An alien star-child?

Waikato University biological sciences lecturer Alison Campbell posts a regular blog on matters biological ( Her aim is to encourage critical thinking among secondary students. We think these need sharing.

Last week one of my students wrote to me about something they’d seen on TV:

My friend and I saw this on Breakfast this morning. Although we don’t think it is all true, we are still interested because they talked a lot about the skull’s morphology and how they believe it is the offspring from a female human and an alien. Here’s the website on it:

It would be great to hear your thoughts.”

So I went off and had a look at the website, and wrote back. My first thought is that (following what’s called ‘Occam’s razor’) the simplest possible explanation is likely to be correct, ie that this is simply a ‘pathological’ human skull, rather than a mysterious alien-human hybrid. (Read Armand LeRoy’s book Mutants to get a feel for just how wide the range of potential variation is in humans.)

Happily there are ways of testing this – the skull is reportedly only 900 years old so it should be possible to look at its DNA.

And indeed this has been done – and the data are presented on the Starchild project’s website. Which surprised me more than a little, given that they don’t support the hybrid idea! The skull in question – which certainly has an interesting shape – was found along with the remains of an adult female. The DNA results show that both woman and child were native Americans, not related to each other, and also that the child was male. There is absolutely no indication there of any ‘alien’ DNA. Which is what I would have predicted – if we were to be visited by extraterrestrial individuals, why would we expect them to be a) humanoid and b) genetically compatible with us? ie the likelihood of successful interbreeding is vanishingly small. And that’s a big ‘if’ in any case … Carl Sagan had some sensible things to say on that issue in The Demon-haunted World.

My personal view is that the whole thing should have been examined rather more critically by the programmers before it made it to air. But then, I have ceased to be surprised at the uncritical nature of much that’s presented by our broadcast media (with the honourable exception of the National Programme!).

Bioresonance therapy for smoking – miracle cure or con?

A therapy marketed as a guaranteed way to stop smoking appears to lack a sound theoretical basis and to have little experimental support.

As health researchers in the field of tobacco smoking cessation our aim is to find effective ways to help people quit smoking, and to improve access to effective smoking cessation treatments. The New Zealand government is currently investing heavily in policies that support such actions.

Proven therapies for helping people to quit smoking

When people decide to quit smoking without any assistance (ie by going ‘cold turkey’), they have to cope with the loss of all the dependency-forming aspects of smoking at once. Consequently, approximately 90 percent of people who try and quit without any assistance fail1.

Most smoking cessation support strategies involve the use of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). With NRT, people stop smoking and replace the ‘dirty’ nicotine they would normally get from smoking a cigarette with ‘clean’ nicotine delivered in a lower concentration (such as via patches, gum, inhaler, and lozenges) and in a safer way (that is, without the harmful constituents present in tobacco smoke). In this manner smokers can deal with cravings and other unpleasant nicotine withdrawal symptoms, thus making it easier for them to quit.

Research evidence for the use of NRT has shown it to approximately double the chances of long-term quitting(2-3). When combined with behavioural support, pharmacological support is even more effective. Good quality evidence from placebo-controlled randomised trials indicates that behavioural support can improve the chances of successfully quitting by two to seven percent(1,4-6). Behavioural support (eg counselling people about dealing with cravings and urges, encouraging them to persist, helping them to consider the benefits and possibilities of being an ex-smoker) can be delivered face-to-face, by telephone or through the internet.

In New Zealand, the cost of NRT patches, gum and lozenge is subsidised ($5 for four weeks’ supply). Subsidised NRT is available to smokers coming into contact with cessation support services (such as the national telephone- based Quitline services and the Maori cessation service Aukati Kai Paipa), which also offer behavioural support. The Government has plans to further improve access by promotion of low cost NRT through primary care (ie through a general practitioner).

Unproven therapies

Despite good access to inexpensive, effective treatment to assist in quitting smoking, unproven and costly therapies are still actively promoted in the media in New Zealand. A recent review of the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of alternative smoking cessation interventions reported that acupuncture, St. John’s Wort and NicoBloc are probably not effective(7). There was insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of Allen Carr’s Easyway Programme and Nicobrevin, and hypnosis did not appear to be any more effective than simple advice to quit.

Bioresonance therapy

Another therapy being marketed in New Zealand as a “guaranteed way to stop smoking” is bioresonance therapy. This therapy appears to have originated from Europe and according to its proponents has been in use since the 1970s. Claims made on a website ( state that “Bioresonance therapy works through the body’s energetic system” or more specifically, “the technique uses biophysics – the physics of the body”. According to the above website it works by eliminating nicotine from the body and thus takes away the cravings for cigarettes.

“All living cells give off energy as weak electromagnetic waves similar to brain waves used in orthodox medicine (EEG scans). Bioresonance therapy, using the Bicom machine, uses these and those of substances (cigarettes) for therapy. The Bicom separates these waves into harmonious (healthy) and disharmonious (unhealthy) components. The healthy signals can be boosted and sent back to the patient to strengthen normal functions, while the unhealthy signals are ‘inverted’ or turned upside down by an electronic mirror circuit before returning them to the patient through electromagnetic mats. What actually happens is more complicated but the ‘inverted’ wave cancels the harmful wave that was stressing the body’s energetic system. You can see this effect at the beach where a wave reflected from a rock flattens the next incoming wave.”

Furthermore, it is claimed that:

“…nicotine has an electromagnetic charge over your body giving you the craving to smoke. Bioresonance therapy inverts the energy patterns of nicotine which are then passed to the body via electrodes. This process produces phase cancellation which means that the electromagnetic charge of nicotine is reduced. Therefore, it becomes easier for the body to eliminate nicotine over the next 24 hours and your cravings dramatically reduce as your body detoxifies. Additionally, the phase cancellation removes the energetic pattern of nicotine from the body, erasing the ‘memory’ of nicotine which also reduces the cravings.”

To simplify this process even more, according to the Auckland proprietor of a bioresonance clinic, the patient smokes their last cigarette and places it into the bioresonance machine, which then measures the “frequency” of the cigarette. This frequency is then “reversed” and fed back to the patient via two brass electrodes which the patient holds.

The appointment takes about an hour and it appears some behavioural support is offered, as the website correctly mentions the need to avoid second-hand smoke exposure and smoky environments, known triggers for relapse. Patients are advised not to use NRT during treatment nor use any other pharmacological treatments for smoking cessation. “Detoxification” apparently takes a couple of days (patients are advised to drink water to help with this process) and can include the following symptoms: “headaches, fatigue, upset stomach, metallic taste in the mouth, sweaty palms or a sluggish feeling”. Most of these are classic symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.

Perhaps most bizarrely, patients are also:

“…provided with a Bicom chip that contains the memory of the stop smoking treatment provided. This information lasts for up to 4 weeks and is placed on the body, two finger widths below the navel. This chip will support the detoxification process and help if any cravings are experienced. Drops are also available to support you in times of stress in the following weeks.”

Does bioresonance therapy work?

The New Zealand Stop Smoking Clinic website states that Bicom Bioresonance therapy is “the most successful stop smoking therapy in New Zealand.” Even the authoritative BBC and New Zealand’s very own Close Up TV programme have extolled the virtues of this intervention – see for video links. However we were unable to locate any randomised controlled clinical trial evidence to support this treatment, despite an extensive search for the term “bioresonance” in a number of medical databases, specifically Medline (1948 to May 22 2009), Embase (1980 – week 21, 2009), AMED (Allied and Complementary Medicine) database (1985 – May 2009), Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (2nd Quarter 2009), ACP Journal Club (1991 to April 2009), Cochrane Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (2nd Quarter 2009), the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1st Quarter 2009) and the Conference Papers Index (1985 – present).

In total, only 13 articles were located that even mentioned the term, of which eight were non-English publications. The articles with English abstracts were commentaries, non-randomised rat studies, case-series studies or physiology studies. The papers were predominantly published in journals that focused on alternative therapies and no reference to smoking was made in any of the publication titles or English abstracts provided by the database searches. One paper discussed treating 12 athletes with “strain syndrome” with Bicom therapy and 12 with more traditional methods (eg ultrasound, stimulating current, etc)(8). This study reported less therapy time and treatment time in the Bicom group, but we were unable to determine if the study was truly randomised nor the validity of the rest of the study design. However, given the small sample size (24 people only), any positive findings could well be due to chance alone. Interestingly, one paper discussed the use of pseudo-scientific language to cloud important issues (how to present nonsense as science), using bioresonance therapy as an example.

The evidence is not there

Overall, no studies that stand up to the standard level of scrutiny used for orthodox treatments could be identified. The weight of evidence to support the use of this therapy (for any condition and not just smoking cessation) seems to consist of material in non-peer-reviewed publications, such as case studies provided on websites and in books(10-12) and promotional literature provided by those marketing the therapy. A number of Bicom websites (e.g. mention the existence of three studies on allergic conditions supposedly published in Chinese medical journals(13-15). These studies were not identified by our search above, but translations for the papers are provided on the above website (although there are no details provided about the source journals so it is not possible to verify their authenticity), along with two additional studies (one on chronic inflammatory bowel disease16 and one on central nervous disorders in children)(17) – once again with no details provided about their source. Four of the five studies are case studies or case-series(14-17). One of the Chinese studies claims to have randomised 300 children, but no details were provided on how the randomisation was undertaken(13). Furthermore, if the randomisation had been done it seems not to have worked given 213 children were in one group and 87 were in the other. Our suspicions are that the study was not randomised and therefore the findings are likely to be biased and meaningless.

It is possible that our search may have missed identifying some papers. It remains odd, however, that so little research appears to have been published given that:

  • In May 2009 bioresonance therapists meet in Germany to celebrate the 49th (ie they have had 48 previous meetings) International Congress for Bicom Therapists. Most congresses and conferences (even those in the complementary and alternative medicine field) publish posters or presentations from their meetings and these are referenced on international databases – yet none of these conference proceedings were located.
  • The therapy is claimed to be so effective.
  • The therapy is claimed to be in widespread use. One website ( states that “the technique is almost mainstream in Germany, and the German-speaking countries, Austria and Switzerland”, and that the instrument is “widely used in Poland for helping smokers to quit and has over 70 percent success (over 100,000 people have been treated over six years).” And that in China, the therapy is “used exclusively in children’s hospitals mainly to treat eczema and asthma.”

If it truly worked surely you would be doing everything to show the world that it did … and there have been at least 35 years to show the world.

Accepted international criteria for what is regarded as an effective smoking cessation method use the benchmark of six months of continuously not smoking (not even a puff) after quitting. The New Zealand Stop Smoking Clinic website claims that Bicom Bioresonance therapy has “70-90 percent success after one hour” for stopping smoking. Anyone can stop smoking after an hour … it’s a bit like asking you to stop eating for an hour. The issue is when you start smoking again. The Auckland proprietor was unable to provide us with this information.

In conclusion

There is no evidence to support the therapeutic claims made by those promoting bioresonance therapy other than uncontrolled case studies. Any benefits are likely to be due to the placebo effect. A systematic review of 105 NRT trials (involving a total of 39,503 smokers) found that when the quit rates for all the trials were pooled using the longest duration of follow-up available from each trial (6-12 months), 17 percent of smokers allocated to NRT had quit compared to 10 percent in the placebo control/no NRT group2. Clearly the placebo effect plays a significant role in smoking cessation.

Is it therefore wrong to make a claim about a product when simply believing that the product will work makes it effective for some individuals? Does it matter how you try to give up smoking as long as you make an attempt to give up?

In 2002/3, 24.5 percent of New Zealand adults smoked (47.2 percent of Maori), with this figure dropping to 19.7 percent in 2006/7 (38 percent in Maori)18. Despite this recent evidence of change, based on the current rate of progress it is estimated that it will take 100 years before the New Zealand adult smoking rates reach five percent, the level of smoking in New Zealand doctors19. New approaches to assist smokers to quit are still urgently needed, ideally ones with proven efficacy and that are cheap, easily accessible, and acceptable to Maori and people from the lowest socio-economic group (who have a three times higher rate of smoking than people from the highest socio-economic group18). At $450 per treatment (second treatment free if taken within the first month), Bicom Bioresonance therapy is far from accessible to the people that need it most. One could argue that it is designed to generate revenue as quickly as possible, by using pseudoscience to bamboozle the innocent. Are we too cynical? One company ( will gladly send you a detailed profitability calculation form.

For a rather interesting conversation of how another member of the skeptic community views this treatment, see


  1. Stead L, Lancaster T, & Perera R. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, The Cochrane Library 2003;1:CD002850.

  2. Silagy C, Lancaster T, Stead L, Mant D, & Fowler G. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, The Cochrane Library 2008;1.

  3. Hughes J, Stead L, & Lancaster T. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, The Cochrane Library 2008.

  4. Stead L, & Lancaster T. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, The Cochrane Library 2008.

  5. Lancaster T, Stead L. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, The Cochrane Library 2007(3).

  6. Strecher V, Shiffman S, & West R. Addiction 2005;100(5):682 – 688.

  7. McRobbie H, Hakej P, Bullen C, & Feigin V. . 2006;

  8. Papcz, B & Barpvic J. Erfahrungsheilkunde 1999: 48(7): 449 – 450.

  9. Ernst E. Forschende Komplementarmedizin und Klassische Naturheilkunde 2004 Jun;11(3):171 – 173.

  10. Will, RD. Bioresonanz Therapie. Publisher: Jopp Verlag, 2001.

  11. Schumacher, P. Test Sets According to Dr. P. Schumacher. Publisher: dtp Tyrol – Klaus Leitner, Innsbruck, 2000

  12. Schumacher, P. Biophysical Therapy of Allergies. Publisher Thieme Medical Publishers 2005

  13. Jinzhi, Y & Li Z. Accessed 25 May 2009.

  14. Ze, Y, Jiali, H, Haiyan W & Chunyan Y. Accessed 25 May 2009.

  15. Jinzhi, Y. Accessed 25 May 2009.

  16. Oesterle, R. Accessed 25 May 2009.

  17. Barrie, A & Barrie A. Accessed 25 May 2009.

  18. Ministry of Health. A portrait of health – Key results of the 2006/7 New Zealand Health Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Health, 2008.

  19. Laugesen M. New Zealand Smokefree enews. Auckland: Health New Zealand, 2004.

mp3 blues

HAVING recently joined the happy hordes of mp3 player owners, our household has been getting an object lesson in the nature of random events. For those who have yet to succumb to the charms of these amazing little gadgets, they can hold thousands of songs in memory and play them back in many different ways. You can, for example, just play a single album, or make up a playlist of songs for a party, or to encapsulate a particular mood.

Continue reading

Hokum Locum

Money well spent?

Tim Hume (Sunday Star Times June 21) has written a good account of traditional Maori Medicine (Rongoa Maori). The Health Ministry provides $1.9 million annually for this nonsense. That money would pay for approximately 1000 hip replacements.

One woman is described as taking her “traveling medicine show” overseas. It has all the elements of quackery – the laying on of hands, mysterious signs, mysticism and spiritualism. Her grandson is described as already showing the healing gifts.

Maori curses (makutu) are no problem. These can be cured, even remotely. We are told that the spiritual healer performed a “remote cleansing” in America but knocked over a chair while leaving the room. Tim Hume comments: “statements like this … tend to invite disbelief, if not ridicule”. And so they should!

One of these practitioners was recently convicted of “sexually assaulting two women with potatoes”. Why potatoes? I thought carrots or a cucumber would have been more useful. He had diagnosed a woman as having both breast cancer and liver disease. She had neither. He claimed to be able to detect abuse by smelling the patient. Unfortunately for him, the patient smelled a rat. Still, smelling the patient makes as much sense as recovered memory.

Rongoa can even cure orthopaedic conditions such as one leg shorter than the other (the leg pull?).

A woman who had failed to achieve pregnancy after one year went for treatment that involved deep massage “dislodging afterbirth remaining from her first pregnancy”. The only way quacks can flourish is when people are ignorant and gullible. The cure is education and an appropriate degree of scepticism starting during early education.

Tim Hume is right on target when he comments: “it sounds like the placebo effect dressed up in cultural justifications.”

At a time when Maori are afflicted with diabetes, obesity, hypertension and renal failure, Rongoa Maori is a colossal waste of money. Anyone daring to criticise it will of course be labeled as a racist.

Deadly allergy treatments

A Dublin man died while receiving treatment for peanut allergy from a kinesiologist. The kinesiologist was using an elimination technique called muscle testing. This is total quackery and I know of at least one NZ doctor who was struck off for harming patients while using this technique. The perpetrator in the Irish case is described as “Dr Brett Stevens”. I was unable to find any such registered doctor of that name on the Irish Medical Register so I can only conclude that this is yet another example of pretentious quacks giving themselves airs.

While I was doing an acupuncture course I saw a demonstration of this nonsense, not realising at the time exactly what was going on. I certainly recognised it as nonsense and I have written before about how astounded I was at the credulity of the other doctors present. Briefly, a patient was presented allegedly suffering from an allergy to tomatoes. While the patient pinched his index finger and thumb together the examiner tried to separate them (the muscle testing, sometimes called bidigital O ring testing) demonstrating a baseline measure of strength. When the patient held a tomato the examiner showed how the pinch grip was weaker. There is absolutely no scientific basis for this absurd test which is totally subjective. There are still quacks using it in New Zealand as well as some doctors but they keep pretty quiet about it for obvious reasons. If I heard of any registered medical practitioner using this test I would not hesitate to report them to the Medical Council.

The unfortunate Irishman collapsed and died on the way to the hospital. The coroner expressed concern but instead of denouncing the quack treatment he “called for re-evaluation of the allergy elimination technique.” This technique doesn’t need re-evaluation, it needs condemnation and the kinesiologist should have been prosecuted for manslaughter.

Allergy Today, Winter 2009

Acupuncture flunks again A trial subjected randomised chronic back pain sufferers to either sham acupuncture, normal care or real acupuncture. Sham acupuncture was administered using toothpicks concealed inside guide tubes. The two acupuncture groups did equally well and significantly better than the normal care group. The improvement gradually waned over a year.

ACC has also examined acupuncture in the context of acute back pain and any effect is short-lived and soon disappears.

It is unclear whether the chronic back pain group showed any functional improvement since the measurements of improvement were all subjective. For example, did large numbers return to work? This is the true test of a treatment, whether it is clinically important rather than just showing some statistical improvement.

What this trial essentially shows is that gimmick + fake gimmick is superior to normal care. What needs to be done next is the same trial using laser acupuncture. The same patients are randomised to normal care, laser acupuncture and (blinded) laser simulated acupuncture. Whilst not given to divination I will modestly predict the results of such an experiment. Both treatment groups will show the same degree of improvement which will be superior to normal care. Just to add a twist, you could add a fourth group being treated by some really motivational and enthusiastic physiotherapists. This of course enhances the placebo effect and could just close the gap between the “normal care” and the two active treatment groups.

Arch Intern Med. 2009; 169(9): 858-866.

And again I was at a conference recently and was alerted to a trial published in the BMJ that allegedly showed that acupuncture led to improved outcomes during IVF therapy for childless couples. In other words, an improved pregnancy rate. This is a load of rubbish and I recommend you look up the article and in particular read the rapid responses. The best one was from Edzard Ernst and after reading it I recalled something I had read in his book Healing, Hype or Harm. Sure enough, it was in a commentary by James Randi who was commenting on scientific misbehaviour around a published article purporting to show improved pregnancy rates for IVF patients who were subjected to prayer from total strangers from around the world. These results were a fraud.

I am not claiming that the BMJ paper is a fraud. It is simply absurd and should be treated in the same way as a paper purporting to show a beneficial effect from homeopathy. As a skeptic you simply think along the following lines: Is it more likely that this is a true effect or more likely to be a mistake or even fraud? A more crude response on this paper would be “bullshit baffles brains”.

Skrabanek has a good take on this as well: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and randomised clinical trials, applied to absurd claims, are more likely to mislead than illuminate.

BMJ, doi: 10.1136/bmj. 39471.430451.BE (Published 7 February 2008). Skranabek P. Demarcation of the absurd. Health Watch Newsletter (5) 1990, 7.

Hyperdigititis – A pandemic for our times

Presenting numbers with excessive and artifical precision in product labels, newspaper articles and report tables does nothing for scientific credibility and sows confusion in the mind of the reader.

GARRISON Keillor’s book Lake Wobegon Days states that “The lake is 678.2 acres, a little more than a section…” To me this is a master-stroke, providing corroborating detail that produces utter belief in the reader.

In contrast, a science-fiction novel about exploring a new planet in a home-made zeppelin claims that a crew member cried out, “Captain! That mountain must be at least five thousand five hundred and forty five meters high!”

This paragraph stopped my reading dead in its tracks (to mix a metaphor). I guarantee that no entity, in this galaxy or anywhere in the universe, has ever gurgled or telepathed that “The mountain must be at least 5,545 glugs high!”

Obviously the original American edition said the mountain was “at least three miles high”, then the task of converting to metric values was given to the publisher’s idiot nephew who didn’t know enough to change “at least three miles” into “at least five kilometres”. Instead he relied blindly on the output of his hand calculator. Readers who know that visual measurement of distance is imprecise, cannot be bamboozled. Overly precise numbers can be a source of amusement but all too often are a form of spin-doctoring. Commercial organisations are especially prone to report excessively precise numbers that pretend to an impossible degree of accuracy. I propose the term, ‘hyperdigititis’ to describe such pseudo-scientific nonsense.

Under what circumstances do we accept improbably precise values, and when do we reject them? I suspect one important factor is whether we ourselves can estimate whatever is being measured, as opposed to invisible values only measurable by a white-coated scientist. Invisible units are typically over-specified whereas visible units are rounded to sensible values.

Example 1

Excessive digits act as barriers to readers’ understanding. Table 1 is an example from a (name-protected) agricultural report.

Treatment Raw yield % Sugar
Chemical A 43.080 15.230
Chemical B 29.800 12.200
Chemical C 44.880 15.560
Untreated Mean 43.610 15.985
LSD .05 8.575 1.447
CV 15.25% 7.70%
Table 1. Excessive digits in an agricultural report.

A brief explanation is needed here: The LSD or Least Significant Difference indicates how far apart two averages must be in order to conclude that they differ significantly with 95 percent confidence. The CV or Coefficient of Variation measures the variability of a measurement, in this case about 15 percent for yield and eight percent for sugar percentage. An important lesson here is that all biological data has at least five percent variability.

The table above demonstrates an all too common misuse of numbers, to convince us that the authors are incredibly precise, rather than to present useful information. The large degree of uncertainty (LSD and CV) shows that none of the digits to the right of the decimal point are valid. That even applies to the LSD itself, since the LSD also has a certain amount of uncertainty.

So the figures ought to be as in Table 2.

Treatment Raw yield % Sugar
Chemical A 43 15
Chemical B 30 12
Chemical C 45 16
Untreated Mean 44 16
LSD .05 8.6 1.5
CV 15% 8%
Table 2. The same report figures with adjusted digits.

I think you’ll agree with me that the second version is much easier to understand, showing that Chemical B lowered yields but chemicals A and C had no effect.

Example 2

I once had to compile comprehensive tables of animal feed-stuff compositions. Published reports usually had three-decimal precision, eg, “4.35% arginine”. Never mind that analyses of different samples showed coefficients of variability up to 19 percent.

Enormous tables showing 17 amino acids with three-decimal accuracy are bulky and impossible to understand. By dropping the unjustifiable precision, these tables became smaller and quite readable. After all, the readers of that report were mainly animal feed formulators, who probably don’t want to know more than low, medium, or high. I was able to inform them that six independent analyses of, say, methionine in wheat, showed a low of 0.10, mean 0.17, maximum 0.22.

Example 3

On 22 April 2009, the Christchurch Press published a beautifully illustrated half page to show that alcoholic beverages are energy-rich. This article inadvertently demonstrated the difference between invisible kilojoules and visible foods (blocks of chocolate).

The article claimed that one glass of wine contains 390 kJ, gin-and-tonic 400 kJ, and a shot of Baileys 408 kJ. (In addition, a pint of beer was measured, with incredible precision, as 1098 kJ.) Some credulous readers might have switched to drinking wine instead of Baileys, yet the published values were basically meaningless!

The energy value of wine depends on whether it’s red or white, dry or sweet. According to the November 2006 issue of Healthy Food, the energy value of 100 ml of white wine is between 345 and 395 kJ, while red wine is 340-365 kJ (

Those figures are based on a ‘standard’ 100 ml serving of wine, rather than the 135 ml servings proclaimed on wine bottles (5.6 servings from 750 ml). Don’t bother working out ratios, unless you are prepared to measure out beverages to three-place accuracy.

The real conclusion, entirely missed by the newspaper, is that a typical alcoholic drink has about 400 kJ regardless of whether it’s wine or spirits.

In stark contrast to the hyperdigitised kilojoule values, the article states that each drink is equivalent in fattening power to half a block of chocolate. Not 0.48 of a block! When the measurement involved something we can see for ourselves, the journalist automatically rounded correctly.

Example 4

The consumer-food industry, world-wide, seems determined to confuse consumers with food composition tables filled with excessive and unjustifiable detail. To fit all these digits in, the tables are often printed in tiny fonts. Even with large fonts, the length of numbers makes it difficult for shoppers. Processing “12.34” requires more than double the effort to handle “12”. (The decimal point is part of the problem.) I believe that hyperdigitised numbers are misleading because 1) they claim accuracy that is not there; 2) the analytical methods employed provide only approximations to the food components purportedly measured.

Almost all food labels disregard biological variability, which is typically at least five percent. Other than near-pure chemicals like sugar and salt, most prepared foods are made from plants and animals that have different histories. What cultivar of wheat was used? Was the beef from a Friesian cow or another breed? What region? What soil type? Irrigated or dry-land? Many food labels state, with admirable honesty, that they represent indicative values based on averages. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean any reduction in unjustifiable precision. My candidate for worst offender is a packet of delicious Vietnamese snacks, the label of which proclaims that sodium per biscuit is 14.22 mg. Western food manufacturers are not much better.

Table 3 shows part of a Nutrition Information table from a tin of imported luncheon meat:

Component Per 56 g serve (sic) Per 100 g
Energy (kJ) 610 1089
Energy (Cal) 145 259
Protein (g) 5.0 8.9
Fat, total (g) 12.0 21.4
Carbohydrate, total (g) 4.2 7.5
Table 3. Luncheon meat nutrition information.

Let me put energy values aside for just a moment, except to note that the calculated “259 Cal/100g” was almost surely provided by the same idiot nephew who worked on the science-fiction novel cited at the beginning of this article. Multiplying a value that is accurate to two places by a factor that is accurate to three or more places, does not provide a three-place result.


The standard way to measure protein is to digest foodstuff in boiling sulphuric acid (Kjeldahl analysis). This converts all nitrogenous chemicals into ammonia. The liberated ammonia is measured and that value multiplied by 6.25 is reported as “crude protein”. Unfortunately, the correct multiplier depends on what’s being analysed. Factors as low as 5.71 and as high as 7.69 may apply. (Hint: the factor is the inverse of the percentage N, which in turn is related to the amino acid composition of each protein.)

Many non-protein chemicals are converted to ammonia during the Kjeldahl procedure. That includes not only alkaloids and free amino acids, but also man-made chemicals like melamine. In any effort to improve precision of protein analysis, an erudite committee of nutritionists has recommended that proteins should be hydrolysed gently, so that individual amino acids can be measured. That route is not only more expensive than digestion but also opens a Pandora’s box of complexity, because all proteins are not created equal. Proteins with lysine, methionine and perhaps threonine are more valuable for growing animals than other proteins. Do we need another data entry on the Nutritional Contents tables showing relative protein values for children as opposed to adults?

With all these uncertainties about protein analysis, even a two-digit claim of “8.9 g protein” seems unjustifiable. Who needs such precision? A nutritionist who relied on these numbers to formulate a patient’s diet could be grossly misled. Consumers mostly need rough indications that a food is low, medium or high protein.


The FAO says that total carbohydrate can be estimated by difference, that is, everything left over once protein, fat, water, ash, and alcohol are subtracted. This is a friendly touch from the FAO. It allows ‘carbohydrate’ values that include fibre (polymeric carbohydrates) and organic acids.

Carbohydrates can be either soluble or insoluble, with starch the major insoluble material. If we consider only insoluble material, mostly it’s starch and ‘fibre’. Generally only starch is available for our nutrition, and then only after cooking, although heat may convert up to eight percent of total starch into indigestible ‘resistant starch’.

Soluble carbohydrates include small sugars as well as oligosaccharides, such as fructose-containing material from onions and artichokes. The latter are not utilised by the human body but rather by micro-organisms residing in our gut. Clearly, a simple chemical result of “7.5 g carbohydrate” is only a rough approximation to digestible carbohydrate.


For a change, measurement of fat as lipid-soluble material is straightforward. I’m not aware of any technical problems with estimates of saturated versus unsaturated fats. There are some issues about how mixtures of fats may not have the same digestibility as pure fats.


Strictly speaking, energy content should be measured by combustion of a sample of food, with another food sample being fed to someone who is willing to collect all his bodily excretions for the next day or so. Such volunteers are hard to find. Even the feedstuff people rarely use animal feeding studies, because they have equations that convert individual components into an estimate of digestible energy. For poultry, the formula is 0.34% x Fat + 0.16% x Protein + 0.13% x Sugars. It’s obvious that any errors in measurement of fat, protein or sugar will affect the final energy values.

For people, similar formulas are available with ‘Atwater’ factors. There is a ‘general’ Atwater table and a ‘Specific’ table that tries to compensate for different ingredients. There’s only a two percent difference when animal-based food values are crunched through the Atwater methods. For wheat flour the discrepancy is seven percent and for cabbage or snap beans 20 percent. How, then, can a claim of “1089 kJ” be justified for a food made from a mixture of ingredients?

My suggested version

In view of all the uncertainties, I’d suggest a major simplification of nutritional information tables. Shorter numbers would be comprehensible and readable, while the present over-long numbers are mind-numbing rather than informative.

So Table 4 has my version of what I’d like to see on the luncheon meat container:

Component Per 56 g serve Per 100 g
Energy (kJ) 60 1100
Energy (Cal) 150 250
Protein (g) 5 9
Fat, total (g) 12 21
Carbohydrate, total (g) 4 8
Table 4. Luncheon meat nutrition information, adjusted.


Mann, J. D. 1998: Feedstuffs of monogastric animals. NZ Institute for Crop and Food Research.

FAO “Methods of Food


Save the rocks, say Celt theorists

THOSE zany Ancient Celt people never give up, do they? Now they’re campaigning to protect some boulders on a hillside at Silverdale, north of Auckland, due to be levelled as a site for a new hospital (NZ Herald, 6 May).

The boulders are almost perfectly spherical concretions, similar to the famous Moeraki Boulders. Martin Doutré, author of Ancient Celtic New Zealand, says they were placed on the hill as one of many structures built for calendar and surveying functions by fair-skinned people known as “Patu paiarehe” – before Maori came from Polynesia about 800 years ago.

Some showed ancient etchings of geometric designs similar to those on structures in Britain dating back to 3150BC, he believes.

“They were concretion boulders, which can only form in sea sediments, yet they had made it to the top of this high, yellow clay hill.”

Geological Society spokesman Bruce Hayward said there was no mystery how the boulders got to their current position. Like most of New Zealand, Silverdale was once under the sea. The boulders formed there 70 million years ago, and were raised up by tectonic activity. Softer sediments around them had since eroded away, leaving them exposed.

Creationists settle their differences

The acrimonious split between creationist organisations Answers in Genesis (AiG) and Creation Ministries International (CMI) (see The great downunder creationism takeover , NZ Skeptic 87) has been papered over, for the time being at least (Kentucky Enquirer, April 27).

Both sides have reached an out-of-court settlement in their battle over copyright and mailing list ownership, which has been running since 2005.

The US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ordered the rivals to arbitration in February in a decision that described the fight as a power struggle for control of the creationist message.

CMI has criticised AiG for its financial dealings and approach to creationist teaching. CMI chief Carl Wieland has also accused AiG’s Ken Ham of trying to take control of his organisation, stealing mailing lists and spreading false and vicious rumours about him and his ex-wife. In documents filed in US courts, officials with AiG said Ham was the victim of a disinformation campaign by the Australian group.

Ham, originally from Brisbane and now living in Kentucky, took the US and UK branches of AiG out of the global organisation in 2004, starting his own magazine and appropriating the mailing list of the Australian branch’s publication, which had been distributed world-wide. The AiG organisations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa then re-branded as CMI.

Something tells me this accord won’t last long. There’s too much money at stake in the global creationism industry, and the feud between Ham and Wieland has gotten really personal.

Dinosaur park heads for extinction

A plan for a multi-million dollar dinosaur-themed park in Waihi has been shelved (Waikato Times,, 10 June).

Newsfront mentioned this one back in NZ Skeptic 84 because the park’s backer, the Dinosaurs Aotearoa Museum Trust, was founded by Darren and Jackie Bush, who operate a Wellington business called Dinosaurs Rock. They run school geology programmes, presenting both evolutionary and creationist perspectives, depending on their audience.

The park was to feature a museum with local finds, replica skeletons and life-sized dinosaur models built by Weta Workshop. </>

A statement to the Waikato Times cited “unsuccessful funding applications in the Waikato”, “increased risks” and “the added pressure of the global recession” as reasons for the project not proceeding.

Skeptic photo among NZ’s spookiest

A photo of a ghostly head in a basket first published in NZ Skeptic 44 has made a short list of four of New Zealand’s spookiest photos (The Press, 4 May).

The disembodied head photographed by Halswell resident Carol McDonald was eventually identified as a photo of Jack Nicholson, from The Shining, which had been on the back cover of the previous month’s Skywatch magazine. The way the magazine was lying over the basket’s other contents gave it a remarkably three-dimensional appearance.

Of the other Press images, two where faces could be discerned in flames in a Westport Volunteer Fire Brigade exercise left Skeptics chair-entity Vicki Hyde unimpressed. “Shots involving fire, smoke and fog are notorious for producing ghost images,” she said. The other photos were equally easy to explain.

One, from a North Island pub which showed an indistinct feline-type face in the lower part of a window, “looks to be a reflection of objects inside the room”, while a face peering between two students at Linwood College could easily have been someone behind the pair trying to get in shot.

“Have you ever seen teenagers mugging for the camera? It’s hard to tell, with the tight cropping and over-exposure blanking out the surrounds.”

Makutu ritual ‘without cultural basis’

The ritual which led to the death of Janet Moses had more to do with The Exorcist than anything in traditional Maori culture, according to statements made by witnesses (Dominion Post, 14 June).

Moses died in Wainuiomata in October 2007 during attempts to lift a makutu, or curse, from her. Five members of her family were convicted of manslaughter on 13 June.

Tainui tikanga Maori teacher Tui Adams said in evidence that the cleansing ritual was without cultural basis and alien to anything he knew. And kaumatua Timi Rahi told the court he had never heard of a ceremony in which large amounts of water were poured into someone’s nose and mouth to remove an evil spirit.

One of those convicted, Hall Jones Wharepapa, said: “We got her into the shower and we turned the cold water on … I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Exorcist, but it was like that.”

Dr Adams said makutu was a form of witchcraft outlawed in Tainui, the iwi to which Janet Moses’ maternal family belongs. Belief in it remains only in pockets, he said.

Consultant forensic psychiatrist and Maori mental health specialist Rees Tapsell explained what had happened as group hysteria. It could happen in times of high emotional stress involving lack of sleep and isolation, he said.

Massey University lecturer Heather Kavan, who specialises in world religions, said although the case might be perceived as a Maori cultural issue, “the things people were experiencing have been noticed in many countries across the world as possession trance experiences”.

Crop circles – Solved!

Wallabies are eating opium poppies and creating crop circles as they hop around, says Tasmania attorney general Lara Giddings (BBC News, 25 June).

Reporting to a parliamentary hearing on security for Australia’s poppy crops, which supply about 50 percent of the world’s legally-grown opium, Ms Giddings said there was a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting “as high as a kite” and going around in circles.

“Then they crash,” she said.