Skeptic News: Havana Syndrome, ETs and Penguins and That Ship

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

This week I’ve got a variety of topics I hope you’ll enjoy!

Wishing you a great week...

Craig Shearer

Havana Syndrome - caused by directed microwaves?

Apparently, back in 2016 dozens of American Embassy diplomats in Cuba felt sick, and this has been dubbed Havana Syndrome. I’d never heard of this, but it came to my attention through an article written by local skeptic Robert Bartholemew. 

I met Robert a few years ago when he hosted Joe Nickel here in Auckland. Joe is a veteran skeptical investigator who’s done tons of investigations over the years. (And I’m the proud owner of one of Joe’s trademark Wooden Nickels!). Anyway, I digress! 

Robert is an author and specialises in mass psychogenic illnesses - basically social contagions where a lot of people exhibit some complaint where there’s no actual infectious agent.

The Havana Syndrome has been investigated by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and they concluded that the syndrome was likely caused by pulsed RF energy! This seems unlikely to me (but what do I know?). However, Robert has written an article in the Skeptical Inquirer about this explaining the problems with that explanation, and that mass psychogenic illness is much more likely.

ETs and Penguins

A couple of weeks ago, I spent an enjoyable weekend away with some friends up in Russell, in the Bay of Islands. A couple of points from a skeptical perspective; firstly, one of my friends told me about an interview he heard with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand, which I’ve since listened to (detailed below), and the second was a conversation I overheard which illustrated to me how “fake news” and misinformation is innocently spread.

You may recall back in 2017 our solar system was visited by a mysterious object sighted by telescopes in Hawaii. The object, dubbed Oumuamua (which is Hawaiian for “scout”) exhibited some strange behaviour.

Recently, Avi Loeb, who’s chair of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University published a book: Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth which details his hypothesis about Oumuamua and that it’s actually an alien ship visiting our solar system!

Kim Hill, on Radio New Zealand, interviewed him. The interview is fairly wide-ranging, and Kim does a reasonable job of asking some skeptical questions. 

Towards the end of the interview it truly goes off the rails with Loeb proposing a solution to the Fermi Paradox that we’re just not that interesting, and that most of the stars in our galaxy are infrared emitters and so our planet is not that interesting for interstellar tourism because of our green grass. (Paint me skeptical, but much of the appeal of travel is seeing interesting and unique stuff that’s out of the ordinary!)

Alarmingly, Loeb thinks that science should be driven by public interest - and that scientists (because they’re funded by the public) shouldn’t be working on stuff that the public’s not interested in! Obviously there have been a ton of discoveries in science that have produced real-world benefits but wouldn’t have been obvious from the outset that were produced by fundamental and esoteric research. 

Today I listened to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe which also covered the item, but this time with an explanation for the anomalous behaviour of Oumuamua. It turns out that the anomalous behaviour is actually well explained by it being composed of Nitrogen ice, rather than water ice. 

Steven Novella does a good job of detailing this on his blog and why this is just another example of the “aliens of the gap” fallacy.

Grieving penguins

Onto my second item from my weekend away - this time to do with the spreading of fake news. During the weekend I happened to visit the local markets in Russell, and there was a stallholder selling some quite nice art, some of which features birds - penguins in particular. I happened to overhear a conversation where a woman was relating to the stallholder the story of the penguins in Melbourne that were watching the pretty lights of the Melbourne skyline together - and that they were comforting each other due to loss of their loved ones. The source of this was an award-winning photograph by Tobias Baumgaetner of the pair staring off into the distance. 

I resisted the urge to comment that the story wasn’t really true (which would have been a “dick move”). While the photo is excellent the story behind it has been investigated and found to be less than perfectly accurate. This does go to show the power of a good story though, in sticking in peoples’ minds.

That ship, and NFTs

This week has seen the news of the ship (the Ever Given) that’s been stuck for days in the Suez Canal. Interestingly, having glanced at the headlines and pictures, in my mind the ship was called the Evergreen, but that’s the name of the company that runs it (Evergreen Marine). 

There are some interesting points about the grounding and blockage of the canal. The first of which is how counterintuitive things are around such objects outside our ordinary human experience. There’ve been plenty of people on the internet offering helpful suggestions as to how to free the ship.

Amusingly, there’s a website that’s sprung up dedicated to whether the ship is still stuck: (And yes, as of this writing, it is). 

And, the internet, being the rabbit hole that it is, led me, from that page, to see that the site has been placed on OpenSea, a market for bidding on NFTs.

So, what is an NFT?, I hear you ask. Well it’s a Non-fungible Token. NFTs are the latest craze on the internet, but may well be the future of digital art. This article is a good explainer. Will NFTs be the future of being able to own unique digital art? Only time will tell!

Christchurch talk

If you’re in or around Christchurch, you may be interested in attending the Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub. One of our NZ Skeptics committee members, Jonathan Harper, is giving a talk about skepticism. It’s at the Pegasus Arms, 6pm on Thursday 8th April. You can register your RSVP on the group’s meetup page. 

2019 Conference Videos

Thanks to some wonderful help from Susan Gerbic, we’ve now got a few of the 2019 conference talk videos up on our YouTube channel.

There’s now four videos up on a variety of topics from Jacinta Cording, Susan Gerbic, Mark Edward and Steven Novella. 

If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, send it to:
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