Skeptic News: The Other NLP


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Skeptic News: The Other NLP

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

The Other NLP


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

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

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

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

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

Mark Honeychurch

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Hate Speech Submission

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

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

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

 

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

 

The NZ Skeptics

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

The Proposals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


QAnonsense

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


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


Trying to create a new Religion

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

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


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

 


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


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

 


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


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


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


My guess for what these texts are emulating is:

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


Any other ideas?

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

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


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

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


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Submission on Hate Speech Proposals

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

The NZ Skeptics

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

The Proposals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skeptic News: Thomas John reads again, VfF FB gone, selling out for £10,000 and more…


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Skeptic News: Thomas John reads again, VfF FB gone, selling out for £10,000 and more…

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

This week I cover another psychic sting, some good news from Facebook and a COVID-denier takedown in the UK, and finally questions around the very existence of viruses!

Craig Shearer

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Thomas John hot-reads again!

We’ve talked about purported psychic medium Thomas John before. He’s a shady character whose real name is Thomas John Flannagan. Previously convicted of stealing security deposits from renters after posting bogus apartment ads on Craigslist, and having also worked as a drag queen, he’s moved on to being a celebrity psychic medium. 

He’s variously known as the Manhattan Medium, The Seatbelt Psychic (in a TV show where he transported people supposedly in a ride-sharing service and gave them readings). If you want to watch the awful show, it’s available on TVNZ On Demand, where he’s referred to as “Internationally renowned medium”.

Recently our friend Susan Gerbic of the Guerilla Skeptics led a sting operation on Thomas John. John recently reached a new low, by running an event targeting children. For USD $400/ticket (about NZD $575) a parent and their child could join a Zoom call for a reading. Little did John know that two of the sets of parents and children on the call were actually skeptics, in a setup designed to expose John’s hot-reading techniques. 

The NZ angle to this is that one of the parents was Sheree, former secretary of NZ Skeptics, and her daughter. Well done Sheree!

The Friendly Atheist blog covered the story, and it was written up in great detail by Susan in Skeptical Inquirer.

Unfortunately, there’s still plenty of true believers who are willing to give the likes of John their money. 

Thomas John, and the whole celebrity psychic industry are a blight on society. As John Oliver, on the TV show, Last Week Tonight, put it:

“…when psychic abilities are presented as authentic, it emboldens a vast underworld of unscrupulous vultures, more than happy to make money by offering an open line to the afterlife, as well as many other bullshit services.”

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Voices for Freedown Facebook Page shut down

In good news this week, Facebook has finally shut down the anti-vax, conspiracy-theory-mongering group Voices for Freedom’s page. They’re upset:

“Facebook cancelled our Facebook page Wednesday, with our page following growing by over 1000 fans a week, thousands of comments, and a monthly reach of nearly half a million people..

We’re not surprised, but it’s definitely a significant blow to both ours and your voice of freedom, and everyone should be outraged…” [emphasis theirs]

I’m sceptical of the claim of half a million people – I’m doubtful that there are that many deluded people reading their messages!

But other groups still exist run by either VfF leaders or their ardent supporters. These include The Health Forum NZ and NZ School Communities Unite, both of which are private groups so it’s not possible to see what they’re talking about unless you manage to infiltrate them.

The Health Forum NZ claims to “discuss the process of Informed Consent and COVID-19 vaccination”. Interestingly, their group has had various name changes, as reported by Facebook:


Amusingly their previous names seem to give the game away as to their real purpose.

The Health Forum NZ is run by Lynda Wharton, amongst others. Wharton is a naturopath and acupuncturist and has featured on the VfF webinars. I’ve seen her name pop up all over Facebook and she’s well known for her anti-vax views. 

NZ School Communities Unite is another private group, run by Aimee Bearda who is one of the leaders of VfF. The group’s purpose is to “ to insure a robust School Governance Policy to protect our children against the intended Covid-19 Immunisation programme in schools”. Why such a group would need to be private isn’t clear.

Voices for Freedom are, according to an email to their insiders, planning on running a campaign this week. They called for donations and, if their latest email is to be believed, have received $50,000 in donations. It saddens me that a whole bunch of people would give up that sort of money.

It will be interesting to see what they do. They claim “the media/gov will hate it”. Watch this space, I guess.

With all their pleas for freedom and avoidance of lockdowns, I would remind them of the terrible situation in Fiji (with 238 deaths so far since the outbreak in April), and the situation in NSW which is far from being under control.

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COVID £10,000 sell out

Speaking of COVID grifters, an amusing take-down has emerged from the UK.Piers Corbyn is an anti-vax activist, and elder brother of the former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. 

Corbyn is certainly a character that skeptics would find interesting. He ran a weather forecasting company and along the lines of our own Ken Ring, makes predictions based on “The Solar Weather Technique”, which is based upon solar observations. Like Ring, he bases his predictions on historical weather patterns in addition to solar observations (whereas Ring uses the moon), and also claims to be able to predict earthquakes. Needless to say his predictions weren’t particularly accurate. 

He also denies that humans play a role in climate change. 

Of late, Corbyn’s been working to undermine UK efforts to vaccinate its population. He originally declared COVID-19 to be a hoax, blamed Bill Gates and George Soros, then went on to refer to COVID as a Chinese Bio-Weapon, then claimed it to be no worse than the flu.

Anyway, in a delicious prank, a couple of YouTubers Josh Pieters and Archie Manners, claiming to be investors in AstraZeneca  essentially convinced Corbyn to accept £10,000 in cash to stop criticising the AstraZeneca vaccine in his anti-vax communications, and to concentrate on Pfizer and Moderna vaccines instead.

Happily, they managed to swap out the £10,000 in cash for a bundle of Monopoly money before handing it over to Corbyn. 

The YouTube video of the experience is well worth a watch. The story is detailed here

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Are viruses real?

One of the interesting aspects of being part of NZ Skeptics is that we often get contacted by people to espouse views and theories that diverge from the mainstream, evidence-based views on things. 

The latest for us is claims from a New Zealand-based person who claims that viruses aren’t real – that they’re a hoax. You can take a look at the site promoting this nonsense. (http://thevirushoax.net/)

I’m not going to name this person as the communication quickly degenerated into threats of legal action. 

From the communications I’ve had with this person it seems that they’ve latched on to some outliers in the scientific community who promote pseudoscience around viruses – Dr Stefan Lanka is the main culprit, though the site also lists a psychiatrist, medical doctor (who also promotes homeopathy and anthroposophical medicine), and, scraping the bottom of the barrel, a chiropractor.

In researching the topic, I’ve come across articles that actually show pictures of viruses through electron microscopes.  The image above is of the COVID-19 virus, where the spikes can clearly be seen. 

It seems that the person behind this works in the IT industry. I’ve encountered these types of people before – and they’re common in pseudoscience. There’s the Salem Hypothesis which suggests an apparent correlation between those who work as engineers and them being drawn to pseudoscientific beliefs such as creationism, crank magnetism and climate change denial. Perhaps we can add virus denial to the list. Though perhaps the Dunning Kruger effect explains things well too.

Our friend Siouxsie Wiles wrote up a piece explaining how COVID deniers have latched onto Koch’s postulates.

As we often say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If you’re going to take on the whole scientific discipline of virology, you’d better have some good evidence to back up your claims. 

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Coming soon…

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

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

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

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

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

Register interest


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

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


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Skeptic News: can anyone pronounce NXIVM?


96

Skeptic News: can anyone pronounce NXIVM?

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Can anyone pronounce NXIVM?


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

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

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

Mark Honeychurch

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Famous actress jailed for her role in NXIVM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Psychic Kelvin is on tour

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

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

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

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

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

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


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When scientists go wrong

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Skeptic News: Climate change, Ivermectin and COVID dishonesty


96

Skeptic News: Climate change, Ivermectin and COVID dishonesty

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

This week there’s more climate change news, protest by farmers, tradies and ute drivers, and more COVID dishonesty revealed.

And make sure you scroll to the bottom – there’s exciting details about our upcoming joint Australia/New Zealand conference in November.

Craig Shearer

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Climate change is here

Over the past few weeks there have been various extreme weather events that are now being attributed to climate change, whereas once scientists were more cagey on the issue – saying that it’s never possible to blame any one event on climate change. But the evidence is stacking up, and we see temperature records being broken – 2020 was one of the three warmest years on record

The severity of the recent heat-wave in Canada and the western United States has been attributed to climate change. Record temperatures in Canada (coming close to 50°C) exacerbated wildfires and the town of Lytton burning to the ground. 

Just this week we saw massive flooding in Germany, with the death toll currently sitting at 170 people. This is also attributed to climate change

It seems that most people in our country “believe” in climate change, and that it is human-caused. (“Believe” is obviously a problematic word for skeptics – we accept the evidence – it doesn’t require belief as such!) Research into public attitudes shows some fairly wide variations though – younger people are more accepting (and have the most to lose) whereas the older generations (who will likely die before the worst effects are seen) are less likely to believe. 

Of course, climate change has been known about for many years. There’s a popular claim on the internet that a NZ newspaper from 1912 – The Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata and Kaipara Gazette was first to publish a dire warning:


But actually, that same text was also previously printed in an Australian newspaper, and prior to that, appeared in an issue of Popular Mechanics.

A group of researchers at the University of Waikato recently studied people’s beliefs around sea level rise and how accurate they were. It found that a minority of people actually correctly knew the likely extent of sea level rise in the future. They point out that people both under- and over-estimate the effects of climate change. Over-estimating the effects might well lead to inaction based upon despair that there’s nothing that can be done.

The article also points out that sea level rise isn’t uniform – and that different areas of the country are rising and falling – the lower North Island falling at up to 8mm per year, and in other places rising at up to 10mm per year. Our planet is alive and ever changing!

Some years back the committee of the NZ Skeptics Society became concerned about the perceptions of the public with the use of the word “skeptics” to be associated with human-induced climate change denial. We issued the following statement:

The New Zealand Skeptics Society supports the scientific consensus on Climate Change. There is an abundance of evidence demonstrating global mean temperatures are rising, and that humans have had a considerable impact on the natural rate of change. The Society will adjust its position with the scientific consensus.

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Howl of a protest

So, on the back of increasing effects of climate change this week saw the “Howl of a Protest” event run by Groundswell NZ – a group that purportedly represents farmers and tradies and ute owners who protested against new government regulations they say are unworkable.In particular, they’re concerned about the Clean Car Discount programme, dubiously dubbed the “ute tax” as it will penalise those who drive vehicles which spew excessive CO2 emissions.

Interestingly, only 9% of all utes are registered for work purposes. There’s an interesting FBT (fringe benefit tax) loophole (or exemption as it’s referred to) that allows companies to avoid paying FBT on double-cab utes:

“IRD has decided that most double cab utes satisfy the requirement that the vehicle was not primarily designed or intended to carry passengers. Therefore, companies are incentivised to purchase utes as employee vehicles, even if another type of vehicle would suit the work better.

Moreover, although the requirement that FBT be paid when the employee uses the vehicle privately – to tow their boat out to the lake over the weekend, for example – this is rarely enforced, tax experts say.”

It would be nice to see the government address this distortion of the market that is causing more climate-damaging CO2 emissions.

The protest was largely in rural towns. In my reading, it’s been pointed out that there are plenty of farmers who are on board with the need to change practises and take climate change into effect. 

So, how big was the protest? Well, the following photo was tweeted out to show the scale of the protest.


Except that that photo was actually of a Dutch protest. The photo was reversed (and cropped to remove the non-English signs) so the tractors were driving on the correct side of the road for our country. Slightly dishonest, I’d say. 

Here’s the original photo:


The protest was also used opportunistically by the Voices for Freedom group to protest vaccines – more on them a bit further down.

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COVID-19 marches on

Yes, the pandemic is still with us, and alarmingly new strains are emerging. Evolution does what evolution does.

Currently the Delta variant is in the news, and it is more transmissible than the original strain. As I write this, New South Wales in Australia has 105 new cases and a death, and is in a fairly strict lockdown in an attempt to shut down transmission. Let’s hope they’re successful.

We’ve been very fortunate that COVID hasn’t escaped into the wild in NZ, especially after the visit last month by an Australian who was positive for COVID. It would seem that their previous Oxford Astrazeneca vaccine dose probably prevented them from transmitting the virus – though of course we can’t be certain. Yay for vaccines!

But while sensible people are getting vaccinated, spare a thought for those who can’t – those in less privileged countries who don’t yet have access. But also consider the flailing vaccination rollout in the US where people are refusing the vaccine, largely along political lines, and because of misinformation from anti-vaxxers.

As I saw somebody comment on Twitter, if Fox News had been around in the 1950s we’d still be fighting Polio and Smallpox today.

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Ivermectin study withdrawn

The drug Ivermectin is an anti-parasite drug (used on worms and head-lice), and has been touted as a treatment for COVID-19. On the anti-vaxx Facebook groups I monitor, it’s frequently cited as the favoured treatment for COVID-19, along the same lines as Hydroxychloroquine – though that seems to have faded a little now.

A study into Ivermectin has now been retracted over ethical concerns. And by “ethical concerns”, it would appear that’s euphemistic language for huge data fabrication and other scientific fraud.

The study was run at Benha University in Egypt. The study was an RCT, and claimed “substantial improvement and reduction in mortality rate in ivermectin treated groups” by 90%.

A medical student in London identified serious concerns in the paper including faked data and plagiarisation. 

“It appeared that the authors had run entire paragraphs from press releases and websites about ivermectin and Covid-19 through a thesaurus to change key words. “Humorously, this led to them changing ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome’ to ‘extreme intense respiratory syndrome’ on one occasion,” Lawrence said.”

The paper was analysed in intricate detail by a couple of scientists and reported here, who came to the conclusion:

“In view of the problems described in the preceding sections, most notably the repeated sequences of identical numbers corresponding to apparently “cloned” patients, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Excel file provided by the authors does not faithfully represent the results of the study, and indeed has probably been extensively manipulated by hand.”

Unfortunately the study was included in two meta-analyses and because the study was so large and overwhelmingly positive, this skewed the meta analyses resulting in a positive outcome for the drug. 

“If you remove this one study from the scientific literature, suddenly there are very few positive randomised control trials of ivermectin for Covid-19. Indeed, if you get rid of just this research, most meta-analyses that have found positive results would have their conclusions entirely reversed.”

So, will anti-vaxxers stop promoting ivermectin for COVID treatment? I doubt it.Ironically, ivermectin is also used as a sheep drench – the anti-vaxxers promoting it are fond of calling those who accept the “official story” on COVID sheeple. Baa I say! 🐑🐑🐑

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Doctors under investigation

Sticking with the COVID theme, I reported in a previous newsletter about the website set up to allow medical professionals and “concerned citizens” to sign their name to the statement:

“I support New Zealand health professionals standing up for established medical convention, the Nuremberg code and informed consent.”

According to the site they now have over 7,000 declarations, including 41 doctors, 211 nurses and 421 New Zealand Allied Health Practitioners.

Previously the site listed all the signatories, but they recently turned that off, stating that “due to authorities actively threatening the livelihoods of anyone who questions their opinions, individual signatory names are presently withheld”.

The site is also programmed to prevent selecting text so you can’t copy and paste – though that’s easily overridden if you know what you’re doing in the web browser developer tools 😀

They’re referring to the current investigation by the NZ Medical Council into doctors who are promoting vaccine misinformation. This is a good thing – while doctors are entitled to their own opinions, they have to remain professional and not undermine vaccination efforts by promoting misinformation.

There are currently 13 doctors under investigation for promoting misinformation. Unfortunately, that investigation is going to take 9 months. I suppose they have to be thorough.

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More VfF dishonesty

As I’ve written before, one of the main purveyors of vaccine misinformation is the anti-vax, conspiracy theory group Voices for Freedom. You will have seen their distinctive branding with their blue, teal and green signs and professionally printed placards. 

They glommed onto the Howl of a Protest, using it to promote their lies. It does seem that their ultimate agenda is to attack anything that the government is doing – as we’ve seen they have strong links to the AdvanceNZ party, so expect them to become a political force at some point in the future.

I keep track of their activities via a surreptitious, pseudonymous email address. Amusingly in one of their recent communications they claimed:

There are 3 things we know for sure:

1. The media, politicians and bureaucrats are bought and sold. We see the game they’re playing. We’re calling them out and holding them to account. The full extent of their conflicts and lack of real science will be exposed.
 

2. The Pfizer “vaccine” is not a vaccine. It is more accurately referred to as gene therapy – a harmful experiment causing significant injury.
 

3.The way out of this mess and tyranny is people power. When the people stand up and speak out, this ends.
 

I think their definition of “know” is at variance with the commonly accepted one!

 


Coming soon…

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

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

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

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

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

Register interest


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

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


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Skeptic News: Live from the Christchurch Home Show


96

Skeptic News: Live from the Christchurch Home Show

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Live from the Christchurch Home Show


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

Mark Honeychurch

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

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Fun With Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christchurch Home Show

by Barry Lennox

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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Birds aren’t real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Earth 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Skeptic News: RIP Russell, Misinformation goes mainstream, and more…


96

Skeptic News: RIP Russell, Misinformation goes mainstream, and more…

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.
 

This week I’ve some sad news to report – the death of Russell Tomes, who was one of our NZ Skeptics committee members. Russell was a prominent identity in the skeptical community, both locally and internationally. More details below.

Craig Shearer

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Russell Tomes

 

It is with great sadness that I have to report that Russell Tomes, a NZ Skeptics committee member died last week. Russell unfortunately had an undiagnosed heart condition and died of a heart attack.

Russell came to prominence in the media, both nationally and internationally by being a Pastafarian – a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). Russell wore his religious headgear (a blue colander) for his driver’s licence photograph – pictures of which were splashed around the world!

Russell was interviewed by Campbell Live on TV3 – we’ve put the clip up on our YouTube channel.

The Church went on to be able to perform marriages.

Russell was involved with NZ Skeptics for many years, and had worked on various skeptical activism projects – including showing up in person at a Jeanette Wilson event (the claimed psychic surgeon), and participating in various online activities with Susan Gerbic. He was also a member of Susan’s GSoW project, writing Wikipedia articles.

Russell was a great human being, with a warm heart and keen sense of knowing what was right and wrong with the world. He also had a fantastic sense of humour – and loved to wear costumes – if you’ve been to a recent NZ Skeptics Conference, you’d have encountered Russell in costume. I fondly remember many committee meetings (which we hold via internet video chat) where he’d appear with some ridiculous mask – such as Pennywise the Clown, from Stephen King’s IT. 


While there won’t be a funeral, Russell’s mother is organising a remembrance event in Christchurch in a few weeks for those who were close to him. If you’d like to be involved, please get in touch.

The world, and certainly the skeptics movement, is a lesser place without Russell in it. RIP Russell – you’ll be greatly missed.

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Misinformation awareness goes mainstream

This past week saw the release of a report on misinformation, on research conducted by the Classification Office Te Mana Whakaatu. The Classification Office is traditionally responsible for classifying media, such as films and assessing whether material may need to be restricted.

While we’d like to see some way of reducing the impact of misinformation this is a difficult proposition for the Classification Office. From their report:

“The Classification Office cannot restrict or ban content on the basis of fairness, balance or accuracy. However we do have a mandate to restrict material that could encourage behaviour that poses a risk of self-harm or harm to others, and material that promotes criminal, terrorist or violent acts.”

It’s unfortunate that misinformation has to rise to the level of encouraging criminal, terrorist or violent acts for action to be taken. As skeptics, we know that misinformation has insidious effects that don’t rise to that threshold. There’s plenty of documented harm in believing silly things.

The report does highlight that there are widespread concerns about misinformation and that the internet plays a key role in its spread. And people are concerned and think something should be done. But it’s a difficult one, especially when commercial enterprises (such as social media companies) and their profit motive conflicts with our interests.

My belief is that the only solution to misinformation is better education in critical thinking and how to spot misinformation. In short – skepticism needs to be taught. But, maybe more awareness of misinformation by the general public will have an effect in making people more wary.

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Anti-vax paper retraction

An anti-vax paper was published recently in the open access Vaccines journal. “The Safety of COVID-19 Vaccinations – We Should Rethink the Policy”. The paper has now been retracted, though just getting it published is likely to fuel anti-vax misinformation.

Reported by Science Magazine, there have been a lot of resignations of scientists from editorial positions for the Vaccines journal, including our own Helen Petousis-Harris. 

Unfortunately, according to the Science article, the paper had drawn 350,000 readers and been tweeted about by anti-vaxxers with thousands of followers.

Why was the paper published in the first place? The paper’s authors have no qualifications in vaccinology, virology, or epidemiology. The paper was peer-reviewed, but by reviewers without any of those qualifications either. 

For such a controversial headline, you’d think that the reviewers would have had some second thoughts.

The study itself was hugely flawed – comparing data from a study of Israelis who received the Pfizer vaccine to reported vaccine side-effects in The Netherlands in a system similar to the US VAERS system – where reports are accepted but imply no causal link with vaccines. The paper comes to the astounding conclusion that “For three deaths prevented by vaccination we have to accept two inflicted by vaccination.”

As Helen Petousis-Harris states, the paper is very much a case of “garbage in, garbage out”. 

While it’s great that the paper has been retracted, it would have been great to not have been published in the first place!

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Fluoridation of our water

You may be aware that there’s currently a bill before parliament to change the way that fluoridation of our drinking water is handled. Presently District Health Boards have the individual power to decide whether the water for the populations they serve is fluoridated or not. The bill would take that power away from the DHBs and give it to the Director-General of Health.

Letting DHBs have the power to control this makes them susceptible to health cranks who want to prevent fluoridation of our water supply. Having seen the lists of people standing for DHBs it makes sense that the power is vested with qualified experts!

The bill has been open to public submissions, and I (unfortunately) got to witness some of the oral submissions via Facebook Live. The vast majority of the submitters were against fluoridation! They trotted out the usual anti-fluoridation talking points, such as that fluoride is a neurotoxin and that fluoridation chemicals are contaminated with lead, arsenic, mercury and uranium.

I think an award should be given to the woman running the process at keeping a straight face after nearly three hours of lies and misinformation about fluoridation.

There were some submitters, particularly the Canterbury DHB, who were for the bill, and they made some sensible points – one of which was that the Director-General should take advice from the Director of Public Health, in case the Director-General is not a health person – as has been in the past, where the role was held by an accountant.

For the record, fluoridation is well studied, and recommended by the WHO. Our Ministry of Health recommends fluoridation.

At present, only about half of NZ’s population is covered by fluoridated water supply. The benefits of fluoridated water are fairly major in the avoidance of dental cavities, and very cost effective – many people avoid dental treatment because of cost. Fluoridating water is a cost-effective means to reduce cavities.

I hope that sense prevails and the misinformation from fluoride cranks is ignored.

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De-platforming

In the good news department, YouTube has de-platformed local misinformant Vinny Eastwood, also joining another local, Damien De Ment, also banned. Vinny Eastwood was king of promoting conspiracy theories, but it seems that various complaints have seen his channel now removed. 

Is this a case of removing free speech? No – YouTube is a private company – it doesn’t have to provide a platform for people spouting dangerous misinformation.

It seems that Vinny was making a living off YouTube. Now, pleading on Facebook to his fans for support:


How sad. Get a real job!

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Conference update

Did you know that NZ Skeptics is running an in-person conference again this year (after not running one last year because of COVID).

This year we’re running it in conjunction with the Australian Skeptics – it will be a fully shared conference with speakers appearing in person and remotely from each side of the Tasman. 

We’re excited about the conference, and the great line-up of speakers. It will be held in Wellington on the weekend of 19th – 21st November. Stay tuned for further details.


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: No Druids, New Freeland


96

Skeptic News: No Druids, New Freeland

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

No Druids, New Freeland


 

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

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

Mark Honeychurch

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New Freeland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How not to handle a COVID outbreak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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German psychic claims to have solved yet another case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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Skeptic News: Choirs, dinosaurs, doctors and EVs


96

Skeptic News: Choirs, dinosaurs, doctors and EVs

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

I have quite a variety of topics to cover this week – including choirs, dinosaurs, doctors, and EVs (to put them in alphabetical order!)

Today is the winter solstice. Tomorrow we’re back on lengthening days, back to summer again! Yay 🙂

Have a great week!

Craig Shearer

Electric vehicle subsidies

 

Last weekend saw the release of a new policy by the government called the Clean Car Discount.

The scheme provides a rebate, starting on the 1st July, for purchasers of low emissions vehicles (Battery EVs – zero emission, and Plug-in Hybrid EVs or PHEVs which are classed as low emission). The rebates range from $8,625 for a new EV down to $2,300 for a used PHEV. They cover only vehicles registered for the first time in New Zealand, meaning that they don’t apply to second-hard sales of already-registered vehicles.

And, from the beginning of next year, purchasers of new and newly-registered used cars that are considered high emissions will be required to pay an additional fee of up to $5,175.


The scheme is designed to bias the market for new vehicles in favour of those that produce much less CO2 emissions. The transport sector makes up a huge chunk of NZ’s CO2 emissions – around 47% as of 2018. If we’re to meet our target of being carbon neutral by 2050 we need to be moving towards de-carbonising the fleet as urgently as possible.

As much as many people want to help out with reducing CO2 emissions by switching to an EV, the vehicles are still a lot more expensive than their fossil-fuel counterparts. We still have a way to go with improving battery technology and reducing its cost. So the subsidy will help those for whom the current cost of an EV is out of reach. It will have the secondary effect of putting more EVs into the market so that in future years there is a bigger second-hard market 

As with any change in government policy there are going to be winners and losers. And, typically there’s plenty of misinformation around that feeds into people’s emotions. I’d like to cover off a few of these.

Firstly, I’m an EV owner and have been for nearly four years. I switched to a Nissan Leaf back in 2017, and earlier this year upgraded to a Tesla Model 3. I must say I’d find it very hard to go back to owning an internal combustion engine-based vehicle (ICE as they’re known in the EV community).

I’m probably going to sound like a fanboi, but there are so many advantages to EVs:

  • They’re incredibly cheap to run, especially if you do most of your charging at home, and take advantage of low night rates. (My plan costs me 12 cents per kWh between 9pm and 7am). The comparison to an ICE vehicle is that it’s equivalent to paying 40 cents per litre of petrol. Additionally, I spend virtually no time at petrol stations.

  • They’re cheap to maintain – there’s virtually nothing to do to them as they have so few moving parts. I certainly don’t miss the times of having to spend hundreds of dollars on vehicle servicing every few months.

  • They’re quiet and perform very well, leading to a smoother ride. Even the lowly NIssan Leaf can easily beat most ICE vehicles for take-off at traffic lights. EVs give you instant torque.

  • And, of course, they don’t produce any emissions, leading to cleaner air, which is good for everybody’s health, and also a big reduction on planet-warming CO2 emissions.

Top EV myths and misinformation

Let’s cover off some of the myths and misinformation that abound. Much of the myths and misinformation seem to emanate from fossil fuel vested interests! 

  1. “Range anxiety” and that you can’t do long trips. In the early days EVs their range was fairly limited, and in New Zealand it was true that you had to carefully plan out long trips and know where you could charge. Today, we’re well catered for with charging stations dotted around the country. Besides, 99% of most people’s use of a car is for around town and commuting – you charge up overnight and you’re ready to go again the next morning.

  2. The batteries don’t last and they’re expensive to replace. (I saw a post on Facebook that the batteries only last 2 years and then cost $35,000 to replace!) It’s true that batteries suffer degradation over time (reduced range from when they’re charge to 100%), but battery packs in modern EVs suffer very little degradation. To take my Model 3 as an example, it’s expected that the battery will degrade by 5% per 100,000 miles (160,000 km), and probably 10 – 15 years before a 20% degradation. Practically, it will mean that over time, for long trips, I’d need to charge more frequently.

  3. How will we dispose of all those batteries? Battery packs from EVs are extremely valuable. Once an EV’s battery pack has reduced to the point where the range of the vehicle is too small to be useful, the pack can be re-purposed as a home storage battery pack – i.e. charged from solar panels while the sun is shining and then used to power a home at night.

  4. EVs catch fire. So do petrol cars – the question is how likely they are. Fires are extremely rare, but initial estimates are that fires in EVs happen at about 10% of the rate of fossil fuelled vehicles.

  5. You can’t tow with an EV. I have a towbar, and tow a trailer without issue. However, towing does reduce the range. Over time, we’ll see the capability of EVs increase and the range of vehicles broaden to cater for more niche needs.

  6. EVs are being powered by electricity generated from coal thereby defeating their purpose. The “defeating the purpose” bit really isn’t true. It turns out that EVs are much more efficient in converting stored energy (that’s the petrol or charged battery bit) into moving the vehicle than fossil fuel vehicles are – about 75% efficiency vs 30%. So, even if EVs were powered exclusively from coal-generated electricity they’d still reduce CO2 emissions compared to fossil-fuel vehicles. But, around 80% of NZ’s electricity is generated from renewable sources. Unfortunately, at the moment we’re experiencing low hydro-power lake levels – due in some part to the effects of climate change – exacerbated by emitting more CO2! 🙁 This YouTube video is a pretty good explainer.

  7. EVs emit more CO2 during their manufacture. This is true, but as soon as they’re driven the lifetime emissions of an EV are way less. The fossil fuel vehicle continues to emit. The break-even point is around 45,000 km. If you buy an EV and never drive it anywhere, that’s definitely bad for the environment!

To be fair, EVs that can replace a family car are pretty pricey at the moment, and probably out of the reach of most kiwis. But as the market is seeded with new EVs with the rebate applied, used EVs in the future will be priced at more affordable levels. Additionally, as battery technology improves, manufacturing costs will also decrease making EVs more mainstream.

As I said earlier there will be those who are disadvantaged by the scheme (including recent EV purchases who’ve missed out on the rebate). But mainly, we’ve heard loud voices from the farming and trades communities that EVs don’t suit them, and why should they be penalised?

The reality is that high emissions vehicles are bad for the environment. Years of externalising the costs of emissions has led to the point we’re at. Climate change is real and human-induced and we’ve got to make changes to address it (though it’s inevitable that we’re doomed to suffer the effects of our inaction on it.)

Finally, the “law of unintended consequences” is always in play. 

The delay of the fee for high-emissions vehicles is likely to see a spike in demand in the next 6 months to avoid the fee. 

Similarly, the new demand for EVs is likely to drive up the price, at least of used imports where the price is set by the dealer. (New EVs are largely immune to this as their prices are already known so any attempt to hike prices would have to be carefully justified.) But, used car dealers (who knew they had such a bad reputation!) might well hike prices so as to share some of the fruits of the rebate scheme.

Additional EVs on the road will see increased demand at charging stations. But we have a healthy industry here in New Zealand that is installing more and more charge points. I see this as a very good thing. 


Most other developed countries have some sort of subsidy scheme for EVs. It’s good to have NZ join the crowd. I was in Oslo, Norway in February 2020 (before the pandemic hit) and witnessed the effect of this first hand – they were everywhere. EVs made up 54% of all light-vehicle sales in Norway in 2020, compared to around 2% in New Zealand. Let’s hope that the Norway experience can be replicated here.

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Vaccine deployment

We’re still in the COVID pandemic but last week I had some cause for cheer. I’ve previously reported on the actions of anti-vaxxer groups, who seem to be made up largely of privileged (and entitled) middle-aged people (Boomers and Karens, to be derogatory). 

I belong to a local choir (I’m a tenor, in case you‘re interested) which is also populated by the demographic that might well be influenced by anti-vax messaging and was encouraged to hear some of the older folk talking about how excited they were to be getting their vaccines. It certainly warmed the cockles of my heart to hear!

This week our PM had her first vaccine which should give anti-vaxxers pause for thought, though I doubt it will. They’ll likely rationalise it as a publicity stunt and she didn’t really get the vaccine!

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Doctors under invesigation

Speaking of anti-vaxxers, they’ve recently set up a website which allows people, including doctors, nurses and allied health professionals (including alt-med practitioners) to register themselves as objecting to the COVID vaccine rollout. They claim to have 33 doctors, 123 nurses, 244 allied health practitioners (gee, I wonder why this number is so large compared to the number of doctors!) and over 3,300 NZ “concerned citizens”.

Happily, being a doctor and spreading COVID misinformation isn’t without consequences. According to Stuff yesterday, there are 13 doctors under investigation by the NZ Medical Council after people complained about them spreading misinformation. Good to hear, and I hope the council follows through on this and takes action.

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Were dinosaurs real?

Finally this week, in the bizarre category, I read an article by Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis infamy – the arch-creationist and science-denying anti-evolution propagandist. 

Ken likely has an alert set up for any mention of his Creation Museum in Kentucky. Over on the Jerusalem Post website there’s a good article that mentions the “museum”.

The article is well-written and discusses the opinions of some ultra-Othodox jews that dinosaurs were a trick by God to make people believe that the earth was old – just to test their faith. But, the article argues against such an interpretation, but goes on to criticise Ham’s “museum” for its position on dinosaurs: that the earth is only a few thousand years old, and that dinosaurs lived alongside humans and were on Noah’s Ark and perished after the flood.

Ham defends his alternate hypothesis, apparently taking offense at the idea that his god is a deceiver.

Ham, ever sensitive to criticism, was incensed back in 2009 when PZ Myers (of the Pharyngula blog) visited the creation museum and “rode”  a dinosaur. You’ve gotta laugh!


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: Choirs, dinosaurs, doctors and EVs


96

Skeptic News: Choirs, dinosaurs, doctors and EVs

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

I have quite a variety of topics to cover this week – including choirs, dinosaurs, doctors, and EVs (to put them in alphabetical order!)

Today is the winter solstice. Tomorrow we’re back on lengthening days, back to summer again! Yay 🙂

Have a great week!

Craig Shearer

Electric vehicle subsidies

 

Last weekend saw the release of a new policy by the government called the Clean Car Discount.

The scheme provides a rebate, starting on the 1st July, for purchasers of low emissions vehicles (Battery EVs – zero emission, and Plug-in Hybrid EVs or PHEVs which are classed as low emission). The rebates range from $8,625 for a new EV down to $2,300 for a used PHEV. They cover only vehicles registered for the first time in New Zealand, meaning that they don’t apply to second-hard sales of already-registered vehicles.

And, from the beginning of next year, purchasers of new and newly-registered used cars that are considered high emissions will be required to pay an additional fee of up to $5,175.


The scheme is designed to bias the market for new vehicles in favour of those that produce much less CO2 emissions. The transport sector makes up a huge chunk of NZ’s CO2 emissions – around 47% as of 2018. If we’re to meet our target of being carbon neutral by 2050 we need to be moving towards de-carbonising the fleet as urgently as possible.

As much as many people want to help out with reducing CO2 emissions by switching to an EV, the vehicles are still a lot more expensive than their fossil-fuel counterparts. We still have a way to go with improving battery technology and reducing its cost. So the subsidy will help those for whom the current cost of an EV is out of reach. It will have the secondary effect of putting more EVs into the market so that in future years there is a bigger second-hard market 

As with any change in government policy there are going to be winners and losers. And, typically there’s plenty of misinformation around that feeds into people’s emotions. I’d like to cover off a few of these.

Firstly, I’m an EV owner and have been for nearly four years. I switched to a Nissan Leaf back in 2017, and earlier this year upgraded to a Tesla Model 3. I must say I’d find it very hard to go back to owning an internal combustion engine-based vehicle (ICE as they’re known in the EV community).

I’m probably going to sound like a fanboi, but there are so many advantages to EVs:

  • They’re incredibly cheap to run, especially if you do most of your charging at home, and take advantage of low night rates. (My plan costs me 12 cents per kWh between 9pm and 7am). The comparison to an ICE vehicle is that it’s equivalent to paying 40 cents per litre of petrol. Additionally, I spend virtually no time at petrol stations.

  • They’re cheap to maintain – there’s virtually nothing to do to them as they have so few moving parts. I certainly don’t miss the times of having to spend hundreds of dollars on vehicle servicing every few months.

  • They’re quiet and perform very well, leading to a smoother ride. Even the lowly NIssan Leaf can easily beat most ICE vehicles for take-off at traffic lights. EVs give you instant torque.

  • And, of course, they don’t produce any emissions, leading to cleaner air, which is good for everybody’s health, and also a big reduction on planet-warming CO2 emissions.

Top EV myths and misinformation

Let’s cover off some of the myths and misinformation that abound. Much of the myths and misinformation seem to emanate from fossil fuel vested interests! 

  1. “Range anxiety” and that you can’t do long trips. In the early days EVs their range was fairly limited, and in New Zealand it was true that you had to carefully plan out long trips and know where you could charge. Today, we’re well catered for with charging stations dotted around the country. Besides, 99% of most people’s use of a car is for around town and commuting – you charge up overnight and you’re ready to go again the next morning.

  2. The batteries don’t last and they’re expensive to replace. (I saw a post on Facebook that the batteries only last 2 years and then cost $35,000 to replace!) It’s true that batteries suffer degradation over time (reduced range from when they’re charge to 100%), but battery packs in modern EVs suffer very little degradation. To take my Model 3 as an example, it’s expected that the battery will degrade by 5% per 100,000 miles (160,000 km), and probably 10 – 15 years before a 20% degradation. Practically, it will mean that over time, for long trips, I’d need to charge more frequently.

  3. How will we dispose of all those batteries? Battery packs from EVs are extremely valuable. Once an EV’s battery pack has reduced to the point where the range of the vehicle is too small to be useful, the pack can be re-purposed as a home storage battery pack – i.e. charged from solar panels while the sun is shining and then used to power a home at night.

  4. EVs catch fire. So do petrol cars – the question is how likely they are. Fires are extremely rare, but initial estimates are that fires in EVs happen at about 10% of the rate of fossil fuelled vehicles.

  5. You can’t tow with an EV. I have a towbar, and tow a trailer without issue. However, towing does reduce the range. Over time, we’ll see the capability of EVs increase and the range of vehicles broaden to cater for more niche needs.

  6. EVs are being powered by electricity generated from coal thereby defeating their purpose. The “defeating the purpose” bit really isn’t true. It turns out that EVs are much more efficient in converting stored energy (that’s the petrol or charged battery bit) into moving the vehicle than fossil fuel vehicles are – about 75% efficiency vs 30%. So, even if EVs were powered exclusively from coal-generated electricity they’d still reduce CO2 emissions compared to fossil-fuel vehicles. But, around 80% of NZ’s electricity is generated from renewable sources. Unfortunately, at the moment we’re experiencing low hydro-power lake levels – due in some part to the effects of climate change – exacerbated by emitting more CO2! 🙁 This YouTube video is a pretty good explainer.

  7. EVs emit more CO2 during their manufacture. This is true, but as soon as they’re driven the lifetime emissions of an EV are way less. The fossil fuel vehicle continues to emit. The break-even point is around 45,000 km. If you buy an EV and never drive it anywhere, that’s definitely bad for the environment!

To be fair, EVs that can replace a family car are pretty pricey at the moment, and probably out of the reach of most kiwis. But as the market is seeded with new EVs with the rebate applied, used EVs in the future will be priced at more affordable levels. Additionally, as battery technology improves, manufacturing costs will also decrease making EVs more mainstream.

As I said earlier there will be those who are disadvantaged by the scheme (including recent EV purchases who’ve missed out on the rebate). But mainly, we’ve heard loud voices from the farming and trades communities that EVs don’t suit them, and why should they be penalised?

The reality is that high emissions vehicles are bad for the environment. Years of externalising the costs of emissions has led to the point we’re at. Climate change is real and human-induced and we’ve got to make changes to address it (though it’s inevitable that we’re doomed to suffer the effects of our inaction on it.)

Finally, the “law of unintended consequences” is always in play. 

The delay of the fee for high-emissions vehicles is likely to see a spike in demand in the next 6 months to avoid the fee. 

Similarly, the new demand for EVs is likely to drive up the price, at least of used imports where the price is set by the dealer. (New EVs are largely immune to this as their prices are already known so any attempt to hike prices would have to be carefully justified.) But, used car dealers (who knew they had such a bad reputation!) might well hike prices so as to share some of the fruits of the rebate scheme.

Additional EVs on the road will see increased demand at charging stations. But we have a healthy industry here in New Zealand that is installing more and more charge points. I see this as a very good thing. 


Most other developed countries have some sort of subsidy scheme for EVs. It’s good to have NZ join the crowd. I was in Oslo, Norway in February 2020 (before the pandemic hit) and witnessed the effect of this first hand – they were everywhere. EVs made up 54% of all light-vehicle sales in Norway in 2020, compared to around 2% in New Zealand. Let’s hope that the Norway experience can be replicated here.

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Vaccine deployment

We’re still in the COVID pandemic but last week I had some cause for cheer. I’ve previously reported on the actions of anti-vaxxer groups, who seem to be made up largely of privileged (and entitled) middle-aged people (Boomers and Karens, to be derogatory). 

I belong to a local choir (I’m a tenor, in case you‘re interested) which is also populated by the demographic that might well be influenced by anti-vax messaging and was encouraged to hear some of the older folk talking about how excited they were to be getting their vaccines. It certainly warmed the cockles of my heart to hear!

This week our PM had her first vaccine which should give anti-vaxxers pause for thought, though I doubt it will. They’ll likely rationalise it as a publicity stunt and she didn’t really get the vaccine!

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Doctors under invesigation

Speaking of anti-vaxxers, they’ve recently set up a website which allows people, including doctors, nurses and allied health professionals (including alt-med practitioners) to register themselves as objecting to the COVID vaccine rollout. They claim to have 33 doctors, 123 nurses, 244 allied health practitioners (gee, I wonder why this number is so large compared to the number of doctors!) and over 3,300 NZ “concerned citizens”.

Happily, being a doctor and spreading COVID misinformation isn’t without consequences. According to Stuff yesterday, there are 13 doctors under investigation by the NZ Medical Council after people complained about them spreading misinformation. Good to hear, and I hope the council follows through on this and takes action.

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Were dinosaurs real?

Finally this week, in the bizarre category, I read an article by Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis infamy – the arch-creationist and science-denying anti-evolution propagandist. 

Ken likely has an alert set up for any mention of his Creation Museum in Kentucky. Over on the Jerusalem Post website there’s a good article that mentions the “museum”.

The article is well-written and discusses the opinions of some ultra-Othodox jews that dinosaurs were a trick by God to make people believe that the earth was old – just to test their faith. But, the article argues against such an interpretation, but goes on to criticise Ham’s “museum” for its position on dinosaurs: that the earth is only a few thousand years old, and that dinosaurs lived alongside humans and were on Noah’s Ark and perished after the flood.

Ham defends his alternate hypothesis, apparently taking offense at the idea that his god is a deceiver.

Ham, ever sensitive to criticism, was incensed back in 2009 when PZ Myers (of the Pharyngula blog) visited the creation museum and “rode”  a dinosaur. You’ve gotta laugh!


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

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


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Skeptic News: There is no religion higher than Truth


96

Skeptic News: There is no religion higher than Truth

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


There is no religion higher than Truth


As promised, myself and another couple of skeptics recently visited the Theosophical Society’s building in Wellington to hear their National President, John Vorstermans, give a talk titled “The Ageless Wisdom”. The Society has a great little building on Marion Street, with a comfortable library of esoteric mystical books at the front, and a large main room with lots of wood and painted mystical symbols. It has a particularly Masonic feel to it.

Inside, John’s talk started by covering the basics of Theosophy – that the Society is interested in finding the truth of all religions. Although this sounds like a good skeptical approach to spirituality, investigating rather than taking things at face value, in reality the organisation felt like it was diametrically opposed to skepticism. Whereas skeptics have so far looked into spiritual beliefs and concluded that none of them have any of the answers to life, the Theosophical Society considers that they all have the answers; or at least a part of the answer. We were told that members like to focus on different spiritual beliefs, such as numerology, astrology, eastern religions and the Christian Gnostics, and that belief in pretty much any idea is okay.

This behaviour is at odds with the society’s motto of “There is no religion higher than Truth”, and made it feel like they really don’t take their motto seriously. It came across as the members being spiritual tourists, dabbling in esoteric ideas without actually committing to them beyond maybe just learning the basics and memorising a few pithy quotes.

As with most spiritual groups, a single opinionated person started the modern Theosophy movement – in this case, Madame Blavatsky. She has the usual back story: a self-educated maverick, eccentric, with fantastical tales about her past and accomplishments, and an unwavering conviction that she had access to a deeper truth than anyone else about the world.

Back to the talk, which focused on three main ideas that are apparently core to Theosophy:

  1. We are not individuals – we are all part of a single connected spirit. Each of us inhabits our physical body temporarily, and only part of our soul is inside our physical body. This spirit inhabits everything we see around us.
  2. Everything is cyclical, and what goes around comes around. Societies come and go, ideas are lost and re-discovered, our souls return to the source and are eventually placed in new bodies (aka reincarnation).
  3. Our purpose in life is to progress spiritually, and move up through the levels of spiritual understanding:

None of this struck me, or the skeptics with me, as very original. It just felt like a rehash of tired old New Age beliefs. However, the members were a really friendly bunch, and it was nice to chat with them, after the talk, about their beliefs and interests. I left with a handful of pamphlets and booklets, and will definitely be returning the next time there’s a free event.

Mark Honeychurch

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A Colourful History of Popular Delusions

By Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall

Reviewed by Jonathon Harper

 

Although this was published six years ago, I think it is a classic reference book that will endure. It is available in some local libraries, including the Auckland public library.

The previous survey, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” was published a long time ago now. It is a great companion reference for Lynley Hood’s analysis “A City Possessed” on the Moral Panic in Christchurch surrounding the Peter Ellis case.

I learnt several things of great interest to skeptics. For example:

The moon hoax used pseudo-scientific terms and quoted a defunct journal. It gave a big boost in circulation to newspapers that published it.

There was a case of anxiety hysteria in Auckland in 1973 about a smell coming from leaking drums in the Parnell wharf. Many people became ill until it was shown the substance in the drums was not poisonous.

Medics (as in a Canadan case in 2004) can suffer from anxiety hysteria. You’d think their training might make them immune!

Exorcism and religion can make things worse in cases of hysteria, due to excessive fear of bad spirits – as it strengthens belief in the imaginary causes of these delusions.

Sometimes harsh conditions can trigger hysteria, and so a ‘spirit’ can speak out or ‘cause’ absenteeism from horrible institutions or work-places due to hysterical symptoms.Sometimes conditions improve as a result; whereas the victims in these institutions may not have been successful had they just protested.

Self-mutilation can be an extreme way to gain attention, and can involve false accusations.

False confessions are common during public moral panics.

Sometimes, as with the Peron family case, psychiatric conditions are falsely reinterpreted as paranormal phenomena.

Finally, skeptics have in some cases managed to help defuse panics by effectively debunking false beliefs. 

Look out for my next review, which will hopefully be on the book NOISE by Daniel Kahneman.

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Voltex can save 90% on your power bill

I’ve seen adverts pop up recently on news sites, such as NewsHub and YouTube, that are selling a device which claims to be able to cut your power bill by 90%. Now, wouldn’t that be nice – if it were true!

The company is called Voltex, at getvoltex.com (although this should not be confused with an actual New Zealand business of the same name which manufactures residential electrical components). Voltex sells a set of simple to use devices that plug into a wall socket, which their website claims will clean the dirty electricity in your home. This apparently stabilises your home’s electricity supply and will prolong the life of your home appliances.

I noticed that the URL of the advert I clicked on can easily be manipulated to match the country they’re selling to, which just substitutes the word American for Brit, New Zealander, Australian or Canadian – they use the same graphs, the same numbers, and the same organisation names – like the Public Utility Commission, which exists in the United States but not other countries.

The advert is quick to name-drop Nikola Tesla, who is a favourite of conspiracy theorists. The internet is rife with silly ideas that Tesla invented fantastical, physics-defying products that would revolutionise the world but were suppressed by evil governments. Free, unlimited wireless power, an earthquake generator, a camera to take pictures of people’s thoughts via their retinas, and a death beam using accelerated mercury. This device was apparently engineered by three German men using Tesla’s ideas – presumably playing on the stereotype of German engineering being trustworthy. Vorsprung durch technik and all that!

The site claims that electricity companies (Big Energy) are ripping us all off by overcharging for electricity, and suppressing their Tesla-inspired devices. Although there are legitimate claims of over-charging for power in this country, I don’t think the companies are too worried about these devices ruining their business!

An image in the ad shows a meter supposedly reduced from $251 a month to $15 a month, which is even more than the promised “up to” 90%. If we add the protection of appliances to this, the device should easily pay for itself in the first month!

There are images of Facebook conversations where everyone just loves their Voltex devices – although weirdly they’re just screenshots, and a quick search on FB doesn’t uncover any of the people who supposedly commented on how amazing the device is. My guess is that the screenshots are simple fakes, easily made if you know how to use the Chrome Inspector for developers.

The advert says the device is “100% legal”, which is not surprising given that it appears to be nothing more than a white box with a funky looking green LED. I was thinking of ordering one to test it out and pull it apart, but at $74 and with no guarantee that the scammers would even bother to send me one, it didn’t seem like a prudent use of my money.

Thankfully a friend told me yesterday about a YouTuber called Big Clive who reviews fake electrical devices. It didn’t take long to find a video where he tests and disassembles a device identical to the Voltex device, in a video titled “Worst fake “power saver” plug yet” – which gives you a clue as to what he thought of the device.

Big Clive’s conclusion about the device is that, if it was wired together correctly, the device would either do nothing or potentially increase your electricity bill – depending on how your meter measures electricity usage. However, the device he pulled apart didn’t even have the main component, a large capacitor, wired up correctly – both the anode and cathode were soldered to the same circuit board trace. So, even if the science was solid, which it isn’t, the device was as good as useless. There’s a concept behind these devices called Power Factor Correction which may be helpful for certain commercial power loads, but definitely not for domestic electricity usage.

There are many other companies out there selling similar devices with similar claims – Eco-Watt, EcoPlug, MiracleWatt, Enersonic, Voltbox, Earthwise Power Saver, Power Saver Pioneer, Energy Saver 1200, etc. Big Clive has tested most of them, and it will come as no surprise to hear that none of them work.

Like pretty much any device that promises fantastical benefits (pain erasers, get rich quick schemes, car fuel additives), it would pay to be skeptical about this product and avoid wasting $75 on what is essentially a 10 cent green light in a 20 cent plastic case. Not only will it not save you any money on your power bill, it might just burn your house down.

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Does the COVID vaccine contain a microchip?

I’ve watched a few videos online from a recent panic where people show themselves sticking a magnet to their arm at the injection site of their COVID vaccine. The same magnet pushed against other parts of the arm will fall off and not stick. Could this be proof that there’s a metallic microchip in the vaccine?

We can look to history to solve this one, as well as trying out a practical experiment. Back in the day skeptic James Randi went to Japan to take on the case of Magnet Men – people who could stick objects to their skin, claiming it was due to some kind of magnetism. Let’s see what Randi’s solution was:



Talcum powder! Randi’s observation was that flat metallic or magnetic objects, like coins or neodymium magnets, would stick to skin if it was oily or sweaty – and, for most of us, that’s pretty normal for our skin. By covering the person’s skin in talc, the metal object no longer has that layer to stick to, and the object will fall off.

Not content to accept this at face value, I employed the help of one of my daughters to test this out. As I’m a somewhat hairy man, our first task was to shave a patch of hair from my upper arm. Having completed that, we grabbed a small flat neodymium magnet and tried to stick it to my arm – success! Once in place, even tipping my arm beyond 90 degrees and shaking gently was not enough to dislodge the magnet.

Next we covered the shaved area of my arm in talcum powder, and tried again. No matter how much I tried, I could not get the magnet to stick any more. Of course, I haven’t had the COVID vaccine yet, but still the magnet stuck to my arm without the talc, and not with the talc – suggesting that it’s not magnetism that’s holding the magnet in place. We then tried the same experiment with a coin (a 20c piece), and had the same results. Without talc the coin stuck to my arm, but with talc it just fell off. I asked fellow committee member Bronwyn to try this experiment, as she has been given the COVID vaccine. In her case, magnets don’t stick to her arm even without any talcum powder – I guess she’s just not as sweaty as I am!

Of course, there’s another obvious reason why this isn’t real – technology just isn’t at the point where we can miniaturise a powered microchip to the point where we can inject it into someone. The dream of nanobots is decades away, and the closest we have today that is injectable is an RFID chip for pets – and it’s not small. I have one I plan to inject myself with at some point, but I’ve yet to find someone who’s game enough to stab me with the chunky needle.

Beyond just getting a chip inside someone’s arm, presumably the government needs their chip to actually do something like monitoring our location, and do it reliably.

For location, the vaccine chip would probably need to have GPS. I have a small GPS chip that I’ve played with in electronics projects, and it’s not small. We’ve shrunk GPS chips a lot, but not to the point where we can inject them – the smallest is about centimetre cubed. And, that chip will just receive location data from GPS satellites, it can’t send any data. To send data, you’d need another chip and an antenna. If the government wanted to use the phone network, that would probably need another 1cm chip for GSM.

And then of course there’s power. Without power, none of this is going to work. RFID chips can be as small as they are because they aren’t powered. When you hold them up to an RFID reader, within a cm or so, the reader supplies the chip with a small amount of power which they pick up via an induction coil and use to send a brief signal with their ID. However, unless the government is following everyone they want to track very, very closely with mobile electromagnetic induction coils, the chip in the vaccine is going to need a battery, or some previously unseen method of converting either the body’s movement or biological processes into power. And there’s absolutely no evidence that any of this exists as usable technology.

Obviously this is all very conspiratorial. To believe that it is true necessitates us thinking that governments around the world are suppressing knowledge about super advanced technology. Technology that has somehow been designed, tested, perfected and manufactured without anyone leaking it to the press or stealing the precious Intellectual Property and selling it to rival companies. I’m sticking with the belief that nobody can make microchips small enough to fit unnoticed into a vaccine, until someone can prove otherwise.


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

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


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Skeptic News: Maxine misinformation, shooters on the run and an alternative to botox!


96

Skeptic News: Maxine misinformation, shooters on the run and an alternative to botox!

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

This Queen’s Birthday weekend  I’ve had the pleasure of travelling to Napier to visit my mother. Last newsletter, Mark mentioned sightings of UFOs in Hawkes Bay, which were likely lenticular cloud formations. Alas, this weekend has seen dull grey skies, so no such luck on my part.

Our attention at the moment seems to be very much directed at health-related stories. Alas, there’s much misinformation to be countered. While visiting in Napier, I happened to hear an ad on the radio about COVID, and it saddened me to hear that so much emphasis is being placed on actually dispelling the myths that abound – such as that you can’t get COVID from the vaccine, and that it doesn’t alter your genes! What a sad world we live in!

Craig Shearer

Sue Grey misinformation tsunami, and who is Maxine?

We’ve mentioned Sue Grey in the past. She’s the Nelson-based lawyer and co-leader of the NZ Outdoors party, and full on conspiracy theorist and anti-vaxxer.

Her Facebook page is where she seems to spread the majority of her misinformation, and she’s posting many times a day. 

Annoyed by Facebook’s labelling her posts with their COVID-19 warnings, she recently took to experimenting with different combinations of text to try to figure out what words caused Facebook’s algorithms to label her posts with warnings. I actually think she shouldn’t really be concerned as, from seeing the reactions from commenters, she’s pretty much preaching to the choir anyway. Facebook’s warnings are likely to fall on deaf ears. But, in an effort to side-step the algorithms, the COVID vaccine is now being referred to as Maxine! Is this a new cockney rhyming slang?

Sue’s other gems this week included a link to a video that purported to conclusively prove that viruses aren’t real, and that they’ve never been demonstrated to exist.

She posted a claim that the COVID vaccine causes Stevens Johnson Syndrome which causes peeling skin, amongst other symptoms. The claim was fact-checked by Reuters and determined to be false. In a now familiar technique, anti-vaxxers will take shocking pictures off the internet (pre-dating the release of the COVID vaccine) and falsely claim that they’re the result of the vaccine. 

Also this week she wrote an open letter to the prime minister and other cabinet ministers with the subject line screaming: 

OPEN LETTER No 2- An URGENT REQUEST FOLLOWING RESEARCH SHOWING THE “S PROTEIN” IN THE PFIZER JAB IS A TOXIN

In the letter she refers to the latest anti-vaxxer talking point about the spike protein (or S Protein, as they call it) supposedly being a dangerous toxin found in dangerous quantities in the bloodstream of people who’ve received the mRNA-based COVID vaccine (hint: it’s not – and the studies don’t show what the anti-vaxxers think they do. See David Gorski’s refutation of the claims.)

Shockingly, in the letter, she goes well and truly off the deep end, quoting the legal definition of homicide and implying that government ministers would be guilty of this by allowing the COVID vaccine rollout to proceed.

In a stunning demonstration of a complete lack of self-awareness, she concludes her letter with the following:

“Please find the courage to challenge whoever is driving this, and any who act on dogma rather than evidence, reason or ethics.

The future of New Zealand depends on your courage to step up and make this critical call for our people.

I urge you to listen,  engage and act in the public interest.

Please put aside your pride and the dogma, and suspend this program.

I am happy to assist however I can.”

Sue Grey lists a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Microbiology amongst her qualifications. It seems to me that little of that study has actually sunk in!

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Danger for scientists

We should be worried about the consequences of far-right conspiracy theories. In Belgium, Professor Marc Van Ranst has been the public face of science related to the COVID pandemic and the Belgian government’s response.

Far right rogue soldier Jürgen Conings has a vendetta against virologists and COVID lockdowns. Conings is a military shooting instructor and has gone on the run with a rocket launcher and machine gun for the past three weeks, currently evading police capture.

Professor Van Ranst is in hiding. Let’s hope that nothing like this happens here, though as we’ve seen far-right ideas have had deadly consequences recently in the Christchurch Mosque shootings.

FACT (Fight Against Conspiracy Theories) is a grassroots organisation that’s opposing conspiracy theories, doing some great skeptical activism work. They’ve recently worked on contacting venues hosting the likes of Sue Grey. Some may refer to this as “cancel culture” but in my mind, preventing dangerous and outright wrong ideas from gaining wide traction is the responsible thing to do.

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Anti-vaxxer blood transfusions

Sorry to harp on about anti-vaxxers, but there’s another story this week that has emerged about prominent American anti-vaxxer Del Bigtree. Bigtree runs ICAN – the Informed Consent Action Network, and has a slickly produced video podcast called The Highwire.

It turns out that Bigtree has been out of action for a couple of weeks due to a health condition. Bigtree revealed on his podcast that he nearly died from blood loss due to internal hemorrhoids. His blood pressure was dangerously low and he required a blood transfusion.

It appears he has some friends who are doctors. and they strongly advised that he seek medical help (i.e. go to hospital!) when the symptoms of his low blood pressure became  apparent.

When it was discovered he would require a blood transfusion, being an anti-vaxxer, he decided he didn’t want to receive blood from anybody who’d been vaccinated with the COVID vaccine. Somehow, their blood would be contaminated with those dangerous spike protein toxins!

Bigtree reported received a small transfusion in the US from blood that was identified as not being “contaminated” by the COVID vaccine, then travelled to Cancun in Mexico (by private jet!) to receive a further blood transfusion of uncontaminated blood. What a waste of resources!

All of this is nicely and amusingly reported by David Gorski (aka Orac).

While none of us should wish harm on anybody, even those who wilfully promote and profit off misinformation, the story does show how dangerous misinformation can be.

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An alternative to Botox

I rarely watch broadcast TV, but on Wednesday night I happened to see a little of TVNZ’s Seven Sharp programme. They featured a segment on acupuncture as an alternative to botox for reducing facial wrinkles.

There was no skeptical angle and the piece looked a lot more like an advertorial than an actual piece of journalism. 

The reporter, Te Rauhiringa Brown (who looked quite young, and really didn’t have any particularly visible wrinkles) asked how it worked. The acupuncturist gave the following explanation:

“So the trauma from the needles sends a signal to your brain saying that there has been some damage and so your body actually sends the protein which is your own collagen to your face and that helps repair your fine lines and acne, scaring…”

Yeah right! 

The segment then went on to claim that the practise has been around since the stone age – and that the WHO recommended the practise.

Laughably after the acupuncture was administered, the final process was some “facial cupping” and a “rejuvenating face mask” to round off the treatment. I think perhaps the face mask at the end might well have had more to do with the final result than acupuncture. 

The piece cemented its purpose by quoting the price as $100 for the acu-facelift, and the name of the business to customers viewers! 

Well done Seven Sharp for promoting more pseudoscience!


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