Skeptic News: Goodbye Ngaire McCarthy

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Goodbye Ngaire McCarthy

Last week I attended, online, the funeral of Ngaire McCarthy, who died just over a week ago from cancer. Ngaire was an outspoken Māori atheist, humanist and rationalist who spoke to the NZ Skeptics at our 2014 conference in Auckland. She told us about how the census shows comparable rates of dis-belief amongst Māori and Pākehā in New Zealand, and how Christianity had imposed itself on Māori culture, merging in a way that makes it hard to pick them apart today.

Ngaire was, for a few years, the President of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists, and later became the organisation’s librarian, where she diligently catalogued the NZARH’s large collection of books on religion, atheism, humanism, free thought and skepticism. The library includes a collection of books once owned by the NZ Skeptics, which were donated to the NZARH for safekeeping many years ago.

Ngaire pushed for secularism in New Zealand, arguing for Religious Instruction and other faith-based observances to be removed from primary schools. She believed that religion in schools is detrimental to children, often causing long term damage to class cohesion and scientific literacy.

For all of you who met and spent any time with Ngaire, I’m sure you’ll remember her sharp wit, infectious laugh and most of all her warmth. She was one of those people who could make you feel like an old friend the first time you met them.

Ngaire’s sister Hema, who is the current President of the NZARH, officiated at the funeral. Several of Ngaire’s children and wider family members spoke of her love for science and rationalism, and how she used to tell them as kids that they were made of stardust, and that answers were to be found in science, not religion. It was sad to be saying goodbye to her, but heartwarming to hear the effect she’d had on those around her, and the respect she’d earned from her peers for her tireless efforts to combat religious privilege in New Zealand.

Mark Honeychurch

If you want to know more about Ngaire’s life and her beliefs, the articles and videos below are a good place to start:



Jewish space laser

I wish I was making this news story up - partially because it’s getting a little bit tiresome writing about US politics. However, the recently elected Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who likes to ride on the QAnon conspiracy carriage of the Trump Train, has been put through the wringer in the last week. Journalists have been poring over her social media history and documenting her words, shares and likes - some of which are so weird and wonderful it doesn’t take much to debunk them.

There’s a lot to unpack in what Marjorie has said in recent years, including that 9/11 was a hoax, Obama is a Muslim, the Clintons killed JFK Jr, and recent school shootings in the US were “false flag” operations. However, the most out there of them all has to be the idea that has made headlines around the world - that the 2018 California wildfires were caused by a satellite mounted laser which is controlled by the Rothschild family. This has now been dubbed the Jewish Space Laser.

Thankfully many in the Jewish community in the US have given this outlandish, evidence-free, racist idea the level of response I believe it deserves - ridicule. Twitter has many funny comments and images, making light of the idea and turning it into something very kitsch. However, I think that the conspiratorial undertones of making Jewish people out to be an evil conniving race cannot be ignored, and I hope that the House of Representatives, and the Republican Party in particular, are able to do something to tackle those within their ranks - not just Greene - who harbour these kinds of dangerously wrong-headed ideas.

This whole incident reminds me that we had a very similar thing happen here in NZ last year, but at a much smaller scale. Advance NZ’s Wairarapa candidate, Nigel Anthony Gray (a Scientologist), claimed that a Directed Energy Weapon was used to start the Lake Ohau fire. Thankfully the media pounced on the claim pretty quickly, and Jamie Lee Ross was just as quick to distance himself from Gray’s theory - while still being happy to keep him on as a candidate.

Reiki is here to save us all

Or at least that’s what NewsHub would have us believe, with an article published on Tuesday about the benefits of Reiki, an energy healing technique that involves the practitioner manipulating your “energy field” by waving their hands around your body.

Of course there’s no evidence that this energy field exists, or that manipulating it has therapeutic benefits. What little scientific literature is out there is a bit of a mess, and there appears to be an issue with the quality of the studies that do exist - an issue that exists for many alternative therapies. Most people who have the time and money to test these therapies are practitioners, and obviously they have a vested interest in proving the efficacy of their chosen therapy.

My opinion is that a Bayesian analysis would show that any positive results from studies would not be enough to overcome the sheer implausibility of what is being posited. The idea that physicists somehow have whole chunks missing from their understanding of the nature of reality, while a handful of plucky young spiritual folk have not only made groundbreaking discoveries about new energy fields, but have also learned how to manipulate them with their hands, needles, diluted poisons and simple electronic devices with flashing lights, seems laughable. It’s much more congruent that these people are a mixture of con-artists and the conned, people who don’t know how hard it is to take a glimpse at the true nature of the world we live in, how many hours the best minds in the world spend trying to peel back the curtain of reality. So, in their ignorance (and arrogance), they come to believe that they know better than the combined effort of thousands of scientists.

If you’re interested in learning more about this idea of using Bayesian analysis in medicine, there’s a good summary here of a couple of posts on the Science Based Medicine blog about the difference between Evidence Based Medicine (EBM) and Science Based Medicine (SBM). Click through to the original SBM articles to read more. Suffice it to say that SBM has more going for it, but unfortunately EBM is far too popular in modern medical science, leading to the legitimising, and even funding, of many therapies that we skeptics are pretty sure are meritless.

One common thing you’ll hear from alternative medicine practitioners is that you can’t knock something until you’ve tried it. Now obviously this is silly - as skeptics we know that personal experience isn’t to be trusted. That our personal anecdotes are okay if they’re all we’ve got, but that they should always take a back seat to proper scientific testing if it’s available.

However, it’ll come as no surprise to some of you that I’ve had Reiki treatment in the past. This happened at a Spiritual and Psychic fair in Upper Hutt, where around ten of us skeptics turned up to sample the therapies on offer, and then make complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority about unsubstantiated claims the companies offering these therapies were making in their posters and pamphlets.

Me at the Upper Hutt Cosmopolitan Club in 2016, trying out Reiki
Anyway, the Reiki did nothing positive for me, beyond being nice and relaxing. Obviously this anecdote is neither here nor there - my personal experience of Reiki has no bearing on whether it actually works or not. But sometimes I do find it useful to have tried a therapy - so that I can make points when arguing with practitioners both that personal anecdote is no way to test if a therapy works, and that even if it was a good way to test a therapy, I’ve tried it and it did nothing for me.

Back to the article - sadly it reads a lot like a paid advertisement for Olivia Scott’s Reiki practice in Auckland. Many claims are made, about Reiki’s efficacy and mechanism of action, as well as about its increase in popularity, but absolutely no evidence is given for any of this, and no time is given to the opposing, prevailing view of science that Reiki is bunkum. The article even finishes with a cringeworthy push for people to give up their hard-earned cash and try this ludicrous treatment:

“Whether you're looking for healing, more energy or just a sublime cozy nap - maybe skip the next F45 session and head to Scott's clinic for a session instead. Your cortisol levels will thank you.“
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