An alien star-child?

Waikato University biological sciences lecturer Alison Campbell posts a regular blog on matters biological ( Her aim is to encourage critical thinking among secondary students. We think these need sharing.

Last week one of my students wrote to me about something they’d seen on TV:

My friend and I saw this on Breakfast this morning. Although we don’t think it is all true, we are still interested because they talked a lot about the skull’s morphology and how they believe it is the offspring from a female human and an alien. Here’s the website on it:

It would be great to hear your thoughts.”

So I went off and had a look at the website, and wrote back. My first thought is that (following what’s called ‘Occam’s razor’) the simplest possible explanation is likely to be correct, ie that this is simply a ‘pathological’ human skull, rather than a mysterious alien-human hybrid. (Read Armand LeRoy’s book Mutants to get a feel for just how wide the range of potential variation is in humans.)

Happily there are ways of testing this – the skull is reportedly only 900 years old so it should be possible to look at its DNA.

And indeed this has been done – and the data are presented on the Starchild project’s website. Which surprised me more than a little, given that they don’t support the hybrid idea! The skull in question – which certainly has an interesting shape – was found along with the remains of an adult female. The DNA results show that both woman and child were native Americans, not related to each other, and also that the child was male. There is absolutely no indication there of any ‘alien’ DNA. Which is what I would have predicted – if we were to be visited by extraterrestrial individuals, why would we expect them to be a) humanoid and b) genetically compatible with us? ie the likelihood of successful interbreeding is vanishingly small. And that’s a big ‘if’ in any case … Carl Sagan had some sensible things to say on that issue in The Demon-haunted World.

My personal view is that the whole thing should have been examined rather more critically by the programmers before it made it to air. But then, I have ceased to be surprised at the uncritical nature of much that’s presented by our broadcast media (with the honourable exception of the National Programme!).

mp3 blues

HAVING recently joined the happy hordes of mp3 player owners, our household has been getting an object lesson in the nature of random events. For those who have yet to succumb to the charms of these amazing little gadgets, they can hold thousands of songs in memory and play them back in many different ways. You can, for example, just play a single album, or make up a playlist of songs for a party, or to encapsulate a particular mood.

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The physiology of the placebo effect

Placebos may contain no active ingredients, but they have real effects on the human brain. This article is based on a presentation to the NZ Skeptics 2008 conference in Hamilton, September 26-28.

Earlier this year, Dr Tipu Aamir of the Auckland Pain Management Service drew my attention to something peculiar. In a double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trial of morphine after a standard knee operation, 30 percent of those receiving a placebo get pain relief. When those people are given a specific morphine antagonist (‘antidote’), their pain comes back! In the words of a former contributor at an annual conference of this society, this was an epiphany. I needed to know more.

After all, how could something that was ‘all in the mind’ be changed predictably by a substance with a known pharmacological action?

Any study of homeopathy raises the issue of the placebo effect. As a result of a meta-analysis in 2005 of a number of studies comparing homeopathic remedies with orthodox treatment, Shang et al stated in their conclusion that the effect of homeopathic remedies was no greater than that of a placebo. Not that they had no effect, but it was no greater than that of a placebo.

We skeptics are often happy to accept the explanation that if a response to some arcane practice is a placebo response, that settles the issue.

Over the last 30 years there has been a large amount of research into the undoubted effects of placebos. I thought it might be of interest to review this work in the context of our frequent use of ‘placebo effect’ to explain the unscientific.

Placebo is a Latin word for “I shall be pleasing, or acceptable”. It is the first word of the first antiphon of the Roman Rite of the Vespers for the Dead (!), Placebo Domino, dating from the seventh to ninth centuries. Chaucer called one of his characters Placebo in the Merchant’s Tale, because the word had come to mean a flatterer, a sycophant, or a parasite, by the 14th century.

“Placebo seyde: Ful little need had ye, my lord so deare, Council to ask, of any that are here But that ye be so ful of sapience.”

He also uses it in the Parson’s tale: “Flatterers be the Devil’s chaplains, which sing ever ‘Placebo’.”

In the 1811 edition of Hooper’s Medical Dictionary, placebo was defined as “an epithet for any medicine adopted more to please than benefit the patient”. In a recent edition of Collins’ Concise Dictionary of the English Language it is defined as “an inactive substance administered to a patient to compare its effects with those of a real drug, but sometimes for the psychological benefit of the patient through his believing he is receiving treatment”.

However, placebos do benefit patients, and they are certainly not inactive in the context in which they are given.

The most dramatic example of this that I saw in clinical practice involved a young man on artificial kidney treatment. When erythropoietin became available for the treatment of the severe anaemia seen so often in this situation, he was the first patient in our unit to receive it. Erythropoietin is a hormone made in the healthy kidney, which increases the number of red cells in the blood and the amount of the oxygen-carrying haemoglobin. The synthetic version has achieved notoriety as a performance enhancer in sport, for example in the Tour de France. We were all very enthusiastic about this improvement in management for our patient, and he was given his first dose with much interest from all of us. That night he went home, recovered his bicycle from the shed where it had been undisturbed for many months, and rode all around his town with great energy and pleasure. He hadn’t heard the information that the drug took three weeks to act on the anaemia.

We are left with some questions. What was the physiology of his sudden ability to exercise at a ‘normal’ rate, long before there was any change in his blood count? What does ‘it’s all in the mind’ mean? Was he somehow at fault, or was it me and the staff who were lacking in understanding?

I would like to consider:

  • The psychological processes involved in the placebo effect
  • The physiological mechanisms in the brain
  • The site of this activity in the brain
  • Why there is variation in the placebo effect from individual to individual
  • What are the implications for the classical drug trial format?

Psychological mechanisms

Those who study the psychological processes of the placebo effect cite two major mechanisms.

Conditioning. Pavlov (1849-1936) showed that dogs given meals as a bell rang would subsequently salivate when the bell rang despite not being given food. This process has been explored in humans, who will experience pain relief when a placebo is substituted for a pain reliever when a sequence of active analgesia has been associated with an environmental cue. It is an unconscious process. At the nerve cell level, conditioning leads to a stronger and more sustained response.

Expectancy. This effect is seen when the patient has ‘great expectations’ of the substance being given. These are raised by the conscious or unconscious attitude of the therapist. It is a conscious process on the part of the patient.

It is currently suggested that both conditioning and expectancy are active in the placebo effect, and that in fact, as an inert placebo can have no effect per se, what we see is the effect of the context in which the treatment is given.

Neurophysiology of placebo pain relief

Over the last 30 years, there has been much interest in the neuro-physiological mechanisms of the placebo response.

In 1975, Hughes et al identified in the brain two related pentapeptides (a chain of five amino acids linked together) with potent opium-like action. There are many more now identified. These compounds act on specific receptors on the membranes of neurones, and via intracellular metabolic changes increase synaptic transmission. They are made in the pituitary and hypothalamus, and are called endorphins.

A digression

In pharmacology the term agonist denotes a drug with an effect, and antagonist, a drug which specifically blocks the effect of the first substance.

When I spent a year in the pharmacology lab in Dunedin (1959) it was becoming recognised that drugs exerted their effects by way of a specific receptor molecule at the cell surface. The actions of adrenaline, for example, were explained by the presence of two different molecules to which it could attach, which mediated different effects. Noradrenaline would latch on to only one, explaining its more limited range of action. With their usual desire for learned coherency, pharmacologists called them alpha and beta receptors. Antagonist molecules attach to the receptor molecule and block access by the agonist. Hence the term ‘beta-blockers’. These are substances which block the action of adrenaline on its beta receptor. They are widely known for their action in the control of blood pressure, and recently for their unwanted effects when given to protect patients at risk of heart trouble when undergoing operations.

Agonists and antagonists are related by similarities in molecular size, shape, and charge.

Morphine antagonists have been available for some time. In 1961 as a house surgeon in casualty, I was asked to manage an opium addict, brought in because he was deeply unconscious, and breathing perhaps once a minute. He had been without the drug for some weeks, due to market fluctuations. When access was resumed, he used a dose which was the same as his habituated dose. This was much more than he could now tolerate. I had access to nalorphine, a specific morphine antagonist, and 30 seconds after an IV injection, the patient took several deep breaths, sat up, expressed considerable surprise at his surroundings, and then lapsed back into his former state. I was able to repeat this dramatic procedure several times until he recovered!

In 1978 a group of dental surgeons working in California (Levine et al) carried out the following experiment. Patients who had had an impacted wisdom tooth extracted were treated routinely with nitrous oxide, diazepam and a local anaesthetic. At three hours after the procedure they were given either a placebo or naloxone, a specific morphine antagonist. At four hours they were given a placebo or naloxone. Those who had initial pain relief with the first dose of placebo (39 percent), when given naloxone had an increase in pain.

The authors concluded that “this was consistent with the hypothesis that endorphin release mediates placebo analgesia in dental postoperative pain.”

The elegance of this study lies in the unequivocal evidence that a supposedly psychological state (placebo analgesia) was reversed by a specific opioid antagonist. Note that none of the patients was given morphine. There must be a physiological cause for placebo analgesia.

This sort of study has been repeated many times, and always naloxone reverses placebo analgesia.

The site of action of opioids in the brain

The site of this process has been determined. The sites for opioid receptors in the brain can be found by specific cell staining methods and histology on brain tissue. But more exact, ‘real-time’ evidence comes from positron emission tomography (PET) scans.

Another digression

PET utilises short half-life radioactive elements which undergo spontaneous beta decay. In the process, they emit a positron, which collides with an adjacent electron resulting in mutual annihilation, and the generation of two high-energy photons at a near-180 degree angle. These can be detected, and with many, many such events, used to build up a tomographic picture of the source in relation to surrounding tissue. In the studies of the brain, radioactively-labelled glucose is injected, and congregates where activity (utilisation) is greatest. PET scans are used to monitor metabolic activity in specific organs. For example, the extent of heart muscle damage after a heart attack.

In 2002, Petrovic et al were able to show that both opioid and placebo analgesia are associated with increased brain activity in specific regions: the anterior cingulate cortex and the brain stem. There was no increase of activity in these regions with pain only.

Similar localised brain activity has been shown in placebo responses in Parkinsonism (dopamine) and some depressive states (serotonin).

I find these studies exciting and provocative.

Genetic predilection

A further question can be asked in the light of the evidence for a physiological mechanism for the placebo effect. Why does it occur in only 30-40 percent of us for a given situation? It may occur in a greater proportion of a population sample if the context is made more convincing. But why don’t we all have the benefits? Variation in a physiological function begs the question of a genetic predilection.

De Pascalis et al (2002) have shown that individual differences in suggestibility contribute significantly to the magnitude of placebo analgesia. The higher the suggestibility score (there are several tests available) the greater the placebo analgesic effect.

As early as 1970, Morgan et al showed that there was a correlation of suggestibility between monozygotic twins but not dizygotic (fraternal) twins. (Monozygotic twins are the result of the fertilisation of one ovum by one sperm. The resulting zygote splits into two cells which each develop into an individual. These individuals have exactly the same genes.)

Wallace and Persanyi (1989) looked at hypnotic susceptibility and familial handedness. Subjects with close left-handed relatives scored lower in a test for hypnotic susceptibility.

At the 2008 conference, I carried out an experiment with a group of clearly non-suggestible Skeptics. I asked those in the audience to raise their hands if they, or a close relative, were left-handed. If the hypothesis was correct, more than 10 percent of our attendees should have been left-handed. In the event, 22 of 84 attendees indicated they or a close relative were left-handed.

The control study should be done with a church congregation, Protestant or Catholic. In fact, we could do this on both and answer the question as to which is the less suggestible! I haven’t had the nerve to ask. Thomas Bouchard, beginning in 1979, has carried out a number of studies on twins who for a variety of reasons were reared apart. He compared correlations between identical twins and between fraternal twins. The studies from his group (in Minnesota) have shown a large group of correlations in identical twins reared apart, which do not occur in fraternal twins reared apart. The correlations differ very significantly. Table 1 has some examples in twins reared apart:

Similar studies have given similar results in Australia and Western Europe.

Because the nurture of these twins is different, and identical twins have identical genes, the similarities must be genetic. This approach to behaviour has lead to the science of behaviour genetics. (Physical attributes are of course also correlated more between identical twins reared apart, than fraternal twins reared apart.)

Amir Raz (2005, 2008) and his group in New York State have shown that a genetic polymorphism (more than one version of a specific gene) exists for a gene on chromosome 22, which codes for an enzyme active in the breakdown of dopamine, a neurotransmitter. One amino acid substitution (valine for methionine) in the gene alters the enzyme activity by a factor of four times. Since we have a copy of this gene from each parent, we may have val/val, or val/meth, or meth/meth genotypes.

Val/meth heterozygote confers the greater suggestibility. The enzyme is called COMT or catechol-o-methyl transferase.

Brain pathways in which opioid receptors are active are linked to those in which dopamine is the transmitter (nerve to nerve). If there is genetically conferred variation in dopamine activity it is likely that this will influence the result of changes in activity in the opioid pathways.

We must remember that we are talking of a genetic predisposition to be suggestible, and not a gene for suggestibility. It is not that 69 percent of identical twins vote Republican, but that if one does there is a 69 percent probability that the other one does too.

The implications for drug trials

In 2003, Benedetti and his colleagues in Turin examined pain relief in patients after thoracotomy. Patients were allocated to either open infusions of morphine, with information about the efficacy of the drug, or to receive hidden doses of morphine by infusion without any information and without any doctor or nurse present (the open / hidden model for drug trials).

With the same dose, same infusion rate, same timing and same drug, pain relief was less in the ‘hidden’ group.

In the ‘open’ group, the ‘meaning-induced’ expectations had enhanced the drug effect.

This research group has gone on to postulate that in all drug treatment the effect is the sum of actual physiological effect and the effect of expectations. This means that the placebo effect will always cause part of the usual ‘physiological’ response to active drugs. They say that the classical double blind randomised placebo-controlled trial does not allow for expectation effects, and may suggest that a drug has a specific effect gre’open/hidden paradigm’ will give more meaningful results.


  • The analgesic placebo effect is accompanied by a distinct, observable, and locatable physiological event in the brain.
  • Susceptibility to the placebo effect varies in the population at large.
  • This susceptibility is at least in part genetically determined.
  • It may be possible to harness this facet of human behaviour for the benefit of individuals, and to prevent its on-going exploitation by charlatans.
  • Although placebos are inert and cannot have any effect on the healing processes, their meaning and the context in which they are given can.
  • All drug effects include some placebo effect, except when the drug is given surreptitiously. This should alter the classic clinical trial structure.

We have come a long way from the Vespers for the Dead!

Placebos are inert substances but the context in which they are given can alter neurophysiology in such a way as to cause subjective and objective effects.

This is not due to the ‘molecular memory’ of water, nor to strange force-fields as yet unknown to physicists. It is due to our human nature, how we react to our environment, and the relationship, between our minds and our bodies.

Full references available from the editor.

Superstitious? Me? That depends

When the Sunday Star-Times decided to survey the nation on how superstitious New Zealanders are and about what, Vicki Hyde got used as a guinea pig. Part One of her responses was published in the last issue of the NZ Skeptic. This is Part Two.

The Paranormal

Paranormal phenomena are things that cannot be explained and/or proven by current scientific methods. Put a number between 1 and 7 next to each item to indicate how much you agree or disagree with that item.

7 = Strongly agree, 1 = Strongly disagree, 4 = Neutral

Astrology is a way to accurately predict the future.

1 – Having done lots of charts, I know it’s applied psychology – people will read into it what they want to. No accuracy, no prediction.

Psychokinesis, the movement of objects through psychic powers, does exist.

7 or 1 – If you’d said mental abilities instead of psychic powers, I would have agreed. We have a growing number of examples of neurological manipulation of an external environment, such as people able to move cursors around a computer screen by thinking at it. That’s real with the right kind of technology behind it. And pretty darned amazing, not to mention hugely inspiring for people with motor disabilities, given the possibilities for future development.

However, using psychic powers, a la X-Men, to shift things, that’s not been demonstrated.

During altered states, such as sleep or trances, the spirit can leave the body.

1 – Presupposes the existence of the spirit in the first place …

Out-of-body experiences (OOBEs) are fascinating and real in the sense that the people who experience them – me, for one! – feel as if they are real. However, neuroscience is starting to paint a very interesting picture of how these experiences occur and even how to induce them. This does not involve the spirit departing the body, nor have such experiences been able to demonstrate conclusive proof of knowledge gained solely from such a spirit wandering.

The Loch Ness monster of Scotland exists.

1 – Though it would be great if it did. Imagine a plesiosaur living in these times; that would be a magnificent survival story. But you only have to stop and think for a bit to see how unlikely it is. We’ve got much more chance for the Fiordland moose or the moa to pop up here than Scotland’s favourite cryptozoological beastie lurking in the depths.

The number ’13’ is particularly unlucky or particularly lucky

1 – Only if you’re culturally responsive to it. Other cultures don’t like four or seven or NEE!

Reincarnation does occur.

1 – I haven’t seen any good evidence for agreeing with this, and it presupposes a whole host of entities and processes to support it for which there is no evidence.

There is life on other planets.

7 – I’d prefer if it you said “likely to be life on other planets”, as we still don’t have any specific examples, but I’ll take a punt and be definite on this one. It’s a big universe out there and it would be rather presumptuous of us to assume that our planet was the only one to experience the right conditions for life to occur.

Most card-carrying skeptics would agree with this one. Where we tend to demur is the idea that that life must therefore be intelligent and buzzing our planet teasing the natives …

Some psychics can accurately predict the future.

1 – Only if you define accurately to mean “roughly right if you let them reinterpret what they said after the event”. Anything other than their very generalised predictions have failed on a regular basis. Here’s some examples:

For 2001, psychics predicted that:

  • the nine US Supreme Court judges would vanish without a trace
  • the Mississippi River would flood, forming a new ocean in the US heartland
  • Pope John Paul II would die and his successor would be Italian

And the big story they missed – the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York.

In 2005, professional psychics saw the usual mix of the banal and bizarre, including that:

  • terrorists would start World War III by shooting a nuclear missile into China
  • the winner of a new reality TV show would gain fame by killing and eating a contestant
  • the San Andreas Fault in California would have a massive rupture on June 17 with a death toll reaching 4,568,304

What did they miss – Hurricane Katrina, which made thousands homeless in the southern US, and the devastating earthquake that hit Pakistan and India in October, killing 73,000 people.

There are actual cases of witchcraft.

5 – It depends on your definition of witchcraft, which is a culturally and historically complex concept. Riding on broomsticks, outside the Harry Potter movies, is right out, though there might be a technological fix for that in the future, which could be fun.

In a strong cultural context, makutu, maleficus, pointing the bone, voodoo and a whole pile of other psychological techniques can certainly affect a compliant individual immersed in the belief system.

It is possible to communicate with the dead.

1 – Certainly not going by the current crop of rather banal, self- similar pronouncements by those professionals claiming to have this ability.

Taniwha do exist.

4 – Culturally yes, physically no. And this makes it different to the Loch Ness Monster or the Yeti, where people claim such things can be found and photographed.

During the 2002 furore over the Waikato taniwha lurking inconveniently in the path of the main south highway no-one went and actually looked for Karu Tahi. It was understood that the taniwha was a cultural matter, not a physical matter, and that regardless of that, it had a role to play in the debate about development.

Have you ever had a ‘paranormal’ experience – one that can’t be explained scientifically, or ‘proven’ in ways that a scientist would accept? If so, what was it?

Not one that I haven’t been able to think of an alternative non-paranormal explanation for.

You’ve got to remember that, based on general experiences and basic maths, you should experience a million-to-one coincidence roughly every two years – so the world will throw up mysterious experiences from time to time. How we explain those experiences by observation, examination, replication and just plain hard thinking is a lot of fun, and far more interesting than the quick jump to a paranormal pablum.


How frequently do you buy a Lotto ticket?

Not in about 10 years.

If you buy one often, do you regularly use the same numbers? (Y/N)

Nope, but I do know what numbers to use to increase my winnings. Send me $10 and I’ll tell you how … 🙂

But seriously, you can improve your winnings by doing the following:

  • select sequences -most people think these can’t come up as they aren’t random, but they are as random as another other set of numbers (don’t choose 1, 2, 3, 4… or …37,38,39,40 as these are more likely to be chosen for sequences).
  • don’t choose any numbers with 7 in them; seven is commonly considered a lucky number, so when the numbers 7,10,17,23,27,33,37 came up in one draw, 21 people shared the first division prize and 80 people took the second division. The average number of winners at that time were 3 and 19 respectively, so any winner of that draw had a much smaller part of the pie.
  • don’t choose double digits or numbers ending in 0 – these are more likely to be picked by people playing numbers.

These strategies do not affect your chances of winning, but can be used to improve the amount you win. This is because you are not playing merely against the machine, but also against everyone who has a Lotto ticket. Pick the more ‘popular’ numbers and you’ll have to share the prize with more people. Select ‘uncommon’ numbers or ‘unlikely’ sequences and you have a good chance of not having to share the winnings.

Who said maths wasn’t useful …


Do you consider yourself to be a religious/spiritual person? (Y/N)

No. Ethical, yes; moral, yes; honourable yes, but I don’t think you have to be religious or spiritual for any of that.

If so, what religion/teachings do you follow?

I guess the closest I’d get to one would be the Golden Rule, found in many a religion and philosophy – variously described as “do as you would be done by”. Sure there are critiques of this ethic of reciprocity, but it’s not a bad one-liner to start with.

Conspiracy Theories

Below is a list of theories about the causes of important or controversial events. Please read through, and indicate how likely these are as actual explanations.

7 = very likely, 1 = extremely unlikely

The All Blacks were deliberately poisoned before the 1995 rugby world cup final

5 – Put enough people together in a group environment under stress and it’s not unlikely some will fall ill. ‘Course the circumstances can seem more suspicious depending on the situation, and I’d tip this one on the more likely side just because of the circumstances surrounding it. On the other hand, sh*t happens …

Princess Diana was killed by British secret service in order to prevent a Royal scandal

1 – I just don’t think they’re that competent …

A secret cabal of American and European elite control the election of national leaders, the world economy, and direct the course of history in their favour

1 – At some times, in some places, there have been powerful non-elected forces at work behind the scenes, but an all-powerful Illuminati seems very unlikely.

There is a deliberate political conspiracy to suppress the rights of minorities in NZ

3 – Not a conspiracy, but possibly just basic human psychology at work. Never put down to malice what can be achieved through thoughtlessness …

Of course, you could argue that democracy and consensus-building, by their very nature, are going to ride over minorities in their general quest for the greatest good for the greatest number. But I’d need a lot more red wine in me to get into that debate …

NASA faked the first moon landings for publicity

1 – Only the first?

I think the saddest thing about this one is that my kids, and a whole lot of other people, are growing up in a world where they’ve never seen a moon shot to inspire them with a sense of awe at what humanity is capable of achieving. When everyone in my fourth form class had a poster of the Bay City Rollers stuck to their desk-lid, I had the famous shot of Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon. It still makes my heart lift.

The war in Iraq has less to do with promoting democracy than it does with controlling oil production in the East

6 – The reasons for going into Iraq were pretty shonky in the first place. But few things are done for just one reason …

Elvis Presley faked his death to escape the pressures of fame, the shame of his decline, or the unwanted attentions of the Mob

1 – Nope, he just carked it. Now if you’d cited Jim Morrison I might’ve wondered as I think he’d have been smart enough to pull it off …

World governments are hiding evidence that the earth has been visited by aliens

1 – Too big a story, too incompetent a collection to let that one run for any length of time.

The American government was either involved in, or knew about, the September 11 attacks before they happened

2 – I gather they were aware that an attack of some kind was being planned, but the rest of the conspiracy ideas around this are just sickening and demonstrably incorrect in many cases. People want to find an explanation for such things and someone to blame and, for some, governments or Big Business or the MIB or the Gnomes of Zurich serve as the first port of blame.

David Lange vs the scholars

Checking facts should be part and parcel of academic life, but too often it isn’t done.

The late David Lange opened his 1990 book Nuclear Free: the New Zealand Way with a remarkable story. He wrote that on a winter evening in 1962, he was 20 years old and walking home near Auckland when he saw a blood-red moon and shafts of light in the sky:

They were red and white. They extended across the night like the ribs of a fan. They were spinning, they were intermingling. The sky was diffused with a ghastly brush of red. It was an unnerving spectacle. Lange’s book says he soon learned from the radio that the United States had tested a nuclear bomb by launching it on a rocket and exploding it above Johnston Atoll, which lies in the North Pacific, about 1300km southwest of Hawaii. The sight of a nuclear explosion disturbed him, Lange wrote, and he was haunted thereafter by the fear of nuclear war.

Scholars have dismissed Lange’s story. In a 1994 article in the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, historian GP Taylor from Sheffield University denied that Lange or anyone else in New Zealand could have seen any such display. In the perverse article — the point of which was to justify France’s bombing of the Rainbow Warrior — Taylor wrote:

His religious upbringing coupled with a lively imagination seem to have affected Lange here. Johnston Island is over 4000 miles from New Zealand and the impression he gives of what he saw was impossible from that distance.

It would have been easy for Taylor to check the facts. He simply had to look in the New Zealand Herald for the winter days of 1962 to see if there were reports of a spectacle in the evening sky. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History is a refereed periodical, and it would have been easy for the anonymous referees of Taylor’s article also to check his claim that Lange’s story was false. None of these scholars did the job. In fact, a big photograph of the sight covered the top of the front page of the Herald on 10 July 1962. The photo was captioned: “The spectacle in the Auckland sky shortly after 9 o’clock last night.” Under the headline ‘Aurora’ Lights N.Z. Sky, the newspaper described the sight:

A deep red “aurora” striped with jets of white light swept in a broad band over the New Zealand sky after 9 p.m. last night — seconds after a United States task force exploded a high altitude nuclear device of “megaton-plus” power over Johnston Island — 4000 miles to the north.

Watchers from Whangarei to Central Otago reported the eerie glow. An astronomer theorised in his Herald column that the results of the blast were visible in the South Pacific because:

“the electrons released by the bomb dropped quickly to the level where auroras normally occur, between 80 and 120 miles, and then dashed rapidly along the line of magnetic force which links Johnston Atoll with the north and south magnetic poles and which travels over New Zealand.”

After finding the story on the front page of the Herald, I wrote an article about the effect of the sight on David Lange and on the development of anti-nuclear attitudes in New Zealanders. My article mentioned how GP Taylor — and, by implication, the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History — got it wrong. I submitted the article to the journal. The referees rejected the article and did not even suggest how I might revise it to make it acceptable. Neither did the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History print a correction to their earlier article.

This year, Victoria University political scientist Jon Johansson published a book, Two Titans, about Rob Muldoon and David Lange’s respective prime ministerships. Johansson repeats Taylor’s blunder, writing on page 142:

Lange’s connection of an unusually red sky to a nuclear test is also, one must add, highly implausible. The earth’s rotation alone renders Lange’s anecdote an illusory one, but illusion is also part of the anti-nuclear story, notwithstanding its central position in New Zealand’s contemporary political culture.

Neither Taylor nor Johansson nor the referees in Britain or New Zealand bothered to check whether or not the former prime minister of New Zealand was telling the truth before they alleged he was deluded. As for my article? It was published in Auckland University’s e-journal Asia Pacific Cultural Studies and is online at

The article will earn me a small tick on my PBRF report. Had Taylor published his article recently in New Zealand, then he also would get a tick. His tick would probably be bigger than mine because of the status of the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History. Johansson’s book will earn him a big tick. Hopefully, the substantial issue of David Lange’s reputation will not be lost.


Global Warming — Where Should Skeptics Stand?

Although I have been receiving free email alerts for a long time, I am a (very) new member. Among the goodies which I received a couple of days ago was the Spring, 2003 newsletter, number 69. Obviously, free speech is the first requisite of such an organ, but I was rather taken aback by contribution in Forum from Lance Kennedy of Tantec, an organisation in the biocide industry, on the subject of global warming. Its content is highly selective, and it contravenes all the principles outlined in the Skeptics Guide to Critical Thinking. He writes of a “sound and healthy reluctance to subscribe to anthropogenic greenhouse… warming”. He says that the Scientific American is committed to “greenie (a pejorative term which has no place in a serious discussion) nonsense”.

He believes that criticism of Bjorn Lomborg, author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist” comes into this category. Perhaps it is time to look more carefully at Lomborg. Until recently, this very personable young man held a rather lowly position on the staff of the political “science” department at Aarhus University, Denmark, and since his book was published, he has become the archpriest of the multi-billion dollar greenwashing industry. Although the greenwashers’ hype portrays him as a “brilliant statistician”, the Statistics Department of his own university has publicly disowned (on the university website) his methods as flawed and unacceptable. He writes of many disciplines, but he has never published a peer-reviewed paper in any of them. In every discipline, his methods, data, and conclusions have been roundly repudiated by a large majority of the scientific establishment of that discipline. Who then is right? — a lonely Don Quixote, tilting at imaginary windmills, or the scientific establishment?

Kennedy deals with three issues; these are:

  1. “Glacial extensions of the polar icecap on Mars are now in retreat. Peninsulas and islands of ice disappearing”. This he naively takes as evidence that solar output must be increasing. However, this is in fact evidence of precisely the opposite! Atmospheric cooling on Mars locks water vapour up as ice in the icecaps, and causes the lower latitude extensions to disappear rapidly. Own goal!
  2. “Meteorologists are adopting a new stance… many want to move away from ‘anthropogenicity’ and accept that warming happens.” This rather vague statement falls into the category of a paper tiger or, as the “Skeptics Guide to Creation “Science” puts it, a straw man. I am not aware that meteorologists “want” to believe in anthropogenic warming. It is put forward as the most probable explanation of the observed facts. Indeed, most would be delighted to be proved wrong. This is where real science differs from junk science. Greenwashers “know” they are right; scientists try to preserve open minds. Another example of naivety is to suggest that meteorologists have a vested interest in “preserving the myth”, for fear of losing their research grants. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are a thousand reasons for wishing to learn more about our climate and global warming research is a by-product rather than the primary object. If all such research were to cease immediately, it would make little or no difference to climate research as a whole. What meteorologists and others recommend is the exercise of prudence in the light of current theory. This is opposed both by greenwashers and by many in the pseudoscience of economics as advocated by those of the Friedman school, in whose eyes “sustainable development” is never an oxymoron.
  3. He refers to a paper on the influence of cosmic rays on the atmosphere, though not to the original paper by Fangqun Yu of the State University of New York. It was put forward as a mere hypothesis at this stage, and if subsequent work provides confirmation it will be a useful explanation for the anomalous discrepancy between surface temperatures and those in the atmosphere just above, which will be welcomed by all meteorologists. Kennedy doesn’t mention that Yu also suggests that interaction between greenhouse gases and the ionisation caused by cosmic rays may also be a contributing factor to greenhouse warming. Yu also points out that his hypothesis does not in any way rule out anthropogenic contributions to gobal warming.

Alan P Ryan, Retired meteorologist

Global Warming

In contrast to Lance Kennedy (Forum 69), I regret the failure of The Skeptics to recognise the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

The basics are undeniable:

  • Atmospheric carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere by blocking outgoing radiation.
  • Anthropogenic emissions of CO2 have been growing for two centuries, and especially in the last half century. Atmospheric CO2 is now a third higher than pre-industrial levels.
  • Radiation from the earth into space has been measured directly. A comparison of data for 1990 and 1997 showed the expected fall, with the largest reductions at the predicted wavelengths.

Beyond the basics, climate change is hellishly complex and far from fully understood, but enough is known to show a clear anthropogenic effect. The UN’s IPCC have taken a consensus overview of the work being done in a very wide range of fields. Their third assessment report, issued just three years ago, estimated that average temperatures would rise another 1.4-5.8°C between 1990 and 2100. That range looks very uncertain, but about half the uncertainty is in the human response: we can still limit the maximum rise to around 2.5°C if we get our act together. However, global warming will continue for centuries, no matter how quickly we reduce emissions.

Problems with CO2 and temperature are be expected, and the details will be debated and cross-checked for many years to come. However, the data is already good enough to identify minor effects. One such effect was a mysterious warming and cooling over a 1000 year cycle, traceable over 10,000 years. It turned out to be the moon, changing its orbit and hence the strength of the tides and the extent of vertical mixing of the ocean. Higher tides create more mixing, bring up more cold water and cool the atmosphere.

Of course, it is possible that new evidence will show that global warming will soon go away — good science has to be falsifiable. But the evidence produced by Kennedy is not it, and the precautionary principle tells us not to put our shirts on him. There is now enough evidence to allow a great deal of cross-checking: the Greenland ice cores tell the same story as the Atlantic silt cores; the effects of varying solar radiation and changes in the earth’s and moon’s orbits have been factored in; the cooling caused by the Mt Pinatubo eruption improved understanding of some minor effects; and so on. And on.

With so much evidence already gathered, it is not enough for the global warming contrarians to point to isolated studies; that is like pointing to a back eddy as evidence that the stream is flowing uphill. If there is a serious case against global warming let us hear it — but it will need to be good.

Kerry Wood, Wanganui

Science and Morality

Bruce Taylor is a high priest of the anti-human, anti-science, anti-Darwinist religion of Environmentalism. He has no use for science unless it can be used to support his dogmatic opinions and the “policies” based on them.

On the other hand he is much more tolerant of religion, myth, prejudice, suspicion, custom, fantasy, and old wives’ tales.

Alan Hart is quite wrong to claim that “science doesn’t necessarily say anything about moral values”. Moral values, which may be defined as the rules which govern societies, are essential for evolutionary survival and progress of every society.

Most societies possess rigidly tyrannical “moral values” .We are, each of us, a society composed of genetically and chemically controlled specialised cells, each derived from a single embryo, only one kind of which participates in reproduction. Any dissident cell becomes a cancer and causes death of the whole organism.

Ants, bees, and termites, are also genetically and chemically controlled fascist dictatorships, and their evolutionary success depends on it. Most animal societies such as monkeys and seals have equally ruthless “moral values”.

Early human societies had similar “moral values” to monkeys, and some, such as approval of murder, rape and slavery, survive today in primitive tribes. “Moral values” of human societies have included wholesale genocide, the burning of heretics and witches, slavery and cannibalism. Torture and slavery are common today, and even genocide is a “moral value” recently practised in several societies.

Progress of human society depends on an improved emphasis on human moral values and a priority for human rights, a reduction of war, violence, hunger, disease, prejudice, suspicion and irrationalism, and a continued advance of science and technology.

Environmentalism is opposed to human “moral values” because it

  • Regards animals and other organisms as more important than humans.
  • Considers evolution to be always harmful, exclusively caused by humans, and capable of being prevented.
  • Fundamentally opposes modern technology, such as genetic engineering and nuclear energy.
  • Regards science only as a support mechanism for these views.

Our society cannot progress unless we can restore genuine human moral values.

Vincent Gray, Wellington

Socialism and Starvation

So, I again find myself in an argument with Jim Ring. I think I preferred it when we were all united against the purveyors of quack medicines and fundamentalist religions.

Jim Ring rightly claims that few people have read the literature on famine. I’m not surprised, it is vast. But I can quote 33 peer reviewed works on the subject, ranging from some by a Nobel laureate economist, to Cambridge historians. When I did a quick Google on those sources that Ring provided for his evidence I found for one no match, and for the other an ideologically driven American so-called think tank. I must admit that I have read nothing of this type of literature, but then neither do I read the stuff by UFO “researchers”.

Ring is right about one thing, his original letter confused me. If the Oxus Research foundation, whoever they are, suggest you can use the words socialism and starvation without further clarification, they are wrong. It is necessary to know what is meant by socialism because definitions depend more on one’s own position on the political spectrum than any objective criteria. I also think it’s necessary to know what Ring meant by people starved under socialism, because by itself it’s a meaningless statement which requires the qualification that people have also starved under capitalism, feudalism and any other -ism you care to name. Although to be honest I could probably make out quite a good case for no famines in Germany under Nazism — does this make them good?

Famine, or starvation if Ring insists on the word, occurs for any number of reasons rather than simple socialism — or capitalism for that matter. Again Ring has jumped into an area where he is out of his depth, to make a political point. For every famine he can quote me under a Socialist government I can quote him at least one under a capitalist regime. The Indian state with the highest literacy rate and life expectancy has been run by socialists in various coalitions for years. Ring is oversimplifying to make a political point.

Ring also makes generalisations about the anti-globalisation movement. As far as I can see they are not some sort of monolithic anti-capitalist group but consist of a number of quite disparate groupings including trade unions in developed countries who resent exporting jobs, and farmers’ groups in underdeveloped countries who quite like globalisation but resent the fact that the developed countries such as the United States and the European Union don’t apply it to themselves.

I also think that Ring has misunderstood the term green revolution. Perhaps he is confusing it with more recent genetic modification of crops. I can’t see why the green revolution, which largely consisted of improvements in irrigation, fertilization and the development of new strains of rice, should be against socialist principles. For one thing some of the new strains of rice were developed in government laboratories in India under so-called socialist governments. And if the idea was against socialist principles why did Stalin spend so long trying to create a green revolution of his own? In fact many of the new strains of rice were rejected by the very people they were meant to benefit, because they require large amounts of fertiliser and extra water which they could not afford. The earlier strains also tasted bad and were therefore rejected by the market.

I stand by my statement that Ring provides little other than glib generalisations and inaccurate case studies. One thing I have found by reading articles from the new right is that they tend to leave out economic case studies that don’t fit the ideological bent. I think Ring does the same. However I will make this offer — I don’t think that the pages of the New Zealand Skeptic the correct forum for publishing political tracts, so if he gives up writing them I’ll give up criticising them.

Bob Metcalfe

Yes, enough politics already! This correspondence is now closed -ed.


Dr. Welch’s Hokum Locum column in NZ Skeptic 69 contains the words “pseudoscience known as kinesiology”. This is incorrect. Kinesiology is a respected, science-based, study of human movement dynamics. Several universities offer degrees in this field — eg University of Waterloo, in Canada. See Perhaps Dr. Welch is thinking of “Applied Kinesiology” which is indeed crackpot stuff.

Vaso Bovan, P.E., Canada

A Close-Run Thing

The Eugenics movement in New Zealand had legislative successes greater than anywhere in the world outside the USA and Nazi Germany

Eugenics was a phenomenon that lasted for less than a hundred years, although for some it still exists as a rational stand to take on the population problem, if not as a scientific theory. Of course advances in genetics have reintroduced the idea that we can by our own scientific efforts improve the human race. It was a theory that engaged not only some of the finest scientific, but also the finest philosophical and ethical minds of the day. It was a scientific theory that was brought to a halt less by scientific inquiry than by the moral revulsion produced by the excesses of Nazi Germany. Eugenics is interesting partly at least because New Zealand went further than anywhere else except for Germany and the US in the application of practical Eugenics in certain areas of legislation.

Francis Galton (1822-1911) began an investigation in the 1860s into the inheritance of genius, which was to have profound effects on the way people viewed the poor and the handicapped for almost 100 years. His ideas incorporated those of his cousin Charles Darwin and others who were worried that evolution might be reversed, and the human race become “degenerate” if those regarded as of little worth were allowed to breed unchecked, and the middle classes restricted the size of their families. Galton had some funny ideas about what might be inherited genetically from one’s forebears. Love of the sea for instance, as he noticed that the sons of ships’ captains often followed their fathers to sea. Galton was joined in his research and beliefs by several famous researchers including Karl Pearson, regarded by some as the founder of modern statistics.

Eugenics remained a concern mainly of a few biologists and statisticians until the first decade of the 20th century when it became very popular with certain sections of the public in particularly Europe and the US, although it did spread almost throughout the world. In Britain the popular movement was begun by Sybil Gotto, a recent widow. Many wellknown people either joined or supported the society. Cyril Burt, Havelock Ellis, Julian Huxley, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, all supported eugenics. Winston Churchill represented Britain at the second international congress in 1912. His views on the subject were considered so embarrassing to the government that they were suppressed until 1991. The reasons for the popularity of eugenics are complex but can probably be ascribed to perceived social problems affecting the latter half of the 19th century and the relatively new belief in science as the answer to the world’s problems. Both the popular and scientific beliefs in eugenics were remarkably resistant to the discovery of evidence refuting them.

Two family case studies came to encapsulate popular eugenics ideas about the results of degeneration. Both of these came from the US. The Jukes were a related group of misfits and criminals traceable to a single couple in New York State. The Kallikaks were a pseudonymous feeble-minded family discovered by H. H. Goddard, a prominent American eugenist who published his research about the heritability of feeble-mindedness in 1912. Eugenists continued to use these case studies as evidence of the truth of their beliefs long after they had been discredited.

Eugenists were often associated with social darwinists, who saw the solution to the problem of racial degeneration in allowing a high death rate among the lower classes to keep their numbers down. However Eugenists were interested in using social instead of natural selection to increase the proportion of the best “stock” in the racial group. The definition of good and bad stock was entirely predictable. Eugenic worth was seen as incarnate in oneself and one’s associates, and there was general agreement that many of the traits of the lower classes, such as poverty, disease, mental defect, and unemployment were not only unwanted but inherited. Eugenists generally divided people into three broad groups: “desirables”, “passables”, and “undesirables”. The desirables were almost invariably members of the Eugenists own social grouping, that is members of the academic and professional classes. The passables did change slightly over time but tended to be seen as the upper end of the working class. The undesirables could be people with mental or physical disabilities, the poor, or members of a race lower on the Victorian hierarchy of ethnic groups, the highest of which of course was Anglo-Saxon.

Popular Movement

Eugenics then, became a small popular movement among sections of the middle class responding to what they saw as the major population problems of the 20th century, sparked off by specific events, such as the poor state of health of many of the population shown by medical examinations of troops in the Boer War, and the IQ tests given to American soldiers in World War I.1 The idea was to promote eugenics as a solution to these problems by either encouraging the worthy to breed (positive eugenics) or somehow discouraging or preventing those of lesser worth from having children (negative eugenics).

The German Society for Race Hygiene was established in 1905, the English Eugenics Education Society in 1907, the American Eugenics Record Office in 1910, and the French Eugenics Society in 1912. Eugenics societies were also established in Latin America. The New Zealand society was established in 1910. In Britain and the US laboratories were funded to undertake eugenic research. Karl Pearson became the first director of the Galton laboratory for National Eugenics at University College in London, and Charles Davenport founded the Eugenic Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor in the US, which due to its generous funding could employ hundreds of researchers, most of whom were women.2


Eugenists agitated for legislation which reflected their beliefs. This could be relatively benign. In France for instance, because Eugenists there remained Lamarckian in their outlook, they agitated for better working and living conditions for the lower classes in the belief that these conditions would produce healthier people who would pass on their good health to their descendants. In Germany however, because of their obsession with so-called racial hygiene, these beliefs eventually led to the Nazi programme of racial extermination.

Eugenic beliefs changed over time, tending to become more benign. Gradually, very gradually, scientists began to realise that eugenic beliefs simply didn’t stack up. However what was more influential was the association with the excesses of the Nazi regime, particularly in the US. Basically eugenics fizzled out from the 1930s onwards, and was regarded with loathing from 1945. Many Eugenists moved into the area of genetic counselling, advising rather than compelling the changes they wished to see. However as late as the 1950s at least one ex-eugenic researcher was employed by the tobacco industry to produce “research” showing that genetic predisposition, rather than smoking, was responsible for lung cancer.

The New Zealand Experience

Interestingly I could find no evidence of eugenic ideas in any of the New Zealand scientific journals in the 19th century. Eugenics in New Zealand was more a popular phenomenon that a scientific one. Those scientists that were interested in eugenics tended to be working in the public service rather than engaging in research.

New Zealanders did embrace eugenics enthusiastically however, when the first society was formed in Dunedin in 1910. As with the overseas experience members of these societies tended to be middle-class people, often medical or academic. Many politicians also accepted eugenics if they did not join the societies. One of the major eugenic publications, The Fertility of the Unfit was published by W B Chapple (later a Liberal MP in Britain) while he was resident in New Zealand.

The New Zealand societies agitated for eugenics to be applied to legislation in this country and began an education programme for schools and other interested bodies. As far as I could see eugenics was not as such taught in high schools or universities in this country, but some was certainly taught in training colleges, interestingly enough. (It was taught extensively in US high schools and colleges.)

Eugenists allegedly influenced the passing of the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act Amendment Bill of 1907, which granted divorces to those married to the insane, insanity being fairly broadly defined by Eugenists and regarded as something that could be bred out of the race.

In spite of the fact that the New Zealand eugenics societies lapsed at the beginning of World War I the fertility of the unfit remained a common cause of many influential New Zealanders. This culminated in the introduction of two bills which were to some extent designed to curb it. Part of the reason for doing this of course was economic, as the unfit were considered to be a huge drain on the finances of the state. Eugenics may have given these bills a certain scientific legitimacy which they may not otherwise have had.

The first of these was the Mental Defectives Bill of 1911. This was a large bill which set out to reorganise care of the “feeble-minded”. Much of it was concerned with classification, and treatment, and much of it was uncontroversial and of benefit to people in institutions. However a substantial proportion of the bill was concerned with the segregation of the allegedly feeble-minded from people of the opposite sex and protecting them from their own “uninhibited and promiscuous sexual nature”. People of unsound mind, and I might add that epileptics were considered to be in this category, were thought to breed like rabbits. Therefore carnal knowledge of mentally defective females became an offence, with consent of the female not considered to be a valid defence, although ignorance of her mental defect was. This bill passed with very little opposition, although MPs generally eschewed any drastic solutions to the problem such as sterilisation or contraception. Sterilisation was regarded at this time as both politically dangerous and a problem for doctors who may have been sued.

The next bill, the Mental Defectives Amendment Bill of 1928, was much more problematic, as it did include provisions for sterilisation of the unfit. Indeed a government committee of inquiry, which was set up to investigate the whole question of mental defect and sexual offending, discussed the lethal chamber with some enthusiasm. On the other hand, there was an organised and stout resistance to the bill from various politicians and members of the academic community.

Nationwide Questionnaire

The commission was a particularly thorough and large-scale exercise. A questionnaire was sent to every GP in the country, asking about numbers of mental defectives and suggestions for treatment. There was some discussion of eugenics in general in the New Zealand Medical Journal, but little about the actual bill. Very few GPs replied, and those that did tended to be scathing.

Almost everyone with any bureaucratic authority seems to have been solicited for an opinion, including the Government balneologist.3 The commission’s report was sought by a great number of organisations, from women’s groups and the major churches to the Theosophical Society. The list of organisations to which the report was sent runs to five pages and the print run for the report was very large. Overseas governments and organisations as far apart as Australia, the US and Germany also showed interest in the report.4 There seems to have been a general enthusiasm for sterilisation in the US, Germany and Scandinavia at this time. The first eugenic sterilisation laws in Europe were introduced in 1928 by the Swiss and in 1929 by the Government of Denmark. The Americans were also sterilising quite large numbers of people they judged to be mentally unfit, and had been, both informally and formally, for some years. All of this would have been apparent to the Inspector General of Mental Hospitals, when he was sent overseas to gather information for the bill.


The bill itself had a number of uncontroversial clauses relating to the classification and treatment of so-called mental defectives. Like the preceding act of 1911 much of the bill was procedural. However certain clauses relating to sterilisation of mental defectives, the prohibition of their marriage, the new classification of “social defectives”, and the classification of children who were two years behind in their school work as mentally defective, caused much controversy. The clause relating to the sterilisation of mental defectives attracted more opposition than anything else in the bill. (Although the trade unions were naturally opposed to the social defective classification, which they thought might be used against them.)

All this resulted in a remarkably lively debate in Parliament. Although the eugenic societies had been defunct for about 10 years it is obvious that eugenics ideas were very much alive. The opposition debate in particular was both vigorous and informed. Peter Fraser, who was the best informed of the (Labour) opposition members, had obviously done some research into genetics as he quoted some of the best geneticists of the day in support of his argument for dropping the controversial clauses. He also sensibly quoted a number of examples of famous fathers who had had less than perfect sons while refuting the inevitable references to the Jukes and Kallikaks.5 On the government side the arguments tended to be less scientific, although the Minister of Health claimed to have “…searched the world’s best literature on the subject…”. On the whole though, the government arguments tended to be fairly agricultural. The member for Riccarton, for instance, likened human beings to Clydesdales.

The best debate however took place in the daily newspapers. This paralleled the various debates on this topic overseas, with those people involved with the care and control of mental defectives generally being for sterilisation, and academic psychologists being against. This debate mostly took place in the Auckland papers but did spill over into others. It seems to have been between R A Fitt, professor of Education at Auckland University College, with W Anderson, Professor of Philosophy at the same institution on the one hand, and W H Triggs, chairman of the Committee of Inquiry into Mental Defectives and Sexual Offenders on the other. The general public did not on the whole take part in this debate.

Trenchant Criticisms

Professor Fitt offered some trenchant criticisms of the science that the bill was based on. His main objection was that there was not as yet enough scientific knowledge about the measurement of mental defect, or enough work on interpreting its causes. He also believed that the psychiatrists who were to be put in charge of the classification of mental defectives were not properly competent to do so. He quite rightly stated that scientific testing should be used instead of the intuition of the psychiatrists in charge of the classification board. Triggs’ defence of the government’s position on the bill was eugenic in nature, stressing typical ideas about the unrestricted multiplication of the unfit and its cost to the taxpayer. This debate went on for some time, in the form of letters and articles from the main protagonists and others, including the Controller of Prisons, B L Dallard, on the government side, and a group of Auckland academics and educationalists including the headmaster of Kings College.6 Others who supported Fitt and Anderson were Professor J S Tennant, Professor of Education at Victoria University College, and Professor James Shelly, Professor of Education at Canterbury University College.

Other groups who might have been expected to oppose this of course were the Catholic Church and the unions. Both of these groups, like Fitt and Anderson, were quite prepared to accept quite a bit of eugenic theory at least as regards to the inheritance of mental defect, but the Church opposed sterilisation for various ethical reasons, including the idea that it was punishing the morally innocent. Neither of these groups put up a particularly vigorous fight, at least in public. Particularly the Church which, if one looks at the amount of space dedicated to these topics in the Tablet, seemed much more concerned with the threat of prohibition.

It is fairly clear why the clauses concerning sterilisation were dropped. Public reaction as such was minimal, but the vigorous attack put up by politicians and academics probably had its effect. However, if the clauses had been implemented New Zealand would have been the first country to implement legislation of this type (excluding American states) and this would have been the most extreme eugenic legislation short of Nazi Germany.

There is very little information about eugenics in New Zealand but these two books are both good general reading. Kevles, D J, 1985: In the Name of Eugenics; Knopf, New York. Paul, D B, 1995: Controlling Human Heredity, 1865 to the Present; Humanities Press, New Jersey.


1 These tests purported to show that recruits who were of Southern and Eastern European stock, and non-Europeans had lower IQs than Anglo-Saxons. They were later shown to be deeply flawed.
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2 Eugenists attitudes towards women were contradictory, in that as “race mothers” womens’ major role of course was in breeding. Many women however were involved in eugenics research, possibly because they were cheaper, but some took doctorates which was apparently uncommon at the time.
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3 The person in charge of public baths.
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4 It is interesting to note that the German government introduced in 1932 legislation for voluntary sterilisation of various groups. Possibly the reaction in New Zealand to compulsory sterilisation influenced this legislation.
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5 We find for instance, that Luther’s son was insubordinate and violent; William Penn’s son was a debauched scoundrel; … the son of Cicero was a drunkard….
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6 These divisions reflect some of the debate that took place before the commission, except that two academic biologists who were consulted were both supporters of sterilisation or segregation. Others who gave evidence, including teachers, headmasters, probation officers, doctors, nurses, religious leaders and others were overwhelmingly of the opinion that mental deficiency is hereditary, that it can be easily identified, and that people with this problem should be segregated and/or sterilised if not desexed.
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The Price of Water

Insecurities about water quality have led to a boom in sales of bottled water. But the health benefits of the phenomenon are probably minimal.

We were surprised to hear recently that sales of drinking water are now the fifth largest earner of overseas currency for Fiji. A little investigation suggested that that figure may well be correct, but threw up further surprises.

Much of Fiji has high rainfall, but water is in short supply in some areas. Villagers can easily dig shallow wells, and Aid agencies have dug deep wells for some villages. But deep water is often mineralised. We have stayed on islands were rain is the only supply of drinking water. As populations have grown, water extraction has allowed intrusion of salt water, and the well water is brackish. After weeks of washing in brackish water, a fresh shower is a great luxury. Tourist resorts build de-salination plants but that is not an option for villagers.

According to the Australian Financial Review, Aid money was used to develop a mountain spring as a source of export water. The main market is the USA where Fiji water is now the 6th highest-selling bottled water after advertising endorsements from Tiger Woods and Elle Macpherson. Good luck to the entrepreneurs, but I wonder if the contributors realised the destination of their charitable dollars.

Something is odd about a third world country exporting drinking water to the USA. Fifty years ago American travellers had one main grumble about Europe; the tap water was unsafe to drink. This implied that the tap water was drinkable back home where the only people refusing US tap water were right-wing conspiracy theorists who claimed that somebody (either the government or the commies) were adding chemicals to damage the mental health of citizens.

Bottled water was then almost entirely ‘mineral water’, either naturally carbonated water from a few famous springs or the much cheaper alternative invented by Schweppes. Scandals about contamination of some famous springs damaged the market, but some genius discovered that bottled drinking water did not need to be carbonated and any source of clean water would do.

Until that time the manufacturers of soft drinks were regarded as the epitome of value improvers; the addition of carbon dioxide and a few drops of syrup converted water at low cost to a marketable product. But the drinking water industry changed this perception. All the costs are in bottling and transport, the cost of the water in the bottle is as near zero as makes no difference.

The industry started in the USA but then took Europe by storm, 15 years ago British sales of bottled water had reached £216 million and London restaurants were charging £1 per glass. It took longer to reach Australia and NZ but the sight of all those tourists clutching their bottles had an effect.

Have a look in your local supermarket, there are a variety of brands and unless you buy it in very large containers it is more expensive than petrol. Marketing has been closely targeted, using magazines and radio stations rather than TV. The sales people know their main clientele, young, affluent travellers.

By a strange bit of timing the tap water in Europe had become safe to drink just before bottled water became popular. In fact one of the priorities of government has been the provision of safe tap water (it is even safe to drink on the main Fiji island), but as it became safe, tourists stopped drinking it.

So what is the motive? At least partly it is fashion, backpackers have been seen furtively refilling their bottles at the tap so later they can be seen with the right brand. But most clearly believe it is healthier to drink ‘natural spring water’. Some brands will tell you they are ‘fat free’! Ironically the quality standards on most tap water is probably higher than those on much bottled water. But backpackers are all aware of the high incidence of ‘traveller’s diarrhoea’, one estimate is 20 million cases per year world-wide, though it could be much higher.

Herbert DuPont is Chief of Internal Medicine at St Luke’s Episcopal Hospital Houston Texas and an expert in diseases of the alimentary tract. His opinion is that although “Most people think it (diarrhoea) is caused by the water”, it is not. “Bad food is responsible for 90% of traveller’s diarrhoea.”

Even in the USA, eating out is twice as dangerous as eating at home. Scientific American July 2000 contained some amazing statistics. A large percentage of outbreaks of food poisoning could not be traced to a particular source, however of those that could be so traced, the most dangerous foods were not those I would have suspected:

Food that caused a problem % of outbreaks
Salads 12.4
Fruit and vegetables 6.0
Beef 2.3
Chicken 2.1
Fish (including shellfish) 1.3
Milk and eggs 1.0
Pork 0.4

Vegetarians beware; the most dangerous items are those generally considered the most healthy! However going back to Professor DuPont, he warned that the really dangerous items were sauces and condiments, particularly if they were not properly refrigerated. I suspect (without any evidence) that this may be the case here.

It seems obvious that these percentages would be quite different in other countries, but if you cannot trust the salads in the USA, those bought from street vendors in Asia must be pretty dodgy.

In the past, epidemics of the great water-born diseases, typhoid and cholera, killed millions- and they were a threat to the traveller. But in countries were most of the bottled water is being drunk, this is no longer the case. The last major outbreak of cholera from a public water supply was in a South American country where activists had opposed chlorination. Chlorine of course is a chemical, and a poison, and they should not be putting it in our drinking water! I suspect that if travellers were questioned, many would give ‘chlorination’ as a reason for not drinking tap water. I just wonder, how safe is bottled water?

Organic Means What?

The Swedish chemist Berzelius coined the term ‘organic’ for substances that could only be made by living organisms and not synthesised by humans. His German friend Wöhler synthesised urea in 1828 proving Berzelius wrong, there was no such distinction. Another brilliant German chemist, Liebig, then used ‘organic’ to mean carbon-compound chemistry, extending this to include the chemistry of living organisms- so beginning biochemistry.

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The Ethics of Scepticism

SUPPOSE that we are all under the influence of a drug that induces amnesia, and as a result we cannot remember anything at all about our personal circumstances. We don’t know whether we are rich or famous, powerful or weak, what language we speak, how intelligent we are, what educational or professional qualifications we have, what race or religion or society we belong to. But suppose, too, that we are all ideally rational human beings, each of us aware of what we should like to secure for ourselves and for those we love. In this amnesiac condition we are locked into a room, and asked to consider a single problem: how ought available benefits and goods to be distributed in any society?

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