Skeptic News: Elections, ghosts and cranks

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

Elections, ghosts and cranks

Another newsletter, another election. This time the US appears to have, narrowly, come to its senses and chosen to vote out their current science-denying leader - and my guess is that most skeptics are breathing a sigh of relief. Those of us at Wellington Skeptics in the Pub on Friday certainly did a thorough job of dissecting the election, along with its many rules, regulations, polls, predictions and polemics.

I for one am feeling a modicum of schadenfreude having learned today that Rudy Giuliani’s team appear to have messed up when booking a venue for a press release to talk about Trump’s plans to mount a legal challenge to Biden’s win on Saturday. Instead of booking the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia, someone instead booked the car park at the back of the Four Seasons Total Landscaping company. Good on them for sticking with it, though, as it made my day to see Giuliani speaking in front of a garage door in the middle of an industrial estate.


Anyway, without any further ado here’s some of what’s been happening of skeptical interest in the world in the last week.

Mark Honeychurch.


I’m sure most skeptics will have heard of QAnon by now - the anonymously named Q who posts online about shadowy organisations, and talks about how president Trump is fighting dark forces in the US. QAnon tends to use lots of code names and obscure references, including the oft used acronym used as the title of this section - it means Where We Go 1, We Go All. Here are a couple of examples of QAnon messages:

Twitter rec 24D.


Why is Hussein traveling the globe?
Acct # xx-XXXxx-x-39670
Acct # XXXxx-XXXx-2391
Where did the MONEY come from?
How do you destroy the most POWERFUL country in the world?
Direct attack?
Covert OP by [CLAS-59#241-Q] to infiltrate at highest level to destroy from within?
Think GAME.
Who are the PLAYERS?
What are the REWARDS?
We will make more public.
SA was strategic.
“We know” “Do as we say or face consequences”
These people are stupid!


Early on in the Q timeline, an IT security analyst performed an analysis of the codes Q uses, and found that they were consistent with someone just alternating tapping keys on the left and right sides of the keyboard, much as someone would do if they were just trying to type in random text (see the heatmap image below). QAnon’s ramblings remind me of the writing of Nostradamus - obscure and vague enough that readers are left to join the dots themselves, and make their own narrative out of the mess he writes.


However the influence of Q’s rabbit hole shouldn’t be underestimated - it’s even reached our fair shores, with a conspiracy involving the trafficking of children, a secret Antarctic base, adrenochrome and several yachts docked in the Viaduct in Auckland. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a firm believer in the QAnon conspiracy, won the nomination for Georgia's 14th congressional district - so as of January there will be a QAnon believing conspiracy theorist in American politics (although Trump has at least flirted with the idea that QAnon is real, refusing to disavow the theory).

Weirdly, and thankfully, since election day in the US QAnon has gone quiet on the internet. We can only hope that this is the end of Q, although it’s early days yet and I suspect we’ll be hearing from them again. It would not surprise me to see Q, whoever they may be, try to foment unrest among Trump supporters who are unhappy with the election result.

Can a jade amulet protect against COVID?

The above title is my paraphrasing of a recent paper published in an Elsevier-owned scientific journal, Science of The Total Environment. The paper’s actual title is:

Can Traditional Chinese Medicine provide insights into controlling the COVID-19 pandemic: Serpentinization-induced lithospheric long-wavelength magnetic anomalies in Proterozoic bedrocks in a weakened geomagnetic field mediate the aberrant transformation of biogenic molecules in COVID-19 via magnetic catalysis

If I were being trite, I’d simply counter this by invoking Betteridge's law of headlines - “any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no”. Unsurprisingly this paper is total nonsense, and it’s disappointing to see that it’s been both peer reviewed and published. More details of this paper can be read at Retraction Watch - and the title of that website gives you a hint as to what’s happened to the paper. It’s been withdrawn, at least temporarily, and the paper’s title now has a prefix prepended to it - TEMPORARY REMOVAL.

If you take 10 minutes to read both the Retraction Watch article and some good detective work that has been going on in the article’s comments, it becomes clear that this is not a one-off slip up for the paper’s author - it appears that he has a history of writing pseudoscientific papers, such as:

Stonehenge as a public health intervention device for preventing lithospheric magnetic field-induced emerging diseases and megadeath during periods of severely weaken geomagnetic field

A novel hypothesis for the Havana and Dominican Republic syndromes in which severe geoelectromagnetic perturbations in the Caribbean plate induces aberrant health in North Americans

In the author’s defence, he replied to Retraction Watch’s concerns, saying:

I kindly suggest you read the article and examine the evidence provided. I also suggest you read the history of science and how zealots have consistently attempted to block and ridicule novel ideas that challenge the predominant paradigm from individuals that are deem not intelligent enough. I not surprised that this article has elicited angry responses. Clearly the idea that a black scientist can provide a paradigm shifting idea offends a lot of individuals. I’ll be very candid with you; my skin color has no bearing on my intelligence.

I’m pretty sure that Ivan at Retraction Watch didn’t know that Moses was black when he asked for confirmation that Moses was the author of the paper, and to me the argument of zealots blocking and ridiculing novel ideas sounds like the Galileo Gambit. It may well be the case that in the past some have mocked people who have had paradigm shifting ideas that eventually turn out to be correct, but that does not mean that everyone with a crazy idea is right. For every Galileo there are a thousand or more people like Deepak Chopra, Ken Ring, Andrea Rossi, Daryl Bem, Rupert Sheldrake, Christopher Monckton, and so on - the list goes on!

Haunted NZ

Last week Craig promised that we would give you a link to a video Haunted NZ were producing about their recent investigation at a house in Pukekohe. We have now been sent a copy of the video that you can watch on YouTube. Craig also gave a good account to the NZ Herald of why the video, although slickly put together, contains no substantive evidence backing up Haunted NZ’s claims that the house was ever haunted. Good work Craig!

NZ’s Luminate Festival is moving away from reality

The Luminate festival, held each year outside of Nelson, has always been a little out of touch with science. But, as David Farrier shows, things appear to be getting worse. The festival has been flirting with conspiracy theories and woo peddlers, in a list they published on the Luminate website called the “13 Crystal Seeds of Positive Change”. The list included the names of people who have inspired the festival’s organisers. You get one point for each of the following names you recognise:

  • Pete Evans - celebrity chef, peddler of bad food ideas
  • David Icke - lizard man
  • Rashid Buttar - friend of Billy TK, US osteopath and vaccine denier
  • Bruce Lipton - DNA denier
  • Tom Cowan - 5G conspiracy theorist
  • Dave Asprey - supplement seller
  • Gerald Pollack - structure of water scientist, winner of Emoto prize
  • Zach Bush - gut supplement seller
Each of those people is dangerous in their own ways, mostly through promoting conspiracies or recommending/selling unproven medical therapies. The organisers of the Luminate festival appear to have taken the list down for now, presumably in response to backlash from the article, and have replaced it with a blog post defending their choice of mentors. They say, in part:

“Our theme for Lunasa is bio-optimise and thrive- enhancing our internal biology, our external environment and power of the mind to achieve optimal health.

The people that we listed under the themes of the 13 Crystal Seeds are a range of doctors, scientists, researchers and others that we hear speak directly on these topics.”

I can assure the organisers that the “power of the mind” will not allow them to achieve optimal health, and that most, if not all, of the people they have listed come under the category of “others” and are not actual, trustworthy doctors, scientists or researchers.

David Farrier in his article wonders whether, much like Billy TK, one or both of the organisers of the festival went down the online conspiracy theory rabbit hole over our lockdown period, when they were stuck at home and at a loose end. Although this appears to be guesswork, it at least seems plausible.

Not everyone loved Randi

If the US election hasn’t caused you enough stress, you could read a recent “take down” of James Randi titled The man who destroyed skepticism, published soon after his death on the popular Boing Boing blog, that is sure to make your blood boil. I for one was very surprised and disappointed to see the Boing Boing website, which normally has a reputation for good quality reporting, hosting this hit piece written by Mitch Horowitz. Mitch is a believer in the spiritual realm, and his own website describes him as “a historian of alternative spirituality and one of today's most literate voices of esoterica, mysticism, and the occult”. The article includes such gems as:

“In the end, the feted researcher was no skeptic. He was to skepticism what Senator Joseph McCarthy was to anticommunism — a showman, a bully, and, ultimately, the very thing he claimed to fight against: a fraud.”

“Randi's legacy should serve as a cautionary tale and a call to restore sound practices when discussing or writing about contentious topics in science or any field"

The thrust of Horowitz’s argument seems to be that Randi wasn’t polite enough when debunking fraudsters, and that sometimes he preferred using witty soundbites when talking with the media rather than using more nuanced, and technically correct, wording.

From my perspective, it looks like Randi treated these people, who were attempting to con others out of their money and trick them into believing in nonsense, with all the respect they deserved - not much. Anyone trying to make a claim that purports to invalidate swathes of known science is lucky that people like Randi even give them the time to critique their outlandish claims. It’s certainly often the case that scientists don’t have the time or patience to carry out the kinds of investigations that Randi was famous for.

Thankfully the comments from regular Boing Boing readers attached to the article restored my faith in humanity. The vast majority of commenters took exception to the extremely biased nature of the article, and just how much it misrepresented James Randi’s legacy.

The Missing Files: Randi caught on tape

The NZ Skeptics, many years ago, used to run a VHS lending library of tapes with topics of skeptical interest on them. Unfortunately, when someone checked the box of dusty old tapes the other day, it was found that the tape of James Randi’s talk given in Christchurch in the ‘90s was not among them. This is a bit of a long shot, but if anyone still has that tape (or their own copy of the talk on video) we’d love to get our hands on it so that we can digitise it and post it to YouTube.

NZ Skeptics AGM

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