Skeptic News: Elections, Vaccines, Colour Therapy and more!

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

Welcome to the NZ Skeptics weekly newsletter. This week, you’ve got me, Craig Shearer, Chair of NZ Skeptics.


Election denialism

In recent weeks we’ve reported several times on election outcomes - and, of course the recent US election continues to dominate the news. Far from it being over with a clear victory for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, Trump continues to deny the outcome and fight against it in every way possible.

Judged from our privileged position here in NZ it all seems a bit comical at times. But there’s a very serious side to it. The strategy as it’s playing out is one familiar to observers of science denial - sowing the seeds of doubt. Claims of election fraud and the legal cases being run through the courts (and largely dismissed and laughed out of court) have a corrosive effect on trust in the process. 

What is being alleged is widespread voter fraud, though no reasonable explanation is being offered as to how this could have been accomplished, how it could be engineered so as to rig the election, and importantly whether there’s any actual evidence of this occurring. It certainly illustrates the importance of critical thinking, but unfortunately many people go with their gut feelings instead.

Continuing COVID

The world continues to be gripped by the COVID pandemic. Given that most of us are unable to travel internationally it’s difficult to experience first-hand exactly how the rest of the world is operating. Cases continue to rise at an alarming rate. My favourite site for watching the stats is the Worldometers site

I don't want to continually bash the USA, but it does seem that those countries where large chunks of the population value their personal freedom over the safety of others are faring (and now fearing) the worst. As I write this the daily new case count in the US has exceeded 200K cases, with around 2K deaths.This really does illustrate the quote from Joseph Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

Vaccines on the horizon

This past week has seen the news of development of successful vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. The vaccines have a claimed efficacy of nearly 95%. This is good news, and a triumph for science and medical technology that they’ve been able to be developed so quickly. There are other companies that have vaccines in the pipeline so it’s likely that there will be several more vaccines available in the coming months and years.

But the availability of vaccines doesn’t necessarily mean an end to the pandemic. While it’s great news that the efficacy is so high - which will contribute to a successful “herd immunity” effect - at this stage the performance of the vaccines in “real world” populations is unknown. For example, the vaccines have been tested on mostly young people - it’s not known how well they will work on older (and typically more susceptible) population groups. Also unknown is how long immunity will last. Will we need to get an annual booster shot?

And they have to be distributed and delivered. The newly developed vaccines have some fairly stringent temperature requirements around transportation and storage, and of course, all this requires infrastructure and training to be set up to allow vaccines to be successfully deployed.

Feeding into this will also be the inevitable vaccine hesitancy that has become prevalent in recent years in some population groups. Herd Immunity is, of course, reliant on significant penetration of the vaccine into the population. Sean Carrol wrote a great article in Scientific American which draws parallels between various forms of scientific denialism - it’s well worth a read.

While the news of the vaccines is undoubtedly positive I think skepticism is warranted as to whether life is going to return to the pre-COVID normal anytime soon. The advent of the vaccines is just the first step along the path.

A woman of influence!

This week saw Dr Siouxsie Wiles take the supreme winner award at the Stuff-Westpac NZ 2020 Women of Influence Awards.

Siouxsie, along with her artistic partner Toby Morris, has done a fantastic job in communicating the science and best-practise advice around COVID during the pandemic. 

We congratulate Siouxsie for her well-deserved award. We’re very proud to claim Siouxsie as a skeptic - she’s MC’d and spoken at our conferences many times in the past. Well done Siouxsie.

Odd spot of the week

This week Richard Saunders, from the Australian Skeptics pinged me online with a video of relevance to NZ Skeptics. Back in the 1990s Australian journalist Mike Willesee did a piece on a New Zealander Don Brooker who ran a colour therapy clinic in Cambridge, Waikato. 

Brooker was claiming to be able to cure multiple diseases through the use of divining rods and swatches of coloured thread!

The video (available on Richard Saunder’s page) is a fascinating and worrying look into this non-evidence based treatment. 

Many Australians and New Zealanders were being taken in by Brooker. 

A quick Google search revealed that there’s still businesses in existence with direct roots to Booker, still practising the colour therapy. I give you Colour Therapy Manukau! How sad that such a business still exists, no doubt taking advantage of gullible (and potentially desperate) people.

And, there seems to be an umbrella site for all things related to this. Oh what a fascinating, if deluded world we live in.

What are you listening to?

My personal journey into skepticism began back in the early 90s before the internet was publicly available, but podcasts now form a significant chunk of the skeptical content that I consume. My particular favourites are The Skeptics Guide to the Universe (a great weekly roundup of science and skepticism), Oh No, Ross and Carrie (weird and often humorous investigations into fringe groups and claims of the paranormal), and Sawbones (fascinating medical history of dubious devices and cures, but firmly science-based). But there are many others, and tastes vary. 

Back in the day, there were some NZ-based skeptical podcasts. Unfortunately these have fallen by the wayside - undoubtedly due to the busyness of the hosts (disclosure: I was one of those hosts). The CUSP and Skepticism Today spring to mind, but there may be others.

As skeptics, we should be trying to spread critical thinking. One of the best ways is to share podcasts with friends and family as part of a gentle introduction (some might say indoctrination!) into thinking more skeptically. What can you share today?

Have a great week, and stay skeptical!
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