‘Organic’ water?

Either this water is alive, or it contains carbon. Either way I’m not drinking it.
Hugh Young


No missing content

Renee Maunder (Forum, NZ Skeptic 103) laments that I failed to supply a detailed list of references in my article on ACC and sexual abuse claims (NZ Skeptic 102). In my copy, I saw the Health Practitioners Competency Assurance Act 2003, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, ACC legislation, public utterances by the NZ Association of Counsellors and similar organisations, ACC Press Releases, ACC’s Best Practice Guidelines, the pseudo-research by Massey University (paid for by ACC) and the Crimes Act. She mocks my comments about syndromes.

My article defined a syndrome as “a group of symptoms or pathology which consistently occur together, especially with an (originally) unknown cause.” A syndrome permits cause to be determined from symptoms or effects. It would be fair to say (for example) that medical practitioners might expect to find maybe four, six or a dozen symptoms that, through the medium of syndromes, lead to establishing the cause of a disease or disability. The keynote is predictability and certainty.

No-one has yet been able to formulate a “sexual abuse syndrome” because any effects which may occur are idiosyncratic and unpredictable.

These matters lie at the heart of the ACC Sensitive Claim process. Evidence of cause and effect is imperative. In the absence of evidence external to complainant allegations, the attribution of psychological conditions to sexual abuse is unscientific, unethical, and downright dangerous. But ACC and its counsellors make that attribution thousands of times each year.

Ms Maunder seems to think I suggested a “mental injury” should be a “syndrome” in order to be real. No I didn’t. The “narrow definition of mental injury” used belongs to s.27 of the AC Act and is entirely subjective – “a clinically significant behavioural, cognitive, or psychological dysfunction” can mean pretty much anything. In terms of the ACC legislation, cover for “mental injury caused by certain criminal offences” requires credible, testable evidence of several aspects, but ACC and its counsellors fail to meet that criterion.

The three main aspects are :

  1. Evidence that the alleged Schedule 3 criminal sexual offence actually did occur;
  2. Evidence that a s.27 “mental injury” actually exists; and
  3. Evidence that the alleged offence caused the mental injury – and that the injury was not due to some other trauma in the claimant’s life.

Ms Maunder sees anomalies around my comments about “proper evidence”. Pretty simple, really. Every such claim is an allegation of a serious crime. Unless ACC has credible evidence of the three aspects noted above, it has no business approving cover for claims.

Ms Maunder suggests my comments are “obviously absurd” unless I show that only ACC-registered counsellors can refer “patients” for claims. It is common knowledge that counselling is an unregulated activity. Anyone can do it. A person wanting to be registered on the ACC gravy train as a counsellor must jump through the hoops set up by the Counselling Costs Regulations.

Finally, she says “Mr Waugh refers twice to laws that are being broken, but never actually sets out which statutes these are.” Concealing a crime is itself a crime. ACC’s Guidelines for Therapists Working with Adult Survivors of Sexual Abuse 2001 states: “The therapist is asked to bear witness to a crime…” In my opinion, witnesses to such crimes have an obligation to report them.

The Crimes Act 1961: Part 10: Crimes against rights of property: s.228(b) makes it an offence to dishonestly use a document for pecuniary gain. In the absence of credible evidence of criminal sexual offences and/or proof that claimed mental injuries were caused by such offences, it is dishonest to submit documentation for monetary compensation or other valuable considerations. ACC abets this deceit and is therefore also culpable.

The obvious starting point for these claims is clear evidence that the claimant did experience a criminal sexual offence. The almost foolproof way to do that is by a conviction or an admission of guilt. But in the ACC system, the alleged offender does not even have to be identified or advised of the allegations, and if he has been, he cannot defend himself. Shades of The Trial by Franz Kafka??

Gordon Waugh (abridged)

Sodium toxicity?

Siouxsie Wiles in her article in the latest NZ Skeptic (103) claims that ingestion of 62 mg of sodium carries a “considerable risk of side effects including lethargy, weakness, irritability, seizures, coma and even death.” I doubt it. The recommended daily intake of sodium is round about 2000 mg; a slice of commercially baked bread contains somewhat more than 62 mg sodium.

Alan Hart

Siouxsie Wiles replies:

Apologies, the reference to 62 mg of sodium per phenylbutyrate tablet was completely meaningless without referring to how many tablets are prescribed. While it is difficult to see what Burzynski actually prescribes in terms of sodium phenylbutyrate, the doses he describes for the antineoplastins (which remember are metabolites of sodium phenylbutyrate) vary hugely from less than 100 mg per kg body weight per day up to 25 g per kg body weight per day ( and he has stated on many occasions that high doses are needed to be effective.

To put that in perspective, if we took a person weighing 70 kg, the 100 mg dose would be about half the recommended daily sodium intake, while the 25 g dose could be as much as 100 times the recommended daily intake. As these doses will be on top of what people are getting in their diet, it is hard to see how patients aren’t being put at risk of the side effects of sodium toxicity.

Morality or instinct?

Mark Ottley (“Scientifically determined morality”, NZ Skeptic 103) makes a lot of fuss about something which is no more than the development of instinct. Societies evolve in the same way as individuals and any behaviour which assists prosperity of the society or its survival will be selected by evolution and eventually incorporated in the genes of the individuals. This is called an instinct. Birds have an instinct to build nests. All organisms have an instinct to reproduce.

Morality is what people do. All societies attempt to discourage behaviour that harms the society and encourage behaviour that benefits it. Over time, all societies develop a basic approved morality which may be enforced by laws, education, or religion, and over the course of time some of it will be instinctive. Some will require education or training. It is not surprising that all successful societies have similar instincts of basic morality.

A tendency to cooperate, obedience to the laws, nurturing of children, concern for human life and for the family, have evolved in all successful societies. A constant problem is genetic variability, where some individuals are less reliable.

Another is the clash with other instincts. The most basic instinct of all is selfishness. Without it none of us would be here at all. So all societies have to try and control it, or devise safe procedures to permit its indulgence.

There is also the instinct to kill others, animals or humans. Without it we could never have fed ourselves or fend off enemies. So we promote ‘sports’ which safely indulge the killer instinct. although we have not given up killing approved enemies.

There are degrees of adherence to officially or legally encouraged morality and Mark Ottley has surveyed some of those that are promoted. Without some diversity, no society would be able to make the changes that are going to be needed for future survival.

Vincent Gray

Mark Ottley replies:

Thank you to Dr Gray for taking the time to provide feedback. I am especially grateful that he largely interpreted my article as I intended it to be interpreted.

Dr Gray outlines a descriptive evolutionary account of morality popularised since at least the 1970s. Ideally aspects could be clarified further by recent research and important ultimate/proximate distinctions. As one example, human ‘genetic selfishness’ typically develops into a stronger basic instinct for altruism than for selfishness – given that the ‘self’ is always a dead end but kin are not (Kenrick, Griskevicius, Neuberg, & Schaller 2010). However, to describe such considerations in detail was not my main objective.

Instead, my article “makes a lot of fuss” (definitely!) about two main points, both of which I regard as relatively novel and important and thus worth sharing with fellow skeptics. The first is that research from a range of fields (biological, psycholexical, cross-cultural, psychiatric and so on) has resulted in an unsought empirical convergence over the past decade, suggesting a six factor model of personality and morality. Six factors, not more and not less. The utility of a scientific model includes clarity of concept, parsimony, consilience, predictive accuracy and so on, and this model appears to possess such qualities given my reading and clinical practice to date.

The second point is that we have advanced to a point where evidence-based morality is feasible not just in theory, but in practice. Cultural practices either enhance or detract from human wellbeing. These variables of cultural practice and wellbeing are increasingly well understood, measurable and controllable. Positive implementation requires effective dissemination, hence further fuss over the descriptive and prescriptive symbolism I.T.E.A.C.H. in my article.

Dr Gray is absolutely correct that we must retain some diversity to make moral progress, and I highlighted the importance of “evolutionary processes of cultural variation, selection and retention” in my article. What we have in the way of evidence-based morality is a beginning not an end. However, it is an important beginning to acknowledge and advocate for in a world where most advocate non-evidence-based moral models (often from a superstitious and religious point of view), or deny the possibility altogether (often from a philosophical or scientism point of view).


Sex abuse article missing content?

I’ve just been reading my Summer 2012 edition of New Zealand Skeptic, but I think there is a piece missing from my version.

On page 15-17 there is an article by Gordon Waugh that is missing both a chunk of text and his references. There is clearly a gap between the first section which ends with “it caused mental injury” and the next which starts with “Do sexually assaulted people exhibit …”. In the later section he talks at length about the lack of a defined ‘syndrome’ caused by sexual abuses. This doesn’t make any sense unless there is a paragraph on why the ‘mental injury’ should be a ‘syndrome’ in order to be real. There’s no specific ‘falling off a ladder’ syndrome, either, but I wouldn’t argue that that means people aren’t injured in falls. Without Mr Waugh’s explanation of why he is using this narrow definition of ‘mental injury’ his argument becomes ridiculous.

I’m also concerned that his references have been lost. He talks about what counsellors believe and think, but the survey or research that backs this up is missing. I find it hard to believe an author calling for ACC to demand testable evidence in relation to sexual abuse cases would fail to provide the evidence to back up his own assertions. He also talks only about counsellors, and I assume that the section of his article that deals with what it means to be an ACC registered counsellor is also missing. Without it, it looks as though anybody can can set themselves up and start referring patients for claims. This is obviously absurd and without the missing section Mr Waugh’s credibility takes a serious knock.

Perhaps these could be printed alongside part two of this article, which I assume will be covering the legislative aspects. Mr Waugh refers twice to laws that are being broken, but never actually sets out which statutes these are. He also calls for the criminalisation of ACC claims that fail to provide “proper evidence” of sexual abuse and I assume he will talk more about how “proper evidence” is defined and how it would be collected. And how its collection will be consistent with the evidence required by other types of injury.

Renee Maunder

Peppering is back

Not possums … rabbits!

I was horrified to see a Country Calendar this morning (made in 2011) where the increase in rabbits was being discussed. One of the farmers said he had been told to shoot a rabbit, skin it, burn the skin, and scatter the ash in order to have the desired effect. He just hoped the rabbits would go elsewhere! He admitted his other farmer friends were doubtful but were waiting to see what happened. He said he was four weeks into the trial but that positive results might not show up until at least six weeks.

Well, this might work if he shot lots of rabbits to get the skins to burn … shooting would remove a few.

Else I have this mental picture of hundreds of little bunnies all sitting in Easter baskets and madly paddling away back to England…

Louette McInnes


Compartmentalising the mind

Michael Edmonds’ article in the latest issue (NZ Skeptic 101) was very interesting, especially laying out the groundwork for non-chemists. If I still had science classes, I would have them all read it and may pass it on to some friends to use.

Michael Edmonds wondered why some people, trained to a high level in chemistry, could turn to pseudoscience. He suggested that external bias, such as religious beliefs, could be one reason. That still does not really explain how those people could ‘switch tracks’ like that and go from apparently working in ‘science’ mode to denying the science that didn’t fit their beliefs. I had the experience of working with someone like that for quite a few years, and it took me a long time to sort out how this could happen.

Dr V was an excellent chemist and knew details of even obscure reactions. He regularly caught mistakes in science exams, including bursary papers here. He was an extremely well organised person and would happily put in much extra effort to do demonstrations other teachers wouldn’t attempt or be bothered to do.

We had a ‘hydrogen organ’ that he used and showed me how to set up. My class jumped a full 30cm off their stools when it went off. He once nearly deafened himself when his went off prematurely, and he enjoyed telling this story with a laugh at his own mistake. He once fell in the river collecting marsh gas to show his class how cleanly it burned. You can imagine his classes enjoyed things like this.

He was always willing to help younger teachers with chemistry reactions and demonstrations and enjoyed designing new demonstrations of chemical principles. However, his knowledge of biology was more limited. He refused to do dissections, taught reproduction to the limited extent defined by the syllabus (just the basic structures and the names of the parts of the reproductive system), and flatly refused to mention evolution.

In discussions, he would argue against radioactive dating, saying we couldn’t know that the radioactive decay rates hadn’t changed over time.

Another day, he would argue that the earth couldn’t be more than 10,000 years old – on the basis that if you extrapolated the changes recorded in the magnetic field over the last 60 years, you could not go back more than 10,000 years before the field became ridiculously strong.

How could he make this switch? It was literally like he had switched to a different part of his mind/way of thinking. Yes, he enjoyed arguing.

That, alone, wouldn’t explain things. What he did, I finally realized, was compartmentalise things in his mind, just like he did with equipment in his lab, like having lots of little drawers to pull out. Pull out one drawer for describing an acid reaction. Pull out another for dealing with a plant structure. Pull out another for dealing with his religion. There had to be some mental capacity to do this, since I am unable to compartmentalise the world in that way. This is the only way that I could understand or explain his ability to switch tracks in thinking.

Having heard a recent TED talk by Oliver Sacks on hallucinations in people with vision impairment (Charles Bonnet syndrome), and how specific parts of the brain generated specific types of hallucinations (observations by MRI of people during hallucinations, including Oliver Sacks, himself, who has some visual impairment(, I can understand better how my former colleague could compartmentalise.

Louette McInnes,

Natural Health Products Bill

I was disappointed to read that some therapies are not covered in the new Bill, in particular subluxations which can be seen on an X-ray only by a chiropractor, and ear candling which not only is complete baloney but also in a number of people has resulted in burns to the ear and even perforated ear drums.

Only today a flyer came in the letter box for craniosacral therapy…

However I guess many of these mumbo-jumbo therapies are really a type of psychotherapy involving a belief system and the Laying On Of Hands which therefore makes people feel better, which I suppose can be OK in the scheme of things… And of course something like 80 percent of complaints get better over a couple of weeks anyway.

Bill Tucker


As someone currently enduring a bout of shingles I have a few comments to make on the excellent article on the bad science behind the vaccine scare (NZ Skeptic 100). Further to benefits of vaccination mentioned in the article I think the point should be made that viruses can actually be eradicated from humanity which is ironic since they cannot, unlike bacteria, be killed as they are not living entities. Bacteriological diseases on the other hand are treatable and curable but the infectious agents cannot be eradicated.

Of course we are beginning to reach a point where some bacteria are resistant to most, if not all, current antibiotics thanks to misapplication, abuse and ill-informed prescription by doctors who should know better.

The damage done by the originator of the vaccination scare is incalculable. I don’t think being struck off the medical register is enough – I have long held the opinion that anyone earning a degree on the back of research which is later invalidated should be stripped of their degree and in the case of this man I think an apt reward would be the loss of his doctorate and professorship. He has demonstrated an inability to do good research and should not be overseeing students doing theirs.

I further think that vaccination should be done by law and the decision taken out of the hands of well-meaning but deluded parents who don’t realize that they don’t know what they are doing. Vaccination is a public health issue and there is no reason it shouldn’t be mandated in order to prevent children from contracting diseases they need not suffer and as a useful step to eradicating infectious agents. The payback in terms of saving tax expenditure and avoiding misery for children is huge.

I was lucky that my parents saw we were vaccinated against everything for which vaccines had been developed at the time and I am delighted that the common ‘wisdom’ of ‘once you’ve had it you are immune for life’ has been effectively thrown out forever. I well remember my best friend’s mother being crippled as a result of having contracted poliomyelitis in her childhood. It was a tragedy which need never be repeated in this day and age.

And anyone who thinks that talk of eradication is mere cant should think again – look what has happened to smallpox with a bit of directed will and determination. And in case anyone reading this doesn’t know it, the condition I am currently suffering from is caused by the chickenpox virus I contracted over 50 years ago. It has been lying dormant in my nervous system where the body’s immune system cannot get at it. I have so far suffered relatively lightly but a bout of severe nerve pain could ensue. I am not looking forward to the possibility and am hoping for the best but am prepared for the worst.

Malcolm Watts

Placebo effect quantified

It’s not often that we obtain numerical information about the strength of a placebo effect. Thus we should applaud the manufacturers of Voltaren for their webpage hcp/ efficacy.aspx (“Direct route to relief”).

Under a caption “Patients experienced a 51% improvement in [osteoarthritis] knee pain …” is a bar graph that shows both a 51 percent improvement with Voltaren gel and a 39 percent improvement with placebo gel. (Treatment period was 12 weeks.)

Similarly, “a 46% improvement in … hand pain …” turns out to be 47 percent improvement after six weeks of using Voltaren gel versus 40 percent improvement with placebo.

To simple-minded people like me, this sounds like a Voltaren effect of 12 percent for knee pain and 7 percent improvement for hand pain. I’m not knocking Voltaren, which I use myself, but clearly external use of the gel is not necessarily superior to taking this medication by mouth.

To the practitioners of alternative medicine, these results are wonderful. Regardless of treatment, after four to six weeks hand pain will be significantly reduced. Similarly a few months of quack therapy will reduce knee pain by almost half.

Jay D Mann


Homeopathic ‘vaccines’ on sale in New Zealand

The website is selling such items as homeopathic immunisation and travel kits . On offer are such remedies as Natrium Muriaticum 200C which, it is claimed, will protect against all types of Malaria and Haemophilus 200 for protection against H I B (this abbreviation is for Haemophilus influenzae type B which causes severe pneumonia and meningitis in infants).

The site’s owners say:

Endo Health Limited provides accessible and experienced health care based on Homoeopathic principles as defined by Dr Samuel Hahnemann in the Sixth edition of The Organon of Medicine. We also manufacture and supply a full range of homoeopathic products, both classical and complexes, in a number of different presentations. We provide Homoeopathic prophylaxis for childhood diseases, and individualised kits for travel to areas where there is risk of exotic diseases, as well as kits to alleviate the medical dangers of travelling by aircraft. We provide information on vaccines used in the prevention of childhood diseases. Unless stated otherwise, all this information is sourced from Medical journals and has been available to all Medical Practitioners and Medical authorities.

One of the homeopaths claims to have been a pharmacist for many years and to be President of the Homoeopathic Association of New Zealand, an organisation which appears to be non-existent.

I’ve been aware for a while that some people have sourced and used these homoeopathic immunisations , so as an individual I’ve sent an email off to Medsafe’s Compliance Unit stating that I believe that these homoeopaths and their website’s sales could be harmful to people, and that the site would likely contravene the Medicines Act as they are making therapeutic claims (as per New Zealand Regulatory Guidelines for Medicines Edition 6.13, March 2011).

They also attempt to circumvent the section 34 provision which allows natural therapists and others to supply after being requested by or on behalf of that person to use his own judgment as to the treatment required . They do this by saying the Medicines Act requires that there must be an exchange of information and this consultation (really an order for the product) may be by email. This would also be likely to be actionable under advertising standards, as they have requirements under their therapeutic product and service codes regarding advertising and therapeutic claims.

Unfortunately I suspect even if this is found to be correct and some action is taken, this will be dealt with by the old slap with a wet bus ticket (probably a cease and desist letter asking for them to remove the claims as to therapeutic purpose and/or asking for the withdrawal of the products), if any of the other examples I’ve seen over the years (eg adulterated supplements) are any guide. I’m not aware of anything happening other than withdrawal of the unsafe product after Medsafe has done testing, even though the product(s) may have been supplied and sold for quite a period of time and would pose a risk to the consumer.

That being said, it may help if other individuals or the society consider taking some action, as well such as contacting relevant agencies to express concern or even sending out a press release addressing the anti-vaccine stance of those in the alt med industry. The consumer is being exploited by sale of homoeopathic vaccines and homoeoprophylaxis products that claim to prevent diseases such as malaria, typhoid and cholera. Consumers could become seriously ill if they come into contact with these diseases and haven’t used proven interventions.

This could be another opportunity to call on homeopaths to do the right thing and come out in support of conventional vaccines and against the practice of homeopathic vaccination . As the Ministry of Health says, There is no evidence that homoeopathic ‘immunisation’ provides any protection against infectious diseases. The UK Faculty of Homoeopathy supports conventional immunisation.


Fault is with Creationism

Bernard Beckett (Skeptic 95 , p8) says the ability of Creationism to make the same predictions as evolutionary psychology shows that the latter is not a scientific process. But the same is equally true of evolutionary biology. (“God made cats resemble tigers, and apples resemble pears, because He felt like it.”) The fault is with Creationism, not evolution. An omnipotent Creator can be used to explain/predict absolutely anything, not only the universe as it is, but any other universe, possible or im-. You might say that Creationism, like Nostradamus and astrology, is very good for predicting the past. That is their fundamental failing.

Billy Joel’s daughter (p18) obviously had quite the wrong idea about what an overdose in homeopathy is. If she had sniffed the closed bottle, she would certainly have died as she wished. Homeopathy patients should be warned.

Hugh Young
Pukerua Bay


Witch-hunting ancient and modern

Claire and I have taken a year off to teach English in the Czech Republic. These two photos are our friend Lada indicating the site where Agatha Toott was burned to death 400 years ago.

Agatha Toott was convicted of being a witch and burned at the stake. Contemporary records indicate that she was guilty of nothing more than being outspoken and perhaps a little eccentric.

The brass memorial plaque is an effort to keep alive her memory and remind people of the consequences of ignorance and hysteria.

I would like to propose a brass memorial plaque be placed outside the site of the Christchurch Civic Creche, in memory of Peter Ellis, his co-workers and the unfortunate children caught up in events reminiscent of a modern witch trial, fueled by the ignorance and hysteria of certain people who ought to have known better.

Pozdrav od, John and Claire Welch


A non-remedy for a non-disease

I had to wait for my prescription at the pharmacy and while browsing the shelves noticed a new homeopathic remedy for white-tail spider bites. At $18.40 a small bottle it’s money for jam! No, that metaphor will just not work; perhaps money for water would be better? White-tail spider bites have been blamed for a huge range of injuries but the scientific evidence has discounted this attribution. (Those pesky skeptics again…!) Still, I thought it rather amusing to see a ‘non remedy’ for a ‘non disease’.

John Welch, Picton

The printed word – the best communication there is

Readers may be as amused as I was by the following quote from Tim LaHaye:

“The best way to reach the minds of people is the printed page. God chose the printed page to communicate with mankind. So how can you improve on that?”

No respectable skeptic would believe that even an American fundamentalist could be that stupid, so the reference is: Have a Nice Doomsday, by Nicholas Guyatt: an interview with LaHaye p 275.

Jim Ring, Nelson


Non-custodial sentence inappropriate

In delivering a non-custodial sentence in the Janet Moses makutu case, Justice Simon France noted that expert witnesses considered the perpetrators were not acting out any customary cultural or religious practice. The appropriateness of a non-custodial sentence for manslaughter has been rightly questioned. Of additional concern, however, is that a golden opportunity appears to have been missed to condemn the very idea of makutu, that someone can be possessed by an evil entity necessitating a special curse-lifting ceremony or exorcism. Exorcisms, of course, are not confined to Maori culture.

Surely the time is long overdue for totally discarding all such outmoded notions of a pre-scientific age, and in particular makutu itself given that it can engender barbaric practices and lead to tragic consequences. Justice France has been reported as even expressing the view “Makutu did not kill her. She drowned”, seemingly completely overlooking the fact that it was an insane belief in makutu that generated all that followed.