The Scottish border city of Carlisle says a stone artwork commissioned to mark the millennium has brought floods, pestilence and sporting humiliation, but an unlikely white knight is riding to their rescue (Dominion Post, 10 March). The Cursing Stone is a 14-tonne granite rock inscribed with an ancient curse against robbers, but since it was put in a city museum in 2001 the region has been plagued by foot and mouth disease, a devastating flood and factory closures. Perhaps worst of all, the Carlisle United soccer team has dropped a division.

Continue reading

An Identified Flying Object off Abut Head

One of our members almost spots a UFO

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dying is Bad for Business

An Auckland law firm was going to court late last year (Dominion Post, November 1) to block the opening of a funeral parlour opposite it. Death (or dealing with it) offends against the ancient Chinese art of feng shui. Contact with death can lead to bad luck and negative energy could flow from the funeral parlour into the law firm. The firm was concerned it would lose its Asian clients if the parlour opened. The parlour, meantime, said it had been granted resource consent. Haven’t heard the outcome yet…

Ringing in new changes

And while on the subject of feng shui, here’s a tip for Telecom. Feng shui specialist Honey Lim says the company should relaunch its new logo in February to capture the powerful energy of a new age in the feng shui calendar. In the Dominion Post (November 26) Ms Lim says she approves of Telecom’s new logo, which is in harmony with feng shui. Telecom spent $140,000 on the logo, and will be happy to learn its green and blue squares underpinning the yellow rectangle have good karma. Ms Lim says the old one featuring three coloured spears stabbing the company name, which told her that, “despite the company’s own colourful and innovative efforts, their initiatives were hurting themselves more than spurring them forward.” She reckons they really should relaunch themselves in the New Year — an act which would generate “awesome feng shui”… . February 4 marks the beginning of ‘period 8’ in the feng shui calendar, a period of new energy. And in order to benefit from it, people or organisations need to undertake renewal or change after that date. Now there’s an idea…

ET – Wait a Tick

The mayor of a Brazilian town says he had cancelled a planned landing by aliens during an important soccer match last year (The Press, November 24). Elcio Berti said he cancelled the landing of the alien spaceship because he was worried they may abduct one of the Brazillian footballers. Berti, the mayor of Bocaiuva do Sul, claims to be in regular touch with aliens and is preparing a UFO landing pad for them in town.

“Con” Man Speaks Out

It was good to see Australian skeptic Richard Lead in the Dominion Post (September 22) following our conference last year. In a small article the “professional cynic” explained how he has tackled cons, from the Nigerian scam to property investment.

“I was living in Samoa in 1994 when I first saw the Nigerian scams. I used to attend a businessmen’s lunch and would pass the letters around and we would have a good laugh. I later found one of the guys had got taken for $90,000.”

This and similar scams, he said, work by the “Concorde fallacy” — the only chance you have of getting back the money you’ve already invested is to put in more. “They just keep sucking you in and the losses keep getting bigger and bigger. I used to say ‘how could people be so stupid?’. I don’t say that any more. I’ve seen it happen so often.”

He told the paper the hardest part of the job was dealing with people who had lost life savings, something he was not equipped to deal with. “Nothing in my accountant’s training prepared me for people with tears in their eyes because they’ve lost everything.”

The best way to avoid being taken in was to exercise common sense and carefully evaluate everything. “…if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

Not a Prayer of a Chance

The biggest scientific experiment on prayer has failed to find any evidence that it helps to heal the sick.

Doctors in the US said that heart patients who were prayed for by groups of stranger recovered from surgery at the same rate as those who were not (Dominion Post, October 17).

The three-year study led by cardiologists from Duke University Medical Centre in North Carolina, involved 750 patients in nine hospitals and 12 prayer groups around the world.

The prayer groups included American Christian mothers, nuns, Sufi Muslims, Buddhist monks in Nepal and English doctors and students in Manchester. Prayers were emailed to Jerusalem and placed in the Wailing Wall.

Earlier, less extensive, research had suggested prayer could have a beneficial effect.

The news brought swift reactions. The Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, said “Prayer is not a penny-in-the-slot machine. You can’t just put in a coin and get out a chocolate. This is like setting an exam for God to see if God will pass it or not.”

Red Tape for Health Pills

The Herald reports (December 8) that the $200 million-a-year health supplements business is up in arms over a Government plan to join with Australia to regulate the industry.

Under this plan, all dietary supplements and alternative remedies would be classified as pharmaceuticals and regulated through a new transtasman agency.

New Zealand has about 10,000 complementary and alternative health practitioners. Health Minister Annette King said the move was about quality, public safety and standards. “We require standards about the food we sell… we require standards for pharmaceuticals and medical devices. And one of the hard lessons I learned last year was that the public demanded standards and regulations for complementary healthcare.”

Opponents say New Zealand will lose control of decision-making to Australia, Kiwi dietary supplements firms will be hurt, and customers will have less choice.

Green MP Sue Kedgley and NZ First MP Pita Paraone are upset the Government is including alternative medicines and supplements before the health select committee report is out.

“Slimming Water” the Latest Fad

Forget about cutting out carbs on Atkins or replacing meals with a milkshake — the latest dieting phenomenon to hit the shelves is bottled water which claims to help people lose weight (Rotorua Daily Post, January 13).

Contrex is being marketed as Britain’s first “cosmetic water”, on the basis that it works as a slimming aid. Nestle, its maker, claims that the mineral water contains natural sources of calcium and magnesium which can eliminate toxins, fight fatigue and help people stay in shape. The calcium can also increase the body’s metabolism and improve weight loss, according to Nestle.

Health experts dismissed the idea of a “diet water” as ridiculous. Amanda Wynne of the British Dietetic Association said: “Drinking water will not make you slim, even if it is fortified with calcium and magnesium. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Despite this criticism, industry insiders are predicting that so-called “aquaceuticals” will be the boom dieting products of 2004. The fad started in Japan and hit America last year, with several brands planned for launch in Britain this year.

A spokeswoman for Nestle said, “It is selling like hot cakes. Contrex has been sold in France for years and women there call it the slimming water. You get the minerals you need without putting on weight.”

Other aquaceuticals to go on sale recently include Blue Water, which costs an incredible £11 a litre and claims to improve skin conditions and general wellbeing. It has been developed by an Austrian naturalist, Johann Grander, who says he “removed the negative memories from water and transferred beneficial energy patterns to it”.

Some fans say they feel better simply by sleeping next to a glass of Blue Water at night. Other products have celebrity endorsements, such as the Kabbalah Mountain Spring Water favoured by Madonna. It claims to have been transformed into a “living” water through modern technology and the wisdom of ancient texts used by the Cabbala, a Jewish mysticism.

Lakeland Willow has also been launched as an aquaceutical in the UK. According to its marketing blurb, it contains salicin, a natural painkilling substance found in willow bark.


Justice at Last

Two recent items in the overseas press show that NZ is lagging behind in recognising that the child sex abuse panic has been greatly overblown. In a case which closely paralleled the Christchurch Creche, Dawn Read and Christopher Lillie, Newcastle, were cleared in court of molesting children in a nursery eight years ago, says the Guardian (July 31). Despite this they were fired from their jobs and hounded into hiding by the media and the community. They have just won a libel case against the review team who assessed evidence from the children, the Newcastle City Council and the local Evening Chronicle.

In a very similar situation in Saskatchewan, the Globe and Mail reports (August 1) Police officer John Popeoppich has finally won an apology from the government and a $1.3 million settlement after 10 years of panics centred on a babysitting service. Although he had never met any of the children, he was suspended from his job without pay when one of the children picked his photo out of a book of city police officers after an investigator suspected police involvement in the alleged satanic cult. Meantime in NZ ACC’s decision to reinstate lump sum payments has had the expected result of an increase in abuse claims. At least Lynley Hood won the Montana book awards for A City Possessed.

Highland Fun and Games

And on a completely different subject, it’s all on in Scotland at the moment. The country has the highest concentration of UFO sightings on the planet, says The Evening Post ( June 24). Around 300 UFOs are spotted in Scotland each year, the most per square kilometre and per head of population of anywhere in the world, figures compiled from Scotland’s offical tourist body revealed.

VisitScotland said 0.004 UFOs were spotted for every square kilometre of Scotland. The 2000 UFOs spotted every year in the US represented 0.0002 sightings per square kilometre. The paper asks – Is Scotland beset by UFOs? Or by a combination of whisky and RAF bases?

Still in the land of the bagpipes, organisers of the Queen’s jubilee said they had seen something “pretty weird” when a baton on the way to the Commonwealth Games was lowered into Loch Ness recently (Dominion, June 6). The baton contained a device that could detect a pulse rate and had been lowered 220 metres to the lake’s bottom. On its return, near the surface, there was a “strange interruption”. Investigators said there was a thing in front of the camera. It was brown, almost looked organic and slipped by and then the pictures cut out, said event director Di Henry. She concluded it could have been wood or seaweed or it could have been Nessie. It was all done to stimulate interest in the Commonwealth Games…what are they anyway?

Back to the Future

Speaking about bottoms (we were you know), the future is all in your behind, according to a blind German psychic whose exploits were reported in the Dominion Post (July 17).

Ulf Buck tells fortunes by feeling people’s bare buttocks. Sounds scary, but the 39 year old swears by it. He’s even been on national TV over there, doing hands-on “readings”. The paper says Herr Buck has been practising his unique form of posterior palmistry for years. And that he’s happily married. What can one say.

Fishy Remedies

Trials of the supposed “miracle cure” for cancer found in NZ’s green-lipped mussels have stopped.

The mussels caused near-hysteria when Adelaide’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital said that Lyprinol killed cancer cells in lab tests, back in 1999. Queensland-based company Pharmalink stopped funding the research after deciding the extract didn’t work. Lyprinol is now on sale as HPME, Highly Purified Marine Lipid Extract, without any claims of cancer-fighting properties.

And still on the marine organism front, the Dominion (June 10) reports about half a million asthma patients have descended on an Indian city. They hope for a miracle cure offered to anyone who swallows a live fish stuffed with medicines. In Hyderabad a family has been offering the treatment for many years and say the cure must be taken at least three years in a row, along with a special diet, for 45 days. Apparently the fish’s movement clear the patient’s windpipe and the medicine then goes to work. They guarantee a 100 per cent cure, no matter how bad the asthma. Hard to swallow.


I hate to spoil a good story, especially a skeptical one, but is there something slightly adrift with William Ireland’s piece on the Kaikoura UFOs?

He says the camera was looking down at an angle of perhaps 38 degrees, but does not use the figure to explain anything. However, looking down at that angle, at an object 6 km away, implies a height of 4.7 km, or 3.7 km if the distance is measured along the line of sight. But I thought an Argosy typically flew at about 6000 or 8000 feet, or 1.8 – 2.4 km.

The 6 km is given as a minimum, so the discrepancy could be worse than this: if the distance comes from the aircraft radar it should be reasonably reliable, so does this mean the angle is wrong, or my figure for a low-tech aircraft cruising height, or what?

Kerry Wood

Ghost Squid Boats in the Sky

An old mystery now looks rather less mysterious

In December 1978 and January 1979 there was a spate of sightings of lights in the night sky around New Zealand, some of them seen from aircraft. Many of these sightings were claimed to have been UFOs. The most widely-reported sighting was of a very bright light seen by all on board an Argosy aircraft piloted by Captain Bill Startup as it flew Northeast over the sea from Christchurch at about 0220 – 0230 on 31 December 1978. It was watched for over ten minutes and was photographed from the cockpit of the Argosy by David Crockett on a 16mm colour movie film. The aircraft radar was operating in the ground-mapping mode, so could see objects only below the level of the aircraft, and according to Captain Startup it showed a return similar to that of a large ship. The position of the radar object was about the same as that occupied by the very bright light.

This encounter was reported worldwide and for the last twenty years we have been expected to believe that this is the best-documented UFO sighting ever. This note presents evidence not previously available, in support of the “Squid Boat Hypothesis” to explain this encounter, and concludes that rather than being a single boat this UFO was a small group of squid boats, seen from an aircraft on a clear dark night, at a minimum range of the order of six kilometres.

The suggestion that squid boats could have accounted for some of the UFO sightings, including this one, had already been made within a few days of the events, but was not accepted by some of those involved. In particular the people who had been on the flight on 31 December were not satisfied with the report issued by the Ministry of Defence. Quentin Fogarty, the TV journalist who had arranged that he and his film crew could be on the flight, has written, “Like so many of our critics, the New Zealand Ministry of Defence and the other government bodies involved did not have access to the film, nor to all the relevant data.”

The person who did have access to the film and all the relevant data in 1979 was Dr Bruce Maccabee, chairman of the Fund for UFO Research Inc., of Washington D.C. When he heard of this sighting, he came to New Zealand and made an extensive study of this and some of the other events. He sent a copy of a report “What Really Happened in New Zealand” to the New Zealand UFO Studies Centre (NUSC), who said, “The New Zealand UFO Studies Centre is pleased to recommend Dr Maccabee’s investigation of this case as an excellent example of serious and scientific UFO research.”

Our response at DSIR was quite the opposite.

At about the same time as he sent his report to NUSC Dr Maccabee published a paper entitled “Photometric Properties of an Unidentified Object Seen off the Coast of New Zealand” in the scientific journal Applied Optics. Our response at DSIR was a paper commenting that we did not accept Dr Maccabee’s analysis and the implication that a UFO was photographed. We suggested that a very likely source of the light was a squid boat; Dr Maccabee was permitted to publish a response to our comments. We objected to Dr Maccabee’s new and altered claims but the editor refused to continue the dialogue with the comment, “The discussion of this particular incident now seems to be moving outside the realm of technical optics and into areas not relevant to the subject matter of Applied Optics.”

Captain Startup’s 1980 book, The Kaikoura UFOs dismissed the Squid Boat Hypothesis and Quentin Fogarty wrote in his 1982 book “Let’s Hope They’re Friendly!” “To my knowledge, the New Zealand scientists still have not studied the entire UFO footage, nor have they spoken to all the witnesses. Maybe when they finally get around to studying all the information, interviewing all the witnesses and analysing all the movie footage, their findings might be worthy of consideration. Until then, I do not believe they have any right to expect their guesswork to be taken seriously. The reports could of course be part of a deliberate government cover-up.”

There was a cover-up all right, not a government one, and perhaps not deliberate, by Quentin Fogarty and his friends. They made neither the film nor a copy of it available to us to see for ourselves what was on it.

The next account appeared in the 1982 BBCTV Horizon documentary, “The Case of the UFOs” that includes parts of the original movie made by David Crockett. I recently played my video copy of this TV programme and realised that here was the film evidence that had been in my possession since 1983 but overlooked for about 17 years.

The 16mm colour movie was made using both a 16-100mm zoom lens and an 80-240mm zoom lens. The total light intensity and the size of the object were estimated by Dr Maccabee from an analysis of many frames filmed with the 16-100mm zoom lens at an estimated range of about 18km, looking downwards about ten degrees below horizontal. Assuming that this lens was always set to 100mm focal length, when the size of the images and other information suggest that on occasion it was set to less than 50mm, he erroneously claimed that the size would be consistent with a non-circular source about 12m high by 18m wide. He has subsequently claimed that the light intensity was much too high to be from a single squid boat. A more likely size would be at least 24m by 36m, and if the source was extended horizontally along the ocean surface the 24m ‘height’ is a horizontal ‘length’ of at least 60m and possibly as much as 120 metres.

The sequence lasting more than 80 seconds (over 800 frames) using the 80-240mm telephoto lens was made looking downwards perhaps 38 degrees below horizontal, when the aircraft was about 6 km from the light, and at least some of this sequence appears on the BBC reproduction. Many frames with images similar to squid boat lights are in reasonable focus, and allow size estimates to be made.

The 80-240mm lens images, such as those in Figures 1 and 2, are much larger than the 16-100mm lens images. The size ranges from about 340mm “diameter”with no resolvable details, filmed when the lens was obviously zoomed to minimum focal length, to “beach balls” about 2.2mm “diameter” when zoomed to maximum. Many of the larger images contain a large number of clearly-resolved white lights, and evidence of more than one row of lights making up the image. Typically three, four, or five rows, each apparently containing up to ten lights, are seen. The rows of lights are roughly parallel and their relative positions and azimuths change with time, suggesting relative motion. In some frames the rows are widely separated, suggesting objects some distance apart, in others there appear to be two rows end to end.

If we make the reasonable assumptions that the lights come from objects on the sea surface at a range of six kilometres and that the the large images were filmed at 240mm focal length, some of the objects are about 22m long, with about ten lamps along their length, each lamp about 2.4m from its neighbours. In several frames the sideways separation between two distinct objects translates to 50m on the water. These dimensions are very similar to those of some small squid boats that are typically about 25m long with two side-by-side rows of 3-4kw incandescent or mercury-arc lamps strung along wires above the deck, 7m above the water, and about 10 lamps in each row, the lamps in each row being 2.4m apart.

It appears that the claims that this is one of the most significant and best-documented UFO sightings ever made must now be discounted because they are not supported by the books, movie film, radar, and other evidence that subsequently became available. The only rational conclusion when the evidence is scrutinised adequately is that the film includes focused images, not of a UFO, but of a small group of brightly-lit squid boats, seen from an aircraft on a clear dark night, at a range of the order of six kilometres.

Skeptics 2000…or should that be 6004?

Wherein intrepid ace reporter Vicki Hyde spills the beans on what Skeptics get up to at their annual meetings…

Perhaps Someone was trying to tell us something – why else would we end up with a flooded-out bridge and a very long bus ride courtesy of TranzRail, ending 40 minutes or so from Dunedin where we waited for an hour on the Palmerston rail platform for an errant train to eventually deliver us into the sunny south…..

Ah well, all was mended by increasing numbers of familiar faces as we got closer to the venue. At the risk of treading on toes, there’s an almost evangelical fervour in the aura given off by Skeptics en masse. People seem to be sooo appreciative of finding themselves in a room of like-minded people, whether they hail from farms, factories or ivory towers.

As always, the defining characteristic of the conference had to be the general good humour with which we encountered the many and varied aspects of human nature and the general sense of wonder at the world around us. That magic and mystery was helped along the first night by David Marks, one of our esteemed founders who had travelled back from the UK to be amongst us. David demonstrated that he was more than just a professor of psychology with the now-infamous spoon bending and mindreading routines that he learnt at Uri Geller’s knee.

As well as opening the conference, David was the last speaker, leading us through autobiographical notes as he revisited the heady days of directly challenging The Amazing Kreskin and Uri Geller. (Otago University clearly has a long-standing support role in skepticism as David was funded to go to Wellington to interview Geller). And here’s a factoid worth remembering, so beautifully explained by David that I’ve had to share it with everyone I’ve met lately:

“The chances are one-in-a-million. Isn’t that spooky??”

Assume 100 events make up an average day in your life: answering the phone, reading an item in the paper, hearing a song on the radio etc. (there are arguably many many more, but let’s keep the maths simple).

In one day, there are 4,950 possible pairings of those events.

In 10 years, you build up 18 million such pairings.

So in every decade, you should have 18 “one-in-a-million” things happen to you – almost two a year.

So it’s hardly surprising that you should hear from your childhood friend just after you’d come across an old photograph of you together; or that your dream of a car accident should come true.

It gets better – give yourself say a 10-day span for your “one-in-a-million” event (“and then the next week it happened…”). In ten years, you’ll have 182 spooky coincidences.

Isn’t maths fun?!

Saturday may have sounded a little academic for those reading the programme – a whole day of debate and discussion on creationism and evolution. If you’d come along prepared to laugh indulgently at those silly people in Kansas, Bill Peddie (HOD science at Mangere College) soon had you very aware that it is an issue for Kiwis too, with teachers in some schools facing ethical dilemmas in teaching a science curriculum which goes against the religious or cultural values of their students.

Barbara Benson (HOD Science and the Dunedin College of Education) pointed out that we do have a requirement for teaching the scientific method in our science curriculum. For those who hadn’t heard of it (and I hadn’t despite being in the relatively rare position of actually having read through most of the science curriculum documentation that passes my desk!), it comes under Making Sense of the Nature of Science and its Relationship to Technology. I suspect that it is quietly put to one side in most classrooms in preference for doing something easy like growing seeds or making hokey pokey….

We had our own tour through evolutionary science, with slides of Archaeopteryx from Warwick Don, real fossil whales courtesy of Ewan Fordyce and the skulls of far-distant ancestors of Jules Keiser. Anyone who wants to marvel at the wonders of creation should study how ear bones came about – you have to shake your head at the unplanned nature of it all. Or, if you were one of the lucky ones to brave the Dunedin downpour, you got to see the glories of the Geology Department basement. There is a story to be told in rock if we have but the chance (and the funding) to read it. Magnificent stuff.

For me, the one image which really sticks in my mind from the excellent morning’s presentations has to be an ancient set of footprints, captured forever in mudstone, of a mother and tiny child walking side by side one afternoon thousands and thousands of years ago. I’ll never walk my kids along the beach again without thinking of that small ancestor of ours and wondering what her life was like. There’s far more wonder in that than in any conceit of Creation.

Ian Plimer summed up the whole debate rather succinctly when he declared science to be a way of looking at the world around us, while religion looks at the world within us. Those who would try to warp one to fit the other are little short of fraudsters, whether they recognise it or no. The Young Earth creationists, who contend that the Earth really is only a few thousand years old, are intellectually dishonest -and many Christians would argue spiritually dishonest as well – in their attempts to twist facts and make God jump through hoops.

Ian is a consummate communicator, as anyone who went to the Saturday Dinner will tell you. A chance remark from Bob Brockie saw Ian stand up and give a totally extempore tour through the last 4.5 billion years of creation. It was a literal tour de force which left many of us awestruck at the sheer scope of Nature in all her diversity and perversity. Geologists see things on a different timescale to most of us and, for an all too brief hour, we were privileged to view the world through a different set of eyes.

Some eyes were more than a little misty that evening at the tribute we were able to pay our out-going (out-standing!) Secretary, Bernard Howard. Bernard has shepherded the Skeptics since its foundation, and his tact and diplomacy have been much appreciated by the more volatile committee members over the years, so it was wonderful to be able to thank him for all he has done for the organisation. We had arranged for a small addition to Bernard’s bookshelf – copies of classic works signed by leading skeptics on the international scene who were kind enough to record their appreciation for Bernard’s hard work over the years.

And on to Sunday with traditional Skeptic fare: urban legends, UFOs, mass delusions and encounters with Uri Geller. Robert Pollack provided the sobering thought that urban legends don’t die as a result of debunking, you have to wait until technology or society changes before they become obsolete.

Bill Ireland’s talk on the Kaikoura UFOs hit the mark when he suggested that the mysterious lights came from a squid boat and its reflection in the water. We all nodded enthusiastically in agreement when he showed us a slide of such a boat. And we all about-faced when he then went on to state that the two images in the UFO shot had to be 50 metres apart. It’s pleasing to see a cherished hypothesis successfully challenged and accepted as incorrect, something all too rare when investigating anomalous phenomena. Bill went on to build a convincing case that the images were more likely to be of a group of squid boats transferring catches to a mother vessel. By the time he’d looked at the optical effects, the radar, the boat placements and the MAF logs, he’d built up a pretty convincing case that when it looks like a duck, smells like a duck and then quacks, you gotta figure it would go nicely with orange sauce….

Of course, we would all agree with that wouldn’t we? After all, we’re members of a minority group rejected by mainstream society. Or so psychiatrist Richard Mullen might have suggested. Certainly his listing of group characteristics sounded rather familiar:

charismatic leader (ahem)
vulnerable followers (nooo, not another crystal please…)
peer pressure (surely you don’t believe in moas, Denis?)
isolation (name three Skeptics in your neighbourhood)
maverick intensity (I won’t name names but I’m sure you know who I mean…)

One quote Richard used is well worth remembering. It’s from Jonathan Swift:

“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

UFOs & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery

UFOs & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery, by Robert E. Bartholomew & George S. Howard; 1998. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, US. ISBN 1-57392-200-5

Readers of NZ Skeptic will have seen R.E. Bartholomew’s article “The Great Zeppelin Scare of 1909” in last autumn’s issue, no 47. This covered the same event as one of the chapters in this book. Several other chapters describe similar episodes which occurred in other times and other places, and in a final section all these are woven into a coherent story. Each chapter is supported by a copious list of references, most of them newspaper reports pubished during the development and decay of the case concerned.

In addition to detailed factual accounts, each episode is placed in its social and historical setting, with an explanation of why the different experiences took the form they did.

Previous psychological commentators have labelled the “experiencers” of the events described in this book, mostly on very little evidence, as in some way mentally sick. Bartholomew and Howard disagree; their careful psychological analysis of over one hundred such people found no evidence of psychopathology, but rather “Fantasy Prone Personality” (FPP).

“While functioning as normal, healthy adults, FPPs experience rich fantasy lives, scoring dramatically higher…on hypnotic susceptibility, psychic ability, healing, out-of-body experiences, religious visions, and apparitional experiences. In our study, “abductees” and “contactees” evidence a similar pattern of characteristics to FPPs.”

The experiences of these individuals mirrored the concerns of the society in which they lived. Thus, in late 19th century, United States, the achievement of powered flight was thought to be imminent, and a host of “airship” sightings were reported.

Just before World War I, when the British were very nervous of Germany’s growing military strength especially its lead in airship development, zeppelins were seen by thousands all over England.

In Sweden in 1946, fear of the German V-rockets recently acquired by the USSR was widespread, and hundreds of reports of missile sightings were published. And so for other cases, including, of course, the 1947 sighting of “flying saucers” in the western US and all that flowed from it.

The objects in the latter case were described by aviator Kenneth Arnold as skipping along “like a saucer would…across the water”, and this gave rise to a deluge of “flying saucer” sightings, although Arnold had said the objects he saw were crescent- not saucer-shaped.

These objects were at first almost everywhere considered to be of terrestrial origin, as secret weapons or aircraft, either “ours” or “theirs” of the cold war. Only after a few years did belief suddenly switch to an extra-terrestial origin; the authors ascribe this to two best-selling books.

Wherever and whenever the events described in this book occurred, some common features are apparent. Firstly, the technology imputed to the “visitors” is just a little ahead of contemporary achievement. Thus:

  • the US airship sightings of the 1890s preceded the Wright brothers’ flight by almost a decade
  • early reports of aeroplanes were all sightings at night, at a time when night flying had barely been attempted
  • the New Zealand Zeppelin scare of 1909 occurred many years before flights of such dirigibles in the Antipodes were possible

A second common theme is the way these stories wax and wane. Initial incidents were widely reported, and the numbers rose rapidly. After a while, as physical evidence obstinately refused to reveal itself, editors denounced the reports as hoaxes or the reporters as deluded (despite the prominence many of these same editors had given the initial reports).

Following these skeptical editorials, the number of incidents being claimed fell greatly — were they still being experienced, but by people now shunning ridicule, or did the editorial expressions of disbelief change the FPPs’ inclination to fantasise?

The extent and depth of the newspaper reports on which most of this book is based are truly amazing. Think of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of papers in the UK and US of similar circulation to the Geraldine Guardian and Clutha Leader (both quoted largely in the chapter on the New Zealand Zeppelin Scare), think of over 100 years of publishing, and contemplate the enormous database which provides these stories.

The reliance on this local reporting has one disadvantage — the notoriously monoglot English-speaking world gets told in this book very little of UFOs and “aliens” as reported in foreign language newspapers.

The main impression left by this book is to confirm the conclusion that our minds and senses can easily deceive us. So often “seeing is believing” should be read “believing is seeing”. The bizarre examples described here provide a wide background of rationality against which to view, and judge, the further phenomena which are sure to be presented to us.

Keeping an Open Mind While Staying in a Hippy Hole

IT’S nothing short of a miracle that this issue has made it to the mailbox. For the last six months the family, including our cat and retired cattle dog, have been living in a small housetruck. (Just as well we farmed out the rabbits, mice and fish). The reason for our spartan existence is we are in the middle of building a rammed earth house. Not only do we fill buckets with the best of the builders, we, or should I say I, also feed them. (Nothing is too good for our boys.)

Continue reading