Skeptic News: Lift off, the end of the year, and Barry tells us why he's a skeptic

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

I hope this newsletters finds you well and that a pleasant Christmas was had. 

This year there were claims that Santa's deliveries would result in a COVID "super-spreader event" happening. Of course, we'll probably have to wait for a few weeks to see whether this has eventuated. However, the skeptic in me is doubtful of Santa's existence, so perhaps that would rule out the basis of that story.

Anyway, I hope that nobody got anything particularly pseudoscientific as a gift, and that any conversations with family members were rationally based. I can but dream… 

It’s Boxing Day as I write this - another lovely sunny day in Auckland (as was Christmas Day) with an almost clear blue sky outside, and some lovely warm water at the beach. So this newsletter is going to be quite short.

Wishing you enjoy what remains of 2021 and that you experience a celebratory transition into 2022.

Craig Shearer

We have lift off

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has successfully launched!

The telescope project, 30 years in the making, is now heading to the L2 Earth-Sun Lagrange Point, about 1.5 million kilometres from Earth. 

You’ll recall the flaws with the Hubble Space Telescope’s optics were able to be fixed by adding corrective mirrors during a visit by astronauts on the Space Shuttle. Not so for the new telescope - with the L2 Lagrange point being well outside the reach of any manned missions with our current technology.

We can only hope that the project is a success, but of course, its success will be due to the countless hours that scientists and engineers have dedicated to the project over the previous decades, and will continue to do so for its projected 10 year lifespan.

The new telescope’s mirror is 3.5 times the size of Hubble’s, allowing us to see further back in time, possibly to within 100 million years after the Big Bang, back to the formation of the first stars. It should allow us to see how the first stars and galaxies formed. (Of course, 100 million years is still an unfathomably long time!) It may also reveal details as to why there are supermassive black holes at the centre of galaxies.

The telescope will also be more sensitive than Hubble in the infrared wavelengths, allowing us to see more detail.

As well as peering back in time closer to the beginning of the universe, the telescope will allow imaging of exoplanets, including spectrographic analysis of their atmospheres (if they have them). This is really exciting stuff as it potentially allows chemical signatures of life to be remotely detected - at least what we think might be signs that life might exist.

And, they’re planning on pointing the telescope at Titan - one of Saturn’s moons. That could reveal some exciting new knowledge.

Alas, we’ve got about 6 - 7 months to wait until the first images are released - but wow, what a time to be alive - I’m excited to learn about all the discoveries that are going to be made!

Vaccination stats

I think we have cause to celebrate. Despite not knowing what 2022 will bring, Aotearoa/New Zealand has a pretty high rate of vaccination - with over 91% of the eligible population having received two doses, though with Maori still under 80%. 

Boosters are on the horizon for many (I’ll be getting mine mid-January), and I’m thankful that 5 - 12 year olds will be able to get vaccinated too. 

It’s unfortunate that the perception of the vaccine is that you get it and then you’re protected for the rest of your life. Alas, this isn’t the reality. It does seem likely that relatively frequent boosters will be required, at least with the current technology. We are used to having a yearly vaccine against Influenza, and being required to get a Tetanus booster, so why not against Covid-19 as well. 

Omicron at this stage seems to be less virulent than Delta, though more contagious. Who knows what the next variant will deliver. 

The fact remains that the best defence against getting sick is to get vaccinated and encourage others to do so too. 

Anti-vaxxers have largely lost their battle. It does seem that most of the population have been skeptical of their claims - and that is cause for celebration.

Why are you a skeptic, Barry Lennox?

Continuing on from Mark’s item last week, long-time skeptic and former committee member Barry Lennox gives us his views…


Why did I become a skeptic?  Well, the first stirrings occurred at about 6 or 7. We lived in a small town in Central Otago, and a popular local man was electrocuted. Next day at school, our teacher exhorted us to never ever touch a bare power wire. Just then, I happened to see outside the window, some birds sitting on the power lines. So “Please Miss, the birds are sitting on the line, they look OK”  After some hemming and hawing, we were told “Err, Ahh, that’s because they have special feet”  Well my knowledge of electricity was almost zero then, but somehow, I had a small sense of sensing BS. Later that day I asked my father who gave me the correct version. Moral, be sceptical of school teachers!

Then a few years later we had moved to a farm in North Otago, and Sunday School was compulsory for me (Thanks, Mum) One day our teacher solemnly advised us that God is like electricity, you can’t see it, you can’t feel it, but it’s there.  My BS detector dinged. I could see electricity, at least lightning; OK, not really the same but near enough for me. I could certainly feel it as many electric fence shocks taught me. We had a lot of these as most of our stock was pigs, and electric fences are the only fence a pig will respect.  I also had a bit of knowledge, as I was starting to mess about with crystal sets, and even had a “Hikers One” radio underway. Anybody remember it?

The Hiker One radio set

(I found a picture of the Hiker One - Craig)

Several months later I was reading a long article about a series of catastrophic airline crashes, mainly the DH Comet but others too. What struck me was people who missed a flight for various reasons were quick to proclaim “God was looking after me” This was puzzling and a few weeks later I had the cheek to ask the Sunday School teacher.. “Why did God only save 1 person and let the other 150-200 die?”  The tense reply was “God works in mysterious ways” in a tone that implied I should never display such skepticism again.

What started the more aggressive skeptic phase was working with a chap (a semi-conspiracy theorist and an NRA member) about 30 years ago, who had this habit of appearing each water-cooler break with another “Wow, didja hear this amazing story” There were many; here’s one sample.  It was the old tale about the charred remains of a scuba diver found in a tree after a forest fire. Check it out… 

Almost every day, this went on and on and on, until a few of us got a little tetchy with him. Not for us the kind empathetic understanding their worldview stuff. Nevertheless it took some weeks to get it knocked off. About then a couple of us cooked up our own fake “didja hear this amazing story” and propagated it to him and around the traps, Sadly it was never popular enough to make it into Snopes!

These days, it’s the psychics, homeopaths and all the other alt-med peddlers, antivaxx ravers, the scammers and others that arouse my ire.  When I become President for life, there will be a new Act that puts woo peddlers who take money off desperate terminally ill people, into the most hellish prison imaginable!

However a friend of ours was taken in by a very cunning banking scam and lost a lot of money. There were a few ignored warning signs, but at the time she had a lot going on in her life, and the scammers had impeccable English (operating ex Sydney) and a great cover story.  One of the more disturbing aspects was the lack of interest by the NZ Police, whereas the Australian Federal Police helped a lot and were instrumental in recovering some of the money.

Be careful and skeptical out there. My creed is.... Nice Story, now show me the evidence! And, “What is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence” 


Thanks Barry. If you’d like to contribute your story, please email [email protected] 

So, that's it for the newsletter this week. 

By the way, NZ Skeptics held a successful AGM a couple of weeks ago, with a good turnout of members in addition to the committee. We've got some interesting developments planned for the newsletter in the year ahead which will hopefully expand its reach. Watch this space!
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