Skeptic News: can anyone pronounce NXIVM?


96

Skeptic News: can anyone pronounce NXIVM?

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Can anyone pronounce NXIVM?


Okay, so I’m joking here – I actually know how to pronounce the name (it’s said “Nexium”). But it’s obviously a pretentious looking name, chosen for a pretentious, and dangerous, cult. One that thankfully has now been (mostly) shut down. I have a fascination with cults, as they are a particularly dangerous form of erroneous thinking. People can lose their money, friends and even their lives at the hands of an unscrupulous guru or spiritual master. It’s important that the NZ Skeptics, and others, speak out when we see groups taking advantage of individuals in this way.

That brings me to a topic I’m sure most of you will have seen mentioned on the news recently – proposed changes to our hate speech laws. There’s currently a consultation being run by the Ministry of Justice, and they’re looking for early feedback about some changes they’re suggesting that would extend legal protections against hate speech to cover religious groups, as well as other groups such as transgender and gender diverse people. To be clear, my personal opinion is that in general this law is a positive thing – I’m happy with the idea that inciting others to hate a group is not okay, and that it would be good if there were legal protections against this. But, of course, some of the suggested changes aren’t so clear about what would become illegal, and it’s important that the wording of this legislation is as clear as possible. These protections also need to be balanced with our right to critique bad ideas, including those touted by religious groups.

Myself and others on the NZ Skeptics committee will be penning a short submission over the next week or so, and will make it public once it has been submitted. If you have time to read the proposal, and feel that you have a sufficient level of knowledge and expertise to write a reasoned response, it would be great if you could add your voice to the conversation. I’m not going to tell you what to write, but bear in mind that it doesn’t have to be long. Just have a read of the document (it’s about 30 pages long), and answer any of the questions where you feel a skeptical voice is needed.

Mark Honeychurch

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Famous actress jailed for her role in NXIVM

Allison Mack was once famous for her role in the TV show Smallville, a spin-off show about Superman. However, a few years ago she joined a group called NXIVM who promised to help her on the path to enlightenment and happiness. The group pulled in more famous people, including other TV celebrities, the director of What the Bleep Do We Know, and the Bronfman sisters, heirs to the Seagram fortune.

NXIVM ran self-help sessions in Canada and the US, and had a few odd ideas – like the rule that the group’s founder, Keith Raniere, had to be called Vanguard and bowed to, and that people were required to wear coloured scarves to denote their rank within the organisation.

Like many cults, a mythos built up around Keith. He was slated to have one of the highest IQs in the world, a successful businessman, and a spiritual guru. That being said, he once managed to convince the Dalai Lama to visit Albany and endorse his cult – for a large fee.

Keith set up a group for women within NXIVM called DOS – which stood for Dominus Obsequious Sororium. New members were assigned as slaves to senior members, and had to go through an initiation ceremony where they were branded while naked. They had to provide collateral – naked pictures, embarrassing stories, confessions – in order to prove their loyalty. And it was this sub-group that caused the eventual downfall of the cult – when members realised that the branding, which they had been told was a sacred symbol, was actually just a logo that incorporated both Keith’s and Allison’s initials – KR and AM.

When Keith was caught he was hiding in a closet in a rental property in Mexico, and he was subsequently sentenced to 120 years in prison just before COVID lockdown. Some of his followers started dancing for him last year outside his prison window, as a way of showing their continued loyalty, which was a really odd thing to see. But it appears to have started slowly dawning on some of his more ardent followers that he was nothing more than a con man.

Just last week Allison Mack was sentenced to 3 years in prison for racketeering and conspiracy. She recently apologised for her part in the cult – something many senior members have never done. She said:

“I am so sorry to those of you that I brought into NXIVM. I am sorry I ever exposed you to the nefarious and emotionally abusive schemes of a twisted man. I am sorry that I encouraged you to use your resources to participate in something that was ultimately so ugly.”

I highly recommend the Uncover podcast for anyone who’s interested in learning more about NXIVM. The creator of the podcast bumped into an old friend just after they had left the cult, and the ensuing recordings do a great job of laying bare what it was like to have been in the group.

This is not very likely to happen to you, but if you ever suspect that a friend might be in a cult, I’d recommend that you try to keep your communication lines open with them. Let them know that you’ll always be available to talk, and don’t push them away by being too judgmental about their choices. If and when they have doubts, and they start to think about the possibility of leaving, having friends like you on the outside who are willing to help support them and listen to them will be an invaluable asset.

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Psychic Kelvin is on tour

Sensing Murder psychic Kelvin Cruickshank is currently touring the country. He’s been down in the South Island recently, visiting Christchurch and a lot of smaller towns, and selling tickets at $65 a pop. Next month he’ll be touring the North Island.

However, Chris Lynch has reported that audience members from one of his first gigs in the South island, in Christchurch, found the event to be “a disappointment”. Apparently his microphone wasn’t working properly, and that as a result he ended up being rude to the audience – calling the town hosting him, West Melton, a hick town.

One audience member said that he was arrogant, and that he was asking a lot of questions. To me, this sounds like someone having a bad time at reading his audience, rather than someone having issues communicating with the spirit realm. If, as skeptics say, psychics employ a mixture of hot and cold reading in order to work with an audience to fool them into thinking that the psychic knows about their lives, it’s unsurprising to hear that psychics plying their trade are going to have good and bad days. And for the bad days, it’s going to be frustrating enough to make a psychic angry, and the psychic is going to have to work harder, asking more questions than usual and having less of a “connection” with their audience. This sounds a lot like what happened in West Melton.

On Kelvin’s official Facebook page, there’s a comment blaming the problem on both lighting and seating issues. Of course, it’s never the psychic who’s wrong. Psychics tend not to doubt themselves – if they did, and they considered that what they’re actually doing is taking money from grieving families in return for lying to them, it would be pretty hard for them to live with themselves. A Sensing Murder special clip, asking Kelvin how he deals with skeptics, is somewhat telling (see the video below).

Kelvin asks “who are we to judge others?”, as if this means that people shouldn’t be judging him for his actions. Well, I’m happy to judge him. What he’s doing is unethical, and cruel. Everyone should make allowance for the opinions of others, especially when their chosen career is one that is as controversial as being a psychic medium. Even if these people have actually fooled themselves into thinking they have a special psychic ability, shutting themselves off from criticism is not a good response when the criticism is that they are exploiting vulnerable people.

Sadly, though, it’s rare for a psychic to voluntarily give up a career they’ve worked hard to build up. It’s much more likely that they’ll either rest on their laurels and disenfranchise their fans by giving lacklustre performances, like it appears Kelvin is doing, or they’re exposed by skeptics in psychic stings like the ones Susan Gerbic runs in the US – and even then it’s likely they’ll still have enough loyal fans that they can continue to make a living from their con.


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When scientists go wrong

Mahin Khatami looks at first blush to be a respectable scientist – she has a long history as a scientist spanning decades, she used to work for the NIH (National Institutes for Health) in the US as a program director, and has not only been published in respectable peer reviewed journals, but has also been a journal editor.

However, I learned of her recently because of a paper Mahin published late last year, “Deceptology in cancer and vaccine sciences”, where she claims that cancer and most other modern diseases are caused by the pharmaceutical industry as a way to sell more medicine. The paper has come to light because the journal of Clinical & Translational Medicine is retracting it.

Sadly other papers by Mahin have not been retracted, despite scientists making complaints to the relevant journals. I went hunting through her publishing history, and found titles such as:
 

Mahin’s overall idea seems to be that vaccines for Polio, HPV, Flu, hepatitis, HPV, meningitis and measles, among others, are used to cause diseases such as cancer rather than protect us from disease. Her papers talk of the creation of dark energy, and the need to balance Yin and Yang. It seems that “big pharma” is using the vaccines to inject us with something that disrupts our body chemistry, and keeps them in business as they sell us the solutions to problems they cause.

It turns out that Mahin is an active member of an anti-vaxx group in the US called SaneVax. Despite the name, they’re anything but sane – rather, they appear to be ideologically committed to the idea that vaccines are evil, and that nobody should be vaccinated. I’m guessing that SaneVax are happy to work with anyone who is similarly opposed to vaccines, no matter how wacky their ideas are.
 


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:
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Skeptic News: Climate change, Ivermectin and COVID dishonesty


96

Skeptic News: Climate change, Ivermectin and COVID dishonesty

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

This week there’s more climate change news, protest by farmers, tradies and ute drivers, and more COVID dishonesty revealed.

And make sure you scroll to the bottom – there’s exciting details about our upcoming joint Australia/New Zealand conference in November.

Craig Shearer

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Climate change is here

Over the past few weeks there have been various extreme weather events that are now being attributed to climate change, whereas once scientists were more cagey on the issue – saying that it’s never possible to blame any one event on climate change. But the evidence is stacking up, and we see temperature records being broken – 2020 was one of the three warmest years on record

The severity of the recent heat-wave in Canada and the western United States has been attributed to climate change. Record temperatures in Canada (coming close to 50°C) exacerbated wildfires and the town of Lytton burning to the ground. 

Just this week we saw massive flooding in Germany, with the death toll currently sitting at 170 people. This is also attributed to climate change

It seems that most people in our country “believe” in climate change, and that it is human-caused. (“Believe” is obviously a problematic word for skeptics – we accept the evidence – it doesn’t require belief as such!) Research into public attitudes shows some fairly wide variations though – younger people are more accepting (and have the most to lose) whereas the older generations (who will likely die before the worst effects are seen) are less likely to believe. 

Of course, climate change has been known about for many years. There’s a popular claim on the internet that a NZ newspaper from 1912 – The Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata and Kaipara Gazette was first to publish a dire warning:


But actually, that same text was also previously printed in an Australian newspaper, and prior to that, appeared in an issue of Popular Mechanics.

A group of researchers at the University of Waikato recently studied people’s beliefs around sea level rise and how accurate they were. It found that a minority of people actually correctly knew the likely extent of sea level rise in the future. They point out that people both under- and over-estimate the effects of climate change. Over-estimating the effects might well lead to inaction based upon despair that there’s nothing that can be done.

The article also points out that sea level rise isn’t uniform – and that different areas of the country are rising and falling – the lower North Island falling at up to 8mm per year, and in other places rising at up to 10mm per year. Our planet is alive and ever changing!

Some years back the committee of the NZ Skeptics Society became concerned about the perceptions of the public with the use of the word “skeptics” to be associated with human-induced climate change denial. We issued the following statement:

The New Zealand Skeptics Society supports the scientific consensus on Climate Change. There is an abundance of evidence demonstrating global mean temperatures are rising, and that humans have had a considerable impact on the natural rate of change. The Society will adjust its position with the scientific consensus.

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Howl of a protest

So, on the back of increasing effects of climate change this week saw the “Howl of a Protest” event run by Groundswell NZ – a group that purportedly represents farmers and tradies and ute owners who protested against new government regulations they say are unworkable.In particular, they’re concerned about the Clean Car Discount programme, dubiously dubbed the “ute tax” as it will penalise those who drive vehicles which spew excessive CO2 emissions.

Interestingly, only 9% of all utes are registered for work purposes. There’s an interesting FBT (fringe benefit tax) loophole (or exemption as it’s referred to) that allows companies to avoid paying FBT on double-cab utes:

“IRD has decided that most double cab utes satisfy the requirement that the vehicle was not primarily designed or intended to carry passengers. Therefore, companies are incentivised to purchase utes as employee vehicles, even if another type of vehicle would suit the work better.

Moreover, although the requirement that FBT be paid when the employee uses the vehicle privately – to tow their boat out to the lake over the weekend, for example – this is rarely enforced, tax experts say.”

It would be nice to see the government address this distortion of the market that is causing more climate-damaging CO2 emissions.

The protest was largely in rural towns. In my reading, it’s been pointed out that there are plenty of farmers who are on board with the need to change practises and take climate change into effect. 

So, how big was the protest? Well, the following photo was tweeted out to show the scale of the protest.


Except that that photo was actually of a Dutch protest. The photo was reversed (and cropped to remove the non-English signs) so the tractors were driving on the correct side of the road for our country. Slightly dishonest, I’d say. 

Here’s the original photo:


The protest was also used opportunistically by the Voices for Freedom group to protest vaccines – more on them a bit further down.

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COVID-19 marches on

Yes, the pandemic is still with us, and alarmingly new strains are emerging. Evolution does what evolution does.

Currently the Delta variant is in the news, and it is more transmissible than the original strain. As I write this, New South Wales in Australia has 105 new cases and a death, and is in a fairly strict lockdown in an attempt to shut down transmission. Let’s hope they’re successful.

We’ve been very fortunate that COVID hasn’t escaped into the wild in NZ, especially after the visit last month by an Australian who was positive for COVID. It would seem that their previous Oxford Astrazeneca vaccine dose probably prevented them from transmitting the virus – though of course we can’t be certain. Yay for vaccines!

But while sensible people are getting vaccinated, spare a thought for those who can’t – those in less privileged countries who don’t yet have access. But also consider the flailing vaccination rollout in the US where people are refusing the vaccine, largely along political lines, and because of misinformation from anti-vaxxers.

As I saw somebody comment on Twitter, if Fox News had been around in the 1950s we’d still be fighting Polio and Smallpox today.

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Ivermectin study withdrawn

The drug Ivermectin is an anti-parasite drug (used on worms and head-lice), and has been touted as a treatment for COVID-19. On the anti-vaxx Facebook groups I monitor, it’s frequently cited as the favoured treatment for COVID-19, along the same lines as Hydroxychloroquine – though that seems to have faded a little now.

A study into Ivermectin has now been retracted over ethical concerns. And by “ethical concerns”, it would appear that’s euphemistic language for huge data fabrication and other scientific fraud.

The study was run at Benha University in Egypt. The study was an RCT, and claimed “substantial improvement and reduction in mortality rate in ivermectin treated groups” by 90%.

A medical student in London identified serious concerns in the paper including faked data and plagiarisation. 

“It appeared that the authors had run entire paragraphs from press releases and websites about ivermectin and Covid-19 through a thesaurus to change key words. “Humorously, this led to them changing ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome’ to ‘extreme intense respiratory syndrome’ on one occasion,” Lawrence said.”

The paper was analysed in intricate detail by a couple of scientists and reported here, who came to the conclusion:

“In view of the problems described in the preceding sections, most notably the repeated sequences of identical numbers corresponding to apparently “cloned” patients, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Excel file provided by the authors does not faithfully represent the results of the study, and indeed has probably been extensively manipulated by hand.”

Unfortunately the study was included in two meta-analyses and because the study was so large and overwhelmingly positive, this skewed the meta analyses resulting in a positive outcome for the drug. 

“If you remove this one study from the scientific literature, suddenly there are very few positive randomised control trials of ivermectin for Covid-19. Indeed, if you get rid of just this research, most meta-analyses that have found positive results would have their conclusions entirely reversed.”

So, will anti-vaxxers stop promoting ivermectin for COVID treatment? I doubt it.Ironically, ivermectin is also used as a sheep drench – the anti-vaxxers promoting it are fond of calling those who accept the “official story” on COVID sheeple. Baa I say! 🐑🐑🐑

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Doctors under investigation

Sticking with the COVID theme, I reported in a previous newsletter about the website set up to allow medical professionals and “concerned citizens” to sign their name to the statement:

“I support New Zealand health professionals standing up for established medical convention, the Nuremberg code and informed consent.”

According to the site they now have over 7,000 declarations, including 41 doctors, 211 nurses and 421 New Zealand Allied Health Practitioners.

Previously the site listed all the signatories, but they recently turned that off, stating that “due to authorities actively threatening the livelihoods of anyone who questions their opinions, individual signatory names are presently withheld”.

The site is also programmed to prevent selecting text so you can’t copy and paste – though that’s easily overridden if you know what you’re doing in the web browser developer tools 😀

They’re referring to the current investigation by the NZ Medical Council into doctors who are promoting vaccine misinformation. This is a good thing – while doctors are entitled to their own opinions, they have to remain professional and not undermine vaccination efforts by promoting misinformation.

There are currently 13 doctors under investigation for promoting misinformation. Unfortunately, that investigation is going to take 9 months. I suppose they have to be thorough.

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More VfF dishonesty

As I’ve written before, one of the main purveyors of vaccine misinformation is the anti-vax, conspiracy theory group Voices for Freedom. You will have seen their distinctive branding with their blue, teal and green signs and professionally printed placards. 

They glommed onto the Howl of a Protest, using it to promote their lies. It does seem that their ultimate agenda is to attack anything that the government is doing – as we’ve seen they have strong links to the AdvanceNZ party, so expect them to become a political force at some point in the future.

I keep track of their activities via a surreptitious, pseudonymous email address. Amusingly in one of their recent communications they claimed:

There are 3 things we know for sure:

1. The media, politicians and bureaucrats are bought and sold. We see the game they’re playing. We’re calling them out and holding them to account. The full extent of their conflicts and lack of real science will be exposed.
 

2. The Pfizer “vaccine” is not a vaccine. It is more accurately referred to as gene therapy – a harmful experiment causing significant injury.
 

3.The way out of this mess and tyranny is people power. When the people stand up and speak out, this ends.
 

I think their definition of “know” is at variance with the commonly accepted one!

 


Coming soon…

We’re excited to announce the combined NZ and Australian Skeptics Conference/Skepticon. We’re holding this in person (COVID willing!) in Wellington and Sydney simultaneously on the weekend of 19th – 21st November.

There will also be the option to purchase a livestream ticket.

The conference will feature speakers from both sides of the Tasman as well as some exciting international speakers.

We’re seeking registrations of interest so that we can gauge interest.

Please visit the registration of interest page (hosted on the Australian Skeptics site) at the following link:
 

Register interest


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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Skeptic News: Live from the Christchurch Home Show


96

Skeptic News: Live from the Christchurch Home Show

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Live from the Christchurch Home Show


There’s some classic skepticism in this week’s newsletter – numerology, an American conspiracy theory and a scam that looks, walks and quacks like a Ponzi Scheme. And, as well as my usual ranting, we have a report from Barry Lennox. Barry was a committee member a few years ago, and he recently visited the Christchurch Home Show. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that Barry found several stalls pushing unproven nonsense in amongst the spa pools and heat pumps.

Mark Honeychurch

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Russell Tomes
Those who would like to pay tribute to Russell, long-time skeptic and valued member of our committee who died suddenly a couple of weeks ago, are welcome to join a remembrance event on Sunday the 1st of August at 1:30pm, at the Bandsmen’s Memorial Rotunda in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.

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Fun With Numbers

While trawling conspiracy websites and videos, as I tend to do for fun, I stumbled across a recommendation for a local kiwi numerologist. But the recommendation said that, unlike the usual mystical nonsense, this particular numerologist uses science and maths to find real patterns that are actually useful.

Peter Vaughan is a modest man – modest enough to have named his technique after himself (the Vaughan Method). Peter writes of himself on his website:

“He’s often thought of as having a ‘gift’ but say’s he’s no more gifted than any other person”

Anyway, on to The Vaughan Method. Peter believes that the sounds within your name affect you as a baby:

“emotions are directly connected to the sound of your name from infancy to about four years old. As a baby, you experienced a range of positive and negative emotions. As each emotional experience was experienced, it was always connected to the ‘sound’ of your name.”

Having argued that the sounds in your name will be connected to emotions you had as a baby when you heard your name being said, he then says that the inverse is also true – knowing the sounds of your name is the key to knowing the emotions you would have had. This makes no sense! But, in Peter’s world, anything goes. Our next logical leap is that knowing your emotional states during your formative years allows him to figure out exactly what your personality is.

One of Peter Vaughan’s websites, numerology.net.nz, charges $75 for a full reading, but has a free name analyser that can tell you your personality from a first name alone.

So, as skeptics, how can we test this? Well, first I tried to get to the source code for the website, but unfortunately someone’s turned off access to PHP source files on the server.

Then I tried inputting different text to the PHP file to see what would happen. CAPS or lowercase? Same results each time. Spaces in a name? Breaks the website. A very long name? Works. Punctuation is ignored, giving the same result as without the punctuation. Numbers in a name are not ignored, producing a different result when numbers are added.

Well, what about names that sound the same but are spelled differently – homonyms? Sean and Shaun, Aiden and Aidan, Isabel and Isobel, Graeme and Graham, Mark and Marc. It turns out that the generator produces different results for each spelling, despite the fact that they would sound the same to a baby, and presumably therefore trigger the same emotions. And of course all of this is ignoring that each baby will hear their name at different times, and with different accents, and many will be called by shortened names or nicknames at times. None of this idea makes any sense!

So I’ve put my first name into the analyser and have an accurate reading. Here’s just the first half of my reading:

You have great depth to your personality and may appear somewhat reserved around others, but this is not the case. You listen and observe a lot more than most and do all the work in your head which means you may not express yourself as much as others do. This alongside a potential quality you have where you feel people may not fully understand you as you’d like, so you might find that working or being in your own space is more comfortable at times as you are quite happy in your own company.

You appreciate it whenever you do a good job or task that others will show their appreciation one way or another and not necessarily just getting paid for a job. Personal satisfaction and the quality of your work or efforts are generally above others.  You also have a creative streak and any hobby or pass time you may take up will show the scope and quality you have inside. This comes from emotional involvement of which you have naturally.

You have an eye for the attractive and for things being well presented, hence you will put a lot of thought into your activities and you will check things out, make sure all is correct, cross reference and research at times to find out more about things that capture interest as you have an inquisitive nature. Not only that, but you have a fondness to help and do things and like the idea people will respond in kind for what you give out, however, it is often later in life that you learned, or will learn, when you expected others to respond in kind to the way you think, you discover that not everyone is like you.

Now, to the uninitiated these may feel like hits – wow, they really feel like they describe us so well. But, as I’m sure most skeptics are aware, it turns out that we’re seeing nothing more exciting than a set of Barnum Statements – part of the Barnum, or Forer, Effect. This effect is named for both the circus showman who used to use these statements, and a psychologist called Bertram Forer who used these kinds of statements in a simple experiment to show that most people will rate them as a good fit for their personality.

Sadly it all gets weirder from there. Peter has invented a new technique called lettrology, and for only $6,000 you can learn his secrets, which will allow you to read the “state of a Stock on the Market”, figure out “which party will win national elections” and “detect fraud”. Apparently the letter A “causes people to have major changes in their life at certain times”, knowing someone’s birth name and date of birth allows you to calculate their “Ultimate Destiny”, and “yellow”, “death”, “Jesus” and “covid 2019” all equal the number 2. What?

Peter’s YouTube channel includes testimonials from clients who are happy with his $75 readings, but I’m hoping nobody has been sucked in by the $6,000 course. Not only is it a waste of money, but it would mean there are more people out there perpetuating Peter’s method of fortune telling, and trying to take people’s money in return for a set of feel-good, but useless, platitudes. And let’s just hope that nobody’s making any investment decisions based on his stock market predictions.

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Christchurch Home Show

by Barry Lennox

 

Last weekend I visited the Home Show in Christchurch. All the usual suspects were there, Bioptron, Shuzi and the Magnetic and Titanium healer. This was surprising as I had scanned the exhibitor list in the morning and they did not appear.  So I suspect they are on some hidden/covert/backdoor list.

 

Anyway, once again it was Shuzi. I have crossed swords with this lot before, a few years ago they were doing the power balance stunt first exposed by Richard Saunders in Australia, Google “richard saunders exposes the power balance trick” for several versions of the trick and countermeasures.  I did this to the demonstrator who was most unhappy to be messed with! I then entered a discussion over their patented NVT (Nano Vibration Technology). It was trivial to defeat his every statement, but I was dismissed as “having a closed mind”. My last riposte was the old “I’ve an open mind but not so open that my brains fall out”. But it’s a waste of time, and it’s much more satisfying to talk to the pot plant on the corner!

 

Next year I was armed with Australian media reports that essentially ran them out of Australia. So I walked up and requested a comment.  He hotly denied it, tried to grab it (but I was far too quick) and after a few short exchanges he got out his cellphone and called security, or so he claimed. I like to think I spoiled a couple of potential sales.

 

So now I wander up and mention to all those hanging about, that it’s woowoo nonsense, based neither on science nor evidence. What is also interesting is that in previous years they have had many (hundreds?) of brochures there. Not one to be seen this year. 

 

Here’s a bit more from the Australian skeptics, including an abortive attempt to get Shuzi to front up for a real test.

https://www.skeptics.com.au/2012/08/13/if-you-knew-shuzi/

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Birds aren’t real

I recently learned about the absolutely fun conspiracy that is “birds aren’t real”. According to the theory, the CIA in the 1950s were trying to solve two hard problems. Firstly, they wanted to be able to secretly spy on the entire population of the United States. Secondly, they needed to stop birds pooping on their cars in the CIA headquarters car park. These two seemingly disconnected problems gave birth to the genius idea to replace all the birds in America with flying camera drones that look just like birds. As the Birds Aren’t Real twitter account states:

“Birds Aren’t Real. They used to be. Until the U.S. Government replaced them with identical drone replicas designed to spy on the American public.”

Following the CIA’s decision, the birds were slowly, secretly replaced with robot surveillance birds until JFK became aware of the plan in 1963 (when he was shown the Turkey X500) and ordered the closure of the project. A month later he was dead. Since then the CIA has ensured only anti-bird presidents have been elected. There’s even a promotional video online from way back in 1987.

Of course, this whole thing is nothing more than a stunt pulled by a student called Peter McIndoe. Peter started it with a protest sign at a women’s march in 2017, which said:

“Birds are a myth; they’re an illusion; they’re a lie. Wake up America! Wake up!”

Soon after he started selling a range of T-shirts, hats and stickers on the birds aren’t real website, which now even sells Birds Aren’t Real face masks.

Beyond just being a way for someone to make a living, this parody serves as a good example of Poe’s Law, which states that:

“without a clear indicator of the author’s intent, it is impossible to create a parody of extreme views such that it cannot be mistaken by some readers for a sincere expression of the views being parodied”

In this case, the kinds of views that are being parodied include QAnon and the Flat Earth movement. The idea that America’s birds have been replaced with drones is no dafter than the idea that the earth is flat, or that Trump is secretly still president of the US. And many people in this country believe that the COVID virus doesn’t exist, or that the vaccine contains a tiny microchip from Bill Gates.

What I love is that Peter doesn’t seem to ever break character, as can be seen in this interview from a couple of years ago where, true to Poe’s Law, it’s obvious the TV presenters aren’t sure whether or not he’s sincere in his belief.

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Earth 2

I enjoy playing computer games, and own both a gaming PC (RTX 3060 Ti, i5-10400) and a VR headset (Quest). So when I heard about an ambitious new game for PCs, VR and phones, it piqued my interest. The game is called Earth2, and is pipped to be a 1:1 copy of earth, with a faithful reproduction of the entire planet in software. Their website makes comparisons to the movies The Matrix and Ready Player One, both of which feature VR environments that are indistinguishable from reality. This sounds pretty ambitious… maybe too ambitious.

Gaming is a large industry – in fact, the global gaming industry makes more money every year than the global movie industry. Triple A titles, as they are known – the biggest and best titles – cost millions of dollars to make, and take years to complete. Earth2, however, promises to be bigger than anything that’s come before it. All you need to do is trust the developers, and of course invest your money before seeing the product. And this is where it starts to get a little weird.

So, what have they created so far? Just Phase 1 of three phases, which is an online marketplace for buying and selling plots of land in the new virtual world. They have created a website with some mapping software that allows you to pick a 10m x 10m square anywhere in the world, and buy it – land in more populated areas is more expensive. People can offer to buy land from you, and you can make money off your land if the land around it is also populated. Plus you get 5-10% of anything other people spend if they use your promo code – which starts to make this sound like a Multi Level Marketing scheme.

And that’s all there is. People are speculating by buying virtual land and hoping that its price will go up if/when a game is ever released. Although there are no official figures, one estimate I’ve seen is that to date around US$46 million of real estate has been sold – and looking at their map, that’s just a small fraction of what’s available. Given there is no tangible asset here, it’s starting to look like a Ponzi scheme. Some early people have managed to make a small profit by buying up popular tourist spots in the VR world and then selling them on, and pulling out their money – but the ability to withdraw real cash through PayPal has been turned off recently, and replaced with a promise of something new to replace it.

Given the inexperience of the people running this project, and the gaming industry’s history of crowd funded projects either delivering a very bad product or no product at all (known as Vaporware), I suspect that this game is never going to see the light of day, and when everything crashes a lot of people will have lost their money. Just reading the promises they make sets alarm bells ringing:

“The Earth 2 terrain engine is able to render the entire Earth with extreme terrain and vegetation details not seen before in any game, where movement is without loading and popping artifacts at scale. This all with high performance and the ability to down-scale to lower hardware.”

This description just reads like the holy grail – and apparently a group of inexperienced developers in Melbourne, some with a history of making big promises and delivering sub-par games, are able to deliver this amazing product where the world’s largest, most experienced game development companies can’t.

And I’m not the only one who thinks this – a game reporter on YouTube, Big Fry, has made a series of videos showing that the Earth2 Emperor has no clothes.

So, what’s my recommendation? Don’t pre-order this game. Stay away from it, and others like it (such as Crowd1/Planet IX), at least until there’s an actual released product you can play, and reviews from trustworthy game reviewers. A web based map where you can buy tiles is not a game, and neither is a YouTube video of pretty looking terrain. I can speak from experience here – I backed a crowd funded console years ago, the Ouya, and it definitely under-delivered on its promises.

There’s a game I’m really interested in at the moment, that’s being developed in Auckland, called Icarus. But I know not to pre-order, and to wait until release (and after a few reviews have been written), because people who don’t wait tend to end up disappointed. I’m looking at you, No Man’s Sky.



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: RIP Russell, Misinformation goes mainstream, and more…


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Skeptic News: RIP Russell, Misinformation goes mainstream, and more…

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.
 

This week I’ve some sad news to report – the death of Russell Tomes, who was one of our NZ Skeptics committee members. Russell was a prominent identity in the skeptical community, both locally and internationally. More details below.

Craig Shearer

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Russell Tomes

 

It is with great sadness that I have to report that Russell Tomes, a NZ Skeptics committee member died last week. Russell unfortunately had an undiagnosed heart condition and died of a heart attack.

Russell came to prominence in the media, both nationally and internationally by being a Pastafarian – a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). Russell wore his religious headgear (a blue colander) for his driver’s licence photograph – pictures of which were splashed around the world!

Russell was interviewed by Campbell Live on TV3 – we’ve put the clip up on our YouTube channel.

The Church went on to be able to perform marriages.

Russell was involved with NZ Skeptics for many years, and had worked on various skeptical activism projects – including showing up in person at a Jeanette Wilson event (the claimed psychic surgeon), and participating in various online activities with Susan Gerbic. He was also a member of Susan’s GSoW project, writing Wikipedia articles.

Russell was a great human being, with a warm heart and keen sense of knowing what was right and wrong with the world. He also had a fantastic sense of humour – and loved to wear costumes – if you’ve been to a recent NZ Skeptics Conference, you’d have encountered Russell in costume. I fondly remember many committee meetings (which we hold via internet video chat) where he’d appear with some ridiculous mask – such as Pennywise the Clown, from Stephen King’s IT. 


While there won’t be a funeral, Russell’s mother is organising a remembrance event in Christchurch in a few weeks for those who were close to him. If you’d like to be involved, please get in touch.

The world, and certainly the skeptics movement, is a lesser place without Russell in it. RIP Russell – you’ll be greatly missed.

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Misinformation awareness goes mainstream

This past week saw the release of a report on misinformation, on research conducted by the Classification Office Te Mana Whakaatu. The Classification Office is traditionally responsible for classifying media, such as films and assessing whether material may need to be restricted.

While we’d like to see some way of reducing the impact of misinformation this is a difficult proposition for the Classification Office. From their report:

“The Classification Office cannot restrict or ban content on the basis of fairness, balance or accuracy. However we do have a mandate to restrict material that could encourage behaviour that poses a risk of self-harm or harm to others, and material that promotes criminal, terrorist or violent acts.”

It’s unfortunate that misinformation has to rise to the level of encouraging criminal, terrorist or violent acts for action to be taken. As skeptics, we know that misinformation has insidious effects that don’t rise to that threshold. There’s plenty of documented harm in believing silly things.

The report does highlight that there are widespread concerns about misinformation and that the internet plays a key role in its spread. And people are concerned and think something should be done. But it’s a difficult one, especially when commercial enterprises (such as social media companies) and their profit motive conflicts with our interests.

My belief is that the only solution to misinformation is better education in critical thinking and how to spot misinformation. In short – skepticism needs to be taught. But, maybe more awareness of misinformation by the general public will have an effect in making people more wary.

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Anti-vax paper retraction

An anti-vax paper was published recently in the open access Vaccines journal. “The Safety of COVID-19 Vaccinations – We Should Rethink the Policy”. The paper has now been retracted, though just getting it published is likely to fuel anti-vax misinformation.

Reported by Science Magazine, there have been a lot of resignations of scientists from editorial positions for the Vaccines journal, including our own Helen Petousis-Harris. 

Unfortunately, according to the Science article, the paper had drawn 350,000 readers and been tweeted about by anti-vaxxers with thousands of followers.

Why was the paper published in the first place? The paper’s authors have no qualifications in vaccinology, virology, or epidemiology. The paper was peer-reviewed, but by reviewers without any of those qualifications either. 

For such a controversial headline, you’d think that the reviewers would have had some second thoughts.

The study itself was hugely flawed – comparing data from a study of Israelis who received the Pfizer vaccine to reported vaccine side-effects in The Netherlands in a system similar to the US VAERS system – where reports are accepted but imply no causal link with vaccines. The paper comes to the astounding conclusion that “For three deaths prevented by vaccination we have to accept two inflicted by vaccination.”

As Helen Petousis-Harris states, the paper is very much a case of “garbage in, garbage out”. 

While it’s great that the paper has been retracted, it would have been great to not have been published in the first place!

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Fluoridation of our water

You may be aware that there’s currently a bill before parliament to change the way that fluoridation of our drinking water is handled. Presently District Health Boards have the individual power to decide whether the water for the populations they serve is fluoridated or not. The bill would take that power away from the DHBs and give it to the Director-General of Health.

Letting DHBs have the power to control this makes them susceptible to health cranks who want to prevent fluoridation of our water supply. Having seen the lists of people standing for DHBs it makes sense that the power is vested with qualified experts!

The bill has been open to public submissions, and I (unfortunately) got to witness some of the oral submissions via Facebook Live. The vast majority of the submitters were against fluoridation! They trotted out the usual anti-fluoridation talking points, such as that fluoride is a neurotoxin and that fluoridation chemicals are contaminated with lead, arsenic, mercury and uranium.

I think an award should be given to the woman running the process at keeping a straight face after nearly three hours of lies and misinformation about fluoridation.

There were some submitters, particularly the Canterbury DHB, who were for the bill, and they made some sensible points – one of which was that the Director-General should take advice from the Director of Public Health, in case the Director-General is not a health person – as has been in the past, where the role was held by an accountant.

For the record, fluoridation is well studied, and recommended by the WHO. Our Ministry of Health recommends fluoridation.

At present, only about half of NZ’s population is covered by fluoridated water supply. The benefits of fluoridated water are fairly major in the avoidance of dental cavities, and very cost effective – many people avoid dental treatment because of cost. Fluoridating water is a cost-effective means to reduce cavities.

I hope that sense prevails and the misinformation from fluoride cranks is ignored.

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De-platforming

In the good news department, YouTube has de-platformed local misinformant Vinny Eastwood, also joining another local, Damien De Ment, also banned. Vinny Eastwood was king of promoting conspiracy theories, but it seems that various complaints have seen his channel now removed. 

Is this a case of removing free speech? No – YouTube is a private company – it doesn’t have to provide a platform for people spouting dangerous misinformation.

It seems that Vinny was making a living off YouTube. Now, pleading on Facebook to his fans for support:


How sad. Get a real job!

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Conference update

Did you know that NZ Skeptics is running an in-person conference again this year (after not running one last year because of COVID).

This year we’re running it in conjunction with the Australian Skeptics – it will be a fully shared conference with speakers appearing in person and remotely from each side of the Tasman. 

We’re excited about the conference, and the great line-up of speakers. It will be held in Wellington on the weekend of 19th – 21st November. Stay tuned for further details.


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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