Skeptic News: Follow-up – more on Oumuamua


96

Skeptic News: Follow-up – more on Oumuamua

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

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Follow up

Just a quick follow up on the Oumuamua story we featured in our newsletter this week. It turns out that local Victoria University Senior Lecturer in Astrophysics, Dr Stephen Curran talked to Kim Hill this past weekend, following up on and challenging Avi Loeb’s claims.

Have a listen to that!

Cheers…
Craig Shearer

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Skeptic News: Havana Syndrome, ETs and Penguins and That Ship


96

Skeptic News: Havana Syndrome, ETs and Penguins and That Ship

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

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Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

This week I’ve got a variety of topics I hope you’ll enjoy!

Wishing you a great week…

Craig Shearer

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Havana Syndrome – caused by directed microwaves?

Apparently, back in 2016 dozens of American Embassy diplomats in Cuba felt sick, and this has been dubbed Havana Syndrome. I’d never heard of this, but it came to my attention through an article written by local skeptic Robert Bartholemew. 

I met Robert a few years ago when he hosted Joe Nickel here in Auckland. Joe is a veteran skeptical investigator who’s done tons of investigations over the years. (And I’m the proud owner of one of Joe’s trademark Wooden Nickels!). Anyway, I digress! 

Robert is an author and specialises in mass psychogenic illnesses – basically social contagions where a lot of people exhibit some complaint where there’s no actual infectious agent.

The Havana Syndrome has been investigated by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and they concluded that the syndrome was likely caused by pulsed RF energy! This seems unlikely to me (but what do I know?). However, Robert has written an article in the Skeptical Inquirer about this explaining the problems with that explanation, and that mass psychogenic illness is much more likely.

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ETs and Penguins

A couple of weeks ago, I spent an enjoyable weekend away with some friends up in Russell, in the Bay of Islands. A couple of points from a skeptical perspective; firstly, one of my friends told me about an interview he heard with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand, which I’ve since listened to (detailed below), and the second was a conversation I overheard which illustrated to me how “fake news” and misinformation is innocently spread.

You may recall back in 2017 our solar system was visited by a mysterious object sighted by telescopes in Hawaii. The object, dubbed Oumuamua (which is Hawaiian for “scout”) exhibited some strange behaviour.


Recently, Avi Loeb, who’s chair of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University published a book: Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth which details his hypothesis about Oumuamua and that it’s actually an alien ship visiting our solar system!

Kim Hill, on Radio New Zealand, interviewed him. The interview is fairly wide-ranging, and Kim does a reasonable job of asking some skeptical questions. 

Towards the end of the interview it truly goes off the rails with Loeb proposing a solution to the Fermi Paradox that we’re just not that interesting, and that most of the stars in our galaxy are infrared emitters and so our planet is not that interesting for interstellar tourism because of our green grass. (Paint me skeptical, but much of the appeal of travel is seeing interesting and unique stuff that’s out of the ordinary!)

Alarmingly, Loeb thinks that science should be driven by public interest – and that scientists (because they’re funded by the public) shouldn’t be working on stuff that the public’s not interested in! Obviously there have been a ton of discoveries in science that have produced real-world benefits but wouldn’t have been obvious from the outset that were produced by fundamental and esoteric research. 

Today I listened to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe which also covered the item, but this time with an explanation for the anomalous behaviour of Oumuamua. It turns out that the anomalous behaviour is actually well explained by it being composed of Nitrogen ice, rather than water ice. 

Steven Novella does a good job of detailing this on his blog and why this is just another example of the “aliens of the gap” fallacy.

Grieving penguins

Onto my second item from my weekend away – this time to do with the spreading of fake news. During the weekend I happened to visit the local markets in Russell, and there was a stallholder selling some quite nice art, some of which features birds – penguins in particular. I happened to overhear a conversation where a woman was relating to the stallholder the story of the penguins in Melbourne that were watching the pretty lights of the Melbourne skyline together – and that they were comforting each other due to loss of their loved ones. The source of this was an award-winning photograph by Tobias Baumgaetner of the pair staring off into the distance. 

I resisted the urge to comment that the story wasn’t really true (which would have been a “dick move”). While the photo is excellent the story behind it has been investigated and found to be less than perfectly accurate. This does go to show the power of a good story though, in sticking in peoples’ minds.

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That ship, and NFTs

This week has seen the news of the ship (the Ever Given) that’s been stuck for days in the Suez Canal. Interestingly, having glanced at the headlines and pictures, in my mind the ship was called the Evergreen, but that’s the name of the company that runs it (Evergreen Marine). 

There are some interesting points about the grounding and blockage of the canal. The first of which is how counterintuitive things are around such objects outside our ordinary human experience. There’ve been plenty of people on the internet offering helpful suggestions as to how to free the ship.

Amusingly, there’s a website that’s sprung up dedicated to whether the ship is still stuck: IsTheShipStillStuck.com. (And yes, as of this writing, it is). 

And, the internet, being the rabbit hole that it is, led me, from that page, to see that the site has been placed on OpenSea, a market for bidding on NFTs.

So, what is an NFT?, I hear you ask. Well it’s a Non-fungible Token. NFTs are the latest craze on the internet, but may well be the future of digital art. This article is a good explainer. Will NFTs be the future of being able to own unique digital art? Only time will tell!

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Christchurch talk

If you’re in or around Christchurch, you may be interested in attending the Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub. One of our NZ Skeptics committee members, Jonathan Harper, is giving a talk about skepticism. It’s at the Pegasus Arms, 6pm on Thursday 8th April. You can register your RSVP on the group’s meetup page. 

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2019 Conference Videos

Thanks to some wonderful help from Susan Gerbic, we’ve now got a few of the 2019 conference talk videos up on our YouTube channel.

There’s now four videos up on a variety of topics from Jacinta Cording, Susan Gerbic, Mark Edward and Steven Novella. 


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, send it to:
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Skeptic News: Fluoridation, Near Death Experiences and more


96

Skeptic News: Fluoridation, Near Death Experiences and more

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

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Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

It seems there’s quite a lot of skeptically-related topics in the news at the moment. Perhaps there’s a backlash to a lot of stuff that came out in 2020 that was pure pseudoscience. 

Speaking of media – it’s great to hear the voices of prominent science promoters back on Magic Talk with Graeme Hill. Graeme’s now doing his show every week night from 7 – 10pm, and has had Alison Campbell, Siouxsie Wiles and Mark Honeychurch on. Long may this continue.

Wishing you a great week…
Craig Shearer

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Fluoridation

Big news this week is that the government is taking water fluoridation powers off local councils and giving it to the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield. 

This is a good decision as it aligns with the science around the benefits of having a tightly controlled amount of fluoride in our water supply. Local councils have, in the past, fallen victim to vocal opponents to fluoridation, most of whom seem to make arguments that aren’t informed by good science.

Prior to the pandemic, the director of health would likely have had little name recognition, but Ashley Bloomfield is now a fairly popular public figure.It is difficult to see how opponents of fluoridation will be able to play this to their advantage if it involves demonising Ashley!

We must also give a shout out to Making Sense of Fluoride, a NZ-based website, run primarily by Daniel Ryan, that advocates for science and evidence-based approaches to decisions around fluoridation of our water supply.

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Near death experiences

NDEs were in the media this week. Radio New Zealand did an interview with Professor Bruce Greyson who has a book out After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond. 

The interview on RNZ is worth a listen. Jim Mora did a reasonable job of asking lots of skeptical questions. 

Greyson describes various reports about the experiences of those who’ve come back after having an NDE. The interesting point is that we have no objective recording of what actually happens. People are describing their memories of the experience, and we know that memories are very much subject to modification with retelling, though in the interview Greyson claims that retelling of these NDEs doesn’t vary over time. To me this seems a little nonsensical.

From what I’ve understood from those who have expertise in neurology it seems more likely that the brain is filling in blanks after the fact and putting together a coherent story about the experience.

Throughout the interview Greyson claims to be a “materialist skeptic” (and uses that term in a pejorative fashion) though he believes that potentially part of ourselves continues after we die. I think this is a giant leap supported only by anecdotal evidence. 

One of the examples given in the interview is of a patient who was unconscious being able to supposedly give an account of a conversation Greyson had with her roommate down the hall, describing what they were wearing and what was discussed. This would imply that some external senses of sight and hearing are able to exist separate from our own eyes and ears and record these into memories in our brains. I see a big disconnect here in the implications of this. We close our eyes or block our ears and those senses are muted, but not so when having an NDE. How does this work? These would be the questions that I’d expect that a skeptical researcher would be asking.

There are some fairly extraordinary claims being made in the interview. As always, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To me, many of the stories presented might well have more prosaic (materialist skeptic!) explanations. 

A particular difficulty with this interview is that Greyson is presenting his own re-telling of anecdotes from interviews he’s done with patients over the years. Perhaps his own investment in the field has coloured his thinking.

What we have though is a bunch of anecdotes, but no hard evidence, and a lot of implausibility. I’m reminded of a story that various skeptical surgeons and nurses have put notable and highly visible signs up high in operating theatres that would be noticed (and reported) by patients were they really leaving and floating above their bodies during operations. Such reports have not been received. Incidentally, out-of-body experiences are common during anaesthesia, and it’s certainly possible to induce these experiences in people’s brains through various techniques.

Greyson has appeared in a Netflix series – Surviving Death, which I’ve not watched. It does seem that the publication of Greyson’s book is tied in with the Netflix show, which does make me a little cynical!

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The COVID vaccine honeymoon period

I read a very good article today in The Atlantic explaining some of the subtleties around the COVID vaccine. In particular we shouldn’t be surprised when vaccinated people get infected. 

At the moment there’s a lot of relief and celebration that the vaccines are being rolled out. In the eyes of the layperson, once they’re vaccinated they consider themselves immune, and are resuming normal life as if they’re bulletproof. 

“Vaccination is actually more like a single variable in a dynamic playing field—a layer of protection, like an umbrella, that might guard better in some situations than others. It could keep a lucky traveler relatively dry in a light drizzle, but in a windy maelstrom that’s whipping heavy droplets every which way, another person might be overwhelmed. And under many circumstances, vaccines are still best paired with safeguards such as masks and distancing—just as rain boots and jackets would help buffer someone in a storm.”

As always, reality is a lot more complex than people assume.

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Canterbury big cats again

A few weeks ago I wrote about big cats reported sighted in Canterbury, and opined that what had been seen was likely a feral cat.

This weekend, Stuff did a piece about how Jesse Feary had actually shot a “big black creature” he sighted. Turns out he was then able to get the DNA analysed, and surprise, it turned out to just be a cat!

The article is a good read though, covering various skeptical points about the possibility of big cats existing in the wild in the South Island. 

 


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, send it to:
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Skeptic News: BOTA FTW


96

Skeptic News: BOTA FTW

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

BOTA FTW


Today I finally made it to the Builders Of The Adytum, a strange group whose beliefs combine Kabbalah and Tarot into an unusual, but enjoyable, philosophy.

The meeting was fun, with incense, chanting, music, a sermon and mention of the Philosopher’s Stone, transmutation, magical healing and mystical powers. I visited with Tim, my long-time partner in all things weird and wonderful, and we have been invited back to the group to join in with study sessions – something we are very much looking forward to. Although as a skeptic I find it hard to believe people when they tell me that they have figured out the secrets of the universe, nonetheless I enjoy hearing others’ ideas and seeing what kinds of people are attracted to these groups. Unsurprisingly, for most of these organisations, their membership is quite diverse – just like it is for a group like ours, the Skeptics.

One potential worry for us is that while at the event we bumped into someone who we had already met at the Ancient Mystical Order of the Rosicrucians (AMORC) last year. The AMORC group had “done their research” and found out from a google search that I’m a skeptic. Even so we had a good talk with the few AMORC members that we met on the day, explaining that we weren’t there to demean them, but rather were genuinely curious about their beliefs.

Tim and I have jokingly labeled the member of both AMORC and BOTA as our Marla Singer (watch Fight Club if you’re not sure what this means), and we’re hoping that he doesn’t scare the members of the BOTA group away from us. We’re genuinely interested in the group, even if we’re unlikely to ever get to the point where we pay membership fees, so I hope we are able to continue visiting until we have a good appreciation for what their beliefs are and what drives them. I’ve had an experience of being outed once before, by Nigel Antony Gray when I was attending Scientology meetings, and it was a bit disappointing to have to leave that particular escapade not when I wanted to, but when someone else had pulled the plug on it.

For those who really don’t understand why I do this kind of thing, I get that it can seem a little weird. Although some skeptics enjoy seeing what’s happening on the other side of the fence, I know many skeptics who either don’t have the time for nonsense, or find that seeing it up close makes them angry. After all, many of these groups are selling a false bill of goods – they promise to impart the secrets of the universe to you, and then they take your hard earned money and don’t deliver the goods. That’s something that we should all be angry about, although it’s often hard to find a way to turn that anger into meaningful positive action.

Mark Honeychurch

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More Tamakis, Vaccines and Earthquakes

Following on from last week’s stories about the Tamakis saying they won’t be getting vaccinated, and Ken Ring saying he predicted our recent earthquake, there have been a couple of interesting developments.

Firstly, out of over 12,000 frontline workers who have been offered the COVID19 vaccine, just 21 of them have refused the vaccine so far. I’ve heard horror stories of nurses in New Zealand who are against vaccination, so it’s great to hear that so few of those who are doing such an amazing job at the front line have refused. The article goes on to talk about how those who refuse may be redeployed into other roles if they can’t be convinced. This sounds to me like a very pragmatic way to deal with this issue. Much as it feels to me that people with anti-science views have no right to be working in healthcare, the most important reason for vaccinating frontline staff is to shore up our MIQ (Managed Isolation and Quarantine) barrier. Holes in this protective layer would not be good, so it makes sense to remove anyone who may prove to be a potential gap in our defences. Let’s hope that vaccination rates among the general public, when it comes time for that, don’t drop too far below the amazing 99.8% uptake rate that we’ve seen so far from the professionals.

As for the Tamaki part of this equation, a week ago Brian Tamaki told a small congregation in Queenstown that the reason for the earthquake we experienced recently was that the media had “gone after him”. Now, “Bishop” Brian is no stranger to claiming that a) earthquakes are deliberately caused by his god, b) these earthquakes are used by his god as a punishment and c) Brian is privy to the reason these punishments are meted out. However, past seismic events have apparently been caused by homosexuals, whereas this time it’s more personal to Brian, and we’ve supposedly all been punished for being mean to him.

I’m really struggling to get my head around the level of arrogance required for someone to believe that they are important enough that their god would threaten an entire nation with a long, scary earthquake in the middle of the night just for pointing out their failings.

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Cat Buttons

Graeme Hill, longtime broadcaster and a good friend of science, skepticism and common sense thinking, now has an evening slot on MagicTalk radio. As part of his show, Graeme usually interviews knowledgeable people about a wide range of fascinating topics. A few years ago I was lucky enough to have been invited to join Siouxsie Wiles as a regular guest to talk about skeptical issues, and I’m now privileged to have been asked back to talk on Graeme’s new show as he hosts Magic Nights.

Although listening to my slot would probably be a case of preaching to the converted for our regular readers, I’d recommend listening to Graeme’s show to hear some of the amazing guests he hosts, and hear some interesting facts about cool new science and historical events. With several high profile stories about radio presenters promoting bad thinking recently, it’s nice to have a show you can be confident is going to be based on solid evidence, with Graeme talking to experts rather than cranks and charlatans.

As part of my chat with Graeme last Wednesday, we talked about a curious video he found online showing a cat (Billi) using a set of buttons laid out on the floor to “speak” to its owner, a vet called Kendra. Rather than telling you why I don’t think this is a case of a cat who has the ability to convey complex thoughts and desires, I figured I’d simply give you a link to the videos and ask what you all think:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGMTesZlKa0Lokb7ZNqOJXQ

I really liked these videos because they’re pretty harmless, and as such I wonder if they’re good training material for people to engage their skepticism and think of reasonable explanations for what they see – something for skeptics to sharpen their teeth on. I certainly don’t want to demean Kendra for her belief that her cat is communicating with her in this way, but I’m definitely interested in the different ways that humans can fool themselves and each other into believing things that are not true. So, if you have the time, watch a few videos and have a think about what rational explanations there might be for this phenomenon. And, if you’re really game, send me your thoughts (to [email protected]). I’m especially interested to see what you might come up with that I hadn’t considered.

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The Luck of the Cantabrians

Rebecca Booth, from Fairlie in the South Island, recently found a seven leaf clover. The Stuff article about this find mentioned that this is not the first clover-related find Rebecca has had. Apparently earlier this year, in January, she found both four and five leaf clovers.

 

A quick google search for Rebecca took me to the competition results for the 2019 Mackenzie A&P show, where among other accolades in the Home Produce section Rebecca won second place in the “Collection of Weeds” contest and first place in the “Bunch of Herbs, in a vase no more than 8 varieties” contest. This leads me to believe that Rebecca is somewhat in tune with the local greenery, something backed up by a quote in the Stuff article where she says “All my life, I’ve been pretty lucky finding multi-leaf clovers”.

 

It’s great that Rebecca has such luck finding these rare clovers – a four leaf clover occurs about once in every 5,000 plants. However, I’m guessing that her daily focus on clover and other plants means that she’s more likely than most to find these rarities.

I also wish Rebecca the best with her recent Lotto ticket purchase, which she hopes will be a winner because of her clover find, but I can’t help but be skeptical about the idea that one lucky event is going to make it more likely for another lucky event to occur. After all, we know that luck is just random chance – although when it comes to topics like gambling, there are degrees of freedom that can make lucky streaks appear to be real.

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Two years

Today is the second anniversary of the horrific Christchurch massacre, and as skeptics it’s sad to have seen over the last two years those in our country who have posted content denying that the attack was real, or claiming that it was a “false flag” operation. It’s been hard enough over the last 20 years watching high profile conspiracy theorists, such as Alex Jones, engage in denial in the US for events such as the Sandy Hook massacre and the 9/11 attacks. But to see this kind of wrong headed thinking at home somehow feels worse. I guess we’ve been able to rest on our laurels watching America suffer from a spread of the conspiracy mindset, and at least for me it seemed implausible that the problem would ever reach our fair shores. I guess I was just too naïve.

For one of the people who has been spreading misinformation about the Christchurch attack, Vinny Eastwood, he at least accepted that people died, and didn’t try to tell family members of the deceased that their loved ones either never existed or were hiding from them as part of a government plot. Soon after the attack Vinny travelled down to Christchurch to interview people, subsequently appearing on several alternative media outlets in the US speaking about how he distrusted the “official narrative” of what had happened. My memory of the immediate aftermath of the events is that there was some confusion at first as police worked day and night to figure out what had happened, but that a coherent picture was built up fairly quickly showing that the attack was the work of a single gunman.

However, Vinny appears to have used the early confusion in the media as a way to sow doubt and claim that the truth was being suppressed – something that he continues to do to this day. Here are a few of Vinny’s videos from the months after the attack, where he makes all kinds of baseless claims about the attack and who was behind it:

And here is a video from last year, which Vinny re-posted to his Facebook page on Saturday, where in just 5 minutes he manages to Gish Gallop many of his nonsense ideas.

https://www.facebook.com/vincenteastwood/posts/10158087937342879

All of these videos are fairly enraging, and it might feel like there’s not much that can be done about them. However a recent video sees Vinny talking about how he’s recently had complaints made against his YouTube channel, and that he’s now received two out of three strikes from YouTube. A third strike would apparently involve removal of his channel, and the loss of his videos, and this would also take away a major source of his income. His secondary and tertiary YouTube accounts are also still active, for now – but who knows how long for.



Vinny says that he’s also had his Patreon account disabled, so he’s suggested that people subscribe to a “backup account” that he uses to raise money for his music endeavours. Thankfully that account is only receiving $19 per month, compared to $1,000 a month that Vinny says he was receiving through his main Patreon account until it was removed.

Vinny pleads with those who have been reporting his videos that spreading misinformation (or “truth content” as he calls it) is his livelihood, and that he has a small baby he needs to take care of. To me, this really shouldn’t factor into the equation. No matter what Vinny’s personal circumstances are, the spreading of dangerous misinformation is just not cricket. It doesn’t make it okay for Vinny to dupe people simply because he depends on the spreading of misinformation to pay his bills every month.

As an aside, Vinny says that the attacks on his media channels are making him feel unwell. So it’s lucky that his recent videos have been sponsored by David Holden, a well known alternative medicine practitioner who is responsible for offering bogus cancer treatments to desperate sufferers. It seems like Vinny and David will make good bedfellows.

Finally, like many of the people who posted messages to Vinny’s live stream, I’m sending prayers his way. I think that’s as much as he deserves, and I can only hope that this funding crisis forces Vinny to seriously reconsider his life choices. Maybe he could look for an honest, stable job that will allow him to care for his family while not damaging the stability of our country and leading people to believe in an erroneous, damaging worldview.


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, send it to:
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Skeptic News: 4 Simultaneous Days Rotate In Same 24 Hours Of Earth


96

Skeptic News: 4 Simultaneous Days Rotate In Same 24 Hours Of Earth

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

4 Simultaneous Days Rotate In Same 24 Hours Of Earth


We’ve just come out of another short spell spent at level 3 lockdown for Auckland, and level 2 for the rest of us. Well done to all of you who managed to follow the rules and help keep us all safe, and a boo to everyone who thought that protesting in large groups and not wearing a mask is an acceptable response.

My first news story involves a political figure, Jami-Lee Ross. We’ve received a complaint that I, and possibly others who write this newsletter, sometimes venture into political territory, and that our political views are not shared by everyone in our organisation. I will admit that I lean to the left (as do many people I know who are active members of the NZ Skeptics) but, despite this, as much as possible I try to keep my political views out of my writing. If I’m criticising or commending politicians, my aim is to be mentioning them because the things they’re saying or doing are of skeptical interest (and sadly, more often than not it’s because what they’re doing flies in the face of good skeptical thinking). If I ever fall short of this, and fail to give a skeptical angle when I mention politics (or religion or any other topic, for that matter), feel free to pull me up on it.

We have also been asked about a right of reply, especially as to an extent this newsletter has replaced our journal, and the journal used to have a Letters section. Coincidentally, a couple of weeks ago I added a note to the bottom of our newsletter which lets you all know that if you have something of interest that you want to see published in this newsletter, you can send it to us and we’ll look over it and add it to the next week’s newsletter (unless you’re uncritically reviewing the TimeCube website, that is). The more skeptical voices we can promote, the stronger we’ll be as an organisation – and the more you all do my job for me, the happier I am 😉

Mark Honeychurch
Secretary, NZ Skeptics

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Worried about 5G? There’s a pill for that!

I’m guessing that Jami-Lee Ross, head of the failed conspiracy themed political party Advance NZ, has run out of money. Why else would he be planning to flog useless anti-5G pills to us?

Charlie Mitchell at Stuff found out that Ross has recently formed a new company called Praesidium Life along with a naturopath called Michael Kelly. Looking at Michael’s current business, The Health Centre in St Benedict’s, it’s obvious that Michael has no interest in evidence when it comes to healthcare. The website appears to be almost entirely devoid of any useful, honest medical advice, instead pushing chiropractic, reflexology, hCG for weight loss and coriander for heavy metal detox.

When I clicked on the Shop link I was greeted with even more egregious nonsense at a website called Natural Solutions – curcumin (turmeric), probiotics and GcMAF.

NZ Skeptics committee member Dan Ryan told Stuff:

“The spread of health misinformation is not slowing down, and people are being harmed or even dying because of it. We need more regulation with regulatory bodies that actually have the power and the resources to stop it.”
https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/124069747/jamilee-ross-behind-anti5g-supplement-business

I’m no psychic, but given what I know about the Society for Science Based Healthcare (disclaimer: I’m currently chair of the society), I see Michael’s future involving one or more emails from the Advertising Standards Authority, and a lot of work trying to defend claims such as that “the Ketogenic Diet is a low carbohydrate, high fat diet, that starves the cancer cells” and “the higher someone’s cholesterol, the lower their risk of death due to cardiovascular disease”.

As for Jami and Michael’s potential future business, it is reported to involve selling Praesidium – “the natural solution to electromagnetic radiation”. Dr Marco Ruggiero from Italy is apparently behind the product, and his other accolades include a probiotic yogurt for treating autism and AIDS, and a magic anti-ageing pill.

Rest assured we will be keeping a close eye on how this one develops, and we will be quick to pounce on any dodgy claims we find when the new company’s website goes live.

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Skeptics 0, Ken Ring 1

After last week’s nocturnal earthquake, Ken Ring has been on Facebook proving how right he is. He’s pointed out that he predicted the earthquake in his 2021 almanac:

From the “Earthquake diary”, on p339 of the 2021 NZ Weather Almanac, it is written that the days of earthquake activity for March would be the 4th, 9th, 18th-20th, 25th, and 29th. This morning’s shake struck at 2 hours after midnight, close enough to 4th to be counted as a prediction.

I guess it’s time for the NZ Skeptics to throw in the towel and admit defeat, in the face of this uncannily accurate prediction. Except, I can’t help shaking the feeling that maybe, just maybe, by Ken’s own admission, his predictions cast the net wide enough that it’s hard for him to miss…

So, pulling this one apart, let’s have a look at the dates in Ken’s March predictions. If we allow Ken his one day leeway, that would mean that he predicted an earthquake for the 3rd-5th, 8th-10th, 17th-21st, 24th-26th and 28th-30th of March – a grand total of 17 out of 31 days in the month. For any earthquake that happens in March, he appears to have a slightly above even chance of the quake landing on one of his predicted dates, even if his predictions are totally random guesses lacking any kind of scientific rigour.

However, a one day leeway isn’t all Ken has asked for. Last year, talking about his earthquake predictions on Facebook, Ken stated that people need to “Allow 1-2 days error as in all forecasting”. Gosh, if we were to allow him the “2 days error” he asks for, his March predictions would have covered 26 out of 31 days. It seems that, if he’s willing to be this loose in his predictions, it’s going to be hard for him to fail. But maybe that’s the point.

We’re now going to be a little bit cheeky, and borrow the ideas of sensitivity and specificity from the field of medicine. What we need to know in order for us to do this are very rough ideas of Ken’s true and false positive and negative rates. The “true positive” rate for Ken’s predictions is okay (maybe half or more of the major earthquakes we experience fall on one of Ken’s predicted earthquake dates). However his “false positive” rate (the times Ken predicts an earthquake and it doesn’t happen) is much higher – most of the dates Ken throws out there don’t turn out to be days where a sizable earthquake hits New Zealand. His “true negative” rate appears to be fairly good (many of the dates he doesn’t predict an earthquake for, earthquakes don’t happen), but his “false negative” rate (dates for which a major seismic event occurs but he hasn’t predicted it) is not great. The upshot of this is that both the sensitivity and the specificity of Ken’s earthquake predicting ability are pretty abysmal.

The astute among you (and I’m assuming that’s many of you, given that you’re skeptics and prone to questioning what other people say) will have spotted that this method doesn’t translate overly well to Ken’s earthquake predictions – not least because of several major issues with the kinds of predictions Ken makes.

To explore this, let’s play a game of make-believe. Imagine a world where Ken Ring has figured out a way to predict the timing of earthquakes, a method that the world’s leading seismologists have somehow totally missed. Even if that were the case, and Ken’s ability was real, it turns out it would still be almost useless. In our make-believe world, where Ken’s specificity and sensitivity are both 100%, let’s look at his March 2021 predictions. If earthquakes occurred somewhere in New Zealand on the “4th, 9th, 18th-20th, 25th, and 29th” of March and not on any other days, exactly as Ken predicted, what practical steps could Civil Defence, or any branch of government or business, take that would help people? Ken usually offers no useful information beyond listing dates, and occasionally a rough location. He has claimed weak and strong earthquakes, and quakes thousands of kilometres away, as “hits” for his predictions. Without knowing specifics about location, depth, strength, time of day, etc, these dates are not terribly useful. I’m struggling to think of how this level of predictive power would change how we live our lives, or make any difference to our earthquake preparedness. In short, Ken offers too little information in his predictions for them to be of any practical use.

As we said before we know that, in the real world, Ken’s predicted earthquake dates – no matter how vague he makes them – still aren’t very accurate. His specificity and sensitivity are not 100% – in fact, they’re nowhere near. We have to conclude, given his lack of accuracy, lack of detail, and lack of plausibility (using phases of the moon to predict earthquakes seems iffy), that it’s vanishingly unlikely that Ken Ring really has the ability to predict earthquakes at all. It’s much more likely that Ken has found his schtick; a trick that allows him to extract money from the unwary, with which he lines his pockets.

tldr; Ken Ring’s earthquake predictions are not accurate, and even if they were they wouldn’t be very useful.

Now that we’re fairly confident that Ken’s more shyster than visionary, I think that we can safely ignore his recent advice that tsunamis are not a risk for New Zealand. He’s been asserting that most of New Zealand is underwater, i.e. shallow waters surrounding our islands, and that these shallows mean that a tsunami will never affect New Zealand. If the experts say that we are in danger of a tsunami after a large offshore earthquake, as they did last week, and Ken tells us we’re not in any danger, I’m going to follow the advice of the experts with science and computer modelling behind them. Plus, Wikipedia has a thing or two to say about tsunamis affecting New Zealand. Sorry Ken, it’s nothing personal.

Ken Ring – famed Swedish Rapper. No, hang on a minute, that’s not the right one…

Ken Ring – Long Range Forecaster. Yep, I’m pretty sure that’s what I was looking for.

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An unexpected endorsement for the COVID vaccine

I’ve recently read calls for high profile figures in New Zealand to endorse the new COVID vaccines, as a way to reassure the portion of the public who currently feel unsure about the vaccines’ safety. It’s been suggested that public figures such as Jacinda Ardern, Ashley Bloomfield and others might want to allow the media to record them being immunised against COVID. Personally I think that, at least for those who are conspiracy minded, watching those who are supposedly a part of the conspiracy be injected is probably not going to be very convincing.

I’ve also heard the idea that famous Kiwi sports figures might be a better group to take on this task, given that so many in our country look up to them. It’d be nice to see sports personalities make up for some of the damage to health literacy that others in the sporting world have caused, with their reckless endorsement of useless supplements and dangerous treatments. Colin Meads’ thumbs up for Te Kiri Gold, a bleach based “cure” for cancer, and Sir Bob Charles’ hawking of deer velvet, spring to mind.

Thankfully we now have another kind of endorsement of the COVID-19 vaccines – an inverse endorsement, I guess you could call it. Hannah Tamaki, the wife of “Bishop Apostle” Brian Tamaki of Destiny Church, has stated publicly that she won’t be getting the vaccine after the two of them were hauled over the coals in the media last week for skipping town just before Auckland went into lockdown on Sunday. Given the lack of public support for Brian, Hannah, and their shoddy excuse for a church (which, let’s be honest, appears to be nothing more than an ATM for the Tamakis), I’m hopeful that Hannah’s public shunning of the vaccine will just drive more people in New Zealand to be vaccinated.
 

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Skeptic News: Ring, Reiki and Natural Medicine


96

Skeptic News: Ring, Reiki and Natural Medicine

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Hi there

A big portion of this week’s newsletter content was contributed by NZ Skeptics Committee member – Jonathan Harper.

Craig Shearer

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Back in lockdown again

As everybody no doubt knows we’re back in lockdown again – level 3 for Auckland and level 2 for the rest of the country. 

While the inconvenience is disappointing, as we’ve seen it is for the best. 

At this stage, it seems that there’s been some potential community transmission possibly due to people not isolating as they should have done. But the solution to this isn’t to attack those individuals but to come together to support each other and to work through the problem. 

The virus is difficult to manage, and contract tracing is extremely important. As usual, Siouxsie Wiles explains it well.

The people we should be angry with are those that are spreading misinformation, often for self-serving purposes. 

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Ken Ring’s Weather Predictions

Ken Ring is back selling his unproven weather, gardening, and best fishing predictions. You can also get his books on the global warming hoax, anxiety therapy, better parenting, and more on his predict weather website.

There was a lull after 2016 when his Facebook page announced “Sadly Ken has been unwell and unable to contribute to this page … Thanks for all the well wishes.”

If you want more background on Ken Ring, you can find an article on our website that looks at Ring’s accuracy. The NZ-based Silly Beliefs site also has a great article on Ken Ring. I have had some interesting face-to-face discussions about Ring and other matters with the Silly Beliefs site’s main writer (who prefers to remain anonymous), reminding me: 

there is no evidence whatsoever that his predictions are even remotely reliable. It is a scam, and by advertising his bogus weather predictions they were helping spread misinformation, and regarding earthquakes, fear. [ people left their homes needlessly in one case]

Ken Ring emailed me last year and described something about his personal circumstances. You can see the same on his website. But we are best to keep away from personal issues with any woo peddler for several good reasons. We do not want to be seen to be prying unnecessarily; nor do we want to give any impression we are applying invalid argumentum ad hominem arguments. I have some genuine personal sympathies with Ring, which were well received. At the same time, I think his prediction business is misguided.

I came across Ring’s Predict Weather forecasts in two publications: The Fringe and Ponsonby News.

I phoned Bevis – the editor at The Fringe. He admitted he didn’t think the predictions were reliable. However, as “some people like to read them”, he will continue publishing them.

Ring’s predictions aren’t just isolated to New Zealand, He’s also popular in Australia and Ireland. Ring’s website sells a book that predicts the Australian weather for the next decade, and a book that predicts the Irish weather for the next year.

We would be interested in hearing from readers who encounter Ring’s writing in places other than those mentioned here. Oh, and if you’re on Twitter, the Ken Ring Weather Check Twitter account regularly reviews Ring’s predictions and finds them wanting.

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Reiki

Mark Honeychurch recently covered a Newshub story by Sarah Templeton in our newsletter (Reiki is Here To Save Us All) about a visit to a Reiki person by the reporter. (Practitioner, in my humble opinion, is probably the wrong word). 

Committee member Russell and I contacted Newshub expressing our obvious concerns about it being a free promotion that omitted to tell readers what Reiki is, and the lack of evidence for efficacy. As a result, they decided to add a mention that the writer had not paid for the session she reported on. 

I received a reply from Dianne Martin who is the Broadcasting Standards manager at Discovery NZ (US owned) which recently bought Mediaworks, the owner of Newshub. She said:

The article was based on one person’s experience of a Reiki treatment and it was not intended to be a discussion of the two sides of the debate about its efficacy. Once the disclaimer was added to the Article, the Committee maintains readers could judge the merits of Reiki treatments and the Article for themselves, taking into consideration that the treatment was gifted for the purpose of review.

This could be a breach of the principle of accuracy, but we may be best to consider the change they did make as a win, and leave it at that.

I was disappointed to learn from Ms Martin that:

The Media Council has previously determined that ‘the debate over alternative remedies is sufficiently well known not to require balancing comment in every story about them. The subject falls within the exception to the principle of balance for issues of enduring public discussion.’  The Committee is satisfied that balance was not required in this Article.

Unfortunately that seems to be the reality of the situation. The media are likely to continue to publish such pieces, which seem to fall into the category of “advertorial content”. But it’s great to point out when it’s not apparent from the article that journalistic integrity might be at stake!

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The New Zealand Journal of Natural Medicine 

After some investigation it seems that this magazine (it’s a stretch to call it a journal, a title which should be reserved for scientific publications) is being purchased by at least one public library (Titirangi). 

 The New Zealand Journal of Natural Medicine (J Nat Med) is very familiar to my friends at the Society for Science Based Healthcare (SBH). It came back on our radar after I spotted it in my local library, then the local Postshop bookshop and a supermarket where it’s sold in a plastic wrap (perhaps to prevent prying eyes from seeing the content without buying).

Not long after spotting this egregious pseudoscientific publication, I received an online survey from the library. So I took that opportunity to suggest they stop stocking this misleading publication.

It would be great if readers could check out their local libraries to see whether this magazine is being carried, and report back to us.

The content of the magazine is of concern with articles suggesting vaccines don’t work and that homeopathy might cure cancer. (And, from the picture of the latest edition, it seems that the COVID-19 pandemic is being milked for all it’s worth!) Unfortunately, the magazine is not registered with the NZ Media Council, so a complaint cannot be made to them.

It is disappointing that libraries would be subscribing to this magazine. Libraries always have a balancing act as to what content to provide, seemingly erring on the side of providing what people want to read, even if it contains dangerous misinformation. The question would be where is the line drawn?

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Joke of the week

I can’t say we’ll be having this every week, but I found this amusing little joke on social media this week:

 

Q: How many conspiracy theorists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Do your own research!
 

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Thanks to those who’ve recently joined us!

If you’re a regular reader of our newsletter, you’ll know that we’re publicising annual membership of NZ Skeptics, which is extremely attractively priced being only $40, or $20 if you’re unwaged.

We’ve recently had quite a few new members join us – a warm welcome to you if you’re one of them – if you’ve not yet joined us, you can still do so by going to our membership page.

As a special bonus, 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. (All existing members who are paid up by the end of March will also be mailed the card.) 

It’s not yet been scientifically proven, but we feel that just carrying the card on your person will have a protective effect against all sorts of woo that you may be exposed to. 🙂


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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