In Mendels Footnotes: An Introduction to the Science and Technologies of Genes and Genetics from the 19th century to the 22nd, by Colin Tudge. Jonathan Cape, $59.95.Continue reading
A $110,000 prize offered by Australian Skeptics Incorporated is safe after testing a world record number of water diviners at Mitta Mitta on Sunday. A total of 52 diviners, or dowsers, used an array of forked sticks, fencing wire, copper wire and bare hands to test their ability to divine water in surface containers on a green of the Mitta Mitta golf course.
Twenty two-litre bottles were filled with either tap water or sand, wrapped in brown paper, numbered and positioned in a large circle. Diviners were able to calibrate their equipment before the start and had only to identify the contents of each bottle without time restrictions. Sigrid Condon, a Mt Beauty mother with no divining experience, up-staged the line-up of professionals with the highest score of 14 out of 20 correct.
Bob Nixon, chief inspector of the Skeptics, said all scores fell into an expected pattern of random results – “The scores skewed towards failure: there were more bad scores below 10”, said Mr Nixon.
“We weren’t surprised. It was exactly what we predicted would happen.”
Midway through the test, a hostile group of diviners demanded Mr Nixon reposition the bottles, claiming interference from underground streams.
“We asked them to draw a map of the area and seven marked out streams, but there was absolutely no correlation between them”, Mr Nixon said.
The test was almost thrown into disarray when a dog, belonging to a Skeptics member, left his watery mark on one of the packages, calling a temporary halt to competition.
Mr Nixon said the event represented a new world record for the most diviners tested at the same place in one day, and the result added to the body of evidence accumulated over the past 20 years that divining is nothing more than random guessing.
Berrigan dairy farmer and diviner Shane Spunner was skeptical of the Skeptics’ ability to stage a fair test. “The test should have been made fairer by finding an area with no underground water”, he said.
From The Weekly Times, Victoria, Southern NSW, 14 March 2001.
My brain hurts. I havent used it in some years, so theres no surprise really. After managing to avoid external employment for a goodly time, a job has finally got its teeth into me and wont let go. Which is not to say Ive been totally lazy at home these past years, theres been free-lunch work to do and projects such as the NZ Skeptic to help pass time. But all of these could be done in the privacy of ones own home, dressed in striped jarmies if the mood took and it often did.Continue reading
A new book on alternative medicine has little to add
Last year, I wrote to the Minister of Health protesting at her plans to spend $600 000 on a Ministerial Enquiry into Complementary Medicine. Press reports quoted the Minister as saying that acupuncture was an example of an alternative technique that is now accepted as mainstream.
In my letter I said that acupuncture had never been shown to be better than placebo. Frank Haden followed up my protest with a supportive article in the Sunday Times and this is where the fun began.
A Dr Robin Kelly wrote criticising me, and accusing me of acting unethically. In my response to him I made an error of fact, which he pointed out to me. But the interesting thing about his reply was that he claimed I was losing the battle because of misinformation, a point that I will revisit.
On October 17 Dr Kelly was interviewed by Kim Hill on the National Programme in her Nine to Noon show. My name came up several times, for which I am, of course, very flattered. The interview was basically an advertisement for Dr Kelly’s new book, Healing Ways (Penguin New Zealand, 2000), but several points in the discussion intrigued me.
Kim Hill said she was sure Dr Kelly could explain to her how an anaesthetic worked. Now, I am a consultant anaesthetist with some twenty years experience, and if I could explain fully how a general anaesthetic worked I would immediately put in for a Nobel Prize. General anaesthesia is a complex process, and although many aspects are understood there are still large and fundamental gaps in our knowledge of exactly what happens during general anaesthesia. Maybe Dr Kelly can explain how an anaesthetic works, but I’ll lay a bet that he cannot.
Kim Hill then invited him to explain how acupuncture works. After several assurances that he would do so, Dr Kelly failed. He said that an acupuncture needle acts like an aerial, allowing contact from the outside to the inside. Well, in his explanation the needle sounds more like a conductor than an aerial. Is he saying that acupuncture needles must be metal, and not bamboo for instance?
Dr Kelly then told us that much research was proceeding at Monash University. Well maybe it is, but it is the results we want, not the assurance that the research is being done.
Dr Kelly stated that I would benefit from some acupuncture, though he did not state for which condition I needed it. He also said that what he was on about was enhancing the placebo effect. But hold on. Was he not criticising me for saying that acupuncture had not been shown to be any better than placebo?
You can’t have it both ways Dr Kelly!
Throughout his interview, Dr Kelly was at pains to say the material was covered in his book. I went and bought a copy of Healing Ways, much to my wife’s annoyance as she predicted it would be a total waste of money. How right she was (a very wise woman is Mrs Sharpe.)
I wish I could in all honesty say that I have read Healing Ways, but try as I did I just could not READ it. So Dr Kelly will be able to claim I have missed vital material. I was merely able to dip into it and read small sections.
To be fair, Healing Ways has some valid and potentially useful material. Dr Kelly emphasises the importance of listening to patients, and writes empathetically about dealing with dying patients and their families. I did not, however, find anything particularly new or startling in this material.
The rest of the book is a mix of many current trendy alternative claims. Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, homoeopathy, applied kinesiology, Gaia hypothesis, healing touch, prayer therapy… you name it, it’s there!
I was particularly amused at the contention that Dr Benveniste is a leading researcher in water memory. Readers will remember the good Dr B. and his thoroughly discredited paper on water memory and homoeopathy in Nature back in 1988.
Another enjoyably silly section in the book deals with breathing. Apparently we should focus our breathing on our navels, because that is where we got our oxygen before birth. Dr Kelly advises that we watch how a baby breathes and learn from this natural breathing pattern. It is a pity that he does not revise his physiology lessons from medical school. Babies breathe the way they do for a number of reasons, but the end result is that the oxygen cost of breathing is proportionately much higher. Also, a baby does not have a functional reserve volume to the same extent that an adult does. Therefore any interruption to breathing in a baby is more likely to result in hypoxia. I do not think we want to run the same risks.
All in all, Healing Ways is an irrational collection of trendy claims, lacking any evidence of scientific validity.
What concerns me about Healing Ways is that I expect this to be typical of the “evidence” that will be presented to Annette King’s enquiry. I have told Ms King that the enquiry will be a waste of time and money. If I am correct about the material that will be presented, I will take no great pride in being proved correct.
I will however concede the final round to Dr Kelly. He said that I was losing the battle because of misinformation. Having heard his interview with Kim Hill, and read the greater part of his book, I am inclined to agree, with the proviso that we recognise that it is people like Dr Kelly who are providing that misinformation!
Recently returned from a posting in Saudi Arabia and now suffering from a cold and a bleeding nose, John Welch continues his column on medical matters.
As a Fellow of the Royal NZ College of General Practitioners (it came in the cornflakes) I receive a regular copy of their journal, the NZ Family Physician. There are some good contributions but I find it irritating to see reviews of homeopathy studies appearing in what should be a serious and scientifically based journal. In Vol 27 Issue 5, a study is reviewed in which mice were given nux vomica 30c, 200c and 1000c. 30c means that the “active” substance has been diluted 10 to the power 30 times. A mole of a substance contains about 10 to the power 24 atoms (Avogadro’s number) and this means that the 10-30 dilution is extremely unlikely to contain any active material. This is the main failing point of homeopathy, which depends on faith and the placebo effect. In the study reviewed a positive finding was made that mice treated with various dilutions of nux vomica, and then challenged with ethanol, regained their righting reflex more quickly. Such a result is a delusion.
I would add from my perspective: “The abuse of science will cause discomfort for many scientists.”
The same issue contains an article which should not have been published as it is a commercial for the use of Vega (read “vaguer” and you are on the right track) testing. There is no place for this unscientific rubbish to be practised by any medical practitioner and it is a matter of regret that the Medical Council do not have the power to ban the use of such machines. I have written before on the subject of this quackery and at the last Auckland Conference Dr David Cole gave an excellent presentation on the evolution of “black-boxes” which allegedly test “biofields”. The article frequently uses the following words and expressions (with my translations):
A double-blind randomised study of Vega-testing published in the BMJ (Vol 322, 20 Jan p131) concluded predictably: “Electrodermal testing cannot be used to diagnose environmental allergies.”
Because a young girl was having trouble bonding with her adoptive mother, a couple of loony therapists decided she had a “reactive attachment disorder” and decided that a spot of rebirthing was in order. This unfortunately went tragically wrong when the girl suffocated inside the sheet which had been wound around her. This is a graphic reminder of the sometimes appalling outcomes associated with the activities of the lunatic fringe. It need not actively cause death as in this case, but can cause death by neglect when effective measures are denied such as in the Liam Holloway case.
(Sunday Star Times 22/4/01)
Subjects had their reaction times tested with and without the benefit of essential oils sprinkled onto surgical masks they were wearing. I will quote directly from the article: “The essential oils appeared to make no difference to reaction times, but the volunteers who rated the oils highly showed small improvements in their reaction times.” (Presumably not a significant difference).
“Dr Richard Tonkin, president of the Research Council for Complementary Medicine, said the power of suggestion was a big factor in all medicine.”
I would only add that the power of suggestion is the main factor in all complemetary medicine.
(The Dominion, 20 April)
One of the problems of an aging population is that there are too many “old wives” promulgating myths about childhood illness. Twenty-five years ago, my old Professor of Paediatrics, Fred Shannon, gave a lecture to us with the above title, and observed among other things, that wind was a meteorological phenomenon. He must have been ahead of his time because Australian researchers found no link between ill-health and teething in a cohort of infants over the period of 6-24 months of age. It is obvious that chance events such as a minor illness will occur when a tooth is erupting and a folk myth is soon created. When death certification began in the UK in the early 1800s, as many as 4000 deaths annually were attributed to “teething”. As Fred Shannon observed: “teething causes teeth”. I certainly found this to be true with my own series (N=2 daughters) of cases.
I have mentioned this subject before but thought it to be an uncommon procedure. In the US (where else?) two men pleaded guilty to practising medicine without a licence after drilling a hole in the head of a woman’s skull in order to “restore her childhood buoyancy”. Now I have been doing quite a bit of swimming lately and I am very sure that a hole in the head would not help my bouyancy at all!
At a medicolegal conference reported in Doctor 14/3/2001, Fiona McCrimmon called for the Ministry of Health to act against the manufacturers of complementary medicines where misleading claims are made. Pharmacies are full of such products which are not registered and are only lawful if they do not make any therapeutic claims. Ms McCrimmon went on to observe: “It is a challenge to find a flyer (for complementary therapies) that complies with the law.”
Goethe’s Faust is a tale of the supernatural. According to a famous passage, on Walpurgisnacht a witch’s sabbat was celebrated on top of the Brocken, a mountain in the Black Forest. Old maps show this point circled by witches on broomsticks. Although probably not a very ancient tradition, it grabbed the imagination of 19th century romantics. They claimed at certain times magical visions could be seen from the peak. Even though no witches were visible on the mountain, gigantic shadowy figures were projected onto the clouds; the Spectre of the Brocken.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica “this phenomenon is often observed on mountain peaks” but even the non-supernatural explanations seem unbelievable. According to the Britannica “When the sun is low, shadows cast by the sun become magnified and seemingly gigantic silhouettes are cast on the upper surfaces of low-lying clouds or fog below the mountain.”
A later entry is contradictory: “The apparent magnification of size is an optical illusion that occurs when the observer judges his shadow on nearby clouds to be the same distance as faraway objects seen through gaps in the clouds.”
So is the magnification real or an illusion? As the sun’s rays are practically parallel, any shadow cast by the sun remains the same size as the object. Thus a shadow at even a modest distance from the observer can only seem small. In justification Britannica mentions the common sight of an aeroplane’s shadow cast on clouds beneath, but a jumbo jet casts a decent sized shadow, a human sized shadow would be insignificant.
In spite of many literary references (De Quincey for example) first-hand accounts of “the Spectre” by first-rate observers seem non-existent. (Does any reader know of any?). But some accounts state that the figures seem frightened of the observer and rush away as soon as they are seen.
The whole thing seems ridiculous, or so I thought until I saw the phenomenon myself in New Zealand. In fact I have observed this effect twice-which considering the time I have spent in the mountains, implies it is a relatively rare event.
The first occasion was when climbing a ridge above the Wangapeka River in what is now Kahurangi National Park. The sun rose over another ridge behind us and gigantic shadow figures appeared on the hillside across the valley. Before I had fully grasped what was happening they had shrunk down to normal size, where they were just visible. At least that explained the accounts of figures “rushing away”, they simply got smaller, and very rapidly too.
The explanation was quite obvious to anybody with some knowledge of optics; light is refracted when passing over an edge. The first gleam of sunlight over the ridge was bent into a widening beam that produced a huge shadow as effectively as a point of light projects an enlarged shadow onto a screen. The bush-clad hillside opposite us acted as a screen on which we could see the projection. But as the sun rose, the refraction diminished until enough of the sun was visible to produce the normal parallel rays with which we are familiar. So the initial large shadow quickly shrank to normal size.
Was this illusion awe-inspiring? Was it even an illusion? Were we frightened? Was it immediately obvious that we were observing our own shadows not supernatural entities? Well no, no, no, and yes. My wife, the complete skeptic, summed up, “Why make a fuss about shrinking shadows?”
I am confident that I can explain the reports of run-away shadows in mountain regions. The conditions necessary for observing this phenomenon seem to be that the sun must rise over a not too distant sharp edge, the air should be still and very clear. The observers be on a minor peak or ridge, and the projection be onto a fairly plain surface.
Does this explain the “Spectre of the Brocken” better than the Encyclopaedia? Well to be honest, no. The Brocken is the highest mountain around. So how could the sun rise over a sharp edge unless other peaks are very close? I doubt that clouds can ever have sufficiently sharp edges to produce the effect.
Perhaps the Spectre of the Brocken is as real as the reports there of witches, while its magical reputation has seen it acquire stories of phenomenon that are real in other mountainous areas.
I would’ve thought the main hazard from mobile phones was the increased risk of accident when using one in the car. No-one seems to worry about this, however, instead many are deeply concerned that a few milliwatts of radio waves are going to fry their brains. This has opened tremendous opportunities for the enterprising.
Last issue we reported on the Personal Harmoniser, which minimised radiation effects by strengthening and protecting the body’s immune system. But new on the market is the BioChip, which attacks the root of the problem. It fits into the battery of a mobile phone, from where it emits a signal which disrupts the strong, regular electrical impulse which experts say can damage the cells of the brain. The chip raises the cost of a battery by around a third. Which sounds okay until you remember that with the connection deals now available, the batteries are often the most expensive part of the phone.
(Christchurch Press, 6 January)
If you’ve felt vaguely uneasy about Pokemon and its possible adverse effects on children, but couldn’t quite put your finger on the precise nature of the problem, Saudi Arabia’s most senior Islamic clerics have figured it out: Pokemon is too Jewish. According to a fatwa issued by Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheik, all Muslims should beware of this game and prevent their children from playing it so as to protect their religion and manners.
The clerics said the concept of the game’s characters appeared to be based on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and most of the cards figure six-pointed stars, a symbol of international Zionism and the state of Israel.
(Evening Post, 26 March)
Everyone’s favourite spoon-bender renewed his vows to wife of ten years, Hanna, in March. The event probably would have been overlooked by the world’s media if it hadn’t been for his choice of Best Man-Michael Jackson!
(Dominion, 6 March)
High profile sceptical parapsychologist Richard Wiseman has been a busy boy. First he was making headlines around the world with his investigations of the ghost of Henry VIII’s wife Catherine Howard, who was beheaded in 1540, but is said to still stalk the corridors of London’s Hampton Court Palace. Just bodies of cold air and some unusual draughts, he said on that occasion.
But things in Edinburgh seem, at this stage, rather more interesting. Wiseman has sent 240 volunteers into the cells of Edinburgh Castle, and cellars in the bowels of the mediaeval “Old Town”.
Nearly half the guinea pigs reported ghostly goings-on, although most were (again) no more dramatic than a sudden drop in temperature, an uncomfortable draught or a feeling of being watched. But one person reported a burning sensation on the arm, and another was nearly reduced to tears by breathing noises in the corner of the room.
Wiseman says the reports are much more extreme than expected, and, importantly, the highest number of experiences came in vaults already reputed to be haunted. But he won’t be a believer until he gets something on film. Meanwhile, local tourist guides are said to be “delighted” at the findings.
(Waikato Times, 19 April)
You probably knew this anyway, but the Indian Rope Trick is a hoax, it’s never been performed.
Peter Lamont, a former president of the Magic Circle in Edinburgh (that place again!) and now a researcher at the city’s university, found that the story was invented by the Chicago Tribune 111 years ago as part of a subscription drive. Little notice was taken of a short note the paper published four months later admitting the article had been a publicity stunt. It was assumed readers would realise it was a hoax because the story was bylined Fred S Ellmore.
Supposedly, the trick involves a boy climbing an unsupported rope and disappearing at the top. He is followed up the rope by a man with a sword who also disappears, before parts of the boy’s body fall from the sky into a basket. The man reappears and tips out the basket, revealing the boy to be in perfect health. Various attempts at explaining the trick have been made, including the involvement of twin boys, one of whom would actually be murdered.
(Evening Post, 16 April)
Mailboxes around the country have been bombarded with letters from a self-proclaimed “highly-regarded psychic” offering information about how to win more than $300 000. A reader has sent one in here, and a columnist at the Waikato Times received two, each talking about different amounts of money, and involving different dates. Now the Commerce Commission has released a statement urging recipients to throw the letters away.
The psychic, going under the name Antoinette de Ville (no relation of Cruella?) claims to have dreamed of the recipients winning a large amount of money, which usually varies from letter to letter. While she would normally charge $1000-2000 for such a service (her clients include many celebrities and movie stars, apparently), the dream was so powerful she felt compelled to contact the recipient directly, and would only charge a “handling fee” of $59 on this occasion for providing the information necessary to make the winnings a reality. A money back guarantee is offered.
Whangarei police Detective Senior Sergeant Marty Ruth says there was nothing police could do unless a deliberate intent to defraud could be proved. You have to wonder what level of evidence is necessary.
(Evening Post, 9 April)
Harry Potter fans who want to enrol in a real school for witches and wizards can now do so at the Isle of Avalon Foundation, near Glastonbury Tor in the west of England. Avalon coordinator Colette Barnard says the foundation has taught 350 people Goddess skills and Wicca traditions since 1995, and currently has 185 students. Now, they are offering a part-time course on witchcraft for the 21st century.
(Evening Post, 7 April)
The corpse of former Nigerian soccer captain Sam “Zagallo” Opone, who died last November, is being held by a witch doctor until he has recovered money owed to him for the player’s treatment. Opone was being treated by the witch doctor who discontinued treatment claiming unpaid bills. When he died (must have been the treatments that were keeping him alive) the witch doctor refused to give up the corpse to the family until he had been paid about US$1200.
(Dominion, 17 April)
Not many cruise passengers want to talk about death on their vacation, but the Intuitive Vision Network has just conducted a week-long Psychic and Spiritual Healing Cruise on the liner Norwegian Sky for those who want to combine a cruise with life-transforming experiences. Clairvoyants, channellers and “intuitives” offer the chance to speak with the departed and explore the metaphysical.
The ship sails a round trip from Miami to Nassau, San Juan, St Thomas and Great Stirrup Cay. Hmm, that’s along the southern edge of the Bermuda Triangle…
(Dominion, 27 February)
Skeptics Chair-Entity Vicki Hyde and her family were recently involved in a car accident near Timaru. While the rest of the Hydes escaped with minor scrapes and bruises, Vicki has a broken leg and has spent several days in Timaru Hospital. Opinions are divided as to whether this was an Act of God in retribution for sins unspecified, or an instance of divine protection, without which things would have been much worse. No word has yet been heard as to whether the Hyde family has been offered counselling, or, if so, whether it has been accepted.
The Christchurch Press noted the event in their Diary section (21 April), observing that a skeptical colleague was quick to spot an opportunity. Why not offer her leg as a test for people claiming to be able to heal at a distance? However, for a properly conducted scientific experiment, both of Ms Hyde’s legs would have had to be broken, to provide a control. Keen though she was to test paranormal claims, she says she had to draw the line somewhere.
Howard Bezar and Denis Curtain
Scientific support for organic farming isn’t all it seems
An article appeared in the Canterbury Digest in December, 2000, claiming organic foods have ‘superior nutritive value’. The article, titled “Rapid growth in organic products” was by Seager Mason, Technical and Certification Manager for Bio-Gro New Zealand. It contained a table headed “Scientists prove superior nutritive value of organic food”. The table presented data showing large nutritional advantages of five “organic” vegetables over “inorganic” vegetables. The source was said to be “Researchers at Rutgers University”.
A search of the internet revealed that over 20 websites have published this material together with some commentary. The websites attribute the data to F. E. Bear of Rutgers University. On further investigation the original paper was identified. This paper was published 52 years ago and is titled “Variation in mineral composition of vegetables” by F. E Bear, S. J. Toth and A. L. Prince, published in 1948 in the Proceedings of the Soil Science Society of America Volume 13: pages 380-384.
The article grossly misrepresents the work of scientists who are now deceased and unable to defend their research. More seriously, the information is false and misleading to readers of Canterbury Digest as well as people using the internet as a source of information and who will not have an opportunity the check the data presented against results in the original, 52-year old research paper.
The deliberate misuse of scientific information in this way is a serious concern in that it undermines public confidence in science, it undermines the credibility of any organization using the information without checking the original source, and it undermines the editorial integrity of any media using the data without first checking with reliable expertise before publishing.
Seager Mason’s claims in relation to this paper are inaccurate on several counts. He claims that the researchers “set out to disprove the claim that organic is better”. Not so. The stated purpose of the paper was to examine the effects of variation in environmental factors (principally soil type and climate) on mineral concentrations in vegetables. At no point in the paper were the terms “organic” and “inorganic” production used or implied. In fact, there were no comparisons between vegetables grown in “organic” and “inorganic” systems. In essence, the study was a survey of the mineral contents of five vegetable crops sampled in ten US states with widely differing climatic conditions and soil types.
Mason claims that the “researchers purchased selections of produce at supermarkets and health food stores”. Not so. The paper clearly states that “samples of cabbage, lettuce, snap beans, spinach, and tomatoes were obtained from commercial fields of these crops.” Management practices used to grow the crops were not specified.
The results in the paper of Bear et al. were summarised in the form of Tables showing the lowest and highest values recorded for each crop. Mason misrepresents these results by indicating that the highest values were obtained for organically produced crops and that the lowest values came from crops grown by inorganic methods. There is absolutely no justification for this. As pointed out above, vegetables representing “organic” and “inorganic” production methods were not even included in the study.
The summary remark that “organic foods are three to 100 times more nutritious (than inorganic food)” bears no relation to the contents of the paper published by the Rutgers scientists. It is certainly ridiculous to claim that “many essential elements were completely absent in the commercial (i.e., inorganic) produce”. Plants just will not grow in the absence of essential elements!
The labels on columns of data are transposed, the molybdenum column has been left out and some other transcription errors are apparent. This means that the ash content is reported as phosphorus, the calcium column as sodium, etc. All the columns are wrongly labeled except for cobalt.
Further points to note in relation to this paper are:
Footnote: Seager Mason and Canterbury Digest editor Simon Nutt have since apologised for the article.
Aoraki Polytechnic has paid former naturopathy students $515 000 for falsely advertising their course had degree status. The students were seeking $4 million in compensation.Continue reading
Being a skeptical parent in New Zealand isn’t always easy, but it has its rewards. This was originally presented to the Skeptics’ World Convention in Sydney, in November.
When I became head of the New Zealand Skeptics seven years ago, the irrepressible Denis Dutton had great delight in ringing the major newspapers to announce the fact that the organisation had elected someone who was female, of Maori descent and pregnant.
“How more politically correct can you get?” he crowed triumphantly. I don’t know about elsewhere around the world, but for some reason the New Zealand Skeptics are rarely seen as PC.
What Denis didn’t know was that the gravid situation provided me with a great excuse to pass back to him the many invitations to speak to seemingly innumerable numbers of Rotarians, Roundtablers, Lions, Great Elks and other assorted male mammalian service groups. There’s nothing surer than saying you’re pregnant to get an all-male group to back off hurriedly.
I like to think of it as part of my personal crusade to singlehandedly boost the skeptical population of our country.
I must say that people seem to delight in predicting that my sons are going to grow up to be Sensitive New Age Guys. If they really want to make me nervous they add that David and Perry will be New Age, rugby-playing accountants who’ll end up working for Treasury. I can’t see it somehow – after all, they’re both fire signs…though I do find it a bit worrying that my seven-year-old has started paying attention to the stockmarket reports and cheering every time Telecom drops a few more points.
Of course, his interest-and incidentally the reason why the bulk of this audience is male-is explicable. According to psychologist Bertrand Cramer, it all relates to early adolescent experimentation with gender-specific body parts. Most notably that manipulation which causes said body parts to move and retract, which, according to Cramer:
“…presents the boy with a particular challenge in the development of the body image; this may contribute to his interest in machinery, physics and the like.
“The boy’s better spatial sense relates to the greater use he makes of space in motor activity; the ability the boy has to perceive his sexual organ may also contribute to a better representation of space and to his better skill and greater interest in experimental science and mathematics.”
One can only conclude from this that women should be over-represented as mining engineers, tunnellers and speleologists….
I must confess to a certain degree of scepticism concerning the relationship between gross, so-to-speak, anatomy and an interest in science or its handmaiden, skepticism.
I attribute my interest in skepticism to my early fascination with science and science fiction, thanks to writers such as Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov. In both their fiction and non-fiction, they posed questions and looked for answers, they acknowledged the sometimes-tentative nature of their conclusions, they changed their minds when the facts built up against them. Their science was not the boring stuff of school textbooks, but involved real people trying to find answers to all manner of questions.
They raised real concerns about where the world was heading long before anyone had started worrying about the H-bomb or the China Syndrome, Dolly the cloned sheep, or global warming.
Of course, by no means have all their predictions of the future been accurate ones; nor have the predictions made from respected scientists or the even more highly respected astrologers. Arthur C Clarke knew this when he postulated his First Law which states that:
…when a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
There are times when this Law is overthrown, as noted in Isaac Asimov’s Corollary to Clarke’s First Law:
…when the lay public rallies round an idea that is denounced by distinguished but elderly scientists, and supports that idea with great fervour and emotion, the distinguished but elderly scientists are then, after all, right.
And while I read Asimov and Clarke and Sagan and Feynman, I was also reading Velikovsky and von Daniken. I tried experiments with Rhine Cards and fervently scanned the skies hoping for a close encounter of my very own. I drew up natal horoscopes in my astrophysics labs, and made more money off astrological charts than I ever did from writing astronomy columns.
But throughout it all, my tendency to ask questions, to try and look at all sides of an issue, stuck with me. That was helped by a goodly dose of debating at school and university level, probably one reason why I tend to be an equivocator.
And, if I want to get Freudian, I can blame my father. He was a staunch non-believer in gravity, and we had lots of arguments about air pressure, centrifugal forces, Newton and apples. I’m still not sure to this day whether he was having me on or not, but it taught me never to accept things at face value.
The latter is something we could all do well to remember. I think the most stunning example of this I’ve seen came from a speaker we had after our annual skeptics dinner one year. We’d settled back in our chairs and were presented with the following conundrum:
Two men – James and John – are in a room. James is taller than John. John is taller than James.
How do you explain that? Just think about it for a moment. James is taller than John. John is taller than James.
Well, we had a room of 100 or so skeptics, the most critical minds in the country, and the suggested explanations were legion, not to mention ingenious. I’m sure many of you have already thought of similar solutions to the ones we came up with:
James is standing on a box but John is actually taller.
The floor slopes.
James was taller but then some time passed and John grew taller than James.
The gravitational field is different in different parts of the room.
By the time we started to argue about the effect of singularities, the speaker called a halt and put us out of our misery. There were two obvious explanations that we had failed to come up with:
He was lying OR he was mistaken.
We’re just not taught to be suspicious enough. As a species, we’re suckers for the confident conman. It’s laughable when it’s some guy with a toy submarine drumming up some tourism in a local loch; it’s not so funny when we’re asked to believe that another part of the human race is inferior based on their skin colouring or religion.
I find it sad that few people bother to ask questions. It’s an indictment really of how little critical thought enters our lives, how rarely people are prepared to think, really think, about issues that may affect them. This holds as true for any activity in which we participate, whether it’s debates on astronomy and astrology, alternative medicines and health reforms, or the way in which we choose our political representatives.
I remain highly skeptical about acupuncture and its uses, but didn’t really start to question it until a mother in my local baby group announced that her acupuncturist had said the best way to treat a baby with a fever was to bleed it. “That’s positively medieval” I gasped, only to be reassured “oh no, it’s much older than that, it’s Chinese.”
I knew this woman wasn’t going to be interested in a tirade, but I pointed out just how little blood a small baby has to lose before it gets into dire trouble. She could see what I was getting at. But maybe only because I was the closest pseudo-authority figure at the time.
Some of these women refuse to have their toddlers immunised because it’s not natural. Somehow it’s more healthy for their children to get diseases – they’ve had measles, mumps and whooping cough so far. These are women who worry about radiation from their microwaves and electric blankets, but who drive their kids around in their urban combat vehicles without safety belts. These are women who listen to the health shop staff and buy heaps of herbs, royal jelly and megavitamins, but who automatically distrust anything to do with Western conventional medicine.
You can’t argue with them, that’s confrontational. Yet you can’t leave them to their wilful ignorance unless you’re willing to accept that the price of the New Age is an uninformed populace making decisions based on supposition and superstition.
And why worry about some ditzy women? Well, it’s said that if you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate an entire family.
I believe that we each have a responsibility as individuals, as parents, as citizens to be educated – that doesn’t mean sending everyone off to university. What it means is having enough nous to ask questions until we can understand or, perhaps more importantly, can recognise our lack of understanding. It also requires us – whether operating as card-carrying members of the Skeptics, or simply as friends and parents – to encourage questions, to provide alternative viewpoints, to make our case effectively.
If you explain homeopathic solutions in terms of a teaspoonful of gin stirred into a Pacific Ocean of tonic, people can immediately grasp what you’re getting at when you challenge the idea of potent dilutions. Start talking in terms of moles, millifibles or inverse powers of ten and you’ve lost them.
The New Zealand Skeptics had toyed with killing two birds with one stone by taking on the homeopaths and the urine-quaffers simultaneously – we figured we’d take a glass of urine, dilute it homeopathically way past any chance of a single molecule of urine remaining and invite the press along to see the “Skeptics Take the Piss out of Homeopathy”. We weren’t confident we could explain the maths to the representatives of the Fourth Estate however.
If you encourage people to stop and think about it, they know that it doesn’t seem all that likely that a civilisation immeasurably more advanced than ours would want to travel millions of miles across space to stick things up the noses of neurotic Americans. The idea becomes even more ridiculous when you point out that the figures being bandied about for alien abductions mean that one American has been abducted every minute every night for the past 30 years. People know that there are simpler solutions. Even children can figure that out.
We do need to present our case effectively, because if we don’t, the fallout can be disastrous. It’s easy to laugh at tales of UFO abductions – it’s not easy to laugh at a child’s coffin. We’ve had a huge debate in New Zealand over the past 18 months as to the rights of the parent to decide what is appropriate treatment for their children.
Many people would argue that parents have the ultimate right and responsibility. I can decide what is best for my child. After all, I’m a caring, well-educated, white middle-class parent who dearly loves her children and would do only what is best for them.
Sounds reasonable you say? But be careful. After all, I may truly believe that it is appropriate to beat my child. People do. I may think it appropriate to withhold a life-saving blood transfusion from them. Jehovah Witness parents believe this sincerely. Or I may decide that my child will be better off having quantum-boosted radio waves or happy thoughts beamed at his cancerous growth, rather than nasty chemotherapy. After all, in commenting on just such a case, the New Zealand Health and Disability Commissioner said that parents have the right to choose what treatment is given to their child.
I do wonder if the commissioner would uphold the rights of people who believe their child’s diabetes will be aided by prayer, rather than by insulin. Somehow I doubt it. After all, in one recent case, two parents were charged with manslaughter for withdrawing their 13-year-old son from chemotherapy treatment for a 15-kilogram tumour – the prayers hadn’t worked and the boy died.
Yet, in the cause celebre that was the short eventful life of Liam Williams-Holloway, it appeared that something was different. There are a number of factors that one could point to: the parents were white and middle-class, not Samoan and poor; they gained supportive media coverage from our major news celebrity Paul Holmes; and they were relying on alternative therapy, which sounds more effective and reasonable to a secular society than appealing to God.
Liam had neuroblastoma cancer, with a tumour on his jaw. It’s a difficult cancer, but when the oncologists first saw him when he was three, they thought he had a 60-70% chance of beating it if they could treat it quickly. This type of cancer has a very fast drop-off in success rate; by the time children with it reach five, they have about 15-20% chance of survival.
Liam had had two courses of chemo and then stopped. The oncologists made numerous attempts to talk his parents into bringing him back, including agreeing to alternative treatments running alongside the conventional, to no avail. Healthcare Otago eventually went to the Family Court and Liam was made a ward of the courts to enforce treatment; it’s not an uncommon outcome in this sort of case, though is more typically used to permit blood transfusion for Jehovah Witnesses’ children.
At that point, things careered out of control. The family went into hiding so they could pursue alternative treatment, in this case Rife Quantum Frequency therapy which promised to explode all the cancer bacteria in Liam’s jaw. The Holmes prime-time current affairs program portrayed them as a loving, well-intentioned family hounded into hiding by uncaring oncologists for having the temerity to question orthodox medicine. The country was up in arms about the perceived jackboot tactics of the medical profession; talk-back phonelines ran hot; the police copped it in the neck for being a party to the search for the child; the Family Court made the unhelpful decision to try to muzzle any media reports on the case.
One constant refrain throughout was that the decision to stop chemotherapy was an informed one. I was therefore dismayed to see the family citing the book “Suppressed Inventions and other Discoveries”, as a reference source; a book initially published, I am sad to say, by our own Auckland Institute of Technology.
As its name suggests, this book deals with a vast range of conspiracy theories, from NASA’s suppression of evidence for intelligent life on Mars through to the perpetual fruitless quest for free energy sources. It is the stuff of which fortunes are made by those prepared to rip off the vulnerable, and you can’t get much more vulnerable than being the parent of a child diagnosed with cancer.
The family were clearly taken in by these claims, as their next move was to head for Mexico and the Oasis of Hope Clinic in Tijuana; these clinics were featured in the “Suppressed Inventions” book also. Again they got great coverage on Holmes and other media about their fight to protect their child, about the wonderful treatment they were having – reputedly for $45,000 a month – about the dreadful things that the cancer industry were responsible for in suppressing cancer cures.
The New Zealand Skeptics gave the 1998 Bent Spoon to Holmes for exploiting a sick child and desperate parents in the name of entertainment without asking the hard questions that needed to be asked.
And while all this was going on, paediatric oncologists around the country were treading very warily. In July, a six-year-old died following his parents refusal of radiotherapy. Doctors said that the Williams-Holloway case made them wary of acting in the best interest of their child patient. In the case of the 13-year-old mentioned earlier, the parents’ lawyer argued that it was the health authorities who were negligent in not seeking a court order to enforce treatment for the boy. They, too, had been scared by the fervent public opinion whipped up around the Williams-Holloway case.
We had a publicly funded documentary follow one woman through alternative therapy to treat a lump in her throat. No mention that the alternative healer also claimed to be regularly abducted by UFOs, no questioning of his claims that cancer is caused by bacteria, no questioning of the ethics of him prescribing 35 health supplements daily from a brand in which he had a financial interest. And how did this piece of investigative journalism end – with the conclusion that the reason her lump ended up bigger over the 16 weeks of treatment was because she hadn’t believed in it enough!
We now have parents on cancer wards torturing themselves for not offering their children a less invasive alternative.
Well, to cut a long and harrowing story short, Liam died recently in Mexico. He outlasted the oncologists’ predictions by about a year, which has been taken by some as clearly indicating that the alternative treatment was working. The fact that he has died, and made front-page headlines in doing so, may, I hope, cause others to think again.
One of the most disturbing reactions I have seen to the news came from our Commissioner for Children, Roger McClay, a man who has had the highest profile in arguing for the rights of children, who has wept publicly over cases of child abuse. His response was to exonerate the parents once again because they had made “the right choice for them” and then, astonishingly, he added:
“Whether a different course of action would have been better, there’s not much point in worrying about it now.”
Well, I’m sorry Commissioner, but there’s a great deal to worry about. When you have medical professionals paralysed for fear of a public roasting, when you have alternative therapists seemingly having full access to national publicity with no fear of demands for proof of their claims, when you have people believing that there is some conspiracy by cancer specialists to suppress cures and harm children, then you’ve certainly got something to worry about.
I believe it all comes back to that need to question, and to encourage others to question. After all, we all start off with a questing spirit. Babies explore their world, and anyone who has dealt with small children is well aware of their apparently endless store of questions about how the world works.
Somewhere along the way, many people lose that desire to know, to broaden their horizons. My mother, a primary school teacher for many years, reckons this loss happens when children start to ask questions which are beyond the scope or training of their teacher. Deceptively simple questions such as “why do clouds float?” and “what makes this light work?” reveal the questioning nature of a potential scientist and – all too often – the adult’s lack of knowledge.
Some people, whether parents or teachers, feel threatened by this. It’s seen as disruptive, irrelevant, potentially disrespectful. It gets in the way of the lesson plan, or interrupts the structured bedtime routine.
Yet it is these very aspects that make children so receptive to science, so able to question.
Science writer and physics professor Chet Raymo identified the habits of mind which children have at their most creative, and which are mirrored in the world of science:
He mourned having to teach undergraduates whose image of science was of a dull, dry, boring subject devoid of interest, to be endured and then forgotten in the interests of more lively pastimes such as astrology or parapsychology.
Instead, he said, we need to convey the adventure stories that make up science, the fantasy that forms it. Small wonder that he so often cites children’s literature, whether the works of Dr Seuss or Maurice Sendak.
“In children’s books,” he says, “we are at the roots of science – pure childlike curiosity, eyes open with wonder to the fresh and new, and powers of invention still unfettered by convention and expectation.”
So don’t despair if your kids are into the latest SF, Goosebumps or Harry Potter. That doesn’t mean that they will grow up to be would-be wizards or psychic investigators. What they will learn is that there are more things in the world, Horatio, than can be found within the pages of a school textbook, and that’s never a bad thing.
My kids first started asking about werewolves and ghosts after encountering Scooby Doo on television. I think Scooby Doo has been around long enough that most of us will have watched him and his gang of kids who, every episode, unmask the villain who’s dressed up in the wolf suit or the white sheet to frighten or con someone. I hadn’t thought about Scooby Doo as an agent of skepticism, but have to wonder about the creators of this show.
There are plenty of children’s science shows produced all over the world, but few take a direct look at things of a skeptical nature. My all-time favourite has to be “Oi” which, I am proud to say, was produced in New Zealand, and which has won awards internationally. In each 30-minute show it had a segment which was pure skepticism. If the New Zealand Skeptics ever get a major bequest, I’d like to put together a Greatest Hits of Skepticism using material from “Oi”.
I’ve had some small measures of success in subverting my own children. Davey was barely three when we were in a local bookshop and he paused before a display of that bastion of Australian culture, Bananas in Pyjamas.
“We don’t buy that,” he announced. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s commercialization.” The lady next to us was startled but I was delighted – I’d been teaching David to be suspicious of the ploys of marketers. My kids know that the sweets at the checkout counter are a trick and are determined not to be fooled. They may look longingly at the chocolate bars, but it means I don’t get the whining which can be clearly heard emanating from the other aisles.
We often talk about what’s real and what’s not, whether it’s discussing Pokemon, the TV news, Halloween, dinosaurs or whatever has taken their fancy. My children are used to me equivocating – I’m happy to preface a response (note – not an answer, but a response) with “it depends”, “we’re not sure but…” or “what do you think?”.
Over the past couple of years, David and Perry have read and reread their way through Dan Barker’s guide for young skeptics “Maybe Yes, Maybe No” which sets out the basic rules of science:
and which concludes “it is okay to say ‘I don’t know'”.
That’s a phrase I use a lot with my children, but I usually follow it up with “let’s see if we can find out”.
You see, one of my greatest delights is discovery – new facts, new words, new ideas – and I want to do my best to encourage that delight in my children.
It doesn’t take a good reference library or Internet access, though we’re lucky to have both available at home. It can be something as simple as a walk to school.
We talk about what the weather is doing, how clouds form, the difference between fog and smog. We peer cautiously at the various items of roadkill, and consider how death and decay is a part of life. The late arrival of the Sun over the sea in winter is a practical reminder of Earth’s movement around our star. The changing bird populations on the estuary mirror changes in the seasons, as do the annual cycle of the tomatoes grown in the large glasshouse on the corner.
I get pure joy when I ask David why he thinks such-and-such happens and get a gratifying moment of thoughtful silence before he makes the attempt to explain. It’s not a matter of getting things “right”, though it’s a delight when he does. It’s more a matter of virtually seeing his thought processes at work, of experiencing that fresh interest when all is new.
We do get odd looks from other pedestrians who are busy hurrying on their way. They see us examining the death mask of a hedgehog by the side of the road or stirring an oily puddle with a stick, but they don’t see our joy of discovery as we discuss why a hedgehog’s teeth are so sharp or what makes the colours on the puddle’s surface.
There’s an adage that one should “stop and smell the roses” – but you can do so much more. Why do the roses smell like that? Why aren’t roses shaped like cornflowers? Why do they have thorns?
We mightn’t be able to answer every question, but it’s the journey to those answers that provides the excitement. It’s a journey on which, as a parent, I am privileged to be accompanied.