Wherein intrepid ace reporter Vicki Hyde spills the beans on what Skeptics get up to at their annual meetings…

Perhaps Someone was trying to tell us something – why else would we end up with a flooded-out bridge and a very long bus ride courtesy of TranzRail, ending 40 minutes or so from Dunedin where we waited for an hour on the Palmerston rail platform for an errant train to eventually deliver us into the sunny south…..

Ah well, all was mended by increasing numbers of familiar faces as we got closer to the venue. At the risk of treading on toes, there’s an almost evangelical fervour in the aura given off by Skeptics en masse. People seem to be sooo appreciative of finding themselves in a room of like-minded people, whether they hail from farms, factories or ivory towers.

As always, the defining characteristic of the conference had to be the general good humour with which we encountered the many and varied aspects of human nature and the general sense of wonder at the world around us. That magic and mystery was helped along the first night by David Marks, one of our esteemed founders who had travelled back from the UK to be amongst us. David demonstrated that he was more than just a professor of psychology with the now-infamous spoon bending and mindreading routines that he learnt at Uri Geller’s knee.

As well as opening the conference, David was the last speaker, leading us through autobiographical notes as he revisited the heady days of directly challenging The Amazing Kreskin and Uri Geller. (Otago University clearly has a long-standing support role in skepticism as David was funded to go to Wellington to interview Geller). And here’s a factoid worth remembering, so beautifully explained by David that I’ve had to share it with everyone I’ve met lately:

“The chances are one-in-a-million. Isn’t that spooky??”

Assume 100 events make up an average day in your life: answering the phone, reading an item in the paper, hearing a song on the radio etc. (there are arguably many many more, but let’s keep the maths simple).

In one day, there are 4,950 possible pairings of those events.

In 10 years, you build up 18 million such pairings.

So in every decade, you should have 18 “one-in-a-million” things happen to you – almost two a year.

So it’s hardly surprising that you should hear from your childhood friend just after you’d come across an old photograph of you together; or that your dream of a car accident should come true.

It gets better – give yourself say a 10-day span for your “one-in-a-million” event (“and then the next week it happened…”). In ten years, you’ll have 182 spooky coincidences.

Isn’t maths fun?!

Saturday may have sounded a little academic for those reading the programme – a whole day of debate and discussion on creationism and evolution. If you’d come along prepared to laugh indulgently at those silly people in Kansas, Bill Peddie (HOD science at Mangere College) soon had you very aware that it is an issue for Kiwis too, with teachers in some schools facing ethical dilemmas in teaching a science curriculum which goes against the religious or cultural values of their students.

Barbara Benson (HOD Science and the Dunedin College of Education) pointed out that we do have a requirement for teaching the scientific method in our science curriculum. For those who hadn’t heard of it (and I hadn’t despite being in the relatively rare position of actually having read through most of the science curriculum documentation that passes my desk!), it comes under Making Sense of the Nature of Science and its Relationship to Technology. I suspect that it is quietly put to one side in most classrooms in preference for doing something easy like growing seeds or making hokey pokey….

We had our own tour through evolutionary science, with slides of Archaeopteryx from Warwick Don, real fossil whales courtesy of Ewan Fordyce and the skulls of far-distant ancestors of Jules Keiser. Anyone who wants to marvel at the wonders of creation should study how ear bones came about – you have to shake your head at the unplanned nature of it all. Or, if you were one of the lucky ones to brave the Dunedin downpour, you got to see the glories of the Geology Department basement. There is a story to be told in rock if we have but the chance (and the funding) to read it. Magnificent stuff.

For me, the one image which really sticks in my mind from the excellent morning’s presentations has to be an ancient set of footprints, captured forever in mudstone, of a mother and tiny child walking side by side one afternoon thousands and thousands of years ago. I’ll never walk my kids along the beach again without thinking of that small ancestor of ours and wondering what her life was like. There’s far more wonder in that than in any conceit of Creation.

Ian Plimer summed up the whole debate rather succinctly when he declared science to be a way of looking at the world around us, while religion looks at the world within us. Those who would try to warp one to fit the other are little short of fraudsters, whether they recognise it or no. The Young Earth creationists, who contend that the Earth really is only a few thousand years old, are intellectually dishonest -and many Christians would argue spiritually dishonest as well – in their attempts to twist facts and make God jump through hoops.

Ian is a consummate communicator, as anyone who went to the Saturday Dinner will tell you. A chance remark from Bob Brockie saw Ian stand up and give a totally extempore tour through the last 4.5 billion years of creation. It was a literal tour de force which left many of us awestruck at the sheer scope of Nature in all her diversity and perversity. Geologists see things on a different timescale to most of us and, for an all too brief hour, we were privileged to view the world through a different set of eyes.

Some eyes were more than a little misty that evening at the tribute we were able to pay our out-going (out-standing!) Secretary, Bernard Howard. Bernard has shepherded the Skeptics since its foundation, and his tact and diplomacy have been much appreciated by the more volatile committee members over the years, so it was wonderful to be able to thank him for all he has done for the organisation. We had arranged for a small addition to Bernard’s bookshelf – copies of classic works signed by leading skeptics on the international scene who were kind enough to record their appreciation for Bernard’s hard work over the years.

And on to Sunday with traditional Skeptic fare: urban legends, UFOs, mass delusions and encounters with Uri Geller. Robert Pollack provided the sobering thought that urban legends don’t die as a result of debunking, you have to wait until technology or society changes before they become obsolete.

Bill Ireland’s talk on the Kaikoura UFOs hit the mark when he suggested that the mysterious lights came from a squid boat and its reflection in the water. We all nodded enthusiastically in agreement when he showed us a slide of such a boat. And we all about-faced when he then went on to state that the two images in the UFO shot had to be 50 metres apart. It’s pleasing to see a cherished hypothesis successfully challenged and accepted as incorrect, something all too rare when investigating anomalous phenomena. Bill went on to build a convincing case that the images were more likely to be of a group of squid boats transferring catches to a mother vessel. By the time he’d looked at the optical effects, the radar, the boat placements and the MAF logs, he’d built up a pretty convincing case that when it looks like a duck, smells like a duck and then quacks, you gotta figure it would go nicely with orange sauce….

Of course, we would all agree with that wouldn’t we? After all, we’re members of a minority group rejected by mainstream society. Or so psychiatrist Richard Mullen might have suggested. Certainly his listing of group characteristics sounded rather familiar:

charismatic leader (ahem)
vulnerable followers (nooo, not another crystal please…)
peer pressure (surely you don’t believe in moas, Denis?)
isolation (name three Skeptics in your neighbourhood)
maverick intensity (I won’t name names but I’m sure you know who I mean…)

One quote Richard used is well worth remembering. It’s from Jonathan Swift:

“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

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