Sensing Failure

23 03 2010

Sensing...Absolutely Nothing

Despite being the only author of this blog resident in the UK I’ve managed to keep tabs on the NZ version of ‘Sensing Murder’, a particularly abhorrent TV programme which under the guise of helping people, exploits the families of murder victims in order to promote their own group of ‘psychic investigators’. Not only does the show gleefully promote the frankly ludicrous notion that certain ‘specially gifted’ people can communicate with the dead, it also does it on TVNZ which receives 10% of its income from ‘government sources’ ie your taxes

Despite various woolly claims over the years that the psychics have come up with ‘new and exciting evidence’ – the show has in fact come up with exactly what every right thinking person would have predicted (non-psychically) from the word go.


Not one success in four seasons (32 odd cases). Despite alleging being able to talk to the actual murder victims!! Despite allegedly being able to pick the sex of the victim from a hidden picture 100% of the time and being able to identify murder scenes without ever having been there or knowing anything about the case!! What is more amazing – the assertion that they can talk to the dead or that once they manage to do so the victims are so unwilling to help catch their killer? On top of this the programme goes out of its way to shift blame onto the NZ police, accusing them of failing to follow up new leads brought to light by the psychics. Now the police are by no means infallible – but the murder clear-up rate in NZ is pretty good and I do not believe for one second that the teams investigating these crimes initially didn’t do everything they could and now just can’t be bothered to follow up leads. The fact that some twit on a TV show goes ‘oh I sense you should investigate Mr. X’ does not constitute a ‘new lead’, and to their credit the NZ police have publicly stated they do not use psychics.

The psychics have also refused to undergo any 3rd party testing despite claiming they want to, and despite being offered large sums of money to prove their so-called special powers. NZ businessman Tony Andrews has offered them $NZ 20,000 each for just being tested – an offer yet to be accepted, which tells it’s own tale.

However there is some light at the end of the tunnel… the programme makers Ninox Television went into receivership last year and there may be no more Sensing Murder. They did however keep a web forum running…until last Sunday (21 March 2010) when the plug was abruptly pulled after one member posted less than complimentary first hand information about one of the SM psychics Kelvin Cruikshank. Interestingly a number of supporters of the programme who participated in the forum had also recently started to question SM given its complete lack of success. Engaged in discussion by a number of skeptical members it seemed that the previously committed were perhaps starting to have second thoughts. However before any real questioning took place the forum was shut down and it now seems that the members have joined a thread on the JREF forums instead – ironically a forum devoted to skeptics.

Radio interview with Cruikshank cold reading here

More Sensing Murder criticism here, including some stuff on Cruikshank in the comments

Sensing bullshit site – Alan is not known for pulling his punches.

Silly Beliefs – another great site debunking Sensing Murder again including a lot of interesting exchanges in the comments section.


What’s Wrong With Catching the Measles!

22 07 2009
A child with Small Pox in Bangladesh 1973

A child with the now eradicated small pox in Bangladesh 1973

A recent article on the warning of a measles epidemic in New Zealand bought out some of the weird and wonderful ideas a (hopefully small) proportion of New Zealanders have about the measles.  What a polarizing subject it is!  The majority of people who were questioning the vaccination were taking what on the face of it is a reasonable stance in that the state should not be able to dictate health care to the public.

For a comprehensive discussion of the scientific reasons why such an argument is flawed I would suggest that you read the Science Based Medicine Blog.  But to summarize there are two principle issues namely herd immunity and risk.

There are members of the community who cannot have vaccinations due to age (such as babies) or due to medical conditions and therefore the only protection that they are afforded is herd immunity to avoid contracting preventable diseases.

Depending on the disease, for effective herd immunity the threshold for the percentage of the population to be immunized is between 75% and 95%.  Effectively, while there is a high number of immunized people, a parent who chooses not to immunize their child will be taking advantage of the herd immunity.  However, when to many parents refuse vaccinations the threshold drops to a point where the disease can thrive and even cause an epidemic.  Once an unvaccinated child contracts a disease they then have to deal with the next principle issue of risk.

The statistical likelihood of a child being harmed by a vaccine is considerably lower than if they actually contract the disease.  Diseases like the measles will cause a small proportion of children significant long term harm or even death due to pneumonia or brain swelling caused by encephalitis.  Such risks are dramatically reduced through the use of vaccination.  People with immunodeficiencies are far also more likely to suffer the extreme effects of these diseases.

So, when many parents refuse to vaccinate their children, it ends up putting many other children at risk.

That’s enough of the dry stuff.  I want to point out some of the pearl’s of wisdom out of the many anecdotal stories that came through the readers comments to the article:

Leigh # 4 asks:

“I would also like to question why the alternative homeopathic vaccination program that was available 20 years ago, which I used successfully, has been removed from the market? Yes, we middle-class parents like to question- and with very good reason!”

I can probably answer this one – it’s because injecting children with magic water does not vaccinate them against diseases!

Phil # 16 after accusing all studies that show the benefits of vaccines as being fraudulent stated:

“Please don’t vaccinate your children, they need to get measles, mumps, chicken pox etc. No-one wishes suffering for any child, but the human body needs to be exposed to these things to work correctly later in life. I believe, through years of research, that vaccinations may well be child abuse.”

So everyone who has had a vaccination and not subsequently contracted disease can not expect to have a body that works correctly later in life…show me the evidence.  Also, I would suggest you observe a child going through the discomfort of the measles, mumps, or the chicken pox – allowing your child to be inflicted with such diseases when they are preventable could also be argued as child abuse.

Les # 19 Does his best to totally butcher year 9 probability:

“Educated parents are aware of the risks, that’s why. A basic risk analysis will show the vaccine isn’t worth it. From the MOH own vaccination site: 1 in 1000 measles cases get inflammation of the brain so using 100 cases a year, it will take ten years before someone should have that complication. However, the same site shows the vaccine causes convulsions in one in 3000 recipients, and inflammation of the brain in 1 in a million. Assuming even 30,000 doses a year, thats at least 10 having convulsions. Not my child thank you”

So lets fairly compare 100 people who are not vaccinated and contracted the measles with 30,000 people who are given a vaccination…spot the imbalance!  In fact according the website if one thousand children contract the measles approximately one will get inflammation of the brain versus 0.001 children in one thousand who suffer inflammation of the brain from the vaccination (of course there still will be a small proportion of vaccinated people who get the measles – but usually because there is no herd immunity!).

Phil # 62 After providing an anecdote that shed no light on the discussion he said:

“Herd ammunity has been proven to be a load of hype, and cannot work. Outbreaks will always happen, and some cases will result in death. No vaccination campaign will ever stop that, even if you choose to believe it will. Vaccines are fraud. End of story, and the MoH knows this but will never back down in their promotion of it. So sad, for the millions who are harmed through vaccines. The diseases will happen anyway: it is not vaccines that has stopped them.”

And small pox just stopped itself…

I thought that Tim #31 gave a good summing up of the skeptical position:

“How is it that in this day and age we have people who believe that vaccines cause autism, 9/11 was carried out by the CIA, the moonlandings were a hoax etc etc. BUT they don’t believe the brain damage and harm the real diseases like measles can cause?

I am a ‘middle class, educated parent’ whatever that means. I say it is a crime not to vaccimate your kids when they are supplied free of charge by the government. What will happen when we have a polio outbreak? or worse… Just get the poor kids vaccinated NOW.”

Apollo 11 Degaussed?

18 07 2009

Buzz Aldrin Apollo 11NASA’s recent reported admission that the original footage from the Apollo footage was degaussed along with 200,000 other tapes has resulted in a flurry of discussion on New Zealand’s Stuff website.  This combined with the release of re-mastered digital upgrades of footage taken of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moon landing has provided additional ‘evidence’ for moon hoax conspiracy theorists that the USA never sent people to the moon.

However, I would be keen to know if anyone has a link to the news conference where Richard Nafzger, a NASA engineer, is alleged to have made the admission of the degaussing.  The news story reported on Stuff originated with Reuters and the identical story has been reported all over the world.  The NASA website simply states that a final report is nearly completed in relation to the missing tapes that will be released in the near future – or is this further evidence of the conspiracy?

It goes to show how far reaching the 2001 documentary “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?” has entered into the popular consciousness and contributed to the creation of a bizarre but persistent conspiracy theory that is alive and well in New Zealand.  While many of the comments on the Stuff website were either indifferent or ridiculing the moon hoax conspiracy, a small but vocal minority were insistent that the USA never sent people to the moon.

One of the fervent moon hoax conspirators called ‘Paul T’ made a number of comments claiming that the classic image of Buzz Aldrin used on the Stuff website (and reposted above) is evidence of a fake as it shows evidence of having multiple lighting sources aside from the sun.

For a more comprehensive explanation, I will direct you to Phil Plait’s excellent Bad Astronomy website, but briefly Paul T is right – it does have multiple lighting sources, but not from stage lights.  The obvious lighting source is the sun and the others are the reflective surfaces around Buzz in the photo namely the moon itself!  The moon’s surface dust reflects a small percentage of the sunlight (which is why we see the moon from the Earth) and it serves to slightly illuminate images.  The exposure length and aperture of the camera will also be important in determining the brightness of the reflected light.

‘Paul T’ also makes the ridiculous claim that there were astronauts who were going to speak out about the hoax who died in mysterious circumstances.  This is presumably a reference to the tragic death of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in a launch pad fire.  All I can say is – show me the evidence!

However, the Stuff’s decision to focus on what are minor points in the scheme of the Apollo moon landing are unfortunate given its wide readership in New Zealand.  Lets hope they have something more of celebratory tone for Apollo 11’s 40th anniversary on Monday the 20th of July.

New Zealand’s Best Known Homeopath is Interviewed

25 02 2009

Recently “New Zealand’s best known homeopath” (I have never heard of her – perhaps I don’t watch enough television), Gwyneth Evans featured on Breakfast on TV One to respond to the criticisms made by Dr Shaun Holt that homeopathy only operates due to the placebo effect.

I would hope that the average New Zealander would watch this clip and not require a deep understanding of science or the scientific method to see homeopathy for what it is – wishful thinking.

While briefly explaining the underpinning framework for homeopathy, Mrs Evans says that it has been around for 200 years. The only comment I have in response to this is that I am pleased that due to modern medicines reliance on the scientific method, it has done away with bloodletting, the theory of four humours, and astrological influences on medicine.

However, rather than presenting a general critique of homeopathy (if you are interested then have a read of Dr Stephen Barrett’s article) I want to touch upon some of the things raised by Mrs Evans.

When asked about the efficacy of homeopathy, her reply is that rather than relying upon a crude physiological drug, there is a homeopathic energy or vibration that is retained in the substance that triggers the bodies own innate healing power.

As with most woo, once again ‘energy’ is presented as some kind of magical field or property (for which there is no scientific evidence of). To borrow the term used by Brian Dunning, energy is a measurement of something’s ability to perform work. It is not some all encompassing field that impacts upon vials of water sold as medicine or people, in this respect there is a distinct common misunderstanding about what ‘energy’ actually is.

Consider Einstein’s well known and little understood equation of E=MC2, mass can be expressed in grams and speed in metres per second. So simply put an objects energy equals the amount of work it takes to move a few grams a few metres in a few seconds. Energy is a measurement of work, not some bizarre made up energy field akin to the Force from Starwars.

With this in mind, it simply does not make any logical sense to say that the water retains the energy or the vibrations of original substance it contained and that it somehow interacts with the body’s ‘energy’.

Furthermore, if it did indeed trigger the body’s innate healing power, then this should be something that can be scientifically observed and I am still waiting on the evidence for this and the underlying theory about its mechanism.

While I am on this subject, further on into the interview Mrs Evans is asked about the scientific evidence for homeopathy, and she pulls out the old “it’s a different paradigm” card. What she means is that the homeopathic community has decided that the rigorous testing that science demands no longer applies to them as it has a different understanding of disease and health when compared to evidence based practises.

I would hazard a guess that the reason for such an attitude is because there is very little scientific evidence for her discipline, if the scientific evidence supported homeopathy, do you think that homeopaths would be saying that the positive results did not apply to them as their paradigm cannot be measured by science? On the contrary they would be quick to trumpet the results.

It is quite simple, there is no paradigm shift, homeopathy claims to cure people of illness and therefore its effects are measurable. Homeopathy claims to trigger an innate healing ability and therefore there is a physiological response, which requires a mechanism.

Evidence Based Faith

16 01 2009

In Thursday’s letter to the editor section of the Dominion Post, there was a response to the proposed guidelines to allow students to opt out of religious activities in New Zealand’s public schools. A letter written by Jeff Tallon of Muritai says:

The Human Rights Commission’s draft guidelines on religious education state that everyone’s beliefs should be treated respectfully and all views are equally valid (Jan 10-11).

Though I don’t support compulsory religious education, the commission’s position is questionable. All views are not equally valid – we must apply rational tests to beliefs.

The commission has painted itself into an empty corner. It is really asserting that no religious system is true or can be taken to be true and so none should take precedence.

But this ignores the rational basis for faith. One hundred and fifty years ago, Christian/Jewish faith was essentially a blind belief in ancient stories. But that has changed. Archaeology, epigraphy, ancient history, astronomy and even modern cosmology and molecular biology present a powerful body of evidence for traditional Christian faith. And if a religious system is true in the historical, scientific sense, then perhaps it deserves precedence.

Our national position on religious education comes from our commitment to secular government, not because faith has not rational basis, and definitely not because of tacit assumptions that all religious faiths are untrue.

While I appreciate that the short word length expected of a letter to the editor means that it is difficult for all the evidence to be laid out, the writer of the letter appears to be believe that a rational basis for Judeo-Christian beliefs can be found throughout the sciences. The initial question that comes to mind is what particular brand of belief is he referring to, as many different denominations accept or reject (or as a middle-ground, accept as metaphor) a wide variety of Biblical passages. They also have different concepts of God and other supernatural beliefs. Is he referring to the ‘evidence’ that shows that the Earth was created 6000 years ago according to the Book of Genesis or the scientific evidence that it was created 4.5 billion years ago?

Such a sweeping scientific claims are hollow as there is no scientific consensus across all of the disciplines mentioned that anything supernatural could account for observations or discoveries that have been made. One could employ the logical fallacy of final consequences and say that the Christian faith must be true as the perfect nature of the universe is a testament to God’s ability for creation. Perhaps it is the argument from personal incredulity, in that the writer believes that due to the complex nature of the world that no other explanation apart from God is possible. Such arguments are implied through the use of such a broad range of scientific disciplines to support the rational basis of the Christian faith. Of course such arguments are invalid and therefore have no rational basis.

What is clear from the scientific evidence through the application of cosmological, geological, and biological observation and theory is that supernatural forces are not required for the existence of the universe, the Earth, or people. The current scientific thinking across all disciplines does not provide support for the proposition that omnipotent Gods, demons, or angels have previously (or currently) impacted upon the lives of people.

Many claims made within the Bible, while theoretically possible to test, are now impossible to test due to the passage of time and all that remains is faith on the part of the particular religions followers. The few things that have been amenable to testing, such as the shroud of Turin, have proven to be at best controversial and at worst shown to be medieval forgery.

Furthermore, apologists from a variety of other religions as varied as Islam, Mormonism, and Scientology would make similar claims about the validity of the scientific underpinnings of their religions.

Mr Tallon has made an assumption that the underlying rationale for the guidelines is that all religious faiths are equally untrue. The employment of such guidelines does not say anything about the veracity of a religious position. Rather it reinforces the secular nature of our Government and our country, while allowing those minority groups with different belief structures freedom from pressure to conform to the religious beliefs of another group.

The Threat of Defamation

8 10 2008

An Australian poster going by the name of AndyD on the JREF forums has recently had a run in with Ezio De Angelis, a self described psychic medium who was a finalist in the recent television series The One. This show pitted various psychics against each other in a showdown to determine who was Australia’s top psychic.

AndyD edited and posted on Youtube a satirical video of De Angelis conducting a psychic reading from ‘The One’. The principal edits were of the sitter providing many more negative answers than what was shown and the rationale of the video was to highlight the number of misses that had made their way to the cutting room floor during the editing process for the episode.

In late September De Angelis contacted AndyD and told him:

“This video is part of a pending Defamation and compensation action. It has already been removed from Bad Psychics.Com as part of this legal process.

In order to ensure that you are not implicit in the litigation you are required to remove the video and commentary immediately.”

This threat of legal action upset AndyD sufficiently to not only remove the video from Youtube, but also remove half of his posts on his blog. He has since reinstated most of the posts, but the video has not been put back on Youtube.

Without the benefit of viewing the video, it is difficult to judge if it is actually defamatory (and anyway I am no lawyer), but this is a common tactic attempted by some of the more high profile psychics to have blogs, articles, and websites that are critical of them removed from the Internet. Uri Geller is notorious for his litigation and famously filed action against Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and James Randi which inadvertently resulted in James Randi and CSICOP parting ways.

Threats of defamation are not restricted to those who dabble in the supernatural world, but also in pseudoscientific realms such as the recent threat of legal action made by New Zealand Chiropractic Association against the New Zealand Medical Journal.

For those sceptics who have an Internet presence, they are open to the threat of litigation (whether it has a basis or not) and for most people the prospect of having the hassle and expense of a civil hearing is sufficient to give in to such threats.

In New Zealand the Defamation Act 1992 provides  are two defenses that can be used, the first is that the defamatory statement is the truth, which on the face of it seems straight forward. However, the burden of proof lies on the person making the statement to show that it is true. The second defense is that it is an honestly held opinion. With this defense, the facts presented must be correct and it must be clear that it is the personal opinion of the person making the statement. Furthermore, the opinion must be genuinely held.

This should not be taken as legal advice and if you are the subject of legal action then make sure that you get advice from a suitably qualified solicitor.

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!