Thoughts on a billboard

On a recent visit to New Plymouth I was rather taken aback to see a billboard outside a central city church posing the question: “Evolution? How come we still have apes?” It wasn’t so much surprise that someone could know so little about evolutionary theory that they would think this was a persuasive argument – versions of this are often to be seen in the less sophisticated creationist publications – it was more that they should feel the urge to display their ignorance on a busy street corner.

The question is easily answered: it’s a bit like asking someone why there are still Scots if their ancestors came from Scotland. Evolution proceeds through localised change in sub-populations, not wholesale transformations of species across their entire range – and none of the modern ape species are ancestral to us in any case. One could also ask why, if humans were created separately from all other animals, there are animals which are so much like us – in other words if creationism is true, why are there apes at all?

I was reminded of a trivia word game my daughter once played, in which the clue was “Darwin’s theory of evolution”, and the answer was “natural selection”. The person who failed to answer this asserted she couldn’t be expected to know such things, since she didn’t believe in evolution. The same principle seems to apply at the New Plymouth church – decide you don’t believe in something, then refuse to learn anything about it. This has got it backwards, of course; if you’re going to disbelieve something, the least you can do is find out what it is that you don’t believe in.

The same challenge is often thrown at skeptics by believers who are convinced that if only we read the literature on homeopathy, or chiropractic, or UFOs or whatever, we would see the truth of their claims. While it isn’t necessary to have detailed knowledge of every last wacky idea – if it defies basic laws of physics and chemistry it’s almost certainly bunk – the irony is that many skeptics are very well informed about such things, and disbelieve because of what they know rather than what they don’t know. In the end though, it isn’t knowledge or the lack of it that makes the difference between a believer and a sceptic (whether they be sceptical of evolution or homeopathy), it’s the habit of critical thought – or the lack of it.

Travels in ceremony country

Some claim our society is too materialistic and lacks spiritual values. But what would it be like to live in a society that rejects materialism?

Arnhem Land in tropical Australia has a curious status. Although the government has overall responsibility, the indigenous inhabitants are considered to be in control over the area where they live. Outsiders must seek permission to enter a tribal area and a permit is issued on payment of a fee. Twenty years ago the tourist fee was relatively modest, but for a mining concession the fee is substantial as one might expect. We paid $65 for two of us per day on our first visit, although fees have risen greatly over time.

Very few tourists visit because the fee is for entry only and there are no hotels, restaurants, shops or similar facilities. There are very few roads, or even tracks for four-wheel drive vehicles. However it is possible to fly in and stay at the small mining town of Nhulunbuy within Arnhem Land where there is accommodation, shops and restaurants. No permit is needed provided one stays within the town perimeter.

A tiny number of operators in Nhulunbuy will offer tours with a vehicle and guide, and assistance in obtaining the necessary permits. The tribespeople are generally not unfriendly but shy, and few will attempt much of a conversation even if they have sufficient English. As Australian citizens they are eligible for benefits so individuals have some income though very few have jobs (and those who do are nearly all women). A good deal of their income is spent on alcohol. Getting drunk is not frowned upon within the tribal system. Religion puts a high value on a trance-like state and it is not clear how inebriation differs from this (even to me). Violence when drunk can be punished, especially if somebody is harmed.

On one of our visits, a chief’s drunken son had just beaten a woman to death. A meeting of elders had decided that the spearing would take place immediately and that the official trial (that would presumably result in a conviction for manslaughter) would occur when he got out of hospital. On some previous occasions, the spearing took place when the offender got out of prison and this was thought to be unfair.

Some but not all children go to school. On one tiny island in the Gulf of Carpentaria I met a group of young boys living on their own to prepare for the ‘circumcision’ ceremony that would admit them to full tribal membership. They had spears and knives (but no clothes), and were living on fish and other seafood that they could catch or collect. Water was in short supply and the gifts of cold cans of soft drink were more than welcome. These boys (around 12 years old at my guess) could speak some English. But they could not reach a consensus as to how long they had been on the island, how long since they had seen an adult, how long they expected to stay or even whether they had ever been to school. I got the impression that they were not supposed to have any contact with me, but soft drinks overwhelmed any moral inhibitions.

Anthropologists have described this island sequestration of pre-initiates, but I doubt they interviewed the boys on an island. The written descriptions simply add to my scepticism of anthropologists. What I observed differed from the anthropological accounts in a number of important ways.

I have become friendly with one (white) Australian who had been initiated into one tribe and could act as interpreter. However my friendship has not progressed to the stage where I felt able to ask him if he had undergone the severe penile mutilation that the young boys are supposed to endure. The ceremony involves more than simple circumcision as understood by us.

On one trip my friend had recently taken a guy on an eco-tour. They first visited the tribe for permission and found a man apparently completing a painting on bark. In some parts of Australia paintings are made to sell to tourists but these are of variable quality. The tourist was excited at finding an authentic work of art, which he thought beautiful. The artist showed little reluctance to sell, and little interest in a price. But his work was not complete and he insisted it had to be finished. It was agreed that the tourist would return at the end of his visit.

Some days later the guide and tourist returned and the artist produced his now-complete painting. It was nothing like the one that had been admired and the tourist did not like it. But, explained the artist, the one he had liked was still there, it was just underneath. In fact there were four layers of painting; none of these were intended to be viewed by human eyes. Painting is done to satisfy the artist and please the spirits who are not limited by human sense organs. The artist had some understanding that the tourist might wish to own something that pleased the spirits. He could not understand why the new owner might want to view the painting.

There are many rock paintings across the tropical North. However the access to some sites has been restricted or stopped altogether. This is not because the tribes think the paintings may be damaged by tourists, in fact they paint over some old examples. This does not ‘damage’ them as they are still there for the spirits. But viewing by non-initiates desecrates the site. Actually photography and video desecrates them even more but we were not aware of this on our earliest trips!

Most tribes are small; one we encountered consisted of about 40 individuals. All receive some assistance from the government and those whose lands contain valuable minerals get money from their leases. In fact the amounts from leases can be enormous when considered against the standard of the material possessions of the tribe, apart from its land.

A giant aluminium company built a village for one tiny tribe on the edge of a huge lagoon called Bradshaw Harbour. There were vast resources for fishing and gathering of food, but after a few years when the senior elder had died, the tribe abandoned their houses and moved to the edge of Nhulunbuy where they could camp within easy access to alcohol.

Of course there are outsiders with a mission to help the local people, medics, teachers, social workers and religious enthusiasts, but the curious status of the place allows the locals to determine what kind of help they will accept. These are tribal societies, so it is the elders, ie the older men, who decide.

Most outsiders would like to see the available money spent on material things like housing, hygiene, education, medicine, etc. That is, those things upon which our society puts great value. But the elders put the greatest value on their religion. This involves complex and lengthy ‘ceremonies’, when a tribe invites its neighbours to a session of feasting and ritual generally lasting many days. In earlier times this presumably had the practical result of reducing tension and the risk of intertribal war.

Initiated men are called ‘warriors’ in English translation, even though they may be young teenagers. I have been on a fishing/hunting trip with a ‘warrior’ whose grandmother told me was 13. He carried two spears and a ‘throwing stick’ (his term) sometimes called an atlatl or woomera by outsiders. However it was a sacred object, no uninitiated person could touch it or even learn its proper name and he did not know any other western names for the object.

We went fishing in one spot; part of our concession was to take along a tribal member. A woman agreed; she would spend her time gathering food on a sacred beach. But she wanted to also take her daughter who she thought had just become fertile. It was necessary also to take a warrior, because a girl not so accompanied would become pregnant by walking on this sacred beach. This had happened to her as a teenager so she was certain it was true. Our guide (in the woman’s hearing), explained that the tribespeople were perfectly aware of the connection between sex and pregnancy but they had sex all the time and pregnancy did not always result so some other factor must be involved. I decided this was similar to attitudes in rural Ireland where prayers to the Virgin are thought important in such matters.

Before money was introduced, the cost in resources of putting on a ceremony was considerable relative to the economic status of a tribe. However the number of people who could attend was limited to those tribes in the vicinity: within walking distance. Generally it is estimated most tribes held a ceremony only once a year, while they probably attended between two and four more, held by their neighbours.

Mining royalties mean that the tribes (though not the individual) have considerable discretionary income and a very large percentage of this is spent on travel costs, to allow the people to attend distant ceremonies and on catering for the greatly enlarged numbers who attend the local ceremony. If sufficient funds allow they may also increase the number of ceremonies held. These days food is purchased as well as gathered, in fact close to a supermarket in Nhulunbuy very little is gathered, while very large amounts of alcoholic drink will be needed.

At first the travel range was increased by four-wheel drive transport, but with unskilled drivers and a complete lack of mechanics for maintenance, these had only a brief useful life. Where mining roads have been installed, ground vehicles may still be of use, but road maintenance is costly and without upkeep no road is likely to survive even a single wet season.

Travel by air is more feasible and tribes now often hire air transport. This makes the whole of Arnhem Land within the range of any tribe living within one day’s walk of a bush airstrip.

Outside Arnhem Land, in Western Australia, taxpayers provide subsidy for tribal transport where there are no mining concessions. In 2007 we were at a small, isolated fishing camp (four anglers) in an uninhabited area when we had a visit from the ‘traditional owners’ plus social workers and government officials. They came supposedly to see that the region was being looked after properly. There is never any litter around at fishing camps in the Kimberley, so after this group had left one of the guides went round to pick up all the litter they had dropped – mainly cigarette butts.

There was no road access and no place for a landing strip. A helicopter was kept on the ground while the party was visiting. When it came time for them to leave it had developed a fault. Another chopper with a mechanic had to come to examine it, while a third very large machine came to pick up the party (they all had to travel at once instead of being ferried, as night was approaching). None of the visitors had been there before – it is actually Government land – ie public land and it could not support a permanent settlement now or in the recent past.

The main concern of the traditional owners was to ensure that tourist operators did not take people to visit ancient sites and in particular did not photograph, or even view, ancient rock art. Such visitors offended against the traditional spiritual values, but these people expressed no interest in charging fees to allow tourists to do these touristy things.

Further reading: Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. M Abley, 2003. The Elements of the Aborigine Tradition. James G Cowan, 1992.

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Non-custodial sentence inappropriate

In delivering a non-custodial sentence in the Janet Moses makutu case, Justice Simon France noted that expert witnesses considered the perpetrators were not acting out any customary cultural or religious practice. The appropriateness of a non-custodial sentence for manslaughter has been rightly questioned. Of additional concern, however, is that a golden opportunity appears to have been missed to condemn the very idea of makutu, that someone can be possessed by an evil entity necessitating a special curse-lifting ceremony or exorcism. Exorcisms, of course, are not confined to Maori culture.

Surely the time is long overdue for totally discarding all such outmoded notions of a pre-scientific age, and in particular makutu itself given that it can engender barbaric practices and lead to tragic consequences. Justice France has been reported as even expressing the view “Makutu did not kill her. She drowned”, seemingly completely overlooking the fact that it was an insane belief in makutu that generated all that followed.

Newsfront

Elephants in Loch Ness?

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

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

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

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

University fears cancer from wireless internet…

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

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

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

…but cell phones are OK

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

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

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

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

Ghosts keep the tourists away

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

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

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

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

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

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

Police procedure allows for sorcery concerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnets attract support

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wedge’s thin edge gets blunted

The decision by Judge John Jones ruling that the promotion of Intelligent Design (ID) in schools is a violation of the constitutional ban on teaching religion, is at least a temporary victory for scientific integrity (Newsfront, p10). Previous attempts to get creationism into the American classroom have been more ambitious, notably a Louisiana act which would have mandated for biblical literalism to be granted equal time alongside evolutionary theory, finally struck down in a majority Supreme Court decision in 1987. The proposal in Dover, Pennsylvania, was modest by comparison. It required that teachers read a 159-word statement declaring evolution “a theory … [t]he theory is not a fact”, and stating that ID is “an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.” The book, Of Pandas and People, was recommended for students who wished to understand what ID involves.

Continue reading

Newsfront

In a decision which sets an important precedent for US science education, a court has ruled against the teaching of the theory of ‘Intelligent Design’ alongside Darwinian evolution (BBC, 20 December). The ruling comes after a group of parents in the Pennsylvania town of Dover had taken the school board to court for demanding biology classes not teach evolution as fact.

Continue reading

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Efficacy of Prayer – an update

Since I wrote my piece (NZ Skeptic 75) based on Bruce Flamm’s article in Skeptical Inquirer concerning a research paper on the efficacy of prayer, Dr Flamm has reported ‘significant development’. Lest you jump to the conclusion that the authors, journal and university have acknowledged their serious error and have retracted the paper, be at once disabused. The significance of these developments, to my mind, is their minuscule and peripheral nature; nothing has really changed. One could reasonably grant a significant development to Wirth; he pleaded guilty to a 46-page indictment and is in jail for five years. Concerning the ‘lead’ author, Lobo, the journal later printed, at the bottom of the back page, an Erratum, that this name had been included ‘in error’. Young researchers often complain that senior colleagues insist on their names appearing on papers unjustifiably. In the topsy-turvy world of this journal, people find their names put unknowingly on papers they have had nothing to do with!

Despite never acknowledging any enquiries about this paper, and printing no comments, the author Cha was eventually given space for an extended, and misleading, response to the criticisms (which the readers knew of only from other sources).

The university set up a committee to investigate the research, but, on Dr Lobo withdrawing his name from the paper, disbanded the committee, saying it was no longer needed. So, despite all the unsavoury aspects of this matter, no one is admitting their mistake, and this nonsensical paper remains in the medical literature as ‘evidence’ of the efficacy of prayer.

Bernard Howard

Christchurch

Colour therapy – ’tis no puzzlement

Some weeks ago I met up with an old golfing friend I hadn’t seen in years. He was fit and well and is one of the few men I’ve ever met ageing better than I am. He is a retired mathematician with very good UK degrees, a solid skeptic, a fine golfer (handicap 8), down-to-earth and fun company. Another fellow, a man clearly unwell, whom I had also known as a professional colleague, accompanied us for the round. Afterwards, Roy and I caught up on the 28 years since we had worked in the same organisation and the topic of health arose. Our mutual friend, said Roy, had been given remission of his prostate cancer through colour therapy.

“Rubbish!” I responded. “Furthermore,” Roy continued, “I’ve used the process myself to alleviate the continuing effects of a bout of flu or bronchitis which I couldn’t shake off for months.” I demanded more information.

Roy then explained how, with some cynicism, he had been connected electrically to the colour-therapist’s machine for about six hours while the device operated with a strand of red-dyed material (wool?) in an electrically-charged stainless-steel cup. Afterwards, said Roy, his symptoms were gone and have not recurred. He roundly denied the placebo effect… A short while later, on another golf course, I met an old man practising chipping. After we got talking we discovered that we were both of a mind about the game, so played together a couple of times. Bob told me that he had recently recovered from a debilitating and life-threatening illness he’d contracted due to varnishing his house floor with a modern two-pot mixture. For two years he’d been in and out of hospital, talked to endless specialists and finally had begun to recover bodyweight when certain (unspecified) aspects of his diet were changed. I was invited to his home a little later and to my surprise discovered his wife is a colour therapist with a roomfull of equipment and walls covered with charts. At no time did Bob suggest his wife ever was able to give him relief using her machine or techniques.

What do I take from these admittedly flimsy accounts? The overwhelming thing I see is that alternate techniques are generally tried when all else has failed, by which time it is very likely that orthodox treatment is at last working in conjunction with that great healer, time.

Clive Shaw

Thames

Greenhouse Skeptics and Creationists no comparison

I am aware that the global warming subject has been ‘done to death’. However, the Keith Garratt item on skeptical environmentalism included several criticisms of my work which must be answered. In the interests of brevity, I will respond only to the most insulting (insulting to me as a skeptic).

He compares global warming skeptics to evolution skeptics. This is utter balderdash. Deniers of evolution are led by religious nutters. Global warming skepticism is led by climate scientists, and there are literally hundreds of professional climate researchers who have expressed their disquiet at the current paradigm.

Lance Kennedy

(And that really is the last word! -ed.)

Darwin and religion

Following the article by Alison Campbell in the Autumn 2005 Skeptic I got on to the Waikato University website and clicked ‘Darwin and Religion’ and was surprised to find a long article which completely failed to mention Darwin’s attitude to religion, or the difficulty in reconciling evolution with religious belief.

Darwin was an unusually honest scientist. He came to realise that human evolution was not essentially different from the evolution of any other creature, and that humans could not therefore claim the exclusive privilege of a supervising deity or of an afterlife. Only one of his scientific colleagues, Joseph Hooker, was prepared to support this view, and it was opposed by his wife and family. In Charles Darwin’s autobiography, published posthumously, his son Francis deleted the section on religion with the excuse:

“It will be easily understood that in a narrative of a personal and intimate kind written for his wife and children, passages should occur which must here be omitted; and I have not thought it necessary to indicate where such omissions are made.”

It was only in 1958 in the uncensored edition published by his granddaughter, Nora, Lady Barlow, that we were allowed to read Darwin’s true opinions on religion, which were as follows:

“I was very unwilling to give up my belief… But I found it more and more difficult to invent evidence to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.”

“…the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.”

“I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”

In an interview with Edward Aveling in September 1881, the following retort took place:

Aveling: “‘Agnostic’ is but ‘Atheist’ writ respectable.”

Darwin: “‘Atheist’ is but ‘Agnostic’ writ aggressive.”

Many people have sought to distort Darwinism to remove Darwin’s insistence that man is just another animal. The most influential was Julian Huxley in his Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (1942) who claimed that humans were ‘different’ and ‘unique’; so, presumably, qualifying them for divine guidance, life after death, and dominion over all other organisms.

Vincent Gray

Wellington

Prayer – Not so effective after all

A widely publicised trial which appeared to show prayer was effective in enhancing fertility now appears to have been fraudulent.

In 2001 an extraordinary paper, from the highly regarded Columbia University Medical Center, New York, appeared in the also highly regarded Journal of Reproductive Medicine. About 100 women in South Korea who were undergoing in vitro fertilisation treatment were divided into two groups; half had their photographs prayed over anonymously by persons in the US, the other half were not so prayed over. Astoundingly, the conception rate in the “prayed for” group was twice that in the “not prayed for” group. The work was hard to fault from internal evidence, as it had apparently been done using all the procedures of a modern clinical trial, and it became widely quoted as firm evidence for the efficacy of prayer. Publicity was aided by a press release from the university.

This intrigued Dr Bruce Flamm, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at California University. The scandalous nature of his findings is described in a recent Skeptical Inquirer. He wrote to the three authors and the journal editor, asking, as one would of a colleague in the same field, for access to the raw data of the experiments. Over a period of some years repeated similar inquiries have elicited no answer, not even an acknowledgment, from either journal or authors. Such behaviour is not only unusual and discourteous, it is also unethical, and inviting of suspicion.

Complications

In his article, Dr Flamm first comments on the unnecessary complication of the praying arrangements. Not only were the Korean women prayed for, but the Americans who were praying for them had their prayers “fortified” by themselves being prayed for by another group. And yet a third tier of prayers was added, praying that the prayers of the middle tier would be answered. The paper offered no reasons for this complexity, which would seem to introduce unnecessary confusion into the trial. Some prayers asked that “God’s will be done”, so, in the absence of knowledge of what God’s will is, any result is a “success”. How much prayer was offered, and whether the prayer and the prayed-for acknowledge the same God, were not enquired into.

The Korean women were quite unaware of all this praying, and the university had later to admit it was wrong not to have obtained informed consent. The university had initially described one man (Lobo) as lead author, but when Dr Flamm did get a reply from the vice-chancellor, this person was said to have not known of the work until well after it was done, and had had a merely editorial role in the paper. Another author had recently left the university, while the third has a long criminal history, and is now in jail for fraud. This man, Daniel Wirth, has also a history of publishing reports of “healing” in several papers in obscure paranormal journals.

Why a respectable journal was conned into publishing such a bizarre paper remains a mystery, because the editor refuses to communicate with Dr Flamm, or media inquirers. Despite the criticisms of Dr Flamm and others, the journal kept this paper on its website until a few months ago. Were the claims made in this paper true, they would represent possibly the greatest discovery of all time. That the journal was so incredibly sloppy in its editing, and so obdurate in retracting the paper, is highly damaging to its reputation, and suggests the editor is blinded by his religion.

Another miracle paper

Reading Dr Flamms critique, I am reminded of the now notorious homeopathy claim of Benveniste et al published in Nature. Some useful comparisons can be made. In 1988, as in 2001, reports containing claims of events that should not have occurred according to current scientific understanding, arrived in the respective editorial offices. We are told that the question of publishing Benveniste’s was fiercely argued at Nature, and printed, most unusually, with an explanatory note. As far as is known, the other paper, from workers at the Columbia University Medical Center, had a smooth ride editorially, and was printed without comment.

Nature received a flood of letters to the editor, and several critical of the paper and of the editor for publishing it were printed. Whether anything similar happened at JRM was never admitted. Dr Flamm’s repeated requests for information and discussion were never acknowledged.

Benveniste’s extraordinary claims led the Nature editor to an extraordinary action; he sent a team of investigators to Benveniste’s laboratory in Paris to observe what was done “at the bench”. The flaws in technique thus revealed destroyed Benveniste’s claims. The team’s findings, when published in Nature, caused the authorities to close Benveniste’s laboratory, and almost ended his scientific career. The Columbia University Medical Center appears unmoved and unchanged in the face of Dr Flamm’s criticisms, and two of the three authors of the “Prayer” paper are pursuing their careers apparently unhindered.

L’Affaire Benveniste is now well in the past. Science is still, as before, opposed to homeopathy, and Nature retains its position at the top of the heap of scientific journals. On the contrary, thanks to Columbia University Medical Center and the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, the issue of the efficacy of prayer remains to clog the stream of medical thinking and inhibits progress. And what researcher who values his reputation and the standards of his work will now wish to offer papers to the JRM?

Published with acknowledgment to, and approval of, Skeptical Inquirer, Buffalo, NY,USA.

Pseudohistory Rules


Like scientists, historians use a dependable methodology to ensure their findings are reliable. Assertions of historical fact can properly be based only on empirical evidence. Historians then use their critical thinking skills to assess the trustworthiness of this data.

Lately, however, a vogue called postmodernism has challenged all claims to knowledge, including the work of scientists and historians. Science and empirical research supposedly are approaches that elites insist upon in order to strengthen their own standing. There are ways of knowing other than the rational. There is no one reality, only different perceptions and paradigms, all equally valid.

My favourite example of such thinking is the lecturer who told me some Polynesian students think the Earth is flat and that I deserve to be charged with harassment if I tell them they are wrong.

As a historian of the United States, I encounter postmodernism a lot when I teach and research the history of the Mormon church.

This church was founded in the state of New York in 1830 by a young man called Joseph Smith, who tried to use his interest in the amazing to make money. Smith claimed he had found a magic stone that let him see buried treasure. After hiring himself out as a treasure diviner, he was convicted of fraud by a New York court and largely gave up the practice.

Smith then started to claim that angels had been visiting him for years. They had led him to a buried box that contained golden plates. The history of ancient times was inscribed on these plates in “reformed Egyptian,” which Smith could translate by using magic stones. His translation of the golden bible went on sale as The Book of Mormon.

According to the Mormons, the book gives a divinely inspired account of ancient events in the Middle East and America. It treats the biblical story of the Tower of Babel as factual and adds a twist. A man called Jared, his brother and about 100 others were saved by the Lord from having their language confounded. God commanded the brother of Jared to build eight submarines and to load them with their friends and families, as well as their flocks and herds, including elephants. After travelling on and under the ocean for almost a year, the Jaredites discovered America. There they built great cities. After several centuries of civil wars among the Jaredites, one man was left out of millions of people. This adventure took place about 2000 BC.

The Book of Mormon is full of tales that belong to the same fantasy genre as The Lord of the Rings. But the Mormon church insists this fiction is fact and that historians and scientists have got things all wrong. Mormon leaders are hostile to evidence-based scholarship. They claim that their revelations trump research.

Church leaders claim to speak as the voice of God and to be infallible. They place great pressure on members to accept their teachings. For example, someone who leaves the church and becomes an apostate supposedly will lose his or her family for eternity. Even to question the teachings is a sin. So controlling is the Mormon church that some observers consider it a cult.

Last year, at Waikato University, I presented a seminar on Mormonism in which I outlined the tales in the Book of Mormon and said they obviously are not authentic history. Imagine my amazement when a professor who is not a Mormon leapt to her feet and denounced me. She quoted post-modernist theory, and said The Book of Mormon might be accurate. We cannot prove what is not true, she said. Some of my fellow academics gave her enthusiastic applause. The seminar left me sad about the state of education at New Zealand universities.

Even international, academic presses recently have published Mormon pseudohistory. Last year Oxford University Press published By the Hand of Mormon, by Terryl Givens, a Mormon who is Professor of English at the University of Richmond, Virginia. Givens says an angel really did reveal the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith, and that its history of ancient America really is divinely inspired and true. Shame on Oxford University Press. And they are not alone.

I suspect many academics have not spoken out against the challenge from the Mormon church because they are not informed about Mormon ideas. Others may feel reluctant to criticise a religion. But when a religion claims to be the supreme fount of fact, when it contradicts research and opposes freedom of inquiry, then it should be challenged by academics. Although students can be victims of this church, universities should fail students who use unsound methodology to believe in pseudoscholarship, such as Creationism or the Book of Mormon, as history. If they do not insist on competent thinking, then universities are a joke.

Waikato lecturer on Church Hit-List

A Waikato University lecturer has been named on a website for Latter-Day Saints as anti-mormon.

American history senior lecturer Dr Raymond Richards has accused the Mormon Church of irresponsible conduct after the site warns “if you don’t want the target shot at, don’t raise it”.

“I think the language is irresponsible, especially given the Mormon Church’s history of violence. They have a sordid history of polygamy and massacres.”

He said he was not anti-Mormon but the religion was aggressive, racist and sexist.

Dr Richards said the website was an attempt to intimidate people who didn’t accept what the Mormons thought of themselves.

“If the Mormons don’t want to be known as a cult they have to stop acting as a cult. This list of supposed enemies and the language they have used is irresponsible, but I’m flattered to be on it with others such as the New York Times.”

New Zealand Temple Visitors Centre director Paul Ashton said the Church did not have any response.

“Many people have called us a cult in the past, but we just tend to ignore it. We encourage people to read and study and find out for themselves. I feel sorry for people who tend to try and fault us.”

In 1998, Mormon students charged Dr Richards with harassment after he said the religion was started as a scam by convicted fraudster Joseph Smith. He said the religion didn’t allow freedom of thought and academics needed to be alerted to that danger.

Dr Richards was to present a paper called The Mormon Challenge at the university’s Fulbright American Studies Conference in July.

June 27 2003

Creationists in Our Midst Again

Answering Answers in Genesis

The young earth creationists have been active again … the Australian-based group Answers in Genesis (AIG), has been doing the circuit in New Zealand. Warnings on the Skeptics email list had alerted us to the fact that Carl Wieland, the head of AIG, was coming over to pollute young Kiwi minds so this was an opportunity we couldn’t and shouldn’t miss. Wieland is very influential in creationist circles, having produced many books, pamphlets and videos, and is really the driving force behind their main publications Creation Ex Nihilo and the impressively, but inappropriately, named Technical Journal (or “TJ” as they lovingly refer to it). It thus promised to be a good chance to see Wieland in action first hand and to get some clues as to how to handle him next time he appears on our shores.

The Practice Sessions

There was an opportunity to get a little practice in before the big event as their New Zealand CEO, Adrian Bates, was doing a run around some of the churches on the Coromandel at the end of March. I went along to both of his church meetings one Sunday, one in Whitianga and one in Coromandel. Bates was a little surprised to find a skeptic in church (so was I!), but kept smiling ever so sweetly as he tried to explain to me just how the two kiwis from the beached Ark managed to walk all the way from Mt Ararat to NZ (just how did the worms manage to outrun them and breed fast enough to provide enough food?). I found that once I asked a slightly (alright, very) heretical question then others in the audience plucked up the courage to query some of his comments also, which was very encouraging.

So Bates was easy, but I knew that Wieland was a consummate professional and would be a bit more savvy re skeptics and their stupid questions. Nevertheless it was good to go along and pick up some of their publications (there’s now one of their videos in the Skeptics Video Library). Also they tend to use the same overheads from talk to talk so it’s all good preparation for the next time.

The Big Ones

Wieland’s meetings in Auckland at the end of May were really big time. Held over two days the first one was billed as a six hour seminar and took place in the huge Greenlane Christian Centre. It was packed — about 250 people I estimated, and only 4 skeptics. Where were they all, I kept thinking. Megan Mills competently represented the Auckland Skeptics, and veteran creationist busters, David Riddell and Annette Taylor from the Waikato joined me in the lion’s den yet again. It was an interesting session. Wieland proved to be, as we expected, a well-practised and confident speaker and soon had the audience lapping it all up. They especially liked the bits where he ridiculed science and scientists with funny(?) cartoons and snide remarks and slogans (“from goo to you via the zoo”). This one thing perhaps riled me more than anything — you don’t mind them just being stupid, but when they try and make scientists look like a bunch of ignorant idiots I feel one has to stand up and be counted. The anti-science lobby in New Zealand is strong enough without some Aussie idiot coming over here to further poison our children’s minds with this drivel.

Wieland was a much better speaker than his colleague, a Steve Kumar, who held forth for an hour or so between Wieland’s sessions and I noticed a few of the faithful nodding off as he spoke. No doubt they’ll be punished in due course!

For the last session Wieland was in charge again and he rather worryingly asked for questions to be written on pieces of paper and placed in a box on stage to be answered before he would take questions from the floor (“if there was time”). After all there was a room full of publications, videos, games, CDs, puzzles, magazines, etc. that people had to have a chance to purchase. And they did! Time and again they ran out of “special” packs of his little paperback books at $125 a piece. I was flabbergasted — the turnover for the weekend must have been in excess of $10,000 I would estimate. Not to mention the donations in the offering buckets (I saw many $20 bills) and all the subscriptions to Creation ex Nihilo he signed up — a huge ongoing source of funds for this highly profitable, non-taxed multinational business (“non-profit” — yeah, right!).

Anyway, back to the questions. We decided that we would take our chances and try for questions from the floor rather than risk having them censored from the box. To his credit Wieland did answer a few curly ones from the box, but there were quite a few that he read to himself on stage and then quickly put right back as they were “the same as the last one”. Not very original, I thought! Finally the time did come for questions from the floor and I think we skeptics achieved some success. We did manage to dominate the question session and got to engage Wieland in debate from the floor at length. And again, to his credit, Wieland didn’t cut us off short and I was a bit unprepared for that! Whether we changed any minds amongst the believers is debatable. However, I do think we served as a good foil to his unquestioning dogma and I do believe that we may have stopped some people from swallowing his slick show hook, line and sinker.

The three meetings the next day were just as big and the last one had over 350 people in attendance. Interestingly, no questions were allowed from the floor for any of them. I also noted that Wieland did tone down some of the outrageous things he had been saying that we had challenged him on but that was probably only because I made sure he could see me watching him from the audience!

Is It Worth It?

So was it all worth the effort? I do believe so. It’s only the fence sitters that we have a chance of saving, but that alone is worth the seven-hour return drive, the costs, and time spent doing research on their techniques and ideas, etc. What’s the point of being a NZ Skeptic if all we do is talk amongst ourselves … there’s serious work to be done. They are after our children. I learnt at the Coromandel meeting that the pastor of the Elim church, who hosted Adrian Bates, is now the head of the Coromandel Area School BOT and has instigated little lunchtime religious chats for the kids. The science department is furious, as one would expect. So there’s lots for us to do. We must be vigilant and regularly scan the local church notices to see who’s coming to town. These creationists are not just a wacky overseas problem; they are in our community and in our schools right now. We all need to get involved and perhaps get sufficiently organised nationally so that no creationist meeting anywhere in NZ is without at least one skeptic in the audience.

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