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

Every year the New Zealand Skeptics presents its awards to people and organisations who have impressed us or dismayed us, and this year it’s been hard to pick our winners because there have been so many choices!

The Bent Spoon Award is given to the organisation or individual which has shown the most egregious gullibility or lack of critical thinking in public coverage of, or commentary on, a science-related issue. In the age of the COVID pandemic, there have been many candidates, but one individual stands out:

Dr Simon Thornley, this year’s winner, is a Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. Dr Thornley stands out as an academic who has opposed NZ’s approach to dealing with COVID. He was one of the founders of the COVID PlanB group which opposed lockdowns, and signed onto the Great Barrington Declaration.

Dr Thornley has associated himself with fringe elements in NZ’s anti-government and anti-vaccine movements (such as Voices for Freedom) and has appeared as an expert witness for lawyer Sue Grey’s cases challenging the government’s rollout of the COVID vaccine. His comments have included personal attacks and threats of legal action against other NZ scientists, and has claimed they’re corrupt and will be convicted of crimes against humanity.

Most recently, Dr Thornley promoted the use of Ivermectin as a treatment for COVID, and co-authored a paper which tried to link mRNA vaccines with miscarriages and other pregnancy complications, strongly recommending against vaccination for pregnant persons. Happily, this paper has now been retracted.

As an academic, we would expect he would know better. May he suffer the shame of being awarded the Bent Spoon! 

The New Zealand Skeptics recognises excellence in the media or in other high-profile people with our Bravo Awards. The pandemic has provided a fertile breeding ground for misinformation and disinformation. But many journalists and academics have stepped up and written pieces which explain the science behind COVID, the response to it, and also calling out those promoting misinformation and pseudoscience. The NZ Skeptics have chosen to award a record number of Bravos this year.

Siouxsie Wiles from University of Auckland, for making national and international appearances on the science behind COVID.

Toby Morris, cartoonist at The Spinoff, for creating animated explainers with Siouxie Wiles – with some great examples of effective science communication. These tools have been shared extensively, including being used by the World Health Organisation.

Charlie Mitchell, from Stuff, for a variety of investigative articles on pseudoscience promoters.

David Farrier, who runs the popular Webworm blog, for his commentary on people and groups promoting conspiracy theories; Billy TK, Sue Grey, Peter Mortlock of City Impact Church, the Tamakis from Destiny Church, and more.

Michael Baker, from the University of Otago Department of Public Health, for his science communication around COVID.

Hilary Barry, of TVNZ’s Seven Sharp, for her promotion of vaccines and for being a thorn in the side of anti-vaxxers. 

Keith Lynch, of Stuff, for some great articles around COVID, explaining complex science in an easy to digest manner.

Helen Petousis-Harris, of the University of Auckland, for her great written responses to COVID vaccine myths.

Alison Campbell, blogger and retired lecturer from the University of Waikato, for her efforts helping journalists respond to COVID misinformation, her blogging and her constant presence on social media, calling out and correcting pseudoscience in the comment threads.

Finally, the Skeptic of the Year award is given to the skeptic who has had the most impact in skepticism within New Zealand. The award comes with a year’s free membership to the NZ Skeptics, and $500 of prize money.

This year the award is being given to a group rather than an individual – FACT Aotearoa.

The FACT group describes themselves as a grass-roots information organisation, working as a resource base for media, health professionals, activists and educators. They’ve been quick to jump on misinformation being promoted online and in public.  A few of their prominent wins include contacting venues to shut down in-person anti-vaxxer events, and initiating a complaint to NZ’s Law Society about anti-vax lawyer Sue Grey.

Palm Reading claims – our response

PalmWe were asked today to comment on an article on Stuff about palm reading, and how seeing the letter M on your non-dominant hand is a sign of future success. Luckily, despite it being Christmas Eve, our new Media Spokesperson (and Secretary) Craig Shearer was able to put together a solid response on short notice! Here’s the response in full:

 


People are good at seeing patterns in everyday life, even when no actual pattern exists. Suggesting a pattern to somebody will greatly improve the chances of them seeing it, even if it’s just one of many equally valid interpretations of what they are looking at. Think about when you see a pattern in the clouds. You can make somebody else see it much more easily if you tell them what they are looking at – a dog or a dragon, for example.

The creases on people’s palms have some connection to their development embryonically – and there are certain instances where genetic diseases can correlate with particular patterns of creases. However, it’s drawing a very long bow to suggest that the pattern of creases on a person’s palms would have any predictive effect on their life “success” – however success may be measured.

Palm readers work in a similar manner to psychics and clairvoyants – usually picking up on little cues from a personal reading that gives the person the answers they’re expecting to hear. In Jon’s case, however, this statement relating to all people with the letter M on their non-dominant hand appears to be more akin to astrology. He has offered some generically positive predictions that are bound to make anyone feel good.

The real test for these types of claims would be to see whether a particular pattern can be repeatedly and reliably matched up with a particular life outcome, without the palm reader knowing who the subjects are.

This article has an interactive survey asking readers whether they have a distinctive M pattern on their hands. At the time the NZ Skeptics were asked to comment on the article, of those surveyed a whopping 83% can see the M. This is a pretty clear demonstration of the suggestive nature of this type of fortune telling. A mixture of an identifying feature that appears to fit most people, along with a set of predictions that make people feel good, will usually hit the mark for many and make them feel positive about the accuracy of a reading.

One potentially dangerous aspect to this is that it encourages thinking that your life’s outcome is predetermined – that your life is in the hands of your genetics or fate. Even if most people find an “M” on their non-dominant hand, and are led to believe that they will have a successful future, what of those that can’t see the “M” who have a belief in palm reading? Will they walk away from this believing that their life going forward will not be successful?

While the patterns on your palms may well be fascinating, it pays to be skeptical of claims that don’t have solid evidence of their worth, particularly when someone is asking for money in return for their service.

Herman Petrick’s Ghost-busting Claims

Herman PetrickThe Taranaki Daily News published an article about Herman Petrick, who claims to be able to help people by removing harmful negative energy. The author of the article, Taryn Utiger, asked the NZ Skeptics to respond to five questions about Herman’s claims. Here are our responses in full:

  1. Is there any scientific proof that negative energy exists or does not exist?

There’s no evidence that the type of negative spiritual energy Herman talks about exists, and no scientific basis for the concept of these energies. Although it can never be positively proven that this kind of energy doesn’t exist, every attempt so far to prove that it does exist has failed and this lack of evidence suggests that it’s unlikely there is any such a thing as spiritual energy.

Herman’s website doesn’t appear to have any evidence to back up his claims, just many assertions about negative energy and how he can help you to clear this energy for a price.

 

  1. Why should people be careful when dealing with people who claim to have special powers or skills?

There are many potential risks when dealing with people who claim to have a connection to, or understanding of, other-worldly powers or energies.

The most immediate concern is that people are often asked to pay money to the practitioner, and it’s generally not a good idea to pay for any service that doesn’t have a good evidence base. In Herman’s case, he states that he’s charging between $50 and $250 for a service where he has no proof that it does anything at all.

Some supernatural practitioners have also been known to take large sums of money from vulnerable people – using tactics such as gaining their trust or telling the unwary person that their money needs “cleansing”. Although this is relatively rare, there are several cases in New Zealand of this happening, along with many more around the world – and the effects can be devastating.

Beyond monetary issues, belief in pseudoscientific ideas such as those of spirit energies, ghosts and other supernatural entities and powers can cause people to make bad life decisions. People have been known to refuse proper medical care, make harmful financial choices and act on bad work or relationship advice.

Often the people who are targeted by those claiming to be able to use special powers are the most vulnerable in society. In Herman’s case, it is worrying to see that a lot of the cases he purports to be able to treat may be attributable to mental health issues, and there are even claims on his website that he can treat “any mental illness” as these are supposedly signs of “negative attachments”.

 

  1. What would your advice be to anyone who considers using services like these?

If you’re considering employing the services of someone who claims to have supernatural abilities, ask for evidence that the claims they make about their abilities are true. Testimonials should not be considered as sufficient evidence, as clients are often mistaken about whether something works or not.

The level of evidence should be proportional to the strength of the claims being made. If someone is claiming something that sounds unlikely to be true or doesn’t line up with what science has taught us about the world we live in, make sure you set a very high bar for the quality of evidence you are willing to accept from them as proof of their claims.

If you want to check the internet for more information, be aware that all sorts of claims are made on websites of varying quality. Wikipedia is a good place to start, and the “See also” and “External links” sections usually contain links to more good quality information on a topic. If the claim is related to your health (including mental health), talk to your GP about what they think.

If you decide to take the plunge and visit someone claiming they can help you via supernatural means, take a friend along with you who you trust not to let you spend money on something that’s not worth it. Especially if the issue you are seeking help with is a very emotional one for you, it’s a good idea to have someone there that will help to ensure you don’t make any rash decisions.

 

  1. Why do you believe people claim to have these powers?

It’s hard to guess the motivations and beliefs of people who make these kinds of claims, but they seem to fall into two broad categories.

Firstly, there are the people who are, at some level, aware that they are not in possession of the powers they claim to have. These people may have ways of justifying what they do, such as that they are bringing solace to grieving people or that if they weren’t helping this person, someone less scrupulous would be doing it.

Secondly, others seem to have never taken the time to critically check out their claims. They truly believe that they have special abilities, and positive feedback from their clients helps to bolster this belief (of course, there are many reasons why a client may give positive feedback despite the service they’ve received not actually making a difference). Confirmation bias can help people to remember the positive seeming results they see when offering their services, but forget the times that their powers didn’t seem to work. Along with other biases that our brains use to make sense of the world, someone claiming supernatural powers can easily end up with the mistaken belief that their powers are real.

 

  1. Is there anything you would like to add?

If Herman is serious about his claims, the NZ Skeptics would be keen to help him to test his abilities under controlled conditions. It is important that he takes the time to back up the claims that he is making. The alternative, that he continues to charge people money for a service that he can’t prove is real, would be disappointing to say the least.

NZ Skeptics announce 2015 Awards

The Pharmacy Council has been awarded the 2015 Bent Spoon Award from the NZ Skeptics for proposing a change to their Code of Ethics that would allow the sale of healthcare products that have not been shown to work.

The Pharmacy Council is responsible under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act for setting standards of ethical conduct for pharmacists in New Zealand.

Section 6.9 of their 2011 Code of Ethics states that pharmacists can only supply or promote products where there is no reason to doubt their quality or safety, and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.

Groups such as the NZ Skeptics and the Society for Science Based Healthcare have identified pharmacies selling unproven “remedies” such as homeopathy, and put pressure on the Pharmacy Council to enforce their Code of Ethics.

In response, in August 2015 the Pharmacy Council proposed to change the wording of their code.

This proposed change would allow the sale of “complementary therapies” that are not supported by credible evidence of efficacy.

Chair of the NZ Skeptics, Mark Honeychurch, said:

It’s disappointing that the Pharmacy Council would even consider that weakening their Code of Ethics is a good solution to the problem they have of non-compliant pharmacists.

Surely it makes more sense to educate pharmacists about what is and isn’t ethical to sell, and for the Council to be more effective in policing this section of the code – rather than to change their code to allow unethical behaviour.

Each year the NZ Skeptics announces the Bent Spoon Award for the New Zealand organisation which has shown the most egregious gullibility or lack of critical thinking on a science-related issue.

A close runner-up for the Bent Spoon award was TV3’s 3D current events show, with their episode “Cause or Coincidence?” which suggested that the Gardasil vaccine was to blame for two unexplained deaths of New Zealand girls, along with others who have suffered from illnesses after receiving the vaccination.

In addition to the Bent Spoon, the NZ Skeptics’ Bravo Awards praise a number of attempts to encourage critical thinking over the past year.

This year’s winners are:

  • Rosanna Price (Fairfax Media) for her coverage in Stuff of All Black Waisake Naholo’s “miracle” natural cure for a fractured leg bone.
  • Simon Mitchell (University of Auckland) for his very strong rebuttal of the claims made in an NZ Herald article of 12 September, 2015 entitled: “Hope is in the air: Hyperbaric chambers – the real deal or a placebo?”
  • Adam Smith (Massey University) for his article in the NZ Herald countering the claims made in TV3’s 3D episode “Cause or Coincidence?”
  • Ben Albert (University of Auckland) for his effort in writing an excellent submission to the Pharmacy Council, and his rallying of healthcare professionals to put together a letter to the editor of the New Zealand Medical Journal.

Also this year, the Denis Dutton award for New Zealand Skeptic of the Year was given to Daniel Ryan for his work as President of Making Sense of Fluoride, as well as for his skeptical activism efforts for the Society for Science Based Healthcare and his commitment to helping the NZ Skeptics Society.

The awards were conferred at the NZ Skeptics Conference, held in Christchurch from the 20th to 22nd of November 2015.

NZ Skeptics Awards: http://skeptics.nz/awards
NZ Skeptics Conference: http://conference.skeptics.nz

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