Psychic and TVNZ join forces to profit from child’s disappearance
When Sensing Murder psychic Deb Webber announced on TV One’s Breakfast show that missing Auckland toddler Aisling Symes was in “a ditch, hole” it raised eyebrows all over the place (NZ Herald, 9 October).
Webber was appearing on the show to plug her upcoming nationwide tour – and also the latest series of Sensing Murder, screening on the same channel. Later that day TVNZ journalist Amy Kelley asked the police at a press conference how seriously they would take Webber’s “information”.
TVNZ then approached a friend of the Symes family and subsequently Webber had met them. The state broadcaster seemed to have far too cosy a relationship with the psychic.
TVNZ spokeswoman Andi Brotherston defended the channel’s role, saying, “You know what they are doing? They are being human. They have a family out there that are desperate to find their child.”
Interestingly, Webber’s Sensing Murder co-star Kelvin Cruickshank said at a public show in Hamilton (see p. 16) that his spirits had told him to keep clear of the case, because the family were devout Baptists who didn’t believe in spiritualism.
It is worth remembering that at the time Webber made these comments (less than 48 hours after Aisling’s disappearance) misadventure seemed the most likely explanation. It was only as time went on that the abduction scenario gained favour. When her body was eventually discovered in a concrete stormwater pipe the Waikato Times (13 October) reported Webber had been “proved correct”.
But “ditch” or “hole” covers almost all the likely options – including a shallow grave. Again, the standard psychic’s ploy of making a vague statement which is then misremembered as more accurate than it was, paid dividends.
Hunt on for ‘panther’
A few years back the annual NZ Skeptics conference heard about reports of big cats in the South Island high country. Now someone has built a trap for the mystery beast (Sunday Star-Times, 13 December).
High country farmer David Wightman says he’s never seen the “panther”, but others on his 9500ha Winterslow Station in North Canterbury have, on at least four occasions. “Too many people have seen it to doubt what it is – without actually capturing it and doing a DNA test on it, one can only assume it is a black leopard or black panther.”
Wightman said he planned to use a live goat to lure the panther into the trap. The panther would be unable to harm the goat because it would be in a separate enclosure, but its bleating should be enough to attract the cat. There was no evidence of a large predator attacking free-ranging stock, however.
We should apply the skeptical adage, when you hear hoofbeats in the night, think of horses, not of zebras. Big cats have been reported very widely, and sometimes are reported as brown or grey, suggesting that breeding populations of at least two species are involved. Black leopards (‘panthers’) are rare within their natural range compared to the more common spotted variety, yet no spotted leopards have been sighted roaming free in New Zealand.
Far more likely that the big cats are just that – big cats. Feral domestic cats can grow remarkably large – I once saw one in the Lewis Pass which must have been almost a metre nose to tail – and people are very poor at judging scale at long distances (hmm, maybe that cat wasn’t so big after all!).
Scientology ‘organised fraud’
The church of Scientology has been branded an “organised fraud” by a French court and fined 600,000 euros ($1.2m) for preying financially on vulnerable believers (NZ Herald, 28 October).
Judges in the Paris criminal court ordered the church to pay for adverts carrying its findings to be placed in newspapers around the world. It is believed to be the first time that Scientology has been declared fraudulent by a court in a large, democratic country, although individual scientologists, including its founder L Ron Hubbard, have previously been convicted of fraudulent activities. The Paris decision went further and declared the core claims of Scientology were “fallacious” and designed to “hook” members into paying large amounts of money.
Two French female plaintiffs alleged that, between 1997 and 1999, the Scientology movement persuaded them to pay the equivalent of 21,000 euros and 49,500 euros for treatments to improve their mental and physical health. The two main Scientology bodies in France were put on trial for “systematic use of personality tests of no scientific value… with the sole aim of selling services and products”.
Scientology spokeswoman Agnes Bron said the verdict was the result of an “inquisition of modern times” and that they would appeal.
Science writer wins ruling in libel battle
Brtiish science writer Simon Singh, who is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association, is to fight on after a preliminary judgment against him was opened to appeal (The Guardian, 14 October).
Singh was sued after writing an article in the Guardian criticising the association for supporting members who claim that chiropractic treatments can treat children’s colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying.
Singh described the treatments as “bogus” and criticised the BCA for “happily promoting” them.
In May, Mr Justice Eady in the high court ruled on the meaning of the words, saying they implied the BCA was being deliberately dishonest. Singh was initially refused leave to appeal, but Eady’s interpretation was deemed to be open to argument by Lord Justice Laws, who said Eady had risked swinging the balance of rights too far in favour of the right to reputation and against the right to free expression.
Many scientists and science writers have rallied to Singh’s support, claiming that the freedom of scientific opinion is at stake. “Simon Singh’s battle in this libel case is not only a glaring example of how the law and its interpretation are stifling free expression, it shows how urgent the case for reform has become,” said Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship.
‘Tumour’ thrown at meeting
The hysteria over the Dept of Conservation’s use of brodifacoum to eradicate pests on Rangitoto and Motutapu, reported in last issue’s Newsfront, has continued (NZ Herald, 15 October).
A woman, Donna Bird, was ejected from a 14 October meeting on Auckland’s North Shore after hurling abuse and objects – one of which she claimed was a tumour that had been taken out of her – at DoC speaker Richard Griffiths. The department were “parasites” and “disease mongerers”, she said.
Others at the meeting accused DoC of spreading poison in the gulf, and of being blinded by science. Six dogs died and others became unwell after apparent exposure to tetrodotoxin, a natural marine toxin, on Auckland beaches. Marine organisms, including penguins and dolphins, had also been found dead in the area. Mr Griffiths told the meeting toxicology results ruled out brodifacoum as being responsible. “I’m not sure what else we can say.”
Thief warned of sex change curse
A thief in Auckland may get more than he or she bargained for with a terracotta flower pot taken from a Gulf Harbour home (Rodney Times, 3 December).
The owner says it contains his African witchdoctor grandma’s ashes and is now cursed. In a letter to the Rodney Times, At du Plooy says his grandmother was a sangoma or witchdoctor who died in Africa aged 93. Du Plooy claims to be a medium who keeps in contact with her spirit. While he should be able to trace the pot, through this link, it appears grandma is unfamiliar with the area concerned.
Instead, she has cursed a one kilometre area around the pot with sex-change ions – meaning men may gradually change to women and vice versa. Dumping the contents won’t break the spell, du Plooy says, only its return.