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Non-custodial sentence inappropriate

In delivering a non-custodial sentence in the Janet Moses makutu case, Justice Simon France noted that expert witnesses considered the perpetrators were not acting out any customary cultural or religious practice. The appropriateness of a non-custodial sentence for manslaughter has been rightly questioned. Of additional concern, however, is that a golden opportunity appears to have been missed to condemn the very idea of makutu, that someone can be possessed by an evil entity necessitating a special curse-lifting ceremony or exorcism. Exorcisms, of course, are not confined to Maori culture.

Surely the time is long overdue for totally discarding all such outmoded notions of a pre-scientific age, and in particular makutu itself given that it can engender barbaric practices and lead to tragic consequences. Justice France has been reported as even expressing the view “Makutu did not kill her. She drowned”, seemingly completely overlooking the fact that it was an insane belief in makutu that generated all that followed.

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Save the rocks, say Celt theorists

THOSE zany Ancient Celt people never give up, do they? Now they’re campaigning to protect some boulders on a hillside at Silverdale, north of Auckland, due to be levelled as a site for a new hospital (NZ Herald, 6 May).

The boulders are almost perfectly spherical concretions, similar to the famous Moeraki Boulders. Martin Doutr√©, author of Ancient Celtic New Zealand, says they were placed on the hill as one of many structures built for calendar and surveying functions by fair-skinned people known as “Patu paiarehe” – before Maori came from Polynesia about 800 years ago.

Some showed ancient etchings of geometric designs similar to those on structures in Britain dating back to 3150BC, he believes.

“They were concretion boulders, which can only form in sea sediments, yet they had made it to the top of this high, yellow clay hill.”

Geological Society spokesman Bruce Hayward said there was no mystery how the boulders got to their current position. Like most of New Zealand, Silverdale was once under the sea. The boulders formed there 70 million years ago, and were raised up by tectonic activity. Softer sediments around them had since eroded away, leaving them exposed.

Creationists settle their differences

The acrimonious split between creationist organisations Answers in Genesis (AiG) and Creation Ministries International (CMI) (see The great downunder creationism takeover , NZ Skeptic 87) has been papered over, for the time being at least (Kentucky Enquirer, April 27).

Both sides have reached an out-of-court settlement in their battle over copyright and mailing list ownership, which has been running since 2005.

The US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ordered the rivals to arbitration in February in a decision that described the fight as a power struggle for control of the creationist message.

CMI has criticised AiG for its financial dealings and approach to creationist teaching. CMI chief Carl Wieland has also accused AiG’s Ken Ham of trying to take control of his organisation, stealing mailing lists and spreading false and vicious rumours about him and his ex-wife. In documents filed in US courts, officials with AiG said Ham was the victim of a disinformation campaign by the Australian group.

Ham, originally from Brisbane and now living in Kentucky, took the US and UK branches of AiG out of the global organisation in 2004, starting his own magazine and appropriating the mailing list of the Australian branch’s publication, which had been distributed world-wide. The AiG organisations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa then re-branded as CMI.

Something tells me this accord won’t last long. There’s too much money at stake in the global creationism industry, and the feud between Ham and Wieland has gotten really personal.

Dinosaur park heads for extinction

A plan for a multi-million dollar dinosaur-themed park in Waihi has been shelved (Waikato Times,, 10 June).

Newsfront mentioned this one back in NZ Skeptic 84 because the park’s backer, the Dinosaurs Aotearoa Museum Trust, was founded by Darren and Jackie Bush, who operate a Wellington business called Dinosaurs Rock. They run school geology programmes, presenting both evolutionary and creationist perspectives, depending on their audience.

The park was to feature a museum with local finds, replica skeletons and life-sized dinosaur models built by Weta Workshop. </>

A statement to the Waikato Times cited “unsuccessful funding applications in the Waikato”, “increased risks” and “the added pressure of the global recession” as reasons for the project not proceeding.

Skeptic photo among NZ’s spookiest

A photo of a ghostly head in a basket first published in NZ Skeptic 44 has made a short list of four of New Zealand’s spookiest photos (The Press, 4 May).

The disembodied head photographed by Halswell resident Carol McDonald was eventually identified as a photo of Jack Nicholson, from The Shining, which had been on the back cover of the previous month’s Skywatch magazine. The way the magazine was lying over the basket’s other contents gave it a remarkably three-dimensional appearance.

Of the other Press images, two where faces could be discerned in flames in a Westport Volunteer Fire Brigade exercise left Skeptics chair-entity Vicki Hyde unimpressed. “Shots involving fire, smoke and fog are notorious for producing ghost images,” she said. The other photos were equally easy to explain.

One, from a North Island pub which showed an indistinct feline-type face in the lower part of a window, “looks to be a reflection of objects inside the room”, while a face peering between two students at Linwood College could easily have been someone behind the pair trying to get in shot.

“Have you ever seen teenagers mugging for the camera? It’s hard to tell, with the tight cropping and over-exposure blanking out the surrounds.”

Makutu ritual ‘without cultural basis’

The ritual which led to the death of Janet Moses had more to do with The Exorcist than anything in traditional Maori culture, according to statements made by witnesses (Dominion Post, 14 June).

Moses died in Wainuiomata in October 2007 during attempts to lift a makutu, or curse, from her. Five members of her family were convicted of manslaughter on 13 June.

Tainui tikanga Maori teacher Tui Adams said in evidence that the cleansing ritual was without cultural basis and alien to anything he knew. And kaumatua Timi Rahi told the court he had never heard of a ceremony in which large amounts of water were poured into someone’s nose and mouth to remove an evil spirit.

One of those convicted, Hall Jones Wharepapa, said: “We got her into the shower and we turned the cold water on … I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Exorcist, but it was like that.”

Dr Adams said makutu was a form of witchcraft outlawed in Tainui, the iwi to which Janet Moses’ maternal family belongs. Belief in it remains only in pockets, he said.

Consultant forensic psychiatrist and Maori mental health specialist Rees Tapsell explained what had happened as group hysteria. It could happen in times of high emotional stress involving lack of sleep and isolation, he said.

Massey University lecturer Heather Kavan, who specialises in world religions, said although the case might be perceived as a Maori cultural issue, “the things people were experiencing have been noticed in many countries across the world as possession trance experiences”.

Crop circles – Solved!

Wallabies are eating opium poppies and creating crop circles as they hop around, says Tasmania attorney general Lara Giddings (BBC News, 25 June).

Reporting to a parliamentary hearing on security for Australia’s poppy crops, which supply about 50 percent of the world’s legally-grown opium, Ms Giddings said there was a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting “as high as a kite” and going around in circles.

“Then they crash,” she said.

Newsfront

The Scottish border city of Carlisle says a stone artwork commissioned to mark the millennium has brought floods, pestilence and sporting humiliation, but an unlikely white knight is riding to their rescue (Dominion Post, 10 March). The Cursing Stone is a 14-tonne granite rock inscribed with an ancient curse against robbers, but since it was put in a city museum in 2001 the region has been plagued by foot and mouth disease, a devastating flood and factory closures. Perhaps worst of all, the Carlisle United soccer team has dropped a division.

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Newsfront

If I Could Talk to the Dead Animals

Pet psychic Carol Schultz of Chicago has been gaining a lot of international attention, with identical reports featured in June editions of the Cairns Post and Evening Post. Journalist Marilynn Marchione seems to have written the piece with eyebrows permanently raised, as Schultz talks of her ability to speak with dogs, cats and horses, even if they’re dead. She even reads cats’ paws! Yes, it’s true! The article goes on to tell of a dog trapped in a cat’s body – it didn’t help that he was named Duke. Schultz also helps people get in touch with their departed loved ones – one woman who had had two dogs die recently wanted to know why they needed to leave her.

Consultations cost $35 for an email consultation, $50 by phone, or $75 plus travel for a personal visit. That’s US dollars.

Evening Post, 16 June, Cairns Post, 5 June

Seagull healed

Not to be outdone by the Americans, New Zealand also has its resident pet psychics. Paul and Victoria Woodward of Upper Moutere charge only $15 a session to lay hands on an animal and unblock its energy channels, which is a lot more reasonable. Victoria Woodward says animals seem to know the healing could help them.

“I’ve even treated a seagull, I didn’t touch him, but he got close enough for the treatment to work and simply flew off when he’d had enough.” How she knew the bird was ill (or male), or had been healed, she didn’t say.

Nelson Mail, 8 May

Open wide, please

The British Dental Journal reports that an acupuncture needle, inserted into an anti-gagging point on the ear is just the thing to overcome fear-induced nausea during a visit to the dentist. Some patients are so apprehensive, according to Dr Janice Fiske of the Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’ Dental Institute, they develop a gagging reflex, which causes their jaws to clench. The needles were tried on 10 subjects, and it worked every time. Without the needles, six could only bear to open their mouths after sedation. Now if they could just come up with something to deal with a fear of needles…

Evening Post, 14 June

Aromatherapy all in the mind

The placebo effect (see Editorial) was in the news again with a report on a team of German and Austrian scientists, who found that oils used in aromatherapy improve mental ability – but only if you believe they do. The team, led by Josef Ilmberger of the Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich, sprinkled water onto surgical masks worn by volunteers, then tested their reaction times. Essential oils used to promote alertness, such as peppermint, jasmine and ylang-ylang, were then sprayed on the masks of some of the volunteers, while others had water, and reaction times were again tested. No difference was found in reactions in subjects treated with oil or water, suggesting the oils do not have a direct influence on the brain when inhaled. However, when asked to rate how stimulating, strong or pleasant they found each liquid, those subjects who gave high ratings showed small improvements in their reaction times. Ilmberger concluded the effects of essential oils on basic forms of attentional behaviour were mainly psychological.

Dominion, Evening Post, 20 April

Exorcism goes awry

One of the grislier news items of recent times concerned the death of 37-year-old Joanna Lee in December. Pastor Luke Lee was committed to trial for Ms Lee’s manslaughter in June after allegedly strangling her during an exorcism. Neighbours heard screams and chanting prayers from the Auckland house, but didn’t think anything of it, as such noises were common. Six days after the exorcism, police found Ms Lee’s fly-blown body, still lying in bed while members of Pastor Lee’s Lord of All church prayed over her, occasionally wiping her body with alcohol to keep the smell at bay. Lee told police she had been sick and was sleeping.

“We are innocent. God knows. If we pray, Joanna will come back. God knows,” Lee said.

Church members said in written statements that Lee regularly performed exorcisms on them, one noting that for a small man he used a lot of force. Most of his 30-strong congregation was gathered from Queen St on Friday nights, though many who did join quickly became disturbed by Lee’s aggressive behaviour and left again. Joanna Lee, who had arrived from Korea six weeks previously, was described by church members as “a very smiley person”.

Dominion, 12 June

“Yeti” hair passes genetic test

British scientists on the trail of the yeti have found some of the best evidence yet of the existence of the mythical Himalayan creature – a sample of hair that has proved impossible to identify.

The hair was gathered from a tree in eastern Bhutan, and matches no known animal, raising the strong possibility that it was from an unknown species. An “official yeti hunter” led the expedition, working on the documentary series To the Ends of the Earth, to an area where he was convinced an animal was at large, and collected the hair from a hollow in a cedar tree.

Bryan Sykes, professor of human genetics at the Oxford Institute of Molecular Medicine said the hair wasn’t human or bear, or anything else they’d been able to identify.

“It’s a mystery and I never thought this would end in a mystery. We have never encountered DNA that we couldn’t recognise before.”

Of course, it may not have come from a large hairy primate. Wonder if they compared it with Fiordland moose hair?

Dominion, 3 April

Skepsis

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but many experts in non-proven schemes fall on their own swords. For example, Hoxsey died of cancer, and recently a Lower Hutt clairvoyant went bankrupt (due to unforeseen circumstances). Dr Rajko Medenica, the Yugoslavian specialist whose unorthodox treatments created devoted patients and determined enemies, died at the early age of 58 (Bay Of Plenty Times December 3 1997). He practised in South Carolina and drew patients from around the world, including Muhammad Ali, the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran and the late Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia. He served 17 months in a Swiss prison two years ago for fraud, many saying that his unusual methods were not based on science, but that he preyed on those that had lost hope. He obviously didn’t do the three guys mentioned much good either.

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