Skeptic News: The Dirty Dozen and Dahlias


96

Skeptic News: The Dirty Dozen and Dahlias

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

You’ll no doubt be aware that the travel bubble with Australia was announced last week, and from next week people travelling between the two countries will have the benefit of not having to go into a quarantine facility for two weeks before being allowed to wander free in New Zealand. 

This has affected me personally. My wife is currently in Australia visiting family and was due to return next weekend to then enter MIQ. Fortunately she’s been able to change her flights to return a day later when the bubble opens instead. Reflecting on her time in Australia she reports that there’s an app that Australians can use to track their movements (similar to our COVID tracer) but it’s not widely used nor are businesses commonly displaying the codes to scan. We can only hope that the travel bubble works out and that we’re not plunged back into isolation again by less-than-strict policies on the other side of the Tasman. 

The pandemic rages on throughout the rest of the world, and while vaccine rollouts are helping, we’re collectively not out of the woods yet, and less privileged countries are having an even harder time of it.

With those cheery thoughts out of the way, I wish you a great week!
Craig Shearer

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Disinformation’s Dirty dozen

Research by the American Center for Countering Digital Hate has revealed that almost two-thirds of all misinformation about vaccines being spread on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter arose from just twelve individuals and their associated organisations. And on Facebook they account for 73% of all anti-vax content.

The report makes excellent (and scary/frustrating) reading, particularly the appendices which profile each of the twelve “sources”.

I guess it makes sense that sources are concentrated. People espousing anti-vax views are likely not coming to these conclusions independently, but instead parroting information they’ve consumed elsewhere.

The report calls for social media companies to do more to shut down these sources. Of course, there are then claims of breach of free speech rights (particularly in the US). 

It is frustrating that such misinformation is allowed to proliferate freely. But social media companies are driven by their profit motive. Allowing inflammatory misinformation to spread drives revenue to an extent. Ultimately the only solution is for people to be more skeptical of claims that diverge from science. That requires good education systems, and perhaps specialist skills in spotting false claims. As we all know, those sorts of skills are difficult to acquire as they tend to work against our human biases, and quite often take many years of careful honing.

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Dahlias for Diabetes?

One of our contacts noticed an item on TVNZ news on the 7th March detailing a product being developed by the University of Otago for prevention treatment of type 2 Diabetes. A complaint was made to TVNZ but they have not upheld the complaint.

The item makes interesting viewing from a skeptical angle. It seems that a researcher – Associate Professor Dr. Alex Tups – has discovered a potential use of compounds found in Dahlia flowers to lower blood glucose levels. 

The item reported that a clinical trial tested the safety of the drug and that researchers are now looking for volunteers to take part in a clinical trial to determine dosage levels.

I would expect that there would have been a clinical trial which actually tested the efficacy of the treatment in humans. Previous reporting on the subject has discussed trials into the effect of the drug on blood glucose levels in mice. 

The item reported on a collaboration with Aroma NZ, a company that specialises in processing natural ingredients from New Zealand into nutritional supplements for use around the world. From their website they list a bunch of products that they process including Green-lipped Mussels, Oyster Powder, Collagen Powder, Abalone Powder and Fish Cartilage Powder. 

There’s little doubt that compounds found in the wild have effects when consumed – this is the origin of the pharmaceutical industry. Considering the list of products above there are some red flags raised there. Those products seem to fall into the category of supplements that are used by the “worried well” or those with “symptoms of advancing age” to self-medicate. Many of these products have been promoted by popular publications in response to flawed studies showing some potentially amazing efficacy.

It is interesting to read what Aroma NZ is claiming about the efficacy of their products. I followed one of the links about their Green Lipped Mussel products to their News and Resources page. This shows a study from the University of Queensland on just 23 patients showing self-reported reduction of pain. Now I’m no expert in clinical studies but even I can tell that this wasn’t a particularly well-designed study that would convince me of efficacy. Yet, the website trumpets:

“In a recent landmark clinical trial by the University of Queensland, arthritic pain was reduced by 59% for people taking Aroma’s GlycOmega-PLUS™. This was a huge result and endorsement for this product.”

It appears that their modus operandi is to promote a product then find confirming studies after the fact to boost their confidence they’re selling something that actually works.

It worries me that the University of Otago seems to be looking to commercialise a discovery before the product has been well studied and has had its efficacy proven (at least that’s not been reported) – seemingly putting the cart before the horse, and it should especially worry skeptics that there seems to be a low bar for commercialisation of products that appear to have some compound that might have therapeutic effects. And why go the “natural product” route when, if the compound is earth-shatteringly effective, might it not be better to turn it into a traditional pharmaceutical?

Worryingly the item also features Alex Tups claiming that the root cause of Type-2 Diabetes is brain inflammation. We’ve referred this claim to one of our expert medics who made the following comments:

“Had a look at the clip and certainly there is no evidence that I am aware of that diabetes is a result of brain inflammation – it is generally accepted as autoimmune destruction of pancreatic beta cells (type 1) for reasons unknown or unknown causes of insulin resistance (type 2). There is no rationale for the use of dahlia flowers presented to the listener so it not possible to comment on the science of this claim. I cannot see a link to the A.Prof you appended who seems a credible researcher. 

I agree this is a crap report which raises expectations without any apparent evidence although I assume there must be some logic somewhere. This type of reporting needs to be science based with credible logic (imho) before putting it out to the public which only serves to confuse them.”

Finally, promoting products that include active ingredients found in the wild is particularly dangerous when it allows people to self-medicate. There is potential for dangerous drug interactions that can occur when doctors prescribe medications to patients, being unaware of the “natural” products they’re also consuming. 

I’m aware that I write this from the relative privilege of middle age where few (though not none!) of the effects of aging are making themselves apparent. I’m aware of the powerful psychological drawcard that these alternative medicines and supplements can have on people trying to find relief for what ails them, particularly if the mainstream medical treatments are perceived to be lacking.

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Scientology follow-up

Last week Mark wrote an interesting item in the newsletter around Scientologists using deceptive means to lure people in to their “courses”. We got some feedback from a reader in the US – we love getting feedback! – so I thought I’d share it. Ray from Philadelphia writes:

I live in Philadelphia. Many years ago in the early 1980’s, I was on a business trip to Boston. In the evening I had little to do and while wandering about the city I went by an old church that had a small sign outside advertising a personal  communications course the next two nights for the sum of $25. I had never heard of Scientology before that time, so why not attend? It was something constructive to do. 

So, the next evening I was there, paid the $25, and gave my name and address. Then it started. I am not sure exactly what “it” was. There was a very short introduction by a young “minister” after which people were instructed to face each other in pairs and stare into eyes and not to squirm.   That went on for a while and then the small group in attendance was introduced to the E-meter. And that was about it. The e-meter revealed that I had personality problems. It was a crazy one hour adventure.

I did not go back for night 2.

Not long thereafter, perhaps a week, I began getting mail at home discussing my course attendance, my personality disorder, and how I might correct it. There was a mountain of propaganda pushing very expensive courses and books, tapes, etc. And the mail kept coming for the next 20 years. Finally I wrote to them requesting removal from the list. That worked mainly, but I still get occasional propaganda mail.   

Scientology is as tenacious as it is crazy. 

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NZ Skeptics Membership

Many thanks to the people who have paid their 2021 membership subs. This is a final reminder to members who paid subs in 2020, but have yet to pay 2021 subs, that the 2021 subs are now due. Memberful have streamlined the payment process (it is no longer necessary to set a password), and this is reflected in the instructions that follow:

  1. Go to nzskeptics.memberful.com

  2. Enter your email address into the Email field

  3. Click the “Send sign in link” button.

  4. Wait for an email to arrive.

  5. When the email arrives, click the “Sign in” button.

  6. Once logged in, click subscriptions to view your subscriptions.

  7. 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.

  8. If your subscription is expired, click Renew and enter credit card details.

  9. If you need to change your email address, name or postal address, that can be done in the Profile page.

If you have any problems, or would prefer to pay via internet banking, then please contact the NZ Skeptics treasurer (Paul Ashton) at [email protected]

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If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
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Skeptic News: Beware of Scientologists Bearing Gifts


96

Skeptic News: Beware of Scientologists Bearing Gifts

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Beware of Scientologists Bearing Gifts


I recently heard about someone who signed up on the MeetUp website for a conversational English course in Auckland, and when they arrived they found out that the course was being run by Scientologists. This type of bait and switch sneakiness is about what we’d expect from Scientology, so I decided to search google and find the course in question.

I used Scientology’s Auckland address in quotes as my search term – “136 Grafton Road” – and added “site:meetup.com” to restrict my results to just the MeetUp website.

https://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Ameetup.com+%22136+grafton+road%22

I was not prepared for the sheer number of meetings I was shown:

  • Success through Communication
  • Grammar and Communication
  • How to get RID of STRESS!
  • What are the key factors for being successful?
  • How to Keep Yourself and Others Well Workshop

One MeetUp group appears to have been re-used for meetings on totally unrelated topics, possibly through laziness, and had the following meetings:

  • Communication for Business
  • English Study Group
  • Rubik’s Cube Master Class
  • Predict – Human – Behavior – Seminar
  • FREE movie night Auckland
  • Open House for Coffee 🙂

If this was another group I wouldn’t be so suspicious, but as we skeptics know Scientology has a long and sordid history of trying to lure people in under false pretences, and then selling them overpriced books and courses under extreme pressure. There’s a big drive in Scientology to get people through the door, called “body routing”, and I’ve been to the showing of an internal Scientology video where exaggerated numbers were used, boasting of increases in course completion, conversions, body routing and many other metrics Scientology like to measure, inflate and promote. I’m betting that Auckland’s Scientologists have had pressure applied to improve their stats ever since they spent millions of dollars opening their new “Ideal Org” building. These meetings are likely a way to boost the numbers of people coming through the door, so that head office can be told of how much better they’re doing now they are doing things the “Hubbard” way.

So, if you hear of anyone you know in Auckland who is looking for a new social group to join, please make sure they steer clear of groups who operate from 136 Grafton Road.

Mark Honeychurch
Secretary, NZ Skeptics
 

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An Open Letter to Plan B

A new group called FACT (Fight Against Conspiracy Theories) has published an open letter to Plan B about their connection with Voices for Freedom. The letter calls on Plan B to distance themselves from Voices for Freedom and the group’s anti-science stance on COVID related issues.

The letter is signed by scientists such as Siouxsie Wiles, Des Gorman and Alison Campbell, as well as a few organisations including the NZ Skeptics.

Plan B have always framed themselves as a group of evidence based academics who disagree with the idea that lockdowns are an acceptable solution to the COVID pandemic. However their flirting with Voices for Freedom includes promotion of Voices for Freedom content, and Plan B’s Dr Thornley giving the keynote talk at a Voices for Freedom event. This really sows doubt on the idea that Plan B is an evidence-driven academic group. Rather, it suggests that their beliefs are more of an ideology than a rational conclusion, and that anyone who agrees with them is a worthy ally, no matter how dangerous their ideas may be.

For example, Voices for Freedom’s recent misinformation spreading, on their website, includes suggesting that COVID vaccines are unsafe, vitamins can help lessen COVID symptoms, wearing a mask is ineffective, Invermectin is a “miracle drug” for treating COVID, and PCR testing is ineffective. Of course none of this is evidence based, and much of it is likely to be dangerous.

They also accuse scientists of “flip flopping” when they change their minds. This one really gets me. As science is a continual process of gathering evidence and making tentative conclusions, scientists changing their minds as new evidence comes to light is expected, and perfectly reasonable. Trying to frame people who are willing to change their opinion based on new evidence as flip floppers is pretty galling, and shows either a lack of understanding of science or a deliberate attempt to malign it.

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Christchurch Skepticism Talk

Jonathon Harper, a new member of the NZ Skeptics committee, is giving a talk in Christchurch this Thursday (8th of April) on an Introduction to Skepticism. Despite the title I’m sure that both new skeptics and those who’ve been around the block a few times will get something out of this talk, and knowing Jonathon this is likely to be a fun event with engaging conversation and some interesting topics.

For more details, see the Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub MeetUp event at:

https://www.meetup.com/Christchurch-Skeptics-in-the-Pub/events/277063570/

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Should we worry about LED bulbs?

Stuff published an article recently about the dangers of LED light bulbs, arguing that the blue light from LED bulbs disturbs our circadian rhythm and disrupts our sleep, with wide ranging knock-on effects to our health. My skeptical radar beeped at reading this, as I’ve looked into this issue in the past and found much speculation and very little actual science.

However, the article mentioned a study from Australia, and actually included a link – which is unusual. The linked study was “interesting”, as the researchers attempted to guesstimate melatonin suppression in study participants by attaching a “spectrophotometer” to them, rather than actually measuring the melatonin levels in their blood or urine. Their conclusions about the effects of the light, because they weren’t actually measuring levels of melatonin, were purely based on numbers they derived from elsewhere. Because of the huge variation in how much blue light suppresses melatonin in different people (a 50x difference between the most and least sensitive people), and their lack of direct measurements, when they tried to correlate evening blue light exposure and people’s ability to sleep they found that the variance in their unknowns swamped the data, and no useful results could be gleaned. So, basically, the study was practically useless when used to work out if blue light in the evening causes people to have worse sleep.

On top of reading this study, I searched google for reputable sources. I found an informative page on the Ministry of Health website which warned about blue light at night. However, of the three external links they gave to support their claim, only one of them actually made any claims about blue light being bad for you – on the Royal Society of NZ’s “Blue light Aotearoa” project page. The other two links, to the International Commission on Illumination and the European Commission, both concluded that there is no risk from the blue light emitted by LEDs:

“The CIE considers that the “blue light hazard” is not an issue for white-light sources used in general lighting, even for those that are blue-enriched… The term “blue light hazard” should not be used when referring to circadian rhythm disruption or sleep disturbance.”

“There is no evidence that the general public is at a risk of direct adverse health effects from LEDs when the lights are in normal use“

From a personal standpoint, I recently replaced all of the light bulbs in my house with WiFi enabled LED bulbs. As I suspect is the case with most modern smart bulbs, I have the option of warm or cold white – as well as many shades between the two (and a rainbow of other colours if I feel like making my house look like an 80s French Discotheque). The warmer shades have a lot less blue in them, so it seems that even if the blue light from LED bulbs was an issue with early bulbs, it’s unlikely to be a problem nowadays.

Although I wouldn’t consider this matter to be settled, it looks likely that these blue light warnings are premature at best, and likely to be needlessly worrying people. At worst, they are being used by companies, despite a lack of any solid evidence, to sell overpriced screen filters, tinted glasses and warm white LED bulbs from companies like OSIN Lighting, a new startup in New Zealand who just happen to be mentioned in the Stuff article.

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If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, or would like to check your membership status, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


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