The great continental demolition derby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other scenarios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mad Consumer Disease”: the response to BSE in the UK

Consumer response to the outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy has involved a complex balancing of risk and price

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) has officially been recognised in the UK since 1986, a year after the first signs of disease amongst the UK herd. It was only in the 90s, though, that a link with the human illness, Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (CJD) was investigated, leading to the famous announcement on 20 March 1996, by the health secretary in Parliament, that there was a ‘probable’ link between BSE in cattle and a new form of CJD, known as “new variant CJD”. This was the day that the floodgates opened. It has been described as Britain’s ‘most costly peace time catastrophe’, although that might have changed since the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001. I, fortunately, was working at the time as a dietitian in Health Promotion. My predecessor at the Meat and Livestock Commission, Amanda Wynne, was not so lucky.

Consumer reaction

That Government announcement precipitated an unprecedented response from both the media and consumers — the two obviously being inextricably linked. There was an immediate reduction in sales of some 30%, with consumers avoiding beef in its most obvious form, ie roasts and casseroles, but not meat products so much. This immediately gave a hint of consumers’ misunderstanding, as the incidence of BSE was much higher in dairy herds, from which meat products are more likely to be made, with prime cuts coming from beef cattle, which remained largely unaffected. There had also been a ban on the use of what are called ‘specified bovine offals’ since 1989, which included the spinal cord, thymus and brain, so it was likely that any possible transfer to humans occurred before this time. Stopping eating beef now was not really going to help.

At what price?

But what price are consumers willing to pay to reduce risk? Inevitably the price of beef plummeted shortly after the announcement in the Commons — one supermarket cut its prices by 50 %. The effect on consumers was dramatic — beef sales went through the roof! Some supermarkets saw a ten-fold increase in sales. There was suddenly a widespread acceptance of risk because it came at a bargain price. These are two examples of quotes that appeared in the press at the time: “There are still a lot of people who are buying beef and where it is reduced they are buying it in quite large quantities,” said a spokesman from Tesco. “I’m not all that confident, but it’s a good price and I’m willing to take the risk,” said one customer who bought half-price steaks. And well she might — the British Medical Association published figures at the time showing the risk of dying from CJD was 1 in 10 million (equal to being hit by lightning), compared to 1 in 8000 for a fatal road traffic accident or 1 in 200 for dying from smoking 10 cigarettes a day. I remember one person saying to me that they would buy the cheap beef and put it in the freezer until the scare was over!

There was clearly a point at which people were willing to trade perceived risk for cheaper food. It has been paralleled with the effect on the air industry following the September 11 disaster. In the month following, British Airways saw its passenger numbers to America fall by 32%. In contrast, the budget airlines have seen their trade boom. Admittedly, most of those airlines in the UK do not fly to America and you could argue terrorists are more likely to target the big carriers flying out of New York or Heathrow, than those flying to Tenerife from a minor UK airport like Luton or Stanstead. But people are remarkably consistent in the way they balance risk with price — consider your own behaviour regarding smoke alarms, bike helmets or your car tyres.

This has also been highlighted recently during the GE debate. Actually buying organic produce in a supermarket for example, does not always reflect reported behaviour.

Beef sales

Despite these quirks of human nature, beef consumption did drop overall during 1996, and it was hardly surprising that some people were anxious about eating beef when on a Friday the Government said it would give guidance on feeding children beef, but not until the following Monday! There was a considerable reduction in the consumption of beef from March 1996; this was not entirely due to a reduction in household consumption. Two hundred and three out of 204 local councils banned beef from their menus in March 1996, which most notably included schools, but also social services. Interestingly, a similar reaction has been seen in France in 2000, after a confirmed case of vCJD (though not their first), with beef being taken off all school menus and beef sales falling by 20-50%.

The response since

Since 1996, consumer confidence in British beef has increased dramatically. Continuing with the analogy of the air industry, it is said to be safest to fly the day after a plane crash — I think that is true in NZ too. Britain has had to examine its procedures in tremendous detail, and consumers are recognising the changes that have been made, and are keen to buy a product in which they now have confidence. Beef sales are not only back up, but exceeding pre-BSE levels. A Mori poll in 1999, of perceived “threats to health”, showed the fear of BSE at the bottom of the list, well below the major killers of cancer and heart disease.

Having been one of the first fast food chains that stopped using British beef in 1996, McDonalds threw its weight behind an industry initiative in 1998, aiming to increase consumption of the British product. Following the launch of this “Buy British” campaign, two thirds of those surveyed preferred to buy meat produced in the UK, 40 % ranking it “very important”.

But in October 1998, 170 local authority bans still remained in place. This triggered a high-profile campaign by the industry, enlisting the support of Government, the Food Standards Agency and a well-respected scientist, Hugh Pennington. This was required to counter the “well, you would tell us it’s safe, wouldn’t you” sort of reaction. Within a month, 56 local authorities had lifted their bans, and within six months only three remained. Today, just two bans remain, plus a couple in primary schools. The key issue in terms of returning to beef was traceability, even outweighing price — though only just. Consumers needed reassurance, focused on identified consumer concerns. Several quality assurance schemes were introduced throughout the food chain, most notably one for mince, introduced quite soon after the crisis began. It was a rosette developed for use on mince, stating that the product did not contain offal, and was made from cattle less than 30 months of age. Consumers had become concerned about the quality of mince, and this quality mark worked well to reassure them. It was later extended to burgers as well. Consumers in the UK are as responsive to stickers on packs as they are here. Even if they don’t fully understand what they mean, it is a symbol of quality. Food safety is still a major concern for consumers in the UK — highlighted by the latest consumer attitudes survey, carried out by the Food Standards Agency — but it is broader than just BSE. Unsurprisingly, food poisoning is of greatest concern in Scotland, reflecting the site of the E. coli outbreak, also in 1996, in which 20 elderly people died. But over 90 per cent of those surveyed eat meat on a regular basis, with true vegetarianism still below 5% of the population.

Reaction in NZ?

So how did consumers react here at home? It appears to have been perceived very much as an overseas problem, and if anything helped our product. The fact that NZ is BSE-free reinforced consumers’ confidence in the NZ product and the meat production systems employed here, ie grass-based and extensive. What of the farmers?

In conclusion, I would ask you to spare a thought for the farmers. By March 2001 there had been 95 cases of vCJD in Britain. And whilst no one would deny it is a hideous illness, compare this to the number of suicides amongst farmers and the figures pale dramatically. In 1999, there was more than one suicide a week amongst farmers, totalling 400 over the last few years. This, as far as I know, never made the headlines.

Acknowledgements

Grateful thanks go to former colleagues at the Meat and Livestock Commission for supplying information for this paper, in particular Chris Lamb, consumer marketing manager and Tony Goodger, trade sector manager.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society of New Zealand 27, 97-99.

Hokum Locum

Nervousness based medicine

Fear of litigation is a powerful stimulus to over-investigation and over treatment. In an atmosphere of litigation phobia, the only bad test is the test you didn’t think of ordering.
NZ Medical Journal Nov 24 2000 p. 479

Magnet Quackery

While setting the VCR the other day I caught a segment on TV where a particularly slimy and irritating Australian was extolling the virtues of magnetic pillows and underlays. I was further reminded of this incident when Dr Keith Davidson of Blenheim, gave me a brochure on “Magnetic Energy”. Ever the humorist, Keith had scrawled across the bottom the words “doesn’t attract me!”

The web address is www.magneticenergy.com.au (shouldn’t that be ‘dot.con’?)

One of the great things about quackery is that it can be recycled after a period of time when people have forgotten the lessons of history. Charles Mackay — “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”, outlines the last great era of magnetic therapy in his book. Refer page 304.

When recycling an old fraud it is important to modernise it for a more sophisticated New Zealand audience (don’t laugh). It also helps to link it with other modalities such as acupressure and auricular acupuncture. Some highlights from the brochure: Magnetic water. Placing a jug of boiled water on top of the Mega Multi Magnet for 2-3 hours makes this. The daily use of “magnetised water may keep your negative and positive ions and pH levels balanced.”

What about an antinauseant magnet with the unfortunate acronym of “SCAT”. (Sea, Car, Air, Train). Scat is a North American term for animal sh*t which pretty much sums up these useless magnetic products.

Sexual abuse claims set to spiral

In Vol 62 I predicted that moves to allow lump sum compensation for sexual abuse claims would then be subjected to Welch’s Law. (Claims expand to take up the amount of compensation available).

Since the Government announced the reintroduction of lump-sum payments, 12,000 people have lodged “sensitive claims” and may be in line for $100K each regardless of whether police have investigated the complaint (they have been too busy collecting speeding fines) and claimants are not required to name the perpetrator.

I am very concerned that this absurdly unfair legislation excludes people who have really suffered through alien abduction. It should not matter that such claimants are unsure as to the identity of their abductor. In the half-light a Martian can resemble a Raelian. Unless the spaceship was speeding, it’s unlikely the event would come to the attention of the police. In passing, I wonder what the penalty is for doing Warp 9 in Taihape?
Marlborough Express 29 April, 2003

Work Stress

Employers have much to fear from proposed changes to the Health and Safety in Employment Act. Employers are about to become responsible for managing stress in the workplace. If this foolish proposal is implemented I predict that there will be a surge of complaints followed by requests for compensation as disaffected workers struggle to get their snouts into the ACC trough. Many already have by successfully claiming for spurious conditions such as chemical “poisoning”, multiple chemical sensitivity, and occupational overuse syndrome (OOS). These are all classical conversion disorders where personal stress and anxiety is manifest as physical complaints. Workers are now being given the opportunity to take their own personal worries to work and make them the responsibility of their employer and ACC.
Dominion Post May 5 2003-05-16

Food Supplements

These have been in the news lately and thanks to Alan Pickmere for sending me a range of what’s on offer in Whangarei. In an accompanying letter Alan recounted how his queries to various suppliers were met with a dose of “vehemence medicine”.

Zenith Corporation are promoting “Body Enhancer” and “Bee V Balm” via their website www.zenith.co.nz. Claims are made that their products are backed by research but none is evident, only the usual testimonials which are the hallmark of snake-oil salesmen. The language is very carefully chosen, for example: “Under NZ law and the Medicines Act 1981 we are prohibited from telling you how our products and the ingredients they contain will work for your benefit.” Wrong. They are prohibited by law from making claims for which they have no evidence.

Malcolm Harker’s website www.malcolmharker.co.nz tells us that he has been making traditional herbal medicines since 1981. The website is a bit “clunky” and lacks functionality but is worth a visit, if only to enjoy some of the product names. Troubled by “brain fatigue”? Try “E-sense”, a mixture of sage (geddit?), rosemary, gingko, kelp and fucus. That last ingredient sounds a trifle unpleasant.

I urge all readers to visit these websites and send in questions about these products. The alternative health literature is an endless source of whacky ideas and because so many of the people involved are scientifically illiterate, there are some wonderful howlers. Take this one for example:

“The activity (ie “hotness”) of the capsicum family is measured by British Thermal Units (BTU). Good quality cayenne capsules come in extra hot which is 100,000 BTU.”

One BTU is the energy required to raise the temperature of 1lb of water by 1°F. It has nothing to do with the perceived “hotness” of cayenne pepper. Consider a hot water cylinder containing 200lbs of water. 100,000 BTU by my calculations would raise the temperature of your cylinder by 500°F. I will leave you with Alan Pickmere’s comment: “rather a cheap way to heat your bathwater”.

Yoga for Sickness Beneficiaries

For many years I have been corresponding with various officials and bureaucrats about the continuing scandal of the sickness benefit. A short-term benefit for illness has been turned into a lifestyle and all that is required to gain this benefit is a signed certificate from a doctor. It is a matter of some regret to me that members of my own profession have been largely responsible for an increase of 3000 on the sickness benefit since July 2000. Over 4000 people have been on a sickness benefit for more than five years, 182 for more than 15 years and five for over 20 years.

At the expense of sounding like a redneck I get particularly annoyed when I read in the paper of professional criminals described as “sickness beneficiaries”. They are too sick to work but well enough to commit burglaries and serious criminal offences. All of my attempts to find out details of these cases have been thwarted by “privacy considerations”. This means that a third party (a doctor) can commit the state to providing a benefit with no independent means of auditing these decisions. The Government continues to express concerns as to why so many people are going on to sickness benefits. The answer is simple: because they can!

But wait … a novel solution has been found. Selected sickness beneficiaries are being offered “yogic breathing to help them get a job”. This has been described by critics as “unscientific, dangerous, and bullshit”.

However, let’s not write it off completely. If they also offered yogic “flying” this could offer the dual benefit of a return to work and a means of getting there. But what next? I predict language courses in Klingon?
Sunday Star Times May 18 2003

The Price of Water

Insecurities about water quality have led to a boom in sales of bottled water. But the health benefits of the phenomenon are probably minimal.

We were surprised to hear recently that sales of drinking water are now the fifth largest earner of overseas currency for Fiji. A little investigation suggested that that figure may well be correct, but threw up further surprises.

Much of Fiji has high rainfall, but water is in short supply in some areas. Villagers can easily dig shallow wells, and Aid agencies have dug deep wells for some villages. But deep water is often mineralised. We have stayed on islands were rain is the only supply of drinking water. As populations have grown, water extraction has allowed intrusion of salt water, and the well water is brackish. After weeks of washing in brackish water, a fresh shower is a great luxury. Tourist resorts build de-salination plants but that is not an option for villagers.

According to the Australian Financial Review, Aid money was used to develop a mountain spring as a source of export water. The main market is the USA where Fiji water is now the 6th highest-selling bottled water after advertising endorsements from Tiger Woods and Elle Macpherson. Good luck to the entrepreneurs, but I wonder if the contributors realised the destination of their charitable dollars.

Something is odd about a third world country exporting drinking water to the USA. Fifty years ago American travellers had one main grumble about Europe; the tap water was unsafe to drink. This implied that the tap water was drinkable back home where the only people refusing US tap water were right-wing conspiracy theorists who claimed that somebody (either the government or the commies) were adding chemicals to damage the mental health of citizens.

Bottled water was then almost entirely ‘mineral water’, either naturally carbonated water from a few famous springs or the much cheaper alternative invented by Schweppes. Scandals about contamination of some famous springs damaged the market, but some genius discovered that bottled drinking water did not need to be carbonated and any source of clean water would do.

Until that time the manufacturers of soft drinks were regarded as the epitome of value improvers; the addition of carbon dioxide and a few drops of syrup converted water at low cost to a marketable product. But the drinking water industry changed this perception. All the costs are in bottling and transport, the cost of the water in the bottle is as near zero as makes no difference.

The industry started in the USA but then took Europe by storm, 15 years ago British sales of bottled water had reached £216 million and London restaurants were charging £1 per glass. It took longer to reach Australia and NZ but the sight of all those tourists clutching their bottles had an effect.

Have a look in your local supermarket, there are a variety of brands and unless you buy it in very large containers it is more expensive than petrol. Marketing has been closely targeted, using magazines and radio stations rather than TV. The sales people know their main clientele, young, affluent travellers.

By a strange bit of timing the tap water in Europe had become safe to drink just before bottled water became popular. In fact one of the priorities of government has been the provision of safe tap water (it is even safe to drink on the main Fiji island), but as it became safe, tourists stopped drinking it.

So what is the motive? At least partly it is fashion, backpackers have been seen furtively refilling their bottles at the tap so later they can be seen with the right brand. But most clearly believe it is healthier to drink ‘natural spring water’. Some brands will tell you they are ‘fat free’! Ironically the quality standards on most tap water is probably higher than those on much bottled water. But backpackers are all aware of the high incidence of ‘traveller’s diarrhoea’, one estimate is 20 million cases per year world-wide, though it could be much higher.

Herbert DuPont is Chief of Internal Medicine at St Luke’s Episcopal Hospital Houston Texas and an expert in diseases of the alimentary tract. His opinion is that although “Most people think it (diarrhoea) is caused by the water”, it is not. “Bad food is responsible for 90% of traveller’s diarrhoea.”

Even in the USA, eating out is twice as dangerous as eating at home. Scientific American July 2000 contained some amazing statistics. A large percentage of outbreaks of food poisoning could not be traced to a particular source, however of those that could be so traced, the most dangerous foods were not those I would have suspected:

Food that caused a problem % of outbreaks
Salads 12.4
Fruit and vegetables 6.0
Beef 2.3
Chicken 2.1
Fish (including shellfish) 1.3
Milk and eggs 1.0
Pork 0.4

Vegetarians beware; the most dangerous items are those generally considered the most healthy! However going back to Professor DuPont, he warned that the really dangerous items were sauces and condiments, particularly if they were not properly refrigerated. I suspect (without any evidence) that this may be the case here.

It seems obvious that these percentages would be quite different in other countries, but if you cannot trust the salads in the USA, those bought from street vendors in Asia must be pretty dodgy.

In the past, epidemics of the great water-born diseases, typhoid and cholera, killed millions- and they were a threat to the traveller. But in countries were most of the bottled water is being drunk, this is no longer the case. The last major outbreak of cholera from a public water supply was in a South American country where activists had opposed chlorination. Chlorine of course is a chemical, and a poison, and they should not be putting it in our drinking water! I suspect that if travellers were questioned, many would give ‘chlorination’ as a reason for not drinking tap water. I just wonder, how safe is bottled water?

Rats, Scientists and Experimental Design

John Riddell learns about some dangerous chemicals

From the TV3 News website:

CHIPS COULD CAUSE CANCER UPDATED: 05:56PM WEDNESDAY 26 JUNE

The World Health Organisation has begun a three-day emergency meeting in Geneva to evaluate the danger of some popular foods. They’re concerned about a recent discovery that certain starchy foods, from deep fried chips to potato chips and bread, contain a chemical called acrylamide. It can cause cancer in rats, but there is no evidence it does the same in people.

There are lots of chemicals in food. Even organic food. Are the chemicals in our food dangerous? Is food safe?

For example many foods contain a chemical called cellulose. How much do we really know about cellulose?

If I want to know if cellulose is dangerous I need to design an experiment. Experimental design can be tricky.

I have limited resources. The best thing to do would be to look at a large sample of individuals. See what happens when they are exposed to small amounts of cellulose over a long period of time. Unfortunately I don’t have the resources to study this way. So I choose to use a high dose of cellulose over a short time period.

I get a rat and put it in a cage. I place the cage about five metres from the base of a 25 metre tall tree. Using a chainsaw, I chop down the tree so that it falls on to the cage containing the rat.

Then I have to repeat the experiment a few times to make sure the first result wasn’t a fluke.

Every single time I have carried out this experiment the rat has died. The conclusion is obvious. Cellulose is dangerous.

Next I must publish the results of this experiment in a “peer reviewed journal”.

This is in the unlikely event I have made a mistake somewhere. If there is something wrong with my experiment, hopefully someone will spot it.

Somebody did. They raised the point that it might not have been the cellulose that killed the rat. Trees also contain other chemicals such as lignin or even water. Maybe it was one of the other chemicals?

Good point. I have to consider the criticism and design a new experiment to answer this question.

Since a tree is mostly water I design another experiment to test if it could have been the water that killed the rat. I put a new rat, in a cage, into 100 litres of water.

And the rat dies.

So I conclude that water is harmful to rats. But this does not necessarily mean that cellulose is not also harmful.

After all, I noticed that while the tree killed the rat instantly, the water took a few minutes. Perhaps there was something in the combination of cellulose and water that made the tree more harmful than merely water alone.

But before I look at the synergistic effects I want to extrapolate these data to look at how dangerous small doses of water might be.

If 100 litres of water causes death in three minutes this suggests 50 litres would cause death in six minutes. Continuing this extrapolation shows that even a small amount of water will significantly reduce the rat’s life expectancy.

Also, what are the implications for humans?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many humans who have been in large amounts of water have also died. As yet I haven’t yet been able to obtain funding to test this myself. However if water really is dangerous, can we risk even the smallest exposure?

Okay, some scientists have raised doubts about the validity of high dose trials. Just because a high dose of a chemical is harmful, they say this doesn’t necessarily mean that smaller doses are also harmful. And just because it is harmful to rats doesn’t necessarily mean it is harmful to humans.

But can we afford to take the risk? Do we really know the dangers? The results so far are inconclusive. Obviously more research is needed. I just need a bit more funding. However there is one conclusion we can draw.
Scientists don’t like rats, but I suspect the feeling is mutual.
No rats were harmed in the preparation of this article.

Hokum Locum

Another Alternative to Evidence Based Medicine

Vehemence based medicine: The substitution of volume for evidence is an effective technique for brow-beating your more timorous colleagues and for convincing relatives of your ability. New Zealand Medical Journal Vol 113 No 1122 p479

Chiropractic

This pseudoscience is now being advertised on television. In the same way that acupuncture can be easily learned during a one-hour lecture, anyone can learn how to make the spine go “click”. Many lay people have discovered this for themselves. Four or more years of training are unnecessary when a modality has no scientific basis. You only need to learn how to produce a pleasing noise from the spine without harming the patient. Osteopaths extend this effect to include the joints. If you pull firmly on your fingers you get the same effect, often a dramatic crack. Various theories have been proposed for this such as air bubbles, but I have noticed that large joints frequently produce all sorts of noises when they are being examined. When the neck is forcibly manipulated in this way there is a real risk of serious injury to major arteries in the neck. The shearing forces cause a tear in the arterial wall (a “dissection”) and this interruption to the blood supply to the brain can cause a stroke. If you have a sore neck and simply wait for it to get better you are not exposed to this risk. I used to do a lot of spinal manipulation but gave it up because patients started coming back all the time to have their spine “put back in”. I had unwittingly stumbled upon the secret of chiropractic! This became very tiresome and I stopped the practice after giving myself a nasty fright when a patient fainted and I thought I had killed her. Chiropractors talk about “adjustments” and this is the source of their income – adjustments to their bank accounts. Once the patient is convinced of the need for frequent adjustments, the chiropractor has a regular patient for life. For a detailed view of the pseudoscience of chiropractic visit www.quackwatch.com.

For a review of serious adverse effects of chiropractic refer Ernst E. Medical Journal of Australia 2002; 176: 376-380

Good Health

I have forwarded a copy of this publication to the editor. It is an advertising supplement for alternative medicine. Good Health employs a resident naturopath, Lani Lopez, complete with a Kentucky fried medicine qualification – N.D. Dip J. Herb. We learn that Mandy Smith owes everything to a diet rich in pond scum (spirulina aka blue/green algae). Auckland-based readers will be delighted to know that NZQA loans and allowances are available if they wish to obtain such qualifications from Wellpark College of Natural Therapies. Refer www.wellpark.co.nz, although their website was down when I visited. I was particularly taken with an article on joints with metaphors such as “creaking hinges and rusty joints.” My left knee has osteoarthritis and I learned that “essential oils, Clove, Frankincense, and Cajuput oil penetrate deeply into swollen areas and support normal joint articulation.” The only problem with that claim is that human skin is actually impervious to such treatments as it is a very effective barrier. However, I had a biomechanical brainwave. Why not insert grease nipples over troublesome joints and use a modified grease gun to pump the “two main natural ingredients Glucosamine and Chondroitin” directly into the joint? The next time I take the car for an oil change and grease I’ll have my knee done as well, and if that fails there’s always…

Doctor Levine’s Patented Power Knee Strap

There must be plenty of money in this product as it has recently featured in several half-page advertisements. It is claimed the strap provides relief from arthritis and chronic knee pain. The strap costs $24.95 and is designed to sit just beneath the kneecap. Dr Levine is described as a “nationally famous physician and former head of orthopaedic surgery at one of New York’s leading hospitals.” I decided to check these claims and the website of the American Medical Association (www.ama-assn.org) had a search engine by doctor’s name. This confirmed the existence of Dr Jack Levine. The website also had a statement of the ethical standards for the AMA members and it appears that this advertising is a breach of Article 2. I emailed the AMA pointing this out and will report back, assuming they bother to reply. The strap is obviously a placebo. It might work if it was tightly placed around the upper thigh where it could cut off the circulation, compress the nerves and produce a pleasing numbness – a sensation that frequently comes over me when I am confronted with American consumerism.

Slimming the easy way

A 44-year-old woman was referred to hospital with anxiety symptoms, weight loss and hypertension after taking a Chinese herbal remedy for weight loss. Her doctor was obviously suspicious about the composition of this preparation because it had actually worked. These preparations are normally useless. The initial suspicion was that the herbal remedy contained ephedrine (“Ma Huang”), which is a dangerous but commonly used preparation. Gas chromatography revealed, however, that the herbal preparation was adulterated with fenfluramine, a potent and dangerous amphetamine derivative. One can only agree with the author of the report: “stringent regulation of traditional medicines, at least to the standards of conventional practice, is urgently needed”. British Medical Journal Vol 324 16 March 2002 p679

Recovered Memory

This contemptible pseudo-science is still blighting lives all around the world despite being condemned by most authoritative Psychiatric Colleges. Psychologists at the University of Otago have found that children can only explain early childhood events using the language they knew at the time. The researchers are quoted: “If you take our data to their logical conclusion, then one implication would be that we need to express scepticism about very early verbal memories that are recovered during the course of therapy”.

The merciless badgering of self-deluded therapists is a process very similar to “facilitated communication”. This is where the “facilitator” guides a handicapped person’s fingers on a keyboard to produce written communication, which the person is incapable of when unaided. This is of course a complete delusion and we have experimental psychologists to thank for exposing this nonsense which should not be either encouraged nor funded by ACC.

Article Published in US Psychological Science-reported in Sunday Star Times 28 Jul 2002

Budget Science

Owen McShane examines last year’s Great Soya Sauce Scare

There’s a lot of Budget Science going on.

Budget Science is not low cost science. It’s certainly not amateur science driven solely by the noble search for truth. Budget Science is state-funded science which jacks up next year’s funding.

The great soya sauce scare was a fine example. The Ministry of Health (MoH), with the enthusiastic support of our tabloid media, panicked the nation into believing that Soya Sauce would strike us down with cancer. The health police swooped on supermarkets and hauled away the stuff of healthy stir-fries, while leaving cigarettes safely on the shelves above the check-out.

How did this happen?

The story begins when some lab somewhere carried out the notoriously unreliable rodent test on a group of chemicals known as chloropropanols. Sure enough these chemically-overloaded lab rats got cancer. We should remember that just about all foods – organic, GM or whatever – contain scores of chemicals which have failed the rodent test. There are at least 12 of them in your morning cup of coffee.

Anyhow, one of these chloropropanols, known as 3-MCPD, occurs in foods which have used acid hydrolysis, roasting, and similar processes to enhance their flavour.

A laboratory in England soon announced a test to detect 3-MCPDs down to one part in a million or lower. The European Food Safety Agency then decided that this detectable level should establish the safe level.

You can be sure that “safe” levels set by “detectable levels” are unsupported by any epidemiological evidence whatever. But such standards sell a lot of tests and keep lots of lab-workers busy.

And so the EU bureaucrats set the labs to work testing soya sauce, which was suitably foreign and known to contain 3-MCPDS. Lo and behold, several brands failed the test.

The news spread rapidly round the world. Scaring the hell out of people is a shortcut to fame for both young scientists and even younger media hacks.

However, not everyone knee-jerked into action. The Canadian Cancer Society reached the following measured conclusions:

  • 3-MCPD is a member of the chloropropanol group of chemicals and is a possible carcinogen in humans.
  • Health Canada has reviewed the situation and has found there is no health risk to Canadians from existing stocks of soy and oyster sauces.
  • Continuous lifetime exposure to high levels of 3-MCPD could pose a health risk to Canadians, but future imported stocks will be below the legal tolerance limit of 1.0 ppm. The Canadian authorities saw no point in raiding their supermarkets.

So why did we wage war on soya sauce? After all, the European Food Agency found quantifiable levels of 3-MCPD in breads, savoury crackers, toasted biscuits, toasted cereals, cheeses, doughnuts, burgers and salamis.

The survey also found 3-MCPD in a long list of food ingredients, including bread-crumbs, meat extracts, modified starches (used in glazes, yoghurt, soups and ready-made meals), malt and malt-based ingredients (used in confectionery, cereal products, sauces, bakery products, snack seasonings, beers and malted drinks).

Funny that. I don’t remember our health police clearing the shelves of cheddar, Weet-Bix, yoghurt and beer.

Surely the cancer risk will be determined by the total volume of foods containing 3-MCPD we ingest regularly over long periods – not the level within a single sauce used occasionally at best.

So what was going on here? Why did our ever-so-caring Ministry of Health decide to scare the hell out of us, when their peers in other countries found more useful things to do? How much extra risk did soya sauce pose to our biscuit, cereal, cheese and cracker-chomping pop-ulation?

The answer is simple – Budget Science ruled.

While the Europeans were demonising soya sauce, our own MoH was being criticised for failing to develop a rational, risk-based, food safety policy. The Cabinet was debating whether to shift responsibility for the Food Act from the MoH to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (Maf) under a new Food Assurance Authority. MoH officials saw millions of dollars disappearing into the maws of Maf. So they raided the supermarkets to show their determination to protect us from Asian imports.

It didn’t work – the funds were transferred to Maf anyway.

But what about our health? There is no epidemiological evidence connecting soya sauce to cancer rates. Indeed Asians have low rates of digestive tract cancer.

We do know that New Zealand’s high rate of bowel and stomach cancer is caused by our low intake of dietary fibre. We eat too much meat and too few vegetables.

Those New Zealanders who found no soya sauce on the shelves were probably going to make a stir-fry for dinner. Stir fries are low in meat and high in fibre. Budget Science probably persuaded lots of them that sausages and chips are safer.

A few more New Zealanders may die of cancer.

Budget Science is like that.

Man refused bail after Dick Smith food poison threat

A man charged with threatening to poison food produced by Dick Smith has been refused bail in the Rockhampton Magistrates Court in central Queensland. Graham Andrew Cooper, 30, is charged with trying extort $100,000 from the Australian Skeptics Association.

Cooper appeared in court charged with stalking, extortion and sending threatening emails. The court was told Cooper sent emails to Barry Williams from the Australian Skeptics Association, which has offered $100,000 to anyone who can prove psychic powers. The police prosecutor said Cooper claimed the association refused to test him. It is alleged the emails said that Dick Smith owed him $100,000 and that he would put “rat sack” into as much Dick Smith food as he could lay his hands on. The court was told Cooper is a paranoid schizophrenic and police said the threats were not carried out.

Cooper will be held in custody until his next court appearance in May. He was not required to enter a plea.

From ABC On-Line News, March 8

Forum

False Memory re Subs?

In the latest NZ Skeptic, beside the chair-entity’s report, there is a false history of subscriptions. From written records: the sub was $10 for ’86 to ’88, then $20 for ’89 to ’91 and $25 since. The new $40 rate follows the third increase since starting. I would hate to think the Skeptics allow false statements to go uncorrected.

Al Dennard

Two views of the World Trade Centre Attack

  1. From Editorial in Skeptical Inquirer Jan/Feb, 2002.
    Brian Farha, a professor of education at Oklahoma City University and member of CSICOP’s astrology subcommittee, wrote to me to propose we run a Forum column with this introduction: “Following are detailed summaries of documented psychic predictions-to this author’s knowledge-regarding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on America.” That would be followed by a blank page.

  2. From the newsletter of the American Society for Psychical Research, Dec, 2001.
    Through our website, we have initiated a survey of precognitive experiences specifically related to the terrorist attack.

Submitted without comment by Bernard Howard

More Brickbats for Glen Fiddich

Some years ago, returning from the Continent, the in-flight duty-free catalog offered Glen Fiddich and Glen Morangie. I ordered the Glen Morangie. It was bad enough to be told that they were out of stock, without being patronized by the salesgirl (“air-stewardess”) insisting on showing me what a Glen Fiddich bottle looks like. Very nice, so could I have a Glen Fiddich bottle refilled with Glen Morangie whisky! As for Wilson’s, (See Beer and Skittles, Issue 61) well I shan’t be surprised if it doesn’t taste as good as Glen Morangie, but will be disappointed if it doesn’t taste better than Glen Fiddich.

Kris Howard, Scotland

Organic Figures

In Philippa Stevenson’s note Report Debunks Organic Benefits (NZ Skeptic 61) she quotes from the NZ Herald that 10 million hectares in organic farming round the world yield $50 billion worth of produce, or about $5000 per hectare (NZ dairy farmers would expect to exceed this), while 44 million hectares in transgenic crops, mostly in the US, yield produce worth $7.5 billion, or $167 per hectare.

I would have expected that Philippa, or any other good skeptic, or the editor of NZ Skeptic, would have been skeptical about these figures and checked their credibility. Or are skeptics, so zealous not to be gulled by claims of the paranormal, quite gullible about claims of the normal?

Pat Palmer

Philippa Stevenson is a Herald reporter and not a member of the NZ Skeptics. The article was reprinted as it originally appeared in the NZ Herald. ed.

Children and Quackery

Pippa MacKay’s Bravo Award-winning item When Children are the Victims of Quackery made sad reading. Yet it is merely another reflection of a country that is losing its collective marbles. Volumes could be written about the reasons for this creeping looniness, but surely chapter one, volume one would have to be ‘our politically correct times’.

An encounter recently with the mother of a 4 year old has put me in a pessimistic frame of mind. The mother is a registered nurse, ie a ‘caregiver’, the 4 year old is her son – a lively, articulate and energetic boy, filled with inquisitiveness, brimming with energy and apparently desperate to be at school learning about the world. The boy is such a handful that a child psychologist has diagnosed him as an ADHD patient and recommended Ritalin for him. The mother is tired, but doubtful regarding Ritalin, yet remains tempted by such a trite and convenient diagnosis. I am treating the mother, who coincidentally swears by arnica ointment and enjoys reading the Women’s Weekly’s clairvoyant’s page.

It seems we are surrounded by the paradox of people who listen to the local clairvoyant with respect, and self-medicate with homeopathy yet have post-graduate education. Similarly I have spoken to anxious parents (and grandparents) about Ritalin, and heard enough to believe that Ritalin is being administered to children (almost always boys) who seem to be more energetic, more inquisitive and more assertive than their teachers or caregivers can deal with.

There can be nothing more horrific than child abuse, and God knows we have seen such abuse aplenty – but shouldn’t we be directing the sceptical searchlight towards the institutionalised child abuse prescribed and condoned in the name of ADHD.

Mike Houlding

Forum

Jim Ring’s article on sodium chloride in Skeptic number 60 didn’t mention a classic case. Red Seal markets a range of 12 remedies in tablet form called Dr Scheussler’s Biochemic Tissue Salts. Among them is a substance called Nat Mur which is described as a “water distributor” and suggested for “excessive moisture and dryness in any part of the system – water colds, dry nose and throat, heartburn, great thirst, watery eyes, skin chaffing, dryness of the bowel, after-effects of alcohol, loss of taste and smell”

Nat Mur is nothing more than sodium chloride. It is said to be “triturated”, which just means it is crushed into a powder. The price works out at about $40 per kilogram.

Bill Keir,Hokianga

Report debunks ‘organic’ benefits

Scientific studies suggest “organic” foods are neither healthier nor safer than genetically modified products or those grown conventionally.

InterNutrition, the Swiss Association for Research and Nutrition, used published scientific papers to compare alternative production methods.

It released an English-language summary of the report, originally in German, at the weekend.

“The specific combination of all useful approaches offers the greatest potential for sustainable agriculture and healthy foods,” it said.

“This means that the unilateral rejection of genetically modified plants would be unjustified and short-sighted.”

Summarising its most important findings, InterNutrition said some studies showed that organic foods may contain more fungal toxins than foods produced conventionally.

There were no significant differences between conventional and genetically modified feeds in terms of nutritional composition and effects on animals.

“Meat, milk and eggs from animals given GM feeds are just as harmless for human consumption as if they had come from animals fed on conventional feeds.”

The problem of cross-fertilisation by pollen (gene transfer) between genetically modified plants and related wild species as well as between transgenic and conventional crop varieties arose only with a few important species of cultivated plants.

Growing crops by various agricultural systems side by side had always been possible and would continue to be so in future, the report said.

“The field studies carried out so far with transgenic, pest resistant crops do not confirm the environmental risks predicted by critics.”

The study found that worldwide, roughly 10.5 million hectares were given over to organic farming. Around 44.3 million hectares, mostly in the United States, were under transgenic plants.

The global market for organic foods was estimated at just under $US20 billion ($49.4 billion) and growing fast, while the market for GM plants was around $US3 billion.

From the NZ Herald, October 3