Opening a Dore?

A learning difficulties programme that claims to re-train the cerebellum makes some impressive claims which don’t stand close scrutiny.

DORE is an organisation that claims to treat learning difficulties without drugs. Their programmes supposedly

“… tackle the root cause of learning difficulties by improving the efficiency of the cerebellum – the brain’s ‘skill development centre’ – and the part of the brain now understood to play a significant role in learning, coordination, emotional control and motor skills.”

Recently the company held a series of information sessions to coincide with the opening of a new Dore centre in Lower Hutt, to go with their existing centres in Auckland and Christchurch. I attended a session to see what it was all about.

As we entered the room, video testimonials were playing, showing parents and their children claiming dramatic results for a range of learning disabilities and conditions, such as Asperger’s syndrome. An information pack was handed out, which included newspaper clippings and another testimonial. It claimed that Dore gets to the “core of learning difficulties”, “actively improves ability to learn”, is drug-free, based on scientific principles, is personally tailored and is not a “quick fix” or “soft option”. A FAQ stated that people who successfully complete the programme did the exercises accurately and consistently and if improvements don’t occur this is mainly because people are not sticking to the routine.

A video introduced Wynford Dore, who stated his daughter had learning problems, for which he searched for a solution. Then a mother and her son related how the son had dyslexia and behavioural problems at school which the mother was only made aware of after a few years when a teacher spoke to her. The child was already on a three-year programme with SPELD when the family discovered Dore; they followed this programme for a year concurrently with SPELD. They claimed significant improvement about three months after starting Dore.

The presentation went on to claim that approximately 16 percent of the New Zealand population had learning difficulties, with only four percent diagnosed; these were said to affect one in six New Zealanders. It was difficult to locate comparative figures, but SPELD estimates that seven percent of children have a specific learning disability, which would equate to about 50,000 school children.

The Dore programme claimed to assist with dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, dyspraxia (motor skills) and Asperger’s syndrome, and is targeted at people aged seven and over. The presenter briefly went over the typical feelings of those struggling with learning difficulties, and described how they thought these conditions manifest – as a multitude of literacy, numeracy, memory, attention, coordination, social and emotional problems. This was all claimed to be due to an inefficient cerebellum. Dore, they said, addresses underlying causes rather than symptoms (where have I heard that before I wonder?).

The conditions treated all allegedly have a physiological basis and nothing to do with other factors. Figures were presented, said to be from the Otago University longitudinal study and purporting to show that dyslexics were significantly disadvantaged compared with peers (with the consequent implication that treatment would help prevent this disadvantage).

Dyslexic students were more likely to leave school with no qualifications, much less likely to have a Bachelors degree, and none achieved Masters/Doctorate levels. Average income was more than $10,000 less than their peers. However, there was no word on whether this lack of achievement could be generalised to all people suffering dyslexia, given the long time period of the study and the considerable changes in educational services over that time.

In a further video presentation a Dr Sara Chamberlain claimed the cerebellum governs the automatic performance of simple tasks, and that this facility can be enhanced through exercise. We then heard about Dore’s assessment process. Following an initial phone consultation, prospective clients fill out a questionnaire, and there are a variety of tests and a medical assessment. Posture and ocular-motor skills are tested, and then dyslexia is screened for, apparently using a standard tool. Other conditions such as ADD/ADHD are assessed using the DSM-IV manual; the whole initial appointment takes three to four hours. The programme, it appears, is not suitable for everyone. Clients then have 1.5-hour interviews at three-monthly intervals and on completion of the course.

It was claimed that many scientific papers link the cerebellum with learning, attention, etc; these can be found on their website. They say they have done research themselves and written papers, and will provide details on request. They mentioned ongoing studies into ADHD at Ohio State University and by another US office; the Ohio State University testing appears to be a pilot study, but I couldn’t find any references to the other. A testimonial was introduced from a Dr Edward Hallowell, presented as an expert in ADD and ADHD. When I checked on this later, he appears to be involved with the Dore programme and would hardly be an unbiased commenter.

We were presented with figures from self-evaluation claiming to show 86.5 percent of children and 88.5 percent of adults showed progress in literacy and numeracy after taking the Dore programme. For coordination the respective figures were 81 percent and 75.4 percent, and for social skills 78.1 percent and 72.6 percent. The exercise programme was claimed to be individualised, unlike other programmes like ‘Brain Gym’ that aren’t (for more information on Brain Gym see Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog(.

The regime

The exercises take 10 minutes twice daily, with a mandatory four-hour break between; they have 400 exercises and 16 levels that could be completed. These involve such things as using a wobble board, or an exercise ball, or throwing and catching mini bean bags. Again, the cerebellum was claimed to be receiving, processing and automating sensory information from somatosensory, visual and vestibular inputs. The cerebral cortex (the thinking part of the brain) is apparently supposed to integrate all of this but with the conditions Dore say they treat, it is claimed the cerebellum isn’t working with the cerebral cortex.

The idea that defects in the cerebellum cause learning difficulties would seem to be a classic case of correlation not necessarily equating with causation. As noted by Oxford University psychologist Dorothy Bishop in her 2007 paper “Curing dyslexia and ADHD by training motor co-ordination: Miracle or myth?”, cause and effect would seem to be not so simple as presented at the session.

“The notion that the cerebellum might be implicated in some children’s learning difficulties is not unreasonable: both post-mortem and imaging studies have reported cerebellar abnormalities. Furthermore, some studies have reported behavioural deficits involving balance and automatisation of motor skills in a subset of people with dyslexia, consistent with a cerebellar deficit hypothesis. However, it is premature to conclude that abnormal cerebellar development is the cause of dyslexia, rather than an associated feature. Many people with dyslexia do not show any evidence of motor or balance problems. Furthermore, the cerebellum is a plastic structure which can be modified by training, raising the possibility that cerebellar abnormalities might be a consequence of limited experience in hand-writing in those with poor literacy.”

The programme used to use a book, but is now web-based. Exercises are carried out and then “marked” according to their criteria. They stressed that compliance was key, along with parental support. Times for completion vary, but are usually 12-14 months, with a weaning process at the end of the programme where the exercises are gradually wound down. The course is expensive, costing almost $5,400 or a little less for a one-off payment. They did say that they gave three “sponsored” places per month, but didn’t describe what exactly this entailed, outside of mentioning that it was for low income families and that children with a medical diagnosis could apply for a disability allowance through WINZ which could be used to access their programme.

A few questions

During question time, they were asked how they could be sure the child in the video testimonial had improved because of Dore and not the other programme he was on. The answer was fudged: they said they didn’t diagnose but looked for “sensory processing problems” and it was those they treated, which then enabled the person to learn. In other words, if there was improvement, it was Dore, not any other intervention specifically targeted at helping the person learn to overcome their disability and learn to read.

Another questioner asked why it was so costly given that the programme is mostly self-directed. They equivocated, talking about staffing costs, the website, and having support available. They said that braces cost much more and that that is basically cosmetic, when their programme “benefited a person for life” so was worth the investment. Yet another question was about the doctors – why wouldn’t they use paediatricians and other suitably qualified professionals? They stated that for their purposes, the level of medical expertise was sufficient.

Dore has obviously learned from experience following actions taken by overseas advertising standards authorities, and no longer make claims of “100 percent cure” and “miracle cure” for the conditions they claim to treat. In fact they seemed to be reasonably realistic in introducing caveats such as “it doesn’t work for everyone”. Despite this, they still claim to be proven to help overcome learning difficulties even though the evidence base is weak to non-existent. Although they make many claims to be “scientific” and have an extensive list of papers on their website, when the UK Advertising Standards Authority considered a complaint against Dynevor, Dore’s parent company, they assessed the studies submitted in support as poor, lacking control groups, and not supporting the treatment claims made:

“The ASA noted Dynevor’s interpretation of the ad. We considered, however, in the absence of any qualifying text to the contrary, that consumers were likely to understand the claim “Need help with Dyslexia, ADHD, Dyspraxia or Asperger’s?” to mean that the DORE programme could help treat the named conditions. We also considered that we would need to see robust, scientific evidence to support the claim. We noted that the two studies provided by Dynevor assessed the effect of the exercise-based DORE programme on children with reading difficulties and children and adults with ADHD respectively…

“… As neither the first nor second study referred to Asperger’s syndrome and only two participants in the first study had dyspraxia, we considered that the evidence was inadequate to support claims to treat those conditions. With regards to dyslexia and ADHD, we did not consider that the studies were sufficiently robust to support the treatment claims for those conditions, and we therefore concluded that the claim was misleading…”

The average person would have trouble verifying claims about the role of the cerebellum and the ability of an exercise programme to improve function. If it really was that easy everyone would be using Dore’s exercises. Their claim that dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD/ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome have one cause, one cure, is insufficient. The conditions they claim to treat are disparate and cause and effect is not established. There was little discussion of how cerebellar function or dysfunction is assessed, or of the relevance of their testing of such things as eye tracking, and no discussion at all of how the exercises impact on the cerebellum or how outcomes are measured. Bishop says:

“The gaping hole in the rationale for the Dore Programme is a lack of evidence that training on motor-coordination can have any influence on higher-level skills mediated by the cerebellum. If training eye-hand co-ordination, motor skill and balance caused generalized cerebellar development, then one should find a low rate of dyslexia and ADHD in children who are good at skateboarding, gymnastics or juggling. Yet several of the celebrity endorsements of the Dore programme come from professional sportspeople.”

There is little real involvement from the company once the programme has commenced, with only a few appointments to follow up after the initial assessment. Many who join the programme don’t apparently have a formal diagnosis of the conditions Dore claims to treat, and they won’t get that from the company, as they state they don’t diagnose anything other than the alleged cerebellar problems.

It’s not surprising that some would see benefits though – the commitment and parental support required to do the programme would alone benefit some children. Then there is regression to the mean, the Hawthorne effect (subjects modify an aspect of their behaviour being experimentally measured simply in response to being studied) and natural improvements with growing maturity. On retesting later, there may appear to be improvements due to the client having done the test before and being aware of what is required. Many would concurrently use other services such as reading recovery, and Dore themselves recommend that if the child has spare time, that it is spent practising reading and writing. That extra practice reading could be extremely beneficial.

The high cost of the programme is concerning, especially when they acknowledge that not everyone will benefit. Despite this, they had parents travelling from the Wellington region to undertake assessments in Auckland – hence the opening of an office in the region. There may also be a financial risk to participants; Dore UK and Australia have both failed, leaving clients out of pocket. In New Zealand Dore was placed in liquidation in 2009 and the Companies Office states: “This Company currently has Liquidators, Receivers or Voluntary Administrators appointed” with the liquidators due to report again in May 2011.


Elephants in Loch Ness?

Nessie’s an elephant, says a leading British palaeontologist (Dominion Post, 7 March).

Neil Clark, curator of palaeontology at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, spent two years investigating the Loch Ness myth and suggested the idea for Nessie was dreamt up as a “magnificent piece of marketing” by a circus impresario after he saw one of his elephants bathing in the loch.

In 1933, the same year as the first modern ‘sighting’ of Nessie, Bertram Mills offered £20,000 to anyone who could capture the monster for his circus, sparking international interest. Most sightings could be explained by floating logs or waves, but there were a number, particularly from 1933, were more difficult to account for.

He believed some were elephants belonging to circuses – which visited Inverness and stopped along the banks of the loch to allow their animals to rest. When they swam in the loch, only the trunk and two humps could be seen – the first hump being the head and the second the animal’s back.

University fears cancer from wireless internet…

Lakehead University, in Ontario, Canada, won’t allow campus-wide internet access because of health worries (Dominion Post, 1 March.)

President Fred Gilbert told a university meeting that some studies showed links to carcinogenic occurences in animals, including humans, related to energy fields associated with wireless hotspots – “whether these hotspots are transmissions lines, whether they’re outlets, plasma screens or microwave ovens that leak.” The university has only limited Wi-Fi connections, in places where there is no fibre-optic internet connection. The decision, apparently, was a personal decision by Gilbert.

The stance has caused a backlash from students and Canadian health authorities. “Considering this is a university known for its great use of technology it’s kind of bad that we can’t get Wi-Fi,” student union president Adam Krupper said.

…but cell phones are OK

Meanwhile, according to a new study, cell phones do not increase the risk of developing brain tumours, the Dominion Post reported (21 January.)

After a four-year survey, scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research in London and British universities in Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham found no link between regular, long-term use of cellphones and glioma brain tumours.

The results were consistent with the findings of most studies done in the US and Europe, although this survey was bigger than any previous research and involved 13 countries.

The researchers questioned 966 people with glioma and 1716 healthy volunteers about how long they had used mobile phones, the make and model, how many calls they made and how long the calls lasted. Earlier mobile phones used analogue signals, which emitted higher power signals than the later digital models. Any health danger would be more likely to result from the earlier models, but the scientists found no evidence of it.

Ghosts keep the tourists away

The existence of ghosts may be debated, but the impact of traditional Asian beliefs on Thailand’s tourism trade since the December 26, 2004, tsunami appears indisputable (National Geographic News, January 6).

Tourism from Europe, Australia, and the United States has rebounded since the disaster, but tourist arrivals from elsewhere in Asia have not. Industry observers cite Asian tourists’ fears of ghosts in tsunami-stricken areas as the main reason for the decline.

Buddhism and other Asian belief systems hold that if bodies are not properly buried, their spirits restlessly wander the Earth, and may try to drag living beings into a spiritual limbo.

“Please tell your fellow Japanese and Chinese back home to stop fearing ghosts and return to this region again,” Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra reportedly told tourists after a memorial service to commemorate the victims of the tsunami.

Since the disaster, tales of ghost sightings have become endemic. Foreign ghosts seem to be particularly common, and many of the accounts are being covered in local newspapers.

One Phuket taxi driver reportedly said he was hailed by four western tourists who asked to go to the airport. The driver chatted as he drove, but when he pulled up at the airport to let the passengers out there was no one there.

Police procedure allows for sorcery concerns

Maori should not be forced to give DNA samples because of concerns over sorcery, says a report in the Dominion Post (5 December 05). A new police manual says Maori have spiritual beliefs about samples taken from the body, and that “a person should not be forced to provide samples for testing purposes”. Police management said the direction would be amended or deleted in future editions.

‘John of God’: it’s all been seen before

Chair-entity Vicki Hyde is gnashing her teeth over the upcoming visit to New Zealand of Joao Teixeira de Faria, ‘one of the world’s most powerful spiritual healers.’

In a full-page feature on the ‘healer’ in the Dominion Post (28 January) Vicki told reporter Stefan Herrick she was convinced Teixeira de Faria, who goes by the name John of God, was a con man “who peddles miracle cures that don’t withstand even light scientific scrutiny.

“Sad to see this chap coming here as it just means more exploitation of vulnerable people.”

Hundreds of foreigners visit Abadiania, the small village in Brazil where Teixeira de Faria has established a clinic where ‘miraculous cures’ take place. He is promoted as “the greatest healer of the past 2000 years”, and claims to be guided by 35 healing spirits.

Vicki Hyde said if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, “it’s probably just another duck…”

John of God, the report said, doesn’t charge for visits to his clinic (although the Wellington sessions will cost $115) but he appeared to be well off. The ABC network reported that he owned a 400-hectare ranch down the road from his clinic.

Magnets attract support

Magnet therapy, said to be favoured by Cherie Blair, is to be made available on Britain’s National Health Service (NZ Herald, 11 March).

The 4UlcerCare – a strap containing four magnets that is wrapped around the leg – is available on prescription from GPs. Its maker, Magnopulse, claims that it speeds the healing of leg ulcers and keeps them from coming back.

The announcement has created excitement in the world of alternative medicine. Lilias Curtin, one-time therapist to Cherie Blair, sent a poster-sized announcement to newspapers declaring her “sincere belief that, in the next five to 10 years, magnets will be seen in first-aid boxes”.

Other experts are sceptical. Professor Edzard Ernst, head of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, said that he was puzzled by the NHS decision. “As far as I can see, there hasn’t yet been enough research to prove that these magnets help people with ulcers.”

More powerful electromagnets could help to heal tissue injuries, but that was different, he said. His own study of small magnets on arthritis sufferers had failed to yield compelling results.

In January, researchers from the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, in California, published a paper in the British Medical Journal that cast doubt on the therapeutic use of magnets. “Patients should be advised that magnet therapy has no proven benefits. If they insist on using a magnetic device, they could be advised to buy the cheapest – this will alleviate the pain in their wallet,” they wrote.

Back From the Dead?

I’ve just witnessed a miracle. Probably. On January 2 I took part in a trip to the outer Hauraki Gulf to search for a bird that until recently had not been seen since the nineteenth century. Three specimens of the bird, the New Zealand Storm Petrel, sitting in museums in Paris and London, were believed to be the only representatives of yet another of this country’s extinct species.

Then in January 2003 a bird matching the New Zealand Storm Petrel’s description was photographed off Whitianga. By itself that didn’t mean too much; sometimes you get strange individuals of common species, and this bird’s resemblance to the lost petrel may have been coincidence. But in November two British birdwatchers saw 10 or 20 birds just north of Little Barrier Island that looked just the same, and took some amazing photos ( And our trip found at least three in the same area. Needless to say, we were over the moon. Here’s one of our pictures; not as good as the ones on the website, but clearly it’s the same thing.

So can a species really go more than a century without being recorded, less than 100km from Auckland? That’s what we skeptics would call an extraordinary claim, and quite correctly the Ornithological Society’s Rare Birds Committee isn’t rushing to confirm the bird’s continued existence.

But with every week that goes by, the case is looking stronger. Trips are now going out regularly, and amassing considerable documentary evidence. In the latest development, TV3 News has shown film of the bird. It’s all developing in a way that’s very different from sightings of moa, lake monsters, or Bigfoot, which are invariably isolated events with no follow-up. There’s definitely a bird out there in the outer gulf that wasn’t there before (at least not in any numbers), it looks just like the museum specimens, and not really like any other known species.

Possibly it’s an unexpected dividend of the rat eradication programme on our offshore islands; maybe a tiny population was able to hang on until the rats were gone, and they’ve bred up in the intervening years to the point where people are starting to see them.

Whatever the explanation, it looks like the biggest thing to happen in New Zealand ornithology since David Crockett rediscovered the Chatham Island Taiko in 1978, a mere 111 years after its last sighting. And it’s a reminder that however much we think we know about the world around us, nature can still spring surprises.

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Biokinetic Horror Show

A Hamilton doctor is facing two charges of professional misconduct and one of disgraceful conduct after one of his patients was left looking “like something out of a horror movie”. The Marlborough Express (August 21) reports Yvonne Short had gone to Dr Richard Gorringe in 1998 looking for a cure for her skin problems.

She told a disciplinary tribunal in Hamilton Dr Gorringe promised to cure her within 12 weeks, but she ended up worse off.
“My hands were also swollen and painful… I would wake up in the morning and there would be skin on the bed and on the floor,” she said.
In her opening address, director of proceedings Morag McDowell told the tribunal Dr Gorringe’s alternative practice was not an issue. Instead, the prosecution was concerned with his diagnostic technique.

The next day (NZ Herald, September 22) Dr Gorringe demontrated this technique, known as Peak Muscle Resistance Testing. Using a fake patient, he showed how the patient placed his or her hand or arm on a square aluminium plate, which was part of a wired circuit.

In the other hand, the patient holds an aluminium rod, and touches dozens of small vials filled with various body tissues, chemicals, toxins and pathogens. If the patient’s arm flexes when they touch a certain toxin or body tissue vial, that shows what is wrong and where the problem lies.

Using this technique, Dr Gorringe diagnosed Yvonne Short as suffering from paraquat poisoning.

Expert witness Dr Richard Doehring told the tribunal the technique was not reliable, adding that muscle testing was without objective validation and confirms what the practitioner expects it to confirm.

He criticised as unethical Dr Gorringe’s practice of selling remedies from his own clinic and described his alternative practice as “cruelly exploitative, if not outright fraudulent.”

Hotline to Heaven

Bolivian visionary, evangelist and stigmatist Katya Rivas flew into Wellington briefly, and relayed a message from Jesus especially for the people of New Zealand. Since being visited by the Blessed Mother in 1993, Katya has reported numerous miracles. She has even converted sceptics to Catholicism – Aussie investigative journalist Mike Willessee interviewed her in 1999 for a Fox TV documentary and the former sceptic converted. It was he who invited her to Sydney, to help launch a new video he made on the miracle of the Eucharist. Contact magazine (September 5) had this as its lead article, spurring an unprecedented five copies submitted to Newsfront from members. Christ’s message, by the way: “We are already in a new country, a country which is ready to receive my mercy through love. Trust, it is important that you speak to the people and save souls that are precious to me. Happy are those who are docile to my voice and invitations.”

Letters to the editor resulted, essentially saying “Stigmata, potata!” – one pointed out that CSICOP’S Joe Nickell looked into the alleged stigmatisation and found they could not be authenticated. The show was so bad it even won Farce of the Week (see Another said “A lot of Mike Willessee’s very sane friends and colleagues are deeply concerned about his health…”

Something to cry over

While on such things, the NZ Herald (September 23) reports the weeping virgin of Rockingham appears to have joined the long list of fakes that have plagued Christendom since splinters of the “true cross” carved out a market in the Middle Ages. (I wish I’d written that introduction -ed.) After examination, a secret cavity was found in the fibreglass statue which has enthralled thousands of the faithful at the industrial suburb south of Perth since rose-scented “tears” appeared in March. Following a pattern on the internet describing how to “amaze your friends and bring peasants to your door” the unknown creator reportedly put an oil-filled cavity in its head. It was then sold as a souvenir in Thailand eight years ago. Such are miracles.

Bad Vibes, Man

A Whakatane woman fears plans to build a periodic detention centre next to her shop will wreak havoc on her business, the Dominion Post (26 July) reports. “I sell crystals, can you imagine the negative energy that will come from over there,” said Gerry Tobin, who plies her trade next to the proposed Commerce St site. On the other hand, we wonder whether the positive vibrations from her wares will have a beneficial effect on the prisoners?

It’s your hair they’re after

Consumer Affairs Ministry senior adviser Pamela Rogers is one person keeping tabs on scams (Dominion Post, September 11 – yes, there were other news items that day). She says the “ickiest” one she’s seen was from clairvoyant Liv Hansen who would map out your financial future in return for $30 and a clipping of your hair.

Similar scams included Master Charli Chan’s amazing golden dragon egg and Maria Duval’s cardboard talisman, priced between $50 and $80.

Variations on the Nigerian scam include pleas from Zimbabwean “Edward Mulete” to help disperse his murdered farmer father’s $46 million estate, and a man claiming to be the late King of Nepal’s lawyer looking to offload $67 million squirreled away by the king’s son and killer, Prince Dipendra.

The ministry has also seen a recent upsurge in “El Gordo” lottery scams, in which people are sent a letter or e-mail saying they had won money in a lottery, but needed to send a cheque or provide credit card details to pay $50 to claim their prize. Ms Rogers said people still sent money despite knowing they had not entered such lotteries.

Sceptic sees stars

Independent film-maker Bart Sibril surprised Buzz Aldrin, one of the first astronauts to walk on the moon – and saw stars for his efforts. The man-described as a “sceptic”-maintains the moon landings were faked in the Nevada desert. He was with a Japanese film team and ambushed the astronaut outside a Beverly Hills hotel, reports The Press (September 21). “I walked up to him on the sidewalk and put a Bible up to him and asked him to swear on the Bible that he actually walked on the moon,” said Sibril, who has confronted Aldrin twice before. “He refused to do it, so I told him he was a thief to take money for giving an interview on something he didn’t do. That’s when he hit me …”

Looking For Love

Keiko, the whale from Free Willy, has told an “animal interpreter” that he is lonely and looking for love. He also has an itchy back. Astrid Moe, who claims to have had a “lengthy telepathic dialogue” with Keiko, says the whale is looking for his other half and that he feels stuck between two worlds, reports the Star-Times (September 15). “He told me that his back was very itchy and that was when I saw an emitting device near his dorsal fin. That’s probably what he was talking about.” Rocket science.

Contradictory Belief Systems

A friend of mine once visited a faith-healer, one of the religious variety from the United States who periodically come to New Zealand to swell their bank balances. She attended the meeting because of a persistent pain in her elbow. Despite my suggestions that it was only tennis elbow, she was worried and thought perhaps the pain was serious. She had an aisle seat near the front and during the proceedings the “healer” approached her and asked about the pain in her arm. Apparently she hadn’t told anyone why she was there. She was impressed.

“How did Pastor S. know that I had a pain in my elbow?” my friend asked. “I hadn’t told him? He knew exactly what was wrong with me. He told me, well, all of us,” she said, “that pain is caused by evil spirits moving around the bloodstream. When they stop, they manifest themselves in the form of pain. Mine had stopped in my arm. He could tell. He had the gift.”

“Oh, come on.” I replied, “You used to teach biology. You know that pain is not caused by evil spirits. What about when you break a bone?”

(I should perhaps explain here that my friend had given up teaching biology because she felt the whole syllabus, including the classification of plants and animals, was based on evolutionary principles, and this contradicted her strong belief in creationism.)

“If you didn’t have evil spirits inside you when you broke a bone,” she responded curtly, “you would not feel the pain.”

She was deaf to my suggestions that perhaps the spirits were not all bad, since without pain indicating that something was wrong we might not attend to our hurts.

“All pain is bad.” she insisted.

“What else happened at the meeting?” I asked.

“I had to go and stand at the front, with other people who had pain or sickness. Pastor S. laid his hands on my arm and demanded, in the name of God, that the evil spirits leave my body. He drove them out.” Her eyes shone as she brought back the memories.

“How does the arm feel now?” I asked.

“Oh, much better, thanks,” she smiled, “Pastor S. said the pain would go quickly now, but I could help by resting it.”

Of course the pain did lessen. Tennis elbow is susceptible to rest. Despite my protestations, my friend insisted it was due to Pastor S., driving out evil spirits. The devastating part of the whole story for me is that though she has been scientifically trained, has a university degree in fact, she is content to go through life holding two mutually exclusive beliefs — one based on common sense and rational thought, where it applies to everyday events and can’t possibly undermine long-held views, and another resting on superstition and religious arguments for its authority. All credit to her, though, that she finds it possible to remain friends with a “sinner” such as myself.

Science Teachers

Having taught for many years, in four schools and one university, I have met quite a number of science teachers. Being insatiably curious (many would say intrusive) I take every appropriate opportunity to talk to them about their beliefs. Despite their education, the holding of two mutually exclusive belief systems by science teachers is common.

In an informal survey I considered some of the science teachers I have known well enough to discuss matters of belief over the last few years. There have been 21, whom I categorise as follows;

  • 7 “Standard” Christians, who attend a mainstream church on a regular basis at least a few times a year. One in fact is an ordained Anglican minister
  • 4 “Fundamentalist” Christians, who meet in religious gatherings at least once a week
  • 5 Theists, who hang on to belief in a god but do not attend any religious meetings
  • 1 New Ager, who, surprisingly, believes in such things as aromatherapy, homeopathy, and the like
  • 1 into Transcendental Meditation
  • 1 Anthroposophist
  • 1 Theosophist
  • 1 Atheist, with strongly-held views

At least 14 of these, I suggest, hold mutually exclusive belief systems. For example, the majority of them believe that miracles have occurred at some time or other, despite this contradicting scientific laws they promulgate every day in the classroom.

Most avoid providing explanations for miracles, but some believe that God has the ability to suspend scientific laws to accommodate them. More logically perhaps, some suggest that scientific knowledge at present is not profound enough to provide adequate explanations for miracles. I have included under the heading of miracles, virgin birth and resurrection.

So, where does that leave us? All of us, I think, expect the natural laws of science and logic to apply to everyday events, but many of us subscribe to an additional belief system that transcends common sense. This second system allows the unthinkable to happen. It can be important to us, especially when we are apprehensive about the future. In such cases we can “cross our fingers and hope for the best”, even for a miracle to occur.

Skepticism and Miracles

This article is an abridged version of the fourth article in a series on philosophy and the paranormal. Here Dr Grey discusses David Hume’s analysis of miracles and his view that belief in miraculous events is always unjustified. He also investigates the nature, virtues and dangers of different skeptical viewpoints.

Hume’s Razor

What is a miracle? In the vernacular we speak of “miraculous” escapes and the like, to characterise events which are extremely unlikely — at odds with the normal course of experience. A miracle in this weak sense just means a very improbable event.

David Hume, in his famous essay “On Miracles”, had a stronger sense of “miracle” in mind, namely something which violates a law of nature. It is in this sense that miracles have commonly featured in religious systems of belief, as the means by which God has been thought to have demonstrated His presence or His power to His chosen people.

The question which Hume addresses is: are we justified in believing that miracles have in fact occurred? He argues for the very strong conclusion that we are never justified in believing that a miracle has ever occurred.

Hume is not claiming to show that miracles have never occurred. Proving negative existence claims is notoriously problematic. Hume’s claim is the importantly different one that we are never rationally justified in believing that miracles have occurred. That is, Hume is addressing the epistemological issue of what it is rational to believe, rather than the metaphysical question of what is and is not possible in our sort of world.

The argument has two parts. First, Hume argues that the evidence against miracles is usually very strong. (And according to one of Hume’s epistemological maxims “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”) We therefore have to weigh the evidence that a miraculous event happened against the evidence that it did not.

In evaluating testimony for miracles, Hume advances the following principle which, echoing the famous methodological principle commonly attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1285-1349), has been called Hume’s Razor. The principle is:

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.

The second stage of the argument claims that even though the evidence in favour of miracles might outweigh the evidence against them, in practice this never happens. Hume maintains that there never was a miraculous event established on sufficiently strong grounds to warrant rational belief in its occurrence. There are four factors which undermine the credibility of any claim in support of the miraculous.

First there is the problem of witness credibility. Witnesses who testify as to the occurrence of miracles are seldom totally above suspicion of either having been deceived or of the intent to deceive. In evaluating their testimony, we must always choose between believing that a miracle occurred or believing that the witnesses were deceived or deceitful.

According to Hume, no miracle has ever been “attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education and learning as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others…” All claims for miracles, that is, suffer from what we call a credibility gap.

The second problem which Hume identifies is human credulity. There is a natural human affinity for the novel, the surprising and the marvelous. Recognising this propensity for credulity, we must take note of and be guided by the following maxims in evaluating claims for the miraculous:

  • Objects of which we have no experience resemble those of which we do have experience;
  • What we have found to be most usual is most probable;
  • In case of dispute, give preference to the side favoured by the greatest number of observations.

These sound, if somewhat pedestrian, maxims are frequently overridden by the excitement and novelty which is often the basis of human credulity.

Hume’s third point about miraculous claims is the tribal origins of superstition. Miracles occur mainly in primitive (in Hume’s words “ignorant and barbarous”) nations, or are derived from barbarous and ignorant ancestors. As human understanding develops, we come to reject omens, oracles, astrology, demons, and the like as unhelpful in explaining natural phenomena.

Finally, Hume points to a problem which confronts claims of the miraculous concerning conflicts of testimony. It is impossible that the religious traditions of “ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China” should all of them be established on any solid foundation. Every miracle claimed within any one of these traditions is intended to establish the truth of that tradition and to discredit the claims of the others.

Hume believed that the inclination of mankind towards superstition and the marvelous may receive some check from sense and learning, but he also seems to have believed that it could never be thoroughly extirpated from human nature. Hume, one suspects, would not be surprised to find beliefs in astrology, UFOs, crystals, channeling, and similar credulous ideas in the twentieth century.

The Virtues of Skepticism

Skepticism can be characterised as a critical stance with regard to knowledge (or existence) claims, and a skeptic is one who calls such claims into question. Skepticism can refer to either the critical stance adopted in subjecting knowledge claims to careful scrutiny, or to a state of doubt or disbelief which may be the outcome of such an inquiry.

Being skeptical in the second sense (withholding assent, or suspending belief in a particular claim) need not involve believing the opposite. Skepticism is a matter of doubt rather than denial. If I withhold assent from the claim that God exists, it need not be the case that I believe that God does not exist. I might believe that the evidence is just not strong enough to settle the matter either way.

We need to distinguish between critical and dogmatic skepticism, and between selective and global skepticism, though these terms do not mark absolute distinctions.

Skepticism is dogmatic if assent is withheld a priori, that is, on the basis of prior conviction without considering the evidence. For example, Galileo’s colleagues expressed a perfectly intelligible skepticism about the existence of the moons of Jupiter; they became dogmatic when they refused to look through his telescope.

Skepticism is global if it is general and encompasses all claims to knowledge; selective if it is targeted to specific knowledge claims.

Global skepticism is rare. Perhaps Cratylus, an older contemporary of Plato (c. 428-348 BC), is the most global skeptic recorded in the annals of philosophy. His skepticism is said to have been so extreme that he refused to answer questions and would only wave a weary finger at his interlocutor to indicate that truth was so elusive and ephemeral that it would be useless to reply. (At least, that is what his interlocutors are reputed to have believed him to have been attempting to say).

Skepticism which falls short of the global always has to be qualified by specifying the subject matter to which it is directed. There are various beliefs, for example about rocks and tables, which are immune to skeptical doubts — at least outside philosophy seminar rooms.

At the other extreme there are tooth fairies, Santa Claus and the elixir of life, which most will immediately dismiss as lacking sufficient epistemic warrant. In between (drawing boundaries here will create controversy) there are various disputed cases and claims, such as God, economic rationalism, J-curves, nuclear deterrence and psychic and paranormal phenomena. Disputed cases are also the coal-face of the professional philosopher: on which side of the dividing line, for example, should we put minds, beliefs, desires, meanings, properties, and numbers?

Strange Claims

When confronted with a claim about some strange, paranormal or similarly anomalous phenomena (an accurate premonition, a “near death” or an “out of body” experience, say), we should adopt a scrupulously skeptical approach. By this I do not mean that we must conclude that the experience did not occur, or that whoever had the experience must have been somehow deluded — though do not rule that out either! Rather, we should be alert to the possibility of natural and ordinary explanations of unnatural and extraordinary occurrences.

We must be especially careful in evaluating the evidence which appears to support such anomalous events. While rejecting a dogmatic skepticism which refuses to countenance anomalous events, critical skepticism seeks to gather as much evidence as possible concerning any extraordinary or allegedly paranormal event, claim or theory.

Critical skepticism means keeping an open mind not rejecting disputed claims a priori. We must examine the evidence scrupulously. But it means refusing to accept as true claims for which there is insufficient or ambiguous evidence, and recognising that withholding belief is preferable to accepting claims for which there are not sufficient grounds.

It also means adopting as a methodological maxim the principle that in seeking explanations we should prefer the ordinary to the extraordinary, and the simple to the complex. This is one interpretation of the principle known as “Ockham’s Razor”.

Skepticism is the disposition, or art, of matching belief to evidence. There is at present no convenient antonym for “skeptic”. For convenience, I propose to revive the archaic expression “credulist” to serve this role. A credulist can be understood as someone who is apt to accept claims without sufficient evidence, that is to say, someone whose epistemic standards are too low.

Why be Skeptical?

Etymologically, skeptikos means “inquirer”, and the value of skepticism is that it leads to — and when seriously entertained is usually the result of — a systematic inquiry into the foundations of knowledge. Skeptical arguments play a central role in inquiry, particularly philosophical inquiry where they have been directed not just at eccentric belief systems, but at beliefs which most regard as self-evident. Thus skeptical arguments have been raised about the existence of other minds, knowledge of the past, knowledge of material objects (the “external world”), moral truths, sensory knowledge and even about knowledge of logic and mathematics.

The purpose of skepticism in these cases is (usually) not to raise extravagant doubts (though that is sometimes an unintended consequence), but rather to clarify our understanding of the subject of inquiry. There are apparently more modest forms of skepticism which challenge, for example, theological or metaphysical knowledge. And in some cases (for example, I suggest with respect to astrology or phrenology) skepticism seems to be not merely defensible, but appropriate.

When pressed to extremes, skeptical arguments sometimes turn out to be self-defeating, and the critical pursuit of knowledge leads to a denial that knowledge is attainable. Extreme or global skepticism has often been the consequence of setting unreasonably high standards as to what is acceptable as knowledge — in particular setting absolute certainty (the impossibility of being mistaken) as a requirement for genuine knowledge.

Objections to Skepticism

Routine rejoinders to skeptics are, first, the claim that skeptics demand unrealistically high standards of proof (often accompanied by the charge that the skeptics’ insistence on these standards is unjustified), and, second, an insistence (sometimes dogmatic) that a disputed category of experience (a psychic experience, say) is more certain than any skeptical argument which calls them into question.

Regarding the first point, the insistence of protocols, controls, and repeatability are based on the beliefs that nature is consistent — and human nature often suspect. No one demands 100 per cent repeatability. There are always anomalous observations due to the quirks of experimenters or their apparatus. (Indeed with complex scientific experiments it is a formidable task to get anything to work at all.)

But for any extraordinary claim to gain respectability, it has to be replicable by someone somewhere. A recent example of the failure to meet this requirement was the discrediting of the exciting empirical claim by Pons and Fleischmann about so-called cold fusion.

The problem with psi phenomena is not that it is difficult for careful researchers to get it to work occasionally under rigorously controlled conditions; it is difficult for careful observers to get anything at all that can’t be dismissed as noise, error, wishful thinking, chance and often, sadly, fraud. It is for this reason that the requirements of controlled experiments and repeatability cannot be dismissed as unduly fussy: experience shows that nature does not cheat and that people sometimes do.

There are number of manipulative techniques such as “cold reading”, which are well known to psychics (and magicians), which are used to fool people into believing that there are special psychic powers.

Skepticism should not be confused with cynicism, though it frequently is. A cynic is someone who is inclined to believe the worst about people. Cynicism is however a form of skepticism: it is skepticism about the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions. Historically, Cynics were a sect founded by Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, who condemned wealth and the enjoyments of life. The most extreme and celebrated exponent of the movement was Diogenes.

In the history of philosophy we find skeptical arguments are repeatedly proposed and then attacked and “refuted”. Skepticism is a continuing challenge to dogmatic claims, and helps to maintain the spirit of free inquiry. Without skepticism we would be in danger of failing to distinguish enthusiasm, prejudice and superstition from serious, rational, and well-grounded beliefs, which is essential to the task of making sense of the world.

Perhaps the main danger for skeptics is that they sometimes have difficulty in distinguishing hard and soft data, that they set their standards of epistemic acceptability at too high a level (in contrast to credulists, whose epistemic standards are too low) and may tend to promote their own form of dogmatic conservatism.

The aim of skepticism is to combat doctrinal rigidities which can afflict almost any belief system, but skeptics must remain alert to the possibility of falling prey to rigidities of their own. Skepticism is all about matching belief to evidence. It is a difficult and continuing challenge to maintain the right proportion of skepticism in our inquiries. Only then are we able to steer between the Scylla of dogmatism and the Charybdis of credulism.

How to Make the Miraculous Blood of St Januarius

Brew up a miracle for fun and profit, in the comfort of your own kitchen.

The blood, in a phial in a church in Naples, is reverently turned over several times during services every few months. It has seldom failed to liquefy since 1389. (It has also accidentally liquefied when the monstrance holding the phial was being cleaned!) Three Italian scientists are quoted in the Skeptical Inquirer (Vol 16, No 3, Spring 1992, p236) as having duplicated the “blood.” The relevant data (Nature vol 353, p507) are:

“To a solution of 25g FeCl3.6H2O in 100 ml of water we slowly added 10g CaCO3, and dialysed this solution for 4 days against distilled water from a Spectra/por tubing (parchment or animal gut works just as well; a simple procedure1 even allows us to avoid this dialysis step). The resulting solution was allowed to evaporate from a crystallisation disc to a volume of 100ml (containing about 7.5% of FeO(OH). Addition of 1.7g NaCl yielded dark brownish thixotropic sol which set in about 1 hour to a gel. The gel could be easily liquefied by gentle shaking, and the liquefaction-solidification cycle was highly repeatable.”

Thixotropy is the property that interests us, that of setting to a gel or shaking to a sol(ution). I had always imagined the warmth of the priest’s hands was the main secular reason for the liquefaction, but apparently not.

I rang my old chemistry master, Alex Wooff, in Christchurch, to find out what the dialysis would involve. Dialysis is a differential diffusion through a membrane. You put the mix in a tube (rather like a sausage skin with the ends tied, I gather) and the tube in a tank of distilled water. Certain acidic by-products pass out through the tube walls, and what you want stays inside. (Someone who speaks French could look up what Herr Doktor Guthknecht had to say in 1946 about avoiding that.)

Alan Wooff also explained that the calcium carbonate would have to be precipitated — common chalk wouldn’t do; “You wouldn’t want lumps in it.”

Perhaps (I like to give people the benefit of every possible doubt) the 14th century originators of this pious fraud did not use sausage skin — let alone Spectra/por tubing — but stripped a blood-filled vein from the saint’s leg, say, and piously washed it in a mountain stream, like kaanga pirau.

If some reaction turned the iron in the haemoglobin into FeO(OH)– a reaction with the chalky deposits of the saintly artherosclerosis, perhaps? — and all unknowing they dialysed it out, perhaps they would get the result that the faithful see in Naples to this day.


Denise of Salmond Smith Biolab (Freephone 0800-807-809) told me they could get precipitated calcium carbonate (CaCO3) from England for $22.86 a kilo, in six or eight weeks by air freight at $39. They have hydrous ferric chloride (FeCl3.6H2O) in stock at $47.22 for 250 grams. The minimum order of dialysis tubing (10mm diam, 32mm flat) is 30 metres at $60. Geoff Meadows of Clark Products Ltd quoted $36.59 for 20 l of deionised water.

The limiting dimension is the volume of the tubing, 2.35 litres. That divides into 78 samples of 30 ml each.

That’s $205.67 (plus the cost of the phials) to produce 78 phials of miraculous blood. Perhaps 20 skeptics might pay $10 each for them, so I’d be lucky to break even. That is, if all the kitchen chemistry worked out.

Of course, if I sold them outside a church at $1000 a phial…?

Anyone got access to a chemistry lab?

1. Guthknecht, R. Bull Soc. Chim. Fr. 13, 55-60 (1946)
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