Being a skeptical parent in New Zealand isn’t always easy, but it has its rewards. This was originally presented to the Skeptics’ World Convention in Sydney, in November.

When I became head of the New Zealand Skeptics seven years ago, the irrepressible Denis Dutton had great delight in ringing the major newspapers to announce the fact that the organisation had elected someone who was female, of Maori descent and pregnant.

“How more politically correct can you get?” he crowed triumphantly. I don’t know about elsewhere around the world, but for some reason the New Zealand Skeptics are rarely seen as PC.

What Denis didn’t know was that the gravid situation provided me with a great excuse to pass back to him the many invitations to speak to seemingly innumerable numbers of Rotarians, Roundtablers, Lions, Great Elks and other assorted male mammalian service groups. There’s nothing surer than saying you’re pregnant to get an all-male group to back off hurriedly.

I like to think of it as part of my personal crusade to singlehandedly boost the skeptical population of our country.

I must say that people seem to delight in predicting that my sons are going to grow up to be Sensitive New Age Guys. If they really want to make me nervous they add that David and Perry will be New Age, rugby-playing accountants who’ll end up working for Treasury. I can’t see it somehow – after all, they’re both fire signs…though I do find it a bit worrying that my seven-year-old has started paying attention to the stockmarket reports and cheering every time Telecom drops a few more points.

Of course, his interest-and incidentally the reason why the bulk of this audience is male-is explicable. According to psychologist Bertrand Cramer, it all relates to early adolescent experimentation with gender-specific body parts. Most notably that manipulation which causes said body parts to move and retract, which, according to Cramer:

“…presents the boy with a particular challenge in the development of the body image; this may contribute to his interest in machinery, physics and the like.

“The boy’s better spatial sense relates to the greater use he makes of space in motor activity; the ability the boy has to perceive his sexual organ may also contribute to a better representation of space and to his better skill and greater interest in experimental science and mathematics.”

One can only conclude from this that women should be over-represented as mining engineers, tunnellers and speleologists….

Anatomy and Skepticism

I must confess to a certain degree of scepticism concerning the relationship between gross, so-to-speak, anatomy and an interest in science or its handmaiden, skepticism.

I attribute my interest in skepticism to my early fascination with science and science fiction, thanks to writers such as Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov. In both their fiction and non-fiction, they posed questions and looked for answers, they acknowledged the sometimes-tentative nature of their conclusions, they changed their minds when the facts built up against them. Their science was not the boring stuff of school textbooks, but involved real people trying to find answers to all manner of questions.

They raised real concerns about where the world was heading long before anyone had started worrying about the H-bomb or the China Syndrome, Dolly the cloned sheep, or global warming.

Of course, by no means have all their predictions of the future been accurate ones; nor have the predictions made from respected scientists or the even more highly respected astrologers. Arthur C Clarke knew this when he postulated his First Law which states that:

…when a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

There are times when this Law is overthrown, as noted in Isaac Asimov’s Corollary to Clarke’s First Law:

…when the lay public rallies round an idea that is denounced by distinguished but elderly scientists, and supports that idea with great fervour and emotion, the distinguished but elderly scientists are then, after all, right.

And while I read Asimov and Clarke and Sagan and Feynman, I was also reading Velikovsky and von Daniken. I tried experiments with Rhine Cards and fervently scanned the skies hoping for a close encounter of my very own. I drew up natal horoscopes in my astrophysics labs, and made more money off astrological charts than I ever did from writing astronomy columns.

But throughout it all, my tendency to ask questions, to try and look at all sides of an issue, stuck with me. That was helped by a goodly dose of debating at school and university level, probably one reason why I tend to be an equivocator.

And, if I want to get Freudian, I can blame my father. He was a staunch non-believer in gravity, and we had lots of arguments about air pressure, centrifugal forces, Newton and apples. I’m still not sure to this day whether he was having me on or not, but it taught me never to accept things at face value.

A Conundrum

The latter is something we could all do well to remember. I think the most stunning example of this I’ve seen came from a speaker we had after our annual skeptics dinner one year. We’d settled back in our chairs and were presented with the following conundrum:

Two men – James and John – are in a room. James is taller than John. John is taller than James.

How do you explain that? Just think about it for a moment. James is taller than John. John is taller than James.

Well, we had a room of 100 or so skeptics, the most critical minds in the country, and the suggested explanations were legion, not to mention ingenious. I’m sure many of you have already thought of similar solutions to the ones we came up with:

James is standing on a box but John is actually taller.

The floor slopes.

James was taller but then some time passed and John grew taller than James.

The gravitational field is different in different parts of the room.

By the time we started to argue about the effect of singularities, the speaker called a halt and put us out of our misery. There were two obvious explanations that we had failed to come up with:

He was lying OR he was mistaken.

We’re just not taught to be suspicious enough. As a species, we’re suckers for the confident conman. It’s laughable when it’s some guy with a toy submarine drumming up some tourism in a local loch; it’s not so funny when we’re asked to believe that another part of the human race is inferior based on their skin colouring or religion.

I find it sad that few people bother to ask questions. It’s an indictment really of how little critical thought enters our lives, how rarely people are prepared to think, really think, about issues that may affect them. This holds as true for any activity in which we participate, whether it’s debates on astronomy and astrology, alternative medicines and health reforms, or the way in which we choose our political representatives.

I remain highly skeptical about acupuncture and its uses, but didn’t really start to question 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, it’s Chinese.”

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. But maybe only because I was the closest pseudo-authority figure at the time.

Healthy, Natural Diseases

Some of these women refuse to have their toddlers immunised because it’s not natural. Somehow it’s more healthy for their children to get diseases – they’ve had measles, mumps and whooping cough so far. These are women who worry about radiation from their microwaves and electric blankets, but who drive their kids around in their urban combat vehicles without safety belts. These are women who listen to the health shop staff and buy heaps of herbs, royal jelly and megavitamins, but who automatically distrust anything to do with Western conventional medicine.

You can’t argue with them, that’s confrontational. Yet you can’t leave them to their wilful ignorance unless you’re willing to accept that the price of the New Age is an uninformed populace making decisions based on supposition and superstition.

And why worry about some ditzy women? Well, it’s said that if you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate an entire family.

I believe that we each have a responsibility as individuals, as parents, as citizens to be educated – that doesn’t mean sending everyone off to university. What it means is having enough nous to ask questions until we can understand or, perhaps more importantly, can recognise our lack of understanding. It also requires us – whether operating as card-carrying members of the Skeptics, or simply as friends and parents – to encourage questions, to provide alternative viewpoints, to make our case effectively.

If you explain homeopathic solutions in terms of a teaspoonful of gin stirred into a Pacific Ocean of tonic, people can immediately grasp what you’re getting at when you challenge the idea of potent dilutions. Start talking in terms of moles, millifibles or inverse powers of ten and you’ve lost them.

The New Zealand Skeptics had toyed with killing two birds with one stone by taking on the homeopaths and the urine-quaffers simultaneously – we figured we’d take a glass of urine, dilute it homeopathically way past any chance of a single molecule of urine remaining and invite the press along to see the “Skeptics Take the Piss out of Homeopathy”. We weren’t confident we could explain the maths to the representatives of the Fourth Estate however.

If you encourage people to 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 millions 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. Even children can figure that out.

Effective Presentation Essential

We do need to present our case effectively, because if we don’t, the fallout can be disastrous. It’s easy to laugh at tales of UFO abductions – it’s not easy to laugh at a child’s coffin. We’ve had a huge debate in New Zealand over the past 18 months as to the rights of the parent to decide what is appropriate treatment for their children.

Many people would argue that parents have the ultimate right and responsibility. I can decide what is best for my child. After all, I’m a caring, well-educated, white middle-class parent who dearly loves her children and would do only what is best for them.

Sounds reasonable you say? But be careful. After all, I may truly believe that it is appropriate to beat my child. People do. I may think it appropriate to withhold a life-saving blood transfusion from them. Jehovah Witness parents believe this sincerely. Or I may decide that my child will be better off having quantum-boosted radio waves or happy thoughts beamed at his cancerous growth, rather than nasty chemotherapy. After all, in commenting on just such a case, the New Zealand Health and Disability Commissioner said that parents have the right to choose what treatment is given to their child.

I do wonder if the commissioner would uphold the rights of people who believe their child’s diabetes will be aided by prayer, rather than by insulin. Somehow I doubt it. After all, in one recent case, two parents were charged with manslaughter for withdrawing their 13-year-old son from chemotherapy treatment for a 15-kilogram tumour – the prayers hadn’t worked and the boy died.

Yet, in the cause celebre that was the short eventful life of Liam Williams-Holloway, it appeared that something was different. There are a number of factors that one could point to: the parents were white and middle-class, not Samoan and poor; they gained supportive media coverage from our major news celebrity Paul Holmes; and they were relying on alternative therapy, which sounds more effective and reasonable to a secular society than appealing to God.

Liam had neuroblastoma cancer, with a tumour on his jaw. It’s a difficult cancer, but when the oncologists first saw him when he was three, they thought he had a 60-70% chance of beating it if they could treat it quickly. This type of cancer has a very fast drop-off in success rate; by the time children with it reach five, they have about 15-20% chance of survival.

Chemo Courses Stopped

Liam had had two courses of chemo and then stopped. The oncologists made numerous attempts to talk his parents into bringing him back, including agreeing to alternative treatments running alongside the conventional, to no avail. Healthcare Otago eventually went to the Family Court and Liam was made a ward of the courts to enforce treatment; it’s not an uncommon outcome in this sort of case, though is more typically used to permit blood transfusion for Jehovah Witnesses’ children.

At that point, things careered out of control. The family went into hiding so they could pursue alternative treatment, in this case Rife Quantum Frequency therapy which promised to explode all the cancer bacteria in Liam’s jaw. The Holmes prime-time current affairs program portrayed them as a loving, well-intentioned family hounded into hiding by uncaring oncologists for having the temerity to question orthodox medicine. The country was up in arms about the perceived jackboot tactics of the medical profession; talk-back phonelines ran hot; the police copped it in the neck for being a party to the search for the child; the Family Court made the unhelpful decision to try to muzzle any media reports on the case.

One constant refrain throughout was that the decision to stop chemotherapy was an informed one. I was therefore dismayed to see the family citing the book “Suppressed Inventions and other Discoveries”, as a reference source; a book initially published, I am sad to say, by our own Auckland Institute of Technology.

As its name suggests, this book deals with a vast range of conspiracy theories, from NASA’s suppression of evidence for intelligent life on Mars through to the perpetual fruitless quest for free energy sources. It is the stuff of which fortunes are made by those prepared to rip off the vulnerable, and you can’t get much more vulnerable than being the parent of a child diagnosed with cancer.

The family were clearly taken in by these claims, as their next move was to head for Mexico and the Oasis of Hope Clinic in Tijuana; these clinics were featured in the “Suppressed Inventions” book also. Again they got great coverage on Holmes and other media about their fight to protect their child, about the wonderful treatment they were having – reputedly for $45,000 a month – about the dreadful things that the cancer industry were responsible for in suppressing cancer cures.

The New Zealand Skeptics gave the 1998 Bent Spoon to Holmes for exploiting a sick child and desperate parents in the name of entertainment without asking the hard questions that needed to be asked.

And while all this was going on, paediatric oncologists around the country were treading very warily. In July, a six-year-old died following his parents refusal of radiotherapy. Doctors said that the Williams-Holloway case made them wary of acting in the best interest of their child patient. In the case of the 13-year-old mentioned earlier, the parents’ lawyer argued that it was the health authorities who were negligent in not seeking a court order to enforce treatment for the boy. They, too, had been scared by the fervent public opinion whipped up around the Williams-Holloway case.

We had a publicly funded documentary follow one woman through alternative therapy to treat a lump in her throat. No mention that the alternative healer also claimed to be regularly abducted by UFOs, no questioning of his claims that cancer is caused by bacteria, no questioning of the ethics of him prescribing 35 health supplements daily from a brand in which he had a financial interest. And how did this piece of investigative journalism end – with the conclusion that the reason her lump ended up bigger over the 16 weeks of treatment was because she hadn’t believed in it enough!

We now have parents on cancer wards torturing themselves for not offering their children a less invasive alternative.

Well, to cut a long and harrowing story short, Liam died recently in Mexico. He outlasted the oncologists’ predictions by about a year, which has been taken by some as clearly indicating that the alternative treatment was working. The fact that he has died, and made front-page headlines in doing so, may, I hope, cause others to think again.

Parents Exonerated

One of the most disturbing reactions I have seen to the news came from our Commissioner for Children, Roger McClay, a man who has had the highest profile in arguing for the rights of children, who has wept publicly over cases of child abuse. His response was to exonerate the parents once again because they had made “the right choice for them” and then, astonishingly, he added:

“Whether a different course of action would have been better, there’s not much point in worrying about it now.”

Well, I’m sorry Commissioner, but there’s a great deal to worry about. When you have medical professionals paralysed for fear of a public roasting, when you have alternative therapists seemingly having full access to national publicity with no fear of demands for proof of their claims, when you have people believing that there is some conspiracy by cancer specialists to suppress cures and harm children, then you’ve certainly got something to worry about.

The Need to Question

I believe it all comes back to that need to question, and to encourage others to question. After all, we all start off with a questing spirit. Babies explore their world, and anyone who has dealt with small children is well aware of their apparently endless store of questions about how the world works.

Somewhere along the way, many people lose that desire to know, to broaden their horizons. My mother, a primary school teacher for many years, reckons this loss happens when children start to ask questions which are beyond the scope or training of their teacher. Deceptively simple questions such as “why do clouds float?” and “what makes this light work?” reveal the questioning nature of a potential scientist and – all too often – the adult’s lack of knowledge.

Some people, whether parents or teachers, feel threatened by this. It’s seen as disruptive, irrelevant, potentially disrespectful. It gets in the way of the lesson plan, or interrupts the structured bedtime routine.

Yet it is these very aspects that make children so receptive to science, so able to question.

Science writer and physics professor Chet Raymo identified the habits of mind which children have at their most creative, and which are mirrored in the world of science:

  • curiosity
  • voracious seeing
  • sensitivity to rules and variations within rules
  • fantasy

He mourned having to teach undergraduates whose image of science was of a dull, dry, boring subject devoid of interest, to be endured and then forgotten in the interests of more lively pastimes such as astrology or parapsychology.

Instead, he said, we need to convey the adventure stories that make up science, the fantasy that forms it. Small wonder that he so often cites children’s literature, whether the works of Dr Seuss or Maurice Sendak.

“In children’s books,” he says, “we are at the roots of science – pure childlike curiosity, eyes open with wonder to the fresh and new, and powers of invention still unfettered by convention and expectation.”

Don’t Despair

So don’t despair if your kids are into the latest SF, Goosebumps or Harry Potter. That doesn’t mean that they will grow up to be would-be wizards or psychic investigators. What they will learn is that there are more things in the world, Horatio, than can be found within the pages of a school textbook, and that’s never a bad thing.

My kids first started asking about werewolves and ghosts after encountering Scooby Doo on television. I think Scooby Doo has been around long enough that most of us will have watched him and his gang of kids who, every episode, unmask the villain who’s dressed up in the wolf suit or the white sheet to frighten or con someone. I hadn’t thought about Scooby Doo as an agent of skepticism, but have to wonder about the creators of this show.

There are plenty of children’s science shows produced all over the world, but few take a direct look at things of a skeptical nature. My all-time favourite has to be “Oi” which, I am proud to say, was produced in New Zealand, and which has won awards internationally. In each 30-minute show it had a segment which was pure skepticism. If the New Zealand Skeptics ever get a major bequest, I’d like to put together a Greatest Hits of Skepticism using material from “Oi”.

I’ve had some small measures of success in subverting my own children. Davey was barely three when we were in a local bookshop and he paused before a display of that bastion of Australian culture, Bananas in Pyjamas.

“We don’t buy that,” he announced. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s commercialization.” The lady next to us was startled but I was delighted – I’d been teaching David to be suspicious of the ploys of marketers. My kids know that the sweets at the checkout counter are a trick and are determined not to be fooled. They may look longingly at the chocolate bars, but it means I don’t get the whining which can be clearly heard emanating from the other aisles.

We often talk about what’s real and what’s not, whether it’s discussing Pokemon, the TV news, Halloween, dinosaurs or whatever has taken their fancy. My children are used to me equivocating – I’m happy to preface a response (note – not an answer, but a response) with “it depends”, “we’re not sure but…” or “what do you think?”.

Over the past couple of years, David and Perry have read and reread their way through Dan Barker’s guide for young skeptics “Maybe Yes, Maybe No” which sets out the basic rules of science:

  • check it out
  • do it again
  • try to prove it wrong
  • keep it simple
  • it must make sense
  • be honest

and which concludes “it is okay to say ‘I don’t know'”.

That’s a phrase I use a lot with my children, but I usually follow it up with “let’s see if we can find out”.

You see, one of my greatest delights is discovery – new facts, new words, new ideas – and I want to do my best to encourage that delight in my children.

It doesn’t take a good reference library or Internet access, though we’re lucky to have both available at home. It can be something as simple as a walk to school.

We talk about what the weather is doing, how clouds form, the difference between fog and smog. We peer cautiously at the various items of roadkill, and consider how death and decay is a part of life. The late arrival of the Sun over the sea in winter is a practical reminder of Earth’s movement around our star. The changing bird populations on the estuary mirror changes in the seasons, as do the annual cycle of the tomatoes grown in the large glasshouse on the corner.

Pure Joy

I get pure joy when I ask David why he thinks such-and-such happens and get a gratifying moment of thoughtful silence before he makes the attempt to explain. It’s not a matter of getting things “right”, though it’s a delight when he does. It’s more a matter of virtually seeing his thought processes at work, of experiencing that fresh interest when all is new.

We do get odd looks from other pedestrians who are busy hurrying on their way. They see us examining the death mask of a hedgehog by the side of the road or stirring an oily puddle with a stick, but they don’t see our joy of discovery as we discuss why a hedgehog’s teeth are so sharp or what makes the colours on the puddle’s surface.

There’s an adage that one should “stop and smell the roses” – but you can do so much more. Why do the roses smell like that? Why aren’t roses shaped like cornflowers? Why do they have thorns?

We mightn’t be able to answer every question, but it’s the journey to those answers that provides the excitement. It’s a journey on which, as a parent, I am privileged to be accompanied.

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