Old Rope and Dodgy Memories

Claire Le Couteur reports from the 2003 Skeptics’ Conference in Wellington.

This year’s conference, held at Victoria University, began with a social gathering followed by a presentation by artist and teacher Bill Taylor, who described his “Time Line” installation, which covered three walls of the lecture theatre.

The carefully measured 4.6km of rope were strung in lengths around the room. Articles such as shells, feathers and animal skulls were attached in their appropriate parts of the time line, which provided a visually impressive indication of the time elapsed since the formation of the Earth, with humanity’s portion accounting for only a tiny section at the very end. Bill has been a Royal Society Teaching Fellow this year, resident at the School of Earth Sciences at Victoria University.

Speakers on Saturday covered a wide range of topics, but the startling results produced by Maryanne Garry’s psychology students in their investigations of human memory formation and fallibility made their presentations a highlight.

It was humbling to note that, when asked to watch a short video segment, around a third of the audience failed to spot a large gorilla walk through a basketball game! Small comfort can be gained by the recognition that this is the typical proportion that fails to do so, a salutary warning against potential smugness….

These presentations complemented other talks on progress on the Christchurch Civic Crèche case, given by Lynley Hood, and another about the pitfalls that Skeptics member Jonathon Harper has faced in preparing a paper on the same case.

Several speakers covered the problem of how science is communicated, including the influence of the internet. Bruce Taylor, from the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment made a plea for members to read and make submissions on a discussion paper that is part of a project to examine the role of science in environmental policy and decision-making.

The damp, windy Wellington weather marred the planned visit to the Carter Observatory following dinner at the Skyline Restaurant, making star gazing difficult, but this was compensated for by an illustrated presentation by members of the Phoenix Astronomical Society on the origins and structure of Stonehenge. They also outlined their plans to construct a southern hemisphere copy of Stonehenge (Stonehenge-Aotearoa) at a site in the Wairarapa, for astronomical education purposes. They intend to open this to the public for viewing, and have already had some interest expressed from New Zealand-based Druids! The planetarium show on Mars gave a good overview on what sort of ideas people have had about the Red Planet in fact and fiction. Nano-bacteria may not be as romantic as H G Wells’ invaders, but their implications for life in the universe as just as immense.

Australian taxation consultant and skeptic, Richard Lead entertained on Sunday, with his talk on scam artists and snake-oil salesmen. Some of the dodges were well known, such as versions of the Nigerian “bank millions” scam, but the magical “purple plates” were new to most of us. While the Nigerian scam may seem obviously dodgy, it apparently brings in $US200 million annually in earnings to that country, and the Australian version of the Commerce Commission has had strong responses to its bogus ads for “bluebottle farm” investments, with people happy to send money in to such ludicrous get-rich-quick schemes. Richard’s main lesson was to drill into the audience’s collective consciousness, the vital ten-word phrase designed to protect anyone from being taken: “Let’s pretend it’s true. How would the world be different?”

David Rankin, general manager of Health Purchasing for ACC, reassured us that ACC has a firm commitment to identifying effective treatment and funding interventions that work. His session on the commission’s support for evidence-based medicine provided some interesting information on what they are and aren’t prepared to fund, but ended on a possibly disquieting implication that if there isn’t evidence to say a procedure doesn’t work, then it may indeed get the green light. More research is required!

The conference concluded with a panel discussion on consumer rights and protection, involving representatives from the Press Council, Medsafe and the Consumers’ Institute. The 120-strong attendees were armed with flyers on complaints procedures courtesy of a number of organizations and came away with a better understanding of how effective complaints can be made, and what grounds are likely to be ones which work.

Many thanks are due to Conference Convenor, Joanna Wojnar for her sterling work in organising an excellent gathering. We look forward to next year’s conference in Palmerston North.

Have Your Say

Environmental issues have played an increasing role in skeptical subject matter over recent years, ranging from calls for biodynamic possum peppering earning Jeanette Fitzsimons the Bent Spoon last year, to skepticism about global warming, from pooh-poohing of environmental impacts on taniwha habitat to wondering just how much paranoia and hypochondria is at the root of the health issues of moth-ridden Aucklanders in the infamous spray zone.

That’s why I was pleased to be able to invite Bruce Taylor from the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to speak at the conference, as I was aware of their attempt to encourage feedback on the role science should — must! — play in environmental decision-making.

There were certainly some strong feelings expressed, most notably concerning the impression that government organisations appear to bow before political correctness and potential vote-pandering, rather than sticking to scientific facts when making environmental decisions. Having read the document, I had been surprised by just how strong the support was for science at the heart of such decision-making.

As a group, we are very conscious of those times when credible scientific evidence is also all too easily cast aside in favour of a consultative culture — look at the amount of time spent pandering to the Steiner lobby with their proposals re going after painted apple moth, or Jeanette Fitzsimons with her silly support for possum peppering (a stand which made some of the more scientifically literate Greens cringe, but which I suspect was taken for political reasons).

Important as it is to consult, to hear other views, and to take into account factors outside that of the technical or scientific, it’s also important not to waste time and energy and resources on the patently incredible, particularly in an area as important as environmental policy or protection.

If I say cosmic astral influences can be used to control possums, is that equally valid to, say, the evidence for supporting 1080 or fertility controls? I’m confident that the Skeptics as a group would give a resounding “no” and argue that part of the responsibility our public servants and elected representatives have is to protect us, our country, our lives and our wallets from these subjective views where they clash with reality.

Yes, science can identify issues and areas of knowledge (and non- knowledge), but ultimately we are making political and social decisions. And we have a chance to flag why we think science needs to be a part of that process and how we can get better public engagement with decision-making that it recognises the importance of the underpinning of good science.

What should trouble us is the public indifference to science, and that this indifference and, in some cases, outright hostility, is a result not of ignorance but of a sense of powerlessness.

Some social scientists are now arguing that instead of public education programs aimed at boosting science literacy per se, we should be more concerned with public engagement strategies that get citizens directly involved in science policy-making.

Research has shown that knowledge, trust, efficacy, and deliberation are all closely related. Enhanced knowledge of politics leads to an increased belief among individuals that they can make a difference in politics, and also leads to increased trust in political institutions. Deliberating or discussing politics with others enhances knowledge, and, more vitally, gets people involved.

When members of the public take part in discussions that make them feel they can influence real decisions, lack of scientific knowledge is not necessarily a problem. In many countries around the world, consensus conferences, citizens’ juries, deliberative polls, and hui have all been used to give people a feeling that they will be listened to, as well as told what’s what scientifically.

And these efforts have indicated that people involved in such discussions quickly become adept at quizzing experts, mastering a brief, asking questions and unmasking political assumptions masquerading as scientific conclusions. It’s often very small-scale — in the tens, rather than the thousands, of people involved, but it’s a start.

I know, I’m an optimist, but I think that most of us are in the belief that we can make rational, informed decisions. Or, at the very least, recognise when we are being irrational. Maybe what we should be demanding are announcements which take this tack:

“Yes, this is an irrational decision and we are making it irrationally because we want to, in the face of what evidence we have because the loudest voices say we should do it this way.”

That at least would be intellectually honest and ethical!

Someone at the conference asked what the level of response had been to the report and I think I wasn’t the only one surprised to hear that the majority (over 80% I think) had come from the scientific community. Assumptions that the process would have been captured by the vocal political environmental lobby were unfounded… so let’s test those other assumptions.

I urge you to read Bruce’s piece (Page 3, this issue), better yet take a look at the report (available at: http://www.pce.govt.nz/reports/allreports/1_877274_09_7.shtml)

See what you think, and let Bruce know.


Skeptics Blown It?

Prior to attending the NZ Skeptics conference in Wellington this year, I read the discussion paper on the role of science in environmental policy and decision making, Illuminated or Blinded by Science, prepared by the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. It seemed to me to be a reasonable document. It included a discussion of some of the issues which have to be considered by policy makers in the environmental area and pointed to some of the difficulties, institutional and procedural, in using science to form environmental policy. Following on from the request in the paper for comments from the public on how science could be better incorporated into environmental policy, the team leader for the discussion paper, Mr Bruce Taylor, gave a presentation to the Skeptics conference in which he introduced the paper and asked for views on it.

I was dismayed by the vehemence of the criticisms of the paper expressed by members of the audience (I regret not being fast enough on my mental feet to contest them at the time). The nature of the criticisms wasn’t entirely clear to me. They seemed to be based principally on the fact that science was not the only instrument of environmental policy formation and that the discussion paper had considered other issues such as the role of social values in setting policy.

Science may well be the best system we have developed to describe and understand the physical world but it is naive to think that governments will use it to the exclusion of other issues to form policy in the environmental area. For instance, it’s worth remembering that science doesn’t necessarily say anything about moral values. The formation of policy is a political process, and if we want science to be part of it, we have to understand how to bring science into the political system.

Mr Taylor asked the Skeptics for help in making science a more effective part of policy formation. He didn’t get it. I think the Skeptics blew it. I doubt very much whether the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment will see the Skeptics as a source of rational comment on the effective use of science in the public arena in the future.

Alan Hart

Global Warming

The Skeptics have expressed a sound and healthy reluctance to subscribe to anthropogenic greenhouse gas theories of global warming, for the last several years. There now appears to be a growing amount of evidence proving just how right we were. As a regular subscriber and reader of New Scientist and Scientific American, I have been following this with interest. While SA has an editor fully committed to “greenie” nonsense (as witness his attack on Bjorn Lomborg), New Scientist is more open to new ideas. NZ Skeptic readers may find the following of interest.

  1. 23 August 2003: Glacial extensions of the polar ice caps on Mars are now in retreat. Peninsulas and islands of ice disappearing. A little hard to explain in terms of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, but (Occam’s Razor) easy in terms of astronomic phenomena such as solar output or cosmic rays. Scientific American, while not admitting to be at all wrong, reports in June 2003 that satellite measures of solar output show it is increasing, albeit very slightly.
  2. 13 September 2003: Under the title of Global Warming: the New Battle, it appears that meteorologists are adopting a new stance. “The priority now is to start preparing for its consequences…” While none of the global warming gurus have admitted fault in describing mechanisms, it appears that many want to move away from anthropogenic greenhouse gases and simply accept that the temperature increase happens. Maybe they are starting to realise they may not have been correct.
  3. 20 September 2003: Professor Philip Scott (Biogeography) describes recent research (also published in GSA Today 13, p 4) describing ancient records in rocks that suggest 75% of changes in global temperature were caused by changes in cosmic ray density. Also a paper (Nature 408, p 698) showing real problems trying to relate CO2 levels with ancient temperatures. Scott also points out that current computer models do not predict why it is that, while surface temperatures rise, the atmosphere just above remains cold.

If these revelations continue, I suspect that the greenhouse gas theories will soon be quietly dropped.

Lance Kennedy, Tantec

Indian Socialism

Bob Metcalfe (Forum #68) is confused. My letter (Forum #67) drew attention to the opinions of others on the antiglobalisation movement. The Oxus Research Foundation, New Delhi seems to think that the terms “socialism” and “starvation” can be used without further definition and I would agree.

Why “Socialism” rather than “Communism” or “Marxism”is interesting; perhaps because it seems a more neutral term. But the early Congress party was proud of its Marxist roots, and in the early years of independence India received a large amount of aid from Stalinist Russia.

True, India has not had a nationwide famine since British rule ceased. The terrible event in 1943 caused enormous suffering because during the war, aid was unavailable from outside. The comrades of the Congress party blamed lack of planning — the socialist solution. But once in power they never had to face the same conditions that produced the earlier event. Planning did not prevent frequent local famines in newly independent India. The authorities alleviated suffering with the same measures used in capitalist societies’ relief efforts.

True, “people have starved in America”; Bhalla himself points out the coincidence that India and the US launched a “war on poverty” at about the same time, the early 1960s. But then the US had a food surplus and India a food deficit. India now has a food surplus. My opinion is that this owes more to the “Green Revolution”, than to political policies.

However the Indian government of the time is to be commended for welcoming the Green Revolution even though it offended socialist ideology. Socialists were generally of the opinion that it would do nothing for the World’s poor.

Indeed poor Indian farmers were thought to be those who would suffer most under the new type of agriculture that would benefit only the “big corporations”. Fortunately this prediction turned out to be untrue.

Of course the anti-globalisation people are the intellectual heirs of those who opposed the Green revolution (this is where this correspondence started). Their arguments are nearly identical and their ideology indistinguishable. The failure of those earlier predictions is forgotten or ignored.

Bob Metcalfe quotes Sen to the effect that democracy or dictatorship is a better indicator of possible famine than socialism or capitalism. China, which has adopted capitalism without renouncing dictatorship would seem to provide a counter-example.

This debate has received “something other than glib generalisations and inaccurate case studies”. The problem is that few people have bothered to read the literature. My earlier contribution was an attempt to draw peoples attention to an unpopular side of this controversy. I doubt one can do better in a letter.

Jim Ring

Science and Environmental Policy – Challenges and Opportunities

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is calling for submissions on the role of science in environmental policy and decision-making. This article is based on a paper presented at the 2003 New Zealand Skeptics’ Conference in Wellington.

Are public policies and decisions that affect the environment adequately informed by science? How important is science relative to other considerations that environmental policy and decision-makers have to consider? How well are uncertainties reflected in policies and decisions and subsequently managed? Are the results expected of policies and decisions being achieved? These are a few of the issues that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) is currently investigating. As part of the project examining the role of science in environmental policy and decision-making, a discussion paper: Illuminated or Blinded by Science? was circulated by the PCE in July 2003 for comment. Its purpose was to encourage debate on the role of science in environmental policy and decision-making by elected representatives at central and local government as well as appointed decision-makers such as the Environmental Risk Management Authority and the Environment Court.

As an Officer of Parliament, the PCE is independent of these institutions. The Commissioner’s functions under the Environment Act 1986 enable him to investigate the effectiveness of systems and processes for managing the environment. The PCE’s interest in undertaking this study is to explore opportunities and barriers to improving the quality and effectiveness of environmental policies, decisions and outcomes, and the role that science plays in this.

The project was triggered by a number of concerns arising from previous PCE studies and from routine monitoring of environmental management decisions and policies of public authorities. These concerns include:

  • Gaps in knowledge and information that make policy and decision-making difficult and controversial, or the environmental outcomes uncertain. Examples include information gaps identified in the Ministry for the Environment’s 1997 State of the Environment report, and the controversy surrounding the potential consequences of lifting the moratorium on genetic modification.
  • Lessons to be learned about science-policy interface issues highlighted by the handling of the BSE (“mad cow” disease) incident in the UK in the late 1990s.
  • Pressures on environmental policy and decision-makers, such as time constraints within which decisions must be made and which are often incompatible with the time needed to undertake appropriate scientific research to guide those decisions.
  • The environmental consequences of either rushing into or delaying decisions where there may be significant uncertainties.
  • The correct framing of questions for science to attempt to answer.
  • Environmental policy and decision-makers’ need for and access to independent scientific advice.
  • Issues around research funding and science purchaser-provider relationships.
  • Transparency of and accountability for decisions that require not only scientific evidence, but also evidence that other viewpoints have been considered.

Policy and decision-making on environmental matters present particular difficulties because of our limited understanding of complex ecological systems, and the wide range of interests in how natural and physical resources are managed. Problems can be exacerbated when facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, the stakes are high, decisions are urgent, and outcomes are unpredictable.

Policy Realities

The reality for environmental policy and decision-makers is that, under statutes like the Resource Management Act 1991, they have a responsibility to consider a broad range of interests including environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of a proposed activity or policy. Some of these interests will be supported by scientific evidence or predictions, while others will be expressed in terms of values that are important to a community. It is this combination of “facts” and “values” that presents the greatest challenge for policy and decision-makers — finding environmental solutions that are both scientifically justified and meet the needs and aspirations of the community. In environmental decision-making processes should knowledge that is based on our current scientific understanding prevail over other kinds of knowledge? Are there ways to effectively integrate different kinds of knowledge to help decision-makers achieve good environmental outcomes? Do the merits of each source of knowledge need to be evaluated on some common basis?

The significance of scientific knowledge and other non-scientific viewpoints are assessed in different ways. Scientific evidence and the divergences of views among scientists can be challenged, defended and assessed through well established experimental and peer review processes. On the other hand, non-scientific considerations may reflect strongly held ethical, cultural and moral values that are usually more subjective in nature and challenged or defended through debate and dialogue rather than by using prescribed assessment procedures or criteria. Both the scientific process and public debate are important in developing environmental policies and decisions that reflect not only what is known (ie what is scientifically verifiable and defensible) but also what is acceptable to society in general. Acceptability may ultimately and legitimately be the basis on which final decisions are made, as is the case with New Zealand’s “nuclear-free” policy. Public health policies on smoke-free environments (eg in public buildings and workplaces) stem from improved understanding of the health effects of passive smoking as well as changing attitudes to, and less tolerance of, smoking in enclosed places.

Knowledge has Many Sources

Some regard scientific knowledge as being essential and the primary basis for environmental policies and decisions. Others suggest that, in the politics of decision-making, values are what ultimately matter most. But knowledge needed to make wise decisions is derived from many sources including various scientific facts, theories, disciplines and approaches, philosophical views, and individuals’ upbringing and life experiences, to name just a few. The focus of the PCE’s discussion paper is on the role of science, but recognises that other viewpoints are also important and it is necessary to consider them in environmental decision-making processes. The expectation is that environmental policies and decisions are based on sound knowledge. But views differ on what is considered “sound knowledge”, as evidenced by the ongoing debate about the causality of global climate change and what the appropriate policy responses should be. Scientific knowledge, by its very nature, is continually evolving. Social values may also change over time and can vary among sectors of society. Science clearly has a significant role to play in the development of effective environmental policies and decisions, but should other knowledge that is not regarded as scientifically defensible be labelled as unsound or irrelevant? Should decisions be routinely revised in the light of new knowledge and changing attitudes?

No Certainties

Neither scientific nor other sources of knowledge can guarantee absolute certainties for decision-makers. Science can and does improve our understanding of complex ecological systems and helps to reduce uncertainties. The vacuum created by the absence of full scientific knowledge will inevitably be filled by other assertions and concerns, including moral, ethical and cultural values. The current debate on genetic modification is a good example of this. Better understanding by decision-makers of the values that are important to communities is also key to promoting inclusiveness in decision-making and improving the public’s confidence in the decisions being made on their behalf. Whether decisions are eventually based on science or values (or both), the important point is that the process needs to be transparent and the reasons for the decision made clear.

Our aim in this project is to encourage better quality decision-making that results in good environmental management. This requires sound scientific understanding of environmental risks, and an understanding of the acceptability of those risks and, therefore, how they should be managed. Science has an important and influential role in environmental policy and decision-making. We wish to explore how well it is used and incorporated into decisions that need to consider a wide range of factors. If environmental policies and decisions are based both on what is known and what is acceptable, there may be a greater chance of achieving environmentally sustainable outcomes.


True Home of Father Christmas Discovered!

I am always astonished that famous mystical persons, such as the Virgin Mary (who was transubstantiated into an Australian fencepost in February) reveal themselves to us mere mortals. I once had an experience like that.

Four years ago I was on a German research ship in the Southern Ocean taking sediment cores from the sea bottom. The cores were cut in half lengthwise to expose sedimentary structures. In one of the cores was a clear image of Father Christmas.

Luckily we were thousands of kilometres away from human habitation; otherwise the ship would have been overrun by thousands of children wanting to see this apparition. The consensus of people on board was that, being so close to Antarctica, the message was obvious. Father Christmas does not live at the North Pole, but at the South Pole.

Gerrit van der Lingen

Originally published in the Christchurch Press, February 14, 2003

Indian Socialism

I possibly shouldn’t come into a debate that seems to be going on for some time which I haven’t actually followed, but a couple of the statements that Jim Ring makes in his letter (Autumn 2003) need at least some clarification.

He maintains that “under socialism India was a poor country, people starved”. This is a very vague statement. What does Ring mean by socialism? It has been a pluralist secular democracy since independence, albeit with a fairly controlled economy. More importantly, what is meant by people starved? I doubt if there is a country in the world, socialist or capitalist, where you couldn’t say in the past people starved. People have starved in America, the world’s capitalist icon.

The suggestion to me is that India suffered famines. Perhaps this is not meant but it should be noted India has not had a famine since 1943 when it was under British rule. It has been exporting food on and off for years, even under so-called socialism. The deciding factor for famines according to Sen is not so much whether a country is socialist or capitalist, but whether it is a democracy or dictatorship.

Lastly India has been manufacturing if not exporting (I have little information about exports) much more complicated goods than textiles for years, such as cars and motorbikes. Admittedly these were not particularly modern models, but anyone who has driven in an underdeveloped country would know that once outside the main cities anything that can be repaired by a local blacksmith is a much better bet than the more complicated modern stuff.

Leaving aside the figures on the increase or decline in world poverty for which both sides claim sound evidence, this debate deserves something other than glib generalizations and inaccurate case studies.

Bob Metcalfe

Evolutionary Ethics

I am surprised that the Skeptics have chosen to support this environmentalist campaign (Family Obligations, Skeptic 67). Evolution implies no “family obligations” to our fellow creatures, but a relatively utilitarian attitude. We support cows, wheat, kiwifruit, roses and brewer’s yeast. We discourage possums, rats, the painted apple moth and the Sars virus.

Chimps are cute, but so are rabbits, possums and stoats.They have a lot of our DNA, but the people of Ethiopia, Chechnya, Congo, Bosnia have even more and they need our help.

Chimps would survive longer if they went back to work instead of becoming permanent social welfare beneficiaries. Revive the “chimpanzee’s tea-party” at the zoo. Put them back in the circus. Recruit them for advertising tea, or appearing in movies with US presidential hopefuls. And what is wrong with being an experimental animal?

Vincent Gray

Peppering the Painted Apple Moth

The Painted Apple Moth spraying programme in the western suburbs of Auckland has generated considerable controversy. An alternative programme was evaluated at last year’s Skeptics

The Painted apple moth was first recorded in the Auckland suburb of Glendene on 5 May 1999. Subsequently, it was reported from the Auckland suburb of Mt Wellington. Since this moth species has the potential to seriously impact on New Zealand’s forestry, conservation and horticulture, an eradication attempt was launched.

Following on from a meeting in November, on 14 December 2001, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry received a formal “Peppering Trial Proposal against the Painted Apple Moth”.

The submission was made by the Painted Apple Moth Community Coalition (CC-PAM), supported by the Community Advisory Group, an advisory group originally convened by Maf. It was prepared by Hana Blackmore (a Green candidate in the Tamaki electorate) with the assistance of Glen Atkinson of Garuda Biodynamics, Glenys Bean, John Clearwater and Meriel Watts (a Green candidate in the Waitakere electorate).

To quote from the proposal:

“Peppering is a biodynamic method of pest control, which aims to inhibit the reproductive potential of the pest being targeted…

The theory holds that the specific preparation methods produce the negative “energy” of the pest’s reproductive force, operating on a vibrational level, not a material one. Used in the field it enters the soil and surrounding vegetation producing an “unfriendly” and inhibiting environment. It is host specific and non-toxic, and does not have a lethal effect. The method has been used commercially in New Zealand for a number of years with verifiable success.”

The proposal consisted of two trials:

Field Broadcast Trial

Proposal – that Garuda install a Field Broadcast pipe containing the biodynamic preparation of the painted apple moth on the infested Traherne Island.

“The trial will aim to produce a statistically significant reduction in the painted apple moth population on the island. [R]ecent innovative developments by Garuda allow the establishment or enhancement of the reproductive inhibiting ‘pattern’ via Field Broadcast pipes. These are simple PVC pipes with internal copper circuits that can ‘radiate’ the biodynamic preparation that is placed within it.”

Peppering Ground Spray Trial

Proposal – that Garuda conduct a peppering ground spray of the biodynamic preparation of the painted apple moth on one hectare of public land in the heavily infested zone, and that a similar control area is sprayed with water.

“The trial will aim to produce a statistically significant drop in the moth catches in the actively sprayed zone, compared to both the control site and the areas surrounding the active site.”

The Technical Advisory Group (TAG), which assessed the proposal, comprised 21 members (16 scientists, 3 operations experts, 2 local council representatives) and six observers, including a representative from the Community Advisory Group. The group was devised to provide advice and make recommendations relating to the campaign against painted apple moth, including containment, control and eradication options.

One TAG member noted the following with regard to the efficacy of peppering:

“Peppering has been used commercially, as indicated in the proposal, but the “verifiable success” must be questioned. The testimonials from growers are data-free, and relate to insects with a naturally patchy distribution over both time and space. There is no numerical data to support the efficacy of peppering.”

Concern was also expressed regarding changes to the predicted outcome of the trial. The original proposal said that the peppering would affect adult dispersal, so that they were dissuaded from entering, or encouraged to leave, the treated zone; and that it would render the F1 generation sterile. As the aim was to eradicate painted apple moth, causing adults to disperse elsewhere was not considered helpful.

The usual claims about peppering relate to deterrent action, but claims of reproductive inhibition have become more common. Ultimately (and one could suggest, as a result of discussions at the meeting), the final proposal only referred to the sterilising effect of peppering – yet no measurement of this supposed effect was incorporated in the proposal.

The claims of repellent or reproductive inhibition made by the biodynamic proponents could have led to them requiring approval under the HSNO (Hazardous Substances and New Organisms) Act or the ACVM (Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines) Act. However, such registration may have been waived due to the perception of low risk or low residue involved. Ironically, such a registration could have served to legitimise the claims made for this approach.

Further critique of the proposal concerned a number of other flaws in its approach:

“The proposal(s) focus entirely on comparing numbers of males in traps in the peppered areas with those in non-peppered areas. There is no proposal to measure any infertility, nor to target any other insect. Thus, the proposal does not address the key issues discussed and agreed to at the November 14 meeting.

“Furthermore, it is proposed to run the trial over the entire period of Foray (Btk) spraying, so any results will be compromised by a known effective treatment.

“[T]he proposal as written is technically flawed, and is not capable of demonstrating any effect of peppering on painted apple moth.”

At its 15 January 2002 meeting, the Technical Advisory Group recommended that a peppering trial be undertaken on another species where there was no eradication programme in place. On the basis of this recommendation, MAF declined to supply the proponents of the peppering trial with moths.

On reflection, I have not ceased to be amazed at how officialdom has become so PC that at a critical time in an eradication campaign, much time and money can be wasted on unproven and questionable proposals.

While peppering as a pest control method now has a profile that deserves quantitative scrutiny, an eradication campaign is not the appropriate platform on which to evaluate this biodynamic approach – certainly not without compromising our biosecurity.


Alternative Child Healthcare

The following correspondence between nursing lecturer Sue Gasquoine and Skeptics’ chairentity Vicki Hyde is reproduced with the permission of the participants -ed.

Hello Vicki,

I heard you talking to Wayne Mowat on National Radio yesterday. I have a theory for you to consider as you wonder why New Zealanders view with such skepticism “religious” reasons for denying children treatment (epitomised by the death of baby Caleb Moorhead) when there seemed to be significant support for Liam Williams-Holloway’s parents when they decided to “hide” him and seek “alternative” therapy.

There is a world of difference between diagnosis with and death from a vitamin deficiency and diagnosis with and death from cancer.

Vitamin deficiency is entirely avoidable even with very strict diets. Cancer in children is not. Treatment of vitamin deficiency is generally uncomplicated, entirely successful and has few side effects. Treatments for cancers such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy are by no means uncomplicated and are often associated with distressing side effects. They vary in their effectiveness depending on the type and location of the cancer and are by no means a guarantee that the child will survive.

There are few if any useful parallels that can be drawn between parents trying to act in the best interests of their child with cancer, who may in the process decline treatments offered by western medicine and parents who do not recognise the ‘necessaries of life’.

I think New Zealanders recognise this critical difference which has been absent in most media coverage of these tragic events. They do well to be skeptical of religious fanaticism, alternative therapy AND western medicine which also makes false claims – the “safety” of HRT and the rate of caesarian births being the most recent examples!

Sue Gasquoine, Lecturer – Nursing
School of Health Science, Unitech

Vicki responded with:

Thanks for the feedback — always appreciated.

I certainly agree there is a world of difference between diagnosis with and death from a vitamin deficiency and diagnosis with and death from cancer, and it may well have been a contributing factor though not, I would suggest, a major distinction made by people in looking at the various cases.

I say that because of the Tovia case just before Liam’s one, which also involved refusal of cancer treatment for a child (albeit a 14-year-old), but this time on religious grounds.

In that case, there was, as with the Moreheads, a much more critical view taken of the parents and their role in refusing treatement. They were also taken to court, at one stage facing manslaughter charges, and were generally condemned in the media.

I have had many discussions with legal, media and medical people about the differences between this case and that of Liam Williams-Holloway, and the treatment the two families got in the press and in the court of public opinion.

I think that it would be possible to argue that Peni and Faafetai Laufau, the parents of Tovia, deserved a more sympathetic treatment in some respects because (1) they were doing it on sincere religious beliefs, not based on a book which touts conspiracy theories and coffee enemas as cancer treatments and (2) their son was of an age to arguably be a part of the informed consent process, and expressed his own wish to refuse treatment.

Much in all as I hate to say it, the main points of difference can be attributed to a couple of factors I suspect — the Laufaus were Pacific Islanders, of lower socio-economic status, and religious. Treena and Brendan were white, middle-class, articulate and constantly described as making a “well-informed choice”.

It’s a most uncomfortable set of differences in its implications…

I do think that there is culpability in both the cases you cite and in that of the Laufaus. There is a great deal regarding the Liam Williams-Holloway case which was not adequately addressed by the media, and I can understand why those involved continue to feel a certain amount of despair and anger at what happened. (I’d be happy to discuss this further if you like, or if you have any questions about it.)

And you are so right that it is vital we cast a critical eye over any claims in all areas. What we have to do is to ensure that we have some way of helping us determine what claims there are, what the level of evidence is to support those claims, and what the risks are in accepting or rejecting that evidence.

All the best,
Vicki Hyde

B.Sc.(Astrol.) anyone?

Ever felt queasy about the courses the New Zealand Qualifications Authority gives its approval to? Remember the fuss over the Indian government’s encouragement of university courses in astrology? The infection is spreading; some well-known British universities are also up to some curious activities. A recent correspondent to the science journal “Nature” reports on a charity called The Sophia Project, which has money to give away for work that sets out to establish that astrology is a genuine science. Four institutions are named as having accepted funds for this. Studies include: planetary influences on fertility and childbirth, and on alcoholics, and looking for correlations between birthdate and prostitution.

The correspondent is concerned that, despite the private funds provided, some taxpayers’ money is inevitably going to support this “bogus research”. Of perhaps greater concern is that these universities are giving undeserved respectability to this nonsense.

Bernard Howard

A Letter from the Skeptical Left

I admire your work against creationism, but I have to ask why it is that proponents of lesbian and gay rights and reproductive choice on abortion have to fight junk science from the Christian Right on our own.

I am concerned that you appear to have swallowed petrochemical industry propaganda against the Kyoto Treaty, surely akin to the tobacco industry’s pro-smoking agenda in motive, intent and overall poor empirical rigour. As well as that, there is a wide-ranging debate over questions of “false” and “recovered” memories within the mental health professions, yet your organisation seems to be listening to the male backlash lobby, quite capable of its own imaginary junk science when it comes to its own control freak agenda against victims of family violence.

Craig Young, Palmerston North

…And one from the Skeptical Greens

When I read Professor Dutton’s vitriolic attack on the Greens in the Weekend Herald of September 28/29, I immediately thought he must have been inspired by the frantic ravings of another American whom we’ve heard quite a bit from lately. However, to give Professor Dutton his due, he did stop short of suggesting we should wage a war of attrition upon Green subversives.

His passionate defence of science reminded me of the attitude adopted by devout religionists over the centuries. Professor Dutton accuses environmentalists of a similarly distorted mindset, but despite the fact that all movements have extremist factions, he is well off track with his generalisations, if for no other reason than that the Greens are concerned for the well-being of things that actually exist, and have been carefully examined. Religionists on the other hand operate for the most part on pure supposition.

Science is not a religion. However it would seem that there are several people involved in that noble art who regard it as such. That is indeed sad, and a reprehensible distortion of mankind’s only reliable method of inquiry into most subjects. The scientific method should be an intelligently used force that will tell us often bumbling humans how far in any direction we should attempt to go. Unfortunately, the caution factor is all but ignored these days in favour of the hedonistic delight of having found something new that works. Apart from the financial and economic benefits, the other outcomes of a new discovery are often made less transparent, until of course, somewhere down the track something highlights a hidden disaster factor that was not thought worthy of mention at the time of the discovery’s introduction.

My final word to Professor Dutton is that he should place the blame for the world’s starving millions exactly where it belongs. Greedy corporate giants, environmental exploiters, warmongers, and corrupt officials will do for a start. Compared with that lot, we greenies aren’t even in the picture. (Abridged)

Peter E Hansen, Auckland


Skeptics in the Greenhouse

I attended the recent Christchurch Conference and greatly enjoyed the excellent standard of presentation and discussion. One small item, however, left me wondering about the organisation that I had recently joined: the inclusion of global warming research in the list of core topics alongside biodynamic agriculture, alternative medicine and UFOs.

Global warming research is mainstream science. Many hundreds of ordinary scientists from dozens of countries have (with great difficulty!) reached a “consensus”. As a first step, I recommend the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) publication “Climate Change 2001 – Synthesis Report” published by Cambridge University Press. It is 400 pages long and is not easy reading, but what can you expect in a summary compiled by a large and diverse committee of technocrats?

A number of “Greenhouse Skeptics” vigorously oppose the findings of the IPCC. This is right and proper – science has always progressed by robust debate. These people – particularly those who have read the literature and can argue on the basis of evidence – are a distinct minority worldwide, but this does not necessarily mean they are wrong. They could be more perceptive than most, and history may prove them right. Alternatively, they could be misinformed or even eccentric. Many people react against any new idea that challenges their world-view. Many argue that there is an IPCC or environmentalist conspiracy.

The processes of science, through normal debate in the scientific media, will clarify the situation in the fullness of time. Is it the task of the Skeptics to wade into the fray? I have been disturbed by statements from well-known Skeptics, indicating that they have not read the mainstream Greenhouse literature, but are familiar with the “alternative” literature. This reminds me of people who are conversant with organic farming or homeopathy, but who are totally ignorant of conventional agriculture or medicine.

My message to Skeptics? Don’t pick a fight with bona fide scientists who are working on global warming, merely because some nutty environmentalists have sided with them. Be sceptical, by all means, but include the “Greenhouse Skeptics” in your scepticism. If you are interested enough in this topic to want to include it as a core area of activity, for Galileo’s sake find out more about it so you can form a balanced viewpoint.

Piers Maclaren

Alternative Veterinary Medicine

Some recent correspondence on the Skeptics’ committee mailing list led to John Welch writing to the Veterinary Council of New Zealand. This is their response.

Dear Dr Welch

You asked how the Veterinary Council deals with alternative animal medicine.

The council has established a Code of Professional Conduct that sets the principles of expertise, performance, behaviour, integrity and accountability expected of competent and reasonable veterinarians in New Zealand. Section 6.8 of this code refers to Alternative/complementary medicine and methods. I quote:

“Alternative or complementary therapies do not usually have the weight of scientific proof of their efficacy and therefore the use of these products and/or services must be considered a discretionary use. A veterinarian using an alternative or complementary therapy must do so in accordance with the NZVA Code of Practice for the Discretionary Use of Human and Veterinary Medicines by Registered Veterinarians.”

“In the event that alternative/complementary methods of diagnosis or treatment are requested by a client or are proposed by a veterinarian, the veterinarian must give a full explanation to the client, so that the client can make an informed decision. At all times the welfare of the animal is of paramount consideration.”

As in the US there are a number of veterinarians in New Zealand who are interested in alternative animal therapies. You may wish to contact the Holistic Veterinary Society, which is a special interest branch of the NZ Veterinary Association. The president of the Holistic Veterinary Society is Viv Harris, Tasman Street Veterinary Clinic, 23 Tasman St, Wellington. I know there has been healthy debate occurring amongst members of the NZ Veterinary Association. I have forwarded your letter to its CEO, Murray Gibb, and he may respond to you. There are also NZQA accredited courses in alternative forms of animal health taught at institutions in NZ such as the Bay of Plenty College of Homeopathy. The Veterinary Council is not in the business of promoting particular forms of veterinary training (apart from recognising the Massey Bachelor of Veterinary Science as the primary degree) but it has had communication with the College about such matters as the recording of qualifications attained on the Register of Veterinarians, and the restrictions on the use of the term “veterinary” or “veterinarian” or “specialist” in relation to training courses.

I hope the above gives you some idea of the council’s position in this regard.

Yours sincerely,
Julie Haggie
Secretary, Veterinary Council
of New Zealand


Ritalin and ADHD

Professor JS Werry deserves thanks for his contribution in these pages regarding the present use/abuse of methylphenidate (Ritalin) and ADHD.

Despite the Professor’s reassurances regarding the reality of ADHD, I’m afraid I remain an unconvinced sceptic.

Perhaps Professor Werry could explain where ADHD comes from. It certainly wasn’t a feature of our lives in the fifties and sixties, and now millions of young children worldwide, many of them under 10, are being treated for many years of their lives with a powerful amphetamine-like drug for a “non-disease” epidemic.

Time magazine in its (admittedly dated) July 18, 1994 cover story reported that many European countries, notably France and England, have only 1/10 as many ADHD cases as the USA. Japan seems to have little experience of ADHD at all – yet it has been termed “the educational disorder of the 1990s.” The USA has experienced a four-fold increase in ADHD since 1990.

Contrary to Professor Werry’s assurances, academics are by no means united over ADHD and its treatment with methylphenidate/Ritalin. Indeed, an increasing number of professionals decry this alarming and controversial trend of labelling children with this psychiatric condition.

One of the dissenters is Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., former special education teacher and author of The Myth of the ADD Child. Armstrong strongly questions the rush to label a child having problems in school as “ADHD.” He asks how ADHD can be a “mental disorder” when its symptoms are so selectively displayed – for example when an ADHD child is internally motivated to focus – as when deeply engrossed in a video game – the inability to pay attention is apparently not present.

I would be very interested to find out whether a diagnosis of ADHD at an early age has any bearing on later youth suicide, whether ADHD children are more or less likely to come from a dysfunctional family background, and the reason for the apparent prevalence of ADHD in some countries and not others. The overwhelming preponderance of young males in the statistics is also of concern.

Mike Houlding, Mt Maunganui

Possum Peppering

Perhaps John Welch is a little unfair to the Green Party when he condemns them for claiming that burnt possum testicles deter possums from eating vegetation. As a doctor, he will know that removing testicles not only annoys the possum, but also reduces its chances of reproduction.

The Green Party does not go far enough. If they would guarantee to remove every testicle from every possum in this country, they would certainly get my vote. the whole exercise would give relief to our forests, and possibly also to the female possums, who in one possum generation would die childless but lonely. (Abridged.)

David L Smith, Titirangi

Organic “Evidence” Doesn’t Stack Up

Howard Bezar and Denis Curtain

Scientific support for organic farming isn’t all it seems

An article appeared in the Canterbury Digest in December, 2000, claiming organic foods have ‘superior nutritive value’. The article, titled “Rapid growth in organic products” was by Seager Mason, Technical and Certification Manager for Bio-Gro New Zealand. It contained a table headed “Scientists prove superior nutritive value of organic food”. The table presented data showing large nutritional advantages of five “organic” vegetables over “inorganic” vegetables. The source was said to be “Researchers at Rutgers University”.

A search of the internet revealed that over 20 websites have published this material together with some commentary. The websites attribute the data to F. E. Bear of Rutgers University. On further investigation the original paper was identified. This paper was published 52 years ago and is titled “Variation in mineral composition of vegetables” by F. E Bear, S. J. Toth and A. L. Prince, published in 1948 in the Proceedings of the Soil Science Society of America Volume 13: pages 380-384.

The article grossly misrepresents the work of scientists who are now deceased and unable to defend their research. More seriously, the information is false and misleading to readers of Canterbury Digest as well as people using the internet as a source of information and who will not have an opportunity the check the data presented against results in the original, 52-year old research paper.

The deliberate misuse of scientific information in this way is a serious concern in that it undermines public confidence in science, it undermines the credibility of any organization using the information without checking the original source, and it undermines the editorial integrity of any media using the data without first checking with reliable expertise before publishing.

Seager Mason’s claims in relation to this paper are inaccurate on several counts. He claims that the researchers “set out to disprove the claim that organic is better”. Not so. The stated purpose of the paper was to examine the effects of variation in environmental factors (principally soil type and climate) on mineral concentrations in vegetables. At no point in the paper were the terms “organic” and “inorganic” production used or implied. In fact, there were no comparisons between vegetables grown in “organic” and “inorganic” systems. In essence, the study was a survey of the mineral contents of five vegetable crops sampled in ten US states with widely differing climatic conditions and soil types.

Mason claims that the “researchers purchased selections of produce at supermarkets and health food stores”. Not so. The paper clearly states that “samples of cabbage, lettuce, snap beans, spinach, and tomatoes were obtained from commercial fields of these crops.” Management practices used to grow the crops were not specified.

The results in the paper of Bear et al. were summarised in the form of Tables showing the lowest and highest values recorded for each crop. Mason misrepresents these results by indicating that the highest values were obtained for organically produced crops and that the lowest values came from crops grown by inorganic methods. There is absolutely no justification for this. As pointed out above, vegetables representing “organic” and “inorganic” production methods were not even included in the study.

The summary remark that “organic foods are three to 100 times more nutritious (than inorganic food)” bears no relation to the contents of the paper published by the Rutgers scientists. It is certainly ridiculous to claim that “many essential elements were completely absent in the commercial (i.e., inorganic) produce”. Plants just will not grow in the absence of essential elements!

The labels on columns of data are transposed, the molybdenum column has been left out and some other transcription errors are apparent. This means that the ash content is reported as phosphorus, the calcium column as sodium, etc. All the columns are wrongly labeled except for cobalt.

Further points to note in relation to this paper are:

  • A comprehensive review of international literature undertaken by Dr Diane Bourn and Associate Professor John Prescott of the Department of Food Science, University of Otago in April 2000 (currently in press), concludes that “With the possible exception of nitrate content, there is not strong evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various nutrients”.
  • In May last year the British Advertising Standards Authority upheld four complaints against the Tesco and Iceland supermarket chains for claiming in brochures that organic food is tastier, healthier and better for the environment and animals. They ruled the supermarkets had not been able to provide evidence and that the claims were “misleading” and “unsubstantiated”.
  • In a February 2000 interview with ABC News 20/20 Kathryn Di Matteo of the US Organic Trade Association, in answering the reporter’s question, Is it (organic food) more nutritious?, replied, “It is as nutritious as any other product on the market.” This has been widely taken as an acknowledgment by the US organics industry that organics are no more nutritious than other food.

Footnote: Seager Mason and Canterbury Digest editor Simon Nutt have since apologised for the article.

Fear and Loathing in Tuatapere

That was never six months just then — it felt much longer. Banised to the depths of New Zealand, in Tuatapere (almost as far south west as you can get in the South Island), life took on a gentler pace. Momentous things did happen — the stoat population declined by 300 around where we were, and the yellowheads had a successful breeding season.

This, of course, was the reason for being in Tuatapere, town of instant coffee and swedes. David landed a contract with DoC monitoring and generally keeping an eye on the little native bush canary, which is highly vulnerable to predation. Rarer than 100 dollar notes they are, and as they prefer to hang out on the tops of mighty beech trees, they’re tricky to keep an eye on.

While things were quite in Tuataps (lulled to sleep by the roaring of stags in the paddock next door), events, of course, developed in the outside world.

The new millenium came and went without so much as a whimper. Our nine-year-old daughter Iris rather enjoyed the cockroach ads that were run well before the event, at a cost I hate to think about. Entertaining but on the redundant side perhaps.

After the non-event, folk from the Y2K Readiness Commission were heard to say there were no problems because of all the preparation work but what of all those countries where zilch was spent with the same result. The world was also gratifyingly free of doomsday cult hysteria over the period, although recent events in Uganda have somewhat blotted the global copybook.

Then came the release of Peter Ellis, the victim of the Christchurch Creche fiasco. The NZ Skeptic predicted a year or so before it all flared up that this country would experience a similar accusation to those plaguing the northern hemisphere — modern day witch hunts with all the fervour and hysteria of the Middle Ages. It is sad for Peter that we were right on this one; eight years gone out of his life.

Then there’s Liam, where things have developed, tragically, as we all expected they would.

Basically, things stumble along much as they always have and always will.

After spending so much time involved in threatened species work, it was interesting to hear recently about work on immunocontraception, which has now reached the stage of field trials with genetically modified carrots. These contain a protein which hopefully fools female possums into believing they’re already pregnant.

It could be a very effective, environmentally safe means of pest control which would mean wonderful times for birds like the yellowhead and parakeets. However, the recent public reaction agains genetic experiments bodes badly for the future, and at the very least guarantees the process will not be a straight-forward one.

We will have to wait and see. It’s ironic that the environmental movement may stand in the way of a technology which could be of huge benefit to the New Zealand environment.

Anyway, we’re on our way home now and will probably be there by the time this hits letterboxes. Speaking of which, be sure to send those dynamic, pithy contributions to Gordonton, and not Tuatapere.

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Organic Means What?

The Swedish chemist Berzelius coined the term ‘organic’ for substances that could only be made by living organisms and not synthesised by humans. His German friend Wöhler synthesised urea in 1828 proving Berzelius wrong, there was no such distinction. Another brilliant German chemist, Liebig, then used ‘organic’ to mean carbon-compound chemistry, extending this to include the chemistry of living organisms- so beginning biochemistry.

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