Sensing Murder: overtaken by events

The discovery of a long-missing body offers a rare chance to put the psychic stars of Sensing Murder to the test.

On Saturday 19 May 2012 the remains of Auckland teenager Jane Furlong were found in sand dunes at Port Waikato’s Sunset Beach.

Jane was only 17 went she went missing while working as a prostitute on Karangahape Rd in central Auckland, on the night of 26 May 1993. While the discovery gives her friends and family a chance to say farewell, mystery still surrounds her disappearance, and her killer remains at large.

The Jane Furlong case was the subject of the sixth episode of the second season of the television programme Sensing Murder, which screened in New Zealand on 9 October 2007. On the programme, two ‘psychics’, Australian Deb Webber and New Zealander Kelvin Cruickshank, attempted to contact Jane’s spirit and uncover fresh evidence about the case. They made specific and falsifiable claims about where the body was hidden; the discovery of Jane’s remains provides a rare opportunity to assess the information this pair came up with.

The programme’s narrator, New Zealand-born Australian actress Rebecca Gibney, tells us Webber and Cruickshank were both filmed non-stop for a day, kept separate and under constant supervision. The only information they were provided with was a photo of Jane, which both claimed they didn’t look at until they had come up with (very accurate) physical descriptions, including age (though both picked her as 16), ethnicity, even hairstyle. Both picked that she worked as a prostitute and dressed accordingly, was academically bright but had trouble at school. Webber even got the name ‘Jayne’, after having the name handed to her on a piece of paper, face down – we are told that Jane changed the spelling in her teens. (One has to ask whether the name was written in Webber’s presence: stage mentalists are able to interpret writing or drawing by watching the movements of the top of the pen, a technique known as pencil reading.(

Cruickshank gets that she had two siblings, that there was a Judy in the family (her mother’s name was Judith), and that she had a 19-year-old boyfriend, correctly described by Webber as rough-looking with tattoos. Later, both lead the camera crew (independently on separate nights) to the precise point on Karangahape Rd where Jane plied her trade.

On the face of it, this is amazing. If we have been given a fair representation of events there would seem little doubt that these two have genuine psychic ability. But there are other possibilities. One is that Webber and Cruickshank have been provided with all the information from the start. Another is that Webber and Cruickshank are filmed for a combined total of perhaps 16 hours, of which less than 30 minutes ends up on the screen, so there is plenty of opportunity for selective editing. Both are skilled cold readers (I have attended one of Cruickshank’s mediumship shows and can attest to his ability) , and we are told by Gibney that “only correct statements are confirmed during the readings”. So they are given feedback on how they’re doing, and over the course of the day’s filming are able to home in on correct details.

But could they really be psychic? On the evidence from this early part of the show it’s a possibility but we can’t be sure, because all of this information could have been obtained by non-psychic means.

However Cruickshank and Webber go on to give details about where Jane’s body was hidden. In 2007 nobody knew where that was, but now we do. So let’s look at a transcription of the bits of the show relating to that and see how well they did. ‘KC’ is Kelvin Cruickshank, ‘RG’ is Rebecca Gibney, and ‘DW’ is Deb Webber. Quotes are complete; three dots denote a pause, not an ellipsis.

KC: Just wanted to say dump or dumped. How are you covered? She’s saying to me I’m so covered up it’s not funny. She says they did a jolly good job of covering me up. Lots of dirt, lots of puddles, lots of water, I can hear dripping, I can hear hammers, even jack hammers, the concrete … jrr jrr jrr jrr. You know the… the sound of building.

[DW gives unverified details about the murderer.]

KC: Church, cemetery, where you taking me girlfriend? I feel like she’s hidden. She said, I just asked her were you moved from where you were killed? She shook her head … So … So the possibility at the time of her passing there may have been a building in dis…mount, which means being broken down and replaced ’cause things have changed since that sort of scenario … the surroundings have all changed and so I can’t make out whether I’m in or out.

[DW and KC say Jane is still missing.]

RG: Both psychics have picked up that Jane’s body is missing. Deb is given a map of Auckland and asked to identify areas that are significant to the case.

DW: She’s saying to me you don’t get much work out of the city. Where are you working? Yeah work? That’s what I’m looking for.

RG: Deb is indicating the area where Jane worked.

DW: Do you go over a bridge or something to get to her? ‘Cause she keeps taking me something over a bridge. Something’s happening around in this area, I don’t know what it is though.

RG: Deb is pointing at the Auckland Domain, a large park area near the central city.

DW: Still again, it’s like part of her doesn’t want to be found.

KW: She’s not outside of the city, she’s inside the city, she’s making reference to a park… She’s giving me the images of the hospital and then the museum and then she brings me back over to the university. Little bit of a triangle.

RG: Kelvin is also given a map.

KC: There’s the university, Domain, the hospital, where’s that? Right here … so … if we put two and two together like, there’s the triangle of the university like that, it sort of looks like this [makes a triangle with hands over the map].

RG: Significantly at the center of Kelvin’s triangle lies the Auckland Domain. The same park area identified by Deb.

KW: Honestly, I’m going to say this to you again, ’cause she’s talking about it being right underneath the noses of where she was last seen, it’s not far from there. She keeps saying I was not removed from the city. So wherever that area is, we’d probably need to locate it. Have a scout around with it, try and work with her a little bit more.

[DW and KC on separate evenings go to Jane’s “patch” on Karangahape Rd.]

DW: I think this is where she was last seen. And she keeps showing me the image of the car, coming in. It’s taken off, it’s turning around, and headed back down out that way.

RG: Deb is pointing in the direction of the Auckland Domain.

[DW says Jane knew something was not right, KC continues to explore Karangahape Rd.]

RG: Meanwhile Deb asks Jane’s spirit to show her where she was killed. She directs the crew to drive over the Grafton Bridge.

DW: She was on this road. I keep asking her when did he get violent with you and she said he was creepy anyway, right from the beginning. But it’s when they got down the road a bit, that’s when he started.

RG: Kelvin has reached the old Symonds St cemetery.

KC: Why have you brought me here girl? Definitely been pulled here, I don’t know why. I’ve brought these with me just in case, try and link in with her [Holds up bracelets(?)].

DW: Left.

RG: Deb heads into the Auckland Domain, the area both she and Kelvin identified on the map as being significant to the case.

DW: Oh, this is a bit … She’s definitely been in here before. She’s been in here. No, I think a few times but she’s definitely been in here with him. It’s really weird, I don’t think she came out the other side of it.

RG: Just when it seems Deb is about to make a breakthrough, Jane closes down on her.

DW: Getting all that stuff I got at the beginning, about the anger and the bitterness. You know, no one really cares if she gets found or not, she feels. She’s not connecting with her body, she doesn’t care. Show me, go show me Jayne. It’s like, the only thing I keep getting is that she’s lost, so until her soul’s ready to acknowledge it, it’s lost. Shock does that to a soul. Well, I can certainly say this, it’s not a very pleasant place to be at night, in here. Too much goes on in here.

RG: At the cemetery Jane is shutting down on Kelvin too.

KC: I’m getting close to a lot of people man, but this one I’m struggling with. She’s very very hard to get that door open. She comes in, she gives me a little bit, and she disappears, she comes in and gives me a little bit more and disappears, and that’s been paramount as you’ve been watching it all night. Didn’t have much in life and everything I did have was taken from me. What does it matter where I am. What does anyone care?

Next, we are introduced to Duncan Holland of Corporate Risks, an investigation and security consultancy, who is described as a former detective leading a team of investigators. He is solid-looking, authoritative, and speaks of the police and “we” in close conjunction. Many viewers would probably get the impression he is a policeman. Below are excerpts of his concluding commentary. Ellipses in this transcript indicate segments not relevant to the body’s location, or where clips of DW and KC had been inserted for dramatic or illustrative purposes.

Both psychics identified the Auckland Domain as being significant. … To get to the Auckland Domain from K Road where Jane worked the car would have driven past the Symonds St cemetery and the Grafton Bridge. … Psychic Deb Webber led the crew to the Auckland Domain, the same area she and Kelvin identified on the map. … The Auckland Domain, which is less than five minutes drive from K Road has always been a popular spot for sex workers to take clients; it is also one of the most dangerous spots. Numerous rapes and attacks on prostitutes have taken place in the domain. The New Zealand Prostitutes collective warns sex workers not to travel too far out of the city with clients. …

It is quite likely Jane went with her killer to the Auckland Domain, she may have been murdered and possibly even buried there. …

If the psychics are correct and Jane’s body was well covered, it is quite feasible that her body could be hidden in the domain and remain undetected for 14 years. The Auckland Domain covers 75 ha of land, some of it rough and inaccessible terrain and bush. In 1995 the body of murdered vagrant Betty Marusich was found in dense bush in the Auckland Domain; no attempt was made to cover or bury her yet it still took two weeks for her body to be found.

Kelvin presented another interesting scenario. … During our investigations we were approached by an anonymous source who told us that Jane’s body had been buried in concrete. Police confirmed they had investigated this theory but were unable to find any evidence. New Zealand police deal in factual evidence but are open to all sources of information. The psychics have revealed potential lines of inquiry which we believe warrant further investigation in the hunt for Jane Furlong’s body and her killer.

So there you have it. Both Webber and Cruickshank identify the same general area as the location of Jane’s remains, but then Jane inconveniently (or perhaps not) shuts down on them. Note that Cruickshank actually gives two alternatives: the Symonds St cemetery and a construction site, location unspecified. Interestingly Holland says there had been a tip-off that Jane had been buried in concrete.

Cruickshank and Webber also had plenty to say about the killer, though as the crime remains unsolved it’s impossible to assess this material. Much of it was contradictory, though the show glosses over this – Cruickshank indicated a motorcycle gang and “payback” being involved (Jane was due to testify in an assault case involving a gang), while Webber gave details about a balding businessman with an accent.

Was there collusion between Webber and Cruickshank for them both to pick locations that were so close together? Not necessarily. Both had somehow deduced she was a Karangahape Rd prostitute (most likely by cold reading their interviewers; we can now be fairly sure neither has any psychic ability), and the likeliest place for the body to be hidden would be the closest piece of rough ground – the Grafton Gully/Auckland Domain area.

In any case, Jane’s remains were more than 80 km away, at Port Waikato. The pattern is clear: Webber and Cruickshank can come up with amazingly accurate information if that information is already known and if they are provided with feedback, although we have no way of knowing how many of their misses were edited from the many hours of filmed footage. But when new information that was not previously available comes to light, their pronouncements can be seen for the fantasies they are.

Fraud or Well-Meaning: it´s all the same to me

The paranormal field contains both con artists and the well-intentioned. It’s often impossible to tell one from the other, but in the end it makes little difference. This article is based on a presentation to the University of the Third Age.

People want reassurance about the future. We seek some kind of certainty, whether in the form of three-year political plans, saving for retirement, or looking for comfort in the various forms of crystal ball that try to make guesswork and psychological manipulation look like the truth.

We try to maintain a balance between wide-eyed credulity and close-minded cynicism as we´re bombarded with claim and counter-claim, miracles, astounding revelations, scientific discoveries, technological advancement, belief, faith and fact. We look for explanations.

One of the things that makes us vulnerable to con artists and well-intentioned loonies alike is our tendency to want to believe that someone is being straight with us. If they say they can predict earthquakes, then that’s what they are doing; if they say they can talk to the dead, then they really must be able to talk to the dead.

It’s not considered polite to express any form of scepticism or disbelief. And even those whose job is to do so, such as the members of the Fourth Estate, are often caught out by this. Something has to be really kooky sounding for our warning bells to go off, and there are people more than willing to dress up their favourite scam with all the trimmings of sophistry and science to get us to put hand to wallet, or simply just to believe in them and what they are telling us.

That said, it’s my belief that the vast majority of people in the very dodgy paranormal and pseudoscience businesses are not being deliberately fraudulent. Wilfully ignorant perhaps: unquestioning believers in their own egos and super-powers certainly.

I don’t know if forecaster Ken Ring is a fraud or really believes that he can predict the weather and earthquakes; whether he’s motivated by a desire to sell as many books as possible or simply wants to help the public. I can say the same about Paddy Freaney who said he saw a moa up in the Craigieburn mdash; it may have been a genuine sighting, or a mistake, or simply a clever marketing ploy to get more business for his nearby Bealey Hotel. And Deb Webber of Sensing Murder fame mdash; was it a desire to help desperate parents that saw her claim to psychically connect with missing Auckland toddler Aisling Symes or was it part of her pre-scheduled television appearance to hawk discounted entry tickets to her New Zealand tour?

You be the judge. But if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck… there may be something fowl there.

Sometimes the signs are just too too obvious. And it really helps to be aware of them. Think of a little applied scepticism as consumer protection for the mind.

How good is the information being provided? If the photos are blurry, reserve judgement as to whether you are seeing Bigfoot or a man in a gorilla suit. If the clinical trial has a sample size of 12, all carefully selected by the man looking to connect autism and vaccinations to sue Big Pharma, then it’s not Big Pharma you should be wary of. If the medium claims to be speaking to or about your dearly departed, listen closely to really see if they are telling you anything beyond the obvious.

On Sensing Murder Kelvin Cruickshank once pronounced this as an amazing revelation regarding the funeral of six-year-old murder victim Alicia O’Reilly:

“It sounds a little weird, but she must have been buried in a white coffin.”

But there’s nothing weird about a little girl being buried in a white coffin mdash; it’s a fairly common practice for children’s funerals. Not to mention the fact that the coffin was clearly seen in the widespread television coverage of the funeral. I think he phrased it that way to make it sound more amazing, as if he really was getting knowledge from the beyond, and few of us would stop and say “hang on a minute…”

We all have a lot in common, and the psychic industry exploits that to make the banal sound amazing. There’s a reason why mediums come up with the same names over and over again.

Mediums never come up with names like Piripi Te Aorangi or Sione, but concentrate on relatively common men’s names. A widow-heavy clientele makes that a necessary line but, more subtly, men often have traditional family names. So, instead of names like Dwayne or Dylan, mediums will ask about John or Michael, Charles or Richard, William or David.

It would be surprising if you couldn’t think of someone with the name John in your extended family. Mediums boost the odds by accepting middle names, nicknames, friends and colleagues, and they don’t even have to be dead to count as a hit. That can be explained away by saying the spirit world is watching over the living person. Mediums will commonly fire out a dozen names per reading, so it would be very surprising if they missed getting at least one apparent hit.

Some psychics hedge their bets even further by simply providing an initial. Few get quite as ludicrous as one desperate medium who, on not being able to get his subject to recall any special name beginning with “M”, finally blurted out, “Ah, it&39;s M for Mother&33;”

And we actually help them, with our willingness to suspend disbelief and to provide information, often without realising it. Cunning mediums, particularly those on the professional circuit, know how to exploit this fact, weaving our words into their patter and feeding it back to us as if it was something they knew all along.

TV3 flew me up to a book launch for medium Jeanette Wilson&59; the reporter was very excited that this woman was the real deal because she could provide actual names. We went to the launch and later this investigative journalist gushed about how Wilson had told one audience member that his father was called Frank. Fortunately, we&39;d caught that exchange on tape, so I got her to play it back. It went like this:
JW: Does the name Frank have any meaning for you?
Subject: My father was Frank.
JW: Yes, that&39;s right. I understand.

You don&39;t have to be foolish to be fooled. Those going to psychics or mediums are often desperate to believe, which makes them easy to exploit, but even those whose job depends on careful listening and recall can be easily misdirected.

I&39;ve done this sort of thing myself, when asked to impersonate a psychic and demonstrate the tricks and techniques used by the trade.

So you should listen for obvious cueing and changes of tack, or those spurious affirmations when an error is noted which flips it around to sound as if they knew all along.

Another example from Kelvin Cruickshank, this time looking at Alicia&39;s drawings. He spotted a depiction of her pet, something black and four-legged – her dog, he announced. Off-camera someone said “a cat”. The film crew knew there was a cat in the O’Reilly household, as it had been part of the mother’s story. “Oh cat is it?” said Cruickshank. “Oh it is too.”

What is psychic about that?

It can be really handy if you can identify a clear factual statement that can be checked out. This is harder than it sounds, as unequivocal statements are not part of the psychic stock in trade. It can also be difficult to check facts without having personal contacts or knowledge to draw upon. That said, there was something in the Sensing Murder programme about Alicia O&39;Reilly that could be checked.

Cruickshank made much of Alicia talking about children&39;s television show What Now?, and how that must have been a Saturday morning treat for her, adding that this clearly indicated her murder took place in the 1980s. This was made more dramatic by a voiceover noting that Alicia had been murdered in 1980. However, according to TVNZ, What Now? didn´t go on air until nine months after Alicia’s murder…

Con artists and True Believers alike will provide some kind of ad hoc explanation to either deny or explain away such errors. I often ask people, “how many times would it take for you to get things wrong before you would consider that maybe you aren&39;t doing what you think you are?” People with a vested interest in their own powers will very, very rarely face up to that.

Best yet, look for solid predictions, record them before the event and see how they stack up afterwards.

The most entertaining and regular examples of these are the tabloid predictions made at the beginning of every year. There are two things these regular features have in common:
1. a large proportion of predictions are wrong, even when plausible instead of downright silly;
2. they consistently miss the truly surprising, truly huge news events of the year.

Skeptics around the world track these and see how the “psychics to the stars” do, people who are touted as the best in the business. Back in 2004 the more plausible predictions involved the deaths of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro. All wrong. As were the really off-the-wall predictions of the discovery of live dinosaurs, and US General Colin Powell switching political parties to trounce George Bush and become a Democrat president.

What did the psychics miss that year? Just the massive Boxing Day tsunami that saw 214,000 people die across 11 countries. Surely it shouldn´t have been too difficult for just one of them to feel that sort of death and destruction reverberate through the cosmic ether?

However, of greater concern are those predictions which have a real personal impact on us and affect our behaviour and the behaviour of those around us.

Every year we get the prediction of San Francisco falling into the sea. It&39;s not there yet. But every year it comes back, along with other end-of-the-world scenarios, cometary impacts, giant bat attacks, the rising of Atlantis. They are invariably wrong.

I&39;ve lived through too many end-of-the-world predictions from Y2K to the Rapture to worry too much about them any more. What I do worry about is the very real psychological harm that inevitably accompanies such predictions, particularly when they are reported by an uncritical, uninformed media. Facts may whisper, but fear screams.

I worry about groups like the ominously named Ukrainian White Brotherhood who caused riots and bloodshed in their shaky nation in preparation for their earthquake apocalypse predicted in 2001.

I was worried about having a Minister of Civil Defence who believed that the end times were coming so there was no point preparing for natural disasters and emergencies when God had ordained it and the Bible had confirmed it. Yes, that was a New Zealand Cabinet Minister.

I felt sorry for the believers who sold their businesses and their homes in New Zealand and abroad, to meet the end of the world predicted by a Korean fraudster. I guess one thing to be said for him, at least he didn&39;t tell his followers to bring their world to a real end by mass suicide. It&39;s been known to happen.

I worry about the Cantabrians who ended up with unnecessary psychological stress heaped on an already deservedly anxious frame of mind because they believed in Ken Ring&39;s pronouncements regarding a massive earthquake happening on March 20 roundabout lunchtime. Some 50,000 people believed enough to flee the city that weekend and, despite the huge aftershock&39;s non-arrival, many still choose to believe in a former maths teacher-cum-magician than in real geologists.

Of course, it can be hard to be a judge when you are liable to only get part of the story. Particularly if the person at the centre of it controls the information.

Psychics will often talk about assisting police with missing persons&39; cases. What they don&39;t tell you is that there has been not one substantive case where psychically derived information has been of any significant use. That their &39;assistance&39; often comes down to making a phone call, or that they talked to a search and rescue person about their dream.

Deb Webber claimed to have seen Aisling Symes in a ditch. As one policeman put it, ” If she&39;s said there&39;s a body in a ditch in West Auckland, there are plenty of ditches and we can&39;t do much with that information.” And if police had actually limited their search only to ditches, as defined by almost every normal person and dictionary, then Aisling&39;s body would never have been found. That&39;s how truly useless her comment was. Yet there are people prepared to go on her three-year waiting list to pay her $250 for a half-hour reading. And who are willing to ignore the loud quacking that resulted when she was shown on camera talking to three non-existent dead people when an Australian television crew put her to the test.

People in this industry often claim to be doing it to give families closure, that they are just trying to help. They ignore or dismiss the harm and pain that they often cause. whatstheharm. net lists hundreds and hundreds of cases where families, parents, spouses, friends have all suffered unnecessarily through psychics and mediums exploiting their awful situations for money, marketing exposure and outright ego-boosting.

It&39;s rare for such families to speak out against this. Sometimes they have family members who want to believe. Sometimes they are desperate for any kind of help or assistance. Sometimes they think the extra publicity might turn up real information. Sometimes they have paid over so much money they don&39;t dare believe that it might all be for naught. Sometimes they are just too polite to call a duck a duck.

Here&39;s a heartfelt comment from one chap who had worked knowingly fraudulently as a fake medium, and who came to realise the damage that he had been doing:
“While aware of the fact that I was deceiving [my clients] I did not see or understand the seriousness of trifling with such sacred sentimentality and the baneful result which inevitably followed. To me it was a lark. I was a mystifier and as such my ambition was being gratified and my love for a mild sensation satisfied. After delving deep I realized the seriousness of it all… [W]hen I personally became afflicted with similar grief I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime.[

That was a very chastened and very honest Harry Houdini.

And, sadly, our ill-trained, inexperienced and under-resourced news media often doesn&39;t help us to assess the claims that are out there. Ken Ring was described in a number of publications as a lunar scientist, which sounds reasonably scientificky and gave him a spurious credibility. What you weren&39;t told was that he believes dolphins are beaming sonar signals to the Moon, and supports the idea that Indo/Egypto/European cultures were present in New Zealand thousands of years ago. Surely that says something about his credibility…
We get psychics who confidently state that missing people will be found near trees or water. Frankly it would be difficult to get away from one or the other in New Zealand. So that&39;s not much help either. And for all those pseudo-documentaries masquerading as reality TV, there have been no cases solved by mediums or their psychic brethren except in their own publicity material.
I have often been asked why the New Zealand Skeptics gives such people the oxygen of publicity. Why do we try to take a public stand against both the well-meaning if misguided individual and the charlatans and fraudsters alike? Why do we bother to point out when claimed scientific evidence is not actually scientific; why do we go behind the scenes to reveal the dodgy dealings of the professional medium; why do we try to make people aware of their own fallibility and vulnerabilities?

To paraphrase a famous quote that we all should bear in mind: For a dangerous idiocy to succeed requires only that good people say nothing.

An Evening with Sue Nicholson

Yet another Sensing Murder veteran struts her stuff.

AS a professed skeptic I have been unconvinced by psychics who claim they can communicate with dead people. However, those who do believe such a connection is possible invariably point out that as I have never been to a psychic session, I am not in a position to criticise. To counter that, I decided to attend an evening with the well-known psychic Sue Nicholson, who was appearing at the Glen Eden Playhouse Theatre. The price for that experience was $50 per ticket.

On her website Sue describes herself as a “gifted psychic medium”, an ability she claims to have had from early childhood. One-day psychic development workshops were available from Sue, coinciding with her current nationwide tour, $235 each, but that did include lunch. A maximum of 30 persons per session. If you want a personal reading from her, there is a three-year waiting list. There are three different CDs at $30 each, and her book A Call From The Other Side is available at $35. She can also be booked for house blessings, and claims “she successfully cleared negative energy from a large corporation in Wellington following the suicide of an employee on the premises”.

The Evening

My companion and I thought it best to take a seat near the back so we could better observe the night’s proceedings. However, as almost every seat downstairs was taken, we made our way to the upper level. By the time the show began, there were only four empty seats in the whole theatre.

Shortly after 7.30pm Sue Nicholson was introduced by her business agent, and entered the stage wearing a brightly coloured flowing outfit.

She quickly told us she could feel plenty of energy, and that there was “spirit” waiting to get through already. In fact, so much spirit about and so little time, that she would not be able to address everyone’s needs. Sue explained she is gifted with the ability to see, hear, and feel spirit, unlike many who may have only one of those gifts. She then told us about some of her earlier shows; someone’s pet pig turned up from the other side one night – animals also make it to the other side she said. Is it just people’s pets that made it there, or is it every animal that once lived? She further advised there was no Hell, and everyone, good or bad, was in the same place on the other side. A disappointment, no doubt, to those who hope that the likes of Hitler and Pol Pot are on slow roast somewhere.

She then explained that the five empty seats placed on the stage were for spirit, so we needn’t worry, she was not going to ask members of the audience to come up on stage. She had been fortunate in the past to have a spirit usherette turn up to help keep the more unruly in line she told us.
Next up was a short prayer to help us on our journey. We were asked to meditate, and Sue would transport us, and our angels, through a doorway with our name on it (or our birth name if we were adopted), which we were told we would see ahead of us, and once we had gone through to the other side, we would see the most beautiful garden we had ever seen. From there she told us to move on to the beautiful beach and park bench with our name on it that we would see in the distance. There we would spend time with our angels and deceased relatives. Some of us may be given something to take back, she advised.
After a few minutes chatting with all of them, she told us to go over to a waterfall to our right, the most beautiful waterfall we had ever seen, and to step into it, so that the waters would go through our bodies and relieve us of any aches and pains we had. Miraculously, we would notice our clothes were dry as we stepped out. Sadly, Sue said, we now had to make our way back through the doorway. She apologised for the brevity of the visit, but knew people were anxious for her to begin contact with spirit. We could spend longer on the other side – 25 minutes in fact – by using her CD (available in the foyer during the break).

Spirits aren’t maimed, they only look that way

By now the spirits were jostling to get through, so Sue’s first guest was a Tommy, or maybe Thomas – seems he wasn’t sure of his own name – who had crutches. Sue explained that people presented themselves as they were on this side – that is maimed, unwell etc, but that was just so we could identify them. There were no immediate takers for Tommy, but one woman did finally put her hand up, she said she had a grandfather, Thomas, but he didn’t use crutches. This anomaly did not deter Sue, who informed the woman, granddad Thomas had been waiting a long time to come through and so was a bit grumpy having had to push past the other spirits to be first, but he did love her, and was watching over her.

Following this Sue gave us some general descriptions of other spirits trying to get through, no names this time, just a woman or man with chest pains, breathing problems, or other vague symptoms. Once someone recognised the description and put their hand up, Sue would tell them what the spirit had to say. One spirit identified by an audience participant was a cousin, and another apparently the deceased friend of the participant’s living daughter.

At one point while Sue was conveying a message to one woman, she seemed to sense another spirit coming through and asked the woman who Margaret or Maggie was. The woman replied “Margaret is my sister” and pointed to the woman sitting next to her. After a brief chat with the spirit, it seemed there was a message for Margaret. Sue advised Margaret her angels were looking out for her, and she could expect things to improve in coming months, good news.

Sue explained that our guardian angels, whilst they look out for us, don’t actively interfere with our lives in any way. What their purpose is exactly, I am still not sure.

Sue saw a car roll over many times with four people in it. As there was no response, she clarified – not all may have died, but at least one person in the car did pass over. A hand went up. “Who died?” Sue asks. “A friend,” was the reply. “Ah, a friend,” Sue said, “Yes, that’s what they are saying to me, a friend, a friend, yes, yes, do you understand that?” Apparently they did. The friend was later revealed by the woman to have actually been her partner. The spirit then had a message for her, he said he loved her, but he understood it was time for her to move on with her life, and was happy for her to find a new partner, if she so desired.

Next she asked us about the gifts we had received during our earlier journey to the other side, and offered to interpret these for us. One person reported receiving a gold ring; Sue said she could see it above them, that it was a symbol of everlasting love. She could also see a number above them, 5, a lucky number, Sue said. Someone got a locket, another, the word love, another a gold heart and the word love.

It was time for a break, and Sue mentioned there was a new series of Sensing Murder to be screened later in the year. There was an audible “Oooh” from many in the audience.

After a chance to view the merchandise, Sue was back on stage with a pen and paper and a list of spirits who had come to her during the break, which she proceeded to work her way through. First up was someone in a navy uniform: no immediate takers, but someone did have a cousin in the navy – that must be it, because they got a message from them.
Sue then described someone with cuts to their wrists. One woman raised her hand, she had a son who overdosed and died. “Did he have cuts?” Sue asked. “No,” was the reply. No one else put their hand up, so Sue talked to the spirit again. It seemed he had wanted to cut himself, but didn’t do it – it was her son after all. He said he felt alienated and that no one understood him. “Do you understand that?” Sue asked, apparently she did.
Two people claimed one spirit, but it was the person to the right that Sue directed her information to. However it didn’t seem to be going too well. The person to the left vigorously waved their hand, it seems the information was for them instead, Sue apologised to the first person and moved to the second. An easy mistake for the spirit to make I guess.

A ghostly budgie

Others followed, and then it was back to more interpretations of our meditative gifts received on the other side. More hearts, love, flowers. Occasionally Sue saw something additional – she saw a bird arrive over one woman; it turned out she had a pet budgie as a child, so it must have been that the woman said. Another woman said her guardian angel had turned to stone on the other side. No need to worry, stone is solid and unmoving, Sue advised – it was just the angel showing her the solidity of their commitment to her.

Another spirit was identified by a gentleman in the second row as a departed relative. Sue conveyed a few messages and then remarked, “You’re thinking of going into business on your own, aren’t you?” “No, done that, and never again!” was the man’s immediate reply. Sue conversed for a moment with the spirit, yes, seems they were warning him not to go into business on his own. “Do you understand that?” Sue asked. I am sure he did.

Then it was back to Sue’s list. Another name this time, and jokingly I leant over to my companion and asked, is that your father? (still very much alive). Sue must have noticed my movement as she announced it was for the woman with glasses and looked directly towards my companion. Fortunately, a few seats away there was another woman, also with glasses, who was certain this spirit was for her. Sue’s agent, who’s job it was to take the microphone around, pointed out that this woman had already had a turn, but with my companion now trying to hide under the seat, Sue was sure it was for this woman. “Are you trying to do a family tree?” Sue asked this woman. “Yes, but I am having difficulty,” was the reply. Sue advised the spirit was telling her it was because there are several skeletons in the closet, and she should look further afield. “But they all come from Ireland,” the woman replied. No matter, you need to look in England Sue advised. I hope it helped.

Last on the list was another name that had come through – there were only three names put forward by spirit during the night. “Could be a first, or a last name, Preston.” I thought, this could be interesting, that’s not a common name. No takers. Silence. Then a woman in the third row puts her hand up. “My surname is Prescott,” she said. “No, Preston it is,” Sue repeats. More silence. Sue then conversed with the spirit. “Preston? Preston? no, no, it is Prescott, yes Prescott it is,” Sue announced, and then proceeded to convey a message to the Prescott in the audience.

The show was then concluded by Sue’s agent. It was 10.30pm. We made our way back to the foyer, and as we did I overheard one person remark, “That’s a dollar a minute”, presumably a reference to Sue’s 30-minute meditation CD.

Upon reaching the foyer we were nearly run down when a group of people clutching books saw Sue and followed her into the adjoining room for them to be signed.

Putting it all together

In summary, I noticed that when Sue got it wrong, she moved on quickly, that information she elicited from the person often became the information that the spirit then supplied back, often followed by the question “Do you understand that?”. Typically, a name or a general description of an illness would change into something else when there was no apparent connection to a member of the audience. A vague description such as “chest pains” could be interpreted as anything from heart disease to lung cancer, leaving the field wide open for a connection. If someone identified a condition as relating to that of their dearly departed, Sue still asked them what they had died of. Once the spirit had been identified by someone from this vague description, nothing else was actually revealed to further confirm the correctness of this identification.

In one instance the spirit, confirmed by a woman in the audience to be that of her deceased mother, was identified from Sue’s description of someone with a problem in the throat area. The woman revealed her mother had died from a brain tumor, but, she clarified, her mother did have difficulty swallowing in the latter part of her illness. Sue told the woman her mother had 18 variously sized brain tumors. There was no way to verify this, and interestingly the woman did not confirm it, but one has to wonder, why was the spirit not at first able to give Sue the basic information of a brain tumor, but later, after she was given this information, was then able to give a precise number to the tumors?

When anyone told Sue what gift they received during their journey to the other side, she was always able see it above them – she never told them what it was prior to her being told by the participant. Interestingly the messages Sue conveyed and the interpretation of gifts from the spirit world were generally the same – your friend/relative/partner says they love you/forgive you/never got around to telling you they love you, but they do, and it is okay to move on with your life now. There were no specific revelations from any of them, just general ‘feel good’ comments. Commendably, she put in a word of caution for anyone contemplating suicide – you should not hasten death, but wait until your time comes.

Was I convinced? Not at all, but I could see that most attending were, and with Sue not able to get to everyone, that many would be back another time.

At least I can point out the inconsistencies and errors that I observed to believers now that I had answered their criticism and attended a session.

Hopefully this may be sufficient to persuade some believers to think more critically about their experience in the future. I certainly hope so.

A Skeptic at the Video Shop

Is there anything on television worth watching? Maybe.

Who has the most dangerous job in prime-time TV and at the movies? Police officers? Soldiers? Private detectives? None of the above, according to one survey of occupational groups in entertainment – it’s scientists who are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

In a survey taken in 1987, broadcast critic George Gerbner found some disturbing tendencies in our on-screen scientists. At that time, ten per cent of scientists featured in prime-time television entertainment got killed and five per cent killed someone. Take horror films, and scientists are second only to psychotics as the primary troublemakers, and apparently cause more problems than zombies, werewolves and mummies combined.

I’m concerned with the image of scientists here because they are usually the only ones who show any glimmer of critical thinking, however misguided.

For the last fifty years or so it has been the role of the skeptic and the scientist to act as the fall guys. They’re the ones who are too busy scoffing to notice the werewolf creeping up on them, the alien aiming a death ray, the dinosaur in the rear vision mirror. And it’s their hubris which tends to cause disaster to befall their companions, if not imperil life on Earth itself.

The plotlines have followed the same formula since the 1950s:

Take one scientist with an obsession.

Add some radiation, lightning, spare body parts or somesuch and you’ve got a monstrous menacing creation.

Said creation escapes or goes out of control, often with the assistance, unwitting or otherwise of the deformed or aged assistant.

Enter the potential victims, usually children – or a young couple, if you need a love interest. They often try to warn people about the threat, setting up the skeptical unbeliever for body snatching, disembowelment or demon possession.

But eventually these innocents save the day, often with the assistance of the local police, military, villagers with burning torches etc.

The Good Old Days

At least during the 50s, when mad scientists were busy unleashing all manner of Things, blobs, giant tarantulas, flying piranhas, killer tomatoes and other horrors on the planet, there were some good scientists who were able to figure out ways of dealing with the critters.

These days scientists can’t even do that. Instead they’re usually presented as either incompetent fall guys who have to be outwitted by benign laypeople, or evil amoralists willing to do anything in the name of science.

I’m not sure whether I feel reassured or not by the latest take on Frankenstein. Speaking of his recent movie version, Kenneth Branagh said that he wanted Victor Frankenstein to be seen, “not as a mad scientist but as a dangerously sane one”.

But perhaps we’re being too precious. After all, to paraphrase Michael Crichton, everyone gets short shrift in the movies – politicians are invariably corrupt, businessmen are crooks, lawyers are unscrupulous. It’s part of telling a story – you have to have heroes and villains, and most general-release movies demand simple plots and cardboard characterisation.

Part of the problem is that skepticism can get in the way of a good story. Who wants to hear about an old house that isn’t haunted (see page 18)? Or a dinosaur park where they design decent containment systems? Where’s the entertainment in that?

Yet all is not lost. There have been some wonderful moments of film footage which could be considered dear to a skeptical heart.

Cold reading is an important skill for any self-respecting psychic – using those valuable clues of context, body language and the general similarity of people to reflect back to them their hopes and fears.

The classic “Wizard of Oz” has a great example of this, and one of my favourites as it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on when Dorothy is running away from home and meets the fortune-telling professor. In case his quick glance at her suitcase is too subtle, he goes on to rifle her basket in a well-intentioned search for clues that he can turn into a psychic reading which will turn Dorothy’s footsteps home.

A more sophisticated version can be seen in the fun Steve Martin film “Leap of Faith”. Here he plays Jonas Nightingale, the head of a travelling preacher show, complete with convoy, choir and all the razamatazz of the circus.

It opens with him doing a cold reading on a cop who has stopped his convoy for speeding, picking up on all sorts of clues to get out of a ticket. There’s nothing subtle about this – just before he gets off the bus, where his crew are laying bets on his ability, one of the newcomers asks plaintively “what’s a cold reading?”.

Nightingale goes on later to wow the locals of a small town with his miraculous abilities to know their troubles, utilising old-fashioned eavesdropping and the technological support of a good database and radio communications. It’s a great movie based in part on the real-life cons run by US preachers like Peter Popoff.

Human nature

Of course it seems to be a part of human nature to want to believe, and that’s what these sorts of preachers, psychics and snake-oil salesmen take advantage of. Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon” has a great demonstration of where the desire to believe overpowers initial skepticism, helped along with a little show biz, as the good people of Passamaquoddy are convinced to forget their bad experiences in the past with two dubious characters and sign up for their latest nostrums.

I can reveal that the snake oil salesmen come to a bad end, albeit a comic one (this is Disney after all).

Ironically, in looking for positive images of skepticism, the bulk of the ones I have come across have been in children’s programmes.

Scooby Doo Where Are You?

Many of us have grown up with the derring-do of Scooby Doo, but I hadn’t thought hard about the storylines in this long-running cartoon series until a couple of years ago. The storyline is fairly constant – some kind of ghost or werewolf or Bigfoot or other paranormal phenomenon scares the Scooby Doo team until at the last it’s revealed to be a hoax.

I do wonder if they hadn’t a closet skeptic in the scriptwriting department. Sadly, the thing which jogged my memory of this was a cri de coeur from a poor skeptic, Tim Madigan, who wailed that the most recent movie had sold out.

“No longer do the intrepid investigators prove that the paranormal is all a ruse. In their latest incarnation, Daphne is now a TV reporter for an Entertainment Tonight-type show. She goes to New Orleans to look into reported hauntings, bringing her old friends along. She and the other members are once again beset by a ghost of a pirate, as well as assorted zombies, werewolves and vampires. But this time, when Fred and Velma present possible rational explanations for the weird events, they are pooh-poohed by Daphne, who goes so far as to tell Fred “you’re not a skeptic, you’re in denial.”

As Tim goes on to say, “it’s all such a sad betrayal of the original show’s glorious skeptical tradition.”

Perhaps there’s hope in other cartoon shows – my kids are addicted to the “Magic Schoolbus” series, which focuses on teaching science. I think they killed two birds with one stone in a recent show covering the concepts of buoyancy and pressure, while revealing the media-inspired hoax behind a would-be Loch Ness monster.

Another nice thing about the Magic Schoolbus is that each episode ends with kids critically questioning what’s shown – the Magic School bus can’t really grow fins and go under water – and the show producers explaining where they have taken liberties and why.

Larry Zimmerman, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Iowa, gets his students to think critically about documentaries like “In Search of Ancient Astronauts” and “UFOs; The First Encounter” and “The Mysterious Origins of Man” to critically examine how evidence is presented and what techniques are used to try and make cult archaeology and creationism credible.

Handy Questions

The questions are handy ones to bear in mind should you find your nearest and dearest riveted by the wisdom of that famous Old Testament researcher Charlton Heston. Things like:

Why do you suppose that certain sites or evidence always seems to show up in these videos?

What clues are there that some of the segments are used out of context?

How is the choice of narrator used to boost the credibility of the video?

You don’t have to be a Stage One anthropology student to get something out of a discussion along these lines. I’ve had similar conversations with my eight and 6-year-old about things they see on TV.

Of course, it does help to know what they are viewing.

A popular phenomenon of recent years has been Pokemon, some 150 horribly over-commercialised little creatures brought to your television screens courtesy of Japanese game company Nintendo.

For those of you who have had to endure seeing your children or grandchildren addicted to collecting Pokemon games, trading cards, models, t-shirts and all the other paraphernalia of fandom, I can now reveal that all has not necessarily been in vain.

One of the premises of the Pokemon world is that these cute wee things evolve. They adapt to their environment, with the fittest surviving and dominant traits coming to the fore. It’s not strictly Darwinian but there’s enough evolution there to offend Southern Baptists and Saudi Arabian muftis alike, both of whom have censured the programme for introducing the word “evolution” to 5-year-olds.

In this day and age things tend to move very fast, so you might say that Pokemon demonstrate an accelerated form of punctuated equilibrium at an individual level. That is, each individual Pokemon evolves into a different form.

One such Pokemon is called Abra. The Pokemon website notes that though it is psychic, it lacks any useful abilities except for the ability to teleport out of trouble.

Now bearing in mind that this Pokemon is called Abra, would anyone care to hazard a guess what the evolved form might be? Kadabra – right!

Again, according to the stilted English on the website, Kadabra “doesn’t have a powerful body, but relies on a strong mind to win. It can send out waves of mental energy that cause headaches at close range.”

In addition to a mental attack, this Pokemon sports a rather surprising weapon. Not exactly an M16, but something no self-respecting psychic Pokemon would be seen without, it appears….Yes, it carries a bent spoon…

When Kadabra evolves into yet another higher life form, his weaponry increases, and he becomes known as Alakazam…

Now you mightn’t take this very seriously, but Uri Geller has been spitting tacks over this utensil-wielding creature and has filed suit against Nintendo for $100 million. Apparently when he visited Japan he was mobbed by people wanting his autograph on their Pokemon trading cards. Of course, it didn’t help that in Japan, Kadabra is known as Un Geller…

“Nintendo turned me into an evil, occult Pokemon character,” Geller complained. “Nintendo stole my identity by using my name and my signature image of a bent spoon.”

My heart bleeds…It was quite interesting seeing the response of the Pokemon fans to this news. Many of them had never heard of Geller – hardly surprising as the bulk of fans are under 15, but the chat rooms and news announcements variously described Geller as:

a “self-proclaimed psychic and magician”,

an “internationally renowned con artist”

and an “all-around creepy guy”

One particularly perceptive and indignant young fan remarked “if Geller really is psychic, how come he didn’t know there was a Pokemon based on him out already before he saw the card?”

I sometimes wonder if our so-called innocent credulous children are actually the most skeptical of us all, and that we lose this as we get older. Maybe there’s something in the hormones which confers an evolutionary advantage to gullibility.

In “Secrets of the Super Psychics”, skeptical researchers Dr Richard Wiseman has a group of adults jumping out of their seats when glowing objects start to move and float above a table in a dark séance room. What they can’t see (and we can, thanks to the right film) is that these things are being moved by the alleged psychic and an assistant, cloaked by the darkness.

Although programmes like “Secrets of the Super Psychics” are far outnumbered by the plethora of “unsolved mysteries, “believe it or not” and “in search of..” efforts, I think that few people will forget Richard Wiseman’s séance set-up once seen, and they may well be more critical if ever encountering that particular scam in the future.

At least I’d like to think that.

We’ve argued for many years back and forth about whether something as straightforward as violence on television actually affects people. How are we to determine the far more tricky question of television’s role in producing a gullible society?

It may not come as a complete surprise that there appears to be a correlation between television viewing and levels of credulity. Those addicted to “Oprah”, “The X Files”, the “Holmes” show, reality television and other areas considered entertaining viewing are more likely than infrequent viewers to hold negative views on science and positive ones towards the paranormal or pseudoscience.

They’re more likely to believe in astrology and think it scientific; more likely to think science dangerous; more likely to consider scientists as odd and peculiar.

This is not a simple expression of education levels, age, gender or any of the other factors likely to influence attitudes, as the study which produced these findings took those into account and still demonstrated that TV fans think scientists are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Communications professor William Evans has argued that increasingly, film and television entertainment portrays science as useless in solving problems. It is seen as a handicap to use reason and to think skeptically.

Skepticism is all too-often used as a synonym for closed-mindedness. Take Agent Scully in “The X Files” – any self-respecting skeptical scientist confronted with quite that much unequivocal evidence for paranormal events would just have to stop and wonder. If I was her, I’d be off to get James Randi’s one-million-dollar prize like a shot.

One could argue that there isn’t necessarily a direct causal relationship between what is shown on the screen and the poor image of skepticism and of science, but I think it’s safe to say that television and film provide a welcoming environment for the paranormal and pseudo-science. It gets far more sympathetic coverage, with little in the way of challenge, than that of science in general.

We had a psychic story in the Christchurch Press a few weeks ago. A psychic in Ashburton had managed to find not one, but two missing dogs. The first, lost on a farm, was predicted to be found somewhere near water; the second, apparently lost on a hiking trail, was divined as likely to be found near a tree. And you know what? He was right! Astonishing stuff.

This was considered sufficiently newsworthy to be given two columns and a photo in the Press; TVNZ went one better and sent a film crew down to Ashburton and then out to see me. All I can say is it must have been a very slow news day…see film at 10…

My thanks to Graham Hill and Alastair Brickell for their information, suggestions and videos.

Some Videos of Note

  • Leap of Faith
  • The Magic Schoolbus
  • Pete’s Dragon
  • Scooby Doo
  • Secrets of the Super Psychics
  • Wizard of Oz

Interesting Articles

Raising a Skeptical Family

Being a skeptical parent in New Zealand isn’t always easy, but it has its rewards. This was originally presented to the Skeptics’ World Convention in Sydney, in November.

When I became head of the New Zealand Skeptics seven years ago, the irrepressible Denis Dutton had great delight in ringing the major newspapers to announce the fact that the organisation had elected someone who was female, of Maori descent and pregnant.

“How more politically correct can you get?” he crowed triumphantly. I don’t know about elsewhere around the world, but for some reason the New Zealand Skeptics are rarely seen as PC.

What Denis didn’t know was that the gravid situation provided me with a great excuse to pass back to him the many invitations to speak to seemingly innumerable numbers of Rotarians, Roundtablers, Lions, Great Elks and other assorted male mammalian service groups. There’s nothing surer than saying you’re pregnant to get an all-male group to back off hurriedly.

I like to think of it as part of my personal crusade to singlehandedly boost the skeptical population of our country.

I must say that people seem to delight in predicting that my sons are going to grow up to be Sensitive New Age Guys. If they really want to make me nervous they add that David and Perry will be New Age, rugby-playing accountants who’ll end up working for Treasury. I can’t see it somehow – after all, they’re both fire signs…though I do find it a bit worrying that my seven-year-old has started paying attention to the stockmarket reports and cheering every time Telecom drops a few more points.

Of course, his interest-and incidentally the reason why the bulk of this audience is male-is explicable. According to psychologist Bertrand Cramer, it all relates to early adolescent experimentation with gender-specific body parts. Most notably that manipulation which causes said body parts to move and retract, which, according to Cramer:

“…presents the boy with a particular challenge in the development of the body image; this may contribute to his interest in machinery, physics and the like.

“The boy’s better spatial sense relates to the greater use he makes of space in motor activity; the ability the boy has to perceive his sexual organ may also contribute to a better representation of space and to his better skill and greater interest in experimental science and mathematics.”

One can only conclude from this that women should be over-represented as mining engineers, tunnellers and speleologists….

Anatomy and Skepticism

I must confess to a certain degree of scepticism concerning the relationship between gross, so-to-speak, anatomy and an interest in science or its handmaiden, skepticism.

I attribute my interest in skepticism to my early fascination with science and science fiction, thanks to writers such as Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov. In both their fiction and non-fiction, they posed questions and looked for answers, they acknowledged the sometimes-tentative nature of their conclusions, they changed their minds when the facts built up against them. Their science was not the boring stuff of school textbooks, but involved real people trying to find answers to all manner of questions.

They raised real concerns about where the world was heading long before anyone had started worrying about the H-bomb or the China Syndrome, Dolly the cloned sheep, or global warming.

Of course, by no means have all their predictions of the future been accurate ones; nor have the predictions made from respected scientists or the even more highly respected astrologers. Arthur C Clarke knew this when he postulated his First Law which states that:

…when a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

There are times when this Law is overthrown, as noted in Isaac Asimov’s Corollary to Clarke’s First Law:

…when the lay public rallies round an idea that is denounced by distinguished but elderly scientists, and supports that idea with great fervour and emotion, the distinguished but elderly scientists are then, after all, right.

And while I read Asimov and Clarke and Sagan and Feynman, I was also reading Velikovsky and von Daniken. I tried experiments with Rhine Cards and fervently scanned the skies hoping for a close encounter of my very own. I drew up natal horoscopes in my astrophysics labs, and made more money off astrological charts than I ever did from writing astronomy columns.

But throughout it all, my tendency to ask questions, to try and look at all sides of an issue, stuck with me. That was helped by a goodly dose of debating at school and university level, probably one reason why I tend to be an equivocator.

And, if I want to get Freudian, I can blame my father. He was a staunch non-believer in gravity, and we had lots of arguments about air pressure, centrifugal forces, Newton and apples. I’m still not sure to this day whether he was having me on or not, but it taught me never to accept things at face value.

A Conundrum

The latter is something we could all do well to remember. I think the most stunning example of this I’ve seen came from a speaker we had after our annual skeptics dinner one year. We’d settled back in our chairs and were presented with the following conundrum:

Two men – James and John – are in a room. James is taller than John. John is taller than James.

How do you explain that? Just think about it for a moment. James is taller than John. John is taller than James.

Well, we had a room of 100 or so skeptics, the most critical minds in the country, and the suggested explanations were legion, not to mention ingenious. I’m sure many of you have already thought of similar solutions to the ones we came up with:

James is standing on a box but John is actually taller.

The floor slopes.

James was taller but then some time passed and John grew taller than James.

The gravitational field is different in different parts of the room.

By the time we started to argue about the effect of singularities, the speaker called a halt and put us out of our misery. There were two obvious explanations that we had failed to come up with:

He was lying OR he was mistaken.

We’re just not taught to be suspicious enough. As a species, we’re suckers for the confident conman. It’s laughable when it’s some guy with a toy submarine drumming up some tourism in a local loch; it’s not so funny when we’re asked to believe that another part of the human race is inferior based on their skin colouring or religion.

I find it sad that few people bother to ask questions. It’s an indictment really of how little critical thought enters our lives, how rarely people are prepared to think, really think, about issues that may affect them. This holds as true for any activity in which we participate, whether it’s debates on astronomy and astrology, alternative medicines and health reforms, or the way in which we choose our political representatives.

I remain highly skeptical about acupuncture and its uses, but didn’t really start to question it until a mother in my local baby group announced that her acupuncturist had said the best way to treat a baby with a fever was to bleed it. “That’s positively medieval” I gasped, only to be reassured “oh no, it’s much older than that, it’s Chinese.”

I knew this woman wasn’t going to be interested in a tirade, but I pointed out just how little blood a small baby has to lose before it gets into dire trouble. She could see what I was getting at. But maybe only because I was the closest pseudo-authority figure at the time.

Healthy, Natural Diseases

Some of these women refuse to have their toddlers immunised because it’s not natural. Somehow it’s more healthy for their children to get diseases – they’ve had measles, mumps and whooping cough so far. These are women who worry about radiation from their microwaves and electric blankets, but who drive their kids around in their urban combat vehicles without safety belts. These are women who listen to the health shop staff and buy heaps of herbs, royal jelly and megavitamins, but who automatically distrust anything to do with Western conventional medicine.

You can’t argue with them, that’s confrontational. Yet you can’t leave them to their wilful ignorance unless you’re willing to accept that the price of the New Age is an uninformed populace making decisions based on supposition and superstition.

And why worry about some ditzy women? Well, it’s said that if you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate an entire family.

I believe that we each have a responsibility as individuals, as parents, as citizens to be educated – that doesn’t mean sending everyone off to university. What it means is having enough nous to ask questions until we can understand or, perhaps more importantly, can recognise our lack of understanding. It also requires us – whether operating as card-carrying members of the Skeptics, or simply as friends and parents – to encourage questions, to provide alternative viewpoints, to make our case effectively.

If you explain homeopathic solutions in terms of a teaspoonful of gin stirred into a Pacific Ocean of tonic, people can immediately grasp what you’re getting at when you challenge the idea of potent dilutions. Start talking in terms of moles, millifibles or inverse powers of ten and you’ve lost them.

The New Zealand Skeptics had toyed with killing two birds with one stone by taking on the homeopaths and the urine-quaffers simultaneously – we figured we’d take a glass of urine, dilute it homeopathically way past any chance of a single molecule of urine remaining and invite the press along to see the “Skeptics Take the Piss out of Homeopathy”. We weren’t confident we could explain the maths to the representatives of the Fourth Estate however.

If you encourage people to stop and think about it, they know that it doesn’t seem all that likely that a civilisation immeasurably more advanced than ours would want to travel millions of miles across space to stick things up the noses of neurotic Americans. The idea becomes even more ridiculous when you point out that the figures being bandied about for alien abductions mean that one American has been abducted every minute every night for the past 30 years. People know that there are simpler solutions. Even children can figure that out.

Effective Presentation Essential

We do need to present our case effectively, because if we don’t, the fallout can be disastrous. It’s easy to laugh at tales of UFO abductions – it’s not easy to laugh at a child’s coffin. We’ve had a huge debate in New Zealand over the past 18 months as to the rights of the parent to decide what is appropriate treatment for their children.

Many people would argue that parents have the ultimate right and responsibility. I can decide what is best for my child. After all, I’m a caring, well-educated, white middle-class parent who dearly loves her children and would do only what is best for them.

Sounds reasonable you say? But be careful. After all, I may truly believe that it is appropriate to beat my child. People do. I may think it appropriate to withhold a life-saving blood transfusion from them. Jehovah Witness parents believe this sincerely. Or I may decide that my child will be better off having quantum-boosted radio waves or happy thoughts beamed at his cancerous growth, rather than nasty chemotherapy. After all, in commenting on just such a case, the New Zealand Health and Disability Commissioner said that parents have the right to choose what treatment is given to their child.

I do wonder if the commissioner would uphold the rights of people who believe their child’s diabetes will be aided by prayer, rather than by insulin. Somehow I doubt it. After all, in one recent case, two parents were charged with manslaughter for withdrawing their 13-year-old son from chemotherapy treatment for a 15-kilogram tumour – the prayers hadn’t worked and the boy died.

Yet, in the cause celebre that was the short eventful life of Liam Williams-Holloway, it appeared that something was different. There are a number of factors that one could point to: the parents were white and middle-class, not Samoan and poor; they gained supportive media coverage from our major news celebrity Paul Holmes; and they were relying on alternative therapy, which sounds more effective and reasonable to a secular society than appealing to God.

Liam had neuroblastoma cancer, with a tumour on his jaw. It’s a difficult cancer, but when the oncologists first saw him when he was three, they thought he had a 60-70% chance of beating it if they could treat it quickly. This type of cancer has a very fast drop-off in success rate; by the time children with it reach five, they have about 15-20% chance of survival.

Chemo Courses Stopped

Liam had had two courses of chemo and then stopped. The oncologists made numerous attempts to talk his parents into bringing him back, including agreeing to alternative treatments running alongside the conventional, to no avail. Healthcare Otago eventually went to the Family Court and Liam was made a ward of the courts to enforce treatment; it’s not an uncommon outcome in this sort of case, though is more typically used to permit blood transfusion for Jehovah Witnesses’ children.

At that point, things careered out of control. The family went into hiding so they could pursue alternative treatment, in this case Rife Quantum Frequency therapy which promised to explode all the cancer bacteria in Liam’s jaw. The Holmes prime-time current affairs program portrayed them as a loving, well-intentioned family hounded into hiding by uncaring oncologists for having the temerity to question orthodox medicine. The country was up in arms about the perceived jackboot tactics of the medical profession; talk-back phonelines ran hot; the police copped it in the neck for being a party to the search for the child; the Family Court made the unhelpful decision to try to muzzle any media reports on the case.

One constant refrain throughout was that the decision to stop chemotherapy was an informed one. I was therefore dismayed to see the family citing the book “Suppressed Inventions and other Discoveries”, as a reference source; a book initially published, I am sad to say, by our own Auckland Institute of Technology.

As its name suggests, this book deals with a vast range of conspiracy theories, from NASA’s suppression of evidence for intelligent life on Mars through to the perpetual fruitless quest for free energy sources. It is the stuff of which fortunes are made by those prepared to rip off the vulnerable, and you can’t get much more vulnerable than being the parent of a child diagnosed with cancer.

The family were clearly taken in by these claims, as their next move was to head for Mexico and the Oasis of Hope Clinic in Tijuana; these clinics were featured in the “Suppressed Inventions” book also. Again they got great coverage on Holmes and other media about their fight to protect their child, about the wonderful treatment they were having – reputedly for $45,000 a month – about the dreadful things that the cancer industry were responsible for in suppressing cancer cures.

The New Zealand Skeptics gave the 1998 Bent Spoon to Holmes for exploiting a sick child and desperate parents in the name of entertainment without asking the hard questions that needed to be asked.

And while all this was going on, paediatric oncologists around the country were treading very warily. In July, a six-year-old died following his parents refusal of radiotherapy. Doctors said that the Williams-Holloway case made them wary of acting in the best interest of their child patient. In the case of the 13-year-old mentioned earlier, the parents’ lawyer argued that it was the health authorities who were negligent in not seeking a court order to enforce treatment for the boy. They, too, had been scared by the fervent public opinion whipped up around the Williams-Holloway case.

We had a publicly funded documentary follow one woman through alternative therapy to treat a lump in her throat. No mention that the alternative healer also claimed to be regularly abducted by UFOs, no questioning of his claims that cancer is caused by bacteria, no questioning of the ethics of him prescribing 35 health supplements daily from a brand in which he had a financial interest. And how did this piece of investigative journalism end – with the conclusion that the reason her lump ended up bigger over the 16 weeks of treatment was because she hadn’t believed in it enough!

We now have parents on cancer wards torturing themselves for not offering their children a less invasive alternative.

Well, to cut a long and harrowing story short, Liam died recently in Mexico. He outlasted the oncologists’ predictions by about a year, which has been taken by some as clearly indicating that the alternative treatment was working. The fact that he has died, and made front-page headlines in doing so, may, I hope, cause others to think again.

Parents Exonerated

One of the most disturbing reactions I have seen to the news came from our Commissioner for Children, Roger McClay, a man who has had the highest profile in arguing for the rights of children, who has wept publicly over cases of child abuse. His response was to exonerate the parents once again because they had made “the right choice for them” and then, astonishingly, he added:

“Whether a different course of action would have been better, there’s not much point in worrying about it now.”

Well, I’m sorry Commissioner, but there’s a great deal to worry about. When you have medical professionals paralysed for fear of a public roasting, when you have alternative therapists seemingly having full access to national publicity with no fear of demands for proof of their claims, when you have people believing that there is some conspiracy by cancer specialists to suppress cures and harm children, then you’ve certainly got something to worry about.

The Need to Question

I believe it all comes back to that need to question, and to encourage others to question. After all, we all start off with a questing spirit. Babies explore their world, and anyone who has dealt with small children is well aware of their apparently endless store of questions about how the world works.

Somewhere along the way, many people lose that desire to know, to broaden their horizons. My mother, a primary school teacher for many years, reckons this loss happens when children start to ask questions which are beyond the scope or training of their teacher. Deceptively simple questions such as “why do clouds float?” and “what makes this light work?” reveal the questioning nature of a potential scientist and – all too often – the adult’s lack of knowledge.

Some people, whether parents or teachers, feel threatened by this. It’s seen as disruptive, irrelevant, potentially disrespectful. It gets in the way of the lesson plan, or interrupts the structured bedtime routine.

Yet it is these very aspects that make children so receptive to science, so able to question.

Science writer and physics professor Chet Raymo identified the habits of mind which children have at their most creative, and which are mirrored in the world of science:

  • curiosity
  • voracious seeing
  • sensitivity to rules and variations within rules
  • fantasy

He mourned having to teach undergraduates whose image of science was of a dull, dry, boring subject devoid of interest, to be endured and then forgotten in the interests of more lively pastimes such as astrology or parapsychology.

Instead, he said, we need to convey the adventure stories that make up science, the fantasy that forms it. Small wonder that he so often cites children’s literature, whether the works of Dr Seuss or Maurice Sendak.

“In children’s books,” he says, “we are at the roots of science – pure childlike curiosity, eyes open with wonder to the fresh and new, and powers of invention still unfettered by convention and expectation.”

Don’t Despair

So don’t despair if your kids are into the latest SF, Goosebumps or Harry Potter. That doesn’t mean that they will grow up to be would-be wizards or psychic investigators. What they will learn is that there are more things in the world, Horatio, than can be found within the pages of a school textbook, and that’s never a bad thing.

My kids first started asking about werewolves and ghosts after encountering Scooby Doo on television. I think Scooby Doo has been around long enough that most of us will have watched him and his gang of kids who, every episode, unmask the villain who’s dressed up in the wolf suit or the white sheet to frighten or con someone. I hadn’t thought about Scooby Doo as an agent of skepticism, but have to wonder about the creators of this show.

There are plenty of children’s science shows produced all over the world, but few take a direct look at things of a skeptical nature. My all-time favourite has to be “Oi” which, I am proud to say, was produced in New Zealand, and which has won awards internationally. In each 30-minute show it had a segment which was pure skepticism. If the New Zealand Skeptics ever get a major bequest, I’d like to put together a Greatest Hits of Skepticism using material from “Oi”.

I’ve had some small measures of success in subverting my own children. Davey was barely three when we were in a local bookshop and he paused before a display of that bastion of Australian culture, Bananas in Pyjamas.

“We don’t buy that,” he announced. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s commercialization.” The lady next to us was startled but I was delighted – I’d been teaching David to be suspicious of the ploys of marketers. My kids know that the sweets at the checkout counter are a trick and are determined not to be fooled. They may look longingly at the chocolate bars, but it means I don’t get the whining which can be clearly heard emanating from the other aisles.

We often talk about what’s real and what’s not, whether it’s discussing Pokemon, the TV news, Halloween, dinosaurs or whatever has taken their fancy. My children are used to me equivocating – I’m happy to preface a response (note – not an answer, but a response) with “it depends”, “we’re not sure but…” or “what do you think?”.

Over the past couple of years, David and Perry have read and reread their way through Dan Barker’s guide for young skeptics “Maybe Yes, Maybe No” which sets out the basic rules of science:

  • check it out
  • do it again
  • try to prove it wrong
  • keep it simple
  • it must make sense
  • be honest

and which concludes “it is okay to say ‘I don’t know'”.

That’s a phrase I use a lot with my children, but I usually follow it up with “let’s see if we can find out”.

You see, one of my greatest delights is discovery – new facts, new words, new ideas – and I want to do my best to encourage that delight in my children.

It doesn’t take a good reference library or Internet access, though we’re lucky to have both available at home. It can be something as simple as a walk to school.

We talk about what the weather is doing, how clouds form, the difference between fog and smog. We peer cautiously at the various items of roadkill, and consider how death and decay is a part of life. The late arrival of the Sun over the sea in winter is a practical reminder of Earth’s movement around our star. The changing bird populations on the estuary mirror changes in the seasons, as do the annual cycle of the tomatoes grown in the large glasshouse on the corner.

Pure Joy

I get pure joy when I ask David why he thinks such-and-such happens and get a gratifying moment of thoughtful silence before he makes the attempt to explain. It’s not a matter of getting things “right”, though it’s a delight when he does. It’s more a matter of virtually seeing his thought processes at work, of experiencing that fresh interest when all is new.

We do get odd looks from other pedestrians who are busy hurrying on their way. They see us examining the death mask of a hedgehog by the side of the road or stirring an oily puddle with a stick, but they don’t see our joy of discovery as we discuss why a hedgehog’s teeth are so sharp or what makes the colours on the puddle’s surface.

There’s an adage that one should “stop and smell the roses” – but you can do so much more. Why do the roses smell like that? Why aren’t roses shaped like cornflowers? Why do they have thorns?

We mightn’t be able to answer every question, but it’s the journey to those answers that provides the excitement. It’s a journey on which, as a parent, I am privileged to be accompanied.

Bread, circuses, and garbage

Did you catch TV3’s Inside New Zealand documentary programme a few weeks ago on “Satanic Ritual Abuse”? If so, you won’t have forgotten it, try as you might to “repress” the memory. It was one of the most sublimely awful hours of television ever to be broadcast in Godzone — silly, irresponsible and sleazy. A middle-aged woman led a camera crew around the North Island to the sites where as a child she claims to have been been sexually abused in the late 1940s and 1950s by her mum and dad, the parish priest, town dignitaries, and no doubt the local dog catcher and all the dogs.

Therapists testfied that her stories ought to be taken seriously, despite the fact that she only “remembered” them a couple of years ago. The police have not been so gullible, but that didn’t stop TV3 from presenting the whole sorry fantasy, defaming the dead (and the lady’s mum, who is in a resthome with Alzheimer’s) with stories of sadistic sexual rituals, where babies were killed, blood drunk, and a good time had by all.

Two years ago I would have sworn that television in this country had scraped bottom, but when considering commercial television, there is more garbage in heaven and the broadcast day than is dreamt of in your philosophy.

TVNZ squanders two hours of prime time on a pseudodocumentary, apparently on Egyptology, in which Charlton Heston seems to start reasonably enough but which ends with Sphinx-building aliens and the “Face on Mars,” and has regular offerings on the paranormal, proving what every New Ager has always wanted to believe about quack medicine, clairvoyancy, and ESP. The “news” goes infotainment wherever possible and any possible decent programming is cleverly scheduled at a time sufficiently inconvenient — say, 7.30 am — that precious few will see it. But TVNZ can always say, “Oh, we do have fine educational programmes — you elitist snobs can tape them”.

The latest assault on the taste and intelligence of New Zealanders comes at 7.00 pm on weeknights. TV3 is trying to draw viewers away from TVNZ’s Shortland Street and Wheel of Fortune by screening Hard Copy. This deplorable offering is bad enough at any time of day, but it is particularly egregious in this spot, because it carries segments that are rated “AO”. Thus the spirit of competition drives TV3 to flout the “watershed” code which requires that Adults Only material must not be shown before 8.30 pm. By their standards it may seem a small infraction, but it is just another symptom of the degradation of public discourse and entertainment.

New Zealand remains the only English-speaking country in the world without an intelligent, noncommercial alternative to junk television. What a tragedy — especially for young people, whose eyes and minds might be opened to worlds of science, history, and cultural understanding were families given a choice away from the cheap game shows, shallow soaps, and violent entertainment that dominates our evening television.

The current Broadcasting Minister, Maurice Wiiliamson, doesn’t want the change (he’s for competition), and neither does the Labour Broadcasting Spokesperson, Steve Maharey, who doesn’t like anything that smacks of “elitism”. Both these chaps tell us New Zealand cannot afford a noncommercial television channel, which misses the point entirely. All that’s needed is a nightly prime-time band of two or three hours for high-quality programmes presented without commercial interruption in the body of the programme. Such an arrangment is eminently affordable for New Zealand.

Williamson and Maharey, however, are happy for their private reasons that we’re to be fed this junk. And every night that passes squanders yet another opportunity to open people’s minds to something better, to make a constructive contribution to knowledge and understanding in New Zealand.