Hokum Locum

Joint Manipulation

An article in NCAHF reminded me of past activities with respect to joint manipulation. Following a one week course I embarked on a short-lived career in spinal manipulation which is very easy to learn and causes a greatly inflated belief in one’s ability to “cure” spinal ailments.

The first problem was that patients kept coming back repeatedly to have their back or neck “put back.” I soon realised that if, as the quacks claim, the spine can easily be “put back” then it can just as easily “go out” again. All I had done was create a perception with the patients that every time their back or neck hurt it required a specific manipulation. If only I was more unscrupulous…what a wonderful money-making idea!

What finally cured me of such activities was the day I manipulated a patient’s neck with the usual psychologically satisfying crack from the spine. She sat up, went pale and slumped back onto the couch. Distraught, and thinking that I had killed her I rushed through to get the assistance of my receptionist who took one look and said to me “You twit. She’s only fainted.”

As a reformed manipulator, I was therefore interested in the following which I will quote in full:

“The popping sound associated with ‘putting bones back-into-place’ (though it may be accomplished by manipulating a normal joint) is one of the cleverest and most effective forms of suggestive therapy ever devised. This has a tremendous psychological influence over the mind. While the popping sound itself is quite meaningless, this influence might possibly be used to advantage in curing psychosomatic conditions — provided the patient is informed that the bone is ‘back-in-place’ and will stay there. By the same token, however, such treatment can cause a great deal of harm; that is by perpetuating a psychosomatic condition or even creating a new psychological illness.”

Manipulative therapy is well documented as leading to spinal cord damage and paralysis. Quacks will claim that this only occurs in a few cases per 100,000 patients treated but the easy answer to this is that all of these conditions get better without the risk of paralysis from manipulation, therefore any risk of spinal cord damage is unacceptable. (NCAHF Vol 18, No 3)

Alleged Allergies

Although I don’t see many children in the course of my work, I am amazed at how often mothers allege that their children can’t have milk because of various allergies. In one study, researchers found that people who perceive that they are allergic to milk simply misinterpret ordinary abdominal feelings. From a group of 30 subjects, 21 were identified who were genuinely intolerant of lactose. They were divided into two groups and given either normal milk or lactose-free milk. There was no difference in the amount of abdominal distress reported by the two groups.

Full of Wind?

A report on a new breathing therapy for asthma initially looked quite interesting until I came across the following statement: “by learning to saturate their bodies with carbon dioxide, patients can lessen muscle tension and slow breathing to a normal rate.” After reading this I was still interested until I came to the end: “the technique is also used to treat angina, high and low blood pressure, piles, varicose veins and even cancer.” This is an absurd range of indications for any one treatment and such claims are absolutely diagnostic of quack therapies.

Carbon dioxide is one of the most potent stimuli of the respiratory centre which triggers breathing. Any attempt to saturate the body with carbon dioxide will stimulate the breathing reflex so the whole therapy concept is a contradiction in terms.

Silicon Implants

Are there any American female actors who have not had their breasts surgically enhanced? I was reading a magazine which was profiling Baywatch star Pamela Anderson. Pamela cannot stay in cold water for very long because her implants start to solidify and ruin her mammary profile.

In Skeptic 34 I outlined how women could claim for silicon disease if they had vague symptoms such as chronic fatigue, muscle weakness and memory loss. A study reported in the British Medical Journal (Vol 311, p138) found no connection between silicon breast implants and connective tissue disorders.

Gulf War Syndrome

A study of 10,020 Gulf War veterans found that the range of complaints they had was no different to the general population. I imagine that this conclusive study will not settle the matter as long as there is the prospect for compensation. There was very little actual fighting in the Gulf War and more Americans were killed in accidents than in actual combat.

Like most sensible people in the military, I am opposed to ritual combat as a means of solving disputes. In future wars, I can see soldiers going into battle followed by support companies of psychologists and counsellors, available to give emotional first-aid following the shock of finding that the enemy are firing live rounds.

The American study confirmed a British study of 45,000 soldiers which concluded “no evidence has emerged that any organic disorder has occurred more commonly in Gulf veterans than in any similar population over a similar four year period.” Hopefully this will be the last we hear of “Gulf War syndrome.” (GP Weekly 16/8/95, BMJ Vol 310, p1073)

Size Does Matter!

Before being released from prison, convicted sex offenders in the UK are being subjected to penile plethysmography (PPG). PPG detects minute changes to the penile blood supply while the prisoners are shown sexually explicit material. Sexual arousal is defined as a “deviant response”. The psychologist in charge of this program claims that the scientific literature says that the test is “valuable”. Another psychiatrist condemned it as a “gross abuse of human rights”. As a rational skeptic (after Skrabanek) I suspect that PPG is an unproven and extremely unlikely test which is likely to have a very high false positive response. Sexual arousal in males can occur at all sorts of embarrassing moments and it is likely that most males would show a degree of arousal when exposed to sexually explicit material. (Christchurch Press 1/6/95)

Berry Silly

The Auckland Sunday paper (27/8/95) carried a small article which claimed that World War Two airmen improved their night vision by eating blueberry jam. This contains “anthocyanosides” which are alleged to improve night vision and treat visual fatigue. It is no surprise that a drug company is now marketing pills containing this substance. This is another good situation for Skrabanek’s rules. Is this claim at all plausible and is there any more likely explanation for claimed improvements in night vision? Clearly, the placebo effect is at work here and no further testing is warranted.

Quackery and Chemists

If you go into the average chemist’s shop you will often see displays of homeopathic remedies along with vitamins and other dubious preparations. Most chemists derive the majority of their income from OTC sales and if they didn’t sell these things, someone else would. I draw the line, though, when chemists start promoting quack ideas and remedies.

A member handed me a newspaper clipping which quoted a chemist as saying “zinc detoxifies chemicals like alcohol, improves behavioural problems such as depression, anorexia, bulimia, fatigue and loss of libido.”

Prior to rushing off to get some zinc, readers will be pleased to know that there is a simple test for zinc deficiency. A sip of zinc septahydrate solution is held in the mouth and “from the taste the zinc level is determined.” I tried it and got a taste reminiscent of bullshit.

I forwarded this clipping to the Pharmaceutical Society of NZ and got the following reply: “whilst not every pharmacist would share these views, it is not considered that they bring the profession into disrepute. There have been many studies carried out on zinc which would appear to support the general thrust of these claims.”

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)

Investigators have finally done the obvious and looked at buildings for which there are no complaints of SBS. Measured levels of contaminants were low and the authors found that complaints about the working environment were related to “perceptions about air movement, dryness, odours and noise.”

As I have said before, SBS, like CFS and OOS, is based on a notional but false belief that psychogenic symptoms have some exterior cause. The availability of compensation completes the picture although, in the case of SBS, compensation is not available for any occupational disease associated with air-conditioning and this is probably why there has not been a flood of claims.

Occupational health workers continue to perpetuate false ideas in their own literature because they lack a perspective on history and human behaviour. The Lancet (Vol 345, p1361) reviews such a publication which claims that SBS is due to environmental factors. It is time that this false concept of SBS was laid to rest. (Occupational Health May 1995, p174)

Other Readers Write

Thanks to Dr Graham Sharpe who wrote from Wellington and enclosed some material about interesting developments in midwifery. Homeopathy is popular with midwives who use it during childbirth. Dr Sharpe also mentions a case known to him where a child died from a brain abscess due to a delay while homeopathic remedies were administered. The other case concerned a case of poisoning when a naturopathic remedy contained aconite. Aconite is severely toxic to the heart and this example shows why naturopathic remedies should be subject to the same restrictions and controls as other drugs.

Denis Dutton forwarded two articles as well. One from Annals of Internal Medicine (Vol 121, No.10) outlined the well-known complication of liver damage which can be caused by a wide variety of Chinese herbal treatments, in this case “Jin Bu Huan” tablets. The other article, entitled “Bitter Herbs: Mainstream, Magic, and Menace”, is an editorial from the same issue as the journal above.

The FDA managed to ban the use of Jin Bu Huan, but their job will be made more difficult by the Hatch bill. This is “The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994” which was shepherded through the US Congress by the quack-apologist Senator Hatch. Its language is so imprecise as to be a triumph for the promoters of quackery everywhere. The editorial ends with a plea for doctors to spend more time with patients exploring the “human interactions that are central to the physician-patient relationship.”

Hoxsey Cancer Quackery

Soon after I returned home from our annual conference, Bernard Howard sent me a travel guide for patients planning to go to Mexico and gift their money to a pack of criminal fraudsters who know that the Hoxsey treatment is useless. As well as the airfares to the US, the Hoxsey clinic charges are US$1250-1600. Presumably this is to cover the costs of the “tonics” or as I call them, Kentucky fried medicine. As I explained at the conference, we know what these quack formulae contain and they could be made up in New Zealand for a few dollars.

MVA Insurance Fraud

Los Angeles is the capital for staged motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) where professional criminals, unscrupulous lawyers and doctors participate in phony insurance claims. Until I read about this I was aware of a problem with “whiplash” (also known as chronic remunerative neck injury), which has been a rich source of money for litigants. Phony claims fall into several groups: personal injury, claims for accidents that never happened or actual crashes involving unsuspecting drivers and staged accidents involving previously damaged vehicles. (Christchurch Press 24/7/95)

Faking It?

Vicki Hyde passed on to me a peculiar letter from a Dr Hussein of Jordan asking us to participate in research in the paranormal immunity of fakirs to pain. The letter is the usual mixture of pseudoscience. In fact, no individuals possess any “paranormal” immunity to pain, unless of course they are lucky enough to lack the spinothalamic tracts which carry pain messages to the brain.

Humans possess widely varying responses to pain stimuli which are subject to attenuation by cultural factors, conditioning and belief. Slowly rising pain stimuli can be centrally blocked. I have seen (and discouraged!) my daughter pushing needles through her finger. I reviewed the question of pain control in my paper on acupuncture which is available from our organisation.



Walter C Clark, Chuck Bird and Nicky McLean criticise Hitting Home for not investigating women’s violence towards men, that is, for not being another piece of research altogether. When biologists can produce papers about the hairs on the legs of one species of fruit-flies, this does not seem excessively specialised. One reason that that was not done is simply money. To have achieved the same accuracy would have required interviewing 2,000 women, doubling the cost.

According to the Center Against Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle, 95 percent of all domestic violence is men beating women. Analysing violence along ethnic lines would likewise have doubled the cost, since presumably only about 200 of the present sample were Maori. It would cost as much again to interview 2,000 Pacific Islanders, also commonly characterised as violent.

Greg Newbold’s references to Maori in prison are disingenuous. He of all people should know that Maori are more likely to be imprisoned not because they are intrinsically more violent than Pakeha but, among other things, because they are disproportionately in lower socio-economic groups and less well-educated, and (in consequence) less able to manipulate the system to produce the outcome they want.

Again, Hitting Home did not look for or find the specific extent of Maori men’s violence against women because that is not the piece of research it was. All that research certainly should be done, but it is to the credit of Hitting Home that it didn’t pretend to attempt it. This was, after all, primarily about men’s attitudes towards violence, not about which men are violent.

As for Bird’s proposal that men be asked if they were abused, what would that prove? The most violent men might also claim to be the most put-upon, so?

Clark’s and McLean’s elaborate discussions of “provocation” are taken care of by the wording of the questionnaire (p 224) which specifies “ways of settling differences”. “Banging the table” (Clark) is not mentioned, nor “restraint of a spouse intent on mayhem with a French cook’s knife.” They seem to think some lower threshold of abuse, one that they think justified, should be ignored. That it is not does not fault Hitting Home, it just shows their places on its spectrum.

Does Nicky McLean really think that a man who thinks it is okay to take a knife to his wife would draw the line at shouting at her? The more items he agrees to, the more abusive/violent he is. There is no suggestion in Hitting Home that the different levels of abuse and violence are equivalent. Obviously the scale is quasi-logarithmic, like the Richter and decibel scales, and hence more sensitive at the lower end. Once that is understood, “number of types accepted” is a perfectly valid measure.

Chuck Bird confuses de-facto marriages with reconstituted families: it is step-parents who are more likely to abuse children than natural parents, regardless of the legal status of the marriage. This seems to be biological and has nothing to do with men’s violence toward women.

Pace McLean, it will be news to co-author Robin Ransom that he is a woman.

Hitting Home does have a significant flaw (as well as the truthfulness problem I mentioned in my main submission), not mentioned yet by its supporters or opponents. The level of non-response is very high, with only 60% of men contacted agreeing to be interviewed. It is hardly a way-out, New-Age supposition that violent men are less likely to talk about their violence than non-violent men. Therefore, Hitting Home probably significantly under-reports male violence and abuse against women.

Hugh Young, Porirua

More Comments on Hitting Home

Definition of Abuse

It could reasonably be expected that the term “abuse” would have been defined and its parameters explained at the beginning of the report. Instead it is not until p.30 that any definition is given — when it is, it is found to embrace a long list of behaviours (physical and psychological) of varying levels of seriousness. This does have the effect of trivialising the subject and of diverting attention from the more serious cases. The data would appear far less confusing and a far greater reliance presumably could be placed on the results if the more serious aspects had been separated from the less serious from the start.

Lack of Balance

On p.31 we are informed that “in this study <@145>domestic abuse’ is used to mean the abuse of women by male partners”. Such a restriction seems misguided given that behaviours in a partnership are never restricted to one partner. And often other people are involved. Such an approach to the subject resembles that of a biologist who decides to study the dynamics of a parasite-host relationship by concentrating on only one of the participants.

Exclusion of Ethnicity

A basic criterion of any survey which purports to be scientific is that all avenues are followed which are likely to provide vital information. If this means disregarding claims that following this or that line of investigation “would lead to unhelpful, inappropriate and insensitive cross-cultural comparisons”, so be it. To maintain that the survey’s methodology was inappropriate for making such comparisons does seem a way of avoiding the issue, particularly when we are informed that an ethnic analysis became a significant issue in the consultations made during the development stage (p.35).

Questionable Methodology

A number of the most puzzling and questionable aspects of the study appear in the section: The findings of Study 1 — a survey of 2,000 men. We are told that “most New Zealand men do not approve of a man hitting a woman,” and that nine in ten do not approve of hitting in any of twenty different circumstances (p.62). It seems this clear indication of a high level of disapproval did not satisfy the researchers. A “ten-point scale of disapproval” was applied from which each man was given “an approval of hitting score”. Suddenly “non-approval” becomes “approval” in relation to hitting a woman.

The conclusion drawn from this questionable methodology is “that New Zealand men do not strongly disapprove of hitting”. Somehow what began as a strong positive has become a strong negative, to the detriment of New Zealand men in general.


On p.98 it is stated: “as in our research, the Dunedin study found that domestic abuse was more likely to occur when the male partner was young and when he was poorly educated, of low socio-economic level, and unemployed”. Yet a major conclusion from the study is that “a man’s socio-economic level, educational level and personal income group give us no clue of the likelihood of his being abusive to a woman partner.” (p.146). Also little is made in the report of the fact that this “finding” was contrary to that arrived at in the majority of overseas studies.

How can questions be “less direct” and, at the same time, “more specific”? (p.35).

Major Conclusions of the Report

There seems no justification for concluding (a) that there is an underlying male acceptance of abuse in New Zealand, and (b) that a substantial proportion of New Zealand women are abused by their male partners, both physically and psychologically (p.21). The results of the survey, particularly when taking into account the wide definition of “abuse” and the suspect methodology, do not warrant these conclusions. It is worth noting that a desire to fit data to preconceived notions is a characteristic of pseudoscience.


The NZ Skeptics Society is opposed to pseudoscience in any of its manifestations. There seems little doubt that vital parts of Hitting Home can be described as pseudoscientific. It is therefore a fair target for skeptical attention. I have to agree with those critics of the report who have concluded that it trivialises domestic violence and conveys a level of abuse perpetrated by men which is not supported by the evidence. I support fully the awarding of the Bent Spoon for 1995 to the report, Hitting Home.

Warwick Don, Dunedin

I have carefully examined the Department of Justice report on domestic violence entitled Hitting Home. I feel that this report fully deserved being made recipient of the 1995 Bent Spoon award.

Robert Woolf, Auckland


Despite the third paragraph of my contribution to the September issue, I would like it to be known that I do distinguish affect from effect (and impact for that matter), and an issue would be assessed rather than accessed, such as men’s abuse rather than man’s. And in the last paragraph I wrote few persons rather than four persons. But otherwise, my scribblings must have been clear enough.

As for the report, I too had to stare long and hard at some paragraphs, including the one quoted by Mr Clark in his letter [September, p.25, first paragraph]. I think the authors mean that when asked about “abuse” people disapprove readily, but if asked less directly about general abuse by being offered specific actions not labelled as abuse, many more say that they might do that, or could understand someone doing it. My bafflement peaked on p.148 of the report with “…most likely to agree with this statement were the non-abusive men” … “a clear relationship between seriousness of abuse and level of agreement with the statement” … “four out of ten in the most serious abuse group agreed…two out of ten in the least serious group.”

After a lot of thought, and checking with my father, I concluded that the paragraph was saved from literal self-contradiction thanks to overlapping definitions of “non-abusive”, “most serious” and “least serious” groups. A plague on the whole business!

Nicky McLean, Lower Hutt

Support for Award

Hugh Young writes, “Hitting Home is careful, thorough, mainstream scientific research.” And later, “It is social science, not `hard science’…”

It seems to me he is using definitions of “careful”, “thorough”, “mainstream”, “scientific”, and “research” which are quite different to those commonly used in the community of “hard science”.

Hitting Home is a muddle. One could give numerous examples but Page 88 is a classic. It lists a “Seriousness of Abuse Scale (SOAS)” although this seems to have become contaminated with frequency. What to make of this sentence explaining the scale? “Where two types of abuse had the same frequency, the one with the lower number of times in the past year was given the higher ranking.”

Some time last year a young couple from next door came to use our telephone. Later the man shot and killed the woman. According to the SOAS that ranks as less serious than “Threatened her with knife or gun”.

Hugh Young seems so certain of things which he cannot know as established facts. “Any torturer will tell you that the `best’ torture is purely mental.” How many torturers does he know? Has he consulted a random sample?

Hugh Young again writes, “It is a truism among anti-violence workers (but apparently unknown to the critics) that domestic violence cuts across class boundaries, and a high court judge or cabinet minister is just as likely to beat his wife as a freezing worker or opossum [sic] trapper.” This gets us to the real point: how do they know? This is just political correctness.

I spent 25 years in teaching where I encountered a number of families where there was violence against children and wives. My experience was that domestic violence was very strongly correlated with socio-economic class and ethnic group. Furthermore most of the serious stuff was inflicted by men.

Now I am quite prepared to be shown to be wrong (I certainly did not encounter a random sample), but this will require evidence; I will not be convinced by a politically correct truism common among social workers. Just how many wives of cabinet ministers and high court judges are to be found in women’s refuges for example?

Hugh Young again writes, “-the report came to this counter-intuitive conclusion by careful scientific study…”. It did not. It confirmed a “truism among anti-violence workers” by means that will naturally confirm prejudices.

The statistic that I found least believable is that 67% of New Zealand men had personal knowledge of physical abuse by a man or a woman. Because this implies that 37% have no such knowledge and I find that incredible. What kind of sheltered life do these people lead?

Jim Ring, Nelson

No Evidence

I enjoyed reading the opposing points of view regarding the Bent Spoon Award, but was surprised to be advised by Hugh Young on p.24 that “We Skeptics are now on record as thinking it beyond question that once a woman has struck a man, he need take no responsibility whatever for all his subsequent violence”.

I have personally never seen a scrap of evidence to support that statement and can only conclude that someone has been “behaving like a tabloid newspaper” having “taken information out of context, re-written it in a biased way, and generally put the kind of spin on it that we so often accuse our opponents of doing”.

John Turner

The 1995 Bent Spoon

This year’s Bent Spoon Award has ruffled a few feathers. In a controversial decision, what the Skeptics described as an “alarmist” Justice Department report on domestic violence in New Zealand has received the award.

“The report, entitled Hitting Home, paints a disturbing picture of New Zealand men as abusers of wives and partners, until you examine the fine print,” said Skeptics head Vicki Hyde.

“Since the report defines ‘abuse’ to include criticising your partner’s family, it is not surprising that half the men surveyed were guilty of some form of psychological abuse…By so exaggerating the extent of abuse, the report trivializes the real domestic violence that goes on in New Zealand,” Ms Hyde said.

For example, Hitting Home refers repeatedly to one particularly disturbing statistic, which was singled out in the Justice Department press release: “when they were shown some typical circumstances in which abuse occurs, 10% [of New Zealand men] said they approved and 56% did not really disapprove of hitting a woman. And in at least one circumstance, six out of ten men say the woman has only herself to blame for being hit.” This indeed would be alarming, were it true that bashing women was behaviour 60% of New Zealand males were willing to turn a blind eye to.

In fact, these figures were arrived at by showing men a list of possible provocations, including finding a partner “in bed with another man,” “physically abusing their child,” and hitting the man first in an argument. From the fact that the disapproval rating of respondents, once shown such circumstances, declined from “moderate to extreme” to “little or moderate” (even though 95%-98% disapproved), we’re served up the false conclusion that “56% did not really disapprove of hitting a woman.” They did disapprove, overwhelmingly, but not at the same level of disapproval as “she hasn’t cleaned the house,” and other trivial items on the list.

The report also inflates conclusions about the prevalence of abuse by its peculiar definition of “abuse” which runs the gamut from “Used a knife or gun on her” to “Kicked something” to “Put down her family and friends” to “Tried to keep her from doing something she wanted to do.” From this starting point, the report finds widespread “abuse” in New Zealand, as it would be a rare couple where a man had not at some time slammed a door or insulted a relation during an argument with his partner. Despite a title suggesting it is about domestic violence, Hitting Home is actually about abuse, understood as virtually any demonstration of anger. Even letting off steam to avoid “abuse” can be classified as “abuse.”

One of the report’s authors told the Listener that “Overall, the research found that New Zealand rates of abuse are about twice as high as rates based on what women say.” This is no surprise as the report’s inflated definition of abuse includes behaviours that even the “victims” didn’t think of as abuse.

In the press release, Vicki Hyde said, “It’s taken society a long time to recognize that domestic violence is a serious problem. It is vital, if we are to address this issue effectively, that research provides accurate, meaningful information on which policies can be based. By limiting its scope to men only and by defining abuse so broadly, Hitting Home misses the mark. It’s a great shame, since we desperately need well-founded social policies. This will disadvantage the women most vulnerable to serious violence. Surely, you can’t classify the experience of being strangled or threatened with a knife alongside hearing a rude comment about your brother.”

At our recent conference, Skeptic Hugh Young challenged the award.. His remarks and others follow. Further contributions will appear in the next Skeptic.

The Skeptics awards for excellence went to journalists with TVNZ, Metro, and the Listener.

“TVNZ’s Assignment series shows that we can still have thoroughly researched, critical documentaries on television,” according to Ms Hyde. The Skeptics praised Assignment‘s “The Doctor Who Cried Abuse,” an investigation of a Dunedin physician whose unwarranted diagnoses had wrecked havoc on New Zealand families. “Ellis Through the Looking Glass,” an examination of the Christchurch Civic Creche case, was singled out for accolades.

Vincent Heeringa of Metro magazine received an award for his article “Weird Science,” on the Auckland Institute of Technology Press and Listener journalist Noel O’Hare, author of a cover story on False Memory Syndrome received a Skeptics award for the second year running.


Shonky Research

My feeling after having read the report is that when it was ready for the printer, the authors had in fact reached the point where they were about ready to consult with people experienced in such research, as a necessary preliminary to the main investigation. I would have suggested a smaller pilot sample. This should have disclosed the pitfalls that lay in wait for them. By taking such steps they could have avoided the traps that they later fell into.

In my view the study was very seriously, if not fatally, flawed by choosing either defective definitions, or no definition at all. Poor definitions results in banging the table and knifing the wife being placed in the same continuum of physical abuse. Absence of definition seems apparent where they compared their results with results from other studies. There is no guarantee that apples were being compared with apples, and not pumpkins. Similarly, to continue the metaphor, they studied only half the apple — no comparable study of female on male abuse/violence/insult a great many of the comparisons and conclusions were inappropriately drawn, though often there can be no certainty about this.

I found much of the writing rather confused, so that I cannot interpret it with certainty — e.g. p.35

“It has been shown that when asked direct, general questions about abuse, people [?men] say that they disapprove, but when the questions become less direct and more specific [sic!], a kind of underlying condoning begins to emerge.”

What does that passage mean? It is not highly charged, but the meaning is obscure to me.

There also appears to have been an unwillingness to face possible outcomes squarely, so rather than risk discovering that abuse could have a racial component [ethnic is only Greek for race], the possibility of having to face such data was excluded from the outset. It was neither honest nor wise. I found much the same problem with the discussion of education and income levels etc. as potentially associated factors in abuse quite unconvincing, and in fact very confused because different results appeared to be reported on different pages.

I thought it unfortunate that the authors discounted a valuable notion from an Australian study (p 61) of “justifiable” abuse and “okay actions“. There seems to be no recognition that different circumstances may justifiably alter perspectives. For example, it could well be justifiable to use some force to avoid a greater evil, such as real harm to a child. Restraint of a spouse intent on mayhem with a French cook’s knife could well be necessary rather than merely justifiable or okay. I found it unreal that there was no description of the circumstances of the questioned “abuse” or “violence”.

It seems to me that the researchers were just not up to the task. This showed in a variety of ways. They had no hesitation in citing data on non-molestation orders, but failed to note that most of these are granted on ex parte actions, where husbands have no chance to challenge the initial application. How many are struck out after the husbands are heard?

Again, on p. 25 I read “…nearly all research has looked at the abuse of women by men, presumably because it is regarded as the most common form of domestic abuse.” Is that presumption justified? Fide Newbold, in the US where handguns are freely available, the likelihood of being shot by a spouse is about equal for both sexes! What price this pre-eminence of male on female violence in the absence of any data?

Perhaps the most surprising outcome of this study, I deliberately refrain from dignifying it with the name of “research”, is that the authors do not make an urgent demand for the complementary sexually directed study.

The subject is of real importance. The investigation deserves to be carried out in a workmanlike manner. Sadly this was not competent.

If the Bent Spoon is for shonky research, which is more likely to mislead than to illumine future action, there can be no doubt that Hitting Home richly deserved such categorisation. It was ill-considered and of no value in the pursuit of reliable information upon which to categorise a problem, and to plan remedial action.

The Skeptics should not, in my view, change the award of the Bent Spoon. It seems that the investigators knew the results they wanted, and set out to get them. Their reportage achieved that end.

Walter C. Clark, Woodend

Missed Opportunities

The Bent Spoon Award going to the authors of Hitting Home is what attracted myself and others to the conference. I was very impressed at the quick response of a group to this report after the lack of response to misleading studies done on sexual abuse.

I am concerned that changing the award at this time would not only give credence to this sloppy piece of research but would diminish the credibility of the New Zealand Skeptics.

I see little in value in reiterating the point about adding apples and oranges, that, Denis Dutton has done very well. What concerns me as much as the misleading statistics is that the authors of the report missed opportunities to find some of the causes of spousal abuse.

Firstly, there was no distinction between de facto and legally married couples. The incidence of sexual abuse of children is higher when they are living in a de facto household. It is likely that the cases of extreme physical abuse would also be higher in de facto relationships. I believe that the question was left out deliberately as the result would not suit the agenda of the authors of the report.

Secondly, the men should have been asked if they were victims of the various categories of abuse. It would have been interesting to see the correlation between those abusing and those receiving abuse. Overseas studies for multiple forms of violence between intimate partners indicate that men and women do use about the same amount of violence in relationships. Please note enclosed list of references.

In short, the authors asked questions that would give the desired answer. Namely that men are primarily responsible for domestic violence.

The fact is that this report is clearly flawed. It made no attempt to take a scientific approach to a serious social problem which can only lead to further polarisation of the sexes. This is why the executive of the Skeptics collectively awarded the Bent Spoon to the report.

Even if it could be demonstrated that some other publication is more deserving of the Bent Spoon, it is simply too late.

Firstly, that would be taken as endorsement of the report. It would have been better not to have even commented on the report in the first place.

Secondly, and more important for the long term future of the Skeptics, future awards would only go to publications that would not upset members of the Skeptics.

Next year ASH might get the award for using flawed data in regard to the effects of passive smoking. I personally support ASH, although I am not a member. However, I would not support ASH, Greenpeace, or any other organisation deliberately or even accidentally distorting the facts in the presentation of a study.

Perhaps in future awards could be selected in a different manner. A short list could be published in a newsletter. Members would then have an opportunity to express their view. A postal vote could possibly be arranged.

These matters are very much secondary to the question of giving the Bent Spoon Award to someone else. In hindsight the “Hitting Home” report might not have been the best choice. I and many others thought it was. To give the award to someone else now, would permanently affect all future award choices and no doubt restrict the topics printed in the newsletters.

Chuck Bird, Auckland

Bent Spoon Valid

At the Auckland confab when the dispute over Hitting Home burst over the AGM, I felt that there was little that I could contribute since I had no idea of the content of the report and only recollections of other information, so rather than add ad hominem remarks to an argument that was already involving strong emotions, I stayed quiet. But now that I have read the report, I feel that the award of the Bent Spoon was valid and deserved. Whether it was the most deserving of the possible candidates I can’t say, as I watch very little TV, rarely listen to the radio (when chancing on a talk-back show while in search of music, I’m tempted to flee to a cave and ignore any shadows on the walls), and don’t read the infamous Women’s Weekly.

To be worthy of a Bent Spoon, or criticism generally, the candidate should be important enough to deserve attention, be a stupid or bungled or confused effort by people who should know better, and worst, be wilfully misleading with intent to profit. Although the report contains work by persons and organisations that has been properly done, nevertheless the report is dishonest. Honest research requires conclusions that best represent the evidence collected, and the evidence collected is that which most directly bears upon the issues of interest. (Spare me remarks about circles.)

The authors fail to follow principle. They mention discussions over the form of the surveys yet give no details, the only time they access issues of internal consistency is when they consider whether the sex of the interviewer had any affect (it didn’t). All they have to say about their decision to study only man’s abuse of only women, and only by interviewing men is that it breaks new ground. They make brief mentions of other research (providing that it can be found in computer catalogues) but no attempt to cross reference men’s self-assessment with their wives’ opinion, although one can easily imagine difficulties.

The authors do not seem to have noticed that they are all three women, and that going by the names in the acknowledgement, nearly everyone else in the Justice Department involved with the project is likewise a woman. Yet there is a hint that they could have noticed when comparing their results with those of other groups: strangely enough, the group that notes the highest prevalence of men’s abuse of women is the Women’s Shelter (p 87).

Another comparison is just brushed aside. Their sample group has a different pattern of income from that of the nearest NZ census. This is due to inflation, they suggest, except that inflation has been relatively low. What is less often admitted is that lower incomes have been falling, while high incomes have risen still higher. But this is a quibble.

What I regard as the most serious failing is the flaw in the basic data collection in that the questions are ambiguous. They wish to investigate men’s abuse of women, which I take to mean unjustifiable acts, since obviously, if there was a good reason for doing something, then it could not be regarded as abuse even if nasty because its motive was not a desire to inflict nastiness on a woman but something else again. To give a specific example, suppose that mum was chastising a child and dad shoves her away. (Ah, but what if the child had been hitting the cat, for catching a bird.) Whatever the complications, surely this is quite different from him shoving her aside as he walks by, just to show who’s boss, and the difference in the quality of the act bears directly on the question of abuse and abusive attitudes. This seems to me to be so obvious that it must have come up in discussion, yet the authors say nothing on the issue

Even if it didn’t occur to the researchers it must be likely that some at least of the two thousand interviewees had similar thoughts and responded accordingly to their question “not OK in any circumstances”, indeed some may even have lived such scenarios. So of what use is the remark “Not a single behaviour, even using a knife or gun, was judged as unacceptable by all New Zealand men” (p 144). Instead of judging their attitudes to women, it may be their imagination that is being put to the test.

Yet the authors remain oblivious to this issue when on page 61 they compare some Australian research that used the word “Justifiable” rather than “OK” in some circumstances. They merely recite the differences, with no sign of thought as to possible reasons. Thus, 7% thought that lethal violence was possibly justifiable (Oz) but only 1% possibly OK (NZ). Could this not suggest a difference in the meaning of the two words, as exemplified by the arguments over just wars even though all agree that wars are not OK? Data is however data, and fascinating patterns await your notice, as the comparison shows. As the severity of the act increases (shoves, slaps, throws object at, assaults), the Oz figures run 15,14,10,7, while for NZ 19,11,8,1. What might this mean, if anything? But instead, silence. The authors simply view women as irreproachable in all circumstances so that irrespective of motive, any act against them is fully and purely abuse, by definition.

Much of this could have been avoided by the simple means of instructing the interviewers to exclude thoughts of self-defence or protection of third parties. What is at issue is men’s attitudes towards women as revealed by their own choice between alternatives, not as driven by some factor external to this relationship. You could argue that some men might decline an act on absolute principle, whereas others might require severe provocation, some less and another group no provocation at all, and that this does indeed reflect their attitudes to women, but it also reflects attitudes to humanity at large. Few people are Jains.

Thus the questions asked, especially those concerning physical acts, fail to address the research issue square on and allow needless confusions that could have been excluded.

The authors’ treatment of the results they do obtain is grotesque. They are determined to push them into showing that abuse is common and serious amongst all men to such a degree that I feel that this was their fixed view from the beginning, and they ignore all interpretations other than the one they want upheld. This requires some crude steps.

They list eleven acts of physical abuse that can be ranked by the seriousness of the likely physical injury. For acts of psychological abuse, ranking is more a subjective matter but nevertheless the number of persons accepting such acts in some circumstances has the same strongly skewed distribution, from 19% down to less than 1% and 33% to 1% respectively. Well and good. But the factor they choose for analysis is “Number of types accepted”. This is lunatic, for it equates “uses or threatens with weapon” (two counts) with “shoves or slaps”, also two counts. No explanation is given as to why this choice was made or others rejected, instead they leap at once to shout (in bold type, p60) “one in four said yes to at least one type of physical abuse” and also “six in ten…psychological”, plus further drivel about the average number accepted and standard deviations.

Lunatic is the wrong word, and stupidity is out of place. This is deliberate misrepresentation, and I don’t mean that they got their arithmetic wrong, or that the interviewees didn’t make those responses. There is the story of the beggar with a sign reading “Wars 2, Legs 1, Wives 2, Children 4, Wounds 2; Total 11”. No doubt if a survey was made, statistics on this factor could be generated. What should have been used is “Worst type approved”. There may have been some thought of this as it is noted that if a particular abuse is approved, lesser ranked acts are likely to be approved also, but although the approval rates vary by a factor of about thirty with a clear connection to severity, this is ignored in favour of shouting (in bold) “A significant number say that physical and psychological abuse is OK in some circumstances” without noticing that 75% deny approval to any physical act, and 42% of psychological acts (such as harsh words), even as the authors have defined them.

It could be argued that reducing a wide range of acts to a single severity scale and scoring men’s views through their acceptance of various acts with a possible further weighting according to frequency is a hopeless task and to be avoided. Yet exactly that happens in courts when a judge decides on the number of years of imprisonment to impose, a practice with millennia of history, and operated by personnel in a not too distant department.

Yes there would be problems (which haven’t dissuaded the IQ testers!) and there would be arguments over rankings, but Weight of Abuse Approved or Worst Type Approved are at least attempting to assess abusiveness, unlike Number of Types, which involves declaring that all acts have equal weight, an absurdity built in from the beginning and which flies in the face of the prevalence data that by their existence demonstrate that everyone else views murder as more serious than shoving, rather than both being worth one demerit each.

One act, hitting, is considered in various contexts, and on p 65 there is an interesting list of circumstances ordered by the proportion of men who apportion blame to the woman being hit. At the top with 48% is “He catches her in bed with another man” (I suppose that everyone interprets this common euphemism the same way) down to 1% for “He can’t find a job”. As before, any thought about the possible meaning of this ordering or what men might be thinking is not mentioned. Instead, all are immediately equivalenced so that we have another Number of Circumstances report thereby enabling a leap to the obvious and only conclusion. Combining the trivial few percent who assigned blame to neither allows the authors to say “In one circumstance half the men say the man is not at all responsible”. Yes, but it is also true that the other half think otherwise. The next paragraph notes some acceptance of blame by men but ends with “there are no circumstances in which every man says that the man alone is responsible”.

The authors simply deem an act abuse and therefore wrong (which is anyway what the word means) no matter what motive lies behind the act. There are no distinctions between malicious hurt, wrong, justifiable, or what else do you expect? All acts are solely expressions of a wish to abuse. There seems to be no recognition of the fact that a relationship involves two people in close interaction. Men are assessed by an impossible standard whereas women are held to no standard at all for they are perfect in act and thought.

The conclusion states that men must accept responsibility for their actions; well enough, so also must women. Women must know that being caught in bed with another man is likely to provoke extravagant behaviour, as is endlessly reported in the news media, depicted in films and plays, and found in novels. In fact they do, and are not above flirting with someone else in a pub precisely so as to stir up the boyfriend (who is expected to go for the other bloke!). He of course should remain calm (dear friend, let us reason together) but may well not. If she abhors violence, she has a free choice not to precipitate it but sometimes prefers drama and risk. One can imagine circumstances when infidelity is his fault (he is boring, infertile, inadequate, obnoxious, unfaithful…) but her choices have their likely outcomes. Human behaviour is not often driven by one factor acting in isolation.

But the authors admit no complications. Scrutiny of their list of abusive actions shows what a surprised husband can’t do without being declared abusive. Violence is out, so are threats. Destroying something belonging to her is displaced violence, and abusive. So are words as they will almost certainly involve putting down family and friends (especially the close friend), and anyway, he is seeking to stop her from doing something she wanted to do and so is abusing her.

It appears that he must simply apologise for the intrusion, pack and leave. Only that would be approved of by the authors, who note on p 28 that 47% of the 193 female homicide victims in NZ (78-87) were killed by an existing or former male partner. Well, no-one approves of murder, but what has happened to the statistics on the other obvious combinations of who kills whom? Is it even surprising, considering that few people would have strong feelings about strangers?

In short, the ideals of research have not been met. The information that has been collected is of poor quality, and its analysis deformed. The conclusions offered were predetermined, and other possible conclusions ignored. Indeed, I doubt that the authors have a good understanding of statistical analysis, given that on p 181 they complain that their analysis computer programme allows only fifteen predictor variables for a logistic regression, and that they regularly used fifty predictor variables in their linear regressions. (See F. S. Acton’s Numerical Methods That Work, the section “What not to compute”.)

And while this “research” and argument continues, unambiguous abuse that is unambiguously serious also continues.


I hope that no-one imagines that I deny that there is a problem, or that things could be better. I am saying that this report isn’t going to help. I hope that we can stay clear of escalating displays of superiority in caringness, concernedness, and righteousness.

I agree that the procedure for selecting the recipient of the Bent Spoon award involves four persons other than the Executive so that our collective responsibility falls rather heavily on Dr Dutton, but I don’t see that there is much of an alternative for so scattered a group as the NZ Skeptics, especially when the members of the Executive happen to live in the same city. I was as usual surprised by the choice of recipient, but only in the sense that I hadn’t heard of it beforehand. I regard the award as appropriate, and retain confidence in the ability of the Executive to select the worthy in the future.

Nicky McLean Lower Hutt

A Big Mistake

We have made a big mistake. Hitting Home is careful, thorough, mainstream scientific research. It may be alarming, but it is not, as we said, “alarmist”. It is a serious attempt to measure men’s attitudes towards, and the extent of, their violence. It is social science, not “hard” science, but it has done its best to attach figures to subjective psychological statements. If it can be criticised, it is for accepting the men’s reports of their own violence at face value, when the biggest problem associated with men’s violence is men’s denial. (“I just gave her a bit of a tap” — and she spent three weeks in hospital.)

One of our spokesmen (sic) publicly admitted to a level of domestic violence that is against the law. On Morning Report, he misquoted a question about male control, “tried to keep her from doing something she wanted to do (such as going out with friends or going to a meeting)” (p 225) as “tried to stop her from doing whatever she wanted…such as driving while drunk or abusing a child.”

We said in our press release that the report paints a disturbing picture of men’s violence “until you examine the fine print”. There is no fine print, nor any of the attempts to hide key caveats or qualifications that the expression implies. We said “the report defines ‘abuse’ to include criticising your partner’s family”. The 2,000 men were actually asked about “putting down her family and friends” (“criticising” is rational, “putting down” is not) in the context of a row or fight. The report did not define “abuse” from scratch, it took its questionnaire items from other such studies, giving references (p 173). Putting down one’s partner’s family in the context of row is psychological abuse because her family is something she has no control over, and is almost invariably irrelevant to the content of the row. A woman will feel compelled to defend her family, and an attack on her family is an indirect attack on her.

We said “you can’t classify the experience of being strangled or threatened with a knife alongside hearing a rude comment about your brother…” This is a misquote, and trivialises what is actually being discussed. The report does not “classify…alongside”, it ranks violence and abuse in seriousness (by inverse frequency of mention), divides them into four levels of seriousness, and reports that the most serious forms of violence and abuse are rare, and “just over half [of the men reporting any abuse] were in fact in the least serious group.” (pp 88-9)

In saying the report “trivialises” domestic violence, we trivialise psychological abuse: a man does not have to be violent to abuse his partner. In one classic case, a man terrorised his wife by getting out his rifle and cleaning it, without saying a word or touching her.

We criticised the report for investigating only men’s violence and abuse of women, yet it pretends to do nothing else. Its subtitle, on the front cover, is “Men speak about abuse of women partners.” It recommends that studies be made of women’s violence to men, and of violence in same-sex relationships.

Two indications of the limited extent of women’s violence:

  1. There is no felt need for men’s refuges (if there were it would be instantly met by Rotary, Lions and the Round Table).
  2. Wellington Men for Non-violence ran a flat for men for about two years. It was never used as a refuge for a man fleeing a woman’s violence, only for violent men giving their families “time out”. Studies that claim to show high levels of female violence are methodologically flawed, but be that as it may, this report is not about that.

We accused the report of saying there was no link between ethnicity and violence. It made no such claim, and could not, because it did not ask about ethnicity. (Perhaps it should have, but it says why it did not. The question is not an easy one to formulate, when two people of identical descent may describe their ethnic identity quite differently.) Do we have any evidence that there is such a link?

We said it “flies in the face of other research” in claiming there was no link between socio-economic status and violence. (Since when did one piece of research have to match another? Isn’t this just another way of saying that overseas research couldn’t be replicated here?) It says “We compared our results with a recent review of 52 studies… In no case was there total consistency across all studies reviewed…There are several possible explanations. The spread of social factors in New Zealand may not reflect the same degree of diversity as in America where most of the reviewed studies were conducted…” (p 97).

In fact it does find a weak link between socio-economic status and violence, but only in younger men. It is a truism among anti-violence workers (but apparently unknown to the critics) that domestic violence cuts across class boundaries, and a high court judge or cabinet minister is just as likely to beat his wife as a freezing worker or opossum trapper. Since the report came to this counter-intuitive conclusion by careful scientific study, what do we (who produce no contrary study) think it should do — cook the books?

We said “the contradiction is not surprising when you realise how broadly the report has defined the concept of abuse”. Psychological abuse is a relatively new concept, but it is no wishy-washy, New Age claim: ask any victim. Any torturer will tell you that the “best” torture is purely mental. It is not that the report has defined abuse more broadly, but that our sceptical critics seem unaware how prevalent or serious psychological abuse is.

We said “the deliberate avoidance of any identification of at-risk groups…”. This is simply not true. The report looks at age, education, income, marital status, employment status, and socio-economics status (pp 92, 160-1). We disputed most strongly the report’s statement that “‘in at least one circumstance’ six out of ten New Zealand men say the woman has only herself to blame for being hit”.

We implied that the specific circumstances justified the man’s violence. 36% said a woman is solely to blame if her man hits her for abusing a child. A further 3% said neither is at fault. Do we say they are right to condone his violence, bearing in mind that having their mothers struck for abusing them will do the children no good at all? Role-modelling in non-violence it ain’t.

Thirteen percent said no blame at all attached to a man (7% her fault, 6% neither) who hit his wife for repeatedly refusing sex, 22% (19+3) for yelling at him at the top of her voice, 28% (21+7) for not having a meal ready when she had been at home all day, 30% (26+4) for making fun of him sexually, 50% (48+2) for finding her in bed with another man (p 65). (The reaction of hitting the other man is not canvassed.) These findings indicate high levels of condoning of male violence. Are we not just shooting the messenger?

We criticised the report for its finding that 20% of men think a woman is entirely to blame if a man hits her in “self-defence against a woman who is actually attacking a man”. The actual wording is, “in an argument, she hits him first.” We Skeptics are now on record as thinking it beyond question that once a woman has struck a man, he need take no responsibility whatever for all his subsequent violence.

We said it presented “no perceptible evidence” that New Zealand men have quite a high level of anger and hostility. On pp 44-45 it describes how it asked the men six questions (the Brief Anger-Aggression Questionnaire) devised overseas (and apparently a standard test) and found that New Zealand men scored higher than men in other countries.

We Skeptics have taken information out of context, rewritten it in a biased way, and generally put the kind of spin on it that we so often accuse our opponents of doing, behaving like a tabloid newspaper. One of us called the report “victimology” (what is wrong with studying victims?) when it is a study of perpetrators, and “advocacy science” when it is simply applied social science. The only assumptions it makes that could be called “advocacy” are that domestic violence is an evil, and that men must take responsibility for their violence if it is to be eliminated. In challenging those assumptions, we are effectively taking the side of violent men.

Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof. The claims this report makes will come as no surprise to anyone who works in the field of domestic violence. It presents extraordinary proof for them. In attacking it, we have gone way out of our depth. We should stick to the urine-sniffing lamas and medical-advice-dispensing radio psychics that are our forte. This time, we have used the Bent Spoon to flick egg over our own faces.

We should graciously acknowledge our mistake, withdraw the “award” and publicly and unconditionally apologise to the authors of “Hitting Home”. This would be a good example of the kind of rational and adaptable behaviour we try to encourage in others.

Professor Mack and his Amazing Abducting Aliens

An abridged version of the Skeptical Enquirer’s report of the session dealing with “alien abductions” at the Seattle CSICOP Conference on “The Psychology of Belief”

Many of us have been reading articles or commentaries regarding alien abductions and have just wished that someone of real authority would take up the issue and give it a thorough scientific once over. Most of us were encouraged when we learned that John Mack, award winning Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, had taken on the task.

So it was with some surprise that we found that his work Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens proclaims Professor Mack’s beliefs that many of his patients have been abducted by aliens — and that he is now the most famous spokesman for this cause.

He vigorously defended his claims at the conference and worried some of the audience by suggesting that other cultures have always known there are other realities, other beings, other dimensions. There is a world of other dimensions, of other realities that can cross over into our own world.

Which realities, beings and dimensions he did not say. One would have expected Professor Mack’s work to at least have been well founded in scientific methodology. But this assumption took a bit of a knock when Donna Bassett, a researcher who had participated in the Professor’s research programme, was called up to the platform to speak.

At first Bassett seemed to indicate that she was one of Mack’s genuine abductees. But she quickly announced that since September 1992 she had been only posing as one in order to infiltrate Mack’s project and learn about his research methods.

“I faked it! Women have been doing it for centuries!” she said.

Ms Bassett reported that Professor Mack’s procedures were flawed and he used little or no scientific methodology. During therapy sessions patients would often get together to embellish their stories. They told Professor Mack what he wanted to hear. Of course her most telling point was that the Professor’s research methods had failed to identify that this “patient” was “faking it”.

Needless to say Professor Mack responded in the expected manner.

I am (deeply?) saddened by this…

I am a little bit clearer about this when I am told that [Bassett] was found to play this role by Philip Klass [of the CSICOP Executive Council] — since that’s his purpose, to destroy and undercut the credibility of this work.

That’s right. Sadly indeed for Professor Mack’s on-going future as a TV chat show guest, that’s what science is about.

There were a few more heated exchanges until Robert Baker ended the session on a humorous note by recommending a new direction for this line of research. He explained :

Sixty-nine percent of Americans believe in angels, and 32% claim they have had contact with them. Now that’s a lot better than for alien abductions. I think we ought to investigate angels…