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 Skeptical View of Linguistic Gaffes

Mind the Gaffe, by RL Trask. Penguin, 2002. $24.95.

Mind the Gap! The book title is intended to remind all who have waited on curved London Underground railway platforms of the risk a careless step poses. The risks Dr Trask warns of are those which can label the writer as illiterate, ignorant of the nuances of English usage, or at least possessed of cloth ears. In offering this review to New Zealand Skeptic I do not imply that readers are particularly in need of the author’s advice; rather, his comments have a distinctly skeptical slant, which should be music to skeptical ears (see entry: cliches). Consider the following entries in his alphabetical list.

  • Alternative

“…has acquired a new sense of ‘non-standard’ …A good example is alternative medicine…a collection of practices which are neither underpinned by scientific understanding nor validated by careful testing.”

  • Militant

“When Richard Dawkins says he has no use for religion he is labelled a ‘militant atheist’, but the earnest people who call at awkward hours to talk about the Bible are never called ‘militant Christians’.”

  • Morphic

“A meaningless word with no existence outside pseudo-scientific drivel.” (Take that, Sheldrake!)

  • Natural

“Anyone who tells you that natural things are good by definition should be invited to spend a year in a remote third-world village with no running water, no sewers, no electricity and no medical treatment, but plenty of vermin and diseases.”

  • New Age

“Bookshops today are obliged to devote a depressingly large amount of shelf-space to books churned out by crackpots and charlatans… This coy label is overly respectful, in that it suggests the books have some detectable content.”

  • Quantum

“…every third charlatan finds that he can sell books by wrapping his content-free dross in a warm, fuzzy, pseudo-mystical cloud of blather featuring the word quantum very prominently. …seems to sell piles of books which would have served us better by remaining as trees”.

  • Uncertainty principle

“…brandished constantly by New Age charlatans… These frauds want their readers to believe that Heisenberg’s great achievement somehow licenses and justifies whatever brand of content-free mumbo-jumbo they happen to be peddling.”

There are more examples; those interested in modern philosophy should see the entries for feminism, hermeneutic, situated knowledge and theory.

The author was born and educated in the US, but now teaches linguistics at Sussex University in the UK. He is thus an expert guide in that area where, unfortunately, “two peoples are divided by a common language”.

Writer’’s last book entertaining and moving

Snake Oil And Other Preoccupations, by John Diamond. Vintage, 2001, $29.95

I recently reviewed for NZ Skeptic this author’s previous book (C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too), which described his experiences of his throat cancer and its treatment. That was written when he was still unsure whether it had been cured, and I admitted to moist eyes on reading of the gruelling time he had.

The success of that book, and his steadfast convictions about cancer treatments, led him to write another book, which was to be “an uncomplimentary look at the world of complementary medicine”. Unfortunately the cancer was not cured, and, in the middle of writing chapter six, he was taken to hospital for the last time. His brother-in-law describes how, the day after his death, they found his computer still switched on, the last words he had typed were “Let me explain why”. That he was never to do so brought on in your reviewer another attack of unmanliness.

Wisely, and luckily for the many who appreciate Diamond’s views and style, his executors have published the unfinished material, 82 pages, and filled out the book with a varied selection of his weekly columns in several magazines. Of the 60 or so of these, almost half are connected to the “Snake Oil” theme, and widen the coverage of “C”. Read about the role of the tongue in swallowing (you never miss it until you haven’t got it), and the problem of replying to a hearty friend’s enquiry after your health (“Oh, fine thanks…..well,actually, no. I’ve got cancer”).

The other items are light-hearted, entertaining pieces, remarkably so considering the pain he was in during the writing. Try “Does my bottom look too big?” (wise advice for those outside, and inside, the changing rooms in ladies’ dress shops). Diamond (of Jewish birth) confirms the view that Jewish jokes are invented by Jews; “The week before you know when”, is a spoof “The night before Christmas” bemoaning the way Jews are missing the commercial opportunities.

Diamond’s skill with words is matched by the Introduction contributed by Dawkins, another master. The light-hearted but erudite tone of his writing is the more remarkable considering what he was enduring. All who read and admired the earlier book will be both moved and amused by this one.

The Hippopotamus

The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry; Arrow Books Ltd, 1995; xi + 356 pp; $19.95 pbk

Readers familiar with Stephen Fry only for his TV comic appearances (A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder) may be surprised to meet him as author of a novel, and even more surprised that such a novel should be reviewed in New Zealand Skeptic. Squash your doubts — this book is full of paranormal mysteries to delight the skeptical reader.

The story is of the miraculous happenings at Swafford Hall, a country house in Norfolk; a cancer cure, a veterinary marvel, the transformation of an ugly duckling into a swan, the laying on of hands, general sorcery and the liberal dispensing of Reichian energy, ie “healing” in its widest sense, and definitely in quotation marks, all seem to be associated with the adolescent younger son of the house.

So, why should a novel about bizarre events at an English country house, written by a comic actor, be strongly recommended to this magazine’s readers?

It is impossible to be detailed without giving away the “whodunnit” aspects of the book. I can only ask you to accept my word that this is a greatly entertaining book, which at the same time has a serious message about the need for the skeptical attitude. It is a welcome contrast to the usual story of the paranormal, where the skeptic is portrayed as a head-in-the-sand ostrich, convinced of his stupidity only long after everyone else has recognised the truly paranormal nature of what is taking place.

The biographical note in the book says of Fry “His hobbies include cooking his god-children and leaving out commas.” Though surely not of a cannibalistic nature, Fry’s fascination with this curious relationship enters the story, where the god-daughter and god-son of the hippopotamus are central.

And so to the beast himself, Ted Wallace, burned-out poet, drunken journalist, just dismissed, as the story opens, for writing a scurrilous review of a play by a popular dramatist. He is, therefore, available to be sent to observe the miracles at Swafford as they happen, by the aforementioned god-daughter, healed leukaemia sufferer.

Many chapters consist of letters exchanged between these two (Haha, you Eng. Lit. students will exclaim, an Epistolary Novel). Put aside your prudish sensibilities when you pick up The Hippopotamus; the language is strong and fruity, and there is plenty of explicit sex of not only the hetero- and homo- type, but of the bestial also. Definitely not to be put in the hands of your traditional maiden aunt.

The plot of the story is tightly constructed, and the revelations in the final scene, though cleverly prepared for earlier, come as a succession of surprises. Fry’s writing is at times scatological, at others poetic, but always lively, with a writer’s enormous enjoyment in the use of words.

Skeptical Books

Guidelines For Testing Psychic Claimants by Richard Wiseman and Robert L. Morris, 1995, 72pp., University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield, UK, (pound)7.00.

Reviewed by Bernard Howard

When author Arthur Koestler and his wife died, they left money to found a university Chair in Parapsychology. Edinburgh University accepted this gift after some hesitation, and Robert L. Morris has occupied the Chair since 1985. In a university hundreds of kilometres to the south, and some hundreds of years younger, Dr Richard Wiseman has also turned a scholarly eye on the subject. This book is a result of their collaboration.

It starts, ominously, with “The Problem of Fraud”, and continues with chapters on initial meetings with claimants, research policies, pilot studies and formal research, and reporting, with an extra chapter on “Working with tricksters”. The book concludes with two reading lists (one of specific references, the other of books, articles and journals of general interest), names and addresses of relevant organisations (including the Magic Circle and the like), and even advice, with addresses, on how to make your experiments and results “secure”.

After reading all this detailed advice and the warnings about fraud, my feeling is that, if I saw a psychic claimant approaching me in the street, I should hastily cross to the other side.

Magic Minds Miraculous Moments by Harry Edwards. 231 pp., 1994. Harry Edwards Publications, 3 Nullaburra Road, Newport, NSW 2106, Australia. NZ$17.00.

Reviewed by Bernard Howard

The author is secretary of the Australian Skeptics; his book contains brief biographies in alphabetical order of just over 100 “psychics”, an average of two pages each. As well as background information on the lives of the subjects, he details the paranormal phenomena for which they were, or are, famous. Most entries finish with a “Comment” and a few references for further reading.

Many of the subjects are well known (Geller, The Fox sisters, Nostradamus, W.A. Mozart(!) for example), but most were unknown to me (who can name 100 psychics offhand?). This collection is a tribute to the author’s erudition and his thoroughness in searching the more obscure corners of the paranormal world.

Delightful browsing, and a very useful reference book.

Greenhouse — The Biggest Rort in Christendom by Peter Toynbee, published by Peter Toynbee Associates.

Reviewed by Owen McShane

Peter Toynbee is one of the few New Zealanders who has consistently stood up against the pseudo-science currently driving so much (not all) of New Zealand’s public policy on climate change and CO2 emissions.

Needless to say he has suffered from attacks on his personal integrity while his scientific arguments, like those of visiting Professor Lindzen of MIT, have been rebutted only by reference to the supposed consensus among those civil service scientists around the world who have found that a policy of promoting “scares and frights” is the best way to unlock the strings to Government funds.

Toynbee’s argument is simple. Man remains a trivial player in the planetary game. Nature rules on all but the local scale. He deserves support, if only because of his healthy scepticism, and his book contains a host of facts and reports with which to arm yourself against the next doomcaster you meet. And unlike so many recent publications, the book has an index. I cannot understand why so many books today have no index when word processing systems have made the task easier than ever before.

Even if you do not agree with Toynbee’s arguments or conclusions, the book is disturbing because, no matter which side of the argument prevails, governments have surely rushed to make a judgement on only one of the alternatives posed by the evidence of increased atmospheric CO2.

The costs of restraining fossil fuel consumption will be massive, especially for the third world, and there appears to have been no attempt to compare these costs against presumed benefits. Current studies indicate that the costs of adaptation to warming would be much lower, and of course would only need to be incurred if the warming actually eventuates. And the jury is definitely still out.

All the Trouble in the World

All the Trouble in the World, by P.J. O’Rourke; Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd 1994; 340 pages; $20.00 paperback

Everyone will enjoy this book. Well, everyone except paranormalists, ecological alarmists, pseudo-scientists, feminists, left-wingers, the entire New Age community, and of course those eternally doom-ridden types who seem determined to drag everyone else down to their own level of self-imposed suffering.

My only complaint — and it is a grievous one — is that O’Rourke prefaces the book with the exact same H.L. Mencken quote that I was on the brink of using myself. (Call it a coincidence if you want, but the odds of such a thing happening strike me as so slim it’s hard to avoid thinking that some form of telepathy was at play.)

The quote in question appears in one of Mencken’s autobiographical books, Newspaper Days, written in 1941, wherein he refers to a formula he devised way back in the ’20s. He called it Mencken’s Law and it goes like this: “Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretence of saving or improving X, A is a scoundrel.”

This was Mencken’s way of describing the same political correctness that plagues us today. The same old notion of virtue-on-the-cheap that has been annoying and injuring B since…Adam, probably. In Mencken’s time such nonsense led to Prohibition.

All the Trouble in the World opens with the line “This is a moment of hope in history. Why doesn’t anybody say so?”, which pretty much sums up what the book is about.

His general thesis here is that we are living in great and exciting times, and that humanity is better off now than it has ever been. But thanks to ecological despair mongers, whinging leftists, and the apocalyptic messages of the New Agers and Born Again Armageddonites, who believe that the only road to salvation is to abandon all rational thought and embrace the teachings of the fairy dust queen, we have been bamboozled into thinking that the monsters of ruin and disaster are breathing down our very necks.

The book is subtitled “the lighter side of famine, pestilence, destruction and death”, and to look at the whys and wherefores of all this O’Rourke takes us on a hilarious romp to countries where such things are taking place, including Somalia, former Yugoslavia, Haiti and the Amazon, resulting in a travelogue guaranteed to send the painfully virtuous on a book-burning spree.

Like all of O’Rourke’s writing, the style is garrulous, comical and fun to read; the content well informed and the reporting first-rate. Unfortunately, there is no outright O’Rourkian madness such as we find in Republican Party Reptile — “How to Drive Drunk While Getting Your Wing Wang Squeezed Without Spilling Your Drink”, for instance — but such failings aside, I would not hesitate to put All the Trouble in the World on any skeptic’s reading list.

A Skeptical Miscellany

Picking Winners?

When the short list for the Booker prize was announced there was much chortling about the fact that Jill Paton Walsh had been unable to find a publisher in Britain for Knowledge of Angels. She had to publish it herself.

The Times Literary Supplement (9 Sep, 1994) points out that the English publishing houses could not justify their decision by claiming that they had a surplus of great and worthwhile books. Heinemann has just published what the TLS described as “a work of the purest bilge”. They refer to Nostradamus: his key to the centuries, prophecies of Britain and the world 1995-2010, by V.J. Hewitt.

This adventurous work is not Valerie Hewitt’s first appearance as a seer. In her earlier publication, Nostradamus: The end of the millenium, she predicted that George Bush would be re-elected in 1992, that the Prince of Wales would be crowned King Charles III on May 2 of the same year, and that California would be destroyed by an earthquake on 8 May 1993.

In spite of this unenviable track record, Valerie Hewitt seems to have no difficulty finding gullible publishers. Poetic justice could have won the day. Maybe they asked her, as Nostradamus’ UK agent, to pick the Booker Prize List as well.

An American Dilemma

In the September 16 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Prof Claude Rawson made a nice point during his review of The Beginning of the Journey — the marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling, by Diana Trilling. I’m sure the TLS won’t mind us quoting at length:

“[Diana] too persevered with analysis despite a series of discouraging experiences, including a date with her first psychiatrist, from which she had to be sent home by taxi in a drunken panic … Three of her analysts died on her, an occupational hazard in transactions not otherwise willingly terminated by either party. One was a drug addict who missed appointments and fell asleep during sessions … She was next treated by by Marianne Fris, wife of Ernst, who told her that Lionel was being mishandled by his analyst … At one point the Trillings shared the same analyst and became “sibling rivals, vying for the attention of the same father figure”

This (Stalinist) doctor turned out to be unqualified and had to be retrained. The next “analyst’s wife, herself a psychiatrist” maintained a courteous professional distance. When her husband fell under a car she demanded payment of bills already paid, maintaining professional behaviour to the end. Diana had seven analysts in all and still feels that she “was never properly analysed”.

You might think she was slow on the uptake, but the persistence with which busy and intelligent persons in the US lavish their time and money on analysis in the teeth of a continuous sense of the inefficacy of the whole thing is a cultural phenomenon that awaits explanation.

If you remain unconvinced, watch the wonderfully scary video called Whispers in the Dark. It’s hard to know who is the most terrifying — the psychiatrists or their patient/victims. (Not for children)

Science and the Citizen

On Tuesday 26 September, National Radio’s Morning Report carried an interview with a scientist discussing his research programme which I hope is better founded than it sounded — seeing that we are all paying for it.

Apparently some Danes have shown that males who eat organic food are more fertile than those who eat regular (inorganic?) food. Our local scientist plans to repeat the programme here because if they confirm the Danish findings, it will prove that — and wait for it — pesticides cause male infertility.

Where does one start being decently Skeptical?

Would it not be simpler and much more direct to dose people with pesticides — without greatly increasing the doses they are presumed to be absorbing from their normal fruit and veges — and then send them out into the world to multiply?

And surely any Skeptic can think of several reasons why organic food-eaters might be more fertile than the average member of the population. Do they wear organic ill-fitting underpants?

But there are even more interesting hypotheses to test. We know that we eat about 10,000 times as many natural pesticides as we do synthetic ones (J.D. Mann, New Zealand Skeptic 32). I buy organically grown potatoes because they taste so much better (even though they cost about twice as much), which suggests that they contain a greater and more concentrated range of compounds than the regular watery variety.

Maybe it’s these “special secret ingredients” in the organic fruit and vegetables which serve to boost fertility among Danish males, rather than any tendency for nasty chemicals to diminish the fertility off their less “green” brethren.

And what might these extra compounds be? I presume that the way to raise vegetables which are resistant to the normal range of pests and diseases is to grow them so robust and healthy that their natural defenses are good enough to provide adequate protection. (Any gardener knows that healthy plants are much less prone to disease than sickly ones.) So maybe the reason these Danish organophiles are more fertile is that they are taking in far more natural pesticides than the rest of their countrymen. (And yes they are men!)

Could be it be that our crafty bodies respond to this toxicologic challenge by producing extra sperm to improve the survival chances of our selfish genes?

Who approves funding this stuff — New Zealand On Earth?

New Zealand Skeptic will watch for the outcome with pitchfork drawn and at the ready.

Numero Uno?

I was driving my car when Kim Hill spent half an hour of public broadcasting time interviewing a woman who claimed to be a Pythagorean Numerologist. The woman claimed that she had not appreciated Pythagoras at school because the teachers focused on arithmetic and all that other dry stuff. But later she learned that Pythagorus was a genuine mystic at heart and was worthy of redemption.

Our numerologist explained to a somewhat sceptical — but not falling-about-the-floor laughing — Kim Hill that Pythagorean Numerology could identify all our personality traits by translating the letters of your born name into numbers and then combining these numbers with the numbers of your birthday.

Evidently we can then all be identified as five/sevens, tens/tens or whatever. As you would expect, a five person could be careful with money, but could be able to overcome this tendency by applying the determination which is also associated with five. These people would make wonderful economists — on the one hand this … but on the other hand that …

Kim Hill did raise the difficulty that Pythagoras used the Greek alphabet, but our numerologist explained that the system had been adjusted to fit the Roman alphabet.

Now if telepathy worked at all, Kim Hill would have heard my 10,000 watt telepathic messages saying “Ask her about the birthdays.” Even Pythagoras could not predict the assumed birthdate of Jesus Christ, so its difficult to imagine him building a numerology system based on his being born on the 30 September 582 BC or whenever. And I cannot conceive of any algorithm which would translate the calenders of Pythagorean times into the Gregorian calendar dates we use now.

Once again telepathy failed me, and we never heard how our numerologist dealt with this problem. However, we learned something about Pythagoras. Evidently he ran a University in which everyone would have been vegetarians, because vegetables, unlike meat, are such spiritual food. I suppose this explains the behaviour of that other famous vegetarian, Adolf Hitler. One of Kim Hill’s questions indicated that our numerologist’s extensive research seemed not to have revealed to her Pythagoras’s famous aversion to beans.

However, my frustration with all this nonsense was eased later on in the morning’s programme when Kim Hill read out a fax from an alert Skeptic who complained bitterly about the use of public radio to disseminate such garbage over the air waves. Well done.

Don’t these programmers realize that this sort of stuff makes it doubly hard to argue in favour of preserving public radio. The more National Radio sounds like No Idea On Air the harder it is for any of us to argue its case for survival.

Paranormal Postal Service

Skeptics who’ve ordered direct from Prometheus Books will be well aware of the realities of the extra exchange and bank costs that can make a price quoted in US dollars burgeon into a massive account in New Zealand money.

Yet an alternative therapy exists, awaiting rational testing by NZCSICOP members. It’s the Humanist Bookshop, now operating from New Plymouth. And how are its impressive results achieved? We’ll give away part of the secret — the excellent discount from Prometheus, and the voluntary labour of the HSNZ Bookshop organiser. We sell to all who wish to buy from us, at basic prices, as our contribution to more critical thinking in New Zealand.

Our NZ prices usually work out at just several NZ dollars above the US dollar quoted price, plus postage.

In stock at the moment — Randi’s Faith Healers; Baker and Nickell’s Missing Pieces; Kendrick Frazier’s Science Confronts the Paranormal; Philip Klass’s UFO Abductions; several of the Paul Kurtz titles; and many, many more.

Why not conduct your own experiment? Send for an HSNZ Bookshop catalogue (price $1.00), giving prices and details of books usually in stock. Orders for anything from the Prometheus catalogue take about 2 1/2 months to arrive.

The address: Humanist Bookshop, 26a Pembroke St, New Plymouth. Organiser, Humanist and Skeptic, Jeanne van Gorkom.


Letter from India

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

Dear Friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely, B. Premanand

Astrology Book Defended

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dennis Frank

Naturally Skeptical

Award-winning author and long-time Skeptic Margaret Mahy delivered the after-dinner speech at the 1993 Skeptics Conference. This is an abridged version of her talk.

I was a sceptic with a “c”, before I joined the Skeptics with a capital “S” and “k”. At least, so I have always believed. I have always thought of the sceptic as a person in a state of terminal caution, and that definition seemed to cover my own particular situation pretty well, though the caution came about, not through fear so much as the difficulty of honestly synthesising the contradictory information the world seemed to be offering me so generously. And by the time I came to realise just how varied and odd it was, I had formed a few axioms which amount to faith, if that doesn’t sound too odd in a sceptical life.

My first encounter with astronomy was in the Edwardian edition of Arthur Mee’s Encyclopaedia, and in the first part of the first volume there was a dramatic picture of a red-hot ball looking vaguely molten, and beneath this, or close to it anyway, was the information that the world was formed from a piece that had dropped off the sun. This is hardly what cosmologists suggest today, but I have never found too much trouble in discarding facts or swapping them around. What Arthur Mee’s Encyclopaedia gave me was the feeling of excitement and astonishment about the world around me and the universe beyond, and this has never changed.

The Illustrated Oxford Dictionary (the nearest portable dictionary in my room) defines a sceptic (with a “c”) as one who doubts the possibility of real truth. Personally I don’t doubt the existence of real truth, though I do doubt my ability to know it. I have more faith in a negative Socratic talent, basically to suspect what it is not. What seems to define my own position even more accurately is the dictionary definition of the adjective “sceptical” — inclined to suspension of judgement, given to the questioning the soundness of facts and the soundness of inferences.

I will admit that I question some assertions and inferences more than others, since I do what I think is justifiable, and make an assessment of statistical probability as far as I am able — an assessment based on observable facts and the way in which certain sources are confirmed by the predictions they make and the way these predictions are tested, and on faith, too, though this can be a noble word for established prejudices.

I am resigned to the fact that any political act I might make, including voting, cannot acknowledge the complexity of my real views, but is, at the best, only an approximate indication of partial preferences. And above all, I am sceptical about what seem to me to be unilaterally held explanations of things, entrenched views which are used to reduce and control the whole complexity of the universe.

It is not that I would deny people a place to stand, or the comfort and security of such control. I have a lot of sympathy with Kurt Vonnegut’s imaginary prophet Bokonon, who said, “Live by the harmless lies that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”

Unfortunately, people often find it impossible to do just that. They want their own pleasure in their harmless lies somehow vindicated by making everyone else believe them too, and once assertion and even coercion are used to compel a homogeneous system of belief, the untruths are no longer quite as harmless as they might have seemed in the first place.

Anyhow, I believe I am a sceptic out of a conviction which springs simultaneously from the longing to know what is true, coupled with an uncertainty about my own power to be convinced of truth, reinforced by awareness of a long history of human error in this basic but compulsive endeavour.

I’ve mentioned faith, so perhaps I should say here that an article of my faith is that, as far as human beings are concerned, the universe is infinite in its mysteries. I have never found that any scientific advance…say, the landing on the moon…that has done anything but intensify the mystery.

My own astonishment has done nothing but increase the more I have found out, so I have no sympathy with the view that scientific advances are taking the poetic strangeness out of things. In fact I once read that every successful scientific experiment raised more questions than it answered and found I believed it immediately.

However I don’t want mystery for the sake of mystery. I want it to be true mystery. My objection to much mysticism is that it is just not strange or mystical enough, but feels like the sort of story I might have made up myself. Rightly or wrongly, I expect more of the universe than that. So I also believe, in advance, that any grand unified theory will supply not a final solution, only an increased astonishment and a good place to stand while we confront the universe and contemplate an enigma.

Children’s Books

The first anecdotes are concerned with my profession. Perhaps notoriously, I am a writer of children’s stories, and children’s literature has expectations inherent in it from which adult literature is relatively free. Stories for children are not only written by adults, but read and scanned by adults before the children get them, and those adults are anxious, sometimes unconsciously, that children should be socialised along desirable lines, so there is a general expectation that, by the end of the story, the child will be a better child with opinions acceptably shaped.

Some years ago people tended to speak of children’s books as if they were now free of the old necessity that they should have a good moral — as if they were free of any imperative beyond the fairly innocent wish to entertain — but believe me this is not so, though nowadays the old-fashioned word “moral” can readily be replaced with the trendy phrase “political correctness.”

Violence, that necessary component of adventure stories, is subject to constant scrutiny. I also have been challenged because children in my stories used words like “fat” or “old”. Editors may scan stories for lapses into racism, sexism, fatism, and to some extent ageism. I have written about Mrs Hatchett and Mrs Gimble, two solitary women, in two separate stories, and have been asked to put in a few lines indicating what had happened to their husbands — in case, I suppose, some child might suspect these women were falsely masquerading as respectable.

There is still the same historical expectation that children should not be told how the world is, but how it could be if only we all behaved a little better.

I’m not opposed to this, because I think part of the function of stories at any level is to make people feel powerful in the cause of good, and to hope they may even achieve a happy ending for themselves and others. Part of the pleasure of a happy ending, for example, is that the reader ends up feeling in charge of life. All the same, there does come a point where the constant reiteration of a particular moral amounts to a deception which is just not honest or interesting to write about.

And there are a lot of subjects which one can’t acknowledge truthfully without arousing indignation — for instance, in the US there are a lot of people who are anxious that children’s books should never suggest that people occasionally drink alcohol.

I once wrote a story called Jam, in which the amiable hero, Mr Castle, greets his working wife when she comes home with a loving kiss and a glass of sherry before he takes the children out to play on the lawn. This seemed to me like ideal behaviour (within my own mind he topped up her glass occasionally), but the American publisher insisted that I strike out the sherry, though the British, a more degenerate crowd, allowed Mrs Castle to have her small alcoholic charge.

In The Horrendous Hullaballoo I was asked to change the pirate’s rum to passionfruit juice, but this seemed to me too dishonest. In the end I was allowed to leave the pirate his rum, though the comment was made that I would sell fewer copies of the book because of the reference to this traditional piratical habit.

Violence, as I have already mentioned, is another anxiety. I once wrote a story about a cat fight. “This is very violent,” said an editor, and wanted me to change the line “The big cat boxed the little cat’s ears” to “The big cat patted the little cat’s ears.” I don’t know about other people’s cats, but around my house cat-fights are very violent affairs, and I abandoned that particular story since I felt that was just too false to alter it.

Obedience to parents used to loom very large in 19th century stories for children, and children who were disobedient were often punished with maiming, dismemberment and death. Nowadays the expectations are different, but the monitoring and anxiety survive.

I can only say that in the beginning I write for a single reader who is another version of myself as reader. At a later stage I do think about what I can remember of what it was like to be a child reader of, say, eight or nine years old. And at a slightly later stage I come to have a general readership in mind as well — a large cloud of potential readers, let’s say, with points of increased probability within it.

Defence of Offence

I cannot say for certain that no person will be corrupted, or alarmed, or hurt in any way by the stories I write, though of course I like to think that no person with any sense will be, but no one can predict the perversity or vulnerability of the individual reader, the receiver who completes the act the writer began.

What I do feel is that a number of unknown children, again approximating to myself in childhood, will be harmed if stories are trimmed, castrated and made entirely inoffensive before they are let loose on the world. Offensive stories may even release a certain creative vitality into the world through the act of offending. At least this possibility is continually acknowledged in adult fiction, for adults are supposed to be more or less in charge of their lives, and to be less innocent, less easily influenced than children.

I must say that I am prepared to consider the possibility that a happy child may be more resilient than many an adult and sometimes less innocent too. Innocent adults are subject to derision and are told to “get real”, so it is not as if we regard innocence as an excellent quality per se.

Towards the end of last year, a friend of mine wrote from Wellington to say that a member of the Skeptics in Wellington had objected to the supernatural elements in my stories on the basis of the possibility that readers might take the supernatural elements as being true rather than metaphoric. I would like to say that this is impossible, but unfortunately I know that there is, indeed, a risk.

Indeed I am less disconcerted by the people who accuse me of being a satanist, glamourising and even recommending witchcraft, than I am by those who write and praise me for the good image I have apparently given witches in a book like The Changeover, or by reporters who turn up for interviews in the expectation that I am an enthusiast for New Age spirituality. It was because of one such encounter that I became a financial member of the skeptics with a “k” in the first place.

Science in Stories

One of the things no one has ever challenged in any of my books is a sort of scientific subtext. It varies from book to book. In a book called The Strange Case of the Quantum, I came upon two phrases, “ultraviolet catastrophe” and “Schwartzchild singularity”, which I enjoyed for their sound as much as their sense. I used them in a story entitled Ultraviolet Catastrophe as simple sound mechanisms, though I must add that in the end I was not allowed to use “Schwartzchild singularity” on the grounds that it suggested black children were singular.

In another book of mine, Catalogue of the Universe, ideas of symmetry are part of the underlying metaphor of the plot. I must explain that I am not in any way a scientist (I did very badly in science as a subject at school and in my last mathematics exam I got ten marks out of a hundred — ten out of ten for knowing a theorem by heart, and nothing for the rest of the paper). I respect what I understand of scientific thought, not only because of a general interest in scientific descriptions of the world which are much more astonishing than anything anyone can invent, but because of something more fundamental which I shall mention in due course.

Not only that, I find a lot of the language both fascinating and funny. I am entertained by the fact that an account of the lurid sex life of the black-tipped hanging fly, with all its criminal elements, was written by a man called Randy Thornhill. “Exploring the Mandelbrot Set”, an enticing heading on the cover of a Scientific American sounds to me like something a tabloid newspaper might produce, exposing all sorts of deviation in a degenerate and wealthy New York circle, accompanied by sensational pictures.

But along with all sorts of games of this sort, I am disposed to respect scientific description and theory, though certainly not because I think scientists are inevitably immaculate thinkers. They are human beings before they are scientists, and worked on by all sorts of human weakness including academic ambition and the longing to be rich, along with the conviction that ideas that work in their favour must be true, and there is no harm in giving them a bit of a nudge.


I subscribed to Scientific American for a number of years, although its articles were really too hard for me. Still, I remember many pieces I read there, and in May 1980 I read an article called “The N-Ray Affair”. Early this century, says the preamble to the article, an eminent French scientist discovered a new type of radiation, and others confirmed his work.

The radiation turned out to be totally imaginary, proving that believing can be seeing, surely something that sceptics are constantly pointing out. The scientist was Rene Blondlot, a respectable and well qualified man, and in 1903 he announced that he had discovered a new kind of radiation called the N-ray. At that time, historically, scientists were imaginatively prepared to accept the existence of new radiation, and the claim was not checked with appropriate rigour.

I won’t go into details about the experimental apparatus or anything of that sort, but will simply explain that N-rays were detected, by French scientists other than Blondlot, as coming from the sun, from the human body, and even from enzymes isolated from body tissues. Other scientists hastened to point out that they had already detected N rays, and that the honour of being proclaimed as the discoverer should be shared. Blondlot received the Prix Leconte and 50,000 francs, and his discovery of N-rays was obliquely mentioned along with other achievements.

In the first half of 1904 there were 54 articles published on N-rays in Comptes Rendus, which I take to be a scientific journal, whereas there were only 3 articles on X-rays over the same period.

Nowadays no one believes that N-rays ever existed. An American scientist, R.W. Wood, found he was quite unable to reproduce the results Blondlot had reported, and support for N-rays was finished outside France. To cut a long, though fascinating, story short, Blondlot and his supporters responded by suggesting that the effect was only observable by certain sensitive and totally passive observers.

One had to see the effect, so to speak, without quite looking at it — might even have to glance in a slightly different direction. To gain the ability would require practice. It was even maintained that only the Latin races had the sensitivity to see the effect — that Anglo-Saxon powers were dulled by continuous exposure to fog and Teutonic ones by the constant ingestion of beer.

Blondlot and his supporters never admitted they were wrong. The article ends by quoting James Clerk Maxwell. “There are two theories of the nature of light, the corpuscle theory and the wave theory. We used to believe in the corpuscle theory; now we believe in the wave theory because all those who believe in the corpuscle theory are dead.” The last person to believe in N-rays probably disappeared when Blondlot died in 1930.

In this case a so-called scientific discovery has had many of the same characteristics as claims for the existence of paranormal phenomena, so it is not as if one can afford to be anything but a skeptic where scientific assertions are concerned. The history of science is filled with oddities, prejudices, mistakes, misunderstandings, rejections and suppressions of truth.

I sometimes find myself guilty of making blanket judgements of a sort — for instance if I read anything about telepathy in Womansscript, a rather new-agey feminist magazine that made a brief appearance a while ago, I would suspect it before I read it, but even before reading John McCrone’s article “Roll Up for the Telepathy Test” in a New Scientist last May, I assumed that its account of parapsychology would be on a reasonably respectable scientific footing, and would therefore deserve a respectful reading. I could feel my stance adjusting as I approached the article.

I don’t know any way out of making these blanket judgements, based on my established prejudices. Of course scientific declarations deserve to be greeted with scepticism too, regardless of the theoretical care built into definitions of scientific thought. One would have been right to be cautious about the recent claims on behalf of cold fusion, and many people were. Competitiveness alone meant that the claims were promptly subjected to tests that seem to have demolished the claims.

But I do have reasons other than prejudice for respecting scientific thought. It seem to incorporate, as a basic premise, what I see as a sort of creative scepticism. I understand from attending a few lectures in the philosophy of science and from reading A Brief History of Time that no theory can ever be held to be totally established, even though we can act as if it was with increasing confidence as time goes by and predictions are fulfilled.

At some level, any theory is always a hypothesis and one must always bear in mind the possibility that it may turn out to be inadequate and need modification, or that it might even be wrong. In day to day life we can safely assume that certain familiar laws will hold true, and we can act with confidence, but the truths that underlie them are subject to a continual scrutiny, and possibly to adjustment, alteration and restatement.

This seems to me to be honest, though very tiring. In the stories I write, I do make a variety of ethical assertions, but my main hope is that joking and a degree of eccentricity will leave children with the possibility of living with an open system of thought, and of using jokes and humour and even self-derision, as a means of approaching the contradiction implicit in our understanding of the world, if we want to be honest about it.

I suppose it is true that the skeptic is often seen as being destructive, spoiling the simple pleasure that people take in wonders, and destroying the wonders themselves in favour of a colourless rationalism. But my favourite disciple is Thomas, and though his doubt is often quoted with disapproval, the result of his doubt is invoked as a clinching argument for the resurrection. I am happy for people who find faith in a simple unity underlying the intricate confusion, provided they do not not need my collusion in their faith, and provided they do not try to impose their views as fact.

I do not think rationality is infinite in its power to describe the universe, but I think it is noble, and not the chilly spoiler of poetry and intuition it is often represented as being. Indeed I have an image in my mind of intuition, imagination, response to things like beauty and mystery existing along with rationality in a spectrum imaginatively analogous to the spectrum of radiation which we perceive differently at different points. Some radiation we experience as sight, some as sound and so on. This is a personal analogy, and like all analogies is faulty in some ways. It is an approximate metaphor for my own use.

Above all else, I reiterate, I think we lead an intensely mysterious existence in a deeply mysterious universe, and that acknowledgement of this mystery deserves the best I can give it. I am perfectly prepared to entertain the possibility of telepathy, of magic of all sorts, but I don’t wish to sell out to cheap and facile marvels, inadequately proved, to scientific discoveries falsely researched, to political slogans, that are invented, partly unconsciously, to herd power into certain defined areas and to keep it there, or of course at the outer edge, to lies, chicanery and exploitation, or even to innocent, though passionately defended mistakes.

I may do that from time to time, but I try hard not to, because I want to do the best I can, within my limitations, and within my limitations to lead an exciting, funny and truthful life.

More from A Skeptic’s Bibliography

Continued from last issue. Prices are US dollars.


Billig, Otto, Flying Saucers: Magic in the Skies, Schenkman Books, 1982, H-$19.95, ISBN 0-87073-833-X; P-$11.95, ISBN 0-87073940-9.

Klass, Phillip, UFOs: The Public Deceived, Prometheus Books, 1986, H-$19.95, ISBN 0-87975-203-3; 1986, P-$14.95, ISBN 0-87975322-6.

Klass, Phillip, UFO-Abductions: A Dangerous Game, Prometheus Books, 1988: 1989 (updated), P-$16.95, ISBN 0-87975-509-1.

Oberg, James, UFO’S and Outer Space Mysteries, Donning, 1982, P$6.95, ISBN 0-89865-102-6.

Sagan, Carl and Thornton Page, eds., UFOs: A Scientific Debate, Norton, 1974, P-$8.95, ISBN 0-393-00739-1.

Sheaffer, Robert, The UFO Verdict: Examining the Evidence, Prometheus Books, 1986, P-$14.95, ISBN 0-87975-338-2.

Ancient Astronauts and Cult Archaeology

de Camp, L. Sprague, The Ancient Engineers, Ballantine Books, 1988, P-$4.95, ISBN 0-345-00876-6.

de Camp, L. Sprague, Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme, Dover, 1970, P-$6.50, ISBN 0-486-22668-9.

De Mille, Richard, ed., The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies, Ross-Erikson, 1979, H-$19.95, ISBN 0-915520-257; P-$?, ISBN 0-534-12150-0, Wadsworth Press, 1990.

Hadingham, Evan, Lines to the Mountain Gods: Nazca and the Mysteries of Peru, Random House, 1986, H-$22.50, ISBN 0-394-54235-5, University of Oklahoma Press, 1988, P-$16.95, ISBN 0-806-12130-0.

Harrold, Francis and Raymond Eve, eds., Cult Archaeology and Creationism: Understanding Pseudoscientific Beliefs about the Past, University of Iowa Press, 1987, H-$20.00, ISBN 0-87745-176-1.

Stiebing, William H., Ancient Astronauts, Cosmic Collisions, and other Popular Theories about Man’s Past, Prometheus Books, 1984, P$13.95, ISBN 0-87975-285-8.

A Skeptic’s Bibliography

This is an excerpt from Thomas and Rusk’s lengthy bibliography of works with skeptical viewpoints. Prices noted are in US dollars.


Abell, George and Barry Singer, eds., Science and the Paranormal, Scribners, 1983, P-$13.95, ISBN 0-684-17820-6.

Asimov, Isaac, The Roving Mind, Prometheus Books, 1983, H-$21.95, ISBN 0-87975-201-7; P-$15.95, ISBN 0-87975-315-3.

Cazeau, Charles J. and Stuart D. Scott, Jr., Exploring the Unknown: Great Mysteries Reexamined, Plenum Press, 1979, H-$18.95, ISBN 0-306-40210-6.

de Camp, L. Sprague, The Fringe of the Unknown, Prometheus Books, 1983, P-$14.95, ISBN 0-87975-217-3.

de Camp, L. Sprague, The Ragged Edge of Science, Owlswick Press, 1980, H-$16.00, ISBN 0-913896-06-3.

Frazier, Kendrick, ed., Paranormal Borderlands of Science, Prometheus Books, 1981, P-$17.95, ISBN 0-87975-148-7.

Frazier, Kendrick, ed., Science Confronts the Paranormal, Prometheus Books, 1985, P-$17.95, ISBN 0-87975-314-5.

Gardner, Martin, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Dover, 1957, P-$6.50, ISBN 0-486-20394-8.

Gardner, Martin, Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus, Prometheus Books, 1981, P-$15.95, ISBN 0-87975-573-3.

Goran, Morris, Fact, and, and Fantasy: The occult and Pseudosciences, Littlefield, 1980, P-$7.95, ISBN 0-8226- 0356-X.

Hines, Terence, Pseudoscience and the Paranormal: A Critical Examination of the Evidence, Prometheus Books, 1987, P-$17.95, ISBN 0-87975-419-2.

MacKay, Charles, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Templeton, 1985 (original 1841), H- $24.95, ISBN 0934405-00-X; P- 3 editions available.

Nickell, Joe and John F. Fischer, Secrets of the Supernatural: Investigating the World’s Occult Mysteries, Prometheus Books, 1988, H-$18.95, ISBN 0-87975-461-3.

Paulos, John Allen, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, Hill and Wang, 1988, H-$16.95, ISBN 0-8090-74478.

Randi, James, Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and Other Delusions, Prometheus Books, 1982, P-$12.95, ISBN 0-87975-1983.

Rothman, Milton A., A Physicist’s Guide to Skepticism, Prometheus Books, 1988, H-$19.95, ISBN 0-87975-440-0.

Sagan, Carl, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, Random House, 1979, H-$14.95, ISBN 0-394-50169-1.

Schultz, Ted, ed., The Fringes of Reason: A Whole Earth Catalog, Harmony Books, 1989, P-$14.95, ISBN 0-517-57165-X.

Stanovich, Keith E., How to Think Straight About Psychology, 2nd ed., Scott Foresman and Company, 1989, P-price not set, ISBN 0-67338412-8.


Bok, Bart J. and Lawrence E. Jerome, Objections to Astrology, Prometheus Books, 1975, P-$10.95, ISBN 0-87975-059-6.

Culver, Roger B., Sun Sign Sunset: A Statistical Investigation of the Claims of Sun Sign Astrology, Pachart Publishing House, 1980, P$9.95, ISBN 0-912918-00-4.

Culver, Roger B. and Phillip A. Ianna, Astrology: True or False? A Scientific Evaluation, Prometheus Books, 1988, P- $14.95, ISBN 087975-483-4.

Gauquelin, Michel, Dreams and Illusions of Astrology, Prometheus Books, 1979, H-$19.95, ISBN 0-87975-099-5.

Jerome, Lawrence, Astrology Disproved, Prometheus Books, 1977, H$22.95, ISBN 0-87975-067-7.