The organisation responsible for setting exams for New Zealand secondary students receives the Skeptics’ annual rap on the knuckles for bad science.

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority has won the 1996 Bent Spoon Award from the New Zealand Skeptics for its failure to understand the difference between good science, bad science and shonky science.

The NZQA was roundly criticised by a number of individuals and organisations regarding flawed questions in last year’s 5th Form Science examination, but it was predominantly the authority’s reaction to the criticism that saw it win the award.

“One could understand an examination body having problems with getting the questions right in organising a series of exams — though you’d hope that a qualifications authority’ would have a decent quality control programme in place. What disturbed us, and ultimately saw the Bent Spoon awarded to NZQA, was their very public reaction that involved ad hominem attacks, an apparent lack of understanding regarding the basic science they were supposedly assessing, and a callous disregard for the students they had disadvantaged thereby,” comments Vicki Hyde, Skeptics’ Chair-entity.

“We found it particularly sad that, on commenting on the flawed questions they had approved, the authority blithely said that only students with an advanced understanding would have been puzzled. Surely our education system isn’t requiring students to have to second-guess the examiners’ intentions?!”

“We weren’t the only ones to be concerned over the attitude of our national qualifications body,” says Hyde. In Christchurch, an editorial in The Press saw the NZQA’s response to criticisms as “complacent, disturbing and bad-mannered”. The New Zealand Institute of Physics has expressed concern about misleading advice and the lack of a promised response on the part of NZQA.

In commenting on the NZIP’s involvement, NZIP President Geoff Stedman, noted that “since the NZQA has roundly failed this exam (as a test of its quality control) on all fronts, the omens for the larger issues are bleak indeed”.

In its response to the criticisms, NZQA accused Professor Stedman of having some form of hidden agenda and indicated that science was a mutable concept which attracted various viewpoints. The Skeptics are concerned that if NZQA truly believes this, then it has major implications for how it operates as a qualifying body for science courses.

Two years ago, the NZQA was asked to approve a Bachelor of Applied Science in Naturopathy, treating naturopathy as having the same research basis and credibility as anatomy, physiology or physiotherapy. Naturopathy is a branch of alternative medicine which uses a variety of generally untested, unresearched techniques and materials.

“As far as we can find out, NZQA are still considering the application. By dithering for this long, not only has NZQA shown itself incapable of distinguishing between science and pseudo-science, but it has also severely disadvantaged those students who took up what they thought was going to be a degree course.”

“If people want to pay money to study naturopathy, that’s fine,” says Hyde, “but there should have been no question of it being part of an Applied Science degree unless it can satisfy the research requirements, the rigour, the experimental evidence that is demanded by a science. NZQA should have been able to decide on that almost immediately.”

One critic has compared the proposed degree to allowing a Bachelor of Commerce in Numerology or a Bachelor of History in Astrology.

The Skeptics are also keen to reward well-researched reporting.

“We’re delighted that this year marks the largest number of nominations for our Bravo Award ever,” says Hyde. “There is such a great deal of poorly thought-out interviewing and writing in our media, so we appreciate those who make an effort to actually inform and educate the public with thought-provoking interviews and articles.

Kim Hill of National Radio, and her production team of Maryanne Ahern and Heather Church, headed the list this year.

“Kim Hill is well-recognised for her excellent interviews, but we also wanted to acknowledge the input of her producers in helping to ensure that Kim has the background information vital to take a critical look at issues of public interest, ” says Hyde.

The particular interview which prompted the nomination for the Bravo Award was on the so-called Kaimanawa Wall, where careful, considered questioning helped to explicate an issue which was dealt with by most other media in a superficial, sensationalised fashion.”

Also winning Bravo Awards this year were:

  • Simon Collins of City Voice for a March 21 article on the “Tabaash phenomenon”, an investigation into a Wellington channeller
  • David McLoughlin for his television documentary on questions concerning the Christchurch Civic Creche case and for a follow-up North and South (August 1996) article
  • Mark McNeill of First Hand Productions for his television documentary on recovered memory or false memory syndrome
  • Diana Dekker for her well-researched Evening Post article on the claims made by an alternative healer to be able to treat cancer using magnets

The awards will be officially presented at the Skeptics’ annual conference at the Chanel Conference Centre in Hamilton at the end of the week.

The Bent Spoon Award is named in honour of Uri Geller, the former nightclub magician who claims he can bend metal with his bare mind. The Skeptics have their doubts….

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