Auras by Polaroid

At the Festival of Possibilities in Nelson, all the usual New Age paraphernalia were on display. A current vogue is “pulsing” which is already available in at least two varieties, holistic and Tibetan. (I later experienced a pulsing; it’s a variety of massage involving having different parts rocked or shaken, quite pleasant.) People at one stand tried to sell me Matol, a mixture of herbal extracts “that works at the molecular level” to increase the uptake of oxygen by my blood. I told them I trusted my body to take up just the right amount of oxygen.

New was “Aura Vision Photography”. On a tripod was a locked black box the size of an upright shoebox, containing a Polaroid camera with the filmpack sticking out the back and the lens visible through a hole in the front. From it came a flat grey cable about 40 wires wide, leading to another locked black box about the size of two stacked shoeboxes beside the subject’s chair, with a mains power connection and about 12 electrodes on top in the shape of a hand. Subjects laid their right hand on these while their picture was taken. (What if the subject was left-handed?)

The pictures showed the subjects dimly, with blobs of coloured light beside and above their heads — white, fading to saturated colour at the edges. Several pictures showed the same subject with different coloured lights. An attendant told me the apparatus had been designed by a scientist, with some assistance channelled through a clergyman when the scientist got stuck.

Unsurprisingly, the information supplied is unhelpful:

Surrounding the physical body is an electromagnetic energy field which vibrates and fluctuates at different levels. The frequency at which your energy field is vibrating is a direct reflection of your inner state of being and often affects the well-being of others around you….

This prototype camera is the world’s first and only patented electromagnetic field photographic system. Our electronic equipment measure [sic] then maps your personal energy vibration which is then analysed and translated into the colour vibration that corresponds to your unique energy levels.

Note that it does not say that the lights shown actually originate in the space around the person. It was not explained why or how electrodes on the hand could cause lights to appear in the picture (or whether they are the same shape and colour as those that appear to people who can see such things), but LEDs fitted inside the camera suggest themselves.

Another handout shows the colour interpretations:

Blood red: life force fed into the body to keep them [sic] physically strong.

Crimson red: around head and hands of Male, balanced emotionally and physically.

What if it is elsewhere, or around Female?

Green: healing vitality to be fed into the body to keep it going. Natural Healer gifts could be massage, reflexology, some form of natural healing.

Dark leaf green: indication of a healer. Healing could come through Counselling, Reflexology, etc.

Blue: indicates a person who could use colour healing.

Sky blue: indicates Healers. Special gift of laying on of hands. Massage, Aura Healing, Reflexology.

The other handout says “The colours in your electro-magnetic energy field can change from moment to moment” — so do the gifts come and go?

But the big whammy is:

White: indicates degree of spiritual level within the soul.

White glowing light — shows the divinity of a highly evolved soul that shines and radiates brightly.

White auric energy is a magnetic life force lead into the body through the crown chakra.

Christ light or Life force.

I suppose it’s a silly question to ask how these interpretations were reached — who was their test subject for white light…?

All the indications were positive: no colours were assigned to criminals or psychopaths or just rather dull people. The price to have your picture taken was $20 with interpretation or $25 for two subjects. People were queuing up to hand over their money and have their pictures taken.

Some UFO Experiences

Recently I had a UFO experience in the comfort and privacy of my own home. Or rather, I would have had a UFO experience if it had been a UFO. Unfortunately, however, I found a rational explanation for it, which means this story’s not nearly as interesting as it could have been.

It was very late, past midnight, and my wife and I had just come home from a dinner party to our house in Cashmere, at an altitude of about 100 metres on a ridge at the south end of Christchurch. She went straight to bed, but I felt somehow restless. In hindsight, if I had more imagination I might be able to say I felt as though something was telling me to stay up, to walk outside on to the deck, and look out to the west.

What I saw astonished me greatly. There was a very bright light in the sky away to the southwest. It stayed there for some minutes, almost unchanging, poised in the sky above the suburb of Westmoreland, quite still but with a slightly tremulous quality about it. Knowing the landscape very well, I knew it could not possibly be a street light, car headlight or other normal phenomenon on the ground. It was definitely in the air, about four fingers at arm’s length above the horizon. But it was too still and bright to be an aeroplane. Moreover, there was no engine noise. “My God”, I thought, “am I seeing a UFO?” I’d certainly like to see a UFO. It was very exciting.

I rushed in and got our binoculars, a good pair of 8x50s, went back out and sat down to watch the light carefully. It continued to stay quite still and to flicker ever so slightly. Then I noticed another light beside it, smaller and flicking on and off. Curiouser and curiouser. Again I thought, “It can’t be a plane, because it’s been still for too long, and it’s too bright”.

Yes, I really was seeing something for which there could be no normal explanation. I thought of how some of my skeptic friends would respond to this, and continued for some minutes longer to observe it closely, so I could state with certainly it was not some figment of my imagination. Still it shone brightly, flickered ever so slightly and stayed still. I resolved to watch it for as long as it stayed. Minutes ticked by.

Then, abruptly, the light faded in strength and swung away to the north. It was a plane after all — suddenly looking no different from hundreds of others I had seen coming into Christchurch Airport. But what had been so different about this one? How could it have changed so rapidly, so totally? How could it remain still in the sky, be so bright, and yet silent?

Then I realised that this plane had been approaching from the southwest on a path which was some miles further south than the usual approach route. As a result, by the most extraordinary coincidence, it was heading straight towards my house. And not only was it on a compass course that took it right in this direction, but it was descending at an angle that meant it literally pointed straight at me. This explained the intensity of the light, which was aimed like a searchlight directly at me, albeit from a distance of perhaps 20 miles, gradually closing to about five before the plane turned away. Over such a distance, the intensity of the light was increasing so gradually that it did not appear to be moving towards me. And although descending, it appeared still because it was closing on the horizon at an imperceptible rate. The tremulous quality of the light simply resulted from the plane’s vibrating a bit in slightly turbulent air. The second light was one of the plane’s wingtip lights. As I’m slightly colour-blind (green looks white to me at a distance) I couldn’t tell what colour it was.

The explanation was absurdly simple, yet never in a hundred years would I have guessed it. Having watched approaching planes so often in the past helped reinforce the deception, because it was so different to what I was used to seeing.

But the most important part is this: suppose I had not persisted in watching it, or the plane had disappeared, say into a bank of cloud close to the ground, so I had not discovered the real explanation. I would have absolutely denied any suggestion that it was an aeroplane.

“No”, I would have said, “it was too still, too bright, and there was no noise. There was definitely a bright still light sitting in one place in the sky for some minutes.”

And there is another thing — every time an aeroplane is descending at night, with its lights on, in clear air, following a straight descent path, there will be a particular spot on the Earth’s surface where an observer, if there is one, will see exactly the same thing I saw. If you think about how many aeroplanes there are all over the world in the air at any time, there must be nothing unusual about my experience. Except that more imaginative observers than I are bound to have perceived it differently — they will have “actually have seen” a UFO.

It’s a pity I’m not more imaginative, because if I was I could have seen some much more exciting things like different-coloured lights and an interesting saucer shape. My inability to see such things if an obvious flaw in my personality which I have resolved to correct next time. Then I might have a more interesting story to tell.

Three more non-UFO experiences

  • In about 1960 my father thought he was “having a UFO experience” one night while sitting on the steps outside our house in Samoa. Flashes of light were darting back and forth across the sky. He got up and walked forwards for a better view and discovered the cause was a spider spinning a web about a metre in front of his face.
  • Fishing at Lake Coleridge on a perfectly clear night, I heard an aeroplane overhead but couldn’t see any lights. I looked in the general direction of the sound, and suddenly the plane’s navigation lights came on for about 5 seconds. Then they all went out again. If I had seen this without hearing the engine noise, I would have been unable to produce a rational explanation for it.
  • And another night I was fishing on the lake under low, rather loose cloud. As a plane came over, its lights, flashing brightly, made the whole sky very suddenly seem to pulsate brilliantly. The overall effect was extremely peculiar. Although the plane’s engines could clearly be heard, two fishermen nearby in the dark were totally confused by the experience. “What the f—– is that?” one gasped. “Dunno,” his mate responded in an awestruck voice. I wonder what story they may have had to tell the next day?

Is Counselling Useful?

Surprising results from a US study of the effectiveness of counselling on reducing juvenile crime.

In the March NZ Skeptic, Dr John Welch’s excellent column mentioned an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) about a social experiment which started in 1939. I have not seen the BMJ article but it can only refer to the Cambridge-Somerville experiment. Not just because this was the only such study started in 1939, but it is still (to the best of my knowledge) the only large-scale, long-term study on the effects of counselling which can reasonably be regarded as good science.

It is worth looking at this famous experiment in a little more detail. The instigator was the Harvard Professor of Medicine and Social Ethics. The subjects were boys between the age of five and 13 thought to be “at risk” of juvenile delinquency. It was proposed that a programme be started to prevent these boys becoming delinquent. It would involve “all the aid that a resourceful counsellor could possibly give, backed by the school and community agencies”.

In fact it eventually involved churches, scouts, YMCA, and summer camps plus, where necessary, medical and psychiatric treatment. The counsellors were particularly concerned to involve the families of the boys and this was done whenever possible. The treatment programme was intensive and lengthy; on average it lasted five years — a considerable time in the life of a child.

Professor Cabot (who died in the year the project started), while convinced the programme would be valuable, was concerned that it should be properly assessed. Thus the boys were grouped into 325 matched pairs, each pair being similar in age, background, etc. One of each pair was randomly assigned to the treatment group, the other to the control. It is because of this that it was possible to decide “Did the treatment help?”.

Major papers on this study were published in 1949 and 1951 and the final paper, by Dr Joan McCord, was published in 1978. Some 253 of the matched pairs had completed the programme and 30 years after the project started, Dr McCord was able to locate 480 of the men involved.

About half of these were from the treatment group, and about two thirds of them felt the project had been helpful and improved their lives. Most had fond memories of their counsellors.

Dr Welch writes that the BMJ article found the treatment group to be “sicker, drunker, poorer and more criminal”. This is true but I think it important to note the individual differences were very small.

The project was started to prevent juvenile crime. Of the treatment group, 72 had a juvenile criminal record, compared with 67 from the control group. This is a very slight difference, but clearly the project failed in its main aim which was to prevent juvenile delinquency.

Similarly, 49 of the treatment group had been involved in serious adult crime, compared with 42 of the control group. Again a very slight difference. For factors such as recidivism, alcoholism, stress-related illness, and job satisfaction the pattern was similar. That is, the control group did better than those who were treated — but only by a very small amount.

In only one important way was the treatment group better — minor adult crime. But again the difference was very slight: 119 of the treatment group had minor criminal records, compared with 126 for the control group.

It is true, however, that taken together the differences between the two groups were found to be statistically significant. The treated group had been harmed by the treatment, although the harm was minimal and would not have been revealed by a small-scale study.

There are several major lessons for skeptics here. Firstly, all treatments should be properly assessed and that means using a control group (obviously in this kind of treatment “blind” studies are not possible). How much money (taxpayers’ money) is being spent in New Zealand on counselling? Is the money well spent? Is any attempt being made to assess the value of the treatment?

Secondly, the natural and powerful objections to such assessments must be resisted. The idea of using a control group horrifies many people — “But these people are being used in an experiment! They are not being treated!” Such objections assume we already know the treatment works. But we do not know this and our intuition may be completely wrong.

Thirdly, people are incapable of objectively assessing their own treatment. That is why testimonials to the healing power of any treatment are completely worthless.

Fourthly, non-intervention may be the best treatment. The problem is that it is the hardest to apply because there are powerful forces mobilised against it. The patient welcomes treatment (just how neglected did those boys in the control group feel?) and the professional wants to help.

Counselling is getting to be a major industry in New Zealand but its value should be questioned. All such professionals should adopt the motto “First do no harm”, but until proper assessments are made, how do they know whether they are doing harm or good?

Postmodernism

Postmodern thinkers claim to have broken the fetters of logic that have characterised rational discourse since the enlightenment. They claim to have ushered in a new age of freedom of communication, that rationality is no longer the only, or even the major, “communicative virtue” and that social, psychological, political and historical considerations must all take precedence over logic and reason.

Freed from the confines of logic, discourse can now become open, honest, sincere, politically sensitive and historically conditioned. While premoderns and moderns judged a speaker’s claims on how well it was based on the facts of the case and the logic of the argument, the postmoderns “play the believing game” which accepts the speaker’s claims according to the degree of sincerity exhibited by the speaker. Hence expertise and authority are no longer possessed only by an elite few. Communication is truly democratic. We are all informed; we are all rational.

Hence we find educational curricula based on the premise that anyone can teach anyone else and the great sin is lecturing or instructing. Richard Rorty the American postmodernist has said our only task is to keep the conversation going.

The postmodernists conclude that there is no Truth to be aspired to, but that there are at any time a great many “little truths”. Each of these little truths depends on the social, psychological, political and other contexts of their utterance. Person A speaks as a woman, as an oriental, as an unemployed person, as a mother and so on. Person B speaks as a male, or as a Maori, or as an artist and so on. One person’s X is another’s NOT-X depending on who (and where, and when and what gender, race, and age) they both are.

This new age of Postmodernism has helped to foster the “New Age” of healing crystals, channelling, UFO abductions and the other beliefs of the Shirley Maclaine tribe because we are encouraged to ignore nonsense, unreason, and irrationality.

These postmoderns see science as “no more than the handmaiden of technology” according to Rorty. And technology is viewed as evil itself, because it is perceived to be the cause of most of today’s economic, environmental and medical ills.

Education has contributed to this evil advance and must be reformed in the postmodernist image. The enlightenment tradition must be rejected on moral grounds. There can be no separation of teacher (master) and student (slave) when there are no universal standards of truth. School children must be allowed to discover their own reality while facilitators encourage their creative and free ranging thought.

Postmoderns at first appear to be superbly tolerant. After all, if all ideas are equally true then your truths are equal to mine. We are truly all equal before this lore. My idea that Jim Anderton’s recent move in and out of party leadership reflects a similar trauma in one of his earlier lives and your idea that it reflects a complex interaction between public and private life are on a par with each other. Each deserves to be tolerated and given due recognition.

But just as Doris Lessing found that her Marxist friends seemed to love humanity but hated people so too this universal tolerance for ideas seems to go hand in hand with a remarkable intolerance for individual expressions of thought.

This apparent anomaly has its own internal logic. The philosophy that seeks only “local” truths rather than aspiring to universal truths not only repudiates science but divides people according to their “locality”, which means dividing them according to who, where, when, and what colour, gender they are or what political beliefs they hold. The natural result of such division is an intolerance that tends to manifest itself in racism, nationalism, sexism and all the expressions of hostility and intolerance which we identify as Political Correctness. It’s not the Truth that counts–but the Politics which give rise to your local truth.

When my truth and your truth are allowed to differ depending on the differences between us, then the differences between us can no longer even claim to be ignored–simply because these differences play far too great a role in our social discourse. Universities used to be places where we could escape the petty confines in which we had been bound by race, nation, status or class. Some universities of today seem determined to reinforce these schisms rather than to replace them with the ideal of the universal community of scholars.

Academic discourse too frequently focuses on where its students “are coming from” rather than on where they might be trying to go.

In more innocent times the Skeptics existed to challenge pseudoscience and the paranormal by applying the universally accepted standards of scientific method and logical argument which had been accepted since the Enlightenment.

We now face a large and more challenging task–which is to challenge those ideas which would challenge the utility of science and logic itself.

Forum

NZCSICOP Politics

As a subscriber to your magazine, I am concerned by the general trends evident in the statements made by a number of your contributors. For example, in the last issue Mr Wyant complained about “whinging leftists”, while Dr Welch claimed that “our own welfare state is a classic illustration of this problem” (i.e., assumed dependency).

While I understand that these and other similar views are the writers’ personal opinions, the general impression is that your organisation is biased towards the ideology of the “New Right”. Is this true and can you assure me that you have no links to political groups such as ACT?

M. Muir, Auckland

Diversity Reigns

From my experience at conferences and meetings of the Skeptics, I am reasonably assured that our organisation represents a diverse range of views, most of which tend to be volubly expressed.

Like all organisations, the main impression one may get of the Skeptics stems from the public face the organisation presents through the newsletter and through media commentary by our officers. Our diversity is celebrated even here, with Owen McShane (Skeptic editor) being an ACT supporter and Denis Dutton (the previous editor and our media spokesperson) being a founding supporter of Future New Zealand. As for the Chair-entity (yours truly), I remain skeptical of party politics and loath to vote along party lines, so will probably exercise my rights and responsibilities in becoming a McGillicuddy Serious list voter, in the belief that they, at least, will bring a little humour into the House.

Politically, NZCSICOP members as a whole range from traditional socialists to those I consider slightly to the right of Atilla the Hun, the major exception being a lack of ultra-orthodox politically correct adherents. It’s much the same as the religious/spiritual expressions in the society, which seem to lack only the true fundamentalists. I believe that both exceptions are a result of the tendency for the ideologies involved to discourage their followers from thinking critically. That (and a sense of humour) seem to be the only common factors amongst members of the Skeptics.

Vicki Hyde Chair-entity, NZCSICOP

NaCl PC?

“I believe that this data sheet [urging stringent precautions in the use of NaCl] does not represent a simple error of judgement but unfortunately reflects an ideology which holds that all ‘chemicals’ are bad…” — PC Chemistry in the Classroom, Skeptic 35.

Well, I’m still a skeptic. What is the evidence for this belief? How about a mistake? Ian Milner of Carina Laboratories (source of the original story) told me the precautions for a variety of chemicals are identical, and he thinks what looks like hyper-caution is just the result of “sloth”. After all, even the most airheaded New Ager has handled table salt in the home (before they saw the light and switched to kelp) without absurd precautions. For the life of me I can’t see how both the ideology that all “chemicals” are bad and the mainstream science that warns of global warming can both be “PC”. I find my thinking a lot clearer if I don’t use the wretched expression at all.

In his reply to my letter in the same issue, Owen McShane quotes me as saying there has been “a long and significant silence on the subject of plunder etc.” A glance at my letter will show I was referring to rape and plunder. Will Mr McShane deny that there has been a long and significant silence on the subject of rape? Or that there was a long silence about the plunder of Aotearoa/New Zealand from the Maori? Mr McShane gives a long list of notables who have “thundered against tyranny, slavery and despotism in all its forms.” Can we have chapter and verse from Aristotle, Epictetus (Who?), Aquinas or Plutarch against slavery? From any of them for equality of the sexes or against homophobia? I know that’s unreasonable, but he did say “all its forms.”

Mr McShane offers new unsupported allegations: that he might lose his job if he made a particular statement, that “US…universities now accept and even encourage so-called scholarship which seeks to rewrite history so as to deny that there are any good tales to be told.” History is always being rewritten as new facts come to light and earlier historians’ prejudices become clear, and in my limited understanding of history, its study is more than just the telling of “good” or bad “tales”. The University of Michigan’s Speech Code seems to have been intended to prevent abusive speech in the classroom. Is there something wrong with that? If it went beyond that brief, well, the court seems to have put it right. Mr McShane wants to rely on “tolerance, good manners and the normal standards of civilised behaviour”. So do I, but nowadays, whenever these are extended towards minorities more than they were in “the good old days”, the effect is derided as “Political Correctness” as a sneaky way of doing those minorities down without seeming to.

Hugh Young, Pukerua Bay

The Editor Replies

(About NaCl)

You are quite right; I was expressing no more than a personal belief, which is why I asked for some evidence from our readers, such as my suggested example that Sea Salt is regarded as more benign than NaCl.

The point regarding PC is also nicely made. It may be more accurate to propose that promoting chemophobia is Politically Correct, while criticising the science which warns of global warming is Politically Incorrect. (As our Minister of Science made clear when he attacked the “Centre for Independent Studies” for sponsoring the visit of Professor Lindzen, because it would confuse the public.)

(About rape and plunder)

I confess to reading Mr Young’s reference to “rape and plunder” in the sense of “pillage and plunder”. However sexual rape has been a crime through most of history even if some verses of the Old Testament seem to take a lenient view of it. In recent years the courts and legal system have taken a much more enlightened view of the reality of rape but this contemporary movement towards justice and equity began long before the current PC movement — I remember lively arguments in the late fifties. And I am sure earlier generations have made their own contributions.

Similarly I have been reading about the plunder of Aotearoa/ Maori for as long as I remember. Dick Scott wrote his Ask that Mountain — the Story of Parihaka twenty years ago in 1975, while Eric Schimmer’s symposium The Maori People in the Sixties (published in 1968) records King Tawhuai saying “Truly I am this day seeking wherein the Maori has been at fault. The Pakeha on the other hand has done one misdeed after another against the Maori. He, the Pakeha, has indeed made me suffer. Tomorrow will come his day of reckoning and great will surely be his distress.” There was never a silence. It’s just for many years there were no Maori lawyers to transform such thoughts into action.

I suspect that even Mr Young knows that I was not claiming that each and every one of these dead white (or tinted) males thundered against each and every form of tyranny. But in total they have. For example, Euripides thundered against rape, pillage and plunder in The Suppliant Women, The Trojan Women, Hecuba, and Andromache back in the sixth century BC. More recently, John Stewart Mill (with his wife Harriet) wrote On the Equality of Woman. Homophobia will surely be recorded as a curious and temporary aberration when considered against the total course of human history; hence many philosophers of the past never felt the need to thunder against something which they never experienced.

My point about the Michigan State University was that it should not take a district court to remind a University of its need to protect free speech.

Some red-necks might deride the extension of good manners towards minorities as Political Correctness. Such behaviour is as despicable as using such good intentions to cloak suppression of legitimate questioning and debate. We should put up with neither.

De Tocqueville made the point that the best intentioned reforms are often seized upon by others with less noble intent. I genuinely believe that if Mr Young and I were exposed to both expressions of political correctness we would find ourselves in agreement as to which were which.

Owen McShane, Editor

Justice Lives

The Geller case has ended — the “psychic” is to begin a court-ordered payment of up to $120,000 to CSICOP USA.

Skeptics will be pleased to know that Uri Geller has paid the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal the first $40,000 of up to $120,000 as part of a settlement agreement for what the court described as a “frivolous complaint” made by Geller against CSICOP. The case began when Geller filed a $115 million suit against CSICOP and magician James Randi alleging defamation, invasion of privacy and tortious interference with prospective advantage. He filed suit because Randi has stated in an interview with the International Herald Tribune that Geller had “tricked even reputable scientists” with tricks that “are the kind that used to be on the back of cereal boxes when I was a kid. Apparently scientists don’t eat cornflakes anymore.”

CSICOP maintained that the suit was essentially a “gagging writ” designed to harass the organisation into inactivity. The court first ruled in favour of CSICOP in July 27 1993 but since then Geller has tried to overturn the decision by a series of court actions and appeals. He has now done his dash — evidently he was unable to foresee the outcome even though the decisions were not in sealed envelopes inside other sealed envelopes and concealed in remote places.

Paul Kurtz, CSICOP chairman said: “When the principles upon which CSICOP was founded are at stake, we are prepared to do battle all the way if it should prove necessary. We believe deeply in a free press, freedom of speech, and scientific enquiry, and the importance of dissent.” He characterised the Geller suit as the “kind of suit being used as a means of silencing debate on significant scientific issues.”

All in all it looks like a fair cop for CSICOP.

From a report in the Skeptical Enquirer, May/June 1995.

Hokum Locum

No Medical Ghetto

In the last issue I warned of the dangers of a medical ghetto developing on the Auckland North Shore. Fifty new doctors set up practice in Auckland last year and even more overseas doctors are pouring into New Zealand. There has not been a corresponding drop in consultation fees in a local aberration of the law of supply and demand. Fortunately, the Northern Region Health Authority has moved to cap any further increases in doctor numbers which have already cost an extra $20 million in subsidy claims. (Christchurch Press 24/4/95)

Dietary Delusions

Retired British policeman Peter Bennett claims that criminal behaviour can be controlled by dietary manipulations. Following a shooting spree in the US, an offender claimed that he was temporarily insane due to excessive dietary sugar (the Twinkies defence, named after a proprietary candy bar). After a special diet, it was claimed that nine recidivist criminals showed a dramatic improvement in behaviour.

Such claims have been made before in connection with children’s behaviour and shown in placebo-controlled trials to be wrong. What Mr Bennett has overlooked is that changes in diet are associated with a change in management, and it is this that has the effect rather than the diet. (Dominion 3/4/95)

Magic Mushrooms in Fiji

Following its importation by a soldier returning from overseas, Fiji has been in the grip of mass hysteria over the magical properties of a tea made from mushrooms. As with most other quack remedies it is claimed to cure everything from baldness to diabetes.

The mushroom, which looks like a bloated, gelatinous pancake, is floated in sweetened black tea and the fermented brew is drunk a week later. The brew is also known as “kombucha” and is gaining popularity in the US and some other Asian countries, and has been touted as an AIDS remedy. (NCAHF Vol 18, No 2) It is in fact a symbiotic colony of yeast and bacteria. I wonder how long before the brew arrives in New Zealand. (Marlborough Express 10/4/95)

Naughty Children?

Attention deficit disorder (ADD) is alleged to be an organically based condition where children are impulsive, overactive and have a short attention span. ADD has previously been known as minimal brain dysfunction, hyperactivity, hyperkinesis and Strauss syndrome, to name but a few.

In fact, ADD is yet another example of the expansionist activities of health professionals who “convert” ills into illnesses. This is the very activity which Illich warned about with respect to the medical profession.

ADD is far more likely to be simply a description of badly behaved children. Instead of concentrating on the behaviour (an effective strategy), people form support groups and look for organic causes which is a waste of time and resources. (GP Weekly 14/4/95)

Occupational Health Delusions

In a landmark decision, a company was fined after admitting a charge that they failed to take steps to protect an employee against occupational overuse syndrome. The employee had been in the new job for four days. I wrote to the company urging them to defend the case but they chose to plead guilty.

After this ludicrous decision I wrote to the Dominion but they chose not to publish my letter. I have also written to the occupational health publication Safeguard but I am not confident on seeing any expression of opposition to the absurd idea that anyone can develop OOS after four days in a new job.

There are, however, some glimmerings of understanding creeping into the literature. A judge in the UK rejected the concept of OOS and in the US a court rejected a claim that computer keyboard design causes it.

Writing in Safeguard (No.30 1995) Alan Boyd lamented the fact that ergonomic changes in the workplace had not lessened the prevalence of OOS. This is not at all surprising to me as no amount of ergonomic posturing can lessen the prevalence of a psychogenic (produced as a result of psychological stresses) condition such as OOS.

In Safeguard Update (27/3/95), Chris Walls acknowledges that anxiety and depression are common in New Zealand, affecting 13% of the population. Exercise is prescribed to relieve anxiety and reduce the chance of OOS. I find it ironic that in their own literature, all the clues are there for a proper understanding of OOS but occupational health workers continue to miss the bigger picture.

When a job becomes too difficult and less socially enjoyable, people start to focus on their symptoms. Attribution to work then means that the problem is the fault of the employer and the availability of compensation validates the “illness”. OOS can only be understood by looking at the historical record of psychogenic illness. This is brilliantly examined in a new book, From Paralysis to Fatigue by Edward Shorter (The Free Press, 1992) which is supported with superb clinical examples from the medical literature.

A striking theme is the gullibility of doctors who validated such presentations as fits and paralysis. It is interesting to find that patients have always resisted the concept of psychogenic illness and have tended to find more socially accepted labels. This is why neurasthenia has been replaced with chronic fatigue syndrome, and Charcot’s hysteria with other conditions such as total allergy syndrome and multiple chemical sensitivity.

I recommend this book to all readers interested in medical history. It should be required reading for health professionals.

The (Un)laying-on of Hands

A physiotherapy technique known as cupping has been suspected of causing the deaths of five babies and brain damage in eight others. The technique involves tapping the chest with a soft latex cup in an unproven method of clearing chest secretions. Like many physiotherapy techniques, this method of treatment has never been subjected to critical analysis.

The use of the term “cupping” for the procedure is a little unfortunate. Cupping used to be a medieval practice of applying suction cups to the skin to cause localised counter-irritation to some disease process or symptom. Acupuncture and moxibustion are other examples of counter-irritation quackery. Lancet 25/2/95 Vol 345 p510

Case-management Flunks

In the US, case-management became the central tenet of the care of people with severe mental disorders. The case manager takes a full and comprehensive responsibility for the client. This concept spread to the UK because it was believed to be effective.

However, a randomised trial found virtually no difference in outcome for case-managed clients compared with a control group. The authors concluded “it is unfortunate, in view of the limited effectiveness we have shown, that social services case-management was not evaluated in randomised controlled trials before its implementation in the UK.” (Lancet 18/2/95 Vol 345 p409-412)

Once again, this article demonstrates the absolute necessity of critically evaluating new treatments. This process should be extended to evaluate many of our existing treatments across the whole health area.

Udder Nonsense?

In a form of primitive immunotherapy, Herb Saunders injected his cows with patients’ blood and then sold the bovine colostrum (“first milk”) with the claim that it would cure cancer and other serious diseases.

Saunders sold each patient a cow for US$2500, but not only kept the cow on his farm but charged the patients $35 a bottle for the worthless nostrum. He was charged with practising medicine without a licence but the jury were unable to find a majority verdict of guilty. In my opinion Saunders was definitely guilty of milking his patients!

Chelation Abuses

The California Medical Board has been attempting to prevent the use of chelation therapy for unapproved indications. At a meeting, dozens of patients gave impassioned personal testimonials claiming cures after chelation treatment. It was noted by observers that the “tense atmosphere did not lend itself to rational decision-making.” Despite several impeccable trials that showed no benefit, chelation therapy continues to be offered in New Zealand.

With respect to the dramatic improvements claimed, it is more likely that there has been a fraud rather than a miracle. When confronted with the ravages of arterial disease, people often make profound health and lifestyle changes. They quit smoking, lose weight, exercise and make substantial changes to their risk-factor profiles. These same people are also the ones most likely to seek out chelation therapy. How ironic that they end up paying out thousands of dollars for a treatment whose benefits have been produced entirely by their own effort. (NCAHF Vol 18, No.2)

Homeopathy – Witchcraft for the Times

For a host of reasons which the NZ Skeptic will examine further in a later issue, the so-called “natural health” industry is enjoying a remarkable resurgence. One cannot refute the argument that we should take responsibility for our own health and that we should not expect modern medicine to provide on demand pills to cure all our ills, particularly those which are self-induced or the result of old age. Moderation in all things (including moderation) will generally help any of us to lead a vital and active life.

However, a host of charlatans have now hitched their star to this valid need to take some responsibility for our own health, and are busy peddling nostrums which are useless at best and harmful at worst. These new medical and psycho therapists follow the proven pattern of the Greenshirts by promoting fears and frights and then providing the cure to the fancied ills. Read any natural therapy propaganda and you would think that rather than being the best fed, healthiest and longest lived population that has ever lived, we are all being poisoned and driven to untimely deaths by a combination of conspiracy theories and the fruits of civilisation. It’s a dirty trick but it seems to work.

Just as people who don’t believe in astrology believe in it, so homeopathy in particular seems to have crossed the border from fringe medicine into widespread acceptance. A commitment to homeopathic practice is now presented as evidence that some natural healing clinic is legitimate rather than promoting plain quackery.

The best way to deal with this belief is to set down in print the principles of homeopathy as first espoused by its inventor Dr Hahnemann. Readers can then judge for themselves whether they are can seriously subscribe to such a treatment regime as we near the end of the twentieth century or whether they should laugh it off as voodoo magic in modern dress or drag.

Any medical historian will recognise that Dr Hahnemann got off to a good start. He developed his system towards the end of the eighteenth century at a time when a trip to your doctor was almost certain to make your condition worse and probably kill you. All of Louis XV’s brothers and sisters were killed by their doctors. Louis XV survived only because his nanny hid him whenever the doctors made a palace-call. In such dangerous times any system of treatment which genuinely did no harm was bound to look successful by comparison. If Louis XV’s nurse had been really smart she could have promoted a new medical regime called “underbed-therapy” or similar based on forcing the patient to lie under the bed for an hour at a time. After all, it had saved the life of a future king. The royals of Europe were a tight-knit club. Hahnemann’s success with the royal families of 18th century Europe is evidenced by the house of Windsor’s belief in homeopathy to this day.

If any of us had been alive as commoners in those times, we too would have been well advised to visit Dr Hahnemann rather that suffer exposure to the contemporary regimes of bleeding, emetics, enemas and other horrors. (Curiously, enemas, in the form of colonic irrigation, are making a natural therapy comeback. Learning to water-ski is probably just as effective and more fun.) However, modern medicine has made great strides and most of us expect some systematic diagnosis and intervention from the medical profession rather than a programme of benign neglect.

Here are the cardinal principles of homeopathy according to the man himself:

The Psora (Itch) and Vitalism

The psora is the sole, true and fundamental cause that produces all the other countless forms of disease — the long list which follows includes insanity, rickets, cancer and paralysis. Hahnemann believed that diseases represent a disturbance in the body’s ability to heal itself and that only a small stimulus is needed to begin the healing process. As a man of his time, he believed in the principle of vitalism, which held that life is a spiritual non-material process which can be influenced by dynamic forces such as magnetic influences, the moon and the tides, and so on. [Can they really teach this stuff in a Polytech?]

The Law of Similia

Hahnemann was led to the homeopathic principle after he took a dose of quinine and noticed that the effect of the quinine was similar to that of malaria. He was also drawing on the primitive monism of the time which held that “like is like”, (eating the heart for courage) “like makes like” (idolatry) and “like cures like” (snake-root was used for curing snake-bite). Hahnemann revived Paracelsus’s “Doctrine of Signatures” which declared that herbs would cure conditions associated with the anatomical parts they resembled. [Or this stuff too?] Surely any patient today would run out of the waiting room if a GP suggested such nonsense. But if patients buy into homeopathy they are buying into this whole set of beliefs.

The Law of Infinitesimal Potentising

This law holds that the smaller the dose of a medication, the more powerful its healing effects. Hahnemann taught that substances could be potentised (i.e. “their immaterial and spiritual powers released”) by sequential dilution of remedial agents by “succussion”, in which mixtures would be shaken “at least 40 times”, nine parts dumped and nine parts solvent added and shaken again. Hahnemann held that tapping on a leather pad or the heel of the hand would double the dilution — which is patent nonsense. [How do you present this in the class without bursting out laughing?] The laws of chemistry tell us that there is a limit to which a substance can be diluted without losing the original substance altogether. This limit, called Avogadro’s number, corresponds to “homeopathic potencies of 12C” or 1 part in 1024. At this dilution there is less than a 50% chance that even one molecule of the original active material remains. Hahnemann recognised this apparent anomaly but explained it away in metaphysical terms — i.e. by witchcraft.

So we find that Hahnemann’s texts recommended highly diluted coffee as a cure for “sleeplessness, digestive, urinary, respiratory and heart symptoms” and diluted tincture of tarantula (that’s right, the big hairy spider) to treat “mania, hyper-activity, chorea and septic outbreaks”. One suspects he was shrewd enough not to recommend highly diluted alcohol as the rapid route to drunkenness.

What all this means is that if you visit your pharmacist and buy a liquid homeopathic remedy, you are buying “diluted water”. If it comes in crystal form then the diluted water will have been dropped onto sugar crystals, and you are parting with your hard-earned cash for “evaporated diluted water”. We can see why there is a buck in it and why naturopaths are so keen on homeopathic remedies. Selling diluted water beats the hell out of spending millions of dollars on systematic research to find some effective pharmaceutical and then spending hundreds of millions on clinical trials and registration procedures around the world. Of course, such a “medicine” can do no harm and nine times out of ten the body truly does heal itself just as the naturopaths claim. Again the homeopaths keep well away from broken bones, severe bleeding, brain tumours, or raging infections where the patient demands real and immediate results.

The defenders of homeopathy argue that even though the whole system appears to contradict common sense (i.e. that a diluted scotch will be more intoxicating than a neat shot) there is evidence that the system works and that numerous publications endorse this efficacy. (John Eisen of the AIT Press quotes the famous 96 papers at every opportunity)

The most famous recent study which appeared to demonstrate an operative mechanism was a report by a French scientist working at that country’s prestigious INSRM institute. His paper claimed that high dilutions of substances in water left a “memory” which explained their “efficacy”. Subsequent investigations proved that the research, which was funded by a major manufacturer of homeopathic medicine, was “improperly carried out” and the scientist was subsequently suspended.

A 1991 survey of 107 controlled trials appearing in the 96 published reports (the list quoted by John Eisen) found that “the evidence of clinical trials is positive but not sufficient to draw definite conclusions because most trials are of low methodological quality and because of the unknown role of publication bias.” An earlier study (1984) also concluded “It is obvious from this review that despite much experimental and clinical work there is only little evidence to suggest that homeopathy is effective. This is because of bad design, execution, reporting, analysis and particularly the failure to repeat promising experimental work…”

In the tradition of scientific literature this is “damning with faint praise”. We should take of note of Thomas Paine’s famous question “Is it easier to believe that nature has gone out of her course or that a man would tell a lie?”

The NZ Skeptic is not suggesting that homeopathy be banned. But this short essay should encourage readers to ask themselves whether they should be tempted to buy overpriced dilute water — given that homeopathic theory would suggest that a quick dip in a spa pool should cure every disease known to man — or at least those of those who have dipped before you. And we should also ask if such mumbo jumbo can be taught in a tertiary class-room given that it cannot possibly be the subject of informed and critical debate. It is simply not possible to believe in modern physics and chemistry, or even the principles of mathematics, while believing in homeopathy. If the New Zealand Qualifications Authority decides to endorse the establishment of a School of Witchcraft, then homeopathy will have found a home, for that is where it belongs.

Stir Signs

National Radio has scored a first by becoming the first public, non-commercial radio service in the English-speaking world to feature regular astrological advice. Every Monday evening around 8:40 pm Wayne Mowat and Linda Rose make fools of themselves by asking an astrologer earnest questions about listeners’ fate for the coming week.

It’s perhaps the most singularly embarrassing offering we’ve heard on National Radio. Besides, the character description for the various star signs are altogether too smarmy and flattering (you know: you’re ambitious, brave, intelligent, trustworthy, loving, tender, brilliant, sexy, generous, spiritual, etc.).

In case you’re interested, here is the real story of the various star signs, courtesy of an unknown Internet poster:

The Real Horoscope

AQUARIUS (Jan 20-Feb 18)
You have an inventive mind and are inclined to be progressive. You lie a great deal. You are inclined to be careless and impractical, causing you to make the same mistakes over and over. People think you are stupid.

PISCES (Feb 19-Mar 20)
You have a vivid imagination and often think you are being followed by the CIA. You have minor influence over your associates and people resent you for your flaunting of power. You lack confidence and are generally a coward. Pisces people giggle while burning ants with magnifying glasses.

ARIES (Mar 21-Apr 19)
You are the pioneer type and hold most people in contempt. You are quick tempered, impatient and scornful of advice. You are not very nice. You belong at the head of a combat unit on the way to a massacre.

TAURUS (Apr 20-May 20)
You are practical and persistent. You have dogged determination and work like hell. Most people think you are stubborn and bullheaded. You are. Upon being sacked from a job you are likely to return with an assault rifle.

GEMINI (May 21-June 20)
You are quick and intelligent. You are inclined to expect too much or too little. This means you are cheap. You put pebbles in a blind man’s cup.

CANCER (June 21-July 22)
You are sympathetic and understanding of other people’s problems. They think you are a sucker. You are always putting things off. That’s why you’ll never make anything of yourself. You bought Equiticorp shares at $9.97.

LEO (July 23-Aug 22)
You consider yourself a born leader. Others think you are pushy. Most Leo people become bullies. You are vain and dislike criticism. Most Leo people are thieves. You sold Brierley shares at 75 cents. To your mother.

VIRGO (Aug 23-Sept 22)
You are the logical type and hate disorder. This nit-picking is sickening to your friends. You are cold and unemotional and would rather fall asleep than make love. Virgos are good bus drivers. The books in your bookcase are arranged alphabetically.

LIBRA (Sept 23-Oct 22)
You are the artistic type and have a difficult time with reality. Chances for employment and monetary gains are slim. You talk a lot to yourself. You have to. Everyone else has stopped listening.

SCORPIO (Oct 23-Nov 21)
You are shrewd in business and cannot be trusted. You will achieve the pinnacle of success because of your total lack of ethics. Many Scorpio people are murdered by someone they know.

SAGITTARIUS (Nov 22-Dec 21)
You are optimistic and enthusiastic. You have a reckless tendency to rely on luck since you lack talent. The majority of Sagittarians are drunks or substance abusers. People laugh at you a great deal.

CAPRICORN (Dec 22-Jan 19)
You are conservative and afraid of taking risks. You don’t do much of anything and are lazy. There has never been a Capricorn of any importance. Capricorns should avoid standing too long in one place, as someone might paint them by mistake.

Pseudoscience and the Midwife

Recent issues of the Skeptic have contained expressions of puzzlement at some subjects being taught to tertiary students in New Zealand. The worst example is the Degree in Naturopathy planned for Aoraki Polytechnic. But is this really all that surprising?

Currently, health courses in polytechnics are including all manner of “alternative” medicine instruction as part of core courses. In my experience, the worst offenders are courses in midwifery.

Most midwives in New Zealand train for one year at a polytechnic, having previously completed a three-year course in nursing. There are three-year direct entry courses, but these are quite new and their first students have not yet graduated.

I teach anaesthetics in the one-year course at Wellington. The time allocated to me is one hour. The senior tutor also teaches this topic for one hour, a total of only two hours’ formal instruction in the whole course.

How relevant is anaesthetics to midwifery? I agree that the amount of knowledge needed by a midwife in this area is limited, but it is not generally recognised just how dangerous anaesthesia can be in the pregnant female. General anaesthesia is the third or fourth commonest cause of death in labouring women in the developed world. The situation is worse in Japan, where it ranks first or second. (The “or” is included because figures change from year to year. The United States has pushed anaesthesia down a slot as a cause of death in pregnant women by bringing gunshot into the top three.)

The point I am hoping to make is that anaesthesia can have a major impact in obstetrics, and I, for one, think that anyone involved in the care of pregnant women should have a sound background in the principles of anaesthesia, and why it can be so dangerous.

So is two hours enough? An open question, but homeopathy gets more than twice as much formal teaching time, and I assume the tutors are paid out of taxpayers’ money and student fees.

Midwives as a group seem to have a fascination with homeopathy. When challenged, defences range from “scientific proof” to “patient choice”. I will disregard the first of these, except to say that I have yet to be offered science or proof in any discussion of homeopathy with a midwife. (As an aside, the weakest defence I have heard is that the Queen is interested in homeopathy, so there must be something in it. These days, one would have thought that royal patronage of anything was guaranteed to ensure its failure, but I digress.)

“Patient choice” is fast becoming the defence of scoundrels. Should patient choice be the final arbiter in medical practice? It is a nice, politically correct idea, but choice is limited to what is realistically available. To defend the inclusion of something in a professional curriculum purely because the students or the patients are interested in it is lacking in sense and responsibility. I would guess that midwifery students might also be interested in skiing and wine tasting, and their potential patients may express an interest in Fascism or safe-breaking. Following along the lines of “choice” may lead to a more entertaining course, but would it advance the care of mothers and babies?

The whole question of choice leads onto the matter of informed consent. Does a midwife who uses homeopathy fully inform her patient (sorry, sorry; I should say her “client”) that she is using something that is unrecognised as a form of scientifically proven medicine, and that its use may put the patient (“client”; there I go again) beyond compensation by ACC should something go seriously wrong? Like hell she does.

Homeopathy is not the only intruder of its type in midwifery. Acupuncture is praised not only for its analgesia, but also as a means of inducing labour, stopping early labour, and turning breech babies the right way up before delivery. Aromatherapy has its advocates, and I have attended a labouring mother whose midwife insisted on having a lighted candle in the room as part of her client’s care. (Delivery rooms are oxygen-enriched environments, and she was not happy when I refused to proceed until the flame was extinguished. The hospital fire officer was even less impressed when I referred the matter to him.)

I was horrified recently to hear of the advice offered to the wife of one of my junior colleagues. She is expecting her second baby, and the baby has turned breech — i.e. bum first instead of head first. A midwife told her that she should lie flat on her back with her feet up until she felt dizzy and breathless, then walk around for a while. This was to be repeated several times a day, and would turn the baby back to present in the proper manner.

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the physiology of pregnancy should know that if the mother is becoming breathless and dizzy, the baby is likely to be in an even worse state. In late pregnancy, lying flat can pose a significant risk to mother and baby, as the weight of the uterus can press on the aorta, reducing the blood supply to the placenta, and also on the vena cava, reducing the blood flow back to the mother’s heart.

Needless to say, the advice was ignored and the prospective parents are due to see a consultant obstetrician.

Pseudoscience is alive and well in the midwifery world, and is being taught to midwifery students.

Skeptical Books

Guidelines For Testing Psychic Claimants by Richard Wiseman and Robert L. Morris, 1995, 72pp., University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield, UK, (pound)7.00.

Reviewed by Bernard Howard

When author Arthur Koestler and his wife died, they left money to found a university Chair in Parapsychology. Edinburgh University accepted this gift after some hesitation, and Robert L. Morris has occupied the Chair since 1985. In a university hundreds of kilometres to the south, and some hundreds of years younger, Dr Richard Wiseman has also turned a scholarly eye on the subject. This book is a result of their collaboration.

It starts, ominously, with “The Problem of Fraud”, and continues with chapters on initial meetings with claimants, research policies, pilot studies and formal research, and reporting, with an extra chapter on “Working with tricksters”. The book concludes with two reading lists (one of specific references, the other of books, articles and journals of general interest), names and addresses of relevant organisations (including the Magic Circle and the like), and even advice, with addresses, on how to make your experiments and results “secure”.

After reading all this detailed advice and the warnings about fraud, my feeling is that, if I saw a psychic claimant approaching me in the street, I should hastily cross to the other side.

Magic Minds Miraculous Moments by Harry Edwards. 231 pp., 1994. Harry Edwards Publications, 3 Nullaburra Road, Newport, NSW 2106, Australia. NZ$17.00.

Reviewed by Bernard Howard

The author is secretary of the Australian Skeptics; his book contains brief biographies in alphabetical order of just over 100 “psychics”, an average of two pages each. As well as background information on the lives of the subjects, he details the paranormal phenomena for which they were, or are, famous. Most entries finish with a “Comment” and a few references for further reading.

Many of the subjects are well known (Geller, The Fox sisters, Nostradamus, W.A. Mozart(!) for example), but most were unknown to me (who can name 100 psychics offhand?). This collection is a tribute to the author’s erudition and his thoroughness in searching the more obscure corners of the paranormal world.

Delightful browsing, and a very useful reference book.

Greenhouse — The Biggest Rort in Christendom by Peter Toynbee, published by Peter Toynbee Associates.

Reviewed by Owen McShane

Peter Toynbee is one of the few New Zealanders who has consistently stood up against the pseudo-science currently driving so much (not all) of New Zealand’s public policy on climate change and CO2 emissions.

Needless to say he has suffered from attacks on his personal integrity while his scientific arguments, like those of visiting Professor Lindzen of MIT, have been rebutted only by reference to the supposed consensus among those civil service scientists around the world who have found that a policy of promoting “scares and frights” is the best way to unlock the strings to Government funds.

Toynbee’s argument is simple. Man remains a trivial player in the planetary game. Nature rules on all but the local scale. He deserves support, if only because of his healthy scepticism, and his book contains a host of facts and reports with which to arm yourself against the next doomcaster you meet. And unlike so many recent publications, the book has an index. I cannot understand why so many books today have no index when word processing systems have made the task easier than ever before.

Even if you do not agree with Toynbee’s arguments or conclusions, the book is disturbing because, no matter which side of the argument prevails, governments have surely rushed to make a judgement on only one of the alternatives posed by the evidence of increased atmospheric CO2.

The costs of restraining fossil fuel consumption will be massive, especially for the third world, and there appears to have been no attempt to compare these costs against presumed benefits. Current studies indicate that the costs of adaptation to warming would be much lower, and of course would only need to be incurred if the warming actually eventuates. And the jury is definitely still out.