Warwick Don celebrated the 21st annual NZ Skeptics conference by presenting a potted history of the society.
IN 1976, several arch skeptics got together in the US to found the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Any results would be disseminated to a wider audience, both scientific and the general public. One means of dissemination was their publication, initially called The Zetetic (meaning ‘skeptical seeker’) and renamed The Skeptical Inquirer the following year. Among the founders were Carl Sagan, James (The Amazing) Randi and Martin Gardner.
I am indebted to our resident historian, Bernard Howard, for providing details of our group’s formation. The idea to establish a similar organisation in this country was conceived by the late Richard Kamman, a colleague of David Marks in the Department of Psychology at Otago University. Jointly they wrote The Psychology of the Psychic, first published by Prometheus Books in 1980. Around that time the exploits of Uri Geller were making headlines. Both psychologists adopted a very skeptical view of Geller’s claims, one of which was to be able to bend metals through the power of the mind alone. Their examination of Geller’s claims is presented in their book. Geller, of course, is the inspiration for our annual Bent Spoon award for the most gullible piece of reporting or writing.
The formation of a New Zealand group remained just the germ of an idea until late in 1984 when, in Bernard’s words, “a more forceful voice was heard, lecturing us in an American accent on the Shroud of Turin and other weird things.” In 1985, discussions between Denis Dutton and David Marks and a few others led to the revival of the idea of a national society, and on a hot Waitangi Day afternoon in 1986, a small group met at the University of Canterbury to decide whether the time was ripe to launch such a venture. I learned early on of plans to form a New Zealand skeptics group when David Marks and I met in the street one day (we lived close by in Dunedin and near the university).
Bernard says he was late joining the Christchurch meeting. The first words spoken to him were: “We have decided to form a committee, but don’t have a treasurer yet. Are you interested?” Bernard, who readily admits to being unable to refuse anything Denis asks him to do (I have this in writing!), was immediately appointed Treasurer. One of the first points discussed of relevance to the Treasurer’s role was the size of the subscription. Should it be large, in line with an exclusive elite, or low, more in keeping with a popular movement? Not surprisingly, the vote was in favour of the latter, and the subscription has remained comparatively low ever since. Bernard left the meeting weighed down with seven $10 notes, the subscriptions of the founding members: Kerry Chamberlain (Massey University), Dr Denis Dutton (Canterbury University), Professor Bernard Howard (Lincoln College), Dr Gordon Hewitt (Victoria University) and Dr David Marks (Otago University).
What’s in a name?
The subject of what to call the new group came up. Should it be, again in Bernard’s words, “a snappy New Zealand Skeptics, or a lengthy dignified New Zealand Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal”? In reality both names have prevailed. Informally we are known as the New Zealand Skeptics and formally as the NZCSICOP-the best of both worlds. The first postal address of the group was Bernard’s personal box number at Lincoln College. When Bernard first applied for a box in 1964, the post office lady at Lincoln College apologised that the only available box she had was No 13. “I wonder why?” asked Bernard. His offer of the use of his PO Box 13 was greeted with hilarity by the rest of the committee, and was seen as most fitting for an organisation such as ours. PO Box 13 remained our address for quite some time.
A salutary lesson
No adverse consequences appear to have arisen from our association with No 13, although I have to admit we had a close call with destiny in 1988. A member of our group, in a series of letters published in the Star Midweek newspaper in Dunedin, accused a self-proclaimed Dunedin psychic of being a fraud, alleging she was guilty of a criminal offence involving intent to deceive. He also sent letters to several other organisations. The psychic brought a $20,000 defamation action against our member, and subsequently she was awarded $12,000 in damages, $6000 to be paid by our member and $6000 by Allied Press Ltd. Fortunately, because of the prudent way our constitution and public statements are worded, the New Zealand Skeptics was not a party to the action, and so escaped what could have been a crippling penalty. Needless to say, our member and the NZ Skeptics parted company soon after. Our constitution provides suspension or expulsion of any member charged with bringing the society into disrepute if found guilty of the charge. We as a group learned a vital lesson, oft issued as a reminder by Denis: accusations of fraudulence or cheating are taboo. We should never forget this.
The New Zealand Skeptic and our first conference
Our version of a skeptical journal was the New Zealand Skeptic. Issue No 1, a modest production by David Marks, our first chairperson, appeared in May 1986. David reported on tests of the alleged telepathic and tarot reading abilities of Aucklander Colin Amery. Controlled tests of Amery’s telepathic claims showed no evidence of psychic ability, and although not under controlled conditions, the tarot readings showed Mr Amery to be a proficient exponent, but that they could readily be explained with standard cold reading techniques. This first issue also contained a message from David Marks in the form of an open letter to all New Zealand skeptics. He reported that our recently founded Skeptics Society was growing fast with almost 50 paid-up members and already was providing a counterbalance to the ever-increasing number of paranormal claims. At the conclusion of his letter, David invited proposals for talks and speakers for the inaugural conference of the New Zealand Skeptics, to be held in Dunedin in August of that year (1986). The proposed papers were: What is Pseudoscience? (Denis Dutton), Creationism and the Misuse of Biology (Gordon Hewitt), The Australia-New Zealand Stop-over for International Psychics (Mark Plummer, Founding Chairman, Australian Skeptics), Psychics I Have Known (David Marks), and Psychics, Clairvoyants and Cold Reading (Denis Dutton). There’s a familiar ring to these topics. Unfortunately for skepticism in this country, David Marks left soon after to take up a university post in London.
The great fire-walk
Jumping to 1989, the conference that year, held in Christchurch, featured a fire-walk, one of the high points of our history (a burning issue, you could say!), organised by Denis Dutton and John Campbell, a physicist at Canterbury University. Fire-walks at that time were often conducted by unscrupulous so-called trainers claiming that fire-walking could only be achieved without physical injury if the mind was suitably prepared beforehand – at a price, of course. Some 80 of us trusted physics that evening, rather than the assurances of charlatans. The video of the event as presented on the Holmes Show, 4 September 1989, is available on loan from NZ Skeptics Video Library.
As Denis Dutton later explained in his role as the society’s media spokesperson, it’s all a matter of physics. The red-hot coals have low heat capacity and low thermal conductivity. If you walk rapidly over them you suffer at most only minor burns.
Our group has been fortunate in being able to host some distinguished overseas skeptics, with the financial assistance of kindred organisations, most notably the Australian Skeptics and the New Zealand Rationalists and Humanists. Among those we have hosted have been James (The Amazing) Randi (US, 1993), Susan Blackmore (UK, 1995), Richard Dawkins (UK, 1996) and Ian Plimer (Australia, 2000). I had the pleasure of organising Richard Dawkins’ open lecture in Dunedin in 1996-he attracted huge audiences in all four main centres. At Otago University, two large lecture theatres had to be video-linked in order to accommodate the overflow. At the Dunedin conference in 2000, Melbourne University’s Professor Ian Plimer presented a scintillating overview of Earth’s geological history at our conference dinner. At that conference we were also honoured with the participation of David Marks.
The public face
Numerous public statements and comment have emanated from our organisation in print, on radio and on TV over the years. Denis Dutton, Vicki Hyde and Frank Haden (through his Sunday Star Times column) have been particularly active in this regard. Among the topics that have prompted public skeptical comment have been the 1999 Liam Williams-Holloway cancer case involving the notorious Rife treatment, and Jeanette Wilson’s Dare to Believe series on TV3 (2005).
One other matter springs readily to mind. In 1995 the Bent Spoon was awarded to the Justice Department for a report on domestic violence, called Hitting Home. Vicki Hyde issued a Press Release in which she described the report as “alarmist” and as painting “a disturbing picture of New Zealand men as abusers of wives and partners, until you examine the fine print”. In Denis Dutton’s words, the award “ruffled a few feathers” within our group (NZ Skeptic, No 37), and a motion was passed at the AGM that year that a subcommittee re-examine the 1995 Bent Spoon Award. Non-committee mem-bers were also invited for comment. Several submissions found their way into our newsletter (Issues 37 and 38). Most supported the decision. An important point arising from this matter is that we are prepared to question and review decisions. Long may this attitude prevail.
Members of the New Zealand Skeptics participate in celebrating the life and achievements of Charles Darwin on the 12 February each year, the anniversary of Darwin’s birthday. Several of us were able to contribute to the first collection of Darwin Day essays (Darwin Day Collection One, Tangled Bank Press, 2002).
As well as through public statements, we have communicated skepticism in other ways, by means of truth kits (collections of papers on specific topics, such as astrology and creation ‘science’), for example. The truth kits have been replaced by information flyers available on our website, with a far wider distribution than that of the truth kits. And, of course, the website has greatly extended our sphere of influence overall. Several years ago we issued a primer, An Introduction to Critical Thinking, and the opportunity was taken to introduce our group-its aims and areas of interest. Warwick Don attended the first New Zealand Skeptics conference in 1986, and has been to every one since.