Skeptic News: An Atheist in Iran


96

Skeptic News: An Atheist in Iran

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

An Atheist in Iran


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

Jess Macfarlane

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Article of atheism

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

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

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

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


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Skeptic News: Realisations


96

Skeptic News: Realisations

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Realisations


 

Hi there

This week has been pretty interesting in the arena of skepticism. As you’ll no doubt be aware, this week saw the inauguration of Joe Biden as president of the US and the beginning of his administration. We’ve seen various pro-science, evidence-based actions taken in just the first couple of days – for example, rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, rejoining the World Health Organisation, and halting the Keystone XL pipeline, which I personally celebrate.

This week is also a week of realisation for many, with QAnon predictions failing to come to pass. More details on that below.

Hope you have a great week…

Craig Shearer

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The events of January 6th with the storming of the Capitol in Washington DC were pretty shocking. However, believers in QAnon conspiracy theories were holding out for January 20th – the day of inauguration of the new president. Expectation was that all was going to be revealed – and that Joe Biden wouldn’t, in fact, become president (but, in fact, be arrested). This was the day of “the storm” when president Trump would bring down the “deep state” and expose an extensive pedophilia ring among Democrats.

Of course, this didn’t happen. Refreshingly there have been reports that the QAnon believers are now coming to the realisation that their beliefs weren’t anchored to reality. “We all got played” was a common theme.

I listened to a really fascinating interview on the Oh No Ross and Carrie podcast this week. The interview was with Joe Ondrak who is a researcher at a company called Logically. Logically is a company set up to combat fake news. The interview covers a lot of detail about QAnon and who the believers are, and what we should do about them. I highly recommend listening to this episode.

The interview led me to reflect on the consequences of conspiracy theories. It’s easy to poke fun at believers in outlandish ideas, but I think we also need to have some sympathy. They indeed did “get played” and were, to some extent, used as pawns by those who would exploit these beliefs for their own political purposes.

The bottom line for me is that part of being an adult is being responsible for the consequences of your actions. We can’t absolve poor actions because some people went “down the rabbit hole”. Beliefs have consequences – and as adults we’re much better off if we can ensure that our beliefs are anchored to reality.

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In another example of “realisations” we have the uplifting story of a person who was in the anti-vax camp who has since realised the problems with her views and has now become pro-vaccination. It’s fascinating to read her story and how the change came about. It’s all the more important because her original story went “viral” and received wide attention in the media. You can read her story on her Facebook post. Oh, and you don’t have to be a Facebook member to read the post.

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Plan-B dishonesty

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage with close to 100 million cases over 2 million deaths worldwide. As I’ve said before we can be thankful that we pursued an elimination strategy here in New Zealand. Still, we can’t afford to become complacent, particularly with the emergence of more virulent strains of the virus. (Keep using the COVID app and scanning in!)

Of course there have been groups that have criticised our response – we’ve mentioned the Billy Te Kahika crowd many times, but also the Plan B group of academics. Shockingly for a group of academics, it was revealed that they’ve simply deleted an embarrassing post off their website that claimed that elimination must be ended. The original post is available on the wayback machine but the page on their site now simply returns a 404.

I think it’s pretty shameful that a group of scientists would delete “data” that is now inconvenient to their message!

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Speaking of Billy Te Kahika, one of our skeptical operatives had an interaction with him this past week at Wellington Airport. Here’s his amusing story containing 3 dilemmas:

I arrived late at the airport, thanks to mis-judging Wellington traffic, at 17:35 for a 18:00 take off with a cabin bag full of survey equipment which sometimes attracts extra attention in security.

Heading into the pre-security screening zigzag line and immediately in front of me is Billy Te Kahika. He’s walking very slowly, fumbling with his phone, as he is just finishing a live stream about the day’s protest outside Parliament. 

Dilemma 1 – Should I subdue the urge to shout “He’s talking bullshit” as I really need to get through security without a fuss?   I pass him and carry on around the bend in the line but, as I walk back towards him, notice a $50 note fall from his pocket.

Dilemma 2 –  he’s a conman, should I tell him about his loss?   I do tell him he dropped something and, as he turns to look, the man behind him scoops it up and hands it to him. He looks genuinely grateful and says ‘Thanks, you’re both gentlemen’.

Dilemma 3 – Briefly consider, but resist the urge, of replying ‘thanks, but I think you’re a morally bankrupt dangerous influencer’

The survey gear did trigger a second bag scan but was OK after that. I just made the flight annoyed that I didn’t confront him but with the certain knowledge it would have been futile.


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Skeptic News: Piña coladas and Protests


96

Skeptic News: Piña coladas and Protests

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Piña coladas and Protests


In a world where for some 2021 is already giving 2020 a run for its money, I’m trying to appreciate my freedoms. That includes the freedom to relax, drink cocktails and enjoy the balmy weather, and not get stressed out about about where to put cocktail flavoured suppositories to solve make-believe problems invented by the wellness industry.

Jess Macfarlane 

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Lockdown Protests at the Beehive

There were many false claims made on 14th January, by Billy Te Kahika and his supporters outside the Beehive in Wellington. The most dangerous claim was that Covid-19 is no more deadly than the flu (2 million people have died worldwide at the time of writing). Among other strange things, they claimed that Jacinda Ardern is a communist who wants to keep putting New Zealand into lockdown, including organising one again on 15th January, the day after the protest.

The problem with making false claims about a deadly pandemic is, people who underestimate the danger will not only risk catching Covid-19 themselves but will wantonly take risks that impact the health of others around them.

The trouble with making predictions about specific things happening on specific days, is what to do if your prediction doesn’t come true.

We found our answer on January 15 when @nealejones shared on Twitter a screen capture of Billy Te Kahika saying “Urgent Live!! Lockdown called off because of us?”.

If that’s not a textbook example of confirmation bias, (and delusions of grandeur) I don’t know what is.

In response to the protest, Newshub writes that Dr Anna Brooks, an immunologist at the University of Auckland’s Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery spoke to Magic Talk, saying it was “somewhat frustrating” to see people who have done their own “research” online spread misinformation about Covid-19. Dr Brooks said it was “offensive” for people to say “I’ve done my research” when actual experts have had to spend years and a great deal of money to understand what research means and how to perform it objectively.

U.K. Society of Homeopaths have Accreditation Suspended

In a win for skeptics everywhere, On 11 January 2021, the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) in the U.K.  moved to suspend accreditation of the Society of Homeopaths (SoH), because they found that the SoH “did not appear to have prioritised public protection over professional interests in its handling of complaints or governance processes, which undermined confidence in its ability to ensure its registrants were compliant with its own Code of Ethics and position statements.”

Read here to find out about the multiple legal challenges the Good Thinking Society have brought over the years, including one relating to the morally bankrupt CEASE therapy, intended to ‘cure’ autism.

In New Zealand, after a tip from NZ Skeptics, reporter Farah Hancock wrote back in August 2019 about CEASE therapy in Christchurch, and how diluted vaccines were being sold as homeopathic cures for autism right here in New Zealand. Vaccines do not cause autism, but it is this false belief that led homeopaths to think they could cure it by coming up with a homeopathic remedy made from diluted vaccines.

It seems that so far, no-one in the SoH has offered their resignation, despite the significant blow to the organisation in losing accreditation. You would think they might want to clean house to get back on the good side of the PSA. We will see what happens. A hearty congratulations to all those at the Good Thinking Society and those that helped to make this happen.

Fruity Vagina Melts go viral on TikTok

The author of my Bible – The Vagina Bible, Gynaecologist, columnist and author Dr. Jen Gunter was on Twitter recently, again, to educate people about how a vagina is able to self-clean, without any help from the wellness industry which is doing its best to make money out of people by shaming them into thinking they have to fix a problem that isn’t there.

Dr. Gunter explained that any products designed to clean vaginas or mask their natural odors can cause harm by disrupting the body’s own natural effective cleansing process. The tweet came in response to vagina cleansing melts that were becoming a thing on TikTok. Femallay, the company selling the fruity flavoured vaginal moisturising suppository melts say they “offer a fun and healthy way to feel confident, smell lovely, and be your best you! “.

On her first ever TikTok, Dr. Gunter assured us that vaginas don’t need any assistance from fruity flavoured and fragranced melts, are evolved to clean themselves, and should not “smell like a piña colada”.

This product had apparently been in the news for a while as I found an article about them from back in October 2020 when Christchurch gynaecologist Olivia Smart was interviewed by Stuff.

Dr. Smart suggested that in a physically and emotionally healthy relationship the melts were unnecessary but could be fun. However, she worried that people might turn to them instead of seeking medical advice for issues such as “pain, discharge, odor or dryness”. Again, delaying effective treatment may cause real harm.

I’m saving the fruity flavours for the cocktails. Stay skeptical!


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Skeptic News: New year, skeptical you?


96

Skeptic News: New year, skeptical you?

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Happy New Year from NZ Skeptics


 

Welcome to the first newsletter of the new year. I think we can all agree that 2020 was a fairly exceptional year, and not in a good way. 2021 has rolled around, and the common expectation is that it’s going to be much better than 2020! I feel we’re falling for some cognitive effect that rolling over the calendar provides us – and that maybe it’s not going to turn out that way.

Let’s see what happens…
Craig Shearer
 

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Image from Scott Rodgerson/Unsplash


 

Psychic predictions for 2020

At the start of each year, it’s common for psychics and mediums to put out a bunch of predictions for the coming year. These predictions generally fall flat, although a common strategy for some psychics is to put out so many, often vaguely worded, so that there’s a chance that some of them will actually come true, at which point they capitalise on this, claiming to be the World’s Most Accurate Psychic™! 

An obvious point about the 2020 year is the huge number of astounding events that have occurred, none of which were predicted by psychics! For a humorous look at this, see Rebecca Watson’s YouTube video. Rebecca points out that
 

“Psychics are frauds that lie to people for money, though many people who think they’re psychic are just lying to themselves (and others).”

– that’s certainly putting it bluntly and accurately.


The Real News?

We’re written about the Advance NZ political party in the past, and about their conspiracy-theory-driven policies and public statements. 

It’s come to NZ Skeptics attention that they’re now promoting a new magazine to be distributed early this year. There’s a new website set up to promote this, run by a company called The Full Court Press. The director of that company, from the NZ Companies Register, is Katherine Smith, who’s also the publisher of the awful New Zealand Journal of Natural Medicine. That magazine has been popping up in mainstream magazine outlets and supermarkets for some time (and also available as a gift option on iSubscribe – hopefully that didn’t get given as a Christmas gift!), but it appears that the new venture is going for a more viral distribution model.

If you’d like to read the first issue of the magazine, it’s available for free here (if you can stomach it!). 

Their distribution model is to get people to buy the magazine in bulk (minimum order of 100 copies at $1 each) then sell them at a profit to friends, family, and neighbours. 

The first issue is packed full of COVID-19 conspiracy theories and dangerous misinformation, and as expected, advertises various likely-bogus “natural” medicines.

 

COVID-19 Vaccines

As you’ll no doubt know, 2020 ended seeing the successful and record-setting development of a range of vaccines for COVID-19 from various companies. 

New Zealand is in the privileged position of having zero cases of COVID in the community. We can afford to take our time with the vaccine, which must go through local approval processes (Medsafe), unlike other countries where the transmission is rampant, and vaccines have been authorised for emergency use. 

The current predictions are that vaccines will be available in New Zealand sometime this year.  We’re also doing the right thing by our Pacific neighbours and helping them out. More information can be found on the NZ COVID-19 website.

Unfortunately, it seems that many people in the US are falling prey to vaccine hesitancy

This is unfortunate, though perhaps predictable. I believe that it’s not unreasonable for people to have concerns about the vaccines, particularly with the speed at which they’ve been developed. But, as always, the key to alleviating concerns is a deeper understanding of the science behind their development. The key takeaway is that the speed of development is mainly down to bureaucratic hurdles being removed, modern technology, and the moon-shot-like efforts that scientists put in.

Image from Tim Mossholder/Unsplash


New Year’s Resolutions

Around this time of the year it’s common to be spending time with extended family and friends. 

As we’ve seen over the last few years with the rise of social media, it’s easy for unsuspecting people to fall down the rabbit holes of conspiracy theories. 

Equally, this is the time of year that people make new year’s resolutions, often around the themes of improved health or weight loss or better eating. There are many businesses that thrive on and exploit these tendencies. I’ve seen various fad diets and detox programmes popping up on my social media feeds.

If you’re searching for your own new year’s resolution, I challenge you to become a skeptical ambassador and encourage critical thinking and spread the skeptical viewpoint among friends and family. And this year, it’s particularly important to help people establish an accurate science-based view of the COVID pandemic and the vaccines.

What can you do to promote critical thinking?


NZ Skeptics Membership

NZ Skeptics is a registered charity. If you’re already a member now’s the time to pay your subs. If you’re not a member, please consider joining us to support the work we do. Membership is only $40/year for waged/salaried people, and $20/year for unwaged people. You can sign up on our website.


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Skeptic News: Peer Pressure from Dead People


96

Skeptic News: Peer Pressure from Dead People

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Peer Pressure from Dead People


What day is it? Is it still 2020? Damn.

Jess Macfarlane.

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What’s the harm in a good conspiracy?

What’s the harm in viral conspiracy theories? This bbc.co.uk blog investigated the people who had been affected by and involved in the spread of misinformation in 2020. The piece touches on Covid-19-deniers who ended up contracting the illness, people who became internet sensations and ended up speaking to thousands about their conflicting and nonsensical notions, and the hurt of having newly estranged family members.
 
On the question of how to approach people who have been swept up in the conspiracy theories, psychologist Jovan Byford is quoted as saying “The point is to infuse their thinking with counter arguments so the next time they approach a conspiracy theory in a different way.”

At the time of writing the F.B.I are investigating 5G paranoia as a motive for the suicide bombing in Nashville on Christmas. This writer attended an anti-5G protest in 2020, In support of 5G. 5G is a technology that will allow us to do even more on the internet, and the scientific consensus is that it is safe.


Insulting, ridiculous, disappointing & dangerous

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles wrote on twitter recently about a NZ Herald article which wondered if New Zealand’s response to the pandemic was an overreaction. While pointing out that she hadn’t read the article (it was pay-walled) she said “But if the answer isn’t a resounding NO WE DIDNT then the piece is insulting, ridiculous, disappointing, & dangerous”.
 
This was illustrated by the Toby Morris animated graph showing the predicted numbers of Covid-19 cases with and without a lockdown. The gaping maw between the two lines in the graph became the mouth saying the words “we overreacted”. This type of reaction feels like a predictable one – where a lot of effort was put in to prevent a disaster, and no disaster occurred.
 
I personally hope that this type of reaction does not discourage our experts in science or healthcare from doing the important job of slowing down a deadly pandemic. I was able to see and hug my family for Christmas and I am very happy to say I have not attended anyone’s Covid-19 related funeral or (personally) know anyone who has. As a measure of success for me, those examples are palpable.
 
Again from the NZ Herald, if you are able to read it, this paywalled article goes through the contributions of many of the New Zealand scientists who helped make our Covid-19 response a success. Included in the list are Dr. Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris. I’m very glad New Zealand was able do what a good skeptic should do and follow the science. A big thank you to all from me.

As for the NZ Herald, posting articles that are on either side of a debate that isn’t a debate, where scientific consensus is on one side and devil’s advocate the other, that is a false balance i.e. anti-science propaganda.


A Grinchy point of view

In the very first verse of The Grinch, we learn that the Grinch hated Christmas, and then Dr. Seuss writes “Now please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason”.  My young self always wondered about that. Why couldn’t I ask? Was I supposed to not ask questions so I wouldn’t feel guilty about parcelling him up in my mind as the bad guy? That advice always seemed very sinister to me. I’m instinctively deeply skeptical when someone tells me not to question something.
 
The story goes on to explain that it’s the “noise, noise, noise, noise!” that the Grinch hates. As a child this washed over me as something all grownups must either tolerate or complain about to varying degrees, but I learned somewhere along the line about something that changed my perspective. I learned about misophonia. Misophonia isn’t a dubious Japanese soup made of doom-scrolling devices, but a condition where certain sounds or repetitive noises trigger an unusually strong emotional response in people, responses ranging from annoyance to panic to anger. A workmate of mine suffers from this condition.
 
For the purposes of a jolly Christmas tale of someone learning the value of Christmas, I suppose it helps the story to just have a bad guy and leave it at that. However, looking at the tale again and imagining the Grinch as a rounded person with a particular condition that makes him respond intensely with panic or anger to banging buzzing or beeping toys, it makes me wonder if the Whos down in Whoville might have grown their own hearts several sizes by stepping up and trying to actually ask him why he hated Christmas so much.
 
Alternatively, perhaps it’s best to acknowledge that Christmas (not to mention other traditions) can put a lot of pressure on some people, and it can be cathartic to be a Christmas hater sometimes. If I were the Grinch bothered by Christmas noise even from inside my own home, wouldn’t it be nice to be offered a safe space where I could relax in peace and quiet without being accused of being a hater and being made to feel I’m not doing my duty by participating? There I fixed it. Now let’s all raise our be-baubled glasses and remember that most tradition is totally pointless peer pressure from dead people. Cheers!


Ex-chef’s face off Facebook

In other news, Australian ex-celebrity chef Pete Evans has finally been kicked off Facebook for spreading conspiracy theories about Covid-19. He had previously been fined $25,000 for trying to sell a ‘Bio Charger’ device as a fake coronavirus cure via a livestream on the platform.
 
Back in April he was in the news for passing on and making up stories on Instagram. The stories were a reaction to New Zealand’s lockdown, which resulted in us all being able to spend the holiday season with family and friends, unlike many countries where social distancing is still in place and for some now dealing with new Covid-19 variants, getting stricter.
 
One idea Mr. Evans was very vocal about was that kiwis had better wake up because after lockdown, we were all about to be put under martial law as part of the Prime Minister’s plot to control us.
 
Well, that’s it from me. It’s nearly time for my once a month allotted 5-minute outdoor time in our #NZhellhole and I don’t want to be late and get on the bad side of our benevolent dictator. Tootles!
 


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Skeptic News: Crystals, Black Holes and Dark DNA


96

Skeptic News: Crystals, Black Holes and Dark DNA

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Crystals, Black Holes and Dark DNA


I told you all three weeks ago that I was going to visit the Ancient Mystical Order of Rosicrucians, and I can report that I survived the meeting intact. My friend Tim and I had a great chat with three of the group’s members about their beliefs, and about the history of the organisation. Much of what we heard sounded very familiar, with an organisational structure that reminded me of Scientology (making your way up the “Bridge”) and a belief in visualisation that was akin to Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret”, where if you imagine something enough it will come true for you.

After this event, we decided to visit a Hemi-Sync event (binaural beats) and a Share International meeting about angels. However, both of these meetings fell through, and so instead I woke up yesterday morning and jumped into my car to visit our local Wellington chapter of the Builders of the Adytum for a Qabalistic Service. Unfortunately, contrary to the assertion on their sign, the doors to the temple were firmly shut.

 

 

So my fellow intrepid explorers from Wellington Skeptics in the Pub and I walked up the road and joined Kirtan at the local Sikh temple, followed by driving to nearby Arise Church where we took part in an evangelical Christian service with a rock band, stage lighting and cheering crowd:

 

 

All in all it was a good morning, and we’ve promised the Sikh temple that we will visit them again soon as they are keen to sit down and chat with us.

Mark Honeychurch

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We have our own Monolith

In the news this morning, it’s been reported that our very own New Zealand monolith has appeared at Adventure Park in Christchurch. I’d love to think that this monolith could stay until I get a chance to visit it, but given that the original monolith mysteriously disappeared, and that a bunch of young Christians destroyed a similar monolith in California and replaced it with a cross, I worry that our version may not last long.

I have to assume that this proliferation of monoliths, rather than being a carefully planned stunt, is more likely to be the work of copy cats who want to add to the mystery. My understanding is that the monoliths are rather simply constructed, and that the hard problems are getting them to their destination and digging a hole to place them in.

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Crystal Healing that works?

In one of our Facebook groups this week there was a recent discussion started by Donald Pettitt about his visit to a “crystal healer” to help with issues he’s been having with his balance:

“I’ve been having balance issues due to a head injury on my bike ride about 4 months ago.
I went to a crystal healer a few days ago. Turns out there is real science behind it!”

The post linked to a Mayo Clinic article explaining exactly what this healing is. In the ensuing conversation Jonny Grady, a committee member who I’m sure many of you have met, wrote a very nice summary of what this is all about:


There is some genuine science here, but also a lot of misinformation. The ‘crystals’ talked about here have absolutely nothing to do with the ‘traditional’ crystal healers (as I’m sure you all figured).

There are ‘otoconia’ (calcium carbonate crystals) in your vestibular portion of the inner ear which act to help detect linear acceleration of your head and your head’s general orientation in space in relation to gravity. The cavity they reside in acts a bit like a ‘snow globe’; if you tip a snow globe on it’s side, the ‘snow flakes’ inside will shift towards the bottom of the glass bulb under the force of gravity. If you tip your head on its side the otoconia will shift in a similar way, like sand cascading towards the lowest point in relation to gravity. Tiny sensory ‘hair cells’ (stereocilia) lining the bowl of the cavities (utricle and saccule) detect this change in the alignment of these otoconia, which corresponds to your head position in relation to gravity or linear head motion.

There are also special fluid-filled loops in the vestibular organs with stereocilia (the Semi-circular canals), which are evolved to detect rotary head motion (head turns). They operate a little differently. If you turn your head in a certain direction, the fluid in your semicircular canal lags behind the head motion, causing it to brush past the stereocilia, triggering them to indicate that your head is turning. There are three of these semicircular canals in each ear, each corresponding to a different orientation in head rotary head movement.

Now, if the otoconia from the utricle and saccule get out of those spaces and get into the semicircular canals, they can sit on or brush past those stereocilia sense organs, triggering them to tell you your head is turning, even when it isn’t. This mis-match between what your vestibular/balance organ is telling you (you’re moving) and what your vision and proprioception are telling you (you’re not!) is what makes you feel dizzy. This can happen if you get a traumatic hit to the head; the otoconia can get into the semicircular canals, causing the dizziness. We also get more prone to this as we get older (it’s pretty common in retirees).
If this happens, there are manual head-rotation exercises that can be done that help the otoconia travel from the semicircular canals back into the utricle and saccule.

So yes! This is the only time in medicine that you can legitimately go to a clinician to “have your crystals realigned”!


Nice work, Jonny – thanks for helping us to be a little smarter.

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Does anyone know what Dark DNA is?

Retraction Watch have written a nice summary of the year in retractions for The Scientist magazine. Unsurprisingly many of the scientific articles that have been retracted this year are on the topic of COVID-19, but there was one that caught my eye from the Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences titled:

“A black hole at the center of earth plays the role of the biggest system of telecommunication for connecting DNAs, dark DNAs and molecules of water on 4+N- dimensional manifold.”

The abstract for the paper reads like the back-story for a trashy sci-fi book written by William Shatner (and yes, I’ve read Shatner’s TekWar – it’s not very good):

“Recently, some scientists from NASA have claimed that there may be a black hole like structure at the centre of the earth. We show that the existence of life on the earth may be a reason that this black hole like object is a black brane that has been formed from biological materials like DNA. Size of this DNA black brane is 109 times longer than the size of the earth’s core and compacted interior it. By compacting this long object, a curved space-time emerges, and some properties of black holes emerge. This structure is the main cause of the emergence of the large temperature of the core, magnetic field around the earth and gravitational field for moving around the sun. Also, this structure produces some waves which act like topoisomerase in biology and read the information on DNAs. However, on the four-dimensional manifold, DNAs are contracted at least four times around various axis’s and waves of earth couldn’t read their information. While, by adding extra dimensions on 4 +n-dimensional manifold, the separation distance between particles increases and all of the information could be recovered by waves. For this reason, each DNA has two parts which one can be seen on the four-dimensional universe, and another one has existed in extra dimensions, and only it’s e_ects is observed. This dark part of DNA called as a dark DNA in an extra dimension. These dark DNAs not only exchange information with DNAs but also are connected with some of the molecules of water and helps them to store information and have memory. Thus, the earth is the biggest system of telecommunication which connects DNAs, dark DNAs and molecules of water.”

The paper’s author, Dr Massimo Fioranelli, mentions on his website (in Italian) that:

“Ho studiato varie discipline a connotazione “naturale”: la medicina fisiologica di regolazione, la nutrizione, la medicina low-dose, la fitoterapia, l’agopuntura, il microbioma, le tecniche psicologiche, la mindfulness, la meditazione, lo yoga e molte altre.”

Thankfully google translate makes a good effort at making sense of this for me, given that my grasp of Italian is non-existent:

“I studied various disciplines with a “natural” connotation: physiological regulation medicine, nutrition, low-dose medicine, phytotherapy, acupuncture, microbiome, psychological techniques, mindfulness, meditation, yoga and many others.”

So it looks like Dr Fioranelli has taken the Kool-Aid of alternative medicine, and as so often happens this has likely led him down the path towards believing in all kinds of unproven nonsense, and even now making up his own novel (read: daft) ideas.

(As a side note, I was going to be clever and mention that at Jonestown the cult used Flavor-Aid rather than Kool-Aid in their massacre, but I’ve now learned that the cult had both brands of flavoured drink mix at Jonestown, and it’s unclear which was was used on the fateful day)

Weirdly this article was published in a special “Global Dermatology” issue of the journal, which makes me wonder whether it just bypassed peer review all together – after all, it’s hard to see how a black hole in the centre of our planet which allows communication between our DNA and a higher dimension DNA has much of anything to do with skin, hair or nails. And it turns out that this isn’t the only recent dermatology slip up – Retraction Watch mentions that one of the paper’s co-authors, Uwe Wollina, has written a huge number of other papers that appear to be pure pseudoscience. This debacle has been documented by Der Spiegel in Germany (although the article is unfortunately both in German and behind a paywall).

I suppose we can at least be thankful that this paper was eventually retracted. Who knows how many other nonsense papers are flying under the radar, being cited by alternative medicine practitioners as proof that their dubious therapies are “proven” by science.

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Glittery Just Desserts

As Skeptics we’re not very fond of scammers, and we often try to protect the public from those who would rip them off with dodgy devices and ineffective products. The video below documents a feat of engineering, a device that targets the problem in the US of people who steal people’s parcels – and it targets them in a pretty funny way. Although theft is not really a scam, it’s still enjoyable to see unethical people get their comeuppance – and it’s mentioned later on in the video that this device has also recently been used against scammers. And to be honest, I needed a good excuse to share this video!
 



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Skeptic News: Flynn Effect researcher dies


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Skeptic News: Flynn Effect researcher dies

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Hello

Welcome to this week’s NZ Skeptics newsletter. I’m going to be pretty brief as I’ve have a busy weekend, but there were a few stories that caught my eye this week.

Craig Shearer

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Flynn Effect researcher dies

Renowned Otago researcher, Jim Flynn has died, aged 86. He discovered a very interesting effect –  now named after him – the Flynn Effect, which states that IQ scores are increasing decade by decade. Basically, people are scoring better on IQ tests than they did in the past. This has had the effect of moving the 100 score – which is, by definition, the average IQ score upwards. There is speculation on the reasons for the Flynn effect, but nothing completely conclusive. But it is interesting to ponder. 

IQ tests are sometimes controversial measures of intelligence. And there have been people who’ve bought into ideas of differences in IQ scores between races. Flynn effectively countered such racist ideas and provided science-based explanations that refuted these racist ideas.

Monoliths – definitely not aliens!

A few weeks back a monolith was discovered, in the desert in the state of Utah in the USA. Since then they’ve been popping up in various places around the world. The famous monolith from Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey (based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novels) would appear to be the inspiration for these. 

It appears that the original in Utah was installed back in 2016, but remained undiscovered. Wikipedia has a list of all the monoliths discovered so far.

In this age of viral videos and publicity stunts, it’s easy to imagine that there’s a company behind this using it for some marketing purpose, though given how long it’s taken for the original to be revealed, that does seem unlikely.

While these monoliths have allusions to that in 2001, if it were aliens, they’d do something much more impressive. Simultaneously making them appear all over the world, for instance. Appearing levitating above the ground? Let your imagination run wild!

There is a serious side to this though, particularly the original Utah one. As has been pointed out, this is essentially littering on public lands. Such “artwork” attracts visitors to locations not prepared for a public onslaught, thereby endangering both the land and people’s lives who might decide to visit, ill-prepared for the journey.

ME/CFS research by Kiwi scientists

There was an interesting item this week on research by Kiwi scientists showing that Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, is a real thing and not psychosomatic.

As a skeptic, I know that it’s often easy to dismiss medical symptoms that are hard to define as potentially not real and likely psychological. It’s great to see the successful research done that teases out and defines a biological basis for this.

 


Seven Sharp promoting psychics

Last week (December 10th) TVNZ’s Seven Sharp programme had an item featuring a Ponsonby-based psychic medium by the name of Kimberly Stewart. The story was based on the premise that because 2020 has been such a stressful year, that people have been seeking the services of psychics more. Business is booming! As is typical of these items, they offered a psychologist’s opinion for balance.

Perusing the psychic’s website is a fun journey if you like that stuff. She claims to be “New Zealand’s most accurate psychic” – though it’s not known how such a title is determined. That would imply though that there are others that are less than accurate! How would one know who to choose?

If you find yourself flush with cash you don’t know what to do with, she’ll happily spend 30 minutes with you for an eye-watering $180! Or you can have a Past Life Regression session for $230. According to her website: “do not get caught up on the idea that its [sic] all in your imagination”! The cynical me suspects she knows this is all it is!


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Skeptic News: Social Media Cleansing


Skeptic News: Social Media Cleansing


NZ Skeptics Newsletter

 

Social Media Cleansing

It’s been a very busy few weeks for me of Birthdays, training, events, and Christmas tree decoration. My irrational rage at people who erect festive trinket dust collectors before December 1st has abated, only to be replaced by incredulity over people who are ‘decorating’ their routers with faraday cages to protect themselves from 5G.

Jess Macfarlane

Social Cleansing

Business insider finds that YouTube’s algorithms are still sucking people deep down into whirlpools of misinformation, however, anti-vaccination messages aren’t among those messages.

Unfortunately, those same algorithms aren’t smart enough to detect the baby in the soiled bathwater, and seem to be defenestrating the lot, blocking misinformation as well as videos debunking anti-vaccination misinformation. YouTuber Stephen Woodford was one who found himself scooped up in the cleansing. He recently posted a video to his YouTube channel Rationality Rules called ‘The Covid-5G Conspiracy – Debunked’. It was taken down and he was sent a letter explaining why. Woodford made the letter he received from YouTube public, highlighting the reasoning given; “we think it violates our medical misinformation policy”. You can see Woodford’s response here

It has to be acknowledged that the sheer volume of misinformation being uploaded couldn’t possibly be interrogated without the assistance of code, but given the vast resources available to the platform, one wonders if they couldn’t afford to spend more money on humans to vet content to mitigate against counterproductive issues like this. 

It is concerning that this cleansing of conspiracies is also quieting skeptical voices on the platform. As Woodford himself said, “Well, I’ve got the message. Don’t expose conspiracy theories, don’t expose medical misinformation”.

Doubt is your friend – Survey

Scoop.co.nz published a survey looking at New Zealanders perceptions of misinformation. One finding was “The majority of New Zealanders surveyed agree that disinformation has the ability to greatly influence someone’s opinion (91 percent), but far less (53 percent) acknowledge that disinformation could influence them.” This hubris is something we need to work on. That belief that it can’t happen to you is the very reason wrong ideas may be lurking untouched and untested in your belief system.

Stolen Identity Keto pill Scam

 

The ABC News website published a story about a keto pill scam using a famous (in Australia) NZ born TV Doctor (Dr Brad McKay) to promote their nonsense without his knowledge. Dr McKay was not happy with the fact they had stolen his identity to promote their products, but is still struggling to get the posts removed as Facebook has given him the equivalent of a sorry-about-that shrug and taken no action. He has approached multiple authorities and agencies in Australia but (at the time of writing) is still waiting to hear back from them.
 

Dr McKay made his position clear when he said that when it comes to buying health products online “What you see is not what you get, and they can be extremely harmful to your health… I would never endorse or promote products like this.” 

The article urges the reader to read the fine print and has some great advice about how to avoid scams including:

  • Check who owns the website

  • Be skeptical of positive reviews – anecdotes are not evidence!

  • Do the claims seem too good to be true? – then they probably aren’t.

  • Check if they are trying to sell you something – are they explaining a problem they can sell you the solution for?

Understand the wool

Understanding marketing tactics is a good way to learn how to be more skeptical about them. Knowledge can help you take off that wool you didn’t know had been pulled over your eyes, and see the truth behind the lies, and hopefully be able to make a better decision about where and how to spend your hard earned cash.

 

One tactic marketing teams use is to publish ‘white papers’. These don’t directly sell you products, but supposedly provide impartial facts and figures around an issue or problem and draw conclusions, all while subtly pointing you in the general direction of the type of product they are trying to sell.

An example might be if you search in google for “why do I have headaches nz” where the top search result is a snippet from Southern Cross Health Insurance, with a number of helpful causes of headaches. What are they trying to sell you? Insurance. Further down in the search results, a website from a well -known brand of head-ache pill, again with helpful information. What are they trying to sell you? Their pills. Are they the best pills out there? Could there be other reasons for your headaches? The best person to talk to is always going to be your GP, not someone trying to sell you something.

Along pseudoscience lines I found a white paper on homeopathy for dairy farming – the Homeopathic Handbook for Dairy Farming. A solution to the problem – how do I keep my herd healthy, but a solution that funnels consumers to a product that is pure pseudoscience, built on the idea that like cures like, that dilution makes a remedy more powerful.

What’s the harm in homeopathy being used on livestock? Just as it is in humans, delaying evidence-based treatments can prolong suffering and cause real harm. Some conditions will go away by themselves, but others need early intervention.

Stay skeptical!

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Skeptic News: Cults, Colours, Conspiracies


Skeptic News: Cults, Colours, Conspiracies


NZ Skeptics Newsletter

 

Cults, Colours, Conspiracies

Tonight I’m off to a meeting of AMORC – the Ancient Mystical Order of Rosae Crucis. It occurred to me the other day that there’s an old idea which might be appropriate here. I’m sure many of you have heard of the guideline that the more a country’s name stresses that it is democratic, the less likely it is to actually resemble a democracy. Take the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) or the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) as examples. I wonder whether the same rule might hold for cult groups. For example, the Order of Oriental Templars (OTO) is not related to either the Orient or Templars (it was invented in the 20th century by German occultists), The Church of Scientology is not really a church (it’s just a tax dodge) and the Unification Church (Moonies) didn’t unify the Christian church. So I have a sneaking suspicion that the Ancient Mystical Order of Rosae Crucis is probably going to turn out to be neither Ancient nor Mystical.

 

Anyway, I’d like to ask everyone to do me a favour. If you don’t receive a newsletter from me in three weeks, please email Craig ([email protected]) and let him know that I’ve either been sucked in by the cult or been kidnapped by them, and that he needs to send a rescue mission to extricate me. Thanks!

 

Mark Honeychurch

Randi Video: No Longer Missing

Thank you Mark Fletcher for letting us know that you had a copy of the video of James Randi’s 1993 Christchurch talk. He’d even transcoded the video from VHS to DVD several years ago, which made it a lot easier for me to get it onto YouTube. Thanks Mark, I owe you a beer!

Back in the day the NZ Skeptics charged $25 to send a VHS copy of the video out to you, but now – for the new low price of free – you can watch it at the click of a button. Isn’t technology marvellous!


The Amazing Randi – a public lecture given by James Randi in Christchurch, New Zealand on the 6th of July 1993.

2020: A Desert Odyssey

I’m sure most people saw the intriguing news that a tall prism shaped metal structure, now known as the Utah Monolith, had been found by conservationists in the desert in the US, sticking out from the rock floor of a canyon. It’s been great to see sleuths figure out where the monolith is located, using flight plans and google maps satellite view (in a slot canyon in Lockhart Basin in San Juan County, Utah), approximately when it was placed, using historical satellite photos (between August 2015 and October 2016) and how it was made, with several people visiting the site (it’s hollow and made from riveted stainless steel sheets). However, the mystery of who put it there has still not been solved.

 

In a further twist to the story, the monolith has now disappeared – presumably taken by either the original creators or someone else who wanted to add to the intrigue of this case.

 

I’m a big fan of these kinds of mysteries, which seem to fall into two camps. Some are real, genuine mysteries, such as the Antikythera device, the Somerton Man mystery and the Phaestos Disc. Others are obviously contrived, like the Voynich Manuscript, the Kryptos monument and the Georgia Guidestones. This monolith is also not the only mystery that appears to be related to the book/movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” – the Toynbee Tiles are another 2001 related enigma, and I’d recommend watching the documentary Resurrect Dead to see more about the tiles, along with a possible answer to who’s behind them. It’s always fascinating to see people trying to piece together these types of puzzles, and I’ve recently been doing a little of it myself with the Cicada 3301 puzzles from a few years ago.

 

However, it’s unfortunate when these mysteries go too far. QAnon, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, is a prime example of someone inventing a mystery that is causing real harm. In that case the motivation appears to be political, with the result of fomenting unrest in the US – something they definitely don’t need any more of at the moment. The Oak Island story is one that started off as an interesting case study in people’s wishful thinking, but it’s sad to see how much time and cash has since been poured into this literal money pit. And, closer to home, pre-Māori settler conspiracy theorists (such as Noel Hilliam, Martin Doutre, Ian Wishart and Cedric Livingstone) seem to often be driven by racism and a desire to de-legitimise Māori land claims, rather than being engaged in an honest search for the truth.

 

Let’s hope that nobody tries to hijack the Utah Monolith and make it into something it’s not. For now it’s a harmless prank which we may never know the backstory to – fingers crossed it stays that way.

Billy TK’s Religious Influences

There’s an interesting article published by Dr Deane Galbraithe this week about Billy Te Kakiha’s evangelical influence, and how this may explain his adoption of so many conspiracy theories in his talks. For those who don’t remember, Billy TK started a political party earlier this year, the Public Party, with a platform based on conspiracies and other unscientific nonsense. Deane has been talking in our Facebook group about his article, and, although it’s not mentioned in the article itself, on Facebook he’s talked about someone who has messaged him to let him know that Billy TK has a history with the Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement.

 

This new piece of information piqued my interest. Although I’ve not personally managed to attend a Seventh Day Adventist meeting yet, I’ve listened to the Oh No Ross and Carrie podcast episodes about the Adventists. Ross and Carrie attended a series of lectures from the Seventh Day Adventists that focused on the coming End Times and the evils of the Catholic Church. The Reform Movement is separate to the Seventh Day Adventist church, but a quick read of their Wikipedia page shows that the two groups share the majority of their beliefs, including the idea that the end of the world can, and should, be hastened. If this doomsday group is driving Billy TK’s thinking, that would be news to me, and could explain how it was so easy for him to end up believing in political conspiracies about the UN and the New World Order.

 

So… I figured I’d see if a quick google search would give me confirmation of this connection. I typed “Billy TK Seventh Day Adventists” into google, and sure enough the first result was a link to an article on the Seventh Day Adventist Reformed Movement’s website from back in 2015. The article said:

 

“Right after the fellowship lunch in Auckland Church, the whole band of members and friends met at Shelly Beach to witness the baptism of Brother Billy Te Kahika Jr.”

 

Billy is quoted as saying:

 

“When I was 16 and with the introduction to my dad, I fell into the world of new age and mysticism, which verged on spiritualism… After starting a Christian walk, I encountered the Adventist message, which I adopted.  I was baptized at the age of 21 and soon after became a famous musician which tore me from my walk with Jesus.  I then had about 6 years without the Lord, and I experienced the pain that comes when you walk away from Him… I was baptised this past December as a member of the church. To do that I had to give up my music career which had been my life – but compared with what God has done for me this is a small price to pay on my part to be in God’s family.

 

I pray that with my recent election to help church missionary work that God will use me to bring other people home to His church in preparation for His Son’s soon return to take His children home to heaven. Amen.”

Huh. It turns out that somehow this connection had flown right over my head. Looking down my google search results, there are a couple of forum posts that appear to mention this connection, but it looks that, like me, the media may well have missed Billy’s ties to this particular controversial church. This might also explain why Billy walked out of a Stuff interview with Paula Penfold as soon as she asked about his faith. I wonder if he figured that it was less damaging to walk out of the interview than either lie or admit that for many years he’s been a member of a fatalistic cult, and that he believes God’s Son will “soon return” to whisk his faithful followers away to heaven and dispose of the rest of us.
 

Guerrilla Skeptics strike again

The amazing members of the GSoW (Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia) group have struck again. In recent years the group have done some amazing work creating new Wikipedia articles and rewriting existing ones on topics of importance to skepticism, including quite a few that are related to New Zealand – including pages for skeptic Siouxsie Wiles, psychic Jeanette Wilson and even our organisation, the NZ Skeptics. We’ve also had Susan Gerbic, head of the project, come to New Zealand twice in the last few years to talk to us at our conferences about both the GSoW project and her work using sting operations to bust psychics.

This time the GSoW team have rewritten the page for Helen Petousis-Harris (who spoke at an NZ Skeptics conference a few years ago about the history of vaccine denial), and appear to have done an amazing job! If any of our members have time to spare and would like to help out with the ongoing project to improve Wikipedia from a skeptical viewpoint, please get in contact with Susan at [email protected].
 

Colour Therapy

For those who followed Craig’s link last week to a colour therapy site, you may have thought that some of the claims on the site were pretty egregious – including such gems as “incurable means curable from within” and “synthetic fibres have a frequency that is detrimental to our health and well being”.

 

However, for some of us who have attended the regular Skeptical Activism meetings in Wellington, Colour Therapy Manukau is a familiar sight. Several of us have cut our teeth on their website, making Advertising Standards Authority complaints about lists of diseases that colour can therapy can supposedly cure, and pseudo-scientific claims about how coloured wool in a metal bowl can help you. These days, when you browse their website, instead of seeing those kinds of claims you read the following:

 

“To know about the types of conditions we may be able to assist with, please contact us direct.”

 

“if you wish to obtain further details, please check out our contact page on how to get in touch with us.”

 

“Should you wish to see the numerous testimonials that we receive regularly here at the clinic, please feel free to contact us and at your request we will either mail or email them to you.”

 

It’s a small win, but it’s great to see that we’ve been able to make something of a difference in this case – and in the case of several hundred other companies who have had to remove dangerous medical claims that we’ve complained about over the last 8 years.

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Skeptic News: Elections, Vaccines, Colour Therapy and more!


Skeptic News: Elections, Vaccines, Colour Therapy and more!


A weekly roundup of skeptical news

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

Welcome to the NZ Skeptics weekly newsletter. This week, you’ve got me, Craig Shearer, Chair of NZ Skeptics.

 

Election denialism

In recent weeks we’ve reported several times on election outcomes – and, of course the recent US election continues to dominate the news. Far from it being over with a clear victory for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, Trump continues to deny the outcome and fight against it in every way possible.

Judged from our privileged position here in NZ it all seems a bit comical at times. But there’s a very serious side to it. The strategy as it’s playing out is one familiar to observers of science denial – sowing the seeds of doubt. Claims of election fraud and the legal cases being run through the courts (and largely dismissed and laughed out of court) have a corrosive effect on trust in the process. 

What is being alleged is widespread voter fraud, though no reasonable explanation is being offered as to how this could have been accomplished, how it could be engineered so as to rig the election, and importantly whether there’s any actual evidence of this occurring. It certainly illustrates the importance of critical thinking, but unfortunately many people go with their gut feelings instead.

Continuing COVID

The world continues to be gripped by the COVID pandemic. Given that most of us are unable to travel internationally it’s difficult to experience first-hand exactly how the rest of the world is operating. Cases continue to rise at an alarming rate. My favourite site for watching the stats is the Worldometers site

I don’t want to continually bash the USA, but it does seem that those countries where large chunks of the population value their personal freedom over the safety of others are faring (and now fearing) the worst. As I write this the daily new case count in the US has exceeded 200K cases, with around 2K deaths.This really does illustrate the quote from Joseph Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

Vaccines on the horizon

This past week has seen the news of development of successful vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. The vaccines have a claimed efficacy of nearly 95%. This is good news, and a triumph for science and medical technology that they’ve been able to be developed so quickly. There are other companies that have vaccines in the pipeline so it’s likely that there will be several more vaccines available in the coming months and years.

But the availability of vaccines doesn’t necessarily mean an end to the pandemic. While it’s great news that the efficacy is so high – which will contribute to a successful “herd immunity” effect – at this stage the performance of the vaccines in “real world” populations is unknown. For example, the vaccines have been tested on mostly young people – it’s not known how well they will work on older (and typically more susceptible) population groups. Also unknown is how long immunity will last. Will we need to get an annual booster shot?

And they have to be distributed and delivered. The newly developed vaccines have some fairly stringent temperature requirements around transportation and storage, and of course, all this requires infrastructure and training to be set up to allow vaccines to be successfully deployed.

Feeding into this will also be the inevitable vaccine hesitancy that has become prevalent in recent years in some population groups. Herd Immunity is, of course, reliant on significant penetration of the vaccine into the population. Sean Carrol wrote a great article in Scientific American which draws parallels between various forms of scientific denialism – it’s well worth a read.

While the news of the vaccines is undoubtedly positive I think skepticism is warranted as to whether life is going to return to the pre-COVID normal anytime soon. The advent of the vaccines is just the first step along the path.

A woman of influence!

This week saw Dr Siouxsie Wiles take the supreme winner award at the Stuff-Westpac NZ 2020 Women of Influence Awards.

Siouxsie, along with her artistic partner Toby Morris, has done a fantastic job in communicating the science and best-practise advice around COVID during the pandemic. 

We congratulate Siouxsie for her well-deserved award. We’re very proud to claim Siouxsie as a skeptic – she’s MC’d and spoken at our conferences many times in the past. Well done Siouxsie.

Odd spot of the week

This week Richard Saunders, from the Australian Skeptics pinged me online with a video of relevance to NZ Skeptics. Back in the 1990s Australian journalist Mike Willesee did a piece on a New Zealander Don Brooker who ran a colour therapy clinic in Cambridge, Waikato. 

Brooker was claiming to be able to cure multiple diseases through the use of divining rods and swatches of coloured thread!

The video (available on Richard Saunder’s page) is a fascinating and worrying look into this non-evidence based treatment. 

Many Australians and New Zealanders were being taken in by Brooker. 

A quick Google search revealed that there’s still businesses in existence with direct roots to Booker, still practising the colour therapy. I give you Colour Therapy Manukau! http://www.colourtherapymanukau.co.nz/ How sad that such a business still exists, no doubt taking advantage of gullible (and potentially desperate) people.

And, there seems to be an umbrella site for all things related to this. Oh what a fascinating, if deluded world we live in.

What are you listening to?

My personal journey into skepticism began back in the early 90s before the internet was publicly available, but podcasts now form a significant chunk of the skeptical content that I consume. My particular favourites are The Skeptics Guide to the Universe (a great weekly roundup of science and skepticism), Oh No, Ross and Carrie (weird and often humorous investigations into fringe groups and claims of the paranormal), and Sawbones (fascinating medical history of dubious devices and cures, but firmly science-based). But there are many others, and tastes vary. 

Back in the day, there were some NZ-based skeptical podcasts. Unfortunately these have fallen by the wayside – undoubtedly due to the busyness of the hosts (disclosure: I was one of those hosts). The CUSP and Skepticism Today spring to mind, but there may be others.

As skeptics, we should be trying to spread critical thinking. One of the best ways is to share podcasts with friends and family as part of a gentle introduction (some might say indoctrination!) into thinking more skeptically. What can you share today?

Have a great week, and stay skeptical!

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Skeptic News: A challenge, a denial and a declaration of victory


Skeptic News: A challenge, a denial and a declaration of victory


NZ Skeptics Newsletter

A challenge, a denial and a declaration of victory

It was show weekend here in Canterbury. Another long weekend to squander in the garden and pottering about the house. I’ve also been thinking about why on the Xbox game Assassin’s Creed Valhalla my son chose to stand up for the seemingly uninformed and offended peasant, rather than the man of medicine (aka warlock) who was bemoaning the general distrust in knowledge. Perhaps it was the jaunty animal skull head-piece the warlock was wearing that made him look more like the bad guy, or perhaps it was just the promise of better loot…

Jess Macfarlane

The case of the missing VHS – FOUND!

Good news! We have found someone who has a copy of the video (VHS tape) taken of James Randi speaking at Canterbury University back in 1993. Next steps will be to check if it’s good to digitise, and if so, we’ll look to publish it to our YouTube channel. Keep posted.
 

The Homeopathy Challenge

In Homeopathy news, Edzard Ernst, retired academic physician and specialist in complementary and alternative medicine (and skeptic hero) has created a “challenge for all homeopaths of the world”.  In a similar way to the James Randi Educational Foundation’s one million dollar paranormal challenge, Ernst has come up with a scientific way for homeopaths to “prove” their worth. What entrants need to do is identify the contents of 6 homeopathic solutions that they have chosen, but that have been transferred into containers marked 1 – 6 by a notary and sent back to them.
 
How do they identify which is which? By doing a homeopathic process called a “proving”.

A “proving” is a test where a healthy person (e.g. someone without insomnia), would take that a remedy intended for someone with insomnia (for example one containing Coffea which is caffeine) and then note down their symptoms. Homeopathyeurope.org claims “These responses are temporary and vary from person to person, but the total information has a pattern unique to that substance and is used as the basis of treatment”.

The challenge also says the solutions should be potentised to least 12C, which means diluted to one part in a hundred, 12 times. Homeopaths claim the remedy is more powerful the more the ingredient it is put through the ‘succussion’ process, which is where the ingredient is diluted in alcohol or water, and then shaken to activate its ‘vital energy’.

So, we’ll be keeping an eye on this challenge to see if anyone bites. Share the challenge – we wouldn’t want any New Zealand homeopaths to miss out on the fun.

Car makers’ climate denial

Climate change denial is a big topic among skeptics. It is the NZ Skeptics Society view that the science is in, burning fossil fuels and releasing the carbon captured in those fuels into the atmosphere is causing the climate to change, it is a crisis, and we need to act. #StopBurningStuff

You probably already heard that Exxon knew about climate change back in the 70s and 80s, and chose to double down on the misinformation, but now, as an EV driver myself I was interested to learn the latest news to come out about climate change denial relating to big Auto, specifically Ford and GM. In the first part of an investigation by E&E News, we find out that the automakers were well aware that car emissions caused climate change 50 years ago. Their own scientists were telling top executives that emissions from the vehicles they were producing would lead to climate change.

Rather than do something at the time to mitigate the problem, or even do nothing and remain silent, they chose to donate money to think tanks promoting climate denial. They also joined the ‘Global Climate Coalition’ which was an organisation created to fight against attempts to reduce carbon emissions.
 

and the fake cancer cure

I’ve been binging on Netflix again and am looking forward to the next series of Ratched, a psychological thriller based on a character from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a book by Ken Kesey. Be warned, the fashions may be fabulous, but the skull crunching gore is pretty grim.

Skeptics may be interested to know, that in a sad turn of events, one character in the series learns she has cancer, and decides to try a new remedy based on mistletoe at a clinic in Mexico. A Christchurch woman with cancer was reported to have looked into receiving similar alternative care at a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, however the price tag seemed too high. Skeptics should know that it was Rudolph Steiner who came up with the idea for this supposed cancer cure made from mistletoe, based on the concept of like cures like. It was thought that because mistletoe grows on trees like a parasite, and eventually could kill the tree, that taking it as a remedy would cure cancer which grows on a human host in a similar way, like a parasite.

Edzard Ernst has done extensive research, looking at the rigor of multiple studies, finding most were not reliable, and came to the conclusion that there is no good evidence to support its use, and again, it’s a very expensive treatment aimed at vulnerable people based on false hope. Delaying effective treatment can cause real harm. Let’s hope, for the sake of cancer patients out there that the next series of Ratched exposes this money-making scam for what it is.

NZ Skeptics is hereby the most skeptical society

On 6th November this year, after the US president used the word ‘hereby’ to claim, without any evidence whatsoever, that he had won the state of Michigan in the US election, NZ Skeptics thought, to heck with empirical data, hereby is a magical word, how can we exploit its power?! The answer, a boldly worded tweet by @NZSkeptics: “I hereby declare the NZ Skeptics Society is the most skeptical society”.

The tweet was sent to a number of different skeptics societies around the world, to keep them in the loop about the new pecking order.

The Edinburgh Skeptics replied saying “New what? Never heard of you. It’s an obvious fake name. Zeal land? C’mon.”

To which we replied, in a reference to map-gate, “Ha ha ha ha ha. You may not find us on the map, we may not exist, but we still won.”

Skeptical Inquirer replied saying “We doubt it”, a tweet inexplicably liked by nearly a half-dozen random tweeters so far, and the wonderful Brian Dunning of Skeptoid podcast fame replied to say “Skeptics? So you’re the people think 9/11 was an inside job and global warming was a hoax?”.

We couldn’t let that go without comment so replied “Actually we’re just skeptical of marmite sandwiches. Thinking face emoji. Wow, that election there Brian. Kia kaha. I’ll just leave some snaps here of the day we supported a march in Christchurch for #ClimateAction That day was our 9/11, but with white supremacist terrorism instead. #March15

The subsequent tweets consisted of our @NZSkeptics and @BrianDunning bonding over a mutual appreciation of vegemite and cheese toasties.
 

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Skeptic News: Elections, ghosts and cranks


Skeptic News: Elections, ghosts and cranks


NZ Skeptics Newsletter

Elections, ghosts and cranks

Another newsletter, another election. This time the US appears to have, narrowly, come to its senses and chosen to vote out their current science-denying leader – and my guess is that most skeptics are breathing a sigh of relief. Those of us at Wellington Skeptics in the Pub on Friday certainly did a thorough job of dissecting the election, along with its many rules, regulations, polls, predictions and polemics.

I for one am feeling a modicum of schadenfreude having learned today that Rudy Giuliani’s team appear to have messed up when booking a venue for a press release to talk about Trump’s plans to mount a legal challenge to Biden’s win on Saturday. Instead of booking the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia, someone instead booked the car park at the back of the Four Seasons Total Landscaping company. Good on them for sticking with it, though, as it made my day to see Giuliani speaking in front of a garage door in the middle of an industrial estate.


 

Anyway, without any further ado here’s some of what’s been happening of skeptical interest in the world in the last week.

Mark Honeychurch.

WWG1WGA

I’m sure most skeptics will have heard of QAnon by now – the anonymously named Q who posts online about shadowy organisations, and talks about how president Trump is fighting dark forces in the US. QAnon tends to use lots of code names and obscure references, including the oft used acronym used as the title of this section – it means Where We Go 1, We Go All. Here are a couple of examples of QAnon messages:

@Snowden
Twitter rec 24D.
Bravo-2gKVT.
[24]RR

 

Why is Hussein traveling the globe?
$$$,$$$,$$$
Acct # xx-XXXxx-x-39670
Acct # XXXxx-XXXx-2391
Where did the MONEY come from?
How do you destroy the most POWERFUL country in the world?
Direct attack?
Covert OP by [CLAS-59#241-Q] to infiltrate at highest level to destroy from within?
Think GAME.
Who are the PLAYERS?
What are the REWARDS?
AMERICA FOR SALE.
PATRIOTS in FULL CONTROL.
We will make more public.
SA was strategic.
“We know” “Do as we say or face consequences”
These people are stupid!

 

Early on in the Q timeline, an IT security analyst performed an analysis of the codes Q uses, and found that they were consistent with someone just alternating tapping keys on the left and right sides of the keyboard, much as someone would do if they were just trying to type in random text (see the heatmap image below). QAnon’s ramblings remind me of the writing of Nostradamus – obscure and vague enough that readers are left to join the dots themselves, and make their own narrative out of the mess he writes.

 

However the influence of Q’s rabbit hole shouldn’t be underestimated – it’s even reached our fair shores, with a conspiracy involving the trafficking of children, a secret Antarctic base, adrenochrome and several yachts docked in the Viaduct in Auckland. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a firm believer in the QAnon conspiracy, won the nomination for Georgia’s 14th congressional district – so as of January there will be a QAnon believing conspiracy theorist in American politics (although Trump has at least flirted with the idea that QAnon is real, refusing to disavow the theory).

Weirdly, and thankfully, since election day in the US QAnon has gone quiet on the internet. We can only hope that this is the end of Q, although it’s early days yet and I suspect we’ll be hearing from them again. It would not surprise me to see Q, whoever they may be, try to foment unrest among Trump supporters who are unhappy with the election result.

Can a jade amulet protect against COVID?

The above title is my paraphrasing of a recent paper published in an Elsevier-owned scientific journal, Science of The Total Environment. The paper’s actual title is:

Can Traditional Chinese Medicine provide insights into controlling the COVID-19 pandemic: Serpentinization-induced lithospheric long-wavelength magnetic anomalies in Proterozoic bedrocks in a weakened geomagnetic field mediate the aberrant transformation of biogenic molecules in COVID-19 via magnetic catalysis

If I were being trite, I’d simply counter this by invoking Betteridge’s law of headlines – “any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no”. Unsurprisingly this paper is total nonsense, and it’s disappointing to see that it’s been both peer reviewed and published. More details of this paper can be read at Retraction Watch – and the title of that website gives you a hint as to what’s happened to the paper. It’s been withdrawn, at least temporarily, and the paper’s title now has a prefix prepended to it – TEMPORARY REMOVAL.

If you take 10 minutes to read both the Retraction Watch article and some good detective work that has been going on in the article’s comments, it becomes clear that this is not a one-off slip up for the paper’s author – it appears that he has a history of writing pseudoscientific papers, such as:

Stonehenge as a public health intervention device for preventing lithospheric magnetic field-induced emerging diseases and megadeath during periods of severely weaken geomagnetic field

A novel hypothesis for the Havana and Dominican Republic syndromes in which severe geoelectromagnetic perturbations in the Caribbean plate induces aberrant health in North Americans

In the author’s defence, he replied to Retraction Watch’s concerns, saying:

I kindly suggest you read the article and examine the evidence provided. I also suggest you read the history of science and how zealots have consistently attempted to block and ridicule novel ideas that challenge the predominant paradigm from individuals that are deem not intelligent enough. I not surprised that this article has elicited angry responses. Clearly the idea that a black scientist can provide a paradigm shifting idea offends a lot of individuals. I’ll be very candid with you; my skin color has no bearing on my intelligence.

I’m pretty sure that Ivan at Retraction Watch didn’t know that Moses was black when he asked for confirmation that Moses was the author of the paper, and to me the argument of zealots blocking and ridiculing novel ideas sounds like the Galileo Gambit. It may well be the case that in the past some have mocked people who have had paradigm shifting ideas that eventually turn out to be correct, but that does not mean that everyone with a crazy idea is right. For every Galileo there are a thousand or more people like Deepak Chopra, Ken Ring, Andrea Rossi, Daryl Bem, Rupert Sheldrake, Christopher Monckton, and so on – the list goes on!

Haunted NZ

Last week Craig promised that we would give you a link to a video Haunted NZ were producing about their recent investigation at a house in Pukekohe. We have now been sent a copy of the video that you can watch on YouTube. Craig also gave a good account to the NZ Herald of why the video, although slickly put together, contains no substantive evidence backing up Haunted NZ’s claims that the house was ever haunted. Good work Craig!

NZ’s Luminate Festival is moving away from reality

The Luminate festival, held each year outside of Nelson, has always been a little out of touch with science. But, as David Farrier shows, things appear to be getting worse. The festival has been flirting with conspiracy theories and woo peddlers, in a list they published on the Luminate website called the “13 Crystal Seeds of Positive Change”. The list included the names of people who have inspired the festival’s organisers. You get one point for each of the following names you recognise:

  • Pete Evans – celebrity chef, peddler of bad food ideas
  • David Icke – lizard man
  • Rashid Buttar – friend of Billy TK, US osteopath and vaccine denier
  • Bruce Lipton – DNA denier
  • Tom Cowan – 5G conspiracy theorist
  • Dave Asprey – supplement seller
  • Gerald Pollack – structure of water scientist, winner of Emoto prize
  • Zach Bush – gut supplement seller

Each of those people is dangerous in their own ways, mostly through promoting conspiracies or recommending/selling unproven medical therapies. The organisers of the Luminate festival appear to have taken the list down for now, presumably in response to backlash from the article, and have replaced it with a blog post defending their choice of mentors. They say, in part:

“Our theme for Lunasa is bio-optimise and thrive- enhancing our internal biology, our external environment and power of the mind to achieve optimal health.

The people that we listed under the themes of the 13 Crystal Seeds are a range of doctors, scientists, researchers and others that we hear speak directly on these topics.”

I can assure the organisers that the “power of the mind” will not allow them to achieve optimal health, and that most, if not all, of the people they have listed come under the category of “others” and are not actual, trustworthy doctors, scientists or researchers.

David Farrier in his article wonders whether, much like Billy TK, one or both of the organisers of the festival went down the online conspiracy theory rabbit hole over our lockdown period, when they were stuck at home and at a loose end. Although this appears to be guesswork, it at least seems plausible.

Not everyone loved Randi

If the US election hasn’t caused you enough stress, you could read a recent “take down” of James Randi titled The man who destroyed skepticism, published soon after his death on the popular Boing Boing blog, that is sure to make your blood boil. I for one was very surprised and disappointed to see the Boing Boing website, which normally has a reputation for good quality reporting, hosting this hit piece written by Mitch Horowitz. Mitch is a believer in the spiritual realm, and his own website describes him as “a historian of alternative spirituality and one of today’s most literate voices of esoterica, mysticism, and the occult”. The article includes such gems as:

“In the end, the feted researcher was no skeptic. He was to skepticism what Senator Joseph McCarthy was to anticommunism — a showman, a bully, and, ultimately, the very thing he claimed to fight against: a fraud.”

“Randi’s legacy should serve as a cautionary tale and a call to restore sound practices when discussing or writing about contentious topics in science or any field”

The thrust of Horowitz’s argument seems to be that Randi wasn’t polite enough when debunking fraudsters, and that sometimes he preferred using witty soundbites when talking with the media rather than using more nuanced, and technically correct, wording.

From my perspective, it looks like Randi treated these people, who were attempting to con others out of their money and trick them into believing in nonsense, with all the respect they deserved – not much. Anyone trying to make a claim that purports to invalidate swathes of known science is lucky that people like Randi even give them the time to critique their outlandish claims. It’s certainly often the case that scientists don’t have the time or patience to carry out the kinds of investigations that Randi was famous for.

Thankfully the comments from regular Boing Boing readers attached to the article restored my faith in humanity. The vast majority of commenters took exception to the extremely biased nature of the article, and just how much it misrepresented James Randi’s legacy.
 

The Missing Files: Randi caught on tape

The NZ Skeptics, many years ago, used to run a VHS lending library of tapes with topics of skeptical interest on them. Unfortunately, when someone checked the box of dusty old tapes the other day, it was found that the tape of James Randi’s talk given in Christchurch in the ‘90s was not among them. This is a bit of a long shot, but if anyone still has that tape (or their own copy of the talk on video) we’d love to get our hands on it so that we can digitise it and post it to YouTube.

NZ Skeptics AGM

A reminder that our AGM will be held online at the beginning of next month, on the 6th of December, at 7pm.
To connect to our meeting, if you are a member of the Society, please use the following link:

https://meet.google.com/egm-afct-ysi

If you’re not currently a member, please join our Society (at https://skeptics.nz/join) – and then join us at our AGM.

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