Having our say on natural health

As part of the Memorandum of Understanding between the National and Green parties, the Ministry of Health has been developing proposals for a natural health products scheme to regulate such products on the New Zealand market. To kick this process off the ministry has produced a consultation paper setting out high-level proposals for the scheme and called for submissions on it. The NZ Skeptics were among those who sent in a submission in time for the closing date on 17 May. Vicki Hyde and Michelle Coffey were the principle authors, with contributions from several other society members.

In general, the NZ Skeptics support the scope, purpose and principles of the proposed legislation. We think it’s important that the industry has some regulatory oversight to support consumer protection, particularly in the area of claims and proof of efficacy, as well as safety, marketing material and labelling. The use of terms such as ‘natural’ concerns us as it is used to imply benign, which is not a supportable claim.

In addition we are concerned that there appears to be very little in the way of supervisory oversight or quality control in this industry, particularly with regard to imported products. This is potentially of major concern as, on the rare occasion when such checks have been made, product quality has been found to be severely compromised.

Some ‘natural health products’ have been found to have significant levels of contaminants such as heavy metals, or to contain pharmaceutical products, such as viagra and paracetamol, deliberately introduced to give the product a measurable effect not obtainable from the ‘natural’ products.

We believe that informed choice for the consumer is critical in this area, as in all areas relating to health. Labelling requirements need to be clearly defined to ensure that the natural health industry does not use archaic, misleading or inappropriate terminology to boost its claims to the detriment of consumer understanding.

Also, the definition of ‘natural health product’ needs careful deliberation. This industry has been seen in the past as quick to claim any and all modalities that suit their business. ‘Natural health’ should be regarded as a marketing term, not a scientific one. The extension of this business into ‘synthetic equivalents’ gives this industry even more scope for misleading consumers (cf the claims of BZP as providing a ‘herbal’ high).

There is a link to the full submission on the NZ Skeptics home page (www.skeptics.org.nz).


Fault is with Creationism

Bernard Beckett (Skeptic 95 , p8) says the ability of Creationism to make the same predictions as evolutionary psychology shows that the latter is not a scientific process. But the same is equally true of evolutionary biology. (“God made cats resemble tigers, and apples resemble pears, because He felt like it.”) The fault is with Creationism, not evolution. An omnipotent Creator can be used to explain/predict absolutely anything, not only the universe as it is, but any other universe, possible or im-. You might say that Creationism, like Nostradamus and astrology, is very good for predicting the past. That is their fundamental failing.

Billy Joel’s daughter (p18) obviously had quite the wrong idea about what an overdose in homeopathy is. If she had sniffed the closed bottle, she would certainly have died as she wished. Homeopathy patients should be warned.

Hugh Young
Pukerua Bay

Truth is the daughter of time, and not of authority: Aspects of the Cartwright Affair

The ‘Unfortunate Experiment’ at National Women’s Hospital has entered the national folklore as a notorious case of medical misconduct. But there is still disagreement about what actually happened.

It is 22 years since the Cartwright Inquiry published its findings. Arguments about the whole affair persist, with repeated public support from those who say it was a valuable and proper exposure of damaging improprieties by the medical profession, and from those who say that the inquiry and the events which led to it are based on an erroneous interpretation of a scientific paper, and selective evidence gathering at the Inquiry.

If indeed an error has been made, then the vilification of the medical people involved, which has occurred and which still goes on, must be redressed.

I want to consider two aspects of this affair, and if the evidence shows a miscarriage of justice, to offer reasons as to why this might have happened.

I shall:

  • consider the contention that an unethical experiment was performed at National Women’s Hospital (NWH) by Professor Green and his associates, and whether or not the Inquiry made a fair and just assessment of the current (1988) internationally accepted management of carcinoma-in-situ of the cervix (CIN3);
  • discuss what factors in our scientific literary world might be contributing to error.
  • describe unwelcome aspects of our human behaviour which allow an issue of this magnitude to survive in our society, unresolved for 22 years, and how writers have described these for many centuries. I have chosen as my title a quotation from Aulus Gellius in his Attic Nights, written in c.150 CE to emphasise the long-standing nature of the problem.

It is important to have a clear outline of the sequence of events over time at NWH and here is a timeline for reference:

1966: Green proposed to the NWH Medical Committee that CIN3 should be managed by cone biopsy if indicated and regular review. This was in response to considerable doubt worldwide about the natural history of the condition, for which many advocated hysterectomy. The committee agreed.

1973: Editorial in the British Medical Journal, “Uncertainties of Cervical Cytology.”1

1974: Article in New Zealand Medical Journal (NZMJ) by Green showing evidence that “The proportion progressing to invasion must be small.”2

1975: The NWH Medical Committee reviewed the management protocol and agreed it should continue.

1982: Professor Green retired.

1984: “The Invasive Potential of Carcinoma-in-situ of the cervix” was published.3 This was the paper on which Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle based their Metro article.

1985: A letter to the NZMJ by Skrabanek and Jamieson was critical of a national cervical screening programme for CIN3 as a detection and treatment method for carcinoma of the cervix (14 August).

1986: A letter from David Skegg was published in the NZMJ supporting a cervical screening programme. “The case for the effectiveness of screening does not rest on the unfortunate experiment at NWH in which women with abnormal smears were treated conservatively and a proportion have developed invasive cancer” (22 January).

1987: “An Unfortunate Experiment at National Women’s” appeared in the June issue of an Auckland magazine,Metro. Within 10 days the Minister of Health (Michael Bassett) has announced the inquiry, and that it was to be chaired by Sylvia Cartwright.

1987/1988: The inquiry sat, and published its report in 1988.

1988: A book, An Unfortunate Experiment, by Sandra Coney was published.

1990: Jan Corbett, a journalist, wrote an article in the July issue of Metro reviewing the errors in the Coney and Bunkle paper, and the way in which the data in the 1984 paper had been distorted.

2008: A conference was held to commemorate the Cartwright Inquiry. A number of papers including Charlotte Paul (a medical adviser to the inquiry), and Sandra Coney, were presented endorsing the inquiry findings.

2009: A book, A History of the ‘Unfortunate Experiment’ at National Women’s Hospital, by Linda Bryder, a professional historian, was published.

2009: A book, The Cartwright Papers, published by participants in the 2008 conference, and now including a vehement criticism of Linda Bryder and of her book.

2010: The NZMJ publishes a letter from Dr Helen Overton, “In defence of Linda Bryder’s Book.”4

The 1984 paper

“The Invasive Potential of Carcinoma-in-situ of the Cervix” was written by two gynaecologists from NWH (McIndoe and Jones), a pathologist from NWH (McLean) and a statistician (Mullins).

I have read this carefully, and made a summary of its contents. It described the follow-up data for 948 women with carcinoma-in-situ of the cervix. The women were followed for five-28 years by repeated smears and observation according to the 1966 proposal, unless they showed evidence for spreading cancer. The women were seen at three, six, and 12 months after presentation, and yearly after that. The women’s records showed that at 24 months after presentation, 131 continued to have an abnormal smear. (Of course, the other 817 had normal smears, or had had removal of the cervix by hysterectomy or other treatment.) There was no difference in age or parity between those in either group.

The division into the two groups was made retrospectively by the authors on the evidence for the presence or absence of an abnormal smear at 24 months.

They compared the outcomes in the two groups in terms of the development of invasive cancer (22.1 percent in the group with positive smears at 24 months, 1.5 percent in the larger group). They also compared the number of deaths in each group at the end of the observation period (June 1983). Four women who had had normal smears at 24 months had died (0.5 percent) and eight women had died who had had abnormal smears at 24 months (6 percent).


There was no withholding of treatment in that group with the persistently abnormal smears – see Table 1.

Initial treatment Eventual treatment
Total hysterectomy Cone biopsy or amputation Total hysterectomy Cone biopsy or amputation
Group 1 (n=817) 217 (26.6%) 576 (70.9%)
Group 2 (n=131) 33 (25.2%) 88 (67.2%) 62 (47.3%) 166 (126.7%)

Table 1. Initial and eventual treatment of patients with normal smears, or who had cervixes removed by hysterectomy or other treatment (Group 1), and of patients with persistent abnormal smears (Group 2). Percentages exceeding 100 percent reflect the need for two cervical procedures in some women.
The authors said in the paper’s discussion, “the almost universal acceptance of the malign potential of this lesion has made prospective investigation into the natural progression of CIS ethically impossible”. That would require an experiment where women had no treatment. This is quite clearly not the case in this reported series.

It is clear that in this report of the management of CIS there is no evidence of withholding of treatment, nor of an experiment.

Three years after this paper was published, it was used by Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle as evidence for gross wrongdoing by the medical staff at NWH. Here is what they wrote:

“The study divided the women into two groups – 817 who had normal smears after treatment by conventional techniques, and a second group of 131 women who continued to produce persistently abnormal smears. This group is called in the study the conservative treatment group. Some had only biopsies to establish the presence of disease and no further treatment.”

Later in the article the authors refer to “group two women who had little or no treatment”.

This paper in a popular magazine was used by the Cartwright Inquiry as some of the evidence which led to its conclusions.

In 1990, Liggins said, “The famous 1984 article which emanated from the National Women’s Hospital and on which the Metro article which stimulated the cervical cancer inquiry was based, was misinterpreted by the authors of the Metro article and by the judge”.5

Was the management of cervical carcinoma-in-situ unethical?

This is the second aspect of the Cartwright affair that I wish to examine. In June 2010 the statement was made that “treatment with curative intent was withheld in an unethical study” at NWH from 1965 to 1974.6

It is important to make clear what we understand by ‘ethical’, ‘unethical’ and ‘conventional’, or we shall be reduced to the state of the Looking-Glass world: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.'”7

Ethical: “In accordance with principles of conduct that are considered correct, especially those of a given profession or group”. (Collins Concise Dictionary, 1988.)

Unethical: Not in accordance with these principles.

Conventional: Relating to convention or general agreement. (OED)

Convention is a general agreement or consent. (OED)

Was the protocol for the management of CIN3 by Prof Green and his colleagues at NWH an unethical experiment? If he had proposed to divide the women as they presented into two groups, one of which was treated and the other not, then that would have been unethical. Although uncertainty existed as to what proportion of women with an abnormal cervical smear developed an invasive cancer, it was agreed that an abnormal smear meant that the woman was more likely to develop cancer than if she had a normal smear.

His protocol did not deny women treatment.

There was widespread international uncertainty as to the best form of management. If Prof Green had withheld an acknowledged proven treatment that was agreed to by the majority of workers in the field, and replaced it with an unproven treatment, then that would indeed have been unethical.

He didn’t do that.

During 1966-1984 there was no international agreed conventional treatment for this condition. As Iain Chalmers of the James Lind Library in Oxford points out, 8 Linda Bryder in her book has made a thorough review of the contemporary medical literature on this subject which makes it clear that there was no worldwide, generally accepted treatment of CIN3. The evidence called by the Cartwright Inquiry did not reflect the lack of an international consensus. It was indicative of only one aspect of the issue. It has all the attributes of ‘cherry-picking’.

The accusation that Green and his colleagues behaved unethically in these matters is not sustainable. Unless his detractors can show that there was a single international conventional treatment which he ignored, then repeated accusations of “unethical behaviour” are wrong. These accusations continue to be made, as recently as 1 June, 2010.6

Why do manifestly false beliefs persist over time?

There are features of our human behaviour which are conducive to the persistence of untruths, and they include a desire for uniformity in the interest of the maintenance of a coherent and more easily managed society.

Once a decision has been made, it is easier for all of us to go along with it, and not to ‘rock the boat’.

There have been trenchant criticisms of the Cartwright affair and its outcomes, often met with strident objections and not much logic. To accuse the whistle blower of “intransigence and arrogance” rather than meet the questions fairly is shameful.

Another feature of the last 22 years is the increasing number of papers published in the medical literature which on close examination are of poor quality. An example of this is the paper published on 1 June, 2010.

This was published as an abstract online. The authors include a medical adviser to the Cartwright Inquiry, a medical witness at the inquiry, and one of the authors of the 1984 paper. There is the old accusation that “treatment with curative intent was withheld in an unethical clinical study of the natural history of CIS at NWH in the years 1965-1974.” But in the results it is stated that 51 percent of these women had treatment with curative intent! The group treated with the diagnosis made in 1975-1976 had curative intent treatment in 85 percent. Prof Green retired in 1982; his proposal for the management of carcinoma in situ was approved in 1966.

Treatment with curative intent was not defined in the abstract.

The results include P values of 0.0005 for the significance of differences between groups, for a difference which defines the grouping.

The number of new patients in the year 1975-1976 was half that in each of the two previous decades. There is no explanation for this in the abstract. This group was not included in the comparison of risk for cancer of the cervix or vaginal vault. There is no explanation for this.

The medical science literature shares with all scientific paper publishing a current deterioration in standards. This contributes to the persistence of error. This issue has been recently addressed in an editorial in The European Journal of Clinical Investigation.9

“Why would scientists publish junk? Apparently the current system does not penalise its publication. Conversely, it rewards productivity.
Nowadays, some authors have been co-authoring more than 100 papers annually. Some of these researchers only published three or four papers per year until their mid-forties and fifties. Then suddenly they developed this agonising writing incontinence.”

Another factor in our society which feeds our appetite for orthodoxy is the popular press. Truth is often submerged in the sensational. An example of this occurred in the NZ Herald on 1 June, when their health reporter wrote a report of the on-line article6 with the headline:

“Otago research backs cancer inquiry findings: Unfortunate experiment at National Women’s not imagined, says report”

There followed 40 column centimetres supporting the headline, including two which stated: “The cancer death rate differences between the periods and sub-groups are not significantly different”. This information is not included in the on-line published paper. The reporter’s statement is not correct in his summary of the report. In addition he cites information which suggests he has access to the complete (as yet unpublished on June 1st) paper.

The television ‘press’ included that morning an interview with Charlotte Paul, one of the authors, and that evening, an interview with Clare Matheson, the woman named as ‘Ruth’ in the original Metro article. There was no reference to the valid criticisms of the Cartwright affair which have been made over the years.

It is not my case that the medical profession to which I belong is without fault, and I accept that since 1988 more attention has been paid by doctors to issues such as informed consent. But the means, by this miscarriage of justice, do not justify the ends.

Our human desire not to alter our beliefs in the face of contrary evidence, the willingness of the popular press not to disturb established ‘truth’, the current deterioration in the standards of the world medical press, and an unquestioning respect for ‘authority’ are factors recognisably active in the persistence of the myths surrounding the Cartwright affair. These behaviours are not new, and their effects on the emergence of truth have been recognised for centuries. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in his Axioms wrote, in number 46:

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion, or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though here be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.”


  1. Editorial. 1974: BMJ, 5891, 561-2.
  2. Green, GH. 1974: NZMJ 80, 279-287.
  3. McIndoe, WA; McLean, MA; Jones, RW; Mullins, PR. 1984: Obstetrics and Gynecology 64, 451-458.
  4. Overton, H. 2010: NZMJ 123, 95-96.
  5. Liggins, CC. 1991: Australia and New Zealand J. Surgery 61, 169-172.
  6. McCredie, MRE; Paul, C; Sharples KJ; Baranyai, J; Medley, G; Skegg, DCG; Jones, RW. 2010: Australia and New Zealand J Obstetrics and Gynaecology, ‘earlyview’ on-line 1 June.
  7. Carroll, L. 1871: Through the Looking-Glass. Chapter 6.
  8. Chalmers, I. 2010: NZMJ Letters to the Editor. 30 July.
  9. Editorial. 2010: European J Clinical Investigation 40(4), 285-7.


Supernatural forces on the increase

Spirits are increasingly making their presence felt in New Zealand, spurred on by celebrity ghost whisperers, says the Manawatu Standard (12 April).

A recent survey by Massey University revealed that the proportion of respondents who say they have felt a spiritual force rose from 33 percent in 1991, to 40 percent. Half the respondents said they are interested in spiritual forces, while a quarter believed the dead had supernatural powers.

Massey University senior lecturer Heather Kavan said the entertainment industry has fuelled the spirit market.

“Programmes like Sensing Murder and Ghost Whisperer have popularised psychic experiences that in previous times would have been dismissed as symptoms of psychosis. The Sensing Murder psychics have almost become spiritual celebrities.”

Our own Vicki Hyde said spiritual crazes come in waves, depending on media programmes. Angels and vampires are the latest fads. She warned of the “morally reprehensible” behaviour of shows such as Sensing Murder. Psychic shows exploit vulnerable families who have lost loved ones in the name of entertainment, she said.

If the clippings for Newsfront are anything to go by, there are indeed more ghostly appearances going on out there. There’s definitely a ghost theme this issue.

The daily bread rises despite ghostly visit

Things are going bump, shadows are creeping and mysterious voices are bothering Maurice Piner at Phil’s Baker, in Greymouth. The Press (5 May) says the poor baker is seeing shadows moving around and hearing banging and crashing when he’s working alone.

“…sometimes you can hear whispering and talking in the bakery. You look around to see if there’s anyone there, and you can’t.”

Tourist operator Paul Schramm thinks he knows what’s what. While researching a new tourist attraction, he has learned about Ah Shing, a Chinese miner, who hanged himself in 1891 in the boarding house that used to stand on the site.

Piner said it was interesting to have a theory to explain the whispers and shadows, but it would not put him off working alone.

Hotel ghost to be checked out

Christchurch’s old Jailhouse hotel has a ghostly infestation but the ghosthunters are on to it (The Press, 6 May 2010.)

Ghost Hunters Christchurch lead investigator Anton Heyrick has offered to check out the ghostly reports of an apparition in the kitchen and of a man with a white jacket, but wants three extra paranormal investigators to help.

“There have been things moving. There have been voices, and backpackers have said they’ve felt like they were being watched.”

Reminds me of stopping at an old hotel, turned into a backpackers, on the way to last year’s Skeptics Conference. On the walls was a sepia picture of the daughter of a former hotel owner, who died tragically and now haunts the place. When we commented on this to the manager, he said to the best of his knowledge there wasn’t a ghost; it was something the previous owners did to add to the feel of the place. Yet, later that night, the door to the shower block mysteriously slammed shut, with no one near. Coincidence? We think so.

Return of the cat ghost

Hawera’s ghost cat, caught on security camera last year, is not alone (Taranaki Daily News, 2 June).

Ross and Donna Sowerby hoped to catch a bike thief, and instead caught a ghostly image. To this viewer, it looked like a small spider or booklouse wandering over the lens but to some, it looked more like a big, fluffy, but very blurry cat.

The media loved it, and it was on TV and reported in many newspapers. But paranormal experts fell silent, and for months, says Mrs Sowerby, there was no definitive answer. Until television psychic Sue Nicholson appeared on TV One’s Good Morning show and offered an explanation, following a letter from Mrs Sowerby. She said the apparition was of a ginger cat and added that there were more ghosts in the couple’s house.

Luckily, one of these spirits, a man, is a friendly ghost, with a “lovely energy”. The best thing about the cat ghost, she said, was that it didn’t need to be fed. Mrs Sowerby was happy with the explanation. “We have closure now and we can move on.”

The article ran on the Stuff website and attracted about 80 comments. Many agreed it looked like a bug on the lens. But the Sowerbys were not satisfied with these theories. Why look for zebras when you can manifest a phantom feline?

But back to the Manawatu Standard. The article on Massey University’s survey also answers a long-standing mystery. “An extraordinarily high proportion of New Zealanders have no religion – almost double the proportion in other Western countries – but we’ve never known who these people are,” Dr Kavan said.

The survey showed many of them are privately spiritual, but don’t relate to organised religions. And the internet has opened up a huge range of possibilities, for believers and non-believers alike.

The Facebook group Sensing Murder has almost 4000 fans,whereas Sensing Bullshit has 95 members. Sigh.

Recovered memories again

Although the recovered memory panic seems to be on the wane, a recent case of a couple acquitted on all charges of rape and inducing their daughter to do indecent acts, shows the idea still has its supporters.

In an NZPA story (9 June) the man’s lawyer, Chris Wilkinson-Smith said the case had been pursued by West Auckland police, despite Gisborne police recommending the prosecution should not proceed.

The couple, who have name suppression, live in a small town near Gisborne. “It was only the efforts of private investigator Michael Rhodes who was able to locate many witnesses who completely contradicted the complainant’s evidence. A more thorough police investigation could have avoided three years of misery.”

The mother’s lawyer, Adam Simperingham, told reporters the charges should never have been laid, and that the parents had been through a very traumatic experience.

The charges related to alleged incidents between January 23 1978 and January 23 1981.

Their daughter, now 39, gave evidence during the trial. The Crown prosecutor, Soana Moala, alleged a series of sexual assaults occurred at the family home when the girl was aged between seven and 10.

Ms Moala told the jury that the complainant did not tell anyone at the time. She did not remember the incidents until 2006.

‘Witch children’ in living hell

And from the We Think We’ve Got It Bad Here Department comes a story in the Waikato Times (15 May) on the ‘Witch Children’ of Nigeria.

A Salem-style witch-hunt has swept the south of the West African nation in recent years. Though the area has always been a centre for the occult and voodoo, in the last 10 years pastors from revivalist churches have been arriving there. They accuse vulnerable children (many of them Aids orphans) of being witches, and then offer to drive out the demons. With growing populations and mounting poverty, some aunts and uncles have been quick to accept any excuse not to feed another mouth.

Seven-year-old Godwin Okon was accused, with his grandmother, of causing his mother’s death by witchcraft. Sam Ikpe-Itauma of the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), said Godwin’s uncle had locked them in a room with the dead woman. The grandmother escaped, but Godwin was ordered by a pastor to eat his mother’s corpse, under the belief that if a demon eats its victim it will also die. When he refused his uncle forced his head into his mother’s body. When he still refused to eat he was beaten and burnt.

Passers-by kept him alive by feeding him through cracks in the wall, until other villagers notified the police, who took him to CRARN. He is slowly recovering along with more than 200 other children with similar experiences.

The fallibility of eyewitness memory

Eyewitness testimony is commonly regarded as very high quality evidence. But recent research has shown there are many ways memories of events can become contaminated. This article is based on a presentation to the NZ Skeptics conference in Wellington, 27 September 2009.

In 2003, a woman was tragically attacked and raped after leaving a bar in Christchurch. She remembered her assailant as a man with “rat- like” features. Later, she chose the police suspect from a photographic lineup, indicating that she was “90 percent sure” that he was her assailant. This identification became the central piece of evidence that convicted Aaron Farmer. But, in June 2007, Mr Farmer was exonerated after DNA proved that he could not have been the rapist – he had spent almost three years in prison.

Unfortunately, Mr Farmer’s case is not an isolated incident. Decades of legal and psychological research have shown that eyewitness identification error is the leading cause of wrongful conviction. Recently the former High Court judge, Sir Thomas Thorp, published an extensive review of legal research on miscarriages of justice. In that paper, he estimated that there are at least 20 innocent people in New Zealand prisons, and he emphasised eyewitness error as a leading cause of convictions. This conclusion fits neatly with exoneration data from the Innocence Project, based in New York. Since 1992, the Innocence Project has exonerated over 250 wrongfully convicted people, over 75 percent of whom were identified by at least one eyewitness.

How can human memory be so fragile as to lead a witness to choose an innocent person from a lineup? Over 30 years of research has shed light on this question. Ultimately, this research has shown that memory can go wrong in several ways. The best way to understand these errors is to think of memory as a three-stage process:
[1] encoding,
[2] retention, and
[3] recall.

At the encoding stage, information is perceived and transferred from the environment, through our senses. These perceptual processes allow us to lay down memory traces. Next, those traces are retained for a period of time. Of course this retention stage can last for anywhere between seconds and years, until finally we recall that information from memory. It is important to know that any one of these three stages can go awry.


Encoding depends heavily on our ability to pay attention to information in the environment. However, our attentional systems are limited. We can only pay attention to a few things at once. Anything that does not receive the requisite amount of attention does not have the chance to make it through the encoding phase of memory.

Furthermore, many variables, such as stress, can limit our attentional processes even more. As a result, witnesses will often not pay attention to details that could be forensically relevant. For example, a witness under stress may pay particular attention to the weapon being brandished by the offender, rather than paying attention to his facial details. If this is the case, those facial details may never be stored in memory, and if information is not stored, it cannot be recalled later.


The information that makes it into memory can be distorted easily. Perhaps the best known psychological science research in this field is the misinformation effect pioneered by Elizabeth Loftus. This research shows that a simple suggestion can change witnesses’ memories. In a typical misinformation experiment, there are three stages.

First, participants watch a simulated crime, such as a man stealing a maths book from a bookstore. After a delay, participants are exposed to post- event information (PEI), which is usually a narrative describing the simulated crime. For some participants, the PEI is accurate but generic (eg, “the man stole a book”), and for others the details are misleading (eg, “the man stole a science book”).

Finally, participants are questioned to determine their memory’s accuracy for the event. These participants are often specifically told to ignore everything they read in the narrative and only rely on what they saw during the event. Typically, those participants who read misleading details during the PEI have less accurate memories than those who read generic information.

This research shows the ease with which a person’s memory can be changed. Decades of research have shown that people can come to remember having seen a crime when in fact they have seen an innocuous event. Using this paradigm people can even come to remember having seen an innocuous event, when in fact they have seen a crime. Witnesses can often be exposed to misleading details from co- witnesses, suggestive interviewing techniques or sometimes, media reports of the crime. Any of these sources can lead witnesses to remember details that did not happen.


Psychological science has also shown that the way we test witnesses can also affect their memories for what they have seen. Some of the most prolific research in this field has examined the way that we test witnesses’ memories for offenders’ faces using the lineup technique. Photographic lineups are the most common method of testing eyewitness recall for offenders.

Usually, a lineup depicts a police suspect surrounded by known innocent people – known as distracters. A witness chooses a person from a lineup in the same way that a person chooses an option from multiple- choice question. When people choose the correct answer from a multiple- choice question it is considered evidence that they recognised the correct answer by relying on memory; and when witnesses choose the suspect from a montage, it is considered evidence that they recognised the suspect from the crime scene.

However, people do not always rely on their memory in either multiple- choice questions or lineups. A multiple-choice question can be biased towards the correct answer, as in this example:

What is the capital of Burundi?

Most people cannot rely solely on their memory to answer this question. Now consider these choices:

(a) Paris;
(b) Sydney;
(c) Wellington;
(d) Bujumbura.

You probably chose the correct answer (d), not because you had a memory for Burundi’s capital, but because you used a process of elimination to choose that answer. Similarly, a lineup is sometimes constructed so that witnesses do not need to rely on their memory for the offender; instead, they use a process of elimination – the suspect becomes the Bujumbura of the lineup.

Lineup bias

The danger arises when the wrong person is suspected of a crime and then included in a biased lineup. Research shows that witnesses will often choose from a lineup, even when the actual offender is not present. If the lineup has been constructed in a biased way (like the multiple choice question above), witnesses are even more likely to choose from the lineup. It is misidentifications like these that often lead to wrongful convictions.

Taken together, this research shows that witnesses’ memories are susceptible to several sources of error. As such, we need to ensure that we collect and test witnesses’ memories with scientifically valid interview and lineup techniques. Scientific recommendations regarding best practice procedures for witness evidence have been available for several decades, but few jurisdictions worldwide have taken them up. This lack of recognition for scientific validation is surprising given the relatively fast uptake of forensic science methods, such as DNA testing.

As a result, the best way to think of witness memory evidence is like biological evidence at a crime scene. If we were unlucky enough to stumble across a bloody crime scene, most people would be careful not to contaminate the scene by trampling through the blood spatter patterns, or handling any evidence. Similarly, we should treat witness memory with the same caution. When a witness has been exposed to a crime, we should not contaminate their memories with suggestive questioning and biased lineups. Instead, we should collect and preserve their memories with scenically valid techniques. Only then can we hope to reduce the increasing number of wrongful convictions caused by erroneous witness evidence.

The great continental demolition derby

When creationists try to harmonise their worldview with certain inescapable facts of geology, the result is chaos.
Recently I had forwarded to me a document bearing the title Debunking Evolution: problems, errors, and lies exposed, in plain language for non-scientists.
The content was depressingly familiar, and can largely be guessed from the title, although the way it crams in so many technical, sciencey-sounding terms into its almost 15,000 words rather works against its claim to be “plain language”. The author is given as one John Michael Fischer; despite this tract being widely disseminated across the internet (often copied and pasted into forum discussion threads) I have not been able to find any information on him or his background.

A full rebuttal of all this material would be even longer than the original; there’s certainly not enough space for it in this publication. In any case, most of it is standard creationist fare that’s been refuted over and over again – no macroevolution (only microevolution), irreducible complexity, the tornado in a junkyard (or a minor variant), no fossil ancestors for Cambrian species, no transitional fossils, the demise of the Tree of Life (as reported in a New Scientist cover story), Ernst Haeckel’s embryo drawings, lack of true vestigial organs, and how the Second Law of Thermodynamics precludes evolution.

Only a couple of arguments are comparatively new. Fischer gets very excited about recent findings that “increasing biological complexity is correlated with an increasing number of non-protein-coding DNA sequences and not, as previously assumed, with an increasing number of protein-coding genes.” Cells contain many short sequences of RNA which don’t code for functional proteins but play a variety of roles in regulating cellular processes and protein synthesis. He concludes from this that the ‘junk’ DNA which makes up most of the genome isn’t really junk after all, but must have been inserted by a Designer to fulfill essential biological functions.

Developmental biologist and blogger PZ Myers disagrees, and as usual is not shy about saying why(scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/05/junk_dna_is_still_junk.php). Most of the RNA transcripts are from regions of DNA near known genes, suggesting that they’re artefacts, like an extended transcription of a gene. Occasionally one of them may be co-opted for a new function, but there’s no indication of design; the genome is still mostly dead in transcription terms. “Don’t look for demolition of the concept of junk DNA here,” Myers says.

This is all very well, but once Fischer has single-handedly demolished evolutionary theory, what would he replace it with? The answer is on his website (www.newgeology.us), which is the ultimate source for Debunking Evolution. Navigating around the site is a bit of a challenge, but it’s clear his real passion is for geology, rather than biology, though he shows no greater aptitude for that discipline.

The home page bears the title ‘Shock Dynamics’, which Fischer describes as “[a] new geology theory featuring impact-powered rapid continental drift as an alternative to plate tectonics. The key to creation geology.” What he is proposing is that in the few thousand years of the Earth’s history allowed by the creationists’ timescale, our planet has been subjected to three major meteoritic events, one involving multiple impacts. The most recent of these was “in the time of Peleg” (Gen. 10:25), in whose days, the Bible tells us, “the Earth was divided”. An enormous meteorite, Fischer says, struck the Earth just north of what is now Madagascar, driving the initially joined continents to their present locations in a matter of hours.

According to Bishop Ussher’s chronology, Peleg was born in 2247 BC, 101 years after the Flood, and lived 339 years. To put this in perspective, the Pyramid of Djoser in Egypt was built between 2630 and 2611 BC.

Continental Drift is a big issue for creationists. If all land animals are really descended from a single boatload that landed on a mountaintop in eastern Turkey, then explaining how they all got to their current locations takes some doing. How did kiwi and moa get to New Zealand? Or lemurs to Madagascar, or sloths to the Amazon? The problem looks slightly less insuperable if, at the time of the Flood, all the world’s land masses were joined. The 1000-plus landsnail species found only in New Zealand could then simply have crawled here, being careful not to leave any relatives along the way. Several creationists have therefore tried to come up with scenarios in which rapid, post-Flood continental movement may have occurred.

Fischer argues the energy of an incoming meteorite triggered the continents to slide up to 9000km (in the case of Australia) over a period of 26 hours. Yes, that’s right. Australia must have averaged a speed of almost 350 km/hr; given that accelerating and decelerating a continental landmass must take a while, the maximum velocity must have been considerably greater. How was this achieved? Fischer suggests a phenomenon called acoustic fluidisation may be involved. In this process vibrations from landslides, earthquakes or meteorite impacts “fluidise” loose debris so that it flows like a liquid. It’s a real phenomenon, and has been used to explain the effects of some earthquakes, or the long distances landslides sometimes flow across plains from their points of origin. Here then is Fischer’s scenario:

“The giant meteorite explodes, penetrating the continental crust. The force pushes up low mountains, and the landmass slides away like a ship on water, fluidizing the contact layer. Behind the landmass, a surface layer of oceanic crust is melting and cooling to form the mid-ocean spreading ridge with transform faults, pulled open by the landmass.
“When the leading edge loses enough energy, the contact layer at the leading edge solidifies. The momentum of the landmass carries it forward like a car hitting a wall, piling up high mountains. The formerly fluidized contact layer in front is a Benioff zone, called subduction zones in Plate Tectonics.”

Strictly speaking a Benioff zone is a deep, active seismic area within a subduction zone, but we know what he means.
One thing he doesn’t explain is why other meteorite impacts didn’t produce the same effect. And this is a problem, because Fischer invokes lots of big meteorites. The Flood was brought about by a whole swarm of meteorite strikes. As these struck the ocean they raised enormous splashes, which Noah interpreted as “the fountains of the deep” (Fischer differs from other creationists in asserting that the Flood story is an eyewitness account written by Noah, rather than divinely authored). They also unleashed the enormous volcanic event of the Siberian Traps (generally regarded as 250 million years old) and collapsed the waters above the heavens referred to in the first chapter of Genesis (Fischer calls the waters a “vapor canopy”), the ultimate cause of the Flood. This is an interesting one, because according to Psalm 148, those waters are still there:

“Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens.
“Let them praise the name of the LORD: for he commanded and they were created.

“He hath also stablished them for ever and ever: he hath made a decree which shall not pass.” (KJV)

So we have the ultimate irony: in order to uphold the literal truth of one part of the Bible, Fischer piles absurdity on absurdity, and in the end only succeeds in contradicting another part. (The vapour canopy, by the way, is pretty much standard creationist doctrine these days; few creationists ever seem to read anything in their Bibles beyond Genesis.)

But Fischer doesn’t stop there. The Flood kills off the dinosaurs, which are on a different landmass – people only live on Mesopotamia, or possibly East Antarctica, where dinosaur remains have not been found. I’m not sure how the landmasses can be undivided and yet there are two of them. Successive waves of ocean water deposit massive amounts of sediment, forming the geological column and fossil record. After the Flood the Chicxulub meteorite (generally credited with the demise of the dinosaurs) hits the Earth, but doesn’t seem to do much except spread around some iridium and shocked quartz.

The Flood survivors spread and multiply for several hundred years. Then the Shock Dynamics meteorite scatters the continents, raises all the mountain chains (the landmasses used to be low-lying; the Flood story describes how the tops of the mountains could be seen as the waters receded, but I think we can assume they were only little mountains) and wipes out many large mammal species. The force of the impact is enough to speed up the Earth’s rotation, so that the number of days in a year increases from 360 to 365.2. All those sliding continents heat the oceans, which causes massive evaporation, which in turn causes cooling, bringing on the Ice Ages. You’d think the Chinese, the Egyptians, and the other civilisations of the time would have noticed.

Other scenarios

The internet (and creationist literature) is awash with material like this. Shock Dynamics theory is not merely the work of a lone crackpot, but a fairly representative example of a mode of thought that remains very widespread. Fischer is not the only one pushing a literal division of the Earth in the time of Peleg, although other creationists have come up with different mechanisms.

The Associates for Spiritual Knowledge, for example (www.askelm.com/news/n090219.pdf) favour an expanding Earth pushing the continents apart. The Associates for Biblical Research (< A HREF=”www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/05/of-peleg-and-pangaea.aspx”>www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/05/of-peleg-and-pangaea.aspx ) don’t propose a mechanism at all, merely suggesting the continents drifted apart during Peleg’s lifetime.

Other creationists disagree. These include the most active group locally, Creation Ministries International (CMI), who maintain the division in Peleg’s time was purely a cultural one. They say the continents were separated at the time of the Flood (creation.com/in-pelegs-days-the-earth-was-divided), and the animals later migrated via land bridges during the post-Flood Ice Age, or were moved around by people. This, they argue, avoids the problem of another (post-Flood) catastrophe that would accompany such a division, and destroy most land life. Those sloths dragged themselves across Siberia and over a Bering Strait land bridge to get to the Amazon, apparently. Or maybe the first Americans took them along as pets, packing plenty of Cecropia leaves to feed them on the journey.

One way rapid continental drift may have been triggered at the time of the Flood is set out in something called Hydroplate Theory, the brainchild of one Dr Walt Brown, who explains all in his book In the Beginning. This states that before the Flood there was a massive amount of water underneath the crust. Pressure on the water caused the plates to break and separate; the escaping water then flooded the whole earth, and the continental plates flew apart at speeds of up to 72 km/hr (creationwiki.org/Hydroplate). Others believe the Earth is hollow (www.ourhollowearth.com). Rodney M Cluff, author of World Top Secret: Our Earth Is Hollow! claims:

“Located at 87.7 degrees North and South Latitude are Polar Openings that lead into the hollow interior of our planet where the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel today dwell in perfect harmony, with life spans equal to those of the Methuselahs of the Bible, whose only desire is to live in peace. Their flying saucers in defense of their country at times are seen on our surface world. They don’t come to destroy, they are waiting… Waiting for us to discover that world peace is the only answer, not without God, but WITH Him.” [ellipsis and emphasis in original]

Then there are the geocentrists. A 1999 Gallup poll found 18 percent of Americans, when asked whether the Earth revolved around the sun or the sun around the Earth, picked the latter, while another three percent had no opinion. Poll results in Britain and Germany are similar. Probably for most of these people it’s just not a question they’ve given much thought to, but the Association for Biblical Astronomy (www.geocentricity.com) have devoted a lot of time and effort to it. In their view, whenever the Bible and astronomy are at variance, it is always astronomy “- that is, our ‘reading’ of the ‘Book of Nature,’ not our reading of the Holy Bible – that is wrong.” Key passages in the Bible indicate the Earth is motionless at the centre of the universe and that’s the end of it; the Earth neither rotates daily nor revolves around the sun. The geocentrists regard more liberal groups, such as the Institute for Creation Research, CMI and Answers in Genesis, as accommodationists.

Though they may disagree vehemently among themselves, all these groups are united by their belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. What’s more, they insist that only faith in the infallibility of scripture can provide the philosophical underpinnings that allow a person to avoid straying into error. CMI’s Jonathan Sarfati, for example, writes:

“[W]e are not merely asking opponents to consider biblical presuppositions as an alternative way of looking at the evidence. Nor are we merely saying that they are ‘nicer’, nor even that they provide a superior framework that better explains the data (although both of these are true as well). Rather, the claim is even stronger: that the biblical framework is the only one that provides the foundation for science, voluntary will, logic and morality.”

This just doesn’t wash. The clearest sign that “biblical presuppositions” are no foundation for science and logic is the plethora of nonsensical scenarios that creationists have concocted in their attempts to harmonise the evidence of geology with their preconceived notions of a Flood, a six-day creation and a 6000-year-old Earth. Science, which allows the freedom to adapt our views on the Earth’s history in the light of fresh information, remains the best philosophical framework for investigating the world around us. ‘Creation science’ is no alternative.