The Omen

EVERYTHING was roses and buttercups until that fateful day. An omen, it was, for sure. In July, on Friday, only 17 days before the 13th, we had born on our humble dairy farm a calfie. She had four legs, nice black and white patches, a cute butt and two heads, four eyes, four ears and two tongues.

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Demons, Drought and Bullfeathers

Pull up a chair and hearken to the tale of the Great Drought of ’94

“Skeptical?” piped up the old timer. “Of course I’m flaming skeptical, ye addlepated mudfish!

“Aye, but it wasn’t always so. I was a dour and solemn Presbyterian from birth onwards, and bar the whisky, gossip columns, loose floozies and muckraking, a devout one too! But all this changed suddenly in the winter of ’94, twenty years ago, when Auckland was struck by drought.

“It was a fearful time. The people were downcast and grimy, and dirt and dust grew on the city like a blight, until you could scarce tell a regional authority from a whorehouse, resulting in all manner of dire ruction and scandal, driving middle-management to the limits of despair and provoking the wrath of the waterblasting community.

“I sought spiritual comfort during the crisis by moving into the Protestant and Trumpet Pub, where I followed the drought’s progress by radio and word of mouth, buttressing myself against evil with 17 barrels of ale and religious austerities.

“It might have been a straightforward drought, but a gimp appeared in the scenario when the North Shore City Council imported a wizard from the pagan South Island wop wops to perform rain-making ceremonies. A simple measure, you might think, to divert the suffering masses from their woe.

“But plagues from heaven upon me if as soon as the news broke the blasted Christians didn’t arise in a spluttering fit of hellfire and damnation, claiming that such heretical pranks were proof that the country had gone to the Devil, and forthwith raised such an almighty hullaballoo of scriptural vociferation that by the time the wizard landed the Council had already taken heed of the Christian catchcall, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” and quelled the pitchfork and torch uprising by cancelling the performance.

“I was flabbergasted, and even the publican, Haggis McDonnagle, was visibly shaken, stating right then and there that he was considering changing the name of the pub to the Secular Humanist, for in all his born days he’d never seen a witch, wizard or soothsayer with any more flair for the miraculous than a card shark, and to ban such blarney was nothing short of idiocy multiplied.

“But the wizard wasn’t unemployed for long. The barbarian villages north of the city thought it madness to let an available wizard slip through their fingers and thereupon hired him, leaving the North Shore City Council looking like a prize-winning jackass.

“By now the Christians were nigh delirious with joyous condemnation. It wasn’t often they got a chance to go rabid over devil worship and they meant to make the most of it.

“For days the talkback lines ran hot with seething Born Agains, witnessing for the Lord and staking their souls on the blood of the Lamb that the whole country was in the grip of Satan, and unless we clung to the True Vine and threw ourselves down at the feet of the Lord, the Deceiver himself would drag us into the black pits of Hell wherein we would rot in unspeakable anguish until the end of time.

“By now it had been raining for several days. I tell you, if the cat wasn’t among the pigeons now it would never get much closer, for lo and behold — both sides claimed responsibility for the miracle!

“The Christians held that the extra energy they had to put in to counteract the forces of darkness brought forth the Mercy of God. And forsooth, the Presence was strong! The halls of the pentecostals were abuzz with the Unknown Tongue, and rumour has it even non-pentecostals were heard to glossolate, and I’d be prepared to bet money — I take that back, Haggis would be prepared to bet money — that the Graph of Visions and Apparitions showed an upward curve through this period.

“The wizard himself took no credit; the peasants did it for him. He departed secretly, as fast as possible, saying little but to remark that if fools were kiwifruit we could start a new export industry, or something to that effect, for between the jet engines, caterwauling Christians and the Morris dancers it was hard to hear much of anything, and all told the whole dadblanged circus was such an unearthly blaze of flailing sticks and Biblical injunctions that objective observation may not even be applicable in this case.

“Me and Haggis drank a tragic amount of whisky thinking about these things and ten days later resolved, as witnessed by Mrs McDonnagle, to suspend judgement on the Tree of the Unseen until it yielded a visible persimmon; arguing that invisible anti-persimmons didn’t constitute enough evidence to lynch tarot card readers.

“As I say, it was many years ago and the details are hazy; but by crikey, I’ve been on the alert ever since. So hark ye doorknocking gospelizer — if you or any other evangelical hot-air agent ever darkens my front porch again, I’ll flatten your cursed head with a spade.”

Oh, What a Lovely World!

Late in his life, in answer to a question, Freud compared the human condition approximately to the contents of a baby’s nappy. When I first heard this story, it seemed to mark a bitter old man. That was when I was in high school in the late 1950s. Higher education was spreading in the world’s democracies. Ignorance and superstition, the plague of the human species since the caves, were on the way out. Reason, knowledge and tolerance would rule the future of the world. Or so it seemed. Does it look like that today, even to high school students? A few news items:

  • A British insurance salesman is convicted of double murder on the testimony from one of his victims, who was contacted during deliberations by three jurors using a Ouija board. Because British law normally does not allow even appeal courts to question jury deliberations, the conviction may stand.
  • Australian medical schools are being filled by significant intakes of Darwin-doubting fundamentalists, possibly 20%-25% of students. These wholesome young people will in the course of time advance, attaining places on the policy boards of hospitals, using their authority to determine health policies.
  • In South Africa a woman was forced by a mob to douse her mother in petrol and set her alight, before she and the rest of her family were killed. Her crime: being a witch. There is a steep increase in killing of witches in South Africa.
  • The Oz Skeptics have awarded their annual Bent Spoon to the Australian Attorney General, who has made it possible for workers in his department to take sick leave with a note from an iridologist, naturopath, homeopath or other alternative practitioner.
  • Freud’s doctrine of repression is itself responsible for the smell of nappy-contents that surrounds “recovered memory” therapy, probably the most vicious pseudoscientific fad ever to be adopted by the counselling industry. The fashion to blame all of life’s disappointments on “repressed” episodes of incest has caused more human suffering than any single issue to confront the New Zealand Skeptics.
  • Not that the therapists want to stop beating the drum of victimhood. When the BBC went across the Channel to give its extensive coverage to the D-Day commemorations, it made free counselling available to all its employees who might be upset by the experience. I’m not making this up. It’s more than the survivors of Omaha Beach got, but we’re so much more sensitive these days!

The meliorism of the 1950s has evaporated. Why? Some talk of abandonment of moral standards, others the rise of the nuclear threat — or the decline of the nuclear family, while others will blame it on the fall of religion — or of communism. My candidate is the degradation of education in its broadest sense — the failure of the modern democracies to give sufficient knowledge and critical, analytical abilities to young people at all levels. The dumbing down of public education, with its mantras in praise of self-esteem rather than hard-won knowledge is bad enough. But even school is being replaced by television, with all its shallowness and sentimentality, as the major enculturating force. Ignorance, prejudice, and superstitions thrive in ways that would have amazed me thirty years ago.

The next time someone tells you how much better the world is becoming with instant global communications, innovative educational methodologies, and your therapy needs covered by ACC — think skeptically!

Thoughts on the Longevity of Superstitions

What is it that keeps superstitions going in the face of our increasing knowledge about the world?

There is no easy, let alone absolute, way of telling the difference between a true belief and a false or superstitious one. In order to be able to label a belief a superstition, one would have to be able to define clearly what kind of belief would not be a superstition; or, for that matter, to call something abnormal, one would have to be quite sure what sort of thing would be normal.

However, people are very ready to insist on these distinctions and they tend to do so on the grounds of what seems to me a very mistaken notion. They think that one can distinguish between true and superstitious beliefs in terms of the method by which the beliefs have been arrived at. There is a correct method, it is alleged, and there are incorrect methods. If the correct method is followed, then the belief it leads to must be a true belief. When pressed such people cite “observation” and/or “reason” as the characteristics of a correct method. Both observation and reason are very woolly terms. If one wants to observe, one first has to know what one wants to observe. And then one has to make sure that the observation is not a hallucination, and so forth. There is no finality in “observation”. The method of reason is equally woolly. People differ very widely on what they suppose to be “rational” and in the end it boils down to little more than the invitation: “Be reasonable, think as I do!”

The moment we dismiss the naive notions of observation and/or reason, the notion of “correct” method involves one in a circularity. In order to decide which method would be a correct method of arriving at a true belief about the real world, one would have to know quite a lot as to what that real world is really like. Without such knowledge, there can be no telling what method would be the correct one. But it is precisely our ignorance of that real world and of what it is like that leads us to the search for the correct method.

The history of science provides countless examples of the absence of a correct method. Even a cursory examination of the “method” used by Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin or Einstein will show that they had no real method at all. The most recent and best documented example is the history of the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA.

There was Rosalind Franklin who tried to avoid all adventure and kept making X-ray pictures of DNA, putting her trust in old Francis Bacon, that heaps and heaps of these pictures would ultimately yield knowledge of the molecular structure of the substance X-rayed. And all the while, there were Crick and Watson, wildly speculating and inventing haphazardly and making informed guesses and using Rosalind Franklin’s X-rays merely to confirm or disconfirm their hypotheses.

What makes us think, in the absence of a correct method, that the conclusions of all these people were not superstitions, is the fact that once they had made their discoveries, these discoveries have failed to be falsified. We owe this paramount insight into and understanding of the growth of knowledge to Karl Popper, whose classic book on the subject was first published in Vienna in 1935.

Since there is no correct method, there is no absolute distinction between a true belief and a superstition. At best, we can tell the difference after the discovery or the proposal of a solution has been made. A superstition, after it has been put forward, is either falsified or it is couched in the first place in such a form that nothing whatever could ever falsify it.

A true belief, on the other hand, is, at best, considered true because, although we know what would have to be the case for it to be false, it has so far not yet been falsified. A true belief is only provisionally and hypothetically true and is, for this reason, not absolutely different from a superstition.


Unfortunately this lack of an absolute difference between superstition and true belief has been exploited by a host of contemporary philosophers — the so-called postmodern or post-structuralist philosophers (Feyerabend, Rorty, Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, to mention the most famous ones) — who relish telling us that we might just as well hold any belief we like, that there is no difference at all between superstition and true belief, no difference between science and fiction, and that people who claim their superstitions to be “science” are nothing but arrogant imperialists who use their power to ram their superstitions down their victims’ throats.

These “thinkers” maintain that “science” is nothing but the mythology of Western people. They sum all this up by saying that all beliefs, including those we call scientific beliefs, are social constructions and that their chief purpose is not to understand the world, but to act as ideologies which legitimise the exploitation and oppression of minorities, other races, or, in general, of whatever people we dislike. Bigoted heterosexuals construct beliefs which legitimise the persecution of homosexuals, male chauvinists construct beliefs to validate the oppression of women, and so forth.

In New Zealand we have to be specially wary of these postmodern “thinkers” because if we follow them we will end up believing that there is no difference between the myth of Kupe and the theory of Continental Drift. In the so-called minds of these postmodern “thinkers” the theory of Continental Drift is nothing but a belief employed by Europeans to put down people who believe that the North Island was fished up from the bottom of the ocean by Maui.

In spite of the faddishness of these so-called thinkers, who are now riding on a wave of popular acclaim because they make any group with the weirdest superstitions feel “culturally safe”, there is a very hard way of telling the relative, though never the absolute, difference between a superstition and a true belief. The more a belief coheres with other beliefs, the more scientific it is likely to be. The less it coheres and the more parochial it is, the less scientific it is likely to be.

By this standard, the concept of, for example, “Maori Science” (a course of which is part of the curriculum at Victoria University in Wellington!) is a contradiction in terms. If it is parochially Maori, it can, by definition, not be science; and if it is science, it cannot be specific to Maori. This is not to say that Maori had no science, but such science should be called “science among the Maori” not “Maori Science”. People who think of “Maori Science” ought to be reminded of the genocidal mischief caused in the middle of our century in Europe by the notion of “German (i.e., non-Jewish) Physics”.

A belief which claims to be scientific must always be open to criticism, and can never be shielded from criticism on the grounds that it ought to be respected because it is culturally ensconced in an ethnic group. The real obstacle to the progression of scientific knowledge, therefore, is not the absence of a correct method of finding it, but the demand that certain beliefs ought to be exempt from criticism on the grounds of cultural safety.

Superstitions which are parochial, however, do fulfill a social function. They function as charters of societies and hold those societies together as cooperating units and promote solidarity. This is, of course, more true of tribal or primitive societies than of modern, urban and industrial societies. In primitive societies we get the almost paradoxical situation in which a parochial superstitious belief is socially, though not cognitively, more efficient than a non-parochial, scientific belief.

Social Climate

The reason for this seeming paradox is quite easy to grasp. A society has to have boundaries and exclude lots of people. A parochial superstition is more likely to function well as such an exclusion principle than a more scientific belief which coheres with lots and lots of other beliefs.

A scientific belief can never function as an exclusion and boundary-defining principle. There is only one truth, but there are at least as many false beliefs as there are societies. One society could form itself around the belief that insects have nine legs; another, around the principle that insects have ten legs, and so forth. The society which, on the other hand, consists of people who believe that insects have six legs would include just about everybody. The true belief about insects could never be used as a boundary defining principle.

By the standards of evolution, one would expect that societies based on subscription to false belief would not last long, because they might waste their energy praying for rain rather than digging trenches for irrigation. But here again we come across another seeming paradox. The society based on the belief that rain comes from prayer is likely to be a society with strong social bonds and a good feeling of solidarity. That solidarity will make it more able to fend for itself and to compensate for its lack of true knowledge. It may lack food because prayer does not bring rain, but it will make a solid fighting force which can rob food from other people.

Parochial, false beliefs are not a good adaptation to the environment, but they are obliquely or indirectly adaptive because they are a good cement for the formation of the solidarity of robber gangs which can help themselves to food by other means. Such superstition-based societies have great staying power even though they are not good adaptations to the environment. Hence myths and superstitions are not likely ever to die out. Faith-healing may not be a cure for cancer, but it makes a good support group for cancer patients. Table-rapping may not be a suitable form of communicating with departed spirits, but it does make for conviviality.

For further discussion see two books by Peter Münz: Our Knowledge of the Growth of Knowledge, London, Routledge, 1985; Philosophical Darwinism, London, Routledge, 1993; and the following papers: “Popper’s Contribution to the 20th Century”, New Zealand Science Review, 48, 1991; “What is Postmodern, Anyway?” Philosophy and Literature, 16, 1992; “Anne Salmond’s `Two Worlds’ in Postmodern Fancy Dress”, New Zealand Journal of History, forthcoming, 1994.

New Age Internationalist?

The New Internationalist Review, a magazine not normally known for gullibility beyond the political, decided not all that long ago to examine the paranormal. Our intrepid reporter Peter Lange decided to have a look.

Last year the New Internationalist gave over an entire issue (November) to the subject of the paranormal in what seemed to be an effort to keep readers’ interest over 12 months of fairly heavy political going — a bit like the cream buns halfway through bible class. It seems to be a good-hearted publication, and in this case under the editorship of Chris Brazier it has attempted to research several popular aspects of the paranormal and tried to sum up without favour. The result is disappointing.

The journalistic approach goes like this… set the scene with a cloyingly cute question-and-answer dialogue with an imaginary reader, add one solitary article by a skeptic (the excellent Susan Blackmore), then a series of ten articles supporting the paranormal, and end with a statement by the researching journalist Brazier: “Something happened, I just don’t know what. And I’m afraid that could serve as an adequate summary of human understanding of the paranormal”.

The photographs include: a levitating mystic (India, 1936), two of Einstein (one before and one after discovering relativity, and you can see the difference), Uri Geller looking aghast at a bent spoon, two African women studying bones they have just dropped (maybe the spoon carrying them had bent), and a woman in Algeria grimacing with pain while the head of the Virgin Mary materialises out of the side of her neck. And I don’t blame her for feeling out of sorts. Why do such undignified phenomena always involve the Virgin Mary and never Groucho Marx? He could carry it off so much better.

Susan Blackmore’s article is strong — it offers (unfortunately) mundane explanations for a variety of strange experiences — out-of-body travel, coincidence, memory tricks, near-death-experiences — all the areas that create so much interest and confusion.

The next article is by the editor and is a slightly humorous account of trying to induce an out-of-body experience by following a set of commercial instructions. He fails, and of course blames himself rather than the nonsense put out in the best-selling book.

Next, a European woman describes sleepwalking in darkest Africa: “My friend Femina was found running through the village one night naked, with teeth marks on her cheeck and neck — she wouldn’t tell me what happened to her”. I’m not surprised. Her car’s headlights mysteriously go out while driving between two haunted rocks, she finds a dead chicken in a closed hut with its feet inexplicably removed, and so on. All serious evidence of forces outside her comprehension.

Next, an article on shamanism (written by a shaman) ingenuously explaining the taking of the hallucinogenc “yakoana” (“which produces effects like the spirits coming with huge machetes, cutting out your tongue, and putting your head upside down inside your body”) and then declaring the whole business an inexplicable mystery. Most Sixties children would find it fairly easy to explain.

Then follows an article on CIA remote viewing or “psychic spying” by a director of an American Institute of Parapsychology. It seems to work well as long as the enemy uses only a house, boat or tree for military purposes. A series of small text blocks is next, on everything from astrology to levitation to dowsing to incombustibility among the Maori people of New Zealand. All of them without exception support the paranormal claims, and there is evidence to show that if Winston Peters is sentenced to burning at the stake for heresy, it will be a waste of good firewood.

The most hilarious one is by Nina Silver, a New York channeller, who channels not through the normal dead characters like Winston Churchill or Egyptian kings, but through “a particle of gold light” — a female light, incidentally, and a committed feminist particle. She found herself on the outer with other channellers, who felt threatened by her liberated, often raunchy, luminous girlfriend who obviously didn’t fit into the staid and patriarchal Association of Channellees.

Chris Brazier then completes his investigation by attempting to meet his “spirit sister Marie” whom Nina has located, and then spends three hours working on it, culminating in a surge of energy coming down through the top of his head as the spirit enters his body and possibly his wallet. Having got in, the spirit fails to perform. Still in New York (could this be relevant?) he repeats the incoming spirit experience, but back in England the effect fails to recur.

Brazier is entirely convinced by the research of J.B. Rhine and his followers purporting to show that ESP and psychokinesis are possible, but admits that the evidence for the paranormal is anecdotal. “One thing is clear”, he says, “science can offer no explanation … except … when science itself becomes almost mystical”. Ahem.

The magazine is worthy, full of good political and environmental intentions, but in this case journalistically suspect and unbalanced, and inclined to put the sensational case before the rational. It sinks to the level of the National Enquirer for one of two reasons — an almost endearing ingenuousness or a cynical need to titillate and retain readers.

Angelic Sexism and the Politically Correct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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