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Skeptical Field Trips

Just in case you think that we skeptics sit inside our ivory towers being cynical and critical of others, we do occasionally get out to see what other people are doing. Here are some events I attended recently.

Young Scientist Awards

It gave me great pleasure to attend the award presentation for the Young Scientists of the Year, a project of the Science Teachers Association of NSW. I was there as a representative of Australian Skeptics (a sponsor of the awards) and had the honour of giving a very short speech about the relationship between skepticism and science. I also got to present the awards for the Year 7-9 group and to shake hands with a group of young folk who are almost certainly smarter than I am. The range of projects these kids have worked on over the last year is amazing. It is also encouraging to see that the love of science is being encouraged right down to kindergarten level. The range of interests, the enthusiasm of the students, the spread of winners across a broad range of both private and public schools all contribute to an optimism that both science education and science itself have a bright future in this country. There is always the complaint (and it is justified) that there is not enough science education to provide the scientists we will need in the future, but competitions like this one raise the profile of science education and hopefully encourage students to think that school isn't just about absorbing enough facts to pass exams but is also a place where you can learn to look for the answers yourself. That's what science is all about, after all.

Shonky Awards

Another thing I attended was the announcement of the Choice Shonky Awards. These are presented annually by Choice Magazine to products that they think fail to meet their high standards of usefulness or value for money. The six winners this year were:

  • Samsung, for a washing machine with a 4-star water efficiency rating according to a sticker on the front but which used 224 litres of water to wash a small load of clothes. This compares with the best machine tested by Choice which only used 37 litres.
  • Jetset Travelworld, for a possibly illegal condition in the fine print of their contracts which prevents people from claiming refunds for things promised, paid for but not delivered.
  • Nature's Way Kid's Smart Natural Medicines, for a collection of homeopathic preparations supposedly useful for the treatment of childhood illnesses. Some of these bottles contain homeopathic strychnine and arsenic, but as they are homeopathic there isn't really anything there except very expensive water. (At $2,000 per litre you wouldn't want to use this water in your Samsung washing machine!). I pointed out to the Choice people that as some of these bottles of nothing had homeopathic "X" dilutions of some things there might accidentally be a molecule or two of active ingredient in some bottles, but the principle remains. Nobody honest should be selling this stuff and no parents should be using it to treat anything that might be wrong with their kids. Choice have asked the ACCC to have a look at these products.
  • Ticketek/Ticketmaster, for slapping ridiculous surcharges on concert and event tickets (eg $5.20 if you print your own ticket at home or $7.50 to collect it at the venue). Plus a credit card charge as well, although you can't pay them any other way.
  • Toblerone, for making chocolate bars that can't be evenly split into the serving sizes specified on the packs.
  • Cabcharge, for their excessive surcharge for paying by credit card. They charge 10%, the banks charge them about 1%.
  • Liquipel, an invisible, nanoparticle coating that costs $99 and is supposed to protect your mobile phone from water. It works about as well as you can see it, which is not at all. In at least one experiment sacrificing a couple of iPhones the treated one actually suffered worse than the one without the $99 protection. I was wondering if there was a premium version of the treatment that not only kept the rain and bathwater out but also protected the user against the brain-frying radiation as well, but there was no mention of this.

MindBodySpirit Festival

To save everyone else the pain I went to the Sydney MindBodySpirit Festival on Friday, November 9. I've been going to these things for some years and they are always great fun as long as you stay away from the medical quackery. That seems to be reducing over time and most of the ones still there are the sort which are harmless (unless they discourage people with real illnesses from getting proper treatment) and are so transparently nonsense that surely most people must just see them as a form of entertainment, in the same way that many people get pleasure from a little gambling. (I won Lotto a couple of weeks ago. As you might gather from the fact that I'm here typing and not picking out fittings for a yacht, it was not a big win. First prize was in excess of $100 million and was split between four winners. My share of the pool was $20.10, which was enough for a t-bone steak and chips plus a small beer at my local pub.)

The homeopaths and iridologists seem to have disappeared and I only saw one chiropractor. I like there to be two chiropractors so I can go to both and be told that I put more weight on one foot than the other. In my youth I spent a lot of time ballroom dancing and riding a surfboard and I can still move my weight from one foot to the other without moving the top of my body. Whichever foot bears the most I am always told that I have something severely wrong and I need to book in for 1, 2, 42, 438 or eleventy-nine treatments to get it all fixed. None of them have ever noticed that I have Type 2 diabetes. There were Reiki practitioners, reflexologists and stands offering various forms of massage, but who hasn't felt better after a relaxing lie down with someone gently fiddling with parts of their body?

There were a few religious groups there. The Church of Scientology are now honest and not calling themselves Dianetics like they did in the past. The Salvation Army had a stand but I didn't get a chance to ask them about the Christocentric Healing people who were immediately behind them. At least the Christocentric people didn't have the man with long hair and a beard dressed in flowing robes like Jesus and the great big cross that they have had in prior years. Even my atheist friends were offended by that. I spent some time talking to some Christians who offer free prayer with passers-by. They asked if I wanted to pray with them and when I said that I am an atheist they lady quick as a flash said "Well, can we pray for you?" and smiled. These folk are relatively harmless and, like the Salvation Army, were just doing what they believe Jesus asked them to do. I didn't challenge them on their views on evolution, abortion or the child abuse scandal swirling around some churches because I didn't have all day and as they weren't there to address any of those issues it would have been impolite to bring them up. Picking fights for no good reason doesn't advantage anyone.

The usual range of stands selling food and beverages was there. Most of it had "organic" in big letters, but there were few claims of wondrous results from eating or drinking the stuff on display. I think I saw only one miracle weight-loss food, but the rest just make vague claims about wellness in the same way that, for example, yoghurt makers hint at the benefits of eating live bacteria. There were at least two organic winemakers there. I've tasted their products in the past and they are good wines and I don't care if they talk to the vines, do their pruning by the stars or tickle individual grapes with a paintbrush as long as the end product is acceptable. I've heard crazy stuff from conventional winemakers too, and Australia's most expensive wine is bought because of the label and nobody ever drinks it. I did miss the hot chilli sauce people who have been there in previous years, and I noticed that the Mayan coffee people were missing. Probably thought they wouldn't be able to fill all the orders before December 21. (Serious note – last time I was there the Mayan coffee people were next to a stand warning about the coming end of the world. The Mayans did not seem concerned.)

The number of stands selling clothing was down from previous years. I usually picked up something that was difficult to buy in mainstream shops, generally because of the type of fibre used, but perhaps the market isn't big enough now to justify bringing stock to Sydney and paying for and manning a stall for four days. It could be that the number of ancient hippies that go to the festival is falling off, maybe because the retirement homes get paid more to bus residents to the casino than they get for a trip to the festival.

As expected there was no shortage of stands offering psychic readings, aura photographs, sketches of personal angels as well as books, crystals and devices to allow one to connect to one's inner self. These are forms of voluntary taxation and without them there would be no point to the festival. A couple that I missed from previous years were the gong bath, where the credit card owner sits near a big brass gong and gets washed with sound waves when the man from J. Arthur Rank gets to work, and the American Indian teepee which offered the advantages to be gained from sitting inside a teepee. These advantages were never fully explained, but probably did not include being invaded and having your land stolen. I would have been more impressed if they had included a bison burger in the entry fee.

Will I go back? Of course I will. It's a fun day out, any harm you do you do to yourself (or your bank account), there are interesting things to do and see, and you can be amazed at the sort of things that people will believe. I was disappointed that the man who was going to give a talk on Quantum Physics and the Supernatural Realm didn't turn up, but the excellent raspberry cake I had with a coffee made up for it, especially as I got a discount because I was wearing a media pass. Just don't tell anyone that the cake was gluten-free. I'd never live it down.

Copyright © 1998- Peter Bowditch

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