1993 and All That

That arbitrary slice of the continuum of time known as 1993 has been a busy one for the New Zealand Skeptics. High spot of the year was the visit of James Randi in early July. Unfortunately, his timetable allowed only four public appearances, one each in Christchurch and Auckland and two in Wellington.

However, those unable to see him in person had plenty of opportunity to see him on TV, hear him on radio and read about him in newspapers and magazines. He was tireless in submitting himself to the punishing round of interviews, etc, arranged by our enthusiastic Media Representative. Every interviewer wanted to see him bend spoons, and he left behind him a trail of bent and broken cutlery, the bill for which was not negligible.

The Annual Conference, held in Christchurch in September, offered an interesting programme, and attracted good audiences of members and others. As with the Randi visit, a gratifying degree of attention from the media was earned. Outstanding in this respect were the contributions of Professor Michael Hill on “Satanic Panics” and of Assistant Commissioner Ian Holyoake on “Police Use of Psychics”. Mike Dickison on “Maori Science” and Feike de Bock on “The Manna Machine” also received notice. Margaret Mahy honoured us with a splendid after-dinner speech.

At the Annual General meeting of NZCSICOP the reports from the Chair, Treasurer and Media Representative were presented and accepted. The reports indicate a generally satisfactory year’s activity, but a wide- ranging discussion on funding and our public image dispelled any sense of complacency.

The officers were elected unchanged, and the Committee for the year will be Kerry Chamberlain, Mike Dickison, Warwick Don, Heather Mackay and Hugh Young. A request from a skeptic group in the US for our mailing list, in return for a subscription to their magazine, was discussed in light of recent privacy legislation in New Zealand. It was agreed on the voices to provide the list on condition it not be passed on.

(The publishers of The Skeptic in the US have decided not to use the list due to the sorts of qualms raised by the AGM. Keep an eye out for an ad concerning this informative and entertaining new publication. You may want to subscribe.)

At the local level, activity has been patchy. In Wellington Prof Peter Munz spoke on “The Historical Survival of Superstition” and in Christchurch we hosted the Craigieburn Moa Spotters. The rest is silence.

Recruitment of new members has been brisk, and would have been even better if people knew how to get in touch with us (see a letter in the Listener, 13 November 1993). This is a weakness to be worked on. Nonetheless, membership now stands at over 300.

A Man with Rheumatoid Arthritis

A couple of weeks before my medical finals late last year I sat down in the waiting area of the Christchurch rheumatology clinic. I struck up conversation with the only other person there, a man in his late forties. The story he told me about his arthritis made my few remaining strands of hair stand on end.

This unfortunate gentleman (whom I’ll call “Barry”) had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis in his hands and feet for about seven months. Shortly after the start of his symptoms he consulted his general practitioner who advised him, and provided him with a typical course of physiotherapy and aspirin-like drugs to try to prevent loss of function, and to relieve the inflammation and the pain.

This approach didn’t seem to be working and shortly thereafter Barry consulted a naturopath in his suburb. The experience completely changed his life.

Barry was an uncomplicated man, surviving on his own, on an unemployment benefit. A weekly visit to the naturopath cost twenty dollars, which initially seemed reasonable, but the remedies prescribed cost a further eighty dollars each week. These were initially in the form of homeopathic pill preparations; subsequently there were caustic foot baths (“which made my skin fall off”) and magnets to wear. Then there was the list of forbidden foods which, he said, “was practically everything I ate”. Onion soup was given the green light however, and Barry had quite literally attempted to live on this for the months until his rescue. He felt there was little option though, as he had no money to buy food now anyway. This continued for a considerable time and Barry’s return for “therapy” each week was partly promoted by the naturopath telephoning him each morning and each night, every day, reminding him to do so.

Barry remembers no attempt to formally test whether or not his arthritis was improving. He felt there was no improvement.

Old neighbours called around one day, not having heard from him for a time. They found Barry lethargic, pale and malnourished. He had the feeling that the naturopath had control over his mind, and he wanted to kill himself. The neighbours’ very humane response to this was to temporarily remove him from his house, and simultaneously clean it and contact the Arthritis Foundation. And Barry found himself back in medical care, where I met him.

There was a post script to this ghastly affair. Barry called the naturopath to tell her that he would no longer be attending, and that he would be submitting the remedies he had left to “the DSIR” to see if she had been poisoning him. He was told that unless any remaining medicines were returned to her within twenty-four hours the police would be informed that he had stolen them. He took them back.

How could this have happened?

The chronic nature of many rheumatic disorders often leads sufferers to seek treatments alternative to those given by their doctors1. In one study published in England2, 40% of Scandinavian rheumatoid arthritis sufferers had consulted a practitioner in at least one of the following disciplines (a further 3% were unclassified): acupuncture, anthroposophical medicine, astrology, cell therapy, auriculo therapy, enzyme therapy, faith healing, spa treatment centre, herbalism, homeopathy, hypnotherapy, iridology, manipulation, naturopathy, neural therapy, hand healing.

An article in Pediatrics3 states that 70% of sufferers of juvenile arthritis used “unconventional” remedies at some time.

Homeopathy is possibly the most widely available alternative therapy in Christchurch, but there is a real smorgasbord of alternatives now as readers will know. Even my much admired medical handbook4 appears to support the system, referring to a British Medical Journal paper5 and stating that an analysis of the clinical trials suggests real benefit. Closer scrutiny of that very article however, does not to my mind bear this out, and the conclusions the authors draw from their own analysis are contradictory.

Some authors in apparently reputable medical journals are startlingly uncritical. Most authors suggest that more research must take place. Not so Skrabanek, who says “…this leaves the sufferers, and also healthy people labelled with non-existent diseases, bleeding prey for the sharks roving the seas of medical ignorance”.6

Questions remain. Why do people seek out alternative therapies, and often believe uncritically in them? Are they dangerous?

My belief is that as a group, we are not fulfilling all of our duties as caring doctors. Patients who visit alternative practitioners tend to have less satisfaction in their regular doctor in psychosocial ways than those who have never consulted an alternative medicine practitioner2.

I think that we would all accept that our medicine may fail to arrest the biological progress of a patient’s disease. But if we also fail to recognise and help with the psychological and social aspects when they consult us, help in all aspects of a disorder may be sought elsewhere. This could be registered as a dissatisfaction “with the dehumanising aspects of modern technological medicine”6.

As to the hotly-debated question of dangerousness2, arguing against any particular danger is the innocuous biological inactivity of the majority of alternative therapies — homeopathic remedies made in the classic way contain no active ingredient, and can therefore do the patient no harm. But surely this is too simplistic. Many skeptics would consider these “therapies” potentially dangerous because the patients they may be encouraged to waive their usual medication, they pay large sums of (unsubsidised) money, acquire weird false hopes, and are seduced into accepting bizarre magical thinking. And they don’t get their diseases treated.

References

1) Andrade, L., Ferraz, M., Atra, E., Castro, A., Silva, M. “A randomized controlled trial to evaluate the effectiveness of homeopathy in rheumatoid arthritis.” Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatology 20(3): 204-208, 1991. Return to text

2) Visser, G., Peters, L., Rasker, J. “Rheumatologists and their patients who seek alternative care: an agreement to disagree.” British Journal of Rheumatology 31:485-490, 1992. Return to text

3) Southwood, T., Mallelson, P., Roberts-Thomson, P., Mahy, M. “Unconventional remedies used for patients with juvenile arthritis.” Pediatrics 85(2):150-154, 1990. Return to text

4) Collier, J., Longmore, J., Harvey, J. Oxford Handbook of Clinical Specialties (3rd Edition). Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991. Return to text

5) Kleijen, J., Knipschild, P., ter Riet, G. “Clinical trials of homoeopathy.” British Medical Journal 302:316-323, 1991. Return to text

6) Skrabanek, P. “Paranormal health claims.” Experientia 44(4):303-309, 1988. Return to text

Skeptics Meet Moa Spotters

It was a surprise to many outside observers, especially those who don’t well understand the Skeptics. Paddy Freaney, Rochelle Rafferty, and Sam Waby, the trio who gained world attention early this year by their claim to have glimpsed a living moa in the Southern Alps, were invited to put their case before a meeting of Canterbury Skeptics.

The discussion was serious, friendly and good-natured, without sarcasm or hostility. Sam Waby began with a passionate defense of the claim. He’s been stalking deer up there for 30 years, he explained, but when he sighted the big bird, his rifle didn’t even go near his shoulder. He spoke with intense conviction, and was backed up by Rochelle who also said the beast was unmistakably not a deer. Beside describing his encounter and short chase after the animal, Paddy Freaney complained with some bitterness about the failure of Department of Conservation investigators to take the claim seriously.

In their coherence, consistency and sense of sincerity, these three were remarkable. No one forced them to front up. The very fact that they accepted the Skeptics’ invitation in the first place has to be seen favourably. Were the episode a hoax, it would have been far easier to have been “too busy” to accept the Skeptics’ invitation.

On the other hand, the difficulties with the story seem intractable. The apparent bird was large. Paddy claims recently to have seen damage to bushes possibly consistent with moa browsing, but where are the droppings? The site was a remote, unvisited area, but it is still implausible that a bird that large could survive undetected for so long. He readily acknowledges these problems, but sticks to the story.

After an evening in which careful intelligent questions were asked by an audience of about fifty, it was very hard to imagine the trio was lying. I had an experience immediately after the meeting that is worth relating. A handful of us remained in the bar of the University Staff Club. At one point I overheard Freaney and Rafferty talking privately in a corner of the room. She complained that he hadn’t given her enough chance to speak, to which he responded with friendly but exasperated surprise that she didn’t even want to come along at first.

The tone and content of this exchange (I don’t repeat it all) was not what you’d conceive of as coming from two lying conspirators — unless they were accomplished and well-rehearsed actors who even in private even put it on for themselves.

That’s logically possible, but few Skeptics left the meeting thinking the moa sighting was an intentional hoax. Pace Waby’s passion, still a deer perhaps, or something else. As Vicki Hyde points out, there are only three possibilities: it was a hoax, a moa, or something else. If the first is to be eliminated, and the second seems still remote, we’re driven to the third. Still, as I pointed out in an editorial earlier this year, hope for a living moa glimmers in the heart of even the driest Skeptic.

This is the one point on which all in the room agreed — New Zealand needs a moa. The big bird remains a splendid and tantalising possibility. Paddy is continuing the search. The Skeptics wish him luck.

Forum

Letter from India

The Indian Skeptics sometimes seem to be up against some very big opponents. Our Chair recently received the following letter:

Dear Friend,

[There have been] 6 murders in the bedroom of Satya Sai Baba on 6.6.93. As the Sai Baba with the collusion of the police have committed this crime as the State and Central Ministers and the president of India are inner circle members of the Sai Baba Mafia, on 27.9.93 with great difficulty we have filed a writ petition in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh for an impartial enquiry into the murky happenings in Sai Baba’s alleged abode of peace, where his very near accomplices were murdered, and the petition came up for admission on 28.9.93.

The government pleaders tried their best to refer the case to the full bench of the High Court, where many such cases are pending the report of the judicial commission as to whether the courts have powers to order an impartial enquiry or a CBI enquiry. Mr K.N. Balgopal, our advocate practising in the Supreme Court of India at New Delhi, produced the recent judgement (in which he himself had argued the case for the petitioner in September ’93) where the bench of the Supreme Court, which included the Chief Justice of India, stated that the Courts are supreme as far as the upholding of law, justice and Constitution are concerned, and when the State and the Central Government fails to uphold law, justice and the Constitution they have the powers to order an impartial enquiry into the allegations. After seeing the judgement, the Hon. Judge issued notices to the State and Central Government to file their counters within four weeks and posted the case for orders on 4.11.1993.

The three advocates […] have taken up the work free. But we have to pay them their actual expenses. The air travel of Mr Balgopal comes to Rs 10,000 for every hearing, ie about US$335. With great difficulty we have ourselves paid for the expenses for the first visit, and the expenses. We are wondering how we will be able to send the air tickets for the 4th November hearing. The average income of our members is in- between Rs 10,000 to 20,000 per year! […]

We will be happy if you will share our expenses in the following ways:

  1. By collecting annual subscriptions for Indian Skeptic from your willing members, which is US$12 or its equivalent in your currency.
  2. By enlisting life subscribers for Indian Skeptic, which is US$150 or its equivalent in your currency. By collecting even $1 or more from each member.
  3. By ordering for the press clippings on the murky happenings at Sai Baba’s bedroom (about 300 clippings in English) at US$20 per set. The cheques may be made in the name of Indian Skeptic and posted to my address.

Hoping to hear from you at an early date. I am approaching you with great hesitation as I have no other way.

Yours sincerely, B. Premanand

Astrology Book Defended

In Skeptic 27 we announced the appearance of a new book on astrology written by one of the TVNZ folks who brings us the news every night. We remarked on how pleased TVNZ must be to have the services of this person in its newsroom.

We’ve now received a response from the author of The Astrologer and the Paradigm Shift, who obviously expects to be taken very seriously.

Overleaf is the press release I distributed within the TVNZ newsroom after publication of my book last year.

This book is now available via the National Library network. Since I believe it contributes greatly to the progress of science in particular and the advance of civilisation generally, I would like to publicise the ideas it contains.

I therefore challenge anyone to detect any error of logic in its core thesis. I’m a friendly person who would find it unfortunate to have to make a fool of anyone on national television, so I’d best be fair and let you know one physics professor has already been unable to detect any such error.

I expect anyone interested in taking up this challenge to read my book first. That means NOT skimming the chapters dealing with scientific philosophy in general and the nature of reality in particular.

Dennis Frank

Great Skeptics of History, No. 6

John Jewel was Bishop of Salisbury during the reign of Elizabeth I.

It is hardly credible what a harvest, or rather what a wilderness of superstition has sprung up in the darkness of the Marian times. We found in all places votive relics of saints, nails with which the infatuated people dreamed that Christ had been pierced, and I know not what small fragments of the sacred cross. The number of witches and sorceresses had everywhere become enormous. The cathedral churches were nothing else but dens of thieves, or worse, if anything worse or more foul can be mentioned.

Hokum Locum

Manipulation of the Colon

Some time ago I remember reading a letter in the Listener from a frustrated doctor who accused the public of being medically illiterate. Sometimes I feel this way myself but it is not a good practice to attack one’s audience. Public education cannot be achieved within the context of traditional ten-minute medical consultations compared with quacks who may spend up to an hour providing mis-information. Drug companies are on record as cynically exploiting a gullible public eg. “…neither government agencies nor industry, including the supplement industry, should be protecting people from their own stupidity”.
Letter to Hoffman-Laroche, quoted in NCAHF Vol 15 No.4

In a letter to Little Treasures, a writer who would probably prefer to remain anonymous claimed that her child’s constipation was cured by chiropractic manipulations because “one leg was slightly longer than the other and the passage to the bowel was obstructed by this”. The anatomical possibilities are intriguing! George Dunea writes a regular letter on the US medical scene for the BMJ and in an article reviewed the current activities of chiropractors in the US. Using aggressive marketing techniques they are claiming to treat an even wider range of self-limiting conditions such as colds and colic. One third of Americans use such unconventional treatments at a cost of $10 billion annually and one third of this cost is borne by public funds or private insurance. Dunea goes on to say: “Alternative treatments have also become popular for pets…one large dog, afraid to sleep because he had been beaten badly as a puppy, was described as taking his first afternoon nap after his spinal cord had been adjusted”.
Realigning the Spine. BMJ Vol 307 p71

An American doctor, posing as a concerned parent, surveyed 100 chiropractors and found that 80% of them would treat middle ear infections with cervical spine “adjustments”. Some 78% also sold vitamin supplements from their offices.
Chiros treating children. NCAHF Vol 16, No.6

Conductive Education

This is a treatment based on the teachings of the Peto Centre. Children suffering from cerebral palsy are treated with an intensive (and expensive) series of exercises aimed at developing alternative neurologic circuits to their paralysed limbs. These treatments have no scientific basis and a government financed controlled trial confirmed that the Peto system gives no better results than conventional treatment. There are frequent public appeals to raise money for this treatment but the money could be put to much better use by organisations such as the Crippled Children’s Society.
BMJ Vol 307 p812

Homeopathic Immunisation

Enough has already been said on the enduring myth of homeopathy. An Australian GP was rebuked for recording a homeopathic-type immunisation in a child’s health records and the Medical Defence Union said that such action makes the GP potentially liable if the child subsequently develops a serious illness such as whooping cough or measles.
NZ Doctor 11/11/93

Psychic Surgery revisited

Shirley MacLaine, the high priestess of new-age (rhymes with sewage) silliness has regained her health and happiness after visiting a Filipino psychic surgeon. In Shirl’s own words: “He inserted his hands into my body and withdrew clots of blood and internal matter of some kind, then withdrew his hands”. In defence of Woman’s Day they did add at the end of the article “Oh Really!”
Woman’s Day 31/8/93

Yin Yang Tiddle I Po

So went the song of the Goons (actually Yin tong..) making about as much sense as an article on Chinese medicine which appeared in NZ Doctor 22/7/93 entitled “Look to natural forces to maintain health”. It is written by a trained veterinarian (Massey 1980) who is now practising as a doctor of Chinese herbal medicine. If that isn’t a paradigm shift I don’t know what is! I would love to know what prompted him to change from scientifically based veterinary practice to this nonsense. The treatment of subclinical diseases is prompted by examination of the tongue and pulse. This is a wonderful scheme because all sorts of diseases can be treated and there is no way of disproving that they ever existed. “Iced food and drinks should be avoided like the plague, as these are discordant with the prevailing Qi of summer and will stress the body”.

In a child with eczema the Chinese diagnosis was “blood deficiency complicated with wind and damp. The prescription was designed to “nourish blood, expel wind, strengthen digestion, remove damp, and cool the emotions”. As I have mentioned before, Chinese herbs sometimes contain unexpected substances. A chronically ill man developed muscle wasting which proved to be due to triamcinolone (a potent steroid) contained in “herbal” tablets. Each “herbal” tablet contained 5.4 milligrams of triamcinolone.
GP Weekly 17/11/93

Japanese Herbal Medicine

Japanese doctors will soon be able to gain a degree in Japanese herbal medicine. Seventy percent of Japanese doctors already prescribe such remedies known as kampoyaku. In response to side-effects of modern drugs and a consumer sense of depersonalisation in western medicine, such remedies are now state funded to the tune of US$1.5 billion and increasing by 15% annually. Kampo is based on 4000-year-old medical texts and diagnosis depends on the skill and intuition of individual doctors. (Where have I heard that before?) Such clinical instincts have already been shown to be weak in Western medicine, eg. “only about 50% of gastroscopies, coronary artery grafts, and carotid endarterectomies could be justified by independent panels of experts”.
Viewpoint, The Lancet Vol 341, p878

It is interesting that the Japanese community sees fit to waste money in this area when they have a chronic shortage of trained anaesthetists, causing Japan to have a maternal mortality (during childbirth) twice as high as the UK. There is also a complete lack of information about crude surgical mortality rates because the large numbers of private hospitals are not required to report their operation numbers.

Their hospitals have also been struck by an epidemic of methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) due to the widespread overprescribing of antibiotics (BMJ Vol 306, p740). MRSA is a nasty bacterium which becomes prevalent whenever antibiotics are prescribed either inappropriately or excessively. This epidemic occurred because doctors are paid a set price for drugs used, whereas the drug companies supply these at a discounted rate with the doctors pocketing the difference.
New life for old medicine, The Lancet Vol 342, p485; Health Research in Japan, Letter, The Lancet Vol 342 p500

The Cocaine and Guinea-pig Diet

Move over Jenny Craig! An entrepreneurial father and son have set up a weight loss clinic on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, at 3810m above sea level. Obese guests are invited to chew a syrupy extract from coca leaves (cocaine in its crudest form!) and if that is not enough they can enjoy having their skin rubbed down with a live guinea pig. These attractions are hoped to restore the flagging tourist industry but it is bad news for the guinea pigs.
Economist August 31st 1992, p36

Generalised Chemical Sensitivity

This is a diagnosis beloved of quacks who validate essentially depressive symptoms that some patients develop after a real or imagined chemical exposure. Glutaraldehyde is a highly effective disinfectant which has good activity against both the hepatitis and HIV viruses, but can cause skin and other sensitivity. A nurse who used this chemical developed baffling symptoms and was seen by a number of specialists who are described as suggesting that “her illness may have had an `emotional’ component”. Note the implied suggestion that an emotional cause is somehow less honorable than a “real” illness.

Her most distressing symptoms were “mood swings, irritability, loss of judgement, poor concentration and short-term memory loss” which are classic depressive symptoms. She is described as being unable to enjoy a lengthy conversation without becoming exhausted. An occupational physician dogmatically stated “There’s no doubt in my mind that the chemical has affected her immune system, leading to a multi-system pathology”. He went on to decry the patient’s “degrading and demeaning experience in failing to have her condition acknowledged by specialists” and “they go away thinking it’s all in their minds”.

Here again is the implication that physical symptoms are either “real” or imaginary. As we know, symptoms are almost always real, but can be produced by anxiety or notional beliefs (somatisation, for example headaches with depression). The result is a person who is now chronically unwell and unemployed and who has received both the wrong treatment and the wrong diagnosis. Exposure to other foods and chemicals now “causes an immediate deterioration in her ability to think clearly”.

This is a classic case of somatisation and is clearly not an occupational disease. This patient’s illness has arisen from the notion that she has somehow been “poisoned” and the availability of compensation completes the process. Doctors who continue to deny the importance of psychological factors paradoxically encourage the abnormal illness behaviour while no doubt sincerely believing that they are acting in the patient’s best interests.

This whole area was briefly reviewed by NCAHF (Vol 16 No. 6) who coined the phrase “environmental anxiety disorder” and quoted research in which immunologic testing did not differentiate patients with chemical sensitivities from controls. Finally NCAHF says “the power of the imagination, operant conditioning, and practitioner influence can reinforce imaginary sensitivities”.
GP Weekly 17 Feb 93

Quackery in the US

The US National Institutes of Health Office (Alternative Medicine) has awarded nearly $1 million in research grants for topics which include: t’ai chi for balance disorders; massage for HIV-exposed babies; dance movement for cystic fibrosis patients; biofeedback for diabetics and acupuncture for depression. I predict that all of these trials will produce glowing reports of improvements, having failed to make any allowance for the placebo effect, natural disease variation and spontaneous improvement.

Naturally Skeptical

Award-winning author and long-time Skeptic Margaret Mahy delivered the after-dinner speech at the 1993 Skeptics Conference. This is an abridged version of her talk.

I was a sceptic with a “c”, before I joined the Skeptics with a capital “S” and “k”. At least, so I have always believed. I have always thought of the sceptic as a person in a state of terminal caution, and that definition seemed to cover my own particular situation pretty well, though the caution came about, not through fear so much as the difficulty of honestly synthesising the contradictory information the world seemed to be offering me so generously. And by the time I came to realise just how varied and odd it was, I had formed a few axioms which amount to faith, if that doesn’t sound too odd in a sceptical life.

My first encounter with astronomy was in the Edwardian edition of Arthur Mee’s Encyclopaedia, and in the first part of the first volume there was a dramatic picture of a red-hot ball looking vaguely molten, and beneath this, or close to it anyway, was the information that the world was formed from a piece that had dropped off the sun. This is hardly what cosmologists suggest today, but I have never found too much trouble in discarding facts or swapping them around. What Arthur Mee’s Encyclopaedia gave me was the feeling of excitement and astonishment about the world around me and the universe beyond, and this has never changed.

The Illustrated Oxford Dictionary (the nearest portable dictionary in my room) defines a sceptic (with a “c”) as one who doubts the possibility of real truth. Personally I don’t doubt the existence of real truth, though I do doubt my ability to know it. I have more faith in a negative Socratic talent, basically to suspect what it is not. What seems to define my own position even more accurately is the dictionary definition of the adjective “sceptical” — inclined to suspension of judgement, given to the questioning the soundness of facts and the soundness of inferences.

I will admit that I question some assertions and inferences more than others, since I do what I think is justifiable, and make an assessment of statistical probability as far as I am able — an assessment based on observable facts and the way in which certain sources are confirmed by the predictions they make and the way these predictions are tested, and on faith, too, though this can be a noble word for established prejudices.

I am resigned to the fact that any political act I might make, including voting, cannot acknowledge the complexity of my real views, but is, at the best, only an approximate indication of partial preferences. And above all, I am sceptical about what seem to me to be unilaterally held explanations of things, entrenched views which are used to reduce and control the whole complexity of the universe.

It is not that I would deny people a place to stand, or the comfort and security of such control. I have a lot of sympathy with Kurt Vonnegut’s imaginary prophet Bokonon, who said, “Live by the harmless lies that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”

Unfortunately, people often find it impossible to do just that. They want their own pleasure in their harmless lies somehow vindicated by making everyone else believe them too, and once assertion and even coercion are used to compel a homogeneous system of belief, the untruths are no longer quite as harmless as they might have seemed in the first place.

Anyhow, I believe I am a sceptic out of a conviction which springs simultaneously from the longing to know what is true, coupled with an uncertainty about my own power to be convinced of truth, reinforced by awareness of a long history of human error in this basic but compulsive endeavour.

I’ve mentioned faith, so perhaps I should say here that an article of my faith is that, as far as human beings are concerned, the universe is infinite in its mysteries. I have never found that any scientific advance…say, the landing on the moon…that has done anything but intensify the mystery.

My own astonishment has done nothing but increase the more I have found out, so I have no sympathy with the view that scientific advances are taking the poetic strangeness out of things. In fact I once read that every successful scientific experiment raised more questions than it answered and found I believed it immediately.

However I don’t want mystery for the sake of mystery. I want it to be true mystery. My objection to much mysticism is that it is just not strange or mystical enough, but feels like the sort of story I might have made up myself. Rightly or wrongly, I expect more of the universe than that. So I also believe, in advance, that any grand unified theory will supply not a final solution, only an increased astonishment and a good place to stand while we confront the universe and contemplate an enigma.

Children’s Books

The first anecdotes are concerned with my profession. Perhaps notoriously, I am a writer of children’s stories, and children’s literature has expectations inherent in it from which adult literature is relatively free. Stories for children are not only written by adults, but read and scanned by adults before the children get them, and those adults are anxious, sometimes unconsciously, that children should be socialised along desirable lines, so there is a general expectation that, by the end of the story, the child will be a better child with opinions acceptably shaped.

Some years ago people tended to speak of children’s books as if they were now free of the old necessity that they should have a good moral — as if they were free of any imperative beyond the fairly innocent wish to entertain — but believe me this is not so, though nowadays the old-fashioned word “moral” can readily be replaced with the trendy phrase “political correctness.”

Violence, that necessary component of adventure stories, is subject to constant scrutiny. I also have been challenged because children in my stories used words like “fat” or “old”. Editors may scan stories for lapses into racism, sexism, fatism, and to some extent ageism. I have written about Mrs Hatchett and Mrs Gimble, two solitary women, in two separate stories, and have been asked to put in a few lines indicating what had happened to their husbands — in case, I suppose, some child might suspect these women were falsely masquerading as respectable.

There is still the same historical expectation that children should not be told how the world is, but how it could be if only we all behaved a little better.

I’m not opposed to this, because I think part of the function of stories at any level is to make people feel powerful in the cause of good, and to hope they may even achieve a happy ending for themselves and others. Part of the pleasure of a happy ending, for example, is that the reader ends up feeling in charge of life. All the same, there does come a point where the constant reiteration of a particular moral amounts to a deception which is just not honest or interesting to write about.

And there are a lot of subjects which one can’t acknowledge truthfully without arousing indignation — for instance, in the US there are a lot of people who are anxious that children’s books should never suggest that people occasionally drink alcohol.

I once wrote a story called Jam, in which the amiable hero, Mr Castle, greets his working wife when she comes home with a loving kiss and a glass of sherry before he takes the children out to play on the lawn. This seemed to me like ideal behaviour (within my own mind he topped up her glass occasionally), but the American publisher insisted that I strike out the sherry, though the British, a more degenerate crowd, allowed Mrs Castle to have her small alcoholic charge.

In The Horrendous Hullaballoo I was asked to change the pirate’s rum to passionfruit juice, but this seemed to me too dishonest. In the end I was allowed to leave the pirate his rum, though the comment was made that I would sell fewer copies of the book because of the reference to this traditional piratical habit.

Violence, as I have already mentioned, is another anxiety. I once wrote a story about a cat fight. “This is very violent,” said an editor, and wanted me to change the line “The big cat boxed the little cat’s ears” to “The big cat patted the little cat’s ears.” I don’t know about other people’s cats, but around my house cat-fights are very violent affairs, and I abandoned that particular story since I felt that was just too false to alter it.

Obedience to parents used to loom very large in 19th century stories for children, and children who were disobedient were often punished with maiming, dismemberment and death. Nowadays the expectations are different, but the monitoring and anxiety survive.

I can only say that in the beginning I write for a single reader who is another version of myself as reader. At a later stage I do think about what I can remember of what it was like to be a child reader of, say, eight or nine years old. And at a slightly later stage I come to have a general readership in mind as well — a large cloud of potential readers, let’s say, with points of increased probability within it.

Defence of Offence

I cannot say for certain that no person will be corrupted, or alarmed, or hurt in any way by the stories I write, though of course I like to think that no person with any sense will be, but no one can predict the perversity or vulnerability of the individual reader, the receiver who completes the act the writer began.

What I do feel is that a number of unknown children, again approximating to myself in childhood, will be harmed if stories are trimmed, castrated and made entirely inoffensive before they are let loose on the world. Offensive stories may even release a certain creative vitality into the world through the act of offending. At least this possibility is continually acknowledged in adult fiction, for adults are supposed to be more or less in charge of their lives, and to be less innocent, less easily influenced than children.

I must say that I am prepared to consider the possibility that a happy child may be more resilient than many an adult and sometimes less innocent too. Innocent adults are subject to derision and are told to “get real”, so it is not as if we regard innocence as an excellent quality per se.

Towards the end of last year, a friend of mine wrote from Wellington to say that a member of the Skeptics in Wellington had objected to the supernatural elements in my stories on the basis of the possibility that readers might take the supernatural elements as being true rather than metaphoric. I would like to say that this is impossible, but unfortunately I know that there is, indeed, a risk.

Indeed I am less disconcerted by the people who accuse me of being a satanist, glamourising and even recommending witchcraft, than I am by those who write and praise me for the good image I have apparently given witches in a book like The Changeover, or by reporters who turn up for interviews in the expectation that I am an enthusiast for New Age spirituality. It was because of one such encounter that I became a financial member of the skeptics with a “k” in the first place.

Science in Stories

One of the things no one has ever challenged in any of my books is a sort of scientific subtext. It varies from book to book. In a book called The Strange Case of the Quantum, I came upon two phrases, “ultraviolet catastrophe” and “Schwartzchild singularity”, which I enjoyed for their sound as much as their sense. I used them in a story entitled Ultraviolet Catastrophe as simple sound mechanisms, though I must add that in the end I was not allowed to use “Schwartzchild singularity” on the grounds that it suggested black children were singular.

In another book of mine, Catalogue of the Universe, ideas of symmetry are part of the underlying metaphor of the plot. I must explain that I am not in any way a scientist (I did very badly in science as a subject at school and in my last mathematics exam I got ten marks out of a hundred — ten out of ten for knowing a theorem by heart, and nothing for the rest of the paper). I respect what I understand of scientific thought, not only because of a general interest in scientific descriptions of the world which are much more astonishing than anything anyone can invent, but because of something more fundamental which I shall mention in due course.

Not only that, I find a lot of the language both fascinating and funny. I am entertained by the fact that an account of the lurid sex life of the black-tipped hanging fly, with all its criminal elements, was written by a man called Randy Thornhill. “Exploring the Mandelbrot Set”, an enticing heading on the cover of a Scientific American sounds to me like something a tabloid newspaper might produce, exposing all sorts of deviation in a degenerate and wealthy New York circle, accompanied by sensational pictures.

But along with all sorts of games of this sort, I am disposed to respect scientific description and theory, though certainly not because I think scientists are inevitably immaculate thinkers. They are human beings before they are scientists, and worked on by all sorts of human weakness including academic ambition and the longing to be rich, along with the conviction that ideas that work in their favour must be true, and there is no harm in giving them a bit of a nudge.

N-Rays

I subscribed to Scientific American for a number of years, although its articles were really too hard for me. Still, I remember many pieces I read there, and in May 1980 I read an article called “The N-Ray Affair”. Early this century, says the preamble to the article, an eminent French scientist discovered a new type of radiation, and others confirmed his work.

The radiation turned out to be totally imaginary, proving that believing can be seeing, surely something that sceptics are constantly pointing out. The scientist was Rene Blondlot, a respectable and well qualified man, and in 1903 he announced that he had discovered a new kind of radiation called the N-ray. At that time, historically, scientists were imaginatively prepared to accept the existence of new radiation, and the claim was not checked with appropriate rigour.

I won’t go into details about the experimental apparatus or anything of that sort, but will simply explain that N-rays were detected, by French scientists other than Blondlot, as coming from the sun, from the human body, and even from enzymes isolated from body tissues. Other scientists hastened to point out that they had already detected N rays, and that the honour of being proclaimed as the discoverer should be shared. Blondlot received the Prix Leconte and 50,000 francs, and his discovery of N-rays was obliquely mentioned along with other achievements.

In the first half of 1904 there were 54 articles published on N-rays in Comptes Rendus, which I take to be a scientific journal, whereas there were only 3 articles on X-rays over the same period.

Nowadays no one believes that N-rays ever existed. An American scientist, R.W. Wood, found he was quite unable to reproduce the results Blondlot had reported, and support for N-rays was finished outside France. To cut a long, though fascinating, story short, Blondlot and his supporters responded by suggesting that the effect was only observable by certain sensitive and totally passive observers.

One had to see the effect, so to speak, without quite looking at it — might even have to glance in a slightly different direction. To gain the ability would require practice. It was even maintained that only the Latin races had the sensitivity to see the effect — that Anglo-Saxon powers were dulled by continuous exposure to fog and Teutonic ones by the constant ingestion of beer.

Blondlot and his supporters never admitted they were wrong. The article ends by quoting James Clerk Maxwell. “There are two theories of the nature of light, the corpuscle theory and the wave theory. We used to believe in the corpuscle theory; now we believe in the wave theory because all those who believe in the corpuscle theory are dead.” The last person to believe in N-rays probably disappeared when Blondlot died in 1930.

In this case a so-called scientific discovery has had many of the same characteristics as claims for the existence of paranormal phenomena, so it is not as if one can afford to be anything but a skeptic where scientific assertions are concerned. The history of science is filled with oddities, prejudices, mistakes, misunderstandings, rejections and suppressions of truth.

I sometimes find myself guilty of making blanket judgements of a sort — for instance if I read anything about telepathy in Womansscript, a rather new-agey feminist magazine that made a brief appearance a while ago, I would suspect it before I read it, but even before reading John McCrone’s article “Roll Up for the Telepathy Test” in a New Scientist last May, I assumed that its account of parapsychology would be on a reasonably respectable scientific footing, and would therefore deserve a respectful reading. I could feel my stance adjusting as I approached the article.

I don’t know any way out of making these blanket judgements, based on my established prejudices. Of course scientific declarations deserve to be greeted with scepticism too, regardless of the theoretical care built into definitions of scientific thought. One would have been right to be cautious about the recent claims on behalf of cold fusion, and many people were. Competitiveness alone meant that the claims were promptly subjected to tests that seem to have demolished the claims.

But I do have reasons other than prejudice for respecting scientific thought. It seem to incorporate, as a basic premise, what I see as a sort of creative scepticism. I understand from attending a few lectures in the philosophy of science and from reading A Brief History of Time that no theory can ever be held to be totally established, even though we can act as if it was with increasing confidence as time goes by and predictions are fulfilled.

At some level, any theory is always a hypothesis and one must always bear in mind the possibility that it may turn out to be inadequate and need modification, or that it might even be wrong. In day to day life we can safely assume that certain familiar laws will hold true, and we can act with confidence, but the truths that underlie them are subject to a continual scrutiny, and possibly to adjustment, alteration and restatement.

This seems to me to be honest, though very tiring. In the stories I write, I do make a variety of ethical assertions, but my main hope is that joking and a degree of eccentricity will leave children with the possibility of living with an open system of thought, and of using jokes and humour and even self-derision, as a means of approaching the contradiction implicit in our understanding of the world, if we want to be honest about it.

I suppose it is true that the skeptic is often seen as being destructive, spoiling the simple pleasure that people take in wonders, and destroying the wonders themselves in favour of a colourless rationalism. But my favourite disciple is Thomas, and though his doubt is often quoted with disapproval, the result of his doubt is invoked as a clinching argument for the resurrection. I am happy for people who find faith in a simple unity underlying the intricate confusion, provided they do not not need my collusion in their faith, and provided they do not try to impose their views as fact.

I do not think rationality is infinite in its power to describe the universe, but I think it is noble, and not the chilly spoiler of poetry and intuition it is often represented as being. Indeed I have an image in my mind of intuition, imagination, response to things like beauty and mystery existing along with rationality in a spectrum imaginatively analogous to the spectrum of radiation which we perceive differently at different points. Some radiation we experience as sight, some as sound and so on. This is a personal analogy, and like all analogies is faulty in some ways. It is an approximate metaphor for my own use.

Above all else, I reiterate, I think we lead an intensely mysterious existence in a deeply mysterious universe, and that acknowledgement of this mystery deserves the best I can give it. I am perfectly prepared to entertain the possibility of telepathy, of magic of all sorts, but I don’t wish to sell out to cheap and facile marvels, inadequately proved, to scientific discoveries falsely researched, to political slogans, that are invented, partly unconsciously, to herd power into certain defined areas and to keep it there, or of course at the outer edge, to lies, chicanery and exploitation, or even to innocent, though passionately defended mistakes.

I may do that from time to time, but I try hard not to, because I want to do the best I can, within my limitations, and within my limitations to lead an exciting, funny and truthful life.

Police Use of Psychics

A detective with long experience in tracing missing persons gave the 1993 Skeptics Conference the word on how useful psychics are in police work.

During the last 25 years a number of police investigations have gained prominence in the news media due to the disappearance (sometimes permanently) of a victim. In the 1970s there were names like Jennifer Beard (West Coast), Mona Blades (Taupo), Gail McFadyen (Wellington); in the ’80s Yvonne Bennett (Auckland), Kirsa Jensen and Teresa Cormack (Napier), Maxine Walker (Auckland); in the ’90s the Swedish tourists (Coromandel), Dahlberg (Nelson), Cruickshanks (Lake Wakatipu), and Mavis Harris (Dunedin).

Many of these cases have become well known, and in some of them the bodies remain to this day unrecovered. The well-known “psychic,” Doris Stokes, claims in one of her books to have assisted the police to recover the body of Mona Blades, though the police themselves have no knowledge of this. Since the detective inspector who handled this particular investigation died some years ago,we can speculate that the psychic may have passed the information as to the whereabouts of the body on to him direct — in some other world!

In a number of these cases when the media have built up psychic speculation on the whereabouts of the missing persons, this has attracted the attention and proper scorn of the Skeptics Society.

My own personal involvement in such cases included Gail McFadyen who, despite psychic suggestion, was located (after a week) by routine police searching, and with the disappearance of Kirsa Jensen at Napier in September 1983. Having been the officer in charge of that investigation, I was in a position to review all of the information that came forward during the course of the inquiry. Thousands of people were seen by the police, many of them providing useful information that assisted the investigation. To this day the remains of Kirsa Jensen have never been found.

Unhelpful Information

On reviewing the investigation about six months after the disappearance, the police found that several hundred offers of assistance and advice had been made by people who were not actually witnesses to any incidents at all, and thus their information became part of a “miscellaneous file”. As it transpired, two-thirds of this information came from psychics, clairvoyants and dreamers and did not advance the investigation one bit. Most of the information was not specific as to any area where a body might be located, but some was quite graphic in detail and disturbing by its very nature.

In more recent times, the disappearance of Amber-Lee Cruickshanks, a 2-year-old child, near Lake Wakatipu, brought a further flood of assistance from those inclined to the paranormal. An officer working on the investigation commented that he had received “letters from clairvoyants, card readers, star watchers, prayer groups, crystal readers, palm readers, spiritualists, people who have visions, premonitions and total lunatics”. None of them assisted the search.

The media compounded the situation with a television programme actually taking a psychic to the scene of the disappearance. It should be noted though, that in this particular case the victim’s mother seemed to place some reliance on the use of this type of person, she having consulted psychics in the past.

Once again, the case was not advanced at all by the intervention of such people, and indeed rarely was any specific information provided. This is not uncommon, and I would guess that in 95% of the situations, only vague suggestions or descriptions are provided as to the whereabouts of the missing person, such as remarking that they will be found near water or trees. Indeed I would go further and predict myself that around 90% of people who go missing in New Zealand will be found near trees or water — and I have no special powers!

If people with some psychic ability really were helpful, then they would be of great assistance to the police. We could employ them on an “as required” basis and use them to supplement our dog section, search and rescue squad, and other investigators. Thus assisted, the police could go straight to the victim or missing person without the extensive and expensive investigations and searches that now take place.

The reality is, however, that psychics provide no assistance whatsoever and to the best of my knowledge, never have. I have canvassed all of the police districts in New Zealand and no one has been able to provide details which confirm accurate predictions. Occasionally instances have seemed to come close, but on detailed examination have proved negative — that is, the body was found by some normal means and the location may have accidentally coincided with some “psychic suggestion”.

With the thousands of opportunities that offer themselves and the numerous pieces of information provided by psychics, sooner or later there has got to be a discovery that could be attributed to psychic intervention. I suggest this will be nothing more than coincidence.

Why Listen to Them?

Do the police attach any significance to psychics’ submissions, or appear to be doing so?

I believe that New Zealand is unique in the world because nearly every homicide case is solved, and almost all missing people are found. This is due in large part to public support. We cannot invite such support on one hand and then on the other dismiss it.

It is possible, too, that a genuine witness, after pondering for some time on what they have seen, may become concerned as to whether they have actually seen an event or just dreamt it. As well, a witness may elect, for whatever reason, to pass genuine information through a third party or medium (in whatever sense of the word), or finally the person passing on some dream or psychic inspiration to the police may in fact be the offender and be seeking a way to pass that on to the authorities in some roundabout way.

It is possible that some police officers, with no previous experience of dealing with psychics, could be inclined to accept them at first sight. Serious involvement with such people soon changes this belief. It is necessary, though, that the police listen to all of the suggestions that are made and act as they consider appropriate on the information they receive.

So much for the New Zealand experience. One reads of psychics being used overseas to assist the police, but any article that I have read suggests such assistance is as useless there as it is here.

A few years ago the Los Angeles Police Department conducted an experiment using 12 psychics, two-thirds of whom were “professional” (ie, earned their living by this means), to determine whether they could solve crimes. Four real crimes were examined, two that had been solved and two that remained unsolved. Some 20 to 30 key indicators were developed for each incident and the psychics were asked to examine an exhibit and speculate on the crime itself. At best they were able to guess correctly five or six of the indicators, and some got none at all right. The only degree of accuracy they achieved was in guessing the sex of the victim (or where it was known, the suspect) — they were correct on half of the occasions!
“Evaluation of the Use of Psychics in the Investigation of Major Crimes,” Reiser, Ludwig, Saxe and Wagner, Journal of Police Science and Administration, March 1979.)

A second experiment was later conducted using psychics and as well control groups of students and detectives. At the conclusion of the research, the researchers stated that “the data provided no support for the theory that psychics could produce investigatively useful information. In addition, the data failed to show that psychics could produce any information relating to the cases beyond a chance level of expectancy”.
“Comparison of Psychics, Detectives and Students in the Investigation of Major Crimes,” by Clyver and Reiser.

It is my view that psychics, dreamers, clairvoyants and the like have not provided any material assistance whatsoever to the police in New Zealand, and that accords with overseas research. Suggestions are certainly received, but they are rarely specific and often they raise false hopes in the minds of victims’ families.

The results of psychic intervention never stand up to test. There may occasionally be situations when it appears that some such suggestion has been useful, but that is not surprising in light of the volume of suggestions put forward for there must eventually be some coincidence.

Psychics and clairvoyants would be better off concentrating on Lotto numbers and race horse winners so that the profits thereby gained could be used to develop their science further and thus convince my colleagues and me of their ability.

Nostradamus — The 1994 Annual Almanac by V.J. Hewitt

Nostradamus — The 1994 Annual Almanac by V.J. Hewitt. Random House, $15.95

This book explains an approach to interpreting the French “prophet” Nostradamus’s predictions. It is the culmination of 16 years research by an English woman, V.J. Hewitt. She has invented a system of decoding his quatrains using anagrams — and not just the sort that you get in cryptic crosswords, but huge, French ones. She takes a Nostradamus quatrain, mixes up all the letters, removes the letters of the subject she is interested in (and it could be anything from soccer hooliganism to an air traffic controllers’ strike), adds the date, and then rearranges the remaining letters to produce the prophecy that Nostradamus had clearly intended. What’s more she does it in French.

Here’s a New Zealand version of what she does. Take the first two lines of our National Anthem: “God of Nations, at thy feet, in the bonds of love we meet. ” There are, in this dreary verse, many hidden prophecies which V.J. Hewitt would extract like this…

Remove the word “fish” because we want to see what the future of fishing is in this country. Mix up the remaining letters and you get: “Too many boats net the food we love. Ten get fined.” What could be clearer than that? On the other hand — and this is a little confusing — another anagram gives: “Eels need to have fatty food, gin. None wet bottom.” This could be disqualified by the grammatically pedantic on the grounds that it should be “wets” rather than “wet.” But Hewitt is a little flexible herself — in one prediction she is forced to change Phillip to Philip in order to get the anagram to fit the prediction comfortably.

Hewitt explains how unique and successful her system is, reminding me of the Spike Milligan line: “My uncle was a great man. He told me so himself, and you can’t argue with facts like that.” She is realistic enough to admit in her closing lines that she is “vulnerable to criticism unless and until each prediction is fulfilled.” Unusually for this sort of book, she is foolish enough to tie the events to reasonably definite dates. Most soothsayers pronounce woolly sooths but are cunning enough not to cite dates. She should have learnt a lesson from the “End of the World is Nigh” brigade — they tend not to pinpoint “nigh” and most of their placards seem to be made of fairly durable material.

What will happen of course is that Christmas shoppers will buy this book, be enthralled by the forecasts, and then forget it, until…in April 1994 Nelson Mandela actually does become the President of South Africa. Then they’ll say: “Didn’t Nostradamus predict that somewhere? Doris, go get that Hewitt book — I think it was written in there. There it is on page 48! Extraordinary!” No mention of similar predictions of political scientists world-wide nor, more importantly in terms of this publication, any mention of the fact that Nostradamus also predicted on page 47 that at the end of May (only a week or two before) two female Yeti would be found in the Himalayas, presumably out on a Sherpa-capturing expedition.

Large anagrams are funny things. You start with real creativity and freedom — there are a lot of letters to play with — but as you get near the end and all the “e”s have gone, there’s a “q” and no “u” left, and “Qantas” doesn’t suit a prediction on the return of Maggie Thatcher, so you juggle and end up with a small, three or four-letter word. It may take a lot of imagination to tie this in with the substance of the text. But like most Nostradamus students, Hewitt has a fertile mind. She is particularly motivated by the discovery that her very own name is mentioned in the 16th-century verses. Having been chosen as the official Nostradamus interpreter for the 20th Century, I suspect nothing will divert her. (It should be noted that when I solved the relevant quatrainal anagram the name I came up with was not “V.J. Hewitt” but “J.T.V. White,” who just happens to be my old maths teacher).

So we will continue to be presented every year with the V.J. Hewitt Annual Almanac regardless of the previous year’s inaccuracies, and it doesn’t take much of an anagram to predict quite a useful income for her from the New Age bookstores. This sort of book is a waster of time and forests, a ramble down one person’s “spiritual” cul-de-sac. Ingenious or ingenuous, it will still probably outsell Carl Sagan.

The Great Nelson UFO

Lights in the sky are not always aliens on the lookout for earthlings to abduct. Sometimes they are mostly a load of hot air.

On Wednesday afternoon we saw a UFO. My wife, Fleur, did not say,”Look — a UFO!”, but “Surely they’re not parachuting today!” Parachuting is a popular sport at Nelson airport, but not when traffic is busy, and not when a strong Sou’wester is blowing.

The object, directly upwind and over the airport, looked a bit like a parachute. If it was, it could be landing on our roof in a few minutes; the wind was very strong (up to 58kph we found later). At that moment it was a genuine Unidentified Flying Object, but not for long.

I ran for binoculars. The object was a balloon, rounded at the top, highly elongated and hanging in folds near the bottom. But it appeared stationary. It could not be tethered or it would endanger flights still using the runway. So why had it not already passed overhead?.

UFO enthusiasts seem able to know immediately the size, speed and distance of an object they have seen. This is obviously impossible unless at least one of these factors can be determined independently.

Logical thinking was required. The sky was cloudless, the air very clear. We could see a brilliant object against a deep blue sky. In mid-afternoon on August 18th it was reflecting the low sun. A casual glance to the southwest picked it up immediately. It looked close but that had to be an illusion; it still did not appear to move.

Fifty minutes later it was directly overhead. It was moving, but crossing our field of vision very slowly. Thus it had to be high. An object drifting at ground level would have covered around 50km in that time. The mountains shelter us from the strong southwest airstreams over New Zealand, so wind velocity would be greater at high altitudes. We could deduce it was travelling very rapidly. It also had to be large.

We knew what it must be: a constant-altitude research balloon. They are released with a small volume of helium at ground level, but expand to a great size when atmospheric pressure is low, where they travel well above the 12,000m level of commercial jets. They maintain their altitude within a relatively narrow band.

But is it really possible to see such an object over 50km away? From our garden, where we watched the balloon, we can see mountains which are further away than this, but mountains are big. However, a small object, strongly reflecting sunlight, will show as a point of light. The UFO was only turned into a balloon by binoculars. Otherwise no real detail could be distinguished. Once past the vertical and no longer strongly reflecting towards us, it was almost invisible.

The UFO caused some excitement in Nelson. According to the local paper, many people rang the police. The object was quickly identified as a balloon, but many other assumptions were incorrect. Finally the paper published a piece revealing that the balloon had been released from New Caledonia. The altitude was reported as 24km, the inflated size as 100m high and 30m wide. These proportions fit our observation, but the size was greater than we had anticipated.

American experts have suggested that a number of UFO reports have involved sightings of these balloons. This seems likely. However, there were no Nelson reports of UFOs in the traditional sense. Are Nelsonians particularly skeptical? I doubt it, but we were able to watch during perfect conditions. There was time for people to call the police and time to check an object which could hardly be missed. The same object glimpsed through a gap in the clouds might cause more of a puzzle.

This object seemed very close, yet was a long way away. Watched from a stationary position it did not seem to move, but if observed from a moving position, it would have appeared to be moving, keeping pace with the observer due to the effect of parallax, hence reports of people being chased by UFOs.

Our “UFO” was a beautiful object when seen through binoculars, but it did not make the TV news. In 1979, TV1 spent nearly 20 minutes of the evening news showing out-of-focus film of the planet Venus, claimed to be a UFO. There is money to be made if a UFO stays unidentified, hut not otherwise. TV1 sold their film overseas and it was shown on BBC, CBS and several Japanese stations. Presumably it was very profitable.

The End Is Nigh – Or Thereabouts

Are the End Times drawing nigh? Are fires and floods from heaven on the brink of seething down in wrathful purge, damning the damned and raising the faithful? Is God’s finger poised on the panic button?

It could be, but I wouldn’t cancel the beach party on the evidence. Doom forecasters have been striking out with almost miraculous regularity since the dawn of time.

Putting the history of the end of the world into a fast 400 words isn’t easy. In fact it borders on madness. It’s like stuffing the entire Labour Party into a phone booth, except weirder. I mean, you can always push a Labour-packed phone booth off a cliff; but who’s going to push 400 words off a cliff? It doesn’t make sense. Armageddon does this to you after a while.

Disaster merchants have always been around, but it was the Christians who really put death and destruction on a pedestal when they gave us the Book of Revelation.

No one knows what this book means, but it’s so horrifically spectacular it doesn’t matter. More importantly, it doesn’t give any dates, thus giving open slather to soothsayers and paving the way for twenty centuries of inaccurate predictions.

Methods of prediction vary. For some it’s a case of creative arithmetic. Dates with big simple numbers, like 500, are good too. Anything goes in number juggling.

Christians, for instance, were driven to a near frenzy of ecstatic fear as year 1000 approached. Signs and portents were sought and found. The tension grew. Sinners repented in droves and fled to the hilltops. The time was nigh! But…

No worries! The Apocalypse should have been dated from the death of Christ instead of the birth. But…

In the early 1800s a New York farmer named William Miller made a two-year study of the Bible and was astonished to discover that the world would end in 1843! He gathered a sizable flock who put up with three false-alarms before losing interest. Refugees from Miller’s movement evolved into Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists, both doomsday fanciers.

The Witnesses maintained a healthy zero batting average by striking out in 1874, 1914 and 1975. Surprisingly, few left the church, which shows you how integral reason is to religion.

Hearing voices is another popular method of predicting doomsday. This process is known as channeling. Here the “prophet”, or channel, gets “the word” first-hand from angels or devils, or nowadays, mysterious space aliens. But in either case, the amount of reliable information received adds up the same — nilch!

Objective investigators are more inclined to explain channeling in terms of multiple-personality-disorders and related mental problems, rather than invisible space lizards… but try telling that to the faithful.

Little has changed over the years. The methods are eternally the same and the results are eternally wrong.

As the year 2000 approaches I predict many predictions.

The End of the World is Nigh, But Don’t Panic…Yet

For those of you who didn’t notice, the end of the world came and went on November 14th. It also ended on November 24th, and is set to do so at the end of this year. If you’ve got a Christmas trip to Los Angeles planned, don’t bother going — a massive earthquake wiped out the city of the Angels as well as neighbouring San Diego at 7pm on May 8th.

Are you wondering why you haven’t heard about any of these earth-shattering events? It’s because they were all predictions made by psychics, fundamentalists and other people apparently keen to see more misery and destruction in the world than already exists.

Yes folks, we’re gearing up for the end of the decade, the end of the century, the end of the millennium and — according to assorted doomsayers — the end of the world. Some have it ending rather neatly on New Year’s Day, the year 2000, while others are predicting all manner of wars, earthquakes, famines and increasingly decadent behaviour in the run-up to the big 2000.

There’s going to be a massive millenniarist industry build up. While one half of the population will be getting ready for the Mother of All New Year Parties, the other half will be getting ready for Armageddon. So what’s all the fuss about?

Well, I’m not worried about Nostradamus predicting the Gulf War as the start of the Apocalypse. I’m not worried about the European Community being the Beast of the Book of Revelations. I’m not worried about the Rapture picking up my friends and relations and whisking them away to Heaven while the rest of us perish in a global nuclear war.

What I do worry about is the associated fear, paranoia, gullibility and stupidity that inevitably accompanies such predictions.

I worry about the ominously named Ukrainian White Brotherhood who have caused riots and bloodshed in an already shaky nation. Their end of the world — the one predicted for November 14th — didn’t arrive, but that didn’t deter them from trying again with another date.

I feel sorry for the believers who sold up their businesses and their homes in preparation for the end of the world predicted by a Korean fraudster. There were people in New Zealand drawn into that fatalistic vision. Fortunately, unlike a number of other apocalyptic visionaries, the prophet in this case didn’t enjoin his followers to bring their world to a real end by mass suicide.

I worry about the people who end up with impoverished wallets and impoverished minds buying yet another book purporting to be the last word in interpreting the so-called prophecies of Nostradamus.

I worry about having a Cabinet Minister confidently asserting that the Bible tells us we’re going to have more earthquakes, and saying this the same month that two government seismologists lose their jobs.

I’m concerned about the fundamentalists who see the hand of Satan everywhere, most particularly at work in our child care centres. With the end-time coming, they say, a worldwide conspiracy of Satanists is preparing for the ultimate showdown by abusing, sacrificing and eating toddlers at your local crech

I worry about all these various apocalyptic views because I know that we will be seeing more and more of them as that crucial year 2000 approaches. And I know that the fear, paranoia and hysteria they engender will increase — we’re not so far removed from our ancestors who, on facing the turn of the first millennium, held their own riots, witch-hunts and death-watches. There’s something in human nature which seems to love a good doomsday scenario.

So don’t panic folks. Next time you hear a doomsday prediction, make a note of it — it means you can always laugh about it afterwards.