Psychics/Mediums and the Police

Whenever a person, especially a child, goes missing, you can guarantee that the psychics/mediums won’t be too far behind. Most of them no doubt believe sincerely in their special powers and that they are only there to help, but they can cause a great deal of harm — emotional, psychological, even economic — and interfere with the real investigation.  

Every time a media outlet reports on a medium’s involvement approvingly, they provide more marketing material for this industry and more tacit approval for the psychological manipulation of desperate vulnerable people thrust into the centre of a media storm. that is reprehensible, particularly given the clear indication that these people do not help.

Christine Corcos, Associate Professor of Law at Louisiana State University and author of a book on the 1944 trial of psychic Helen Duncan, notes:

Law enforcement officials who allow non-law enforcement trained personnel to participate are putting both the cases and their jobs at risk. The fact is that few, if any, police departments actually admit to using psychics. Most officials [say] that psychics simply waste time predicting that bodies or missing persons will be found near water, or trees, or buildings with red roofs. Experienced detectives combing particular areas can do as well, and will not raise false hopes among the families and friends of the victims.
I Sleuth Dead People

Few families are prepared to reject any possible chance of finding missing loved ones, or to publicly criticise psychics under such circumstances. But those who don’t want to be manipulated in this fashion have reported being badgered and tormented by people claiming to have useful information which turns out to be hurtful hype.

In one notable Australian case, Don Spiers, the father of missing girl Sarah Spiers told the ABC’s current affairs programmeAustralian Story about the awful effects of having over 200 people claim to have information from dreams and other psychic sources:

[A] big problem that we’ve had has been clairvoyants. They have been a huge torment to myself and my family in giving cryptic clues as to where Sarah might be. I remember one night in the early days I was down Salter Point, you know, thrashing around the swampy areas down there at 11 o’clock at night. Um…probably walking around bawling my eyes out and getting nowhere. I mean, a lot of times I’ve known I shouldn’t have listened, but I’ve always thought that maybe they’re using that excuse of being a clairvoyant to give me some honest facts.
He Who Waits, 9 February 2004
http://www.abc.net.au/austory/content/2003/s1042100.htm

And in response to Deb Webber’s remark on the Aisling Symes case, came this online comment:

I am the brother of xxx, who was abducted in xxxx and remains a missing person today.

With regard to psychics, mediums and the like, I can tell you that in the months and years following my sister’s disappearance, my family was contacted by no less than 100 of these people.

No two of them were able to agree on the location of my sister, alive or dead.

And the police were obliged to follow up each and every one of them, on the chance that the information was real, i.e. someone pretending to be a psychic to convey something they knew about the case.

So not only do these freaks inflict profound emotional harm, they are also an enormous waste of police resources.

I too am appalled by TVNZ’s actions.

Past Cases in New Zealand: Psychics No Help

In 1975, 18-year-old hitchhiker Mona Blades went missing. The British psychic-medium Doris Stokes claimed to have assisted the New Zealand police to recover her body, but this is untrue as no indication of Mona Blades’ whereabouts has been found to date and the police hotline remains open.

In 1983, the Kirsa Jensen case saw over a hundred offers of advice and assistance from psychics, clairvoyants and dreamers. Ian Holyoake, the officer in charge of the investigation into the missing Napier teenager, said: “[It] did not advance the investigation one bit. Most of the information was not specific as to any area where a body might be located, but some was quite graphic in detail and disturbing by its very nature”.

In 1992, the disappearance of 2-year-old Amber-Lee Cruickshank, near Lake Wakatipu, brought “letters from clairvoyants, card readers, star watchers, prayer groups, crystal readers, palm readers, spiritualists, people who have visions, premonitions and total lunatics”. None of them assisted the search. Initial claims saw her being found “near water or trees”; a 2007 episode of Sensing Murder said that she had been abducted.

In 1992, clairvoyants from Wellington and Tauranga and a medium from the Spiritualist Church told the family of missing Wellington man Michael Kelly that he was still alive. They appealed to the basest of racist stereotypes when claiming that Kelly had been assaulted and abducted by “rough-looking” tattooed Maoris, dumped at Oriental Bay for up to five days, and then shifted a few days later to Titahi Bay. Police received calls from members of the public concerned about cars being driven by Maori guys, and family and friends conducted private searches of the identified areas. Kelly’s body was eventually found by a building worker at the bottom of a light shaft in central Wellington; it appeared he had fallen as a result of what was described as late-night “ebullience”.

In 1993, the then-Police Region Commander for Otago and Southland, Ian Holyoake, surveyed the New Zealand police force to see what psychic assistance had been rendered over the years. He came to the conclusion that, unlike practical shows like Crimewatch or public appeals for witnesses, there had never been any accurate, useful psychically-derived information that was instrumental in leading to a successful conclusion.

In 1998, Nelson clairvoyant Margaret Birkin and four other psychics went out on a boat to look for missing Blenheim friends Ben Smart and Olivia Hope. Birken stated that she knew where the pair was to be found. Despite additional searches with the assistance of professional divers and coverage by the Holmes show, she failed to help locate the pair, whose bodies remain undiscovered.

In December 2001, psychic Kathy Bartlett joined searchers looking for missing teenager Elon Oved. Sadly for the family, her examination of the “aura” at the scene was of no help, and it was another anguishing couple of months for his family before his body was found by a search-and-rescue team member.

In March 2003, Kerepehi woman Sara Niethe went missing. After a $20,000 reward was offered for information, several psychics called police saying that they had had visions of where she and her car could be found, but neither has ever been located.

In October 2009, Deb Webber of Sensing Murder, had a vision of missing toddler Aisling Symes in a ditch. The extensive media coverage at the time had included images of ditches, drains and mangrove banks; the child was later found drowned in a drain. Like many vague comments, this one was neither specific nor helpful. Remember, Deb Webber has been recorded on film talking to dead people who never actually existed. See more on the Channel 7 expose here.

Police Policy

Scotland Yard Statement:

Scotland Yard never approaches psychics for information. There are no official police psychics in England. The Yard does not endorse psychics in any way. There is no recorded instance in England of any psychic solving a criminal case or providing evidence or information that led directly to its solution.

Los Angeles Police Department Policy:

The Los Angeles Police Department has not, does not and will not use psychics in the investigation of crimes, period. If a psychic offers free information to us over the phone, we will listen to them politely, but we do not take them seriously. It is a waste of time. [In a study of psychic case claims, the LAPD said] no information that would have been investigatively useful, such as first and last names, licence plate numbers, apartment house locations etc. was accurately produced by any of the subjects.

Sensing Murder? Sensing Nonsense

by Vicki Hyde, from “Oddzone”, New Holland Press 2006
Cleared for reprint, no charge, just source acknowledgement required

So what sort of things should you look for when watching a program like Sensing Murder which claims psychics can help solve unsolved cases?

  • Look for extravagant claims which have minimal evidence supporting them.

In the episode A Bump in the Dark, about the rape and murder of Alicia O’Reilly, show host Rebecca Gibney opened one segment stating:

The psychics had established key facts about the dead girl’s personality.

One had said Alicia was a little shy, which didn’t match her mother’s description of an out-going, highly energetic, rather rambunctious personality. The psychics had described Alicia as happy and friendly and playful, but these are common attributes for any six-year-old girl, and very unlikely to be challenged as untrue.

  • Listen for truisms being touted as amazing revelations.

Psychic Kelvin Cruickshank pronounced:

It sounds a little weird, but she must have been buried in a white coffin.

However, there’s nothing weird about a young girl being buried in a white coffin, as it’s a fairly common practice for children’s funerals.

  • Listen for obvious cueing and changes of tack or spurious affirmations when an error is noted.

Cruickshank, in looking at Alicia’s drawings, spots her pet – “her dog”, he announces. Off-camera you can hear someone say “a cat”. The film crew knew there was a cat in the household, as it had been part of the mother’s story. “O cat is it?” says Cruickshank, “oh it is too.”

See if you can identify a clear factual statement that can be checked out.

This is harder then it sounds, as clear unequivocal statements are not part of the psychic stock in trade. It can also be difficult to check facts without having personal contacts or knowledge to draw upon. That said, there was at least one readily checkable fact in the Sensing Murder programme about Alicia O’Reilly.

Cruickshank made much of Alicia talking about children’s television show What Now?, and how that must have been a Saturday morning treat for her, adding that this clearly indicated her murder took place in the 1980s. This was made more dramatic by a voice-over noting that Alicia had been murdered in 1980, apparently supporting Cruickshank’s assertion.

However, according to TVNZ, What Now? didn’t go on air until nine months after Alicia’s murder.

Perhaps the implication there is that TVNZ shows are good enough to appeal to spirits in the after-life! What do you think?

Or as Philip Matthews said, writing in The Press

Sensing Murder might be the most important TV show of our times. It all boils down to this: the show is either a colossal fraud, an entertainment conspiracy the size of Watergate, or it’s the most amazing and incontrovertible evidence of paranormal activity ever recorded.
And it has to be one or the other. It can’t be neither.
Sensing Murder: Sleuths or scammers?

Speakers from the other side?

Psychic at NZ Skeptics Conference “Sensing Murder” psychic Sue Nicholson will face a potentially more difficult audience than speaking to the dead when she appears at the New Zealand Skeptics annual conference being held 6-8 September in …

Continue reading

Questioning the Universe: NZ Skeptics Conference

Learning more about the universe demonstrates just how much more we need to learn about life on planet Earth. That’s something noted US astronomer, writer and podcaster, Dr Pamela Gay, will be talking about at this year’s NZ Skeptics annual conference …

Continue reading

A matter of life and death

The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young. – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).

In 2011, I gave a talk at the NZ Skeptics conference in Christchurch titled ‘Biology and Mortality: the Mysterious Fears of Our Nature’. I used my photographs to show how memorial art is an expression of one of the mysteries of life, which is what happens to us once we are dead. This article arose from a bizarre story about a man from California and how he planned to spend eternity. Along the way, it embraced embalming, shoes for the afterlife, crypts and cryonics.

On August 30 1986, at the age of 81, Richard F (Freddie) Poncher from Los Angeles, California died. As is the tradition for American funerals, his body was dressed and made up, so that he looked asleep, rather than dead. After the funeral, the coffin was closed and slid into a crypt he had bought in a community mausoleum called the Corridor of Memories in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, Los Angeles. Crypts in community mausoleums look like rows of marble-fronted filing cabinets and this one was four crypts high. He had one person above him and two below. End of story, except for one small detail: Freddie insisted that after the funeral, his body was to be rotated, so he would spend eternity face down in his coffin. Why would he want his body to appear as if it was lying on top of the person who was below him and face up? After all, they were both dead. But planning for eternity is big business in the United States, and preservatives, the right shoes and cryonics may help you get to the other side.

I’ll get back to Freddie, but first a few words from Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. In 1831, 13 years after it had first been published in 1818, Mary wrote an introduction to a revised version of her book. She explained how she had wanted to tell a story that spoke to the “mysterious fears of our nature”. As Victor Frankenstein wrote:

“I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain.”

Faith can conjure up an afterlife, a reward beyond the grave, but what if science, rather than the supernatural, could become our savior?

Once the sparks started to fly, Frankenstein’s creation showed us that being dead wasn’t necessarily life-threatening. Mary’s story was about reanimation rather than resurrection, with a warning about the dangers of dabbling in God’s laboratory. It was an afterlife where you had both feet on the ground, but just remember to be careful what you wish for.

Looking your best

This brings me to the blooming cheek of death, mortuary footwear and life in the freezer. In the United States, most people are embalmed before being made up with cosmetics for corpses, which can create a life-like glow. Then you can be displayed to family and friends who say how well and undead you look. It’s not reanimation at Victor’s level, but the wonders of the eye and brain appear intact.

The essence of the ritual is nicely summed up in Frederick and Strubs, Principles and Practice of Embalming: “A funeral service is a social function at which the deceased is the guest of honour and the centre of attention … A poorly prepared body in a beautiful casket is just as incongruous as a young lady appearing at a party in a costly gown and with her hair in curlers.” Embalming slows down decay long enough that, with a mask of makeup, the guest of honour looks like they have just nodded off. And when you are in a padded coffin with a comfortable pillow, in a room called the Slumber Room, the corruption of death is nowhere to be seen. Botoxed and buffed, you are in good shape to head off to the afterlife.

But don’t forget, you will need sensible shoes. In her 1963 book, The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford quotes from a catalogue of Practical Burial Footwear, which said: “The No. 280 reflects character and station in life. It is superb in styling and provides a formal reflection of successful living.” A sole for a soul. I prefer Woody Allen’s view: “I don’t believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear”.

Freddie and Marilyn

Now back to Freddie. Pillows, shoes and underwear were not on his afterlife bucket list. He was so insistent that he be placed upside down in his coffin, that he told his wife, “If I croak, if you don’t put me upside down over Marilyn, I’ll haunt you the rest of your life”. That’s right: the person lying under him was Marilyn Monroe, who died in 1962. She was still enough of a sex symbol, 24 years after her death, that Freddie was flipped in his coffin, toupée and all, in a creepy and comic gesture. Happy Birthday Mr Poncher, Happy Birthday to you. Had the Corridor of Memories become the Corridor of Mammaries?

Unfortunately, for Freddie, eternity as he planned it was threatened, when in 2009 his wife, Elsie, decided to sell his crypt to help pay off the rest of the mortgage on her Beverley Hills home. She owned the crypt next door, which Freddie had bought for her, and she was going to have him moved off Marilyn and into less racy real estate. Eventually, she planned to join him, in a reduced state, as cremated ashes. Here is the advertisement for the crypt as it appeared on Ebay:

“Here is a once in a lifetime and into eternity opportunity to spend your eternal days directly above Marilyn Monroe. This crypt in the famous Westwood Cemetery in West Los Angeles currently occupied above Marilyn Monroe is being vacated so as to make room for a new resident. ‘Spending Eternity next to Marilyn Monroe is too sweet to pass up’, recently quoted by Hugh Heffner (sic), who has reserved his place in eternity next to her. The lucky bidder will be deeded a piece of real estate that he or she will make their last address. And below you will be Marilyn Monroe. In fact the person occupying the address right now is looking face down on her.”

The ad noted, “Local pick-up offered” and “No returns accepted”.

It appears that spending eternity above Marilyn was not the multi-million dollar drawcard that Elsie had hoped it would be, and for now Freddie remains in his crypt.

When it comes to cryonics, being dead is cool, as your crypt is a lot colder than those of Marilyn and Freddie. In what is another Frankenstein-like stab at reanimation, the dead are injected with cryoprotectants (antifreeze) and frozen in the hope that at sometime in the future, science will be able to wake them up. One scientist said that the chances of a cryonically-frozen person being reanimated, and remembering being the person they used to be, was as likely as making a cow out of hamburger meat that will remember being the cow it used to be. Unfortunately, mush is mush, and to me, selling cryonics is a bit like asking a parachute manufacturer if their product is any good and being told that none of their customers have ever complained. Whether it’s being reanimated or resurrected, I think that most of us would like to think that we could cheat mortality and spend eternity being happy, healthy and undead. The odds aren’t good and I’m sure that the goods would be odd.

Best Time Ever!

Michael Edmonds reflects on the 2012 NZ Skeptics Conference.

Having just driven four and a half hours back to Christchurch from the NZ Skeptics conference in Dunedin I should be tired. However, I am still on a bit of a buzz from a really great conference, although a glass of Coca-Cola and a handful of M&Ms might also have something to do with it.

This was my third NZ Skeptics conference, and knowing a few more people certainly helped enjoy the conference, not to mention meeting up with Siouxsie Wiles and Dave Winter, two of my fellow Scibloggers who made it along – Dave’s talk outlining some of the common misunderstandings regarding evolution was delivered with energy and enthusiasm and was really interesting.

Other speakers included Professor of Science Communication Jean Fleming, who made some salient comments about engaging those with unusual views in dialogue rather than just telling them they are wrong. This approach was used the very next day when another speaker delivered a rather controversial medical approach, the Marshall Protocol, in treating chronic disease. Members of the audience asked polite yet probing questions in order to tease out possible erroneous thinking. It was fascinating to watch and made me proud to consider myself a skeptic (and Siouxsie asked some excellent questions, while maintaining composed in the face of someone who criticised the use of mouse models in research).

Professor Richard Walter described some fascinating ‘alternative’ archaeologies which have been developed in NZ, including claims that New Zealand was settled by ancient Celts, Chinese and other races. This sounds funny but the right wing, racist undertones implied by some of these alternatives is also a little scary.

Anthropologist David Veart delivered an enlightening and entertaining talk looking at the history of fad diets (and associated beliefs) in New Zealand. Who knew that cornflakes were originally developed to help suppress masturbatory urges? (Though as one conference goer tweeted – possibly providing far too much information – “cornflakes never stopped me …”). One part of the talk that was very interesting to me personally was that of Ulric Williams, a medical doctor in my home town of Wanganui, who pushed the eating of non-processed food (generally good) as well as an anti-vaccine agenda (quite bad) which resulted in Wanganui having one of the highest levels of polio in the early 20th century.

Fellow Cantabrian Mark Ottley gave a fascinating talk about Well-Being – how it is measured, and how the government is now using various measures of well-being as well as looking at our GDP in assessing how New Zealand is performing, and the direction in which we should be heading.

My own talk on how to make a good Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) complaint seemed to go down well, so hopefully when skeptics come across advertisements flogging off dodgy alternative medicine products or services they will know exactly how to knock them on the head using the ASA.

The final talk for the conference was by Associate Professor Colin Gavaghan who, with humour and eloquence, described the complexities that occur when law and medicine come together in dealing with dodgy therapies, patients and doctors. I haven’t managed to cover all conference speakers, so apologise to those I have not mentioned. The cola and chocolate appear to be rapidly wearing off. So I will finish with a big thanks to those who organised the conference, particularly Katie and Warwick – I had a fantastic time.

And thanks to my fellow SciBloggers who finally taught me how to twitter properly (I think), though it will be a long time before I am anywhere close to the skills of Queen of the Tweets, Siouxsie, who can get off five while I am still writing one.

Also one final word – Siouxsie and fellow skeptical podcaster, Craig, managed to corner, corral and coerce many of the speakers to do podcasts for their Completely Unnecessary Skeptical Podcast (CUSP –thecusp.org.nz). I recommend taking a look or a listen sometime. Michael Edmonds is manager of science programmes at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT).

Consumer wins Bent Spoon again

Vicki Hyde announces the Bent Spoon and Bravo Awards for 2012.

CONSUMER magazine has won its second Bent Spoon Award from the NZ Skeptics for continuing to promote homeopathic products as a viable alternative to evidence-based medical treatments.

In its September 11 2011 review of anti-snoring products, Consumer consulted a medical herbalist who was quoted as saying that “all homeopathic remedies may work wonders for one person and do nothing for another” and that “homeopathy is best prescribed on an individual basis, after extensive consultation”.

Homeopathy is known to exploit the well-recognised placebo effect where the body heals itself in many cases. Any “wonders” worked can be attributed to that effect, as homeopathic solutions are made up solely of water – a fact not known by 94 percent of New Zealanders purchasing such products.

Yet again Consumer has failed to point out that there are no active ingredients in a standard homeopathic product. Surely this should raise consumer protection alarm bells, akin to someone buying a microwave and receiving a cardboard box which they’re told will heat food via the cosmic power of the universe if you think hard enough…

Consumer did note that another expert had pointed out that “the efficacy of homeopathic remedies had not been demonstrated convincingly in evidence-based medicine.” This caveat was not adequate as far as the NZ Skeptics were concerned, particularly as the homeopathic products had a prominent place at the head of the list.

We’ve seen the homeopathic industry use selective quotes as part of their marketing and advertising strategy to get unwitting customers to pay $10 for a teaspoon of water. No doubt Consumer’s inclusion of homeopathic products will be used to boost business, despite the admission by the NZ Homeopathic Council that homeopathic products have no active ingredients. Disturbingly, Consumer‘s expert doesn’t seem to be aware of this admission, stating that ‘extra’ active ingredients could help.

A number of people had raised concerns about Consumer‘s willingness to feature such dubious products, with one nominator saying that the article had “destroyed Consumer NZ’s reputation as a organisation New Zealanders can trust”.

Consumer last won the Bent Spoon in 1992 for a similarly lacklustre examination of non-evidence-based health products. We’d hoped they’d learned something by now as our country’s main consumer advocate. What’s next – endorsing rubber bracelets as power-boosters for our athletes? Approving the sale of specially trapped sunlight in bottles to treat the blues? They should leave such shonky stuff to the tabloid press.

In addition to the Bent Spoon, the NZ Skeptics’ Bravo Awards praise a number of attempts to encourage critical thinking over the past year. These included:

  • Margo White, for her health columns in the New Zealand Listener. It’s great to see informed writing on health issues, based on research and evidence, rather than the large amount of low-grade items we usually get, based on press releases and thinly disguised advertorial material. A number of White’s columns were nominated for a Bravo, such as the item ‘Lies, Lies and Eyes’ which reported research indicating there is no evidence for the claims by proponents of neurolinguistic programming (NLP) to be able to tell if a person is lying or not simply by looking at the direction in which they glance.
  • Whanganui District Health Board member Clive Solomon, for supporting evidence-based medicine as the core focus for hospital care (see p3, this issue)
  • The awards were psychically conferred at the NZ Skeptics Conference in Dunedin.

Waiting for the big one

If the beliefs of a sizeable number of people turn out to be correct, this will be the final issue of the NZ Skeptic. According to a survey of 16,262 people in 21 countries conducted by market research company Ipsos for Reuters News, two percent of respondents strongly agree, and eight percent somewhat agree, with the proposition that 21 December 2012, the end of the current cycle of the Mayan Long Count calendar, marks the end of the world. Perhaps surprisingly agreement is highest in China (20 percent), while the Germans and Indonesians (four percent) are relatively dubious. One could perhaps question the representativeness of the sample (comprised of people who have agreed to take part in online surveys), but there must be a lot of people out there who are really worried about this.

David Morrison, who runs the Ask an Astrobiologist page on NASA’s website, was reported in Canada’s National Post (28 September) as saying he has been flooded with thousands of questions about the issue, with at least one a week from teenagers so concerned that they’re considering suicide. “The one thing in common with all of these scare stories about December 2012 is that they have absolutely zero basis in fact,” he said. “There was no Mayan prediction of anything going wrong, there’s no planet Nibiru, there’s no planet alignment, there’s no change in the Earth’s axis, there’s no change in anything about the Earth. It’s just a complete fantasy.”

Belief in impending apocalypse has long been a feature of certain religious groups, but the various 2012 scenarios have a distinctly secular flavour. There seems to be something deeply and paradoxically appealing about the notion that we will all be wiped off the face of the Earth, and it’s not all driven by religion. Some see it as a response to the uncertainties of life, providing a sense of narrative amid the chaos. Another factor may be that, at least in its secular incarnations, it derives from a sense of insignificance in the face of the immensity of deep time. The universe is more than 13 billion years old, life has existed on Earth for at least three and a half billion years, and we probably have another five billion years before the sun runs out of fuel. Against that, what is the value of a single human life? (That’s a question I believe can be answered, but space precludes discussion of it here.)

If Doomsday is almost here, at least it means that we don’t have to face the idea of life going on without us. Some, perhaps, would see our lives today as having more meaning if all of history was leading up to this moment, and there won’t be any more to come. We would become the heroes of the Story of Life – that story may be a tragedy, but at least we were in at the end.

Forum

‘Organic’ water?


Either this water is alive, or it contains carbon. Either way I’m not drinking it.
Hugh Young
Wellington

Clairvoyants agree on missing man

Clairvoyants agree on missing man

By CORINNE AMBLER Police Reporter

Police will join friends of missing Wellington man Michael Kelly today in a search of an area where clairvoyants think he might be found.

Three clairvoyants independently said Mr Kelly was in the same area of greater Wellington, and friends had been searching there, close friend George Allan said.

Ms Allan said she had been dealing with a Wellington clairvoyant, one from Tauranga, and two women from the Spiritualist Church. A clairvoyant from Christchurch had also come to Wellington of her own accord, saying she had strong feelings about where Mr Kelly, 23, could be found.

At a meeting last night suggestions from the clairvoyants were considered and it was decided to check the nominated area today.

Ms Allan said the clairvoyants thought Mr Kelly had been robbed somewhere near Ecstasy Plus nightclub by two men. He had been dumped in bushes near Oriental Parade, where he lay for a few days before the men panicked and took him away.

Ms Allan was told a third man was possibly involved and one clairvoyant could give detailed descriptions of the three, who were rough-looking Maoris, aged about 26. She could describe their tattoos and would recognise them if she saw them.

The clairvoyants thought Mr Kelly was near farmland and saw trees, buildings and cattle grates. Ms Allan said the women felt the third man had not wanted to hurt Mr Kelly, but one of the men wanted him dead.

All three clairvoyants had independently given the same description of the men’s car and police were following that up. …
From the Dominion, 12 November 1992.

Natural ebullience may have led to Kelly’s death

By MATTHEW GRAINGER

Michael Kelly, whose body was found at the bottom of a light shaft in a Wellington inner-city building yesterday, may have contributed to his death by his ebullient nature. His friends had told police that he had sometimes climbed buildings – and on one occasion a crane – after drinking.

Mr Kelly, 23, who started a police hunt when he went missing four weeks ago, was found at the foot of a three-storey shaft in the Moore Wilson building in Tory St by a worker who opened an internal window on to the shaft. He had last been seen on October 18 outside Ecstasy Plus nightclub on the corner of Tory St and Courtenay Place.

Detective Inspector Lloyd Jones said police were searching for clues to reconstruct the events that led to Mr Kelly’s fall. Mr Jones said Mr Kelly’s death was seeming “less like foul play, misadventure is more apparent.”…
From the Dominion, 17 November 1992.

Both articles reprinted in NZ Skeptic 26.

If meetings really lower IQ…

… then there’s little hope for the world, says Alison Campbell, who attends far too many meetings. Fortunately however, that may not be the case.

I attend a lot of meetings; that’s the nature of my job. Recently the Dean came in and waved the front section of the NZ Herald under my nose. “Look,” he said, “all those meetings are really bad for you.” Scenting a way of getting out of them, I grabbed the paper and found the article in question (syndicated from the UK paper, The Telegraph).

“Attending meetings lowers your IQ,” cried the headline, and the article goes on to say that:

“[the] performance of people in IQ tests after meetings is significantly lower than if they are left on their own, with women more likely to perform worse than men.”

The story is based on a press release about research carried out at Virginia Tech’s Carilion Institute. And this showed that the research outcomes were more nuanced and more complex than the newspaper story would have it. The research found that small-group dynamics – such as jury deliberations, collective bargaining sessions, and cocktail parties – can alter the expression of IQ in some susceptible people (Kishida et al. 2012).

In other words, meetings don’t necessarily lower your baseline IQ. What they may do is change how you express that IQ, particularly if you’re susceptible to peer pressure. The internal urge to conform can result in people making decisions as part of a group that they might not have made on their own, especially if they have concerns about their status in that group. (As the Virginia Tech release notes, this was shown to good effect in the superb film 12 Angry Men, with Henry Fonda leading a stellar cast.)

The researchers placed study participants in groups of five and studied their brain activity (using MRI scans) while the groups were engaged in various tasks. While the groups were working they were also given information about the intellectual status of group members, based on their relative performance on those cognitive tasks. (There’s a tendency for people to place great store on relative measures of IQ, and where they personally sit on the scale.) And afterwards, when participants were divided on the basis of their performance into high- and low-performing groups before their IQs were measured again, they were found to differ quite signficantly despite the fact that all participants had statistically similar baseline IQs when tested at the beginning of the study.

“Our results suggest that individuals express diminished cognitive capacity in small groups, an effect that is exacerbated by perceived lower status within the group and correlated with specific neurobehavioural responses. The impact these reactions have on intergroup divisions and conflict resolution requires further investigation, but suggests that low-status groups may develop diminished capacity to mitigate conflict using non-violent means.”

As I said, this is altogether more nuanced, more complex, and much more interesting than the news story that caught the boss’s eye. I suspect I’ll be attending meetings for a while yet.

K.T.Kishida, D.Yang, K.Hunter Quartz, S.R.Quartz and R.Montague (2012) Phil.Trans.R.Soc.B 367(1589): 704-716.

Newsfront

Charter schools open door for creationism

Government plans to establish charter schools look like providing a way for creationists to get their teachings into New Zealand’s classrooms (Dominion Post, 19 August).

The Manukau Charitable Christian Trust is planning to team up with the Manukau Christian School to teach a “philosophy” titled ‘In God’s World’, to be marked against the Cambridge curriculum.

The philosophy encourages every subject to be taught so students “discover” how God made the world, and upholds and governs it.

Trust chairman Tony Bracefield said it planned to open a number of junior classes at churches, feeding up to senior classes on Manukau Christian School’s grounds. He said the school would use non-qualified teachers, and teach about 200 children in the long term.

Post Primary Teachers Association president Robin Duff said the types of people who appeared to be interested in charter schools would not have made it through teacher education.

” In the case of the trust, we’d be concerned if an organisation with a ‘statement of faith’ that denies evolution and claims creation according to the Bible is a historical event, were to receive state funding.”

He said the trust could be grouped with religious organisations like Destiny Church and the Maharishi Foundation, which had both expressed interest in charter schools, and which delivered education that denied scientific principles.

Associate Education Minister John Banks said he would not comment on the trust’s charter plans.

A day later, the NZ Herald (20 August) reported Banks had told Radio Rhema he has no doubts the first chapters of Genesis are true. “That’s what I believe, but I’m not going to impose my beliefs on other people, especially in this post-Christian society that we live in, especially in these lamentable times. There are reactionaries out there, humanists in particular, that overrun the bureaucracies in Wellington and state education.”

Racist creationists upset Kawerau

Meanwhile, many residents of Kawerau have been upset by a creationist pamphlet mail drop in the small Bay of Plenty town (NZ Herald, 22 September).

“Are you a racist? You are if you believe in evolution!” the pamphlet states. “Kids are taught in school that man evolved (changed) from a chimp. So I ask you who changed the most from a black chimp with black hair and brown eyes? A black man with black hair and brown eyes? Or a white man with blond hair and blue eyes?”

People who received the pamphlet should “rip it up and bin it,” said Vicki Hall, a spokeswoman for the Race Relations Commissioner. “The commission’s position is that the pamphlet is clearly offensive. However, there is no law that prevents someone from publishing it.”

While the pamphlet accuses those who “believe in evolution” of racism, it is based on the racist premise that black people look more like chimps than white people do. Yet two of the three chimp subspecies have fair skin, and Caucasians tend to be hairier than other peoples. The similarity between chimps and people of colour is all in the minds of the pamphlet’s producers, and the citizens of Kawerau were right to pick these mealy-mouthed hypocrites as racists.

Death’s link to vaccine ‘convoluted pseudoscience’

The likelihood of an Upper Hutt teenager having died as a result of the cervical cancer vaccine has been rejected as convoluted pseudoscience by Helen Petousi-Harris, of Auckland University’s Immunisation Advisory Centre (Dominion Post, 21 September).

Jasmine Renata, 18, died in her sleep in September 2009, six months after completing the programme for cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil.

She suffered from runny noses, headaches, warts, tiredness, a racing heart and other symptoms. During an inquest in August, her parents said they believed the vaccine was the cause of their daughter’s failing health and eventual death.

Canadian neuroscientist Christopher Shaw and US pathologist Sin Hang Lee told the inquest heavy aluminium staining in Ms Renata’s brain tissue could have acted as a “trojan horse”, bringing the human papillomavirus into her brain.

But Dr Petousis-Harris said on 20 September that the doctors’ arguments were convoluted and not based on scientific evidence. “I find that quite concerning, given the gravity of the issue here. Anyone who has had the vaccine may become worried, and anyone planning to have it may also become worried. But it’s based on no evidence at all, which is not good. You have got to make your decisions based on good science.”

It was important to discuss the weaknesses in the research so parents and possible vaccine recipients had all the information, she said.

There is further commentary on this case at Http://www.immune.org.nz/commentary-coronial-inquiry-expert-witness-testimony

Medium to ‘help heal’ Pike River pain

Australian medium Deb Webber, of Sensing Murder fame is once again in this country using a tragedy to promote her business (Greymouth Star, 16 August).

Webber, who caused anger in 2009 by raising the case of missing Auckland toddler Aisling Symes while plugging her shows on breakfast television (Aisling’s body was recovered from a stormwater pipe a few days later), has announced that this spring she will meet with family of Pike River disaster victims to help heal their pain with readings in a private session.

“I have been flooded with emails from family members so it will be nice to help them out,” Webber’s publicist said.

Given that Webber has no psychic ability (see NZ Skeptic 104), it’s uncertain exactly how she is going to be able to help at all.

Didgeridoo healing reaches NZ

Back in NZ Skeptic 102 Alison Campbell reported on how didgeridoos could be used to clear emotional and energetic stagnation, and help ” to quantum manifest healing and the co-creation of our universe.” Now this amazing medical breakthrough is available in New Zealand (Stuff, 6 September), thanks to yet more visitors from across the Tasman.

Australia-based psychic double act K and Dr Michael appeared in Auckland on 18 September. The US-born Dr Michael bills himself as a “vibrational healer with the didgeridoo” and a reiki master who “gives energy healing with past life and spirit healing messages”.

K on the other hand is “blessed with psychic abilities since childhood” and is said to be “one of Australia’s most sought after clairvoyants”. Must have been quite a night.

More Dunedin ghosts

Dunedin is emerging as the haunted capital of New Zealand. Following a series of ghostly events at Otago University’s Cumberland College ( NZ Skeptic 104) spirits are now reported to be occupying the nearby Globe Theatre ( Otago Daily Times, 2 July).

Five members of paranormal investigation group The Other Side Paranormal visited the theatre to follow up earlier research into three spirits believed to be there. The spirits were said to be those of Robert Blackadder, who lived in the building in the 19th century before it became a theatre, a girl called Mary Elizabeth Richmond who lived in the building in the 1860s, and former theatre caretaker Frank Grayson, who died in the 1980s.

“I think it’s safe to say the caretaker Frank is still there. He is just there looking after the place, basically. We’ve found a few things on our video footage … a few light anomalies,” said investigator Kelly Cavanagh.

There was also an “incident” when a person felt someone sit down next to them, and a photo revealed “energy” beside them. Other information gathered from an electromagnetic field reader, temperature gauge, and voice recorder would be analysed over the next week, Ms Cavanagh said. “We’ve definitely got some results and we are quite happy with what we’ve found.”