Skepticism’’s Mirror Ball

The Scope of Skepticism: Interviews, Essays and Observations from the Token Skeptic Podcast, by Kylie Sturgess. Podblack Books, 2012. 151pp. About $NZ18, or NZ$6.40 for Kindle. Visit and click on ‘Merchandise’ for links. Reviewed by Martin Bridgstock.

In the foreword to this book, Michael McRae uses the image of a mirror ball. Mirror balls have an important property: when a light shines on them, they reflect illumination into all kinds of dark corners. This is what Aussie skeptic Kylie Sturgess has accomplished in her first book.

For many years Kylie has been interviewing people involved with skepticism. This book is a distillation of some of her most interesting work. The first surprise came when I had a look at the people Kylie interviewed. I simply didn’t recognise over half the names. Who, for instance, is Bruce M Hood or Petra Boynton? And why is Tim Minchin, the wild comedian, included?

The short answer is that, after reading each interview, my conclusion was “Yes, I can see why this is important for skepticism. And I’m glad I know about it.” For example Bruce M Hood is a psychologist who became concerned about the way that a British firm was producing ‘bomb-detectors’. These devices were being bought to detect terrorist bombs in places like Iraq. Hood became concerned about their lack of documented effectiveness and found himself in a nasty confrontation with the device’s makers. It became clear the ‘detectors’ were based on paranormal principles (see Newsfront, NZ Skeptic 97), and action was taken to stop them being sold. Good skeptical work by Professor Hood.

Petra Boynton is a sexologist. She’s a perfectly genuine academic who studies aspects of sexual health. Boynton became concerned at a ‘charity’ which claimed to be raising money to reverse the effects of female genital mutilation in some African countries. However, Boynton found a suspicious lack of reported activity. Money was going in, and nothing much was happening. Eventually it turned out that the Raelian cult was behind it all.

The inclusion of comedian Tim Minchin may come as a surprise. His wild, heavily made-up image on stage might lead anyone to think he is a devotee of woo. In fact, he’s a skeptic who was encouraged by some of Randi’s work, and builds both atheism and skepticism into his performances.

The theme of the book, as I read it, is that skepticism is expanding, and becoming involved in all kinds of unexpected issues. We need to know what is happening, and to support it where we can.

Overall, The Scope of Skepticism is well worth reading, and good value for the purchase price. I’d defy any skeptic to read the interviews and not learn many useful things from the people in the spotlight. We need to know about the frontiers of skepticism, and Kylie has brought back some fascinating reports.
Martin Bridgstock is a senior lecturer in the School of Biomolecular and Physical Sciences at Griffith University, Brisbane.

Avoiding the trap of belief-dependant realism

The Believing Brain: how we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths by Michael Shermer. Times books, New York. 386pp. ISBN 978-0-8050-9125-0. Reviewed by Martin Wallace.

Aa a member of NZ Skeptics I have become increasingly aware of the huge and ever-growing list of unsubstantiated beliefs in our society, including religion, alternative medicine, alien abductions, ESP, flying saucers, vaccination refusal, and so on and on. Why are there so many of them and their adherents, and so few of us skeptics?

In his new book Michael Shermer sets out the reasons for this situation. It is our believing brains, evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago, that are responsible. Belief without evidence is a salutary behaviour when facing a trembling bush behind which a predator may be lurking. Don’t wait for evidence – just go! Survival is selected for by belief.

Michael Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine in the US, writes a regular column in Scientific American, and is an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Calfornia.

In this book he explores beliefs in many fields, and how we select data after forming the beliefs, to reinforce them. He describes how deeply inherent is our desire to detect patterns in our sensory information, and the evidence from neurophysiology and behavioural genetics which shows how and where this occurs. Religion for example exists in all cultures and can be called “a universal”.

Dr Shermer explores the history of empiricism and the extraordinary prescience of Francis Bacon (c 1620) in his recognition of those human behaviours which inhibit the determination of reality, and the need for a new approach.

He makes a strong argument for the teaching of scientific method in our schools as well as teaching the nature of the world revealed by that process. It is the unwillingness to apply that method which has resulted in the perseverance of our plethora of beliefs. We are not endowed by evolution with that aptitude, which after all is only 400 years old. We have to learn it.

Unsubstantiated beliefs have been part of our nature for a million years. This is why there are so many of them, and why they are so widespread. Shermer writes: “Science is the only hope we have of avoiding the trap of belief-dependant realism. It is the best tool ever devised to determine: does belief equate with reality?”

The prologue is available on Shermer’s web page ( and gives some idea of what lies within. There are liberal notes for each chapter and a comprehensive index.

I would recommend this book to anyone, sceptic or not, who wishes to better understand our human nature.

Martin Wallace is a retired physician who is resuming his education in literature, natural history, and in trying to understand human behaviour.

The natural origins of morality

The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Human Values. Sam Harris. 2010. Free Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-4391-7121-9 Reviewed by Martin Wallace.

If faith is belief without evidence, then it is not open to scientific enquiry by a weighing of evidence. This attitude was supported and promulgated by Stephen Jay Gould. He claimed that there are “non-overlapping magisteria” of science and religion (NOMA).

However, what if it could be shown that there are events in the world of human brain physiology which can account for such “religious” activity as a sense of moral values?

This question is discussed brilliantly in this new book by Sam Harris. He says: “Questions about values are questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” A sense of well-being is dependant in sentient beings like us on cerebral events and is therefore open to scientific investigation.

Well-being is engendered for example, by happiness, kindness, and compassion. Harris is a neuroscientist and has studied brain function by magnetic resonance imaging while subjects consider propositions. He has shown that the same part of the brain is active when considering scientific suggestions as when considering moral or religious precepts. The process of belief is the same, irrespective of content.

The part of the brain involved is that where activity can be seen with the placebo effect.

Harris makes interesting comments about the damaging effects of religion and politics on our sense of well-being. Given his past writing, we can expect some acerbic comments:

” For nearly a century the moral relativism of science has given faith-based religion-that great engine of ignorance and bigotry-a nearly uncontested claim to being the only universal framework for moral wisdom.”

He dismisses “cultural relativism” as a creation of academics. Well-being is shared by all members of all human cultures given the same conducive surroundings, as is our shared physiology.

He also is very firm about “scientific relativism” and the inhibitory effect it has had on human well-being. There can be no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra!

The text of this book is accompanied by an expansion of the arguments in extensive Notes which are listed in the Index. There is also an extensive list of references.

This book answers the question my mother put to me 60 years ago. “It is all very well to talk about your lack of belief in religion, but what will you put in its place?”

How to Poison Your Spouse the Natural Way

How to Poison Your Spouse the Natural Way: A Kiwi Guide to Safer Food offers an interesting, non-technical, easy-to-read description of the risks we face at the dinner table. Reviewers and readers have been enthusiastic. This book has a recommended retail price of $24.95 but is now available for a limited time to members of the Skeptics for only $15, post-paid.

Read more about this book on and then tick the box on the membership form (on our website) and include the $15 with your membership fee. Offer also available to members of the NZ Skeptics who have paid their subscriptions for 2006 – send cheques to NZCSICOP, PO Box 29 492, Christchurch.

A Little Light Reading

Jim Ring finds some material to pass the time on a recent flight.

Queensland is the home of young-earth creationism in Australia so it was perhaps not surprising that I found Creation Magazine for sale in the Brisbane airport. None of the other four Australian airports we visited displayed it. Curiosity overcame my reluctance to provide money for their cause.

This was volume 27 but I feel sure it has not been running for 27 years in this format. “Peer reviewed by leading creationary (sic) experts”. As there are no adverts there is no legal necessity for listing the numbers of copies sold or estimated readership. I would like to know these figures.

The cover picture with a caption “DINGO: Australia’s Wild Native Dog” suggested a wild-life theme and the glossy cover was just like hundreds of other magazines on the rack. However a few key words-fossil, God, Darwin, massive flood, evolution, suggested otherwise. Not to mention the web page address for Answers in Genesis (branches outside of the US have recently re-branded themselves as Creation Ministries International-ed.).

With all the present attention on Intelligent Design it is worth reminding ourselves that young-earth creationists are still very much around.

A letter page called Feedback (borrowed from New Scientist?) gives some indication of the readership. A letter from Lower Hutt thinks pet budgies prove a creator. I cannot quite follow the argument but apparently teaching one to say “Hello, God made me” is important.

The editorial attacks other publications-National Geographic, Time, and Scientific American, because they do not take creationist views seriously. I imagine these editors are trembling in their shoes. In contrast the editor remembers a young farmer who said, “When I drive around the countryside I see evidence for Noah’s flood everywhere.”

A number of news items taken (with acknowledgment) from New Scientist, Science, Nature, etc have the theme that new discoveries discredit science by proving that older ideas were wrong. If one believes that all answers lie in Genesis I suppose this is logical, but to me it is an entirely alien idea.

An article on UFOs and aliens surprised me but perhaps belief in a completely unsupportable worldview opens one’s mind to more nonsense. Some famous pictures described as “genuinely unexplained sightings” help to plug a book for AiG. This apparently links abductions with demonology, and shows how “belief in evolution has opened the door to alien visitations.” The book is claimed to provide answers for Christians puzzled by UFO phenomena.

The lead article on Dingoes is quite good until it gets to the historical problem. When did humans and dingoes actually arrive in Australia? Australians convinced that the earth is only about 6000 years old have huge problems in compressing their history to make it fit.

The second major article is on how the (Irish) Giant’s Causeway was produced by the biblical flood about 4500BP over a very short period. This is hilarious because it is obviously meant to be serious. The author is a staffer at AiG with a BSc (Hons) in geology and the article has references to recent geological articles and journals. However he brushes over the problem of geological dates with “Once we realise the dates assigned to the causeway are not measured, but just someone’s opinion, we can look at the evidence in a different light.” He is in agreement with modern opinion that the Causeway was produced by a huge eruption followed by a flood. However, according to Richard Fortey in The Earth: An Intimate History that flood was the opening of the Atlantic Ocean.

All this is benign but three pages of material towards the back are not. The headlines for three articles:

  • Darwin’s Impact-The Bloodstained Legacy of Evolution
  • Evolution and Social Evil
  • America’s Evolutionists: Hitler’s Inspiration?

-would disgrace any publication.

While A Timeline of Evolution Inspired Terror features Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Pol Pot. I am not sure how Mao escaped here but he is mentioned in the text. Somehow Darwin is responsible for the behaviour of these men.

This would be funny if it was not serious; it is a timely reminder that it is important to keep creationists out of schools.