A matter of life and death

The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young. – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).

In 2011, I gave a talk at the NZ Skeptics conference in Christchurch titled ‘Biology and Mortality: the Mysterious Fears of Our Nature’. I used my photographs to show how memorial art is an expression of one of the mysteries of life, which is what happens to us once we are dead. This article arose from a bizarre story about a man from California and how he planned to spend eternity. Along the way, it embraced embalming, shoes for the afterlife, crypts and cryonics.

On August 30 1986, at the age of 81, Richard F (Freddie) Poncher from Los Angeles, California died. As is the tradition for American funerals, his body was dressed and made up, so that he looked asleep, rather than dead. After the funeral, the coffin was closed and slid into a crypt he had bought in a community mausoleum called the Corridor of Memories in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, Los Angeles. Crypts in community mausoleums look like rows of marble-fronted filing cabinets and this one was four crypts high. He had one person above him and two below. End of story, except for one small detail: Freddie insisted that after the funeral, his body was to be rotated, so he would spend eternity face down in his coffin. Why would he want his body to appear as if it was lying on top of the person who was below him and face up? After all, they were both dead. But planning for eternity is big business in the United States, and preservatives, the right shoes and cryonics may help you get to the other side.

I’ll get back to Freddie, but first a few words from Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. In 1831, 13 years after it had first been published in 1818, Mary wrote an introduction to a revised version of her book. She explained how she had wanted to tell a story that spoke to the “mysterious fears of our nature”. As Victor Frankenstein wrote:

“I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain.”

Faith can conjure up an afterlife, a reward beyond the grave, but what if science, rather than the supernatural, could become our savior?

Once the sparks started to fly, Frankenstein’s creation showed us that being dead wasn’t necessarily life-threatening. Mary’s story was about reanimation rather than resurrection, with a warning about the dangers of dabbling in God’s laboratory. It was an afterlife where you had both feet on the ground, but just remember to be careful what you wish for.

Looking your best

This brings me to the blooming cheek of death, mortuary footwear and life in the freezer. In the United States, most people are embalmed before being made up with cosmetics for corpses, which can create a life-like glow. Then you can be displayed to family and friends who say how well and undead you look. It’s not reanimation at Victor’s level, but the wonders of the eye and brain appear intact.

The essence of the ritual is nicely summed up in Frederick and Strubs, Principles and Practice of Embalming: “A funeral service is a social function at which the deceased is the guest of honour and the centre of attention … A poorly prepared body in a beautiful casket is just as incongruous as a young lady appearing at a party in a costly gown and with her hair in curlers.” Embalming slows down decay long enough that, with a mask of makeup, the guest of honour looks like they have just nodded off. And when you are in a padded coffin with a comfortable pillow, in a room called the Slumber Room, the corruption of death is nowhere to be seen. Botoxed and buffed, you are in good shape to head off to the afterlife.

But don’t forget, you will need sensible shoes. In her 1963 book, The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford quotes from a catalogue of Practical Burial Footwear, which said: “The No. 280 reflects character and station in life. It is superb in styling and provides a formal reflection of successful living.” A sole for a soul. I prefer Woody Allen’s view: “I don’t believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear”.

Freddie and Marilyn

Now back to Freddie. Pillows, shoes and underwear were not on his afterlife bucket list. He was so insistent that he be placed upside down in his coffin, that he told his wife, “If I croak, if you don’t put me upside down over Marilyn, I’ll haunt you the rest of your life”. That’s right: the person lying under him was Marilyn Monroe, who died in 1962. She was still enough of a sex symbol, 24 years after her death, that Freddie was flipped in his coffin, toupée and all, in a creepy and comic gesture. Happy Birthday Mr Poncher, Happy Birthday to you. Had the Corridor of Memories become the Corridor of Mammaries?

Unfortunately, for Freddie, eternity as he planned it was threatened, when in 2009 his wife, Elsie, decided to sell his crypt to help pay off the rest of the mortgage on her Beverley Hills home. She owned the crypt next door, which Freddie had bought for her, and she was going to have him moved off Marilyn and into less racy real estate. Eventually, she planned to join him, in a reduced state, as cremated ashes. Here is the advertisement for the crypt as it appeared on Ebay:

“Here is a once in a lifetime and into eternity opportunity to spend your eternal days directly above Marilyn Monroe. This crypt in the famous Westwood Cemetery in West Los Angeles currently occupied above Marilyn Monroe is being vacated so as to make room for a new resident. ‘Spending Eternity next to Marilyn Monroe is too sweet to pass up’, recently quoted by Hugh Heffner (sic), who has reserved his place in eternity next to her. The lucky bidder will be deeded a piece of real estate that he or she will make their last address. And below you will be Marilyn Monroe. In fact the person occupying the address right now is looking face down on her.”

The ad noted, “Local pick-up offered” and “No returns accepted”.

It appears that spending eternity above Marilyn was not the multi-million dollar drawcard that Elsie had hoped it would be, and for now Freddie remains in his crypt.

When it comes to cryonics, being dead is cool, as your crypt is a lot colder than those of Marilyn and Freddie. In what is another Frankenstein-like stab at reanimation, the dead are injected with cryoprotectants (antifreeze) and frozen in the hope that at sometime in the future, science will be able to wake them up. One scientist said that the chances of a cryonically-frozen person being reanimated, and remembering being the person they used to be, was as likely as making a cow out of hamburger meat that will remember being the cow it used to be. Unfortunately, mush is mush, and to me, selling cryonics is a bit like asking a parachute manufacturer if their product is any good and being told that none of their customers have ever complained. Whether it’s being reanimated or resurrected, I think that most of us would like to think that we could cheat mortality and spend eternity being happy, healthy and undead. The odds aren’t good and I’m sure that the goods would be odd.

If meetings really lower IQ…

… then there’s little hope for the world, says Alison Campbell, who attends far too many meetings. Fortunately however, that may not be the case.

I attend a lot of meetings; that’s the nature of my job. Recently the Dean came in and waved the front section of the NZ Herald under my nose. “Look,” he said, “all those meetings are really bad for you.” Scenting a way of getting out of them, I grabbed the paper and found the article in question (syndicated from the UK paper, The Telegraph).

“Attending meetings lowers your IQ,” cried the headline, and the article goes on to say that:

“[the] performance of people in IQ tests after meetings is significantly lower than if they are left on their own, with women more likely to perform worse than men.”

The story is based on a press release about research carried out at Virginia Tech’s Carilion Institute. And this showed that the research outcomes were more nuanced and more complex than the newspaper story would have it. The research found that small-group dynamics – such as jury deliberations, collective bargaining sessions, and cocktail parties – can alter the expression of IQ in some susceptible people (Kishida et al. 2012).

In other words, meetings don’t necessarily lower your baseline IQ. What they may do is change how you express that IQ, particularly if you’re susceptible to peer pressure. The internal urge to conform can result in people making decisions as part of a group that they might not have made on their own, especially if they have concerns about their status in that group. (As the Virginia Tech release notes, this was shown to good effect in the superb film 12 Angry Men, with Henry Fonda leading a stellar cast.)

The researchers placed study participants in groups of five and studied their brain activity (using MRI scans) while the groups were engaged in various tasks. While the groups were working they were also given information about the intellectual status of group members, based on their relative performance on those cognitive tasks. (There’s a tendency for people to place great store on relative measures of IQ, and where they personally sit on the scale.) And afterwards, when participants were divided on the basis of their performance into high- and low-performing groups before their IQs were measured again, they were found to differ quite signficantly despite the fact that all participants had statistically similar baseline IQs when tested at the beginning of the study.

“Our results suggest that individuals express diminished cognitive capacity in small groups, an effect that is exacerbated by perceived lower status within the group and correlated with specific neurobehavioural responses. The impact these reactions have on intergroup divisions and conflict resolution requires further investigation, but suggests that low-status groups may develop diminished capacity to mitigate conflict using non-violent means.”

As I said, this is altogether more nuanced, more complex, and much more interesting than the news story that caught the boss’s eye. I suspect I’ll be attending meetings for a while yet.

K.T.Kishida, D.Yang, K.Hunter Quartz, S.R.Quartz and R.Montague (2012) Phil.Trans.R.Soc.B 367(1589): 704-716.

Every picture tells a story – sometimes they’re whoppers

Pictures don’t lie, right? Of course they do. And they were deceiving us long before Photoshop made the manipulation of images almost child’s play.

Today, nobody would bat an eye at a ghostly image of Abraham Lincoln standing behind his grief-stricken widow, apparently comforting her. But back in the 1860s when William Mumler produced the first ‘spirit photographs’ the public was stunned. These photos appeared to show dead relatives hovering around the living subject who had posed for the picture. Photography was magical enough, so it didn’t seem such a stretch that the camera could see things that the human eye could not

Mumler discovered ‘double exposure’ accidentally when he mistakenly used a previously exposed but undeveloped photographic plate. He immediately recognised the financial potential of this discovery and reinvented himself as a psychic medium who specialised in communicating with the other side through photographs. By today’s standards his efforts were amateurish but in the heyday of spiritualism they were readily accepted as authentic. Only when Mumler made the mistake of using images of people who were still alive as his ‘ghosts’, did his little scam crumble. But by this time many other ‘spirit photographers’ had recognised the lucrative nature of the business and had gotten into the game. And amazingly, the clever ruse even snared luminaries like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir William Crookes. Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a physician and Crookes was a pioneer in chemistry and physics. One would think they would have known better.

Conan Doyle was a staunch believer in spiritualism, a position his famous detective would have taken a dim view of. But it was Sir Arthur’s championing of another type of fake photograph that best demonstrates the extent of his credulity. In 1917 two young girls produced a photo that purported to show fairies dancing in the woods. Conan Doyle was convinced the pictures were real and refused to believe that he had been fooled by the simple trick of hanging cardboard cutouts by a thread in front of the camera. It was inconceivable to him that a couple of uneducated girls could put one over on someone of his stature. The pictures therefore had to be evidence of the existence of fairies! In 1983 Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths finally admitted that they had faked the photographs but nevertheless maintained they had actually seen real fairies.

By the time the ladies had unburdened their souls, Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin had outdone the ‘Cottingley fairies’. In 1967 these two thrilled the world by capturing the first images of the fabled Bigfoot. Their short film shows a creature lumbering across the woods, looking very much like a man in a gorilla suit. There is good reason for that. It is a man dressed in a gorilla suit. The elaborate hoax was described in detail at a recent conference on magic history by Phillip Morris, a man who should know, since it was his costume company that provided and altered the gorilla suit used to stage the scene. Needless to say there are legions of Bigfoot believers who don’t buy Morris’ claim and remain convinced that some sort of giant ape-like creature prowls the Pacific Northwest.

With such ample historical evidence about photographic manipulation, it’s surprising how few people question the authenticity of a series of photographs being circulated on the internet purporting to show the results of a student’s science fair experiment. The pictures depict plants supposedly watered either with microwaved water, or with water that has been heated on a stove top. And guess what! The microwave-watered plants wither while the others flourish!

One can come up with all sorts of possible explanations for the difference. Was the soil the same in the two plants? Were they given equal amounts of water? Could they have been exposed to different lighting conditions? Was there some difference in the seeds? But how about a simpler possibility? Fraud. It isn?t very hard to set up two plants side by side and ensure that one thrives while the other dies. Just water one and not the other. Of course the possibility that this is the way the pictures were created does not prove the case.

Heating water in a microwave oven does nothing other than raise its temperature. Any talk about “the structure or energy of the water being compromised” is plain bunk. But absurdly implausible arguments don’t prove that the pictures are fraudulent either. What proves it is the good old standard of science: reproducibility. Or lack of.

I did the experiment. I watered plants with microwaved water, kettle-boiled water, and stove-top boiled water, feeling pretty silly about it, but I did it. The results? As expected, no difference. I didn’t take any pictures because, after all, how would you know that they are not faked? So here is the choice. You can take my word that the experiment cannot be reproduced, accept that science tells us that microwaves do nothing to water other than heat it, or take at face value some pictures in a circulating email that purport to show an effect that has eluded scientists around the world but was discovered by a student pursuing a science fair project. Better yet, do the experiment yourself!

As you might guess, I don’t believe in spirit photographs, fairies, Bigfoot or plants succumbing to the evils of microwaved water. And I would have put goats that climb trees into the same ‘unbelievable’ category. But I would have been wrong. It seems that some Moroccan goats have learned to climb the argan tree in search of its olive-like fruit. Legend has it that the undigested seeds that pass through the goats used to be collected and pressed into “argan oil,” a traditional food flavouring. Highly questionable. The oil, also used in the cosmetic industry, is actually pressed from fruit that has been picked by human hands, making the tree-climbing goats a nuisance. Still, one can appreciate their remarkable athleticism. Easy to find pictures of their exploits on line. And pictures don’t lie? Right?

School of thought

Adam van Langenberg gives practical suggestions on how to run a high school skeptical society, based on his own successful experience.

In late 2010 I was fortunate enough to see noted US skeptics Rebecca Watson and Brian Dunning speak at the La Notte restaurant in Melbourne. As entertaining as these talks were, what really grabbed my attention was local skeptic Richard Saunders’ demonstration of the Power Balance scam. The more he demonstrated, the angrier I became. Angry because I’m a high school teacher and a lot of my students (and a few of our teachers) were wearing these things. Five minutes earlier I didn’t even know what they were; I had assumed they were one of those charity bands you see everywhere. Now my protective instincts were kicking in and I wanted to help my kids from getting sucked into this scam.

At school the next day I showed several of my classes the applied kinesiology techniques the salespeople were using. The students thought the tricks were very cool and a lot of embarrassed bracelet wearers suddenly started justifying their fashion choices:

“It was a gift!”

“I found it on the footpath!”

Mostly, though, they stopped wearing them.

The success of this led me to create the McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society. We meet once a week and spend our lunch hour discussing specific pseudosciences, critical thinking techniques and debating the merits of scepticism. A brief speech at a school assembly brought over 100 students to the first sessions (a mass Zener ESP experiment) but numbers are now more stable with 20 – 40 kids on average.

One of the things that has surprised me about the group is how young most of the students in it are. By far, the majority are in year 7 and 8. I typically have around 20 students at those levels each week and about 5 – 10 from other year levels. I was a little worried that this might lessen the amount of deep discussion we could have but, as you’ll read later, I needn’t have been.

Favourite topics so far have included three weeks on logical fallacies and a month spent teaching the children how to cold read. I may have created some monsters here because they turned out to be quite gifted at it.

I truly believe that critical thinking and scepticism belongs in our school’s curriculum. Until that day comes, we are relying on teachers to inject it into their classrooms themselves. Unfortunately I don’t see a lot of this. I know at least one science teacher who fervently believes that aliens have been landing on the Earth for many years and I worry about how many of their students have been taught to believe this.

I think that a sceptical society is the next best thing, as it brings the concept of scepticism into the community. People refer to me as “Mr Sceptic” (and occasionally “the dream crusher”) and many students and teachers have approached me for my thoughts on various ideas. “Sceptical” is now a word being used more and more at my school. My ultimate goal is to have every student understand what scepticism is and just how rewarding it can be.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I consider to be important when running a group like this. What follows are my ideas.

Make the sessions fun and relevant

Hopefully this one is a no-brainer. Children can have very short attention spans and if they’re not enjoying themselves, why would they continue? They’re forced to be in my maths classes so I can be as boring as I like but the sceptical society is totally optional. This is why I try to make my talks funny. It’s why I throw in as many jokes as I can. If you’re being funny, kids will listen because they want to hear the next joke. And if you can sneak in a bit of good stuff between the jokes they’ll probably learn something too.

There are plenty of fun activities around the internet that you can run. There’s an ESP experiment on the JREF site and Richard Saunders has videos up of water dowsing and ‘can you tell if somebody is staring at you?’ experiments. There are lots of astrological ideas as well, such as having astrological descriptors up around the room and asking students to try to guess which one is theirs. Activities like this can be real drawcards and get kids coming along who might not have ordinarily been interested.

That’s a key point – a ‘sceptical society’ probably won’t draw a huge crowd, but an experiment to see if anybody is psychic probably will.

Relevancy is also very important. We talked about Power Balance bands because all of the kids knew about them. They’ll all be aware of psychics, aliens and ghosts so those are topics that come up a lot. The vaccine debate probably isn’t at the front of their minds and it doesn’t come up as often, but it does come up occasionally and you’ll be pleased to know that the anti-vaccination mindset makes them very angry.

It’s important to follow the news and select the things that you think will interest them.

Don’t make it a science club

Be aware that to most teenagers ‘science’ means sitting in a classroom while a teacher talks about a bunch of boring stuff. You might get to do the odd experiment but there often isn’t that sense of mystery and beauty that we know science is all about.

So when I say don’t make it a science club, what I really mean is don’t make it an obvious science club. Sneak the science in. Make it a club about ghost hunting and astrology debunking and homeopathy ridiculing. While you’re doing that, briefly explain how you could use this thing called ‘single blinding’ to make an experiment. Then maybe throw in some ‘double blinding’ to show them how to make it better.

The next thing you know, your kids have learnt a bit of science and they’ve learnt why it’s important. If you’ve done your job right they’ll also have learnt why it’s just so damn cool.

Probably don’t make it a secular club

A few people from the sceptical community have gotten upset with me about this, some suggesting that if I’m not actively turning my students against religion then I’m basically wasting my time. Let me explain why I think this is a bad idea.

First of all, I think it’s a really fast way to get yourself shut down. Sure, a lot of schools have Christian, Muslim and Jewish societies so you could argue discrimination if you came under attack but I don’t think you’d get very far. Sometimes it only takes one angry phone call from a parent to get something cancelled.

More importantly, you don’t want to exclude religious people from your group. A lot of the kids who come along to my club are Christian or Jewish. The last thing I want is for them to feel unwelcome. I steer clear of religious topics for that reason alone. If somebody brings up testable religious claims (such as creationism) I’m always happy to discuss them, but I will never make them the focus of the session.

A lot of my children come from very religious families, who could quickly make a complaint and ban their kids from turning up. My kids all know that I believe in the big bang and the theory of evolution. My kids also know that I can have a respectful conversation with them about it, even if they disagree with me. There are plenty of other topics out there worth discussing.

Prepare to be asked about anything

One day I had an entire session planned around psychics. About five minutes in, a kid asked me if I thought it was alright to tell little kids that Santa exists. Normally I would have told them to wait until the end but most people in the room seemed genuinely interested in my answer. This answer turned into a conversation about the history of Santa, the philosophy of lying and funny Santa stories.

Should I have stopped the discussion and gone back to the psychics? Absolutely not. I knew I could always talk about psychics next week. Children’s minds are so inquisitive and always on the go. The most surprising things can interest them without warning. Go with it. The trick is to have as much knowledge as you can on many different topics. Being a specialist in a particular field is great, but it doesn’t really help when running something like this for kids. In my position, it is better to know a little about a lot of topics, rather than vice versa. Of course, the more I know about as much as possible, the better I can do my job.

Don’t dumb things down

If there’s one thing that never ceases to amaze me about children, it is their almost unlimited capacity for impressively inventive cruelty. If there’s one other thing, it’s how much they actually understand. A couple of months ago a boy in my class started talking about transvestites. He wanted to know whether all transvestites were gay. A few others responded by suggesting that some of them probably are but not all of them. What followed was a wonderfully respectful and inquisitive classroom discussion. I sat back and watched, marvelling at how mature and understanding they were being. What really impressed me was that these children were 12.

Don’t assume that kids can’t handle ‘grown up’ topics. Medical minutiae might go over their heads but it doesn’t mean that they can’t ponder the issues involved. Want to talk about the ethics involved in prescribing placebos? They can handle it. Want to discuss terminally ill people reaching out to alternative medicine as a last resort? Go for it, just be prepared to handle some potentially delicate questions.

Children are easily influenced, so influence wisely

Children pick up everything, from diseases to attitudes. I don’t like angry, condescending adults so I don’t want my kids turning into them. We all know that you don’t change people’s beliefs with ridicule and personal attacks, so why start developing those habits in kids now?

When we discussed homeopathy, some of my students started laughing at people who use it. Obviously, anybody who believes in homeopathy is an idiot and deserves to be ridiculed. I don?t blame them for thinking this way because they are still very young, but it needed to be stamped out immediately. What if the patients were referred to a homeopath by a GP? What if they have no idea how it works? What if they’re at death’s door and are desperately trying something different as a last resort?

If you teach kids to look down on victims of pseudoscience, you are teaching them to be insensitive and arrogant. Kids need to understand that all people should be treated with respect and that everybody is worth listening to. Unless, of course, they’re a filthy scumbag con-artist who is knowingly ripping people off. In that case, go right ahead and tear them a new one.

What do we believe?

A recent UMR Research poll has provided a snapshot of what New Zealanders believe about a range of paranormal subjects. More than half accept that some people have psychic powers; on the other hand, only 24 percent think astrology can be used to predict people’s futures and two thirds do not believe aliens have visited the Earth.

Questions also assessed beliefs in God or a universal spirit, whether Jesus was a historical person, and life after death.

There were some interesting results, particularly where the data are broken down more finely by demographics and the intensity with which beliefs are held. Belief in life after death declines with age, so it would seem the growing sense of one’s own mortality isn’t a major factor in such belief. But belief in psychic powers increases with age, so it’s not just a case of increasing years bringing higher levels of scepticism.

While a majority (61 percent) believe in God, only 41 percent are absolutely certain or fairly certain about this, and belief is much less pronounced in men (52 percent) than women (72 percent). Women are also more likely to believe in life after death, psychic powers and astrology, while the sexes are evenly split on UFOs and whether Jesus was a real person.

Astrology takes a real hiding. Forty percent are absolutely certain it can’t predict the future, while only two percent hold the opposite view. Alien visitation also did rather poorly, with only 11 percent absolutely or fairly certain it has happened, as against 44 percent holding the contrary positions.

An Australian 2009 Nielsen poll makes for interesting comparisons. It seems the Aussies are slightly less likely to believe in psychic powers (49 percent), slightly more likely (68 percent) to believe in God or a universal spirit, about as likely to believe in UFOs, and much more likely (41 percent) to believe in astrology, although this last one may be just the way the question was asked (belief in astrology vs its ability to predict the future).

The poll (www.umr.co.nz/Media/WhatDoNewZealandersBelieveDec11.pdf) was conducted online from 21 to 28 September 2011 on a nationally representative sample of 1000 New Zealanders 18 years of age and over. Detailed quotas and weighting were used to ensure that the sample was as representative as possible. The first results were released in December; future reports based on the data will cover such subjects as beliefs about Maori culture and public faith in herbal remedies. It will be interesting to see how they turn out.

Dealing with wingnuts – which way to turn?

It’s not a hopeless cause to engage with proponents of the irrational – but some ways of doing this are more effective than others. This article is based on a presentation to the 2010 NZ Skeptics conference.

There has never been a time in history when the public understanding of science and rational thinking has been so important. Science has revealed new challenges for humankind, such as climate change and depletion of resources, while new technologies are often accompanied by ethical and social implications that need to be carefully considered. In response to these challenges science communicators spend more time trying to carefully explain science and related issues to the public. However, these efforts to make science more understandable are being confounded by ‘wingnuts’ who use misinformation to confuse public understanding of science.

The term wingnuts has been used by a number of people to describe those who propagate misinformation for a variety of reasons. In his book Wingnuts’ how the lunatic fringe is hijacking America, John Avlon describes a wingnut as “someone on the far-right wing or far-left wing of the political spectrum – the professional partisans and the unhinged activists, the hardcore haters and the paranoid conspiracy theorists.” This is probably a fair summation of the groups that skeptics often confront. Specific examples include Jenny McCarthy for her misinformed and vehement opposition to vaccines, Suzanne Somers for her advocacy of dodgy and dangerous “natural” therapies, Peter Duesberg with his HIV denialism, and Christopher Monckton for his use of misinformation in opposing global warming.

With wingnuts attacking many areas of science and undermining attempts to educate the public, the question has to be asked – How should we deal with these purveyors of irrationality? Some skeptics advocate an aggressive counterattack – personally attacking the wingnuts, in the same way that they have attacked science and science communicators. Others suggest a purely educational and rational approach, relying on the ideal that the truth will win out in the end. For myself, I see the first approach as dangerous in that it muddies the waters – one only has to look at the mess that has resulted in the climate change debate. Personal attacks from both sides of the debate – accusations of conspiracy, impropriety, etc – have confused the public and risk having climate change dismissed as ‘too hard’ to deal with. On the other hand, taking a purely rational approach overlooks the fact that human behaviour is not always rational and prone to being swayed by emotive arguments.

In trying to sort out the best way for me to respond to wingnuts I have developed a list of 10 rules as a guide.

1) Know what you are talking about

Many wingnuts are well versed in their area of ‘expertise’. Debating them without adequate knowledge of the subject as well as an understanding of the typical wingnut ploys is risky. It is worth noting, however, that when exchanging views with a wingnut via blog comments this does give one the opportunity to do research between exchanges.

2) Use precise, simple and neutral language

It is easy to be misunderstood, especially via written language. So, one should keep the language as precise and simple as possible. A choice of neutral language helps maintain a calm exchange of ideas. Emotive language can readily escalate an exchange of ideas into an irrational argument. We have over 600,000 words in the English language to choose from, so why not take some care in deciding how we explain things to others.

3) Respond to rudeness in a calm manner

Some people, including skeptics, see debating ideas as an opportunity to insult others. In my opinion, snide remarks, personal attacks and swearing detract from any rational exchange and serve to both escalate any exchange of thoughts into irrationality as well as hardening the views on both sides of the debate.

When confronted with rudeness, I try to focus on repeating factual information. There is also value in pointing out the rude behaviour. This can be done in an assertive, non-threatening way by making comments about the wingnut’s behaviour and not about them personally. For example by saying “I find it offensive, when you claim that scientists are shills for big pharma” followed by a list of supporting facts, instead of “you are a rude and obnoxious #[email protected]&”. Most people will accept criticism of their behaviour far more readily than what they feel is a personal attack, particularly when the person making the comment ‘owns’ the effect of the behaviour.

It is also worth remembering that it is difficult for someone to continue being rude if you do not reply in kind. If you can maintain being polite to someone who is being rude, in most cases the rudeness will dissipate and one can return to a calm exchange of ideas.

4) Remember – wingnuts are people too

No one is completely rational. We all have our own biases which may result in irrational behaviour. Whether it is a result of our environment or our biology, many of us engage in irrational behaviour without even recognising it. So while we may often assume that a wingnut is being purposely irrational, it is usually the case that they consider their actions to be completely rational. In his book Why we Believe, Michael Shermer describes such behaviour as “intellectual attribution bias” – where those with opposing views typically consider their own actions as being rationally motivated, whereas they see those of their opponents as more emotionally driven.

A simple rule to remember – challenge the ideas, not the person.

5) Ask questions … and listen to the answers

When someone appears to express a view counter to what we believe it is easy to respond by bombarding them with counter arguments. However, this will not only put them on the defensive, it also relies on the fact that you have understood their point of view correctly (see point 7, below). If one takes the time to explore their beliefs further by asking questions, it not only gives you time to assess the extent of their beliefs, if done in a friendly manner it helps establish rapport, allowing for a more rational exchange of ideas. If we leap into an argument with a limited understanding of the other person’s position we can find ourselves trying to convince them of something they already agree with.

6) Leave your ego at the door

In my experience once you start taking comments personally, rationality goes out the window. There are times when the comments of some wingnuts make me furious. At such times the best option is to take time to calm down before responding.

“Science is the search for truth – it is not a game in which one tries to beat his opponent, to do harm to others.” – Linus Pauling

7) Expect misunderstandings

No matter how carefully we think we have phrased something, those hearing or reading them will often misunderstand at least part of what we have said. So one always needs to be ready to rephrase. In order to clarify what we are saying a number of techniques can be used:

a) Counter anecdotes with anecdotes. Follow up by explaining this is why anecdotes are not particularly good as evidence.

b) Use analogies to explain difficult concepts.

c) Apologise when you make a mistake. While some may view apologising as a loss of face, it can actually establish a better rapport. It is far more honest and trust-inspiring than trying to cover up or justify a mistake you have made. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that we all make mistakes.

d) Acknowledge points of agreement. In any argument there are often points that both parties agree on. If we can identify these up front and acknowledge them, it not only makes it easier to explore the points of difference, it again establishes some rapport by saying “look, there are some points on which we can agree.”

8) Don’t make the same mistakes we criticise them for

There is nothing more frustrating than seeing other ‘skeptics’ debate a wingnut by erecting their own strawmen, using ad hominem attacks or other irrational arguments. An experienced wingnut will quickly turn these mistakes to his or her own advantage. It always pays to carefully think through all of your own arguments before using them.

9) Be persistent and don’t expect to change their views overnight

Most wingnuts have spent years developing and reinforcing their positions. Some probably have the psychological equivalent of Fort Knox built around their ideological positions.

So if we can’t easily change their minds, what is the point in debating with them?

Debates with wingnuts seldom take place in a vacuum. Whether they are arguing their point via a letter to the editor, on a blog or amongst a group of friends or workmates, there is always an audience. If their points go unchallenged some of the audience will be swayed by their arguments. So challenging the arguments of a wingnut is less about changing their point of view, and more about educating any audience they have about the flaws and fallacies of their argument. One should aim to win over any such audience with superior knowledge, civility and by pointing out how your position benefits them.

10) Learn more about persuasion

Many skeptics have a great respect for facts and rational debate. However, when it comes to making decisions human beings tend to be more readily swayed by their emotions. Psychologists have spent decades researching how people make decisions. Such research has been embraced and effectively used by marketers and salespeople to get us to buy things we don’t need or want. If the Journal of Marketing Research refer to books like Robert Cialdini’s Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion as “the most important book written in the last 10 years” then perhaps we should also be reading it, not only to help us work out appropriate ways to better present a skeptical viewpoint, but to also immunise us against some of the less scrupulous methods of persuasion.

Some persuasive techniques directly applicable to debating with wingnuts include”

a) Appealing to self interest. Everyone naturally looks at how anything benefits themselves. So when we advocate for vaccination use, rejection of dangerous or ineffective ‘alternative medicines’ and other wingnut ideas we need to focus on the benefits of our positions.

b) Creativity. In a world where we are bombarded with many demands for our attention, the creative ideas stand out. One only has to consider the incredible amounts of money companies spend on novel advertising campaigns to understand this.

c) Repetition. Many wingnuts rely on the idea that if you repeat a lie often enough it will be believed. If this is the case, then surely if you repeat the truth often enough it will also be believed.
d) Soundbites. Many science communicators are now recognising the value of sound bites – short memorable statements outlining key points. Most people are more likely to remember sound bites than the long and complex (albeit more accurate( explanations preferred by many scientists.
e) Be positive. It has been demonstrated that most people remember positive messages more accurately. Thus is it more effective to say that “vaccines save millions of lives each year” as opposed to “vaccines are not dangerous.” Over time, a negative message can become confused and may be remembered instead as “vaccines are dangerous.”

A good example of clever use of such techniques was the 10:23 campaign in January 2010 to educate the public about homeopathy. The public ‘overdose’ on homeopathic remedies by skeptics was a creative way to draw the attention of the media and the public to the irrationality of homeopathy. Clever sound bites such as :ten dollars for a teaspoon of water: were not only memorable but focused on financial self interest. The event also caused several homeopaths or homeopathic organisations to state outright that they don’t know how homeopathy works, a remarkable and useful soundbite (for skeptics( in itself.

Conclusion

This 10-point list outlines my own approach to wingnuts. Others may have different, possibly even contrary rules. I believe it is important that we, as skeptics, share and discuss these ideas rationally and with the view of what will best encourage better and more rational thinking by the general public.

Whether you agree with all of my rules or not, there is hopefully one thing we can agree on. We cannot afford to ignore the wingnuts.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

“We have to create the future or others will do it for us.” – Susan Ivanova, character, Babylon 5 TV series.

Yet more reasons why people believe weird things

Research at Victoria University of Wellington is shedding light on the often irrational processes by which people assess new information. This article is based on presentations to the 2010 NZ Skeptics conference.

Jacqui Dean was alarmed. The Otago MP had received an email reporting the deaths of thousands of people – deaths caused by the compound dihydrogen monoxide. Dihydrogen monoxide is commonly used as an industrial solvent and coolant, it is fatal if inhaled, and is a major component of acid rain (see dhmo.org for more facts about dihydrogen monoxide). Only after she declared her plans to ban dihydrogen monoxide did she learn of its more common name: water (NZ Herald, 2007).

Ms Dean’s honest mistake may be amusing, but when large groups of people fail to correctly assess the veracity of information that failure can have tragic consequences. For example, a recent US survey found 25 percent of parents believe that vaccines can cause autism, a belief that may have contributed to the 11.5 percent of parents refusing at least one recommended vaccine for their child (Freed et al, 2010).

Evidence from experimental research also demonstrates the mistakes people can make when evaluating information. Over a number of studies researchers have found that people believe:

  • that brand name medication is more effective than generic medication;
  • that products that cost more are of higher quality;
  • and that currency in a familiar form – eg, the US dollar bill, is more valuable than currency in a less familiar form – eg, a dollar coin (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2008; for a review, see Rao & Monroe, 1989).

Why is it that people believe these weird things and make mistakes evaluating information?

Usually people can evaluate the veracity of information by relying on general knowledge. But when people have little relevant knowledge they often turn to feelings to inform their decisions (eg Unkelbach, 2007). Consider the following question: Are there more words in the English language that start with the letter K or have K in the third position? When Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky (1973) asked this question most people said there are more words that start with the letter K. And they were wrong. People make this error because words that start with the letter K, like kite, come to mind more easily than words that have a K in the third position, like acknowledge, so they judge which case is true based on a feeling – the experience of ease when generating K examples.

Generally speaking, information that is easy to recall, comprehend, visualise, and perceive brings about a feeling of fluent processing – the information feels easy on the mind, just like remembering words such as kite (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009). We are sensitive to feelings of fluent processing (fluency), and we use it as a cue to evaluate information. For example, repeated information feels easy to bring to mind, and tends to be judged as more true than unrepeated information; trivia statements written in high colour contrast (Osorno is the capital of Chile) are easier to perceive and are judged as more true than statements written in low colour contrast (Osorno is the capital of Chile); and financial stocks with easy to pronounce ticker symbols (eg KAR) outperform those with difficult to pronounce ticker symbols such as RDO (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2006; Hasher et al, 1977; Reber & Schwarz, 1999).

Most of the time, fluently processed information is evaluated more positively – we say it is true, we think it is more valuable. And on the face of it, fluency can be a great mental shortcut: decisions based on fluency are quick and require little cognitive effort. But feelings of fluency can also lead people to make systematic errors. In our research, we examine how feelings of fluency affect beliefs, confidence, and evaluations of others. More specifically, we examine how photos affect people’s judgements about facts; how repeated statements affect mock- jurors’ confidence; and how the complexity of a name affects people’s evaluations of that person.

Can decorative photos influence your beliefs about information?

If we told you that the Barringer Crater is on the northern hemisphere of the moon, would that statement be more believable if we showed you a photo of the Barringer Crater? Because the photo is purely decorative – that is, it doesn’t actually tell you anything about the location of the Barringer Crater (which is in fact in Arizona) – you probably wouldn’t expect it to influence your beliefs about the statement.

Yet, evidence from fluency research suggests that in the absence of relevant knowledge, people rely on feelings to make decisions (eg Unkelbach, 2007). Thus, not knowing what the Barringer Crater is or what it looks like, you might turn to the photo when considering whether the statement is true. The photo might bring about feelings of fluency, and make the statement seem more credible by helping you easily picture the crater and bring to mind related information about craters – even though this would still give you no objective information about where the crater is located. In our research, we ask whether decorative photos can lead people to be more willing to believe information.

How did we answer our research question?

In one experiment, people responded true or false to trivia statements that varied in difficulty; some were easy to answer (eg, Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon), some were more difficult (eg, Turtles are deaf). Half of the time, statements were paired with a related photo (eg, a turtle). In a second study, people evaluated wine labels and guessed whether each of the wine labels had won a medal. We told people that the wine companies were all based in California. In fact, we created all of the wine names by pairing an adjective (eg, Clever) with a noun (eg, Clever Geese). Some of the wine labels contained familiar nouns (eg, Flower) and some contained unfamiliar nouns (eg, Quills). Half of the wine labels appeared with a photo of the noun.

What did we find?

Overall, when people saw trivia statements or wine names paired with photos, they were more likely to think that statements were true or that the wines had won a medal. However, photos only exerted these effects when information was difficult – that is, for those trivia statements that were difficult to answer and wine names that were relatively unfamiliar. Put more simply, decorative photos can lead you to believe claims about unfamiliar information.

Is one eyewitness repeating themselves as believable as three?

If you were a juror in a criminal case, you would probably be more willing to convict a man based on the testimony of multiple eyewitnesses, rather than the testimony of a single eyewitness. But why would you be more likely to believe multiple eyewitnesses? On the one hand, you might think that the converging evidence of multiple eyewitnesses is more accurate and more convincing than evidence from a single eyewitness, and indeed, multiple eyewitnesses are generally more accurate than a single eyewitness (Clark & Wells, 2008).

On the other hand, as some of the fluency research discussed earlier suggests, you may be more likely to believe multiple eyewitnesses simply because hearing from multiple eyewitnesses means hearing the testimony multiple times (Hasher et al, 1977). Put another way, it may be the repetition of the testimony, rather than the number of independent eyewitnesses, that makes you more likely to believe the testimony. In our research, we wanted to know whether it is the overlap of statements made by multiple eyewitnesses or the repetition of those statements that makes information more believable.

How did we answer our research question?

We asked subjects to read three eyewitness reports about a fictitious crime. We told half of the subjects that each report was written by a different eyewitness, and we told the other half that all three reports were written by the same eyewitness. In addition, half of these subjects read some specific claims about the crime (eg, The thief read a Newsweek magazine) in one of the eyewitness reports, while the other half read those same specific claims in all three reports. Later, we asked subjects to tell us how confident they were that certain claims made in the eyewitness reports really happened during the crime (eg, How confident are you that the thief read a Newsweek magazine?).

What did we find?

This study had two important findings. First, regardless of whether one or three different eyewitnesses ostensibly wrote the reports, subjects who read claims repeated across all three reports were more confident about the accuracy of the claims than subjects who read those claims in only one report. Second, when the claims were repeated, subjects were just as confident about the accuracy of a single eyewitness as the accuracy of multiple eyewitnesses. These findings tell us that repeated claims were relatively more fluent than unrepeated claims – making people more confident simply because the claims were repeated, not because multiple eyewitnesses made them.

Would a name influence your evaluations of a person?

Your immediate response might be that it shouldn’t – people’s names provide no objective information about their character. We hope that we make decisions about others by recalling information from memory and gathering evidence about a person’s attributes. Indeed, research shows that when we have knowledge about a topic, a person or a place, we do just that – use our knowledge to make a judgement- and we can be reasonably accurate in doing so (eg, Unkelbach, 2007).

But when we don’t know a person and we can’t draw on our knowledge, we might be influenced by their name. As we have described, when people cannot draw on memory to make a judgement, they unwittingly turn to tangential information to make their decisions. Therefore, when people evaluate an unfamiliar name, tangential information, like the complexity of that name, might influence their judgements. More specifically, we thought that unknown names that were phonologically simple – easier to pronounce – would be judged more positively on a variety of attributes than names that were difficult to pronounce.

How did we answer our research question?

We showed people 16 names gathered from international newspapers. Half of the names were easy to pronounce (eg, Lubov Ershova), and half were difficult to pronounce (eg, Czeslaw Ratynska). We matched the names on a number of factors to make sure any differences we found were not due to effects of culture or name length. So for example, people saw an easy and difficult name from each region of the world and names were matched on length. Across three experiments, we asked subjects to judge whether each name was familiar (Experiment 1), trustworthy (Experiment 2), or dangerous (Experiment 3).

What did we find?

Although the names were not objectively different from each other on levels of familiarity, trustworthiness, or danger, people systematically judged easy names more positively than difficult names. Put another way, people thought that easy-to-pronounce names were more familiar, more trustworthy, and less dangerous than difficult-to-pronounce names. So although we would like to think we would not evaluate a person based on their name, we may unwittingly use trivial information like the phonological complexity of a name in our judgements.

Conclusions

Why is it that people believe these weird things and make mistakes when evaluating information? Our research suggests that decorative photos, repetition of information, and a person’s name all influence the way people interpret information. More specifically, decorative photos lead people to think information is more credible; repetition leads mock-jurors to be more confident in eyewitness statements – regardless of how many eyewitnesses provided the statements; and an easy-to-pronounce name can lead people to evaluate a person more positively.

Relying on feelings of fluency can result in sensible, accurate decisions when we are evaluating credible facts, accurate eyewitness reports, and trustworthy people. But the same feelings can lead people into error when we are evaluating inaccurate facts, mistaken eyewitnesses, and unreliable people. More specifically, feelings of fluency might lead us to think false facts are true, be more confident in inaccurate eyewitness reports, and more positively evaluate an unreliable person.

A common finding across our studies is that the effect of fluency was specific to situations where people had limited general knowledge to draw on. In the real world, we might see these effects even when people have sufficient knowledge to draw on. That is because we juggle a lot of information at any one time and we do not have the cognitive resources to carefully evaluate every piece of information that reaches us – as a result we may turn to feelings to make some decisions. Therefore it is inevitable that we will make at least some mistakes. We can only hope that our mistakes are comical rather than tragic.

The authors thank Professor Maryanne Garry for her invaluable guidance and her inspiring mentorship on these and other projects.

References

Alter, A, Oppenheimer, D 2006: Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 103, 9369-9372.
Alter, A, Oppenheimer, D 2008: Psychonomic Bull. & Rev. 15, 985-990.
Alter, A; Oppenheimer, D 2009: Personality and Soc. Psych. Rev. 13, 219-236.
Clark, SE; Wells, GL 2008: Law & Human Behavior 32, 406-422.
Dihydrogen Monoxide – DHMO Homepage. (2010).dhmo.org
Freed, G; Clark, S; Butchart, A; Singer, D; Davis, M 2010: Pediatrics, 125, 653-659.
Hasher, L; Goldstein, D; Toppino, T 1977: J. Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior 16, 107-112.
NZ Herald 2007:www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10463579
Rao, A; Monroe, K 1989: J. Marketing Research, 26, 351-357.
Reber, R; Schwarz, N 1999: Consciousness & Cognition 8, 338-342.
Tversky, A; Kahneman, D 1973: Cognitive Psych. 5, 207-232.
Unkelbach, C 2007: J. Exp. Psych.: Learning, Memory, & Cognition 33, 219-230.

Oxygenated food for the brain?

Alison Campbell finds some claims about raw foods hard to swallow.

I was reading a couple of articles about ‘raw foods’ today. This is ‘raw foods’ as in ‘foods that you don’t heat above 40°C in processing them.’ It’s also as in, a vegetarian diet. (I do rather enjoy vegetarian food, but I don’t think I could eat nothing but, all the time; I like meat too much.) Anyway, what caught my eye wasn’t so much the diet programme itself but the mis-use of science to promote it. That did rather get my goat broccoli.

Apparently you should get your kids to eat their greens (along with the rest of the diet) by telling them that plants do this wonderful thing: they turn sunlight into chlorophyll and – when you eat it – it will give you extra oxygen. Sigh&#8230 This concept was repeated in the second article, which told me that raw (but not cooked) foods are ‘oxygenated’ and thus better for your brain, which needs to be fully oxygenated to work properly.

Well, yes, and so do all your other bits and pieces, and they don’t get the oxygen from food. As Ben Goldacre once said, even if chlorophyll were to survive the digestive process and make it through to the intestine, it needs light in order to photosynthesise, quite apart from the fact that you don’t normally absorb oxygen across the gut wall. And it’s kind of dark inside you.

The second shaky claim related to digestive enzymes. Because raw foods are ‘alive’ then they are full of enzymes. And so we’re told that eating them will help you to digest your meals better.

Er, no. First, because when said enzymes – being proteins – hit the low pH environment of your stomach they are highly likely to be denatured. This change in shape means that they lose the ability to function as they should, and in fact they’ll be chopped up into amino acids like any other protein in your food, before being absorbed and then used by your cells to make their own enzymes.

And second – the raw foods diet is plant-based. Yes, plants and animals are going to have some enzymes in common. I’d expect that those involved in cellular respiration and DNA replication/protein synthesis would be very similar, for example, because these are crucial processes in any cell’s life and any deviations in form and function are likely to be severely punished by natural selection. But we already have those enzymes; they’re manufactured in situ as required. In other words, even if the plant enzymes somehow made it into cells intact and capable of functioning, they’d be redundant.

However, with a very few exceptions, plants aren’t in the habit of consuming other organisms so, in regard to plant cells being a good source of the digestive enzymes required for the proper functioning of an omnivore’s gut – no, I don’t think so. No.

Some might ask, why on earth do I bother about this stuff? After all, it’s not doing any harm. But the thing is – science is so cool, so exciting; it tells us so much about the world – why do people have to prostitute it in this way? Kids (and others) are fascinated by the way their bodies’ organ systems work, and I can’t see why there seems to be a need to provide ‘simple’ – and wrong! – alternative ‘explanations’ when the real thing is so wonderful.

The fallibility of eyewitness memory

Eyewitness testimony is commonly regarded as very high quality evidence. But recent research has shown there are many ways memories of events can become contaminated. This article is based on a presentation to the NZ Skeptics conference in Wellington, 27 September 2009.

In 2003, a woman was tragically attacked and raped after leaving a bar in Christchurch. She remembered her assailant as a man with “rat- like” features. Later, she chose the police suspect from a photographic lineup, indicating that she was “90 percent sure” that he was her assailant. This identification became the central piece of evidence that convicted Aaron Farmer. But, in June 2007, Mr Farmer was exonerated after DNA proved that he could not have been the rapist – he had spent almost three years in prison.

Unfortunately, Mr Farmer’s case is not an isolated incident. Decades of legal and psychological research have shown that eyewitness identification error is the leading cause of wrongful conviction. Recently the former High Court judge, Sir Thomas Thorp, published an extensive review of legal research on miscarriages of justice. In that paper, he estimated that there are at least 20 innocent people in New Zealand prisons, and he emphasised eyewitness error as a leading cause of convictions. This conclusion fits neatly with exoneration data from the Innocence Project, based in New York. Since 1992, the Innocence Project has exonerated over 250 wrongfully convicted people, over 75 percent of whom were identified by at least one eyewitness.

How can human memory be so fragile as to lead a witness to choose an innocent person from a lineup? Over 30 years of research has shed light on this question. Ultimately, this research has shown that memory can go wrong in several ways. The best way to understand these errors is to think of memory as a three-stage process:
[1] encoding,
[2] retention, and
[3] recall.

At the encoding stage, information is perceived and transferred from the environment, through our senses. These perceptual processes allow us to lay down memory traces. Next, those traces are retained for a period of time. Of course this retention stage can last for anywhere between seconds and years, until finally we recall that information from memory. It is important to know that any one of these three stages can go awry.

Encoding

Encoding depends heavily on our ability to pay attention to information in the environment. However, our attentional systems are limited. We can only pay attention to a few things at once. Anything that does not receive the requisite amount of attention does not have the chance to make it through the encoding phase of memory.

Furthermore, many variables, such as stress, can limit our attentional processes even more. As a result, witnesses will often not pay attention to details that could be forensically relevant. For example, a witness under stress may pay particular attention to the weapon being brandished by the offender, rather than paying attention to his facial details. If this is the case, those facial details may never be stored in memory, and if information is not stored, it cannot be recalled later.

Retention

The information that makes it into memory can be distorted easily. Perhaps the best known psychological science research in this field is the misinformation effect pioneered by Elizabeth Loftus. This research shows that a simple suggestion can change witnesses’ memories. In a typical misinformation experiment, there are three stages.

First, participants watch a simulated crime, such as a man stealing a maths book from a bookstore. After a delay, participants are exposed to post- event information (PEI), which is usually a narrative describing the simulated crime. For some participants, the PEI is accurate but generic (eg, “the man stole a book”), and for others the details are misleading (eg, “the man stole a science book”).

Finally, participants are questioned to determine their memory’s accuracy for the event. These participants are often specifically told to ignore everything they read in the narrative and only rely on what they saw during the event. Typically, those participants who read misleading details during the PEI have less accurate memories than those who read generic information.

This research shows the ease with which a person’s memory can be changed. Decades of research have shown that people can come to remember having seen a crime when in fact they have seen an innocuous event. Using this paradigm people can even come to remember having seen an innocuous event, when in fact they have seen a crime. Witnesses can often be exposed to misleading details from co- witnesses, suggestive interviewing techniques or sometimes, media reports of the crime. Any of these sources can lead witnesses to remember details that did not happen.

Recall

Psychological science has also shown that the way we test witnesses can also affect their memories for what they have seen. Some of the most prolific research in this field has examined the way that we test witnesses’ memories for offenders’ faces using the lineup technique. Photographic lineups are the most common method of testing eyewitness recall for offenders.

Usually, a lineup depicts a police suspect surrounded by known innocent people – known as distracters. A witness chooses a person from a lineup in the same way that a person chooses an option from multiple- choice question. When people choose the correct answer from a multiple- choice question it is considered evidence that they recognised the correct answer by relying on memory; and when witnesses choose the suspect from a montage, it is considered evidence that they recognised the suspect from the crime scene.

However, people do not always rely on their memory in either multiple- choice questions or lineups. A multiple-choice question can be biased towards the correct answer, as in this example:

What is the capital of Burundi?

Most people cannot rely solely on their memory to answer this question. Now consider these choices:

(a) Paris;
(b) Sydney;
(c) Wellington;
(d) Bujumbura.

You probably chose the correct answer (d), not because you had a memory for Burundi’s capital, but because you used a process of elimination to choose that answer. Similarly, a lineup is sometimes constructed so that witnesses do not need to rely on their memory for the offender; instead, they use a process of elimination – the suspect becomes the Bujumbura of the lineup.

Lineup bias

The danger arises when the wrong person is suspected of a crime and then included in a biased lineup. Research shows that witnesses will often choose from a lineup, even when the actual offender is not present. If the lineup has been constructed in a biased way (like the multiple choice question above), witnesses are even more likely to choose from the lineup. It is misidentifications like these that often lead to wrongful convictions.

Taken together, this research shows that witnesses’ memories are susceptible to several sources of error. As such, we need to ensure that we collect and test witnesses’ memories with scientifically valid interview and lineup techniques. Scientific recommendations regarding best practice procedures for witness evidence have been available for several decades, but few jurisdictions worldwide have taken them up. This lack of recognition for scientific validation is surprising given the relatively fast uptake of forensic science methods, such as DNA testing.

As a result, the best way to think of witness memory evidence is like biological evidence at a crime scene. If we were unlucky enough to stumble across a bloody crime scene, most people would be careful not to contaminate the scene by trampling through the blood spatter patterns, or handling any evidence. Similarly, we should treat witness memory with the same caution. When a witness has been exposed to a crime, we should not contaminate their memories with suggestive questioning and biased lineups. Instead, we should collect and preserve their memories with scenically valid techniques. Only then can we hope to reduce the increasing number of wrongful convictions caused by erroneous witness evidence.

Is science just mysticism in a lab coat?

Some fields that claim the authority of science may be in need of an overhaul. This article is based on a presentation to the NZ Skeptics 2009 conference in Wellington, 26 September.

I have always been in two minds about scepticism. I am undoubtedly a sceptic by nature; I enjoy questioning and challenging things. It suits my temperament and I like to think adds something important to a discussion. But a true sceptic must be sceptical about scepticism too, and it’s hard to escape two weaknesses in the scepticism agenda. The first is oft noted. As the British philosopher Roger Scruton puts it, when a sceptic tells you nothing is true, they are telling you not to listen to them, so don’t.

Of course, few confessed sceptics are sceptics in this pure philosophical sense. In some things we must opt for mindless belief in order to function. Without our commitment to notions of causation for instance, or other minds, or time, or the rules of logic, we would be unable to make much headway in the world; yet none of these core principles are able to withstand the sceptic’s gaze. And so, quite sensibly, we do not look there. The typical sceptic, it seems to this outsider, is more a champion of an evidence-based form of something we might call scientism. Their mission becomes the challenging of those forms of knowledge which appear to pay scant regard to the available set of observations. The trouble here is that limited resources mean there are only so many places the sceptical gaze can shine and choices must be made. Sometimes prejudice will determine which knowledge is scrutinised and which is left alone, or worse still, laziness. It is all too easy to attack the hapless for our own amusement, while leaving the powerful unchallenged.

The second problem is one of ‘busybodyism’. I myself have little time for quackery and superstition but most of the time I find it hard to care whether others share my perspective. Yes, it is clearly wrong for those pretending to talk to the dead (or rather pretending the dead talk back) to exploit the grieving, but to those who enjoy recounting their ghost stories and snorting their arnica I tend to feel why not leave them to it. Who am I to say my life’s any richer for having forgone such flim-flammery?

It is with these caveats in mind that I turn my attention evolutionary psychology. Here is a refuge of shysters that by and large is not subject to the same level of attack endured by astrology, which is odd to me, for the methodologies are remarkably similar. I suspect it’s got something to do with the fact that it happens not in the tents of a gypsy fair but within the hallowed hallways of academia, and better still often within spitting distance of the science faculty. And to allay my second concern with scepticism, I have little trouble being a busybody in this area for the simple reason that the activities of academics are so often tax-payer funded, and given the vital role of academia in protecting and advancing knowledge it’s quite okay to hold these people to a higher standard.

So, why be sceptical about evolutionary psychology? Well, because it’s not scientific in its approach and yet attempts to hide behind the language of science, and to me that feels like an intellectual fraud. I can’t make that claim without first defining what I mean by science and given the millions of words that have been written on the slippery topic I’m clearly going to have to oversimplify.

The basics of the scientific method are well known. At heart this is a discipline based upon observation, hypothesis making, prediction and testing. The remarkable power of science to advance our knowledge stems for the ability to test the claims we are making against the data, and crucially this data is at its most powerful when it is generated by the hypothesis, rather than representing a cobbling together of the already known facts.

Before the General Theory of Relativity, nobody imagined that light would be bent by gravity. When Eratosthenes predicted the angle of the sun as measured by the shadows in a well shaft would be different at the same time of day, he was using the hypothesis of a curved earth to generate a novel prediction (and so test his hypthesis). When Fresnel’s equation predicted that light waves would produce a bright patch directly behind an obstacle he forced the French academy to rethink their acceptance of Newton’s particle theory of light. And closer to home, when David Penny and Mike Hendy working out of Massey University predicted that species relatedness would produce particular patterns in as-yet untested genetic sequences, they gave us a way of verifying the evolutionary hypothesis.

In all these cases and so many more we are awestruck by the power of science to not just explain existing facts, but also generate new ones. If you look at X under circumstances Y, I predict you will see Z, says the scientist. And what’s more, if you don’t then my theory is at least partially wrong. On the back of this method we have developed the technologies that underpin the modern world.

Evolutionary psychology, the claim that understanding our evolutionary past will help us better understand our contemporary behaviour, has none of these attributes, although at first glance it can appear to. Ostensibly the discipline seeks first to read the known data, our understanding of the evolutionary processes by which we were designed, then build its hypotheses, speculations about the behavioural tendencies of modern humans, and finally using the tools of psychology to test these hypotheses against the observations of our contemporary behaviour. Unfortunately, any resemblance to actual science is entirely coincidental. For evolutionary psychology as it is currently practised contains three crucial flaws.

The first comes from the requirement that a hypothesis, in order to be tested, must make a unique prediction. If two hypotheses both generate the same prediction, then experimentation will yield no means of deciding between them. Take the claim for instance that certain aspects of our appreciation of art are innate. Well yes, that’s a sensible enough idea, it may well be true and although difficult to test, it’s probably not impossible. Commonalities across time and culture provide clear hints that there is a genetic component at work.

However, and here’s the rub, there is nothing about evolutionary theory that gives it exclusive right to this claim of innate aesthetics. A creationist could equally well argue that God himself endowed humanity with these basic tendencies to assess and report upon the world’s beauty. Both hypotheses generate exactly the same predictions and this is a clear sign the evolutionary part of the process is not a scientific one, for in science predictions are used to choose between rival explanations.

A second huge problem is that we don’t actually know much about our evolutionary past, and so the blocks with which we build our initial hypotheses are spectacularly inadequate. Sometimes, when reading the claims of the evolutionary psychologist, it is tempting to imagine the savannah was fully equipped with CCTV cameras and Facebook. Complex stories are built about social structures, hunting and collecting rituals and mating preferences, and what emerges is a rendering of our evolutionary past that owes more to the Flintstones than any compelling archaeological evidence.

Take for example the initially persuasive claim that the difference in the reproductive potentials of men and women led to men (competing to mate with as many as possible) the aggressors, and women (attempting to raise the healthiest possible) the choosey co-operators. A cave man version of the courting practices of birds is evoked and because the language used is faux scientific, we are expected to buy the construction.

Again, it is possible that our distant ancestors arranged themselves this way but it is by no means certain. It is equally plausible that the emergence of language and complex culture changed the game completely, selecting against male aggression and for charm and social acumen. While Conan is out smiting all with an ass’s jawbone, Romeo is inside the cave getting to know his wife. We have examples from the primate world of females being the dominant aggressors and more importantly the emergence of complex language sets the human ape apart, generating unique selective pressures that we can only guess at.

The key moments in the evolution of the human mind revolved about the invention of language and so it is worth asking the evolutionary psychologist, how did language first come about, where and when, under what environmental pressures did it develop and what was it used for? Until we can answer these questions, and perhaps some day we will be able to, we do not have the basis the theory requires.

This second flaw exposes the third problem. We are not in fact using data from the past to form hypotheses about the present state of the human mind. Rather we are using our observations and testings of our current psychology to speculate about the nature of our evolutionary past. We are reversing the entire scientific process. Because we observe modern males indulging in more physical forms of aggression we guess this is innate (an heroic assumption in itself) and then cobble together an evolutionary ‘Just So’ story to give these modern prejudices the veneer of social respectability. And that is story telling. It is often diverting and frequently amusing, but only in the way that a horoscope is.

What’s actually happening is that contemporary studies of human psychology, which should be judged purely upon the contemporary data they generate, have their credibility bolstered by an appeal to a distant past that exists only in the imagination of those wishing to sell their theory.

Do men and women in general use different methods to get their bearings? A lot of experiments suggest they do. Okay. Is there a genetic basis for this? We could certainly look for one. Does a cock-and-bull story about how men roamed further in their hunting of animals while women paid close attention to the details of where particular berries would be found add anything to our knowledge of this phenomenon? Well, it adds colour and saleability I suppose, but that is a lousy criteria by which to judge scientific advancement.

How has all this happened? One can only speculate. Partly it may be the thrill that comes to academics when they cross into a new discipline. Suddenly everything is fresh and exciting again, and the new perspective gives them great energy. Partly it’s just that we all love a good story, particularly when so many of the tales in the area centre around the eternally fascinating topic of gender.

So should we be sceptical about these works of fiction parading as scholarly analysis of our past? Absolutely. We should mock them with the same gusto we mock the water diviner and the investment adviser. So come on sceptics, this is a call to arms. Out the phonies wherever you find them.

Interestingly none of this means we should give up on the field of evolutionary psychology completely, for the hypothesis does have one testable and important implication. If indeed our evolutionary past has hard-wired certain behavioural tendencies then clues of this process will still lurk in our DNA. Longitudinal studies like the groundbreaking work coming out of Dunedin are beginning to mine the potential in this approach. But the work is long and painstaking, the conclusions complex and tentative and subject to constant revision.

The picture slowly emerging is one of delicate feedback between gene and environment and the stories to be told are cautious, fragile things. Real science in other words, is potentially about changing the face of our future. That’s where the resources should be going.

Belief and knowledge: a plea about language

Alison Campbell looks at some words that cause scientific misunderstandings.

I suspect that for many of my first-year Biology students, the sheer weight of new terms they come across is perhaps the most daunting thing about the course. In some ways learning biology is rather like learning a new language, with several thousand new words swamping the page (and the brain).

But there’s more than just the new words – there’s the meaning of the words to come to terms with. This is the focus of Helen Quinn’s paper in Physics Today (2007): Belief and knowledge – a plea about language. There are many words whose meaning to a scientist may be quite different from what they mean to a layperson. Quinn feels, and I agree, that some words “are the root of considerable public misunderstanding about science: belief, hypothesis, theory and knowledge.”

‘Belief’ isn’t really a word that sits well with science. As Quinn says, it can be “an article of faith” ie religious belief. Or – conversely – in the phrase “I believe he is coming at 5pm”, you get the meaning “but I’m not really sure.” So how are we to take those news stories that begin “Scientists believe”? A statement like “most biologists believe in evolution” could be used to claim that evolution is as much faith-based as organised religion. (I tell my students that I don’t ‘believe’ in evolution, but accept it as the best available current explanation for life’s diversity. This can engender some interesting discussions…)

But what the statement “most scientists believe” means – to scientists – is that most scientists agree that the weight of evidence favours a particular interpretation. Quinn suggests we should say “scientific evidence supports the conclusion that…” I like this – it leaves open the possibility that this conclusion could change, if sufficient evidence to the contrary comes to light. Which is a much better reflection of the nature of science. Unfortunately there tends to be a perception that scientific ‘facts’ don’t change. (Also unfortunate is the fact that if scientists do change their interpretation of the data, they’re accused of not really knowing what they’re talking about. Sometimes I think we just can’t win!) Like Quinn, I feel that as scientists we shouldn’t be using the ‘b’ word – it gives the appearance that science is “just another belief system.”

‘Theory’ is another word that means different things to different people. “I’ve got a theory about that” really means, ‘I’ve got a hunch or an idea, a guess.’ But to scientists ‘theory’ means a well-established explanation for a large body of data: the theories of relativity, plate tectonics, evolution… These are definitely not guesses (nor are they belief systems!), but comprehensive explanations that have strong predictive power and have been tested time and time again. They are also incomplete, but that again is the nature of science. Scientific theories may well be modified if new evidence comes to hand: Newton’s laws are an example. (Quinn notes that Newton’s laws still hold, under certain well-defined conditions.)

It’s worth repeating Quinn’s description of how scientific theories are developed, because this is a valuable description of how science operates and what sets it apart from ‘other ways of knowing’:

When we seek to extend and revise our hypothetical frameworks, we make hypotheses, build models, and construct untested, alternate, extended theories. These last must incorporate all the well-established elements of prior theories. Experiment not only tests the new hypotheses; any unexplained result both requires and constrains new speculative theory building – new hypotheses. Models … play an important role here. They allow us to investigate and formulate the predictions and tests of our theory in complex situations. Our theories are informed guesses, incorporating much that we know. They may or may not pan out, but they are motivated by some aspects or puzzles in the existing data and theory. We actively look for contradictions.

Travels in ceremony country

Some claim our society is too materialistic and lacks spiritual values. But what would it be like to live in a society that rejects materialism?

Arnhem Land in tropical Australia has a curious status. Although the government has overall responsibility, the indigenous inhabitants are considered to be in control over the area where they live. Outsiders must seek permission to enter a tribal area and a permit is issued on payment of a fee. Twenty years ago the tourist fee was relatively modest, but for a mining concession the fee is substantial as one might expect. We paid $65 for two of us per day on our first visit, although fees have risen greatly over time.

Very few tourists visit because the fee is for entry only and there are no hotels, restaurants, shops or similar facilities. There are very few roads, or even tracks for four-wheel drive vehicles. However it is possible to fly in and stay at the small mining town of Nhulunbuy within Arnhem Land where there is accommodation, shops and restaurants. No permit is needed provided one stays within the town perimeter.

A tiny number of operators in Nhulunbuy will offer tours with a vehicle and guide, and assistance in obtaining the necessary permits. The tribespeople are generally not unfriendly but shy, and few will attempt much of a conversation even if they have sufficient English. As Australian citizens they are eligible for benefits so individuals have some income though very few have jobs (and those who do are nearly all women). A good deal of their income is spent on alcohol. Getting drunk is not frowned upon within the tribal system. Religion puts a high value on a trance-like state and it is not clear how inebriation differs from this (even to me). Violence when drunk can be punished, especially if somebody is harmed.

On one of our visits, a chief’s drunken son had just beaten a woman to death. A meeting of elders had decided that the spearing would take place immediately and that the official trial (that would presumably result in a conviction for manslaughter) would occur when he got out of hospital. On some previous occasions, the spearing took place when the offender got out of prison and this was thought to be unfair.

Some but not all children go to school. On one tiny island in the Gulf of Carpentaria I met a group of young boys living on their own to prepare for the ‘circumcision’ ceremony that would admit them to full tribal membership. They had spears and knives (but no clothes), and were living on fish and other seafood that they could catch or collect. Water was in short supply and the gifts of cold cans of soft drink were more than welcome. These boys (around 12 years old at my guess) could speak some English. But they could not reach a consensus as to how long they had been on the island, how long since they had seen an adult, how long they expected to stay or even whether they had ever been to school. I got the impression that they were not supposed to have any contact with me, but soft drinks overwhelmed any moral inhibitions.

Anthropologists have described this island sequestration of pre-initiates, but I doubt they interviewed the boys on an island. The written descriptions simply add to my scepticism of anthropologists. What I observed differed from the anthropological accounts in a number of important ways.

I have become friendly with one (white) Australian who had been initiated into one tribe and could act as interpreter. However my friendship has not progressed to the stage where I felt able to ask him if he had undergone the severe penile mutilation that the young boys are supposed to endure. The ceremony involves more than simple circumcision as understood by us.

On one trip my friend had recently taken a guy on an eco-tour. They first visited the tribe for permission and found a man apparently completing a painting on bark. In some parts of Australia paintings are made to sell to tourists but these are of variable quality. The tourist was excited at finding an authentic work of art, which he thought beautiful. The artist showed little reluctance to sell, and little interest in a price. But his work was not complete and he insisted it had to be finished. It was agreed that the tourist would return at the end of his visit.

Some days later the guide and tourist returned and the artist produced his now-complete painting. It was nothing like the one that had been admired and the tourist did not like it. But, explained the artist, the one he had liked was still there, it was just underneath. In fact there were four layers of painting; none of these were intended to be viewed by human eyes. Painting is done to satisfy the artist and please the spirits who are not limited by human sense organs. The artist had some understanding that the tourist might wish to own something that pleased the spirits. He could not understand why the new owner might want to view the painting.

There are many rock paintings across the tropical North. However the access to some sites has been restricted or stopped altogether. This is not because the tribes think the paintings may be damaged by tourists, in fact they paint over some old examples. This does not ‘damage’ them as they are still there for the spirits. But viewing by non-initiates desecrates the site. Actually photography and video desecrates them even more but we were not aware of this on our earliest trips!

Most tribes are small; one we encountered consisted of about 40 individuals. All receive some assistance from the government and those whose lands contain valuable minerals get money from their leases. In fact the amounts from leases can be enormous when considered against the standard of the material possessions of the tribe, apart from its land.

A giant aluminium company built a village for one tiny tribe on the edge of a huge lagoon called Bradshaw Harbour. There were vast resources for fishing and gathering of food, but after a few years when the senior elder had died, the tribe abandoned their houses and moved to the edge of Nhulunbuy where they could camp within easy access to alcohol.

Of course there are outsiders with a mission to help the local people, medics, teachers, social workers and religious enthusiasts, but the curious status of the place allows the locals to determine what kind of help they will accept. These are tribal societies, so it is the elders, ie the older men, who decide.

Most outsiders would like to see the available money spent on material things like housing, hygiene, education, medicine, etc. That is, those things upon which our society puts great value. But the elders put the greatest value on their religion. This involves complex and lengthy ‘ceremonies’, when a tribe invites its neighbours to a session of feasting and ritual generally lasting many days. In earlier times this presumably had the practical result of reducing tension and the risk of intertribal war.

Initiated men are called ‘warriors’ in English translation, even though they may be young teenagers. I have been on a fishing/hunting trip with a ‘warrior’ whose grandmother told me was 13. He carried two spears and a ‘throwing stick’ (his term) sometimes called an atlatl or woomera by outsiders. However it was a sacred object, no uninitiated person could touch it or even learn its proper name and he did not know any other western names for the object.

We went fishing in one spot; part of our concession was to take along a tribal member. A woman agreed; she would spend her time gathering food on a sacred beach. But she wanted to also take her daughter who she thought had just become fertile. It was necessary also to take a warrior, because a girl not so accompanied would become pregnant by walking on this sacred beach. This had happened to her as a teenager so she was certain it was true. Our guide (in the woman’s hearing), explained that the tribespeople were perfectly aware of the connection between sex and pregnancy but they had sex all the time and pregnancy did not always result so some other factor must be involved. I decided this was similar to attitudes in rural Ireland where prayers to the Virgin are thought important in such matters.

Before money was introduced, the cost in resources of putting on a ceremony was considerable relative to the economic status of a tribe. However the number of people who could attend was limited to those tribes in the vicinity: within walking distance. Generally it is estimated most tribes held a ceremony only once a year, while they probably attended between two and four more, held by their neighbours.

Mining royalties mean that the tribes (though not the individual) have considerable discretionary income and a very large percentage of this is spent on travel costs, to allow the people to attend distant ceremonies and on catering for the greatly enlarged numbers who attend the local ceremony. If sufficient funds allow they may also increase the number of ceremonies held. These days food is purchased as well as gathered, in fact close to a supermarket in Nhulunbuy very little is gathered, while very large amounts of alcoholic drink will be needed.

At first the travel range was increased by four-wheel drive transport, but with unskilled drivers and a complete lack of mechanics for maintenance, these had only a brief useful life. Where mining roads have been installed, ground vehicles may still be of use, but road maintenance is costly and without upkeep no road is likely to survive even a single wet season.

Travel by air is more feasible and tribes now often hire air transport. This makes the whole of Arnhem Land within the range of any tribe living within one day’s walk of a bush airstrip.

Outside Arnhem Land, in Western Australia, taxpayers provide subsidy for tribal transport where there are no mining concessions. In 2007 we were at a small, isolated fishing camp (four anglers) in an uninhabited area when we had a visit from the ‘traditional owners’ plus social workers and government officials. They came supposedly to see that the region was being looked after properly. There is never any litter around at fishing camps in the Kimberley, so after this group had left one of the guides went round to pick up all the litter they had dropped – mainly cigarette butts.

There was no road access and no place for a landing strip. A helicopter was kept on the ground while the party was visiting. When it came time for them to leave it had developed a fault. Another chopper with a mechanic had to come to examine it, while a third very large machine came to pick up the party (they all had to travel at once instead of being ferried, as night was approaching). None of the visitors had been there before – it is actually Government land – ie public land and it could not support a permanent settlement now or in the recent past.

The main concern of the traditional owners was to ensure that tourist operators did not take people to visit ancient sites and in particular did not photograph, or even view, ancient rock art. Such visitors offended against the traditional spiritual values, but these people expressed no interest in charging fees to allow tourists to do these touristy things.

Further reading: Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. M Abley, 2003. The Elements of the Aborigine Tradition. James G Cowan, 1992.