Invent Your Own History of New Zealand

Ancient Phoenicians in New Zealand? A recent book makes the claim, but the evidence doesn’t bear scrutiny.

Ross Wiseman’s book, New Zealand’s Hidden Past (Discovery Press, 2001), is his personal analysis of over 100 inscribed rock drawings on Mount Tauhara near Taupo. He claims they are evidence that Phoenicians from the Mediterranean lived beside Lake Taupo before the Taupo eruption, dated around AD 200. He declares confidently that 2000 years ago there were nine Phoenician settlements spread around New Zealand from Northland to Otago comprising at least 1000 people whose forebears arrived around 600 BC in a fleet of about 10 square-rigged ships. They built pyramid-styled houses and hunted moa with bows and curved throwing sticks. They established a centre at sacred Mount Tauhara and had a charismatic leader called Ishmun (the name of a Phoenician god).

Wiseman extrapolates all this detail and more from the Tauhara rock drawings and similar drawings at other sites around New Zealand. Notable amongst the drawings are detailed maps of the world and New Zealand which he argues must be dated before the Taupo eruption.

These are extraordinary claims. We would be entitled to insist on a bit more hard evidence than a collection of peculiar rock drawings. In the large corpus of New Zealand archaeological evidence from hundreds of excavations over the past century or more we could expect to find some hint of such a significant group of inhabitants. Where are their dwelling sites, bones, artifacts, tools, food rubbish middens and other paraphernalia of domestic life? Where are the site-specific radiocarbon dates? And where are their present-day descendants with the appropriate genealogical traditions? So far, no carbon dates from archaeological sites have identified human habitation in New Zealand older than about 1000 years.

Sixth century BC Phoenicians had metal tools, coins and a written language with an alphabet similar to that of classical Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic. We could expect such people to leave easily identifiable linguistic inscriptions associated with their art and practices, and easily identifiable settlement sites with abundant artifacts including metal and its related technology. Maybe we have just not found them yet. If we do find them it will be very exciting. But a collection of enigmatic rock markings is not enough.

How has Wiseman arrived at these elaborate conclusions? You don’t have to look far into his book to find the answer: a vivid imagination, heavy doses of fanciful speculation, flawed methodology and argumentation, and careless, amateurish procedures masquer-ading as careful science. On detailed scrutiny his case falls apart.

For a start, he dates the rock drawings by a method he invented himself from his own dubious theory of the erosion rate of Rangitaiki ignimbrite (the type of rock in which the drawings are inscribed). After having two geology academics tell him that such a method would be too difficult he forged ahead anyway.

Interestingly, he obtained an age of 2000 years for the rock drawings, but only by misplacing a decimal point in the crucial calculation. This aside, his dating method is intriguing for its naivety. He took silicon moulds of the cut depths of two examples of rock markings. One was a less distinct specimen found on a ridge exposed to the weather; the other was a more clearly defined example found under an overhang protected from the weather. Wiseman carefully measured the difference between the cut depths of the two samples at 3mm and assumed this difference to be due to the erosion rate of ignimbrite from weathering since the cuts were made.

Unquantifiable Variables

The unquantifiable variables in this comparison are obvious at a glance, not the least being the whim of the carver at the time he determined the cut depths. Then there is the question of whether protection under an overhang is a guarantee of zero weathering. Then there is the question of whether the two samples were inscribed by the same artist at the same era. It is crucial to establish this independently, otherwise the argument is circular. The date of the drawings is what you are trying to establish, so you can’t assume both samples were made at the same date and then derive a date from that assumption.

He then determined an average erosion rate of ignimbrite over 30 million years to be 450 metres. He determined this figure by a geological argument I found incomprehensible, involving changes in the height of the volcanic plateau over 30 million years. Then, when he applied the figure he bungled the arithmetic. He concluded, “If it takes 30 million years to erode 450 metres of average hardness rock, this is equivalent to an erosion rate of 1.5 mm per 1000 years.” I’m afraid not. The arithmetic yields 15 mm per 1000 years. Either Wiseman didn’t check his maths, or he has incorporated some factor he didn’t tell us about.

When he applied the figure of 1.5mm per 1000 years to the 3mm difference between the cut depths of his two samples he got an age of 2000 years for the drawings. If he had applied the correct figure of 15mm per 1000 years he would have got an age of 200 years.

Although this is amusing, the dating method was so crude that it could not have produced an indicative age in any case.

He then presented evidence that he claims corroborates the 2000-year-old age. He identified a rock drawing which he deemed had been buried under the Taupo eruption ash layer and exposed by a slip in the 1970s. This led him to the conclusion that this drawing must have been done before the Taupo eruption. His analysis of the strata comes from the exposed sides of the slip, not from the location of the rock drawing in the centre of the slip, so the stratigraphy cannot be applied to the rock drawing. Also, he offers no evidence to rule out the possibility that the rock drawing may have been covered by more recent slips subsequent to the Taupo eruption and prior to the 1970s slip. In an erosion-prone area we could expect slips to occur more than once in 1800 years.

In support of his dating he also cites Dr Richard Holdaway’s 2000-year-old carbon dates for rat bones found in Nelson and the causal link between the presence of rats and human visits. Although Holdaway’s carbon dates are important, they are not site-specific to the Taupo rock drawings and so can’t be linked to them. Even if humans visited New Zealand 2000 years ago to bring the rats, no conclusions can be drawn from this about the age of the Taupo drawings.

More Supporting Evidence

Another piece of evidence Wiseman offers to support his theory is a marking found on a rock at Whakaipo Bay about 15km west of Mount Tauhara and reproduced in his book as a line drawing. He declares that it is an “exact” drawing of the seven stars of the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) commonly called the Little Dipper. “Each star has been incised as a deep circular hollow in the rock, with a small mound remaining at the centre,” he tells us.

Since this constellation is only visible in the northern hemisphere, Wiseman takes this marking to be evidence that the rock carver had knowledge of northern hemisphere stars. This would only be remarkable if it can be shown that the drawing predates already known visits to New Zealand by people from the northern hemisphere, and Wiseman has certainly not demonstrated that.

Correspondence Exaggerated

In any case, a cursory comparison of the drawing with actual star configurations reveals that Wiseman’s claim of “exact” correspondence is an exaggeration stemming from his own excitement. The rock marking can only be described as a very rough rendition of this constellation at any time in the last 3000 years. By joining the points in different ways I could also produce rough renditions of the Southern Cross-Pointers group and the Pleiades. Both these groups are visible from the southern hemisphere and both contain seven stars. You could probably find other approximations if you looked — star configurations are arbitrary and in the eye of the beholder. It seems not to have occurred to Wiseman that, in the absence of additional clues, the drawing might not represent stars at all.

We could dismiss Wiseman’s theory on the spurious dating alone, but there are other glaring flaws in his work. The material presented in his book consists of reproductions of the rock markings from silicon moulds, selective chalking, “enhanced” photographs, and third-generation scanned copies. Such practices clearly risk accidental contamination or modification of the evidence, or simple misinterpretation. He admits that some of the field work was done by his young children unsupervised.

I have not yet seen the Tauhara drawings for myself, but I was able to check the “Pakanae” map of New Zealand. This is a key ingredient in his case because the map includes Lake Taupo configured in a shape Wiseman believes is close to its shape before the Taupo eruption and therefore evidence that the map originated before that time. This map is reproduced in his book as a line drawing. He says it is to be found etched on a large stone hauled from the Hokianga Harbour in the 1950s. This stone now stands at Pakanae Marae as a memorial to Kupe.

The Stone Examined

Recently I examined the surface of this stone carefully and found that the only obvious engravings on it are initials carved in very recent times. On one side there are some natural raised humps on the surface which, with imagination, might be interpreted as a very rough shape of the North Island, or probably any other random shape you wanted to see in it (a hat or a boot?). The rock is covered in lichens which either help or hinder your search depending on what you are looking for. I could see nothing which could possibly yield the detailed shape in the drawing in Wiseman’s book, and certainly nothing which could justify the detailed conclusions he drew from it.

This looks to me like a classic case of a vivid imagination at work assigning great precision to something that is essentially impressionistic and therefore inherently imprecise. My experience in checking just this one item of Wiseman’s evidence makes me very cautious about accepting his other evidence at face value. Much of his analysis of the drawings displays this tendency to attribute precision to images which, in many cases, were obviously little more than artistic doodling and never intended to be definitive. On Wiseman’s own admission, the lack of clarity of some of the images makes it difficult to distinguish between natural and artificial marks. Yet there are several cases where he reads extraordinary symbolism and detail into the slightest scratch.

Another case in point is the map of the world reproduced as line drawings in his book and featured on the book’s cover in the form of a photo (“slightly highlighted,” as he puts it) of the actual Tauhara rock marking. In fact, the line highlighting on the photo is so dominant that the rock marking itself can’t be seen and therefore can’t be evaluated. His 9-year-old daughter had done the chalking unsupervised, and he didn’t notice the map himself until he later examined the photos of the chalking job.

A Convoluted Scenario

Putting these problems aside, let us assume that some artist drew a rough map of the world on this rock, and let us assume that Wiseman’s rendition of it in his book is faithful to the original. It is unmistakably a map of the continents of the world as we know them today. The inaccuracies are of the sort that I could create myself if I tried to do a freehand drawing of the world’s continents from memory.

Wiseman’s interpretation of this map is a convoluted scenario which dates it around AD 100 and attributes it to an artist descended from a group of Phoenician seafarers who sailed from the Mediterranean to New Zealand in the seventh century BC and eventually settled at Lake Taupo. He attributes the map’s accuracy to the assumption that the Phoenicians in the centuries before Christ were familiar with the entire map of the world because of their global trading and exploration voyages. The map includes, we should note, Antarctica and the Arctic coast of Canada, but excludes Britain, Scandinavia and the arctic coast of Russia and Siberia. Wiseman’s frantic attempt to make these facts fit his theory expresses awe at the Phoenician’s amazing knowledge of the world, oddly combined with the conclusion that they did not know about Britain! Did he consider the possibility that the artist just didn’t finish the drawing? Apparently not.

Another Explanation

The more obvious and prosaic scenario seems to have escaped Wiseman, namely, that the map’s detail virtually guarantees that it was drawn by a moderately well educated person in the last 200 years, or maybe even within the last 100 years by a person with a primary school education. A well known rule of thumb in this kind of inquiry is that if there is a choice between a complex and a simple explanation, the simple one is the more likely.

Wiseman often prefers the far-fetched version, and it gets him into difficulties. One drawing (which he dates before the Taupo eruption of course) seems to depict fallen trees, which he takes to be the flattened forests caused by the Taupo eruption. In fact, the content of the drawing is so ill-defined that you could read almost anything into it. Wiseman’s analysis is that, because the drawing was done before the Taupo eruption, it foresaw the Taupo eruption. Now hang on a minute. Here we have Wiseman arguing that because his dating of the drawing can’t be wrong the artist must have foreseen the Taupo eruption. Would not a drawing depicting an event be conclusive evidence that it was drawn after the event? Not for Wiseman it seems. Such contrived manipulation of the evidence to fit a strongly held theory, especially by resort to the paranormal, is grossly unscientific. But Wiseman dug himself into this quagmire by allowing his preconceived ideas to dictate his findings, and by reading detail into the rock markings that is simply not there.

Geometrical Shapes

Wiseman makes much of the geometrical shapes he finds in many of the rock drawings and reads extraordinary symbolism into them — a diamond symbolises life, a trapezium death, a circle materiality. He uses two such drawings to construct an abstruse symbolism depicting an ancient theory of the universe to support his theory of Phoenician origins. In these two drawings he identifies two-dimensional representations of cubes, dodecahedrons, a stellated dodecahedron and an icosahedron (the latter term he confusingly interchanges with the term stellated icosahedron). He concludes that the drawings “indicate that the Phoenicians knew of the existence of all 10 regular polyhedra and the symbolism behind them”, and that their knowledge in this field preempted western knowledge by more than 2000 years.

This sounds very impressive but is mathematically and historically garbled. A regular polyhedron (solid) is defined as one that has identical (congruent) regular polygons forming its faces and has all its polyhedral angles congruent. There are only five possible regular convex polyhedra: the tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron. Euclid defined them, Plato knew of them, and the Pythagoreans and probably all the early Middle Eastern mathematicians knew of at least three of them. The so-called stellated dodecahedron and stellated icosahedron are really examples of concave regular polyhedra.

As for the two drawings which feature these figures, on Wiseman’s own admission they are not well defined. The copy in his book of the figure he identifies as a stellated dodecahedron could as easily be identified as a stellated pentagon (a two-dimensional plane figure). The figure he identifies as an icosahedron (possibly he means a stellated icosahedron) can only be described as a confusing jumble of irregular triangles and other shapes from which it would be reckless to conclude anything. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Wiseman has constructed a complicated historical theory from a few casual geometric doodlings by someone who took pleasure in artistic creativity with no mathematical pretensions at all.

There can be no denying that the Tauhara rock drawings are tantalising, and it would be nice to know who made them. Although Wiseman is prone to fanciful interpretation of the slightest scratch, broad interpretation of some of the drawings is possible. One is a convincing line sketch of activities during a moa hunt. The moa is easy to identify, and the stick-figure hunters with spears certainly seem to be ambushing it. Moa feature unambiguously in several of the drawings, which cannot be surprising because archaeological excavations have produced evidence of moa hunters, dated about 600 years ago, in the lower layers of Whakamoenga Cave about 13km west of Mount Tauhara. Wiseman ignores this rather conspicuous clue about who might have made the moa drawings.

Sailing Vessels

Three drawings feature clear sketches of sailing vessels with yardarm or boom rigging. Wiseman seems to read more detail into these than is reasonable. There is certainly no imperative that they depict 2000-year-old Phoenician ship design as he argues. They are typical of the rough impressionistic sketches a school child might do on the back of an exercise book with no intention to be accurate. They could have been done at any time in the last 1000 years by anyone familiar with Polynesian craft, or within the last 200 years by anyone familiar with European craft. Artists often create a unique stylised version of an object applying artistic licence by economising on the detail or embellishing it.

Another example features a line drawing of a house which is not difficult to see as a high-walled, hip-roofed bungalow on wooden piles complete with a square window. Taken with the human and animal figures in the drawing it is possible to see the whole image as a New Zealand colonial farmyard scene. To Wiseman it is the Ishmun family home of AD 100 with a “new improved design of dwelling”. He even identifies which member of the family each stick figure represents, identifies one of the trees as a fruit tree, identifies a rectangular shape as a storage box, and identifies the animal as a milking goat.

Contrary to Wiseman’s assumption, it is entirely possible that the drawings on Mount Tauhara were not all done in the same era. Some may be 600 years old, and some may be only 50 years old – we probably won’t ever know for certain. Successive generations of humans may well have left their marks on the same group of suitable rocks. Humans are well known for following trends, fads, or a catchy idea. I have been known to scratch a cryptic image on a mountaintop myself.

Lateral Thinkers

Wiseman sees himself as part of a growing brigade of “lateral thinking amateur researchers” breaking through the barrier of the blinkered orthodox view of New Zealand history to reveal “the truth”. He complains that the media and mainstream academics invariably try to suppress anomalous “discoveries” such as his.

I find this ironical. I made a cursory analysis of media coverage of these fringe theories over the past 10 years and found they get at least as much coverage as orthodox theory. It is not an exaggeration to say that the media is hungry for sensation and pounces on a good mystery. They will especially jump at the chance to publicise maverick researchers challenging orthodox theory, and they especially love conspiracy theories claiming that mainstream science has suppressed scientific information. Expert refutations are often relegated to brief addenda, or reluctantly presented later with less prominence, because they are perceived as boring.

A classic case was the media frenzy about the Kaimanawa stone wall in 1996. (It needs to be repeated that geologists confidently declared it to be a natural rock formation, but the credulous still believe it is man made).

Wiseman was completely free to make his self-published book available to the world through book shops and libraries without restriction and without any prior critical assessment or expert evaluation.

Even if the book is total fantasy the citizens are free to read it uncritically and swallow it whole if they want to, and many will. What more could Wiseman ask for? If the book is scientifically substandard, he can’t be surprised if mainstream researchers don’t want to waste time dialoguing with him.

Probabilities and Certainties

Theorists such as Wiseman seem to have little understanding of how science works. Much science relies on probabilities rather than certainties with conclusions expressed as confidence levels based on the abundance of the evidence. Archaeological investigations can never give full coverage to all the possibilities and must be done by prioritising representative samples or targeting highly suggestive clues based on current knowledge and known patterns.

The current corpus of evidence of human settlement in New Zealand is already substantial enough to be indicative to high confidence levels. We are talking here of a body of evidence from hundreds of excavations, hundreds of carbon dates and thousands of artifacts.

Of course, the discovery of revolutionary new evidence is always possible. Wiseman is obviously convinced that archaeologists have not looked in the right place to find the evidence that would prove his theory. Maybe so. But the archaeologists are the most competent people to assess that. Every archaeologist would love to be the first to find evidence of 2000-year-old human habitation in New Zealand. I don’t think Wiseman’s book will help them much.

It is difficult to find any scientifically redeeming features in this book. But speculation is socially acceptable if it is not claimed to be anything else. Wiseman claims to have made “the most significant archaeological discovery in New Zealand history.” Time will tell about that. Richard Holdaway’s rat bone datings indicate that humans made at least casual, itinerant or accidental visits to New Zealand 2000 years ago.

But it is much more likely that such visitors were from the Pacific Islands than from Europe, given the well-documented facts that these islands were only about 20 days sailing time from New Zealand and were inhabited by accomplished seafarers 2000 years ago. And we could not rule out the possibility that humans actually settled here 2000 years ago (by “settled” I mean dwelt and bred successive generations). But no hard evidence exists for this at present. Wiseman’s book does not constitute such evidence. It is little more than pseudoscientific credulity, and a blind alley that will mislead many gullible readers.

Waikato lecturer on Church Hit-List

A Waikato University lecturer has been named on a website for Latter-Day Saints as anti-mormon.

American history senior lecturer Dr Raymond Richards has accused the Mormon Church of irresponsible conduct after the site warns “if you don’t want the target shot at, don’t raise it”.

“I think the language is irresponsible, especially given the Mormon Church’s history of violence. They have a sordid history of polygamy and massacres.”

He said he was not anti-Mormon but the religion was aggressive, racist and sexist.

Dr Richards said the website was an attempt to intimidate people who didn’t accept what the Mormons thought of themselves.

“If the Mormons don’t want to be known as a cult they have to stop acting as a cult. This list of supposed enemies and the language they have used is irresponsible, but I’m flattered to be on it with others such as the New York Times.”

New Zealand Temple Visitors Centre director Paul Ashton said the Church did not have any response.

“Many people have called us a cult in the past, but we just tend to ignore it. We encourage people to read and study and find out for themselves. I feel sorry for people who tend to try and fault us.”

In 1998, Mormon students charged Dr Richards with harassment after he said the religion was started as a scam by convicted fraudster Joseph Smith. He said the religion didn’t allow freedom of thought and academics needed to be alerted to that danger.

Dr Richards was to present a paper called The Mormon Challenge at the university’s Fulbright American Studies Conference in July.

June 27 2003

Chinese Voyages Head into Realms of Fantasy

1421: THE YEAR CHINA DISCOVERED THE WORLD, by Gavin Menzies. Bantam, $54.95.

Zheng He is not a name that is well known in the west. However, his seven voyages from China, through the Indian Ocean to Africa between 1405 and 1435 would place him among the world’s great explorers. Yet retired submarine captain Gavin Menzies is convinced Zheng He’s feats were even greater. He believes a massive Chinese fleet conducted four simultaneous circumnavigations of the world between 1421 and 1423, during which they discovered the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, even Antarctica. But while they were away, the Chinese emperor turned his back on the outside world and, when the ships returned, had all mention of them erased. Why the records of Zheng He’s other expeditions were kept, Menzies does not explain.

As Menzies tells it, he was set on his own personal voyage after viewing some early European maps. He claims these have details that could not have been known to Europeans at the time, and concludes only the Chinese could have mounted expeditions to map these areas. The Europeans then copied the Chinese charts. One is the Piri Reis map, which Erich von Däniken made so much of, with different conclusions. Another, the Jean Rotz map, shows land stretching to the south and east of Australia. Menzies argues this was solid ice stretching from Tasmania to the Auckland and Campbell Islands. What appear on the map to be rivers, Menzies interprets as harbours on these islands, which were, he claims, “at the normal limit of the pack ice that links them in midwinter.” Of course, they’re actually ice-free year round.

After mapping this region, Menzies says the Chinese sailed north to New Zealand, pausing in Fjordland (sic) to drop off some giant ground sloths (which have been extinct for 10,000 years), collected in South America. A teak ship was then wrecked on Ruapuke Beach, south of Raglan, “near the mouth of the Torei Palma River”. Further evidence cited includes a brass bell found in the area which bears a Tamil inscription (a Tamil ship must have joined the fleet for trading purposes, he says), some rocks with Tamil inscriptions on them, and a carved stone duck which resembles a Chinese votive offering. European cartographers then somehow got hold of the charts drawn by the expedition before the Chinese authorities destroyed them, and copied down the ice sheet to the south of Australia, but left out New Zealand, and, for that matter, most of China itself.

It doesn’t take much research (using the same sources that Menzies consulted) to establish that the Ruapuke wreck (which originally came to light in the 1870s) was actually made from totara, the bell was found in the central North Island, the rock inscriptions are Maori, and the duck’s provenance is dubious, but unlikely to be Chinese.

The whole book is like this. There is no logic whatever as he leaps from one piece of “incontrovertible” evidence to the next. The only mystery is how a reputable publisher could lavish such attention (the book is beautifully produced) on the kind of writing that is usually found in cheap pulp paperbacks. There’s talk of a TV series too.

A version of this review originally appeared in the Waikato Times

The Life and Times of a Scientific Heretic

In Darwin’s Shadow: The life and science of Alfred Russel Wallace, by Michael Shermer. Oxford University Press.

Alfred Russel Wallace was the co-discoverer of perhaps the most revolutionary idea in human history, but today his name is little more than a footnote in the biology textbooks.

It was Wallace who, as a young and unknown field naturalist, wrote to Charles Darwin in 1858 setting out his ideas on evolution by natural selection, spurring his older and more famous colleague to finally go public with his own work in this area. While Wallace always recognised Darwin’s prior claim, a joint presentation of the two men’s writings was made to the Royal Society later that year, propelling Wallace to the forefront of the Victorian scientific community. In his time, says Shermer, he was as well known and nearly as influential as Darwin. Besides helping to set evolutionary biology on a firm scientific footing, he founded the science of biogeography, and wrote on geology and anthropology.

In later life, Wallace would champion fields which today are regarded as at best pseudosciences, among them spiritualism and phrenology — the determination of intellectual capacity by measuring the shape of the skull. He also opposed vaccination and advocated land reform and women’s rights. Shermer argues that these activities were not in conflict with his scientific work, but can be understood as aspects of Wallace’s “heretic personality”, which was shaped by his background. Unlike Darwin, and indeed most of the scientific community, Wallace’s family was working class, and his formal education fairly minimal. His life was far less cosy than those higher up the social scale, and he was very ready to adopt radical ideas. With some of these, such as natural selection, he struck paydirt, with others he was less fortunate.

Shermer, the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, and director of the Skeptics Society, spends many pages examining the social pressures which shaped Wallace, attempting to apply quantitative analytical techniques to the task. A lot of this is quite heavy going, and its ultimate success is debatable. Personally I would have preferred less of it and more on Wallace’s expeditions to the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago, which are covered rather briefly, although they each lasted several years and laid the groundwork for his future scientific career.

On the other hand, Shermer deals well with such issues as the differences between Darwin’s and Wallace’s views on evolution, or Wallace’s involvement with spiritualism and social activism, and peppers it all with fascinating details such as an amusing but financially costly battle with a Flat-Earther.

Wallace was a major character in the history of science and deserves to be better known; hopefully this book will help redress the balance.

Skeptical Surfing

Netsurfer Science is a website every skeptic should bookmark. It provides a good lead-in to many science and skeptic-related sites and issues on the web. Here are a couple of recent items.

Howling at the Moon

Do we believe everything the government tells us? Of course not. But, we think that some conspiracies would be so unmanageable that they’d implode faster than an empty soda can in the Marianas Trench. The fake moon landing is one of our favorite confabulations. Under this theory, NASA didn’t land on the moon – and its own photos prove it. Now, to the extent that anyone cares, once we stop chuckling about how little the hoax proponents actually know about the science they claim to defend, this sort of nonsense also makes us angry, because it diminishes not only the breath-taking courage of people like the Armstrongs and Lovells of this world, but also the heart-breaking sacrifices of the Grissoms and McAuliffes. People (and television networks) who propagate this foolishness at least owe it to those pioneers to get their science right. Phil Plait, whose very admirable Bad Astronomy site has made Netsurfer lists before, tackles the so-called evidence point by point. Even if you don’t care about the accusations, take a look at the science. It’s instructional in reminding us how very alien even our own lunar environment is. In his personal pages, planetary scientist Jim Scotti covers much the same territory, though he deals equally with a hoax site.

Bad Astronomy:


Marianas Trench:

Evolution, Again

Before we hear from the creationist watchdogs, we’ll tell you what our position is. Does Netsurfer Science (NSS) believe in the Biblical version of the origins of life? No. We do, however, believe in its illustrative grace and power. (The only subject to provoke more correspondence was the NSS error that misplaced a college hoops team in a rival conference. Now, that was brutal.) In Science and Creationism, the National Academy of Sciences puts forward an authoritative synthesis of the issues involved. In our experience, many of creationism’s criticisms of evolution are either inaccurate or outdated. The NAS deals with the most frequently cited arguments and discusses the problems. More than that, though, the academy takes the very clear position that creationism “has no place in any science curriculum at any level”. This site is the text of an academy booklet that explains the current scientific understanding of biological evolution. The National Center for Science Education is a nonprofit organisation with the sole mission of protecting the teaching of evolution against sectarian proponents of such propositions as scientific creationism. In addition to other services, the center tracks legislation relating to the teaching of science.

National Center for Science Education:

National Academy of Science:

Mormonism and Academic Freedom

When Raymond Richards included a lecture on the Mormon Church in his course on American history he ran foul of not only the Mormon community but also the University of Waikato heirarchy. He told his story at the NZ 2001 Skeptics’ conference in Hamilton.

My experience as a lecture at the University of Waikato has shown that danger to academic freedom comes as much from inside the university as from outside. University management caved in to religious radicals.

Every year, I teach the history of the United States to scores of first-year students. The course includes a lecture on Mormonism, which is the most successful religion to start in the United States. The lecture is based on the research of the most respected historians in the field. (Bibliography available on request from editor.)

After I gave the lecture in August 1998, the university’s Mediator, Bethea Weir, told me that a handful of my students were charging me with harassment. They were demanding an apology and equal time to present the Mormon view. She said she had been flooded with calls from Mormons in the community, outraged by reports of my lecture. Weir planned to process the students’ charges of harassment.

This news came as a shock to me. I had heard that the Mediator at the University of Waikato entertained dozens of harassment cases each year. Still, I was surprised to find that a university would subject a lecturer to a threatening procedure for teaching what historians around the world have known for years. The charge could lead to my dismissal.

No Controversy

To historians, there was nothing controversial about my lecture. They know the Mormon Church started as a scam. It was founded by Joseph Smith, who was born in 1805 and grew up in New York State in a poor family. Determined to make money and fascinated by mysticism, Joe made plans. At the age of 16, he said he had found a seer stone while digging a well. He claimed the stone gave him power to see buried treasure. Folk beliefs told of gold hidden by Indians and by Captain Kidd, the pirate. Some men claimed paranormal ability to find buried loot. Charming and smooth talking, Smith hired himself out as a gold digger. He would put his magic stone in his hat and, holding the hat in front of him, seek to divine buried treasure. However, this venture led to his conviction for fraud in a New York court in 1826. It was the first of three criminal convictions he received during his life.

Smith thought of another idea to make money, using the same magic stone. Now past 20 years old, he claimed that angels had visited him since he was about 14. His story changed a few times, but he settled on a version that Mormons today call “the First Vision”. He said an angel called Moroni had shown him where to dig up ancient, gold plates with hieroglyphics on them. Joe spread the news of this “golden Bible” – which would soon be for sale. He said the inscriptions were in “reformed Egyptian” (a language that never existed) that he could read, using special powers. Smith put his seer stone in his hat, held the hat to his face, and dictated the Book of Mormon. He first claimed the plates were hidden in the woods while he dictated, then he said the angel had taken them back. Smith published the Book of Mormon in 1830 and founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons. He copied symbols and rituals from the Freemasons, who also tell of golden plates hidden and discovered. The fraternity’s influence is obvious in Mormon temples and ceremonies, and in the symbols on the special underwear that Mormons have on at all times.

The Book of Mormon is exactly what one would expect from farm boy Joe Smith. It shows a small vocabulary and is full of awkward prose and wooden characters. Mark Twain called it “chloroform in print.” It contains 25,000 words copied from the King James Version of Bible, which was written centuries after the gold plates were supposedly inscribed!

The Book of Mormon contained little new. Smith copied ideas from folk tales and other writers. The book tells how, about 600 B.C., a lost tribe of Israel sailed from Arabia to America, which was the promised land. Once there, they split into two factions, the Nephites and the Lamanites. Nephites had white skin and were good but prone to the temptations that come with success. Lamanites had dark skin and were bad.

According to the Book of Mormon, these Jews founded a great civilization in North America, more than a thousand years before Columbus.

They built dozens of huge cities with millions of inhabitants. They used steel – more than a thousand years before steel was invented. Elephants, lions, camels and horses co-existed with them in North America. As the story goes, Jesus visited America soon after he was crucified. He first established the Christian Church there.

But, the Lamanites wiped out the Nephites in a great battle in today’s New York State in AD 385. The Lamanites were the ancestors of the Indians. The belief that Indians were descended from a lost tribe of Israel was common in Smith’s time. In fact, Indians are Mongoloid, from Asia; they are not Semitic. Neither are Maori descended from Jews, although the Mormon Church teaches that Polynesians are descended from Hagoth, a Nephite shipbuilder! Teachers have to correct this drivel.

During that climactic battle in A.D. 385, millions of people were slain. The true faith was lost. This history survived only because the prophet Mormon wrote it on golden plates and buried them until the angel Moroni revealed the plates to Joe Smith, 1400 years later, thus restoring the true church.

It is a romantic story, but no evidence for Book of Mormon people or places has been found. The Book of Mormon tells of an imaginary world, like The Lord of the Rings. All religions have their myths, but the Mormon Church teaches this fiction as fact. That millions of people believe this hogwash is a black mark against our education system. Educators are not teaching sound methodology and critical thinking.

Each field of scholarship has its own pseudo-scholars. Geography has its flat-earthers. Biology has its creation scientists. Anthropology has chasers of surviving ape-men. Archaeology has believers in ancient astronauts. Medicine has homeopaths. Physics has inventors of perpetual motion machines. Psychology has phrenologists. Astronomy has astrologers.

History has holocaust deniers – and Mormons.

The Book of Abraham

In 1835, Smith bought mummies and scrolls that had been looted from Egypt. No one in the United States could read hieroglyphics then, but Smith said he could – by inspiration from heaven. He said that one scroll was in the handwriting of Abraham of the Old Testament. From it, he produced the Book of Abraham. Unlike the golden plates, those scrolls still exist. Scholars today can read hieroglyphics, and they say the scrolls are 2000 years too young to have been written by Abraham and that Smith’s “translation” is a fraud, nothing like the original scroll. He made it up!

Mormons still believe the Book of Abraham is inspired, and it contains striking teachings. It says God cursed Black people because in a previous existence they did not help Jesus in a fight against his brother, Lucifer.

The Book of Abraham also teaches a version of the doctrine of eternal progression, an idea known since mediaeval times. The doctrine teaches that the meaning of life is to strive toward becoming a god.

Mormons explain: “As man is, God once was; and as God is, man may become.”

Eternal Enhancement

Life on earth supposedly is but one phase in a process of our eternal enhancement. Everybody had a pre-existence as a spirit. The memory of that time is now veiled from us. Life on earth is a school to which God’s children go to gain a body and to learn. The greater your progress on earth, the greater your glory in heaven as you advance toward becoming a god yourself, governing your own planets. Righteous Mormon men who have died are now living as gods on planets unknown to us. Earth’s god lives in the heavens near a place called Kolob.

By the 1840s, Smith was showing signs of megalomania as he kept up his pose as a prophet. He set up a Council of Fifty to govern the world with him after the imminent return of Christ. Smith had himself crowned King on Earth. The Council also managed Smith’s campaign for President of the United States.

Church members had already experienced violent conflict with their neighbours, and now they fought among themselves. The bitterest controversy involved the doctrine of polygamy. For years, Smith and other Church leaders had been married to many women at the same time, while denying it. In 1843, Smith announced that polygamy was divinely sanctioned. He had about fifty wives. Some of his brides were married already, some were sisters, some were mother and daughter, and some were as young as 14 years. He proposed marriage to females as young as 12.

When an Illinois newspaper criticized Smith, he ordered its press smashed. He was arrested and jailed. A mob broke into the jail and shot Smith dead. He was 39.

After Smith’s death, the Church split into many factions, with most members following Brigham Young to found Salt Lake City in Utah. In 1896, the US Congress forced the Church to set aside polygamy so that Utah could join the United States as the 45th state. Some Mormon groups still practice polygamy. About two percent (40,000 people) of Utah’s population live in polygamous families.

Struggle for Acceptance

Since World War 2, the Church has tried hard to gain acceptance. It has stressed so-called family values. In 1995 the Church hired a public relations firm, which recommended that the Church stress the “Jesus Christ” part of its name, even though the Jesus of Mormonism bears little likeness to the Jesus of Christianity. Mormonism is a religion in its own right, as different from Christianity as Christianity is from Islam.

Church leaders continually revise Mormon scriptures and doctrines in the effort to gain wider acceptance. For example, until 1978 the Church banned Black men from the priesthood, which falls to Mormon males at the age of 12 years. US President Jimmy Carter threatened to withdraw the church’s tax-exempt status because of its racial discrimination. Within days, Church President Kimball announced a revelation from God, lifting the ban.

Racist Reputation

The Book of Abraham still says Black people are cursed, and the Church still struggles with a reputation for racism. The Church has never disowned the idea that Black-skinned people are cursed.

The Church also has a reputation for sexism. Women are not allowed in the priesthood. The Church teaches that a woman’s place is in the home, raising children. The Mormon Church has excommunicated supporters of equal rights for women.

The Church also has a reputation for hostility to intellectual inquiry, with a record of trying to silence people who disagree with it, such as myself. Mormon scholars are excommunicated, for destroying faith, if their research leads them to reveal information the Church does not like. Fawn Brodie was a Mormon and a historian who uncovered Smith’s 1826 conviction. Michael Quinn was a Mormon and a historian who discovered that the early Church included female priests. Both were excommunicated for their work. In 1998 the American Association of University Professors censured Brigham Young University in Utah for its violations of academic freedom. BYU’s goal is to provide an education consistent with the Book of Mormon. Research is subordinate to revelation, since there can be no disagreement with God’s university. BYU’s philosophy, then, is hostile to the purpose of a university.

So, what started as a scam is now perhaps the fifth biggest church in the United States, surpassing the Presbyterians. The Mormons claim 10 million members worldwide, half of them outside the United States. The annual income of the Church is $US6 billion, making it bigger than Nike Corporation. Its success, however, is a monument to a fraud.

List of Charges

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not like its history told. The university’s mediator told me the complaining students had drawn up a list of charges. They claimed I had harassed them when I said the Book of Mormon is full of awkward prose and wooden characters, and when I said Joseph Smith was a megalomaniac.

I could not believe the university was considering disciplining me instead of telling the students they had no basis for complaint. I waited for the mediator or university managers to dismiss the charges. I waited for the Vice-Chancellor, Bryan Gould, to stand by me. After a month of stress, with the threat of punishment still hanging over my head, I decided to go to the media, since sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Newspapers, radio and national television reported the conflict. I argued for scholarship and academic freedom, and Mormons as far away as Australia sent letters to the university and to newspapers, demanding my sacking. Threatening calls to the departmental secretary led to a security alert on campus. From university managers, however, came not a word.

Vice-Chancellor Bryan Gould did not speak up for his lecturer, for historical scholarship or for academic freedom. I wrote to Professor Gould, reminding him that I had every right to lecture as I had. His reply shocked me. He wrote that he would try to “provide some satisfaction to the complainants.” The Vice-Chancellor, then, would seek to please a religious group at the expense of a historian.

Sure enough, the so-called mediator suddenly announced in a press release that the students had dropped their charges – but that Mormon representatives would be debating me in public! There had been no discussion with me about a debate, but this arrangement met the Mormons’ demand for equal time. I was so angry at this imposition that I refused to go along with it. Weir then released another press statement, attacking me for not agreeing to discuss matters, making me look bad. Reluctantly, I agreed to the debate, but only if security guards were present.

The evening was unpleasant for me. The Church stacked the lecture theatre with Mormons who hissed at me and called for my sacking. Speaking for the complaining students were the local Mormon bishop, Mike Roberts, and a Mormon student leader who had not been at the lecture. Roberts admitted he was not an expert in US history, but told how he thought a lecture on the history of his Church should go. I had to sit in front of tiers of glaring faces while the student slandered me as incompetent and unprofessional. Neither she nor Roberts engaged with the historical information I gave.

The Vice-Chancellor’s treatment of me had a chilling effect on free speech at the University of Waikato. Several colleagues told me they would drop controversial topics from their courses to avoid being charged with harassment.

These days, I try to reassure them. The experience of being charged with harassment led me to learn the law regarding free speech and academic freedom. I advise lecturers charged for what they teach: Don’t negotiate, litigate! Lecturers who are disadvantaged by their employer for what they teach should sue under the 1990 New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, which guarantees freedom of expression, and the 1989 Education Act, which guarantees academic freedom for lecturers and students.

Bethea Weir has been promoted. University managers are considering the disestablishment of the now vacant job of Mediator.

Historians and other scholars must be able to teach the results of research and thinking without being disadvantaged. The fact is that Joseph Smith was a swindler. There is no reason to believe angels led him to the Book of Mormon. The “history” of America taught by the Mormon Church is fiction. Seeking to satisfy Mormons who object to this information being taught is a mistake. Negotiating lecture content with interest groups is a threat to education. Fortunately, the law means there is no need for academics to pander to people who discount scholarship and the free exchange of ideas.

Maxicrop, Mormons and Mediaeval Horror Stories

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night but a gaggle of skeptics got together recently to listen to ghost stories in Hamilton. Professional story teller Andrew Wright sent shivers down the groups’ skeptical spines as they listened to his rendition of one of the oldest known horror stories, Lord Fox, a BlueBeard variation.

The occasion was the Skeptics’ annual conference and I’m told founder member Bernard Howard’s opening talk the next morning on the changes seen in the Twentieth Century set the mood nicely for the material that followed. I missed this, due to being glued to the registration desk but look forward to reading it – we will run some of the addresses in coming issues. Another one I missed was John Welch talking about Gulf War Syndrome — which we have in this issue (see opposite). John also enthralled delegates with his demonstration of an antique black box Amazing Electrical Device.

An interesting session in the afternoon was held with representatives from the offices of the Commissioner for Children and the Health and Disability Commissioner. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect to come out of this was that the standard of treatment given by alternative practitioners is assessed only relative to standards set in that field. So an iridologist’s work is only compared with that of other iridologists (see Pippa MacKay’s article).

Nick Kim gave two very different presentations, one featuring his wonderful cartoons, and a more sobering piece on forensic science. He showed you can be convicted, in a British court, just for handling a banknote that has passed through the hands of a bomb maker.

Mike Clear, as well as warming the crowd up on Friday night, presented his findings on the intrusion of alternative therapies into the world of cats, dogs and chickens. Then followed two talks which, for me, were the highlights of the conference. Waikato University history lecturer Raymond Richards spoke about his experiences following a lecture he gave in 1998 and subsequent years on the Mormon church. Following complaints from the Mormon community, the university entertained charges of harassment against him. In a similar vein, former Agresearch scientist Doug Edmeades spoke of his involvement in the long-running Maxicrop case and the way in which commercial pressures impact on science.

During the conference a TV2 film crew did some filming for a documentary, Do You Believe In the Paranormal, which screened recently. “Madame Vicki” did a wonderful palm reading job and Denis Dutton (whose skeptical view of the Greenhouse Effect was another conference highlight) inserted pithy remarks at strategic moments. You can get a copy from the Skeptics video library and it’s well worth a view.

Annette's signature


Bob Metcalfe (Forum NZ Skeptic 54) seems to be calling for a change in editorial policy on footnotes and references. This has been consistent throughout the history of this society and any change would completely alter the character of this journal. What do members want? I thank him for his apology. Anything that increases feedback on articles in NZ Skeptic and the numbers of letters in Forum is to be welcomed.

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That Old-Time Religion

Forum As a born again skeptic I find it hard to write about an experience which challenges my entrire values system; dead men don’t talk, dreams and premonitions tell you nothing except, perhaps, something about your body chemistry, the whole body of scientific knowledge in all the different fields of hard science hangs together, so if crap like creationism and flat-earth geography are true, then everything else we’ve discovered in the last 500 years must be wrong… Still I must be brutally honest. Skeptic editor Annette Taylor was offered a chopper ride today, and she had forebodings about it. I have ridden in helicopters many times without mishap, and I talked her into going, as it’s an exhilarating experience and quite safe. Nevertheless, a few hours later I rang to confirm that she’d returned in one piece. Alas! Premonitions may well foretell the future. One of her fellow passengers was airsick. Reductionists and doubters like myself oversimplify this mysterious universe if we ignore them. Well, I’

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Space Fiends Stole My Baby’s Brain

A sceptical mini-history of the crashed flying saucer saga

Carl Wyant

Sceptics will be amused to hear that the Great Roswell UFO Cover-up has just gained a new lease on life.

Yes, as if the almost infinite number of articles, TV documentaries and at least one full-length book weren’t enough, it is now a movie, “Roswell”, and available on video.

In 1947, so the story goes, a flying saucer crashed and exploded in the New Mexico desert, about 75 miles from Roswell. The scattered wreckage was collected several days later by the Air Force and whisked away to a top secret hangar never to be seen again, its very existence denied by the authorities.

In truth, no amount of fact will ever kill a good rumour. The Roswell incident has been debunked, discredited, explained to death and buried a hundred times over, but it just won’t stay in the grave. Rumour alone keeps it alive.

Like most UFO lore, aliens mishaps are nothing new. The crashed saucer myth has a long and convoluted history that goes back to 1884 when four cowboys witnessed the explosion of a strange flying cylindrical object in Nebraska.

Another phantom airship came cruising out of the blue in 1897, in Aurora, Texas, plowing into a windmill and blowing itself to smithereens, leaving behind a wreckage of metallic foil, paper with indecipherable hieroglyphics and one dead “Martian”, which was duly buried in the Aurora cemetery.

Both of these cases were later proved to be hoaxes, but it was too late; the idea was already embedded in the public mind.

Theosophists and collectors of weird stories, notably Charles Fort, sometimes called “the father of ufology”, also took up the cause, giving even more durability to the growing legend.

It’s worth noting here that the initial report of a sensational event, even if it’s false, always has more impact than the refutation or retraction. Sometimes the refutation strengthens the original claim simply by bringing it up again.

A classic example of this syndrome, crucial to the understanding of Roswell, is the infamous Aztec case, the king of all crash/retrieval stories.

In 1949 a journalist and columnist named Frank Scully began writing rumorous stories about crashed saucers and dead aliens and in 1950 released a book on the subject called Behind the Flying Saucers. It’s referred to as the Aztec case because some of the events took place near Aztec, New (where else?) Mexico. One saucer, he claimed, was ninety-nine feet in diameter and contained sixteen dead aliens, little fellows about three feet tall.

Two years later the story was exposed as a fraud, perpetrated on the apparently not-very-investigative Scully by a couple of notorious confidence shysters, probably angling for a movie deal. The book was a best seller, so I guess Scully died of shame, as it were, all the way to the bank.

Behind the Flying Saucers was the first book to bring the question of crashed saucers to the general public. The idea might have been bandied about by a few cultists and science fiction buffs before, but now the cat was really out of the bag. For two years hundreds of thousands read the book and millions more heard the story: The saucers, and even more spine chilling than than, the aliens, were real.

The Aztec scam effectively drove a wedge into the rapidly growing UFO movement, splitting the ranks into two vaguely distinct factions: “the wide-eyed believers”, who will believe anything; and “the serious investigators”, who will believe almost anything.

“Scully’s book”, says Jerome Clark in The Fringes of Reason, “cast a long shadow: for the next two and a half decades no serious UFO student would pay attention to crashed saucer stories.”

But like unkillable zombies, the stories lived on.

The Roswell, New Mexico, crashed saucer story that’s raising such a ruckus today was actually a non-event that probably would have faded away altogether if it hadn’t been for all the gadzookery created later by the Aztec case.

On June 14, 1947, a rancher named Brazel found what was undoubtedly the remains of a radar target, a reflective device borne aloft by weather balloons for tracking purposes.

Brazel himself described the debris as “large numbers of pieces of paper covered with a foil-like substance and pieced together with small sticks much like a kite”.

The Air Force came and collected the junk and that was it…almost.

Two weeks later on June 24, saucer mania broke out when civilian pilot, Kenneth Arnold, made his historic sighting of nine flying disks in Washington State, marking the official beginning of the modern UFO era. A newspaper reporter dubbed them “flying saucers” and for the next few months saucer fever ran rampant, with unidentified flying objects being reported all over the USA.

It was then, in early July, after the Arnold sighting, that Brazel and cohorts came up with the saucer story. From there it snowballed into a veritable circus of misleading statements and factual errors before finally gelling into a classic UFO cover-up.

At the time, Roswell was just one more zany story and didn’t make a major splash, and of course after the Aztec scandal no-one wanted to know about crashed saucers, thus it was forgotten.

Not completely forgotten, however. In all probability it was rumours of Roswell that led to the creation of the Aztec case; which in turn led…and so groweth the myth.

Crash/retrievals became fashionable again in the early 1970s and the serious investigators began to take them very seriously. Even the old Aurora case was dusted off, sending a whole wave of UFO hopefuls to the tiny town, combing the countryside with metal detectors and prowling the graveyard for dead Martians.

By the 1980s the story was unstoppable. The public mind had undergone a dramatic change. The wide-eyed believers, serious investigators and the great unwashed had moved closer together. Objective thinking had given way to subjective, inward-looking modes of thought wherein we create our own reality. Science, in fact Western Civilisation as a whole, had become the enemy. Critical analysis was out and wishful thinking was in and all sceptical comment was part of a vast conspiracy to cover up the truth about crystal magic and pickled aliens.

UFO lovers got an extra shot in the arm in 1980 when saucer expert Jenny Randles began to publish stories about a saucer crash near a military base in England. The Rendlesham Forest Affair, as it’s known, later became a book, Sky Crash, a gripping tale of aliens, intrigue, confiscated saucers and top secret secrets, all based, essentially, on un-named sources and hearsay. And so it goes on.

The believers contend that where there’s smoke there’s fire. The evidence itself might be weak, they argue, but there’s so much of it that it proves itself through sheer volume. In other words, if you accumulate enough bad evidence it somehow turns into good evidence. Or to look at it another way, if enough people believe something is true, then it is true.

You don’t have to be H.G. Wells to realise that this is not a healthy outlook. If enough people believe, for instance, that homosexuals are a menace to society, lo and look ye — homosexuals are a menace to society, fully lynchable in the name of Mass Belief. If enough believe in witches with magical powers, “enough” will also believe in burning them. The notion of running society on the basis of information received from invisible sources is a sure-fire recipe for bloodshed.

If my arbitrary example of homophobia seems far fetched and somewhat distant to the flying saucer question, think again. The alien superbeing, Ramtha, channelled by J.Z. Knight, tells us that we should “get rid” of gays, and that AIDS is divine punishment for homosexuals. Other aliens have given us equally ominous advice.

Who knows for sure? Maybe governments do have crashed saucers and dead aliens hidden away in secret underground military installations. Maybe the little grey fiends with the strange black eyes are real too. But considering the next-to-worthless evidence, fraud, fakery, misperception, distortion and money involved, I wouldn’t advise betting your daughter on it.

But the saucers may be on the back burner for a while. Vibrations in the etheric network tell me that angels and devils are making a comeback. Yes, I feel confident in predicting that over the next five years we will see a growing revival of things angelic, building in intensity as the Apocalypse draws nigh. And then, after the world doesn’t end at year 2000, perhaps we can shake off our dark age mentality and start thinking again. Until the next saucer crash, that is.


PC for Me, See?

“US Universities, cringing under a wave of Political Correctness and an extreme form of “multi-culturalism” are abandoning programmes which present the history of Western Civilisation as anything other than the history of the rape and plunder of minorities and other victims by a conspiracy of middle-class white males.” (“The Challenge to Reason”, Skeptic 34.)

Well I’m a skeptic. What is the evidence for that claim? And how does “multi-culturalism” differ from multi-culturalism? Bear in mind that for a very long time, the history of Western Civilisation (or Western “civilisation”) was presented as the activities of few but middle-class white males. The relatively sudden inclusion of non-whites and and non-males, and of the rape and plunder of minorities and other victims by middle-class white males (after such a long and significant silence on the subject) might make it look like that — especially to other middle-class white males.

I don’t see a wave of Political Correctness. I see only a war against something described as PC by its enemies, but which looks to me suspiciously like social justice and cultural sensitivity.

Here in Wellington, we see article after article, syndicated world-wide, all saying in effect, “Help! I’m being silenced! I can’t say that horis/niggers are lazy (and stupid — as in The Bell Curve), homos are unnatural, Jews are avaricious, women are bitches any more. Waaaaaah!” And in saying so, they contradict themselves. And just try to get a rebuttal published. So who is being silenced?

It’s not that something called Political Correctness has arrived for the first time, it’s that the struggle between two paradigms is hotting up. When the prevailing PC was white, male, heterosexual, etc. it wasn’t called that. Hell, it’s only 1993 when the Gisborne Herald refused to publish an advertisement containing the word “lesbian”.

If, as they say, PC is taking over the world, where do I join?

Hugh Young, Pukerua Bay

The Editor Replies

Hugh Young is obviously an excellent Skeptic; he quite properly asks for evidence for my claims regarding Political Correctness in America and for a definition of “multi-culturalism”. Until a few months ago when I was forced to familiarise myself with what is actually happening in US universities I would probably have asked the same questions.

The evidence for the PC Cringe and the new version of “multiculturalism” can be found in a number of publications including P.J. O’Rourke’s All the trouble in the World, Robert Hughes The Culture of Complaint, “End Game” by Pete Hamill in the November ’94 issue of Esquire magazine, “What to do About Education, 1: The Universities” by Gertrude Himmelfarb in the October issue of Commentary, and many issues of the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.

The most appropriate piece of evidence on the PC cringe, given Mr Young’s particular interest in the issue, is from the case of Doe vs University of Michigan. In the Doe case a student had been subjected to a formal hearing under the university’s “Speech Code” (Yes, they actually have them) because he had expressed the belief, during a class on social work, that homosexuality was a disease susceptible to psychological treatment.

It should come as no surprise that an American student held this belief; until a few years ago it was the official position of most of the medical professional bodies in that country. Many fundamentalist groups refuse to consider any alternative. I am sure that had Mr Young been in the class he would have willingly mounted a well reasoned and well researched rebuttal of the claim. But if a University’s Speech Code prohibits a student from even expressing such a belief in class how will Mr Young or anyone else know that these beliefs continue to be held — and when will they be granted the opportunity to challenge them?

Fortunately the Court held “What the University could not do …was to establish an anti-discrimination policy which had the effect of prohibiting certain speech because it disagreed with the ideas or messages sought to be conveyed.”

Surely the terrifying aspect of the case is that a District Court Judge (of evidently limited literacy) has to point out this obvious truth to such a highly regarded academic institution as the once great University of Michigan. Does Mr Young look forward to such PC Speech Codes being introduced into New Zealand? Is this the PC rule he really wants to join?

As for “multi-culturalism” I experienced the difference between what we mean by the word and what the word means in the US in the course of preparing a paper for presentation to a group of American business executives in Florida later this year.

Here in New Zealand I am happy to call myself a multi-culturalist because it means no more than that one is tolerant of other cultures and is prepared to assess those cultures and their belief systems on their merits. But in the US, a declared “multi-culturist” holds that one can only respect other cultures if one is prepared to despise everything associated with Western culture or civilisation. My essay objected to those who present the history of Western civilisation as anything other than the history of the rape and plunder etc — a point which Mr Young appears to have overlooked.

Of course the history of Western civilisation has its share of horror stories including the Inquisition, slavery, the Salem witch hunts, Nazi Germany, Marxist Leninism and many cases where it never realised its own ideals. But name the culture that doesn’t. At least the Enlightenment led to constitutions which promoted ideals of liberty, equality, freedom of speech and belief and the other ideals which underpin any form of democracy and freedom.

Mr Young claims that there has been “a long and significant silence on the subject of plunder etc”. Well, the following white males have thundered against tyranny, slavery and despotism in all its forms: Aristotle, Epictetus, Aquinas, Plutarch, Calvin, Shakespeare, Milton, Hobbes, Locke, Swift, Voltaire, Mostesquieu, Rousseau, Smith, Kant, the Authors of the Federalist Papers, Mill, Boswell, Hegel, Tocqueville, Dickens, Doestoevsky, Twain, Darwin, and even Marx. So where is this long silence?

Multi-culturalism in the US means that universities now accept, and even encourage, so-called scholarship which seeks to re-write history so as to deny that there are any good tales to be told. Because Jews have played such a prominent role in the development of Western thought this new “multi-culturalism” has given new legitimacy to a remarkable rise in anti-Semitic “scholarship” such as texts widely circulated within black communities which claim that Jewry was responsible for the slave trade and that the slave trade was a uniquely western crime. (See for example The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews, Volume One, The Nation of Islam, 1991)

In fact France was the first nation in history to make slavery illegal. Long after England, and then the US, abandoned the practice, the African slave trade continued to be run by joint ventures between African and Arabic states, as it had been for thousands of years. I have now learned that to write this last paragraph within many once-great US universities would probably cost me my job.

I can understand that given New Zealand’s limited and restrained practise of PC and multiculturalism Mr Young has found the concepts to be positive and encouraging for himself and his friends and colleagues battling against decades of homophobia. But these ideas, which have been taken to extremes in the US, have no place here. We know that child abuse exists; we also know that the US was first to turn this real problem into a victim-based industry which threw many hundreds of innocent people in jail and has damaged the lives of scores of thousands of others.

I don’t need ideologically driven speech-codes to tell me not to refer to kikes, niggers, and bitches in my classes, in my writings or in my private life. Tolerance, good manners and the normal standards of civilised behaviour are quite sufficient.

Owen McShane, Editor, author of “The Challenge to Reason”

Speaker’s Other Interests

Skeptics who attended the conference in Palmerston North will doubtless recall with amusement a talk on magnetic resonance devices given by Bruce Rapley, BSc, Dip. Psych., of Massey University. Mr Rapley, whose calling card describes him as “Bio-Electro-Magnetic Consultant (E.L.F.)”, is an energetic and entertaining speaker who cast a skeptical eye on Australian firms that are marketing magnetic paraphenalia that appear to me to be quack medical devices.

I was therefore surprised to be made aware of some of Mr Rapley’s other interests as described in literature that has come into my hands. Mr Rapley is a leader of something called Resonance Research, a non-profit organisation involved in “furthering the understanding of phenomena occurring at the margins of traditional knowledge”. RR offers “a variety of inspirational seminars and workshops”, and networks in the areas of Bio-Energy, Counselling, Geopathic Stress, Homeopathy, Radionics/Radiesthesia, and Vibrational Memory.

In particular, Mr Rapley has recently been energetically arranging a visit to New Zealand by Viera Scheibner, PhD, who warns against vaccinations. In particular Dr. Scheibner finds “obvious” the connection between “vaccine injections and cot death”.

Denis Dutton, University of Canterbury

Wellingtonians Roll Up

Cynthia Shakespeare, Tony Vignaux and I are proud to report that we held a remarkably successful winter lecture series in June. We had organised speakers for local Skeptics before, with attendances of 30 or so, but this time we decided to group three speakers a week or so apart at the same venue, and advertised them jointly. We did a broader-than-usual mailout of a nice professional-looking flyer that included a map. Door charges were $2 to cover room hire and refreshments, but even at that low price we made a modest profit.

The first speaker was me, on “The Case Against Maori Science”, an expanded version of the short paper presented at the 1993 Christchurch conference (see the last Skeptic for another version of it). The lecture theatre was packed out, with many standing at the back. A block from the Maori Studies department glowered all the way through, and at the end the lawyer Moana Jackson got up and gave a 15-minute prepared speech, essentially calling me, “with the greatest respect”, a ignorant racist colonialist. Questions were animated and sometimes angry, and discussion could have easily continued for an hour. Thanks to some publicity in City Voice and in the university magazine, over 100 attended.

A fortnight later, Kim Sterelny from the Philosophy Department talked about creationism and the difference between science and pseudoscience, to an audience of 52. Quite demanding, but so well presented we could all follow it. Kim concluded that there is in fact no simple distinction between science and non-science, despite what Popper says. That doesn’t mean there’s no distinction at all, but possibly it’s more profitable to talk about good and bad science instead. Creationism can then be shown to be absolutely rotten science. Kim used as his example the Victorian scientist Philip Gosse, who hypothesised that God was obliged to create the appearance of past history (e.g. fossils) just as he created Adam and Eve with navels. Questions were restrained, and the few creationists in the audience were polite.

A similar number attended the final talk, historian Peter Münz on “Subjective and Objective Historical Knowledge”. Peter pointed out that history is often constructed to prop up preconceived religious or political ideas, such as the belief by the 17th-century revolutionary English Puritans that wicked Catholicism was imported in the Norman invasion. He pointed out that while we might never be able to get a fully objective account of history, we should always strive to avoid subjectivity and be prepared to hold our beliefs up to rigorous testing. Peter also got some newspaper publicity before the talk, and we had to organise a larger lecture hall to cater for the unexpectedly large numbers that attended.

All in all, a most successful series of talks. I would encourage Skeptics in other cities to recruit speakers for their own lecture series, and not be afraid to make a noise to the media. The Wellington Skeptics are planning another series soon, with a stronger theme, perhaps satanic abuse and recovered memories. No doubt this will be even more popular.

Mike Dickison, Wellington

PS: Before we get too smug: two creationists came through town a week later. Charging $6 a head, they filled a hall with 700 people (not a typo) for three nights in a row. So there’s a little way to go yet.