2021 Conference Speaker Links

Here is a list of all the speakers from our 2021 conference, with some handy links if you want to know more about them.

NZ Skeptics Announce their 2021 awards, and Dr Simon Thornley wins the Bent Spoon

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 Happily, this paper has now been retracted.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.

Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill Oral Submission

The submission below was given via a Zoom call to Members of the Justice Committee on Wednesday the 15th of September 2021, as a follow-up to the Society’s written submission. The submission was presented by committee members Bronwyn Rideout and Mark Honeychurch, and MPs asked questions after the submission was read out.

The Evidence

We often hear of conversion therapy as a thing that happens in the United States of America – controversial figures such as Joseph Nicolosi, and groups like NARTH and Exodus International. So it’s been horrifying to read stories in the news over the years, and especially recently, about New Zealanders who have endured this dubious therapy.

At the NZ Skeptics, we’re all about evidence. There is no good quality evidence that conversion therapy works, and Wikipedia rightly calls it a “pseudoscience”. Not only this, but there’s a lot of evidence that conversion therapy is harmful.

Professional bodies around the world have evaluated the evidence, and broadly agree that conversion therapy should never be used. In New Zealand, the relevant professional bodies consider the practice to be against their code of ethics.

We know there was a study conducted by Robert Spitzer that is often used as evidence for the efficacy of conversion therapy, but Spitzer retracted the study, and later said “I was quite wrong in the conclusions that I made from this study. The study does not provide evidence, really, that gays can change.”

J. Michael Bailey’s 2016 review of the scientific literature concluded that “There is no good evidence that sexual orientation can be changed with therapy, and we strongly doubt it can be.”

A 2017 literature review from Cornell University looked at 47 scientific papers on conversion therapy. Of the 13 papers that were able to come to a conclusion about the therapy, 1 claimed it was successful and 12 claimed it was ineffective or harmful. The review concluded that “there is no credible evidence that sexual orientation can be changed through therapeutic intervention… There is also powerful evidence that trying to change a person’s sexual orientation can be extremely harmful.”

The evidence is clear. Conversion therapy does not work, but it is harmful.

The Legislation

The international studies we’ve seen show that most people go through conversion therapy because of their religious belief, and this is often due to pressure from their church. This has also been the case for many of the hundreds of New Zealanders who have been through conversion therapy.

Not that numbers should matter, but we’re at the point now where half of New Zealanders are not religious. There really should be no exemption for religious groups to be able to continue facilitating or offering conversion therapy. We hope that this bill will ensure that any individual – or organisation – involved in providing conversion therapy will be held accountable.

We know that health practitioners are not above making bad decisions, such as offering unproven therapies. For example, some GPs in NZ currently offer their clients therapies such as homeopathy that we know through scientific testing don’t work. It’s not a stretch to imagine that some health practitioners would consider it acceptable to offer conversion therapy. We therefore think it is unwise to give health practitioners any kind of exemption in this bill.

Many countries, such as India, Taiwan, Brazil and Germany – and parts of Australia, Canada and the US – already have conversion therapy bans in place, and Israel and the UK are currently in the process of introducing a ban. Several other countries, such as Argentina, Fiji and Samoa, have a specific ban on health professionals offering conversion therapies. We’re a little behind the curve on this important issue, but it’s great that as a country we’re finally doing something about it.

Given the lack of evidence of efficacy of conversion therapy, and the clear harms it causes, it seems like a no-brainer that we should have a law banning the practice. We hope that this new piece of legislation not only becomes law here in New Zealand, but also that it doesn’t end up being watered down to the point that it becomes ineffective. We hope to see this legislation become something that properly protects those who are at risk from being given conversion therapy, no matter who is organising or providing it. These at-risk people absolutely do not deserve to be told that their sexual orientation, or their gender, is “wrong”, and that they can be “fixed” through the use of a pseudoscientific, damaging treatment.

Submission on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill

The NZ Skeptics’ Submission

on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill

About us

The NZ Skeptics are a New Zealand/Aotearoa charity dedicated to education and the promotion of evidence-based practices, both in government policy and elsewhere in New Zealand public life. Healthcare decisions are an important part of this ideal, and we strongly support any measures that seek to follow best evidence and help protect consumers from harm. 

Our View

In line with our sister organisations in Australia and the United Kingdom, it is the position of the NZ Skeptics that we support the banning of conversion therapies as outlined in Section 5 of the proposed Act.

‘Conversion’ or ‘reparative’ practices incorporate a wide range of activities that seek to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. In both the past and present, such therapies have included so-called clinical treatments such aslike ice-pick lobotomies, electro-convulsive therapies, and aversion programmes that include pharmaceutical regimens that induce vomiting while church-based organisations utilise exorcisms, and intensive praying sessions (either in groups or one-on-one).

To date, no evidence has been produced in New Zealand or internationally to support the effectiveness of conversion therapies. Instead, the only consistent outcome of the practices listed above is harm and life-long trauma to those who have endured them. Reputable organisations worldwide such as the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association,  Royal Australian College of Physicians, the NHS, and the United Nations have acknowledged and published similar findings.

The absence of support from these and major regulatory and professional bodies and employers has consequently driven such practices underground. The treatments and their providers are unregulated; neither undergo rigorous and ongoing continuing education programmes or annual auditing, as required of any other professional charged with the care of the minds and bodies of New Zealand citizens.

Religious freedom is not violated when banning conversion therapy. Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief stated to British Members of Parliament that the banning of conversion therapy in no way violates freedom of religion under international law because of the state’s obligation to protect the life and dignity of LGBT+ persons.

Our Recommendations

As part of our mission to promote evidence-based policy-making and healthcare, the NZ Skeptics continually seek the advice of experts and findings of contemporary research with which to inform our positions on a variety of topics. The evidence is clear that conversion therapy is worse than ineffective, indeed it appears to be outright dangerous; provision of such therapies should be seen by New Zealanders as akin to fraud.

However, the banning of conversion therapy is not simply a health issue, but one that encompasses personal, religious, political, and societal beliefs and practices about gender diversity and identity; Elements which cannot be appreciated with statistics alone. Ongoing persecution of LGBTQIATakatāpui+ communities internationally is an ongoing concern for our organisation, and we see the presence of conversion therapy in New Zealand as a terrible proof of the insidiousness and persistence of bigotry both within our country and outside our borders. To this end, NZ Skeptics finds it vital to consider the voices and recommendations of persons who are either experienced in matters of conversion therapy, or who have been the targets of such unethical treatments, and place our support behind them.

In general we support the wording of this Bill. Here are our thoughts on the parts of the Bill that we feel need changing to ensure it adequately protects people from harmful conversion practices:

Clause 5

We do not think that health practitioners should be exempt from this Bill. We consider that the caveats in 5 (2) are sufficient to protect health practitioners who are “offering legitimate support or therapy”, and we are concerned that health practitioners could conceivably claim to be offering conversion therapy within their “scope of practice”. As such, this appears to be a loophole that we would like to see closed. We recommend the removal of 5 (2) (a) from the Bill.

We do not believe there should be an exemption for religious people or groups in the Bill, and we hope that MPs will resist any pressure from religious groups for any kind of religious exemption to be added. Similarly, we do not think that it would be appropriate for an exemption for parents to be added to the Bill. We recommend that no further exemptions are added to the Bill.

Clauses 8 and 9

We believe that organisations (companies, charities, societies, churches) are often involved in offering, organising and promoting harmful conversion therapy, and would like to see the inclusion of the ability for charges to be brought against organisations as well as individuals. We recommend the inclusion of organisations as well as people as parties to an offence.

We believe that the inclusion of only imprisonment is inadequate to allow for effective sentencing. We would also like to see a fine added, to give judges more options for choosing an appropriate sentence for the offending, and for organisations we would like to see the inclusion of appropriate sentencing options, such as the removal of charitable status. We recommend the addition of more sentencing options, such as fines.

Clause 10

We think that clause 10 is important, and that consent should not be considered a defence in this piece of legislation. We recommend that clause 10 is kept in its current state.

Clause 12

We believe that the requirement of clause 12 for consent from the Attorney-General before prosecution can occur is an unnecessarily high bar. Our understanding is that Attorney-General consent is usually required for laws where there is a significant risk of misuse of the legislation. This does not appear to be likely to be the case for a conversion therapy law, which is designed to protect minority groups who are at risk. We recommend the removal of clause 12 from the Bill.

Other

We believe that monitoring and feedback are important, and that for new legislation to be effective, it should include a review process. For example, it would be good to see this law, when enacted, go through a review of the process and its effectiveness within its first five years, and to allow for amendments as necessary as a result of the review’s recommendations.

Thanks

Finally, we would like to gratefully acknowledge the efforts of Shaneel Lal and InsideOut in their campaign, and support the important work they have done in this area.

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission on this important piece of new legislation.

Skeptic News: Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword


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Skeptic News: Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword


During lockdown, the Wellington Skeptics in the Pub group have been meeting online every week. It’s been great to be able to continue our social meetings, but I also think it’s a good way to keep us all sane! That connection of being able to chat and have a fun social time with others seems to be really good at helping with the feelings of isolation and worry that lockdown can bring to some of us.

At our meeting just over a week ago, someone mentioned that they’d been reading up on “theological noncognitivism”, and wondered what everybody thought about the idea. Of course, we were all at our computers (after all, it’s a Zoom meeting) and someone shared the link to the Wikipedia page, so everyone immediately jumped on the page and started reading. After a few minutes talking about the idea that concepts of god may be necessarily nonsensical, someone noticed a much more interesting sounding idea at the bottom of the page: Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword.

Of course, we all loved the name of this philosophical razor, so named because a laser sword is supposedly sharper than a razor. If you’re interested in understanding this idea, that it’s futile to argue over something if it can’t be tested, I can highly recommend reading the original article written by Alder – it’s not only erudite, it’s also very funny. And Alder’s article ends with an important warning worth heeding:

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

All of this is a very long-winded way of not only introducing this week’s newsletter, but also to invite all of you, wherever in the country you are (or overseas), to join our Wellington Skeptics in the Pub meetup group and RSVP for our next weekly online meeting. I’ll be there, with a beer or two, and if you’ve been to any of our events or conferences over the last ten years or so you’ll probably recognise some of the others there as well. We’re a welcoming group, so come along and join us if you find yourself at a loose end on Friday evening.

Mark Honeychurch

My intellectual contribution to the conversation was to change my Zoom background to a picture of Sir Isaac Newton with a flaming laser sword.

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Don’t take Horse Dewormer

Obviously as skeptics we’re pretty clued up on the idea of not using unproven therapies, especially when there’s positive evidence that they don’t work. It’s been apparent for a while now that the evidence for Ivermectin as a COVID treatment or preventative is not very good, and it’s been sad to see how many people don’t seem to care about the lack of evidence and are taking it anyway.

There’s been so much in the news about Ivermectin recently, given that it seems to have really reached a tipping point for those who are looking for an alternative to masks, vaccines, and other science based answers to our pandemic, that I figured I’d just summarise the news with a paragraph or so for each of a few stand out stories:

Joe Rogan, an influential podcaster who hosts a popular podcast on Spotify, has contracted COVID and has said on his podcast that he’s taking Ivermectin. However, he’s also taking monoclonal antibodies, prednisone, a NAD drip and a vitamin drip, some of which might actually be effective in helping him fight the virus. My money is on Joe proclaiming Ivermectin to be a miracle drug once he’s beaten the virus, but I think it’s worth heeding Joe’s own words when it comes to whether we should trust anything he says:

“I’m not a doctor, I’m a fucking moron, and I’m a cage-fighting commentator who’s a dirty stand-up comedian… I’m not a respected source of information – even for me.”

Merck Sharp & Dohme, who sell Ivermectin in New Zealand under the name Stromectol, reported that they have been seeing “unusually high buying patterns” of Ivermectin recently. Medsafe has also reported an increase in attempts to import Ivermectin – 100 of 114 consignments of Ivermectin destined for New Zealand this year have been turned away by Customs after consulting with Medsafe.

Ivermectin poisonings in the US are on the increase, as an inevitable result of both an explosion in use of the drug and a large number of people self-medicating. The National Poison Data System reports that the number of “exposure cases” has jumped in the last month, and a lot of this is coming from people who have been buying a version of Ivermectin which is formulated for treating animals rather than humans. However, as skeptics we should always be wary of false news, even when it fits our existing narrative – and in this case it turns out that the recent report from a doctor in Oklahoma that hospitals are turning away gunshot victims because of the lack of beds due to the sheer number of Ivermectin poisonings is false. The local health system has said:

“Dr. McElyea has not worked at our Sallisaw location in over 2 months. NHS Sequoyah has not treated any patients due to complications related to taking ivermectin. This includes not treating any patients for ivermectin overdose. All patients who have visited our emergency room have received medical attention as appropriate. Our hospital has not had to turn away any patients seeking emergency care.”

One change I’ve been happy to see recently is the number of news agencies who have moved from just using the drug’s name, Ivermectin, to instead describing the particular formulation that many people in the US and elsewhere are buying – horse dewormer. As much as this might feel like a low blow, I think that if talking about horse dewormer causes some people who were previously unsure about taking this medicine to steer clear of it in the context of COVID, that’s a good thing.

Of course, all of this is not to say that Ivermectin isn’t a useful drug – it absolutely is. The discoverer of Ivermectin was awarded a Nobel prize in 2015 for his work, and the drug is listed by the World Health Organisation as an Essential Medicine for humans. But taking it for a condition where there’s no evidence it will help, and a clear risk of dangerous side effects, is not a good idea.

I’ll leave the last word to the US Food and Drug Administration, who said on twitter a couple of weeks ago:

“You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it.”

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The Satanists are doing god’s work

Texas has recently introduced a draconian new abortion law, one that feels not only perverse (in that it allows for civil lawsuits where anyone can sue those who are involved in providing abortion services), but also seems to be yet another attempt to test the Supreme Court’s willingness to overturn Roe v Wade (the landmark Supreme Court decision on abortion that has allowed for legal abortions in the US for many years). And, so far, it seems that the Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, is willing to court this kind of testing of the waters.

However, The Satanic Temple are doing what they can to help women in Texas who require abortion services. They have applied for a religious exemption that would allow them to purchase and distribute abortion pills to their members. It’s a weird way of going about trying to push for a change in law, but it’s far from the first time The Satanic Temple has attempted to use this kind of tactic to do good. I for one have been a big fan of their work for a while now.

The Satanic Temple has used some interesting tactics in the past to fight against religious privilege in the US. They have erected statues to baphomet on government property, as a way to force the hand of those who erected statues of the Ten Commandments, and they’ve also pushed for the inclusion of Satanic prayers to open state and city political meetings.


Other projects have included “Menstruatin’ with Satan” (a menstrual product drive), “Educatin’ with Satan” (including several after school Satanist clubs and a Satanist colouring book, as a way to challenge the legitimacy of Christian after school clubs), and a Pink Mass (at the grave site of Fred Phelps’ mother). And the local New Zealand Satanists have even joined in, running Soles for Satan (raising money to buy socks for those in need) and Blood for Satan (a blood drive).
 


It’s obvious that The Satanic Temple is being used by its members as a tool to fight for religious equality, ensuring that the privilege often afforded to Christianity in western countries, especially the US, is challenged wherever possible. Rather than argue for Christian privilege to be revoked, the group argues for inclusion – that their Satanist beliefs are promoted alongside those of Christian groups by government organisations. I’ve even taken a leaf out of their book in the past, and organised a counter-protest when the Jesus for NZ group were arguing on the lawn of parliament that the name of Jesus should be re-added to the parliamentary prayer. Instead of us protesting for the status quo, we carried signs arguing for the inclusion of all gods in the prayer. After all, if Jesus is able to get a mention every day in our parliament, why shouldn’t Ganesh, or Thor, or Cthulhu?

If you’re still in doubt about The Satanic Temple, here’s a copy of their seven Tenets, which I honestly find hard to fault:
 


I – One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.

II – The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.

III – One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.

IV – The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.

V – Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.

VI – People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one’s best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused.

VII – Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.


The last tenet I especially like, as it seems to me to be a direct challenge to the claims of major religions that their unchanging rules should be followed whatever the cost, and however much our understanding of the world may change.

If you’re interested in learning more about The Satanic Temple and what they do, there’s a great documentary on Netflix called “Hail Satan?” that you can watch:


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NZ Skeptics Awards

We’re currently looking for nominations for our annual awards. Specifically, we have a Bent Spoon award for whoever has “has shown the most egregious gullibility or lack of critical thinking” over the last year, Bravo awards for journalists who have done good skeptical work, and a Skeptic of the Year award for someone in New Zealand who’s been active in skepticism and fighting the good fight against nonsense.

You can see more details, including previous years’ winners, on our website:

https://skeptics.nz/awards

Feel free to respond to this email with any nominations you may have, and I can add them to our list. Thank you!

 


Coming soon…

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

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

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

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

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

Register your interest


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

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


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Skeptic News: Careful Now


96

Skeptic News: Careful Now

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Careful Now


 

It feels like it was inevitable that some of the conspiracy theorists, or “freedom fighters” as they call themselves, would end up protesting our latest level 4 lockdown. I’m not surprised that their shared delusion that lockdown is just a ploy by the government to permanently remove our freedoms would cause them to risk the health of all of us. But it has been disappointing to see a few hundred people around the country gathering to protest at a time when we’ve all been told to stay at home to limit the spread of a deadly disease.

The first protests happened at midday on Wednesday, barely 12 hours into lockdown. People were protesting outside the TVNZ building in Auckland, as well as in Tauranga and Christchurch. At the Auckland protest, Newsroom reports that one protester was holding a sign which said “Down with this sort of thing”, Although the article doesn’t mention it, this sign is from a scene in the classic TV show Father Ted, and it makes me wonder if maybe at least one attendee at the protest was just there to poke fun.



So, without further ado, let’s start this evening’s newsletter by looking at what happened this week with our conspiracy theorist friends, and then look into some of the more interesting fallout from these events.
 

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Lockdown Bingo

The not totally surprising result of these protests is that the police have been arresting protestors. However, they’ve not tried to arrest everyone, or to pick up just those who are the loudest or the most aggressive. Instead they have been carting away key members of the conspiracy/fringe movement.

As I’ve watched this happening, I’ve imagined myself marking off squares on a conspiracy bingo card. I have to assume that the police have been well briefed. They appear to know full well that many of those they’ve arrested are part of the New Zealand conspiracy version of the “Dirty Dozen”, and that their arrests are likely to reduce the likelihood of future protests being organised.

The Auckland protest on Wednesday was arranged by Billy TK (ex co-leader of the Advance NZ political party) and Vinny Eastwood, (who was until recently a prolific YouTube video creator). I say “was”, because due to the sheer amount of nonsense Vinny posts to YouTube he’s recently had all of the content deleted on all of his YouTube channels (he had several backups, in case he was moderated, but it’s all gone now). Whereas Billy tends to stick to talking about the evils of the UN, Vinny seems to have no discernment when interviewing people and promoting their views, and has talked with anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, lizard people believers, UFO cranks, germ theory deniers and much, much more.

(As I’ve mentioned before, we had Vinny speak at one of our conferences a few years ago. I always find it fascinating to give space for one of the people we usually battle to speak to us, and from the feedback we’ve received from conference attendees people tend to be very hot or cold on this one. Can anyone guess who our contentious guest might be for this year’s conference?)

Anyway, Billy TK was speaking at the protest on Wednesday when, about 45 minutes into the event, the police suddenly moved in and arrested him – and Billy was kind enough to live stream his arrest to Facebook. Billy’s arrest was closely followed by Vinny Eastwood’s. Whereas Billy went somewhat quietly, Vinny was much more vocal and audibly distressed when he was taken away – asking the crowd to protect him, and pleading that he has a wife and child at home.

Although nobody was arrested in Christchurch on Wednesday, Thursday was a different matter. Adam Nuttall and Kyle Chapman were both picked up while protesting on the Bridge of Remembrance. Adam is (yet another) video creator who promotes a variety of people’s weird and wacky views, whereas Kyle is an odious far-right character – I’ll let Wikipedia fill you in on the details.

Liz Lambert, who has been publicly coaching deluded people on how to make themselves exempt from paying rates or mortgage by claiming “Allodial Title” on a piece of land, was arrested on Saturday at another protest in Auckland – for this one the organisers tried to claim it was just a group of people exercising in public. Obviously the police were having none of it.

Notably missing were:

Damien De Ment, an American born man who makes videos online about how people should refuse to pay taxes because the government has no jurisdiction over them. Damien had been encouraging people online to protest. He was visited by the police on Saturday and, despite trying to tell the police that he was “not contracting with” them, was served with a letter of warning. After this, he chose not to turn up at the protest on Saturday, and was roundly criticised by his peers for his decision to “chicken out”.

Lee Williams, a British born man who (ironically) makes videos about how immigration is ruining New Zealand, and how Agenda 2030 and He Puapua will take away our rights and give everything we own to Māori. Lee is currently back in the UK, having lost his job, his wife and his bank accounts after posting horribly racist videos to YouTube, and so was about as far away from the Christchurch protests as he could possibly be.

Carl Bromley, a right wing Christian preacher in Christchurch and friend of Lee Williams, who had planned to have his parishioners visit his house yesterday morning for a church service, ended up with four police officers outside of his house ensuring that nobody was stupid enough to actually turn up.

Kelvyn Alp, the presenter of the online conspiracy show Counterspin, was at the protest on Wednesday, but appeared to stay quiet and avoid arrest. Kelvyn has a weird history – having set up a paramilitary organisation in NZ called the Armed Intervention Force, he now runs his Sovereign Citizen obsessed online news bulletin, broadcasting to a small but loyal following.

Some of those arrested (e.g. Billy TK and Vinny Eastwood) have already been released on bail, with conditions such as no access to the internet, no leaving their homes except to meet with their lawyers, and no fraternising with each other. For me, there’s a delicious irony – schadenfreude I guess – to seeing people who risked spreading a disease by ignoring the lockdown order being given their own extended lockdowns, complete with ankle bracelets and personalised police enforcement. Others, like Kyle and Adam, have apparently spent the weekend in jail – which may or may not have a sobering effect on them.

All in all, I think that these arrests are going to have a mixed outcome. For some, like Billy TK, who rely on the internet for their income, I can imagine them at least pausing to consider the consequences of their actions. For others, I think that they may see this kind of civil disobedience, and the punishment it carries, as a badge of honour and a way to martyr themselves. I presume that all of those that have been arrested will at least try to capitalise on their new-found infamy, even if they plead guilty and try to minimise any further damage to their lives from their reckless decisions.

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An alternative legal opinion

Of all the people who spoke publicly about this week’s arrest, Amy Benjamin, a senior lecturer of international law at AUT, was the most surprising to me.

Amy put out a video this week (which has since been removed from YouTube for containing misinformation) arguing that the arrests of protesters such as Billy TK amounts to the government outlawing legitimate protest. She specifically said that “the government has basically criminalised peaceful protest against its policies”. I’d argue that the government has done no such thing. Peaceful protests against its policies are still legal, but temporarily, while we have an outbreak of COVID, we can’t protest in groups in public. There are other ways that people can protest (such as online) that don’t involve the risk of spreading COVID, and people will be able to protest in public again as soon as the lockdown is over.

While she was at it, Amy also threw out the idea that COVID “is easily treated by therapeutics like Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine”, and she claimed that the lockdown “probably amounts to a crime against humanity”. In an ensuing video she has claimed that lockdowns are a “silent genocide” of the middle class.

My default assumption was that a lecturer on law would have a somewhat nuanced view of legal issues, but I consider Amy’s views to be somewhat extreme – and this is what took me by surprise. It turns out she has a history of similar claims. For example, she’s previously suggested that the 9/11 attack in the US was a “false flag” operation, and argued that the protesters at the 6th January insurrection attempt in the US (which her son attended) were mainly “peaceful”, and just marred by “a small group” who were in no way encouraged by President Trump.

Amy Benjamin (on the right) at the Auckland anti lockdown protest on Wednesday.

<!–


–>

(Another) Psychic Failure

This one’s a little light hearted, and not overly surprising – Kelvin Cruickshank, one of our most famous local psychics, appears to have failed to have been warned by the spirits about the impending lockdown. Kelvyn had booked a live event for Thursday in New Plymouth, in what turned out to be the second day of our national lockdown. David Chisholm, a member of our Facebook group, managed to take a great screenshot of the event being advertised under a large banner warning of event date changes due to our COVID lockdown.
 

<!–


–>
I’ll leave you all with a timely reminder from some uninformed, dangerous dingus in Wellington that, if you haven’t already done it and you’re 40 or over, it’s probably time to book your vaccination!


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: The Other NLP


96

Skeptic News: The Other NLP

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

The Other NLP


Recently I’ve been playing with some deep learning software – OpenAI’s GPT-2 and GPT-3, and EleutherAI’s GPT-J-6G. These are NLP algorithms. No, not that discredited garbage Neuro-Linguistic Programming – in this case NLP stands for Natural Language Processing.

The basic idea of these recent efforts in deep learning is to take a piece of software that has been written to guess the next word in a sequence, and train it on a huge corpus of data. It turns out that the internet is a great source of natural language, and a lot of it is very easy to scrape and feed into one of these algorithms. So these pieces of code are trained on lots and lots of internet text.

This training is very processor intensive, needing thousands of hours of time on modern PCs using specialised AI chips on expensive graphics cards. However, once the algorithm has been trained, the dataset that has been created is just a few hundred megabytes in size, and can be quickly loaded into memory – the training only needs to be done once. At this point the software can be used to predict the next word in a sequence, and can keep doing this – creating whole sentences and paragraphs that actually make grammatical and logical sense. We will see below what these general NLP algorithms can do.

The same software can also be fine tuned by giving it a smaller set of data. Using its ability to put together coherent sentences, the software can emulate the data set it’s been fine tuned on. So far I’ve been working on a couple of fun skeptical projects with this, although I have more ideas.

Anyway, it’s probably easiest if I just give you some brief intros and show you the kinds of results I’ve been getting. Enjoy!

Mark Honeychurch

<!–


–>


Hate Speech Submission

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the NZ Skeptics putting together a submission for the Ministry of Justice in response to their new Hate Speech proposals. You can read our submission on our website, but I thought it would be fun to use EleutherAI’s free online GPT-J-6G deep learning model to write a submission for us. I gave the software the first few paragraphs of our real submission, and then clicked the button to guess the next hundred or so words. I then fed the result back into the algorithm so that it could create the next block of text, and so on.

Eventually the text started getting repetitive, and veering off track, but for a while what I was being given by this trained algorithm made sense and looked pretty believable. I didn’t agree with its arguments, but at least it seemed to be creating text that reads like a coherent argument. Please be aware that the pieces of legislation it mentions probably don’t exist – this software is just trying to emulate the kinds of language it’s been trained on, writing in blogs and on forums from all across the internet.

In the text below, everything in bold comes from our actual proposal. The ensuing text that is not in bold, starting at “We also acknowledge that there is a public interest”, is written by the deep learning algorithm. Have a read and see if, like me, you’re more than a little bit impressed with how well it did:

 

NZ Skeptics submission on the Ministry of Justice Proposals against incitement of hatred and discrimination

 

The NZ Skeptics

We are a New Zealand/Aoteaoroa charity dedicated to education and the promotion of evidence based practices, both in government policy and elsewhere in New Zealand public life. We believe that all government policy decisions should be informed by the best available evidence from relevant groups. We believe that legislation should be based in reality and evidence, rather than on unproven ideas.
 

The Proposals

Our main concern is regarding Proposal five, with the addition of incitement to discriminate to the Human Rights Act.

We accept that inciting others to hate a group of people for their religious belief can be (and has been) a problem in this country, and that it makes sense to have some level of legislation to protect people from this behaviour. 

We also acknowledge that there is a public interest in protecting people from incitement to commit acts of violence and/or to cause harm to others, such as in the case of terrorism.

We believe that the proposed new offences of incitement to discriminate and incitement to hatred are problematic for several reasons, and we are writing this submission to highlight the problems associated with these proposed changes.

Firstly, the proposed offences are deeply problematic because of their language. The wording of the proposal appears to be based on the “hate speech” model, which has been shown to be legally flawed in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. The “hate speech” model of lawmaking is based on the idea that “hate speech” is a form of dangerous speech, and therefore should be regulated as a form of dangerous speech. This assumption is based on the idea that, when someone says something that is “hate speech”, it causes people to act on their feelings and to commit violence. It has been shown, however, that this is not true in many cases. Research shows that most people in most countries who commit violence have a different mental disorder (such as schizophrenia) and are more likely to have been victims of violence. It is also shown that people who commit violence are more likely to be victims of violence. The idea that “hate speech” causes violence has also been shown to be false.

To add insult to injury, the proposed offences are vague. They leave too many questions unanswered. What does “discriminate” actually mean? What does “hate” mean? What does “harm” mean? What if someone is just saying something that they disagree with? What if a large group of people are just saying something that they disagree with? How would the “discriminate” be proven? How would the “hate” be proven? How would the “harm” be proven?

As an example of the vagueness, consider the following clause from the proposed Human Rights Act amendment:

(4) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (3), it is unlawful for a person to incite any other person to discriminate against a person or a group of persons or to incite a person to commit any act of violence or to do any act to cause harm to a person or to a group of persons in the context of a public discussion, debate or other public event, or in any other public place or context.

If someone is inciting a large group of people to discriminate against a group of people, such as race or gender discrimination, is that person committing an offence?

If someone is inciting a group of people to cause harm to a group of people, such as to murder a group of people or to burn down a church, is that person committing an offence?

There are many, many questions about the new offences, and it is not possible to answer these questions from the description. The wording of the proposal needs to be changed to make it clear what is meant by the language “incite to discriminate” and “incite to hate”.

Secondly, the proposed new offences are very broad. The Human Rights Act is very broad, and the proposed amendments add little to the breadth of what is already covered. They appear to be largely drafted for the purpose of adding new offences. They do not appear to be drafted to make the law more effective. It would be impossible to draft a bill that is not overly broad.

The proposed Human Rights Act is already quite broad. It bans a number of things that are arguably not discriminatory or hateful, such as incitement to boycott. Even if the Human Rights Act is broadened, as proposed, it would still need to be kept within the bounds of the Constitution.

The proposed offences are also vague. The definition of “hate” (which is not defined) and “harm” (which is not defined) is incredibly broad. Many things that are not discriminatory or hateful can be described as “harmful”. To use an example from the Bible, the book of Isaiah says that Yahweh is “a jealous God and an avenger, who takes vengeance on his adversaries.” This has been used by many people as an example of Yahweh being hateful towards other religions. However, it is not hate speech. It does not incite violence or discrimination against other religions. It simply tells the truth about Yahweh. The book of Isaiah also says that Yahweh will judge his enemies, and that Yahweh will be “a refuge for the oppressed and a refuge in times of trouble”. This is not hate speech. It is stating the truth about Yahweh. 

We believe that the wording of the new offences needs to be significantly changed to make them more clear. In particular, we believe that the words “hate” and “harm” need to be clearly defined.

Thirdly, the proposed new offences appear to be based on the assumption that people can be “protected” from certain ideas. This is an unproven theory. There is no evidence that people can be protected from certain ideas, and this evidence is being ignored.
 


QAnonsense

Using an older algorithm, GPT-2, with a fairly small data set that it had been pre-trained on, I fine tuned this particular piece of software on the entire back catalogue of QAnon posts. Below are 6 QAnon posts – three are the genuine article, and three are fakes created by GPT-2. Can you figure out which is which?
 


#FactsMatter – Truth to Power – Facts = Power of OP.
Who controls the truth?
Who controls the narrative? #FactsMatter #FactsMatter
We know.
Q

 


>>2434941
Think WRAY (yesterday).
Think [RR] (today).
Comms understood?
Do you believe in coincidences?
Q

 


What happens when the public finds out the TRUTH?
What happens when the FAKE NEWS MEDIA can no longer control the narrative (when disinformation is no longer swallowed and/or accepted as auto-truth)?
CHANGE IS COMING.
THE GREAT AWAKENING.
Q

 


>>533922
Think for yourself.
I know you can ‘defend your position’ if you can be ‘truth-telling’ and ‘vocal’ about what you feel.
But this isn’t ‘public opinion.’
These people (or ‘others’) are ‘terrorists,’ and this will ‘kill them.’
We were scared for you. 
You are needed.
Q

 


>>7087382
Note the date of the post – Nov 2017.
Note events happening today.
Reconcile.
News unlocks.
Q

 


Will the MSM push the lie re: Russian collusion?
Prevent if necessary.
Will they have the courage to conduct investigation if found to be Falsifiable? 
Will they have the decency or the ability to report true facts re: collusion?
Will they have the courage to conduct an unbiased investigation if found to have been Falsifiable?
Prevent if necessary.
The Great Awakening.
Q

 


If you’ve played along, and want to know the answer, the first, fourth and sixth are made by the AI, and the second, third and fifth are genuine QAnon posts. I have a project planned for these AI generate posts which I’m hoping will be a little bit of a fun game that shows just how silly QAnon’s posts are. I’ll let you all know as soon as it goes live.

 


Trying to create a new Religion

This one surprised me a little. I fed GPT-2 about a dozen holy texts, with the intention of generating some text that was their distilled, combined wisdom. Instead, what I received each time I ran the generator was an attempt to recreate text from just one of the books I’d trained it on. The results are impressive – although the text generated by deep learning doesn’t always make a huge amount of sense, I think it could be reasonably argued that the same is the case for genuine holy texts!

This is another game you can play along with at home. All of the texts below were generated by the GPT-2 deep learning algorithm – for each of them, can you figure out which holy text they’re emulating? I can’t be sure, but I’ve taken a good guess and included my answers underneath
 


1 Esdr 15:10
Moreover the Lord said unto Moses, If ye speak to any people to speak good, say, Ye shall not speak evil; for they are of an unlawful speech of their own accord.
1 Esdr 15:11
And after the lawgiver said unto the LORD, Speak unto the heathen of the Lord, that they may teach in their own lands of the good word, and that they may not speak wickedly; for they shall never be accepted into their lands of their inheritance, until the day of peace be fulfilled.

 


3:005:008 Thou art the King’s counsellor, and I the King his counsellor, and thy word is truth, and I the King’s counsellor, and thy word is justice; but the words of the wicked and the wicked are in your mouth: and thou shalt not deliver them, and I the King will deliver thee: so tell me the words of the wicked, as the wickedness of my soul: and thou shalt say, If, when thou art king, thou keepest the commandments of my conscience: then thou art my brother, and I shall not be ashamed.
 


20:2 And the people of Judah went down to the place, and went forth to fight against the people of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, before they did so, they did it with great courage; but not of the same courage was they like unto the city of the children of Israel.
20:3 And the people of Jerusalem fought not as the people of Judah did: but they were not of the same spirit, because the LORD of hosts dealt a dispute with the people of Judah.
20:4 And the people of this city did not rise up against the people, neither went to Jerusalem with the battle; but they went down, and returned as they went down, and departed, and went their way.
20:5 Thus they were scattered, with their tents; and it was not according to their numbers for that they were so scattered in like manner; but according to their number they went up against them, and did battle.

 


They had seen his face from their youth, and were afraid. He had shown great power on the field; their fear was not so great. They found a place that they could put distance between the brother and his master in a distance that was ten paces. He was able to make his brother a prisoner, to cut off their right hand, and to put their master to the death by hanging. His brother then went with his master to the field, and told the people that there were two men at the door, and that the brothers had been there four or five minutes.
 


It is my advice therefore to make use of all means whereby I am able to make use of my intelligence in this matter. For I feel sure that the problems that lie before thee, though greater than any before, and worse still, than were before, and yet, though less, are all to be expected from the evil and wickedness that are in his sight.
 


To-day science reveals the Universe to be subject to the law of relativity, thus, in the sense of a flat, constant state, and yet that the Universe also changes for various conditions, – and this also indicates that matter, is not to blame for the existence of God. We do not find a continuity of matter in matter or a succession in matter over Matter. All that exists does so in degrees and that the higher degree of being leads to other degrees and that all that takes place rests upon this higher level of being.
 


My guess for what these texts are emulating is:

  1. The Apocrypha
  2. The King James Bible
  3. The Book of Mormon
  4. The Koran
  5. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas
  6. Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures


Any other ideas?

One idea I’ve been given is to find a large set of Deepak Chopra quotes, and use that to train an algorithm to create nonsense quotes talking about quantum realities and the collapse of the wave function. All I need to do now is find a bunch of quotes in a format I can feed to the algorithm.

Do you have any other ideas of what I could feed one of these algorithms?


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.

Email Marketing Powered by Mailchimp

Continue reading

Skeptic News: The Other NLP


96

Skeptic News: The Other NLP

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

The Other NLP


Recently I’ve been playing with some deep learning software – OpenAI’s GPT-2 and GPT-3, and EleutherAI’s GPT-J-6G. These are NLP algorithms. No, not that discredited garbage Neuro-Linguistic Programming – in this case NLP stands for Natural Language Processing.

The basic idea of these recent efforts in deep learning is to take a piece of software that has been written to guess the next word in a sequence, and train it on a huge corpus of data. It turns out that the internet is a great source of natural language, and a lot of it is very easy to scrape and feed into one of these algorithms. So these pieces of code are trained on lots and lots of internet text.

This training is very processor intensive, needing thousands of hours of time on modern PCs using specialised AI chips on expensive graphics cards. However, once the algorithm has been trained, the dataset that has been created is just a few hundred megabytes in size, and can be quickly loaded into memory – the training only needs to be done once. At this point the software can be used to predict the next word in a sequence, and can keep doing this – creating whole sentences and paragraphs that actually make grammatical and logical sense. We will see below what these general NLP algorithms can do.

The same software can also be fine tuned by giving it a smaller set of data. Using its ability to put together coherent sentences, the software can emulate the data set it’s been fine tuned on. So far I’ve been working on a couple of fun skeptical projects with this, although I have more ideas.

Anyway, it’s probably easiest if I just give you some brief intros and show you the kinds of results I’ve been getting. Enjoy!

Mark Honeychurch

<!–


–>


Hate Speech Submission

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the NZ Skeptics putting together a submission for the Ministry of Justice in response to their new Hate Speech proposals. You can read our submission on our website, but I thought it would be fun to use EleutherAI’s free online GPT-J-6G deep learning model to write a submission for us. I gave the software the first few paragraphs of our real submission, and then clicked the button to guess the next hundred or so words. I then fed the result back into the algorithm so that it could create the next block of text, and so on.

Eventually the text started getting repetitive, and veering off track, but for a while what I was being given by this trained algorithm made sense and looked pretty believable. I didn’t agree with its arguments, but at least it seemed to be creating text that reads like a coherent argument. Please be aware that the pieces of legislation it mentions probably don’t exist – this software is just trying to emulate the kinds of language it’s been trained on, writing in blogs and on forums from all across the internet.

In the text below, everything in bold comes from our actual proposal. The ensuing text that is not in bold, starting at “We also acknowledge that there is a public interest”, is written by the deep learning algorithm. Have a read and see if, like me, you’re more than a little bit impressed with how well it did:

 

NZ Skeptics submission on the Ministry of Justice Proposals against incitement of hatred and discrimination

 

The NZ Skeptics

We are a New Zealand/Aoteaoroa charity dedicated to education and the promotion of evidence based practices, both in government policy and elsewhere in New Zealand public life. We believe that all government policy decisions should be informed by the best available evidence from relevant groups. We believe that legislation should be based in reality and evidence, rather than on unproven ideas.
 

The Proposals

Our main concern is regarding Proposal five, with the addition of incitement to discriminate to the Human Rights Act.

We accept that inciting others to hate a group of people for their religious belief can be (and has been) a problem in this country, and that it makes sense to have some level of legislation to protect people from this behaviour. 

We also acknowledge that there is a public interest in protecting people from incitement to commit acts of violence and/or to cause harm to others, such as in the case of terrorism.

We believe that the proposed new offences of incitement to discriminate and incitement to hatred are problematic for several reasons, and we are writing this submission to highlight the problems associated with these proposed changes.

Firstly, the proposed offences are deeply problematic because of their language. The wording of the proposal appears to be based on the “hate speech” model, which has been shown to be legally flawed in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. The “hate speech” model of lawmaking is based on the idea that “hate speech” is a form of dangerous speech, and therefore should be regulated as a form of dangerous speech. This assumption is based on the idea that, when someone says something that is “hate speech”, it causes people to act on their feelings and to commit violence. It has been shown, however, that this is not true in many cases. Research shows that most people in most countries who commit violence have a different mental disorder (such as schizophrenia) and are more likely to have been victims of violence. It is also shown that people who commit violence are more likely to be victims of violence. The idea that “hate speech” causes violence has also been shown to be false.

To add insult to injury, the proposed offences are vague. They leave too many questions unanswered. What does “discriminate” actually mean? What does “hate” mean? What does “harm” mean? What if someone is just saying something that they disagree with? What if a large group of people are just saying something that they disagree with? How would the “discriminate” be proven? How would the “hate” be proven? How would the “harm” be proven?

As an example of the vagueness, consider the following clause from the proposed Human Rights Act amendment:

(4) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (3), it is unlawful for a person to incite any other person to discriminate against a person or a group of persons or to incite a person to commit any act of violence or to do any act to cause harm to a person or to a group of persons in the context of a public discussion, debate or other public event, or in any other public place or context.

If someone is inciting a large group of people to discriminate against a group of people, such as race or gender discrimination, is that person committing an offence?

If someone is inciting a group of people to cause harm to a group of people, such as to murder a group of people or to burn down a church, is that person committing an offence?

There are many, many questions about the new offences, and it is not possible to answer these questions from the description. The wording of the proposal needs to be changed to make it clear what is meant by the language “incite to discriminate” and “incite to hate”.

Secondly, the proposed new offences are very broad. The Human Rights Act is very broad, and the proposed amendments add little to the breadth of what is already covered. They appear to be largely drafted for the purpose of adding new offences. They do not appear to be drafted to make the law more effective. It would be impossible to draft a bill that is not overly broad.

The proposed Human Rights Act is already quite broad. It bans a number of things that are arguably not discriminatory or hateful, such as incitement to boycott. Even if the Human Rights Act is broadened, as proposed, it would still need to be kept within the bounds of the Constitution.

The proposed offences are also vague. The definition of “hate” (which is not defined) and “harm” (which is not defined) is incredibly broad. Many things that are not discriminatory or hateful can be described as “harmful”. To use an example from the Bible, the book of Isaiah says that Yahweh is “a jealous God and an avenger, who takes vengeance on his adversaries.” This has been used by many people as an example of Yahweh being hateful towards other religions. However, it is not hate speech. It does not incite violence or discrimination against other religions. It simply tells the truth about Yahweh. The book of Isaiah also says that Yahweh will judge his enemies, and that Yahweh will be “a refuge for the oppressed and a refuge in times of trouble”. This is not hate speech. It is stating the truth about Yahweh. 

We believe that the wording of the new offences needs to be significantly changed to make them more clear. In particular, we believe that the words “hate” and “harm” need to be clearly defined.

Thirdly, the proposed new offences appear to be based on the assumption that people can be “protected” from certain ideas. This is an unproven theory. There is no evidence that people can be protected from certain ideas, and this evidence is being ignored.
 


QAnonsense

Using an older algorithm, GPT-2, with a fairly small data set that it had been pre-trained on, I fine tuned this particular piece of software on the entire back catalogue of QAnon posts. Below are 6 QAnon posts – three are the genuine article, and three are fakes created by GPT-2. Can you figure out which is which?
 


#FactsMatter – Truth to Power – Facts = Power of OP.
Who controls the truth?
Who controls the narrative? #FactsMatter #FactsMatter
We know.
Q

 


>>2434941
Think WRAY (yesterday).
Think [RR] (today).
Comms understood?
Do you believe in coincidences?
Q

 


What happens when the public finds out the TRUTH?
What happens when the FAKE NEWS MEDIA can no longer control the narrative (when disinformation is no longer swallowed and/or accepted as auto-truth)?
CHANGE IS COMING.
THE GREAT AWAKENING.
Q

 


>>533922
Think for yourself.
I know you can ‘defend your position’ if you can be ‘truth-telling’ and ‘vocal’ about what you feel.
But this isn’t ‘public opinion.’
These people (or ‘others’) are ‘terrorists,’ and this will ‘kill them.’
We were scared for you. 
You are needed.
Q

 


>>7087382
Note the date of the post – Nov 2017.
Note events happening today.
Reconcile.
News unlocks.
Q

 


Will the MSM push the lie re: Russian collusion?
Prevent if necessary.
Will they have the courage to conduct investigation if found to be Falsifiable? 
Will they have the decency or the ability to report true facts re: collusion?
Will they have the courage to conduct an unbiased investigation if found to have been Falsifiable?
Prevent if necessary.
The Great Awakening.
Q

 


If you’ve played along, and want to know the answer, the first, fourth and sixth are made by the AI, and the second, third and fifth are genuine QAnon posts. I have a project planned for these AI generate posts which I’m hoping will be a little bit of a fun game that shows just how silly QAnon’s posts are. I’ll let you all know as soon as it goes live.

 


Trying to create a new Religion

This one surprised me a little. I fed GPT-2 about a dozen holy texts, with the intention of generating some text that was their distilled, combined wisdom. Instead, what I received each time I ran the generator was an attempt to recreate text from just one of the books I’d trained it on. The results are impressive – although the text generated by deep learning doesn’t always make a huge amount of sense, I think it could be reasonably argued that the same is the case for genuine holy texts!

This is another game you can play along with at home. All of the texts below were generated by the GPT-2 deep learning algorithm – for each of them, can you figure out which holy text they’re emulating? I can’t be sure, but I’ve taken a good guess and included my answers underneath
 


1 Esdr 15:10
Moreover the Lord said unto Moses, If ye speak to any people to speak good, say, Ye shall not speak evil; for they are of an unlawful speech of their own accord.
1 Esdr 15:11
And after the lawgiver said unto the LORD, Speak unto the heathen of the Lord, that they may teach in their own lands of the good word, and that they may not speak wickedly; for they shall never be accepted into their lands of their inheritance, until the day of peace be fulfilled.

 


3:005:008 Thou art the King’s counsellor, and I the King his counsellor, and thy word is truth, and I the King’s counsellor, and thy word is justice; but the words of the wicked and the wicked are in your mouth: and thou shalt not deliver them, and I the King will deliver thee: so tell me the words of the wicked, as the wickedness of my soul: and thou shalt say, If, when thou art king, thou keepest the commandments of my conscience: then thou art my brother, and I shall not be ashamed.
 


20:2 And the people of Judah went down to the place, and went forth to fight against the people of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, before they did so, they did it with great courage; but not of the same courage was they like unto the city of the children of Israel.
20:3 And the people of Jerusalem fought not as the people of Judah did: but they were not of the same spirit, because the LORD of hosts dealt a dispute with the people of Judah.
20:4 And the people of this city did not rise up against the people, neither went to Jerusalem with the battle; but they went down, and returned as they went down, and departed, and went their way.
20:5 Thus they were scattered, with their tents; and it was not according to their numbers for that they were so scattered in like manner; but according to their number they went up against them, and did battle.

 


They had seen his face from their youth, and were afraid. He had shown great power on the field; their fear was not so great. They found a place that they could put distance between the brother and his master in a distance that was ten paces. He was able to make his brother a prisoner, to cut off their right hand, and to put their master to the death by hanging. His brother then went with his master to the field, and told the people that there were two men at the door, and that the brothers had been there four or five minutes.
 


It is my advice therefore to make use of all means whereby I am able to make use of my intelligence in this matter. For I feel sure that the problems that lie before thee, though greater than any before, and worse still, than were before, and yet, though less, are all to be expected from the evil and wickedness that are in his sight.
 


To-day science reveals the Universe to be subject to the law of relativity, thus, in the sense of a flat, constant state, and yet that the Universe also changes for various conditions, – and this also indicates that matter, is not to blame for the existence of God. We do not find a continuity of matter in matter or a succession in matter over Matter. All that exists does so in degrees and that the higher degree of being leads to other degrees and that all that takes place rests upon this higher level of being.
 


My guess for what these texts are emulating is:

  1. The Apocrypha
  2. The King James Bible
  3. The Book of Mormon
  4. The Koran
  5. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas
  6. Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures


Any other ideas?

One idea I’ve been given is to find a large set of Deepak Chopra quotes, and use that to train an algorithm to create nonsense quotes talking about quantum realities and the collapse of the wave function. All I need to do now is find a bunch of quotes in a format I can feed to the algorithm.

Do you have any other ideas of what I could feed one of these algorithms?


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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Submission on Hate Speech Proposals

NZ Skeptics submission on the Ministry of Justice Proposals against incitement of hatred and discrimination

The NZ Skeptics

We are a New Zealand/Aoteaoroa charity dedicated to education and the promotion of evidence based practices, both in government policy and elsewhere in New Zealand public life. We believe that all government policy decisions should be informed by the best available evidence from relevant groups. We believe that legislation should be based on reality and evidence, rather than on unproven ideas.

The Proposals

Our concern is regarding Proposal five, with the addition of incitement to discriminate to the Human Rights Act.

We accept that inciting others to hate a group of people for their religious belief can be (and has been) a problem in this country, and that it makes sense to have some level of legislation to protect people from this behaviour. 

Our approach is generally to criticise ideas and behaviours rather than people, and our approach is to never intentionally incite hatred of a class of people, even those we disagree with. We tend to single out people who we think are out to scam people and knowingly and egregiously promote misinformation.

We think, however, that even using insults to incite others to hate a religious belief, or to discriminate against people who hold a religious belief, should not necessarily rise to the level of being a crime.

It is important for beliefs to be open to criticism – including through the use of ridicule and insults. Beliefs are different from innate properties of a person or group of people, such as their sexuality, gender, race or national origin. A belief is not an intrinsic attribute of a person, but rather the act of believing is a personal choice. Because of this, there should be latitude for robust criticism of religious beliefs, and of those who choose to follow those beliefs – even if that criticism could be construed as being insulting or abusive, and perceived as inciting others to discriminate or hate.

It is easy to think of examples of religious groups in this country who regularly speak out against the rights of those they consider “immoral”, such as gay and lesbian couples, or those who choose to have an abortion. We do not think that it should be illegal for people to be able to use insults as a way to criticise these groups for example, even if these insults are intended to incite others to discriminate against them. We think there are occasions where groups should be discriminated against, in order to lessen their ability to spread dangerous misinformation. Denying hateful religious groups a platform from which they can speak messages of hate could be argued to be discrimination, but we think that the ability to use activism in this way is legitimate and should remain legal. We would not want to find ourselves being threatened with a lawsuit if we asked our members to boycott a hateful religious group, and used insulting language in order to make our request.

Our worry, also, is that extreme religious groups with whom we disagree, such as those who criticise gay and lesbian couples, might be afforded a different level of shielding from prosecution simply because of their perceived traditional religious roots.

We think that it is important for any legislation around religion and hate speech to differentiate between religious believers and religious beliefs. We would like to see allowance made in legislation for speech that may be considered as inciting discrimination or hatred, when that speech is aimed not at people but at their beliefs. This is especially important when these beliefs are not only wrong but also dangerous or hurtful, such as religious shunning, gay conversion therapy or taking money from the poor. Our ability to criticise these erroneous, damaging beliefs should not be curtailed.

We think that any protections given to religious groups should also be afforded to agnostics, atheists and other non-believers. Especially when it comes to ethnic groups with high levels of belief, non-believing members of those ethnic groups can find themselves targeted by hate speech for their choice to not believe. We see no reason that these people should not be protected by hate speech laws in the same way that religious people will be under the new proposals.

Skeptic News: can anyone pronounce NXIVM?


96

Skeptic News: can anyone pronounce NXIVM?

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Can anyone pronounce NXIVM?


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

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

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

Mark Honeychurch

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Famous actress jailed for her role in NXIVM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Psychic Kelvin is on tour

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

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

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

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

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

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


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When scientists go wrong

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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Skeptic News: Live from the Christchurch Home Show


96

Skeptic News: Live from the Christchurch Home Show

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Live from the Christchurch Home Show


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

Mark Honeychurch

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

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Fun With Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christchurch Home Show

by Barry Lennox

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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Birds aren’t real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Earth 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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Skeptic News: No Druids, New Freeland


96

Skeptic News: No Druids, New Freeland

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

No Druids, New Freeland


 

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

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

Mark Honeychurch

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New Freeland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How not to handle a COVID outbreak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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German psychic claims to have solved yet another case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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