Skeptic News: can anyone pronounce NXIVM?

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Can anyone pronounce NXIVM?

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

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

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

Mark Honeychurch

Famous actress jailed for her role in NXIVM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychic Kelvin is on tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

When scientists go wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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