Skeptic News: Fluoridation, Near Death Experiences and more

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

It seems there’s quite a lot of skeptically-related topics in the news at the moment. Perhaps there’s a backlash to a lot of stuff that came out in 2020 that was pure pseudoscience. 

Speaking of media - it’s great to hear the voices of prominent science promoters back on Magic Talk with Graeme Hill. Graeme’s now doing his show every week night from 7 - 10pm, and has had Alison Campbell, Siouxsie Wiles and Mark Honeychurch on. Long may this continue.

Wishing you a great week...
Craig Shearer


Big news this week is that the government is taking water fluoridation powers off local councils and giving it to the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield. 

This is a good decision as it aligns with the science around the benefits of having a tightly controlled amount of fluoride in our water supply. Local councils have, in the past, fallen victim to vocal opponents to fluoridation, most of whom seem to make arguments that aren’t informed by good science.

Prior to the pandemic, the director of health would likely have had little name recognition, but Ashley Bloomfield is now a fairly popular public figure.It is difficult to see how opponents of fluoridation will be able to play this to their advantage if it involves demonising Ashley!

We must also give a shout out to Making Sense of Fluoride, a NZ-based website, run primarily by Daniel Ryan, that advocates for science and evidence-based approaches to decisions around fluoridation of our water supply.

Near death experiences

NDEs were in the media this week. Radio New Zealand did an interview with Professor Bruce Greyson who has a book out After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond. 

The interview on RNZ is worth a listen. Jim Mora did a reasonable job of asking lots of skeptical questions. 

Greyson describes various reports about the experiences of those who’ve come back after having an NDE. The interesting point is that we have no objective recording of what actually happens. People are describing their memories of the experience, and we know that memories are very much subject to modification with retelling, though in the interview Greyson claims that retelling of these NDEs doesn’t vary over time. To me this seems a little nonsensical.

From what I’ve understood from those who have expertise in neurology it seems more likely that the brain is filling in blanks after the fact and putting together a coherent story about the experience.

Throughout the interview Greyson claims to be a “materialist skeptic” (and uses that term in a pejorative fashion) though he believes that potentially part of ourselves continues after we die. I think this is a giant leap supported only by anecdotal evidence. 

One of the examples given in the interview is of a patient who was unconscious being able to supposedly give an account of a conversation Greyson had with her roommate down the hall, describing what they were wearing and what was discussed. This would imply that some external senses of sight and hearing are able to exist separate from our own eyes and ears and record these into memories in our brains. I see a big disconnect here in the implications of this. We close our eyes or block our ears and those senses are muted, but not so when having an NDE. How does this work? These would be the questions that I’d expect that a skeptical researcher would be asking.

There are some fairly extraordinary claims being made in the interview. As always, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To me, many of the stories presented might well have more prosaic (materialist skeptic!) explanations. 

A particular difficulty with this interview is that Greyson is presenting his own re-telling of anecdotes from interviews he’s done with patients over the years. Perhaps his own investment in the field has coloured his thinking.

What we have though is a bunch of anecdotes, but no hard evidence, and a lot of implausibility. I’m reminded of a story that various skeptical surgeons and nurses have put notable and highly visible signs up high in operating theatres that would be noticed (and reported) by patients were they really leaving and floating above their bodies during operations. Such reports have not been received. Incidentally, out-of-body experiences are common during anaesthesia, and it’s certainly possible to induce these experiences in people’s brains through various techniques.

Greyson has appeared in a Netflix series - Surviving Death, which I've not watched. It does seem that the publication of Greyson's book is tied in with the Netflix show, which does make me a little cynical!

The COVID vaccine honeymoon period

I read a very good article today in The Atlantic explaining some of the subtleties around the COVID vaccine. In particular we shouldn’t be surprised when vaccinated people get infected. 

At the moment there’s a lot of relief and celebration that the vaccines are being rolled out. In the eyes of the layperson, once they’re vaccinated they consider themselves immune, and are resuming normal life as if they’re bulletproof. 

“Vaccination is actually more like a single variable in a dynamic playing field—a layer of protection, like an umbrella, that might guard better in some situations than others. It could keep a lucky traveler relatively dry in a light drizzle, but in a windy maelstrom that’s whipping heavy droplets every which way, another person might be overwhelmed. And under many circumstances, vaccines are still best paired with safeguards such as masks and distancing—just as rain boots and jackets would help buffer someone in a storm.”

As always, reality is a lot more complex than people assume.

Canterbury big cats again

A few weeks ago I wrote about big cats reported sighted in Canterbury, and opined that what had been seen was likely a feral cat.

This weekend, Stuff did a piece about how Jesse Feary had actually shot a “big black creature” he sighted. Turns out he was then able to get the DNA analysed, and surprise, it turned out to just be a cat!

The article is a good read though, covering various skeptical points about the possibility of big cats existing in the wild in the South Island. 


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