Weird and wacky but is it really believable?

01:43, Jan 31 2009

Anyone who glimpsed mysterious colourful celestial lights flickering erratically across Hamilton skies shortly after 8 last night need not fret about being abducted by an alien spaceship.

The only close encounter Hamiltonians are likely to experience this weekend is with the Skeptics also known as the New Zealand Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal who are "debunking" down here for their annual conference at Waikato Diocesan School this weekend.

One of the first conference workshops for 80-odd attendees last night was to construct in groups of five something which might be interpreted as a UFO.

In this instance, cotton-tethered helium balloons, containing light emitting diodes taped to batteries, seemed to do the trick.

It was an exercise in illustrating how critical thinking is often far more important than believing your own eyes in interpreting the world around you.

On that front, the Skeptics have an old saying: "When you hear the sound of hoofbeats in the night, think first of horses, not zebras."


But UFO construction was also a bit of therapeutic fun for the Skeptics, in a programme which otherwise looks intimidatingly deep on pointy-headed considerations.

First on the agenda this morning, Auckland's Matthew Dentith is due to lecture on Saving the Paranormal from the Laws of Science, arguing "that it is not clear that we should be reductionists in respect to the paranormal because neither methodological nor epistemic reductionism rules out of court theories that contain paranormal entities or processes".

He gets no argument from Times editorial staff there. Also on offer today and tomorrow are lectures on:

How "suggestibility" can help "the placebo effect", and how changes in brain function can be observed using modern imaging technology;

How diseases such as gonorrhoea, which are normally sexually transmitted, can also be contracted in other ways, and how this has led to false accusations of child sexual abuse;

Examination of the relationship between magic and scepticism;

Why doctors would recommend complementary medicine;

How to foster student engagement with science;

The media's portrayal and coverage of issues surrounding vaccines;

Why Charles Darwin is still considered dangerous.

The Skeptics will also present the annual Bent Spoon Award named after the infamous parlour trick of psychic showman Uri Geller for the most irresponsibly gullible statement in the media for the past 12 months.

This year it will be awarded telepathically to Detective Senior Sergeant Ross Levy for promoting psychics as "just another tool" in the investigative policing toolbox.

"What's next?" said Skeptics chair-entity Vicki Hyde. "Witness testimony from dreams and pre-emptive arrests on the basis of clairvoyant claims? New Zealand Police has had enough credibility problems in recent years without this sort of thing making them look really shonky."

Meanwhile Ms Hyde acknowledged UFO sightings have been a bit thin lately.

"One sad reason is because people don't look at the sky as much, because we live in bright cities.

"But these things go through fads. One year it is UFOs, the next it is strange creatures in the bush.

"We don't mind when it is people reading the tea leaves, but if they are taking money or power away from people there is potential for harm."

However, she admitted a large proportion of Skeptics believed there was a strong possibility of extra-terrestrial life.

"They're just not so confident about them coming here and teasing us."

Conference presenter Nathan Grange agreed.

"There is a very good probability of life existing on other planets somewhere.

"But the probability of those life forms coming here, abducting people and sticking probes up their bottoms is very low."

In the spirit of scepticism, the Times asked why we should believe anything the Skeptics tell us this weekend.

"You shouldn't," Ms Hyde said.

"You should think critically, in the same way that you should think about the claims of second hand car salesmen or people claiming to be able to speak to dearly departed."

Ms Hyde has now been Skeptics chair entity for 15 years. How is such a term possible in an organisation where members question everything, and casting doubt is a way of life?

"We don't tend to go through political headhunting," Ms Hyde said.

"It takes an odd range of skills to be chair, requiring a vast degree of tact and charm."

This is the third time the Skeptics have held their annual conference in Hamilton, and they have yet to find a taniwha lurking at every bend in the Waikato River.

"You have a strong farming community, and they are pretty practical people.

"That's not to say that you don't get the odd bit of paranormal nonsense such as bio-dynamic farming, but you're no worse than anywhere else."

However, during the weekend the Skeptics will also consider evidence that Waikato Diocesan School is haunted by two ghosts.


Waikato Times