This is a copy of a presentation given to the New Zealand Skeptics 1995 Conference in Auckland

When Denis Dutton asked me to prepare some comments on this topic he gave me a very wide brief covering, “any aspect that strikes your fancy”.

Since he has left the definition and the territory to me, I will indulge myself, knowing that any remark from here on will be controversial.

Over the same time I had the privilege to witness one of history’s recurrent twists, whereby there is a recapitulation of medical behavioural patterns which can be expressed in Darwinian terms. This has provided some of us with the opportunity to observe the consequences arising directly from the ebb and flow of irrational human behaviour.

In the late 1940s I set out to become an engineer, but I meandered into medicine. I retain some interests in the area of the physical sciences and I think I understand why a 747 flies and usually does not fall to bits on take-off or landing. Such deep insight allows me to perceive the distinction between the functioning of an aircraft engineer and that of a traditional doctor. It is mandatory, as well as reasonable, to test the wings of a proposed new aircraft to the point of destruction in an aeronautical laboratory. In most countries, similar destruction of a human being in a physical or psychological sense is forbidden, or at least not discussed openly in public.

The distinction between the two situations does not stop there. In the former instance, a physical object is being tested by engineers and scientists using a fairly soundly based set of facts, many of which will not change as knowledge evolves. However, errors can occur in both the design and testing of an aircraft wing due to the fallibility in human terms of scientists and engineers. Conversely, in the case of interactions between orthodox doctors and patients or clients, the interactions involve two sets of human behaviour. The nett effect is that at least in terms of ephemeral knowledge, there will be a much greater measure of certainty in the case of the aircraft wing testing than there will be in any health professional-patient interaction.

All that seems very obvious, but I can assure you it is not obvious to many who design and manage health services in various parts of the world, nor is it understood by many orthodox clinicians.

These considerations do, however, lead on to recognition of one perspective through which pseudo-medicine can be defined. In discussing pseudo-medicine we are really addressing a pattern of behaviour which is incongruent with principles common to sound aircraft engineering and sound allopathic medicine. Because a set of physically determined factors imposes a very firm set of disciplines upon the aircraft engineer, he or she operates within definable, and fairly closely defined, sets of constraints.

That is not the situation as far as medicine is concerned. An aircraft wing talks back to its designer by performing efficiently or failing. A patient or client exhibits an enormous range of responses to the propositions of a health professional, who operates within loose constraints, extremely wide boundaries and enormous levels of tolerance. Failure to observe what we may loosely term the laws of nature in relation to aircraft wings induces clearly observable and immediate consequences. Errors of logic and application of scientific knowledge or the indulgence of magic and quackery can persist for centuries in terms of medical practice.

My first point then is that the aircraft engineer is brought face-to-face with the realities of certainty and uncertainty from the outset. Such is not the case for health professional patient interactions.


When confronted by uncertainty, a person who has a sound understanding of rationality and science acknowledges that doubt and ignorance are facts to be accepted and confronted. If we pause to think about that, hopefully a majority of us within medicine will rapidly realise that John Kenneth Gailbraith was correct when he said “when people are least sure, they are often most dogmatic”.

That idea can be extended by the observation that many who are superficially extremely confident suppress their doubts and uncertainties through extremely assertive behaviour and exposition of dogma. Sometimes they are exposed, as happened to Margaret Thatcher when caught on the hop by the BBC, who perceived she really did not know what to do about the political future of Hong Kong after 1997. “…now, when you say that, you don’t have to go into, to say, well now, precisely what is the nature of this link and the nature of the law and so on…”2

The problem with the Thatchers of this world is that during their predominant period of confidence, while they suppress any dangerous urge to admit doubt and uncertainty, they can inflict devastating damage on huge chunks of society and humanity generally. The consequences may be disastrous for many of us and not just for Argentinean sailors.

That arch sceptic, the late Petr Skrabanek, in a signed Lancet editorial entitled “The Epidemiology of Errors”, quoted Lewis Thomas: “A good deal of scientists, many of them in the professional fields of epidemiology and public health, have never learned how to avoid waffling when yes or no are not available, and the only correct answer is, I don’t know”.1 Pseudo-medicine arises when doctors, particularly, are confronted by a problem for which there is no clear-cut answer. Unfortunately in such situations, many doctors while swearing allegiance on the altar of medical science, move into the Thatcher mode. The practice of pseudo-medicine is based on that phenomenon.

Contrary to the viewpoint of a majority of the public and the media, and against the enthusiastic prophesy of many health professionals, areas of uncertainty are going to become more extensive rather than less as we move into the 21st Century. As technology becomes more sophisticated, complex issues concerning its application are going to raise increasing areas of uncertainty. It is not difficult to predict that there will be an increasing tendency for impetuous action to be taken as anxiety levels increase in the face of uncertainty.

Conversely, there may be a decline in recourse to consultation on the basis of “I don’t know, can you help?” Systematisation of doubt, and suppression of uncertainty lead to indulgence in such practices as homeopathy, chelation and a variety of magical and quack practises. I am not going to go into those areas in detail because they have been well traversed at previous annual meetings of this Society. Rather I want to spend the remaining time indicating the pervasiveness of the problem.

If we put aside the really major health disease problems of society based upon deprivation, economic inequality, hopelessness, loneliness and so forth, we are left with the impact upon society of the chronic degenerative diseases of bones, joints, the cardiovascular systems and cancers. These are the happy hunting grounds of pseudomedicine. The operation of total hip replacement has long since passed the equivalent of the testing of the 747 wings, and is now a standard procedure with sufficient experience behind it to make predictability of application to particular people reasonably certain. That does not mean that a host of other factors are not relevant to the decision whether, when and how to operate on a particular patient and to decide who pays to whom how much.

By contrast, the pain relief to be offered to the person on the increasingly lengthening waiting list for a hip operation provides a fertile ground for the exhibition of pseudo-medicine. Physicians like me do not have ideal pain relieving remedies available for prescribing to such patients. Chronic conditions wax and wane in intensity and it is very difficult to match the interplay of useful and dangerous effects of chronic pain management by drugs, against risks of death, disability and a host of economic factors.

The temptation is always there to indulge in the potentially legitimate use of placebo effect, maybe honestly at first with full understanding of what one is doing, and then to slip into the realm of magic. The boundary between rational therapy and pseudomedicine is very fine, and the width of that boundary varies considerably between one realm of therapy and another and between one doctor and another.

My concept of pseudo-medicine, therefore, is that doctors indulge in the practice when they stop saying, “I don’t know”, stop recognising uncertainty, and substitute false, self-deceiving action based on phoney certainty, backed by great enthusiasm and stern dogma. The euphemistic term “art of medicine” is then applied to this particular brand of practice. The words “art” and “medicine” are simultaneously debased.


Commencing early in the nineteenth century, what has been termed scientific and therapeutic nihilism developed initially in France. In the late 19th Century, influential figures from North America and England, including Sir William Osler who typified both environments, threw their weight behind the therapeutic nihilistic movement. This involved a sceptical approach to the practices and remedies of traditional medicine, and called for the application of rational study and controlled observation of the natural history of disease and its modification in various ways. There was considerable opposition to Osler. Rationalism, scepticism and the scientific method itself, are not immune to rigorous querying from a variety of viewpoints. All can be converted into new forms of religion and all are subject to phases in development.

It took about a hundred years for therapeutic nihilism to demolish significant sections of the old pharmacopoeia, continuing use of which was justified and dignified as being part of the art of medicine.

Earlier in the talk I referred to the interaction of two sets of behaviour when doctor meets patient. History is repeating itself at present as the boundaries where medical science and human behaviour meet are becoming a major topic in the more thoughtful pages of the New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, BMJ and so forth. Interestingly, the predominant theme in this new wave of medical literature centres on the problems of uncertainty.

Jonathon Rees in the BMJ puts it this way. “For any activity dependent on new knowledge, as medicine is on science, the future is uncertain simply because new knowledge always changes the rules of the game. But even if we could dream this problem away, our guesses of the future will be in error because we continue to delude ourselves, outside the laboratory at least, that we understand the present…”3 Herein lies another basis for pseudo-medicine. Heath professionals like to feel confident and to project confidence in terms of their relationships with patients. Pseudo-medicine flourishes on the basis of apparent confidence exhibited by the professional. The stage is being set in my opinion for an increase in the practice of pseudo-medicine.


During the 1960s, 70s and 80s there was a wave of revulsion directed against orthodox medicine and particularly to its perceived power. To some extent the evils attributed to the atomic scientists spilled over into public attitudes towards orthodox medicine. What was perceived as unholy power held by the medical profession was seen in terms of a citadel which should be destroyed. We saw the revival of naturalism, herbalism and a return to various magical procedures. One of the major textbooks of so-called holistic medicine claimed restoration of the theory of transmutation of the elements whereby sodium was converted to potassium by plants.

The attack was unconsciously, and by some cynical entrepreneurs consciously, directed at the whole concept of therapeutic nihilism. The wash from this revolution lapped on the thresholds of medical schools initially, and then penetrated the corridors of academic medicine. To the horror of people like me, graduates of our young School of Medicine began openly to practise homeopathy and chelation.

I analyse this situation as being due partly to the failure of us as educators to prepare students to handle the avalanche of evolving knowledge in the fields of biochemistry, molecular and behavioural medicine. We have been overwhelmed and have not known how to handle the situation. Our students have entered a world in which monetarism has gained the ascendancy and they see a desperate need to make a living. Those who choose not to become technocrats, replacing hips and removing cataracts, are the most vulnerable. Many of them have already succumbed. Moreover the ramparts of the citadel have been breached in more significant ways.

Our students face the usual mixture of myth and reality which typifies the real world — we have not prepared them adequately to confront this reality and provided them with teaching to handle the situation calmly and rationally.

There is a current vogue for insisting that doctors must model their approach to patients upon so-called “evidence-based” medical practice.4,5 The general concept implies that resources of the State, in particular, should only be expended in those areas where there is so-called objective proof that expenditure will significantly influence the natural course of a disease process. Impetus has been given to this movement through a failure of classical epidemiological approaches to produce clear-cut answers for handling the problems of middle and old age.

Over the past two to three decades, so-called scientific medicine backed by exhortations of academia has persisted in traversing the pathway so heavily criticised by Skrabanek and others. This trend has to some extent been driven by a need for resource acquisition for some sections of medical epidemiology. Disciplines such as cardiology have been happy to help create and then support a mirage through which scientific medicine is seen as responsible for releasing an accelerating series of miracles which will ultimately bring lifelong happiness to everyone. When confronted by the failure to deliver to the masses, sections of these same disciplines, like clinicians, have resorted to pseudo-science that dangerous ally of pseudo-medicine.

Rather than confronting politicians and the public with a clearly defined list of uncertainties, probabilities and areas of ignorance, as David Naylor from the Institute for Clinical Evaluated Sciences in Ontario has pointed out, they have “continued to produce inflated expectations of outcomes-oriented and evidence-based medicine.”5 Following these pathways, they have resorted, not to metaphysics or alchemy, but rather to meta-analysis and leaps of faith which are presented as scientific truths.

The Real Culprit

As Skrabenek has pointed out, the real culprit in all this is “risk-factor epidemiology”. This brash young infant amongst the medical sciences has continued to feed information and misinformation into the media. To quote Skrabenek again, “by the misuse of language and logic, observed associations are presented as causal links”. He further points out that “risk-factor epidemiology relies on case-control or cohort studies without rigorous standards of design, execution and interpretation, even though such studies are susceptible to at least 56 different biases. … How should one remedy this state of affairs — bigger studies, better measurement of risk factors, more complex statistics? Statistics are no cure for the faulty paradigm of risk-factor epidemiology.”1

It is in these areas that pseudo-science has aided and abetted what I perceive to be a particularly dangerous form of pseudo-medicine. It is in these areas that I perceive the most significant breaching of the ramparts of the citadel of scientifically based medical practice.

How has this come about? I believe it derives from the attributes of human behaviour stressed in the earlier part of this talk. Faced with failure to reach their objectives within a particular time span, many working in cardiovascular, cancer, and degenerative diseases have chosen to cope by denying areas of ignorance and uncertainty. Unfortunately they have gone further and have moved the goal-posts when it suited them. They have extrapolated, simplified and at times gone even further.

An obvious example to quote is the famous Lipid Research Clinics Study referred to in a paper at Palmerston North last year. In this study a somewhat unpleasant drug called cholestyramine was used to treat North American men held to be at particular risk from coronary artery disease due to elevated blood cholesterol levels. Extrapolation from that study was quite extraordinary and media manipulation of enormous magnitude was employed to preach a message intended for the masses when the facts were that such extrapolation was invalid for women and for the great bulk of the population.

You will all probably believe, correctly, that strict standards should apply to evaluation of both old and new therapies. It is a truism that anything short of randomised double-blind trials is regarded by proponents of evidence-based medicine as providing an unreliable base upon which to proceed. The problem is that these worthy objectives are being distorted and the public is not being given a transparent account of the problems.

Hormone Replacement

A classical example at the present time would be the largely male-determined dogma that hormone replacement therapy for post-menopausal women cannot be justified in terms of evidence-based medicine. The pseudo-medical pronouncements in this instance have a very complex background which is not usually presented. HRT in terms of scientific literature has concentrated almost wholly upon the fact that women after the change-in-life tend to catch up on men in terms of manifestations of atherosclerosis. There have been no published results from major double-blind prospective clinical trials of oestrogens alone or oestrogens combined with progesterones testing whether or not this therapy retards the appearance of myocardial infarction (coronary attacks) in post-menopausal women.

Prospective trials have shown that oestrogens make women more comfortable in terms of their nether regions, their skin texture and preservation of femininity itself. There is some soft evidence that osteoporosis may be retarded amongst woman taking HRT. Thus the pseudo-medicine proponents of evidence-based medicine who concentrate solely upon one aspect of hormone replacement, that of the cardiovascular effects, are not indulging in true science.

As Naylor has put it, we live in the era of chronic and expensive diseases. “Until the ongoing revolution in molecular biology pays more concrete dividends, we shall be muddling along with what Lewis Thomas characterised as half-way technologies. However medical muddling is a profitable business…”5 It is profitable for research groups, for industry and particularly for the exponents of pseudo-science and pseudo-medicine.

False Prophet

However it is more complicated than that. The general assumption by the practitioners of pseudo-medicine is that more, and what they term better, data will dispel uncertainty in medical decision making. Those who say these things seem unable to learn even from recent history. Those who put their faith in meta-analysis are following a false prophet. Take the case of magnesium in treatment of myocardial infarction. A meta-analysis published in 1993 is entitled “Intravenous magnesium in acute myocardial infarction. An effective, safe, simple and inexpensive intervention”.6 Two years later, results of another mega trial showed that magnesium was, if not totally ineffective, only minimally so in treatment of myocardial infarction.7 Resorting to big numbers will not necessarily solve problems from which the pseudo-medicine proponents are seeking to escape nor will it satisfy the absolutist neo-nihilists.

The current vogue for meta-analysis has arisen from a problem clearly recognised by both impeccable medical scientists and proponents of pseudo-medicine. This is the sheer cost of answering key questions based upon hypotheses propounded in relation to chronic diseases. Because genetic endowment heavily influences the differences between us, manipulation of the environment, including our internal environment, through drugs or diets will usually produce gains at the margin, which are usually minimal.

Blunderbuss therapy requires treating of the masses, many of whom will not benefit, while others are harmed by the proposals. The passion for evidence based medical practice, given our current range of technologies, must make recourse to fairly desperate measures. Thus meta-analysis has become big business. Like is not being lumped with like. Little lumps and big lumps of data are being gathered together by various groups beavering away upon the basis for their own particular perspectives, all seeking to justify their particular beliefs which are promulgated as gospel to an eagerly awaiting public. Unfortunately, some of the larger lumps so aggregated are themselves curate’s eggs.

A classic example is the so-called MRFIT data. The Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial (MRFIT)8 was a massive study mounted in North America, involving screening of either 361,662 or 361,629 men. Data from the MRFIT screenees has contributed very significantly to a number of the meta-analyses.

Werkö from the Swedish Council on Technology Assessment in Health Care has shown clearly that this massive body of data is significantly and seriously flawed.9 There is inconsistency between reports published in different journals simultaneously. The quality control of the basic data is uneven and people using the material seriously have not even bothered to check the relatively simple points investigated by Werkö. Not to do so is a form of scientific laziness, a form of pseudo-science. If these writers have done so and failed to spot the obvious flaws, then their baseline checks have been sloppy. If they have done so, and uncovered the same points as Werkö and chosen to ignore the evidence in front of them, they are true practitioners of pseudo-science and pseudo-medicine.

Meta-analysis has come in for hefty criticism and deservedly so. While its proponents acknowledge that it is a surrogate for the massively expensive prospective studies which are really required, they frequently go way beyond the capacity of the method in terms of the public pronouncements they make. In particular this applies to translation of conclusions relevant to people at special risk, to the advice given to the masses who may not share the same risks or who portray them in only a minor degree. Meta-analysis is now an art form whose scientific significance must be challenged at each stage and with each pronouncement.

Political Involvement

The situation is more sinister than that because politicians through their minions have cottoned on to the value of some of these manipulable analytical techniques. Thus, information gathered in relation to the National Health Service of the United Kingdom is being used to support claims of success of recent government policies. The same types of problem identified by Werkö arise when politicians make use of this type of data. Once politicians and media get into the business of using flawed information, or of distorting sound information for particular purposes, very unhealthy alliances will result.10,11

Our critics are correct in stating that medicine has built a very powerful base within society. Pronouncements by any segment of medicine or its associates are likely to be taken seriously, even in the face of the current wave of mounting scepticism. Epidemiologists and their allies in cardiology have established a major section of the health-disease industry. There are consequences. For instance, an increasing epidemic of osteoporosis in some western countries may well be based upon reduced calcium intake, particularly by women. Dairy products have been the main contributor of calcium in those countries. In contrast to big sections of epidemiology and cardiology, the dairy industry has employed competent nutritionists and made some attempt to keep pace with evolving knowledge of human nutrition. It deserves credit for the burgeoning range of modified milk products, all of which contain calcium. But the damage has been done from within the medical power base. As David Naylor has put it, these difficulties have arisen from the Malthusian growth of uncertainty when multiple technologies combine into clinical strategies and at the public advice level.5

Thoughtful critics of societal development have been drawing attention to these problems. Many advocate a solution through the information revolution, but in terms of the present topic they have failed to perceive that medical information is fragile, patchy and usually imperfect. Like the Lancet editor, I do not believe the consumer watchdog type of approach, with its challenge to the medical powerbase, is going to change the situation at any great speed.11

One healthy fallacy states that the medical powerbase rests solely on possession of scientific information and a monopoly thereof. As I have tried to demonstrate that base is neither secure nor constant. In the health-disease management industry, power does not reside in possession of scientific information. The current success of the inheritors of the old magic, that is the quack acupuncturists, the chelation therapists, many herbalists, naturopaths and so forth, does not reside in a possession of a body of scientific information or a monopoly of its use. This has always been so. Medical power rests as much on uncertainty as it does on technical expertise or possession of a particular body of ephemeral knowledge which will be disproved tomorrow. How can that be so?

The Lancet states it thus, “uncertainty in the face of disease and death fosters a compelling need for patients to trust someone — and a reciprocal authority among doctors. A leap of faith will always be needed. Information does not, and cannot provide all the answers.”11 We thus have a paradox to confront.

Pragmatic Doctors

To return to the aeronautical engineer. Doctors must indeed make decisions, give advice and offer assistance based on limited interpretation of limited evidence. For the foreseeable future doctors must make decisions which will not be derived from carefully controlled prospective randomised clinical trials. They must nevertheless try to make valid decisions. They cannot indulge in the luxury of being inactive in the face of an absence of evidence. That privileged position belongs to the lawyers, the philosophers and the ethicists. In the end doctors have to be pragmatists. Clinical decisions must be made through a plurality of means, each of which must however, undergo “profound interpretative scrutiny”.4

The doctor’s role is more difficult than that of the aircraft wing designer. They must discipline themselves continually to apply medical knowledge in conjunction with their experience and that of their colleagues. “The unifying science of medicine is an inclusive science of interpretation.”4 The black and white situation of 747 wing testing does not occur in medicine. “Medicine is a series of grey zones in which the evidence concerning risk-benefit ratios of competing clinical options is incomplete or contradictory.”5 The grey zones have varying boundaries which change rapidly.

We academics have great difficulty enabling undergraduates and emerging graduates to cope with these phenomena. It is not surprising that many move into pseudo-medicine. It is not surprising that the teaching of orthopaedics is always much more popular with undergraduates than that of clinical medicine. Once again to quote Naylor, “clinical medicine seems to consist of a few things we know, a few things we think we know (but probably don’t) and lots of things we don’t know at all”.5

We academics have to cope with the fact that when evidence alone cannot guide clinical actions, some undergraduates will take up a minimalistic approach whereas others will favour intervention based upon varying balances of inference and experiences and others will turn to pseudo-medicine. Our job as academics is to make emerging clinicians comfortable with a system whereby they can make decisions under conditions of uncertainty.

Over the next decade at least, I believe medical academics will have to confront a somewhat irrational passion for evidence-based medicine and meta-analysis, and we must teach that there are limits to medical evidence and its application. The craft of caring for patients is a legitimate, scientifically appropriate adjunct to medicine. That role is necessary for the comfort and sanity of human society. Osler said, “good clinical medicine will always blend the art of uncertainty with the science of probability.” We need to understand, then to explain what we mean by the term probability.

I shall end with another example. The practice of pseudo-medicine can inflict much discomfort. For instance, young doctors and nurses have considerable difficulty in agreeing to decisions that this patient or that should not be subjected to the indignity of resuscitation procedures, but rather be left to die in peace.

There is a significant and coherent literature indicating that a majority of resuscitation procedures as undertaken in the 1970s and 80s were futile from the outset. The continued pseudo-medical practice in this regard has led to a situation where relatives expect resuscitation procedures to be undertaken. Their concept of power sharing puts heavy pressure on younger doctors to overturn non-resuscitation orders. If the younger doctors submit, an undignified charade ensues. In turn, that situation has created an environment in which aspects of the so-called passive euthanasia debate have become more tangled than was necessary.

I will not dwell further on that point. Rather, I wish to end by emphasising that facing up to uncertainty and accepting areas of ignorance honestly, does not constitute an admission of laziness or incompetence. That, however, is the perspective which sections of the legal profession and society generally are promoting at the present time. If we submit to such pressures and false perspectives we shall end up as we did in relation to the false-confession mistaken-conviction situation, which was discussed at our conference last year.

All professional groups are vulnerable to external influences playing on our own emotional state and anxiety level. Pseudo-medicine thrives in this environment. If we take the subject of evidence in a legal sense we can remind ourselves that a series of techniques have been advised to law authorities over the past century and a number are still in use in the United States, including the polygraph. All have proved to be potentially unreliable, subject to manipulation and all can produce false-positive and false-negative results. If anything their use increases the risk of false confessions.

Those members of the medical and psychology professions whose weakness and pseudo-science has contributed to the situation have much to answer for. Faced with such examples we should have a better understanding of the pervasiveness of the problems of pseudo-medicine and pseudo-science.12 Society needs the NZCSICOP.

Green Peppers

I shall end with the parable of the green peppers. One could term it a parody. The original publication is in the Journal of Irreproducible Results somewhere round about 1955, I think, but I have lost the reference. Some bright workers in Chicago noted that everyone who had eaten green peppers in their youth but had reached the age of 89, had grey hair or white, rotten joints, few teeth, failing eyesight and poor hearing. The main reference in the bibliography was to a guy called Shakespeare somewhere in the early 17th Century. The green pepper eating cohort who had reached the age of 105 were considerably worse off. No-one who had eaten green peppers was alive by the age of 130.

The green pepper industry obviously faltered at that point. However, a subsequent paper which I believe was written but rejected by the same worthy journal, described a restudy of the situation. This showed that people who had eaten green peppers when surveyed at the age of 20 had normal hearing, all their teeth, no lens opacities and sound joints.

In comparison with the older cohorts studied in the first publication, those who had eaten green peppers ten to twenty years earlier showed a mortality rate of 0.05%. Amongst the 90 year old group in the earlier paper, the mortality experienced by that cohort was noted to be 95.2%. Of high significance statistically was the observation that amongst people in that population over the age of 100, only 1% consumed green peppers in the last twenty years. The conclusion was obvious that those who stopped eating green peppers after an interval of twenty years suffered greying and falling of hair, diminished eyesight, reduced hearing, loss of teeth, a very high mortality rate and rotten joints.

Evidence is one thing, quality of evidence another. Intelligent interpretation and carefully planned application of evidence belong to different dimensions. Quality of action based on evidence depends upon the quality of the evidence, its completeness or otherwise, and the quality of the interpretation plus recognition of what is not known and what is not likely to be known over the next years or decades. Life was not meant to be easy.

The practice of medicine combines the twin problems and pleasures inherent in basing action upon adequate evidence on the one hand and inadequate evidence on the other. Practice of the art of medicine is a legitimate activity dependent for its integrity upon the understanding of the dilemmas posed by this dual basis for action and understanding of the nature of science, including the ephemeral nature of scientific knowledge. Pseudo-medicine is practised by those who lack the resolve and energy to face this intellectual challenge.


1) Skrabanek P. Lancet 1993; Vol 342: 1502

2) Margaret Thatcher, PM. BBC World Service interview, 1 Nov 1983

3) Rees J. BMJ; Vol 310: 850-853

4) Horton R. Lancet 1995; Vol 346: 3

5) Naylor ED. Lancet 1995; Vol 345: 840-842

6) Yusuf S et al. Circulation 1993; Vol 87: 2043-2046

7) ISSIS-4 etc. Lancet 1995; Vol 345: 669-685

8) MRFIT. JAMA 1982; Vol 248: 1465-1477

9) Werk[oumlaut] L. J. Int. Med 1995; Vol 237: 507-518

10) Wright M. GP Weekly 1995; 2 August: 12-13

11) Lancet 1995; Vol 345: 1449-1450

12) Lancet 1994; Vol 344: 1447-1450

The Boundaries of Skepticism

The Skeptics began in simpler times. Some of us recall when the burning issues of Skeptical enquiry were whether Uri Geller bent spoons, whether Russians were using telepaths to communicate with submarines and whether Lyall Watson had stumbled on a Philosopher’s Stone called Supernature. He certainly seemed to be turning something into gold.

In those days we were often criticised for being a bunch of kill-joys who seemed to want to lock granny up for reading the tea leaves. “What’s the harm?” they used to say. Our critics failed to understand that we weren’t too fussed about Granny reading the tea-leaves or Granddad’s secret number system for betting on the horses. We were much more concerned about the readiness to waive normal standards of evidence and rational thought when remarkable claims were being made.

Otherwise-rigorous interviewers such as Brian Edwards and Gordon Dryden would seem to close down their inquiring minds as soon as their latest psychic guest walked into the broadcasting studio. And soon even Brian began to realise that some of these people were rogues and charlatans determined to relieve people of their money — even if it meant taking advantage of people in acute distress. Mr Edwards finally mounted one of the great debunkings of all times when with Don Zealando he unmasked the secrets of the Filipino psychic surgeons and hence closed down a major money-spinner for Air New Zealand.

But generally people thought it was the spoon bending and such fancies that offended us — whereas for the genuine Skeptic is was always the lack of evidence, the corruption of evidence or straight out false claims and fraud. We were trying to counter pseudo-science.

And it was not long before this meant that the Skeptics were taking a stand against pseudoscience in medicine. And then we began to take on pseudoscience in mental health, especially as we saw counsellors and therapists proliferate and break up families and send people to gaol using therapies based on nonsense theories.

Finally many of began to realise that we were standing up to a widespread onslaught on the whole notion that rationality and the scientific method had any particular validity at all. New Zealanders were being told we should respect all beliefs and values because we should pass no judgement.

And as we began to take on these larger issues others who had stood in the wings came to join us. On the other hand, many decided they liked us even less.

The Uri Gellers were an easy target. We now find that advocacy movements claim such a high moral ground that they believe that faking the evidence or redefining the language is legitimate if it promotes their worthy cause. Once again the ends are claimed to justify the means. The age of “urban myths” is now upon us. The environmental movement, the neo-Luddite movement, the alternative medicine movement, and a host of special interest lobbies now clamber to secure their particular group rights, rather than their rights as individuals. They have all have been prepared to “fudge the figures” in order to help their particular cause. Most recently we have seen Greenpeace forced into apologising to Shell over the Brent Spar debacle.

So this year there was something inevitable about the decision to award the Bent Spoon to the Justice Department for its report Hitting Home. This award has not been without controversy. This too was inevitable, not only because of the emotions which surround the topic of domestic violence, but also because for many it took us as far away from our origins as we may ever want to go.

We have decided to make Education the theme for next year’s conference. Whether we come to regret this or not will depend on how successful we are in confining the debate to the assault on science and rationality rather than providing a forum for every parent concerned over why Johnny can or cannot read. But what is the limit to the Skeptical agenda? Do we have anything to say about housing policy? Only if someone has cooked the statistical books. (Remember New York’s 300,000 homeless — a “wild stab” invented during a radio show.) Do we have anything to say about sport? Only if someone says that more women are murdered during the Rugby World Cup than during any other time of year. Do we have anything to say about economics? Only if someone claims that the ghost of Maynard Keynes has been communicating directly with Winston Peters. And only if — almost everything else in economics lies in religious territory as opposed to superstition.

Certainly we should not push out the boundaries for its own sake; we have plenty to occupy us in more comfortable territory. But nor should we — or indeed could we — return to the days when the most pressing issue was whether your pilot was humming happily to the harmonics of 351.

Our members expect us to be in tune with the times. And as these are more disputatious times we will probably never again be able to assume the comfortable unanimity of the past. But no Skeptic has ever shied away from robust debate. We have demonstrated in conferences and AGMs that because we are philosophically attached to reason and the traditions of the Enlightenment we can enjoy differences of opinion without resorting to personal vilification and — dare I say it — abuse.

Good News From Germany!

Sorry — not a 50% price reduction on BMWs, not even gratis cases of Bernkastler Beerenauslese. But:

For only the price of a stamp, learn of two life-prolonging offers from Herr Wolfgang Dog of Bavaria.

  1. By the latest technique of laser surgery, applied to the palms of your hands, have those vital life-lines extended;
  2. Inform Herr Dog of the date, time and place of manufacture of your car, and he will send you an “Autohoroscope”, indicating the best and worst days for going on journeys or having the car serviced.

Herr Dog describes himself as a certificated Diplomate in Inspiration Moderating and as a Magical Energiser; he is attached to the Institute for Holistic Transformation Metaphysics in Hersbruck. Operating from the same address is G. Hund, seller of games and books on magic. Before rushing to take advantage of the above-mentioned advances in pseudoscience, readers should note that Wolfgang Hund (=Dog) is a member of GWUP, the German Skeptics Organisation.

With acknowledgement to Skeptiker, 1/95

A Reflection on Changing Times

The following extract from William Doyle’s Oxford History of the French Revolution (pp 64-65) reminds us that things change but things remain the same.

The final sentence reminds us that widespread restlessness, pseudo-science and general foolishness may have tragic consequences:

America appealed, in fact, to what Jean-Joseph Mounier, one of the leading [French] revolutionaries of 1789 would later remember as “as general restlessness and desire for change”. It manifested itself in the vogue for wonders of all sorts, whether Franklin”s lightning rod, or the first manned flights in the hot-air balloons seen rising over so many cities in 1783 and 1784, or a craze for mesmerism and miraculous cures effected by tapping the supposedly hidden natural forces of “animal magnetism”. Established religion might be losing its mystic appeal, but science was bringing other miracles to light.

Belief in plots and conspiracies was yet another sign of the credulity of the times. The same cast of mind also tended to seek simple, universal formulae to resolve any problem, no matter how complex. Its limitations would be tragically exposed in the storm that was about to break.

The Challenge to Reason

Tertiary institutes around the country are beginning to offer courses, and even entire degrees, in subjects that are pure pseudoscience.

The Aoraki Polytechnic has applied to the New Zealand Qualifications Authority seeking approval for its proposed Bachelor’s Degree in Naturopathy. If approved it will be the first degree programme of its kind in this country.

With generous assistance from all of us, the Northland Polytechnic is offering a course in Astrology. (Only $25.40 on study-right, but the full $50.70 non-study-right). Evidently the tutor was a scientist until his teacher “who was recognised as an incarnate lama or tunku by the Tibetans” instructed him in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. After several months’ psychotherapy in Morocco he went to India where he was empowered by the Sakyapa Lama. Evidently this powered him to Kerikeri where he now lives in a bus.

In the meantime, the Auckland Institute of Technology Press has been pouring out a stream of pseudoscientific books dealing with subjects ranging from faces on Mars to conspiracies to repress benevolent inventions and most recently The Poisoning of New Zealand.

This last book promotes the homeopathic line that increased dilution increases potency. (Sadly it doesn’t work with alcohol.) This leads to the remarkable conclusion that while concentrations of pesticides in our food and water may be well below those found toxic in laboratory experiments, extreme dilutions, of say one part per billion, are much more dangerous than concentrations of one part per hundred thousand.

In sum we have tertiary educational institutions subsidised by taxpayers offering courses and publishing books which are based on pseudoscience and superstition.

Does this matter?

It depends on your point of view. The Minister of Education has suggested that if there is a demand for these subjects then maybe the institutions have a duty to offer them –although he sounded as though he did not want to be seen as putting himself in the way of an employment opportunity. And we have to admit that naturopathy signboards (untreated timber only) are springing up like daffodils around our suburbs.

Science and Democracy

I happen to believe, along with Karl Popper and his many disciples, that there is a connection between the proper functioning of democracy and the rational or scientific approach to solving problems and learning about the world.

Since the days of the Enlightenment we have tended to the view that rational thought is the best basis for political action. Democratic government knows that there is no Utopian model of the static perfect society, just as science knows that no theory is ever finally proven to be true. The scientific method progresses towards truth without ever reaching it, while the democratic process “muddles through” to a better world by a process of continual experiment, debate and reform.

It is no coincidence that those who attack democracy look to pseudoscience to support their cases. The Socialists looked to the pseudoscience of Marxism, the laissez-faire anarchists of the nineteenth century looked to social (pseudo) Darwinism, while the Nazis blended social Darwinism and eugenics (pseudo-genetics) to boost their nationalistic dreams of a master race.

These days the centralists find support in the pseudoscience of the apocalyptic environmentalists, whose message is that democracy is unable to meet the challenge of the forces which “threaten the planet”. They make these claims even though the centrally planned states of the Eastern block appear to have committed ecocide. The miracle is that they could pollute so much while producing so little.

University Unreason

Yet contemporary Western society now seems hell-bent on destroying its faith in reason. The deconstructionists and post-structuralists in our universities now argue that there is no knowable truth, that science is no different to any other body of knowledge or superstition, and that students should not be taught a body of knowledge but should be encouraged to construct their personal models of the world. American universities, cringing under a wave of political correctness and an extreme form of “multi-culturalism”, are abandoning programmes which present the history of Western Civilisation as anything other than the history of the rape and plunder of minorities and other victims by a conspiracy of middle-class white males.

Given this widespread attack on science and rationality, it comes as no surprise to find that our tertiary institutions appear to be ready and willing to mount degree courses in naturopathy, including homeopathy and iridology.

The test of a scientific theory is that it can be refuted by an experiment or trial. Homeopathy has been subject to numerous trials and has yet to demonstrate any benefit other than those attributable to the placebo effect. This is not surprising, given that homeopathic medicine is water in which a potent substance has been diluted to levels where there is virtually no chance that an original molecule of the potent substance survives.

These are truly “dilutions of grandeur”. Frequently this “diluted water” is absorbed into a sugar crystal for packaging and will have typically evaporated by the time the patient gets round to taking it. The argument that homeopathic medicine can do no harm is almost certainly sound –what harm can be done by a dose of evaporated diluted water?

Against all this evidence the belief in homeopathy survives.

This raises the question of how a tertiary institution can possibly teach such subjects within a genuine environment of learning and research. Universities and polytechnics are supposed to encourage free and informed debate. If students of homeopathy come to an examination armed with all the published refutations of the practice, would they be able to pass the course? Probably not. Homeopathy is a belief system like astrology or witchcraft. You either believe it or you don’t, and any refutational evidence is dismissed as somewhat irrelevant. The standard argument is that sceptical observers cause bad vibrations which interfere with the efficacy of the treatment.

Can we really tolerate a course within a tertiary institution which argues that healthy scepticism interferes with proper analysis?

Wheat Amongst the Chaff

The proper place to present the field of natural medicine, or its more legitimate cousin, the whole body approach to medicine, is within the school of medicine itself. At least it will be subject to debate, and the wheat can be sorted from the chaff. And there is real wheat in there. Modern medicine has gone too far in the pursuit of the science of medicine as opposed to the art of healing. The placebo effect is powerful and we need to learn how to harness its potential to achieve maximum benefit. But we will make no progress while such investigations are accompanied by nonsense such as iridology or EVA, and where belief cannot be subject to critical experiment and refutation.

Where does the AIT Press fit into this? There are a host of publishers making money out of publishing the latest hocus pocus on the works of Nostradamus or whatever else is providing the latest means of extracting dollars from the gullible. Many readers are trying consciously to make sense of the widely differing views of the world presented by the Uri Gellers on one hand and the Stephen Hawkings on the other. If they wander into a library or bookshop and find a book on repressed inventions, or the international conspiracy to poison us all with pesticides, such readers are likely to assume that books published by the Auckland Institute of Technology (which could be expected to share the aspirations of MIT — otherwise why did the ATI change their name to AIT?) will have been subject to a higher standard of editorial criticism and intellectual rigour than the latest piece of flim flam from the “Centre for Zodiacal Peace Freedom and Inner Radiance”.

Well, I am sorry, they would be wrong. It looks as though the AIT has decided if there is a buck in it, they publish. And no doubt their response to this criticism will be to blame the government for not giving them enough money to start with. Is this an excuse to abandon principles?

Surely this is simply bad business practice on the part of the AIT. The AIT teaches courses in business, which presumably advise students that the most important asset of a modern organisation is its intellectual property. I would have thought that a critical part of the intellectual property of any tertiary institution would be its reputation for intellectual rigour and honesty. This reputation must surely be debased by a publishing house which is fast becoming a bad joke among the critical and informed readers of this country. I certainly would not recommend attendance at AIT to anyone I know if these publications represent the polytechnic’s attitude to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.

So the Qualifications Authority should stand firm and give accreditation only to those courses in medicine, science and technology which admit to critical analysis and are prepared to expose themselves to the normal standards of the scientific process — which means that if a belief is disproved then it must be abandoned.

Do Believers Really Believe?

One of the problems with naturopathy and similar belief systems is that even people who don’t believe in them believe in them. This may sound like nonsense. But if you are one of the many readers who are upset by these arguments and have some belief in naturopathy in any of its manifestations, ask yourself this question:

You have just had a terrible car accident. You are lying in the road and feel your life ebbing away and you suspect that other members of your family are in a similar state. A crowd has gathered around, but no-one is equipped to deal with the carnage. Then you hear dimly that wonderful sound, “Step back, make way! Step back, make way!” At last, you think, help is at hand. And then the final chant is “Step back, make way, here I am — and I’m a qualified naturopath”.

What do you believe in now?

We have to recognize the inability of modern medicine to meet the unrealistic expectations it created in the fifties and sixties. These have created a market driven by those who believe that their chronic ailments must be able to be cured by some magic medicine and will keep on searching until they find it. During the process the body often cures itself — and so success is frequently found and the last treatment is declared effective.

This process has opened the door for the irrational to enter our institutions of higher learning and to further close the door on freedom of speech and expression. You may not think this is a bad thing — especially if it provides a few more people with work and earns some money for the education system.

But how would the Minister of Education respond to a proposal to set up the Divine School of Engineering, or the Natural Light School of Veterinary Science, or the Tantric School of Economics? How will you feel when the building inspector uses an EAV meter to decide whether your building is earthquake proof or an acupuncturist is called in to test your herd for bovine TB or a Tantric Guru is appointed Governor of the Reserve Bank?

How come we would be prepared to let these people play games with our health, but not with our buildings, our cattle or our economy?

We Used to Call it Bedlam

Karekare beach is surrounded by high cliffs which shield my house from television transmissions so that I gain most of my media information from radio and print.

Hence it was some time before I saw Satanic Memories, the so-called documentary which won for TV3 the Skeptics’ Bent Spoon Award. I found this programme so difficult to watch that it took me two sittings — the combination of fury and embarrassment was just too much to bear.

The programme clearly deserved the Skeptics’ major award. It exemplified all those aspects of the pseudoscience of the “New Age” which we Skeptics find so disturbing, distasteful and eventually downright dangerous.

We saw the expert hypnotherapist plant in his subjects’ mind the responses which would confirm their satanic memories. For example, he hints that the young man’s feet appear to be giving pain and, sure enough, he dutifully remembers being slung over a waterfall by the ankles. If a hypnotist implies the presence of the devil himself the subject will see him.

The other gross oversight was the failure of the documentary team to look for any evidence in support of the extraordinary claims being made. We followed this family as they re-visited small towns in which they claimed that killing and eating babies, and throwing young people over waterfalls, was as routine as Friday night fish and chips. Surely there must have been records of these deaths and disappearances. Even the general public would surely have noticed something was amiss given that the inhabitants of small country towns don’t miss much. But our intrepid television team never bothered to call into the local police station or newspaper office to check to see if there were any records referring to these remarkable memories of things past.

We also had first-hand evidence of the total lack of professional ethics among so many members of this new cabal. I cannot imagine any registered medical practitioner allowing the televised treatment of a genuine patient — even if the patient had given consent. And surely any registered psychiatrist would have to take the position that such consent could hardly be regarded as “informed”. But in this documentary we saw a disturbed patient endure quite severe mental trauma during her “therapy”, while her therapist seemed quite pleased by the opportunity for self-promotion.

What was surely the most sickening was the use of two disturbed people as characters in an “entertainment” designed to be broadcast into thousands of New Zealand homes. The mother had a long-standing record of mental illness and treatment. At least one of her sons seemed to be following the same path. Many viewers must have found this parading of their travails as a vehicle for home entertainment both embarrassing and distasteful. Many households would have found it great for a laugh and would have screeched with delight or with terror at the “exorcism” scenes in the hypnotist’s office.

When I was at school our teachers used to point out that we were much more civilised in our treatment and understanding of the mentally ill than our nineteenth-century forebears. We were shocked to learn that civilized people used to visit the insane asylums of the time as a source of entertainment. No trip to London was complete without a visit to Bedlam.

Well, I suppose we have made some advances. In those days the ladies and gentlemen of England had to take the coach to enjoy their Saturday afternoon’s entertainment at the human zoo. Thanks to modern science and to those who look after our interests in New Zealand On Air, we in New Zealand can now take our entertainment without having to leaving the sofas of our living rooms. Isn’t that wonderful?

Wellingtonians Roll Up

Cynthia Shakespeare, Tony Vignaux and I are proud to report that we held a remarkably successful winter lecture series in June. We had organised speakers for local Skeptics before, with attendances of 30 or so, but this time we decided to group three speakers a week or so apart at the same venue, and advertised them jointly. We did a broader-than-usual mailout of a nice professional-looking flyer that included a map. Door charges were $2 to cover room hire and refreshments, but even at that low price we made a modest profit.

The first speaker was me, on “The Case Against Maori Science”, an expanded version of the short paper presented at the 1993 Christchurch conference (see the last Skeptic for another version of it). The lecture theatre was packed out, with many standing at the back. A block from the Maori Studies department glowered all the way through, and at the end the lawyer Moana Jackson got up and gave a 15-minute prepared speech, essentially calling me, “with the greatest respect”, a ignorant racist colonialist. Questions were animated and sometimes angry, and discussion could have easily continued for an hour. Thanks to some publicity in City Voice and in the university magazine, over 100 attended.

A fortnight later, Kim Sterelny from the Philosophy Department talked about creationism and the difference between science and pseudoscience, to an audience of 52. Quite demanding, but so well presented we could all follow it. Kim concluded that there is in fact no simple distinction between science and non-science, despite what Popper says. That doesn’t mean there’s no distinction at all, but possibly it’s more profitable to talk about good and bad science instead. Creationism can then be shown to be absolutely rotten science. Kim used as his example the Victorian scientist Philip Gosse, who hypothesised that God was obliged to create the appearance of past history (e.g. fossils) just as he created Adam and Eve with navels. Questions were restrained, and the few creationists in the audience were polite.

A similar number attended the final talk, historian Peter Münz on “Subjective and Objective Historical Knowledge”. Peter pointed out that history is often constructed to prop up preconceived religious or political ideas, such as the belief by the 17th-century revolutionary English Puritans that wicked Catholicism was imported in the Norman invasion. He pointed out that while we might never be able to get a fully objective account of history, we should always strive to avoid subjectivity and be prepared to hold our beliefs up to rigorous testing. Peter also got some newspaper publicity before the talk, and we had to organise a larger lecture hall to cater for the unexpectedly large numbers that attended.

All in all, a most successful series of talks. I would encourage Skeptics in other cities to recruit speakers for their own lecture series, and not be afraid to make a noise to the media. The Wellington Skeptics are planning another series soon, with a stronger theme, perhaps satanic abuse and recovered memories. No doubt this will be even more popular.

Mike Dickison, Wellington

PS: Before we get too smug: two creationists came through town a week later. Charging $6 a head, they filled a hall with 700 people (not a typo) for three nights in a row. So there’s a little way to go yet.

Bread, circuses, and garbage

Did you catch TV3’s Inside New Zealand documentary programme a few weeks ago on “Satanic Ritual Abuse”? If so, you won’t have forgotten it, try as you might to “repress” the memory. It was one of the most sublimely awful hours of television ever to be broadcast in Godzone — silly, irresponsible and sleazy. A middle-aged woman led a camera crew around the North Island to the sites where as a child she claims to have been been sexually abused in the late 1940s and 1950s by her mum and dad, the parish priest, town dignitaries, and no doubt the local dog catcher and all the dogs.

Therapists testfied that her stories ought to be taken seriously, despite the fact that she only “remembered” them a couple of years ago. The police have not been so gullible, but that didn’t stop TV3 from presenting the whole sorry fantasy, defaming the dead (and the lady’s mum, who is in a resthome with Alzheimer’s) with stories of sadistic sexual rituals, where babies were killed, blood drunk, and a good time had by all.

Two years ago I would have sworn that television in this country had scraped bottom, but when considering commercial television, there is more garbage in heaven and the broadcast day than is dreamt of in your philosophy.

TVNZ squanders two hours of prime time on a pseudodocumentary, apparently on Egyptology, in which Charlton Heston seems to start reasonably enough but which ends with Sphinx-building aliens and the “Face on Mars,” and has regular offerings on the paranormal, proving what every New Ager has always wanted to believe about quack medicine, clairvoyancy, and ESP. The “news” goes infotainment wherever possible and any possible decent programming is cleverly scheduled at a time sufficiently inconvenient — say, 7.30 am — that precious few will see it. But TVNZ can always say, “Oh, we do have fine educational programmes — you elitist snobs can tape them”.

The latest assault on the taste and intelligence of New Zealanders comes at 7.00 pm on weeknights. TV3 is trying to draw viewers away from TVNZ’s Shortland Street and Wheel of Fortune by screening Hard Copy. This deplorable offering is bad enough at any time of day, but it is particularly egregious in this spot, because it carries segments that are rated “AO”. Thus the spirit of competition drives TV3 to flout the “watershed” code which requires that Adults Only material must not be shown before 8.30 pm. By their standards it may seem a small infraction, but it is just another symptom of the degradation of public discourse and entertainment.

New Zealand remains the only English-speaking country in the world without an intelligent, noncommercial alternative to junk television. What a tragedy — especially for young people, whose eyes and minds might be opened to worlds of science, history, and cultural understanding were families given a choice away from the cheap game shows, shallow soaps, and violent entertainment that dominates our evening television.

The current Broadcasting Minister, Maurice Wiiliamson, doesn’t want the change (he’s for competition), and neither does the Labour Broadcasting Spokesperson, Steve Maharey, who doesn’t like anything that smacks of “elitism”. Both these chaps tell us New Zealand cannot afford a noncommercial television channel, which misses the point entirely. All that’s needed is a nightly prime-time band of two or three hours for high-quality programmes presented without commercial interruption in the body of the programme. Such an arrangment is eminently affordable for New Zealand.

Williamson and Maharey, however, are happy for their private reasons that we’re to be fed this junk. And every night that passes squanders yet another opportunity to open people’s minds to something better, to make a constructive contribution to knowledge and understanding in New Zealand.

Hokum Locum

Manipulation of the Colon

Some time ago I remember reading a letter in the Listener from a frustrated doctor who accused the public of being medically illiterate. Sometimes I feel this way myself but it is not a good practice to attack one’s audience. Public education cannot be achieved within the context of traditional ten-minute medical consultations compared with quacks who may spend up to an hour providing mis-information. Drug companies are on record as cynically exploiting a gullible public eg. “…neither government agencies nor industry, including the supplement industry, should be protecting people from their own stupidity”.
Letter to Hoffman-Laroche, quoted in NCAHF Vol 15 No.4

In a letter to Little Treasures, a writer who would probably prefer to remain anonymous claimed that her child’s constipation was cured by chiropractic manipulations because “one leg was slightly longer than the other and the passage to the bowel was obstructed by this”. The anatomical possibilities are intriguing! George Dunea writes a regular letter on the US medical scene for the BMJ and in an article reviewed the current activities of chiropractors in the US. Using aggressive marketing techniques they are claiming to treat an even wider range of self-limiting conditions such as colds and colic. One third of Americans use such unconventional treatments at a cost of $10 billion annually and one third of this cost is borne by public funds or private insurance. Dunea goes on to say: “Alternative treatments have also become popular for pets…one large dog, afraid to sleep because he had been beaten badly as a puppy, was described as taking his first afternoon nap after his spinal cord had been adjusted”.
Realigning the Spine. BMJ Vol 307 p71

An American doctor, posing as a concerned parent, surveyed 100 chiropractors and found that 80% of them would treat middle ear infections with cervical spine “adjustments”. Some 78% also sold vitamin supplements from their offices.
Chiros treating children. NCAHF Vol 16, No.6

Conductive Education

This is a treatment based on the teachings of the Peto Centre. Children suffering from cerebral palsy are treated with an intensive (and expensive) series of exercises aimed at developing alternative neurologic circuits to their paralysed limbs. These treatments have no scientific basis and a government financed controlled trial confirmed that the Peto system gives no better results than conventional treatment. There are frequent public appeals to raise money for this treatment but the money could be put to much better use by organisations such as the Crippled Children’s Society.
BMJ Vol 307 p812

Homeopathic Immunisation

Enough has already been said on the enduring myth of homeopathy. An Australian GP was rebuked for recording a homeopathic-type immunisation in a child’s health records and the Medical Defence Union said that such action makes the GP potentially liable if the child subsequently develops a serious illness such as whooping cough or measles.
NZ Doctor 11/11/93

Psychic Surgery revisited

Shirley MacLaine, the high priestess of new-age (rhymes with sewage) silliness has regained her health and happiness after visiting a Filipino psychic surgeon. In Shirl’s own words: “He inserted his hands into my body and withdrew clots of blood and internal matter of some kind, then withdrew his hands”. In defence of Woman’s Day they did add at the end of the article “Oh Really!”
Woman’s Day 31/8/93

Yin Yang Tiddle I Po

So went the song of the Goons (actually Yin tong..) making about as much sense as an article on Chinese medicine which appeared in NZ Doctor 22/7/93 entitled “Look to natural forces to maintain health”. It is written by a trained veterinarian (Massey 1980) who is now practising as a doctor of Chinese herbal medicine. If that isn’t a paradigm shift I don’t know what is! I would love to know what prompted him to change from scientifically based veterinary practice to this nonsense. The treatment of subclinical diseases is prompted by examination of the tongue and pulse. This is a wonderful scheme because all sorts of diseases can be treated and there is no way of disproving that they ever existed. “Iced food and drinks should be avoided like the plague, as these are discordant with the prevailing Qi of summer and will stress the body”.

In a child with eczema the Chinese diagnosis was “blood deficiency complicated with wind and damp. The prescription was designed to “nourish blood, expel wind, strengthen digestion, remove damp, and cool the emotions”. As I have mentioned before, Chinese herbs sometimes contain unexpected substances. A chronically ill man developed muscle wasting which proved to be due to triamcinolone (a potent steroid) contained in “herbal” tablets. Each “herbal” tablet contained 5.4 milligrams of triamcinolone.
GP Weekly 17/11/93

Japanese Herbal Medicine

Japanese doctors will soon be able to gain a degree in Japanese herbal medicine. Seventy percent of Japanese doctors already prescribe such remedies known as kampoyaku. In response to side-effects of modern drugs and a consumer sense of depersonalisation in western medicine, such remedies are now state funded to the tune of US$1.5 billion and increasing by 15% annually. Kampo is based on 4000-year-old medical texts and diagnosis depends on the skill and intuition of individual doctors. (Where have I heard that before?) Such clinical instincts have already been shown to be weak in Western medicine, eg. “only about 50% of gastroscopies, coronary artery grafts, and carotid endarterectomies could be justified by independent panels of experts”.
Viewpoint, The Lancet Vol 341, p878

It is interesting that the Japanese community sees fit to waste money in this area when they have a chronic shortage of trained anaesthetists, causing Japan to have a maternal mortality (during childbirth) twice as high as the UK. There is also a complete lack of information about crude surgical mortality rates because the large numbers of private hospitals are not required to report their operation numbers.

Their hospitals have also been struck by an epidemic of methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) due to the widespread overprescribing of antibiotics (BMJ Vol 306, p740). MRSA is a nasty bacterium which becomes prevalent whenever antibiotics are prescribed either inappropriately or excessively. This epidemic occurred because doctors are paid a set price for drugs used, whereas the drug companies supply these at a discounted rate with the doctors pocketing the difference.
New life for old medicine, The Lancet Vol 342, p485; Health Research in Japan, Letter, The Lancet Vol 342 p500

The Cocaine and Guinea-pig Diet

Move over Jenny Craig! An entrepreneurial father and son have set up a weight loss clinic on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, at 3810m above sea level. Obese guests are invited to chew a syrupy extract from coca leaves (cocaine in its crudest form!) and if that is not enough they can enjoy having their skin rubbed down with a live guinea pig. These attractions are hoped to restore the flagging tourist industry but it is bad news for the guinea pigs.
Economist August 31st 1992, p36

Generalised Chemical Sensitivity

This is a diagnosis beloved of quacks who validate essentially depressive symptoms that some patients develop after a real or imagined chemical exposure. Glutaraldehyde is a highly effective disinfectant which has good activity against both the hepatitis and HIV viruses, but can cause skin and other sensitivity. A nurse who used this chemical developed baffling symptoms and was seen by a number of specialists who are described as suggesting that “her illness may have had an `emotional’ component”. Note the implied suggestion that an emotional cause is somehow less honorable than a “real” illness.

Her most distressing symptoms were “mood swings, irritability, loss of judgement, poor concentration and short-term memory loss” which are classic depressive symptoms. She is described as being unable to enjoy a lengthy conversation without becoming exhausted. An occupational physician dogmatically stated “There’s no doubt in my mind that the chemical has affected her immune system, leading to a multi-system pathology”. He went on to decry the patient’s “degrading and demeaning experience in failing to have her condition acknowledged by specialists” and “they go away thinking it’s all in their minds”.

Here again is the implication that physical symptoms are either “real” or imaginary. As we know, symptoms are almost always real, but can be produced by anxiety or notional beliefs (somatisation, for example headaches with depression). The result is a person who is now chronically unwell and unemployed and who has received both the wrong treatment and the wrong diagnosis. Exposure to other foods and chemicals now “causes an immediate deterioration in her ability to think clearly”.

This is a classic case of somatisation and is clearly not an occupational disease. This patient’s illness has arisen from the notion that she has somehow been “poisoned” and the availability of compensation completes the process. Doctors who continue to deny the importance of psychological factors paradoxically encourage the abnormal illness behaviour while no doubt sincerely believing that they are acting in the patient’s best interests.

This whole area was briefly reviewed by NCAHF (Vol 16 No. 6) who coined the phrase “environmental anxiety disorder” and quoted research in which immunologic testing did not differentiate patients with chemical sensitivities from controls. Finally NCAHF says “the power of the imagination, operant conditioning, and practitioner influence can reinforce imaginary sensitivities”.
GP Weekly 17 Feb 93

Quackery in the US

The US National Institutes of Health Office (Alternative Medicine) has awarded nearly $1 million in research grants for topics which include: t’ai chi for balance disorders; massage for HIV-exposed babies; dance movement for cystic fibrosis patients; biofeedback for diabetics and acupuncture for depression. I predict that all of these trials will produce glowing reports of improvements, having failed to make any allowance for the placebo effect, natural disease variation and spontaneous improvement.

Naturally Skeptical

Award-winning author and long-time Skeptic Margaret Mahy delivered the after-dinner speech at the 1993 Skeptics Conference. This is an abridged version of her talk.

I was a sceptic with a “c”, before I joined the Skeptics with a capital “S” and “k”. At least, so I have always believed. I have always thought of the sceptic as a person in a state of terminal caution, and that definition seemed to cover my own particular situation pretty well, though the caution came about, not through fear so much as the difficulty of honestly synthesising the contradictory information the world seemed to be offering me so generously. And by the time I came to realise just how varied and odd it was, I had formed a few axioms which amount to faith, if that doesn’t sound too odd in a sceptical life.

My first encounter with astronomy was in the Edwardian edition of Arthur Mee’s Encyclopaedia, and in the first part of the first volume there was a dramatic picture of a red-hot ball looking vaguely molten, and beneath this, or close to it anyway, was the information that the world was formed from a piece that had dropped off the sun. This is hardly what cosmologists suggest today, but I have never found too much trouble in discarding facts or swapping them around. What Arthur Mee’s Encyclopaedia gave me was the feeling of excitement and astonishment about the world around me and the universe beyond, and this has never changed.

The Illustrated Oxford Dictionary (the nearest portable dictionary in my room) defines a sceptic (with a “c”) as one who doubts the possibility of real truth. Personally I don’t doubt the existence of real truth, though I do doubt my ability to know it. I have more faith in a negative Socratic talent, basically to suspect what it is not. What seems to define my own position even more accurately is the dictionary definition of the adjective “sceptical” — inclined to suspension of judgement, given to the questioning the soundness of facts and the soundness of inferences.

I will admit that I question some assertions and inferences more than others, since I do what I think is justifiable, and make an assessment of statistical probability as far as I am able — an assessment based on observable facts and the way in which certain sources are confirmed by the predictions they make and the way these predictions are tested, and on faith, too, though this can be a noble word for established prejudices.

I am resigned to the fact that any political act I might make, including voting, cannot acknowledge the complexity of my real views, but is, at the best, only an approximate indication of partial preferences. And above all, I am sceptical about what seem to me to be unilaterally held explanations of things, entrenched views which are used to reduce and control the whole complexity of the universe.

It is not that I would deny people a place to stand, or the comfort and security of such control. I have a lot of sympathy with Kurt Vonnegut’s imaginary prophet Bokonon, who said, “Live by the harmless lies that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”

Unfortunately, people often find it impossible to do just that. They want their own pleasure in their harmless lies somehow vindicated by making everyone else believe them too, and once assertion and even coercion are used to compel a homogeneous system of belief, the untruths are no longer quite as harmless as they might have seemed in the first place.

Anyhow, I believe I am a sceptic out of a conviction which springs simultaneously from the longing to know what is true, coupled with an uncertainty about my own power to be convinced of truth, reinforced by awareness of a long history of human error in this basic but compulsive endeavour.

I’ve mentioned faith, so perhaps I should say here that an article of my faith is that, as far as human beings are concerned, the universe is infinite in its mysteries. I have never found that any scientific advance…say, the landing on the moon…that has done anything but intensify the mystery.

My own astonishment has done nothing but increase the more I have found out, so I have no sympathy with the view that scientific advances are taking the poetic strangeness out of things. In fact I once read that every successful scientific experiment raised more questions than it answered and found I believed it immediately.

However I don’t want mystery for the sake of mystery. I want it to be true mystery. My objection to much mysticism is that it is just not strange or mystical enough, but feels like the sort of story I might have made up myself. Rightly or wrongly, I expect more of the universe than that. So I also believe, in advance, that any grand unified theory will supply not a final solution, only an increased astonishment and a good place to stand while we confront the universe and contemplate an enigma.

Children’s Books

The first anecdotes are concerned with my profession. Perhaps notoriously, I am a writer of children’s stories, and children’s literature has expectations inherent in it from which adult literature is relatively free. Stories for children are not only written by adults, but read and scanned by adults before the children get them, and those adults are anxious, sometimes unconsciously, that children should be socialised along desirable lines, so there is a general expectation that, by the end of the story, the child will be a better child with opinions acceptably shaped.

Some years ago people tended to speak of children’s books as if they were now free of the old necessity that they should have a good moral — as if they were free of any imperative beyond the fairly innocent wish to entertain — but believe me this is not so, though nowadays the old-fashioned word “moral” can readily be replaced with the trendy phrase “political correctness.”

Violence, that necessary component of adventure stories, is subject to constant scrutiny. I also have been challenged because children in my stories used words like “fat” or “old”. Editors may scan stories for lapses into racism, sexism, fatism, and to some extent ageism. I have written about Mrs Hatchett and Mrs Gimble, two solitary women, in two separate stories, and have been asked to put in a few lines indicating what had happened to their husbands — in case, I suppose, some child might suspect these women were falsely masquerading as respectable.

There is still the same historical expectation that children should not be told how the world is, but how it could be if only we all behaved a little better.

I’m not opposed to this, because I think part of the function of stories at any level is to make people feel powerful in the cause of good, and to hope they may even achieve a happy ending for themselves and others. Part of the pleasure of a happy ending, for example, is that the reader ends up feeling in charge of life. All the same, there does come a point where the constant reiteration of a particular moral amounts to a deception which is just not honest or interesting to write about.

And there are a lot of subjects which one can’t acknowledge truthfully without arousing indignation — for instance, in the US there are a lot of people who are anxious that children’s books should never suggest that people occasionally drink alcohol.

I once wrote a story called Jam, in which the amiable hero, Mr Castle, greets his working wife when she comes home with a loving kiss and a glass of sherry before he takes the children out to play on the lawn. This seemed to me like ideal behaviour (within my own mind he topped up her glass occasionally), but the American publisher insisted that I strike out the sherry, though the British, a more degenerate crowd, allowed Mrs Castle to have her small alcoholic charge.

In The Horrendous Hullaballoo I was asked to change the pirate’s rum to passionfruit juice, but this seemed to me too dishonest. In the end I was allowed to leave the pirate his rum, though the comment was made that I would sell fewer copies of the book because of the reference to this traditional piratical habit.

Violence, as I have already mentioned, is another anxiety. I once wrote a story about a cat fight. “This is very violent,” said an editor, and wanted me to change the line “The big cat boxed the little cat’s ears” to “The big cat patted the little cat’s ears.” I don’t know about other people’s cats, but around my house cat-fights are very violent affairs, and I abandoned that particular story since I felt that was just too false to alter it.

Obedience to parents used to loom very large in 19th century stories for children, and children who were disobedient were often punished with maiming, dismemberment and death. Nowadays the expectations are different, but the monitoring and anxiety survive.

I can only say that in the beginning I write for a single reader who is another version of myself as reader. At a later stage I do think about what I can remember of what it was like to be a child reader of, say, eight or nine years old. And at a slightly later stage I come to have a general readership in mind as well — a large cloud of potential readers, let’s say, with points of increased probability within it.

Defence of Offence

I cannot say for certain that no person will be corrupted, or alarmed, or hurt in any way by the stories I write, though of course I like to think that no person with any sense will be, but no one can predict the perversity or vulnerability of the individual reader, the receiver who completes the act the writer began.

What I do feel is that a number of unknown children, again approximating to myself in childhood, will be harmed if stories are trimmed, castrated and made entirely inoffensive before they are let loose on the world. Offensive stories may even release a certain creative vitality into the world through the act of offending. At least this possibility is continually acknowledged in adult fiction, for adults are supposed to be more or less in charge of their lives, and to be less innocent, less easily influenced than children.

I must say that I am prepared to consider the possibility that a happy child may be more resilient than many an adult and sometimes less innocent too. Innocent adults are subject to derision and are told to “get real”, so it is not as if we regard innocence as an excellent quality per se.

Towards the end of last year, a friend of mine wrote from Wellington to say that a member of the Skeptics in Wellington had objected to the supernatural elements in my stories on the basis of the possibility that readers might take the supernatural elements as being true rather than metaphoric. I would like to say that this is impossible, but unfortunately I know that there is, indeed, a risk.

Indeed I am less disconcerted by the people who accuse me of being a satanist, glamourising and even recommending witchcraft, than I am by those who write and praise me for the good image I have apparently given witches in a book like The Changeover, or by reporters who turn up for interviews in the expectation that I am an enthusiast for New Age spirituality. It was because of one such encounter that I became a financial member of the skeptics with a “k” in the first place.

Science in Stories

One of the things no one has ever challenged in any of my books is a sort of scientific subtext. It varies from book to book. In a book called The Strange Case of the Quantum, I came upon two phrases, “ultraviolet catastrophe” and “Schwartzchild singularity”, which I enjoyed for their sound as much as their sense. I used them in a story entitled Ultraviolet Catastrophe as simple sound mechanisms, though I must add that in the end I was not allowed to use “Schwartzchild singularity” on the grounds that it suggested black children were singular.

In another book of mine, Catalogue of the Universe, ideas of symmetry are part of the underlying metaphor of the plot. I must explain that I am not in any way a scientist (I did very badly in science as a subject at school and in my last mathematics exam I got ten marks out of a hundred — ten out of ten for knowing a theorem by heart, and nothing for the rest of the paper). I respect what I understand of scientific thought, not only because of a general interest in scientific descriptions of the world which are much more astonishing than anything anyone can invent, but because of something more fundamental which I shall mention in due course.

Not only that, I find a lot of the language both fascinating and funny. I am entertained by the fact that an account of the lurid sex life of the black-tipped hanging fly, with all its criminal elements, was written by a man called Randy Thornhill. “Exploring the Mandelbrot Set”, an enticing heading on the cover of a Scientific American sounds to me like something a tabloid newspaper might produce, exposing all sorts of deviation in a degenerate and wealthy New York circle, accompanied by sensational pictures.

But along with all sorts of games of this sort, I am disposed to respect scientific description and theory, though certainly not because I think scientists are inevitably immaculate thinkers. They are human beings before they are scientists, and worked on by all sorts of human weakness including academic ambition and the longing to be rich, along with the conviction that ideas that work in their favour must be true, and there is no harm in giving them a bit of a nudge.


I subscribed to Scientific American for a number of years, although its articles were really too hard for me. Still, I remember many pieces I read there, and in May 1980 I read an article called “The N-Ray Affair”. Early this century, says the preamble to the article, an eminent French scientist discovered a new type of radiation, and others confirmed his work.

The radiation turned out to be totally imaginary, proving that believing can be seeing, surely something that sceptics are constantly pointing out. The scientist was Rene Blondlot, a respectable and well qualified man, and in 1903 he announced that he had discovered a new kind of radiation called the N-ray. At that time, historically, scientists were imaginatively prepared to accept the existence of new radiation, and the claim was not checked with appropriate rigour.

I won’t go into details about the experimental apparatus or anything of that sort, but will simply explain that N-rays were detected, by French scientists other than Blondlot, as coming from the sun, from the human body, and even from enzymes isolated from body tissues. Other scientists hastened to point out that they had already detected N rays, and that the honour of being proclaimed as the discoverer should be shared. Blondlot received the Prix Leconte and 50,000 francs, and his discovery of N-rays was obliquely mentioned along with other achievements.

In the first half of 1904 there were 54 articles published on N-rays in Comptes Rendus, which I take to be a scientific journal, whereas there were only 3 articles on X-rays over the same period.

Nowadays no one believes that N-rays ever existed. An American scientist, R.W. Wood, found he was quite unable to reproduce the results Blondlot had reported, and support for N-rays was finished outside France. To cut a long, though fascinating, story short, Blondlot and his supporters responded by suggesting that the effect was only observable by certain sensitive and totally passive observers.

One had to see the effect, so to speak, without quite looking at it — might even have to glance in a slightly different direction. To gain the ability would require practice. It was even maintained that only the Latin races had the sensitivity to see the effect — that Anglo-Saxon powers were dulled by continuous exposure to fog and Teutonic ones by the constant ingestion of beer.

Blondlot and his supporters never admitted they were wrong. The article ends by quoting James Clerk Maxwell. “There are two theories of the nature of light, the corpuscle theory and the wave theory. We used to believe in the corpuscle theory; now we believe in the wave theory because all those who believe in the corpuscle theory are dead.” The last person to believe in N-rays probably disappeared when Blondlot died in 1930.

In this case a so-called scientific discovery has had many of the same characteristics as claims for the existence of paranormal phenomena, so it is not as if one can afford to be anything but a skeptic where scientific assertions are concerned. The history of science is filled with oddities, prejudices, mistakes, misunderstandings, rejections and suppressions of truth.

I sometimes find myself guilty of making blanket judgements of a sort — for instance if I read anything about telepathy in Womansscript, a rather new-agey feminist magazine that made a brief appearance a while ago, I would suspect it before I read it, but even before reading John McCrone’s article “Roll Up for the Telepathy Test” in a New Scientist last May, I assumed that its account of parapsychology would be on a reasonably respectable scientific footing, and would therefore deserve a respectful reading. I could feel my stance adjusting as I approached the article.

I don’t know any way out of making these blanket judgements, based on my established prejudices. Of course scientific declarations deserve to be greeted with scepticism too, regardless of the theoretical care built into definitions of scientific thought. One would have been right to be cautious about the recent claims on behalf of cold fusion, and many people were. Competitiveness alone meant that the claims were promptly subjected to tests that seem to have demolished the claims.

But I do have reasons other than prejudice for respecting scientific thought. It seem to incorporate, as a basic premise, what I see as a sort of creative scepticism. I understand from attending a few lectures in the philosophy of science and from reading A Brief History of Time that no theory can ever be held to be totally established, even though we can act as if it was with increasing confidence as time goes by and predictions are fulfilled.

At some level, any theory is always a hypothesis and one must always bear in mind the possibility that it may turn out to be inadequate and need modification, or that it might even be wrong. In day to day life we can safely assume that certain familiar laws will hold true, and we can act with confidence, but the truths that underlie them are subject to a continual scrutiny, and possibly to adjustment, alteration and restatement.

This seems to me to be honest, though very tiring. In the stories I write, I do make a variety of ethical assertions, but my main hope is that joking and a degree of eccentricity will leave children with the possibility of living with an open system of thought, and of using jokes and humour and even self-derision, as a means of approaching the contradiction implicit in our understanding of the world, if we want to be honest about it.

I suppose it is true that the skeptic is often seen as being destructive, spoiling the simple pleasure that people take in wonders, and destroying the wonders themselves in favour of a colourless rationalism. But my favourite disciple is Thomas, and though his doubt is often quoted with disapproval, the result of his doubt is invoked as a clinching argument for the resurrection. I am happy for people who find faith in a simple unity underlying the intricate confusion, provided they do not not need my collusion in their faith, and provided they do not try to impose their views as fact.

I do not think rationality is infinite in its power to describe the universe, but I think it is noble, and not the chilly spoiler of poetry and intuition it is often represented as being. Indeed I have an image in my mind of intuition, imagination, response to things like beauty and mystery existing along with rationality in a spectrum imaginatively analogous to the spectrum of radiation which we perceive differently at different points. Some radiation we experience as sight, some as sound and so on. This is a personal analogy, and like all analogies is faulty in some ways. It is an approximate metaphor for my own use.

Above all else, I reiterate, I think we lead an intensely mysterious existence in a deeply mysterious universe, and that acknowledgement of this mystery deserves the best I can give it. I am perfectly prepared to entertain the possibility of telepathy, of magic of all sorts, but I don’t wish to sell out to cheap and facile marvels, inadequately proved, to scientific discoveries falsely researched, to political slogans, that are invented, partly unconsciously, to herd power into certain defined areas and to keep it there, or of course at the outer edge, to lies, chicanery and exploitation, or even to innocent, though passionately defended mistakes.

I may do that from time to time, but I try hard not to, because I want to do the best I can, within my limitations, and within my limitations to lead an exciting, funny and truthful life.

The Easy Conclusion

In the years since the Skeptics’ beginnings in 1985 we’ve seen paranormal and pseudoscientific fads come and go. The Shroud of Turin was big back then, till carbon dating did it in (except in the minds of the hard-core Shroud Crowd, who now claim that rising from the dead involves an emission of neutrons which increases the atomic weight of the carbon in your winding cloth). Uri Geller is more feeble than ever, UFO sightings are in decline, and Bigfoot has made himself even scarcer than usual. But quackery in the name of “alternative” medicine still flourishes, and cold readers (such as the lamentable James Byrne) periodically meander on stage.

However, there haven’t been any significant new trends in the pseudoscience until the recent arrival of False Memory Syndrome (see reprint, “The New Victims of Sex Abuse”, p. 12). In a sense, this fad was a disaster waiting to happen. In the 1950s, hypnotic regression was used to help people discover their past lives. Harmless, perhaps, and a even comfort for someone to learn of having once been a rich courtesan in Atlantis or, better still, a Chinese Empress (but oh those aching feet!). In the 1980s, this same structure of therapeutic hypnosis was being used to help people remember how they were spirited to the planet Zork in a flying saucer in order to be subjected to medical procedures.

The sorry new development sets out from UFO abduction, but is much more sinister because it attaches itself to a demonstrably real social problem: sexual abuse. By incorporating the concept of hypnotic recovery of repressed memories into the current hysteria over sex abuse, the lives of thousands of families are being destroyed.

Consider a phone call I recently received. An articulate widow in her seventies, who with her husband raised five children, had seen my newspaper article on False Memory Syndrome and wanted to tell me her story. One of the children, a woman in her middle thirties, is a troubled soul who had been visiting a counsellor for the last year. The daughter’s therapy has “disclosed” that her mother and late father sexually abused her in her childhood. The abuse began before she was three (a remarkable memory to have, since the hard-wiring for long-term memory doesn’t even exist till after then). Her father had regularly raped her till she was seventeen. She had “forgotten” all this until just now.

Her brother says it’s rubbish, and the mother is shattered, but the daughter fully believes it, having been manipulated by her therapist to confabulate pseudomemories. The daughter has now denied her mother access to the grandchildren. This distraught old woman, who knew nothing about FMS or that others have had the same thing happen to them, had been contemplating suicide. (Fortunately, I’ve been able to get her some competent help.)

Hers is not a unique case, and if something isn’t done to bring the problem of FMS to public attention we will see many more cases in New Zealand. We’re working on it.

This issue of the Skeptic is coming to you a few weeks late because the last two months have been among the busiest in our history. The spectacularly successful visit of James Randi, along with a very well covered annual conference have helped us to boost Skeptics membership to about 350. Thanks to everyone who helped in organising those events.

One a per capita basis, we are probably the strongest national Skeptics organisation in the world. It would be temptingly easy to conclude from this that New Zealanders are simply more sensible and intelligent than people elsewhere. So why argue? For once, we’ll take the easy, tempting conclusion!

1993 Skeptics Conference

Science, Pseudoscience and Junk Science

Christchurch, September 3rd-5th

The programme for the 1993 Skeptics Conference is still under development, but it’s shaping up to be really interesting. It’ll be a rather omnivorous event, complete with meat and teeth. Come along for the usual humour and frivolity that make our conferences fun, but also be prepared to be challenged.

We know we’re a diverse group, but one of the common characteristics of Homo skepticus/skeptica is the tendency to talk and debate…at length…at the drop of a hat…on almost any subject.

Consequently, this year’s conference is looking at having a number of panel sessions to encourage participation from a range of speakers semi-simultaneously, with plenty of discussion time following to enable extended participation from the floor.

To date, three main panels are under development:

The Nature of Scientific Method — what are the characteristics of good science, what should we be looking for in science, how should science be conducted, and how can it be useful in everyday life?

Junk Science — having got some form of grounding in real science, we then turn our attention to junk science to see the way in which science is used and abused in everything from environmental issues to health research.

Teaching Critical Thinking — what is being done in schools to encourage critical thinking and/or an appreciation of the scientific method, what should be done and how can it be encouraged, is there room for this in the new curriculum, what is the place of science and technology?

There’ll also be a pile of speakers and unspeakable demonstrations throughout the conference, such as:

  • Ghosts
  • Police Use of Psychics
  • Acupuncture
  • Electric Medicine
  • Witches
  • Manufacturing Memory

Last, but by no means least, we are delighted to be able to tell you that we have a magical after-dinner speaker in the form of Margaret Mahy, internationally acclaimed children’s author and Skeptic. She’s living proof that you can be creative and rational at the same time! (Don’t forget to send in you filking and photography entries, even if you can’t make it to the conference itself!)