Daydream believing doesn't make it so

GRANT SMITHIES
Last updated 05:00 09/06/2013
crystal ball
A tall dark stranger bearing illusory balance?

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Like myself, the NZ Skeptics envisage a world driven by curiosity rather than dogma; a society where the public is hungry to find things out rather than just believe stuff. Since their formation in 1986, the organisation has been doing its damnedest to encourage critical thinking, refute pseudo-scientific claims and fight the good fight against flakes, charlatans and supernaturalists of every stripe.

OPINION: A jovial collective of scientists, rationalists, atheists, and even the occasional broad-minded Christian, the Skeptics convene public rallies, deliver enlightening lectures, lobby government and bash out press releases bringing our attention to cases of ignorance masquerading as truth, opinion dressed as fact, and abject foolishness wearing a fetching little ensemble that makes it look a little like common sense if viewed under a dim light after a few gins.

This year's NZ Skeptics conference is to be held at Victoria University in September and a key theme will be the eternally thorny issue of "journalistic balance". Now, I'm the first journalist to admit I'm as unbalanced as a see-saw. I rant, I rave, I equivocate wildly. My research is cursory, my assertions are rash, and my sources may quite possibly be people I meet in the pub. But I'm a columnist rather than a reporter, more interested in opinionated satire than objective fact.

I do, however, recognise the importance of balance within more serious journalism but, as a recent Skeptics press release points out, misinformed opinion and shonky research does not provide such balance, and merely misleads the public instead.

A case in point is the NZ Press Council's recent decision to uphold a complaint against North & South magazine for a story about homeopathy. The story cited the lack of scientific evidence for homeopathic practices, and a homeopath complained to the Press Council, who in due course concluded there IS some scientific evidence for the efficacy of homeopathic products, though that evidence generally stems from poor research where the methodology is questionable.

In the end, the uselessness of homeopathy was not the issue, but rather the story's discounting of unreliable information that might have added some illusory "balance". Outraged boffins immediately took to social media to express their dismay at the Press Council's ruling and I'm with them all the way.

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If a journalist is going to present contrasting opinions, they should be from credible sources and backed up by solid research and should not give undue respect to widely discredited New Age bollocks. No reputable journalist would seek illuminating quotes from a crystal healer when writing an article on breast cancer. Television docos exploring contemporary issues do not generally engage the services of consultant palm readers or numerologists. When seeking comment on the future of Christchurch, newspapers tend to canvas town planners, community leaders, architects and seismologists, not astrologers or psychics.

It is, of course, a basic human right for people to believe whatever they like but I retain the right to disagree, or to seek evidence. Simply maintaining that God exists doesn't make it so, but everyone has a right to an invisible friend, so long as they don't expect me to believe in him, too, or try to force supernatural beliefs upon my child at school. If someone's convinced the expensive water they buy from a homeopath will cure their ills, that's fine by me, so long as such quackery isn't promoted to the vulnerable in place of medication that's been proven to actually work.

In many cases, the illogical beliefs of our more credulous citizens merely add background colour to our lives but sometimes the scant regard paid to scientific evidence can have dire consequences. In the case of climate change, for example, powerful carbon-producing corporates have put forward a host of alleged experts in order to manufacture controversy, obscuring the fact that the vast majority of reputable scientific opinion asserts global warming is happening and we are causing it. Failure to act upon this fact may yet lead to global catastrophe.

In the meantime, I can't help but wonder whether the upcoming Skeptics conference will feature presentations by aura therapists, chakra balancers and reiki healers, in order to achieve "balance"? Will the lecture programme include representatives from the Flat Earth Society refuting that the Earth is round, or creationists having a good old go at Darwin? Can we expect entrepreneurial New Agers manning a stall in the foyer, selling lumps of quartz to the assembled micro-biologists and geologists to help them ward off bad juju? Even without the benefit of a second opinion, I think we can assume the answer is no.

- Sunday Star Times

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