Skeptic News: Peter Ellis appeal, more COVID loons, Religion and Taxes

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

One of our readers emailed us this week after Mark’s excellent editorial last week about skepticism and what type of skeptic you are.

Our Facebook page occasionally gets interactions from the non-skeptical public. Invariably they come to criticise - and often think that being a skeptic means being a contrarian, and automatically doubting mainstream views! We know that’s not the sort of skepticism we promote.

This week, one of our readers posted us an interesting comment:

“I’ve been thinking recently about the subject of belief, both good and bad and the relationship with the scientific method. If we “know” something to be true, do we automatically “believe” it’s true? I’m sure philosophers have written whole books on the subject, but I haven’t heard much about it from Skeptics.”

I’m not a philosopher, but I’ll take an initial stab at this, but I’m sure we could flesh this out with a much more nuanced discussion that I can do justice to.

For me, and I think any honest skeptic, belief should be supported by evidence. 

I bristle when somebody claims they “know” something, when, in fact, they don’t know that thing - they just believe it. 

Conversely, it annoys me when people ask about “believing” in evolution or climate change when, more accurately, we’ve understood and appreciated the evidence for evolution and climate change being so strong that it doesn’t require belief, but requires acceptance. 

But perhaps we can write these off to the colloquial use of the terms “know” and “believe”.

What about incongruities in what we believe and what the evidence shows? I think a good example of this is freewill. It seems that we live in a deterministic universe, and that freewill is an illusion. But I’d be fairly certain that most of us live our lives believing freewill to exist, that we’re in charge of our actions, that we choose to do what we do.  

What do you think? We’d be most interested in feedback.

Craig Shearer

Skepticon 2021 - November 20th, 21st

We’ve been promoting the up-coming conference in conjunction with the Australian Skeptics for a few months now.

However, we’ve got some news. After reviewing the situation with COVID on both sides of the Tasman, we’ve decided to abandon the idea of an in-person conference this year, and run it solely as a livestream event.

The COVID situation in Sydney is by no means under control, and holding an in-person event there would have been a challenge. 

On this side of the Tasman, we had hoped, in the spirit of national rivalry, to retain some moral superiority over our Australian cousins and be able to hold an in-person conference in Wellington. Alas, the Delta outbreak has made it just too risky to try to foresee the situation in late November, so the in-person event will not be happening.

But, we see this as a great opportunity! We’ve set a low ticket price of AUD $40, which amounts to NZD $41.86 as of this writing - a lot less than it would have cost to attend an in-person event. 

We’ll be live-streaming the event, with lots of interesting and thought-provoking speakers. It will also be available to watch after the event.

Now is the time to get your tickets booked. It's on the Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st November  Please go here.

Part of the fun of a conference is being able to connect with like-minded folk. We’re still hopeful of being in a situation where local groups could gather for a Saturday evening dinner after the livestream has concluded for the day. Watch this space and hopefully we can make this happen.

Peter Ellis

This past week has seen an appeal of the Peter Ellis child sex abuse case being heard in the Supreme Court. 

The Peter Ellis case revolved around supposed ritual abuse of children at the Christchurch Civic Creche. He, along with a number of his co-workers were accused of various shocking acts against the children in their care. However, only Ellis’s case went to trial. 

The NZ Skeptics had quite a bit to say about the original case. Lynley Hood wrote “A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case”, Jarrod Gilbert wrote an excellent article about the case, and NZ Skeptics committee member Jonathan Harper has written extensively on the case when it was reviewed in the Eichelbaum Report in 2006.

Peter Ellis unfortunately died in 2019 of bladder cancer, but the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal on the basis of Tikanga Māori, meaning that his mana should extend beyond his death.

The appeal, set down for two weeks, started this week and Jonathan Harper has been attending, and reports in his own words:

“Peter Ellis was convicted of sexual abuse as a Childcare worker in Christchurch rather a long time ago.

The evidence against him came from children whose evidence had been seriously contaminated by parents, social workers, therapists and experts who frankly probably knew better than to take the evidence too seriously during a Satanic Ritual Abuse public panic.

 There were no spontaneous uncoached allegations. Many allegations against Ellis and several of his colleagues were bizarre and very unlikely, if not impossible. But the prosecution had hidden most of this from the jury, and focused on presenting the few credible allegations. Both expert witnesses were psychiatrists, and did not help clarify the real issues. At the current hearing the information is much more coherent as all six experts are psychologists. 

Lynley Hood’s massively detailed tome, A CITY POSSESSED is an excellent detailed account for anyone wishing to get more of the social background and history.

There are many excellent current media reports if you just google Peter Ellis Supreme Court; especially those by Martin Van Beynen who followed the original trial.

I have been attending the present hearings all week with Ross Francis. They wrap up at the end of next week. 

My impressions so far:

The three expert witnesses for the prosecution are, in my opinion, rather poor scientists who appear to be making excuses for the extremely poor forensic interviews and contamination of evidence through parental, police and social workers’ suggestions before the trial. 

All six experts do seem to be in agreement that the interviews were very poorly conducted. The defence experts (especially Harlene Hayne) are adamant all this made the convictions unreliable. The prosecution ones equally adamant that while there were serious errors, that doesn’t mean the evidence was not strong enough. 

It is pretty difficult to follow their arguments because they seem to start from the idea or assumption that Ellis was guilty. That is fair enough, but the opposite scenario seems rather foreign to them. For example, very few prosecutions, and even credible allegations resulted from the more than one hundred children interviewed. I always figured the small percentage is about what you get when you do experiments to see which children are susceptible to making false statements when false scenarios are presented to them by parents, police, social workers, etc…or anyone really. But no, Gail Goodman claimed those were somehow the ones resistant to suggestion and telling the truth. I still can't quite follow the logic of that. Another witness for the prosecution, Fred Seymour in their space of about five minutes gave us the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy”, plus two more and a classic confirmation bias.“

We should hope that the conviction of Peter Ellis is righted as it seems to be a clear case of injustice.

COVID loons

In the last newsletter I wrote, I discussed an open letter, penned by Mary Hobbs. Since publishing one of our contacts wrote to supply some more details. It appears that Mary and her husband are Scientologists, and deeply involved in that organisation, even making regular trips to Sydney to clear out a few Thetans, or whatever it is that they do. They even hosted Tom Cruise some time ago on a visit to NZ.

I wrote to Mary Hobbs sharing our feedback on her points. Alas, though unsurprisingly, we’ve not heard back from her.

It seems that there’s always more doctors coming out of the woodwork. The latest of whom is Dr Cindy de Villiers, who is a member of the NZDSOS site. She was speaking at a protest in Nelson last weekend. Having viewed the video of her talk on Odysee (a YouTube clone site that seems to be a favourite place to host videos of a certain conspiratorial nature), I noted the following claims:

 “Our bodies are wonderfully made. We can resist this not so novel virus, as we have with many other viruses, without lockdowns, social distancing, and masks.”

“If we do get sick, whether vaccinated or not, there are many treatment protocols successfully in use across the globe preventing hospitalisation, long COVID and death.”

“In fact, COVID-19 is probably the most treatable viral disease in existence.”

At the start of the pandemic she put up a questionable post about COVID. To be fair, that was written back in April last year, and things have moved on since then, but it does make some pretty astounding claims, including the use of Intravenous Vitamin C as soon as virus symptoms appear, and earthing (where you walk around barefoot on the ground for health benefit from the flow of negative ions!)

The talk also clued me in on a new organisation set up to seemingly counter the World Health Organisation - the World Council for Health. It was set up by a bunch of doctors, including Dr Tracy Chandler, who is registered with the NZ Medical Council, but as is noted on her practising certificate entry - “Dr Chandler is required to participate in an approved recertification programme relevant to the vocational scope of General Practice.” and “Dr Chandler may work outside the stated vocational scope but must do so within a collegial relationship.” I wonder what that’s all about. She also runs a website Dr Wellness and has a certificate in homeopathy. Enough said!

But, back to the World Council for Health - they  have a slick website and unsurprisingly it concentrates on COVID 19. They have a COVID-19 treatment guide and, as you might have guessed, Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine feature prominently, as does gargling with mouthwash.

Needless to say, their advice is pretty worthless, and probably downright dangerous if it were to encourage people to avoid seeking genuine medical advice and treatment.

Our COVID response

Back to COVID seriousness now. It’s been a frustrating week where we’ve seen the Delta variant now escape Auckland and head out to other parts of the country. 

The government has been in a difficult position. This past week has seen some loosening of restrictions where people are now allowed to meet outdoors outside of their bubbles. There has been sustained pressure by the “open up” groups and, while it may have been advisable to continue the lockdown longer to attempt to stamp out COVID, they had to take account of behaviour of the public and its response to the lockdowns. 

The key to getting out of this COVID mess is to get everybody vaccinated. We’ve made some good progress, but we’re not there yet. 

@farmgeek on Twitter continues to put together great graphs. This one shows where we’re at with vaccination.

Remember the people who can’t be vaccinated - including around 700,000 children under 12, and the immunocompromised. Those are the people we put at risk by opening up too early and allowing the virus to circulate.

As I write this on Sunday afternoon, there's 60 new cases today. This is not heading in the right direction, and unfortunately looks like it might be getting out of control. It's certainly looking like the decision to loosen off might well have been a mistake. I certainly hope we can get things under control again, but at some point it becomes impossible.

Lastly on COVID this week, I’m wondering at what point the anti-vaxxers will break, and realise it’s in their own self-interest to get vaccinated. I wouldn’t mind betting that there are some prominent anti-vaxxers who are secretly vaccinated. Ironically, they’re been protected so far by our collective response to COVID. But I think it’s only a matter of time before one of them will become infected, as we’ve seen overseas. (At which point, I’ll have to suppress my schadenfreude! I wonder if there’s a drug for that?!)

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