Skeptics in the Greenhouse

I attended the recent Christchurch Conference and greatly enjoyed the excellent standard of presentation and discussion. One small item, however, left me wondering about the organisation that I had recently joined: the inclusion of global warming research in the list of core topics alongside biodynamic agriculture, alternative medicine and UFOs.

Global warming research is mainstream science. Many hundreds of ordinary scientists from dozens of countries have (with great difficulty!) reached a “consensus”. As a first step, I recommend the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) publication “Climate Change 2001 – Synthesis Report” published by Cambridge University Press. It is 400 pages long and is not easy reading, but what can you expect in a summary compiled by a large and diverse committee of technocrats?

A number of “Greenhouse Skeptics” vigorously oppose the findings of the IPCC. This is right and proper – science has always progressed by robust debate. These people – particularly those who have read the literature and can argue on the basis of evidence – are a distinct minority worldwide, but this does not necessarily mean they are wrong. They could be more perceptive than most, and history may prove them right. Alternatively, they could be misinformed or even eccentric. Many people react against any new idea that challenges their world-view. Many argue that there is an IPCC or environmentalist conspiracy.

The processes of science, through normal debate in the scientific media, will clarify the situation in the fullness of time. Is it the task of the Skeptics to wade into the fray? I have been disturbed by statements from well-known Skeptics, indicating that they have not read the mainstream Greenhouse literature, but are familiar with the “alternative” literature. This reminds me of people who are conversant with organic farming or homeopathy, but who are totally ignorant of conventional agriculture or medicine.

My message to Skeptics? Don’t pick a fight with bona fide scientists who are working on global warming, merely because some nutty environmentalists have sided with them. Be sceptical, by all means, but include the “Greenhouse Skeptics” in your scepticism. If you are interested enough in this topic to want to include it as a core area of activity, for Galileo’s sake find out more about it so you can form a balanced viewpoint.

Piers Maclaren

Alternative Veterinary Medicine

Some recent correspondence on the Skeptics’ committee mailing list led to John Welch writing to the Veterinary Council of New Zealand. This is their response.

Dear Dr Welch

You asked how the Veterinary Council deals with alternative animal medicine.

The council has established a Code of Professional Conduct that sets the principles of expertise, performance, behaviour, integrity and accountability expected of competent and reasonable veterinarians in New Zealand. Section 6.8 of this code refers to Alternative/complementary medicine and methods. I quote:

“Alternative or complementary therapies do not usually have the weight of scientific proof of their efficacy and therefore the use of these products and/or services must be considered a discretionary use. A veterinarian using an alternative or complementary therapy must do so in accordance with the NZVA Code of Practice for the Discretionary Use of Human and Veterinary Medicines by Registered Veterinarians.”

“In the event that alternative/complementary methods of diagnosis or treatment are requested by a client or are proposed by a veterinarian, the veterinarian must give a full explanation to the client, so that the client can make an informed decision. At all times the welfare of the animal is of paramount consideration.”

As in the US there are a number of veterinarians in New Zealand who are interested in alternative animal therapies. You may wish to contact the Holistic Veterinary Society, which is a special interest branch of the NZ Veterinary Association. The president of the Holistic Veterinary Society is Viv Harris, Tasman Street Veterinary Clinic, 23 Tasman St, Wellington. I know there has been healthy debate occurring amongst members of the NZ Veterinary Association. I have forwarded your letter to its CEO, Murray Gibb, and he may respond to you. There are also NZQA accredited courses in alternative forms of animal health taught at institutions in NZ such as the Bay of Plenty College of Homeopathy. The Veterinary Council is not in the business of promoting particular forms of veterinary training (apart from recognising the Massey Bachelor of Veterinary Science as the primary degree) but it has had communication with the College about such matters as the recording of qualifications attained on the Register of Veterinarians, and the restrictions on the use of the term “veterinary” or “veterinarian” or “specialist” in relation to training courses.

I hope the above gives you some idea of the council’s position in this regard.

Yours sincerely,
Julie Haggie
Secretary, Veterinary Council
of New Zealand


Ritalin and ADHD

Professor JS Werry deserves thanks for his contribution in these pages regarding the present use/abuse of methylphenidate (Ritalin) and ADHD.

Despite the Professor’s reassurances regarding the reality of ADHD, I’m afraid I remain an unconvinced sceptic.

Perhaps Professor Werry could explain where ADHD comes from. It certainly wasn’t a feature of our lives in the fifties and sixties, and now millions of young children worldwide, many of them under 10, are being treated for many years of their lives with a powerful amphetamine-like drug for a “non-disease” epidemic.

Time magazine in its (admittedly dated) July 18, 1994 cover story reported that many European countries, notably France and England, have only 1/10 as many ADHD cases as the USA. Japan seems to have little experience of ADHD at all – yet it has been termed “the educational disorder of the 1990s.” The USA has experienced a four-fold increase in ADHD since 1990.

Contrary to Professor Werry’s assurances, academics are by no means united over ADHD and its treatment with methylphenidate/Ritalin. Indeed, an increasing number of professionals decry this alarming and controversial trend of labelling children with this psychiatric condition.

One of the dissenters is Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., former special education teacher and author of The Myth of the ADD Child. Armstrong strongly questions the rush to label a child having problems in school as “ADHD.” He asks how ADHD can be a “mental disorder” when its symptoms are so selectively displayed – for example when an ADHD child is internally motivated to focus – as when deeply engrossed in a video game – the inability to pay attention is apparently not present.

I would be very interested to find out whether a diagnosis of ADHD at an early age has any bearing on later youth suicide, whether ADHD children are more or less likely to come from a dysfunctional family background, and the reason for the apparent prevalence of ADHD in some countries and not others. The overwhelming preponderance of young males in the statistics is also of concern.

Mike Houlding, Mt Maunganui

Possum Peppering

Perhaps John Welch is a little unfair to the Green Party when he condemns them for claiming that burnt possum testicles deter possums from eating vegetation. As a doctor, he will know that removing testicles not only annoys the possum, but also reduces its chances of reproduction.

The Green Party does not go far enough. If they would guarantee to remove every testicle from every possum in this country, they would certainly get my vote. the whole exercise would give relief to our forests, and possibly also to the female possums, who in one possum generation would die childless but lonely. (Abridged.)

David L Smith, Titirangi


Children & Quackery

It is hard to be sure what Mike Houlding is on about in his rather opaque letter but I gather that he is lumping the use of clairvoyants, homoeopathic remedies and ADHD under some collective rubric of quackery.

He seems to be some kind of medical practitioner in which case he should have received or known about the Ministry of Health’s publication on ADHD – its diagnosis and treatment published in August last year (available on the web under MOH publications). This publication, which is an evidential distillate of knowledge in the area shows first of all, that ADHD is a bona fide medical taxon that requires the same kind of professional diagnosis as does any other disorder in medicine and second, that its treatment with methylphenidate (which he calls Ritalin despite the fact that Pharmac no longer pays for that brand name) has more support in terms of efficacy and safety than many other treatments in medicine. The publication also sets out the standards by which this treatment is to be used and its effect monitored.

I take strong exception to his comment lumping the diagnosis and stimulant treatment of ADHD as “institutionalized child abuse”. This does little credit to the 40 years systematic research in the disorder and the care with which most medical specialists in paediatrics and child psychiatry in NZ take with children so affected.

If Houlding is a medical professional, then he needs to take some time properly to inform himself about this topic than shooting from the hip without the benefit of any intervening cognition.

JS Werry, Emeritus Professor, Child and Youth Psychiatrist

Global Warming

Pious thoughts from wise fools, by P J O’Rourke

Mom says, “Global warming or no global warming, it’s still winter. Wear a hat.”

Robin Capper

Two Views of the World Trade Centre Attack

  1. From Editorial in ‘Skeptical Inquirer’ Jan/Feb, 2002.
    Brian Farha, a professor of education at Oklahoma City University and member of CSICOP’s astrology sub-committee, wrote to me to propose we run a Forum column with this introduction: “Following are detailed summaries of documented psychic predictions-to this author’s knowledge-regarding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on America.” That would be followed by a blank page.

  2. From the newsletter of the American Society for Psychical Research, December, 2001.
    Through our website, we have initiated a survey of pre-cognitive experiences specifically related to the terrorist attack.

Submitted without comment by Bernard Howard.

Not quite hot off the press

Three or four years ago Ralph Marinelli, a researcher at the Rudolf Steiner Research Institute in Michigan, made a great discovery. The heart is not a pump. Blood is self-propulsive, energised by the primary force of cosmic levity it is self-levitating. Scientists have been confused by mis-understanding the concept of centrifugal force. The research institute is very concerned that this major development in physiology has been almost totally ignored. If anybody can channel William Harvey [1578-1657] it would be very interesting to get his comments.
Jim Ring


False Memory re Subs?

In the latest NZ Skeptic, beside the chair-entity’s report, there is a false history of subscriptions. From written records: the sub was $10 for ’86 to ’88, then $20 for ’89 to ’91 and $25 since. The new $40 rate follows the third increase since starting. I would hate to think the Skeptics allow false statements to go uncorrected.

Al Dennard

Two views of the World Trade Centre Attack

  1. From Editorial in Skeptical Inquirer Jan/Feb, 2002.
    Brian Farha, a professor of education at Oklahoma City University and member of CSICOP’s astrology subcommittee, wrote to me to propose we run a Forum column with this introduction: “Following are detailed summaries of documented psychic predictions-to this author’s knowledge-regarding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on America.” That would be followed by a blank page.

  2. From the newsletter of the American Society for Psychical Research, Dec, 2001.
    Through our website, we have initiated a survey of precognitive experiences specifically related to the terrorist attack.

Submitted without comment by Bernard Howard

More Brickbats for Glen Fiddich

Some years ago, returning from the Continent, the in-flight duty-free catalog offered Glen Fiddich and Glen Morangie. I ordered the Glen Morangie. It was bad enough to be told that they were out of stock, without being patronized by the salesgirl (“air-stewardess”) insisting on showing me what a Glen Fiddich bottle looks like. Very nice, so could I have a Glen Fiddich bottle refilled with Glen Morangie whisky! As for Wilson’s, (See Beer and Skittles, Issue 61) well I shan’t be surprised if it doesn’t taste as good as Glen Morangie, but will be disappointed if it doesn’t taste better than Glen Fiddich.

Kris Howard, Scotland

Organic Figures

In Philippa Stevenson’s note Report Debunks Organic Benefits (NZ Skeptic 61) she quotes from the NZ Herald that 10 million hectares in organic farming round the world yield $50 billion worth of produce, or about $5000 per hectare (NZ dairy farmers would expect to exceed this), while 44 million hectares in transgenic crops, mostly in the US, yield produce worth $7.5 billion, or $167 per hectare.

I would have expected that Philippa, or any other good skeptic, or the editor of NZ Skeptic, would have been skeptical about these figures and checked their credibility. Or are skeptics, so zealous not to be gulled by claims of the paranormal, quite gullible about claims of the normal?

Pat Palmer

Philippa Stevenson is a Herald reporter and not a member of the NZ Skeptics. The article was reprinted as it originally appeared in the NZ Herald. ed.

Children and Quackery

Pippa MacKay’s Bravo Award-winning item When Children are the Victims of Quackery made sad reading. Yet it is merely another reflection of a country that is losing its collective marbles. Volumes could be written about the reasons for this creeping looniness, but surely chapter one, volume one would have to be ‘our politically correct times’.

An encounter recently with the mother of a 4 year old has put me in a pessimistic frame of mind. The mother is a registered nurse, ie a ‘caregiver’, the 4 year old is her son – a lively, articulate and energetic boy, filled with inquisitiveness, brimming with energy and apparently desperate to be at school learning about the world. The boy is such a handful that a child psychologist has diagnosed him as an ADHD patient and recommended Ritalin for him. The mother is tired, but doubtful regarding Ritalin, yet remains tempted by such a trite and convenient diagnosis. I am treating the mother, who coincidentally swears by arnica ointment and enjoys reading the Women’s Weekly’s clairvoyant’s page.

It seems we are surrounded by the paradox of people who listen to the local clairvoyant with respect, and self-medicate with homeopathy yet have post-graduate education. Similarly I have spoken to anxious parents (and grandparents) about Ritalin, and heard enough to believe that Ritalin is being administered to children (almost always boys) who seem to be more energetic, more inquisitive and more assertive than their teachers or caregivers can deal with.

There can be nothing more horrific than child abuse, and God knows we have seen such abuse aplenty – but shouldn’t we be directing the sceptical searchlight towards the institutionalised child abuse prescribed and condoned in the name of ADHD.

Mike Houlding

Bravo recipient responds

Thank you kindly for the recent award for journalistic excellence I received from your society for my editorial in the NZ Medical Journal on alternative treatments. It was wonderful to be honoured by a society such as yours whose aims and intentions I absolutely support and whom I have always held in the highest regard.

With grateful thanks.

Pippa Mackay


Jim Ring’s article on sodium chloride in Skeptic number 60 didn’t mention a classic case. Red Seal markets a range of 12 remedies in tablet form called Dr Scheussler’s Biochemic Tissue Salts. Among them is a substance called Nat Mur which is described as a “water distributor” and suggested for “excessive moisture and dryness in any part of the system – water colds, dry nose and throat, heartburn, great thirst, watery eyes, skin chaffing, dryness of the bowel, after-effects of alcohol, loss of taste and smell”

Nat Mur is nothing more than sodium chloride. It is said to be “triturated”, which just means it is crushed into a powder. The price works out at about $40 per kilogram.

Bill Keir,Hokianga


More Brocken sightings

I enjoyed Jim Ring’s “the Spectre of Kahurangi” (Autumn 2001). In Kahurangi National Park there is a bridge called “Brocken Bridge”, quite close to Ghost Creek. Could this be an indication of supernatural forces emanating from this enchanting region?

As a NZFS park ranger there for two years, I discovered a more prosaic explanation, at least for the bridge. It seems that someone stampeded a herd of cattle on to the old bridge during a flood, and the cattle – and bridge – were lost in the floodwaters. The name then became “Broken Bridge”. We Forest Service staff were not renowned for our literary skills, and various track junctions started sprouting signs saying “Brocken Bridge”.

Rather disappointing, really.

Piers Maclaren

Homoeopathy test?

As a result of an accident on State Highway One recently a quantity of rat poison was tipped into the sea near Kaikoura. At first sight this seemed to me to be Mother Nature setting up a large-scale test of homoeopathy. My reasoning was as follows: we have a poison diluted with an enormous volume of water (tides are strong and the sea very deep off the Kaikoura coast), and we have succussion (see the surf breaking over the rocks). The rat poison, brodifacoum, like the better known warfarin, is an anti-coagulant, causing death by extensive bleeding. So, by homoeopathic principles, a very high dilution should have the opposite effect, causing strokes and heart failure among the seals, dolphins and whales, brought on by clottability of their blood.

I could see that measuring this effect could be difficult, but I persisted with my calculations. Sadly, I abandoned the project, chiefly because the concentration of rat poison in the sea turned out to be far too high. The amount of material dumped in the sea, 18 tonnes, was quite large, and even allowing for only a low proportion of active ingredient in the bait, and assuming it to have been instantly and uniformly dispersed in deep water of some thousands of square kilometres in area, the final concentration was in the order of one molecule of poison in ten litres of sea. This is, of course, far too high for homoeopathic work, where concentrations of one molecule in a volume equal to that of the Earth are normal. Regretfully, I shall not be issuing an invitation to marine mammals to volunteer for a study of the after-effects of this accident.

Bernard Howard

Sensitive Issues

In the last issue of the Skeptic (Autumn 2001), I quoted the reaction of the Commissioner for Children, Roger McClay, to the news of Liam Williams-Holloways death:

“Whether a different course of action would have been better, there’s not much point in worrying about it now.”

That response troubled me as it seemed so out of character, so I rang the office and asked Mr McClay about it. It seems that news of Liam’s death was sprung on Mr McClay while he was at a conference and he was asked to comment on the spot. The news upset him but he didn’t think it appropriate to take the family to task at that time, and this was the result.

The question now is, having had time to think about the implications of the whole saga, what will the office’s/commissioner’s response be next time? We’ll get a chance to find out at this year’s conference when an advocate from the Office will be speaking, so come to Hamilton with your own questions!

Vicki Hyde

Rebirth of Quackery

G B Shaw once said that the only difference between animals and humans was that humans like taking pills. It’s clear things haven’t changed since his time when you visit a library and see the number of books on how to be healthy.

Many quack medicine producers have made their money here out of our gullibles and have moved on. Bowel cleansers, hair restorers, nail hardeners, bust developers and fat loss treatments to name a few.

As one example, Black strap molasses’s only virtue was that due to insoluble matter it acted as a bowel irritant with laxative results. Now if you have a lot of molasses left over from sugar refining, use it to make rum or stock lick and get rid of the rest as a good health supplement.

When deer lose their antlers in the wild they recycle them, but when farmed the antler is a dangerous weapon so they are removed at the velvet stage. Now because the Chinese have used them for medicine for thousands of years there is money to be made out of this by-product.

Bee keepers and retired politicians are extolling the benefits of pollen, bee venom and propolis. Their claims for vitamin, mineral and amino acid content are way over the top. All the bee venom rubs which claim to be the panacea of all our skeletal and muscular remedies have added counter irritants which give the impression that this wonder of bee venom is being absorbed, which fortunately it is not. Finally, we come to propolis, bee glue, a dark brown resinous substance collected by the bee from trees. This phenolic resin is used to seal the hive and retain warmth, the antispetic properties of the resin will have some effect in keeping the bacterial integrity of the hive intact.

These are but a few of the nonsense claims to which we could add, electrical devices, magnets, emu oil, homeopathics and a plethora of herbals. If proof of efficacy could be established then such items would be added to the orthodox medicinal armoury. Meanwhile remember “ashes to ashes and dust to dust, if the liquor don’t get you the free radicals must”.

Alan Pickmere, retired pharmacist


I hate to spoil a good story, especially a skeptical one, but is there something slightly adrift with William Ireland’s piece on the Kaikoura UFOs?

He says the camera was looking down at an angle of perhaps 38 degrees, but does not use the figure to explain anything. However, looking down at that angle, at an object 6 km away, implies a height of 4.7 km, or 3.7 km if the distance is measured along the line of sight. But I thought an Argosy typically flew at about 6000 or 8000 feet, or 1.8 – 2.4 km.

The 6 km is given as a minimum, so the discrepancy could be worse than this: if the distance comes from the aircraft radar it should be reasonably reliable, so does this mean the angle is wrong, or my figure for a low-tech aircraft cruising height, or what?

Kerry Wood


Wellington’s Healing Touch

I was interested to read a recent article in the NZ Skeptic on Healing Touch, as I am a consultant anaesthetist at Wellington Hospital.

When I heard this “service” was to be offered to our patients, I immediately protested to CEO Leo Mercer.

During discussion he was unhappy with what he saw as my unnecessarily adversarial stance, and felt my offer to go to the police fraud squad was not a constructive approach.

My response to him was that there was absolutely no evidence that this was a proven form of healing. He replied the personal interaction between a nurse and her patient was a vital element in promoting the patient’s welfare and recovery.

I asked why dress it up in some kind of unproven mumbo jumbo, and turn it into something mystical. I also said that if this interaction had a spiritual basis, the nursing service was promoting religion, and not science or medicine, and was therefore misusing public funds.

In reply to that he asked whether I was calling for the withdrawal of the hospital chaplaincy service, which is also at least partially funded out of taxation. I said the chaplains were employed for their religious role, and no matter who funded it, they do not pretend to be anything else. Nurses are not employed as spiritual, magical, or religious advisers, and should not take on that role.

He said much of the practice of medicine has not been proven nor subjected to formal trial or analysis, a stance I agree with. However, the failings of medicine do not defend Healing Touch or anything else. What they call for is more and better scientific research in medicine, not the acceptance of anything else.

Dr Mercer agreed to raise my concerns with the senior nurses. Nothing has happened. The courses continue, and recently a seminar on the evidence supporting the energy basis of Healing Touch was offered.

Dr Mercer has now gone the way of all hospital CEOs – away from the hospital to somewhere, anywhere, else.

But the Healers Touch on.

Graham Sharpe, Consultant Anaesthetist


Cathie Comments

I just wanted to make a comment on the clipping from the Christchurch Star concerning “nuclear extinction” which appeared on p.9 of the NZ Skeptic periodical. In the clipping, a refutation of this possibility was based on some writings of one Bruce Cathie who is claimed therein to be a mathematician among other things.

That Mr Cathie is read by many around the world cannot be in doubt. The claim that he is a mathematician is an insult to real mathematicians. Mr Cathie is best described in my opinion as a numerologist. I read his book “Harmonic 33” when I was a starry- eyed (but scientifically educated) teenager.

On the basis of what I read, I wrote to the author outlining the defects in his arguments in the early 70’s. The claim concerning the timing of nuclear explosions was among them. I pointed out that nuclear reactors don’t stop and start at particular times and that fission bombs which work on the same basic principles don’t either. I got a reply from his secretary saying he was too busy to answer correspondence. I was disappointed to say the least.

All Mr Cathie’s “predictions” about the French tests were retrospective. I have a firm principle of making those who claim to be able to predict things based on numbers or anything else to front up with a date in advance of a specific prediction. To date, not a single prediction made (and there are precious few) has ever come true.

Other material in that book included photos of mysterious aerials, one of which was instantly recognizable as a quad antenna used by some amateur radio operators. It is too easy for scientifically illiterate people to swallow this stuff and there was quite enough of it to make me gag, even at my tender age back then.

I won’t bore you with a list of examples but the doomsday predictions surrounding the recent appearance of a certain comet have disappeared into nothingness as have those surrounding the planetary conjunction of which Bernard Howard spoke in the same edition of NZ Skeptic. I have no hesitation in claiming that Bruce Cathie is a charlatan whose books should be left sitting on the shelf.

Malcolm Watts, Wellington


Bob Metcalfe (Forum NZ Skeptic 54) seems to be calling for a change in editorial policy on footnotes and references. This has been consistent throughout the history of this society and any change would completely alter the character of this journal. What do members want? I thank him for his apology. Anything that increases feedback on articles in NZ Skeptic and the numbers of letters in Forum is to be welcomed.

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