Newsfront

Scientologists get government money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Former Skeptic editor dies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus cures cancer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiwis big believers in homeopathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earthquake adds to ‘hypersensitivity’ problem

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

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

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

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

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

Confessions of a New Age Skeptic

How should a skeptic relate to those who have other belief systems?

What does a skeptic and atheist do when they are part of a broader group that is quite loose on empirical evidence and critical thinking? A lot of us experience this to some degree, but I’ve wrestled with my engagement with a particular group I’m fond of for the last 20 years.

Convergence: Beyond 2000 (previously, “Towards 2000”) is an annual camping event that takes place in North Canterbury over the New Year break. Its tag line is: “Gathering every year for a co-creative festival celebrating nature, spirituality, love, and healing”. The event is alcohol and drug-free, has good facilities, and includes about 350 people.

Convergence is a place where the cultural norm is one of suspension of disbelief. All of the typical energy healing models are practised and taught there in workshop context by volunteer facilitators. Reiki, guru aspirants, channelers, tarot card readers, Mayan calendar adherents, fairy lovers, tantric energy, The Secret, massage healers … well, where do you stop?

I found myself coming along to the events first in 1992. I’d migrated from Canada and my flatmate and all his friends, who were a playful, friendly bunch, went every year and I was drawn into it. I was still coming out of 12 years of study and work as a mechanical engineer installing computer systems into paper mills and was quite happy to regress into a less linear approach to my perception of life and how to live it.

My first year I was quite guarded, being aware that there are people out there that attempt to get people away to events “just-like-this” with the aim of drawing them into some sect or other. All the warmth, playfulness and affection that seemed to be happening was pretty overwhelming and I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb. Fortunately, it wasn’t a sect, and I wasn’t pressured to be “one of us”, and I was generally engaged with at a warm, receptive level.

At Convergence in the first few years I remember often feeling discomfort while the friend I might be walking or talking with would leap joyfully into the arms of someone they knew from previous events. It took a lot of self-reassurance to stick with it, and in time I found myself being outrageously affectionate as well, and carrying that forward into my life. I’ve made a lot of friends at Convergence, and found my last two partners there as well (having a child with both of them). So, there have been a lot of good times inside my relationship with the group.

My other exposures to “hooey” weren’t disturbing. I’d lived already for a few years on a hippy commune near Motueka where I’d seen any number of loose approaches to life. In a way, it made me feel more sane being around people that I was genuinely very fond of but that obviously had one or two screws loose and rattling around.

This Xmas, having recently turned 50 and after having gobbled up the the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (and other skeptic podcasts) I joined the ranks of the NZ Skeptics. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I’m an atheist, a humanist, and I’m going to share that when it is relevant.

It’s still a learning experience for me. When do I say something? If a friend talks about the great course in acupuncture that they are in their final year of do I say what I believe? No, I haven’t, not often. But I do wonder the cost in not saying something. Did we lose an opportunity for intimacy? Did I miss giving them a test to their chosen life path, possibly sparing them some wasted years of hand-waving healing modalities? I’m still not clear on that one, being new to this.

“What’s the harm” is a classic response. I’ve reflected on my hippy years and now realise there was harm. The anti-vax/DIY home-birthing (without adequate support) crowd had three kids that are still paying the price. I’ve supported the deaf community as a social worker and found that there are years during which a lot of them go through milestone birthdays (anti-vax again). I’ve had my kids treated with bogus, outwardly professional therapies (waste of cash and time).

This year, when I went to Convergence I found the issue of my personal beliefs much more emotionally charged. I told quite a few people that I met that I had ‘come out’ as a skeptic. In saying this, I found others that shared my feelings.

Encouraged by my gathering support, in front of the whole crowd I ‘testified’ as an atheist/critical thinker and offered a workshop on the issue. The crowd barked with laughter and good will as I did it humorously. It turned out the others I’d spoken to prior to the meeting had initiated a workshop already!

In the workshop people spoke about the fear of diverging from the group norm, and holding their tongue while others spoke about their wild unfounded beliefs. They mentioned the discomfort of “having to” participate in opening rituals (blessing to the four directions…yadda yadda). And not knowing others that felt the same. We agreed that our general perspective was a healthy one for the fesitival, and one to be openly celebrated.

Next year we’ll open with a workshop for sceptics. It’s a beautiful event, and the acceptance is big enough to include critical thinking. And who knows, we may make us a few converts!
www.convergence.net.nz/wordpress/

Newsfront

Psychic and TVNZ join forces to profit from child’s disappearance

When Sensing Murder psychic Deb Webber announced on TV One’s Breakfast show that missing Auckland toddler Aisling Symes was in “a ditch, hole” it raised eyebrows all over the place (NZ Herald, 9 October).

Webber was appearing on the show to plug her upcoming nationwide tour – and also the latest series of Sensing Murder, screening on the same channel. Later that day TVNZ journalist Amy Kelley asked the police at a press conference how seriously they would take Webber’s “information”.

TVNZ then approached a friend of the Symes family and subsequently Webber had met them. The state broadcaster seemed to have far too cosy a relationship with the psychic.

TVNZ spokeswoman Andi Brotherston defended the channel’s role, saying, “You know what they are doing? They are being human. They have a family out there that are desperate to find their child.”

Interestingly, Webber’s Sensing Murder co-star Kelvin Cruickshank said at a public show in Hamilton (see p. 16) that his spirits had told him to keep clear of the case, because the family were devout Baptists who didn’t believe in spiritualism.

It is worth remembering that at the time Webber made these comments (less than 48 hours after Aisling’s disappearance) misadventure seemed the most likely explanation. It was only as time went on that the abduction scenario gained favour. When her body was eventually discovered in a concrete stormwater pipe the Waikato Times (13 October) reported Webber had been “proved correct”.

But “ditch” or “hole” covers almost all the likely options – including a shallow grave. Again, the standard psychic’s ploy of making a vague statement which is then misremembered as more accurate than it was, paid dividends.

Hunt on for ‘panther’

A few years back the annual NZ Skeptics conference heard about reports of big cats in the South Island high country. Now someone has built a trap for the mystery beast (Sunday Star-Times, 13 December).

High country farmer David Wightman says he’s never seen the “panther”, but others on his 9500ha Winterslow Station in North Canterbury have, on at least four occasions. “Too many people have seen it to doubt what it is – without actually capturing it and doing a DNA test on it, one can only assume it is a black leopard or black panther.”

Wightman said he planned to use a live goat to lure the panther into the trap. The panther would be unable to harm the goat because it would be in a separate enclosure, but its bleating should be enough to attract the cat. There was no evidence of a large predator attacking free-ranging stock, however.

We should apply the skeptical adage, when you hear hoofbeats in the night, think of horses, not of zebras. Big cats have been reported very widely, and sometimes are reported as brown or grey, suggesting that breeding populations of at least two species are involved. Black leopards (‘panthers’) are rare within their natural range compared to the more common spotted variety, yet no spotted leopards have been sighted roaming free in New Zealand.

Far more likely that the big cats are just that – big cats. Feral domestic cats can grow remarkably large – I once saw one in the Lewis Pass which must have been almost a metre nose to tail – and people are very poor at judging scale at long distances (hmm, maybe that cat wasn’t so big after all!).

Scientology ‘organised fraud’

The church of Scientology has been branded an “organised fraud” by a French court and fined 600,000 euros ($1.2m) for preying financially on vulnerable believers (NZ Herald, 28 October).

Judges in the Paris criminal court ordered the church to pay for adverts carrying its findings to be placed in newspapers around the world. It is believed to be the first time that Scientology has been declared fraudulent by a court in a large, democratic country, although individual scientologists, including its founder L Ron Hubbard, have previously been convicted of fraudulent activities. The Paris decision went further and declared the core claims of Scientology were “fallacious” and designed to “hook” members into paying large amounts of money.

Two French female plaintiffs alleged that, between 1997 and 1999, the Scientology movement persuaded them to pay the equivalent of 21,000 euros and 49,500 euros for treatments to improve their mental and physical health. The two main Scientology bodies in France were put on trial for “systematic use of personality tests of no scientific value… with the sole aim of selling services and products”.

Scientology spokeswoman Agnes Bron said the verdict was the result of an “inquisition of modern times” and that they would appeal.

Science writer wins ruling in libel battle

Brtiish science writer Simon Singh, who is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association, is to fight on after a preliminary judgment against him was opened to appeal (The Guardian, 14 October).

Singh was sued after writing an article in the Guardian criticising the association for supporting members who claim that chiropractic treatments can treat children’s colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying.

Singh described the treatments as “bogus” and criticised the BCA for “happily promoting” them.

In May, Mr Justice Eady in the high court ruled on the meaning of the words, saying they implied the BCA was being deliberately dishonest. Singh was initially refused leave to appeal, but Eady’s interpretation was deemed to be open to argument by Lord Justice Laws, who said Eady had risked swinging the balance of rights too far in favour of the right to reputation and against the right to free expression.

Many scientists and science writers have rallied to Singh’s support, claiming that the freedom of scientific opinion is at stake. “Simon Singh’s battle in this libel case is not only a glaring example of how the law and its interpretation are stifling free expression, it shows how urgent the case for reform has become,” said Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship.

‘Tumour’ thrown at meeting

The hysteria over the Dept of Conservation’s use of brodifacoum to eradicate pests on Rangitoto and Motutapu, reported in last issue’s Newsfront, has continued (NZ Herald, 15 October).

A woman, Donna Bird, was ejected from a 14 October meeting on Auckland’s North Shore after hurling abuse and objects – one of which she claimed was a tumour that had been taken out of her – at DoC speaker Richard Griffiths. The department were “parasites” and “disease mongerers”, she said.

Others at the meeting accused DoC of spreading poison in the gulf, and of being blinded by science. Six dogs died and others became unwell after apparent exposure to tetrodotoxin, a natural marine toxin, on Auckland beaches. Marine organisms, including penguins and dolphins, had also been found dead in the area. Mr Griffiths told the meeting toxicology results ruled out brodifacoum as being responsible. “I’m not sure what else we can say.”

Thief warned of sex change curse

A thief in Auckland may get more than he or she bargained for with a terracotta flower pot taken from a Gulf Harbour home (Rodney Times, 3 December).

The owner says it contains his African witchdoctor grandma’s ashes and is now cursed. In a letter to the Rodney Times, At du Plooy says his grandmother was a sangoma or witchdoctor who died in Africa aged 93. Du Plooy claims to be a medium who keeps in contact with her spirit. While he should be able to trace the pot, through this link, it appears grandma is unfamiliar with the area concerned.

Instead, she has cursed a one kilometre area around the pot with sex-change ions – meaning men may gradually change to women and vice versa. Dumping the contents won’t break the spell, du Plooy says, only its return.