Skeptic News: Non-Overlapping Magisteria?

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Non-Overlapping Magisteria?

Over the next couple of months I'm hoping to visit a few interesting religious groups, to get an feel for them - what they believe, how they act, who attends their events. So, all being well, after this week's report into Christian Science you can expect to hear about the Theosophical Society, Druids, and maybe more!

Some have argued that religion should be out of bounds for skeptics, that the two spheres of religion and science are what's known as NOMA - Non Overlapping Magisteria. Basically, the idea is that science deals with the physical, and religion the metaphysical or spiritual. This might be the case for any religion that avoids making any claims about the physical world, but I've not met one yet!

Although Christian Science (see below) is a particularly egregious example, religious groups always seem to have claims about how their god affects the physical world - natural disasters, answering prayers, healing the sick, making people rich, bringing happiness and contentment. All of these examples are instances where a metaphysical god is impinging on our physical world, and in each case that interaction can be measured by science. And, as we all know, attempts to measure these phenomena invariably fall flat on their face.

Often there's a hand-waving excuse as to why this is the case - the effect is subtle, or this particular god needs to keep their interventions hidden so that people can have faith. But this kind of get-out clause should be no more acceptable to skeptics than James Hydrick's claim that stage lighting stopped his mental powers from working, or Uri Geller's excuse on live TV that he didn't feel strong. The idea of a god who set the wheels of the universe in motion and no longer tinkers is hard to argue against, but it's a rare believer who has faith in such a remote, untestable god. For the majority of religious beliefs that are accompanied by an idea that god is pulling the levers and pressing the buttons of our lives, I believe skeptics should not shy away from questioning those claims.

Mark Honeychurch

Christian Science:

Neither Christian nor Scientific


For a long time now I’ve been promising to take a friend of mine to a Christian Science church service. He’s been interested in doing this because he was brought up in the church in America, but hasn’t been back since he was a child. Finally, last weekend, the stars aligned and we managed to arrange a visit.

We arrived a few minutes early, and headed into the Wellington Central building, which is interestingly designed - from the outside it looks a little avant garde, and that theme is continued inside with very organic looking columns that are reminiscent of bamboo, and a lectern made of wood, steel and rope strands.

Before the service it was obvious the church is not used to seeing new people walk through the door - we were asked if we were “good people” before we were let in, I guess as a way to make sure we weren’t there to cause trouble. Inside there were maybe a dozen congregants. The service started with a couple of hymns, and the organ playing so loud it was hard to hear anyone singing.

After the hymns came the sermon. So, what does Christian Science teach? Are they Christian? Well, yes, kind of, although I’m pretty sure most Christians would denounce them for being heretical. Like the Mormons, Christian Scientists have the Bible as their holy scripture from God, but also refer to a second, more modern text. With the Mormons, it’s the Book of Mormon, and with the Christian Scientists it’s “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” - a book written about 150 years ago by the religion’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy.

The sermon we heard on Sunday consisted of alternating readings from the bible and Mary’s book. What was impressed on us repeatedly throughout the sermon was that our physical bodies are not real, and that matter is just an illusion. We are made in the image of God, and because God is a spiritual being, we must be made of spirit too. Apparently it is the false belief that we inhabit a physical body which causes disease and death. Once you come to understand that matter is an illusion, you no longer have to suffer from disease. There was also repeated mention of the word “science”, but it didn’t seem to be the science we know and love today.

And that, in a nutshell, is what the church is offering - the ability to be free from disease and injury. Of course at times church members get sick. But this is the fault of the adherent, not the church’s teachings, and it is a product of their lack of belief. To help with this, the church runs a helpful service where you can talk to a person they call a Practitioner, who will help to remind you that reality is an illusion - for a small fee, of course.

This false belief that injury and disease are an illusion can be very damaging. Scientology’s belief that someone who has been through “counselling” and reached the state of clear won’t get sick forces adherents to pretend that they’re not sick, and avoid getting medical help. In the same way, Christian Scientists will avoid seeing a doctor for easily treated problems. 

After the service we were given copies of the latest edition of the Christian Science Sentinel. The current edition has articles on how racism is a product of the false belief that we inhabit a physical body, how trusting in spirit can help with dating, and some healing stories.

Before we left I asked if I could return to witness the Wednesday meeting, which my ex Christian Science friend tells me consists of church members giving testimonies of how their realisation of our spiritual nature allowed them to be healed from physical issues. I'll report back when I’ve managed to visit them again.

UFO in Hawkes Bay

Apparently a UFO was seen in Hawkes Bay late last week. Several people reported seeing a large rectangular shaped object in the sky at dusk, with green and red lights, moving strangely.

A MetService meteorologist has suggested the sightings may be of lenticular clouds, which are common in the area and are fascinating dense clouds that can look like a solid object in the sky.

Green and red lights are also used by aeroplanes to let people know where the left (red) and right (green) sides of the plane are, much the same as boats have - red for port and green for starboard.

Descriptions of “unexplainable” motion are often caused by movement of the person observing the object in the sky, rather than movement of the object itself. This is especially true when these objects are filmed on a phone - shaky hand-held cameras can add the appearance of very erratic movement.

Although none of this is proof that people in Hawkes Bay saw clouds and aeroplanes rather than UFOs, on the balance of probabilities it seems like a much more likely explanation.

New Zealand isn’t the only country generating UFO stories at the moment. The US is awash in stories arising from the recent release of military videos of UFOs (or UAPs - Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). My understanding is that military pilots are expected to film anything unexplained they see in the sky - as there is a chance it could be a national security issue - so it’s no surprise that there are videos out there. Unsurprisingly they show nothing more than indistinct blobs, filmed either in visible light or infrared, and recorded from military planes.

Sadly the US media, including major networks such as Fox and CBS, seem to be taking this all way too seriously, recently interviewing people who have already made up their minds that UFOs are real - and seemingly prompted by a 60 Minutes special on UFOs. Some of these interviewees seem far too ready to put up their hands and exclaim that something is the product of advanced technology, before they’ve even done the basic work of trying to explain it by looking into the videos and attempting to find a natural explanation.

I’m sure this kind of reporting is great for increasing viewership, but that’s not good enough. First and foremost, news companies should focus on reporting on the truth - and sometimes that requires doing some ground work and investigation. It turns out that a bunch of unpaid amateurs on YouTube have been able to do a better job than professional media companies have done, looking at these videos for information that can help figure out what the flying objects in question are.

Information such as data from a plane’s camera HUD (Heads Up Display) have allowed one YouTuber to figure out that one video shows an object about the size of a bird, flying at about the speed of a bird, and exhibiting movement like a bird’s flapping wings. Another has compared infrared footage of several of these UFOs with infrared footage, from behind, of known military and commercial jets, and shown them to be a very close match. A third has tracked down the type of night vision camera that has a triangular aperture, and made test videos showing that having the aperture partially closed and the camera out of focus can cause green triangles to appear on the screen when filming aeroplanes at night - triangles that look a lot like the ones featured in one of the most popular UFO clips circulating at the moment.

It’s not okay for the media to not do their job properly, especially when it doesn’t take long to find reasonable explanations for these “unexplained phenomena” online with a simple google search. And interviewing people who believe in UFOs, treating them as “experts”, is just unacceptable. At least our local paper, in this case the Hawkes Bay Today, managed to do a half-decent job of asking someone who knew what they were talking about if there was a possible terrestrial explanation for the recent New Zealand sightings.

Breaking news: Herbs for weight loss don’t work

A recent major report into herbs and supplements for weight loss has concluded that they don’t work, and that not enough is known about their safety. Erica Bessell, the lead author from the University of Sydney, points out that in many countries no evidence is needed that these products actually work, and of course many companies are happy to exploit that failing and sell a wide variety of unproven products to buyers who hope for a simple solution to the hard problem of controlling their weight.

The report is a systematic review of RCTs (Randomised Controlled Trials), and covered 54 trials that were of high enough quality to be included. There was a wide variety of products that had used in the various trials, including green tea, mangosteen, white kidney bean, African mango, veld grape, licorice root, chitosan, glucomannan and fructans.

Erica Bessell said of her analysis:

"Our rigorous assessment of the best available evidence finds that there is insufficient evidence to recommend these supplements for weight loss. Even though most supplements appear safe for short-term consumption, they are not going to provide weight loss that is clinically meaningful."

Sadly, despite this lack of evidence, the global market for alternative weight loss products is estimated to be worth NZ $57 billion. That’s a lot of money being spent on stuff that doesn’t work - and of course this is just one medical issue. Remember that there are unscrupulous people out there who are happy to sell you worthless pills to “treat” pretty much any medical condition, from migraines to cancer.

Does the COVID vaccine contain a microchip?

I’ve watched a few videos from a recent panic where people show themselves sticking a magnet to their arm at the injection site of their COVID vaccine. The same magnet pushed against other parts of the arm will fall off and not stick. Could this be proof that there’s a metallic microchip in the vaccine?

We can look to history to solve this one, as well as trying out a practical experiment. Back in the day skeptic James Randi went to Japan to take on the case of Magnet Men - people who could stick objects to their skin, claiming it was due to some kind of magnetism. Here's what Randi’s solution was:

Talcum powder! Randi’s observation was that flat metallic or magnetic objects, like coins or neodymium magnets, would stick to skin if it was oily or sweaty - and, for most of us, that’s pretty normal for our skin. By covering the person’s skin in talc, the metal object no longer had that layer to stick to, and the object would no longer stick.

Not content to accept this at face value, I employed the help of one of my daughters to test this out. As I’m a somewhat hairy man, our first task was to shave a patch of hair from my upper arm. Having completed that, we grabbed a small flat neodymium magnet and tried to stick it to my arm - success! Once in place, even tipping my arm beyond 90 degrees and shaking gently was not enough to dislodge the magnet.

Next we covered the shaved area of my arm in talcum powder, and tried again. No matter how much I tried, I could not get the magnet to stick any more. We tried the same experiment with a coin, and had the same results. Without talc the coin stuck to my arm, but with talc it just fell off. I haven’t had the COVID vaccine yet, but still the magnet, and coin, both stuck to my arm without the talc - suggesting that maybe this is not a real phenomenon. My next stop will be to try this out on one of my vaccinated friends, and see what happens.

Of course, there’s another obvious reason why this isn’t real - technology just isn’t at the point where we can miniaturise a powered microchip to the point where we can inject it into someone. The dream of nanobots is decades away, and the closest we have today that is injectable is an RFID chip for pets - and it’s not small. I have one I plan to inject myself with at some point, but I’ve yet to find someone who’s game enough to stab me with the chunky needle.

Beyond just getting a chip inside someone’s arm, presumably the government needs their chip to actually do something like monitoring our location, and do it reliably.

For location, the vaccine chip would probably need to have GPS. I have a small GPS chip that I’ve played with in electronics projects, and it’s not small. We’ve shrunk GPS chips a lot, but not to the point where we can inject them - the smallest is about centimetre cubed. And, that chip will just receive location data from GPS satellites, it can’t send any data. To send data, you’d need another chip and an antenna. If the government wanted to use the phone network, that would probably need another 1cm chip for GSM.

And then of course there’s power. Without power, none of this is going to work. RFID chips can be as small as they are because they aren’t powered. When you hold them up to an RFID reader, within a cm or so, the reader supplies the chip with a small amount of power which they pick up via an induction coil and use to send a brief signal with their ID. However, unless the government is following everyone they want to track very, very closely with mobile electromagnetic induction coils, the chip in the vaccine is going to need a battery, or some previously unseen method of converting either the body’s movement or biological processes into power. And there’s absolutely no evidence that any of this technology exists in a usable form.

Obviously this is all very conspiratorial. To believe that it is true necessitates us thinking that governments around the world are suppressing knowledge about super advanced technology. Technology that has somehow been designed, tested, perfected and manufactured without anyone leaking it to the press or stealing the precious Intellectual Property and selling it to rival governments. But somehow I don't think the average person who is fooled by the idea that there are microchips in the COVID vaccine is worrying too much about the logical consequences of this one seemingly inconsequential belief.

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