Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following:

  • understand the logical connections between ideas
  • identify, construct and evaluate arguments
  • detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
  • solve problems systematically
  • identify the relevance and importance of ideas
  • reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values

Critical Thinking Web

Pseudo-scientists want the mana of science but don’t abide by the rules by which the scientific community earned its authority in the first place. Knowing those rules – the basis of the scientific method – gives you a powerful tool for assessing claims, whether they come from used-car salesmen or faith healers. What do you see?

It requires careful observation to sort out what we think we see or what we want to see from what we actually see. Is it really a Face on Mars or just a geological formation? A pseudo-science often requires people to make their own interpretations to sort the desired phenomenon from the “noise”. The “noise concept” doesn’t apply just to things like satanic words buried backwards in rock music, but also to virtually any phenomenon that is at the very edge of the measurable.

Statistical support is often claimed for the merest hint of, say, psychokinesis in a series of dice rolls, or positive health results from homeopathic prescriptions. It doesn’t necessarily imply fraud by the “researcher”, being part of an uncertain world can often be enough, particularly for someone who is searching to prove their point.

Pseudo-sciences tend to remain barren — they don’t develop or change a great deal beyond their initial formation. Astrology has stayed pretty static over the past 3,000 years, homeopathy over the last 200 or so.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Science understands the importance of repeatability of observations or experiments, and that this needs to be done by many people in different places to eliminate bias. Be skeptical about experiments that only work when the “right” people or “right” vibrations are present.

An unwillingness to provide evidence, to let others look at your work or to give them a chance to repeat it should raise warning signs, whether it’s an alien autopsy film distributor not letting the film be analysed by independent photographic experts or a researcher withdrawing test samples from a study.

Failure can be Good

A so-called “failed” experiment can be as informative as one which succeeds; disproof can be as important as proof and good science will look for both.

The success of failure was demonstrated with the first-ever scientific tests of Rudolf Steiner’s “peppering” approach to pest control which showed that there was no effect from the special potion of homeopathically diluted possum testicle ash. Yet this failure has been ignored and the biodynamic approach is still touted by those who believe in it.

The Bellman’s Fallacy (taken from Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark: “what I say three times is true”) demonstrates how ideas which don’t measure up nonetheless are believed through sheer dint of repetition. Such ideas can be very difficult to eradicate — everyone has heard that ships disappear in the Bermuda Triangle, or that the US military has alien bodies in storage.

The mere fact that we hear something over and over again does not automatically make it true.

How did that happen?

Science makes us aware of the need for an understanding of how something could possibly work (a causative mechanism) – coincidence is not enough.

Iridology began when a young lad observed that an owl with a broken wing had a mark in its eye – that has been extended to the belief that all manner of illnesses produce effects in the eye. What sort of mechanism is there for a liver disease to produce a mark on the eye? There are no physical connections, and the anatomical explanations provided by iridologists are not borne out by fact. Combine this with the failure of iridology to pass basic tests of diagnostic ability, and you have good cause to class this as a pseudo-science.

We do need to evaluate ideas that don’t have mechanisms, rather than dismiss them out of hand, as further gains in knowledge might provide support. Plate tectonic theory showed us that, where it took some time to establish it as a credible explanation for the movement of continents. We also need to be able to evaluate the likelihood of that mechanism appearing and the explanatory appeal of the idea involved to be sure that it is worth putting on the “maybe” shelf for further consideration.

Simple is best

The simplest explanations are often the best, most likely explanations. Consider the extremely complex system built up by followers of the Earth-centered view of the solar system, and compare this to the simple Sun-based system which replaced it. If you have to keep adding ad hoc elements to try and explain things that don’t agree with your theory, then it is likely that the theory is wrong.

A friend of a friend said…

There is a significant difference between an anecdotal report – what a friend says or, worse still, a quote from some person touting the treatment or product – and a scientific double-blind trial when it comes to assessing the validity of a claim.

Many claims for the effectiveness of alternative medicines or therapies rely on reports from happy customers – you don’t get to hear about any unhappy experiences. Poor record-keeping and people’s reluctance to complain makes it very difficult to assess objectively the level of problems encountered. Double-blind trials provide a form of “gold standard” for experimental work. These are trials where those involved (subjects and experimenters) do not know who is getting what until after the tests and results are recorded. A control group is used to provide an untreated sample whose results can be compared to the test group.

Sources and special pleading

Examine information sources. Avoid judging topics based solely on media portrayals, particularly when they are presented as a conflict or controversy. Be cautious of special pleading by single individuals, particularly when they start saying things like “they laughed at Einstein you know” claiming this as validation of their ideas. Pseudo-scientists often use criticism of their ideas by the scientific “establishment” as evidence that they are important because they are controversial. Be cautious of people who are insistent on using an academic title, as many people with dubious qualifications or even self-awarded ones will often insist on using a title or a series of letters after their name.

Watch out for people using complicated language or terms they can’t or won’t explain. In trying to gain the mana of science, many pseudo-sciences adopt the language of science. So you find terms like “bio-energetic field”, “quantum dynamics”, “fluid plasma” etc bandied about. Ask for explanations of these terms. Never be afraid to ask questions – they can be a powerful tool to protect you from harm. And don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.


Two hundred years ago, medical understanding was minimal and treatments tended to be ineffective; sometimes brutal. So it’s not surprising that a therapy which combined the maximum solicitude for the patient with the minimum amount of actually doing anything proved popular. Thus was homeopathy born, developed by physician Samuel Hahnemann. It’s now a $200 million industry in the US alone and one of the most popular alternative health approaches – but is it really medicine?

Like cures like

Hahnemann believed that symptoms of disease could be cured by giving the patient small doses of substances that caused such symptoms in healthy people: thus homeopaths use tiny doses of caffeine against insomnia, or onion extract for the weepy eyes of hay fever. Sometimes they match substances with personalities — oyster shells, for fearful patients who feel better when constipated! Hahnemann used a huge range of extracts from plants, animals and chemicals to produce artificially induced symptoms to drive out disease — he believed no-one could be infected with two diseases at the same time. So arsenic is used to treat symptoms similar to arsenic poisoning, such as vomiting and diarrhoea. There are now over 2,000 extracts in use, many dating back to Hahnemann, and there are many different preparations for the same complaint (250 for treating headaches alone).

Dilutions of grandeur

While it may seem reasonable that such extracts would have some physiological effect, the homeopathic concept of serial dilution ensures that none of these substances actually comes into contact with the patient.

In a serial dilution, one part of the substance is mixed with nine parts of water. This diluted solution is then diluted again with another nine parts of water, and so on many many times. At each stage the mixture is vigorously shaken (in homeopathic jargon, “succussed”), to impart an “active spirit” to it. Homeopaths claim that this process alters the physical nature of the water molecules so that it “remembers” the extract that was in it. How it remembers which substance was the important one is not that clear…. This “potentised” solution is also believed to have the power to affect the water within a patient. Solid drugs are typically diluted with lactose (milk sugar) in a similar manner, with long and vigorous grinding.

Practitioners describe a twelvefold repetition of the above dilution as 12X (X=ten). A more rapid dilution is obtained by using 99 parts of water or lactose at each step. A 2C (C=100) caffeine dilution is 99.99% water and just 0.01% caffeine; a 6C solution would have 0.000 000 000 1%. Greater dilutions are believed to be more potent, which is like saying that if you add lots more tonic to your gin and tonic, it will get stronger (and this means something like an oceanful of tonic).!

Basic chemistry tells us that homeopathic remedies can’t contain any molecules at all of the original substance. A 30C solution would have one molecule of the original substance in a minimum of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water.

Observations of the real world has shown us that drugs have a “dose-response” relationship — the higher the dose, the greater the effect, quite the opposite of the homeopathic “law of infinitesimals”.

Over the past 30 years, a large number of studies have compared homeopathic treatments with placebos (materials known to have no effect on the condition being treated). They have shown consistently that there are no benefits to homeopathy beyond the psychological value of the placebo effect, where people feel better because they think they are getting treatment.

Regular reviews of homeopathic claims show that that the most positive results come from companies producing or selling homeopathic preparations, reported in homeopathic-supportive magazines, rather than in the gold standard of independent, peer-reviewed objective testing that medicines should be held to. The US National Council Against Health Fraud has warned that there are “serious questions about the trustworthiness of homeopathic researchers”.

Danger exists

The lack of side effects is one commonly cited advantage of homeopathy. However, use of homeopathy as an alternative to conventional medicine can have disastrous consequences. In one case in the New Zealand Coroner’s Court, a mother refused antibiotics for her baby’s ear infection, preferring to take homeopathic advice. Two weeks after the initial consultation, the baby was taken again to the homeopath, who expressed concern about its poor health but who did not suggest seeking conventional medical treatment. The mother, a registered nurse, commented that the symptoms looked like meningitis and, two days later, took her baby to her GP. The doctor insisted on the baby being hospitalised immediately.It took some time to convince the mother to do this. The Wellington Hospital paediatrician reported a “great sense of frustration in dealing with the mother, who opposed him every step of the way”. Despite intensive treatment, the child died a week later from brain damage due to bacterial meningitis.

While such documented cases are rare, particularly as there is little consumer protection or oversight of this industry, the website lists many cases where homeopathic practices have caused people harm.

One major concern has been the industry marketing homeopathic preparations as “vaccines”, particularly during the New Zealand meningitis campaign, citing its “like cures like” approach that sounds vaguely like genuine vaccination practice.

It is rare for the pseudoscience underpinning homeopathy to be clearly explained in media coverage, so people are under-informed and left with the impression that there is something to it.

In most cases, homeopathic preparations are used to treat conditions that are minor or which get better spontaneously. But relying on the placebo effect – where it’s your psychological response making you feel better — can be dangerous for your health and your wallet.

The most effective practice of homeopaths is the lengthy time they spend with their clients to establish a case history and a personal relationship that can improve health outcomes. That too is a form of placebo effect.

There are campaigns to discourage pharmacies from selling homeopathic products alongside tested effective medicines, as it is unethical and unsafe for them to do so.

Medium Checklist

Scoring a medium/psychic – a checklist of the most common topics, phrases and techniques used in cold reading-based businesses

Top 12 Male Names

  • James
  • John/Jack
  • Robert
  • Michael
  • William/Bill
  • David
  • Richard
  • Charles
  • Joseph
  • Thomas
  • Stephen
  • Edward

Top 12 Female Names

  • Mary
  • Margaret
  • Jane
  • Elizabeth
  • Ann
  • Alice
  • Katherine
  • Emma
  • Jean/Joan
  • Sarah
  • Patricia
  • Susan

Top 12 Topics

  • money
  • travel
  • love
  • illness/hospital
  • forgiving something
  • gardening
  • sports/crafts
  • boats
  • war service
  • baby
  • wedding
  • car

Top 12 Trivia

  • heart/torso problem
  • associated jewellery
  • back pain
  • change in bed/house
  • special song/music
  • journal/diary
  • photographs
  • clothing
  • messy drawer
  • special toy
  • surprise death
  • incident with water

Fishing Phrases

  • Does this have meaning for you?
  • Do you understand?
  • Does that make sense?

Washout Weasel Wordings

  • You’ll need to ask someone/do research/check it out.
  • It may be in your future.
  • It could be related to someone else in the room/audience.
  • It could relate to someone the [entity] knew/other member of the family.

NeuroLinguistic Programming

Defined as the “art and science of personal excellence”, this technique claims to cure phobias in as little as 15 minutes, improve learning and memory as well as increase the skills needed to excel at selling and negotiating. Websites advertise that NLP will also improve your skills in seduction. NLP claims to model the way outstanding performers think and act in such a way that anyone can use it to bring about similar outstanding results. Variously called a technology, a series of techniques, a model, an attitude, a system, a methodology, it is said to unlock secrets, but is not generally claimed to be a magic pill.

One of the founders, Richard Bandler, claims that the name NLP was “phrased on the fly from several book titles on the floor of the car one night when a policeman asked his occupation”. From such beginnings, the words now have specific meanings so that ‘neuro’ relates to the fact that all behaviour stems from neurological processes, such as sight, hearing etc., ‘linguistic’ relates to the fact that we use language to order thoughts and behaviour, and ‘programming’ describes the ways we choose to organise ideas and actions to produce results.

There appear to be several ways in which NLP is being promoted — for use by therapists, motivators, or as a self-help programme presented in seminars, books and tapes. As a result, the methods are slightly different, ranging from a type of hypnotism used by therapists in which the therapist holds two fingers in front of the patient’s face and follows a set of eye movements encouraged in the patient while asking certain questions, to question and answer sessions. The hypnosis sessions may last for weeks during which time phobias, childhood trauma, depression and multiple personality disorders are ‘cured’. The therapist matches and mirrors the patient’’s behaviour to gain rapport and gives unexpected responses to the patient’’s statements.

One example quoted by originators Bandler and Grinder, involves shocking a patient who says he wants to commit suicide, by answering “”Wonderful!”” By giving the least expected response, the therapist claims to able to interrupt the patient and gain instant rapport with him. Therapy then proceeds with the therapist asking the patient to wait until he has received three months’ therapy, and if that fails, then the therapist will agree to help the patient commit suicide. He asks such helpful questions such as “”Who would you like to find your body?” “Have you composed your suicide note?” “Would you like me to help you write it?”” Needless to say, the therapist is confident that his therapy will cure the patient within the imposed time limit.

Other techniques used in NLP include reframing, pacing and anchoring. Bandler and Grinder in discussing reframing insist that every experience and behaviour in the world is appropriate, given some context and some frame. An example of a ‘single content reframe’ that they quote involves curing an anorexic by shutting her in a room with family members and ‘a large pot of hotdogs’, which the family is to force her to eat. When their attempts fail after the 15-minute time limit, the therapist orders them out of the room and attacks the patient verbally, saying, ““Now how long have you been using this as a way of getting you family’’s attention?”” They claim that this method cures 80% of anorexics by breaking the anorexic cycle. ‘Pacing’ is gaining and maintaining rapport with another person and ‘joining them in their model of the world’, and ‘anchoring’ is the ‘process by which any stimulus or representation gets connected to and triggers a response’.

NLP is dense with such jargon, no doubt aimed at sounding scientific. Other examples include metaprograms, left-brain, right-brain, inner teams, multiple personalities, enchanted rings (of communication), submodalities, anchors (resource anchors, chaining anchors and collapsing anchors), modal operators of possibilities/necessity, complex equivalence and so on. (Reading an NLP book requires enormous stamina to wade through the jargon and identify anything meaningful, though the anecdotes are amusing at times.)

One of the main tenets of NLP is that people communicate either through visual, auditory or kinaesthetic interpretations and that these can be identified through studying eye movements and auditory cues. If a person looks upwards, he is accessing visual imagery, downwards and he is accessing kinaesthetic or body sensations; if he looks straight ahead he is accessing auditory cues, to the left and he is remembering or to the right and he is constructing. Auditory cues allow a therapist to identify whether he is using visual imagery (““I see a way..””), auditory (““That sounds right”…”), or kinaesthetic (““I feel we should…””). By taking up these cues, therapists are able to communicate better.

There is no evidence that there is any correlation between eye movements and visual imagery or language choices, indicating it is based on at least one flawed theory. The proponents of NLP agree that it is not based on theory, however, but is based on the process of model making. These do not have to be correct or true or even perfectly formed. A model has only to be useful. If it is no’t useful it can be discarded and another one used. There are no controlled studies to prove that these methods are correct. The practice is to ‘pretend that the model works, try it, notice the results and if it does no’t work, try something else’.

Does it work?

A National Research Council committee found no significant evidence that NLP’’s theories are sound or that its practices are effective, and the US Army Research Institute after investigating NLP also concluded that it was ineffective in improving influence or skilled motor performance. Many individuals have expressed incredulity and disgust at the methods used in therapy and stopped after only one session.

NLP appears to be a very lucrative field with certified practitioners in at least 38 countries. Courses available range from an introductory class that may be free, to diploma courses lasting 150 hours spread over 20 days. Special courses aimed at applying NLP to particular areas, such as education, business, music, acupuncture, counselling, psychotherapy and hypnotherapy are available.

Bookstores stock many examples of NLP books, but a local university library is curiously devoid of them, despite having a psychology department. NLP is not mentioned in mainstream psychology textbooks either. It is not a science despite its advertising claims.


Reframing. Richard Bandler and John Grinder. Real People Press. 1992.

Crazy Therapies. Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich. Jossey-Bass Publishers. 1996.

Introducing Neurolinguistic Programming. Joseph O’Connor and John Seymour. Aquarian/Thorsons. 1990

NLP the new art and science of getting what you want. Dr Harry Alder. Piatkus. 1994

Intelligent Design

Over recent decades, a particularly virulent form of anti-evolutionism has emerged in the United States, but with its adherents here and elsewhere, called Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC). When examined closely, IDC turns out to be the old Argument from Design dressed in modern garb. It is basically a return to Paley, but with emphasis on biological complexity at the biochemical and cellular levels rather than at the organ level. The basic contention of IDC is that natural selection is incapable of accounting for life’s complexity. According to IDC proponents, the only answer is to invoke an Intelligent Designer or Creator.

However, although the focus has changed, much of the flavour of “scientific” creationism is retained in the form of some of the more familiar arguments used by creationists against evolution, such as the alleged lack of transitional forms in the fossil record. There are parallels also in the tactics used. Thus, proponents of IDC are not averse to resorting to selective quotations from the evolutionary literature in their fight against evolution, and the ‘fact’ of evolution continues to be conflated with its chief mechanism, natural selection (see creation “science” page).

The chief architects of the ID movement reside in the United States. Prominent among them are Michael Behe (Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution), William Dembski (Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology), Phillip Johnson (Darwin On Trial, and others) and Jonathan Wells (Icons of Evolution). The central organization of the movement is the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, and the key strategy is called the “wedge”, an attempt “to wedge” IDC into mainstream culture and education.

As Phillip Johnson has expressed it, the purpose of the “wedge” is to “affirm the reality of God by challenging the domination of materialism and naturalism in the world of the human mind.” Johnson has further written:

“The objective… …is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God.””

The defining concept of the movement is “theistic realism,” and creation science has been superseded by another oxymoron, theistic science, representing a further attempt to undermine evolutionary science by marshalling so-called scientific arguments against it. Thus, contrary to the denials of some of its proponents, the ID movement is religiously, philosophically and politically motivated. Organic evolution merely epitomizes much of what the followers of IDC abhor in society.

One of the cornerstones of IDC, but as we shall see a very unstable one, is the idea of irreducible complexity as conceived by Michael Behe, a biochemistry professor. This is how Behe explains the concept:

“”By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly…… by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.””

Behe describes the humble mousetrap as exhibiting irreducible complexity with respect to its intended function and, as examples of irreducible complexity in the natural world, he cites the blood clotting mechanism and cilia (whiplike structures which function as swimming organelles in many microscopic organisms). At face value, Behe’s argument seems plausible. If the cilium, for example, could not have evolved in functional steps, then it must have been created as a functional entity. The solution to its existence must be intelligent design, not evolution.

However, the question has to be asked, how well does the mousetrap analogy describe reality? A basic flaw in Behe’s argument is that “biochemical pathways did not evolve by the sequential addition of steps to pathways that became functional only at the end. Instead they have been rigged up with pieces co-opted from other pathways, duplicated genes and early multifunctional enzymes.” (J. Coyne, Nature 19 September 1996). In the case of cilia, for example, a series from simple to complex does exist in nature, obviating Behe’s claim of irreducible complexity. Behe’s idea has failed to pass muster in scientific and philosophical circles, and is unlikely to.

Intelligent design

Although Behe appears to accept evolution at visible levels of biological organization, he balks at the efficacy of natural selection at the microscopic level. In promoting his idea of irreducible complexity, he erects a discontinuity where none apparently exists. Bodies, organs, and events and structures at the cellular level appear inextricably linked in both evolution and development.

From the viewpoint of science and science education, any return to Paley and the God of the Gaps would be disastrous. The essence of science is free inquiry. Drawing boundaries, still within the natural world, beyond which science is deemed powerless to penetrate would quickly lead to stagnation in many research areas.

IDC must be rejected as a viable alternative to evolution in science and science education since it has, as an inherent element, an appeal to an entity which lies outside the scope of science. Science deals with that part of reality amenable to empirical inquiry. Alternative explanations must be testable against the natural world.

It is generally accepted in scientific circles that science is based on a necessary methodological materialism, not to be confused with philosophical materialism or naturalism. (Many creationists conflate the two, leading to the false accusation that scientists and science teachers are guilty of the indoctrination of godless belief systems.)

The principle of freedom of belief and expression is a vital one in an open society. What should not be tolerated is the inclusion of non-scientific beliefs as allegedly viable alternatives to evolution in the science classroom. The integrity of science education must be upheld by all who value quality in our education system.

Bee Products


Propolis was used as a general cure-all in the 17th century in London and is undergoing a revival with the advent of health food shops and the Internet.

Propolis is made when bees collect various sticky substances such as resins that poplars and conifers exude to protect wounds. Once they are mixed with wax, bees use these to construct and maintain their hives. Propolis has a complex structure that depends on its plant origins. As many plant products do, propolis contains phenolics, and various aromatic compounds, volatile oils and terpenes.

Propolis is harvested from the bees when they encounter a grid placed over the hive entrance. Bees are not too fussy about what they collect, and road tar, drying paint and caulking compounds are collected too. It can accumulate environmental pollutants, such as lead from paints on hives, in metallic hive spacers, in the air from petrol and industry, as well as drugs used to cure bee illness, and hive waste. South American propolis has been reported as having excessive lead contamination. The curative properties of propolis supposedly relate to antimicrobial and anti-tumour flavonoids. Laboratory tests show that its components do have some antimicrobial properties (which are not significant enough to meet the claims made), but most plants contain compounds that would have similar properties.

Propolis is poorly soluble in water but usually soluble in alcohols. Following alcohol extraction and maturation for 50-60 days, propolis is filtered and added to honey (10%), wax extract and peppermint. Such mixtures are used topically to heal wounds but any individual efficacy assessment of propolis would be difficult. When prepared for medicinal use, propolis can cause contact dermatitis, which is well known in apiarists, and other allergic reactions including oral mucositis with ulceration when taken as a lozenge.

Propolis is claimed to strengthen veins, revitalise cells, improve the immune system, and to have antioxidant, anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. It has been suggested that it can anaesthetise the pains suffered by domestic animals undergoing abdominal surgery. There are no clinical studies that show propolis to be of use to any human condition. However, don’t discourage the bees from collecting propolis – —it has proven efficacy in beehive repair and it can be used to make varnish.


Pollen is collected from many plants and screened from the bees’ legs as they return to the hive. It is not a uniform product and can be hazardous for people with allergies. Pollen is renowned for having extremely tough outer casings that keep intact for centuries, so to add credibility to their product, some manufacturers blast the pollen to “potentiate” it, i.e. crack the pollen’s outer coating. Photographs of the results of this process are far from convincing. An Australian experiment showed pollen digestibility was only 50-59%, despite its favourable protein content and amino acid patterns.

Bee pollen is potentially very dangerous due to its potential to cause allergies characterised by asthma, hives, and anaphylactic shock. A major culprit is pollen from Compositae, such as dandelions and sunflowers.

Pollen is claimed to be a stimulant for recovery after illness and an aid for impotence and alcoholism, anaemia and digestive upsets. Studies have failed to prove any benefit for athletes, and the danger of allergy was considered too great for sports medicine doctors to recommend it. All the vitamins and minerals in bee pollen can be gained by eating a balanced diet thereby saving money and getting other nutrients as well.

Royal Jelly

Packaged attractively like shiny (very expensive) jelly beans, royal jelly comprises proteins, sugars and lipids secreted by worker bees to feed the queen, queen larvae and other young larvae.

Royal jelly is said to be antibacterial in humans and may well be cosmetically, but taken orally all the antibacterial properties disappear when the pH is higher than 6 (the human gut is maintained at pH 7.4). There are no controlled experiments that support claims of internal usefulness. Royal jelly claims to increase vitality and energy, produce stronger nails and hair, a more radiant complexion, stress relief, better digestion, improved liver function and relief from insomnia. One bee product paper says that “Royal jelly cannot be imitated by science or its beneficial properties accurately understood, but that there is overwhelming evidence that it improves health. Far from it, deaths have been reported from allergic reactions.

Bee venom

There may be a legitimate use for bee venom in desensitising allergy sufferers, but extensive claims for this product have seen it listed as one of the FDA’s top 10 health frauds.

Bee venom has been variously claimed to cure numerous muscular conditions, arthritis, gout, and multiple sclerosis. More adventurous claims imply that it can treat high blood pressure, asthma, hearing loss and premenstrual tension. Reports of therapeutic success are anecdotal and there are no records of placebo-controlled trials. It is available in topical creams for applying to sore joints or muscles, and as an ingredient in a manuka honey preparation for oral use.

Bee venom consists of approximately 40 compounds including at least two toxins, one of which, mellitin, is the cause of the pain inflicted by bee stings. It also has several compounds that can cause irritation and inflammation, such as histamine, phospholipase A2 and hyaluronidase. Far from being anti-inflammatory as suggested, these compounds are likely to aggravate the effects of the toxins, and produce the “supposedly favourable” reddening and heat observed when used.

Bee venom can cause anaphylactic shock and generally there are warnings of this on the products’ containers. Originally administered to patients by live bees, the venom is said to be especially efficacious if the sting (or injection) is aimed at an acupuncture point.

Usually a bee loses a substantial part of its abdomen when it stings, causing it to die. Bee venom is collected by shocking the bees electrically to encourage them to sting a fine membrane at the entrance to the nest. The bee can retract its sting and the venom is scraped off and processed. Reportedly not too many bees die in the process, though beekeepers can suffer from lung irritation from the dried venom.

Numerous companies in the US have been charged with making false or misleading claims as part of their marketing, and infomercial producers have been fined for misrepresenting their paid ads as news or documentary programs.


Bee Products: Properties, Applications and Apitherapy. Edited by Avshalom Mizrahi and Yaacov Lensky. Plenum Press New York and London. 1997.

ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture. 40th Edition. Amos Ives Root. 1990

The Complete Guide to Beekeeping. Jeremy Evans

Biodynamic Farming

Biodynamic farming and gardening has gained a good deal of attention lately as a reputed means of providing chemical-free produce and humane animal repellents. A high public profile has not been matched by a broad awareness of the history and basis of the biodynamic approach. Despite this, there have been increasing demands for public funding of scientific studies to assess the worth of biodynamics.

The biodynamic approach to farming developed as an offshoot of the Anthroposophical movement of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. In the 1920s, Steiner applied his theories of a “spiritual science” to agriculture. He and his followers developed a series of preparations aimed at restoring the “vital life-force” to plants and enhancing their growth through utilisation of “planetary forces”. It is the use of these preparations and the practice of “peppering” that forms the main distinction between biodynamic followers and the more conventional organic farmers.

Biodynamic Preparation 500, for example, involves packing fresh manure into a cow’s horn and burying it over the winter months. The horn is said to reflect planetary forces into the manure, “raying back whatever is life-giving and Astral”, according to Steiner. Burying it ensures that “all the radiations that tend to etherialise and astralise are poured into the inner hollow of the horn”. This causes the manure to be “quickened” with “all that is Ethereal and life-giving”. The manure is then diluted and used as a spray. Preparation 501 uses diluted silica (often powdered quartz) to bestow sense organs upon the plant, “allowing the totality of outer planetary forces to work”.

One Massey University study looked at the differences between soils on seven biodynamically run farms and nine conventionally farmed properties chosen for close proximity so as to match soil types. A range of factors, including bacterial numbers, trace element quantities, organic content and the physical structure of the soil were examined. The biodynamic farms were found to have superior soil quality. However, this was predictable as it is a result of the common organic practices that biodynamic farms undertake, such as green crop manures, composting, soil rotation and the like, rather than being attributable to the “etherialised Cosmic- Astral influences” which biodynamic proponents claim are at work.

There has been little in the way of rigorous scientific testing of biodynamic claims. While biodynamic texts refer to tests done in the 1920 – 40s, few — if any — were conducted in a scientific manner. By far the bulk of evidence supporting biodynamic claims is anecdotal, where keen enthusiasts talk about how well they are doing. This is not to suggest that such proponents are lying, but if we are going to fund and put into place agricultural or pest control practices, it is important to ensure that they are clearly proven to work.

It is all too easy to find people who can make a claim, often sincerely, but that doesn’t make them right. After all, millions of people once believed that the Earth was flat! That’s why it is so important to do the tests in as independent and objective a fashion as possible and, ideally, independently repeating “successes” so that we don’t end up fooled by our own errors and illusions. This is the foundation of science, and it serves as a form of consumer protection for the many ideas that are mooted.

In 1991, The Forest Research Institute was the first organisation in the world to make a solid scientific study of one core biodynamic practice, that of “peppering”. In this, the bodies of unwanted organisms are burnt at a certain time in the lunar cycle. The ashy remains are then diluted down to minute levels and sprayed around a property. This is said to reduce or eliminate the presence of the undesirable organism. Peppering is used by biodynamic followers for everything from clearing land of thistles to repelling possums. When plans were being made for ridding Rangitoto Island of possums, biodynamic adherents approached the Department of Conservation with the suggestion that 1080 drops be replaced by peppering, citing it as a natural, chemical-free approach which would successfully repel possums and, according to some believers, even sterilise them!

Treated and untreated foods were laid out in bait stations and the behaviour of the possums carefully examined. Five “active” and four placebo treatments were tested. The former were provided by a homeopathic company, the Biodynamic Farming & Gardening Association and a biodynamic farmer. FRI also produced their own solution based on instructions from the association. Treatments were coded to reduce experimental bias, and multiple series of tests were run.

Biodynamic proponents predicted that the “possums would not go near the treated areas and they would probably be desperate to get out of the cages”. In fact, there was no discernible reaction. The results were rejected by the Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association of New Zealand.

The scientists involved in the study noted that if there had been any evidence that something was going on, they would have gone further and there would have been keen interest in doing so. As with many pseudo-sciences, peppering has developed its own impressive jargon which can sound reasonable to the non-scientifically literate. In discussing the claim that highly diluted ash can sterilise the pests involved, one biodynamic proposal stated:

“The theory holds that the specific preparation methods produce the negative ’energy’ of the pest’s reproductive force, operating on a vibrational level, not a material one.”

This is a meaningless statement on a variety of levels and it is important to challenge this sort of claim. After all, possums represent a very real threat to New Zealand’’s ecosystem and it is vital that an effective way of dealing with them is identified.

Possum peppering has been clearly demonstrated not to work when tested properly. Given the huge dilutions involved in producing the preparation, about the only way you could deter possums with it is to have a vast amount of the peppering solution (i.e. water) in a firehose and spray individual possums until they fall off a cliff into the sea!

Proposals to use peppering have regularly come up before regional councils and other bodies looking for a way to deal with pests, including most recently the painted apple moth in Auckland. It seems to offer a cheap, quick, easy fix, but there is no such thing when it comes to the real world. A balanced ecological system approach has its place in agriculture. The problems are with the aspects which are said to be beyond the realms of physics and chemistry.

Creation Science

Darwin’s theory of evolution has always provoked much controversy and opposition. Non- acceptance of evolution still has a considerable number of supporters in the USA. . A 2014 Gallup poll revealed that 42% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form, 31% believe that humans evolved but with God’s guidance, while only 19% believe that humans evolved, with God having no part in the process. This rejection of evolution in favour of a recent creation of man indicates a low level of scientific literacy where evolution is concerned.

Active opposition to evolution comes from various fundamentalist religious groups, who see it as a threat to long-held beliefs concerning ultimate origins and our place in the universe. There should be no objection to people clinging to cherished beliefs, but when they unjustifiably claim scientific credence for them, and also insist that they be taught in the science classroom, there is just cause for concern by skeptics and others.

Possibly the most militant of the anti- evolutionists are the “creation scientists”, a group of “young-earth” Christians based in the United States. They wish to see their literal interpretation of the Bible taught in schools as a viable alternative to evolution. Of the strategies devised to achieve this, the one which has found most success is where the religious nature of their belief system is down-played and the language of science used to give an impression of scientific credibility.

The religious nature of “creation science” is especially exemplified in the statements of faith required for membership to the various organisations established in its name – statements, for example, relating to a creator, a universal flood, minimal changes to created “kinds”, and a young earth. “Creation” is taken to mean the bringing into being of the basic “kinds” of organisms as described in Genesis, a process which creationists themselves acknowledge is beyond the scope of scientific inquiry.

If we are to believe the anti-evolutionists, evolution is “a theory in crisis”, teetering on the brink of oblivion. In reality, evolution in scientific circles has attained the status of fact. This declaration invariably elicits cries of “foul” and “dogmatism” from evolution’s opponents. They ask, how can a theory be fact? The answer is that it is the same way we distinguish between the fact of continental drift and its proposed mechanism, the theory of plate tectonics.

Darwin’s theory comprises two major propositions:

  1. evolution (or descent with modification) has occurred
  2. the key mechanism of evolution, the “how” of the process, is natural selection

Proposition (1) is a fact, supported by overwhelming evidence from many research fields; proposition (2) is theory.

These two aspects of evolution are often conflated by anti-evolutionists. They cannot resist highlighting conflicting views concerning the mechanism of the process so as to make it appear that evolutionists are questioning the validity of evolution itself. One common argument against evolution is that it is “only a theory”, implying that creationism has equal validity as a different theory. This is a misleading use of the word as, in science, “theory” means much more than conjecture or even hypothesis. “Theory” is used by scientists as a shorthand term for describing an explanatory structure which is broadly based across a range of specialist areas, reasonably secure, and supported by consistent observations and experimentation. The knowledge held within this theory can be organised in a highly formal system using basic underlying priniciples as an explanatory tool from which to explore further.

In declaring evolution a fact, the accusation of dogmatism is unjustified since scientists make no claim to absolute truth (unlike the anti- evolutionists). A fact in science means, as Stephen J. Gould notes, is something “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent”. It is against this bastion of scientific certitude that the anti-evolutionists have mounted their Quixotic attacks, employing invalid arguments and questionable tactics.

The “strawman technique” involves setting up evolution in such a way that the caricature erected is easily demolished. Evolution is portrayed as a process of pure chance or accident. Therefore, any possibility of producing complexity is nil. But evolutionists do not conceive the process in just this way. Chance factors are involved (such as mutation and recombination), but natural selection itself, working on new gene combinations, helps in explaining not only speciation but also the evolution of complexity. The most insidious of creationist tactics is the selective quotation. The creationist literature abounds with extracts lifted from the evolutionary literature in such a way that they then convey meanings never intended by their authors.

Occasionally, creationists will admit that creation “science” depends on faith. But evolution, too, is a religion, they argue. This is nonsense. Prominent skeptic, Michael Shermer, defines science as

“a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomena, past and present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation”.

On the other hand, creationists start with a set of absolute beliefs, and facts or concepts which contradict these must either be declared false, or made to fit a preconceived mould. This is the antithesis of scientific inquiry. Acceptance in science is not a matter of faith or belief, it is a matter of evidence. Evolutionary science meets this criterion.

One of the problems in debating with creationists is in the broad range of arguments that they often employ. Thus in arguing with a geologist, they will concentrate on biological factors, and vice versa.

Does creation “science” deserve a place in the school science classroom? The answer to this question, given its nature and the tactics employed by its proponents, has to be a resounding “NO!”

Understandably, creation “science” poses a much greater threat to the integrity of science education in the USA than it does in New Zealand. But recent reports indicate that creationism has already become established in a number of our schools, so principals, teachers and boards of trustees cannot afford to be complacent over this issue. In an educational climate in which the distinction between science and non-science is becoming more and more blurred, constant vigilance is essential.