Newsfront

Supernatural forces on the increase

Spirits are increasingly making their presence felt in New Zealand, spurred on by celebrity ghost whisperers, says the Manawatu Standard (12 April).

A recent survey by Massey University revealed that the proportion of respondents who say they have felt a spiritual force rose from 33 percent in 1991, to 40 percent. Half the respondents said they are interested in spiritual forces, while a quarter believed the dead had supernatural powers.

Massey University senior lecturer Heather Kavan said the entertainment industry has fuelled the spirit market.

“Programmes like Sensing Murder and Ghost Whisperer have popularised psychic experiences that in previous times would have been dismissed as symptoms of psychosis. The Sensing Murder psychics have almost become spiritual celebrities.”

Our own Vicki Hyde said spiritual crazes come in waves, depending on media programmes. Angels and vampires are the latest fads. She warned of the “morally reprehensible” behaviour of shows such as Sensing Murder. Psychic shows exploit vulnerable families who have lost loved ones in the name of entertainment, she said.

If the clippings for Newsfront are anything to go by, there are indeed more ghostly appearances going on out there. There’s definitely a ghost theme this issue.

The daily bread rises despite ghostly visit

Things are going bump, shadows are creeping and mysterious voices are bothering Maurice Piner at Phil’s Baker, in Greymouth. The Press (5 May) says the poor baker is seeing shadows moving around and hearing banging and crashing when he’s working alone.

“…sometimes you can hear whispering and talking in the bakery. You look around to see if there’s anyone there, and you can’t.”

Tourist operator Paul Schramm thinks he knows what’s what. While researching a new tourist attraction, he has learned about Ah Shing, a Chinese miner, who hanged himself in 1891 in the boarding house that used to stand on the site.

Piner said it was interesting to have a theory to explain the whispers and shadows, but it would not put him off working alone.

Hotel ghost to be checked out

Christchurch’s old Jailhouse hotel has a ghostly infestation but the ghosthunters are on to it (The Press, 6 May 2010.)

Ghost Hunters Christchurch lead investigator Anton Heyrick has offered to check out the ghostly reports of an apparition in the kitchen and of a man with a white jacket, but wants three extra paranormal investigators to help.

“There have been things moving. There have been voices, and backpackers have said they’ve felt like they were being watched.”

Reminds me of stopping at an old hotel, turned into a backpackers, on the way to last year’s Skeptics Conference. On the walls was a sepia picture of the daughter of a former hotel owner, who died tragically and now haunts the place. When we commented on this to the manager, he said to the best of his knowledge there wasn’t a ghost; it was something the previous owners did to add to the feel of the place. Yet, later that night, the door to the shower block mysteriously slammed shut, with no one near. Coincidence? We think so.

Return of the cat ghost

Hawera’s ghost cat, caught on security camera last year, is not alone (Taranaki Daily News, 2 June).

Ross and Donna Sowerby hoped to catch a bike thief, and instead caught a ghostly image. To this viewer, it looked like a small spider or booklouse wandering over the lens but to some, it looked more like a big, fluffy, but very blurry cat.

The media loved it, and it was on TV and reported in many newspapers. But paranormal experts fell silent, and for months, says Mrs Sowerby, there was no definitive answer. Until television psychic Sue Nicholson appeared on TV One’s Good Morning show and offered an explanation, following a letter from Mrs Sowerby. She said the apparition was of a ginger cat and added that there were more ghosts in the couple’s house.

Luckily, one of these spirits, a man, is a friendly ghost, with a “lovely energy”. The best thing about the cat ghost, she said, was that it didn’t need to be fed. Mrs Sowerby was happy with the explanation. “We have closure now and we can move on.”

The article ran on the Stuff website and attracted about 80 comments. Many agreed it looked like a bug on the lens. But the Sowerbys were not satisfied with these theories. Why look for zebras when you can manifest a phantom feline?

But back to the Manawatu Standard. The article on Massey University’s survey also answers a long-standing mystery. “An extraordinarily high proportion of New Zealanders have no religion – almost double the proportion in other Western countries – but we’ve never known who these people are,” Dr Kavan said.

The survey showed many of them are privately spiritual, but don’t relate to organised religions. And the internet has opened up a huge range of possibilities, for believers and non-believers alike.

The Facebook group Sensing Murder has almost 4000 fans,whereas Sensing Bullshit has 95 members. Sigh.

Recovered memories again

Although the recovered memory panic seems to be on the wane, a recent case of a couple acquitted on all charges of rape and inducing their daughter to do indecent acts, shows the idea still has its supporters.

In an NZPA story (9 June) the man’s lawyer, Chris Wilkinson-Smith said the case had been pursued by West Auckland police, despite Gisborne police recommending the prosecution should not proceed.

The couple, who have name suppression, live in a small town near Gisborne. “It was only the efforts of private investigator Michael Rhodes who was able to locate many witnesses who completely contradicted the complainant’s evidence. A more thorough police investigation could have avoided three years of misery.”

The mother’s lawyer, Adam Simperingham, told reporters the charges should never have been laid, and that the parents had been through a very traumatic experience.

The charges related to alleged incidents between January 23 1978 and January 23 1981.

Their daughter, now 39, gave evidence during the trial. The Crown prosecutor, Soana Moala, alleged a series of sexual assaults occurred at the family home when the girl was aged between seven and 10.

Ms Moala told the jury that the complainant did not tell anyone at the time. She did not remember the incidents until 2006.

‘Witch children’ in living hell

And from the We Think We’ve Got It Bad Here Department comes a story in the Waikato Times (15 May) on the ‘Witch Children’ of Nigeria.

A Salem-style witch-hunt has swept the south of the West African nation in recent years. Though the area has always been a centre for the occult and voodoo, in the last 10 years pastors from revivalist churches have been arriving there. They accuse vulnerable children (many of them Aids orphans) of being witches, and then offer to drive out the demons. With growing populations and mounting poverty, some aunts and uncles have been quick to accept any excuse not to feed another mouth.

Seven-year-old Godwin Okon was accused, with his grandmother, of causing his mother’s death by witchcraft. Sam Ikpe-Itauma of the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), said Godwin’s uncle had locked them in a room with the dead woman. The grandmother escaped, but Godwin was ordered by a pastor to eat his mother’s corpse, under the belief that if a demon eats its victim it will also die. When he refused his uncle forced his head into his mother’s body. When he still refused to eat he was beaten and burnt.

Passers-by kept him alive by feeding him through cracks in the wall, until other villagers notified the police, who took him to CRARN. He is slowly recovering along with more than 200 other children with similar experiences.

How To Stop a Witch-Hunt

This article is based on an address to the Skeptics Conference 2002. A condensed version has also been produced for the NZ Listener.

I’ve just received my first bad review of A City Possessed. It was written by Val Sim, chief legal counsel for the Ministry of Justice, on the instructions of Phil Goff. When he released the review, Goff said he had read “significant parts” of A City Possessed and had found it well argued and researched, and quite compelling. ‘Anyone who looked at the case, and the circumstances of the case, would not be objective if they did not feel unease about the atmosphere that existed and some aspects of the case,’ he said. But he added that questions of guilt or innocence are not for authors or politicians to decide.

So it seemed ironic that, after giving Sim’s review his blessing, Goff released long-suppressed documents about the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor. These showed that our politicians and their advisors minimised, discredited and ignored reports of gross civil rights violations because they didn’t want to upset the Indonesian authorities.

‘There are lessons to be learned from the Timor experience,’ Goff said. Indeed there are – lessons about the damage that can be done to innocent people by politicians and bureaucrats who are more interested in covering their own backs and not rocking the boat than in doing justice.

As Edmund Burke said: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ Anyone who has tried to make bureaucrats or politicians accountable will have heard the excuses. When the first excuse – ‘there isn’t a problem’ – collapses under the weight of evidence, the second excuse – ‘I had no idea there was a problem’ – kicks in. According to historian and philosopher Tzetvan Todorov, when real, this ignorance is more or less a matter of conscious and deliberate effort. As Albert Speer put it: ‘Being in a position to know and nevertheless shunning knowledge creates direct responsibility for the consequences.’

In essence, Sim is saying that A City Possessed contains no new evidence that can justify reopening the Ellis case, and since a high court judge, two courts of appeal and a ministerial inquiry have endorsed the jury verdicts, that should be an end to the matter.

Prior to the publication of A City Possessed no outsider could effectively challenge that argument. But I’m astounded that Sim and Goff think they can get away with this self-serving obfuscation when thousands of New Zealanders have read my book. These readers know that I haven’t just disagreed with the findings of a jury, a high court judge, two courts of appeal and a ministerial inquiry, I’ve demolished them. They know that the book isn’t just about the guilt or innocence of Peter Ellis. They know that it identifies serious flaws in the justice system that need to be addressed. They know that the Court of Appeal’s “new evidence” rule is a confidence trick invented by Their Honours to save themselves from ever having to admit that they’ve made a mistake. And readers of A City Possessed also know that our Minister of Justice does have the power to instruct the Governor General to pardon Peter Ellis and establish a commission of inquiry. So who are Sim and Goff fooling? Not the readers of my book.

In the 11 months since A City Possessed was published, legal authorities nationwide have said: Lynley Hood’s got it right and the Government can’t afford to ignore this book. So I have to conclude that Val Sim is wrong. There was a miscarriage of justice in the Civic Creche case, and my book has exposed problems in the justice system that need to be addressed.

In the book, I argue that the Civic Creche case was one manifestation of an international phenomenon comparable to the great witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries. In the classical sense, a witch hunt is a combination of three separate, but related, phenomena: a moral panic, an epidemic of mass psychogenic illness, and an outbreak of scapegoating.

Earlier this year, a correspondent to the Otago Daily Times suggested that episodes of this sort are a force of nature, like a tidal wave or a hurricane. Everyone is a victim, nobody is to blame, and the only way to right the wrongs done to Peter Ellis is to compensate him from the Earthquake Commission.

That’s actually not a bad idea, because while there are clearly wrongs to be righted, if we want to live in a society that values compassion, tolerance and forgiveness over vengeance and retribution, and if we want to avoid setting off another witch hunt, then demanding that heads roll will solve nothing.

In my view, there are no monsters in the Civic Creche story. I think the problems arose when the winds of panic swept through Christchurch and the moral compasses of ordinary, decent, well-intentioned people became so disoriented that they ended up doing harm when they thought they were doing good.

That said, one of the lessons of the great witch hunts is that we shouldn’t under-estimate the power of the authorities to inflame or dampen down these panics.

In Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 the governor brought that panic to an end by declaring spectral evidence inadmissible. Spectral evidence is the dreams, visions and hallucinations of people who believe themselves to be bewitched. The fact that the governor’s wife had just been accused probably helped focus his mind. And the community had been calling for an end to witch hunting for some time, so the governor’s actions weren’t all that remarkable.

James 1 of England is a more interesting case. Earlier, as James VI of Scotland, he was a rabid witch hunter. But in 1604 he moved to England and became a sceptic.

One of James I’s most famous cases was that of 20-year-old Anne Gunther, who foamed at the mouth and vomited pins. After questioning her closely, the King concluded that Anne’s real problem was a desperate need for love. So he gave her a dowry. Whereupon – according to the King’s physician William Harvey – she married and found herself miraculously cured.

In 1634 William Harvey was sent by the King to examine seven Lancashire women accused of witchcraft by an 11-year-old boy. By the time Harvey arrived three of the women had died in their cells, but the rest were acquitted when they were found to show no unambiguous signs of witchcraft. Later, the boy admitted that his father had put him up to it, and had told him they would make a lot of money.

Even in Continental Europe, where around 100,000 witches were executed in spasmodic bursts over a 200 year period, strong minded leaders could hold the panic in check.

Between 1673 and 1684, in the German town of Calw, 39 children accused 77 adults of witchcraft. But when the legal faculty at the University of Turbingen examined the evidence, they rejected the children’s stories as fantasies, and condemned the irresponsible way in which the parents had questioned their children. The faculty also insisted that no witch be condemned without reliable evidence and due process. And so, in Calw, disaster was averted.

Reality Checks

In 1610, Dr Alonzo Salazar, a judge of the Spanish Inquisition, spent eight months conducting reality checks on the confessions and accusations of witchcraft recorded during a panic in a Basque country. Salazar’s assistants took the accusing children to the scene of the supposed witches’ sabbat one by one, secretly, in daylight. They were asked where the devil had sat, where they had eaten and danced, how they had got in and out of their own homes, whether they had travelled alone or in groups, whether they had heard clocks or bells and ‘any other circumstances which might serve to clarify the problem.’ (I’ve spelt out these details because, unlike Dr Salazar, Sir Thomas Eichelbaum did not do reality checks on the children’s evidence during his inquiry into the Ellis case.)

Salazar found that the children contradicted themselves and each other. He reported that there was not to be found ‘a single proof nor even the slightest indication from which to infer that one act of witchcraft had actually taken place’.

Salazar’s colleagues regarded his findings as convincing proof of the unreliability of witch accusations and witch confessions. At that point, the Spanish people did not stop believing in witches, but prosecutors-having realised that they could not distinguish between true and false allegations, and that false allegations were destroying the social fabric- became very wary of prosecuting them.

Witch suspects were still prosecuted when there was reliable evidence that real people had committed real crimes (and they did find the occasional crone who really had poisoned her neighbours’ well, or committed some other offence commonly regarded as the work of a witch). But Salazar’s reality checks brought witch executions in Spain to a complete halt 80 years before the panic burnt itself out throughout the rest of Europe.

Lessons to be Learned

What can we learn from all this? I don’t pretend to have any answers. Indeed, one of the lessons of A City Possessed is – beware of people who claim to have the answers.

Nonetheless, I think it’s important to challenge the pessimists who say: ‘Nothing will be done about the creche case because it’s too hard. The ripples spread too wide. Too many influential people will have their careers and reputations called into question.’

In my view, we can deal with it, and we must deal with it – not only for the sake of the past, but also for the sake of the future. Ten years on from the Civic Creche case, the sex abuse hysteria that drove it continues unabated, and the damage that hysteria is causing to the fabric of New Zealand society cannot be ignored.

Currently, children as young as ten are being labelled ‘sexual predators’. Prurient computer technicians are determining what responsible adults should be allowed to see, read and hear. Respected school teachers-who have been abusing nobody but themselves-have had their careers and reputations destroyed. A one-legged 60-year-old has lost his international sporting career over a bit of tomfoolery that harmed no one. The explosion of historic allegations against Catholic priests escalates daily. In my view, we’re as much at risk today of having our lives, our families and our communities ripped apart by false allegations of sexual abuse as the people of Christchurch were in 1992.

Overseas Experience

Overseas countries are also dealing with these panics. Earlier this year retired Canadian Judge Frederick Kaufman presented his long-awaited report into the epidemic of historic allegations of abuse in Nova Scotia youth institutions.

That scandal began in the early ’90s, when a paedophile who had worked for the province in the ’70s was convicted. Two more abusers turned up. Fearing a deluge of lawsuits, the Government hired a respected former judge to assess how deep the rot went.

The judge identified 89 cases of possible abuse that had occurred 20 to 40 years earlier. None of the claims were tested by the usual rules of evidence. But the Government concluded it was in deep trouble, and the justice minister made his pitch.

All survivors would be compensated according to the severity of their abuse. To ensure speedy justice, no one would have to prove a thing. He might as well have hung out a sign saying: Get Free Money Here.

When the 89 claims swelled to 500, the Government simply increased the compensation fund. And as the claims escalated, so did the hysteria. People who had devoted their lives to the care of troubled and needy children were pilloried by the media. Juvenile delinquents were recast as tragic choirboys. No one checked old medical records, or interviewed former employees. The Government did not want to “revictimize the victims.”

In the end, $30 million was paid out to just over 1200 claimants. Legal fees, counselling, and criminal investigations brought the cost to more than $60 million.

But Judge Kaufman found that, by 2002, it was impossible to know how much abuse there really was. The real victims (and he didn’t doubt there were some) had been discredited along with the fakes.

Meanwhile, in Britain, a select committee inquiry is under way into the police practice of “trawling”. Trawling involves police officers contacting former residents of children’s homes and asking them if they were abused, or if they witnessed incidents of abuse, and informing them of the availability of financial compensation. The inquiry was prompted by a concern that a whole new genre of miscarriages of justice may have arisen from this practice.

Also in Britain, in a case with remarkable similarities to the Civic Creche, two former child care workers were recently awarded maximum libel damages of £200,000 each. The judge found no basis for allegations that the pair were part of a paedophile ring that was exploiting children for pornographic purposes. He ruled that those responsible for spreading the allegations had ignored the principles of natural justice, and had included claims which they must have known were untrue, and which could not be explained on the basis of incompetence or carelessness.

Criminalising and Scapegoating

There are lessons from all this that we ignore at our peril. They relate to the harm being inflicted on society by current campaigns to protect children from vaguely defined sexual dangers by criminalising and scapegoating a wide range of people and behaviours.

These campaigns ignore the realities of childhood and adolescent sexuality. They distract us from serious problems related to the health, education and welfare of children. They put a destructive barrier between all adults and all children. They erode essential freedoms for us all. But the hysteria surrounding the issue is so pervasive that anyone who suggests more thoughtful discussion risks being branded a child abuser. In my view, we must insist on a more sensible and compassionate approach. So what’s to be done?

Well – laws and procedures can be changed. It happens all the time. All that’s needed is moral courage and political will. Where is Dr Salazar when we need him?

Given the will to do so, ACC could abandon its counselling guidelines that are known to induce false memories of abuse, and it could treat sex abuse fraud as seriously as it treats other sorts of fraud.

Given the will to do so, CYFS could admit that its interviewers can’t distinguish between true and false allegations of sexual abuse.

Given the will to do so, Parliament could change the laws that make it easy to convict on unreliable evidence of sexual abuse, and courts could insist on reliable evidence, no matter how great the clamour for a conviction.

Given the will to do so, the Court of Appeal could correct its own mistakes.

But these changes won’t repair the damage done by the Civic Creche case. I think what’s needed there is a royal commission headed by a robust overseas judge.

Of course we shouldn’t expect too much of such a commission. It won’t fix everything. But it will enable everyone involved to have their say. It’ll help the truth to come out. It’ll bring a degree of accountability. It’ll highlight the policies, procedures and laws that need to change.

In my view, a royal commission on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission model is the way to go. This would offer amnesty to those whose conduct is called into question in exchange for a full, truthful account of their roles in the case, while those whose rights have been violated would be offered the chance to be heard, and to hear the truth come out, as an alternative to expensive and divisive show trials and administrative purges, and endlessly escalating compensation claims.

Scandals

In the course of researching A City Possessed I uncovered many scandals. The biggest scandal was the discovery that, since the mid-’80s, New Zealanders have been calling for a commission of inquiry into the ways in which sexual abuse allegations are handled in this country, but successive governments have simply buried the problem. Since A City Possessed was published the clamour for an inquiry has reached a crescendo. But still the Government doesn’t want to know.

So where do we go from here?

Twenty years ago, I did an interview in the US. This was when Ronald Reagan was President, and the fall of the Berlin Wall was still seven years away.

My interview was with suburban grandmother Molly Rush. Molly belonged to a group that had entered a nuclear weapons plant and damaged the nosecones of two warheads. At the time of my interview she had spent 11 weeks in jail and was out on bail awaiting appeal.

By temperament I’m slow to take sides on any issue, but I knew where I stood on the arms race. I asked Molly what her group had done, and why they had done it. I asked her what they had hoped to achieve, and whether they had achieved it. And I told her about a demonstration I had attended.

I said: ‘One of my feelings was that in no way did anything that was said or done influence any of the dignitaries at that meeting. They were so sealed off by the police and the secret service.’

I think the philosophy she conveyed in her reply can be applied to everything we do. She said:

“It’s important to counter that feeling of helplessness or hopelessness that can lead to violence or apathy. A couple of things need to be said; one is that when you participate in a public protest to assume that you’re immediately going to change those people whose whole lives are so committed to these policies is unrealistic. What you’re trying to do is galvanise public opinion.”

Peace demonstrations, large and small, have served to create a climate of public opinion that has finally made politicians address this issue. We need to take heart from that.

But beyond that you have to deal with the whole issue of effectiveness and pragmatism. I’m a pragmatic organiser at heart but what I’ve learnt in the past few years is that one can’t necessarily predict the results of one’s actions. Some of the most profound changes have come about in situations that seemed exceedingly hopeless and exceedingly unaffected by what you’re doing.

I’m instructed by the example of a young priest who climbed the fence of a nuclear weapons plant. He received no media attention and spent more than six months in jail with no apparent result. He was visited in prison by Bishop Matthieson who has since become an outspoken opponent of the arms race. Bishop Matthieson has said publicly that his meeting with the young priest in jail was part of the process that lead to his conversion. Yet if that priest had climbed the fence thinking – “I’m doing this to convert Bishop Matthieson” – that would have been absurd.

So we’re not talking about acting to achieve specific goals, what we’re talking about is trying to hang on to a vision, and to live out our lives in a way that contains truth, and to have faith in the power of truth in the Ghandian sense – faith that the power of truth can overcome wrong.

Newsfront

Smile for the camera

Singaporean ghostbusters are turning to hi-tech equipment as they search for paranormal phenomena, reports the Evening Post (September 9).

Singapore Paranormal Investigators say they are taking a scientific approach to prove or debunk or unidentified flying objects. The team use digital video cameras, electromagnetic field meters and thermal guns. Many pictures suggesting paranormal shenanigans turn out to be the result of reflections, one has admitted.

‘God man’ warning

Three British men have died mysteriously after becoming followers of god man Sathya Sai Baba. The Dominion (August 28) reports his activities are being studied by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is considering issuing an unprecedented warning to travellers against the guru.

Three Britons, one of whom claimed being repeatedly sexually molested by Sai Baba, have apparently taken their own lives.

Scorn poured on Sorbonne

The Sorbonne has been denounced as a refuge for irrational academics lacking intellectual rigour. The criticism refers to the institution’s decision to award a doctorate to astrologer Elisabeth Teissier who has advised leading French personalities, such as former president Francois Mitterrand.

The Dominion (August 15) says a number of scientists have called for Mrs Teissier’s doctorate to be revoked and have poured scorn on her 900-page thesis, The epistemological situation of astrology through the ambivalence fascination/rejection in postmodern societies.

Spirit search

An international hunt for witches was launched last August – kicked off by a British medium who wants to contact the Scottish King Macbeth and lift the jinx said to overhang Shakespeare’s tragedy, according to the Evening Post (August 16).

“I’m looking for two witches,” said Kevin Carloyn, high priest of the 1600-strong coven of British white witches.

The idea was to get in touch with the real Macbeth to see if he has anything to do with the weird things which happen when the play is produced. By now, Carloyn and assistants will have been to Cawdor, Macbeth’s windswept home in the Scottish Highlands and tried to pacify the disgruntled spirit. Haven’t heard if it worked, but then plan B was to go to the top and contact Shakespeare himself.

Rebirthing tragedy

Two assistants in a rebirthing therapy session that led to the death of a 10-year-old girl pleaded guilty to criminally negligent child abuse resulting in death says the Evening Post (August 4).

The pair were assisting psychotherapist Connell Watkins in an unconventional treatment session in Watkins’ home. The girl was wrapped in a flannel sheet and told to break out to be ‘reborn’ to her adopted mother. She wasn’t breathing when she was unwrapped more than an hour later.

Oh dear…

Two Waikato researchers say deer velvet seems to have no effect on sexual performance, says the NZ Herald (July 2). The pair Helen and John Conaglen received funding by the maker of the product and were studying its effects as an aphrodisiac. The 34 men who used velvet in their experiment had hormone levels and sex drives no different from those taking placebo tablets. For more than 2000 years deer velvet, a furry skin on growing antlers, have been used in Asia to improve sexual function.

No getting away from it…

Traditional Chinese medicines are here to stay, say Chinese and US doctors in a report in the NZ Herald (July 2). Cao Zeyi, vice-president of the Chinese Medical Association said herbal medicines have worked for a thousand years on trillions and trillions of people but proof was needed.

He was at a week-long gathering of Chinese doctors and their US colleagues and delegates said they must redouble efforts to gain a Western scientific approach to prove that traditional Chinese medicines and therapies worked.

“If we can show clinical results I think my colleagues will open up to the possibility (that they work),” said Dr David Eisenberg, head of Harvard Medical School’s research on complementary therapies.

“This is a global phenomenon. Herbs and supplements are here to stay.”

He valued the worldwide supplements market at $112.93 billion in 1999.

Bad news for ghosts

Tony Cornell of the Society for Psychical Research in Britain reckons he knows why ghost sightings have tailed off in recent years – it’s cell phones!

“Ghost sightings have remained consistent for centuries. Until three years ago we had received reports of new ghosts every week,” said Mr Cornell, of Cambridge. Paranormal events, which some scientists put down to electrical activity, could be drowned out by the electronic noise produced by phone calls and text messages. (The Press, October 15)

Fear and Loathing in Tuatapere

That was never six months just then — it felt much longer. Banised to the depths of New Zealand, in Tuatapere (almost as far south west as you can get in the South Island), life took on a gentler pace. Momentous things did happen — the stoat population declined by 300 around where we were, and the yellowheads had a successful breeding season.

This, of course, was the reason for being in Tuatapere, town of instant coffee and swedes. David landed a contract with DoC monitoring and generally keeping an eye on the little native bush canary, which is highly vulnerable to predation. Rarer than 100 dollar notes they are, and as they prefer to hang out on the tops of mighty beech trees, they’re tricky to keep an eye on.

While things were quite in Tuataps (lulled to sleep by the roaring of stags in the paddock next door), events, of course, developed in the outside world.

The new millenium came and went without so much as a whimper. Our nine-year-old daughter Iris rather enjoyed the cockroach ads that were run well before the event, at a cost I hate to think about. Entertaining but on the redundant side perhaps.

After the non-event, folk from the Y2K Readiness Commission were heard to say there were no problems because of all the preparation work but what of all those countries where zilch was spent with the same result. The world was also gratifyingly free of doomsday cult hysteria over the period, although recent events in Uganda have somewhat blotted the global copybook.

Then came the release of Peter Ellis, the victim of the Christchurch Creche fiasco. The NZ Skeptic predicted a year or so before it all flared up that this country would experience a similar accusation to those plaguing the northern hemisphere — modern day witch hunts with all the fervour and hysteria of the Middle Ages. It is sad for Peter that we were right on this one; eight years gone out of his life.

Then there’s Liam, where things have developed, tragically, as we all expected they would.

Basically, things stumble along much as they always have and always will.

After spending so much time involved in threatened species work, it was interesting to hear recently about work on immunocontraception, which has now reached the stage of field trials with genetically modified carrots. These contain a protein which hopefully fools female possums into believing they’re already pregnant.

It could be a very effective, environmentally safe means of pest control which would mean wonderful times for birds like the yellowhead and parakeets. However, the recent public reaction agains genetic experiments bodes badly for the future, and at the very least guarantees the process will not be a straight-forward one.

We will have to wait and see. It’s ironic that the environmental movement may stand in the way of a technology which could be of huge benefit to the New Zealand environment.

Anyway, we’re on our way home now and will probably be there by the time this hits letterboxes. Speaking of which, be sure to send those dynamic, pithy contributions to Gordonton, and not Tuatapere.

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Skepsis

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but many experts in non-proven schemes fall on their own swords. For example, Hoxsey died of cancer, and recently a Lower Hutt clairvoyant went bankrupt (due to unforeseen circumstances). Dr Rajko Medenica, the Yugoslavian specialist whose unorthodox treatments created devoted patients and determined enemies, died at the early age of 58 (Bay Of Plenty Times December 3 1997). He practised in South Carolina and drew patients from around the world, including Muhammad Ali, the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran and the late Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia. He served 17 months in a Swiss prison two years ago for fraud, many saying that his unusual methods were not based on science, but that he preyed on those that had lost hope. He obviously didn’t do the three guys mentioned much good either.

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Demonology for an Age of Science

THIS TRICENTENNIAL OBSERVANCE of the Massachusetts Day of Contrition cannot fail to provoke sombre and resolute thoughts in everyone who sees a parallel between the judicial horrors of the 1690s and those of the 1980s and 90s. Although Salem has a positive resonance for those who love American literature, the town inevitably calls to mind the aura of demented legalism that made the execution of so-called witches appear to be the only available course of action in 1692. Salem’s own Nathaniel Hawthorne, for one, could not escape that theme, and it helped colour his imagination and make him a lifelong brooder about irreparable wrongs.

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A Small Step Towards Common Sense

In a landmark case on September 30, a 59-year-old man, Bill1, was acquitted by a jury in the Auckland High Court on charges of sexually abusing three of his daughters about 20 years ago. The complainants alleged sodomy and rape, and indecent acts such as the insertion of a coat hanger in the vagina causing bleeding and loss of consciousness. The women claimed they had suppressed the memories which had only resurfaced in later life. All three daughters had attended therapy and made claims for damages from the ACC before they laid the criminal charges against their father. Two of the daughters reported memories of events happening in their cots when aged one year old or less. Bill was defended by Mr Peter Williams, QC, who dismissed evidence based on “recovered memories” as dangerous and fallacious.

The mother of the girls, Bill’s former de facto wife, gave evidence (for the Crown) that she had never noticed any indication of such abuse taking place. She had never seen any signs on her girls of the violent trauma they now claimed to have suffered, nor had she ever encountered blood on their sheets and clothing.

Clinical psychologist Eileen Swan, expert witness for the Crown, supported the phenomenon of “memory retrieval”. She told the jury that it was possible for people to block out memories of unpleasant events as a psychological mechanism if they were “too hard to deal with”. These memories could return piecemeal at a later date. Ms Swan claimed that there is a “paucity of knowledge on memory” but admitted that her life is so busy she has trouble keeping up with her education on the subject.

Dr Frank Rawlinson, a psychiatrist called for the defence, has read widely and deeply on the topic. He recently visited the US and consulted with some of the leading professionals in memory research, and returned with a large number of current books and articles, including Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham’s The Myth of Repressed Memory: false memories and allegations of sexual abuse2.

Witch Hunting

Dr Rawlinson compared the use of recovered memory in sexual abuse cases to the 16th- and 17th-century witch-hunts in Europe. He said that whilst recovered memory theory (or any other theory) could never be disproved, there was no scientific evidence to date to substantiate such a belief. He explained that, on the other hand, it is very easy to create false memories. He disputed Ms Swan’s claim that people repress memories of traumatic events as a psychological mechanism. He explained that adults have no memories of childhood under the age of three, and the alleged memories by two of the daughters at the age of one or younger were not possible.

In his summing up, Justice Sir Ian Barker told the jury they had to decide whether there was indeed repressed memory of sexual abuse which had been retrieved, and whether that memory was reliable. The jury concluded that these were not accurate memories of real events.

Bill was found to be innocent. It cost him $117,000 to defend himself. His three daughters were found to have made false allegations. Each had received at least $10,000 “compensation” from ACC, which is not affected by the outcome of the trial.

This case brings up many issues. There are currently men in prison convicted solely on the basis of “recovered memories” (reconstructed visualisations) of incidents alleged to have occurred two or three decades ago. If Bill had not been able to afford the best in legal representation and psychiatric expertise, it is very likely he would have joined them. Possible future actions for those falsely accused through “memory retrieval” include applying for court costs from the Crown, and legal action against therapists who have implanted or supported the false memories. The anomaly of compensating those who make false accusations might also be addressed.

Already there has been a trend for people who recover memories in therapy to later change their testimony and declare that in fact they had always remembered the trauma. One of Bill’s daughters did just this. Although her counsellor had “shredded the counselling notes” and hence had no records from which to refer, she testified that her client had always remembered her abuse. However, examination of the daughter’s initial police statement revealed that she had told the police that she had only discovered the abuse in the course of her therapy. Victims/survivors subsequently remembering that they had always remembered the abuse is not a course of action likely to occur in the US. This is because their Statute of Limitations allows law suits relating to alleged long ago events on the basis that the Statute starts from the time the “memory” was exhumed.

This is the first case in New Zealand where a jury has decided that “recovered memories” are not reliable evidence. Although a great step forward, there is still a long way to go. Many professionals believe that memories can be repressed and accurately retrieved, despite there being no scientific evidence to support this. A stream of US “experts” continue to teach that recovered memories are valid, and there is a reluctance within the sexual abuse industry to examine any evidence which challenges their beliefs. Critics who claim that some sexual allegations might be false are labelled as part of the “backlash” and accused of being “in denial” about sexual abuse.

1) Not his real name [back]

2) St Martin’s Press, New York, 1994, highly recommended [back]

Oh, What a Lovely World!

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

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

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

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