

1988: A book, An Unfortunate Experiment, by Sandra Coney was published.

1990: Jan Corbett, a journalist, wrote an article in the July issue of Metro reviewing the errors in the Coney and Bunkle paper, and the way in which the data in the 1984 paper had been distorted.

2008: A conference was held to commemorate the Cartwright Inquiry. A number of papers including Charlotte Paul (a medical adviser to the inquiry), and Sandra Coney, were presented endorsing the inquiry findings.

2009: A book, A History of the ‘Unfortunate Experiment’ at National Women’s Hospital, by Linda Bryder, a professional historian, was published.

2009: A book, The Cartwright Papers, published by participants in the 2008 conference, and now including a vehement criticism of Linda Bryder and of her book.

2010: The NZMJ publishes a letter from Dr Helen Overton, “In defence of Linda Bryder’s Book.”4

The 1984 paper

“The Invasive Potential of Carcinoma-in-situ of the Cervix” was written by two gynaecologists from NWH (McIndoe and Jones), a pathologist from NWH (McLean) and a statistician (Mullins).

I have read this carefully, and made a summary of its contents. It described the follow-up data for 948 women with carcinoma-in-situ of the cervix. The women were followed for five-28 years by repeated smears and observation according to the 1966 proposal, unless they showed evidence for spreading cancer. The women were seen at three, six, and 12 months after presentation, and yearly after that. The women’s records showed that at 24 months after presentation, 131 continued to have an abnormal smear. (Of course, the other 817 had normal smears, or had had removal of the cervix by hysterectomy or other treatment.) There was no difference in age or parity between those in either group.

The division into the two groups was made retrospectively by the authors on the evidence for the presence or absence of an abnormal smear at 24 months.

They compared the outcomes in the two groups in terms of the development of invasive cancer (22.1 percent in the group with positive smears at 24 months, 1.5 percent in the larger group). They also compared the number of deaths in each group at the end of the observation period (June 1983). Four women who had had normal smears at 24 months had died (0.5 percent) and eight women had died who had had abnormal smears at 24 months (6 percent).


There was no withholding of treatment in that group with the persistently abnormal smears – see Table 1.

Initial treatment Eventual treatment
Total hysterectomy Cone biopsy or amputation Total hysterectomy Cone biopsy or amputation
Group 1 (n=817) 217 (26.6%) 576 (70.9%)
Group 2 (n=131) 33 (25.2%) 88 (67.2%) 62 (47.3%) 166 (126.7%)

Table 1. Initial and eventual treatment of patients with normal smears, or who had cervixes removed by hysterectomy or other treatment (Group 1), and of patients with persistent abnormal smears (Group 2). Percentages exceeding 100 percent reflect the need for two cervical procedures in some women.
The authors said in the paper’s discussion, “the almost universal acceptance of the malign potential of this lesion has made prospective investigation into the natural progression of CIS ethically impossible”. That would require an experiment where women had no treatment. This is quite clearly not the case in this reported series.

It is clear that in this report of the management of CIS there is no evidence of withholding of treatment, nor of an experiment.

Three years after this paper was published, it was used by Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle as evidence for gross wrongdoing by the medical staff at NWH. Here is what they wrote:

“The study divided the women into two groups – 817 who had normal smears after treatment by conventional techniques, and a second group of 131 women who continued to produce persistently abnormal smears. This group is called in the study the conservative treatment group. Some had only biopsies to establish the presence of disease and no further treatment.”

Later in the article the authors refer to “group two women who had little or no treatment”.

This paper in a popular magazine was used by the Cartwright Inquiry as some of the evidence which led to its conclusions.

In 1990, Liggins said, “The famous 1984 article which emanated from the National Women’s Hospital and on which the Metro article which stimulated the cervical cancer inquiry was based, was misinterpreted by the authors of the Metro article and by the judge”.5

Was the management of cervical carcinoma-in-situ unethical?

This is the second aspect of the Cartwright affair that I wish to examine. In June 2010 the statement was made that “treatment with curative intent was withheld in an unethical study” at NWH from 1965 to 1974.6

It is important to make clear what we understand by ‘ethical’, ‘unethical’ and ‘conventional’, or we shall be reduced to the state of the Looking-Glass world: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.'”7

Ethical: “In accordance with principles of conduct that are considered correct, especially those of a given profession or group”. (Collins Concise Dictionary, 1988.)

Unethical: Not in accordance with these principles.

Conventional: Relating to convention or general agreement. (OED)

Convention is a general agreement or consent. (OED)

Was the protocol for the management of CIN3 by Prof Green and his colleagues at NWH an unethical experiment? If he had proposed to divide the women as they presented into two groups, one of which was treated and the other not, then that would have been unethical. Although uncertainty existed as to what proportion of women with an abnormal cervical smear developed an invasive cancer, it was agreed that an abnormal smear meant that the woman was more likely to develop cancer than if she had a normal smear.

His protocol did not deny women treatment.

There was widespread international uncertainty as to the best form of management. If Prof Green had withheld an acknowledged proven treatment that was agreed to by the majority of workers in the field, and replaced it with an unproven treatment, then that would indeed have been unethical.

He didn’t do that.

During 1966-1984 there was no international agreed conventional treatment for this condition. As Iain Chalmers of the James Lind Library in Oxford points out, 8 Linda Bryder in her book has made a thorough review of the contemporary medical literature on this subject which makes it clear that there was no worldwide, generally accepted treatment of CIN3. The evidence called by the Cartwright Inquiry did not reflect the lack of an international consensus. It was indicative of only one aspect of the issue. It has all the attributes of ‘cherry-picking’.

The accusation that Green and his colleagues behaved unethically in these matters is not sustainable. Unless his detractors can show that there was a single international conventional treatment which he ignored, then repeated accusations of “unethical behaviour” are wrong. These accusations continue to be made, as recently as 1 June, 2010.6

Why do manifestly false beliefs persist over time?

There are features of our human behaviour which are conducive to the persistence of untruths, and they include a desire for uniformity in the interest of the maintenance of a coherent and more easily managed society.

Once a decision has been made, it is easier for all of us to go along with it, and not to ‘rock the boat’.

There have been trenchant criticisms of the Cartwright affair and its outcomes, often met with strident objections and not much logic. To accuse the whistle blower of “intransigence and arrogance” rather than meet the questions fairly is shameful.

Another feature of the last 22 years is the increasing number of papers published in the medical literature which on close examination are of poor quality. An example of this is the paper published on 1 June, 2010.

This was published as an abstract online. The authors include a medical adviser to the Cartwright Inquiry, a medical witness at the inquiry, and one of the authors of the 1984 paper. There is the old accusation that “treatment with curative intent was withheld in an unethical clinical study of the natural history of CIS at NWH in the years 1965-1974.” But in the results it is stated that 51 percent of these women had treatment with curative intent! The group treated with the diagnosis made in 1975-1976 had curative intent treatment in 85 percent. Prof Green retired in 1982; his proposal for the management of carcinoma in situ was approved in 1966.

Treatment with curative intent was not defined in the abstract.

The results include P values of 0.0005 for the significance of differences between groups, for a difference which defines the grouping.

The number of new patients in the year 1975-1976 was half that in each of the two previous decades. There is no explanation for this in the abstract. This group was not included in the comparison of risk for cancer of the cervix or vaginal vault. There is no explanation for this.

The medical science literature shares with all scientific paper publishing a current deterioration in standards. This contributes to the persistence of error. This issue has been recently addressed in an editorial in The European Journal of Clinical Investigation.9

“Why would scientists publish junk? Apparently the current system does not penalise its publication. Conversely, it rewards productivity.
Nowadays, some authors have been co-authoring more than 100 papers annually. Some of these researchers only published three or four papers per year until their mid-forties and fifties. Then suddenly they developed this agonising writing incontinence.”

Another factor in our society which feeds our appetite for orthodoxy is the popular press. Truth is often submerged in the sensational. An example of this occurred in the NZ Herald on 1 June, when their health reporter wrote a report of the on-line article6 with the headline:

“Otago research backs cancer inquiry findings: Unfortunate experiment at National Women’s not imagined, says report”

There followed 40 column centimetres supporting the headline, including two which stated: “The cancer death rate differences between the periods and sub-groups are not significantly different”. This information is not included in the on-line published paper. The reporter’s statement is not correct in his summary of the report. In addition he cites information which suggests he has access to the complete (as yet unpublished on June 1st) paper.

The television ‘press’ included that morning an interview with Charlotte Paul, one of the authors, and that evening, an interview with Clare Matheson, the woman named as ‘Ruth’ in the original Metro article. There was no reference to the valid criticisms of the Cartwright affair which have been made over the years.

It is not my case that the medical profession to which I belong is without fault, and I accept that since 1988 more attention has been paid by doctors to issues such as informed consent. But the means, by this miscarriage of justice, do not justify the ends.

Our human desire not to alter our beliefs in the face of contrary evidence, the willingness of the popular press not to disturb established ‘truth’, the current deterioration in the standards of the world medical press, and an unquestioning respect for ‘authority’ are factors recognisably active in the persistence of the myths surrounding the Cartwright affair. These behaviours are not new, and their effects on the emergence of truth have been recognised for centuries. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in his Axioms wrote, in number 46:

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion, or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though here be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.”


  1. Editorial. 1974: BMJ, 5891, 561-2.
  2. Green, GH. 1974: NZMJ 80, 279-287.
  3. McIndoe, WA; McLean, MA; Jones, RW; Mullins, PR. 1984: Obstetrics and Gynecology 64, 451-458.
  4. Overton, H. 2010: NZMJ 123, 95-96.
  5. Liggins, CC. 1991: Australia and New Zealand J. Surgery 61, 169-172.
  6. McCredie, MRE; Paul, C; Sharples KJ; Baranyai, J; Medley, G; Skegg, DCG; Jones, RW. 2010: Australia and New Zealand J Obstetrics and Gynaecology, ‘earlyview’ on-line 1 June.
  7. Carroll, L. 1871: Through the Looking-Glass. Chapter 6.
  8. Chalmers, I. 2010: NZMJ Letters to the Editor. 30 July.
  9. Editorial. 2010: European J Clinical Investigation 40(4), 285-7.

After the overdose

NZ Skeptics link up with a British campaign against homeopathy.

On January 30 there was a concerted global mass overdose – but no-one died because the ‘medication’ was homeopathic. The event grew from the UK-based 10:23 campaign (, which was planning a mass homeopathic overdose to protest against the Boots pharmacy chain stocking homeopathic products.

At a Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub meeting ( four days before the planned date, one attendee asked if the NZ Skeptics were going to be involved. After all, we had asked a number of times over the years for the professional pharmacy bodies to supply a conference speaker to talk about the ethics of selling products of doubtful efficacy. Things swung quickly into action…

We held the mass overdose in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, with about 40 people taking part. The event also included an ‘underdose’ – homeopaths believe that the more dilute things are, the more potent they become, so we were careful to try that approach. There are also claims by product manufacturers that, in fact, dosage doesn’t matter at all – whether you take one pill or 100 – the important thing is the frequency of dosage. We covered that base too. No ill effects were reported, apart from a distinct drop in the level of cash in various wallets. While several members were keen to take part, many said they couldn’t in all good conscience bring themselves to buy the stuff in the first place. For the demonstration, we reluctantly purchased two boxes of tablets and a 25ml spray from a Unichem pharmacy, costing $51.95. That’s a lot to pay for less than two tablespoons of water and not much more than that in lactose milk sugar.

One of the homeopathic products downed by the participants had a label saying it contained chamomilia, humulus lupulus, ignatia, kali brom, nux vomica and zinc val. But those substances were actually in homeopathic dilutions, meaning that the kali brom, for example, was present in a proportion comparable to one pinch of sugar in the Atlantic Ocean – that is, not actually present at all.


The pre-publicity from the Christchurch Press saw the New Zealand Council for Homeopaths admit publicly that their products had no material substance in them (our emphasis).

Council spokeswoman Mary Glaisyer said ( “there’s not one molecule of the original substance remaining” in the diluted remedies that form the basis of this multi-million-dollar industry. This point was picked up by a columnist in the Guardian, who referred to the NZ homeopaths as finding “amusing and creative ways to dig themselves deeper into a hole”.

We got a flurry of interest in the first press release from TV, radio and print media, as well as great support from members, Skeptics in the Pub folk and others concerned about this issue.

TV One ran a very short news item on it; there was a longer, more thoughtful piece on TV3 News.

On TVNZ the Pharmacy Guild was quoted saying of homeopathic products: “there’s a place for them so long as customers are told they only may help”. We believe that that is unethical, and certainly that comment was not made at any of the pharmacists we visited to purchase these products.

TVNZ’s Close Up national current affairs programme covered the story on February 12. They spent two hours filming us swallowing pills, spritzing sprays, demonstrating how a homeopathic dilution is made, talking about the health and safety issues of relying on water as a medicine and a whole host of other issues, in the cosy confines of The Snug at the Twisted Hop, the bar of choice for the Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub gatherings.

That sterling effort was then diluted to a very short intro followed by a short interview sequence involving Vicki Hyde and Mary Glaisyer. Following on from this, we decided to put up a challenge of our own to the NZ Council of Homeopaths to join the campaign to call for pharmacies to stop selling homeopathic products, as both groups are opposed to the practice, albeit for different reasons.

The New Zealand Council of Homeopaths and others in the trade have stated that their customers require lengthy personalised sessions to “match the energy of the potency of the remedy with the person”. According to Mary Glaisyer, this involves matching symptoms with the huge range of materials on which homeopaths base their ultra-diluted preparations. For example, causticum, more mundanely known as potassium hydroxide, is said to manifest its homeopathic action in “paralytic affections” and “seems to choose preferable [sic] dark-complexioned and rigid-fibered persons”.

Pharmacists who sell homeopathic products in the same way they sell deodorants and perfumed soaps are clearly not meeting basic homeopathic practice. When a number of pharmacies in Christchurch were checked by purchasers of these products, no pharmacy staff asked about symptoms; one simply asked “do you want vitamins with that?”

Many people equate homeopathic products with herbal products, hence the belief that the products contain real substance. In addition, the products are commonly used for conditions which get better with time regardless of treatment, as well as exploiting the well-known placebo effect.

The call for the NZ Skeptics and homeopaths to join forces is not the first time such action has been considered. In 2002, when an Auckland pharmacy starting selling products labelled homeopathic “meningococcal vaccine” and homeopathic “hepatitis B vaccine”, we discussed with the late Bruce Barwell, at that time the president of the NZ Homeopathic Society, a joint release condemning this highly dangerous move. We were concerned that relying on water as a vaccine would lead to unnecessary deaths.

It’s bad enough when the product labelling misleads people into thinking they are buying something more than water. It’s far worse when they misuse a word like vaccine in such a life-threatening area.

The homeopaths were concerned then, as now, that their 200-year-old practices were being misrepresented by non-homeopaths keen to benefit from the multi-million-dollar industry.

A recent survey showed that 94 percent of New Zealanders using homeopathic products aren’t aware that the remedies commonly contain no molecules of the active ingredient – their homeopath or health professional hadn’t disclosed this. The customers believe they are paying for the substances listed on the box, but those were only in the water once upon a time before the massive dilution process began – along with everything else that the water once had in it – the chlorine, the beer, the urine…

You have to ask, at what point does it shift from being an issue of informed consent to become an issue of fraud?

Do pharmacists not know that homeopathic products are just water, or they do know and don’t care because people will buy it not realising the massive mark-up? Either way, that should be a big concern for the health consumer. Here’s a huge industry with virtually no regulatory oversight or consumer protection or come-back, and even its keen customers aren’t aware of the highly dubious practices involved.

When Billy Joel’s daughter attempted to commit suicide in December, she chose to take an overdose of homeopathic medication, and thus suffered no ill effects. While that case was fortunate, there are many cases where people have been harmed by the use of homeopathic products in the place of real medicine. There is a Coroner´s Court record of the death of a baby from meningitis; it had been treated with homeopathic ear drops and the mother was very reluctant for any hospital admission. And the website lists many cases from around the world where people have died or had horrible outcomes as a result of a mistaken reliance on homeopathy.

The alternative health industry has built a multi-million-dollar business exploiting the natural healing powers of the human body, as many conditions will get better within two to three days regardless of whether conventional or alternative treatments are used, or even if nothing is done at all. Independent testing has shown that homeopathic preparations take full advantage of this and homeopaths quickly take the credit for any improvement in their clients.

The NZ Skeptics have already had people asking for a list of ethical pharmacists that they can support with their business. We are happy to hear from any pharmacy willing to take a stand on this issue, and will start to create a database for concerned members of the public.

From the UK 10:23 campaign:

Thanks very much for the note, the support and the energy. We have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm from the NZ side of things. It’s been great.

To mark the occasion, the NZ Skeptics have released a new Skeptics Guide to Homeopathy, available as a flyer on the website ( It outlines the development of homeopathy from a relatively harmless attempt to help people some 200 years ago through to the multi-million industry of today.

An evening of healing

Noel Townsley continues our series on the psychic roadshows touring New Zealand.

From a website to which I subscribe came an email notice of two upcoming events with “well-known psychic” Jeanette Wilson. She was doing psychic readings one evening, and the following evening Spirit Healing, described as “an extra-ordinary evening, one that may change your perception of this reality forever.”

Having been to an unimpressive evening with the “well-known psychic” Sue Nicholson recently (see NZ Skeptic 93), I decided my usual Tuesday night pub quiz would likely provide me with more satisfaction, but I would attend Jeanette’s Spirit Healing evening and see what this was all about.

The venue was Rotary House in Silverdale. I arrived right on 7.30pm to a medium-sized hall. In the first and smaller of two rooms was a table with various items for sale, and someone to collect my $40 pre-purchased ticket. From behind the dividing door I could hear Jeanette starting her talk and was quickly ushered through to a seat at the back. There were about 100, mostly older people, and definitely more women than men. I could see that quite a few, like me, had taken up a suggestion in the advert and brought their cameras, hoping to get a photo of one of those seemingly elusive spirits.

Jeanette began by explaining that when she used the term “entity” she was referring to a spirit – often referred to as the “soul” in living people, and as “spirit” once they had died, but that all were interchangeable terms for the same thing. She also said that there were over 2000 spirit doctors and surgeons that she could call upon – these were the same ones that the famous John of God in Brazil uses, and like him, she was also dressed in white, as to better see the spirit/entities. She was also barefoot as this “grounded” her to the energies.

She said some doctors came more frequently than others and mentioned various names. None sounded like Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, or Christiaan Barnard. A number of saints were mentioned as well. She said she had recently done a very successful healing session in Palmerston North where she said that many orbs, entities, and even a floating face had been photographed.

Things looked promising for tonight. She then told us about her upbringing in England, her late childhood in which she realised she could see spirit, and her dramatic call to heal. This came when, as a bank loans officer, a man who had come to see her about a loan asked her to heal his bad back. Not sure what to do, she muttered the prayer she had learnt only a few months earlier while attending a healing workshop.

The result, she says, was for three entities to appear. One took over her body; the other two took the man (now lying down presumably), one by his feet and the other by his head, and proceeded to stretch him out straight, with much loud moaning from the man. If her next loan appointment was waiting outside, I wonder what they thought. Eventually the moaning subsided and the man claimed his back was much improved. The next day he went to his chiropractor, who reportedly said his back was now perfectly aligned.

News of this healing incident spread quickly, and she was soon unpopular with the healing school, who considered her to be a novice. However, while waiting at the tube station, an old man walked up to her and told her she was a healer, repeating this several times. When she realised he was “not of this world”, the man promptly vanished, but she now knew what she was destined to do.

Jeanette related another story of how she was asked to see an (unnamed) peer in the House of Lords, who was due to swim the Thames in a week’s time for a charity event, but was unable to free a frozen shoulder. She was able to fix this in a few minutes, and her fame spread quickly, to the extent that she was being hounded by the unwell – rather like Princess Diana had been by the paparazzi, she said.


Jeanette then told us about some of her recent healings and what we could expect to experience. These healings she said usually happen within a few minutes, or even within a few seconds of her working with someone. Also, as she was healing, we would likely see auras, orbs of light, or even a healing entity. The entities, she explained, do the actual healing; she is just a conduit for them. She warned us that at times she would be making quite loud noises, but not to be concerned by this, and also to have our cameras ready, as this was the best time to take photos and perhaps capture an image of an entity, orb or aura, as this was when they were most active. We may also notice that the room, or parts of it, may become hot or cold – this would be a result of the energies, she said.

She explained she believed in a higher power, although she did not adhere to any particular denomination. We were then asked to close our eyes and recite the Lord’s Prayer, followed by a rosary if we knew it, to assist us in the night’s healing session.

Jeanette asked if there was anyone that had a visible physical condition, rather than a sore back for example, that was just qualitative. This, she said, was to visibly “prove” to us that healing was going on. Several hands went up, including an elderly lady in the front row, with a pair of crutches to her side. Jeanette asked her name and what was wrong with her. Her name was Iris she replied, and she had a problem with both feet, ankles, legs, and knees, which resulted in her being unable to walk any distance without crutches or use of a wheelchair. “I’ll come back to you Iris,” Jeanette said, and asked again if there was someone with a smaller observable condition.

A woman said she was unable to lift her left arm above her head and demonstrated the lack of mobility. Jeanette got to work, rotating both hands in small circles very quickly about half a metre from the “patient” (as she often referred to them) and at the same time making a continuous “Eeee” noise. As she worked she again reminded us this was the time when spirits/entities would likely appear. She advised that the rapid movement of her hands was not controlled by her, but by the entities, although it seemed to make her puff a bit.

During a break in the “Eeeeee’s” she asked if anyone had taken any photos of orbs etc. Although I had seen and photographed nothing, one person near the front said they had, and a woman in a purple sweater near the back of the room ecstatically claimed that she could currently see a purple aura around the patient, and also a single entity just behind her. During the break I overheard someone say that the woman who saw the entity was also a psychic.

Jeanette continued to work on our first patient’s problematic left shoulder but then moved to the right side, directed by the entities. After a few minutes, with breaks for attempts to lift both arms, it appeared that the patient could now lift her right arm up further than she could before; however the problematic left arm remained defiantly down.

All-knowing entities

Jeanette explained that the entities, who she said had scanned us all as we entered the hall this evening, and see and know everything, often fix things that they consider to be of more benefit to us than we do, in some cases even fixing things we didn’t know we had. She assured our patient though, that she would gain more movement in her left arm later on, and presumably considering that getting the right arm to lift higher made for a successful healing, asked for a round of applause for our patient, and a new person to come forward.

Our next patient was a man who had a visible condition, trigger finger in both hands, which he said he had had for about four years. Jeanette said that in her experience, the longer the condition had persisted, the harder it was to heal. She began again with her rapid hand movements and the “Eeeee’s”. During breaks in the healing process the patient revealed that he also had a lot of damage to his back due to an accident that also caused him pain. Jeanette then said she had a pain in her back, which was a sign the entities had directed her to work on this area too. After a few minutes our patient claimed his back pain was improved, and there was some improvement in the trigger finger. However, at least from the back of the room, there appeared to be no difference in the fingers. Another round of applause for our patient, and then Jeanette directed herself to the previous patient, Iris.

Energy flows

Iris revealed further details of her condition; she had apparently damaged one knee in an accident, for which she was currently awaiting reconstructive surgery. Jeanette explained that all energies flow in and out of our feet – good energy flows up, bad energy flows down and out, so in Iris’s case her feet and ankle problems were due to blockages, which in turn created her knee problems.

Someone from the audience asked Jeanette to check with Iris if she had ever been bitten by something, as this might have caused her problems, as apparently it had done in themselves. Iris was sure she had not been bitten however. Jeanette worked on Iris for some time, getting her to stand up from time to time and try to walk a step or two without her crutches. She worked on Iris’s shoulders which the entities had indicated were a problem – left shoulder is past responsibilities, right shoulder is future responsibilities, Jeanette explained.

Iris looked like she might have been from a rest home, so hopefully she would not have too many future responsibilities to deal with, but if she did, at least she now had a strong right shoulder to cope with them. After a quite lengthy session, and despite Jeanette’s efforts, and Iris’s willingness, Iris seemed unable to make any progress in walking, and still resorted to her crutches, but as she returned to her seat, Jeanette said that she would experience an improvement in the next three days. A further round of applause followed.

During this part of the evening Jeanette had often asked the audience if they could feel the hot or cold energy around them. No one indicated they did, but maybe, as it was a hot and sticky summer evening in a room with no air-conditioning, this was too much for the energies to overcome.

A pause for breath

A break of about 20 minutes gave us an opportunity to take refreshments and look over the table of books, CDs, Jeanette’s upcoming courses, and various items including crystals, the Nu-Me pendant, and a radionic pendulum. The pendulum appeared to be nothing more than a small pear-shaped piece of wood attached to a string; however it was far more, as my later research on the internet revealed.

This pendulum, sculpted by the Aetherius Society’s craftsmen, is claimed to be an excellent tool to help develop your intuition and psychic abilities. “It reacts with the subconscious and higher conscious minds to give physical movements with the swing of the pendulum. With the correct use, you can tap the forces of intuition within yourself and then, by careful experimentation, many things can be determined.”

The Nu-Me pendant appeared to be a small coil of copper, about the size of a 50 cent piece. The manufacturers claim it “balances the personal energy system (chakra balancing and aura clearing) as well as protecting from all disturbed energy including EMF (Electro Magnetic Frequency) POLLUTION.”

The courses currently on offer by Jeanette include Reiki-$3000 to become a Reiki Master, and a Spirit Healing weekend, for an “investment” of only $300.

The second half

Upon our return to our seats, I noted a few more empty chairs than before the break.

Jeanette went back into her healing routine on a few more patients. I cannot report that any of the patients in the second half showed any marked physical improvement either. One gentleman, who had a sore shoulder which he said he had injured, but ACC had said was due to arthritis, was unable to lift his arm up fully above his head. Jeanette said that ACC was wrong in their assessment; it had been injured, and she was going to have to make very loud noises to ensure a healing – a high impact (accident) meant a high impact (sound) was needed to correct it. Following each healing action Jeanette would ask the man to lift his arm up, each time declaring a small improvement, although she acknowledged that he was not fully healed, but assured him the improvement would continue. As the crowd applauded, he returned to his seat. A review of photos from my camera showed that he could lift his arm no further on his first attempt, than on his last.

The finale

The last part of our evening was to be a mass healing by Jeanette. We were asked again to close our eyes and recite the Lord’s Prayer, and a rosary if we knew it, to assist this process. She advised that, as well as healing our own ailments, we could think of others and heal them remotely as well. We were to put a hand on the area that we felt needed healing, but if that area was embarrassing, or hard to reach, we could put our hand on our heart instead, as the entities would know what needed to be healed anyway.

The other important thing to remember was not to open our eyes during this time, as the negative energies being released could enter our bodies this way and undo any healing-a warning worth heeding. As I lost about 95 percent of my hearing in my right ear in a diving accident, I put my hand over my right ear and hoped for an improvement.

The only thing that happened at the time was that the constant tinnitus I also experience seemed to get a little louder. However, she did say we could expect more improvement over the coming days, so I was still hopeful.

Several weeks on, I cannot report any improvement in my hearing at all, but I will certainly let you know if there is.

Her last word of warning was to those who had been through her healing – because they had been through spiritual surgery, which was just like conventional surgery, the same advice applied – they must not exert themselves, lift heavy weights etc for some time. This seemed at odds with her claims that healing happens within a few minutes, and could replace conventional surgery. The recovery time at least, would appear to be the same from either “surgery”.

Gems of information

Amongst the gems of information that Jeanette gave out during the night was that a doctor (unnamed) had shown that cats purring can cause broken bones to heal quicker – one compensation of working at the SPCA I guess. She also said that another (also unnamed) doctor has discovered that people with cancer all have acidic bodies, and that changing your diet to make it alkaline will ensure you do not get cancer.

She also revealed some predictions – that New Zealand will be the first country to have full (presumably independently verified?) healing using her method, and will also be the first to open a crystal hospital – I took this to mean one that uses healing crystals, rather than one made of crystal, as the cost would be phenomenal.

In conclusion, I saw nothing that evening in any of the “patients” to indicate a marked or even a mild improvement in any visible condition, although some were reportedly healed of ailments they did not know they had. Those that claimed to be in less pain invariably still walked with a limp, or had difficulty mustering the affected limb to do anything it could not do before. I think most of the non-critical thinking people in that audience would say they saw proof of healing that night, judging from the queue of people wanting her to autograph their newly purchased books at the end of the evening.

I found it intriguing that Jeanette’s claim that aches in one part of the body indicated a non-physical problem, eg sore hands, means difficulty dealing with issues, seemed to be accepted by the audience – obviously the body is not as complex as we have been led to believe.

I was also puzzled by her statements that energy leaves and enters our bodies via our feet, but when asked to pray for our own healing we had to keep our eyes closed as bad energy can enter through our open eyes and affect the outcome. Also puzzling was her claim to not be of any religious denomination, but we were asked to recite a Christian prayer and the Roman Catholic rosary.

In regard to the auras, entities and orbs, I saw none, although one photo I took does have a circular, semi-transparent, white spot in it. As, in the same picture, I can clearly see the bright down-lights located in the ceiling, I think it is safe to assume that this was in fact lens flare. As for the claimed peach/orange coloured auras that were supposedly captured by some, I think this can easily be explained by the profusion of digital cameras in use, most of which produce a red/orange light in low light level situations to assist them to focus. The light emitted is roughly circular, and of course is aimed at the point of interest – in this instance Jeanette and the patient. With so many cameras in use, inevitably someone taking a photo will be recording these focusing lights in their pictures.

My concern with Jeanette Wilson is that people might see her claims of healing as a viable alternative to conventional medicine, and so forgo treatment. To her credit, Jeanette never suggested to anyone that they do that, but conversely, she never suggested to anyone that they seek conventional treatment for any of their ailments.

Despite Jeanette’s claim in her advertisement, my perception of this reality remains firmly intact.