In a decision which sets an important precedent for US science education, a court has ruled against the teaching of the theory of ‘Intelligent Design’ alongside Darwinian evolution (BBC, 20 December). The ruling comes after a group of parents in the Pennsylvania town of Dover had taken the school board to court for demanding biology classes not teach evolution as fact.

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Don’t bother watching the skies

Could it be that visitations from flying saucers, which have been so frequent over the last 60 years, are now on the wane? Or is something more sinister going on? British UFO-watching clubs, it seems, may have to close because of a lack of sightings, and dwindling interest (The Guardian, 11 August).

Chris Parr, coordinator of the Cumbrian branch of the British UFO Hunters, has announced his group may be forced to wind up. There don’t seem to be any UFOs in Cumbria any more. “In Cumbria we have gone from 60 UFO sightings in 2003 to 40 in 2004 and none at all this year,” said Parr. “It means that the number of people keeping their eyes on the skies is greatly diminished. We are a dying breed in this part of the country. I put it down to the end of The X Files, a lack of military exercises in the area that would produce UFO sightings, and a lack of strange phenomena.” A lack of strange phenomena or a shortage of strange people? Guardian journalist Stephen Moss suggested we take our pick.

It has not been a happy couple of years for ufology. The closure last year of UFO magazine, following the sudden death of its editor Graham Birdsall, was a disaster for the close-knit UFO-spotting community. UFO groups in Indiana and New Jersey are also struggling.

“The whole UFO thing is a kind of meme,” says Susan Blackmore, a psychologist who studies paranormal activity. “It’s a craze, a bit like sudoku. UFOs were just a rather long-lived version. But crazes thrive on novelty, and eventually that dies out. It’s taken a long time, but it’s good that the UFO era is over. My prediction is it will go away for a long time, then come back.”

She says belief in UFOs and the existence of extraterrestrials, while mostly harmless, can in some cases be very damaging. “For most people, belief in them is neither here nor there, but some people can become very frightened and obsessed. It can also lead to an anti-science attitude and the belief that everything is being hushed up.”

But all is not lost. Researcher Russ Kellett has documented 80 reports from North Yorkshire in the past eight months. Kellett is one of those who believes there is an official cover-up of the number of UFO incidents. “You can’t have panic,” he says. “All we can hope is that someone will bring the truth out about this.”

Veteran ufologist Denis Plunkett, founder chairman of the British Flying Saucer Bureau, insists that ufology should not be written off. “Belief in UFOs and extraterrestrial life has gone up from 10% of the population to 80% over the 50-plus years the BFSB has existed.”

Nick Pope, author of Open Skies, Closed Minds, used to run the Ministry of Defence’s UFO project. “I became more open when I was there,” he says. “Now I won’t rule out an extraterrestrial explanation. During my three-year tour of duty from 1991 to 94, I had to investigate 200 to 300 sightings a year … with about 5% there was evidence of something more intriguing.”

It was 1978, he says, that was “the peak in UFO sightings (it helped that Close Encounters of the Third Kind had been released the previous year), when there were 750 reports. We have seen these UFO waves many times.”

David Clarke, a historian at Sheffield University and the Fortean Times’ UFO correspondent, says people haven’t stopped believing, but they do seem to be seeing far less than they did and it’s not clear why. “There’s been a massive drop in sightings since 1996, which is when The X Files was on TV. It may also be that since 9/11 people have had other things to worry about. There is not just less interest in UFOs, but in all supernatural phenomena. The MoD also lost interest in UFOs when the cold war ended: what they had really been looking for was Russian intruder aircraft. They only collate sightings now because MPs keep asking questions about UFOs.”

Clarke thinks the rise and fall of ufology is a rich subject for study and is currently trying to attract funds for just such an undertaking. “I see it as part of modern folklore,” he says. “UFOs are like modern-day angels, and descriptions of meeting aliens are just like descriptions of people meeting angels in the Middle Ages.”

Psychic fails to predict crystal ball blaze

A French amateur psychic’s powers were under sharp scrutiny after his crystal ball started an inferno that burnt out his flat (The Times, London, 12 August).

The fortune-telling device caused a fire that destroyed two other flats and rendered several more uninhabitable.

Herve Vandrot, 24, who studies botany at Edinburgh University, left the ball on a windowsill while he sauntered off to the city’s Royal Botanical Garden.

He returned surprised to find his top floor flat ablaze and suffered blistering to a hand after dashing in to rescue some coursework. He was dragged out of the building by some of the 35 firefighters who rushed to tackle the inferno.

Vandrot had only been in the flat for two weeks. After a night in hospital, he insisted the crystal ball was not to blame. “I don’t think it is capable of doing that. I think it was an electrical fault; the plug of my computer was melted.”

However, the firefighters said they could see it coming. “Strong sunlight through glass, particularly if the glass is filled with liquid like a goldfish bowl, concentrates the sun’s rays and acts like a magnifying glass,” a spokesman said. “The fire had been started by the ball concentrating sunshine on a pile of washing.”

Homeopathy flunks again

It should be no surprise to our regular readers, but The Lancet has published a study showing homeopathy to be no better than placebo (NZ Herald, 27 August).

Researchers from the University of Berne, Switzerland, studied the results of 110 trials involving homeopathy and placebo treatments for problems ranging from respiratory infections to post-surgical pain relief. They also looked at 110 trials that used conventional medicine against placebo treatments. While small trials that were considered low quality showed some benefit for homeopathy over placebo, there was no difference between the two in higher-quality, larger trials. But the benefits of conventional medicine were seen over all the studies.

The study concluded: “When the analysis was restricted to large trials of high quality there was no convincing evidence that homeopathy was superior to placebo, whereas for conventional medicine an important effect remained.”

This suggests that homeopathy works if you believe in it, according to Professor Matthias Egger. “Our study powerfully illustrates the interplay and cumulative effect of different sources of bias.”

Feet a shaky basis for health?

The Dominion Post (5 September) devoted half a page to reflexology which, according to practitioner Tessa Therkleson, is the key to unravelling problems of the body and mind.

It is, she says, based on the principle that areas on the feet and hands correspond to the glands, organs and other parts of the body. Reflexologists believe the technique can be used to treat diabetes, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease and many other conditions, including aches and indigestion.

Mrs Therkelson says she is aware many think reflexology is nonsense for the gullible. “I thought it was pretty incredible too, till I began doing it in 2000. I was shocked at how effective it was.”

Wellington podiatrist and skeptic Leo Brown was less enthusiastic, though declared himself tolerant of different approaches. While he acknowledged many patients reported benefits he said it was worrying that maps showing the location of different parts of the body on points of the foot varied between different schools of reflexology.

He also had reservations about a lack of a disciplinary body for reflexologists, who complete a one-year diploma, and the fact that registration is voluntary, not mandatory “I want to be generous but I can’t allow myself.”

He admitted it was difficult to provide scientific evidence for intangible benefits, but added, “It’s not unreasonable to assume that if someone is feeling a great sense of wellbeing, then they’ll improve.”


Dead money

A spiritualist group has been given $2500 to teach people to communicate with the dead, the Herald On Sunday reports (15 May). The Foundation of Spiritualist Mediums received the Auckland ratepayer money after an application to an Auckland City Council committee. Foundation president Natalie Huggard said it was an essential service to Auckland and was in high demand.

Many people, she said, had problems communicating with the spirit world and didn’t know how to deal with it. A lot of these people, concerned about hearing voices, went to doctors who told them they were schizophrenic and prescribed medication.

The foundation ran courses teaching people how to communicate with the dead and how to heal the sick and injured. The money would fund the foundation’s application to the New Zealand Qualifications Authority for recognition as a recognised training body.

She told the Herald On Sunday the organisation suffered from scepticism because of its ‘metaphysical’ focus and NZQA accreditation would strengthen its credibility. Dunedin writer Hayden Walles said in the NZ Herald (25 May) when Auckland sneezes, the rest of the country had to deal with the ectoplasm. He noted that Telecom and other companies “had shown unseemly lethargy in exploiting this untapped corner of the telecommunications market, but not the Auckland City Council.” Dr Cathy Casey, the chairwoman of the community development and equity committee, said some members expressed concern, resulting in a reduction of the foundation’s grant from the requested $4500 to $2500.

Perhaps the committee saw little reason to give additional funding to Youthline to stop teen suicides when you can simply talk to them after the event? Dr Casey defended the grant, claiming the group contributes to the city’s vision of a vibrant, colourful community. “Well, vibrations are certainly involved,” Walles wrote.

“I’m worried, Auckland. Can I now expect to hear that the transport and urban linkages committee has been consulting eastern gurus for advice on using levitation to ease traffic congestion?”

The trouble with cats

The plastic bottle scourge has hit Japan homes, writes investigative reporter extraordinaire Alice Gordenker in The Japan Times (19 May). They are around not just homes and gardens, but cars as well. Curiosity got the better of Gordenker, who decided to investigate and found it’s all about cats. First of all, she says, ‘petto botoru’ is the generic Japanese term for drink bottles (PET stands for polyethylene tetraphthalate, and has nothing to do with pets she points out.) When filled with water and placed outside, the bottles become ‘nekoyoke’ or scarecats. The theory is that sunlight refracting in the water frightens away cats. (My cat sits for hours by and on the fish tank, the sun refracting its heart out. The only thing that moves her away is when the fridge door is opened – ed.)

Anyway, Gordenker spent hours researching the topic and reckons it was all due to a TV show in the mid-1990s which featured a woman who said she solved her cat problems this way. Of course, we in NZ know it all started in this country, as a way to deter dogs, which as everyone knows are stupider than cats.

“The trouble is the bottles don’t work. As my friend Hiroshi, a self-anointed feline expert, says, ‘Those bottles are an insult to the intelligence of cats.'”

Not only do they not work, they’re a fire hazard, she said. A man in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture put a bottle on his lawn. It acted like a magnifying glass, focusing sunlight on to the house, causing it to burst into flames. The resulting fire destroyed the shutters and eaves of his house, then jumped and consumed the neighbour’s veranda. Bet that kept the moggies away.

Lawsuit fired at Nasa

Hours after the Nasa probe crashed into comet Tempel 1, legal reverberations were felt in a Moscow court, according to the BBC news (5 July). Amateur astrologer Marina Bay claims that by slamming the probe into the comet, Nasa endangered the future of civilisation.

“Nobody has yet proven that this experiment was safe,” said Ms Bay’s lawyer. “This impact could have altered the orbit of the comet, so now there is a chance that the Tempel may well destroy the earth some day.”

Even if this doesn’t happen, Ms Bay believes any variation in the orbit or the composition of the comet will certainly affect her own fate and she says she is experiencing ‘a moral trauma’ – which only a payment of $300 million will put right.

While Moscow representatives of Nasa have ignored the court hearing, Bay’s legal team remain confident, and are looking for volunteers to join in on the claim. “The impact changed the magnetic properties of the comet, and this could have affected mobile telephony here on Earth. If your phone went down this morning, ask yourself why? And then get in touch with us,” said the lawyer.

On that day my goldfish died. Clearly, Nasa has a lot to answer for.

No hope for enlightenment

Still on the law suit front, a former employee of the New Santana Band has accused musician Carlos Santana and wife of firing him for not being ‘closer to God’, reports the NZ Herald (29 April). In a wrongful termination lawsuit filed in California, Bruce Kuhlman, 59, said Santana’s wife, Deborah, went on a campaign to ‘terminate’ him after her spiritual guru determined through ‘calibration’ tests that Kuhlman was too old to become enlightened. Kuhlman was fired in 2004.

Shroud of a doubt

A French magazine has carried out experiments that again cast doubt on the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. “A medieval technique helped us to make a Shroud,” Science et Vie said in its July issue. After carbon-14 dating, the original was declared a hoax by the then-archbishop of Turin in 1988. Debate flared again this January, following tests by US chemist Raymond Rogers who suggested other parts might be thousands of years old. He reckoned the radiocarbon samples had been taken from a piece that had been sewn into the fabric by nuns who repaired the Shroud after it was damaged in a fire in 1532. Following a method previously used by sceptics, Science et Vie carried out their own experiment and produced their own shroud and concluded it was easier to make a fake shroud than a real one.

Smithsonian to screen ID movie

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History has played host to a film intended to undercut evolution (New York Times May 28, 2005).

The Discovery Institute, a group in Seattle that supports ‘intelligent design,’ screened The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe on June 23.

The film is a documentary based on a 2004 book by Guillermo Gonzalez, an assistant professor of astronomy at Iowa State University, and Jay W Richards, a vice president of the Discovery Institute, that makes the case for the hand of a creator in the design of Earth and the universe.

Museum spokesman, Randall Kremer, said the event should not be taken as support for the views expressed in the film. “It is incorrect for anyone to infer that we are somehow endorsing the video or the content of the video,” he said.

The museum, he said, offers its Baird Auditorium to many organisations and corporations in return for contributions – in the case of the Discovery Institute, US$16,000. When the language of the Discovery Institute’s website was read to him, with its suggestion of support, Kremer said, “We’ll have to look into that.”

Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman said his organisation approached the museum through its public relations company and the museum staff asked to see the film. “They said that they liked it very much – and not only would they have the event at the museum, but they said they would co-sponsor it,” he recalled. “That was their suggestion. Of course we’re delighted.”

Kremer said staff members viewed the film before approving the event to make sure that it complied with the museum’s policy, which states that “events of a religious or partisan political nature” are not permitted, along with personal events such as weddings, or fundraisers, raffles and cash bars. It also states that “all events at the National Museum of Natural History are co-sponsored by the museum.” When asked whether the announcement on the Discovery Institute’s website meant to imply that the museum supports the film and the event, Chapman replied:

“We are not implying in any sense that they endorsed the content, but they are co-sponsoring it, and we are delighted. We’re not claiming anything more than that. They certainly didn’t say, ‘We’re really warming up to intelligent design, and therefore we’re going to sponsor this.'”

Dutch headmaster creates stir over evolution

Meanwhile in the Netherlands, the headmaster of a Protestant school has agreed to stay at home for a few days after causing a stir by his insistence his teachers adhere to Creationism (, 12 May). Peter Boon of Augustinus College in Groningen said in an interview with newspaper Dagblad van het Noorden he could not tolerate one of his teachers telling a class he was a supporter of Evolution. News agency ANP reported that many teachers in the school disagree with this and believe that the Theory of Evolution can go hand-in-hand with the Christian view on how life – and humans in particular – has developed.

During a staff meeting, some teachers indicated to Boon they felt offended and as if they were not being taken seriously. Boonthen said he would create a ‘cooling off period’ by staying away from the school for a few days. He said he regretted his remarks to the paper because the subtleties of his argument had been lost, but added that a teacher cannot simply state to his or her class that humans descended from apes. “People have to explain how evolution theory relates to Christian belief,” Boon said. Apart from his position as headmaster, Boon is an active member of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s Christian Democrat party.

Botanic Man bungles

Whatever your opinion about global warming, it’s hard to excuse British botanist David Bellamy’s use of dodgy figures to argue, in a 16 April letter to New Scientist, that it is not occurring. George Monbiot took Bellamy to task in the Guardian Weekly (20 May) for his claim that many of the world’s glaciers “are not shrinking but in fact are growing … 555 of all the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zürich, Switzerland, have been growing since 1980”.

Because Bellamy is president of the Conservation Foundation, the Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife International and the British Naturalists’ Association, his statements carry a great deal of weight, said Monbiot. And as a scientist, he should know you cannot credibly cite data unless it is well-sourced.

After several requests, Bellamy told Monbiot the glacier statistic was from a website,, which was constructed by a former architect called Robert W Felix to promote his self-published book about ‘the coming ice age’. Hardly a reliable reference. Furthermore, the site claims only that 55%, not 555, of the glaciers under observation are advancing. The discrepancy seems to be due to sloppy typing by Bellamy: ‘%’ is typed by pressing the Shift and 5 keys together.

As for the 55% figure, this was supposed to be from “a paper published in Science in 1989”. But searching the journal for that year, Monbiot could find no papers on glacial advance or retreat. For the record, the World Glacier Monitoring Service has records dating back to 1980 for 30 glaciers in nine mountain ranges. These show a pronounced overall decline in glacial mass during that time.

Ghost Busters a bust

It seems TV2 has a new ‘paranormal investigation’ show, called Ghost Hunt, but according to Frances Grant (NZ Herald, 5 July) the main mission is to search for any evidence of shiver-down-the-spine entertainment.

The national skills shortage obviously applies to ghost-busting, says Grant. How one of the team passed her Paranormal Investigations qualification is a complete mystery. Before she even got in the house, and still in bright daylight, she was complaining about suffering something called the ‘bejigglies’.

Grant concluded that the ghost was actually rather challenged when it came to producing blow-you-away special effects. Perhaps, in the digital age, he should give up the haunting and find a day job.


The Scottish border city of Carlisle says a stone artwork commissioned to mark the millennium has brought floods, pestilence and sporting humiliation, but an unlikely white knight is riding to their rescue (Dominion Post, 10 March). The Cursing Stone is a 14-tonne granite rock inscribed with an ancient curse against robbers, but since it was put in a city museum in 2001 the region has been plagued by foot and mouth disease, a devastating flood and factory closures. Perhaps worst of all, the Carlisle United soccer team has dropped a division.

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The small Pennsylvania town of Dover has become the latest battleground in the creation/evolution war. If it survives a legal test, this school district of 2800 children could become the first in the US to require that high school science teachers at least mention “intelligent design” (ID) theory (Dominion Post, 31 December). In October, the board passed this motion: “Students will be made aware of gaps and problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of Life is not taught.”

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Hope Springs Eternal for Arkeologists

A WHANGAREI computer programmer is spearheading an expedition to prove Noah’s Ark exists, and that it lies about 2000 metres above sea level in Turkey (NZPA, 17 August). Ross Patterson is convinced that a mound of earth about 12km from Mt Ararat in Turkey contains the remains of the Ark, and says there is strong evidence that the events depicted in the Bible occurred. He had twice visited the site, almost 2000m above sea level and said a need to prove the theory and the associated religious implications had taken over his life.

Together with two other Northlanders, Geoff McColl and Des Palamountain, he is fundraising to revisit the site before the end of October, the end of the northern summer. The expedition hopes to add weight to earlier research by controversial American author, the late Ron Wyatt, who claimed to have identified petrified timber and rivets made of iron, as well as structures resembling bulkheads, by scanning with radar. Large stones found at nearby villages also resembled anchor stones, Mr Patterson said.

The mound also matched measurements of the ark described in the Bible and a drilling operation revealed animal hair deep inside the mound. The Turkish Government had since acknowledged the site, Mr Patterson said. “What we intend to do … is to place a small camera into the hole to see if there are any man-made structures under there,” he said. Any evidence pointing to man-made structures beneath the surface would add credibility to Mr Wyatt’s research, he said.

If the expedition did not shed any light on the subject then those on the team would be the first to accept it. “People can make up their own minds. The public are a jury. Our job is to present the evidence and the case. They make up their own minds. It’s like in court; you have to prove things beyond reasonable doubt,” Mr Patterson said. “We expect to find something but, if we don’t find something, we have to be fair. ”

New Zealand Skeptics spokesman Denis Dutton was critical of the expedition. He said the great flood legend was older than the Old Testament itself. It went back to a pre-Homeric epic originating from the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia. “It’s a shame that people can’t appreciate the rich literary and moral teachings of the Old Testament for that. Moral information, yes; literal history … get a grip,” he said.

Abduction Researcher Dies

John Mack, the Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry who conducted research on people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens, has died (Waikato Times, 2 October). He was struck and killed by an alleged drunk driver while attending a TE Lawrence Society symposium in Oxford, England. He was 74.

Dr Mack won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, and also wrote two books, Abduction (1994) and Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters (1999) detailing his work with claimed alien abductees. He reported they came from all walks of life, generally had no evidence of mental illness, and often had a heightened sense of spirituality and environmentalism.

In 1994 the Harvard Medical School established a committee to review his clinical investigation and initiated proceedings to determine whether he should retain tenure. After the 14-month investigation the school “reaffirmed Dr Mack’s academic freedom to study what he wishes”.

Maori Spiritual Concerns Sink Inlet Proposal – or Do They?

It’s always interesting to see media reports of events which have a personal connection. This writer had a small role in assembling and assessing some of the ecological evidence at the Environment Court hearing into the plan to put floodgates across the mouth of the Manukau Harbour’s Pahurehure Inlet, and was somewhat surprised at the prominence given in newspaper articles to Maori spiritual concerns as a reason for the court’s finding against the plan (NZ Herald, 29 July).

The proposal, which would have seen the inlet, near Papakura, flooded for up to four days at a time for recreational purposes, was opposed by the Ngati Tamaoho Trust. Although concerns for the “wairua” of the inlet and wider harbour were a factor, the court found the plan’s long term ecological effects had not been adequately addressed in the proposal. Changes to the inlet are being driven by siltation from terrestrially derived sediments, and reducing water flows by closing off the inlet will only exacerbate this. There was also no mention in the newspaper report that it was Council, not Maori, who decided to pull out of mediation and take the case to the Environment Court. Another reminder, if one was needed, that media reports of anything need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Healing Tape Comes Unstuck

Darrell Stoddard, founder of the US-based Pain Research Institute, invited sufferers of severe knee pain to take part in a free double-blind placebo-controlled study at a Wellington hotel, which he hoped would show his knee treatment, Biotape, works (Dominion Post, 22 July).

Only 40 people were needed, many others were turned away. There was an excited buzz as knees were shaved by Mormon elders before they strapped on the black tape. When asked why Mormons were there, Mr Stoddard said they were helping him.

A sheet of Biotape strips, which costs about $15, is described as a “space-age conductive mylar that connects the broken circuits that cause the pain.” Mr Stoddard said it worked on the chi or energy force.

Commerce Commission director of fair trading Deborah Battell, however, said Mr Stoddard and American company Smart Inventions had been accused by the US Federal Trade Commission of making false or unsubstantiated claims that Biotape treated or cured severe pain.

Volunteers were told they would get the trial results in three days, but four days later they were still waiting (Dominion Post, 26 July).

“There was very little explanation but we were told we would be informed in three days’ time whether we had been given placebo or the tape,” said volunteer Peter Kidd. “The funny thing is one of knees with the tape on does seem to feel less painful. Though I suppose it could be psychological.”

Mr Stoddard said he could not provide the information until a “distinguished local doctor associated with the study” – former Cook Islands prime minister Sir Tom Davis – returned from Auckland.

Psychic Scam Given Short Shrift

Dominion Post journalist Fran Tyler was unimpressed by “internationally renowned” psychic Maria Duval’s latest mailout (Dominion Post, 11 August). Ngaio woman Chrissy Bell was presumably one of thousands who received a letter from Ms Duval promising to make her rich beyond her wildest dreams – for just $39.95 (plus $10 postage and handling).

Out of all the billions of people on planet Earth, Ms Duval, who has given up a very lucrative career foretelling the future, had chosen Ms Bell for one final selfless act, the letter said.

The letter did not point out that its author featured on such websites as Consumer Online’s scams page, and the NZ Consumer Affairs Ministry’s Scamwatch. And why did someone who claims to be the “only clairvoyant granted an audience by a representative of Pope John Paul II” choose Ms Bell?

“I did some research,” says the letter. “I faced thousands of cases. People working really hard to earn just enough to live on… I can tell you it wasn’t an easy decision. But it’s you I’ve chosen…”

That doesn’t explain how she got Ms Bell’s name, Fran Tyler comments. Perhaps it was in a vision.

Ms Bell said she was not tempted at all. “If she’s so good, why doesn’t she just do the [Lotto] numbers herself instead of sending out letters asking for money?”

The Dominion Post tried to contact Ms Duval to give her the opportunity to prove her psychic ability, but her Auckland address, listed as a suite in a building in Newmarket, turned out to be just a mail box. Should’ve had a Bravo Award, this one.

Door knocking Ghost Closes College

A ghost who knocks on doors and leaves the scent of aftershave in corridors has forced a prestigious college for statisticians to close (Waikato Times, 27 September). Students of the Indian Statistical Institute said the ghost of a dead classmate had knocked on doors, jostled them on staircases and left traces of aftershave lotion and cigarette smoke. Students linked the aftershave aroma to a first-year student who died recently.


Astrology Romps into the Bedroom

It had to happen, I guess. A new book, Sextrology: The Astrology of Sex and the Sexes, written by New York astrologers Stella Starsky and (wince) Quinn Cox gets a fair amount of column inches in the Dominion Post (July 8.)

Seems that the creative couple, Starksky and Cox, have been churning out this stuff for at least 20 years. Their theory, briefly, is that women and men in the same sign can be totally opposite. It means there are 24 signs of the zodiac, not 12. Two for the price of one, as it were.

The book, by all accounts, is a bit racey and fairly explicit in its use of language. Male Capricorns may have a predilection for schoolgirls and spanking; Cancerian females are fans of sex clubs and sado-masochism. Makes the mind boggle but what a good marketing idea. It’s kinky, it’s naughty, it will sell well, especially when reported on by writers who conclude there’s something to it all. “… there are pages of analysis of … personality and attitudes to relationships that I found at times to be spookily accurate.” Except for the bits that say she’s supposed to be into sex clubs, S&M, swinging and sub-mission fantasies.

Hm. I wonder what Starsky and Cox have to say about female Capricorns…

Walk on the Wild Side

Such pondering aside, it was with a pang of sadness that we learned that some people had to be treated for burns after a fire walking in Dunedin (Dominion Post, July 12.)

The event was run by the New Zealand International Science Festival as a fund raiser for St John and was a bid to create a world record. About 450 people walked through a 3.5m hot charcoal pit, and of those, 28 were treated for burns, 11 of them in hospital. The fire walking raised about $1000 for St John but the organisation spent more than that treating patients.

The festival director said they certainly didn’t want to cause any pain for people and they probably wouldn’t knowingly get into it again. Which is a shame, because as we skeptics know, such events are a good way to highlight some basic science. Maybe it was just a case of too many feet — 28 out of 450 is, after all, only a little more than 6% requiring treatment.

As for whether or not a record was set, it’s too early to tell. Let’s cross our fingers…

Bacteria Beware — Science to the Rescue!

Christmas is coming up and this writer is holding out for a Twinbird Ion desk lamp. It emits ionised air towards one’s brain, which makes one brainier. Bring it on, I say.

The ion desk lamp is just one item on sale in Japan, where a health neurosis is reportedly sweeping the country (Dominion Post, June 15.) It appears negatively-charged air particles can produce an endless range of potential health benefits, from cleaning the air to stimulating the brain. Devious devices include Bio Shoes which pump ionised air into shoes over-night to sanitise them, and the Plasmacluster Ion Fridge, which smothers viruses and bacteria with both negative and positive ions. The Photo Ion Blaster will not only render your face clean and bacteria-free, it will also eliminate wrinkles. Everything from pens to doorknobs are marketed with anti-bacterial films and one firm stocks more than 20 different models of washing machine that destroy bacteria by negatively charging a load of washing. A lovely quote: “I’m not even sure what exactly this minus ion technology does, but I feel that I have a duty to buy it.”

Restaurant Didn’t Have a Ghost of a Chance

The collapse of Suzanne Paul’s Maori village venture is no surprise to one Auckland woman, who says the Northcote site is haunted and cursed (Herald, July 17).

Strange things have happened at Fisherman’s Wharf, says former owner, Barbara Doyle. Mrs Doyle, who used to run murder mystery weekends at the Brian Boru in Thames, says she had tried to run a restaurant on the site in 2000, but went bankrupt.

She says while she found it hard to believe in ghosts, she felt she should have called in a ghostbuster. On one occasion she saw a man throw himself to his death off a nearby cliff: the venue was cursed, she believed.

Her daughter says she felt spirits inside the building when she lived there for six months, and later heard about a young man who’d hanged himself there.

Ngati Whatua kaumatua Grant Hawke said its original inhabitants, Ngati Tai, endured severe casualties through raids by Ngati Poa and Ngati Whatua.

One of the liquidators said ghost stories were new to him, and that while he’d heard a few creaks, they were possibly the air-conditioning.

And Neville Waldren, of the Restaurant Assocation, said it was a magic spot, but a bit off the beaten track, which contributed to its failure.

Time Running Out for Psychic Forecasters

The Ashburton Guardian’s Matt Smith had a mid-year look at some psychic predictions recently (July 22).

Ashburton psychic Barry Newman predicted Don Brash would be ousted from the National Party leadership by Gerry Brownlee, which is looking unlikely. He also said a world leader would be toppled or slain and armies would march — such as happened to Saddam Hussein.

In cricket, Newman predicted that Jeff Wilson would appear for the Black Caps this year, which he hasn’t yet. Someone in a glass cage would die, with many to cry was another claim, but nothing seems to have come of this one yet, either.

Patricia McLaine claimed Howard Dean would be the Democratic candidate for the US presidency. John Kerry is now confirmed in that role. She also predicted surprise weddings among celebrities — and Britney Spears did marry a childhood friend in early January, so she got one right, Smith says. He adds that McLaine also said space debris would become a major nightmare. “And although it wasn’t quite to that level, a meteorite blasted through an Auckland home last month, generating major interest from astronomy fans world-wide.” Stretching it a bit, I think.


Psychic Scam Busted

Two fortune tellers apparently failed to foresee the end of their alleged scam in Christchurch (The Press, January 29).

The men were arrested and charged with fraud after they were accused by a Ferrymead person of conning them out of more than $1000. Police believe the men, who apparently touted their mystic trade in a door-to-door routine, may have claimed other victims.

Constable Al Lawn of Sumner police, who arrested the men, said the pair approached the victim earlier. It was alleged they predicted “catastrophic events” for the person and said they would return the next day to tell them how to avoid these events. When they returned to the address the police were called and the arrests made.

Lawn said the charges rested on what the intent of the men — one a 32-year-old Sikh wearing a turban, the other a 30-year-old Indian — was.

The victim was “embarrassed”, and Lawn hoped if there were other victims they would not be too embarrassed to lay a complaint.

The two men had arrived in Auckland the previous week and then travelled to Christchurch.

Lawn said the case was a strange one. “We’re definitely not in the business of going around monitoring clairvoyants.”

Christchurch barrister David Ruth said criminal charges over fortune telling were highly unusual as most people knew fortune telling was “all nonsense and a bit of a gag”.

Good Luck Charms Do Work – In Your Mind

A pioneering study into the effectiveness of “lucky” charms has found they do work — but only in the minds of the people who carry them (Dominion Post, January 6).

British scientists found that though carrying a charm had no effect on events based on chance, such as winning the lottery, those who believed in them felt more confident and optimistic.

In the study, 100 people around Britain were asked to take a supposedly lucky Victorian-era penny with them for a month, and keep a diary as to how their fortunes changed in areas such as finance and health.

Perhaps the most compelling statistic came at the end of the survey when participants were told they could give up the lucky coin — 70% said they would keep carrying it.

Bucket Remark Brings Apology

A massage therapist who told a client her “uterus could end up in a bucket” has been taken to task by Health Commissioner Ron Paterson. He found the therapist tried to financially exploit the patient by prescribing $800 worth of ginger treatments. The therapist has been ordered to give the client a written apology for breaching the patient code of rights (Nelson Mail, March 15).

Fortune Hunter Finds Hits and Misses

Dominion Post journalist Diana McCurdy had an interesting time sounding out the fortune tellers (January 10), and reported a range of responses. “Clair-audio” Tania Kettle (a little voice in her head tells her about the future) reckoned McCurdy’s relationship was going to break up: “There’s no chance with the one you are with at the moment. I believe he’s going back to someone he knows.” Kettle also believed McCurdy was in the wrong profession.

Not so, said medium and clairvoyant Maria Angelica. McCurdy and her partner were spiritually connected and would be fine. And McCurdy was definitely in the right profession; being a little bit psychic herself helped her track down stories.

Feeling warm and fuzzy despite herself, she ended with a visit to NZ Skeptic chair-entity Vicki Hyde, who offered “gentle sympathy”.

“We put our souls into the hands of these people because they are claiming to have some kind of special knowledge. You’re less vulnerable because you’re doing it on a professional basis, but you can still feel the tug of that authority.”

And what does the future hold for the world at large? Maria Angelica believed The Return of the King would win more Oscars than its predecessors — though probably not Best Picture. Tania Kettle saw more cases involving children coming before the courts. The distance between rich and poor in New Zealand would continue to increase. Because of this disparity, immigrants would get a hard time.

Numerologist Eleanor Lefever felt that since 2004 was a SIX year “there’s going to be some surprising things that will happen.”

Vicki Hyde saw the New Zealand cricket team improving markedly (this was before the highly successful series against South Africa), with a new player breathing life into it (Chris Martin, perhaps?). She also said George Bush would win the next US election. This is the woman who predicted the All Blacks wouldn’t make the 1999 World Cup final, remember.

Where Everyone Gets a Haunting

Staff at the Warehouse in Nelson have been getting more than they bargained for, with reports of ghostly goings-on prompting a belated blessing for the building (Nelson Mail, July 10, 2003).

Three ministers blessed the building after two women reported seeing a girl who was believed to have been killed at nearby shunting yards in the early 1900s.

Staff, who knew the history of the girl’s death, had seen her very vividly, store manager Ross Barnett said — “even down to her pale blue dress.”

Archdeacon Harry Whakaruru, one of the ministers who blessed the site, said it appeared the “unusual happenings” had come about after the building was extended across a waterway. The tapu lifting was completely different from an exorcism, he said. It was an “acknowledgement of our old Maori customs that if you disturb our earth mother, you carry out a blessing in respect of the disturbance that has been made.”

Archdeacon Whakaruru said he was called on to bless unrest about once a week across the top of the South Island.

Mr Barnett said the first ghost sighting was well over two years ago. After more sightings recently, he decided to investigate whether the building was blessed when it was first built, and found that it had not been. “For me, it is something I always have done when I have opened up a new store.”

There had been no reports of ghost sightings since the blessing, he said.

Autism Doctor on Professional Misconduct Charge

The doctor who linked the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination to autism is to be investigated for alleged professional misconduct (The Independent, February 23). Dr Andrew Wakefield’s research prompted one of Britain’s biggest health scares and a drop in the injection’s use throughout the Western world.

The Secretary of State for Health, Dr John Reid, called for the investigation after it emerged that the doctor had failed to declare a financial interest when he submitted his research for publication.

The director of the Auckland University-based Immunisation Advisory Centre, Dr Nikki Turner, said: “We’ve got overwhelming literature showing no link, but that hasn’t rapidly come through to reassure parents. How do you undo a myth; that’s the problem.”

Research published in the latest New Zealand Medical Journal shows that 21% of doctors and 41% of nurses are unsure whether the MMR vaccine is associated with autism or Crohn’s disease. Eleven per cent of the 188 health workers who took part thought that immunisations posed “unacceptable dangers”, although 72 per cent thought that they did not, and 17 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed.

Dr Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet medical journal, admitted that the research would never have been published had it been known that Dr Wakefield had also been working for lawyers preparing legal action by parents who believed that the jab had caused their children’s autism.

He said that the disclosure, admitted by Dr Wakefield, amounted to a “fatal conflict of interest” and that his key finding was “entirely flawed”.

The author’s research fund received £55,000 ($145,738) from the Legal Aid Board for studies on 10 children suspected of having been damaged by vaccines. Four of the children were also used in the highly controversial study that linked the MMR vaccination to autism, it was admitted.

Other allegations, that the research was biased and lacked proper ethical approval, have been rejected by the journal and the Royal Free Hospital in London, where the research was done. A hospital statement said Dr Wakefield, who left his post two years ago, should have declared the interest, but defended the other researchers involved.


Dying is Bad for Business

An Auckland law firm was going to court late last year (Dominion Post, November 1) to block the opening of a funeral parlour opposite it. Death (or dealing with it) offends against the ancient Chinese art of feng shui. Contact with death can lead to bad luck and negative energy could flow from the funeral parlour into the law firm. The firm was concerned it would lose its Asian clients if the parlour opened. The parlour, meantime, said it had been granted resource consent. Haven’t heard the outcome yet…

Ringing in new changes

And while on the subject of feng shui, here’s a tip for Telecom. Feng shui specialist Honey Lim says the company should relaunch its new logo in February to capture the powerful energy of a new age in the feng shui calendar. In the Dominion Post (November 26) Ms Lim says she approves of Telecom’s new logo, which is in harmony with feng shui. Telecom spent $140,000 on the logo, and will be happy to learn its green and blue squares underpinning the yellow rectangle have good karma. Ms Lim says the old one featuring three coloured spears stabbing the company name, which told her that, “despite the company’s own colourful and innovative efforts, their initiatives were hurting themselves more than spurring them forward.” She reckons they really should relaunch themselves in the New Year — an act which would generate “awesome feng shui”… . February 4 marks the beginning of ‘period 8’ in the feng shui calendar, a period of new energy. And in order to benefit from it, people or organisations need to undertake renewal or change after that date. Now there’s an idea…

ET – Wait a Tick

The mayor of a Brazilian town says he had cancelled a planned landing by aliens during an important soccer match last year (The Press, November 24). Elcio Berti said he cancelled the landing of the alien spaceship because he was worried they may abduct one of the Brazillian footballers. Berti, the mayor of Bocaiuva do Sul, claims to be in regular touch with aliens and is preparing a UFO landing pad for them in town.

“Con” Man Speaks Out

It was good to see Australian skeptic Richard Lead in the Dominion Post (September 22) following our conference last year. In a small article the “professional cynic” explained how he has tackled cons, from the Nigerian scam to property investment.

“I was living in Samoa in 1994 when I first saw the Nigerian scams. I used to attend a businessmen’s lunch and would pass the letters around and we would have a good laugh. I later found one of the guys had got taken for $90,000.”

This and similar scams, he said, work by the “Concorde fallacy” — the only chance you have of getting back the money you’ve already invested is to put in more. “They just keep sucking you in and the losses keep getting bigger and bigger. I used to say ‘how could people be so stupid?’. I don’t say that any more. I’ve seen it happen so often.”

He told the paper the hardest part of the job was dealing with people who had lost life savings, something he was not equipped to deal with. “Nothing in my accountant’s training prepared me for people with tears in their eyes because they’ve lost everything.”

The best way to avoid being taken in was to exercise common sense and carefully evaluate everything. “…if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

Not a Prayer of a Chance

The biggest scientific experiment on prayer has failed to find any evidence that it helps to heal the sick.

Doctors in the US said that heart patients who were prayed for by groups of stranger recovered from surgery at the same rate as those who were not (Dominion Post, October 17).

The three-year study led by cardiologists from Duke University Medical Centre in North Carolina, involved 750 patients in nine hospitals and 12 prayer groups around the world.

The prayer groups included American Christian mothers, nuns, Sufi Muslims, Buddhist monks in Nepal and English doctors and students in Manchester. Prayers were emailed to Jerusalem and placed in the Wailing Wall.

Earlier, less extensive, research had suggested prayer could have a beneficial effect.

The news brought swift reactions. The Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, said “Prayer is not a penny-in-the-slot machine. You can’t just put in a coin and get out a chocolate. This is like setting an exam for God to see if God will pass it or not.”

Red Tape for Health Pills

The Herald reports (December 8) that the $200 million-a-year health supplements business is up in arms over a Government plan to join with Australia to regulate the industry.

Under this plan, all dietary supplements and alternative remedies would be classified as pharmaceuticals and regulated through a new transtasman agency.

New Zealand has about 10,000 complementary and alternative health practitioners. Health Minister Annette King said the move was about quality, public safety and standards. “We require standards about the food we sell… we require standards for pharmaceuticals and medical devices. And one of the hard lessons I learned last year was that the public demanded standards and regulations for complementary healthcare.”

Opponents say New Zealand will lose control of decision-making to Australia, Kiwi dietary supplements firms will be hurt, and customers will have less choice.

Green MP Sue Kedgley and NZ First MP Pita Paraone are upset the Government is including alternative medicines and supplements before the health select committee report is out.

“Slimming Water” the Latest Fad

Forget about cutting out carbs on Atkins or replacing meals with a milkshake — the latest dieting phenomenon to hit the shelves is bottled water which claims to help people lose weight (Rotorua Daily Post, January 13).

Contrex is being marketed as Britain’s first “cosmetic water”, on the basis that it works as a slimming aid. Nestle, its maker, claims that the mineral water contains natural sources of calcium and magnesium which can eliminate toxins, fight fatigue and help people stay in shape. The calcium can also increase the body’s metabolism and improve weight loss, according to Nestle.

Health experts dismissed the idea of a “diet water” as ridiculous. Amanda Wynne of the British Dietetic Association said: “Drinking water will not make you slim, even if it is fortified with calcium and magnesium. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Despite this criticism, industry insiders are predicting that so-called “aquaceuticals” will be the boom dieting products of 2004. The fad started in Japan and hit America last year, with several brands planned for launch in Britain this year.

A spokeswoman for Nestle said, “It is selling like hot cakes. Contrex has been sold in France for years and women there call it the slimming water. You get the minerals you need without putting on weight.”

Other aquaceuticals to go on sale recently include Blue Water, which costs an incredible £11 a litre and claims to improve skin conditions and general wellbeing. It has been developed by an Austrian naturalist, Johann Grander, who says he “removed the negative memories from water and transferred beneficial energy patterns to it”.

Some fans say they feel better simply by sleeping next to a glass of Blue Water at night. Other products have celebrity endorsements, such as the Kabbalah Mountain Spring Water favoured by Madonna. It claims to have been transformed into a “living” water through modern technology and the wisdom of ancient texts used by the Cabbala, a Jewish mysticism.

Lakeland Willow has also been launched as an aquaceutical in the UK. According to its marketing blurb, it contains salicin, a natural painkilling substance found in willow bark.


Your Future is not in the Stars

Level-headed Virgos everywhere will not be surprised, but a 40-year study of astrology has found it doesn’t work (Dominion Post, August 19).

More than 2000 people, mostly born within minutes of each other, were tracked through the period of the study. According to astrology, the subjects should have had very similar traits. The researchers looked at more than 100 characteristics, including occupation, aggressiveness, sociability, IQ levels and ability in art, sport, maths and reading, but found the subjects no more similar than a randomly selected sample of the general population.

The babies were originally recruited as part of a medical study begun in London into how the circumstances of birth can affect future health. Former astrologer Dr Geoffrey Dean, who analysed the results, also found astrologers could do no better than chance in matching birth charts to the personality profile of a person among a random selection. Their success rate did not improve even when they were given all the information they sought. He said the consistency of the findings weighed heavily against astrology.

“It has no acceptable mechanism, its principles are invalid and it has failed hundreds of tests. But no hint of these problems will be found in astrology books which, in effect, are exercises in deception.”

Roy Gillett, president of the Astrological Association of Great Britain, said the study’s findings should be treated “with extreme caution” and accused Dr Dean of seeking to “discredit astrology”. Frank McGillion, a consultant to the Research Group for the Critical Study of Astrology, said: “It is simplistic and highly selective and does not cover all of the research.” He said he would lodge a complaint with the journal’s editors.

Ashburton Panther a Big Moggy?

A truck driver’s report of a panther not far from Ashburton came as no surprise to many people in the back blocks of the South Island (Rural News, October 20). Richard McNamara, of the Department of Conservation (DoC), says two English tourists reported a “mountain lion” about the size of a labrador at the top of the Lindis Pass, and this was not the first such sighting from the area. Christchurch teacher Marianne Daines also reported a labrador-sized cat, black like the Ashburton beast, from near Twizel.

According to Bendigo Station gamekeeper Steve Brown some of the feral cats in his area are huge — he has one weighing 6kg in his freezer, and says bigger ones are out there. DoC and Otago Regional Council confirm the existence of these big cats, many of which will completely fill a possum trap.

For that matter, this writer and Skeptic editor Annette Taylor saw a cat at Lewis Pass about 20 years ago which, if not as big as a labrador, would have been almost the size of our border collie (who is admittedly not the largest specimen of her breed).

Inaudible “Spooks”

Mysteriously snuffed out candles, weird sensations and shivers down the spine may not be due to ghosts but to low frequency sound inaudible to humans. Dr Richard Lord and his colleagues at the National Physical Laboratory in England have shown that extreme bass sound, known as infrasound, produces a range of bizarre effects in people, including anxiety, extreme sorrow and chills.

The team, who produced infrasound with a sevenmetre pipe and tested its impact on 750 people at a concert, said infrasound was also generated by natural phenomena.

Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, whose name often crops up in stories like this, says his findings support the idea that this level of sound may be present at some allegedly haunted sites and so cause people to have odd sensations that they attribute to a ghost.

Sex Abuse Counsellor Faces Tribunal

A tribunal in England has heard that John Eastgate, a consultant working mainly with adolescents, used counselling sessions to “lead” a “vulnerable and angry” 13-year-old girl into believing she had been indecently assaulted by a fellow doctor (Daily Telegraph, September 2).

Joanna Glynn, QC, representing the GMC, said it was “dangerous”, when dealing with a girl suffering from “adolescent difficulties”, to start from the premise that abuse did occur.

She said: “In this case the child was bright, angry and resentful, and it has to be said, a difficult adolescent, and the imposition of such preconceived ideas by the psychiatrist is likely to justify her anger in her own eyes and to colour most of the things she would say afterwards.”

The hearing in London was told that Mr Eastgate began treating the girl, known only as Miss A, at the Marlborough House adolescent unit in Swindon, in April 1996 after she was referred by teachers at her boarding school. He dismissed their fears that she was suffering from anorexia and claimed her lack of appetite was due to profound depression. He prescribed her antidepressants.

During a number of counselling sessions in June and July, he allegedly prompted the girl into believing she had been sexually abused by a doctor who had treated her when she was 9.

Professor X, an endocrinologist, had treated her in London for a growth disorder between January 1993 and August 1995 when she was growing unusually tall. He prescribed oestrogen to induce puberty early and limit her growth and, as part of his treatment, had to monitor her breast and pubic hair growth to assess her development. It was during these sessions that Miss A claimed that Professor X “fondled” her.

Three days later, without informing her parents, he contacted the local child protection team and the police. Miss A, who a month earlier had taken an overdose of antidepressants, was taken into care. The case against Professor X was dropped almost immediately after it emerged that her mother or grandmother attended all her visits to him. They did not see anything untoward. Giving evidence, Miss A’s mother described her reaction.

“I was completely in shock,” she said. “I thought, ‘How could anything have happened while I was there?”

But Miss A was not released from care for three years because during her stay she made further allegations of abuse against three other men, including her father, a businessman. Those charges were later dropped by Miss A, who is now reconciled with her family.

Mr Eastgate, who is in his 50s, denies four charges of misconduct, including failure to keep adequate notes, which if proved amount to serious professional misconduct.

Cell Phones Again

In last issue’s Newsfront, a Wellington School of Medicine study showed no link between tumours and cellphones. Now a doctor in Sweden has come up with a new way to scare cellphone users (Dominion Post, September 15).

Professor Leif Salford of Lund University has spent 15 years investigating whether microwaves could open the blood-brain barrier allowing a protein to pass into the brain and cause damage. The voluntary exposure of the brain to microwaves is, he says, “the largest human biological experiment ever.” No results from these studies were reported, however.

Doctor Found Guilty

A Hamilton doctor who prayed to cure illnesses diagnosed using wands and vials of chemicals has been found guilty of misconduct and disgraceful conduct (Dominion Post, August 13.

Richard Gorringe was found guilty by the Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal in relation to patients Yvonne Short and Ravaani Ghemmagamy whom he treated in 1998. The tribunal found he exploited Mrs Short for money, and knew, or should have known, that the diagnosis and treatments he gave her were wrong. It also found he did not give either woman enough information about their treatments for them to be able to give their informed consent.

The tribunal was told that Mrs Short’s eczema worsened under Gorringe’s care. Using the peak muscle resistance test, Gorringe asked Mrs Short to touch a metal wand to various vials of chemicals to see how her body “resonated” with them. He then diagnosed her with paraquat poisoning and prescribed homoeopathic injections and other remedies which he sold her.

Dr Gorringe diagnosed Ravaani Ghemmagamy with brucellosis, a rare and notifiable disease most commonly contracted from handling raw meat. After asking if she was open to “spiritual healing”, he raised his hands and prayed: “Lord God Almighty, strike the bacteria from this woman’s body.”

In the weeks since, there have been numerous letters to the Waikato Times from satisfied patients protesting Gorringe’s crucifixion by the medical establishment.


“Dr Jaz” Dies

Dr Neil McKenzie, better known to music lovers as Dr Jaz, died in May following a long battle against a brain tumour (Bay of Plenty Times, May 15 2003).

Neil McKenzie was also a long-time member of the NZ Skeptics, and wrote the “Skepsis” column on medical issues for this magazine from 1997 to 1999.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he was raised in Surrey and attended medical school in Charing Cross hospital. He first came to New Zealand in 1974 and subsequently took up a post as a GP in Tokoroa. He settled in Tauranga in 1985.

Neil McKenzie first formed a skiffle band at age 16 in England and took up the banjo – an instrument which became his trademark. In 1980 his band, ‘Dr Jaz’ was born, and has been a regular feature of the local music scene here and overseas ever since.

Equally comfortable in the worlds of music and medicine, he will be greatly missed in both.

ACC Investigates Acupuncturists

ACC is investigating 20 acupuncture providers after discovering they were getting half its annual funding for the treatment (Nelson Mail, Dominion Post, May 21).

More than $2 million was going to only 20 of almost 200 registered acupuncturists, ACC Healthwise division general manager David Rankin said. Some were claiming for 12 hours a day for every day of the week.

Acupuncturists will now have to consult ACC clinical advisers after 10 treatments, rather than the previous 24, before further treatments will be authorised. ACC spends about $4.6 million a year on acupuncture treatments.

Register of Acupuncturists president Kevin Plaisted said the new limit was unlikely to stop further sessions going ahead.

“There is no reason why ACC will not approve further treatment … it’s certainly not designed to stop treatment at 10 but simply that we’re accountable for the treatment we’re providing,” he said.

Dr Rankin said injuries like sprains were treated with acupuncture but it required more sessions than other treatments.

Who Would Have Predicted This?

T Bromley, of Greymouth, takes the Press to task in a letter to the Editor (May 22) over the accuracy of the paper’s Christmas “clairvoyants” Maureen Rose and Rosina Bond.

Neither were able to predict the main stories early in the New Year, which included the Australian bushfires, Sydney’s train disaster, and even the space shuttle crash.

Rosina Bond’s prediction for the war in Iraq read, “While Iraq has become the US’s New Russia it’s predicted the two countries will not go to war in 2003 … When conflict comes to a head it will be late September-early October, Bush will be stopped in his tracks.”

No mention either of the power crisis, nor (and this, says T Bromley, is the grand-daddy of them all) the Sars virus. Like shooting fish in a barrel, really.

Watch Out for Those Ladders

Joanne Black’s Blackchat column (Dominion Post, April 28) had a novel perspective on the Sars epidemic. Pointing out that 110 people dying of the disease in China in one month was equivalent to four New Zealanders dying in a year, she took a look at the statistics to see what types of things kill four, and only four, New Zealanders in a year.

In 1998, the “latest” year for which mortality figures are available, three people died from cystitis, from varicose veins in the legs and from male breast cancer. Eight died from falling in holes, two from acute tonsillitis, four from curvature of the spine, three from genital prolapse, five from falling off ladders or scaffolding, and 14 from being hit by rolling stock (which Black thinks is to do with trains rather than sheep tumbling down hillsides).

Investigating Sars has taught her plenty, she says. She wouldn’t hesitate to travel to China, but from now on, she’ll certainly be more vigilant when crossing railway lines, take more care on ladders, and particularly watch out for those lethal holes in the ground.

Psychics “See” Missing Woman

Psychics have told police they know what happened to missing Hauraki Plains woman Sara Niethe (Dominion Post, June 16).

Several psychics have called police since investigators announced a $20,000 reward for information which would help them find the woman they now believe may have been a victim of foul play.

“They have had visions of where Sara is and where her car is. If they are specific enough we will check them out,” a spokesman said. Most, however, have not been specific.

Ms Niethe vanished on March 30 after drinking in Kaihere with a friend. Wide police searches of the plains, rivers and an irrigation ditch found no sign of her or her light blue-green late 1980s Honda Civic. Her family say it is out of character for her to leave her children, and her bank accounts have not been touched.

We Suspected As Much

The incidence of cancerous tumours in the brain, neck and head has not risen since the arrival of mobile phones, according to the Wellington School of Medicine (Dominion Post, June 16).

Researchers collected data on men and women aged 20 to 69 from the cancer registry between 1987 and 1998, as well as data on cellphone use. Professor Alistair Woodward said the findings, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, should provide users with some reassurance. He said the study’s weakness was that it looked at the overall population rather than particularly at those who used mobile phones, meaning it was not known whether those developing tumours were using cellphones or not. But the research still showed there was not a strong link between cellphone use and cancer. The findings backed up a similar study in Denmark.

A study of tumour rates among cellphone users compared to non-users would be completed next year.

And on a Similar Note… British researchers have cast further doubt on fears of a link between overhead power lines and childhood leukaemia (Dominion Post, June 16). A study published in the British Journal of Cancer found no evidence to support such concerns from laboratory experiments. Researchers used blood cells from a donor to test the effect of mag-netic fields on the normal repair process and found cells exposed to strong magnetic fields repaired themselves naturally.

Funds Raised for Alternative Treatment

A former Hawkes Bay goal-kicker and member of the Blues Super 12 rugby team will use more than $100,000 raised at charity functions to fight his motor neurone disease with alternative medicine (Dominion Post, June 2).

Jarrod Cunningham, who was diagnosed with the disease last year, said $45,000 was raised at a Hawkes Bay auction on May 31, and up to $70,000 at a rugby game the following day, featuring All Blacks Norm Hewitt and Bull Allen. This would go toward research and education on the natural supplements which had “cured” him.

Cunningham, 34, said he was on the road to a full recovery from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease, after taking a course of 20 capsules of astragalus, from the root of the astragalus plant, over five days, and says it has put him into full remission.

After his Christchurch-based Chinese “healer” told him that chicken parasites caused the symptoms of his disease, he has vowed to use money raised to prove this and help others with the disease seek herbal remedies to treat it.

The money raised at the weekend would be fed into a trust to be administered by the healer Cunningham has been working with.

Before taking the herb he was unable to get out of the bath without help. Three weeks after the dose he was able to do so on his own. “If that’s not remission of symptoms I don’t know what is,” he said.

Cunningham was also prescribed a dose of cayenne pepper to help unblock his lymph nodes, which he says worked. He based this on his armpits smelling like curry.

He no longer visits his doctor in Britain where he has been based, saying the doctor was closed-minded and negative. However when his muscles grow back in three to six months, as he predicts, he will tell his neurologist how he did it.


Australians turn up the Heat on Pan

Breaking news as this issue goes to press (Waikato Times, April 30 and elsewhere) is the recall by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) of 219 products manufactured by Pan Pharmaceuticals. This is the biggest recall of medical products in Australia’s history; the TGA has also withdrawn Pan’s licence for six months.

Pan is Australia’s largest contract manufacturer of herbal, vitamin and nutritional supplements, representing 70 per cent of the Australian complementary medicine market and exporting to dozens of countries. It also makes some over-the-counter medicines including paracetamol, codeine, antihistamines and pseudo-ephedrine.

TGA principal medical adviser John McEwen said other products manufactured by Pan but sold under different brand names would be added to the list as they were discovered. Dr McEwen said Pan lost its licence following evidence of substitution of ingredients, manipulation of test results and substandard manufacturing pro-cesses.

Consumers have been warned not to take any vitamins or herbal supplements and even to check the label of headache pills.

The TGA said it was considering laying criminal charges as it continued the investigation.

Equipment at Pan’s headquarters in Sydney was not cleaned between batches, potentially contaminating products.

The investigation was sparked by a travel sickness pill, Travacalm, which the TGA said had sent 19 people to hospital and caused 87 adverse reactions.

“Some people were very, very ill. They tried to jump out of planes, off ships and things like that because of the hallucinatory effect,” federal parliamentary health secretary Trish Worth said. “I’ve been reliably informed it was fortunate nobody died.”

She said Pan’s vitamin A and natural remedy teething gels could be very harmful to pregnant women and children.

The Complementary Health-care Council said the entire health industry would be hurt by a loss of public confidence. The council’s technical director, Ian Crosthwaite, said manufacturers were holding crisis meetings and seeking an urgent meeting with the TGA to stop any further recalls. But the TGA’s Dr McEwen, said: “There is a clear risk with these products of serious injury … the longer we leave these products in the market the risk grows.

Pan recorded a $A13.6 million ($NZ15.30 million) profit last financial year, however founder James Selim saw his personal wealth of $A210 million collapse by $A26 million as shares plunged after the recall.

The Australian Stock Exchange is demanding answers as to why Pan failed to call for a trading halt in its shares as soon as it learned its licence had been suspended.

Sections of the market had the news of the licence suspension for 30 minutes before trading was halted.

A report by ECM Research on Pan Pharmaceuticals in September last year said about 40 per cent of its sales were exported and New Zealand was the most important destination, followed by Asia and Europe. The New Zealand market accounted for about a third of its market revenue.

The report also said Pan was supplying SAM-e, a natural antidepressant, into Australia and New Zealand. SAM-e is listed in advertisements for product recall. Other Pan products sold in New Zealand include libido enhancer Horny Goat Weed.

Great Balls of Fire

Thai scientists are to launch a probe into a famous fireball phenomenon occurring in the Mekong River once a year in the country’s north, (Sydney Morning Herald, April 14). Every year on the first full moon of the 11th lunar month, which coincides with the end of Buddhist Lent, hundreds of red, pink and orange fireballs soar up into the sky from the Mekong, drawing crowds of spectators.

The event known as Naga’s Fireballs, which has been reported by locals for generations, has long mystified scientists. Now nine experts are to start collecting soil and water samples from the areas where the fireballs appear to originate, deputy permanent secretary of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Saksit Tridech, told the Bangkok Post.

“We are quite sure the fireballs are a natural phenomena,” he reportedly said, adding that the team’s initial assumption was that the fireballs were caused by methane and nitrogen. Decomposition of accumulated plant and animal remains on the bottom of the Mekong could lead to the release of the gases, which rise to the surface of the water when the sun heats the water to a certain temperature, Saksit said.

Legend, however, says the flames come from a mythical Naga, or serpent, living in the Mekong river. “Society needs an explanation for this phenomenon,” said Saksit.

Claims by a television program last year that the fireballs were actually caused by tracer bullets fired by Laotian soldiers across the border caused uproar among locals, who called the suggestion insulting.

Abductees Stressed Out

People who claim to have been abducted by aliens suffer many of the same trauma symptoms as Vietnam veterans and World Trade Centre survivors, even though their memories are not real (Dominion Post, February 19).

A Harvard University team found that when recalling experiences they show many of the physical and psychological effects normally seen in post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares, anxiety, racing heartbeats and sweating palms.

The team suggests most abductees are not mentally ill and genuinely believe they have been kidnapped, but are experiencing false memories induced by sleep paralysis. This affects 30 per cent of the population at some stage in their lives, and occurs when a patient wakes during rapid eye movement sleep, when dreaming takes place and the entire body is paralysed with the exception of the eyes. It can often lead to frightening visions referred to as hypnopompic (upon awakening) hallucinations as elements of a dream impinge on wakefulness.

Sufferers usually report being unable to move while seeing shadowy figures around their beds, feeling electric currents coursing through their bodies, or levitating. The phenomenon probably explains the witch crazes of the 16th and 17th centuries, ghost sightings and other paranormal events, says Harvard psychology professor Richard McNally.

“Today, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it’s interpreted as abduction by space aliens.”

All 10 abductees in the study recounted reasonably consistent details of their experiences, but these were almost certainly culturally determined. “Their memories were of being subjected to sexual and medical probing on spaceships. I certainly think we can say the X-Files probably helped with all that.”

Extraterrestrial Culture Day

The good folk in Roswell, New Mexico, who would no doubt dismiss the above item, can now celebrate every second Tuesday in February as “Extraterrestrial Culture Day”, after a local lawmaker’s proposal won House approval (Dominion Post, 25 March). Some scoffed at the idea, but memorial sponsor Republican Dan Foley said life on other planets — if you believe in it — surely has its own set of cultural beliefs. He claims aliens have contributed to recognition of New Mexico, and he wants a copy sent into space as a token of peace.

Calling All Spoon-benders

Mind readers, telepaths and anyone who attracts ghosts have been invited to participate in a new course at Griffith University in Australia (Dominion Post, February 21). Senior lecturer Martin Bridgstock says the subject, Scepticism, Science and the Paranormal, will give students the opportunity to study areas of science made famous by television shows such as The X-Files and The Twilight Zone.

Dr Bridgstock said he decided on the subject because he was impressed by the large number of people he encountered who believed in the paranormal. Opinion polls showed a majority of the population believed in psychic healing, while substantial minorities believed in astrology, mind-reading, UFOs and ghosts.

He said he would welcome anyone who approached the university claiming paranormal powers. “I would get the class together and I would invite this person to say exactly what he or she thinks they can do. Then we would try to devise an experiment which would enable that person to show if in fact they could do it under tightly controlled conditions.”