Honest Universe

Superstition, pseudoscience, and scepticism

How Well Do You Know Your Moon?

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Phil Plait, who writes the wonderful Bad Astronomy blog over on Slate, noticed something interesting in a recent episode of The Simpsons:

Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

To the untrained eye, nothing about this cartoon image is likely to seem unusual. But if you spend a lot of time looking at the sky, and you have the additional context that this scene occurred in the evening, then the Moon is actually quite revealing.

(For those of you thinking “it’s just a cartoon, don’t expect it to be accurate”, I realise that. But if you decide to treat it as though it must be accurate then it can be interesting to think about so bear with me.)

To understand why that is and how we know, we have to have a think about how we look at the Moon.

The Moon orbits the Earth in a plane that’s pretty well aligned with the plane of the solar system. This means if you drawn a line in the sky tracing the path of the Moon, you’ll also find the Sun and the planets roughly on that line. This is why we experience solar and lunar eclipses, which happen when the Sun and Moon are lined up particularly well with the Earth. Because the line is where eclipses happen, it’s called the ecliptic by astronomers.

Earth’s axis is tilted by 23.5° relative to this plane, but if you’re not too close to the equator (for example, if you’re in New Zealand or the USA) then you can say that if you projected the equator into the sky it would be in roughly the same position as the ecliptic. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, that means it’s to the north, and if you’re in the northern hemisphere, it’s to your south.

So, if you’re looking at the Moon from New Zealand, you must be looking roughly to the north. If you’re looking at it from the USA, you must be looking roughly to the south. This also means the Sun and Moon, moving east to west across the sky as the Earth spins, appear to move right to left from the southern hemisphere and left to right from the northern hemisphere.

When we look at the Moon, we’re seeing the same thing no matter where we are on Earth except for one thing: which way is “down”. The “bottom” of the Moon in the part that’s closest to the horizon. If you travel to the other hemisphere, and you’re familiar enough with the Moon, you may notice that it appears upside down. That’s because the direction of “down” has swapped – from roughly north to roughly south (or vice versa if you’ve travelled from north to south). If you want to see what the Moon looks like from the other half of the world, you have to bend over backwards (or lie on the ground). This is also why the Moon will appear to have rotated if you compare it when it’s rising to when it’s setting.

One more thing: the Moon orbits us in the same direction as we’re spinning, which means it moves across the sky slightly slower than the Sun. Each day, the Moon rises roughly 50 minutes later than the day before, so that over its 28 day cycle of phases this sums to 24 hours.


Now, getting back to that image from the Simpsons episode. That scene was apparently in the evening, and the Moon is low on the horizon. That means the Moon must either be about to set or have just risen. If it had just risen after sunset, then it was recently full (because a full moon rises at sunset and the moon rises later each day), which means its phase would be a waning gibbous. Waning refers to the fact that it is on its way from being full to being new, and a gibbous is the shape made by a circle with a crescent cut out from it.

In the picture, the Moon is obviously a crescent, so it can’t have just risen. If it’s just about to set after sunset, then is must just have been a new moon (because a new moon sets at sunset and the moon rises later each day), which means its phase would be a waxing crescent. Waxing refers to the fact that it is on its way from being new to being full, and the crescent refers to its curved shape.

Another thing we know about the Moon is that its lit side always faces the Sun. For example, the lit side of a full moon points right back at us, because from its perspective the Sun shines on it from behind us. If the Sun has just set, and the Moon is just about to set as well, then the lit side of the Moon must be facing the Sun. As the Sun sets in the west, this means the lit side of the Moon should also be facing west if it is a waxing crescent.

In the picture from the Simpsons, which we’ve established should be a waxing crescent, the lit side of the Moon is facing to the left. But remember, if you look at the Moon from the northern hemisphere you must be looking to your south, so west should be on your right. So if the waxing crescent moon is lit on its left, then you must be looking north to see it, which means you’re in the southern hemisphere.


Unfortunately, a lot of pop culture doesn’t get the Moon and its phases right. I know it’s such a tiny thing, and typically when they don’t get it quite right I can’t say I mind too much (although I often can’t help but notice), but I really love it when they put in that extra bit of effort to get it correct.

Almost all video games with day/night cycles where you can see the sky have the Moon orbit in 24 hours. Some of them include phases, although technically if your Moon always rises at sunset then it should always be full. I can forgive video games fairly easily though, I’m probably the only person who cares and I understand it could take significant development time to get proper lunar phases in. The only example I can think of that gets it right is Kerbal Space Program, where accurate celestial mechanics is an important part of the game.

Some books have issues with the Moon as well. Last year I was reading the book Ship of Theseus, and one scene describes the protagonist seeing the crescent moon rise as it gets dark. But crescent moons never rise as the Sun sets, light simply doesn’t work that way.

Movies often have trouble with it as well. The worst offender I’ve seen is the final scene from the movie Cloud Atlas:

Final scene from the movie Cloud Atlas

Final scene from the movie Cloud Atlas

Remembering that the lit side of a moon points towards its sun, and this applies even with multiple moons, that image implies some very strange things about the nature of light.

I’d love to see more media put more effort into getting this right. I know that one author who paid particular attention to this detail was J.R.R. Tolkien, who tried hard to get the phases of the Moon consistent with his dates when writing The Lord of the Rings and apparently did a pretty good job of it too.

My favourite example of well-documented in-depth world building doesn’t involve the Moon but I’d like to share it here anyway. My brother Jeremy (who’s currently working as a concept artist at Weta Workshop, a job he got soon after leaving Uni) worked on creating a deep and internally consistent fictional history to earn his masters degree in 2013. He ended up creating a fake National Geographic article from 1932 recounting the reporter’s visit to the settlement of Elkwood. The article only scratched the surface of all the thought he put into the work, if you want to see what he came up with you can read both the article and his exegesis explaining his research methods here: Creating Elkwood: building an alternate history

When fictional worlds are deep and internally consistent they become that much more enriched. If you know of any that have represented lunar cycles particularly well (or particularly poorly) let me know in the comments.

Irradiation of Food and Compulsory Labelling

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Queensland Fruit Fly | Photo by James Niland

Queensland Fruit Fly | Photo by James Niland

Biosecurity is a big issue for New Zealand. Being a group of islands fairly isolated from all other landmasses and having quite a unique native ecosystem (many native birds with no native mammalian predators and few native land mammals), we have a lot to lose from introduced species. There are also biological threats to industry that we have to try really hard to keep out of the country, such as Queensland fruit fly. There’s good reason why the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI, formerly MAF) reacted so strongly when one of these flies was found in Whangarei in April 2014. If enough of these flies made it into New Zealand to self perpetuate, they could cause massive damage to New Zealand’s $5 billion horticulture industry.

In order to kill off any biosecurity risks, including disease-causing organisms and foodborne pests, various treatments (also known as “phytosanitary actions” when used on plant products) can be used when importing products into New Zealand. Different products that can be imported each have an Import Health Standard (IHS) that documents the process of importing them.

For fruit and vegetables being imported, they need to come with a phytosanitary certificate from their country of origin, to say that either they have been inspected by someone from MPI and they couldn’t find any pests, they come from a certified pest free area, or they have been treated to kill any pests. A sample of the products is also inspected by MPI when arriving in New Zealand, and if any pests are found then the products will have to be treated if they are to enter New Zealand.

The treatment used depends on a few things, such as what pest was found that they’re trying to kill. For example, assuming I’m interpreting the IHS correctly, if Thrips palmi is found in a shipment of capsicum from Australia it would be fumigated with methyl bromide at 32 g/m3 for 2 hours. Whereas if Conogethes punctiferalis were found, then the capsicum would be irradiated with a minimum dose of 250 Gy (Grays; 1 Gray is equivalent to 1 Joule of energy absorbed per kg of food).

EDIT 2015/02/01:

The previous paragraph is incorrect. Those treatments are the ones that should appear on the phytosanitary certificate, having been performed in the country of origin. The treatments done if a pest is found when they arrive in New Zealand are determined in the Approved Biosecurity Treatments Standard. So for fresh fruit and vegetables (page 37), if insects except for fruit flies (not slugs and spiders) are found then they have to be fumigated with methyl bromide at a particular rate and temperature for a particular duration (presumably depending on the pest and the produce). Looking at this standard, it seems human food doesn’t get irradiated if pests are found when it arrives in New Zealand. According to MPI’s list of treatment providers (direct PDF download), there is only one facility in New Zealand able to provide food irradiation, which is in Wellington.


Methyl bromide is an insecticide, and it’s also recognised as an ozone-depleting substance. Because of this, its use is tightly controlled. It’s only allowed to be used for a few specific purposes, one of which is quarantine, and New Zealand has to provide statistical data to the Ozone Secretariat on the annual amount of methyl bromide that we use. It’s nasty stuff – even skin contact with high enough concentration of the gas can cause severe blistering – but after being used to fumigate food it apparently dissipates fairly rapidly. There are some objects that MPI won’t fumigate with methyl bromide for various reasons, which are described in their info sheet I linked to above.

Irradiation is quite different. Using either Cobalt 60, x-rays, or an electron beam food is blasted with a specific amount of ionising radiation. Cobalt 60 is a radioactive source of this radiation, but as it emits gamma rays instead of neutrons it doesn’t make anything else around it radioactive. Both x-rays and electron beams are created by non-radioactive sources and can be switched on and off.

When food is irradiated, the process kills any organisms that are living in the food, including disease-causing organisms and pests. The food does not become radioactive, instead it will just be slightly warmed from the energy it absorbs. Also, the radiation will trigger some chemical changes, but these occur only in amounts comparable to heat treatments. In this way it’s quite similar to the process of pasteurisation used to make milk safe to drink.

In 2010, following an extensive literature search, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published their Scientific Opinion on the Chemical Safety of Irradiation of Food. They found that the new evidence published since their previous decision in 2003 wasn’t enough to change their opinion that “there is not an immediate cause for concern” regarding the safety of irradiated food.

Irradiated Food symbol | FSANZ

Irradiated Food symbol | FSANZ

The strongest negative evidence they found seemed to be a case in which cats ate a diet consisting largely or entirely of highly irradiated (25.7 to 53.6 kGy, i.e. 100 to 200 times as much as in the capsicum example from earlier) cat food and subsequently suffered from leukoencephalomyelopathy (LEM). This evidence doesn’t necessarily have any relevance to humans though; in another report dogs ate the same pet food and didn’t exhibit LEM. Also, as the incident was only linked to one specific lot of one specific brand of pet food it’s unclear if irradiation was the culprit at all.

Even though irradiated food appears to be entirely safe to eat and not significantly different from food that hasn’t been irradiated, it is currently compulsory to label irradiated food in New Zealand under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code Standard 1.5.3.

MPI’s Food Smart website has an informative page on food irradiation. It’s quite clear on several important points (you can read their full answers on the page):

Does irradiation change food?

At the approved doses, changes to the nutritional value of the food caused by irradiation are insignificant and do not pose any public health and safety concerns.

Some treated foods may taste slightly different, just as pasteurized milk tastes slightly different from unpasteurized milk. There are no other significant changes to these foods.

Does irradiation make food radioactive?

No.

Is it safe to eat irradiated food?

Yes. Irradiation of food does not make the food unsafe to eat.

The World Health Organisation, the Food and Drug Administration in the US and the American Medical Association all agree that irradiated food products are safe to eat.

The FDA’s page on food irradition has an informative “Debunking Irradiation Myths” inset:

Irradiation does not make foods radioactive, compromise nutritional quality, or noticeably change the taste, texture, or appearance of food. In fact, any changes made by irradiation are so minimal that it is not easy to tell if a food has been irradiated.

FDA

It also states that:

FDA has evaluated the safety of irradiated food for more than thirty years and has found the process to be safe. The World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have also endorsed the safety of irradiated food.

FDA


Earlier this week, the Herald published an article by Sue Kedgley on irradiated food. In my opinion that article is a load of unscientific scaremongering. Here are a few excerpts that appear clearly intended to be more emotive than informative:

But irradiated food is anything but fresh. It’s been exposed to radiation doses that are between three and 15 million times the strength of x-rays. The Brisbane radiation facility uses Cobalt 60 to irradiate food, a radioactive material that is manufactured in Canadian nuclear reactors, and shipped to Australia in special unbreakable steel canisters.

I visited the Brisbane irradiation facility in 2004. Boxes of food travel by conveyor belt into an irradiation “chamber”. The irradiation process breaks down the molecular structure of food; destroys vitamins in food, and creates free radicals and other “radiolytic compounds” that have never been found in nature, and whose effect on human health is not known.

Also of concern is the fact that in 2008 the Australian Government was forced to ban irradiated cat food after more than 80 cats died or became seriously ill after eating irradiated cat food.

This begs the question – if cats can die, or become ill from eating irradiated cat food, what could be the cumulative effect on humans of eating significant quantities of irradiated food? There’s no benefit to New Zealand consumers, and only risks to our growers, from imported irradiated produce.

Her comment that irradiation “breaks down the molecular structure of food [and] destroys vitamins in food” is quite at odds with the evidence that the nutritional content of irradiated foods are not changed significantly. This statement is entirely blown out of proportion, it’s like describing a papercut as having “ripped my flesh apart”.

She also doesn’t mention any of the details regarding the cat food incident, such as that their diet consisted largely or wholly of food irradiated 100-200 times as much as human food generally is, that the same food seemed to have no negative effects when eaten by dogs, or that the incident was only linked to one specific lot of one brand of cat food. How it relates to humans consuming irradiated food, if it has any implications on that at all, is not clear but her reaction is just scaremongering.

Her article appears to have been prompted by a couple of changes to the regulations that are being considered:

FSANZ is currently assessing Application A1092 seeking permission to irradiate twelve specific fruits and vegetables. A call for submissions on our assessment is expected to be released in the second half of 2014.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand | Food irradiation

FSANZ plans to start work on recommendation 34 (that the requirement for mandatory labelling of irradiated food be reviewed) later this year.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand | Labelling review

Here’s a link to Application A1092. That page specifies the 12 fruits and vegetables involved as apple, apricot, cherry, nectarine, peach, plum, honeydew, rockmelon, strawberry, table grape, zucchini, and scallopini (squash).

Ms Kedgley describes these potential changes as:

the Government is about to approve the importation of irradiated apples, peaches, apricots and nine other fruit and vegetables from fruit fly-infested Queensland.

If they succeed, retailers will be able to sneak irradiated produce into the food chain, and it will be sold, unlabelled, as if it was “fresh”.

Surely consumers have a right to know whether the apples they are buying are fresh, or have been imported from Queensland and exposed to high doses of radiation to sterilise them and kill off potential fruit fly lava?

Red apple

Red apple | Photo by Abhijit Tembhekar

Looking at the IHS for fresh fruit and vegetables (direct PDF download), you can see that honeydew, rockmelon, strawberry, grape, zucchini, and scallopini are already included, they just aren’t yet allowed to be treated via irradiation. As far as I can tell the others – apple, apricot, cherry, nectarine, peach, and plum – can’t currently be imported from Australia.

Given that the entire function of irradiating food is to kill unwanted organisms such as Queensland fruit fly larva, I think it seems disingenuous of Ms Kedgley to repeatedly refer to it as though allowing these products in will bring Queensland fruit fly to New Zealand. The reason why we can’t currently import these products is because of that fly, but allowing them to be treated by irradiation would let us safely import them.

On the issue of labelling, this seems to be a very similar issue to compulsory labelling of genetically modified foods and foods containing genetically modified ingredients (this is currently mostly compulsory in New Zealand). In that case, as with food irradiation, opposition generally seems to be driven by idealogical issues with the technology used or misinformed beliefs that it’s somehow unsafe, even though it’s entirely safe. It’s effectively a lose/lose situation – if labelling isn’t mandatory then “What are they trying to hide?” but if it is mandatory then “They wouldn’t have to put it on the label if it wasn’t bad for you”.

If you want to oppose the addition of those 6 new fruits to the list of foods that can be imported from Australia on the basis of supporting New Zealand farmers then okay, that’s a different argument altogether that has nothing to do with irradiation. There doesn’t seem to be much reason to oppose this on grounds that irradiated food may be unsafe to eat though.

Foods are not allowed to be irradiated unless they have been through a pre-market safety assessment process conducted by FSANZ

http://www.foodsmart.govt.nz/elibrary/food_irradiation_.htm

Given that irradiated food doesn’t appear to be unsafe, is there really any reason to keep labelling of irradiated food compulsory? If anything, isn’t compulsory labelling most likely to make people think that means it’s bad or unsafe when it isn’t? If it’s all about allowing consumers to make informed decisions, that would be rather counterproductive.


I’m lucky enough to know someone who’s a food scientist. Claire Suen has an MSc in Food Science from the University of Auckland, and I contacted her to ask for her thoughts on the process of food irradiation. Here are some of the things she had to say in response to some of the common arguments opposing food irradiation:

[Irradiation] changes the nature of food: carcinogenic, loss of nutrients etc.

So does cooking, burning toast, deep frying, etc. Irradiation causes minute changes to the food and some loss of nutrients such as vitamins, but these have all been thoroughly researched and the results are readily available. In short, no significant changes to the food have been found.

Regarding the lost of nutrients, I usually point out to people that this is negligible considering the nature of the food.

FSANZ have published some comprehensive risk assessment reports in the past, and using the latest report on tomato as an example:

Nevertheless, even assuming an upper estimate of vitamin A and C loss of 15% following irradiation from all fresh tomatoes, capsicums and tropical fruits (with existing irradiation permissions), estimated mean dietary intakes of these vitamins would decrease by 2% or less and remain above Estimated Average Requirements following irradiation at doses up to 1 kGy, with dietary intake typically derived from a wide range of foods.

The impact of cooking and storage time on nutrients in food is far more severe than the effects of irradiation.

Here’s a link to that FSANZ report on Irradiation of Tomatoes & Capsicums (direct DOC download)

There are better alternatives

Irradiated food saves cost for the manufacturers/importers/supermarkets because it eliminates otherwise costly alternatives.

Methyl bromide for example, is not 100% effective against insect eggs and larva, particularly if they are buried inside the fruit or seed. Storage pest such as beetles and weevils are extremely difficult to control and often need a combination of methods such as heat treatment, and fumigation. For herbs and spices, irradiation can be used to control pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli. No other method is as effective. But because consumers in NZ are against it, we have to use methods such as steam sterilisation and heat treatment, which impacts on the flavour and quality of the product. Consumers sometimes do not understand the amount of work MPI and the importers have to do to make sure foreign organisms do not get in the country. All it will take is a slack importer, a missed check, or an incomplete fumigation. What of the products that have to be destroyed due to microorganism contamination, or spoilage? If they had been irradiated, this wastage wouldn’t happen.

We don’t need irradiation since we can just buy local products

Unfortunately NZ is a small country and we have limited produce. I’m not saying we can’t get by without EVER importing anything, but, it seems to me that these people don’t realise just what the consequences are. Sure, we don’t have to import apples, or nectarines, but what about the tropical fruits not grown locally? Or spices? Let’s not eat fresh mango again, or curries, since pepper used to be worth its weight in gold because it’s not grown in Europe. We can’t get away from importing and by not using irradiation, NZ business have to use more costly, and less effective alternatives, which means all these cost are passed ultimately onto the consumers. I understand people’s concern that this will hurt local producers, but that is a question of economy and has nothing to do with the safety of irradiated food.

Now coming to the question of labelling

Unfortunately, it’s a no-win situation. If we label then consumers will think something is wrong with it, if we don’t label it’s as if we are hiding something. There is simply no way to beat that logic. In my opinion, if we don’t label products which have been heat treated, or fumigated, then we shouldn’t need to label for irradiation. But because consumer backlash is so strong, I wouldn’t want to give haters a chance to play the “Ah ha you are hiding something” or “give me my freedom of choice” card.

I say let’s put irradiated fruits on the shelves and label it as such so I can chose to buy it because it will be cheaper and better!

I think that last point says it all really. As a food scientist, Claire is quite familiar with the topic of food irradiation, and she would choose to preferentially buy irradiated food because she understands the process to be safe, effective, and not detrimental to the food.

ACC and Acupuncture 3

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I’ve written a couple of times in the past about ACC and Acupuncture:

To summarise, in 2014 a couple of Official Information Act (OIA) requests to ACC uncovered information about how much they had spent on acupuncture treatments over the past decade, as well as a more detailed breakdown of how much was spent on acupuncture used for different categories of injury (the detailed breakdown also included data for 2013/2014).

Information released in parliament in 2004 also revealed how much money ACC spent on acupuncture in the decade from 1994-2004, as well as projections on how much they expected to spend on acupuncture from 2004-2009.

As you can see from the chart below, their projections turned out to be rather inaccurate, and ACC spending on acupuncture has been absolutely booming:

ACC Acupuncture 1994-2014

In August, I submitted my own OIA request asking for:

copies of or links to all literature reviews regarding the effectiveness of acupuncture for any condition undertaken by ACC

I was told that:

There are only two ACC literature reviews on the efficacy of acupuncture.

It was with this information that I wrote my previous two posts on this topic. Here are the important parts of those reviews’ conclusions:

The evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture is most convincing for the treatment of chronic neck and shoulder pain. In terms of other injuries, the evidence is either inconclusive or insufficient.

There is limited good quality evidence to conclusively determine acupuncture’s efficacy in treatment of mental health conditions such as Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymia, Anxiety Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.


When I went to write on this topic again last year during “Acupuncture Awareness Week”, I found two more ACC literature reviews on the efficacy of acupuncture (as well as other treatments) on the ACC website:

On the topic of acupuncture, these reviews concluded that:

The evidence is either weak or absent for:

acupuncture

current evidence does not support the use of acupuncture to treat people with [Traumatic Brain Injury].

Feeling rather frustrated that ACC’s response to my earlier request (which arrived less than 2 weeks before last year’s September election) was apparently false, I sent a more specific followup:

I would like to reiterate my request to be provided with copies of or links to all literature reviews regarding the effectiveness of acupuncture for any condition undertaken by ACC. For the sake of clarity, I would like to be explicit that this includes both reviews that looked at several treatment options including acupuncture, and reviews that were commissioned by ACC as well as those directly undertaken by ACC.

I hope anyone reading this would agree that this followup should absolutely not have been necessary, and all the information I was requesting here should have been provided in ACC’s response to my original request before they’d be breaking the law.

However, when ACC finally acknowledged my request over a week after having received it, they maintained that “the information provided to [me] on 3 September 2014 was complete” and that this was therefore a new, separate OIA request. Because of the break over summer, this gave them until the 20th of January to respond to my request.

At 4 o’clock in the afternoon on the 20th of January, I heard back from ACC with an answer that essentially felt like “find the information yourself, it’s online”. Instead of providing me with copies of or links to any reviews, they told me the name of one review commissioned by ACC and that it could be found online, and provided me with 2 links to pages on their website that listed all of their reviews.

Interestingly, although I don’t believe the 2011 review has been released except in response to an OIA request, it was not mentioned in ACC’s response and they told me that:

ACC does not hold any other information that has not been published.

Having taken some time to go through all the reviews found on the pages I was linked to in order to find all those which mention acupuncture, I came up with the following list. As well as a link to the review and its title and date where I could find one, I am quoting the relevant conclusions below.

Although they have told me so incorrectly in the past, I have ACC’s word that these are all the ACC literature reviews that evaluate acupuncture. As you can see, they are inconclusive or negative for all but a few specific conditions: Frozen shoulder, chronic neck pain, chronic shoulder pain.

In 2014 ACC spent $30,000 on acupuncture to treat burns, $59,000 on acupuncture for concussion and brain injury, and $591,000 on acupuncture for fracture and dislocation. They apparently spent $22,592,000 on acupuncture for soft tissue injuries, but I find it highly unlikely that all of this money was used to treat frozen shoulder, chronic neck pain, and chronic shoulder pain.

ACC’s expenditure on acupuncture shows no sign of slowing. It grew 17% from 2011/12 to 2012/13, then a further 17% from 2012/13 to 2013/14, leaving the expenditure for 2013/14 at over $24,000,000. It’s certainly not a large part of ACC’s total expenditure, but it’s no small sum of money.

ACC is publicly funded. Publicly funded healthcare should be based on rigorous evidence. ACC does not appear to have evidence that would allow them to conclude that acupuncture is an effective treatment for any more than these conditions. It is well past time for ACC to re-evaluate their expenditure on acupuncture. It should only be funded when used to treat conditions in a way that is supported by rigorous evidence, and that is certainly not the case currently.

I will end this post the same way as I have ended my previous posts on this topic, with my recommendations for how ACC should deal with this issue:


I think ACC needs to review its funding scheme for acupuncture. I think their approach to this should start with reviewing their Acupuncture Treatment Profiles document, ensuring that the only treatments contained within it are those supported by rigorous evidence, and purging pseudoscientific claims from it. If they find they need to undertake further reviews of the evidence for the use of acupuncture for particular indications, then they should do that before approving funding for it.

I think ACC should then only agree to pay for acupuncture treatments that are aligned with their Treatment Profiles document, which they should commit to reviewing at regular intervals to keep it in line with the latest evidence (I’m not sure what time interval would be most appropriate, and I understand that there is a cost involved in that work).

I’m not sure, but it’s possible some changes to legislation may be required before this becomes a reality, but if that’s the case those changes should happen. A government body should not be bound by law to fund healthcare that is not supported by evidence.

There’s one last thing I’d also like to see, although I really feel like this is a long shot. I think ACC should take an active role in discouraging healthcare practice based on the “pre-scientific notions” described in their 2011 review. I think they should do this by distancing themselves from those acupuncturists who promote it and who base their practice on it, by refusing to grant them status as registered ACC practitioners if they are found to rely on it.

Written by Mark Hanna

2015/01/20 at 6:30 pm

Oakura Bay Rocks Expedition

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Ever since I was a child, I’ve spent my summers at Oakura Bay. It’s a really lovely beach on the east coast of New Zealand, about 3 hours’ drive north of Auckland. My father’s family has been coming here since he was a child, and for the past 16 years we’ve been lucky enough to have a fantastic bach here.

One of my favourite things at this bay is the fantastic rocks. Near our end of the beach, there is a rocky peninsula accessible only at low tide, and it’s an absolute treasure trove.

Last night I had a really interesting conversation about the stuff I found there with fellow Sciblogger Victoria Metcalf, prompted by one of her tweets about what she and her daughter had found around a similar set of rocks:

One thing I’ve got in the habit of doing in my trips to the rocks is collecting any paua shells I found. In order to carry them more easily, I’d stack them together to hold in one hand, and I ended up quite enjoying how that looked so developed a habit of it. Here are some stacks I’ve collected that we keep on a windowsill back at our bach:

I’ve noticed, in doing this, that some paua shells are more curved than others, which makes them very difficult to stack:

I’m really glad I mentioned this, as now I finally understand why that is:

After being encouraged by this chat we had last night, today I took my phone with me to the rocks so I could share what one of these trips is like, and perhaps find answers to a few more questions I had. Unfortunately my phone died near the end, but I’m quite happy with how much I managed to capture.

If you missed it on Twitter, here are the tweets from my trip. Unfortunately it seems Twitter compressed some of the photos a little too aggressively, so I’m afraid in some case it might be tough to see some of the things I’m trying to point out.

If you see I’ve called anything by the wrong name or if you have anything more to add, please let me know in the comments:

Oops, by “thung” I meant to say “thing”

“thus” should be “this”

I meant to say “damp” instead of “damn” here

If I were paying more attention last night, I might have remembered that Victoria had mentioned that these creatures are called chitons:

“are’of” should be “area of”

Written by Mark Hanna

2015/01/06 at 5:28 pm

Posted in New Zealand

Tagged with ,

New Zealand Skeptics Conference: Fighting Pseudoscience

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Over the weekend, I attended the New Zealand Skeptics Conference at Auckland University. It was a great weekend, with consistently good speakers. Not only did we have the hosts of the popular Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast and George Hrab from the Geologic podcast over from America, we also had a lot of fantastic local speakers like Nicola Gaston and Michelle Dickinson (Nanogirl).

If you weren’t able to attend and want to know what you missed, the conference program is currently still available online. I think the website will be reused for next year’s conference in Christchurch though so that won’t last forever.

As well attending some really great talks, I was also able to meet a lot of people who I’d previously only spoken to online. Nicola, Michelle, Jonny, Will, and everyone else I met over the weekend, it was wonderful to meet you all! I was also rather honoured to be given the “Skeptic of the Year” award at the conference dinner, for my consumer advocacy work and for helping to found the Society for Science Based Healthcare.

If you have a close look at the conference program, you might notice that I was scheduled to hold a workshop on “Fighting Pseudoscience” on the Saturday afternoon. As I have done with my previous talk at Auckland Skeptics in the Pub, I’d like to put my slides from this up online. Here they are:

If you view them on Google Drive (click the “Google Slides” link in the lower right) you’ll also be able to see my notes for each slide.

I think the workshop went really well, there was a lot of good discussion with the audience and I hope I was able to motivate some of them enough to make complaints of their own. Unfortunately I was only able to get through a single example in the time I had instead of the four I had prepared, but that was due to the time spent in discussion with the audience so it wasn’t really a problem.

Siouxsie was kind enough to get a few copies of the Ponsonby News (which it’s always fun to hear her rant about on the Completely Unnecessary Skeptical Podcast) to pass around the audience, and a few people found advertisements in the health section that seemed likely to be misleading.

There were also a couple of copies of the Advertising Standards Authority’s Codes Booklet that I was able to pass around the audience (thanks to Lisa Taylor for letting me borrow her code booklet for this). A few people asked me afterwards how they could get one of these booklets. One option would be to email the ASA to ask for one or to tick the box asking if you’d like one when you submit a complaint online. Another option is to print the PDF yourself. The ASA’s codes are all available on their website too, so don’t feel like you have to print the PDF if you’re happy to use an online reference.

Finally, everyone who attended my talk got a copy of a “Complaining Cheat Sheet” that I’d put together for the Society for Science Based Healthcare (thanks to Nancy Lan for helping me a lot with the design). The idea behind this was that it can feel like quite a task to go through the ASA’s codes to find out which sections of which codes an ad might violate, especially if you’re not already familiar with them. This cheat sheet can serve as a quick reference to some of the most commonly violated sections of the ASA’s codes, as well as a guide to how to prepare and submit a complaint.

I’ve embedded the complaining cheat sheet below, and it’s available via the Society for Science Based Healthcare’s website: Complaining Cheat Sheet

Please download it, print it, share it widely, and most importantly use it. It was made to make it easier for anyone to complain about misleading advertising in New Zealand, so the next time you see an ad that you think is misleading, instead of just being annoyed try complaining. Together we can make New Zealand a safer environment for consumers.

Copper & Magnetic Healing: How to Respond to Complaints

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Last Saturday, I was in a store that had a display on their counter advertising copper and magnetic jewellery:

Copper & Magnetic Healing

As you may be aware, claims that copper jewellery are able to help with arthritis are relatively common, although the evidence is pretty negative. The claim about magnets attracting iron in your blood and thereby increasing circulation is pure pseudoscience though. Usually, if I do something about an ad like this, I lay a complaint directly with the Advertising Standards Authority. This time though, I thought I’d try directly contacting the store to see if they’d fix this situation without requiring any regulatory intervention.

You can read the full email I sent to the company at the bottom of this post, but essentially I described the regulations around claims in advertising needing to be substantiated, and gave some evidence that these claims probably weren’t substantiated. Here’s what I recommended as a course of action:

I understand that these claims were likely supplied to [your store] by the supplier of the copper and magnetic jewellery, and that no one at [your store] has had any intention of misleading your customers. I recommend that you immediately remove the “Copper & Magnetic Healing” display, and contact the manufacturer to ask them for evidence to substantiate these claims. Unless you are in possession of such evidence, you should avoid making therapeutic claims regarding these products.

I’ve had a wide variety of responses from my ASA complaints in the past, so I wasn’t sure how I should expect this business to respond. To make sure my email wouldn’t just be ignored, I asked them to get back to me within a week to let me know what they’d do, so I could know whether or not I should complain to the ASA.

In this case, I was very impressed to hear back from them the next day to tell me that the stores had been advised to remove the displays and they would contact their supplier to ask for evidence to substantiate the claims they’d provided. They also seemed to realise that the chance of the supplier being able to give the kind of evidence required was pretty slim.

A couple of days after that, I heard back from them again to confirm that, as expected, their supplier was unable to provide evidence that would substantiate the claims made about the jewellery. Because of this, they told me that from now on they would only advertise them as jewellery – not “healing jewellery” or anything like that.

I’m very happy to have seen such prompt and responsible action taking following a complaint. I hope this can serve as an example to other businesses.


If you see a therapeutic claim advertised somewhere, and you think it might not be backed up appropriately by scientific evidence, perhaps consider doing something about it. A good start could be to just ask for evidence. If you’d like them to remove a claim if it turns out not to be backed up by evidence, you can recommend that they do this (and your recommendation will be backed up by the Fair Trading Act).

If they refuse, which I would hope is unlikely, then you could lay a complaint with the ASA. The ASA requires that advertisers must be able to substantiate therapeutic claims that they make; it’s not up to you to prove them false, it’s up to advertisers to prove them correct.

If you do contact a business about a claim they’re making, I would suggest a few things:

  1. Be polite. This costs you nothing, and if you come across as rude or antagonistic it’s not going to lead to a productive exchange.
  2. Recommend a course of action. Ideally make it something that is easy for the business to do.
  3. Give an ultimatum. This should still be polite, but I would recommend asking the business to tell you what they’re going to do within a certain timeframe (such as one week) so you’ll know whether or not it’s necessary to bring their claim to the attention of the Advertising Standards Authority.

If you’re interested in doing something about a dodgy medical claim, the Society for Science Based Healthcare can help you to understand the regulation and put together a complaint.


This is the email I sent to the store on Sunday, with the name of the store removed:

To whom it may concern,

I was in [your store] earlier today, and I noticed a display for copper and magnetic bangles and rings on the counter (see photograph attached).

This display contained a number of therapeutic claims about the products. As I hope you are aware, the Advertising Standards Authority requires that all therapeutic claims made in advertisements must be truthful and have been substantiated (see their Therapeutic Products Advertising Code Principle 2). Similarly, the Fair Trading Act 1986 Section 12A states that unsubstantiated representations must not be made in trade.

To my knowledge, none of the therapeutic claims made on the display are substantiated.

A systematic review of the evidence regarding the use of static magnets for reducing pain, published in 2007, found that “The evidence does not support the use of static magnets for pain relief, and therefore magnets cannot be recommended as an effective treatment.”

Relatively little research has been done on the use of copper bracelets for pain relief, but a well-designed trial published in 2009 found that “Our results indicate that magnetic and copper bracelets are generally ineffective for managing pain, stiffness, and physical function in osteoarthritis. Reported therapeutic benefits are most likely attributable to non-specific placebo effects.”

The Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint in 2013 against claims made on the Woolrest Biomag website, partly due to the fact that their claims that the magnets in their products can increase circulation by “drawing trace elements, for instance, iron, towards the magnets” and by causing “blood vessels to dilate” did not appear to be supported by any evidence and were therefore likely to mislead consumers.

I understand that these claims were likely supplied to [your store] by the supplier of the copper and magnetic jewellery, and that no one at [your store] has had any intention of misleading your customers. I recommend that you immediately remove the “Copper & Magnetic Healing” display, and contact the manufacturer to ask them for evidence to substantiate these claims. Unless you are in possession of such evidence, you should avoid making therapeutic claims regarding these products.

Please reply to this email by the 23rd of November to inform me of what action you will be taking, so I will know whether or not it will be necessary for me to lay a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority to settle this matter.

Sincerely,

Mark Hanna
Society for Science Based Healthcare

Written by Mark Hanna

2014/11/21 at 5:10 pm

We Landed on a Comet

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So, last night was exciting. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) robotic spaceship Rosetta arrived at the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August, after an amazing journey comprising of over 10 years and four gravity slingshots. Last night, it separated from its lander module, Philae, and sent it to touch down on the surface of the comet.

What I’ve been able to gather from watching the live stream last night and what I saw on Twitter when I woke up groggily for 2 minutes at 5:15 this morning is that not everything went to plan, but the landing seems to have been successful.

Philae (the lander) has several devices to make the landing easier. One of these is a “cold gas thruster”, a small engine to push it gently into the surface of the comet so it wouldn’t bounce off (remember the comet has extremely little gravity relative to something like the Earth or Moon). This engine failed to start working before the spacecraft separated, but the team decided to go ahead with the landing anyway.

Another device Philae has to help with the landing is a pair of harpoons to skewer the surface, but these also failed to fire. As far as I know they’re not sure yet why they failed, but Philae did make it to the surface, so the comet landing was a success.

The ESA be getting data back from Philae but I don’t think they know yet how it landed or where exactly it is relative to the landing site. There’s a danger it could be on its side, for example, which would prevent some of the experiments it’s carrying on board from going ahead. Time will tell, though.

A photo of the comet taken from Philae when it was only 3 km away has been posted to the official Twitter account:

Photo credit to European Space Agency, ROLIS camera on Philae

Photo credit to European Space Agency, ROLIS camera on Philae

UPDATE 2014/11/14

Since the landing a few other things have come to light. First, presumably because the harpoons failed to fire, Philae bounced of the surface twice. Although it bounced pretty much straight up, the comet was rotating beneath it so its final landing zone is a few hundred metres away.

Also, Philae has landed on its side. It’s still taking photographs and sending back data, so that’s good, but the fact that it’s on its side may mean that some of its experiments may not be able to go ahead. Phil Plait has a good write up explaining these updated on Bad Astronomy and Emily Lakdawalla has a more detailed one on her blog the Planetary Society.

Written by Mark Hanna

2014/11/13 at 9:19 am

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