Forum

Rebuttal

Walter C Clark, Chuck Bird and Nicky McLean criticise Hitting Home for not investigating women’s violence towards men, that is, for not being another piece of research altogether. When biologists can produce papers about the hairs on the legs of one species of fruit-flies, this does not seem excessively specialised. One reason that that was not done is simply money. To have achieved the same accuracy would have required interviewing 2,000 women, doubling the cost.

According to the Center Against Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle, 95 percent of all domestic violence is men beating women. Analysing violence along ethnic lines would likewise have doubled the cost, since presumably only about 200 of the present sample were Maori. It would cost as much again to interview 2,000 Pacific Islanders, also commonly characterised as violent.

Greg Newbold’s references to Maori in prison are disingenuous. He of all people should know that Maori are more likely to be imprisoned not because they are intrinsically more violent than Pakeha but, among other things, because they are disproportionately in lower socio-economic groups and less well-educated, and (in consequence) less able to manipulate the system to produce the outcome they want.

Again, Hitting Home did not look for or find the specific extent of Maori men’s violence against women because that is not the piece of research it was. All that research certainly should be done, but it is to the credit of Hitting Home that it didn’t pretend to attempt it. This was, after all, primarily about men’s attitudes towards violence, not about which men are violent.

As for Bird’s proposal that men be asked if they were abused, what would that prove? The most violent men might also claim to be the most put-upon, so?

Clark’s and McLean’s elaborate discussions of “provocation” are taken care of by the wording of the questionnaire (p 224) which specifies “ways of settling differences”. “Banging the table” (Clark) is not mentioned, nor “restraint of a spouse intent on mayhem with a French cook’s knife.” They seem to think some lower threshold of abuse, one that they think justified, should be ignored. That it is not does not fault Hitting Home, it just shows their places on its spectrum.

Does Nicky McLean really think that a man who thinks it is okay to take a knife to his wife would draw the line at shouting at her? The more items he agrees to, the more abusive/violent he is. There is no suggestion in Hitting Home that the different levels of abuse and violence are equivalent. Obviously the scale is quasi-logarithmic, like the Richter and decibel scales, and hence more sensitive at the lower end. Once that is understood, “number of types accepted” is a perfectly valid measure.

Chuck Bird confuses de-facto marriages with reconstituted families: it is step-parents who are more likely to abuse children than natural parents, regardless of the legal status of the marriage. This seems to be biological and has nothing to do with men’s violence toward women.

Pace McLean, it will be news to co-author Robin Ransom that he is a woman.

Hitting Home does have a significant flaw (as well as the truthfulness problem I mentioned in my main submission), not mentioned yet by its supporters or opponents. The level of non-response is very high, with only 60% of men contacted agreeing to be interviewed. It is hardly a way-out, New-Age supposition that violent men are less likely to talk about their violence than non-violent men. Therefore, Hitting Home probably significantly under-reports male violence and abuse against women.

Hugh Young, Porirua

More Comments on Hitting Home

Definition of Abuse

It could reasonably be expected that the term “abuse” would have been defined and its parameters explained at the beginning of the report. Instead it is not until p.30 that any definition is given — when it is, it is found to embrace a long list of behaviours (physical and psychological) of varying levels of seriousness. This does have the effect of trivialising the subject and of diverting attention from the more serious cases. The data would appear far less confusing and a far greater reliance presumably could be placed on the results if the more serious aspects had been separated from the less serious from the start.

Lack of Balance

On p.31 we are informed that “in this study <@145>domestic abuse’ is used to mean the abuse of women by male partners”. Such a restriction seems misguided given that behaviours in a partnership are never restricted to one partner. And often other people are involved. Such an approach to the subject resembles that of a biologist who decides to study the dynamics of a parasite-host relationship by concentrating on only one of the participants.

Exclusion of Ethnicity

A basic criterion of any survey which purports to be scientific is that all avenues are followed which are likely to provide vital information. If this means disregarding claims that following this or that line of investigation “would lead to unhelpful, inappropriate and insensitive cross-cultural comparisons”, so be it. To maintain that the survey’s methodology was inappropriate for making such comparisons does seem a way of avoiding the issue, particularly when we are informed that an ethnic analysis became a significant issue in the consultations made during the development stage (p.35).

Questionable Methodology

A number of the most puzzling and questionable aspects of the study appear in the section: The findings of Study 1 — a survey of 2,000 men. We are told that “most New Zealand men do not approve of a man hitting a woman,” and that nine in ten do not approve of hitting in any of twenty different circumstances (p.62). It seems this clear indication of a high level of disapproval did not satisfy the researchers. A “ten-point scale of disapproval” was applied from which each man was given “an approval of hitting score”. Suddenly “non-approval” becomes “approval” in relation to hitting a woman.

The conclusion drawn from this questionable methodology is “that New Zealand men do not strongly disapprove of hitting”. Somehow what began as a strong positive has become a strong negative, to the detriment of New Zealand men in general.

Contradictions

On p.98 it is stated: “as in our research, the Dunedin study found that domestic abuse was more likely to occur when the male partner was young and when he was poorly educated, of low socio-economic level, and unemployed”. Yet a major conclusion from the study is that “a man’s socio-economic level, educational level and personal income group give us no clue of the likelihood of his being abusive to a woman partner.” (p.146). Also little is made in the report of the fact that this “finding” was contrary to that arrived at in the majority of overseas studies.

How can questions be “less direct” and, at the same time, “more specific”? (p.35).

Major Conclusions of the Report

There seems no justification for concluding (a) that there is an underlying male acceptance of abuse in New Zealand, and (b) that a substantial proportion of New Zealand women are abused by their male partners, both physically and psychologically (p.21). The results of the survey, particularly when taking into account the wide definition of “abuse” and the suspect methodology, do not warrant these conclusions. It is worth noting that a desire to fit data to preconceived notions is a characteristic of pseudoscience.

Conclusion

The NZ Skeptics Society is opposed to pseudoscience in any of its manifestations. There seems little doubt that vital parts of Hitting Home can be described as pseudoscientific. It is therefore a fair target for skeptical attention. I have to agree with those critics of the report who have concluded that it trivialises domestic violence and conveys a level of abuse perpetrated by men which is not supported by the evidence. I support fully the awarding of the Bent Spoon for 1995 to the report, Hitting Home.

Warwick Don, Dunedin

I have carefully examined the Department of Justice report on domestic violence entitled Hitting Home. I feel that this report fully deserved being made recipient of the 1995 Bent Spoon award.

Robert Woolf, Auckland

Correction

Despite the third paragraph of my contribution to the September issue, I would like it to be known that I do distinguish affect from effect (and impact for that matter), and an issue would be assessed rather than accessed, such as men’s abuse rather than man’s. And in the last paragraph I wrote few persons rather than four persons. But otherwise, my scribblings must have been clear enough.

As for the report, I too had to stare long and hard at some paragraphs, including the one quoted by Mr Clark in his letter [September, p.25, first paragraph]. I think the authors mean that when asked about “abuse” people disapprove readily, but if asked less directly about general abuse by being offered specific actions not labelled as abuse, many more say that they might do that, or could understand someone doing it. My bafflement peaked on p.148 of the report with “…most likely to agree with this statement were the non-abusive men” … “a clear relationship between seriousness of abuse and level of agreement with the statement” … “four out of ten in the most serious abuse group agreed…two out of ten in the least serious group.”

After a lot of thought, and checking with my father, I concluded that the paragraph was saved from literal self-contradiction thanks to overlapping definitions of “non-abusive”, “most serious” and “least serious” groups. A plague on the whole business!

Nicky McLean, Lower Hutt

Support for Award

Hugh Young writes, “Hitting Home is careful, thorough, mainstream scientific research.” And later, “It is social science, not `hard science’…”

It seems to me he is using definitions of “careful”, “thorough”, “mainstream”, “scientific”, and “research” which are quite different to those commonly used in the community of “hard science”.

Hitting Home is a muddle. One could give numerous examples but Page 88 is a classic. It lists a “Seriousness of Abuse Scale (SOAS)” although this seems to have become contaminated with frequency. What to make of this sentence explaining the scale? “Where two types of abuse had the same frequency, the one with the lower number of times in the past year was given the higher ranking.”

Some time last year a young couple from next door came to use our telephone. Later the man shot and killed the woman. According to the SOAS that ranks as less serious than “Threatened her with knife or gun”.

Hugh Young seems so certain of things which he cannot know as established facts. “Any torturer will tell you that the `best’ torture is purely mental.” How many torturers does he know? Has he consulted a random sample?

Hugh Young again writes, “It is a truism among anti-violence workers (but apparently unknown to the critics) that domestic violence cuts across class boundaries, and a high court judge or cabinet minister is just as likely to beat his wife as a freezing worker or opossum [sic] trapper.” This gets us to the real point: how do they know? This is just political correctness.

I spent 25 years in teaching where I encountered a number of families where there was violence against children and wives. My experience was that domestic violence was very strongly correlated with socio-economic class and ethnic group. Furthermore most of the serious stuff was inflicted by men.

Now I am quite prepared to be shown to be wrong (I certainly did not encounter a random sample), but this will require evidence; I will not be convinced by a politically correct truism common among social workers. Just how many wives of cabinet ministers and high court judges are to be found in women’s refuges for example?

Hugh Young again writes, “-the report came to this counter-intuitive conclusion by careful scientific study…”. It did not. It confirmed a “truism among anti-violence workers” by means that will naturally confirm prejudices.

The statistic that I found least believable is that 67% of New Zealand men had personal knowledge of physical abuse by a man or a woman. Because this implies that 37% have no such knowledge and I find that incredible. What kind of sheltered life do these people lead?

Jim Ring, Nelson

No Evidence

I enjoyed reading the opposing points of view regarding the Bent Spoon Award, but was surprised to be advised by Hugh Young on p.24 that “We Skeptics are now on record as thinking it beyond question that once a woman has struck a man, he need take no responsibility whatever for all his subsequent violence”.

I have personally never seen a scrap of evidence to support that statement and can only conclude that someone has been “behaving like a tabloid newspaper” having “taken information out of context, re-written it in a biased way, and generally put the kind of spin on it that we so often accuse our opponents of doing”.

John Turner

A Big Mistake

We have made a big mistake. Hitting Home is careful, thorough, mainstream scientific research. It may be alarming, but it is not, as we said, “alarmist”. It is a serious attempt to measure men’s attitudes towards, and the extent of, their violence. It is social science, not “hard” science, but it has done its best to attach figures to subjective psychological statements. If it can be criticised, it is for accepting the men’s reports of their own violence at face value, when the biggest problem associated with men’s violence is men’s denial. (“I just gave her a bit of a tap” — and she spent three weeks in hospital.)

One of our spokesmen (sic) publicly admitted to a level of domestic violence that is against the law. On Morning Report, he misquoted a question about male control, “tried to keep her from doing something she wanted to do (such as going out with friends or going to a meeting)” (p 225) as “tried to stop her from doing whatever she wanted…such as driving while drunk or abusing a child.”

We said in our press release that the report paints a disturbing picture of men’s violence “until you examine the fine print”. There is no fine print, nor any of the attempts to hide key caveats or qualifications that the expression implies. We said “the report defines ‘abuse’ to include criticising your partner’s family”. The 2,000 men were actually asked about “putting down her family and friends” (“criticising” is rational, “putting down” is not) in the context of a row or fight. The report did not define “abuse” from scratch, it took its questionnaire items from other such studies, giving references (p 173). Putting down one’s partner’s family in the context of row is psychological abuse because her family is something she has no control over, and is almost invariably irrelevant to the content of the row. A woman will feel compelled to defend her family, and an attack on her family is an indirect attack on her.

We said “you can’t classify the experience of being strangled or threatened with a knife alongside hearing a rude comment about your brother…” This is a misquote, and trivialises what is actually being discussed. The report does not “classify…alongside”, it ranks violence and abuse in seriousness (by inverse frequency of mention), divides them into four levels of seriousness, and reports that the most serious forms of violence and abuse are rare, and “just over half [of the men reporting any abuse] were in fact in the least serious group.” (pp 88-9)

In saying the report “trivialises” domestic violence, we trivialise psychological abuse: a man does not have to be violent to abuse his partner. In one classic case, a man terrorised his wife by getting out his rifle and cleaning it, without saying a word or touching her.

We criticised the report for investigating only men’s violence and abuse of women, yet it pretends to do nothing else. Its subtitle, on the front cover, is “Men speak about abuse of women partners.” It recommends that studies be made of women’s violence to men, and of violence in same-sex relationships.

Two indications of the limited extent of women’s violence:

  1. There is no felt need for men’s refuges (if there were it would be instantly met by Rotary, Lions and the Round Table).
  2. Wellington Men for Non-violence ran a flat for men for about two years. It was never used as a refuge for a man fleeing a woman’s violence, only for violent men giving their families “time out”. Studies that claim to show high levels of female violence are methodologically flawed, but be that as it may, this report is not about that.

We accused the report of saying there was no link between ethnicity and violence. It made no such claim, and could not, because it did not ask about ethnicity. (Perhaps it should have, but it says why it did not. The question is not an easy one to formulate, when two people of identical descent may describe their ethnic identity quite differently.) Do we have any evidence that there is such a link?

We said it “flies in the face of other research” in claiming there was no link between socio-economic status and violence. (Since when did one piece of research have to match another? Isn’t this just another way of saying that overseas research couldn’t be replicated here?) It says “We compared our results with a recent review of 52 studies… In no case was there total consistency across all studies reviewed…There are several possible explanations. The spread of social factors in New Zealand may not reflect the same degree of diversity as in America where most of the reviewed studies were conducted…” (p 97).

In fact it does find a weak link between socio-economic status and violence, but only in younger men. It is a truism among anti-violence workers (but apparently unknown to the critics) that domestic violence cuts across class boundaries, and a high court judge or cabinet minister is just as likely to beat his wife as a freezing worker or opossum trapper. Since the report came to this counter-intuitive conclusion by careful scientific study, what do we (who produce no contrary study) think it should do — cook the books?

We said “the contradiction is not surprising when you realise how broadly the report has defined the concept of abuse”. Psychological abuse is a relatively new concept, but it is no wishy-washy, New Age claim: ask any victim. Any torturer will tell you that the “best” torture is purely mental. It is not that the report has defined abuse more broadly, but that our sceptical critics seem unaware how prevalent or serious psychological abuse is.

We said “the deliberate avoidance of any identification of at-risk groups…”. This is simply not true. The report looks at age, education, income, marital status, employment status, and socio-economics status (pp 92, 160-1). We disputed most strongly the report’s statement that “‘in at least one circumstance’ six out of ten New Zealand men say the woman has only herself to blame for being hit”.

We implied that the specific circumstances justified the man’s violence. 36% said a woman is solely to blame if her man hits her for abusing a child. A further 3% said neither is at fault. Do we say they are right to condone his violence, bearing in mind that having their mothers struck for abusing them will do the children no good at all? Role-modelling in non-violence it ain’t.

Thirteen percent said no blame at all attached to a man (7% her fault, 6% neither) who hit his wife for repeatedly refusing sex, 22% (19+3) for yelling at him at the top of her voice, 28% (21+7) for not having a meal ready when she had been at home all day, 30% (26+4) for making fun of him sexually, 50% (48+2) for finding her in bed with another man (p 65). (The reaction of hitting the other man is not canvassed.) These findings indicate high levels of condoning of male violence. Are we not just shooting the messenger?

We criticised the report for its finding that 20% of men think a woman is entirely to blame if a man hits her in “self-defence against a woman who is actually attacking a man”. The actual wording is, “in an argument, she hits him first.” We Skeptics are now on record as thinking it beyond question that once a woman has struck a man, he need take no responsibility whatever for all his subsequent violence.

We said it presented “no perceptible evidence” that New Zealand men have quite a high level of anger and hostility. On pp 44-45 it describes how it asked the men six questions (the Brief Anger-Aggression Questionnaire) devised overseas (and apparently a standard test) and found that New Zealand men scored higher than men in other countries.

We Skeptics have taken information out of context, rewritten it in a biased way, and generally put the kind of spin on it that we so often accuse our opponents of doing, behaving like a tabloid newspaper. One of us called the report “victimology” (what is wrong with studying victims?) when it is a study of perpetrators, and “advocacy science” when it is simply applied social science. The only assumptions it makes that could be called “advocacy” are that domestic violence is an evil, and that men must take responsibility for their violence if it is to be eliminated. In challenging those assumptions, we are effectively taking the side of violent men.

Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof. The claims this report makes will come as no surprise to anyone who works in the field of domestic violence. It presents extraordinary proof for them. In attacking it, we have gone way out of our depth. We should stick to the urine-sniffing lamas and medical-advice-dispensing radio psychics that are our forte. This time, we have used the Bent Spoon to flick egg over our own faces.

We should graciously acknowledge our mistake, withdraw the “award” and publicly and unconditionally apologise to the authors of “Hitting Home”. This would be a good example of the kind of rational and adaptable behaviour we try to encourage in others.

The 1995 Bent Spoon

This year’s Bent Spoon Award has ruffled a few feathers. In a controversial decision, what the Skeptics described as an “alarmist” Justice Department report on domestic violence in New Zealand has received the award.

“The report, entitled Hitting Home, paints a disturbing picture of New Zealand men as abusers of wives and partners, until you examine the fine print,” said Skeptics head Vicki Hyde.

“Since the report defines ‘abuse’ to include criticising your partner’s family, it is not surprising that half the men surveyed were guilty of some form of psychological abuse…By so exaggerating the extent of abuse, the report trivializes the real domestic violence that goes on in New Zealand,” Ms Hyde said.

For example, Hitting Home refers repeatedly to one particularly disturbing statistic, which was singled out in the Justice Department press release: “when they were shown some typical circumstances in which abuse occurs, 10% [of New Zealand men] said they approved and 56% did not really disapprove of hitting a woman. And in at least one circumstance, six out of ten men say the woman has only herself to blame for being hit.” This indeed would be alarming, were it true that bashing women was behaviour 60% of New Zealand males were willing to turn a blind eye to.

In fact, these figures were arrived at by showing men a list of possible provocations, including finding a partner “in bed with another man,” “physically abusing their child,” and hitting the man first in an argument. From the fact that the disapproval rating of respondents, once shown such circumstances, declined from “moderate to extreme” to “little or moderate” (even though 95%-98% disapproved), we’re served up the false conclusion that “56% did not really disapprove of hitting a woman.” They did disapprove, overwhelmingly, but not at the same level of disapproval as “she hasn’t cleaned the house,” and other trivial items on the list.

The report also inflates conclusions about the prevalence of abuse by its peculiar definition of “abuse” which runs the gamut from “Used a knife or gun on her” to “Kicked something” to “Put down her family and friends” to “Tried to keep her from doing something she wanted to do.” From this starting point, the report finds widespread “abuse” in New Zealand, as it would be a rare couple where a man had not at some time slammed a door or insulted a relation during an argument with his partner. Despite a title suggesting it is about domestic violence, Hitting Home is actually about abuse, understood as virtually any demonstration of anger. Even letting off steam to avoid “abuse” can be classified as “abuse.”

One of the report’s authors told the Listener that “Overall, the research found that New Zealand rates of abuse are about twice as high as rates based on what women say.” This is no surprise as the report’s inflated definition of abuse includes behaviours that even the “victims” didn’t think of as abuse.

In the press release, Vicki Hyde said, “It’s taken society a long time to recognize that domestic violence is a serious problem. It is vital, if we are to address this issue effectively, that research provides accurate, meaningful information on which policies can be based. By limiting its scope to men only and by defining abuse so broadly, Hitting Home misses the mark. It’s a great shame, since we desperately need well-founded social policies. This will disadvantage the women most vulnerable to serious violence. Surely, you can’t classify the experience of being strangled or threatened with a knife alongside hearing a rude comment about your brother.”

At our recent conference, Skeptic Hugh Young challenged the award.. His remarks and others follow. Further contributions will appear in the next Skeptic.

The Skeptics awards for excellence went to journalists with TVNZ, Metro, and the Listener.

“TVNZ’s Assignment series shows that we can still have thoroughly researched, critical documentaries on television,” according to Ms Hyde. The Skeptics praised Assignment‘s “The Doctor Who Cried Abuse,” an investigation of a Dunedin physician whose unwarranted diagnoses had wrecked havoc on New Zealand families. “Ellis Through the Looking Glass,” an examination of the Christchurch Civic Creche case, was singled out for accolades.

Vincent Heeringa of Metro magazine received an award for his article “Weird Science,” on the Auckland Institute of Technology Press and Listener journalist Noel O’Hare, author of a cover story on False Memory Syndrome received a Skeptics award for the second year running.

Forum

Shonky Research

My feeling after having read the report is that when it was ready for the printer, the authors had in fact reached the point where they were about ready to consult with people experienced in such research, as a necessary preliminary to the main investigation. I would have suggested a smaller pilot sample. This should have disclosed the pitfalls that lay in wait for them. By taking such steps they could have avoided the traps that they later fell into.

In my view the study was very seriously, if not fatally, flawed by choosing either defective definitions, or no definition at all. Poor definitions results in banging the table and knifing the wife being placed in the same continuum of physical abuse. Absence of definition seems apparent where they compared their results with results from other studies. There is no guarantee that apples were being compared with apples, and not pumpkins. Similarly, to continue the metaphor, they studied only half the apple — no comparable study of female on male abuse/violence/insult a great many of the comparisons and conclusions were inappropriately drawn, though often there can be no certainty about this.

I found much of the writing rather confused, so that I cannot interpret it with certainty — e.g. p.35

“It has been shown that when asked direct, general questions about abuse, people [?men] say that they disapprove, but when the questions become less direct and more specific [sic!], a kind of underlying condoning begins to emerge.”

What does that passage mean? It is not highly charged, but the meaning is obscure to me.

There also appears to have been an unwillingness to face possible outcomes squarely, so rather than risk discovering that abuse could have a racial component [ethnic is only Greek for race], the possibility of having to face such data was excluded from the outset. It was neither honest nor wise. I found much the same problem with the discussion of education and income levels etc. as potentially associated factors in abuse quite unconvincing, and in fact very confused because different results appeared to be reported on different pages.

I thought it unfortunate that the authors discounted a valuable notion from an Australian study (p 61) of “justifiable” abuse and “okay actions“. There seems to be no recognition that different circumstances may justifiably alter perspectives. For example, it could well be justifiable to use some force to avoid a greater evil, such as real harm to a child. Restraint of a spouse intent on mayhem with a French cook’s knife could well be necessary rather than merely justifiable or okay. I found it unreal that there was no description of the circumstances of the questioned “abuse” or “violence”.

It seems to me that the researchers were just not up to the task. This showed in a variety of ways. They had no hesitation in citing data on non-molestation orders, but failed to note that most of these are granted on ex parte actions, where husbands have no chance to challenge the initial application. How many are struck out after the husbands are heard?

Again, on p. 25 I read “…nearly all research has looked at the abuse of women by men, presumably because it is regarded as the most common form of domestic abuse.” Is that presumption justified? Fide Newbold, in the US where handguns are freely available, the likelihood of being shot by a spouse is about equal for both sexes! What price this pre-eminence of male on female violence in the absence of any data?

Perhaps the most surprising outcome of this study, I deliberately refrain from dignifying it with the name of “research”, is that the authors do not make an urgent demand for the complementary sexually directed study.

The subject is of real importance. The investigation deserves to be carried out in a workmanlike manner. Sadly this was not competent.

If the Bent Spoon is for shonky research, which is more likely to mislead than to illumine future action, there can be no doubt that Hitting Home richly deserved such categorisation. It was ill-considered and of no value in the pursuit of reliable information upon which to categorise a problem, and to plan remedial action.

The Skeptics should not, in my view, change the award of the Bent Spoon. It seems that the investigators knew the results they wanted, and set out to get them. Their reportage achieved that end.

Walter C. Clark, Woodend

Missed Opportunities

The Bent Spoon Award going to the authors of Hitting Home is what attracted myself and others to the conference. I was very impressed at the quick response of a group to this report after the lack of response to misleading studies done on sexual abuse.

I am concerned that changing the award at this time would not only give credence to this sloppy piece of research but would diminish the credibility of the New Zealand Skeptics.

I see little in value in reiterating the point about adding apples and oranges, that, Denis Dutton has done very well. What concerns me as much as the misleading statistics is that the authors of the report missed opportunities to find some of the causes of spousal abuse.

Firstly, there was no distinction between de facto and legally married couples. The incidence of sexual abuse of children is higher when they are living in a de facto household. It is likely that the cases of extreme physical abuse would also be higher in de facto relationships. I believe that the question was left out deliberately as the result would not suit the agenda of the authors of the report.

Secondly, the men should have been asked if they were victims of the various categories of abuse. It would have been interesting to see the correlation between those abusing and those receiving abuse. Overseas studies for multiple forms of violence between intimate partners indicate that men and women do use about the same amount of violence in relationships. Please note enclosed list of references.

In short, the authors asked questions that would give the desired answer. Namely that men are primarily responsible for domestic violence.

The fact is that this report is clearly flawed. It made no attempt to take a scientific approach to a serious social problem which can only lead to further polarisation of the sexes. This is why the executive of the Skeptics collectively awarded the Bent Spoon to the report.

Even if it could be demonstrated that some other publication is more deserving of the Bent Spoon, it is simply too late.

Firstly, that would be taken as endorsement of the report. It would have been better not to have even commented on the report in the first place.

Secondly, and more important for the long term future of the Skeptics, future awards would only go to publications that would not upset members of the Skeptics.

Next year ASH might get the award for using flawed data in regard to the effects of passive smoking. I personally support ASH, although I am not a member. However, I would not support ASH, Greenpeace, or any other organisation deliberately or even accidentally distorting the facts in the presentation of a study.

Perhaps in future awards could be selected in a different manner. A short list could be published in a newsletter. Members would then have an opportunity to express their view. A postal vote could possibly be arranged.

These matters are very much secondary to the question of giving the Bent Spoon Award to someone else. In hindsight the “Hitting Home” report might not have been the best choice. I and many others thought it was. To give the award to someone else now, would permanently affect all future award choices and no doubt restrict the topics printed in the newsletters.

Chuck Bird, Auckland

Bent Spoon Valid

At the Auckland confab when the dispute over Hitting Home burst over the AGM, I felt that there was little that I could contribute since I had no idea of the content of the report and only recollections of other information, so rather than add ad hominem remarks to an argument that was already involving strong emotions, I stayed quiet. But now that I have read the report, I feel that the award of the Bent Spoon was valid and deserved. Whether it was the most deserving of the possible candidates I can’t say, as I watch very little TV, rarely listen to the radio (when chancing on a talk-back show while in search of music, I’m tempted to flee to a cave and ignore any shadows on the walls), and don’t read the infamous Women’s Weekly.

To be worthy of a Bent Spoon, or criticism generally, the candidate should be important enough to deserve attention, be a stupid or bungled or confused effort by people who should know better, and worst, be wilfully misleading with intent to profit. Although the report contains work by persons and organisations that has been properly done, nevertheless the report is dishonest. Honest research requires conclusions that best represent the evidence collected, and the evidence collected is that which most directly bears upon the issues of interest. (Spare me remarks about circles.)

The authors fail to follow principle. They mention discussions over the form of the surveys yet give no details, the only time they access issues of internal consistency is when they consider whether the sex of the interviewer had any affect (it didn’t). All they have to say about their decision to study only man’s abuse of only women, and only by interviewing men is that it breaks new ground. They make brief mentions of other research (providing that it can be found in computer catalogues) but no attempt to cross reference men’s self-assessment with their wives’ opinion, although one can easily imagine difficulties.

The authors do not seem to have noticed that they are all three women, and that going by the names in the acknowledgement, nearly everyone else in the Justice Department involved with the project is likewise a woman. Yet there is a hint that they could have noticed when comparing their results with those of other groups: strangely enough, the group that notes the highest prevalence of men’s abuse of women is the Women’s Shelter (p 87).

Another comparison is just brushed aside. Their sample group has a different pattern of income from that of the nearest NZ census. This is due to inflation, they suggest, except that inflation has been relatively low. What is less often admitted is that lower incomes have been falling, while high incomes have risen still higher. But this is a quibble.

What I regard as the most serious failing is the flaw in the basic data collection in that the questions are ambiguous. They wish to investigate men’s abuse of women, which I take to mean unjustifiable acts, since obviously, if there was a good reason for doing something, then it could not be regarded as abuse even if nasty because its motive was not a desire to inflict nastiness on a woman but something else again. To give a specific example, suppose that mum was chastising a child and dad shoves her away. (Ah, but what if the child had been hitting the cat, for catching a bird.) Whatever the complications, surely this is quite different from him shoving her aside as he walks by, just to show who’s boss, and the difference in the quality of the act bears directly on the question of abuse and abusive attitudes. This seems to me to be so obvious that it must have come up in discussion, yet the authors say nothing on the issue

Even if it didn’t occur to the researchers it must be likely that some at least of the two thousand interviewees had similar thoughts and responded accordingly to their question “not OK in any circumstances”, indeed some may even have lived such scenarios. So of what use is the remark “Not a single behaviour, even using a knife or gun, was judged as unacceptable by all New Zealand men” (p 144). Instead of judging their attitudes to women, it may be their imagination that is being put to the test.

Yet the authors remain oblivious to this issue when on page 61 they compare some Australian research that used the word “Justifiable” rather than “OK” in some circumstances. They merely recite the differences, with no sign of thought as to possible reasons. Thus, 7% thought that lethal violence was possibly justifiable (Oz) but only 1% possibly OK (NZ). Could this not suggest a difference in the meaning of the two words, as exemplified by the arguments over just wars even though all agree that wars are not OK? Data is however data, and fascinating patterns await your notice, as the comparison shows. As the severity of the act increases (shoves, slaps, throws object at, assaults), the Oz figures run 15,14,10,7, while for NZ 19,11,8,1. What might this mean, if anything? But instead, silence. The authors simply view women as irreproachable in all circumstances so that irrespective of motive, any act against them is fully and purely abuse, by definition.

Much of this could have been avoided by the simple means of instructing the interviewers to exclude thoughts of self-defence or protection of third parties. What is at issue is men’s attitudes towards women as revealed by their own choice between alternatives, not as driven by some factor external to this relationship. You could argue that some men might decline an act on absolute principle, whereas others might require severe provocation, some less and another group no provocation at all, and that this does indeed reflect their attitudes to women, but it also reflects attitudes to humanity at large. Few people are Jains.

Thus the questions asked, especially those concerning physical acts, fail to address the research issue square on and allow needless confusions that could have been excluded.

The authors’ treatment of the results they do obtain is grotesque. They are determined to push them into showing that abuse is common and serious amongst all men to such a degree that I feel that this was their fixed view from the beginning, and they ignore all interpretations other than the one they want upheld. This requires some crude steps.

They list eleven acts of physical abuse that can be ranked by the seriousness of the likely physical injury. For acts of psychological abuse, ranking is more a subjective matter but nevertheless the number of persons accepting such acts in some circumstances has the same strongly skewed distribution, from 19% down to less than 1% and 33% to 1% respectively. Well and good. But the factor they choose for analysis is “Number of types accepted”. This is lunatic, for it equates “uses or threatens with weapon” (two counts) with “shoves or slaps”, also two counts. No explanation is given as to why this choice was made or others rejected, instead they leap at once to shout (in bold type, p60) “one in four said yes to at least one type of physical abuse” and also “six in ten…psychological”, plus further drivel about the average number accepted and standard deviations.

Lunatic is the wrong word, and stupidity is out of place. This is deliberate misrepresentation, and I don’t mean that they got their arithmetic wrong, or that the interviewees didn’t make those responses. There is the story of the beggar with a sign reading “Wars 2, Legs 1, Wives 2, Children 4, Wounds 2; Total 11”. No doubt if a survey was made, statistics on this factor could be generated. What should have been used is “Worst type approved”. There may have been some thought of this as it is noted that if a particular abuse is approved, lesser ranked acts are likely to be approved also, but although the approval rates vary by a factor of about thirty with a clear connection to severity, this is ignored in favour of shouting (in bold) “A significant number say that physical and psychological abuse is OK in some circumstances” without noticing that 75% deny approval to any physical act, and 42% of psychological acts (such as harsh words), even as the authors have defined them.

It could be argued that reducing a wide range of acts to a single severity scale and scoring men’s views through their acceptance of various acts with a possible further weighting according to frequency is a hopeless task and to be avoided. Yet exactly that happens in courts when a judge decides on the number of years of imprisonment to impose, a practice with millennia of history, and operated by personnel in a not too distant department.

Yes there would be problems (which haven’t dissuaded the IQ testers!) and there would be arguments over rankings, but Weight of Abuse Approved or Worst Type Approved are at least attempting to assess abusiveness, unlike Number of Types, which involves declaring that all acts have equal weight, an absurdity built in from the beginning and which flies in the face of the prevalence data that by their existence demonstrate that everyone else views murder as more serious than shoving, rather than both being worth one demerit each.

One act, hitting, is considered in various contexts, and on p 65 there is an interesting list of circumstances ordered by the proportion of men who apportion blame to the woman being hit. At the top with 48% is “He catches her in bed with another man” (I suppose that everyone interprets this common euphemism the same way) down to 1% for “He can’t find a job”. As before, any thought about the possible meaning of this ordering or what men might be thinking is not mentioned. Instead, all are immediately equivalenced so that we have another Number of Circumstances report thereby enabling a leap to the obvious and only conclusion. Combining the trivial few percent who assigned blame to neither allows the authors to say “In one circumstance half the men say the man is not at all responsible”. Yes, but it is also true that the other half think otherwise. The next paragraph notes some acceptance of blame by men but ends with “there are no circumstances in which every man says that the man alone is responsible”.

The authors simply deem an act abuse and therefore wrong (which is anyway what the word means) no matter what motive lies behind the act. There are no distinctions between malicious hurt, wrong, justifiable, or what else do you expect? All acts are solely expressions of a wish to abuse. There seems to be no recognition of the fact that a relationship involves two people in close interaction. Men are assessed by an impossible standard whereas women are held to no standard at all for they are perfect in act and thought.

The conclusion states that men must accept responsibility for their actions; well enough, so also must women. Women must know that being caught in bed with another man is likely to provoke extravagant behaviour, as is endlessly reported in the news media, depicted in films and plays, and found in novels. In fact they do, and are not above flirting with someone else in a pub precisely so as to stir up the boyfriend (who is expected to go for the other bloke!). He of course should remain calm (dear friend, let us reason together) but may well not. If she abhors violence, she has a free choice not to precipitate it but sometimes prefers drama and risk. One can imagine circumstances when infidelity is his fault (he is boring, infertile, inadequate, obnoxious, unfaithful…) but her choices have their likely outcomes. Human behaviour is not often driven by one factor acting in isolation.

But the authors admit no complications. Scrutiny of their list of abusive actions shows what a surprised husband can’t do without being declared abusive. Violence is out, so are threats. Destroying something belonging to her is displaced violence, and abusive. So are words as they will almost certainly involve putting down family and friends (especially the close friend), and anyway, he is seeking to stop her from doing something she wanted to do and so is abusing her.

It appears that he must simply apologise for the intrusion, pack and leave. Only that would be approved of by the authors, who note on p 28 that 47% of the 193 female homicide victims in NZ (78-87) were killed by an existing or former male partner. Well, no-one approves of murder, but what has happened to the statistics on the other obvious combinations of who kills whom? Is it even surprising, considering that few people would have strong feelings about strangers?

In short, the ideals of research have not been met. The information that has been collected is of poor quality, and its analysis deformed. The conclusions offered were predetermined, and other possible conclusions ignored. Indeed, I doubt that the authors have a good understanding of statistical analysis, given that on p 181 they complain that their analysis computer programme allows only fifteen predictor variables for a logistic regression, and that they regularly used fifty predictor variables in their linear regressions. (See F. S. Acton’s Numerical Methods That Work, the section “What not to compute”.)

And while this “research” and argument continues, unambiguous abuse that is unambiguously serious also continues.

[…]

I hope that no-one imagines that I deny that there is a problem, or that things could be better. I am saying that this report isn’t going to help. I hope that we can stay clear of escalating displays of superiority in caringness, concernedness, and righteousness.

I agree that the procedure for selecting the recipient of the Bent Spoon award involves four persons other than the Executive so that our collective responsibility falls rather heavily on Dr Dutton, but I don’t see that there is much of an alternative for so scattered a group as the NZ Skeptics, especially when the members of the Executive happen to live in the same city. I was as usual surprised by the choice of recipient, but only in the sense that I hadn’t heard of it beforehand. I regard the award as appropriate, and retain confidence in the ability of the Executive to select the worthy in the future.

Nicky McLean Lower Hutt

How Bent is Bent?

For those of you who have not been involved in selection of a Bent Spoon, here’s how it is generally done and how this year’s selection was made. Throughout the year, people propose likely candidates — suggestions are passed on in the form of newspaper clippings, phone-calls, letters, email or, occasionally, videotape. Denis coordinates the discussion, which involves the Skeptic’s executive officers and often members of the committee and members with appropriate expertise.

One award is given each year, with the announcement made shortly before the conference (to help boost interest in the conference). This year, about half a dozen candidates were nominated, a fairly typical number. We don’t tend to bother with the truly ridiculous material that is a mainstay of certain tabloid publications, as (we hope) no-one really believes those things anyway. We also eliminate overseas material (usually TV “documentaries”) as the Bent Spoon is a New Zealand award.

The leading candidate for much of the year was AIT Press, for jeopardising their hard-won academic credibility with the publication of Suppressed Inventions and The Poisoning of New Zealand. The damaging and silly nature of these books had been well covered in Metro by Vincent Heeringa, for which he received one of our excellence awards. Three weeks before our conference, the Justice Department report Hitting Home was released. A journalist who phoned the Skeptics for comment first suggested that it receive the Bent Spoon. Denis and I studied it and discussed the issues it raised with others. Sociologist (and Skeptics member) Greg Newbold independently wrote about many of the concerns.

Ultimately Denis and I decided to give the Bent Spoon Award to Hitting Home for two reasons: (1) AIT Press had already been well and truly excoriated in the Metro article and we were already recognising this with the excellence award (2) the Hitting Home report had far greater potential for broad-ranging social effects were it to remain unchallenged.

At the AGM, the following motion was passed: “That a New Zealand Skeptics subcommittee examine the 1995 Bent Spoon Award to the Justice Department’s report on domestic violence and report back to the NZ Skeptics committee before the end of 1995.”

We urge members to read the report and make up their own minds — let us know what you think either privately or for the December issue of the Skeptic.

Vicki Hyde, Chair-entity

We Used to Call it Bedlam

Karekare beach is surrounded by high cliffs which shield my house from television transmissions so that I gain most of my media information from radio and print.

Hence it was some time before I saw Satanic Memories, the so-called documentary which won for TV3 the Skeptics’ Bent Spoon Award. I found this programme so difficult to watch that it took me two sittings — the combination of fury and embarrassment was just too much to bear.

The programme clearly deserved the Skeptics’ major award. It exemplified all those aspects of the pseudoscience of the “New Age” which we Skeptics find so disturbing, distasteful and eventually downright dangerous.

We saw the expert hypnotherapist plant in his subjects’ mind the responses which would confirm their satanic memories. For example, he hints that the young man’s feet appear to be giving pain and, sure enough, he dutifully remembers being slung over a waterfall by the ankles. If a hypnotist implies the presence of the devil himself the subject will see him.

The other gross oversight was the failure of the documentary team to look for any evidence in support of the extraordinary claims being made. We followed this family as they re-visited small towns in which they claimed that killing and eating babies, and throwing young people over waterfalls, was as routine as Friday night fish and chips. Surely there must have been records of these deaths and disappearances. Even the general public would surely have noticed something was amiss given that the inhabitants of small country towns don’t miss much. But our intrepid television team never bothered to call into the local police station or newspaper office to check to see if there were any records referring to these remarkable memories of things past.

We also had first-hand evidence of the total lack of professional ethics among so many members of this new cabal. I cannot imagine any registered medical practitioner allowing the televised treatment of a genuine patient — even if the patient had given consent. And surely any registered psychiatrist would have to take the position that such consent could hardly be regarded as “informed”. But in this documentary we saw a disturbed patient endure quite severe mental trauma during her “therapy”, while her therapist seemed quite pleased by the opportunity for self-promotion.

What was surely the most sickening was the use of two disturbed people as characters in an “entertainment” designed to be broadcast into thousands of New Zealand homes. The mother had a long-standing record of mental illness and treatment. At least one of her sons seemed to be following the same path. Many viewers must have found this parading of their travails as a vehicle for home entertainment both embarrassing and distasteful. Many households would have found it great for a laugh and would have screeched with delight or with terror at the “exorcism” scenes in the hypnotist’s office.

When I was at school our teachers used to point out that we were much more civilised in our treatment and understanding of the mentally ill than our nineteenth-century forebears. We were shocked to learn that civilized people used to visit the insane asylums of the time as a source of entertainment. No trip to London was complete without a visit to Bedlam.

Well, I suppose we have made some advances. In those days the ladies and gentlemen of England had to take the coach to enjoy their Saturday afternoon’s entertainment at the human zoo. Thanks to modern science and to those who look after our interests in New Zealand On Air, we in New Zealand can now take our entertainment without having to leaving the sofas of our living rooms. Isn’t that wonderful?

Consumer Bites Back

Not surprisingly, the awarding of the Bent Spoon to Consumer magazine saw a vigorous defence mounted by the Consumers’ Institute.

David Russell, chief executive of the institute, has said on a number of occasions that he considered that the institute had been “publically defamed” by the Skeptics, and that comments concerning the article were “extreme and defamatory.”

In the early days following the announcement, Mr Russell debated the issue with Dr Gordon Hewitt on Morning Report. He laughed off Kim Hill’s question of suing NZCSICOP over the alleged defamation.

The impression gained from Mr Russell during the debate was that the magazine had deliberately taken a soft line on alternative therapies because many people believed in them. Dr Hewitt picked up this point and challenged it by asking if Consumers’ Institute would then ignore taking action against a dangerous toaster merely because a lot of people used it.

The analogy was rejected, not answered. Mr Russell continued with this line elsewhere, stating that “given the strong public interest in [natural therapies] and surveys which indicate a large degree of satisfaction with natural therapies, we cannot see anything wrong with explaining to our members what is involved in a few of the more commonly-used therapies.”

One could argue that people were strongly interested in some of the various pyramid schemes that have appeared on the New Zealand scene, and that many were very supportive of them. This does not mean that they should be left uncriticised. In addition, NZCSICOP would have welcomed a real explanation of just what is involved in the therapies Consumer covered, but this was not done, as an examination of the article’s text clearly shows.

An astounding statement was made by David Hindley, research writer for the chief executive, in response to a letter of complaint made independently of the Skeptics. In it, Mr Hindley said:

If you are aware of recent research which conflicts with our findings, we would be very grateful if you could pass on details to us.

This suggests that Consumer‘s in-house research team came up with no such material, a suggestion which has extremely disturbing implications for the thoroughness of research and preparation put into the magazine’s material.

One point mentioned in the radio interview which, unfortunately, was not taken up was the suggestion Mr Russell made that alternative therapies can’t do anyone any harm, implying that one need not be concerned about them. There’s a dead baby in Wellington to disprove that. The unmonitored nature of alternative therapies and therapists means that there is very little hard data on the harm being done. Cases which end up in Coroner’s Court, however, cannot and should not be ignored.

The idea that “it’s all harmless anyway” had been repeated in other areas where Mr Russell has said that “our research into natural therapies indicates that, so long as the practitioner has the best training available, potential side effects are limited.” It would be startling to find direct side effects from water solutions and sugar tablets, foot massage or sniffing essential oils.

Mr Russell is apparently unaware that the vast majority of alternative therapists in New Zealand have very little in the way of actual medical training, and citing examples of such training from Britain or Europe is hardly applicable.

One could also question whethre there is any benefit in training in health-related practices which have no substantive evidence to support them. No matter how much time one spends training as a homeopath, this has no effect whatsoever on the fact that the materials used are dilute water and the methodology used medieval.

Nevertheless, Mr Russell states that he has “no qualms” about stating that there are “good” and “bad” homeopaths based on the level of training required in Europe.

A typical response has been to attack conventional medicine as not being adequate in some areas, in the apparent belief that adopting untested, unproven, undemonstrated therapies is somehow an answer to perceived inadequacies in orthodox medicine.

The language became stronger following the NZCSICOP conference, when renewed media interest was shown in the Bent Spoon Award. The Dominion reported Mr Russell as calling Skeptics “narrow-minded bigots.” [No we’re not suing for defamation either.] The report went on to quote him as saying:

In the 19th century, they would have been dismissing the discovery of penicillin because they did not have the evidence to prove it.

We can certainly agree with Mr Russell on this point, given that penicillin wasn’t discovered in the 19th century — it was first found in 1929 and not isolated until 1940…

However, questions of historical accuracy aside, the discovery and development of penicillin provides a perfect example of the sort of practice which Skeptics worldwide applaud. It produced miraculous cures but, unlike those of a more questionable nature, it did so under tested, controlled conditions time and time again. Within a few years of its mass production, penicillin had demonstratably saved thousands of lives, and it continues to do so.

The significance of penicillin was recognised in double-quick time, with the scientists involved awarded Nobel Prizes within four years of the substance’s purification. We would be interested to hear of Nobel Prizes, or any other recognised scientific awards, made for the “discoveries” of alternative therapists.

What is more, the incredible benefits of penicillin led to the search for, and discover of, other antibiotics which have also made obvious and effective contributions towards the good health and longer lives of a large proportion of this planet’s population.

What homeopathic remedy has had similar success? Consumer said that these remedies stimulate the body to heal illnesses, but there has been no clear evidence of this in the 200 years since their invention.

Mr Russell used the same analogy in the most recent issue of Consumer (September 1992), correcting his dating lapse. In this editorial, the Skeptics were accused of having a “surprisingly poor understanding…of how scientific knowledge is developed, and an even poorer ability to read properly.”

We feel that, on the contrary, Consumer and, by association, Consumers’ Institute have displayed an ignorance of basic scientific principles and scientific history, an unjustifiable defensiveness which has made them unwilling to admit any form of deficiency, and a degree of credulity unacceptable in a consumers’ protection organisation.

The editorial said that Consumers’ Institute is sending a magnifying glass to NZCSICOP to redress our reading problems — let’s hope that in the future their errors are so subtle we need the magnifying glass!

Skeptics Bite Watchdog

The Bent Spoon Award this year created more controversy than usual when it was awarded to Consumer magazine. Why did we feel it necessary to bite our consumer watchdog?

I was pleased when my copy of Consumer magazine arrived with a lead story on the natural way to health. I had had a survey a couple of months previously asking what I’d like to see in the magazine, and had replied that it was about time that an objective, hard-headed look at alternative medicine was done.

I was shocked and disappointed, therefore, when I found that the article did not meet Consumer‘s usual high standards, but was a startling blend of unsupported claims and sketchy, superficial statements. I really didn’t expect Consumer, of all publications, to produce something that so obviously deserved a Bent Spoon Award.

I wasn’t alone in this. Many Skeptics, it seems, are subscribers to Consumer — I put that down to the institute offering consumer protection for one’s physical environment, and the Skeptics providing such protection for one’s mental environment. And it soon became obvious from the phonecalls and faxes that a large number of you (and plenty of interested observers) were as disappointed as I. What to do?

We embarked on what has been perhaps one of the saddest Bent Spoon awards — sad in its implications for Consumers’ Institute and sad in that Consumer‘s apparent endorsement of what has been described as “controversial, even bogus, treatments” will make it so much harder in the future to debate these issues factually.

So what was in the article that virtually forced us to challenge Consumer and take on ourselves a great deal of misinformed abuse from the Institute?

The article, in the July 1992 issue, was titled “The Natural Way to Health — your guide to acupuncture, osteopathy, homeopathy and other natural therapies.”

“Natural therapies are popular and often effective,” it opened, with the caveat that going to an “untrained” therapist can be a waste of money and may be dangerous.

However, after that brief warning, the article continued:

When it comes to health, even Mother Teresa, Tina Turner and Queen Elizabeth have something in common. They all get help from non-conventional medicine, and homeopathy in particular. The Royal Family has consulted a homeopath for several generations.

Apparently an elderly nun, a former rock star and a clan of inbred blue-bloods are sufficient to validate some very questionable practices.

It noted that some practices, such as osteopathy and acupuncture, have their own professional bodies and are used by conventional doctors. It recommended looking for a trained, registered practitioner. After all, it added, “the best non-conventional therapists can offer highly effective treatment.”

This suggests that natural therapies are effective and the only caution necessary is to avoid untrained practitioners who may have got their fancy certificates through mail-order.

The article did say that radical treatment — such as having all your teeth pulled out — should lead you to seek a second opinion with your own GP or dentist.

It also ended with a case study of one therapist, pointing out problems such as the rejection of conventional medicine, promising cures and charging high prices. There was additional discussion of the Medicines Act, where it was stated, somewhat naively, that the Act limits what an alternative therapist can advertise or claim in the form of cures or treatment of certain illnesses. At least it did point out that the Institute was aware of cases where this law has been broken, but that it was not aware of any prosecutions.

Consumer recommended tightening up the Act and enforcing it more rigorously to “protect the public from untrained or improperly trained practitioners,” again suggesting that one need have no concern if one’s practitioner is trained in alternative therapies.

David Russell, chief executive of Consumers’ Institute, vigorously defended the article by pointing to these disclaimers. Dr Gordon Hewitt, head of the health professions school at the Central Institute of Technology and a Skeptic, in debating with Mr Russell on National Radio, compared this to two slices of thin bread, surrounding some very dubious meat.

It is obvious which part will be remembered, particularly by alternative therapists keen to cash in on the very supportive statements within the body of the text.

So what smelled rotten?

Acupuncture and Osteopathy

The acupuncture section talked about the flow of “life energy force” throughout the body, and that illness follows when the flow is blocked. It mentioned acupuncture’s successful use to treat a variety of complaints including headaches, sports injuries and muscular inflammation.

It supported this with the statement that stimulation of the acupuncture points releases endorphins, and that the World Health Organisation lists 71 disorders successfully treated by acupuncture.

In the Bent Spoon press release, our own Dr John Welch — himself trained in acupuncture — said that the section paid no regard to the large and growing scientific literature showing that it is clinically ineffective for diseases the magazine lists. There is now a Skeptic Truth Kit on acupuncture available for those interested in reading further about this.

The osteopathy section talked about the large body of scientific research behind the therapy, implying that its efficacy has been established but avoiding stating this definitively.

One Skeptic, in writing to Consumer independently before the award was announced, said that such a statement was exactly the type which Consumer has criticised advertisers for making.

“If there is any scientific basis for so contentious a therapy as osteopathy, then you owe it to your readers to explain it,” he added.

Consumer quoted a 1986 survey by its UK counterpart which showed that 82% of respondents who had visited osteopaths claimed to have been cured or improved by the treatment.

As one who is highly skeptical of survey techniques, I find the wording of this interesting. “Respondents” suggests that the responding to the survey was voluntary, which immediately skews results.

The other interesting point to note is that the material in the Skeptic Truth Kit on chiropractic explains that any form of back manipulation can produce apparently good results, but more from the nature of back pain itself than from actual efficacy. That is, pain is often a chimeric thing, disappearing of its own accord.

Once again, registered osteopaths are recommended as providing some form of protection, but the article does also mention that “improperly trained people advertising their services as osteopaths” can cause serious problems. There is no control over the use of the term “osteopath” — the implication is that someone with little or no training can use it legitimately — but this important point appeared not to be worthy of comment or criticism by our consumer watchdog.

Homeopathy

Consumer said that “many [homeopathic] remedies work only in specific cases” and that “a few remedies can be used widely.” There was no supporting information for these blanket claims. The institute was much more rigorous in recent tests of cough medicines, but did not subject homeopathic claims to the same criteria. Why not?

The magazine said that a homeopath will find the right treatment by conducting a detailed interview. Yes, but this is because homeopaths believe that certain extracts “match” certain personality types. Oyster shells, for example, are said to suit patients who are fearful and who feel better when constipated. This sort of dubious anthropomorphic alchemy was not mentioned.

While it may initially seem reasonable that such extracts could have some physiological effect, none of these substances actually come anywhere near the patient. This is because homeopaths believe that a preparation becomes much stronger when highly dilute — something akin to having sweeter coffee by putting less and less sugar in it.

Homeopathic preparations are diluted in 100-fold steps, commonly 30 times, but sometimes as much as 120 times. This is like stirring a teaspoonful of sugar into the Pacific Ocean — only that would give you a much higher concentration than that of most homeopathic solutions.

And how did Consumer report this? It said merely that the substances are “diluted in a particular way many times”. Hardly indicative of the true situation. If I tried selling a microwave that worked without being plugged in, I am sure that Consumer would be more than a little suspicious.

Even homeopaths admit that there is no substance in their solutions. They believe that shaking the solutions during dilution will “potentialise” them, causing physical changes in the water’s structure so that it remembers the substance long after it has disappeared. Presumably water at the base of any waterfall would be incredibly potentised through being violently shaken and thus highly dangerous in a homeopathic sense.

There is no physical mechanism for changing the basic molecular structure of water in this fashion. Consumer used the term “potentise” in its passing reference to the dilution process, but did not mention the idea that shaking water gives it these fantastic properties.

The magazine did note that the “scientific evidence is not conclusive,” but quoted only one positive study without any details, ignoring that a great many scientific trials, and basic science itself, are all against homeopathy.

In fact, the literature review which Consumer quotes is by no means as positive as suggested. The article says that the Dutch review of 107 (it was actually 105) homeopathic trials showed that 81 indicated that homeopathy worked and 21 did not. Consumer did not quote the review’s conclusions which said:

At the moment, the evidence of clinical trials is positive but not sufficient to draw definitive conclusions because most trials are of low methodological quality and because of the unknown role of publication bias.

The doctors themselves noted that the most poorly performed trials produced the most positive results, and said that the inferences seemed to be over-optimistic at times. They also voiced concerns about the failure to submit negative results for publication. In addition, the most important positive trial in the review was reworked by the researchers involved and was found to show no firm evidence for the efficacy of homeopathic treatments.

You’d only know about this, however, if you had access to back issues of the British Medical Journal (Vol 302, 9 February 1991; 316-323; 2 March, 1991; 529; 23 March, 1992; 727).

Consumer also said that “homeopathy is taken seriously in many European countries”, as if this was enough to endorse it. Certainly homeopathy deserves to be taken seriously because serious problems can result from it, particularly with regard to the sometimes disastrous consequences of the anti-orthodox attitudes which are common to many alternative medicine followers.

Last year, a Wellington nurse refused antibiotics for her baby’s earache, preferring to have it treated homeopathically. Two weeks later, after a number of unsuccessful treatments, the child was taken back to her regular doctor who had her hospitalised immediately. Both the doctor and the hospital’s paediatrician had great difficulty in persuading the woman to allow conventional medicine to be used. It was all too late anyway, as the baby died. (See Skeptic #22 for Coroner’s Court report.)

Presumably the way to avoid this is to find a good homeopath, and Consumer provides addresses for finding ones with the “best” qualifications. It is to be hoped that those qualifications include learning how to recognise when real treatment is needed.

Other Therapies

Consumer then goes on to briefly look at other popular therapies which one can learn in a weekend or through books. These therapies are “often very gentle,” Consumer says. So’s my ferret, but he can be very dangerous too…

Aromatherapy, using plant oils in massages and baths, is said to help insomnia, anxiety, boils, rashes, acne, colds and chest infections. The magazine suggests reading a book or attending a workshop before embarking on this form of treatment, but notes that it is one of the easiest natural therapies to use yourself.

British nurses use lavender oil to massage patients and help them to relax, Consumer tells us. One wonders if the natural therapeutic properties are really anything to do with the specific type of oil used — surely the massage itself has a part to play?

A form of massage, reflexology, is said to help in psychological as well as physical areas. This may well be so, but is it really because of direct links between the extremities and other body organs and tissues, as suggested? There is no anatomical basis for many of the claims of reflexologists, but this is not mentioned.

Consumer does mention that “the crystalline deposits that reflexologists say they can feel has not been scientifically proven.” This implies that there is some real, substantive basis for these claims, and final, conclusive proof is all that is lacking. In fact, the overwhelming evidence of anatomy, physiology, radiology and so forth suggests that such claims are entirely without foundation.

Again, Consumer uses a single positive example which it calls “intriguing” to suggest that reflexology may be an effective diagnostic aid. Surely Consumers Institute, of all organisations, recognises that one personal anecdote — printed in an alternative health magazine to boot — is not adequate. I very much doubt that they would let a manufacturer get away with extraordinary claims “backed up” by just one happy customer.

In the section on herbal remedies, the article stated that “few manufacturers can afford clinical trials of their product.” What amounts to a grave omission on the part of people selling untested “medicines” is passed by with no comment.

Does this mean that Consumers’ Institute would find it acceptable that clothing manufacturers save money by ceasing to test their products for fire resistance? Struggling toy manufacturers no longer checking to see whether their latest product can be swallowed by toddlers? Surely not. Yet herbalists are apparently permitted such gross irresponsibility towards the consumer.

The section goes on to say that traditional folklore rather than scientific evidence will often be the basis for selecting a herbal treatment. Consumer then says that a better option is to go to an experienced herbalist, implying that they won’t be working on traditional folklore lines.

Certainly, as the article says, some modern drugs are based on plant extracts, but these are compounds which have been rigorously tested through clinical trials, not a mish-mash of “natural” ingredients. Consumer suggests that herbal experts will protect you from dangerous overdoses or inappropriate uses.

I wonder whether people will take the trouble to check whether their local health shop owner is a member of the New Zealand Natural Health Practitioners Accreditation Board before stocking up on their comfrey tea. Given comments I have heard from nutritionists and other health professionals, as well as personal experience, I am not particularly sanguine about the education or expertise of many health shop owners.

Missing

Perhaps one of the most disappointing things about the article was that there was no discussion of one of the primary ways in which many of these alternative therapies work — the placebo effect.

It is generally recognised that a significant proportion of medical conditions will get better with time, regardless of whether alternative or orthodox remedies are prescribed. Combine this with the provision of some form of treatment and you have a very powerful, though not necessarily valid, conjunction of “treatment” and “cure”.

In addition, people will respond to someone taking an active interest in their condition, and healers take advantage of this, whether by design or accident. The intense personal focus of alternative therapies has a strong advantage over the generally perceived impersonality of much of conventional medicine these days.

Yet there was no discussion of this vital point in the Consumer review. Nor was there any discussion of what is meant by “natural”, bar the note in the herbal discussion that suggests it involves being untested.

I wonder what Consumer would say if I sold “natural” iodine, extracted lovingly from organic kelp, and charged a small fortune for it, claiming that it is somehow more “natural” and healthier for you than the synthesised version…

It will be quite some time before many of us will be able to see Consumer‘s advertising boast — “Get the facts you need from the source you can trust” — without feeling a little betrayed.