The Royal healing touch

The medical community in Britain is suffering a severe attack of lèse majesté, and it is feared some distinguished heads will roll on Tower Green.

Prince Charles, in his untiring care for the health of his future subjects, has set up The Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health, and, with the help of several hundred thousand pounds of taxpayers’ money, this Foundation has published Complementary Health Care: a guide for patients. It helps readers to locate homeopaths, reflexologists, cranio-sacral therapists, and other types of healer. This 45-page treasury is being sent free to all GPs in Britain.

This well-meaning attempt by the philanthropic heir to the throne and his disciples to help the sick has been spurned by the medical fraternity, in the harshest and most hurtful terms. The British Medical Association has criticised it for recommending treatments which have no evidential support. More biting remarks have come from Professor Edzard Ernst, occupant of Britain’s only Chair of Complementary Medicine. When he saw a draft version, he said it was “hair-raisingly flimsy, misleading and dangerous”. He offered to correct it free of charge, an offer which was declined (Of course! How dare he presume to rewrite a text which had the Imprimatur of HRH?).

Having seen the published version, the Professor is even more scathing (see www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1442930,00.html) “… scandalous waste of public funds … the most spurious I have seen for years … reads like a promotional booklet”.

No expense seems to have been spared in the production of the “Guide”; it is in full colour, with lots of photos of folk receiving various therapies. Though it concedes, even emphasises, the need to see your doctor and to keep him/her fully informed, the contents will otherwise be familiar to students of Complementary Medicine; no mention of evidence (though a scholarly-looking list of 141 references), much talk of “… believe that … ” and “… used by many people for …” and of those mysterious entities beloved of these practitioners: “energy” and “meridians”. There is, of course, no discussion of the mutually exclusive nature of some of these therapies, nor of the complete absence in many cases of evidence of efficacy. You know, of course, the meaning of the verb “to heal”. It is therefore puzzling to see one of the 16 therapeutic modalities included in the “Guide” is known as “Healing”. Surely it is not implied that none of the other 15 can cure your trouble? “Healing”, in this context, looks to be our old fraudulent friend Therapeutic Touch. If you are visiting Britain, and feel the need for a little cranio-sacral therapy, help is at hand. The Guide, with relevant addresses, can be downloaded free from www.fihealth.org.uk. Be cheered, also, by the claim that over half the GPs in Britain will direct you to CAM practitioners; indeed, many have such people working in their medical centres.

Newsfront

The Scottish border city of Carlisle says a stone artwork commissioned to mark the millennium has brought floods, pestilence and sporting humiliation, but an unlikely white knight is riding to their rescue (Dominion Post, 10 March). The Cursing Stone is a 14-tonne granite rock inscribed with an ancient curse against robbers, but since it was put in a city museum in 2001 the region has been plagued by foot and mouth disease, a devastating flood and factory closures. Perhaps worst of all, the Carlisle United soccer team has dropped a division.

Continue reading

Noah’s ark tests negative

A New Zealander’s quest to find Noah’s Ark has suffered a double blow, with two samples he gathered in Turkey turning out to be rock, not petrified timber. Ross Patterson delivered the samples to crown research institute Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS) in Wellington. Senior geologist Hamish Campbell, who examined the samples, said they were not wood or fossil material, but volcanic rock. One of the samples had “a lovely platey fabric” and Dr Campbell said he could see why Mr Patterson thought they might be fossil wood. “I’m all for somebody chasing something like this — it makes life interesting. GNS offers a service and we are very happy to sample rock in this way.”

Continue reading

Prayer – Not so effective after all

A widely publicised trial which appeared to show prayer was effective in enhancing fertility now appears to have been fraudulent.

In 2001 an extraordinary paper, from the highly regarded Columbia University Medical Center, New York, appeared in the also highly regarded Journal of Reproductive Medicine. About 100 women in South Korea who were undergoing in vitro fertilisation treatment were divided into two groups; half had their photographs prayed over anonymously by persons in the US, the other half were not so prayed over. Astoundingly, the conception rate in the “prayed for” group was twice that in the “not prayed for” group. The work was hard to fault from internal evidence, as it had apparently been done using all the procedures of a modern clinical trial, and it became widely quoted as firm evidence for the efficacy of prayer. Publicity was aided by a press release from the university.

This intrigued Dr Bruce Flamm, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at California University. The scandalous nature of his findings is described in a recent Skeptical Inquirer. He wrote to the three authors and the journal editor, asking, as one would of a colleague in the same field, for access to the raw data of the experiments. Over a period of some years repeated similar inquiries have elicited no answer, not even an acknowledgment, from either journal or authors. Such behaviour is not only unusual and discourteous, it is also unethical, and inviting of suspicion.

Complications

In his article, Dr Flamm first comments on the unnecessary complication of the praying arrangements. Not only were the Korean women prayed for, but the Americans who were praying for them had their prayers “fortified” by themselves being prayed for by another group. And yet a third tier of prayers was added, praying that the prayers of the middle tier would be answered. The paper offered no reasons for this complexity, which would seem to introduce unnecessary confusion into the trial. Some prayers asked that “God’s will be done”, so, in the absence of knowledge of what God’s will is, any result is a “success”. How much prayer was offered, and whether the prayer and the prayed-for acknowledge the same God, were not enquired into.

The Korean women were quite unaware of all this praying, and the university had later to admit it was wrong not to have obtained informed consent. The university had initially described one man (Lobo) as lead author, but when Dr Flamm did get a reply from the vice-chancellor, this person was said to have not known of the work until well after it was done, and had had a merely editorial role in the paper. Another author had recently left the university, while the third has a long criminal history, and is now in jail for fraud. This man, Daniel Wirth, has also a history of publishing reports of “healing” in several papers in obscure paranormal journals.

Why a respectable journal was conned into publishing such a bizarre paper remains a mystery, because the editor refuses to communicate with Dr Flamm, or media inquirers. Despite the criticisms of Dr Flamm and others, the journal kept this paper on its website until a few months ago. Were the claims made in this paper true, they would represent possibly the greatest discovery of all time. That the journal was so incredibly sloppy in its editing, and so obdurate in retracting the paper, is highly damaging to its reputation, and suggests the editor is blinded by his religion.

Another miracle paper

Reading Dr Flamms critique, I am reminded of the now notorious homeopathy claim of Benveniste et al published in Nature. Some useful comparisons can be made. In 1988, as in 2001, reports containing claims of events that should not have occurred according to current scientific understanding, arrived in the respective editorial offices. We are told that the question of publishing Benveniste’s was fiercely argued at Nature, and printed, most unusually, with an explanatory note. As far as is known, the other paper, from workers at the Columbia University Medical Center, had a smooth ride editorially, and was printed without comment.

Nature received a flood of letters to the editor, and several critical of the paper and of the editor for publishing it were printed. Whether anything similar happened at JRM was never admitted. Dr Flamm’s repeated requests for information and discussion were never acknowledged.

Benveniste’s extraordinary claims led the Nature editor to an extraordinary action; he sent a team of investigators to Benveniste’s laboratory in Paris to observe what was done “at the bench”. The flaws in technique thus revealed destroyed Benveniste’s claims. The team’s findings, when published in Nature, caused the authorities to close Benveniste’s laboratory, and almost ended his scientific career. The Columbia University Medical Center appears unmoved and unchanged in the face of Dr Flamm’s criticisms, and two of the three authors of the “Prayer” paper are pursuing their careers apparently unhindered.

L’Affaire Benveniste is now well in the past. Science is still, as before, opposed to homeopathy, and Nature retains its position at the top of the heap of scientific journals. On the contrary, thanks to Columbia University Medical Center and the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, the issue of the efficacy of prayer remains to clog the stream of medical thinking and inhibits progress. And what researcher who values his reputation and the standards of his work will now wish to offer papers to the JRM?

Published with acknowledgment to, and approval of, Skeptical Inquirer, Buffalo, NY,USA.

Self-Esteem: too much of a Good Thing?

The idea that low self-esteem is the cause of violent behaviour has been current for some time. Many years ago I attended numerous education meetings where I heard that certain (male) individuals “lacked self-esteem” when it seemed patently obvious that this was not true. I argued that these individuals greatly esteemed many of their own behaviours – it was just that these behaviours were those the counsellors thought should be deplored.

The result was that schools developed programmes to encourage pupils to make lists of their wonderful features and to compose poems of self-celebration. Parents and teachers were afraid to criticise children, or to let them take part in exams and competitions as this could turn them into violent thugs. It became important above all that children never experienced failure.

Scientific American (April 2001) had an article entitled Violent Pride: Do people turn violent because of self-hate or self-love? by Roy F Baumeister. This dealt with the problem of violent young men and characterised them as being usually egoists with a grandiose sense of personal superiority and entitlement; yet counselling textbooks say such people really suffer from low self-esteem.

Although it was a “well-known fact” that low self-esteem causes violence, Baumeister was unable to find a formal statement of the theory, let alone any evidence to support it. According to Baumeister: “…we found no indicators that aggressive male bullies are anxious and insecure under a tough surface.”

Self-esteem can be measured using a questionnaire with such examples as:

  • How well do you get along with other people?
  • Are you generally successful in your work or studies?

Baumeister et al also tested for narcissistic tendencies in a similar manner. People with high self-esteem were not necessarily narcissistic – most could recognise that they genuinely were good at some things but not all.

A study on men imprisoned for violent crimes showed these had the highest mean score for narcissism (among prisoners), though their score for self-esteem was about in the middle. Narcissism correlated very strongly with violent behaviour.

The idea that low self-esteem is the underlying cause of “just about every psychological problem” originates with Nathaniel Branden (originally Nathan Blumenthal), psychotherapist and author of several books on the subject. According to Branden: “faulty self-esteem [is] a flawed self-concept, intellectual self-doubt, a sense of unworthiness or guilt, an experience or inadequacy, a feeling that ‘something is wrong with me’ or that ‘I am not enough.’ ” But of course if the concept is made as broad as this everybody must experience low self-esteem at times.

Nash published Branden’s first book on the topic, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, late in 1969, but it was taken up by Bantam and over a million paperback copies were sold worldwide. In 1977 Branden started a series of intensive “workshop” courses to teach his ideas. The course was called Self-Esteem and the Art of Being. Originally the attendees were psychotherapy students. These people spread the gospel and the idea really took off.

Branden had been a member of the Ayn Rand inner circle and, although 20-odd years younger, was her lover for a considerable period. This grand idea, of the importance of low self-esteem, was formulated by or with Rand sometime in 1955, certainly before the spring of 1956. But we have only Branden’s word that he had any involvement then – about 14 years before he published anything on the subject. Rand would later claim that Branden had stolen her idea; after Branden rejected her sexually she became extremely bitter. However when Atlas Shrugged (which seems to have introduced the idea) was published, it was dedicated to both her husband and her lover!

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged contains a speech by John Galt, Rand’s superman hero that sets out three principles as the supreme and ruling values of human life:

  1. Reason
  2. Purpose
  3. Self-esteem

I regret that I was unaware of the Ayn Rand connection around 25 years ago, when I was involved in education and attacking the idea that low self-esteem was the problem with difficult boys. Rand’s anti-communism of course made her “Right Wing”. The “Left Wing” trendy types that were pushing faulty self-esteem as the cause of problems with difficult adolescents would have been horrified at the connection. I had found Atlas Shrugged and other Rand books unreadable; recently I had to read some Rand to write this essay but did not enjoy the experience. I still have not finished any of her books.

Rand frequently used archaic meanings for common English words. Few skeptics would quibble about basing their ideas on reason, but today this means that we organise our ideas to avoid contradictions. Rand’s philosophy involved a resurrection of the mediaeval idea of Rationalism, which meant something quite different – that one can acquire true knowledge of the world simply through thought. Modern science has rejected this idea – and Rand largely rejected science.

The Baumeister studies are very relevant to New Zealand today, but I suspect that few teachers or social workers involved with difficult and violent young males have even heard of them. Jim Ring is a Nelson Skeptic.

Something to Laugh About

There’s a stereotype of card-carrying members of the Skeptics Society that we’re dour, humour-less, cynical nay-sayers; depressed Eeyores not cheerful Tiggers. Like most stereotypes, it’s 95% wrong. I’m often asked what characterises a member of the Skeptics, and I think of the diverse opinions, the range of religious and political beliefs, the spectrum of occupations and interests. Apart from a compulsive inquisitiveness about the world, the only other major thing all Skeptics seem to have in common is a large capacity for laughter.

Continue reading

Currents of fear

Given his ratings, only a tiny handful of you probably saw Paul Holmes in his new slot on Prime a few weeks back, talking to Don Maisch, described as an Australian expert on the health effects of magnetic fields. More precisely, he’s doing a PhD in the Arts Faculty of Wollongong University on changes in the health status of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome patients following removal of excessive 50 Hz magnetic field exposure.

Continue reading

Skeptics and the environment

When it comes to environmental issues, it’s not always easy for a skeptic to decide where to stand

Over the last few years, there has been a growing community of “environmental skeptics”, who question the validity of global environmental concerns. Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist is a major contribution to this strand of thought. At the 2004 Skeptics’ Conference in Christchurch, Lance Kennedy presented some of the ideas that he espouses in his book Ecomyth. The final speaker of the conference, Owen McShane, presented his version of environmental skepticism, and an abridged version of his presentation appeared in Issue 74 of this journal.

Writers such as Lomborg, Kennedy and McShane provide interesting food for thought, and illustrate that in the environmental field, as in others, there is a need for careful critical thinking. However, there is a significant difference. In general, we skeptics tend to be skeptical about beliefs that run counter to mainstream scientific thought – astrology, paranormal phenomena, UFOs, creation science and alternative medical practices are examples. In contrast, environmental skeptics often bravely challenge the opinions of scientists who are specialists in the fields concerned. In this respect, environmental skeptics are somewhat equivalent to alternative medical practitioners or creation scientists. This does not mean that they are necessarily wrong, but it does mean that they have to demonstrate very good evidence to prove that the experts are wrong. For environmental skeptics, the adage “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof” applies to them rather than the objects of their skepticism.

In practice, environmental skeptics are often inconsistent and selective in their attitudes to science and professionals. For example, in his chapter on global warming, Kennedy largely ignores and discounts the work of the 2000+ climate scientists who make up the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yet in his chapter on nature conservation, he states “We should question what enables the amateur environmentalists to set themselves up as ‘experts’ and deny the analysis and planning of professionals.” Having made this statement, it is interesting that he feels that he is qualified to state categorically that “Global warming and its consequences are an unproven theory.” This statement is suspiciously similar to those made by “creation scientists” in criticism of evolution theory. In fact, I see parallels between the history of the evolution debate and the current climate change debate. It may be that in 100 years’ time, those that continue to deny the reality of climate change will be seen as the lunatic fringe minority and objects of ridicule for skeptics of the time.

In other ways also, environmental skeptics display some of the characteristics of those who we as skeptics would normally challenge. For example, I believe that the refusal to accept the reality of global environmental problems is very similar to the refusal of most people to accept that there is no life after death. It seems that humans instinctively reject unpalatable news.

In a similar manner to people such as proponents of quack medicine, environmental skeptics are selective in their use of scientific information. In his talk to the conference, Lance Kennedy stressed the need to employ good science, and that it is essential to “rely on the numbers”. Unfortunately, his book does not provide a good demonstration of this. For example, his chapter on global warming includes the graph in Figure 1. It is virtually meaningless, with no indication of the origin of the data, no data on the vertical axis and in fact no indication at all of what it purports to illustrate.

Environmental skeptics often ignore rather than challenge the mainstream environmental science community. They focus much of their criticism on sometimes admittedly questionable claims by the more visible and extreme environmental lobby groups. Greenpeace, WWF and the World Resources Institute are favourite targets. The skeptics often fail to clarify that, at a less visible level, there is a huge body of rational and responsible scientists world-wide who confirm a high degree of real cause for environmental concern. This is somewhat akin to condemning the whole world of Islam by quoting Muslim philosophies as espoused by Al Qaeda.

In the fields that we are traditionally involved in, we skeptics get frustrated about the willingness of the media to give time and credence to mediums, alternative health practitioners and the like, without seeking an informed balanced viewpoint. In the environmental field, it is the professional practitioners who can be frustrated by the coverage given to the environmental skeptics (and, for that matter, the antics of radical environmental lobbyists).

Environmental Management

I suspect that if the human lifespan was really the 500-800 years claimed for the Old Testament patriarchs, self-interest would assure that we would have quite a different attitude to the future state of the world.

Owen McShane states that “We are rich enough to care about the environment…Truly poor people focus on finding tomorrow’s breakfast.” In fact, the great majority of environmental aid projects in developing countries through UN and other reputable international agencies focus on the impacts of environmental degradation on people. They explicitly address and focus on the need to protect and improve the welfare of those in poverty. None of the many international environmental projects that I encountered in 10 years’ work in around 15 poor countries was based on the ecocentric anti-people philosophy that Owen McShane criticises.

As just one example of the direct impact of environmental mismanagement on human welfare, I mention Muinak, a village in northern Uzbekistan. Up until the 1960s, Muinak was the home for a fleet of fishing trawlers and a fish factory, as part of a fishing industry that took some 40,000 tonnes of fish per year from the Aral Sea. Under the direction of Soviet central planning in Moscow, the waters from the two major rivers feeding the Aral Sea were taken for irrigation of cotton crops. The Aral Sea is now a remnant of its former self, and the fishing industry is gone. When I visited Muinak about four years ago, the trawlers were rusting hulks in the sand. Muinak was over 100 kilometres from the water’s edge, and was fast becoming a ghost town. Most poignantly, the town’s World War II memorial, built on the sea cliffs overlooking the point where local soldiers embarked to cross the Aral Sea to join the war effort, now looks out over desert stretching to the horizon and beyond.

A particular concern that I have is that environmental skeptics (and for that matter some environmental lobbyists) tend to think in time scales that are far too short. A profound influence on my thinking was the marvellous “Time-Line” installation by Bill Taylor that we saw at Victoria University at the 2003 Skeptics Conference (NZ Skeptic 70). In brief, the 4.6 billion year life of Earth was represented by a cord 4.6 km long. On this basis, the 2000 years since the dawn of the Christian era occupied the final two millimetres.

I find it amazing and somewhat sobering to consider that, on this scale, the dawn of the Industrial Revolution occurred only 0.15 millimetres ago. There is no question that in that instant of geological time, humans have wrought major changes to our global environment. For example, it is an accepted fact that recent human activity has caused measurable changes to the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, and in particular the concentration of the so-called “greenhouse gases”. The debate is not about whether these changes have occurred, but whether they are causing climate change. To me, that is almost academic. The fact that, in such a blink of time, we have caused measurable changes to the atmosphere that sustains all life is adequate cause for concern.

The Resource Management Act requires us to consider the needs of future generations. Owen McShane talked about the difficulty of this concept, because the future generations are walking away in front of us, so that we never get there. To me, this indicated that he sees “future generations” in the very short term, meaning our immediate successors, our children and grandchildren. I see things quite differently and in a longer term. Given the headlong pace of change and impact in just the last hundred years, my concern is for the way the 20th and 21st Century generations might be viewed in say 500 years (0.5 mm), 1000 years (1 mm), or even longer.

Environmental skeptics tend to airily dismiss energy concerns by saying that we have enough fossil fuels to last part or all of this century. Again, this is short term thinking. While one may argue about the remaining life of reserves of fossil fuels, the inescapable fact is that they are a finite resource. There is no doubt whatsoever that, on a geological or evolutionary time-scale, the period in which humans have been able to develop and maintain a lifestyle that relied on one-off extraction of fossil fuels will be a mere instant of history.

Loss of Forests

On the subject of forest loss, Lance Kennedy states that world forest cover has increased from 1950 to the present — from 40 million to 43 million square kilometres. In fact, the 2000 Global Forest Resources Assessment by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN puts the current figure at 39 million. More importantly, its best assessment is that there was a net global forest loss in the 1990s of about 2.2%. This is equivalent to an area the size of New Zealand each three years. Again, this apparently small percentage figure is very serious if considered in any form of medium or long-term time frame. For tropical forests, environmental skeptics accept that there is a rate of loss of about 0.5% per year, but dismiss this as being of little cause for concern. Again, this is in fact a very high rate of loss both in absolute area and if considered in the context of even a medium time frame of say 100 years.

Some environmental skeptics dismiss concerns about any future scarcity of fossil fuels and their polluting effect by suggesting that they will be replaced by hydrogen as a source of energy for transport. In reality, hydrogen is not a fundamental energy source, but only a medium to transport energy, somewhat equivalent to electrical cables or batteries. Production of hydrogen itself requires huge energy inputs. Current technologies to produce hydrogen either use fossil fuels as a base (with large energy losses on the way through), or require electrical energy to produce it by electrolysis of water, again with energy losses in the process. For the moment, there seems little prospect of achieving the required dramatic increase in electricity production other than by using fossil fuels or nuclear energy, which of course is no more than a relocation of the same problem.

Both Lomborg and Kennedy ridicule pessimistic writers of previous decades. They paint a rosy picture of the current situation and point out how much better things are than such writers’ forecasts. What seems to escape them is that all such earlier predictions had an underlying message, “If we don’t change our ways, … will happen.” In fact, the improvements that Lomborg and Kennedy are now trumpeting are in nearly every case because governments and society responded to the concerns that grew so rapidly in the 60s and 70s, and did change their ways.

Ironically, having criticised the weaknesses in earlier predictions, Lomborg and Kennedy are willing to make or embrace unsubstantiated predictions that suit their arguments. For example, in discussing oil prices, Lomborg said that “It is also expected that the oil price will once again decline from $27 to the low $20s until 2020.” As I write this, the price is hovering in the mid-$50s.

Kennedy’s optimistic predictions are of a more general nature, apparently based more on a touching faith in science and technology rather than on rational analysis. They read rather like the confident predictions of a clairvoyant or an evangelist. For example, in discussing the predicted world population size in the middle of this century, he states “The world will be able to nourish such numbers by the time growth reaches this point. This ability will come from improvements in biotechnology and in other sciences, and in the increase of prosperity and agricultural efficiency in developing nations. The pessimists will again be wrong.”

This article is not a call to ignore and ridicule the work and beliefs of environmental skeptics. In this as in other fields there is a need for critical thinking. Having worked in the environmental field for some 30 years both in New Zealand and elsewhere, I have my own doubts about certain aspects. I have my own concerns about both the philosophy and application of the Resource Management Act. However, skeptics do need to appreciate that environmental skepticism is of a different character to skepticism as we usually understand it, and needs to be approached with caution. It is easy to criticise mediums, psychics, homeopaths and spoon benders, with little fear of exposing ourselves to credible scientific challenge. If we do join in the environmental skepticism debate, let us be sure that we do so with the same quality of informed critical thinking and respect for all the facts that we espouse in our other activities.

Communicating the nature of science: Evolution as an exemplar

<>
Science as taught at school is often portrayed as a collection of facts, rather than as a process. Taking a historical approach to the teaching of evolution is a useful way to illustrate the way science works.

The need for a scientifically literate population is probably greater now than ever before, given the rapid pace of change in science and technology. Members of such a population have the tools to examine the world around them, and the ability to critically assess claims made in the media. However, there are difficulties with conveying just what science is about and how it is done; in letting people know how the scientific world-view differs from “other ways of knowing”. This is particularly evident when dealing with evolutionary theory, often described as “just a theory”, and probably the only scientific theory to be rejected on the grounds of personal belief. How can we alter such misconceptions and extend scientific understanding?

Part of my role at Waikato University involves liaising with local and regional high school teachers of biology and science. Over the past few years I have received numerous requests from local secondary school teachers to provide a resource they could use in teaching evolution. Discussion with teacher focus groups revealed a number of content areas they would like to have available:

  • links to the New Zealand curriculum and to relevant web-sites,
  • evolutionary process (including the sources of genetic variation and how natural selection operates),
  • human evolution,
  • New Zealand examples,
  • evidence for evolution,
  • ways of dealing with opposition among students (and colleagues),
  • and the historical perspective.

These last two items are particularly significant, since modelling a way of presenting the historical development of evolutionary thought, and by extension the nature of science itself, offers a way of countering opposition to the theory of evolution.

I have deliberately used the example of evolution, because there is good evidence (eg Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman 2000; Passmore and Stewart 2000; Passmore and Stewart 2002) that altering the way in which evolution is traditionally taught offers the opportunity to show people the nature of science – what it is and how it works. For example, rather than taking a confrontational approach to their students’ beliefs, Passmore and Stewart (2000) provided a number of models of evolution and encouraged the students to determine which model best explained a particular phenomenon.

Similarly, William Cobern (1994) has commented:

“Teaching evolution at the sec-ondary level is very much like Darwin presenting the Origin of Species to a public who historically held a very different view of origins. To meet this challenge, teachers [should] preface the conceptual study of evolution with a classroom dialogue… informed with material on the cultural history of Darwinism.”

He goes on (Cobern 1995):

“I do not believe that evolution can be taught effectively by ignoring significant metaphysical (ie essentially religious) questions. One addresses these issues not by teaching a doctrine, but by looking back historically to the cultural and intellectual milieu of Darwin’s day and the great questions over which people struggled.”

Taking such an approach is highly significant in developing an understanding of the nature of science, since an historical narrative will not only place Darwin’s work into its historical and social context, but will also show how he applied the scientific method to solving his “problem” of evolution. This approach is central to the Evolution for Teaching website (sci.waikato.ac.nz/evolution – see NZ Skeptic 71; the other members of the website team are Dr Penelope Cooke of Earth Sciences, Dr Kathrin Cass, and Kerry Earl from the Centre for Science & Technology Education Research), and is also one I use in my own teaching, where every year I encounter students who have a creationist worldview. Such views may well become more common, given that there appears to be a coordinated effort to make material promoting Intelligent Design Theory (and denigrating evolutionary thought) available in schools.

This teacher-generated list, and the philosophy described above, informed the planning and design of the Evolution for Teaching website, which is hosted by the School of Science and Technology at Waikato University. First we felt it important to make explicit the nature of scientific hypotheses, theories, and laws, to overcome difficulties originating in differing understandings of the word “theory”. (Much of the language of science offers opportunities for such misunderstandings, since it invests many everyday terms with other, very specific meanings eg Cassels and Johnstone 1985; Letsoalo 1996.)

The site offers links to the NCEA matrices for Science and Biology, plus FAQs, book and site reviews, and a glossary.

Feedback has been almost entirely positive, with all the teachers attending its launch in March indicating that they would use it in their teaching and recommend it to their students. Without exception they found it attractive, easy to navigate, and informative, providing information at a level suitable for both themselves and their students. Student comments support this last point. Since the site went “live” in March 2004 it has received around 100,000 hits per month, indicative of a very high level of interest.

Forum

It is with sadness that I see that the Skeptic is still accepting articles and letters with political bias. I would like to spend much of this letter countering some of Owen McShane’s arguments from his article “Why are we crying into our beer?”, but I see we are still arguing in the pages of our magazine about science. It would be really nice if Jim Ring or C Morris could explain to me and I’m sure others who are puzzled by this whole affair, as to what legitimate arguments between legitimate scientists have to do with scepticism.

Continue reading

Hokum Locum

Now that Terri Schiavo has been allowed to die peacefully there is an opportunity to reflect on the matter free from the hysteria and religious arguments advanced as an excuse to maintain her in a vegetative state. When discussing the ethics of the situation with a local surgeon he commented that the main problem was that the feeding tube should never have been inserted in the first place. A feeding tube is surgically inserted into the stomach through a hole in the abdominal wall. Once such medical interventions have been made it is very hard to reverse them. In this case the debate appears to have been hijacked by Catholic pressure groups.

Continue reading