Out of the Mouths of Babes and Sucklings…

An article in the Tucson Citizen, May 18, 1994, about a teacher in Chicago tells a frightening cautionary tale. An extract follows:

Fourth-grader Pays Peers to Testify Against Teacher

(Classmates get $1 each for falsely accusing the man of molesting them.)

CHICAGO– When 11 fourth-graders accused their substitute teacher of molesting them, authorities were ready to believe them. Even the teacher agreed that children so young rarely lie about such things. This time, they did lie — prodded, police say, by a classmate who had offered them $1 apiece to accuse the teacher falsely.

“What’s so scary — and so sad — is that you’ve got 9-year old kids sophisticated enough to know they can get a teacher by saying he fondled them,” Chicago Teachers Union spokeswoman Jackie Gallagher said. “You just don’t want to think that our little kids who you’re still reading nursery rhymes to are figuring they’re going to stick it to their teacher.”

Albert Thompson told police his class at Fuller Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side became unruly during his May 9 assignment. He said some children ran out of the classroom, and he had to stand by the door to keep others inside. When Thompson threatened to report their misbehaviour, a 9-year-old girl offered to pay 10 classmates — nine girls and a boy — $1 each if they joined her in claiming that Thompson fondled them, police said.

Thompson, 43, never was charged. Police cleared him after some of the children made inconsistent statements and one admitted they had made up the story to get him in trouble. The 9-year-old also recanted, police said.

But he hasn’t gotten another teaching assignment. “We’re in a society where you’re guilty until proven innocent,” Thompson said yesterday. Political correctness and children’s rights “override my rights,” he said.

A Reflection on Changing Times

The following extract from William Doyle’s Oxford History of the French Revolution (pp 64-65) reminds us that things change but things remain the same.

The final sentence reminds us that widespread restlessness, pseudo-science and general foolishness may have tragic consequences:

America appealed, in fact, to what Jean-Joseph Mounier, one of the leading [French] revolutionaries of 1789 would later remember as “as general restlessness and desire for change”. It manifested itself in the vogue for wonders of all sorts, whether Franklin”s lightning rod, or the first manned flights in the hot-air balloons seen rising over so many cities in 1783 and 1784, or a craze for mesmerism and miraculous cures effected by tapping the supposedly hidden natural forces of “animal magnetism”. Established religion might be losing its mystic appeal, but science was bringing other miracles to light.

Belief in plots and conspiracies was yet another sign of the credulity of the times. The same cast of mind also tended to seek simple, universal formulae to resolve any problem, no matter how complex. Its limitations would be tragically exposed in the storm that was about to break.

Scientific Creationism

We need to immunise ourselves against this virus too.

Abridged by Owen McShane from Creationism: Why the Controversy by Brian Henderson

“Scientific” creationism claims to have every bit as much scientific evidence to back it as evolution and, according to some adherents, much more. “Scientific” creationists claim that science is suppressing the evidence of their hypothesis, in order to back up evolution, which in turn supports all manner of atheistic world-views, including New Age beliefs, communism, humanism and a myriad of other perceived evils. According to Tim LaHaye, a fundamentalist minister very much involved in the creationist movement, “Much of the evils in the world today can be traced to humanism, which has taken over our government, the UN, education, TV, and most of the other influential things in life.”

Duane Gish, vice-president of the Institute for Creation Research sums it up best when he says: “The scientific case for special creation, is much stronger than the case for evolution. The more I study and the more I learn, the more I become convinced that evolution is a false theory and that special creation offers a much more satisfactory interpretive framework for correlating and explaining the scientific evidence related to origins.”

He apparently has a rather strange definition of the word science, however, as he has this to say in Evolution? The Fossils Say No!: “We do not know how the Creator created, [or] what processes He used, for He used processes which are not now operating anywhere in the natural universe. This is why we refer to creation as special creation. We cannot discover by scientific investigation anything about the processes used by the Creator.”

So which is it? Is creationism scientific, as in the first quote, or inherently religious, as in the second? It seems that either is used depending on the intended audience. In 1974, Dr. Henry Morris, director of the Institute for Creation Research, wrote a science textbook intended for public school use. He really wrote two texts, one for public schools and one for private, Christian schools. The difference? The private school version had an additional chapter citing Biblical support for creationism. Despite repeated claims to the contrary, it seems clear that there is no substantive difference between Biblical, religious creationism and so-called “scientific” creationism.

But the question ultimately comes down to “is creationism scientific”? If, as Gish claims above, we cannot learn anything about the creative methods used, then creationism fails to be scientific. Even if we do not currently know, to say that we “can never” know will immediately remove creationism from the table of scientific endeavour.

However, perhaps Gish simply meant that we do not currently know anything about how the creation occurred, but believes that we can learn through scientific inquiry. If so, we come to our second part of the question, “How does science operate?” Scientists spend much of their time engaged in research and performing experiments to help better understand the workings of the universe. Do creationists perform similar research and experimentation designed to show how and why creation happened? Absolutely not! The amount of genuine scientific inquiry that has been performed by creationists over the past 20 years can be computed on the fingers of one hand. Most of their efforts are directed to discrediting evolution, as if by somehow doing so, the piecemeal ideas of “scientific creationism” will some how become scientifically valid.

On the evidence creationists are amateur, anachronistic philosophers of science, acting to alter the content of scientific knowledge piecemeal through plebiscite and lawsuit rather than systematically through influencing professional debates and research activities.

Ultimately, the purpose of scepticism is not, as has been suggested, to deny inquiry into “outside” realms of knowledge, for we would be as hypocritical as the pseudo-scientists if we did so. The purpose of scepticism should be to keep claims and claimants in all areas of inquiry, be it pseudo-science or scientific research, honest and even-handed. The record shows that “scientific” creationism has left forever the realm of scientific inquiry, and has headed forever down the road of scientific failure.

PC Chemistry in the Classroom.

One of the fictions of the “naive-greens” and other “irrationalists” is that “chemicals” are bad while natural products (non-chemicals?) are good. When asked if water is a chemical, and hence evil, and whether cyanide, nicotine or the botulism toxin, are natural and hence benign they change the subject. You might think that our classrooms are immune to such nonsense; in the November issue of Chemistry in New Zealand, Ian Millar of Carina Chemical Laboratories Ltd tells us we are wrong.

Mr Millar’s sister is a secondary school chemistry teacher and had received some official guide-lines titled “Chemical Safety Data Sheets for Teaching Laboratories” promoting the safe use of chemicals in schools. Mr Millar looked up a typical laboratory chemical to see what the data sheet had to say. Some excerpts follow:

  • Personal protection — dust respirator
  • Ventilation — extraction hood
  • Gloves — rubber or plastic
  • Eye — glasses, goggles or face shield
  • Other — plastic apron, sleeves, boots if handling large quantities
  • Disposal — dispose through local authorities if appropriate facilities are available, otherwise pass to a chemical disposal company
  • First Aid — irrigate thoroughly with water. Skin: wash off thoroughly with soap and water. Ingested: wash out mouth thoroughly with water. In severe cases obtain medical attention.

Now this chemical is clearly pretty nasty stuff and you might be thinking that it’s right and proper that our schools should be encouraging such sound practice.

But left to our own devices most of us would dispose of the stuff by throwing it into the sea — reasoning that the sea wouldn’t suffer too much damage as a result. After all this apparently dangerous chemical is nothing more than sodium chloride — better known as common salt.

Mr Miller points out that he enjoys bathing in a 3.5% solution of NaCl (the sea) and even eats it as table salt.

Can we now expect to see television chefs decked out in gloves, safety glasses, and plastic aprons, and calling in a chemical disposal company to clean up the kitchen afterwards? Should we ban children from our domestic kitchens because of the obvious risks to their health? These instructions are not only nonsense — they are dangerous nonsense. They are so ludicrous that they may well encourage people to ignore safety recommendations when handling genuinely dangerous chemicals such as cyanide or nitric acid. Or they may create a generation stricken with chemophobia.

To argue that it is good to err on the side of caution is wrong. This information is simply inaccurate. Nobody washes out their mouth after eating salt or taking in a mouthful of surf. I believe that this data sheet does not represent a simple error of judgement but unfortunately reflects an ideology which holds that all “chemicals” are bad and destructive of life and the environment.

I might have taken some comfort from the belief that whatever has been happening to the teaching of English, history, or anthropology, the objectivity of the process of science would make it immune to such victim-promoting political correctness. Could parents among our membership find out if the government’s chemical police have decided that NaCl is a politically incorrect “chemical” and needs all these precautions, while “Sea-Salt” is a “natural” product which can be used with safety?

Cargo Cult Science

This is a Feynman Commencement Address given by Richard Feynman at Caltech in 1974. This message is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago, especially for those who add their committed “science” to the cause of apocalyptic environmentalism.

During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas — which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it. This method became organised, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact, that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked — or very little of it did.

But even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFOs, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I’ve concluded that it’s not a scientific world.

Most people believe so many wonderful things that I decided to investigate why they did. And what has been referred to as my curiosity for investigation has landed me in a difficulty where I found so much junk that I’m overwhelmed. First I started out by investigating various ideas of mysticism, and mystic experiences. I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that. Then I went to Esalen, which is a hotbed of this kind of thought (it’s a wonderful place; you should go visit there). Then I became overwhelmed. I didn’t realise how much there was.

At Esalen there are some large baths fed by hot springs situated on a ledge about thirty feet above the ocean. One of my most pleasurable experiences has been to sit in one of those baths and watch the waves crashing onto the rocky shore below, to gaze into the clear blue sky above, and to study a beautiful nude as she quietly appears and settles into the bath with me.

One time I sat down in a bath where there was a beautiful girl sitting with a guy who didn’t seem to know her. Right away I began thinking, “Gee! How am I gonna get started talking to” this beautiful nude babe?”

I’m trying to figure out what to say, when the guy says to her, “I’m, uh, studying massage. Could I practice on you?”

“Sure”, she says. They get out of the bath and she lies down on a massage table nearby.

I think to myself, “What a nifty line! I can never think of anything like that!” He starts to rub her big toe. “I think I feel it”, he says. “I feel a kind of dent — is that the pituitary?”

I blurt out, “You’re a helluva long way from the pituitary, man!”

They looked at me, horrified — I had blown my cover — and said, “It’s reflexology!”

I quickly closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating.

That’s just an example of the kind of things that overwhelm me. I also looked into extrasensory perception and PSI phenomena, and the latest craze there was Uri Geller, a man who is supposed to be able to bend keys by rubbing them with his finger. So I went to his hotel room, on his invitation, to see a demonstration of both mind-reading and bending keys.

He didn’t do any mind-reading that succeeded; nobody can read my mind, I guess. And my boy held a key and Geller rubbed it, and nothing happened. Then he told us it works better under water, and so you can picture all of us standing in the bathroom with the water turned on and the key under it, and him rubbing the key with his finger. Nothing happened. So I was unable to investigate that phenomenon.

But then I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to check on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even our own people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate.

There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you’ll see the reading scores keep going down — or hardly going up in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There’s a witch doctor remedy that doesn’t work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress — lots of theory, but no progress — in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with common sense ideas are intimidated by this pseudoscience. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it some other way — or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn’t do “the right thing”, according to the experts.

So we really ought to look into theories that don’t work, and science that isn’t science.

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call “cargo cult science”.

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas — he’s the controller — and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school — we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation.

It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results, and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.

There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.

The easiest way to explain this idea is to contrast it, for example, with advertising. Last night I heard that Wesson oil doesn’t soak through food. Well, that’s true. It’s not dishonest; but the thing I’m talking about is not just a matter of not being dishonest, it’s a matter of scientific integrity, which is another level. The fact that should be added to that advertising statement is that no oils soak through food, if operated at a certain temperature. If operated at another temperature, they all will, including Wesson oil. So it’s the implication which has been conveyed, not the fact, which is true, and the difference is what we have to deal with.

We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.

A great deal of their difficulty is, of course, the difficulty of the subject and the inapplicability of the scientific method to the subject. Nevertheless it should be remarked that this is not the only difficulty. That’s why the planes didn’t land — but they don’t land.

We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of the ways we fool ourselves.

One example: Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be just right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of — this history — because it’s apparent that people did things like this: when they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong — and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value, they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We’ve learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don’t have that kind of a disease.

But this long history of learning how not to fool ourselves — of having utter scientific integrity — is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist. I am not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend, or something like that, when you’re not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being — we’ll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi.

I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of this work were.

“Well”, I said, “there aren’t any.” He said, “Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of this kind.”

I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing — and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.

One example of the principle is this: if you’ve made up your mind to test a theory, or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. We must publish both kinds of results.

I say that’s also important in giving certain types of government advice. Supposing a senator asked you for advice, about whether drilling a hole should be done in his state; and you decide it would be better in some other state. If you don’t publish such a result, it seems to me you’re not giving scientific advice. You’re being used. If your answer happens to come out in the direction the government or the politicians like, they can use it as an argument in their favour; if it comes out the other way, they don’t publish it at all. That’s not giving scientific advice.

Other kinds of errors are more characteristic of poor science. When I was at Cornell, I often talked to the people in the psychology department. One of the students told me she wanted to do an experiment that went something like this — it had been found by others that under certain circumstances, X, rats did something, A. She was curious as to whether, if she changed the circumstances to Y, they would still do A. So her proposal was to do the experiment under circumstances Y and see if they still did A.

I explained to her that it was necessary first to repeat in her laboratory the experiment of the other person — to do it under condition X to see if she could also get result A, and then change to Y and see if A changed. Then she would know that the real difference was the thing she thought she had under control.

She was very delighted with this new idea, and went to her professor. And his reply was, no, you cannot do that, because the experiment has already been done and you would be wasting time. This was still about 1947 or so, and it seems to have been the general policy then to not try to repeat psychological experiments, but only to change the conditions and see what happens.

Nowadays there’s a certain danger of the same thing happening, even in the famous field of physics. I was shocked to hear of an experiment done at the big accelerator at the National Accelerator Laboratory, where a person used deuterium. In order to compare his heavy hydrogen results to what might happen with light hydrogen he had to use data from someone else’s experiment on light hydrogen, which was done on different apparatus. When asked why, he said it was because he couldn’t get time on the program (because there’s so little time and it’s such expensive apparatus) to do the experiment with light hydrogen on this apparatus because there wouldn’t be any new result.

And so the men in charge of programs at NAL are so anxious for new results, in order to get more money to keep the thing going for public relations purposes, they are destroying — possibly — the value of the experiments themselves, which is the whole purpose of the thing. It is often hard for the experimenters there to complete their work as their scientific integrity demands.

Not all experiments in psychology are of this type, however. For example, there have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on — with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train the rats to go in at the third door down from wherever he started them off. No. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.

The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors.

So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realised the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any common sense person. So he covered the corridor, and still the rats could tell.

He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.

Now, from a scientific stand-point, that is an A-number-one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers the clues that the rat is really using — not what you think it’s using. And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.

I looked into the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn’t discover anything about the rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic of cargo cult science.

Another example is the ESP experiments of Mr Rhine, and other people. As various people have made criticisms — and they themselves have made criticisms of their own experiments — they improve the techniques so that the effects are smaller and smaller and smaller until they gradually disappear. All the parapsychologists are looking for some experiment that can be repeated — that you can do again and get the same effect — statistically, even. They run a million rats — no, it’s people this time — they do a lot of things and get a certain statistical effect. Next time they try it they don’t get it any more. And now you find a man saying that it is an irrelevant demand to expect a repeatable experiment. This is science?

This man also speaks about a new institution, in a talk in which he was resigning as Director of the Institute of Parapsychology. And, in telling people what to do next, he says that one of the things they have to do is be sure they only train students who have shown their ability to get PSI results to an acceptable extent — not to waste their time on those ambitious and interested students who get only chance results. It is very dangerous to have such a policy in teaching — to teach students only how to get certain results, rather than how to do an experiment with scientific integrity.

So I have just one wish for you — the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organisation, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity.

May you have that freedom.

Fire-Walking: Fiji Revisited

Visitors to Fiji are still being told that village people have the hereditary ability to walk on white-hot stones. This is quite untrue (see Hot Footing it in Fiji,Skeptic 26). A tourist promotion video for airline passengers features the ceremony. It is pretty obvious to the discerning viewer that the stones are not white-hot, but how many tourists give more than a cursory glance?

I had heard that another kind of fire-walking was practised in Fiji, but it was difficult to discover any hard facts about it. In 1994 it received some publicity, a very unusual event.

Nearly half the population of Fiji are described as ethnic Indians. However, this is a far from homogenous population. Although originally from that subcontinent, they do not all share a common religion, nor a common language.

Some of these people come from regions where fire plays an important part in religious life. These are sometimes described as “fire-worshippers”. This is misleading, but to them fire-walking is an important religious ritual.

Just before our last visit, some members of this religion had visited from the homeland. This caused a big celebration including a fire-walking ceremony, which a reporter described, and a photograph was included.

“Indian” fire-walking in Fiji is a private religious matter; it has not been commercialised into a tourist attraction.

As far as I can tell it is nearly identical with “Western style” firewalking as practised in New Zealand. Our tradition has reached us in a very roundabout way, but possibly India is the original source. I was not able to attend the ceremony, but, judging by the photograph and the reporter’s description, the ceremony was very similar to that practised by New Zealand skeptics, with extra prayers.

The Fiji indigenous style obviously has an independent origin. It probably was invented on the island of Beqa as the legend says. Originally it was also a religious act. Now the villagers are Christians (nominally at least). Their ceremony has lost its connotations and they wish to distance themselves from the Indian method. Walking on hot stones is less spectacular than walking on glowing embers, hence the insistence that the stones are “white hot”.

The Old Testament, still regarded as setting a code for human conduct by some Christians, anathematises fire-walking.

There are examples in Kings and Chronicles of children being “passed through the fire” (2 Kings 16.3 “he [King Ahaz] even passed his son through the fire”). This is described as a wicked practice of the surrounding nations. It is forbidden by Deut.18.10. “Let no one be found among you who makes his son or daughter pass through fire.”

Walking on hot stones avoids the biblical prohibition on fire-walking and thus is acceptable to these fundamentalist Christians. Walking on glowing embers is something done only by heathens.

The wave of interest in fire-walking that swept out from the US a few years ago started as New Age religion and evolved into commercial exploitation. But many religions are not averse to commercialism.

Indigenous Fijian fire-walking followed a similar path, but at least one religious version has resisted change.


PC for Me, See?

“US Universities, cringing under a wave of Political Correctness and an extreme form of “multi-culturalism” are abandoning programmes which present the history of Western Civilisation as anything other than the history of the rape and plunder of minorities and other victims by a conspiracy of middle-class white males.” (“The Challenge to Reason”, Skeptic 34.)

Well I’m a skeptic. What is the evidence for that claim? And how does “multi-culturalism” differ from multi-culturalism? Bear in mind that for a very long time, the history of Western Civilisation (or Western “civilisation”) was presented as the activities of few but middle-class white males. The relatively sudden inclusion of non-whites and and non-males, and of the rape and plunder of minorities and other victims by middle-class white males (after such a long and significant silence on the subject) might make it look like that — especially to other middle-class white males.

I don’t see a wave of Political Correctness. I see only a war against something described as PC by its enemies, but which looks to me suspiciously like social justice and cultural sensitivity.

Here in Wellington, we see article after article, syndicated world-wide, all saying in effect, “Help! I’m being silenced! I can’t say that horis/niggers are lazy (and stupid — as in The Bell Curve), homos are unnatural, Jews are avaricious, women are bitches any more. Waaaaaah!” And in saying so, they contradict themselves. And just try to get a rebuttal published. So who is being silenced?

It’s not that something called Political Correctness has arrived for the first time, it’s that the struggle between two paradigms is hotting up. When the prevailing PC was white, male, heterosexual, etc. it wasn’t called that. Hell, it’s only 1993 when the Gisborne Herald refused to publish an advertisement containing the word “lesbian”.

If, as they say, PC is taking over the world, where do I join?

Hugh Young, Pukerua Bay

The Editor Replies

Hugh Young is obviously an excellent Skeptic; he quite properly asks for evidence for my claims regarding Political Correctness in America and for a definition of “multi-culturalism”. Until a few months ago when I was forced to familiarise myself with what is actually happening in US universities I would probably have asked the same questions.

The evidence for the PC Cringe and the new version of “multiculturalism” can be found in a number of publications including P.J. O’Rourke’s All the trouble in the World, Robert Hughes The Culture of Complaint, “End Game” by Pete Hamill in the November ’94 issue of Esquire magazine, “What to do About Education, 1: The Universities” by Gertrude Himmelfarb in the October issue of Commentary, and many issues of the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.

The most appropriate piece of evidence on the PC cringe, given Mr Young’s particular interest in the issue, is from the case of Doe vs University of Michigan. In the Doe case a student had been subjected to a formal hearing under the university’s “Speech Code” (Yes, they actually have them) because he had expressed the belief, during a class on social work, that homosexuality was a disease susceptible to psychological treatment.

It should come as no surprise that an American student held this belief; until a few years ago it was the official position of most of the medical professional bodies in that country. Many fundamentalist groups refuse to consider any alternative. I am sure that had Mr Young been in the class he would have willingly mounted a well reasoned and well researched rebuttal of the claim. But if a University’s Speech Code prohibits a student from even expressing such a belief in class how will Mr Young or anyone else know that these beliefs continue to be held — and when will they be granted the opportunity to challenge them?

Fortunately the Court held “What the University could not do …was to establish an anti-discrimination policy which had the effect of prohibiting certain speech because it disagreed with the ideas or messages sought to be conveyed.”

Surely the terrifying aspect of the case is that a District Court Judge (of evidently limited literacy) has to point out this obvious truth to such a highly regarded academic institution as the once great University of Michigan. Does Mr Young look forward to such PC Speech Codes being introduced into New Zealand? Is this the PC rule he really wants to join?

As for “multi-culturalism” I experienced the difference between what we mean by the word and what the word means in the US in the course of preparing a paper for presentation to a group of American business executives in Florida later this year.

Here in New Zealand I am happy to call myself a multi-culturalist because it means no more than that one is tolerant of other cultures and is prepared to assess those cultures and their belief systems on their merits. But in the US, a declared “multi-culturist” holds that one can only respect other cultures if one is prepared to despise everything associated with Western culture or civilisation. My essay objected to those who present the history of Western civilisation as anything other than the history of the rape and plunder etc — a point which Mr Young appears to have overlooked.

Of course the history of Western civilisation has its share of horror stories including the Inquisition, slavery, the Salem witch hunts, Nazi Germany, Marxist Leninism and many cases where it never realised its own ideals. But name the culture that doesn’t. At least the Enlightenment led to constitutions which promoted ideals of liberty, equality, freedom of speech and belief and the other ideals which underpin any form of democracy and freedom.

Mr Young claims that there has been “a long and significant silence on the subject of plunder etc”. Well, the following white males have thundered against tyranny, slavery and despotism in all its forms: Aristotle, Epictetus, Aquinas, Plutarch, Calvin, Shakespeare, Milton, Hobbes, Locke, Swift, Voltaire, Mostesquieu, Rousseau, Smith, Kant, the Authors of the Federalist Papers, Mill, Boswell, Hegel, Tocqueville, Dickens, Doestoevsky, Twain, Darwin, and even Marx. So where is this long silence?

Multi-culturalism in the US means that universities now accept, and even encourage, so-called scholarship which seeks to re-write history so as to deny that there are any good tales to be told. Because Jews have played such a prominent role in the development of Western thought this new “multi-culturalism” has given new legitimacy to a remarkable rise in anti-Semitic “scholarship” such as texts widely circulated within black communities which claim that Jewry was responsible for the slave trade and that the slave trade was a uniquely western crime. (See for example The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews, Volume One, The Nation of Islam, 1991)

In fact France was the first nation in history to make slavery illegal. Long after England, and then the US, abandoned the practice, the African slave trade continued to be run by joint ventures between African and Arabic states, as it had been for thousands of years. I have now learned that to write this last paragraph within many once-great US universities would probably cost me my job.

I can understand that given New Zealand’s limited and restrained practise of PC and multiculturalism Mr Young has found the concepts to be positive and encouraging for himself and his friends and colleagues battling against decades of homophobia. But these ideas, which have been taken to extremes in the US, have no place here. We know that child abuse exists; we also know that the US was first to turn this real problem into a victim-based industry which threw many hundreds of innocent people in jail and has damaged the lives of scores of thousands of others.

I don’t need ideologically driven speech-codes to tell me not to refer to kikes, niggers, and bitches in my classes, in my writings or in my private life. Tolerance, good manners and the normal standards of civilised behaviour are quite sufficient.

Owen McShane, Editor, author of “The Challenge to Reason”

Speaker’s Other Interests

Skeptics who attended the conference in Palmerston North will doubtless recall with amusement a talk on magnetic resonance devices given by Bruce Rapley, BSc, Dip. Psych., of Massey University. Mr Rapley, whose calling card describes him as “Bio-Electro-Magnetic Consultant (E.L.F.)”, is an energetic and entertaining speaker who cast a skeptical eye on Australian firms that are marketing magnetic paraphenalia that appear to me to be quack medical devices.

I was therefore surprised to be made aware of some of Mr Rapley’s other interests as described in literature that has come into my hands. Mr Rapley is a leader of something called Resonance Research, a non-profit organisation involved in “furthering the understanding of phenomena occurring at the margins of traditional knowledge”. RR offers “a variety of inspirational seminars and workshops”, and networks in the areas of Bio-Energy, Counselling, Geopathic Stress, Homeopathy, Radionics/Radiesthesia, and Vibrational Memory.

In particular, Mr Rapley has recently been energetically arranging a visit to New Zealand by Viera Scheibner, PhD, who warns against vaccinations. In particular Dr. Scheibner finds “obvious” the connection between “vaccine injections and cot death”.

Denis Dutton, University of Canterbury

Hokum Locum

ACC Decisions

The recent decision to award compensation to a lawyer who suffered depression because his bank loan was turned down is but one example of increasingly bizarre decisions by the ACC (Anything-goes Compensation Corporation). Money has also been paid out to victims for “memories” of childhood sexual abuse but in one recent case the alleged offender was aquitted and we are still waiting to see whether ACC will ask for their money back. (see Skeptic 34).

I obtained information about a court judgement involving ACC who awarded compensation to an employee of the Fire Service, one of a number of people affected by mass hysteria after the ICI Chemical Fire. Advising doctors said that his condition was not considered to be due to chemical exposure but his emotional state could be attributed to some stress surrounding attendance at the fire. The judge had no alternative under current law to do anything other than award full rights to compensation.

Not only do these decisions show a lack of common sense, they also illustrate what happens when no one is prepared to stand up and resist such claimants, who will continue to come forward as long as there is money available. This prevailing community belief that everyone is entitled to compensation for their “pain” whatever it is, is not limited to New Zealand. There is a worldwide growth in anti-medical science groups with self-denied psychiatric conditions. In the UK a sufferer from chronic fatigue syndrome (see Skeptic 21, 26) was awarded compensation because the stress of a car accident in which he received no physical injuries, made his symptoms worse!

Hoxsey Cancer Quackery

Bruno Lawrence recently went public with the fact that he is suffering from lung cancer and plans to make a TV documentary about his treatment at a Hoxsey Clinic in Mexico. About the same time, a syndicated article appeared in my local paper with the news that a Tauranga herbalist intended setting up such a clinic and applying to the local area health board for approval.

Hoxsey (1901-1973) developed a secret recipe of herbs and spices which he used to treat cancer patients. This followed an observation that a horse with cancer cured itself by grazing on certain plants. Hoxsey fought prolonged court battles with both the American Medical Association (AMA) and the FDA before taking his quack therapy to unregulated Mexico. He died from cancer despite self-treatment with his quack remedy.

His original nurse, Mildred Nelson, was still administering this quackery as recently as 1988. The American Cancer Society (ACS) has extensively investigated Hoxsey’s cancer quackery and I quote from the last paragraph of their report which I am happy to supply free to any reader as long as you send a stamped SAE: “In summary, the Hoxsey medicines for cancer have been extensively tested and found to be both useless and archaic. The ACS does not recommend their use by cancer patients.”

Quackery often follows a pattern as follows:

  • An apparently profound observation or emotional experience — in Hoxsey’s case, a sick horse, and in the case of iridology certain patterns in the iris of a sick bird. Doctors often revert to quackery following either job stress or a seemingly profound success with a new treatment such as acupuncture, homeopathy etc. (usually a placebo response).
  • An element of paranoia is useful, because this heightens the belief of the quack that the particular treatment is valuable and “everyone’s out to get me!” and leads to…
  • Conspiracy theory. In the case of Hoxsey, he developed the theme that doctors and the AMA had cornered the cancer market (is there one?). This is a very useful strategy for discrediting conventional medicine.
  • The quack remedy should be completely safe and quite expensive because patients will show improvement in proportion to money spent. Distilled water is cheaper and more convenient than homeopathic remedies and is already an accepted consumer fraud.
  • Reliance solely on testimonials and strict avoidance of clinical trials or any form of testing of the quack remedy. Testimonials are personal, entertaining and are excellent advertising, unlike the prosaic clinical trial which will show that the quack remedy is for the ducks. If a clinical trial or, in the case of Milan Brych, a court case, proves quackery, then all is not lost. Off-shore operations will ensure patients keep on coming, which is what hundreds of people did even after Brych was shown to be a complete fraud and actually in prison at the time he claimed to be at medical school. (I can think of a few doctors I would like to see in prison but that’s another story.)

Finally, the above information is subject to intellectual property rights and I expect a commission from any readers who set up successful cancer quackery clinics.


An article in the BMJ (Vol 309 p883, “The dangers of good intentions”) caught my eye, as it is a devastating example of the psychopathology so evident in the helping professions. In 1939, 700 delinquents were randomly assigned to either a treatment group or a control group who received no treatment but were followed up 30 years later.

The treatment group received counselling, home help and other community assistance. After 30 years it was the treatment group who were sicker, drunker, poorer and more criminal! This shows that nothing can be taken for granted when trying to influence people’s behaviour, and often such programs create dependency. Our own welfare state is a classic illustration of this problem.

Psychobabble revisited

In Skeptic 33 I made a plea for hard data on the popular new condition of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Like any alleged medical condition it must be refutable, ie. capable of being proved wrong. A writer in the BMJ (Vol 309 p873) sharply criticised a case presentation on PTSD in a patient who was a heavy drinker. He pointed out that 40% of all patients diagnosed as having PTSD drink heavily and their symptoms (frightening ideas, nightmares) subside when they abstain. I am still cynically waiting to find out whether PTSD is described in populations which do not have compensation.

In Canada, a man was aquitted of stabbing to death his parents-in-law because a psychiatrist testified that the man was sleep-walking and therefore had not been responsible for his actions. The fact that the accused was also a gambler who had been caught embezzling money did not seem to be quite so important to the court!

Psychiatry as a specialty relies on rather soft science, and some psychiatrists are guilty of the most absurd psychobabble — eg, “Continuing success will reflect [the patient’s] ongoing committment to healing the wounded child within, which is the result of the experience of the poisonous pedagogy.”

Doctors’ signatures can certainly be very valuable. As far as patients are concerned, it means another ten paid weeks off work. Some 85,000 people have been collecting such benefits for more than one year and ACC is hoping to save $400 million by referring all cases to an independent medical panel.(GP Weekly, 22 Feb 95)

In the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) a new law allows people to use cannabis on a doctor’s prescription provided that the doctor keeps “research notes.” The ACT Health Minister described the new law as a “radical drug experiment”. I describe it as radical stupidity, as there is no evidence that cannabis is useful for the conditions proposed and I doubt the ability of individual GPs to conduct research. Here is my prediction: patients will flock to certain doctors who have found by research that their signature on a piece of paper is of considerable benefit to both the patient and the doctor’s bank manager. Buy ACT cannabis futures now! (GP Weekly, 22 Feb 95)

In the UK, a housing authority allowed preferential allocation for housing on receipt of a note from the doctor outling health reasons. However, they were able to revert to their normal process of allocation because everyone on the list had a note from their GP! All processes such as this become debased and degraded when subject to abuse.

Eau Dear!

Along with other legitimised quackery, the French government recognises a stay at a spa as a legitimate medical treatment. The National Audit Court pointed out that not only is there no proven scientific justification for spa treatment, but many carry bacterial health risks. Some spas have even been adding tap water to their natural mineral waters.

I seem to remember an investigation in New Zealand showing that certain “mineral waters” were indistinguishable from tap water. (New Scientist, 28 Jan 95)

Alternative Medical Remedies

The Medicines Act is being re-written, and already quacks are whining that the costs of licensing their remedies could force them off the market. Quacks also fear a ban on advertising that they can offer relief from various conditions. I don’t see any problem with the proposed law changes, as herbal remedies should come up to set standards of quality and safety and any claims of efficacy should be tested in randomised trials. (GP Weekly, 14/9/94)

After reading this I was intrigued to find a letter in the Lancet (Vol 344 p134) which looked at the ginseng composition of 50 commercial ginseng products. The authors found that 44 preparations ranged from 1.9% to 9.0% of ginsenosides, the active components. The remaining 6 preparations contained no ginsenosides at all. They also quoted a case of an athlete who failed a drug test. He thought he was only taking ginseng, but not only did his preparation not contain any ginseng, it consisted mainly of the banned performance-enhancing drug ephedrine.

Would anybody buy an aspirin that might contain either no aspirin at all or anywhere from 100mg to 500mg of the active drug? The authors conclude that “quality control is urgently needed for natural remedies with suspected or assumed biological activity.” I see a compelling case for continuing with a robust overhaul of our Medicines Act.

Face Lifts and Hair Growth

A Wellington plastic surgeon was critical of a recent proposal that GP’s could learn to do chemical face peels after watching a training video (Dominion, 15/9/94). GPs can buy a kit which contains enough chemicals and equipment to make a profit of $380 per patient for half an hour’s work. The process involves using glycolic acid to induce peeling and, by an unspecified process, cosmetic improvement. Just the thing for boosting the flagging profits of any North Shore Auckland medical practice where there are already so many doctors the place is in danger of turning into a ghetto.

I don’t intend watching the video, but the thought had crossed my mind that I could treat my vain patients in our RNZAF electroplating bay. A short dip in something caustic would give anyone’s face a good lift (off) or how about dermabrasion with a wire brush from the metal shop?

A much safer money-earning prospect is the exciting new treatment of electrotrichogenesis for bald men. I hope our editor can reproduce the advertisement which shows a futuristic looking chair with a hood poised to administer rejuvenating current to the recalcitrant scalp. [Unfortunately it’s a bit too dark to reproduce well — but it looks fascinating…]

Why not fill the waiting room with these chairs and invite balding males to pay for treatment while they wait to see the doctor on other matters. Even more doctors will be able to afford to go into practice on the North Shore!

All the Trouble in the World

All the Trouble in the World, by P.J. O’Rourke; Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd 1994; 340 pages; $20.00 paperback

Everyone will enjoy this book. Well, everyone except paranormalists, ecological alarmists, pseudo-scientists, feminists, left-wingers, the entire New Age community, and of course those eternally doom-ridden types who seem determined to drag everyone else down to their own level of self-imposed suffering.

My only complaint — and it is a grievous one — is that O’Rourke prefaces the book with the exact same H.L. Mencken quote that I was on the brink of using myself. (Call it a coincidence if you want, but the odds of such a thing happening strike me as so slim it’s hard to avoid thinking that some form of telepathy was at play.)

The quote in question appears in one of Mencken’s autobiographical books, Newspaper Days, written in 1941, wherein he refers to a formula he devised way back in the ’20s. He called it Mencken’s Law and it goes like this: “Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretence of saving or improving X, A is a scoundrel.”

This was Mencken’s way of describing the same political correctness that plagues us today. The same old notion of virtue-on-the-cheap that has been annoying and injuring B since…Adam, probably. In Mencken’s time such nonsense led to Prohibition.

All the Trouble in the World opens with the line “This is a moment of hope in history. Why doesn’t anybody say so?”, which pretty much sums up what the book is about.

His general thesis here is that we are living in great and exciting times, and that humanity is better off now than it has ever been. But thanks to ecological despair mongers, whinging leftists, and the apocalyptic messages of the New Agers and Born Again Armageddonites, who believe that the only road to salvation is to abandon all rational thought and embrace the teachings of the fairy dust queen, we have been bamboozled into thinking that the monsters of ruin and disaster are breathing down our very necks.

The book is subtitled “the lighter side of famine, pestilence, destruction and death”, and to look at the whys and wherefores of all this O’Rourke takes us on a hilarious romp to countries where such things are taking place, including Somalia, former Yugoslavia, Haiti and the Amazon, resulting in a travelogue guaranteed to send the painfully virtuous on a book-burning spree.

Like all of O’Rourke’s writing, the style is garrulous, comical and fun to read; the content well informed and the reporting first-rate. Unfortunately, there is no outright O’Rourkian madness such as we find in Republican Party Reptile — “How to Drive Drunk While Getting Your Wing Wang Squeezed Without Spilling Your Drink”, for instance — but such failings aside, I would not hesitate to put All the Trouble in the World on any skeptic’s reading list.

CSICOP Conference Proceedings

Thanks to a member who was present, we now have a set of audiotapes which record the complete proceedings of the 1994 CSICOP Conference in Seattle, on The Psychology of Belief

Topics discussed include: Alien Abductions, Anomalies of Perception, Memory, CSICOP and the Law, Beliefs in the Courtroom, Conspiracy Theories.

Speakers include Paul Kurtz, Philip Klass, Susan Blackmore, John Maddox, Carl Sagan, Elizabeth Loftus and other illustrious Skeptics.

Members are invited to obtain a detailed list from the Secretary (Bernard Howard, 150 Dyers Pass Road, Christchurch), who is prepared to negotiate loans of individual tapes.

Professor Mack and his Amazing Abducting Aliens

An abridged version of the Skeptical Enquirer’s report of the session dealing with “alien abductions” at the Seattle CSICOP Conference on “The Psychology of Belief”

Many of us have been reading articles or commentaries regarding alien abductions and have just wished that someone of real authority would take up the issue and give it a thorough scientific once over. Most of us were encouraged when we learned that John Mack, award winning Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, had taken on the task.

So it was with some surprise that we found that his work Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens proclaims Professor Mack’s beliefs that many of his patients have been abducted by aliens — and that he is now the most famous spokesman for this cause.

He vigorously defended his claims at the conference and worried some of the audience by suggesting that other cultures have always known there are other realities, other beings, other dimensions. There is a world of other dimensions, of other realities that can cross over into our own world.

Which realities, beings and dimensions he did not say. One would have expected Professor Mack’s work to at least have been well founded in scientific methodology. But this assumption took a bit of a knock when Donna Bassett, a researcher who had participated in the Professor’s research programme, was called up to the platform to speak.

At first Bassett seemed to indicate that she was one of Mack’s genuine abductees. But she quickly announced that since September 1992 she had been only posing as one in order to infiltrate Mack’s project and learn about his research methods.

“I faked it! Women have been doing it for centuries!” she said.

Ms Bassett reported that Professor Mack’s procedures were flawed and he used little or no scientific methodology. During therapy sessions patients would often get together to embellish their stories. They told Professor Mack what he wanted to hear. Of course her most telling point was that the Professor’s research methods had failed to identify that this “patient” was “faking it”.

Needless to say Professor Mack responded in the expected manner.

I am (deeply?) saddened by this…

I am a little bit clearer about this when I am told that [Bassett] was found to play this role by Philip Klass [of the CSICOP Executive Council] — since that’s his purpose, to destroy and undercut the credibility of this work.

That’s right. Sadly indeed for Professor Mack’s on-going future as a TV chat show guest, that’s what science is about.

There were a few more heated exchanges until Robert Baker ended the session on a humorous note by recommending a new direction for this line of research. He explained :

Sixty-nine percent of Americans believe in angels, and 32% claim they have had contact with them. Now that’s a lot better than for alien abductions. I think we ought to investigate angels…