Skepticism’’s Mirror Ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School of thought

Adam van Langenberg gives practical suggestions on how to run a high school skeptical society, based on his own successful experience.

In late 2010 I was fortunate enough to see noted US skeptics Rebecca Watson and Brian Dunning speak at the La Notte restaurant in Melbourne. As entertaining as these talks were, what really grabbed my attention was local skeptic Richard Saunders’ demonstration of the Power Balance scam. The more he demonstrated, the angrier I became. Angry because I’m a high school teacher and a lot of my students (and a few of our teachers) were wearing these things. Five minutes earlier I didn’t even know what they were; I had assumed they were one of those charity bands you see everywhere. Now my protective instincts were kicking in and I wanted to help my kids from getting sucked into this scam.

At school the next day I showed several of my classes the applied kinesiology techniques the salespeople were using. The students thought the tricks were very cool and a lot of embarrassed bracelet wearers suddenly started justifying their fashion choices:

“It was a gift!”

“I found it on the footpath!”

Mostly, though, they stopped wearing them.

The success of this led me to create the McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society. We meet once a week and spend our lunch hour discussing specific pseudosciences, critical thinking techniques and debating the merits of scepticism. A brief speech at a school assembly brought over 100 students to the first sessions (a mass Zener ESP experiment) but numbers are now more stable with 20 – 40 kids on average.

One of the things that has surprised me about the group is how young most of the students in it are. By far, the majority are in year 7 and 8. I typically have around 20 students at those levels each week and about 5 – 10 from other year levels. I was a little worried that this might lessen the amount of deep discussion we could have but, as you’ll read later, I needn’t have been.

Favourite topics so far have included three weeks on logical fallacies and a month spent teaching the children how to cold read. I may have created some monsters here because they turned out to be quite gifted at it.

I truly believe that critical thinking and scepticism belongs in our school’s curriculum. Until that day comes, we are relying on teachers to inject it into their classrooms themselves. Unfortunately I don’t see a lot of this. I know at least one science teacher who fervently believes that aliens have been landing on the Earth for many years and I worry about how many of their students have been taught to believe this.

I think that a sceptical society is the next best thing, as it brings the concept of scepticism into the community. People refer to me as “Mr Sceptic” (and occasionally “the dream crusher”) and many students and teachers have approached me for my thoughts on various ideas. “Sceptical” is now a word being used more and more at my school. My ultimate goal is to have every student understand what scepticism is and just how rewarding it can be.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I consider to be important when running a group like this. What follows are my ideas.

Make the sessions fun and relevant

Hopefully this one is a no-brainer. Children can have very short attention spans and if they’re not enjoying themselves, why would they continue? They’re forced to be in my maths classes so I can be as boring as I like but the sceptical society is totally optional. This is why I try to make my talks funny. It’s why I throw in as many jokes as I can. If you’re being funny, kids will listen because they want to hear the next joke. And if you can sneak in a bit of good stuff between the jokes they’ll probably learn something too.

There are plenty of fun activities around the internet that you can run. There’s an ESP experiment on the JREF site and Richard Saunders has videos up of water dowsing and ‘can you tell if somebody is staring at you?’ experiments. There are lots of astrological ideas as well, such as having astrological descriptors up around the room and asking students to try to guess which one is theirs. Activities like this can be real drawcards and get kids coming along who might not have ordinarily been interested.

That’s a key point – a ‘sceptical society’ probably won’t draw a huge crowd, but an experiment to see if anybody is psychic probably will.

Relevancy is also very important. We talked about Power Balance bands because all of the kids knew about them. They’ll all be aware of psychics, aliens and ghosts so those are topics that come up a lot. The vaccine debate probably isn’t at the front of their minds and it doesn’t come up as often, but it does come up occasionally and you’ll be pleased to know that the anti-vaccination mindset makes them very angry.

It’s important to follow the news and select the things that you think will interest them.

Don’t make it a science club

Be aware that to most teenagers ‘science’ means sitting in a classroom while a teacher talks about a bunch of boring stuff. You might get to do the odd experiment but there often isn’t that sense of mystery and beauty that we know science is all about.

So when I say don’t make it a science club, what I really mean is don’t make it an obvious science club. Sneak the science in. Make it a club about ghost hunting and astrology debunking and homeopathy ridiculing. While you’re doing that, briefly explain how you could use this thing called ‘single blinding’ to make an experiment. Then maybe throw in some ‘double blinding’ to show them how to make it better.

The next thing you know, your kids have learnt a bit of science and they’ve learnt why it’s important. If you’ve done your job right they’ll also have learnt why it’s just so damn cool.

Probably don’t make it a secular club

A few people from the sceptical community have gotten upset with me about this, some suggesting that if I’m not actively turning my students against religion then I’m basically wasting my time. Let me explain why I think this is a bad idea.

First of all, I think it’s a really fast way to get yourself shut down. Sure, a lot of schools have Christian, Muslim and Jewish societies so you could argue discrimination if you came under attack but I don’t think you’d get very far. Sometimes it only takes one angry phone call from a parent to get something cancelled.

More importantly, you don’t want to exclude religious people from your group. A lot of the kids who come along to my club are Christian or Jewish. The last thing I want is for them to feel unwelcome. I steer clear of religious topics for that reason alone. If somebody brings up testable religious claims (such as creationism) I’m always happy to discuss them, but I will never make them the focus of the session.

A lot of my children come from very religious families, who could quickly make a complaint and ban their kids from turning up. My kids all know that I believe in the big bang and the theory of evolution. My kids also know that I can have a respectful conversation with them about it, even if they disagree with me. There are plenty of other topics out there worth discussing.

Prepare to be asked about anything

One day I had an entire session planned around psychics. About five minutes in, a kid asked me if I thought it was alright to tell little kids that Santa exists. Normally I would have told them to wait until the end but most people in the room seemed genuinely interested in my answer. This answer turned into a conversation about the history of Santa, the philosophy of lying and funny Santa stories.

Should I have stopped the discussion and gone back to the psychics? Absolutely not. I knew I could always talk about psychics next week. Children’s minds are so inquisitive and always on the go. The most surprising things can interest them without warning. Go with it. The trick is to have as much knowledge as you can on many different topics. Being a specialist in a particular field is great, but it doesn’t really help when running something like this for kids. In my position, it is better to know a little about a lot of topics, rather than vice versa. Of course, the more I know about as much as possible, the better I can do my job.

Don’t dumb things down

If there’s one thing that never ceases to amaze me about children, it is their almost unlimited capacity for impressively inventive cruelty. If there’s one other thing, it’s how much they actually understand. A couple of months ago a boy in my class started talking about transvestites. He wanted to know whether all transvestites were gay. A few others responded by suggesting that some of them probably are but not all of them. What followed was a wonderfully respectful and inquisitive classroom discussion. I sat back and watched, marvelling at how mature and understanding they were being. What really impressed me was that these children were 12.

Don’t assume that kids can’t handle ‘grown up’ topics. Medical minutiae might go over their heads but it doesn’t mean that they can’t ponder the issues involved. Want to talk about the ethics involved in prescribing placebos? They can handle it. Want to discuss terminally ill people reaching out to alternative medicine as a last resort? Go for it, just be prepared to handle some potentially delicate questions.

Children are easily influenced, so influence wisely

Children pick up everything, from diseases to attitudes. I don’t like angry, condescending adults so I don’t want my kids turning into them. We all know that you don’t change people’s beliefs with ridicule and personal attacks, so why start developing those habits in kids now?

When we discussed homeopathy, some of my students started laughing at people who use it. Obviously, anybody who believes in homeopathy is an idiot and deserves to be ridiculed. I don?t blame them for thinking this way because they are still very young, but it needed to be stamped out immediately. What if the patients were referred to a homeopath by a GP? What if they have no idea how it works? What if they’re at death’s door and are desperately trying something different as a last resort?

If you teach kids to look down on victims of pseudoscience, you are teaching them to be insensitive and arrogant. Kids need to understand that all people should be treated with respect and that everybody is worth listening to. Unless, of course, they’re a filthy scumbag con-artist who is knowingly ripping people off. In that case, go right ahead and tear them a new one.

Inspiring Aussies and dodgy waiters

After almost 15 years of intermittently tagging along with her parents, Iris Riddell reports on her first official attendance at a NZ Skeptics Conference.

I attended my first ever Skeptics conference this year. Well, that’s not entirely true. Technically, I’ve been coming along since I was six years old, but critical analysis and conferences in general aren’t so interesting at that age. Rather, I attended my first ever Skeptics conference that I fully appreciated. I came away from the Christchurch get-together in August with my head in a spin, inspired by the lectures I’d witnessed and the people I’d spoken to.

One of those people and one of the biggest highlights for me was Kylie Sturgess, educator, writer, blogger and podcaster extraordinaire. She winged her way over from Australia with Dr Martin Bridgstock especially for the conference, and shared with us the results of a study they recently conducted, regarding what the average Queenslander believes in.

The session that really got me buzzing was one of theirs, about activism, the future of skepticism and the two cultures it is starting to sprout. Martin Bridgstock said skepticism is divided into two camps: he called the first group “the old grumpies” and cheerfully lumped himself in that category. The grumpies tend to be older people who belong to structured organisations, whereas the second group is far younger, and connect via podcasts, blogs and forums as well as casual social gatherings. I was so set off by this discussion that I’ve started making motions toward organising a Skeptics in the Pub event for Hamilton, but that’s another story.

I was surprised at the diverse age range at the Christchurch conference. There appeared to be a lot of people my own age (I’ve just turned 21) or not much older. Sure, there were still plenty of the “old grumpies” that Martin Bridgstock so proudly associates himself with, but there were definitely a lot of younger people, too. As someone often frustrated by the lack of critical thinking in the majority of my peer group, it gave me hope to see so many young skeptics.

The Friday night entertainment was a quiz on all things skeptical, with a bonus challenge to write a limerick as a group. These were gathered up and read out over the course of the next three days, and there were some very funny and clever ones to come out of the mix. I’ve never heard so many poems about alternative medicine, horoscopes and Ken Ring in one place.

I have to say, unfortunately, that the waiting staff at the venue for the Saturday night dinner were very unprofessional and had little respect for personal boundaries. I first noticed something amiss when I glanced up the table to see Gold, the chair-entity, receiving a rather sensuous head massage. “That’s odd,” I thought, and returned to my conversation. Moments later, one of them was looming over me. “Excuse me, ma’am. We’ve had a complaint about the state of the cutlery. Fancy a spit shine?” By the end of the meal they were zigzagging precariously up and down the unoccupied dining tables, a bottle of wine in each hand, singing loudly. I don’t think anyone was surprised when, once the food had been dispatched, they announced that they were members of a local theatre group, and the evening wound up with a short improv performance. For the record – the actual kitchen staff was polite, efficient, and served up some wonderful meals.

Some of the other notable lectures were earthquake expert Mark Quigley on forecasting quakes (see p 8 – there were at least three detectable aftershocks over the weekend, including one during a conference session), a wonderful photographic presentation by Simon Pollard on how different cultures commemorate the dead, and a talk by Puzzling World founder Stuart Landsborough on his psychic challenge and experiences with mediums. All around it was a thoroughly thought-provoking and inspiring conference, and a great experience for a first-timer like me … an almost first-timer, at least.

Some limericks – and a clerihew – from the Friday quiz night

Jenny McCarthy knew that she oughta
Do what was best for her daughter
But how to appease
Her daughter’s disease?
Give a 10C solution of water.

There once was a preacher named Ray
Who would eat a banana a day
He claimed they were godly
But skeptics looked oddly
At him and his fruity DNA.

To give me a homeopathic gin
Is an absolute mortal sin
I had a hangover so chronic
I needed a 14C tonic.

Sir Isaac Newton
Never slept on a futon
His 3 Laws of Motion
Were one hell of a notion.

Irrationality waxes once again

There are times when the world seems to run along quietly from day to day, with very little happening. Then there are times like these. There are the ongoing aftershocks in Christchurch, many of them big enough in their own right to qualify as major quakes at any other time. There was the far larger earthquake in Japan, with its ensuing slow-motion nuclear disaster. There are wars and revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa which seem set to transform the politics of those regions. Millennial anxieties are on the rise once more.

It’s only to be expected at such times that irrationality should flourish. When natural disasters strike at random, many have a desperate need to seek some kind of pattern, or cause. Hence the attention given to Ken Ring’s claim to have used phases of the moon and solar activity to predict the Christchurch quakes – if the experts can’t say when earthquakes will strike (though the general pattern of aftershocks has actually followed GNS’s forecasts quite well) then there is a niche for those who claim they can. Many skeptical bloggers (eg Peter Griffin, Matthew Dentith, Alison Campbell, Darcy Cowan and particularly the Silly Beliefs team) have dealt with Ring’s claims; we add our five cents’ worth later in this issue.

Meanwhile in the US, many commenters on internet forums are putting the Japan earthquake down to karma for Pearl Harbour. Also in that country self-proclaimed prophet Harold Camping is raising quite a stir with his calculation that the Rapture will occur on May 21 this year – 19 months before the 2012 buffs’ choice for the Big Day. Camping says of the current upheavals: “There are still people that God has to save, and he uses them to get them to cry out for his mercy.”

There’s not much sign of that happening yet in Christchurch, where the citizens are more intent on helping themselves and each other, rather than seeking divine assistance. Slowly the city is getting back on its feet, despite ongoing tremors; life is returning. A small sign of that is that the NZ Skeptics annual conference will once again be held there, from 26 to 28 August. Register with the form mailed out with this issue, or do it on-line at

Christchurch always seems to have had more than its share of Skeptics, many of whom have been seriously affected by the quakes. It will be good for us to get together once again, to share the strength of our usually far-flung community.

Why are we crying into our beer?

The battle between the Enlightenment and Romantic traditions is far from over, though it has taken on new forms. This article is abridged from a presentation to the NZ Skeptics Conference, 2004.

P J O’Rourke famously asked “Here we are, the longest lived, healthiest, wealthiest, best educated, best fed generation that has ever lived — so why are we crying into our beer?” This question begs the reverse question “Why are some of us not crying into our beer?”

Many of us recognise that we are indeed well off and are optimistic about the future. Virginia Postrel has recognised the existence of two cultures, in a political sense, in her book, The Future and its Enemies. In this she divides people into two groups, the stasists, who fear the future, and the dynamists who enjoy change, choice and the multiple futures which lie before us.

The Root Cause

Previously I have argued that these big debates about the nature of our world continue to reflect the contest between the conflicting traditions of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism. Of course these traditions overlap in their influence on all our lives. The most reasonable of us is likely to have some affection for nature. So we are talking about positions on a spectrum.

My earlier argument was that:

  • Socialism is the dark side of the Enlightenment tradition — if we can use science to design a bridge then we can use science to design Europe.
  • Fascism is the dark side of the Romantic tradition — Fascism is anti-reason, believes that truth is culturally constructed, looks to the racial wisdom of the “volk” and promotes the need for great leaders to tells the masses what truths are holistically true.
  • Communism combines these two dark sides into an engineered utopia which also accepts fascistic leadership to reveal the truth of the Marxist “book”.

All three belief systems maintained that the modern world is too complex to depend on spontaneous order, and must be planned, and that wise men must therefore direct and control the rest of us. The alternative was economic chaos. There are many people who are happy to be planned and only too many who are happy to do the planning. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the belief systems which shored it up, these models are no longer there — but the conflict between reason and romanticism remains. And the controllers are always waiting in the wings. The new controllers have identified a new chaos or dystopia. They say that our population, wealth and technology and consumption is destroying the planet, or will do so in future, unless, of course, the environmental planners take control and manage our lives so as to avoid this future.

The Two Views

These two conflicting cultures have differing views on the environment. The people of the Enlightenment tradition, or the dynamists, are concerned about the environment because they live in it, and know that their enjoyment of life depends on clean surroundings. They know that as people get wealthier they become increasingly concerned about the quality of their physical environment. At a certain income per capita people want clean water, at a somewhat higher income they want clean air, and at a higher income again they want clean soil, waterways and visual amenity etc. Which is where we are.

We are rich enough to care about the environment and have the discretionary wealth to do something about it. Truly poor people focus on finding tomorrow’s breakfast. The truly poor people of the past were responsible for the great megafaunal extinctions.

However, the Romantics interpret our care for the environment as a sign of our willingness to make penance for our sinful consumption and that everything wrong with the environment is our fault. We have sinned against nature and must be punished for our sins.

Global warming presents the perfect punishment — we shall be burnt in the heat of a greenhoused Earth. A new group, Powerless New Zealand, are convinced we are about to run out of fossil fuels and have cheerfully predicted that only two billion of our present six billion will survive this century. No doubt they continue to believe we shall be cooked in greenhouse gases at the same time because many nature worshippers are able to believe in two impossible things before every breakfast.

How are these alternate views expressed?

Environmental law

After almost a century of neglect there is now much discussion of the role of private property in promoting personal freedom and generating wealth. Property and Freedom by Richard Pipes, and The Mystery of Capital by Hernando de Soto are two excellent examples. Both implicitly support the view that environmental law should maximise human welfare.

Klaus Bosselmann and David Grinlinton, of Auckland University’s School of Environmental Law, reject the “anthropocentric” view that environmental law should focus on managing adverse effects on the environment in order to maximise human welfare. This “anthropocentric” view, reflected in the concept of sustainable management within the Resource Management Act (RMA), assumes that there is not much point in being rich if you cannot swim in the sea, breathe the air, or drink the water.

Instead, Bosselmann and Grinlinton’s collection promotes an “ecocentric” world view which assumes “that nature with all its life forms has intrinsic value independently from any instrumental values for humans.” The ecocentric view assumes that nature exists in stable harmony and that extinctions and similar catastrophes can be prevented by human action — or inaction. Unfortunately, nature does not see it this way. As John Gribbin explains in Deep Simplicity, virtually all species are now extinct, and every surviving species is at equal risk of extinction at any time. We occupy a biosphere continually on the edge of chaos. The ecocentric view also assumes that the purpose of environmental law is to protect nature from human activity. We are the problem and our welfare ranks below the welfare of “nature”.

Most authors introduce us to Rousseau’s thoughts on property rights with the following quote from his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality: “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murder, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: “Do not listen to this impostor. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!”

Rousseau’s assault on private property reflected his recent discovery of “the state of nature” enjoyed by “the noble savages” of Tahiti and elsewhere.

Rousseau clearly flagged that nature worship leads to an assault on private property in favour of communal ownership and governance. Bosselmann and Ginlinton appear to be happy with Rousseau’s position, and appear equally comfortable with contemporary equivalents of the “noble savage” who uphold their own ecocentric view.

Their collection includes a chapter by Andrea Tunks, lecturer in the Auckland University Faculty of Law from 1994–2001, which records her “indigenous vision” of sustainable development, which suggests:
“… indigenous peoples see ‘the West’ as responsible for cumulative environmental degradation and environmental catastrophe. This is due to its economic and political ideologies which do not have a holistic and spiritual understanding of the environment nor the humility attached to being one small part of a complex web of environmental systems.”

Ms Tunks then quotes from Maori Marsden’s Kaitiakitanga: A definitive introduction to the Holistic World View of Maori, written for the Ministry for the Environment in 1992:
“Man is the conscious mind of Mother Earth and plays a vital part in the regulation of her life support systems and man’s duty is to support and enhance these systems. The tragedy however is that when these first principles are forsaken and Mother Earth is perceived as a commodity and her natural resources as disposable property … man becomes a pillager, despoiler and rapist of his own mother.”

One wonders if Rousseau himself dropped in on early New Zealand and shared a few thoughts with the locals.

The Bosselmann and Grinlinton collection honestly acknowledges that ecocentric environmental law inevitably undermines private property and the freedoms we associate with the Open Society. The authors see man as a tool of nature and nature’s needs must determine what we can or cannot do. Once again, human beings are subservient to the state, but this time it’s “the state of nature”.

These ecocentric arguments are mounted by intellectuals sitting in the comfortable affluence of Western societies, which have generated sufficient wealth to allow them to promote the welfare of insects and rocks above the welfare of their fellow human beings. They can even afford to espouse the animist wisdom of indigenous peoples over the scientific traditions of the Open Society.

Hernando de Soto sees a different world. In the Mystery of Capital he asks why capitalism works in the West and fails everywhere else. De Soto is a third world economist who finds millions of people living short, brutish and poverty stricken lives within an environment which poses a continual threat to their health, safety and longevity.

These people have no great affection for their “state of nature” and want both the wealth and health of their capitalist neighbours. Traditional explanations for their failure to generate wealth have been either racist — bad genes, or culturalist — wrong beliefs. De Soto finds that their real problem is a lack of private property — both in lack of ownership of land and other assets, and in the legal framework needed to support secure property and to enable contracts and trade.

To the discomfort of the wealthy ecocentrists these people are increasingly raising their voices against the “ecoimperialists” who place the welfare of first world birds over the lives of third world children.

In his book Risk Society, Towards a New Modernity (1992), Ulrich Beck proposes that society is in the process of moving from the culture of the “Industrial Society” to a “New Modernity” which he calls the “Risk Society”.

I am not convinced that this is a universal movement in which Beck’s Risk Society will finally prevail. Once again, I see this new conflict as just as another example of the ongoing conflict between the Enlightenment and Romanticism.

Beck characterises the “Industrial Society” and the new “Risk Society” as follows:
The Industrial Society

  1. The Role of Science: Science is the keystone of the Enlightenment Tradition — science is in the service of man and generates wealth for all.
  2. The Major Concern: Having generated so much wealth the major problem is how to distribute the wealth among the people, and among different communities and nations.
  3. The Nature of Risk: Risk is an external factor subject to objective analysis. Risk analysis is one of the triumphs of mathematics. We manage risk by weighing benefits against risky side effects.
  4. Civilisation and Nature: Civilisation is safe and Nature is dangerous. The aim of the Industrial Society is to tame and harness nature for the benefit of people.
  5. Democracy: Industrial Society exports democracy along with the benefits of the Industrial Economy.
  6. Awareness of Risks: Members of the Industrial Society are aware of the risks they must deal with — such as loss of job, accident, and death, and these risks are assessed and managed by experts.

The Risk Society

  1. The Role of Science: Science is the destroyer of the environment and society. Science is the problem. Science has no monopoly on “truth”.
  2. The Major Concern: How to deal with the undesirable abundance and dangerous knowledge generated by unconstrained science. Waste is the problem.
  3. The Nature of Risk: Risk is internal and an outcome of modernity — rather than an external and manageable problem. These threats are global and unknowable — and all risk must be eliminated (eg the zero molecule approach).
  4. Civilisation and Nature: Civilisation is dangerous and Nature is safe. The key task is to protect nature from humanity and preserve its harmony and balance.
  5. Pollution: Industrial society exports pollution to underdeveloped societies and puts all at risk.
  6. Awareness of Risks: “Victims” cannot determine their level of unknowable risk. Hence risk is assessed by “self knowledge” and internal conviction. The precautionary principle protects us from the unknowable risks of change. Chernobyl is the turning point. We calculate the future dead rather than count the existing bodies.

At the root of Beck’s manifesto is the fear of a world “out of control”. The Socialists believed that the economy was too fragile to be left to Smith’s invisible hand or “spontaneous order”. Environmentalists and planners (by definition) believe the biosphere is too fragile to be left at the mercy of selfish individuals. Beck declares: “Society has become a laboratory where there is absolutely nobody in charge.”

As always, hordes of willing “controllers” are waiting in the wings.

There is a measure of truth in Beck’s comparative schema. The Industrial Society removed us from a human condition where naturally occurring hazards (disease, flood, famine, and the like) — along with social hazards such as invasion and conquest — moulded the fate of individuals and groups. Members of the Industrial Society take control of their own fate by deliberately undertaking risky behaviour for the sake of the benefits conferred. Achieving these benefits requires technologically mastery of nature. So far, so good.

Thereafter Beck’s arguments get murkier. His key position is that Risk Society begins where nature ends. We switch the focus of our anxieties from what nature can do to us to what we have done to nature.

Surely in the age of Aids, BSE, Sars, as well as earthquakes and eruptions, we are still subject to nature’s hazards. Nature is NOT safe.

The food supply is far safer than it has ever been, mainly because we are now protected against naturally occurring deadly toxins such as botulism.

How real is Beck’s assumed novelty of the “global dimension of risk”? The Mount Pinatubo eruption vented as much particulate matter into the atmosphere as the entire history of industrialism to date. Beck ignores such “global” impacts of nature’s handiwork.

Many of the “new modernists” aspire to zero risk or perfect safety, and yet we know that if we pursued this to its logical conclusion we would ban all human activity including conception. Indeed, life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease.

The State of Harmony

The idea that Nature is in a state of harmony and balance underlies much of the resistance to human activity. And yet this view is surely anthropocentric. Our surroundings appear stable only because we look at the world through the eye-blink of a human lifetime.

The idea of the stable fragile globe was hugely reinforced by those early Nasa photos of the Earth as seen from the Moon. These photos encourage modern stasists to believe that when our satellites tell us that sea levels are rising at about 2 mm a year on average then this is what is happening everywhere around the globe.

Local district plans are rushing to confirm that every beach in New Zealand is going to sink beneath the waves (a few hundred millimeters in a hundred years’ time) and hence we must withdraw from the coast and huddle behind the walls of inland towns, watch Coronation Street, and ride in trains.

Whakatane’s new plan is full of the problems of rising sea levels. I pointed out that the Institute for Geological and Nuclear Science’s measuring devices confirmed that the tectonic plate at Whakatane is rising over the Pacific Plate at a much faster rate than the sea level is rising, which adds up to an overall fall. In my submissions I pointed out that if someone in Whakatane had a sea view they were much more likely to have the floodwaters come through the back door than the front door and that this could happen next week — rather than in a hundred years’ time. Unfortunately, nature decided to appear as an expert witness on my behalf and delivered floods and an earthquake to Whakatane only a few weeks later.

The Conflict of the Culture Clubs

The new Romantics reveal their greatest inconsistencies when they deal with cultures, and tribal cultures in particular. On the one hand they oppose globalisation but are all for global government. The late Alistair Cooke’s favourite placard at an antiglobalisation rally read “Join the International Movement against Globalisation.”

Global government is espoused on the grounds that the air does not need a passport and only global government can enforce Kyoto protocols etc.

But the Romantics’ attack on reason draws on a conviction that scientific knowledge is just one human construct and that because all cultures are valid then all belief systems are valid. They conveniently overlook the fact that some seem to work better than others.

However, the Romantic nature worshippers’ attack science for several reasons — not the least of which being that they always have. Rousseau argued that the way we see the world depends on our upbringing and our cultural heritage and hence there is no single “truth”.

The Fascist Romantics have always turned to the forest people or völke whose deep wisdom was deemed to be superior to that of the rational thinkers, or elite — especially those of Europe, who just happened to be Jews.

The nature worshippers now turn to the indigenous peoples of the world because they are seen as maintaining a holistic view of the world as opposed to the hated reductionism of the Open Society, which rests on a foundation of science and democracy (which are two sides of the same coin).

The late Karl Popper, in The Open Society and its Enemies, reminded us that holistic thinking is the handmaiden of fascism. Although he wrote that while here in Christchurch I suspect it is seldom quoted in those halls of academe where social sciences prevail.

The irony is that not long ago we were encouraged to believe in “the family of man” and to overlook the differences in our colour, race, creed or religion. In these post-modern times we celebrate the difference between cultures and especially the difference between tribal cultures and the culture of the Open Society. Indeed these cultures are now regarded as “indigenous species” which must be protected from the impact of the Open Society.

Unknowable Cultures?

Many RMA documents, and the documents which surround them, argue that Maori culture is essentially unknowable to non-Maori. These views are strongly challenged by Pinker in The Language Instinct but they have gained much traction. Again, the cultural anthropologists emphasise the differences between our “tribes” at the same time as the biologists are finding that genetic differences between races are trivial.

The latest challenge comes from Germaine Greer, who, from the comfort of her home in England, is telling Australians that the only way they can gain an identity is to become aboriginal. As Nicoless Rothwell writes in the September 2004 issue of Prospect, “Greer assumes that ‘being aboriginal’ is straightforward, and that you can almost think yourself into that state.” I am not sure if the half million aboriginals would appreciate the impact of 20 million Aussies suddenly “thinking themselves” into being aboriginals, and just whose identity would finally prevail. On the one hand we are supposed to cherish these unknowable cultures and on the other we are supposed to embrace them — presumably without knowing what we embrace and even whether the indigenes actually look forward to the embrace.

What is remarkable is that this mythmaking gains any traction at all. But it does. Our Environment Court has concluded that the Maori holistic view of the world means they make no distinction between land and water. I find this hard to believe. Certainly the Maori who live around me seem to know when to turn off their outboard motors to avoid running aground. Indeed I suspect that the difference between land and water was central to the conceptual framework of the ocean-going Polynesians who settled so much of the Pacific.

But should we worry? We have done remarkably well and most of our great achievements have been in recent times. It’s not that long ago that there were only two of us. Now there are six thousand million of us. And yet as PJ reminds us we are richer, longer lived, healthier, better fed, and better educated and enjoy more creature comforts than at any time in history. If any of you have a hankering for the good old days, PJ reminds us to consider just one word — dentistry.

Owen McShane is director of the Centre for Resource Management Studies. He lives in Kaiwaka.

Electoral transparency vital for democracy

In the Autumn 2004 issue of the NZ Skeptic, we reported on Vicki Hyde’s prediction in the Dominion Post that George Bush would win the US presidential election. Given that this was at the height of the scandals over Abu Ghraib prisoners and the lack of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, it seemed a bold claim indeed, on a par with her prediction that the All Blacks would miss the 1999 World Cup final. But once again, history has shown our chair-entity to be better at the prophecy game than almost any of the professional seers.

Continue reading

Not Rare – Just Another Medium

A new star on the psychic circuit impressed the makers of TV3’s 20/20, but not the NZ Skeptics

A gushy piece of infotainment on what is claimed to be New Zealand’s premier showcase for investigative reporting has won 20/20 the 2004 Bent Spoon Award. Melanie Reid’s August 22 segment “Back from the Dead”, profiling Taranaki medium Jeanette Wilson, was judged by the NZ Skeptics to be the year’s most outstanding example of gullible or naive reporting in the paranormal or pseudoscience area.

We were looking forward to seeing a solid journalistic treatment of this growing industry, in much the same manner that 20/20 in the US exposed the dubious practices of medium James van Praagh. It was very disappointing to hear 20/20 describe similar techniques performed here in New Zealand as “astonishing”.

20/20 asked me to comment on Wilson’s performance, citing how impressed they had been with both Wilson’s presentation – they said she looked just like Lady Di – and her accuracy – they said she was coming up with specific names and relationships.

What I saw was the same collection of staple techniques used throughout the industry and well-documented in many books such as Peter Huston’s “Scams from the Great Beyond”. One example is that of fishing for names, where the medium will ask a client if a common name, such as John, “has any meaning for them”. Asking leading questions designed to elicit information or agreement is a common tactic aimed at building confidence in the performer, and making it appear as if they are revealing hidden knowledge. Telling a middle-aged audience member that their parent or grandparent is watching over them is playing simple demographics, as it is more than likely that such people will have older relatives who have died.

New Zealand Skeptics are always prepared to check such performers out, in case someone really is doing something astonishing, which would be very exciting, but that certainly wasn’t the case here, despite 20/20’s enthusiastic endorsement.

While 20/20 did include some footage of the critique in the first part of the programme, I was disappointed that the programme chose to focus extensively on one very emotional, but content-free reading in what they called a “test” of the medium’s ability. Real tests of such skills have to be carefully planned to avoid naïve or misleading interpretations. It’s not so much the testing as the marking that’s important. Take away the histrionics and it was a very poor performance as far as a demonstration of mediumship goes.

Of course these very powerful images were selected by 20/20 precisely because they make great entertainment. They didn’t screen very much of the unimpressive readings, the one where Wilson asked a lady twice if her father had died, the ones where she used the same names and stock phrases over and over again.

If, indeed, the medium had definitive proof of the after-life, this should have been world-shattering news. After all, with this sort of capability, it means there should be no unsolved murders, no missing children, no arguments over inheritance. There should be no innocent people in prison, no unidentified child molesters. The world would certainly be a better place, and that’s something about which there could be no doubt.

The Media Creates a Miracle

The reading by Jeanette Wilson which featured most prominently on the 20/20 programme awarded the 2004 Bent Spoon (see page 3) was of a woman named Maria. It transpired after the reading that Maria’s mother had, two years previously, haemorrhaged to death from a perforated duodenal ulcer. It was Maria who found her, and Maria interpreted Jeanette Wilson’s very dramatic performance as relating to that event. But as can be seen from the following transcript, stripped of the histrionics, Wilson appeared to be talking about something quite different – the murder of two small boys.

Melanie Reid: We are running this mediumship reading unedited. It is intense. Some people may find it disturbing to watch.
Jeanette Wilson (JW) is handed a ring from Maria (M), to help establish a connection.
JW: Now I’ve got a lady coming in on your mum’s side first, quite strongly. OK. I’ve also got a gentleman with her and I’m just trying to work out who’s who. Alright.
M sits opposite, says nothing.
JW: The lady I’ve got on your mum’s side of the family, she’s coming through with a lot of affection to you, she’s like, wanting to put her arms around you? It feels like she’s being passed over several years now, somewhere between five and 10 years. Has your mum passed over first of all?
M: My mother?
JW: Yeah.
M: She has.
JW: Yes, and is it between five and 10 years ago?
M: No.
JW: OK, how long is it since she’s passed?
M: Two years.
JW: OK, she feels as if she’s been there longer to me, OK?
M: That would be correct.
JW: Was she in a coma or something then?
M: No, but I understand what you say..
. JW: OK.
M: About her feeling she was…
JW: Yeah because she’s coming through as a spirit that’s used to communicating. Alright. Now she’s bringing with her a small boy. Do you understand who in the family that is?
M: Yeah I do.
JW: OK. And she’s showing me lots and lots of tears about this young boy’s passing because there was a tragedy…
M: Oh yeah…
JW: You’ll see the hair’s on my arm starting to go on end. But it was like that was something that shouldn’t have happened… yeah…
M: Yes.
JW: I’m asking her… I’ve got the name John or Jonathon – does that make sense to you?
M: (pause) Um, not with my mother, but it makes sense of something else.
JW: Is it to do with the little boy?
M: Um, it would be another boy that I know…
JW: Yeah…
M: …but not to do with my family.
JW: No.
M: That would…
JW: But a similar age, do you understand?
M: Yeah I do.
JW: Because I’m being shown a similar age and a similar situation that happened? Alright? Understand?
M: Mm.
JW: (emotional) Oh goodness, I’ve got blood on my hands. And I don’t understand why I’ve got blood on my hands… do you understand?
M: Mm.
JW: I just want to really break down now and, uh, I’ve got a really really horrible feeling inside… um… (pause)
M: Quite a macabre feeling, I would say.
JW: The blood on the hands is symbolic, I feel that somebody had blood on their hands, does that make sense, it’s not… this isn’t like a natural passing? Somebody had blood on their hands and you’ll see the hairs on my arm, if the cameras can pick it up, but they’re ab… We’re in sunlight, it’s warm. But I’m really… There’s a lot of distress here, there’s a lot of distress. Somebody was absolutely terrified? (sobs) …absolutely terrified… (cries) and they weren’t very old. Oh goodness, goodness, goodness… it’s very very emotional for me, it’s like why me? Why are you doing this to me? (cries) Why are you doing… I have to put the ring down sweetheart, it’s too hard for me, it’s too hard, it’s too hard. Oh God, oh God… (cries)
M: Jeanette, Jeanette…
JW: It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, they’re alright now, they’re alright now…
M: I know they’re alright.
JW: …they’re alright now.
M: I know the feeling.
JW: Oh God – I need a tissue somebody, sorry, I’ve got a runny nose.
M: I can’t believe you broke down and I didn’t…
JW: God, I just want to hug you, I just want to hug you, can I give you a hug?
M: Mm you can.
JW: Oh my God, oh my God, sweetheart, oh, I’m so sorry (cries).
M: It’s OK, I’m…
JW: Oh God. You know how to pick them, Melanie.
M: She knows nothing, no one know that story, only I and the police – and my mother – know.
Transcript by Annette Taylor and David Riddell

The Mesmerisation of the Media

Journalists in New Zealand generally show a lack of scepticism when dealing with issues of science and pseudoscience – except for mainstream medicine. This article is based on a presentation to the New Zealand Skeptics Conference, 11 September, 2004

EVERY day about a million people in New Zealand watch the television news. Just under two million read a newspaper. Hundreds of thousands more hear radio news bulletins. But how good is our news media?

On most levels, the public is reasonably well served. Most journalists do try to get the facts and present them fairly. But on issues such as medicine and scientific controversy, the media are not as rigorous as they could and should be.

This is probably partly because there are few, if any, journalists with medical qualifications and few with any scientific qualification. Most journalists have arts degrees, in subjects like English literature, usually with a journalism course added on.

Most journalists today are trained to have a healthy questioning attitude towards politicians, big business, experts of all kinds.

But when it comes to issues like alternative medicine, genetic modification, global warming or the supposed dangers of cellphone transmitters, there appears to be a great lack of scepticism. It leads to cases where the media seriously misinforms the public, such as in 2000 when Television New Zealand and the New Zealand Herald were totally taken in by the promoters of the mussel extract Lyprinol, which racked up millions of dollars in sales when gullible journalists breathlessly announced it was a miracle cancer cure.

The media are also quite easily taken in by well known people with strong personalities and an antiestablishment bent.

Dr Neil Cherry from Lincoln university was one. He believed the electromagnetic energy from high tension power lines and microwave radiation from cellphones caused everything from brain tumours to premature births. He helped to fuel a panic in schools around the country, leading to mass protests about cellphone transmission towers. The media for the most part saw only the word “radiation” and ran dozens of stories that fanned the fears, many of them quoting Dr Cherry.

Another powerful personality who has mesmerised the media over the years is forensic scientist Jim Sprott, who became prominent in the 1970s during the campaign to free Arthur Alan Thomas, a farmer falsely convicted of murder. Dr Sprott went on to promote the bizarre claims of chelation therapy before making his life’s mission in the 1990s attempting to prove that cot death is caused by mysterious emissions from mattresses in babies’ cots.

There was no reliable evidence that mattress gases cause cot death, but Dr Sprott has beaten much of the media into giving credence to his theories, to the extent he is regularly approached for comment on it. The manufacturers of plastic mattress wraps have been the main beneficiary.

The Bain Murder

Then there is Joe Karam, a former all black who has become obsessed with his belief that David Bain did not murder his family in Dunedin in 1994. So successful has Karam’s campaign been that one opinion poll showed that 40 per cent of New Zealanders believed Bain was innocent while just 33 per cent thought him guilty. Fortunately we don’t have justice by opinion poll in New Zealand because the scientific and forensic evidence of Bain’s guilt is overwhelming. He left blood, fingerprints and other evidence all over the house and on his victims, but you don’t hear much about that in the media.

The media also loves a conspiracy and if it has something controversial such as genetic modification in it, so much the better. During the 2002 election campaign, political activist Nicky Hagar accused the Government of covering up the accidental planting of genetically modified sweetcorn. The media went crazy on it and Hagar’s allegations are credited with Labour losing significant voter support. But there was no cover-up. Environment Minister Marion Hobbs had announced the accidental planting at a press conference the previous December.

The Liam Affair

A sad example of the media lacking scepticism was the case of little Liam Williams Holloway, who developed neuroblastoma, an aggressive childhood cancer that stands a good chance of being cured if treated early enough. He was given one course of chemotheraphy at Dunedin Hospital but his parents, who followed various New Age beliefs, withdrew him from treatment to seek alternative therapies.

His doctors went to court and got an order to have Liam treated. His parents went into hiding amid a media uproar that was massively in favour of the parents’ right to choose alternative therapies over proven medicine. Holmes in particular was influential. The Holmes show visited the Rainbow Clinic in Rotorua where Liam was being treated with a magic box of wires called a quantum booster.

Liam was shown on TV lump-free. Holmes put that down to the quantum booster getting rid of his cancer. Exasperated doctors said it was thanks to the initial chemo course, but nobody wanted to listen to them. Next, Liam’s parents borrowed money and mortgaged their house and took him to Tijuana in Mexico, a city dotted with quack clinics established there to milk rich Americans wanting treatments banned in the US.

The Rainbow Clinic said its business went up many fold thanks to the publicity about them treating Liam. Their website even promoted the quantum booster with the line “as seen on Holmes.” But when Holmes developed prostate cancer, he did not try his luck with the quantum booster or head for Tijuana. He went straight to a good oncologist.

At the same time Liam was dying, Tovia Laufau, a 13-year-old Samoan boy, was dying in South Auckland. Tovia had a cancerous growth on his knees that doctors said could be treated with some confidence. But his parents, like Liam’s, did not believe in doctors. They didn’t believe in quantum boosters either, but they did believe in God. They refused medical treatment for Tofia, saying God would save him.

I compared Liam’s case with Tovia’s. There was no media outcry supporting Tovia’s parents’ rights to trust God to save him. My research showed there had been many court cases over the years where Jehovah’s Witness parents had been forced by court orders to have their ill children given blood transfusions. I could find no media criticism of such actions, only criticisms of the parents.

The Bill of Rights Act gives an adult the freedom to choose not to receive medical attention, yet one case I found was of a mentally sound Jehovah’s Witness woman who was bleeding to death after a home birth and had refused a blood transfusion, as was her legal right and her religious belief. She was arrested and taken to hospital by the police, where her life was saved by doctors forcibly giving her a transfusion.

I’m glad she did not die, but I couldn’t help noticing there were no articles or newspaper editorials supporting the rights of adult Jehovah’s Witnesses. The media comments were uniformly hostile. I predicted that Liam’s parents were unlikely to face any legal consequences of his death, but that Tovia’s parents were likely to face charges, simply because one lot of parents espoused publicly acceptable New Age beliefs while the other espoused traditional religious faith. And, when Liam died, his parents were not even charged with ignoring the court order to have him treated. But Tovia’s parents were charged with manslaughter, despite his doctors not even seeking a court order to have him treated, saying they were too scared to do so after the uproar over Liam. While Tovia’s parents were found not guilty of manslaughter, they were found guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life and given a 15-month suspended sentence.

Deborah and Jan Moorehead, a Seventh Day Adventist couple, were not treated so lightly two years later, in 2002, when their baby Caleb, six months old, died of a simple vitamin B12 deficiency caused by being breastfed by his vegan mother. The Mooreheads were flayed mercilessly in the media. They were also charged with manslaughter. They were found guilty and jailed for five years by a judge who could barely conceal his contempt for them as he castigated them during sentencing.

I am not sympathising with Caleb’s or Tovia’s parents. Their children would still be alive if not for their parents’ fanatical beliefs, but Liam would probably still be alive today too if not for his parents’ fanatical beliefs. What I am questioning is the media double standard that treats New Age believers like Liam’s parents with reverence while having harsh views towards people with strong religious beliefs.

Spotlight on Medicine

If you ask journalists why they are so sceptical of doctors and medicine, many will say “Thalidomide” and “Cartwright Inquiry.” Thalidomide was certainly a medical catastrophe but it was 40 years ago and it’s never been repeated. But the Cartwright Inquiry, into the treatment of women with cervical cancer at National Women’s Hospital, had an enormous impact on the medical profession, on public attitudes towards doctors, and on the media, with good cause.

It was the media that revealed the shameful activities of Professor Herb Green, who did not believe that precancerous changes to the cervix led to cervical cancer, so he simply didn’t treat them, just watched to see what developed, with the inevitable results.

The writers who exposed this “unfortunate experiment” in their Metro magazine article became national heroes – Sandra Coney and Philidda Bunkle. Judge Silvia Cartwright, who conducted the inquiry into the scandal, went on to become governor general. The fallout directly led to the great deal of scepticism about modern medicine that exists in the media to this day, and that is a good thing in most cases.

It led directly to the campaign by militant midwives to push doctors out of childbirth, a campaign promoted favourably by the media and which worked so well that today, hardly any doctors want anything to do with childbirth, dramatically reducing women’s choices.

Most journalists now are women, including many editors and senior news executives. Most health reporters, in print and broadcasting, are women. The feminisation of the news media has been a good thing. When I started in 1977, women journalists were largely confined to feature writing or what was called the “women’s page”, while men, most of them chain-smoking, beer swilling sports fanatics, reported what they felt was the “real” news. Newsrooms are much better balanced than they were then.

From my observations, journalists in general, and women journalists in particular, appear to be favourably disposed to New Age trends, alternative therapies and the like. Like most other New Zealand women, the women who work in such large numbers in our newsrooms today are a product of the feminist revolution of the 1970s and were brought up with that journalistic phenomenon of which there is no male counterpart, the women’s magazines. Magazines like Woman’s Day, New Idea, Woman’s Weekly, Dolly, Cosmo and Cleo sell in huge numbers and are read by hundreds of thousands of women every week.

While they tend to be obsessed with celebrities and sex, they are also packed with columns by psychics, naturopaths, homeopaths and the like. A study in 2000 by Victoria University sociologist Allison Kirkman analysed women’s magazines for two years and concluded they abounded with information on alternative therapies like iridology and aroma-therapy but had little advice from doctors, nurses or midwives.

Nothing’s changed. Woman’s Day has 850,000 readers a week and is the biggest selling title of all. One recent issue I studied had page after page of clairvoyants and astrologers and the like but nothing I could see by anyone with a medical or scientific qualification. The “health page” had a reader’s question about cold sores, with the inquirer being told to treat them with fish, flax, spirulina, olive oil and shiitake mushrooms. It didn’t say whether you were meant to eat the stuff, or mash it all together and spread it on your cold sore.

Newspaper Survey

I reviewed articles published in 13 daily and weekly newspapers between 1 September 2003 and 31 August 2004 to see how sceptically they treated various issues of interest to Skeptics members. The papers included the NZ Herald, the Waikato Times, the Dominion Post, The Press and the Sunday Star Times.

I read articles on my chosen topics and classified them as either positive, where the subject was treated without scepticism or even glowingly; critical, where the subject was treated critically or even with hostility; or neutral, where the article simply cited a subject with neither positive nor negative comment.

I didn’t even bother looking for critical articles on such subjects as chiropractic, which seems to be completely mainstream now, or astrology, as virtually every publication carries the stars if for no other reason than readers expect it.

Clear Results

The results were not good for either skeptics or an informed readership (Table 1). Critical or negative articles were in a notable minority, while many of the most critical articles I found were not by the papers’ journalists but by skeptics like Frank Haden and Bob Brockie.

The Immunisation Awareness Society is an influential organisation and often seems to be the first call by journalists seeking comment on any new vaccination campaign, despite most of its views being little more thank junk science and nonsense. It didn’t have as many positive articles as other issues I studied and it had a higher share of critical ones, but it also had a lot of neutral articles.

Fortunately for our children’s health, the society is not as influential as it would like. Despite Radio New Zealand in particular giving strong coverage to its recent stand against the new meningococcal vaccine, parents rushed to have their children vaccinated.

Given that vaccine rates are as low as 70 per cent in New Zealand, I put that rush down to parents being convinced in favour of vaccination by heart-wrenching publicity about two seriously stricken children that came at the start of the campaign.

As a sceptical journalist, I don’t think that publicity was a coincidence. It looked more like the health authorities manipulating the media to scare children into getting their children vaccinated. But that might be at least a more altruistic kind of media manipulation than that practised by the Greens, Greenpeace and many other opponents of modern science and medicine.

Feng shui was interesting. There were almost more articles mentioning feng shui than any of the other topics, but most were cases of the word simply being thrown in willy nilly for journalistic effect rather than the story being specifically about feng shui.

But Jeanette Wilson, the New Plymouth clairvoyant, gets just as good a run in our newspapers as she got on 20/20. But then, not only does she speak to the dead, she campaigns against genetically engineered food, a double plus for her with many journalists.

I conclude that, while the media are good at covering most issues and try their best, they’re not good on many scientific issues, with stories on alternative medicine or environmental issues, and that things won’t change fast anytime soon.

This is because newsrooms tend to be getting smaller with less experienced staff, the emphasis is increasingly on celebrity stories and crime, many newsrooms have limited resources, and the pay is not particularly good, usually less than that of a teacher with similar qualifications and experience. It means there will continue to be plenty of opportunities for bent spoon awards. David McLoughlin is a Wellington journalist


Skeptics Blown It?

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

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

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

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

Alan Hart

Global Warming

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

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

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

Lance Kennedy, Tantec

Indian Socialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Ring

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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