Skeptic News:  COVID, Vaccines, Space Debris and more


96

Skeptic News:  COVID, Vaccines, Space Debris and more

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

COVID vaccine rollouts continue to happen, and the more at-risk people here in New Zealand/Aotearoa are starting to get theirs. Still, there’s opposition from the usual suspects detailed below.

The battle against misinformation is ever on-going!

Wishing you a great week…
Craig Shearer

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COVID’s worst places

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the situation in India with COVID and how bad it was there. It turns out that it’s not the worst place in the world to be (though certainly not anywhere near the best either!). There’s an interactive map hosted by the New York Times that shows, per country, the rates of infection per capita.

As expected, India and Brazil are doing badly, but there are some countries that are worse. Interestingly, Canada currently has a much higher number of infections per day than the US does – probably as a result of the impressive rollout of the COVID vaccine by the US. 

South America, overall, seems to be particularly bad – with Uruguay coming in at an average of 73 new cases daily per 100,000 population.

But almost as bad is Sweden, darling of the Plan B crowd, with 47 daily new cases per 100,000 population. 

Of course, the infection rate is just one dimension of the pandemic. The environment in which infections occur and how they’re handled and managed makes a major difference to the outcome of cases – and in India’s case, their health systems are overloaded resulting in deaths that might have been avoided in countries with better-equipped systems.

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Voices for Freedom (again!)

I’ve been watching the Facebook page of Voices For Freedom. To me it’s staggering the output of their page, with their frequent posts. often several a day. They have over 7,000 people following the page.

At the moment it’s all about discouraging people to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Their latest post is complaining about the joint statement issued by the New Zealand Medical Council and the Dental Council concerning the professional obligation of practitioners to responsibly promote the COVID vaccine to their patients, and not to promote and encourage vaccine hesitancy (which we applaud).

Given social media’s efforts (half-hearted, it seems) to shut down COVID conspiracy theories, VFF appear to be anticipating their own demise, and are encouraging people to sign up to their mailing list, which would be much more difficult to shut down (or monitor, unless there’s some sneaky skeptics signed up to it!). 

This weekend they’ve been promoting the online summit “Truth over Fear” – subtitled “COVID-19 and The Great Reset”.  Here they claim that “big tech” is trying to shut them down, though I’m not sure I understand why that would be the case. That page is truly astounding! They claim that you’ll get “unbiased answers to your questions”, that you’ll have “will have access to 100% unbiased information”.

The presenters at the summit should be very familiar to anybody who’s been following the conspiracy theory/vaccine denial industry – people such as Robert F Kennedy, Jr, Barbara Loe Fisher, Dr. Bob Sears, Dr. Judy Mikovits, and V4F’s own Claire Deeks (also social media influencer and doTERRA multi-level marketer). I think their claim that you’d be hearing 100% unbiased information is pretty laughable, if it weren’t so scary.

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Who is considered a critical health worker?

NZ Skeptics were recently contacted by a journalist in response to an Official Information Act request which revealed the numbers of people and their occupations entering the country under the guise of being a critical health worker.

Shockingly there were eight people who were listed as osteopaths and two chiropractors. Our concerns are that alternative health practitioners are considered critical health workers! 

While we are disappointed that these practitioners are being let in, we don’t find it surprising. It seems unlikely that the Department of Immigration is going to be au fait with the subtleties of which categories of medical providers actually have scientific evidence as a basis for their practice. We would hope that the Department of Health would provide robust guidelines as to which workers truly are critical, but this is probably not the case.

This time last year, in the early stages of NZ/Aotearoa’s response to the pandemic we saw chiropractors offering to be essential health workers. My reading of this is that is that the press release reads like a plea by chiropractors to retain some relevance. Chiropractors, who are largely a hands-on service, would have struggled with the reduced demand for their services during that time.

Of most concern in the era of COVID-19 and the vaccination rollout is that osteopaths and chiropractors often express vaccine hesitancy and outright anti-vax views.

It does seem that organisations representing these vocations are doing some back-pedalling when it comes to vaccination. Indeed, we’ve recently seen a very good paper written in the International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine that expresses exactly that concern:

“However, we are concerned with the negative sentiments, ill-formed views and in some cases frank scepticism regarding vaccines amongst what appears to be small sections of the osteopathic profession. There is global concern at the growing ‘anti vax’ sentiment that is expressed on social media and within other intra-health professional groups and settings”

To our mind we see this as a case of osteopaths telling their own to get their house in order. We wonder whether any osteopaths in NZ are paying attention to this warning.

Ultimately this issue falls to government policy, and appears to be a product of the less than stunning job that successive governments have done protecting Kiwis from alternative medicine practitioners making dubious, unsupported claims.

As mentioned above, the Medical and Dental councils have issued guidance to their practitioners. NZ Skeptics would challenge the respective organisations for chiropractors and osteopaths to issue similarly strong guidance to their members.

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Long March 5B

The Chinese launch vehicle – Long March 5B has been in the news over the past week. The rocket was launched at the end of last month to carry the living quarters of China’s independent space station into orbit. 

While the launch of the rocket was controlled, its fall back to earth was not. The concern was that, with uncontrolled descent, it might land on a populated area. 

As I write this on Sunday afternoon, it has been reported that the rocket has crashed down near the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, though there were tracking predictions that it could come down on Australia or New Zealand. 

From a skeptical perspective, it’s interesting to consider the concerns expressed about this, and the attention that it has captured. 

As most of the world is uninhabited (with much of the population being clumped into dense spots) the chances of it hitting an inhabited area are extremely low. The lifetime odds of a single person being hit by space debris are more than a billion to one. 

However, the law of large numbers kicks in, and while the chance of being hit by falling space debris is very low, it has happened. Lottie Williams, of Tulsa Oklahoma was walking through a park at 4am back in 1997 when she was hit by a piece of a falling Delta II rocket!

Of more concern about space debris is the large number of small pieces of space junk in low earth orbit that could cause catastrophic damage to satellites or to rockets being launched into space. NASA has estimated there’s in excess of 23,000 untracked objects that have the potential to wreak havoc. It’s counter-intuitive but even a tiny piece of metal, because of the energy it has due to the speed at which it’s orbiting, is capable of causing a lot of damage. 

At present there’s over 3,000 satellites in orbit but that number is set to increase immensely with the launch of systems such as Starlink which plans to put 12,000 satellites into orbit. What will be the fate of all these satellites at the end of their lives? And what happens if a piece of space debris hits an existing satellite setting off a “chain reaction”? This is the space debris we should really be worried about!

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If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
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Skeptic News: Going Underground


96

Skeptic News: Going Underground

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Going Underground


I’ve noticed an interesting, and worrying, shift with some of the more extreme online communities recently. On the one hand it’s great to finally, and belatedly, see social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google hold people and organisations to account when they spread nonsense such as COVID vaccine misinformation. For example, just this week Advance NZ’s Facebook page has been temporarily removed. Local conspiracy theorists such as Damien DeMent, Lee Williams, Vinny Eastwood and Karen Brewer are currently concerned over suspension of their social media profiles, because they are perpetuating dangerous untruths.

However there’s a flipside to this crackdown, in today’s technological world where it’s becoming easier and easier to set up an alternative platform. Many of the people who are losing access to their social media accounts are being driven to places where it’s harder to keep an eye on them – alt-right social sites such as Parler and Gab, and secure messaging apps like Telegram and Signal. The US owner of MyPillow, Mike Lindell, is even threatening to create a new platform focused on free speech, which he’s calling Frank. Well, not exactly free speech – you won’t be allowed to swear or blaspheme on his new site.

In New Zealand these communities, groups and channels have names such as The White Rose, the NZ Liberty Movement, Counterspin, New Zealand Free Speech, Eyes Open, Truth Seekers and even Greymouth Skeptics (who are anything but skeptical!). This is where the alt-right are hob-nobbing with hippies, and far right nationalists are mingling with anti-vaccine mothers. It’s nice that these people are now less able to influence those on the fence with their wacky ideas, but I wonder whether they’ll become mode radicalised in a more sheltered, close-knit setting. After all, the last thing we want to see in New Zealand is another terrorist attack by someone with a horribly warped view of reality.

Mark Honeychurch

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Accelerated Nonsense

A.C.E., or Accelerated Christian Education, is a Christian based curriculum used in New Zealand – both in some Christian schools, and by parents who homeschool their children. The curriculum boasts that it covers from kindergarten to year 13, and that it is recognised by New Zealand universities.

The NZARH were contacted recently by some students who are concerned about some of the content of the ACE curriculum. They were good enough to supply me with a set of pictures they’d taken of a section of one book titled “Character Study of the Strange Woman”. This chapter focuses on Proverbs 2, from verse 16:

“Wisdom will save you also from the adulterous woman, from the wayward woman with her seductive words, who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God. Surely her house leads down to death and her paths to the spirits of the dead.”

The lesson this school text book gives about this passage is that of the strange, or troubled, woman, and is basically a warning about how dangerous some women can be:

This is a person who has been abused and broken and has a tendency to be immoral… Being a strange woman is an inward condition, not simply an outward activity. A woman might be active in her church, but still have the character qualities of a strange woman… she will be a danger to any man who decides to establish a personal relationship with her.

The lesson then goes on to give a truly appalling analogy between these women and run down houses:

I once bought a little house that I was going to fix up and resell. It was extremely cheap and I soon found out why. Outwardly it was nice looking, but the inside was completely “trashed.” The man I hired to clean it out couldn’t stay inside for more than 15 minutes at a time because of its horrible stench. We called in exterminators to eliminate rodents, roaches, and other creatures.

As I studied the Scriptures about the strange woman, I thought back on our experience with that little house. In a similar way, a person can appear attractive on the outside, but be devastated on the inside.

I hate to think that every year hundreds of children in New Zealand are being taught these kinds of demeaning ideas. But that’s not all – a cursory search on google for Accelerated Christian Education brings up horror stories of over the top discipline, male dominance and science denial:

  • the act of love between two persons of the same gender is tantamount to “murder or stealing”
  • Evolution is a “sinking ship”
  • “If a scientific theory contradicts the Bible, then the theory is wrong and must be discarded.”

Both of the images below, misrepresenting the science of evolution, come from ACE curriculum material. I find it hard to fathom just how this curriculum ever managed to get approval in New Zealand.
 

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Christchurch health clinic bans vaccinated customers

An “alternative” health clinic in Christchurch, which specialises in colonic irrigation and coffee enemas, has announced online that it will not treat anyone who has been vaccinated within the last 30 days.

This news comes on the back of a school in Miami, the Centner Academy, barring its teachers from being able to see students if they’ve been given the COVID vaccine. The academy will also no longer be employing new teachers who have already been vaccinated. They argue that because the vaccines have not yet been fully tested, there is a risk that they could have unknown issues that may affect other people.

In fact, the school reports that it has already seen this happen. A letter sent out to parents said:

“Tens of thousands of women all over the world have recently been reporting adverse reproductive issues simply from being in close proximity with those who have received any one of the COVID-19 injections… No one knows exactly what may be causing these irregularities, but it appears that those who have received the injections may be transmitting something from their bodies to those with whom they come in contact.”

The local union, the United Teachers of Dade, rightly spoke up and called out this nonsense:

“As shamefully seen by the actions of the illegally run and uncertified Centner Academy, these schools not only teach misinformation and peddle propaganda, they punish teachers who try to protect themselves and their families.”

It didn’t take long for me to find a link between the Christchurch clinic and the Miami school – it turns out that the owners of the clinic are fans of David and Leila Centner, the owners of the school, and have posted online about the Centners’ recent documentary called Medical Racism. (The documentary appears to argue that it’s racist to try to convince people to be vaccinated, and to treat them differently if they’re not. To me it’s not a form of racism to redeploy frontline medical workers who refuse to be vaccinated – it’s just common sense.)

Finally, without wanting to be too trite, I had a little chuckle when I noticed the name of the Christchurch clinic. The business appears to be situated inside a residential property, and is accessed via a door at the rear of the property – which presumably is what gave rise to the name “Back Door Spa”. Remember that at the beginning of the article I mentioned that the clinic specialises in colonics and enemas; you can no doubt work out why I found the name a little humorous!

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Influential Biologist in New Zealand

Normally I would be excited to hear that a prominent biologist is in New Zealand, but in this case the biologist in question is Dr Bruce Lipton – a figure who is well known to skeptics.

Bruce “works” in the field of epigenetics – the branch of biology which looks at the different ways in which factors outside of our DNA can influence gene expression, and consequently our development – how we grow. This is a real branch of science, with some really cool findings.

However, Bruce Lipton sadly doesn’t actually do any real research into epigenetic effects. Instead, he tells people that each of their cells is a homunculus – a small version of their own body, with a brain, lungs, stomach, etc. Then he argues that if people believe something hard enough, they can influence the brain in each of their cells, and this will cause their cells to behave differently, controlling how genes are turned on and off, etc. Using this, he says that we can cure diseases with the power of our minds. Of course this is all totally made up, and has absolutely no evidence underpinning it.

As if that’s not bad enough, Bruce is currently here as a “Visiting Professor of the New Zealand College of Chiropractic”, and has been giving talks about not just his epigenetic nonsense but also COVID silliness. He talked at the popular NZ Spirit festival recently, claiming that people aren’t really dying of COVID, but just from co-morbidities. He told the cheering festival crowd that vitamins will protect them from dying of COVID, and that governments have been using the pandemic to deliberately scare us.

Sadly, looking at the online reaction to his talk, it appears that far too many people are being sucked in by his nonsense. All too often, the people who have a loyal following use their influence to recklessly spread dangerous misinformation rather than help to educate people.


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

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, or would like to check your membership status, please go to:
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Skeptic News:  UFO Mystery, essential oils, psychic car crashes


96

Skeptic News:  UFO Mystery, essential oils, psychic car crashes

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

The COVID-19 pandemic marches on throughout the world, and this week we’re seeing tragic increases in deaths in India. Unfortunately it seems that the Indian government was premature in announcing victory over COVID back in January. 

While many first world countries are making great progress in rolling out vaccines it seems that the poorer countries are struggling. There’s potential long-term consequences for letting the pandemic run out-of-control as the massive number of cases allow for mutations to create new, potentially deadlier or more infectious strains of the virus. 

It’s clearly in all our best interests to support the whole of humanity to deal with the pandemic, though there seems little that individuals in our isolated part of the world can do to help. 

Being lucky to live in NZ where we’ve managed to isolate ourselves effectively I was able to socialise this weekend, attending a friend’s 40th birthday. There’s strong social norms associated with meeting socially with people, from hugging friends to shaking hands with new acquaintances. And wouldn’t you know it, I’ve got a cold! I’m hoping it will be over with quickly!

Wishing you a great week…
Craig Shearer

 

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Triangular UFO “mystery” solved

An interesting video has appeared on YouTube which gives a rational explanation for a UFO video taken by US Navy personnel.

The UFO video, promoted by Jeremy Corbell who runs a website called ExtraordinaryBelief.com, features supposedly triangle-shaped UFOs. The site feels more like a throwback to The X Files, but I guess it’s targeting a specific demographic that is into that sort of thing.

The “take down” video, by Mick West shows exactly how the triangular images were produced – they’re an effect of the iris in the lens of the camera used – for any readers who are photographers, they’re just weird-shaped bokeh.

It turns out that the UFO in the video was actually likely to be a commercial airliner as the ship from which the video was taken was on the Los Angeles International Airport flight path. 

Mick West comments on his video:

“New reference footage from night vision monoculars (including the military standard PVS-14) demonstrates pretty conclusively that the supposed flying pyramid UFO actually looks exactly like a slightly out of focus light in the sky – quite possibly just a plane, as the ship was right under a flight path for LAX. 

Some of the other lights are identified as Jupiter and some stars. 

I don’t think that means the Navy got it terribly wrong. This was initially unidentified (with the UAP Task Force Investigates), and they maybe even thought it was a triangle for a few minutes. But it’s not. It’s just some lights in the sky. “

So, it would seem that the more prosaic explanation that the images are the result of easily replicable camera effects is much more likely than alien spacecraft. That won’t likely stop the believers though!

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Essential Oils causing seizures

Essential oils are one of those trendy products that seem to be very popular at the moment, and they seem to be a great money-maker for their manufacturers and retailers, with the estimated market size of over $17 Billion dollars globally in 2017. 

Essential Oils are derived from plant matter, and are claimed to contain the “essence” of the plant, whatever that is. They’re typically used in Aromatherapy, via a diffuser, which puts the molecules into the air. Who doesn’t like an attractive smell in the air which may have some positive mental effects, but as far as providing actual proven benefits studies are usually small. 

One downside to using essential oils could be that they can potentially trigger convulsive seizures in some people according to a study in India, written up in The Academic Times. The study determined a correlation between the use of camphor and eucalyptus essential oils and seizures. While proving causation requires further research it seems there’s certainly an association, and it’s not implausible that inhaling these molecules might well have neurological effects. 

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TV Psychic to pay £100,000 legal costs in failed case

TV psychic Maurice Amdur, star of UK TV shows Maurice’s Psychic World and Four Rooms has been left to pay £100,000 in legal costs after attempting to sue an insurance company for his loss of his psychic powers after a car crash. 

The psychic, who claims to have done readings for royalty, heads of state and movie stars, claimed that a car crash, where his car was shunted from behind at a roundabout in London, caused him to be so racked by pain for years afterwards that he “struggled with the intense concentration required to predict the future”.

Mr Amdur was suing for £250,000 in compensation, but the judge threw out the claim saying it had been undermined by fundamental dishonesty. He claimed that he was unable to do readings for two years, but in fact had done readings during the period.

It seems the judge was onto Amdur, stating:

‘I am prepared to accept that Mr Amdur does believe that he has a “gift” and that he considers that he behaves with integrity when working as a clairvoyant, unlike others in the field who are “charlatans” as he called them.’

Amdur would have been awarded over £10,000 for his crash injuries, but instead the judge dismissed the claim and so he must now pick up the legal costs for the case. Clearly he didn’t see that coming!

 

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If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
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Skeptic News:


96

Skeptic News:

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Sue-ing the government


After chatting with Graeme Hill on Magic Talk recently about Sue Grey, co-leader of the conspiracy minded Outdoors Party, and her threat to sue the government, I found out that Sue was planning to give a talk on the steps of parliament the next day. So, during my lunch break, I wandered up to the Beehive to see more about why Sue thinks the government’s rollout of the COVID vaccine needs to be stopped.

Thankfully when I arrived the crowd was not very big, maybe 50 strong. It’s possible that there weren’t many people available to attend because of other protests outside of MIQ facilities in both Christchurch and Hamilton. I noted that there appeared to be more school children eating lunch in the gardens of parliament than protesters.

I had been wondering about who exactly Sue’s clients were. She didn’t mention it in her open letter to Jacinda Ardern informing her of the plan to take legal action, or the accompanying video. But thankfully one of her clients, Mark Thompson, was there to introduce Sue. Mark told the crowd that the COVID vaccine is not actually a vaccine, but rather a medical device that’s being injected into people – presumably this is an allusion to the conspiracy theory that the vaccine is a front for Bill Gates’ plan to secretly injecting a microchip into each of us.

Sue’s main argument against the vaccine is a little more nuanced than Mark’s, and is that Section 23 of the Medicines Act, which is the section apparently being used at the moment for the Pfizer vaccine approval and rollout, states:

“the Minister may… give his provisional consent to the… use of a new medicine where he is of the opinion that it is desirable that the medicine be… used on a restricted basis for the treatment of a limited number of patients.”

Sue plans to argue in court that, because New Zealand is planning to purchase enough vaccines to vaccinate everyone in NZ, this is not a “limited number of patients”. It seems that her assumption here is that the government intends to administer all 10 million doses of the vaccine under this provisional consent – and I’m not sure this is a safe assumption for her to make.

Either way, it sounds like it’s going to be a while before Sue gets to sit in front of a judge. She complained that they’re all on holiday, and that it might be a while before she even gets given a court date, which she expects to be in September. I’ll be watching this one with interest, as I can’t help but shake the feeling that this is nothing more than posturing designed to attract conspiracy theorists to The Outdoors Party, especially now that so many of them are looking for a home in the wake of the collapse of Billy TK’s Public Party and his political ambitions.

Mark Honeychurch


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A message from Paul, our Treasurer

We have recently moved to Memberful to manage our membership, and so far the process has gone well; thanks to all who have paid your 2021 membership subs (either via Memberful or internet banking)

It seems that some members have been confused about their membership status, due to the fact that they are continuing to receive this newsletter. To clarify, this weekly newsletter is sent to all subscribers of our Skeptics alert mailing list, and is open to both members and non-members. Details of currently paid-up members are kept in our shiny new membership system, and are not linked to the newsletter. Even if you don’t pay subs for a particular year, you will continue to receive these emails.

If you have been a paid up member in the past, and are unsure of your current membership status, please send me an email (at [email protected]) and I can let you know whether you have paid for your membership this year.

Regards,

Paul Ashton
Treasurer, NZ Skeptics

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The Pope is a hologram

I’m a bit late to the party with this one, but there is footage on YouTube from last year where the pope gives a blessing from an upper floor window. After the blessing the pope turns around and starts walking away from the window. After a couple of steps, he suddenly just pops out of existence – disappears into thin air. Some people have taken this as evidence that the pope was never actually physically at the window, but instead had been replaced with a hologram – and that this hologram had been turned off prematurely, before it had moved out of sight. Maybe a decision was taken not to risk the pope’s health during a pandemic. Maybe the pope is a lie? It does look pretty weird.

The video was broadcast on an American news channel. It turns out that there is also footage from other cameras, and in this other footage the pope doesn’t suddenly disappear – he walks into the back of the room, as expected. Case closed.

Except, why did this happen in the first place. Well, the camera was fixed on a tripod and totally stationary, so if the footage used by this one TV station was played out of sequence at all, only things that are moving within the frame would give it away. I’ve seen a fairly convincing video online showing that some video editing tools will loop a video clip if the length of that clip is stretched to beyond the amount of video available. The beginning of the video clip in this instance is at a point in time before the pope appears at the window, so looping around to this empty window shot while the pope is still in frame would make it look like he’d suddenly disappeared.

While this isn’t a definitive answer to the mystery, it at least has the distinction of being plausible – something the alternative theory, of a pope hologram, is sorely lacking.

His Holiness, the Pope. Now you see him…

…and, just a couple of frames later, now you don’t!

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Watch out for this new COVID pamphlet

Kyle Chapman, ex head of the New Zealand National Front, is one of several people planning to distribute misleading leaflets about the COVID vaccine around New Zealand:

Thankfully the claims in this pamphlet are pretty easy to debunk:

The COVID death rates in the pamphlet are way lower than reality, where in China, South Korea, Italy and Spain the death rate of the 70+ are not 0.24% as quoted in the leaflet, but around 8% – rising to 15% for those over 80. And for younger people, it’s not a blanket 0.24%, but rather the rate increases with age – from around 0.2% of people in their 30s to just below 1% of those in their 50s. You can read more at:

https://ourworldindata.org/mortality-risk-covid#case-fatality-rate-of-covid-19-by-age

The COVID vaccine death/injury rate of 5% is just plain nonsense, and part of a raft of misinformation circulating on the internet:

https://www.npr.org/2021/03/25/980035707/lying-through-truth-misleading-facts-fuel-vaccine-misinformation

The Israeli Health Minister quote about the vaccine killing 40 times more elderly than the virus is flat out wrong, and the 260 times more younger people part wasn’t even in the original false rumour, and has likely have been attached, Chinese Whispers style, at a later date:

https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/pfizer-vaccine-israel/

The Bill Gates quote, in full and in context, does not talk about lowering the global population. Rather it is about slowing population growth, and can be found in a talk about global CO2 levels:

“First, we’ve got population. The world today has 6.8 billion people. That’s headed up to about nine billion. Now, if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that by, perhaps, 10 or 15 percent. But there, we see an increase of about 1.3.”
https://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates_innovating_to_zero/transcript

Finally, the list of references at the bottom of the pamphlet is a who’s who of vaccine misinformation. Robert Kennedy Jr, Sherri Tenpenny, Dolores Cahill, Joe Mercola, The Highwire and our local science denying outfit, who appear to have fallen down the rabbit hole, COVID Plan B.

Please keep an eye out for this pamphlet if you see it lying around somewhere or being handed out in the street, and treat it the way it deserves to be treated. Throw it in the bin or, better still, recycle it, so that somewhere down the line it might be turned into something useful rather than dangerous.
 

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Homeopathic Hippo Sweat Sunscreen

Honestly, I don’t think I could make up something this daft if I tried. Thanks to an astute member of our NZ Skeptics Facebook group, I now know about a New Zealand company – Hippo Health – who are marketing a fascinating sun block for animals.

Their schtick is that the sweat of a hippo from behind its ear contains norhipposudoric acid, and that this acts as a sunblock – after all, as the company says, “Have you ever seen a sunburnt hippo?”. The company claims that this orange substance, when excreted, somehow quickly coats the entire skin of the hippo, and protects it from UV rays. From there, the company says that their homoeopathically diluted version of this product also provides sun protection when swallowed – and they hint that it should work on people as well as animals:

Does SOL Plus work on People?
On a daily basis our team at Hippo is asked whether it works for people too. Logically we would like to say ‘of course’ but because we don’t have clinical trials for people, our official stance is that we don’t sell or market it as a people sunscreen. We suspect there are a lot of people unofficially helping themselves to their horse’s bottles of Sol Plus and we welcome any feedback.”

There’s a lot wrong with this product, and the claims that are being made about it. Firstly, although tests have shown the chemical, and it’s red counterpart hipposudoric acid, do have some UV protective properties when applied to the skin, there’s no explanation of how this would work when taken internally. But bigger than this are the problems that come with this being a homeopathic product.

Homeopathy is a fully discredited pseudo-scientific idea about how diluted substances might help our bodies to heal – in reality, homeopathy just doesn’t work. So, it’s likely that this hippo sweat, when diluted in water to a point where no molecules of the acid are present, won’t retain any of the properties of the active chemical.

On top of the dilution idea, homeopathy operates under a “like cures like” model, where something which in concentrated form causes a set of medical symptoms will cure similar symptoms when it is diluted. So, for example, diluted caffeine (a stimulant) is said to treat ADHD and diluted onion (which makes you cry and your nose run) will apparently treat colds and flu.

So, if we apply this to our homeopathic hippo sweat (I can’t believe I’ve actually written those words down), this should mean that our concoction might be expected to help you tan. But no, in this case the principle of like cures like is thrown out the window, and instead diluted hippo sweat, when swallowed, is being sold in New Zealand as an effective sunscreen.

Thankfully committee member Jonathon Harper is on the case, and has already submitted a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority. Expect a short follow-up story when the ASA release their decision.

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If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
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Skeptic News: The Dirty Dozen and Dahlias


96

Skeptic News: The Dirty Dozen and Dahlias

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

You’ll no doubt be aware that the travel bubble with Australia was announced last week, and from next week people travelling between the two countries will have the benefit of not having to go into a quarantine facility for two weeks before being allowed to wander free in New Zealand. 

This has affected me personally. My wife is currently in Australia visiting family and was due to return next weekend to then enter MIQ. Fortunately she’s been able to change her flights to return a day later when the bubble opens instead. Reflecting on her time in Australia she reports that there’s an app that Australians can use to track their movements (similar to our COVID tracer) but it’s not widely used nor are businesses commonly displaying the codes to scan. We can only hope that the travel bubble works out and that we’re not plunged back into isolation again by less-than-strict policies on the other side of the Tasman. 

The pandemic rages on throughout the rest of the world, and while vaccine rollouts are helping, we’re collectively not out of the woods yet, and less privileged countries are having an even harder time of it.

With those cheery thoughts out of the way, I wish you a great week!
Craig Shearer

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Disinformation’s Dirty dozen

Research by the American Center for Countering Digital Hate has revealed that almost two-thirds of all misinformation about vaccines being spread on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter arose from just twelve individuals and their associated organisations. And on Facebook they account for 73% of all anti-vax content.

The report makes excellent (and scary/frustrating) reading, particularly the appendices which profile each of the twelve “sources”.

I guess it makes sense that sources are concentrated. People espousing anti-vax views are likely not coming to these conclusions independently, but instead parroting information they’ve consumed elsewhere.

The report calls for social media companies to do more to shut down these sources. Of course, there are then claims of breach of free speech rights (particularly in the US). 

It is frustrating that such misinformation is allowed to proliferate freely. But social media companies are driven by their profit motive. Allowing inflammatory misinformation to spread drives revenue to an extent. Ultimately the only solution is for people to be more skeptical of claims that diverge from science. That requires good education systems, and perhaps specialist skills in spotting false claims. As we all know, those sorts of skills are difficult to acquire as they tend to work against our human biases, and quite often take many years of careful honing.

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Dahlias for Diabetes?

One of our contacts noticed an item on TVNZ news on the 7th March detailing a product being developed by the University of Otago for prevention treatment of type 2 Diabetes. A complaint was made to TVNZ but they have not upheld the complaint.

The item makes interesting viewing from a skeptical angle. It seems that a researcher – Associate Professor Dr. Alex Tups – has discovered a potential use of compounds found in Dahlia flowers to lower blood glucose levels. 

The item reported that a clinical trial tested the safety of the drug and that researchers are now looking for volunteers to take part in a clinical trial to determine dosage levels.

I would expect that there would have been a clinical trial which actually tested the efficacy of the treatment in humans. Previous reporting on the subject has discussed trials into the effect of the drug on blood glucose levels in mice. 

The item reported on a collaboration with Aroma NZ, a company that specialises in processing natural ingredients from New Zealand into nutritional supplements for use around the world. From their website they list a bunch of products that they process including Green-lipped Mussels, Oyster Powder, Collagen Powder, Abalone Powder and Fish Cartilage Powder. 

There’s little doubt that compounds found in the wild have effects when consumed – this is the origin of the pharmaceutical industry. Considering the list of products above there are some red flags raised there. Those products seem to fall into the category of supplements that are used by the “worried well” or those with “symptoms of advancing age” to self-medicate. Many of these products have been promoted by popular publications in response to flawed studies showing some potentially amazing efficacy.

It is interesting to read what Aroma NZ is claiming about the efficacy of their products. I followed one of the links about their Green Lipped Mussel products to their News and Resources page. This shows a study from the University of Queensland on just 23 patients showing self-reported reduction of pain. Now I’m no expert in clinical studies but even I can tell that this wasn’t a particularly well-designed study that would convince me of efficacy. Yet, the website trumpets:

“In a recent landmark clinical trial by the University of Queensland, arthritic pain was reduced by 59% for people taking Aroma’s GlycOmega-PLUS™. This was a huge result and endorsement for this product.”

It appears that their modus operandi is to promote a product then find confirming studies after the fact to boost their confidence they’re selling something that actually works.

It worries me that the University of Otago seems to be looking to commercialise a discovery before the product has been well studied and has had its efficacy proven (at least that’s not been reported) – seemingly putting the cart before the horse, and it should especially worry skeptics that there seems to be a low bar for commercialisation of products that appear to have some compound that might have therapeutic effects. And why go the “natural product” route when, if the compound is earth-shatteringly effective, might it not be better to turn it into a traditional pharmaceutical?

Worryingly the item also features Alex Tups claiming that the root cause of Type-2 Diabetes is brain inflammation. We’ve referred this claim to one of our expert medics who made the following comments:

“Had a look at the clip and certainly there is no evidence that I am aware of that diabetes is a result of brain inflammation – it is generally accepted as autoimmune destruction of pancreatic beta cells (type 1) for reasons unknown or unknown causes of insulin resistance (type 2). There is no rationale for the use of dahlia flowers presented to the listener so it not possible to comment on the science of this claim. I cannot see a link to the A.Prof you appended who seems a credible researcher. 

I agree this is a crap report which raises expectations without any apparent evidence although I assume there must be some logic somewhere. This type of reporting needs to be science based with credible logic (imho) before putting it out to the public which only serves to confuse them.”

Finally, promoting products that include active ingredients found in the wild is particularly dangerous when it allows people to self-medicate. There is potential for dangerous drug interactions that can occur when doctors prescribe medications to patients, being unaware of the “natural” products they’re also consuming. 

I’m aware that I write this from the relative privilege of middle age where few (though not none!) of the effects of aging are making themselves apparent. I’m aware of the powerful psychological drawcard that these alternative medicines and supplements can have on people trying to find relief for what ails them, particularly if the mainstream medical treatments are perceived to be lacking.

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Scientology follow-up

Last week Mark wrote an interesting item in the newsletter around Scientologists using deceptive means to lure people in to their “courses”. We got some feedback from a reader in the US – we love getting feedback! – so I thought I’d share it. Ray from Philadelphia writes:

I live in Philadelphia. Many years ago in the early 1980’s, I was on a business trip to Boston. In the evening I had little to do and while wandering about the city I went by an old church that had a small sign outside advertising a personal  communications course the next two nights for the sum of $25. I had never heard of Scientology before that time, so why not attend? It was something constructive to do. 

So, the next evening I was there, paid the $25, and gave my name and address. Then it started. I am not sure exactly what “it” was. There was a very short introduction by a young “minister” after which people were instructed to face each other in pairs and stare into eyes and not to squirm.   That went on for a while and then the small group in attendance was introduced to the E-meter. And that was about it. The e-meter revealed that I had personality problems. It was a crazy one hour adventure.

I did not go back for night 2.

Not long thereafter, perhaps a week, I began getting mail at home discussing my course attendance, my personality disorder, and how I might correct it. There was a mountain of propaganda pushing very expensive courses and books, tapes, etc. And the mail kept coming for the next 20 years. Finally I wrote to them requesting removal from the list. That worked mainly, but I still get occasional propaganda mail.   

Scientology is as tenacious as it is crazy. 

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NZ Skeptics Membership

Many thanks to the people who have paid their 2021 membership subs. This is a final reminder to members who paid subs in 2020, but have yet to pay 2021 subs, that the 2021 subs are now due. Memberful have streamlined the payment process (it is no longer necessary to set a password), and this is reflected in the instructions that follow:

  1. Go to nzskeptics.memberful.com

  2. Enter your email address into the Email field

  3. Click the “Send sign in link” button.

  4. Wait for an email to arrive.

  5. When the email arrives, click the “Sign in” button.

  6. Once logged in, click subscriptions to view your subscriptions.

  7. Your current subscription type should reflect the most recent sub payment made. If you need to change to a different plan, click the Change button.

  8. If your subscription is expired, click Renew and enter credit card details.

  9. If you need to change your email address, name or postal address, that can be done in the Profile page.

If you have any problems, or would prefer to pay via internet banking, then please contact the NZ Skeptics treasurer (Paul Ashton) at [email protected]

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If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
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Skeptic News: Beware of Scientologists Bearing Gifts


96

Skeptic News: Beware of Scientologists Bearing Gifts

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Beware of Scientologists Bearing Gifts


I recently heard about someone who signed up on the MeetUp website for a conversational English course in Auckland, and when they arrived they found out that the course was being run by Scientologists. This type of bait and switch sneakiness is about what we’d expect from Scientology, so I decided to search google and find the course in question.

I used Scientology’s Auckland address in quotes as my search term – “136 Grafton Road” – and added “site:meetup.com” to restrict my results to just the MeetUp website.

https://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Ameetup.com+%22136+grafton+road%22

I was not prepared for the sheer number of meetings I was shown:

  • Success through Communication
  • Grammar and Communication
  • How to get RID of STRESS!
  • What are the key factors for being successful?
  • How to Keep Yourself and Others Well Workshop

One MeetUp group appears to have been re-used for meetings on totally unrelated topics, possibly through laziness, and had the following meetings:

  • Communication for Business
  • English Study Group
  • Rubik’s Cube Master Class
  • Predict – Human – Behavior – Seminar
  • FREE movie night Auckland
  • Open House for Coffee 🙂

If this was another group I wouldn’t be so suspicious, but as we skeptics know Scientology has a long and sordid history of trying to lure people in under false pretences, and then selling them overpriced books and courses under extreme pressure. There’s a big drive in Scientology to get people through the door, called “body routing”, and I’ve been to the showing of an internal Scientology video where exaggerated numbers were used, boasting of increases in course completion, conversions, body routing and many other metrics Scientology like to measure, inflate and promote. I’m betting that Auckland’s Scientologists have had pressure applied to improve their stats ever since they spent millions of dollars opening their new “Ideal Org” building. These meetings are likely a way to boost the numbers of people coming through the door, so that head office can be told of how much better they’re doing now they are doing things the “Hubbard” way.

So, if you hear of anyone you know in Auckland who is looking for a new social group to join, please make sure they steer clear of groups who operate from 136 Grafton Road.

Mark Honeychurch
Secretary, NZ Skeptics
 

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An Open Letter to Plan B

A new group called FACT (Fight Against Conspiracy Theories) has published an open letter to Plan B about their connection with Voices for Freedom. The letter calls on Plan B to distance themselves from Voices for Freedom and the group’s anti-science stance on COVID related issues.

The letter is signed by scientists such as Siouxsie Wiles, Des Gorman and Alison Campbell, as well as a few organisations including the NZ Skeptics.

Plan B have always framed themselves as a group of evidence based academics who disagree with the idea that lockdowns are an acceptable solution to the COVID pandemic. However their flirting with Voices for Freedom includes promotion of Voices for Freedom content, and Plan B’s Dr Thornley giving the keynote talk at a Voices for Freedom event. This really sows doubt on the idea that Plan B is an evidence-driven academic group. Rather, it suggests that their beliefs are more of an ideology than a rational conclusion, and that anyone who agrees with them is a worthy ally, no matter how dangerous their ideas may be.

For example, Voices for Freedom’s recent misinformation spreading, on their website, includes suggesting that COVID vaccines are unsafe, vitamins can help lessen COVID symptoms, wearing a mask is ineffective, Invermectin is a “miracle drug” for treating COVID, and PCR testing is ineffective. Of course none of this is evidence based, and much of it is likely to be dangerous.

They also accuse scientists of “flip flopping” when they change their minds. This one really gets me. As science is a continual process of gathering evidence and making tentative conclusions, scientists changing their minds as new evidence comes to light is expected, and perfectly reasonable. Trying to frame people who are willing to change their opinion based on new evidence as flip floppers is pretty galling, and shows either a lack of understanding of science or a deliberate attempt to malign it.

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Christchurch Skepticism Talk

Jonathon Harper, a new member of the NZ Skeptics committee, is giving a talk in Christchurch this Thursday (8th of April) on an Introduction to Skepticism. Despite the title I’m sure that both new skeptics and those who’ve been around the block a few times will get something out of this talk, and knowing Jonathon this is likely to be a fun event with engaging conversation and some interesting topics.

For more details, see the Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub MeetUp event at:

https://www.meetup.com/Christchurch-Skeptics-in-the-Pub/events/277063570/

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Should we worry about LED bulbs?

Stuff published an article recently about the dangers of LED light bulbs, arguing that the blue light from LED bulbs disturbs our circadian rhythm and disrupts our sleep, with wide ranging knock-on effects to our health. My skeptical radar beeped at reading this, as I’ve looked into this issue in the past and found much speculation and very little actual science.

However, the article mentioned a study from Australia, and actually included a link – which is unusual. The linked study was “interesting”, as the researchers attempted to guesstimate melatonin suppression in study participants by attaching a “spectrophotometer” to them, rather than actually measuring the melatonin levels in their blood or urine. Their conclusions about the effects of the light, because they weren’t actually measuring levels of melatonin, were purely based on numbers they derived from elsewhere. Because of the huge variation in how much blue light suppresses melatonin in different people (a 50x difference between the most and least sensitive people), and their lack of direct measurements, when they tried to correlate evening blue light exposure and people’s ability to sleep they found that the variance in their unknowns swamped the data, and no useful results could be gleaned. So, basically, the study was practically useless when used to work out if blue light in the evening causes people to have worse sleep.

On top of reading this study, I searched google for reputable sources. I found an informative page on the Ministry of Health website which warned about blue light at night. However, of the three external links they gave to support their claim, only one of them actually made any claims about blue light being bad for you – on the Royal Society of NZ’s “Blue light Aotearoa” project page. The other two links, to the International Commission on Illumination and the European Commission, both concluded that there is no risk from the blue light emitted by LEDs:

“The CIE considers that the “blue light hazard” is not an issue for white-light sources used in general lighting, even for those that are blue-enriched… The term “blue light hazard” should not be used when referring to circadian rhythm disruption or sleep disturbance.”

“There is no evidence that the general public is at a risk of direct adverse health effects from LEDs when the lights are in normal use“

From a personal standpoint, I recently replaced all of the light bulbs in my house with WiFi enabled LED bulbs. As I suspect is the case with most modern smart bulbs, I have the option of warm or cold white – as well as many shades between the two (and a rainbow of other colours if I feel like making my house look like an 80s French Discotheque). The warmer shades have a lot less blue in them, so it seems that even if the blue light from LED bulbs was an issue with early bulbs, it’s unlikely to be a problem nowadays.

Although I wouldn’t consider this matter to be settled, it looks likely that these blue light warnings are premature at best, and likely to be needlessly worrying people. At worst, they are being used by companies, despite a lack of any solid evidence, to sell overpriced screen filters, tinted glasses and warm white LED bulbs from companies like OSIN Lighting, a new startup in New Zealand who just happen to be mentioned in the Stuff article.

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If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
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Skeptic News: Follow-up – more on Oumuamua


96

Skeptic News: Follow-up – more on Oumuamua

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

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Follow up

Just a quick follow up on the Oumuamua story we featured in our newsletter this week. It turns out that local Victoria University Senior Lecturer in Astrophysics, Dr Stephen Curran talked to Kim Hill this past weekend, following up on and challenging Avi Loeb’s claims.

Have a listen to that!

Cheers…
Craig Shearer

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If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, send it to:
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Skeptic News: Havana Syndrome, ETs and Penguins and That Ship


96

Skeptic News: Havana Syndrome, ETs and Penguins and That Ship

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

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Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

This week I’ve got a variety of topics I hope you’ll enjoy!

Wishing you a great week…

Craig Shearer

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Havana Syndrome – caused by directed microwaves?

Apparently, back in 2016 dozens of American Embassy diplomats in Cuba felt sick, and this has been dubbed Havana Syndrome. I’d never heard of this, but it came to my attention through an article written by local skeptic Robert Bartholemew. 

I met Robert a few years ago when he hosted Joe Nickel here in Auckland. Joe is a veteran skeptical investigator who’s done tons of investigations over the years. (And I’m the proud owner of one of Joe’s trademark Wooden Nickels!). Anyway, I digress! 

Robert is an author and specialises in mass psychogenic illnesses – basically social contagions where a lot of people exhibit some complaint where there’s no actual infectious agent.

The Havana Syndrome has been investigated by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and they concluded that the syndrome was likely caused by pulsed RF energy! This seems unlikely to me (but what do I know?). However, Robert has written an article in the Skeptical Inquirer about this explaining the problems with that explanation, and that mass psychogenic illness is much more likely.

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ETs and Penguins

A couple of weeks ago, I spent an enjoyable weekend away with some friends up in Russell, in the Bay of Islands. A couple of points from a skeptical perspective; firstly, one of my friends told me about an interview he heard with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand, which I’ve since listened to (detailed below), and the second was a conversation I overheard which illustrated to me how “fake news” and misinformation is innocently spread.

You may recall back in 2017 our solar system was visited by a mysterious object sighted by telescopes in Hawaii. The object, dubbed Oumuamua (which is Hawaiian for “scout”) exhibited some strange behaviour.


Recently, Avi Loeb, who’s chair of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University published a book: Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth which details his hypothesis about Oumuamua and that it’s actually an alien ship visiting our solar system!

Kim Hill, on Radio New Zealand, interviewed him. The interview is fairly wide-ranging, and Kim does a reasonable job of asking some skeptical questions. 

Towards the end of the interview it truly goes off the rails with Loeb proposing a solution to the Fermi Paradox that we’re just not that interesting, and that most of the stars in our galaxy are infrared emitters and so our planet is not that interesting for interstellar tourism because of our green grass. (Paint me skeptical, but much of the appeal of travel is seeing interesting and unique stuff that’s out of the ordinary!)

Alarmingly, Loeb thinks that science should be driven by public interest – and that scientists (because they’re funded by the public) shouldn’t be working on stuff that the public’s not interested in! Obviously there have been a ton of discoveries in science that have produced real-world benefits but wouldn’t have been obvious from the outset that were produced by fundamental and esoteric research. 

Today I listened to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe which also covered the item, but this time with an explanation for the anomalous behaviour of Oumuamua. It turns out that the anomalous behaviour is actually well explained by it being composed of Nitrogen ice, rather than water ice. 

Steven Novella does a good job of detailing this on his blog and why this is just another example of the “aliens of the gap” fallacy.

Grieving penguins

Onto my second item from my weekend away – this time to do with the spreading of fake news. During the weekend I happened to visit the local markets in Russell, and there was a stallholder selling some quite nice art, some of which features birds – penguins in particular. I happened to overhear a conversation where a woman was relating to the stallholder the story of the penguins in Melbourne that were watching the pretty lights of the Melbourne skyline together – and that they were comforting each other due to loss of their loved ones. The source of this was an award-winning photograph by Tobias Baumgaetner of the pair staring off into the distance. 

I resisted the urge to comment that the story wasn’t really true (which would have been a “dick move”). While the photo is excellent the story behind it has been investigated and found to be less than perfectly accurate. This does go to show the power of a good story though, in sticking in peoples’ minds.

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That ship, and NFTs

This week has seen the news of the ship (the Ever Given) that’s been stuck for days in the Suez Canal. Interestingly, having glanced at the headlines and pictures, in my mind the ship was called the Evergreen, but that’s the name of the company that runs it (Evergreen Marine). 

There are some interesting points about the grounding and blockage of the canal. The first of which is how counterintuitive things are around such objects outside our ordinary human experience. There’ve been plenty of people on the internet offering helpful suggestions as to how to free the ship.

Amusingly, there’s a website that’s sprung up dedicated to whether the ship is still stuck: IsTheShipStillStuck.com. (And yes, as of this writing, it is). 

And, the internet, being the rabbit hole that it is, led me, from that page, to see that the site has been placed on OpenSea, a market for bidding on NFTs.

So, what is an NFT?, I hear you ask. Well it’s a Non-fungible Token. NFTs are the latest craze on the internet, but may well be the future of digital art. This article is a good explainer. Will NFTs be the future of being able to own unique digital art? Only time will tell!

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Christchurch talk

If you’re in or around Christchurch, you may be interested in attending the Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub. One of our NZ Skeptics committee members, Jonathan Harper, is giving a talk about skepticism. It’s at the Pegasus Arms, 6pm on Thursday 8th April. You can register your RSVP on the group’s meetup page. 

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2019 Conference Videos

Thanks to some wonderful help from Susan Gerbic, we’ve now got a few of the 2019 conference talk videos up on our YouTube channel.

There’s now four videos up on a variety of topics from Jacinta Cording, Susan Gerbic, Mark Edward and Steven Novella. 


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, send it to:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


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Skeptic News: Fluoridation, Near Death Experiences and more


96

Skeptic News: Fluoridation, Near Death Experiences and more

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

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Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

It seems there’s quite a lot of skeptically-related topics in the news at the moment. Perhaps there’s a backlash to a lot of stuff that came out in 2020 that was pure pseudoscience. 

Speaking of media – it’s great to hear the voices of prominent science promoters back on Magic Talk with Graeme Hill. Graeme’s now doing his show every week night from 7 – 10pm, and has had Alison Campbell, Siouxsie Wiles and Mark Honeychurch on. Long may this continue.

Wishing you a great week…
Craig Shearer

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Fluoridation

Big news this week is that the government is taking water fluoridation powers off local councils and giving it to the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield. 

This is a good decision as it aligns with the science around the benefits of having a tightly controlled amount of fluoride in our water supply. Local councils have, in the past, fallen victim to vocal opponents to fluoridation, most of whom seem to make arguments that aren’t informed by good science.

Prior to the pandemic, the director of health would likely have had little name recognition, but Ashley Bloomfield is now a fairly popular public figure.It is difficult to see how opponents of fluoridation will be able to play this to their advantage if it involves demonising Ashley!

We must also give a shout out to Making Sense of Fluoride, a NZ-based website, run primarily by Daniel Ryan, that advocates for science and evidence-based approaches to decisions around fluoridation of our water supply.

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Near death experiences

NDEs were in the media this week. Radio New Zealand did an interview with Professor Bruce Greyson who has a book out After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond. 

The interview on RNZ is worth a listen. Jim Mora did a reasonable job of asking lots of skeptical questions. 

Greyson describes various reports about the experiences of those who’ve come back after having an NDE. The interesting point is that we have no objective recording of what actually happens. People are describing their memories of the experience, and we know that memories are very much subject to modification with retelling, though in the interview Greyson claims that retelling of these NDEs doesn’t vary over time. To me this seems a little nonsensical.

From what I’ve understood from those who have expertise in neurology it seems more likely that the brain is filling in blanks after the fact and putting together a coherent story about the experience.

Throughout the interview Greyson claims to be a “materialist skeptic” (and uses that term in a pejorative fashion) though he believes that potentially part of ourselves continues after we die. I think this is a giant leap supported only by anecdotal evidence. 

One of the examples given in the interview is of a patient who was unconscious being able to supposedly give an account of a conversation Greyson had with her roommate down the hall, describing what they were wearing and what was discussed. This would imply that some external senses of sight and hearing are able to exist separate from our own eyes and ears and record these into memories in our brains. I see a big disconnect here in the implications of this. We close our eyes or block our ears and those senses are muted, but not so when having an NDE. How does this work? These would be the questions that I’d expect that a skeptical researcher would be asking.

There are some fairly extraordinary claims being made in the interview. As always, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To me, many of the stories presented might well have more prosaic (materialist skeptic!) explanations. 

A particular difficulty with this interview is that Greyson is presenting his own re-telling of anecdotes from interviews he’s done with patients over the years. Perhaps his own investment in the field has coloured his thinking.

What we have though is a bunch of anecdotes, but no hard evidence, and a lot of implausibility. I’m reminded of a story that various skeptical surgeons and nurses have put notable and highly visible signs up high in operating theatres that would be noticed (and reported) by patients were they really leaving and floating above their bodies during operations. Such reports have not been received. Incidentally, out-of-body experiences are common during anaesthesia, and it’s certainly possible to induce these experiences in people’s brains through various techniques.

Greyson has appeared in a Netflix series – Surviving Death, which I’ve not watched. It does seem that the publication of Greyson’s book is tied in with the Netflix show, which does make me a little cynical!

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The COVID vaccine honeymoon period

I read a very good article today in The Atlantic explaining some of the subtleties around the COVID vaccine. In particular we shouldn’t be surprised when vaccinated people get infected. 

At the moment there’s a lot of relief and celebration that the vaccines are being rolled out. In the eyes of the layperson, once they’re vaccinated they consider themselves immune, and are resuming normal life as if they’re bulletproof. 

“Vaccination is actually more like a single variable in a dynamic playing field—a layer of protection, like an umbrella, that might guard better in some situations than others. It could keep a lucky traveler relatively dry in a light drizzle, but in a windy maelstrom that’s whipping heavy droplets every which way, another person might be overwhelmed. And under many circumstances, vaccines are still best paired with safeguards such as masks and distancing—just as rain boots and jackets would help buffer someone in a storm.”

As always, reality is a lot more complex than people assume.

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Canterbury big cats again

A few weeks ago I wrote about big cats reported sighted in Canterbury, and opined that what had been seen was likely a feral cat.

This weekend, Stuff did a piece about how Jesse Feary had actually shot a “big black creature” he sighted. Turns out he was then able to get the DNA analysed, and surprise, it turned out to just be a cat!

The article is a good read though, covering various skeptical points about the possibility of big cats existing in the wild in the South Island. 

 


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Skeptic News: BOTA FTW


96

Skeptic News: BOTA FTW

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

BOTA FTW


Today I finally made it to the Builders Of The Adytum, a strange group whose beliefs combine Kabbalah and Tarot into an unusual, but enjoyable, philosophy.

The meeting was fun, with incense, chanting, music, a sermon and mention of the Philosopher’s Stone, transmutation, magical healing and mystical powers. I visited with Tim, my long-time partner in all things weird and wonderful, and we have been invited back to the group to join in with study sessions – something we are very much looking forward to. Although as a skeptic I find it hard to believe people when they tell me that they have figured out the secrets of the universe, nonetheless I enjoy hearing others’ ideas and seeing what kinds of people are attracted to these groups. Unsurprisingly, for most of these organisations, their membership is quite diverse – just like it is for a group like ours, the Skeptics.

One potential worry for us is that while at the event we bumped into someone who we had already met at the Ancient Mystical Order of the Rosicrucians (AMORC) last year. The AMORC group had “done their research” and found out from a google search that I’m a skeptic. Even so we had a good talk with the few AMORC members that we met on the day, explaining that we weren’t there to demean them, but rather were genuinely curious about their beliefs.

Tim and I have jokingly labeled the member of both AMORC and BOTA as our Marla Singer (watch Fight Club if you’re not sure what this means), and we’re hoping that he doesn’t scare the members of the BOTA group away from us. We’re genuinely interested in the group, even if we’re unlikely to ever get to the point where we pay membership fees, so I hope we are able to continue visiting until we have a good appreciation for what their beliefs are and what drives them. I’ve had an experience of being outed once before, by Nigel Antony Gray when I was attending Scientology meetings, and it was a bit disappointing to have to leave that particular escapade not when I wanted to, but when someone else had pulled the plug on it.

For those who really don’t understand why I do this kind of thing, I get that it can seem a little weird. Although some skeptics enjoy seeing what’s happening on the other side of the fence, I know many skeptics who either don’t have the time for nonsense, or find that seeing it up close makes them angry. After all, many of these groups are selling a false bill of goods – they promise to impart the secrets of the universe to you, and then they take your hard earned money and don’t deliver the goods. That’s something that we should all be angry about, although it’s often hard to find a way to turn that anger into meaningful positive action.

Mark Honeychurch

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More Tamakis, Vaccines and Earthquakes

Following on from last week’s stories about the Tamakis saying they won’t be getting vaccinated, and Ken Ring saying he predicted our recent earthquake, there have been a couple of interesting developments.

Firstly, out of over 12,000 frontline workers who have been offered the COVID19 vaccine, just 21 of them have refused the vaccine so far. I’ve heard horror stories of nurses in New Zealand who are against vaccination, so it’s great to hear that so few of those who are doing such an amazing job at the front line have refused. The article goes on to talk about how those who refuse may be redeployed into other roles if they can’t be convinced. This sounds to me like a very pragmatic way to deal with this issue. Much as it feels to me that people with anti-science views have no right to be working in healthcare, the most important reason for vaccinating frontline staff is to shore up our MIQ (Managed Isolation and Quarantine) barrier. Holes in this protective layer would not be good, so it makes sense to remove anyone who may prove to be a potential gap in our defences. Let’s hope that vaccination rates among the general public, when it comes time for that, don’t drop too far below the amazing 99.8% uptake rate that we’ve seen so far from the professionals.

As for the Tamaki part of this equation, a week ago Brian Tamaki told a small congregation in Queenstown that the reason for the earthquake we experienced recently was that the media had “gone after him”. Now, “Bishop” Brian is no stranger to claiming that a) earthquakes are deliberately caused by his god, b) these earthquakes are used by his god as a punishment and c) Brian is privy to the reason these punishments are meted out. However, past seismic events have apparently been caused by homosexuals, whereas this time it’s more personal to Brian, and we’ve supposedly all been punished for being mean to him.

I’m really struggling to get my head around the level of arrogance required for someone to believe that they are important enough that their god would threaten an entire nation with a long, scary earthquake in the middle of the night just for pointing out their failings.

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Cat Buttons

Graeme Hill, longtime broadcaster and a good friend of science, skepticism and common sense thinking, now has an evening slot on MagicTalk radio. As part of his show, Graeme usually interviews knowledgeable people about a wide range of fascinating topics. A few years ago I was lucky enough to have been invited to join Siouxsie Wiles as a regular guest to talk about skeptical issues, and I’m now privileged to have been asked back to talk on Graeme’s new show as he hosts Magic Nights.

Although listening to my slot would probably be a case of preaching to the converted for our regular readers, I’d recommend listening to Graeme’s show to hear some of the amazing guests he hosts, and hear some interesting facts about cool new science and historical events. With several high profile stories about radio presenters promoting bad thinking recently, it’s nice to have a show you can be confident is going to be based on solid evidence, with Graeme talking to experts rather than cranks and charlatans.

As part of my chat with Graeme last Wednesday, we talked about a curious video he found online showing a cat (Billi) using a set of buttons laid out on the floor to “speak” to its owner, a vet called Kendra. Rather than telling you why I don’t think this is a case of a cat who has the ability to convey complex thoughts and desires, I figured I’d simply give you a link to the videos and ask what you all think:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGMTesZlKa0Lokb7ZNqOJXQ

I really liked these videos because they’re pretty harmless, and as such I wonder if they’re good training material for people to engage their skepticism and think of reasonable explanations for what they see – something for skeptics to sharpen their teeth on. I certainly don’t want to demean Kendra for her belief that her cat is communicating with her in this way, but I’m definitely interested in the different ways that humans can fool themselves and each other into believing things that are not true. So, if you have the time, watch a few videos and have a think about what rational explanations there might be for this phenomenon. And, if you’re really game, send me your thoughts (to [email protected]). I’m especially interested to see what you might come up with that I hadn’t considered.

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The Luck of the Cantabrians

Rebecca Booth, from Fairlie in the South Island, recently found a seven leaf clover. The Stuff article about this find mentioned that this is not the first clover-related find Rebecca has had. Apparently earlier this year, in January, she found both four and five leaf clovers.

 

A quick google search for Rebecca took me to the competition results for the 2019 Mackenzie A&P show, where among other accolades in the Home Produce section Rebecca won second place in the “Collection of Weeds” contest and first place in the “Bunch of Herbs, in a vase no more than 8 varieties” contest. This leads me to believe that Rebecca is somewhat in tune with the local greenery, something backed up by a quote in the Stuff article where she says “All my life, I’ve been pretty lucky finding multi-leaf clovers”.

 

It’s great that Rebecca has such luck finding these rare clovers – a four leaf clover occurs about once in every 5,000 plants. However, I’m guessing that her daily focus on clover and other plants means that she’s more likely than most to find these rarities.

I also wish Rebecca the best with her recent Lotto ticket purchase, which she hopes will be a winner because of her clover find, but I can’t help but be skeptical about the idea that one lucky event is going to make it more likely for another lucky event to occur. After all, we know that luck is just random chance – although when it comes to topics like gambling, there are degrees of freedom that can make lucky streaks appear to be real.

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Two years

Today is the second anniversary of the horrific Christchurch massacre, and as skeptics it’s sad to have seen over the last two years those in our country who have posted content denying that the attack was real, or claiming that it was a “false flag” operation. It’s been hard enough over the last 20 years watching high profile conspiracy theorists, such as Alex Jones, engage in denial in the US for events such as the Sandy Hook massacre and the 9/11 attacks. But to see this kind of wrong headed thinking at home somehow feels worse. I guess we’ve been able to rest on our laurels watching America suffer from a spread of the conspiracy mindset, and at least for me it seemed implausible that the problem would ever reach our fair shores. I guess I was just too naïve.

For one of the people who has been spreading misinformation about the Christchurch attack, Vinny Eastwood, he at least accepted that people died, and didn’t try to tell family members of the deceased that their loved ones either never existed or were hiding from them as part of a government plot. Soon after the attack Vinny travelled down to Christchurch to interview people, subsequently appearing on several alternative media outlets in the US speaking about how he distrusted the “official narrative” of what had happened. My memory of the immediate aftermath of the events is that there was some confusion at first as police worked day and night to figure out what had happened, but that a coherent picture was built up fairly quickly showing that the attack was the work of a single gunman.

However, Vinny appears to have used the early confusion in the media as a way to sow doubt and claim that the truth was being suppressed – something that he continues to do to this day. Here are a few of Vinny’s videos from the months after the attack, where he makes all kinds of baseless claims about the attack and who was behind it:

And here is a video from last year, which Vinny re-posted to his Facebook page on Saturday, where in just 5 minutes he manages to Gish Gallop many of his nonsense ideas.

https://www.facebook.com/vincenteastwood/posts/10158087937342879

All of these videos are fairly enraging, and it might feel like there’s not much that can be done about them. However a recent video sees Vinny talking about how he’s recently had complaints made against his YouTube channel, and that he’s now received two out of three strikes from YouTube. A third strike would apparently involve removal of his channel, and the loss of his videos, and this would also take away a major source of his income. His secondary and tertiary YouTube accounts are also still active, for now – but who knows how long for.



Vinny says that he’s also had his Patreon account disabled, so he’s suggested that people subscribe to a “backup account” that he uses to raise money for his music endeavours. Thankfully that account is only receiving $19 per month, compared to $1,000 a month that Vinny says he was receiving through his main Patreon account until it was removed.

Vinny pleads with those who have been reporting his videos that spreading misinformation (or “truth content” as he calls it) is his livelihood, and that he has a small baby he needs to take care of. To me, this really shouldn’t factor into the equation. No matter what Vinny’s personal circumstances are, the spreading of dangerous misinformation is just not cricket. It doesn’t make it okay for Vinny to dupe people simply because he depends on the spreading of misinformation to pay his bills every month.

As an aside, Vinny says that the attacks on his media channels are making him feel unwell. So it’s lucky that his recent videos have been sponsored by David Holden, a well known alternative medicine practitioner who is responsible for offering bogus cancer treatments to desperate sufferers. It seems like Vinny and David will make good bedfellows.

Finally, like many of the people who posted messages to Vinny’s live stream, I’m sending prayers his way. I think that’s as much as he deserves, and I can only hope that this funding crisis forces Vinny to seriously reconsider his life choices. Maybe he could look for an honest, stable job that will allow him to care for his family while not damaging the stability of our country and leading people to believe in an erroneous, damaging worldview.


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, send it to:
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Skeptic News: 4 Simultaneous Days Rotate In Same 24 Hours Of Earth


96

Skeptic News: 4 Simultaneous Days Rotate In Same 24 Hours Of Earth

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

4 Simultaneous Days Rotate In Same 24 Hours Of Earth


We’ve just come out of another short spell spent at level 3 lockdown for Auckland, and level 2 for the rest of us. Well done to all of you who managed to follow the rules and help keep us all safe, and a boo to everyone who thought that protesting in large groups and not wearing a mask is an acceptable response.

My first news story involves a political figure, Jami-Lee Ross. We’ve received a complaint that I, and possibly others who write this newsletter, sometimes venture into political territory, and that our political views are not shared by everyone in our organisation. I will admit that I lean to the left (as do many people I know who are active members of the NZ Skeptics) but, despite this, as much as possible I try to keep my political views out of my writing. If I’m criticising or commending politicians, my aim is to be mentioning them because the things they’re saying or doing are of skeptical interest (and sadly, more often than not it’s because what they’re doing flies in the face of good skeptical thinking). If I ever fall short of this, and fail to give a skeptical angle when I mention politics (or religion or any other topic, for that matter), feel free to pull me up on it.

We have also been asked about a right of reply, especially as to an extent this newsletter has replaced our journal, and the journal used to have a Letters section. Coincidentally, a couple of weeks ago I added a note to the bottom of our newsletter which lets you all know that if you have something of interest that you want to see published in this newsletter, you can send it to us and we’ll look over it and add it to the next week’s newsletter (unless you’re uncritically reviewing the TimeCube website, that is). The more skeptical voices we can promote, the stronger we’ll be as an organisation – and the more you all do my job for me, the happier I am 😉

Mark Honeychurch
Secretary, NZ Skeptics

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Worried about 5G? There’s a pill for that!

I’m guessing that Jami-Lee Ross, head of the failed conspiracy themed political party Advance NZ, has run out of money. Why else would he be planning to flog useless anti-5G pills to us?

Charlie Mitchell at Stuff found out that Ross has recently formed a new company called Praesidium Life along with a naturopath called Michael Kelly. Looking at Michael’s current business, The Health Centre in St Benedict’s, it’s obvious that Michael has no interest in evidence when it comes to healthcare. The website appears to be almost entirely devoid of any useful, honest medical advice, instead pushing chiropractic, reflexology, hCG for weight loss and coriander for heavy metal detox.

When I clicked on the Shop link I was greeted with even more egregious nonsense at a website called Natural Solutions – curcumin (turmeric), probiotics and GcMAF.

NZ Skeptics committee member Dan Ryan told Stuff:

“The spread of health misinformation is not slowing down, and people are being harmed or even dying because of it. We need more regulation with regulatory bodies that actually have the power and the resources to stop it.”
https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/124069747/jamilee-ross-behind-anti5g-supplement-business

I’m no psychic, but given what I know about the Society for Science Based Healthcare (disclaimer: I’m currently chair of the society), I see Michael’s future involving one or more emails from the Advertising Standards Authority, and a lot of work trying to defend claims such as that “the Ketogenic Diet is a low carbohydrate, high fat diet, that starves the cancer cells” and “the higher someone’s cholesterol, the lower their risk of death due to cardiovascular disease”.

As for Jami and Michael’s potential future business, it is reported to involve selling Praesidium – “the natural solution to electromagnetic radiation”. Dr Marco Ruggiero from Italy is apparently behind the product, and his other accolades include a probiotic yogurt for treating autism and AIDS, and a magic anti-ageing pill.

Rest assured we will be keeping a close eye on how this one develops, and we will be quick to pounce on any dodgy claims we find when the new company’s website goes live.

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Skeptics 0, Ken Ring 1

After last week’s nocturnal earthquake, Ken Ring has been on Facebook proving how right he is. He’s pointed out that he predicted the earthquake in his 2021 almanac:

From the “Earthquake diary”, on p339 of the 2021 NZ Weather Almanac, it is written that the days of earthquake activity for March would be the 4th, 9th, 18th-20th, 25th, and 29th. This morning’s shake struck at 2 hours after midnight, close enough to 4th to be counted as a prediction.

I guess it’s time for the NZ Skeptics to throw in the towel and admit defeat, in the face of this uncannily accurate prediction. Except, I can’t help shaking the feeling that maybe, just maybe, by Ken’s own admission, his predictions cast the net wide enough that it’s hard for him to miss…

So, pulling this one apart, let’s have a look at the dates in Ken’s March predictions. If we allow Ken his one day leeway, that would mean that he predicted an earthquake for the 3rd-5th, 8th-10th, 17th-21st, 24th-26th and 28th-30th of March – a grand total of 17 out of 31 days in the month. For any earthquake that happens in March, he appears to have a slightly above even chance of the quake landing on one of his predicted dates, even if his predictions are totally random guesses lacking any kind of scientific rigour.

However, a one day leeway isn’t all Ken has asked for. Last year, talking about his earthquake predictions on Facebook, Ken stated that people need to “Allow 1-2 days error as in all forecasting”. Gosh, if we were to allow him the “2 days error” he asks for, his March predictions would have covered 26 out of 31 days. It seems that, if he’s willing to be this loose in his predictions, it’s going to be hard for him to fail. But maybe that’s the point.

We’re now going to be a little bit cheeky, and borrow the ideas of sensitivity and specificity from the field of medicine. What we need to know in order for us to do this are very rough ideas of Ken’s true and false positive and negative rates. The “true positive” rate for Ken’s predictions is okay (maybe half or more of the major earthquakes we experience fall on one of Ken’s predicted earthquake dates). However his “false positive” rate (the times Ken predicts an earthquake and it doesn’t happen) is much higher – most of the dates Ken throws out there don’t turn out to be days where a sizable earthquake hits New Zealand. His “true negative” rate appears to be fairly good (many of the dates he doesn’t predict an earthquake for, earthquakes don’t happen), but his “false negative” rate (dates for which a major seismic event occurs but he hasn’t predicted it) is not great. The upshot of this is that both the sensitivity and the specificity of Ken’s earthquake predicting ability are pretty abysmal.

The astute among you (and I’m assuming that’s many of you, given that you’re skeptics and prone to questioning what other people say) will have spotted that this method doesn’t translate overly well to Ken’s earthquake predictions – not least because of several major issues with the kinds of predictions Ken makes.

To explore this, let’s play a game of make-believe. Imagine a world where Ken Ring has figured out a way to predict the timing of earthquakes, a method that the world’s leading seismologists have somehow totally missed. Even if that were the case, and Ken’s ability was real, it turns out it would still be almost useless. In our make-believe world, where Ken’s specificity and sensitivity are both 100%, let’s look at his March 2021 predictions. If earthquakes occurred somewhere in New Zealand on the “4th, 9th, 18th-20th, 25th, and 29th” of March and not on any other days, exactly as Ken predicted, what practical steps could Civil Defence, or any branch of government or business, take that would help people? Ken usually offers no useful information beyond listing dates, and occasionally a rough location. He has claimed weak and strong earthquakes, and quakes thousands of kilometres away, as “hits” for his predictions. Without knowing specifics about location, depth, strength, time of day, etc, these dates are not terribly useful. I’m struggling to think of how this level of predictive power would change how we live our lives, or make any difference to our earthquake preparedness. In short, Ken offers too little information in his predictions for them to be of any practical use.

As we said before we know that, in the real world, Ken’s predicted earthquake dates – no matter how vague he makes them – still aren’t very accurate. His specificity and sensitivity are not 100% – in fact, they’re nowhere near. We have to conclude, given his lack of accuracy, lack of detail, and lack of plausibility (using phases of the moon to predict earthquakes seems iffy), that it’s vanishingly unlikely that Ken Ring really has the ability to predict earthquakes at all. It’s much more likely that Ken has found his schtick; a trick that allows him to extract money from the unwary, with which he lines his pockets.

tldr; Ken Ring’s earthquake predictions are not accurate, and even if they were they wouldn’t be very useful.

Now that we’re fairly confident that Ken’s more shyster than visionary, I think that we can safely ignore his recent advice that tsunamis are not a risk for New Zealand. He’s been asserting that most of New Zealand is underwater, i.e. shallow waters surrounding our islands, and that these shallows mean that a tsunami will never affect New Zealand. If the experts say that we are in danger of a tsunami after a large offshore earthquake, as they did last week, and Ken tells us we’re not in any danger, I’m going to follow the advice of the experts with science and computer modelling behind them. Plus, Wikipedia has a thing or two to say about tsunamis affecting New Zealand. Sorry Ken, it’s nothing personal.

Ken Ring – famed Swedish Rapper. No, hang on a minute, that’s not the right one…

Ken Ring – Long Range Forecaster. Yep, I’m pretty sure that’s what I was looking for.

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An unexpected endorsement for the COVID vaccine

I’ve recently read calls for high profile figures in New Zealand to endorse the new COVID vaccines, as a way to reassure the portion of the public who currently feel unsure about the vaccines’ safety. It’s been suggested that public figures such as Jacinda Ardern, Ashley Bloomfield and others might want to allow the media to record them being immunised against COVID. Personally I think that, at least for those who are conspiracy minded, watching those who are supposedly a part of the conspiracy be injected is probably not going to be very convincing.

I’ve also heard the idea that famous Kiwi sports figures might be a better group to take on this task, given that so many in our country look up to them. It’d be nice to see sports personalities make up for some of the damage to health literacy that others in the sporting world have caused, with their reckless endorsement of useless supplements and dangerous treatments. Colin Meads’ thumbs up for Te Kiri Gold, a bleach based “cure” for cancer, and Sir Bob Charles’ hawking of deer velvet, spring to mind.

Thankfully we now have another kind of endorsement of the COVID-19 vaccines – an inverse endorsement, I guess you could call it. Hannah Tamaki, the wife of “Bishop Apostle” Brian Tamaki of Destiny Church, has stated publicly that she won’t be getting the vaccine after the two of them were hauled over the coals in the media last week for skipping town just before Auckland went into lockdown on Sunday. Given the lack of public support for Brian, Hannah, and their shoddy excuse for a church (which, let’s be honest, appears to be nothing more than an ATM for the Tamakis), I’m hopeful that Hannah’s public shunning of the vaccine will just drive more people in New Zealand to be vaccinated.
 

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If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, send it to:
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Skeptic News: Ring, Reiki and Natural Medicine


96

Skeptic News: Ring, Reiki and Natural Medicine

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Hi there

A big portion of this week’s newsletter content was contributed by NZ Skeptics Committee member – Jonathan Harper.

Craig Shearer

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Back in lockdown again

As everybody no doubt knows we’re back in lockdown again – level 3 for Auckland and level 2 for the rest of the country. 

While the inconvenience is disappointing, as we’ve seen it is for the best. 

At this stage, it seems that there’s been some potential community transmission possibly due to people not isolating as they should have done. But the solution to this isn’t to attack those individuals but to come together to support each other and to work through the problem. 

The virus is difficult to manage, and contract tracing is extremely important. As usual, Siouxsie Wiles explains it well.

The people we should be angry with are those that are spreading misinformation, often for self-serving purposes. 

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Ken Ring’s Weather Predictions

Ken Ring is back selling his unproven weather, gardening, and best fishing predictions. You can also get his books on the global warming hoax, anxiety therapy, better parenting, and more on his predict weather website.

There was a lull after 2016 when his Facebook page announced “Sadly Ken has been unwell and unable to contribute to this page … Thanks for all the well wishes.”

If you want more background on Ken Ring, you can find an article on our website that looks at Ring’s accuracy. The NZ-based Silly Beliefs site also has a great article on Ken Ring. I have had some interesting face-to-face discussions about Ring and other matters with the Silly Beliefs site’s main writer (who prefers to remain anonymous), reminding me: 

there is no evidence whatsoever that his predictions are even remotely reliable. It is a scam, and by advertising his bogus weather predictions they were helping spread misinformation, and regarding earthquakes, fear. [ people left their homes needlessly in one case]

Ken Ring emailed me last year and described something about his personal circumstances. You can see the same on his website. But we are best to keep away from personal issues with any woo peddler for several good reasons. We do not want to be seen to be prying unnecessarily; nor do we want to give any impression we are applying invalid argumentum ad hominem arguments. I have some genuine personal sympathies with Ring, which were well received. At the same time, I think his prediction business is misguided.

I came across Ring’s Predict Weather forecasts in two publications: The Fringe and Ponsonby News.

I phoned Bevis – the editor at The Fringe. He admitted he didn’t think the predictions were reliable. However, as “some people like to read them”, he will continue publishing them.

Ring’s predictions aren’t just isolated to New Zealand, He’s also popular in Australia and Ireland. Ring’s website sells a book that predicts the Australian weather for the next decade, and a book that predicts the Irish weather for the next year.

We would be interested in hearing from readers who encounter Ring’s writing in places other than those mentioned here. Oh, and if you’re on Twitter, the Ken Ring Weather Check Twitter account regularly reviews Ring’s predictions and finds them wanting.

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Reiki

Mark Honeychurch recently covered a Newshub story by Sarah Templeton in our newsletter (Reiki is Here To Save Us All) about a visit to a Reiki person by the reporter. (Practitioner, in my humble opinion, is probably the wrong word). 

Committee member Russell and I contacted Newshub expressing our obvious concerns about it being a free promotion that omitted to tell readers what Reiki is, and the lack of evidence for efficacy. As a result, they decided to add a mention that the writer had not paid for the session she reported on. 

I received a reply from Dianne Martin who is the Broadcasting Standards manager at Discovery NZ (US owned) which recently bought Mediaworks, the owner of Newshub. She said:

The article was based on one person’s experience of a Reiki treatment and it was not intended to be a discussion of the two sides of the debate about its efficacy. Once the disclaimer was added to the Article, the Committee maintains readers could judge the merits of Reiki treatments and the Article for themselves, taking into consideration that the treatment was gifted for the purpose of review.

This could be a breach of the principle of accuracy, but we may be best to consider the change they did make as a win, and leave it at that.

I was disappointed to learn from Ms Martin that:

The Media Council has previously determined that ‘the debate over alternative remedies is sufficiently well known not to require balancing comment in every story about them. The subject falls within the exception to the principle of balance for issues of enduring public discussion.’  The Committee is satisfied that balance was not required in this Article.

Unfortunately that seems to be the reality of the situation. The media are likely to continue to publish such pieces, which seem to fall into the category of “advertorial content”. But it’s great to point out when it’s not apparent from the article that journalistic integrity might be at stake!

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The New Zealand Journal of Natural Medicine 

After some investigation it seems that this magazine (it’s a stretch to call it a journal, a title which should be reserved for scientific publications) is being purchased by at least one public library (Titirangi). 

 The New Zealand Journal of Natural Medicine (J Nat Med) is very familiar to my friends at the Society for Science Based Healthcare (SBH). It came back on our radar after I spotted it in my local library, then the local Postshop bookshop and a supermarket where it’s sold in a plastic wrap (perhaps to prevent prying eyes from seeing the content without buying).

Not long after spotting this egregious pseudoscientific publication, I received an online survey from the library. So I took that opportunity to suggest they stop stocking this misleading publication.

It would be great if readers could check out their local libraries to see whether this magazine is being carried, and report back to us.

The content of the magazine is of concern with articles suggesting vaccines don’t work and that homeopathy might cure cancer. (And, from the picture of the latest edition, it seems that the COVID-19 pandemic is being milked for all it’s worth!) Unfortunately, the magazine is not registered with the NZ Media Council, so a complaint cannot be made to them.

It is disappointing that libraries would be subscribing to this magazine. Libraries always have a balancing act as to what content to provide, seemingly erring on the side of providing what people want to read, even if it contains dangerous misinformation. The question would be where is the line drawn?

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Joke of the week

I can’t say we’ll be having this every week, but I found this amusing little joke on social media this week:

 

Q: How many conspiracy theorists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Do your own research!
 

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Thanks to those who’ve recently joined us!

If you’re a regular reader of our newsletter, you’ll know that we’re publicising annual membership of NZ Skeptics, which is extremely attractively priced being only $40, or $20 if you’re unwaged.

We’ve recently had quite a few new members join us – a warm welcome to you if you’re one of them – if you’ve not yet joined us, you can still do so by going to our membership page.

As a special bonus, if you join before the end of March we’ll send you a bona fide “Card Carrying Skeptic” business card with your name and membership number – it’s great to show to friends when they comment about how you’re always so damn skeptical. (All existing members who are paid up by the end of March will also be mailed the card.) 

It’s not yet been scientifically proven, but we feel that just carrying the card on your person will have a protective effect against all sorts of woo that you may be exposed to. 🙂


If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, send it to:
[email protected]

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, please go to:
https://skeptics.nz/join


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