Skeptic News: Conversion “therapy” out, free expression under attack

Skeptic News: Conversion “therapy” out, free expression under attack

With Labour in, conversion “therapy” is on the way out, we are saddened by the passing of James Randi, and reflect on the murder of Samuel Paty.

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

Conversion therapy on the way out, The Amazing Randi trolling psychics, and terrorism in France.

The NZ Skeptics newsletter email, out to you after Labour day. Have you planted your tomatoes yet? Keeping you up to date with the latest skeptical news from around New Zealand and overseas.

NZ Skeptics have been organising some exciting merch! Keep your eyes open for news soon about how you can get your hands on NZ Skeptics t-shirts, tea-towels and more…

Auckland University Professor Richard Easther @REasther tweeted “DO. NOT. STOP. USING. THE. DAMN APP.” In response to statistics showing a marked decline in New Zealanders using the government’s Covid tracer app. It seems people’s ability to understand threats is great if it involves a large creature with teeth, but not so great if it involves an invisible virus. Skeptics should follow the science, and the science is telling us we need to retain good contact tracing practices or any new outbreak will be harder to track and contain. I for one have been using that damn app.
We found many people being highly skeptical of Facebook after it’s move to ban anti-vaccination ads and QANON groups, meanwhile, they remain lurking down the rabbit hole over on YouTube.

Jacinda Ardern can now move to ban conversion therapy and reform gender law. She had promised to do so, provided she had the numbers in parliament. Now the people have given Labour the numbers, there will be nothing stopping this coming into force. This is great news for the LGBT+ community and anyone who cares about human rights. Conversion therapy is an idea promoted by religion. It does not work and is cruel psychological torture, based on the misguided idea that you can pray the gay away. Forcing people to pretend to be who they are not to pass for what is acceptable by their community hurts them. I feel strongly that it is the community who needs to change and learn to accept everyone for who they are.

Mediawatch reported that the broadcasting watchdog upheld a complaint about misleading COVID-19 claims by ZB’s Mike Hosking. It wasn’t the only time he misread the stats and misled his listeners. If you can stand listening to Mr. Hosking, well, wow. Let’s just say I’d rather watch Uri Geller bend spoons all day long.
The work Ken Ring Weather Check @RingCheck does on twitter impresses me, so I’d like to throw some love their way. With persistence and attention to detail @RingCheck picks apart the random dross Ken Ring throws our way disguised as insightful and spiritually guided premonitions about weather and earthquakes. In a recent tweet @RingCheck said “Astrology has abandoned Ken in Australia now. The whole continent seems to be oblivious to the transit of Uranus through Scorpio. Must have slipped into another dimension using the “astrological energy grid of the constellations”. So, if you like a good debunking, bring your popcorn and enjoy.
The Spinoff published an article by Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris about how to bridge the gap with someone who’s been pulled in by disinformation. This is the story of people calming down and listening, rather than point scoring and repeating facts at the other person. Kindness is the key to changing someone’s mind.

Excited about:
Tim Caufield’s new book ‘Relax, Dammit!: A User’s Guide to the Age of Anxiety’ Caufield says that too often “decisions are dictated by concerns or beliefs about our world that simply aren’t true”. True that.

After the very sad news of The Amazing Randi’s passing, The Onion let us know he is already bothering psychics from beyond the grave. We would expect nothing less. Also, ha ha ha ha ha ha!
On a New Zealand tour back in 1993 he gave a lecture at Canturbury University. Were you there? Do let us know!
This writer’s other half was lucky enough to have attended the lecture, as he was studying at Canterbury at the time. It turns out NZ Skeptics actually had recordings of the event, on VHS, and were mailing them out to people on request. On learning this we’ve begun an investigation to see if we can find a copy of the recording and from there see if it’s possible to get it into some type of form that would be publishable online. I’m very curious to see it, and to see if my now husband, who would have been just 18 at the time might have been captured on camera too. Watch this space.

According to issue 29 of New Zealand Skeptic James Randi’s talks were so well received, NZ Skeptics received a bump in membership and had the best attended conference up till that point. We were also very excited that he came to thank us in person for our small contribution to his efforts to fight a legal battle with Uri Geller. The case was brought by Geller who was offended to the tune of a cool 15 million dollars, by Randi’s suggestion that Geller’s tricks were “the kind that used to be on the back of serial boxes when I was a kid”. The court sided with Randi, and Geller was made to pay 120,000 in fees.

I’d like to finish with some words about the murder of French teacher Samuel Paty. His life was taken because some cowardly people felt so offended, and justified, they thought it was acceptable to end someone’s life. Being offended is ok. You can get over those feelings. They are just feelings. Your ideas are not you. Unfortunately, religion has a way of making you conflate your sense of self with your beliefs, so that some people feel justified to do extraordinarily grotesque things, even killing. Disagreeing with someone’s views is ok. Killing someone to protect ideas is terrorism.
After the events, the hastag #JeSuisProf started trending. From NZ Skeptics, #JeSuisProf.

Back in March 2019 white supremacist terrorism had hit us all hard and we stood together with the hashtag #TheyAreUs. White New Zealanders were forced to recognise the role we all play in the passive acceptance of racism in New Zealand, a foundation of lies and injustice that supports white supremacist terrorism, and the ongoing everyday racism that continues to injure so many with a thousand tiny cuts. Unfortunately, the ideology of white supremacy has a way of making you conflate your sense of self with your beliefs, so that some people feel justified to do extraordinarily grotesque things, even killing. Disagreeing with someone’s views is ok. Killing someone to protect your ideas is terrorism.

Now in October 2020 we stand with Mr. Paty’s family, friends and colleagues, everyone who was impacted by his death. Everyone who wants to talk honestly about controversial issues, for they should not have to fear doing so. Free expression is important and must be protected.





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NZ Skeptics Member Update

NZ Skeptics Member Update

An update about your NZ Skeptics membership

Dear member

What a year 2020 has been! Obviously unprecedented in many ways. We find ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic and lucky to find ourselves in a country which has sensibly listened to scientists and other experts. What a contrast we’ve seen between countries that have respected the science and those whose leaders have ignored it, taking a fairly cavalier attitude to the risks and dangers the virus presents.

We have some major changes coming up with the NZ Skeptics Society. 

Firstly, we trust that you’ve enjoyed receiving New Zealand Skeptic, the quarterly journal of NZ Skeptics Inc. The journal has been published for many years, but we’ve now taken the hard decision to stop publishing it. The Autumn 2020 issue, number 130 was our last issue.

The committee of NZ Skeptics has decided that the journal has “had its day” and to move to publishing more timely, online content, more frequently. Our plans are to publish a short regular newsletter (generally weekly, but sometimes life gets in the way), delivered via email, and to have more articles and blog-style pieces on our website. If you’re signed up to the alerts mailing list, you should have received this by now.

We hope you’ll find the new online-based content useful. We plan to cover New Zealand/Aotearoa-related content from a skeptical and science-related perspective. 

Delivering in email form will allow us to keep our members informed more frequently and hopefully encourage engagement and participation. It will also be more easily shareable with others who might not otherwise be exposed to a skeptical perspective on things. To that end, we’re going to be delivering the newsletter to anybody who’s signed up to the mailing list, not just members of the society. We see this as a way of spreading our message to a wider audience than just society membership would allow.

We’ve had some regular contributors to the journal over the years, and we hope to retain their voices, albeit in a slightly altered format. If you’re interested in writing content, we’d love to have you get in touch. Please contact us at [email protected] if you’d be interested in this. 

Speaking of the website, we’ve now refreshed the look, giving it a more modern feel, thanks to our committee member Amy, from Weka Web Design. Please make sure you check it out. We plan on adding more content and a special members’ only area in the near future.

As you’re probably aware, we normally run an annual conference. Last year’s in Christchurch was a stunning success. We had planned on running one this year in Wellington… then COVID hit. Then we planned on running an online conference, but, stressful as this year was, we could not pull things together in time. So, we have decided to forgo the conference this year, and plan on running an in-person one next year, on the assumption that things will be much more under control with the pandemic, hopefully with a vaccine in place. Things, we hope, will look very different in twelve months.

Finally, we’ve a couple of other items we think will be of interest to members. 

We’re currently setting up a page on the website where you’ll be able to order various NZ Skeptics merchandise – such as T-shirts, coffee mugs, tea towels and a few other specialty items. These items would make perfect Christmas gifts for the skeptical and not so skeptical amongst us.

Secondly, watch out in your physical mailbox in the next few weeks for a special item from us. We’re not revealing what this is yet, but we think you’ll like it.

As a committee we are interested in feedback on our decisions. If you’ve anything you’d like to let us know about, please contact us at the committee email: [email protected].

Best regards,
Craig Shearer
Chair, NZ Skeptics Inc.


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The case of the haunted house in Pukekohe

With the season of Hallowe’en approaching, what better time for a tale of haunting? The NZ Skeptics recently commented on the story of a purportedly haunted house in Pukekohe, currently occupied by Filipino workers. The story appeared in the NZ Herald this week.

Let’s have a look at what we know about the claimed evidence for the haunting, from the NZ Herald story:

  • Sounds, such as footsteps and crying, and somebody calling out one of the workers’ names.
  • Lights being switched on or off.
  • Descriptions of sleep paralysis
  • Awaking to a slap in the face but nobody in the room
  • Strange smells
  • Sudden drops in air temperature

A group of paranormal enthusiasts, Haunted NZ, has engaged with the workers, offering to investigate and cleanse the house of spirits.

The Haunted NZ people give a definition of what they consider to be a ghost:

“A ghost is a person who is no longer a corporeal being, they don’t have a body anymore, but they’re still the same person that they were before.”

It’s difficult to imagine how this would work. What we know, through experiments, is that the mind and consciousness result from brain function. Without an alive brain, there is no personality or consciousness that can continue to exist. To think otherwise is to support the well discredited idea of mind-body dualism.

The listed claims are all physical phenomena. How is it that non-physical entities could produce physical phenomena?

There are likely better explanations of the evidence that do not require the existence of spirits. Many of the experiences of the workers seem to have occurred around the time they fall sleep. Hypnogogic or hypnopompic hallucinations provide a good explanation for these phenomena. The brain, in a half-awake state, essentially paralyses your body. Hallucinations are also common during these times.

It is intriguing that some of the claimed phenomena align with conceptions of paranormal activity depicted in Hollywood movies. For example, the idea of somebody’s legs being grabbed and involuntarily raised and lowered is a trope. So, it appears that the workers’ experiences might well have been influenced by conceptions from popular culture.

What should we make of Haunted NZ’s claims to be able to rid the house of spirits?

Apparently, Haunted NZ will use a Wiccan approach, the “lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram” – basically magic incantations.

Haunted NZ will apparently also make use of a GeoPort spirit box. This device works by quickly scanning AM or FM radio frequencies to produce sounds that a primed mind might interpret as voices of spirits. We have a name for this – audio pareidolia – the ability of the human mind to find patterns in random noise and attach meaning to it. But, again, back to physical mechanisms – how are spirits able to influence these devices to produce the sounds?

It is plausible, however, that invocation of magic spells might well have a psychological effect on the current (physical) occupants of the house. Perhaps after the “cleansing”, the workers minds might be less inclined to put unexplained occurrences down to spirits.

The prior owners of the house also claimed to have experienced strange goings-on, and had the house blessed. Amusingly, they suggested that a previously-closed wardrobe door had been opened which let out whatever evil spirits lurked trapped within the house. What seems more likely is that rumours of the purported haunting were somehow passed on to the new occupants, thereby setting up an expectation in their minds.

From what we know about the house it is an old villa. As such, the idea of creaky floorboards and inadequate weather sealing producing creepy effects isn’t out of the realm of plausibility.

Haunted NZ have challenged NZ Skeptics to experience the reality of a haunted setting. We’ve been invited to spend a night at the Howick Historical Village in Auckland, and we endeavour to have a representative take them up on their offer. The hidden assumption here is that skeptics will be converted into believers by experiencing something out of the ordinary. This seems unlikely to me – as skeptics we look for rational explanations for strange events, and recognise the fallibility of human perception and biased thinking. It might be an interesting experience though, and a chance to have a conversation with believers and better understanding how they think, as well as being an opportunity for us to give our perspective on their approach.

We can only hope that we won’t be “pranked” with the aim of providing a mysterious, “unexplainable” happening that will turn us into believers!

We would encourage Haunted NZ and other believers to have a more open mind. Rather than jumping to conclusions that any strange and currently unexplained phenomena must be evidence of paranormal activity, they would do well to consider more rational explanations in the first instance.