Skeptic News: It’s a Wrap


96

Skeptic News: It’s a Wrap

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

2021 Conference: It’s a Wrap


This weekend was our joint Australian and New Zealand conference, Skepticon 2021. Thank you so much to those of you who joined us, it was an amazing weekend with fascinating talks and I hope you enjoyed it all as much as I did.

Craig will give you his thoughts on our conference next weekend, but for me personally it was great to be able to work closely with the Australian Skeptics and bring together such a diverse group of professionals to speak on topics they were passionate about.

Day one started with Dr Mahmood Hikmet talking about self-driving cars and ethics. In relation to the trolley problem, and many similar quandaries that a self-driving vehicle might find itself in, Mahmood pointed out that often the safest option available is simply to apply the brakes! However, when it comes to more real-world options, things get more complicated.

Later in the morning Dr Siouxsie Wiles talked about how her name became attached to a COVID conspiracy about Bill Gates and a company she started to make science communication videos called Lucy Ferrin. It reminded me of another conspiracy about her I heard this year, on the Counterspin conspiracy show. Damien De Ment claimed that Siouxsie’s work in bioluminescence was going to be used in the COVID vaccine so that we would not need a vaccine passport – instead, the authorities would just be able to shine a special light on us, and if we glowed they would know we had been vaccinated.

At the end of the first day, Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz gave a great talk about Ivermectin – detailing why people believed it was useful for treating COVID, how the evidence quickly came to show that it was not efficacious, and how some anonymously run websites like IVM Meta continued to support Ivermectin use even after it became obvious it was a dud.

On day two Dr Marc Wilson walked us through some of the research on what leads certain types of people to reject scientific evidence.  I particularly liked an image he shared which illustrates the correlations between different beliefs.

Sherrie D’Souza told us about some of the dangers of cults, and detailed her journey leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She played a particularly odious video from the JWs which tells kids why they won’t be allowed to celebrate their birthday.

Our conference came to a close with a fantastic talk from Judy Melinek and her husband TJ Mitchell about forensic pathology in the US and New Zealand. Their talk was informative and entertaining, and it was obvious from their talk that Judy is a consummate professional with real passion for her career, and that her husband has a keen interest in her work. They’ve even collaborated to write a biography, along with two fictional crime novels that don’t mangle the science.

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Our Annual Awards

Craig Shearer announced the winners of our annual awards at the beginning of the second day of our conference, and it was accompanied by the following press release:

 

Every year the New Zealand Skeptics presents its awards to people and organisations who have impressed us or dismayed us, and this year it’s been hard to pick our winners because there have been so many choices!

The Bent Spoon Award is given to the organisation or individual which has shown the most egregious gullibility or lack of critical thinking in public coverage of, or commentary on, a science-related issue. In the age of the COVID pandemic, there have been many candidates, but one individual stands out:

Dr Simon Thornley, this year’s winner, is a Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. Dr Thornley stands out as an academic who has opposed NZ’s approach to dealing with COVID. He was one of the founders of the COVID PlanB group which opposed lockdowns, and signed onto the Great Barrington Declaration.

Dr Thornley has associated himself with fringe elements in NZ’s anti-government and anti-vaccine movements (such as Voices for Freedom) and has appeared as an expert witness for lawyer Sue Grey’s cases challenging the government’s rollout of the COVID vaccine. His comments have included personal attacks and threats of legal action against other NZ scientists, and has claimed they’re corrupt and will be convicted of crimes against humanity.

Most recently, Dr Thornley promoted the use of Ivermectin as a treatment for COVID, and co-authored a paper which tried to link mRNA vaccines with miscarriages and other pregnancy complications, strongly recommending against vaccination for pregnant persons. Happily, this paper has now been retracted.

As an academic, we would expect he would know better. May he suffer the shame of being awarded the Bent Spoon! 

The New Zealand Skeptics recognises excellence in the media or in other high-profile people with our Bravo Awards. The pandemic has provided a fertile breeding ground for misinformation and disinformation. But many journalists and academics have stepped up and written pieces which explain the science behind COVID, the response to it, and also calling out those promoting misinformation and pseudoscience. The NZ Skeptics have chosen to award a record number of Bravos this year.

Siouxsie Wiles from University of Auckland, for making national and international appearances on the science behind COVID.

Toby Morris, cartoonist at The Spinoff, for creating animated explainers with Siouxie Wiles – with some great examples of effective science communication. These tools have been shared extensively, including being used by the World Health Organisation.

Charlie Mitchell, from Stuff, for a variety of investigative articles on pseudoscience promoters.

David Farrier, who runs the popular Webworm blog, for his commentary on people and groups promoting conspiracy theories; Billy TK, Sue Grey, Peter Mortlock of City Impact Church, the Tamakis from Destiny Church, and more.

Michael Baker, from the University of Otago Department of Public Health, for his science communication around COVID.

Hilary Barry, of TVNZ’s Seven Sharp, for her promotion of vaccines and for being a thorn in the side of anti-vaxxers.

Keith Lynch, of Stuff, for some great articles around COVID, explaining complex science in an easy to digest manner.

Helen Petousis-Harris, of the University of Auckland, for her great written responses to COVID vaccine myths.

Alison Campbell, blogger and retired lecturer from the University of Waikato, for her efforts helping journalists respond to COVID misinformation, her blogging and her constant presence on social media, calling out and correcting pseudoscience in the comment threads.

Finally, the Skeptic of the Year award is given to the skeptic who has had the most impact in skepticism within New Zealand. The award comes with a year’s free membership to the NZ Skeptics, and $500 of prize money.

This year the award is being given to a group rather than an individual – FACT Aotearoa.

The FACT group describes themselves as a grass-roots information organisation, working as a resource base for media, health professionals, activists and educators. They’ve been quick to jump on misinformation being promoted online and in public.  A few of their prominent wins include contacting venues to shut down in-person anti-vaxxer events, and initiating a complaint to NZ’s Law Society about anti-vax lawyer Sue Grey.

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Amy Benjamin “Resigns” from AUT

Hot off the press, International Law lecturer Amy Benjamin has resigned from Auckland University of Technology this week. I wrote about Amy back in August, at the beginning of our second national lockdown, when she started up her YouTube channel called “American Spirit” where she posted videos about COVID and lockdowns. Her opinions seemed somewhat fringe, and she talked about how the threat to people’s mental health in lockdown was worse than that of COVID, that Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine could treat COVID, and that the government had criminalised peaceful protest.

In the weeks after I wrote about her, I continued to watch her videos, along with her efforts to avoid the YouTube filters. She used letters, calling COVID “C”, the vaccine “V” and lockdowns “L” – but kept slipping up and forgetting to use her own secret code. YouTube ended up taking down her videos as quickly as she could post them, presumably due to people making complaints about their misleading content – in fact, I’m pretty sure at one point the videos were disappearing more quickly than they were being posted, and the overall number of videos she had on the site was decreasing despite the fact she was frequently posting new ones.

She tried, as many people with dangerous views do, moving to other platforms where protections are absent – Odysee, Rumble, Telegram. But her channel on YouTube had only just been started, with very few subscribers, and I can’t imagine many of them followed her to a much more obscure video hosting platform.

From what the media has been saying on the back of her resignation, Amy Benjamin continued to slide down the rabbit hole, claiming on Vinny Eastwood’s show recently that COVID is a hoax and that the horrific Christchurch attack was a “false flag” operation. The Spinoff said that Amy resigned from AUT soon after they contacted the University about her claims. Although she may have technically “resigned”, it sounds like she may not have had much choice in the matter; I wonder whether resigning was one of two options the university gave Amy. Whatever the cause, it’s nice to think that someone with such extreme, conspiratorial views will no longer be teaching the next generation of lawyers.

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Were Satanists involved in the Travis Scott tragedy?

Astroworld is an annual music festival run by rapper Travis Scott in Texas. There was a tragedy at this year’s festival, a few weeks ago, when a crowd surge caused a crush and resulted in the deaths of 10 people – the latest being a 9 year old boy who died a few days ago from his injuries.

As we’ve seen with recent tragedies, especially in the US, it doesn’t take long for conspiracy rumours to start spreading. Often claims are made that horrific events were staged in order to influence the public, using “crisis actors” rather than real victims. Or sometimes it’s that the real perpetrator is a shady government group, and that those accused have been framed.

However, in this instance, the rumour that has already started making the rounds on Twitter, TikTok and other social media sites isn’t that the tragedy was faked, or a covert op – it’s that the event was a Satanic ritual, and that the deaths were ritual blood sacrifices. In fact even celebrities have been in on the act, with KISS guitarist Ace Frehley sharing this conspiracy on Facebook.

And a controversial pastor got in on the act as well. Pastor Greg Locke has a history of spreading bad COVID advice in the US, telling people that the pandemic is fake, the vaccine is a scam and that he would kick parishioners out of his church if they wore a mask. Here’s Greg describing a “prophetic dream” he apparently had last month:



And he’s now been spreading the idea that Satanism is behind Travis Scott’s music, his stage show and the deaths. Supposedly there are hints in Travis’ music that he is a Satanist, and the stage Travis performed on is meant to have had many hints, including a portal to hell and inverted crosses. Although I couldn’t find audio of Greg’s sermon, I was able to find video from a popular Christian YouTuber called Tina Golik who usually makes arts and crafts videos:



Yesterday a Catholic priest got in on the act, telling Fox News that the event was demonic.

Obviously this is nonsense, but it concerns me just how quickly these silly rumours can spread in the internet age. One person’s video posted online can give rise to more and more videos, with nobody bothering to check the validity of the original claims. It’s a house of cards, where the entire rumour is built on a couple of anonymous social media posts.

This whole thing also has a real feeling of the 1980s Satanic Panic witch hunts – a dark stain on the US where innocent parents and teachers were locked up for committing both farcical and gruesome child abuse crimes that they did not commit.

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Jacinda Ardern is not selling cryptocurrency

For those who use Facebook – you may have seen a video advert recently using Jacinda Ardern as a way to promote a cryptocurrency. Obviously this is fake – Jacinda does not want you to “invest” your money in any crypto currency, and it’s very likely that there’s not even a real crypto currency or crypto company – just a website that will get you to transfer your hard earned money to scammers. Even if there was a real cryptocurrency involved, you would likely lose most or all of the money you risked. I saw people talking about this scam on Facebook, but I have enough layers of ad blocking at home that it proved too hard to get Facebook to show me any adverts at all, so I don’t have a copy of the video.

It’s not even the first time Jacinda’s been used in this way. Back in 2018 Facebook carried adverts saying that Jacinda had decided to invest half of the country’s reserves in a Bitcoin company. The advert’s link took unsuspecting users to a fake CNN website that had a made up news article about the Treasury buying a bitcoin startup, presumably with the intent of getting people to “invest” in buying shares in the company. Again, any transferred money would likely never be seen again.

And in 2020, the same thing happened again but with a fake One News article. This one claimed that Jacinda told Jesse Mulligan on The Project:

“It’s the single biggest opportunity I’ve seen in my entire lifetime to build a small fortune fast. I urge everyone to check this out before the banks shut it down.”

And this doesn’t just happen with Jacinda. Facebook ads use the names of celebrities who are known for taking risks that pay off, making bold but sensible decisions, or just being outspoken and having a lot of money, such as Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Kanye West, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. This scam went even further last year when many celebrities had their Twitter accounts hacked, and messages were sent out from their accounts telling people to send a few hundred dollars in Bitcoin to an account and they would receive more money in return. Of course, everyone who did this (totalling a few million dollars) never saw their money again.

Here’s one scam video capitalising on Elon Musk’s recent investment in Dogecoin:



Note the computer generated voice and a promise of a reward of thousands of crypto coins. If this was Bitcoin, that would be worth millions, but the Shiba Inu coin is currently trading at $0.00005, or point zero zero five US cents per coin. (That being said, its current price is up 10 million percent from last year!)

In the case of Elon Musk the water is muddied, because he really has dabbled in cryptocurrencies in the past, and each time he’s tweeted about his investments the worth of the currency – both Bitcoin and Dogecoin – has shot up. So now people scour his tweets, looking for clues as to which cryptocurrency he might be investing in next.

One consistent aspect of these scams is the bad spelling and grammar that they use. It makes sense that scammers in the kinds of overseas countries that are well known for these kinds of scams, such as Nigeria, Russia, India and China, might not have very good English.

However there’s another potential reason for this bad grammar that’s been floating around the internet recently – that the typos are deliberate. There’s an idea that scammers are only looking for responses to their phishing from those that are the most gullible. If they were able to trick a lot of people into engaging with a scam, but ended up with many of them backing out before transferring money, it would end up wasting a lot of the scammer’s time. So supposedly bad spelling would scare away the more intelligent potential victims, only leaving those ripe for the picking to respond.

I’m not sure if I really believe this hypothesis, as I’ve seen no evidence that this is the case. There’s an assumption here that those who fail to notice bad spelling/grammar are more likely to fall for a scam. I think there’s an unsaid third trait here – stupidity. The hypothesis seems to hang on the ideas that people who can’t write well are stupid, and those who fall for scams are stupid, and that this makes the two groups synonymous.

Although there’s likely some crossover between IQ and writing ability, it’s definitely not a strong correlation. I’m a bit of a grammar nazi, and I see some very clever people writing some pretty bad English at times! And I think the correlation between IQ and likelihood of being scammed is likely to be even weaker. As a good example, it seems from some of the profiles I’ve read of people who have been scammed by Nigerian 419 scammers that this classic scam (involving the promise of a windfall of millions of dollars from a prince, if only you can help out with a couple of cash payments to help clear the money) has fooled a cross section of the community – from those unemployed and desperate for cash through to tenured professors.

So, whether you receive an email promising millions of dollars or see a video on social media talking about the next big thing in crypto, the rule of thumb is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.


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: Conference, Vax exemptions, and Well Beings


96

Skeptic News: Conference, Vax exemptions, and Well Beings

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

 

We’re very close to our annual conference which we’re running in conjunction with the Australian Skeptics. I encourage you to check it out – and we’d love to have you there.

This past week’s seen more drama around COVID and vaccinations, and worryingly, increased cases and spread outside of Auckland. 

Read on below…

Craig Shearer

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What are you doing on 20th and 21st of November…

…or up to 3 months after?

Our fantastic online conference – Skepticon 2021 – in conjunction with the Australian Skeptics is fast approaching. 

We’re online on 20th and 21st of November, but if you buy a ticket you don’t have to watch it live – you’ll be able to watch the talks at your leisure for up to 3 months afterwards.

We’ve got a fantastic bunch of speakers from both sides of the Tasman, as well as a few joining us from other parts of the world – speakers such as Richard Wiseman and Siouxsie Wiles, Susan Gerbic and Richard Saunders.

Full details are at the conference website and you can read the full program of talks. You can buy your ticket here:

https://www.skepticon.org.au/product/2021-tickets/

Come join us for a fun and informative weekend!


So, we’re pretty happy with this. While some will view the numbers with some distaste, it’s good to get our message out to a wider audience.

My favourite response to our tweet was this:

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Vax exemptions scam

In my last newsletter from two weeks ago, I wrote about the vaccine exemptions that anti-vaxxers wanted to use. They intended to use the wording of section 7A of the COVID response act to exempt themselves from the requirements to be vaccinated for work in professions where the vaccination has been mandated – teaching, healthcare, etc. 

The wording of the section allowed for “suitably qualified health professionals” to issue exemptions to vaccination. 

Last week, the infamous bunch at Voices for Freedom set up an event in Palmerston North at Newbury Hall where people could turn up and, for $10 (or $20 for a family), be issued with a vaccine exemption certificate. The event was eventually cancelled and people left empty-handed. 

Director General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, last week commented about the vaccine exemptions being handed out:

“If someone is offering to sell you an exemption or otherwise suggesting that you could pay a fee for the service of getting an exemption, they are trying to rip you off.”

The government has since removed section 7A from the legislation and tightened things up around exemptions, requiring that these will need to be approved by the Ministry of Health.

This has put Voices for Freedom into a bit of a flurry, urgently setting up a Saturday night “CRITICAL WEBINAR 8pm for all affected by “no jab, no job” + exemptions”

Sue Grey was in court a couple of weeks ago, as I previously reported, representing aviation security workers from Christchurch who had lost their jobs after refusing to get the COVID vaccine. 

Well Sue Grey is now the subject of a format complaint to the law society. There have been multiple informal complaints in the past – I’ve written one myself – but this one is being taken seriously. It was organised by FACT Aotearoa and involved doctors and other lawyers.

You can read the text of the letter to the Law Society here: (PDF link)

Sue had until 5th November (this past Friday) to respond. It will be interesting to see what transpires, but the fact that other lawyers were involved should make the case fairly strongly.

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Protest – TFRC and the Tamakis

This coming week has the threat of action against the government with yet another protest organised by Destiny Church and its leaders Brian (variously adorned with the title of Bishop, or Apostle) and Hannah Tamaki. 

As you’re no doubt aware, Brian has organised a couple of protests in Auckland during lockdown, which earned him two charges from police, and some time in jail, for breaching his previous bail conditions. (Amusingly, Hannah complained Brian was “treated like a prisoner”, which he was!)

Brain is currently bailed, under strict conditions that he comply with COVID-19 level requirements and not attend or organise protests, and not access the internet for the purpose of organising or inciting non-compliance. It would seem that those conditions aren’t being strictly enforced.

Destiny Church has an offshoot – The Freedoms and  Rights Coalition. It’s not clear who the coalition is between though. They have a website which, incidentally, has some awful letter spacing! Quite offensive to the eyes. Anyway, the domain was registered by Jenny Marshall who is Director of Operations at Destiny Church.

The latest action is a protest at Parliament in Wellington on Tuesday 9th November. “It is 9/11 for Adern & the Labour Government” – obviously alluding to September 11 attacks, which is kind of shocking really, and sounds a lot like a threat of domestic terrorism. (David Farrier has a good write up on this with some quite shocking developments.)

They’ve issued demands which include revoking all workplace vaccination mandates, returning to level 1, and removing the Auckland border.

If the demands aren’t actioned they’re threatening a “gridlock” involving cars, trucks and tractors blocking roads until their demands are met. 

Laughingly, they’ve suggested

“We will ask Apostle Brian Tamaki and the TFRC [The Freedoms and Rights Coalition] executive team to head up any potential negotiations with the NZ Police and the government”.

Destiny Church has a reputation of being very cash hungry. Obviously, lockdowns and having to run services virtually are affecting their cashflow, which could be why he’s referred to as EFTpostle Tamaki.

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Bruising from COVID vaccines?

It continues to amaze me the lengths science deniers and anti-vaxxers will go to to try to convince people of vaccine harm. This week, Daniel published some pictures from an anti-vax group on our Facebook page, purporting to show extreme bruising after the COVID vaccine. You can take a look at Daniel’s post here but here’s a taste of the claimed bruising


The screenshots in the post make fascinating if alarming reading. There are people who claim they can smell vaccinated people (well, yes they can but do they smell any different from unvaccinated people? I’d be intrigued to see this demonstrated in a double-blinded experiment!)

These people are clearly detached from reality, and possibly the group that these posts and pictures were from is encouraging some sort of mass delusion. I’m no psychiatrist but I have a feeling it’s going to end badly when some of the most extreme people are backed into having to get vaccinated or likely deal with the consequences of COVID once they’re exposed to it, as we’ll likely all be at some point in the future.

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Dominic Bowden on WellBeings

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen articles about Dominic Bowden on a new podcast about “wellbeing” called WellBeings. Dominic Bowden is a bit of a celebrity – having appeared on The Bachelor NZ amongst other shows.

The podcast purports to be science-based on how to live an extraordinary life. While the podcast mentions science quite often, from my initial listen to it, it appears to want to use the mantle of science for credibility, but doesn’t really follow through.

This week, the podcast is embracing Wim Hof, who promotes the idea of extreme cold and breathing techniques as a means of improving one’s health. The podcast is being promoted by Stuff, who have partnered with Bowden. The write-up of this week’s episode talks about sceptics: 

His message to the sceptics? “Be very critical. That polishes the diamond of the truth. Be critical, but have your two feet on the ground, because I’m doing my science.

“If you are still a sceptic, just try it once, and if it doesn’t work, never do it again. But you will see if you do it once… you are hooked.”

Um, no, that’s not how to tell if something works. 

Having listened to the episode, there’s some strong claims in there which we should be very sceptical of! (for example, that his method cured a woman of her endometriosis and allowed her to become pregnant.) Dominic Bowden himself seems to be a true believer, revealing that he’s been doing the Wim Hof method of breathing for the last five years. (Actually, in the first episode he made mention of breathing too, so it appears that’s his “thing”.)

Harriet Hall wrote about Wim Hof’s claims in a Science-based Medicine article.

Oh No, Ross and Carrie did a series of episodes that experiences the Wim Hof method. It’s very good.

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Stuart Landsborough feedback

Last week Mark published an item from Stuart Landsborough, from Wanaka’s Puzzling World about his recent epiphany about how we can deal with climate change. I found Stuart’s item contained some great points, and it resonated with me. I’m worried about whether we’ll be able to prevent catastrophic climate change. 

We’ve had a few responses to Stuart’s item:

Jeff Bryant wrote:

“I like Stuart’s lateral thinking.

 

Unfortunately, the spread of wilding conifers creates an ever-increasing threat of fire hazard with climate change.  Just ask the residents of Ohau village who lost their homes a few years back.”

 

Lance Kennedy wrote:

“Stuart talks about fighting global warming by permitting wilding pines to flourish.  I would like to point out the big flaw in that argument.

 

Pines are flammable.   When we get a very hot and dry summer (guess what global warming promises!) they become very, very flammable.  It is kind of obvious what will happen if NZ ends up with vast areas of these pines.

 

We have a wonderful native rain forest.   Surprisingly, most of our rain forest trees are highly resistant to forest fire.  The only very flammable native trees are manuka and kanuka.  NZ native trees generate a forest that is long lasting.  

 

I come from a tree loving family.  My father was the founder of the Tauranga Tree Society, and he planted tens of thousands of trees in his time, and established the McLarens Falls Park.  He has an arboretum inside that park named after him.  I have been strongly influenced by his example.   Where my father has planted tens of thousands of trees, my feeble effort amounts only to thousands.

 

My tree thing, though, is natives.   In my last home in Tutukaka, I planted out four acres of native rain forest, which is now growing well and absorbing carbon.   According to the New Scientist magazine, every acre planted, while the trees are growing, will absorb the carbon emissions generated by the average western adult.  So the four acres I planted there should be taking care of the carbon emissions of my wife and myself, and two other adults.

 

My recent project at my new home is just one acre.   The first planting is now complete, and those small native trees are growing.  Not too many manuka though!  Next winter, I will be planting more trees to replace the ones that died (inevitable but sad).   Given a few years, a new native rain forest will spring up.

 

Carbon sequestration, of course, is strong only during the years that those trees are growing.  It takes ten to twenty years before growth of our slow growing natives reach the point where they make a major dent in carbon dioxide.   But global warming  is a long term problem.  We will be fighting it long after I am resting in my grave.  But by 2050 the forests I plant will be doing sterling service.

 

It is also worth bearing in mind the added benefits.  Native forest brings and supports the native bird population.  It reduces flooding.  It increases precipitation (vitally important in the face of climate change driven droughts). It provides a joy to those of us who love the outdoors.

 

Pines may grow quickly.   But they burn even more quickly.  They are ugly.  They are poor supporters of our native birds and animals.  Any benefit from permitting wilding pines to flourish is short term and short sighted.   Let’s plant the native forests that will still be here after the passage of centuries.”

 

Mark and I love getting items for the newsletter. If you’ve got something to contribute, we’d love to hear from you. (Email us [email protected])

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Book Review

Reviewed by Jonathon Harper

 

Covid-19 The Pandemic That Should Never Have Happened – by Debra MacKenzie 2020 (available on Amazon)
 

MacKenzie is a journalist who has covered infectious diseases for New Scientist for several decades. She certainly canvases expert opinion very thoroughly.

This book gives a very good recent history of coronaviruses and influenzas, and our efforts to control outbreaks. I learnt a few new facts – that is I was convinced by Mackenzie that these things are either facts (for all practical purposes true) or highly likely to be true given what the consensus of experts are telling us as reported by MacKenzie:

  • China already had an early warning system when covid-19 broke out in Wuhan. The local officials failed to trigger the alarm when faced with clear evidence that human to human transmission was occurring.  
  • Big Pharma cannot afford the huge costs involved in producing vaccines and treatments for viruses until it is clear we need millions of doses. By then, it may be too late to prevent a pandemic. So she is clear that governments must invest ahead of time. Trump had cut off this kind of funding in the USA before the outbreak.
  • Covid-19 probably came from fruit bats, possibly through as traditional Chinese Medicine that uses bat droppings for an eye product (I refer to unproven “treatments” as products). Or, as a result of our encroachment into wild environments where bats used to live further away from humans.
  • NIPAH is another bat borne virus is a likely candidate for  the next pandemic, which I’m sorry to say may not be all that far into the future according to Mackenzie. NIPAH has a higher mortality rate than the Covid-19 coronavirus (NIPAH is a Henipavirus). Should this virus acquire particular mutations, which have already been identified, it could become very contagious.

So although the book was likely cobbled together quickly in order to stay current; and it has a little repetition in places, I think it is a good source of background information to help understand the current pandemic.


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: Skeptics in Space!


96

Skeptic News: Skeptics in Space!

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Skeptics in Space!


On Friday evening we had a national online Skeptics in the Pub meeting (Skeptics in Cyberspace), which going forward will be happening every four weeks. If you’re interested in joining us, check your local Skeptics in the Pub’s MeetUp group, or the Wellington group if you don’t live somewhere with an active Skeptics in the Pub group. Although we usually talk about a lot of skeptical topics, because of our shared interest in science and skepticism we often end up recommending TV shows and movies to each other as well. We’re not 100% agreed on what’s good and what’s not, but there’s definitely a lot of cross-over. Documentaries and science fiction are both frequently recommended.

My suggestion for last Friday was the new TV series Foundation (sadly on Apple TV+ – yet another paid streaming service). The show is based on the Isaac Asimov books, which I read many moons ago, back when I was a teenager. I’m really enjoying the show, and the way that it venerates mathematics and science in a way that I think will resonate with most skeptics – even if we know that in the real world nothing is quite as clear cut and simple as it’s often made to look in fiction.

Back to skepticism. This week we have a bumper crop of news items of interest to skeptics. I’ve been lucky enough to have returned to my segment on Graeme Hill’s evening show on MagicTalk, now that he’s back from his stint covering Drive Time. So I’ve already had a chance to air some of these stories – on skeptical staples such as vaccines, QAnon and psychics, and the more weird and wonderful, like the trillion dollar US coin.

But first, before we hear more from me, we have a response from member Lance Kennedy to my intro from a couple of weeks ago, where I wrote about a classification system for skeptics I often find useful. And then we have some thoughts from committee member Jonathon Harper on Coromandel mayor Sandra Goudie’s decision to not be vaccinated.

Mark Honeychurch


What kind of Skeptic?

Lance Kennedy

There are many kinds, and some are, frankly, full of bulldust! So what am I, and what are the members of the NZ Skeptics?

My answer to that, is that we are science based skeptics. That is, we do not accept claims that lack credible evidence. So what is credible evidence? My personal standard is that which is published in reputable, and peer reviewed research journals. So when The Lancet published a metastudy of homeopathy, which showed that (viewing 110 good double blind clinical trials) homeopathy was no better than placebo, that is sufficient to gain my support. 

There are people who claim to be skeptics, who are simply deniers. We all know of global warming deniers, and more recently, those who deny that covid 19 is a serious pandemic. Members of the NZ Skeptics will not be this kind of skeptic.

Mark’s last newsletter suggested two ways of forming opinions. To inform yourself by reading up on the data, or to accept the views of those who are experts in their fields. My personal view is that both are required. Any person who wants to be a well informed skeptic needs to read, read, read, and read some more. Choose carefully what you read. I am sure we are all aware of the numerous crackpot websites out there, purveying total intellectual garbage. I subscribe to New Scientist, Scientific American, and to ScienceDaily. Those are somewhat popularised, but the writers tend to be double degreed people, with an advanced degree in science, and qualifications in journalism. They study the research results that come from more esoteric journals, and rewrite them in a more accessible form.

Now about experts. There is a widespread belief that appeal to authority is a fallacy. That is not entirely true. Appeal to the wrong authority is a fallacy. Appeal to the right authority is an argument. If I am discussing the role of black holes in cosmology and I quote the late Stephen Hawking, that is the correct use of appeal to authority, since Hawking is the greatest authority. If I am discussing covid 19 and I quote a right wing American journalist, that is pure fallacy. So I suggest to my fellow skeptics, that they should feel free to quote authority, but just be very careful which authority you quote.

Scientific consensus is a wonderful concept, but difficult to ascertain. Anthropogenic global warming is often said to be the result of a consensus of climate scientists, and that is true. But it is an unusual case, because most scientific issues are not the subject of proper studies to find out what the consensus actually is.

There is no magic bullet in any of this. I am aware of a historical study that looked at articles in peer reviewed and reputable research journals, over many decades. The conclusions drawn in those articles were weighed against later findings. The startling discovery is that approximately 30% of those conclusions were overturned later by new work. So even the gold standard, the reputable, peer reviewed research journals, is not the final word. Science is a work in progress, and the very best conclusions may still be incorrect. This is where a good skeptic must still keep an open mind.
 

Sandra Goudie vs Science

Jonathon Harper

Sandra Goudie is the Thames Coromandel Mayor who has been in the news for refusing the Pfizer vaccine, saying she will wait until she can receive the Novavax vaccine. Goudie is quoted in the NZ Herald as saying she “believes it is “absolutely wrong” that some people should be mandated to have the vaccine…”

Goudie has done her own research. Well, before one were to start with one’s own research on vaccines, five years study at a medical school would be a basic prerequisite… but perhaps that is unkind to Goudie. She may have been paying attention to a consensus of experts?

On Saturday morning, Kim Hill’s Radio NZ expert guest pointed out the Pfizer vaccine is safe because it has been tested on hundreds of millions of people. Novavax is still not approved, and is under trial. Goudie might have been smarter to wait for an Astra Zeneca shot, as it is closer to approval here, and like Novavax is not a RNA vaccine.

As to allowing medical and educational workers to remain unvaccinated, again going to RNZ’s expert (John Potter), vaccinated people are far less likely to spread covid. Of 170 people admitted to hospital with covid, only three were vaccinated. That’s despite a high proportion now being vaccinated.

 


This year’s conference is a joint effort with the Australian Skeptics, and we will be live-streaming the event with many interesting and thought-provoking speakers. The conference talks will also be available to watch after the event.
 
We’ve set a low ticket price of AUD $40, which amounts to around NZD $42 – a lot less than it would have cost to attend an in-person event. 

Now is the time to get your tickets booked. It’s on the Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st November. Please go here to book.

Part of the fun of a conference is being able to connect with like-minded folk. We’re still hopeful of being in a situation where local groups could gather for a Saturday evening dinner after the livestream has concluded for the day. Watch this space and hopefully we can make this happen.

Will the US mint a trillion dollar coin?

Rumours have been circulating in the US that President Biden plans to fix the debt ceiling issue by minting a one trillion dollar coin. Although this sounds patently absurd, there’s some logic behind this.

Carlos Mucha first floated the idea, jokingly, in 2010 when he spotted a law from 1997, covering the US Mint, that allows them to create commemorative coins of any denomination as a way to raise funds. So if the Mint decided to create a trillion dollar coin, technically it would be legal to do so. Another law around the Federal Reserve means that they have to honour all commemorative coins as legal tender. The only catch is that it would need to be made in platinum, but even for an expensive metal like platinum the cost of the metal would be many orders of magnitude less than the worth of the coin.

Supposedly since the idea was first mentioned, government officials have at times seriously considered it as a way to help fix the curious set of circumstances in the US where congress needs to approve much of the government’s budget, including the debt ceiling (how much the government can be in debt before defaulting), and that this has led to parties using this power for political gain.

But finally this rumour has been put to bed, as the Treasury secretary of the United States, Janet Yellen, said this week that she does not intend to mint a platinum coin worth 1 trillion dollars to pay for the US government’s expenses. So it looks like this crazy idea is not going to happen – at least for now.

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The big Vaccine Push

The government is really pushing the COVID vaccine at the moment, including with this weekend’s Super Saturday – where around 130,000 vaccines were administered in a single day.

What I’ve been particularly surprised to hear is that famously anti-medicine MP Maureen Pugh has had her first vaccine. She’s held out for a long time, and I’m pretty sure she’s the last MP to have been vaccinated – which is not surprising given her prior form. In Maureen’s Maiden Statement to parliament back in 2016, she talked about how for the prior 25 years her only source of healthcare treatment was from her chiropractor. I guess either she’s walked back on her statement at the time that “nature delivers whatever we need”, or the political pressure was too much and she received the vaccine despite her (erroneous) beliefs.


The vaccine mandate is going to be an interesting one to watch. Healthcare workers will need to be double vaccinated by the first of December, and teachers by the first of January next year. Any unvaccinated teacher between now and then will have to take a weekly COVID test. Of course, for both of these professions the mandate is not about the workers so much as it is about the people in their care – those who are at elevated risk. As Minister for COVID-19 Response Chris Hipkins said:

“We need the people who work with vulnerable communities who haven’t yet been vaccinated to take this extra step… People have a reasonable expectation that our work forces are taking all reasonable precautions to prevent the spread of disease”

And Jacinda Ardern has said it’s likely that music festivals will need to require attendees to prove they’ve been vaccinated as a condition of entry.

As a result of these new rules, I’ve already been hearing stories of “vaccine hesitant” people who are suddenly having to come to terms with the idea that they will either have to make a decision very soon to be vaccinated, or lose some of the things they care about such as their their favourite social event of the year or their livelihoods. I really hope these people manage to make their peace with this, and that they can decide to take the vaccine knowing that it’s not an “experimental jab”, but rather is a marvel of modern technology, something that helps to train our own natural immune system to defend against COVID.

Unsurprisingly, many of the people who are pushing the anti-vaccine message stand to profit from their spreading of misinformation. Alternative medicine practitioners are selling their own nonsense ideas about boosting your natural immunity, groups like Voices for Freedom are selling you over-priced T-shirts and bags, and asking for donations, and members of fringe political groups like the Outdoors Party are hoping to secure your vote.

 

The thin end of the QAnon Wedge

I naively thought that the whole QAnon movement would fall apart after Trump lost his bid for re-election. For those who have somehow not heard about QAnon before, it’s a conspiracy that started in the US a few years ago, and is supposed to be the writings of a high-level government insider who leaks secrets via hidden meaning and codes in his messages. However, it’s been obvious since the start that QAnon is not an insider, but just a made up persona used to promote right wing ideas and Donald Trump in particular. As Wikipedia says:

“QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory and movement centered on false claims made by an anonymous individual or individuals, known by the name “Q”, that a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles operate a global child sex trafficking ring and conspired against former president Donald Trump during his term in office.”

Sadly many people are still following QAnon – not just the posts themselves, but the online groups and forums that have grown around efforts to “decode” Q’s messages. These are echo chambers that feed people nonsense, and leave them confused about what’s real and what’s not.

At the harmless end of this delusion are ideas like that Angela Merkel is Adolf Hitler’s granddaughter, or that the elite in the US are printing clones of themselves, just like in the recent (fictional) TV show Westworld. Supposedly Tom Cruise has a backup clone in case he’s assassinated, and Mike Pence is two people – a good clone and a bad clone. Even president Joe Biden isn’t the real Biden in QAnon world.

But at the other end, people are actually dying because of QAnon. The January 6th attack in Washington is one example that ended with the loss of several lives. And Rolling Stone magazine has recently published a harrowing story about Matthew Taylor, a surf instructor, father and religious man who started following QAnon only recently.


Somehow in the mess of QAnon messaging that he read online, Matthew became convinced that his children had “serpent DNA” and decided that he needed to end their lives to save them. And he’s not the first – others have murdered loved ones in the US in the last two years because of their heartfelt belief in nonsense ideas. QAnon followers often use a legitimate sounding cause of “Save the Children”, with a back story about child trafficking, adrenochrome, antarctic bases and the evil global elite, to push their ideas onto unsuspecting people, and one Californian woman drowned her three children because of her concerns that they would be trafficked.

I often focus on the light-hearted end of conspiracies – wacky beliefs and silly ideas – but sadly these half-baked notions seem to be capable of instilling real fear in people that makes them do irrational things. I’m sure that Matthew thought that he was saving his children from something worse by taking their lives, and I’m sure that those who spread conspiracy theories about children being in danger really believe they are helping. But that’s part of the problem – people who don’t stop to fact check their beliefs, or who choose the wrong people to trust as an authority.

I’m not sure what the answer to this is, but I think at least part of it is to teach more critical thinking at school. Kids need to know how to spot nonsense, and how to ask the right questions to find out whether there’s good quality evidence for the things they’re told. It sometimes feels a little boring to be a skeptic, calling into question other people’s assertions. But better to be a party pooper than a super-spreader of dangerous nonsense, I think.

 


Psychic sued for false claims

It seems ridiculous, but a man in the US is suing a psychic he asked for life advice. The psychic, Sophia Adams, told customer Mauro Restrepo that his marriage was at risk because of a “mala suerte” (bad luck) curse placed on him by an ex-girlfriend. For only US$5,000, she was willing to lift the curse and save his marriage.

It seems that Mauro only paid the first $1,000, but ended up suffering from insomnia and anxiety as a result of the worry caused by the psychic’s prediction. He is suing the “Psychic Love Specialist” and self-proclaimed “PhD Life Coach” for $25,000, with charges of “negligence, civil conspiracy and both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress”.

I wonder if he’s suing because of his embarrassment after he realised he’d been conned by a professional trickster into handing over money. After all, this is a common trick used by psychics to take someone’s money. The initial consultation might only be $100, but when a ruthless psychic sees that there’s money to be made, they will often scare people into thinking there’s something wrong in their life that’s causing them bad luck.

In this case, it was this fear of a curse having been used that caused Mauro to worry and pay money to have his problem fixed. But the con can be so much more blatant than this, and people still fall for it. Psychics often tell their customers that their money is cursed, and that only by withdrawing their funds from the bank and having the money blessed by the psychic will the curse be lifted. There are too many stories of unsuspecting victims handing over thousands and thousands of dollars to a psychic – of course this money is never seen again. The psychic will either deny they ever received the money, or in some cases will suddenly move away to another town.

It’s bad enough that psychics charge ridiculous prices for a service where they lie to customers about a magical ability they claim they have. But when psychics go beyond their extortionate $200 an hour fees and start taking thousands of dollars from people, that’s a special kind of awful. In this country, all we have to protect unwitting members of the public is a law which says that says that “mediums” need to have an “intent to deceive”:

16 Acting as medium with intent to deceive

(1) Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $1,000 who, acting for reward,—

(a) with intent to deceive, purports to act as a spiritualistic medium or to exercise any powers of telepathy or clairvoyance or other similar powers; or

(b) uses any fraudulent device in purporting to act as a spiritualistic medium or in purporting to exercise any such powers.

(2) For the purposes of this section, a person shall be deemed to act for reward if in respect of what he does any money is paid, or any valuable thing is given, whether to him or to any other person.

(3) Nothing in subsection (1) shall apply to anything done solely for the purpose of entertainment.

This is obviously not enough to protect people from scammers. Proving intent is hard, and a disclaimer that a psychic is just offering their trade as entertainment looks to be enough to cover them legally. I’d love to see NZ Police using our laws to stop psychics bilking people out of their money, but it looks like our current laws make it unlikely this will happen.


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: Peter Ellis appeal, more COVID loons, Religion and Taxes


96

Skeptic News: Peter Ellis appeal, more COVID loons, Religion and Taxes

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

One of our readers emailed us this week after Mark’s excellent editorial last week about skepticism and what type of skeptic you are.

Our Facebook page occasionally gets interactions from the non-skeptical public. Invariably they come to criticise – and often think that being a skeptic means being a contrarian, and automatically doubting mainstream views! We know that’s not the sort of skepticism we promote.

This week, one of our readers posted us an interesting comment:

“I’ve been thinking recently about the subject of belief, both good and bad and the relationship with the scientific method. If we “know” something to be true, do we automatically “believe” it’s true? I’m sure philosophers have written whole books on the subject, but I haven’t heard much about it from Skeptics.”

I’m not a philosopher, but I’ll take an initial stab at this, but I’m sure we could flesh this out with a much more nuanced discussion that I can do justice to.

For me, and I think any honest skeptic, belief should be supported by evidence. 

I bristle when somebody claims they “know” something, when, in fact, they don’t know that thing – they just believe it. 

Conversely, it annoys me when people ask about “believing” in evolution or climate change when, more accurately, we’ve understood and appreciated the evidence for evolution and climate change being so strong that it doesn’t require belief, but requires acceptance. 

But perhaps we can write these off to the colloquial use of the terms “know” and “believe”.

What about incongruities in what we believe and what the evidence shows? I think a good example of this is freewill. It seems that we live in a deterministic universe, and that freewill is an illusion. But I’d be fairly certain that most of us live our lives believing freewill to exist, that we’re in charge of our actions, that we choose to do what we do.  

What do you think? We’d be most interested in feedback.

Craig Shearer

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Skepticon 2021 – November 20th, 21st

We’ve been promoting the up-coming conference in conjunction with the Australian Skeptics for a few months now.

However, we’ve got some news. After reviewing the situation with COVID on both sides of the Tasman, we’ve decided to abandon the idea of an in-person conference this year, and run it solely as a livestream event.

The COVID situation in Sydney is by no means under control, and holding an in-person event there would have been a challenge. 

On this side of the Tasman, we had hoped, in the spirit of national rivalry, to retain some moral superiority over our Australian cousins and be able to hold an in-person conference in Wellington. Alas, the Delta outbreak has made it just too risky to try to foresee the situation in late November, so the in-person event will not be happening.

But, we see this as a great opportunity! We’ve set a low ticket price of AUD $40, which amounts to NZD $41.86 as of this writing – a lot less than it would have cost to attend an in-person event. 

We’ll be live-streaming the event, with lots of interesting and thought-provoking speakers. It will also be available to watch after the event.

Now is the time to get your tickets booked. It’s on the Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st November  Please go here.

Part of the fun of a conference is being able to connect with like-minded folk. We’re still hopeful of being in a situation where local groups could gather for a Saturday evening dinner after the livestream has concluded for the day. Watch this space and hopefully we can make this happen.

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Peter Ellis

This past week has seen an appeal of the Peter Ellis child sex abuse case being heard in the Supreme Court. 

The Peter Ellis case revolved around supposed ritual abuse of children at the Christchurch Civic Creche. He, along with a number of his co-workers were accused of various shocking acts against the children in their care. However, only Ellis’s case went to trial. 

The NZ Skeptics had quite a bit to say about the original case. Lynley Hood wrote “A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case”, Jarrod Gilbert wrote an excellent article about the case, and NZ Skeptics committee member Jonathan Harper has written extensively on the case when it was reviewed in the Eichelbaum Report in 2006.

Peter Ellis unfortunately died in 2019 of bladder cancer, but the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal on the basis of Tikanga Māori, meaning that his mana should extend beyond his death.

The appeal, set down for two weeks, started this week and Jonathan Harper has been attending, and reports in his own words:

“Peter Ellis was convicted of sexual abuse as a Childcare worker in Christchurch rather a long time ago.

The evidence against him came from children whose evidence had been seriously contaminated by parents, social workers, therapists and experts who frankly probably knew better than to take the evidence too seriously during a Satanic Ritual Abuse public panic.

 There were no spontaneous uncoached allegations. Many allegations against Ellis and several of his colleagues were bizarre and very unlikely, if not impossible. But the prosecution had hidden most of this from the jury, and focused on presenting the few credible allegations. Both expert witnesses were psychiatrists, and did not help clarify the real issues. At the current hearing the information is much more coherent as all six experts are psychologists. 

Lynley Hood’s massively detailed tome, A CITY POSSESSED is an excellent detailed account for anyone wishing to get more of the social background and history.

There are many excellent current media reports if you just google Peter Ellis Supreme Court; especially those by Martin Van Beynen who followed the original trial.

I have been attending the present hearings all week with Ross Francis. They wrap up at the end of next week. 

My impressions so far:

The three expert witnesses for the prosecution are, in my opinion, rather poor scientists who appear to be making excuses for the extremely poor forensic interviews and contamination of evidence through parental, police and social workers’ suggestions before the trial. 

All six experts do seem to be in agreement that the interviews were very poorly conducted. The defence experts (especially Harlene Hayne) are adamant all this made the convictions unreliable. The prosecution ones equally adamant that while there were serious errors, that doesn’t mean the evidence was not strong enough. 

It is pretty difficult to follow their arguments because they seem to start from the idea or assumption that Ellis was guilty. That is fair enough, but the opposite scenario seems rather foreign to them. For example, very few prosecutions, and even credible allegations resulted from the more than one hundred children interviewed. I always figured the small percentage is about what you get when you do experiments to see which children are susceptible to making false statements when false scenarios are presented to them by parents, police, social workers, etc…or anyone really. But no, Gail Goodman claimed those were somehow the ones resistant to suggestion and telling the truth. I still can’t quite follow the logic of that. Another witness for the prosecution, Fred Seymour in their space of about five minutes gave us the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy”, plus two more and a classic confirmation bias.“

We should hope that the conviction of Peter Ellis is righted as it seems to be a clear case of injustice.

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COVID loons

In the last newsletter I wrote, I discussed an open letter, penned by Mary Hobbs. Since publishing one of our contacts wrote to supply some more details. It appears that Mary and her husband are Scientologists, and deeply involved in that organisation, even making regular trips to Sydney to clear out a few Thetans, or whatever it is that they do. They even hosted Tom Cruise some time ago on a visit to NZ.

I wrote to Mary Hobbs sharing our feedback on her points. Alas, though unsurprisingly, we’ve not heard back from her.

It seems that there’s always more doctors coming out of the woodwork. The latest of whom is Dr Cindy de Villiers, who is a member of the NZDSOS site. She was speaking at a protest in Nelson last weekend. Having viewed the video of her talk on Odysee (a YouTube clone site that seems to be a favourite place to host videos of a certain conspiratorial nature), I noted the following claims:

 “Our bodies are wonderfully made. We can resist this not so novel virus, as we have with many other viruses, without lockdowns, social distancing, and masks.”

“If we do get sick, whether vaccinated or not, there are many treatment protocols successfully in use across the globe preventing hospitalisation, long COVID and death.”

“In fact, COVID-19 is probably the most treatable viral disease in existence.”

At the start of the pandemic she put up a questionable post about COVID. To be fair, that was written back in April last year, and things have moved on since then, but it does make some pretty astounding claims, including the use of Intravenous Vitamin C as soon as virus symptoms appear, and earthing (where you walk around barefoot on the ground for health benefit from the flow of negative ions!)


The talk also clued me in on a new organisation set up to seemingly counter the World Health Organisation – the World Council for Health. It was set up by a bunch of doctors, including Dr Tracy Chandler, who is registered with the NZ Medical Council, but as is noted on her practising certificate entry – “Dr Chandler is required to participate in an approved recertification programme relevant to the vocational scope of General Practice.” and “Dr Chandler may work outside the stated vocational scope but must do so within a collegial relationship.” I wonder what that’s all about. She also runs a website Dr Wellness and has a certificate in homeopathy. Enough said!

But, back to the World Council for Health – they  have a slick website and unsurprisingly it concentrates on COVID 19. They have a COVID-19 treatment guide and, as you might have guessed, Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine feature prominently, as does gargling with mouthwash.

Needless to say, their advice is pretty worthless, and probably downright dangerous if it were to encourage people to avoid seeking genuine medical advice and treatment.

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Our COVID response

Back to COVID seriousness now. It’s been a frustrating week where we’ve seen the Delta variant now escape Auckland and head out to other parts of the country. 

The government has been in a difficult position. This past week has seen some loosening of restrictions where people are now allowed to meet outdoors outside of their bubbles. There has been sustained pressure by the “open up” groups and, while it may have been advisable to continue the lockdown longer to attempt to stamp out COVID, they had to take account of behaviour of the public and its response to the lockdowns. 

The key to getting out of this COVID mess is to get everybody vaccinated. We’ve made some good progress, but we’re not there yet. 

@farmgeek on Twitter continues to put together great graphs. This one shows where we’re at with vaccination.


Remember the people who can’t be vaccinated – including around 700,000 children under 12, and the immunocompromised. Those are the people we put at risk by opening up too early and allowing the virus to circulate.

As I write this on Sunday afternoon, there’s 60 new cases today. This is not heading in the right direction, and unfortunately looks like it might be getting out of control. It’s certainly looking like the decision to loosen off might well have been a mistake. I certainly hope we can get things under control again, but at some point it becomes impossible.

Lastly on COVID this week, I’m wondering at what point the anti-vaxxers will break, and realise it’s in their own self-interest to get vaccinated. I wouldn’t mind betting that there are some prominent anti-vaxxers who are secretly vaccinated. Ironically, they’re been protected so far by our collective response to COVID. But I think it’s only a matter of time before one of them will become infected, as we’ve seen overseas. (At which point, I’ll have to suppress my schadenfreude! I wonder if there’s a drug for that?!)

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

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


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Skeptic News: Are you Skeptic A or Skeptic B?


96

Skeptic News: Are you Skeptic A or Skeptic B?

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Are you Skeptic A or Skeptic B?


 

When talking with people about skepticism, I’ve often used a convenient classification to separate what I see as two main camps of skeptics. In my oversimplified model there are a) those who are skeptical because they consider themselves to have read enough to be experts themselves on a wide range of topics, and b) those who defer to people who are the experts on any given topic – people who have relevant qualifications, decades of experience, and the respect of their peers and the wider academic community.

I’d like to think of myself as being a member of the latter group. Generally when I argue a skeptical position, I will do my best to find out what the experts are saying, and what if any consensus there is, and I’ll argue that as my position. And, of course, if there is no consensus, I will try my best to either argue that or just choose to not have an opinion. After all, I don’t need to pick a side on the topic of whether it will ever be possible to create a conscious Artificial Intelligence. And I have no horse in the race when it comes to the validity of the linear no-threshold model.

When I explain this type of skepticism to others, the skepticism where someone accepts the consensus of experts – I usually add a disclaimer that I’m comfortable with the idea of deferring to the experts, except when there’s an obvious issue with them as a group. This doesn’t mean that I can just write off a consensus I don’t like or don’t agree with, but it does mean that I won’t just parrot the mainstream view on every topic.

Obviously there’s a whole raft of topics where the “experts” in the field appear to be motivated by something other than an honest search for the truth. Pretty much every branch of alternative medicine would fall into this category, for example. I’m comfortable saying that we should not trust the conclusions of “scholars” of homeopathy, acupuncture or chiropractic. For alternative therapies there’s usually not a lot of good quality evidence out there – instead, there’s a surplus of bad quality papers describing poorly designed studies that don’t pass muster. Reading meta studies and systematic reviews for these therapies, it’s fairly normal to read how researchers found maybe one hundred relevant papers on a particular therapy, and out of those only four were of a high enough quality to be included. And, of course, these papers are invariably the ones that have much less in the way of positive conclusions than the ones not chosen for inclusion. When it comes to alternative medicine, the more rigorous the paper, the less positive the evidence.

There are other topics such as facilitated communication, hypnotic regression, Myers-Briggs personality profiling and polygraphs where the prevailing opinion amongst “experts” in the field seems to be at odds with the best quality evidence we have. But when I want to give people a good example of a discipline where there’s good reason not to trust the experts, I usually turn to Biblical Archaeology – a field where there are a lot of people with vested interests, and where many churches are willing to pay good money in return for evidence that their holy book is the real deal. This particular subject is the topic of our first article for today’s newsletter, courtesy of Alison Campbell (who shared details of this story on Facebook recently).

Mark Honeychurch

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Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed by an Asteroid?

Retraction Watch has documented a recent debacle where an open access journal from Nature, called Scientific Reports, published an article titled “A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea”. The article argued that bone and pot fragments found in Jordan by the Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project constitute good evidence that an asteroid exploded over the site around 3600 years ago.

Thankfully there have been some who have been willing to critique this paper and its conclusions. Mark Boslough, who wrote a paper on asteroid air bursts that this Sodom paper references, had a lot to say about the legitimacy of this paper, especially as it’s been published in a journal owned by the prestigious Nature.

Boslough pointed out issues with the science in the paper, and I have no reason to doubt that he knows what he’s talking about. But what interested me more was how he detailed his history of interactions with some of the scholars involved in writing the paper, the authors’ credentials, and the specifics of the University which has been organising the archaeological dig in Jordan.

Boslough listed each of the paper’s authors, saying for each of them “…is not a geologist”, followed by details such as:

  • “his PhD is in polymer science from University of Southern Mississippi”
  • “his PhD is from an unaccredited evangelical Christian institution that currently operates out of a small strip mall office with no evidence of students or faculty”; and
  • ”He is a blogger from North Carolina. His blog profile says he has a BA in political science from U. North Carolina”

The only exception to this is a single geologist, and I love the way that Boslough worded the description of his colleague:

“All his degrees are in earth science from reputable universities. I’ve done fieldwork with him at Tunguska & he is a careful & competent field researcher. I respectfully disagree with his interpretations.”

Other scientists with relevant expertise have jumped in, including Dr Chris Santis who wrote:

“The authors have created this story of a blast wave incinerating and flaying exposed flesh, shattering bones into small fragments that scattered and were buried in a destruction layer, and charred anything exposed.

What do I see? I see a few bodies intercut by new building over time, no secure dating, and small bones of indeterminate species that are more likely to be dominantly local animals.”

On top of all this, it turns out that someone helped to make the images in the paper look pretty by filling in unsightly gaps using a cloning tool in a piece of image manipulation software. As much as this looks like a genuine mistake rather than a deliberate effort to doctor the evidence, it shows how rookie the team are that they thought it was okay to just edit the images without disclosing their changes.

Looking at the group that has been running the excavation project, their website says that the project is run by Trinity Southwest University’s College of Archaeology. What I’m having problems understanding is how a University with a “campus” and “departments” is run out of a shop front in a strip mall in Albuquerque. Wikipedia to the rescue, describing this particular university as an “unaccredited evangelical Christian institution of higher education”. It all makes sense now – this is a quirk of the US education system, one of those religious diploma mills that are somehow legal to operate, even if the degrees they produce aren’t worth the paper they’re written on (let alone the thousands of dollars it likely costs to enrol).

So it’s looking very much like this paper is a bust. The science is shoddy, the evidence has been compromised and misinterpreted, and the authors have a fixed conclusion that they’re working towards – the bible is the true word of god, and the site they’ve been working on for fifteen or more years is proof of one of its stories.

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Alex Jones loses in court, again

I’m sure Alex Jones is no stranger to most skeptics. The Info Wars host has an illustrious history of pushing nonsense ideas about the US – from the ridiculous (chemicals in the water supply are turning the frogs gay) to the downright dangerous (restriction of gun rights will cause a second revolution in the US). And somewhere in the midst of all that nonsense, Alex Jones decided to start pushing the ridiculous theory that the Sandy Hook massacre of school children in the US was a false flag operation, secretly organised by the government as a way to push for tighter gun controls.

 

It’s been great in this case that some of the grieving parents have decided not to let Jones get away with spreading his hurtful conspiracy theory, and there have been numerous lawsuits brought against him. The courts are not having a bar of Jones’ lawyers’ efforts to avoid paying out the money from cases he’s already lost in court – and on Thursday a Texas judge gave a “default judgement” against Jones, citing his repeated inability to follow the court’s orders to hand over documents.

 

Jones is no stranger to being in court, and has tried to use a variety of arguments to wheedle his way out of facing the consequences of his reckless actions. For some of his Sandy Hook lawsuits he’s tried to argue that his falsehoods are protected under free speech. When his ex-wife fought for custody of their children during divorce proceedings, she cited his erratic behaviour on InfoWars as evidence that he is unstable and should not be trusted to look after their kids. Jones’ lawyers’ response was to claim that Alex Jones is nothing more than a “performance artist”, and that he doesn’t really mean the things that he says on InfoWars. If any of you are unsure what Jones’ ex-wife means when she calls him unstable, here’s a fun clip from John Oliver back in 2017 where he documents not only some of Jones’ crazy outbursts, but also his unethical pushing of dubious health products:



It’s great to see Jones finally having to face the music. I have no doubt that he will keep fighting to avoid justice, but I am hopeful that once all his avenues for appeal are exhausted, his rash words will have cost him dearly, and the people he has wronged will take enough of his money that his misinformation spreading media group will cease to exist.

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Eagle eyed committee member Jonathon Harper spotted a funny piece of art at the Thistle Hall in Wellington the other day. I’m not very good at deciphering art, but I get the feeling this one might be a commentary on the prevalence of nonsense cure-alls that are all too often advertised to us with over-inflated claims.

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Committee member Daniel Ryan has been working hard on posting stories relevant to skeptics on our Facebook Page recently (the page is different to our Facebook groups, which are more conversational). After reading about this weekend’s anti-lockdown protest organised by Destiny Church, he was motivated to write the following:

 

Why does Destiny Church have a tax free status?

The church was irresponsible with their recent protest, held during a level 3 lockdown in Auckland. The majority of those attending were without masks, and were not following physical distancing guidelines. When the media pointed out that most people were not wearing masks, the church’s leader, Brian Tamaki, said: “I saw everyone wearing masks.”

The church and its leader have a rich history of controversies. For example, during a 2016 sermon Tamaki blamed gays for the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. Two and a half years later, he finally apologised for his comments.

 

Because of the 2016 sermon, a change.org page was set up to call for stripping Destiny’s tax-free status; 125,572 signatures were gathered. At the time, Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne tweeted: “I do not favour taxing genuine churches and real charities but as Destiny [Church] is obviously neither, it should pay taxes like every other business.”

 

In 2019, Destiny Church’s charity organisations had a combined income of $8,112,428, yet paid no tax. Taking advantage of the recent wade subsidies offered by the government during our lockdowns, Destiny Church Auckland Trust received $91,384.80, and Trustees In The Destiny Church Hamilton received $36,518.40.

 

In 2017, the Department of Internal Affairs issued a notice to strip two of Destiny’s charities of their charitable status –  Destiny International Trust and Te Hahi o Nga Matamua Holdings. Destiny Church took immediate legal action, and in 2019 the High Court restored the charitable status of both groups.

New Zealand is a secular society, and it’s about time we removed “the advancement of education or religion” as a charitable purpose from the Charities Act 2005. Religious institutions shouldn’t be automatically allowed to register as charitable organisations.

Daniel Ryan

 


2021 Skeptics Conference

We’re excited to announce a combined NZ and Australian Skeptics Conference/Skepticon. Due to ongoing COVID concerns we’re holding this event online on the weekend of the 19th – 21st of November.

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 numbers, and tickets will be on sale very soon.

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

Register your 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: You can do anything that you wanna do


96

Skeptic News: You can do anything that you wanna do

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

You can do anything that you wanna do


 

Thanks to everyone who joined our online Skeptics in the Pub meetings over the last two weeks. We’ve had such a good time chatting with skeptics who we usually only see once or twice a year that we’ve decided to make our national online meetings a regular event.

We’ll schedule an online Zoom session from 6pm on Friday to run every four weeks, and I will post the event as a recurring meeting to all the Skeptics in the Pub Meetup groups. Please come along if you want to say hi to other skeptics, if you’re looking for a place to engage in fun, skeptical conversation (with beer), or if you just need to unload about something you’ve heard that’s annoyed you because it’s obvious nonsense.

We have two submitted segments in this week’s newsletter. Our first is from a regular at the Wellington Skeptics in the Pub meetings, John Maindonald, and follows on from a mention I made of Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword a couple of weeks ago.

The second is a podcast recommendation from member Stephen Hall, who has been writing to us about his thoughts on the transmissibility of the new delta variant of COVID. Steve wonders if maybe delta is no more transmissible than previous strains, and that the new variant might instead be spreading more because of differences such as changes in people’s behaviour, rather than due to a beneficial genetic mutation. Steve has heard this idea from a podcast run by Professor Vincent Racaniello, who has been promoting this view in the media recently. Given that most scientists don’t appear to agree with Racaniello’s thoughts on this topic, I will include a proviso that, as always, you should remain skeptical and use multiple sources to fact check any claims you hear.

Mark Honeychurch


Newton’s Laser Sword, and Farts

I feel impelled to comment on Mike Alder’s “While the Newtonian insistence on ensuring that any statement is testable by observation (or has logical consequences which are so testable) undoubtedly cuts out the crap, it also seems to cut out almost everything else as well. Newton’s Laser Sword should therefore be used very cautiously.”

I take this as an admission that, when push comes to shove, Alder does admit that he has to agree with Daniel Dennett:

“There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” — Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 1995.

Newton’s Laser Sword cuts out everything that Mike Alder has to say.  In order to use it, a sense is needed of what is appropriate caution.  That is a question that has to be settled by a framework of understanding (a philosophy, surely) through which we understand the world as we observe it.

Alder repeatedly lumps together, without evidence, the views of mathematicians with those of scientists.  My own perception, equally based on nothing more than my own experience of engaging with mathematicians, is that pure mathematicians, and some slightly more applied mathematicians who work on the boundaries of cosmology and particle physics, do accept something akin to the view that Alder attributes (not quite accurately) to Plato.  Nor is there much unanimity in the views of scientists.   

Newton’s Laser Sword does not seem to have much influenced Newton’s religious views.  Or is it that, in such matters as Newton’s use of biblical texts to predict that the world would end  in 2060, one really did have to wait until 2060 for the matter to be tested?  There’s a fascinating discussion of Newton’s prophetic studies at https://isaac-newton.org/statement-on-the-date-2060/
 

From swords to farts — leave off the skeptics hat for a moment, and laugh

 

There’s an article in the Sept 6 New Scientist headed “Men fart more when eating a plant-based diet due to good gut bacteria”. The paper can be found at: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/13/8/2638/pdf

What particularly caught my attention was:

“As previously described, the volume of gas evacuated per anus was measured for 4 h after the probe meal [1,17,18]. In brief, gas was collected using a rectal balloon catheter (20 F Foley catheter, Bard, Barcelona, Spain) connected via a gas-tight line to a barostat, and the volume was continuously recorded.”

No photos are supplied as visual evidence, unfortunately!

Technically, the study was “a single-centre, cross-over, randomised, open-label study”.  Anyone lecturing on study design who wishes to get the attention of a sleepy class will now be able to use this study as an example.  Did it matter that the study was open label? Making the study double blind would certainly have been a challenge.  Impossible?

John Maindonald

Conversion Conversation

Following on from our submission to the Justice Select Committee a couple of weeks ago on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill (outlawing conversion therapy), myself and Bronwyn Rideout from the NZ Skeptics committee gave an oral submission to some of the Justice Select Committee last week. I was surprised that oral submissions started so quickly after the deadline for written submissions, but thankfully in very little time we were able to put together an oral submission that was complementary to our written one, but different enough that we weren’t just boring the MPs with the same information they’d already read from us.

The submissions were all online, and we were given 10 minutes to talk – sandwiched between a coalition of Korean churches (who said that being gay is “wrong”, and that it should be their right to use a disproven, harmful therapy on their children) and the Young Nationals (who told MPs their membership were totally on board with the banning of conversion therapy, due to the lack of evidence of efficacy and how harmful it can be).

As skeptics we detailed some of the evidence that conversion therapy does not work, and also made sure to mention its harms. We then went on to talk about our broad approval of the new legislation, and mentioned some of the changes we would like to see made to it.

As an example, there is currently an exemption for healthcare practitioners. MP Vanushi Walters explained that it was assumed that the existing codes of ethics created by professional bodies for the various professions listed in the HPCA (Healthcare Practitioners Competence Assurance) Act would cover healthcare practitioners who were offering conversion therapy. We countered that our experience of these bodies suggests that they’re not always quick to take action when complaints are made, and that often no fault is found even when there’s a clear breach of conduct. Therefore our recommendation was to remove the exemption for healthcare practitioners from the new legislation before it becomes law.

You can read the text that was the basis of our oral submission on our website.

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This Week In Virology

In 2008, the This Week In Tech podcasting network had been going for three years and a number of related topic podcasts started up on the network including one called Futures in Biotech. Modelled on the idea of having a weekly podcast on a specialist subject, a new podcast split away by Professor Vincent Racaniello of Columbia University called This Week In Virology (TWIV). It was inspired by this Week In Tech and given virus is also used in technology, the new podcast developed the tagline “the podcast about viruses – the kind that make you sick”. The first episode was on West Nile Virus and as someone who had no previous interest in viruses, the show fascinated me and fourteen years later I’m still a regular listener as I both enjoy science as well as having gotten to know the team well over the years.

With SARS CoV 2 the popularity of the podcast has increased and the podcast is now approaching 100,000 subscribers – quite remarkable for a science focussed podcast on the latest research papers on viruses. As a listener now for fourteen years, I love the focus on science and during the pandemic this hasn’t changed. TWIV has a number of regular contributors Professor Vincent Racaniello brings in guests on topics of interest, in the last eighteen months these have often been on some element of SARS CoV2. TWIV is not afraid to ask the questions that you won’t always see in the popular media such as is the Delta Variant really more transmissible or is there any science behind the lab leak hypothesis in Wuhan. These questions are examined in light of scientific evidence and through the eyes of leading Virologists rather than through the media who are not specialists in virology.

The podcast has now become the Microbe TV network and has spawned other specialist shows. TWIV alone has many hours of content each week and there is a weekly live stream on YouTube, a weekly medical update from Dr Daniel Griffin and two other weekly shows focussed on research papers or specialist guests. Microbe TV is about to move to a new studio being called The Incubator and Professor Racaniello is going to look to provide even more content on science and virology to the community. I highly recommend Microbe TV and This Week In Virology as a place to learn about science and virology. And if you listen to the end you’ll hear Professor Racaniello declare that another podcast has gone viral.

Stephen Hall


No, Steve from Blue’s Clues did not leave to join the Army

I have three school age kids, and so I’m no stranger to Blue’s Clues. I’ve watched many episodes with both Steve (Steve Burns) and Joe (Donovan Patton) hosting the show alongside the animated dog Blue, following the clues each week. Steve left the show back in 2002, but he made the news recently when he released a feel-good video:
 


On the back of this, there has been some online speculation that Steve left the show not to go to college, as he says in his video, but to join the army and serve in the Middle East. This speculation was fuelled in part by a series of edits to Steve’s Wikipedia page just over a week ago, variously claiming he was:

  • “serving as an operator in clandestine operations against the Taliban from 2002 to 2021”
  • “the CIA station chief for Islamabad Pakistan”
  • “serving with Special Forces in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban and Al Qada from 2002 to 2021”
  • “[in] the French Foreign Legion, where he would begin his own war on terror under the name Hugh Janus”

I think the last one in particular gives the game away, given the rude pseudonym.

There was also an image shared to Instagram that showed a screenshot of Steve in the show, wearing his signature green striped shirt and with a badly photoshopped US military vest and patches pasted on it. However, when you open the image you now see a blurred version with a warning saying “False Information. Reviewed by independent fact-checkers”:
 


Clicking on the See Post link opens the image, which has another link to the fact-check warning saying “See why fact-checkers say this is false”:
 


The text of the warning, from USA Today, lets people know that the image is not genuine:

False
Independent fact-checkers say this information has no basis in fact.
Fact-Checker: USA TODAY
Conclusion: False
More Information: Fact check: False claim that Steve Burns left ‘Blue’s Clues’ for Afghanistan war
Learn more about how Instagram is working with independent fact-checkers to reduce false information.

Although in this case it seems obvious that the image is fake, and that maybe a “fact check” was not needed to debunk a badly photoshopped internet joke, it’s still great to see that there are news agencies who have the ability, and staff, to add these kinds of warnings to Instagram images. I’m sure many of you have seen similar warnings on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites as well.

In the age of weaponised misinformation being used against entire countries, tools like this that allow the countering of misinformation are going to be an important part of the effort to help people avoid falling down rabbit holes of misinformation. I’m sure most of us have at least one family member who, through social media, has gone from just believing in one pseudoscientific idea to spreading all kinds of nonsense through their posts and shares.

Of course, this is not to say that this kind of fact checking is sufficient to fix the problem of disinformation campaigns. And these fact checking services don’t excuse the harm that social media companies often cause when they feed people nonsense as a way to keep them engaged and maximise the number of adverts they’re able to show you. But it’s a start at least, and it’s fascinating to see that even silly internet jokes need to be debunked, lest people actually believe them and end up with a warped world view where the “mainstream media” are hiding the truth from them.

I’ll leave you all with the wise words of Steve and Blue:

Now it’s time for so long, But we’re gonna sing one more song
Thanks for doing your part, you sure are smart
You sure worked hard. When you use your mind, Take a step at a time
You can do anything that you wanna do


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 numbers.

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

Register your 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: 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


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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


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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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