AS A CONFIRMED, but lightweight, sceptic, I have had to endure many jibes from friends and colleagues as I questioned information reported in the newspapers and on the news. Equally, I have had to explain what being a sceptic is really all about — not straight dismissal of, but the opportunity to question information that is presented as fact.Continue reading
Chances are, you’re worried about all the wrong things.Continue reading
SUPPOSE that we are all under the influence of a drug that induces amnesia, and as a result we cannot remember anything at all about our personal circumstances. We don’t know whether we are rich or famous, powerful or weak, what language we speak, how intelligent we are, what educational or professional qualifications we have, what race or religion or society we belong to. But suppose, too, that we are all ideally rational human beings, each of us aware of what we should like to secure for ourselves and for those we love. In this amnesiac condition we are locked into a room, and asked to consider a single problem: how ought available benefits and goods to be distributed in any society?Continue reading
DARK NATURE — A NATURAL HISTORY OF EVIL, by Lyall Watson; Hodder & Stoughton, 1995; $19.95Continue reading
This article originally appeared in the excellent US magazine Skeptic, edited by Shermer, (Vol 2 No 3) and also forms Chapter 4 of Shermer’s book Hope Springs Eternal: How Pseudoscience Works and Why People Believe in It. It’s a thought-provoking piece which should be handy reference for any skeptic’s library. This is part one of three.
In one of the most important books ever written on the philosophy of science, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington made this observation in The Philosophy of Physical Science (1958, p.9): “For the truth of the conclusions of physical science, observation is the supreme Court of Appeal.”
It is that simple. Whenever there is a dispute we have merely to look and submit our conclusions to the Court. The decision will be obvious and indisputable. Of course, if it were really that easy Eddington would not have had to write an entire book about it, covering all the problems scientists confront in the physical sciences, a relatively “pure” enterprise compared to the biological and social sciences.
The problem is that the Court is staffed by illogical, emotional, ego driven, culturally biased, and socially embedded observers. They are filtered through these fallible brains, and in the process thinking can and often does go wrong. And not just for those pseudoscientists, paranormalists, and fringe-belief inhabitants whose claims skeptics often take such delight in skewering. The multi-faceted fallacies of thinking, unfortunately, apply to everyone, even the most rigorous and careful of scientists and skeptics. Even skepticism, taken to an extreme, can be an inhibitor to creative and critical thinking.
Thus, it is a useful exercise for us to reexamine these various ways that our thinking can go wrong. I have subdivided them into different categories, with lists of specific fallacies and problems in each. As a positive assertion on how thinking can go right, I begin with what I call Hume’s Maxim and close with what I call Spinoza’s Dictum.
The importance of skeptical publications in this late 20th century resurgence of interest in miracles and various claims of the paranormal cannot be overstated. yet it is equally important to remember our historical antecedents and how they analysed and critiqued such claims in their own time.
One of the greatest skeptics of the Modern Age is the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), whose work, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, is a classic in skeptical analysis. The book was originally published anonymously in London in 1739, as A Treatise of Human Nature, but, in Hume’s words, “fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.” (An author’s biggest fear is not being panned; it is being ignored.)
Hume blamed his own writing style and reworked the manuscript into An Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature in 1740, and again in 1748, as Philosophical Essays Concerning the Human Understanding. The work still gained Hume no recognition, so in 1758 he brought it out in a final version as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which comes down to us today as his greatest philosophical work.
Ironically, when Hume finally did achieve fame and position, his critics often attacked his earlier works, a practice Hume found “very contrary to all rules of candour and fair-dealing, and a strong instance of those polemical artifices, which a bigoted zeal thinks itself authorised to employ,” as he wrote in an “Advertisement” to the final publication!
In Section XII, “Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy”, Hume distinguished between “antecedent skepticism”, such as Descartes’s method of doubting everything, that has no “antecedent” infallible criterion for belief; and “consequent skepticism”, the method Hume employed that recognises the “consequences” of our fallible senses, but corrects them through reason: “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” Wiser words could not be chosen for a skeptical motto.
For the modern skeptic, Hume’s Section X, “Of Miracles”, provides a foolproof, when-all-else-fails analysis of miraculous claims.
That is, when one is confronted by a true believer whose apparently supernatural or paranormal claim has no immediately apparent natural explanation, Hume gives us an argument that even he thought was so important (and Hume was not a modest man) that he placed his own words in quotes and called it a maxim.
I think it is so useful an argument that it bears repetition, as Hume’s Maxim: The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.”
When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
Scientific Problems in Thinking
Theory Influences Observations
In his quest to understand the physical world, Werner Heisenberg concluded: “What we observe is not nature itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” This is especially true in quantum mechanics, where the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum action states that “a probability function does not prescribe a certain event but describes a continuum of possible events until a measurement interferes with the isolation of the system and a single event is actualised (1987, p.412)
The Copenhagen interpretation eliminates the one-to-one correlation between theory and reality. The theory, in part, constructs the reality. Reality exists independent of the observer, of course, but our perceptions of it are highly influenced by the theories through which we examine it. Philosophers thus say that science is “theory laden”. Eddington put it this way (p.110):
Suppose an artist puts forward the fantastic theory that the form of a human head exists in a rough-shaped block of marble. All our rational instinct is roused against such an anthropomorphic speculation. It is inconceivable that Nature should have placed such a form inside the block. But the artist proceeds to verify his theory experimentally — with quite rudimentary apparatus too. Merely using a chisel to seperate the form for our inspection, he triumphantly proves his theory.
This is true not only in the physical sciences, but in all observations made of the world.
When Columbus arrived in the New World he had a mental model that he was in Asia, and proceeded to perceive it as such. Cinnamon was a valuable Asian spice and the first New World shrub that smelled like it was declared to be it. When he encountered the aromatic gumbo-limbo of the West Indies, Columbus concluded it was an Asiatic species similar to the mastic tree of the Mediterranean. A New World nut was mistaken for Marco Polo’s description of a coconut. Even Columbus’ surgeon declared, based on some Caribbean roots his men had uncovered, that he had found Chinese rhubarb.
A theory of Asia produced observations of Asia, even though Columbus was half a world away. Such is the power of a wrong theory to deceive our senses and our mind.
Observations Change the Observed
Physicist John Archibald Wheeler once noted the change in thinking that quantum mechanics had wrought in our understanding of nature (1987, p.427):
Even to observe so minuscule an object as an electron, he must shatter the glass. He must reach in. He must install his chosen measuring equipment. It is up to him to decide whether he shall measure position or momentum. To install the equipment to measure the one prevents and excludes his installing the equipment to measure the other. Moreover, the measurement changes the state of the electron. The universe will never afterward be the same.
The problem is especially true in the human and social realm as the act of studying a problem can change it. Anthropologists know that when they study a tribe the behaviour of the members may be altered by the fact they are being observed by an outsider.
Margaret Mead was apparently duped by her female subjects in Samoa, who acted the way she expected them to with regards to their teenage sexuality. This is why psychologists use blind and double-blind controls. If subjects know what experimental conditions they are being subjected to, they may alter their behaviours. Or, if the psychologist knows which group they are in, he or she may perceive the behaviour to be appropriate for that condition.
Lack of such controls is often found in tests of paranormal powers and is one of the classic ways that thinking goes wrong in the pseudosciences.
Experiments Construct Results
The type of equipment used and the manner in which the experiment is conducted, very much determines the results. The size of telescopes throughout history, for example, have shaped our theory of the size of the universe. Hubble’s 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes on Mt Wilson in Southern California, for example, provided the seeing power for Hubble to determine individual stars in other galaxies, thus proving that those fuzzy objects called nebulae that were thought to be in our own galaxy, were actually seperate galaxies. In the 19th century, craniometry defined intelligence as brain size, and measured it as such; today intelligence is defined by the IQ test.
To illustrate the problem Eddington presented this clever analogy (p16):
Let us suppose that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean. He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment. Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systematise what it reveals. He arrives at two generalisations:
(1) No sea-creature is less than two inches long.
(2) All sea-creatures have gills.
In applying this analogy, the catch stands for the body of knowledge which constitutes physical science, and the net for the sensory and intellectual equipment which we use in obtaining it. The casting of the net corresponds to observations.
An onlooker may object that the first generalisation is wrong. “There are plenty of sea-creatures under two inches long, only your net is not adapted to catch them.” The ichthyologist dismisses this objection contemptuously. “Anything uncatchable by my net is ipso facto outside the scope of ichthyological knowledge, and is not part of the kingdom of fishes which has been defined as the theme of ichthyological knowledge. In short, what my net can’t catch isn’t fish.”
Likewise, what my telescope can’t see isn’t there, and what my test can’t measure isn’t intelligence.
Anecdotes Do Not Make a Science
Anecdotes — stories recounted in support of a claim — do not make a science. Without corroborative evidence from other sources, or physical proof of some sort, 10 anecdotes are no better than one, and 100 anecdotes are no better than 10.
Anecdotes are stories told by biased and selective human story tellers. Farmer Bob in Puckerbrush, Kansas may be an honest, church-going, family man, but we need concrete physical evidence of an alien spacecraft or alien bodies, not a story about landings and abductions at 3:00 a.m. on a deserted farm road.
Likewise with many medical claims; I do not care if your Aunt Mary’s cancer was cured by watching Marx Brothers movies, or taking liver extract from castrated chickens. It might have gone into remission on its own, which some cancers do; or it might have been misdiagnosed; or, or, or…
What we need are controlled experiments, not anecdotes. We need 100 subjects with cancer, all properly diagnosed, 25 of whom watch Marx Brothers movies, 25 of whom watch Alfred Hitchcock movies, 25 of whom watch the news, and 25 of whom watch nothing. Then we need to deduct the average rate of remission for this type of cancer, and then do a data analysis to determine if there is a statistically significant difference between any of the groups. If there is, which would be extraordinary, we better get confirmation from other scientists who conduct their own experiments separate from ours, before we hold a press conference to announce the cure for cancer.
Pseudoscientific Problems in Thinking
Scientific Language Does Not Make a Science
Packaging a belief system in the facade of science using the language and jargon, as in “creation-science”, means nothing without evidence, experiment, and corroboration. Because science is such a powerful system in our society, those who wish to gain respectability but do not have evidence, do an end-run around this problem by trying to look and sound the part. Here is a classic example from a New Age column in the Santa Monica News:
This planet has been slumbering for aeons and with the inception of higher energy frequencies is about to awaken in terms of consciousness and spirituality. Masters of limitation and masters of divination use the same creative force to manifest their realities, however, one moves in a downward spiral and the latter moves in an upward spiral, each increasing the resonant vibration inherent in them.
How’s that again? I have no idea what this means, but it has the language components of a physics experiment: “higher energy frequencies”, “downward and upward spirals”, and “resonant vibration”. These things mean nothing without precise and operational definitions. How do you measure the planet’s higher energy frequencies, or the resonant vibration of these masters of divination? For that matter, what is a master of divination?
Bold Statements Do Not Make True Claims
A red flag that something is pseudoscientific is when outrageous claims are made for its power and veracity, especially when supportive evidence is lacking.
L. Ron Hubbard, for example, opens his book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, with this statement: “The creation of Dianetics is a milestone for man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to hsi invention of the wheel and arch.” Wilhelm Reich called his theory of Orgonomy “a revolution in biology and psychology comparable to the Copernican Revolution.” I have a file filled with papers and letters from obscure authors filled with such outlandish claims (I call it the “Theories of Everything” file).
Scientists sometimes make this mistake, and when they are wrong they pay a high price, as we saw at 1:00p.m., March 23, 1989, when Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced to the world through a pres conference that they had discovered cold nuclear fusion.
The proper procedure in science is to hold the press conference after the claim has been tested and corroborated by other scientists in other labs, and after it appears in a peer-reviewed publication. The more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence must be before making such pronouncements. Gary Taubes’ excellent narrative of the cold fusion debacle, appropriately named Bad Science (1993), well demonstrates the implications of this problem.
Martyrdom Does Not Equal Correctness
They laughed at Copernicus. They laughed at the Wright Brothers. Yes, well, they laughed at the Marx Brothers. So what? Becoming a martyr does not mean you are right.
Wilhelm Reich compared himself to Peer Gynt, the unconventional genius out of step with society, and misunderstood and ridiculed until proven right:
“Whatever you have done to me or will do to me in the future, whether you glorify me as a genius or put me in a mental institution, whether you adore me as your saviour or hang me as a spy, sooner or later necessity will force you to comprehend that I have discovered the laws of the living.”
History is replete with chronicles and tales of the lone and martyred scientist working against his peers, and in the face of opposition from the known doctrine of his own field of study. Most of them turned out to be wrong and we do not remember their names. For every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for exclaiming the truth, there are a thousand (or ten thousand) Walter Wanabees whose “truths” never cut muster with the powers that be.
Can Walter really expect scientists to take the necessary time to test every fantastic claim that comes down the pike? No. If you want to do science you have to learn to play the game of science. This involves getting to know the scientists in your field, exchanging letters, calls, faxes, and (now) email with your colleagues, presenting papers at conferences, publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and the like. Galileo paid his dues and learned to play the game. Walter Wanabee must do the same.
Rumours Do Not Equal Reality
A classic fallacy of thinking is “I read somewhere that…” or “I heard from someone that…”. Before long the rumour becomes reality as it is passed from person to person, usually by work of mouth, without the necessity of supportive evidence. Rumours, like “urban legends”, may be right, of course, but they usually are not, even if they do make for great tales.
What teenage boy did not tell his date on Lover’s Lane the “true” story of the escaped maniac with a prosthetic hook who haunted that very parking spot, with the addendum that one couple, when they returned home, found a hook dangling from the passenger door handle? Or the “Vanishing Hitchhiker” story where a hitchhiking woman vanishes from the car in which she was picked up, whereupon the driver, who had lent her his jacket, discovers that she had died that same day the year before; he then discovers his jacket on her grave. (There are many modified versions of these stories, but the core remains the same.)
At a dinner I once hosted for Stephen Jay Gould, the Caltech historial of science, Dan Kevles related a story he suspected was apocryphal about two students who took a ski trip before their final exam but did not get back in time because the evening activities extended well into the night. They told their professor that they got a flat tire so he gave them the final the next day. Placing the two students in separate rooms he asked them just two questions: (1) “For 5 points, what is the chemical formula for water?” (2) “For 95 points, which tire?”
Both Gould and Carol Tavris, also at the dinner, suspected it was an urban legend because they had heard a vaguely similar story. The next day I repeated the story to my students, three of whom simultaneously blurted out “which tire?” before I could give the punch line. They had heard the story in high school. Urban legends spread far, wide and fast.
The following are examples of rumours that, in fact, have no basis in truth:
- The secret ingredient in Dr Pepper is prune juice.
- A woman accidentally killed her poodle by drying it in a microwave oven.
- Paul McCartney died and was replaced by a lookalike.
- Giant alligators live in the sewers of New York City.
- The moon landing was faked and filmed in a Hollywood studio.
- George Washington had wooden teeth (false teeth were made of ivory or walrus tusk).
- The number of stars inside the “P” on Playboy magazine’s cover indicates how many times publisher Hugh Hefner had sex with the centrefold (it was actually just a distribution code).
- A flying saucer crashed in New Mexico and the bodies of the E.T.s are being kept by the Air Force in a secret warehouse.
There are a thousand more like these that are titillating to consider but should not be taken seriously without confirming evidence.
Unexplained Is Not Inexplicable
Most people are overconfident enough to think that if they cannot explain something, it must be inexplicable and therefore a true mystery of the paranormal. There is nothing more amusing than an amateur archaeologist declaring that because he cannot figure out how the pyramids were built, that they must have been constructed by space aliens.
Even those who are more reasonable at least think that if the experts cannot explain something it must be inexplicable. This is often seen in the performance of seemingly impossible feats, such as the bending of spoons, firewalking, or mental telepathy, which are thought to be of a paranormal or mystical nature because most people cannot explain them. And when they are explained most people respond with a “yes, of course”, or “that’s obvious once you see it”.
Firewalking is a case in point: people speculate about supernatural powers over pain and heat, or mysterious brain chemicals secreted to block the pain and prevent burning. The simple explanation is that the capacity of light and fluffy coals to contain heat is very low, and the conductivity of the heat from the light and fluffy coals to your feet is very poor. As long as you don’t stand around on the coals you will not get burned. (Think of a cake in a 450-degree heated oven. The air, cake and pan are all 450 degrees. Only the metal will burn your hand, because air and cake are light and fluffy and have a low heat capacity and conductivity.)
This is why magicians do not tell their secrets. Most of their tricks are extremely simple and knowing them takes the magic out of the trick.
There are many genuine unsolved mysteries in the universe and it is okay to say “We do not yet know but someday perhaps we will”.
Coincidences Are Not Causation
Coincidences are a type of contingency — a conjecture of two or more events without apparent design. When the connection is made in a manner that seems impossible by our intuition of the laws of probability, there is a tendency to think something mysterious or paranormal is at work.
You go to the phone to call your friend Bob. The phone rings and it is Bob. You think, “Wow, what are the chances? This could not have been a mere coincidence. Maybe Bob and I are communicating telepathically.”
Most people have a very poor understanding of the laws of probability. Gamblers will win six in a row and think they are on a “hot streak”. Or they will think they are “due to lose”. They have just predicted both possible outcomes, a fairly safe bet! The probability of two people having the same birth date in a room of 30 people is 71%, yet most would be shocked to find such a “coincidence” and think something mysterious was at work.
As B.F. Skinner proved in the laboratory, the human mind seeks relationships between events and often finds them even when they are not present. Slot-machines are based on Skinnerian principles of intermittent reinforcement. The dumb human, like the dumb rat, only needs an occasional reinforcement to keep pulling the handle. The mind will do the rest.
I believe that one of the reasons paranormal beliefs and pseudoscientific claims flourish in market economies is because of the uncertainty of the marketplace. According to James Randi once communism collapsed in Russia there was a significant increase in such beliefs.
Not only are the people freer to try and swindle each other with scams and rackets, many truly believe they have discovered something significant about the nature of the world. Capitalism is a lot less stable a social structure. These uncertainties lead the mind to look for explanations for the vagaries and contingencies of the market (and life in general), and these often take a turn toward the supernatural and paranormal.
Continued next issue.
Skeptics can take an active stance in their daily lives, according to this abridged version of the Chair-entity’s after-dinner speech from the Conference.
It’s been four years since I stood before a skeptical audience in Nelson and confessed to being a dry skeptic who was a little wet behind the ears. It’s been an interesting four years, not least due to the fact that the following year’s Skeptics conference saw me elevated to the Chair-entityship.
Since then I’ve learnt a lot — in many cases more than I care to know — about the human capacity for self-deception, gullibility and, in some cases, sheer greed. I’ve been asked to make pronouncements on everything from moa sightings to the Maori science curriculum, and have cheerfully done so while attempting to ensure that the Skeptics did not come across as a dogmatic, authoritarian bunch of killjoys. When people ask me who the Skeptics are, I reply “We’re the guys that say the Emperor’s not wearing any clothes and how come no-one else has noticed.”
We do know that the sorts of things that Denis and I and others have done has meant that the Skeptics as an organisation have had an effect. That’s recognised by the number of calls from journalists I get which begin with “We don’t want to get the Bent Spoon so we thought we’d better check with you guys…” It is gratifying to note that such calls have increased over the past four years.
I’ve also been interested to see how the development of international electronic contacts has helped various skeptical causes. The sci.skeptic newsgroup on Usenet is woefully deficient in the apparently mandatory pornographic pictures and pyrotechnical instructions, but it does provide a useful information source for the many and varied idiocies that Man is heir to. It is useful to be able to drop a note on the Net asking for information on the latest visiting loony and to have that information to hand when you’re rung up and asked to comment on everything from flying saucer conspiracies to creationism.
It also means we can be forewarned of forthcoming fads simply by keeping an eye on what’s happening overseas and waiting just a bit. We’ve seen alien abductions, satanic ritual abuse and repressed memory arrive here following their development in the US scene. I am glad to say that it looks like interest in those areas has peaked as the voracious US appetite for sensationalism and voyeurism moves on.
Keep an eye out for millennial sightings — the Holy Virgin appearing in a taro or reports of guardian angels (complete with wings, rather than red berets) helping out the afflicted. That seems to be the latest enthusiasm Stateside.
For those of you who’d like to try something a little more practical in terms of applied skepticism, I have some suggestions for you as to the options that lie open for the skeptic who wishes to be a little more proactive in his or her life.
I believe that there are many ways in which we can make a difference.
Perhaps first and foremost is demanding from our media that they treat us as intelligent, rational beings who are capable of sitting through an hour-long television investigation into a complex subject, who are interested in reading material that is challenging and thought-provoking. It’s a delight each year to be able to select the awards for journalistic excellence — I just wish we had more candidates.
By all means complain to the television people and to the papers if they run stupid stories or totally uncritical puff pieces. If you can, explain why you were annoyed, suggest things that could have been included, useful source people for opinions or interviews. Make the complaint a constructive one.
But also, please, don’t forget to write and praise them when something good comes along. It’s a sneaky strategy but one that can be far more effective — praise is a rare thing these days and tends to be remembered far longer than just another rant.
We shouldn’t be content with just taking on the media, as critical thinking is important in all aspects of our lives.
I stopped using the chemist in our local mall when they started stocking homeopathic first aid kits. I had managed to ignore the expanding shelves of homeopathics, aromatherapy oils, megavitamins and the like, but the promotion of a first aid kit based on homeopathic principles was too much. It makes a mockery of the much-touted phrase “the health professional you see most often”.
It also makes me wonder about the professional ethics of these so-called health professionals that they are able to stock material like this and do in-store promotions pushing pseudo-medicine. I presume that it’s more a matter of ignorance in most cases, but which is more disturbing — a chemist who apparently doesn’t know the difference between tested, regulated medicinal materials and diluted, evaporated water tablets; or the chemist who does know what they’re touting and doesn’t care?
(As an aside, I believe that sloppiness or ignorance in caring for the health of the public affects other areas of the pharmacy involved. On the last three occasions when I went to buy something medicinal there, I noticed that the use-by dates were well and truly over, in one case by three years.)
I make an effort not to buy from Amcal chemists after having read the mix of fact and fantasy in a glossy “Healthcare” advertorial magazine. In amongst some relatively sensible pieces on middle ear infections and coping with thrush, they had an article and advert on aromatherapy, touted as having been a part of our medical history from 2,000 years ago, when Hippocrates spoke of the benefits of an aromatic bath.
Now I like an aromatic bath or a massage as much as anyone, but I find it difficult to believe that a trained pharmacist can tout burning essential oil of lemon for the promotion of clarity, inspiration and to provide excellent antiviral properties. I expect to find these sort of products and claims in a New Age shop of one form or another, between the mung beans and the royal jelly, not from someone who presumably has some modicum of medical acumen.
I’m pleased to say that I now walk down the road to another chemist which doesn’t foist these money-spinners onto an ignorant public. I talked to this pharmacist about why I support his shop — he doesn’t have homeopathics or other dubious items. He does have garlic tablets, vitamin pills and the like but I can live with that because, being realistic, there is market demand for them and there is some use in them. (He also has them tucked down on a bottom shelf for those who want them, rather than spilling over everything else in sight.)
I was waiting for a prescription the other day, idly picked up one of the bottles of vitamins and was startled to find in rather large letters on the side “These vitamins are recommended for use where dietary intake is inadequate for some reason — eg pregnancy, heavy sports training.”
In effect, the label was telling the consumer that if you’re eating properly and your body’s not stressed, don’t bother with these. It’s an odd thing to have on a product you’re trying to sell. Even odder was the fact that this was on a product from Roche, one of the supposedly big nasty chemical companies who are out to poison the planet.
I checked out the labels on vitamins from the friendly, healthy organic companies who are there to make your world a better place to live in. Of the four different manufacturers in stock, only one of these had an equivalent label, though it was less direct, printed in much smaller type and came after all the information on how many tablets you should be swallowing daily.
What does this tell us about the ethics in operation here? It’s certainly counter to all the chemophobic propaganda that masquerades as advertising, articles in the popular press and in the minds of the general public.
Sure we need to keep an eye on what those chemical companies are up to — it’s taken a lot of concerted action over the past 30 years to produce at least some measure of control and consumer safety issues. But we can’t afford to let those other commercial organisations get away with things just because they’re touting a natural, organic, alternative image.
The same goes for other areas where organisations want to take the moral high ground on certain issues. One such area is that of environmental issues. I consider myself a practising environmentalist — though often I prefer to use the term ecologist these days, as the former has gained many connotations which make me uncomfortable.
Some years back, Heather Mackay sent me an environmental magazine that had just started up. The articles were advertorial on one sort or another, spelling out the wonders of guaranteed dolphin-free tuna next to ads from a large seafood provider and so on.
One article in particular which caught my eye was the one which said that all our allergies and modern ills are being caused by the decreasing amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. It went on to recommend that we all consume what it called “oxygen water” to boost our flagging immune systems; oxygen water being defined as “simply water with an extra oxygen atom attached”. It doesn’t take much chemistry to realise that H<W0V>20 plus 0 equals H<W0V>20<W0V>2, or hydrogen peroxide. Some of you may recall the delightful speech we had from Alan Hart a few years ago on the dubious benefits to be gained from this potentially potent hair bleach and rocket fuel. So I took a look at the organisation putting out this publication and found that they were an environmental group who focused on marine issues. Interestingly, neither the people at the local DOC conservancy, nor friends at our local Environment and Peace Centre knew much about the group, beyond the fact that they produced a nice range of T-shirts.
It’s one environment group which won’t get my money or support, and I’m equally distrustful of the advertisers and products in their publication. Much in all as I don’t want to eat tuna which has had a high sidekill of dolphins, I’d rather it came from a company which has put some thought into the sort of marketing it undertakes.
I’m also dubious about another group which had been campaigning heavily against horticultural use of pesticides. A group of orchardists had apparently been spraying their crops and their neighbours in a new subdivision nearby immediately were said to have come down with nausea, coughs, headaches, asthma attacks — everything short of leprosy it seemed.
The environmental group produced a photo as proof that the spraying was at fault. It showed a plane releasing a cloud of noxious looking vapour which was obviously going to pass over the nearby houses.
A chemical safety consultant friend of mine identified the plane and checked things out. He found out that the contractor had released a light smoke bomb to check wind direction and spray drift — no spraying had been undertaken at all during the period claimed. He told the group involved that they’d got things wrong and was told yes they knew that, no it didn’t matter — the protest aims were more important than the truth. He promptly resigned his membership.
I didn’t bother renewing my Consumer subscription after they got the Bent Spoon award a couple of years ago. It was not so much that they got the award (everyone in publishing has the odd “off” issue), it was the injured, rather self-righteous tones with which the appalling article was defended that made me feel the organisation no longer had sufficient credibility in my eyes to keep me a member.
I still read the magazine in the library from time to time, but I’m a lot more skeptical about their pieces than I once was. After all, I do know something about the alternative health scene and could judge for myself how poorly researched the piece was — I don’t know anything about medical insurance or stereo systems, so how do I know what they’re writing on those issues is right?
I remain highly skeptical about acupuncture and its uses, but didn’t have too many problems with it until a mother in my local baby group announced that her acupuncturist had said the best way to treat a baby with a fever was to bleed it.
“That’s positively medieval” I gasped, only to be reassured “oh no, it’s much older than that, the Chinese have been doing it for thousands of years”.
I knew this woman wasn’t going to be interested in a tirade, but I pointed out just how little blood a small baby has to lose before it gets into dire trouble. She could see what I was getting at and even nodded when I added that she might like to consider changing her acupuncturist.
If you can stop and make people think about an issue, explain even briefly why you have problems coming to terms with something which uses pseudoscience or shonky science, then you’ve done a Good Thing. And it isn’t really that hard to make people think.
If you explain homeopathic solutions in terms of a teaspoonful of gin to a Pacific Ocean of tonic, people can immediately grasp what you’re getting at when you’re challenging the idea of potent dilutions.
When people stop and think about it, they know that it doesn’t seem all that likely that a civilisation immeasurably more advanced than ours would want to travel hundreds of thousands of miles across space to stick things up the noses of neurotic Americans. The idea becomes even more ridiculous when you point out that the figures being bandied about for alien abductions mean that one American has been abducted every minute every night for the past 30 years. People know that there are simpler solutions.
One of the loveliest images I have come across in trying to explain the skeptical ideal of seeking the most likely explanation for strange phenomena is the one used on our new Skeptics leaflets and on our Web page:
When you hear the sound of hoofbeats in the night, think first of horses, not zebras.
The image appeals to me, as does the fact that it doesn’t rule out the possibility that it might just be a herd of zebras cantering past your window, depending on your circumstances…
That’s the sign of the thinking skeptic.
Post-mortem on the autopsy or autopsy on the post-mortem?
Post-mortem undoubtedly. There could hardly be a deader duck than the supposed Roswell autopsy film, whatever species of being or inanimate object we saw being carved up.
I will leave to others discussion of the murky provenance of this film, and the many anachronisms said to infect it. Instead, I offer some thoughts on biological aspects.
The cadaver pictured, if genuinely extra-terrestrial, represents perhaps the most important piece of biological material ever to come into human possession. To merely carry out the crude dissection shown would be only the tiniest beginning of any investigation which researchers of fifty years ago would have carried out. One might almost say that anatomists, histologists and biochemists, both then and now, would kill for the possession of a few grams of the “meat” on that slab.
By the late 1940s, the essential similarities of all terrestrial life-forms had been established — the aqueous environment necessary for cellular activity, the universal genetic code of nucleic acids, the cellular machinery of proteins built up from a few L-amino acids, the resemblances in energy metabolism, and many other features. Were the object the body of a genuine extra-terrestrial, I cannot conceive that the medical and scientific people involved in the autopsy would not have seized on this, the first opportunity in human history to investigate such a thing, and make a thorough microscopic, chemical and biochemical analysis of what they had in the hand. If the autopsy was genuine, where is all this information? Are we to believe that someone has been sitting on it for nearly fifty years, when publication, either official or by a “leak”, would yield instant fame and fortune?
Some knowledge of extra-terrestrial biology could be expected to confer an advantage on those holding it, by offering a different perspective on how we ourselves work. There appears no evidence of this in American research publications; scientists in the US, as everywhere else, are groping at the frontier between the known and the unknown, using only our knowledge of Earth-based biology.
Should mankind ever have the opportunity to investigate extra-terrestrial life-forms, scientists the world over would say with Wordsworth “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive …”. The prospect is vastly grander and more exciting than anything seen in the Roswell “autopsy”.
Surprising results from a US study of the effectiveness of counselling on reducing juvenile crime.
In the March NZ Skeptic, Dr John Welch’s excellent column mentioned an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) about a social experiment which started in 1939. I have not seen the BMJ article but it can only refer to the Cambridge-Somerville experiment. Not just because this was the only such study started in 1939, but it is still (to the best of my knowledge) the only large-scale, long-term study on the effects of counselling which can reasonably be regarded as good science.
It is worth looking at this famous experiment in a little more detail. The instigator was the Harvard Professor of Medicine and Social Ethics. The subjects were boys between the age of five and 13 thought to be “at risk” of juvenile delinquency. It was proposed that a programme be started to prevent these boys becoming delinquent. It would involve “all the aid that a resourceful counsellor could possibly give, backed by the school and community agencies”.
In fact it eventually involved churches, scouts, YMCA, and summer camps plus, where necessary, medical and psychiatric treatment. The counsellors were particularly concerned to involve the families of the boys and this was done whenever possible. The treatment programme was intensive and lengthy; on average it lasted five years — a considerable time in the life of a child.
Professor Cabot (who died in the year the project started), while convinced the programme would be valuable, was concerned that it should be properly assessed. Thus the boys were grouped into 325 matched pairs, each pair being similar in age, background, etc. One of each pair was randomly assigned to the treatment group, the other to the control. It is because of this that it was possible to decide “Did the treatment help?”.
Major papers on this study were published in 1949 and 1951 and the final paper, by Dr Joan McCord, was published in 1978. Some 253 of the matched pairs had completed the programme and 30 years after the project started, Dr McCord was able to locate 480 of the men involved.
About half of these were from the treatment group, and about two thirds of them felt the project had been helpful and improved their lives. Most had fond memories of their counsellors.
Dr Welch writes that the BMJ article found the treatment group to be “sicker, drunker, poorer and more criminal”. This is true but I think it important to note the individual differences were very small.
The project was started to prevent juvenile crime. Of the treatment group, 72 had a juvenile criminal record, compared with 67 from the control group. This is a very slight difference, but clearly the project failed in its main aim which was to prevent juvenile delinquency.
Similarly, 49 of the treatment group had been involved in serious adult crime, compared with 42 of the control group. Again a very slight difference. For factors such as recidivism, alcoholism, stress-related illness, and job satisfaction the pattern was similar. That is, the control group did better than those who were treated — but only by a very small amount.
In only one important way was the treatment group better — minor adult crime. But again the difference was very slight: 119 of the treatment group had minor criminal records, compared with 126 for the control group.
It is true, however, that taken together the differences between the two groups were found to be statistically significant. The treated group had been harmed by the treatment, although the harm was minimal and would not have been revealed by a small-scale study.
There are several major lessons for skeptics here. Firstly, all treatments should be properly assessed and that means using a control group (obviously in this kind of treatment “blind” studies are not possible). How much money (taxpayers’ money) is being spent in New Zealand on counselling? Is the money well spent? Is any attempt being made to assess the value of the treatment?
Secondly, the natural and powerful objections to such assessments must be resisted. The idea of using a control group horrifies many people — “But these people are being used in an experiment! They are not being treated!” Such objections assume we already know the treatment works. But we do not know this and our intuition may be completely wrong.
Thirdly, people are incapable of objectively assessing their own treatment. That is why testimonials to the healing power of any treatment are completely worthless.
Fourthly, non-intervention may be the best treatment. The problem is that it is the hardest to apply because there are powerful forces mobilised against it. The patient welcomes treatment (just how neglected did those boys in the control group feel?) and the professional wants to help.
Counselling is getting to be a major industry in New Zealand but its value should be questioned. All such professionals should adopt the motto “First do no harm”, but until proper assessments are made, how do they know whether they are doing harm or good?
The following extract from William Doyle’s Oxford History of the French Revolution (pp 64-65) reminds us that things change but things remain the same.
The final sentence reminds us that widespread restlessness, pseudo-science and general foolishness may have tragic consequences:
America appealed, in fact, to what Jean-Joseph Mounier, one of the leading [French] revolutionaries of 1789 would later remember as “as general restlessness and desire for change”. It manifested itself in the vogue for wonders of all sorts, whether Franklin”s lightning rod, or the first manned flights in the hot-air balloons seen rising over so many cities in 1783 and 1784, or a craze for mesmerism and miraculous cures effected by tapping the supposedly hidden natural forces of “animal magnetism”. Established religion might be losing its mystic appeal, but science was bringing other miracles to light.
Belief in plots and conspiracies was yet another sign of the credulity of the times. The same cast of mind also tended to seek simple, universal formulae to resolve any problem, no matter how complex. Its limitations would be tragically exposed in the storm that was about to break.
Late in his life, in answer to a question, Freud compared the human condition approximately to the contents of a baby’s nappy. When I first heard this story, it seemed to mark a bitter old man. That was when I was in high school in the late 1950s. Higher education was spreading in the world’s democracies. Ignorance and superstition, the plague of the human species since the caves, were on the way out. Reason, knowledge and tolerance would rule the future of the world. Or so it seemed. Does it look like that today, even to high school students? A few news items:
- A British insurance salesman is convicted of double murder on the testimony from one of his victims, who was contacted during deliberations by three jurors using a Ouija board. Because British law normally does not allow even appeal courts to question jury deliberations, the conviction may stand.
- Australian medical schools are being filled by significant intakes of Darwin-doubting fundamentalists, possibly 20%-25% of students. These wholesome young people will in the course of time advance, attaining places on the policy boards of hospitals, using their authority to determine health policies.
- In South Africa a woman was forced by a mob to douse her mother in petrol and set her alight, before she and the rest of her family were killed. Her crime: being a witch. There is a steep increase in killing of witches in South Africa.
- The Oz Skeptics have awarded their annual Bent Spoon to the Australian Attorney General, who has made it possible for workers in his department to take sick leave with a note from an iridologist, naturopath, homeopath or other alternative practitioner.
- Freud’s doctrine of repression is itself responsible for the smell of nappy-contents that surrounds “recovered memory” therapy, probably the most vicious pseudoscientific fad ever to be adopted by the counselling industry. The fashion to blame all of life’s disappointments on “repressed” episodes of incest has caused more human suffering than any single issue to confront the New Zealand Skeptics.
- Not that the therapists want to stop beating the drum of victimhood. When the BBC went across the Channel to give its extensive coverage to the D-Day commemorations, it made free counselling available to all its employees who might be upset by the experience. I’m not making this up. It’s more than the survivors of Omaha Beach got, but we’re so much more sensitive these days!
The meliorism of the 1950s has evaporated. Why? Some talk of abandonment of moral standards, others the rise of the nuclear threat — or the decline of the nuclear family, while others will blame it on the fall of religion — or of communism. My candidate is the degradation of education in its broadest sense — the failure of the modern democracies to give sufficient knowledge and critical, analytical abilities to young people at all levels. The dumbing down of public education, with its mantras in praise of self-esteem rather than hard-won knowledge is bad enough. But even school is being replaced by television, with all its shallowness and sentimentality, as the major enculturating force. Ignorance, prejudice, and superstitions thrive in ways that would have amazed me thirty years ago.
The next time someone tells you how much better the world is becoming with instant global communications, innovative educational methodologies, and your therapy needs covered by ACC — think skeptically!
Following his own empirical observations that bee “treatments” helped his arthritis, a Levin bee-keeper is claiming that he is being ignored by the medical profession. (Press 3/8/93) Not surprisingly, his trial of 11 patients failed to impress skeptical observers. Two patients dropped out and the remainder reported that the “sting” was effective. Having paid for the privilege of being stung, a sensation to be normally avoided, they are hardly likely to say that the treatment was worthless.
In the middle ages, hornets were applied to the skin as a treatment for plague. Nothing appears to have been learned from such unpleasant, not to say dangerous, treatments.
An unqualified woman who posed as a doctor and professor, was sent to prison for 6 months for fraudulently claiming that she could cure cancer and AIDS. Analysis of her product, Cancelle, or CH6, showed “it had no medicinal properties and contained toxic elements.” (BMJ 306 p1499).
It is ironic that the courts (in the UK at least) will move swiftly to deal with quacks, but the medical profession has failed to take action against registered medical practitioners who practice quackery such as homeopathy and EAV diagnosis.
Australia has a high rate (30-35%) of caesarean sections among private patients, and the introduction of a global obstetric fee that applied irrespective of the mode of delivery did not change the proportion of caesarean deliveries. (BMJ 306 p1218) The caesarean rate in Brazil is an amazing 50% on average, with the highest rates among the poor. Two reasons for this are a virtual absence of midwives and the belief (encouraged by obstetricians) that a vaginal delivery will permanently impair normal intercourse afterwards. Both of these examples demonstrate how doctors can develop bad practices when the socio-cultural environment allows this to happen. Only patient education with strong and ethical professional medical leadership, can prevent this kind of surgical abuse.
Low back pain
Readers will remember Denis Dutton reporting his experiences with an episode of low back pain, or lumbago (Skeptic 24). A Canadian study (British Journal of Industrial Medicine 1993; 50:385-8) found that the best treatment for uncomplicated lumbago was to remain active. The traditional treatment of bed rest was thought to encourage chronic invalidism.
This theme was continued by Robin McKenzie (Press 11/6/93) who attacked the current traditional approach to low back pain. Of physiotherapy, he said “it had for 75 years relied on unproven methods and `hocus-pocus’ electrical gadgetry” and he went on to say that “doctors should prescribe active rather than passive therapies.” Most controversial was his statement that “50% of workers on compensation were feigning illness.”
I am sure that there is an element of truth here. Physiotherapists use a wide variety of treatments and machines, many of which have not been adequately tested. It is too easy for people to refuse to accept responsibility for their own recovery and become chronically dependent on ACC. This applies not only to back injuries but other conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and occupational overuse syndrome (OOS).
Readers will be familiar with my position with respect to OOS, which has its roots in abnormal illness behaviour and psychological factors. It is interesting to compare it with the “sick building syndrome” (SBS), another new age medical invention. At last someone has done a trial of randomly increasing the ventilation rate while getting workers to report their perception of the indoor environment. (NEJE 328: 821-7)
To quote the authors: “Increases in the supply of outdoor air did not appear to affect workers’ perceptions of their office environment or their reporting of symptoms considered typical of the sick building syndrome.”
I would like to offer what I regard as a more likely explanation of the SBS which also relates to OOS. People crowded into a large building, working at VDUs and perhaps isolated from each other are always going to be vulnerable to a belief that the working environment is in some way responsible for vague and ill-defined malaise.
A report of a survey in the Christchurch Press (21/5/93) confirmed a high level of stress and dissatisfaction in the workplace. Half of the respondents said they would change jobs if they could and many felt that changes in conditions had resulted in more work for less pay. Most felt that they had less power to control their work environment.
Such surveys are extremely valuable because they provide a clue to the origin of conditions such as CFS, SBS, and OOS. I have no difficulty in accepting job-related stress, but I would prefer to see some honest acknowledgement of this by patients and doctors instead of the fraudulent collusion which creates mythical conditions as CFS, SBS and OOS.
Placebo controlled trials
Since such trials appeared in the late 1940s they have continued to be a valuable tool for investigating the efficacy of new treatments and drugs. Fish oil supplements were tested against placebo capsules for the treatment of psoriasis and there was no significant improvement in either group (NEJM — reported in GP Weekly 7 July 93). Refer also Skeptic 27 for an excellent review of the placebo effect by Dr Bill Morris.
Weight loss delusions
The diet industry is worth millions as women strive to achieve the impossible standards set by the fashion industry. Journalists have even invented a new term for fat, “cellulite”, which apparently looks and feels different from other body fat. (Marlborough Express 24 Sep 92) It can be removed by massage and body treatment products. Obese subjects can pay $180 to be blasted with water jets which “eliminate fat deposits and excess fluid” while hydrotherapy with miracle algae can “restore a balanced energy flow to the body”. (New Scientist 1 June 1991 p47) I hope this particular clinic has good grease traps in its drains.
Other researchers try and tell us that obesity is inherited and therefore nothing can be done. This ignores the success of weight-watchers and the obvious argument that if weight can be gained it must also be able to be lost.
A study (NEJM reported in Patient Management June 1993) found that diet-resistant patients under-reported their actual food intake by 47% and over-reported their physical activity by 51% and “diet-resistant patients were significantly more likely than control subjects to believe that they had a genetic or metabolic cause for their obesity, and to describe their eating behaviour as relatively normal”. This important work clearly demonstrates yet again the importance of patient beliefs in relation to illness behaviour.
While on the subject of over-eating, I note that a typical cat living in Britain is given twice as much protein a day as that eaten by a typical poor African.(BMJ Vol 306 p1078)
In Skeptic 26 I offered to go into business with anyone prepared to join me in selling pure water labelled as “homeopathic preparations”. Two homeopaths were indignant about the use of active ingredients in the case of herbal medicine poisoning I described in Skeptic 28 and one went on to say “it is absolutely unethical for any medicine to be sold as natural and especially as homeopathic if it were to include pharmacologically active ingredients”. (Letters – BMJ Vol 306 p656)
I still think it would be a bit of fun to sell some pure water (labelled as homeopathic preparations), invite prosecution and argue it out in court. It could prove to be a more useful arena in which to examine the enduring scam of homeopathy. I could enjoy hearing homeopaths being cross-examined by a skeptical lawyer. At least selling pure water is honest!
Not content with exterminating tigers in their own country, the Chinese have over 110 factories turning tiger bone into tablets, wine and various confections. Presumably the ingestion of such products is believed to confer some of the vigor and vitality of the unfortunate tiger. There are only about 6,000 tigers globally and trading in tiger products is banned by international convention. What a monumental folly that these magnificent and intelligent animals end up being turned into useless traditional medicines because of human stupidity and superstition. (Lancet Vol 341 p46)
The New Internationalist Review, a magazine not normally known for gullibility beyond the political, decided not all that long ago to examine the paranormal. Our intrepid reporter Peter Lange decided to have a look.
Last year the New Internationalist gave over an entire issue (November) to the subject of the paranormal in what seemed to be an effort to keep readers’ interest over 12 months of fairly heavy political going — a bit like the cream buns halfway through bible class. It seems to be a good-hearted publication, and in this case under the editorship of Chris Brazier it has attempted to research several popular aspects of the paranormal and tried to sum up without favour. The result is disappointing.
The journalistic approach goes like this… set the scene with a cloyingly cute question-and-answer dialogue with an imaginary reader, add one solitary article by a skeptic (the excellent Susan Blackmore), then a series of ten articles supporting the paranormal, and end with a statement by the researching journalist Brazier: “Something happened, I just don’t know what. And I’m afraid that could serve as an adequate summary of human understanding of the paranormal”.
The photographs include: a levitating mystic (India, 1936), two of Einstein (one before and one after discovering relativity, and you can see the difference), Uri Geller looking aghast at a bent spoon, two African women studying bones they have just dropped (maybe the spoon carrying them had bent), and a woman in Algeria grimacing with pain while the head of the Virgin Mary materialises out of the side of her neck. And I don’t blame her for feeling out of sorts. Why do such undignified phenomena always involve the Virgin Mary and never Groucho Marx? He could carry it off so much better.
Susan Blackmore’s article is strong — it offers (unfortunately) mundane explanations for a variety of strange experiences — out-of-body travel, coincidence, memory tricks, near-death-experiences — all the areas that create so much interest and confusion.
The next article is by the editor and is a slightly humorous account of trying to induce an out-of-body experience by following a set of commercial instructions. He fails, and of course blames himself rather than the nonsense put out in the best-selling book.
Next, a European woman describes sleepwalking in darkest Africa: “My friend Femina was found running through the village one night naked, with teeth marks on her cheeck and neck — she wouldn’t tell me what happened to her”. I’m not surprised. Her car’s headlights mysteriously go out while driving between two haunted rocks, she finds a dead chicken in a closed hut with its feet inexplicably removed, and so on. All serious evidence of forces outside her comprehension.
Next, an article on shamanism (written by a shaman) ingenuously explaining the taking of the hallucinogenc “yakoana” (“which produces effects like the spirits coming with huge machetes, cutting out your tongue, and putting your head upside down inside your body”) and then declaring the whole business an inexplicable mystery. Most Sixties children would find it fairly easy to explain.
Then follows an article on CIA remote viewing or “psychic spying” by a director of an American Institute of Parapsychology. It seems to work well as long as the enemy uses only a house, boat or tree for military purposes. A series of small text blocks is next, on everything from astrology to levitation to dowsing to incombustibility among the Maori people of New Zealand. All of them without exception support the paranormal claims, and there is evidence to show that if Winston Peters is sentenced to burning at the stake for heresy, it will be a waste of good firewood.
The most hilarious one is by Nina Silver, a New York channeller, who channels not through the normal dead characters like Winston Churchill or Egyptian kings, but through “a particle of gold light” — a female light, incidentally, and a committed feminist particle. She found herself on the outer with other channellers, who felt threatened by her liberated, often raunchy, luminous girlfriend who obviously didn’t fit into the staid and patriarchal Association of Channellees.
Chris Brazier then completes his investigation by attempting to meet his “spirit sister Marie” whom Nina has located, and then spends three hours working on it, culminating in a surge of energy coming down through the top of his head as the spirit enters his body and possibly his wallet. Having got in, the spirit fails to perform. Still in New York (could this be relevant?) he repeats the incoming spirit experience, but back in England the effect fails to recur.
Brazier is entirely convinced by the research of J.B. Rhine and his followers purporting to show that ESP and psychokinesis are possible, but admits that the evidence for the paranormal is anecdotal. “One thing is clear”, he says, “science can offer no explanation … except … when science itself becomes almost mystical”. Ahem.
The magazine is worthy, full of good political and environmental intentions, but in this case journalistically suspect and unbalanced, and inclined to put the sensational case before the rational. It sinks to the level of the National Enquirer for one of two reasons — an almost endearing ingenuousness or a cynical need to titillate and retain readers.