Premature Epitaph for a Skeptic

How come Denis dead so soon
Through poking of the borax
The only clue a crooked spoon
Lodged firmly in his thorax.

by Gavin East, from Top of the Morning Book of Epitaphs, ed Brian Edwards, Tandem Press, Auckland, 1998.

We thank the author and editor for permission to reproduce this item, and offer our apologies to Denis Dutton for not consulting him first….

The Good Oil on Divining

James Randi has demonstrated that a water diviner has a 94% chance of success in finding water for the simple reason that 94% of the land surface has fresh water immediately below its surface. The diviner is likely to fail miserably when he/she is asked to find a dry spot. The notion that water flows in rivers underground is only true for some exceptional places, usually associated with limestone deposits. Normally, water is trapped in microscopic pores and only moves a few centimetres to a few hundred meters per year. Similar misconceptions and statistics are seen in oil divining.

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A Brief History of Skepticism

Around 300BCE there started a school of Greek philosophy called Skepticism. It continued for centuries, but was more like dogmatic doubt than the modern version. Bertrand Russell put their creed as “Nobody knows, and nobody can know”. They may simply have a bad press. Carneades, one-time head of the skeptical academy, was accused of denying the possibility of all knowledge. In fact he seems to have denied the possibility of certain knowledge, a very different thing.

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Skeptics’ Videotape Library Catalogue

For some years the Skeptics have had a collection of videotapes available for members to borrow. These are on topics thought to be of interest to skeptics, including firewalking, spontaneous human combustion (unrelated to firewalking!), homeopathy, UFOs, alien abduction, etc. and have been sourced mainly from material broadcast in New Zealand.

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Like Noel O’Hare, I attended the September Skeptics’ conference. Noel, winner of an NZ Skeptics Bravo Award “for critical analysis and common sense for his health column throughout 1997”, had a gripe (Shadow Of Doubt, Listener, 19 September 1998). He accused us of favouring “soft targets — psychics, New Age fads, alternative medicine, astrology.” “Poking fun at Creationists or crystal healers,” he wrote, “may produce a warm glow of superiority — but doesn’t change much.”

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