Consumer wins Bent Spoon again

Vicki Hyde announces the Bent Spoon and Bravo Awards for 2012.

CONSUMER magazine has won its second Bent Spoon Award from the NZ Skeptics for continuing to promote homeopathic products as a viable alternative to evidence-based medical treatments.

In its September 11 2011 review of anti-snoring products, Consumer consulted a medical herbalist who was quoted as saying that “all homeopathic remedies may work wonders for one person and do nothing for another” and that “homeopathy is best prescribed on an individual basis, after extensive consultation”.

Homeopathy is known to exploit the well-recognised placebo effect where the body heals itself in many cases. Any “wonders” worked can be attributed to that effect, as homeopathic solutions are made up solely of water – a fact not known by 94 percent of New Zealanders purchasing such products.

Yet again Consumer has failed to point out that there are no active ingredients in a standard homeopathic product. Surely this should raise consumer protection alarm bells, akin to someone buying a microwave and receiving a cardboard box which they’re told will heat food via the cosmic power of the universe if you think hard enough…

Consumer did note that another expert had pointed out that “the efficacy of homeopathic remedies had not been demonstrated convincingly in evidence-based medicine.” This caveat was not adequate as far as the NZ Skeptics were concerned, particularly as the homeopathic products had a prominent place at the head of the list.

We’ve seen the homeopathic industry use selective quotes as part of their marketing and advertising strategy to get unwitting customers to pay $10 for a teaspoon of water. No doubt Consumer’s inclusion of homeopathic products will be used to boost business, despite the admission by the NZ Homeopathic Council that homeopathic products have no active ingredients. Disturbingly, Consumer‘s expert doesn’t seem to be aware of this admission, stating that ‘extra’ active ingredients could help.

A number of people had raised concerns about Consumer‘s willingness to feature such dubious products, with one nominator saying that the article had “destroyed Consumer NZ’s reputation as a organisation New Zealanders can trust”.

Consumer last won the Bent Spoon in 1992 for a similarly lacklustre examination of non-evidence-based health products. We’d hoped they’d learned something by now as our country’s main consumer advocate. What’s next – endorsing rubber bracelets as power-boosters for our athletes? Approving the sale of specially trapped sunlight in bottles to treat the blues? They should leave such shonky stuff to the tabloid press.

In addition to the Bent Spoon, the NZ Skeptics’ Bravo Awards praise a number of attempts to encourage critical thinking over the past year. These included:

  • Margo White, for her health columns in the New Zealand Listener. It’s great to see informed writing on health issues, based on research and evidence, rather than the large amount of low-grade items we usually get, based on press releases and thinly disguised advertorial material. A number of White’s columns were nominated for a Bravo, such as the item ‘Lies, Lies and Eyes’ which reported research indicating there is no evidence for the claims by proponents of neurolinguistic programming (NLP) to be able to tell if a person is lying or not simply by looking at the direction in which they glance.
  • Whanganui District Health Board member Clive Solomon, for supporting evidence-based medicine as the core focus for hospital care (see p3, this issue)
  • The awards were psychically conferred at the NZ Skeptics Conference in Dunedin.


Scientologists get government money

A drug awareness programme run by the Church of Scientology has received government funding to spread its views through schools and community groups (Sunday Star Times, 19 February(.

“Drug-free ambassadors” linked to the church have distributed 130,000 drug education booklets around New Zealand, paid for in part by the Department of Internal Affairs’ Community Organisations Grant Scheme. The ambassadors claim at least 18 community groups – including Maori Wardens, one of whom is also an ambassador – and at least seven high schools, endorse and use the materials.

The pamphlets are based on L Ron Hubbard’s ideas on self-improvement through purging oneself of painful experiences.

NZ Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell called the information flawed pseudo-science which could prove harmful to youth. “This kind of quackery should not be in our schools ” we are talking about young people’s lives,” he said.

Other critics, including former Scientologists, say the drug-free ambassadors are a front group aimed at recruitment which does not openly disclose its ties to the church. The group, which has various aliases, has also come under fire overseas, including in Australia where its links to the government were described as “worrying”.

Scientology New Zealand listed its income for 2010 as $1.2 million. Drug-Free Ambassadors had an income of approximately $6700, of which $6500 was grants.

Green MP Kevin Hague said any funding given to a group that was a front for the church should be stopped. “In the case of someone who is struggling with drugs, they are very vulnerable. So their exploitation by the church for their own ends is despicable.”

Former Skeptic editor dies

Owen McShane, who was editor of the NZ Skeptic from 1994 to 1997, has died, aged 70 (National Business Review, 7 March).

Owen was a longstanding member of the NZ Skeptics and had a regular column in the NBR. He died suddenly at his home in Kaiwaka near Kaipara Harbour, not long after recent heart surgery.

NBR editor Nevil Gibson writes that Owen’s early career encompassed town planning, urban economics and public policy, and he turned to venture capitalism in the 1970s. More recently he established the Centre for Resource Management, a one-man think tank that advocated a laissez-faire approach to environmental and planning issues. Nonetheless he saw himself as an enthusiastic environmentalist, advocating a “gourmet culture” for small land-holders, and putting his ideas into practice on his own property.

Owen wrote and published extensively on a wide range of issues. He was a columnist for Metro from 1983-94 and launched his own magazine, Straight Thinking, in 1994.

He appeared regularly at resource consent hearings after the passing of the Resource Management Act, on which he was a consultant, fighting against what he saw as destructive planning practices such as “smart growth”.

In 1996, he wrote an important report for the Reserve Bank on how planning rules contributed to the high costs of land for residential building – an issue on which the minister for the environment commissioned a further report in 1998.

He was a member of the committee that recommended casinos be established in New Zealand, a member of the Auckland Area Health Board, and was, says Gibson, a sought-after speaker for local and overseas conferences.

Jesus cures cancer?

A Napier church has raised the ire of locals with a billboard stating “Jesus heals cancer” ( NZ Herald, 28 February).

The Equippers Church in Tamatea claims six people have been healed, but Jody and Bevan Condin, whose three-year-old son Toby has leukaemia, said the billboard made their blood boil.

“I was disgusted, I was absolutely disgusted, and I felt quite sick,” said Mrs Condin. “The sign shows no understanding and compassion for people who have journeyed through cancer and lost loved ones.”

Senior minister Lyle Penisula (yes, that’s his real name) said with the exception of one person, he did not believe the sign was causing offence, so saw no reason to remove it.

The sign may, however, have breached the Advertising Standards Authority’s codes ( NZ Herald, 29 February).

The authority said it would take about 25 days to process the complaint. Before that, however, the church modified the sign (NZ Herald, 7 March). It now reads “Jesus heals every sickness and every disease – Matthew 4:23”.

Jody Condin said she felt the replacement was still misleading. She had watched an Equippers church-goer on television explaining his belief the church had helped cure his cancer, but felt he came across as believing his religion had mainly helped him spiritually.

“He’d had surgery and medication so how does he actually know that Jesus healed him?”

Ms Condin has received emails and phone calls from fellow supporters across the country, some of whom had lost loved ones to cancer.

Mr Penisula said religious advertising and freedom of speech were vital components of a democratic society and the measure ‘truth in advertising’ could not and should not apply for faith-based or religious advertising.

Kiwis big believers in homeopathy

Fifty-one percent of New Zealanders believe homeopathy is scientifically proven, but probably have no understanding of what is, according to a UMR study (The Press, 23 January).

Dr Shaun Holt said homeopathy was based on “nonsensical” theories, and could venture into the bizarre, with materials used in preparations that included mobile phone radiation, whale song and dog testes.

The research showed 59 percent of women and 59 percent of people living in rural areas believed homeopathy was scientifically proven. Under 30-year-olds (37 percent) and Asians (35 percent) were less inclined to believe that this was the case.

UMR Research Director Gavin White said it seemed likely many New Zealanders understood the term ‘homeopathy’ to include a much broader range of natural remedies.

Holt agreed with this explanation. “In general people don’t know what it is. They get it confused with naturopathy. It’s not just members of the public it’s doctors as well.”

However, he would fall short of banning homeopathy. He said homeopaths often had long consultations with patients which made them feel good.

Earthquake adds to ‘hypersensitivity’ problem

A Christchurch woman who claims to suffer from something called electromagnetic hypersensitivity has been sleeping out of doors because of repairs in her earthquake-damaged street (The Press, 17 February).

Anne Gastinger has symptoms including migraines and insomnia, which she attributes to electromagnetic waves and allergies to a range of substances, including treated wood. The symptoms worsened in April last year when overhead powerlines were installed because of damage to underground cables.

Her house had been adapted to avoid triggering the allergies and she hoped to relocate it because it was undamaged. However, covenants on new subdivisions and no policy on buying back houses from the Government made that unlikely, she said.

She rarely spoke about the condition because it was not an acknowledged diagnosis in New Zealand, although a Christchurch GP had provided a medical certificate confirming her symptoms.

In an article on the Organic NZ website in 2010, Anne Gastinger wrote that “leading scientists” claim wifi poses potentially serious health hazards, and that children are the most vulnerable in our community. “Opponents of wifi believe that from the moment it is switched on an odourless, invisible, silent, energetic form of air pollution is introduced into our environment.”

Chemistry: an antidote to pseudoscientific thinking?

Having a basic knowledge of the principles of chemistry can help one evade the pitfalls of many pseudosciences – but it’s not infallible. This article is based on a presentation to the 2011 NZ Skeptics Conference.

2011 is the International Year of Chemistry and as such I have been involved in a number of activities to celebrate the many contributions chemistry has made to our world. It has also been a time of reflection, during which I have asked myself, can an understanding of chemistry act as an antidote to pseudoscientific thinking? But first let us start with a definition of what chemistry is.

Chemistry is the study of matter, where matter is the material in our universe which both has mass and occupies space. Matter includes all solids, liquids and gases, and chemistry explores not only the properties and composition of matter but also how it behaves and interacts. Therefore chemists also have to understand how matter and energy interact.

While in theory chemistry can be described as an isolated discipline, in its practice and application it often contributes to, and is supported by, other scientific disciplines including biology (pharmacology, molecular biology) and physics (materials science, astrochemistry).

Core Chemical Concepts

At the heart of chemistry are some central concepts which form the foundation of this discipline. Let us examine some of these.

1) Matter is made up of atoms

The most basic structural unit in chemistry is the atom. The atom itself is made up of a nucleus containing particles called protons and neutrons, around which smaller particles called electrons orbit.

2) Atoms with different numbers of protons give rise to the different elements

Atoms exist with different numbers of protons (neutrons and electrons). These different atoms afford the different chemical elements which are usually represented in the form of the periodic table (see diagram). Each element has different properties and is represented on the periodic table by a one or two- letter symbol. Ninety of the elements occur naturally and these elements can combine to form the fantastically diverse types of matter that make up our universe.

The atomic number (the number above each element) signifies the number of protons each atom has in its nucleus. You will see as you read across each row and then down the number of protons in the nucleus increases.

3) Atoms are really, really small

Atoms are so incredibly small that it can be hard to visualise how very small they are. For example, our lungs hold approximately 1,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000 gas atoms, while a grain of sand contains approximately 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms.

4) Matter cannot be created or destroyed, it can however be rearranged

All of the atoms in existence were created billions of years ago in the heart of stars early in the formation of the universe. I find this an extraordinary concept – that the atoms which make up our bodies have existed for billions of years during which time some of them may have formed part of the last Tyrannosaurus rex, the first flowering plant, or occupied the bodies of various historical figures. Carl Sagan puts this more eloquently and succinctly when he explains that “we are made of star stuff.”

5)Atoms combine to form molecules

The true diversity of the matter in our universe comes from the ability of atoms to combine to form molecules. Molecules can be simple, for example water, which is made up of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms, or complex, such as DNA, which can be made up of billions of atoms of the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Molecules are also incredibly small – a single aspirin tablet contains approximately 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of the active ingredient, acetylsalicylic acid.

6) The shape of a molecule is key to its properties

The shapes of molecules have a fundamental effect on their properties. Water molecules, for example, have a V-shape which allows water to exist as a liquid at room temperature and to dissolve many different compounds. Without these fundamental properties, life as we know it would not have been able to evolve on Earth.

The shape of molecules is a key consideration in the development of new drugs. Many drugs work by interacting with specially shaped receptor or active sites in the body. To activate or deactivate these sites, a molecule of complementary shape must be able to fit into the site. And by making subtle changes to the shapes of such molecules it is possible to tune the effect of the drug molecule.

7) Matter moves

It may not be obvious to the naked eye or even under a microscope but all matter moves. In liquids such as water, the individual molecules move relative to each other, only fleetingly and temporarily interacting with other water molecules. This can be observed by adding a drop of food colouring to a still glass of water. The movement of the water molecules alone slowly mixes the colouring throughout the glass without any need for external agitation.

What do these concepts tell us about homeopathy?

Homeopathy was developed just over 200 years ago and is based on three principles:
a) that diseases can be treated by using substances that produce the same symptoms as the disease; b) that the greater a substance is diluted the more potent it becomes;and
c) that homeopathic solutions are ‘activated’ by physically striking them against a solid surface.

If one considers these principles against the core chemical concepts discussed so far they make little sense. How can less of a substance be more potent? How could the variable striking of water solutions have any effect on water molecules which are already in motion relative to each other, and which are therefore unable to form any collective memory of an active substance? For homeopathy to work, key chemical concepts which underlie and explain much of what we know about the physical world would have to be turned on their heads. Such a challenge to well-established chemical concepts would require extraordinary evidence.

To date, no such evidence has been provided by homeopaths. Instead, over the past 200 years, repeated attempts to prove that homeopathy works have demonstrated little more than the placebo effect and the human propensity for confirmation bias.

More Chemical Concepts

8) The Earth is a closed system in terms of mass

Apart from the launch of the occasional deep space probe, the loss of helium into space, or the addition of the occasional meteor, the Earth retains a constant mass. Thus, our physical resources are limited.

9) Matter is continuously recycled

Although we have a limited resource in terms of matter, this matter is continuously recycled as these ancient and indestructible atoms are converted from one chemical compound to another. For example, the carbon in coal when burnt is converted to carbon dioxide which may then be converted by plants into sugars. Such recycling occurs for many elements, particularly in the biosphere of our planet.

10) Chemical compounds can store and release energy

Some chemical compounds are rich in energy and this energy can be released to produce energy-poor compounds. For example, when we burn coal or oil we release energy and produce energy-poor carbon dioxide, or when we consume sugars we use the energy released in our bodies and again produce carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide can be recycled through photosynthesis in plants to produce more sugars and other energy rich compounds for food. The same is not possible for coal or oil, and as such these are limited resources.

11) Systems are in equilibrium

The systems by which matter is continually recycled are very complex and interrelated. Such complex systems are usually in equilibrium – this means that if we change one variable the system will adjust itself to compensate. For example, as the amount of carbon dioxide has increased in our atmosphere, some of it has been removed by dissolving in the oceans.

The idea of system equilibrium is used by some to claim that an increase in carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere is harmless as the system can rebalance itself. This is potentially dangerous thinking. Most systems, particularly complex ones, can only buffer a certain amount of change, beyond which the system may undergo significant change as it attempts to rebalance itself. Such changes would not necessarily be conducive to human life.

What do these concepts tell us about our environment?

Fossil fuels are a non-sustainable source of energy that also release pollutants and increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Humanity would be better served developing alternative sources of energy which harness the power of the sun more directly, for example, through solar panels, hydroelectricity, wind turbines or biofuels. More attention needs to be paid to the effects of increasing carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, and its effect on the equilibrium of the Earth’s biosphere.

Chemophobia – Causes and Consequences

There are millions of different chemical compounds in existence and chemists use a standardised naming system in order to better catalogue and compare these fascinating compounds. Unfortunately, amongst non-chemists this chemical jargon can create concern and even fear. For example, most people when asked would turn down an offer to eat a mixture containing methylmethoxypyrazine, phenylacetaldehyde and b-tocopherol, at least until it is revealed that the aforementioned mixture is a chocolate bar, and all of the compounds are natural components of chocolate.

This caution or fear of the unknown is a natural instinct which has served human beings well throughout our evolution – allowing us to avoid poisonous foods and dangerous predators. However, in the modern world it can be used against us. Referring to compounds by their chemical names is a ploy used by various interest groups including alternative health gurus and anti-vaxers to try and create fear of mainstream medicines.

Furthermore, it has allowed the development of the myth of the ‘chemical-free’ product. To a chemist, the only thing that is chemical-free is a vacuum.

The term ‘chemical-free’ appears to be an invention of the marketing industry: an attempt to sell products by suggesting that if they contain only natural compounds they must be safe, healthy and/or environmentally friendly. This is, of course, very flawed reasoning. Nature produces a wide range of compounds that are toxic to humans. Tetrodotoxin from poorly prepared puffer fish, ricin from castor beans (used to assassinate a Bulgarian dissident in 1978), digitalis from foxgloves and arsenic in groundwater are all just as capable of knocking us off as any synthetic compound.

Indeed, when it comes to toxicity it is not whether something is natural or synthetic that is important. Rather it is the dose. Any substance is capable of being toxic. Consuming four litres of water in two hours can prove fatal, as can several hours’ exposure to a 100 percent oxygen atmosphere.

The idea that toxicity is dose-dependent is not new. In the 16th century the Swiss physician Paracelsus stated that “all things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” However, it remains a concept that is not well understood today. Special interests groups have used this to create fear around issues such as water fluoridation, vaccines, and environmental issues. For example, when DDT started to be detected in the environment at part per million levels, the resulting knee-jerk withdrawal of DDT from the marketplace resulted in a resurgence of malaria in many vulnerable populations. Following the introduction of DDT in Sri Lanka, by 1963 the number of cases dropped to 17. A few years after DDT use was banned, the number of cases increased to 2.5 million cases in 1968 and 1969.

Another consequence of chemophobia, is that it can encourage people to embrace ‘alternative’ treatments, such as homeopathy. An example of the terrible consequences of such erroneous thinking was the death of Gloria Thomas, aged nine months, in Australia in 2002, when her homeopath father refused to treat her eczema with conventional medicine. Instead, she was given homeopathic remedies until she died of septicaemia and malnutrition.

Absurd Chemical Therapies

One of the incredible hypocrisies of some alternative medicine practitioners is that they may also embrace absurd chemical therapies. Anti-vaxers who claim autistic children are really suffering from mercury poisoning sometimes promote the use of chelation therapy. Chelation therapy involves the intravenous use of chemical agents which bind to heavy metals in the blood. It is an invasive technique which can also strip the blood of important metal ions such as calcium. Indeed, there are examples of patients who have died because too much calcium has been stripped from their blood.

Other alternative treatments have included ‘miracle mineral solution’ as a treatment for everything from Aids to Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Such wide-reaching claims are an immediate warning sign, as is the revelation that ‘miracle mineral solution’ is, in fact, a 28 percent solution of bleach! Dilute solutions of dimethylsulphoxide (DMSO), an industrial solvent, have similarly been promoted as a cure-all, supported by, of course, only vague anecdotal evidence.

When challenged, those peddling these absurd therapies will often cry ‘conspiracy’, and claim they are being victimised by the all-powerful pharmaceutical industry.

Consequences of not understanding chemistry

We live in a world where important public debates are becoming contaminated with non-science and nonsense. Knowledge of chemistry can help us identify and challenge some of the non-science and nonsense when exploring important issues such as climate change, environmental issues, water fluoridation and vaccination.

Is chemistry an antidote to pseudoscientific thinking?

At the beginning of this article I posed the question, “Is chemistry an antidote to pseudoscientific thinking?” And while I hopefully have demonstrated that knowledge of chemistry can help identifiy and challenge pseudoscientific thinking, I cannot claim that it, alone, is an antidote. I know this because there are those who despite a background in chemistry still embrace pseudoscientific beliefs. These include:

  • David Rasnick – after training as a chemist and working in medicinal chemistry for 20 years Dr Rasnick became an Aids denialist and proponent of vitamin ‘therapies’.
  • Kary Mullis, Nobel prize-winning biochemist, is an Aids denialist, a believer in astrology, and claims to have met an extraterrestrial disguised as a fluorescent raccoon.
  • Lionel Milgrom, research chemist for 30 years, is now a practicing homeopath and prominent advocate of homeopathy.

The idea that those who have trained to an advanced level in chemistry (or any other science) can go on to embrace pseudoscience has always intrigued me. I’ve often wondered how such a transition could occur, and would suggest that perhaps one or more of the following factors may be involved:

1) Frustration with science

Progress in science is often slow and frustrating. The temptation to find an easier, albeit fallacy-based career may be appealing when faced with the many frustrations of laboratory work.

2) External bias

Religious and moral beliefs may introduce bias. For example, a number of Aids denialists are blatantly homophobic.

3) No understanding of the scientific method

While most scientists pick up the principles of the scientific method during their training, few that I am aware of are explicitly taught the scientific method.

4) Need for attention/notoriety

5) Financial motives

The peddling of pseudoscience can be quite lucrative, particularly when you can use academic qualifications to lend the appearance of legitimacy to one’s claims.

I suspect that in most cases, the embracing of pseudoscientific beliefs by scientists is a gradual process, where step by small step, they move away from the scientific method until eventually they find themselves no longer bound by its philosophy and rigour.


While an understanding of chemistry does not necessarily provide an antidote to pseudoscientific thinking, when coupled with the tools of rational thinking, it provides the skills to critically assess many areas where pseudoscientific beliefs persist including water fluoridation, environmental science, climate change, homeopathy and alternative medicines.

“Never let yourself be diverted by what you wish to believe, but look only and solely at what are the facts.” -Bertrand Russell


Top scientist turns to alternative medicine

Prominent physicist and science commentator Sir Paul Callaghan is resorting to vitamin C megadoses and Chinese medicine to treat his terminal cancer (Dominion Post, 22 September).
Diagnosed in 2008 with aggressive bowel cancer, he has been advised by his oncologist to take a break from chemotherapy to establish the full extent of the cancer’s spread. He is using the time to trial “unproven but interesting” therapies, including traditional Chinese medicine, intravenous vitamin C and “Uncle CC’s famous vegetable juice”.

“Let me be clear. I do not deviate one step from my trust in evidence-based medicine,” Sir Paul said in his blog. However, if there was a potentially effective but unproven drug, “Why would I not try it?” he reasoned. “Am I mad? Probably.”

Victoria University’s Professor Shaun Holt said he could understand terminal cancer patients clutching at straws, but there was no evidence to support vitamin C treatment. It could be harmful, causing kidney problems and interfering with effective treatments such as radiation therapy.

He was concerned Sir Paul’s use of the treatment would further increase the already high number of cancer and leukaemia patients asking for the injections.

GG swears by homeopathy

Another high-profile New Zealander expressing interest in alternative therapies recently was new Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae The 56-year-old revealed in an interview (Dominion Post, 2 September( he and his wife Janine, Lady Mateparae shared an interest in homeopathy.
He said he had not taken a sick day since 1998. “We’ve practised a certain way of looking after ourselves which has been very good for me.”

Perhaps he feels it’s part of the job, given his position as the Queen’s representative in New Zealand, and the royal family’s well-known interest in the field.

Blogger John Pagani commented: “Placebos get you quite a long way, but only so far. After that you need actual medicine. If a soldier gets shot up on a battlefield in, say, Afghanistan, he doesn’t want Sir Jerry rubbing arnica cream on the sore bit.”

Divine solution to liquefaction

A Sefton water diviner believes he has the solution to Canterbury’s liquefaction problems (Central South Island Farmer, 7 September).

Dave Penney says he can identify underground water flows by running a crystal over a Google map, followed by on-site investigation. While the article quoted one happy customer, Waimakariri utilities manager Gary Boot was unconvinced by Penney’s proposal that “confluences” of underground flows could be located and drilled, to reduce pressure and stabilise the land. Areas with the worst liquefaction had widespread and very consistent groundwater, Mr Boot said.

“Finding the groundwater is not the challenge. The challenge is how best to treat the land in an affordable manner.”

iPhone trumps psychic

Chilean authorities have used a psychic to help find 17 missing bodies after the crash of a plane near Robinson Crusoe Island killed all 21 people on board (NZ Herald, 6 September).
“Not only are we using all of our technological capabilities, but also all the human and superhuman abilities that may exist,” said Defence Minister Andres Allemand.

He did, however, seek to lower expectations of recovering all the bodies.

The plane’s fuselage was located a few days later, in part using information from a passenger’s iPhone, which transmitted its location shortly before the crash (AVweb, 9 September). Now if only psychics were as smart as iPhones.

Spontaneous Human Combustion in Ireland?

An Irish coroner has ruled a pensioner found dead at home was a case of spontaneous human combustion (NZ Herald, 25 September).

Unsurprisingly, given the history of this phenomenon, 76-year-old Michael Faherty’s charred remains were found on the floor near an open fireplace. Forensic experts concluded the fire was not the cause of the blaze, and that there were no accelerants at the scene. The only damage to the room was a scorched ceiling and floor adjacent to the body.

The case sounds like a classic of its type: an elderly diabetic with presumably limited mobility is found next to an open fire, with his body consumed but his head left unburned. In 1998 scientists on the British TV programme QED (available from the NZ Skeptics video library( showed how this happens, using a pig carcass wrapped in fabric to simulate the victim. An ember spat from the fire catches in clothing and starts to burn; the fire is then fed by fat from the victim (who has already died of a heart attack, or is about to due to the stress of finding himself alight) as it melts and ‘wicks’ into the clothing. The head, lacking a decent supply of fat, remains unscathed, and any sign of heart disease or other pathology is burned away. QED, indeed.

Medium caught cheating

Sally Morgan, who styles herself “Britain’s best-loved psychic” has been caught receiving outside information during one of her shows (The Guardian, 20 September).

Chris French, editor of UK magazine The Skeptic, relates how an audience member named Sue reported on an Irish radio station how she had been impressed by Morgan’s accuracy during the first half of her performance.

“But then something odd happened. Sue was sitting in the back row on the fourth level of the theatre and there was a small room behind her (‘like a projection room’) with a window open. Sue and her companions became aware of a man’s voice and ‘everything that the man was saying, the psychic was saying it 10 seconds later.'”

Other callers to the radio show confirmed Sue’s account.

Sue said she believed the man was feeding information to Morgan via a microphone. The voice would say something like “David, pain in the back, passed quickly”, and a few seconds later Morgan would have the spirit of a David on stage with just those attributes. When a member of staff realised several people were aware of the voice the window was gently closed.

Sue speculated that information had been gathered in the foyer prior to the show by an accomplice engaging audience members in conversation, a technique French says ‘psychics’ use widely, as their marks naturally discuss among themselves who they are hoping to hear from.

The theatre’s general manager claimed the voice came from two theatre staff members. Sally Morgan Enterprises also denied that the medium was being fed information during the show.

French compared the incident to James Randi’s use of a radio scanner to pick up messages sent to faith healer Peter Popoff’s earpiece in 1986, the subject of an entertaining YouTube video clip. Although his exposure led to him declaring bankruptcy the following year, Popoff is back; his ‘ministry’ received US$23 million in 2005. History suggests, says French, that most of Morgan’s followers will continue to adore her and pay the high prices demanded to see her in action, despite this incident.

Ring again

Just one more small piece on Ken Ring then no more, I swear. Despite promises to get out of the earthquake prediction business, he was in Upper Hutt recently declaring Wellington could expect a magnitude 7 quake some time between 2013 and 2016 (Upper Hutt Leader, 5 October).

Of course, predicting earthquakes in Wellington is a bit like predicting drought in the Sahara, and a four-year timeframe is a bit vague, to say the least. He says Wellington gets magnitude 7 quakes every 11 to 13 years (really?) and this period is when the next one is due.

I guess any half-way decent shake in the next eight years or so will be put down as a hit, and if nothing comes along before the end of 2016, who’s going to remember what he said in the Upper Hutt Library in October 2011? How can he lose?


Homeopathic ‘vaccines’ on sale in New Zealand

The website is selling such items as homeopathic immunisation and travel kits . On offer are such remedies as Natrium Muriaticum 200C which, it is claimed, will protect against all types of Malaria and Haemophilus 200 for protection against H I B (this abbreviation is for Haemophilus influenzae type B which causes severe pneumonia and meningitis in infants).

The site’s owners say:

Endo Health Limited provides accessible and experienced health care based on Homoeopathic principles as defined by Dr Samuel Hahnemann in the Sixth edition of The Organon of Medicine. We also manufacture and supply a full range of homoeopathic products, both classical and complexes, in a number of different presentations. We provide Homoeopathic prophylaxis for childhood diseases, and individualised kits for travel to areas where there is risk of exotic diseases, as well as kits to alleviate the medical dangers of travelling by aircraft. We provide information on vaccines used in the prevention of childhood diseases. Unless stated otherwise, all this information is sourced from Medical journals and has been available to all Medical Practitioners and Medical authorities.

One of the homeopaths claims to have been a pharmacist for many years and to be President of the Homoeopathic Association of New Zealand, an organisation which appears to be non-existent.

I’ve been aware for a while that some people have sourced and used these homoeopathic immunisations , so as an individual I’ve sent an email off to Medsafe’s Compliance Unit stating that I believe that these homoeopaths and their website’s sales could be harmful to people, and that the site would likely contravene the Medicines Act as they are making therapeutic claims (as per New Zealand Regulatory Guidelines for Medicines Edition 6.13, March 2011).

They also attempt to circumvent the section 34 provision which allows natural therapists and others to supply after being requested by or on behalf of that person to use his own judgment as to the treatment required . They do this by saying the Medicines Act requires that there must be an exchange of information and this consultation (really an order for the product) may be by email. This would also be likely to be actionable under advertising standards, as they have requirements under their therapeutic product and service codes regarding advertising and therapeutic claims.

Unfortunately I suspect even if this is found to be correct and some action is taken, this will be dealt with by the old slap with a wet bus ticket (probably a cease and desist letter asking for them to remove the claims as to therapeutic purpose and/or asking for the withdrawal of the products), if any of the other examples I’ve seen over the years (eg adulterated supplements) are any guide. I’m not aware of anything happening other than withdrawal of the unsafe product after Medsafe has done testing, even though the product(s) may have been supplied and sold for quite a period of time and would pose a risk to the consumer.

That being said, it may help if other individuals or the society consider taking some action, as well such as contacting relevant agencies to express concern or even sending out a press release addressing the anti-vaccine stance of those in the alt med industry. The consumer is being exploited by sale of homoeopathic vaccines and homoeoprophylaxis products that claim to prevent diseases such as malaria, typhoid and cholera. Consumers could become seriously ill if they come into contact with these diseases and haven’t used proven interventions.

This could be another opportunity to call on homeopaths to do the right thing and come out in support of conventional vaccines and against the practice of homeopathic vaccination . As the Ministry of Health says, There is no evidence that homoeopathic ‘immunisation’ provides any protection against infectious diseases. The UK Faculty of Homoeopathy supports conventional immunisation.


Fault is with Creationism

Bernard Beckett (Skeptic 95 , p8) says the ability of Creationism to make the same predictions as evolutionary psychology shows that the latter is not a scientific process. But the same is equally true of evolutionary biology. (“God made cats resemble tigers, and apples resemble pears, because He felt like it.”) The fault is with Creationism, not evolution. An omnipotent Creator can be used to explain/predict absolutely anything, not only the universe as it is, but any other universe, possible or im-. You might say that Creationism, like Nostradamus and astrology, is very good for predicting the past. That is their fundamental failing.

Billy Joel’s daughter (p18) obviously had quite the wrong idea about what an overdose in homeopathy is. If she had sniffed the closed bottle, she would certainly have died as she wished. Homeopathy patients should be warned.

Hugh Young
Pukerua Bay

After the overdose

NZ Skeptics link up with a British campaign against homeopathy.

On January 30 there was a concerted global mass overdose – but no-one died because the ‘medication’ was homeopathic. The event grew from the UK-based 10:23 campaign (, which was planning a mass homeopathic overdose to protest against the Boots pharmacy chain stocking homeopathic products.

At a Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub meeting ( four days before the planned date, one attendee asked if the NZ Skeptics were going to be involved. After all, we had asked a number of times over the years for the professional pharmacy bodies to supply a conference speaker to talk about the ethics of selling products of doubtful efficacy. Things swung quickly into action…

We held the mass overdose in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, with about 40 people taking part. The event also included an ‘underdose’ – homeopaths believe that the more dilute things are, the more potent they become, so we were careful to try that approach. There are also claims by product manufacturers that, in fact, dosage doesn’t matter at all – whether you take one pill or 100 – the important thing is the frequency of dosage. We covered that base too. No ill effects were reported, apart from a distinct drop in the level of cash in various wallets. While several members were keen to take part, many said they couldn’t in all good conscience bring themselves to buy the stuff in the first place. For the demonstration, we reluctantly purchased two boxes of tablets and a 25ml spray from a Unichem pharmacy, costing $51.95. That’s a lot to pay for less than two tablespoons of water and not much more than that in lactose milk sugar.

One of the homeopathic products downed by the participants had a label saying it contained chamomilia, humulus lupulus, ignatia, kali brom, nux vomica and zinc val. But those substances were actually in homeopathic dilutions, meaning that the kali brom, for example, was present in a proportion comparable to one pinch of sugar in the Atlantic Ocean – that is, not actually present at all.


The pre-publicity from the Christchurch Press saw the New Zealand Council for Homeopaths admit publicly that their products had no material substance in them (our emphasis).

Council spokeswoman Mary Glaisyer said ( “there’s not one molecule of the original substance remaining” in the diluted remedies that form the basis of this multi-million-dollar industry. This point was picked up by a columnist in the Guardian, who referred to the NZ homeopaths as finding “amusing and creative ways to dig themselves deeper into a hole”.

We got a flurry of interest in the first press release from TV, radio and print media, as well as great support from members, Skeptics in the Pub folk and others concerned about this issue.

TV One ran a very short news item on it; there was a longer, more thoughtful piece on TV3 News.

On TVNZ the Pharmacy Guild was quoted saying of homeopathic products: “there’s a place for them so long as customers are told they only may help”. We believe that that is unethical, and certainly that comment was not made at any of the pharmacists we visited to purchase these products.

TVNZ’s Close Up national current affairs programme covered the story on February 12. They spent two hours filming us swallowing pills, spritzing sprays, demonstrating how a homeopathic dilution is made, talking about the health and safety issues of relying on water as a medicine and a whole host of other issues, in the cosy confines of The Snug at the Twisted Hop, the bar of choice for the Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub gatherings.

That sterling effort was then diluted to a very short intro followed by a short interview sequence involving Vicki Hyde and Mary Glaisyer. Following on from this, we decided to put up a challenge of our own to the NZ Council of Homeopaths to join the campaign to call for pharmacies to stop selling homeopathic products, as both groups are opposed to the practice, albeit for different reasons.

The New Zealand Council of Homeopaths and others in the trade have stated that their customers require lengthy personalised sessions to “match the energy of the potency of the remedy with the person”. According to Mary Glaisyer, this involves matching symptoms with the huge range of materials on which homeopaths base their ultra-diluted preparations. For example, causticum, more mundanely known as potassium hydroxide, is said to manifest its homeopathic action in “paralytic affections” and “seems to choose preferable [sic] dark-complexioned and rigid-fibered persons”.

Pharmacists who sell homeopathic products in the same way they sell deodorants and perfumed soaps are clearly not meeting basic homeopathic practice. When a number of pharmacies in Christchurch were checked by purchasers of these products, no pharmacy staff asked about symptoms; one simply asked “do you want vitamins with that?”

Many people equate homeopathic products with herbal products, hence the belief that the products contain real substance. In addition, the products are commonly used for conditions which get better with time regardless of treatment, as well as exploiting the well-known placebo effect.

The call for the NZ Skeptics and homeopaths to join forces is not the first time such action has been considered. In 2002, when an Auckland pharmacy starting selling products labelled homeopathic “meningococcal vaccine” and homeopathic “hepatitis B vaccine”, we discussed with the late Bruce Barwell, at that time the president of the NZ Homeopathic Society, a joint release condemning this highly dangerous move. We were concerned that relying on water as a vaccine would lead to unnecessary deaths.

It’s bad enough when the product labelling misleads people into thinking they are buying something more than water. It’s far worse when they misuse a word like vaccine in such a life-threatening area.

The homeopaths were concerned then, as now, that their 200-year-old practices were being misrepresented by non-homeopaths keen to benefit from the multi-million-dollar industry.

A recent survey showed that 94 percent of New Zealanders using homeopathic products aren’t aware that the remedies commonly contain no molecules of the active ingredient – their homeopath or health professional hadn’t disclosed this. The customers believe they are paying for the substances listed on the box, but those were only in the water once upon a time before the massive dilution process began – along with everything else that the water once had in it – the chlorine, the beer, the urine…

You have to ask, at what point does it shift from being an issue of informed consent to become an issue of fraud?

Do pharmacists not know that homeopathic products are just water, or they do know and don’t care because people will buy it not realising the massive mark-up? Either way, that should be a big concern for the health consumer. Here’s a huge industry with virtually no regulatory oversight or consumer protection or come-back, and even its keen customers aren’t aware of the highly dubious practices involved.

When Billy Joel’s daughter attempted to commit suicide in December, she chose to take an overdose of homeopathic medication, and thus suffered no ill effects. While that case was fortunate, there are many cases where people have been harmed by the use of homeopathic products in the place of real medicine. There is a Coroner´s Court record of the death of a baby from meningitis; it had been treated with homeopathic ear drops and the mother was very reluctant for any hospital admission. And the website lists many cases from around the world where people have died or had horrible outcomes as a result of a mistaken reliance on homeopathy.

The alternative health industry has built a multi-million-dollar business exploiting the natural healing powers of the human body, as many conditions will get better within two to three days regardless of whether conventional or alternative treatments are used, or even if nothing is done at all. Independent testing has shown that homeopathic preparations take full advantage of this and homeopaths quickly take the credit for any improvement in their clients.

The NZ Skeptics have already had people asking for a list of ethical pharmacists that they can support with their business. We are happy to hear from any pharmacy willing to take a stand on this issue, and will start to create a database for concerned members of the public.

From the UK 10:23 campaign:

Thanks very much for the note, the support and the energy. We have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm from the NZ side of things. It’s been great.

To mark the occasion, the NZ Skeptics have released a new Skeptics Guide to Homeopathy, available as a flyer on the website ( It outlines the development of homeopathy from a relatively harmless attempt to help people some 200 years ago through to the multi-million industry of today.

Snake Oil: a brief history of alternative medicine

Early in 2005 Professor Kaye Ibbertson, the relentless grand vizier of the Marion Davis Library and Museum, asked David Cole to offer the Medical Historical Society some comments about the history of unorthodox medicine. He was in the process of assembling several convincing excuses, when Ibbertson turned off his hearing aid and any excuses were set aside. This article is based on the talk which resulted.

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“Voodoo vets” create a stir

A website poking fun at veterinary homeopathy has become the unlikely symbol of a global backlash by conventional vets against their homeopathic colleagues, according to New Scientist magazine. The “British Veterinary Voodoo Society” (BVVS) is a parody, but its creators say they are making a serious point: that the claimed effectiveness of homeopathic veterinary medicine has no more solid scientific evidence behind it than voodoo. They object to a decision by the UK’s Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) to publish an official list of homeopathic vets, which they say undermines the credibility of conventional veterinary medicine.

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The leading medical journal The Lancet recently published yet another analysis of trials of homeopathy. After examining 110 such trials, the Swiss researchers concluded that there was no convincing evidence that homeopathy was any more effective than placebo. In the accompanying editorial, the editor, Dr Richard Horton, made a comment which has an uncanny, and no doubt intentional parallel with the views of the founder of homeopathy over two hundred years ago:-

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