Newsfront

Charter schools open door for creationism

Government plans to establish charter schools look like providing a way for creationists to get their teachings into New Zealand’s classrooms (Dominion Post, 19 August).

The Manukau Charitable Christian Trust is planning to team up with the Manukau Christian School to teach a “philosophy” titled ‘In God’s World’, to be marked against the Cambridge curriculum.

The philosophy encourages every subject to be taught so students “discover” how God made the world, and upholds and governs it.

Trust chairman Tony Bracefield said it planned to open a number of junior classes at churches, feeding up to senior classes on Manukau Christian School’s grounds. He said the school would use non-qualified teachers, and teach about 200 children in the long term.

Post Primary Teachers Association president Robin Duff said the types of people who appeared to be interested in charter schools would not have made it through teacher education.

” In the case of the trust, we’d be concerned if an organisation with a ‘statement of faith’ that denies evolution and claims creation according to the Bible is a historical event, were to receive state funding.”

He said the trust could be grouped with religious organisations like Destiny Church and the Maharishi Foundation, which had both expressed interest in charter schools, and which delivered education that denied scientific principles.

Associate Education Minister John Banks said he would not comment on the trust’s charter plans.

A day later, the NZ Herald (20 August) reported Banks had told Radio Rhema he has no doubts the first chapters of Genesis are true. “That’s what I believe, but I’m not going to impose my beliefs on other people, especially in this post-Christian society that we live in, especially in these lamentable times. There are reactionaries out there, humanists in particular, that overrun the bureaucracies in Wellington and state education.”

Racist creationists upset Kawerau

Meanwhile, many residents of Kawerau have been upset by a creationist pamphlet mail drop in the small Bay of Plenty town (NZ Herald, 22 September).

“Are you a racist? You are if you believe in evolution!” the pamphlet states. “Kids are taught in school that man evolved (changed) from a chimp. So I ask you who changed the most from a black chimp with black hair and brown eyes? A black man with black hair and brown eyes? Or a white man with blond hair and blue eyes?”

People who received the pamphlet should “rip it up and bin it,” said Vicki Hall, a spokeswoman for the Race Relations Commissioner. “The commission’s position is that the pamphlet is clearly offensive. However, there is no law that prevents someone from publishing it.”

While the pamphlet accuses those who “believe in evolution” of racism, it is based on the racist premise that black people look more like chimps than white people do. Yet two of the three chimp subspecies have fair skin, and Caucasians tend to be hairier than other peoples. The similarity between chimps and people of colour is all in the minds of the pamphlet’s producers, and the citizens of Kawerau were right to pick these mealy-mouthed hypocrites as racists.

Death’s link to vaccine ‘convoluted pseudoscience’

The likelihood of an Upper Hutt teenager having died as a result of the cervical cancer vaccine has been rejected as convoluted pseudoscience by Helen Petousi-Harris, of Auckland University’s Immunisation Advisory Centre (Dominion Post, 21 September).

Jasmine Renata, 18, died in her sleep in September 2009, six months after completing the programme for cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil.

She suffered from runny noses, headaches, warts, tiredness, a racing heart and other symptoms. During an inquest in August, her parents said they believed the vaccine was the cause of their daughter’s failing health and eventual death.

Canadian neuroscientist Christopher Shaw and US pathologist Sin Hang Lee told the inquest heavy aluminium staining in Ms Renata’s brain tissue could have acted as a “trojan horse”, bringing the human papillomavirus into her brain.

But Dr Petousis-Harris said on 20 September that the doctors’ arguments were convoluted and not based on scientific evidence. “I find that quite concerning, given the gravity of the issue here. Anyone who has had the vaccine may become worried, and anyone planning to have it may also become worried. But it’s based on no evidence at all, which is not good. You have got to make your decisions based on good science.”

It was important to discuss the weaknesses in the research so parents and possible vaccine recipients had all the information, she said.

There is further commentary on this case at Http://www.immune.org.nz/commentary-coronial-inquiry-expert-witness-testimony

Medium to ‘help heal’ Pike River pain

Australian medium Deb Webber, of Sensing Murder fame is once again in this country using a tragedy to promote her business (Greymouth Star, 16 August).

Webber, who caused anger in 2009 by raising the case of missing Auckland toddler Aisling Symes while plugging her shows on breakfast television (Aisling’s body was recovered from a stormwater pipe a few days later), has announced that this spring she will meet with family of Pike River disaster victims to help heal their pain with readings in a private session.

“I have been flooded with emails from family members so it will be nice to help them out,” Webber’s publicist said.

Given that Webber has no psychic ability (see NZ Skeptic 104), it’s uncertain exactly how she is going to be able to help at all.

Didgeridoo healing reaches NZ

Back in NZ Skeptic 102 Alison Campbell reported on how didgeridoos could be used to clear emotional and energetic stagnation, and help ” to quantum manifest healing and the co-creation of our universe.” Now this amazing medical breakthrough is available in New Zealand (Stuff, 6 September), thanks to yet more visitors from across the Tasman.

Australia-based psychic double act K and Dr Michael appeared in Auckland on 18 September. The US-born Dr Michael bills himself as a “vibrational healer with the didgeridoo” and a reiki master who “gives energy healing with past life and spirit healing messages”.

K on the other hand is “blessed with psychic abilities since childhood” and is said to be “one of Australia’s most sought after clairvoyants”. Must have been quite a night.

More Dunedin ghosts

Dunedin is emerging as the haunted capital of New Zealand. Following a series of ghostly events at Otago University’s Cumberland College ( NZ Skeptic 104) spirits are now reported to be occupying the nearby Globe Theatre ( Otago Daily Times, 2 July).

Five members of paranormal investigation group The Other Side Paranormal visited the theatre to follow up earlier research into three spirits believed to be there. The spirits were said to be those of Robert Blackadder, who lived in the building in the 19th century before it became a theatre, a girl called Mary Elizabeth Richmond who lived in the building in the 1860s, and former theatre caretaker Frank Grayson, who died in the 1980s.

“I think it’s safe to say the caretaker Frank is still there. He is just there looking after the place, basically. We’ve found a few things on our video footage … a few light anomalies,” said investigator Kelly Cavanagh.

There was also an “incident” when a person felt someone sit down next to them, and a photo revealed “energy” beside them. Other information gathered from an electromagnetic field reader, temperature gauge, and voice recorder would be analysed over the next week, Ms Cavanagh said. “We’ve definitely got some results and we are quite happy with what we’ve found.”

Skepticism’’s Mirror Ball

The Scope of Skepticism: Interviews, Essays and Observations from the Token Skeptic Podcast, by Kylie Sturgess. Podblack Books, 2012. 151pp. About $NZ18, or NZ$6.40 for Kindle. Visit tokenskeptic.org and click on ‘Merchandise’ for links. Reviewed by Martin Bridgstock.

In the foreword to this book, Michael McRae uses the image of a mirror ball. Mirror balls have an important property: when a light shines on them, they reflect illumination into all kinds of dark corners. This is what Aussie skeptic Kylie Sturgess has accomplished in her first book.

For many years Kylie has been interviewing people involved with skepticism. This book is a distillation of some of her most interesting work. The first surprise came when I had a look at the people Kylie interviewed. I simply didn’t recognise over half the names. Who, for instance, is Bruce M Hood or Petra Boynton? And why is Tim Minchin, the wild comedian, included?

The short answer is that, after reading each interview, my conclusion was “Yes, I can see why this is important for skepticism. And I’m glad I know about it.” For example Bruce M Hood is a psychologist who became concerned about the way that a British firm was producing ‘bomb-detectors’. These devices were being bought to detect terrorist bombs in places like Iraq. Hood became concerned about their lack of documented effectiveness and found himself in a nasty confrontation with the device’s makers. It became clear the ‘detectors’ were based on paranormal principles (see Newsfront, NZ Skeptic 97), and action was taken to stop them being sold. Good skeptical work by Professor Hood.

Petra Boynton is a sexologist. She’s a perfectly genuine academic who studies aspects of sexual health. Boynton became concerned at a ‘charity’ which claimed to be raising money to reverse the effects of female genital mutilation in some African countries. However, Boynton found a suspicious lack of reported activity. Money was going in, and nothing much was happening. Eventually it turned out that the Raelian cult was behind it all.

The inclusion of comedian Tim Minchin may come as a surprise. His wild, heavily made-up image on stage might lead anyone to think he is a devotee of woo. In fact, he’s a skeptic who was encouraged by some of Randi’s work, and builds both atheism and skepticism into his performances.

The theme of the book, as I read it, is that skepticism is expanding, and becoming involved in all kinds of unexpected issues. We need to know what is happening, and to support it where we can.

Overall, The Scope of Skepticism is well worth reading, and good value for the purchase price. I’d defy any skeptic to read the interviews and not learn many useful things from the people in the spotlight. We need to know about the frontiers of skepticism, and Kylie has brought back some fascinating reports.
Martin Bridgstock is a senior lecturer in the School of Biomolecular and Physical Sciences at Griffith University, Brisbane.

Using pseudoscience to teach science

There may indeed be a place for creationism in the science classroom, but not the way the creationists want. This article is based on a presentation to the 2011 NZ Skeptics Conference.

We live in a time when science features large in our lives, probably more so than ever before. It’s important that people have at least some understanding of how science works, not least so that they can make informed decisions when aspects of science impinge on them. Yet this is also a time when pseudoscience seem to be on the increase. Some would argue that we simply ignore it. I suggest that we put it to good use and use pseudoscience to help teach about the nature of science – something that Jane Young has done in her excellent book The Uncertainty of it All: Understanding the Nature of Science.

The New Zealand Curriculum (MoE, 2007) makes it clear that there’s more to studying science than simply accumulating facts:

Science is a way of investigating, understanding, and explaining our natural, physical world and the wider universe. It involves generating and testing ideas, gathering evidence – including by making observations, carrying out investigations and modeling, and communicating and debating with others – in order to develop scientific knowledge, understanding and explanations (ibid., p28).

In other words, studying science also involves learning about the nature of science: that it’s a process as much as, or more than, a set of facts. Pseudoscience offers a lens through which to approach this.

Thus, students should be being encouraged to think about how valid, and how reliable, particular statements may be. They should learn about the process of peer review: whether a particular claim has been presented for peer review; who reviewed it; where it was published. There’s a big difference between information that’s been tested and reviewed, and information (or misinformation) that simply represents a particular point of view and is promoted via the popular press. Think ‘cold fusion’, the claim that nuclear fusion could be achieved in the lab at room temperatures. It was trumpeted to the world by press release, but subsequently debunked as other researchers tried, and failed, to duplicate its findings.

A related concept here is that there’s a hierarchy of journals, with publications like Science at the top and Medical Hypotheses at the other end of the spectrum. Papers submitted to Science are subject to stringent peer review processes – and many don’t make the grade – while Medical Hypotheses seems to accept submissions uncritically, with minimal review, for example a paper suggesting that drinking cows’ milk would raise odds of breast cancer due to hormone levels in milk – despite the fact that the actual data on hormone titres didn’t support this.

This should help our students develop the sort of critical thinking skills that they need to make sense of the cornucopia of information that is the internet. Viewing a particular site, they should be able to ask – and answer! – questions about the source of the information they’re finding, whether or not it’s been subject to peer review (you could argue that the internet is an excellent ‘venue’ for peer review but all too often it’s simply self-referential), how it fits into our existing scientific knowledge, and whether we need to know anything else about the data or its source.

An excellent example that could lead to discussion around both evolution and experimental design, in addition to the nature of science, is the on-line article Darwin at the drugstore: testing the biological fitness of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (Gillen & Anderson, 2008). The researchers wished to test the concept that a mutation conferring antibiotic resistance rendered the bacteria possessing it less ‘fit’ than those lacking it. (There is an energy cost to bacteria in producing any protein, but whether this renders them less fit – in the Darwinian sense – is entirely dependent on context.)

The researchers used two populations of the bacterium Serratia marcescens: an ampicillin-resistant lab-grown strain, which produces white colonies, and a pink, non-resistant (‘wild-type’) population obtained from pond water. ‘Fitness’ was defined as “growth rate and colony ‘robustness’ in minimal media”. After 12 hours’ incubation the two populations showed no difference in growth on normal lab media (though there were differences between four and six hours), but the wild-type strain did better on minimal media. It is hard to judge whether the difference was of any statistical significance as the paper’s graphs lack error bars and there are no tables showing the results of statistical comparisons – nonetheless, the authors describe the differences in growth as ‘significant’.

Their conclusion? Antibiotic resistance did not enhance the fitness of Serratia marcescens:

… wild-type [S.marcescens] has a significant fitness advantage over the mutant strains due to its growth rate and colony size. Therefore, it can be argued that ampicillin resistance mutations reduce the growth rate and therefore the general biological fitness of S.marcescens. This study concurs with Anderson (2005) that while mutations providing antibiotic resistance may be beneficial in certain, specific, environments, they often come at the expense of pre-existing function, and thus do not provide a mechanism for macroevolution (Gillen & Anderson, 2008).


Let’s take the opportunity to apply some critical thinking to this paper. Students will all be familiar with the concept of a fair test, so they’ll probably recognise fairly quickly that such a test was not performed in this case: the researchers were not comparing apples with apples. When one strain of the test organism is lab-bred and not only antibiotic-resistant but forms different-coloured colonies from the pond-dwelling wild-type, there are a lot of different variables in play, not just the one whose effects are supposedly being examined.

In addition, and more tellingly, the experiment did not test the fitness of the antibiotic-resistance gene in the environment where it might convey an advantage. The two Serratia marcescens strains were not grown in media containing ampicillin! Evolutionary biology actually predicts that the resistant strain would be at a disadvantage in minimal media, because it’s using energy to express a gene that provides no benefit in that environment, so will likely be short of energy for other cellular processes. (And, as I commented earlier, the data do not show any significant differences between the two bacterial strains.)

What about the authors’ affiliations, and where was the paper published? Both authors work at Liberty University, a private faith-based institution with strong creationist leanings. And the article is an on-line publication in the ‘Answers in Depth’ section of the website of Answers in Genesis (a young-earth creationist organisation) – not in a mainstream peer-reviewed science journal. This does suggest that a priori assumptions may have coloured the experimental design.

Other clues

It may also help for students to learn about other ways to recognise ‘bogus’ science, something I’ve blogged about previously (see Bioblog – seven signs of bogus science). One clue is where information is presented via the popular media (where ‘popular media’ includes websites), rather than offered up for peer review, and students should be asking, why is this happening?

The presence of conspiracy theories is another warning sign. Were the twin towers brought down by terrorists, or by the US government itself? Is the US government deliberately suppressing knowledge of a cure for cancer? Is vaccination really for the good of our health or the result of a conspiracy between government and ‘big pharma’ to make us all sick so that pharmaceutical companies can make more money selling products to help us get better?

“My final conclusion after 40 years or more in this business is that the unofficial policy of the World Health Organisation and the unofficial policy of Save the Children’s Fund and almost all those organisations is one of murder and genocide. They want to make it appear as if they are saving these kids, but in actual fact they don’t.” (Dr A. Kalokerinos, quoted on a range of anti-vaccination websites.)

Conspiracy theorists will often use the argument from authority, almost in the same breath. It’s easy to pull together a list of names, with PhD or MD after them, to support an argument (eg palaeontologist Vera Scheiber on vaccines). Students could be given such a list and encouraged to ask, what is the field of expertise of these ‘experts’? For example, a mailing to New Zealand schools by a group called “Scientists Anonymous” offered an article purporting to support ‘intelligent design’ rather than an evolutionary explanation for a feature of neuroanatomy, authored by a Dr Jerry Bergman. However, a quick search indicates that Dr Bergman has made no recent contributions to the scientific literature in this field, but has published a number of articles with a creationist slant, so he cannot really be regarded as an expert authority in this particular area. Similarly, it is well worth reviewing the credentials of many anti-vaccination ‘experts’ – the fact that someone has a PhD by itself is irrelevant; the discipline in which that degree was gained, is important. (Observant students may also wonder why the originators of the mailout feel it necessary to remain anonymous…)

Students also need to know the difference between anecdote and data. Humans are pattern-seeking animals and we do have a tendency to see non-existent correlations where in fact we are looking at coincidences. For example, a child may develop a fever a day after receiving a vaccination. But without knowing how many non-vaccinated children also developed a fever on that particular day, it’s not actually possible to say that there’s a causal link between the two.

A question of balance

Another important message for students is that there are not always two equal sides to every argument, notwithstanding the catch cry of “teach the controversy!” This is an area where the media, with their tendency to allot equal time to each side for the sake of ‘fairness’, are not helping. Balance is all very well, but not without due cause. So, apply scientific thinking – say, to claims for the health benefits of sodium bicarbonate as a cure for that fungal-based cancer (A HREF=”http://www.curenaturalicancro.com”>www.curenaturalicancro.com). Its purveyors make quite specific claims concerning health and well-being – drinking sodium bicarbonate will cure cancer and other ailments by “alkalizing” your tissues, thus countering the effects of excess acidity! How would you test those claims of efficacy? What are the mechanisms by which drinking sodium bicarbonate (or for some reason lemon juice!) – or indeed any other alternative health product – is supposed to have its effects? (Claims that a ‘remedy’ works through mechanisms as yet unknown to science don’t address this question, but in addition, they presuppose that it does actually work.) In the new Academic Standards there’s a standard on homeostasis, so students could look at the mechanisms by which the body maintains a steady state in regard to pH.

If students can learn to apply these tools to questions of science and pseudoscience, they’ll be well equipped to find their way through the maze of conflicting information that the modern world presents, regardless of whether they go on to further study in the sciences.

References

Chemistry: an antidote to pseudoscientific thinking?

Having a basic knowledge of the principles of chemistry can help one evade the pitfalls of many pseudosciences – but it’s not infallible. This article is based on a presentation to the 2011 NZ Skeptics Conference.

2011 is the International Year of Chemistry and as such I have been involved in a number of activities to celebrate the many contributions chemistry has made to our world. It has also been a time of reflection, during which I have asked myself, can an understanding of chemistry act as an antidote to pseudoscientific thinking? But first let us start with a definition of what chemistry is.

Chemistry is the study of matter, where matter is the material in our universe which both has mass and occupies space. Matter includes all solids, liquids and gases, and chemistry explores not only the properties and composition of matter but also how it behaves and interacts. Therefore chemists also have to understand how matter and energy interact.

While in theory chemistry can be described as an isolated discipline, in its practice and application it often contributes to, and is supported by, other scientific disciplines including biology (pharmacology, molecular biology) and physics (materials science, astrochemistry).

Core Chemical Concepts

At the heart of chemistry are some central concepts which form the foundation of this discipline. Let us examine some of these.

1) Matter is made up of atoms

The most basic structural unit in chemistry is the atom. The atom itself is made up of a nucleus containing particles called protons and neutrons, around which smaller particles called electrons orbit.

2) Atoms with different numbers of protons give rise to the different elements

Atoms exist with different numbers of protons (neutrons and electrons). These different atoms afford the different chemical elements which are usually represented in the form of the periodic table (see diagram). Each element has different properties and is represented on the periodic table by a one or two- letter symbol. Ninety of the elements occur naturally and these elements can combine to form the fantastically diverse types of matter that make up our universe.

The atomic number (the number above each element) signifies the number of protons each atom has in its nucleus. You will see as you read across each row and then down the number of protons in the nucleus increases.

3) Atoms are really, really small

Atoms are so incredibly small that it can be hard to visualise how very small they are. For example, our lungs hold approximately 1,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000 gas atoms, while a grain of sand contains approximately 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms.

4) Matter cannot be created or destroyed, it can however be rearranged

All of the atoms in existence were created billions of years ago in the heart of stars early in the formation of the universe. I find this an extraordinary concept – that the atoms which make up our bodies have existed for billions of years during which time some of them may have formed part of the last Tyrannosaurus rex, the first flowering plant, or occupied the bodies of various historical figures. Carl Sagan puts this more eloquently and succinctly when he explains that “we are made of star stuff.”

5)Atoms combine to form molecules

The true diversity of the matter in our universe comes from the ability of atoms to combine to form molecules. Molecules can be simple, for example water, which is made up of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms, or complex, such as DNA, which can be made up of billions of atoms of the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Molecules are also incredibly small – a single aspirin tablet contains approximately 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of the active ingredient, acetylsalicylic acid.

6) The shape of a molecule is key to its properties

The shapes of molecules have a fundamental effect on their properties. Water molecules, for example, have a V-shape which allows water to exist as a liquid at room temperature and to dissolve many different compounds. Without these fundamental properties, life as we know it would not have been able to evolve on Earth.

The shape of molecules is a key consideration in the development of new drugs. Many drugs work by interacting with specially shaped receptor or active sites in the body. To activate or deactivate these sites, a molecule of complementary shape must be able to fit into the site. And by making subtle changes to the shapes of such molecules it is possible to tune the effect of the drug molecule.

7) Matter moves

It may not be obvious to the naked eye or even under a microscope but all matter moves. In liquids such as water, the individual molecules move relative to each other, only fleetingly and temporarily interacting with other water molecules. This can be observed by adding a drop of food colouring to a still glass of water. The movement of the water molecules alone slowly mixes the colouring throughout the glass without any need for external agitation.

What do these concepts tell us about homeopathy?

Homeopathy was developed just over 200 years ago and is based on three principles:
a) that diseases can be treated by using substances that produce the same symptoms as the disease; b) that the greater a substance is diluted the more potent it becomes;and
c) that homeopathic solutions are ‘activated’ by physically striking them against a solid surface.

If one considers these principles against the core chemical concepts discussed so far they make little sense. How can less of a substance be more potent? How could the variable striking of water solutions have any effect on water molecules which are already in motion relative to each other, and which are therefore unable to form any collective memory of an active substance? For homeopathy to work, key chemical concepts which underlie and explain much of what we know about the physical world would have to be turned on their heads. Such a challenge to well-established chemical concepts would require extraordinary evidence.

To date, no such evidence has been provided by homeopaths. Instead, over the past 200 years, repeated attempts to prove that homeopathy works have demonstrated little more than the placebo effect and the human propensity for confirmation bias.

More Chemical Concepts

8) The Earth is a closed system in terms of mass

Apart from the launch of the occasional deep space probe, the loss of helium into space, or the addition of the occasional meteor, the Earth retains a constant mass. Thus, our physical resources are limited.

9) Matter is continuously recycled

Although we have a limited resource in terms of matter, this matter is continuously recycled as these ancient and indestructible atoms are converted from one chemical compound to another. For example, the carbon in coal when burnt is converted to carbon dioxide which may then be converted by plants into sugars. Such recycling occurs for many elements, particularly in the biosphere of our planet.

10) Chemical compounds can store and release energy

Some chemical compounds are rich in energy and this energy can be released to produce energy-poor compounds. For example, when we burn coal or oil we release energy and produce energy-poor carbon dioxide, or when we consume sugars we use the energy released in our bodies and again produce carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide can be recycled through photosynthesis in plants to produce more sugars and other energy rich compounds for food. The same is not possible for coal or oil, and as such these are limited resources.

11) Systems are in equilibrium

The systems by which matter is continually recycled are very complex and interrelated. Such complex systems are usually in equilibrium – this means that if we change one variable the system will adjust itself to compensate. For example, as the amount of carbon dioxide has increased in our atmosphere, some of it has been removed by dissolving in the oceans.

The idea of system equilibrium is used by some to claim that an increase in carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere is harmless as the system can rebalance itself. This is potentially dangerous thinking. Most systems, particularly complex ones, can only buffer a certain amount of change, beyond which the system may undergo significant change as it attempts to rebalance itself. Such changes would not necessarily be conducive to human life.

What do these concepts tell us about our environment?

Fossil fuels are a non-sustainable source of energy that also release pollutants and increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Humanity would be better served developing alternative sources of energy which harness the power of the sun more directly, for example, through solar panels, hydroelectricity, wind turbines or biofuels. More attention needs to be paid to the effects of increasing carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, and its effect on the equilibrium of the Earth’s biosphere.

Chemophobia – Causes and Consequences

There are millions of different chemical compounds in existence and chemists use a standardised naming system in order to better catalogue and compare these fascinating compounds. Unfortunately, amongst non-chemists this chemical jargon can create concern and even fear. For example, most people when asked would turn down an offer to eat a mixture containing methylmethoxypyrazine, phenylacetaldehyde and b-tocopherol, at least until it is revealed that the aforementioned mixture is a chocolate bar, and all of the compounds are natural components of chocolate.

This caution or fear of the unknown is a natural instinct which has served human beings well throughout our evolution – allowing us to avoid poisonous foods and dangerous predators. However, in the modern world it can be used against us. Referring to compounds by their chemical names is a ploy used by various interest groups including alternative health gurus and anti-vaxers to try and create fear of mainstream medicines.

Furthermore, it has allowed the development of the myth of the ‘chemical-free’ product. To a chemist, the only thing that is chemical-free is a vacuum.

The term ‘chemical-free’ appears to be an invention of the marketing industry: an attempt to sell products by suggesting that if they contain only natural compounds they must be safe, healthy and/or environmentally friendly. This is, of course, very flawed reasoning. Nature produces a wide range of compounds that are toxic to humans. Tetrodotoxin from poorly prepared puffer fish, ricin from castor beans (used to assassinate a Bulgarian dissident in 1978), digitalis from foxgloves and arsenic in groundwater are all just as capable of knocking us off as any synthetic compound.

Indeed, when it comes to toxicity it is not whether something is natural or synthetic that is important. Rather it is the dose. Any substance is capable of being toxic. Consuming four litres of water in two hours can prove fatal, as can several hours’ exposure to a 100 percent oxygen atmosphere.

The idea that toxicity is dose-dependent is not new. In the 16th century the Swiss physician Paracelsus stated that “all things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” However, it remains a concept that is not well understood today. Special interests groups have used this to create fear around issues such as water fluoridation, vaccines, and environmental issues. For example, when DDT started to be detected in the environment at part per million levels, the resulting knee-jerk withdrawal of DDT from the marketplace resulted in a resurgence of malaria in many vulnerable populations. Following the introduction of DDT in Sri Lanka, by 1963 the number of cases dropped to 17. A few years after DDT use was banned, the number of cases increased to 2.5 million cases in 1968 and 1969.

Another consequence of chemophobia, is that it can encourage people to embrace ‘alternative’ treatments, such as homeopathy. An example of the terrible consequences of such erroneous thinking was the death of Gloria Thomas, aged nine months, in Australia in 2002, when her homeopath father refused to treat her eczema with conventional medicine. Instead, she was given homeopathic remedies until she died of septicaemia and malnutrition.

Absurd Chemical Therapies

One of the incredible hypocrisies of some alternative medicine practitioners is that they may also embrace absurd chemical therapies. Anti-vaxers who claim autistic children are really suffering from mercury poisoning sometimes promote the use of chelation therapy. Chelation therapy involves the intravenous use of chemical agents which bind to heavy metals in the blood. It is an invasive technique which can also strip the blood of important metal ions such as calcium. Indeed, there are examples of patients who have died because too much calcium has been stripped from their blood.

Other alternative treatments have included ‘miracle mineral solution’ as a treatment for everything from Aids to Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Such wide-reaching claims are an immediate warning sign, as is the revelation that ‘miracle mineral solution’ is, in fact, a 28 percent solution of bleach! Dilute solutions of dimethylsulphoxide (DMSO), an industrial solvent, have similarly been promoted as a cure-all, supported by, of course, only vague anecdotal evidence.

When challenged, those peddling these absurd therapies will often cry ‘conspiracy’, and claim they are being victimised by the all-powerful pharmaceutical industry.

Consequences of not understanding chemistry

We live in a world where important public debates are becoming contaminated with non-science and nonsense. Knowledge of chemistry can help us identify and challenge some of the non-science and nonsense when exploring important issues such as climate change, environmental issues, water fluoridation and vaccination.

Is chemistry an antidote to pseudoscientific thinking?

At the beginning of this article I posed the question, “Is chemistry an antidote to pseudoscientific thinking?” And while I hopefully have demonstrated that knowledge of chemistry can help identifiy and challenge pseudoscientific thinking, I cannot claim that it, alone, is an antidote. I know this because there are those who despite a background in chemistry still embrace pseudoscientific beliefs. These include:

  • David Rasnick – after training as a chemist and working in medicinal chemistry for 20 years Dr Rasnick became an Aids denialist and proponent of vitamin ‘therapies’.
  • Kary Mullis, Nobel prize-winning biochemist, is an Aids denialist, a believer in astrology, and claims to have met an extraterrestrial disguised as a fluorescent raccoon.
  • Lionel Milgrom, research chemist for 30 years, is now a practicing homeopath and prominent advocate of homeopathy.

The idea that those who have trained to an advanced level in chemistry (or any other science) can go on to embrace pseudoscience has always intrigued me. I’ve often wondered how such a transition could occur, and would suggest that perhaps one or more of the following factors may be involved:

1) Frustration with science

Progress in science is often slow and frustrating. The temptation to find an easier, albeit fallacy-based career may be appealing when faced with the many frustrations of laboratory work.

2) External bias

Religious and moral beliefs may introduce bias. For example, a number of Aids denialists are blatantly homophobic.

3) No understanding of the scientific method

While most scientists pick up the principles of the scientific method during their training, few that I am aware of are explicitly taught the scientific method.

4) Need for attention/notoriety

5) Financial motives

The peddling of pseudoscience can be quite lucrative, particularly when you can use academic qualifications to lend the appearance of legitimacy to one’s claims.

I suspect that in most cases, the embracing of pseudoscientific beliefs by scientists is a gradual process, where step by small step, they move away from the scientific method until eventually they find themselves no longer bound by its philosophy and rigour.

Conclusion

While an understanding of chemistry does not necessarily provide an antidote to pseudoscientific thinking, when coupled with the tools of rational thinking, it provides the skills to critically assess many areas where pseudoscientific beliefs persist including water fluoridation, environmental science, climate change, homeopathy and alternative medicines.

“Never let yourself be diverted by what you wish to believe, but look only and solely at what are the facts.” -Bertrand Russell

Is science just mysticism in a lab coat?

Some fields that claim the authority of science may be in need of an overhaul. This article is based on a presentation to the NZ Skeptics 2009 conference in Wellington, 26 September.

I have always been in two minds about scepticism. I am undoubtedly a sceptic by nature; I enjoy questioning and challenging things. It suits my temperament and I like to think adds something important to a discussion. But a true sceptic must be sceptical about scepticism too, and it’s hard to escape two weaknesses in the scepticism agenda. The first is oft noted. As the British philosopher Roger Scruton puts it, when a sceptic tells you nothing is true, they are telling you not to listen to them, so don’t.

Of course, few confessed sceptics are sceptics in this pure philosophical sense. In some things we must opt for mindless belief in order to function. Without our commitment to notions of causation for instance, or other minds, or time, or the rules of logic, we would be unable to make much headway in the world; yet none of these core principles are able to withstand the sceptic’s gaze. And so, quite sensibly, we do not look there. The typical sceptic, it seems to this outsider, is more a champion of an evidence-based form of something we might call scientism. Their mission becomes the challenging of those forms of knowledge which appear to pay scant regard to the available set of observations. The trouble here is that limited resources mean there are only so many places the sceptical gaze can shine and choices must be made. Sometimes prejudice will determine which knowledge is scrutinised and which is left alone, or worse still, laziness. It is all too easy to attack the hapless for our own amusement, while leaving the powerful unchallenged.

The second problem is one of ‘busybodyism’. I myself have little time for quackery and superstition but most of the time I find it hard to care whether others share my perspective. Yes, it is clearly wrong for those pretending to talk to the dead (or rather pretending the dead talk back) to exploit the grieving, but to those who enjoy recounting their ghost stories and snorting their arnica I tend to feel why not leave them to it. Who am I to say my life’s any richer for having forgone such flim-flammery?

It is with these caveats in mind that I turn my attention evolutionary psychology. Here is a refuge of shysters that by and large is not subject to the same level of attack endured by astrology, which is odd to me, for the methodologies are remarkably similar. I suspect it’s got something to do with the fact that it happens not in the tents of a gypsy fair but within the hallowed hallways of academia, and better still often within spitting distance of the science faculty. And to allay my second concern with scepticism, I have little trouble being a busybody in this area for the simple reason that the activities of academics are so often tax-payer funded, and given the vital role of academia in protecting and advancing knowledge it’s quite okay to hold these people to a higher standard.

So, why be sceptical about evolutionary psychology? Well, because it’s not scientific in its approach and yet attempts to hide behind the language of science, and to me that feels like an intellectual fraud. I can’t make that claim without first defining what I mean by science and given the millions of words that have been written on the slippery topic I’m clearly going to have to oversimplify.

The basics of the scientific method are well known. At heart this is a discipline based upon observation, hypothesis making, prediction and testing. The remarkable power of science to advance our knowledge stems for the ability to test the claims we are making against the data, and crucially this data is at its most powerful when it is generated by the hypothesis, rather than representing a cobbling together of the already known facts.

Before the General Theory of Relativity, nobody imagined that light would be bent by gravity. When Eratosthenes predicted the angle of the sun as measured by the shadows in a well shaft would be different at the same time of day, he was using the hypothesis of a curved earth to generate a novel prediction (and so test his hypthesis). When Fresnel’s equation predicted that light waves would produce a bright patch directly behind an obstacle he forced the French academy to rethink their acceptance of Newton’s particle theory of light. And closer to home, when David Penny and Mike Hendy working out of Massey University predicted that species relatedness would produce particular patterns in as-yet untested genetic sequences, they gave us a way of verifying the evolutionary hypothesis.

In all these cases and so many more we are awestruck by the power of science to not just explain existing facts, but also generate new ones. If you look at X under circumstances Y, I predict you will see Z, says the scientist. And what’s more, if you don’t then my theory is at least partially wrong. On the back of this method we have developed the technologies that underpin the modern world.

Evolutionary psychology, the claim that understanding our evolutionary past will help us better understand our contemporary behaviour, has none of these attributes, although at first glance it can appear to. Ostensibly the discipline seeks first to read the known data, our understanding of the evolutionary processes by which we were designed, then build its hypotheses, speculations about the behavioural tendencies of modern humans, and finally using the tools of psychology to test these hypotheses against the observations of our contemporary behaviour. Unfortunately, any resemblance to actual science is entirely coincidental. For evolutionary psychology as it is currently practised contains three crucial flaws.

The first comes from the requirement that a hypothesis, in order to be tested, must make a unique prediction. If two hypotheses both generate the same prediction, then experimentation will yield no means of deciding between them. Take the claim for instance that certain aspects of our appreciation of art are innate. Well yes, that’s a sensible enough idea, it may well be true and although difficult to test, it’s probably not impossible. Commonalities across time and culture provide clear hints that there is a genetic component at work.

However, and here’s the rub, there is nothing about evolutionary theory that gives it exclusive right to this claim of innate aesthetics. A creationist could equally well argue that God himself endowed humanity with these basic tendencies to assess and report upon the world’s beauty. Both hypotheses generate exactly the same predictions and this is a clear sign the evolutionary part of the process is not a scientific one, for in science predictions are used to choose between rival explanations.

A second huge problem is that we don’t actually know much about our evolutionary past, and so the blocks with which we build our initial hypotheses are spectacularly inadequate. Sometimes, when reading the claims of the evolutionary psychologist, it is tempting to imagine the savannah was fully equipped with CCTV cameras and Facebook. Complex stories are built about social structures, hunting and collecting rituals and mating preferences, and what emerges is a rendering of our evolutionary past that owes more to the Flintstones than any compelling archaeological evidence.

Take for example the initially persuasive claim that the difference in the reproductive potentials of men and women led to men (competing to mate with as many as possible) the aggressors, and women (attempting to raise the healthiest possible) the choosey co-operators. A cave man version of the courting practices of birds is evoked and because the language used is faux scientific, we are expected to buy the construction.

Again, it is possible that our distant ancestors arranged themselves this way but it is by no means certain. It is equally plausible that the emergence of language and complex culture changed the game completely, selecting against male aggression and for charm and social acumen. While Conan is out smiting all with an ass’s jawbone, Romeo is inside the cave getting to know his wife. We have examples from the primate world of females being the dominant aggressors and more importantly the emergence of complex language sets the human ape apart, generating unique selective pressures that we can only guess at.

The key moments in the evolution of the human mind revolved about the invention of language and so it is worth asking the evolutionary psychologist, how did language first come about, where and when, under what environmental pressures did it develop and what was it used for? Until we can answer these questions, and perhaps some day we will be able to, we do not have the basis the theory requires.

This second flaw exposes the third problem. We are not in fact using data from the past to form hypotheses about the present state of the human mind. Rather we are using our observations and testings of our current psychology to speculate about the nature of our evolutionary past. We are reversing the entire scientific process. Because we observe modern males indulging in more physical forms of aggression we guess this is innate (an heroic assumption in itself) and then cobble together an evolutionary ‘Just So’ story to give these modern prejudices the veneer of social respectability. And that is story telling. It is often diverting and frequently amusing, but only in the way that a horoscope is.

What’s actually happening is that contemporary studies of human psychology, which should be judged purely upon the contemporary data they generate, have their credibility bolstered by an appeal to a distant past that exists only in the imagination of those wishing to sell their theory.

Do men and women in general use different methods to get their bearings? A lot of experiments suggest they do. Okay. Is there a genetic basis for this? We could certainly look for one. Does a cock-and-bull story about how men roamed further in their hunting of animals while women paid close attention to the details of where particular berries would be found add anything to our knowledge of this phenomenon? Well, it adds colour and saleability I suppose, but that is a lousy criteria by which to judge scientific advancement.

How has all this happened? One can only speculate. Partly it may be the thrill that comes to academics when they cross into a new discipline. Suddenly everything is fresh and exciting again, and the new perspective gives them great energy. Partly it’s just that we all love a good story, particularly when so many of the tales in the area centre around the eternally fascinating topic of gender.

So should we be sceptical about these works of fiction parading as scholarly analysis of our past? Absolutely. We should mock them with the same gusto we mock the water diviner and the investment adviser. So come on sceptics, this is a call to arms. Out the phonies wherever you find them.

Interestingly none of this means we should give up on the field of evolutionary psychology completely, for the hypothesis does have one testable and important implication. If indeed our evolutionary past has hard-wired certain behavioural tendencies then clues of this process will still lurk in our DNA. Longitudinal studies like the groundbreaking work coming out of Dunedin are beginning to mine the potential in this approach. But the work is long and painstaking, the conclusions complex and tentative and subject to constant revision.

The picture slowly emerging is one of delicate feedback between gene and environment and the stories to be told are cautious, fragile things. Real science in other words, is potentially about changing the face of our future. That’s where the resources should be going.

Hokum Locum

Bogus chiropractor?

I thought they were all bogus! A Motueka man, Michael Dawson, was fined $4000 for describing himself as a chiropractor. This upset Nelson chiropractor Dr John Dawson who was quoted as saying his “unrelated namesake tainted the industry.” Quite apart from Dr Dawson’s pretentious use of the title ‘Dr’, his description of chiropractic as an industry is particularly apt. It is a massage business based on aggressive marketing and creating a non-existent need for gullible people to have their backs rubbed and clicked.

‘Dr’ Dawson was further quoted: “I’m sure there are a few people out there who have written off chiropractors because of him.” One can only hope.

It’s ironic that Michael Dawson was prosecuted by the Ministry of Health, a body supposedly watching over the health system and now seen to be protecting quacks by picking on unregistered quacks. Michael Dawson claims to be able to cure Hepatitis C and wake people from comas. These are claims that can readily be checked and will prove to be false, like most chiropractic claims.

ACC is currently experiencing budget woes and a great deal of this relates to treatment costs. Chiropractors favour prolonged and expensive treatments which have contributed to this problem. A recent study of back pain found conclusively that chiropractic manipulation was of no benefit (www.medscape.com/viewarticle/580409). This is consistent with earlier findings of the Cochrane Database.

I discovered another reference to an article in the Nelson Evening Mail which confirmed Michael Dawson did in fact have a chiropractic qualification but had failed to gain registration in New Zealand. This registration process is a farce and merely gives spurious respectability to an absurd belief system.

Consider the following; a patient goes to a chiropractor and receives a diagnosis of cervical spine subluxations for which manipulation is administered. The patient suffers an injury to arteries in the neck and has a stroke. The Health and Disability Commissioner (HDC) investigates by asking his ‘expert’ chiropractor whether the treatment was properly administered according to chiropractic tenets. The answer is yes so does this mean the chiropractor is off the hook? The patient can file an ACC claim for treatment injury and loses the right to sue as a result. ACC picks up the tab for an unnecessary and dangerous quack treatment.

While working at the hospital the other night a young man came in with toothache. He knew he had an impacted wisdom tooth because he had been x-rayed by his chiropractor whose course of treatments had extended out to 15 weeks. That’s a lot of subluxations. In a fit of whimsy I recently labeled such extended treatments as ‘chiroprotracted’.

Marlborough Express 22 August 2008

Cosmetic Acupuncture

It appears that there is no end to the absurd claims made of acupuncture. Acupuncture face renewal is now available at Arch Hill Acupuncture. A credulous journalist visited the clinic and reported after only one treatment: “I felt – and looked – like I had spent a week in Fiji.” A complete treatment usually involves 12 visits and I would commend the journalist on the Fiji suggestion, a far better use of one’s money.

Have a browse around the website www.archhillacupuncture.co.nz It contains the usual testimonials seen on such web pages as well as some clues to the success of this particular option. The owner of the business comes across as attractive, pleasant and supportive, all of which are good qualities to elicit an excellent placebo response. As a lot of readers will know, I can teach anyone to be a competent and safe acupuncturist in the course of a one-hour lecture. There is no need for several years’ training when something has no scientific basis.

The owner is quoted as saying: “I liken cosmetic acupuncture treatment to a gardener tending the soil of a plant to produce a healthy flower.” Isn’t that what manure is for?

Sunday Star Times 26 October 2008

The loopy left?

The Labour-run Lambeth Council in South London is spending 90,000 to send reflexologists into schools to massage the feet of unruly pupils. Reflexology is based on the same nonsensical ideas behind acupuncture, that pressure applied to areas on the foot can influence health and behaviour. The article contains a very interesting and important statement linked to what I was saying earlier: “Refexology is not a regulated therapy and medical authorities have raised concerns that qualifications are not needed to perform the massages.” The medical authorities ought to be denouncing this nonsense, not wittering on about ‘regulation’. Regulation merely provides spurious recognition, similar to the ridiculous situation of having ‘unregistered chiropractors’ versus ‘registered chiropractors’.

I fear that political considerations are behind a lot of these dopey decisions. At one of our conferences somebody asked a senior ACC doctor why ACC continued to fund acupuncture when it is an expensive and useless treatment. The answer was given that whenever they tried to cut back on acupuncture spending patients complained to their MP and he would get a call from the Minister asking, “why aren’t you funding acupuncture?”

Given the financial woes of ACC, one can only hope that the new Minister instructs ACC to do something about treatment spending. There are too many snouts in the trough!

Christchurch readers interested in reflexology training will be pleased to know they can do a Diploma course (NZQA accredited level 6) at the Canterbury College of Natural Medicine.

www.dailymail.co.uk

Fluoridation

Bruce Spittle (Forum 89) invited me to review his book entitled Fluoride Fatigue. I can report that I have read parts of it but had to stop because I became depressed. I will leave readers to make their own assessment. It is available free at www.pauapress.com

I would certainly not pay to buy this book which is a collection of anecdotal case reports and quotes from other people who share the author’s views. It is written in the style of the sort of books found in the New Age section of a bookshop or library. Here is an example:

“Neither in the hospital nor after her discharge was she given any medication. Instead, she was instructed to avoid fluoridated water strictly, not only for drinking but also for cooking her food as well. She was also told to avoid both tea and seafood because of their high fluoride content. The headaches, eye disturbances, and muscular weakness disappeared in a most dramatic manner. After about two weeks her mind began to clear, and she underwent a complete change in personality. For the first time in two years she was able to undertake her household duties without having to stop and rest. Within a four-week period she had gained five pounds.”

This is a classic description of the sort of person who gets chronic fatigue syndrome, gulf war syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivity – take your pick. A person with vague symptoms looking for some convenient attribution.

I was interested however in the link to the author’s website on moa sightings. At least the extinction of the moa can’t be blamed on fluoridation.

Apart from both words starting with ‘F’, there is no medical evidence to link fluoride with fatigue (or depression). Fatigue is common and is not a diagnosis. In a random survey of the US population in 1974-75, 14 percent of the men and 20 percent of the women said they suffered from fatigue.

The best place to read well- balanced accounts of fluoridation is a Ministry of Health web page. In contrast, a casual browse through the many anti-fluoridation web pages would make anybody justified in using the term ‘crackpot’.

Bionase

I was forwarded an email from Rod who was interested in some product that shines red light up the nose for treatment of hay fever. I googled “shine red light up nose” and immediately arrived at the web page of Bionase. The product has two nasal probes that shine a red light up the nose. It was claimed that this had been scientifically tested and there was a link to an impressive looking study published in the Annals of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. A search of Medline revealed that this was the only study, described as double-blind and placebo-controlled. The paper appeared plausible but continued reading revealed a fatal flaw. Use of the probes caused the nose to light up red. The placebo device did not do this. The experiment is therefore not double-blind. Whilst not given to predictions I will say that if this trial is repeated with a proper blinding this device will be shown to be useless. It is simply biologically implausible, just like homoeopathic trials claiming to treat hay fever. As somebody once said, if any homoeopathic trail showed a beneficial effect your first action is to question the conduct and design of the trial (google Benveniste).

Who believed stones fall from the sky?

It’s often said that scientists long rejected the idea of meteorites, but the evidence for this assertion is far from convincing.

Pseudoscience constantly attempts to discredit science. One method is to complain that scientists have failed to accept facts that were both plain and obvious. Then, if science does not accept homeopathy, telepathy etc, this is to be expected and no reason to doubt the truthof these beliefs.

For many years scientists refused, against contrary evidence, to believe that stones could fall from the sky. True or false?

In 1807 a meteorite fell in Weston, Connecticut and was investigated by Professors Silliman and Kingsley of Yale (a fact). Thomas Jefferson, then President was informed and said, “Gentlemen, I would rather believe that those two Yankee Professors would lie than to believe that stones fell from heaven.”

Jefferson corresponded with the leading scientists of his time. According to Asimov he was “the closest approach to a scientist-in-office among all the Presidents of the US.” Did he really say this?

The story comes from a 1933 book by Harvey Harlow Nininger and has been quoted many times without question-even by Paul Kurtz in A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology and Asimov in his biographical sketch of Silliman. Nininger is something of a hero in the US, which is perhaps why this legend is so readily accepted, but he gave no early source for his story.

Proof needed

In the 18th century, science established that such things as fossils and stone artefacts had a terrestrial origin, though previously they were believed to have fallen to earth. Sceptical scientists began to question the idea of solid objects falling from the sky-some proof was needed. In the last decade of the 18th century two large falls of stones in Europe were observed by many people, and one of these followed the sighting of a large fireball that disappeared with a bang. The German physicist Ernst Florens Friedrick Chladni published a book translated as On the Origin of the Mass of Iron Discovered by Pallas and Others Similar to It. This carefully established a good case for the extra-terrestrial origin of meteorites.

Closer to the end of the century, Joseph Banks the president of the Royal Society, and the French mineralogist, Jackie-Louis Bournon then in England, obtained some pieces of rock, said to have fallen from the sky. These were analysed and found to be iron with a high percentage of nickel. This alloy had never been found in any rock that was definitely of earthly origin.These two scientists presented their theory to the Royal Society in London and the Institut de France in Paris respectively and it was well received by both. The latter heard also from Nicolas Louis Vauquelin who had reached similar conclusions. One of the remarkable features of this cooperation is that Britain and France were at war.

By a fortunate coincidence a shower of stones fell near L’Aigle in Normandy on April 26th 1803. Nearly 3000 were found and the incident was investigated by Jean Baptiste Biot. Analysis showed these objects had a similar composition to previous meteorites. All major French scientists and most others around the world were convinced and Chladni received belated honour.

Well perhaps not so belated. Chladni did not really have to wait very long; it took about 10 years for acceptance of his theory. The story that scientists would not believe his story, in spite of overwhelming evidence is about as far from the truth as is possible. Also it is most unlikely that Jefferson was not fully aware of these scientific discoveries.

Giant rocks

It did take longer to establish that huge rocks, large enough to make enormous craters, could also fall. These craters were often argued to be of volcanic origin because there was clear evidence that molten rock had flowed. It was only after the work of Joule in the middle of the 19th century that it became possible to understand the huge quantity of heat that would be released in such strikes. The rock in and around the crater would be melted by the release of energy.

In 1902 Daniel Moreau Barringer, a geologist and mining engineer, decided that the great crater in Arizona was caused by a meteor strike (though many thought it volcanic) and ought to contain a large and valuable amount of nickel/iron buried near its centre. He spent 30 years and a fortune without success, which gave some comfort to those who favoured the volcanic theory. But then in the 1950s Eugene Shoemaker showed by analysis of the data and further calculation, that most of the metal would have vaporised and this more or less settled the issue.

Years ago Fleur and I visited Meteor Crater, Arizona; I consider it one of the most dramatic natural features I have ever seen. Most geological phenomena have been produced slowly over millions of years. The idea of this one being produced in an instant is hard to comprehend. These days it is a major tourist attraction and it is not possible to explore the crater; one can only examine it from a viewing platform in company with a large number of other spectators.

We have also visited remote Wolfe Crater in WA, a much older feature on the edge of the true desert, which is gradually disappearing under wind-borne sand. This is not a tourist attraction; it is too far from tourist routes and reached via a track usable only by 4-wheel drive vehicles. We had the crater to ourselves and could wander at will. In a guide book we were amused to find the suggestion that it might be of volcanic origin. The idea that large stones cannot fall from the sky dies hard-at least among non-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.

Continue reading

Deadly Ignorance

Pseudoscientific beliefs can be dangerous when they form the basis of government policy

In my last column, I mentioned that conspiracy thinker Phillip Day travels the world (he again toured New Zealand late last year) with his message that there is no Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids) is not sexually transmitted and that the “highly poisonous Aids medications” are part of a “calculated and inhumane population control agenda which has been sanctioned at the highest political levels.”

So absurd are these claims that readers may doubt whether people such as Day attract much of a following. Why should Skeptics bother to speak up? Sadly, misinformation can be deadly to entire populations when policy makers adopt it. A shocking example is the case of Aids in the Republic of South Africa.

In 1982 the first cases of HIV were diagnosed in South Africa. The government was very slow to respond to the growing crisis. By 1998, when 50% of adult medical admissions to hospital in Gauteng province were Aids related, there was still no national treatment plan, public education about Aids was almost nonexistent, and superstitions were widespread. When health worker Gugu Dlamini made her HIV status public on World Aids day, she was stoned to death by a mob that included her neighbours.

The reason for the government’s slow response became clear: ignorance among the leadership of the ruling African National Congress. The South African president, Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president in 1999, shocked the world health community when he said Aids is caused by poverty, not by HIV. By 2000, 10% of South Africans were HIV positive, but in May of that year he appointed a panel and charged them with solving the country’s Aids problems. One of the panel members chosen by Mbeki was American scientific outcast Peter Duesberg, who says Aids is caused by anti-Aids drugs, such as AZT, but not by HIV! Mbeki ruled out providing AZT to HIV positive pregnant women, claiming the drug did more harm than good. In fact, the drug has been proven effective in drastically cutting the transmission of the deadly virus to the baby in childbirth. Thousands of HIV positive babies continued to be born every month. Duesberg said he doubted South Africa was experiencing an Aids epidemic, and the panel debated whether Aids is spread by sex or not. Mbeki thus wasted precious time and resources. In July 2000, about 5000 doctors and scientists took the extraordinary step of releasing The Durban Declaration as a rebuke to Mbeki. The document said the link between HIV and Aids is “clear-cut, exhaustive and unambiguous.” South Africa’s doctors appealed for an end to the debate which they said was confusing people who should be fighting Aids, which was spreading faster in South Africa than anywhere else on Earth.

Mbeki continued to downplay the threat of Aids. His government continued to ban doctors from providing antiretroviral drugs to HIV infected women, thus ensuring that the disease was passed on to thousands more babies. The cheap or free drugs that pharmaceutical companies had been offering for five years were not accepted.

Indeed, the Ministry of Health at great expense distributed a pamphlet justifying this deadly nonsense. In 2001, Mbeki again refused to link HIV with Aids, even though he agreed “that’s what the scientists say.”

Progress slowly came. President Mbeki found himself increasingly isolated as members of his cabinet and government supporters stated that they accepted the link between HIV and Aids. He also came under fierce international criticism from scientists and medical experts for his ignorance and lack of action.

In November 2003, the government reversed its position on the antiretroviral drugs and planned to quadruple its spending on HIV/Aids. President Mbeki, however, continues to lash out at efforts to provide scientific treatment. Phillip Day praises Mbeki’s bizarre beliefs.

The World Health Organisation says Aids is the biggest cause of death in South Africa, where it affects nearly six million people, more than in any other country. About one million people died in South Africa last year from Aids.

No society in history has had to deal with an epidemic like this. There is no containing an epidemic that has already infected 30% of adults in Durban. By 2010, life spans will probably be reduced in South Africa from about 70 years (in the absence of Aids) to about 36. Millions of deaths from Aids that have occurred in South Africa and millions that will happen were avoidable. When leaders fall for crank ideas, the results can be massively tragic.
Dr Raymond Richards is a Senior Lecturer in History and American Studies at Waikato University. He can be reached at [email protected]

Ring Around the Moon

Neither theory nor observation support claims that lunar cycles can be used to forecast the weather

Ken Ring of Titirangi is New Zealand’s best known proponent of the idea that the Moon is an accurate weather forecasting tool. He publicly scoffs at official forecasters and climate scientists for ignoring the lunar effect, and the news media love him.

In 1999 he self-published a book expounding his theory (Predicting the Weather by the Moon). He willingly addresses community groups. He has his own website, www.predictweather.com, where he sells forecasts and peddles his theories, and he publishes an annual Almanac of daily weather forecasts for the coming year for 57 New Zealand towns. His theory can be summarised as follows: It is well known that the Moon’s gravity causes tides in Earth’s oceans and these can be predicted with great accuracy. There is some evidence of comparable tides in Earth’s atmosphere. Like the ocean tidal bulges, the atmospheric tidal bulges occur at points in the atmosphere roughly in line with the Moon, and like the ocean bulges, they sweep around the Earth daily (really Earth sweeps under them) due to Earth’s axial rotation. These atmospheric tides cause predictable changes in the weather due to the gas laws. Therefore the Moon’s position can be used to predict the weather.

The theory claims that monthly perigee (Moon closest to Earth) and fortnightly syzygy (Moon, Earth and Sun aligned at full and new Moon) cause atmospheric tide maxima sufficient to cause predictable bad weather at these times, in the same way that they cause the well-known weekly spring neap component of the ocean tides.

To anyone with the average hazy understanding of astronomical processes this would sound like very convincing science. But it is not as it seems. On scrutiny Ken Ring’s understanding of gravity and tidal force is poor, as is his understanding of astronomy and atmospheric science. On scrutiny his weather forecasts are no more successful than orthodox ones. It is obvious his book has not even been proofread let alone assessed by experts in astronomy and atmospheric science. It is riddled with typographical errors, careless mistakes, confusing sentences, muddled astronomical explanations and outright contradictions. Like its New Age stablemates it is a misleading mixture of correct and garbled science, folklore, astrology, misrepresentations of other authors, and hints of trickery and bluff. His attempts to match Moon events with weather events are amateurish with no analysis of statistical significance (this would not be possible with his crude data anyway).

According to Ring, “The weather is nothing more than the Moon pulling the atmosphere around.” What is wrong with this theory?

Firstly, the physical forces invoked could not have the supposed effects — they are so weak that they would be completely overridden by other more powerful forces. Secondly, the claimed correlations between weather events and Moon positions are spurious.

As any good weather textbook will detail, the behaviour of the atmosphere, both on large and small scales, is governed by the laws of thermodynamics driven by the Sun’s heat, which is vastly more energetic than gravity. There are also significant influences from Earth itself — its shape, axial rotation, the Coriolis effect, the orientation of its rotation axis to the Sun, its oceans and land masses, its ability to absorb and reflect heat, the composition and structure of its atmosphere, its own gravity (which exerts about 10,000 times more force on the atmosphere than the Moon’s gravity), and an array of chaotic factors associated with these influences, all of which combine to make weather prediction an inexact science at the best of times. The effect of the Moon’s gravity on Earth’s atmosphere, although it exists, comes a very distant and feeble last in the list of forces associated with the weather.

The tides are weak

The feebleness of tidal forces can be seen from the magnitude of the ocean tides. The tidal force from lunar gravity raises Earth’s oceans only about half a metre. (This is the calculated magnitude in mid-ocean due to the Moon only — the Sun adds a small fraction at syzygy. The tides we notice at sea coasts vary worldwide from 0.1m to 18m in bays, estuaries and coastlines due to the “slosh” effect around land masses). A half metre tidal bulge in Earth’s oceans is a minuscule amount in terms of Earth’s diameter (12,000,000 metres) and in terms of the depth of the oceans (about 4000 metres mean depth). A parallel tidal bulge in Earth’s atmosphere would not be detectable due to the mobile and less dense nature of gases. The mass of Earth’s atmosphere is about 300 times less than that of its oceans.

As Newton taught us, gravity is a function of mass and distance. The mutual gravitational force of attraction between two masses is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This relationship dictates extremely weak forces in the case of small masses or great distances. Tidal forces are even weaker because they are a function of the difference between the gravitational force at the centre and that at a distance from the centre of the body being tidally influenced. These forces can be calculated by well-understood formulae and agree with measurements.

It is true, as Ken Ring tells us, that the Moon’s distance from Earth at perigee is significantly closer than at apogee — about one eighth closer. It is also true that the perigee tidal force of the Moon on Earth is about 50 per cent stronger than that at apogee. However, this translates to a tidal bulge in the ocean of 0.45 metres at apogee and 0.67 metres at perigee. This is a minuscule variation in terms of Earth’s size. A comparable variation in atmospheric tide would not be detectable and could not possibly contribute to the weather because it would be overwhelmed by the much more energetic thermodynamic processes.

The detection of atmospheric tides is problematic. Unlike ocean tides they could not be observed easily as a height variation because of the diffuse and mobile nature of gases. The upper boundary of the troposphere (the bottom layer of the atmosphere where the weather happens, and where 85% of its mass is located) cannot be defined more accurately than to the nearest kilometre. Its height is usually given in the range of 12-15 km at the equator and it is several kilometres lower at the poles. Its height varies, due to thermodynamic forces, by an amount far greater than any tidal bulge in the atmosphere due to lunar gravity — likely to be only a few centimetres.

These facts alone make detection of atmospheric tides problematic. The scanty evidence that exists comes indirectly by extrapolation from measurement of factors other than height. They have been identified as the cause of small barometric pressure variations observed as daily cycles above the equator. One study (Hutchings and Gellen, 1988) analysed about 30 years of daily sea-level atmospheric pressure readings from 16 stations on Pacific Islands in the tropical latitudes north of New Zealand. The authors determined the magnitude of the twice daily lunar tide component of sea-level atmospheric pressure at a maximum of about 0.1 hPa. This is much too small to affect the weather — it would be overwhelmed by the typical 20 hPa pressure variations associated with weather systems. There is also evidence that these observed barometric tides are partly caused by forcing of the sea-level atmosphere by the ocean tides.

Ring’s arguments are always directed at making the theory fit the known weather patterns. But any theory that atmospheric tides cause the weather must explain the absence of any regular weather pattern cycling twice daily in step with the tides (two tides a day, as with the oceans, from two tidal bulges on opposite sides of Earth). Ring’s version of the theory relies mostly on the long period tide cycles caused by the orbital motion of bodies, ignoring the twice daily cycles due to Earth’s axial rotation. The orbital period tides, such as the lunar syzygy quadrature spring neap tides and the perigee apogee tides, are only small components of the daily tides and their maxima are located at different latitudes on Earth. Occasionally Ring paradoxically refers to the daily tides with statements like, “If the Moon is in the sky there is less likelihood of rain.”

Supporting Evidence

By way of supporting the existence of atmospheric tides Ring lists in his bibliography a few journal articles on the subject but he doesn’t discuss them. Harry Alcock of the Waikato, the author of an earlier book expounding the theory (The Lunar Effect, 1989), described an experiment he conducted to test for the existence of atmospheric tides. Using a filtered photographic exposure meter aimed at the Sun he recorded the readings on cloudless days. He also recorded the Sun angle and Moon phase for each reading. He seems to have expected high atmospheric tides to allow less solar radiation through the atmosphere. He didn’t give any of the data, but simply declared, “The brightness readings under similar conditions, but different Moon phases, varied by an amount which suggested the atmospheric tide could alter by as much as 25 per cent.”

The naivety of this exercise will be obvious to anyone with a nodding acquaintance with scientific method. But Ken Ring swallowed it whole, recounting the experiment in his book and announcing the 25 per cent atmospheric tide as if it were established fact.

Long term Cycles

Ken Ring claims that weather patterns repeat over long term Moon cycles enabling you to predict the weather many years ahead for a specified location to the day. To support this claim he presents a table of eight serious droughts in Britain between 1853 and 1976 which purports to show that they fall into pairs separated by the length of the Metonic cycle — 19 years — or multiples thereof, give or take a year or two. But the pairs have been selected nonchronologically. When you put the eight drought years into chronological order none of them are separated by 19 years. The separations vary randomly from three years to 46 years. Furthermore, two of the pairs are repeated on the table, feigning seven pairs instead of five. Three of the drought years are used in more than one pairing, and two of the pairs are achieved by selecting conjoining drought years from the same drought (some of the droughts lasted up to two years).

To support his claim that the lunar perigee brings disasters Ring gives a table listing 11 disasters which occurred between 1931 and 1999. Two of them are earthquakes, one is a volcanic lahar, and the rest are weather related. Eight of them occurred in New Zealand and three elsewhere. Part of Ring’s theory is that earthquakes are also triggered by Lunar gravity maxima.

The table employs a cunning device. To increase the hit rate the definition of a hit is made as broad as possible. Five of the disasters are said to have occurred “in the same week” as perigee. The date of the disaster is deemed eligible for coincidence with perigee if it occurred within four of five days. This, of course, is approaching half way to apogee (seven days) when the lunar tidal force is on its way to its minimum. The table also has several errors and significant omissions. Three of the events are tropical cyclones that reached New Zealand, but he doesn’t attempt to determine when they formed, which is the crucial fact needed to validate his theory. On my count there are only five out of the 11 disasters on Ring’s table with convincing perigee coincidences (within a day). You could expect such a result by chance given that lunar perigee happens once a month.

Other Lists

He has more comprehensive lists on his website giving the date of every perigee in the previous year with a list of world disasters that happened around each. He notes that some disasters happen around apogee, but that doesn’t faze him. He simply invents a mechanism to make it fit, waffling on about potential energy being stronger than kinetic energy at apogee because the orbital speed is slower, and appealing to astrological talk about the Moon “giving its energy” to the Earth.

A recent study on earthquakes (J Vidal et al, 1998) analysed 13,000 earthquakes over 25 years from 1969 to 1994 along a section of the San Andreas fault. It found that when lunar tidal forces “favour” earthquakes the rate of quakes is only, at most, 2% higher — a statistically insignificant correlation with no predictive value.

Isobaric Maps

An intriguing feature of the annual Almanac is the isobaric maps drawn for every day for a year ahead. Ring implies that he generates his maps “using algorithms derived from past Moon cycles.” This sounds very impressive, but he doesn’t reveal the algorithms. I’ve compared his maps with Met Service maps over several months and never found more than superficial similarities. Some are glaring mismatches. Occasionally there is a mildly convincing chance hit.

He employs an engaging trick with his maps. He publishes two maps for each day, deliberately drawn very differently (using “lunar orbital calculations” of course), and invites you to select the one that matches the reality best. Now wait a minute. Aren’t these maps supposed to be a prediction? Or is this a matching exercise after the event?

Ring obligingly provides hints in his Almanac for doing your own forecasting. Some are akin to hints for fortune telling — couched in terms so general that virtually all possibilities are covered. Some don’t follow the principles of his own theory. For example, he says, “When perigee or apogee is close to new or full Moon, then a dry weather period can be expected (less than 36 hours between). When perigee or apogee is more than two days apart from the nearest new or full Moon then a wet period may be expected.” This contradicts his main argument that perigee and full and new Moon are the lunar positions strongly linked with rain.

The Bottom Line

Are Ken Ring’s weather predictions accurate? You don’t have to look hard to find evidence that they are not as impressive as he wants the world to think. Curiously, he has deemed it prudent to admit this in the disclaimer he attaches to his work: “The forecasts in this work are the result of best-of-ability endeavour. They represent the opinions of author and associates and no claim of 100% accuracy is made.” This rather dampens his claims about the superior forecasting capabilities of his theory. He also insists that we allow a three to four day latitude when interpreting his predictions. This nicely covers most of the possibilities, given New Zealand’s well known average three day high-low cycle, but negates his claim to be a reliable consultant for choosing a day to make hay or have a wedding.

I have found many cases where his predictions failed. For example, from January to July 2004 he predicted dry weather almost everywhere around the dates of six major rain events including the Manawatu floods in February. In the same period he also predicted widespread rain events which didn’t eventuate in two prolonged dry spells. I also compared his monthly rainfall estimates with actual rainfall and found that in only 18 of 78 cases did his estimate come anywhere near the actual rainfall.

It is hard to escape the impression that Ken Ring achieves his claimed 80 per cent forecasting success by a combination of luck and educated guesses based on known weather patterns. Nothing in his writings constitutes evidence that Moon positions are a useful weather forecasting tool, or that they are related to weather at all.

This article is condensed from two articles first published in the Auckland Astronomical Society Journal, October and November 2004, and published here by permission of the society. The full versions can be read at the society’s website, www.astronomy.org.nz, in the Journal section.
Bill Keir is an amateur astronomer of Hokianga who has published many articles on astronomy.