mp3 blues

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

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The dangers of flying

I must make a point of never again flying while the All Blacks are playing in the World Cup. I was over the Atlantic for the 1995 final, and flying home from the South Island during this tournament’s quarter-final. The conclusion is plain: if I’m flying, the All Blacks lose. I know this is nonsense, but the power of coincidence is such that when two rare events coincide twice, it’s hard not to feel they must be linked. Even when the main reason for my trip south was to attend the 2007 New Zealand Skeptics’ Conference, where the pitfalls of such superstitious thinking were repeatedly exposed. As always, the event was a hugely enjoyable occasion, with lots of good company, interesting presentations and fine food.

The conference kicked off on Friday evening with a competition to build the best Rife machine, from a pile of assorted components. All of the creations worked as well as the genuine article, an example of which one member had brought along.

Saturday dawned fine, calm and clear (despite a forecast from Ken Ring that the weekend would be “mostly dry, cloudy, and annoyingly windy), and began with a history of magic from local magician Geoff Diggs, who explained why magicians have not come so far since the days they were rated only slightly above freak shows and the man who lifts steel anvils with his private parts. This was followed by a session on alternative medicine. After lunch came talks on psychic hotlines (see NZ Skeptic 84), creationism in Australasia, and a presentation on a recent documentary about big cats in Canterbury which was entertaining if not entirely persuasive. The day concluded with a discussion on the proposal to change the society’s official name from the New Zealand Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (Inc.) to the simpler and more familiar NZ Skeptics. Then it was time for dinner, and the presentation of the annual Bent Spoon and Bravo Awards (see p18). The day finished as it began, with a magician, this time Michael Woolf, who baffled all with his prediction of that day’s Christchurch Press headline several days in advance.

The name change proposal drew widespread support, and was duly actioned at the AGM the following morning. Full details in next issue. More illuminating presentations followed on economics, the dangers (or otherwise) of sodium in food, and the poor correlation between naturalness and goodness. Expect to see some of these items in the next few issues of the NZ Skeptic.

Then it was off to explore the wonders of the mainland. A highlight of the trip was Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World in Wanaka. Stuart, a skeptic of long standing, has a challenge to psychics-see the details at

But it’s good to be home. Now if only we could have avoided that flight.

Skeptics 2000…or should that be 6004?

Wherein intrepid ace reporter Vicki Hyde spills the beans on what Skeptics get up to at their annual meetings…

Perhaps Someone was trying to tell us something – why else would we end up with a flooded-out bridge and a very long bus ride courtesy of TranzRail, ending 40 minutes or so from Dunedin where we waited for an hour on the Palmerston rail platform for an errant train to eventually deliver us into the sunny south…..

Ah well, all was mended by increasing numbers of familiar faces as we got closer to the venue. At the risk of treading on toes, there’s an almost evangelical fervour in the aura given off by Skeptics en masse. People seem to be sooo appreciative of finding themselves in a room of like-minded people, whether they hail from farms, factories or ivory towers.

As always, the defining characteristic of the conference had to be the general good humour with which we encountered the many and varied aspects of human nature and the general sense of wonder at the world around us. That magic and mystery was helped along the first night by David Marks, one of our esteemed founders who had travelled back from the UK to be amongst us. David demonstrated that he was more than just a professor of psychology with the now-infamous spoon bending and mindreading routines that he learnt at Uri Geller’s knee.

As well as opening the conference, David was the last speaker, leading us through autobiographical notes as he revisited the heady days of directly challenging The Amazing Kreskin and Uri Geller. (Otago University clearly has a long-standing support role in skepticism as David was funded to go to Wellington to interview Geller). And here’s a factoid worth remembering, so beautifully explained by David that I’ve had to share it with everyone I’ve met lately:

“The chances are one-in-a-million. Isn’t that spooky??”

Assume 100 events make up an average day in your life: answering the phone, reading an item in the paper, hearing a song on the radio etc. (there are arguably many many more, but let’s keep the maths simple).

In one day, there are 4,950 possible pairings of those events.

In 10 years, you build up 18 million such pairings.

So in every decade, you should have 18 “one-in-a-million” things happen to you – almost two a year.

So it’s hardly surprising that you should hear from your childhood friend just after you’d come across an old photograph of you together; or that your dream of a car accident should come true.

It gets better – give yourself say a 10-day span for your “one-in-a-million” event (“and then the next week it happened…”). In ten years, you’ll have 182 spooky coincidences.

Isn’t maths fun?!

Saturday may have sounded a little academic for those reading the programme – a whole day of debate and discussion on creationism and evolution. If you’d come along prepared to laugh indulgently at those silly people in Kansas, Bill Peddie (HOD science at Mangere College) soon had you very aware that it is an issue for Kiwis too, with teachers in some schools facing ethical dilemmas in teaching a science curriculum which goes against the religious or cultural values of their students.

Barbara Benson (HOD Science and the Dunedin College of Education) pointed out that we do have a requirement for teaching the scientific method in our science curriculum. For those who hadn’t heard of it (and I hadn’t despite being in the relatively rare position of actually having read through most of the science curriculum documentation that passes my desk!), it comes under Making Sense of the Nature of Science and its Relationship to Technology. I suspect that it is quietly put to one side in most classrooms in preference for doing something easy like growing seeds or making hokey pokey….

We had our own tour through evolutionary science, with slides of Archaeopteryx from Warwick Don, real fossil whales courtesy of Ewan Fordyce and the skulls of far-distant ancestors of Jules Keiser. Anyone who wants to marvel at the wonders of creation should study how ear bones came about – you have to shake your head at the unplanned nature of it all. Or, if you were one of the lucky ones to brave the Dunedin downpour, you got to see the glories of the Geology Department basement. There is a story to be told in rock if we have but the chance (and the funding) to read it. Magnificent stuff.

For me, the one image which really sticks in my mind from the excellent morning’s presentations has to be an ancient set of footprints, captured forever in mudstone, of a mother and tiny child walking side by side one afternoon thousands and thousands of years ago. I’ll never walk my kids along the beach again without thinking of that small ancestor of ours and wondering what her life was like. There’s far more wonder in that than in any conceit of Creation.

Ian Plimer summed up the whole debate rather succinctly when he declared science to be a way of looking at the world around us, while religion looks at the world within us. Those who would try to warp one to fit the other are little short of fraudsters, whether they recognise it or no. The Young Earth creationists, who contend that the Earth really is only a few thousand years old, are intellectually dishonest -and many Christians would argue spiritually dishonest as well – in their attempts to twist facts and make God jump through hoops.

Ian is a consummate communicator, as anyone who went to the Saturday Dinner will tell you. A chance remark from Bob Brockie saw Ian stand up and give a totally extempore tour through the last 4.5 billion years of creation. It was a literal tour de force which left many of us awestruck at the sheer scope of Nature in all her diversity and perversity. Geologists see things on a different timescale to most of us and, for an all too brief hour, we were privileged to view the world through a different set of eyes.

Some eyes were more than a little misty that evening at the tribute we were able to pay our out-going (out-standing!) Secretary, Bernard Howard. Bernard has shepherded the Skeptics since its foundation, and his tact and diplomacy have been much appreciated by the more volatile committee members over the years, so it was wonderful to be able to thank him for all he has done for the organisation. We had arranged for a small addition to Bernard’s bookshelf – copies of classic works signed by leading skeptics on the international scene who were kind enough to record their appreciation for Bernard’s hard work over the years.

And on to Sunday with traditional Skeptic fare: urban legends, UFOs, mass delusions and encounters with Uri Geller. Robert Pollack provided the sobering thought that urban legends don’t die as a result of debunking, you have to wait until technology or society changes before they become obsolete.

Bill Ireland’s talk on the Kaikoura UFOs hit the mark when he suggested that the mysterious lights came from a squid boat and its reflection in the water. We all nodded enthusiastically in agreement when he showed us a slide of such a boat. And we all about-faced when he then went on to state that the two images in the UFO shot had to be 50 metres apart. It’s pleasing to see a cherished hypothesis successfully challenged and accepted as incorrect, something all too rare when investigating anomalous phenomena. Bill went on to build a convincing case that the images were more likely to be of a group of squid boats transferring catches to a mother vessel. By the time he’d looked at the optical effects, the radar, the boat placements and the MAF logs, he’d built up a pretty convincing case that when it looks like a duck, smells like a duck and then quacks, you gotta figure it would go nicely with orange sauce….

Of course, we would all agree with that wouldn’t we? After all, we’re members of a minority group rejected by mainstream society. Or so psychiatrist Richard Mullen might have suggested. Certainly his listing of group characteristics sounded rather familiar:

charismatic leader (ahem)
vulnerable followers (nooo, not another crystal please…)
peer pressure (surely you don’t believe in moas, Denis?)
isolation (name three Skeptics in your neighbourhood)
maverick intensity (I won’t name names but I’m sure you know who I mean…)

One quote Richard used is well worth remembering. It’s from Jonathan Swift:

“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

Demons, Drought and Bullfeathers

Pull up a chair and hearken to the tale of the Great Drought of ’94

“Skeptical?” piped up the old timer. “Of course I’m flaming skeptical, ye addlepated mudfish!

“Aye, but it wasn’t always so. I was a dour and solemn Presbyterian from birth onwards, and bar the whisky, gossip columns, loose floozies and muckraking, a devout one too! But all this changed suddenly in the winter of ’94, twenty years ago, when Auckland was struck by drought.

“It was a fearful time. The people were downcast and grimy, and dirt and dust grew on the city like a blight, until you could scarce tell a regional authority from a whorehouse, resulting in all manner of dire ruction and scandal, driving middle-management to the limits of despair and provoking the wrath of the waterblasting community.

“I sought spiritual comfort during the crisis by moving into the Protestant and Trumpet Pub, where I followed the drought’s progress by radio and word of mouth, buttressing myself against evil with 17 barrels of ale and religious austerities.

“It might have been a straightforward drought, but a gimp appeared in the scenario when the North Shore City Council imported a wizard from the pagan South Island wop wops to perform rain-making ceremonies. A simple measure, you might think, to divert the suffering masses from their woe.

“But plagues from heaven upon me if as soon as the news broke the blasted Christians didn’t arise in a spluttering fit of hellfire and damnation, claiming that such heretical pranks were proof that the country had gone to the Devil, and forthwith raised such an almighty hullaballoo of scriptural vociferation that by the time the wizard landed the Council had already taken heed of the Christian catchcall, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” and quelled the pitchfork and torch uprising by cancelling the performance.

“I was flabbergasted, and even the publican, Haggis McDonnagle, was visibly shaken, stating right then and there that he was considering changing the name of the pub to the Secular Humanist, for in all his born days he’d never seen a witch, wizard or soothsayer with any more flair for the miraculous than a card shark, and to ban such blarney was nothing short of idiocy multiplied.

“But the wizard wasn’t unemployed for long. The barbarian villages north of the city thought it madness to let an available wizard slip through their fingers and thereupon hired him, leaving the North Shore City Council looking like a prize-winning jackass.

“By now the Christians were nigh delirious with joyous condemnation. It wasn’t often they got a chance to go rabid over devil worship and they meant to make the most of it.

“For days the talkback lines ran hot with seething Born Agains, witnessing for the Lord and staking their souls on the blood of the Lamb that the whole country was in the grip of Satan, and unless we clung to the True Vine and threw ourselves down at the feet of the Lord, the Deceiver himself would drag us into the black pits of Hell wherein we would rot in unspeakable anguish until the end of time.

“By now it had been raining for several days. I tell you, if the cat wasn’t among the pigeons now it would never get much closer, for lo and behold — both sides claimed responsibility for the miracle!

“The Christians held that the extra energy they had to put in to counteract the forces of darkness brought forth the Mercy of God. And forsooth, the Presence was strong! The halls of the pentecostals were abuzz with the Unknown Tongue, and rumour has it even non-pentecostals were heard to glossolate, and I’d be prepared to bet money — I take that back, Haggis would be prepared to bet money — that the Graph of Visions and Apparitions showed an upward curve through this period.

“The wizard himself took no credit; the peasants did it for him. He departed secretly, as fast as possible, saying little but to remark that if fools were kiwifruit we could start a new export industry, or something to that effect, for between the jet engines, caterwauling Christians and the Morris dancers it was hard to hear much of anything, and all told the whole dadblanged circus was such an unearthly blaze of flailing sticks and Biblical injunctions that objective observation may not even be applicable in this case.

“Me and Haggis drank a tragic amount of whisky thinking about these things and ten days later resolved, as witnessed by Mrs McDonnagle, to suspend judgement on the Tree of the Unseen until it yielded a visible persimmon; arguing that invisible anti-persimmons didn’t constitute enough evidence to lynch tarot card readers.

“As I say, it was many years ago and the details are hazy; but by crikey, I’ve been on the alert ever since. So hark ye doorknocking gospelizer — if you or any other evangelical hot-air agent ever darkens my front porch again, I’ll flatten your cursed head with a spade.”

Police Use of Psychics

A detective with long experience in tracing missing persons gave the 1993 Skeptics Conference the word on how useful psychics are in police work.

During the last 25 years a number of police investigations have gained prominence in the news media due to the disappearance (sometimes permanently) of a victim. In the 1970s there were names like Jennifer Beard (West Coast), Mona Blades (Taupo), Gail McFadyen (Wellington); in the ’80s Yvonne Bennett (Auckland), Kirsa Jensen and Teresa Cormack (Napier), Maxine Walker (Auckland); in the ’90s the Swedish tourists (Coromandel), Dahlberg (Nelson), Cruickshanks (Lake Wakatipu), and Mavis Harris (Dunedin).

Many of these cases have become well known, and in some of them the bodies remain to this day unrecovered. The well-known “psychic,” Doris Stokes, claims in one of her books to have assisted the police to recover the body of Mona Blades, though the police themselves have no knowledge of this. Since the detective inspector who handled this particular investigation died some years ago,we can speculate that the psychic may have passed the information as to the whereabouts of the body on to him direct — in some other world!

In a number of these cases when the media have built up psychic speculation on the whereabouts of the missing persons, this has attracted the attention and proper scorn of the Skeptics Society.

My own personal involvement in such cases included Gail McFadyen who, despite psychic suggestion, was located (after a week) by routine police searching, and with the disappearance of Kirsa Jensen at Napier in September 1983. Having been the officer in charge of that investigation, I was in a position to review all of the information that came forward during the course of the inquiry. Thousands of people were seen by the police, many of them providing useful information that assisted the investigation. To this day the remains of Kirsa Jensen have never been found.

Unhelpful Information

On reviewing the investigation about six months after the disappearance, the police found that several hundred offers of assistance and advice had been made by people who were not actually witnesses to any incidents at all, and thus their information became part of a “miscellaneous file”. As it transpired, two-thirds of this information came from psychics, clairvoyants and dreamers and did not advance the investigation one bit. Most of the information was not specific as to any area where a body might be located, but some was quite graphic in detail and disturbing by its very nature.

In more recent times, the disappearance of Amber-Lee Cruickshanks, a 2-year-old child, near Lake Wakatipu, brought a further flood of assistance from those inclined to the paranormal. An officer working on the investigation commented that he had received “letters from clairvoyants, card readers, star watchers, prayer groups, crystal readers, palm readers, spiritualists, people who have visions, premonitions and total lunatics”. None of them assisted the search.

The media compounded the situation with a television programme actually taking a psychic to the scene of the disappearance. It should be noted though, that in this particular case the victim’s mother seemed to place some reliance on the use of this type of person, she having consulted psychics in the past.

Once again, the case was not advanced at all by the intervention of such people, and indeed rarely was any specific information provided. This is not uncommon, and I would guess that in 95% of the situations, only vague suggestions or descriptions are provided as to the whereabouts of the missing person, such as remarking that they will be found near water or trees. Indeed I would go further and predict myself that around 90% of people who go missing in New Zealand will be found near trees or water — and I have no special powers!

If people with some psychic ability really were helpful, then they would be of great assistance to the police. We could employ them on an “as required” basis and use them to supplement our dog section, search and rescue squad, and other investigators. Thus assisted, the police could go straight to the victim or missing person without the extensive and expensive investigations and searches that now take place.

The reality is, however, that psychics provide no assistance whatsoever and to the best of my knowledge, never have. I have canvassed all of the police districts in New Zealand and no one has been able to provide details which confirm accurate predictions. Occasionally instances have seemed to come close, but on detailed examination have proved negative — that is, the body was found by some normal means and the location may have accidentally coincided with some “psychic suggestion”.

With the thousands of opportunities that offer themselves and the numerous pieces of information provided by psychics, sooner or later there has got to be a discovery that could be attributed to psychic intervention. I suggest this will be nothing more than coincidence.

Why Listen to Them?

Do the police attach any significance to psychics’ submissions, or appear to be doing so?

I believe that New Zealand is unique in the world because nearly every homicide case is solved, and almost all missing people are found. This is due in large part to public support. We cannot invite such support on one hand and then on the other dismiss it.

It is possible, too, that a genuine witness, after pondering for some time on what they have seen, may become concerned as to whether they have actually seen an event or just dreamt it. As well, a witness may elect, for whatever reason, to pass genuine information through a third party or medium (in whatever sense of the word), or finally the person passing on some dream or psychic inspiration to the police may in fact be the offender and be seeking a way to pass that on to the authorities in some roundabout way.

It is possible that some police officers, with no previous experience of dealing with psychics, could be inclined to accept them at first sight. Serious involvement with such people soon changes this belief. It is necessary, though, that the police listen to all of the suggestions that are made and act as they consider appropriate on the information they receive.

So much for the New Zealand experience. One reads of psychics being used overseas to assist the police, but any article that I have read suggests such assistance is as useless there as it is here.

A few years ago the Los Angeles Police Department conducted an experiment using 12 psychics, two-thirds of whom were “professional” (ie, earned their living by this means), to determine whether they could solve crimes. Four real crimes were examined, two that had been solved and two that remained unsolved. Some 20 to 30 key indicators were developed for each incident and the psychics were asked to examine an exhibit and speculate on the crime itself. At best they were able to guess correctly five or six of the indicators, and some got none at all right. The only degree of accuracy they achieved was in guessing the sex of the victim (or where it was known, the suspect) — they were correct on half of the occasions!
“Evaluation of the Use of Psychics in the Investigation of Major Crimes,” Reiser, Ludwig, Saxe and Wagner, Journal of Police Science and Administration, March 1979.)

A second experiment was later conducted using psychics and as well control groups of students and detectives. At the conclusion of the research, the researchers stated that “the data provided no support for the theory that psychics could produce investigatively useful information. In addition, the data failed to show that psychics could produce any information relating to the cases beyond a chance level of expectancy”.
“Comparison of Psychics, Detectives and Students in the Investigation of Major Crimes,” by Clyver and Reiser.

It is my view that psychics, dreamers, clairvoyants and the like have not provided any material assistance whatsoever to the police in New Zealand, and that accords with overseas research. Suggestions are certainly received, but they are rarely specific and often they raise false hopes in the minds of victims’ families.

The results of psychic intervention never stand up to test. There may occasionally be situations when it appears that some such suggestion has been useful, but that is not surprising in light of the volume of suggestions put forward for there must eventually be some coincidence.

Psychics and clairvoyants would be better off concentrating on Lotto numbers and race horse winners so that the profits thereby gained could be used to develop their science further and thus convince my colleagues and me of their ability.

Once When My Back Was Crook

I was struggling with the vacuum hose to reach an awkward corner of the kitchen.

“What’s wrong? Afraid to bend your back?” my wife asked. I felt a little pain and it didn’t go away. It got worse, seemed to improve for a day, stayed barely tolerable for a week, and then became intense.

It spread, and by the following weekend I was virtually immobile — unable to roll over in bed, racked with unbearable pain every time I moved. I finally phoned Skeptic Barrie Tait, who agreed to see me the next morning. My panic was dictated by an important conference I had to attend on Monday morning in Wellington. Things were looking bleak.

Dr Tait was the soul of courtesy and good-humoured professionalism. He’s the head of Musculoskeletal Medicine at Christchurch Hospital. I bragged about that. People always want to convince everyone — especially themselves — that their doctor is a genius.

Finally, after a gentle, thorough and obviously expert examination, Barrie took the crucial first step on the road to my recovery — he gave my disease a name.

“It’s lumbar dysfunction,” he said with quiet authority. I tried to translate from the Latin and kept coming up with something that seemed to mean “back not working too well.” What could he do for it, I asked eagerly.

“Nothing,” he said. Take pain killers and anti-inflammatories and your back will gradually heal itself. There was no specific medicine or treatment. I should go ahead and walk as much as possible.

Which is what I did. I stopped by the chemist and, by the time I was limping up to Victoria University things were improving. As the hours wore on, my back got better and better, and at home later that evening I was virtually able to turn cartwheels. The pain was gone. After over two weeks of agony, my tortured back was miraculously “cured”.

Over the years, the Skeptics have been relatively unsuccessful in altering the general public credulousness toward alternative medicine. In light of my experience, it’s not hard to see why.

What if Barrie had twirled a pendulum over me, said a mantra, given me chiropractic manipulation, a homeopathic preparation, or analysed my irises? And what if — like most desperate, pain-wracked patients — I’d wanted to believe it?

Barrie would have had a convert for life. The psychological evidence of my spectacular “cure”, coming as it did after weeks of suffering, was overwhelming. Who cares what the Skeptics think about alternative medicine when sufferers are similarly “cured” on a daily basis by chiropractors and other healers?

And it’s not just back pain that has spontaneous remission, but countless other afflictions. This — combined with the fact that people want to believe in their healer, orthodox or quack — means there will always be an army of satisfied customers ready to testify that some placebo cured them after all the marvels of scientific medicine had failed.

Having said all that, and accepting it at a rational level, I still in my heart believe Barrie Tait is a medical genius. I can’t help it. You see, once when my back was crook…