Skeptics can take an active stance in their daily lives, according to this abridged version of the Chair-entity’s after-dinner speech from the Conference.

It’s been four years since I stood before a skeptical audience in Nelson and confessed to being a dry skeptic who was a little wet behind the ears. It’s been an interesting four years, not least due to the fact that the following year’s Skeptics conference saw me elevated to the Chair-entityship.

Since then I’ve learnt a lot — in many cases more than I care to know — about the human capacity for self-deception, gullibility and, in some cases, sheer greed. I’ve been asked to make pronouncements on everything from moa sightings to the Maori science curriculum, and have cheerfully done so while attempting to ensure that the Skeptics did not come across as a dogmatic, authoritarian bunch of killjoys. When people ask me who the Skeptics are, I reply “We’re the guys that say the Emperor’s not wearing any clothes and how come no-one else has noticed.”

We do know that the sorts of things that Denis and I and others have done has meant that the Skeptics as an organisation have had an effect. That’s recognised by the number of calls from journalists I get which begin with “We don’t want to get the Bent Spoon so we thought we’d better check with you guys…” It is gratifying to note that such calls have increased over the past four years.

I’ve also been interested to see how the development of international electronic contacts has helped various skeptical causes. The sci.skeptic newsgroup on Usenet is woefully deficient in the apparently mandatory pornographic pictures and pyrotechnical instructions, but it does provide a useful information source for the many and varied idiocies that Man is heir to. It is useful to be able to drop a note on the Net asking for information on the latest visiting loony and to have that information to hand when you’re rung up and asked to comment on everything from flying saucer conspiracies to creationism.

It also means we can be forewarned of forthcoming fads simply by keeping an eye on what’s happening overseas and waiting just a bit. We’ve seen alien abductions, satanic ritual abuse and repressed memory arrive here following their development in the US scene. I am glad to say that it looks like interest in those areas has peaked as the voracious US appetite for sensationalism and voyeurism moves on.

Keep an eye out for millennial sightings — the Holy Virgin appearing in a taro or reports of guardian angels (complete with wings, rather than red berets) helping out the afflicted. That seems to be the latest enthusiasm Stateside.

Practical Skepticism

For those of you who’d like to try something a little more practical in terms of applied skepticism, I have some suggestions for you as to the options that lie open for the skeptic who wishes to be a little more proactive in his or her life.

I believe that there are many ways in which we can make a difference.

Perhaps first and foremost is demanding from our media that they treat us as intelligent, rational beings who are capable of sitting through an hour-long television investigation into a complex subject, who are interested in reading material that is challenging and thought-provoking. It’s a delight each year to be able to select the awards for journalistic excellence — I just wish we had more candidates.

By all means complain to the television people and to the papers if they run stupid stories or totally uncritical puff pieces. If you can, explain why you were annoyed, suggest things that could have been included, useful source people for opinions or interviews. Make the complaint a constructive one.

But also, please, don’t forget to write and praise them when something good comes along. It’s a sneaky strategy but one that can be far more effective — praise is a rare thing these days and tends to be remembered far longer than just another rant.

We shouldn’t be content with just taking on the media, as critical thinking is important in all aspects of our lives.

Informed Boycotting

I stopped using the chemist in our local mall when they started stocking homeopathic first aid kits. I had managed to ignore the expanding shelves of homeopathics, aromatherapy oils, megavitamins and the like, but the promotion of a first aid kit based on homeopathic principles was too much. It makes a mockery of the much-touted phrase “the health professional you see most often”.

It also makes me wonder about the professional ethics of these so-called health professionals that they are able to stock material like this and do in-store promotions pushing pseudo-medicine. I presume that it’s more a matter of ignorance in most cases, but which is more disturbing — a chemist who apparently doesn’t know the difference between tested, regulated medicinal materials and diluted, evaporated water tablets; or the chemist who does know what they’re touting and doesn’t care?

(As an aside, I believe that sloppiness or ignorance in caring for the health of the public affects other areas of the pharmacy involved. On the last three occasions when I went to buy something medicinal there, I noticed that the use-by dates were well and truly over, in one case by three years.)

I make an effort not to buy from Amcal chemists after having read the mix of fact and fantasy in a glossy “Healthcare” advertorial magazine. In amongst some relatively sensible pieces on middle ear infections and coping with thrush, they had an article and advert on aromatherapy, touted as having been a part of our medical history from 2,000 years ago, when Hippocrates spoke of the benefits of an aromatic bath.

Now I like an aromatic bath or a massage as much as anyone, but I find it difficult to believe that a trained pharmacist can tout burning essential oil of lemon for the promotion of clarity, inspiration and to provide excellent antiviral properties. I expect to find these sort of products and claims in a New Age shop of one form or another, between the mung beans and the royal jelly, not from someone who presumably has some modicum of medical acumen.

I’m pleased to say that I now walk down the road to another chemist which doesn’t foist these money-spinners onto an ignorant public. I talked to this pharmacist about why I support his shop — he doesn’t have homeopathics or other dubious items. He does have garlic tablets, vitamin pills and the like but I can live with that because, being realistic, there is market demand for them and there is some use in them. (He also has them tucked down on a bottom shelf for those who want them, rather than spilling over everything else in sight.)

I was waiting for a prescription the other day, idly picked up one of the bottles of vitamins and was startled to find in rather large letters on the side “These vitamins are recommended for use where dietary intake is inadequate for some reason — eg pregnancy, heavy sports training.”

In effect, the label was telling the consumer that if you’re eating properly and your body’s not stressed, don’t bother with these. It’s an odd thing to have on a product you’re trying to sell. Even odder was the fact that this was on a product from Roche, one of the supposedly big nasty chemical companies who are out to poison the planet.

I checked out the labels on vitamins from the friendly, healthy organic companies who are there to make your world a better place to live in. Of the four different manufacturers in stock, only one of these had an equivalent label, though it was less direct, printed in much smaller type and came after all the information on how many tablets you should be swallowing daily.

What does this tell us about the ethics in operation here? It’s certainly counter to all the chemophobic propaganda that masquerades as advertising, articles in the popular press and in the minds of the general public.

Sure we need to keep an eye on what those chemical companies are up to — it’s taken a lot of concerted action over the past 30 years to produce at least some measure of control and consumer safety issues. But we can’t afford to let those other commercial organisations get away with things just because they’re touting a natural, organic, alternative image.

The same goes for other areas where organisations want to take the moral high ground on certain issues. One such area is that of environmental issues. I consider myself a practising environmentalist — though often I prefer to use the term ecologist these days, as the former has gained many connotations which make me uncomfortable.

Some years back, Heather Mackay sent me an environmental magazine that had just started up. The articles were advertorial on one sort or another, spelling out the wonders of guaranteed dolphin-free tuna next to ads from a large seafood provider and so on.

One article in particular which caught my eye was the one which said that all our allergies and modern ills are being caused by the decreasing amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. It went on to recommend that we all consume what it called “oxygen water” to boost our flagging immune systems; oxygen water being defined as “simply water with an extra oxygen atom attached”. It doesn’t take much chemistry to realise that H<W0V>20 plus 0 equals H<W0V>20<W0V>2, or hydrogen peroxide. Some of you may recall the delightful speech we had from Alan Hart a few years ago on the dubious benefits to be gained from this potentially potent hair bleach and rocket fuel. So I took a look at the organisation putting out this publication and found that they were an environmental group who focused on marine issues. Interestingly, neither the people at the local DOC conservancy, nor friends at our local Environment and Peace Centre knew much about the group, beyond the fact that they produced a nice range of T-shirts.

It’s one environment group which won’t get my money or support, and I’m equally distrustful of the advertisers and products in their publication. Much in all as I don’t want to eat tuna which has had a high sidekill of dolphins, I’d rather it came from a company which has put some thought into the sort of marketing it undertakes.

I’m also dubious about another group which had been campaigning heavily against horticultural use of pesticides. A group of orchardists had apparently been spraying their crops and their neighbours in a new subdivision nearby immediately were said to have come down with nausea, coughs, headaches, asthma attacks — everything short of leprosy it seemed.

The environmental group produced a photo as proof that the spraying was at fault. It showed a plane releasing a cloud of noxious looking vapour which was obviously going to pass over the nearby houses.

A chemical safety consultant friend of mine identified the plane and checked things out. He found out that the contractor had released a light smoke bomb to check wind direction and spray drift — no spraying had been undertaken at all during the period claimed. He told the group involved that they’d got things wrong and was told yes they knew that, no it didn’t matter — the protest aims were more important than the truth. He promptly resigned his membership.

I didn’t bother renewing my Consumer subscription after they got the Bent Spoon award a couple of years ago. It was not so much that they got the award (everyone in publishing has the odd “off” issue), it was the injured, rather self-righteous tones with which the appalling article was defended that made me feel the organisation no longer had sufficient credibility in my eyes to keep me a member.

I still read the magazine in the library from time to time, but I’m a lot more skeptical about their pieces than I once was. After all, I do know something about the alternative health scene and could judge for myself how poorly researched the piece was — I don’t know anything about medical insurance or stereo systems, so how do I know what they’re writing on those issues is right?

I remain highly skeptical about acupuncture and its uses, but didn’t have too many problems with it until a mother in my local baby group announced that her acupuncturist had said the best way to treat a baby with a fever was to bleed it.

“That’s positively medieval” I gasped, only to be reassured “oh no, it’s much older than that, the Chinese have been doing it for thousands of years”.

I knew this woman wasn’t going to be interested in a tirade, but I pointed out just how little blood a small baby has to lose before it gets into dire trouble. She could see what I was getting at and even nodded when I added that she might like to consider changing her acupuncturist.

If you can stop and make people think about an issue, explain even briefly why you have problems coming to terms with something which uses pseudoscience or shonky science, then you’ve done a Good Thing. And it isn’t really that hard to make people think.

If you explain homeopathic solutions in terms of a teaspoonful of gin to a Pacific Ocean of tonic, people can immediately grasp what you’re getting at when you’re challenging the idea of potent dilutions.

When people stop and think about it, they know that it doesn’t seem all that likely that a civilisation immeasurably more advanced than ours would want to travel hundreds of thousands of miles across space to stick things up the noses of neurotic Americans. The idea becomes even more ridiculous when you point out that the figures being bandied about for alien abductions mean that one American has been abducted every minute every night for the past 30 years. People know that there are simpler solutions.

One of the loveliest images I have come across in trying to explain the skeptical ideal of seeking the most likely explanation for strange phenomena is the one used on our new Skeptics leaflets and on our Web page:

When you hear the sound of hoofbeats in the night, think first of horses, not zebras.

The image appeals to me, as does the fact that it doesn’t rule out the possibility that it might just be a herd of zebras cantering past your window, depending on your circumstances…

That’s the sign of the thinking skeptic.

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