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.

What do we believe?

A recent UMR Research poll has provided a snapshot of what New Zealanders believe about a range of paranormal subjects. More than half accept that some people have psychic powers; on the other hand, only 24 percent think astrology can be used to predict people’s futures and two thirds do not believe aliens have visited the Earth.

Questions also assessed beliefs in God or a universal spirit, whether Jesus was a historical person, and life after death.

There were some interesting results, particularly where the data are broken down more finely by demographics and the intensity with which beliefs are held. Belief in life after death declines with age, so it would seem the growing sense of one’s own mortality isn’t a major factor in such belief. But belief in psychic powers increases with age, so it’s not just a case of increasing years bringing higher levels of scepticism.

While a majority (61 percent) believe in God, only 41 percent are absolutely certain or fairly certain about this, and belief is much less pronounced in men (52 percent) than women (72 percent). Women are also more likely to believe in life after death, psychic powers and astrology, while the sexes are evenly split on UFOs and whether Jesus was a real person.

Astrology takes a real hiding. Forty percent are absolutely certain it can’t predict the future, while only two percent hold the opposite view. Alien visitation also did rather poorly, with only 11 percent absolutely or fairly certain it has happened, as against 44 percent holding the contrary positions.

An Australian 2009 Nielsen poll makes for interesting comparisons. It seems the Aussies are slightly less likely to believe in psychic powers (49 percent), slightly more likely (68 percent) to believe in God or a universal spirit, about as likely to believe in UFOs, and much more likely (41 percent) to believe in astrology, although this last one may be just the way the question was asked (belief in astrology vs its ability to predict the future).

The poll ( was conducted online from 21 to 28 September 2011 on a nationally representative sample of 1000 New Zealanders 18 years of age and over. Detailed quotas and weighting were used to ensure that the sample was as representative as possible. The first results were released in December; future reports based on the data will cover such subjects as beliefs about Maori culture and public faith in herbal remedies. It will be interesting to see how they turn out.

After the overdose

NZ Skeptics link up with a British campaign against homeopathy.

On January 30 there was a concerted global mass overdose – but no-one died because the ‘medication’ was homeopathic. The event grew from the UK-based 10:23 campaign (, which was planning a mass homeopathic overdose to protest against the Boots pharmacy chain stocking homeopathic products.

At a Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub meeting ( four days before the planned date, one attendee asked if the NZ Skeptics were going to be involved. After all, we had asked a number of times over the years for the professional pharmacy bodies to supply a conference speaker to talk about the ethics of selling products of doubtful efficacy. Things swung quickly into action…

We held the mass overdose in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, with about 40 people taking part. The event also included an ‘underdose’ – homeopaths believe that the more dilute things are, the more potent they become, so we were careful to try that approach. There are also claims by product manufacturers that, in fact, dosage doesn’t matter at all – whether you take one pill or 100 – the important thing is the frequency of dosage. We covered that base too. No ill effects were reported, apart from a distinct drop in the level of cash in various wallets. While several members were keen to take part, many said they couldn’t in all good conscience bring themselves to buy the stuff in the first place. For the demonstration, we reluctantly purchased two boxes of tablets and a 25ml spray from a Unichem pharmacy, costing $51.95. That’s a lot to pay for less than two tablespoons of water and not much more than that in lactose milk sugar.

One of the homeopathic products downed by the participants had a label saying it contained chamomilia, humulus lupulus, ignatia, kali brom, nux vomica and zinc val. But those substances were actually in homeopathic dilutions, meaning that the kali brom, for example, was present in a proportion comparable to one pinch of sugar in the Atlantic Ocean – that is, not actually present at all.


The pre-publicity from the Christchurch Press saw the New Zealand Council for Homeopaths admit publicly that their products had no material substance in them (our emphasis).

Council spokeswoman Mary Glaisyer said ( “there’s not one molecule of the original substance remaining” in the diluted remedies that form the basis of this multi-million-dollar industry. This point was picked up by a columnist in the Guardian, who referred to the NZ homeopaths as finding “amusing and creative ways to dig themselves deeper into a hole”.

We got a flurry of interest in the first press release from TV, radio and print media, as well as great support from members, Skeptics in the Pub folk and others concerned about this issue.

TV One ran a very short news item on it; there was a longer, more thoughtful piece on TV3 News.

On TVNZ the Pharmacy Guild was quoted saying of homeopathic products: “there’s a place for them so long as customers are told they only may help”. We believe that that is unethical, and certainly that comment was not made at any of the pharmacists we visited to purchase these products.

TVNZ’s Close Up national current affairs programme covered the story on February 12. They spent two hours filming us swallowing pills, spritzing sprays, demonstrating how a homeopathic dilution is made, talking about the health and safety issues of relying on water as a medicine and a whole host of other issues, in the cosy confines of The Snug at the Twisted Hop, the bar of choice for the Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub gatherings.

That sterling effort was then diluted to a very short intro followed by a short interview sequence involving Vicki Hyde and Mary Glaisyer. Following on from this, we decided to put up a challenge of our own to the NZ Council of Homeopaths to join the campaign to call for pharmacies to stop selling homeopathic products, as both groups are opposed to the practice, albeit for different reasons.

The New Zealand Council of Homeopaths and others in the trade have stated that their customers require lengthy personalised sessions to “match the energy of the potency of the remedy with the person”. According to Mary Glaisyer, this involves matching symptoms with the huge range of materials on which homeopaths base their ultra-diluted preparations. For example, causticum, more mundanely known as potassium hydroxide, is said to manifest its homeopathic action in “paralytic affections” and “seems to choose preferable [sic] dark-complexioned and rigid-fibered persons”.

Pharmacists who sell homeopathic products in the same way they sell deodorants and perfumed soaps are clearly not meeting basic homeopathic practice. When a number of pharmacies in Christchurch were checked by purchasers of these products, no pharmacy staff asked about symptoms; one simply asked “do you want vitamins with that?”

Many people equate homeopathic products with herbal products, hence the belief that the products contain real substance. In addition, the products are commonly used for conditions which get better with time regardless of treatment, as well as exploiting the well-known placebo effect.

The call for the NZ Skeptics and homeopaths to join forces is not the first time such action has been considered. In 2002, when an Auckland pharmacy starting selling products labelled homeopathic “meningococcal vaccine” and homeopathic “hepatitis B vaccine”, we discussed with the late Bruce Barwell, at that time the president of the NZ Homeopathic Society, a joint release condemning this highly dangerous move. We were concerned that relying on water as a vaccine would lead to unnecessary deaths.

It’s bad enough when the product labelling misleads people into thinking they are buying something more than water. It’s far worse when they misuse a word like vaccine in such a life-threatening area.

The homeopaths were concerned then, as now, that their 200-year-old practices were being misrepresented by non-homeopaths keen to benefit from the multi-million-dollar industry.

A recent survey showed that 94 percent of New Zealanders using homeopathic products aren’t aware that the remedies commonly contain no molecules of the active ingredient – their homeopath or health professional hadn’t disclosed this. The customers believe they are paying for the substances listed on the box, but those were only in the water once upon a time before the massive dilution process began – along with everything else that the water once had in it – the chlorine, the beer, the urine…

You have to ask, at what point does it shift from being an issue of informed consent to become an issue of fraud?

Do pharmacists not know that homeopathic products are just water, or they do know and don’t care because people will buy it not realising the massive mark-up? Either way, that should be a big concern for the health consumer. Here’s a huge industry with virtually no regulatory oversight or consumer protection or come-back, and even its keen customers aren’t aware of the highly dubious practices involved.

When Billy Joel’s daughter attempted to commit suicide in December, she chose to take an overdose of homeopathic medication, and thus suffered no ill effects. While that case was fortunate, there are many cases where people have been harmed by the use of homeopathic products in the place of real medicine. There is a Coroner´s Court record of the death of a baby from meningitis; it had been treated with homeopathic ear drops and the mother was very reluctant for any hospital admission. And the website lists many cases from around the world where people have died or had horrible outcomes as a result of a mistaken reliance on homeopathy.

The alternative health industry has built a multi-million-dollar business exploiting the natural healing powers of the human body, as many conditions will get better within two to three days regardless of whether conventional or alternative treatments are used, or even if nothing is done at all. Independent testing has shown that homeopathic preparations take full advantage of this and homeopaths quickly take the credit for any improvement in their clients.

The NZ Skeptics have already had people asking for a list of ethical pharmacists that they can support with their business. We are happy to hear from any pharmacy willing to take a stand on this issue, and will start to create a database for concerned members of the public.

From the UK 10:23 campaign:

Thanks very much for the note, the support and the energy. We have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm from the NZ side of things. It’s been great.

To mark the occasion, the NZ Skeptics have released a new Skeptics Guide to Homeopathy, available as a flyer on the website ( It outlines the development of homeopathy from a relatively harmless attempt to help people some 200 years ago through to the multi-million industry of today.

Is science just mysticism in a lab coat?

Some fields that claim the authority of science may be in need of an overhaul. This article is based on a presentation to the NZ Skeptics 2009 conference in Wellington, 26 September.

I have always been in two minds about scepticism. I am undoubtedly a sceptic by nature; I enjoy questioning and challenging things. It suits my temperament and I like to think adds something important to a discussion. But a true sceptic must be sceptical about scepticism too, and it’s hard to escape two weaknesses in the scepticism agenda. The first is oft noted. As the British philosopher Roger Scruton puts it, when a sceptic tells you nothing is true, they are telling you not to listen to them, so don’t.

Of course, few confessed sceptics are sceptics in this pure philosophical sense. In some things we must opt for mindless belief in order to function. Without our commitment to notions of causation for instance, or other minds, or time, or the rules of logic, we would be unable to make much headway in the world; yet none of these core principles are able to withstand the sceptic’s gaze. And so, quite sensibly, we do not look there. The typical sceptic, it seems to this outsider, is more a champion of an evidence-based form of something we might call scientism. Their mission becomes the challenging of those forms of knowledge which appear to pay scant regard to the available set of observations. The trouble here is that limited resources mean there are only so many places the sceptical gaze can shine and choices must be made. Sometimes prejudice will determine which knowledge is scrutinised and which is left alone, or worse still, laziness. It is all too easy to attack the hapless for our own amusement, while leaving the powerful unchallenged.

The second problem is one of ‘busybodyism’. I myself have little time for quackery and superstition but most of the time I find it hard to care whether others share my perspective. Yes, it is clearly wrong for those pretending to talk to the dead (or rather pretending the dead talk back) to exploit the grieving, but to those who enjoy recounting their ghost stories and snorting their arnica I tend to feel why not leave them to it. Who am I to say my life’s any richer for having forgone such flim-flammery?

It is with these caveats in mind that I turn my attention evolutionary psychology. Here is a refuge of shysters that by and large is not subject to the same level of attack endured by astrology, which is odd to me, for the methodologies are remarkably similar. I suspect it’s got something to do with the fact that it happens not in the tents of a gypsy fair but within the hallowed hallways of academia, and better still often within spitting distance of the science faculty. And to allay my second concern with scepticism, I have little trouble being a busybody in this area for the simple reason that the activities of academics are so often tax-payer funded, and given the vital role of academia in protecting and advancing knowledge it’s quite okay to hold these people to a higher standard.

So, why be sceptical about evolutionary psychology? Well, because it’s not scientific in its approach and yet attempts to hide behind the language of science, and to me that feels like an intellectual fraud. I can’t make that claim without first defining what I mean by science and given the millions of words that have been written on the slippery topic I’m clearly going to have to oversimplify.

The basics of the scientific method are well known. At heart this is a discipline based upon observation, hypothesis making, prediction and testing. The remarkable power of science to advance our knowledge stems for the ability to test the claims we are making against the data, and crucially this data is at its most powerful when it is generated by the hypothesis, rather than representing a cobbling together of the already known facts.

Before the General Theory of Relativity, nobody imagined that light would be bent by gravity. When Eratosthenes predicted the angle of the sun as measured by the shadows in a well shaft would be different at the same time of day, he was using the hypothesis of a curved earth to generate a novel prediction (and so test his hypthesis). When Fresnel’s equation predicted that light waves would produce a bright patch directly behind an obstacle he forced the French academy to rethink their acceptance of Newton’s particle theory of light. And closer to home, when David Penny and Mike Hendy working out of Massey University predicted that species relatedness would produce particular patterns in as-yet untested genetic sequences, they gave us a way of verifying the evolutionary hypothesis.

In all these cases and so many more we are awestruck by the power of science to not just explain existing facts, but also generate new ones. If you look at X under circumstances Y, I predict you will see Z, says the scientist. And what’s more, if you don’t then my theory is at least partially wrong. On the back of this method we have developed the technologies that underpin the modern world.

Evolutionary psychology, the claim that understanding our evolutionary past will help us better understand our contemporary behaviour, has none of these attributes, although at first glance it can appear to. Ostensibly the discipline seeks first to read the known data, our understanding of the evolutionary processes by which we were designed, then build its hypotheses, speculations about the behavioural tendencies of modern humans, and finally using the tools of psychology to test these hypotheses against the observations of our contemporary behaviour. Unfortunately, any resemblance to actual science is entirely coincidental. For evolutionary psychology as it is currently practised contains three crucial flaws.

The first comes from the requirement that a hypothesis, in order to be tested, must make a unique prediction. If two hypotheses both generate the same prediction, then experimentation will yield no means of deciding between them. Take the claim for instance that certain aspects of our appreciation of art are innate. Well yes, that’s a sensible enough idea, it may well be true and although difficult to test, it’s probably not impossible. Commonalities across time and culture provide clear hints that there is a genetic component at work.

However, and here’s the rub, there is nothing about evolutionary theory that gives it exclusive right to this claim of innate aesthetics. A creationist could equally well argue that God himself endowed humanity with these basic tendencies to assess and report upon the world’s beauty. Both hypotheses generate exactly the same predictions and this is a clear sign the evolutionary part of the process is not a scientific one, for in science predictions are used to choose between rival explanations.

A second huge problem is that we don’t actually know much about our evolutionary past, and so the blocks with which we build our initial hypotheses are spectacularly inadequate. Sometimes, when reading the claims of the evolutionary psychologist, it is tempting to imagine the savannah was fully equipped with CCTV cameras and Facebook. Complex stories are built about social structures, hunting and collecting rituals and mating preferences, and what emerges is a rendering of our evolutionary past that owes more to the Flintstones than any compelling archaeological evidence.

Take for example the initially persuasive claim that the difference in the reproductive potentials of men and women led to men (competing to mate with as many as possible) the aggressors, and women (attempting to raise the healthiest possible) the choosey co-operators. A cave man version of the courting practices of birds is evoked and because the language used is faux scientific, we are expected to buy the construction.

Again, it is possible that our distant ancestors arranged themselves this way but it is by no means certain. It is equally plausible that the emergence of language and complex culture changed the game completely, selecting against male aggression and for charm and social acumen. While Conan is out smiting all with an ass’s jawbone, Romeo is inside the cave getting to know his wife. We have examples from the primate world of females being the dominant aggressors and more importantly the emergence of complex language sets the human ape apart, generating unique selective pressures that we can only guess at.

The key moments in the evolution of the human mind revolved about the invention of language and so it is worth asking the evolutionary psychologist, how did language first come about, where and when, under what environmental pressures did it develop and what was it used for? Until we can answer these questions, and perhaps some day we will be able to, we do not have the basis the theory requires.

This second flaw exposes the third problem. We are not in fact using data from the past to form hypotheses about the present state of the human mind. Rather we are using our observations and testings of our current psychology to speculate about the nature of our evolutionary past. We are reversing the entire scientific process. Because we observe modern males indulging in more physical forms of aggression we guess this is innate (an heroic assumption in itself) and then cobble together an evolutionary ‘Just So’ story to give these modern prejudices the veneer of social respectability. And that is story telling. It is often diverting and frequently amusing, but only in the way that a horoscope is.

What’s actually happening is that contemporary studies of human psychology, which should be judged purely upon the contemporary data they generate, have their credibility bolstered by an appeal to a distant past that exists only in the imagination of those wishing to sell their theory.

Do men and women in general use different methods to get their bearings? A lot of experiments suggest they do. Okay. Is there a genetic basis for this? We could certainly look for one. Does a cock-and-bull story about how men roamed further in their hunting of animals while women paid close attention to the details of where particular berries would be found add anything to our knowledge of this phenomenon? Well, it adds colour and saleability I suppose, but that is a lousy criteria by which to judge scientific advancement.

How has all this happened? One can only speculate. Partly it may be the thrill that comes to academics when they cross into a new discipline. Suddenly everything is fresh and exciting again, and the new perspective gives them great energy. Partly it’s just that we all love a good story, particularly when so many of the tales in the area centre around the eternally fascinating topic of gender.

So should we be sceptical about these works of fiction parading as scholarly analysis of our past? Absolutely. We should mock them with the same gusto we mock the water diviner and the investment adviser. So come on sceptics, this is a call to arms. Out the phonies wherever you find them.

Interestingly none of this means we should give up on the field of evolutionary psychology completely, for the hypothesis does have one testable and important implication. If indeed our evolutionary past has hard-wired certain behavioural tendencies then clues of this process will still lurk in our DNA. Longitudinal studies like the groundbreaking work coming out of Dunedin are beginning to mine the potential in this approach. But the work is long and painstaking, the conclusions complex and tentative and subject to constant revision.

The picture slowly emerging is one of delicate feedback between gene and environment and the stories to be told are cautious, fragile things. Real science in other words, is potentially about changing the face of our future. That’s where the resources should be going.