Skeptic News: Skeptics in Space!

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


Skeptics in Space!

On Friday evening we had a national online Skeptics in the Pub meeting (Skeptics in Cyberspace), which going forward will be happening every four weeks. If you’re interested in joining us, check your local Skeptics in the Pub’s MeetUp group, or the Wellington group if you don’t live somewhere with an active Skeptics in the Pub group. Although we usually talk about a lot of skeptical topics, because of our shared interest in science and skepticism we often end up recommending TV shows and movies to each other as well. We’re not 100% agreed on what’s good and what’s not, but there’s definitely a lot of cross-over. Documentaries and science fiction are both frequently recommended.

My suggestion for last Friday was the new TV series Foundation (sadly on Apple TV+ - yet another paid streaming service). The show is based on the Isaac Asimov books, which I read many moons ago, back when I was a teenager. I’m really enjoying the show, and the way that it venerates mathematics and science in a way that I think will resonate with most skeptics - even if we know that in the real world nothing is quite as clear cut and simple as it’s often made to look in fiction.

Back to skepticism. This week we have a bumper crop of news items of interest to skeptics. I’ve been lucky enough to have returned to my segment on Graeme Hill’s evening show on MagicTalk, now that he’s back from his stint covering Drive Time. So I’ve already had a chance to air some of these stories - on skeptical staples such as vaccines, QAnon and psychics, and the more weird and wonderful, like the trillion dollar US coin.

But first, before we hear more from me, we have a response from member Lance Kennedy to my intro from a couple of weeks ago, where I wrote about a classification system for skeptics I often find useful. And then we have some thoughts from committee member Jonathon Harper on Coromandel mayor Sandra Goudie’s decision to not be vaccinated.

Mark Honeychurch

What kind of Skeptic?

Lance Kennedy

There are many kinds, and some are, frankly, full of bulldust! So what am I, and what are the members of the NZ Skeptics?

My answer to that, is that we are science based skeptics. That is, we do not accept claims that lack credible evidence. So what is credible evidence? My personal standard is that which is published in reputable, and peer reviewed research journals. So when The Lancet published a metastudy of homeopathy, which showed that (viewing 110 good double blind clinical trials) homeopathy was no better than placebo, that is sufficient to gain my support. 

There are people who claim to be skeptics, who are simply deniers. We all know of global warming deniers, and more recently, those who deny that covid 19 is a serious pandemic. Members of the NZ Skeptics will not be this kind of skeptic.

Mark’s last newsletter suggested two ways of forming opinions. To inform yourself by reading up on the data, or to accept the views of those who are experts in their fields. My personal view is that both are required. Any person who wants to be a well informed skeptic needs to read, read, read, and read some more. Choose carefully what you read. I am sure we are all aware of the numerous crackpot websites out there, purveying total intellectual garbage. I subscribe to New Scientist, Scientific American, and to ScienceDaily. Those are somewhat popularised, but the writers tend to be double degreed people, with an advanced degree in science, and qualifications in journalism. They study the research results that come from more esoteric journals, and rewrite them in a more accessible form.

Now about experts. There is a widespread belief that appeal to authority is a fallacy. That is not entirely true. Appeal to the wrong authority is a fallacy. Appeal to the right authority is an argument. If I am discussing the role of black holes in cosmology and I quote the late Stephen Hawking, that is the correct use of appeal to authority, since Hawking is the greatest authority. If I am discussing covid 19 and I quote a right wing American journalist, that is pure fallacy. So I suggest to my fellow skeptics, that they should feel free to quote authority, but just be very careful which authority you quote.

Scientific consensus is a wonderful concept, but difficult to ascertain. Anthropogenic global warming is often said to be the result of a consensus of climate scientists, and that is true. But it is an unusual case, because most scientific issues are not the subject of proper studies to find out what the consensus actually is.

There is no magic bullet in any of this. I am aware of a historical study that looked at articles in peer reviewed and reputable research journals, over many decades. The conclusions drawn in those articles were weighed against later findings. The startling discovery is that approximately 30% of those conclusions were overturned later by new work. So even the gold standard, the reputable, peer reviewed research journals, is not the final word. Science is a work in progress, and the very best conclusions may still be incorrect. This is where a good skeptic must still keep an open mind.

Sandra Goudie vs Science

Jonathon Harper

Sandra Goudie is the Thames Coromandel Mayor who has been in the news for refusing the Pfizer vaccine, saying she will wait until she can receive the Novavax vaccine. Goudie is quoted in the NZ Herald as saying she “believes it is "absolutely wrong" that some people should be mandated to have the vaccine…”

Goudie has done her own research. Well, before one were to start with one’s own research on vaccines, five years study at a medical school would be a basic prerequisite… but perhaps that is unkind to Goudie. She may have been paying attention to a consensus of experts?

On Saturday morning, Kim Hill’s Radio NZ expert guest pointed out the Pfizer vaccine is safe because it has been tested on hundreds of millions of people. Novavax is still not approved, and is under trial. Goudie might have been smarter to wait for an Astra Zeneca shot, as it is closer to approval here, and like Novavax is not a RNA vaccine.

As to allowing medical and educational workers to remain unvaccinated, again going to RNZ’s expert (John Potter), vaccinated people are far less likely to spread covid. Of 170 people admitted to hospital with covid, only three were vaccinated. That’s despite a high proportion now being vaccinated.

This year's conference is a joint effort with the Australian Skeptics, and we will be live-streaming the event with many interesting and thought-provoking speakers. The conference talks will also be available to watch after the event.
We’ve set a low ticket price of AUD $40, which amounts to around NZD $42 - a lot less than it would have cost to attend an in-person event. 

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

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.

Will the US mint a trillion dollar coin?

Rumours have been circulating in the US that President Biden plans to fix the debt ceiling issue by minting a one trillion dollar coin. Although this sounds patently absurd, there’s some logic behind this.

Carlos Mucha first floated the idea, jokingly, in 2010 when he spotted a law from 1997, covering the US Mint, that allows them to create commemorative coins of any denomination as a way to raise funds. So if the Mint decided to create a trillion dollar coin, technically it would be legal to do so. Another law around the Federal Reserve means that they have to honour all commemorative coins as legal tender. The only catch is that it would need to be made in platinum, but even for an expensive metal like platinum the cost of the metal would be many orders of magnitude less than the worth of the coin.

Supposedly since the idea was first mentioned, government officials have at times seriously considered it as a way to help fix the curious set of circumstances in the US where congress needs to approve much of the government’s budget, including the debt ceiling (how much the government can be in debt before defaulting), and that this has led to parties using this power for political gain.

But finally this rumour has been put to bed, as the Treasury secretary of the United States, Janet Yellen, said this week that she does not intend to mint a platinum coin worth 1 trillion dollars to pay for the US government’s expenses. So it looks like this crazy idea is not going to happen - at least for now.

The big Vaccine Push

The government is really pushing the COVID vaccine at the moment, including with this weekend’s Super Saturday - where around 130,000 vaccines were administered in a single day.

What I’ve been particularly surprised to hear is that famously anti-medicine MP Maureen Pugh has had her first vaccine. She’s held out for a long time, and I’m pretty sure she’s the last MP to have been vaccinated - which is not surprising given her prior form. In Maureen’s Maiden Statement to parliament back in 2016, she talked about how for the prior 25 years her only source of healthcare treatment was from her chiropractor. I guess either she’s walked back on her statement at the time that "nature delivers whatever we need", or the political pressure was too much and she received the vaccine despite her (erroneous) beliefs.

The vaccine mandate is going to be an interesting one to watch. Healthcare workers will need to be double vaccinated by the first of December, and teachers by the first of January next year. Any unvaccinated teacher between now and then will have to take a weekly COVID test. Of course, for both of these professions the mandate is not about the workers so much as it is about the people in their care - those who are at elevated risk. As Minister for COVID-19 Response Chris Hipkins said:

“We need the people who work with vulnerable communities who haven’t yet been vaccinated to take this extra step... People have a reasonable expectation that our work forces are taking all reasonable precautions to prevent the spread of disease”

And Jacinda Ardern has said it’s likely that music festivals will need to require attendees to prove they’ve been vaccinated as a condition of entry.

As a result of these new rules, I’ve already been hearing stories of “vaccine hesitant” people who are suddenly having to come to terms with the idea that they will either have to make a decision very soon to be vaccinated, or lose some of the things they care about such as their their favourite social event of the year or their livelihoods. I really hope these people manage to make their peace with this, and that they can decide to take the vaccine knowing that it’s not an “experimental jab”, but rather is a marvel of modern technology, something that helps to train our own natural immune system to defend against COVID.

Unsurprisingly, many of the people who are pushing the anti-vaccine message stand to profit from their spreading of misinformation. Alternative medicine practitioners are selling their own nonsense ideas about boosting your natural immunity, groups like Voices for Freedom are selling you over-priced T-shirts and bags, and asking for donations, and members of fringe political groups like the Outdoors Party are hoping to secure your vote.


The thin end of the QAnon Wedge

I naively thought that the whole QAnon movement would fall apart after Trump lost his bid for re-election. For those who have somehow not heard about QAnon before, it’s a conspiracy that started in the US a few years ago, and is supposed to be the writings of a high-level government insider who leaks secrets via hidden meaning and codes in his messages. However, it’s been obvious since the start that QAnon is not an insider, but just a made up persona used to promote right wing ideas and Donald Trump in particular. As Wikipedia says:

“QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory and movement centered on false claims made by an anonymous individual or individuals, known by the name "Q", that a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles operate a global child sex trafficking ring and conspired against former president Donald Trump during his term in office.”

Sadly many people are still following QAnon - not just the posts themselves, but the online groups and forums that have grown around efforts to “decode” Q’s messages. These are echo chambers that feed people nonsense, and leave them confused about what’s real and what’s not.

At the harmless end of this delusion are ideas like that Angela Merkel is Adolf Hitler's granddaughter, or that the elite in the US are printing clones of themselves, just like in the recent (fictional) TV show Westworld. Supposedly Tom Cruise has a backup clone in case he’s assassinated, and Mike Pence is two people - a good clone and a bad clone. Even president Joe Biden isn’t the real Biden in QAnon world.

But at the other end, people are actually dying because of QAnon. The January 6th attack in Washington is one example that ended with the loss of several lives. And Rolling Stone magazine has recently published a harrowing story about Matthew Taylor, a surf instructor, father and religious man who started following QAnon only recently.

Somehow in the mess of QAnon messaging that he read online, Matthew became convinced that his children had “serpent DNA” and decided that he needed to end their lives to save them. And he’s not the first - others have murdered loved ones in the US in the last two years because of their heartfelt belief in nonsense ideas. QAnon followers often use a legitimate sounding cause of “Save the Children”, with a back story about child trafficking, adrenochrome, antarctic bases and the evil global elite, to push their ideas onto unsuspecting people, and one Californian woman drowned her three children because of her concerns that they would be trafficked.

I often focus on the light-hearted end of conspiracies - wacky beliefs and silly ideas - but sadly these half-baked notions seem to be capable of instilling real fear in people that makes them do irrational things. I’m sure that Matthew thought that he was saving his children from something worse by taking their lives, and I’m sure that those who spread conspiracy theories about children being in danger really believe they are helping. But that’s part of the problem - people who don’t stop to fact check their beliefs, or who choose the wrong people to trust as an authority.

I’m not sure what the answer to this is, but I think at least part of it is to teach more critical thinking at school. Kids need to know how to spot nonsense, and how to ask the right questions to find out whether there’s good quality evidence for the things they’re told. It sometimes feels a little boring to be a skeptic, calling into question other people’s assertions. But better to be a party pooper than a super-spreader of dangerous nonsense, I think.


Psychic sued for false claims

It seems ridiculous, but a man in the US is suing a psychic he asked for life advice. The psychic, Sophia Adams, told customer Mauro Restrepo that his marriage was at risk because of a “mala suerte” (bad luck) curse placed on him by an ex-girlfriend. For only US$5,000, she was willing to lift the curse and save his marriage.

It seems that Mauro only paid the first $1,000, but ended up suffering from insomnia and anxiety as a result of the worry caused by the psychic’s prediction. He is suing the “Psychic Love Specialist” and self-proclaimed “PhD Life Coach” for $25,000, with charges of “negligence, civil conspiracy and both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress”.

I wonder if he’s suing because of his embarrassment after he realised he’d been conned by a professional trickster into handing over money. After all, this is a common trick used by psychics to take someone’s money. The initial consultation might only be $100, but when a ruthless psychic sees that there’s money to be made, they will often scare people into thinking there’s something wrong in their life that’s causing them bad luck.

In this case, it was this fear of a curse having been used that caused Mauro to worry and pay money to have his problem fixed. But the con can be so much more blatant than this, and people still fall for it. Psychics often tell their customers that their money is cursed, and that only by withdrawing their funds from the bank and having the money blessed by the psychic will the curse be lifted. There are too many stories of unsuspecting victims handing over thousands and thousands of dollars to a psychic - of course this money is never seen again. The psychic will either deny they ever received the money, or in some cases will suddenly move away to another town.

It’s bad enough that psychics charge ridiculous prices for a service where they lie to customers about a magical ability they claim they have. But when psychics go beyond their extortionate $200 an hour fees and start taking thousands of dollars from people, that’s a special kind of awful. In this country, all we have to protect unwitting members of the public is a law which says that says that “mediums” need to have an “intent to deceive”:

16 Acting as medium with intent to deceive

(1) Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $1,000 who, acting for reward,—

(a) with intent to deceive, purports to act as a spiritualistic medium or to exercise any powers of telepathy or clairvoyance or other similar powers; or

(b) uses any fraudulent device in purporting to act as a spiritualistic medium or in purporting to exercise any such powers.

(2) For the purposes of this section, a person shall be deemed to act for reward if in respect of what he does any money is paid, or any valuable thing is given, whether to him or to any other person.

(3) Nothing in subsection (1) shall apply to anything done solely for the purpose of entertainment.

This is obviously not enough to protect people from scammers. Proving intent is hard, and a disclaimer that a psychic is just offering their trade as entertainment looks to be enough to cover them legally. I’d love to see NZ Police using our laws to stop psychics bilking people out of their money, but it looks like our current laws make it unlikely this will happen.

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