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…


96

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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Skeptic News: No Druids, New Freeland


96

Skeptic News: No Druids, New Freeland

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

No Druids, New Freeland


 

Sadly the Druids cancelled on us last week due to the bad weather here in Wellington, so I was unable to attend their winter solstice event. However we (a small group of Skeptics in the Pub regulars) have been invited to the spring equinox event instead, so expect an update in 3 months.

Instead, let me regale you with the story of how I no longer have to make my mortgage payments or pay rates on my property. Does this sound too good to be true? That’s probably because it is. Don’t try this at home, kids!

Mark Honeychurch

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New Freeland

There’s a lawyer in New Zealand called Liz Lambert who thinks she has hit upon a legal loophole that allows people to claim any piece of land as their own. As background, there are two main forms of land ownership in many countries – Fee Simple and Allodial. Fee simple is the type of land ownership you or I have access to. As archaic legal terms, Fee in this case means ownership, and Simple means without any kind of time limit (freehold rather than leasehold). Governments, on the other hand, usually have Allodial ownership of land, which is more of an absolute ownership without a requirement to pay anyone rates, etc (although in some cases there may be private allodial ownership, such as church land in some european countries). So, in New Zealand’s case, the Crown has Allodial Title over New Zealand, and we citizens can then purchase a Fee Simple Title to part of that land. It still belongs to the Crown under their allodial title, but we’ve purchased a right to live on it forever (barring certain circumstances like compulsory acquisition).

Ms Lambert thinks she has figured out how to claim land under an allodial title in New Zealand, and she’s been good enough to let everyone know what we have to do:

  • Decide on a piece of land that is either unoccupied or that you already occupy.
  • Make a flag that is not a corporate flag or imperial flag.
  • Make something you could copyright if need be. Attach it to your stake, Plant it on your land.
  • Get a spade and turn the first sod on your land.
  • Plant a food crop of some description, a potato or kumara is ideal, you need to make clear you intend to stay on the land and use it to sustain yourself.
  • Take photographs or videos of the above and publish online in your preferred media.
  • Notify the council of the land’s new status including photos.
  • Inform them that you will no longer be paying rates as the land is now allodial.

Now, I’ve done all this at home – I had my 7 year old daughter make a flag, grabbed a spade and dug a hole, planted a chilli plant in the hole I dug, and stuck the flag in the ground. I then posted my photo evidence, along with the following claim, to Facebook:

This Facebook post is an official notice to the New Zealand government, and Porirua Council, that the land at 78 Mercury Way is now under Allodial Title, exclusively owned by the Honeychurch family. Please cease the charging of all rates and other fees, as the property is no longer under New Zealand jurisdiction.

I suspect that, outside of having made my Facebook friends a little confused, this is not going to mean that Porirua Council stops sending me rates bills, and of course I’m not stupid enough to stop paying them. After we had done this, I explained to my daughters that we would no longer have to pay the council rates, or the bank a mortgage. My 11 year old daughter said that was just “silly”, and that the council will probably just charge me more if I don’t pay, and might come round and knock my flag down as well.

Using this legal “trick”, Liz Lambert, Kelvyn Alp (the host of Counterspin, a weird extreme right conspiracy show online), Damien De Ment and others have claimed Abel Tasman National Park as their property, and renamed it to New Freeland. They have invited people to move onto the land to build properties, businesses, etc, with no rates or other fees to be paid.

This whole daft idea is a lot like the Maori Ranger ID cards I looked into last month, with someone’s half-cocked idea of the law being used to magically override the legal system by supposedly leaving New Zealand’s jurisdiction. And, like the silly ID cards, there are already people being harmed by these ideas. A recent question from someone on the New Freeland Facebook page asked:

“[I] Have refused to pay rates this last 1/4 now got a new rate DEMAND ( they are SO arrogant demanding not asking nicely!) with the added penalty on. What has anyone else done? replied or ignored?”

In the end this is going to cost some people a lot of money – and I suspect it will be those least able to pay the fees, fines, and legal bills that will accumulate the longer they refuse to pay their dues.

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How not to handle a COVID outbreak

Obviously India has been through the wringer recently with a huge increase in the number of COVID cases, and deaths, in the country. Thankfully the number of active cases is dropping, but at its peak around four and a half thousand people were dying per day, and there have been almost four hundred thousand reported deaths so far – although many experts fear the real total is likely to be much higher.

India is also well known for its widespread use of a variety of unproven therapies, including homeopathy, Ayurveda and acupuncture. So, it’s unsurprising to hear that there are some people in India unscrupulous enough to sell some pretty daft COVID cures to desperate innocent people.

In line with India’s fascination with cows, cow dung, urine and milk are gaining in popularity as treatments – smearing yourself in dung and milk, and drinking diluted urine.

The Indian Medical Association has warned that not only will these treatments not cure COVID, but they carry the very real risk of spreading other diseases. And the last thing you want when your body is busy fighting a potentially deadly virus is more disease.

Sadly, it’s not just grifters in India who are promoting alternative treatments like Ayurvedic herbs. Coronil, a herbal concoction, has been touted first by a popular yoga guru called Baba Ramdev, and later by government Ministers, as an effective cure. These claims are accompanied by talk of a scientific study proving that the herbs work, but the study was performed on fish and its conclusions were basically that before selling the product as a COVID cure it needed to be tested on humans. AYUSH, the Indian ministry for alternative medicine, appears to have been duped into approving Coronil as a “supporting measure” for COVID. And India’s Health Minister was present at last year’s launch event, where the company claimed Coronil will cure COVID within 7 days with a “100% guarantee”.

Because of the recent medical oxygen shortage in India, many members of the public have been looking for ways to boost their oxygen levels. One Minister promoted a camphor based product as a way to get extra oxygen – camphor is not something anyone should be swallowing. An ex-minister promoted two drops of lemon juice in the nostrils, and Baba Ramdev promoted simply taking two deep breaths. None of these will help anyone who is having problems getting enough oxygen due to COVID infection.

I’ve also seen photos shared by Babu Gogineni on Facebook of indian restaurants selling chutney, dosas and other foods that are claimed to have COVID killing properties:

So, why is the government not stopping this? It seems that, since 2014, the ruling BJP party have been actively working to promote local alternative medicine to the Indian public, creating the Ministry of Ayush which in the middle of a pandemic is pushing a whole raft of unproven COVID treatments and preventions, including warm water, garlic, turmeric, oil pulling and ghee up the nose.


Sadly, this seems to be the way things can go when governments legitimise alternative medicines that have not been through the same rigorous scientific testing that pharmaceuticals have to go through. We’re a lot better off in New Zealand, but sadly we seem to be moving slowly in the wrong direction, with several of the better known alternative therapies lobbying for more recognition. I fear it’s only a matter of time before our government is providing a wasteful side serving of placebo via acupuncture or chiropractic alongside interventions that actually work. After all, if you ask an acupuncturist what conditions their treatments are good for, the answer is usually “everything” – and that’s not science, it’s wishful thinking.

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German psychic claims to have solved yet another case

(In)famous German psychic Michael Schneider made the news recently when he claimed to know the exact coordinates of Madeleine McCann’s body. Madeleine, aged 3, went missing in 2007 while she was on holiday in Spain with her family. Despite several leads over the years (and many psychics making predictions), there’s been no definitive answer so far as to what happened to Madeleine – although there is one likely suspect.

On top of this claim, all the news articles I read (and there are many of them, published around the world) made claims about two other recent cases that Michael has supposedly helped the police with.

In January Peter Neumair and Laura Perselli disappeared in Italy, and the claim I’ve read is that Michael supplied the exact coordinates that police would find their remains, which they did. From what I can tell he actually just gave the police a general area, and this area was already of interest because of blood stains found on a nearby bridge, so the police didn’t do anything they weren’t already planning to do.

In May he apparently helped find a woman, Nikola, who had hung herself – although I can find no details of this case in the news.

I also found an Italian news article where Michael claimed to have solved many other murders, including those of Yam Levy, Iushra Gazi, Larissa Biber and Gloria Albrecht. In the article Michael talks about how his predictions aren’t infallible – so he can’t win the lottery – but he can tell if a person is dead or alive from a photo, and his clairvoyance and clairaudience (seeing and hearing from the dead) allow him to figure out where a body is from just a name, home town and details of their last sighting.

Michael’s website seems to be where the media have taken most of these claims from. He has a page where he details his supposed successful cases, as well as a page where he’s found missing animals – Ella the dog, Cleo the cat, etc. His human predictions, even in his own words, are often quite vague. For one missing couple the location he gave was “Spain”. For a missing man, apparently the body was “in the water”. Another was “in a forest, but not in water”.

He includes many of his “inspirations” (as he calls them) in his success list even though he says that he didn’t tell anyone before the police solved the cases – we just have to trust him that he knew their whereabouts. For the claims where he did supposedly tell authorities, he offers no evidence that he actually told anyone – not even a copy of the emails he supposedly sent for many of them. We just have to trust him.

Of course, he doesn’t mention any of the cases where he’s been wrong – although I’ve read comments elsewhere on the internet that describe Michael as a pest who inundates police with his psychic predictions, and he himself admits that he sends multiple predictions to the police for each case he focuses on. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day – if you flood the police with enough educated guesses for enough cases, some of them will be close enough to call them a hit. And Michael’s background as a crime reporter likely helps him to ensure these guesses are fairly well educated.

Elsewhere on his website Michael claims that God has given him this gift. He also states that, although in Germany a lot of people look down on his “ability”, the “fact” that Russian and US military and secret services use psychics proves that they’re real. Of course, he offers no evidence to back up this claim. The reality is that the US ran a project called Stargate to investigate the usefulness of psychic powers like remote viewing (because they thought the Russians were doing it), but closed it down when they realised they had absolutely no reliable evidence that anyone they tested had psychic abilities.

In response to Michael’s recent claim to know exactly where Madeleine’s body is, the German federal police (BKA) replied with a non-committal “Your ­information will be appropriately incorporated into our work”, to which I’m hoping that the “appropriately” they are talking about is “not at all”. The police also told the media that the woods he indicated have already been searched, and dismissed Michael’s information as nothing more than “wild claims”.

Several years ago I sent an OIA request to NZ Police after hearing TV psychic Sue Nicholson claim at one of our conferences that she had helped police with murder cases in the past. The police told me that they have not paid for psychic services, they do not consider psychic information to be credible, and no psychic information has ever helped in solving a crime in New Zealand.


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]

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https://skeptics.nz/join


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Skeptic News: Choirs, dinosaurs, doctors and EVs


96

Skeptic News: Choirs, dinosaurs, doctors and EVs

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

I have quite a variety of topics to cover this week – including choirs, dinosaurs, doctors, and EVs (to put them in alphabetical order!)

Today is the winter solstice. Tomorrow we’re back on lengthening days, back to summer again! Yay 🙂

Have a great week!

Craig Shearer

Electric vehicle subsidies

 

Last weekend saw the release of a new policy by the government called the Clean Car Discount.

The scheme provides a rebate, starting on the 1st July, for purchasers of low emissions vehicles (Battery EVs – zero emission, and Plug-in Hybrid EVs or PHEVs which are classed as low emission). The rebates range from $8,625 for a new EV down to $2,300 for a used PHEV. They cover only vehicles registered for the first time in New Zealand, meaning that they don’t apply to second-hard sales of already-registered vehicles.

And, from the beginning of next year, purchasers of new and newly-registered used cars that are considered high emissions will be required to pay an additional fee of up to $5,175.


The scheme is designed to bias the market for new vehicles in favour of those that produce much less CO2 emissions. The transport sector makes up a huge chunk of NZ’s CO2 emissions – around 47% as of 2018. If we’re to meet our target of being carbon neutral by 2050 we need to be moving towards de-carbonising the fleet as urgently as possible.

As much as many people want to help out with reducing CO2 emissions by switching to an EV, the vehicles are still a lot more expensive than their fossil-fuel counterparts. We still have a way to go with improving battery technology and reducing its cost. So the subsidy will help those for whom the current cost of an EV is out of reach. It will have the secondary effect of putting more EVs into the market so that in future years there is a bigger second-hard market 

As with any change in government policy there are going to be winners and losers. And, typically there’s plenty of misinformation around that feeds into people’s emotions. I’d like to cover off a few of these.

Firstly, I’m an EV owner and have been for nearly four years. I switched to a Nissan Leaf back in 2017, and earlier this year upgraded to a Tesla Model 3. I must say I’d find it very hard to go back to owning an internal combustion engine-based vehicle (ICE as they’re known in the EV community).

I’m probably going to sound like a fanboi, but there are so many advantages to EVs:

  • They’re incredibly cheap to run, especially if you do most of your charging at home, and take advantage of low night rates. (My plan costs me 12 cents per kWh between 9pm and 7am). The comparison to an ICE vehicle is that it’s equivalent to paying 40 cents per litre of petrol. Additionally, I spend virtually no time at petrol stations.

  • They’re cheap to maintain – there’s virtually nothing to do to them as they have so few moving parts. I certainly don’t miss the times of having to spend hundreds of dollars on vehicle servicing every few months.

  • They’re quiet and perform very well, leading to a smoother ride. Even the lowly NIssan Leaf can easily beat most ICE vehicles for take-off at traffic lights. EVs give you instant torque.

  • And, of course, they don’t produce any emissions, leading to cleaner air, which is good for everybody’s health, and also a big reduction on planet-warming CO2 emissions.

Top EV myths and misinformation

Let’s cover off some of the myths and misinformation that abound. Much of the myths and misinformation seem to emanate from fossil fuel vested interests! 

  1. “Range anxiety” and that you can’t do long trips. In the early days EVs their range was fairly limited, and in New Zealand it was true that you had to carefully plan out long trips and know where you could charge. Today, we’re well catered for with charging stations dotted around the country. Besides, 99% of most people’s use of a car is for around town and commuting – you charge up overnight and you’re ready to go again the next morning.

  2. The batteries don’t last and they’re expensive to replace. (I saw a post on Facebook that the batteries only last 2 years and then cost $35,000 to replace!) It’s true that batteries suffer degradation over time (reduced range from when they’re charge to 100%), but battery packs in modern EVs suffer very little degradation. To take my Model 3 as an example, it’s expected that the battery will degrade by 5% per 100,000 miles (160,000 km), and probably 10 – 15 years before a 20% degradation. Practically, it will mean that over time, for long trips, I’d need to charge more frequently.

  3. How will we dispose of all those batteries? Battery packs from EVs are extremely valuable. Once an EV’s battery pack has reduced to the point where the range of the vehicle is too small to be useful, the pack can be re-purposed as a home storage battery pack – i.e. charged from solar panels while the sun is shining and then used to power a home at night.

  4. EVs catch fire. So do petrol cars – the question is how likely they are. Fires are extremely rare, but initial estimates are that fires in EVs happen at about 10% of the rate of fossil fuelled vehicles.

  5. You can’t tow with an EV. I have a towbar, and tow a trailer without issue. However, towing does reduce the range. Over time, we’ll see the capability of EVs increase and the range of vehicles broaden to cater for more niche needs.

  6. EVs are being powered by electricity generated from coal thereby defeating their purpose. The “defeating the purpose” bit really isn’t true. It turns out that EVs are much more efficient in converting stored energy (that’s the petrol or charged battery bit) into moving the vehicle than fossil fuel vehicles are – about 75% efficiency vs 30%. So, even if EVs were powered exclusively from coal-generated electricity they’d still reduce CO2 emissions compared to fossil-fuel vehicles. But, around 80% of NZ’s electricity is generated from renewable sources. Unfortunately, at the moment we’re experiencing low hydro-power lake levels – due in some part to the effects of climate change – exacerbated by emitting more CO2! 🙁 This YouTube video is a pretty good explainer.

  7. EVs emit more CO2 during their manufacture. This is true, but as soon as they’re driven the lifetime emissions of an EV are way less. The fossil fuel vehicle continues to emit. The break-even point is around 45,000 km. If you buy an EV and never drive it anywhere, that’s definitely bad for the environment!

To be fair, EVs that can replace a family car are pretty pricey at the moment, and probably out of the reach of most kiwis. But as the market is seeded with new EVs with the rebate applied, used EVs in the future will be priced at more affordable levels. Additionally, as battery technology improves, manufacturing costs will also decrease making EVs more mainstream.

As I said earlier there will be those who are disadvantaged by the scheme (including recent EV purchases who’ve missed out on the rebate). But mainly, we’ve heard loud voices from the farming and trades communities that EVs don’t suit them, and why should they be penalised?

The reality is that high emissions vehicles are bad for the environment. Years of externalising the costs of emissions has led to the point we’re at. Climate change is real and human-induced and we’ve got to make changes to address it (though it’s inevitable that we’re doomed to suffer the effects of our inaction on it.)

Finally, the “law of unintended consequences” is always in play. 

The delay of the fee for high-emissions vehicles is likely to see a spike in demand in the next 6 months to avoid the fee. 

Similarly, the new demand for EVs is likely to drive up the price, at least of used imports where the price is set by the dealer. (New EVs are largely immune to this as their prices are already known so any attempt to hike prices would have to be carefully justified.) But, used car dealers (who knew they had such a bad reputation!) might well hike prices so as to share some of the fruits of the rebate scheme.

Additional EVs on the road will see increased demand at charging stations. But we have a healthy industry here in New Zealand that is installing more and more charge points. I see this as a very good thing. 


Most other developed countries have some sort of subsidy scheme for EVs. It’s good to have NZ join the crowd. I was in Oslo, Norway in February 2020 (before the pandemic hit) and witnessed the effect of this first hand – they were everywhere. EVs made up 54% of all light-vehicle sales in Norway in 2020, compared to around 2% in New Zealand. Let’s hope that the Norway experience can be replicated here.

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Vaccine deployment

We’re still in the COVID pandemic but last week I had some cause for cheer. I’ve previously reported on the actions of anti-vaxxer groups, who seem to be made up largely of privileged (and entitled) middle-aged people (Boomers and Karens, to be derogatory). 

I belong to a local choir (I’m a tenor, in case you‘re interested) which is also populated by the demographic that might well be influenced by anti-vax messaging and was encouraged to hear some of the older folk talking about how excited they were to be getting their vaccines. It certainly warmed the cockles of my heart to hear!

This week our PM had her first vaccine which should give anti-vaxxers pause for thought, though I doubt it will. They’ll likely rationalise it as a publicity stunt and she didn’t really get the vaccine!

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Doctors under invesigation

Speaking of anti-vaxxers, they’ve recently set up a website which allows people, including doctors, nurses and allied health professionals (including alt-med practitioners) to register themselves as objecting to the COVID vaccine rollout. They claim to have 33 doctors, 123 nurses, 244 allied health practitioners (gee, I wonder why this number is so large compared to the number of doctors!) and over 3,300 NZ “concerned citizens”.

Happily, being a doctor and spreading COVID misinformation isn’t without consequences. According to Stuff yesterday, there are 13 doctors under investigation by the NZ Medical Council after people complained about them spreading misinformation. Good to hear, and I hope the council follows through on this and takes action.

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Were dinosaurs real?

Finally this week, in the bizarre category, I read an article by Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis infamy – the arch-creationist and science-denying anti-evolution propagandist. 

Ken likely has an alert set up for any mention of his Creation Museum in Kentucky. Over on the Jerusalem Post website there’s a good article that mentions the “museum”.

The article is well-written and discusses the opinions of some ultra-Othodox jews that dinosaurs were a trick by God to make people believe that the earth was old – just to test their faith. But, the article argues against such an interpretation, but goes on to criticise Ham’s “museum” for its position on dinosaurs: that the earth is only a few thousand years old, and that dinosaurs lived alongside humans and were on Noah’s Ark and perished after the flood.

Ham defends his alternate hypothesis, apparently taking offense at the idea that his god is a deceiver.

Ham, ever sensitive to criticism, was incensed back in 2009 when PZ Myers (of the Pharyngula blog) visited the creation museum and “rode”  a dinosaur. You’ve gotta laugh!


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]

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Skeptic News: Choirs, dinosaurs, doctors and EVs


96

Skeptic News: Choirs, dinosaurs, doctors and EVs

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

I have quite a variety of topics to cover this week – including choirs, dinosaurs, doctors, and EVs (to put them in alphabetical order!)

Today is the winter solstice. Tomorrow we’re back on lengthening days, back to summer again! Yay 🙂

Have a great week!

Craig Shearer

Electric vehicle subsidies

 

Last weekend saw the release of a new policy by the government called the Clean Car Discount.

The scheme provides a rebate, starting on the 1st July, for purchasers of low emissions vehicles (Battery EVs – zero emission, and Plug-in Hybrid EVs or PHEVs which are classed as low emission). The rebates range from $8,625 for a new EV down to $2,300 for a used PHEV. They cover only vehicles registered for the first time in New Zealand, meaning that they don’t apply to second-hard sales of already-registered vehicles.

And, from the beginning of next year, purchasers of new and newly-registered used cars that are considered high emissions will be required to pay an additional fee of up to $5,175.


The scheme is designed to bias the market for new vehicles in favour of those that produce much less CO2 emissions. The transport sector makes up a huge chunk of NZ’s CO2 emissions – around 47% as of 2018. If we’re to meet our target of being carbon neutral by 2050 we need to be moving towards de-carbonising the fleet as urgently as possible.

As much as many people want to help out with reducing CO2 emissions by switching to an EV, the vehicles are still a lot more expensive than their fossil-fuel counterparts. We still have a way to go with improving battery technology and reducing its cost. So the subsidy will help those for whom the current cost of an EV is out of reach. It will have the secondary effect of putting more EVs into the market so that in future years there is a bigger second-hard market 

As with any change in government policy there are going to be winners and losers. And, typically there’s plenty of misinformation around that feeds into people’s emotions. I’d like to cover off a few of these.

Firstly, I’m an EV owner and have been for nearly four years. I switched to a Nissan Leaf back in 2017, and earlier this year upgraded to a Tesla Model 3. I must say I’d find it very hard to go back to owning an internal combustion engine-based vehicle (ICE as they’re known in the EV community).

I’m probably going to sound like a fanboi, but there are so many advantages to EVs:

  • They’re incredibly cheap to run, especially if you do most of your charging at home, and take advantage of low night rates. (My plan costs me 12 cents per kWh between 9pm and 7am). The comparison to an ICE vehicle is that it’s equivalent to paying 40 cents per litre of petrol. Additionally, I spend virtually no time at petrol stations.

  • They’re cheap to maintain – there’s virtually nothing to do to them as they have so few moving parts. I certainly don’t miss the times of having to spend hundreds of dollars on vehicle servicing every few months.

  • They’re quiet and perform very well, leading to a smoother ride. Even the lowly NIssan Leaf can easily beat most ICE vehicles for take-off at traffic lights. EVs give you instant torque.

  • And, of course, they don’t produce any emissions, leading to cleaner air, which is good for everybody’s health, and also a big reduction on planet-warming CO2 emissions.

Top EV myths and misinformation

Let’s cover off some of the myths and misinformation that abound. Much of the myths and misinformation seem to emanate from fossil fuel vested interests! 

  1. “Range anxiety” and that you can’t do long trips. In the early days EVs their range was fairly limited, and in New Zealand it was true that you had to carefully plan out long trips and know where you could charge. Today, we’re well catered for with charging stations dotted around the country. Besides, 99% of most people’s use of a car is for around town and commuting – you charge up overnight and you’re ready to go again the next morning.

  2. The batteries don’t last and they’re expensive to replace. (I saw a post on Facebook that the batteries only last 2 years and then cost $35,000 to replace!) It’s true that batteries suffer degradation over time (reduced range from when they’re charge to 100%), but battery packs in modern EVs suffer very little degradation. To take my Model 3 as an example, it’s expected that the battery will degrade by 5% per 100,000 miles (160,000 km), and probably 10 – 15 years before a 20% degradation. Practically, it will mean that over time, for long trips, I’d need to charge more frequently.

  3. How will we dispose of all those batteries? Battery packs from EVs are extremely valuable. Once an EV’s battery pack has reduced to the point where the range of the vehicle is too small to be useful, the pack can be re-purposed as a home storage battery pack – i.e. charged from solar panels while the sun is shining and then used to power a home at night.

  4. EVs catch fire. So do petrol cars – the question is how likely they are. Fires are extremely rare, but initial estimates are that fires in EVs happen at about 10% of the rate of fossil fuelled vehicles.

  5. You can’t tow with an EV. I have a towbar, and tow a trailer without issue. However, towing does reduce the range. Over time, we’ll see the capability of EVs increase and the range of vehicles broaden to cater for more niche needs.

  6. EVs are being powered by electricity generated from coal thereby defeating their purpose. The “defeating the purpose” bit really isn’t true. It turns out that EVs are much more efficient in converting stored energy (that’s the petrol or charged battery bit) into moving the vehicle than fossil fuel vehicles are – about 75% efficiency vs 30%. So, even if EVs were powered exclusively from coal-generated electricity they’d still reduce CO2 emissions compared to fossil-fuel vehicles. But, around 80% of NZ’s electricity is generated from renewable sources. Unfortunately, at the moment we’re experiencing low hydro-power lake levels – due in some part to the effects of climate change – exacerbated by emitting more CO2! 🙁 This YouTube video is a pretty good explainer.

  7. EVs emit more CO2 during their manufacture. This is true, but as soon as they’re driven the lifetime emissions of an EV are way less. The fossil fuel vehicle continues to emit. The break-even point is around 45,000 km. If you buy an EV and never drive it anywhere, that’s definitely bad for the environment!

To be fair, EVs that can replace a family car are pretty pricey at the moment, and probably out of the reach of most kiwis. But as the market is seeded with new EVs with the rebate applied, used EVs in the future will be priced at more affordable levels. Additionally, as battery technology improves, manufacturing costs will also decrease making EVs more mainstream.

As I said earlier there will be those who are disadvantaged by the scheme (including recent EV purchases who’ve missed out on the rebate). But mainly, we’ve heard loud voices from the farming and trades communities that EVs don’t suit them, and why should they be penalised?

The reality is that high emissions vehicles are bad for the environment. Years of externalising the costs of emissions has led to the point we’re at. Climate change is real and human-induced and we’ve got to make changes to address it (though it’s inevitable that we’re doomed to suffer the effects of our inaction on it.)

Finally, the “law of unintended consequences” is always in play. 

The delay of the fee for high-emissions vehicles is likely to see a spike in demand in the next 6 months to avoid the fee. 

Similarly, the new demand for EVs is likely to drive up the price, at least of used imports where the price is set by the dealer. (New EVs are largely immune to this as their prices are already known so any attempt to hike prices would have to be carefully justified.) But, used car dealers (who knew they had such a bad reputation!) might well hike prices so as to share some of the fruits of the rebate scheme.

Additional EVs on the road will see increased demand at charging stations. But we have a healthy industry here in New Zealand that is installing more and more charge points. I see this as a very good thing. 


Most other developed countries have some sort of subsidy scheme for EVs. It’s good to have NZ join the crowd. I was in Oslo, Norway in February 2020 (before the pandemic hit) and witnessed the effect of this first hand – they were everywhere. EVs made up 54% of all light-vehicle sales in Norway in 2020, compared to around 2% in New Zealand. Let’s hope that the Norway experience can be replicated here.

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Vaccine deployment

We’re still in the COVID pandemic but last week I had some cause for cheer. I’ve previously reported on the actions of anti-vaxxer groups, who seem to be made up largely of privileged (and entitled) middle-aged people (Boomers and Karens, to be derogatory). 

I belong to a local choir (I’m a tenor, in case you‘re interested) which is also populated by the demographic that might well be influenced by anti-vax messaging and was encouraged to hear some of the older folk talking about how excited they were to be getting their vaccines. It certainly warmed the cockles of my heart to hear!

This week our PM had her first vaccine which should give anti-vaxxers pause for thought, though I doubt it will. They’ll likely rationalise it as a publicity stunt and she didn’t really get the vaccine!

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Doctors under invesigation

Speaking of anti-vaxxers, they’ve recently set up a website which allows people, including doctors, nurses and allied health professionals (including alt-med practitioners) to register themselves as objecting to the COVID vaccine rollout. They claim to have 33 doctors, 123 nurses, 244 allied health practitioners (gee, I wonder why this number is so large compared to the number of doctors!) and over 3,300 NZ “concerned citizens”.

Happily, being a doctor and spreading COVID misinformation isn’t without consequences. According to Stuff yesterday, there are 13 doctors under investigation by the NZ Medical Council after people complained about them spreading misinformation. Good to hear, and I hope the council follows through on this and takes action.

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Were dinosaurs real?

Finally this week, in the bizarre category, I read an article by Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis infamy – the arch-creationist and science-denying anti-evolution propagandist. 

Ken likely has an alert set up for any mention of his Creation Museum in Kentucky. Over on the Jerusalem Post website there’s a good article that mentions the “museum”.

The article is well-written and discusses the opinions of some ultra-Othodox jews that dinosaurs were a trick by God to make people believe that the earth was old – just to test their faith. But, the article argues against such an interpretation, but goes on to criticise Ham’s “museum” for its position on dinosaurs: that the earth is only a few thousand years old, and that dinosaurs lived alongside humans and were on Noah’s Ark and perished after the flood.

Ham defends his alternate hypothesis, apparently taking offense at the idea that his god is a deceiver.

Ham, ever sensitive to criticism, was incensed back in 2009 when PZ Myers (of the Pharyngula blog) visited the creation museum and “rode”  a dinosaur. You’ve gotta laugh!


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: There is no religion higher than Truth


96

Skeptic News: There is no religion higher than Truth

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


There is no religion higher than Truth


As promised, myself and another couple of skeptics recently visited the Theosophical Society’s building in Wellington to hear their National President, John Vorstermans, give a talk titled “The Ageless Wisdom”. The Society has a great little building on Marion Street, with a comfortable library of esoteric mystical books at the front, and a large main room with lots of wood and painted mystical symbols. It has a particularly Masonic feel to it.

Inside, John’s talk started by covering the basics of Theosophy – that the Society is interested in finding the truth of all religions. Although this sounds like a good skeptical approach to spirituality, investigating rather than taking things at face value, in reality the organisation felt like it was diametrically opposed to skepticism. Whereas skeptics have so far looked into spiritual beliefs and concluded that none of them have any of the answers to life, the Theosophical Society considers that they all have the answers; or at least a part of the answer. We were told that members like to focus on different spiritual beliefs, such as numerology, astrology, eastern religions and the Christian Gnostics, and that belief in pretty much any idea is okay.

This behaviour is at odds with the society’s motto of “There is no religion higher than Truth”, and made it feel like they really don’t take their motto seriously. It came across as the members being spiritual tourists, dabbling in esoteric ideas without actually committing to them beyond maybe just learning the basics and memorising a few pithy quotes.

As with most spiritual groups, a single opinionated person started the modern Theosophy movement – in this case, Madame Blavatsky. She has the usual back story: a self-educated maverick, eccentric, with fantastical tales about her past and accomplishments, and an unwavering conviction that she had access to a deeper truth than anyone else about the world.

Back to the talk, which focused on three main ideas that are apparently core to Theosophy:

  1. We are not individuals – we are all part of a single connected spirit. Each of us inhabits our physical body temporarily, and only part of our soul is inside our physical body. This spirit inhabits everything we see around us.
  2. Everything is cyclical, and what goes around comes around. Societies come and go, ideas are lost and re-discovered, our souls return to the source and are eventually placed in new bodies (aka reincarnation).
  3. Our purpose in life is to progress spiritually, and move up through the levels of spiritual understanding:

None of this struck me, or the skeptics with me, as very original. It just felt like a rehash of tired old New Age beliefs. However, the members were a really friendly bunch, and it was nice to chat with them, after the talk, about their beliefs and interests. I left with a handful of pamphlets and booklets, and will definitely be returning the next time there’s a free event.

Mark Honeychurch

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A Colourful History of Popular Delusions

By Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall

Reviewed by Jonathon Harper

 

Although this was published six years ago, I think it is a classic reference book that will endure. It is available in some local libraries, including the Auckland public library.

The previous survey, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” was published a long time ago now. It is a great companion reference for Lynley Hood’s analysis “A City Possessed” on the Moral Panic in Christchurch surrounding the Peter Ellis case.

I learnt several things of great interest to skeptics. For example:

The moon hoax used pseudo-scientific terms and quoted a defunct journal. It gave a big boost in circulation to newspapers that published it.

There was a case of anxiety hysteria in Auckland in 1973 about a smell coming from leaking drums in the Parnell wharf. Many people became ill until it was shown the substance in the drums was not poisonous.

Medics (as in a Canadan case in 2004) can suffer from anxiety hysteria. You’d think their training might make them immune!

Exorcism and religion can make things worse in cases of hysteria, due to excessive fear of bad spirits – as it strengthens belief in the imaginary causes of these delusions.

Sometimes harsh conditions can trigger hysteria, and so a ‘spirit’ can speak out or ‘cause’ absenteeism from horrible institutions or work-places due to hysterical symptoms.Sometimes conditions improve as a result; whereas the victims in these institutions may not have been successful had they just protested.

Self-mutilation can be an extreme way to gain attention, and can involve false accusations.

False confessions are common during public moral panics.

Sometimes, as with the Peron family case, psychiatric conditions are falsely reinterpreted as paranormal phenomena.

Finally, skeptics have in some cases managed to help defuse panics by effectively debunking false beliefs. 

Look out for my next review, which will hopefully be on the book NOISE by Daniel Kahneman.

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Voltex can save 90% on your power bill

I’ve seen adverts pop up recently on news sites, such as NewsHub and YouTube, that are selling a device which claims to be able to cut your power bill by 90%. Now, wouldn’t that be nice – if it were true!

The company is called Voltex, at getvoltex.com (although this should not be confused with an actual New Zealand business of the same name which manufactures residential electrical components). Voltex sells a set of simple to use devices that plug into a wall socket, which their website claims will clean the dirty electricity in your home. This apparently stabilises your home’s electricity supply and will prolong the life of your home appliances.

I noticed that the URL of the advert I clicked on can easily be manipulated to match the country they’re selling to, which just substitutes the word American for Brit, New Zealander, Australian or Canadian – they use the same graphs, the same numbers, and the same organisation names – like the Public Utility Commission, which exists in the United States but not other countries.

The advert is quick to name-drop Nikola Tesla, who is a favourite of conspiracy theorists. The internet is rife with silly ideas that Tesla invented fantastical, physics-defying products that would revolutionise the world but were suppressed by evil governments. Free, unlimited wireless power, an earthquake generator, a camera to take pictures of people’s thoughts via their retinas, and a death beam using accelerated mercury. This device was apparently engineered by three German men using Tesla’s ideas – presumably playing on the stereotype of German engineering being trustworthy. Vorsprung durch technik and all that!

The site claims that electricity companies (Big Energy) are ripping us all off by overcharging for electricity, and suppressing their Tesla-inspired devices. Although there are legitimate claims of over-charging for power in this country, I don’t think the companies are too worried about these devices ruining their business!

An image in the ad shows a meter supposedly reduced from $251 a month to $15 a month, which is even more than the promised “up to” 90%. If we add the protection of appliances to this, the device should easily pay for itself in the first month!

There are images of Facebook conversations where everyone just loves their Voltex devices – although weirdly they’re just screenshots, and a quick search on FB doesn’t uncover any of the people who supposedly commented on how amazing the device is. My guess is that the screenshots are simple fakes, easily made if you know how to use the Chrome Inspector for developers.

The advert says the device is “100% legal”, which is not surprising given that it appears to be nothing more than a white box with a funky looking green LED. I was thinking of ordering one to test it out and pull it apart, but at $74 and with no guarantee that the scammers would even bother to send me one, it didn’t seem like a prudent use of my money.

Thankfully a friend told me yesterday about a YouTuber called Big Clive who reviews fake electrical devices. It didn’t take long to find a video where he tests and disassembles a device identical to the Voltex device, in a video titled “Worst fake “power saver” plug yet” – which gives you a clue as to what he thought of the device.

Big Clive’s conclusion about the device is that, if it was wired together correctly, the device would either do nothing or potentially increase your electricity bill – depending on how your meter measures electricity usage. However, the device he pulled apart didn’t even have the main component, a large capacitor, wired up correctly – both the anode and cathode were soldered to the same circuit board trace. So, even if the science was solid, which it isn’t, the device was as good as useless. There’s a concept behind these devices called Power Factor Correction which may be helpful for certain commercial power loads, but definitely not for domestic electricity usage.

There are many other companies out there selling similar devices with similar claims – Eco-Watt, EcoPlug, MiracleWatt, Enersonic, Voltbox, Earthwise Power Saver, Power Saver Pioneer, Energy Saver 1200, etc. Big Clive has tested most of them, and it will come as no surprise to hear that none of them work.

Like pretty much any device that promises fantastical benefits (pain erasers, get rich quick schemes, car fuel additives), it would pay to be skeptical about this product and avoid wasting $75 on what is essentially a 10 cent green light in a 20 cent plastic case. Not only will it not save you any money on your power bill, it might just burn your house down.

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Does the COVID vaccine contain a microchip?

I’ve watched a few videos online from a recent panic where people show themselves sticking a magnet to their arm at the injection site of their COVID vaccine. The same magnet pushed against other parts of the arm will fall off and not stick. Could this be proof that there’s a metallic microchip in the vaccine?

We can look to history to solve this one, as well as trying out a practical experiment. Back in the day skeptic James Randi went to Japan to take on the case of Magnet Men – people who could stick objects to their skin, claiming it was due to some kind of magnetism. Let’s see what Randi’s solution was:



Talcum powder! Randi’s observation was that flat metallic or magnetic objects, like coins or neodymium magnets, would stick to skin if it was oily or sweaty – and, for most of us, that’s pretty normal for our skin. By covering the person’s skin in talc, the metal object no longer has that layer to stick to, and the object will fall off.

Not content to accept this at face value, I employed the help of one of my daughters to test this out. As I’m a somewhat hairy man, our first task was to shave a patch of hair from my upper arm. Having completed that, we grabbed a small flat neodymium magnet and tried to stick it to my arm – success! Once in place, even tipping my arm beyond 90 degrees and shaking gently was not enough to dislodge the magnet.

Next we covered the shaved area of my arm in talcum powder, and tried again. No matter how much I tried, I could not get the magnet to stick any more. Of course, I haven’t had the COVID vaccine yet, but still the magnet stuck to my arm without the talc, and not with the talc – suggesting that it’s not magnetism that’s holding the magnet in place. We then tried the same experiment with a coin (a 20c piece), and had the same results. Without talc the coin stuck to my arm, but with talc it just fell off. I asked fellow committee member Bronwyn to try this experiment, as she has been given the COVID vaccine. In her case, magnets don’t stick to her arm even without any talcum powder – I guess she’s just not as sweaty as I am!

Of course, there’s another obvious reason why this isn’t real – technology just isn’t at the point where we can miniaturise a powered microchip to the point where we can inject it into someone. The dream of nanobots is decades away, and the closest we have today that is injectable is an RFID chip for pets – and it’s not small. I have one I plan to inject myself with at some point, but I’ve yet to find someone who’s game enough to stab me with the chunky needle.

Beyond just getting a chip inside someone’s arm, presumably the government needs their chip to actually do something like monitoring our location, and do it reliably.

For location, the vaccine chip would probably need to have GPS. I have a small GPS chip that I’ve played with in electronics projects, and it’s not small. We’ve shrunk GPS chips a lot, but not to the point where we can inject them – the smallest is about centimetre cubed. And, that chip will just receive location data from GPS satellites, it can’t send any data. To send data, you’d need another chip and an antenna. If the government wanted to use the phone network, that would probably need another 1cm chip for GSM.

And then of course there’s power. Without power, none of this is going to work. RFID chips can be as small as they are because they aren’t powered. When you hold them up to an RFID reader, within a cm or so, the reader supplies the chip with a small amount of power which they pick up via an induction coil and use to send a brief signal with their ID. However, unless the government is following everyone they want to track very, very closely with mobile electromagnetic induction coils, the chip in the vaccine is going to need a battery, or some previously unseen method of converting either the body’s movement or biological processes into power. And there’s absolutely no evidence that any of this exists as usable technology.

Obviously this is all very conspiratorial. To believe that it is true necessitates us thinking that governments around the world are suppressing knowledge about super advanced technology. Technology that has somehow been designed, tested, perfected and manufactured without anyone leaking it to the press or stealing the precious Intellectual Property and selling it to rival companies. I’m sticking with the belief that nobody can make microchips small enough to fit unnoticed into a vaccine, until someone can prove otherwise.


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: Maxine misinformation, shooters on the run and an alternative to botox!


96

Skeptic News: Maxine misinformation, shooters on the run and an alternative to botox!

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

This Queen’s Birthday weekend  I’ve had the pleasure of travelling to Napier to visit my mother. Last newsletter, Mark mentioned sightings of UFOs in Hawkes Bay, which were likely lenticular cloud formations. Alas, this weekend has seen dull grey skies, so no such luck on my part.

Our attention at the moment seems to be very much directed at health-related stories. Alas, there’s much misinformation to be countered. While visiting in Napier, I happened to hear an ad on the radio about COVID, and it saddened me to hear that so much emphasis is being placed on actually dispelling the myths that abound – such as that you can’t get COVID from the vaccine, and that it doesn’t alter your genes! What a sad world we live in!

Craig Shearer

Sue Grey misinformation tsunami, and who is Maxine?

We’ve mentioned Sue Grey in the past. She’s the Nelson-based lawyer and co-leader of the NZ Outdoors party, and full on conspiracy theorist and anti-vaxxer.

Her Facebook page is where she seems to spread the majority of her misinformation, and she’s posting many times a day. 

Annoyed by Facebook’s labelling her posts with their COVID-19 warnings, she recently took to experimenting with different combinations of text to try to figure out what words caused Facebook’s algorithms to label her posts with warnings. I actually think she shouldn’t really be concerned as, from seeing the reactions from commenters, she’s pretty much preaching to the choir anyway. Facebook’s warnings are likely to fall on deaf ears. But, in an effort to side-step the algorithms, the COVID vaccine is now being referred to as Maxine! Is this a new cockney rhyming slang?

Sue’s other gems this week included a link to a video that purported to conclusively prove that viruses aren’t real, and that they’ve never been demonstrated to exist.

She posted a claim that the COVID vaccine causes Stevens Johnson Syndrome which causes peeling skin, amongst other symptoms. The claim was fact-checked by Reuters and determined to be false. In a now familiar technique, anti-vaxxers will take shocking pictures off the internet (pre-dating the release of the COVID vaccine) and falsely claim that they’re the result of the vaccine. 

Also this week she wrote an open letter to the prime minister and other cabinet ministers with the subject line screaming: 

OPEN LETTER No 2- An URGENT REQUEST FOLLOWING RESEARCH SHOWING THE “S PROTEIN” IN THE PFIZER JAB IS A TOXIN

In the letter she refers to the latest anti-vaxxer talking point about the spike protein (or S Protein, as they call it) supposedly being a dangerous toxin found in dangerous quantities in the bloodstream of people who’ve received the mRNA-based COVID vaccine (hint: it’s not – and the studies don’t show what the anti-vaxxers think they do. See David Gorski’s refutation of the claims.)

Shockingly, in the letter, she goes well and truly off the deep end, quoting the legal definition of homicide and implying that government ministers would be guilty of this by allowing the COVID vaccine rollout to proceed.

In a stunning demonstration of a complete lack of self-awareness, she concludes her letter with the following:

“Please find the courage to challenge whoever is driving this, and any who act on dogma rather than evidence, reason or ethics.

The future of New Zealand depends on your courage to step up and make this critical call for our people.

I urge you to listen,  engage and act in the public interest.

Please put aside your pride and the dogma, and suspend this program.

I am happy to assist however I can.”

Sue Grey lists a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Microbiology amongst her qualifications. It seems to me that little of that study has actually sunk in!

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Danger for scientists

We should be worried about the consequences of far-right conspiracy theories. In Belgium, Professor Marc Van Ranst has been the public face of science related to the COVID pandemic and the Belgian government’s response.

Far right rogue soldier Jürgen Conings has a vendetta against virologists and COVID lockdowns. Conings is a military shooting instructor and has gone on the run with a rocket launcher and machine gun for the past three weeks, currently evading police capture.

Professor Van Ranst is in hiding. Let’s hope that nothing like this happens here, though as we’ve seen far-right ideas have had deadly consequences recently in the Christchurch Mosque shootings.

FACT (Fight Against Conspiracy Theories) is a grassroots organisation that’s opposing conspiracy theories, doing some great skeptical activism work. They’ve recently worked on contacting venues hosting the likes of Sue Grey. Some may refer to this as “cancel culture” but in my mind, preventing dangerous and outright wrong ideas from gaining wide traction is the responsible thing to do.

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Anti-vaxxer blood transfusions

Sorry to harp on about anti-vaxxers, but there’s another story this week that has emerged about prominent American anti-vaxxer Del Bigtree. Bigtree runs ICAN – the Informed Consent Action Network, and has a slickly produced video podcast called The Highwire.

It turns out that Bigtree has been out of action for a couple of weeks due to a health condition. Bigtree revealed on his podcast that he nearly died from blood loss due to internal hemorrhoids. His blood pressure was dangerously low and he required a blood transfusion.

It appears he has some friends who are doctors. and they strongly advised that he seek medical help (i.e. go to hospital!) when the symptoms of his low blood pressure became  apparent.

When it was discovered he would require a blood transfusion, being an anti-vaxxer, he decided he didn’t want to receive blood from anybody who’d been vaccinated with the COVID vaccine. Somehow, their blood would be contaminated with those dangerous spike protein toxins!

Bigtree reported received a small transfusion in the US from blood that was identified as not being “contaminated” by the COVID vaccine, then travelled to Cancun in Mexico (by private jet!) to receive a further blood transfusion of uncontaminated blood. What a waste of resources!

All of this is nicely and amusingly reported by David Gorski (aka Orac).

While none of us should wish harm on anybody, even those who wilfully promote and profit off misinformation, the story does show how dangerous misinformation can be.

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An alternative to Botox

I rarely watch broadcast TV, but on Wednesday night I happened to see a little of TVNZ’s Seven Sharp programme. They featured a segment on acupuncture as an alternative to botox for reducing facial wrinkles.

There was no skeptical angle and the piece looked a lot more like an advertorial than an actual piece of journalism. 

The reporter, Te Rauhiringa Brown (who looked quite young, and really didn’t have any particularly visible wrinkles) asked how it worked. The acupuncturist gave the following explanation:

“So the trauma from the needles sends a signal to your brain saying that there has been some damage and so your body actually sends the protein which is your own collagen to your face and that helps repair your fine lines and acne, scaring…”

Yeah right! 

The segment then went on to claim that the practise has been around since the stone age – and that the WHO recommended the practise.

Laughably after the acupuncture was administered, the final process was some “facial cupping” and a “rejuvenating face mask” to round off the treatment. I think perhaps the face mask at the end might well have had more to do with the final result than acupuncture. 

The piece cemented its purpose by quoting the price as $100 for the acu-facelift, and the name of the business to customers viewers! 

Well done Seven Sharp for promoting more pseudoscience!


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: Non-Overlapping Magisteria?


96

Skeptic News: Non-Overlapping Magisteria?

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Non-Overlapping Magisteria?


Over the next couple of months I’m hoping to visit a few interesting religious groups, to get an feel for them – what they believe, how they act, who attends their events. So, all being well, after this week’s report into Christian Science you can expect to hear about the Theosophical Society, Druids, and maybe more!

Some have argued that religion should be out of bounds for skeptics, that the two spheres of religion and science are what’s known as NOMA – Non Overlapping Magisteria. Basically, the idea is that science deals with the physical, and religion the metaphysical or spiritual. This might be the case for any religion that avoids making any claims about the physical world, but I’ve not met one yet!

Although Christian Science (see below) is a particularly egregious example, religious groups always seem to have claims about how their god affects the physical world – natural disasters, answering prayers, healing the sick, making people rich, bringing happiness and contentment. All of these examples are instances where a metaphysical god is impinging on our physical world, and in each case that interaction can be measured by science. And, as we all know, attempts to measure these phenomena invariably fall flat on their face.

Often there’s a hand-waving excuse as to why this is the case – the effect is subtle, or this particular god needs to keep their interventions hidden so that people can have faith. But this kind of get-out clause should be no more acceptable to skeptics than James Hydrick‘s claim that stage lighting stopped his mental powers from working, or Uri Geller‘s excuse on live TV that he didn’t feel strong. The idea of a god who set the wheels of the universe in motion and no longer tinkers is hard to argue against, but it’s a rare believer who has faith in such a remote, untestable god. For the majority of religious beliefs that are accompanied by an idea that god is pulling the levers and pressing the buttons of our lives, I believe skeptics should not shy away from questioning those claims.

Mark Honeychurch

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Christian Science:

Neither Christian nor Scientific

 

For a long time now I’ve been promising to take a friend of mine to a Christian Science church service. He’s been interested in doing this because he was brought up in the church in America, but hasn’t been back since he was a child. Finally, last weekend, the stars aligned and we managed to arrange a visit.

We arrived a few minutes early, and headed into the Wellington Central building, which is interestingly designed – from the outside it looks a little avant garde, and that theme is continued inside with very organic looking columns that are reminiscent of bamboo, and a lectern made of wood, steel and rope strands.

Before the service it was obvious the church is not used to seeing new people walk through the door – we were asked if we were “good people” before we were let in, I guess as a way to make sure we weren’t there to cause trouble. Inside there were maybe a dozen congregants. The service started with a couple of hymns, and the organ playing so loud it was hard to hear anyone singing.

After the hymns came the sermon. So, what does Christian Science teach? Are they Christian? Well, yes, kind of, although I’m pretty sure most Christians would denounce them for being heretical. Like the Mormons, Christian Scientists have the Bible as their holy scripture from God, but also refer to a second, more modern text. With the Mormons, it’s the Book of Mormon, and with the Christian Scientists it’s “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” – a book written about 150 years ago by the religion’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy.

The sermon we heard on Sunday consisted of alternating readings from the bible and Mary’s book. What was impressed on us repeatedly throughout the sermon was that our physical bodies are not real, and that matter is just an illusion. We are made in the image of God, and because God is a spiritual being, we must be made of spirit too. Apparently it is the false belief that we inhabit a physical body which causes disease and death. Once you come to understand that matter is an illusion, you no longer have to suffer from disease. There was also repeated mention of the word “science”, but it didn’t seem to be the science we know and love today.

And that, in a nutshell, is what the church is offering – the ability to be free from disease and injury. Of course at times church members get sick. But this is the fault of the adherent, not the church’s teachings, and it is a product of their lack of belief. To help with this, the church runs a helpful service where you can talk to a person they call a Practitioner, who will help to remind you that reality is an illusion – for a small fee, of course.

This false belief that injury and disease are an illusion can be very damaging. Scientology’s belief that someone who has been through “counselling” and reached the state of clear won’t get sick forces adherents to pretend that they’re not sick, and avoid getting medical help. In the same way, Christian Scientists will avoid seeing a doctor for easily treated problems. 

After the service we were given copies of the latest edition of the Christian Science Sentinel. The current edition has articles on how racism is a product of the false belief that we inhabit a physical body, how trusting in spirit can help with dating, and some healing stories.

Before we left I asked if I could return to witness the Wednesday meeting, which my ex Christian Science friend tells me consists of church members giving testimonies of how their realisation of our spiritual nature allowed them to be healed from physical issues. I’ll report back when I’ve managed to visit them again.

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UFO in Hawkes Bay

Apparently a UFO was seen in Hawkes Bay late last week. Several people reported seeing a large rectangular shaped object in the sky at dusk, with green and red lights, moving strangely.

A MetService meteorologist has suggested the sightings may be of lenticular clouds, which are common in the area and are fascinating dense clouds that can look like a solid object in the sky.

Green and red lights are also used by aeroplanes to let people know where the left (red) and right (green) sides of the plane are, much the same as boats have – red for port and green for starboard.

Descriptions of “unexplainable” motion are often caused by movement of the person observing the object in the sky, rather than movement of the object itself. This is especially true when these objects are filmed on a phone – shaky hand-held cameras can add the appearance of very erratic movement.

Although none of this is proof that people in Hawkes Bay saw clouds and aeroplanes rather than UFOs, on the balance of probabilities it seems like a much more likely explanation.

New Zealand isn’t the only country generating UFO stories at the moment. The US is awash in stories arising from the recent release of military videos of UFOs (or UAPs – Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). My understanding is that military pilots are expected to film anything unexplained they see in the sky – as there is a chance it could be a national security issue – so it’s no surprise that there are videos out there. Unsurprisingly they show nothing more than indistinct blobs, filmed either in visible light or infrared, and recorded from military planes.

Sadly the US media, including major networks such as Fox and CBS, seem to be taking this all way too seriously, recently interviewing people who have already made up their minds that UFOs are real – and seemingly prompted by a 60 Minutes special on UFOs. Some of these interviewees seem far too ready to put up their hands and exclaim that something is the product of advanced technology, before they’ve even done the basic work of trying to explain it by looking into the videos and attempting to find a natural explanation.

I’m sure this kind of reporting is great for increasing viewership, but that’s not good enough. First and foremost, news companies should focus on reporting on the truth – and sometimes that requires doing some ground work and investigation. It turns out that a bunch of unpaid amateurs on YouTube have been able to do a better job than professional media companies have done, looking at these videos for information that can help figure out what the flying objects in question are.

Information such as data from a plane’s camera HUD (Heads Up Display) have allowed one YouTuber to figure out that one video shows an object about the size of a bird, flying at about the speed of a bird, and exhibiting movement like a bird’s flapping wings. Another has compared infrared footage of several of these UFOs with infrared footage, from behind, of known military and commercial jets, and shown them to be a very close match. A third has tracked down the type of night vision camera that has a triangular aperture, and made test videos showing that having the aperture partially closed and the camera out of focus can cause green triangles to appear on the screen when filming aeroplanes at night – triangles that look a lot like the ones featured in one of the most popular UFO clips circulating at the moment.

It’s not okay for the media to not do their job properly, especially when it doesn’t take long to find reasonable explanations for these “unexplained phenomena” online with a simple google search. And interviewing people who believe in UFOs, treating them as “experts”, is just unacceptable. At least our local paper, in this case the Hawkes Bay Today, managed to do a half-decent job of asking someone who knew what they were talking about if there was a possible terrestrial explanation for the recent New Zealand sightings.
 


Breaking news: Herbs for weight loss don’t work

A recent major report into herbs and supplements for weight loss has concluded that they don’t work, and that not enough is known about their safety. Erica Bessell, the lead author from the University of Sydney, points out that in many countries no evidence is needed that these products actually work, and of course many companies are happy to exploit that failing and sell a wide variety of unproven products to buyers who hope for a simple solution to the hard problem of controlling their weight.

The report is a systematic review of RCTs (Randomised Controlled Trials), and covered 54 trials that were of high enough quality to be included. There was a wide variety of products that had used in the various trials, including green tea, mangosteen, white kidney bean, African mango, veld grape, licorice root, chitosan, glucomannan and fructans.

Erica Bessell said of her analysis:
 

“Our rigorous assessment of the best available evidence finds that there is insufficient evidence to recommend these supplements for weight loss. Even though most supplements appear safe for short-term consumption, they are not going to provide weight loss that is clinically meaningful.”

Sadly, despite this lack of evidence, the global market for alternative weight loss products is estimated to be worth NZ $57 billion. That’s a lot of money being spent on stuff that doesn’t work – and of course this is just one medical issue. Remember that there are unscrupulous people out there who are happy to sell you worthless pills to “treat” pretty much any medical condition, from migraines to cancer.


Does the COVID vaccine contain a microchip?

I’ve watched a few videos from a recent panic where people show themselves sticking a magnet to their arm at the injection site of their COVID vaccine. The same magnet pushed against other parts of the arm will fall off and not stick. Could this be proof that there’s a metallic microchip in the vaccine?

We can look to history to solve this one, as well as trying out a practical experiment. Back in the day skeptic James Randi went to Japan to take on the case of Magnet Men – people who could stick objects to their skin, claiming it was due to some kind of magnetism. Here’s what Randi’s solution was:



Talcum powder! Randi’s observation was that flat metallic or magnetic objects, like coins or neodymium magnets, would stick to skin if it was oily or sweaty – and, for most of us, that’s pretty normal for our skin. By covering the person’s skin in talc, the metal object no longer had that layer to stick to, and the object would no longer stick.

Not content to accept this at face value, I employed the help of one of my daughters to test this out. As I’m a somewhat hairy man, our first task was to shave a patch of hair from my upper arm. Having completed that, we grabbed a small flat neodymium magnet and tried to stick it to my arm – success! Once in place, even tipping my arm beyond 90 degrees and shaking gently was not enough to dislodge the magnet.

Next we covered the shaved area of my arm in talcum powder, and tried again. No matter how much I tried, I could not get the magnet to stick any more. We tried the same experiment with a coin, and had the same results. Without talc the coin stuck to my arm, but with talc it just fell off. I haven’t had the COVID vaccine yet, but still the magnet, and coin, both stuck to my arm without the talc – suggesting that maybe this is not a real phenomenon. My next stop will be to try this out on one of my vaccinated friends, and see what happens.

Of course, there’s another obvious reason why this isn’t real – technology just isn’t at the point where we can miniaturise a powered microchip to the point where we can inject it into someone. The dream of nanobots is decades away, and the closest we have today that is injectable is an RFID chip for pets – and it’s not small. I have one I plan to inject myself with at some point, but I’ve yet to find someone who’s game enough to stab me with the chunky needle.

Beyond just getting a chip inside someone’s arm, presumably the government needs their chip to actually do something like monitoring our location, and do it reliably.

For location, the vaccine chip would probably need to have GPS. I have a small GPS chip that I’ve played with in electronics projects, and it’s not small. We’ve shrunk GPS chips a lot, but not to the point where we can inject them – the smallest is about centimetre cubed. And, that chip will just receive location data from GPS satellites, it can’t send any data. To send data, you’d need another chip and an antenna. If the government wanted to use the phone network, that would probably need another 1cm chip for GSM.

And then of course there’s power. Without power, none of this is going to work. RFID chips can be as small as they are because they aren’t powered. When you hold them up to an RFID reader, within a cm or so, the reader supplies the chip with a small amount of power which they pick up via an induction coil and use to send a brief signal with their ID. However, unless the government is following everyone they want to track very, very closely with mobile electromagnetic induction coils, the chip in the vaccine is going to need a battery, or some previously unseen method of converting either the body’s movement or biological processes into power. And there’s absolutely no evidence that any of this technology exists in a usable form.

Obviously this is all very conspiratorial. To believe that it is true necessitates us thinking that governments around the world are suppressing knowledge about super advanced technology. Technology that has somehow been designed, tested, perfected and manufactured without anyone leaking it to the press or stealing the precious Intellectual Property and selling it to rival governments. But somehow I don’t think the average person who is fooled by the idea that there are microchips in the COVID vaccine is worrying too much about the logical consequences of this one seemingly inconsequential belief.
 


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:  Court Cases, Vaccines, Vortices and Guerrilla Skepticism


96

Skeptic News:  Court Cases, Vaccines, Vortices and Guerrilla Skepticism

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

The news at present is very much concentrating on the COVD vaccine, and it’s been great to see a lot of attention paid to countering misinformation. Details below on the purveyors of this misinformation!

Wishing you a great week…
Craig Shearer

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Sue Grey court case

The week before last we saw Sue Grey, a Nelson-based lawyer and co-leader of the NZ Outdoors party, bringing a case against the NZ Government claiming that the rollout of the COVID vaccine was illegal under the Section 23 of the Medicines Act.

Section 23 of the act allowed the Minister of Health to grant access to approved medicines to a limited number of patients. Grey’s argument was that rolling out the vaccine to all kiwis over the age of 16 didn’t meet the criteria of being a limited number of patients. 

It does seem that it’s a stretch to call all people over the age of 16 a limited number of patients, and on this point Grey’s argument was correct.

However, the case was never about concern that the government was following the law on rollout of the vaccine, but instead was a full-blown anti-vax argument fest. A variety of arguments were introduced claiming that the safety of the vaccine wasn’t proven, and referencing the American VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) as proof that vaccines, in general, were risky and resulting in many cases of adverse effects and vaccine injury.

Grey was petitioning the court to rule the rollout illegal and requesting that the judge halt the rollout of the vaccine. 

As it turned out the judge, Rebecca Ellis, sided with Grey, advising the government that the act’s wording needed to be revised. However, the judge declined to stop the vaccine rollout:

“For now, I decline to exercise my discretion to grant the interim orders sought. The adverse public and private repercussions of doing so are too great, by some very considerable margin.”

If you really want to see what Sue Grey is all about, you can review her video she posted after the judgement came out. It turns out, she’s a full-blown rabid anti-vaxxer, including claiming that the “cure is worse than the disease”, that COVID can be managed by drugs such as Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine, and that people should “do their own research”. 

The case was supported by Voices for Freedom (complete with their supporters holding placards outside the courthouse). To me, trying to deny people access to the vaccine is the very opposite of freedom!

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VFF reaction

I have a super-secret email account that I use to sign up to various mailing lists, including the Voices for Freedom mailing list. Boy do they put out some propaganda!

From their latest email:

“Emotions ran high this past week. Some of us allowed ourselves to feel hopeful that the judiciary would act heroically. We visualised a judgment throwing caution to the wind by finding that the Government acted illegally and that the Covid vaccine rollout could be paused.

 

Our dreams were half-realised. 

 

The Judge agreed that the Government was behaving illegally – but tripped up over the rollout issue, sticking to the script that we combat Covid at all costs. Even when those costs include enrolling every Kiwi over 16 in an experimental jab with a sub-standard injury reporting system and zero information about long-term safety.

 

It didn’t feel particularly heroic. Especially when the Government did what it seems to do best right now and tyrannically changed the law to suit them the very next day.”

It’s interesting to observe how they’re attempting to manipulate their followers, trying to paint them as “heros” doing what’s right in the face of a tyrannical government.

VFF run weekly webinars over Zoom to rally the troops. The past couple of weeks have featured “heroic” doctors – Dr Sam Bailey (who runs a YouTube channel with 240K subscribers) and Dr Alison Goodwin, who’s a maverick doctor from Hawkes Bay. These webinars, it’s claimed, have a limited number of seats available. I sign up for them in the vain hope that my signup might prevent somebody else who wants to see the content from being exposed to their dangerous misinformation. Does that make me a hero? 😊

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Simon Thornley

Yet another anti-hero of the COVID story is Dr Simon Thornley, of the COVID Plan B group who we’ve mentioned many times in the past. 

Thornley is an odd case in that he’s an academic at the University of Auckland, who should know better. (And he was an expert witness in Sue Grey’s case in the high court, mentioned above.)

Over this past weekend, Stuff published an excellent article by Charlie Mitchell on Thornley about how he’s gone down the rabbit hole and can’t seem to find his way back up again.

Though Thornley is a scientist, he seems to have a lot in common with the attitudes and behaviours typically seen in anti-vaxxers (and anti-science types in general), preferring to cling to flimsy, cherry-picked evidence, and holding on to positions even when the evidence is stacked against them. He’s certainly done his own research!

On one of Thornley’s theories that the COVID virus was circulating as early as March 2019. From the article: 

“At the end of his presentation, a slide notes many of Thornley’s references came from one place: A blog post purporting to describe “the manufacturing of the coronavirus crisis”, written by an architect in the United Kingdom who has no apparent medical or science expertise.

During a question and answer session, Thornley was asked if it meant Covid-19 had circulated undetected in New Zealand: “It’s very hard to believe we haven’t been exposed to the virus in quite a dramatic way”, he responded.

Only a seroprevalence survey – measuring the proportion of people with antibodies for the virus – would give the answer, he added.

Two months later, a seroprevalence survey was released. It determined only around 0.1 per cent of New Zealand had been infected with Covid-19. The finding “provides robust evidence to support New Zealand’s successful elimination strategy for COVID-19”.

Thornley, nevertheless, remains unconvinced.”

The article is well worth a read.

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Vortex Water

From the hard to believe it’s real category, we found out about a revolutionary product being offered in New Zealand – Vortex Water!

From their website, they explain:
 

“In nature, water on it’s (sic) journey in a mountain stream twists and turns over rocks, always returning to circular or orbital motion. Constantly regaining it’s (sic) power and vitality to reinvigorate us and nature.

In today’s world we force water through straight pipes with hard bends after thrashing it through a centrifugal pump; leaving it lifeless. Then we add chemicals to make our water safe to drink.

Then we choose to store our drinking water in clear plastic bottles, to be destroyed even further by sunlight and heat. A journey destroyed before commenced.”

The site has some truly bizarre products available. (Notably, the site looks like it was designed in the early days of the web – somewhere around 1999. Of course, a slickly designed site is no guarantee of the quality or efficacy of a product…)

Navigating to try to purchase a product takes me to this page (http://www.unityconscious.org/) I can buy various items, including the Vortex Energiser for Household Vortex Water Revitalisation for the cost of $397.

Interestingly the picture accompanying the product seems to indicate that the water doesn’t even have to flow through the device to have its effect. 


The more likely reason is avoiding having your plumber laugh at you when asked to install the ridiculous device into your pipes 😊

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GSoW

If you’ve spent any time on the internet you’ll likely have encountered Wikipedia – the community-edited encyclopaedia. Wikipedia gets a bad rap as it’s possible for anybody to edit the content and put misinformation on a page.

However, it’s a useful resource, and bad information does usually get weeded out. It’s a good first stopping point on a path to further research. 

Friend of NZ Skeptics, Susan Gerbic runs the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project (GSoW) which specialises in writing informative articles on Wikipedia, centering on science, pseudo science and the people of science (and pseudoscience).

From Susan:

“GSoW has just written 1,751 Wikipedia pages in many languages. Those 1,751 pages have been viewed more than 88 million times – that’s a lot of science communication.

The team has written 31 Wikipedia pages with a New Zealand focus, some of which include; Siouxsie Wiles, Puzzling World, Robert Bartholomew, Lance O’Sullivan, Claire Deeks, Andrew Digby, Christchurch Botanic Gardens, Margaret Hyland, NZ Skeptics, Jeanette Wilson, Immunisation Advisory Centre of NZ and more. These 31 Wikipedia pages have already been viewed over 201,000 times.”

An important aspect of this is that these articles provide important background about people of pseudoscience, often highlighting unflattering and inconvenient aspects that they would rather weren’t public. Case in point is the recently written page about Claire Deeks, of Voices for Freedom. When journalists are doing background research, Wikipedia is a good first stopping point, and having this information at their fingertips promotes a balanced (and not white-washed) view.

Susan is looking for new contributors from New Zealand. If you’ve got some spare time to devote to science communication, one of the most effective ways of doing this would be to join Susan’s team.

Susan personally provides full training on how to research, write, and maintain Wikipedia pages. And you get to be part of a secret community which runs on Facebook with over a hundred people from all over the world dedicated to promoting science and skepticism.

If you’d like to get involved, please contact Susan directly via her email: [email protected]

 


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: Cons, Cults and Crypto


96

Skeptic News: Cons, Cults and Crypto

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Cons, Cults and Crypto


Last week was a busy one. On Monday I visited parliament for a church service called The Power of One, along with another couple of skeptics. The event was organised by a group called Jesus for NZ (who formed back in 2017 when Jesus was taken out of the parliamentary prayer), hosted by Alfred Ngaro and facilitated by Simon Bridges. There was a lot of talk about Jesus re-taking the nation until everyone in this country is a believer, and restoring NZ to its “former glory”. Personally I’m much happier with NZ being a rational, secular democracy than a theocracy, but it turns out that not everyone wants a fair society and equality for all.

On Wednesday morning I took a detour on the way to work via the High Court, where Sue Grey was inside arguing that the government’s vaccine rollout is illegal. The building was packed! I spotted some of the conspiracy usual suspects, including Tiamara Williams in the foyer and Billy TK arguing with some security guards outside. It turned out that the guards had ejected Billy from the building because he was filming inside where it was prohibited. In the end he started one of his “liveys”, using his mobile phone to live stream his anger and indignation to Facebook. I took the opportunity to film him doing this, which felt very meta!

Finally, on Thursday evening a few of us visited a talk on cancer treatment, given by someone who runs a local holistic “clinic”. There was a lot of the same tired old nonsense about disease being dis-ease, cancer thriving in an acidic body and everything modern (including power points, wifi and microwaves) causing cancer. And then there was some new stuff, like that emotions are the root cause of all cancers, and that emotion is really e-motion: “energy-in-motion”. After the event we retired to the pub and submitted ASA complaints about the unproven medical claims we found on the clinic’s website. It’s always nice to be able to do something constructive about the nonsense we see around us.

Mark Honeychurch

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EvoRich will make you Poorer

A week ago I opened the LinkedIn app on my phone, and noticed a comment on a post that was made by someone in NZ who was an “EvoRich Consultant”. His profile didn’t seem to match what I’d expect from a corporate consultant, so I quickly searched Google for EvoRich to see what it was all about – with the suspicion that it might be some kind of Multi Level Marketing scheme.

I was not disappointed – it turns out that EvoRich is not just an MLM, it’s a CryptoCurrency MLM – or as they call it, MLCI (Multi Level Crowd Investing). What came up pretty quickly in my search was an alert from the FMA (Financial Markets Authority) which said:

“The FMA recommends exercising caution before dealing with Evorich… We believe Evorich [has] the hallmarks of a scam.”

The next search result was an article from the Otago Daily Times telling of a recent push to get people in New Zealand to sign up for the EvoRich scheme. Apparently some who have put their money in the scheme in NZ are busy running events to help sign up new victims, with hollow promises of big profits.
 

Next I found myself on YouTube, watching videos from the EvoRich 2021 Summit, where Kiwis and Aussies stood on an empty stage in what seemed to be an empty room in Queensland, telling a video camera about why they should invest in EvoRich, and why it’s going to be the next big thing in CryptoCurrencies. And they kept on thanking the same person, venerating him in a way that felt a lot like how cult leaders are treated – Andrey Khovratov. It turns out that Andrey has quite a history, having previously run Skyway, and then NEEW (New Economic Evolution of the World), and now EvoRich. And searching for each of these companies brings up warning after warning

This whole EvoRich scheme is sadly familiar, and looks almost like a carbon copy of the OneCoin cryptocurrency the BBC did a great job of exposing as a scam in their podcast series called The Missing Crypto Queen. Like OneCoin, EvoRich involves dodgy Russian “businessmen”, multi level marketing, the promise of a cryptocurrency with absolutely no evidence that it actually exists, slick looking websites that show you your “investment” going up in value, and lots of training on how to bring your friends in to invest in the scheme. However I have a strong suspicion that, even though it’s very easy to buy into EvoRich, it’ll be impossible for people to take their money out again. You might think that you’re becoming rich, as you see your number of WCRUs (crypto coins) going up, but like OneCoin I’m guessing that increase is just a piece of code that slowly increases a number in a database.

While trawling through EvoRich videos on YouTube, I was watching a video on how to use the website to manage your crypto wallet, and the presenter said something that piqued my interest. She said that the URLs at the top of her screen, as she was entering data on the EvoRich backoffice website, shouldn’t be used by end users, as it was just for demo purposes. Well, you can’t tell a skeptic not to open the URL and expect them to listen to you! So I typed in a couple of different URLs from the video to my browser, and the second one took me to the demo site’s API – an API is part of a website where software can ask a server for data. Although the site needed credentials to login, I could see that it was written in Yii – a popular web framework written in the PHP language for building websites and APIs. And the developers of the site had left debug mode on, which meant that all requests to the site were being logged, and there was a convenient link to the logs. When I clicked the link, it showed me all the traffic that the API had received over the last few months. It wasn’t much, but there were a few POST requests to the /login page – and as a web developer it was obvious to me that these were login attempts. Those attempts appear to have been made by EvoRich “consultants” who accidentally tried to use the demo site to login, rather than the live site. In the logs I was able to see people’s cleartext usernames and passwords – not an admin account, but the login credentials of different people from around the world who have been conned by this company.

I’ve let the company know that they have a security issue, through their email address of [email protected], so that they can fix it. But the company is owned by a Russian con man, and is actively taking money from thousands of desperate people, so I don’t think they’ll really care, and I don’t expect to hear back from them any time soon.

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Buy your own Get Out of Jail Free card for only $50

The website of an organisation called the Maori Ranger Security Division is currently selling ID cards that they claim can help you avoid being arrested by police, protect you from Child Services, make you exempt from fisheries quotas, and may even let you travel without a passport – and all for the low, low price of $50.

Despite the name, this group seems to have no official standing. They’re not connected to the Māori Wardens, and are not registered as a company or society in NZ. But maybe that’s the point – their claim is that they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the government of New Zealand, but instead have formed their own jurisdiction.

This appears to be a part of the Free Man of the Land, or Sovereign Citizen, movement, which is a fascinating phenomenon. The movement started in the US, and the general idea is that, though enacting a series of legal maneuvers, you can disconnect yourself from being a citizen of the country you live in – with the benefits of then not being subject to its laws, and not having to pay taxes.

In this case, the Maori Rangers have done most of the “hard work” for you. Their ID cards supposedly contain several pieces of legal wording that together give you freedom from government oppression. These include the initials “C.S.S.C.S.P.S.G.P.” next to an image of the old Flag of the United Tribes, followed by the phrase “Flag of this document contract postal vessel court venue”, the words “Sea Pass”, a claim that the card holder is a Diplomat and a passport photo with the words “Secured Party” under it.

From what I can tell, this is meant to convert you into being a maritime vessel, which helps to distance yourself legally from the country you live in. There are Māori and Pakeha versions of the cards, and at $50 I’m tempted to buy one and see how quickly I get kicked out of somewhere for trying to use it as a valid form of ID.

Apparently the group are currently trying to raise enough money to send 10 people to Hawaii, which will somehow allow them to register all Maori Ranger cards as valid passports.

The Maori Rangers even have a card you can apparently use in place of a valid car registration. It says on it:
 

NOTICE TO AGENT IS NOTICE TO PRINCIPAL
NOTICE TO PRINCIPAL IS NOTICE TO AGENT
LEGAL NOTICE
ANYTHING ATTACHED directly or INDIRECTLY (e.g. by Post) to this PRIVATE car or any of the contents therein Without prior written consent will be removed, by force if necessary, and will incur a fee of
$20,000 payable on demand
FAILURE TO UNDERSTAND THIS NOTICE OR notice THIS NOTICE IS INEXCUSABLE

Obviously this whole thing is bonkers. I hate the idea that someone might buy some card or other piece of nonsense from these people. $50 isn’t a lot to lose on the card itself, but for anyone under the impression that they have immunity from breaking the law, or receiving parking tickets, the cost could end up being a lot higher. Eventually they will have their day in court, if that’s what they’re looking for, and they’re not going to win, and it’s not going to be cheap. In fact, the Maori Ranger website already showcases at least one instance of someone attempting to use their ID card to get out of paying for a speeding ticket – unsurprisingly, the NZ Police were having none of it, saying of their attempt:

The court said such arguments had been considered and rejected by the Supreme Court and were “plainly unarguable”. Parliament is sovereign and its legislation applies to all New Zealanders irrespective of race. The infringement fees remain payable by the due date.

There is a tortuous half hour long video on their website that attempts to walk people through how to rebut attempts by NZ Police to collect fines, but I can’t shake the feeling that sending an essay back to the Infringement team talking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the US Security and Exchange Commission’s website and the United Nations Diplomatic Privileges Order 1959 is not going to be very effective.

I’ve heard the Sovereign Citizen movement being described in the past as being very much like a cargo cult. Its adherents think that legal phrases are endowed with magical abilities, and that simply uttering the right phrases in the right order, much like a magic incantation, will somehow have a legal standing and grant them immunity. This feels a lot like Cargo Cult members, who are said to believe that emulating the actions of second world war American airmen will reward them with the same wonders and riches that those airmen brought to the Pacific islands back in the day. It’s a fitting analogy.

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The fastest hands in Russia?

A video from “LADbible” has been doing the rounds recently, showing members of a Russian fitness group performing feats of amazing speed. The video shows several clips of them punching something or someone so quickly that you barely see any movement, punching in circles in front of their body with a speed that makes their arms blur, and repeatedly punching something in front of them at an unbelievable rate.

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=744481686247106

Each clip has some kind of “evidence” in it to show that it’s not faked – a timer running on a mobile phone, a TV playing at normal speed in the background, or a pendulum swinging, for example.

Of course, despite their assurances to the contrary, these guys are just trying to trick people. This becomes obvious when you replay the video at normal speed and look out for anomalies. For each apparent trick of superhuman speed, there will be telltale signs of video manipulation. So, how are they doing this?

For the single punches that happen too quickly to see, they’re simply removing a bunch of frames from the video when the punch happens. As long as the camera is steady on a tripod, which it always is, removing those frames isn’t very obvious, until you look at other things that are moving in the shot – usually people. People are constantly moving a little when they stand, swaying slightly as they balance on two feet. So when you remove frames from a video, those little movements become a small but obvious instantaneous jump or shift to one side. And as soon as you see that little jump, it becomes obvious that they’ve edited the video.

For the super speedy arms, the trick is slightly different. The shot is recorded at normal speed, and then part way through the video an editing tool is used to split the video in two somewhere between the person performing the trick and the device being used to show that no trickery is being used. From that point on, the part of the video with the person is sped up and it’s hard to see where the join between the two halves is. However, if you look at the person’s body, you’ll see that not only do their fists speed up, but also the way their clothing moves, the movement of their legs, etc all speeds up too. And anything else in frame, like curtains blowing in the wind, will start moving faster. At the end of each clip they slow the video back down, but never show the person going back to the timer – because the two halves of the video are now out of sync, and if they walked across the screen they would disappear when they reached the split between the two halves of the video, and the game would be up.

It’s a clever set of tricks, and I’m not surprised that a social media group such as LADbible, who are interested in getting as many views as possible on their videos, hasn’t bothered checking for these kinds of clues that they’re fakes before sharing the video to their millions of followers. Just so long as these videos aren’t being used to recruit people to a gym and take people’s money in return for the promise of superhuman abilities, I see it as nothing more than a bit of harmless fun – apart from the occasional person who may try it at home and end up accidentally punching themselves in the chin!



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