Chair-entity’s Report 1995

As delivered to the 1995 AGM

I’m pleased to report that after 10 years of waiting with bated breath, the New Zealand Skeptics now has its very own leaflet-cum-application form for handing out to the uninitiated. We’ve bemoaned the lack of these for some time — particularly those of us doing public presentations where we’ve often been asked for further information, contact details and the like. It should make it considerably easier for prospective Skeptics to find out about us and join the ranks. Bernard Howard, our ever-faithful Secretary, tells me that he has been getting in application forms from the new material, and we anticipate seeing lots more.

The Skeptics provide speakers for a wide variety of groups. Denis spoke to a rural group in the hinterlands of the deep dark south, and we gained a number of new members down there. I’ve spoken to a diverse range of groups, as far afield as Mount Somers (to the Highway 72 group — a collection of rural women, not a motorcycle gang, I hasten to add). Interestingly, one of the most challenging and perspicacious groups I was fortunate to address was the senior class of St Andrews College — maybe there is hope for the future from the children of today.

During the year Owen McShane in Auckland has been discussing skeptical issues and science on 95bFM, and of course we have the Auckland conference organised by Heather Mackay and Peter Lange, so we hope to see a bit more skepticism in our nation’s hotbed of vice and culture (ahem). The Wellington Skeptics have been busy organising a winter lecture series concerning skeptical issues, and I commend Tony Vignaux, Mike Dickison, Cynthia Shakespeare and their helpers for doing so.

We were fortunate enough this year to be visited by Dr Susan Blackmore, noted parapsychological researcher and Skeptic. Being on the Councils of both the Society for Psychical Research and CSICOP gives Susan a truly unique view of the paranormal. Susan spoke to a gathering in Wellington and to 250-odd in Christchurch, as well as giving interviews to National Radio, TVNZ’s Newsnight and The Press, and her fascinating and eminently rational research into near-death experiences and the like provided a great deal to think about.

(Incidentally, the Australian Skeptics very kindly provided us with Susan as an add-on to the Australian tour which they’d organised. Even more kindly, they did so gratis — of course, it hadn’t escaped our notice that they’d just been bequeathed A$1.2 million…)

The Skeptics’ bank account here, while in no measure comparable to that of our Australian counterparts, looks reasonably healthy according to the Treasurer’s report. We’d welcome suggestions of the sorts of activities or measures which members would like to see the Society undertake. Some possibilities are:

  • increasing the page count in the NZ Skeptic (currently at 20 pages)
  • providing information kits for schools on such subjects as evolution/creation “science” and UFOs (these subjects seem to come up regularly in school talks)
  • promoting a paranormal challenge with a prize (can be tricky to organise, but then “investigation” is in our formal name)

Obviously these (or others) could eat up our resources and it has been suggested that we fund raise to ensure that this does not happen. If anyone knows a skeptically minded elderly millionaire, please give his name and address to the Treasurer.

Thank you for coming to the conference and for staying for the AGM. Your continued support and skepticism is much appreciated.

The Clairvoyant – The police don’t want to know

Back in March, when the police seemed to be making no progress in hunting down South Auckland’s serial rapist, a community newspaper ran a story effectively chiding the police in general and Detective Inspector John Manning in particular for taking no notice of the advice being given him by one of Auckland’s leading clairvoyants, Ms Margaret Birkin, who has her own programme on Radio Pacific.

Ms Birkin had received a letter from an “amateur” who claimed to know the name and address and other information which would identify the rapist and put the matter to rest. Inspector Manning said they knew the name and received scores of letters from clairvoyants claiming to be able to identify the criminal.

Ms Birkin complained in the story that despite the letter and two visits to the police station by Mrs Birkin’s husband they had still not responded. “They don’t want to know and people’s lives are at stake” she protested. “I know a lot about the rapist, but I would know a lot more if I could hold a piece of clothing.” The police insisted they had better things to do with their time.

Not to be deterred the reporter then printed six responses to a street “survey of locals” pointing out that “Clairvoyants are used frequently in the United States of America and Australia.” Five out of the six seemed to think it was a good idea. Two believed it depended on the quality of the clairvoyant. One claimed to “be a sort of clairvoyant” herself (just what sort she didn’t say). One said he didn’t believe in it but thought that in desperate times the police should try anything. Our single sceptical hero was Mr Len Hewgill of Manurewa who alone didn’t think it would help. “I like to be able to see things and touch things,” says Len, narrowly escaping a sexual harassment charge.

Skeptics may have noticed that when the police finally apprehended the serial rapist there was silence from the clairvoyant community. Certainly none rushed forward claiming “I was right, I told you so.” Your Editor was prepared to concede that this might have reflected uncharacteristic modesty on the part of the psychics and so he telephoned Detective Inspector Manning to see if any of them had been right all along.

He laughed.

The Boundaries of Skepticism

The Skeptics began in simpler times. Some of us recall when the burning issues of Skeptical enquiry were whether Uri Geller bent spoons, whether Russians were using telepaths to communicate with submarines and whether Lyall Watson had stumbled on a Philosopher’s Stone called Supernature. He certainly seemed to be turning something into gold.

In those days we were often criticised for being a bunch of kill-joys who seemed to want to lock granny up for reading the tea leaves. “What’s the harm?” they used to say. Our critics failed to understand that we weren’t too fussed about Granny reading the tea-leaves or Granddad’s secret number system for betting on the horses. We were much more concerned about the readiness to waive normal standards of evidence and rational thought when remarkable claims were being made.

Otherwise-rigorous interviewers such as Brian Edwards and Gordon Dryden would seem to close down their inquiring minds as soon as their latest psychic guest walked into the broadcasting studio. And soon even Brian began to realise that some of these people were rogues and charlatans determined to relieve people of their money — even if it meant taking advantage of people in acute distress. Mr Edwards finally mounted one of the great debunkings of all times when with Don Zealando he unmasked the secrets of the Filipino psychic surgeons and hence closed down a major money-spinner for Air New Zealand.

But generally people thought it was the spoon bending and such fancies that offended us — whereas for the genuine Skeptic is was always the lack of evidence, the corruption of evidence or straight out false claims and fraud. We were trying to counter pseudo-science.

And it was not long before this meant that the Skeptics were taking a stand against pseudoscience in medicine. And then we began to take on pseudoscience in mental health, especially as we saw counsellors and therapists proliferate and break up families and send people to gaol using therapies based on nonsense theories.

Finally many of began to realise that we were standing up to a widespread onslaught on the whole notion that rationality and the scientific method had any particular validity at all. New Zealanders were being told we should respect all beliefs and values because we should pass no judgement.

And as we began to take on these larger issues others who had stood in the wings came to join us. On the other hand, many decided they liked us even less.

The Uri Gellers were an easy target. We now find that advocacy movements claim such a high moral ground that they believe that faking the evidence or redefining the language is legitimate if it promotes their worthy cause. Once again the ends are claimed to justify the means. The age of “urban myths” is now upon us. The environmental movement, the neo-Luddite movement, the alternative medicine movement, and a host of special interest lobbies now clamber to secure their particular group rights, rather than their rights as individuals. They have all have been prepared to “fudge the figures” in order to help their particular cause. Most recently we have seen Greenpeace forced into apologising to Shell over the Brent Spar debacle.

So this year there was something inevitable about the decision to award the Bent Spoon to the Justice Department for its report Hitting Home. This award has not been without controversy. This too was inevitable, not only because of the emotions which surround the topic of domestic violence, but also because for many it took us as far away from our origins as we may ever want to go.

We have decided to make Education the theme for next year’s conference. Whether we come to regret this or not will depend on how successful we are in confining the debate to the assault on science and rationality rather than providing a forum for every parent concerned over why Johnny can or cannot read. But what is the limit to the Skeptical agenda? Do we have anything to say about housing policy? Only if someone has cooked the statistical books. (Remember New York’s 300,000 homeless — a “wild stab” invented during a radio show.) Do we have anything to say about sport? Only if someone says that more women are murdered during the Rugby World Cup than during any other time of year. Do we have anything to say about economics? Only if someone claims that the ghost of Maynard Keynes has been communicating directly with Winston Peters. And only if — almost everything else in economics lies in religious territory as opposed to superstition.

Certainly we should not push out the boundaries for its own sake; we have plenty to occupy us in more comfortable territory. But nor should we — or indeed could we — return to the days when the most pressing issue was whether your pilot was humming happily to the harmonics of 351.

Our members expect us to be in tune with the times. And as these are more disputatious times we will probably never again be able to assume the comfortable unanimity of the past. But no Skeptic has ever shied away from robust debate. We have demonstrated in conferences and AGMs that because we are philosophically attached to reason and the traditions of the Enlightenment we can enjoy differences of opinion without resorting to personal vilification and — dare I say it — abuse.



TV3 on 20/20 at 8.30pm on Monday 19/06/95 screened an American story titled “A State of Mind”. Extravagant claims were made about the medical significance of hypnosis and its therapeutic uses. One doctor claimed that up to 50% of her patients could be cured by hypnosis. I have just completed a course in rehabilitation studies at Massey University. The course text book had an interesting summary on hypnosis.

“Despite evidence that the use of hypnosis can produce analgesia for acute pain such as that experienced during surgery and childbirth (Hilgard & Hilgard, 1986), studies of the effects of hypnosis on experimentally induced pain and on chronic pain show no reliable evidence that it is more effective than that oldest of remedies for pain, the placebo procedure. For example, Melzack and Perry (1975) analysed the effects of hypnosis on patients suffering from a variety of chronic pain problems, such as low back, arthritis and cancer. An average pain reduction of 22% was achieved, which was not significantly greater than the 14% reduction obtained in placebo baseline sessions. In summary, hypnosis itself does not have a sufficiently powerful effect on clinical chronic pain to be considered a reliable and useful therapy. Merskey (1983) concluded that hypnosis is not worth using in anyone with a pain of physical origin and very rarely in patients with pain which is psychological in origin (p39).”

Text quote was taken from:

Young, M. (1991) Chronic pain and the rehabilitation process. In B. Hesketh and A. Adam’s (Eds), Psychological Perspectives on Occupational Health and Rehabilitation. (pp376) Marrickville, NSW; Harcourt Brace Jovanich

Andrew Hart, Tauranga

Magic Mushrooms Materialise

The extract quoted from the Marlborough Express by Dr John Welch regarding magic mushrooms in Fiji [Hokum Locum, Skeptic 36] is most interesting. They are well and truly established in New Zealand! I first heard about them a year ago from an elderly woman in Rotorua. At the time they were called Manchurian mushrooms and she assured me they were associated with Shangri-La as featured in Lost Horizons (book and film) and were connected with eternal youth. She swore by the efficacy of the brew and was quite upset when I asked where they were purchased. It is all done by giving and receiving, not by commercial transaction.

A sheet of instructions goes with each gift. The mushroom must be treated kindly. It must be talked to gently. If bad behaviour occurs near by (swearing, fighting) it will die. When the mother mushroom has budded off a daughter ready for the next brew the old one must be buried under a fruit tree.

I returned to Auckland convinced that life beyond the Bombay Hills was primitive indeed. A few weeks later I was with a group of young mothers several of whom were exchanging ideas about their Manchurian mushrooms and I have since learned that in the offices of several Auckland firms dealing with modern technologies that the mushrooms are all the rage.

I guess the concoction is no worse or more effective than the yeast brew willingly swallowed by me in the 1940s for a few months to combat adolescent pimples. After a few years the pimples went. Proof positive indeed!

P. Williams, Auckland

EDTA Chelation

I am at least as skeptical about the methodology and results of the EDTA chelation trial in Dunedin as I am about the efficacy of the treatment. The trial involved only 32 people, 15 in the treatment group and 17 in the control group, which I would have thought was rather too few to produce definitive results.

A doctor friend of mine, who runs a chelation clinic, tells me that he had to engage the services of the Ombudsman to obtain a copy of the raw data. Why was it not readily available? He says the results were published in the Circulation Journal of the US. Heart Association and the conclusion reached that, as 60% (9/15) of the treatment group and 58% (10/17) of the control group achieved an increase in walking distance, chelation was no more effective than placebo. His analysis of the raw data produced a different conclusion:

  1. 26% (4/15) of the treatment group compared with only 12% (2/17) of the control group achieved 100% increase in walking distance;
  2. Of the non-smokers and those who had stopped smoking (six in each group continued to smoke tobacco) 66% (6/9) in the treatment group improved with an average of 86% increase in distance walked compared with 45% (5/11) in the control group with an average increase of 56% in distance walked; and
  3. Only 6% (1/15) of the treatment group showed a decrease in blood flow to the feet by Doppler measurement compared with 35% (6/17) of the control group.

My friend claims that independent statistical analysis of these results confirmed a 95% confidence factor.

In deference to my medical friend, my wife and I submitted ourselves to the minimum 21 EDTA chelation treatments two and a half years ago. I was in good health but my wife suffered high blood pressure and had been told she should take appropriate medication for the rest of her life. Following chelation her blood pressure fell to a marginal level and has remained so without medication. I can vouch for the fact that pre-chelation her lower legs and feet were freezing when she came to bed whereas since chelation they are warm.

Science, being a human pursuit, is sometimes the victim of human failings. I recall my time amid about 70 agricultural research scientists who tended to debunk what, in their own fields, they could not explain. So a lady farmer who claimed that zinc supplementation was effective in the prevention of facial eczema was derided until her persistence led to official trials. Eventually she was proved correct and awarded the OBE for her work.

The controversy over chelation admits at least the possibility of less innocent human failings. It should be no secret that the “heart industry” includes a very powerful and very wealthy international lobby of vested interests. Those who supply the expensive drugs, equipment and surgery would lose much if research into other, simpler, less expensive and less glamorous procedures proved fruitful. Likewise the researchers have their substantial funding to lose.

Chelation is accepted practice for the removal of heavy metals from the bloodstream, but not for removal of the plaque which clogs arteries. Could in vitro laboratory experiments not establish the effect of EDTA on plaque?

Alan McWilliam, Rotorua

Good News From Germany!

Sorry — not a 50% price reduction on BMWs, not even gratis cases of Bernkastler Beerenauslese. But:

For only the price of a stamp, learn of two life-prolonging offers from Herr Wolfgang Dog of Bavaria.

  1. By the latest technique of laser surgery, applied to the palms of your hands, have those vital life-lines extended;
  2. Inform Herr Dog of the date, time and place of manufacture of your car, and he will send you an “Autohoroscope”, indicating the best and worst days for going on journeys or having the car serviced.

Herr Dog describes himself as a certificated Diplomate in Inspiration Moderating and as a Magical Energiser; he is attached to the Institute for Holistic Transformation Metaphysics in Hersbruck. Operating from the same address is G. Hund, seller of games and books on magic. Before rushing to take advantage of the above-mentioned advances in pseudoscience, readers should note that Wolfgang Hund (=Dog) is a member of GWUP, the German Skeptics Organisation.

With acknowledgement to Skeptiker, 1/95

Hokum Locum

Sickness and Psychogenic Illness

The Canterbury ME (chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS) are up in arms over proposed tighter controls on patients receiving both invalid and sickness benefits. CFS patients want funding for “residential detoxification services and “subsidies on natural remedies”. CFS is a classical psychogenic illness and as such it is quite improper for any affected patient to be on any long-term benefit on their own terms. Because of self-denial these patients resist any sensible suggestions on treatment and end up chronically unwell in a fulfilment of Abraham Lincoln’s statement that “most folks are as happy as they make up their mind to be.”

I managed to persuade such a patient to take anti-depressants and the improvement in well-being was amazing. This same person had paid to have all amalgam dental fillings removed and replaced with a predictable lack of improvement. A characteristic of CFS is the almost fanatical belief of the patients that their “illness” has a physical cause. Here is a report from a clinical psychologist about such a patient: “He scored nought on the depression inventory and three on the anxiety inventory. This is a person who does not wish to reveal anything about himself. During the interview he made it clear that he sees his problem in terms of recovery from a physical illness with no concomitant psychological manifestation.”

This fanatical belief in a physical cause of ME is also shared by many doctors whose therapeutic contact with their patients becomes a classic folie a deux.

Cultural variations were found in a WHO study which looked at depression worldwide. Only 5% of patients who were depressed said that they had psychological problems. Such a level of denial is compounded by the useless treatments offered by doctors. For example, antidepressants were prescribed for anxiety as often as for depression. Japan had a low incidence of depression due to the Japanese concept of jibyo signifying a mild chronic illness which a person carries through life and is not considered serious.

It should be mandatory for all patients with a diagnosis of CFS to undergo assessment by a Mental Health team. No person with CFS should be entitled to any long-term benefit unless they have had at least a six month trial of anti-depressant therapy. (Christchurch Press 18/7/95 New Scientist 25/3/95 p10)

Multiple Personality Disorder

This is a typically loony belief of New Age psychiatrists and it has received widespread acceptance in the US. This is hardly surprising in a culture where thousands of people believe that they have been abducted by aliens. Even such an august institution as Harvard Medical School has a psychiatrist who believes that extraterrestrial beings have visited this planet and abducted Earthlings! Striking a blow for academic freedom, the Dean of the Medical School “reaffirmed Dr Mack’s freedom to study what he wishes and to state his opinions without impediment.” In contrast, the British specialists have condemned the idea in scathing terms. Imagine the convenience of being able to blame an alternative personality for some misfortune such as a criminal offence. This absurd concept of MPD fits in to the prevailing “victim” philosophy of life whose adherents view themselves as being subject to forces beyond their control. (New Scientist 17 June 95, GP Weekly 23/8/95)

Continuing OOS Delusions

The occupational health professionals continue to indulge themselves over OOS. ACC is reported as being concerned about the vague nature of OOS and the fact that claims cannot be satisfactorily proved or disproved. Claims against ACC reached $4 million in the year ended 30 June 1994 and are increasing. The huge army of consultants advising on posture are doing just that — posturing.

At least I managed to get my contrary view published in Safeguard. Bernard Howard also sent me a newspaper cutting of a story concerning a musician allegedly suffering from OOS. I will quote his remarks which need no further comment: “After centuries of playing their instruments for hours per day, every day, musicians are only now developing OOS. Come back Paganini…all’s forgiven!” (Safeguard Update Nos 26, 27 1995.)

Medicine Chinoise

15,000 French doctors practise acupuncture and many also use “high-dilution” homeopathic medicines. It is not surprising then that a hospital dedicated to traditional Chinese medicine will open in Paris next year under the joint sponsorship of the Chinese and French Ministries of health. It is promoted as a measure to control spiralling health costs.

This trendy quackery will help the “worried well” but will do nothing to control spiralling health costs which are a feature of unreasonable patient expectation and over-application of medical technology. (British Medical Journal Vol 310 p1285)

Uncontrolled Medical Appetites

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a radiological technique which is valuable for examining internal organs. In NZ Doctor, an American doctor outlines what he calls MRI madness. Americans are so obsessed with MRI technology that there are 25 times as many machines in California as in Canada, which has about the same population. Patients demand MRI scans for virtually any medical condition and as a third party (ie. insurance company) is paying, they get what they want.

Just about everyone with low back pain gets an MRI scan. However, a new study found that two out of three people without back pain have evidence of a disc protrusion. The authors concluded that anatomical abnormalities are common in normal people.

A skeptical US doctor described the obsession with MRI as “MRI tiger balm”. (GP Weekly 27/7/94, NZ Doctor 23/6/95)

A Reader Writes

In Skeptic 36 I asked how long before magic mushrooms (Kombucha) arrived in New Zealand. John Turner has written from Motueka to tell me that they are here! [See also Forum] I hope I am not compromising his continued existence in Golden Bay by passing on his description of the area as being a “bloated gelatinous pancake of new Ageism.” As John describes it: “the ‘mushroom’ has a baby which is then passed on to someone else.”

One convert claimed he was cured of “toxins” which coloured his urine brown as they left his body. John quite reasonably enquired as to what colour the mushroom brew was. It was brown! Those readers contemplating a visit to Golden Bay will be pleased to know that every quack treatment is available from holistic pulsing to sound healing with “yidaki” or as it is more commonly known, didgeridoo therapy. This may all sound like a lot of didgeridoodoo but in the US a woman died and another was hospitalised due to severe acidosis after drinking Kombucha tea. (John Turner (personal communication), Nelson Evening Mail 8/7/95, NCAHF Vol 18 No.3)

Anti-Immunisation Quacks

I recently complained to the Medical Practioners Disciplinary Committee (MPDC) about a doctor who made a series of ignorant and unproven claims in respect of immunisation. The MPDC is fairly toothless when it comes to dealing with scientific incompetence in medical practitioners and the unrepentant doctor even wrote me a letter declaring he was proud to be a member of the American Quack Association (Quack = Quality, Care and Kindness). I will quote a short passage to show how impossible it is to argue with such people.

I challenged his claim that Vitamin C is an effective treatment for viral diseases (7 placebo controlled trials showed lack of effect for Vit C in the treatment of cold virus infections). Here is his reply: “There is extensive peer-reviewed literature bearing witness to the clinical effectiveness of ascorbic acid in viral diseases. You will not find reference to this in Medline or Index Medicus journals that represent only about 10% of the world’s scientific journals and are controlled by the international pharmaceutical industry.”

This one paragraph contains two of the main quack elements. Firstly the suggestion that some alternative inferior data base is an acceptable alternative to controlled trials, and secondly the familiar old conspiracy bogey that scientific journals are controlled by vested interests.

The President of the Australian Medical Association has come out a lot more strongly than the NZ MPDC, by recommending that doctors who use their scientific standing in the community to support the anti-immunisation movement should be charged with medical negligence. At the time he made this remark Australia came near the bottom of a list of industrialised nations when rates of childhood immunisations were compared.

It is sad that at time of writing Russia is in the grip of an epidemic of diptheria which has killed more than 2000 people. This was a direct result of allowing immunisation levels to drop below the 95% required to prevent epidemics. (Dr Quack (personal communication), British Medical Journal Vol 310, p760. Lancet Vol 345 p715)

Evidence Based Medicine

Although my main interest is alternative medical quackery there are many traditionally accepted medical practices which have never been critically evaluated. I mentioned counselling in Skeptic 36 and this was enlarged on by Jim Ring in the last issue.

In Britain, the BMJ is sponsoring a Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine which is aimed at critically evaluating both new and old treatments. The key element is randomised controlled trials (RCT’s) in which patients must be randomly allocated to either a new treatment group or a control group (may be the existing treatment or no treatment). A survey of RCT’s in pregnancy and childbirth found that out of 100 procedures commonly carried out by obstetricians and midwives, about 20 are actually harmful.

If you go to your doctor complaining of a cough, the chances are that you will come away with a prescription for an antibiotic. This is despite the fact that seven RCT’s have shown no benefit for such treatment. It was also difficult to carry out the trials because in one survey 60% of eligible patients refused to enter a trial because they felt that antibiotics were absolutely necessary to cure their condition. Perhaps this is a good argument for using harmless placebos in such cases? I should mention a note of caution against blindly imposing the results of RCT’s on patients and this point was well expounded by Sir John Scott at our last conference. What will it take to stop physicians from prescribing antibiotics in acute bronchitis? (Lancet Vol 345 p665)

Fat Fraud

Aminophylline-containing cream is a popular quack remedy for reducing the size of large thighs. In a test, researchers studied women who were asked to massage either the cream or a placebo into one thigh and one side of the stomach. 11 out of the 17 women completed the study and, as anyone could have predicted, there was no fat-reducing effect. Despite measurements to the contrary, one woman was convinced that the cream worked. If it is important for people to believe in something, no amount of evidence to the contrary will convince them. (National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF) Vol 18 N0.3)

Civic Creche Case

Professor Michael Hill examined some of the issues behind the civic creche case in an article in the Christchurch Press 31/3/95 which I have forwarded to our editor. Hill coins the phrase “culture of complaint” in which disaffected people take little responsibility for their own lives and look instead for someone to blame. The existence of compensation through litigation completes this ‘Americanisation’ of our culture. It is incredible how quickly the false ideas behind ritual sexual abuse spread and were recreated throughout NZ.

I was disgusted with the judiciary over the civic creche case although the whole process was hijacked by the usual cohort of poorly trained quack therapists. The prosecution was able to get away with not presenting evidential material so ridiculous that it would have weakened their case. In a trial of any kind all the evidence should be available to both sides. My heart goes out to the falsely accused women whose lives have been ruined by this evil nonsense. I seriously question whether there was any chance at all of Peter Ellis getting a fair trial in an atmosphere of hysteria reminiscent of the Salem witch hunts.


A group of scientists have petitioned the FDA to place tighter restrictions on homeopathic remedies by making them reach the same standards of safety and effectiveness as other OTC drugs. There should not be any problem over safety since such remedies are the pharmacological version of the emperor’s new clothes. The drug exists in the imagination only.

Predictably there has been opposition from the National Centre for Homeopathy because “homeopathy doesn’t treat diseases but treats people who are ill.” The NCH wants a different type of evaluation. This is rather like admitting that homeopathy is scientifically inexplicable so a new science must be created to explain it.

How Bent is Bent?

For those of you who have not been involved in selection of a Bent Spoon, here’s how it is generally done and how this year’s selection was made. Throughout the year, people propose likely candidates — suggestions are passed on in the form of newspaper clippings, phone-calls, letters, email or, occasionally, videotape. Denis coordinates the discussion, which involves the Skeptic’s executive officers and often members of the committee and members with appropriate expertise.

One award is given each year, with the announcement made shortly before the conference (to help boost interest in the conference). This year, about half a dozen candidates were nominated, a fairly typical number. We don’t tend to bother with the truly ridiculous material that is a mainstay of certain tabloid publications, as (we hope) no-one really believes those things anyway. We also eliminate overseas material (usually TV “documentaries”) as the Bent Spoon is a New Zealand award.

The leading candidate for much of the year was AIT Press, for jeopardising their hard-won academic credibility with the publication of Suppressed Inventions and The Poisoning of New Zealand. The damaging and silly nature of these books had been well covered in Metro by Vincent Heeringa, for which he received one of our excellence awards. Three weeks before our conference, the Justice Department report Hitting Home was released. A journalist who phoned the Skeptics for comment first suggested that it receive the Bent Spoon. Denis and I studied it and discussed the issues it raised with others. Sociologist (and Skeptics member) Greg Newbold independently wrote about many of the concerns.

Ultimately Denis and I decided to give the Bent Spoon Award to Hitting Home for two reasons: (1) AIT Press had already been well and truly excoriated in the Metro article and we were already recognising this with the excellence award (2) the Hitting Home report had far greater potential for broad-ranging social effects were it to remain unchallenged.

At the AGM, the following motion was passed: “That a New Zealand Skeptics subcommittee examine the 1995 Bent Spoon Award to the Justice Department’s report on domestic violence and report back to the NZ Skeptics committee before the end of 1995.”

We urge members to read the report and make up their own minds — let us know what you think either privately or for the December issue of the Skeptic.

Vicki Hyde, Chair-entity

A Big Mistake

We have made a big mistake. Hitting Home is careful, thorough, mainstream scientific research. It may be alarming, but it is not, as we said, “alarmist”. It is a serious attempt to measure men’s attitudes towards, and the extent of, their violence. It is social science, not “hard” science, but it has done its best to attach figures to subjective psychological statements. If it can be criticised, it is for accepting the men’s reports of their own violence at face value, when the biggest problem associated with men’s violence is men’s denial. (“I just gave her a bit of a tap” — and she spent three weeks in hospital.)

One of our spokesmen (sic) publicly admitted to a level of domestic violence that is against the law. On Morning Report, he misquoted a question about male control, “tried to keep her from doing something she wanted to do (such as going out with friends or going to a meeting)” (p 225) as “tried to stop her from doing whatever she wanted…such as driving while drunk or abusing a child.”

We said in our press release that the report paints a disturbing picture of men’s violence “until you examine the fine print”. There is no fine print, nor any of the attempts to hide key caveats or qualifications that the expression implies. We said “the report defines ‘abuse’ to include criticising your partner’s family”. The 2,000 men were actually asked about “putting down her family and friends” (“criticising” is rational, “putting down” is not) in the context of a row or fight. The report did not define “abuse” from scratch, it took its questionnaire items from other such studies, giving references (p 173). Putting down one’s partner’s family in the context of row is psychological abuse because her family is something she has no control over, and is almost invariably irrelevant to the content of the row. A woman will feel compelled to defend her family, and an attack on her family is an indirect attack on her.

We said “you can’t classify the experience of being strangled or threatened with a knife alongside hearing a rude comment about your brother…” This is a misquote, and trivialises what is actually being discussed. The report does not “classify…alongside”, it ranks violence and abuse in seriousness (by inverse frequency of mention), divides them into four levels of seriousness, and reports that the most serious forms of violence and abuse are rare, and “just over half [of the men reporting any abuse] were in fact in the least serious group.” (pp 88-9)

In saying the report “trivialises” domestic violence, we trivialise psychological abuse: a man does not have to be violent to abuse his partner. In one classic case, a man terrorised his wife by getting out his rifle and cleaning it, without saying a word or touching her.

We criticised the report for investigating only men’s violence and abuse of women, yet it pretends to do nothing else. Its subtitle, on the front cover, is “Men speak about abuse of women partners.” It recommends that studies be made of women’s violence to men, and of violence in same-sex relationships.

Two indications of the limited extent of women’s violence:

  1. There is no felt need for men’s refuges (if there were it would be instantly met by Rotary, Lions and the Round Table).
  2. Wellington Men for Non-violence ran a flat for men for about two years. It was never used as a refuge for a man fleeing a woman’s violence, only for violent men giving their families “time out”. Studies that claim to show high levels of female violence are methodologically flawed, but be that as it may, this report is not about that.

We accused the report of saying there was no link between ethnicity and violence. It made no such claim, and could not, because it did not ask about ethnicity. (Perhaps it should have, but it says why it did not. The question is not an easy one to formulate, when two people of identical descent may describe their ethnic identity quite differently.) Do we have any evidence that there is such a link?

We said it “flies in the face of other research” in claiming there was no link between socio-economic status and violence. (Since when did one piece of research have to match another? Isn’t this just another way of saying that overseas research couldn’t be replicated here?) It says “We compared our results with a recent review of 52 studies… In no case was there total consistency across all studies reviewed…There are several possible explanations. The spread of social factors in New Zealand may not reflect the same degree of diversity as in America where most of the reviewed studies were conducted…” (p 97).

In fact it does find a weak link between socio-economic status and violence, but only in younger men. It is a truism among anti-violence workers (but apparently unknown to the critics) that domestic violence cuts across class boundaries, and a high court judge or cabinet minister is just as likely to beat his wife as a freezing worker or opossum trapper. Since the report came to this counter-intuitive conclusion by careful scientific study, what do we (who produce no contrary study) think it should do — cook the books?

We said “the contradiction is not surprising when you realise how broadly the report has defined the concept of abuse”. Psychological abuse is a relatively new concept, but it is no wishy-washy, New Age claim: ask any victim. Any torturer will tell you that the “best” torture is purely mental. It is not that the report has defined abuse more broadly, but that our sceptical critics seem unaware how prevalent or serious psychological abuse is.

We said “the deliberate avoidance of any identification of at-risk groups…”. This is simply not true. The report looks at age, education, income, marital status, employment status, and socio-economics status (pp 92, 160-1). We disputed most strongly the report’s statement that “‘in at least one circumstance’ six out of ten New Zealand men say the woman has only herself to blame for being hit”.

We implied that the specific circumstances justified the man’s violence. 36% said a woman is solely to blame if her man hits her for abusing a child. A further 3% said neither is at fault. Do we say they are right to condone his violence, bearing in mind that having their mothers struck for abusing them will do the children no good at all? Role-modelling in non-violence it ain’t.

Thirteen percent said no blame at all attached to a man (7% her fault, 6% neither) who hit his wife for repeatedly refusing sex, 22% (19+3) for yelling at him at the top of her voice, 28% (21+7) for not having a meal ready when she had been at home all day, 30% (26+4) for making fun of him sexually, 50% (48+2) for finding her in bed with another man (p 65). (The reaction of hitting the other man is not canvassed.) These findings indicate high levels of condoning of male violence. Are we not just shooting the messenger?

We criticised the report for its finding that 20% of men think a woman is entirely to blame if a man hits her in “self-defence against a woman who is actually attacking a man”. The actual wording is, “in an argument, she hits him first.” We Skeptics are now on record as thinking it beyond question that once a woman has struck a man, he need take no responsibility whatever for all his subsequent violence.

We said it presented “no perceptible evidence” that New Zealand men have quite a high level of anger and hostility. On pp 44-45 it describes how it asked the men six questions (the Brief Anger-Aggression Questionnaire) devised overseas (and apparently a standard test) and found that New Zealand men scored higher than men in other countries.

We Skeptics have taken information out of context, rewritten it in a biased way, and generally put the kind of spin on it that we so often accuse our opponents of doing, behaving like a tabloid newspaper. One of us called the report “victimology” (what is wrong with studying victims?) when it is a study of perpetrators, and “advocacy science” when it is simply applied social science. The only assumptions it makes that could be called “advocacy” are that domestic violence is an evil, and that men must take responsibility for their violence if it is to be eliminated. In challenging those assumptions, we are effectively taking the side of violent men.

Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof. The claims this report makes will come as no surprise to anyone who works in the field of domestic violence. It presents extraordinary proof for them. In attacking it, we have gone way out of our depth. We should stick to the urine-sniffing lamas and medical-advice-dispensing radio psychics that are our forte. This time, we have used the Bent Spoon to flick egg over our own faces.

We should graciously acknowledge our mistake, withdraw the “award” and publicly and unconditionally apologise to the authors of “Hitting Home”. This would be a good example of the kind of rational and adaptable behaviour we try to encourage in others.


This is a copy of a presentation given to the New Zealand Skeptics 1995 Conference in Auckland

When Denis Dutton asked me to prepare some comments on this topic he gave me a very wide brief covering, “any aspect that strikes your fancy”.

Since he has left the definition and the territory to me, I will indulge myself, knowing that any remark from here on will be controversial.

Over the same time I had the privilege to witness one of history’s recurrent twists, whereby there is a recapitulation of medical behavioural patterns which can be expressed in Darwinian terms. This has provided some of us with the opportunity to observe the consequences arising directly from the ebb and flow of irrational human behaviour.

In the late 1940s I set out to become an engineer, but I meandered into medicine. I retain some interests in the area of the physical sciences and I think I understand why a 747 flies and usually does not fall to bits on take-off or landing. Such deep insight allows me to perceive the distinction between the functioning of an aircraft engineer and that of a traditional doctor. It is mandatory, as well as reasonable, to test the wings of a proposed new aircraft to the point of destruction in an aeronautical laboratory. In most countries, similar destruction of a human being in a physical or psychological sense is forbidden, or at least not discussed openly in public.

The distinction between the two situations does not stop there. In the former instance, a physical object is being tested by engineers and scientists using a fairly soundly based set of facts, many of which will not change as knowledge evolves. However, errors can occur in both the design and testing of an aircraft wing due to the fallibility in human terms of scientists and engineers. Conversely, in the case of interactions between orthodox doctors and patients or clients, the interactions involve two sets of human behaviour. The nett effect is that at least in terms of ephemeral knowledge, there will be a much greater measure of certainty in the case of the aircraft wing testing than there will be in any health professional-patient interaction.

All that seems very obvious, but I can assure you it is not obvious to many who design and manage health services in various parts of the world, nor is it understood by many orthodox clinicians.

These considerations do, however, lead on to recognition of one perspective through which pseudo-medicine can be defined. In discussing pseudo-medicine we are really addressing a pattern of behaviour which is incongruent with principles common to sound aircraft engineering and sound allopathic medicine. Because a set of physically determined factors imposes a very firm set of disciplines upon the aircraft engineer, he or she operates within definable, and fairly closely defined, sets of constraints.

That is not the situation as far as medicine is concerned. An aircraft wing talks back to its designer by performing efficiently or failing. A patient or client exhibits an enormous range of responses to the propositions of a health professional, who operates within loose constraints, extremely wide boundaries and enormous levels of tolerance. Failure to observe what we may loosely term the laws of nature in relation to aircraft wings induces clearly observable and immediate consequences. Errors of logic and application of scientific knowledge or the indulgence of magic and quackery can persist for centuries in terms of medical practice.

My first point then is that the aircraft engineer is brought face-to-face with the realities of certainty and uncertainty from the outset. Such is not the case for health professional patient interactions.


When confronted by uncertainty, a person who has a sound understanding of rationality and science acknowledges that doubt and ignorance are facts to be accepted and confronted. If we pause to think about that, hopefully a majority of us within medicine will rapidly realise that John Kenneth Gailbraith was correct when he said “when people are least sure, they are often most dogmatic”.

That idea can be extended by the observation that many who are superficially extremely confident suppress their doubts and uncertainties through extremely assertive behaviour and exposition of dogma. Sometimes they are exposed, as happened to Margaret Thatcher when caught on the hop by the BBC, who perceived she really did not know what to do about the political future of Hong Kong after 1997. “…now, when you say that, you don’t have to go into, to say, well now, precisely what is the nature of this link and the nature of the law and so on…”2

The problem with the Thatchers of this world is that during their predominant period of confidence, while they suppress any dangerous urge to admit doubt and uncertainty, they can inflict devastating damage on huge chunks of society and humanity generally. The consequences may be disastrous for many of us and not just for Argentinean sailors.

That arch sceptic, the late Petr Skrabanek, in a signed Lancet editorial entitled “The Epidemiology of Errors”, quoted Lewis Thomas: “A good deal of scientists, many of them in the professional fields of epidemiology and public health, have never learned how to avoid waffling when yes or no are not available, and the only correct answer is, I don’t know”.1 Pseudo-medicine arises when doctors, particularly, are confronted by a problem for which there is no clear-cut answer. Unfortunately in such situations, many doctors while swearing allegiance on the altar of medical science, move into the Thatcher mode. The practice of pseudo-medicine is based on that phenomenon.

Contrary to the viewpoint of a majority of the public and the media, and against the enthusiastic prophesy of many health professionals, areas of uncertainty are going to become more extensive rather than less as we move into the 21st Century. As technology becomes more sophisticated, complex issues concerning its application are going to raise increasing areas of uncertainty. It is not difficult to predict that there will be an increasing tendency for impetuous action to be taken as anxiety levels increase in the face of uncertainty.

Conversely, there may be a decline in recourse to consultation on the basis of “I don’t know, can you help?” Systematisation of doubt, and suppression of uncertainty lead to indulgence in such practices as homeopathy, chelation and a variety of magical and quack practises. I am not going to go into those areas in detail because they have been well traversed at previous annual meetings of this Society. Rather I want to spend the remaining time indicating the pervasiveness of the problem.

If we put aside the really major health disease problems of society based upon deprivation, economic inequality, hopelessness, loneliness and so forth, we are left with the impact upon society of the chronic degenerative diseases of bones, joints, the cardiovascular systems and cancers. These are the happy hunting grounds of pseudomedicine. The operation of total hip replacement has long since passed the equivalent of the testing of the 747 wings, and is now a standard procedure with sufficient experience behind it to make predictability of application to particular people reasonably certain. That does not mean that a host of other factors are not relevant to the decision whether, when and how to operate on a particular patient and to decide who pays to whom how much.

By contrast, the pain relief to be offered to the person on the increasingly lengthening waiting list for a hip operation provides a fertile ground for the exhibition of pseudo-medicine. Physicians like me do not have ideal pain relieving remedies available for prescribing to such patients. Chronic conditions wax and wane in intensity and it is very difficult to match the interplay of useful and dangerous effects of chronic pain management by drugs, against risks of death, disability and a host of economic factors.

The temptation is always there to indulge in the potentially legitimate use of placebo effect, maybe honestly at first with full understanding of what one is doing, and then to slip into the realm of magic. The boundary between rational therapy and pseudomedicine is very fine, and the width of that boundary varies considerably between one realm of therapy and another and between one doctor and another.

My concept of pseudo-medicine, therefore, is that doctors indulge in the practice when they stop saying, “I don’t know”, stop recognising uncertainty, and substitute false, self-deceiving action based on phoney certainty, backed by great enthusiasm and stern dogma. The euphemistic term “art of medicine” is then applied to this particular brand of practice. The words “art” and “medicine” are simultaneously debased.


Commencing early in the nineteenth century, what has been termed scientific and therapeutic nihilism developed initially in France. In the late 19th Century, influential figures from North America and England, including Sir William Osler who typified both environments, threw their weight behind the therapeutic nihilistic movement. This involved a sceptical approach to the practices and remedies of traditional medicine, and called for the application of rational study and controlled observation of the natural history of disease and its modification in various ways. There was considerable opposition to Osler. Rationalism, scepticism and the scientific method itself, are not immune to rigorous querying from a variety of viewpoints. All can be converted into new forms of religion and all are subject to phases in development.

It took about a hundred years for therapeutic nihilism to demolish significant sections of the old pharmacopoeia, continuing use of which was justified and dignified as being part of the art of medicine.

Earlier in the talk I referred to the interaction of two sets of behaviour when doctor meets patient. History is repeating itself at present as the boundaries where medical science and human behaviour meet are becoming a major topic in the more thoughtful pages of the New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, BMJ and so forth. Interestingly, the predominant theme in this new wave of medical literature centres on the problems of uncertainty.

Jonathon Rees in the BMJ puts it this way. “For any activity dependent on new knowledge, as medicine is on science, the future is uncertain simply because new knowledge always changes the rules of the game. But even if we could dream this problem away, our guesses of the future will be in error because we continue to delude ourselves, outside the laboratory at least, that we understand the present…”3 Herein lies another basis for pseudo-medicine. Heath professionals like to feel confident and to project confidence in terms of their relationships with patients. Pseudo-medicine flourishes on the basis of apparent confidence exhibited by the professional. The stage is being set in my opinion for an increase in the practice of pseudo-medicine.


During the 1960s, 70s and 80s there was a wave of revulsion directed against orthodox medicine and particularly to its perceived power. To some extent the evils attributed to the atomic scientists spilled over into public attitudes towards orthodox medicine. What was perceived as unholy power held by the medical profession was seen in terms of a citadel which should be destroyed. We saw the revival of naturalism, herbalism and a return to various magical procedures. One of the major textbooks of so-called holistic medicine claimed restoration of the theory of transmutation of the elements whereby sodium was converted to potassium by plants.

The attack was unconsciously, and by some cynical entrepreneurs consciously, directed at the whole concept of therapeutic nihilism. The wash from this revolution lapped on the thresholds of medical schools initially, and then penetrated the corridors of academic medicine. To the horror of people like me, graduates of our young School of Medicine began openly to practise homeopathy and chelation.

I analyse this situation as being due partly to the failure of us as educators to prepare students to handle the avalanche of evolving knowledge in the fields of biochemistry, molecular and behavioural medicine. We have been overwhelmed and have not known how to handle the situation. Our students have entered a world in which monetarism has gained the ascendancy and they see a desperate need to make a living. Those who choose not to become technocrats, replacing hips and removing cataracts, are the most vulnerable. Many of them have already succumbed. Moreover the ramparts of the citadel have been breached in more significant ways.

Our students face the usual mixture of myth and reality which typifies the real world — we have not prepared them adequately to confront this reality and provided them with teaching to handle the situation calmly and rationally.

There is a current vogue for insisting that doctors must model their approach to patients upon so-called “evidence-based” medical practice.4,5 The general concept implies that resources of the State, in particular, should only be expended in those areas where there is so-called objective proof that expenditure will significantly influence the natural course of a disease process. Impetus has been given to this movement through a failure of classical epidemiological approaches to produce clear-cut answers for handling the problems of middle and old age.

Over the past two to three decades, so-called scientific medicine backed by exhortations of academia has persisted in traversing the pathway so heavily criticised by Skrabanek and others. This trend has to some extent been driven by a need for resource acquisition for some sections of medical epidemiology. Disciplines such as cardiology have been happy to help create and then support a mirage through which scientific medicine is seen as responsible for releasing an accelerating series of miracles which will ultimately bring lifelong happiness to everyone. When confronted by the failure to deliver to the masses, sections of these same disciplines, like clinicians, have resorted to pseudo-science that dangerous ally of pseudo-medicine.

Rather than confronting politicians and the public with a clearly defined list of uncertainties, probabilities and areas of ignorance, as David Naylor from the Institute for Clinical Evaluated Sciences in Ontario has pointed out, they have “continued to produce inflated expectations of outcomes-oriented and evidence-based medicine.”5 Following these pathways, they have resorted, not to metaphysics or alchemy, but rather to meta-analysis and leaps of faith which are presented as scientific truths.

The Real Culprit

As Skrabenek has pointed out, the real culprit in all this is “risk-factor epidemiology”. This brash young infant amongst the medical sciences has continued to feed information and misinformation into the media. To quote Skrabenek again, “by the misuse of language and logic, observed associations are presented as causal links”. He further points out that “risk-factor epidemiology relies on case-control or cohort studies without rigorous standards of design, execution and interpretation, even though such studies are susceptible to at least 56 different biases. … How should one remedy this state of affairs — bigger studies, better measurement of risk factors, more complex statistics? Statistics are no cure for the faulty paradigm of risk-factor epidemiology.”1

It is in these areas that pseudo-science has aided and abetted what I perceive to be a particularly dangerous form of pseudo-medicine. It is in these areas that I perceive the most significant breaching of the ramparts of the citadel of scientifically based medical practice.

How has this come about? I believe it derives from the attributes of human behaviour stressed in the earlier part of this talk. Faced with failure to reach their objectives within a particular time span, many working in cardiovascular, cancer, and degenerative diseases have chosen to cope by denying areas of ignorance and uncertainty. Unfortunately they have gone further and have moved the goal-posts when it suited them. They have extrapolated, simplified and at times gone even further.

An obvious example to quote is the famous Lipid Research Clinics Study referred to in a paper at Palmerston North last year. In this study a somewhat unpleasant drug called cholestyramine was used to treat North American men held to be at particular risk from coronary artery disease due to elevated blood cholesterol levels. Extrapolation from that study was quite extraordinary and media manipulation of enormous magnitude was employed to preach a message intended for the masses when the facts were that such extrapolation was invalid for women and for the great bulk of the population.

You will all probably believe, correctly, that strict standards should apply to evaluation of both old and new therapies. It is a truism that anything short of randomised double-blind trials is regarded by proponents of evidence-based medicine as providing an unreliable base upon which to proceed. The problem is that these worthy objectives are being distorted and the public is not being given a transparent account of the problems.

Hormone Replacement

A classical example at the present time would be the largely male-determined dogma that hormone replacement therapy for post-menopausal women cannot be justified in terms of evidence-based medicine. The pseudo-medical pronouncements in this instance have a very complex background which is not usually presented. HRT in terms of scientific literature has concentrated almost wholly upon the fact that women after the change-in-life tend to catch up on men in terms of manifestations of atherosclerosis. There have been no published results from major double-blind prospective clinical trials of oestrogens alone or oestrogens combined with progesterones testing whether or not this therapy retards the appearance of myocardial infarction (coronary attacks) in post-menopausal women.

Prospective trials have shown that oestrogens make women more comfortable in terms of their nether regions, their skin texture and preservation of femininity itself. There is some soft evidence that osteoporosis may be retarded amongst woman taking HRT. Thus the pseudo-medicine proponents of evidence-based medicine who concentrate solely upon one aspect of hormone replacement, that of the cardiovascular effects, are not indulging in true science.

As Naylor has put it, we live in the era of chronic and expensive diseases. “Until the ongoing revolution in molecular biology pays more concrete dividends, we shall be muddling along with what Lewis Thomas characterised as half-way technologies. However medical muddling is a profitable business…”5 It is profitable for research groups, for industry and particularly for the exponents of pseudo-science and pseudo-medicine.

False Prophet

However it is more complicated than that. The general assumption by the practitioners of pseudo-medicine is that more, and what they term better, data will dispel uncertainty in medical decision making. Those who say these things seem unable to learn even from recent history. Those who put their faith in meta-analysis are following a false prophet. Take the case of magnesium in treatment of myocardial infarction. A meta-analysis published in 1993 is entitled “Intravenous magnesium in acute myocardial infarction. An effective, safe, simple and inexpensive intervention”.6 Two years later, results of another mega trial showed that magnesium was, if not totally ineffective, only minimally so in treatment of myocardial infarction.7 Resorting to big numbers will not necessarily solve problems from which the pseudo-medicine proponents are seeking to escape nor will it satisfy the absolutist neo-nihilists.

The current vogue for meta-analysis has arisen from a problem clearly recognised by both impeccable medical scientists and proponents of pseudo-medicine. This is the sheer cost of answering key questions based upon hypotheses propounded in relation to chronic diseases. Because genetic endowment heavily influences the differences between us, manipulation of the environment, including our internal environment, through drugs or diets will usually produce gains at the margin, which are usually minimal.

Blunderbuss therapy requires treating of the masses, many of whom will not benefit, while others are harmed by the proposals. The passion for evidence based medical practice, given our current range of technologies, must make recourse to fairly desperate measures. Thus meta-analysis has become big business. Like is not being lumped with like. Little lumps and big lumps of data are being gathered together by various groups beavering away upon the basis for their own particular perspectives, all seeking to justify their particular beliefs which are promulgated as gospel to an eagerly awaiting public. Unfortunately, some of the larger lumps so aggregated are themselves curate’s eggs.

A classic example is the so-called MRFIT data. The Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial (MRFIT)8 was a massive study mounted in North America, involving screening of either 361,662 or 361,629 men. Data from the MRFIT screenees has contributed very significantly to a number of the meta-analyses.

Werkö from the Swedish Council on Technology Assessment in Health Care has shown clearly that this massive body of data is significantly and seriously flawed.9 There is inconsistency between reports published in different journals simultaneously. The quality control of the basic data is uneven and people using the material seriously have not even bothered to check the relatively simple points investigated by Werkö. Not to do so is a form of scientific laziness, a form of pseudo-science. If these writers have done so and failed to spot the obvious flaws, then their baseline checks have been sloppy. If they have done so, and uncovered the same points as Werkö and chosen to ignore the evidence in front of them, they are true practitioners of pseudo-science and pseudo-medicine.

Meta-analysis has come in for hefty criticism and deservedly so. While its proponents acknowledge that it is a surrogate for the massively expensive prospective studies which are really required, they frequently go way beyond the capacity of the method in terms of the public pronouncements they make. In particular this applies to translation of conclusions relevant to people at special risk, to the advice given to the masses who may not share the same risks or who portray them in only a minor degree. Meta-analysis is now an art form whose scientific significance must be challenged at each stage and with each pronouncement.

Political Involvement

The situation is more sinister than that because politicians through their minions have cottoned on to the value of some of these manipulable analytical techniques. Thus, information gathered in relation to the National Health Service of the United Kingdom is being used to support claims of success of recent government policies. The same types of problem identified by Werkö arise when politicians make use of this type of data. Once politicians and media get into the business of using flawed information, or of distorting sound information for particular purposes, very unhealthy alliances will result.10,11

Our critics are correct in stating that medicine has built a very powerful base within society. Pronouncements by any segment of medicine or its associates are likely to be taken seriously, even in the face of the current wave of mounting scepticism. Epidemiologists and their allies in cardiology have established a major section of the health-disease industry. There are consequences. For instance, an increasing epidemic of osteoporosis in some western countries may well be based upon reduced calcium intake, particularly by women. Dairy products have been the main contributor of calcium in those countries. In contrast to big sections of epidemiology and cardiology, the dairy industry has employed competent nutritionists and made some attempt to keep pace with evolving knowledge of human nutrition. It deserves credit for the burgeoning range of modified milk products, all of which contain calcium. But the damage has been done from within the medical power base. As David Naylor has put it, these difficulties have arisen from the Malthusian growth of uncertainty when multiple technologies combine into clinical strategies and at the public advice level.5

Thoughtful critics of societal development have been drawing attention to these problems. Many advocate a solution through the information revolution, but in terms of the present topic they have failed to perceive that medical information is fragile, patchy and usually imperfect. Like the Lancet editor, I do not believe the consumer watchdog type of approach, with its challenge to the medical powerbase, is going to change the situation at any great speed.11

One healthy fallacy states that the medical powerbase rests solely on possession of scientific information and a monopoly thereof. As I have tried to demonstrate that base is neither secure nor constant. In the health-disease management industry, power does not reside in possession of scientific information. The current success of the inheritors of the old magic, that is the quack acupuncturists, the chelation therapists, many herbalists, naturopaths and so forth, does not reside in a possession of a body of scientific information or a monopoly of its use. This has always been so. Medical power rests as much on uncertainty as it does on technical expertise or possession of a particular body of ephemeral knowledge which will be disproved tomorrow. How can that be so?

The Lancet states it thus, “uncertainty in the face of disease and death fosters a compelling need for patients to trust someone — and a reciprocal authority among doctors. A leap of faith will always be needed. Information does not, and cannot provide all the answers.”11 We thus have a paradox to confront.

Pragmatic Doctors

To return to the aeronautical engineer. Doctors must indeed make decisions, give advice and offer assistance based on limited interpretation of limited evidence. For the foreseeable future doctors must make decisions which will not be derived from carefully controlled prospective randomised clinical trials. They must nevertheless try to make valid decisions. They cannot indulge in the luxury of being inactive in the face of an absence of evidence. That privileged position belongs to the lawyers, the philosophers and the ethicists. In the end doctors have to be pragmatists. Clinical decisions must be made through a plurality of means, each of which must however, undergo “profound interpretative scrutiny”.4

The doctor’s role is more difficult than that of the aircraft wing designer. They must discipline themselves continually to apply medical knowledge in conjunction with their experience and that of their colleagues. “The unifying science of medicine is an inclusive science of interpretation.”4 The black and white situation of 747 wing testing does not occur in medicine. “Medicine is a series of grey zones in which the evidence concerning risk-benefit ratios of competing clinical options is incomplete or contradictory.”5 The grey zones have varying boundaries which change rapidly.

We academics have great difficulty enabling undergraduates and emerging graduates to cope with these phenomena. It is not surprising that many move into pseudo-medicine. It is not surprising that the teaching of orthopaedics is always much more popular with undergraduates than that of clinical medicine. Once again to quote Naylor, “clinical medicine seems to consist of a few things we know, a few things we think we know (but probably don’t) and lots of things we don’t know at all”.5

We academics have to cope with the fact that when evidence alone cannot guide clinical actions, some undergraduates will take up a minimalistic approach whereas others will favour intervention based upon varying balances of inference and experiences and others will turn to pseudo-medicine. Our job as academics is to make emerging clinicians comfortable with a system whereby they can make decisions under conditions of uncertainty.

Over the next decade at least, I believe medical academics will have to confront a somewhat irrational passion for evidence-based medicine and meta-analysis, and we must teach that there are limits to medical evidence and its application. The craft of caring for patients is a legitimate, scientifically appropriate adjunct to medicine. That role is necessary for the comfort and sanity of human society. Osler said, “good clinical medicine will always blend the art of uncertainty with the science of probability.” We need to understand, then to explain what we mean by the term probability.

I shall end with another example. The practice of pseudo-medicine can inflict much discomfort. For instance, young doctors and nurses have considerable difficulty in agreeing to decisions that this patient or that should not be subjected to the indignity of resuscitation procedures, but rather be left to die in peace.

There is a significant and coherent literature indicating that a majority of resuscitation procedures as undertaken in the 1970s and 80s were futile from the outset. The continued pseudo-medical practice in this regard has led to a situation where relatives expect resuscitation procedures to be undertaken. Their concept of power sharing puts heavy pressure on younger doctors to overturn non-resuscitation orders. If the younger doctors submit, an undignified charade ensues. In turn, that situation has created an environment in which aspects of the so-called passive euthanasia debate have become more tangled than was necessary.

I will not dwell further on that point. Rather, I wish to end by emphasising that facing up to uncertainty and accepting areas of ignorance honestly, does not constitute an admission of laziness or incompetence. That, however, is the perspective which sections of the legal profession and society generally are promoting at the present time. If we submit to such pressures and false perspectives we shall end up as we did in relation to the false-confession mistaken-conviction situation, which was discussed at our conference last year.

All professional groups are vulnerable to external influences playing on our own emotional state and anxiety level. Pseudo-medicine thrives in this environment. If we take the subject of evidence in a legal sense we can remind ourselves that a series of techniques have been advised to law authorities over the past century and a number are still in use in the United States, including the polygraph. All have proved to be potentially unreliable, subject to manipulation and all can produce false-positive and false-negative results. If anything their use increases the risk of false confessions.

Those members of the medical and psychology professions whose weakness and pseudo-science has contributed to the situation have much to answer for. Faced with such examples we should have a better understanding of the pervasiveness of the problems of pseudo-medicine and pseudo-science.12 Society needs the NZCSICOP.

Green Peppers

I shall end with the parable of the green peppers. One could term it a parody. The original publication is in the Journal of Irreproducible Results somewhere round about 1955, I think, but I have lost the reference. Some bright workers in Chicago noted that everyone who had eaten green peppers in their youth but had reached the age of 89, had grey hair or white, rotten joints, few teeth, failing eyesight and poor hearing. The main reference in the bibliography was to a guy called Shakespeare somewhere in the early 17th Century. The green pepper eating cohort who had reached the age of 105 were considerably worse off. No-one who had eaten green peppers was alive by the age of 130.

The green pepper industry obviously faltered at that point. However, a subsequent paper which I believe was written but rejected by the same worthy journal, described a restudy of the situation. This showed that people who had eaten green peppers when surveyed at the age of 20 had normal hearing, all their teeth, no lens opacities and sound joints.

In comparison with the older cohorts studied in the first publication, those who had eaten green peppers ten to twenty years earlier showed a mortality rate of 0.05%. Amongst the 90 year old group in the earlier paper, the mortality experienced by that cohort was noted to be 95.2%. Of high significance statistically was the observation that amongst people in that population over the age of 100, only 1% consumed green peppers in the last twenty years. The conclusion was obvious that those who stopped eating green peppers after an interval of twenty years suffered greying and falling of hair, diminished eyesight, reduced hearing, loss of teeth, a very high mortality rate and rotten joints.

Evidence is one thing, quality of evidence another. Intelligent interpretation and carefully planned application of evidence belong to different dimensions. Quality of action based on evidence depends upon the quality of the evidence, its completeness or otherwise, and the quality of the interpretation plus recognition of what is not known and what is not likely to be known over the next years or decades. Life was not meant to be easy.

The practice of medicine combines the twin problems and pleasures inherent in basing action upon adequate evidence on the one hand and inadequate evidence on the other. Practice of the art of medicine is a legitimate activity dependent for its integrity upon the understanding of the dilemmas posed by this dual basis for action and understanding of the nature of science, including the ephemeral nature of scientific knowledge. Pseudo-medicine is practised by those who lack the resolve and energy to face this intellectual challenge.


1) Skrabanek P. Lancet 1993; Vol 342: 1502

2) Margaret Thatcher, PM. BBC World Service interview, 1 Nov 1983

3) Rees J. BMJ; Vol 310: 850-853

4) Horton R. Lancet 1995; Vol 346: 3

5) Naylor ED. Lancet 1995; Vol 345: 840-842

6) Yusuf S et al. Circulation 1993; Vol 87: 2043-2046

7) ISSIS-4 etc. Lancet 1995; Vol 345: 669-685

8) MRFIT. JAMA 1982; Vol 248: 1465-1477

9) Werk[oumlaut] L. J. Int. Med 1995; Vol 237: 507-518

10) Wright M. GP Weekly 1995; 2 August: 12-13

11) Lancet 1995; Vol 345: 1449-1450

12) Lancet 1994; Vol 344: 1447-1450

Roswell Autopsy

Post-mortem on the autopsy or autopsy on the post-mortem?

Post-mortem undoubtedly. There could hardly be a deader duck than the supposed Roswell autopsy film, whatever species of being or inanimate object we saw being carved up.

I will leave to others discussion of the murky provenance of this film, and the many anachronisms said to infect it. Instead, I offer some thoughts on biological aspects.

The cadaver pictured, if genuinely extra-terrestrial, represents perhaps the most important piece of biological material ever to come into human possession. To merely carry out the crude dissection shown would be only the tiniest beginning of any investigation which researchers of fifty years ago would have carried out. One might almost say that anatomists, histologists and biochemists, both then and now, would kill for the possession of a few grams of the “meat” on that slab.

By the late 1940s, the essential similarities of all terrestrial life-forms had been established — the aqueous environment necessary for cellular activity, the universal genetic code of nucleic acids, the cellular machinery of proteins built up from a few L-amino acids, the resemblances in energy metabolism, and many other features. Were the object the body of a genuine extra-terrestrial, I cannot conceive that the medical and scientific people involved in the autopsy would not have seized on this, the first opportunity in human history to investigate such a thing, and make a thorough microscopic, chemical and biochemical analysis of what they had in the hand. If the autopsy was genuine, where is all this information? Are we to believe that someone has been sitting on it for nearly fifty years, when publication, either official or by a “leak”, would yield instant fame and fortune?

Some knowledge of extra-terrestrial biology could be expected to confer an advantage on those holding it, by offering a different perspective on how we ourselves work. There appears no evidence of this in American research publications; scientists in the US, as everywhere else, are groping at the frontier between the known and the unknown, using only our knowledge of Earth-based biology.

Should mankind ever have the opportunity to investigate extra-terrestrial life-forms, scientists the world over would say with Wordsworth “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive …”. The prospect is vastly grander and more exciting than anything seen in the Roswell “autopsy”.

The 1995 Bent Spoon

This year’s Bent Spoon Award has ruffled a few feathers. In a controversial decision, what the Skeptics described as an “alarmist” Justice Department report on domestic violence in New Zealand has received the award.

“The report, entitled Hitting Home, paints a disturbing picture of New Zealand men as abusers of wives and partners, until you examine the fine print,” said Skeptics head Vicki Hyde.

“Since the report defines ‘abuse’ to include criticising your partner’s family, it is not surprising that half the men surveyed were guilty of some form of psychological abuse…By so exaggerating the extent of abuse, the report trivializes the real domestic violence that goes on in New Zealand,” Ms Hyde said.

For example, Hitting Home refers repeatedly to one particularly disturbing statistic, which was singled out in the Justice Department press release: “when they were shown some typical circumstances in which abuse occurs, 10% [of New Zealand men] said they approved and 56% did not really disapprove of hitting a woman. And in at least one circumstance, six out of ten men say the woman has only herself to blame for being hit.” This indeed would be alarming, were it true that bashing women was behaviour 60% of New Zealand males were willing to turn a blind eye to.

In fact, these figures were arrived at by showing men a list of possible provocations, including finding a partner “in bed with another man,” “physically abusing their child,” and hitting the man first in an argument. From the fact that the disapproval rating of respondents, once shown such circumstances, declined from “moderate to extreme” to “little or moderate” (even though 95%-98% disapproved), we’re served up the false conclusion that “56% did not really disapprove of hitting a woman.” They did disapprove, overwhelmingly, but not at the same level of disapproval as “she hasn’t cleaned the house,” and other trivial items on the list.

The report also inflates conclusions about the prevalence of abuse by its peculiar definition of “abuse” which runs the gamut from “Used a knife or gun on her” to “Kicked something” to “Put down her family and friends” to “Tried to keep her from doing something she wanted to do.” From this starting point, the report finds widespread “abuse” in New Zealand, as it would be a rare couple where a man had not at some time slammed a door or insulted a relation during an argument with his partner. Despite a title suggesting it is about domestic violence, Hitting Home is actually about abuse, understood as virtually any demonstration of anger. Even letting off steam to avoid “abuse” can be classified as “abuse.”

One of the report’s authors told the Listener that “Overall, the research found that New Zealand rates of abuse are about twice as high as rates based on what women say.” This is no surprise as the report’s inflated definition of abuse includes behaviours that even the “victims” didn’t think of as abuse.

In the press release, Vicki Hyde said, “It’s taken society a long time to recognize that domestic violence is a serious problem. It is vital, if we are to address this issue effectively, that research provides accurate, meaningful information on which policies can be based. By limiting its scope to men only and by defining abuse so broadly, Hitting Home misses the mark. It’s a great shame, since we desperately need well-founded social policies. This will disadvantage the women most vulnerable to serious violence. Surely, you can’t classify the experience of being strangled or threatened with a knife alongside hearing a rude comment about your brother.”

At our recent conference, Skeptic Hugh Young challenged the award.. His remarks and others follow. Further contributions will appear in the next Skeptic.

The Skeptics awards for excellence went to journalists with TVNZ, Metro, and the Listener.

“TVNZ’s Assignment series shows that we can still have thoroughly researched, critical documentaries on television,” according to Ms Hyde. The Skeptics praised Assignment‘s “The Doctor Who Cried Abuse,” an investigation of a Dunedin physician whose unwarranted diagnoses had wrecked havoc on New Zealand families. “Ellis Through the Looking Glass,” an examination of the Christchurch Civic Creche case, was singled out for accolades.

Vincent Heeringa of Metro magazine received an award for his article “Weird Science,” on the Auckland Institute of Technology Press and Listener journalist Noel O’Hare, author of a cover story on False Memory Syndrome received a Skeptics award for the second year running.

Space Fiends Stole My Baby’s Brain

A sceptical mini-history of the crashed flying saucer saga

Carl Wyant

Sceptics will be amused to hear that the Great Roswell UFO Cover-up has just gained a new lease on life.

Yes, as if the almost infinite number of articles, TV documentaries and at least one full-length book weren’t enough, it is now a movie, “Roswell”, and available on video.

In 1947, so the story goes, a flying saucer crashed and exploded in the New Mexico desert, about 75 miles from Roswell. The scattered wreckage was collected several days later by the Air Force and whisked away to a top secret hangar never to be seen again, its very existence denied by the authorities.

In truth, no amount of fact will ever kill a good rumour. The Roswell incident has been debunked, discredited, explained to death and buried a hundred times over, but it just won’t stay in the grave. Rumour alone keeps it alive.

Like most UFO lore, aliens mishaps are nothing new. The crashed saucer myth has a long and convoluted history that goes back to 1884 when four cowboys witnessed the explosion of a strange flying cylindrical object in Nebraska.

Another phantom airship came cruising out of the blue in 1897, in Aurora, Texas, plowing into a windmill and blowing itself to smithereens, leaving behind a wreckage of metallic foil, paper with indecipherable hieroglyphics and one dead “Martian”, which was duly buried in the Aurora cemetery.

Both of these cases were later proved to be hoaxes, but it was too late; the idea was already embedded in the public mind.

Theosophists and collectors of weird stories, notably Charles Fort, sometimes called “the father of ufology”, also took up the cause, giving even more durability to the growing legend.

It’s worth noting here that the initial report of a sensational event, even if it’s false, always has more impact than the refutation or retraction. Sometimes the refutation strengthens the original claim simply by bringing it up again.

A classic example of this syndrome, crucial to the understanding of Roswell, is the infamous Aztec case, the king of all crash/retrieval stories.

In 1949 a journalist and columnist named Frank Scully began writing rumorous stories about crashed saucers and dead aliens and in 1950 released a book on the subject called Behind the Flying Saucers. It’s referred to as the Aztec case because some of the events took place near Aztec, New (where else?) Mexico. One saucer, he claimed, was ninety-nine feet in diameter and contained sixteen dead aliens, little fellows about three feet tall.

Two years later the story was exposed as a fraud, perpetrated on the apparently not-very-investigative Scully by a couple of notorious confidence shysters, probably angling for a movie deal. The book was a best seller, so I guess Scully died of shame, as it were, all the way to the bank.

Behind the Flying Saucers was the first book to bring the question of crashed saucers to the general public. The idea might have been bandied about by a few cultists and science fiction buffs before, but now the cat was really out of the bag. For two years hundreds of thousands read the book and millions more heard the story: The saucers, and even more spine chilling than than, the aliens, were real.

The Aztec scam effectively drove a wedge into the rapidly growing UFO movement, splitting the ranks into two vaguely distinct factions: “the wide-eyed believers”, who will believe anything; and “the serious investigators”, who will believe almost anything.

“Scully’s book”, says Jerome Clark in The Fringes of Reason, “cast a long shadow: for the next two and a half decades no serious UFO student would pay attention to crashed saucer stories.”

But like unkillable zombies, the stories lived on.

The Roswell, New Mexico, crashed saucer story that’s raising such a ruckus today was actually a non-event that probably would have faded away altogether if it hadn’t been for all the gadzookery created later by the Aztec case.

On June 14, 1947, a rancher named Brazel found what was undoubtedly the remains of a radar target, a reflective device borne aloft by weather balloons for tracking purposes.

Brazel himself described the debris as “large numbers of pieces of paper covered with a foil-like substance and pieced together with small sticks much like a kite”.

The Air Force came and collected the junk and that was it…almost.

Two weeks later on June 24, saucer mania broke out when civilian pilot, Kenneth Arnold, made his historic sighting of nine flying disks in Washington State, marking the official beginning of the modern UFO era. A newspaper reporter dubbed them “flying saucers” and for the next few months saucer fever ran rampant, with unidentified flying objects being reported all over the USA.

It was then, in early July, after the Arnold sighting, that Brazel and cohorts came up with the saucer story. From there it snowballed into a veritable circus of misleading statements and factual errors before finally gelling into a classic UFO cover-up.

At the time, Roswell was just one more zany story and didn’t make a major splash, and of course after the Aztec scandal no-one wanted to know about crashed saucers, thus it was forgotten.

Not completely forgotten, however. In all probability it was rumours of Roswell that led to the creation of the Aztec case; which in turn led…and so groweth the myth.

Crash/retrievals became fashionable again in the early 1970s and the serious investigators began to take them very seriously. Even the old Aurora case was dusted off, sending a whole wave of UFO hopefuls to the tiny town, combing the countryside with metal detectors and prowling the graveyard for dead Martians.

By the 1980s the story was unstoppable. The public mind had undergone a dramatic change. The wide-eyed believers, serious investigators and the great unwashed had moved closer together. Objective thinking had given way to subjective, inward-looking modes of thought wherein we create our own reality. Science, in fact Western Civilisation as a whole, had become the enemy. Critical analysis was out and wishful thinking was in and all sceptical comment was part of a vast conspiracy to cover up the truth about crystal magic and pickled aliens.

UFO lovers got an extra shot in the arm in 1980 when saucer expert Jenny Randles began to publish stories about a saucer crash near a military base in England. The Rendlesham Forest Affair, as it’s known, later became a book, Sky Crash, a gripping tale of aliens, intrigue, confiscated saucers and top secret secrets, all based, essentially, on un-named sources and hearsay. And so it goes on.

The believers contend that where there’s smoke there’s fire. The evidence itself might be weak, they argue, but there’s so much of it that it proves itself through sheer volume. In other words, if you accumulate enough bad evidence it somehow turns into good evidence. Or to look at it another way, if enough people believe something is true, then it is true.

You don’t have to be H.G. Wells to realise that this is not a healthy outlook. If enough people believe, for instance, that homosexuals are a menace to society, lo and look ye — homosexuals are a menace to society, fully lynchable in the name of Mass Belief. If enough believe in witches with magical powers, “enough” will also believe in burning them. The notion of running society on the basis of information received from invisible sources is a sure-fire recipe for bloodshed.

If my arbitrary example of homophobia seems far fetched and somewhat distant to the flying saucer question, think again. The alien superbeing, Ramtha, channelled by J.Z. Knight, tells us that we should “get rid” of gays, and that AIDS is divine punishment for homosexuals. Other aliens have given us equally ominous advice.

Who knows for sure? Maybe governments do have crashed saucers and dead aliens hidden away in secret underground military installations. Maybe the little grey fiends with the strange black eyes are real too. But considering the next-to-worthless evidence, fraud, fakery, misperception, distortion and money involved, I wouldn’t advise betting your daughter on it.

But the saucers may be on the back burner for a while. Vibrations in the etheric network tell me that angels and devils are making a comeback. Yes, I feel confident in predicting that over the next five years we will see a growing revival of things angelic, building in intensity as the Apocalypse draws nigh. And then, after the world doesn’t end at year 2000, perhaps we can shake off our dark age mentality and start thinking again. Until the next saucer crash, that is.