Man refused bail after Dick Smith food poison threat

A man charged with threatening to poison food produced by Dick Smith has been refused bail in the Rockhampton Magistrates Court in central Queensland. Graham Andrew Cooper, 30, is charged with trying extort $100,000 from the Australian Skeptics Association.

Cooper appeared in court charged with stalking, extortion and sending threatening emails. The court was told Cooper sent emails to Barry Williams from the Australian Skeptics Association, which has offered $100,000 to anyone who can prove psychic powers. The police prosecutor said Cooper claimed the association refused to test him. It is alleged the emails said that Dick Smith owed him $100,000 and that he would put “rat sack” into as much Dick Smith food as he could lay his hands on. The court was told Cooper is a paranoid schizophrenic and police said the threats were not carried out.

Cooper will be held in custody until his next court appearance in May. He was not required to enter a plea.

From ABC On-Line News, March 8

Skeptical Surfing

Netsurfer Science is a website every skeptic should bookmark. It provides a good lead-in to many science and skeptic-related sites and issues on the web. Here are a couple of recent items.

Howling at the Moon

Do we believe everything the government tells us? Of course not. But, we think that some conspiracies would be so unmanageable that they’d implode faster than an empty soda can in the Marianas Trench. The fake moon landing is one of our favorite confabulations. Under this theory, NASA didn’t land on the moon – and its own photos prove it. Now, to the extent that anyone cares, once we stop chuckling about how little the hoax proponents actually know about the science they claim to defend, this sort of nonsense also makes us angry, because it diminishes not only the breath-taking courage of people like the Armstrongs and Lovells of this world, but also the heart-breaking sacrifices of the Grissoms and McAuliffes. People (and television networks) who propagate this foolishness at least owe it to those pioneers to get their science right. Phil Plait, whose very admirable Bad Astronomy site has made Netsurfer lists before, tackles the so-called evidence point by point. Even if you don’t care about the accusations, take a look at the science. It’s instructional in reminding us how very alien even our own lunar environment is. In his personal pages, planetary scientist Jim Scotti covers much the same territory, though he deals equally with a hoax site.

Bad Astronomy:
http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/tv/foxapollo.html

Scotti:
http://pirlwww.lpl.arizona.edu/~jscotti/NOT_faked/

Marianas Trench:
http://www.geocities.com/thesciencefiles/marianas/trench.html
http://www.cnmi-guide.com/info/sketches/marianastrench.html

Evolution, Again

Before we hear from the creationist watchdogs, we’ll tell you what our position is. Does Netsurfer Science (NSS) believe in the Biblical version of the origins of life? No. We do, however, believe in its illustrative grace and power. (The only subject to provoke more correspondence was the NSS error that misplaced a college hoops team in a rival conference. Now, that was brutal.) In Science and Creationism, the National Academy of Sciences puts forward an authoritative synthesis of the issues involved. In our experience, many of creationism’s criticisms of evolution are either inaccurate or outdated. The NAS deals with the most frequently cited arguments and discusses the problems. More than that, though, the academy takes the very clear position that creationism “has no place in any science curriculum at any level”. This site is the text of an academy booklet that explains the current scientific understanding of biological evolution. The National Center for Science Education is a nonprofit organisation with the sole mission of protecting the teaching of evolution against sectarian proponents of such propositions as scientific creationism. In addition to other services, the center tracks legislation relating to the teaching of science.

National Center for Science Education:
http://www.ncseweb.org/

National Academy of Science:
http://bob.nap.edu/html/creationism/

Fish but no Chips

John Riddell learns to his cost that fishermen can be as easy to catch as the creatures they pursue

I have a confession to make. I’ve been taken in by a scam. Normally this shouldn’t be cause for embarrassment, but I like to think of myself as a skeptic. I mean if anyone should be able to see these things coming it should be a skeptic. It’s only gullible people get taken in by scams right? It all comes from liking fishing too much. Salt water fishing in my case.

In our corner of the globe the target species is a fish commonly called a snapper. Fantastic eating and fun to catch. The world record is a bit over 30 pounds but a 2 or 3 pound fish is a good fish and much better eating. At least according to those of us who never catch the big ones. On a good day we catch the legal limit of nine per person (minimum size 27cm). But to have a good day you have to get everything right. Bait, berley, location, tide, tackle and weather all have to be right. Get one wrong and you catch fewer fish. Get two wrong and you catch none.

So like all fishaholics, between those rare occasions when I actually make it out on to the water, I spend a good deal of time thinking about fishing, reading the fishing magazines, listening to the weather reports, and thinking of ways of catching more fish, bigger fish, or let’s face it, some fish.

One day, while I was chatting to my cousin Don about fish, he mentioned that a friend of his swore by an electronic fish attractor. It is called “FishMAXTM“, and it’s a little box about the size of a pack of cigarettes. A sealed unit. Two wires come out of it. These wires are put in the water as far apart as possible. Once the electrodes are in the water, a little red light (LED) starts flashing on the box. That means it is working. It supposedly puts out a signal that attracts fish from up to three miles away.

Now I should have known better than to accept anecdotal evidence but we are talking about fishing. Rational thought gave way to greed. My ears perked up. “An electronic fish attractor? What a brilliant idea,” I thought. That was the first mistake. Allowing my enthusiasm to override logic. Here comes the next mistake. “Heck. If it really works, think of the money I could save on berley.” (Berley is what we call groundbait/chum, ie chemical fish attractor).

The phrase “If it really works” goes through the mind of everyone ever taken in by a scam.

I found an ad in the fishing magazine. Only $149.00 On the internet, $65.00

My next mistake. A little bit of knowledge. As opposed to enough. Fish have a thing called a lateral line. It is a line of receptors along the side of a fish that picks up small electrical signals in the water. Since fish can detect electric signals, it’s possible that an electronic fish attractor could work.

Next mistake. Do a little bit of research. As opposed to enough. I checked out the net. That’s inter, not fishing. There are lots of sites on the net about electric fishing. The thing is, it does actually work. There is a phenomenon called electrotaxis. If you get a fish in a certain type of electric field the fish will swim towards one of the electrodes. Once the fish gets really close it conveniently falls asleep (electronarcosis) and floats to the surface. Now this sounds too good to be true, but it is true. Fishologists and conservation types use these electric fishing things to study endangered species and also to catch pest species such as carp. When the electric field is switched off, the fish wakes up and swims away unharmed.

So I rang the toll free number in the fishing mag and told the “FishMAXTM” guy at the other end that they were only $65.00 on the net. “No problem.” he said and matched the price. Now I normally spend $8.00 on berley every time I go fishing so I was thinking “if it really works, think of the money I would save.”

I gave him my credit card details and he couriered it to me the next day.

So did it work? As soon as I got it I put the electrodes at opposite ends of my 3 foot tropical fish tank. The little red light began to flash. This means it is working. The fish in the tank carried on, blissfully unaware that they were being attracted to anything.

A guppy did swim up to examine one of the electrodes but then he swam away. The rest of the fish continued to distribute themselves randomly through-out the tank.

I confess to being disappointed. But not surprised. By now I had done a little more research. It turns out real electric fish attractors use high voltages (600V) and also a fair amount of power. They are also only effective in fresh water, and over very short ranges, a few metres at most. My fish attractor was supposed to work for thousands of hours without a battery replacement. Something began to smell fishy.

Since then I have been fishing four times. I used the FishMAXTM electronic fish attractor on two of those occasions. I caught fish. I usually do. But I caught more fish when I didn’t use it. On one of the occasions I used the FishMAXTM the berley I had been using fell off without my noticing. Even though the FishMAXTM was still flashing the fish stopped biting. When I realized the berley had fallen off, I put more berley out and we began to catch fish again.

By now I had decided that if it wasn’t a scam, it should be.

The thing is, fisherpersons are very superstitious. I try not to be. I usually catch a limit on days the Maori fishing calendar says are bad for fishing. And I always take bananas even though they are supposed to be bad luck.

The problem with fishing is the outcome can be so variable. This variability is the stuff that superstitions are made of. Most of the time you can’t see what is happening under the water. Sometimes the reasons people use to explain why they do or do not catch fish don’t have much to do with the real reasons. From the point of view of a scam artist, fishermen have got to be an ideal target species.

Ok, so lets think of a way of getting fishermen to give us money for a worthless and therefore cheap to make, product. What we need is a small sealed box that has a flashing light (LED) to show that something is happening. It needs to be sealed so you can’t look inside and see there isn’t much there. Inside the box we need batteries to power the light. We also need to have some wires that come out of the box. These wires can be put into the water. Once the wires are in the water the circuit is complete and the light begins to flash. We tell the fishermen that when the wires are in the water and the light is flashing that fish will be attracted.

One of the boys at the pub happens to have a PhD in physics and conveniently runs an electronics research lab. He very kindly connected my FishMAXTM up to one of his squiggleoscopes. There were a couple of volts DC but not much else. Next came the hacksaw and the Stanley knife. The unit was filled with a resin. It took quite a bit to get into it. Inside were two 1.5V AA batteries and the wire that connected them to the flashing LED. If there were any silicon chips or even resistors and capacitors or electrical components of any kind, the boys in the lab would have recognised them. But they just weren’t there. I admit that even I was surprised. I had assumed there would be some sort of circuit, even if it were just to make the light flash. It turns out the LED does that automatically.

So now I get to play games with the Commerce Commission and the Fair Trading Act.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Bookshop Caters for Skeptical Tastes

Aristotle’s Books in Auckland has started a skeptics section of titles. Books debunking the New Age and religion in general are found there.

It is at 167 Symonds St, Newton, Auckland, and is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 7pm, and also features a small coffee shop.

The shop manager is Sally O’Brien

Budget Science

Owen McShane examines last year’s Great Soya Sauce Scare

There’s a lot of Budget Science going on.

Budget Science is not low cost science. It’s certainly not amateur science driven solely by the noble search for truth. Budget Science is state-funded science which jacks up next year’s funding.

The great soya sauce scare was a fine example. The Ministry of Health (MoH), with the enthusiastic support of our tabloid media, panicked the nation into believing that Soya Sauce would strike us down with cancer. The health police swooped on supermarkets and hauled away the stuff of healthy stir-fries, while leaving cigarettes safely on the shelves above the check-out.

How did this happen?

The story begins when some lab somewhere carried out the notoriously unreliable rodent test on a group of chemicals known as chloropropanols. Sure enough these chemically-overloaded lab rats got cancer. We should remember that just about all foods – organic, GM or whatever – contain scores of chemicals which have failed the rodent test. There are at least 12 of them in your morning cup of coffee.

Anyhow, one of these chloropropanols, known as 3-MCPD, occurs in foods which have used acid hydrolysis, roasting, and similar processes to enhance their flavour.

A laboratory in England soon announced a test to detect 3-MCPDs down to one part in a million or lower. The European Food Safety Agency then decided that this detectable level should establish the safe level.

You can be sure that “safe” levels set by “detectable levels” are unsupported by any epidemiological evidence whatever. But such standards sell a lot of tests and keep lots of lab-workers busy.

And so the EU bureaucrats set the labs to work testing soya sauce, which was suitably foreign and known to contain 3-MCPDS. Lo and behold, several brands failed the test.

The news spread rapidly round the world. Scaring the hell out of people is a shortcut to fame for both young scientists and even younger media hacks.

However, not everyone knee-jerked into action. The Canadian Cancer Society reached the following measured conclusions:

  • 3-MCPD is a member of the chloropropanol group of chemicals and is a possible carcinogen in humans.
  • Health Canada has reviewed the situation and has found there is no health risk to Canadians from existing stocks of soy and oyster sauces.
  • Continuous lifetime exposure to high levels of 3-MCPD could pose a health risk to Canadians, but future imported stocks will be below the legal tolerance limit of 1.0 ppm. The Canadian authorities saw no point in raiding their supermarkets.

So why did we wage war on soya sauce? After all, the European Food Agency found quantifiable levels of 3-MCPD in breads, savoury crackers, toasted biscuits, toasted cereals, cheeses, doughnuts, burgers and salamis.

The survey also found 3-MCPD in a long list of food ingredients, including bread-crumbs, meat extracts, modified starches (used in glazes, yoghurt, soups and ready-made meals), malt and malt-based ingredients (used in confectionery, cereal products, sauces, bakery products, snack seasonings, beers and malted drinks).

Funny that. I don’t remember our health police clearing the shelves of cheddar, Weet-Bix, yoghurt and beer.

Surely the cancer risk will be determined by the total volume of foods containing 3-MCPD we ingest regularly over long periods – not the level within a single sauce used occasionally at best.

So what was going on here? Why did our ever-so-caring Ministry of Health decide to scare the hell out of us, when their peers in other countries found more useful things to do? How much extra risk did soya sauce pose to our biscuit, cereal, cheese and cracker-chomping pop-ulation?

The answer is simple – Budget Science ruled.

While the Europeans were demonising soya sauce, our own MoH was being criticised for failing to develop a rational, risk-based, food safety policy. The Cabinet was debating whether to shift responsibility for the Food Act from the MoH to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (Maf) under a new Food Assurance Authority. MoH officials saw millions of dollars disappearing into the maws of Maf. So they raided the supermarkets to show their determination to protect us from Asian imports.

It didn’t work – the funds were transferred to Maf anyway.

But what about our health? There is no epidemiological evidence connecting soya sauce to cancer rates. Indeed Asians have low rates of digestive tract cancer.

We do know that New Zealand’s high rate of bowel and stomach cancer is caused by our low intake of dietary fibre. We eat too much meat and too few vegetables.

Those New Zealanders who found no soya sauce on the shelves were probably going to make a stir-fry for dinner. Stir fries are low in meat and high in fibre. Budget Science probably persuaded lots of them that sausages and chips are safer.

A few more New Zealanders may die of cancer.

Budget Science is like that.

Good Work All Round

With winter almost upon us, the time has come to curl up in front of a nice screen and browse the internet. Speaking of which, congratulations are in order to our chair-entity Vicki Hyde and media spokesman Denis Dutton for having their websites nominated in the sixth annual Webby Awards.

These are coming to be regarded as the web equivalents of the Oscars; Vicki’s Sci-TechDaily Review is up for an award in the science category against such luminaries as NASA, while Denis’ Arts & Letters Daily is taking on the BBC and other heavyweights in the news category. The public is entitled to vote for these (at www.webbyawards.com/peoplesvoice/), so if you’re reading this before the closing date of June 7, you know what to do.

It’s been a busy time for us skeptics overall. The Auckland members, led by Felicity Goodyear-Smith, have combined with the Rationalists to hold two meetings, on GM foods and immunisation. These have been well attended, and have done a lot to raise the level of debate on these issues; hopefully more will follow.

And there’s been the old possum peppering story, which the Greens were promoting as an environmentally benign means of pest control, despite a well-designed trial of this technique some years back showing it has no effect whatsoever. The society’s press release in response to the matter got a fair bit of coverage.

There’s plenty of variety this issue. We have a nice introduction to the philosophy of science in the lead article, some reflections of a former psychic researcher, and we re-examine last year’s soy sauce scare.

And John Riddell’s column, in which he confesses to being taken in by a scam, is a beaut. It all came about because of his weakness for fishing, he says…

Speaking about being active, the annual get-together is being planned once again and it’s time to consider a trip to sunny Christchurch to take part in the Skeptics Conference 2002. More details are to be found tucked up on page 8, but circle it in your diary now and book your tickets.

Annette's signature

Forum

Children & Quackery

It is hard to be sure what Mike Houlding is on about in his rather opaque letter but I gather that he is lumping the use of clairvoyants, homoeopathic remedies and ADHD under some collective rubric of quackery.

He seems to be some kind of medical practitioner in which case he should have received or known about the Ministry of Health’s publication on ADHD – its diagnosis and treatment published in August last year (available on the web under MOH publications). This publication, which is an evidential distillate of knowledge in the area shows first of all, that ADHD is a bona fide medical taxon that requires the same kind of professional diagnosis as does any other disorder in medicine and second, that its treatment with methylphenidate (which he calls Ritalin despite the fact that Pharmac no longer pays for that brand name) has more support in terms of efficacy and safety than many other treatments in medicine. The publication also sets out the standards by which this treatment is to be used and its effect monitored.

I take strong exception to his comment lumping the diagnosis and stimulant treatment of ADHD as “institutionalized child abuse”. This does little credit to the 40 years systematic research in the disorder and the care with which most medical specialists in paediatrics and child psychiatry in NZ take with children so affected.

If Houlding is a medical professional, then he needs to take some time properly to inform himself about this topic than shooting from the hip without the benefit of any intervening cognition.

JS Werry, Emeritus Professor, Child and Youth Psychiatrist

Global Warming

Pious thoughts from wise fools, by P J O’Rourke

Mom says, “Global warming or no global warming, it’s still winter. Wear a hat.”

Robin Capper

Two Views of the World Trade Centre Attack

  1. From Editorial in ‘Skeptical Inquirer’ Jan/Feb, 2002.
    Brian Farha, a professor of education at Oklahoma City University and member of CSICOP’s astrology sub-committee, wrote to me to propose we run a Forum column with this introduction: “Following are detailed summaries of documented psychic predictions-to this author’s knowledge-regarding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on America.” That would be followed by a blank page.

  2. From the newsletter of the American Society for Psychical Research, December, 2001.
    Through our website, we have initiated a survey of pre-cognitive experiences specifically related to the terrorist attack.

Submitted without comment by Bernard Howard.

Not quite hot off the press

Three or four years ago Ralph Marinelli, a researcher at the Rudolf Steiner Research Institute in Michigan, made a great discovery. The heart is not a pump. Blood is self-propulsive, energised by the primary force of cosmic levity it is self-levitating. Scientists have been confused by mis-understanding the concept of centrifugal force. The research institute is very concerned that this major development in physiology has been almost totally ignored. If anybody can channel William Harvey [1578-1657] it would be very interesting to get his comments.
Jim Ring

Alternatives to Evidence Based Medicine

Alternatives to Evidence Based Medicine

I will detail these seven alternatives in forth-coming issues of the magazine. For now here is Eminence based medicine: The more senior the colleague, the less importance he or she places on the need for anything as mundane as evidence. Experience, it seems, is worth any amount of evidence. These colleagues have a touching faith in clinical experience, which has been defined as “making the same mistakes with increasing confidence over an impressive number of years.” New Zealand Medical Journal Vol 113 No 1122 p479

Homeopathy Flunks

It’s most unusual to see published trials showing that homeopathy is ineffective. The common term for this is “publication bias” where trials tend to be published only when they show something positive. One of the authors is GT Lewith, a long time apologist for homeopathy and that makes it even more remarkable. Should we give them one of our awards?

A double blind, randomised trial evaluated the efficacy of homeopathic immunotherapy on lung function. The conclusion: homeopathic immunotherapy is not effective in the treatment of patients with asthma. BMJ 2002;324:520-3

An accompanying editorial comments: “we believe that new trials of homeopathic medicines against placebo are no longer a research priority.”

All responsible health professionals must ensure that homeopathy is never funded by the health system. It would be grossly irresponsible to waste public money on “dilutions of grandeur”.

Ministerial Advisory Committee on Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (MACCAH)

Have a look at their Website: www.newhealth.govt.nz/MACCAH/. I have been visiting from time to time in keen anticipation of the result of their deliberations and to see what quackery will be introduced into our failing health system. The committee comprises a sociologist (chairperson), iridologist, doctor of medicine, naturopath, acupuncturist, paediatric nurse (and massage therapist), and teacher. The iridologist is David Holden who organised the International Iridology and Sclerology Conference that I mentioned in an earlier column.

Certain members of the committee have asterisks alongside their names as a reflection of a possible conflict of interest. Readers will recall that our organisation was unsuccessful in getting any skeptics on this committee. Would such a putative member have warranted an especially large asterisk?

There is a similar committee in the USA. It has become a scandal that the National Institute of Health (NIH) has distributed (wasted?) hundreds of millions of dollars on testing what Americans refer to as CAM, or complimentary and alternative medicine. They spent $1 million testing “magnet therapy”. The majority of the studies have been inconclusive and have led to the need for more tests. This has tended to give such quackery a spurious degree of acceptability. As critics point out, how many studies have been published showing that CAM doesn’t work? Read a very good critique of this area at www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/0204.mooney.html

It is quite clear, given the US experience, that the MACCAH will produce nothing of any value and furthermore I predict that they will never publish a single article stating that any CAM modality is useless. I sincerely hope to be proved wrong.

Laying on of Hands

Every doctor of medicine knows the importance of properly examining patients even when they do not expect to find anything wrong. The act of touching people in a therapeutic context carries a very powerful placebo effect. This is a legitimate part of the "art" of medicine and when coupled with good communication leads to a good outcome. This effect is sometimes referred to as the “laying on of hands”, itself derived from the concept of mediated divine healing. For example, the King’s touch was supposed to cure scrofula, a cutaneous form of tuberculosis.

The extreme version of this is the absurd delusion of therapeutic touch where the patient is not actually touched but their energy fields are "corrected". Don’t laugh; this is part of mainstream nursing at Wellington Hospital!

The laying on of hands effect explains the apparent success of many physical treatment modalities such as osteopathy and chiropractic. They all do exceptionally well out of ACC-provided funding and it is no wonder that a recent provider survey found a high level of satisfaction from chiropractors (79%) and physiotherapists (76%). I once asked an ACC Colleague why they funded quackery such as osteopathy and chiropractic and his reply was that ACC didn’t care about anything except getting people back to work. Applying that logic I could set up a military consultancy (Boot Camp Rehabilitation Inc) and get people back to work by threatening them with military-style discipline.

Here is an extract from an advertisement from my local paper: "cranial osteopathy for babies and children to help with poor sleeping patterns, restlessness, crying and poor concentration". This quackery involves allegedly manipulating the bones of the skull to regulate the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. It is complete and utter nonsense that relies for its effect on the touching, a plausible patter and a gullible consumer.

ACC News October 2001 Issue 39

Bye, Bye, Bivalve

Trials of green-lipped mussel extract have been stopped after it was found that “the extract didn’t work.” (Marlborough Express March 11, 2002). Green-lipped mussel extract was marketed in NZ as Lyprinol and more than $1 million of the product was sold after it was claimed that it was a cure for cancer. Successful prosecutions were taken against those responsible for the scam.

The media frenzy showed that journalists had learned nothing from the Milan Brych affair.

I feed our cat (Gilgamesh) on green-lipped mussels, and as well as a lustrous coat he has shown no sign of developing cancer. I rest my case. In order to satisfy the most sceptical of journalists I enclose this picture as proof as he and Claire read the Lyprinol story.

Healthy Options

This is the title of a magazine that contains some of the most nonsensical rubbish I have ever seen. The editor is the woman responsible for promoting the Hoxsey quackery in Tauranga, which led to dozens of desperate cancer suffers taking one-way trips to Mexico to receive treatment. Tauranga travel agents made a killing in every sense of the word. This magazine should be read by all Skeptics in order to get a taste of what could be inflicted on the health system by the MACCAH. One ray of hope however – they mentioned www.quackwatch.com and stated that “this leads the public to believe that natural medicines are a fraud.” Well-enough said!

Possum Peppering

Is this delusion never going to go away? How many trials does it take to show that burnt possum testicles do not deter possums from eating vegetation sprinkled with said preparation? The Green party are already a bit of a joke and this latest nonsense makes me wonder whether they have all been partaking of ganja while worshipping with Nachos Tandoori. However, there is more to this than meets the eye, or testicle. I tried sprinkling some of a late relative’s ashes around our garden and I haven’t seen the mother-in-law for months. I rest my case. It must also be horribly lonely for all of those people living downwind of a crematorium – they never get any visitors at all!

Dummy pills just the trick

Dummy pills just the trick

The best paper in New Zealand (Waikato Times, May 6 – and it’s got nothing to do with the fact that I work there) reports that depressed patients tricked into thinking they are being treated have undergone healing brain changes.

The discovery is “conclusive proof of the power of the ‘placebo effect’ – the mind-over-body influence of believing that a drug will work.”

Scientists at the University of Texas, San Antonio say patients given a dummy pill experienced brain changes remarkably like those attained by taking Prozac.

World’s biggest ghost hunt

Hertfordshire’s Dr Richard Wiseman involved 250 volunteers and an array of hi-tech equipment in what became the world’s biggest ghost hunt, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

The Evening Post (March 3) says despite a number of creepy tales from volunteers, no definite proof of the supernatural was found during the experiment conducted in Edinburgh early last year. Wiseman said it was truly fascinating but “…none of the stories convinced me ghosts exist … I used to be a magician and I saw how easily people could be tricked.”

The tour guide who worked in the underground vaults of the 18th Century chamber, was in no doubt of the presence of ghosts, the paper said. These included a little boy, a dog and “the spectre of a nasty man who whispers obscenities in people’s ears.

“He has foul, stinky breath and he’s really horrible … The vaults … have been closed for 180 years so I think all that paranormal energy has been bottled up and is only just now being released.”

Maybe the tour guide needs Scooby Doo to deal with the wee doggie.

Measles epidemic hits anti-vaccine town

A measles epidemic involving 700 children that ravaged a small German town is being blamed on two homeopathic doctors who denounced the MMR vaccine, says the Dominion on March 7.

Debate on the merits of the vaccine is reaching fever pitch and 30 children had been admitted to hospital where there were fears there could be deaths.

On one side are “alternative health enthusiasts” who dominate Coburg, an affluent Bavarian town. Two of the town’s seven child health doctors fiercely oppose MMR. And then there are the public health experts, who “accuse a ‘nest’ of militant anti-MMR activists … of putting children’s lives in danger.”

Germany, the paper reports, is becoming famous as a world leader in “exporting measles”, according to leading specialists.

Dr Helmut Weiss, head of the state health office in Colburg, said the stronghold of the epidemic was the Waldorf School.

He’s at it again

And the Evening Post (April 13) informs us that psychic Uri Geller is to look for the site of the battle featured in the movie Braveheart.

The “paranormal expert” has been called in by historian John Walker, to try to pinpoint the exact location of the Battle of Falkirk which was fought between King Edward I of England and William Wallace, in 1298. The location has been lost, and no bodies or artefacts ever found.

Mr Walker stumbled on to Uri Geller while on the internet one evening, and read how he’d helped discover the location of a wrecked submarine. Since, he said, conventional methods to discover the graves of the combatants had failed, “… we need to try the unconventional.”

And Mr Geller said the battle was mysterious. “…the fact that very little was found could mean they have not been looking in the right place for the site.”

As they say, watch this space. And, by the way, William Wallace was not a homespun-wearing, oatmeal-eating fighting man of the glens as depicted in that movie, but grew up in a genteel manor house where he probably had very good table manners. So there.

That Eureka Moment: How Science Works

This article is drawn from interviews with Allan Coukell on the NZ National Radio science programme “Eureka!” in 2001.

We live in an era where science is universally needed but rarely appreciated, little understood and much misunderstood. This is not just a problem of the wider non-scientific community; science is increasingly specialised and even prestigious scientists may have little awareness of areas of science outside their specialised research niche. Science is typically learned by studying and working in a particular discipline, but often such narrow perspectives don’t allow us to reflect on wider issues about science and appreciate its strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, the specialized, abstract, nature of much science education all too often alienates many of its victims, while leaving the survivors blind to the limits and problems of their craft. There is irony in the way that science, the ultimate questioning activity, frequently fosters such unquestioning supporters and critics.

What is science?

Obviously science comes in many shapes and sizes and any attempt to provide a “one size fits all” description is bound to fail. Some scientists are engaged in an open-ended exploration of natural phenomena; some spend their lives developing and testing theories or models. Yet more scientists try to find out whether some theoretical entities like quarks are “real”, whilst others are trying to measure properties of the world with greater and greater precision. What, if any, are the unifying features of such a diverse discipline?

Given that science is such a multifarious thing, is it even sensible to ask a question such as “what is science?” Richard Feynman was a brilliant scientist who thought it was. Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965, was not only one of the most brilliant scientists and science teachers of the 20th Century, he also reflected on the nature of science and communicated his perspectives vividly to a wide audience. Here’s how he addresses the question “What is science?”1:

The word is usually used to mean one of three things, or a mixture of them. … Science means, sometimes, a special method of finding things out. Sometimes it means the body of knowledge arising from the things found out. It may also mean the new things you can do when you have found something out, or the actual doing of new things … so the popular definition of science is partly technology too.”

Science and technology are inextricably linked in the public’s eye; it is technology that provides the gadgets to which society becomes addicted. The reliable and informative nature of scientific knowledge underpins modern technology, but science is not simply a means to technology. As Feynman points out, it is crucial to realise that science is an intellectual adventure, a cultural activity that should be undertaken for its own sake:

“The things that have been found out [are] the gold. This is the … pay you get for all the disciplined thinking and the hard work. The work is not done for the sake of an application. It is done for the excitement of what is found out. You cannot understand science and its relation to anything else unless you understand and appreciate the great adventure of our time.”

Science is an adventure. It involves asking questions about the universe, coming up with theories about the way nature works, and testing those theories to see how valid they are. As any scientist knows, it is a challenging activity:

“Trying to understand the way nature works involves a most terrible test of human reasoning ability. It involves subtle trickery, beautiful tightropes of logic on which one has to walk in order not to make a mistake in predicting what will happen.”

Given the complexities of undertaking a scientific investigation, what is it about science that makes it such a powerful way of finding things out about the world? This is Feynman’s view:

“[S]cience as a method of finding out … is based on the principle that observation is the judge of whether something is so or not. All other aspects and char-acteristics of science can be understood directly when we understand that observation is the ultimate and final judge of an idea. But ‘prove’ used in this way really means ‘test’ … the idea should really be translated as ‘The exception tests the rule.’ Or, put another way, ‘The exception proves that the rule is wrong.’ That is the principle of science. If there is an exception to any rule, and if it can be proved by observation, that rule is wrong.”

Fireworks at NASA

Given the variety and complexity of science, scrutinising illustrative episodes of science in action is a good way to understand more about science. Again Feynman provides a lead: he not only discussed science, he exemplified the whole philosophy of questioning the world and testing scientific ideas. Early in 1986, when he was fighting terminal cancer, Feynman was once again thrust into the public eye when he performed one of the most public demonstrations of science during the inquiry into the tragic accident of the space shuttle “Challenger”. Feynman’s role in this investigation provides an illuminating vignette into science.

On January 28th 1986 the space shuttle Challenger was launched, and almost immediately exploded in a horrific fireball. It is salutary to sometimes reflect on the fallibility of science and the icons of technological sophistication. Yet science rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes, due almost exclusively to Feynman’s scientific acumen.2 Within a week of the accident, on February 4th, Feynman was appointed to a committee of inquiry. He immediately began quizzing the engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where much of the space shuttle technology was developed. On the first day he learned of well-known problems with the shuttle, including cracks in the turbine blades. Feynman also learned of problems with the O-rings – glorified rubber bands thinner than a pencil and more than 10 m long – that sealed the joins between sections of the solid-fuel rockets. A pair of O-rings had to expand to prevent the leak of hot gases during the burning of the solid fuel rockets. However, on some launches one of the O-rings was being scorched. Feynman jotted down some notes: “Once a small hole burn thru generates a large hole very fast! Few seconds catastrophic failure.”

Feynman flew to Washington and quizzed NASA officials, especially about the effects of the unusually cold weather at the launch of the Challenger shuttle. Because the elasticity of the O-rings would decrease at low temperatures, the problems with the O-rings would be exacerbated. Over the weekend Feynman was hot on the O-ring trail and, when the committee reconvened on Monday 12th February, he was frustrated by the inconclusive and evasive testimony of Lawrence Mulloy, the project manager for the solid fuel rockets. That night at dinner, his eyes fell on a glass of iced water and he saw a way to test whether 0oC (the temperature of the Challenger launch) would affect the resilience of the O-rings.

The next day he bought a small C-clamp and pliers. At the hearing Feynman asked for iced water and then broke off a bit of O-ring material as a sample was passed round. He clamped the O-ring material in the C-clamp, then after a short break in the proceedings, Feynman asked to speak to Mulloy. The rest has become a historic exchange captured by the TV cameras:

“I took this stuff that I got out of your seal and I put it in ice-water, and I discovered that when you put some pressure on it for a while and then undo it, it doesn’t stretch back … In other words, for a few seconds at least … there is no resilience in this particular material when it is at a temperature of 32 degrees [Fahrenheit]. I believe that has some significance for our problem.”

Here, in a nutshell, was the heart of the scientific problem. As another great theoretical physicist, Freeman Dyson, commented:

“The public saw with their own eyes how science is done, how a great scientist thinks with his hands, how nature gives a clear answer when a scientist asks her a clear question.”

Stages of the scientific process illuminated by Feynman’s experiment:

  1. Science starts with a problem: in this case the question of what caused the Challenger to explode.
  2. There is background detective work: finding out what is already known (in most scientific investigations this involves extensive literature work; here it involved garnering various streams of evidence such as the previous O-ring problems, the observed puff of smoke from the solid booster after 0.5s of flight, the lower resilience of rubbers at lower temperatures etc).
  3. Hypothesis formulation: that a momentary loss of resilience of the O-ring allowed hot gases to burn through the seal and caused the rocket to leak.
  4. Hypothesis testing via experiment, or observation: testing that the elasticity of the O-ring material was indeed compromised under the conditions of the launch.
  5. Bringing the results into the public arena for critical scrutiny: committee hearings are an unusual forum for discussion; for most research investigations the academic literature is where scientific claims are subject to critical scrutiny.

What does the Challenger inquiry tell us about science?

Without Feynman’s input, the committee of inquiry was likely to have been a whitewash. Most of the establishment would have liked to rubber stamp the worthiness of the shuttle programme. Scientists have to be careful about not falling into the trap of defending the work of a programme they believe in, rather than subjecting it to full critical scrutiny. Feynman, as the consummate scientist, shows that science is not about confirming your prejudices or defending your patch, it is about uncovering truths about the world.

Feynman’s beautiful experiment did not absolutely prove that problems with the O-rings caused the Challenger disaster. However, together with the history of problems with the shuttle and the particular climatic conditions for the launch, the case was proved “beyond reasonable doubt.” Scientific knowledge bears more than a passing resemblance to court proceedings: the more direct the experimental evidence, and the greater the accumulated weight of diverse lines of evidence, the more clear-cut scientific knowledge becomes.

Science is not a method of generating infallible truths about the world; only tyrants claim to do that. Neither is it simply a way of producing just another opinion about the world – no better or worse than any other (as many postmodern social scientists would have us believe). While science does not dispense absolute truths, it does produce the best knowledge we have in areas where we can subject our theories to rigorous tests. Although the theories that survive such tests can never be proved to be true, they are likely to be close to the truth if they survive detailed scientific scrutiny without being proved wrong.

Furthermore, in areas where theories have been well tested and flaws of the theory are exposed, it is often the case that the theory is not thrown out wholesale – instead the previous theory is often found to be a limiting situation for the theory that succeeds it. We are more confident in the predictions of Newtonian mechanics in the wake of Einsteinian mechanics than we were before, since we now clearly understand where it does and does not apply. Similarly we have not dispensed with atomic theory now we know that atoms are comprised of smaller entities.

So the heart of science is criticism, the use of observations and experiments to test our theories and always being able to accept that we might be wrong. The ability to modify our views, in the face of evidence, is a keystone of science.

Perhaps the last word should go to Feynman3:

Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud and from show.”

References

1 The quotations in this section are from Chapter 1 of The Meaning of it All, R. P. Feynman which is drawn from a public lecture that Feynman gave in April 1963.
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2 For a slightly more detailed chronology of Feynman’s participation in the Challenger investigation see Genius, by J. Gleick, pp414-428.
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3 Quoted in Genius, by J. Gleick, p285.
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This article originally appeared in Chem NZ No. 86.

Memoirs of a Psychic Researcher

University days are a great time to explore new directions. But sometimes you may end up a long way from where you thought you were going.

Back in 1969 I was a fresh-faced first year student at Auckland University. I had come there to bathe in the fountain of wisdom. I wanted to understand the deep mysteries of life, and learn how to think logically. Oh, and maybe learn how to speak Spanish fluently – you had to learn a language anyway, in those days, in order to get a BA. No real thoughts about how that might earn me a living – no big deal either in those days, as you were considered employable in a variety of professions with a BA. I did have an idea of eventually becoming really wise, and setting up in private practice as a clinical psychologist – I had heard of Freud and was yet to be disillusioned about his approach.

The first big event at Uni was “orientation”. In 1969, (maybe still today?) each society splashed out (pun intended) on wine and cheese evenings, to attract new members. I guess a portion of each new member’s funds were stashed away for next year’s wine and cheese. Anyway, I attended about a dozen wine and cheeses and joined one club. That club offered to sort out some of the deepest mysteries – it was the Psychic Research Club. I still feel a wee frisson at the memory: those wonderful youthful yearnings for secret knowledge, the suggestion that the world had so many wonderful properties waiting for my eager and well- trained mind to discover. Even if these psychic possibilities were all bunkum, I and my new-found friends decided that we would then have a new and interesting phenomenon to investigate, ie why do so many believe? In those hippy happy days (and I was already calling myself a hippy), the idea that there were no real psychic phenomena was rather novel. Many believed in Uri Geller’s psychic powers, and those guys at Duke University had apparently scientifically proved the existence of telepathy using specially designed cards in controlled experiments.

Our own investigations

Well, our motto was that we kept an open mind. We had not come to any definite conclusions, so, in true scientific fashion, we decided to carry out our own investigations.

I remember we did think that there were academics who seemed to be closed minded in rejecting psychic phenomena. Of course, they were also spoilsports – we had great fun going out on field trips to check out ghosts, and talking to eccentric colour therapists, “crystallologists”, people who had had prescient dreams, and the like. The focus of our studies, however, was to try to replicate the only possible scientific proof we had come across, the Duke university studies, which were published in the seriously academic-looking Journal of Parapsychology.

Spoilsports

I recall that barely had we begun our serious work, when along came a couple of real spoil-sports from the Psychology Department. Professor Barry Kirkwood (now running a bed and breakfast on Waiheke Island I hear) gave a special talk – or it may have been a debate – on the validity of the Duke experiments, and a few other matters. He pointed out, I recall, a very serious methodological flaw. That is, the academics (in those days quite a few psychic experiments were conducted at universities) had admitted that psychic abilities could only be proved to manifest at some times and not others. Many attempts at replication (and to cut a long story short, also our own) failed. What factors turned “Psi” (the term for that ability) on and off were unknown. This problem is a classic one, and still slows down our scientific progress. The buggers, you see, only published their “successful” results, when probability calculations would “prove” Psi (telepathy, etc) was the most likely explanation. On the days the subjects failed – well, that was just an off-day: Psi had gone away, so those results were thrown in the rubbish bin. Thanks to Prof Kirkwood, we kept all our results, and learnt quite a lot about what randomly generated results look like, how to do statistical analysis, and what are appropriate, acceptable p (probability) values to prove anything scientifically.

I seem to remember that my friend Brian Whitworth, who was our president, got excellent marks for the statistics section of psychology.

In the end, as my now rather ancient memory goes, we tired of talking to “Psychics”. I remember Brian saying something about what nutters some of them were. They certainly never seemed to come up with anything definite that could be investigated scientifically. Then the other spoilsport in the Psych Department, David Marks (and another colleague, Richard Kammann) happened to be in a restaurant or bar next to Uri Geller. (I guess it was planned). Anyway, he heard first hand what Uri really thought of his fans – or should that be suckers. About that time, a jeweller I think it was, appeared on TV and de-monstrated how Uri’s “psychic concentration of energy” – or whatever he called it – was effective in re-starting watches that had stopped. (You have to remember that back in those days, most of us wore wind-up watches.) Apparently, when you followed Uri’s instructions of holding the watch in your hand, the oil thinned with the heat, freeing up the mechanism – for a while at least!

Finally, as I recall, we wound up our society, “for lack of evidence”, and had a final extra big wine and cheese party. Marks and Kammann published the landmark Psychology of the Psychic, which (to me at least) convincingly explained how so many otherwise sane people come to believe in psychic phenomena. I didn’t see Brian again after we graduated, although he did attend my (first) wedding, which occurred about seven months after I managed to get my girlfriend pregnant. It is a shame I didn’t listen to good old Prof Kirkwood earlier, and start tuning in to the actual processes and effects of the real world!

I went on to training college (now known as Colleges of Education), where I was paid a wage to study, and only briefly (and much later) became a trainee clinical psychologist. I was very disillusioned and disappointed with that profession, but that’s another story. For a while, I worked as a professional entertainer, as singer, guitarist, and magician with psychic abilities! I gave up the psychic act after a while, when I realized that the magician’s code of not spoiling the fun by revealing your tricks was incompatible with my newly acquired distaste for seeing people refuse to relinquish their belief that I was psychic – no matter how many times I denied it.