The End Is Nigh – Or Thereabouts

Are the End Times drawing nigh? Are fires and floods from heaven on the brink of seething down in wrathful purge, damning the damned and raising the faithful? Is God’s finger poised on the panic button?

It could be, but I wouldn’t cancel the beach party on the evidence. Doom forecasters have been striking out with almost miraculous regularity since the dawn of time.

Putting the history of the end of the world into a fast 400 words isn’t easy. In fact it borders on madness. It’s like stuffing the entire Labour Party into a phone booth, except weirder. I mean, you can always push a Labour-packed phone booth off a cliff; but who’s going to push 400 words off a cliff? It doesn’t make sense. Armageddon does this to you after a while.

Disaster merchants have always been around, but it was the Christians who really put death and destruction on a pedestal when they gave us the Book of Revelation.

No one knows what this book means, but it’s so horrifically spectacular it doesn’t matter. More importantly, it doesn’t give any dates, thus giving open slather to soothsayers and paving the way for twenty centuries of inaccurate predictions.

Methods of prediction vary. For some it’s a case of creative arithmetic. Dates with big simple numbers, like 500, are good too. Anything goes in number juggling.

Christians, for instance, were driven to a near frenzy of ecstatic fear as year 1000 approached. Signs and portents were sought and found. The tension grew. Sinners repented in droves and fled to the hilltops. The time was nigh! But…

No worries! The Apocalypse should have been dated from the death of Christ instead of the birth. But…

In the early 1800s a New York farmer named William Miller made a two-year study of the Bible and was astonished to discover that the world would end in 1843! He gathered a sizable flock who put up with three false-alarms before losing interest. Refugees from Miller’s movement evolved into Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists, both doomsday fanciers.

The Witnesses maintained a healthy zero batting average by striking out in 1874, 1914 and 1975. Surprisingly, few left the church, which shows you how integral reason is to religion.

Hearing voices is another popular method of predicting doomsday. This process is known as channeling. Here the “prophet”, or channel, gets “the word” first-hand from angels or devils, or nowadays, mysterious space aliens. But in either case, the amount of reliable information received adds up the same — nilch!

Objective investigators are more inclined to explain channeling in terms of multiple-personality-disorders and related mental problems, rather than invisible space lizards… but try telling that to the faithful.

Little has changed over the years. The methods are eternally the same and the results are eternally wrong.

As the year 2000 approaches I predict many predictions.

Satanic Panic in Christchurch

There is a worldwide epidemic of satanic child abuse allegations. Are they true? Has satanic child abuse happened here in New Zealand?

The most extensive child sex abuse case to be heard in a New Zealand court was the Christchurch Civic Creche affair. Nor was this an ordinary sexual abuse case, for throughout the lengthy period of investigation and the initial depositions hearings, bizarre claims of ritual sexual abuse were made. There were several similarities between this case and a sexual abuse case which had first surfaced in the US ten years earlier in 1983 — the highly publicised McMartin preschool case in Los Angeles — which also dealt with claims of ritual sexual abuse. In both cases, claims were made of the existence of child pornography networks and satanic conspiracy.

Although New Zealand has frequently been judged a highly secularised society, claims of Satanism were widely accepted during the initial investigation into the Christchurch creche case, and were repeated during the depositions hearings. Indeed, the whole affair led to a moral panic concerning child sexual abuse which later spread throughout the country.

It is important to stress that a moral panic is not an entirely spontaneous public reaction to a perceived problem such as child sexual abuse. It is also a consciously planned course of action which involves one or a number of different interest groups. Panics concerned with sexual abuse cases in general often involve groups such as fundamentalist Christians, mental health professionals, social workers, law enforcement officers, and the media.

The events which led to this particular “satanic panic” in Christchurch can be traced to Christian fundamentalist groups and the direct import from the United States of the satanic ritual abuse scenario.

The Satanism scare in the United States gained momentum during the 1980s, in the aftermath of the religious cult scare of the 1970s. Christian fundamentalist interests — especially groups which subscribed to the belief that the “end time” had arrived and that satanic forces would be particularly strong during this period — were behind the moral panic which spread across the United States.

Additionally, some mental health professionals and law enforcement officers were prepared to disseminate the idea that Satanism was rife. Of these two groups, the former were often associated with adults who alleged that they were “survivors” of ritual sexual abuse.

Indeed, the origin of the modern Satanism scare can be traced to the earliest “survivor” account — the book Michelle Remembers, which was published in 1980 by Michelle Smith, co-authored by her therapist, later husband, Lawrence Pazder.

As the panic spread during the 1980s, the satanic scenario was broadened to incorporate such elements as large-scale child abduction, ritualistic abuse of children, human and animal sacrifice, and cannibalism.

Law enforcement officers, social workers, and mental health professionals provided the key secular network for spreading ideas of Satanism through their involvement in seminars and workshops aimed at combatting the satanic menace.

It was in this manner that the anti-satanic movement spread to Britain later in the 1980s, and eventually to New Zealand. American fundamentalist Christians, presenting themselves as “experts” in the field of ritual child abuse, were invited to speak at social worker and police seminars. One such “expert” visited Christchurch in August 1991 and was reported as saying that “satanic ritual abuse posed as great a threat to children as sexual abuse” (Christchurch Press, 27 August 1991).

Although the Satanism scare appears to cover a unique, if somewhat bizarre, series of events, it is in fact a development of earlier trends in the child protection movement.

Beginning in the 1960s with the “discovery” of the battered baby syndrome, by the late 1970s child protection became increasingly focused on sexual abuse. This was expanded during the 1980s when false claims were made (in the United States) that as many as 50,000 — or even 90,000 — children were abducted by strangers each year.

It was in the early 1980s that the first adult “survivor” accounts of satanic abuse began to emerge. Following such accounts, the child protection movement made claims that satanic cults were responsible for the majority of the child abductions. The most prominent claims came from an extensive network of social workers, police, and psychotherapists — groups which were already involved in the task of aiding child victims of adult exploitation. They assumed responsibility for this “new” form of child victimisation — satanic abuse — and thus were able to expand their organisational base.

It should also be noted that claims of satanic abuse incorporated psychological categories to explain victims’ behaviour. The psychological material is too complex to permit more than a brief summary here, but two important aspects should be mentioned.

First is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — a term used in the diagnosis of patients whose maladaptive behaviour could be explained by supposedly traumatic past experiences. PTSD, it has been suggested, is often coupled with multiple personality disorder (MPD) and “occult survivors” were typically attributed with this condition. Indeed, the “expert” mentioned earlier was reported as saying that MPD was the usual damage caused to children by satanic ritual abuse. He also argued that “about half the children suffering [MPD] had been victims of satanic ritual abuse” (Press, 27 August 1991).

A major factor in the diagnosis of “survivors” with PTSD and/or MPD was that patients’ denial was proof; any denial of involvement with satanic ritual was dismissed as a typical symptom of the underlying disorder.

The media’s role in spreading the Satanism scenario cannot be overlooked, since in the United States, Britain, and New Zealand, popular newspapers and television talk shows were very much involved. The New Zealand media, in September 1991 (shortly after reports of the visiting American sexual abuse therapist), reported a workshop presentation which was given at the Family Violence Prevention Conference in Christchurch. The main theme of this particular workshop was ritual abuse and was a prominent feature of the conference.

As co-ordinators of this workshop, the Ritual Action Group (RAG) were concerned with presenting ritual abuse as a serious threat to children in this country. Their presentation drew on both anti-cult and anti-Satanist literature, detailing a definition of ritual abuse, the situations in which it was likely to occur, and the signs parents should be looking for to determine whether their child had been abused.

There was a period of intensified media interest in claims of Satanism following the September conference and the RAG workshop. This included reports that police were stepping up investigations into ritualistic cults, following bizarre claims coming from Australia which told of satanic cults there. These cults were said to have links with child pornography rings, but they were also reported as killing and eating babies.

It was also reported at this time that a “prominent New Zealand policeman” had spent time in the United States studying techniques for investigating links between child pornography and Satanism: the same policeman had earlier been linked with the RAG group. It was during this period of intense media coverage that allegations of ritual abuse in the Christchurch Civic Creche began to surface.

Following similar patterns in the United States and Britain, the links between child pornography, organised sex rings, and ritual abuse have been a prominent feature of the Satanism scare in this country.

Although the first reports of Satanism appeared in 1991, it was not until a year later that a moral panic which focused on the sexual abuse of children broke. From early in 1992, a former male worker from the Christchurch Civic Creche had been under investigation for indecent assault and sexual violation of children. Subsequent events further amplified the panic — the abrupt closure of the civic creche; the police investigation into a “major paedophile ring” operating in New Zealand and reputed to have links with an international network of child pornography dealers; the leader of the Centerpoint commune facing charges of child sexual abuse; and sporadic claims of abuse emerging from other childcare centers around the country.

All these events occurred within the space of two months during the latter half of 1992. Although the Department of Social Welfare began to express concern about their rapidly increasing caseloads of child abuse, it was not until the news broke that four female co-workers were also alleged to have committed indecent assault and sexual violation of children at the creche that the panic gained full momentum. The creche case now took on elements of “organised” abuse rather than being one involving a lone “predatory” male abuser.

It was at this stage that the media concentrated on the bizarre nature of the case, with its alleged elements of ritual abuse. In particular, one alleged incident known as the “circle incident” provided a vivid image which enabled the media to locate this case within an established stereotype of ritual abuse. However, it was not only the media who made links between this case and the ritual abuse scenario. During the depositions hearings the mother of an alleged victim had called for an overseas “expert” on ritual abuse to be brought into the inquiry.

As the events leading to the Christchurch case have shown, religious concepts still feature in the public perception of problem conditions such as child sexual abuse and the amplification of deviance thus generated. This is despite the increasingly secularised nature of New Zealand society.

Christian fundamentalists in particular have been relatively successful in having their ideas on issues such as child pornography and alleged satanic abuse incorporated into the rhetoric of secular agencies such as social work, counselling, and law enforcement. It is no coincidence that this moral panic has focused on children given that, in periods of rapid social change and uncertainty such as New Zealand has experienced in recent years, children represent the hope for the future. This is likely to prove a recurrent theme of perceived social problems.

Church Hit With Judgement

A jury which in August ordered the Christian Science church to pay $US5.2 million ($NZ9.6 million) in damages in the diabetes death of an 11-year-old boy followed this by adding a further $US9 million in punitive damages.

A juror told reporters after that decision that the issue was not one of freedom of religion, but whether the boy had any choice in determining medical care which could have saved his life.

The boy’s mother had turned to the faith healing teachings of the church instead of traditional medicine when he fell ill.

The Hennepin County District Court jury had considered the punitive portion of the damages for several days after the actual damages award against members of the church, following a trial lasting five weeks.

The case involved the 1989 death of Ian Lundman of Independence, Minnesota, who succumbed after a sudden four-day bout with juvenile onset diabetes.

The boy’s father, Douglas, sued the boy’s mother — his ex-wife Kathy McKown — and her current husband William, as well as a nursing home affiliated with the First Church of Christ, Scientist, as well as a nurse, a church practitioner and another church official, charging negligence.

Lundman’s lawyers said it was the first US civil action involving a death and the church to go to trial.

Reuter

Dawkins on Theology

The British Independent recently ran an editorial not worth reproducing in the Skeptic. The editorial did, however, generate a vigorous response from Richard Dawkins which is worth thinking about.

Sir: In your dismally unctuous leading article asking for a reconciliation between science and “theology,” you remark that “people want to know as much as possible about their origins.” I certainly hope they do, but what on earth makes you think that “theology” has anything useful to say on the subject? Science is responsible for the following knowledge about our origins.

We know approximately when the universe began and why it is largely hydrogen. We know why stars form, and what happens in their interiors to convert hydrogen to other elements and hence give birth to chemistry in a world of physics. We know the fundamental principles of how a world of chemistry can become biology through the arising of self-replicating molecules. We know how the principle of self- replication gives rise, through Darwinian selection, to all life including humans.

It is science alone, that has given us this knowledge and given it, moreover, in fascinating, overwhelming, mutually confirming detail. On every one of these questions, theology has held a view that has been conclusively proved wrong. Science has eradicated smallpox, can immunise against most previously deadly viruses, can kill most previously deadly bacteria.

Theology has done nothing but talk of pestilence as the wages of sin. Science can predict when a particular comet will reappear and, to the second, when the next eclipse will occur. Science has put men on the moon and hurled reconnaissance rockets around Saturn and Jupiter. Science can tell you the age of a particular fossil and that the Turin Shroud is a medieval fake. Science knows the precise DNA instructions of several viruses and will, in the lifetime of many present readers of the Independent, do the same for the human genome.

What has “theology” ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has “theology” ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that is not either platitudinously obvious or downright false.

If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow there would be no doctors but witch-doctors, no transport faster than a horse, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference?

Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs and sonar-guided whaling vessels, work! The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t achieve anything, don’t even mean anything. What makes you think that “theology” is a subject at all?

Richard Dawkins, Oxford

The Effect of the Calendar on Climate

John Cole, editor of Creation/Evolution, recently wrote of his tendency toward hair-pulling, in the National Centre for Science Education Reports, Vol 12 No 2 (Summer 1992).

Anti-evolutionists continue to contradict optimists who would like to think that we’re about to enter the 21st Century. Unscientific and anti-scientific ideas abound in our society.

The coming Millennium has already inspired Millenarian thinking such as the writings of Hal Lindsay (The Late Great Planet Earth) — i.e., that the “End Times” are approaching with a “promise” of Armageddon (and that’s from the optimists!). The Lubbovitcher Rebbe recently declared that the Messiah is among us, so Jews, he says, should be ready to celebrate the end by 2000 (he hints that he may be the one).

We can expect a lot of craziness in the next few years because of the calendar. As an example of this, an environmental policymaker recently asked me for information about the projected effect of the millennium on the Earth’s magnetic field and climate. I was taken aback, at first, but I then tried to explain that “2000” was an arbitrary number — why not use the Jewish calendar, for example? 2000 is not even an accurate date if you accept it as meaning the number of years since the birth of Jesus — which scholars now treat as 4 to 7 years “B.C.” if they accept it at all. (And for that matter, 2001 C.E. begins the next millennium, not 2000.)

But this guy persisted — interested in my argument about the calendar, certainly, but still concerned. “Could you give me some references on that?” I was asked.

Examples like this show the need to keep trying, I think, rather than the futility of trying. (However, hair-pulling and discreet screaming may well be in order…)

Monkey Business

From Jerusalem comes news that Israel’s former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has ruled that trained monkeys may turn off lights or do other domestic chores forbidden to Jews on the sabbath. But only a borrowed monkey — or a dog or other animal capable of performing such tasks — can be used because their own beasts must be allowed to rest.

Skeptic Carl Wyant, who has sent us this information, says that it bugs him: “Apparently God doesn’t care if gentile monkeys get a day of rest or not.”

Angelic Sexism and the Politically Correct

Are Skeptics pussy-footing around by not attacking the major source of superstition and pseudoscience — religion?

With the reintroduction of serious Islam in Afghanistan, women are now required by law to cover themselves from head to foot.

“Yeah? So what?” you may ask. Well, supposing it read like this: “Intergalactic messengers impose harsh dress-code on Afghani sheilas”.

Some months ago, I wrote a letter of genuine inquiry to the Skeptic. My question revolved around NZCSICOP’s apparent lack of interest in religion and big-time superstition. I figured it was a mundane question and would no doubt bring me a pre-written blurb on the subject in the return mail. Little did I know that when I mailed that accursed letter I was blundering into a csicopian missile-testing range.

To correct any possible misunderstanding, I should first explain that far from trying to “destroy belief” or run an anti-God show, my interest in this caper is to protect people’s right to believe whatever they want. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to charge psychic batteries with the AEtherius Society, astral travel to Jupiter with Ankar 22, or even embrace the “satanic manifestations” of NZCSICOP, go for it. Furthermore, I happen to believe in, dare I say it, God. But when it comes to putting a gun to someone’s head and saying “believe or die”, call me a spoil-sport, but this is where I have to draw the line.

God and religion are totally different issues. God is so far out of the human ball-park it’s practically pointless to even speculate on it. Religion, on the other hand, is available for investigation and the claim that “religious beliefs are untestable” is not altogether true.

Religion doesn’t have anything to do with God, but it has everything to do with channeling. And I strongly suspect that the channeling syndrome can be explained in terms of divided consciousness or multiple-personality disorders.

Traditionally, religious channels receive telepathic messages from angels, The resulting revelations rarely, if ever, contain information beyond the general knowledge of the day. When the “prophet” dies, the chief followers promptly introduce legislation declaring that “the truth” has been revealed and further revelation is unnecessary and will henceforth be regarded as blasphemy; thus guarding their own interests against spiritual interlopers. Consequently religions start out as revolutionary movements, but quickly turn into oppressive, reactionary regimes.

Today the tradition continues, but instead of angels we get “the word” from extraterrestrial Space Brothers. Uri Geller, for example, gets his power from the supernatural intelligence Hoova. And like the forefathers, he is not partial to being examined on the subject. You must simply believe.

If religions were the warm fuzzy creations New Zealanders seem to think they are, there wouldn’t be a problem. But religions are not cute and cuddly. It’s noteworthy that every time issues like the death penalty or corporal punishment appear in the news, New Zealand’s own sanitised, user-friendly brand of Christianity is the first one out there, in a near paroxysm of blood lust, fully endorsing them.

One respondent’s suggestion that “those challenging religious beliefs [can] do so elsewhere as atheistic or political groups” is a moot point; it could likewise be said that skeptical time is wasted on pseudoscience because the information is already covered by the scientific community.

Could some Skeptics possibly be suffering from the weird new-age malady known as political correctness? Holy smoke! Islam doesn’t just sue its critics, it kills them. I have a whole file of writers who have been snuffed or jailed by the fun-loving followers of The Prophet. Yet, mysteriously, it is not politically correct to say anything about it.

The invariable reply to all this is, “but that’s what those people believe. It’s OK for them to enslave women, kill writers and practice zany medicine.”

Great! But why don’t the “beliefs” of Europeans and Americans command the same “respect”?

I fully support the notion of freedom of belief and have never advocated a “crusade against organised religion”. I do feel, however, that the components of religion at least, fall easily within the scope of NZCSICOP. But no worries! I have promised The Editor that I’ll never mention the subject again. La illah il-Allah!

Forum

Unconvinced Environmentalist

Your main article in the March issue (Skeptic, #23), “The Skeptical Environmentalist” by Vincent Gray, is perhaps the worst I have ever read. It consists almost entirely of bald assertions, all un- referenced and mostly false, vilifying unspecified “environmentalists”. I shall take room to correct only the worst of these assertions; my main complaint about the piece is more formal, namely that it is unrelated to the NZCSICOP’s aims, and on that ground alone should never have been printed in the magazine.

On the level of fact, Gray is almost completely astray. He admits “there are still people without enough to eat” but claims there’s lately been a “reduction in the likelihood of famine”. This is but one of a dozen major falsehoods in the article. More people are starving than ever, half a billion are severely malnourished, and the prospect is for yet worse famines. The “world glut of food” which Gray asserts is a cruel myth”.

Gray asserts “Green policies are unlikely to help solve these problems. Indeed they may exacerbate them.” No reasoning, or fact, is offered to support these contentions. The truth, by contrast, is that erosion of ecosystems’ productive capacities has already proceeded very far. I entreat readers to seek out the reputable sources which I have mentioned, and ascertain the facts on these crucial matters.

Gray’s main method is the well known “straw man” technique. He claims we have made exaggerated statements which he then knocks down, but many of the statements I have never seen before. Yet others that he mocks are not exaggerated, e.g., that human activities have “depleted resources”. Why would anyone want to mock that accurate statement?

He tries to make out that environmentalists have avoided the issue of population growth (while also accusing us of scaremongering with the term “population explosion”). I would concede that some sections of the environmental movement have indeed underplayed this issue, but as a generality, he’s wrong. It has been widely agreed that the four main categories of environmental problem are pollution, overpopulation, resource depletion and militarism. To the extent that population growth has been insufficiently curbed, the blame must be found largely elsewhere, not in failure of advocacy by environmentalists.

Gray suggestes that because weather forecasting is of limited reliability (though not totally unreliable as his unspecified “one study” claims) climate projections, e.g. nuclear winter, must be implausible. This is fallacious. A major global perturbation, such as a huge sooty cloud spreading over much of the planet or a 30% increase in the carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere, will cause results more confidently predictable than the very delicate quasi- random day-to-day changes of mere weather. Artificial climate change (a more accurate term than “global warming”) is accordingly predicted by almost all the relevant experts who have examined the issue. Gray does readers a severe disservice by trying to present a different picture.

Perhaps his gravest accusation is “lack of attention to human welfare when it conflicts with environmental dogma”. The leading environmentalists (such as Edward Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist) have consistently maintained that it is only by taking care of Nature that humans can prosper. Trying to set up a phoney conflict “environment versus humanity” is an ignorant and mischievous distraction.

I cannot fathom why the editor of NZ Skeptic would contemplate such deceptive rubbish which furthermore is irrelevant to the purposes of NZCSICOP, to which I therefore do not renew my subscription.

Robert Mann, Editor, NZ Environment

CO2 and the Economy

While I agree with the points in Dr Gray’s article that some environmentalists use bad science and may appear to ignore population pressures on resources, I find the remainder of the article flawed.

The uncritical acceptance of the statement that a 20% reduction in CO2 will deepen New Zealand’s current recession, create more unemployment and inhibit exports is particularly disappointing.

Obviously a CO2 reduction strategy will produce growth and investment in some businesses, such as the large insulation manufacturer I work for and reduce the importance of othr businesses such as coal mining.

Overall, I see a net economic and social benefit to New Zealand from a considered strategy to reduce CO2 emissions. The research by many energy specialists both in New Zealand and overseas seems to support my understanding.

If global warming due to CO2 proceeds as predicted by a majority of the world’s climatologists, it will result in massive and costly environmental damge. After CFCs, acid rain and DDT, perhaps it is better to be cautious rather than careless.

I feel it was unfortunate that such a polarised view of environmentalists was published without a counter point.
Mark Stacey, Auckland

Scientific Reasoning

The views expressed by school teachers cited by M Carol Scott (Skeptic 23) exemplify a widespread shortcoming of science education at secondary and indeed tertiary level: its failure to inculcate scientific reasoning modes.

Science teaching appears to exhibit two main modes of transmission:

The “Gospel Truth” delivery style: “this is how things are,” usually employed when dealing with noncontroversial “hard facts,” such as acid/alkali reactions, Newton’s laws, or the digestive system of a rat.

  • The “Article of Faith” approach: “scientists believe that,” used when dealing with potentially controversial or non-deductively demonstrable models like stellar and biological evolution.

Laboratory work in educational institutions is usually only to illustrate what has been pre-taught; in my day “experiments” at school were “to prove that…” They were not at all experimental, and contained not a vestige of the epistemological processes which characterise “real” science in their design or execution. Since then, Discovery Learning methods have become more fashionable, but I would debate the assertion that they achieve little more than the Classical methods do in practice.

Do most degree holders in science really have a background in which scientific thinking was paid much formal attention to? To what extent do secondary science teacher training courses train aspirants to develop scientific reasoning processes in school pupils? In the case of my own first degree and teacher training, these questions are purely rhetorical. Now that I am on the other side of the lecturer’s bench, I am giving such matters a great deal of thought.

Science is not what scientists “believe” (that word describes the claims of both fundamentalists and palaeontologists!) and science is not an amorphous compendium of “facts.” It is an epistemological process which has evolved since the Renaissance. It is a way of thinking.

An introduction to science at first-year university level (compulsory for all BSC students) should feature a priming session of several weeks on the history and philosophy of science, and scienitific epistemology (The Scientific Method, as opposed to “scientific methods”). School science should similarly aim less for fact-cramming and more for cognitive development and the inculcation of scientific reasoning abilities.

Until we do just that, I believe that words like “evidence,” “theory,” and “chance” will remain forever incomprehensible to the general public, not to mention many of the teachers wbo produce that general public.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek, Goroka, PNG

If we are to teach epistemology in a basic science course, which epistemology is appropriate? In my experiance, Popperian falliblism is the most useful way to introduce philosophy of science to science students. Popper is hardly the last word (philosophical questions don’t have last words), but he does give students a useful structure for distinguishing legitimate science from religion and — most importantly — from pseudoscience. -DD

Light Hats

That photograph of the “light hat” (Skeptic 24) is a beauty! But as foolish as it seems, there may well be some reasonable scientific evidence to support its use.

There is a good body of scientific literature regarding seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and its treatment (including shining light on the patient and by taking a variety of medicines), despite the rather convenient-sounding acronym. There are four subtypes noted in DSM-III- R, the well-known psychiatry manual.

Research into the aetiology and treatment of SAD was sparse prior to the 1980s, but came of age rapidly in the middle of that decade, mainly under the impetus of Rosenthal and colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health, Maryland, in the United States. Numerous well-designed clinical studies were published by this group.

The mechanism of the action of “phototherapy” (shining light on the patient, as in the photograph) remains controversial. Many researchers agree on the involvement of melatonin, suggesting that undiminished melatonin secretion during the months of shorter photoperiod may have a depressant effect. This is based on the observation that light exposure during phototherapy suppresses melatonin secretion; the first treatments with phototherapy were based on the original biological observation that seasonal rhythms in animals depended on photoperiod. The mismatch of melatonin and photoperiod in the human has been described as a “phase delay,” and as a “desynchronisation between solar and biological clocks.” Phototherapy aims to artificially extend the sufferer’s photoperiod. The first report of a portable unit was I think in 1990.

Drug therapy is not usually the first line of treatment for recognised SAD, but at least four groups of compounds have been used: beta- blockers, serotonin precursors and serotonin releasing compounds, benzodiazepines and monoamine-oxidase inhibitors.

There are obvious difficulties in carrying out conventional blind cross-over placebo-controlled trials in the assessment of the usefulness of phototherapy, but results thus far have prompted some to suggest that it would be wise to screen patients with major depression for a seasonal component.

A line in Morin’s 1990 paper states that SAD frequently improves with “travel toward the equator”. Suffering as we are now through a Christchurch winter, it’s easy to agree!

John Britten, Christchurch