(Investigator 70, 2000 January)

The Australian National Skeptics Conference was held for the first time in Adelaide.

About 150 attended the meetings at the Adelaide Conference Centre on November 6 and 7.

Max Wallace (PhD), public officer for Purple Economy Watch (PEW) Inc., inquired into taxation exemption of religions in Australia.  This question, he said, has not been debated in Parliament since 1936.  Anglicans are the main buyers of property for investment.  Where is the separation of Church and State, he asked, if the State helps religion? Non-belief is equally valid, deserves equal treatment. He discussed church income from property holdings and income from trusts and the money market much of which has nothing to do with charity. The Income Tax assessment Act does not define "Charitable organization", this being left to case law.

Professor Maciej Henneberg, biological anthropologist and anatomist, discussed: "Where Did Neanderthals Go?"

He rejected the popular idea that modern humans descended from an African "Eve", entered the Near East and Europe, and outclassed and replaced Neanderthals. The picture from population genetics, said the professor, is that Neanderthals were a regional human lineage that mixed with neighbouring humans and evolved characteristics considered modern. Therefore Neanderthals are still with us.

Dr. Geoffrey Dean, author of numerous books and scientific articles on astrology, examined the claim advanced by Michel Gauquelin in the 1950s that there is a slight correlation between some of the planets and eminent people.
Dr. Dean cited a number of other studies and concluded that claims of astrology are not supported.

Brian Watts and Peter Bowditch discussed "Y2K — Is It Too Late To Panic?"

Peter Bowditch

There are two sets of problems:

1 Predictions of Nostradamus and others concerning the Millennium;
2 Technological.

The four scenarios are:
1 Computer systems fail and Revelation and/or Nostradamus are right as well;
2 Computers fail but the religious predictions are wrong;
3 Computers keep working but the apocalypse comes;
4 Nothing of interest happens.

Although there was still time to panic there was, however, no benefit to panic after everything possible has been done.

Dr. Stephen Basser tackled "Immunization — Public Health or Public Menace?"

He said that immunization is one of the top 4 public health successes.  However, a small band of opponents diverts attention from the benefits
such as drastic decline in polio, meningitis, measles, etc and claims immunization is ineffective and unsafe and that parents aren't told about this.  Parents don't see many former childhood diseases, said Dr. Basser, because of disease control by immunization but they hear about allergic reactions and therefore don't know what decision to make. He said that in the USA there is currently greater risk from polio vaccines than from polio in the wild.  But to stop immunization could lead to a resurgence of the disease.  Dr. Basser pointed out that we don't ban all antibiotics because there are some allergic reactions to them and we don't ban all heart surgery because of a few strokes during heart surgery.

Dr. Paul Willis in "Why Did the Media Get it Wrong?" explained that the packaging of a message is vital.  Creationists and psychics put out "crap" but have great packaging — including colorful magazines that feel good to the touch and also videos.

Getting stories to TV is like playing "Chinese whispers" — the message gets garbled as it's relayed from person to person.  The information supplied by, for example, the skeptic goes back and forth between editor, reporter, researcher and producer.  It may be edited or "cut" several times.  The media consists of private companies that must sell advertising. Therefore they put on material they think people will watch. Truth and accuracy are secondary considerations; sensationalism comes first.

The ABC and SBS have the policy of faithfully reproducing stories, but also the policy of "balance" which presents both sides, and therefore often give science and "crap" equal treatment.

Dr. Willis recommended that skeptics keep it simple, train as speakers, and practice to keep answers down to 20 seconds.

Dr. Michael O'Donoghue explored archaeological evidence on "Did the Egyptians Build the Pyramids?"

About 100 pyramids were built in Gizeh and another 100 later in Nubia. Most pyramid-building took place during the Old Kingdom 2500 to 2000 BC and gradually declined during the Middle Kingdom, 2000 to 1800 BC.

Evidence that Egyptians did indeed build the pyramids comes from unfinished pyramids, tools, quarrying methods, signs of ramps, materials used, archaeological remains of the kitchens and tombs of the builders, as well as the increasing sophistication of pyramid construction over time.

Egypt is a limestone plateau and the construction material was limestone which the Egyptian workers pounded into shape with the much harder ball-shaped dolomite.

Professor Ian Plimer, Professor of Geology at the University of Melbourne, summarized key events in the geology of the Earth to explain "The Geology of Greenhouse." 

He argued that sea levels, atmospheric composition, climate, positions of continents, species of life, and the extent of Earth's ice cover have all changed continuously over hundreds of millions of years. There have been five mass extinctions with asteroid impacts and volcanism playing major roles in at least several.  Asteroid impacts would have altered the atmosphere in major ways.

For most of Earth's existence, CO2 levels were much higher than today's 0.04%.  The atmosphere was 6% carbon dioxide 570 million years ago, 18%  500 million years ago, 1% 300 million years ago, 10% 100 million years ago.
Historical times too have seen major climatic changes. 

Therefore the small temperature rise over the past century and increased atmospheric CO2 is irrelevant. The average life of a species is 3 million years and therefore humans too are due for extinction. The International Panel for Climate Change stresses greenhouse dangers but has many atmospheric scientists and few oceanographers or geologists

Professor Paul Davies gave the audience "Some Thoughts About the UFO Phenomenon".

He said the question of whether we are the only civilization in the universe is unanswered.  Even if aliens exist and are widespread this does not give credence to UFO stories. To accelerate a spacecraft to near the speed of light takes enormous energy — about a billion times the cost of sending it to the Moon!  It's easier to send messages — all the energy collected by all the world's radio telescopes is less than the energy used by a fly crawling one centimetre!

Ufology is pseudo-science.  A vital component is conspiracy theory, which is often appealed to when claims are otherwise refuted. UFO stories are pseudoscience when they can't be tested.

To have the technology to cross light-years of space is inconsistent with crashing in New Mexico. The alien autopsy stories are implausible — the origins of human life incorporated so many unique events that we do not expect alien life to resemble humans.

Carol Oliver, in her talk "SETI: Who Said We’re Alone", considered the query posed in 1950 by physicist Enrico Fermi which was, "where is everybody?"

A speed limit near the speed of light means it would take 100,000 years to cross our galaxy but the nearer stars are only a few years away. Therefore probes should be here but we don't see them!  Even at 1% of the speed of light, a colonising alien civilization could colonise the galaxy in 20 million years.  But we don't see evidence of colonization.

We may be alone in the Universe, or there may be an edict — "don't mess with the natives." Or self-replicating robots based on nano-technology may be here but are too small for humans to detect.

The first SETI (Search for extraterrestrial Intelligence) experiment occurred in 1960.  Radio telescopes now check millions of frequencies per second but have not discovered any extraterrestrial communication.

Currently the discovery of new galaxies (each with perhaps 100 billion stars) averages two per day.  Future technology scanning billions of stars and checking hundreds of millions of frequencies every second may provide an answer.


Pin-up-board displays at the Skeptics Conference included the Atheist Foundation, the Astronomical Society and Investigator Magazine.