Skeptic News: COVID update, and more from EvoRich


96

Skeptic News: COVID update, and more from EvoRich

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

This week our COVID lockdown continues, and I’ve some updates on that. And we got an email from EvoRich – details on our response below.

Wishing you a great week surviving lockdown, whether it’s level 4 or 3. Stay safe!

Craig Shearer

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COVID update

The COVID Delta outbreak in Aotearoa New Zealand continues, with Auckland (where I live) and Northland being remaining in level 4 and the rest of the country moving to level 3 from Wednesday 1st September.

With level 4, everybody is meant to be staying in their homes to avoid exposure to others, but, in my observation of things, there are plenty of people out and about “exercising”. Apparently, exercising also extends to sitting down and taking a break, or stopping to talk to others, often maskless. Sigh! As we’re advised, we should all be acting as if we have COVID – only leaving our homes for essential shopping and some exercise.

As I write this today (Sunday), there are 83 new cases in the community. These appear to be a combination of transmission within bubbles – so people who are already identified as cases infecting others within their bubbles – and infection of essential workers at their shared workplaces. While the transmission within bubbles seem unavoidable, the transmission between essential workers is worrying, and likely to prolong the lockdown.
 

John Hart (@farmgeek on Twitter) has been keeping track and graphing the daily numbers. It’s nice to see that we appear to be “flattening the curve” though not as fast as some would have hoped. Though, perhaps the flat part will run for longer than hoped because of ongoing transmissions as mentioned above.

Unfortunately, the situation in Australia is getting worse, with 1,218 cases reported in NSW today. They have reported another 6 people dead, but over 800,000 people received a vaccine dose. Over the ditch they’re aiming for 70% of the adult population being vaccinated then they’ll lift restrictions.

A 70% vaccination rate is still woefully low on a population basis. I hope that we’re aiming higher.

The reality is that with the Delta variant being so infectious, once we open up again it’s likely that everybody will be exposed to it (or yet another variant!) at some point. When this happens it’s going to be painfully clear the difference between those who have been vaccinated, and those who decided to take the risk and remain unvaccinated.

I know I’m generally preaching to the converted, but the  vaccine is safe and effective, with serious side effects being very rare. And the rare side effects and also those of COVID itself, so it’s far less risky to be vaccinated than to take your chances with COVID.

Mask exemptions

The anti-vaxxers and general “freedoms” bunch think they’re being clever. It’s now mandated that you must wear a mask when visiting a supermarket, unless you have an exemption.

Well this week, a woman in her 20s refused to wear one when visiting a supermarket. She produced a mask exemption document, which happened to be forged. The police turned up and arrested her. Charges are being considered under the Crimes Act.

An unfortunate death

You might remember back in May a high-profile BBC presenter – Lisa Shaw – died of a brain haemorrhage caused by a blood clot.

It’s now been investigated by a coroner in the UK and confirmed that Shaw’s death was likely a result of complications from the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine she’d received 3 weeks prior.

This really is a sad case, but will likely be used by anti-vaxxers, as a high profile case, to try to scare others away from taking vaccines. 

Speaking of which…

Endless anti-vax “freedoms” promotion by VfF

As I’ve previously written, I keep an eye on the Voices for Freedom email channel. Over the past week they’ve been running “Freedom TV” everyday, trying to draw in new viewers, and even providing an email “template” with which to invite your unsuspecting friends down the rabbit hole with you.


Westland Mayor

In the past I’ve resisted poking fun (really, I have!) at some prominent individuals who come out with nonsensical, ridiculous pronouncements. But sometimes, it just gets to be too much.

This week, Bruce Smith, the mayor of Westland told us that he was sick of hearing from health experts about COVID -19, and thought business leaders should have more say!

He also has claimed that we should learn to live with COVID, just like our grandparents lived with Polio. 

Luckily, Twitter user Richard Hills did a little research and uncovered the reality of NZ’s past Polio outbreaks…



And, to top it all off, it seems that Bruce denies climate change, claiming that “The climate’s been changing ever since I’ve been a kid”.

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Image: Sketchplanations

The Streisand Effect

Most skeptics will be aware of the Steisand Effect – so called because of the unintended consequence of trying to suppress information – which happened to Barbara Streisand back in 2003 when she tried to suppress pictures of her Malibu mansion. 

You might recall that back in May, Mark Honeychurch wrote about a company called EvoRich, warning about Kiwis being involved in a possibly risky multi-level-marketing (MLM) scheme.

Well yesterday we received a document from EvoRich, from the highly professional email address [email protected]

 


The document, not even from their lawyers, was a Microsoft Word document. Word documents always make interesting reading if you go to the Info tab.


OK, so a couple of Russian names, confirming Mark’s writing about the company originating in Russia. Interestingly they began the document on the day we published the newsletter, but didn’t send it until yesterday. I wonder what triggered that.

Another interesting point – the Company entry “SPecialiST RePack” points to a “cracked” version of Microsoft Word being used to author the document. I’m sure all legit companies use cracked software versions! (Incidentally, it’s best practise not to send original documents out – best to convert them to PDF first.)

They’re not happy with what we wrote though. They claim that they’re not an MLM:
 

We are not MLM, because we have neither registration fee, nor dividends paid from lowers (sic) levels to upper ones.

There are technical definitions of MLMs but it would appear that their members spend a lot of time trying to recruit their friends and associates into the business. This is a classic characteristic of an MLM.

However, should it be that they’re not technically an MLM, so be it.

Mark reminded our readers in the initial newsletter that our Financial Markets Authority (FMA) warned about EvoRich being a potential scam. So, we’re not the only ones to think that.

They also complained that Mark used the wrong email address when trying to notify them about their insecure site.
 

Please be informed that we have 24/7 support desk, which can help you to solve any technical problems, including security. The Ethics Department consider only conflict issues, which violate the Ethics Code.

They complain that:

Please note that the abovementioned publication bears the hallmarks of Defamation, which, under the Delaware Law, is a false statement that does not show and reflect the image of International Marketing Community INC in a favorable light.

The Delaware address is interesting. It would seem that the address is essentially used as a “convenience” address – to give them a presence in the US without actually having to have proper offices. 

They have requested that we substantiate our claims – the main one being that they’re an MLM when they’re not, and that we publish a “contradiction” – presumably a retraction – and delete the original article.

They threaten:
 

In case of failure with the above request, the Company of International Marketing Community INC will apply to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), as well as judicial and other regulatory authorities in order to protect its reputation and name under the Delaware Law.

All very interesting.

Anyway, I decided to go do some digging myself, to check out what Mark had discovered and see what my impressions of the company were.

My first stop was to try to look at their website. The site is in Russian, but Google Translate allows me to see it in English. The site makes a variety of claims, but doesn’t really provide any detail as to how the company works, or how it makes money.

So, next stop was to search for their presentations on YouTube. I found this video which I began watching. The video is introduced by a woman based in South America. But the video then goes continues with a presentation about EvoRich from a person with a Kiwi accent.

The video revealed that the company has a variety of business ventures, including selling financial training, running “Edu Cafe” businesses, and running crypto-currency investment schemes. 

The video later revealed that the presenter with the Kiwi accent was Andrew Hawkes, who is based in Australia, living on the Gold Coast.

Now, the name Andrew Hawkes rang a bell with me. I have a local acquaintance who I’m friends with on Facebook. I’ll call him Greg (not his real name). He seems to be a bit of a conspiracy theorist and anti-vaxxer. I’ve recently responded to some of his posts, trying to set the record straight about COVID and vaccines. One of those posts was pretty long-winded, but one of his friends, Andrew Hawkes, popped up in the discussion, spouting all sorts of typical anti-vax talking points.

I looked up Andrew Hawkes on LinkedIn. 


Oh, there he is! At the Academy of Private Investmen  (sic).

So, next stop was to look him up on Facebook. I found his profile, and confirmed his mutual friendship with Greg described above. I now understood the connection.

About three years ago Greg was posting on Facebook about this amazing investment opportunity – Skyway Investments. At the time there were many, including me, who tried to warn him about the nature of the investment, and that it was probably a scam. At the time, the FMA was warning people about it. Greg was adamant that this was going to make him rich, and that others should join him. Three years on, I see little evidence that the “investment” has panned out.

So, it seems highly likely that Andrew Hawkes was the vector for introducing Greg to Skyway – now EvoRich (and also NEEW – New Economic Evolution of the World).

Come for the investment advice, stay for the anti-vax and conspiracy theories!

Scrolling through Andrew Hawkes’s page on Facebook I came across a Facebook Live video he recorded this past Saturday morning. I thought it would be good to get some insight into what he’s promoting by watching his video. Contrary to my expectations about investment advice, what I got was a video full of conspiracy theories and anti-vax messages.

According to Hawkes:
 

“If you want to go out, and get an experimental shot from a known corrupt industry, then go for it, have at it, but don’t expect others to blindly follow you when they’ve actually done the research themselves, when they actually looked into it, when they’ve actually listened to scientists who are not being paid by the people who are pushing it…”

He then went on to talk about the Australian Census that’s currently underway, and spouted some astounding nonsense about official government documents being addressed to people with their names in ALL CAPS, and that being a separate legal entity to the person being addressed.

Hawkes then talked about COVID never having been isolated, that the Delta variant hadn’t been isolated, that COVID is a hoax, that it’s all to do with the UN and Agenda 21 or Agenda 30.

He carried on to talk about the government taking people’s guns away – referencing the Christchurch Mosque massacre of 2019.

Finally, he thinks that some of those getting the COVID vaccine are getting placebos (seemingly a misunderstanding of the original RCTs), that being vaccinated would allow keys and magnets to stick to your arm, and finally promoting Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine. 

He claimed people should “think for themselves” – ironic since he was just regurgitating standard anti-vax talking points!

So, that’s Andrew Hawkes – high profile EvoRich promotor for the Australia/New Zealand region!
 

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Dr Dan

Finally this week, and related to the Streisand Effect above, comes the tale from David Farrier, of the popular Webworm blog.

Recently, David wrote about a certain doctor in Auckland at an Integrative Medical Centre, promoting alternative COVID treatments including hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin and hydrogen peroxide.

Dr Dan didn’t like what David wrote, so got his lawyers to send a cease and desist letter.

I’ll let David tell the tale – it’s a great read!

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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: Careful Now


96

Skeptic News: Careful Now

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Careful Now


 

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

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



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

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Lockdown Bingo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notably missing were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An alternative legal opinion

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

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

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

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

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

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(Another) Psychic Failure

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

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


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

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


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Skeptic News: Snopes, vaccines, and climate change


96

Skeptic News: Snopes, vaccines, and climate change

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

 

This week there’s been a scandal over at the Snopes website. I get my COVID vaccine and we hear more about the situation we’re in with climate change.

Wishing you a good week – stay skeptical and keep promoting science!

Craig Shearer

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I’m sure you’ve come across the fact-checking website Snopes. It’s a popular, and generally quick way to check some internet rumour or news story for its veracity. 

David Mikkelson is a co-founder of the website. It’s emerged, through a Buzzfeed investigation, that Mikkelson who used to write articles for the site plagiarised various other news sites for stories, often copying their text wholesale, or at least paragraphs. The contributed articles ran between 2015 and 2019.

Mikkelson also contributed articles under a pseudonym – Jeff Zarronandia, a practise frowned upon in journalistic circles. He claimed that using a pseudonym was for protection from people who didn’t like the results of the fact checks.

Now I have no journalistic training, but I know that you can’t just copy and paste text without attribution and get away with it. And apparently Mikkelson knew that too – he’s quoted as explaining “You can always take an existing article and rewrite it just enough to avoid copyright infringement.” The practise was to just copy and paste the whole text of a news article then go back and change various wording enough to avoid charges of plagiarism. That does seem like a fairly simplistic and dodgy approach.

So, to be clear, Snopes is still doing good work checking facts and being a source of information for shutting down hoaxes. But as always it’s best to check multiple sources, and attempt to locate the primary source where possible.

It is unfortunate that the scandal with Mikkelson will tar Snopes with that same brush. At least in the minds of simplistic thinkers, Snopes is no longer to be trusted. You can expect to have the scandal brought up if you choose to use Snopes as a source for whether something is true or not.

The current writers at Snopes have issued a statement about the plagiarism. It’s sad that they are affected by the unwise and unethical actions of one of their site’s founders.

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I got vaxxed

Last weekend I got my first shot of the COVID vaccine. Given my advanced age of 55 years, I became eligible to book a vaccine, which is done through the “book my vaccine” website. I found the process to be pretty smooth, and they allowed my wife (who is younger than me) to ride my coattails and also receive her vaccine.

There are the obvious jokes that can be made about improved 5G reception, and being magnetic. But, I’ve fortunately had little in the way of side effects apart from a bit of a sore arm for a couple of days. My next shot is booked for the middle of next month. I’m happy to be contributing and being part of the best solution we have to COVID.

Vaccine discussions

This week I’ve also had discussions with some friends/acquaintances at my choir, which I’ve previously reported on.

One of the people I talked to is of fairly advanced age, and unfortunately seems to be a bit on the vaccine hesitant side of things. He asked some reasonable questions, such as what advantage the vaccine had if you could still catch COVID, and still transmit it. I explained that it’s our best line of defence that we have – that the main point of it is that it vastly reduces the consequences of getting COVID – it’s our best chance of not dying from the disease or being hospitalised from serious complications.

I also argued that we are certainly in an unfortunate situation with the spread of the Delta variant. But it’s the anti-science attitudes of some countries (or at least some of their people) that got us here in the first place. Allowing COVID to run rampant, and using half-hearted ineffective responses has allowed the virus to mutate into more contagious versions. 

The other person I talked to was an older woman who was indignant that our border closure and travel restrictions meant that her family living in the UK couldn’t come visit. I opined that it was perhaps unfortunate but the cost of allowing the border to be open would risk many deaths in our country. She responded with the point that we’ve had very few flu deaths, implying that we should trade the flu deaths for COVID deaths so she’s not personally inconvenienced. I politely ended that conversation!

This week we’ve seen announcements from the government following advice from the Skegg Report about how we can slowly reopen the border next year, on a risk-assessment-basis. This does seem to be the best approach. 

But it’s contingent on getting everybody who wants to be vaccinated the chance of doing so. To reopen the border without the protection of a vaccination for everybody who wants it would be ethically pretty dubious. In particular, we need to get kids vaccinated. We’ve seen the effects of “long COVID” on some adults. It would be particularly awful to allow kids to acquire the disease and potentially face a lifetime of consequences.

Naturally there are those who want things opened up more quickly. We only need look across the ditch to NSW where we see the effects of a poorly managed outbreak and the consequences of that. To date there’s been a strong element of luck that the delta variant hasn’t snuck in and spread around Aotearoa/New Zealand. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Of course, once the border does reopen, the protection we have from COVID is predicated upon a large percentage of the population being vaccinated. Modelling of the R0 number for the delta variant shows that herd immunity would require an unfortunately unrealistically high vaccine penetration. 

I used to think that decades into the future people will look and wonder, in horror, why people didn’t follow the recommendations of scientists and health experts. Maybe though, our arc of educational enlightenment isn’t following an increasing path.

Which leads me to the next topic…

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Latest IPCC climate change report

This past week has seen the release of the IPCC’s 6th assessment report on climate change. The report is issued every seven years. It’s become increasingly obvious with successive reports, that the world is in danger of severe consequences of climate change, and it’s increasingly certain (to the point of virtual certainty) that humans are the cause of it.

For some numbers, the last decade has been hotter than any time over the last 125,000 years. There’s now more CO2 in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 2 million years. We’re currently 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels, and it’s likely that we could hit the 1.5°C point by 2030. And while 1.1°C seems like a small temperature change, it represents a huge amount of additional energy trapped in the atmosphere. We see that played out in extreme weather events, which will become more frequent, and more severe. 

The science has been pretty clear for many decades (and the physical basis for it was known over a century ago). Skepticism of the science of climate change is misplaced. I’m skeptical that we can make meaningful enough change quickly enough to avoid the worst consequences.

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Things that didn’t happen this week

On a lighter note, this week there were two earth-shattering events that were meant to happen. The first was the Global Prayer to End Atheism, and the second with the prediction of Trump’s reinstatement as president on Friday 13th.

Being a skeptic doesn’t necessarily make one an atheist, nor is there a requirement to disavow religious belief, but I have a feeling that most readers of this newsletter and members of NZ Skeptics probably lean in that direction. (And there’s always debate as to what it means to be an atheist – in popular conception it seems to mean that you know for sure that god doesn’t exist, whereas the more technical definition would be a lack of belief in a god or gods.) Anyway, this global prayer was either meant to turn all atheists into Christians or send them to hell. Neither seems to have happened, at least in my personal view of things.

And onto the Trump reinstatement. To be fair, it was only the extreme right wing fringe, mis-informed by the My Pillow founder Mike Lindell, that seemed to cling to these beliefs. To be clear, Joe Biden is still the president, and Donald Trump isn’t. The date for Trump’s reinstatement seems to be continuously pushed back in a similar fashion to religious claims of the second coming of Jesus or the end of the world. I wonder whether there will be future dates announced!


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

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


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Skeptic News: The Other NLP


96

Skeptic News: The Other NLP

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

The Other NLP


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

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

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

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

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

Mark Honeychurch

<!–


–>


Hate Speech Submission

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

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

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

 

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

 

The NZ Skeptics

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

The Proposals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


QAnonsense

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


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


Trying to create a new Religion

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

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


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

 


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


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

 


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


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


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


My guess for what these texts are emulating is:

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


Any other ideas?

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

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


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

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


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Facebook

YouTube

Website

Email

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–>


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You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

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Skeptic News: The Other NLP


96

Skeptic News: The Other NLP

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

The Other NLP


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

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

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

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

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

Mark Honeychurch

<!–


–>


Hate Speech Submission

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

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

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

 

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

 

The NZ Skeptics

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

The Proposals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


QAnonsense

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


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


Trying to create a new Religion

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

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


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

 


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


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

 


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


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


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


My guess for what these texts are emulating is:

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


Any other ideas?

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

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


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

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


Twitter

Facebook

YouTube

Website

Email

<!–


–>


Copyright © 2021 NZ Skeptics, All rights reserved.

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

Email Marketing Powered by Mailchimp

Continue reading

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…


96

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]

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: 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]

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Skeptic News: Live from the Christchurch Home Show


96

Skeptic News: Live from the Christchurch Home Show

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Live from the Christchurch Home Show


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

Mark Honeychurch

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

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Fun With Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christchurch Home Show

by Barry Lennox

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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Birds aren’t real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Earth 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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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:
https://skeptics.nz/join


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YouTube

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Skeptic News: No Druids, New Freeland


96

Skeptic News: No Druids, New Freeland

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

No Druids, New Freeland


 

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

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

Mark Honeychurch

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New Freeland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How not to handle a COVID outbreak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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German psychic claims to have solved yet another case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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