Skeptic News: What’s in my Inbox?


96

Skeptic News: What’s in my Inbox?

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

What’s in my Inbox?


I was scrolling through my emails today, looking to see if I had received any Why Are You A Skeptic responses from any of you. Sadly there was nothing I’d missed; no stories of how you’d found skepticism after an all-night bender where you’d snorted ketamine and met God, or how you’ve always been skeptical since the age of two.

Instead, what I did find were some random emails that I thought might be of skeptical interest to everyone. Firstly, as a counterpoint to Craig’s article last week about the James Webb telescope, Creation Ministries International have mailed me about the project, informing me:

“We are told that Webb will see stars and galaxies as they appeared 13.5 billion years ago, which is what is meant by “early”. Note that this is a claim based on belief in the big bang model. What Webb will actually observe will be light from galaxies and stars that are very far away. How long that light takes to get to the JWST is another question. In fact, even the assumed vast distances to the very far away galaxies are model and parameter dependent”

In other words, “if we imagine that light travels faster than scientists say it does, or that it used to travel faster in the past, then maybe the universe is only 6,000 years old”. Of course, having a much faster speed of light (two billion percent faster) throws the entirety of physics out of whack, but if we ignore that pesky detail then this hypothesis is a great idea.

Next I have an email from Josie in Canada telling me:

“I read your article about Father John Rea. We know him personally and we live in Canada. Miracles do happen !”

This is in response to an article I wrote back in 2017 about Father John Rea, after myself and several other skeptics went on a field trip to visit him at one of his healing sessions. As I wrote at the time:

“The idea of John’s knowledge is that God has given him messages of who can be healed. John reads out a list of conditions, and for each condition he gives some clues as to who the person or people who are suffering might be… It reminded me of how stage psychics sometimes do a quick fire of throwing out lots of different guesses (the scattergun approach), and then honing in on those that resonate with someone in the audience, while quickly moving on from those that don’t fit anyone.”

The email included a PDF called “Major St. Therese miracles experienced or reported at the Living Insights Center, St. Louis, MO, as of 12/22/21”, which documents the supposed miracle healings that have occurred around a statue of St. Therese housed inside the Living Insights Center building. From what I’ve read so far, none of these supposed miracles would pass the Catholic sainthood miracle test.

I received an email from fellow committee member Jonathon Harper, saying:

“My story in the NZ Listener on the Supreme Court test for Peter Ellis’s mana is out. At least it will be on the stands next Monday (17th January). Karyn Scherer (the Editor) was great to work with, not quite as pedantic as some of the other publishers I have worked with, but I think very responsible and accurate. What I learnt from her is that tone is important. By that I mean, sticking to what happened, what people said, so if the conclusions you may feel compelled to draw are unpalatable, the ‘you’ is the reader, and not the writer. Also the idea that it is good to intimate that you have some understanding that we all have foibles, and we are all in this together. Karyn is also very enthusiastic, forthcoming, personable, friendly and supportive so I felt privileged in all the best senses of the word to have worked with her on this.”

If you’re interested in the Peter Ellis case, you might want to pick up a copy of the Listener and have a read.

Finally I found an email sent to the NZ Skeptics committee that I will throw open to our members. If any of you would like to pen a respectful response to Andre, please send it to [email protected] and we’ll forward it on:


Dear Sir,

Even just a month ago I never anticipated that I would find myself a victim of prejudice and discrimination in my own country and all ultimately due to junk, unscientific mumbo jumbo feeding an excess of unchecked power masquerading under the guise of a faux ideology, that it is in the interests of the greater ‘public good’

Yes, how could I not be referring to the current, supposed pandemic ‘crisis’?

You see, I am one of those dirty, contaminated unvaccinated lepers who supposedly are selfishly placing all of greater society at risk by selfishly refusing to bow my head to Mammon and be baptised by way of the ‘jab’ into their new-age evangelical church and therefore , by extension, the current state of crisis is all my, and my kindred’s fault. Hell, it MUST be true, after all there always has to be someone to blame, doesn’t there? Go and ask a Nazi if you don’t believe me!

….and, just like the Nazi’s one of the first victims in this ‘soft war’ against civil liberties and the innate human right of an individual to have sovereignty over their own body is to mute freedom of speech, a far too easily achieved objective in this age of digital communication. On this point I have been repeatedly ‘censored’ for daring to speak-out against this propagandised idiocy and again, just like Nazi tactics I am hastily and stealthily herded into a “nacht und nebel’ virtual concentration camp by dehumanising me by the appending of clinical, arms-length labels: “anti-vaxxer” (not necessarily, actually), “inciting vaccine hesitancy ” (how about encouraging rational thought and scientific appraisal based on review of ALL the information?), and the thoroughly vile coup de gras from social media; “de-platformed” ….and, “fact-checked false information” (hysterically funny given that this gagging is administeted by an AI software robot triggered only by keywords and not the understanding of actual content).

The population as a majority have willing acquiesced and given politicians and un-elected nameless, faceless beareucrats permission to un-plug their brains at the wall and flick their critical thought faculties to the ‘OFF” position.

The term I deem appropriate to describe this manifest unravelling of our former democratic society is “Vaccination Apartheid”. To me it is grossly offensive and an affront to my dignity that the government – both national and local – demonstrate that they have no moral scruples whatsoever about compelling me to pay my taxes and council rates which they in turn use to fund a system that writes arbitrary rules to write me out of societal participation. I can no longer enter the local library I pay for unless I flash an utterly worthless, good-for-nothing vaccination pass at the door. No measure of public safety WHATSOEVER is conferred by this requirement. No proper science was ever used to conjure up this stupid rule yet not only does it divide people but it requires a mountain of resources and money to implement it.

The real concern arises that we occupy one specific point of time on a continuum but when we look forward along that time-line into the future then the likely trajectory, now that these nutty policies have acquired almost global momentum, is that one can foresee that the politicians and their beareaucratic minions who craft and implement these oppressive policies have completely ignored real science which has become de-coupled from real-world social impact giving them a free-hand to test the extreme moral and ethical boundaries without regard to long-term adverse societal consequences.

So, my question to you is what position does the N.Z. Sceptics Society hold on this most pressing issue, and more particularly do you have or else, actively support organised opposition to this emerging new dark age? It really cones down to whether you care about the rights of marginalised and discriminated-against people like me. I ask this because I wish to add my voice of protest against these biggotted policies that pretend to be in aid of ‘protecting’ the public yet are anything but. Currently, I feel at a loss because there isn’t really anywhere else to turn. The current crop of protest groups speaking out against these mandate policies all seem to have underlying religious agendas I wish nothing to do with and that have no proper scientific underpinnings (another side-ways leap onto the Flat-Earth!) much less the long-term de-construction of an egalitarian free society.

If you have not so far given any deep thought to this issue would you now consider collaborating with people like me to become the voice of reason amidst this storm? I would most appreciate hearing your thoughts.

Kind Regards, Andre ROUSSEAU.

P.S. Unlike most of the fools one hears pontificating on this issue I used to work in the Pharmaceutical industry in a managerial role. Our company made vaccines for which I had an involvement. Moreover, my role allowed me to see first-hand, the behind-the-scenes machinations of how this industry REALLY works, hence my cynical contempt for how governments have been ‘captured’ by them. Virtually all of those who advocate these policies frankly, wouldn’t know their arse from their elbow. I would set my real-world expertise and experience against theirs, any day.

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Baba Vanga predicts the future

Vangeliya Pandeva Gushterova, more commonly known as Baba Vanga, was a Bulgarian psychic. Although she died back in 1996, she was kind enough to leave behind some predictions that may or may not actually be about potential future events. Honestly, the Wikipedia Page for Baba Vanga leaves me suspicious about how much of what is attributed to her she actually said, and how much is just being made up by others (and it’s also one of the worst Wikipedia pages I’ve ever seen grammatically – presumably it’s mainly been written by people for whom English is not a fluent language).

Baba Vanga made some predictions that didn’t come to pass, such as predicting World War III (a nuclear war from 2010 to 2014). There’s only three years left before her prediction of the resurrection of the USSR by 2025 will have failed. She also made some predictions that show an obvious lack of understanding of basic science, predictions that we can look at and know that they are wrong in their premise. For example, she predicted that a cure for cancer would be found, and that it would be an iron based chemical. This shows a lack of understanding that cancer is not a single disease, and that it is very unlikely there will ever be a single cure. She also suggested that immortality would be possible using the hormones of a horse, dog and turtle. She explained this by saying “the horse is strong, the dog is hardy, and the turtle lives a long time”.

So, what does Baba Vanga have for us this year. Thankfully the Herald has documented her predictions in an article, where they tell us that she predicts:
 

  1. An increase in catastrophes. Apparently Asian countries and Australia will be hit by floods. Given the Tongan volcano eruption and subsequent tsunami, and some freak weather in Australia this weekend, I’d say Baba Vanga’s off to a good start!

  2. A lethal virus in Siberia. Well, I guess like the rest of the world, Siberia will still be suffering from the effects of COVID for a while. But the actual prediction is that a virus frozen in Siberia will be defrosted and start to spread. Whatever this virus is, it’ll have to deal with the fact that most of us are already taking sensible precautions in public, like wearing masks and sanitising our hands.

  3. Shortage of drinking water. I’d be surprised if this prediction of many major cities running out of drinking water came true, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

  4. Alien encounter on Earth. This one isn’t going to happen! I’d put money on it.

  5. Locusts in India. This seems to be a fair guess, given that India over the last few decades has suffered from major locust plagues every two to three years – incidents where many more than the usual number of locusts descend on the crops in Indian provinces.

  6. Loss of sense of reality. After the last couple of years of global politics and a serious pandemic, this seems like a likely one – although the article says that this will actually be caused by technology, and not lockdown fatigue.

Of course, all of these predictions have been through several filter layers, including in their translation and the reporting of what the predictions mean. And those filters will likely have morphed whatever Baba Vanga’s actual words were to more closely match how the world is today. So it’s no surprise that we can look at these predictions and consider them to sound plausible, but we’d really have to find the source materials to find out what was actually said – and sadly this is not an easy task.

The closest I can get to the source is that the Herald just copied the list of predictions from an MSN article which merely states them, with no supporting evidence that they’re real. The MSN article appears to be a paid advertising piece written by astrologer Susan Taylor to promote the services of psychic company AstroFame, and includes links to their website and psychic hotline. So, really, this is not journalism – just a New Zealand newspaper copying some made up text from an American advertorial and calling it news.

I suppose at least this makes a change from having to hear what Nostradamus thought was in store for us in the coming year. And if you were wondering, then wonder no more – thanks to the History Channel:

The Invasion of France: “Blue-head shall white-head harm in such degree as France’s good to both shall e’er amount.”

Starvation: “No abbots, monks, no novices to learn; Honey shall cost far more than candle-wax. So high the price of wheat, that man is stirred, his fellow man to eat in his despair”

Global Warming: “Like the sun the head shall sear the shining sea: The Black Sea’s living fish shall all but boil. When Rhodes and Genoa half-starved shall be, the local folk to cut them up shall toil.”

The Rise of Artificial Intelligence: “The Moon in the full of night over the high mountain, the new sage with a lone brain sees it: By his disciples invited to be immortal, eyes to the south. Hands in bosoms, bodies in the fire.”

Honestly, the History Channel has a lot to answer for these days – with their shows about Lost Giants, the Knights Templar, Ancient Aliens and the Biblical End of the World. How they managed to think that they have been able to accurately discern the meaning of these oblique quatrains from Nostradamus, or that any of this gibberish is worth reporting on, is beyond me.

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Cryptoland

I’m not a fan of cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin, the original and most “successful” of them, has not followed its creator’s vision of being a decentralised currency that allows people to make payments to each other without having to go through traditional banking systems. Rather, instead of Bitcoin being used as a digital currency for purchasing online, people are using it as an investment, speculating on its price and hoping for “massive gains”. This is evidenced by both its high price per coin and its volatility. Hardly any Bitcoin transactions are actually involved in buying or selling goods, and the high price of Bitcoin these days means that the Proof of Work idea for securing the Blockchain (the shared list of transactions that records all transfers of Bitcoin) ends up using over 1,000kwh of electricity for each transaction. The promised decentralisation of Bitcoin is also mostly a myth these days. What Bitcoin has become is a way for greedy people to make money from other greedy people. Its creator, the enigmatic “Satoshi”, is probably despairing of what happened to his creation – if he’s still alive.

Of the many cryptocurrencies that have been created after Bitcoin, all have their serious flaws – and many are straight out scams. There are countless stories of rug pulls (currencies that people buy into, just to have the creators walk away with all the money), millions of stolen coins from badly secured exchanges, and cryptocurrencies that don’t even exist, where people are sold a lie.

So, when I heard about a new Cryptocurrency and NFT (Non-Fungible Token – don’t get me started!) called Cryptoland, where your investment in the cryptocurrency could buy you a holiday home on an exclusive cryptocurrency themed private island, I was intrigued. Does this place already exist? Is this a great idea needing investment? Or is this just another scam?

My first stop was a video that the project released – a cringeworthy 10 minutes of animation where the names of cryptocurrencies and buzzwords were dropped liberally:


The basic plan for now is that people can buy Cryptoland NFTs – an NFT is a piece of data (in this case an image) where a record is made in a blockchain that you are the “owner” of that data. In this instance there are 10,000 images that are variations of the Cryptoland mascot, Connie, who is a garish looking gold coin with arms, legs and a face. One NFT might have Connie wearing a pink baseball cap and green sunglasses. Another could have him wearing a white ski jacket and ear muffs. Sixty special NFTs, each sold for around $1 million US, come with the promise of a plot of land on the island of Cryptoland.
 


The video immediately made me suspicious that at the very least the creators of this project had absolutely no clue what they were doing. A second video included the creators of the project discussing the island’s plans, and included an image of a map with the name Nananu-i-cake. A quick search of that name reveals a Fijian island currently up for sale for US$12 million. So, the island hasn’t been purchased yet – and it appears the project’s plan is to somehow raise money through their cryptocurrency to make the purchase – although they say that the money from NFTs won’t be used for this.

After watching several critical videos, skimming through the Cryptoland whitepaper, reading the online chat (in their Discord channel) and digesting a few blog posts, a bunch of red flags became apparent:

  • In order to be able to participate in this “opportunity”, members first have to earn credits through posting on social media, with tasks such as changing your profile image to a Cryptoland images, adding links to the Cryptoland website to your bio, and writing posts about how amazing Cryptoland is. This is an obvious ploy to generate a fake “buzz” around the new cryptocurrency, making it seem like people are choosing to promote the project when in reality they have to sound positive just to take part.
     
  • The Discord channel for the project, where participants chat with the creators, is locked down to prevent any negative talk about the project, including the banning of posting links to external websites.
     
  • The island is supposed to have a casino, despite the fact that Fiji doesn’t allow gambling.
     
  • The project’s Spanish creators, Max Olivier and Helena Lopez, have a history of running failed projects where they have misrepresented themselves to others. There’s not much online about them, but there is an article (in Spanish) about Max titled “The man all Spanish YouTubers hate”.
     
  • At least one listed project member has been contacted and responded that they are not connected to the project – suggesting that the Cryptoland website’s Team list is at least in part a fabrication.
     
  • US citizens are not allowed to buy this currency; presumably this is an attempt to avoid prosecution in the US when everything goes wrong.
     
  • So far there has been one purchase of a plot of land, from a dubious cryptocurrency speculator who made his money early on in the life of Bitcoin – Kyle Chasse. He appears to have been given the opportunity at a 50% reduction in price, something the creators of this project have tried to hide within the Ethereum blockchain. He’s also a US citizen, which should preclude him from being able to make the purchase.
     
  • Molly White, a software engineer, has been doing some great work dissecting Cryptoland and the people behind it, and documenting it all on Twitter. Molly received a Cease and Desist letter (or Cease and Decease, according to Cryptoland’s accidental typo in a Tweet), asking her to delete all of her false statements.

This last red flag is worth looking into, as Molly’s response to it is priceless. The email sent to Molly said:

“Dear Ms. White,

It has come to our attention that you have been making statements about Cryptoland that are both false and misleading. These statements constitute libel since they defame both Cryptoland and its founders.

We demand you immediately cease and desist making these false and libellous statements, delete them from any platform and issue a public apology on all platforms where the libellous statements have been placed. 

Please be advised that, if you fail to fulfil the petition above, we will have no choice but to take the appropriate legal steps to protect Cryptoland’s reputation, including seeking relief in a court of law for monetary damages. 

Sincerely, 

Cryptoland Legal Team”

Molly responded with:

“Dear Legal Team,

I have removed all of the false statements.

Sincerely,
Molly White”

Of course, Molly has deleted absolutely nothing that she wrote about Cryptoland, as none of her tweets about this project are factually wrong. Good on her for standing up to them!

Having spent far too long reading up on this project, I’m happy to call a spade a spade. Cryptoland is a scam, and anyone who invests in it is likely to lose their money. If, by some miracle, the masterminds behind this project end up creating the island of Cryptoland, my bet is that it will not be paradise. Instead it will be a depressing hell-hole where everyone is looking out for themselves – so maybe it will be a fitting monument to the modern day cryptocurrency movement after all.
 


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
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Skeptic News: Don’t Look Up! (actually, you should), and more…


96

Skeptic News: Don’t Look Up! (actually, you should), and more…

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

 

This week I discuss the popular Netflix movie Don’t Look Up, ponder the association between the holiday road toll and drownings, celebrate the continuing success of the JWST, and take a look at the abuse that prominent scientists are being subjected to.

I’ve been on holiday for the past three weeks but tomorrow I’ll be returning to work, as I expect many will also do so. Hopefully your holiday break, if you had one, has been enjoyable.

Oh, and in breaking news, as I write this Sunday evening, it seems that Brian Tamaki has attended another protest, seemingly in breach of his bail conditions. I wonder how many chances he’s going to be given!

Craig Shearer

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Don’t Look Up

 

If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you’ll be able to watch a movie that’s been the topic of some discussion in science circles. That is Don’t Look Up – a satirical look at science communication. The movie’s been out for a little while now, so I feel justified in discussing the plot – so SPOILER ALERT!

In Don’t Look Up, a pair of US astronomers, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio, discover that a comet, at least 5km wide, is on a collision path with Earth, and there’s just 6 months until impact. Such an impact would cause a planet-wide extinction event.

They present their findings to the president of the US, played by Meryl Streep – seemingly a female version of Donald Trump (even going so far as to show her son as Chief of Staff in a nepotistic hire). The president is a former reality TV star and anti-intellectual.

The president is apathetic about it and more concerned about image and approval ratings. The astronomers then leak the news to a talk show, complete with plastic, vapid hosts who don’t take the threat seriously. Lawrence’s character loses composure and rants about the danger, prompting mockery of her online (which I felt completely reflected reality).

Rocked by a sex scandal and afraid of the political fallout, the president then backs a project to attempt to alter the comet’s course by striking it with nukes. It’s then proposed that the comet potentially contains valuable rare-earth elements, so a billionaire CEO of a tech company comes up with a project to splinter the comet into fragments and recover the bounty. Unsurprisingly, the mission by the tech company to fragment the comet fails, with most of its landers failing.

The political landscape divides into those who “believe the science” and those who want to deny it, with some casting doubts on whether the comet actually exists. Lawrence’s character goes to visit her parents, where she’s not welcome. My favourite line from the movie is where one of her parents says “We’re for the jobs that the comet will provide”.

Eventually the comet is so close that people can see its reality by just looking up into the night sky (though I’m sceptical that most US cities have low enough light pollution to make this possible). But those opposing the science are wearing MAGA-esque hats with the slogan “Don’t Look Up” across them. This has obviously echoes of the COVID pandemic, and of climate change. 

Unsurprisingly, with the failure of the mission by the tech company, the comet then inevitably collides with Earth, with catastrophic consequences. But the elites (including the president) have managed to escape Earth on a spaceship, cryogenically frozen, then revived 22,000 years into the future on a habitable Earth-like planet. The ending is amusing, so I’ll leave that for you to see (it’s after the credits).

The movie is really about climate change, and our lack of action on it, and how the rich and privileged will be able to be shielded from its worst consequences. Indeed, with allusion to Elon Musk, there’s the obvious expectation that we can just find a replacement planet to inhabit. 

Professor Brian Cox did an interview video that discusses the movie. Interestingly, he seems to have missed the point a bit, and focused on how accurate the science is around comets (or asteroids) and their potential to crash into our planet and cause a catastrophe, completely ignoring climate change. To be fair to Cox, perhaps he was asked to comment on the accuracy of the science behind the movie, so perhaps the climate change aspects of it were out of scope.

Ultimately the movie is a piece of fairly heavy-handed satire that fans of science will probably appreciate for its depressing reflections of the reality of our world, but probably won’t play well with the end of the demographic that denies the reality of our collective predicament.

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Drownings and the road toll

Over the past week or so we’ve seen headlines separately related to the magnitude of the holiday road toll, and high number of summer drownings.

To me, it seems that it’s human nature to clutch at any variation in the statistics and try to make sense of it. I think there’s a lot of randomness in the number of people dying on the roads, but I can understand the police wanting to get people to drive more carefully and avoid mistakes that lead to deadly crashes. 

Every life lost on the roads is a tragedy and we should aim to minimise this. But when you look at the statistics over time, travel on the road has become safer. Cars are better manufactured and more safely designed, and our fleet has modernised, though there’s still a lot of “old clunkers” on the roads. 

But, this year’s holiday road toll is at the high end historically, with 17 people losing their lives. I wonder whether being out of lockdown, and people wanting to do a summer road trip, has seen more cars on the roads, and consequently more crashes. And there I go, as others do, trying to rationalise the numbers!

The same applies to drownings at our beaches and rivers, with 14 people sadly drowned – the highest number in 25 years. 

Now it’s all very well to have some thoughts about the potential factors behind these fatalities, but there are those amongst us who go off the deep end (no pun intended). In the most ridiculous of takes, we have Sue Grey (anti-vax lawyer), who we’ve mentioned multiple times in the past, now trying to draw a relationship between the COVID vaccines and the drownings and the road toll. 


Sue Grey writes: Has anyone looks (sic) at factors that might explain the large number of car and swimming accidents. Are there any novel medical treatments or other factors that might explain this?

So apparently, according to Sue Grey, the COVID vaccine is now offered as an explanation for increased drownings and car crashes. Hmmm… it seems she’ll clutch at anything to discredit vaccines.

But, on the other hand, she’s also tried to blame the death of a 23-year-old Australian man, who was into powerlifting, on the vaccine. According to Grey, young and healthy people don’t die of COVID, so if they do, it was probably the vaccine, not COVID.

Coming this year, she and other anti-vaxxers are launching what they refer to as the “People’s Inquiry” into the NZ COVID response:

An inquiry by the people, for the people, to ask and answer the questions that the government, media and big pharma have suppressed, and to make recommendations about an exit strategy and reclaiming democracy

Sarcasm: I’m sure that it will be totally rational and they’ll get to the bottom of things, presenting cogent facts for all to see! More likely, they’ll have some pre-determined conclusions that they just want to reinforce.

Still, perhaps 2022 will be the year that the NZ Law Society releases a decision about Sue Grey. Their investigation began back in November – one wonders why these things take so long. And then there’s the case of the Kaiapoi doctors offering vaccine exemptions along with their weight loss advice. Hopefully we’ll hear an outcome of this soon too.

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JWST unfurled

In my last newsletter I wrote about the successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. Post launch there were many operations that it had to go through to be successfully deployed, the most major of which included its unfolding. 

It’s now reported that the telescope’s unfolding has completed. There were a total of 344 potential points of failure – now all but 49 of these have been “retired”. It would seem that most of the potential and highest risk failure points have passed. 

It’s probably fair to say that the potential problems may have been exaggerated, at least in the media, so as to “keep us on the edge of our seats”. But, the fact that it’s been successful is a tribute to the engineering talent and planning on the project.

Now we must await the telescope to cool down to its operational temperature of 40K or about -223C. Cooling down in the vacuum of space isn’t something that happens quickly – we must wait for the heat to radiate away as a vacuum is a pretty good insulator!

The telescope is on its journey to the L2 Lagrange Point between the Sun and Earth, now being about three quarters of the way there. It will be late June before we see any images, but I’m sure it will be worth the wait.

NASA has put together a nice set of animations that show the unfolding that has now taken place.

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Scientists under attack

This week it’s been reported that University of Auckland scientists Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles and Professor Sean Hendy have taken a case to the Employment Relations Authority. They’re claiming that their employer – the university – hasn’t done enough to protect them from attack by people upset with their science communication and public comment on COVID-related issues. They describe their attackers as “a small but venomous sector of the public”.

The authority has agreed to expedite their cases, which seems sensible given the potential danger they face. 

Wiles and Hendy have argued that part of their roles is to publicise their work, for which we should be thankful. Their work has directly influenced the government response to the pandemic.

The university has argued that they should address safety concerns by keeping public comment to a minimum. This seems unreasonable and a bit of a cop-out. The university has previously asked them to comment publicly in their role as employees and for the Prime Minister’s Office. It would seem that the university is happy to receive the positive benefits of the publicity without having to be responsible for any undesirable outcomes.

Siouxsie’s written up her experience in The Guardian.

Siouxsie and Sean aren’t alone. Professor Michael Baker, from the University of Otago, has also reported abuse, as detailed in the Otago Daily Times (thanks to David Crook for providing the article).

An interesting point in that article is that scientists and academics who’ve chosen to limit their comment to only their areas of academic expertise have been subject to less abuse – sort of limiting the attack surface, so to speak. But still, that article makes the point that the abuse has a chilling effect – that previously communicative scientists and academics are withdrawing from public comment – something which is pretty scary given our collective dependence on scientific literacy.

Commenting publicly is something we all benefit from and academics should be able to do this without suffering abuse or having to be worried for their personal safety. 

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‘Tis the season

If you’re a member of NZ Skeptics you should receive a reminder to renew your subs soon. If you’re not currently a member, you can join us for a very reasonable cost.

 


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: Happy New Year!


96

Skeptic News: Happy New Year!

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Happy New Year!


Happy New Year to you all, and thank you for your support over the last year. We had a very successful conference late last year, and our membership has been slowly increasing, which is great! If you’re a paid-up member, thank you for your financial support and you should be receiving a reminder to pay your (very reasonable) subscription soon. And if you’re not currently a member, you can always rectify that situation by joining us.

This year we’re continuing our monthly national Skeptics in Cyberspace meetings, where we all jump into a Zoom meeting together – and the next meeting is this Friday evening. If you would like to join us for a chin wag and some BYO beer, just ensure you’re a member of one of the Meetup groups below and RSVP to the next “Cyberspace” meeting:

https://www.meetup.com/Auckland-Skeptics-in-the-Pub/events/283005439/
https://www.meetup.com/Wellington-Skeptics-in-the-Pub/events/283005428/
https://www.meetup.com/Christchurch-Skeptics-in-the-Pub/events/283005445/

First up in this week’s newsletter we have another great Why are You a Skeptic segment, this time from Lance Kennedy. Please keep them coming! I for one am finding the telling of your Road to (Skeptical) Damascus moments fascinating, and each of them so far has included at least one topic that’s been new to me and I’ve enjoyed reading up on. With that, over to Lance and some UFO photos.

Mark Honeychurch

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Why are You a Skeptic

Lance Kennedy

 

I can blame my skepticism on George Adamski.

For those who do not know, that unworthy gentleman made money writing books about non-existent aliens. He even went to the extent of writing that his alien friends in their miraculous space vehicles took him on joy rides around our solar system. To back up his claims he published, in his books, a photo of a circular flying saucer against a cloudy sky.

To my shame, I was taken in. My excuse is that I was in my early teens and somewhat naive.

The turning point came when I encountered a magazine article about George Adamski, which very effectively debunked everything he had written. Of note is the fact that the article had a photo that was almost identical to the one Adamski had published, of the flying saucer. Except that the background sky and clouds were totally different. The author of the article had taken the photo by the simple expedient of throwing a steel rubbish tin lid into the air, spinning, and then snapping his picture against the background of the sky. It was immediately obvious that Adamski was a cheat.

Frankly, I was utterly mortified. My horror was that I could be so gullible. Since then I have been a lot more discriminating in what I am prepared to accept as true and correct. Like every good skeptic, I now require credible evidence. My standard is that if something extraordinary is to be believed, the evidence must be strong enough to get it published in a reputable and peer reviewed research journal such as “Nature” or “The Lancet.” Any claim not so published is to be taken with a mountain of salt.

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Lotus-Heart fined for “taking a stand”

The Lotus-Heart restaurant in Christchurch has chosen to take a stand against vaccine mandates, by refusing to let customers know if they require a vaccine pass, not promoting use of their COVID Tracer QR Code, and not having any system in place to check vaccine passes. As a result they have been fined $20,000 dollars by WorkSafe.

Other people and businesses have been doing well when it comes to raising money for their COVID weirdness on the popular fundraising site Givealittle. This includes an Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) gym who were given a $12,000 fine, and have since raised over $40,000 to help fight (no pun intended) in court what they claim are unjust mandates, and Casey Hodgkinson who claims she has been injured by the Pfizer vaccine and has raised over $12,000 to fund alternative treatments.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar Givealittle page popped up soon for the Lotus Heart, although presumably this kind of fundraising will only inspire generosity the first few times it’s attempted. Once a few more companies have used this method to help pay the consequences of their bad decisions, I suspect they’ll start to find it get harder and harder to enthuse people enough to donate their money – especially as many of those who are likely to donate are also likely to be unvaccinated, with a good chance that this has affected their employment and subsequent financial status.

And I fully expect to see some of the usual names pop up when and if these cases end up in court – Sue Grey, Liz Lambert and Ashleigh Fechney (who you may hear more about in an upcoming newsletter) all spring to mind, as they all seem more than happy to take money in exchange for bad legal advice or representation. Stay tuned for more.

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An unusual vaccine endorsement

A surprising endorsement of COVID vaccines came out recently – from none other than Donald Trump. Trump has a spotty history when it comes to supporting good science, and he’s well known to skeptics for touting several unproven cures (including that particularly confusing press conference where he talked about bleach and an internal UV light).

However, Trump recently said (in an interview with another dubious character, Candace Owens):

“The vaccines work, but some people aren’t taking it. The ones that get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones who don’t take the vaccine. But it’s still their choice. And if you take the vaccine you’re protected. The results of the vaccine are very good and if you do get it’s a very minor form. People aren’t dying if they take the vaccine.”

So, given Trump’s often tenuous grasp of reality, and the many dangerous Republican policies around COVID in the US, why would Trump be boasting about how well the vaccines work? Well, it’s because he thinks the vaccines are his achievement. From the same interview:

“The vaccine is one of the greatest achievements of mankind… I came up with three vaccines… in less than 9 months. It was supposed to take five to twelve years.”

I’m not sure how the many scientists who worked tirelessly on the vaccines for many months feel about this, but personally I’m inclined to let this one slide. Many of the Republican rank and file still look up to Trump, indeed many somehow believe he is still their rightful President. So if Trump is able to convince some of these vaccine hesitant Republicans to get themselves vaccinated, that’s a win in my book.

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Nuclear Gandhi

As a programmer, I love a good story about buggy software. Maybe it makes me feel better about my own mistakes! So when I recently heard about a fun bug in the strategy game Civilisation, from way back in 1991, I was intrigued. Apparently the fallout from this particular code error (no pun intended) was that the peaceful world leader Mahatma Gandhi would suddenly become very fond of amassing and using nuclear weapons – a quirk that has been named Nuclear Gandhi.


The source of this problem has been described as an integer overflow (or underflow) bug. In software, integers (and other data types) are often saved with a certain number of bytes. A byte is made up of eight binary bits, making a byte able to hold one of 256 possible values. To store an integer using one byte, we could store a value between 0 to 255, or, if we want to be able to store negative numbers as well, a value between -128 and 127. These are called unsigned and signed integers respectively.

Now, sometimes if you try to store a number larger or smaller than the limit of your data type allows, it will roll around. So for an unsigned integer (from 0 to 255), trying to save the number 256 would actually just store a 0. And an attempt to store a -5 would end up saving the value 251.

And so we come to Civilisation. As Wikipedia describes it:

Civilization is a turn-based single or multiplayer strategy game. The player takes on the role of the ruler of a civilization, starting with one (or occasionally two) settler units, and attempts to build an empire in competition with two to seven other civilizations… Before the game begins, the player chooses which historical or current civilization to play… The game begins in 4000 BC, before the Bronze Age, and can last through to AD 2100 (on the easiest setting) with Space Age and “future technologies”.

Obviously a game like this uses a lot of variables in code to store values for many different attributes for all of the game’s mechanics, including those of how each world leader will act. 

The bug that caused Gandhi to gain an affinity for nukes was apparently related to an unsigned single byte integer used to store each leader’s aggression level. These levels could be anything from 1 to 10 (or maybe 12), with numbers above that (up to 255) not being used.

The story of this bug is that Gandhi was the only world leader assigned the lowest possible value of 1 for aggression. But, whenever a nation moved to democracy, this was seen by the game as a peaceful step, and the leader’s aggression level was dropped by 2. For Gandhi, this would put his aggression at -1. But, because an unsigned integer was used, this would end up being saved as an aggression level of 255. And Gandhi with nukes and an aggression level 20 times higher than anyone else in the game was not something you wanted to have to deal with.

This particular bug is frequently used as a warning to programmers of the perils of not using the correct data type for storing your data, including in courses at Harvard University.

However, if that was all there was to it, it wouldn’t be much of a skeptical story. Not only did I learn about Nuclear Gandhi only recently (strategy games aren’t really my thing), but I also learned that the bug is almost certainly not real – despite the fact that many people have attested to having experienced it.

This video from a few years ago does a great job of delving into the details, including contacting creators Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley:



Spoiler: it looks like the bug didn’t exist at all. Brian Reynolds, one of the game’s coders, remembers there only being 3 aggression levels (not 10 or 12), and that the lowest level was assigned by default to all world leaders. Additionally, he thinks the code engine for the early Civilisation games wouldn’t have suffered from a wraparound integer bug causing variables to become extremely large. Instead he suggests that other factors were likely to blame for people’s recollections of Gandhi being aggressive with nuclear weapons in the game. The game had code to make any leader with nukes become aggressive, and this, coupled with how surprising it would be to see peace-loving Gandhi suddenly become aggressive, likely left an impression in people’s minds that other leaders becoming aggressive wouldn’t. So Nuclear Gandhi is more about people’s preconceived notions of how Gandhi should act in the game, rather than a glitch in the code.

An interesting point is that ensuing Civilisation games, starting at Civilisation V, ended up programming Gandhi to have the maximum values for both building and using nukes. This was balanced in game by assigning a fixed role of Peacekeeper to Gandhi’s character, making his predilection for nukes a rare but real possibility (depending on which other roles he acquired). This retrospective adding of the non-existent Nuclear Gandhi bug as a feature in later games may have cemented the idea in many people’s minds that the original game also had this peculiar behaviour.

 


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: Lift off, the end of the year, and Barry tells us why he’s a skeptic


96

Skeptic News: Lift off, the end of the year, and Barry tells us why he’s a skeptic

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.
 

I hope this newsletters finds you well and that a pleasant Christmas was had. 

This year there were claims that Santa’s deliveries would result in a COVID “super-spreader event” happening. Of course, we’ll probably have to wait for a few weeks to see whether this has eventuated. However, the skeptic in me is doubtful of Santa’s existence, so perhaps that would rule out the basis of that story.

Anyway, I hope that nobody got anything particularly pseudoscientific as a gift, and that any conversations with family members were rationally based. I can but dream… 

It’s Boxing Day as I write this – another lovely sunny day in Auckland (as was Christmas Day) with an almost clear blue sky outside, and some lovely warm water at the beach. So this newsletter is going to be quite short.

Wishing you enjoy what remains of 2021 and that you experience a celebratory transition into 2022.

Craig Shearer

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We have lift off

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has successfully launched!

The telescope project, 30 years in the making, is now heading to the L2 Earth-Sun Lagrange Point, about 1.5 million kilometres from Earth. 

You’ll recall the flaws with the Hubble Space Telescope’s optics were able to be fixed by adding corrective mirrors during a visit by astronauts on the Space Shuttle. Not so for the new telescope – with the L2 Lagrange point being well outside the reach of any manned missions with our current technology.

We can only hope that the project is a success, but of course, its success will be due to the countless hours that scientists and engineers have dedicated to the project over the previous decades, and will continue to do so for its projected 10 year lifespan.

The new telescope’s mirror is 3.5 times the size of Hubble’s, allowing us to see further back in time, possibly to within 100 million years after the Big Bang, back to the formation of the first stars. It should allow us to see how the first stars and galaxies formed. (Of course, 100 million years is still an unfathomably long time!) It may also reveal details as to why there are supermassive black holes at the centre of galaxies.

The telescope will also be more sensitive than Hubble in the infrared wavelengths, allowing us to see more detail.

As well as peering back in time closer to the beginning of the universe, the telescope will allow imaging of exoplanets, including spectrographic analysis of their atmospheres (if they have them). This is really exciting stuff as it potentially allows chemical signatures of life to be remotely detected – at least what we think might be signs that life might exist.

And, they’re planning on pointing the telescope at Titan – one of Saturn’s moons. That could reveal some exciting new knowledge.

Alas, we’ve got about 6 – 7 months to wait until the first images are released – but wow, what a time to be alive – I’m excited to learn about all the discoveries that are going to be made!

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Vaccination stats

I think we have cause to celebrate. Despite not knowing what 2022 will bring, Aotearoa/New Zealand has a pretty high rate of vaccination – with over 91% of the eligible population having received two doses, though with Maori still under 80%. 

Boosters are on the horizon for many (I’ll be getting mine mid-January), and I’m thankful that 5 – 12 year olds will be able to get vaccinated too. 

It’s unfortunate that the perception of the vaccine is that you get it and then you’re protected for the rest of your life. Alas, this isn’t the reality. It does seem likely that relatively frequent boosters will be required, at least with the current technology. We are used to having a yearly vaccine against Influenza, and being required to get a Tetanus booster, so why not against Covid-19 as well. 

Omicron at this stage seems to be less virulent than Delta, though more contagious. Who knows what the next variant will deliver. 

The fact remains that the best defence against getting sick is to get vaccinated and encourage others to do so too. 

Anti-vaxxers have largely lost their battle. It does seem that most of the population have been skeptical of their claims – and that is cause for celebration.

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Why are you a skeptic, Barry Lennox?

Continuing on from Mark’s item last week, long-time skeptic and former committee member Barry Lennox gives us his views…

 

Why did I become a skeptic?  Well, the first stirrings occurred at about 6 or 7. We lived in a small town in Central Otago, and a popular local man was electrocuted. Next day at school, our teacher exhorted us to never ever touch a bare power wire. Just then, I happened to see outside the window, some birds sitting on the power lines. So “Please Miss, the birds are sitting on the line, they look OK”  After some hemming and hawing, we were told “Err, Ahh, that’s because they have special feet”  Well my knowledge of electricity was almost zero then, but somehow, I had a small sense of sensing BS. Later that day I asked my father who gave me the correct version. Moral, be sceptical of school teachers!

Then a few years later we had moved to a farm in North Otago, and Sunday School was compulsory for me (Thanks, Mum) One day our teacher solemnly advised us that God is like electricity, you can’t see it, you can’t feel it, but it’s there.  My BS detector dinged. I could see electricity, at least lightning; OK, not really the same but near enough for me. I could certainly feel it as many electric fence shocks taught me. We had a lot of these as most of our stock was pigs, and electric fences are the only fence a pig will respect.  I also had a bit of knowledge, as I was starting to mess about with crystal sets, and even had a “Hikers One” radio underway. Anybody remember it?

The Hiker One radio set


(I found a picture of the Hiker One – Craig)

Several months later I was reading a long article about a series of catastrophic airline crashes, mainly the DH Comet but others too. What struck me was people who missed a flight for various reasons were quick to proclaim “God was looking after me” This was puzzling and a few weeks later I had the cheek to ask the Sunday School teacher.. “Why did God only save 1 person and let the other 150-200 die?”  The tense reply was “God works in mysterious ways” in a tone that implied I should never display such skepticism again.

What started the more aggressive skeptic phase was working with a chap (a semi-conspiracy theorist and an NRA member) about 30 years ago, who had this habit of appearing each water-cooler break with another “Wow, didja hear this amazing story” There were many; here’s one sample.  It was the old tale about the charred remains of a scuba diver found in a tree after a forest fire. Check it out… 


Almost every day, this went on and on and on, until a few of us got a little tetchy with him. Not for us the kind empathetic understanding their worldview stuff. Nevertheless it took some weeks to get it knocked off. About then a couple of us cooked up our own fake “didja hear this amazing story” and propagated it to him and around the traps, Sadly it was never popular enough to make it into Snopes!

These days, it’s the psychics, homeopaths and all the other alt-med peddlers, antivaxx ravers, the scammers and others that arouse my ire.  When I become President for life, there will be a new Act that puts woo peddlers who take money off desperate terminally ill people, into the most hellish prison imaginable!

However a friend of ours was taken in by a very cunning banking scam and lost a lot of money. There were a few ignored warning signs, but at the time she had a lot going on in her life, and the scammers had impeccable English (operating ex Sydney) and a great cover story.  One of the more disturbing aspects was the lack of interest by the NZ Police, whereas the Australian Federal Police helped a lot and were instrumental in recovering some of the money.

Be careful and skeptical out there. My creed is…. Nice Story, now show me the evidence! And, “What is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence” 

 

Thanks Barry. If you’d like to contribute your story, please email [email protected] 

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So, that’s it for the newsletter this week. 

By the way, NZ Skeptics held a successful AGM a couple of weeks ago, with a good turnout of members in addition to the committee. We’ve got some interesting developments planned for the newsletter in the year ahead which will hopefully expand its reach. Watch this space!


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: Mud, Medium, Messiah.


96

Skeptic News: Mud, Medium, Messiah.

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Why I am a Skeptic


Last week Craig introduced a new section to our newsletter, which he’s named Why Are You A Skeptic. We’re keen to hear from each of you about why you’re a skeptic, and to publish your stories in the newsletter. If you’re up for it, please send your story to [email protected]. For now, here’s my story of how I came to skepticism, and why I’m involved with the NZ Skeptics:

I grew up as a fairly inquisitive kid, and liked to challenge those who tried to push religion on us impressionable kids – the church leaders who came in to talk at school assemblies, adults who ran the local youth group, etc. After a weird period in my teens and twenties when I became a Christian, I returned to my atheist roots with a vengeance, upset with myself that I’d let myself be fooled into believing such nonsense.

From atheism, it was a short hop to what I consider the wider field of skepticism. Not only were gods nonsense, but so were psychics, acupuncturists and UFO hunters. The more I read, the more I realised that there are a lot of people out there who, whether they are misguided or malicious, are selling people a lie. From a $50 Reiki session to a $5,000 speaker cable, unscrupulous sellers everywhere were, and are, using lies and falsehoods to make a quick buck.

After a few years of consuming skeptical content online, I decided I wanted to do something practical, something of use. So I went along to my local Skeptics in the Pub to see what other skeptics were up to. It was refreshing to meet a group of people who had the same worldview as I had. Although the regulars at the Wellington Skeptics in the Pub came from a wide range of backgrounds and professions, and were/are a weird and wonderful group, we all had the same respect for evidence and critical thinking – and that made it feel like I belonged. Since joining Skeptics in the Pub I’ve also joined the NZ Skeptics and helped form the Society for Science Based Heatlhcare, and I’ve tried to help make a difference where I can.

I think the reason I’m a skeptic is because I see all the scammers and the con artists out there, the preachers and the conspiracy theorists, the naturopaths and the vaccine deniers, and I want to do something about it. I want to help to stop these people from making people’s lives worse, and I think this can be done by shining a light on their bullshit, warning others about how ineffective, costly and sometimes dangerous their nonsense can be, and reporting them to the relevant authorities or professional bodies when they’re behaving in an unethical manner. Working with others in the skeptical community has been a good way to tackle those who try to take advantage of others.

Mark Honeychurch

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Black Oxygen Organics – a new panacea

Black Oxygen Organics is a recent craze in alternative medicine. Many people swear by it, saying that it can treat all sorts of conditions – from heart issues and ADHD to COVID and cancer.

But what is it, who’s behind it, and does it work? Well, it turns out the answers to the first two questions will help us to figure out the third one.

The Black Oxygen Organics website (now archived) calls their product “A gift from the ground” and says:

“Fulvic acid is the end product and smallest particle of the decomposition of ancient, organic matter. Organic matter is just a fancy way of saying peat bog. When extracted, purified and delivered in a liquid supplement form, it carries all the nutritional information, anti-oxidant capacity and genetic coding of everything in that decomposed matter.”

So, basically this product is dirt. It’s fairly interesting dirt, as it’s being dug up from the bottom of a peat bog, and has been sitting there for thousands of years breaking down into chemicals such as fulvic acid, but it’s still dirt – and as such this is a very complex mix of chemicals, bacteria and all sorts of stuff. And people are meant to mix it with water and then spread it on their skin, bathe their children in it, and even drink it.

Of course, with something sciencey sounding like fulvic acid, there are going to be unscrupulous people who claim it has healing powers. And the internet is awash with companies selling fulvic acid tonics, drops, pills, powders and lotions. Even in NZ we have companies selling this cure-all and making claims about its amazing abilities.

Black Oxygen Organics, though, has been doing it differently. The company has been advertising their miracle mud through Instagram and Tik Tok, using the hashtag #BOO and harnessing the power of media influencers who are compensated for getting new customers to sign up to buy the dirt, through a Multi Level Marketing scheme – and at $110 for a small bag of dirt. And when it comes to this social media advertising, medical claims are being made by “independent agents” of this MLM, so you end up with an ever escalating list of fantastical claims being made – and an inability for the authorities to police the problem as it’s so widespread. And that’s how the company can get away with making claims of being able to treat autism, cancer and COVID – because technically the company itself isn’t making the claims, their “agents” are.

So, who’s behind this product? Marc Saint-Onge is the creator of Black Oxygen Organics, and it turns out that this isn’t his first time selling peat bog to unsuspecting customers:



Marc’s been in trouble in his native Canada since the 80s, when he was fined for practising medicine without a licence. As we just heard, Marc used to run a company called Golden Moor. That’s just one of several companies he’s created over the years since he was first in trouble – he’s also run Anti-Rheuma Bath and NuWTR. He also mentioned that he learned orthotherapy, a massage technique that claims to be able to treat medical conditions, and elsewhere he’s claimed hat he’s a naturopath, reiki master, herbalist and aromatherapist – all classic red flags, as these are all well known to be disproven alternative therapies.

So the claims are hard to believe, and the man has a history of selling mud and getting in trouble for it. But what about the evidence? Of course, there is none – or at least there’s no good quality evidence. That’s par for the course with alternative medicine. But there’s now so many bad claims on the internet that the website WebMD warns:

“People use fulvic acid for conditions such as allergies, eczema (atopic dermatitis), cancer, Alzheimer disease, and others, but there is no good scientific evidence to support these uses.”

Beyond the baseless medical claims, in the US testing has been done on the Black Oxygen Organics product, showing that it has elevated levels of lead and arsenic. So this product is not only useless, it’s potentially dangerous. And this is pretty ironic, given that one of the claims made about the product is that it works as a heavy metal detox.

Marc’s LinkedIn page has been deleted, and his company has recently closed down, as has happened with Marc’s previous mud selling companies. Health Canada has been proactive in making this happen, including forcing a recall of their products and putting out an announcement that said things plainly:

“Stop taking these products”

But it looks like there’s a pattern here, though, and Marc will likely be back soon with another company selling his mud to unsuspecting consumers. Now, though, it seems like he’s learned the power of social media, and the ability of Multi Level Marketing schemes to hook people in, and so I suspect his next venture, if he doesn’t end up behind bars, will make him a lot of money again.

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The Tiger King Psychic

I’m sure most people know the story of the Tiger King, a documentary series which became required viewing last year around the world when many countries went into lockdown. The series followed Joe Exotic, a flamboyant character who ran a big cat attraction and ended up behind bars for some of his questionable life decisions.

Season 2 of the show is now out, and I’ve been watching it recently. Given that Joe Exotic ended up in jail at the end of season 1, season two aims its focus elsewhere – concentrating on the disappearance of Carole Baskin’s husband Don Lewis, over 20 years ago.

In the middle of the season, Don’s now middle-aged children are shown trying to find out what happened to their father, employing a gimmicky lawyer and a conspiracy minded internet sleuth to help them. But one person in particular caught my eye – Troy Griffin, a psychic:



His title is a mouthful – “Christian Clairvoyant Empathic Psychic Medium”. Troy apparently uses remote viewing, and for murders can use this “skill” to find locations of interest.

From what I’ve found online, Troy claims that he works for police departments, charging up to $250 an hour. He told ABC news, who interviewed him as part of a story of a missing pregnant woman, that his success rate is around 20% (which is interestingly a lot more humble than many psychic detectives), but when pressed by ABC to give one example that they could look into, he couldn’t even manage to name one. The news company contacted the police about the pregnant woman case, to hear from them about Troy’s claims of being involved in the investigation, but the police said they had had “no official contact” with him and were unaware that he was involved at all.

In front of the cameras for season 2 of the Tiger King, Troy went looking for the place where Don was supposedly killed. When he finds what he thinks is the location, he talks of feeling “bad juju” and then he starts retching and becomes visibly upset – so much so, that the daughter of the deceased man has to comfort him.

To me, this is the absolute pits. I’ve always liked using the term grief vampire to refer to psychics, but to pretend that you’ve psychically connected to a traumatic event, and then play-act that you are affected by this trauma to the extent that a grieving family has to comfort you, is taking it to another level. This man had the nerve to appear on camera feeding on the emotions of a missing, possibly murdered, man’s children, getting them to give him attention and sympathy for his fake emotional state. Ugh.
 

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Brian Tamaki is God

A couple of weeks ago I attended an online sermon from Destiny Church with a few friends. The sermon started off fairly tame, with Brian joking about viewers eating popcorn – so I went and grabbed a bag of popcorn for us to eat while we watched. I figured it was the least a group of heathens could do.

Brian continued a series of sermons he’s been giving for a few weeks now, about Revelation and the End of Days. Hilariously, when I checked the previous week’s sermon on YouTube this morning it came up with exactly 666 views:
 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaq2IKPjy0g

Brian’s been telling his congregation that the end is nigh, but not too nigh. In fact, he made the claim that the end could come now, but he’s asked God to hold off – apparently Brian wants to have some “fun” before the end comes, so he’s applied for a time-out.

Brian spent some time talking about money, and how it is an idol that people worship – as he broadcast from his multi-million dollar mansion. He said that he is immune to the dangers of money, because he has money but money doesn’t have him. He went on to talk about other idols that people have, and said that the Sky Tower in Auckland is another idol – apparently it’s shaped like a vaccine needle, and we’re all worshipping this idol at the moment, rather than God. Brian’s message was very anti-vaccine, but at no point did he mention whether he has been vaccinated himself – I have my suspicions that he probably has been.

Eventually Brian, who has given himself promotions from Pastor to Bishop to Apostle, went one further. He talked about how one of the issues with the modern church is that, for all the good work they may do, nobody is willing to take the bold step of proclaiming that they are God – that God is a part of them. And of course Brian spelled out that he considers himself to be one with God – that, in part, he is God.

As a small mercy, viewership of the live stream never even reached 100 people, so it wasn’t a great turnout – although maybe many of these viewers were entire families and possibly some people decided to watch the stream later on rather than streaming it live. But I hold out hope that, when given the choice to not watch Brian Tamaki spread his nonsense without them being spotted, many of his congregation just decided they’d rather have an extra couple of hours in bed!

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Sneaky Scientology

Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital made the news last week, with an 89 year old man being charged for his part in the abuse of children who were under the hospital’s care in the 1970s. Dr Selwyn Leeks, who was the lead psychiatrist at the centre, has been charged with “wilful ill treatment of a child”, but due to his ill health will not be prosecuted.

The media were obviously working hard to report on this news, and had been looking for experts to give them some informed opinions. Sadly for 3 News, they ended up being tricked into believing that the Citizens Commission for Human Rights (CCHR) is a legitimate, reputable organisation. In reality it’s a front organisation setup by Scientology, as a way to promote one of the many strange ideas that founder L. Ron Hubbard had – the idea that psychiatry is evil. The organisation’s website doesn’t even exist – there’s just a parking page:
 

L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology (an abusive group that deceivingly calls itself a religion) had mental health problems through most of his life, and was apparently dependent on psychiatric drugs. Possibly because of this dependence, he declared that psychiatry is all just a big lie, and that it is an “industry of death”. They even run a museum in Hollywood called “Psychiatry: An Industry of Death”. This is yet another of Hubbard’s weird ideas that Scientologists today are expected to continue with. As an illustration of just how oppressive Hubbard’s ideas are to Scientologists, I’ve heard that there’s a rule which means that Scientologists can only clean windows with vinegar and newspaper – because, according to L. Ron Hubbard, that’s all you should ever need for the job. I’ve taken some Scientology courses online, and they’re all about imparting Hubbard’s “wisdom” to followers – discredited ideas about how the mind works, how to learn properly, how to avoid trauma, and so on.

3 News ended up interviewing Mike Ferris, a well known Scientologist in New Zealand, last week – treating him like an expert. This isn’t overly surprising as it appears that Mike, and the CCHR, have also conned the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care into thinking that they are a legitimate organisation. Mike gave evidence to the commission in June this year.

In reality the Citizens Commission on Human Rights is just a mouthpiece for the ideological ideas of L. Ron Hubbard, a man who created a dangerous cult and hated psychiatry. It’s worrying to see victims, officials and the media all being hoodwinked by Scientology. These people are not involved because they want to help the victims, they just have an axe to grind – and, in fact, Scientology has mentally and physically mistreated, and continues to mistreat, thousands of its members every day.
 


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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Facebook

YouTube

Website

Email

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Skeptic News: Mud, Medium, Messiah.


96

Skeptic News: Mud, Medium, Messiah.

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Why I am a Skeptic


Last week Craig introduced a new section to our newsletter, which he’s named Why Are You A Skeptic. We’re keen to hear from each of you about why you’re a skeptic, and to publish your stories in the newsletter. If you’re up for it, please send your story to [email protected]. For now, here’s my story of how I came to skepticism, and why I’m involved with the NZ Skeptics:

I grew up as a fairly inquisitive kid, and liked to challenge those who tried to push religion on us impressionable kids – the church leaders who came in to talk at school assemblies, adults who ran the local youth group, etc. After a weird period in my teens and twenties when I became a Christian, I returned to my atheist roots with a vengeance, upset with myself that I’d let myself be fooled into believing such nonsense.

From atheism, it was a short hop to what I consider the wider field of skepticism. Not only were gods nonsense, but so were psychics, acupuncturists and UFO hunters. The more I read, the more I realised that there are a lot of people out there who, whether they are misguided or malicious, are selling people a lie. From a $50 Reiki session to a $5,000 speaker cable, unscrupulous sellers everywhere were, and are, using lies and falsehoods to make a quick buck.

After a few years of consuming skeptical content online, I decided I wanted to do something practical, something of use. So I went along to my local Skeptics in the Pub to see what other skeptics were up to. It was refreshing to meet a group of people who had the same worldview as I had. Although the regulars at the Wellington Skeptics in the Pub came from a wide range of backgrounds and professions, and were/are a weird and wonderful group, we all had the same respect for evidence and critical thinking – and that made it feel like I belonged. Since joining Skeptics in the Pub I’ve also joined the NZ Skeptics and helped form the Society for Science Based Heatlhcare, and I’ve tried to help make a difference where I can.

I think the reason I’m a skeptic is because I see all the scammers and the con artists out there, the preachers and the conspiracy theorists, the naturopaths and the vaccine deniers, and I want to do something about it. I want to help to stop these people from making people’s lives worse, and I think this can be done by shining a light on their bullshit, warning others about how ineffective, costly and sometimes dangerous their nonsense can be, and reporting them to the relevant authorities or professional bodies when they’re behaving in an unethical manner. Working with others in the skeptical community has been a good way to tackle those who try to take advantage of others.

Mark Honeychurch

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Black Oxygen Organics – a new panacea

Black Oxygen Organics is a recent craze in alternative medicine. Many people swear by it, saying that it can treat all sorts of conditions – from heart issues and ADHD to COVID and cancer.

But what is it, who’s behind it, and does it work? Well, it turns out the answers to the first two questions will help us to figure out the third one.

The Black Oxygen Organics website (now archived) calls their product “A gift from the ground” and says:

“Fulvic acid is the end product and smallest particle of the decomposition of ancient, organic matter. Organic matter is just a fancy way of saying peat bog. When extracted, purified and delivered in a liquid supplement form, it carries all the nutritional information, anti-oxidant capacity and genetic coding of everything in that decomposed matter.”

So, basically this product is dirt. It’s fairly interesting dirt, as it’s being dug up from the bottom of a peat bog, and has been sitting there for thousands of years breaking down into chemicals such as fulvic acid, but it’s still dirt – and as such this is a very complex mix of chemicals, bacteria and all sorts of stuff. And people are meant to mix it with water and then spread it on their skin, bathe their children in it, and even drink it.

Of course, with something sciencey sounding like fulvic acid, there are going to be unscrupulous people who claim it has healing powers. And the internet is awash with companies selling fulvic acid tonics, drops, pills, powders and lotions. Even in NZ we have companies selling this cure-all and making claims about its amazing abilities.

Black Oxygen Organics, though, has been doing it differently. The company has been advertising their miracle mud through Instagram and Tik Tok, using the hashtag #BOO and harnessing the power of media influencers who are compensated for getting new customers to sign up to buy the dirt, through a Multi Level Marketing scheme – and at $110 for a small bag of dirt. And when it comes to this social media advertising, medical claims are being made by “independent agents” of this MLM, so you end up with an ever escalating list of fantastical claims being made – and an inability for the authorities to police the problem as it’s so widespread. And that’s how the company can get away with making claims of being able to treat autism, cancer and COVID – because technically the company itself isn’t making the claims, their “agents” are.

So, who’s behind this product? Marc Saint-Onge is the creator of Black Oxygen Organics, and it turns out that this isn’t his first time selling peat bog to unsuspecting customers:



Marc’s been in trouble in his native Canada since the 80s, when he was fined for practising medicine without a licence. As we just heard, Marc used to run a company called Golden Moor. That’s just one of several companies he’s created over the years since he was first in trouble – he’s also run Anti-Rheuma Bath and NuWTR. He also mentioned that he learned orthotherapy, a massage technique that claims to be able to treat medical conditions, and elsewhere he’s claimed hat he’s a naturopath, reiki master, herbalist and aromatherapist – all classic red flags, as these are all well known to be disproven alternative therapies.

So the claims are hard to believe, and the man has a history of selling mud and getting in trouble for it. But what about the evidence? Of course, there is none – or at least there’s no good quality evidence. That’s par for the course with alternative medicine. But there’s now so many bad claims on the internet that the website WebMD warns:

“People use fulvic acid for conditions such as allergies, eczema (atopic dermatitis), cancer, Alzheimer disease, and others, but there is no good scientific evidence to support these uses.”

Beyond the baseless medical claims, in the US testing has been done on the Black Oxygen Organics product, showing that it has elevated levels of lead and arsenic. So this product is not only useless, it’s potentially dangerous. And this is pretty ironic, given that one of the claims made about the product is that it works as a heavy metal detox.

Marc’s LinkedIn page has been deleted, and his company has recently closed down, as has happened with Marc’s previous mud selling companies. Health Canada has been proactive in making this happen, including forcing a recall of their products and putting out an announcement that said things plainly:

“Stop taking these products”

But it looks like there’s a pattern here, though, and Marc will likely be back soon with another company selling his mud to unsuspecting consumers. Now, though, it seems like he’s learned the power of social media, and the ability of Multi Level Marketing schemes to hook people in, and so I suspect his next venture, if he doesn’t end up behind bars, will make him a lot of money again.

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–>


The Tiger King Psychic

I’m sure most people know the story of the Tiger King, a documentary series which became required viewing last year around the world when many countries went into lockdown. The series followed Joe Exotic, a flamboyant character who ran a big cat attraction and ended up behind bars for some of his questionable life decisions.

Season 2 of the show is now out, and I’ve been watching it recently. Given that Joe Exotic ended up in jail at the end of season 1, season two aims its focus elsewhere – concentrating on the disappearance of Carole Baskin’s husband Don Lewis, over 20 years ago.

In the middle of the season, Don’s now middle-aged children are shown trying to find out what happened to their father, employing a gimmicky lawyer and a conspiracy minded internet sleuth to help them. But one person in particular caught my eye – Troy Griffin, a psychic:



His title is a mouthful – “Christian Clairvoyant Empathic Psychic Medium”. Troy apparently uses remote viewing, and for murders can use this “skill” to find locations of interest.

From what I’ve found online, Troy claims that he works for police departments, charging up to $250 an hour. He told ABC news, who interviewed him as part of a story of a missing pregnant woman, that his success rate is around 20% (which is interestingly a lot more humble than many psychic detectives), but when pressed by ABC to give one example that they could look into, he couldn’t even manage to name one. The news company contacted the police about the pregnant woman case, to hear from them about Troy’s claims of being involved in the investigation, but the police said they had had “no official contact” with him and were unaware that he was involved at all.

In front of the cameras for season 2 of the Tiger King, Troy went looking for the place where Don was supposedly killed. When he finds what he thinks is the location, he talks of feeling “bad juju” and then he starts retching and becomes visibly upset – so much so, that the daughter of the deceased man has to comfort him.

To me, this is the absolute pits. I’ve always liked using the term grief vampire to refer to psychics, but to pretend that you’ve psychically connected to a traumatic event, and then play-act that you are affected by this trauma to the extent that a grieving family has to comfort you, is taking it to another level. This man had the nerve to appear on camera feeding on the emotions of a missing, possibly murdered, man’s children, getting them to give him attention and sympathy for his fake emotional state. Ugh.
 

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Brian Tamaki is God

A couple of weeks ago I attended an online sermon from Destiny Church with a few friends. The sermon started off fairly tame, with Brian joking about viewers eating popcorn – so I went and grabbed a bag of popcorn for us to eat while we watched. I figured it was the least a group of heathens could do.

Brian continued a series of sermons he’s been giving for a few weeks now, about Revelation and the End of Days. Hilariously, when I checked the previous week’s sermon on YouTube this morning it came up with exactly 666 views:
 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaq2IKPjy0g

Brian’s been telling his congregation that the end is nigh, but not too nigh. In fact, he made the claim that the end could come now, but he’s asked God to hold off – apparently Brian wants to have some “fun” before the end comes, so he’s applied for a time-out.

Brian spent some time talking about money, and how it is an idol that people worship – as he broadcast from his multi-million dollar mansion. He said that he is immune to the dangers of money, because he has money but money doesn’t have him. He went on to talk about other idols that people have, and said that the Sky Tower in Auckland is another idol – apparently it’s shaped like a vaccine needle, and we’re all worshipping this idol at the moment, rather than God. Brian’s message was very anti-vaccine, but at no point did he mention whether he has been vaccinated himself – I have my suspicions that he probably has been.

Eventually Brian, who has given himself promotions from Pastor to Bishop to Apostle, went one further. He talked about how one of the issues with the modern church is that, for all the good work they may do, nobody is willing to take the bold step of proclaiming that they are God – that God is a part of them. And of course Brian spelled out that he considers himself to be one with God – that, in part, he is God.

As a small mercy, viewership of the live stream never even reached 100 people, so it wasn’t a great turnout – although maybe many of these viewers were entire families and possibly some people decided to watch the stream later on rather than streaming it live. But I hold out hope that, when given the choice to not watch Brian Tamaki spread his nonsense without them being spotted, many of his congregation just decided they’d rather have an extra couple of hours in bed!

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Sneaky Scientology

Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital made the news last week, with an 89 year old man being charged for his part in the abuse of children who were under the hospital’s care in the 1970s. Dr Selwyn Leeks, who was the lead psychiatrist at the centre, has been charged with “wilful ill treatment of a child”, but due to his ill health will not be prosecuted.

The media were obviously working hard to report on this news, and had been looking for experts to give them some informed opinions. Sadly for 3 News, they ended up being tricked into believing that the Citizens Commission for Human Rights (CCHR) is a legitimate, reputable organisation. In reality it’s a front organisation setup by Scientology, as a way to promote one of the many strange ideas that founder L. Ron Hubbard had – the idea that psychiatry is evil. The organisation’s website doesn’t even exist – there’s just a parking page:
 

L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology (an abusive group that deceivingly calls itself a religion) had mental health problems through most of his life, and was apparently dependent on psychiatric drugs. Possibly because of this dependence, he declared that psychiatry is all just a big lie, and that it is an “industry of death”. They even run a museum in Hollywood called “Psychiatry: An Industry of Death”. This is yet another of Hubbard’s weird ideas that Scientologists today are expected to continue with. As an illustration of just how oppressive Hubbard’s ideas are to Scientologists, I’ve heard that there’s a rule which means that Scientologists can only clean windows with vinegar and newspaper – because, according to L. Ron Hubbard, that’s all you should ever need for the job. I’ve taken some Scientology courses online, and they’re all about imparting Hubbard’s “wisdom” to followers – discredited ideas about how the mind works, how to learn properly, how to avoid trauma, and so on.

3 News ended up interviewing Mike Ferris, a well known Scientologist in New Zealand, last week – treating him like an expert. This isn’t overly surprising as it appears that Mike, and the CCHR, have also conned the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care into thinking that they are a legitimate organisation. Mike gave evidence to the commission in June this year.

In reality the Citizens Commission on Human Rights is just a mouthpiece for the ideological ideas of L. Ron Hubbard, a man who created a dangerous cult and hated psychiatry. It’s worrying to see victims, officials and the media all being hoodwinked by Scientology. These people are not involved because they want to help the victims, they just have an axe to grind – and, in fact, Scientology has mentally and physically mistreated, and continues to mistreat, thousands of its members every day.
 


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


Twitter

Facebook

YouTube

Website

Email

<!–


–>


Copyright © 2021 NZ Skeptics, All rights reserved.

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You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

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Skeptic News: Psychic survey, Anti-vax sting, UFOs and why I’m a skeptic


96

Skeptic News: Psychic survey, Anti-vax sting, UFOs and why I’m a skeptic

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

 

This week I look at the Australian Skeptics psychic survey, some more COVID-related stuff, UFOs, and I talk about my introduction to skepticism (and you can too).

Craig Shearer

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Psychic survey

Our recent Skepticon saw Richard Saunders, from the Australian Skeptics, present the results of The Great Australian Psychic Prediction Project. 

Over the past 12 years, the Australian Skeptics recorded and documented psychic predictions covering the 21 year period of 2000 – 2020. They then analysed the predictions of accuracy. This was an impressive effort. It meant recording predictions made by psychics in a variety of media – such as magazines, TV, newspapers, websites and YouTube. 

The methodology needed to be carefully devised as it’s difficult to describe exactly what constitutes a successful prediction. I can predict, with 100% accuracy, that the sun will rise tomorrow but that doesn’t make me psychic!

There was a ton of work in doing this. The size of the database was impressive, with around 3,800 predictions collected over the 21 year period. Each prediction was then analysed to determine what the result was. 

“This was done with each prediction being discussed and online searches used to discover the result. At times this was a quick task with the answer found easily as either a predicted event happened, or it did not. At other times it took great effort and much searching to discover the answer. Stock market charts, interest rates over the years, housing markets, exchange rates and so on all took a great deal of time to research. Even the plight of any particular sporting team took time and effort to research. If the conclusion was debated, the author made the final call. Many of these uncertain predictions ended up being catalogued as “Too Vague”.”

Summarising their findings:

  • Only 11% of predictions are “correct”. 

  • The profession’s journal, the International Psychics Directory, has only 8.5% correct.

  • Most predictions were too vague, expected, or simply wrong.

  • Most of what happens is not predicted, and most of what is predicted does not happen.

While it may sound impressive that psychics actually got some claims right, it generally comes down to chance. For example, a psychic may predict that a particular political party would win an election. That they were correct in their prediction doesn’t mean they were able to see the event in advance – just that they guessed an outcome and wrote it down.

Many psychics are prolific. If you make a lot of predictions, and they’re vague enough, by chance some of them are going to turn out to be correct.

Then there are those predictions that are expected, such as the deaths of elderly prominent people, such as celebrities, politicians or royals.

Finally, it’s fairly obvious that psychics can’t really predict the future as none of them have predicted major recent events such as the advent of COVID-19 (despite claims that Sylvia Browne did so in a book written just after the SARS outbreak – checked by Snopes).

You can read the article describing the project in detail in the Australian Skeptics magazine.

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The Girouard Sting


No doubt this week you will have seen the “sting” executed by Paddy Gower from Newshub. 

If you haven’t, Newshub journalist Paddy Gower organised an undercover investigation which revealed an American doctor who runs a weight loss clinic with her husband (also American) is handing out medical certificates as exemptions to the COVID vaccine.

The two doctors run The Girouard Centre, based in Kaiapoi, just north of Christchurch. You might want to look at their website, but it’s now essentially shut down (being a password protected Wordpress login). Of course, the Wayback Machine allows us to see previous snapshots of the site and go exploring. 


It would seem that the Girouards have run weight-loss clinics in the US, and that these are still in operation. 


The key points from the investigation are that the doctor – Dr Jonie Girouard – is a GP registered with the New Zealand Medical Council. They are investigating her, but she’s also being investigated by the NZ Police. There are number of relevant points here – they’re running a business where they’re actively encouraging people to remove their masks in an enclosed space. They’re both unvaccinated, so shouldn’t be operating their business and exposing people to risk. Then there’s the potentially fraudulent aspects of charging to provide a certificate they know will be virtually useless, to providing a very dubious “medical examination” in the form of a blood pressure test.

While the string centered on Dr Jonie Girouard, one would probably rightly assume that her husband is on board with her approach. It appears that he has participated in anti-vax messaging here in NZ. While he’s not registered with the Medical Council so can’t legally practise medicine in NZ, he still gives advice on weight loss at their clinic, and is reportedly unvaccinated also. 

They’ll likely get shut down, and I hope that they actually suffer some consequences from the irresponsible actions they’ve taken. (And deporting them back to the US would be a good move too!)

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The multi-vax man

It has emerged that there’s a man who’s been showing up to receive the COVID vaccine on behalf of other people (for which he’s being paid), having up to 10 vaccinations in a single day.

Obviously the effects of this haven’t been studied, as it’s outside the bounds of what would actually be given in a standard vaccination dose. 

This does boggle my mind though. What does it say about people willing to pay somebody else to take a vaccine for them, that they believe is harmful? Or is it only harmful to them? What does it say about the anti-vaxxers who say that the vaccine has terrible and risky side effects? I don’t think I’ll ever understand how these people work.

On a more serious note, it is a difficult problem to solve. On the one hand, it seems it would be a good idea to require photo ID when getting the vaccine. But, as we know, this puts barriers up, and for particular populations (such as Maori and Pasifika) having to produce photo ID can be problematic. Not everybody has a driver’s licence and many won’t have a passport.

The vast majority of those currently eligible to receive the vaccine (over 12s) have had it, with almost 95% having had their first dose. Those remaining are in populations where hesitancy is rife, or vaccinations are difficult to access, but also the staunch anti-vaxxers, who may well be subject to vaccine mandates, requiring them to be vaccinated to remain in their job.

Part of me finds it difficult to have much sympathy for anti-vaxxers, but I then realise that most of them are likely to have been subjected to misinformation and aren’t the evil characters that some would make them out to be.

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UFOs and the Pentagon

NZ Skeptics occasionally received email asking about skeptical topics:


English and grammar issues aside, our correspondent is asking what we think about Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (the new term for UFOs and flying saucers).

What triggered this query was likely the recent announcement of a new intelligence group at the Pentagon. Back in June the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a report which analysed Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs). 

In the July report, they categorised the phenomena into five categories:

  • Airborne clutter (birds, balloons, recreational drones, plastic bags)

  • Natural atmospheric phenomena (such as ice crystals, moisture and thermal fluctuations)

  • Industry or other government programmes

  • Foreign adversary systems

  • Other.

The “other” category is where they place everything they can’t identify, and where the uncertainty lives. The report states:

“And a Handful of UAP Appear to Demonstrate Advanced Technology”

“Some UAP appeared to remain stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, maneuver abruptly, or move at considerable speed, without discernible means of propulsion. In a small number of cases, military aircraft systems processed radio frequency (RF) energy associated with UAP sightings.”

What they don’t do is claim there’s any evidence of extraterrestrial life visiting us. 


By Touch Of Light – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Last month it was announced that the Pentagon will track unexplained airborne objects through a new intelligence group.

So they’re going to provide better systems for reporting such incidents. This is a good thing. What we typically see is that when unexplained phenomena are better studied, better explanations emerge. And often, such explanations involve natural phenomena that have been mistaken for artificial objects – for example, bugs close to a lens being interpreted as distant objects moving very quickly, or commercial aircraft (as was the case with the triangular “UFOs” we’ve previously reported).. 

What we’re unlikely to see is that these explanations will uncover that aliens are visiting us. I, for one, would love that to be the case. The chance to see, study, and possibly communicate with beings from elsewhere in the universe would be fascinating. But the vast distances involved, and the well-established limit the speed of light puts on travel make it extremely unlikely.

So, sorry, but while UFOs might be fun to think about, the recent developments at the Pentagon don’t change our stance that ET visiting us is unlikely. Show us some good quality evidence!

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WAYAS – Why are you a skeptic?

We love getting feedback on the newsletter, and hearing others’ perspectives. And, we think that others would like this too.

We’re starting a new section in our newsletter which shines a spotlight on people in our local skeptical community. With that in mind, we invite short contributions from readers telling us why you’re a skeptic, what you’re skeptical of, what ideas you have for activism. Anything like that.

If you want, we can keep you anonymous, or if you’re happy to be identified, we can use your name, and a profile picture if you’d like to submit one.

You can send us your contribution to [email protected] 

So – I’ll start – my name’s Craig Shearer, and I’m a skeptic. 😀

I think I’ve always been naturally sceptical, and had an interest in science from my earliest years. I was taken to church by my parents, but recall usually expressing doubts about its veracity. I guess I had atheist leanings from my teenage years. But I went along, as most people did in the 1970s and 80s. 

My introduction to organised skepticism occurred back in about 1993 when I was teaching software development at Manawatu Polytechnic. A fellow lecturer, a seemingly smart guy, was a fundamentalist Christian who was a firm believer in Young Earth Creationism. 

He and I had quite a few discussions about the evidence for evolution. The internet was in its infancy at the time, so finding resources was quite a bit more difficult. By the mid 90s I was participating in discussions in skeptic forums, and encountering the likes of Michael Shermer (who, it now seems, is a quite unpleasant character).

One Christmas, my wife gave me a 1st generation iPod, and I downloaded some skeptical podcasts – and I was hooked. Skepticality, Skeptoid, and the Skeptics Guide to the Universe were great listening pleasure for me. I became more active when I attended a Skeptics in the Pub in Auckland back in about 2009, and then formally joined NZ Skeptics. 

I think skepticism has been a big part of my life. I see a lot of value in being able to support your beliefs with evidence. It’s a shame so few  people do though!


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


Twitter

Facebook

YouTube

Website

Email

<!–


–>


Copyright © 2021 NZ Skeptics, All rights reserved.

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

Email Marketing Powered by Mailchimp

Continue reading

Skeptic News: Psychic survey, Anti-vax sting, UFOs and why I’m a skeptic


96

Skeptic News: Psychic survey, Anti-vax sting, UFOs and why I’m a skeptic

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

 

This week I look at the Australian Skeptics psychic survey, some more COVID-related stuff, UFOs, and I talk about my introduction to skepticism (and you can too).

Craig Shearer

<!–


–>


Psychic survey

Our recent Skepticon saw Richard Saunders, from the Australian Skeptics, present the results of The Great Australian Psychic Prediction Project. 

Over the past 12 years, the Australian Skeptics recorded and documented psychic predictions covering the 21 year period of 2000 – 2020. They then analysed the predictions of accuracy. This was an impressive effort. It meant recording predictions made by psychics in a variety of media – such as magazines, TV, newspapers, websites and YouTube. 

The methodology needed to be carefully devised as it’s difficult to describe exactly what constitutes a successful prediction. I can predict, with 100% accuracy, that the sun will rise tomorrow but that doesn’t make me psychic!

There was a ton of work in doing this. The size of the database was impressive, with around 3,800 predictions collected over the 21 year period. Each prediction was then analysed to determine what the result was. 

“This was done with each prediction being discussed and online searches used to discover the result. At times this was a quick task with the answer found easily as either a predicted event happened, or it did not. At other times it took great effort and much searching to discover the answer. Stock market charts, interest rates over the years, housing markets, exchange rates and so on all took a great deal of time to research. Even the plight of any particular sporting team took time and effort to research. If the conclusion was debated, the author made the final call. Many of these uncertain predictions ended up being catalogued as “Too Vague”.”

Summarising their findings:

  • Only 11% of predictions are “correct”. 

  • The profession’s journal, the International Psychics Directory, has only 8.5% correct.

  • Most predictions were too vague, expected, or simply wrong.

  • Most of what happens is not predicted, and most of what is predicted does not happen.

While it may sound impressive that psychics actually got some claims right, it generally comes down to chance. For example, a psychic may predict that a particular political party would win an election. That they were correct in their prediction doesn’t mean they were able to see the event in advance – just that they guessed an outcome and wrote it down.

Many psychics are prolific. If you make a lot of predictions, and they’re vague enough, by chance some of them are going to turn out to be correct.

Then there are those predictions that are expected, such as the deaths of elderly prominent people, such as celebrities, politicians or royals.

Finally, it’s fairly obvious that psychics can’t really predict the future as none of them have predicted major recent events such as the advent of COVID-19 (despite claims that Sylvia Browne did so in a book written just after the SARS outbreak – checked by Snopes).

You can read the article describing the project in detail in the Australian Skeptics magazine.

<!–


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The Girouard Sting


No doubt this week you will have seen the “sting” executed by Paddy Gower from Newshub. 

If you haven’t, Newshub journalist Paddy Gower organised an undercover investigation which revealed an American doctor who runs a weight loss clinic with her husband (also American) is handing out medical certificates as exemptions to the COVID vaccine.

The two doctors run The Girouard Centre, based in Kaiapoi, just north of Christchurch. You might want to look at their website, but it’s now essentially shut down (being a password protected Wordpress login). Of course, the Wayback Machine allows us to see previous snapshots of the site and go exploring. 


It would seem that the Girouards have run weight-loss clinics in the US, and that these are still in operation. 


The key points from the investigation are that the doctor – Dr Jonie Girouard – is a GP registered with the New Zealand Medical Council. They are investigating her, but she’s also being investigated by the NZ Police. There are number of relevant points here – they’re running a business where they’re actively encouraging people to remove their masks in an enclosed space. They’re both unvaccinated, so shouldn’t be operating their business and exposing people to risk. Then there’s the potentially fraudulent aspects of charging to provide a certificate they know will be virtually useless, to providing a very dubious “medical examination” in the form of a blood pressure test.

While the string centered on Dr Jonie Girouard, one would probably rightly assume that her husband is on board with her approach. It appears that he has participated in anti-vax messaging here in NZ. While he’s not registered with the Medical Council so can’t legally practise medicine in NZ, he still gives advice on weight loss at their clinic, and is reportedly unvaccinated also. 

They’ll likely get shut down, and I hope that they actually suffer some consequences from the irresponsible actions they’ve taken. (And deporting them back to the US would be a good move too!)

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The multi-vax man

It has emerged that there’s a man who’s been showing up to receive the COVID vaccine on behalf of other people (for which he’s being paid), having up to 10 vaccinations in a single day.

Obviously the effects of this haven’t been studied, as it’s outside the bounds of what would actually be given in a standard vaccination dose. 

This does boggle my mind though. What does it say about people willing to pay somebody else to take a vaccine for them, that they believe is harmful? Or is it only harmful to them? What does it say about the anti-vaxxers who say that the vaccine has terrible and risky side effects? I don’t think I’ll ever understand how these people work.

On a more serious note, it is a difficult problem to solve. On the one hand, it seems it would be a good idea to require photo ID when getting the vaccine. But, as we know, this puts barriers up, and for particular populations (such as Maori and Pasifika) having to produce photo ID can be problematic. Not everybody has a driver’s licence and many won’t have a passport.

The vast majority of those currently eligible to receive the vaccine (over 12s) have had it, with almost 95% having had their first dose. Those remaining are in populations where hesitancy is rife, or vaccinations are difficult to access, but also the staunch anti-vaxxers, who may well be subject to vaccine mandates, requiring them to be vaccinated to remain in their job.

Part of me finds it difficult to have much sympathy for anti-vaxxers, but I then realise that most of them are likely to have been subjected to misinformation and aren’t the evil characters that some would make them out to be.

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UFOs and the Pentagon

NZ Skeptics occasionally received email asking about skeptical topics:


English and grammar issues aside, our correspondent is asking what we think about Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (the new term for UFOs and flying saucers).

What triggered this query was likely the recent announcement of a new intelligence group at the Pentagon. Back in June the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a report which analysed Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs). 

In the July report, they categorised the phenomena into five categories:

  • Airborne clutter (birds, balloons, recreational drones, plastic bags)

  • Natural atmospheric phenomena (such as ice crystals, moisture and thermal fluctuations)

  • Industry or other government programmes

  • Foreign adversary systems

  • Other.

The “other” category is where they place everything they can’t identify, and where the uncertainty lives. The report states:

“And a Handful of UAP Appear to Demonstrate Advanced Technology”

“Some UAP appeared to remain stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, maneuver abruptly, or move at considerable speed, without discernible means of propulsion. In a small number of cases, military aircraft systems processed radio frequency (RF) energy associated with UAP sightings.”

What they don’t do is claim there’s any evidence of extraterrestrial life visiting us. 


By Touch Of Light – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Last month it was announced that the Pentagon will track unexplained airborne objects through a new intelligence group.

So they’re going to provide better systems for reporting such incidents. This is a good thing. What we typically see is that when unexplained phenomena are better studied, better explanations emerge. And often, such explanations involve natural phenomena that have been mistaken for artificial objects – for example, bugs close to a lens being interpreted as distant objects moving very quickly, or commercial aircraft (as was the case with the triangular “UFOs” we’ve previously reported).. 

What we’re unlikely to see is that these explanations will uncover that aliens are visiting us. I, for one, would love that to be the case. The chance to see, study, and possibly communicate with beings from elsewhere in the universe would be fascinating. But the vast distances involved, and the well-established limit the speed of light puts on travel make it extremely unlikely.

So, sorry, but while UFOs might be fun to think about, the recent developments at the Pentagon don’t change our stance that ET visiting us is unlikely. Show us some good quality evidence!

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WAYAS – Why are you a skeptic?

We love getting feedback on the newsletter, and hearing others’ perspectives. And, we think that others would like this too.

We’re starting a new section in our newsletter which shines a spotlight on people in our local skeptical community. With that in mind, we invite short contributions from readers telling us why you’re a skeptic, what you’re skeptical of, what ideas you have for activism. Anything like that.

If you want, we can keep you anonymous, or if you’re happy to be identified, we can use your name, and a profile picture if you’d like to submit one.

You can send us your contribution to [email protected] 

So – I’ll start – my name’s Craig Shearer, and I’m a skeptic. 😀

I think I’ve always been naturally sceptical, and had an interest in science from my earliest years. I was taken to church by my parents, but recall usually expressing doubts about its veracity. I guess I had atheist leanings from my teenage years. But I went along, as most people did in the 1970s and 80s. 

My introduction to organised skepticism occurred back in about 1993 when I was teaching software development at Manawatu Polytechnic. A fellow lecturer, a seemingly smart guy, was a fundamentalist Christian who was a firm believer in Young Earth Creationism. 

He and I had quite a few discussions about the evidence for evolution. The internet was in its infancy at the time, so finding resources was quite a bit more difficult. By the mid 90s I was participating in discussions in skeptic forums, and encountering the likes of Michael Shermer (who, it now seems, is a quite unpleasant character).

One Christmas, my wife gave me a 1st generation iPod, and I downloaded some skeptical podcasts – and I was hooked. Skepticality, Skeptoid, and the Skeptics Guide to the Universe were great listening pleasure for me. I became more active when I attended a Skeptics in the Pub in Auckland back in about 2009, and then formally joined NZ Skeptics. 

I think skepticism has been a big part of my life. I see a lot of value in being able to support your beliefs with evidence. It’s a shame so few  people do though!


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: Tin Foil Treatments


96

Skeptic News: Tin Foil Treatments

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


In this week’s newsletter I spend far too much time debunking a baseless vaccine injury claim about Celine Dion, convince my wife to use tin foil to treat what ails her, and talk about a tragic, and avoidable, death in New Zealand from COVID. And, after all of that, committee member Bronwyn has returned with another great article, this time looking with a critical eye at some claims that have been made about the damage fireworks can cause.

Mark Honeychurch
 


Is Celine Dion suffering from vaccine injury?

I was talking to a friend last weekend who works as a tradesman. He asked me, as a skeptic, what I thought of the coronavirus vaccine – did I think it was dangerous? And was COVID real? He’s pretty sure the scientists aren’t lying to him, but he’s talked with a lot of colleagues who aren’t so sure. Most of my friends are fairly skeptical, and a lot of the time I breathe the rarefied air of skepticism, so it was interesting to hear a perspective that I don’t really come in contact with in my daily life – a friend who’s intelligent, but has heard enough misinformation from the anti-vaccine crowd that he’s becoming a little unsure.

After our conversation, the next morning, he forwarded me a copy of a screenshot he’d been sent – a news story saying that Celine Dion has had to postpone a tour because she has been suffering from muscle spasms – and that the COVID vaccine is the reason for her horrible symptoms.
 


He asked me if I could find anything to prove this statement wrong, so of course I immediately started googling.

The first thing I found was several articles about Celine Dion cancelling a residency in Las Vegas because of health issues – specifically muscle spasms. None of the articles talked about the cause of her problems, but it turns out that at least half of this story is true. So, what about the other half? Was the vaccine the cause? I found a few fact checking sites which debunked this specific rumour, dating back to October, but the articles didn’t have any proof that this wasn’t a case of vaccine injury.

But does it matter that I couldn’t find any kind of statement from Celine Dion refuting the claim that she’s been damaged by the vaccine? No, it doesn’t.

There’s an important skeptical mantra to remember here, about the onus of proof. If someone’s making a claim without any evidence, it’s not up to you to prove them wrong – the onus of proof is on them, as the person making the claim; they need to provide evidence to back up what they’re saying. This has been described eloquently by the late Christopher Hitchens, and is known as Hitchens’ Razor:

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”

Having said that we don’t need to prove the rumour false, we can still look at its plausibility:

Firstly, the fact that no reputable news source has reported this is telling. Instead, this vaccine injury claim has been solely spreading through social media.

The message my friend received came from an anonymous Twitter account called “Christ is our King”. Looking at the account, it was only created in April this year, and is supposedly run by a “Traditional Catholic, Husband & Father” in Phoenix, Arizona – although a lot of the content posted by the account is about Australia. The account shares other unverified stories of vaccine injury, as well as a lot of conspiracy ideas (like that COVID is engineered by China to kill Christians), and frequently compares people to Nazis.

Out of interest, here is a word cloud of common words used by the account:
 

And here’s their Twitter posting by hour – and, interestingly, this matches the Phoenix time zone well (7am to midnight). I was expecting to see a timeline that more closely matched somewhere in Australia:
 

Next, as Celine Dion is in her 50s and currently lives in Nevada, she is likely to have been vaccinated early on in the year. Vaccine injuries usually happen immediately after the injection – not months later. 

The symptoms also don’t fit what we’d expect from vaccine injury – injuries are usually expected to be an allergic reaction, which the CDC says would likely include “rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, swelling of the throat, or a generalized rash or hives”.

Finally, Celine Dion’s sister talked with ABC news about the issue. She talks about the cause of the muscle spasms being a sloping stage, and doesn’t mention the COVID vaccine at all.

So, although I can’t prove that this is not a case of vaccine injury, it’s certainly looking like a pretty implausible claim. Plus I can rest easy knowing that it’s not up to me to prove the rumour wrong, it’s up to those who created the rumour to prove that it’s true.

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Tin Foil Treatments

I was sent a funny article the other day about the benefits of aluminium foil on a website called Tips and Tricks. The website appears to be a prolific source of clickbait – articles with catchy titles that are designed to suck you in and get you to click the link to read more. This is because the company wants to take you away from social media sites and onto their website, to show you adverts and make money from them.

The article had some health tips that involved using tin foil to help with colds, joint pain and fatigue. Now, sadly, I wasn’t suffering from any of these ailments last night, but my wife walked the Tongariro Crossing last weekend and since then she’s had a sore knee and has been feeling tired. So I managed to convince her to help me out, and test these medical life hacks.

For her fatigue, the site says to:

“put a few sheets of aluminum foil in the freezer for two to four hours. Then put the sheets on your face… We haven’t tried this ourselves yet, but we hear from many people that it really works! So, definitely worth trying.”

So, I folded a large piece of foil a few times and placed it in the freezer yesterday in preparation.

For the knee pain, the site said:

“Wrapping your joints in a sheet of aluminum foil can also help against pain. You can use a bandage to keep the foil in its place properly. Wrap the foil around the painful joint before you go to bed and keep it in place during the night.”

The third tip was about wrapping your feet in foil if you have a cold, but sadly my wife doesn’t have a cold. I am, however, committed to trying this myself the next time I have the sniffles. Apparently it can take a couple of days for the treatment to make a “difference”, which is not really saying much – especially as our bodies usually only take a few days to fight off a cold.

When my (long-suffering) wife went to bed, she wrapped her knee in foil and placed the cold foil on her head. I continued browsing the Tips and Tricks website, and found an article about how to help with Restless Leg Syndrome. Wouldn’t you know it, my wife also suffers from RLS! So, following the site’s advice, I very quietly snuck into the bathroom, unwrapped a bar of soap, tiptoed into the bedroom and slipped it quietly under her side of the mattress.

In the morning, my wife said that her knee was not really much different – apparently it’s hard to sleep with foil wrapped around your knee, so she removed it at some point. But she did have a horrible headache – so the foil on the head had backfired.

As for the restless leg – from what I could tell, and from what she could remember, she didn’t have any issues at all last night. Success! … however, when I double-checked the instructions, I noticed that it said to put a bar of lavender soap between the sheets at the foot of the bed. I’d put a bar of aloe vera soap under the mattress in the middle of the bed. So maybe I’ve found a new cure? Or maybe my wife’s RLS is worse some days than others, and a single night’s secret test is not a good way to test claims!

I found a lot of other silly health “advice” on the website, such as:

If you pee in the shower often, you’ll immediately feel as if you need to pee every time you hear running water… On top of that, peeing in the shower on a daily basis can lead to nerve damage. There’s a chance that this will result in a lowered continence.”

Pickle juice is cheaper and healthier than a sugary drink, and can help with weight loss, hangovers and muscle spasms.

When you poop, it should be as long as your forearm and you should only ever need to wipe once.

In fact, if you follow the positive advice on this site, your diet will consist of the daily consumption of pickles, pears, garlic, bananas, beer, coffee, kiwi fruit, lemon, ginger and vinegar.

Although those examples are pretty silly, some of the other health pages are concerning – such as one which “helps” people to self-diagnose stomach cancer via symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, low appetite and nausea. And another for lymph node cancer, with symptoms including itching, fever and fatigue. And there are many, many other pages listing these kinds of symptoms for ovarian cancer, endometriosis, menopause, Parkinsons, COVID, appendicitis, pregnancy and more. These pages all list such generic symptoms that the articles are likely to cause unwarranted worry for some people. I think doctors are overloaded enough at the moment without having to deal with people self-diagnosing from using Dr Google.
 


The sad death of Rex Warwood

Rex Warwood sadly died late last week. He was a long time reporter, and later editor, for the Franklin County News, and was apparently well liked. However in recent years he appears to have succumbed to conspiratorial thinking, and he became a vocal critic of vaccination against COVID, saying things online such as:

“Vaccinations have got nothing to do with health. They have been part of a global plan to depopulate the planet, only that won’t become evident for a little while. “

“Consider ivermectin if you think you have the dreaded lurgey (bad flu).”

“Covid is a non-event but the combined governments of the world contrived to make it an industry (event 201, 2019) that will destroy lives and give control to the few in power. God help the vaccinated!! “

“Vaccines are a bio weapon and it will be left to “the few” – the un-vaccinated – to save it from extinction”

Rex even appears to have fallen for a Jacinda Ardern cryptocurrency scam I wrote about a couple of weeks ago – a Facebook advert sharing a video which talks about Jacinda investing $25 million in a cryptocurrency that everyone should invest in. When I say that he fell for the scheme, Rex didn’t invest in it – but he did believe it was real, and thought that Jacinda must be corrupt for having earned $25 million during her time as Prime Minister that she could afford to invest in a cryptocurrency scheme. He said:

“This person has been reported as being worth $25 million after being in a job for three years that pays around $450,000 per year… What a coincidence she is now going on advertisements promoting a new “secret” method of earning fabulous money… Time to open the books on all of these politicians who are spending billions on COVID”

It was quite surprising to hear that Rex had died in Auckland’s North Shore hospital from COVID – a tragic irony that is being repeated all too often around the world at the moment. In fact, there are a couple of sites that document deaths of anti-vaxxers from COVID.

One is the Herman Cain Award sub-reddit – a part of the reddit website where people post stories of those who have died of COVID after calling the virus a hoax or similar. The board is named after an American politician, and 2012 Republican presidential candidate, who was famously skeptical about the use of face masks and caught COVID after attending a Trump rally:



The site describes the Herman Cain award nominees:

“Nominees have made public declaration of their anti-mask, anti-vax, or Covid-hoax views, followed by admission to hospital for Covid. The Award is granted upon the nominee’s release from their Earthly shackles.”

The other site is called Sorry Anti-Vaxxer, and it serves a similar purpose. There’s a disclaimer on its front page which says:

“The purpose of this site is educational, except for a few exceptions, everyone listed on this site was/is an anti-vaxxer activist who helped spread COVID-19 misinformation on social media. Share to stop others from making the same mistake. GET VACCINATED!”

However, despite these lofty aims, I’ve found the tone of both of these websites to be concerning. There’s almost a glee to some of the stories of people dying of COVID. I’m not sure if it would even be possible to make an educational site about COVID deniers dying of the disease that was not offensive, but these two sites have most definitely not managed that.

It’s likely we’ll see more COVID deaths in this country, and the stats we already have show that these deaths will disproportionately be among those who are unvaccinated. I hope we can all be kind, and not gloat about this slowly unfolding, and largely avoidable, tragedy.
 

 


Real and imagined issues with fireworks

 

Bronwyn Rideout

 

The 96-hour fireworks industry is both a source of joy and dread for New Zealanders nationwide. Fireworks can only be sold privately in this country between November 2nd and November 5th, and while this period is an ideal lead-in to Guy Fawkes Night, those of us living near pyrotechnic enthusiasts know all too well that amateur backyard displays will be a feature of our lives until late into the summer.

 

However, the sounds and sights of fireworks throughout the late-spring and early-summer may be a thing of the past. First, opinions about Guy Fawkes Night are changing. In New Zealand, town and city councils are directing their focus (and funds) towards Matariki (which is held in July), while celebrations in the United Kingdom are declining in many localities due to the rising popularity of Halloween, and controversies that surround questionable effigy choices (such as this story about an effigy made of the Grenfell Towers).

 

Secondly, the ongoing pandemic has had a contradictory impact on supply and availability of fireworks worldwide. Two years of lockdowns and missed celebrations are the perfect tinder for those who want to blow-off steam and blow-up things. While this increase in demand should signify a hefty pay-day, reduced transport capability and capacity has pushed shipping prices to a premium, with one purveyor of fine pyrotechnics stating that his shipping costs alone have increased by $20,000 – before increases in product costs are included; Stuff shared Bad Boy Fireworks owner James York’s claim that several small seller had approached him to buy-out their supplies. For communities that were keen to push forward with their own displays, attendance was limited by alert levels, while attempts to get fireworks out of Auckland were hampered.

 

Compounding this supply and demand issue is a third element: opinions about fireworks are simply changing. The Countdown supermarket chain stopped selling fireworks in 2019 while The Warehouses stopped in 2021, both as a result of consumer surveys. Customers of The Warehouse preferred public displays, while more than 25% were claimed to have stated that they did not participate in fireworks at all. Participants of the Countdown survey found that 66% of customers rarely or never bought fireworks. Even though they still enjoyed special occasions like Diwali, Chinese New year, Matariki, and Guy Fawkes, the inclusion of fireworks was not seen as necessary (the number of respondents in either survey has not been shared).

 

Chief rationale in both surveys were concerns for animal welfare, environmental impact, and neighbourhood disruption. Even if you are not on social media, talk around the water cooler or between Zoom meetings might be punctuated with tales of missing pets and broken sleep in the days after Guy Fawkes.  If you are on social media you may have seen memes/(dis)infographics like the following:

 

r/TriCitiesWA - reminder: it is NOT the 4th of July along with:

 

The claims made on this particular image appear reasonable, as it confirms some behaviours that one may have observed personally, especially with regards to domestic pets. However, it still trends to the alarmist, as some of the claims here either misrepresent the complexity of human and animal behaviour or are not evidence-based.

 

Bees:  There is no evidence to back up this specific claim, while anecdotes from beekeepers claim that bees are not bothered by fireworks. In fact, your porch light is more dangerous than fireworks, as bees are phototactic and will fly around artificial lights all night until they die. Such behaviours have been used by environment groups in Australia to protest against mining development near established apiaries. Predators or infestations by ants or mites are the most common causes of bee abscondment. Strong smells, frequent disruption of hives by beekeepers, and poor environmental conditions such as humidity, also contribute to population depletion.

 

Birds: This claim is true, but oversimplifies the issue. The mass death of 4,000 to 5,000 black birds in Arkansas on New Year’s in 2011, and hundreds of starlings, also on New Year’s, in Rome in 2021, were due to fireworks and firecrackers being set off illegally in areas where large populations of birds were roosting for the evening. Aside from egregious human error, the timing and location of these incidents were significant contributors, as birds roost together in larger numbers in the northern hemisphere winter than they do in the summer. Furthermore, professional fireworks are detonated in areas that are intended to cause the least disturbance to wildlife, whereas in the case of Rome, firecrackers were set off in the immediate vicinity of birds roosting in the trees that lined an urban neighbourhood.

 

Thunderstorms are not a comparable event, as birds have higher sensitivity to the changes in humidity, temperature, aid pressure, and sound that precede bad weather, and are able to behave accordingly.

 

Nest abandonment/abandonment of young: A 2008 study conducted in the town of Gualala, California demonstrated that seabirds did abandon their nests when fireworks were set off near the nesting sites. However, evidence that this applies to wild animals is sparse, although the claims are repeated on animal shelter and animal rights websites. Researchers attribute this to the difficulty of monitoring animal behaviour at night, when fireworks are normally displayed.

 

Pollution: Pollution is a legitimate concern and problem surrounding fireworks. Modern day fireworks are constructed from non-biodegradable plastic, and debris has been found in the digestive systems of various animals. Smoke also adds to air pollution.

 

PTSD:  A Saskatoon city councillor Pat Lorje came under fire in 2016 for making the following tweet:

 

”I hope someone warned the Syrian refugees that the booms, bangs & other noise wasn’t from weapons,”

 

Following up with:

 

“Amazed that so many people do not know of connection between PTSD of war victims & soldiers, and fireworks which often triggers anxiety”

 

While the councillor came under fire for her generalisations of refugees, they weren’t completely incorrect. They may, however, have been a little behind the ball so to speak, as a local group that supports refugees and immigrants actively informs its members of upcoming fireworks shows, an action which has been effective for refugee groups overseas. Shawn Gourley, who co-founded the group “Military with PTSD”, has been quoted multiple times saying that it isn’t planned fireworks that are triggering, but rather unexpected fireworks and explosions that are the real problem.

 

However, this wouldn’t be a skeptical article without considering if there is a scam or questionable practice behind the scenes.

 

And is there ever!

 

This meme is courtesy of “The Forever Dog”, a book and website which champions pseudoscience and keto diets as a means to elongate the life of your best four-legged friend. A full take down of this book and its writers, Dr. Karen Becker (Integrative Pet care expert at Mercola.com) and Rodney Habib ( a ‘social media influencer’), was written on the anonymous blog Skeptvet. Skeptvet’s entire blog is worth the read if you are interested in how alternative medicine is pervasive in veterinary science.

 

The meme above does have a couple of valid points, but the rest are easily resolved when we can finally forgo the homespun fireworks in favour of displays that are considerately timed, organised, and curated to benefit the local wildlife and vulnerable members of the community.
 


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: 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.


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