Psychic and TVNZ join forces to profit from child’s disappearance

When Sensing Murder psychic Deb Webber announced on TV One’s Breakfast show that missing Auckland toddler Aisling Symes was in “a ditch, hole” it raised eyebrows all over the place (NZ Herald, 9 October).

Webber was appearing on the show to plug her upcoming nationwide tour – and also the latest series of Sensing Murder, screening on the same channel. Later that day TVNZ journalist Amy Kelley asked the police at a press conference how seriously they would take Webber’s “information”.

TVNZ then approached a friend of the Symes family and subsequently Webber had met them. The state broadcaster seemed to have far too cosy a relationship with the psychic.

TVNZ spokeswoman Andi Brotherston defended the channel’s role, saying, “You know what they are doing? They are being human. They have a family out there that are desperate to find their child.”

Interestingly, Webber’s Sensing Murder co-star Kelvin Cruickshank said at a public show in Hamilton (see p. 16) that his spirits had told him to keep clear of the case, because the family were devout Baptists who didn’t believe in spiritualism.

It is worth remembering that at the time Webber made these comments (less than 48 hours after Aisling’s disappearance) misadventure seemed the most likely explanation. It was only as time went on that the abduction scenario gained favour. When her body was eventually discovered in a concrete stormwater pipe the Waikato Times (13 October) reported Webber had been “proved correct”.

But “ditch” or “hole” covers almost all the likely options – including a shallow grave. Again, the standard psychic’s ploy of making a vague statement which is then misremembered as more accurate than it was, paid dividends.

Hunt on for ‘panther’

A few years back the annual NZ Skeptics conference heard about reports of big cats in the South Island high country. Now someone has built a trap for the mystery beast (Sunday Star-Times, 13 December).

High country farmer David Wightman says he’s never seen the “panther”, but others on his 9500ha Winterslow Station in North Canterbury have, on at least four occasions. “Too many people have seen it to doubt what it is – without actually capturing it and doing a DNA test on it, one can only assume it is a black leopard or black panther.”

Wightman said he planned to use a live goat to lure the panther into the trap. The panther would be unable to harm the goat because it would be in a separate enclosure, but its bleating should be enough to attract the cat. There was no evidence of a large predator attacking free-ranging stock, however.

We should apply the skeptical adage, when you hear hoofbeats in the night, think of horses, not of zebras. Big cats have been reported very widely, and sometimes are reported as brown or grey, suggesting that breeding populations of at least two species are involved. Black leopards (‘panthers’) are rare within their natural range compared to the more common spotted variety, yet no spotted leopards have been sighted roaming free in New Zealand.

Far more likely that the big cats are just that – big cats. Feral domestic cats can grow remarkably large – I once saw one in the Lewis Pass which must have been almost a metre nose to tail – and people are very poor at judging scale at long distances (hmm, maybe that cat wasn’t so big after all!).

Scientology ‘organised fraud’

The church of Scientology has been branded an “organised fraud” by a French court and fined 600,000 euros ($1.2m) for preying financially on vulnerable believers (NZ Herald, 28 October).

Judges in the Paris criminal court ordered the church to pay for adverts carrying its findings to be placed in newspapers around the world. It is believed to be the first time that Scientology has been declared fraudulent by a court in a large, democratic country, although individual scientologists, including its founder L Ron Hubbard, have previously been convicted of fraudulent activities. The Paris decision went further and declared the core claims of Scientology were “fallacious” and designed to “hook” members into paying large amounts of money.

Two French female plaintiffs alleged that, between 1997 and 1999, the Scientology movement persuaded them to pay the equivalent of 21,000 euros and 49,500 euros for treatments to improve their mental and physical health. The two main Scientology bodies in France were put on trial for “systematic use of personality tests of no scientific value… with the sole aim of selling services and products”.

Scientology spokeswoman Agnes Bron said the verdict was the result of an “inquisition of modern times” and that they would appeal.

Science writer wins ruling in libel battle

Brtiish science writer Simon Singh, who is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association, is to fight on after a preliminary judgment against him was opened to appeal (The Guardian, 14 October).

Singh was sued after writing an article in the Guardian criticising the association for supporting members who claim that chiropractic treatments can treat children’s colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying.

Singh described the treatments as “bogus” and criticised the BCA for “happily promoting” them.

In May, Mr Justice Eady in the high court ruled on the meaning of the words, saying they implied the BCA was being deliberately dishonest. Singh was initially refused leave to appeal, but Eady’s interpretation was deemed to be open to argument by Lord Justice Laws, who said Eady had risked swinging the balance of rights too far in favour of the right to reputation and against the right to free expression.

Many scientists and science writers have rallied to Singh’s support, claiming that the freedom of scientific opinion is at stake. “Simon Singh’s battle in this libel case is not only a glaring example of how the law and its interpretation are stifling free expression, it shows how urgent the case for reform has become,” said Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship.

‘Tumour’ thrown at meeting

The hysteria over the Dept of Conservation’s use of brodifacoum to eradicate pests on Rangitoto and Motutapu, reported in last issue’s Newsfront, has continued (NZ Herald, 15 October).

A woman, Donna Bird, was ejected from a 14 October meeting on Auckland’s North Shore after hurling abuse and objects – one of which she claimed was a tumour that had been taken out of her – at DoC speaker Richard Griffiths. The department were “parasites” and “disease mongerers”, she said.

Others at the meeting accused DoC of spreading poison in the gulf, and of being blinded by science. Six dogs died and others became unwell after apparent exposure to tetrodotoxin, a natural marine toxin, on Auckland beaches. Marine organisms, including penguins and dolphins, had also been found dead in the area. Mr Griffiths told the meeting toxicology results ruled out brodifacoum as being responsible. “I’m not sure what else we can say.”

Thief warned of sex change curse

A thief in Auckland may get more than he or she bargained for with a terracotta flower pot taken from a Gulf Harbour home (Rodney Times, 3 December).

The owner says it contains his African witchdoctor grandma’s ashes and is now cursed. In a letter to the Rodney Times, At du Plooy says his grandmother was a sangoma or witchdoctor who died in Africa aged 93. Du Plooy claims to be a medium who keeps in contact with her spirit. While he should be able to trace the pot, through this link, it appears grandma is unfamiliar with the area concerned.

Instead, she has cursed a one kilometre area around the pot with sex-change ions – meaning men may gradually change to women and vice versa. Dumping the contents won’t break the spell, du Plooy says, only its return.

An Identified Flying Object off Abut Head

One of our members almost spots a UFO

In late August 2003, three friends and I spent several nights in a hut on the north bank of the Whataroa River in South Westland, 5km from the river mouth. One evening at about 9.30pm the smoker among us called from outside, saying that a bright light low on the horizon downriver had twice accelerated at high speed and disappeared behind and reappeared from a large hill just to the north, and that the speed was greater than that of any aircraft known to us.

Being a skeptic I at once called for one of us to get binoculars while the fourth person and I dashed outdoors. The sky downriver was mainly clear with just a little wispy cloud moving quite quickly down the coast. I soon realised that the light was in fact a star, which was being obscured intermittently by cloud, but at the same time the night began resounding with cries of “look at it go, look at it go, look at it climb”, and “look at it dive”. The person with the binoculars even saw a winking red light just beneath the bright light. However it was obvious to me that the position of the light in relation to the silhouettes of shrubs just below it on an island in the riverbed was remaining unchanged, and I declaimed so quite loudly, but for several minutes to no avail. Finally, the other three conceded that indeed the light was a star, and the whole situation was summed up by the comment from one of the three that “we (three) have been the victims of mass hysteria”.

In case the thought has crossed your minds, yes, except for the smoker we had indeed had a few drinks before dinner an hour or so earlier, but nobody was at all adversely influenced. Also, all the other three are well-educated and worldly-wise, and have worked in science research all their working lives, and are not the types to readily jump to erroneous conclusions. So how was it that they did believe that a light, which was in fact a star, was moving at great speed?

Well it seems to me that the pattern of cloud movement was such that without referring to stable points of reference such as the outlines of shrubs on the island, the smoker was easily able to conclude that when the light was being obscured by cloud moving south, it was actually moving rapidly to the north behind the hill. The minds of the other two were implanted with the expectation of seeing just this before they went out from the hut, and when the light did disappear they too concluded that it was moving. When there was no cloud between the light and the hill there was an appreciable distance between them, so when the light disappeared, apparently behind the hill, then of course it must have moved at high speed to get there in no time at all. Flashing red lights are often seen on flying craft at night, so the third observer who saw one beneath the light, which the other two were repeatedly confirming was a fast-flying craft, probably saw what he expected to see. Of course his report of a flashing red light in turn reinforced the belief of the other two that they were indeed observing a flying craft.

A few days later an earthquake of magnitude 6.2 rocked the southwest of the South Island, including our hut.

It is interesting to speculate on the possible consequences if heavy cloud had obscured the star permanently just before my skeptical nature had had time to observe the constant spatial relationship between the light and the outlines of shrubs on the island. On the evidence of the other three observers — and perhaps me included — one would have had to conclude that only an alien craft could have moved at the observed speeds. The earthquake might then have been attributed to the disruption of the earth’s gravitational field by the obviously hugely powerful space drive of the alien craft. From a northern hemispheric perspective all this would have occurred at the ends of the Earth. And so another UFO sighting with concrete back-up evidence from scientifically-minded observers would have taken on a life of its own, forever.


Blairs ‘rebirthed’

Tony Blair and Cherie took part in a ‘rebirthing ritual’ during a holiday in Mexico, says the Dominion (17 December). They were guided through the ritual while dipping in a Mayan steam bath. At least they were clean.

Psychic fails (as do we all)

It must be said that mystic powers called in to help find missing Christchurch teenager Ellon Oved have been a flop. Psychic Kathy Bartlett joined the search effort near a lake, carrying a board and examining the ‘aura’ of the area, the Dominion reports on December 5. However, the Eagle helicopter with heat-detecting equipment also failed to locate the 14 year old…

Reptiles have all the fun

Forget Tiger Woods, several hundred people paid $40 a head to attend a day-long session with visiting conspiracy theorist David Icke. He also gave an evening lecture at Victoria University, says the Sunday Star Times (November 4). A former British Green Party spokesman, Icke has raised eyebrows a few times – in 1991 during a BBC interview he proclaimed himself the son of God. But wait, there’s more. His theory has it that these reptilian shape shifters invaded Earth thousands of years ago, interbreeding with humans and forming a power elite. Explains a lot when you think about it.

Yet more Yeti furballs

A group of British explorers claim to have found irrefutable proof of a ‘yeti-like’ creature on an Indonesian island. The Evening Post (31 October) says the team discovered a footprint and hair samples of a primate which has long lived in the mythology of tribes-people in Western Sumatra. A cast of the footprint and strands of coarse hair are being sent to Oxford University and Australia’s University of Canberra for verification. Haven’t heard anything yet… The same team are off this year to the Gobi Desert in search of the Mongolian Death Worm – a metre-long snake which is reputed to kill a person with one look.

Hairy stars

Reporter Mary Jane Boland and her 4-month-old puppy Max consulted pet astrologer Helen Hope in Australia, for the Evening Post (6 October). Hope has written two books about pet astrology – Starcats and Stardogs which were released here on September 27. No-one, the former New Zealander says, has declared her books rubbish and they are selling well in Australia and rights have just been sold to the US and Britain. She also works on people and countries and predicted that, because of the position of Uranus, things will improve for Air New Zealand. I’m sure the Government will be relieved to hear this. Over the last few months we were to have ‘redefined’ ourselves to the world as well. (That must have slipped past me.) So what came of the canine reading? Well, Max is a classic Gemini, is very intelligent but always in need of constructive discipline. And he’s very special. I wonder what she’d say about my psychotic border collie.

Team gets divine help

A struggling English soccer team turned to religion by asking the local bishop to carry out an exorcism at the club’s grounds, says the Evening Post (9 November). The bishop performed the exorcism to remove all evil spirits from Oxford United’s Kassam stadium. It seems that a band of gypsies were moved on from the site and may have cursed it. Since the exorcism, it is said the team’s fortunes have improved, and they drew their most recent game.

Nessie to star?

Fans of Nessie who hope to catch a glimpse of the legendary creature might now be in luck, says the Evening Post (3 November.) A moving webcam is now filming the murky depths of the Scottish Lake, 230m deep. Head of the project, Adrian Shine, said the lake had more fresh water than the whole of England and Wales – “There is room for a few mysteries, although we’re not expecting to bump into Nessie.” The webcam joins two other cameras observing the exploration of Britain’s biggest lake. Check it out:

But is it art?

Michael Jackson’s good friend Uri Geller is upset at being censored – Sony Music removed religious words and symbols from a picture he drew for Jackson’s new album. The words God, Jerusalem, USA and Angel 2000 were all removed. Geller drew the black and white illustration on a napkin in Jackson’s hotel room. The picture features the heads of a man and woman, the pyramids, a UFO and symbols representing love, peace and hope. Maybe he should have stuck to spoons.

They’re Stealing Our Fish!

Seeing shouldn’t always be believing, as a Nelson skeptic discovered thirty years ago.

One night nearly thirty years ago, three men were driving back to Nelson from French Pass after a fishing trip. Road access to the Pass was quite new and there was very little traffic even by day. The road climbs steeply from French Pass, then follows a high ridge with tremendous views of Marlborough sounds on one side and Tasman bay on the other. The headlands and islands showed pitch-black on this moonless night and the sea gleamed in starlight.

As the vehicle reached the ridge, three or four dozen brilliant and mysterious lights could be seen in Tasman bay and further out to sea.

“The Japanese are stealing our fish!”

This was a hot topic in 1965. For years Japanese line fishers had been fishing for high value snapper (quite legally) very close to shore. But a new law excluded foreign vessels from fishing in a region 12 nautical miles (just over 22 km) from the coast.

“That big bright patch must be a mother ship out to sea, these points of lights must be dinghies fishing for snapper, some are right under the cliffs. They are all in the forbidden zone.”

We agreed and each estimated the distance to the nearest light. The maximum guess was three nautical miles.

All of us were experienced at night navigation. One had had a lifetime in small boats, another was a retired senior air-force flying instructor. These two had sufficient confidence in me (very much the junior) to sleep in the cabin while I had brought the boat the full length of D’Urville island (over 30 km) after nightfall.

A brilliant idea was developed, we could measure the distance to the poachers.

We could make out the headlands below us in the starlight and we had a map. With the car we could measure a baseline distance along the road. By sighting the lights over headlands at either end we could determine the angles. A ruler on the map would give the distance and even a calculation would be unnecessary. A crude measure perhaps, but we did not need a high degree of accuracy. All were convinced the boats were fishing well inside the limit.

Thirty minutes later we stared at each other in disbelief. The plan had worked well but it showed the nearest light was at least 15 nautical miles from the coast and the furthest was out more than 40 (28 km and 74 km). How could we be so wrong? Relief mingled with the other emotion, at least we had not driven to the nearest phone (a long distance) and made fools of ourselves. The Navy would not have been pleased to be turned out to apprehend poachers and then find only legal fishermen. These boats were not even in Tasman bay, they were well out to sea.

Only then did we think to use binoculars. Each of the nearer lights was not a point, but a vessel illuminated by many lights. This was our first sight of a squid fishing fleet, then relatively new in New Zealand waters. Each squid-fishing vessel has rows of powerful lights in the rigging. Squid are attracted by these lights and caught by jigging. Thirteen years late a squid fleet off Canterbury was to be one of the UFO sightings in the great Kaikoura UFO mystery. According to Philip J. Klass “the best documented of all UFO cases”.

In our case nobody cried “UFO” (one was a believer but had never seen one). We knew these were lights on boats but otherwise we were horribly wrong. We completely misinterpreted what was visible. We assumed (without considering the possibilities) that the lights were only moderately bright, therefore they had to be close. Because they were close we assumed we were looking down at them (just under the cliffs!). In fact we seemed to be looking down at them — until we knew they were well out to sea. Then we realised we were looking out towards the horizon! They dazzled us, therefore we could not see the horizon (it is usually visible on a clear, starry night).

The big glow well out, originally assumed to be a mother ship, was probably a cluster of lights over the horizon.

It is difficult to get across just how much illumination is used by a squid boat. The night after the Kaikoura UFO sightings, the RNZAF sent a plane out to investigate. It reported the squid fleet was putting out more light than the city of Christchurch!

The incident taught me some skeptical lessons.

Some were negative. Judging the distance of objects is very difficult at night. Judging their position in relation to the horizon is even more difficult. It is all too easy to jump to conclusions. Even when all of a party agree exactly on what they have seen, they can still be completely wrong. Highly experienced people can make quite ridiculous errors. What people report as “sightings” are really conclusions.

Some were positive. It pays to use one’s brains. It is possible to make rough but objective estimates of distance. Binoculars enable details to be resolved even at night.

And when the Kaikoura UFO was in the news I had a really good laugh — until I realised how much money was being made out of the incident. It really pays well to see UFOs instead of squid vessels.

Alien Ships in Our Skies

One of the perpetrators told the story behind the Grand Interplanetary Hoax of 1952 to the 1994 Skeptics’ Conference.

Hoaxes have probably been a part of life for thousands of years, ranging in scope, intent and outcome. Some such as the Piltdown saga veer out of control and have unforeseen and potentially serious consequences.

When Denis Dutton first asked me to give a paper on the great UFO hoax of 1952, I was somewhat coy about the matter. Subsequently I was tempted to accept, and here we are.

During the early 1900s, mysterious airships were sighted in various parts of the world, and New Zealand was no exception. While various psychological explanations have been forthcoming for the airship episodes, no evidence has surfaced to my knowledge concerning any structured direction to that piece of mystery history, although I have always believed a hoax might have been the initiating event. H.G. Wells’s haunting and sadly prophetic novel The War of the Worlds was available as a textbook to feed the imagination of the susceptible and the gullible.

We need to remember also that the Christian religion has always emphasised the Second Coming. Such teachings reinforce in successive generations the concept that there will be cataclysmic events and visitations, hopefully in one’s own lifetime. The factors which determine the life-cycle of these events are worthy of study. I have no doubt that many of them are the work of pranksters or elaborate hoaxsters, as is the case in the present episode.

Of more interest to people like me in describing something that happened before many readers were born or living in New Zealand is a retrospective analysis of the various participants, the perpetrators, the reactors and the bystanders. In my acceptance letter for this exposure, I said that I would couch my text, “in terms of what this particular episode teaches about young people’s attitude to pomposity in their elders and towards various aspects of the Establishment (in this instance represented by the Otago Daily Times)”.

A serious skeptic must be a serious historian with healthy respect for the broad picture, the fine detail, and also for what Denis has referred to as the partnership between History herself and Lady Luck.

I do not need to stress to this audience the fact that mythology soon surrounds events such as the “Grand Inter-planetary Hoax”, as the Knox College prank is now known in some circles. That mythology is largely concerned both with how the episode arose and with who was involved. I have chosen to tackle this topic in a chronological sequence, introducing analysis of events as I proceed. Such a plan makes it easier to strip away some of the mythology concerning the events of 42 years ago.

Knox College

During the 1950s, Knox College was a male domain occupied by young men from all over New Zealand, of varying ages, studying for a variety of professions. Within the college community were a number of ex-servicemen, most of them studying for the Presbyterian ministry. Knox had not been shaken at that stage by the liberalism of Lloyd Geering, but there were clearly defined groups within the “Div” students, as they were called, ranging from the more fundamentalist to those with what some perceived to be dangerously liberal theological points of view.

Amongst the medical students there was a similar range of believers, with the more traditional rigid group belonging to the Evangelical Union and the more daring, and I would say open-minded, belonging to the Student Christian Movement of which I happened to be President for part of the period we are discussing. At that time the Student Christian Movement quite openly accepted agnostics and others who were exploring and developing their concepts of themselves and the world in general.

Social life in the College centred on the supper parties which moved from room to room. Students became bored with swotting by about 9:00 or 9:30 and gathered together in various rooms and talked until midnight and beyond. The great strength of Knox College lay in those interchanges. These were much richer social gatherings than the somewhat rushed meals in the dining room. I remain very grateful to this phase of my student life, particularly for what I learned from people studying in the other faculties and from the ex-servicemen amongst us.

It needs to be remembered that the early 1950s saw the beginnings of what ultimately resulted in student unrest in a number of other countries and in the revolt of tertiary students against a number of manifestations of the old order. In my opinion, the stirrings began as students realised that a great new order had failed to emerge from the ashes of the Second World War. Rather, a potentially destructive conflict was emerging between what could crudely be called capitalism and Marxism.

Student Idealism

Throughout history, students have been aware of injustice and abuse of power by successive forms of the Establishment. Students have, to some extent, tended to divide themselves into those who put down their heads and acquire a qualification, looking neither to right nor left, versus those who gain pleasure and seek self-fulfilment in genuine attempts to improve, not only their own life, but that of others. While that may be jingoistic and simplistic it is highly relevant to the context.

During 1951 we had endured privation in the Otago winter during the waterfront and the coal miners’ strike. We had shivered in unheated rooms and endured a pretty awful diet amidst a so-called land of plenty. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the Holland Government’s struggle with the wharfies and the miners, many of us in Otago became increasingly irritated by the sanctimonious attitude of the Otago Daily Times.

This is not mythology; the pompous simperings of the ODT were tackled regularly during capping week. At times the students set out deliberately to antagonise Mr Moffat and his “smug band of journalists and leader writers”. The Star was a ho-hum paper which did not excite nearly as much reaction on the part of the students. Undoubtedly there was much young arrogance behind our own attitudes, but also youthful energy, mixed with mischief and an altruistic outlook.

The idea of launching a major attack on the ODT surfaced in the winter term of 1952. The pre-occupation of the ODT with flying saucers, and the trivialisation of major events which were happening worldwide, was adding fuel to the antagonism felt among a range of students. What I shall term the “idealistic alliance” between many medical, dental, arts and divinity students provided a fertile area for the gestation of the hoax. From the beginning it was critical that a sufficient group of men with the necessary confidence in one another should come together if the venture was to succeed.

According to my records, the hoax idea was mooted vaguely for the first time in late September. Finally a group of five, at one particular supper party, concocted the crucial elements of the enterprise. One of the group had access to a secretary in the Medical School. She was the one significant person from outside the Knox confederacy who participated and maintained her silence over the years.

Final planning, however, was undertaken by a very small group which was a key to the outstanding success of the episode. For many years I kept a copy of the map I used to draw up the original plan. It was very similar to that shown on the construction produced by Brian MacKrell of Palmerston North in 1978.

One document was central to the planning. The illustration confirms that at least some of the things I have said are not mythological. You will note that the single-page document starts off by defining the objective very clearly.

Designed to cure the ODT of Flying Saucerites and inoculate that worthy journal with a healthy degree of septicism [sic].

Spelling mistakes and the unconscious pun based on a spelling mistake, while not Freudian, are nevertheless interesting. We really only had one possibility of getting the typing done, and there was no proof-reading as far as I can recall. For “saucerites” read “sauceritis”, and for “septicism” read “scepticism”.

However, the point of the sentence is quite clear and an educationalist today would applaud the brevity and the irony inherent in that sentence. As you will note, it is a double irony.

The reasoning behind the genesis of two saucers, with different colour codes for the two extra-terrestrial objects, was itself based upon considerable discussion and simplification. There was much complexity during early stages of the planning with a tendency to various forms of hyperbole. All this was strenuously censored for sound reasons.

The blue saucer was to “disappear over the horizon in ever decreasing circles”. We did drag a few coat-tails!

The final paragraphs in the printed document are again an exemplary piece of the hoaxster’s art. Buried within these instructions are the fruits of our own research analysis of reports plus our own rudimentary understanding of the accoutrements of supersonic flight.

Once the document was available, it was distributed throughout the College, through the supper-party networking system. At this point, differing philosophies and personalities within the College became evident in the decisions taken as to who would and who would not take part. Two divinity students, in particular, protested that this was a dishonest exercise with which they could not associate themselves. They believed that the College would be brought into disrepute. Moreover, they were extremely disapproving of other divinity students who were prepared to indulge in such dishonest joviality. They raised a point which was again evident at the 25 year initial revelation. If we were prepared to dissemble to this extent as students, what were we going to be like in later life; what grip would we have on honesty and integrity? Most of us ignored such qualms, and it was notable that a number of ex-servicemen among the divinity students particularly relished their participation.

This was not the only major attack on the ODT by members of Knox College. A famous Resident Fellow, the late Don Anderson, who at one stage was on the staff at Massey University, found the ODT editorial policies particularly irritating and conducted an entirely fictitious correspondence during which he wrote letters for and against bagpipes over a prolonged period. That particular private pillorying of the august journal has never been revealed in public to my knowledge, but I stand to be corrected on that point. As far as I can recall, Don did not take part in this particular exercise but we would not have expected him to do so because he was grossly handicapped and easily identified. As a victim of cerebral palsy, his speech mannerisms were well known in Otago at that time.

There was one major risk involved in the planning which we had to accept. Everything had to be in place so that, as was the custom of those days, we could complete the bulk of our year’s study in the four to six weeks before the final examinations. This was the reason why the briefings and preparations of the instruction sheet occurred early in the third term. Also, various members of the College left at varying times over a total range of about six weeks. In turn the due date of December 6 was determined by the timing of the departure of the last students at the end of their examinations.

This lengthy delay between concluding the planning and the date of execution led to some awkward gaps in coverage of the country and to forgetfulness which I think was genuine on the part of some who had agreed to participate. Russell Cowie made strenuous and ingenious efforts to provide coverage from places in the South Island by preparing additional letters for the relevant areas. Some of the gaps were covered by correspondents stating that they had been travelling by car. This would account for a letter being posted at a distance from the alleged sighting.

To a perceptive reporter who took the trouble to collate the information, the fact that this was a spoof should have been obvious.

Pure Moonshine

One of my favourite pieces was the reporting of the sighting from Hokonui, the home of the famous southern moonshine whisky. The author of that letter had the sense not to sign himself McRae. I still find it incredible that the ODT did not pick up these trailings of the coat.

If I may be excused a modicum of parochialism I shall describe what happened in Auckland. I chose the Herald and rang from a phone box as I came off overtime, on a clear lovely evening. Fortunately the sky was clear over pretty much the whole of New Zealand on the night; this was the first piece of Lady Luck’s benevolence. Had Aotearoa lived up to its name, the whole scheme would have been strangled at birth.

The Herald reporter who received my telephone call was quite bland about it, asked for a name and address which I gave, having carefully selected a street in which the particular number did not exist (in accordance with the plan). I sent in a letter having said I would do so. Obviously no one ever checked up on that, or if they did they kept the observation to themselves.

A colleague from an adjacent wool-store was assigned the Auckland Star. This was a much tougher proposition. He gave a description which tallied with mine, as he walked home from a different wool-store and used a different telephone box. However, the Star reporter wanted a bit more than a name and address and John realised that this was a hazardous moment. However, he had a brilliant idea of saying, “If my wife knew I was out in this street at this time of night there would be all hell”. “No problem sir,” said the Star reporter and swallowed the whole thing hook, line and sinker. Another student used a similar device. Throughout the country people generally had no problems in having their stories accepted.

The Target Bites

The flood of reports obviously raised excitement. As predicted, the ODT gave quite unreasonable prominence to the reports while missing the whole point and not even correlating the North Island and South Island sightings. In its initial reporting it referred to South Island observations only, even though those in the North had been reported in the Northern press, with suitably modest prominence, and on radio.

At no stage did the biggest circulation newspaper of the country, the New Zealand Herald, or the Auckland Star give the story any undue prominence. The attitude of both the Herald and the Star implied that they thought there might be some trickery afoot. The Auckland Star ran a cartoon and a whimsical leader appeared in the New Zealand Herald. I should comment that the New Zealand Herald has always had a whimsical streak to it.

As many of you may know, there is a tradition on April 1 to publish very soberly written articles which are a send-up of this or that, perhaps the most famous one being of the description of the long-lost tunnel under Auckland Harbour excavated for military purposes in the 19th century. Huge numbers of citizens were taken in by that piece of writing. I am not sure whether Ted Reynolds was on the Herald staff in 1952 but the flying saucer leader incorporated the style of writing for which he was later to become notable, if anonymously.

We did have a problem in Auckland. A Canadian Pacific Airliner came over at the critical time and a group of cargo workers sighted something which was not part of our scheme. This was a further piece of intervention by Lady Luck however, because it tended to confuse things in the northern part of the country and it ultimately was quite useful.

Further south much ingenuity was exercised, including a report from one student and his son, (who certainly did not exist at that stage) reporting that they had seen the two discs together. About three days after the event, some newspapers had correlated all the sightings. The Carter Observatory, which had been contacted by more than one newspaper, had officially stated the reports had contained “quite worthwhile information”. The speed of the two objects had been calculated and tallied with our original computations.

“If only I had seen it” sighed Mr W.D. Anderson, a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society who was consulted by the ODT. “You cannot possibly ignore straightforward, intelligently written reports like these.” He added, “I cannot give explanations off-hand.” Meanwhile, dedicated saucer watchers had concluded that these “fully authenticated reports from New Zealand”, as they were described, indicated that “saucers were flying closer to the Earth’s surface”. This clearly heightened the interest and further raised excitement.

Front Page News

The ODT was in full cry, and 13 days after the event the front or main news page had a double-full-scale column headline entitled “Enigma of the Sky”. It was not the only major reference on the front page during that week. The ODT had commissioned a Mr Anderson and a Mr McGeorge to undertake a survey of the reports. These two worthy gentlemen concluded that:

Assuming that these reports of a swift-moving object in the sky on Saturday night are not the result of collaboration (and they appear to be genuine, independent observations) they constitute a surprising weight of evidence in favour of the proposition that some object of a bluish colour did pass down the South Island.

They went on to calculate size and height of the objects. They ended their report:

We are still looking forward to focusing a telescope on one of these mysterious objects. A telephone call ahead of the object would be helpful, and we suggest that any observer immediately telephone in reports to the nearest office to enable advice to send ahead in time.

A few late reports trickled in and this again was part of the original plan. These were heavily reinforced by Russell Cowie, which ensured that the ODT target was well and truly plastered. He wrote further letters to Southland and Wellington papers to ensure that the coordinated activities of the blue and green discs were recognised.

The excitement eventually died down. The Weekly News of July 12 1953 did feature an article entitled “Mysteries that Fly Past in the Night”, which was based on an interview with Mr H.A. Fulton, president of the Civilian Saucer Interrogation Society of New Zealand (CSINZ). He had been involved early by the ODT and other newspapers at the time of the hoax itself.

The Committee of the CSI had concluded that the most conclusive evidence of the existence of flying saucers was the series of reports received on December 6, 1952. He went on to state that the CSI was satisfied that all the natural and atmospheric explanation by scientists for the appearance of flying saucers did not promise a solution of the riddle.

“Time”, Mr Fulton said, “would tell and the time was not very far away.”

Unexpected Support

Lady Luck favoured us thrice. What we did not know at the time was that we had calculated the speed of our objects such that they would have appeared at the right time over the Gulf of Mexico where a B29 crew saw a small, unidentified flying object. In 1978 the report of that crew still remained on the US Air Force list of unexplained flying objects. The green disc which disappeared off Invercargill could have turned up along a great circle route to the Gulf of Mexico just in time to be observed by the American airmen in their B29. Others have carried out the same correlation which appears in one of the standard books on flying saucers. The New Zealand sighting of 1952 and the B29 report are frequently quoted as being the most convincing evidence to support the reality of UFOs.

In an account prepared in 1984 by Mason Stretch, then Secretary of the Knox College Students’ Club, and presented at an annual meeting of the Knox College Old Boys’ Association, the final two paragraphs ran:

Surely the ODT reporters, the main sub-editors even, must have purred when Mr Thompson of the Carter Observatory said to the ODT, “You have got times and you have got something which might give speeds…that appears to be worthwhile information.”

The ODT had nobly striven to assemble data and report to the public information of world shaking importance — so important indeed that what at other times would be major international news was squeezed out of the headlines by two saucy wee disks [sic] that hissed while hoaxers howled in the background.

I think we were all staggered by the success of the venture and were not quite sure what to do. There was a tacit agreement that nothing should be said. We had achieved our objective, felt satisfied and, quite frankly, the ODT continued on in its ponderous manner. Capping came along next term and, predictably, the memory of the events receded into the background. As I have indicated there were some periodic reports of the 1952 excerpts in the press including the Weekly News article. Some who participated in the hoax did begin to feel a little uneasy that some people 10, 15 and 25 years later were still taking the thing far too seriously, just as the 1909 airship episode with slow moving dirigibles steam-powered from Dargaville to Invercargill towards subsequent sightings in Australia had never been explained. It seemed reasonable to leave things for a while, but not forever.

In the Christchurch Press of 4 March 1978, Brian MacKrell of Palmerston North published an article headlined “The Night of the Hissing Discs”. He had earlier analysed the 1952 newspaper reports and his work produced the map referred to earlier. He said he was not a member of any organisation which believed in UFOs but he had collected newspaper reports of the sightings as a child. He had linked up the B29 bomber report from the Gulf of Mexico. He was aware of the 1909 airship reports.

With what appears to have been unconscious irony, the ODT republished the MacKrell article one week later. There is no indication that the ODT had any inkling of its role as the prime target in 1952.

Some of the group of now moderately old Knox men decided enough was enough, and Ken Nichol of Christchurch Teachers’ College revealed to the Press a general outline of the hoax. As far as I can tell the ODT never published Ken’s article.

As we expected, the reaction to the Ken Nichol revelation was mixed. Some letters refused to accept that the hoax was a hoax.

I believe it is clear from the editorial in the New Zealand Herald and the cartoon in the Auckland Star that the northern papers regarded the whole affair as entertaining and amusing. I suspect in retrospect that they might even have guessed that the ODT was the target. Certainly, when one looks at the New Zealand Herald over the relevant time, international news was not displaced off the front page in the Auckland papers as it was in the Otago Daily Times.

In terms of its basic purpose, the hoax was designed to make the ODT look foolish, mainly in the eyes of those who perpetrated the hoax itself, and hopefully to others. The low standard of professionalism shown by the newspaper reporters and sub-editors in terms of their analysis of Press Association reports, their failure to undertake some simple correlations, and their failure to pick-up the clues deliberately pointing to this being a hoax, almost certainly had no impact within the paper itself and probably not amongst a majority of worthy readers in Otago.

Hoaxers Satisfied

To those of us who took part in the hoax, there was a buzz of excitement and gratification. Our suspicion that the Fourth Estate could be manipulated, even by amateurs, was confirmed as were our thoughts concerning what determined some major aspect of newspaper policy. In a city that had prided itself as the intellectual centre of the country, the toes and part of the fore-foot of the main newspaper were revealed to us as objects of clay.

While we were poking fun at one major pillar of the Otago establishment, we were also indulging in the freedom offered by that academic environment and by New Zealand generally. Like the Oxford students who dug up part of Oxford or Regent Street and got away with it for something like a week, we had risked creating a nuisance of ourselves at the same time as we had challenged pomposity and credulity. We were mounting what we believed to be a humorous but constructive protest against what we correctly perceived to be the destructive nature of modern day superstition and witchcraft, and their handmaidens in some sections of the media.

Ours was a one-off exercise unlike the much more elaborate campaign undertaken in the seventies and eighties by the crop circle hoaxers. Bower and Chorley were in their fifties when they concocted their crop circle hoax as a joke, once again based upon a flying saucer motive. They also were staggered at their success and instead of confessing to newspapers, they made use of the original scheme to spell out the words “we are not alone” in 1986, and “copycats” in 1990. Once again, however, the believers took over and the huge geometrical precision of the July 1990 hoax convinced UFO Research Groups and the United Believers in Intelligence, that intelligence beyond any earthbound being had created the nine circle Worcestershire patterns.

Those particular episodes are much more complex than our own efforts, and just who is hoaxing whom remains unclear. At times it seems clear that the crop circle series may even have been maintained in the interest of some journalists, cynical or otherwise.

History does repeat itself in the arena of hoaxism and Lady Luck rides side-saddle e’en to the noo.

At least some who reacted to Ken Nichol’s preliminary confession believed that the Knox College students had betrayed their academic standards and had displayed a shocking lack of integrity. How could we be trusted on any stage thereafter? The argument that young radicals later became conservatives did not hold much weight with these stern critics. I believe that such guardians of absolute truth failed to perceive that we were acting out of a very healthy intellectual approach to life in general.

Moreover, from what I know of the subsequent lives of a moderately large number of the group concerned, they have maintained a sense of proportion during their careers and they have neither become cynics nor carping critics. Maybe it is their sense of humour combined with their serious intent and a critical capacity to analyse complex issues which has maintained in them this balanced perspective which is a key element in professional success.

I feel there is ironic justice perceptible in the fact that Russell Cowie is an acknowledged expert in the area of the nature and use of historical evidence. I hope that young people continue to behave in the way we did, particularly if they maintain into later adult life a sense of fun, a sense of proportion and an approach to the Establishment which is responsible on the one hand, but skeptical and critical on the other.

And so I conclude and leave you to your own interpretations of one of the cataclysmic events which brought to an end anno domini 1952.

Skeptics Meet Moa Spotters

It was a surprise to many outside observers, especially those who don’t well understand the Skeptics. Paddy Freaney, Rochelle Rafferty, and Sam Waby, the trio who gained world attention early this year by their claim to have glimpsed a living moa in the Southern Alps, were invited to put their case before a meeting of Canterbury Skeptics.

The discussion was serious, friendly and good-natured, without sarcasm or hostility. Sam Waby began with a passionate defense of the claim. He’s been stalking deer up there for 30 years, he explained, but when he sighted the big bird, his rifle didn’t even go near his shoulder. He spoke with intense conviction, and was backed up by Rochelle who also said the beast was unmistakably not a deer. Beside describing his encounter and short chase after the animal, Paddy Freaney complained with some bitterness about the failure of Department of Conservation investigators to take the claim seriously.

In their coherence, consistency and sense of sincerity, these three were remarkable. No one forced them to front up. The very fact that they accepted the Skeptics’ invitation in the first place has to be seen favourably. Were the episode a hoax, it would have been far easier to have been “too busy” to accept the Skeptics’ invitation.

On the other hand, the difficulties with the story seem intractable. The apparent bird was large. Paddy claims recently to have seen damage to bushes possibly consistent with moa browsing, but where are the droppings? The site was a remote, unvisited area, but it is still implausible that a bird that large could survive undetected for so long. He readily acknowledges these problems, but sticks to the story.

After an evening in which careful intelligent questions were asked by an audience of about fifty, it was very hard to imagine the trio was lying. I had an experience immediately after the meeting that is worth relating. A handful of us remained in the bar of the University Staff Club. At one point I overheard Freaney and Rafferty talking privately in a corner of the room. She complained that he hadn’t given her enough chance to speak, to which he responded with friendly but exasperated surprise that she didn’t even want to come along at first.

The tone and content of this exchange (I don’t repeat it all) was not what you’d conceive of as coming from two lying conspirators — unless they were accomplished and well-rehearsed actors who even in private even put it on for themselves.

That’s logically possible, but few Skeptics left the meeting thinking the moa sighting was an intentional hoax. Pace Waby’s passion, still a deer perhaps, or something else. As Vicki Hyde points out, there are only three possibilities: it was a hoax, a moa, or something else. If the first is to be eliminated, and the second seems still remote, we’re driven to the third. Still, as I pointed out in an editorial earlier this year, hope for a living moa glimmers in the heart of even the driest Skeptic.

This is the one point on which all in the room agreed — New Zealand needs a moa. The big bird remains a splendid and tantalising possibility. Paddy is continuing the search. The Skeptics wish him luck.

Moa Mania

Some Skeptics have been surprised that our organisation has been so restrained in its response to the purported moa sighting near Cragieburn. As we see it, the whole issue is fraught with difficulty.

The notion of a colony of large moas escaping detection till now, despite its location in the Southern Alps accessible to Christchurch, almost defies the imagination. Almost, but not entirely: there is a lot of dense country out there, and the notion of a surviving moa — or two, or twenty — cannot be classed with Bigfoot or UFO abductions.

To this, we have to add the perceived credibility of the witnesses. The Press reporter who broke the story, Dave Wilson, is a previous winner of one of the Skeptics’ “excellence in journalism” awards. He’s an intelligent, persistent, hard-headed bloke who has spent a lot of time interviewing the trio who saw the beast, and he’s strongly inclined to the view that they are at least sincere. Wilson is a world away, for instance, from the cynical, exploitative Australian journalists who a few years ago got their hands on a family that had seen a blinding light on sky over the Nullarbor desert. Wilson has, to the contrary, been careful and measured in his approach.

The New Zealand Skeptics, it seems to me, cannot simply disregard Wilson’s convictions on this issue. If the trio is lying, it’s a particularly skillful and cruel hoax on Wilson personally, not to mention the rest of us. Still, for my part, I found the watery “footprint” of the beast, a photograph of which the three trampers produced at the very beginning of the flap, cause for the most skepticism. It was all wrong for a print left by a running bird, or a standing moa. The fuzzy photograph of the bird itself was plausible; the footprint looked outright fake.

If the sighting is not a hoax, then something like a loose emu still is far more likely than a moa. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal in the hearts of most skeptics that something as wondrous as the recovery of the moa might just turn out to be true. Wouldn’t we all cheer?

When I was musing on this the other day, Vicki Hyde brought me back down to earth with a stern lecture on the real, numerical probabilities of there being large, undetected moas in one of our more accessible parks. She was right, of course. But then I never claimed to have a skeptic’s soul. If anything, I more-and-more consider myself temperamentally gullible, and in need of occasional dressings-down by more tough-minded types like Vicki. Nevertheless, if the Skeptics are to err in this case or any other, better perhaps to be slightly on the side of a splendid possibility, than to dismiss without any consideration some extraordinary claim.

One of the highlights of our upcoming conference will be a symposium on cryptozoology. Dave Wilson will be there, and we may even be able to bring along the moa spotters themselves. Meanwhile, Vicki is organising a “fuzzy-photo” contest for Skeptics who can produce evidence demonstrating the existence of some extinct or extraterrestrial beast. Or perhaps a tossed hubcap, a floating log, or a chicken-wire moa.