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Stardate 10.014

Ascent out of Darkness ~ Armchair Philosophy from the 'Silly Beliefs' Team


Crop Circles
Crop Circles Recently I've been asked my view on crop circles and Freddy Silva's book Secrets in the Fields, who comes across as a typical conspiracy theorist and someone well versed in pseudoscience.

According to comments by Silva, one minute the crop circles contain 'elements expressing fourth dimensional processes in quantum physics', then they're 'sacred sites and holy spaces', then he states that 'plants are swirled in mathematical proportions relative to the Golden Mean, the vortex used by nature to create organisms such as shells and sunflowers'. We're told that 'it is not unusual for people to experience heightened states of awareness and healings in crop circles'. Not only that, he tells us that 'Mathematically, genuine crop circles have yielded five new mathematical theorems' and that 'They are also encoded with sacred geometry'. We're also informed that the confession by two men called Doug and Dave that they had created many of the early crop circles was 'entirely fabricated' by the British Military.

Whether you have an interest in quantum physics, sacred sites and holy spaces, new mathematical theorems, alternative healing or government conspiracies, it seems there's something in crop circles for everyone.

Quite frankly I don't understand why a few people — and it is very few people — see something mysterious in these crop circles. Even our TV news producers who show us all manner of silly, trivial crap can't be bothered to show us these crop circles anymore. If these things were real they would be leading the nightly news and on the cover of Scientific American, you wouldn't have to go to obscure websites pushing all manner of rubbish and conspiracy theories to learn about them.

Their argument that man couldn't have made these things is ridiculous. Why do these idiots accept that simple man can make supercomputers, electron microscopes, particle accelerators, space shuttles, land probes on numerous planets and re-engineer our genes, but when it comes to trampling stalks in a field of maize, oh no, that's beyond man's capability. What do these people think when they see a 747 fly overhead or find a cell phone on the ground? Do they scream, 'It must be aliens or some aggrieved forest spirit trying to communicate with us'?

People have been filmed making these crop circles and several organisations have created their logo as crop circles for TV and magazine advertising. There is no doubt that man can make these things, but these idiots seem to believe that if we don't actually see them being made, then that means that these crop circles can't be man-made. So naïve. I've never seen a soufflé being made, nor do I know exactly how they're made, but that doesn't mean I attribute all complicated desserts to aliens.

According to believers, the beings or whatever that make these circles possess advanced knowledge and powers or technology and are desperately trying to give us a message or warning. Yet rather than do just that, they waste time playing in cornfields while we sleep. Are we to believe that their only advanced technology is limited solely to bending cereal stalks during the hours of darkness? They seem to have no understanding of the written or spoken language that the people they're trying to communicate with actually use. Nor to the damage they're doing to the farmer's crop. Why can't they just forget the bloody enigmatic crop circles and just send us an email? If they don't understand computers, why not just scratch out a message in the sand, even kids are capable of that. But no, these 'beings' that are making the circles go to extreme lengths to avoid detection and refuse to communicate anything meaningful, unless to them the most meaningful thing in the universe is pretty patterns in cornfields. These beings, rather than being superior to us, appear to be little more advanced than a two-year-old with crayons. However I would agree that the men and women who do make the crop circles are intellectually far in advance of those that believe humans are incapable of making patterns in crops.

The real people making crop circles don't want us to see them for the same reason that magicians don't want us to see them hiding cards up their sleeves, it ruins the effect of the trick. And believers in other-worldly makers of crop circles are no different than naïve people who believe magicians really can cut people in half and then restore them.

Instead of claiming that aliens are advertising their arrival or tree spirits are communicating sacred geometry these people need to get off their PCs and cell phones and come up with some evidence. How hard can it be? Scientists can detect quarks and neutrinos, and yet crop circle believers can't even detect people tramping around in a field. Let's remember that most believers agree that some, if not most, of the crop circles are fake, and yet they can't even detect the fake ones being made.

Unless believers can front up with evidence that there is truly something weird going on with crop circles, then we should give them no more credence than those that claim that missing keys are due to gremlins. Admittedly there may be a natural cause to small, simple crop circles, but believers have long ago moved on from these plain circles, and have embraced geometric patterns that are getting progressively more complex each year. If anything, the simple crop circles that started it all are an embarrassment, too primitive and amateurish for the beings that they believe are creating the modern ones.

And the common ploy of believers challenging skeptics to prove crop circles aren't real is just being lazy, but it's typical of all flaky beliefs. Like how psychics refuse to prove their claims, and merely reply, 'You prove we aren't psychic'. That's not how the search for truth works.

Posted by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 04 Aug, 2009 ~ Add a Comment     Send to a Friend

Trial by jury — a good idea?
Considering recent events, in this post I want to have a look at juries. Are they really a good idea? Do they deliver justice?

Talking to an elderly woman yesterday, mention was made of the recent trial of Clayton Weatherston, now found guilty of the murder of Sophie Elliot, his ex-girlfriend. Once again I listened to someone express the contention that the trial was a waste of time and money, since everyone could clearly see he was guilty, after all, he was found standing over the body and admitted to the attending policeman that he had killed her. This woman was also annoyed that Weatherston was allowed to put his side of the event to the court, and was especially aggrieved that he was permitted to talk about Sophie's sexual behaviour and history. She believed that his testimony made Sophie sound like a prostitute, and that her family should not be exposed to her killer making up disgusting stories about their sweet, innocent daughter.

Starting with the last item first, this elderly woman confuses the courts with the media. We can't allow the courts to suppress what might be crucial information just because the victim's family, jurors or members of the public might find it uncomfortable listening to the details. Does it not seem a little Victorian to suppress details of perfectly legal and natural sexual encounters and yet detail the actual murder in graphic detail? We must also remember that it wasn't our justice system that told this elderly woman about Elliot's promiscuity, it was the media. The media love sensational trials like this, since if they market them correctly they will bring in a huge audience, all desperately wanting to hear the latest sordid details. Consider the hundreds of other trials going on at the same time as the Weatherston trial, such as the Taito Phillip Field corruption and bribery trial, of which we've heard almost nothing. This woman seems to believe that protecting the reputation of the victim and her family is more important than presenting all relevant information and ensuring a fair trial. Even though it was the media that told the public about Elliot's sexual history, if possible, this woman would have the law changed to prevent this sort of embarrassing testimony being presented in court.

These attitudes frankly scare me. Too many people would happily throw out our justice system and decide someone's guilt or innocence based solely on what they think happened. They would decide this from what snippets they've heard on the news, what gossip they've heard, and especially what the accused looks and acts like. Don't get me wrong, I believe the jury got it right, Weatherston is guilty of murder, and I also believed that this would be the outcome right from the start, but I also believe that people accused of crimes have the right to defend themselves. Even if the police and your old aunt believe them to be guilty, this guilt must be demonstrated in a trial. Even if it appears patently obvious to everyone that they are guilty, we must remember that what appears to be the case may not necessarily be so. The sun appears to rise and set each day, the world appears to be flat and magicians appear to cut people in half. For example, the accused in a rape may be an arrogant, obnoxious, antisocial bastard with a string of convictions, and the victim might be a popular, intelligent young woman volunteering her time with the Salvation Army. It may appear obvious, especially to the woman's family, that this young woman would have had nothing to do with a character like this and thus rape would have been his only recourse for sex with her, but this doesn't mean we can forgo a trial and just lock the bastard up. Unfortunately there have been too many instances where women have falsely accused specific men of rape, or simply claimed persons unknown have raped them, causing the police to suspect numerous innocent men. Likewise there have been false accusations of assault, kidnapping, theft etc resulting in people being arrested and charged with crimes that never happened. Accused people must be allowed to defend themselves in court, and be given the same opportunities and resources as those prosecuting them. Just because we don't like them personally, or because circumstantial evidence shows them in a negative light, they must still be allowed a fair opportunity to state their defence. This is what justice means.

We can not go around locking people up just because they look as though they are guilty. With the advent of DNA profiling US prisons are now releasing prisoners in worrying numbers, especially African-Americans, that were wrongly imprisoned. Too often it seems that racial prejudice put these innocent men in prison and on death row simply because police, lawyers and juries were swayed by what they thought most likely happened, rather than what really happened. They were more likely to believe that a black man would have raped a white woman or held up a liquor store than a good, upstanding white guy.

It would be an extremely backward step if people were to decide someone's guilt based on a gut feeling, gossip and ingrained prejudices. I say backward because for much of history this was often how verdicts were reached. People of different religious beliefs, ethnicity, skin colour, social class, tribe etc were often found guilty based solely on this difference, not on any real evidence that they actually committed the crime. While our present justice system certainly isn't perfect, it is the best we've ever had. We can not revert back to a system where emotion, suspicion of people different from us and pure ignorance guides the outcome of a trial. Of course it might be argued that regardless how many of the general public think that Weatherston's trial was a waste of taxpayers' money and that we should have just locked him up immediately, these people don't run our courts. True, but unfortunately they do help make up our juries.

Regarding the composition of juries, I heard a quote from a comedian on the radio recently who said, 'You put your future in the hands of 12 men and women who weren't even smart enough to get out of jury duty.' Unfortunately there's a lot of truth to that joke. Ideally a jury would be made up from a cross-section of society, but as the joke suggests, anyone smart enough to get a good job normally has a valid reason to excuse themselves from jury duty. Often only those that are doing mundane, low skilled, nonessential work front up for jury duty.

A surgeon can't be expected to cancel three weeks of operations, a university lecturer can't omit three weeks of crucial lectures, a manager can't close his business and send fifty workers home for three weeks, an electrician with only one apprentice can't allow him to work alone for three weeks. Even a one-person business can't afford to shut their business for three weeks and lose crucial income and valuable customers. I'm sure there are some highly educated and/or intelligent people serving on our juries, especially retired people, but while many may wish they could serve on a jury, most simply can't spare the time. The sad fact is that if you are intelligent and resourceful enough to secure yourself a valuable career, you are normally too valuable to be released for jury duty. If you lack intelligence, education, drive or curiosity then you will normally be working at a career where one of your co-workers can easily take over your duties during your absence, or you'll be unemployed. Unfortunately a lack of intelligence, education, drive or curiosity are not attributes that lend themselves to evaluating evidence and argument in what can be a complex trial.

It could also be argued that there are normally always at least one or two intelligent people on every jury that are able to understand the arguments and who can inform and guide the other jurors during deliberation. But a jury is supposed to be 12 different people who can all understand the trial, not one or two. If these one or two jurors are simply telling the others how to vote then the others might as well not be there. It's supposed to be 12 independently considered votes, not 2 considered votes and 10 sheep. This unfortunately is a proven aspect of many juries. One or two strong personalities in a jury can control the rest. You may have seen some of those recent TV shows where they got a fake jury to rehear all the evidence from some of our more famous and controversial trials, and filmed them as they deliberated to see if they reached the same verdict as the real jury did. In every episode there was always outspoken jurors and at least half of the jurors never voiced a single opinion. The views of a few jurors controlled every jury. They sometimes obsessed over minor points while missing crucial elements, and sometimes completely mislead their fellow jurors. In the episode of the Peter Ellis and the Christchurch Civic Crèche trial, some jurors couldn't understand what motive Ellis would have to sexually abuse little children. One of the outspoken jurors replied, 'You have to remember that he was a homosexual'. This one statement swung the doubting jurors back to considering a guilty verdict. It's true that Ellis was homosexual, but the jurors were wrong in thinking that this explained the alleged abuse. Homosexuals are sexually attracted to other adults of the same sex, not to young children of either sex. The jurors confused a homosexual with a pedophile. This mistaken claim made by a controlling juror, either through ignorance or homophobia, influenced the entire jury. A recent trial in Australia had to be squashed when half the jury was discovered to be playing Sudoku rather than listening to the trial. These jurors were obviously relying on a few members of the jury to pay attention and reach a verdict, and they would just vote as the majority voted. Should we just keep our fingers crossed that a minority of the jury understand the trial evidence and choose the correct verdict?

Unlike winning Lotto, most people see jury duty as a negative thing, and either explain how they're going to get out of it or complain that they can't avoid it. The elderly woman I mentioned above told me she was recently chosen for jury duty, but said she was thankfully able to decline due to ill health. Most people see jury duty almost as a punishment rather than a service to society.

On hearing the initial details of a crime people often immediately decide the accused is guilty. Henceforth, in their view, any further research and debate is a waste of time and money. We know they're guilty, let's just lock them up and get on with more important things. Can we have any confidence that eventual members of the jury won't also have a strongly held opinion? Remember that potential jurors have all heard about the crime on the news many times before they get requested for jury duty. Being exposed to all this information, some of it no doubt false, can they set it and any opinions aside and listen to the evidence objectively? Having listened to peoples' views on the Weatherston and David Bain trials, I suspect many could not. Even if they do want to honestly evaluate the evidence, many do not understand points of law, such as the difference between not guilty and innocent, or what 'beyond reasonable doubt' means. Many have a poor knowledge of science and hatred of maths, so DNA profiling talk of genomes and probabilities might as well be in foreign language. Many can't balance their chequebook or set the clock on their VCR, yet they are asked to judge complex cases involving financial fraud and computer hacking.

And what happens when jurors can't grasp the arguments from expert witnesses or decide between opposing views? Judges tell them that they must reject them completely, acting as if there was no expert testimony presented. They must not accept evidence if they don't fully understand it. So where does that leave the juror, if he or she ignores the entire complex scientific, medical, financial and legal evidence presented simply because they couldn't understand it? Are they deciding someone's guilt based on a gut feeling and the sensational, simple elements of the trial that they could grasp? Is a jury just a group that decides someone's fate with the toss of a coin?

Juries are a good idea, but since the very people that should serve on them don't, they might just be an illusion of true justice. If our juries were made up of educated, intelligent, well-informed people that were trained to analyse arguments, then I think they would be the ideal jury. Unfortunately they're not. They are often made up of people who lack the intellect and skills to evaluate the evidence, who are prejudiced against certain members of society, who reached their verdict before the trial even started, or consciously or otherwise, simply accept the verdict proffered by other influential jurors.

Posted by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 25 Jul, 2009 ~ Add a Comment     Send to a Friend


  1. Comment by Bob, 26 Jul, 2009

    I agree with the first part of your blog. I was concerned to hear that mention of provocation might be disallowed in murder trials. Surely an accused has a right to have every piece of evidence and every possibility put to a jury. Just because in this case the defendent tried to excuse his actions by destroying the reputation of the victim doesn't mean the victim should never be criticised in any murder case. I have never believed in shutting anybody up. I think people tend to hang themselves by their own mouths. A guilty verdict was probably brought on more by what Weatherston said and the way he said it with body language than by the actual evidence. As distasteful as it is court cases are public and privacy goes out the window.

    I don't agree with your comments on juries. I got out of several jury calls because I worked for myself and couldn't afford not to be there for my customers. I went on one jury when I was working and since retiring I have been on another. First you can't assume people making up a jury are mediocre in intelligence. Smartness and intelligence are not the only requisites for jury service. Common sense and a good all round experience of life are just as important. For instance if a teenager is charged with a crime would the CEO of Telecom judge him better than an average mum bringing up three teenagers? Certainly in a case involving say business fraud the average person might not be able to understand the technicalities. In such a case perhaps a jury of accountants might be justified. Remember also juries are selected with defence and prosecutors allowed to reject names. That gives them some chance of matching jurors to the case. I do sometimes wonder how jurors manage to remember details after say six weeks of hearing evidence. What did that witness say on Tuesday morning four weeks ago?

    You can't beat human nature. People are not all the same. Some members of a jury will be overbearing. Some will be shy and afraid to push in. I have no doubt some will get annoyed when others don't agree with them. However twelve people is a lot and the sum total of their opinions is the best we can get. I am in favour of judge only trials when the accused agrees. A judge won't be influenced by the antics of a persuasive defence lawyer to the extent a jury might. A judge will see through the tricks.

    The last point is people making up their minds even before the trial begins. The judge goes to great lengths to get the jury to put all it's preconceptions out of mind and to ignore everything learned through the media. They are told to forget it all and just listen to the evidence in court. There have been suggestions that jury service should be a career as regular jurors would get to know the routine. They would not be so shocked by nasty evidence such as disturbing photos and would be less prone to emotional responses.

    The system is not perfect but seems to be the best we have.

  2. Comment by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 28 Jul, 2009

    Hey Bob, thanks for your input. Always interesting to consider these things, especially from a real juror and not just newspapers and TV court drama shows. Here are some more of my thoughts, sorry about the length.

    You mention the CEO of Telecom and an average mum bringing up three teenagers, and state that 'common sense and life experience' as well as 'smartness and intelligence' are essential attributes for jurors to possess. I agree. My point is that we need a cross section of society, both CEOs and average mums on juries, not just average mums. In reality we seem to be getting more of the benefit of the average mum's life experience, and not the CEOs. Since our juries largely lack the 'life experience' of CEO's, are all our verdicts being influenced solely by the 'life experience' of average mums? If different 'life experiences' are really needed, from both mums and CEOs, then our present narrow jury composition is a failure. However, if it's argued that the correct verdicts can still be reached without the benefit of the 'life experience' of CEOs, then obviously different life experiences are immaterial, it's just down to intelligence. Since we both agree that jurors need intelligence as well as different life experiences, then I suggest that we need a wider cross section of jurors than we presently seem to be getting.

    I agree that the jury system seems to be the best way of judging trials, but is it really? Could it be made better? Should we be scientifically testing the notion that juries deliver reliable justice, rather than just assuming they do?

    Why do we have 12 jurors and not just one? It's to prevent any independent bias that a single juror might have. But if the majority of jurors all come from the same social class, with a similar education level, who watch the same TV shows and read the same magazines, then we're only getting the life experiences of a small strata of society. Ideally we need a wide variety of jurors, and each should consider their verdict independently, rather than be influenced by other jurors, to see if they all reach the same conclusion, based on what the lawyers, witnesses and experts told them, not their fellow jurors. Of course it can also be argued that a better decision can reached by discussion and jurors reaching a consensus. Perhaps you could combine these two choices. Keep the jurors separate during the trial and canvas them independently for their verdict, for their personal view as to what they think the evidence and arguments mean — guilty or not guilty? This would demonstrate whether the lawyers were successful in presenting a convincing case to the majority of jurors. Then all jurors could get together and discuss the case as they do now, and see whether the verdict changes and if any juror changes their mind. It's been suggested (eg by Richard Dawkins in his book 'A Devil's Chaplain') that we research whether our modern juries really are reliably reaching the correct verdict. We could have 2 independent juries watch each trial, or maybe 2 independent juries of 6 jurors or maybe 3 juries of 4 people. Do they all reach the same verdict for the same reasons? We could also have a panel of 2 or 3 judges watch these trials and see how their verdicts compare to the juries. This testing would be expensive, but perhaps we should know whether justice is best delivered by juries of laypeople or by juries of experts. There are many examples of where scientific testing demonstrated that what we thought was common sense was in fact wrong.

    Historically juries were 'an important protection against judicial and administrative tyranny', but I suspect we have better safeguards these days than insisting that laypeople have the final say on legal trials. Should the final checks on surgery, bridge building and space shuttle construction be performed by laypeople as well? Why don't we insist that every parliamentary debate goes before a jury? Why can MPs make the final decision but judges can't? Why do we trust MPs, even though they may have little or no experience and no qualifications whatsoever, and not judges that have impressive qualifications and years of experience? In many jury trials judges can spend hours at the completion of all evidence basically recounting the entire trial, explaining what the jury must focus on, what they must ignore, and almost instructing the jury how they should vote. This demonstrates that judges have little confidence that without clear instructions juries might not deliver the correct verdict. One can assume that juries are delivering the verdict that judges themselves would more often than not deliver. So if judges are entirely capable of reaching the correct verdict, usually before the jury does, why do we need the expense of a jury? Are we saying we can't trust our judges, remembering that judges, and not juries, decide many trials?

    Personally, if we must have juries, I like your suggestion that jury duty should be career. We live in an advanced society, underpinned by complex science and technology, not to mention law, thus many of our trials are also becoming very complex.

    Professional jurors would be trained in analysing arguments and have a broad knowledge of the law, science, medicine, psychology, ethics, commerce, history etc. I don't mean that they need to have degrees or be lawyers or scientists or doctors, but that they have a sufficient grasp of the basics that they can understand and evaluate the explanations and arguments put to them by lawyers, judges and expert witnesses. It is the responsibility of the lawyer or the expert witness to present the argument or evidence, the juror only needs to be able to decide whether they present a convincing case. They don't need the knowledge and skills to develop the legal arguments or perform the scientific research, just the knowledge and skills to evaluate the claims. And like our present jurors, some would have knowledge and experience that the others lack, which would increase the likelihood that someone on the jury could help the others understand certain evidence presented during the trial. While this no doubt happens now, these other professional jurors would be better able to evaluate this new information, rather than just blindly accepting it with the statement, 'I'll have to take your word for it, I know nothing about science.' As for the cost of professional jurors, what price do we put on justice, or should we just continue to force laypeople to judge our legal cases because we can pay them a pittance?

    When I want people to analyse my medical scans, tax returns, building plans or computer code, I select people that have expertise in these fields. Yet when I want people to analyse my defence to serious criminal charges, I pick 12 people at random from the electoral roll. Is this really rational?

    In NZ, as you say, potential jurors can be rejected by their names alone, or perhaps appearance. You say that this allows them to match jurors to the case. But why do they initially select potential jurors randomly if lawyers are then permitted to attempt to circumvent this during jury selection? Isn't this stacking the jury to help give a desired result? Some say they don't want a jury that might be biased towards the accused, but wouldn't random selection be the best way to achieve this? They say they struggle to get jurors, but we can't even volunteer to be a juror. And frankly I wonder just how random their jury selection is. You've been picked 5 or 6 times, my cousin, a second hand car salesman, has been asked 2 or 3 times, a receptionist friend has been asked 2 or 3 times, and yet I've never been asked. Comparing it to Lotto, I don't find it surprising that I haven't won, but I would be suspicious if you had won the jackpot 5 or 6 times.

    You mention instructions from the judge regarding prior knowledge, beliefs and prejudices. I think it is naïve on the part of the court system to think that jurors can set aside deeply held beliefs and 'forget' what they've read and heard in the media just because the judge instructs them to. It's like an unfaithful husband saying to his wife, 'Look, let's just forget I cheated on you with your sister, and your best friend, and my secretary, and carry on as before.' It's not going to be forgotten, no matter how much the wife says it is. No homophobe is going to say, 'For this trial I will forget that homosexuals disgust me'. Of course I understand what the judge is trying to achieve by this instruction, that you should accept that what you might have heard or believed might be false. But no one is going to 'forget' this prior knowledge for the duration of the trial, and it will, willingly or not, be compared with the trial evidence. The real test is whether you can reject this prior knowledge if the trial evidence proves or suggests it was false. As you say Bob, 'You can't beat human nature', and I guess we all know people that wouldn't change their views on certain things no matter how long the judge lectured them, or what evidence was produced. And why confine ourselves to juries, if prejudices could be so easily eliminated, on the TV news we should just instruct everyone to set aside their prejudices and improve society overnight.

    Like you, no doubt, I have discussed all manner of topics with family, friends and associates, topics as varied as criminal trials, genetic engineering, abortion, homosexuality, religion, racism, life on other planets and whether a TV newsreader should be paid more than the prime minister. I have encountered views at both ends of a spectrum, and while some were open to considering alternative views, many were not. Their views and prejudices were set in concrete, and no manner of rational debate or new evidence would shake them. Who hasn't at one time or another, when listening to someone's strong opinion, hasn't thought, 'Geez, I wouldn't want you on my jury'. No amount of discussion or exposure to high paid lawyers would change their views. And these people belong to the pool that our juries are drawn from.

    I'd like to think I wasn't one of those people, and that I would change my mind on anything if I was presented with good evidence and reasons. However I can think of examples where I wouldn't set aside my prior beliefs as the judge instructed.

    How would I behave if I imagine myself on a jury where the murder accused claimed he had killed because God told him to? The judge tells us to set aside our prior beliefs — in my case, that God doesn't exist — and reach a verdict based on the provided evidence. I suspect that any attempt by the defence to get us to consider that perhaps God really did speak to this man would be completely rejected by me. However, if neither the defence nor the prosecution presented any good evidence that God does or does not exist, then ideally I should be of the view that God might exist and therefore might have spoken to the accused. If they are ambivalent about God then I also should be according to the judge. However I believe I wouldn't reach this conclusion. I would simply think that the prosecution failed in presenting all the available evidence that I know exists. I would let my prior knowledge override what I heard in court. I would think I have good reasons to reject what the lawyers are telling me, and so I can easily understand why others also feel that they can ignore the judge and go with what they had known prior to the trial. They might think they had good reasons to believe all Muslims are terrorists or that homosexuals are abhorrent. Whether they really had good reasons to believe these things is immaterial. They would believe they are right and that's all that matters. The judge would be ignored.

    I just fear that our jury selection, while they canvas all society, can end up being made up of a small section of society. We simply aren't getting the benefit of that full range of life experience that you mentioned. And why should a small proportion of society, often low income, that are typically forced to serve on juries, carry the responsibility of delivering justice? Why should those that continually shun jury service benefit from the sacrifice of others, but not have to play their part? Shouldn't justice be something to which everyone contributes? Jurors get paid, but often way below their normal salary. Perhaps those that refuse jury duty could be made to make up the difference as their contribution to justice?

    Also I'm not convinced that in our advanced society juries are necessarily still the best option. I'd like to see the following demonstrated:

    • Do juries really consistently deliver correct verdicts? (If not, then they are failing us)
    • Do typical juries, often narrowly selected, perform just as well as juries comprised of a true cross section of society? (If not, then we need to make jury duty compulsory)
    • Are juries better than a judge or panel of judges? (If they're only equal, then they are merely an unneeded duplication, performing the task the judge has probably already done)
    • Are juries of laypeople picked at random better than professionals trained to be jurors? (If not, then we are getting inferior service while disrupting the lives of those forced to serve on juries)
  3. Comment by Phill, 01 Aug, 2010

    I agree with your elderly woman to a point. In his desperate attempt to escape his crime Weatherston trashed the name of his victim, to her family it must have been like having her murdered all over again. Perhaps more importantly there was no one there who could challenge these claims, keeping in mind that prosecutors are not there to represent victims but to prosecute the accused. Now I agree that the accused has a right to defend themselves. But often our system of justice provides little if any protection to the victims. I have been told that the French system of Justice, can allow lawyers (in some occasions?) to be appointed to represent the victim (or victims). I have often wondered how Clayton or even David Bain would have fared if there had been another representative present challenging some of the claims that were made in both cases.

    Over the years I have given a lot of thought to justice systems. I have wondered if the European Inquisitorial system might not be better suited to our modern age. Where the aim of the court is to ascertain the truth of what happened and perhaps better able to use and accommodate modern forensics and technologies now an even greater part of our Justice system. Rather than our more staid system where twelve citizens have to test two arguments often faced with a huge amount of information which must be very difficult to comprehend let alone use to test the two arguments for and against. The trouble is there is no perfect solutions. The Inquisitorial system has many advantages, yet it is also the favored system of any Tyrannical dictatorship, mistakes can still happen, miscarriages of justice can still occur.

    The jury system does carry certain advantages. At the time of the Weatherston trial I recall talking to friends and colleagues who were more knowledgeable on the defense of provocation. They pointed out to me that under our system this defense could have worked, that had the trial been before a judge alone he or she may have been forced to go by the legal requirements and either acquit or more likely reduce the charge to a lesser one (such as manslaughter). A jury on the other hand can throw that all out the window and go for a straight conviction legal niceties be damned. It is its greatest strength, but also its greatest flaw.

  4. Comment by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 02 Aug, 2010

    You're right. As good as our justice system is, it's still not perfect. My biggest gripe with our system of trials is its adversarial nature, where the lawyer's goal is to fight not for justice, but for his client. The side that presents the best arguments wins. We've all heard of cases where the prosecution fails and the accused is released, even though we later learn that he had confessed his guilt to his defence lawyer in private. If either side omits to present important arguments or evidence, or fails to recognise flawed arguments, then incorrect verdicts can be reached, and they stand. Technically it's not about reaching the truth, it's about who presents the best arguments and speeches to the jury during the trial. Like Pop Idol, it's about which lawyer gives the best performance on the day, and who the audience or jury takes a shine to.

    For justice to be served we all hope that the best arguments and the best evidence and intelligent juries will always end up on the side of truth, but unfortunately this doesn't have to be. Defence lawyers have mounted cases knowing full well that their client is guilty, and seemingly feel no remorse when he is released, putting the blame on to their opponents' incompetence and inferior prosecution. They feel no compulsion to reveal what they know, and no doubt consider it a great triumph to not only win their case, but to succeed in the extra challenge of getting a guilty client to be found not guilty. They would argue that it is not about the truth, but about the prosecution being unable to 'prove beyond reasonable doubt' that their client is guilty. It is not their job to help the prosecution prove their case, even though they know that the prosecution have truth on their side. If the prosecution fails to convict a guilty man, it is they that have failed, not the defence who have failed to uphold true justice by knowingly letting a guilty man go free.

    Of course lawyers must give clients, even those that they believe or know are guilty, the best defence that they can. Even the guilty must be treated fairly and receive a just sentence, not just thrown to the wolves. However it would be nice if there was some constraint on lawyers preventing them from knowingly promoting falsehoods and subverting true justice. I think there are now laws where the defence and prosecution have to reveal to each other the evidence and witnesses, experts etc that they will be presenting, but you never get the impression that lawyers are searching for the truth, rather that they are searching for a win. Thus they do nothing to help the opposing team even if this would result in true justice, in the jury reaching a just verdict, and the truth being reached. I guess that's what appeals are for, to right the wrongs of an incompetent trial, but wouldn't it be simpler and fairer if they got it right the first time?

    But I know very little about the law, and have never served on a jury, so I'm sure there are good reasons why our trial system works this way, and while not perfect, it is perhaps the best we can hope for. Still, many lawyers give me little confidence that they really care about justice.

  5. Comment by Phill, 01 Aug, 2010

    Hi John, just a couple of points.

    First - I could be wrong, after all I am basing this on an old tv series (albeit one written by a lawyer who one suspects should know!) and I have not had the chance of confirming it with a genuine legal hack. But my understanding is that under the rules if a client tells a lawyer that he actually committed the crime then the lawyer is obliged to advise the client to plead guilty or to take on another lawyer. Now I should think that most defence lawyers are very good at ensuring that their clients never make such an admission to them.

    For instance Bungay noted in his book that he did not spend a lot of time talking to his clients, he had juniors for that purpose, and even Comeskey if the news papers are to be believed, does / did not spend a lot of time with his clients; either in an interview room or even in court - that's what junior council are for.

    I have no doubt that many defence lawyers will go into court with few doubts about guilt or innocence of the client. Many may genuinely believe that the client committed a crime but perhaps not with what he or she has been charged with (for instance that it should be manslaughter not murder).

    This is after all the very hypocrisy of our legal system in action. The fight to win, in America you have instances of Prosecution council taking a case to court knowing that the accused is actually innocent. Even in New Zealand there are some cases where you wonder why a prosecution was pursued. Which is why part of me likes the inquisitorial model where the court seeks to know what happened. I've always felt that in this country we have Coroner's courts but do not use them to best advantage. For instance I would argue that before any murder trial, there should be a Coroner's trial to test all the available evidence. I reckon this would be much better value than the current deposition's hearings. The job of the Coroner is to after all determine how someone died and not to prove a case.

    Secondly the joy of jury's

    Like you I've never served on one - but they have a long and interesting history. They were originally part of the medieval legal process. Each village often had a jury that would meet at regular times to deal with the village's legal issues. Mostly it would deal with what we would consider today civil matters - boundary disputes and so forth. It could and did also deal with criminal matters. Unlike a modern jury these jury's also acted as judges deciding on the appropriate compensation, or punishment.

    They were headed by the local Reeve who was the main official of the village (often the local lords man). On a side note - there were a scale of Reeves, the head Reeve in a region being the Shire Reeve (or Sheriff).

    You can immediately see the advantage of such a system. This kind of jury knew everyone involved. They would have known most peoples histories. So for instance if John the Miller's son bashed Steven the bog cleaner they would have known that Steven was a slimy git who'd been having it off with John's wife so the beating was probably justified. Or maybe they knew that John had been a drunken violent lout since he was eight and it was time to deal with the problem.

    It really was back then a jury of your peers. I'm still personally in a quandary on what I feel about the jury system. You keep hearing stories that due to programs like CSI et al., juries expect more and extensive forensics, but then you get studies done which suggest that this is all hogwash and that most people go into a jury with no preconceived ideas and genuinely want to do the best they can.

    It is a question I suspect you and I could debate endlessly and hopefully shall (don't mind me, I've got a birthday coming up and these days they just make me think of my mortality.)

    I have always thought very highly of your site, and hope you will long continue to shine the light of reason on an increasingly unreasonable world.

  6. Comment by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 09 Aug, 2010

    Hi Phill. Thanks for your encouraging comments regarding our website. Always nice to know that we're not a lone voice against a tide of irrational thought.

    None of us know any lawyers and most of our knowledge of the legal system comes from TV, often American shows whose system is slightly different to ours, so you could well be right that a lawyer on hearing a confession must advise his client to plead guilty or get another lawyer etc. However I take it that the client is not compelled to do this. Lawyers advising their clients not to tell them anything that might be confessional or incriminating, and conspiring to spend little time with their client so they don't accidentally discover anything negative, is to me little different from hiding from the truth. I'm imagining a lawyer running from the room shutting, 'No, no, no... shut up, shut up... I don't want to know the truth', as his client tries to reveal what happened on that fateful night. Can you imagine a scientist refusing to listen to compelling new evidence or arguments, or on accidentally overhearing them, say, 'Well, I'm still not going to let them influence my prior beliefs'.

    We're with you Phill, the responsibility of our courts should be to determine what happened, to determine the truth, and all parties — prosecution and defence — should be working towards that end. Isn't this what justice is about? Some definitions of justice are: conformity to moral rightness in action or attitude; the upholding of what is just; conformity to truth, fact, or sound reason.

    We hate to think that an innocent or guilty party didn't get justice because they couldn't afford the best lawyers or because of a legal technicality, and that some in the system know that true justice was not served, but hey, that's how the system works. The inquisitorial model that you mention sounds very interesting and we'll have to do some reading to discover its strengths and weaknesses.

    Your history of juries and the origin of sheriff (Shire Reeve) was fascinating, and your mention of stories that shows like CSI might influence juries does raise an interesting point. How do people's beliefs and what they view on semi-fictional TV shows carry over in the courtroom? Years ago I wrote the following letter to the local paper:

    Once again we have people who can find no fault with the outlandish testimonies or verdict in the Peter Ellis case. As surprising as this seems, when I look around me at friends and associates who can find no fault with stories of ghosts, alien abductions, healing crystals, astrology, religion, reincarnation etc., I realise that the problem is with the way we approach evidence in general. We just aren't taught how to think critically, how to separate fantasy from reality, with the result that many will happily embrace bogus beliefs, ignorant of the flaws in their reasoning. If we don't discourage people from believing silly things in their daily lives, we can't stop them from taking these beliefs into a courtroom. They will use the same thought processes to examine the trial evidence as they did when they accepted evidence for past life regression or homeopathy. How can you argue against "Satanic Ritual Abuse" occurring if you allow the jury to believe Satan actually exists?

    Peter Ellis may be guilty, ghosts may exist and aliens may be abducting ignorant rural folk, but the evidence for these conclusions does not exist.

    Personally I find it difficult to accept that a gullible, UFO spotting, Christian homoeopath can suddenly become rational and erudite on a jury. I'm sure they want to do a good job, but I'm not convinced that they're all as open-minded as they love to claim. I've met too many people, especially Christians, who have proclaimed, 'I know I'm right and nothing you or anyone else might say could change my mind'. I can't see them setting aside this unwillingness to even consider other views while on a jury, if the trial has anything to do with their personal beliefs.

    Ahhhhh... how I reminisce over the good old days when we could just dunk a witch in the village pond to determine her guilt, or cross examine her cat on the witness stand.

  7. Comment by Bob, 29 Aug, 2010

    I'd like to add a bit to what Phill says. I don't pretend to know much about the law. However I understand if a defence lawyer knows a client is guilty he can't plead innocence for his client. It is a matter of not lying to the court. It can be a fuzzy area because a confused client might admit to being guilty when in fact he is not. The lawyer is within his rights in talking him out of the admission and explaining the true position.

    In the case of an irrational pigheaded juror who is a pain in the jury room the foreman can approach the judge and have him replaced. This does happen for other reasons such as finding a juror knows the defendant or who is found to have talked to a witness.

  8. Comment by Duncan, 19 Mar, 2012

    Re Bob's comment, and your reply re common sense.

    Perhaps take another look at common sense (the sum total of our life experience?)...


    Perhaps then, we should (try) to discard common sense — in at least a practical sense — it is better science!

Earthquake! The gods are angry!
A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Southland on Wednesday night at around 9:20pm. To put this in context, the last 7.8 magnitude earthquake in NZ was the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake which devastated Napier and caused at least 256 deaths. Thankfully this recent event caused no loss of life, injuries or even any major damage it seems. I've experienced a few earthquakes and this was by far the worst. It was truly frightening and not something I wish to repeat. My new flat screen TV was wobbling gingerly back and forwards, and yet I considered it too risky to go over and cradle it. I was positioned in a door frame primed to dash outside if things suddenly started to come apart. A while later Radio NZ National then informed listeners that a tsunami warning had been issued, which did nothing to calm our nerves, since Invercargill is flat and on the coast.

It got me thinking about that old Christian assertion that, 'There are no atheists in foxholes'. Many Christians believe that if an atheist's life is threatened, he or she will drop to their knees and beg God to save them. Evidently we can only maintain our atheism when times are good, as soon as disaster strikes we will immediately cry out to their God, whom they maintain, we secretly knew existed all along. In hindsight I can once again say this is utterly false. During the earthquake, which was quite lengthy as earthquakes normally go, not once did my thoughts turn to wondering whether God might be able to help. And this is not the first time that my life has been threatened, and not once did I consider praying. I can also state that your life does not flash in front of your eyes. When threatened, the human mind does not shut the body down and start reminiscing about the good times. If anything, these disasters cause me to ask my religious friends the same question that many Jews asked each other in the Nazi death camps, 'Where is God?'.

Of course this brings up another point about God, if he did exist, why would he even want to help? Some Christian fundamentalists insist that there is nothing natural about 'natural' disasters and God actually initiates them all. You'll remember that Christian fundamentalists in the US proclaimed that Hurricane Katrina flooding New Orleans in 2005 was brought by God in response to the general wickedness of society, such as acceptance of homosexuality and premarital sex. Why only New Orleans was smitten was never explained. The same with the 2004 Asian Tsunami, more retribution from God against sinners. When disasters occur, fundamentalists of every stripe ask what they have done to justify God bringing this calamity upon them.

Having gone to all the bother of causing our earthquake, why would a tearful Christian on his knees begging, let alone an atheist, cause God to change his mind? What fact or observation could mere mortals make that God didn't already know and hadn't already considered? No prayer is going to cause God to respond, 'Gee, you're right, I hadn't thought about that. I'll stop the earthquake immediately. Sorry'. It always amazes me that religious types think they can point out flaws in God's plans and convince him to do things differently than he had planned to. Who do they think they're dealing with, some inexperienced pen pusher from the local council?

So what does our earthquake mean? It was the most powerful earthquake in the entire world so far this year, but since no one was harmed, was God just giving us a warning? Is he trying to get us to see the light before it's too late? But if it was a warning, and as our houses shook, why weren't we deafened by a booming voice shouting, 'Repent, Repent'? Why weren't we shown visions of disaster? And why would we be worthy of a warning rather than outright carnage? Does he not know I'm an atheist? Are there far less sinners in Southland than there were in Hawke's Bay in 1931, did this allow us to escape unscathed?

However a warning that hasn't obviously got God's stamp on it, that isn't recognised as a warning, is worthless. When mobsters firebomb your restaurant, even they are bright enough to make sure to let you know who is responsible. And even if we did detect a supernatural aspect to it, which god should we attribute the disaster to? Yahweh, Shiva, Allah or maybe Thor? God must obviously know that an atheist like myself is not going to view an earthquake as a warning from him. Nor is most of Southland's population to be honest, so unless God is exceptionally stupid, we can take it that the earthquake was not a warning from God. Or a failed attempt to kill people.

Of course many Christians agree that earthquakes and other disasters are perfectly natural and God has no hand in them. Yet they have a problem similar to the fundamentalists. If disasters are not caused by God, these Christians must wonder what they've done to justify God not intervening on their behalf, to save the lives and property of their loved ones? All Christians believe that God acts in the world. Some wonder why God deliberately killed their family in a disaster he caused, and others wonder why God deliberately chose not to save their family in a natural disaster. Fundamentalists must secretly view God as an uncaring, murderous bastard, and others simply as an uncaring bastard. The first group sees God as having the power to cause disasters that will kill hundreds and thousands of innocent people, and acknowledge he does this periodically. The second group sees God as having the power to save hundreds and thousands of innocent people from natural disasters, but while he could make a difference, he seemingly can never be bothered.

Rather than God, I think we should put our faith in improving building codes, common sense precautions, and if the worst does happen, in rescue organisations and medical professionals.

Posted by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 18 Jul, 2009 ~ Add a Comment     Send to a Friend

Moonwalks and the moon landing
I read a column in our local freebie newspaper The Southland Express this week entitled Knight Tales, although judging by it's content that should be Fairy Tales. The columnist Brent Knight attempts to make a humorous comparison between Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11 fame and the late Michael Jackson.

However his poorly researched take on 'moonwalks' seemed to be nothing but a thinly disguised attempt to publicize his belief that the moon landing was a hoax, while bemoaning the demise of an androgynous musician and wannabe Caucasian of questionable sexual ethics.

Mr Knight makes numerous errors in his article. He claimed Neil Armstrong landed on the moon on July 16th, 1969, when in fact it was July 21st. (Yes, I know most sources will say July 20th, but that is from an American perspective. For New Zealanders, the landing happened on the 21st.) Armstrong's 'moonwalk' did not cost Nasa $40 billion as Knight claimed, the entire 13 year Apollo program evidently costing around US$22.7 billion. Where he got his figure from I don't know, but it is suspicious that some conspiracy websites do quote $40 billion. We need to remember that Apollo 11 wasn't the only flight, we went to the moon 9 times and landed 6 times.

Knight claims that Nasa's "moonwalk thing" was challenged 13 years later (1982), by "some bloke from Indiana with a pet monkey called Bubbles and an album called Thriller, who claimed he'd invented the real moonwalk".

Actually Michael Jackson first used the 'moonwalk' in Billie Jean, 1983, not in Thriller, 1982. Furthermore, Jackson did not claim to have invented the moonwalk, he merely made it famous. Even in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers, James Brown performed the moonwalk, three years before Jackson. Also at this time he did not own Bubbles, nor is Bubbles a monkey, he is a chimpanzee. Not knowing, or caring about the difference is similar to not knowing the difference between a sheep and a goat. Obviously preferring Jackson's moonwalk over Armstrong's, Mr Knight implies that's Jackson's is more impressive since, "Let's face it, Michael had to deal with gravity", implying that there is none on the moon, which of course is false. It's true that the moon's gravity is only one sixth of Earth's, but then Jackson didn't have to deal with no atmosphere, a bulky spacesuit and no hope of rescue if he broke a nail.

Mr Knight's comments such as Nasa "sat fishbowls on their astronauts' heads and told them to leap around like lunatics", followed by, "Of course some people say the moon landing was an elaborate hoax... If we can't make it, fake it. Maybe so... Armstrong might never have walked on the moon...", all suggest that Knight at the very least has reservations about the moon landings. However, even if made in jest, his comments will only serve to plant seeds of doubt in people's minds and belittle the achievements and bravery of those involved in space exploration.

Maybe next week he can give us his opinion on the Holocaust while discussing Farrah Fawcett's death.

Posted by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 11 Jul, 2009 ~ Add a Comment     Send to a Friend


  1. Comment by Bob, 12 Jul, 2009

    This idea that the moonlanding was a hoax really amuses me. We now know the Russians were working flat out on their own manned moon mission but couldn't match America's technology so instead they pretended not to be interested in going and belittled the American effort. Imagine the field day they would have had if the moonlanding had really been a hoax.

Air NZ's naked employees
Air NZ I heard courtesy of a female radio announcer yesterday that evidently Air NZ are extremely happy with the success of their latest TV advert. That's the one where they impress on us that as a company they have nothing to hide, while we watch various Air NZ employees, from baggage handlers and air hostesses to pilots, perform their duties naked, wearing only body paint. And yet completely contrary to their claim that they have nothing to hide, hiding "things" is all they do throughout the ad. As one media article said, props such as the beverage cart and luggage block the employee's "naughty parts". We had to rely entirely on the shocked expressions of the "passengers/actors" to imply nudity.

Air NZ wants us to believe that the actors were naked, even to the extent of leaking news about it to the media prior to its screening, yet they completely removed any evidence of whether this was in fact true. We might just as well have been listening to the ad on radio.

The radio announcer told her listeners that she has been obsessing over the ad — to the annoyance of her partner — continually wondering whether the actors were "really" naked or were they painted over a body stocking? And who has the courage to appear naked on nation-wide TV, she asked. Obviously it's not something she could see herself doing, and she and the other fans of the ad seemingly have great admiration for those that did expose their naked bodies to the world. But this is what I don't understand, how can you obsess over nudity that was non-existent, how can you admire individuals for having the nerve to publicly appear naked when they did nothing of the sort? The "naked" actors featured are no more titillating, nor are they any more obviously naked, than that stick figure character in the PAK'nSAVE TV ads.

Having watched the ad, I saw not one bit of nudity in it. Exposing a bare leg, back or shoulder is not being naked. I've seen more nudity walking down the street and certainly a magnitude more nudity at the beach. We need to realise that body paint models almost always wear bikini bottoms that are painted over to give the appearance of total nudity. Female models are often topless, but since no real Air NZ female employee was shown below shoulder level, they could have been wearing a bikini top or full-length fur coat for all we know. The props weren't there to block the "naughty parts", they were there to hide the fact that the "naughty parts" were completely covered. So what you're really asking is not who has the courage to appear naked on TV, but who has the courage to appear in a bathing suit on TV? It's hardly the same thing, and certainly not something one should obsess over.

I would say that if the radio announcer can't tell whether the actors in the ad are really naked, then for all intents and purposes they aren't naked. If they are wearing a body stocking then they certainly aren't naked, after all this is why some actors wear body stockings, because they are unwilling to be seen naked. And if on top of a body stocking they are also covered with a layer of concealing paint then they are doubly NOT naked. To be naked, by definition, your body must have no covering.

So why does this silly radio announcer and other fans of the ad get so obsessed, titillated and possibly anxious with the suggested nudity of this ad? Since there is no nudity whatsoever in the ad, every X-rated thought and image is being generated in the viewer's mind. I guess Air NZ will be overjoyed that the general public are tittering excitedly like nervous schoolgirls over the perceived sights they "think" they see in the ad, but this just shows how advertising can manipulate people, locking people into a fantasy that they believe is real. Here we have seemingly intelligent adults gossiping and worrying over, not actual nudity, but suggested nudity.

I guess the bit that annoys me most with this ad is that we all know that the unusual things we see in other ads are all created with camera and computer trickery, and ad companies readily admit this. Yet with this ad Air NZ has gone out of its way to insist that their employees really were naked, that they made the ultimate sacrifice for realism, even though this realism was deleted from the final ad. But if we can see that they were lying to the viewer regarding the making of the ad, why oh why, should we believe the general theme of their ad, that they have nothing to hide? Air NZ CEO Rob Fyfe was no more naked than I am when I swim at my local pool.

We all know, I hope, that those cute little porcelain pigs in the BNZ ads aren't real, that they're just a fake gimmick used to get their message across, but what Air NZ is doing is the equivalent of insisting that they are real. But their naked employees are no more real than those pigs, and it's disappointing that they're claiming they are, and that many viewers are too silly to see through their lies.

Posted by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 08 Jul, 2009 ~ Add a Comment     Send to a Friend


  1. Comment by Bob, 12 Jul, 2009

    You have been conned John. All the company wants is that you watch it's ads. All you have done is extend Air New Zealand's ad to your blog so a few more people are exposed to it. They love controversies. Criticise it as much as you like. Complain about indecency or bad taste or insult to the employees. Just notice them. If it puts another thousand bums on their seats they couldn't care less what you think. Personally I thought it was pretty stupid like most ads so it went with the mute button while I caught up with the paper for the next 3 minutes. It says more about the gullible public and general level of community intelligence than about Air New Zealand. Why the women of New Zealand don't rise up en mass and smash the windows of shops selling those cosmetics and skin creams which make 50 year olds look like 20 year olds (at least in the ads) for treating them like half wits I don't know.

    I like ads which are humorous or clever. I like the piggie ads especially as I have a 4 year grandson who watches them. I also like the ASB ads because they are humorous. I like ads which are genuinely informative such as Woolworths advertising their specials even if they are come-ons. The trick then is to use ads to your advantage.

  2. Comment by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 13 Jul, 2009

    Don't get me wrong Bob, I'm all for advertising. TV, radio, magazines etc. would be prohibitively expensive if it weren't for advertising, many businesses would fail and we the consumers would be oblivious to many great products and services if they couldn't advertise in the media. While I'm not a fan of ads interrupting the flow of a great movie on TV, I realise the necessity of advertising. I fully support people being able to tell us what their product or service does and how much it costs. I also accept that some people will try and fudge the truth and even lie outright in their advertising, what I don't understand is why many people can't see through these often-simple deceptions. Air NZ and their ad company knew they were deceiving the public, but why can't some viewers see this? You say the same thing, why can't women see through those silly beauty ads?

    I'm not trying to discourage people from watching the Air NZ ads, I just don't understand why they can't see that the nudity that they're worried over or shocked over is no more real than the BNZ porcelain pigs.

  3. Comment by Bob, 13 Jul, 2009

    John, We might be slightly at odds here. I agree with what you say. The fact that some people think it's real is not surprising. I haven't seen any comments but that might be because I generally confine myself to serious newspaper articles. I agree advertising is essential to our economy. I was only pointing out that the first aim of advertising is to get people to notice it. I've noticed you don't get nonsense ads on farm products. Farmers are hard headed hardworking people who want information on products. You don't see tractors being advertised with bikini clad girls draped over them but you do see illustrations of what the machine can do.

    As for people I never cease to be amazed. A TV1 producer talked on camera about comments from the public. Some were hilarious. One lady said she missed last week's episode of Coronation Street. Would they please rerun it tonight. Having worked as a tradesman for the public for years I can quite understand.

  4. Comment by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 14 Jul, 2009

    Hi Bob, I've found advertising can be quite fascinating. Like you I like the humorous and clever ones, but even the terrible ones can be can instructive in how they push their product. Often it is what they don't say that is the important bit. Take the latest ad from Whittaker's chocolate comparing their block with Cadbury's, saying how they have more cocoa butter, they're bigger and made in NZ, but they don't mention that they're also more expensive.

    I remember when I was around 10 years old, one of my teachers taught us about propaganda and how advertising could trick us into buying a particular product. It was a great eye-opener, evidenced by the fact that I still remember this lesson, and it was possibly the only time I was ever taught to think skeptically about things. I can't watch an ad now without noticing that the actor's dress and their surroundings usually all mirror the colour of the product's packaging, or that lighting, atmosphere and music are all carefully designed to evoke certain emotions. My parents, like most people, are annoyed by ads, and they insist they have no affect on them, that their shopping is not influenced by adverts. Yet when I ask what product I should buy to do such and such, they can always name one that they've seen on TV. I remember buying some toothpaste in a Spanish supermarket years ago. Confronted with numerous unfamiliar brands, I finally zeroed in on a tube of Colgate. It was only after I had bought it that I realised it was not Colgate toothpaste at all, but merely one that used the same colours and a similar name. Advertising had conditioned me to buy the product that looked familiar, rather than compare products.

    A few years a go a local celebrity in Invercargill was hired to do a radio ad for a local second hand car sales. He claimed in the ad that he had bought numerous cars over the last few years from this business, and that his repeatedly going back to this business for his next car proved how good they were. To me this repeat business suggests just the opposite. If you had to replace your car every few months or every year, would you consider you had been sold a good, reliable vehicle, or that you'd been sold another lemon? Instead of saying, 'I bought a car off Business X, it's still going strong and I couldn't be happier', I infer from his radio ad that he's saying something along the lines of, 'I've bought heaps of cars from Business X. I've had to because they just don't last that long. And though they may not be reliable, after you've bought ten, you get the next one free. What other car sales does that?'. In a local paper this week a woman says the same thing, naming a second hand car sales as her most trusted local business, saying, "I've bought six cars from them." Geez, that's more cars than I've owned in my entire life, let alone from one business.

    And what about that silly old ploy of reducing the price? Few will touch a product if it's priced at $1000, but reduce it to $999 and people will break down the doors to purchase it. If only I had a dollar for every time someone has said, when asked how much something cost, replied with, 'It was a bargain, under a thousand dollars'. Well technically it was, but I don't understand people that can't grasp that $1000 and $999 are really the same thing. If you can't afford $1000, then you still can't afford $999. I know it's a psychological thing, but it amazes me how many people can't reason their way past it. Shops worldwide all use this ploy, and while I haven't seen any research on it, I'm sure it does improve sales, but it's depressing that so many people can be manipulated by such a blatant trick. It seems I even annoy people because I round prices up. If I say something only cost me ten bucks, I get corrected by others saying that it was actually only $9.99. It must be so easy for ad executives to manipulate people that think like this.

  5. Comment by Bob, 16 Jul, 2009

    Hullo John, like you I find advertising interesting. Your car example sounds ridiculous. I lived in Hamilton for 30 years. In that time I bought cars from one particular card yard. I stuck with them because they gave me good service. For instance one car had faulty air conditioning so I took it back. They got it repaired no problem and meanwhile gave me a loan car. On another occasion I took a car back for some routine repair. When I told them I had a problem getting back home they promptly gave me the loan of another car. It was the service which kept me going back. I have been a tradesman for many years. From my experience I judge companies on their quality of service. You can see all too readily from Fair Go the difference between advertising claims and the reality.

    Psychological advertising has only come in since world war2. One of the most fascinating books I have ever read was written by a marketing psychologist around 1960. Prewar American suppliers of consumer products would judge what people wanted by taking surveys. With the boom in new products and catch up demand after war austerity production lines were opening everywhere. The problem was surveys would say people favoured certain products and designs but when they were put in shops they wouldn't sell. Manufacturers were tearing their hair out losing millions of dollars and having to lay off their work forces. The psychologist came to their rescue. He told them people would rationalise what they thought they should like when surveyed but in reality were choosing for subconscious reasons. With women going into the workforce instead of staying home food manufacturers started making convenience foods which could be prepared quickly. You might remember Betty Crocker. That was a company which started making powdered cake mixes. All that women had to do was add milk or water and put them in the oven. Yet sales were poor. It seems women were conditioned to thinking they had to put time and effort into cooking or they weren't good housewives. The psychologist told them to make the cakes a little more difficult so the cooks would feel they were doing something. He suggested they take out the powdered egg and tell the cook to put in milk and an egg and mix it well. When washing up detergent first came out women in particular wouldn't believe their dishes could be clean if the water wasn't foaming. I remember having difficulty convincing my mother her plates and cutlery were really clean. So many women had the same idea manufacturers since then have added a foaming agent. Another case involved cars. A new car dealer said that men would cluster around snazzy sports cars on show but he couldn't sell them while sales of average vehicles was reasonable. He was told the sports cars reminded men of their batchelor days, a two seater and a pretty girl. When it came to buying they had to be sensible and buy a family car. His advice was to put a couple of sports cars in the front window to attract men then make his money selling standard vehicles at the back.

    Nowadays everything in the commercial world is psychological, the layout of goods, the entranceway, the doors. Packaging is carefully designed to be attractive. With the advent of television advertising companies will do anything to get an edge on competitors so we get pseudo nudity on Air New Zealand ads. People fall for it otherwise they wouldn't do it. Years ago I had noticed supermarkets in particular would place their high price goods at eye level and their cheaper home brands on the bottom shelf. I would get down on my hands and knees and see what was down below first then look at the higher priced stuff. I knew from years of experience that Arnotts biscuits and Budget biscuits likely came off the same production line. I refuse to be manipulated. I notice now that times are tough people can't afford to be manipulated into buying high priced goods. The psychology is starting to slip. I was surprised to see the cheap goods were stacked with the dear ones.

    The public need to be educated. I notice farmers don't get the psychological sell. They want to know what a product will do and what it will cost. Advertisers don't bother draping bikini clad girls over tractors.

  6. Comment by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 16 Jul, 2009

    Thanks for those interesting observations Bob. It's a shame they don't teach a class on this in schools.

  7. Comment by Sarah, 30 Aug, 2009

    As has often been said, the most important sex organ is the brain. If you fantasise that they're naked then in a sense they are. Imagination always was more important than reality.

  8. Comment by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 31 Aug, 2009

    Yes Sarah, I think you've hit on an important observation.

Do shock TV adverts work?
For some time now we have been subjected to shock TV adverts supposedly designed to reduce drink driving and/or speeding. While the ads are of course fake, they try to appear as realistic as possible so as to scare the bejesus out of us and convince us to stop combining driving with alcohol and speed. The crashes appear very realistic, perhaps more so than those we see in movies, and the graphic injuries leave nothing to the imagination, but it is the psychological effect that really sets out to permanently scar us.

We don't care about the dead and injured we see in the ad, since we know they're not really injured, they're just actors. What we think about, or what they hope we'll think about, is to realise that this type of accident could happen to us if we drink and drive. I might injure and kill my friends, that might be them screaming in pain or lying dead in a pool of blood. They obviously want us to put the faces of our family and friends onto those we see in these ads, scare us into a realisation, and see us change our driving habits.

So do they work? Many young people, especially those portrayed in the ads, won't be sitting at home watching Coronation Street or My House My Castle, so won't even know they exist. We are not sick of boy racers because they spend too much time in front of the TV. Of those that do see them, young and old, I suspect that few change their ways. Older people that do speed and drink and drive tend to think that years of experience let them better handle alcohol and speed. After all, they're still alive and may have never had an accident so they must have developed special skills. They often believe that youth haven't got their maturity so it is only them that are the risk on the road. This to a degree is true, but they fail to realise that age doesn't always bring wisdom.

Young people, and that includes me when I was young, tend to think they are bullet-proof to varying degrees, and think that these accidents only happen to people that can't drive, or those getting on in years, like over thirty. They've all seen the movies where the hero can drive at high speed, spin round and round without hitting anything, jump over obstacles and stop safely on a dime. They've yet to have that personal experience that tells them that they aren't immortal and that car chases in movies like James Bond or Mission Impossible aren't real. Even if the ads did convince them that fatal accidents are real, they are exposed to many, many more high speed driving scenarios where accidents don't happen to the good guys. If video images can truly influence their driving, Hollywood talks to them far more than does safe driving ads.

Unfortunately these ads are so graphic, so realistic, so disturbing, that many people I know immediately change channels when they come on. Having watched them once, I personally avoid watching them again. Adults changing channels simply to avoid the discomfort of watching these ads reduces the chance that their teenage children will see them, and they probably don't want their younger children watching them and having nightmares.

I think that most people that see these ads and admit that drink driving and speeding are dangerous and should be avoided, already knew this before watching the ads. The ads didn't influence their driving, they are merely preaching to the converted. No doubt one or two people will change their driving habits because of these ads, but whether this justifies their expense or their traumatising the rest of us is debatable. I suspect that the ones that should really be watching and thinking about these ads seldom will, and instead the ads just annoy those of us that have already got the message.

Posted by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 07 Jul, 2009 ~ Add a Comment     Send to a Friend

Fringe science and the paranormal
Fringe 'Fringe', a new science fiction TV series premiered on TV2 last Wednesday. Of course not everyone likes science fiction, and this blog is more about how this particular show will affect some beliefs that the general public holds rather than a critique of the show.

The show's Wikipedia entry states that "Fringe... follows an FBI team... that uses unorthodox "fringe" science and FBI investigative techniques to investigate... a series of unexplained, often ghastly occurrences which are occurring all over the world."

The title of the show — 'Fringe' — suggests, and the script confirms, that the show deals with what some call 'fringe science' or 'borderlands science', that is, scientific theories or claims that exist on the very fringe of accepted science. True 'fringe science' concerns ideas and concepts that might have some validity, that may or may not be true, but since there is no or little good evidence that support their conclusions, and/or no accepted theory that explains how they might work, then they remain on the fringe of solid, widely accepted science. They remain there until normal scientific research either pushes some more support their way or discredits them completely.

In his book 'The Borderlands of Science ~ Where Sense meets Nonsense', Michael Shermer states that "In exploring the unknown we often find ourselves in the borderlands of knowledge — in the fuzzy area between orthodoxy and heresy." He goes on to state that this creates "a 'boundary problem' — where do we draw the boundary between orthodoxy and heresy, between orthodox science and heretical science, or between science and pseudoscience, science and nonscience, and between science and nonsense?" In his introduction he gives some examples of what he considers belongs in each group, of which I shall mention a few to give you the general idea:

Normal science:
Quantum mechanics
Big Bang cosmology
Plate tectonics
Chaos theory
Fringe or borderlands science, between science and nonscience
Superstring theory
Inflationary cosmology
Theories of consciousness
Nonscience, pseudoscience or nonsense
Remote viewing
Recovered memories
Alien abductions
Freudian psychoanalytic theory
So where do the topics we'll see on 'Fringe' fit into this scheme? We're told that they'll "investigate aspects of fringe science [such as] ESP, rare diseases, cryptids, transhumans with psychic abilities, teleportation, mind control, invisibility, precognition, transmogrification and reanimation." During the opening credits the names of some of these topics and others such as psychokinesis, suspended animation, nanotechnology and dark matter flashed on the screen and they finished the show with some technicians about to interrogate a dead person. So I think it's pretty clear that much of what this show will claim to be 'fringe science' is nothing of the sort. It should more correctly be called claims of the paranormal and pseudoscience, if not mostly outright nonsense. Not all these topics are nonsense of course, eg. suspended animation, nanotechnology and dark matter, but I'm sure their treatment of it will be.

And this is where the problem arises, the elevating of paranormal and pseudoscience topics from nonsense to 'fringe science', or in the minds of many viewers, simply science. One of the inspirations for 'Fringe' was the TV series 'The X-Files', which if you remember involved FBI agents investigating weird deaths, usually caused by paranormal or pseudoscience themes, and trying to expose a powerful, dangerous, covert organisation. 'Fringe' on the other hand, involves FBI agents investigating weird deaths, usually caused by paranormal or pseudoscience themes, and trying to expose a powerful, dangerous, covert organisation. Just so we don't confuse the two shows, 'Fringe' introduces a 'mad scientist' that is helping the FBI. In 'The X-Files', Agent Fox Mulder was the believer in all things weird, and Agent Dana Scully was the skeptic, who was able to maintain her skepticism even though week after week she was confronted with "evidence" that these weird things really were possible. In 'Fringe' it appears that the 'mad scientist' will be the believer in all things weird, and his son will be the token skeptic who will be proved wrong each week.

One "problem" that these types of shows create for some people is that the general public aren't told where the real science ends and the science fiction begins. And numerous shows have this "problem", not just obvious science fiction series like Star Trek and Stargate, but even the popular forensic series like CSI and NCIS. The series 'Fringe' is chock full with very real organisations — such as the FBI, CDC (Centers for Disease Control), Homeland Security and Harvard University, with very real scientific instruments — such as electron microscopes and gene sequencers, and very real scientific concepts — such as DNA, chemical toxins and neural synaptic connections. Much of what we see and hear on these shows is either real or at least plausible, but then one or more elements are added that are either very unlikely or just plain fantasy. I have no problem with this, and I am not for a moment suggesting that these shows shouldn't introduce these fictitious elements into their storylines or that the producers should somehow indicate what is real and what isn't. Indeed, our fictional TV shows, movies and books would be very boring if they had to stick to the facts.

I am merely lamenting the fact that some viewers can't grasp that these shows are FICTION. Yes, the FBI and DNA and quantum mechanics are real but you can't blindly assume that because some of the characters and some of the science is real that it must ALL be real. Nor can you assume that because the real FBI denies investigating cases of ESP, teleportation and remote viewing that government conspiracies are at play. And yet many people do. Past surveys showed that a worrying number of people believed that the cases depicted in 'The X-Files' were real. They of course realised that the show featured actors and scripts, but they believed that the episodes were based on real cases that had or were being investigated by the real FBI.

And this new show 'Fringe' featuring the very real FBI and Homeland Security will only serve to further convince some deluded members of the public that these claims of the paranormal and pseudoscience are not only real, they are now considered as plausible science, albeit fringe science. They will also have their belief reinforced that serious top secret research is being performed on these things by both government departments and large private corporations. The refusal of scientists, security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to acknowledge this research just demonstrates how valuable, secret and dangerous this research is.

And lest you don't believe some people are sucked in by these shows, you only have to listen to some nutcases explain how things such as psychic abilities, teleportation, mind control, invisibility and interstellar travel might work and you soon realise that their "knowledge" has often been gleaned largely from science fiction TV shows and movies. Most people will have never heard of remote viewing or dark matter until they hear it mentioned on shows such as this. It is these shows that are giving them entertaining stories where scientific terms, phrases and concepts are merged seamlessly with completely bogus concepts and they go away believing that the underlying ideas are all real. I'll give you two examples. As I've mentioned elsewhere, a few years ago I was debating whether spaceships might be able to travel faster than light with an associate, and his answer was, "Well of course they can. Have you not seen the alien ships on 'Babylon 5'?" He was perfectly serious, seeing nothing absurd in using fictional aliens from a fictional TV sci-fi show to debunk real science. My second example involves the sci-fi TV show Stargate, which centres on the military in present day America unearthing an ancient alien device called a 'stargate'. These create wormholes that allow near instantaneous travel to other planets. However a few months back I stumbled across an internet forum where an idiot was pushing the theory that the real reason the American military invaded Iraq was to search for and recover one of these alien stargates! Of course these are extreme examples, not many people believe these shows are literally real, but it does show that different people all have different ideas on where to draw the line that separates fact and fiction in these shows. Fans of sci-fi will watch these shows solely for entertainment, but believers in the paranormal, pseudoscience and government conspiracies will think they validate their weird beliefs.

Almost opposite to the people that "educate" themselves with these science fiction and fantasy shows and use them to bolster their beliefs, others argue that no one is fooled by them, that everyone knows that they are just fiction woven around some real elements. My answer would be that the Bible and other holy books are also obviously just fiction woven around some real elements, and yet look at the millions who can't separate the fact from the fiction. Many want their god to be real and thus grasp any and all claims that would support this desire, and ignore all arguments to the contrary. Equally many people want to believe that psychic ability, creatures like Big Foot and alien visitation is real. These science fiction TV shows are their 'holy book', they are what the Bible is to Christians.

I will be watching 'Fringe' again next week to see whether it continues to be enjoyable escapism or whether it turns into just a silly vehicle for paranormal believers. Unfortunately, regardless of the intentions of the show's creators, I believe that it can only help increase belief in the paranormal and pseudoscience topics it covers, the question will be by how much. By the very nature of the show, just like 'The X-Files', there will be nothing in each episode that supports accepted scientific views. Instead, some weird, unexpected claim that appears to contradict known science and support some paranormal or pseudoscience claim will surface, and the token skeptic will once again be shown to be mistaken in how they thought the world worked. While it may be an enjoyable series (or maybe not), it will do little to instil confidence in real science and real scientists, as each episode will show real science being trumped by nonsense, which they have fraudulently re-labelled as 'fringe science'.

All I can suggest is that when people start talking a little too enthusiastically about what they see on shows like this, you should ask them this, 'You do know it's not real?'

Note: for those wishing to catch Fringe, the series screens on TV2, Wednesday, 8:30pm. This Popular Mechanics site demonstrates just how much they got wrong on the pilot episode, not just the science such as human vs cow DNA, but more mundane things such as how the CDC works and whether a passenger jet really can land on autopilot.

Posted by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 05 Jul, 2009 ~ Add a Comment     Send to a Friend

The fool says in his heart...
There probably isn't a non-believer out there that hasn't been challenged either verbally or in some silly religious tract with Psalm 14:1 from the Bible. I recently saw on an internet forum where it was voted the religious argument that most deserves to be retired. This is the Biblical statement that evangelists throw at us: Bible
'The fool says in his heart, "There is no God."'
As stated on the forum, why any Bible Basher would think that this claim would suddenly stop an atheist in their tracks and make them change their mind beggars belief. On hearing this, can you imagine an atheist thinking the following:
'Hmmm... I believe that there is no God. Logically that must mean I'm a fool. But since a fool is another word for an idiot, someone who lacks good judgment or understanding, then obviously I don't know what I'm talking about. I should therefore put my trust in those that say the opposite to me, like this good Christian in front of me. He insists that there is a God, and since this is contrary to my view, a fool's view, then he must be right.'
Of course there is no guarantee that whatever a fool says is necessarily false, even though much of it may be. Each statement must be analyzed independent of who said it, and the belief that anyone who says that there is no god must be a fool is not backed by evidence. Think of people that say that there are no unicorns, fairies, trolls or witches. Are these people fools? Think of people that say that the universe is mostly made up of invisible dark matter and dark energy, or that there may be 10 or 11 dimensions, not just 3, or that a hundred billion neutrinos are streaming through your body every second. Are these people fools? And yet many of these people would also say that there are no gods. Just because they now say that there is no evidence for gods, why are they suddenly fools? To me this accusation just smacks of denial. Christians can think of no good reason to challenge the 'no gods' claim and thus resort to the childish ploy of calling anyone who makes it a fool. I think they should look in a mirror to discover the true fool.

However, not all Christians that throw this psalm at people are just being naïve that it is a powerful argument. Some are being devious. I say this because most never correctly quote Psalm 14:1. The full Biblical quote is:

'The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.' (PS 14:1)
Some are no doubt completely ignorant of the fact that they are only quoting half the psalm. We all know that most Christians are woefully lacking in their knowledge of their religion, but many will be well aware of the second part of the claim and deliberately omit it. They do this, we believe, because it is blatantly obvious even to them that this second claim about these fools is untrue. And if this second claim is untrue, why should we believe the first claim is true? If the author of this psalm is mistaken in his description of the morality of these 'fools', why might he not also be mistaken about god's existence? I have personally challenged evangelists who have thrown the first half of Psalm 14:1 at me. I have asked them if they are accusing me of being corrupt and vile? Of course they immediately apologise and acknowledge that I'm no doubt a decent and good human being. I list a few people from history who undeniably did good deeds and yet didn't believe in their god. I ask how is this possible if ALL non-believers are corrupt and vile? I then ask, if they are now agreeing that the second part of the psalm is false, why shouldn't I believe the entire psalm might be false, since its author is clearly not infallible? The fact is that the second part of this psalm, like much of the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, is an embarrassment to Christians. They must cherry-pick Biblical statements to support their argument and pray that the man or woman on the street know even less about it than they do. In a court of law this manoeuvre is called perjury, deliberately and wilfully giving misleading and incomplete testimony in an attempt to bring about a false and unwarranted conclusion. When used on your doorstep or local street corner, it's just plain dishonesty, deviousness and a sign of a failed belief.

As others have said, one of the most reliable activities to push someone towards atheism is to read the Bible with an open mind.

Posted by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 02 Jul, 2009 ~ Add a Comment     Send to a Friend

Do you swear to tell the truth?
On last night's TV News we were shown witnesses in a Dunedin murder trial entering the stand and swearing to tell the truth. We didn't hear the actual oath, but you know the typical format, 'Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?', or perhaps, 'With God as your witness, do you swear to... '. NZ law has been changed so that you no longer have to add the God bit or recite this oath with your hand on the Bible if you don't wish to, however the book one particular witness was swearing on clearly had 'Holy Bible' on the cover. The other witness had her hand on what could have been the same book, but it was turned upside down. I wonder what the default option is these days? Do you have to specifically request the secular version? Surely they don't just turn the Bible over for non-believers to use? Perhaps non-believers should be allowed to take along a book that they value? As an atheist I could take Richard Dawkin's 'The God Delusion' or as a skeptic I could produce Carl Sagan's 'The Demon-Haunted World'. A car fanatic could take his favourite car maintenance manual to swear on.

But my real thought though was why do we even need to swear an oath? If we are comfortable with lying and it is in our best interests to lie in this case, won't our claim to tell the truth be a lie? Why should this oath suddenly prevent us from lying? I honestly can't see how these words would make a difference, that a person who might have committed murder or stolen a million dollars from some old lady would be worried about lying.

Furthermore, why don't honest people take this oath as an insult? Why don't they challenge the court official, 'Are you implying that I have to be coerced into telling the truth, that my normal testimony can't be trusted?' And if this is really a true description of your character, and the lawyers, judge etc know this, then how reliable are you as a witness? If the court official replies that the oath is a just a primitive tradition or superstitious theatrics, and we shouldn't take it personally, then maybe we could speed up trials by getting rid of it?

We already have a law against perjury, which my dictionary tells me is, 'The deliberate, willful giving of false, misleading, or incomplete testimony under oath.' But does this mean that without first swearing the oath you can't commit perjury? Does this mean that you can lie everywhere to your heart's content without fear of legal consequences except on the witness stand under oath? We've all heard the lawyers on TV call a witness back to the stand and remind them that they are still under oath (to tell the truth). Does the witness mutter under their breath, 'Damn, I though that might have expired'. Surely the law should be that it is an offense to deliberately give false or misleading testimony — that is, lie — regardless of whether you have sworn an oath? If the fear of committing perjury and its subsequent legal punishments are sufficient to compel most people to tell the truth, why do we need the silly oath? But is it actually the legal punishments that cause people to tell the truth? Remember that the oath doesn't mention perjury or what might happen if you do lie.

Historically the oath seemed to rely on people's fear of God's wrath, that swearing on His name and then lying would result in unspeakable horrors further down the track. Fear of God, not fear of the justice system, would compel them to do the right thing by God and tell the truth. But think about it, if this type of oath to God really worked, why don't the authorities force EVERYONE that believes in God to swear the following oath, 'I swear to be a good, honest, helpful, just, kind, loving human being, so help me God.' If an oath and the fear of God can compel people to tell the truth, shouldn't it also compel them to lead a good life? Why do authorities seem to believe this oath under God works regarding lying but is worthless in normal life?

If the justice system really believed that the oath to tell the truth actually worked, then they would simply ask the accused — under oath — 'Are you guilty of the crime of which you are accused?' And yet they don't seem to believe that the accused can be trusted to tell the truth, even under oath, and yet they believe everyone else, among which may be the real guilty party, will tell the truth. This is nonsense.

And from a religious perspective it actually gets worse. Using God as a witness and swearing on His name is actually something the Bible forbids. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read:

'But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool;... Simply let your `Yes' be `Yes,' and your `No,' `No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.' (MT 5:34-37)
Occasionally the Bible does provide some good advice. Whenever someone starts a statement with, 'To tell you the truth, I always thought ... ', this actually implies that for much of the time they are lying to you, but for this particular statement they have for some reason decided to be truthful. Or so they say, can you really ever believe an admitted liar? Saying that you are telling the truth is pretty much worthless. Your honesty can only be judged by evidence and your actions, and as the Bible says, answering 'Yes' or 'No' is all that is required. Any oath is superfluous and worthless. Honest people are going to tell the truth with or without an oath, and dishonest people are going to lie whether they have sworn an oath on God or their mother's grave. And for Christians, honest or dishonest, an oath sworn in God's name or on the Bible is actually harmful for their future well-being. It's another example of how ignorant of their religion that many Christians truly are.

Courts need to get rid of the silly and worthless oath and simply make it a crime to knowingly give false or misleading testimony.

Posted by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 30 Jun, 2009 ~ Add a Comment     Send to a Friend


  1. Comment by Bob, 01 Jul, 2009

    I generally agree with you. The last couple of times I swore on a bible was when I was picked for juries. I had the option of affirming instead of swearing on the bible. I couldn't see any point in making a fuss so I just put my hand on the bible. I am not that rabid in my attitudes. The only other occasion I can remember was years ago when I was involved in a civil case. I gave a solicitor a statement. He had to get it notarised so he took me to a notary public who is something like a JP. He produced a bible for me to swear on. Everybody knows the bible means nothing to most people but it seems old rituals are hard to change.

    I have a habit of saying "to tell you the truth". It has nothing to do with possibly lying. It's a phrase that's stuck in my mind. I use it to admit or say something I am reluctant to say. For instance if I don't like a meal I might not want to upset the cook but I might whisper to someone else "to tell you the truth I think this is the worst meal I have ever eaten".

    In your last paragraph you have a positive comment on the bible. I regard the bible as one of the great books of antiquity. It contains a lot, early myths, genuine history and wisdom. I just wish people would not take it as total truth especially historical truth or claim it was inspired by a great intelligent spiritual entity.

  2. Comment by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 03 Jul, 2009

    I've never been called for jury duty or ever been confronted with the need to swear on the Bible. If it's just an old ritual and "Everybody knows the bible means nothing to most people", and I think you're right, then I don't understand how they can put any confidence in your swearing on the Bible. Why don't they save time and just have you affirm you're telling the truth? Producing a Bible to swear on should not be the default position, it should have to be requested. Imagine if Christianity declined and Islam gained popularity in NZ, would you swear on the Koran or prostrate yourself on the floor facing Mecca? (not that I believe Muslims actually do this). Like you, at times I've also suppressed my views rather than make a fuss, such as observing silence while others around me pray, but if I was asked to lead this prayer, then I would state that I was an atheist and decline. However, if I were ever asked to swear on a Bible, I would definitely refuse. My friends would never let me forget it otherwise, and it would be ammunition for believers, some of who are convinced that I do secretly believe in God, and being too scared to reject the Bible would prove it in their minds.

    I agree that a lot of people are in the habit of starting statements with, "To tell you the truth... ", and it is generally harmless. But we must remember that it is usually said to counter what has been previously said or implied. In your example about a bad meal, the person may have already said to the host that they enjoyed the meal or given indications to the other diners that it was fine. This phrase means, 'Contrary to what I said or implied before... '. But don't get me wrong, I agree that most everyone does this, and without these little white little lies relationships and society in general would break down.

    The Bible is certainly a great book of antiquity, but I fear it has this reputation simply because it was believed to be the Word of God, and that it's followers greatly influenced history, not because it is a great read. Much of the Old Testament is barbaric, disgusting, immoral, obscene and pornographic. If young school children were required to read it, and understand it, Christian parents themselves would censor much of it. Certainly there is real history in it, but all the bogus history in it makes it difficult for people to tell which is which. As for the ethics and morals in the Bible, much of what we now consider to be good advice is buried in amongst proposals that would either get you arrested or at the very least ruin your life. For example, "if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well (MT 5:40)", or in modern terms, if a thief wants to steal your car radio, give him your car as well. And if it is such a great book, why have almost no Christians read it cover to cover? Would The Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter books be so popular if people had only read one or two chapters at random and then thrown them in a drawer? I have read snippets of what some authors of antiquity have written, such as Greek and Roman philosophers and historians, and I consider their insights into reality and ethics far more impressive than most Biblical authors. Even the few admirable morals attributed to Jesus, such as 'The Golden Rule', were known long before Jesus existed. If Christianity had never taken hold, I suspect that the Bible would be seen as just as obscure and little known as the likes of the Hindu Vedas, the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Sumerian story of Gilgamesh. It would have historical value but it wouldn't be found in most homes, and let's remember that most people have a Bible because they were given one, not because they deliberately went out and bought one. This giving away of Bibles on a massive scale is the only reason that most people own one. This ubiquitous nature of Bibles unfortunately gives weight to some people's view that, as you say, they are completely factual and were dictated by a fluffy cloud with a high IQ called God. It really annoys me when I go into bookstores like Whitcoulls and see Bibles in the 'Popular Science' or 'Reference' sections.

  3. Comment by Chris, 16 Mar, 2011

    Just read your piece on swearing on the bible in court. Last time I was a juror (some years ago now) I chose to 'affirm' and (somewhat to my relief I admit) nobody seemed to even notice, or regard it as unusual.

    I can't recall how I knew I could do this, I think probably we were given a little 'guide to prospective jurors' or something that explained all the details, but it wasn't at all difficult.

    Bob's mention of a JP reminds me of the time I had to get my citizenship application witnessed (decades ago). I took it to the only JP I knew, a friend's father, he was still in bed at 10a.m. on a Sunday (recovering from a wine tour the previous day) and he signed my application on the back of his bedside reading which I couldn't help noticing was 'Confessions of a Gym Mistress'. I was delighted with this.

Humans to get pig DNA upgrade
Approval has been granted to begin clinical trials that will see people with insulin dependent diabetes receiving injections of pig cells. (More details here and here.) Because these diabetics have faulty insulin production, it is hoped that the pig cells will take over production of insulin, negating or at least reducing the need for daily injections of insulin.

Many against this type of research — known as xenotransplantation — want it to be illegal to place any animal or plant material and/or DNA into humans. Some take this stance because they believe introducing foreign DNA or cells into humans will corrupt our uniqueness, make us less human and even cause us to take on the characteristics of the cell's donor. Others object because of the fear of pig cells transmitting viruses to humans. This is a real fear, however the pigs used in this research are special. They are housed in quarantine conditions near Invercargill, having been rescued from the remote Auckland Islands ten years ago. Because they have been isolated from human contact for over 200 years, they are considered free of the viruses that mainland pigs normally carry, and that some fear may make the leap into humans if pig cells are transplanted into humans.

Most scientists realise the enormous potential that these transplants offer, and we must trust them to control for the possible risks involved. However many people fear the introduction of animal cells or animal DNA into their bodies solely on the grounds that it seems unnatural. And images of protesters dressed up as tomatoes with arms and legs or humans wearing a pig mask only reinforce their concern that foreign DNA would cause them to slowly take on animal characteristics.

But of course in a grand sense it is far too late to worry about that. Our entire bodies are made up of cells and DNA obtained directly from animals and plants. Anyone that eats pork, beef, lamb, fish, chicken, venison etc. and/or fruit, vegetables and grains etc., has been introducing foreign DNA into their bodies all their lives. And of course everyone must eat to live. Every cell in our bodies is made of components that once belonged inside some animal or plant. Anyone that denies this would have to be a cannibal, consuming only other humans to avoid directly ingesting foreign DNA.

Of course there is a difference between eating a bacon sandwich and having bacon or pig cells injected into your body. And yes there are real risks, including the transmission of viruses, but far too many of the general public seem to think that ANY connection with pig cells will have us growing curly tails and grunting like a common hog. There is the belief that the introduction of a few pig cells with pig DNA will suddenly see the pig DNA suppressing our human DNA. The fact is that these cells taken from the pancreas of pigs have differentiated. This means — like nearly all cells in pigs and humans — that they are limited to doing only one thing, in this case producing insulin. They can not make curly tails or snouts. Mammals, because of our shared ancestry, have a great deal in common. Human insulin is made up of 51 amino acids, as is pig and cow insulin. However cow insulin differs in three of these amino acids and pig insulin differs in one amino acid. Nevertheless, they are so close that insulin produced by pig and cow cells perform the same function as human insulin in the majority of cases. Thus insulin producing pig cells transplanted into a human pancreas will blindly produce insulin and nothing else, taking over the work of the faulty human insulin producing cells.

We also need to remember that diabetics have been injecting themselves daily with insulin obtained directly from pigs and cows for years to control their diabetics. We know that using this 'foreign' insulin works. For the last couple of decades we have been able to synthetically produce true human insulin using bacteria or yeast and genetic engineering. However diabetics still require daily injections, whether it is of human, pig or cow insulin. My point is that putting material from pigs into humans to control a disease is nothing new. The only difference is that this transplant of insulin producing cells directly into humans cuts out the middleman, or middlepig. Rather than waiting for the pig to produce the insulin, harvesting it, then injecting themselves with it several times daily, the production of the insulin happens directly where it is needed. The diabetic needs do nothing, and leads a normal, healthy life.

This fear that we will become less human because we contain cells from an animal is unfounded. As I said, our bodies are made entirely from the flesh of dead animals and plants. In that sense we are all a version of Frankenstein's monster. We are all animals, and denying this intimate connection with other life on earth, especially other mammals, is to revert back to that discredited religious notion that humans are special, distinct from all other life.

Yes there is a risk of virus transmission, although this is much reduced with the use of the Auckland Island pigs, and the foreign cells must be disguised, wrapped in a seaweed extract to stop the body's immune system from destroying them. But this type of research has enormous potential to cure or mediate the suffering of insulin dependant diabetics. Plus knowledge gained will lead to advances in the treatment of other diseases.

And this fear of using material from animals to cure diseases is nothing new. In an article entitled, 'Is it right to interfere with nature?', Caroline Davis, a reporter on the Times Higher Education Supplement wrote the following:

"In 1798, Edward Jenner discovered that inoculating people with a small preparation of cowpox (vaccinae, from the Latin word for cow, vacca) would make them immune to smallpox. This 'vaccination' as it came to be called, saved millions of lives and, in 1980, led to the World Health Organisation declaring the disease eradicated. However, at the time of its discovery, political cartoonists published engravings showing people who had been vaccinated sprouting cows' heads. Some were afraid of being injected with material from cows, saying they would not be treated with substances from God's lowlier creatures. When vaccination with cowpox was made compulsory in 1853, there were protest marches."
She also noted that:
"technologies initially scorned and rejected by popular opinion have proved to be beneficial and become widely accepted by the mainstream."
We can't let research into new cures, especially those involving genetic engineering, cloning, embryos and stem cells, be stymied by ill-informed popular opinion. Before people can vote on the use of recombinant DNA technology, retroviruses and amino acids, they should have to demonstrate that they actually know what these things are. They shouldn't be allowed to use their ignorance to maintain their false world-view, especially when it condemns those afflicted by some disease to continued suffering.

Posted by the 'Silly Beliefs' Team, 26 Jun, 2009 ~ Add a Comment     Send to a Friend

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Last Updated Aug 2010