A Close-Run Thing

The Eugenics movement in New Zealand had legislative successes greater than anywhere in the world outside the USA and Nazi Germany

Eugenics was a phenomenon that lasted for less than a hundred years, although for some it still exists as a rational stand to take on the population problem, if not as a scientific theory. Of course advances in genetics have reintroduced the idea that we can by our own scientific efforts improve the human race. It was a theory that engaged not only some of the finest scientific, but also the finest philosophical and ethical minds of the day. It was a scientific theory that was brought to a halt less by scientific inquiry than by the moral revulsion produced by the excesses of Nazi Germany. Eugenics is interesting partly at least because New Zealand went further than anywhere else except for Germany and the US in the application of practical Eugenics in certain areas of legislation.

Francis Galton (1822-1911) began an investigation in the 1860s into the inheritance of genius, which was to have profound effects on the way people viewed the poor and the handicapped for almost 100 years. His ideas incorporated those of his cousin Charles Darwin and others who were worried that evolution might be reversed, and the human race become “degenerate” if those regarded as of little worth were allowed to breed unchecked, and the middle classes restricted the size of their families. Galton had some funny ideas about what might be inherited genetically from one’s forebears. Love of the sea for instance, as he noticed that the sons of ships’ captains often followed their fathers to sea. Galton was joined in his research and beliefs by several famous researchers including Karl Pearson, regarded by some as the founder of modern statistics.

Eugenics remained a concern mainly of a few biologists and statisticians until the first decade of the 20th century when it became very popular with certain sections of the public in particularly Europe and the US, although it did spread almost throughout the world. In Britain the popular movement was begun by Sybil Gotto, a recent widow. Many wellknown people either joined or supported the society. Cyril Burt, Havelock Ellis, Julian Huxley, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, all supported eugenics. Winston Churchill represented Britain at the second international congress in 1912. His views on the subject were considered so embarrassing to the government that they were suppressed until 1991. The reasons for the popularity of eugenics are complex but can probably be ascribed to perceived social problems affecting the latter half of the 19th century and the relatively new belief in science as the answer to the world’s problems. Both the popular and scientific beliefs in eugenics were remarkably resistant to the discovery of evidence refuting them.

Two family case studies came to encapsulate popular eugenics ideas about the results of degeneration. Both of these came from the US. The Jukes were a related group of misfits and criminals traceable to a single couple in New York State. The Kallikaks were a pseudonymous feeble-minded family discovered by H. H. Goddard, a prominent American eugenist who published his research about the heritability of feeble-mindedness in 1912. Eugenists continued to use these case studies as evidence of the truth of their beliefs long after they had been discredited.

Eugenists were often associated with social darwinists, who saw the solution to the problem of racial degeneration in allowing a high death rate among the lower classes to keep their numbers down. However Eugenists were interested in using social instead of natural selection to increase the proportion of the best “stock” in the racial group. The definition of good and bad stock was entirely predictable. Eugenic worth was seen as incarnate in oneself and one’s associates, and there was general agreement that many of the traits of the lower classes, such as poverty, disease, mental defect, and unemployment were not only unwanted but inherited. Eugenists generally divided people into three broad groups: “desirables”, “passables”, and “undesirables”. The desirables were almost invariably members of the Eugenists own social grouping, that is members of the academic and professional classes. The passables did change slightly over time but tended to be seen as the upper end of the working class. The undesirables could be people with mental or physical disabilities, the poor, or members of a race lower on the Victorian hierarchy of ethnic groups, the highest of which of course was Anglo-Saxon.

Popular Movement

Eugenics then, became a small popular movement among sections of the middle class responding to what they saw as the major population problems of the 20th century, sparked off by specific events, such as the poor state of health of many of the population shown by medical examinations of troops in the Boer War, and the IQ tests given to American soldiers in World War I.1 The idea was to promote eugenics as a solution to these problems by either encouraging the worthy to breed (positive eugenics) or somehow discouraging or preventing those of lesser worth from having children (negative eugenics).

The German Society for Race Hygiene was established in 1905, the English Eugenics Education Society in 1907, the American Eugenics Record Office in 1910, and the French Eugenics Society in 1912. Eugenics societies were also established in Latin America. The New Zealand society was established in 1910. In Britain and the US laboratories were funded to undertake eugenic research. Karl Pearson became the first director of the Galton laboratory for National Eugenics at University College in London, and Charles Davenport founded the Eugenic Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor in the US, which due to its generous funding could employ hundreds of researchers, most of whom were women.2


Eugenists agitated for legislation which reflected their beliefs. This could be relatively benign. In France for instance, because Eugenists there remained Lamarckian in their outlook, they agitated for better working and living conditions for the lower classes in the belief that these conditions would produce healthier people who would pass on their good health to their descendants. In Germany however, because of their obsession with so-called racial hygiene, these beliefs eventually led to the Nazi programme of racial extermination.

Eugenic beliefs changed over time, tending to become more benign. Gradually, very gradually, scientists began to realise that eugenic beliefs simply didn’t stack up. However what was more influential was the association with the excesses of the Nazi regime, particularly in the US. Basically eugenics fizzled out from the 1930s onwards, and was regarded with loathing from 1945. Many Eugenists moved into the area of genetic counselling, advising rather than compelling the changes they wished to see. However as late as the 1950s at least one ex-eugenic researcher was employed by the tobacco industry to produce “research” showing that genetic predisposition, rather than smoking, was responsible for lung cancer.

The New Zealand Experience

Interestingly I could find no evidence of eugenic ideas in any of the New Zealand scientific journals in the 19th century. Eugenics in New Zealand was more a popular phenomenon that a scientific one. Those scientists that were interested in eugenics tended to be working in the public service rather than engaging in research.

New Zealanders did embrace eugenics enthusiastically however, when the first society was formed in Dunedin in 1910. As with the overseas experience members of these societies tended to be middle-class people, often medical or academic. Many politicians also accepted eugenics if they did not join the societies. One of the major eugenic publications, The Fertility of the Unfit was published by W B Chapple (later a Liberal MP in Britain) while he was resident in New Zealand.

The New Zealand societies agitated for eugenics to be applied to legislation in this country and began an education programme for schools and other interested bodies. As far as I could see eugenics was not as such taught in high schools or universities in this country, but some was certainly taught in training colleges, interestingly enough. (It was taught extensively in US high schools and colleges.)

Eugenists allegedly influenced the passing of the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act Amendment Bill of 1907, which granted divorces to those married to the insane, insanity being fairly broadly defined by Eugenists and regarded as something that could be bred out of the race.

In spite of the fact that the New Zealand eugenics societies lapsed at the beginning of World War I the fertility of the unfit remained a common cause of many influential New Zealanders. This culminated in the introduction of two bills which were to some extent designed to curb it. Part of the reason for doing this of course was economic, as the unfit were considered to be a huge drain on the finances of the state. Eugenics may have given these bills a certain scientific legitimacy which they may not otherwise have had.

The first of these was the Mental Defectives Bill of 1911. This was a large bill which set out to reorganise care of the “feeble-minded”. Much of it was concerned with classification, and treatment, and much of it was uncontroversial and of benefit to people in institutions. However a substantial proportion of the bill was concerned with the segregation of the allegedly feeble-minded from people of the opposite sex and protecting them from their own “uninhibited and promiscuous sexual nature”. People of unsound mind, and I might add that epileptics were considered to be in this category, were thought to breed like rabbits. Therefore carnal knowledge of mentally defective females became an offence, with consent of the female not considered to be a valid defence, although ignorance of her mental defect was. This bill passed with very little opposition, although MPs generally eschewed any drastic solutions to the problem such as sterilisation or contraception. Sterilisation was regarded at this time as both politically dangerous and a problem for doctors who may have been sued.

The next bill, the Mental Defectives Amendment Bill of 1928, was much more problematic, as it did include provisions for sterilisation of the unfit. Indeed a government committee of inquiry, which was set up to investigate the whole question of mental defect and sexual offending, discussed the lethal chamber with some enthusiasm. On the other hand, there was an organised and stout resistance to the bill from various politicians and members of the academic community.

Nationwide Questionnaire

The commission was a particularly thorough and large-scale exercise. A questionnaire was sent to every GP in the country, asking about numbers of mental defectives and suggestions for treatment. There was some discussion of eugenics in general in the New Zealand Medical Journal, but little about the actual bill. Very few GPs replied, and those that did tended to be scathing.

Almost everyone with any bureaucratic authority seems to have been solicited for an opinion, including the Government balneologist.3 The commission’s report was sought by a great number of organisations, from women’s groups and the major churches to the Theosophical Society. The list of organisations to which the report was sent runs to five pages and the print run for the report was very large. Overseas governments and organisations as far apart as Australia, the US and Germany also showed interest in the report.4 There seems to have been a general enthusiasm for sterilisation in the US, Germany and Scandinavia at this time. The first eugenic sterilisation laws in Europe were introduced in 1928 by the Swiss and in 1929 by the Government of Denmark. The Americans were also sterilising quite large numbers of people they judged to be mentally unfit, and had been, both informally and formally, for some years. All of this would have been apparent to the Inspector General of Mental Hospitals, when he was sent overseas to gather information for the bill.


The bill itself had a number of uncontroversial clauses relating to the classification and treatment of so-called mental defectives. Like the preceding act of 1911 much of the bill was procedural. However certain clauses relating to sterilisation of mental defectives, the prohibition of their marriage, the new classification of “social defectives”, and the classification of children who were two years behind in their school work as mentally defective, caused much controversy. The clause relating to the sterilisation of mental defectives attracted more opposition than anything else in the bill. (Although the trade unions were naturally opposed to the social defective classification, which they thought might be used against them.)

All this resulted in a remarkably lively debate in Parliament. Although the eugenic societies had been defunct for about 10 years it is obvious that eugenics ideas were very much alive. The opposition debate in particular was both vigorous and informed. Peter Fraser, who was the best informed of the (Labour) opposition members, had obviously done some research into genetics as he quoted some of the best geneticists of the day in support of his argument for dropping the controversial clauses. He also sensibly quoted a number of examples of famous fathers who had had less than perfect sons while refuting the inevitable references to the Jukes and Kallikaks.5 On the government side the arguments tended to be less scientific, although the Minister of Health claimed to have “…searched the world’s best literature on the subject…”. On the whole though, the government arguments tended to be fairly agricultural. The member for Riccarton, for instance, likened human beings to Clydesdales.

The best debate however took place in the daily newspapers. This paralleled the various debates on this topic overseas, with those people involved with the care and control of mental defectives generally being for sterilisation, and academic psychologists being against. This debate mostly took place in the Auckland papers but did spill over into others. It seems to have been between R A Fitt, professor of Education at Auckland University College, with W Anderson, Professor of Philosophy at the same institution on the one hand, and W H Triggs, chairman of the Committee of Inquiry into Mental Defectives and Sexual Offenders on the other. The general public did not on the whole take part in this debate.

Trenchant Criticisms

Professor Fitt offered some trenchant criticisms of the science that the bill was based on. His main objection was that there was not as yet enough scientific knowledge about the measurement of mental defect, or enough work on interpreting its causes. He also believed that the psychiatrists who were to be put in charge of the classification of mental defectives were not properly competent to do so. He quite rightly stated that scientific testing should be used instead of the intuition of the psychiatrists in charge of the classification board. Triggs’ defence of the government’s position on the bill was eugenic in nature, stressing typical ideas about the unrestricted multiplication of the unfit and its cost to the taxpayer. This debate went on for some time, in the form of letters and articles from the main protagonists and others, including the Controller of Prisons, B L Dallard, on the government side, and a group of Auckland academics and educationalists including the headmaster of Kings College.6 Others who supported Fitt and Anderson were Professor J S Tennant, Professor of Education at Victoria University College, and Professor James Shelly, Professor of Education at Canterbury University College.

Other groups who might have been expected to oppose this of course were the Catholic Church and the unions. Both of these groups, like Fitt and Anderson, were quite prepared to accept quite a bit of eugenic theory at least as regards to the inheritance of mental defect, but the Church opposed sterilisation for various ethical reasons, including the idea that it was punishing the morally innocent. Neither of these groups put up a particularly vigorous fight, at least in public. Particularly the Church which, if one looks at the amount of space dedicated to these topics in the Tablet, seemed much more concerned with the threat of prohibition.

It is fairly clear why the clauses concerning sterilisation were dropped. Public reaction as such was minimal, but the vigorous attack put up by politicians and academics probably had its effect. However, if the clauses had been implemented New Zealand would have been the first country to implement legislation of this type (excluding American states) and this would have been the most extreme eugenic legislation short of Nazi Germany.

There is very little information about eugenics in New Zealand but these two books are both good general reading. Kevles, D J, 1985: In the Name of Eugenics; Knopf, New York. Paul, D B, 1995: Controlling Human Heredity, 1865 to the Present; Humanities Press, New Jersey.


1 These tests purported to show that recruits who were of Southern and Eastern European stock, and non-Europeans had lower IQs than Anglo-Saxons. They were later shown to be deeply flawed.
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2 Eugenists attitudes towards women were contradictory, in that as “race mothers” womens’ major role of course was in breeding. Many women however were involved in eugenics research, possibly because they were cheaper, but some took doctorates which was apparently uncommon at the time.
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3 The person in charge of public baths.
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4 It is interesting to note that the German government introduced in 1932 legislation for voluntary sterilisation of various groups. Possibly the reaction in New Zealand to compulsory sterilisation influenced this legislation.
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5 We find for instance, that Luther’s son was insubordinate and violent; William Penn’s son was a debauched scoundrel; … the son of Cicero was a drunkard….
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6 These divisions reflect some of the debate that took place before the commission, except that two academic biologists who were consulted were both supporters of sterilisation or segregation. Others who gave evidence, including teachers, headmasters, probation officers, doctors, nurses, religious leaders and others were overwhelmingly of the opinion that mental deficiency is hereditary, that it can be easily identified, and that people with this problem should be segregated and/or sterilised if not desexed.
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Science and Environmental Policy – Challenges and Opportunities

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is calling for submissions on the role of science in environmental policy and decision-making. This article is based on a paper presented at the 2003 New Zealand Skeptics’ Conference in Wellington.

Are public policies and decisions that affect the environment adequately informed by science? How important is science relative to other considerations that environmental policy and decision-makers have to consider? How well are uncertainties reflected in policies and decisions and subsequently managed? Are the results expected of policies and decisions being achieved? These are a few of the issues that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) is currently investigating. As part of the project examining the role of science in environmental policy and decision-making, a discussion paper: Illuminated or Blinded by Science? was circulated by the PCE in July 2003 for comment. Its purpose was to encourage debate on the role of science in environmental policy and decision-making by elected representatives at central and local government as well as appointed decision-makers such as the Environmental Risk Management Authority and the Environment Court.

As an Officer of Parliament, the PCE is independent of these institutions. The Commissioner’s functions under the Environment Act 1986 enable him to investigate the effectiveness of systems and processes for managing the environment. The PCE’s interest in undertaking this study is to explore opportunities and barriers to improving the quality and effectiveness of environmental policies, decisions and outcomes, and the role that science plays in this.

The project was triggered by a number of concerns arising from previous PCE studies and from routine monitoring of environmental management decisions and policies of public authorities. These concerns include:

  • Gaps in knowledge and information that make policy and decision-making difficult and controversial, or the environmental outcomes uncertain. Examples include information gaps identified in the Ministry for the Environment’s 1997 State of the Environment report, and the controversy surrounding the potential consequences of lifting the moratorium on genetic modification.
  • Lessons to be learned about science-policy interface issues highlighted by the handling of the BSE (“mad cow” disease) incident in the UK in the late 1990s.
  • Pressures on environmental policy and decision-makers, such as time constraints within which decisions must be made and which are often incompatible with the time needed to undertake appropriate scientific research to guide those decisions.
  • The environmental consequences of either rushing into or delaying decisions where there may be significant uncertainties.
  • The correct framing of questions for science to attempt to answer.
  • Environmental policy and decision-makers’ need for and access to independent scientific advice.
  • Issues around research funding and science purchaser-provider relationships.
  • Transparency of and accountability for decisions that require not only scientific evidence, but also evidence that other viewpoints have been considered.

Policy and decision-making on environmental matters present particular difficulties because of our limited understanding of complex ecological systems, and the wide range of interests in how natural and physical resources are managed. Problems can be exacerbated when facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, the stakes are high, decisions are urgent, and outcomes are unpredictable.

Policy Realities

The reality for environmental policy and decision-makers is that, under statutes like the Resource Management Act 1991, they have a responsibility to consider a broad range of interests including environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of a proposed activity or policy. Some of these interests will be supported by scientific evidence or predictions, while others will be expressed in terms of values that are important to a community. It is this combination of “facts” and “values” that presents the greatest challenge for policy and decision-makers — finding environmental solutions that are both scientifically justified and meet the needs and aspirations of the community. In environmental decision-making processes should knowledge that is based on our current scientific understanding prevail over other kinds of knowledge? Are there ways to effectively integrate different kinds of knowledge to help decision-makers achieve good environmental outcomes? Do the merits of each source of knowledge need to be evaluated on some common basis?

The significance of scientific knowledge and other non-scientific viewpoints are assessed in different ways. Scientific evidence and the divergences of views among scientists can be challenged, defended and assessed through well established experimental and peer review processes. On the other hand, non-scientific considerations may reflect strongly held ethical, cultural and moral values that are usually more subjective in nature and challenged or defended through debate and dialogue rather than by using prescribed assessment procedures or criteria. Both the scientific process and public debate are important in developing environmental policies and decisions that reflect not only what is known (ie what is scientifically verifiable and defensible) but also what is acceptable to society in general. Acceptability may ultimately and legitimately be the basis on which final decisions are made, as is the case with New Zealand’s “nuclear-free” policy. Public health policies on smoke-free environments (eg in public buildings and workplaces) stem from improved understanding of the health effects of passive smoking as well as changing attitudes to, and less tolerance of, smoking in enclosed places.

Knowledge has Many Sources

Some regard scientific knowledge as being essential and the primary basis for environmental policies and decisions. Others suggest that, in the politics of decision-making, values are what ultimately matter most. But knowledge needed to make wise decisions is derived from many sources including various scientific facts, theories, disciplines and approaches, philosophical views, and individuals’ upbringing and life experiences, to name just a few. The focus of the PCE’s discussion paper is on the role of science, but recognises that other viewpoints are also important and it is necessary to consider them in environmental decision-making processes. The expectation is that environmental policies and decisions are based on sound knowledge. But views differ on what is considered “sound knowledge”, as evidenced by the ongoing debate about the causality of global climate change and what the appropriate policy responses should be. Scientific knowledge, by its very nature, is continually evolving. Social values may also change over time and can vary among sectors of society. Science clearly has a significant role to play in the development of effective environmental policies and decisions, but should other knowledge that is not regarded as scientifically defensible be labelled as unsound or irrelevant? Should decisions be routinely revised in the light of new knowledge and changing attitudes?

No Certainties

Neither scientific nor other sources of knowledge can guarantee absolute certainties for decision-makers. Science can and does improve our understanding of complex ecological systems and helps to reduce uncertainties. The vacuum created by the absence of full scientific knowledge will inevitably be filled by other assertions and concerns, including moral, ethical and cultural values. The current debate on genetic modification is a good example of this. Better understanding by decision-makers of the values that are important to communities is also key to promoting inclusiveness in decision-making and improving the public’s confidence in the decisions being made on their behalf. Whether decisions are eventually based on science or values (or both), the important point is that the process needs to be transparent and the reasons for the decision made clear.

Our aim in this project is to encourage better quality decision-making that results in good environmental management. This requires sound scientific understanding of environmental risks, and an understanding of the acceptability of those risks and, therefore, how they should be managed. Science has an important and influential role in environmental policy and decision-making. We wish to explore how well it is used and incorporated into decisions that need to consider a wide range of factors. If environmental policies and decisions are based both on what is known and what is acceptable, there may be a greater chance of achieving environmentally sustainable outcomes.

Should You Sue Your Doctor?

Increased litigation will do nothing to reduce the rate of medical misadventure

In a recent decision the Privy Council has ruled that a New Zealand patient dissatisfied with a diagnosis can take legal action against the doctor responsible. Without commenting on any individual case, surely such actions must make doctors more careful and overall will improve the standard of medical treatment?

Not so; litigation in medical matters has had a disastrous effect overseas. New Zealand has been largely protected by the Accident Compensation scheme (with all its faults), so many people here do not realise what a terrible step is being contemplated. In particular medical litigation will make medicine more expensive. The US has in many ways an excellent medical system, with one major flaw; it hosts a whole branch of the legal profession as a parasite. Thus it is enormously expensive, and so unaffordable for many people.

I recommend an article originally published by the New Yorker in 1999 and reprinted in The Best American Science Writing 2000 (ed. James Gleick): When Doctors Make Mistakes, by Atul Gawande. This is partly an account of how the author made a medical error and of why errors occur, but explains how litigation does nothing to improve a medical system. It also contains a lot of interesting data.

It was estimated that in the US around 120 000 patients die each year, at least partly because of errors during medical care. In November 1999 (after the publication of this article) the National Academy of Sciences reported that medical errors caused between 44 000 and 98 000 deaths per year.

A 1995 study on hospital drug administration found that an error occurred about once per admission. Although nearly all were minor and did not cause a problem, about 1 per cent had serious consequences. In New York State another review of 30 000 admissions found that nearly 4 per cent suffered complications from treatment that prolonged their hospital stay, resulted in disability, or caused death.

Thus errors in the USA are not rare, but would they be more frequent without the threat of litigation? The evidence suggests not and it contains some surprises. Some in the legal profession have claimed that their role is to find and expel incompetent and dangerous doctors. However most surgeons are sued at least once in their careers. Repeat offenders are not the problem, practically all make some mistakes. A study on the perpetrators of medical error found no group of dangerous doctors. Instead errors were normally distributed across the profession. This implies a single population so it is pointless to look for a subset that could be eliminated to leave behind a better performing profession.

It is hardly surprising that litigation fails to reduce medical error rates when one sees how it is applied. In the US only 2 per cent of patients who received sub-standard care ever sued, while only a small minority of those who did sue had actually been the victim of sub-standard care. Many of those who sued successfully, were not actually victims. It was found that the chances of a patient winning a suit depended primarily on how poor the outcome was, regardless of whether the outcome was caused by error or negligence.

The sums awarded as compensation are often huge; but even if a surgeon wins and so pays no compensation, his/her legal costs are still enormous. Thus doctors must carry enough insurance to cover these possibilities. Even the best surgeon must prepare for the worst as he or she can expect to be sued at least once in a career. The insurance premiums are naturally very high, and of course these must be covered by the fees charged.

Closer to home in Australia there has recently been a crisis in the medical profession, with groups of surgeons threatening to cease work unless some Government action was taken. The problem grew with ever-increasing sums being awarded to successful litigants. Surgeons in particular were required to take out ever-larger insurance policies. A relatively small insurance company offered cut rate policies — but a few cases with very high awards against medical staff showed that they had miscalculated; they had set their premiums far too low. The financial collapse of this company and then the insolvency of a very large insurance company resulted in a number of medical staff being without any insurance cover. The new policies being offered them involved premiums far higher than those they had been paying. Their professional fees were too low to allow them to meet these extra charges.

The Government had to take emergency measures to ensure that surgery could continue. This example from just across the Tasman shows clearly how medical litigation has a dramatic effect on the cost of medical services.

Some recent actions suggest that people in New Zealand are already aware of the dangers they might face. In the far North, long-standing obstetrical practices were suddenly stopped resulting in public protest. But members of a hospital board may feel they could be held liable if procedures they had allowed, resulted in misadventure. In the same district, obstetricians had allowed anaesthetic procedures by midwives after a telephone consultation; this was also stopped. Perhaps they could be liable for any unfortunate result. One can hardly blame medical staff — to be held liable for one’s own action taken in good faith is bad enough; to be held liable for somebody else’s mistake is a dreadful possibility.

In his essay Atul Gawande identifies how medical misadventures can be reduced. This is done not by targeting individuals but by targeting practices. One lesson is that small hospitals are the least safe — something which is known to be the case in New Zealand but has never been properly explained to the public.

The major lesson is that everybody makes mistakes at times; the system must be organised to make it more difficult to make mistakes, and to ensure that the consequences of mistakes are made as benign as is possible. Forcing medical staff to be defensive, so that they will not admit error for fear of horrendous legal consequences is the very worst method for tackling the problem of medical misadventure.

How To Stop a Witch-Hunt

This article is based on an address to the Skeptics Conference 2002. A condensed version has also been produced for the NZ Listener.

I’ve just received my first bad review of A City Possessed. It was written by Val Sim, chief legal counsel for the Ministry of Justice, on the instructions of Phil Goff. When he released the review, Goff said he had read “significant parts” of A City Possessed and had found it well argued and researched, and quite compelling. ‘Anyone who looked at the case, and the circumstances of the case, would not be objective if they did not feel unease about the atmosphere that existed and some aspects of the case,’ he said. But he added that questions of guilt or innocence are not for authors or politicians to decide.

So it seemed ironic that, after giving Sim’s review his blessing, Goff released long-suppressed documents about the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor. These showed that our politicians and their advisors minimised, discredited and ignored reports of gross civil rights violations because they didn’t want to upset the Indonesian authorities.

‘There are lessons to be learned from the Timor experience,’ Goff said. Indeed there are – lessons about the damage that can be done to innocent people by politicians and bureaucrats who are more interested in covering their own backs and not rocking the boat than in doing justice.

As Edmund Burke said: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ Anyone who has tried to make bureaucrats or politicians accountable will have heard the excuses. When the first excuse – ‘there isn’t a problem’ – collapses under the weight of evidence, the second excuse – ‘I had no idea there was a problem’ – kicks in. According to historian and philosopher Tzetvan Todorov, when real, this ignorance is more or less a matter of conscious and deliberate effort. As Albert Speer put it: ‘Being in a position to know and nevertheless shunning knowledge creates direct responsibility for the consequences.’

In essence, Sim is saying that A City Possessed contains no new evidence that can justify reopening the Ellis case, and since a high court judge, two courts of appeal and a ministerial inquiry have endorsed the jury verdicts, that should be an end to the matter.

Prior to the publication of A City Possessed no outsider could effectively challenge that argument. But I’m astounded that Sim and Goff think they can get away with this self-serving obfuscation when thousands of New Zealanders have read my book. These readers know that I haven’t just disagreed with the findings of a jury, a high court judge, two courts of appeal and a ministerial inquiry, I’ve demolished them. They know that the book isn’t just about the guilt or innocence of Peter Ellis. They know that it identifies serious flaws in the justice system that need to be addressed. They know that the Court of Appeal’s “new evidence” rule is a confidence trick invented by Their Honours to save themselves from ever having to admit that they’ve made a mistake. And readers of A City Possessed also know that our Minister of Justice does have the power to instruct the Governor General to pardon Peter Ellis and establish a commission of inquiry. So who are Sim and Goff fooling? Not the readers of my book.

In the 11 months since A City Possessed was published, legal authorities nationwide have said: Lynley Hood’s got it right and the Government can’t afford to ignore this book. So I have to conclude that Val Sim is wrong. There was a miscarriage of justice in the Civic Creche case, and my book has exposed problems in the justice system that need to be addressed.

In the book, I argue that the Civic Creche case was one manifestation of an international phenomenon comparable to the great witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries. In the classical sense, a witch hunt is a combination of three separate, but related, phenomena: a moral panic, an epidemic of mass psychogenic illness, and an outbreak of scapegoating.

Earlier this year, a correspondent to the Otago Daily Times suggested that episodes of this sort are a force of nature, like a tidal wave or a hurricane. Everyone is a victim, nobody is to blame, and the only way to right the wrongs done to Peter Ellis is to compensate him from the Earthquake Commission.

That’s actually not a bad idea, because while there are clearly wrongs to be righted, if we want to live in a society that values compassion, tolerance and forgiveness over vengeance and retribution, and if we want to avoid setting off another witch hunt, then demanding that heads roll will solve nothing.

In my view, there are no monsters in the Civic Creche story. I think the problems arose when the winds of panic swept through Christchurch and the moral compasses of ordinary, decent, well-intentioned people became so disoriented that they ended up doing harm when they thought they were doing good.

That said, one of the lessons of the great witch hunts is that we shouldn’t under-estimate the power of the authorities to inflame or dampen down these panics.

In Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 the governor brought that panic to an end by declaring spectral evidence inadmissible. Spectral evidence is the dreams, visions and hallucinations of people who believe themselves to be bewitched. The fact that the governor’s wife had just been accused probably helped focus his mind. And the community had been calling for an end to witch hunting for some time, so the governor’s actions weren’t all that remarkable.

James 1 of England is a more interesting case. Earlier, as James VI of Scotland, he was a rabid witch hunter. But in 1604 he moved to England and became a sceptic.

One of James I’s most famous cases was that of 20-year-old Anne Gunther, who foamed at the mouth and vomited pins. After questioning her closely, the King concluded that Anne’s real problem was a desperate need for love. So he gave her a dowry. Whereupon – according to the King’s physician William Harvey – she married and found herself miraculously cured.

In 1634 William Harvey was sent by the King to examine seven Lancashire women accused of witchcraft by an 11-year-old boy. By the time Harvey arrived three of the women had died in their cells, but the rest were acquitted when they were found to show no unambiguous signs of witchcraft. Later, the boy admitted that his father had put him up to it, and had told him they would make a lot of money.

Even in Continental Europe, where around 100,000 witches were executed in spasmodic bursts over a 200 year period, strong minded leaders could hold the panic in check.

Between 1673 and 1684, in the German town of Calw, 39 children accused 77 adults of witchcraft. But when the legal faculty at the University of Turbingen examined the evidence, they rejected the children’s stories as fantasies, and condemned the irresponsible way in which the parents had questioned their children. The faculty also insisted that no witch be condemned without reliable evidence and due process. And so, in Calw, disaster was averted.

Reality Checks

In 1610, Dr Alonzo Salazar, a judge of the Spanish Inquisition, spent eight months conducting reality checks on the confessions and accusations of witchcraft recorded during a panic in a Basque country. Salazar’s assistants took the accusing children to the scene of the supposed witches’ sabbat one by one, secretly, in daylight. They were asked where the devil had sat, where they had eaten and danced, how they had got in and out of their own homes, whether they had travelled alone or in groups, whether they had heard clocks or bells and ‘any other circumstances which might serve to clarify the problem.’ (I’ve spelt out these details because, unlike Dr Salazar, Sir Thomas Eichelbaum did not do reality checks on the children’s evidence during his inquiry into the Ellis case.)

Salazar found that the children contradicted themselves and each other. He reported that there was not to be found ‘a single proof nor even the slightest indication from which to infer that one act of witchcraft had actually taken place’.

Salazar’s colleagues regarded his findings as convincing proof of the unreliability of witch accusations and witch confessions. At that point, the Spanish people did not stop believing in witches, but prosecutors-having realised that they could not distinguish between true and false allegations, and that false allegations were destroying the social fabric- became very wary of prosecuting them.

Witch suspects were still prosecuted when there was reliable evidence that real people had committed real crimes (and they did find the occasional crone who really had poisoned her neighbours’ well, or committed some other offence commonly regarded as the work of a witch). But Salazar’s reality checks brought witch executions in Spain to a complete halt 80 years before the panic burnt itself out throughout the rest of Europe.

Lessons to be Learned

What can we learn from all this? I don’t pretend to have any answers. Indeed, one of the lessons of A City Possessed is – beware of people who claim to have the answers.

Nonetheless, I think it’s important to challenge the pessimists who say: ‘Nothing will be done about the creche case because it’s too hard. The ripples spread too wide. Too many influential people will have their careers and reputations called into question.’

In my view, we can deal with it, and we must deal with it – not only for the sake of the past, but also for the sake of the future. Ten years on from the Civic Creche case, the sex abuse hysteria that drove it continues unabated, and the damage that hysteria is causing to the fabric of New Zealand society cannot be ignored.

Currently, children as young as ten are being labelled ‘sexual predators’. Prurient computer technicians are determining what responsible adults should be allowed to see, read and hear. Respected school teachers-who have been abusing nobody but themselves-have had their careers and reputations destroyed. A one-legged 60-year-old has lost his international sporting career over a bit of tomfoolery that harmed no one. The explosion of historic allegations against Catholic priests escalates daily. In my view, we’re as much at risk today of having our lives, our families and our communities ripped apart by false allegations of sexual abuse as the people of Christchurch were in 1992.

Overseas Experience

Overseas countries are also dealing with these panics. Earlier this year retired Canadian Judge Frederick Kaufman presented his long-awaited report into the epidemic of historic allegations of abuse in Nova Scotia youth institutions.

That scandal began in the early ’90s, when a paedophile who had worked for the province in the ’70s was convicted. Two more abusers turned up. Fearing a deluge of lawsuits, the Government hired a respected former judge to assess how deep the rot went.

The judge identified 89 cases of possible abuse that had occurred 20 to 40 years earlier. None of the claims were tested by the usual rules of evidence. But the Government concluded it was in deep trouble, and the justice minister made his pitch.

All survivors would be compensated according to the severity of their abuse. To ensure speedy justice, no one would have to prove a thing. He might as well have hung out a sign saying: Get Free Money Here.

When the 89 claims swelled to 500, the Government simply increased the compensation fund. And as the claims escalated, so did the hysteria. People who had devoted their lives to the care of troubled and needy children were pilloried by the media. Juvenile delinquents were recast as tragic choirboys. No one checked old medical records, or interviewed former employees. The Government did not want to “revictimize the victims.”

In the end, $30 million was paid out to just over 1200 claimants. Legal fees, counselling, and criminal investigations brought the cost to more than $60 million.

But Judge Kaufman found that, by 2002, it was impossible to know how much abuse there really was. The real victims (and he didn’t doubt there were some) had been discredited along with the fakes.

Meanwhile, in Britain, a select committee inquiry is under way into the police practice of “trawling”. Trawling involves police officers contacting former residents of children’s homes and asking them if they were abused, or if they witnessed incidents of abuse, and informing them of the availability of financial compensation. The inquiry was prompted by a concern that a whole new genre of miscarriages of justice may have arisen from this practice.

Also in Britain, in a case with remarkable similarities to the Civic Creche, two former child care workers were recently awarded maximum libel damages of £200,000 each. The judge found no basis for allegations that the pair were part of a paedophile ring that was exploiting children for pornographic purposes. He ruled that those responsible for spreading the allegations had ignored the principles of natural justice, and had included claims which they must have known were untrue, and which could not be explained on the basis of incompetence or carelessness.

Criminalising and Scapegoating

There are lessons from all this that we ignore at our peril. They relate to the harm being inflicted on society by current campaigns to protect children from vaguely defined sexual dangers by criminalising and scapegoating a wide range of people and behaviours.

These campaigns ignore the realities of childhood and adolescent sexuality. They distract us from serious problems related to the health, education and welfare of children. They put a destructive barrier between all adults and all children. They erode essential freedoms for us all. But the hysteria surrounding the issue is so pervasive that anyone who suggests more thoughtful discussion risks being branded a child abuser. In my view, we must insist on a more sensible and compassionate approach. So what’s to be done?

Well – laws and procedures can be changed. It happens all the time. All that’s needed is moral courage and political will. Where is Dr Salazar when we need him?

Given the will to do so, ACC could abandon its counselling guidelines that are known to induce false memories of abuse, and it could treat sex abuse fraud as seriously as it treats other sorts of fraud.

Given the will to do so, CYFS could admit that its interviewers can’t distinguish between true and false allegations of sexual abuse.

Given the will to do so, Parliament could change the laws that make it easy to convict on unreliable evidence of sexual abuse, and courts could insist on reliable evidence, no matter how great the clamour for a conviction.

Given the will to do so, the Court of Appeal could correct its own mistakes.

But these changes won’t repair the damage done by the Civic Creche case. I think what’s needed there is a royal commission headed by a robust overseas judge.

Of course we shouldn’t expect too much of such a commission. It won’t fix everything. But it will enable everyone involved to have their say. It’ll help the truth to come out. It’ll bring a degree of accountability. It’ll highlight the policies, procedures and laws that need to change.

In my view, a royal commission on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission model is the way to go. This would offer amnesty to those whose conduct is called into question in exchange for a full, truthful account of their roles in the case, while those whose rights have been violated would be offered the chance to be heard, and to hear the truth come out, as an alternative to expensive and divisive show trials and administrative purges, and endlessly escalating compensation claims.


In the course of researching A City Possessed I uncovered many scandals. The biggest scandal was the discovery that, since the mid-’80s, New Zealanders have been calling for a commission of inquiry into the ways in which sexual abuse allegations are handled in this country, but successive governments have simply buried the problem. Since A City Possessed was published the clamour for an inquiry has reached a crescendo. But still the Government doesn’t want to know.

So where do we go from here?

Twenty years ago, I did an interview in the US. This was when Ronald Reagan was President, and the fall of the Berlin Wall was still seven years away.

My interview was with suburban grandmother Molly Rush. Molly belonged to a group that had entered a nuclear weapons plant and damaged the nosecones of two warheads. At the time of my interview she had spent 11 weeks in jail and was out on bail awaiting appeal.

By temperament I’m slow to take sides on any issue, but I knew where I stood on the arms race. I asked Molly what her group had done, and why they had done it. I asked her what they had hoped to achieve, and whether they had achieved it. And I told her about a demonstration I had attended.

I said: ‘One of my feelings was that in no way did anything that was said or done influence any of the dignitaries at that meeting. They were so sealed off by the police and the secret service.’

I think the philosophy she conveyed in her reply can be applied to everything we do. She said:

“It’s important to counter that feeling of helplessness or hopelessness that can lead to violence or apathy. A couple of things need to be said; one is that when you participate in a public protest to assume that you’re immediately going to change those people whose whole lives are so committed to these policies is unrealistic. What you’re trying to do is galvanise public opinion.”

Peace demonstrations, large and small, have served to create a climate of public opinion that has finally made politicians address this issue. We need to take heart from that.

But beyond that you have to deal with the whole issue of effectiveness and pragmatism. I’m a pragmatic organiser at heart but what I’ve learnt in the past few years is that one can’t necessarily predict the results of one’s actions. Some of the most profound changes have come about in situations that seemed exceedingly hopeless and exceedingly unaffected by what you’re doing.

I’m instructed by the example of a young priest who climbed the fence of a nuclear weapons plant. He received no media attention and spent more than six months in jail with no apparent result. He was visited in prison by Bishop Matthieson who has since become an outspoken opponent of the arms race. Bishop Matthieson has said publicly that his meeting with the young priest in jail was part of the process that lead to his conversion. Yet if that priest had climbed the fence thinking – “I’m doing this to convert Bishop Matthieson” – that would have been absurd.

So we’re not talking about acting to achieve specific goals, what we’re talking about is trying to hang on to a vision, and to live out our lives in a way that contains truth, and to have faith in the power of truth in the Ghandian sense – faith that the power of truth can overcome wrong.

When Children are the Victims of Quackery

This Bravo Award-winning item originally appeared as the editorial in the March 23 issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal

Is it time for the government to investigate a glaring anomaly in our legislative approaches to the rights of children? In some areas, the child’s right to safety, autonomy and privacy, is clearly paramount, in others, it seems, it is not.

After the death of Liam Williams-Holloway, in October last year, paediatric oncologists Mike Sullivan and Robin Corbett made a complaint to the Health and Disability Services Commissioner, Ron Patterson, about the role of “alternative practitioners” in the “treatment” of Liam’s neuroblastoma, and the standard of care he received.

Early this month, the Commissioner declined to investigate their complaint, saying that Liam’s parents did not want an investigation into these practitioners and their care. He was reported as saying that, if “the person alleged to be aggrieved does not desire that action to be taken”, he has discretion to take no action.

But surely, in such a case, it is the child, and not the parents, who is the person most “aggrieved”? It is Liam who died. The Code the Commissioner upholds is the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights and surely Liam, and not his parents, was the “consumer” of health services in this instance.


There are further complications. Liam was a ward of the state at the time he received treatment at the Rainbow Clinic in Rotorua, and Child, Youth and Family Services – and not his parents – were his legal guardians.

In the eyes of the law, Liam’s parents deliberately flouted a court order which would have compelled them to allow his chemotherapy at Otago Healthcare to continue.

Otago healthcare specialists knew and stated (to Liam’s parents and to the court) that 50% of children with Liam’s condition responded favourably to chemotherapy. Despite this, Liam’s parents wished to avoid chemotherapy for their son and sought alternative, unproven treatment.

The vulnerability of parents whose children have been diagnosed with a potentially fatal illness is extreme and I do not wish to add to their grief at the death of their young son. But it is scarcely surprising that they do not want to have an investigation into the therapist and therapy they sought in defiance of the oncologists’ advice and the court order, and it seems nonsensical that Liam’s rights should depend on their decision.

It seems that the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights (HDC Code) does not provide for a child to have independent rights. Other legislation, including the Privacy Code, does. Yet which is more important, privacy or safety?


The second issue is the practicality of investigating alternative practitioners, and the Commissioner accepts that the current situation is messy and difficult. In Liam’s case, Ron Paterson could have, if he had wished, investigated the alternative practitioner involved, Gerard Uys, who claimed in a May 1999 Listener interview that his quantum booster machine could cure cancer in a couple of weeks. Quote: “Yeah, leukaemia really is not too difficult. It’s just a mineral deficiency.”

But claiming to cure cancer is an offence under the Medicines Act, isn’t it? No. To advertise that one can prevent, alleviate or cure cancer for reward is an offence. And, according to the Ministry of Health, it is not “advertising” to make such a claim in an interview with a newspaper, because there is no payment involved.

So Gerard Uys, in telling the Listener that “one in four people on average have cancer and we can see it on this machine, but we never ever tell them. We just fix them up” is not “advertising” a cure for cancer, and is not legally liable.

And even if the HDC code were applied to him, it would hold few terrors. The code does not say anything about treatment being effective.

Rights in the Code

Right 4 of the code refers to the “Right to services of an appropriate standard.” The first two clauses say

  1. Every consumer has the right to have services provided with reasonable care and skill.
  2. Every consumer has the right to have services provided that comply with legal, professional, ethical and other relevant standards.

What are the “legal, professional and other relevant standards” that apply to “health services” provided by those who wave quantum boosters at their patients?

Are they simply to be measured against the standards of care provided by other quantum-booster-wavers?

One can understand the basic intent of the legislation – to measure like against like. It would not make sense, in a case of cardiac emergency, to measure the standard of care given by a GP in a small surgery against that given by a specialist cardiologist in a hospital. But if such an interpretation means that the code fails to protect the public from quacks and quackery, it is toothless and useless.

Right to Information

Right 8 of the code is the “Right to be fully informed” and includes such rights as an explanation of the consumer’s condition and an explanation of the treatment options available, including an assessment of the expected risks, side-effects, benefits and costs. How much protection does this offer?

What information about quantum boosters or any other “way-out” treatment will be given? What scientific validity will be claimed for it? And what “explanation” of conventional options, risks, benefits, side-effects, etc. can the quack provide? It seems the code only requires “conventional” medicine to provide information, evidence, and rigorous scientific investigation to substantiate its claims. Practitioners of alternative therapies may claim what they like.

The previous Health and Disability Commissioner, who produced the HDC code, was vocal in her support of Liam’s parents’ right to choose alternative treatment for him. She said that under the code, “parents and guardians must look at all the options available and make an informed choice.” Who could argue with that?

But how does any parent make an informed choice about an unproven device such as a quantum booster which has never been scientifically evaluated?

The reality is that the more highly qualified you are, the more the current HDC code requires from you, while leaving the public unprotected from unscrupulous quacks and their claims.

Commissioner Ron Paterson is on record as disagreeing with his predecessor’s views on this “let the buyer beware” philosophy, but he is still administering the same code.

So what can be done about the safety of our children, given an environment in which their parents exhibit a growing enthusiasm for alternative medicine?

Evident Concerns

The commissioner has evident concerns in this area. When announcing that he would not be investigating the complaint made by Drs Sullivan and Corbett, he advised them to take the issue to the committee advising the Minister of Health on complementary and alternative health therapies.

In the press release accompanying the terms of reference for the committee, Sue Kedgley, Green Party Health spokesperson, expressed her delight that the health minister had agreed to take this first step towards recognising properly registered complementary therapists and ensuring that consumers using complementary therapies are properly protected.

It will be wonderful if this is in fact an outcome of the deliberations of the committee. With exceptions, such as chiropractors, alternative practitioners in New Zealand currently are largely unregulated.

The International Scene

How does this compare with the international scene? In Britain, where the situation is similar to ours, a House of Lords select committee on science and technology released a report last year on complementary and alternative medicine with recommendations for improving the situation. The report recommends clearer regulation, with individual disciplines setting uptheir own regulatory bodies with codes of ethics and practice, and greater levels of education and training. It also calls for both conventional and alternative practitioners to engage in constructive debate about their roles, encouraging greater communication between practitioners and their patients.

In Europe and the USA there are few healthcare activities allowed without state authorisation. Even “mainstream” alternative practitioners such as acupuncturists, herbalists and naturopaths, have been prosecuted for practising without medical qualifications. As Simon Mills says in his paper “Regulation in complementary and alternative medicine” (BMJ vol. 322, 20 Jan 2001), “The increasing demand for alternative care across the developed world has sometimes been met by practitioners outside the law and without recognisable training, qualifications, professional standards or insurance.”


We are seeing growing evidence of this in New Zealand and the accountability of these practitioners seems negligible. At the same time as the public and the media clamour for doctors to be more accountable, there seems to be widespread (and legislative) acceptance of people who practise alternative healthcare with inadequate education and training, and no legal or ethical responsibility for outcomes.

Doctors accept accountability. They also accept change, and many who were trained in conventional medicine now include some elements of alternative and complementary medicine in their practice. While it is important that they are trained, supported, ultimately accredited and regulated in these areas, their patients are protected because they are accountable to the standards expected of any medical practitioner. What protection is there for the patients – and especially the child patients – of the quack?

The government’s proposed committee has a huge task ahead of it. Research into, and clinical trials of, alternative treatments are difficult because of a variety of factors, such as lack of standardisation of treatments, difficulty in “randomising” patients and comparing treatments with placebo effects.

Will the committee share the commitment that doctors have to scientific study of any therapy, conventional or alternative?

Can any committee protect the public from unscrupulous quacks peddling “magic cures”?

We doubt it, but we welcome the remote possibility of improving the current situation.

Mike Sullivan and Robin Corbett have said they will put in a second complaint about alternative practitioners to the Health and Disability Commissioner. When they do, I hope he sees it as his responsibility to investigate any “health practitioner” who claims to cure cancer, or is irresponsible enough to advise diabetics to stop their insulin treatment.

I hope, too, that he will take a wider view and use his influence to ensure that our legislation is consistent in its emphasis on the rights of our children to life and health, regardless of their parents’ decisions about their treatment.

The Plimer Trial: After the Flood

AS MOST readers will now be aware, the Ian Plimer/Allen Roberts court case has been adjudicated, and the results for Ian were not as he had hoped. The case was brought under federal Trade Practices legislation and state Fair Trading legislation and concerned two issues. The first was a breach of copyright action, where Ian’s co-applicant, David Fasold, alleged that Roberts had used a diagram, Fasold’s intellectual property, without permission. The second issue alleged that, in his lectures and sale of tapes, etc, Roberts had engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct in pursuit of trade.

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Eternal Life – Courtesy Time/Life

When I received through the mail a coloured brochure from Time/Life advertising a series of videos and cassettes titled “Growing Younger”, I was surprised to see that I could learn from Time/Life via their series how to develop an “ageless body”. In addition I could learn to “help reverse ageing” and that the series could “open the door to a life free from the effects of aging” (sic).

When I read Time/Life’s promises I was reminded once again of the shysters’ creed that “no-one ever got rich overestimating the intelligence of the general public”.

I was similarly reminded of a newspaper advertisement advising readers of the presence of the Advertising Standards Authority.

The Authority is a body that is set up to maintain ethical advertising standards. In their words the Authority “…is dedicated to ensure that not only does advertising comply with the law but is also truthful and not misleading or deceptive, and that it is socially responsible.”

Surely, I thought, Time/Life must be in breach of the Authority’s regulations. I therefore requested and received the Advertising Codes of Practice. In it I found the Code of Ethics containing the following:

Rule 2 Truthful Presentation

Advertisements must not contain any statement or visual presentation which directly or by implication, omission, ambiguity or exaggerated claim is misleading or deceptive, is likely to mislead or deceive the consumer…

I therefore laid a formal complaint to the Complaints Board, mentioning Rule 2 of the Advertising Code of Ethics, and Time/Life’s promises of “an ageless body”, “a life free from the effects of aging” (sic), and the claim to “help reverse ageing”.

To my astonishment, after deliberating the Board ruled not to uphold the complaint.

The Board were apparently entirely in agreement with Time/Life who said in defence of the brochure, that the guru concerned with the series, Dr Deepak Chopra, was not speaking in “chronological” terms with regard to ageing, but rather in “biological” and “psychological” terms. In addition, said Time/Life, Dr Chopra had a “worldwide reputation in both traditional and alternative medicine” … “with great demand for his products.” Furthermore, said Time/Life “…I am satisfied with the integrity with which we have represented “Growing Younger” to our New Zealand customers.”

Yes, but what about claims of an “ageless body”, “a life free from the effects of aging” (sic)?

Mere “puffery” said the Board, “as opposed to claims that were capable of substantiation”. In addition they were of the opinion “…that the advertisement would not mislead consumers…rather the statements were the advertisers’ hyperbole about the perceived benefit of the product.”

Time/Life and Dr Deepak Chopra are presumably wealthy and influential. It would be interesting to read how many millions of dollars are spent advertising their publications. It is, to my mind anyway, quite impossible to publish such outlandish claims without being in breach of the Advertising Code of Ethics. Surely this is a classic “exaggerated claim” likely to “deceive or mislead the consumer”.

I have written to the Board formally objecting to the decision and requesting a review. To my mind the decision raises a precedent that invites advertisers to treat the consumer (and the Board) with disdain. The decision similarly downgrades the Board as a consumer watch-dog.

The time is well past that claims made by health care providers of all shapes and hues must be examined. Any cursory glance in a “health store” or new age crystal merchant’s premises will reveal a mass of laughable gibberish masquerading as “health advice”. Most of it is aberrant nonsense, not likely to be taken seriously. Some of it though defrauds the gullible, and endangers health.

Why on earth do we have statutory bodies such as the Advertising Standards Authority if we cannot rely on them to uphold their own Code of Ethics?