President Bush to Scientists and the Sick: ‘Drop Dead’

In George W Bush’s America, it’s okay to throw human embryos in the trash, but not to use them as a source of stem cells.

A political question on the minds of scientists in the United States is: How big will the Republican losses be in November?

History shows that Republicans are almost certain to lose ground. The party that holds the White House almost always loses seats in the midterm Congressional elections held in the sixth year of a two-term presidency. This year should be no different. President Bush is suffering from low approval ratings, and there is widespread discontent about the war in Iraq. Perhaps 2006 will be one of those landmark years in which control of Congress switches parties. If Democrats in the House of Representatives gain 15 seats-a number that is within reach&mdashthen Republicans will lose power there for the first time since 1994. Democrats need to gain six seats in the Senate to take control there-a less likely prospect but still possible.

The elections are particularly important to scientists because the Bush Administration has hindered scientific knowledge, usually to please backers who are fundamentalist Christians. The religious supporters of George W Bush and other Republicans are generous, organised and, thus, powerful.

President Bush opposes human embryonic stem-cell research because his Christian sponsors say clusters of cells have souls in the image of their god and deserve the same rights as other humans. The likelihood that stem-cell research might lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of devastating medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injury does not matter to them.

In July of this year, President Bush used his first veto when he struck down the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, which would have removed some restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research. The bill proposed to let the federal government fund research using surplus embryos generated by in vitro fertilisation (IVF) procedures. Bush claimed he opposed such research because it involves the destruction of human life. The president’s message echoed anti-abortionists and evoked images of mad scientists killing babies for hideous experiments. On religious grounds, the Bush Administration considers spare embryos from IVF procedures as the equivalent of human beings. However, early in its existence as a blastocyst, the embryo is not a fixed individual, as shown by the fact that it can spontaneously separate into many parts. The embryos have no prospect of developing the capacities and properties of persons because they will not be implanted in a womb. These surplus clusters of cells are usually discarded as medical waste, about 400 000 per year in the United States. President Bush knows this, but he did not seek to ban IVF.

His self-righteous posturing insulted the countries that have started embryonic stem-cell programmes, such as Britain, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Canada, South Africa and France. Meanwhile, scientists in the country with the world’s biggest laboratories have their hands tied by dogma.

In Bush’s home state of Texas, Republican politicians are divided on the issue. Former state lawmaker Randy Graf says no taxes should go to embryonic stem-cell research. (He also says Creationism makes at least as much sense to him as evolution. On the question of the age of the Earth, Graf is blunt: “I don’t know, and I don’t care. I’ve got my Christian faith, and I’m very comfortable with that.”) Auto-shop manager Mike Jenkins says he is against federal funding for stem-cell research because the government will waste the money. He also opposes government support of aids and cancer research for the same reason. On the other hand, Mike Hellon, former chair of the Arizona Republican Party, said, “It is inconsistent to say it’s okay to throw embryos in the trash, but it’s not okay to harvest stem cells.”

The six Democrats seeking the seat all support federal funding of stem-cell research. Retired federal bureaucrat Francine Shacter says the opposition to stem-cell research reflects the Bush Administration’s anti-science bent: “I have lived on the outskirts of the scientific world my entire life. One of the things I deplore about this Administration is the dumbing down of science. There’s a fundamental dishonesty there that disturbs me very badly.” Jeff Latas, a pilot, says watching his son fight leukaemia has given him a firsthand look at the importance of stem-cell research: “By vetoing to satisfy a very small sector of the conservative side of the Republican Party, essentially, you’re signing a death warrant to millions of Americans.”

Perhaps the November elections will get Republicans off the back of scientists.

Forum

It is with sadness that I see that the Skeptic is still accepting articles and letters with political bias. I would like to spend much of this letter countering some of Owen McShane’s arguments from his article “Why are we crying into our beer?”, but I see we are still arguing in the pages of our magazine about science. It would be really nice if Jim Ring or C Morris could explain to me and I’m sure others who are puzzled by this whole affair, as to what legitimate arguments between legitimate scientists have to do with scepticism.

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Goff Wins Bent Can Opener Award from Skeptics

Justice Minister Phil Goff has won the first-ever Bent Can Opener Award from the New Zealand Skeptics, for “refusing to open the can of worms that is the Christchurch Civic Creche case”.

For the past ten years, the Skeptics have made an annual Bent Spoon Award, in remembrance of spoon-bender Uri Geller, but the group felt that a change in implement was necessary for this year’s “winner”.

“The Christchurch Civic Creche case raises some very real concerns about a whole raft of justice issues,” says Skeptics Chair-entity Vicki Hyde. “We recognise that it is a can of worms for the minister, but it is one that needs to be opened if we are to continue to have confidence in our justice system.”

The Skeptics have monitored the Christchurch Civic Creche since before it happened — six months before Peter Ellis was arrested, the group had predicted that a New Zealand case would follow on from the then-developing US examples of claimed major child abuse incidents involving Satanic overtones at preschool facilities.

“When the Civic Creche case broke, the initial allegations seemed reasonable enough — we know, sadly, that child abuse does happen and is something that desperately needs to be addressed,” says Hyde. “However, we were concerned to hear of allegations of various classic Satanic ritual abuse elements, including a number of truly bizarre or impossible events. Combined with questionable interview techniques, the then-prevailing belief in recovered memory theories, and the social context of the case, it looked like it was our prediction come true.”

Hyde points out that the Skeptics are not suggesting that the children involved in the case are liars. What concerns this group are the underlying processes that were involved in the collection, selection and presentation of evidence that led to the conviction.

“Our official name is the New Zealand Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and we consider that the scientific underpinning of the evidence is questionable enough to justify closer scrutiny, so that we can all learn from what happened and be more confident in the future regarding abuse convictions,” says Hyde.

The award was officially conferred at the annual Skeptics Conference, which also included an extended session where Victoria University psychology researchers presented their work on memory formation, fallibility and falsification (see next issue).

Have Your Say

Environmental issues have played an increasing role in skeptical subject matter over recent years, ranging from calls for biodynamic possum peppering earning Jeanette Fitzsimons the Bent Spoon last year, to skepticism about global warming, from pooh-poohing of environmental impacts on taniwha habitat to wondering just how much paranoia and hypochondria is at the root of the health issues of moth-ridden Aucklanders in the infamous spray zone.

That’s why I was pleased to be able to invite Bruce Taylor from the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to speak at the conference, as I was aware of their attempt to encourage feedback on the role science should — must! — play in environmental decision-making.

There were certainly some strong feelings expressed, most notably concerning the impression that government organisations appear to bow before political correctness and potential vote-pandering, rather than sticking to scientific facts when making environmental decisions. Having read the document, I had been surprised by just how strong the support was for science at the heart of such decision-making.

As a group, we are very conscious of those times when credible scientific evidence is also all too easily cast aside in favour of a consultative culture — look at the amount of time spent pandering to the Steiner lobby with their proposals re going after painted apple moth, or Jeanette Fitzsimons with her silly support for possum peppering (a stand which made some of the more scientifically literate Greens cringe, but which I suspect was taken for political reasons).

Important as it is to consult, to hear other views, and to take into account factors outside that of the technical or scientific, it’s also important not to waste time and energy and resources on the patently incredible, particularly in an area as important as environmental policy or protection.

If I say cosmic astral influences can be used to control possums, is that equally valid to, say, the evidence for supporting 1080 or fertility controls? I’m confident that the Skeptics as a group would give a resounding “no” and argue that part of the responsibility our public servants and elected representatives have is to protect us, our country, our lives and our wallets from these subjective views where they clash with reality.

Yes, science can identify issues and areas of knowledge (and non- knowledge), but ultimately we are making political and social decisions. And we have a chance to flag why we think science needs to be a part of that process and how we can get better public engagement with decision-making that it recognises the importance of the underpinning of good science.

What should trouble us is the public indifference to science, and that this indifference and, in some cases, outright hostility, is a result not of ignorance but of a sense of powerlessness.

Some social scientists are now arguing that instead of public education programs aimed at boosting science literacy per se, we should be more concerned with public engagement strategies that get citizens directly involved in science policy-making.

Research has shown that knowledge, trust, efficacy, and deliberation are all closely related. Enhanced knowledge of politics leads to an increased belief among individuals that they can make a difference in politics, and also leads to increased trust in political institutions. Deliberating or discussing politics with others enhances knowledge, and, more vitally, gets people involved.

When members of the public take part in discussions that make them feel they can influence real decisions, lack of scientific knowledge is not necessarily a problem. In many countries around the world, consensus conferences, citizens’ juries, deliberative polls, and hui have all been used to give people a feeling that they will be listened to, as well as told what’s what scientifically.

And these efforts have indicated that people involved in such discussions quickly become adept at quizzing experts, mastering a brief, asking questions and unmasking political assumptions masquerading as scientific conclusions. It’s often very small-scale — in the tens, rather than the thousands, of people involved, but it’s a start.

I know, I’m an optimist, but I think that most of us are in the belief that we can make rational, informed decisions. Or, at the very least, recognise when we are being irrational. Maybe what we should be demanding are announcements which take this tack:

“Yes, this is an irrational decision and we are making it irrationally because we want to, in the face of what evidence we have because the loudest voices say we should do it this way.”

That at least would be intellectually honest and ethical!

Someone at the conference asked what the level of response had been to the report and I think I wasn’t the only one surprised to hear that the majority (over 80% I think) had come from the scientific community. Assumptions that the process would have been captured by the vocal political environmental lobby were unfounded… so let’s test those other assumptions.

I urge you to read Bruce’s piece (Page 3, this issue), better yet take a look at the report (available at: http://www.pce.govt.nz/reports/allreports/1_877274_09_7.shtml)

See what you think, and let Bruce know.

Forum

Skeptics Blown It?

Prior to attending the NZ Skeptics conference in Wellington this year, I read the discussion paper on the role of science in environmental policy and decision making, Illuminated or Blinded by Science, prepared by the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. It seemed to me to be a reasonable document. It included a discussion of some of the issues which have to be considered by policy makers in the environmental area and pointed to some of the difficulties, institutional and procedural, in using science to form environmental policy. Following on from the request in the paper for comments from the public on how science could be better incorporated into environmental policy, the team leader for the discussion paper, Mr Bruce Taylor, gave a presentation to the Skeptics conference in which he introduced the paper and asked for views on it.

I was dismayed by the vehemence of the criticisms of the paper expressed by members of the audience (I regret not being fast enough on my mental feet to contest them at the time). The nature of the criticisms wasn’t entirely clear to me. They seemed to be based principally on the fact that science was not the only instrument of environmental policy formation and that the discussion paper had considered other issues such as the role of social values in setting policy.

Science may well be the best system we have developed to describe and understand the physical world but it is naive to think that governments will use it to the exclusion of other issues to form policy in the environmental area. For instance, it’s worth remembering that science doesn’t necessarily say anything about moral values. The formation of policy is a political process, and if we want science to be part of it, we have to understand how to bring science into the political system.

Mr Taylor asked the Skeptics for help in making science a more effective part of policy formation. He didn’t get it. I think the Skeptics blew it. I doubt very much whether the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment will see the Skeptics as a source of rational comment on the effective use of science in the public arena in the future.

Alan Hart

Global Warming

The Skeptics have expressed a sound and healthy reluctance to subscribe to anthropogenic greenhouse gas theories of global warming, for the last several years. There now appears to be a growing amount of evidence proving just how right we were. As a regular subscriber and reader of New Scientist and Scientific American, I have been following this with interest. While SA has an editor fully committed to “greenie” nonsense (as witness his attack on Bjorn Lomborg), New Scientist is more open to new ideas. NZ Skeptic readers may find the following of interest.

  1. 23 August 2003: Glacial extensions of the polar ice caps on Mars are now in retreat. Peninsulas and islands of ice disappearing. A little hard to explain in terms of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, but (Occam’s Razor) easy in terms of astronomic phenomena such as solar output or cosmic rays. Scientific American, while not admitting to be at all wrong, reports in June 2003 that satellite measures of solar output show it is increasing, albeit very slightly.
  2. 13 September 2003: Under the title of Global Warming: the New Battle, it appears that meteorologists are adopting a new stance. “The priority now is to start preparing for its consequences…” While none of the global warming gurus have admitted fault in describing mechanisms, it appears that many want to move away from anthropogenic greenhouse gases and simply accept that the temperature increase happens. Maybe they are starting to realise they may not have been correct.
  3. 20 September 2003: Professor Philip Scott (Biogeography) describes recent research (also published in GSA Today 13, p 4) describing ancient records in rocks that suggest 75% of changes in global temperature were caused by changes in cosmic ray density. Also a paper (Nature 408, p 698) showing real problems trying to relate CO2 levels with ancient temperatures. Scott also points out that current computer models do not predict why it is that, while surface temperatures rise, the atmosphere just above remains cold.

If these revelations continue, I suspect that the greenhouse gas theories will soon be quietly dropped.

Lance Kennedy, Tantec

Indian Socialism

Bob Metcalfe (Forum #68) is confused. My letter (Forum #67) drew attention to the opinions of others on the antiglobalisation movement. The Oxus Research Foundation, New Delhi seems to think that the terms “socialism” and “starvation” can be used without further definition and I would agree.

Why “Socialism” rather than “Communism” or “Marxism”is interesting; perhaps because it seems a more neutral term. But the early Congress party was proud of its Marxist roots, and in the early years of independence India received a large amount of aid from Stalinist Russia.

True, India has not had a nationwide famine since British rule ceased. The terrible event in 1943 caused enormous suffering because during the war, aid was unavailable from outside. The comrades of the Congress party blamed lack of planning — the socialist solution. But once in power they never had to face the same conditions that produced the earlier event. Planning did not prevent frequent local famines in newly independent India. The authorities alleviated suffering with the same measures used in capitalist societies’ relief efforts.

True, “people have starved in America”; Bhalla himself points out the coincidence that India and the US launched a “war on poverty” at about the same time, the early 1960s. But then the US had a food surplus and India a food deficit. India now has a food surplus. My opinion is that this owes more to the “Green Revolution”, than to political policies.

However the Indian government of the time is to be commended for welcoming the Green Revolution even though it offended socialist ideology. Socialists were generally of the opinion that it would do nothing for the World’s poor.

Indeed poor Indian farmers were thought to be those who would suffer most under the new type of agriculture that would benefit only the “big corporations”. Fortunately this prediction turned out to be untrue.

Of course the anti-globalisation people are the intellectual heirs of those who opposed the Green revolution (this is where this correspondence started). Their arguments are nearly identical and their ideology indistinguishable. The failure of those earlier predictions is forgotten or ignored.

Bob Metcalfe quotes Sen to the effect that democracy or dictatorship is a better indicator of possible famine than socialism or capitalism. China, which has adopted capitalism without renouncing dictatorship would seem to provide a counter-example.

This debate has received “something other than glib generalisations and inaccurate case studies”. The problem is that few people have bothered to read the literature. My earlier contribution was an attempt to draw peoples attention to an unpopular side of this controversy. I doubt one can do better in a letter.

Jim Ring

Forum

True Home of Father Christmas Discovered!

I am always astonished that famous mystical persons, such as the Virgin Mary (who was transubstantiated into an Australian fencepost in February) reveal themselves to us mere mortals. I once had an experience like that.

Four years ago I was on a German research ship in the Southern Ocean taking sediment cores from the sea bottom. The cores were cut in half lengthwise to expose sedimentary structures. In one of the cores was a clear image of Father Christmas.

Luckily we were thousands of kilometres away from human habitation; otherwise the ship would have been overrun by thousands of children wanting to see this apparition. The consensus of people on board was that, being so close to Antarctica, the message was obvious. Father Christmas does not live at the North Pole, but at the South Pole.

Gerrit van der Lingen

Originally published in the Christchurch Press, February 14, 2003

Indian Socialism

I possibly shouldn’t come into a debate that seems to be going on for some time which I haven’t actually followed, but a couple of the statements that Jim Ring makes in his letter (Autumn 2003) need at least some clarification.

He maintains that “under socialism India was a poor country, people starved”. This is a very vague statement. What does Ring mean by socialism? It has been a pluralist secular democracy since independence, albeit with a fairly controlled economy. More importantly, what is meant by people starved? I doubt if there is a country in the world, socialist or capitalist, where you couldn’t say in the past people starved. People have starved in America, the world’s capitalist icon.

The suggestion to me is that India suffered famines. Perhaps this is not meant but it should be noted India has not had a famine since 1943 when it was under British rule. It has been exporting food on and off for years, even under so-called socialism. The deciding factor for famines according to Sen is not so much whether a country is socialist or capitalist, but whether it is a democracy or dictatorship.

Lastly India has been manufacturing if not exporting (I have little information about exports) much more complicated goods than textiles for years, such as cars and motorbikes. Admittedly these were not particularly modern models, but anyone who has driven in an underdeveloped country would know that once outside the main cities anything that can be repaired by a local blacksmith is a much better bet than the more complicated modern stuff.

Leaving aside the figures on the increase or decline in world poverty for which both sides claim sound evidence, this debate deserves something other than glib generalizations and inaccurate case studies.

Bob Metcalfe

Evolutionary Ethics

I am surprised that the Skeptics have chosen to support this environmentalist campaign (Family Obligations, Skeptic 67). Evolution implies no “family obligations” to our fellow creatures, but a relatively utilitarian attitude. We support cows, wheat, kiwifruit, roses and brewer’s yeast. We discourage possums, rats, the painted apple moth and the Sars virus.

Chimps are cute, but so are rabbits, possums and stoats.They have a lot of our DNA, but the people of Ethiopia, Chechnya, Congo, Bosnia have even more and they need our help.

Chimps would survive longer if they went back to work instead of becoming permanent social welfare beneficiaries. Revive the “chimpanzee’s tea-party” at the zoo. Put them back in the circus. Recruit them for advertising tea, or appearing in movies with US presidential hopefuls. And what is wrong with being an experimental animal?

Vincent Gray

American Foreign Policy Explained

A Washington think-tank has announced a breakthrough in the search for a pattern in the seemingly random episodes of US military aggression since the war.

“We think they are spelling out a message,” a spokesperson explained.

“If we take the first letters of Korea, Vietnam, Libya, Iraq, Iran, El Salvador, Granada, Nicaragua and Somalia, it spells ‘ELVIS _S KING’. We just need to find another ‘I’ country to complete the message.”

Does this explain the recent second attack on Iraq?

Forum

Sources of Poverty

Peter Hansen is confident that, “blame for the world’s starving millions belongs [to] greedy corporate giants, environmental exploiters, warmongers and corrupt officials”. He quotes no evidence.But consider Surjit Bhalla’s opinion (he does produce evidence):

  • Estimates of world poverty are grossly exaggerated
  • Globalisation has been the golden age of development
  • Poverty in developing countries declined from 37 per cent to 13 per cent of the population between 1985 and 2000 with the biggest advances in India and China
  • Inequality of income is at its lowest level in 50 years

All this is totally opposed to Green dogma but those who have contrary evidence (not just opinion) should produce it if they wish to convince skeptics.

Anti-globalisation protesters were in Sydney last May to oppose an international conference. The Australian Financial Review asked an interesting question.The international protest movement was obviously well funded.From where did the money come? Some Asian delegates had an answer. From World Aid organisations.According to them (and I lack the resources to investigate) much aid money never gets to those in need but goes to corrupt governments and officials. “Trade not Aid” threatens the gravy train, so these corrupt people are funding those who help to maintain the status quo. One could call it recycling.

Under socialism India was a poor country, people starved. The import of luxury goods (including colour TVs) was forbidden. Good comrades watched TV on black and white sets, if they could afford them. The idea that India could manufacture and export anything more complicated than cotton goods was laughable. (According to Gandhi only hand spinning and weaving are ethical. Under capitalism many peasants are still desperately poor, but they are not starving. India exports its food surpluses. Even better it manufactures and exports luxury goods (including colour TVs) to Europe. Most people are much more wealthy. It is claimed that:

  1. There are more US$ millionaires in India than there are people in NZ and Australia combined.
  2. There are more US$ millionaires in India than in the US.

The second proposition has been challenged, the first seems to have been accepted.

Jim Ring


Repressed Memories

Craig Young writes “there is a wide ranging debate over questions of “false” and “recovered” memories within the mental health professions”. While many clinicians may still be “debating” this, the scientific evidence is clear: belief in the theory of “memory repression” and the “memory recovery” techniques in wide-spread use in the 1990s resulted in thousands of tragic cases of false allegations of childhood incest made against bewildered parents.

Certainly some clinicians still believe in the validity of recovered memories, however the scientific community and the clinical professional bodies have clearly indicated that the complete repression of memory childhood sexual abuse subsequently “recovered” as an adult, usual in the context of psychotherapy, is a phenomenon not supported by scientific evidence.

In 1997 a Working Group on Reported Recovered Memories of Child Sexual Abuse of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in England issued a report including the following:

  • “We can find no evidence that apparent memories of long forgotten and repeated child abuse have ever been proven to be true.”
  • “There is a good deal of evidence that patients will produce the material the therapist seeks, but it is often a product of fantasy.”
  • “We must conclude that, like abduction by space travelers, accounts of satanic abuse are false.”
  • “There is evidence that memory enhancement techniques are powerful and dangerous methods of persuasion.”
  • “Many of the memories relate to events in the early years which is incompatible with present knowledge of infantile amnesia.”
  • “The damage done to families is immense.”

In 1998 the Canadian Psychological Association passed the following resolution: The Canadian Psychological Association recognises the very serious concern of child abuse and child sexual abuse in our society. The Canadian Psychological Association also recognizes that justice may not have been served in cases where people have been convicted of offences based solely upon “repressed” or “recovered” memories of abuse, without further corroborative evidence that the abuse in fact occurred…”

In 2000, the American Psychiatric Association made a statement including:

  • “Some therapeutic approaches attempt specially to elicit memories of childhood abuse … The validity of such therapies has been challenged.Some patients … have later recanted their claims of recovered mem-ories of abuse and accused their therapists of leading or pressuring them into such ideas.”
  • “No specific unique symptom profile has been identified that necessarily correlates with abuse experiences.”

In 2001, the American Psychological Society awarded the William James Fellow Award to Elizabeth Loftus, who holds the title of Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Irvine. In 2002, the Review of General Psychology ranked her 58th among the top 100 psychologists of the 20th century. She also ranked among the 25 psychologists most frequently cited in introductory psychology textbooks. The award citation said, in part:

“Over the past 15 years, Dr Loftus’s attention has turned to a related but considerably more controversial issue, that of the validity of “recovered memories” of childhood abuse. As a result of her pioneering scientific work as well as her activity within the legal system, society is gradually coming to realise that such memories, compelling though they may seem when related by a witness, are often a product of recent reconstructive memory processes rather than of past objective reality.”

It should be noted that since the professional bodies issued these statements; training for therapists mostly stopped teaching repression theory and memory recovery techniques and the numbers of people “recovering” such memories dropped from a torrent to trickle. This also supports the premise that the phenomenon was iatrogenic — a therapeutic artifact. (Abridged)

Felicity Goodyear-Smith
Senior Lecturer, Department of General Practice & Primary Health Care, University of Auckland

How To Stop a Witch-Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reality Checks

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

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

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

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

Lessons to be Learned

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

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

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

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

Overseas Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Criminalising and Scapegoating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scandals

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

So where do we go from here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Budget Science

Owen McShane examines last year’s Great Soya Sauce Scare

There’s a lot of Budget Science going on.

Budget Science is not low cost science. It’s certainly not amateur science driven solely by the noble search for truth. Budget Science is state-funded science which jacks up next year’s funding.

The great soya sauce scare was a fine example. The Ministry of Health (MoH), with the enthusiastic support of our tabloid media, panicked the nation into believing that Soya Sauce would strike us down with cancer. The health police swooped on supermarkets and hauled away the stuff of healthy stir-fries, while leaving cigarettes safely on the shelves above the check-out.

How did this happen?

The story begins when some lab somewhere carried out the notoriously unreliable rodent test on a group of chemicals known as chloropropanols. Sure enough these chemically-overloaded lab rats got cancer. We should remember that just about all foods – organic, GM or whatever – contain scores of chemicals which have failed the rodent test. There are at least 12 of them in your morning cup of coffee.

Anyhow, one of these chloropropanols, known as 3-MCPD, occurs in foods which have used acid hydrolysis, roasting, and similar processes to enhance their flavour.

A laboratory in England soon announced a test to detect 3-MCPDs down to one part in a million or lower. The European Food Safety Agency then decided that this detectable level should establish the safe level.

You can be sure that “safe” levels set by “detectable levels” are unsupported by any epidemiological evidence whatever. But such standards sell a lot of tests and keep lots of lab-workers busy.

And so the EU bureaucrats set the labs to work testing soya sauce, which was suitably foreign and known to contain 3-MCPDS. Lo and behold, several brands failed the test.

The news spread rapidly round the world. Scaring the hell out of people is a shortcut to fame for both young scientists and even younger media hacks.

However, not everyone knee-jerked into action. The Canadian Cancer Society reached the following measured conclusions:

  • 3-MCPD is a member of the chloropropanol group of chemicals and is a possible carcinogen in humans.
  • Health Canada has reviewed the situation and has found there is no health risk to Canadians from existing stocks of soy and oyster sauces.
  • Continuous lifetime exposure to high levels of 3-MCPD could pose a health risk to Canadians, but future imported stocks will be below the legal tolerance limit of 1.0 ppm. The Canadian authorities saw no point in raiding their supermarkets.

So why did we wage war on soya sauce? After all, the European Food Agency found quantifiable levels of 3-MCPD in breads, savoury crackers, toasted biscuits, toasted cereals, cheeses, doughnuts, burgers and salamis.

The survey also found 3-MCPD in a long list of food ingredients, including bread-crumbs, meat extracts, modified starches (used in glazes, yoghurt, soups and ready-made meals), malt and malt-based ingredients (used in confectionery, cereal products, sauces, bakery products, snack seasonings, beers and malted drinks).

Funny that. I don’t remember our health police clearing the shelves of cheddar, Weet-Bix, yoghurt and beer.

Surely the cancer risk will be determined by the total volume of foods containing 3-MCPD we ingest regularly over long periods – not the level within a single sauce used occasionally at best.

So what was going on here? Why did our ever-so-caring Ministry of Health decide to scare the hell out of us, when their peers in other countries found more useful things to do? How much extra risk did soya sauce pose to our biscuit, cereal, cheese and cracker-chomping pop-ulation?

The answer is simple – Budget Science ruled.

While the Europeans were demonising soya sauce, our own MoH was being criticised for failing to develop a rational, risk-based, food safety policy. The Cabinet was debating whether to shift responsibility for the Food Act from the MoH to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (Maf) under a new Food Assurance Authority. MoH officials saw millions of dollars disappearing into the maws of Maf. So they raided the supermarkets to show their determination to protect us from Asian imports.

It didn’t work – the funds were transferred to Maf anyway.

But what about our health? There is no epidemiological evidence connecting soya sauce to cancer rates. Indeed Asians have low rates of digestive tract cancer.

We do know that New Zealand’s high rate of bowel and stomach cancer is caused by our low intake of dietary fibre. We eat too much meat and too few vegetables.

Those New Zealanders who found no soya sauce on the shelves were probably going to make a stir-fry for dinner. Stir fries are low in meat and high in fibre. Budget Science probably persuaded lots of them that sausages and chips are safer.

A few more New Zealanders may die of cancer.

Budget Science is like that.