Skeptic News: It's a Wrap

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


2021 Conference: It's a Wrap

This weekend was our joint Australian and New Zealand conference, Skepticon 2021. Thank you so much to those of you who joined us, it was an amazing weekend with fascinating talks and I hope you enjoyed it all as much as I did.

Craig will give you his thoughts on our conference next weekend, but for me personally it was great to be able to work closely with the Australian Skeptics and bring together such a diverse group of professionals to speak on topics they were passionate about.

Day one started with Dr Mahmood Hikmet talking about self-driving cars and ethics. In relation to the trolley problem, and many similar quandaries that a self-driving vehicle might find itself in, Mahmood pointed out that often the safest option available is simply to apply the brakes! However, when it comes to more real-world options, things get more complicated.

Later in the morning Dr Siouxsie Wiles talked about how her name became attached to a COVID conspiracy about Bill Gates and a company she started to make science communication videos called Lucy Ferrin. It reminded me of another conspiracy about her I heard this year, on the Counterspin conspiracy show. Damien De Ment claimed that Siouxsie’s work in bioluminescence was going to be used in the COVID vaccine so that we would not need a vaccine passport - instead, the authorities would just be able to shine a special light on us, and if we glowed they would know we had been vaccinated.

At the end of the first day, Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz gave a great talk about Ivermectin - detailing why people believed it was useful for treating COVID, how the evidence quickly came to show that it was not efficacious, and how some anonymously run websites like IVM Meta continued to support Ivermectin use even after it became obvious it was a dud.

On day two Dr Marc Wilson walked us through some of the research on what leads certain types of people to reject scientific evidence.  I particularly liked an image he shared which illustrates the correlations between different beliefs.

Sherrie D’Souza told us about some of the dangers of cults, and detailed her journey leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She played a particularly odious video from the JWs which tells kids why they won’t be allowed to celebrate their birthday.

Our conference came to a close with a fantastic talk from Judy Melinek and her husband TJ Mitchell about forensic pathology in the US and New Zealand. Their talk was informative and entertaining, and it was obvious from their talk that Judy is a consummate professional with real passion for her career, and that her husband has a keen interest in her work. They’ve even collaborated to write a biography, along with two fictional crime novels that don’t mangle the science.

Our Annual Awards

Craig Shearer announced the winners of our annual awards at the beginning of the second day of our conference, and it was accompanied by the following press release:


Every year the New Zealand Skeptics presents its awards to people and organisations who have impressed us or dismayed us, and this year it’s been hard to pick our winners because there have been so many choices!

The Bent Spoon Award is given to the organisation or individual which has shown the most egregious gullibility or lack of critical thinking in public coverage of, or commentary on, a science-related issue. In the age of the COVID pandemic, there have been many candidates, but one individual stands out:

Dr Simon Thornley, this year’s winner, is a Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. Dr Thornley stands out as an academic who has opposed NZ’s approach to dealing with COVID. He was one of the founders of the COVID PlanB group which opposed lockdowns, and signed onto the Great Barrington Declaration.

Dr Thornley has associated himself with fringe elements in NZ’s anti-government and anti-vaccine movements (such as Voices for Freedom) and has appeared as an expert witness for lawyer Sue Grey’s cases challenging the government’s rollout of the COVID vaccine. His comments have included personal attacks and threats of legal action against other NZ scientists, and has claimed they’re corrupt and will be convicted of crimes against humanity.

Most recently, Dr Thornley promoted the use of Ivermectin as a treatment for COVID, and co-authored a paper which tried to link mRNA vaccines with miscarriages and other pregnancy complications, strongly recommending against vaccination for pregnant persons. Happily, this paper has now been retracted.

As an academic, we would expect he would know better. May he suffer the shame of being awarded the Bent Spoon! 

The New Zealand Skeptics recognises excellence in the media or in other high-profile people with our Bravo Awards. The pandemic has provided a fertile breeding ground for misinformation and disinformation. But many journalists and academics have stepped up and written pieces which explain the science behind COVID, the response to it, and also calling out those promoting misinformation and pseudoscience. The NZ Skeptics have chosen to award a record number of Bravos this year.

Siouxsie Wiles from University of Auckland, for making national and international appearances on the science behind COVID.

Toby Morris, cartoonist at The Spinoff, for creating animated explainers with Siouxie Wiles - with some great examples of effective science communication. These tools have been shared extensively, including being used by the World Health Organisation.

Charlie Mitchell, from Stuff, for a variety of investigative articles on pseudoscience promoters.

David Farrier, who runs the popular Webworm blog, for his commentary on people and groups promoting conspiracy theories; Billy TK, Sue Grey, Peter Mortlock of City Impact Church, the Tamakis from Destiny Church, and more.

Michael Baker, from the University of Otago Department of Public Health, for his science communication around COVID.

Hilary Barry, of TVNZ’s Seven Sharp, for her promotion of vaccines and for being a thorn in the side of anti-vaxxers.

Keith Lynch, of Stuff, for some great articles around COVID, explaining complex science in an easy to digest manner.

Helen Petousis-Harris, of the University of Auckland, for her great written responses to COVID vaccine myths.

Alison Campbell, blogger and retired lecturer from the University of Waikato, for her efforts helping journalists respond to COVID misinformation, her blogging and her constant presence on social media, calling out and correcting pseudoscience in the comment threads.

Finally, the Skeptic of the Year award is given to the skeptic who has had the most impact in skepticism within New Zealand. The award comes with a year’s free membership to the NZ Skeptics, and $500 of prize money.

This year the award is being given to a group rather than an individual - FACT Aotearoa.

The FACT group describes themselves as a grass-roots information organisation, working as a resource base for media, health professionals, activists and educators. They’ve been quick to jump on misinformation being promoted online and in public.  A few of their prominent wins include contacting venues to shut down in-person anti-vaxxer events, and initiating a complaint to NZ’s Law Society about anti-vax lawyer Sue Grey.

Amy Benjamin “Resigns” from AUT

Hot off the press, International Law lecturer Amy Benjamin has resigned from Auckland University of Technology this week. I wrote about Amy back in August, at the beginning of our second national lockdown, when she started up her YouTube channel called “American Spirit” where she posted videos about COVID and lockdowns. Her opinions seemed somewhat fringe, and she talked about how the threat to people’s mental health in lockdown was worse than that of COVID, that Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine could treat COVID, and that the government had criminalised peaceful protest.

In the weeks after I wrote about her, I continued to watch her videos, along with her efforts to avoid the YouTube filters. She used letters, calling COVID “C”, the vaccine “V” and lockdowns “L” - but kept slipping up and forgetting to use her own secret code. YouTube ended up taking down her videos as quickly as she could post them, presumably due to people making complaints about their misleading content - in fact, I’m pretty sure at one point the videos were disappearing more quickly than they were being posted, and the overall number of videos she had on the site was decreasing despite the fact she was frequently posting new ones.

She tried, as many people with dangerous views do, moving to other platforms where protections are absent - Odysee, Rumble, Telegram. But her channel on YouTube had only just been started, with very few subscribers, and I can’t imagine many of them followed her to a much more obscure video hosting platform.

From what the media has been saying on the back of her resignation, Amy Benjamin continued to slide down the rabbit hole, claiming on Vinny Eastwood’s show recently that COVID is a hoax and that the horrific Christchurch attack was a “false flag” operation. The Spinoff said that Amy resigned from AUT soon after they contacted the University about her claims. Although she may have technically “resigned”, it sounds like she may not have had much choice in the matter; I wonder whether resigning was one of two options the university gave Amy. Whatever the cause, it’s nice to think that someone with such extreme, conspiratorial views will no longer be teaching the next generation of lawyers.

Were Satanists involved in the Travis Scott tragedy?

Astroworld is an annual music festival run by rapper Travis Scott in Texas. There was a tragedy at this year’s festival, a few weeks ago, when a crowd surge caused a crush and resulted in the deaths of 10 people - the latest being a 9 year old boy who died a few days ago from his injuries.

As we’ve seen with recent tragedies, especially in the US, it doesn’t take long for conspiracy rumours to start spreading. Often claims are made that horrific events were staged in order to influence the public, using “crisis actors” rather than real victims. Or sometimes it’s that the real perpetrator is a shady government group, and that those accused have been framed.

However, in this instance, the rumour that has already started making the rounds on Twitter, TikTok and other social media sites isn’t that the tragedy was faked, or a covert op - it’s that the event was a Satanic ritual, and that the deaths were ritual blood sacrifices. In fact even celebrities have been in on the act, with KISS guitarist Ace Frehley sharing this conspiracy on Facebook.

And a controversial pastor got in on the act as well. Pastor Greg Locke has a history of spreading bad COVID advice in the US, telling people that the pandemic is fake, the vaccine is a scam and that he would kick parishioners out of his church if they wore a mask. Here’s Greg describing a “prophetic dream” he apparently had last month:

And he’s now been spreading the idea that Satanism is behind Travis Scott’s music, his stage show and the deaths. Supposedly there are hints in Travis’ music that he is a Satanist, and the stage Travis performed on is meant to have had many hints, including a portal to hell and inverted crosses. Although I couldn’t find audio of Greg’s sermon, I was able to find video from a popular Christian YouTuber called Tina Golik who usually makes arts and crafts videos:
Yesterday a Catholic priest got in on the act, telling Fox News that the event was demonic.

Obviously this is nonsense, but it concerns me just how quickly these silly rumours can spread in the internet age. One person’s video posted online can give rise to more and more videos, with nobody bothering to check the validity of the original claims. It’s a house of cards, where the entire rumour is built on a couple of anonymous social media posts.

This whole thing also has a real feeling of the 1980s Satanic Panic witch hunts - a dark stain on the US where innocent parents and teachers were locked up for committing both farcical and gruesome child abuse crimes that they did not commit.

Jacinda Ardern is not selling cryptocurrency

For those who use Facebook - you may have seen a video advert recently using Jacinda Ardern as a way to promote a cryptocurrency. Obviously this is fake - Jacinda does not want you to “invest” your money in any crypto currency, and it’s very likely that there’s not even a real crypto currency or crypto company - just a website that will get you to transfer your hard earned money to scammers. Even if there was a real cryptocurrency involved, you would likely lose most or all of the money you risked. I saw people talking about this scam on Facebook, but I have enough layers of ad blocking at home that it proved too hard to get Facebook to show me any adverts at all, so I don’t have a copy of the video.

It’s not even the first time Jacinda’s been used in this way. Back in 2018 Facebook carried adverts saying that Jacinda had decided to invest half of the country’s reserves in a Bitcoin company. The advert’s link took unsuspecting users to a fake CNN website that had a made up news article about the Treasury buying a bitcoin startup, presumably with the intent of getting people to “invest” in buying shares in the company. Again, any transferred money would likely never be seen again.

And in 2020, the same thing happened again but with a fake One News article. This one claimed that Jacinda told Jesse Mulligan on The Project:

"It's the single biggest opportunity I've seen in my entire lifetime to build a small fortune fast. I urge everyone to check this out before the banks shut it down.”

And this doesn’t just happen with Jacinda. Facebook ads use the names of celebrities who are known for taking risks that pay off, making bold but sensible decisions, or just being outspoken and having a lot of money, such as Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Kanye West, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. This scam went even further last year when many celebrities had their Twitter accounts hacked, and messages were sent out from their accounts telling people to send a few hundred dollars in Bitcoin to an account and they would receive more money in return. Of course, everyone who did this (totalling a few million dollars) never saw their money again.

Here’s one scam video capitalising on Elon Musk’s recent investment in Dogecoin:

Note the computer generated voice and a promise of a reward of thousands of crypto coins. If this was Bitcoin, that would be worth millions, but the Shiba Inu coin is currently trading at $0.00005, or point zero zero five US cents per coin. (That being said, its current price is up 10 million percent from last year!)

In the case of Elon Musk the water is muddied, because he really has dabbled in cryptocurrencies in the past, and each time he’s tweeted about his investments the worth of the currency - both Bitcoin and Dogecoin - has shot up. So now people scour his tweets, looking for clues as to which cryptocurrency he might be investing in next.

One consistent aspect of these scams is the bad spelling and grammar that they use. It makes sense that scammers in the kinds of overseas countries that are well known for these kinds of scams, such as Nigeria, Russia, India and China, might not have very good English.

However there’s another potential reason for this bad grammar that’s been floating around the internet recently - that the typos are deliberate. There’s an idea that scammers are only looking for responses to their phishing from those that are the most gullible. If they were able to trick a lot of people into engaging with a scam, but ended up with many of them backing out before transferring money, it would end up wasting a lot of the scammer’s time. So supposedly bad spelling would scare away the more intelligent potential victims, only leaving those ripe for the picking to respond.

I’m not sure if I really believe this hypothesis, as I’ve seen no evidence that this is the case. There’s an assumption here that those who fail to notice bad spelling/grammar are more likely to fall for a scam. I think there’s an unsaid third trait here - stupidity. The hypothesis seems to hang on the ideas that people who can’t write well are stupid, and those who fall for scams are stupid, and that this makes the two groups synonymous.

Although there’s likely some crossover between IQ and writing ability, it’s definitely not a strong correlation. I’m a bit of a grammar nazi, and I see some very clever people writing some pretty bad English at times! And I think the correlation between IQ and likelihood of being scammed is likely to be even weaker. As a good example, it seems from some of the profiles I’ve read of people who have been scammed by Nigerian 419 scammers that this classic scam (involving the promise of a windfall of millions of dollars from a prince, if only you can help out with a couple of cash payments to help clear the money) has fooled a cross section of the community - from those unemployed and desperate for cash through to tenured professors.

So, whether you receive an email promising millions of dollars or see a video on social media talking about the next big thing in crypto, the rule of thumb is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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