3000 km for skepticism

Gold takes a long walk.

Some time back I noticed that I was getting the first signs of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). I’m a web developer and spend way too much time in front of a keyboard and mouse. It’s a common enough thing among people in my industry. From what I can tell one of the best ‘treatments’ for it is to just stop for a bit. So I am.

In order to do something productive, or at least worthwhile, during this time I’m going for a sponsored walk to raise funds for the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Trust, Woman’s Refuge and our own NZ Skeptics Society. I’ve built a half-way decent website for it (intentionallyhomeless.org) and it’s able to take pledges for distance covered. Providing I finish the full trail I have already raised over $2000 as I write this.

The trail I’m following is called Te Araroa (The Long Pathway) and it was only recently completed and opened. It runs for 3000 km from Cape Reinga to Bluff, although I’m starting in the south and fleeing the (potentially) foul weather instead of heading into it.

I’ll be maintaining a journal on the website where you can follow the journey and, should you choose, you can pledge money to the charities or sponsor me personally.

I’m also looking for supply drops, couches and interesting things along the walk. One way to check the track would be to install Google Earth and load the trail using the .kmz file available at the official site (teararoa.org.nz). If you, as a resupply drop or couch, or the point of interest are close enough to the trail I’ll definitely make the stop.

The best way to contact me would be via the contact form on the Intentionally Homeless site or via [email protected]

Denis Dutton

Another candle goes out…

Denis Dutton

We’ve lost another light against the darkness, with the death of Denis Dutton. Carl Sagan, in The Demon-Haunted World, gave us the image of the guttering candle, but I think Denis would be the first to cite another comment from that work: “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

Denis was a founder-member of NZ Skeptics. For many years he was the face of organised scepticism in New Zealand, fronting up to the media with many a pithy comment and a wry sense of humour. In recent years, we haven’t seen a great deal of Denis, once a major driver at conferences and meetings. He was a man of many enthusiasms, but at the heart of almost all of them was the desire to get people to think about the world, and to be better informed. That was at the core of his involvement with the Skeptics, and it also informed his development of the hugely influential website Arts & Letters Daily. You could see that in his published works, whether the academic discourse in the journal Philosophy and Literature, or in the discussion of how our evolution has influenced our aesthetic appreciation in his ground-breaking book The Art Instinct.

We often talk of a person being larger than life, but if ever a person fitted that description it was Denis. I first met him when I was assigned to cover the NZ Skeptics conference in Christchurch in the early 1990s. He was busy raking hot coals preparing to convince people that they really could walk on fire. A few years later, he nominated me to head this organisation.

Denis, like most skeptics, was willing to keep an open mind. He was intrigued enough by Paddy Freaney’s alleged moa sighting to arrange for us to hear from Paddy and his off-siders – the only group to do so. I remember early morning debates about whether the apparent nano-bacteria in the Martian meteorite were really evidence of alien life. Denis stepped up to the plate when the repressed memory craze hit New Zealand, and dealt carefully and sensitively with masses of correspondence from all over the country on that.
Most of all, I associate Denis with laughter – not scornful, nor dismissive, but rather his genuine delight in the wonder and absurdity of the human condition. He challenged me, and others, to critically evaluate what we think we know, to be prepared to suspend judgement when evidence is lacking, and to have the strength to acknowledge when we’d got things wrong. Denis had a deeply moral sense in that he abhorred the exploitation we so often see underpinning skeptical issues. He reserved his scorn for the shysters willing to exploit vulnerable people for their own gain. Like many people here and around the world, I will miss him hugely. He changed my life, for the better.

Manipulation, chiropractic, and the idols of Francis Bacon

Chiropractic has had a colourful history since its invention in the 19th Century.

Chiropractic has had an extraordinary history, but the vehement response of its practitioners to criticisms of its claims is nothing if not human. These unwelcome aspects of human behaviour – a readiness to believe and a violent reaction to well-founded criticism – were recognised and categorised by Francis Bacon 400 years ago.

Chiropractic has been defined as “a system of treating bodily disorders by manipulation of the spine and other parts”.1 The Oxford English Dictionary gives a number of meanings for manipulation, including “The act of operating upon or managing persons or things with dexterity, especially with disparaging implications, unfair management or treatment”. Manipulate, among other meanings, is “to manage by dexterous contrivance or influence, especially to treat unfairly or insidiously for one’s own advantage”.

[Until 1818 English dictionaries gave only one meaning for manipulation: the method of digging for silver ore.]

The practice of chiropractic began in the US in 1885. It is one of a number of strange behaviours and belief systems which have had their origins in that country, including osteopathy, craniosacral manipulation, applied kinesiology, scientology, creationism science, Christian Science, and Mormon beliefs. It was in that country too that homeopathy received its greatest support after its invention in Europe. Why this should have happened is an interesting question. An American friend says that it springs from an overwhelming desire to avoid the perceived errors of Europe with its suppression of religious freedom.

David Daniel Palmer was born in Ontario in 1845, and brought his family to the US where by 1865 they were living in Davenport, Iowa. He was a grocer, and a bee-keeper, and had a deep interest in spiritualism. He practised ‘magnetic healing’ and called himself ‘Doctor’. 2, 3, 4

He later said that the idea of chiropractic came to him as ‘received wisdom’ at a séance in 1885, from a certain Dr. Jim Atkinson, deceased at that time. Shortly after this, on 18 September, 1885, he treated a man who had been deaf for 17 years. He said: “I examined him and found a vertebra racked from its normal position – I racked it into position by using the spinous process as a lever, and soon the man could hear as before.” He went on: “There was nothing crude about this adjustment; it was specific, so much so that no chiropractor has equalled it”.

Palmer called the spinal irregularity he had found a “subluxation”, a term borrowed from orthodox medicine where it means a partial dislocation of a joint. Only chiropractors can find, feel, or see their patients’ abnormalities, which they proceed to correct.

Palmer decided there must be a single cause for all diseases: “I then began a systematic investigation for the cause of all diseases and have been amply rewarded.” He had a friend coin the word ‘chiropractic’ from the Greek ‘cheir’, hand, and ‘praxis’, action. He said that the free flow of the body’s ‘innate intelligence’ (or ‘psychic energy’) to all parts of the body was interrupted by spinal vertebral subluxations, and this was the cause of 95 percent of all illnesses.

He said: “I occupy in chiropractic a similar position to Mrs [Mary Baker] Eddy in Christian Science. Mrs Eddy claimed to receive her ideas from the other world and so do I. I am the fountainhead.”

Palmer was hugely successful. In 1897 he opened the ‘Palmer School of Care’ in Davenport. Admission was by payment of tuition fees and no other qualification. In 1905 it was renamed ‘The Palmer School of Chiropractic’ and it has gone on to occupy a large campus on what is now called Palmer’s Hill, in Davenport.

His son, Bartlett Joshua (‘BJ’), took over the business in 1906, while his father was in prison for practising osteopathy and medicine without a licence. DD and BJ fell out and DD opened a rival school.

By 6 August 1908, the US congress was considering a bill to regulate the practice of chiropractic and to licence chiropractors.

David Daniel Palmer died in 1916 a short while after being run over by BJ in an automobile. The death certificate said ‘typhoid fever’.

Bartlett Joshua Palmer made a fortune, and promoted chiropractic in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. He stressed salesmanship as he taught, and his classrooms were decorated with such slogans as:

“The world is your cow, but you must do the milking”

and

“Early to bed and early to rise, work like hell and advertise”.

BJ marketed a patented machine called the Neurocalometer which he said could detect subluxations, whether or not the patient had symptoms. It is still sold today as the Nervoscope and costs about $US799.

BJ founded a radio station, WOC (Wonders of Chiropractic) in 1924.

In 1926, HJ Jones in Healing by Manipulation stated there were more than 8000 chiropractors in the US and Canada.

BJ died a multimillionaire in 1961.

This story is one of extremely successful entrepreneurship in the best tradition of American showmanship. It has nothing to do with science, and a lot to do with evangelical know-how.

In 2007 there were 19 colleges of chiropractic in the US, two in the UK, at least one in Australia and one in New Zealand.

Repeated examinations of x-rays, MRI scans and autopsy material have failed to show any evidence for existence of the ‘subluxation complex’. The American Association of Chiropractic Colleges states that “the subluxations are evaluated, diagnosed, and managed through the use of chiropractic procedures”.

Because of Palmer’s initial dogma, many chiropractors reject the role of infectious agents in disease and hence deny the value of vaccination.5 Chiropractic neck manipulation is associated with an increased risk of vertebro- basilar vessel damage.6 Chiropractors insist on spine x- rays even when the risk of unnecessary exposure to radiation is raised, and this despite the absence of x- ray changes consistent with a ‘subluxation’.

A careful examination of all the scientific evidence7 has resulted in the conclusion that chiropractic offers some help for low back pain but otherwise has no more effect than that of a placebo for any other complaint.

In 1999 an American chiropractor, Samuel Homola, published Inside Chiropractic: a Patient’s Guide8. He supported manipulation for back pain, but rejected what he described as chiropractic dogma. He confirmed that the chiropractic profession had little tolerance of dissent.

“Its nonsense remains unchallenged by its leaders, and has not been denounced in its journals. Although progress has been made, the profession still has one foot planted lightly in science, and the other firmly rooted in cultism.”

He was labelled a ‘heretic’ by his colleagues.

Some commentators divide chiropractors into ‘straight’ dogmatists and ‘mixers’ who will use some science.

Chiropractors and defense by legal action: the American Medical Association Saga

In the US, doctors encouraged the arrest of chiropractors for practising medicine without a licence. By 1940 it is said that 15,000 prosecutions had been brought. However 80 percent of these had failed, with the United Chiropractors’ Association, encouraged by BJ Palmer, giving financial support to the defendants.

The AMA Committee on Quackery lobbied in 1963 to have chiropractors relegated to a non- medical status. The committee argued that chiropractic should not be recognised by the US Office of Education, citing the lack of scientific evidence, the denial of germ theory, the claim to be able to treat 95 percent of all diseases, and the use of the ‘E- meter’.

In 1976 the Chiropractors’ Association, having become aware of further action planned by the AMA, brought a suit against the association on the grounds that it planned to limit chiropractors’ practice, and this was in breach of anti- trust legislation as it was anti-competitive.

In 1987 the Court found in favour of the chiropractors, and an appeal by the AMA in 1990 failed.

The chiropractors had shifted the issue from science to rights of commercial practice. This was totally in keeping with their history of astute business acumen – and lack of scientific evidence.

The 1978 NZ Royal Commission of Inquiry into Chiropractic

In a context of legal and political mechanisms, the NZ Chiropractors’ Association with its supporters, and the NZ Medical Association and its supporters, battled for and against official recognition of chiropractic as a national health resource, and the access of its practitioners to the rewards from the Accident Compensation scheme.

The chiropractors bolstered their position with hundreds of letters to the commission from satisfied customers, and the NZMA responded by scathing and dismissive comments as to the worth of such letters, and by decrying the lack of science in the practice of chiropractic.

Kevin Dew9 suggests that the result was a negotiated settlement exchanging a proposal by chiropractors to restrict their practice to musculoskeletal conditions, in return for official Government recognition, and the addition of chiropractic to New Zealand’s health resources.

The controversy was resolved without any resolution as to the scientific validity of the claims of chiropractic. It was thought there were only 100 chiropractors in New Zealand at that time.

Recent publications6show that the majority of chiropractors in the English- speaking world continue to make claims for their treatment which extend well beyond the realm of musculo- skeletal disorders.

There were 391 chiropractors advertising in the Yellow Pages in New Zealand in August, 2010.

Simon Singh and the British Chiropractors’ Association

In 2008, Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst published a book called Trick or Treatment.7

On 19 April 2008, Singh wrote an article in The Guardian, pursuing the topic canvassed in the book, that chiropractic was alternative medicine and there was no evidence for any effect except on lower back pain.

“The British Chiropractors’ Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections and prolonged crying even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession, yet it happily promotes bogus treatments”.

The BCA quickly sued him for libel, and on 7 May 2009 the court handed down a verdict in favour of the chiropractors.

Meanwhile in New Zealand

On 25 July 2008, the NZ Medical Journal published a paper by Andrew Gilbey reporting evidence that some chiropractors in NZ were using the title ‘Doctor’ in a manner which could mislead the public. In the same issue an editorial by David Colquhoun appeared, critical of chiropractic, and the qualifications of its practitioners. He wrote:

“For most forms of alternative medicine, including chiropractic and acupuncture the evidence is now in. There is now better reason than ever before to believe that they are mostly elaborate placebos, and at best are no better than conventional treatment.”

In the next issue of the NZMJ the editor published a letter from a lawyer, Paul Radich, representing the NZ Chiropractors’ Association, threatening legal action under the NZ Defamation Act, against the journal, Gilbey, and Colquhoun. The letter demanded apologies from all parties, and outlined the financial penalties for all.10 The tone was intimidatory.

In his comments about the position of the NZMJ as a scientific publication, the editor, Frank Frizelle, invited the chiropractors to an evidence- based debate with these words: “Let’s hear your evidence, not your legal muscle”.

The NZMJ published an invited response from the NZ College of Chiropractic in its next issue11 and I understand there has been no further correspondence from the lawyer (personal communication from the editor, NZMJ, September 2010).

Back to London

A month after the initial court procedure in London, Simon Singh announced his intention to appeal the finding in favour of the BCA.

On 1 April 2010 the Appeal Court handed down its verdict. The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, The Master of the Rolls, and Lord Justice Sedley stated that Singh(s comments were not libellous, and that they were matters of opinion backed by evidence. They went on to quote an American judge, Judge Easterbrook, now Chief Justice of the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In Underwager v Salter 22 Fed.3d 730 (1994):

“Plaintiffs cannot, by simply filing suit and crying ‘character assassination’ silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to the plaintiff’s interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science, rather than by the methods of litigation. More papers, more discussion, and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of damages – mark the path toward superior understanding of the world around us.”

Back to New Zealand

As it happens, nine days after Singh’s appeal was upheld, Ernst and Gilbey authored a paper in the NZMJ: “Chiropractors’ Claims in the English-speaking World”.5 They examined 200 individual chiropractors’ websites and nine chiropractic association sites in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US. They concluded:

“The majority of chiropractors and their associations in the English-speaking world seem to make claims which are not supported by sound evidence. We suggest the ubiquity of the unsubstantiated claims constitutes an ethical and public health issue.”

On 11 June 2010, Shaun Holt and Andrew Gilbey wrote a letter to the editor of the NZMJ12 drawing attention to the wider public scrutiny of chiropractic claims and nature following the success of Simon Singh’s appeal.

Francis Bacon and his ‘idols’

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) lived at a time when the new empiricism was disturbing the security and comfort taken in accepting the opinions of established authorities. He was a lawyer, a legal theorist, a judge, and a writer. He became Lord Chancellor, but was charged by Parliament with corruption, and having taken bribes from those appearing before him in court. He pleaded guilty and wrote: “I was the justest judge that was in England these fifty years, but it was the justest censure in Parliament these two hundred years.”13

Bacon wrote a series of ‘Axioms’ towards the end of his life. I would like to use some of these to examine aspects of human behaviour that the history of chiropractic reveals. It has been a considerable surprise to me to realise the prescience of this man.

He used the term ‘idols’ to list aspects of human behaviour.

Axiom 41: “The Idols of the Tribe”

These have their foundation in human nature itself.

“For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions, as well of the sense as of the mind, are according to the measure of the individual, and not according to the measure of the universe.”

We are all subject to our nature, and seek security and certainty, and believe the evidence of our eyes. If we get better after manipulation, then clearly the manipulation made us better. Emma Young says: “We are causal determinists – we assume that outcomes are caused by preceding events”.14

Axiom 42: “The Idols of the Cave”

These are the idols of the individual man, due to our own peculiar natures, our education, our own experiences, or to reading from authorities we admire. “The spirit of man is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation”. If we are told by our parents or teachers that someone else is better after manipulation, then we will believe that it is a ‘true’ relationship.

Axiom 43: “The Idols of the Marketplace”

“Formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other. For it is by discourse that men associate, and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the common understanding. The ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.”

The choice of the word ‘subluxation’ for example, to describe an undemonstrable change! Or the claim for the existence of ‘psychic energy’. A radio station extolling the “Wonders of Chiropractic” is a wonderful Idol of the marketplace.

To take legal action and gain the publicity which is sure to follow with extensive argument about the meaning of, for example, ‘happily’ has great appeal in the marketplace.

Axiom 44: “The Idols of the Theatre”

“Which have migrated into men’s minds from various dogmas, and the wrong laws of demonstration. All the received systems are but so many stage plays – many more plays of the same kind may yet be composed.”

How well aware of this human trait are all showmen and charlatans. The Palmers, father and son, exploited this behaviour. To claim that new knowledge has come from beyond the grave is wonderful ‘theatre’, full of drama and mystery. To maintain the dogma of the wonderful in the face of evidence to the contrary is so much easier than to examine the evidence.

All these human behaviours can be seen in the history of chiropractic, and in so many other catastrophes such as the anti- vaccination campaign, the Peter Ellis trial, the Cartwright affair, the anti- fluoridation campaign and so on and on.

The history of chiropractic, and the response of chiropractors to criticism about the absence of science in their beliefs, illustrate the profound insights of Francis Bacon about our nature. It is our nature which results in the persistence of the perverse, and which resists the truth.

The responses of those without objective evidence for their personal beliefs often include ad hominem attacks, threat of legal action and financial injury, professional ridicule, and public invective. All these are seen in the chiropractors’ responses.

References

  1. Collins’ Concise Dictionary of the English Language (1988).
  2. Shapiro, R 2009: Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All. Vintage Press, London.
  3. Carroll, RT 2003: The Skeptics’ Dictionary; A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amazing Deceptions and Dangerous Delusions. John Wiley & Sons, NJ.
  4. Goldacre, B 2008: Bad Science. Fourth Estate, London.
  5. Ernst, E; Gilbey, A 2010: NZMJ, 123(1312) 36-44.
  6. Ernst, E 2007: J. R. Soc. Med. 100(7) 330-338.
  7. Singh, S; Ernst, E. 2008: Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial. Transworld Publishers, London.
  8. Homola, S 1999: Inside Chiropractic: A Patient’s Guide.
  9. Dew, K 2000: Sociology of Health & Illness, 22(3) 310-330.
  10. Editorial, 2008: NZMJ, 121(1279) 16-18.
  11. Roughan, S 2008: NZMJ, 121 (1280)72-74.
  12. Gilbey, A 2010: NZMJ, 123(1316) 126-127.
  13. Hollander, J; Kermode, F 1973: Oxford Anthology of English Literature. OUP, London & New York.
  14. Young, E 2010: New Scientist 2720.

A new golden age?

His name is Gold, he describes himself as a post- goth Discordian web developer, and one day soon he hopes to be homeless. He’ s also the new chair entity of NZ Skeptics. Annette Taylor finds out more.

The phone is not the instrument of choice for Gold. The 39-year-old suggests Skype, although his webcam is not working; it’s been a hectic few days in Christchurch, in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Flatting – temporarily- in Richmond, 2km north-east of the city, a chimney collapsed and things were “up and down and all over the place. We spent a day or so picking stuff up; otherwise it wasn’ t too bad.”

While we’re talking he pauses and waits for an aftershock to pass. Eris, the Greek Goddess of chaos, is having a grand old time.

“When anything goes wrong, when things don’t got to plan, that’s Eris,” Gold says.

He discovered Discordianism while at Canterbury University and says it’ s all about chaos and destruction and a sense of humour.

“We worship Eris and have a Bible equivalent and tenets we follow, such as that one must eat a hot dog on a Friday, which insults almost every religion you can think of, including our own. It’s a joke religion, which is one of the things that completely sold me on it. It’ s a fun thing, and nice to have someone to blame when things go wrong.”

And “post-goth”?

“I used to be a goth. You know – black clothing, the make-up, piercings, tattoos, the great music. It was a phase, so now I refer to myself as post-goth. I’ ve kept the dress sense; the piercings are not quite as obvious anymore. The tats are a little harder to get rid of. I still have the attitude, which is what it was all about, really. And the music is still great.”

Apart from five years in Australia, Gold has lived in New Zealand all his life, much of it in Canterbury. And for most of that time, he has been a sceptic.

Currently an atheist, he didn’ t have a religious background of any sort. “And it wasn’t until early 2000 that I sort of came across skepticism as a movement, or way of thinking. Up until then I was one of those people who didn’t really know there was a label for it.”

He was living in Sydney at the time, and a close friend was a full-on, practising witch.

“While it was kind of cool, I thought that yeah, no, this may be interesting, but it’s not real. It just didn’t gel.”

What galvanised his thinking more were skeptical podcasts and blogs, which he started to “passively consume” while overseas.

He returned to New Zealand in 2005, and headed straight back to Christchurch where he now works developing websites. And, last year, started the first Skeptics in the Pub meetings. “I came across this while in Sydney. It an idea that started in the UK, about 11 years ago, as a lecture series. Afterwards, people wanted more of them, so they continued. It became a very social thing and started to spread across the UK, into the US and Australia.”

But not in New Zealand. “I was working in the central city, away from my previous social group, and thought bugger it, I’d give it a go. I paid some money and set up the first meeting, at the Twisted Hop. We got about 35 people along and it’ s kept going since then. It’s a nice way to get together with like-minded people and have a drink.”

Now there are meetings in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin as well, but he would like to see more.

Which is a good reason to be intentionally without a home.

“One of the things about the job I’m doing is that all I need is a laptop and net access. I can work anywhere. I can travel around, and pop up somewhere. My plan is to stay in backpackers, and maybe build them a website instead of paying for a room. So, I can be a roving catalyst for getting Skeptics in the Pub meetings set up all over the country.”

He was aware of the NZ Skeptics when he arrived back in New Zealand. “Yes, I’d come across the website, and I knew Vicki. I joined, but it didn’t seem terribly active in a social sense.”

Skeptics in the Pub and the NZ Skeptics will continue to remain separate from each other. “Obviously they have similar agendas, but they serve different purposes. In the pub you have a place where you can say whatever you want, about anything and not worry about libel. The society has assets that can be taken off it, so has to be more cautious.”

As chair-entity, there are a few areas he wants to focus on, and one revolves around, little surprise, computers.

He’d like to work on the members area of the current website, so details can be added.

“Take the case of homeopathy, one of my pet peeves. Someone might find a paper touting the latest proof for it. We can put a link to that paper up, but at the same time we can add other sites that might have done research debunking it. And members can list if they have any special interests or skills on a subject, so they may be a medical doctor, or a lawyer, and have something to add. They can also flag if they are active or passive skeptics, whether they want to be involved in particular issues.”

One issue he would like the society to focus on this year is ACC’s priorities. “As everyone knows, they’re looking at making various cutbacks but on, I think, the wrong things. They still subsidise acupuncture, but are cutting back on hearing aids for elderly people. It’s something the society could have rather a large impact on, if we can get it done right.”

He’d also like to see more use made of social microblogging tools like Twitter.

“Recently I was involved with the Australian Skeptics’ campaign with the Australian Vaccination Network, who should really be called the anti-vaccination network. They’re getting a real hammering over there. By using Twitter, a whole bunch of us were able to join in, in real time, and make a difference. It’s powerful crowd-sourcing stuff.”

Similarly, the homeopathic overdose utilised the net to good advantage. “This was started by the Merseyside Skeptics, in the UK, and it pretty much went around the world. We got to kick it off, in Christchurch, because of the time zones. And that led to the NZ Council of Homeopaths admitting on national TV that there is no active ingredient in their so-called medicines. But that campaign was run online as well.”

He acknowledges Vicki’s rat-like cunning. “She’s a clever one, no doubt. I found out recently she spent some time grooming me for this role.”

There is another connection between the two. Vicki started KAOS, Killing As an Organised Sport (in which participants are given contracts to assassinate one another with toy guns), while at university in the 1980s. “Then she picked up the chair role. I was Dictator of Kaos at Canterbury University in 1996. Now I’ve picked up the chair.”

Coincidence? He thinks so. “But it’s very cool. And maybe it means I have the right qualifications for the job.”

As to the name Gold, there’s a story there which he’s happy to talk about, but he tends to save it for face-to-face.

So, if he pops up at a pub in your town go and have a yarn with the new incarnation of the Skeptics’ chair-entity. It’s bound to be illuminating.

The changing of the guard

After 17 years as chair-entity of the NZ Skeptics, Vicki Hyde has stepped down. Annette Taylor talks to her about life, the universe and taniwhas.

Vicki Hyde can’t quite remember who came up with the title. She’s sure Hugh Young had a hand in it, and possibly Frank Haden as well.

“The question was should it be madam chair, or chair person, or what. This was at our AGM in 1992. Someone suggested chairbeing, but it was pointed out that didn’t allow for the possibility there might be an incorporeal soul. Then we went for Chair-entity. It was a bit of light-hearted amusement that has served well over the years.”

Some journalists stop dead in their tracks when hearing the title for the first time, she says.

“Many newspapers and TV won’t use it; they don’t seem to be able to cope with the term, and just say ‘chair’. Ginette McDonald accused us of being politically correct. However it’s a way of saying we’re not completely po-faced about things, and that we don’t take ourselves seriously all the time. Which is a good point to start from.”

The standard charge she often hears is that skeptics are naysayers, boring or humourless. “I always say no, we’re actually excited about the wonder and mystery of the universe. We just want to get rid of things that aren’t real mysteries, so we can delight in those that are.”

When it comes down to defining exactly what a skeptic is, she points out the political attitudes of members are diverse, and there’s a surprising range of religious diversity as well.

“We’re not all hard-line atheists. Our brief is not to go after religious beliefs per se. If someone wants to believe in God, that’s fine, it’s a belief. Otherwise we just become blurred in with the rationalists and humanists. But if someone comes up with what they say is a piece of Noah’s Ark, that’s scientifically testable.”

She was a little sad when the society’s formal name, the New Zealand Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, was changed to the NZ Skeptics in 2007. “It was especially valuable in interviews; I was able to use it to point out what it was we did, and didn’t do. As a consequence I’m still explaining to people that no, we don’t go after capitalism, or religion, we’re not sceptical about everything and anything under the sun.”

Vicki’s introduction to the Skeptics was as a freelance writer for Pacific Way magazine, covering the firewalk at the Christchurch conference in 1990.

“I got talking with Denis Dutton and others, over that weekend, and thought this is interesting.”

She started helping with the magazine, and in 1992 was nominated for the chair, which had been held by Warwick Don.

“Denis raced off to The Dominion and said ‘Look, look, we’ve got a new chairperson at the Skeptics. She’s female, pregnant and of Maori descent; how much more politically correct can you get?'”

Vicki, who was 30, says it was like inheriting a whole group of aunts and uncles.

“We have changed from the early days, and particularly over the last few years. Back then the demographics of the group was late 50s, early 60s, and it remained that way for some time.”

Now members are younger, and there are more women involved, which she puts down to the internet. “We’re able to do more outreach; there are email groups and blogs, podcasts… We have 1500 people on our Skeptic Alert email list, three times more than paid members.”

Then there are initiatives like Skeptics in the Pub, which has provided another place for like-minded people to meet. “I think we’re still attracting the same kind of people, but through different ways. People who are interested in the world and how it works, and want to sit down and chat.”

As for our fellow kiwis, she thinks we’re a fairly down-to-earth bunch. “I don’t know if it’s our colonial heritage or the kiwi attitude of the proof is in the pudding, but in general we’re a bit more pragmatic. What is interesting is we don’t feel under siege from the religious right as much as Americans do.”

While attending the World Skeptics Conference in Burbank, California in 2002 she says there was a distinct feeling a war was being fought. “There’s a strong overlap between the rationalists and skeptics there; they have very close ties. We’re living in a country where, in the last election debate, both the then-prime minister and the leader of the opposition could both say, no, we don’t believe in God, on national TV, and it’s no biggie.”

She will continue as the society’s media spokesperson. “This requires the ability to be rung at 6am on Friday the 13th by some morning radio journo who wants to talk about superstitions. And to be nice to them.”

The job requires knowing a lot about all sorts of things. “Pseudoscience and the paranormal can present in all sorts of ways. Most of the time I have an idea what they’re talking about but sometimes they’ll ask a question about some obscure cult, or a multi-level marketing venture.”

The issues have changed over the years, she says. The original focus was on psychics, UFOs and astrology, with the occasional taniwha thrown in.

“We’ve shifted more and more into questions of what’s the potential harm of, say, an alternative medicine. While there is much we can laugh at, some things make you very sober, such as the Liam Williams-Holloway case. In addition to the wee boy dying, the fallout of this was that oncologists started getting parents asking about other cures for their child’s cancer. It actually increased interest in these claimed cures and made it a lot harder for the doctors.”

It was interesting, a few years later, to see the reaction to a Pacific Island family charged with manslaughter over their 14-year-old son’s death. “He decided to remove himself from the cancer treatment. They were then put through the courts. The only differences I can see with what they were doing, and Liam’s parents, is that this was a 14-year-old, who was able to make some form of informed decision on his own treatment. And they were doing it on religious grounds. We seem to have a lot less tolerance for that, oddly enough, than we do for people who are trying alternative health.”

Another “lowlight” was the false memory fad of the 90s, with its offshoot claims of Satanic ritual abuse and organised abuse of young children.

“We knew it was coming; we’d seen it first in the US. I predicted we’d have something similar within six months and the Peter Ellis case broke several months afterwards.”

The decision to donate funds from the Skeptics to Ellis’s defence resulted in at least one member resigning, she remembers. “This step was taken not because we all felt implicitly he was innocent, but that there were sufficient questions which should have been raised and had not been. We felt we needed to take a stand. I wrote an article for the NZ Skeptic about why we were supporting a convicted child abuser, explaining the background. As the saying goes, ‘for evil to succeed requires only that good people do nothing’. For people to be exploited by psychics or the latest would-be cancer cure, all it needs is for people not to ask ‘where is the evidence?'”

The Skeptics are not here to castigate Granny for reading tea leaves, Hyde says. “But if a psychic bounces up on national TV, talking about a missing child case, and promotes their two-for-one ticket offer for their upcoming tour – you have to point out that people are being exploited.”

The future looks good for the Skeptics, she unhesitatingly predicts. “There’s a whole host of bloggers out there, and podcasts and the like, that are pulling in people and ideas. I think this can work really well with our more formal group. We are useful because we have established communication channels and long-term relationships with the media, as well as a small fighting fund. And the informal groups are great because they provide social connections, enthusiasm and new blood. Which,” she says, “is one of the reasons why I’m looking forward to working with Gold; he’s got all that.”

And, sadly, there will always be a need for skeptics.

“It can be frustrating, but you just keep boxing on. If you can get one person to stop and think about something, it’s worthwhile. That’s all we try to do. To get people to think.”

Science as a human endeavour

If students are to pursue careers in science, they need to be able to see themselves in that role. One way to encourage this may be through the telling of stories. This article is based on a presentation to the 2008 NZ Skeptics Conference in Hamilton.

New Zealand’s new science curriculum asks us to develop students’ ability to think critically. As a science educator I think that’s about the most important skill we can give them: the ability to assess the huge amount of information that’s put in front of them from all sorts of sources. We also need to recognise that the ideas and processes students are hearing about have come to us through the activities of people – it’s people who develop science understanding. Science changes over time, as people’s ideas change. It’s fluid, it’s done by people, and it’s a human endeavour.

This puts science in an interesting position. It has its own norms, and its own culture, but it’s embedded in the wider culture as well. Those norms of science include its history. I find it sad that many of my students have no idea of where the big ideas in science came from. They don’t know what the people who were developing those ideas were like.

The new curriculum document recognises that the nature of science is an important strand in the curriculum, because it is what gives science its context, and lets students see science as a human endeavour. They’re going to learn what science is, and how scientists do science. They will become acquainted with the idea that scientists’ ideas change as they’re given new information; that science is valuable for society. And students are going to learn how it’s communicated.

Our future prosperity depends on students continuing to enter careers in the sciences. Richard Meylan, a senior adviser at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, said to me recently that somewhere between the end of year 13 and that two-month break before they go to university, we seem to be losing them. The universities are tending to see a drop in the number of students who have picked science as something that they want to continue in. Students don’t seem to see it as a viable career option, and there are many reasons for that.

We need more scientists, we need scientifically-literate politicians, and we need a community that understands science: how science is done, how science is relevant; one that sees science and scientists as being an integral part of the community. But how are we going to get there? What sorts of things can we do that are going to make young people want to carry on in science? Students often don’t choose science – how are we going to change that?

One of the reasons, perhaps, is that they often don’t see themselves as scientists. We did a bit of research on this at Waikato University last year, asking what would encourage our first-year students to continue as scientists. And what they were saying was, “Well, a lot of the time I don’t see myself as a scientist.” We asked, what would make a difference? The response: “Seeing that my lecturers are people.” People first, scientists second.

When I googled ‘scientist’ I had to go through eight or nine pages of results before finding something that looks like my own idea of a scientist. (‘Woman scientist’ is a bit better!) Almost all the guys have moustaches, they’ve all got glasses, all the women are square-shaped. Students don’t see themselves in this. We need them (and the rest of the community!) to see science as something that ordinary people do.

Now, what sorts of things are those ordinary people doing? They’re thinking; they’re speculating, they’re saying ‘what if?’ They’re thinking creatively: science is a creative process and at its best involves imagination and creativity. Scientists make mistakes! Most of the time we’re wrong but that doesn’t make good journal articles; usually no-one publishes negative results. So you just hear about the ‘correct’ stuff. Scientists persist when challenged, when things aren’t always working well.

Science stories

One way of fostering students’ engagement with science, and seeing themselves in it, is to tell them stories, to give them a feeling of how science operates. Brian Greene, a science communicator and physicist in the US, says:

I view science as one of the most dramatic narratives our species can tell. The story of our search to understand the Universe and ourselves. When that search is conveyed using the power of story – the story of discovery – we can all feel part of the journey.

So I’m going to tell you stories. And I’m going to tell stories about old, largely dead, people because one of my passions at the moment is the history of science. A lot of science’s big ideas have a history that stretches back 3-400 years. But they’re just as important today, and I think that an understanding of the scientists who came up with those ideas is also important today.

I think it’s important that kids recognise that a lot of scientists are a bit quirky. But then, everyone’s a bit quirky – we’re all different. One example of someone ‘a bit different’ is Richard Feynman. Famous for his discoveries in the nanotech field, he was a polymath: a brilliant scientist with interests in a whole range of areas – biology, art, anthropology, lock-picking, bongo-drumming. He was into everything. He also had a very quirky sense of humour. He was a brilliant scientist and a gifted teacher, and he showed that from an early age. His sister Joan has a story about when she was three, and Feynman was nine or so. He’d been reading a bit of psychology and knew about conditioning, so he’d say to Joan: “Here’s a sum: 2 plus 1 more makes what?” And she’s bouncing up and down with excitement. If she got the answer right, he’d give her a treat. The Feynman children weren’t allowed lollies for treats, so he let her pull his hair till it hurt (or, at least, he behaved as if it did!), and that was her reward for getting her sums right.

Making mistakes

We get it wrong a lot of the time. Even the people we hold up as these amazing icons – they get it wrong. Galileo thought the tides were caused by the Earth’s movement. At the time, no-one had developed the concept of gravity. How could something as far away as the Moon possibly affect the Earth? We look back at people in the past and we think, how could they be so thick? But,in the context of their time, what they were doing was perfectly reasonable.

Louis Pasteur, the ‘father of microbiology’, held things up for years by insisting that fermentation was due to some ‘vital process’ it wasn’t chemical. He got it wrong.

And one of my personal heroes, Charles Darwin, got it completely wrong about how inheritance worked. He was convinced that inheritance worked by blending. When Darwin published The Origin of Species, in 1859, Mendel’ s work on inheritance hadn’ t been published. It was published in Darwin’s lifetime – Mendel’s ideas would have made a huge difference to Darwin’s understanding of how inheritance worked – part of the mechanism for evolution that he didn’t have. But he never read Mendel’s paper.

Scientists do come into conflict with various aspects of society. Galileo had huge issues with the Church. He laid out his understanding of what Copernicus had already said: the Universe was not geocentric, it didn’t go round the Earth. The Church model was that the Universe was very strongly geocentric: everything went round us. Galileo was accused of heresy, and shown the various instruments of torture; for pulling out his thumbnails and squashing his feet. He did recant, and he was kept under house arrest until his death. And the Church officially apologised to him in 1992. A long-running conflict indeed.

And there’s conflict with prevailing cultural expectations. Beatrice Tinsley was an absolutely amazing woman; a New Zealander who has been called a world leader in modern cosmology, and one of the most creative and significant theoreticians in modern astronomy. She went to the US to do her PhD in 1964, and finished it in 1966. Beatrice published extensively, and received international awards, but she found the deck stacked against her at the University of Texas, where she worked. She was asked if she’d design and set up a new astronomy department, which she did. The university duly opened applications for the new Head of Department. Beatrice applied. They didn’t even respond to her letter. So she left Texas. (Yale did appreciate her, and appointed her Professor of Astronomy.) A couple of years later she found she had a malignant melanoma, and was dead by the age of 42. The issue for Beatrice was a conflict between societal expectations and the area where she was working: women didn’t do physics.

Science versus societal ‘knowledge’

Raymond Dart was an English zoologist who worked at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. He was widely known among the locals for his fondness for fossils; you could trundle down to Prof Dart’s house, bring him a lovely bit of bone, and he’d pay you quite well. One day in 1924 the workers at Taung quarry found a beautiful little skull – a face, a lower jaw, and a cast of the brain – in real life it would sit in the palm of your hand. Dart was getting ready for a wedding when the quarry workers arrived, and he was so excited by this find that when his wife came in to drag him off to be best man, he still didn’t have his cuffs and his collar on and there was dust all over his good black clothes. He was absolutely rapt.

Dart looked at this fossil and saw in it something of ourselves. He saw it as an early human ancestor. The jaw is like ours, it has a parabolic shape, and the face is more vertical -relatively speaking – than in an ape. He described it, under the name Australopithecus africanus, as being in our own lineage and went off to a major scientific meeting, expecting a certain amount of interest in what he’d discovered. What he got was a fair bit of doubt, and some ridicule. How could he be so foolish? It was surely an ape.

By 1924 evolution was pretty much an accepted fact in the scientific community. But there was a particular model of what that meant. In some ways this built on the earlier, non-evolutionary concept of the Great Chain of Being. They also had a model that tended to view the epitome of evolutionary progress as white European males. It followed from this that humans had evolved in Europe, because that’s where all the ‘best’ people came from. Black Africans were sometimes placed as a separate species, and were regarded as being lower down the chain.

Yet here was Dart saying he’d found a human ancestor in Africa. This would mean the ancestor must have been black – which didn’t fit that world-view. It’s a racist view, but that reflected the general attitudes of society at the time, and the scientists proposing that view were embedded in that society just as much as we are embedded in ours today.

Another difficulty for Dart had to do with prevailing ideas about how humans had evolved. By the 1920s Neanderthal man was quite well known. Neanderthals have the biggest brains of all the human lineage – a much bigger brain than we have. And the perception was that one of the features that defined humans, apart from tool use, was a big brain. It followed from this that the big brain had evolved quite early. Dart was saying that Australopithecus was a hominin, but Australopithecus as an adult would have had a brain size of around 400cc. We have a brain size of around 1400cc. Australopithecus didn’t fit the prevailing paradigm. The big brain had to come first; everybody knew that.

And belief in that particular paradigm – accepted by scientists and non-scientists alike – helps to explain why something like Piltdown man lasted so long. Over the period 1911-1915 an English solicitor, Charles Dawson, ‘discovered’ the remains of what appeared to be a very early human indeed in a quarry at Piltdown. There were tools (including a bone ‘cricket bat’), a skull cap, and a lower jaw, which looked very old. The bones were quite thick, and heavily stained. This was seized upon with joy by at least some anatomists because the remains fitted in with that prevailing model: old bones of a big-brained human ancestor.

People began to express doubts about this fossil quite early on, and these doubts grew as more hominin remains were confirmed in Africa and Asia. But it wasn’t completely unmasked as a fake until the early 1950s. The skull looked modern because it was a modern (well, mediaeval) skull that had been stained to make it look really old. The jaw was that of an orangutan, with the teeth filed so that they looked more human and the jaw articulation and symphysis (the join between right and left halves) missing. When people saw these remains in the light of new knowledge, they probably thought, how could I have been so thick? But in 1914 Piltdown fitted with the prevailing model; no-one expected it to look otherwise. And I would point out that it was scientists who ultimately exposed the fraud. And scientists who re-wrote the books accordingly.

Thinking creatively

The next story is about Barry Marshall, Robin Warren, and the Nobel Prize they received in 2005. (These guys aren’t dead yet!) Here’s the citation:

[The 2005] Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine goes to Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who with tenacity and a prepared mind challenged prevailing dogmas. By using technologies generally available… they made an irrefutable case that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori is causing disease.

The prevailing dogma had been that if you had a gastric or duodenal ulcer, you were a type A stress-ridden personality. The high degree of stress in your life was linked to the generation of excess gastric juices and these ate a hole in your gut. Marshall and Warren noticed that this bacterium was present in every preparation from patients’ guts that they looked at. They collected more data, and found that in every patient they looked at, H. pylori was present in the diseased tissue. One of them got a test-tube full of H. pylori broth and drank it. He got gastritis: inflammation of the stomach lining and a precursor to a gastric ulcer. He took antibiotics, and was cured. The pair treated their patients with antibiotics and their ulcers cleared up.

Because they were creative, and courageous, they changed the existing paradigm. And this is important – you can overturn prevailing paradigms, you can change things. But in order to do that you have to have evidence, and a mechanism. Enough evidence, a solid explanatory mechanism, and people will accept what you say.

Which was a problem for Ignaz Semmelweiss. He had evidence, alright, but he lacked a mechanism. Semmelweiss worked in the Vienna General Hospital, where he was in charge of two maternity wards. Women would reputedly beg on their knees not to be admitted to Ward 1, where the mortality rate from puerperal fever was about 20 percent. In Ward 2, mortality was three or four percent. What caused the difference? In Ward 2 the women were looked after exclusively by midwives. In Ward 1, it was the doctors. What else were they doctors doing? They were doing autopsies in the morgue. And they would come from the morgue to the maternity ward, with their blood-spattered ties, and I hate to think what they had on their hands. Then they would do internal examinations on the women. Small wonder so many women died. Semmelweiss felt that the doctors’ actions were causing this spread of disease and said he wanted them to wash their hands before touching any of the women on his ward. Despite their affronted reactions he persisted, and he kept data. When those doctors washed their hands before doing their examinations, mortality rates dropped to around three percent.

The trouble was that no-one knew how puerperal fever was being transmitted. They had this idea that disease was spread by miasmas – ‘bad airs’ – and although the germ theory of disease was gaining a bit of traction the idea that disease could be spread by the doctors’ clothes or on their hands still didn’t fit the prevailing dogma. Semmelweiss wasn’t particularly popular – he’d gone against the hospital hierarchy, and he’d done it in quite an abrasive way, so when he applied for a more senior position, he didn’t get it, and left the hospital soon after. He was in the unfortunate position of having data, but no mechanism, and the change in the prevailing mindset had to wait for the conclusive demonstration by Koch and Pasteur that it was single-celled organisms that actually caused disease.

Collaboration and connectedness

Scientists are part of society. They collaborate with each other, are connected to each other, and are connected to the wider world. Although there have been some really weird people that weren’t. Take Henry Cavendish – the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge is named after him. He was a true eccentric. He did an enormous amount of science but published very little, and was quite reclusive – Cavendish just didn’t like talking with people. If you wanted to find out what he thought, you’d sidle up next to him at a meeting and ask the air, I wonder what Cavendish would think about so-and-so. If you were lucky, a disembodied voice over your shoulder would tell you what Cavendish thought. If you were unlucky, he’d flee the room.

But most scientists collaborate with each other. Even Newton, who was notoriously bad-tempered and unpleasant to people whom he regarded as less than his equal, recognised the importance of that collaboration. He wrote: “If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” Mind you, he may well have been making a veiled insult to Robert Hooke, to whom he was writing: Hooke was rather short.

What about Darwin? Was he an isolated person, or a connected genius? We know that Darwin spent much of the later years of his life in his study at Downe. He had that amazing trip round the world on the Beagle, then after a couple of years in London he retreated to Downe with his wife and growing family, and spent hours in his study every day. He’d go out and pace the ‘sandwalk’ – a path out in the back garden – come back, and write a bit more. Darwin spent eight years of that time producing a definitive work on barnacles, and he didn’t do it alone. He wrote an enormous number of letters to barnacle specialists, and to other scientists asking to use work that they’d done, or to use their specimens to further the work he was doing.

He was also connected to a less high-flying world: he was into pigeons. This grew from his interest in artificial selection and its power to change, over a short period of time, various features in a species. So he wrote to pigeon fanciers. And the pigeon fanciers would write back. These were often in a lower social class and various family and friends may well have been a bit concerned that he spent so much time speaking to ‘those people’ about pigeons. And Darwin had a deep concern for society as well. He was strongly anti-slavery, and he put a lot of time (and money) into supporting the local working-class people in Downe. He was still going in to London to meet with his colleagues, men like Lyell and Hooker, who advised him when Alfred Wallace wrote to him concerning a new theory of natural selection. Now there’s an example of connectedness for you, and the impact of other people’s thought on your own! It was Wallace who kicked Darwin into action, and led to him publishing the Origin of Species.

That’s enough stories. I’m going to finish with another quote from Brian Greene:

Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that’s been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.
Science lets us see the wonder and the beauty of the stars, and inspires us to reach them.

Cynthia Margaret Shakespeare

On Saturday, July 10, Cynthia Shakespeare died in a car accident on the way to a tramping trip. With her death we have lost a wonderfully enthusiastic and energetic member of the Skeptics.

She explained that she attended the skeptics conferences because it was almost the only place where she could meet interesting people with the same sensible and rational approach to life that she had. I don’t think she missed many conferences.

As a founding member of the Wellington Skeptics she helped organise the early meetings in Wellington and also a number of the Wellington skeptics conferences. She booked the locations for the conference, and coordinated the different activities such as the conference dinner. And, in particular, she enjoyed acting as hostess, giving a warm welcome to those attending.

I don’t think I know anyone who had so much energy. She was always active, never stood still. She went on courses, joined groups, was a long-time member of the New Zealand Family Planning Association where whe was a counsellor, and she worked as a volunteer in schools.

She was interested in all sports and ensured that during the summer she swam every day in the harbour (yes, even in Wellington), she played tennis at the local club, and, in the winter, went tramping every weekend. Often when she went on long trips she would sleep in a little tent rather than go to an expensive motel. Latterly, her main interest was her family; three married children and now a number of grandchildren, the latest born only a month or so ago. As grandmothers do, she helped out and visited whenever she could.

But it was her fascination with people that I will remember most. She would introduce herself to anyone and before long become bosom friends, always remembering their name, their occupation, and be able to discuss their children. This was particularly evident at the conferences where whe was quickly able to make new members feel at home.

We will miss Cynthia whenever we meet as Skeptics.

Prof G A (Tony) Vignaux, Mathematical and Computing Sciences, Victoria University

Newsfront

“Dr Jaz” Dies

Dr Neil McKenzie, better known to music lovers as Dr Jaz, died in May following a long battle against a brain tumour (Bay of Plenty Times, May 15 2003).

Neil McKenzie was also a long-time member of the NZ Skeptics, and wrote the “Skepsis” column on medical issues for this magazine from 1997 to 1999.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he was raised in Surrey and attended medical school in Charing Cross hospital. He first came to New Zealand in 1974 and subsequently took up a post as a GP in Tokoroa. He settled in Tauranga in 1985.

Neil McKenzie first formed a skiffle band at age 16 in England and took up the banjo – an instrument which became his trademark. In 1980 his band, ‘Dr Jaz’ was born, and has been a regular feature of the local music scene here and overseas ever since.

Equally comfortable in the worlds of music and medicine, he will be greatly missed in both.

ACC Investigates Acupuncturists

ACC is investigating 20 acupuncture providers after discovering they were getting half its annual funding for the treatment (Nelson Mail, Dominion Post, May 21).

More than $2 million was going to only 20 of almost 200 registered acupuncturists, ACC Healthwise division general manager David Rankin said. Some were claiming for 12 hours a day for every day of the week.

Acupuncturists will now have to consult ACC clinical advisers after 10 treatments, rather than the previous 24, before further treatments will be authorised. ACC spends about $4.6 million a year on acupuncture treatments.

Register of Acupuncturists president Kevin Plaisted said the new limit was unlikely to stop further sessions going ahead.

“There is no reason why ACC will not approve further treatment … it’s certainly not designed to stop treatment at 10 but simply that we’re accountable for the treatment we’re providing,” he said.

Dr Rankin said injuries like sprains were treated with acupuncture but it required more sessions than other treatments.

Who Would Have Predicted This?

T Bromley, of Greymouth, takes the Press to task in a letter to the Editor (May 22) over the accuracy of the paper’s Christmas “clairvoyants” Maureen Rose and Rosina Bond.

Neither were able to predict the main stories early in the New Year, which included the Australian bushfires, Sydney’s train disaster, and even the space shuttle crash.

Rosina Bond’s prediction for the war in Iraq read, “While Iraq has become the US’s New Russia it’s predicted the two countries will not go to war in 2003 … When conflict comes to a head it will be late September-early October, Bush will be stopped in his tracks.”

No mention either of the power crisis, nor (and this, says T Bromley, is the grand-daddy of them all) the Sars virus. Like shooting fish in a barrel, really.

Watch Out for Those Ladders

Joanne Black’s Blackchat column (Dominion Post, April 28) had a novel perspective on the Sars epidemic. Pointing out that 110 people dying of the disease in China in one month was equivalent to four New Zealanders dying in a year, she took a look at the statistics to see what types of things kill four, and only four, New Zealanders in a year.

In 1998, the “latest” year for which mortality figures are available, three people died from cystitis, from varicose veins in the legs and from male breast cancer. Eight died from falling in holes, two from acute tonsillitis, four from curvature of the spine, three from genital prolapse, five from falling off ladders or scaffolding, and 14 from being hit by rolling stock (which Black thinks is to do with trains rather than sheep tumbling down hillsides).

Investigating Sars has taught her plenty, she says. She wouldn’t hesitate to travel to China, but from now on, she’ll certainly be more vigilant when crossing railway lines, take more care on ladders, and particularly watch out for those lethal holes in the ground.

Psychics “See” Missing Woman

Psychics have told police they know what happened to missing Hauraki Plains woman Sara Niethe (Dominion Post, June 16).

Several psychics have called police since investigators announced a $20,000 reward for information which would help them find the woman they now believe may have been a victim of foul play.

“They have had visions of where Sara is and where her car is. If they are specific enough we will check them out,” a spokesman said. Most, however, have not been specific.

Ms Niethe vanished on March 30 after drinking in Kaihere with a friend. Wide police searches of the plains, rivers and an irrigation ditch found no sign of her or her light blue-green late 1980s Honda Civic. Her family say it is out of character for her to leave her children, and her bank accounts have not been touched.

We Suspected As Much

The incidence of cancerous tumours in the brain, neck and head has not risen since the arrival of mobile phones, according to the Wellington School of Medicine (Dominion Post, June 16).

Researchers collected data on men and women aged 20 to 69 from the cancer registry between 1987 and 1998, as well as data on cellphone use. Professor Alistair Woodward said the findings, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, should provide users with some reassurance. He said the study’s weakness was that it looked at the overall population rather than particularly at those who used mobile phones, meaning it was not known whether those developing tumours were using cellphones or not. But the research still showed there was not a strong link between cellphone use and cancer. The findings backed up a similar study in Denmark.

A study of tumour rates among cellphone users compared to non-users would be completed next year.

And on a Similar Note… British researchers have cast further doubt on fears of a link between overhead power lines and childhood leukaemia (Dominion Post, June 16). A study published in the British Journal of Cancer found no evidence to support such concerns from laboratory experiments. Researchers used blood cells from a donor to test the effect of mag-netic fields on the normal repair process and found cells exposed to strong magnetic fields repaired themselves naturally.

Funds Raised for Alternative Treatment

A former Hawkes Bay goal-kicker and member of the Blues Super 12 rugby team will use more than $100,000 raised at charity functions to fight his motor neurone disease with alternative medicine (Dominion Post, June 2).

Jarrod Cunningham, who was diagnosed with the disease last year, said $45,000 was raised at a Hawkes Bay auction on May 31, and up to $70,000 at a rugby game the following day, featuring All Blacks Norm Hewitt and Bull Allen. This would go toward research and education on the natural supplements which had “cured” him.

Cunningham, 34, said he was on the road to a full recovery from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease, after taking a course of 20 capsules of astragalus, from the root of the astragalus plant, over five days, and says it has put him into full remission.

After his Christchurch-based Chinese “healer” told him that chicken parasites caused the symptoms of his disease, he has vowed to use money raised to prove this and help others with the disease seek herbal remedies to treat it.

The money raised at the weekend would be fed into a trust to be administered by the healer Cunningham has been working with.

Before taking the herb he was unable to get out of the bath without help. Three weeks after the dose he was able to do so on his own. “If that’s not remission of symptoms I don’t know what is,” he said.

Cunningham was also prescribed a dose of cayenne pepper to help unblock his lymph nodes, which he says worked. He based this on his armpits smelling like curry.

He no longer visits his doctor in Britain where he has been based, saying the doctor was closed-minded and negative. However when his muscles grow back in three to six months, as he predicts, he will tell his neurologist how he did it.

The Life and Times of a Scientific Heretic

In Darwin’s Shadow: The life and science of Alfred Russel Wallace, by Michael Shermer. Oxford University Press.

Alfred Russel Wallace was the co-discoverer of perhaps the most revolutionary idea in human history, but today his name is little more than a footnote in the biology textbooks.

It was Wallace who, as a young and unknown field naturalist, wrote to Charles Darwin in 1858 setting out his ideas on evolution by natural selection, spurring his older and more famous colleague to finally go public with his own work in this area. While Wallace always recognised Darwin’s prior claim, a joint presentation of the two men’s writings was made to the Royal Society later that year, propelling Wallace to the forefront of the Victorian scientific community. In his time, says Shermer, he was as well known and nearly as influential as Darwin. Besides helping to set evolutionary biology on a firm scientific footing, he founded the science of biogeography, and wrote on geology and anthropology.

In later life, Wallace would champion fields which today are regarded as at best pseudosciences, among them spiritualism and phrenology — the determination of intellectual capacity by measuring the shape of the skull. He also opposed vaccination and advocated land reform and women’s rights. Shermer argues that these activities were not in conflict with his scientific work, but can be understood as aspects of Wallace’s “heretic personality”, which was shaped by his background. Unlike Darwin, and indeed most of the scientific community, Wallace’s family was working class, and his formal education fairly minimal. His life was far less cosy than those higher up the social scale, and he was very ready to adopt radical ideas. With some of these, such as natural selection, he struck paydirt, with others he was less fortunate.

Shermer, the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, and director of the Skeptics Society, spends many pages examining the social pressures which shaped Wallace, attempting to apply quantitative analytical techniques to the task. A lot of this is quite heavy going, and its ultimate success is debatable. Personally I would have preferred less of it and more on Wallace’s expeditions to the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago, which are covered rather briefly, although they each lasted several years and laid the groundwork for his future scientific career.

On the other hand, Shermer deals well with such issues as the differences between Darwin’s and Wallace’s views on evolution, or Wallace’s involvement with spiritualism and social activism, and peppers it all with fascinating details such as an amusing but financially costly battle with a Flat-Earther.

Wallace was a major character in the history of science and deserves to be better known; hopefully this book will help redress the balance.

A Good Time Was Had By All

It’s all over – the cheering and clapping are fading and the crowds have all returned home, with thoughts about the next one. I am, of course, not talking about that sporting thing on the TV from across the Ditch, but the annual Skeptics’ Conference where, for a full two days, passions soared and speakers spoke.

The Dunedin conference also officially marked the stepping down of another founding member, Professor Bernard Howard.

Prof. Howard has been treasurer since a fateful summer afternoon in 1986 when he arrived at the first meeting of what was to become the NZCSICOP a few minutes late, and found himself appointed mere seconds after taking his seat. The NZ Skeptics is an unusual group – I’m often asked what do we do and where do we do it. Other than the annual conference we’re rather a loose organisation, made up of very individual individuals. But we are fortunate indeed in the calibre of many who choose to be involved and Bernard Howard’s contribution has been priceless in helping form what we are and how we go about it. I wish I had been at the Dunedin conference to add my hands to the applause when the presentation took place. It would have been a special moment.

The conference did receive a certain amount of coverage in the papers – from pieces on Ian Plimer’s and David Marks’s talks to the announcement of the Bent Spoon Award going to Wellington Hospital (about 60 nurses have been through a Healing Touch training programme which teaches the basics of energy healing).

On other matters, it was interesting following the circus surrounding the visit of American psychologist Professor Elizabeth Loftus. As most will know, Prof. Loftus has argued since 1993 that it is unlikely people can suppress memories of a traumatic event and later “recover” them. She gave the keynote address at the NZ Psychological Society’s conference in Hamilton in late August but her presence provoked some interesting reactions from colleagues. Before she even set foot in the country Dr John Read resigned from his role as the society’s director of scientific affairs and spoke out against her on Kim Hill’s programme on National Radio. And during the address itself psychologists handed out anti-Loftus material to delegates attending the lecture. Loftus said she didn’t wear her best jacket when she spoke on the Waikato campus – fear of flying tomatoes. Loftus said NZ was four or five years behind the States in recognising the need for scepticism on the issue. “If NZ follows the US and repealed limitations on adults suing for abuse suffered as a child,” she says, “then NZ therapists will have plenty to worry about.”

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Eileen Bone

It’s a great privilege to have known Eileen, her warmth, her wit and her sharp mind undimmed by her failing health. In the last few years, when she might forget the word for something, she knew what she wanted to say about it.

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