A Little Light Reading

Jim Ring finds some material to pass the time on a recent flight.

Queensland is the home of young-earth creationism in Australia so it was perhaps not surprising that I found Creation Magazine for sale in the Brisbane airport. None of the other four Australian airports we visited displayed it. Curiosity overcame my reluctance to provide money for their cause.

This was volume 27 but I feel sure it has not been running for 27 years in this format. “Peer reviewed by leading creationary (sic) experts”. As there are no adverts there is no legal necessity for listing the numbers of copies sold or estimated readership. I would like to know these figures.

The cover picture with a caption “DINGO: Australia’s Wild Native Dog” suggested a wild-life theme and the glossy cover was just like hundreds of other magazines on the rack. However a few key words-fossil, God, Darwin, massive flood, evolution, suggested otherwise. Not to mention the web page address for Answers in Genesis (branches outside of the US have recently re-branded themselves as Creation Ministries International-ed.).

With all the present attention on Intelligent Design it is worth reminding ourselves that young-earth creationists are still very much around.

A letter page called Feedback (borrowed from New Scientist?) gives some indication of the readership. A letter from Lower Hutt thinks pet budgies prove a creator. I cannot quite follow the argument but apparently teaching one to say “Hello, God made me” is important.

The editorial attacks other publications-National Geographic, Time, and Scientific American, because they do not take creationist views seriously. I imagine these editors are trembling in their shoes. In contrast the editor remembers a young farmer who said, “When I drive around the countryside I see evidence for Noah’s flood everywhere.”

A number of news items taken (with acknowledgment) from New Scientist, Science, Nature, etc have the theme that new discoveries discredit science by proving that older ideas were wrong. If one believes that all answers lie in Genesis I suppose this is logical, but to me it is an entirely alien idea.

An article on UFOs and aliens surprised me but perhaps belief in a completely unsupportable worldview opens one’s mind to more nonsense. Some famous pictures described as “genuinely unexplained sightings” help to plug a book for AiG. This apparently links abductions with demonology, and shows how “belief in evolution has opened the door to alien visitations.” The book is claimed to provide answers for Christians puzzled by UFO phenomena.

The lead article on Dingoes is quite good until it gets to the historical problem. When did humans and dingoes actually arrive in Australia? Australians convinced that the earth is only about 6000 years old have huge problems in compressing their history to make it fit.

The second major article is on how the (Irish) Giant’s Causeway was produced by the biblical flood about 4500BP over a very short period. This is hilarious because it is obviously meant to be serious. The author is a staffer at AiG with a BSc (Hons) in geology and the article has references to recent geological articles and journals. However he brushes over the problem of geological dates with “Once we realise the dates assigned to the causeway are not measured, but just someone’s opinion, we can look at the evidence in a different light.” He is in agreement with modern opinion that the Causeway was produced by a huge eruption followed by a flood. However, according to Richard Fortey in The Earth: An Intimate History that flood was the opening of the Atlantic Ocean.

All this is benign but three pages of material towards the back are not. The headlines for three articles:

  • Darwin’s Impact-The Bloodstained Legacy of Evolution
  • Evolution and Social Evil
  • America’s Evolutionists: Hitler’s Inspiration?

-would disgrace any publication.

While A Timeline of Evolution Inspired Terror features Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Pol Pot. I am not sure how Mao escaped here but he is mentioned in the text. Somehow Darwin is responsible for the behaviour of these men.

This would be funny if it was not serious; it is a timely reminder that it is important to keep creationists out of schools.

President Bush to Scientists and the Sick: ‘Drop Dead’

In George W Bush’s America, it’s okay to throw human embryos in the trash, but not to use them as a source of stem cells.

A political question on the minds of scientists in the United States is: How big will the Republican losses be in November?

History shows that Republicans are almost certain to lose ground. The party that holds the White House almost always loses seats in the midterm Congressional elections held in the sixth year of a two-term presidency. This year should be no different. President Bush is suffering from low approval ratings, and there is widespread discontent about the war in Iraq. Perhaps 2006 will be one of those landmark years in which control of Congress switches parties. If Democrats in the House of Representatives gain 15 seats-a number that is within reach&mdashthen Republicans will lose power there for the first time since 1994. Democrats need to gain six seats in the Senate to take control there-a less likely prospect but still possible.

The elections are particularly important to scientists because the Bush Administration has hindered scientific knowledge, usually to please backers who are fundamentalist Christians. The religious supporters of George W Bush and other Republicans are generous, organised and, thus, powerful.

President Bush opposes human embryonic stem-cell research because his Christian sponsors say clusters of cells have souls in the image of their god and deserve the same rights as other humans. The likelihood that stem-cell research might lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of devastating medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injury does not matter to them.

In July of this year, President Bush used his first veto when he struck down the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, which would have removed some restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research. The bill proposed to let the federal government fund research using surplus embryos generated by in vitro fertilisation (IVF) procedures. Bush claimed he opposed such research because it involves the destruction of human life. The president’s message echoed anti-abortionists and evoked images of mad scientists killing babies for hideous experiments. On religious grounds, the Bush Administration considers spare embryos from IVF procedures as the equivalent of human beings. However, early in its existence as a blastocyst, the embryo is not a fixed individual, as shown by the fact that it can spontaneously separate into many parts. The embryos have no prospect of developing the capacities and properties of persons because they will not be implanted in a womb. These surplus clusters of cells are usually discarded as medical waste, about 400 000 per year in the United States. President Bush knows this, but he did not seek to ban IVF.

His self-righteous posturing insulted the countries that have started embryonic stem-cell programmes, such as Britain, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Canada, South Africa and France. Meanwhile, scientists in the country with the world’s biggest laboratories have their hands tied by dogma.

In Bush’s home state of Texas, Republican politicians are divided on the issue. Former state lawmaker Randy Graf says no taxes should go to embryonic stem-cell research. (He also says Creationism makes at least as much sense to him as evolution. On the question of the age of the Earth, Graf is blunt: “I don’t know, and I don’t care. I’ve got my Christian faith, and I’m very comfortable with that.”) Auto-shop manager Mike Jenkins says he is against federal funding for stem-cell research because the government will waste the money. He also opposes government support of aids and cancer research for the same reason. On the other hand, Mike Hellon, former chair of the Arizona Republican Party, said, “It is inconsistent to say it’s okay to throw embryos in the trash, but it’s not okay to harvest stem cells.”

The six Democrats seeking the seat all support federal funding of stem-cell research. Retired federal bureaucrat Francine Shacter says the opposition to stem-cell research reflects the Bush Administration’s anti-science bent: “I have lived on the outskirts of the scientific world my entire life. One of the things I deplore about this Administration is the dumbing down of science. There’s a fundamental dishonesty there that disturbs me very badly.” Jeff Latas, a pilot, says watching his son fight leukaemia has given him a firsthand look at the importance of stem-cell research: “By vetoing to satisfy a very small sector of the conservative side of the Republican Party, essentially, you’re signing a death warrant to millions of Americans.”

Perhaps the November elections will get Republicans off the back of scientists.

New course on critical thinking for 2007

Canterbury University will next year be offering a Stage I course on critical thinking, to be called Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus. Named after a classic book by Martin Gardner, the course, Philosophy 110, will be headed by founding member of the NZ Skeptics, Denis Dutton. Prof Dutton says it will fulfill a demand for a sharp, smart course in critical thinking from a standpoint quite different from that offered by traditional logic and philosophy.

“It will make use of recent research into the reasons why human thought is prone to specific patterns of fallacious analysis. It is a course in the spirit of the Philosophy Programme’s most illustrious and redoubtable member: Sir Karl Popper. In fact, part of the course centres on his ideas about the nature of science,” Prof Dutton says.

The course aims to introduce students to the structure of scientific thinking both through an historical/analytical survey and by contrasting it with varieties of pseudoscientific and irrational ways of thinking. In fulfilling this mission, the course proposes to:

  • review the history of science from the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century through to the advent of Darwinian biology;
  • give students a grasp of the philosophical thinking that developed alongside the growth of science in the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries;
  • present the contrasting philosophies of science of Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper as marking an important intellectual divide in thinking about science;
  • show how legitimate science and scientific explanations differ in kind from bogus attempts to ape science and parasitically acquire its power and prestige;
  • familiarise students with the fallacies and traps, both logical and psychological, that bedevil both ordinary and apparently scientific reasoning.

A weird and wonderful event

It was an eye opener. Under the stern glare of past headmasters of Kings College, the NZ Skeptics were holding their annual dinner that always goes with the annual conference.

We had arrived at our seats to find tidily folded strips of tinfoil and were instructed to get creating-tinfoil head adornments have the added goodness of blocking evil mind controlling rays.

Within minutes highly talented skeptics had whipped up mediaeval crowns, medusa snake heads, devil horns and shark fins to pop on their clever heads. We are a disparate bunch with hidden talents, I concluded as I looked around me. Some were less talented, it has to be said-all I had was a scrunched up piece of tinfoil. And-further shame-I didn’t even get the prize for the most pathetic effort.

Skeptic conferences are, like the creations we made that night, weird and wonderful affairs. Throughout the heady mix of thought-provoking sessions there is a real pleasure in hanging out with like minded people from all over the country.

This 2006 Auckland conference was another cracker. Our very own John Welch tackled the questions of why doctors go bad, we heard about the charms and harms of herbal medicine, bad science in the courtroom-and a high school student telling us the connection between hair length and musical talent. Mad cow disease, science and TV, and ethnic fundamentalism. Being our 20th anniversary, it was especially pleasing to have the presence of two founding members, Bernard Howard and Warwick Don. Warwick treated us to a potted history of the Skeptics, complete with fire walking clips and a youthful-looking Paul Holmes.

Over the next few months the NZ Skeptic will bring you many of these presentations. But we won’t be able to reproduce the feeling one takes away from this annual flocking together of our group. And it is a good one.

On another note, this is my last issue as editor. The editorial reins are being passed to David Riddell, a fine bloke although it must be said that his tinfoil hat was truly pathetic. He will, however, make a fine editor. And as he lives at the same house as me, I’ll keep an eye on things.

One more thing, before you read Louette McInnes’ piece on Richard Wiseman (p 7), check your powers of observation by watching the video at viscog.beckman.uiuc.edu/grafs/demos/15.html-all you have to do is count the number of times the players in the white shirts pass the basketball among themselves. Ignore passes by the black players. Then read the Wiseman article. And email us your totals.


JIM Ring’s article, Lamarck’s ghost rises again (NZ Skeptic 80) does an excellent job in laying Lamarck’s ghost, and its recent revival, but it is bitterly unfair to Darwin and to one of the fundamental concepts of evolution when he attacks group selection and sociobiology. He is also wrong when he claims that social behaviour does not influence genetics.

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Hokum Locum

Debunking debriefing

It has become a clich√© that whenever something bad happens, a horde of counsellors descend on the survivors to make their lives a misery. It’s true. Counselling does make you more sick compared to doing nothing.

A child is run over and killed. Instead of teachers and parents rallying around and doing what they have done for hundreds of years, ‘professionals’ are now called in to make things worse. In a study, survivors were randomly allocated to “emotional ventilation debriefing” (whatever that is), educational debriefing or nothing and were followed up at two weeks, six weeks and six months. The only difference in outcome was that at six months the first group had significantly more emotional distress.

Not only are these forms of counselling useless they are harmful and the relevant authorities should face up to this by not inflicting it on people. People have always coped with death and disaster and feelings naturally settle with time. Ordinary people underestimate their own ability to just be there for their friends and family and support them. No fancy talk is necessary. bjp.rcpsych.org/cgi/content/abstract/189/2/150

More on Placebos

It can easily be argued that the history of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is intimately involved with the history of the placebo effect. The placebo effect is also intimately involved with the practice of medicine although attempts are made to control for it.

The placebo effect is poorly understood, even by doctors, and if you interview specialists they generally discount the placebo effect in their own specialty and attribute it to their colleagues in other specialties. Orthopaedic surgery is rife with placebo procedures such as arthroscopic washout of arthritic knees. At least two good trials have shown that it is worthless yet orthopaedic surgeons continue to inflict this useless procedure on their patients. I confronted one such specialist and he argued that “in my experience it makes the knee feel better.” This is the typical feeble appeal to authority which is the lowest and most contemptible form of evidence. This refusal to accept the evidence is not unusual and in the past other placebo operations have been performed for years until such time as there is a critical mass of peers crying stop.

With respect to homeopathy, there are wide variations in the results of placebo controlled trials because, as someone put it, not all placebos are equal. One wag suggested that “double strength placebos” were needed.

In an interesting study subjects were given placebo analgesia and subjected to painful stimuli. The painful stimuli were then surreptitiously reduced to make the analgesia appear even more effective. This enhanced learned response lasted up to seven days and the authors concluded that this effect “may explain the large variability of the placebo responses that is found in many studies.”

My conclusion from all of this is that my own profession fails to use the placebo effect in a positive way. It is viewed instead as a nuisance to be controlled or minimised. The CAM industry has shown no such reluctance and the placebo effect is behind most of these treatments. Perhaps this explains the public fascination with quackery?


Medical Journal of Australia Vol 179 18 Aug 2003

Pain Vol 24 Issues 1-2, Sep 2005 Pg126-133

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Advocates of TCM argue that it cannot be evaluated by clinical trials because TCM has a different philosophical basis to western medicine. This is a typical argument known as the ‘plea for special dispensation’ and is a hallmark of quackery.

TCM evolved in China in the same manner as western medicine under the teachings of Galen. Authoritative teachings were gospel and anyone who dissented was criticised. In many respects this process has some of the features of a religion where beliefs are more important than scientific facts.

Galen solved the problem of the circulation of the blood by proposing that blood got from one side of the heart to the other through tiny pores in the heart. No one was ever able to demonstrate these pores but it was taken as fact. When Harvey described what actually happened in the circulation of the blood (ie arteries to capillaries to veins and back again) based on his anatomical studies he was treated as a heretic. TCM is a placebo-based philosophy and every time there is a scandal such as herbs adulterated with western drugs, for example Viagra and steroids, this strengthens the argument that such products and practices should be banned as being consumer fraud.

Occupational Health Delusions

Unhappy people in boring jobs can escape their stressful situation by attributing some mythical illness to the workplace. This entitles them to compensation from ACC. Many such people become extremely litigious and unpleasant if there is any suggestion that their illness is psychosomatic. Complaints and symptoms are out of all proportion to any evidence of an actual injury.

A recurring theme in the occupational health literature is the statement that “psychological factors might be important.” There is seldom any suggestion that a condition has nothing to do with work. Conditions such as railway spine and miners’ nystagmus were compensated when we now know that these conditions were a delusion, a folie a deux between plaintiffs and their gullible doctors.

Sick building syndrome (SBS) is a modern example of this delusional thinking. I recall an earlier study where symptoms bore no relationship with building ventilation. This experiment involved varying the ventilation rate without the workers’ knowledge. If the air was being changed at a very high rate there should have been a corresponding drop in symptoms.

Another recent study has found “symptoms of SBS are more strongly associated with job demands, workload, social stressors, and support at work than with the physical environment.” Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2006;63:283-289

More on Goji Juice

I revisited the goji juice site www.best-goji-juice.com and decided to investigate Dr Earl Mindell. He has a legitimate Bachelor’s degree from the University of North Dakota and a PhD from a diploma mill, the University of Beverly Hills. Quackwatch has some good information about his vitamin industry and the goji juice industry is a good example of multilevel marketing similar to Amway. Has anybody tried the stuff? I would be interested to hear.

The ideal marriage?

Consider an iridologist married to a reflexologist. The iridologist can look into her partner’s eyes and tell him what’s wrong with his feet. The reflexologist can look at her feet and tell her what’s wrong with her eyes. Many thanks to whoever it was who passed that on at the conference and thanks to Dr Keith Davidson for passing on a half page advertisement devoted to reflexology from the Christchurch Press, 26 September. It’s clearly a growth industry with their own website www.reflexology.org.nz. You can train at a reflexology school or even gain a diploma from the Canterbury College of Natural Medicine.

Is kaupapa Maori research methodology credible?

New Zealand has its own version of ‘postcolonial science studies’. This is supposed to emancipate those who see themselves as subjects of colonial oppression, but the actual consequences may be very different.

Kaupapa Maori research methodology (KMR) has been systematically integrated into New Zealand’s national science framework and presented as a viable methodology for conducting research that involves Maori as participants and in areas identified as being of specific relevance to Maori. Statements requiring research scientists to take KMR seriously are now variously found in government science policies, national-level research funding guidelines, national and university ethics committee guidelines, and professional bodies’ research codes of conduct. Further, many departments in the state services sector have commissioned KMR. In the field of health, for example, state-sponsored KMR research has been undertaken on issues such as mental health and youth suicide, sudden infant death syndrome, and cancer care services. Within the field of justice, KMR has been one of the dominant methodological positions employed to examine family and domestic violence along with criminal offending. Moreover, a wide range of disciplines within the tertiary sector now teach KMR methodology as a stand-alone, fully fledged conception of inquiry. Because KMR methodology has largely been developed by postcolonial educational researchers (see especially L Smith, Decolonizing methodology, University of Otago, 1999), the field of education has proven to be a particularly fertile ground for the proliferation of KMR theory and practice. Of further interest, is the fact that the influence of KMR methodology is not confined to New Zealand’s shores. Often described as ‘critical cultural pedagogy’, the KMR perspective has also been exported to other nations including Australia and Canada, and presented as a feasible research methodology.

We believe that KMR methodology needs to be taken seriously, but not for the reason that it contributes a credible alternative to standard research methodology. To the contrary, we suggest that KMR methodology may very well be a suitable candidate to represent New Zealand’s own variant of fashionable nonsense (cf A Sokal & J Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense, Picador, 1999). As we will argue, while KMR adherents employ the notions of liberation and empowerment to promote their doctrine, the uptake of their views and practices may in fact subvert the potential for researchers to undertake genuine scientific inquiry in areas of clear national need.

Postcolonial science studies

According to the postcolonial view, so-called Western science (hereafter referred to as orthodox science), promotes a distinctive set of values, methods, and standards of scientific rationality that are consistent with European culture and its expansion. Traditional science is therefore assumed to be complicit in the historical subjugation of peoples and, in the contemporary context, culpable in actively oppressing alternative ways of coming to know the world. All manner of possibilities are meant by ‘alternative ways of coming to know the world’, including indigenous science, deep ecological wisdom, spiritual connectedness, cosmological narratives, and not the least, narratives constructed through ‘blood memory’. The objective of postcolonial science studies is therefore to emancipate those people who identify themselves as the subjects of (post) colonial oppression and to legitimate their views of what constitutes reliable and coherent knowledge. In other words, it is a rescue and reunite mission.

KMR methodology is best thought of as a localised strain of postcolonial science studies. It, too, has its own alternative way of coming to know the world, which involves ‘decolonising’ methodology. This task is performed by “[interrogating] methods in relation to cultural sensitivity, cross-cultural reliability, useful outcomes for Maori, and other such measures” (F Cram, Maori Science, Auckland Uniservices Ltd, 2000). The colonising features of conventional methodology that KMR proponents are most concerned to identify include a commitment to objectivity, the requirements of justification, and a failure to acknowledge that historical and structural causes are responsible for current problems where Maori are over-represented. In addition, the interrogation demands that Maori are characterised in a specific way. This requires making explicit statements about a Maori worldview, collective identity, cultural values, and spirituality. It is thought that once the interrogation has been completed, and replacement notions such as cultural sensitivity have been incorporated into a research framework, a genuine ‘Maori way of knowing’ or ‘Maori methodology’ will emerge.

Use of the term decolonise clearly signals that KMR embodies a postcolonial view of science. Moreover, by advocating a ‘Maori way of knowing’ that replaces, or exists alongside, orthodox science, proponents of KMR methodology make the strong claim that the acquisition of scientific knowledge is, and ought to be acknowledged as, culturally relative. We believe that the KMR strategy of ‘interrogation’ actively distorts the conduct of inquiry and has led to the misguided patronage of epistemological and methodological relativism within many New Zealand research circles. Just as importantly, we suggest that KMR adherents’ refutation of objectivity, reliability, and validity as they are conventionally understood, combined with the demand that Maori be characterised in a particular way, is seriously misleading.

Ideological influence on scientific matters

Since the passing of the Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act in 1985, New Zealand has steadfastly reorganised itself along bicultural lines. In 1988, with the release of the Royal Commission on Social Policy report, the Crown acknowledged the importance of the concepts of protection, participation, and partnership. These concepts were drafted into public policy, including science policy, to reflect the nation’s commitment to the socio-political ideology of biculturalism. We maintain that these concepts entail a political and moral obligation to be responsive to Maori needs and aspirations. But this does not equate to endorsing the epistemic imperative of the KMR doctrine that there is a Maori way of knowing. However, the justification for the recommendation that KMR methodology needs to be taken seriously by research scientists is usually found in recourse to these concepts, which generally inform government and institutional policies that acknowledge the Treaty of Waitangi.

We believe that KMR advocates have exploited the political environment by insisting that the ideology of biculturalism affords their doctrine special privilege and protection, which has resulted in many fields of research being domesticated by KMR. By drawing on a key tenet of bicultural ideology, KMR adherents can claim that their doctrine has epistemic parity with standard accounts of scientific methodology on the grounds that it represents a separate, yet equal, worldview. However, the problem that arises here is that with KMR adherents’ rejection of orthodox research methodology, including standard criteria for evaluating knowledge claims, the means by which the epistemic worth of KMR outputs are to be evaluated remain to be disclosed. In short, it is questionable whether the products of KMR can be said to constitute empirically validated knowledge. Although this might seem to be a glaring oversight from a doctrine committed to liberating Maori, KMR advocates have simply side-stepped the issue of evidence by claiming a disinterest in it. Rather, KMR is now considered to represent a ‘rights-based approach’ to research as the following passage from a recent report on cancer services delivery to Maori makes abundantly clear:

The project was informed by a kaupapa Maori framework that recognises the structural causes of inequality, such as unequal power structures, colonisation, and institutional racism … The project was influenced by a rights-based approach to health, which recognises Maori human, indigenous, and Treaty of Waitangi rights (D Cormack et al, Access to Cancer Services, Ministry of Health & Wellington School of Medicine & Health Sciences, 2005, p2).

Kaupapa Maori research methodology

Although KMR methodology has been characterised in different ways, the following doctrines are among the most important: the rejection of orthodox science as an inappropriate model for conducting research of benefit to Maori; an assumption that this prevailing view of research is positivist in nature; a selective commitment to elements of both postmodern thinking and critical theory; and, a determination to use research methods, especially qualitative methods, in a liberatory manner.

The rejection of positivism

KMR methodologists roundly reject a position they call positivism, which they take to be the general philosophy that underlies orthodox science. However, their treatment of this topic is beset with two major problems. First, positivism is given a minimal characterisation that bears limited resemblance to any recognised form of positivist thinking, such as the logical positivist philosophy of science that was influential in the first half of 20th century philosophy. Second, it is mistakenly assumed that positivism is the philosophy that underwrites modern science. This is not so. Logical positivism has been a spent force for about 50 years, a significant historical fact that seems to have escaped the notice of KMR methodologists. Moreover, the influence of positivist ideas on social science research has been overemphasised. There is good evidence that the post-positivist philosophy of scientific realism (C Hooker, A Realistic Theory of Science, State University of New York Press, 1987) has been the philosophy of primary influence in the social sciences. By remonstrating against a position that is no longer influential in philosophy, and whose influence in the various sciences has been considerably overrated, KMR methodologists have been lulled into a false sense of security about the worth of their own position.

The rejection of objectivity

Advocates of KMR methodology have frequently criticised “positivist” social science research for its commitment to the ideal of objectivity. However, again, the target of criticism is not subjected to an informative examination, and no convincing reasons are given for thinking that the pursuit of objectivity should be dispensed with. Basically, objectivity involves putting aside one’s predilections and preferences in order to secure impartial reason. It is this very pursuit that makes science rational. However, it is important to stress that seeking objectivity does not preclude taking contextual factors into account when determining what counts as good reasons, nor does it imply that one should factor out the notion of human agency in the process of knowledge production.

It is important to appreciate, further, that the pursuit of objectivity does not require one to take a neutral stand on relevant matters. Objectivity and neutrality are different things, although they are often confused. Objectivity is concerned with validity and reliability. Neutrality has to do with serving interests. One can take a stand, or seek goals, without compromising objectivity. We think that in objecting to the aims of orthodox science, KMR methodologists are inclined to believe mistakenly that one must challenge the processes that aid objectivity in order to allow researchers to serve their preserved set of interests. KMR methodologists also claim that the pursuit of objectivity results in the adoption of a hierarchical relationship between the researcher and the researched that results in a distancing of Maori from the research process. It is for this reason KMR methodologists favour the use of research methods which are participatory and democratic. However, there are a number of methods in orthodox social science that explicitly adopt a participatory methodology capable of contributing to an understanding and improvement of the worth of both individuals and society. One example is the autobiographical method in which a team assists the central participant to accurately represent how they view their own life-course.

We also think it worthy to note however, that while KMR adherents argue for a more democratic and participatory approach to research, they seem to ignore the fact that Maori social organisation is replete with examples of hierarchical interactions. Jahnke and Taiapa (in Social Science Research in New Zealand, Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2003) attest to this point by insisting that within Maori settings, knowledge is hierarchical and not universally available to all. If the motivation of KMR methodologists is to emancipate the people by liberating and legitimating a Maori way of knowing, then they should reconsider the merits of pursuing objectivity.

The use of qualitative methods

KMR methodology is strong in its commitment to the use of qualitative research methods. This probably reflects the widespread assumption in social science methodology that quantitative methods are an outworking of positivist thinking, and that they should therefore be replaced by qualitative methods, which are thought to be more appropriate. In our view, this belief is difficult to defend. The fact that many statistical methods are used in research to fashion empirical generalisations in no way prevents the researcher from fashioning theories in order to explain those generalisations. Indeed, the production of empirical generalisations motivates the anti-positivist activity of constructing explanatory theories. The widespread use in the social sciences of latent variable methods to construct explanatory theories is an expression of a commitment to the philosophy of scientific realism, and not to positivism.

We think a better understanding of research methods is to be had by viewing them, not as either quantitative or qualitative, but by regarding them each as having both quantitative and qualitative dimensions. For example, grounded theory, the most prominent qualitative methodology in the social sciences, is in good part the product of a translation of ideas from selected sociological quantitative methods of the 1950s. Moreover, there is nothing in principle to prevent researchers from using quantitative methods within its fold. For example, one might use the statistical method of exploratory factor analysis to help generate explanatory theories that are grounded in robust data patterns.

KMR methodologists are part of the widespread tendency among qualitative methodologists to misleadingly cast orthodox science as incapable of dealing with qualitative methods. However, even logical positivism is capable of accommodating qualitative methods, though of course, it does not do so with the same degree of flexibility and success as contemporary realist accounts of science. The misuse of methods

Despite criticising the methodology of orthodox science, KMR researchers have nevertheless made use of a number of its research methods. Often, they have interviewed research participants by using focus groups. This procedure permits researchers to obtain and analyse qualitative data by focusing on a specific topic or set of issues. The method is thought appropriate for research with Maori because of its claimed ability to give participants a genuine voice and thereby empower them in the research context.

However, despite its seeming simplicity, focus group research is very difficult to carry out effectively. Although there is an extensive literature detailing the requirements for carrying out focus group research, the data analytic part of the method is underdeveloped. As a result, focus group research tends to have low reliability and validity and is subject to various forms of moderator and respondent bias. Such biases may in fact be compounded in particular settings where hierarchical interactions have been institutionalised, and there is differential access to knowledge. By using focus groups as a primary method of data collection and analysis, KMR faces a difficult challenge to produce the quality research it seeks.


Despite the considerable influence KMR exerts within New Zealand policy and research circles, its attendant methodology is unsound. We believe the integration of KMR methodology into New Zealand’s science policies, institutions, and programmes has occurred as the result of a policy imperative rather than because it offers a satisfactory account of, or genuine alternative to, orthodox research methodology. KMR methodologists provide no good reason for abandoning the best methodologies of orthodox science. There is an irony in the fact that contemporary mainstream scientific methodology contains resources that are better suited to research with Maori than those of KMR methodology. We invite KMR researchers to engage the methodological literature of orthodox science seriously. We believe that if they do so, they will find resources sufficient for carrying out worthwhile research in their fields of interest. Marie and Haig (New Zealand Science Review, 63, 2006) contains an overview of such a methodology, as well as a more extensive critique of KMR methodology.

Natural born liars

Louette McInnes found a talk by Richard Wiseman at Canterbury University well worth braving the winter cold for. Professor Wiseman holds the Chair of Public Understanding of Psychology at Hertfordshire University.

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‘Homeopathic’ malaria pills no good

Holidaymakers planning trips to the tropics have been warned to avoid homeopathic remedies that are claimed to prevent malaria after several UK travellers contracted the potentially fatal disease (NZ Herald, 14 July).

An investigation by the charity Sense about Science found ten homeopathic clinics selected at random on the internet offered a researcher unproven homeopathic products which were claimed to prevent malaria and other tropical diseases including typhoid, dengue fever and yellow fever.

In all ten consultations the researcher was advised to use the products rather than being referred to a GP or travel medicine clinic where orthodox anti-malarial drugs are available. Tropical medicine specialists have condemned the practice.

The UK Health Protection Agency warned last year that travellers from Britain had fallen ill with malaria after taking homeopathic pills claimed to prevent it.

Oxford University Professor Nicholas White said this was very dangerous nonsense and needed to be stopped. “The prescribing of homeopathic remedies to prevent malaria is a reprehensible example of potentially lethal duplicity.”

Although conventional anti-malarial drugs had some side effects, they provided excellent protection.

“These decisions require discussion with a knowledgeable person who can assess the risks and benefits,” according to Professor Brian Greenwood, president of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine. “The use of homeopathy creates a more dangerous situation than taking no precautions if the traveller assumes that they are protected and does not seek help quickly for any illness that might be malaria.”

The Faculty of Homoeopathy said it did not recommend homeopathic remedies for the prevention of malaria.

Peter Fisher, clinical director of the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital said “Malaria is a life threatening disease and there is no published evidence to support the use of homeopathy in the prevention of malaria.”

Timothy Leary was right

Mystical experiences induced by hallucinogenic drugs are in essence no different from the ‘genuine’ article, say scientists at Johns Hopkins University (NZ Herald, 12 July). They argue that the potential of such drugs, ignored for decades because of their links to illicit activities, must be explored to develop new treatments for depression, drug addiction and the treatment of intolerable pain. They are not, however, interested in the “Does God exist?” debate. “This work can’t and won’t go there,” they say.

In the study, 30 middle-aged volunteers who had religious or spiritual interests attended two eight-hour sessions two months apart, receiving psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) in one session and a non-hallucinogenic stimulant-Ritalin-in the other. They were not told which was which. One third described the experience with psilocybin as the most spiritually significant of their lifetime and two-thirds rated it among their five most meaningful experiences. In more than 60 percent the experience rated as a “full mystical experience” based on established psychological scales. A third of the volunteers became frightened during the drug sessions with some reporting feelings of paranoia.

Huston Smith, America’s leading authority on comparative religion, writes that mystical experience “is as old as humankind” and attempts to induce it using psychoactive plants were made in many cultures. “But this is the first scientific demonstration in 40 years, and the most rigorous ever, that profound mystical states can be produced safely in the laboratory. The potential is great.”

Creation Museum Coming Soon

Journalist Alec Russell was treated to a personal guided tour of Ken Ham’s under-construction Creation Museum in Kentucky by Ham himself, but did not seem persuaded by his arguments (Dominion Post, 30 June).

The NZ$42.7 million museum, which has been paid for mostly from donations, is scheduled to open early next year. It features animatronic garden of Eden scenes of children and young tyrannosaurs playing happily together, vegetarians all in a world without death. Since Genesis says Adam didn’t ‘know’ Eve until after they were driven from Eden, children in a pre-Fall world would seem to be at odds with scripture. But never mind, the ‘Wow’ factor is the important thing, says Ham. There’s also a 1/48th-scale Noah’s Ark with stegosaurs being loaded along with the giraffes, and multimedia presentations on the wonders of creation.

A few hours later, Russell had dinner with three scientists who were campaigning against the museum. They were thinking of marching up and down outside waving placards, and running ‘alternative’ tours of the exhibits, much in the style of evangelical protesters against the scientific establishment.

After having endured two hours of his “machinegun delivery”, Russell didn’t think the scientists stood much chance in any confrontation with the “gruff Australian”. When he put the gist of their arguments to Ham later, Ham turned to him “with an air of triumph mixed with pity” and delivered his trump card: “When it comes to the past, you weren’t there.”

This is Ham’s catchphrase. It’s like saying a detective can’t solve a crime if he wasn’t there to witness it. Russell should have pointed out that Ham wasn’t there either. Nor was he there when Genesis was written, so he can’t be sure it was the work of God. The Statement of Faith of Ken Ham’s own ministry, Answers in Genesis, declares that all humans are fallible; he needs to be aware this applies to himself. When he says Genesis is the divinely inspired word of God, he could be wrong about that.

Psychic helps in Manawatu mystery

Personal items belonging to a missing Alzheimer’s sufferer were found near the Manawatu River after police were directed to the site by a local psychic (Dominion Post, 3 July). James Alexander, 73, had wandered from his rest home a week previously and had been sighted only once. Sergeant Bill Nicholson said a local woman contacted them and described a location which was familiar to police, though she said she had never been there. A search began late on Friday and the items were found on the riverbank soon after 11am on Saturday. Requests from the NZ Skeptics for details of what the psychic actually disclosed have met with no response, but it seems clear the police still had to do quite a bit of searching before finding the items, which were on the riverbank close to the rest home. Mr Alexander’s body was eventually found at Pukerua Bay on 17 August, after apparently being washed down the river.

Rita leaves ‘psychic imprint’

A Massey University artist-in-residence living in Rita Angus’s two-bedroom Wellington cottage has hired a clairvoyant to contact the former resident’s ghost (Dominion Post, 18 August).

Dane Mitchell said he hired the clairvoyant because it was a way of exploring a different kind of knowledge. A recording of the reading would be displayed alongside pencil rubbings-including one of Angus’s paint-splattered studio floor-at his exhibition, ‘Thresholds’.

The clairvoyant determined that although “the entity that was Rita Angus” had long moved on, she had left a huge psychic imprint on the house, especially on an old armchair and chest of drawers used to store artwork.

“I’m feeling a huge vortex of emotions, which started as I came up the path,” the psychic, identified only as Penny, said on the tape. Angus, regarded as a pioneer of New Zealand modern art, loved the house and felt safe in it, but used it to isolate herself from the world, she said. Googling the artist might have been more informative.

Why are we not surprised?

This just in from Blenheim’s Marlborough Express (known colloquially as the Marlborough Excuse, we are informed), 7 October:

“The visit to Blenheim of clairvoyant Jeanette Wilson has been delayed due to unforeseen circumstances”!