Waiting for the big one

If the beliefs of a sizeable number of people turn out to be correct, this will be the final issue of the NZ Skeptic. According to a survey of 16,262 people in 21 countries conducted by market research company Ipsos for Reuters News, two percent of respondents strongly agree, and eight percent somewhat agree, with the proposition that 21 December 2012, the end of the current cycle of the Mayan Long Count calendar, marks the end of the world. Perhaps surprisingly agreement is highest in China (20 percent), while the Germans and Indonesians (four percent) are relatively dubious. One could perhaps question the representativeness of the sample (comprised of people who have agreed to take part in online surveys), but there must be a lot of people out there who are really worried about this.

David Morrison, who runs the Ask an Astrobiologist page on NASA’s website, was reported in Canada’s National Post (28 September) as saying he has been flooded with thousands of questions about the issue, with at least one a week from teenagers so concerned that they’re considering suicide. “The one thing in common with all of these scare stories about December 2012 is that they have absolutely zero basis in fact,” he said. “There was no Mayan prediction of anything going wrong, there’s no planet Nibiru, there’s no planet alignment, there’s no change in the Earth’s axis, there’s no change in anything about the Earth. It’s just a complete fantasy.”

Belief in impending apocalypse has long been a feature of certain religious groups, but the various 2012 scenarios have a distinctly secular flavour. There seems to be something deeply and paradoxically appealing about the notion that we will all be wiped off the face of the Earth, and it’s not all driven by religion. Some see it as a response to the uncertainties of life, providing a sense of narrative amid the chaos. Another factor may be that, at least in its secular incarnations, it derives from a sense of insignificance in the face of the immensity of deep time. The universe is more than 13 billion years old, life has existed on Earth for at least three and a half billion years, and we probably have another five billion years before the sun runs out of fuel. Against that, what is the value of a single human life? (That’s a question I believe can be answered, but space precludes discussion of it here.)

If Doomsday is almost here, at least it means that we don’t have to face the idea of life going on without us. Some, perhaps, would see our lives today as having more meaning if all of history was leading up to this moment, and there won’t be any more to come. We would become the heroes of the Story of Life – that story may be a tragedy, but at least we were in at the end.

The murder that never was

George Gwaze was first cleared of the murder of his adopted daughter Charlene Makaza on 21 May 2008. At the time I wrote in NZ Skeptic 88‘s Newsfront that it had taken since the first week of 2007 for him to be acquitted of a non-existent crime: Charlene had died from a massive Aids:related infection. Little did I realise the Crown would retry the case – the only time a Not Guilty verdict has been overturned in a New Zealand court – and Gwaze would have to face another four years to clear his name.

It may seem a strange case to attract the interest of the NZ Skeptics, apart from the fact that one of our members, Dr Felicity Goodyear-Smith, acted as a medical adviser for the defence in the first trial, but it could be seen as a late manifestation of the sexual abuse panic which swept the western world in the 1980s and 1990s. This had its origins in a book titled Michelle Remembers, which recounted memories of satanic ritual abuse recovered under hypnosis from a young woman, Michelle Smith, by her therapist (later husband) Lawrence Pazder. Though skeptics at the time were quick to note that these ‘recovered memories’ had similarities with those reported by Budd Hopkins, who used hypnosis to uncover ‘memories’ of alien abduction, or various proponents of reincarnation who used similar techniques, there was a rash of satanic ritual abuse cases arising out of hypnotherapy sessions over the next few years.

In time, the satanic element faded, but the panic only became the more destructive because of that, with many people ‘recovering’ memories of more mundane forms of sexual abuse, often by their parents. Families were torn apart; the damage continues to this day. In a parallel development, testimony of sexual abuse (often ritual in nature) was elicited from pre-school children at day-care centres and kindergartens by suspect interviewing techniques.

In most of the world the day-care sexual abuse panic has been recognised for what it was, and those who fell victim to it have mostly received large compensation packages. Not so in New Zealand, where Peter Ellis is still on record as a convicted child abuser, after spending seven years in prison for alleged offences at the Civic Creche in Christchurch – the same city where the Gwaze family lives. Sexual abuse of children is a terrible crime and, perhaps understandably, when the prospect is raised rationality tends to fly out the window; other scenarios often don’t get a look in. The George Gwaze case – and the ongoing injustice suffered by Peter Ellis – shows that even (or perhaps especially) on this most emotional of issues, it’s necessary to keep a cool head, and to consider all possibilities.

Avoiding the trap of belief-dependant realism

The Believing Brain: how we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths by Michael Shermer. Times books, New York. 386pp. ISBN 978-0-8050-9125-0. Reviewed by Martin Wallace.

Aa a member of NZ Skeptics I have become increasingly aware of the huge and ever-growing list of unsubstantiated beliefs in our society, including religion, alternative medicine, alien abductions, ESP, flying saucers, vaccination refusal, and so on and on. Why are there so many of them and their adherents, and so few of us skeptics?

In his new book Michael Shermer sets out the reasons for this situation. It is our believing brains, evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago, that are responsible. Belief without evidence is a salutary behaviour when facing a trembling bush behind which a predator may be lurking. Don’t wait for evidence – just go! Survival is selected for by belief.

Michael Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine in the US, writes a regular column in Scientific American, and is an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Calfornia.

In this book he explores beliefs in many fields, and how we select data after forming the beliefs, to reinforce them. He describes how deeply inherent is our desire to detect patterns in our sensory information, and the evidence from neurophysiology and behavioural genetics which shows how and where this occurs. Religion for example exists in all cultures and can be called “a universal”.

Dr Shermer explores the history of empiricism and the extraordinary prescience of Francis Bacon (c 1620) in his recognition of those human behaviours which inhibit the determination of reality, and the need for a new approach.

He makes a strong argument for the teaching of scientific method in our schools as well as teaching the nature of the world revealed by that process. It is the unwillingness to apply that method which has resulted in the perseverance of our plethora of beliefs. We are not endowed by evolution with that aptitude, which after all is only 400 years old. We have to learn it.

Unsubstantiated beliefs have been part of our nature for a million years. This is why there are so many of them, and why they are so widespread. Shermer writes: “Science is the only hope we have of avoiding the trap of belief-dependant realism. It is the best tool ever devised to determine: does belief equate with reality?”

The prologue is available on Shermer’s web page (www.michaelshermer.com) and gives some idea of what lies within. There are liberal notes for each chapter and a comprehensive index.

I would recommend this book to anyone, sceptic or not, who wishes to better understand our human nature.

Martin Wallace is a retired physician who is resuming his education in literature, natural history, and in trying to understand human behaviour.

A hoax the size of a mountain?

The Bosnian Pyramids: The Biggest Hoax in History? Directed by Jurgen Deleye. VOF de Grenswetenschap. Watch online (www.thebiggesthoaxinhistory.com): €5.95. DVD: €19.95 (excl. shipping). Reviewed by David Riddell.

While there are people in New Zealand who variously claim this country was settled in prehistoric times by a motley assemblage of Celts, Phoenicians and Chinese, among others, the alternative archaeology scene here is nothing like it is in Bosnia.

Now seeking to shake off the traumas of its recent past, the country has apparently embraced the theories of one Semir ‘Sam’ Osmanagich. Resplendent in his Indiana Jones-style hat, Osmanagich is delivering his compatriots a glorious ancient prehistory in the form of giant pyramids, dwarfing those of Egypt. The largest, which Osmanagich calls the Pyramid of the Sun, towers 220 metres above the town of Visoko. He claims underground tunnels link it to other, almost equally massive pyramids nearby. Single-handedly he has created a substantial tourist industry, much to the delight of the Bosnian government, which has given him support.

The Dutch team making this documentary follow Osmanagich around his sites, and generally give him enough rope to hang himself, bringing in other experts as necessary to add further comment. Those familiar with the Kaimanawa Wall (NZ Skeptic 41) and the Overland Alignment Complex in Northland (NZ Skeptic 72) will recognise how natural features can be reinterpreted in a more dramatic fashion, though the situation in Bosnia has a couple of added layers of complexity. First, there are genuine archaeological sites on and around the ‘pyramids’ and second, Osmanagich has actively reworked the landscape, even following and enlarging fissures in the earth to create his ‘tunnels’.

Bosnia is a country with a remarkable and lengthy human history and, as is very apparent in this film, great natural beauty. It shouldn’t need the dubious enhancement Osmanagich provides to entice tourists from abroad. On the other hand, it’s such a magnificent folly if I ever found myself in Bosnia I’d probably stop by Visoko to see it all for myself.

Newsfront

Save the rocks, say Celt theorists

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

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

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

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

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

Creationists settle their differences

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinosaur park heads for extinction

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

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

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

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

Skeptic photo among NZ’s spookiest

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

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

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

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

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

Makutu ritual ‘without cultural basis’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crop circles – Solved!

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

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

“Then they crash,” she said.

The Lost Tribe of Surveyors

Did the ancestors of the Celts sail to New Zealand and establish a network of megalithic survey points and astronomical sight lines? Some think so

The prehistory of New Zealand is generally thought to be fairly simple. Permanent colonisation from Polynesia began around 7-800 years ago, with a European presence here from the late 18th century. It’s possible that some Polynesians arrived earlier — though still controversial, some carbon dates for kiore (Polynesian rat) bones appear to show this species has been in the country for 2000 years, and it could not have dispersed here without human assistance. There is no evidence that any early human visitors established permanent settlements, however. The Kaharoa ash shower, which blanketed much of the central North Island, can be reliably dated to 700 years BP, and to date not a single archaeological site has been unequivocally located below this layer. Pollen records indicate that widespread changes in the veg-etation, generally believed to be human-induced, began about this time, as did a wave of animal extinctions which continues to the present day.

There are persistent claims, however, of more ancient colonists, who have supposedly come from much further afield. These have included the Phoenicians (Invent Your Own History of New Zealand, Skeptic 68), the Chinese (Book Review: 1421, Skeptic 67), and the mysterious, though apparently non-Polynesian, progenitors of the Waitaha people (A New Age Myth: The Kaimanawa Wall, Skeptic 41). Among the more active of the alternative archaeology enthusiasts in this country are those promoting an early Celtic (or more precisely if somewhat confusingly, “pre-Celtic”) presence in New Zealand, stretching back perhaps 5000 years. They have a website (www.celticnz.co.nz), largely written and administered by Californian-born and New Zealand-educated Martin Doutr&eacute;, who is also the author of a hefty book, Ancient Celtic New Zealand, available through the site.

The Celtic New Zealand adherents assert that before their utter annihilation at the hands of invading Maori there was an earlier, neolithic culture, who left abundant evidence of their presence in the form of standing stones, cairns, earth “tors” and other features which occur throughout the country. The Kaimanawa Wall is taken to be one such feature, but to date most of the group’s attention has been focused on the area around Maunganui Bluff and the Waitapu Valley, on the west coast of Northland, near the Waipoua Forest. The countryside in the area is strewn with rocks, which seem unremarkable at first glance, but Doutr&eacute; and his associates show considerable willingness to look deeper. The stones may be lying in disarray now, they argue, but that is because Maori and other latecomers have toppled what were once standing stones set up in very precise alignments, and farmers have moved and piled the rocks to facilitate farming operations. By taking a wide view of the entire region, they claim it is possible to see that these rocks are part of an elaborate network of survey points and astronomical sight lines. However government-funded archaeologists, in thrall to a Waitangi Tribunal-dominated elite, have turned a blind eye to the whole affair.

As one example of these alignments (the site supplies many), a giant equilateral triangle is depicted, “positively marked” into the landscape of the Waitapu Valley region. The vertices of the triangle are at features named the “southern hubstone”, a “purpose built tor mound”, and a conspicuous buttress of rock high up on Puketapu Hill. Each side of this triangle, as measured by Global Positioning System (GPS), is supposed to be 11,520 feet in length. This is highly significant, they say, as 11,520 feet is precisely 80% of a “Geomancer’s mile”, or 14,400 feet, allegedly a measurement used copiously in ancient Britain. Those familiar with numerology will not be surprised to learn that the Great Pyramid of Egypt has a basal area of 20 times 11,520 feet, and that 11.52 minutes must be deducted from 365.25-days in order to fully correct the solar cycle duration to the Mayan/Aztec calendar number of 365.2420-days. Most readers of this magazine will probably know how easy it is to find these types of correspondences.

So how well recognised is this unit, the Geomancer’s mile? A quick Google search turned up precisely two pages which use the term — both of them on the Celtic New Zealand site. Yahoo! did slightly better, locating another site, www.gnostics.com, which uses the term, although according to them a Geomancer’s mile was 57,600 feet. In any event, careful measurement of the distances between the three apices of the triangle shows that it isn’t equilateral at all. Two of the sides may be quite close to the figure of 11,520 feet (identifying the locations precisely from the map provided is impossible), but the third is well short — about 10,165 feet.

Even if the triangle had been equilateral, a photo further down the web page makes it clear how such superficially dramatic figures can be concocted. The southern hubstone, it turns out, is one of many rocks in a boulder field extending over a considerable area atop the cliffs north of Maunganui Bluff. It’s not even particularly large — sub-stantially smaller than the “important sight over stone” sitting next to it, for example. Other rocks in the vicinity, which range in size from over six feet down to six inches (these apparently small stones are embedded firmly and are presumably much larger) align with other features in the landscape. The hubstone is identified solely on the strength of its numerologically significant distance from some other distant feature. If some other distance had been chosen, a different rock in the boulder field would have become the hubstone.

And what of the other features? There is a photo of the “purpose built tor mound”, which to the untrained eye could easily be mistaken for a small hill in a paddock. This is the problem with the sites identified by Celtic New Zealand; neolithic sites in Europe are clearly artificial; these are not. If you want to see a purpose-built earth mound, go to Silbury Hill, near Avebury; there’s no mistaking its artificial origin. This “tor”, and the other “tors” photographed by Doutr&eacute; in the Maunganui Bluff area look like any small hill or grassy knoll (what is it with conspiracy theorists and grassy knolls?) anywhere in the country. The word “tor”, by the way, usually refers to a natural, steep and rocky hill, not an artificial earth mound.

The third corner of the triangle is similarly problematic: “a conspicuous buttress of rock situated high up on Puketapu Hill”. Why not the summit of the hill itself? It’s easy to go around identifying the points in a complex landscape, selecting some as significant, and passing by others. (Though of course the summit of the hill has other features which make it significant.)

The Overland Alignment Complex

The Maunganui site is, supposedly, part of a network of survey points and astronomical observatories which is probably nationwide. The Celtic New Zealand site identifies Maunganui as part of a “huge overland alignment complex” which takes in selected mountain summits scattered around North-land (Figure 2). Why, they ask, did the makers of this sequence design it to duplicate the star pattern of the Hyades Cluster in Taurus? Well, the short answer is, they didn’t, even assuming that “they” ever existed. The locations that supposedly make up the complex have only the vaguest correlation with star patterns in the Hyades (Figure 3). The similarity can be enhanced by drawing lines between the points, and by selectively omitting stars from the patterns drawn, but apparent similarities can be produced in this way from any two sets of random dots.

A similar process of join-the-dots has been used to produce the “Waitapu Standing Stone Observatory” out of yet another boulder field. The observatory is centred on a “hubstone”, from which a number of significant alignments and measurements can be obtained. Again, the site is supposed to have been badly damaged following the Maori conquest, but it is still possible to work out where the stones once stood before they were toppled. One, for example, must originally have been 24.8832 feet east of the hubstone. Its position coded the circumference of the Earth, which is 24,883.2 miles. How the neolithic engineers positioned and measured the distances between their large, lumpy rocks to the nearest micrometre is not explained. Other stones “code” such significant numbers as various dimensions of the Great Pyramid, the lunar nutation cycle (an 18-year oscillation of the moon’s axis), the equatorial circumference of the Earth, and the internal circuit of the Sarsen Circle at Stonehenge.

Again, this is classic numerology. And unlike genuine neolithic observatories, this one mostly doesn’t seem to measure anything useful. It’s primarily supposed to be a huge mnemonic device for coding a whole bunch of cosmically sig-nificant numbers. Couldn’t such a wise and sophisticated society simply have written these numbers down somewhere?

The Waipoua Stone City

Close by Maunganui Bluff, in the Waipoua Forest, are a number of stone walls, which are clearly artificial. Celtic New Zealand logic about stone structures is curious, to say the least. They begin with the assertion that Maori did not build in stone. Therefore, they conclude, any rock structure in this country could not have been built by Maori, and must have been the work of some other ethnic group. It is true that Maori generally preferred to build with wood and other plant materials, but I’ve personally seen a small, simple rock wall, very similar to those in Waipoua, at an unmistakeably Maori site. The Waipoua walls, it has to be said, are very crudely built of unshaped, unmortared stones, mostly less than a metre high — items that a couple of unskilled workers could put up in an afternoon.

Also present in Waipoua are hundreds of enigmatic rock piles, dubbed “beehive houses”. These are alleged to be comparable to the megalithic dome dwellings of Britain and Europe, destroyed by Maori who arrived long after they were built. But there is no evidence that they were dwellings of any kind. Particularly significant is the absence of any of the debris generally associated with human occupation. If there were hundreds of people living here over a period of perhaps thousands of years, where are their discarded tools, shards of pottery, personal ornaments, religious artifacts? The only artifacts from Waipoua that the Celtic New Zealand website can show are a couple of very crude, but distinctly Maori-looking adzes.

Comparison with a genuine 5000-year-old neolithic site, Skara Brae in the Orkneys, is instructive. The layout of the dome dwellings here is unmistakeable, as is the presence of many beautifully preserved artifacts, including pottery, jewellery and tools. The Waipoua Forest site is utterly different. (Ironically, Skara Brae has also attracted the attention of alternative archaeologists, who regard it as an Egyptian outpost! — see www.geocities.com/futhark_runes/SkaraBrae_AncientEgyptianSettlement.html). Far more likely that the Waipoua stone features are either natural, or produced by Maori within the last few centuries. The walls may mark the boundaries of garden plots, while the rock piles may have been cleared from areas to be planted.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the Celtic New Zealand scenario is that so much alleged evidence for it is tied up with the supposed surveying network. Apart from this, the “pre-Celts” seem to have left little trace of themselves. It’s as if our entire civilisation had vanished and left nothing but trig stations, survey pegs, the Linz offices, and a few astronomical observatories. If there really had been a vibrant, mathematically sophisticated pop-ulation living here for 4000 years, there would be more evidence of their former presence. And would they have been so easily vanquished by a few boatloads of Maori?

The Maori connection is revealing. The Celtic New Zealand home page asserts: “Politics and the agenda’s [sic] of racial groupings have no place here. We simply wish to uncover the truth as it relates to the distant past and in doing so know better the land which is our home in the present.” Yet the first four items on their Articles page are links to the Treaty of Waitangi site, to an item on an alternative early draft of the Treaty, an account of “Waitangi Tribunal and Government terrorism against a NZ farming family” — the Titfords of Maunganui Bluff, and a link to the One New Zealand Foundation website. There most definitely does appear to be an agenda here, and in these times of heightened racial tension it is a potentially destructive one. New Zealanders of non-Maori ancestry do not require a 5000-year heritage to establish their con-nection to this country. Which is just as well, because New Zealand’s Celtic prehistory is quite plainly a fantasy.

David Riddell is a Waikato ecological consultant.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

The Enlightenment — a period of intellectual progress in Europe and North America during the eighteenth century — saw superstition, dogma and ignorance lose ground to reason, science and freedom of inquiry. Enlightenment thinkers questioned received ideas and used rational methods to explore new possibilities in many fields. Despite persecution by government and church, the enormous increase in the publication of newspapers and books spread ideas widely. The result was an outpouring of knowledge and understanding about the way the world works. Western civilisation’s high standard of living and openness today stem from the Enlightenment.

In the last 30 years, however, a fashion called “postmodernism” has challenged all claims to knowledge, including the work of scientists. Postmodernism is a general term for various theories, including post-structuralism and deconstructionism. They have their origin in modern German philosophy (eg Nietzsche) and in the adaptation of this philosophy by various French intellectuals (eg Foucault). This assortment of theories has had little impact in philosophy or science departments, but some academics in humanities and social sciences faculties have seized on it, leading to an ongoing decline in these faculties. Usually they are scholars who are critical of the western world; often they are very concerned about imperialism, racism or sexism. Some are former Marxists who have been forced by world events to abandon that discredited philosophy. Many post-modernists distrust science because it is central to the Western world’s success.

Postmodernism starts from reasonable premises: individuals perceive the world differently, and their opinions can be influenced by their backgrounds. Radical post-modernists, however, push their doubts about objectivity to absurd extremes. The race, class, gender and other attributes of individuals, including scientists, supposedly determine their understanding of the world. Anyone’s beliefs about the world are as valid as anyone else’s. There are no facts, only interpretations. All so-called evidence is in the nature of a text to be read in the light of the presenter’s class, race and other attributes. In May I attended an international conference where a scholar presented a paper in which she stated as a given that there are ways of knowing other than the rational and used the word “rational” as a term of abuse! Radical postmodernists say that all claims to knowledge are attempts to usurp power. The scientific method and empiricism supposedly are approaches that elites insist upon in order to strengthen their own standing.

These supposed insights are often expressed in obscure prose, riddled with jargon. Terms such as “episteme”, “dominant discourse”, “cultural paradigm” and “intellectual hegemony” sit alongside common words that are placed inside quotation marks in order to subvert their meaning. The result can be incomprehensible. An article published recently in the journal Rethinking History is full of sentences such as:

This definition of a ‘secondary break’ can clearly be seen to relate to the articulative function of the micro-period, in that the description of it as ‘secondary’ situates it in a subsidiary relationship to the episteme and suggests that it articulates varying possibilities on the surface without representing a break or rupture in relation to the larger episteme.

I have suffered through academic seminars that were full of such gibberish. I am sure no listener understood them. Out of politeness or timidity, however, no one stood up and said the paper did not make sense — that the emperor had no clothes.

Alan D Sokal, who is a physicist at New York University, was troubled by the decline in intellectual rigour in the humanities. In order to test academic standards, he submitted a nonsensical article to a leading journal of cultural studies. He made the article sound sophisticated and flattered the editors’ prejudices. Thus, Sokal opened by scorning “the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook”:

that there exists an external world, whose properties … are encoded in ‘eternal’ physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ‘objective’ procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.

The rest of the article was riddled with incoherent references to various philosophers and scientific terms, used nonsensically. The spoof ended by stating that post-modern science has abolished the concept of reality, which “is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.”

The distinguished editors of Social Text published the paper, Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Herm-eneutics of Quantum Gravity, in their Spring/Summer 1996 issue.

Many scholars agree with Perez Zagorin, writing in the journal History and Theory (1999) that postmodernism “is not a tenable set of theories.” The sloppy thinking and prejudice behind postmodernism need to be exposed. There is a real world, we can learn about it by using evidence and logic, and no amount of pretentious prose can avoid these obvious truths. It is amazing that we have to state the obvious, but such is the state of education in corners of today’s universities.

Dr Raymond Richards is a senior lecturer in History and American Studies at Waikato University. He can be reached at ray&64;waikato.ac.nz

Meanwhile, Some Miles Away at a Real Neolithic Site…

There were more than 20,000 pilgrims packed around ancient Stonehenge for the 2004 summer solstice. Among them were witches, druids, new age healers… and Hamilton journalist Russell Joyce. He reports from the scene.

“Two young fairies run round the outside, round the outside,” sing two young women, with wreaths in their hair and beer cans in their hands. They disappear into the darkness, trying to make it around Stonehenge in the few minutes remaining before solstice sunrise.

Nearby a low rumble starts up from a pair of didgeridoos, while a makeshift band gets the crowd joining in with “what we need is a great big melting pot”.

The air is thick with the aroma of marijuana, but the police and security guards keep a low-key presence. Many of those in the crowd are stoned, drunk, wrapped in blankets in the chill predawn, but everyone is mellow.

As I stand taking in the scene, an inebriated reveller falls heavily against my teenage son, bounces off me and staggers upright again. “Thanks for helping me stay up,” he grins, before staggering off into the night.

The stone circle, normally roped off by the English Heritage organisation which maintains the world heritage site, has today been specially opened to the public for the 2004 summer solstice. But the crowd inside the standing stones is packed so tight there is no way we are going to get right inside, so we wander around the perimeter, taking in the scene.

There, in front of the stones, is a middle-aged woman in a white robe, leaves in her hair, staff in her hand, waiting for the sun’s first rays to touch her. Another magic-lover takes a more modern approach — winding blinking Christmas lights around the end of a staff and holding it aloft.

They are unlikely to be interested in hearing that Druidism has very tenuous links with the site, which archaeologists estimate was built about 5000 years ago. It was probably abandoned centuries before the first Druids held their rituals — and even then they preferred to practise their religion in natural springs or groves, rather than in man-made structures.

No, historical debates are far from the minds of today’s revellers, who have gathered to greet the midsummer sunrise. Everywhere there are dreadlocks, ponchos and crystals. Druids and witches (it is hard to tell the difference) mingle with the hippies, while amateur photographers jostle with the Press for the best positions before the sun comes up.

Some see the sunrise much earlier, by scrambling up on to stones in the inner circle. But they are prepared to share their advantage, taking snapshots on cameras handed up from the crowd below. Eventually, the sun creeps high enough out of the mist for everyone to see and there is a moment’s appreciative silence before the drums start up again.

Between the drum-beats, I can hear a mildly irritating rattling noise on my left. Ah, it’s a didgeridoo man, now murmuring what sounds like a Native American chant while shaking a maraca. Talk about mixing your spiritual symbolism. This guy has it all covered.

The Prehistoric Boy Racer Gene

Bob Brockie thinks he can explain why the Skeptic editor gets woken up at 2am every Saturday morning

Doctors have a name for impulsive, over-energetic, risky, unpredictable, posturing, defiant behaviour — they call it ADHD (attention deficit hyper-active disorder) and it affects mainly boys.

About 12 years ago geneticists discovered a gene which “contributes” to this naughty behaviour. Nearly half the impulsive naughty boys in the US have this so-called “7R” gene.

Geneticists know that this gene is very ancient and think we may have inherited it from apes. The risk-taking behaviour may have helped prehistoric hunter-gatherers to survive, but once people settled down and became farmers, the impulsive behaviour became in-appropriate and socially disruptive.

Paradoxically, the gene has become commoner in some parts of the world over the last 10,000 years. Now a Dr Chen leads a team of Californian geneticists who suggest this is because risk-taking people left their ancestral Africa and China to migrate long distances, taking their overdrive genes and unpredictable behaviour with them. Dr Chen sampled 39 communities round the world and fiound that the risk-takers have migrated to the ends of the Earth where their 7R genes now concentrate.

His team found that nearly all the Yanomamo men up the Amazon and those ferocious guys in New Guinea have the gene. These blokes live in a state of local aggressive anarchy, spend all day adorning themselves and posturing, sharpening their elaborate weapons, and eating and sleeping separately from their hard-working women.

By contrast, Dr Chen’s team found the risk-taking gene was rare or totally absent among Kalahari bushmen and Chinese farmers. These long-settled men live peaceably, don’t make fancy weaponry or show off. They help rear their children and share everything with their wives. No wonder the Yanomamo are known as “The Fierce People” and the bushmen as “The Gentle People”. Europeans and other Africans fall somewhere in between these extremes.

And what about us? Whether Polynesian or Pakeha, we New Zealanders are all descended from long distance risk-taking migrants. If Dr Chen’s theory is right, our boys should be awash with the 7R gene.

My impression is that we have plenty of defiant, risk-taking, hyperactive boys. Just what we need to play rugby. And what about our boy racers, all those kids sent home from school for disruptive behaviour, and our 12,000 kids on Ritalin, the drug used to treat the condition?

Enough of this armchair theorising. Some geneticist will have to go out and survey our youths’ 7R genes. Our boy racer genes.
Originally published in the Dominion Post, July 22, 2002

Pseudohistory Rules


Like scientists, historians use a dependable methodology to ensure their findings are reliable. Assertions of historical fact can properly be based only on empirical evidence. Historians then use their critical thinking skills to assess the trustworthiness of this data.

Lately, however, a vogue called postmodernism has challenged all claims to knowledge, including the work of scientists and historians. Science and empirical research supposedly are approaches that elites insist upon in order to strengthen their own standing. There are ways of knowing other than the rational. There is no one reality, only different perceptions and paradigms, all equally valid.

My favourite example of such thinking is the lecturer who told me some Polynesian students think the Earth is flat and that I deserve to be charged with harassment if I tell them they are wrong.

As a historian of the United States, I encounter postmodernism a lot when I teach and research the history of the Mormon church.

This church was founded in the state of New York in 1830 by a young man called Joseph Smith, who tried to use his interest in the amazing to make money. Smith claimed he had found a magic stone that let him see buried treasure. After hiring himself out as a treasure diviner, he was convicted of fraud by a New York court and largely gave up the practice.

Smith then started to claim that angels had been visiting him for years. They had led him to a buried box that contained golden plates. The history of ancient times was inscribed on these plates in “reformed Egyptian,” which Smith could translate by using magic stones. His translation of the golden bible went on sale as The Book of Mormon.

According to the Mormons, the book gives a divinely inspired account of ancient events in the Middle East and America. It treats the biblical story of the Tower of Babel as factual and adds a twist. A man called Jared, his brother and about 100 others were saved by the Lord from having their language confounded. God commanded the brother of Jared to build eight submarines and to load them with their friends and families, as well as their flocks and herds, including elephants. After travelling on and under the ocean for almost a year, the Jaredites discovered America. There they built great cities. After several centuries of civil wars among the Jaredites, one man was left out of millions of people. This adventure took place about 2000 BC.

The Book of Mormon is full of tales that belong to the same fantasy genre as The Lord of the Rings. But the Mormon church insists this fiction is fact and that historians and scientists have got things all wrong. Mormon leaders are hostile to evidence-based scholarship. They claim that their revelations trump research.

Church leaders claim to speak as the voice of God and to be infallible. They place great pressure on members to accept their teachings. For example, someone who leaves the church and becomes an apostate supposedly will lose his or her family for eternity. Even to question the teachings is a sin. So controlling is the Mormon church that some observers consider it a cult.

Last year, at Waikato University, I presented a seminar on Mormonism in which I outlined the tales in the Book of Mormon and said they obviously are not authentic history. Imagine my amazement when a professor who is not a Mormon leapt to her feet and denounced me. She quoted post-modernist theory, and said The Book of Mormon might be accurate. We cannot prove what is not true, she said. Some of my fellow academics gave her enthusiastic applause. The seminar left me sad about the state of education at New Zealand universities.

Even international, academic presses recently have published Mormon pseudohistory. Last year Oxford University Press published By the Hand of Mormon, by Terryl Givens, a Mormon who is Professor of English at the University of Richmond, Virginia. Givens says an angel really did reveal the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith, and that its history of ancient America really is divinely inspired and true. Shame on Oxford University Press. And they are not alone.

I suspect many academics have not spoken out against the challenge from the Mormon church because they are not informed about Mormon ideas. Others may feel reluctant to criticise a religion. But when a religion claims to be the supreme fount of fact, when it contradicts research and opposes freedom of inquiry, then it should be challenged by academics. Although students can be victims of this church, universities should fail students who use unsound methodology to believe in pseudoscholarship, such as Creationism or the Book of Mormon, as history. If they do not insist on competent thinking, then universities are a joke.

The Time Line, or, Genesis Aotearoa

The universe we live in is vast, in both space and time, so vast as to be beyond human comprehension. Mathematicians have devised a way in which the large numbers involved can be manipulated, the “exponent”1, but it can mislead us into thinking we comprehend more than we really do. It can blind us to the true difference between two numbers whose exponents differ by only one unit. Thus, if my bank balance grows from $102 to $103, I am richer by $900, but if it grows from $106 to $107, I have gained $9 million.

Books on geology and palaeontology usually display the Earth’s history as a vertical column, with the formation at the bottom and “now” at the top. To be at all useful, this column must be exponential, ie 4.5x109yr BP at the base, rising in equal steps, 108, 107, 106, etc to the present. A linear scale would have the whole of “civilised” human life as a minute fraction of a millimetre, the thickness of a small bacterium.

To emphasise the true relationship between the age of the Earth and the scale of human existence, Mr Bill Taylor has devised an ingenious and impressive work, “The Time Line”, or “Genesis Aotearoa” as the Royal Society of New Zealand, the funder of the project, call it. Take a piece of cord, and suppose each millimetre of its length to represent one thousand years. To represent the age of the Earth will need over four and a half kilometres of cord. This lengthy piece of rope hangs in the Cotton lecture theatre of the Victoria University of Wellington, arranged in vertical bits to fit the height of the room, and placed tightly together like a loom warped up for weaving.

The birth of the Earth starts in the back top corner, stage right, and time marches to the front, around the podium, and “now is about half way down next to the door, back stage left.” The development of different life forms is illustrated by objects hung on the rope in the appropriate places. At the end of this rope, the terminal half centimetre contains all of human history; a length about equal to the height of a person covers the time Homo sapiens has existed.

In contemplating this imaginative and instructive creation, I was struck by the large areas of it, corresponding to millions of years, which carried no objects indicating the appearance of something new. A reminder of Gould and Eldridge’s “Punctuated Equilibrium”?

See Bill Taylor’s comments on the installation here.

1We count the number of zeroes following 1, and write that as a superscript after ten, eg 10,000,000 = 107.