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

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.

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.
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.

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

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