Newsfront

Charter schools open door for creationism

Government plans to establish charter schools look like providing a way for creationists to get their teachings into New Zealand’s classrooms (Dominion Post, 19 August).

The Manukau Charitable Christian Trust is planning to team up with the Manukau Christian School to teach a “philosophy” titled ‘In God’s World’, to be marked against the Cambridge curriculum.

The philosophy encourages every subject to be taught so students “discover” how God made the world, and upholds and governs it.

Trust chairman Tony Bracefield said it planned to open a number of junior classes at churches, feeding up to senior classes on Manukau Christian School’s grounds. He said the school would use non-qualified teachers, and teach about 200 children in the long term.

Post Primary Teachers Association president Robin Duff said the types of people who appeared to be interested in charter schools would not have made it through teacher education.

” In the case of the trust, we’d be concerned if an organisation with a ‘statement of faith’ that denies evolution and claims creation according to the Bible is a historical event, were to receive state funding.”

He said the trust could be grouped with religious organisations like Destiny Church and the Maharishi Foundation, which had both expressed interest in charter schools, and which delivered education that denied scientific principles.

Associate Education Minister John Banks said he would not comment on the trust’s charter plans.

A day later, the NZ Herald (20 August) reported Banks had told Radio Rhema he has no doubts the first chapters of Genesis are true. “That’s what I believe, but I’m not going to impose my beliefs on other people, especially in this post-Christian society that we live in, especially in these lamentable times. There are reactionaries out there, humanists in particular, that overrun the bureaucracies in Wellington and state education.”

Racist creationists upset Kawerau

Meanwhile, many residents of Kawerau have been upset by a creationist pamphlet mail drop in the small Bay of Plenty town (NZ Herald, 22 September).

“Are you a racist? You are if you believe in evolution!” the pamphlet states. “Kids are taught in school that man evolved (changed) from a chimp. So I ask you who changed the most from a black chimp with black hair and brown eyes? A black man with black hair and brown eyes? Or a white man with blond hair and blue eyes?”

People who received the pamphlet should “rip it up and bin it,” said Vicki Hall, a spokeswoman for the Race Relations Commissioner. “The commission’s position is that the pamphlet is clearly offensive. However, there is no law that prevents someone from publishing it.”

While the pamphlet accuses those who “believe in evolution” of racism, it is based on the racist premise that black people look more like chimps than white people do. Yet two of the three chimp subspecies have fair skin, and Caucasians tend to be hairier than other peoples. The similarity between chimps and people of colour is all in the minds of the pamphlet’s producers, and the citizens of Kawerau were right to pick these mealy-mouthed hypocrites as racists.

Death’s link to vaccine ‘convoluted pseudoscience’

The likelihood of an Upper Hutt teenager having died as a result of the cervical cancer vaccine has been rejected as convoluted pseudoscience by Helen Petousi-Harris, of Auckland University’s Immunisation Advisory Centre (Dominion Post, 21 September).

Jasmine Renata, 18, died in her sleep in September 2009, six months after completing the programme for cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil.

She suffered from runny noses, headaches, warts, tiredness, a racing heart and other symptoms. During an inquest in August, her parents said they believed the vaccine was the cause of their daughter’s failing health and eventual death.

Canadian neuroscientist Christopher Shaw and US pathologist Sin Hang Lee told the inquest heavy aluminium staining in Ms Renata’s brain tissue could have acted as a “trojan horse”, bringing the human papillomavirus into her brain.

But Dr Petousis-Harris said on 20 September that the doctors’ arguments were convoluted and not based on scientific evidence. “I find that quite concerning, given the gravity of the issue here. Anyone who has had the vaccine may become worried, and anyone planning to have it may also become worried. But it’s based on no evidence at all, which is not good. You have got to make your decisions based on good science.”

It was important to discuss the weaknesses in the research so parents and possible vaccine recipients had all the information, she said.

There is further commentary on this case at Http://www.immune.org.nz/commentary-coronial-inquiry-expert-witness-testimony

Medium to ‘help heal’ Pike River pain

Australian medium Deb Webber, of Sensing Murder fame is once again in this country using a tragedy to promote her business (Greymouth Star, 16 August).

Webber, who caused anger in 2009 by raising the case of missing Auckland toddler Aisling Symes while plugging her shows on breakfast television (Aisling’s body was recovered from a stormwater pipe a few days later), has announced that this spring she will meet with family of Pike River disaster victims to help heal their pain with readings in a private session.

“I have been flooded with emails from family members so it will be nice to help them out,” Webber’s publicist said.

Given that Webber has no psychic ability (see NZ Skeptic 104), it’s uncertain exactly how she is going to be able to help at all.

Didgeridoo healing reaches NZ

Back in NZ Skeptic 102 Alison Campbell reported on how didgeridoos could be used to clear emotional and energetic stagnation, and help ” to quantum manifest healing and the co-creation of our universe.” Now this amazing medical breakthrough is available in New Zealand (Stuff, 6 September), thanks to yet more visitors from across the Tasman.

Australia-based psychic double act K and Dr Michael appeared in Auckland on 18 September. The US-born Dr Michael bills himself as a “vibrational healer with the didgeridoo” and a reiki master who “gives energy healing with past life and spirit healing messages”.

K on the other hand is “blessed with psychic abilities since childhood” and is said to be “one of Australia’s most sought after clairvoyants”. Must have been quite a night.

More Dunedin ghosts

Dunedin is emerging as the haunted capital of New Zealand. Following a series of ghostly events at Otago University’s Cumberland College ( NZ Skeptic 104) spirits are now reported to be occupying the nearby Globe Theatre ( Otago Daily Times, 2 July).

Five members of paranormal investigation group The Other Side Paranormal visited the theatre to follow up earlier research into three spirits believed to be there. The spirits were said to be those of Robert Blackadder, who lived in the building in the 19th century before it became a theatre, a girl called Mary Elizabeth Richmond who lived in the building in the 1860s, and former theatre caretaker Frank Grayson, who died in the 1980s.

“I think it’s safe to say the caretaker Frank is still there. He is just there looking after the place, basically. We’ve found a few things on our video footage … a few light anomalies,” said investigator Kelly Cavanagh.

There was also an “incident” when a person felt someone sit down next to them, and a photo revealed “energy” beside them. Other information gathered from an electromagnetic field reader, temperature gauge, and voice recorder would be analysed over the next week, Ms Cavanagh said. “We’ve definitely got some results and we are quite happy with what we’ve found.”

Newsfront

How to raise a psychic child

All children are psychic, according to one of the stranger items to appear in the NZ Herald (30 May) for a while.

Sue Bishop is described by writer (I hesitate to say journalist) Nicky Park in the paper’s Life & Style section as “one of Australia’s top intuitives” – a phrase Bishop herself uses in her promotional material. She says children are tuned in to their abilities more than ever, but parents need to know how to nurture their kids’ skills without discouraging or being too pushy.

Bishop, who is currently promoting her recent book Psychic Kids, says we’re starting to see little kids who can see spirits, and actually validate who it is. “It’s different to a child saying, ‘I’ve got a monster on top of my bed’ [how, exactly?]. We know that’s imagination.”

The “level of awareness” kids have today is different to the kids of the 80s, she says, partly because the topic is less taboo now so children are free to explore their psychic abilities. Then there’s “soul evolution”.

“I believe that each evolution carnates to bring a new gift, a new awareness to help us grow and expand also to deal with the problems created from the former generation.”

But at the age of seven the soft part of the skull fully closes (this is in the NZ Herald, remember, so it must be true), and the age of reason begins.

“It’s when children go through this phase that they start to fear death and fear separation from a parent … they start to focus more on being logical and analytical. They start to doubt their intuition, they shut that part of themselves off.”

But don’t worry, the Herald has some useful tips to help you prevent your child from becoming logical and analytical. You must recognise you and your child have a sixth sense, and set safe boundaries for using these abilities. But don’t indulge them too much: “Some kids will go too far and let their imagination take over.”

‘Medicine man’ offside

A self-styled Woodville ‘medicine man’ has found himself offside – with the country’s other medicine men (Dominion Post, 18 June).
Karys Woodcock, a 65-year-old part-time actor raised in England, says he is entitled to be a shaman because his father had Crow Indian heritage. He is legally changing his name to Laughing Bear, and says he has attracted a strong following for his ‘medicine readings’ and other services. He charges for those services, but according to Joseph O’Connor, 81, genuine shamans don’t charge.

O’Connor says he is a third-generation psychic and shaman, while “Laughing Bear” is an actor living in a world of fantasy. “Renting out rooms to unregistered psychics must be stamped out. There are so many so-called psychics robbing the public. He is doing a great injustice to the unsung heroes and healers that have made this country.”

Woodcock charges $60 to $70 an hour for medicine card readings, as well as charging for teaching groups, and takes donations for ghost and spirit house cleansing. He admits there is a big argument about shamans receiving money. “People fall in love with understanding living holistically, but forget that in order for me to practise as a shaman, I have to get petrol, have a mortgage to pay.

“My tepee is bigger than what I used to have. I don’t really want to go and live in the bush. People give us a gift of dollars instead of a leg of elk or deerskin. If [the] creator wants you to do something, you have to be alive to do it.”

Animals vie for psychic fame

Remember Paul the psychic octopus? The late lamented mollusc who correctly picked the outcomes of all seven of Germany’s matches plus the final in the 2010 Football World Cup now has plenty of competition (Stuff, 8 June).

None have the form of the eight-legged marvel, however, says Joe Crilly, a spokesman for British bookmaker William Hill. “And with so many to follow, there are undoubtedly going to be a few who get it wrong.”

Citta, a 33-year-old female Indian elephant at Krakow Zoo, was given the gig for the 2012 Euro Cup after correctly picking Chelsea would win the Champions League final, heading off a donkey, a parrot, and another elephant. But her first two predictions of Polish victories – made by choosing a marked melon – have been astray, with both matches drawn.

Meanwhile a “psychic pig” in the Ukraine predicted four of six results in the first round correctly. Other contenders are a ferret called Fred, Kharuk the Russian reindeer, Sissi the German dachshund, Nicholas the English llama and Huat the Singaporean arowana – that’s a large freshwater fish. Information is limited on how well any of these are doing, which probably says something in itself.

Snake test of faith fatal

A West Virginia preacher who handled venomous snakes to prove his faith in God has died after being bitten (NZ Herald, 1 June).

Mark Wolford’s own father died of a snakebite in 1983 aged 39, and he himself had been bitten before and survived. On this occasion witnesses say a timber rattler bit the 44-year-old on the thigh during a Sunday service at Panther State Forest.

Ralph Hood, a religion professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said his friend Wolford would want people to remember him as “a Christian who was living his beliefs and being obedient.”

“A common misunderstanding is that handlers believe they can’t get bit or it won’t kill them,” Hood added. “What they’ll tell you is, vNo one will get out of this alive.’ They’ll also tell you it’s not a question of how you live; it’s a question of how you die … This is how he would have wanted to die.”

Although most Appalachian states have outlawed snake handling, it remains legal but rare in West Virginia.

UFOs buzz Northland … or not

Ufocus NZ are claiming many sightings of UFOs in the Northland region in recent months, but none has been reported to the police, a police spokeswoman says (Northern Advocate, 23 May).

Suzanne Hansen, who is research network director for the UFO-watching group, said one man had reported seeing a UFO land in Northland in April, but she was not revealing where at this stage. “He’s a very credible source. He saw an object that had landed and said it was definitely not an aircraft or like anything else he had seen.”

After a story on the sightings appeared in the Northern Advocate on May 19 several more reports of recent UFO sightings from the region had come in, while others had contacted the group to report historical sightings in Northland.

NZ Skeptics spokeswoman Vicki Hyde said there were a huge number of possible explanations for UFO sightings – and none of them involved visits from extraterrestrials.

Ghost haunts university

Residents at Otago University’s Cumberland College have taken to sleeping with the lights on following a sighting of a ghost (Otago Daily Times, 22 May).

The ghost has been linked to the Grey Lady, who allegedly haunted a nurse at the college after the nurse, working at the now-closed Queen Mary maternity hospital nearby, took her baby for being an unfit mother.

College resident Mareck Church said the “ghost sighting” happened on the night of Saturday, 5 May, when two female health science students noticed a weird smell and a chill in the air as they walked down the hallway after coming back to the college from studying. Weird smells in a hall of residence? Cold in Dunedin? Definitely something odd here.

“One of the girls saw a black figure beside the fire hydrant, turned to the other girl to point it out and as they both turned round, they felt a cold whoosh of air pass them,” Mr Church said.

Some students, Mr Church included, then played pranks on other residents, including going around the corridors with pillowcases over their heads.

The situation had calmed down since staff arranged a blessing by a chaplain and a kaumatua on May 10. Good to see our universities are bastions of rationality.

Newsfront

‘Suckers’ feed on alternative health patients – literally

The NZ Herald (10-14 January) must have been having trouble filling its pages during the silly season, looking at its recent series on alternative therapies.

Each day for the best part of a week, the paper sent its reporters out to try a range of “alternative relaxation and remedies”.

Reporter Andrew Koubaridis must have drawn the short straw – while others in the series got to try out Japanese and Korean variants of spa therapies, he had two leeches sucking blood from his arm for more than an hour.

“I couldn’t take my eyes off the little suckers,” he said.

Mehdi Jaffari, who runs the Life Clinic Hirudotherapy centre on Auckland’s North Shore, says he learned the practice from his Iranian father and that the art had been passed down for generations in his family. Leeches can treat problems ranging from arthritis, diabetes, endometriosis, hepatitis and high blood pressure to bronchitis, he claims. They can even help reduce wrinkles, apparently.

“Their saliva has enzymes that helps break blood clots, and widens blood vessels to stop bacteria growth and prevent inflammation. It also helps blood circulation and flow,” Jaffari says.

The article refers to the UMR Research survey on the beliefs of New Zealanders (see Editorial, p 2), which found a majority believed in alternative remedies. Nearly three out of four believed arnica reduces bruising and slightly over half believed that homeopathic remedies are scientifically proven.

In the same series, Lincoln Tan and Amelia Wade checked out Ayurveda, a traditional Indian system of medicine.

“The human body is made up of five basic elements,” says Ayurveda specialist Priya Punjabi, “and whenever there is any disorder, these elements become imbalanced and they affect bodily channels and tissues, creating illnesses in the system.”

The elements are earth, water, fire, air and sky. This is obviously a huge advance on the traditional western view that there are only four elements.

Paranormal investigators open for business

A paranormal investigation team has been given front page coverage by the Waikato Times (10 December).

The group, who call themselves the Quantum Foundation (what is it with that word quantum?) say they’re not ghost hunters, but are called in to “paranormal hot spots” where they try to put clients’ minds at rest. Nor are they ghostbusters. “We don’t get rid of whatever’s there.We can call in people to do that,” said co- founder Tracey Royce.

Royce and fellow investigator Lisa Austen said they took a scientific, research- based approach to the supernatural, and sought natural explanations for alleged hauntings.

They use equipment such as cameras, digital recorders and electromagnetic field readers and spend up to eight weeks reviewing content. They have carried out 10 investigations in 16 months, and do not charge for their services.

Most of what they collect is mundane, and they seemed to recognise that ‘orbs’ are artifacts caused by dust particles reflecting light through a camera lens (NZ Skeptic 94(. But both say they have had experiences they can’t explain, including a sighting of a “full-blown apparition” of a ghostly figure, that drive them on.

Recently they investigated Diggers Bar in central Hamilton, where they captured “electronic voice phenomena”, including laughing, a voice saying “it’s coming”, and one instance of aggressive swearing. Someone swearing around a bar late at night in central Hamilton? How could there be a natural explanation for that?

David Riddell (who’s he?v) of the NZ Skeptics reportedly said gullible people were often suckered in by folks with fancy equipment, though I have it on good authority he said no such thing. But he did suggest that we are awash with electromagnetic fields, and a recorder is likely to pick up all sorts of things if left on overnight. Even if something couldn’t be explained it didn’t mean it was from another world. “A lot of people, when faced with something they can’t explain, automatically say [it] must be something supernatural. But sometimes it is okay to say you simply don’t know what it is.”

Conspiracy theorists get a roasting

Also in the Waikato Times (19 December), freelance writer Joshua Drummond has got stuck into conspiracy theorists with a nice piece of old-fashioned debunking. The three most terrifying words in the English language, he says, are “Did you know?”

“‘Did you know,’ said an idiot to me one day, ‘that 9/11 was an inside job?'”

Over the next half-hour, says Drummond, he was subjected to a sloppy paraphrasing of an internet documentary called Loose Change. This alleges a government conspiracy which was somehow, “as these things commonly are, both tremendously competent and massively incompetent at the same time.”

He goes on to list a number of other currently popular conspiracy theories, including “the ever-popular primate change denial, courtesy of creationists, who may not like being labelled conspiracy theorists,but that is what they are.”

Drummond says conspiracy theorists waste their time on nonsense when far better examples of true wrongdoing lie right in front of their unseeing eyes. Drug companies, for example, may act in highly questionable ways in their endless quest for higher profits – “but it doesn’t follow that vaccination doesn’t work.”

Vitamin supplements unnecessary

A major study of vitamin supplements has found taking the pills does nothing for people’s health (NZ Herald, 27 December).

The study, by researchers at Nancy University in France, followed 8000 people for more than six years. Those taking supplements were just as likely to have developed cancer or heart disease as those who took an identical-looking dummy pill. There was hardly any difference in how healthy members of the treatment and control groups reported themselves feeling.

Catherine Collins, chief dietician at St George’s Hospital in London, said it was the worried well who were taking these pills to try and protect themselves against Alzheimer’s disease, heart attacks and strokes.

“But they are wasting their money. This was a large study following people up for a long period of time assessing everything from their mobility and blood pressure to whether they were happy or felt pain.”

Other recent studies have indicated that, for some people, vitamin supplements could actually be harmful. One last year found pills containing vitamin E, ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, selenium and zinc increased the risk of malignant melanoma four-fold.

Another discovered women on a daily multi-vitamin pill increased their risk of breast cancer by up to 20 percent.

While the evidence that vitamins can do harm is still limited, the latest study seems to confirm that many people are at the very least taking them unnecessarily.

Split for Scientology?

Scientology has had a rough few years, and now a schism seems to be opening up within the so-called ‘church’ (NZ Herald, 7 January).

Debbie Cook, a former senior member of Sea Org, Scientology’s equivalent of the clergy, has circulated an email severely criticising the management style and financial policies of the group’s current leader, David Miscavige. She says Miscavige’s dictatorial leadership style is at odds with the doctrines laid down by the church’s founder, science-fiction author L Ron Hubbard, and that he has become obsessed with fundraising. His regime is now “hoarding” a cash reserve of more than US$1 billion, she claims, and has spent tens of millions more on a portfolio of large, upmarket buildings which largely sit empty.

Cook left the Scientology payroll in 2008, but says she remains “completely dedicated” to its beliefs. Her criticisms strike a chord with many disaffected recent defectors, but her highly respected status within the usually secretive world of Scientology may give her views weight among more active members, the article says.

Newsfront

Quake wakes up spooks

A Christchurch para-normal investigator says Canterbury’s September 4 earthquake has more than doubled the number of reported supernatural events in the province (The Press, 8 November).

Anton Heyrick says his team, Christchurch Paranormal Investigators, had received an “interesting influx” of phone calls and emails. “People are calling us, saying that they had always felt like there was something in the house, but since the earthquake it had become more intense,” he said. He attributed this to the “sheer strength and power” of the earthquake.

Heyrick said it was well known among investigators that renovations tended to wake up dormant spirits in old buildings.

“With the earthquake, it literally smashed walls apart, and knocked down floors and ceilings, so you can imagine the effect that would have had.”

The team, which did not charge for its services, had conducted two full investigations, and was planning to do more.

NZ Skeptics chairman Gold (whose own residence was damaged in the quake) said the reports may have been due to “people’s minds playing tricks on them in the post-quake environment”.

“You may not feel an aftershock, but it will still make things rattle. People’s minds fill in the blanks, and they tend to fill in the blanks with fairytales, unfortunately.”

UFO files released

The NZ Defence Force did a huge favour for newspaper editors all over the country by releasing 2000 pages of formerly secret reports on UFOs just in time for the silly season.

Though some have tried to talk the reports up, it’s clear there’s very little in them. Says the Southland Times in an editorial (29 December), “the case most likely to attract attention – and we say this with all due respect to the Christchurch man who submitted 300 pages outlining two decades of contact with aliens – are the Kaikoura lights of 1978”.

The Kaikoura Star (29 December) noted that the air force report at the time concluded almost all the sightings could be accounted for by natural phenomena, but also recounted other UFO incidents in the area. On 13 July 1959, for example, Blenheim farmer Eileen Moreland was getting the cows in when she noticed a green light above her in the clouds. Soon an oval- shaped UFO with two green beams of light and “fiery orange jets” settled above her, enveloping her in a “peculiar green glow”. She claims to have seen two men inside the craft, dressed in “silvery, shiny suits from the waist upwards” and with headgear “like divers’ helmets which glittered very brightly”. In a separate Kaikoura Star item the same day, local butcher Alan Hickey relates how he often travelled the coast road in 1978, and noted the bright squid boat lights on the horizon. “It made me laugh (when it was reported). I thought, ah, it’s those squid boats.”

Psychic ‘predicts’ Lotto win

A psychic’s prediction that “something great” was going to happen in November has supposedly been “proved accurate” after a Napier family’s big Lotto win (Otago Daily Times, 17 November).

“We had no idea that it would be a $2 million Lotto win,” said a family member. No, and neither did the psychic.

Hunt on for yeti remains

An Air New Zealand pilot and mountaineer is leading a different kind of yeti hunt (Sunday News, 5 December).

Mike Allsop hopes to track down a “skull” and skeletal hand, said to be from a yeti, stolen from the Pangboche monastery in the 1990s. Weta Workshop has produced replicas of the missing items which he plans to hand-deliver to the monastery in April to help searchers find the originals.

“I am hoping that the person who has them wants to give them back … I will go anywhere in the world in person, free of charge, no questions asked and I will also buy them a beer.”

The article says the material came to international prominence when Texan oil magnate Tom Slick (a case of nominative determinism?) photographed them in 1957. Two years later one of his team returned to the monastery and reportedly stole bone fragments from the hand. These were allegedly smuggled back to the US by “a Hollywood star” – named as James Stewart by Wikipedia. The remaining items were stolen in 1999.

Left unsaid is that the “skull” – more commonly referred to as a scalp – was allowed out of Nepal in 1957 and examined at the British Museum, where it was determined to be moulded from the shoulder skin of a serow, a species of Himalayan goat-antelope. Photos of the hand look equally dubious – it seems to have kneecap-like bones at the knuckles, and to lack any wristbones.

Acupuncture good for lazy eyes?

A trial of acupuncture to treat lazy eye has offered cautious support to the traditional Chinese medical practice (Reuters, 18 December).

Dr Robert Ritch of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary and Chinese colleagues studied 18 Chinese children with lazy eye, also known as amblyopia, aged between seven and 12. They randomly assigned about half of them to wear a patch over their good eye for two hours every day, and the rest to attend five acupuncture sessions weekly; both treatments continued for up to 25 weeks. All children were also given new glasses and asked to perform an hour of daily near-vision activities.

At the end of the 25 weeks at least seven out of 10 children in each group had their lazy eye’s sight improve by at least two lines on an eye chart. Forty-two percent of children receiving acupuncture overcame the condition compared to 17 percent of those who wore eye patches.

The University of Rochester’s Dr Matthew Gearinger, however, cautions that the number of children studied was small. And “it is a lot to ask parents to drive to a local acupuncturist five days a week, rather than just using drops or a patch at home.”

Michigan internist Dr Peter Lipson noted that everyone knew who got what treatment, and that without an untreated group the study couldn’t rule out the possibility that not doing anything, or simply using corrective glasses and performing daily exercises, would work just as well.

“This is not, in my opinion, evidence toward acupuncture being as good as standard care, only that in this particular study children did about the same if they received standard care or non-standard care. It says nothing at all about acupuncture.”

Exorcists wanted

Roman Catholic bishops have held a special training workshop in Baltimore to help alleviate a serious shortage of exorcists (Reuters, 14 November).

The church currently has only five or six American exorcists on its books, but signed up 56 bishops and 66 priests for the two-day event. “There’s this small group of priests who say they get requests from all over the continental US,” said Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois. “Actually, each diocese should have its own [exorcist].”

He did not say why there was increased demand for exorcisms, which he noted were rarely performed.

Possible signs of demonic possession referred to in the article include scratching, cutting, or biting of the skin; profound displays of strength; and a strong or violent reaction to holy water. Nothing about projectile vomiting or heads turning 360 degrees.

Another Kentucky creationist theme park

Just when you thought Kentucky couldn’t make itself more of a laughing stock comes word that plans are afoot to build (or rebuild, according to Ken Ham of the nearby Creation Museum) a full-sized replica of Noah’s Ark in the state (Dominion Post, 11 December).

The ark is to be the centrepiece of a $150 million park, to be known as Ark Encounter. Due to open in 2014, it will also feature live stage shows, a petting zoo and a Tower of Babel.

Despite claims the park will further tarnish the state’s reputation, Governor Steve Beshear has promised $40 million in tax breaks for the project. “Bringing new jobs to Kentucky is my top priority,” he said.

Newsfront

Supernatural forces on the increase

Spirits are increasingly making their presence felt in New Zealand, spurred on by celebrity ghost whisperers, says the Manawatu Standard (12 April).

A recent survey by Massey University revealed that the proportion of respondents who say they have felt a spiritual force rose from 33 percent in 1991, to 40 percent. Half the respondents said they are interested in spiritual forces, while a quarter believed the dead had supernatural powers.

Massey University senior lecturer Heather Kavan said the entertainment industry has fuelled the spirit market.

“Programmes like Sensing Murder and Ghost Whisperer have popularised psychic experiences that in previous times would have been dismissed as symptoms of psychosis. The Sensing Murder psychics have almost become spiritual celebrities.”

Our own Vicki Hyde said spiritual crazes come in waves, depending on media programmes. Angels and vampires are the latest fads. She warned of the “morally reprehensible” behaviour of shows such as Sensing Murder. Psychic shows exploit vulnerable families who have lost loved ones in the name of entertainment, she said.

If the clippings for Newsfront are anything to go by, there are indeed more ghostly appearances going on out there. There’s definitely a ghost theme this issue.

The daily bread rises despite ghostly visit

Things are going bump, shadows are creeping and mysterious voices are bothering Maurice Piner at Phil’s Baker, in Greymouth. The Press (5 May) says the poor baker is seeing shadows moving around and hearing banging and crashing when he’s working alone.

“…sometimes you can hear whispering and talking in the bakery. You look around to see if there’s anyone there, and you can’t.”

Tourist operator Paul Schramm thinks he knows what’s what. While researching a new tourist attraction, he has learned about Ah Shing, a Chinese miner, who hanged himself in 1891 in the boarding house that used to stand on the site.

Piner said it was interesting to have a theory to explain the whispers and shadows, but it would not put him off working alone.

Hotel ghost to be checked out

Christchurch’s old Jailhouse hotel has a ghostly infestation but the ghosthunters are on to it (The Press, 6 May 2010.)

Ghost Hunters Christchurch lead investigator Anton Heyrick has offered to check out the ghostly reports of an apparition in the kitchen and of a man with a white jacket, but wants three extra paranormal investigators to help.

“There have been things moving. There have been voices, and backpackers have said they’ve felt like they were being watched.”

Reminds me of stopping at an old hotel, turned into a backpackers, on the way to last year’s Skeptics Conference. On the walls was a sepia picture of the daughter of a former hotel owner, who died tragically and now haunts the place. When we commented on this to the manager, he said to the best of his knowledge there wasn’t a ghost; it was something the previous owners did to add to the feel of the place. Yet, later that night, the door to the shower block mysteriously slammed shut, with no one near. Coincidence? We think so.

Return of the cat ghost

Hawera’s ghost cat, caught on security camera last year, is not alone (Taranaki Daily News, 2 June).

Ross and Donna Sowerby hoped to catch a bike thief, and instead caught a ghostly image. To this viewer, it looked like a small spider or booklouse wandering over the lens but to some, it looked more like a big, fluffy, but very blurry cat.

The media loved it, and it was on TV and reported in many newspapers. But paranormal experts fell silent, and for months, says Mrs Sowerby, there was no definitive answer. Until television psychic Sue Nicholson appeared on TV One’s Good Morning show and offered an explanation, following a letter from Mrs Sowerby. She said the apparition was of a ginger cat and added that there were more ghosts in the couple’s house.

Luckily, one of these spirits, a man, is a friendly ghost, with a “lovely energy”. The best thing about the cat ghost, she said, was that it didn’t need to be fed. Mrs Sowerby was happy with the explanation. “We have closure now and we can move on.”

The article ran on the Stuff website and attracted about 80 comments. Many agreed it looked like a bug on the lens. But the Sowerbys were not satisfied with these theories. Why look for zebras when you can manifest a phantom feline?

But back to the Manawatu Standard. The article on Massey University’s survey also answers a long-standing mystery. “An extraordinarily high proportion of New Zealanders have no religion – almost double the proportion in other Western countries – but we’ve never known who these people are,” Dr Kavan said.

The survey showed many of them are privately spiritual, but don’t relate to organised religions. And the internet has opened up a huge range of possibilities, for believers and non-believers alike.

The Facebook group Sensing Murder has almost 4000 fans,whereas Sensing Bullshit has 95 members. Sigh.

Recovered memories again

Although the recovered memory panic seems to be on the wane, a recent case of a couple acquitted on all charges of rape and inducing their daughter to do indecent acts, shows the idea still has its supporters.

In an NZPA story (9 June) the man’s lawyer, Chris Wilkinson-Smith said the case had been pursued by West Auckland police, despite Gisborne police recommending the prosecution should not proceed.

The couple, who have name suppression, live in a small town near Gisborne. “It was only the efforts of private investigator Michael Rhodes who was able to locate many witnesses who completely contradicted the complainant’s evidence. A more thorough police investigation could have avoided three years of misery.”

The mother’s lawyer, Adam Simperingham, told reporters the charges should never have been laid, and that the parents had been through a very traumatic experience.

The charges related to alleged incidents between January 23 1978 and January 23 1981.

Their daughter, now 39, gave evidence during the trial. The Crown prosecutor, Soana Moala, alleged a series of sexual assaults occurred at the family home when the girl was aged between seven and 10.

Ms Moala told the jury that the complainant did not tell anyone at the time. She did not remember the incidents until 2006.

‘Witch children’ in living hell

And from the We Think We’ve Got It Bad Here Department comes a story in the Waikato Times (15 May) on the ‘Witch Children’ of Nigeria.

A Salem-style witch-hunt has swept the south of the West African nation in recent years. Though the area has always been a centre for the occult and voodoo, in the last 10 years pastors from revivalist churches have been arriving there. They accuse vulnerable children (many of them Aids orphans) of being witches, and then offer to drive out the demons. With growing populations and mounting poverty, some aunts and uncles have been quick to accept any excuse not to feed another mouth.

Seven-year-old Godwin Okon was accused, with his grandmother, of causing his mother’s death by witchcraft. Sam Ikpe-Itauma of the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), said Godwin’s uncle had locked them in a room with the dead woman. The grandmother escaped, but Godwin was ordered by a pastor to eat his mother’s corpse, under the belief that if a demon eats its victim it will also die. When he refused his uncle forced his head into his mother’s body. When he still refused to eat he was beaten and burnt.

Passers-by kept him alive by feeding him through cracks in the wall, until other villagers notified the police, who took him to CRARN. He is slowly recovering along with more than 200 other children with similar experiences.

Newsfront

Autism paper binned

Twelve years after it induced panic among parents world-wide, a paper linking the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism has been withdrawn (NZ Herald, 4 February).

The paper, published in the Lancet in 1998, was withdrawn after a preliminary verdict by a panel from Britain’s General Medical Council found Dr Andrew Wakefield and two of his co-authors had acted “dishonestly” and “irresponsibly”.

“It has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al are incorrect,” the Lancet‘s editors stated. “… In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were ‘consecutively referred’ and that investigations were ‘approved’ by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper.”

The paper was based on just 12 children, some of whom had bowel disorders and autism which had developed after vaccination with MMR. It led to sharp falls in vaccination rates and, said Auckland University’s Immunisation Advisory Centre director of research Helen Petousis-Harris, many preventable cases of disease.

“There are still many parents who are concerned about the Wakefield claims. We hope that this news [the retraction] will add further reassurance that the MMR vaccine is not associated with autism or any other developmental problems.”

The Lancet announced a partial retraction in 2004 after it emerged that Dr Wakefield had received payments for his research from the Legal Aid Board which he had not declared. This was a fatal conflict of interest, the journal said.

Stargazers at odds

Obviously, it came in the middle of the silly season when papers struggle to find copy, but journalist Rebecca Lewis had a lot of fun with astrologers’ predictions for the year ahead (NZ Herald, 3 January).

Pitting one astrologer against another, she checked out what various authorities in the field had to say about Sagittarians. A certain Anne McNaughton picked 2010 as a year in which a full moon in the “financial sector” would get things off to a good start for them. On the other hand Jenny Blume in Woman’s Day reckoned changes at work and home would leave Sagittarians feeling “skint” in autumn.

Someone on the Universal Psychic Guild website calling herself Astrogirl reckoned they would ditch their club-hopping ways and start “nesting”. Marie Claire promised the coming year would be about being daring and outgoing, and astrology.msn.co.nz claimed 2010 would bring out the “practical” side of Sagittarians, with a primary focus on finances.

“Confused?” asked Lewis. “Yup.”

The truth is in there

UFO researchers UFOCUS NZ are excited at the prospect of hundreds of secret files on mysterious sightings which are to be released by the New Zealand military (The Press, 23 January).

The files cover the period 1979 to 1984, and include the famous Kaikoura sightings of December 1978. They were to have been public in January, but are having personal information removed first to comply with the Privacy Act.

UFOCUS NZ director Suzanne Hansen said the group had been in discussion with the NZ Defence Force for many years. “It is frustrating from a research perspective because we would like to collate these sightings with international research.”

New Zealand Skeptics chairwoman (sic) Vicki Hyde said the files would not be as interesting as they appeared. “The Government is required to log these things and it can give a false impression that there is a vast amount of activity out there.

“There is probably intelligent life elsewhere, but whether it has come here to play silly buggers with us in a game of cosmic hide and seek is another matter.”
“It is a big jump from ‘there was something in the sky and I don’t know what it was’ to ‘that was a craft piloted by aliens’.”

Scientologists to the rescue

Among all the tragic stories coming out of the Haiti earthquake was the strange tale of John Travolta flying his own private jetliner to the beleaguered country with 7000lb of medical supplies – and doctors and ministers from the Church of Scientology (NZ Herald, 27 January).

Scientologists at a hospital in the capital Port au Prince said they were healing patients through “the power of touch to reconnect nervous systems”.

Sylvie, a spokeswoman, said: “We are trained as volunteer ministers. We use a process called ‘assist’ to follow the nervous system to reconnect the main points”.

“I didn’t know touch could heal gangrene,” said one sceptical doctor.

St Bathans a ghost town?

An Invercargill man on a ghost-hunting trip to Otago has come away with a spooky photo – but not of the building that’s supposed to be haunted (Southland Times, 5 February).

Andrew Watters had gone to St Bathans to have a look at the Vulcan Hotel and its supposed ghost. The pub apparently had only the regular type of spirits and it wasn’t until later that a friend noticed in one of his photos a shape in the upstairs window of the old post office nearby that looks remarkably like an elderly woman.

Vulcan Hotel leasee Jude Cavanagh said it was the first she had heard of a ghost sighting at the post office. “It’s a very spirited town, so who knows?”

The post office, managed by the Department of Conservation since the 1950s, had been vacant for about a year, at least in the bodily sense, she said.

Ghost, or reflection of a cloud? I suppose we’ll never know…

Sweat lodge ends in tragedy

A sweat lodge at an Arizona “spiritual retreat” ended up steaming three people to death last October, according to a leaked police report (NZ Herald, 4 January).

The retreat charged thousands of dollars for five days of motivational talks and spiritual tasks. Following the deaths, self-styled guru James Arthur Ray faces a murder investigation.

The report showed participants vomited, passed out and screamed for help. Ray was outside the only entrance, controlling the flap that let people in and out. One witness said Ray told scared participants three times: “You are not going to die. You might think you are, but you are not going to die.”

The two-hour ceremony followed two days of fasting and not drinking water. When the ceremony was over and people were trying to get the victims out, Ray called attempts to remove blankets from the walls “sacrilegious”. One victim had been subjected to such intense heat his lungs were scorched.
Critics say that such tasks are a sort of confidence trick that exists at the extreme end of America’s US$11.5 billion ($15.8 billion) self-help industry.

‘Ghosts’ find buyer

Two “captured ghosts” sold on Trademe have gone to a company which sells electronic cigarettes (The Press, 9 March).

The “ghosts” were sold by Avie Woodbury of Christchurch, who says they are the spirits of an old man who lived in the house in the 1920s and a powerful little girl who turned up after a ouija board session. They have been kept in holy water which “dulls the spirits’ energy”.

The auction recorded more than 200,000 page views and made international headlines. Safer Smoke NZ had bid $5000, but the final price dropped to $2830 after a last-minute bidder was revealed to be a fake seeking to push the price up.

Ms Woodbury will donate the proceeds to the SPCA – once exorcist’ s fees have been paid.

Digital Photography and the Paranormal

More ‘ghosts’ than ever are appearing in photos – thanks to digital cameras. This article is based on a presentation to the NZ Skeptics 2009 conference in Wellington, 26 September.

Since the beginnings of photography in the mid-nineteenth century people have used the medium to capture images of ghosts, both naïvely and as a hoax for commercial gain. Until the arrival of roll film late in the nineteenth century, which was more light-sensitive than earlier wet and dry plates, long exposure times sometimes resulted in spectral-looking figures accidently or intentionally appearing in photographs. Nearly all early photographs showing alleged ghosts can be explained by double exposure, long exposure, or they are recordings of staged scenes – contrivances such as the cutout fairies at the bottom of the garden in Cottingley.

As cameras became more foolproof, with mechanisms to eliminate double exposure etc, accidental ghosts in photographs became scarce. During the 1990s I carried a compact 35mm camera (an Olympus Mju-1) and shot more than five thousand photos with it. At the time I was not looking for paranormal effects such as those described below, but a quick review showed only very few strange occurrences in the photos. This century digital compact cameras have become ubiquitous and supposed ghost photos are also now common. There is a connection.

Design-wise, the basic layout of a compact digital camera isn’t much different to a compact 35mm film camera; both have a lens with a minimum focal length a little shorter than standard1 and a flash positioned close to the lens. The main differences are the lens focal lengths and the image recording medium.

A typical 35mm film camera has a semi-wide angle lens (which may also zoom well into the telephoto range but we’re not much interested in that) in the range of 28mm-38mm. A standard lens for the format is about 45mm. A digital compact camera is more likely to have a lens focal length starting out in the range of 4mm to 7mm. A 5mm lens is typical, and at a maximum aperture of around f2.8, the maximum working aperture of the lens can be less than 2mm and the stopped down aperture less than 0.5mm. (As a comparison, the maximum aperture of my Mju-1 was 35mm/f3.5=10mm.) These tiny apertures allow things very close to the lens to be captured by the recording medium (albeit out of focus) even when the lens is focussed on medium-long distance.

The most common photographic anomaly that is mistakenly held up as evidence of paranormal activity is the orb. While there are natural objects that are visible to the unaided eye and may photograph as orbs – that is, any small or point source light, either close by such as a lit cigarette or burning marsh gas, or distant such as the planet Venus – there are other types of orbs that only show up in photographs. You don’t see them but the camera does. These are mainly caused by airborne dust, moisture droplets, or tiny insects. In the dark, they are visible only briefly (for a millisecond or so) when illuminated by the camera flash. Dust is the most common cause of orbs in photographs, captured as an out-of-focus glow as it passes within centimetres of the camera lens, in the zone covered by the flash.

The diagram above shows how a compact digital camera, having its flash close to its short focal length lens, is able to photograph dust orbs. Most 35mm cameras won’t do this because the lens is too long in focal length to be able to create a small enough Circle of Confusion2 image of the dust and larger Single Lens Reflex (SLR)-type cameras tend to have the flash positioned farther from the lens (above) and also have larger image sensors and longer focal-length lenses which are more like a 35mm camera.

Note: a built-in flash on a digital SLR, while being closer to the lens axis, is set some distance back from the front of the lens, so the dust particles it illuminates are also out of view of the lens; they are behind it.

Specifically, a dust orb is an image of the electronic flash reflected by a mote, out of focus and appearing at the film plane as a circular image the same shape as the lens at full aperture. Most of the time when a compact camera takes a flash photo the aperture blades automatically stay out of the way to allow the widest possible lens opening. If the aperture blades close down at all, they create a diamond-shaped opening and any dust orb then becomes triangular, an effect predicted by this theory of dust orbs.

The diagram above shows a dust mote much closer to the camera lens than the focussed subject, a tree, and how the out-of-focus orb appears over the tree in the processed image, appearing the size of its Circle of Confusion at the film plane (or, in this case, digital imaging plane).

Other common photographic anomalies which are sometimes assumed to be paranormal are caused by lens flare, internal reflections, dirty lenses and objects in front of the lens. These can all occur in any type of camera. What they have in common (and this includes dust orbs), is that the phenomena exist only in the camera: they will not be seen with the unaided eye. Most of the time, photographs that are held up as paranormal were taken when nothing apparently paranormal was suspected: the anomalous effect was only noticed later upon reviewing the images.

Another confusing aspect of photographic anomalies is the loss of sense of scale, caused by the reduction of the 3D world to a 2D photograph. In the photo opposite, it appears the baby is looking at the orb, but actually the dust particle causing the orb is centimetres from the lens and the baby is looking at something else out of frame.

A variation on this is when someone senses the presence of a ghost and responds by taking a photograph. If a dust orb appears in the photo it may be assumed to be a visual representation or manifestation of the spiritual entity. Naïve paranormal investigators and other credulous types get terribly excited when this happens, and it often does during a ghost hunt. And ghost hunting is about the only type of activity that involves wandering around in the dark taking photos of nothing in particular. Now that digital cameras have large displays, photographers using the cameras during a paranormal investigation are able to immediately see dust orbs in their photos. If they believe these orbs to be paranormal, the hysteria of the investigators is fed. I’ve seen it happen. With film cameras and even with older digital cameras having smaller displays or no photo display at all, the orb effect was not usually observed until after the investigation.

Next is an enlarged part of a photo of the Oriental Bay Marina. The ghost lights in the sky are secondary images of light sources elsewhere in the photo, caused by internal reflections in the camera lens.

While operating a camera in the dark it is easy to make a mistake such as letting the camera strap or something else get in front of the lens, or put a fingerprint on the lens that will cause lens flare later. Use of the camera in the Night Photography mode will cause light trails from any light source due to the slow shutter speed (usually several seconds), combined with flash. Also, in Night mode a person moving will record as a blur combined with a sharp image from the flash, making it look like a ‘mist’ is around them.

It is important to remember that a compact digital camera will process an image file before displaying it. While a more serious camera will shoot in Raw (unprocessed) mode, most compact cameras record the image in JPEG form, which is compressed. Cellphone cameras usually apply a lot of file compression to save memory and minimise transmission time. Digital compression creates artefacts, and the effect can be seen in the enlarged photo of the dust orb (page 12). Also, digital sharpening is automatically applied, which can make a vague blur into a more definite shape, a smear into a human face.

We are all aware of the tendency to want to recognise human faces or figures in random patterns. This is a strong instinct possibly linked to infancy, picking out a parent’s face from the surrounding incomprehensible shapes. Once people see human features in a photo it is difficult to convince them that they’re looking at a random pattern and just interpreting it as a face. The effect is called pareidolia, sometimes referred to as matrixing, or the figure as a simulacrum.

The ‘Face in the Middle’ photo, below, is an example of pareidolia. The third face appearing between the boy and girl is several background elements combining to produce the simulacrum. The low resolution and large amount of compression in this cellphone photo exacerbate the effect.

While we all know it is easy to fake a ghost photo using in-camera methods such as long exposure or multiple exposure, or in post-production using imaging software such as Photoshop, current camera technology makes it hardly necessary. It is far easier to choose to use a compact digital camera or cellphone camera and allow it to produce the anomalous effects automatically: one reason why ‘ghost hunters’ use them. Then one can claim ignorance and honestly say they didn’t mess with the photo, it is exactly how the camera saw it. Having done a fair amount of ghost hunting myself, it is tempting to use a digital compact camera with the knowledge that while it is highly unlikely an actual ghost will be photographed, a certain number of anomalous photographs will result which will at least spice up the investigation report!3

In my experience of analysing photographs, I have found that some people are prepared to accept a rational explanation of what they thought may have been a photograph of a paranormal event. Others don’t want to hear anything rational; they’ve made up their mind that there’s a ghost in the photo and that’s the end of it. Having looked at a large number of photographs that allegedly show ghosts, I haven’t yet come across one that doesn’t fall into one of the general categories of photographic anomaly referred to above or isn’t a probable fake.

While I think that people do have ghost-like experiences (an opinion based mainly on the vast accumulation of published anecdotal evidence but also on some personal experiences that remain unexplained), it is probably not possible to photograph a ghost as such using any known method of photography (including pictures using the EM spectrum outside visible light). Photographs are not considered hard evidence of anything much these days anyway, because it is widely known that even a moderately skilled photographer or Photoshop operator can create a realistic looking picture of almost any fantasy. In paranormal matters a photograph can at best be considered circumstantial evidence requiring backup from other types of hard data and witness accounts to lend it evidential weight.

Footnotes:

  1. A standard lens has a focal length close to the diagonal measurement of the film or digital sensor. This lens renders objects in correct proportion according to their distance – a neutral perspective, neither compressed (as by longer focal length, or ‘telephoto’ lenses) nor exaggerated (as by shorter focal length, wide-angle lenses).

  2. Circle of Confusion (COC) is a term in optics for the image of a point of light that is in or out of focus at the imaging plane of a lens. Each point of an object forms an image circle of a diameter relative to its degree of sharp focus, with an in-focus point forming a tiny COC that effectively appears as a point. An Infinite number of larger, overlapping COCs form the blurry (unfocussed) areas of an image. This is the basis of Depth of Field in photography.

  3. In Strange Occurrences we use digital photography in much the same way as police photographers, that is, to record details of a location for later reference. Also, long exposures with a digital SLR on a tripod can show things the unaided eye cannot quite make out in low light, such as reflected and/or diffracted light patterns from external light sources that may appear somewhat ghost-like. Captions: The placing of the flash close to the short focal length lens of a digital camera means that dust motes can be illuminated as ‘orbs’.

Newsfront

Elephants in Loch Ness?

Nessie’s an elephant, says a leading British palaeontologist (Dominion Post, 7 March).

Neil Clark, curator of palaeontology at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, spent two years investigating the Loch Ness myth and suggested the idea for Nessie was dreamt up as a “magnificent piece of marketing” by a circus impresario after he saw one of his elephants bathing in the loch.

In 1933, the same year as the first modern ‘sighting’ of Nessie, Bertram Mills offered £20,000 to anyone who could capture the monster for his circus, sparking international interest. Most sightings could be explained by floating logs or waves, but there were a number, particularly from 1933, were more difficult to account for.

He believed some were elephants belonging to circuses – which visited Inverness and stopped along the banks of the loch to allow their animals to rest. When they swam in the loch, only the trunk and two humps could be seen – the first hump being the head and the second the animal’s back.

University fears cancer from wireless internet…

Lakehead University, in Ontario, Canada, won’t allow campus-wide internet access because of health worries (Dominion Post, 1 March.)

President Fred Gilbert told a university meeting that some studies showed links to carcinogenic occurences in animals, including humans, related to energy fields associated with wireless hotspots – “whether these hotspots are transmissions lines, whether they’re outlets, plasma screens or microwave ovens that leak.” The university has only limited Wi-Fi connections, in places where there is no fibre-optic internet connection. The decision, apparently, was a personal decision by Gilbert.

The stance has caused a backlash from students and Canadian health authorities. “Considering this is a university known for its great use of technology it’s kind of bad that we can’t get Wi-Fi,” student union president Adam Krupper said.

…but cell phones are OK

Meanwhile, according to a new study, cell phones do not increase the risk of developing brain tumours, the Dominion Post reported (21 January.)

After a four-year survey, scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research in London and British universities in Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham found no link between regular, long-term use of cellphones and glioma brain tumours.

The results were consistent with the findings of most studies done in the US and Europe, although this survey was bigger than any previous research and involved 13 countries.

The researchers questioned 966 people with glioma and 1716 healthy volunteers about how long they had used mobile phones, the make and model, how many calls they made and how long the calls lasted. Earlier mobile phones used analogue signals, which emitted higher power signals than the later digital models. Any health danger would be more likely to result from the earlier models, but the scientists found no evidence of it.

Ghosts keep the tourists away

The existence of ghosts may be debated, but the impact of traditional Asian beliefs on Thailand’s tourism trade since the December 26, 2004, tsunami appears indisputable (National Geographic News, January 6).

Tourism from Europe, Australia, and the United States has rebounded since the disaster, but tourist arrivals from elsewhere in Asia have not. Industry observers cite Asian tourists’ fears of ghosts in tsunami-stricken areas as the main reason for the decline.

Buddhism and other Asian belief systems hold that if bodies are not properly buried, their spirits restlessly wander the Earth, and may try to drag living beings into a spiritual limbo.

“Please tell your fellow Japanese and Chinese back home to stop fearing ghosts and return to this region again,” Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra reportedly told tourists after a memorial service to commemorate the victims of the tsunami.

Since the disaster, tales of ghost sightings have become endemic. Foreign ghosts seem to be particularly common, and many of the accounts are being covered in local newspapers.

One Phuket taxi driver reportedly said he was hailed by four western tourists who asked to go to the airport. The driver chatted as he drove, but when he pulled up at the airport to let the passengers out there was no one there.

Police procedure allows for sorcery concerns

Maori should not be forced to give DNA samples because of concerns over sorcery, says a report in the Dominion Post (5 December 05). A new police manual says Maori have spiritual beliefs about samples taken from the body, and that “a person should not be forced to provide samples for testing purposes”. Police management said the direction would be amended or deleted in future editions.

‘John of God’: it’s all been seen before

Chair-entity Vicki Hyde is gnashing her teeth over the upcoming visit to New Zealand of Joao Teixeira de Faria, ‘one of the world’s most powerful spiritual healers.’

In a full-page feature on the ‘healer’ in the Dominion Post (28 January) Vicki told reporter Stefan Herrick she was convinced Teixeira de Faria, who goes by the name John of God, was a con man “who peddles miracle cures that don’t withstand even light scientific scrutiny.

“Sad to see this chap coming here as it just means more exploitation of vulnerable people.”

Hundreds of foreigners visit Abadiania, the small village in Brazil where Teixeira de Faria has established a clinic where ‘miraculous cures’ take place. He is promoted as “the greatest healer of the past 2000 years”, and claims to be guided by 35 healing spirits.

Vicki Hyde said if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, “it’s probably just another duck…”

John of God, the report said, doesn’t charge for visits to his clinic (although the Wellington sessions will cost $115) but he appeared to be well off. The ABC network reported that he owned a 400-hectare ranch down the road from his clinic.

Magnets attract support

Magnet therapy, said to be favoured by Cherie Blair, is to be made available on Britain’s National Health Service (NZ Herald, 11 March).

The 4UlcerCare – a strap containing four magnets that is wrapped around the leg – is available on prescription from GPs. Its maker, Magnopulse, claims that it speeds the healing of leg ulcers and keeps them from coming back.

The announcement has created excitement in the world of alternative medicine. Lilias Curtin, one-time therapist to Cherie Blair, sent a poster-sized announcement to newspapers declaring her “sincere belief that, in the next five to 10 years, magnets will be seen in first-aid boxes”.

Other experts are sceptical. Professor Edzard Ernst, head of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, said that he was puzzled by the NHS decision. “As far as I can see, there hasn’t yet been enough research to prove that these magnets help people with ulcers.”

More powerful electromagnets could help to heal tissue injuries, but that was different, he said. His own study of small magnets on arthritis sufferers had failed to yield compelling results.

In January, researchers from the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, in California, published a paper in the British Medical Journal that cast doubt on the therapeutic use of magnets. “Patients should be advised that magnet therapy has no proven benefits. If they insist on using a magnetic device, they could be advised to buy the cheapest – this will alleviate the pain in their wallet,” they wrote.

The Media Creates a Miracle

The reading by Jeanette Wilson which featured most prominently on the 20/20 programme awarded the 2004 Bent Spoon (see page 3) was of a woman named Maria. It transpired after the reading that Maria’s mother had, two years previously, haemorrhaged to death from a perforated duodenal ulcer. It was Maria who found her, and Maria interpreted Jeanette Wilson’s very dramatic performance as relating to that event. But as can be seen from the following transcript, stripped of the histrionics, Wilson appeared to be talking about something quite different – the murder of two small boys.

Melanie Reid: We are running this mediumship reading unedited. It is intense. Some people may find it disturbing to watch.
Jeanette Wilson (JW) is handed a ring from Maria (M), to help establish a connection.
JW: Now I’ve got a lady coming in on your mum’s side first, quite strongly. OK. I’ve also got a gentleman with her and I’m just trying to work out who’s who. Alright.
M sits opposite, says nothing.
JW: The lady I’ve got on your mum’s side of the family, she’s coming through with a lot of affection to you, she’s like, wanting to put her arms around you? It feels like she’s being passed over several years now, somewhere between five and 10 years. Has your mum passed over first of all?
M: My mother?
JW: Yeah.
M: She has.
JW: Yes, and is it between five and 10 years ago?
M: No.
JW: OK, how long is it since she’s passed?
M: Two years.
JW: OK, she feels as if she’s been there longer to me, OK?
M: That would be correct.
JW: Was she in a coma or something then?
M: No, but I understand what you say..
. JW: OK.
M: About her feeling she was…
JW: Yeah because she’s coming through as a spirit that’s used to communicating. Alright. Now she’s bringing with her a small boy. Do you understand who in the family that is?
M: Yeah I do.
JW: OK. And she’s showing me lots and lots of tears about this young boy’s passing because there was a tragedy…
M: Oh yeah…
JW: You’ll see the hair’s on my arm starting to go on end. But it was like that was something that shouldn’t have happened… yeah…
M: Yes.
JW: I’m asking her… I’ve got the name John or Jonathon – does that make sense to you?
M: (pause) Um, not with my mother, but it makes sense of something else.
JW: Is it to do with the little boy?
M: Um, it would be another boy that I know…
JW: Yeah…
M: …but not to do with my family.
JW: No.
M: That would…
JW: But a similar age, do you understand?
M: Yeah I do.
JW: Because I’m being shown a similar age and a similar situation that happened? Alright? Understand?
M: Mm.
JW: (emotional) Oh goodness, I’ve got blood on my hands. And I don’t understand why I’ve got blood on my hands… do you understand?
M: Mm.
JW: I just want to really break down now and, uh, I’ve got a really really horrible feeling inside… um… (pause)
M: Quite a macabre feeling, I would say.
JW: The blood on the hands is symbolic, I feel that somebody had blood on their hands, does that make sense, it’s not… this isn’t like a natural passing? Somebody had blood on their hands and you’ll see the hairs on my arm, if the cameras can pick it up, but they’re ab… We’re in sunlight, it’s warm. But I’m really… There’s a lot of distress here, there’s a lot of distress. Somebody was absolutely terrified? (sobs) …absolutely terrified… (cries) and they weren’t very old. Oh goodness, goodness, goodness… it’s very very emotional for me, it’s like why me? Why are you doing this to me? (cries) Why are you doing… I have to put the ring down sweetheart, it’s too hard for me, it’s too hard, it’s too hard. Oh God, oh God… (cries)
M: Jeanette, Jeanette…
JW: It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, they’re alright now, they’re alright now…
M: I know they’re alright.
JW: …they’re alright now.
M: I know the feeling.
JW: Oh God – I need a tissue somebody, sorry, I’ve got a runny nose.
M: I can’t believe you broke down and I didn’t…
JW: God, I just want to hug you, I just want to hug you, can I give you a hug?
M: Mm you can.
JW: Oh my God, oh my God, sweetheart, oh, I’m so sorry (cries).
M: It’s OK, I’m…
JW: Oh God. You know how to pick them, Melanie.
M: She knows nothing, no one know that story, only I and the police – and my mother – know.
Transcript by Annette Taylor and David Riddell

Not Rare – Just Another Medium

A new star on the psychic circuit impressed the makers of TV3’s 20/20, but not the NZ Skeptics

A gushy piece of infotainment on what is claimed to be New Zealand’s premier showcase for investigative reporting has won 20/20 the 2004 Bent Spoon Award. Melanie Reid’s August 22 segment “Back from the Dead”, profiling Taranaki medium Jeanette Wilson, was judged by the NZ Skeptics to be the year’s most outstanding example of gullible or naive reporting in the paranormal or pseudoscience area.

We were looking forward to seeing a solid journalistic treatment of this growing industry, in much the same manner that 20/20 in the US exposed the dubious practices of medium James van Praagh. It was very disappointing to hear 20/20 describe similar techniques performed here in New Zealand as “astonishing”.

20/20 asked me to comment on Wilson’s performance, citing how impressed they had been with both Wilson’s presentation – they said she looked just like Lady Di – and her accuracy – they said she was coming up with specific names and relationships.

What I saw was the same collection of staple techniques used throughout the industry and well-documented in many books such as Peter Huston’s “Scams from the Great Beyond”. One example is that of fishing for names, where the medium will ask a client if a common name, such as John, “has any meaning for them”. Asking leading questions designed to elicit information or agreement is a common tactic aimed at building confidence in the performer, and making it appear as if they are revealing hidden knowledge. Telling a middle-aged audience member that their parent or grandparent is watching over them is playing simple demographics, as it is more than likely that such people will have older relatives who have died.

New Zealand Skeptics are always prepared to check such performers out, in case someone really is doing something astonishing, which would be very exciting, but that certainly wasn’t the case here, despite 20/20’s enthusiastic endorsement.

While 20/20 did include some footage of the critique in the first part of the programme, I was disappointed that the programme chose to focus extensively on one very emotional, but content-free reading in what they called a “test” of the medium’s ability. Real tests of such skills have to be carefully planned to avoid naïve or misleading interpretations. It’s not so much the testing as the marking that’s important. Take away the histrionics and it was a very poor performance as far as a demonstration of mediumship goes.

Of course these very powerful images were selected by 20/20 precisely because they make great entertainment. They didn’t screen very much of the unimpressive readings, the one where Wilson asked a lady twice if her father had died, the ones where she used the same names and stock phrases over and over again.

If, indeed, the medium had definitive proof of the after-life, this should have been world-shattering news. After all, with this sort of capability, it means there should be no unsolved murders, no missing children, no arguments over inheritance. There should be no innocent people in prison, no unidentified child molesters. The world would certainly be a better place, and that’s something about which there could be no doubt.

Newsfront

Psychic Scam Busted

Two fortune tellers apparently failed to foresee the end of their alleged scam in Christchurch (The Press, January 29).

The men were arrested and charged with fraud after they were accused by a Ferrymead person of conning them out of more than $1000. Police believe the men, who apparently touted their mystic trade in a door-to-door routine, may have claimed other victims.

Constable Al Lawn of Sumner police, who arrested the men, said the pair approached the victim earlier. It was alleged they predicted “catastrophic events” for the person and said they would return the next day to tell them how to avoid these events. When they returned to the address the police were called and the arrests made.

Lawn said the charges rested on what the intent of the men — one a 32-year-old Sikh wearing a turban, the other a 30-year-old Indian — was.

The victim was “embarrassed”, and Lawn hoped if there were other victims they would not be too embarrassed to lay a complaint.

The two men had arrived in Auckland the previous week and then travelled to Christchurch.

Lawn said the case was a strange one. “We’re definitely not in the business of going around monitoring clairvoyants.”

Christchurch barrister David Ruth said criminal charges over fortune telling were highly unusual as most people knew fortune telling was “all nonsense and a bit of a gag”.

Good Luck Charms Do Work – In Your Mind

A pioneering study into the effectiveness of “lucky” charms has found they do work — but only in the minds of the people who carry them (Dominion Post, January 6).

British scientists found that though carrying a charm had no effect on events based on chance, such as winning the lottery, those who believed in them felt more confident and optimistic.

In the study, 100 people around Britain were asked to take a supposedly lucky Victorian-era penny with them for a month, and keep a diary as to how their fortunes changed in areas such as finance and health.

Perhaps the most compelling statistic came at the end of the survey when participants were told they could give up the lucky coin — 70% said they would keep carrying it.

Bucket Remark Brings Apology

A massage therapist who told a client her “uterus could end up in a bucket” has been taken to task by Health Commissioner Ron Paterson. He found the therapist tried to financially exploit the patient by prescribing $800 worth of ginger treatments. The therapist has been ordered to give the client a written apology for breaching the patient code of rights (Nelson Mail, March 15).

Fortune Hunter Finds Hits and Misses

Dominion Post journalist Diana McCurdy had an interesting time sounding out the fortune tellers (January 10), and reported a range of responses. “Clair-audio” Tania Kettle (a little voice in her head tells her about the future) reckoned McCurdy’s relationship was going to break up: “There’s no chance with the one you are with at the moment. I believe he’s going back to someone he knows.” Kettle also believed McCurdy was in the wrong profession.

Not so, said medium and clairvoyant Maria Angelica. McCurdy and her partner were spiritually connected and would be fine. And McCurdy was definitely in the right profession; being a little bit psychic herself helped her track down stories.

Feeling warm and fuzzy despite herself, she ended with a visit to NZ Skeptic chair-entity Vicki Hyde, who offered “gentle sympathy”.

“We put our souls into the hands of these people because they are claiming to have some kind of special knowledge. You’re less vulnerable because you’re doing it on a professional basis, but you can still feel the tug of that authority.”

And what does the future hold for the world at large? Maria Angelica believed The Return of the King would win more Oscars than its predecessors — though probably not Best Picture. Tania Kettle saw more cases involving children coming before the courts. The distance between rich and poor in New Zealand would continue to increase. Because of this disparity, immigrants would get a hard time.

Numerologist Eleanor Lefever felt that since 2004 was a SIX year “there’s going to be some surprising things that will happen.”

Vicki Hyde saw the New Zealand cricket team improving markedly (this was before the highly successful series against South Africa), with a new player breathing life into it (Chris Martin, perhaps?). She also said George Bush would win the next US election. This is the woman who predicted the All Blacks wouldn’t make the 1999 World Cup final, remember.

Where Everyone Gets a Haunting

Staff at the Warehouse in Nelson have been getting more than they bargained for, with reports of ghostly goings-on prompting a belated blessing for the building (Nelson Mail, July 10, 2003).

Three ministers blessed the building after two women reported seeing a girl who was believed to have been killed at nearby shunting yards in the early 1900s.

Staff, who knew the history of the girl’s death, had seen her very vividly, store manager Ross Barnett said — “even down to her pale blue dress.”

Archdeacon Harry Whakaruru, one of the ministers who blessed the site, said it appeared the “unusual happenings” had come about after the building was extended across a waterway. The tapu lifting was completely different from an exorcism, he said. It was an “acknowledgement of our old Maori customs that if you disturb our earth mother, you carry out a blessing in respect of the disturbance that has been made.”

Archdeacon Whakaruru said he was called on to bless unrest about once a week across the top of the South Island.

Mr Barnett said the first ghost sighting was well over two years ago. After more sightings recently, he decided to investigate whether the building was blessed when it was first built, and found that it had not been. “For me, it is something I always have done when I have opened up a new store.”

There had been no reports of ghost sightings since the blessing, he said.

Autism Doctor on Professional Misconduct Charge

The doctor who linked the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination to autism is to be investigated for alleged professional misconduct (The Independent, February 23). Dr Andrew Wakefield’s research prompted one of Britain’s biggest health scares and a drop in the injection’s use throughout the Western world.

The Secretary of State for Health, Dr John Reid, called for the investigation after it emerged that the doctor had failed to declare a financial interest when he submitted his research for publication.

The director of the Auckland University-based Immunisation Advisory Centre, Dr Nikki Turner, said: “We’ve got overwhelming literature showing no link, but that hasn’t rapidly come through to reassure parents. How do you undo a myth; that’s the problem.”

Research published in the latest New Zealand Medical Journal shows that 21% of doctors and 41% of nurses are unsure whether the MMR vaccine is associated with autism or Crohn’s disease. Eleven per cent of the 188 health workers who took part thought that immunisations posed “unacceptable dangers”, although 72 per cent thought that they did not, and 17 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed.

Dr Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet medical journal, admitted that the research would never have been published had it been known that Dr Wakefield had also been working for lawyers preparing legal action by parents who believed that the jab had caused their children’s autism.

He said that the disclosure, admitted by Dr Wakefield, amounted to a “fatal conflict of interest” and that his key finding was “entirely flawed”.

The author’s research fund received £55,000 ($145,738) from the Legal Aid Board for studies on 10 children suspected of having been damaged by vaccines. Four of the children were also used in the highly controversial study that linked the MMR vaccination to autism, it was admitted.

Other allegations, that the research was biased and lacked proper ethical approval, have been rejected by the journal and the Royal Free Hospital in London, where the research was done. A hospital statement said Dr Wakefield, who left his post two years ago, should have declared the interest, but defended the other researchers involved.

Dummy pills just the trick

Dummy pills just the trick

The best paper in New Zealand (Waikato Times, May 6 – and it’s got nothing to do with the fact that I work there) reports that depressed patients tricked into thinking they are being treated have undergone healing brain changes.

The discovery is “conclusive proof of the power of the ‘placebo effect’ – the mind-over-body influence of believing that a drug will work.”

Scientists at the University of Texas, San Antonio say patients given a dummy pill experienced brain changes remarkably like those attained by taking Prozac.

World’s biggest ghost hunt

Hertfordshire’s Dr Richard Wiseman involved 250 volunteers and an array of hi-tech equipment in what became the world’s biggest ghost hunt, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

The Evening Post (March 3) says despite a number of creepy tales from volunteers, no definite proof of the supernatural was found during the experiment conducted in Edinburgh early last year. Wiseman said it was truly fascinating but “…none of the stories convinced me ghosts exist … I used to be a magician and I saw how easily people could be tricked.”

The tour guide who worked in the underground vaults of the 18th Century chamber, was in no doubt of the presence of ghosts, the paper said. These included a little boy, a dog and “the spectre of a nasty man who whispers obscenities in people’s ears.

“He has foul, stinky breath and he’s really horrible … The vaults … have been closed for 180 years so I think all that paranormal energy has been bottled up and is only just now being released.”

Maybe the tour guide needs Scooby Doo to deal with the wee doggie.

Measles epidemic hits anti-vaccine town

A measles epidemic involving 700 children that ravaged a small German town is being blamed on two homeopathic doctors who denounced the MMR vaccine, says the Dominion on March 7.

Debate on the merits of the vaccine is reaching fever pitch and 30 children had been admitted to hospital where there were fears there could be deaths.

On one side are “alternative health enthusiasts” who dominate Coburg, an affluent Bavarian town. Two of the town’s seven child health doctors fiercely oppose MMR. And then there are the public health experts, who “accuse a ‘nest’ of militant anti-MMR activists … of putting children’s lives in danger.”

Germany, the paper reports, is becoming famous as a world leader in “exporting measles”, according to leading specialists.

Dr Helmut Weiss, head of the state health office in Colburg, said the stronghold of the epidemic was the Waldorf School.

He’s at it again

And the Evening Post (April 13) informs us that psychic Uri Geller is to look for the site of the battle featured in the movie Braveheart.

The “paranormal expert” has been called in by historian John Walker, to try to pinpoint the exact location of the Battle of Falkirk which was fought between King Edward I of England and William Wallace, in 1298. The location has been lost, and no bodies or artefacts ever found.

Mr Walker stumbled on to Uri Geller while on the internet one evening, and read how he’d helped discover the location of a wrecked submarine. Since, he said, conventional methods to discover the graves of the combatants had failed, “… we need to try the unconventional.”

And Mr Geller said the battle was mysterious. “…the fact that very little was found could mean they have not been looking in the right place for the site.”

As they say, watch this space. And, by the way, William Wallace was not a homespun-wearing, oatmeal-eating fighting man of the glens as depicted in that movie, but grew up in a genteel manor house where he probably had very good table manners. So there.