Autism paper binned

Twelve years after it induced panic among parents world-wide, a paper linking the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism has been withdrawn (NZ Herald, 4 February).

The paper, published in the Lancet in 1998, was withdrawn after a preliminary verdict by a panel from Britain’s General Medical Council found Dr Andrew Wakefield and two of his co-authors had acted “dishonestly” and “irresponsibly”.

“It has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al are incorrect,” the Lancet‘s editors stated. “… In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were ‘consecutively referred’ and that investigations were ‘approved’ by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper.”

The paper was based on just 12 children, some of whom had bowel disorders and autism which had developed after vaccination with MMR. It led to sharp falls in vaccination rates and, said Auckland University’s Immunisation Advisory Centre director of research Helen Petousis-Harris, many preventable cases of disease.

“There are still many parents who are concerned about the Wakefield claims. We hope that this news [the retraction] will add further reassurance that the MMR vaccine is not associated with autism or any other developmental problems.”

The Lancet announced a partial retraction in 2004 after it emerged that Dr Wakefield had received payments for his research from the Legal Aid Board which he had not declared. This was a fatal conflict of interest, the journal said.

Stargazers at odds

Obviously, it came in the middle of the silly season when papers struggle to find copy, but journalist Rebecca Lewis had a lot of fun with astrologers’ predictions for the year ahead (NZ Herald, 3 January).

Pitting one astrologer against another, she checked out what various authorities in the field had to say about Sagittarians. A certain Anne McNaughton picked 2010 as a year in which a full moon in the “financial sector” would get things off to a good start for them. On the other hand Jenny Blume in Woman’s Day reckoned changes at work and home would leave Sagittarians feeling “skint” in autumn.

Someone on the Universal Psychic Guild website calling herself Astrogirl reckoned they would ditch their club-hopping ways and start “nesting”. Marie Claire promised the coming year would be about being daring and outgoing, and claimed 2010 would bring out the “practical” side of Sagittarians, with a primary focus on finances.

“Confused?” asked Lewis. “Yup.”

The truth is in there

UFO researchers UFOCUS NZ are excited at the prospect of hundreds of secret files on mysterious sightings which are to be released by the New Zealand military (The Press, 23 January).

The files cover the period 1979 to 1984, and include the famous Kaikoura sightings of December 1978. They were to have been public in January, but are having personal information removed first to comply with the Privacy Act.

UFOCUS NZ director Suzanne Hansen said the group had been in discussion with the NZ Defence Force for many years. “It is frustrating from a research perspective because we would like to collate these sightings with international research.”

New Zealand Skeptics chairwoman (sic) Vicki Hyde said the files would not be as interesting as they appeared. “The Government is required to log these things and it can give a false impression that there is a vast amount of activity out there.

“There is probably intelligent life elsewhere, but whether it has come here to play silly buggers with us in a game of cosmic hide and seek is another matter.”
“It is a big jump from ‘there was something in the sky and I don’t know what it was’ to ‘that was a craft piloted by aliens’.”

Scientologists to the rescue

Among all the tragic stories coming out of the Haiti earthquake was the strange tale of John Travolta flying his own private jetliner to the beleaguered country with 7000lb of medical supplies – and doctors and ministers from the Church of Scientology (NZ Herald, 27 January).

Scientologists at a hospital in the capital Port au Prince said they were healing patients through “the power of touch to reconnect nervous systems”.

Sylvie, a spokeswoman, said: “We are trained as volunteer ministers. We use a process called ‘assist’ to follow the nervous system to reconnect the main points”.

“I didn’t know touch could heal gangrene,” said one sceptical doctor.

St Bathans a ghost town?

An Invercargill man on a ghost-hunting trip to Otago has come away with a spooky photo – but not of the building that’s supposed to be haunted (Southland Times, 5 February).

Andrew Watters had gone to St Bathans to have a look at the Vulcan Hotel and its supposed ghost. The pub apparently had only the regular type of spirits and it wasn’t until later that a friend noticed in one of his photos a shape in the upstairs window of the old post office nearby that looks remarkably like an elderly woman.

Vulcan Hotel leasee Jude Cavanagh said it was the first she had heard of a ghost sighting at the post office. “It’s a very spirited town, so who knows?”

The post office, managed by the Department of Conservation since the 1950s, had been vacant for about a year, at least in the bodily sense, she said.

Ghost, or reflection of a cloud? I suppose we’ll never know…

Sweat lodge ends in tragedy

A sweat lodge at an Arizona “spiritual retreat” ended up steaming three people to death last October, according to a leaked police report (NZ Herald, 4 January).

The retreat charged thousands of dollars for five days of motivational talks and spiritual tasks. Following the deaths, self-styled guru James Arthur Ray faces a murder investigation.

The report showed participants vomited, passed out and screamed for help. Ray was outside the only entrance, controlling the flap that let people in and out. One witness said Ray told scared participants three times: “You are not going to die. You might think you are, but you are not going to die.”

The two-hour ceremony followed two days of fasting and not drinking water. When the ceremony was over and people were trying to get the victims out, Ray called attempts to remove blankets from the walls “sacrilegious”. One victim had been subjected to such intense heat his lungs were scorched.
Critics say that such tasks are a sort of confidence trick that exists at the extreme end of America’s US$11.5 billion ($15.8 billion) self-help industry.

‘Ghosts’ find buyer

Two “captured ghosts” sold on Trademe have gone to a company which sells electronic cigarettes (The Press, 9 March).

The “ghosts” were sold by Avie Woodbury of Christchurch, who says they are the spirits of an old man who lived in the house in the 1920s and a powerful little girl who turned up after a ouija board session. They have been kept in holy water which “dulls the spirits’ energy”.

The auction recorded more than 200,000 page views and made international headlines. Safer Smoke NZ had bid $5000, but the final price dropped to $2830 after a last-minute bidder was revealed to be a fake seeking to push the price up.

Ms Woodbury will donate the proceeds to the SPCA – once exorcist’ s fees have been paid.


Astrology Romps into the Bedroom

It had to happen, I guess. A new book, Sextrology: The Astrology of Sex and the Sexes, written by New York astrologers Stella Starsky and (wince) Quinn Cox gets a fair amount of column inches in the Dominion Post (July 8.)

Seems that the creative couple, Starksky and Cox, have been churning out this stuff for at least 20 years. Their theory, briefly, is that women and men in the same sign can be totally opposite. It means there are 24 signs of the zodiac, not 12. Two for the price of one, as it were.

The book, by all accounts, is a bit racey and fairly explicit in its use of language. Male Capricorns may have a predilection for schoolgirls and spanking; Cancerian females are fans of sex clubs and sado-masochism. Makes the mind boggle but what a good marketing idea. It’s kinky, it’s naughty, it will sell well, especially when reported on by writers who conclude there’s something to it all. “… there are pages of analysis of … personality and attitudes to relationships that I found at times to be spookily accurate.” Except for the bits that say she’s supposed to be into sex clubs, S&M, swinging and sub-mission fantasies.

Hm. I wonder what Starsky and Cox have to say about female Capricorns…

Walk on the Wild Side

Such pondering aside, it was with a pang of sadness that we learned that some people had to be treated for burns after a fire walking in Dunedin (Dominion Post, July 12.)

The event was run by the New Zealand International Science Festival as a fund raiser for St John and was a bid to create a world record. About 450 people walked through a 3.5m hot charcoal pit, and of those, 28 were treated for burns, 11 of them in hospital. The fire walking raised about $1000 for St John but the organisation spent more than that treating patients.

The festival director said they certainly didn’t want to cause any pain for people and they probably wouldn’t knowingly get into it again. Which is a shame, because as we skeptics know, such events are a good way to highlight some basic science. Maybe it was just a case of too many feet — 28 out of 450 is, after all, only a little more than 6% requiring treatment.

As for whether or not a record was set, it’s too early to tell. Let’s cross our fingers…

Bacteria Beware — Science to the Rescue!

Christmas is coming up and this writer is holding out for a Twinbird Ion desk lamp. It emits ionised air towards one’s brain, which makes one brainier. Bring it on, I say.

The ion desk lamp is just one item on sale in Japan, where a health neurosis is reportedly sweeping the country (Dominion Post, June 15.) It appears negatively-charged air particles can produce an endless range of potential health benefits, from cleaning the air to stimulating the brain. Devious devices include Bio Shoes which pump ionised air into shoes over-night to sanitise them, and the Plasmacluster Ion Fridge, which smothers viruses and bacteria with both negative and positive ions. The Photo Ion Blaster will not only render your face clean and bacteria-free, it will also eliminate wrinkles. Everything from pens to doorknobs are marketed with anti-bacterial films and one firm stocks more than 20 different models of washing machine that destroy bacteria by negatively charging a load of washing. A lovely quote: “I’m not even sure what exactly this minus ion technology does, but I feel that I have a duty to buy it.”

Restaurant Didn’t Have a Ghost of a Chance

The collapse of Suzanne Paul’s Maori village venture is no surprise to one Auckland woman, who says the Northcote site is haunted and cursed (Herald, July 17).

Strange things have happened at Fisherman’s Wharf, says former owner, Barbara Doyle. Mrs Doyle, who used to run murder mystery weekends at the Brian Boru in Thames, says she had tried to run a restaurant on the site in 2000, but went bankrupt.

She says while she found it hard to believe in ghosts, she felt she should have called in a ghostbuster. On one occasion she saw a man throw himself to his death off a nearby cliff: the venue was cursed, she believed.

Her daughter says she felt spirits inside the building when she lived there for six months, and later heard about a young man who’d hanged himself there.

Ngati Whatua kaumatua Grant Hawke said its original inhabitants, Ngati Tai, endured severe casualties through raids by Ngati Poa and Ngati Whatua.

One of the liquidators said ghost stories were new to him, and that while he’d heard a few creaks, they were possibly the air-conditioning.

And Neville Waldren, of the Restaurant Assocation, said it was a magic spot, but a bit off the beaten track, which contributed to its failure.

Time Running Out for Psychic Forecasters

The Ashburton Guardian’s Matt Smith had a mid-year look at some psychic predictions recently (July 22).

Ashburton psychic Barry Newman predicted Don Brash would be ousted from the National Party leadership by Gerry Brownlee, which is looking unlikely. He also said a world leader would be toppled or slain and armies would march — such as happened to Saddam Hussein.

In cricket, Newman predicted that Jeff Wilson would appear for the Black Caps this year, which he hasn’t yet. Someone in a glass cage would die, with many to cry was another claim, but nothing seems to have come of this one yet, either.

Patricia McLaine claimed Howard Dean would be the Democratic candidate for the US presidency. John Kerry is now confirmed in that role. She also predicted surprise weddings among celebrities — and Britney Spears did marry a childhood friend in early January, so she got one right, Smith says. He adds that McLaine also said space debris would become a major nightmare. “And although it wasn’t quite to that level, a meteorite blasted through an Auckland home last month, generating major interest from astronomy fans world-wide.” Stretching it a bit, I think.


Your Future is not in the Stars

Level-headed Virgos everywhere will not be surprised, but a 40-year study of astrology has found it doesn’t work (Dominion Post, August 19).

More than 2000 people, mostly born within minutes of each other, were tracked through the period of the study. According to astrology, the subjects should have had very similar traits. The researchers looked at more than 100 characteristics, including occupation, aggressiveness, sociability, IQ levels and ability in art, sport, maths and reading, but found the subjects no more similar than a randomly selected sample of the general population.

The babies were originally recruited as part of a medical study begun in London into how the circumstances of birth can affect future health. Former astrologer Dr Geoffrey Dean, who analysed the results, also found astrologers could do no better than chance in matching birth charts to the personality profile of a person among a random selection. Their success rate did not improve even when they were given all the information they sought. He said the consistency of the findings weighed heavily against astrology.

“It has no acceptable mechanism, its principles are invalid and it has failed hundreds of tests. But no hint of these problems will be found in astrology books which, in effect, are exercises in deception.”

Roy Gillett, president of the Astrological Association of Great Britain, said the study’s findings should be treated “with extreme caution” and accused Dr Dean of seeking to “discredit astrology”. Frank McGillion, a consultant to the Research Group for the Critical Study of Astrology, said: “It is simplistic and highly selective and does not cover all of the research.” He said he would lodge a complaint with the journal’s editors.

Ashburton Panther a Big Moggy?

A truck driver’s report of a panther not far from Ashburton came as no surprise to many people in the back blocks of the South Island (Rural News, October 20). Richard McNamara, of the Department of Conservation (DoC), says two English tourists reported a “mountain lion” about the size of a labrador at the top of the Lindis Pass, and this was not the first such sighting from the area. Christchurch teacher Marianne Daines also reported a labrador-sized cat, black like the Ashburton beast, from near Twizel.

According to Bendigo Station gamekeeper Steve Brown some of the feral cats in his area are huge — he has one weighing 6kg in his freezer, and says bigger ones are out there. DoC and Otago Regional Council confirm the existence of these big cats, many of which will completely fill a possum trap.

For that matter, this writer and Skeptic editor Annette Taylor saw a cat at Lewis Pass about 20 years ago which, if not as big as a labrador, would have been almost the size of our border collie (who is admittedly not the largest specimen of her breed).

Inaudible “Spooks”

Mysteriously snuffed out candles, weird sensations and shivers down the spine may not be due to ghosts but to low frequency sound inaudible to humans. Dr Richard Lord and his colleagues at the National Physical Laboratory in England have shown that extreme bass sound, known as infrasound, produces a range of bizarre effects in people, including anxiety, extreme sorrow and chills.

The team, who produced infrasound with a sevenmetre pipe and tested its impact on 750 people at a concert, said infrasound was also generated by natural phenomena.

Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, whose name often crops up in stories like this, says his findings support the idea that this level of sound may be present at some allegedly haunted sites and so cause people to have odd sensations that they attribute to a ghost.

Sex Abuse Counsellor Faces Tribunal

A tribunal in England has heard that John Eastgate, a consultant working mainly with adolescents, used counselling sessions to “lead” a “vulnerable and angry” 13-year-old girl into believing she had been indecently assaulted by a fellow doctor (Daily Telegraph, September 2).

Joanna Glynn, QC, representing the GMC, said it was “dangerous”, when dealing with a girl suffering from “adolescent difficulties”, to start from the premise that abuse did occur.

She said: “In this case the child was bright, angry and resentful, and it has to be said, a difficult adolescent, and the imposition of such preconceived ideas by the psychiatrist is likely to justify her anger in her own eyes and to colour most of the things she would say afterwards.”

The hearing in London was told that Mr Eastgate began treating the girl, known only as Miss A, at the Marlborough House adolescent unit in Swindon, in April 1996 after she was referred by teachers at her boarding school. He dismissed their fears that she was suffering from anorexia and claimed her lack of appetite was due to profound depression. He prescribed her antidepressants.

During a number of counselling sessions in June and July, he allegedly prompted the girl into believing she had been sexually abused by a doctor who had treated her when she was 9.

Professor X, an endocrinologist, had treated her in London for a growth disorder between January 1993 and August 1995 when she was growing unusually tall. He prescribed oestrogen to induce puberty early and limit her growth and, as part of his treatment, had to monitor her breast and pubic hair growth to assess her development. It was during these sessions that Miss A claimed that Professor X “fondled” her.

Three days later, without informing her parents, he contacted the local child protection team and the police. Miss A, who a month earlier had taken an overdose of antidepressants, was taken into care. The case against Professor X was dropped almost immediately after it emerged that her mother or grandmother attended all her visits to him. They did not see anything untoward. Giving evidence, Miss A’s mother described her reaction.

“I was completely in shock,” she said. “I thought, ‘How could anything have happened while I was there?”

But Miss A was not released from care for three years because during her stay she made further allegations of abuse against three other men, including her father, a businessman. Those charges were later dropped by Miss A, who is now reconciled with her family.

Mr Eastgate, who is in his 50s, denies four charges of misconduct, including failure to keep adequate notes, which if proved amount to serious professional misconduct.

Cell Phones Again

In last issue’s Newsfront, a Wellington School of Medicine study showed no link between tumours and cellphones. Now a doctor in Sweden has come up with a new way to scare cellphone users (Dominion Post, September 15).

Professor Leif Salford of Lund University has spent 15 years investigating whether microwaves could open the blood-brain barrier allowing a protein to pass into the brain and cause damage. The voluntary exposure of the brain to microwaves is, he says, “the largest human biological experiment ever.” No results from these studies were reported, however.

Doctor Found Guilty

A Hamilton doctor who prayed to cure illnesses diagnosed using wands and vials of chemicals has been found guilty of misconduct and disgraceful conduct (Dominion Post, August 13.

Richard Gorringe was found guilty by the Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal in relation to patients Yvonne Short and Ravaani Ghemmagamy whom he treated in 1998. The tribunal found he exploited Mrs Short for money, and knew, or should have known, that the diagnosis and treatments he gave her were wrong. It also found he did not give either woman enough information about their treatments for them to be able to give their informed consent.

The tribunal was told that Mrs Short’s eczema worsened under Gorringe’s care. Using the peak muscle resistance test, Gorringe asked Mrs Short to touch a metal wand to various vials of chemicals to see how her body “resonated” with them. He then diagnosed her with paraquat poisoning and prescribed homoeopathic injections and other remedies which he sold her.

Dr Gorringe diagnosed Ravaani Ghemmagamy with brucellosis, a rare and notifiable disease most commonly contracted from handling raw meat. After asking if she was open to “spiritual healing”, he raised his hands and prayed: “Lord God Almighty, strike the bacteria from this woman’s body.”

In the weeks since, there have been numerous letters to the Waikato Times from satisfied patients protesting Gorringe’s crucifixion by the medical establishment.


Alternative Child Healthcare

The following correspondence between nursing lecturer Sue Gasquoine and Skeptics’ chairentity Vicki Hyde is reproduced with the permission of the participants -ed.

Hello Vicki,

I heard you talking to Wayne Mowat on National Radio yesterday. I have a theory for you to consider as you wonder why New Zealanders view with such skepticism “religious” reasons for denying children treatment (epitomised by the death of baby Caleb Moorhead) when there seemed to be significant support for Liam Williams-Holloway’s parents when they decided to “hide” him and seek “alternative” therapy.

There is a world of difference between diagnosis with and death from a vitamin deficiency and diagnosis with and death from cancer.

Vitamin deficiency is entirely avoidable even with very strict diets. Cancer in children is not. Treatment of vitamin deficiency is generally uncomplicated, entirely successful and has few side effects. Treatments for cancers such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy are by no means uncomplicated and are often associated with distressing side effects. They vary in their effectiveness depending on the type and location of the cancer and are by no means a guarantee that the child will survive.

There are few if any useful parallels that can be drawn between parents trying to act in the best interests of their child with cancer, who may in the process decline treatments offered by western medicine and parents who do not recognise the ‘necessaries of life’.

I think New Zealanders recognise this critical difference which has been absent in most media coverage of these tragic events. They do well to be skeptical of religious fanaticism, alternative therapy AND western medicine which also makes false claims – the “safety” of HRT and the rate of caesarian births being the most recent examples!

Sue Gasquoine, Lecturer – Nursing
School of Health Science, Unitech

Vicki responded with:

Thanks for the feedback — always appreciated.

I certainly agree there is a world of difference between diagnosis with and death from a vitamin deficiency and diagnosis with and death from cancer, and it may well have been a contributing factor though not, I would suggest, a major distinction made by people in looking at the various cases.

I say that because of the Tovia case just before Liam’s one, which also involved refusal of cancer treatment for a child (albeit a 14-year-old), but this time on religious grounds.

In that case, there was, as with the Moreheads, a much more critical view taken of the parents and their role in refusing treatement. They were also taken to court, at one stage facing manslaughter charges, and were generally condemned in the media.

I have had many discussions with legal, media and medical people about the differences between this case and that of Liam Williams-Holloway, and the treatment the two families got in the press and in the court of public opinion.

I think that it would be possible to argue that Peni and Faafetai Laufau, the parents of Tovia, deserved a more sympathetic treatment in some respects because (1) they were doing it on sincere religious beliefs, not based on a book which touts conspiracy theories and coffee enemas as cancer treatments and (2) their son was of an age to arguably be a part of the informed consent process, and expressed his own wish to refuse treatment.

Much in all as I hate to say it, the main points of difference can be attributed to a couple of factors I suspect — the Laufaus were Pacific Islanders, of lower socio-economic status, and religious. Treena and Brendan were white, middle-class, articulate and constantly described as making a “well-informed choice”.

It’s a most uncomfortable set of differences in its implications…

I do think that there is culpability in both the cases you cite and in that of the Laufaus. There is a great deal regarding the Liam Williams-Holloway case which was not adequately addressed by the media, and I can understand why those involved continue to feel a certain amount of despair and anger at what happened. (I’d be happy to discuss this further if you like, or if you have any questions about it.)

And you are so right that it is vital we cast a critical eye over any claims in all areas. What we have to do is to ensure that we have some way of helping us determine what claims there are, what the level of evidence is to support those claims, and what the risks are in accepting or rejecting that evidence.

All the best,
Vicki Hyde

B.Sc.(Astrol.) anyone?

Ever felt queasy about the courses the New Zealand Qualifications Authority gives its approval to? Remember the fuss over the Indian government’s encouragement of university courses in astrology? The infection is spreading; some well-known British universities are also up to some curious activities. A recent correspondent to the science journal “Nature” reports on a charity called The Sophia Project, which has money to give away for work that sets out to establish that astrology is a genuine science. Four institutions are named as having accepted funds for this. Studies include: planetary influences on fertility and childbirth, and on alcoholics, and looking for correlations between birthdate and prostitution.

The correspondent is concerned that, despite the private funds provided, some taxpayers’ money is inevitably going to support this “bogus research”. Of perhaps greater concern is that these universities are giving undeserved respectability to this nonsense.

Bernard Howard

A Letter from the Skeptical Left

I admire your work against creationism, but I have to ask why it is that proponents of lesbian and gay rights and reproductive choice on abortion have to fight junk science from the Christian Right on our own.

I am concerned that you appear to have swallowed petrochemical industry propaganda against the Kyoto Treaty, surely akin to the tobacco industry’s pro-smoking agenda in motive, intent and overall poor empirical rigour. As well as that, there is a wide-ranging debate over questions of “false” and “recovered” memories within the mental health professions, yet your organisation seems to be listening to the male backlash lobby, quite capable of its own imaginary junk science when it comes to its own control freak agenda against victims of family violence.

Craig Young, Palmerston North

…And one from the Skeptical Greens

When I read Professor Dutton’s vitriolic attack on the Greens in the Weekend Herald of September 28/29, I immediately thought he must have been inspired by the frantic ravings of another American whom we’ve heard quite a bit from lately. However, to give Professor Dutton his due, he did stop short of suggesting we should wage a war of attrition upon Green subversives.

His passionate defence of science reminded me of the attitude adopted by devout religionists over the centuries. Professor Dutton accuses environmentalists of a similarly distorted mindset, but despite the fact that all movements have extremist factions, he is well off track with his generalisations, if for no other reason than that the Greens are concerned for the well-being of things that actually exist, and have been carefully examined. Religionists on the other hand operate for the most part on pure supposition.

Science is not a religion. However it would seem that there are several people involved in that noble art who regard it as such. That is indeed sad, and a reprehensible distortion of mankind’s only reliable method of inquiry into most subjects. The scientific method should be an intelligently used force that will tell us often bumbling humans how far in any direction we should attempt to go. Unfortunately, the caution factor is all but ignored these days in favour of the hedonistic delight of having found something new that works. Apart from the financial and economic benefits, the other outcomes of a new discovery are often made less transparent, until of course, somewhere down the track something highlights a hidden disaster factor that was not thought worthy of mention at the time of the discovery’s introduction.

My final word to Professor Dutton is that he should place the blame for the world’s starving millions exactly where it belongs. Greedy corporate giants, environmental exploiters, warmongers, and corrupt officials will do for a start. Compared with that lot, we greenies aren’t even in the picture. (Abridged)

Peter E Hansen, Auckland

A Century of Skepticism

When I spoke at the conference two and a half years ago, argument was rife as to when the next millennium would begin. Now, there is no doubt we are well launched into the third thousand-year period since something important was supposed to have happened.

To understand what skeptics thought a thousand years ago is difficult; the state of skeptical thought a hundred years ago is more accessible. We can consider what progress, if any, people like us have made in that time. My claim to cover this topic is based on my observation of the field during two-thirds of the period.

Some of my comparisons will reflect merely a change in taste or style, others the replacement of one superstition or fad by another. For example, then they had ectoplasm, now we have bent spoons; then table rapping, now psychokinesis. There is not time to look at every paranormal fad or pseudoscientific belief, so I will pick just a few examples to consider.

To start at the depressing end, consider the increase in acceptance of astrology. My reading of early skeptical literature suggests that our comrades of one hundred years ago did not rate astrology among the prevalent intellectual weaknesses of the population, and even fifty years earlier, a commentator thought that astrology and other nonsenses would die out once universal education was introduced. Even a cursory survey of the present position makes us far less optimistic, in spite of well over one hundred years of compulsory schooling.

“It is to be hoped that the day is not far distant when lawgivers will teach the people by some more direct means, and prevent the recurrence of delusions like these [haunted houses]… by securing to every child born within their dominions an education in accordance with the advancing state of civilisation… If ghosts and witches are not yet altogether exploded, it is the fault, not of the ignorant people, as of the law and the government that have neglected to enlighten them.”
C. Mackay, 1840s

Astrology and Palmistry

Rawcliffe, in the preface to his “Illusions and Delusions of the Occult of the Early 20th Century”, wrote dismissively “No attempt has been made to enter into the question of such groundless occult practices as astrology, palmistry or similar naive forms of divination”. Compare what a commentator of the present day wrote:- astrology is “The only “science” editors of British newspapers and television current affairs programmes seem to understand”.

I now turn to the matter of health. Then, as now, dubious or fraudulent medical treatments were concerning those of a critical turn of mind. During the century the vast advances in understanding of how our bodies work have caused a shift in emphasis; what have not changed are people’s yearning for health coupled with widespread ignorance of how to achieve it, and the hijacking of new scientific discoveries by practitioners of pseudomedicine.

Medical Vibrations

The discovery of radio waves, and the spread of broadcasting early last century, brought in their train a host of quacks trading on people’s fascination with new but poorly understood science. Foremost among these in the USA was Adam Abrams, a genuine doctor with a medical degree from Heidelberg, no less. His theory was that each disease had its specific vibration frequency, and cure required treatment with waves of identical frequency. (Where have we heard that more recently?) Very conveniently for the therapist, presence of the actual sufferer where the gadgetry was located was unnecessary, a drop of blood, or even a signature, could serve just as easily! A commentator on Dr Abrams in the late 1950s thought that this therapy would by that time have been laughed out of existence, and his gadgets found rusting in American rubbish dumps. How wrong he was! In recent years we have seen the “Dermatron”, a worthless gadget used by at least one medical person in New Zealand to ‘diagnose’ toxic conditions, and the equally useless “Quantum Booster” which so impressed us at our Conference two years ago.

Perhaps the only claim to progress we can make here is that the numbers of these devices are fewer than the thousands of those sold by Abrams and his imitators.

Apart from the increase in sophistication of the quackster’s approach, I notice also a greatly reduced robustness in the attitude of authority. Perhaps because he was a “genuine” doctor, the Journal of the American Medical Association carried an obituary of the above-mentioned Dr Abrams in 1924. Far from acknowledging him as “one of their own”, the obituarist described him as “the dean of all twentieth century charlatans”, and the same association was equally damning of many other “healers”. At that time also mail-order shopping was big business (who has not heard of the Sears Roebuck Catalogue?), so that prevention of passage of patent medicines, etc. through the mails could seriously dent the trade. In the USA such action was possible by virtue of a law against “using the mails to defraud”. So a determined Post Office official, if he could persuade his Head Office to act, could put a stop to the patent medicine producers. Compared with these attitudes, authority today appears very feeble.

Enter Radioactivity

To the list of pseudo-electromagnetic treatments used 100 years ago, in 1903 was added radioactive materials, with the award to Marie Curie of the Nobel Prize. Claims were soon made for the healing properties of “Radium Water”. One such medicine, claimed to cure rheumatism and cancer, was “Waters of Life”, from California. A large shipment was impounded by Federal agents on its way East, and was found to contain nothing but ordinary spring water (no radium, thankfully!). The decision to condemn this water as “misbranded” was upheld by the courts. Compare this with the reaction of our own government to a similar case in New Zealand, the “Infinity Moods of Yellow Remember”. The Commerce Commission intends to take no action, and the Health Ministry feels powerless because “water is not a medicine”, and so the advertising of this stuff does not breach the Medicines Act. In this instance, we have clearly slipped backwards.

“Oxygen” has been a word to conjure with for almost two centuries after its role in our metabolism had been discovered. Its essential nature was widely recognised, and this attracted many fraudulent therapies. Such a one was the ‘Oxydonor’ in the USA. A disc fastened to the patient’s body led by a wire to a metal rod, hollow but sealed, immersed in a bowl of water; the rod caused oxygen to flow into the body, so healing whatever malady the patient had been convinced he or she was suffering from. An unsporting skeptic opened some of the metal rods; some were empty, some filled with carbon.

Now, we have ozone and hyperbaric oxygen therapies, and even polyatomic oxygen therapy. It is claimed that ozone inactivates HIV and cures AIDS, and the allegation that there is a conspiracy between the Food & Drug Admin-istration and the drug companies to put the oxygen therapists out of business will be a familiar story to skeptics.

For about two centuries the world of pseudomedicine has flourished by the sale of “patent medicines”. This is an odd title; a “Patent” is granted by governments, a guarantee of exclusive rights in exchange for disclosure. These medicines, on the contrary, were prepared according to secret recipes, usually with a basis in herbs. Some patent medicines are directed universally, eg cures for “listlessness”, “sluggish liver”, etc., others were targeted to one sex, such as to “weak men” (we can guess what weakness was implied.). Or we can consider those referred to delicately as for “female complaints”, or even for “female irregularities” (and we can guess what those did). As usual, current science is used inappropriately in advertising these things. Then it was vague ideas about the liver, kidney or nerves, now we are bombarded by anxiety-causing tales of vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

The overriding concern of women today, according to the advertisers, is not irregularity, but shape. Here are a few headlines from the front covers of British women’s magazines (Table 1).

Table 1. Headlines from Women’s Magazines, 2001
Healthy Eating. 12 Diet Myths (read this and shed lbs).
English Woman’s Weekly, 24.8.01
Slim and Smiling! Together Danny and Jan lost 61/2 stone
EWW, 7.8.01
Last-minute Diet Plan. Lose pounds in no time at all!
EWW, 14.8.01
50 low-cal treats to help you slim.
EWW, 28.8.01
Low Cal Low Carb High Energy
Good Housekeeping, 6.01

Do not think that investigative journalism started with the Watergate men. Early in the last century SH Adams looked into the patent medicine racket in America, and his damning reports, published in Collier’s Magazine, caused such a stir the Food and Drugs Act was passed soon afterwards. The requirement to publish the ingredients exposed many of the dangers and hypocrisy of the patent medicines; the dangers could include high concentrations of opium (morphine), the hypocrisy was the presence of high concentrations of alcohol in medicines sold in “dry” districts, sometimes with the unknowing support of Temperance enthusiasts. Consider the analyses in Table 2.

Table 2. Alcohol content of a range of beverages
Beer 5-6
White wine 13.5
Sherry 18.6
Whisky, Brandy 37.5
Hostetter’s Bitters
(A popular USA patent medicine)

Has the view of the psychic ability of animals changed in 100 years? Then, there were three widely reported examples, all from Germany! Clever Hans, the calculating horse, is probably best known, but there was also Muhamad, who could not only do simple arithmetic, he could work out square roots, hold a conversation, and knew his master’s telephone number.

Thirdly there was Lola, the super-intelligent dog, who held long conversations with his mistress by tapping her palm with his paw. All these, of course, are either entirely imaginary or the response of the animal to unconscious cues. Slightly different in recent times, is Sheldrake’s dog, who “knew” when his mistress left her work, and went to wait at the door for her. A careful observation of the animal revealed what Sheldrake had not troubled to find, that the dog was just restless, and went often to the door at times unrelated to what the absent lady was doing.

Some who are credited with the most astute intellects are taken in by simple fraud; brains are not the same as sense. Then, the creator of the super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes took for real the pictures of fairies cut out of a children’s book. More recently, children were able to convince an eminent physicist that they were “Gellerian” spoon benders. On the whole, though, I think there is improvement in this area. I know of no present day equivalents of William Crookes and Oliver Lodge, both scientists of the highest eminence, but both deceived by mediums into belief in spiritualism.


So we see that, though the detail has changed, credulity and gullibility have not diminished, despite the advances in education and knowledge which optimists predicted. New Zealand Skeptics is in no danger of running out of targets for our investigations. We need not disband and go home to put our feet up by the fire just yet.


Smile for the camera

Singaporean ghostbusters are turning to hi-tech equipment as they search for paranormal phenomena, reports the Evening Post (September 9).

Singapore Paranormal Investigators say they are taking a scientific approach to prove or debunk or unidentified flying objects. The team use digital video cameras, electromagnetic field meters and thermal guns. Many pictures suggesting paranormal shenanigans turn out to be the result of reflections, one has admitted.

‘God man’ warning

Three British men have died mysteriously after becoming followers of god man Sathya Sai Baba. The Dominion (August 28) reports his activities are being studied by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is considering issuing an unprecedented warning to travellers against the guru.

Three Britons, one of whom claimed being repeatedly sexually molested by Sai Baba, have apparently taken their own lives.

Scorn poured on Sorbonne

The Sorbonne has been denounced as a refuge for irrational academics lacking intellectual rigour. The criticism refers to the institution’s decision to award a doctorate to astrologer Elisabeth Teissier who has advised leading French personalities, such as former president Francois Mitterrand.

The Dominion (August 15) says a number of scientists have called for Mrs Teissier’s doctorate to be revoked and have poured scorn on her 900-page thesis, The epistemological situation of astrology through the ambivalence fascination/rejection in postmodern societies.

Spirit search

An international hunt for witches was launched last August – kicked off by a British medium who wants to contact the Scottish King Macbeth and lift the jinx said to overhang Shakespeare’s tragedy, according to the Evening Post (August 16).

“I’m looking for two witches,” said Kevin Carloyn, high priest of the 1600-strong coven of British white witches.

The idea was to get in touch with the real Macbeth to see if he has anything to do with the weird things which happen when the play is produced. By now, Carloyn and assistants will have been to Cawdor, Macbeth’s windswept home in the Scottish Highlands and tried to pacify the disgruntled spirit. Haven’t heard if it worked, but then plan B was to go to the top and contact Shakespeare himself.

Rebirthing tragedy

Two assistants in a rebirthing therapy session that led to the death of a 10-year-old girl pleaded guilty to criminally negligent child abuse resulting in death says the Evening Post (August 4).

The pair were assisting psychotherapist Connell Watkins in an unconventional treatment session in Watkins’ home. The girl was wrapped in a flannel sheet and told to break out to be ‘reborn’ to her adopted mother. She wasn’t breathing when she was unwrapped more than an hour later.

Oh dear…

Two Waikato researchers say deer velvet seems to have no effect on sexual performance, says the NZ Herald (July 2). The pair Helen and John Conaglen received funding by the maker of the product and were studying its effects as an aphrodisiac. The 34 men who used velvet in their experiment had hormone levels and sex drives no different from those taking placebo tablets. For more than 2000 years deer velvet, a furry skin on growing antlers, have been used in Asia to improve sexual function.

No getting away from it…

Traditional Chinese medicines are here to stay, say Chinese and US doctors in a report in the NZ Herald (July 2). Cao Zeyi, vice-president of the Chinese Medical Association said herbal medicines have worked for a thousand years on trillions and trillions of people but proof was needed.

He was at a week-long gathering of Chinese doctors and their US colleagues and delegates said they must redouble efforts to gain a Western scientific approach to prove that traditional Chinese medicines and therapies worked.

“If we can show clinical results I think my colleagues will open up to the possibility (that they work),” said Dr David Eisenberg, head of Harvard Medical School’s research on complementary therapies.

“This is a global phenomenon. Herbs and supplements are here to stay.”

He valued the worldwide supplements market at $112.93 billion in 1999.

Bad news for ghosts

Tony Cornell of the Society for Psychical Research in Britain reckons he knows why ghost sightings have tailed off in recent years – it’s cell phones!

“Ghost sightings have remained consistent for centuries. Until three years ago we had received reports of new ghosts every week,” said Mr Cornell, of Cambridge. Paranormal events, which some scientists put down to electrical activity, could be drowned out by the electronic noise produced by phone calls and text messages. (The Press, October 15)

Next time someone asks you your star sign

Superstitions, Stars and Pigeons

Astronomy is the science of stars and outer space stuff. Not everybody knows this and so astronomers get insulted when they get called astrologers. Astrologers will tell you that astrology is also a science, but is it?

Astrology is about the idea you can make predictions depending on when you were born. But when a baby is born, sometimes it rushes out like a nun from a brothel. Other times it needs surgical removal. Birth can be a few moments or many hours. Now this presents a problem for astrology. Astrologers claim the “moment of birth” is like pushing some cosmic reset button. The position of the planets and stars at that moment is supposed to have a defining effect on our lives. They always ask for the day, the hour and if you know it, the minute of your birth. They plot a chart based on this time and make predictions about your love life or finances.

Getting the time of birth correct is, according to the astrologers, very important. But when exactly is that “moment of birth?” Is it when the head comes out or when the midwife stands back and looks at the clock? Do midwives and doctors do a continuing education paper on astrology so all medical professionals are in agreement as to when birth actually happens? And what about the clocks? Are hospital clocks universally accurate? What about home births? Are all clocks on the right time? A few minutes fast or slow could make a huge difference. You might go through life thinking you were a Gemini when in fact you were a Taurus. And then there is the problem of daylight saving. Do astrological charts make adjustments for summertime hours?

New Zealand has had a permanent half-hour of daylight saving since World War Two, plus the normal one hour we add on in summer. Do they ever take this into account?

Astrologers often tell us that astrology is a very old method of divination. But what did they do in the days before accurate clocks? Or accurate calendars for that matter. Pope Gregory XIII reformed the old Julian calendar in 1582. In 1752, the British parliament eliminated the third to the thirteenth of September to realign the calendar with the position of the Sun. Gregory removed 5-14 October 1582. But since 1582, our calendar has become misaligned by nearly three hours. Inserting an extra day (Feb 29) every four years doesn’t quite correct the error. (The above facts I have carefully misquoted from David Ewing Duncan’s book “The Calendar”, Fourth Estate, 1999, London.)

When astrologers ask for your birth time, do they take these things into account? Could astrology be a superstition? And what is a superstition anyway?

If you put a pigeon in a cage and feed it randomly, you can get him to do the strangest things. A computer can be used to control the feeding so that every now and then, a pellet of food drops into the cage. The pigeon doesn’t know about random number generators so he starts to wonder if there is any way he can make more pellets fall. The pigeon notices he was scratching his wing when a pellet fell out. After eating the pellet, he thinks to himself, “I wonder if scratching my wing made the pellet fall.” The pigeon proceeds to test the hypothesis. It scratches its wing a few times, and another pellet falls out. Well, that proves it.

The pigeon, not being good at experimental design, doesn’t realise this wasn’t a very good test. He spends all day, every day, frantically scratching his wing. If he scratches his wing and a pellet doesn’t fall out, well, it must be because he didn’t do it right.

This is called superstitious behavior. A belief is superstitious if two unrelated events are believed to be related. In this case, the pigeon believes that scratching his wing causes the falling of the pellet.

In the case of astrology, the astrologer thinks there is a relationship between the position of the stars at birth, and the person’s personality. But is there a relationship?

If there is no relationship, then astrology is a superstition.

Scientists have tested astrology by drawing up bogus charts and seeing if anyone could notice a difference. Nobody did. Serious astrologers are very rude about the newspaper astrology predictions. Those “sun sign” predictions are considered too general. For a real chart they prefer an “accurate birth time”. But they never have an accurate birth time.

Remember that stuff about changing from the Julian to the Gregorian calendars. I think the last country to change over was China in 1949. But according to my mate Stu at the pub, the astrologers are still using the Julian calendar. Why would this matter? Well, when an astrologer asks for your birth time it is so he can determine where the stars and planets were at your birth. But because they are still using the Julian calendar they are about 13 days out. In 1482 AD, the calendar was 10 days out. Since then it has diverged another 3.4 days (approx.) This means that nearly half the people who think they are Aries are not.

Astrologers have been drawing up bogus charts for years without realising it. If the birth time is incorrect then the positions of the stars will be different and so the astrological predictions should be different.

Since birth times used by astrologers are never accurate, then modern astrology predictions should never be accurate. The fact that some people are satisfied with their readings must therefore be good evidence that astrology does not work.

It appears there is no real relationship between the position of the stars at birth and our personalities. Or at least none that have been detected by astrologers.

Astrology looks like a superstition. It smells like a superstition. It tastes like a superstition.

Try not to step in it.

John Riddell is a Gemini. Possibly.

Stir Signs

National Radio has scored a first by becoming the first public, non-commercial radio service in the English-speaking world to feature regular astrological advice. Every Monday evening around 8:40 pm Wayne Mowat and Linda Rose make fools of themselves by asking an astrologer earnest questions about listeners’ fate for the coming week.

It’s perhaps the most singularly embarrassing offering we’ve heard on National Radio. Besides, the character description for the various star signs are altogether too smarmy and flattering (you know: you’re ambitious, brave, intelligent, trustworthy, loving, tender, brilliant, sexy, generous, spiritual, etc.).

In case you’re interested, here is the real story of the various star signs, courtesy of an unknown Internet poster:

The Real Horoscope

AQUARIUS (Jan 20-Feb 18)
You have an inventive mind and are inclined to be progressive. You lie a great deal. You are inclined to be careless and impractical, causing you to make the same mistakes over and over. People think you are stupid.

PISCES (Feb 19-Mar 20)
You have a vivid imagination and often think you are being followed by the CIA. You have minor influence over your associates and people resent you for your flaunting of power. You lack confidence and are generally a coward. Pisces people giggle while burning ants with magnifying glasses.

ARIES (Mar 21-Apr 19)
You are the pioneer type and hold most people in contempt. You are quick tempered, impatient and scornful of advice. You are not very nice. You belong at the head of a combat unit on the way to a massacre.

TAURUS (Apr 20-May 20)
You are practical and persistent. You have dogged determination and work like hell. Most people think you are stubborn and bullheaded. You are. Upon being sacked from a job you are likely to return with an assault rifle.

GEMINI (May 21-June 20)
You are quick and intelligent. You are inclined to expect too much or too little. This means you are cheap. You put pebbles in a blind man’s cup.

CANCER (June 21-July 22)
You are sympathetic and understanding of other people’s problems. They think you are a sucker. You are always putting things off. That’s why you’ll never make anything of yourself. You bought Equiticorp shares at $9.97.

LEO (July 23-Aug 22)
You consider yourself a born leader. Others think you are pushy. Most Leo people become bullies. You are vain and dislike criticism. Most Leo people are thieves. You sold Brierley shares at 75 cents. To your mother.

VIRGO (Aug 23-Sept 22)
You are the logical type and hate disorder. This nit-picking is sickening to your friends. You are cold and unemotional and would rather fall asleep than make love. Virgos are good bus drivers. The books in your bookcase are arranged alphabetically.

LIBRA (Sept 23-Oct 22)
You are the artistic type and have a difficult time with reality. Chances for employment and monetary gains are slim. You talk a lot to yourself. You have to. Everyone else has stopped listening.

SCORPIO (Oct 23-Nov 21)
You are shrewd in business and cannot be trusted. You will achieve the pinnacle of success because of your total lack of ethics. Many Scorpio people are murdered by someone they know.

SAGITTARIUS (Nov 22-Dec 21)
You are optimistic and enthusiastic. You have a reckless tendency to rely on luck since you lack talent. The majority of Sagittarians are drunks or substance abusers. People laugh at you a great deal.

CAPRICORN (Dec 22-Jan 19)
You are conservative and afraid of taking risks. You don’t do much of anything and are lazy. There has never been a Capricorn of any importance. Capricorns should avoid standing too long in one place, as someone might paint them by mistake.

The Challenge to Reason

Tertiary institutes around the country are beginning to offer courses, and even entire degrees, in subjects that are pure pseudoscience.

The Aoraki Polytechnic has applied to the New Zealand Qualifications Authority seeking approval for its proposed Bachelor’s Degree in Naturopathy. If approved it will be the first degree programme of its kind in this country.

With generous assistance from all of us, the Northland Polytechnic is offering a course in Astrology. (Only $25.40 on study-right, but the full $50.70 non-study-right). Evidently the tutor was a scientist until his teacher “who was recognised as an incarnate lama or tunku by the Tibetans” instructed him in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. After several months’ psychotherapy in Morocco he went to India where he was empowered by the Sakyapa Lama. Evidently this powered him to Kerikeri where he now lives in a bus.

In the meantime, the Auckland Institute of Technology Press has been pouring out a stream of pseudoscientific books dealing with subjects ranging from faces on Mars to conspiracies to repress benevolent inventions and most recently The Poisoning of New Zealand.

This last book promotes the homeopathic line that increased dilution increases potency. (Sadly it doesn’t work with alcohol.) This leads to the remarkable conclusion that while concentrations of pesticides in our food and water may be well below those found toxic in laboratory experiments, extreme dilutions, of say one part per billion, are much more dangerous than concentrations of one part per hundred thousand.

In sum we have tertiary educational institutions subsidised by taxpayers offering courses and publishing books which are based on pseudoscience and superstition.

Does this matter?

It depends on your point of view. The Minister of Education has suggested that if there is a demand for these subjects then maybe the institutions have a duty to offer them –although he sounded as though he did not want to be seen as putting himself in the way of an employment opportunity. And we have to admit that naturopathy signboards (untreated timber only) are springing up like daffodils around our suburbs.

Science and Democracy

I happen to believe, along with Karl Popper and his many disciples, that there is a connection between the proper functioning of democracy and the rational or scientific approach to solving problems and learning about the world.

Since the days of the Enlightenment we have tended to the view that rational thought is the best basis for political action. Democratic government knows that there is no Utopian model of the static perfect society, just as science knows that no theory is ever finally proven to be true. The scientific method progresses towards truth without ever reaching it, while the democratic process “muddles through” to a better world by a process of continual experiment, debate and reform.

It is no coincidence that those who attack democracy look to pseudoscience to support their cases. The Socialists looked to the pseudoscience of Marxism, the laissez-faire anarchists of the nineteenth century looked to social (pseudo) Darwinism, while the Nazis blended social Darwinism and eugenics (pseudo-genetics) to boost their nationalistic dreams of a master race.

These days the centralists find support in the pseudoscience of the apocalyptic environmentalists, whose message is that democracy is unable to meet the challenge of the forces which “threaten the planet”. They make these claims even though the centrally planned states of the Eastern block appear to have committed ecocide. The miracle is that they could pollute so much while producing so little.

University Unreason

Yet contemporary Western society now seems hell-bent on destroying its faith in reason. The deconstructionists and post-structuralists in our universities now argue that there is no knowable truth, that science is no different to any other body of knowledge or superstition, and that students should not be taught a body of knowledge but should be encouraged to construct their personal models of the world. American universities, cringing under a wave of political correctness and an extreme form of “multi-culturalism”, are abandoning programmes which present the history of Western Civilisation as anything other than the history of the rape and plunder of minorities and other victims by a conspiracy of middle-class white males.

Given this widespread attack on science and rationality, it comes as no surprise to find that our tertiary institutions appear to be ready and willing to mount degree courses in naturopathy, including homeopathy and iridology.

The test of a scientific theory is that it can be refuted by an experiment or trial. Homeopathy has been subject to numerous trials and has yet to demonstrate any benefit other than those attributable to the placebo effect. This is not surprising, given that homeopathic medicine is water in which a potent substance has been diluted to levels where there is virtually no chance that an original molecule of the potent substance survives.

These are truly “dilutions of grandeur”. Frequently this “diluted water” is absorbed into a sugar crystal for packaging and will have typically evaporated by the time the patient gets round to taking it. The argument that homeopathic medicine can do no harm is almost certainly sound –what harm can be done by a dose of evaporated diluted water?

Against all this evidence the belief in homeopathy survives.

This raises the question of how a tertiary institution can possibly teach such subjects within a genuine environment of learning and research. Universities and polytechnics are supposed to encourage free and informed debate. If students of homeopathy come to an examination armed with all the published refutations of the practice, would they be able to pass the course? Probably not. Homeopathy is a belief system like astrology or witchcraft. You either believe it or you don’t, and any refutational evidence is dismissed as somewhat irrelevant. The standard argument is that sceptical observers cause bad vibrations which interfere with the efficacy of the treatment.

Can we really tolerate a course within a tertiary institution which argues that healthy scepticism interferes with proper analysis?

Wheat Amongst the Chaff

The proper place to present the field of natural medicine, or its more legitimate cousin, the whole body approach to medicine, is within the school of medicine itself. At least it will be subject to debate, and the wheat can be sorted from the chaff. And there is real wheat in there. Modern medicine has gone too far in the pursuit of the science of medicine as opposed to the art of healing. The placebo effect is powerful and we need to learn how to harness its potential to achieve maximum benefit. But we will make no progress while such investigations are accompanied by nonsense such as iridology or EVA, and where belief cannot be subject to critical experiment and refutation.

Where does the AIT Press fit into this? There are a host of publishers making money out of publishing the latest hocus pocus on the works of Nostradamus or whatever else is providing the latest means of extracting dollars from the gullible. Many readers are trying consciously to make sense of the widely differing views of the world presented by the Uri Gellers on one hand and the Stephen Hawkings on the other. If they wander into a library or bookshop and find a book on repressed inventions, or the international conspiracy to poison us all with pesticides, such readers are likely to assume that books published by the Auckland Institute of Technology (which could be expected to share the aspirations of MIT — otherwise why did the ATI change their name to AIT?) will have been subject to a higher standard of editorial criticism and intellectual rigour than the latest piece of flim flam from the “Centre for Zodiacal Peace Freedom and Inner Radiance”.

Well, I am sorry, they would be wrong. It looks as though the AIT has decided if there is a buck in it, they publish. And no doubt their response to this criticism will be to blame the government for not giving them enough money to start with. Is this an excuse to abandon principles?

Surely this is simply bad business practice on the part of the AIT. The AIT teaches courses in business, which presumably advise students that the most important asset of a modern organisation is its intellectual property. I would have thought that a critical part of the intellectual property of any tertiary institution would be its reputation for intellectual rigour and honesty. This reputation must surely be debased by a publishing house which is fast becoming a bad joke among the critical and informed readers of this country. I certainly would not recommend attendance at AIT to anyone I know if these publications represent the polytechnic’s attitude to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.

So the Qualifications Authority should stand firm and give accreditation only to those courses in medicine, science and technology which admit to critical analysis and are prepared to expose themselves to the normal standards of the scientific process — which means that if a belief is disproved then it must be abandoned.

Do Believers Really Believe?

One of the problems with naturopathy and similar belief systems is that even people who don’t believe in them believe in them. This may sound like nonsense. But if you are one of the many readers who are upset by these arguments and have some belief in naturopathy in any of its manifestations, ask yourself this question:

You have just had a terrible car accident. You are lying in the road and feel your life ebbing away and you suspect that other members of your family are in a similar state. A crowd has gathered around, but no-one is equipped to deal with the carnage. Then you hear dimly that wonderful sound, “Step back, make way! Step back, make way!” At last, you think, help is at hand. And then the final chant is “Step back, make way, here I am — and I’m a qualified naturopath”.

What do you believe in now?

We have to recognize the inability of modern medicine to meet the unrealistic expectations it created in the fifties and sixties. These have created a market driven by those who believe that their chronic ailments must be able to be cured by some magic medicine and will keep on searching until they find it. During the process the body often cures itself — and so success is frequently found and the last treatment is declared effective.

This process has opened the door for the irrational to enter our institutions of higher learning and to further close the door on freedom of speech and expression. You may not think this is a bad thing — especially if it provides a few more people with work and earns some money for the education system.

But how would the Minister of Education respond to a proposal to set up the Divine School of Engineering, or the Natural Light School of Veterinary Science, or the Tantric School of Economics? How will you feel when the building inspector uses an EAV meter to decide whether your building is earthquake proof or an acupuncturist is called in to test your herd for bovine TB or a Tantric Guru is appointed Governor of the Reserve Bank?

How come we would be prepared to let these people play games with our health, but not with our buildings, our cattle or our economy?


Letter from India

The Indian Skeptics sometimes seem to be up against some very big opponents. Our Chair recently received the following letter:

Dear Friend,

[There have been] 6 murders in the bedroom of Satya Sai Baba on 6.6.93. As the Sai Baba with the collusion of the police have committed this crime as the State and Central Ministers and the president of India are inner circle members of the Sai Baba Mafia, on 27.9.93 with great difficulty we have filed a writ petition in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh for an impartial enquiry into the murky happenings in Sai Baba’s alleged abode of peace, where his very near accomplices were murdered, and the petition came up for admission on 28.9.93.

The government pleaders tried their best to refer the case to the full bench of the High Court, where many such cases are pending the report of the judicial commission as to whether the courts have powers to order an impartial enquiry or a CBI enquiry. Mr K.N. Balgopal, our advocate practising in the Supreme Court of India at New Delhi, produced the recent judgement (in which he himself had argued the case for the petitioner in September ’93) where the bench of the Supreme Court, which included the Chief Justice of India, stated that the Courts are supreme as far as the upholding of law, justice and Constitution are concerned, and when the State and the Central Government fails to uphold law, justice and the Constitution they have the powers to order an impartial enquiry into the allegations. After seeing the judgement, the Hon. Judge issued notices to the State and Central Government to file their counters within four weeks and posted the case for orders on 4.11.1993.

The three advocates […] have taken up the work free. But we have to pay them their actual expenses. The air travel of Mr Balgopal comes to Rs 10,000 for every hearing, ie about US$335. With great difficulty we have ourselves paid for the expenses for the first visit, and the expenses. We are wondering how we will be able to send the air tickets for the 4th November hearing. The average income of our members is in- between Rs 10,000 to 20,000 per year! […]

We will be happy if you will share our expenses in the following ways:

  1. By collecting annual subscriptions for Indian Skeptic from your willing members, which is US$12 or its equivalent in your currency.
  2. By enlisting life subscribers for Indian Skeptic, which is US$150 or its equivalent in your currency. By collecting even $1 or more from each member.
  3. By ordering for the press clippings on the murky happenings at Sai Baba’s bedroom (about 300 clippings in English) at US$20 per set. The cheques may be made in the name of Indian Skeptic and posted to my address.

Hoping to hear from you at an early date. I am approaching you with great hesitation as I have no other way.

Yours sincerely, B. Premanand

Astrology Book Defended

In Skeptic 27 we announced the appearance of a new book on astrology written by one of the TVNZ folks who brings us the news every night. We remarked on how pleased TVNZ must be to have the services of this person in its newsroom.

We’ve now received a response from the author of The Astrologer and the Paradigm Shift, who obviously expects to be taken very seriously.

Overleaf is the press release I distributed within the TVNZ newsroom after publication of my book last year.

This book is now available via the National Library network. Since I believe it contributes greatly to the progress of science in particular and the advance of civilisation generally, I would like to publicise the ideas it contains.

I therefore challenge anyone to detect any error of logic in its core thesis. I’m a friendly person who would find it unfortunate to have to make a fool of anyone on national television, so I’d best be fair and let you know one physics professor has already been unable to detect any such error.

I expect anyone interested in taking up this challenge to read my book first. That means NOT skimming the chapters dealing with scientific philosophy in general and the nature of reality in particular.

Dennis Frank

TVNZ Newsman Writes Book!

The TVNZ fortnightly newsletter, Networks, recently carried the welcome news that a Senior Editor in TVNZ’s news division has written a book. The Astrologer and the Paradigm Shift will, according to Networks “clear up many common misconceptions about astrology.”

According to the author of the book, “Astrology is loosely grouped with modern New Age beliefs but it is in fact an ancient philosophical tradition out of which modern science arose.”

The newsman, a physics graduate, gave up his intention to pursue a scientific career when he found “physics didn’t address the connection between the human being and the environment, so was too divorced from reality.”

His book is 468 pages long. When asked how his colleagues felt about having the author of a book in their midst, he said that some of them didn’t know how to handle it, “although lots are intuitively sympathetic to where I’m coming from. I’ve done chart readings for several people” at TVNZ.

As is so often obvious, TVNZ news has no qualified specialist science or medical reporters. (In the recent flap over their carcinogenic potential, cellphones were in one TVNZ report repeatedly referred to as “radioactive.”) Nevertheless, it is heartening to learn that it now has a qualified astrologer to cast horoscopes for the staff.