The Future Isn’t What it Used to Be

For almost half a century, it’s seemed like human destiny to go into Space. When we were kids, everyone wanted to be an astronaut when they grew up. The loss of the Columbia space shuttle hasn’t extinguished that dream, but it firmly reminds us that leaving the Earth behind is a very difficult thing to do. If things were just a little bit different – if our species were as big as elephants, or aquatic, or if the Earth’s gravity were much stronger, it may have been impossible. As it is, raising a human being into low Earth orbit, to say nothing of going further, is a hugely expensive proposition. And once up there, the lack of gravity leads to muscle wasting and other physiological problems. Food and air also need to be brought up from the planet below.

Perhaps in the future the problems will be overcome. Science fiction writers envisage space elevators riding smoothly and cheaply to staging posts in geostationary orbit. Perhaps raw materials can be mined from the moon or the asteroids rather than dragged out of Earth’s gravity well. Rotating, wheel-shaped space stations may be able to simulate gravity. We may be able to establish artificial life-supporting ecosystems on these stations. But ultimately, it has to be asked why humans need to be in Space at all. It would be far easier to establish colonies under the sea, but this has not been done, and there are no serious plans to do so. We don’t need the living space. There are no natural resources that are worth the expense of going to fetch them, nothing on which to base an economy, no realistic prospect of trade with Mother Earth.

Space is like Antarctica. Hostile, no place for humans to live on an extended basis, but oh, so fascinating. We go into Space for the same reason we go to Antarctica, to learn more about the world around us, and about ourselves. And that, ultimately, is reason enough.

Arthur C Clarke dreamed of manned communications centres high above the Earth. Though the principle of telecommunications satellites in geostationary orbit has become a reality, the giant stations of Clarke’s imagination have not, and never will. Clarke, or anyone else in the 1940s, could not have realised how small, reliable and efficient electronic componentry would become. You don’t need people on hand to replace burned-out valves.

More than anything else, this electronics revolution is the reason the manned space programme is struggling. There’s no commercial reason for live humans to be there, and even the scientific rationale is looking shaky. The solar system is already being explored, courtesy of Voyager, Pathfinder and company, and far more efficiently than humans could hope to do; what’s more their advantage will only become more pronounced. And hardly anyone grieves overmuch when a robot crashes and burns in the frozen wastes of Mars.

It’s funny how things work out. Back in the 60s everyone assumed that by now we’d have been to Mars and established permanent bases on the Moon. I guess it just goes to show there’s no such thing as destiny.

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Hokum Locum

Sickness and Psychogenic Illness

The Canterbury ME (chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS) are up in arms over proposed tighter controls on patients receiving both invalid and sickness benefits. CFS patients want funding for “residential detoxification services and “subsidies on natural remedies”. CFS is a classical psychogenic illness and as such it is quite improper for any affected patient to be on any long-term benefit on their own terms. Because of self-denial these patients resist any sensible suggestions on treatment and end up chronically unwell in a fulfilment of Abraham Lincoln’s statement that “most folks are as happy as they make up their mind to be.”

I managed to persuade such a patient to take anti-depressants and the improvement in well-being was amazing. This same person had paid to have all amalgam dental fillings removed and replaced with a predictable lack of improvement. A characteristic of CFS is the almost fanatical belief of the patients that their “illness” has a physical cause. Here is a report from a clinical psychologist about such a patient: “He scored nought on the depression inventory and three on the anxiety inventory. This is a person who does not wish to reveal anything about himself. During the interview he made it clear that he sees his problem in terms of recovery from a physical illness with no concomitant psychological manifestation.”

This fanatical belief in a physical cause of ME is also shared by many doctors whose therapeutic contact with their patients becomes a classic folie a deux.

Cultural variations were found in a WHO study which looked at depression worldwide. Only 5% of patients who were depressed said that they had psychological problems. Such a level of denial is compounded by the useless treatments offered by doctors. For example, antidepressants were prescribed for anxiety as often as for depression. Japan had a low incidence of depression due to the Japanese concept of jibyo signifying a mild chronic illness which a person carries through life and is not considered serious.

It should be mandatory for all patients with a diagnosis of CFS to undergo assessment by a Mental Health team. No person with CFS should be entitled to any long-term benefit unless they have had at least a six month trial of anti-depressant therapy. (Christchurch Press 18/7/95 New Scientist 25/3/95 p10)

Multiple Personality Disorder

This is a typically loony belief of New Age psychiatrists and it has received widespread acceptance in the US. This is hardly surprising in a culture where thousands of people believe that they have been abducted by aliens. Even such an august institution as Harvard Medical School has a psychiatrist who believes that extraterrestrial beings have visited this planet and abducted Earthlings! Striking a blow for academic freedom, the Dean of the Medical School “reaffirmed Dr Mack’s freedom to study what he wishes and to state his opinions without impediment.” In contrast, the British specialists have condemned the idea in scathing terms. Imagine the convenience of being able to blame an alternative personality for some misfortune such as a criminal offence. This absurd concept of MPD fits in to the prevailing “victim” philosophy of life whose adherents view themselves as being subject to forces beyond their control. (New Scientist 17 June 95, GP Weekly 23/8/95)

Continuing OOS Delusions

The occupational health professionals continue to indulge themselves over OOS. ACC is reported as being concerned about the vague nature of OOS and the fact that claims cannot be satisfactorily proved or disproved. Claims against ACC reached $4 million in the year ended 30 June 1994 and are increasing. The huge army of consultants advising on posture are doing just that — posturing.

At least I managed to get my contrary view published in Safeguard. Bernard Howard also sent me a newspaper cutting of a story concerning a musician allegedly suffering from OOS. I will quote his remarks which need no further comment: “After centuries of playing their instruments for hours per day, every day, musicians are only now developing OOS. Come back Paganini…all’s forgiven!” (Safeguard Update Nos 26, 27 1995.)

Medicine Chinoise

15,000 French doctors practise acupuncture and many also use “high-dilution” homeopathic medicines. It is not surprising then that a hospital dedicated to traditional Chinese medicine will open in Paris next year under the joint sponsorship of the Chinese and French Ministries of health. It is promoted as a measure to control spiralling health costs.

This trendy quackery will help the “worried well” but will do nothing to control spiralling health costs which are a feature of unreasonable patient expectation and over-application of medical technology. (British Medical Journal Vol 310 p1285)

Uncontrolled Medical Appetites

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a radiological technique which is valuable for examining internal organs. In NZ Doctor, an American doctor outlines what he calls MRI madness. Americans are so obsessed with MRI technology that there are 25 times as many machines in California as in Canada, which has about the same population. Patients demand MRI scans for virtually any medical condition and as a third party (ie. insurance company) is paying, they get what they want.

Just about everyone with low back pain gets an MRI scan. However, a new study found that two out of three people without back pain have evidence of a disc protrusion. The authors concluded that anatomical abnormalities are common in normal people.

A skeptical US doctor described the obsession with MRI as “MRI tiger balm”. (GP Weekly 27/7/94, NZ Doctor 23/6/95)

A Reader Writes

In Skeptic 36 I asked how long before magic mushrooms (Kombucha) arrived in New Zealand. John Turner has written from Motueka to tell me that they are here! [See also Forum] I hope I am not compromising his continued existence in Golden Bay by passing on his description of the area as being a “bloated gelatinous pancake of new Ageism.” As John describes it: “the ‘mushroom’ has a baby which is then passed on to someone else.”

One convert claimed he was cured of “toxins” which coloured his urine brown as they left his body. John quite reasonably enquired as to what colour the mushroom brew was. It was brown! Those readers contemplating a visit to Golden Bay will be pleased to know that every quack treatment is available from holistic pulsing to sound healing with “yidaki” or as it is more commonly known, didgeridoo therapy. This may all sound like a lot of didgeridoodoo but in the US a woman died and another was hospitalised due to severe acidosis after drinking Kombucha tea. (John Turner (personal communication), Nelson Evening Mail 8/7/95, NCAHF Vol 18 No.3)

Anti-Immunisation Quacks

I recently complained to the Medical Practioners Disciplinary Committee (MPDC) about a doctor who made a series of ignorant and unproven claims in respect of immunisation. The MPDC is fairly toothless when it comes to dealing with scientific incompetence in medical practitioners and the unrepentant doctor even wrote me a letter declaring he was proud to be a member of the American Quack Association (Quack = Quality, Care and Kindness). I will quote a short passage to show how impossible it is to argue with such people.

I challenged his claim that Vitamin C is an effective treatment for viral diseases (7 placebo controlled trials showed lack of effect for Vit C in the treatment of cold virus infections). Here is his reply: “There is extensive peer-reviewed literature bearing witness to the clinical effectiveness of ascorbic acid in viral diseases. You will not find reference to this in Medline or Index Medicus journals that represent only about 10% of the world’s scientific journals and are controlled by the international pharmaceutical industry.”

This one paragraph contains two of the main quack elements. Firstly the suggestion that some alternative inferior data base is an acceptable alternative to controlled trials, and secondly the familiar old conspiracy bogey that scientific journals are controlled by vested interests.

The President of the Australian Medical Association has come out a lot more strongly than the NZ MPDC, by recommending that doctors who use their scientific standing in the community to support the anti-immunisation movement should be charged with medical negligence. At the time he made this remark Australia came near the bottom of a list of industrialised nations when rates of childhood immunisations were compared.

It is sad that at time of writing Russia is in the grip of an epidemic of diptheria which has killed more than 2000 people. This was a direct result of allowing immunisation levels to drop below the 95% required to prevent epidemics. (Dr Quack (personal communication), British Medical Journal Vol 310, p760. Lancet Vol 345 p715)

Evidence Based Medicine

Although my main interest is alternative medical quackery there are many traditionally accepted medical practices which have never been critically evaluated. I mentioned counselling in Skeptic 36 and this was enlarged on by Jim Ring in the last issue.

In Britain, the BMJ is sponsoring a Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine which is aimed at critically evaluating both new and old treatments. The key element is randomised controlled trials (RCT’s) in which patients must be randomly allocated to either a new treatment group or a control group (may be the existing treatment or no treatment). A survey of RCT’s in pregnancy and childbirth found that out of 100 procedures commonly carried out by obstetricians and midwives, about 20 are actually harmful.

If you go to your doctor complaining of a cough, the chances are that you will come away with a prescription for an antibiotic. This is despite the fact that seven RCT’s have shown no benefit for such treatment. It was also difficult to carry out the trials because in one survey 60% of eligible patients refused to enter a trial because they felt that antibiotics were absolutely necessary to cure their condition. Perhaps this is a good argument for using harmless placebos in such cases? I should mention a note of caution against blindly imposing the results of RCT’s on patients and this point was well expounded by Sir John Scott at our last conference. What will it take to stop physicians from prescribing antibiotics in acute bronchitis? (Lancet Vol 345 p665)

Fat Fraud

Aminophylline-containing cream is a popular quack remedy for reducing the size of large thighs. In a test, researchers studied women who were asked to massage either the cream or a placebo into one thigh and one side of the stomach. 11 out of the 17 women completed the study and, as anyone could have predicted, there was no fat-reducing effect. Despite measurements to the contrary, one woman was convinced that the cream worked. If it is important for people to believe in something, no amount of evidence to the contrary will convince them. (National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF) Vol 18 N0.3)

Civic Creche Case

Professor Michael Hill examined some of the issues behind the civic creche case in an article in the Christchurch Press 31/3/95 which I have forwarded to our editor. Hill coins the phrase “culture of complaint” in which disaffected people take little responsibility for their own lives and look instead for someone to blame. The existence of compensation through litigation completes this ‘Americanisation’ of our culture. It is incredible how quickly the false ideas behind ritual sexual abuse spread and were recreated throughout NZ.

I was disgusted with the judiciary over the civic creche case although the whole process was hijacked by the usual cohort of poorly trained quack therapists. The prosecution was able to get away with not presenting evidential material so ridiculous that it would have weakened their case. In a trial of any kind all the evidence should be available to both sides. My heart goes out to the falsely accused women whose lives have been ruined by this evil nonsense. I seriously question whether there was any chance at all of Peter Ellis getting a fair trial in an atmosphere of hysteria reminiscent of the Salem witch hunts.


A group of scientists have petitioned the FDA to place tighter restrictions on homeopathic remedies by making them reach the same standards of safety and effectiveness as other OTC drugs. There should not be any problem over safety since such remedies are the pharmacological version of the emperor’s new clothes. The drug exists in the imagination only.

Predictably there has been opposition from the National Centre for Homeopathy because “homeopathy doesn’t treat diseases but treats people who are ill.” The NCH wants a different type of evaluation. This is rather like admitting that homeopathy is scientifically inexplicable so a new science must be created to explain it.

The Wyant Heavy-Weight Motor

It may interest skeptics to know that I have solved the world’s energy problems. The concept is surprisingly simple… but then works of great brilliance often are.

Our methods employ what we call “The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back Technologies.” I won’t mind however, if future generations call them “Carl Systems.”

As etheric physicists know, all objects on Earth inherently “want” to leave the planet. But they can’t, because gravity holds them down. We call this syndrome “weight frustration.” Thus, metals like gold or lead are “extremely frustrated,” whereas subjects such as feathers and dry leaves are only “mildly neurotic.”

The Wyant Heavy-Weight Motor — simply called by the boys and girls at the lab the “Wymo” — works according to ancient cosmic principles.

The fuel, already desperate to fly forth from the Earth, but held back by the forces of gravity, is subjected to further “annoyance” by way of a powerful screw-driven press. This “further annoyance” is The Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back, known as “strack” among professionals.

Basically, Wymos and other strack devices increase “annoyance” until the fuel “freaks out” and discharges its “frustration.”

So far we have found lead to be the best fuel for strack machines. Forty pounds of lead will drive a six-foot turbine at 190 RPM for five hours, producing ten times as much energy as it takes to drive the press.

Granite and other hard rocks are also proving to be good sources of frustration. And with the current development of strack amplification units we expect major breakthroughs with alarm clocks and bulk copies of the Listener any day now.

Some alternative fuels, unfortunately, have not shown favourable graphs. For example, repeated stracking trials using glossy magazine editors and cow-shooting journalists for fuel have failed to turn over our smallest turbines, much less “over produce.”

We have hopes of explaining this anomaly in the near future. But for now, why 20 pounds of granite yields more energy than 150 pounds of journalist remains a hotly debated issue at the Wymo lab.

In the meantime, we persist with our work. We are confident the patent office will soon recognise the importance of the Heavy-Weight Motor.

Put a Pixie in Your Petrol

A Sprite in your Spirit, a Bogle in your Benzine, a Fury in your Fuel, a Greyhound in your Gasoline. With acknowledgement to the oil company which, many years ago, urged us to “Put a Tiger in your Tank.”

“It is far too easy for promoters of such products to make extravagant claims, and very difficult, time consuming and expensive to challenge such claims … there needs to be a system whereby advertisers can be required to prove such fulsome claims, rather than requiring disbelievers to disprove such claims.”

Yet another moan about homeopathic medicines from the pages of Skeptical Inquirer? Wrong! The quotation above is from the New Zealand Automobile Association’s Directions (September 1992), and refers to “Petrol Pills,” claimed by the distributors to improve your car’s fuel consumption by up to 17%, increase power by 8-12%, and to reduce harmful emissions. In careful tests, the AA could not confirm any of these claims.

The “Petrol Pills” promotion was backed by the usual “unsolicited testimonials” and by vague test reports of doubtful provenance. The subject of this next note has an apparently more respectable origin. It was observed by a contributor to Skeptiker, our German counterpart, at a well-respected technical exhibition, “Ceramitec,” in Munich.

Among the many well-attested marvels of modern ceramic technology was the stand of a Japanese firm, introducing “Mixrax” pellets — a “philosopher’s stone,” according to our German colleagues. A few pellets in your petrol tank will alter the molecular structure of the fuel (!), so that the specific heat of combustion is raised. This is claimed to allow fuel savings of 10-20%, power increases of 10-20%, the reduction of CO2 and hydrocarbon emissions by 30-40%, and a general cleaning of motor and exhaust systems. This material of paranormal power is made by sintering together over twenty common ceramic materials. One of these contains uranium, and the “Mirax” pellets contain much more radioactivity than is usually considered safe. Apart from the safety aspect, automotive engineers can see no way in which these pellets could work as claimed.

Our final “pixies” do not actually go into the tank; they are magnets which are fastened round the fuel intake to the carburetor. They are claimed to “excite” the fuel as it passes to the engine, making it burn more efficiently and less pollutingly. New Scientist has reported on a number of these devices recently. The British Advertising Standards Authority has ruled against the claims made for several, on the ground that no evidence was provided to substantiate them. More colourfully, a university engineer says a dead chicken wrapped around the pipe would be just as effective. American authorities, both state and federal, have used the courts to stop the sale of these devices until the claims are proved.

A joke from my boyhood was about a man who installed so many petrol- saving devices in his car that his fuel savings exceeded 100%, and he had to stop occasionally to empty his overflowing tank. Apparently the old chestnut has not lost its point.


This is a summary of a talk given at the 1992 Skeptics conference by Dr Eric Geiringer.

[An E-meter is a device used by members of the Church of Scientology, and some related groups or individuals, to “diagnose” illnesses. The subject grasps a pair of metal electrodes connected to an Ohm-meter, and an “auditor” asks questions and interprets the meter’s readings.]

The resistance the skin offers to the passage of an electric current is inversely proportional to the amount of electrolyte in the neighbourhood, and that essentially means sodium chloride in the sweat.

The skin is an important regulator of the sodium chloride content of the tissues, which must remain constant within narrow limits.

The amount of sweat and its salt concentration (0.1-0.37%) will vary in different people and at different times in the same person with:

  • fluid intake
  • clothes
  • stage of menstrual cycle
  • amount of salt in the tissues
  • amount of salt in food
  • the circum-ambient temperature
  • the number of sweat glands
  • their topical distribution
  • adrenal activity
  • anterior pituitary activity
  • posterior pituitary activity
  • hormone output of heart muscle
  • kidney function

and a number of other factors, all playing a part at any given moment in determining how much salt will meet the electrodes.

To this must be added the psychic state of the subject at the time of measurement, because as with blushing (which is also part of the hypothalamic heat regulating mechanism) sweating will be brought on by joy, fear, embarrassment or pain.

The effect of these variables on the final reading is, of course, additive and gives a composite reading of little, if any, specific value.

E-meter operators may claim that the refinements which they have introduced into the machine and the method standardise subjects to all these variables, and can therefore isolate idiosyncratic differences and enable specific physical or mental disorders to be diagnosed, but it would be up to them to substantiate such an extraordinary claim.

Although Scientology in toto is a dangerous, exploitative and mischievous humbug, we must concede that, by recording and utilising psychic sweating to loaded questions, their use of the E-meter is on a par with the use of lie-detectors<|>–<|>i.e. a crude, nonspecific but marginally valid means of spotting emotionally sensitive areas in a significant number of subjects.

It is the imaginative use, or pretended use, of these Ohm-meters and Volt-meters to diagnose specific mental or physical disorders by homeopaths and acupuncturists which constitutes their real danger.