Numerology or What Pythagoras Wrought

Numerology, or What Pythagoras Wrought, by Underwood Dudley, Mathematical Association of America, Washington DC, 1997

Here’s a book that might go on the New Age shelves by mistake.

Who’d have thought that a book about numerology could be such fun? Woody Dudley makes it so. He looks at Pythagoras’ original speculations about the mystical powers of numbers, gematria (giving letters numerical values), the number of the Beast, triangular and pyramidal numbers and Pyramid Power, biorhythms, and how modern numerology (properly numeromancy) was virtually invented by Mrs L. Dow Balliett (Josephine, later Sarah Joanna, probably changed to improve its number power) of Atlantic City, New Jersey, about a hundred years ago.

Among the diversions are Shakespeare’s numbers, biblical numbers and rithmomachy, a once-popular board-game, like chess but with numbered pieces whose moves and power depend on not only their own numbers but those of the pieces they are attacking and the distance between them. (He gives enough information that you could make a set and play the game, which looks much more difficult than chess, but would be ideal for senior maths students.)

Another is “number forms” the patterns that perhaps one in 30 males and one in 15 females carry in their heads, on which numbers are consistently arranged, throughout their lives. Such people may think nothing of them and assume that everyone has one.

Two of the book’s useful contributions are the Law of Small Numbers and the Law of Round Numbers: there aren’t enough small numbers or round numbers to meet the many demands made of them. So if you go data-mining for small numbers or rounded-off large numbers and then look for correspondences between them, you’ll find some.

I’m sorry to learn that everybody’s favourite number,

1 + 1
1 + 1
1 + …
= 1.618… or phi,

wasn’t used to design the Parthenon or the Great Pyramid, isn’t generally chosen as the most pleasing proportion for rectangles (1.83 is), doesn’t divide our bodies at the navel (men’s are higher), and apparently wasn’t even called the Golden Section until 1835. It’s still a lovely number to play with, but Dudley shows that many of its mysterious properties also derive from the Law of Small Numbers.

He doesn’t mention our own premier number-cruncher (and muncher, and mixer-upperer), Captain Bruce Cathie, and his invention of “Harmonics” (multiply by 10n, where n is any whole number he pleases) and the grid of great circles he devised/discovered by which UFOs are powered and navigated. Perhaps the puddle is bigger and/or the frog smaller than we imagine.

Dudley never mocks the numerologists, but debunks them with charm and grace and sympathy for their (our) human plight of looking for meaning where there may be none.

The Global Messenger Hoax And The Misinformation Economy

At last year’s conference, John Scott spoke on the problems of mixing misinformation and medicine.

Early in my medical career I became aware of the enormous distorting forces which operate upon science in the real world. In my field the forces were those of Quaker Oats, Kellogg, Sanitarium, the diary industry, the AMA, elements within the cardiology camp, and the tobacco giants. I became an interested observer of some enormous investments in dubious research projects, many of which could only be termed con-jobs. More particularly, I realised that we scientists were very human creatures.

Together with many of my colleagues I plodded along trying to inculcate into oncoming generations of medical students a genuine understanding of scientific principles and methods. To be frank, my generation of teachers has failed, certainly as far as the bulk of medical graduates is concerned. Events over the past year in England, Europe and New Zealand have rammed that point home, often in painful ways, as far as I am concerned.

I do not wish to be seen to disparage many of the achievements of scientific and technological medicine over the past thirty to forty years. They have been massive. However, other huge investments in the health-disease industry deserved to be challenged and remain in that situation.

The central message so far is not news to this society. Bill Morris gave a paper at the Palmerston North meeting challenging much of the classical diet-coronary heart disease hypothesis. His voice was about as lonely as mine at that time. Science ultimately makes advances by gaining improved understanding of mechanisms. There is nothing wrong in doing one’s best with available knowledge until one obtains comprehensive understanding of a particular situation.

Coronary artery disease and arterial disease generally present very complicated problems. Fortunately and unfortunately, in an exquisite paradox, arterial disease is a very general phenomenon and becoming more so as countries become steadily more affluent.

There is enough knowledge to make a reasonably firm statement of dogma, that the causation is multifactorial and represents an interplay between environment and one’s genetic endowment. This statement doesn’t help a great deal about developing techniques for elucidating mechanisms. It does, however, provide wonderful protection for less competent scientists and technologists, and certainly, for industry generally.

New Technology

The cholesterol-saturated fat-diet-arterial disease hypothesis really took off when the 19th century concepts concerning the potential of computers were made possible through the development of transistors and printed circuits. In turn, epidemiology was provided with a tool it had needed. The autoanalyser had also been invented and thus mass biochemistry was now possible.

What amounts to an industry with a turnover through the decades of trillions of dollars was really set alight by a gentleman called Ancel Keys. He undertook studies in Europe linking what amounted to death certification and some relatively crude morbidity data with the local diet and estimates of cholesterol levels.

Here we get into what I term the “global messenger hoax”. On a simple arithmetical biaxial plot, Ancel Keys’ data, from his various countries, was the traditional dog’s breakfast. Subsequently one of his senior technicians, who was extremely troubled by what happened, published the truth.

In turn the technician’s article was immediately suppressed pretty effectively by the scientific juggernaut which had developed around this particular health-disease industry. Ancel Keys had selected a series of points which produced a straight line on a semilogarithmic plot or a gentle smooth curve on semilogarithmic axes.

I was aware of this at the time but didn’t get very far in quoting it, although, to his credit, the later Sir Edward Sayers accepted that Ancel Keys had at least been naughty. However, eventually a very prominent American nutritionist and professor of medicine, Dr Feinstein, published the original material plus Ancel Keys’ simplified extrapolated data which had set the whole bandwagon rolling. Feinstein came into the scene too late. He was too big a Don Quixote to be rubbished, so he was therefore largely ignored.

Now there is nothing particularly unusual about all that. As is eminently predictable, history is catching up with the epidemiologists who have continually reinvented the Ancel Keys wheel. Basic scientists, particularly anatomists, pathologists and immunologists, with their analysers and biochemistry, have begun to get at the common pathways upon which genetics and a complex environment interact to produce arterial disease. The gross simplifications have been exposed. Interestingly, however, the process continues of twisting results of recent research to fit the theory at each stage of the wheel reincarnation.

Alternative Interpretation

Most of you will know about the statin drugs which are very powerful reducers of cholesterol levels. Probably a majority of my colleagues believe that the advent of these drugs and their testing on a massive scale by people, including me, has vindicated the cholesterol hypothesis.

However, it might interest you to know that Brown and Goldstein, now working in Southwestern University of Texas, have a huge group of scientists and technologists exploring alternative interpretations.

If it was possible for physicians and epidemiologists to remove their dogma spattered spectacles, they would see what is obvious from most of the large statin trials, particularly the much hailed 4S or Simvastatin study. The effects of morbidity and mortality were proportionally just as great for the group at the bottom end of the scale of cholesterol elevation as they were for the top end.

If one thinks that through carefully and reanalyses the evidence, something else is going on than mere lowering of cholesterol and low density lipoprotein. There is no real surprise in that, when one looks at the nature of the intervention in the cholesterol synthesis pathway, and links that to the ubiquity of cholesterol as an essential structure which holds many biologically important molecules in a particular spatial pattern.

Cholesterol is involved in many biochemical processes and synthetic pathways. The statin drugs do many more things than just lower elevated cholesterol. But the message proclaiming the dogma is out there, and the messengers are not going to change their message in a hurry without carefully considering the shareholders’ interests. After all, the drugs do have a demonstrable effect and are eminently marketable even on the basis of partial evidence.

That brings us up against the real problem and my choice for the title of this talk. We live in an age of misinformation. Politicians seem oblivious to that as they play gleefully with the bubbly toy of the knowledge society concept.

Political games not withstanding, we are all in on this mass-deception exercise. When I thought about applying to the then Mr, now Sir Douglas Graham for legal aid to support the skeptics in a crusade against the pervading partial truths and cunning deceptions, I realised that he probably would remove his pipe temporarily and mumble something about the stability of societal constructs and the impoverishment of lawyers generally.

When more recently I wondered about approaching the Hon Tony Ryall, I realised that I might receive a lecture on fundamentalist thinking. He might use the biblical quote, “You who are not for us are against us.” Moreover, if I took my protests elsewhere I would be rapidly caught up with various religion-based aphorisms. You seek to be a prophet in your own country, haven’t you read the bible?

Shooting the Messenger

These musings sent me off on another trial as the green lipped mussel saga developed. I happen to know a lot about these tasty beasties, because work on them was undertaken in the Department of Medicine in Auckland during the time that Derek North and I were HODs.

Once again, it’s the messenger business that interests me. I happen to believe that Susan Wood is a more astute and intelligent anchor girl than Holmes, allowing for gender-bending bias. However, it rankled me that she and the editor of the New Zealand Herald both came out with the all-innocent line – “Why attack me, I’m only the messenger,” to paraphrase things. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health understood that he was being snowed by Susan Wood but didn’t quite get his counter-attack launched correctly. The Herald seems to have got away with it more or less completely.

However, there is a huge message within that message. The media are not just the messengers. They are an integral part of the process of the misinformation economy. New Zealand is, for at least half its population, a comfortable consumer society, seemingly happy to buy more than it can afford. The United States is going the same way as evidenced by this month’s trade deficit.

If we analyse that situation further, it becomes pretty obvious that what might be termed scientific truth, in itself certainly not an absolute or a constant quality, is now a debased commodity. The concept of quality of information which members of the Skeptics believe to be an essential prerequisite for intelligent human advancement, is held in contempt by key players in the global economy.

Evidence of Efficacy

It is all very well for the Medical Council of New Zealand to pronounce that there is no difference between orthodox and traditional or nonorthodox therapies, their common attribute being that any claims they make shall be based upon evidence of efficacy.

That sounds fine but it flies in the face of reality. Unfortunately, the failure of people like me as medical educators receives poignant testimony from the increasing use of acupuncture, homeopathy and so forth, by so many of our graduates.

Moreover, the status of a critic of these mixed practice habits is weakened by the continuing paucity of sound justification for many so-called orthodox practices. However, thanks to the financial seduction of the messengers, downgrading of science is now a fashionable global activity.

Occasionally I tune in before the 6pm TV1 news and there is the lady representing Blackmores coaxing me into upsetting my gastrointestinal system with slippery elm and to exposing my nervous and renal systems to potential chaos as I ingest mixtures of herbs, some of which contain quite toxic compounds.

I have carefully avoided quoting from the genetic engineering debate but you all know that I am heavily involved in that as president of the Royal Society and in defending science and technology. In particular that society is trying to ensure that information across the spectrum of opinion is made available to the New Zealand public.

We have done a bad job in this, because we failed to estimate the strength, political nouse, and financial capacity of the opposition, that is, of the anti-biotechnology anti-genetic engineering lobbyists, particularly in Europe, England and now New Zealand.

Is this little diatribe of any relevance? I believe there are two important aspects to the great global messenger hoax and the misinformation economy. A lot of harm is being done to people who are not in a position to understand what is happening.

As soon as I make such a statement, I am immediately assailed by the various groups which benefit financially, or in terms of personal status and so forth, because I am becoming paternalistic in a traditional manner and seeking to impose my restrictions on their freedom of choice. However, let’s take that a wee bit further.

To me it is heartening to see Sandra Coney and Robyn Stent opposing one another publicly over the issue of patients’ rights in relation to Lyprinol. I further applaud Dr Pippa MacKay in joining the fray in the New Zealand Herald. I suspect that newspaper does feel guilty about its part in the $2 million one-day killing, but that guilt won’t last for long. Why then are these issues important?

Vaccination Alarms

In 1998 reports began to circulate that measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination might cause autism, possibly through a mechanisim involving changes in bowel function.

There were immediate notes of caution sounded but they were largely ignored. It was pointed out that the reported cases might have been due to what is termed temporal coincidence. There was certainly no convincing laboratory evidence for the contention. A specially convened United Kingdom Medical Research Council committee found the so-called clinical evidence unconvincing.

However, the media messengers got into gear and there was a definite drop in acceptance of MMR vaccination in the United Kingdom. That has spilled over into New Zealand and added fuel to the anti-vaccination campaign here.

This is what I mean by people being harmed by what I have termed the global hoax of purveying partial or pseudo scientific information, to gain readership or viewing numbers for the profit of the moment or for political advantage. Infants and children are in no position to give informed consent, their parents are well placed to be misled.

Information Ignored

I use this particular example because the press internationally ignored information available at the time of the initial sensational reports, which indicated that the measles virus was not the mechanism for the observed cases of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). There was thus selective reporting for purposes of gaining sensation.

I believe that in June 1999 The Lancet laid the matter to rest with the advent of further information. The Lancet also says in its edition of June 12, page 1988 that:

Will the scientifically sound and essentially ‘negative’ results published this week garner the same media and public attention as the initial report of the MMR-autism hypothesis? It is unlikely, as evidenced by the renewed media frenzy last week in response to another report by the group that proposed the hypothesis. This report was of an increased risk of inflammatory bowel disease among individuals who had naturally acquired measles and mumps within one year of each other. The study had no data on MMR vaccine and the investigators specifically stated that they did not find a significant relation between monovalent measles vaccination alone and later IBD. Yet the popular media trumpeted the study as providing evidence that MMR vaccination may cause IBD. In such an environment it is critical to strengthen vaccine safety monitoring systems and risk-communication strategies to maintain public confidence in immunisation.

Lancet Editorial Comment, by F De Stefano and RT Chen, 1999, Vol 353, pp 1987-1988

Thus I believe the first important aspect of all this is that the misinformation distribution process can be harmful.

The second important aspect relates to what the whole process tells us about ourselves as a collective society. In a New Zealand which is seemingly increasingly non-numerate to an effective degree, and increasingly less literate in the classical sense, we do face a problem and may need more than legal aid to save our society from contemporary ridicule emanating from better educated international competitors, or worst fate of all, transformation into a nation dominated by a media worshipping cult.

I don’t blame the media for what is happening – I blame ourselves for our failure to anticipate the consequences which automatically ensue when the information technology explosion hits an unprepared, untutored, non-critical society.

We skeptics do have a role – we need to decide how to change the pattern of which I am, I believe, justifiably critical, such that New Zealand can reach democratic decisions on a basis of roundly presented, soundly analysed, best available information.

Can we, the skeptics, help disprove the hypothesis of HG Wells who wrote in 1920:

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.


Cathie Comments

I just wanted to make a comment on the clipping from the Christchurch Star concerning “nuclear extinction” which appeared on p.9 of the NZ Skeptic periodical. In the clipping, a refutation of this possibility was based on some writings of one Bruce Cathie who is claimed therein to be a mathematician among other things.

That Mr Cathie is read by many around the world cannot be in doubt. The claim that he is a mathematician is an insult to real mathematicians. Mr Cathie is best described in my opinion as a numerologist. I read his book “Harmonic 33” when I was a starry- eyed (but scientifically educated) teenager.

On the basis of what I read, I wrote to the author outlining the defects in his arguments in the early 70’s. The claim concerning the timing of nuclear explosions was among them. I pointed out that nuclear reactors don’t stop and start at particular times and that fission bombs which work on the same basic principles don’t either. I got a reply from his secretary saying he was too busy to answer correspondence. I was disappointed to say the least.

All Mr Cathie’s “predictions” about the French tests were retrospective. I have a firm principle of making those who claim to be able to predict things based on numbers or anything else to front up with a date in advance of a specific prediction. To date, not a single prediction made (and there are precious few) has ever come true.

Other material in that book included photos of mysterious aerials, one of which was instantly recognizable as a quad antenna used by some amateur radio operators. It is too easy for scientifically illiterate people to swallow this stuff and there was quite enough of it to make me gag, even at my tender age back then.

I won’t bore you with a list of examples but the doomsday predictions surrounding the recent appearance of a certain comet have disappeared into nothingness as have those surrounding the planetary conjunction of which Bernard Howard spoke in the same edition of NZ Skeptic. I have no hesitation in claiming that Bruce Cathie is a charlatan whose books should be left sitting on the shelf.

Malcolm Watts, Wellington

Fear and Loathing in Tuatapere

That was never six months just then — it felt much longer. Banised to the depths of New Zealand, in Tuatapere (almost as far south west as you can get in the South Island), life took on a gentler pace. Momentous things did happen — the stoat population declined by 300 around where we were, and the yellowheads had a successful breeding season.

This, of course, was the reason for being in Tuatapere, town of instant coffee and swedes. David landed a contract with DoC monitoring and generally keeping an eye on the little native bush canary, which is highly vulnerable to predation. Rarer than 100 dollar notes they are, and as they prefer to hang out on the tops of mighty beech trees, they’re tricky to keep an eye on.

While things were quite in Tuataps (lulled to sleep by the roaring of stags in the paddock next door), events, of course, developed in the outside world.

The new millenium came and went without so much as a whimper. Our nine-year-old daughter Iris rather enjoyed the cockroach ads that were run well before the event, at a cost I hate to think about. Entertaining but on the redundant side perhaps.

After the non-event, folk from the Y2K Readiness Commission were heard to say there were no problems because of all the preparation work but what of all those countries where zilch was spent with the same result. The world was also gratifyingly free of doomsday cult hysteria over the period, although recent events in Uganda have somewhat blotted the global copybook.

Then came the release of Peter Ellis, the victim of the Christchurch Creche fiasco. The NZ Skeptic predicted a year or so before it all flared up that this country would experience a similar accusation to those plaguing the northern hemisphere — modern day witch hunts with all the fervour and hysteria of the Middle Ages. It is sad for Peter that we were right on this one; eight years gone out of his life.

Then there’s Liam, where things have developed, tragically, as we all expected they would.

Basically, things stumble along much as they always have and always will.

After spending so much time involved in threatened species work, it was interesting to hear recently about work on immunocontraception, which has now reached the stage of field trials with genetically modified carrots. These contain a protein which hopefully fools female possums into believing they’re already pregnant.

It could be a very effective, environmentally safe means of pest control which would mean wonderful times for birds like the yellowhead and parakeets. However, the recent public reaction agains genetic experiments bodes badly for the future, and at the very least guarantees the process will not be a straight-forward one.

We will have to wait and see. It’s ironic that the environmental movement may stand in the way of a technology which could be of huge benefit to the New Zealand environment.

Anyway, we’re on our way home now and will probably be there by the time this hits letterboxes. Speaking of which, be sure to send those dynamic, pithy contributions to Gordonton, and not Tuatapere.

Annette's signature


Bob Metcalfe (Forum NZ Skeptic 54) seems to be calling for a change in editorial policy on footnotes and references. This has been consistent throughout the history of this society and any change would completely alter the character of this journal. What do members want? I thank him for his apology. Anything that increases feedback on articles in NZ Skeptic and the numbers of letters in Forum is to be welcomed.

Continue reading

That Was the Decade That Wasn’t

Remember the ’90s? It was the decade when:

  • scientists discovered an anti-aging drug that stretched the normal lifespan to 150 years
  • Madonna gave birth to quintuplets
  • earthquakes transformed both San Diego and Los Angeles into islands
  • a Super Bowl had to be canceled because so many players were suspended for drug use, that both coaches couldn’t field a team

At least that’s what should have occurred if the world’s top psychics had been correct. People may be celebrating the new millennium, but the world’s top psychics shouldn’t be raising a glass of champagne to celebrate their successes for the 1990s, according to Gene Emery, a contributor to the magazine The Skeptical Inquirer, who has been tracking the hits and misses of the tabloid psychics for two decades.

And, Emery says, the folks who claim to be able to see the future also didn’t do very well in their forecasts for 1999. The psychics said 1999 would be the year that:

  • a pollution cloud forced New York City to be quarantined
  • Wynonna Judd quit country music to become a women’s wrestler
  • marijuana replaced petroleum as the nation’s chief source of energy
  • the cast of 60 Minutes II was replaced by Candice Bergen, Mary Tyler Moore and Margot Kidder
  • the Statue of Liberty lost both arms in a terrorist blast
  • Monica Lewinski became a millionaire after opening a New York boutique for the full-figured women called Monica’s Closet
  • O.J. Simpson confessed to Howard Stern on the air that he killed his ex-wife
  • Roseanne shed her clothes to do a week’s worth of talk shows from a nudist colony

“It’s always hard to find evidence that a psychic predicted an unexpected event before the fact,” said Emery, a science writer based in Providence, R.I. For example, the forecasts published with great fanfare in the supermarket tabloids failed to mention such surprising events as the massive earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan, the nuclear accident in Japan, or the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and sister-in-law.

Instead, said Emery, Anthony Carr, billed as “the world’s most documented psychic” by the National Examiner, is documented as predicting that Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy would give birth to healthy twins. And Sanjiv Mishra of India, described by the tabloid Sun as one of the ten “greatest psychics on Earth”, made the not-so-great forecast that JFK Jr. would fly “on a space shuttle mission in August” with John Glenn as his co-pilot.

Tracking the psychics is fun, but it has a serious side, said Emery.

“Every time the media hypes psychics, it encourages consumers to waste large amounts of money calling psychic hotlines. Most can ill afford it. It also encourages some police departments to listen to psychics who claim to be able to solve crimes. Not only do ‘psychic detectives’ waste valuable police resources, the psychics sometimes implicate people who later turn out to be innocent.”

Emery said psychics give the illusion of being accurate when people forget the bad predictions or don’t realize how equivocal the forecasts are. Psychic Sylvia Browne, for example, predicted that in 1999 “the Pope will become ill and could die.” Said Emery: “That means she can claim success if the Pope suffers anything from a head cold to a fatal heart attack.” (Browne’s notable predictions for 1999 included forecasts of cures for breast cancer and sudden infant death syndrome [SIDS]. She also said that “The world will not end anytime soon.”) Some of the unambiguous forecasts the psychics were making for the 1990s:

  • Soviet cosmonauts will be shocked to discover an abandoned alien space station with the bodies of several extraterrestrials aboard
  • Fidel Castro will be jailed after his government is overthrown “in a massive revolt”
  • cancer will be cured
  • Oprah Winfrey will marry the next mayor of Washington, D.C.
  • the first successful human brain transplant will be performed
  • public water supplies will be treated with chemicals that will prevent AIDS
  • American voters will be able to cast their ballots using touch tone telephones
  • deep sea vacation dives to the Titanic will become commonplace

On a local note, NZCSICOP continues to have a good batting average with predictions. In 1998, we got 80% of our predictions. In 1998, we got 80% of our predictions correct versus 0% for the psychics. At the beginning of 1999, Denis Dutton and Vicki Hyde fronted up against the psychics again for a Holmes piece; however, the year-end review did not take place this year but we are pleased to note that we got three out of five right (possibly four — we can’t remember the final prediction!).

The statistically likely airplane crash we predicted came true (pick a crash in the busy months and bad weather of August or April with airline livery of blue or red and you’ve got a good chance of being right.)

There was death as a result of a volcanic eruption in Central America (we’d been betting privately on Popocatapetl in Mexico, which was bubbling away the week before we made the prediction, but a volcano in Ecuador proved more “obliging” later in the year; fortunately only one death).

Most significantly, for some, the much-scoffed-at prediction that “despite being odds-on favourites the All Blacks would not make the finals of the World Cup” did come true. We’d been looking forward to saying that we were delighted to be wrong and acclaim their victory; fate provided otherwise.

Counselling may harm crash victims

People involved in incidents such as rail crashes, bombings or armed robberies may suffer more in the long run if they undergo intensive counselling, some psychologists believe.

“Debriefing” – in which victims or emergency services personnel are encouraged to talk about their experience – may not help people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In certain circumstances it may even make their symptoms worse, the British Psychological Association conference in Brighton was told last week.

Debriefing involves a one-off session held between 24 and 72 hours after the event. Counsellors take an individual or a group through the incident, encouraging them to talk through their emotions. In a study commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive, researchers from Birkbeck College, London, and the University of Sussex analysed the results of seven trials. They found no evidence that debriefing helped victims in the long term, but there was evidence that it harmed them.

“At best its efficacy is neutral, and at worst it can be damaging,” said Dr Jo Ricks, principal research fellow at the Institute of Employment Studies at the University of Sussex.

“In one study of victims of road traffic accidents, those suffering from severe post-traumatic stress had worse symptoms a year after the accident if they underwent debriefing than those who did not.”

Symptoms included flashbacks, emotional numb- ness and a heightened sense of fear. Dr Ricks said 75% of victims overcame their post-traumatic stress disorder without debriefing.

Sarah Hall, writing in the Guardian Weekly (13-1-2000, p8)

Eileen Bone

It’s a great privilege to have known Eileen, her warmth, her wit and her sharp mind undimmed by her failing health. In the last few years, when she might forget the word for something, she knew what she wanted to say about it.

Continue reading

UFOs & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery

UFOs & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery, by Robert E. Bartholomew & George S. Howard; 1998. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, US. ISBN 1-57392-200-5

Readers of NZ Skeptic will have seen R.E. Bartholomew’s article “The Great Zeppelin Scare of 1909” in last autumn’s issue, no 47. This covered the same event as one of the chapters in this book. Several other chapters describe similar episodes which occurred in other times and other places, and in a final section all these are woven into a coherent story. Each chapter is supported by a copious list of references, most of them newspaper reports pubished during the development and decay of the case concerned.

In addition to detailed factual accounts, each episode is placed in its social and historical setting, with an explanation of why the different experiences took the form they did.

Previous psychological commentators have labelled the “experiencers” of the events described in this book, mostly on very little evidence, as in some way mentally sick. Bartholomew and Howard disagree; their careful psychological analysis of over one hundred such people found no evidence of psychopathology, but rather “Fantasy Prone Personality” (FPP).

“While functioning as normal, healthy adults, FPPs experience rich fantasy lives, scoring dramatically higher…on hypnotic susceptibility, psychic ability, healing, out-of-body experiences, religious visions, and apparitional experiences. In our study, “abductees” and “contactees” evidence a similar pattern of characteristics to FPPs.”

The experiences of these individuals mirrored the concerns of the society in which they lived. Thus, in late 19th century, United States, the achievement of powered flight was thought to be imminent, and a host of “airship” sightings were reported.

Just before World War I, when the British were very nervous of Germany’s growing military strength especially its lead in airship development, zeppelins were seen by thousands all over England.

In Sweden in 1946, fear of the German V-rockets recently acquired by the USSR was widespread, and hundreds of reports of missile sightings were published. And so for other cases, including, of course, the 1947 sighting of “flying saucers” in the western US and all that flowed from it.

The objects in the latter case were described by aviator Kenneth Arnold as skipping along “like a saucer would…across the water”, and this gave rise to a deluge of “flying saucer” sightings, although Arnold had said the objects he saw were crescent- not saucer-shaped.

These objects were at first almost everywhere considered to be of terrestrial origin, as secret weapons or aircraft, either “ours” or “theirs” of the cold war. Only after a few years did belief suddenly switch to an extra-terrestial origin; the authors ascribe this to two best-selling books.

Wherever and whenever the events described in this book occurred, some common features are apparent. Firstly, the technology imputed to the “visitors” is just a little ahead of contemporary achievement. Thus:

  • the US airship sightings of the 1890s preceded the Wright brothers’ flight by almost a decade
  • early reports of aeroplanes were all sightings at night, at a time when night flying had barely been attempted
  • the New Zealand Zeppelin scare of 1909 occurred many years before flights of such dirigibles in the Antipodes were possible

A second common theme is the way these stories wax and wane. Initial incidents were widely reported, and the numbers rose rapidly. After a while, as physical evidence obstinately refused to reveal itself, editors denounced the reports as hoaxes or the reporters as deluded (despite the prominence many of these same editors had given the initial reports).

Following these skeptical editorials, the number of incidents being claimed fell greatly — were they still being experienced, but by people now shunning ridicule, or did the editorial expressions of disbelief change the FPPs’ inclination to fantasise?

The extent and depth of the newspaper reports on which most of this book is based are truly amazing. Think of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of papers in the UK and US of similar circulation to the Geraldine Guardian and Clutha Leader (both quoted largely in the chapter on the New Zealand Zeppelin Scare), think of over 100 years of publishing, and contemplate the enormous database which provides these stories.

The reliance on this local reporting has one disadvantage — the notoriously monoglot English-speaking world gets told in this book very little of UFOs and “aliens” as reported in foreign language newspapers.

The main impression left by this book is to confirm the conclusion that our minds and senses can easily deceive us. So often “seeing is believing” should be read “believing is seeing”. The bizarre examples described here provide a wide background of rationality against which to view, and judge, the further phenomena which are sure to be presented to us.