Believe it or Not: NZ Survey

13 08 2008

The Sunday Star Times (A New Zealand paper) is running a survey in conjunction with Marc Wilson (A senior philosophy lecturer at Victoria University) over the next week or two testing New Zealand’s beliefs in superstitions and the like.  An article in last weekend’s Sunday Star Times briefly covers the survey and includes a discussion by Vicki Hyde (chair of NZ Skeptics) about skepticism including her description of one NZ Skeptics conference:

“When the Sceptics Conference opened one year on a Friday 13th, we had a ladder parked over the entrance doorway and everyone came through under it. We also had a box of mirror glass to break, chain mail letters to ignore, salt to spill, umbrellas to open inside. It was the one conference where all the speakers ran to time.”

It is good to see NZ skeptics in the news making good points and also making the point that skepticism is not dry cynicism but actually is fun.

The survey itself is quite interesting and I look forward to the results which should be fascinating.  I hope they good a good response to it so we can make some useful inferences.  The link can be found in the article above or directly here

Having just done the survey I can say that it deals with superstitions, pseudoscience, lotteries, religion, a strange question about attitudes to different social groups, conspiracy theories, urban myths, alternative medicine, and a few other issues in quite a bit of detail.  I did find it quite hard to answer some of the questions due to the wording (which is typical of such surveys) but generally it wasn’t too bad for this sort of survey (I have seen way worse).  The temptation of winning a new blackberry was nice too – I need a new phone so fingers crossed… here’s hoping!


NZ Chiropractors vs NZ Medical Journal

11 08 2008

Thanks to Mary’s comment and a few other sources for pointing out this interesting development in the New Zealand medical scene.

New Zealand has created a small buzz internationally with an interesting dispute based on a very well written and timely New Zealand Medical Journal editorial piece by David Colquhoun entitled “Doctor Who?  Inappropriate use of titles by some alternative “medicine” practitioners.”  The full editorial is available here

Two points stood out from this editorial for me.  Firstly Colquhoun states:

The first thing one wants to know about any treatment —alternative or otherwise — is whether it works. Until that is decided, all talk of qualifications, regulation, and so on is just vacuous bureaucratese. No policy can be framed sensibly until the question of efficacy has been addressed honestly.

This really hits home the problem with chiropractic “medicine”: there simply is no true indication of its efficacy as a treatment for anything, but plenty of evidence it can cause problems such as strokes.  Yet they give off an aura of being a profession with equal academic backing to standard medicine. 

The second point that I thought was interesting was that chiropractors who claim to be medical doctors are already breaking NZ law but the law is simply not enforced.  I did a quick search and it seems the relevant legislation is the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003, of which section 7 contains the relevant information.  It seems the issue could be solved quite quickly by simply applying the law as written and this is what Colquhoun recommends.  I do wonder if the penalties are severe enough though, entailing a fine not exceeding $10,000, and I also wonder about the wording – I suspect a good lawyer could wriggle a pseudo-doctor out of any fine.

What makes things interesting however is that this article was met with a rather aggressive response from the New Zealand Chiropractic Association via a letter to the NZMJ from their lawyer, Paul Radich.  The NZMJ reproduced the letter (here).  The claim is made that the editorial (and another paper by Dew et al) is “one of the most blatant examples of defamation that we have seen.”  The letter then goes on to demand a retraction, apology, opportunity for rebuttal and costs under the Defamation act. 

What has really set the world alight however is the response by the editor of the NZMJ, Frank Frizelle.  In it he discusses the letter from Radich, and then concludes with:

The Journal has a responsibility to deal with all issues and not to steer clear of those issues that are difficult or contentious or carry legal threats. Let the debate continue in the evidence-based tone set by Colquhoun and others.

I encourage, as we have done previously, the chiropractors and others to join in, let’s hear your evidence not your legal muscle.

As the Holford Watch blog states, “it isn’t often that you come across a newly-minted phrase that is destined to become a classic but Professor Frank Frizelle has managed it”.  I can see people quoting that last sentence for years to come, myself included.  Evidence based thought rather than lawyer based thought all the way!

What I find disappointing is that the New Zealand media doesn’t seem to have picked up on this issue (if someone has heard of it on the news or radio please let me know).  Without media coverage it will probably die down quite quickly which is a shame because it is a lost opportunity to raise public awareness of this important issue.  Far too many people (including me until a couple of years ago) think that, as a dentist is a “tooth doctor” and an optometrist is an “eye doctor”, that a chiropractic is a “back doctor”.  This is manifestly not the case even if what they do is genuinely beneficial (which in my opinion it is almost certainly not) and the general public need to realise this.

For what it is worth, my advice is that if you have back problems go and see your doctor or a physiotherapist.  I have had back problems and my physio sorted it, and I have been fine since.  For extensive information about chiropractors check out chirobase and for the flipside, check out the New Zealand Chiropractors Association website.

For more details and posts about the NZMJ legal “battle” check out this page which seems to be keeping up to date with posts about the issue, and Colquhoun’s own site here.

Astronaut Edgar Mitchell on Campbell Live

9 08 2008

Recently Edgar Mitchell has returned to the public eye 37 years after setting the current record for the longest moon walk. Mr Mitchell is one of the privileged few who has had such an opportunity, but his most recent public statements risk over shadowing his important space exploration legacy.

On the 8th of August 2008 he appeared on TV3’s Campbell Live to discuss his belief that the Roswell UFO incident occurred. Coincidentally he lived in Roswell at the time of the alleged UFO crash that occurred in 1947 and he commented that he did not think much of it at the time.

The reason he did not think much of it was because no one did think much of it, the mythology that surrounds the Roswell UFO incident did not enter the public consciousness until the publication of The Roswell Incident in 1980 by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore where it was contended that a UFO had crashed and the military had covered it up. The 1990’s saw a flurry of books being published that expanded the mythology even further and the idea that alien bodies were recovered from the wreckage was introduced.

Mr Mitchell told John Campbell that he was privy to information from ‘old timers’ who told him that alien bodies had been recovered from the site, and that a fourth alien was alive and subsequently assisted the US authorities. He has refused to disclose who these ‘old timers’ are during other interviews. This is unsatisfactory in determining whether his position is based upon a solid foundation.

The evidence for the Roswell incident is weak. The books tend to be based upon witness testimony obtained some 30 to 40 years after the events. This in it self presents its own problems due to the well understood problems that arise out of relying upon memory. Furthermore, very few of the people interviewed were eyewitnesses, rather they were reporting hearsay evidence, which weakens the strength of the evidence even further. Other witnesses have been shown to intentionally or unintentionally inflate or fabricate testimony about what they did see in 1947.

Supporters of the Roswell incident point to the cover up carried out by the air force as evidence to support an alien crash. They are correct that there was a cover up, but for a much more earthly reason. The item that crashed was a high altitude balloon that carried experimental top secret equipment that the air force hoped would detect Soviet nuclear tests. In the increasingly tense years after the Second World War, it is not surprising that the air force would move quickly to clean up the crash site and release a cover story that it was a weather balloon.

Perhaps Mr Mitchell could be forgiven for having one errant belief that he has reluctantly made public – as he said to John Campbell, he has been recounting his belief in aliens at Roswell to many people for the last 10 years, but it has only recently come to the attention of the mainstream media. However, in the years after his tenure as an astronaut he set up the Institute for Noetic Science that investigates the powers of consciousness, including areas that do not fit into the conventional scientific methods – in other words such questionable things like psychic abilities, consciousness surviving death, and alternative medicines, just to name a few.

Given his apparent belief in many alternative ideas and the conspiracy around the Roswell incident, I am surprised that he has not jumped on the bandwagon and stated that the moon landings were false as well.