Skeptic News: Talkback and conspiracies

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

Hi there

Conspiracies are in the news a lot lately. In recent newsletters we’ve talked about them a lot, and there’s more to cover this week, both from an international and NZ-based perspective.

Craig Shearer

Talkback Radio

In recent weeks there’s been a bit of controversy on the airwaves in the form of talkback radio. Talkback radio’s an interesting format - where else (apart from letters to the editor) do you get to voice your opinion on any matter to such a big audience? A few weeks ago we saw the removal of John Banks from the Magic Talk radio network after his abhorrent racist remarks (and not shutting down those of a caller). 

And now we hear that Peter Williams, a veteran broadcaster who has the respect of a significant chunk of the NZ population, is giving oxygen to anti-vaccine groups who are “sceptical” of the COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out. Peter Williams has also been in the climate-change-denying camp with his opinions on that appearing in print, and no doubt on the airwaves as well. 

It is a shame that these pseudoscience opinions are aired, when there’s a fantastic opportunity to educate the public instead. Indeed, in the past Mark Honeychurch and Siouxsie Wiles used to have a regular spot on RadioLive on Sunday Evenings with Graham Hill where they shared their skeptical thoughts. Alas, RadioLive is no longer.

Today I read an opinion column from Alison Mau which is well worth a read. She makes good points that talkback radio is an essential service for many in the older demographic.

“For some battling loneliness and isolation, talkback is a lifeline. A conversation with a talkback host might be the only human interaction some older, or geographically isolated, people have in their day or their week. For the farmer spending long days sealed in the cab of their harvester, or the elderly person who hasn't seen another soul in days, the chance to chat or share an opinion can be a much-looked-forward-to bright spot.”

But the crux of Alison Mau’s article is that “you should always be ready to debunk nonsense that callers spout as fact or opinion.”. Hear hear - this is exactly what we need - talkback hosts with the intelligence and broad knowledge that can challenge opinions that promote pseudoscience.

Creationism conspiracy theory

Creationism is what drew me into skepticism. Back in the 90s when I was lecturing in software development, I had a work colleague who was a young earth creationist. Seemingly rational in other areas of his life, and very intelligent, he was nevertheless hooked on “creation science”. It showed to me how even smart people can be taken in when they have an emotional stake in the topic. 

An interesting article appeared on The Conversation by Professor Paul Braterman from the University of Glasgow likening creationism to conspiracy theories. The article was also featured on the website - a site dedicated to fact-checking claims. 

While the article is very US-centric, it is an interesting read. The prominent organisation supporting (and financially benefiting from this conspiracy) is Answers in Genesis, run by Ken Ham (originally from Australia). Responding to the criticism in the article they sicced one of their attack dogs, in the form of Ham’s son-in-law Bodie Hodge, onto it. It’s an exceedingly long “rebuttal” of the points that Professor Braterman makes. It’s difficult to make it through the response but Hodge’s main weapon of attack is to point out logical fallacies, himself committing the fallacy fallacy. It just goes to show that there’s a lot more to skepticism than being able to reel off a list of fallacies that you think somebody is committing.

Newsletter Feedback

One of the joys or risks (depending on your perspective) of writing these newsletters is that we sometimes receive negative feedback. A few weeks ago I wrote about QAnon and the realisations that believers were having that the predictions of Q hadn’t panned out. From this I received the following feedback. My comments in [red].

“If these are your viewpoints, then I wonder if you consider information available from sources other than mainstream media, which you clearly echo in your "newsletter"  (I say "yours" for a reason). [While it's good to consider other sources, at least the mainstream media is written by professional journalists, who, while not perfect and have biases, at least are trained. What other sources would you suggest that are accessible from here in NZ?]

 I am an American, but in NZ for 45 years. Herewith, my responses to TWO examples from your diatribe:

 I can vouch for the existence of high-level pedophile rings and their protection under certain domains [Then I really hope you've done something about this, such as reporting to relevant authorities!]. This reality is tossed as nonsense and minimised by your mockingbird article about "Q beliefs" and what not.

 This is the very reason why this horrible crime continues unabated (100,000 missing children in USA - never recovered [Not sure of the source of your 100,000 number (and over what period of time?), but this article provides some interesting background, showing that the number of children missing and never seen again is quite small.]) and this certainly does occur through these rings here in [Location supplied] (I'm an ex-secondary teacher).  All protected.

 Aren't you skeptical? [Yes, that's my role]

 Was there election fraud? Is Biden for real the most popular President "eva"? [I believe that this is a reasonable conclusion given the polarisation of the electorate. Many people were highly motivated on both sides meaning a high turnout.]

I saw the votes being changed onscreen during the election night (did you?) [I saw reports of videos but I think there are more prosaic explanations, such as errors being corrected, than election fraud.]

I have seen CCTV of ballots dragged out and counted (multiple times) after everyone ordered home (have you?). [No, I've not seen evidence that votes were counted and added to a total multiple times. How credible is your evidence, and would this account for enough error to sway the result?]

I have seen videos of dumped ballots - for President Trump, of course (have you?) [No, and again, how significant would this be even if this was the case?]

How many dead people? And after you die, you re-register as a Democrat?  Thousands, wtf? [Evidence? While there may be isolated cases of this happening, is it widespread enough to affect the outcome?]

I have watched the testimony of many and seen their affidavits under penalty of perjury (>20,000 recorded) from nearly every one of about 5,000 reporting counties in the USA (have you?) [If there was credible evidence of fraud, why wasn't it presented in the numerous court cases brought?]

 Aren't you skeptical? [Yes, but not credulous]

 I could go on, but I'm afraid you are not as skeptical as I. Good luck in your quest to find real answers.”


To me this illustrates the difference between skepticism and unbridled gullibility in buying into conspiracy theories. To me skepticism must be exercised with caution. With specific regard to the US election, if there was clear evidence of large scale fraud it would have been produced in the numerous court cases that the Trump team lost. For the fraud to rise to a level that could determine the outcome would require a vast conspiracy which would likely be exposed very quickly.

We should listen to actual experts, who have commented that the recent US election was the most secure ever.

STOP PRESS - COVID Community Transmission

As no doubt everyone will be aware by now, there's been community transmission of COVID-19 in Auckland. Back to Level 3 for Auckland, and Level 2 for the rest of the country. Let's hope this is over with quickly, and doesn't get out of hand. Best wishes to everyone involved, and keep scanning and checking in!

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