If meetings really lower IQ…

… then there’s little hope for the world, says Alison Campbell, who attends far too many meetings. Fortunately however, that may not be the case.

I attend a lot of meetings; that’s the nature of my job. Recently the Dean came in and waved the front section of the NZ Herald under my nose. “Look,” he said, “all those meetings are really bad for you.” Scenting a way of getting out of them, I grabbed the paper and found the article in question (syndicated from the UK paper, The Telegraph).

“Attending meetings lowers your IQ,” cried the headline, and the article goes on to say that:

“[the] performance of people in IQ tests after meetings is significantly lower than if they are left on their own, with women more likely to perform worse than men.”

The story is based on a press release about research carried out at Virginia Tech’s Carilion Institute. And this showed that the research outcomes were more nuanced and more complex than the newspaper story would have it. The research found that small-group dynamics – such as jury deliberations, collective bargaining sessions, and cocktail parties – can alter the expression of IQ in some susceptible people (Kishida et al. 2012).

In other words, meetings don’t necessarily lower your baseline IQ. What they may do is change how you express that IQ, particularly if you’re susceptible to peer pressure. The internal urge to conform can result in people making decisions as part of a group that they might not have made on their own, especially if they have concerns about their status in that group. (As the Virginia Tech release notes, this was shown to good effect in the superb film 12 Angry Men, with Henry Fonda leading a stellar cast.)

The researchers placed study participants in groups of five and studied their brain activity (using MRI scans) while the groups were engaged in various tasks. While the groups were working they were also given information about the intellectual status of group members, based on their relative performance on those cognitive tasks. (There’s a tendency for people to place great store on relative measures of IQ, and where they personally sit on the scale.) And afterwards, when participants were divided on the basis of their performance into high- and low-performing groups before their IQs were measured again, they were found to differ quite signficantly despite the fact that all participants had statistically similar baseline IQs when tested at the beginning of the study.

“Our results suggest that individuals express diminished cognitive capacity in small groups, an effect that is exacerbated by perceived lower status within the group and correlated with specific neurobehavioural responses. The impact these reactions have on intergroup divisions and conflict resolution requires further investigation, but suggests that low-status groups may develop diminished capacity to mitigate conflict using non-violent means.”

As I said, this is altogether more nuanced, more complex, and much more interesting than the news story that caught the boss’s eye. I suspect I’ll be attending meetings for a while yet.

K.T.Kishida, D.Yang, K.Hunter Quartz, S.R.Quartz and R.Montague (2012) Phil.Trans.R.Soc.B 367(1589): 704-716.

Using pseudoscience to teach science

There may indeed be a place for creationism in the science classroom, but not the way the creationists want. This article is based on a presentation to the 2011 NZ Skeptics Conference.

We live in a time when science features large in our lives, probably more so than ever before. It’s important that people have at least some understanding of how science works, not least so that they can make informed decisions when aspects of science impinge on them. Yet this is also a time when pseudoscience seem to be on the increase. Some would argue that we simply ignore it. I suggest that we put it to good use and use pseudoscience to help teach about the nature of science – something that Jane Young has done in her excellent book The Uncertainty of it All: Understanding the Nature of Science.

The New Zealand Curriculum (MoE, 2007) makes it clear that there’s more to studying science than simply accumulating facts:

Science is a way of investigating, understanding, and explaining our natural, physical world and the wider universe. It involves generating and testing ideas, gathering evidence – including by making observations, carrying out investigations and modeling, and communicating and debating with others – in order to develop scientific knowledge, understanding and explanations (ibid., p28).

In other words, studying science also involves learning about the nature of science: that it’s a process as much as, or more than, a set of facts. Pseudoscience offers a lens through which to approach this.

Thus, students should be being encouraged to think about how valid, and how reliable, particular statements may be. They should learn about the process of peer review: whether a particular claim has been presented for peer review; who reviewed it; where it was published. There’s a big difference between information that’s been tested and reviewed, and information (or misinformation) that simply represents a particular point of view and is promoted via the popular press. Think ‘cold fusion’, the claim that nuclear fusion could be achieved in the lab at room temperatures. It was trumpeted to the world by press release, but subsequently debunked as other researchers tried, and failed, to duplicate its findings.

A related concept here is that there’s a hierarchy of journals, with publications like Science at the top and Medical Hypotheses at the other end of the spectrum. Papers submitted to Science are subject to stringent peer review processes – and many don’t make the grade – while Medical Hypotheses seems to accept submissions uncritically, with minimal review, for example a paper suggesting that drinking cows’ milk would raise odds of breast cancer due to hormone levels in milk – despite the fact that the actual data on hormone titres didn’t support this.

This should help our students develop the sort of critical thinking skills that they need to make sense of the cornucopia of information that is the internet. Viewing a particular site, they should be able to ask – and answer! – questions about the source of the information they’re finding, whether or not it’s been subject to peer review (you could argue that the internet is an excellent ‘venue’ for peer review but all too often it’s simply self-referential), how it fits into our existing scientific knowledge, and whether we need to know anything else about the data or its source.

An excellent example that could lead to discussion around both evolution and experimental design, in addition to the nature of science, is the on-line article Darwin at the drugstore: testing the biological fitness of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (Gillen & Anderson, 2008). The researchers wished to test the concept that a mutation conferring antibiotic resistance rendered the bacteria possessing it less ‘fit’ than those lacking it. (There is an energy cost to bacteria in producing any protein, but whether this renders them less fit – in the Darwinian sense – is entirely dependent on context.)

The researchers used two populations of the bacterium Serratia marcescens: an ampicillin-resistant lab-grown strain, which produces white colonies, and a pink, non-resistant (‘wild-type’) population obtained from pond water. ‘Fitness’ was defined as “growth rate and colony ‘robustness’ in minimal media”. After 12 hours’ incubation the two populations showed no difference in growth on normal lab media (though there were differences between four and six hours), but the wild-type strain did better on minimal media. It is hard to judge whether the difference was of any statistical significance as the paper’s graphs lack error bars and there are no tables showing the results of statistical comparisons – nonetheless, the authors describe the differences in growth as ‘significant’.

Their conclusion? Antibiotic resistance did not enhance the fitness of Serratia marcescens:

… wild-type [S.marcescens] has a significant fitness advantage over the mutant strains due to its growth rate and colony size. Therefore, it can be argued that ampicillin resistance mutations reduce the growth rate and therefore the general biological fitness of S.marcescens. This study concurs with Anderson (2005) that while mutations providing antibiotic resistance may be beneficial in certain, specific, environments, they often come at the expense of pre-existing function, and thus do not provide a mechanism for macroevolution (Gillen & Anderson, 2008).


Let’s take the opportunity to apply some critical thinking to this paper. Students will all be familiar with the concept of a fair test, so they’ll probably recognise fairly quickly that such a test was not performed in this case: the researchers were not comparing apples with apples. When one strain of the test organism is lab-bred and not only antibiotic-resistant but forms different-coloured colonies from the pond-dwelling wild-type, there are a lot of different variables in play, not just the one whose effects are supposedly being examined.

In addition, and more tellingly, the experiment did not test the fitness of the antibiotic-resistance gene in the environment where it might convey an advantage. The two Serratia marcescens strains were not grown in media containing ampicillin! Evolutionary biology actually predicts that the resistant strain would be at a disadvantage in minimal media, because it’s using energy to express a gene that provides no benefit in that environment, so will likely be short of energy for other cellular processes. (And, as I commented earlier, the data do not show any significant differences between the two bacterial strains.)

What about the authors’ affiliations, and where was the paper published? Both authors work at Liberty University, a private faith-based institution with strong creationist leanings. And the article is an on-line publication in the ‘Answers in Depth’ section of the website of Answers in Genesis (a young-earth creationist organisation) – not in a mainstream peer-reviewed science journal. This does suggest that a priori assumptions may have coloured the experimental design.

Other clues

It may also help for students to learn about other ways to recognise ‘bogus’ science, something I’ve blogged about previously (see Bioblog – seven signs of bogus science). One clue is where information is presented via the popular media (where ‘popular media’ includes websites), rather than offered up for peer review, and students should be asking, why is this happening?

The presence of conspiracy theories is another warning sign. Were the twin towers brought down by terrorists, or by the US government itself? Is the US government deliberately suppressing knowledge of a cure for cancer? Is vaccination really for the good of our health or the result of a conspiracy between government and ‘big pharma’ to make us all sick so that pharmaceutical companies can make more money selling products to help us get better?

“My final conclusion after 40 years or more in this business is that the unofficial policy of the World Health Organisation and the unofficial policy of Save the Children’s Fund and almost all those organisations is one of murder and genocide. They want to make it appear as if they are saving these kids, but in actual fact they don’t.” (Dr A. Kalokerinos, quoted on a range of anti-vaccination websites.)

Conspiracy theorists will often use the argument from authority, almost in the same breath. It’s easy to pull together a list of names, with PhD or MD after them, to support an argument (eg palaeontologist Vera Scheiber on vaccines). Students could be given such a list and encouraged to ask, what is the field of expertise of these ‘experts’? For example, a mailing to New Zealand schools by a group called “Scientists Anonymous” offered an article purporting to support ‘intelligent design’ rather than an evolutionary explanation for a feature of neuroanatomy, authored by a Dr Jerry Bergman. However, a quick search indicates that Dr Bergman has made no recent contributions to the scientific literature in this field, but has published a number of articles with a creationist slant, so he cannot really be regarded as an expert authority in this particular area. Similarly, it is well worth reviewing the credentials of many anti-vaccination ‘experts’ – the fact that someone has a PhD by itself is irrelevant; the discipline in which that degree was gained, is important. (Observant students may also wonder why the originators of the mailout feel it necessary to remain anonymous…)

Students also need to know the difference between anecdote and data. Humans are pattern-seeking animals and we do have a tendency to see non-existent correlations where in fact we are looking at coincidences. For example, a child may develop a fever a day after receiving a vaccination. But without knowing how many non-vaccinated children also developed a fever on that particular day, it’s not actually possible to say that there’s a causal link between the two.

A question of balance

Another important message for students is that there are not always two equal sides to every argument, notwithstanding the catch cry of “teach the controversy!” This is an area where the media, with their tendency to allot equal time to each side for the sake of ‘fairness’, are not helping. Balance is all very well, but not without due cause. So, apply scientific thinking – say, to claims for the health benefits of sodium bicarbonate as a cure for that fungal-based cancer (A HREF=”http://www.curenaturalicancro.com”>www.curenaturalicancro.com). Its purveyors make quite specific claims concerning health and well-being – drinking sodium bicarbonate will cure cancer and other ailments by “alkalizing” your tissues, thus countering the effects of excess acidity! How would you test those claims of efficacy? What are the mechanisms by which drinking sodium bicarbonate (or for some reason lemon juice!) – or indeed any other alternative health product – is supposed to have its effects? (Claims that a ‘remedy’ works through mechanisms as yet unknown to science don’t address this question, but in addition, they presuppose that it does actually work.) In the new Academic Standards there’s a standard on homeostasis, so students could look at the mechanisms by which the body maintains a steady state in regard to pH.

If students can learn to apply these tools to questions of science and pseudoscience, they’ll be well equipped to find their way through the maze of conflicting information that the modern world presents, regardless of whether they go on to further study in the sciences.

References

Sensing Murder: overtaken by events

The discovery of a long-missing body offers a rare chance to put the psychic stars of Sensing Murder to the test.

On Saturday 19 May 2012 the remains of Auckland teenager Jane Furlong were found in sand dunes at Port Waikato’s Sunset Beach.

Jane was only 17 went she went missing while working as a prostitute on Karangahape Rd in central Auckland, on the night of 26 May 1993. While the discovery gives her friends and family a chance to say farewell, mystery still surrounds her disappearance, and her killer remains at large.

The Jane Furlong case was the subject of the sixth episode of the second season of the television programme Sensing Murder, which screened in New Zealand on 9 October 2007. On the programme, two ‘psychics’, Australian Deb Webber and New Zealander Kelvin Cruickshank, attempted to contact Jane’s spirit and uncover fresh evidence about the case. They made specific and falsifiable claims about where the body was hidden; the discovery of Jane’s remains provides a rare opportunity to assess the information this pair came up with.

The programme’s narrator, New Zealand-born Australian actress Rebecca Gibney, tells us Webber and Cruickshank were both filmed non-stop for a day, kept separate and under constant supervision. The only information they were provided with was a photo of Jane, which both claimed they didn’t look at until they had come up with (very accurate) physical descriptions, including age (though both picked her as 16), ethnicity, even hairstyle. Both picked that she worked as a prostitute and dressed accordingly, was academically bright but had trouble at school. Webber even got the name ‘Jayne’, after having the name handed to her on a piece of paper, face down – we are told that Jane changed the spelling in her teens. (One has to ask whether the name was written in Webber’s presence: stage mentalists are able to interpret writing or drawing by watching the movements of the top of the pen, a technique known as pencil reading.(

Cruickshank gets that she had two siblings, that there was a Judy in the family (her mother’s name was Judith), and that she had a 19-year-old boyfriend, correctly described by Webber as rough-looking with tattoos. Later, both lead the camera crew (independently on separate nights) to the precise point on Karangahape Rd where Jane plied her trade.

On the face of it, this is amazing. If we have been given a fair representation of events there would seem little doubt that these two have genuine psychic ability. But there are other possibilities. One is that Webber and Cruickshank have been provided with all the information from the start. Another is that Webber and Cruickshank are filmed for a combined total of perhaps 16 hours, of which less than 30 minutes ends up on the screen, so there is plenty of opportunity for selective editing. Both are skilled cold readers (I have attended one of Cruickshank’s mediumship shows and can attest to his ability) , and we are told by Gibney that “only correct statements are confirmed during the readings”. So they are given feedback on how they’re doing, and over the course of the day’s filming are able to home in on correct details.

But could they really be psychic? On the evidence from this early part of the show it’s a possibility but we can’t be sure, because all of this information could have been obtained by non-psychic means.

However Cruickshank and Webber go on to give details about where Jane’s body was hidden. In 2007 nobody knew where that was, but now we do. So let’s look at a transcription of the bits of the show relating to that and see how well they did. ‘KC’ is Kelvin Cruickshank, ‘RG’ is Rebecca Gibney, and ‘DW’ is Deb Webber. Quotes are complete; three dots denote a pause, not an ellipsis.

KC: Just wanted to say dump or dumped. How are you covered? She’s saying to me I’m so covered up it’s not funny. She says they did a jolly good job of covering me up. Lots of dirt, lots of puddles, lots of water, I can hear dripping, I can hear hammers, even jack hammers, the concrete … jrr jrr jrr jrr. You know the… the sound of building.

[DW gives unverified details about the murderer.]

KC: Church, cemetery, where you taking me girlfriend? I feel like she’s hidden. She said, I just asked her were you moved from where you were killed? She shook her head … So … So the possibility at the time of her passing there may have been a building in dis…mount, which means being broken down and replaced ’cause things have changed since that sort of scenario … the surroundings have all changed and so I can’t make out whether I’m in or out.

[DW and KC say Jane is still missing.]

RG: Both psychics have picked up that Jane’s body is missing. Deb is given a map of Auckland and asked to identify areas that are significant to the case.

DW: She’s saying to me you don’t get much work out of the city. Where are you working? Yeah work? That’s what I’m looking for.

RG: Deb is indicating the area where Jane worked.

DW: Do you go over a bridge or something to get to her? ‘Cause she keeps taking me something over a bridge. Something’s happening around in this area, I don’t know what it is though.

RG: Deb is pointing at the Auckland Domain, a large park area near the central city.

DW: Still again, it’s like part of her doesn’t want to be found.

KW: She’s not outside of the city, she’s inside the city, she’s making reference to a park… She’s giving me the images of the hospital and then the museum and then she brings me back over to the university. Little bit of a triangle.

RG: Kelvin is also given a map.

KC: There’s the university, Domain, the hospital, where’s that? Right here … so … if we put two and two together like, there’s the triangle of the university like that, it sort of looks like this [makes a triangle with hands over the map].

RG: Significantly at the center of Kelvin’s triangle lies the Auckland Domain. The same park area identified by Deb.

KW: Honestly, I’m going to say this to you again, ’cause she’s talking about it being right underneath the noses of where she was last seen, it’s not far from there. She keeps saying I was not removed from the city. So wherever that area is, we’d probably need to locate it. Have a scout around with it, try and work with her a little bit more.

[DW and KC on separate evenings go to Jane’s “patch” on Karangahape Rd.]

DW: I think this is where she was last seen. And she keeps showing me the image of the car, coming in. It’s taken off, it’s turning around, and headed back down out that way.

RG: Deb is pointing in the direction of the Auckland Domain.


[DW says Jane knew something was not right, KC continues to explore Karangahape Rd.]

RG: Meanwhile Deb asks Jane’s spirit to show her where she was killed. She directs the crew to drive over the Grafton Bridge.

DW: She was on this road. I keep asking her when did he get violent with you and she said he was creepy anyway, right from the beginning. But it’s when they got down the road a bit, that’s when he started.

RG: Kelvin has reached the old Symonds St cemetery.

KC: Why have you brought me here girl? Definitely been pulled here, I don’t know why. I’ve brought these with me just in case, try and link in with her [Holds up bracelets(?)].

DW: Left.

RG: Deb heads into the Auckland Domain, the area both she and Kelvin identified on the map as being significant to the case.

DW: Oh, this is a bit … She’s definitely been in here before. She’s been in here. No, I think a few times but she’s definitely been in here with him. It’s really weird, I don’t think she came out the other side of it.

RG: Just when it seems Deb is about to make a breakthrough, Jane closes down on her.

DW: Getting all that stuff I got at the beginning, about the anger and the bitterness. You know, no one really cares if she gets found or not, she feels. She’s not connecting with her body, she doesn’t care. Show me, go show me Jayne. It’s like, the only thing I keep getting is that she’s lost, so until her soul’s ready to acknowledge it, it’s lost. Shock does that to a soul. Well, I can certainly say this, it’s not a very pleasant place to be at night, in here. Too much goes on in here.

RG: At the cemetery Jane is shutting down on Kelvin too.

KC: I’m getting close to a lot of people man, but this one I’m struggling with. She’s very very hard to get that door open. She comes in, she gives me a little bit, and she disappears, she comes in and gives me a little bit more and disappears, and that’s been paramount as you’ve been watching it all night. Didn’t have much in life and everything I did have was taken from me. What does it matter where I am. What does anyone care?

Next, we are introduced to Duncan Holland of Corporate Risks, an investigation and security consultancy, who is described as a former detective leading a team of investigators. He is solid-looking, authoritative, and speaks of the police and “we” in close conjunction. Many viewers would probably get the impression he is a policeman. Below are excerpts of his concluding commentary. Ellipses in this transcript indicate segments not relevant to the body’s location, or where clips of DW and KC had been inserted for dramatic or illustrative purposes.

Both psychics identified the Auckland Domain as being significant. … To get to the Auckland Domain from K Road where Jane worked the car would have driven past the Symonds St cemetery and the Grafton Bridge. … Psychic Deb Webber led the crew to the Auckland Domain, the same area she and Kelvin identified on the map. … The Auckland Domain, which is less than five minutes drive from K Road has always been a popular spot for sex workers to take clients; it is also one of the most dangerous spots. Numerous rapes and attacks on prostitutes have taken place in the domain. The New Zealand Prostitutes collective warns sex workers not to travel too far out of the city with clients. …

It is quite likely Jane went with her killer to the Auckland Domain, she may have been murdered and possibly even buried there. …

If the psychics are correct and Jane’s body was well covered, it is quite feasible that her body could be hidden in the domain and remain undetected for 14 years. The Auckland Domain covers 75 ha of land, some of it rough and inaccessible terrain and bush. In 1995 the body of murdered vagrant Betty Marusich was found in dense bush in the Auckland Domain; no attempt was made to cover or bury her yet it still took two weeks for her body to be found.

Kelvin presented another interesting scenario. … During our investigations we were approached by an anonymous source who told us that Jane’s body had been buried in concrete. Police confirmed they had investigated this theory but were unable to find any evidence. New Zealand police deal in factual evidence but are open to all sources of information. The psychics have revealed potential lines of inquiry which we believe warrant further investigation in the hunt for Jane Furlong’s body and her killer.

So there you have it. Both Webber and Cruickshank identify the same general area as the location of Jane’s remains, but then Jane inconveniently (or perhaps not) shuts down on them. Note that Cruickshank actually gives two alternatives: the Symonds St cemetery and a construction site, location unspecified. Interestingly Holland says there had been a tip-off that Jane had been buried in concrete.

Cruickshank and Webber also had plenty to say about the killer, though as the crime remains unsolved it’s impossible to assess this material. Much of it was contradictory, though the show glosses over this – Cruickshank indicated a motorcycle gang and “payback” being involved (Jane was due to testify in an assault case involving a gang), while Webber gave details about a balding businessman with an accent.

Was there collusion between Webber and Cruickshank for them both to pick locations that were so close together? Not necessarily. Both had somehow deduced she was a Karangahape Rd prostitute (most likely by cold reading their interviewers; we can now be fairly sure neither has any psychic ability), and the likeliest place for the body to be hidden would be the closest piece of rough ground – the Grafton Gully/Auckland Domain area.

In any case, Jane’s remains were more than 80 km away, at Port Waikato. The pattern is clear: Webber and Cruickshank can come up with amazingly accurate information if that information is already known and if they are provided with feedback, although we have no way of knowing how many of their misses were edited from the many hours of filmed footage. But when new information that was not previously available comes to light, their pronouncements can be seen for the fantasies they are.

Could coconut oil be an option for treating Alzheimer’s?

A new alternative treatment for Alzheimer’s doing the rounds seems to be based on a misunderstanding of the underlying science.
The title of this piece is a question posed by the ‘health correspondent’* in one of our local rags. It was inspired by a video doing the rounds on the internet of an American doctor who is using coconut oil to treat her husband’s Alzheimer’s. The doctor’s name is Mary Newport and she also has a book out: Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was a Cure? The Story of Ketones.
So what are ketones and could coconut oil be the new wonder cure for Alzheimer’s? Normally carbohydrates in the diet are converted into glucose which is then used by the body as fuel. However, when facing starvation, the body can burn fats in place of carbohydrates. The liver converts the fats into ketones which can be used in place of glucose. Where it gets interesting is that a particular high-fat diet is being used to successfully treat another brain disease – epilepsy. The ketogenic diet is a strictly controlled, high-fat, adequate protein, low-carbohydrate diet, which has been shown in numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies to be effective for controlling seizures in the group of children that don’t respond to medical treatment (so-called drug resistant epilepsy). Unfortunately studies have shown that it is less effective in adults.

So the ketogenic diet is more than just supplementing the diet with coconut oil. And it isn’t without side effects either, which can include weight loss, kidney stones, and constipation. While these are not insurmountable, the diet can be fatal for people with genetic disorders of fat metabolism. People like these will not be able to use the fats provided in the diet and if insufficient protein and carbohydrate are given, they will start breaking down their own protein stores for fuel, which can lead to coma and death.

So what about ketones and Alzheimer’s? Well it turns out that there are a number of studies looking at raising ketone levels in people with mild to moderate late onset Alzheimer’s. And it looks like they are doing it without the strict ketogenic diet. In a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicentre trial1, subjects were given a daily drink of a ketogenic compound called AC-1202 on top of their normal diets (and prescribed Alzheimer’s medication), and assessed for changes in cognitive performance.

But there was also a little twist to this story. One of the major risk factors for late onset Alzheimer’s is possession of one or more copies of the epsilon 4 variant of the apolipoprotein E gene (APOE4). The more copies of APOE4 you have, the higher your risk of developing the disease. So did AC-1202 improve cognitive performance? Yes, but only for people who didn’t carry any copies of APOE4. What this means is that your genes affect whether or not you respond to ketones. Interestingly, about 10 percent of subjects got a little better without any treatment too.

So what is AC-1202? It is NeoBee 895®, a common food ingredient made using glycerin from vegetable oil and fatty acids from, you guessed it… coconut oil! Although palm kernel oil is also often used. But before you race off to check your APOE4-type and stock up on coconut oil, let’s return to Mary Newport and her husband for a moment. Mary blogs2 about their life with Alzheimer’s, and despite being on coconut oil since 2008, all is not rosy. So if you started this article thinking that adding a little coconut oil to your diet would be the answer, I’m sorry to disappoint you. As Ben Goldacre would say, I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that!

*A Vitamin and supplement peddler, so I am always a little sceptical of his claims !

  1. Henderson ST, Poirier J (2011). BMC Medical Genetics. 12:137.

  2. coconutketones.blogspot.co.nz

Battling the Bands

Gold takes local action against PowerBalance, with encouraging results.

PowerBalance Bands are hideously expensive silicon rubber wristbands with a mylar hologram in them. PowerBalance, an American company, made a killing with these after convincing some popular sports personalities that they had the ability to improve their strength and performance. They achieved this by working “with the body’s natural energy field”. They were shut down in Australia due to the work of a number of people, including Richard Saunders of the Skeptic Zone podcast who did a great informal double blind test with the Today Tonight show and the local distributor1.

After this happened I found that these were all over the place on TradeMe. From memory there were on average 30+ listings for these at any given time. This was when I discovered something quite handy on TradeMe. The site has a Community Watch feature that allows you to report listings for all sorts of reasons. These are checked and the item is taken down if the complaint stands up. With the recent takedown of PowerBalance in Australia it wasn’t hard to convince TradeMe to remove the listings. Within a week the average number of listings was around 3-4 and I would hammer these every few days to keep the number low. As I write there are 10 listings if you search for “power balance bands” on TradeMe. I’ll submit complaints about these after I get this article off.

Recently a local skeptic, who we’ll refer to as Bob, started posting a listing which was a copy of the Corrective Notice from the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission2 with a description that explained exactly what PowerBalance bands are, how they fool you into thinking there is an effect (they use a 70-year-old stage magician’s trick that relies on applied kinesiology), and that any proceeds from the sale of the Notice would go to the NZ Skeptics Society as a donation. Despite being very clear about the fact that the product for sale is a printout of the Corrective Notice3 which PowerBalance were ordered to post on their site, the member has been instructed to no longer post these listings.

The Solution? Placebo Bands. The Skeptic Bros4 are a couple of guys from Australia who tracked down a manufacturer for these silicon bands, scraped the money together, had a Placebo Band design made up, ordered the first 1000 (minimum order) and crossed their fingers. The bands sold well. Bob currently has a supply of these that are being listed on TradeMe, so you’ll be able to get your own should you want one. Proceeds (after covering costs) will be donated to the NZ Skeptics Society.

The American company is still active, although they have also recently filed for Chapter 115.

  1. YouTube: goo.gl/dN1i8
  2. TGA ruling: goo.gl/bMVEp
  3. Retraction notice: goo.gl/j8mw4
  4. The Skeptic Bros: goo.gl/NUGWU
  5. Google News: goo.gl/o4XWx

Avoiding the trap of belief-dependant realism

The Believing Brain: how we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths by Michael Shermer. Times books, New York. 386pp. ISBN 978-0-8050-9125-0. Reviewed by Martin Wallace.

Aa a member of NZ Skeptics I have become increasingly aware of the huge and ever-growing list of unsubstantiated beliefs in our society, including religion, alternative medicine, alien abductions, ESP, flying saucers, vaccination refusal, and so on and on. Why are there so many of them and their adherents, and so few of us skeptics?

In his new book Michael Shermer sets out the reasons for this situation. It is our believing brains, evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago, that are responsible. Belief without evidence is a salutary behaviour when facing a trembling bush behind which a predator may be lurking. Don’t wait for evidence – just go! Survival is selected for by belief.

Michael Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine in the US, writes a regular column in Scientific American, and is an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Calfornia.

In this book he explores beliefs in many fields, and how we select data after forming the beliefs, to reinforce them. He describes how deeply inherent is our desire to detect patterns in our sensory information, and the evidence from neurophysiology and behavioural genetics which shows how and where this occurs. Religion for example exists in all cultures and can be called “a universal”.

Dr Shermer explores the history of empiricism and the extraordinary prescience of Francis Bacon (c 1620) in his recognition of those human behaviours which inhibit the determination of reality, and the need for a new approach.

He makes a strong argument for the teaching of scientific method in our schools as well as teaching the nature of the world revealed by that process. It is the unwillingness to apply that method which has resulted in the perseverance of our plethora of beliefs. We are not endowed by evolution with that aptitude, which after all is only 400 years old. We have to learn it.

Unsubstantiated beliefs have been part of our nature for a million years. This is why there are so many of them, and why they are so widespread. Shermer writes: “Science is the only hope we have of avoiding the trap of belief-dependant realism. It is the best tool ever devised to determine: does belief equate with reality?”

The prologue is available on Shermer’s web page (www.michaelshermer.com) and gives some idea of what lies within. There are liberal notes for each chapter and a comprehensive index.

I would recommend this book to anyone, sceptic or not, who wishes to better understand our human nature.

Martin Wallace is a retired physician who is resuming his education in literature, natural history, and in trying to understand human behaviour.

The (bad) science behind the MMR hoax

The world-wide panic over the MMR vaccine was sparked by the actions of one doctor who breached several standards of scientific practice. This article is based on a presentation to the 2010 NZ Skeptics conference.

Every few years, the World Health Organisation (WHO) publishes a series of ‘death tables’, a summary of how many people died in a given year and the causes of death. The tables make interesting reading. The figures published for 2004 show that a third of all deaths worldwide were due to infectious diseases, a staggering 15.1 million people1. Of these, four million may have been prevented by vaccination.

As a microbiologist, I am staggered by the growing anti-vaccination movement. Vaccination has to be the success story of ‘modern’ medicine. Just look at the benefits: vaccination can provide lifelong protection, does not rely on correct diagnosis or treatment being available and can avoid some forms of auto-immune disease that can be triggered by infection. As the saying goes, prevention is better than a cure. While it is true that vaccines are not 100 percent risk-free, the benefits to both the vaccinated individual and the wider community (through ‘herd immunity’) far outweigh the risks.

What is fascinating about vaccination ‘hysteria’ is that different countries have different scares, even though they are using the same vaccines. One such scare, which has resulted in a resurgence of measles in a number of countries, relates to the MMR vaccine. This is a freeze-dried preparation of three living but disabled viruses: measles, mumps and rubella. In the 1990s, a British doctor by the name of Andrew Wakefield claimed there was a link between MMR vaccination and autism. He claimed to have discovered a new syndrome, which he called autistic colitis, in which autistic children were found to have a particular kind of gut disease.

He also claimed to have found that the appearance of symptoms of autism coincided with MMR vaccination, and children with autistic colitis had measles virus in their guts. His findings were based on a study of 12 children with developmental and intestinal problems, published in the Lancet medical journal in 19982. Nine of the children were diagnosed with autism. The children were believed to have been developing normally and then suddenly regressed, and parents were asked to recall how close to the time of MMR vaccination the symptoms appeared.

The study suffers from a number of crucial flaws, not least the lack of blinding or control groups, or potential for parents to incorrectly recall the appearance of symptoms. It also turned out that Andrew Wakefield had numerous conflicts of interest: he was receiving money from lawyers looking to build a case against a vaccine manufacturer, had submitted a patent on an alternative measles vaccine, breached ethics compliances and even paid children at a birthday party for donating blood.

The journalist Brian Deer was instrumental in bringing all of these conflicts to the public’s attention and has maintained a website (briandeer.com/mmr-lancet.htm) summarising his investigations into Wakefield and the MMR debacle. Recently, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) commissioned Deer to write a series of articles summarising his findings3-5. In 2010, Andrew Wakefield was found guilty of misconduct and struck off the medical register in the UK and the Lancet finally retracted his paper.

In an editorial accompanying one of Deer’s articles, the BMJ’s editors asked:

“What of Wakefield’s other publications? In light of this new information their veracity must be questioned. Past experience tells us that research misconduct is rarely isolated behaviour.”

What of his other work? Indeed, the Lancet paper was just the first in a series of papers by Wakefield attempting to link autism with measles. One of the things he showed was that measles virus could be detected in the guts of autistic children using a technique called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). PCR is a fantastic technique used to amplify very small amounts of target genetic material to generate over a billion copies. In a nutshell this means PCR can take something that is undetectable and make it detectable. However, one of the downsides of such a sensitive technique is that it is very easy to contaminate, so proper controls are really important. For those who want to know how PCR works, there are some very nice videos online (youtube/eEcy9k_KsDI).
One of the crucial things needed to carry out PCR is a set of very specific ‘primers’ which recognise the region of genetic material that you want to amplify (Fig 1). You need primers to each end of the region of interest and then PCR amplifies the bit between the primers. So if the primers match the wrong region, you will end up with a large amount of the wrong thing, a classic case of garbage in, garbage out. So the important things to remember are:

  1. The primers need to be specific so that they only amplify what you are targeting and nothing else.
  2. You have to be very, very careful not to contaminate the reaction.

To make sure the primers are specific and nothing has been contaminated, it is crucial to include a number of controls alongside the samples being tested:

  1. A negative control which has water in place of any target genetic material which will tell you whether you have had a contamination problem or not.
  2. A negative control which has control genetic material that does not contain any of the target sequence which will tell you if your primers are specific enough.
  3. A positive control which has genetic material that does contain the target sequence which will tell you if your reaction has worked.

So, you have your samples and your controls, the PCR machine has done its dash and you are left with a little tube filled with billions of copies of the target sequence (or none if the sample was negative…). This can then be visualised by gel electrophoresis and you are left with something like the picture in Fig 2.
Lane 1 contains a size standard, lane 2 is the negative control containing no genetic material, lane 3 is the negative control containing no target sequence (the very faint band is just the background genetic material), lane 4 is the positive control containing the target sequence and lanes 5 and 6 are our unknown samples (which in this case are all positive). It is important to say here that very rarely would you see an actual gel published in a paper. Most results are just described as the number of positive or negative samples. This is important as it leaves the reader assuming the correct controls were done. But it doesn’t end with gel electrophoresis. To make absolutely certain, the amplified genetic material can be sequenced to confirm it is the correct thing. And if the claims you are making are wide-reaching and/or controversial then sequencing is exactly what should be done.

Andrew Wakefield hypothesised that exposure to the measles virus in the MMR vaccine was a factor in the emergence of his so-called ‘autistic colitis’ and that genetic material from the measles virus would be found in patients with the disease but not healthy controls. He supervised PhD student Nick Chadwick to investigate. The first paper they published (in January 1998) was in the Journal of Virological Methods, reporting a “rapid, sensitive and robust procedure” for amplifying measles RNA6. In August 1998 they published a second paper describing the use of the procedure to look for measles virus in samples from patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)7. They state:

“These results show that either measles virus RNA was not present in the samples, or was present below the sensitivity limits known to have been achieved”.

They then went on to look at the children reported in the, now retracted, Lancet paper (that is, the ones with ‘autistic colitis’). Wakefield never published these results but Nick Chadwick did write up his PhD thesis in 1998. Brian Deer has put the relevant information from the thesis on his website (briandeer.com/wakefield/nick-chadwick.htm). Nick Chadwick concludes: “None of the samples tested positive for measles, mumps or rubella RNA, although viral RNA was successfully amplified in positive control samples”. Despite this negative result from 1998, Wakefield then appears as senior author alongside a team of Japanese researchers in a paper published in April 2000 in the journal Digestive Diseases and Sciences8 where they report the detection of measles virus:

“One of eight patients with Crohn disease, one of three patients with ulcerative colitis, and three of nine children with autism, were positive. Controls were all negative. The sequences obtained from the patients with Crohn’s disease shared the characteristics with wild-strain virus. The sequences obtained from the patients with ulcerative colitis and children with autism were consistent with being vaccine strains.”

In 2002 Wakefield then published another, bigger study of children suffering ‘autistic colitis’ with a team from Ireland9. They reported:

“Seventy five of 91 patients with a histologically confirmed diagnosis of ileal lymphonodular hyperplasia and enterocolitis were positive for measles virus in their intestinal tissue compared with five of 70 control patients.”

Yasmin D’Souza and colleagues at McGill University in Canada published a very nice study in 2007 in which they compared the primers used by both the Japanese and Irish groups with their own primers for the measles virus on a range of IBD and control intestinal biopsy samples10. Any positive samples were verified by sequencing.

And the results? The primers used by Wakefield and colleagues weren’t specific for measles virus. In fact, the amplified fragments were found to be of mammalian origin. What this means is that human samples should all be positive. Unsurprisingly, when D’Souza tried using genuine measles specific primers they “failed to demonstrate the presence of MV [measles virus] nucleic acids in intestinal biopsy samples from either patients with IBD or controls”. They also failed to find any measles virus in samples taken from over 50 autistic children11. This does suggest that Andrew Wakefield’s research conduct does not stop with the Lancet study.

There is now a huge body of evidence indicating that there is no link between vaccination and autism. Despite this, Andrew Wakefield is held up by many as a hero, fighting a corrupt system with the ‘evil’ pharmaceutical industry at its centre. Wakefield has recently published a book entitled Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines – The Truth Behind a Tragedy. One reviewer wrote:

“Dr. Wakefield sets the record straight. It was not he who showed callous disregard towards vulnerable, sick children with autism. It was the British medical establishment, the General Medical Council, the media and the pharmaceutical industry that threw the children under the bus to protect the vaccine program. This is a book for everyone who cares about our future”.

Who needs evidence, hey?

References

  1. WHO website. www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/en/
  2. Wakefield AJ, Murch SH, Anthony A, et al. (1998). Lancet 351(9103): 637-41. RETRACTED.
  3. Deer B (2011). BMJ. 342:c5347. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c5347.
  4. Deer B (2011). BMJ. 342:c5258. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c5258.
  5. Deer B (2011). Secrets of the MMR scare. The Lancet’s two days to bury bad news. BMJ. 342:c7001. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c7001.
  6. Chadwick N, Bruce I, Davies M, van Gemen B, Schukkink R, Khan K, Pounder R, Wakefield AJ (1998). Virol Methods. 70(1):59-70.
  7. Chadwick N, Bruce IJ, Schepelmann S, Pounder RE, Wakefield AJ (1998). J Med Virol. 55(4):305-11.
  8. 8. Kawashima H, Mori T, Kashiwagi Y, Takekuma K, Hoshika A, Wakefield A (2000). Dig Dis Sci. 45(4):723-9.
  9. 9. Uhlmann V, Martin CM, Sheils O, Pilkington L, Silva I, Killalea A, Murch SB, Walker-Smith J, Thomson M, Wakefield AJ, O’Leary JJ (2002). Mol Pathol. 55(2):84-90.
  10. D’Souza Y, Dionne S, Seidman EG, Bitton A, Ward BJ (2007). Gut 56(6): 886-888.
  11. D’Souza Y, Eric Fombonne E, Ward BJ (2006). Pediatrics 118(4): 1664-1675.

NearZero Inc: A sadly prophetic company name

Many people lost a lot of money investing in non-existent data compression software because well:established principles of information theory were ignored. This article is based on a presentation to the 2010 NZ Skeptics conference.

In the late 1990s, Nelson man Philip Whitley claimed to have invented a new data compression technology worth billions of dollars. Over the next decade money was raised on a number of occasions to develop this technology, culminating in a company called NearZero Inc raising $5.3 million from shareholders. According to a well:established body of theory, Whitley’s claims were obviously false. Unsurprisingly, within a few months of NearZero’s formation, it was in liquidation, with its funds gone.

I thought the saga of NearZero could be of interest to skeptics as it involves claims that were clearly false according to well&#8211established theory, and those claims cost investors a lot of money.

But first, a quick introduction to how data is stored by computers, and how that data can be compressed. Computers store data digitally, using the digits 0 and 1 in a binary code. A piece of storage capable of storing a 0 or a 1 is known as a bit (short for binary digit). With 1 bit we can store two values: 0 and 1. While this might be enough to store a simple data value (such as whether someone is male or female), for most pieces of data we need to store a larger range of values. With each bit we add, the number of possible values doubles; by the time we get to 8 bits we have 256 different values. The byte (a group of 8 bits) has proved to be a very useful unit of storage; storage sizes are usually quoted in bytes.

Character data is usually stored 1 byte per character (in European languages). Lower case ‘a’ is represented as 01100001, for example. A picture is a grid of dots. Each dot is called a pixel, and usually 4 bytes are used to encode the colour of a pixel. Standards are needed so that everyone interprets bit patterns in the same way.

Data representation methods are often chosen based on how easy it is to process the data. Often, the same data can be stored more compactly at the cost of making it harder to process. The process of translating a piece of data into a more compact form (and back again) is known as data compression. Compressing data allows us to put more data onto a data storage device, and to send it more quickly across a communications link. The size ratio between the compressed version and the uncompressed version is known as the compression ratio.

In ‘lossless’ compression, the uncompressed data is always identical (bit for bit) to the original data we started with. A compression method designed to work with any type of data must be lossless.

In ‘lossy’ compression, we are willing to accept small differences between the original data and the uncompressed data. In some situations we do not want to risk data being changed by compression, and lossless methods must be used. With images and sound, small changes that are difficult for humans to detect are tolerable if they lead to big space savings. The JPG image format and mp3 video/audio format have lossy compression methods built in to them. Users can choose the tradeoff between quality and space.

A question of pattern

For it to be possible to compress data, there must be some pattern to the data for the compression method to exploit. Letter frequencies in English text are well known, and could be the basis for a text compression method. We can do better if we take context into account. The most frequent letter is ‘e’ (12.7 percent), but if we know the next letter is the first in a word then ‘t’ is the most likely (16.7 percent). If we know the previous letter was (q) then the next will almost certainly be (u). A compression method that takes context into account will do better than one that doesn’t, as the context-based one will be a better predictor of the next symbol.

Likewise images are not random collections of coloured dots (pixels). Rather, pictures typically include large areas that have much the same colour. Sequences of frames in a movie often differ little from each other, and this can be exploited by compression methods.

The effectiveness of a compression method depends on how predictable / random the data is, and how good the compression method is at exploiting whatever predictability exists. If data are random, then no compression is possible. In these cases compression methods can actually create a compressed file larger than the original, because the compression methods have some costs. A compressed file is much more random than the uncompressed version, because the compression method has removed patterns that were present in the original.

In many branches of computer science it is important to establish the best possible way in which something could be done, to serve as a benchmark for current methods. In information theory, Shannon’s entropy is a measure of the underlying information content of a piece of data. A 1000-character extract from a book has more information content than 1000 letter ‘x’ characters, even though both might be represented using 1000 characters. To quote Wikipedia: ” Shannon’ s entropy represents an absolute limit on the best possible lossless compression of any communication” . Modern compression algorithms are so good that ” The performance of existing data compression algorithms is often used as a rough estimate of the entropy of a block of data” . In other words, it is not possible to achieve large improvements over current compression techniques.

The claims

It is time to have a look at Philip Whitley’ s claims. He claimed that he could compress (losslessly) any file to under seven percent of its original size, but this is not credible. Compression potential varies widely depending on patterns in the original file. Many files are already compressed, so have little potential for further compression. Even for uncompressed files, seven percent is achievable only in exceptional cases (English text entropy means the best achievable for English text is around 15 percent).

If it was possible to compress any file to less than seven percent of its original size then it would be possible to compress any file down to 1 bit. The first compression takes you down to under seven percent of the original file. Given that Whitley claimed his technique worked on any file, we could then compress the compressed file, reducing it to less than 0.5 percent of the original size, and so on.

Initial tests of Whitley’s technology were done on one computer. This made it easy to cheat. The ‘compression’ program can easily save a copy of the original file somewhere on disk as well as producing the ‘compressed’ version. Then, when the compressed version is ‘expanded’, the hidden copy can be restored. Whitley remained in control of the equipment, ostensibly to prevent anybody from stealing his software.

Critical assessment

Philip Whitley’s company Astute Software paid Tim Bell (an associate professor of computer science at the University of Canterbury) for an opinion on the technology. Tim Bell has an international reputation in the field of data compression; Microsoft has used him as an expert witness, and he has co-authored two well-known compression textbooks. An irony of the NearZero case is that New Zealand has more expertise in this field than you might expect for a small country (the co-authors of the two text books are New Zealand-born or live in New Zealand).

Tim Bell’s views were blunt: “The claims they were making at the time defied what is mathematically possible, and were very similar to claims made by other companies around the world that had defrauded investors.” One of his criticisms was that the tests were not two-computer tests. In such a test the compression is performed on one computer and the compressed file is transferred to a second computer, where it is decompressed. A two-computer test prevents the hidden-file form of cheating. It is reasonably easy to monitor the network cable between two computers, to check that the original file is not sent in addition to the compressed file (though the tester must be alert for other possible communication paths, such as wireless networks).

A two-computer test was subsequently conducted, and described in a 14-page report by Titus Kahu of Logical Networks. At first glance the report looks impressive, but on closer reading flaws quickly emerge. The two computers used were Whitley’s. The major flaw was that Kahu was limited to testing a set of 24 files selected by Whitley. The obvious form of cheating this allows is that the set of files can be placed on the second computer before the tests. Then all that the first computer needs to do is to include in the ‘compressed’ data details of which file is required (a number between 1 and 24 would suffice). The receiving computer can then locate the required file in its hiding place.

Titus Kahu did check the receiving computer to see if files with the names of those used in the test were present, but you would expect that someone setting out to deceive would at the very least rename the files.

The report makes for interesting reading. The files were of a number of types, including text files, pictures in JPG and GIF formats, MP3 audio files, and tar files. A tar file is a way of collecting a number of files together into a single file (zip files in Windows serve the same purpose).

One would expect text files to compress well, but JPG, GIF and MP3 files to compress poorly (they are all compressed formats). How well a tar file will compress depends on the files that it contains.

A simple comparison

To get some data to compare with the results in the report, I ran some tests using gzip (a widely used lossless compression method) on some text, tar and JPG files. I managed to locate two of the tar files used in the Titus Kahu tests: Calgary.tar and Canterbury.tar. Gzip achieved savings of 67.24 percent and 73.80 percent (so Calgary.tar was compressed to about one third of its original size, and Canterbury.tar to about one quarter). I also located three text files that were later versions of text files used by Kahu: on these Gzip achieved savings of 63.08 percent, 62.05 percent, and 70.77 percent. I also compressed a JPG file using gzip, and achieved a saving of 2.34 percent.

There are no great surprises in my results. There was quite a variation in the compression achieved, even amongst files of the same data type (the three text files for example). Compressing a JPG file gave little extra compression (not enough to make it worth further compression with gzip).

By comparison, savings in the report were 93.52 percent for four files and 93.53 percent for the other 20. I suspect that the difference in the fourth significant figure is due to rounding the file size to the nearest byte. These results are not remotely believable. The compression achieved is too good to be true even for data that compresses well (such as text), let alone for data formats that are already compressed. The incredible consistency of the compression achieved is also not credible.

Downfall

Having looked at some background, it is time to look at the chain of events that culminated in NearZero Inc’s rise and fall. Philip Whitley’s early forays into business were not promising. In 1995 he was adjudged bankrupt (discharged in 1998). In 1997 he became a shareholder in Nelic Computing Ltd, which went into liquidation in 1999, owing unsecured creditors $70,000.

In 1999 Philip Whitley formed a software company (Astute Software) with a number of Nelson investors (who put in $292,000). Astute worked on a number of projects, and developed the data compression technology. In early 2001 the ‘one-computer’ tests were done, and Tim Bell’s opinion was sought. In mid 2001 the logical Networks ‘two-computer’ tests were done by Titus Kahu. In 2002, a Mr Cohen (an investor) asked for a (long-awaited) copy of the compression technology; he was told by Philip Whitley the only copies had been accidentally burnt when cleaning out his safe. Later in 2002 work stopped due to Whitley becoming ill.

In 2005 Whitley resumed work on the technology. Some of the original investors put in a further $125,000. On 10 July 2006, NearZero was incorporated in Nevada, with Philip Whitley as president, treasurer and sole director. Later in 2006 Titus Kahu became engineering director for Syntiro (a Philip Whitley company doing development work for NearZero) on the generous salary of $250,000 a year.

In February to April 2007 NearZero share purchase meetings were held in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. A total of 490 investors invested $5.3 million. The investment opportunity brochure forecast that the near-term NearZero market capitalisation would be US$482 billion to $780 billion, and was expected to exceed one trillion US dollars. Note that the largest company in the world, Petrochina, is a US$405 billion company, and the largest US companies, including Exxon Mobil, Apple and Microsoft, are in the 200 to 300 billion bracket.

Things quickly went wrong. In May 2007, the Securities Commission started investigating the legality of the NearZero share offer (there is no registered prospectus, for example). Also in May, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) were appointed as interim liquidators for NearZero, and moved to sell houses and cars. In June, PWC said $218,000 went to Richmond City Football Club, $523,000 on vehicles, $852,000 on property, $683,000 to US-based company secretary Sherif Safwat, and $270,000 on household expenses. They found little evidence of money spent developing compression technology.

In June Whitley invited investors to contribute money to fund legal action to prevent liquidation. Also in June PWC found no evidence of any compression technology. Whitley claimed to have wiped it; PWC found no evidence of use of wiping software.

Then in July Whitley made some rather curious statements in an affidavit sworn in relation to the liquidation: “I will however say that it isn’t binary and therefore not subject to Shannon’s Law of algorithmic limitation.” If there was a real technology that was not based on binary it is hard to see it being of widespread use in computer and communication systems that store, transmit and process all data in binary. The affidavit continues: “Shannon’s Law is attached to this affidavit as Annexure “Y” and it can be seen that this is a 1948 paper”. Claude Shannon founded information theory, which is the basis of how digital computers represent data (according to one tribute, the digital revolution started with information theory). Shannon coined the term bit, and introduced the concept of information entropy referred to earlier. It is interesting that Shannon’s fundamental research results are dismissed as being in “a 1948 paper”.

He also stated: “In regard to the item 3/ I have never asserted that the technology is based on an algorithm”. In computer science, an algorithm is simply a description of how to do something in a series of steps. A common analogy is to say that a cooking recipe is an algorithm for preparing food. If Philip Whitley’s compression technology is not based on an algorithm then that implies it cannot be described as a sequence of steps, and therefore cannot actually be implemented!

In November, Associate Judge Christiansen ordered NearZero’s liquidation, and ruled that the compression technology had no value. Then in August 2008 Whitley faced the much more serious charge of making fraudulent claims about his technology.

In September 2008 all shareholders were given the option of keeping their shares or getting their money back. They proved to be remarkably loyal: $3.1m voted to stay in; $2.2m voted for reimbursement. I’m not sure whether there was any money to reimburse those who voted that way (probably not). In August 2009 Philip Whitley was convicted and fined for making allotments without having a registered prospectus.

The trial

In February 2010 the fraud trial began in Nelson. Whitley was charged with making a false statement as a promoter between July 2006 and May 2007. There were many sad stories in the Nelson Mail about wasted money and time (and resulting stress). Some of the information to emerge in the trial:

  • Philip Whitley hired a team of seven body guards headed by “Oz” (Oswald Van Leeuwen), who was on a salary of $300,000. This level of security was needed because of the (supposed) enormous value of the compression technology
  • According to Sherif Safwat, Philip Whitley believed a Chechnyan hit team had arrived in New Zealand on a Russian fishing boat.
  • Philip Whitley: “The [security guards] said that the Russians were trying to penetrate and we ended up with security guards living in my house, camped on the floor … I couldn’t go out of the house without having security … it just built up inside me to the point where I just lost it from a point of paranoia.”

In his summing up on May 27, the defence lawyer said:

  • “Whitley had a distorted view of reality which led him to believe his data compression technology was real.”
  • “… [we are] not challenging the evidence of … Prof Bell that Whitley’s claimed invention was mathematically impossible.”

In July Philip Whitley was found guilty on two counts of fraud (but maintains he still has his inventions).

On August 10, 2010, he was sentenced to five years and three months in prison.

The NearZero mess should not have happened. New Zealand has more researchers in this field than you would expect for a country of this size. One of the most prominent, Tim Bell, clearly stated in 2001 that the claims were false. However, investors still committed (and lost) millions of dollars over a number of years. Compression claims are easily tested (much more easily than medical claims, for example). Whitley refused to allow his technology to be independently tested using the excuse of protecting his intellectual property. Many people have been harmed, especially the investors. Moreover, this type of case is not good for the reputation of the IT industry, which struggles to attract investment.

I was asked at the conference how non-technical NearZero investors could have protected themselves. I had no answers at the time, but have given it some thought since. Some things they could have done:

  • Google the names of the company principals.
  • Check to see how the predicted market capitalisation compared to that of existing companies. Finding that the lowest estimate would make NearZero the biggest company in the world should have lead to some scepticism.
  • Google the terms ‘data compression’ and ‘scam’.

Much of the information in this article is based on the Nelson Mail’s extensive reporting of the issue, for which they are to be congratulated. Another good source of information was nearzero.bravehost.com, a website set up by and for NearZero’s shareholders in 2007 in response to the liquidation of NearZero. An article by Matt Philp on Philip Whitley and NearZero appeared in the October 2010 issue of North & South.

The great continental demolition derby

When creationists try to harmonise their worldview with certain inescapable facts of geology, the result is chaos.
Recently I had forwarded to me a document bearing the title Debunking Evolution: problems, errors, and lies exposed, in plain language for non-scientists.
The content was depressingly familiar, and can largely be guessed from the title, although the way it crams in so many technical, sciencey-sounding terms into its almost 15,000 words rather works against its claim to be “plain language”. The author is given as one John Michael Fischer; despite this tract being widely disseminated across the internet (often copied and pasted into forum discussion threads) I have not been able to find any information on him or his background.

A full rebuttal of all this material would be even longer than the original; there’s certainly not enough space for it in this publication. In any case, most of it is standard creationist fare that’s been refuted over and over again – no macroevolution (only microevolution), irreducible complexity, the tornado in a junkyard (or a minor variant), no fossil ancestors for Cambrian species, no transitional fossils, the demise of the Tree of Life (as reported in a New Scientist cover story), Ernst Haeckel’s embryo drawings, lack of true vestigial organs, and how the Second Law of Thermodynamics precludes evolution.

Only a couple of arguments are comparatively new. Fischer gets very excited about recent findings that “increasing biological complexity is correlated with an increasing number of non-protein-coding DNA sequences and not, as previously assumed, with an increasing number of protein-coding genes.” Cells contain many short sequences of RNA which don’t code for functional proteins but play a variety of roles in regulating cellular processes and protein synthesis. He concludes from this that the ‘junk’ DNA which makes up most of the genome isn’t really junk after all, but must have been inserted by a Designer to fulfill essential biological functions.

Developmental biologist and blogger PZ Myers disagrees, and as usual is not shy about saying why(scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/05/junk_dna_is_still_junk.php). Most of the RNA transcripts are from regions of DNA near known genes, suggesting that they’re artefacts, like an extended transcription of a gene. Occasionally one of them may be co-opted for a new function, but there’s no indication of design; the genome is still mostly dead in transcription terms. “Don’t look for demolition of the concept of junk DNA here,” Myers says.

This is all very well, but once Fischer has single-handedly demolished evolutionary theory, what would he replace it with? The answer is on his website (www.newgeology.us), which is the ultimate source for Debunking Evolution. Navigating around the site is a bit of a challenge, but it’s clear his real passion is for geology, rather than biology, though he shows no greater aptitude for that discipline.

The home page bears the title ‘Shock Dynamics’, which Fischer describes as “[a] new geology theory featuring impact-powered rapid continental drift as an alternative to plate tectonics. The key to creation geology.” What he is proposing is that in the few thousand years of the Earth’s history allowed by the creationists’ timescale, our planet has been subjected to three major meteoritic events, one involving multiple impacts. The most recent of these was “in the time of Peleg” (Gen. 10:25), in whose days, the Bible tells us, “the Earth was divided”. An enormous meteorite, Fischer says, struck the Earth just north of what is now Madagascar, driving the initially joined continents to their present locations in a matter of hours.

According to Bishop Ussher’s chronology, Peleg was born in 2247 BC, 101 years after the Flood, and lived 339 years. To put this in perspective, the Pyramid of Djoser in Egypt was built between 2630 and 2611 BC.

Continental Drift is a big issue for creationists. If all land animals are really descended from a single boatload that landed on a mountaintop in eastern Turkey, then explaining how they all got to their current locations takes some doing. How did kiwi and moa get to New Zealand? Or lemurs to Madagascar, or sloths to the Amazon? The problem looks slightly less insuperable if, at the time of the Flood, all the world’s land masses were joined. The 1000-plus landsnail species found only in New Zealand could then simply have crawled here, being careful not to leave any relatives along the way. Several creationists have therefore tried to come up with scenarios in which rapid, post-Flood continental movement may have occurred.

Fischer argues the energy of an incoming meteorite triggered the continents to slide up to 9000km (in the case of Australia) over a period of 26 hours. Yes, that’s right. Australia must have averaged a speed of almost 350 km/hr; given that accelerating and decelerating a continental landmass must take a while, the maximum velocity must have been considerably greater. How was this achieved? Fischer suggests a phenomenon called acoustic fluidisation may be involved. In this process vibrations from landslides, earthquakes or meteorite impacts “fluidise” loose debris so that it flows like a liquid. It’s a real phenomenon, and has been used to explain the effects of some earthquakes, or the long distances landslides sometimes flow across plains from their points of origin. Here then is Fischer’s scenario:

“The giant meteorite explodes, penetrating the continental crust. The force pushes up low mountains, and the landmass slides away like a ship on water, fluidizing the contact layer. Behind the landmass, a surface layer of oceanic crust is melting and cooling to form the mid-ocean spreading ridge with transform faults, pulled open by the landmass.
“When the leading edge loses enough energy, the contact layer at the leading edge solidifies. The momentum of the landmass carries it forward like a car hitting a wall, piling up high mountains. The formerly fluidized contact layer in front is a Benioff zone, called subduction zones in Plate Tectonics.”

Strictly speaking a Benioff zone is a deep, active seismic area within a subduction zone, but we know what he means.
One thing he doesn’t explain is why other meteorite impacts didn’t produce the same effect. And this is a problem, because Fischer invokes lots of big meteorites. The Flood was brought about by a whole swarm of meteorite strikes. As these struck the ocean they raised enormous splashes, which Noah interpreted as “the fountains of the deep” (Fischer differs from other creationists in asserting that the Flood story is an eyewitness account written by Noah, rather than divinely authored). They also unleashed the enormous volcanic event of the Siberian Traps (generally regarded as 250 million years old) and collapsed the waters above the heavens referred to in the first chapter of Genesis (Fischer calls the waters a “vapor canopy”), the ultimate cause of the Flood. This is an interesting one, because according to Psalm 148, those waters are still there:

“Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens.
“Let them praise the name of the LORD: for he commanded and they were created.

“He hath also stablished them for ever and ever: he hath made a decree which shall not pass.” (KJV)

So we have the ultimate irony: in order to uphold the literal truth of one part of the Bible, Fischer piles absurdity on absurdity, and in the end only succeeds in contradicting another part. (The vapour canopy, by the way, is pretty much standard creationist doctrine these days; few creationists ever seem to read anything in their Bibles beyond Genesis.)

But Fischer doesn’t stop there. The Flood kills off the dinosaurs, which are on a different landmass – people only live on Mesopotamia, or possibly East Antarctica, where dinosaur remains have not been found. I’m not sure how the landmasses can be undivided and yet there are two of them. Successive waves of ocean water deposit massive amounts of sediment, forming the geological column and fossil record. After the Flood the Chicxulub meteorite (generally credited with the demise of the dinosaurs) hits the Earth, but doesn’t seem to do much except spread around some iridium and shocked quartz.

The Flood survivors spread and multiply for several hundred years. Then the Shock Dynamics meteorite scatters the continents, raises all the mountain chains (the landmasses used to be low-lying; the Flood story describes how the tops of the mountains could be seen as the waters receded, but I think we can assume they were only little mountains) and wipes out many large mammal species. The force of the impact is enough to speed up the Earth’s rotation, so that the number of days in a year increases from 360 to 365.2. All those sliding continents heat the oceans, which causes massive evaporation, which in turn causes cooling, bringing on the Ice Ages. You’d think the Chinese, the Egyptians, and the other civilisations of the time would have noticed.

Other scenarios

The internet (and creationist literature) is awash with material like this. Shock Dynamics theory is not merely the work of a lone crackpot, but a fairly representative example of a mode of thought that remains very widespread. Fischer is not the only one pushing a literal division of the Earth in the time of Peleg, although other creationists have come up with different mechanisms.

The Associates for Spiritual Knowledge, for example (www.askelm.com/news/n090219.pdf) favour an expanding Earth pushing the continents apart. The Associates for Biblical Research (< A HREF=”www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/05/of-peleg-and-pangaea.aspx”>www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/05/of-peleg-and-pangaea.aspx ) don’t propose a mechanism at all, merely suggesting the continents drifted apart during Peleg’s lifetime.

Other creationists disagree. These include the most active group locally, Creation Ministries International (CMI), who maintain the division in Peleg’s time was purely a cultural one. They say the continents were separated at the time of the Flood (creation.com/in-pelegs-days-the-earth-was-divided), and the animals later migrated via land bridges during the post-Flood Ice Age, or were moved around by people. This, they argue, avoids the problem of another (post-Flood) catastrophe that would accompany such a division, and destroy most land life. Those sloths dragged themselves across Siberia and over a Bering Strait land bridge to get to the Amazon, apparently. Or maybe the first Americans took them along as pets, packing plenty of Cecropia leaves to feed them on the journey.

One way rapid continental drift may have been triggered at the time of the Flood is set out in something called Hydroplate Theory, the brainchild of one Dr Walt Brown, who explains all in his book In the Beginning. This states that before the Flood there was a massive amount of water underneath the crust. Pressure on the water caused the plates to break and separate; the escaping water then flooded the whole earth, and the continental plates flew apart at speeds of up to 72 km/hr (creationwiki.org/Hydroplate). Others believe the Earth is hollow (www.ourhollowearth.com). Rodney M Cluff, author of World Top Secret: Our Earth Is Hollow! claims:

“Located at 87.7 degrees North and South Latitude are Polar Openings that lead into the hollow interior of our planet where the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel today dwell in perfect harmony, with life spans equal to those of the Methuselahs of the Bible, whose only desire is to live in peace. Their flying saucers in defense of their country at times are seen on our surface world. They don’t come to destroy, they are waiting… Waiting for us to discover that world peace is the only answer, not without God, but WITH Him.” [ellipsis and emphasis in original]

Then there are the geocentrists. A 1999 Gallup poll found 18 percent of Americans, when asked whether the Earth revolved around the sun or the sun around the Earth, picked the latter, while another three percent had no opinion. Poll results in Britain and Germany are similar. Probably for most of these people it’s just not a question they’ve given much thought to, but the Association for Biblical Astronomy (www.geocentricity.com) have devoted a lot of time and effort to it. In their view, whenever the Bible and astronomy are at variance, it is always astronomy “- that is, our ‘reading’ of the ‘Book of Nature,’ not our reading of the Holy Bible – that is wrong.” Key passages in the Bible indicate the Earth is motionless at the centre of the universe and that’s the end of it; the Earth neither rotates daily nor revolves around the sun. The geocentrists regard more liberal groups, such as the Institute for Creation Research, CMI and Answers in Genesis, as accommodationists.

Though they may disagree vehemently among themselves, all these groups are united by their belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. What’s more, they insist that only faith in the infallibility of scripture can provide the philosophical underpinnings that allow a person to avoid straying into error. CMI’s Jonathan Sarfati, for example, writes:

“[W]e are not merely asking opponents to consider biblical presuppositions as an alternative way of looking at the evidence. Nor are we merely saying that they are ‘nicer’, nor even that they provide a superior framework that better explains the data (although both of these are true as well). Rather, the claim is even stronger: that the biblical framework is the only one that provides the foundation for science, voluntary will, logic and morality.”

This just doesn’t wash. The clearest sign that “biblical presuppositions” are no foundation for science and logic is the plethora of nonsensical scenarios that creationists have concocted in their attempts to harmonise the evidence of geology with their preconceived notions of a Flood, a six-day creation and a 6000-year-old Earth. Science, which allows the freedom to adapt our views on the Earth’s history in the light of fresh information, remains the best philosophical framework for investigating the world around us. ‘Creation science’ is no alternative.

Newsfront

Autism paper binned

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stargazers at odds

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

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

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

“Confused?” asked Lewis. “Yup.”

The truth is in there

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

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

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

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

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

Scientologists to the rescue

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

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

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

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

St Bathans a ghost town?

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

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

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

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

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

Sweat lodge ends in tragedy

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

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

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

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

‘Ghosts’ find buyer

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

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

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

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

Belief and knowledge: a plea about language

Alison Campbell looks at some words that cause scientific misunderstandings.

I suspect that for many of my first-year Biology students, the sheer weight of new terms they come across is perhaps the most daunting thing about the course. In some ways learning biology is rather like learning a new language, with several thousand new words swamping the page (and the brain).

But there’s more than just the new words – there’s the meaning of the words to come to terms with. This is the focus of Helen Quinn’s paper in Physics Today (2007): Belief and knowledge – a plea about language. There are many words whose meaning to a scientist may be quite different from what they mean to a layperson. Quinn feels, and I agree, that some words “are the root of considerable public misunderstanding about science: belief, hypothesis, theory and knowledge.”

‘Belief’ isn’t really a word that sits well with science. As Quinn says, it can be “an article of faith” ie religious belief. Or – conversely – in the phrase “I believe he is coming at 5pm”, you get the meaning “but I’m not really sure.” So how are we to take those news stories that begin “Scientists believe”? A statement like “most biologists believe in evolution” could be used to claim that evolution is as much faith-based as organised religion. (I tell my students that I don’t ‘believe’ in evolution, but accept it as the best available current explanation for life’s diversity. This can engender some interesting discussions…)

But what the statement “most scientists believe” means – to scientists – is that most scientists agree that the weight of evidence favours a particular interpretation. Quinn suggests we should say “scientific evidence supports the conclusion that…” I like this – it leaves open the possibility that this conclusion could change, if sufficient evidence to the contrary comes to light. Which is a much better reflection of the nature of science. Unfortunately there tends to be a perception that scientific ‘facts’ don’t change. (Also unfortunate is the fact that if scientists do change their interpretation of the data, they’re accused of not really knowing what they’re talking about. Sometimes I think we just can’t win!) Like Quinn, I feel that as scientists we shouldn’t be using the ‘b’ word – it gives the appearance that science is “just another belief system.”

‘Theory’ is another word that means different things to different people. “I’ve got a theory about that” really means, ‘I’ve got a hunch or an idea, a guess.’ But to scientists ‘theory’ means a well-established explanation for a large body of data: the theories of relativity, plate tectonics, evolution… These are definitely not guesses (nor are they belief systems!), but comprehensive explanations that have strong predictive power and have been tested time and time again. They are also incomplete, but that again is the nature of science. Scientific theories may well be modified if new evidence comes to hand: Newton’s laws are an example. (Quinn notes that Newton’s laws still hold, under certain well-defined conditions.)

It’s worth repeating Quinn’s description of how scientific theories are developed, because this is a valuable description of how science operates and what sets it apart from ‘other ways of knowing’:

When we seek to extend and revise our hypothetical frameworks, we make hypotheses, build models, and construct untested, alternate, extended theories. These last must incorporate all the well-established elements of prior theories. Experiment not only tests the new hypotheses; any unexplained result both requires and constrains new speculative theory building – new hypotheses. Models … play an important role here. They allow us to investigate and formulate the predictions and tests of our theory in complex situations. Our theories are informed guesses, incorporating much that we know. They may or may not pan out, but they are motivated by some aspects or puzzles in the existing data and theory. We actively look for contradictions.

An Evening with Sue Nicholson

Yet another Sensing Murder veteran struts her stuff.

AS a professed skeptic I have been unconvinced by psychics who claim they can communicate with dead people. However, those who do believe such a connection is possible invariably point out that as I have never been to a psychic session, I am not in a position to criticise. To counter that, I decided to attend an evening with the well-known psychic Sue Nicholson, who was appearing at the Glen Eden Playhouse Theatre. The price for that experience was $50 per ticket.

On her website Sue describes herself as a “gifted psychic medium”, an ability she claims to have had from early childhood. One-day psychic development workshops were available from Sue, coinciding with her current nationwide tour, $235 each, but that did include lunch. A maximum of 30 persons per session. If you want a personal reading from her, there is a three-year waiting list. There are three different CDs at $30 each, and her book A Call From The Other Side is available at $35. She can also be booked for house blessings, and claims “she successfully cleared negative energy from a large corporation in Wellington following the suicide of an employee on the premises”.

The Evening

My companion and I thought it best to take a seat near the back so we could better observe the night’s proceedings. However, as almost every seat downstairs was taken, we made our way to the upper level. By the time the show began, there were only four empty seats in the whole theatre.

Shortly after 7.30pm Sue Nicholson was introduced by her business agent, and entered the stage wearing a brightly coloured flowing outfit.

She quickly told us she could feel plenty of energy, and that there was “spirit” waiting to get through already. In fact, so much spirit about and so little time, that she would not be able to address everyone’s needs. Sue explained she is gifted with the ability to see, hear, and feel spirit, unlike many who may have only one of those gifts. She then told us about some of her earlier shows; someone’s pet pig turned up from the other side one night – animals also make it to the other side she said. Is it just people’s pets that made it there, or is it every animal that once lived? She further advised there was no Hell, and everyone, good or bad, was in the same place on the other side. A disappointment, no doubt, to those who hope that the likes of Hitler and Pol Pot are on slow roast somewhere.

She then explained that the five empty seats placed on the stage were for spirit, so we needn’t worry, she was not going to ask members of the audience to come up on stage. She had been fortunate in the past to have a spirit usherette turn up to help keep the more unruly in line she told us.
Next up was a short prayer to help us on our journey. We were asked to meditate, and Sue would transport us, and our angels, through a doorway with our name on it (or our birth name if we were adopted), which we were told we would see ahead of us, and once we had gone through to the other side, we would see the most beautiful garden we had ever seen. From there she told us to move on to the beautiful beach and park bench with our name on it that we would see in the distance. There we would spend time with our angels and deceased relatives. Some of us may be given something to take back, she advised.
After a few minutes chatting with all of them, she told us to go over to a waterfall to our right, the most beautiful waterfall we had ever seen, and to step into it, so that the waters would go through our bodies and relieve us of any aches and pains we had. Miraculously, we would notice our clothes were dry as we stepped out. Sadly, Sue said, we now had to make our way back through the doorway. She apologised for the brevity of the visit, but knew people were anxious for her to begin contact with spirit. We could spend longer on the other side – 25 minutes in fact – by using her CD (available in the foyer during the break).

Spirits aren’t maimed, they only look that way

By now the spirits were jostling to get through, so Sue’s first guest was a Tommy, or maybe Thomas – seems he wasn’t sure of his own name – who had crutches. Sue explained that people presented themselves as they were on this side – that is maimed, unwell etc, but that was just so we could identify them. There were no immediate takers for Tommy, but one woman did finally put her hand up, she said she had a grandfather, Thomas, but he didn’t use crutches. This anomaly did not deter Sue, who informed the woman, granddad Thomas had been waiting a long time to come through and so was a bit grumpy having had to push past the other spirits to be first, but he did love her, and was watching over her.

Following this Sue gave us some general descriptions of other spirits trying to get through, no names this time, just a woman or man with chest pains, breathing problems, or other vague symptoms. Once someone recognised the description and put their hand up, Sue would tell them what the spirit had to say. One spirit identified by an audience participant was a cousin, and another apparently the deceased friend of the participant’s living daughter.

At one point while Sue was conveying a message to one woman, she seemed to sense another spirit coming through and asked the woman who Margaret or Maggie was. The woman replied “Margaret is my sister” and pointed to the woman sitting next to her. After a brief chat with the spirit, it seemed there was a message for Margaret. Sue advised Margaret her angels were looking out for her, and she could expect things to improve in coming months, good news.

Sue explained that our guardian angels, whilst they look out for us, don’t actively interfere with our lives in any way. What their purpose is exactly, I am still not sure.

Sue saw a car roll over many times with four people in it. As there was no response, she clarified – not all may have died, but at least one person in the car did pass over. A hand went up. “Who died?” Sue asks. “A friend,” was the reply. “Ah, a friend,” Sue said, “Yes, that’s what they are saying to me, a friend, a friend, yes, yes, do you understand that?” Apparently they did. The friend was later revealed by the woman to have actually been her partner. The spirit then had a message for her, he said he loved her, but he understood it was time for her to move on with her life, and was happy for her to find a new partner, if she so desired.

Next she asked us about the gifts we had received during our earlier journey to the other side, and offered to interpret these for us. One person reported receiving a gold ring; Sue said she could see it above them, that it was a symbol of everlasting love. She could also see a number above them, 5, a lucky number, Sue said. Someone got a locket, another, the word love, another a gold heart and the word love.

It was time for a break, and Sue mentioned there was a new series of Sensing Murder to be screened later in the year. There was an audible “Oooh” from many in the audience.

After a chance to view the merchandise, Sue was back on stage with a pen and paper and a list of spirits who had come to her during the break, which she proceeded to work her way through. First up was someone in a navy uniform: no immediate takers, but someone did have a cousin in the navy – that must be it, because they got a message from them.
Sue then described someone with cuts to their wrists. One woman raised her hand, she had a son who overdosed and died. “Did he have cuts?” Sue asked. “No,” was the reply. No one else put their hand up, so Sue talked to the spirit again. It seemed he had wanted to cut himself, but didn’t do it – it was her son after all. He said he felt alienated and that no one understood him. “Do you understand that?” Sue asked, apparently she did.
Two people claimed one spirit, but it was the person to the right that Sue directed her information to. However it didn’t seem to be going too well. The person to the left vigorously waved their hand, it seems the information was for them instead, Sue apologised to the first person and moved to the second. An easy mistake for the spirit to make I guess.

A ghostly budgie

Others followed, and then it was back to more interpretations of our meditative gifts received on the other side. More hearts, love, flowers. Occasionally Sue saw something additional – she saw a bird arrive over one woman; it turned out she had a pet budgie as a child, so it must have been that the woman said. Another woman said her guardian angel had turned to stone on the other side. No need to worry, stone is solid and unmoving, Sue advised – it was just the angel showing her the solidity of their commitment to her.

Another spirit was identified by a gentleman in the second row as a departed relative. Sue conveyed a few messages and then remarked, “You’re thinking of going into business on your own, aren’t you?” “No, done that, and never again!” was the man’s immediate reply. Sue conversed for a moment with the spirit, yes, seems they were warning him not to go into business on his own. “Do you understand that?” Sue asked. I am sure he did.

Then it was back to Sue’s list. Another name this time, and jokingly I leant over to my companion and asked, is that your father? (still very much alive). Sue must have noticed my movement as she announced it was for the woman with glasses and looked directly towards my companion. Fortunately, a few seats away there was another woman, also with glasses, who was certain this spirit was for her. Sue’s agent, who’s job it was to take the microphone around, pointed out that this woman had already had a turn, but with my companion now trying to hide under the seat, Sue was sure it was for this woman. “Are you trying to do a family tree?” Sue asked this woman. “Yes, but I am having difficulty,” was the reply. Sue advised the spirit was telling her it was because there are several skeletons in the closet, and she should look further afield. “But they all come from Ireland,” the woman replied. No matter, you need to look in England Sue advised. I hope it helped.

Last on the list was another name that had come through – there were only three names put forward by spirit during the night. “Could be a first, or a last name, Preston.” I thought, this could be interesting, that’s not a common name. No takers. Silence. Then a woman in the third row puts her hand up. “My surname is Prescott,” she said. “No, Preston it is,” Sue repeats. More silence. Sue then conversed with the spirit. “Preston? Preston? no, no, it is Prescott, yes Prescott it is,” Sue announced, and then proceeded to convey a message to the Prescott in the audience.

The show was then concluded by Sue’s agent. It was 10.30pm. We made our way back to the foyer, and as we did I overheard one person remark, “That’s a dollar a minute”, presumably a reference to Sue’s 30-minute meditation CD.

Upon reaching the foyer we were nearly run down when a group of people clutching books saw Sue and followed her into the adjoining room for them to be signed.

Putting it all together

In summary, I noticed that when Sue got it wrong, she moved on quickly, that information she elicited from the person often became the information that the spirit then supplied back, often followed by the question “Do you understand that?”. Typically, a name or a general description of an illness would change into something else when there was no apparent connection to a member of the audience. A vague description such as “chest pains” could be interpreted as anything from heart disease to lung cancer, leaving the field wide open for a connection. If someone identified a condition as relating to that of their dearly departed, Sue still asked them what they had died of. Once the spirit had been identified by someone from this vague description, nothing else was actually revealed to further confirm the correctness of this identification.

In one instance the spirit, confirmed by a woman in the audience to be that of her deceased mother, was identified from Sue’s description of someone with a problem in the throat area. The woman revealed her mother had died from a brain tumor, but, she clarified, her mother did have difficulty swallowing in the latter part of her illness. Sue told the woman her mother had 18 variously sized brain tumors. There was no way to verify this, and interestingly the woman did not confirm it, but one has to wonder, why was the spirit not at first able to give Sue the basic information of a brain tumor, but later, after she was given this information, was then able to give a precise number to the tumors?

When anyone told Sue what gift they received during their journey to the other side, she was always able see it above them – she never told them what it was prior to her being told by the participant. Interestingly the messages Sue conveyed and the interpretation of gifts from the spirit world were generally the same – your friend/relative/partner says they love you/forgive you/never got around to telling you they love you, but they do, and it is okay to move on with your life now. There were no specific revelations from any of them, just general ‘feel good’ comments. Commendably, she put in a word of caution for anyone contemplating suicide – you should not hasten death, but wait until your time comes.

Was I convinced? Not at all, but I could see that most attending were, and with Sue not able to get to everyone, that many would be back another time.

At least I can point out the inconsistencies and errors that I observed to believers now that I had answered their criticism and attended a session.

Hopefully this may be sufficient to persuade some believers to think more critically about their experience in the future. I certainly hope so.