Skeptic News: X has Y


96

Skeptic News: X has Y

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Your Skeptics Society Needs You

For those of you who like the work we do enough that you want to support us financially, it’s that time of the year when membership subscriptions are due. Membership is only $40, or $20 if you’re unwaged, and the money we receive will be spent on worthy causes, allowing us to help make New Zealand a more skeptical place.

Also, if you join before the end of March we’ll send you a bona fide “Card Carrying Skeptic” business card with your name and membership number – it’s great to show to friends when they comment about how you’re always so damn skeptical.

Subscriptions can be paid (via credit/debit card) using the Memberful member management system at:

https://nzskeptics.memberful.com/

If you are a current member who hasn’t logged into our Memberful site before, click the Reset it link (next to “Forgot your password?”) and enter your email address. An email will be sent to you containing a password reset link for the account we’ve set up for you.

If you want to pay via internet banking, have any problems using Memberful, or have any other questions about membership, please contact our treasurer, Paul Ashton, at [email protected].

Anyway, now that I’ve annoyed you all by asking for your support, I suppose I’d better get on with telling you what’s been going on of skeptical interest recently.

Mark Honeychurch
Secretary, NZ Skeptics

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Grant Robertson has Had Enough

MP Grant Robertson was on Peter Williams’ Magic Talk radio show this week when he was asked about the “Great Reset”. His immediate reaction was to quit the interview early, and he’s subsequently let Magic Talk know that he won’t be returning for his regular weekly slot with Williams. So, what’s going on in this drama that’s of interest to skeptics?

The Great Reset, for those who’ve not heard about this conspiracy theory, was originally an idea posited by the World Economic Forum during the start of the current COVID pandemic. It suggests that a world-changing event like a pandemic would be a good place to start to tinker with how economies operate, in order to correct an imbalance many people feel has crept up over the last 100 years or so where the ultra-rich are being taxed less and are getting richer faster, and that the gap between the rich and poor is widening. It also talks about using technology more effectively, and being more mindful of long term environmental issues. Unfortunately the conspiracy minded have decided that, like the UN’s Agenda 21 and 2030 before it, the Great Reset is secretly a global plan to take away our freedoms and impose a socialist prison state system that will enslave us all. Of course, these plans have never been proclaimed outright – you have to read between the lines of the Great Reset’s documents to see the nefarious nature of these insidious ideas.

As a backdrop to this event, Peter Williams has already been in the news recently for promoting anti-vaccine views. He recommended that viewers visit the Voices for Freedom website to find out more about the COVID vaccine. Unfortunately Voices for Freedom is a new group in New Zealand who have been hosting what they call “courageous conversations” around COVID, conversations which skeptics would be more likely to call “total and utter nonsense”. These include claiming that masks are ineffective, casting doubt on PCR tests and vaccines, and promoting Ivermectin, vitamins and zinc as effective treatments/prophylactics for COVID.

So, anyway, when Peter asked Grant about the Great Reset, I’m guessing that Grant was well aware of Peter’s recent controversy and was primed for a silly question coming his way.

I’ve met with Grant before, to ask for advice about helping asylum seekers. He was rational and knowledgeable, and came across as level-headed and skeptical. It’s great to see him take a stand so publicly in this instance, and we can only hope that others will follow his lead.

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Rush Limbaugh has Died

The controversial conservative US radio host Rush Limbaugh died this week. Although this isn’t something that the NZ Skeptics feel is okay to celebrate, we do acknowledge that Limbaugh was responsible for the spreading of many damaging and harmful conspiracy theories, and was very mean spirited to people he saw as the enemies of the US, including those who were black, gay, liberal, female and/or atheist. Unsurprisingly, the work Rush Limbaugh undertook spreading his divisive message was recently rewarded with America’s Medal of Freedom. Rather than going into more details of Limbaugh’s life, I will leave it to the (hopefully impartial) BBC’s obituary if you would like to know more.

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Billy Te Kahika has Quit

Or, at the very least he’s apparently quit politics. This one was a bit of a surprise to me, as the conspiracy minded Billy had only just announced that he was re-naming his Public Party to the Freedom Party. Maybe he quit because he realised that there had already been a Freedom Party in NZ, and that all of the most obvious domain names had already been taken? Alternatively, it might be that recent accusations of financial mis-management and fraud are making life in the limelight a little too uncomfortable for Billy at the moment.

Of course, the void left by this conspiracy driven political movement will likely quickly be filled by the Outdoors Party and others. It wouldn’t surprise me if Mothers Who Stand for Freedom (Renee Argyros and Laura Surrich), Voices for Freedom (Claire Deeks), the Brave Truth Society (Damien De Ment), the Maori Ranger Security Division (Monica Eastick and Peter Martic) or some other conspiracy minded group tried to start a political party, in an effort to capture those voters who want to give their vote to an “alternative” party.

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A local Psychic has Guessed Wrong

Lockdown timing predictions from a Hamilton based psychic, Sarah King, have been unearthed and posted to our Facebook group this week:

 

 

Sarah said when she made these totally wrong predictions, back in June last year, that she has been finely tuning her “spiritual ninja skills”. It’s refreshing to see a psychic who’s still willing to make concrete predictions, rather than just uttering vague platitudes designed to make people feel good. Of course, most psychics avoid being this specific because they’re invariably shown to be totally inaccurate. I’m guessing that Sarah will learn this valuable lesson in time!

Another post in the Skeptics FB group this week showed Tuppence, a Hawkes Bay medium, telling her followers that she was saddened by the sudden cancellation of the Art Deco festival in Napier, where she had planned to offer her psychic services. Of course the main question being asked by skeptics is why she didn’t see it coming.

 

 

This reminds me of the time psychic Jeanette Wilson was due to entertain the audience at a Wellness event that was attended by a group of skeptics back in 2013, but she had to cancel her appearance at the last minute due to “unforseen personal circumstances”.

 

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Conspiracy Spam

A member emailed us this week to share an unaddressed letter she received in her mailbox. Thankfully the anonymous author of the document has put in the hard work of joining all the unconnected dots of some of the conspiracies I’ve mentioned above, and more, and has figured out that the overall aim of the New Zealand government is transhumanism – apparently we’re going to be converted to Human 2.0 via the COVID vaccine. As a technology enthusiast I’m having a hard time seeing the downside to being upgraded, although I have to admit to being worried that, given Bill Gates’ involvement, my new nanobots may be running a Windows based OS. Hopefully I’ll be able to flash them to a more stable BSD or Linux OS, just as soon as I figure out where my serial port is.

Anyway, in case you too would like to be a part of this Human 2.0 experiment, here’s a copy of the letter which is kind enough to list the required reading before your upgrade can take place:

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If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, send it to:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


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Skeptic News: Talkback and conspiracies


96

Skeptic News: Talkback and conspiracies

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Hi there

Conspiracies are in the news a lot lately. In recent newsletters we’ve talked about them a lot, and there’s more to cover this week, both from an international and NZ-based perspective.

Craig Shearer

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Talkback Radio

In recent weeks there’s been a bit of controversy on the airwaves in the form of talkback radio. Talkback radio’s an interesting format – where else (apart from letters to the editor) do you get to voice your opinion on any matter to such a big audience? A few weeks ago we saw the removal of John Banks from the Magic Talk radio network after his abhorrent racist remarks (and not shutting down those of a caller). 

And now we hear that Peter Williams, a veteran broadcaster who has the respect of a significant chunk of the NZ population, is giving oxygen to anti-vaccine groups who are “sceptical” of the COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out. Peter Williams has also been in the climate-change-denying camp with his opinions on that appearing in print, and no doubt on the airwaves as well. 

It is a shame that these pseudoscience opinions are aired, when there’s a fantastic opportunity to educate the public instead. Indeed, in the past Mark Honeychurch and Siouxsie Wiles used to have a regular spot on RadioLive on Sunday Evenings with Graham Hill where they shared their skeptical thoughts. Alas, RadioLive is no longer.

Today I read an opinion column from Alison Mau which is well worth a read. She makes good points that talkback radio is an essential service for many in the older demographic.

“For some battling loneliness and isolation, talkback is a lifeline. A conversation with a talkback host might be the only human interaction some older, or geographically isolated, people have in their day or their week. For the farmer spending long days sealed in the cab of their harvester, or the elderly person who hasn’t seen another soul in days, the chance to chat or share an opinion can be a much-looked-forward-to bright spot.”

But the crux of Alison Mau’s article is that “you should always be ready to debunk nonsense that callers spout as fact or opinion.”. Hear hear – this is exactly what we need – talkback hosts with the intelligence and broad knowledge that can challenge opinions that promote pseudoscience.

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Creationism conspiracy theory

Creationism is what drew me into skepticism. Back in the 90s when I was lecturing in software development, I had a work colleague who was a young earth creationist. Seemingly rational in other areas of his life, and very intelligent, he was nevertheless hooked on “creation science”. It showed to me how even smart people can be taken in when they have an emotional stake in the topic. 

An interesting article appeared on The Conversation by Professor Paul Braterman from the University of Glasgow likening creationism to conspiracy theories. The article was also featured on the snopes.com website – a site dedicated to fact-checking claims. 

While the article is very US-centric, it is an interesting read. The prominent organisation supporting (and financially benefiting from this conspiracy) is Answers in Genesis, run by Ken Ham (originally from Australia). Responding to the criticism in the article they sicced one of their attack dogs, in the form of Ham’s son-in-law Bodie Hodge, onto it. It’s an exceedingly long “rebuttal” of the points that Professor Braterman makes. It’s difficult to make it through the response but Hodge’s main weapon of attack is to point out logical fallacies, himself committing the fallacy fallacy. It just goes to show that there’s a lot more to skepticism than being able to reel off a list of fallacies that you think somebody is committing.

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Newsletter Feedback

One of the joys or risks (depending on your perspective) of writing these newsletters is that we sometimes receive negative feedback. A few weeks ago I wrote about QAnon and the realisations that believers were having that the predictions of Q hadn’t panned out. From this I received the following feedback. My comments in [red].

“If these are your viewpoints, then I wonder if you consider information available from sources other than mainstream media, which you clearly echo in your “newsletter”  (I say “yours” for a reason). [While it’s good to consider other sources, at least the mainstream media is written by professional journalists, who, while not perfect and have biases, at least are trained. What other sources would you suggest that are accessible from here in NZ?]

 I am an American, but in NZ for 45 years. Herewith, my responses to TWO examples from your diatribe:

 I can vouch for the existence of high-level pedophile rings and their protection under certain domains [Then I really hope you’ve done something about this, such as reporting to relevant authorities!]. This reality is tossed as nonsense and minimised by your mockingbird article about “Q beliefs” and what not.

 This is the very reason why this horrible crime continues unabated (100,000 missing children in USA – never recovered [Not sure of the source of your 100,000 number (and over what period of time?), but this article provides some interesting background, showing that the number of children missing and never seen again is quite small.]) and this certainly does occur through these rings here in [Location supplied] (I’m an ex-secondary teacher).  All protected.

 Aren’t you skeptical? [Yes, that’s my role]

 Was there election fraud? Is Biden for real the most popular President “eva”? [I believe that this is a reasonable conclusion given the polarisation of the electorate. Many people were highly motivated on both sides meaning a high turnout.]

I saw the votes being changed onscreen during the election night (did you?) [I saw reports of videos but I think there are more prosaic explanations, such as errors being corrected, than election fraud.]

I have seen CCTV of ballots dragged out and counted (multiple times) after everyone ordered home (have you?). [No, I’ve not seen evidence that votes were counted and added to a total multiple times. How credible is your evidence, and would this account for enough error to sway the result?]

I have seen videos of dumped ballots – for President Trump, of course (have you?) [No, and again, how significant would this be even if this was the case?]

How many dead people? And after you die, you re-register as a Democrat?  Thousands, wtf? [Evidence? While there may be isolated cases of this happening, is it widespread enough to affect the outcome?]

I have watched the testimony of many and seen their affidavits under penalty of perjury (>20,000 recorded) from nearly every one of about 5,000 reporting counties in the USA (have you?) [If there was credible evidence of fraud, why wasn’t it presented in the numerous court cases brought?]

 Aren’t you skeptical? [Yes, but not credulous]

 I could go on, but I’m afraid you are not as skeptical as I. Good luck in your quest to find real answers.”

 

To me this illustrates the difference between skepticism and unbridled gullibility in buying into conspiracy theories. To me skepticism must be exercised with caution. With specific regard to the US election, if there was clear evidence of large scale fraud it would have been produced in the numerous court cases that the Trump team lost. For the fraud to rise to a level that could determine the outcome would require a vast conspiracy which would likely be exposed very quickly.

We should listen to actual experts, who have commented that the recent US election was the most secure ever.

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STOP PRESS – COVID Community Transmission

As no doubt everyone will be aware by now, there’s been community transmission of COVID-19 in Auckland. Back to Level 3 for Auckland, and Level 2 for the rest of the country. Let’s hope this is over with quickly, and doesn’t get out of hand. Best wishes to everyone involved, and keep scanning and checking in!
 

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Membership of NZ Skeptics

NZ Skeptics membership runs on a calendar year basis and we’re about to switch to a new system for collecting subs. If you’re enjoying these newsletters and you’re not a member, we encourage you to join us – it’s a very reasonable $40/year for individuals and only $20/year if you’re unwaged.

We are using a new system called Memberful to manage memberships. Memberful offers a number of advantages:

  • Members can opt to save their credit card details, so that annual subs are paid automatically each year.
  • The credit card payment interface is simpler than the PayPal one.
  • For those who do not wish to have subs paid automatically, reminder emails will be sent a few days before membership expires
  • Members can update their own personal information
  • In the future we might decide to offer member-only content on skeptics.nz, accessed using Memberful login details.

Details of all current members (those whose most recent subscription year was 2020 or later) have been loaded into Memberful. If you’re a member of NZ Skeptics, in the next day or two you should receive an email that contains a link to reset your Memberful password, sent to the email address we have recorded for you. When you get that email:

  1. Click the reset password link and give yourself a password. That will log you in.
  2. Once logged in, click subscriptions to view your subscriptions.
  3. Your current subscription type should reflect the most recent sub payment made. If you need to change to a different plan, click the Change button.
  4. If your subscription is expired, click Renew and enter credit card details.
  5. If you need to change your email address, name or postal address, that can be done in the Profile page.

Credit card payment processing is done by Stripe, a very large payment processing company that has been used for payments for Skeptics conference for the last few years. Credit card details are handled entirely by Stripe, and cannot be accessed by NZ Skeptics or Memberful. If you choose to save your card details to enable automatic renewals then those saved details are held by Stripe.

If you do not want to login to Memberful to renew your membership then contact the treasurer (Paul Ashton) at [email protected] for details of other payment options (such as payment via internet banking).

Also contact the treasurer if there are any questions or issues about renewing subscriptions via Memberful.


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Skeptic News: An Atheist in Iran


96

Skeptic News: An Atheist in Iran

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

An Atheist in Iran


I like to sum up my style as a combination of brevity and rambling. This time the newsletter will be of the former persuasion.

Jess Macfarlane

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Article of atheism

Late last year we were contacted by Sina Nasiri, who had written a heart-felt article about his journey to atheism while growing up in Iran. His article explored the risky business of finding people to trust and confide in, in a society where being an atheist is no trivial thing – where apostacy from Islam is punishable by death.

While the atheist and skeptic communities overlap in New Zealand, and many in the society appreciated and were moved by the article, it was the feeling of the NZ Skeptics Society that our focus should remain on promoting critical thinking and calling out the harms of pseudoscience.

We felt the society also did not have the connections and experience to support people who might connect with Sina’s story and reach out to us for help. So, with permission we have forwarded Sina’s article to the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists, and would recommend anyone interested in this subject check out their website.

If you are interested in reading some of Sina’s previous articles, you can find out more at Atheist Refugee Relief.


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Skeptic News: Goodbye Ngaire McCarthy


96

Skeptic News: Goodbye Ngaire McCarthy

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Goodbye Ngaire McCarthy


Last week I attended, online, the funeral of Ngaire McCarthy, who died just over a week ago from cancer. Ngaire was an outspoken Māori atheist, humanist and rationalist who spoke to the NZ Skeptics at our 2014 conference in Auckland. She told us about how the census shows comparable rates of dis-belief amongst Māori and Pākehā in New Zealand, and how Christianity had imposed itself on Māori culture, merging in a way that makes it hard to pick them apart today.

Ngaire was, for a few years, the President of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists, and later became the organisation’s librarian, where she diligently catalogued the NZARH’s large collection of books on religion, atheism, humanism, free thought and skepticism. The library includes a collection of books once owned by the NZ Skeptics, which were donated to the NZARH for safekeeping many years ago.

Ngaire pushed for secularism in New Zealand, arguing for Religious Instruction and other faith-based observances to be removed from primary schools. She believed that religion in schools is detrimental to children, often causing long term damage to class cohesion and scientific literacy.

For all of you who met and spent any time with Ngaire, I’m sure you’ll remember her sharp wit, infectious laugh and most of all her warmth. She was one of those people who could make you feel like an old friend the first time you met them.

Ngaire’s sister Hema, who is the current President of the NZARH, officiated at the funeral. Several of Ngaire’s children and wider family members spoke of her love for science and rationalism, and how she used to tell them as kids that they were made of stardust, and that answers were to be found in science, not religion. It was sad to be saying goodbye to her, but heartwarming to hear the effect she’d had on those around her, and the respect she’d earned from her peers for her tireless efforts to combat religious privilege in New Zealand.

Mark Honeychurch

If you want to know more about Ngaire’s life and her beliefs, the articles and videos below are a good place to start:

https://www.canadianatheist.com/2019/04/mccarthy-jacobsen/
https://religiouseducation.co.nz/whats-the-problem-with-karakia/

 

 
 



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Jewish space laser

I wish I was making this news story up – partially because it’s getting a little bit tiresome writing about US politics. However, the recently elected Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who likes to ride on the QAnon conspiracy carriage of the Trump Train, has been put through the wringer in the last week. Journalists have been poring over her social media history and documenting her words, shares and likes – some of which are so weird and wonderful it doesn’t take much to debunk them.

There’s a lot to unpack in what Marjorie has said in recent years, including that 9/11 was a hoax, Obama is a Muslim, the Clintons killed JFK Jr, and recent school shootings in the US were “false flag” operations. However, the most out there of them all has to be the idea that has made headlines around the world – that the 2018 California wildfires were caused by a satellite mounted laser which is controlled by the Rothschild family. This has now been dubbed the Jewish Space Laser.

Thankfully many in the Jewish community in the US have given this outlandish, evidence-free, racist idea the level of response I believe it deserves – ridicule. Twitter has many funny comments and images, making light of the idea and turning it into something very kitsch. However, I think that the conspiratorial undertones of making Jewish people out to be an evil conniving race cannot be ignored, and I hope that the House of Representatives, and the Republican Party in particular, are able to do something to tackle those within their ranks – not just Greene – who harbour these kinds of dangerously wrong-headed ideas.

This whole incident reminds me that we had a very similar thing happen here in NZ last year, but at a much smaller scale. Advance NZ’s Wairarapa candidate, Nigel Anthony Gray (a Scientologist), claimed that a Directed Energy Weapon was used to start the Lake Ohau fire. Thankfully the media pounced on the claim pretty quickly, and Jamie Lee Ross was just as quick to distance himself from Gray’s theory – while still being happy to keep him on as a candidate.

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Reiki is here to save us all

Or at least that’s what NewsHub would have us believe, with an article published on Tuesday about the benefits of Reiki, an energy healing technique that involves the practitioner manipulating your “energy field” by waving their hands around your body.

Of course there’s no evidence that this energy field exists, or that manipulating it has therapeutic benefits. What little scientific literature is out there is a bit of a mess, and there appears to be an issue with the quality of the studies that do exist – an issue that exists for many alternative therapies. Most people who have the time and money to test these therapies are practitioners, and obviously they have a vested interest in proving the efficacy of their chosen therapy.

My opinion is that a Bayesian analysis would show that any positive results from studies would not be enough to overcome the sheer implausibility of what is being posited. The idea that physicists somehow have whole chunks missing from their understanding of the nature of reality, while a handful of plucky young spiritual folk have not only made groundbreaking discoveries about new energy fields, but have also learned how to manipulate them with their hands, needles, diluted poisons and simple electronic devices with flashing lights, seems laughable. It’s much more congruent that these people are a mixture of con-artists and the conned, people who don’t know how hard it is to take a glimpse at the true nature of the world we live in, how many hours the best minds in the world spend trying to peel back the curtain of reality. So, in their ignorance (and arrogance), they come to believe that they know better than the combined effort of thousands of scientists.

If you’re interested in learning more about this idea of using Bayesian analysis in medicine, there’s a good summary here of a couple of posts on the Science Based Medicine blog about the difference between Evidence Based Medicine (EBM) and Science Based Medicine (SBM). Click through to the original SBM articles to read more. Suffice it to say that SBM has more going for it, but unfortunately EBM is far too popular in modern medical science, leading to the legitimising, and even funding, of many therapies that we skeptics are pretty sure are meritless.

One common thing you’ll hear from alternative medicine practitioners is that you can’t knock something until you’ve tried it. Now obviously this is silly – as skeptics we know that personal experience isn’t to be trusted. That our personal anecdotes are okay if they’re all we’ve got, but that they should always take a back seat to proper scientific testing if it’s available.

However, it’ll come as no surprise to some of you that I’ve had Reiki treatment in the past. This happened at a Spiritual and Psychic fair in Upper Hutt, where around ten of us skeptics turned up to sample the therapies on offer, and then make complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority about unsubstantiated claims the companies offering these therapies were making in their posters and pamphlets.

Me at the Upper Hutt Cosmopolitan Club in 2016, trying out Reiki


Anyway, the Reiki did nothing positive for me, beyond being nice and relaxing. Obviously this anecdote is neither here nor there – my personal experience of Reiki has no bearing on whether it actually works or not. But sometimes I do find it useful to have tried a therapy – so that I can make points when arguing with practitioners both that personal anecdote is no way to test if a therapy works, and that even if it was a good way to test a therapy, I’ve tried it and it did nothing for me.

Back to the article – sadly it reads a lot like a paid advertisement for Olivia Scott’s Reiki practice in Auckland. Many claims are made, about Reiki’s efficacy and mechanism of action, as well as about its increase in popularity, but absolutely no evidence is given for any of this, and no time is given to the opposing, prevailing view of science that Reiki is bunkum. The article even finishes with a cringeworthy push for people to give up their hard-earned cash and try this ludicrous treatment:

“Whether you’re looking for healing, more energy or just a sublime cozy nap – maybe skip the next F45 session and head to Scott’s clinic for a session instead. Your cortisol levels will thank you.“


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