Skeptic News: Skeptics in Space!


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Skeptic News: Skeptics in Space!

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Skeptics in Space!


On Friday evening we had a national online Skeptics in the Pub meeting (Skeptics in Cyberspace), which going forward will be happening every four weeks. If you’re interested in joining us, check your local Skeptics in the Pub’s MeetUp group, or the Wellington group if you don’t live somewhere with an active Skeptics in the Pub group. Although we usually talk about a lot of skeptical topics, because of our shared interest in science and skepticism we often end up recommending TV shows and movies to each other as well. We’re not 100% agreed on what’s good and what’s not, but there’s definitely a lot of cross-over. Documentaries and science fiction are both frequently recommended.

My suggestion for last Friday was the new TV series Foundation (sadly on Apple TV+ – yet another paid streaming service). The show is based on the Isaac Asimov books, which I read many moons ago, back when I was a teenager. I’m really enjoying the show, and the way that it venerates mathematics and science in a way that I think will resonate with most skeptics – even if we know that in the real world nothing is quite as clear cut and simple as it’s often made to look in fiction.

Back to skepticism. This week we have a bumper crop of news items of interest to skeptics. I’ve been lucky enough to have returned to my segment on Graeme Hill’s evening show on MagicTalk, now that he’s back from his stint covering Drive Time. So I’ve already had a chance to air some of these stories – on skeptical staples such as vaccines, QAnon and psychics, and the more weird and wonderful, like the trillion dollar US coin.

But first, before we hear more from me, we have a response from member Lance Kennedy to my intro from a couple of weeks ago, where I wrote about a classification system for skeptics I often find useful. And then we have some thoughts from committee member Jonathon Harper on Coromandel mayor Sandra Goudie’s decision to not be vaccinated.

Mark Honeychurch


What kind of Skeptic?

Lance Kennedy

There are many kinds, and some are, frankly, full of bulldust! So what am I, and what are the members of the NZ Skeptics?

My answer to that, is that we are science based skeptics. That is, we do not accept claims that lack credible evidence. So what is credible evidence? My personal standard is that which is published in reputable, and peer reviewed research journals. So when The Lancet published a metastudy of homeopathy, which showed that (viewing 110 good double blind clinical trials) homeopathy was no better than placebo, that is sufficient to gain my support. 

There are people who claim to be skeptics, who are simply deniers. We all know of global warming deniers, and more recently, those who deny that covid 19 is a serious pandemic. Members of the NZ Skeptics will not be this kind of skeptic.

Mark’s last newsletter suggested two ways of forming opinions. To inform yourself by reading up on the data, or to accept the views of those who are experts in their fields. My personal view is that both are required. Any person who wants to be a well informed skeptic needs to read, read, read, and read some more. Choose carefully what you read. I am sure we are all aware of the numerous crackpot websites out there, purveying total intellectual garbage. I subscribe to New Scientist, Scientific American, and to ScienceDaily. Those are somewhat popularised, but the writers tend to be double degreed people, with an advanced degree in science, and qualifications in journalism. They study the research results that come from more esoteric journals, and rewrite them in a more accessible form.

Now about experts. There is a widespread belief that appeal to authority is a fallacy. That is not entirely true. Appeal to the wrong authority is a fallacy. Appeal to the right authority is an argument. If I am discussing the role of black holes in cosmology and I quote the late Stephen Hawking, that is the correct use of appeal to authority, since Hawking is the greatest authority. If I am discussing covid 19 and I quote a right wing American journalist, that is pure fallacy. So I suggest to my fellow skeptics, that they should feel free to quote authority, but just be very careful which authority you quote.

Scientific consensus is a wonderful concept, but difficult to ascertain. Anthropogenic global warming is often said to be the result of a consensus of climate scientists, and that is true. But it is an unusual case, because most scientific issues are not the subject of proper studies to find out what the consensus actually is.

There is no magic bullet in any of this. I am aware of a historical study that looked at articles in peer reviewed and reputable research journals, over many decades. The conclusions drawn in those articles were weighed against later findings. The startling discovery is that approximately 30% of those conclusions were overturned later by new work. So even the gold standard, the reputable, peer reviewed research journals, is not the final word. Science is a work in progress, and the very best conclusions may still be incorrect. This is where a good skeptic must still keep an open mind.
 

Sandra Goudie vs Science

Jonathon Harper

Sandra Goudie is the Thames Coromandel Mayor who has been in the news for refusing the Pfizer vaccine, saying she will wait until she can receive the Novavax vaccine. Goudie is quoted in the NZ Herald as saying she “believes it is “absolutely wrong” that some people should be mandated to have the vaccine…”

Goudie has done her own research. Well, before one were to start with one’s own research on vaccines, five years study at a medical school would be a basic prerequisite… but perhaps that is unkind to Goudie. She may have been paying attention to a consensus of experts?

On Saturday morning, Kim Hill’s Radio NZ expert guest pointed out the Pfizer vaccine is safe because it has been tested on hundreds of millions of people. Novavax is still not approved, and is under trial. Goudie might have been smarter to wait for an Astra Zeneca shot, as it is closer to approval here, and like Novavax is not a RNA vaccine.

As to allowing medical and educational workers to remain unvaccinated, again going to RNZ’s expert (John Potter), vaccinated people are far less likely to spread covid. Of 170 people admitted to hospital with covid, only three were vaccinated. That’s despite a high proportion now being vaccinated.

 


This year’s conference is a joint effort with the Australian Skeptics, and we will be live-streaming the event with many interesting and thought-provoking speakers. The conference talks will also be available to watch after the event.
 
We’ve set a low ticket price of AUD $40, which amounts to around NZD $42 – a lot less than it would have cost to attend an in-person event. 

Now is the time to get your tickets booked. It’s on the Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st November. Please go here to book.

Part of the fun of a conference is being able to connect with like-minded folk. We’re still hopeful of being in a situation where local groups could gather for a Saturday evening dinner after the livestream has concluded for the day. Watch this space and hopefully we can make this happen.

Will the US mint a trillion dollar coin?

Rumours have been circulating in the US that President Biden plans to fix the debt ceiling issue by minting a one trillion dollar coin. Although this sounds patently absurd, there’s some logic behind this.

Carlos Mucha first floated the idea, jokingly, in 2010 when he spotted a law from 1997, covering the US Mint, that allows them to create commemorative coins of any denomination as a way to raise funds. So if the Mint decided to create a trillion dollar coin, technically it would be legal to do so. Another law around the Federal Reserve means that they have to honour all commemorative coins as legal tender. The only catch is that it would need to be made in platinum, but even for an expensive metal like platinum the cost of the metal would be many orders of magnitude less than the worth of the coin.

Supposedly since the idea was first mentioned, government officials have at times seriously considered it as a way to help fix the curious set of circumstances in the US where congress needs to approve much of the government’s budget, including the debt ceiling (how much the government can be in debt before defaulting), and that this has led to parties using this power for political gain.

But finally this rumour has been put to bed, as the Treasury secretary of the United States, Janet Yellen, said this week that she does not intend to mint a platinum coin worth 1 trillion dollars to pay for the US government’s expenses. So it looks like this crazy idea is not going to happen – at least for now.

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The big Vaccine Push

The government is really pushing the COVID vaccine at the moment, including with this weekend’s Super Saturday – where around 130,000 vaccines were administered in a single day.

What I’ve been particularly surprised to hear is that famously anti-medicine MP Maureen Pugh has had her first vaccine. She’s held out for a long time, and I’m pretty sure she’s the last MP to have been vaccinated – which is not surprising given her prior form. In Maureen’s Maiden Statement to parliament back in 2016, she talked about how for the prior 25 years her only source of healthcare treatment was from her chiropractor. I guess either she’s walked back on her statement at the time that “nature delivers whatever we need”, or the political pressure was too much and she received the vaccine despite her (erroneous) beliefs.


The vaccine mandate is going to be an interesting one to watch. Healthcare workers will need to be double vaccinated by the first of December, and teachers by the first of January next year. Any unvaccinated teacher between now and then will have to take a weekly COVID test. Of course, for both of these professions the mandate is not about the workers so much as it is about the people in their care – those who are at elevated risk. As Minister for COVID-19 Response Chris Hipkins said:

“We need the people who work with vulnerable communities who haven’t yet been vaccinated to take this extra step… People have a reasonable expectation that our work forces are taking all reasonable precautions to prevent the spread of disease”

And Jacinda Ardern has said it’s likely that music festivals will need to require attendees to prove they’ve been vaccinated as a condition of entry.

As a result of these new rules, I’ve already been hearing stories of “vaccine hesitant” people who are suddenly having to come to terms with the idea that they will either have to make a decision very soon to be vaccinated, or lose some of the things they care about such as their their favourite social event of the year or their livelihoods. I really hope these people manage to make their peace with this, and that they can decide to take the vaccine knowing that it’s not an “experimental jab”, but rather is a marvel of modern technology, something that helps to train our own natural immune system to defend against COVID.

Unsurprisingly, many of the people who are pushing the anti-vaccine message stand to profit from their spreading of misinformation. Alternative medicine practitioners are selling their own nonsense ideas about boosting your natural immunity, groups like Voices for Freedom are selling you over-priced T-shirts and bags, and asking for donations, and members of fringe political groups like the Outdoors Party are hoping to secure your vote.

 

The thin end of the QAnon Wedge

I naively thought that the whole QAnon movement would fall apart after Trump lost his bid for re-election. For those who have somehow not heard about QAnon before, it’s a conspiracy that started in the US a few years ago, and is supposed to be the writings of a high-level government insider who leaks secrets via hidden meaning and codes in his messages. However, it’s been obvious since the start that QAnon is not an insider, but just a made up persona used to promote right wing ideas and Donald Trump in particular. As Wikipedia says:

“QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory and movement centered on false claims made by an anonymous individual or individuals, known by the name “Q”, that a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles operate a global child sex trafficking ring and conspired against former president Donald Trump during his term in office.”

Sadly many people are still following QAnon – not just the posts themselves, but the online groups and forums that have grown around efforts to “decode” Q’s messages. These are echo chambers that feed people nonsense, and leave them confused about what’s real and what’s not.

At the harmless end of this delusion are ideas like that Angela Merkel is Adolf Hitler’s granddaughter, or that the elite in the US are printing clones of themselves, just like in the recent (fictional) TV show Westworld. Supposedly Tom Cruise has a backup clone in case he’s assassinated, and Mike Pence is two people – a good clone and a bad clone. Even president Joe Biden isn’t the real Biden in QAnon world.

But at the other end, people are actually dying because of QAnon. The January 6th attack in Washington is one example that ended with the loss of several lives. And Rolling Stone magazine has recently published a harrowing story about Matthew Taylor, a surf instructor, father and religious man who started following QAnon only recently.


Somehow in the mess of QAnon messaging that he read online, Matthew became convinced that his children had “serpent DNA” and decided that he needed to end their lives to save them. And he’s not the first – others have murdered loved ones in the US in the last two years because of their heartfelt belief in nonsense ideas. QAnon followers often use a legitimate sounding cause of “Save the Children”, with a back story about child trafficking, adrenochrome, antarctic bases and the evil global elite, to push their ideas onto unsuspecting people, and one Californian woman drowned her three children because of her concerns that they would be trafficked.

I often focus on the light-hearted end of conspiracies – wacky beliefs and silly ideas – but sadly these half-baked notions seem to be capable of instilling real fear in people that makes them do irrational things. I’m sure that Matthew thought that he was saving his children from something worse by taking their lives, and I’m sure that those who spread conspiracy theories about children being in danger really believe they are helping. But that’s part of the problem – people who don’t stop to fact check their beliefs, or who choose the wrong people to trust as an authority.

I’m not sure what the answer to this is, but I think at least part of it is to teach more critical thinking at school. Kids need to know how to spot nonsense, and how to ask the right questions to find out whether there’s good quality evidence for the things they’re told. It sometimes feels a little boring to be a skeptic, calling into question other people’s assertions. But better to be a party pooper than a super-spreader of dangerous nonsense, I think.

 


Psychic sued for false claims

It seems ridiculous, but a man in the US is suing a psychic he asked for life advice. The psychic, Sophia Adams, told customer Mauro Restrepo that his marriage was at risk because of a “mala suerte” (bad luck) curse placed on him by an ex-girlfriend. For only US$5,000, she was willing to lift the curse and save his marriage.

It seems that Mauro only paid the first $1,000, but ended up suffering from insomnia and anxiety as a result of the worry caused by the psychic’s prediction. He is suing the “Psychic Love Specialist” and self-proclaimed “PhD Life Coach” for $25,000, with charges of “negligence, civil conspiracy and both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress”.

I wonder if he’s suing because of his embarrassment after he realised he’d been conned by a professional trickster into handing over money. After all, this is a common trick used by psychics to take someone’s money. The initial consultation might only be $100, but when a ruthless psychic sees that there’s money to be made, they will often scare people into thinking there’s something wrong in their life that’s causing them bad luck.

In this case, it was this fear of a curse having been used that caused Mauro to worry and pay money to have his problem fixed. But the con can be so much more blatant than this, and people still fall for it. Psychics often tell their customers that their money is cursed, and that only by withdrawing their funds from the bank and having the money blessed by the psychic will the curse be lifted. There are too many stories of unsuspecting victims handing over thousands and thousands of dollars to a psychic – of course this money is never seen again. The psychic will either deny they ever received the money, or in some cases will suddenly move away to another town.

It’s bad enough that psychics charge ridiculous prices for a service where they lie to customers about a magical ability they claim they have. But when psychics go beyond their extortionate $200 an hour fees and start taking thousands of dollars from people, that’s a special kind of awful. In this country, all we have to protect unwitting members of the public is a law which says that says that “mediums” need to have an “intent to deceive”:

16 Acting as medium with intent to deceive

(1) Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $1,000 who, acting for reward,—

(a) with intent to deceive, purports to act as a spiritualistic medium or to exercise any powers of telepathy or clairvoyance or other similar powers; or

(b) uses any fraudulent device in purporting to act as a spiritualistic medium or in purporting to exercise any such powers.

(2) For the purposes of this section, a person shall be deemed to act for reward if in respect of what he does any money is paid, or any valuable thing is given, whether to him or to any other person.

(3) Nothing in subsection (1) shall apply to anything done solely for the purpose of entertainment.

This is obviously not enough to protect people from scammers. Proving intent is hard, and a disclaimer that a psychic is just offering their trade as entertainment looks to be enough to cover them legally. I’d love to see NZ Police using our laws to stop psychics bilking people out of their money, but it looks like our current laws make it unlikely this will happen.


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

if you want to support us by becoming a financial member, or would like to check your membership status, please go to:
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Skeptic News: Peter Ellis appeal, more COVID loons, Religion and Taxes


96

Skeptic News: Peter Ellis appeal, more COVID loons, Religion and Taxes

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

One of our readers emailed us this week after Mark’s excellent editorial last week about skepticism and what type of skeptic you are.

Our Facebook page occasionally gets interactions from the non-skeptical public. Invariably they come to criticise – and often think that being a skeptic means being a contrarian, and automatically doubting mainstream views! We know that’s not the sort of skepticism we promote.

This week, one of our readers posted us an interesting comment:

“I’ve been thinking recently about the subject of belief, both good and bad and the relationship with the scientific method. If we “know” something to be true, do we automatically “believe” it’s true? I’m sure philosophers have written whole books on the subject, but I haven’t heard much about it from Skeptics.”

I’m not a philosopher, but I’ll take an initial stab at this, but I’m sure we could flesh this out with a much more nuanced discussion that I can do justice to.

For me, and I think any honest skeptic, belief should be supported by evidence. 

I bristle when somebody claims they “know” something, when, in fact, they don’t know that thing – they just believe it. 

Conversely, it annoys me when people ask about “believing” in evolution or climate change when, more accurately, we’ve understood and appreciated the evidence for evolution and climate change being so strong that it doesn’t require belief, but requires acceptance. 

But perhaps we can write these off to the colloquial use of the terms “know” and “believe”.

What about incongruities in what we believe and what the evidence shows? I think a good example of this is freewill. It seems that we live in a deterministic universe, and that freewill is an illusion. But I’d be fairly certain that most of us live our lives believing freewill to exist, that we’re in charge of our actions, that we choose to do what we do.  

What do you think? We’d be most interested in feedback.

Craig Shearer

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Skepticon 2021 – November 20th, 21st

We’ve been promoting the up-coming conference in conjunction with the Australian Skeptics for a few months now.

However, we’ve got some news. After reviewing the situation with COVID on both sides of the Tasman, we’ve decided to abandon the idea of an in-person conference this year, and run it solely as a livestream event.

The COVID situation in Sydney is by no means under control, and holding an in-person event there would have been a challenge. 

On this side of the Tasman, we had hoped, in the spirit of national rivalry, to retain some moral superiority over our Australian cousins and be able to hold an in-person conference in Wellington. Alas, the Delta outbreak has made it just too risky to try to foresee the situation in late November, so the in-person event will not be happening.

But, we see this as a great opportunity! We’ve set a low ticket price of AUD $40, which amounts to NZD $41.86 as of this writing – a lot less than it would have cost to attend an in-person event. 

We’ll be live-streaming the event, with lots of interesting and thought-provoking speakers. It will also be available to watch after the event.

Now is the time to get your tickets booked. It’s on the Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st November  Please go here.

Part of the fun of a conference is being able to connect with like-minded folk. We’re still hopeful of being in a situation where local groups could gather for a Saturday evening dinner after the livestream has concluded for the day. Watch this space and hopefully we can make this happen.

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Peter Ellis

This past week has seen an appeal of the Peter Ellis child sex abuse case being heard in the Supreme Court. 

The Peter Ellis case revolved around supposed ritual abuse of children at the Christchurch Civic Creche. He, along with a number of his co-workers were accused of various shocking acts against the children in their care. However, only Ellis’s case went to trial. 

The NZ Skeptics had quite a bit to say about the original case. Lynley Hood wrote “A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case”, Jarrod Gilbert wrote an excellent article about the case, and NZ Skeptics committee member Jonathan Harper has written extensively on the case when it was reviewed in the Eichelbaum Report in 2006.

Peter Ellis unfortunately died in 2019 of bladder cancer, but the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal on the basis of Tikanga Māori, meaning that his mana should extend beyond his death.

The appeal, set down for two weeks, started this week and Jonathan Harper has been attending, and reports in his own words:

“Peter Ellis was convicted of sexual abuse as a Childcare worker in Christchurch rather a long time ago.

The evidence against him came from children whose evidence had been seriously contaminated by parents, social workers, therapists and experts who frankly probably knew better than to take the evidence too seriously during a Satanic Ritual Abuse public panic.

 There were no spontaneous uncoached allegations. Many allegations against Ellis and several of his colleagues were bizarre and very unlikely, if not impossible. But the prosecution had hidden most of this from the jury, and focused on presenting the few credible allegations. Both expert witnesses were psychiatrists, and did not help clarify the real issues. At the current hearing the information is much more coherent as all six experts are psychologists. 

Lynley Hood’s massively detailed tome, A CITY POSSESSED is an excellent detailed account for anyone wishing to get more of the social background and history.

There are many excellent current media reports if you just google Peter Ellis Supreme Court; especially those by Martin Van Beynen who followed the original trial.

I have been attending the present hearings all week with Ross Francis. They wrap up at the end of next week. 

My impressions so far:

The three expert witnesses for the prosecution are, in my opinion, rather poor scientists who appear to be making excuses for the extremely poor forensic interviews and contamination of evidence through parental, police and social workers’ suggestions before the trial. 

All six experts do seem to be in agreement that the interviews were very poorly conducted. The defence experts (especially Harlene Hayne) are adamant all this made the convictions unreliable. The prosecution ones equally adamant that while there were serious errors, that doesn’t mean the evidence was not strong enough. 

It is pretty difficult to follow their arguments because they seem to start from the idea or assumption that Ellis was guilty. That is fair enough, but the opposite scenario seems rather foreign to them. For example, very few prosecutions, and even credible allegations resulted from the more than one hundred children interviewed. I always figured the small percentage is about what you get when you do experiments to see which children are susceptible to making false statements when false scenarios are presented to them by parents, police, social workers, etc…or anyone really. But no, Gail Goodman claimed those were somehow the ones resistant to suggestion and telling the truth. I still can’t quite follow the logic of that. Another witness for the prosecution, Fred Seymour in their space of about five minutes gave us the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy”, plus two more and a classic confirmation bias.“

We should hope that the conviction of Peter Ellis is righted as it seems to be a clear case of injustice.

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COVID loons

In the last newsletter I wrote, I discussed an open letter, penned by Mary Hobbs. Since publishing one of our contacts wrote to supply some more details. It appears that Mary and her husband are Scientologists, and deeply involved in that organisation, even making regular trips to Sydney to clear out a few Thetans, or whatever it is that they do. They even hosted Tom Cruise some time ago on a visit to NZ.

I wrote to Mary Hobbs sharing our feedback on her points. Alas, though unsurprisingly, we’ve not heard back from her.

It seems that there’s always more doctors coming out of the woodwork. The latest of whom is Dr Cindy de Villiers, who is a member of the NZDSOS site. She was speaking at a protest in Nelson last weekend. Having viewed the video of her talk on Odysee (a YouTube clone site that seems to be a favourite place to host videos of a certain conspiratorial nature), I noted the following claims:

 “Our bodies are wonderfully made. We can resist this not so novel virus, as we have with many other viruses, without lockdowns, social distancing, and masks.”

“If we do get sick, whether vaccinated or not, there are many treatment protocols successfully in use across the globe preventing hospitalisation, long COVID and death.”

“In fact, COVID-19 is probably the most treatable viral disease in existence.”

At the start of the pandemic she put up a questionable post about COVID. To be fair, that was written back in April last year, and things have moved on since then, but it does make some pretty astounding claims, including the use of Intravenous Vitamin C as soon as virus symptoms appear, and earthing (where you walk around barefoot on the ground for health benefit from the flow of negative ions!)


The talk also clued me in on a new organisation set up to seemingly counter the World Health Organisation – the World Council for Health. It was set up by a bunch of doctors, including Dr Tracy Chandler, who is registered with the NZ Medical Council, but as is noted on her practising certificate entry – “Dr Chandler is required to participate in an approved recertification programme relevant to the vocational scope of General Practice.” and “Dr Chandler may work outside the stated vocational scope but must do so within a collegial relationship.” I wonder what that’s all about. She also runs a website Dr Wellness and has a certificate in homeopathy. Enough said!

But, back to the World Council for Health – they  have a slick website and unsurprisingly it concentrates on COVID 19. They have a COVID-19 treatment guide and, as you might have guessed, Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine feature prominently, as does gargling with mouthwash.

Needless to say, their advice is pretty worthless, and probably downright dangerous if it were to encourage people to avoid seeking genuine medical advice and treatment.

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Our COVID response

Back to COVID seriousness now. It’s been a frustrating week where we’ve seen the Delta variant now escape Auckland and head out to other parts of the country. 

The government has been in a difficult position. This past week has seen some loosening of restrictions where people are now allowed to meet outdoors outside of their bubbles. There has been sustained pressure by the “open up” groups and, while it may have been advisable to continue the lockdown longer to attempt to stamp out COVID, they had to take account of behaviour of the public and its response to the lockdowns. 

The key to getting out of this COVID mess is to get everybody vaccinated. We’ve made some good progress, but we’re not there yet. 

@farmgeek on Twitter continues to put together great graphs. This one shows where we’re at with vaccination.


Remember the people who can’t be vaccinated – including around 700,000 children under 12, and the immunocompromised. Those are the people we put at risk by opening up too early and allowing the virus to circulate.

As I write this on Sunday afternoon, there’s 60 new cases today. This is not heading in the right direction, and unfortunately looks like it might be getting out of control. It’s certainly looking like the decision to loosen off might well have been a mistake. I certainly hope we can get things under control again, but at some point it becomes impossible.

Lastly on COVID this week, I’m wondering at what point the anti-vaxxers will break, and realise it’s in their own self-interest to get vaccinated. I wouldn’t mind betting that there are some prominent anti-vaxxers who are secretly vaccinated. Ironically, they’re been protected so far by our collective response to COVID. But I think it’s only a matter of time before one of them will become infected, as we’ve seen overseas. (At which point, I’ll have to suppress my schadenfreude! I wonder if there’s a drug for that?!)

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

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Skeptic News: Are you Skeptic A or Skeptic B?


96

Skeptic News: Are you Skeptic A or Skeptic B?

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Are you Skeptic A or Skeptic B?


 

When talking with people about skepticism, I’ve often used a convenient classification to separate what I see as two main camps of skeptics. In my oversimplified model there are a) those who are skeptical because they consider themselves to have read enough to be experts themselves on a wide range of topics, and b) those who defer to people who are the experts on any given topic – people who have relevant qualifications, decades of experience, and the respect of their peers and the wider academic community.

I’d like to think of myself as being a member of the latter group. Generally when I argue a skeptical position, I will do my best to find out what the experts are saying, and what if any consensus there is, and I’ll argue that as my position. And, of course, if there is no consensus, I will try my best to either argue that or just choose to not have an opinion. After all, I don’t need to pick a side on the topic of whether it will ever be possible to create a conscious Artificial Intelligence. And I have no horse in the race when it comes to the validity of the linear no-threshold model.

When I explain this type of skepticism to others, the skepticism where someone accepts the consensus of experts – I usually add a disclaimer that I’m comfortable with the idea of deferring to the experts, except when there’s an obvious issue with them as a group. This doesn’t mean that I can just write off a consensus I don’t like or don’t agree with, but it does mean that I won’t just parrot the mainstream view on every topic.

Obviously there’s a whole raft of topics where the “experts” in the field appear to be motivated by something other than an honest search for the truth. Pretty much every branch of alternative medicine would fall into this category, for example. I’m comfortable saying that we should not trust the conclusions of “scholars” of homeopathy, acupuncture or chiropractic. For alternative therapies there’s usually not a lot of good quality evidence out there – instead, there’s a surplus of bad quality papers describing poorly designed studies that don’t pass muster. Reading meta studies and systematic reviews for these therapies, it’s fairly normal to read how researchers found maybe one hundred relevant papers on a particular therapy, and out of those only four were of a high enough quality to be included. And, of course, these papers are invariably the ones that have much less in the way of positive conclusions than the ones not chosen for inclusion. When it comes to alternative medicine, the more rigorous the paper, the less positive the evidence.

There are other topics such as facilitated communication, hypnotic regression, Myers-Briggs personality profiling and polygraphs where the prevailing opinion amongst “experts” in the field seems to be at odds with the best quality evidence we have. But when I want to give people a good example of a discipline where there’s good reason not to trust the experts, I usually turn to Biblical Archaeology – a field where there are a lot of people with vested interests, and where many churches are willing to pay good money in return for evidence that their holy book is the real deal. This particular subject is the topic of our first article for today’s newsletter, courtesy of Alison Campbell (who shared details of this story on Facebook recently).

Mark Honeychurch

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Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed by an Asteroid?

Retraction Watch has documented a recent debacle where an open access journal from Nature, called Scientific Reports, published an article titled “A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed Tall el-Hammam a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea”. The article argued that bone and pot fragments found in Jordan by the Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project constitute good evidence that an asteroid exploded over the site around 3600 years ago.

Thankfully there have been some who have been willing to critique this paper and its conclusions. Mark Boslough, who wrote a paper on asteroid air bursts that this Sodom paper references, had a lot to say about the legitimacy of this paper, especially as it’s been published in a journal owned by the prestigious Nature.

Boslough pointed out issues with the science in the paper, and I have no reason to doubt that he knows what he’s talking about. But what interested me more was how he detailed his history of interactions with some of the scholars involved in writing the paper, the authors’ credentials, and the specifics of the University which has been organising the archaeological dig in Jordan.

Boslough listed each of the paper’s authors, saying for each of them “…is not a geologist”, followed by details such as:

  • “his PhD is in polymer science from University of Southern Mississippi”
  • “his PhD is from an unaccredited evangelical Christian institution that currently operates out of a small strip mall office with no evidence of students or faculty”; and
  • ”He is a blogger from North Carolina. His blog profile says he has a BA in political science from U. North Carolina”

The only exception to this is a single geologist, and I love the way that Boslough worded the description of his colleague:

“All his degrees are in earth science from reputable universities. I’ve done fieldwork with him at Tunguska & he is a careful & competent field researcher. I respectfully disagree with his interpretations.”

Other scientists with relevant expertise have jumped in, including Dr Chris Santis who wrote:

“The authors have created this story of a blast wave incinerating and flaying exposed flesh, shattering bones into small fragments that scattered and were buried in a destruction layer, and charred anything exposed.

What do I see? I see a few bodies intercut by new building over time, no secure dating, and small bones of indeterminate species that are more likely to be dominantly local animals.”

On top of all this, it turns out that someone helped to make the images in the paper look pretty by filling in unsightly gaps using a cloning tool in a piece of image manipulation software. As much as this looks like a genuine mistake rather than a deliberate effort to doctor the evidence, it shows how rookie the team are that they thought it was okay to just edit the images without disclosing their changes.

Looking at the group that has been running the excavation project, their website says that the project is run by Trinity Southwest University’s College of Archaeology. What I’m having problems understanding is how a University with a “campus” and “departments” is run out of a shop front in a strip mall in Albuquerque. Wikipedia to the rescue, describing this particular university as an “unaccredited evangelical Christian institution of higher education”. It all makes sense now – this is a quirk of the US education system, one of those religious diploma mills that are somehow legal to operate, even if the degrees they produce aren’t worth the paper they’re written on (let alone the thousands of dollars it likely costs to enrol).

So it’s looking very much like this paper is a bust. The science is shoddy, the evidence has been compromised and misinterpreted, and the authors have a fixed conclusion that they’re working towards – the bible is the true word of god, and the site they’ve been working on for fifteen or more years is proof of one of its stories.

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Alex Jones loses in court, again

I’m sure Alex Jones is no stranger to most skeptics. The Info Wars host has an illustrious history of pushing nonsense ideas about the US – from the ridiculous (chemicals in the water supply are turning the frogs gay) to the downright dangerous (restriction of gun rights will cause a second revolution in the US). And somewhere in the midst of all that nonsense, Alex Jones decided to start pushing the ridiculous theory that the Sandy Hook massacre of school children in the US was a false flag operation, secretly organised by the government as a way to push for tighter gun controls.

 

It’s been great in this case that some of the grieving parents have decided not to let Jones get away with spreading his hurtful conspiracy theory, and there have been numerous lawsuits brought against him. The courts are not having a bar of Jones’ lawyers’ efforts to avoid paying out the money from cases he’s already lost in court – and on Thursday a Texas judge gave a “default judgement” against Jones, citing his repeated inability to follow the court’s orders to hand over documents.

 

Jones is no stranger to being in court, and has tried to use a variety of arguments to wheedle his way out of facing the consequences of his reckless actions. For some of his Sandy Hook lawsuits he’s tried to argue that his falsehoods are protected under free speech. When his ex-wife fought for custody of their children during divorce proceedings, she cited his erratic behaviour on InfoWars as evidence that he is unstable and should not be trusted to look after their kids. Jones’ lawyers’ response was to claim that Alex Jones is nothing more than a “performance artist”, and that he doesn’t really mean the things that he says on InfoWars. If any of you are unsure what Jones’ ex-wife means when she calls him unstable, here’s a fun clip from John Oliver back in 2017 where he documents not only some of Jones’ crazy outbursts, but also his unethical pushing of dubious health products:



It’s great to see Jones finally having to face the music. I have no doubt that he will keep fighting to avoid justice, but I am hopeful that once all his avenues for appeal are exhausted, his rash words will have cost him dearly, and the people he has wronged will take enough of his money that his misinformation spreading media group will cease to exist.

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Eagle eyed committee member Jonathon Harper spotted a funny piece of art at the Thistle Hall in Wellington the other day. I’m not very good at deciphering art, but I get the feeling this one might be a commentary on the prevalence of nonsense cure-alls that are all too often advertised to us with over-inflated claims.

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Committee member Daniel Ryan has been working hard on posting stories relevant to skeptics on our Facebook Page recently (the page is different to our Facebook groups, which are more conversational). After reading about this weekend’s anti-lockdown protest organised by Destiny Church, he was motivated to write the following:

 

Why does Destiny Church have a tax free status?

The church was irresponsible with their recent protest, held during a level 3 lockdown in Auckland. The majority of those attending were without masks, and were not following physical distancing guidelines. When the media pointed out that most people were not wearing masks, the church’s leader, Brian Tamaki, said: “I saw everyone wearing masks.”

The church and its leader have a rich history of controversies. For example, during a 2016 sermon Tamaki blamed gays for the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. Two and a half years later, he finally apologised for his comments.

 

Because of the 2016 sermon, a change.org page was set up to call for stripping Destiny’s tax-free status; 125,572 signatures were gathered. At the time, Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne tweeted: “I do not favour taxing genuine churches and real charities but as Destiny [Church] is obviously neither, it should pay taxes like every other business.”

 

In 2019, Destiny Church’s charity organisations had a combined income of $8,112,428, yet paid no tax. Taking advantage of the recent wade subsidies offered by the government during our lockdowns, Destiny Church Auckland Trust received $91,384.80, and Trustees In The Destiny Church Hamilton received $36,518.40.

 

In 2017, the Department of Internal Affairs issued a notice to strip two of Destiny’s charities of their charitable status –  Destiny International Trust and Te Hahi o Nga Matamua Holdings. Destiny Church took immediate legal action, and in 2019 the High Court restored the charitable status of both groups.

New Zealand is a secular society, and it’s about time we removed “the advancement of education or religion” as a charitable purpose from the Charities Act 2005. Religious institutions shouldn’t be automatically allowed to register as charitable organisations.

Daniel Ryan

 


2021 Skeptics Conference

We’re excited to announce a combined NZ and Australian Skeptics Conference/Skepticon. Due to ongoing COVID concerns we’re holding this event online on the weekend of the 19th – 21st of November.

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

We’re seeking registrations of interest so that we can gauge numbers, and tickets will be on sale very soon.

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

Register your interest


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

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


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Skeptic News: You can do anything that you wanna do


96

Skeptic News: You can do anything that you wanna do

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

You can do anything that you wanna do


 

Thanks to everyone who joined our online Skeptics in the Pub meetings over the last two weeks. We’ve had such a good time chatting with skeptics who we usually only see once or twice a year that we’ve decided to make our national online meetings a regular event.

We’ll schedule an online Zoom session from 6pm on Friday to run every four weeks, and I will post the event as a recurring meeting to all the Skeptics in the Pub Meetup groups. Please come along if you want to say hi to other skeptics, if you’re looking for a place to engage in fun, skeptical conversation (with beer), or if you just need to unload about something you’ve heard that’s annoyed you because it’s obvious nonsense.

We have two submitted segments in this week’s newsletter. Our first is from a regular at the Wellington Skeptics in the Pub meetings, John Maindonald, and follows on from a mention I made of Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword a couple of weeks ago.

The second is a podcast recommendation from member Stephen Hall, who has been writing to us about his thoughts on the transmissibility of the new delta variant of COVID. Steve wonders if maybe delta is no more transmissible than previous strains, and that the new variant might instead be spreading more because of differences such as changes in people’s behaviour, rather than due to a beneficial genetic mutation. Steve has heard this idea from a podcast run by Professor Vincent Racaniello, who has been promoting this view in the media recently. Given that most scientists don’t appear to agree with Racaniello’s thoughts on this topic, I will include a proviso that, as always, you should remain skeptical and use multiple sources to fact check any claims you hear.

Mark Honeychurch


Newton’s Laser Sword, and Farts

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

I take this as an admission that, when push comes to shove, Alder does admit that he has to agree with Daniel Dennett:

“There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” — Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 1995.

Newton’s Laser Sword cuts out everything that Mike Alder has to say.  In order to use it, a sense is needed of what is appropriate caution.  That is a question that has to be settled by a framework of understanding (a philosophy, surely) through which we understand the world as we observe it.

Alder repeatedly lumps together, without evidence, the views of mathematicians with those of scientists.  My own perception, equally based on nothing more than my own experience of engaging with mathematicians, is that pure mathematicians, and some slightly more applied mathematicians who work on the boundaries of cosmology and particle physics, do accept something akin to the view that Alder attributes (not quite accurately) to Plato.  Nor is there much unanimity in the views of scientists.   

Newton’s Laser Sword does not seem to have much influenced Newton’s religious views.  Or is it that, in such matters as Newton’s use of biblical texts to predict that the world would end  in 2060, one really did have to wait until 2060 for the matter to be tested?  There’s a fascinating discussion of Newton’s prophetic studies at https://isaac-newton.org/statement-on-the-date-2060/
 

From swords to farts — leave off the skeptics hat for a moment, and laugh

 

There’s an article in the Sept 6 New Scientist headed “Men fart more when eating a plant-based diet due to good gut bacteria”. The paper can be found at: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/13/8/2638/pdf

What particularly caught my attention was:

“As previously described, the volume of gas evacuated per anus was measured for 4 h after the probe meal [1,17,18]. In brief, gas was collected using a rectal balloon catheter (20 F Foley catheter, Bard, Barcelona, Spain) connected via a gas-tight line to a barostat, and the volume was continuously recorded.”

No photos are supplied as visual evidence, unfortunately!

Technically, the study was “a single-centre, cross-over, randomised, open-label study”.  Anyone lecturing on study design who wishes to get the attention of a sleepy class will now be able to use this study as an example.  Did it matter that the study was open label? Making the study double blind would certainly have been a challenge.  Impossible?

John Maindonald

Conversion Conversation

Following on from our submission to the Justice Select Committee a couple of weeks ago on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill (outlawing conversion therapy), myself and Bronwyn Rideout from the NZ Skeptics committee gave an oral submission to some of the Justice Select Committee last week. I was surprised that oral submissions started so quickly after the deadline for written submissions, but thankfully in very little time we were able to put together an oral submission that was complementary to our written one, but different enough that we weren’t just boring the MPs with the same information they’d already read from us.

The submissions were all online, and we were given 10 minutes to talk – sandwiched between a coalition of Korean churches (who said that being gay is “wrong”, and that it should be their right to use a disproven, harmful therapy on their children) and the Young Nationals (who told MPs their membership were totally on board with the banning of conversion therapy, due to the lack of evidence of efficacy and how harmful it can be).

As skeptics we detailed some of the evidence that conversion therapy does not work, and also made sure to mention its harms. We then went on to talk about our broad approval of the new legislation, and mentioned some of the changes we would like to see made to it.

As an example, there is currently an exemption for healthcare practitioners. MP Vanushi Walters explained that it was assumed that the existing codes of ethics created by professional bodies for the various professions listed in the HPCA (Healthcare Practitioners Competence Assurance) Act would cover healthcare practitioners who were offering conversion therapy. We countered that our experience of these bodies suggests that they’re not always quick to take action when complaints are made, and that often no fault is found even when there’s a clear breach of conduct. Therefore our recommendation was to remove the exemption for healthcare practitioners from the new legislation before it becomes law.

You can read the text that was the basis of our oral submission on our website.

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This Week In Virology

In 2008, the This Week In Tech podcasting network had been going for three years and a number of related topic podcasts started up on the network including one called Futures in Biotech. Modelled on the idea of having a weekly podcast on a specialist subject, a new podcast split away by Professor Vincent Racaniello of Columbia University called This Week In Virology (TWIV). It was inspired by this Week In Tech and given virus is also used in technology, the new podcast developed the tagline “the podcast about viruses – the kind that make you sick”. The first episode was on West Nile Virus and as someone who had no previous interest in viruses, the show fascinated me and fourteen years later I’m still a regular listener as I both enjoy science as well as having gotten to know the team well over the years.

With SARS CoV 2 the popularity of the podcast has increased and the podcast is now approaching 100,000 subscribers – quite remarkable for a science focussed podcast on the latest research papers on viruses. As a listener now for fourteen years, I love the focus on science and during the pandemic this hasn’t changed. TWIV has a number of regular contributors Professor Vincent Racaniello brings in guests on topics of interest, in the last eighteen months these have often been on some element of SARS CoV2. TWIV is not afraid to ask the questions that you won’t always see in the popular media such as is the Delta Variant really more transmissible or is there any science behind the lab leak hypothesis in Wuhan. These questions are examined in light of scientific evidence and through the eyes of leading Virologists rather than through the media who are not specialists in virology.

The podcast has now become the Microbe TV network and has spawned other specialist shows. TWIV alone has many hours of content each week and there is a weekly live stream on YouTube, a weekly medical update from Dr Daniel Griffin and two other weekly shows focussed on research papers or specialist guests. Microbe TV is about to move to a new studio being called The Incubator and Professor Racaniello is going to look to provide even more content on science and virology to the community. I highly recommend Microbe TV and This Week In Virology as a place to learn about science and virology. And if you listen to the end you’ll hear Professor Racaniello declare that another podcast has gone viral.

Stephen Hall


No, Steve from Blue’s Clues did not leave to join the Army

I have three school age kids, and so I’m no stranger to Blue’s Clues. I’ve watched many episodes with both Steve (Steve Burns) and Joe (Donovan Patton) hosting the show alongside the animated dog Blue, following the clues each week. Steve left the show back in 2002, but he made the news recently when he released a feel-good video:
 


On the back of this, there has been some online speculation that Steve left the show not to go to college, as he says in his video, but to join the army and serve in the Middle East. This speculation was fuelled in part by a series of edits to Steve’s Wikipedia page just over a week ago, variously claiming he was:

  • “serving as an operator in clandestine operations against the Taliban from 2002 to 2021”
  • “the CIA station chief for Islamabad Pakistan”
  • “serving with Special Forces in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban and Al Qada from 2002 to 2021”
  • “[in] the French Foreign Legion, where he would begin his own war on terror under the name Hugh Janus”

I think the last one in particular gives the game away, given the rude pseudonym.

There was also an image shared to Instagram that showed a screenshot of Steve in the show, wearing his signature green striped shirt and with a badly photoshopped US military vest and patches pasted on it. However, when you open the image you now see a blurred version with a warning saying “False Information. Reviewed by independent fact-checkers”:
 


Clicking on the See Post link opens the image, which has another link to the fact-check warning saying “See why fact-checkers say this is false”:
 


The text of the warning, from USA Today, lets people know that the image is not genuine:

False
Independent fact-checkers say this information has no basis in fact.
Fact-Checker: USA TODAY
Conclusion: False
More Information: Fact check: False claim that Steve Burns left ‘Blue’s Clues’ for Afghanistan war
Learn more about how Instagram is working with independent fact-checkers to reduce false information.

Although in this case it seems obvious that the image is fake, and that maybe a “fact check” was not needed to debunk a badly photoshopped internet joke, it’s still great to see that there are news agencies who have the ability, and staff, to add these kinds of warnings to Instagram images. I’m sure many of you have seen similar warnings on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites as well.

In the age of weaponised misinformation being used against entire countries, tools like this that allow the countering of misinformation are going to be an important part of the effort to help people avoid falling down rabbit holes of misinformation. I’m sure most of us have at least one family member who, through social media, has gone from just believing in one pseudoscientific idea to spreading all kinds of nonsense through their posts and shares.

Of course, this is not to say that this kind of fact checking is sufficient to fix the problem of disinformation campaigns. And these fact checking services don’t excuse the harm that social media companies often cause when they feed people nonsense as a way to keep them engaged and maximise the number of adverts they’re able to show you. But it’s a start at least, and it’s fascinating to see that even silly internet jokes need to be debunked, lest people actually believe them and end up with a warped world view where the “mainstream media” are hiding the truth from them.

I’ll leave you all with the wise words of Steve and Blue:

Now it’s time for so long, But we’re gonna sing one more song
Thanks for doing your part, you sure are smart
You sure worked hard. When you use your mind, Take a step at a time
You can do anything that you wanna do


Coming soon…

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

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

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

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

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

Register your interest


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

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


Twitter

Facebook

YouTube

Website

Email

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Copyright © 2021 NZ Skeptics, All rights reserved.

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Skeptic News: 9/11, Billy TK sermons, Despicable Sue Grey and more


96

Skeptic News: 9/11, Billy TK sermons, Despicable Sue Grey and more

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

This week continues the level 4 lockdown in Auckland where I live. It’s been interesting to watch the numbers and we should be encouraged by the shape of the curve. But still, there are those niggling cases popping up. It does seem unlikely that we’ll be out of lockdown anytime soon.

I’m off for my second jab late this week, so will no doubt be looking forward to a couple of days having a sore arm. Still, it’s a small price to pay for the reassurance that if or when I encounter COVID I’ll be protected as much as is currently possible.

In the last newsletter I wrote you might remember I wrote about a complaint from Evorich. You’ll no doubt be surprised to learn that we’ve not heard anything further from them. Their 5 days deadline lapsed without further communication. Watch this space, I guess! 

Craig Shearer

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9/11 20 year anniversary

 

 

Saturday this weekend marked the 20th Anniversary of 9/11 in the US. Of course, because of time zones it was Wednesday 12th September here in New Zealand when it happened, just after midnight. 

Memories are interesting things. I can call the exact place I was when I heard the news – driving to work just after 7am in Auckland. (I can also recall the exact place I was when I heard the news about the death of Princess Diana.)

9/11 conspiracy theories have abounded and were primarily promoted by the alt-right, many centered around how the buildings could not possibly have collapsed as they did without a controlled demolition, or explosives. Conspiracy theorists confidently displayed the Dunning/Kruger effect in their pronouncements on the topic.

It’s always been a good topic for skeptics to examine, and it certainly sheds light on how people think about such extremely out of the ordinary events. 

For an actual explanation on how the buildings collapsed, The Conversation did a good explainer.

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The news we share

As I’ve written in the past, NZ Skeptics often receive comments in our inbox and people often criticise us for parroting the mainstream media (usually abbreviated to MSM). Recent commenters have criticised us for sharing articles from the BBC, amongst others.

Is this fair criticism? I think not. All sources of information (including NZ Skeptics) have their biases and political leanings, so are never free from error or presenting information in a purely objective fashion.

However, we do try to present credible sources only. 

There’s an interesting website, with an accompanying chart, that shows the major media outlets and how politically skewed they are, and the reliability of their content. It’s a fascinating snapshot of the state of the industry. You can take a look at the chart here.

In our defence, the outlets we typically share are on the more reliable end of the spectrum, and mostly in the centre of the spectrum on the political bias axis. 

Speaking of political bias, there’s a perception out there that academia is full of left-wing liberal voices, and conservative voices are being “suppressed”. I came across a good video recently which nicely demolishes this argument.

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Billy TK is a religious minister!

Billy Te Hakiha is in the news again. You’ll recall that he was recently arrested, with his “partner in crime” Vinny Eastwood, for violating the lockdown, and holding a protest. Billy and Vinny spent some time in jail, but are now out on bail awaiting trial. 

The bail conditions prevented them from communicating with each other, and prevented access to the internet. 

This past week, they appeared in court (virtually) and BIlly now has limited access to the internet again – because he’s a religious minister, and has now been allowed to resume his online “religious sermons”.

I took a quick look at his “sermon” he gave on Friday afternoon as a Facebook Live event (I guess sermons aren’t just restricted to Sunday church services anymore!). While referencing the bible, the parts I heard quickly pivoted to “freedoms”. 

“And what we’re having today in this new type of government system, we have an Egyptian type system… This new Egyptian system, the same system that’s  in the Bible here, that we’re talking about is that’s wanting to kill people, restrain them, take away their rights and freedoms is the same type that we have today imposing tyranny on us.”

I think maybe the judge was a little naïve to think that Billy wouldn’t use his sermons to just push his conspiracy theories. I wonder whether he’ll be monitored as to how he’s using these opportunities.

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The despicable Sue Grey 

I’ve written in the past about Sue Grey, the lawyer and past candidate for The Outdoors Party. She’s an out and out conspiracy theorist and her Facebook page is a magnet for the most rabid anti-vaxxers.

Yesterday she posted about the tragic death of a young woman at an Auckland secondary school, claiming (without evidence) that the death was a result of the COVID vaccination.

The post has since been taken down after it was inundated with comments critical of Grey, but it’s been reported that the parents are extremely distressed by the posting, and have noted that their daughter’s death was not connected with vaccination. 

The contents of the post have been echoed around the world on various dodgy websites, and will likely continue to exist there.

Grey’s position on COVID is that the vaccination isn’t safe or effective, and that the government should just be promoting healthy lifestyles and vitamins. This is a pretty privileged position to be able to take from a country that hasn’t been ravaged by the virus. 

It astounds me that her Facebook account is still intact, and that she’s still able to practise as a lawyer. From what I can see, this incident has raised her public profile (not in a good way) and there are plenty of people now complaining to the law society. The society doesn’t exactly make it easy to raise a complaint though – this page allows you to do so, but you need to fill out a PDF then email that back to them. I suspect that that will be enough of a hurdle so that most people don’t bother.

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Bye Peter

In the good news department this week, it was announced that there’s been a shakeup at the Magic Talk network – a radio station that specialised in talkback. 

Peter Williams announced that he was retiring – on very short notice, and as of this week he’s no longer on the air. Whether he freely decided to retire  or not – who knows. But he was a darling of the conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers (including the above mentioned Sue Grey), which was sad to see. Williams had a reasonable degree of respect from Kiwis after decades reading the news on TV. 

Peter’s been replaced by Leah Panapa, who is likely to be a much more moderate voice. And Graeme Hill is returning to nights, which is good news. Graeme is a friend of the skeptic community, previously hosting regular slots with Siouxsie Wiles and Mark Honeychurch to report on skeptical news.

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Conversion Therapy Submission

This week NZ Skeptics submitted our view on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill. This bill proposes prohibiting so-called conversion therapies which aim to change a person’s sexuality, gender identity or gender expression. Curiously, the direction of conversion seems to be exclusively in the direction of becoming “straight” or identifying with and expressing the gender which aligns with the genitals you were born with.  

Our submission makes the point that there’s no evidence to show that conversion therapies actually work, and lots of evidence to show that they do harm. 

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

If you’d like to read our submission, we have put a copy on our website.

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Awards and Bent Spoon

Our annual conference is coming up in November, on the weekend of the 19th – 21. As we’ve previously publicised, we’re holding it in conjunction with the Australian Skeptics. COVID willing, we’ll be having an in-person conference in Wellington, and they’ll have theirs in Sydney.

But, even if the in-person conferences are not possible, we’re additionally offering online tickets. 

At our conferences we traditionally hand out our bouquets and brickbats, and we’re seeking your input. We hand out our Bent Spoon award, and also Bravo awards for journalists, and a Skeptic of the Year award.

Bent Spoon award

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

We can all think of publications which run ridiculous and unbelievable stories as a regular part of their material. These are not Bent Spoon candidates. Instead we look for organisations and media outlets that tend to command credibility in the mind of the public, and who should have an accurate approach to information gathering and distribution. They are the ones who are rapped over the knuckles with the Bent Spoon when their professional standards lapse.

Bravo awards

We are also pleased to recognise excellence where it does occur, with our annual Bravo Awards. Each year the New Zealand Skeptics recognise a number of media professionals and those with a high public profile who have provided food for thought, critical analysis and important information on topics of relevance to our interests.

Skeptic of the year

The Denis Dutton Award for New Zealand Skeptic of the Year is given to the skeptic who has had the most impact within New Zealand skepticism. 

We’re seeking nominations for these awards.  Please get in touch either by emailing the committee, or using our contact page.


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]skeptics.nz

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

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Skeptic News: Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword


96

Skeptic News: Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


 

Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword


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

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

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

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

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

Mark Honeychurch

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

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Don’t take Horse Dewormer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Satanists are doing god’s work

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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NZ Skeptics Awards

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

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

https://skeptics.nz/awards

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

 


Coming soon…

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

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

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

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

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

Register your interest


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

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


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Skeptic News: 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


Twitter

Facebook

YouTube

Website

Email

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Copyright © 2021 NZ Skeptics, All rights reserved.

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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]

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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

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Hate Speech Submission

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

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

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

 

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

 

The NZ Skeptics

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

The Proposals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


QAnonsense

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


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


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

 


Trying to create a new Religion

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

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


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

 


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


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

 


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


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


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


My guess for what these texts are emulating is:

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


Any other ideas?

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

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


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

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


Twitter

Facebook

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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:
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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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