1993 Skeptics Conference

Science, Pseudoscience and Junk Science

Christchurch, September 3rd-5th

The programme for the 1993 Skeptics Conference is still under development, but it’s shaping up to be really interesting. It’ll be a rather omnivorous event, complete with meat and teeth. Come along for the usual humour and frivolity that make our conferences fun, but also be prepared to be challenged.

We know we’re a diverse group, but one of the common characteristics of Homo skepticus/skeptica is the tendency to talk and debate…at length…at the drop of a hat…on almost any subject.

Consequently, this year’s conference is looking at having a number of panel sessions to encourage participation from a range of speakers semi-simultaneously, with plenty of discussion time following to enable extended participation from the floor.

To date, three main panels are under development:

The Nature of Scientific Method — what are the characteristics of good science, what should we be looking for in science, how should science be conducted, and how can it be useful in everyday life?

Junk Science — having got some form of grounding in real science, we then turn our attention to junk science to see the way in which science is used and abused in everything from environmental issues to health research.

Teaching Critical Thinking — what is being done in schools to encourage critical thinking and/or an appreciation of the scientific method, what should be done and how can it be encouraged, is there room for this in the new curriculum, what is the place of science and technology?

There’ll also be a pile of speakers and unspeakable demonstrations throughout the conference, such as:

  • Ghosts
  • Police Use of Psychics
  • Acupuncture
  • Electric Medicine
  • Witches
  • Manufacturing Memory

Last, but by no means least, we are delighted to be able to tell you that we have a magical after-dinner speaker in the form of Margaret Mahy, internationally acclaimed children’s author and Skeptic. She’s living proof that you can be creative and rational at the same time! (Don’t forget to send in you filking and photography entries, even if you can’t make it to the conference itself!)

The Crackpot Index

On open access computer bulletin boards, any entity with a theory can expound on it at length. Many do — usually to a very unappreciative audience. A seemingly-large proportion of such expositions are surprisingly similar in style. The following scale (tentatively attributed to John Baez of Usenet sci.physics) will help readers establish just how crackpotted something is…

A simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics.

  1. A -5 point starting credit.
  2. 1 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false.
  3. 2 points for every statement that is logically inconsistent.
  4. 5 points for each such statement that is adhered to despite careful correction [by other readers].
  5. 5 points for using a thought experiment that contradicts the results of a widely accepted real experiment.
  6. 5 points for each word in all capital letters (except for those with defective keyboards).
  7. 10 points for each claim that quantum mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).
  8. 10 points for each favorable comparison of oneself to Einstein, or claim that special or general relativity are fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).
  9. 10 points for pointing out that one has gone to school, as if this were evidence of sanity.
  10. 20 points for suggesting that you deserve a Nobel prize.
  11. 20 points for each favorable comparison of oneself to Newton or claim that classical mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without evidence).
  12. 20 points for every use of science fiction works or myths as if they were fact.
  13. 20 points for defending yourself by bringing up (real or imagined) ridicule accorded to one’s past theories.
  14. 30 points for each favorable comparison of oneself to Galileo, claims that the Inquisition is hard at work on one’s case, etc..
  15. 30 points for claiming that the “scientific establishment” is engaged in a “conspiracy” to prevent one’s work from gaining its well-deserved fame, or suchlike.
  16. 40 points for claiming one has a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions.

Dawkins on Theology

The British Independent recently ran an editorial not worth reproducing in the Skeptic. The editorial did, however, generate a vigorous response from Richard Dawkins which is worth thinking about.

Sir: In your dismally unctuous leading article asking for a reconciliation between science and “theology,” you remark that “people want to know as much as possible about their origins.” I certainly hope they do, but what on earth makes you think that “theology” has anything useful to say on the subject? Science is responsible for the following knowledge about our origins.

We know approximately when the universe began and why it is largely hydrogen. We know why stars form, and what happens in their interiors to convert hydrogen to other elements and hence give birth to chemistry in a world of physics. We know the fundamental principles of how a world of chemistry can become biology through the arising of self-replicating molecules. We know how the principle of self- replication gives rise, through Darwinian selection, to all life including humans.

It is science alone, that has given us this knowledge and given it, moreover, in fascinating, overwhelming, mutually confirming detail. On every one of these questions, theology has held a view that has been conclusively proved wrong. Science has eradicated smallpox, can immunise against most previously deadly viruses, can kill most previously deadly bacteria.

Theology has done nothing but talk of pestilence as the wages of sin. Science can predict when a particular comet will reappear and, to the second, when the next eclipse will occur. Science has put men on the moon and hurled reconnaissance rockets around Saturn and Jupiter. Science can tell you the age of a particular fossil and that the Turin Shroud is a medieval fake. Science knows the precise DNA instructions of several viruses and will, in the lifetime of many present readers of the Independent, do the same for the human genome.

What has “theology” ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has “theology” ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that is not either platitudinously obvious or downright false.

If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow there would be no doctors but witch-doctors, no transport faster than a horse, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference?

Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs and sonar-guided whaling vessels, work! The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t achieve anything, don’t even mean anything. What makes you think that “theology” is a subject at all?

Richard Dawkins, Oxford

Trivialising Sex Abuse

Do you ever feel dirty or ashamed? Do you have no sense of your interests or goals? Do you sometimes feel powerless, like a victim, have phobias, arthritis, or wear baggy clothes? According to two recent books, The Courage to Heal, (over 500,000 copies sold) and Secret Survivors, if your answer to any of these questions is yes, you may well be a victim of incest.

Never mind that you cannot remember being subjected to sex abuse by a family member: if you have doubts you were abused or think it’s maybe your imagination, then you probably suffer from “post-incest syndrome.” Denial is just a symptom; you’re blocking memories. As one author puts it, in the realm of sex abuse, “If you have any suspicion at all, if you have any memory, no matter how vague, it probably really happened.” In fact, there are platoons of therapists eager to use hypnosis to discover your forgotten episodes of violation and victimisation.

This distressing new turn in victim fashions is recounted in a stunning New York Times Book Review article by social psychologist Carol Tavris (write or phone me if you’d like a copy). She shows how the current spate of “incest-survivor books encourage women to incorporate the language of victimhood and survival into the sole organising narrative of their identity” — often with the encouragement of dubious therapists.

The mechanics of memory, Tavris rightly explains, are subtle and complex. Regressive hypnosis is more likely to generate fantasy “memories” than to recover recall of actual events. It’s a matter of memory by creative suggestion. When a troubled client is searching for the cause of a current malaise, such “digging” into the past can carry over into mere persuasion.

To the Skeptics it has a familiar ring: “experts” who hypnotise patients/victims to “discover” that they were raped in previous lives, or were abducted by UFOs and taken to the planet Zork to be subjected to weird medical experiments. But there is a difference: the man who raped me when I was a housewife in Atlantis is no more available for prosecution than the little gray Zorkian who abducted me. But dear old dad — well, there he is, and mum too. After the therapists come … the lawyers.

The definition of abuse in this new victimology is as expandable as a hot-air balloon, according to Tavris. She tells how one of the gurus of this new victimology “didn’t like the way her mother would plant a wet' kiss on her, look at her in ways that made her feelqueasy’ and walk in on her in the bathroom.” It wasn’t until years later, the guru claims, “that I came to terms with my mother’s behavior and saw it for what it really was — sexual abuse.”

Skeptics will find this new trend in victimhood disturbing for two reasons. First, the creative incitement of pseudomemories of sex abuse can lead to false accusations against parents and other — with devastating results for individuals and families. Second, it is no secret whatsoever that there is appalling sex abuse going on in our society. To use sex abuse as a principle explaining every incidence of adult unhappiness trivialises a serious human problem. In a world in which every unhappy soul is a “victim,” the needs of real victims will be ignored.

We’ll present more on this important topic at the Skeptics annual meeting in September in Christchurch. Mark your calendar!


Hail Guns?

Several of my friends are orchardists, and two of them lost their crop last year due to a hailstorm.

The hot topic at present is “hail guns.” Do they work? How do they work?

There seems to be a dearth of real information on the topic. The manufacturers make extravagant claims but it comes to mind that not too long ago mankind was firing arrows and cannons at the clouds just as confidently.

Does anyone out there have the answers?

Phil Spencer, Westbank, Motueka

OOS and 6000

(1) It hurts me to write this, but as a sufferer from RSI (now called “Occupational Overuse Syndrome” or OOS) I was annoyed by Dr John Welch’s description of it (Skeptic 27) as “essentially a conversion disorder” and a “delusion.” I can assure him the pain is no delusion. In my case it arose after I began transcribing long interviews (fast, repetitive typing, unlike creative work), and that is precisely what you would expect from an analysis provided by the ACC in terms of the metabolism of oxygen by the muscles.

I am grateful for the publications on ergonomics, which have helped me; pity about the forests, but there are plenty of worse ways they are used (such as those that clog my letterbox every day).

Stress and boredom may well be factors, but in my case, disabling pain is likely to have an effect exactly the reverse of “helping [me] sort out [my] … financial problems.”

(2) All power to Phil Spencer and the celebration of the Hexamillennium, but has he taken into account the lack of a year zero (which is going to drive the world crazy at midnight on December 31, 1999, just one year too soon)? The change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar? And the day that was lost when the sun stood still during the Battle of Jericho?

Congratulation to whoever typed out all those little slips saying “4004 BC”: I hope it didn’t give you RSI (OOS)

Hugh Young, Pukerua Bay

It was Bernard Howard who typed 300 little “4004 BC” slips and pasted them in every issue. We wish him well with the ACC. — Editor

Hokum Locum

Skin Lighteners

The pop star Michael Jackson has denied that he uses chemicals to lighten his skin and claimed to be suffering from a disorder called “vitiligo,” which is a spontaneous loss of skin pigment. Jackson said “There is no such thing as skin bleaching. I’ve never seen it. I don’t know what it is.” (GP Weekly 24 Feb, 1993)

In fact, skin lighteners are used extensively by Afro-Caribbean women in response to social pressures. These preparations contain hydroxyquinone which inhibits the production of melanin (normal skin pigment) but cause skin damage with prolonged usage.

“Because the creams are cosmetics rather than drugs they are not subject to stringent tests or regulations and of 33 skin lighteners for sale in Southwark, half were wrongly labelled; six had illegally high hydroxyquinone contents; three contained mercury, which is banned by European law; and two contained cortisone, which should be available only on prescription.” (BMJ Vol 305 p333)

This is a classic illustration of the abuses that occur when potent drugs are allowed to be dispensed as “cosmetics”. I do not know whether Michael Jackson truly does suffer from vitiligo, but with his history of repeated cosmetic surgery and hyperbaric oxygen treatment I would not be surprised if he is using skin lighteners.

Addicted to Sugar

Woman’s Weekly 14/12/92 carries the story of a woman who was chronically depressed until she saw an iridologist who proclaimed the patient “a sugar addict. Her exceptionally high sugar-loaded diet had filled her body with toxins. The whites of her eyes were yellow, and her colon contained faeces which had been present for years.”

This story has all the elements of quackery. Iridology is arrant nonsense adequately dealt with in one of our truth kits, and just what are the “toxins” so favoured by quacks? Can the colon really hold faeces that “have been present for years”? The world’s record for constipation is held by a man who resisted the temptations of the toilet for 368 days. He is said to have become weak after delivering 36 litres of faeces on June 21, 1901, but “there was much rejoicing in the family.” (CMA Journal May 22, 1976/Vol. 114)

This woman clearly suffered from a depression and wasted years in looking for outside “causes”. The iridology diagnosis and treatment is a form of placebo validation of her symptoms, which has allowed her to get better without facing up to more important psychosocial issues. The standard of such stories in the Woman’s Weekly is so pathetic that the staff surely deserve a permanent bent spoon award.

Sports Enhancement

It appears that athletes will do anything to enhance their performance in their chosen sport. Ben Johnson could not give up the use of anabolic steroids and has earned himself a permanent disqualification. Other athletes, such as Katrina Krabbe, have received feeble punishments for the same abuses. Some athletes go to extraordinary lengths to either justify or rationalise their use of performance enhancing drugs. A swimmer (Marlborough Express 16/3/93) complained that a heavy beer-drinking session led to her urine test showing twice the permitted testosterone levels.

A survey of private gymnasiums (British Journal of Sports Medicine 1992;26:259-61) found that 62 out of 160 customers had taken anabolic steroids, along with other drugs to counter the side effects of the steroids. Steroids have been used by some occupational groups, such as debt collectors and bouncers, to enhance physical size and improve employment prospects.

Users have also been observed to participate in needle exchange services through their requirement to administer the drugs intramuscularly. (BMJ Vol 306 13/1/93 p459)

Cooking with Radon

Disused uranium mines are finding a new use as chronically ill people rush to sit in the “health mines” in order to inhale radon gas which is touted to cure everything from migraine to blindness. For as little as $2.50 you receive exposure to radiation while “having a good time playing cards, doing jigsaw puzzles, and reading magazines.” (People Magazine)

(Un) Natural Remedies

Readers will remember the tragic deaths of twin infants from congenital infection of the mother with Listeria, a type of bacteria widely found in seawater and in particular, mussels. It is alleged that the infection was acquired through mussels eaten by the woman as a “natural” source of iron. If only she had taken the completely safe iron tablets available from her local chemist but then, they are not “natural.”

In Belgium, many women have suffered renal failure and died through taking slimming powders containing Chinese herbs, in some cases prescribed by doctors! (GP Weekly 3/3/93) Women are cynically targeted by the diet industry, and it is not surprising that obese people continue to be attracted to slimming remedies which can be eaten.

Oddities of the East

In China, ants are being used in the treatment of Hepatitis B and various rheumatoid diseases. 28000 patients have been treated using medicine made from ants which are rich in zinc and (unspecified) trace elements. 20 percent of a survey of 339 patients were described as “cured,” 77 percent were helped and only 2 percent remained unchanged. No one was made worse. The application of percentages and vague reports of “improvement” does not improve a fundamentally implausible study. (GP Weekly 20/1/93) Applying Skrabanek’s demarcation of the absurd theory, a clinical trial is not indicated.

Chinese herbal preparations often have inscrutable ingredients. A post-menopausal woman attending gynaecology outpatients had a biopsy taken from her uterus, which showed tissue changes consistent with the use of hormones. She was on no medication apart from a herbal remedy prescribed by a homeopath. The doctors found that the list of ingredients included 10 [micro]g of ethinyl-oestradiol (a potent female sex-hormone) with no warnings about long term use. (BMJ Vol 306 16 Jan 93 p212)

The irony of a homeopath prescribing a potent remedy will not be lost on readers. Homeopaths should confine their prescribing to their harmless placebos.

Continuing the theme of arcane Eastern practices, even forms of therapeutic massage are not without side effects. Following a vigorous bout of Shiatsu (Japanese style massage) a patient developed an attack of shingles caused by a reactivation of latent Herpes zoster infection of the affected skin area. (NZ Doctor 18 March 1993)

A man from Belize (Central America) was admitted to hospital with an abscess on his arm which was leaking a shiny pus. He admitted to injecting “white magic” into his forearm a month earlier and an X-Ray showed high density globules in the muscle of his arm.

The material in the injection was mercury, used according to Mayan superstition to ward off evil spirits and increase sexual potency. Tubes of mercury are cheap and freely available in Belize. Historical figures such as Henry VIII were treated for syphilis with mercury, which led to the expression “a night with Venus and a lifetime with mercury.”

The herb chaparral (aka. creosote bush) has been in the news lately, implicated as a cause of toxic liver hepatitis. It is under scrutiny in the US (NCAHF Vol 16 No 1), but as usual our own Health Department is dithering instead of banning it and putting the onus on the distributor to prove that it is safe. I have sent them a copy of the NCAHF article.

Natural Remedies Neglected

Neglect of proven health and hygiene measures can lead to disease as well. 46 people were infected with Salmonella from an imported Irish cheese made with unpasteurised milk. The infection was traced to four cows excreting the same strain of Salmonella in their faeces. There is no excuse for these human infections because pasteurisation kills all disease-producing bacteria commonly transmitted in milk. (BMJ Vol 306 13/2/93 p464)

Soviet Russia had fewer than 60 cases of Diptheria during the mid-1970s. The present social and economic chaos has led to a resurgence of this disease and almost 4000 cases occurred in 1992. Immunisation used to be compulsory but there are now fears that the vaccine is dangerous and AIDS may be caught from the needles. Diptheria has become endemic in rural areas where the standard of health care is very low. (BMJ Vol 306 13/2/93)

Even New Zealand has groups of ignorant people actively campaigning against immunisation. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it!


Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) is characterised by subjective complaints of pain and sensory changes in the upper limbs. Skepticism in the literature prompted researchers to examine data, which showed that the diagnosis of TOS is heavily influenced by a patient’s insurance coverage. Those without such cover are rarely diagnosed as having TOS. (NCAHF Vol 16 No1)

There are many operations performed by surgeons which are of questionable indication. Surgery has a potent placebo effect and most surgeons would be reluctant to put operations to the test of a placebo controlled trial as outlined by Dr Bill Morris in the last issue of this journal.

Black Spot Mystery

Many mysteries turn out to have mundane explanations which are seldom accorded the same publicity as, for example, alien abduction stories (actually due to a dream state in susceptible individuals). Local health authorities in Green River, Wyoming sent out questionnaires, mapped homes and exhaustively tested scabby spots from the scalps of school children before concluding that the spots were flakes of tar which had blown off the school roof! (NZ Doctor 1/4/93)

Skepticism and Miracles

This article is an abridged version of the fourth article in a series on philosophy and the paranormal. Here Dr Grey discusses David Hume’s analysis of miracles and his view that belief in miraculous events is always unjustified. He also investigates the nature, virtues and dangers of different skeptical viewpoints.

Hume’s Razor

What is a miracle? In the vernacular we speak of “miraculous” escapes and the like, to characterise events which are extremely unlikely — at odds with the normal course of experience. A miracle in this weak sense just means a very improbable event.

David Hume, in his famous essay “On Miracles”, had a stronger sense of “miracle” in mind, namely something which violates a law of nature. It is in this sense that miracles have commonly featured in religious systems of belief, as the means by which God has been thought to have demonstrated His presence or His power to His chosen people.

The question which Hume addresses is: are we justified in believing that miracles have in fact occurred? He argues for the very strong conclusion that we are never justified in believing that a miracle has ever occurred.

Hume is not claiming to show that miracles have never occurred. Proving negative existence claims is notoriously problematic. Hume’s claim is the importantly different one that we are never rationally justified in believing that miracles have occurred. That is, Hume is addressing the epistemological issue of what it is rational to believe, rather than the metaphysical question of what is and is not possible in our sort of world.

The argument has two parts. First, Hume argues that the evidence against miracles is usually very strong. (And according to one of Hume’s epistemological maxims “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”) We therefore have to weigh the evidence that a miraculous event happened against the evidence that it did not.

In evaluating testimony for miracles, Hume advances the following principle which, echoing the famous methodological principle commonly attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1285-1349), has been called Hume’s Razor. The principle is:

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.

The second stage of the argument claims that even though the evidence in favour of miracles might outweigh the evidence against them, in practice this never happens. Hume maintains that there never was a miraculous event established on sufficiently strong grounds to warrant rational belief in its occurrence. There are four factors which undermine the credibility of any claim in support of the miraculous.

First there is the problem of witness credibility. Witnesses who testify as to the occurrence of miracles are seldom totally above suspicion of either having been deceived or of the intent to deceive. In evaluating their testimony, we must always choose between believing that a miracle occurred or believing that the witnesses were deceived or deceitful.

According to Hume, no miracle has ever been “attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education and learning as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others…” All claims for miracles, that is, suffer from what we call a credibility gap.

The second problem which Hume identifies is human credulity. There is a natural human affinity for the novel, the surprising and the marvelous. Recognising this propensity for credulity, we must take note of and be guided by the following maxims in evaluating claims for the miraculous:

  • Objects of which we have no experience resemble those of which we do have experience;
  • What we have found to be most usual is most probable;
  • In case of dispute, give preference to the side favoured by the greatest number of observations.

These sound, if somewhat pedestrian, maxims are frequently overridden by the excitement and novelty which is often the basis of human credulity.

Hume’s third point about miraculous claims is the tribal origins of superstition. Miracles occur mainly in primitive (in Hume’s words “ignorant and barbarous”) nations, or are derived from barbarous and ignorant ancestors. As human understanding develops, we come to reject omens, oracles, astrology, demons, and the like as unhelpful in explaining natural phenomena.

Finally, Hume points to a problem which confronts claims of the miraculous concerning conflicts of testimony. It is impossible that the religious traditions of “ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China” should all of them be established on any solid foundation. Every miracle claimed within any one of these traditions is intended to establish the truth of that tradition and to discredit the claims of the others.

Hume believed that the inclination of mankind towards superstition and the marvelous may receive some check from sense and learning, but he also seems to have believed that it could never be thoroughly extirpated from human nature. Hume, one suspects, would not be surprised to find beliefs in astrology, UFOs, crystals, channeling, and similar credulous ideas in the twentieth century.

The Virtues of Skepticism

Skepticism can be characterised as a critical stance with regard to knowledge (or existence) claims, and a skeptic is one who calls such claims into question. Skepticism can refer to either the critical stance adopted in subjecting knowledge claims to careful scrutiny, or to a state of doubt or disbelief which may be the outcome of such an inquiry.

Being skeptical in the second sense (withholding assent, or suspending belief in a particular claim) need not involve believing the opposite. Skepticism is a matter of doubt rather than denial. If I withhold assent from the claim that God exists, it need not be the case that I believe that God does not exist. I might believe that the evidence is just not strong enough to settle the matter either way.

We need to distinguish between critical and dogmatic skepticism, and between selective and global skepticism, though these terms do not mark absolute distinctions.

Skepticism is dogmatic if assent is withheld a priori, that is, on the basis of prior conviction without considering the evidence. For example, Galileo’s colleagues expressed a perfectly intelligible skepticism about the existence of the moons of Jupiter; they became dogmatic when they refused to look through his telescope.

Skepticism is global if it is general and encompasses all claims to knowledge; selective if it is targeted to specific knowledge claims.

Global skepticism is rare. Perhaps Cratylus, an older contemporary of Plato (c. 428-348 BC), is the most global skeptic recorded in the annals of philosophy. His skepticism is said to have been so extreme that he refused to answer questions and would only wave a weary finger at his interlocutor to indicate that truth was so elusive and ephemeral that it would be useless to reply. (At least, that is what his interlocutors are reputed to have believed him to have been attempting to say).

Skepticism which falls short of the global always has to be qualified by specifying the subject matter to which it is directed. There are various beliefs, for example about rocks and tables, which are immune to skeptical doubts — at least outside philosophy seminar rooms.

At the other extreme there are tooth fairies, Santa Claus and the elixir of life, which most will immediately dismiss as lacking sufficient epistemic warrant. In between (drawing boundaries here will create controversy) there are various disputed cases and claims, such as God, economic rationalism, J-curves, nuclear deterrence and psychic and paranormal phenomena. Disputed cases are also the coal-face of the professional philosopher: on which side of the dividing line, for example, should we put minds, beliefs, desires, meanings, properties, and numbers?

Strange Claims

When confronted with a claim about some strange, paranormal or similarly anomalous phenomena (an accurate premonition, a “near death” or an “out of body” experience, say), we should adopt a scrupulously skeptical approach. By this I do not mean that we must conclude that the experience did not occur, or that whoever had the experience must have been somehow deluded — though do not rule that out either! Rather, we should be alert to the possibility of natural and ordinary explanations of unnatural and extraordinary occurrences.

We must be especially careful in evaluating the evidence which appears to support such anomalous events. While rejecting a dogmatic skepticism which refuses to countenance anomalous events, critical skepticism seeks to gather as much evidence as possible concerning any extraordinary or allegedly paranormal event, claim or theory.

Critical skepticism means keeping an open mind not rejecting disputed claims a priori. We must examine the evidence scrupulously. But it means refusing to accept as true claims for which there is insufficient or ambiguous evidence, and recognising that withholding belief is preferable to accepting claims for which there are not sufficient grounds.

It also means adopting as a methodological maxim the principle that in seeking explanations we should prefer the ordinary to the extraordinary, and the simple to the complex. This is one interpretation of the principle known as “Ockham’s Razor”.

Skepticism is the disposition, or art, of matching belief to evidence. There is at present no convenient antonym for “skeptic”. For convenience, I propose to revive the archaic expression “credulist” to serve this role. A credulist can be understood as someone who is apt to accept claims without sufficient evidence, that is to say, someone whose epistemic standards are too low.

Why be Skeptical?

Etymologically, skeptikos means “inquirer”, and the value of skepticism is that it leads to — and when seriously entertained is usually the result of — a systematic inquiry into the foundations of knowledge. Skeptical arguments play a central role in inquiry, particularly philosophical inquiry where they have been directed not just at eccentric belief systems, but at beliefs which most regard as self-evident. Thus skeptical arguments have been raised about the existence of other minds, knowledge of the past, knowledge of material objects (the “external world”), moral truths, sensory knowledge and even about knowledge of logic and mathematics.

The purpose of skepticism in these cases is (usually) not to raise extravagant doubts (though that is sometimes an unintended consequence), but rather to clarify our understanding of the subject of inquiry. There are apparently more modest forms of skepticism which challenge, for example, theological or metaphysical knowledge. And in some cases (for example, I suggest with respect to astrology or phrenology) skepticism seems to be not merely defensible, but appropriate.

When pressed to extremes, skeptical arguments sometimes turn out to be self-defeating, and the critical pursuit of knowledge leads to a denial that knowledge is attainable. Extreme or global skepticism has often been the consequence of setting unreasonably high standards as to what is acceptable as knowledge — in particular setting absolute certainty (the impossibility of being mistaken) as a requirement for genuine knowledge.

Objections to Skepticism

Routine rejoinders to skeptics are, first, the claim that skeptics demand unrealistically high standards of proof (often accompanied by the charge that the skeptics’ insistence on these standards is unjustified), and, second, an insistence (sometimes dogmatic) that a disputed category of experience (a psychic experience, say) is more certain than any skeptical argument which calls them into question.

Regarding the first point, the insistence of protocols, controls, and repeatability are based on the beliefs that nature is consistent — and human nature often suspect. No one demands 100 per cent repeatability. There are always anomalous observations due to the quirks of experimenters or their apparatus. (Indeed with complex scientific experiments it is a formidable task to get anything to work at all.)

But for any extraordinary claim to gain respectability, it has to be replicable by someone somewhere. A recent example of the failure to meet this requirement was the discrediting of the exciting empirical claim by Pons and Fleischmann about so-called cold fusion.

The problem with psi phenomena is not that it is difficult for careful researchers to get it to work occasionally under rigorously controlled conditions; it is difficult for careful observers to get anything at all that can’t be dismissed as noise, error, wishful thinking, chance and often, sadly, fraud. It is for this reason that the requirements of controlled experiments and repeatability cannot be dismissed as unduly fussy: experience shows that nature does not cheat and that people sometimes do.

There are number of manipulative techniques such as “cold reading”, which are well known to psychics (and magicians), which are used to fool people into believing that there are special psychic powers.

Skepticism should not be confused with cynicism, though it frequently is. A cynic is someone who is inclined to believe the worst about people. Cynicism is however a form of skepticism: it is skepticism about the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions. Historically, Cynics were a sect founded by Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, who condemned wealth and the enjoyments of life. The most extreme and celebrated exponent of the movement was Diogenes.

In the history of philosophy we find skeptical arguments are repeatedly proposed and then attacked and “refuted”. Skepticism is a continuing challenge to dogmatic claims, and helps to maintain the spirit of free inquiry. Without skepticism we would be in danger of failing to distinguish enthusiasm, prejudice and superstition from serious, rational, and well-grounded beliefs, which is essential to the task of making sense of the world.

Perhaps the main danger for skeptics is that they sometimes have difficulty in distinguishing hard and soft data, that they set their standards of epistemic acceptability at too high a level (in contrast to credulists, whose epistemic standards are too low) and may tend to promote their own form of dogmatic conservatism.

The aim of skepticism is to combat doctrinal rigidities which can afflict almost any belief system, but skeptics must remain alert to the possibility of falling prey to rigidities of their own. Skepticism is all about matching belief to evidence. It is a difficult and continuing challenge to maintain the right proportion of skepticism in our inquiries. Only then are we able to steer between the Scylla of dogmatism and the Charybdis of credulism.

Monkeying with Your Private Parts.

Rejuvenation! The wish of many a tired old man, and not so old: to regain the physical and sexual vigour of youth.

During the early decades of this century it was widely though not universally believed that such a rejuvenation, a turning back of the clock, could be achieved. It was thought that the secret of youth lay in the primary sex organs, so transplantation of the testis from young to old was the method adopted. In the 1920s a dozen or more surgeons around the world were ministering to this fervent desire by grafting the testes of young animals into those patients who could afford the fee.

We now know that this operation was quite useless, yet the surgeons and their hundreds of patients were on the whole convinced that the latter were indeed made to feel younger and fitter. Since that time we have discovered what formidable barriers the body raises against the introduction into it of “non-self” tissues. Material even from close relatives is rejected, and only in very recent times have methods been found for breaching the body’s defences to allow the intrusion of carefully matched foreign organs. This type of operation still makes newspaper headlines. Grafting between different species, using the techniques of sixty or more years ago, is impossible; rejection, the complete killing of the graft, would have been very rapid.

We have here, then, a most powerful example of the placebo effect, so a closer look at these events would follow naturally on Bill Morris’s article on the subject in the previous issue (Skeptic 27).

To set the scene, the medical background to the activities of the gland grafters, we note that as the century began the science of endocrinology was just beginning. The powerfully acting secretions of the endocrine glands were slowly being discovered and studied. First, the effect of extracts of thyroid glands on cretinism and myxoedema, then in the early twenties the anti-diabetic action of the pancreas extract insulin.

Gland Extracts to Restore Virility

It seemed a natural extension that an extract of the testis gland should restore flagging virility, and some unsuccessful trials along these lines took place. (when a hormone was, many years later, isolated from testes, and named testosterone. it was found not to have the effect sought.)

Seeking a more successful way of using the sex gland, surgeons looked to grafting. It was known at that time that cornea and bone could be transplanted from one person to another; it was not then realised that these successful grafts were rare exceptions — rather they were taken to indicate that grafts between people of any organ were possible. This view was strengthened when the discovery of blood groups enabled doctors to avoid the disasters which attended many of the early attempts at blood transfusion. The fact that some skin grafts did not “take” was ascribed to less-than-perfect technique, and many apparent “takes” were only the growth of the recipient’s own skin, and not the graft at all.

So the grafters got to work, initially on animals, and then on human patients. The usual technique was to excise the testis from the donor animal, open the scrotum of the recipient, and to place either the whole donor testis, or a slice, close up against one of the recipient’s testes, and then to sew him up again. In most cases the implanted tissue appeared to persist over time, giving the impression that the graft had “taken”. From our present standpoint we view this effect as the result of the rapid invasion of the graft by host cells, so the apparent “extra” gland was merely inactive host tissue.

Some of the earliest transplants into humans (1919 on) were carried out on those well-known experimental subjects, the residents of US gaols. These were man-to-man transplants, the “death row” of the prison serving as a regular source of fresh donor material. Dr Leo Stanley, chief Medico at San Quentin Prison in California, was the leader in this work, and carried out many transplants into “volunteer” prisoners during the 1920s. He and his patients were generally pleased with the results, and he impressed his fellow physicians sufficiently that several of them underwent the operation themselves.

In spite of this, there is no doubt that the most famous of the testis grafters was Serge Voronoff, a Russian émigré doctor of great wealth and charisma, active in Paris from the 1880s until the Second World War. Already in his 50s, and with a successful and fashionable medical career behind him, he turned in 1919 to the work that made him famous, his rejuvenation treatment. Lacking access to human material, he chose as donor animal the chimpanzee.

Believing that human grafts were possible, he picked on man’s closest relative as being the most likely to provide a transplant acceptable to the recipient’s tissues. Despite the expense (the chimpanzees alone cost a small fortune, as they each had to be caught in Africa and brought safely to France), he had many patients.

Voronoff’s fame during the 1920s arose not only from the “success” of his grafts, but also from his copious output of books on the subject, which he continued to publish long after the operation had passed out of favour. He had had from the outset critics who doubted the efficacy of the testis grafts, but it is uncertain whether, judged by the knowledge of the time, they had more reason for their skepticism than Voronoff had for his optimism.

The two British doctors’ journals took differing views: the Lancet was consistently critical of Voronoff’s medical claims and reviewed his books unfavourably, while the British Medical Journal was generally more approving.

Perhaps surprisingly, Voronoff’s undoing came not from a medical but a veterinary quarter. Emboldened by his success with human patients, he returned to his earlier interest in animals, and put his talents at the service of French agriculture. In 1924 he secured the use of a flock of sheep at an agricultural station deep in the French colony of Algeria. Some of the young rams of this flock received a testis graft, others were left unoperated. On reaching maturity, the operated rams were found to be heavier, and yielded more wool, than the unoperated controls. Not only this, but the progeny of the grafted rams also gave more wool.


Conclusive proof! Surely this evidence would silence those who had doubted. The animal results could be assessed objectively, unlike the confidential and subjective observations on the human patients. So groups of veterinarians and agriculturalists were invited to inspect the “super sheep.” All but one of the international visiting parties were quite convinced; only the British put their fingers on the fatal flaw in Voronoff’s case.

Translated into present-day statisticians’ jargon, he had failed to randomise his young rams at the start of the trial. It is as if we judged the winner of a race by noting who first crosses the finish line, without ensuring that all competitors started from the same place at the same time.

Knowing now that these grafts must have been rejected, we can only conclude that Voronoff had, perhaps unconsciously, selected the better quality rams for the transplant group, and that this superiority had carried on into the animals’ maturity, and to their offspring.

Voronoff’s claims for the superiority of the offspring of his grafted rams implied “inheritance of acquired characteristics;” thus, all unwittingly, he had strayed onto the battlefield between the Lamarckians and the Darwinians. So, by his sheep experiments, he widened the area of interest in his work beyond the medical, attracting the attention of veterinarians, agriculturalists and finally general biologists.

By 1930 medical opinion was already turning against him; the scrutiny of the non-medical scientists hastened this process. By their nature, his human operations were very private, confidential affairs, the results of which were quite inaccessible for objective assessment by others.

When the fad for this operation died down, and its uselessness was realised, the practitioners were widely ridiculed, and reviled as quacks and charlatans. This was incorrect and sadly ungenerous; with few exceptions these surgeons were sincere men who wholeheartedly believed in what they were doing. Voronoff himself defended his work until his death in 1951.

A Change of Glands

That is not quite the end of the story of the gland-grafters. At the same time as testis transplants were going out of fashion, as described above, endocrinology was discovering more and more hormones produced by the body’s many glands, and these were available for “treating” a wide range of disorders.

The pituitary gland, in particular, was found to have a special role in controlling the activity of other glands (it was at one time called “the conductor of the hormonic orchestra”). Injection of cells of the pituitary, then, could be used by unscrupulous doctors to treat whatever glandular deficiency the patient could be persuaded he had.

The leading practitioner, Dr Niehans, a Swiss, was active until the 1950s, and counted Top People (from Hollywood to the Vatican) among his patients. None of his injections could have been of any use.

What lessons ought we to learn from this story, this false turning in medical science? Firstly, we see that misguided enthusiasts can be as dangerous as unscrupulous quacks. Furthermore, we should all subject our enthusiasms to rigorous self-scrutiny.

If Voronoff had kept better records of his operations, and taken a more objective view of the results, he might eventually have seen his error. Had he invited a histologist to examine his early sheep grafts he might have been convinced that they had indeed been rejected by the host. From the patient’s viewpoint, a person unhappy with his present state of health, having undergone a very expensive and uncomfortable operation, carried out by a charming, confident and persuasive surgeon, can almost be guaranteed to confirm whatever outcome of the operation the surgeon suggests to him.

A last thought: in a period which delivered to women the suffrage, protective labour laws and power-driven domestic appliances, the “rejuvenation” movement was almost entirely male-oriented. No-one seems to have considered whether anything could be done to help the post-menopausal woman who longed to be twenty again.

I am indebted for the information in this article to The Monkey Gland Affair by David Hamilton, London: Chatto & Windus, 1986.

The New Zealand Skeptic Overseas

Several copies of each issue of our newsletter are sent to the international skeptical movement’s headquarters in Buffalo, New York. Many of these are distributed to our sister organisations around the world, and it is gratifying when items by our members are noticed in other publications.

Two recent examples:

Russell Dear’s article on “Equine Pseudoscience” is reprinted with acknowledgement in the UK Skeptic for March/April (Vol 7 No 3). Solace for poor Russell, who appears from his writing to live a “horse-pecked” existence.

An editorial in Skeptiker (1/93) summarises at length Hugh Young’s recent article on “Cold Reading for Fun and Profit”. Hugh’s gentle deception of “Madame Mamoque’s” customers receives high praise. So also does Dr John Welch, whose notes in “Hokum Locum” are seen as a refreshing antidote to the views of many German doctors.

Put a Pixie in Your Petrol

A Sprite in your Spirit, a Bogle in your Benzine, a Fury in your Fuel, a Greyhound in your Gasoline. With acknowledgement to the oil company which, many years ago, urged us to “Put a Tiger in your Tank.”

“It is far too easy for promoters of such products to make extravagant claims, and very difficult, time consuming and expensive to challenge such claims … there needs to be a system whereby advertisers can be required to prove such fulsome claims, rather than requiring disbelievers to disprove such claims.”

Yet another moan about homeopathic medicines from the pages of Skeptical Inquirer? Wrong! The quotation above is from the New Zealand Automobile Association’s Directions (September 1992), and refers to “Petrol Pills,” claimed by the distributors to improve your car’s fuel consumption by up to 17%, increase power by 8-12%, and to reduce harmful emissions. In careful tests, the AA could not confirm any of these claims.

The “Petrol Pills” promotion was backed by the usual “unsolicited testimonials” and by vague test reports of doubtful provenance. The subject of this next note has an apparently more respectable origin. It was observed by a contributor to Skeptiker, our German counterpart, at a well-respected technical exhibition, “Ceramitec,” in Munich.

Among the many well-attested marvels of modern ceramic technology was the stand of a Japanese firm, introducing “Mixrax” pellets — a “philosopher’s stone,” according to our German colleagues. A few pellets in your petrol tank will alter the molecular structure of the fuel (!), so that the specific heat of combustion is raised. This is claimed to allow fuel savings of 10-20%, power increases of 10-20%, the reduction of CO2 and hydrocarbon emissions by 30-40%, and a general cleaning of motor and exhaust systems. This material of paranormal power is made by sintering together over twenty common ceramic materials. One of these contains uranium, and the “Mirax” pellets contain much more radioactivity than is usually considered safe. Apart from the safety aspect, automotive engineers can see no way in which these pellets could work as claimed.

Our final “pixies” do not actually go into the tank; they are magnets which are fastened round the fuel intake to the carburetor. They are claimed to “excite” the fuel as it passes to the engine, making it burn more efficiently and less pollutingly. New Scientist has reported on a number of these devices recently. The British Advertising Standards Authority has ruled against the claims made for several, on the ground that no evidence was provided to substantiate them. More colourfully, a university engineer says a dead chicken wrapped around the pipe would be just as effective. American authorities, both state and federal, have used the courts to stop the sale of these devices until the claims are proved.

A joke from my boyhood was about a man who installed so many petrol- saving devices in his car that his fuel savings exceeded 100%, and he had to stop occasionally to empty his overflowing tank. Apparently the old chestnut has not lost its point.

More from A Skeptic’s Bibliography

Continued from last issue. Prices are US dollars.


Billig, Otto, Flying Saucers: Magic in the Skies, Schenkman Books, 1982, H-$19.95, ISBN 0-87073-833-X; P-$11.95, ISBN 0-87073940-9.

Klass, Phillip, UFOs: The Public Deceived, Prometheus Books, 1986, H-$19.95, ISBN 0-87975-203-3; 1986, P-$14.95, ISBN 0-87975322-6.

Klass, Phillip, UFO-Abductions: A Dangerous Game, Prometheus Books, 1988: 1989 (updated), P-$16.95, ISBN 0-87975-509-1.

Oberg, James, UFO’S and Outer Space Mysteries, Donning, 1982, P$6.95, ISBN 0-89865-102-6.

Sagan, Carl and Thornton Page, eds., UFOs: A Scientific Debate, Norton, 1974, P-$8.95, ISBN 0-393-00739-1.

Sheaffer, Robert, The UFO Verdict: Examining the Evidence, Prometheus Books, 1986, P-$14.95, ISBN 0-87975-338-2.

Ancient Astronauts and Cult Archaeology

de Camp, L. Sprague, The Ancient Engineers, Ballantine Books, 1988, P-$4.95, ISBN 0-345-00876-6.

de Camp, L. Sprague, Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme, Dover, 1970, P-$6.50, ISBN 0-486-22668-9.

De Mille, Richard, ed., The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies, Ross-Erikson, 1979, H-$19.95, ISBN 0-915520-257; P-$?, ISBN 0-534-12150-0, Wadsworth Press, 1990.

Hadingham, Evan, Lines to the Mountain Gods: Nazca and the Mysteries of Peru, Random House, 1986, H-$22.50, ISBN 0-394-54235-5, University of Oklahoma Press, 1988, P-$16.95, ISBN 0-806-12130-0.

Harrold, Francis and Raymond Eve, eds., Cult Archaeology and Creationism: Understanding Pseudoscientific Beliefs about the Past, University of Iowa Press, 1987, H-$20.00, ISBN 0-87745-176-1.

Stiebing, William H., Ancient Astronauts, Cosmic Collisions, and other Popular Theories about Man’s Past, Prometheus Books, 1984, P$13.95, ISBN 0-87975-285-8.

The Wyant Heavy-Weight Motor

It may interest skeptics to know that I have solved the world’s energy problems. The concept is surprisingly simple… but then works of great brilliance often are.

Our methods employ what we call “The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back Technologies.” I won’t mind however, if future generations call them “Carl Systems.”

As etheric physicists know, all objects on Earth inherently “want” to leave the planet. But they can’t, because gravity holds them down. We call this syndrome “weight frustration.” Thus, metals like gold or lead are “extremely frustrated,” whereas subjects such as feathers and dry leaves are only “mildly neurotic.”

The Wyant Heavy-Weight Motor — simply called by the boys and girls at the lab the “Wymo” — works according to ancient cosmic principles.

The fuel, already desperate to fly forth from the Earth, but held back by the forces of gravity, is subjected to further “annoyance” by way of a powerful screw-driven press. This “further annoyance” is The Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back, known as “strack” among professionals.

Basically, Wymos and other strack devices increase “annoyance” until the fuel “freaks out” and discharges its “frustration.”

So far we have found lead to be the best fuel for strack machines. Forty pounds of lead will drive a six-foot turbine at 190 RPM for five hours, producing ten times as much energy as it takes to drive the press.

Granite and other hard rocks are also proving to be good sources of frustration. And with the current development of strack amplification units we expect major breakthroughs with alarm clocks and bulk copies of the Listener any day now.

Some alternative fuels, unfortunately, have not shown favourable graphs. For example, repeated stracking trials using glossy magazine editors and cow-shooting journalists for fuel have failed to turn over our smallest turbines, much less “over produce.”

We have hopes of explaining this anomaly in the near future. But for now, why 20 pounds of granite yields more energy than 150 pounds of journalist remains a hotly debated issue at the Wymo lab.

In the meantime, we persist with our work. We are confident the patent office will soon recognise the importance of the Heavy-Weight Motor.