Taking aim at the inane

From predictions of moon-made earthquakes to claims the end of the world is nigh, 2011 has had its fair share of hot air. Certainly, the New Zealand Skeptics have plenty of targets, writes Shane Gilchrist.

It is particularly fitting the New Zealand Skeptics' annual conference this weekend is being held in Christchurch.

For its 2011 Bent Spoon Award (for "journalistic gullibility"), the group has cited the media promulgation of Ken Ring's false predictions of an earthquake on March 20, which contributed to legions of people either leaving the already shaken South Island city or stocking up on petrol, water and other disaster supplies.

Building on solid science is the theme for this year's annual conference, which will feature presentations on earthquake science and "non-science", psychics and the controversial use of 1080.

Given 2011 is the International Year of Chemistry, there will also be a discussion on whether an understanding of basic chemistry can help protect people from pseudo-scientific claims and ideas.

"When we're unsure of things, looking for a better understanding of what's happening and why it's happening empowers people," says Skeptics media spokeswoman Vicki Hyde.

On the phone from Christchurch (she lives in Redcliffs, "pretty much on top of the fault-line"), Ms Hyde likens the New Zealand Skeptics to a Consumer's Institute for the mind.

However, whereas the Consumer's Institute might research a range of cars or microwaves, the NZ Skeptics will investigate everything from end-of-the-world predictions to claims about the benefits of alternative health products.

A non-profit incorporated society with a financial membership of 600 (another 2000 receive emails from the group), New Zealand Skeptics was established in 1986, explains Ms Hyde, who hails from a science journalism background and works on a volunteer basis.

"We try to encourage critical thinking, primarily when scientific claims are being made. For instance, we don't comment on politics or political parties, but if you get someone like the Natural Law Party saying we should meditate to reduce our crime rate, we'll ask for evidence to support that," she says.

(The Natural Law Party of New Zealand, formed in 1995, failed to win any seats in Parliament and was removed from the register of official political parties in 2001.)

"The other main things we are concerned about are those areas where people are vulnerable to being misled. It's important we don't let them be taken advantage of. You only have to look at the psychic industry to see very predatorial patterns involving psychological manipulation that would not get past an ethics committee in any university," Ms Hyde says.

"That exploitation of vulnerable people extends to the alternative medicine industry. No-one is more vulnerable than a parent whose child has cancer."

As per its Bent Spoon Award, the group also aims to turn the lens on journalists who fail to ask enough questions.

"The amount of stuff that goes into women's magazines or the press with very little in the way of informed critique ... it is pretty much advertorial," Ms Hyde says.

"We always say you don't have to be foolish to be fooled.

"Often, in the case of the media, we have a high churn rate of stories. So when journalists see something they haven't encountered before, they get excitable. Broadcast media, in particular, don't want to explain things because that takes time."

She also laments a lack of science-based knowledge within the media in general.

"You wouldn't send a reporter out to cover a rugby game if they had no understanding of the offside rules or how much a try was worth. But, time after time, I've seen reporters cover a scientific issue when, clearly, they have no background knowledge.

"In New Zealand, we have never really had science journalism as a specialty. I remember when one of the polytechnics put out a journalism handbook and the nearest thing it had to science was a section on the weather."

In looking for "balance" in an article, a reporter might seek comment from a range of sources.

Yet, in regards to scientific issues, there aren't necessarily two equal and opposite opinions, Ms Hyde emphasises.

"If you are going to make an extraordinary claim, then you have to put up extraordinary proof.

"I often tell people that the way to detect if someone is a bit dodgy is to note if they are making a definitive statement: for example, 'we can cure your cancer', rather than 'we think this will help', which is a much more scientific approach."

Doomsday messengers come under fire.

The rapture prediction of May 21, promulgated by Californian Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping clearly had the same result as his 1994 end-of-the-world claim.

According to Camping's interpretation of the Bible, on May 21 earthquakes were going to shake the Earth, casting the dead from their graves, allowing believers' souls to ascend to heaven. In fact, the only thing that went up was a lot of hot air, Ms Hyde points out.

"More seriously - and closer to home - we have just put in a submission to the parliamentary committee looking at regulating Chinese medicine in New Zealand.

"We are arguing that if you regulate it under a health Act you are treating it as a medical issue and providing it with a credibility it doesn't deserve. It's a cultural issue, not a medical issue.

"A lot of what is termed traditional Chinese medicine is not particularly traditional and not particularly Chinese. Much of it grew out of the 1950s with Chairman Mao's 'barefoot doctor' programme, an anti-West development. However, very few people know that.

"Another parliamentary Bill for which we have put in a submission is in regards to natural health products.

"We are calling for more accurate labelling to protect consumers. That ties into a worldwide homeopathy campaign; we are trying to point out to consumers that they are paying $10 for a teaspoon of water."

Sceptics are often accused of being close-minded, perhaps even cynical. However, they are open-minded, Ms Hyde says.

"I am constantly tarnished by the brush of cynicism. But we are optimists. Most of us believe that if people are given more and better information, they can make up their own minds about a subject.

"Most people I have met in the New Zealand Skeptics are fascinated by the world and how it works.

"As one philosopher put it: we are interested in mysteries; we just don't want them to be dumb ones."

The conference
The New Zealand Skeptics conference is being held in Christchurch this weekend. For more information, visit: www.skeptics.org.nz


In the Skeptics' firing line:

• UFO alien abduction counselling and its segue into the much more dangerous area of false memory-based child abuse claims.

• Bogus cancer treatments and the exploitation of vulnerable parents who have children suffering from the disease.

• Dangerous practices masquerading as cultural traditions (think of the deaths during various exorcisms, Maori and Christian).

• Unnecessarily low immunisation rates causing unnecessary death and harm from predominantly preventable cases of meningitis and measles.

• Exploitation of vulnerable grieving families for the purposes of "reality entertainment" in the form of psychic shows such as Sensing Murder.

• Sale of homeopathic "remedies" by pharmacists who should have more medical knowledge and ethics than to sell water priced at $10 a teaspoon.

• Repeated coverage of the "Moon-landing hoax", which denies one of the most inspiring feats humanity has undertaken in the past century.

• The promotion of fundamentalist Christian creationism as a "science", its recasting in the disguise of "intelligent design".

• Constant uncritical coverage of alternative health industry claims, which amounts to free advertising with no accountability or consumer protection.

Take a bow: the Bent Spoon Award

The NZ Skeptics have awarded their annual prize for journalistic gullibility to all those media outlets and personalities who took Ken Ring's earthquake prediction claims at face value.

"We believe that it is the business of the professional media to ask pertinent questions on behalf of the public when presenting material as factual. We even have broadcasting standards that call for accurate reporting. Many, many media outlets and journalists failed the basic standards of their profession in failing to ask 'where is the evidence?' in the face of Ring's claims to predict earthquakes. They did us all a disservice," Skeptics media commentator Vicki Hyde says.

The group Bent Spoon Award is an unusual one for the NZ Skeptics, but the society felt that so little was asked by so many that it had to be a broader award this year.



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