Skeptic News: There is no religion higher than Truth

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

There is no religion higher than Truth

As promised, myself and another couple of skeptics recently visited the Theosophical Society’s building in Wellington to hear their National President, John Vorstermans, give a talk titled “The Ageless Wisdom”. The Society has a great little building on Marion Street, with a comfortable library of esoteric mystical books at the front, and a large main room with lots of wood and painted mystical symbols. It has a particularly Masonic feel to it.

Inside, John’s talk started by covering the basics of Theosophy - that the Society is interested in finding the truth of all religions. Although this sounds like a good skeptical approach to spirituality, investigating rather than taking things at face value, in reality the organisation felt like it was diametrically opposed to skepticism. Whereas skeptics have so far looked into spiritual beliefs and concluded that none of them have any of the answers to life, the Theosophical Society considers that they all have the answers; or at least a part of the answer. We were told that members like to focus on different spiritual beliefs, such as numerology, astrology, eastern religions and the Christian Gnostics, and that belief in pretty much any idea is okay.

This behaviour is at odds with the society’s motto of “There is no religion higher than Truth”, and made it feel like they really don’t take their motto seriously. It came across as the members being spiritual tourists, dabbling in esoteric ideas without actually committing to them beyond maybe just learning the basics and memorising a few pithy quotes.

As with most spiritual groups, a single opinionated person started the modern Theosophy movement - in this case, Madame Blavatsky. She has the usual back story: a self-educated maverick, eccentric, with fantastical tales about her past and accomplishments, and an unwavering conviction that she had access to a deeper truth than anyone else about the world.

Back to the talk, which focused on three main ideas that are apparently core to Theosophy:

  1. We are not individuals - we are all part of a single connected spirit. Each of us inhabits our physical body temporarily, and only part of our soul is inside our physical body. This spirit inhabits everything we see around us.
  2. Everything is cyclical, and what goes around comes around. Societies come and go, ideas are lost and re-discovered, our souls return to the source and are eventually placed in new bodies (aka reincarnation).
  3. Our purpose in life is to progress spiritually, and move up through the levels of spiritual understanding:

None of this struck me, or the skeptics with me, as very original. It just felt like a rehash of tired old New Age beliefs. However, the members were a really friendly bunch, and it was nice to chat with them, after the talk, about their beliefs and interests. I left with a handful of pamphlets and booklets, and will definitely be returning the next time there’s a free event.

Mark Honeychurch

A Colourful History of Popular Delusions

By Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall

Reviewed by Jonathon Harper


Although this was published six years ago, I think it is a classic reference book that will endure. It is available in some local libraries, including the Auckland public library.

The previous survey, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” was published a long time ago now. It is a great companion reference for Lynley Hood’s analysis “A City Possessed” on the Moral Panic in Christchurch surrounding the Peter Ellis case.

I learnt several things of great interest to skeptics. For example:

The moon hoax used pseudo-scientific terms and quoted a defunct journal. It gave a big boost in circulation to newspapers that published it.

There was a case of anxiety hysteria in Auckland in 1973 about a smell coming from leaking drums in the Parnell wharf. Many people became ill until it was shown the substance in the drums was not poisonous.

Medics (as in a Canadan case in 2004) can suffer from anxiety hysteria. You’d think their training might make them immune!

Exorcism and religion can make things worse in cases of hysteria, due to excessive fear of bad spirits - as it strengthens belief in the imaginary causes of these delusions.

Sometimes harsh conditions can trigger hysteria, and so a ‘spirit’ can speak out or ‘cause’ absenteeism from horrible institutions or work-places due to hysterical symptoms.Sometimes conditions improve as a result; whereas the victims in these institutions may not have been successful had they just protested.

Self-mutilation can be an extreme way to gain attention, and can involve false accusations.

False confessions are common during public moral panics.

Sometimes, as with the Peron family case, psychiatric conditions are falsely reinterpreted as paranormal phenomena.

Finally, skeptics have in some cases managed to help defuse panics by effectively debunking false beliefs. 

Look out for my next review, which will hopefully be on the book NOISE by Daniel Kahneman.

Voltex can save 90% on your power bill

I’ve seen adverts pop up recently on news sites, such as NewsHub and YouTube, that are selling a device which claims to be able to cut your power bill by 90%. Now, wouldn’t that be nice - if it were true!

The company is called Voltex, at (although this should not be confused with an actual New Zealand business of the same name which manufactures residential electrical components). Voltex sells a set of simple to use devices that plug into a wall socket, which their website claims will clean the dirty electricity in your home. This apparently stabilises your home’s electricity supply and will prolong the life of your home appliances.

I noticed that the URL of the advert I clicked on can easily be manipulated to match the country they’re selling to, which just substitutes the word American for Brit, New Zealander, Australian or Canadian - they use the same graphs, the same numbers, and the same organisation names - like the Public Utility Commission, which exists in the United States but not other countries.

The advert is quick to name-drop Nikola Tesla, who is a favourite of conspiracy theorists. The internet is rife with silly ideas that Tesla invented fantastical, physics-defying products that would revolutionise the world but were suppressed by evil governments. Free, unlimited wireless power, an earthquake generator, a camera to take pictures of people’s thoughts via their retinas, and a death beam using accelerated mercury. This device was apparently engineered by three German men using Tesla’s ideas - presumably playing on the stereotype of German engineering being trustworthy. Vorsprung durch technik and all that!

The site claims that electricity companies (Big Energy) are ripping us all off by overcharging for electricity, and suppressing their Tesla-inspired devices. Although there are legitimate claims of over-charging for power in this country, I don’t think the companies are too worried about these devices ruining their business!

An image in the ad shows a meter supposedly reduced from $251 a month to $15 a month, which is even more than the promised “up to” 90%. If we add the protection of appliances to this, the device should easily pay for itself in the first month!

There are images of Facebook conversations where everyone just loves their Voltex devices - although weirdly they’re just screenshots, and a quick search on FB doesn’t uncover any of the people who supposedly commented on how amazing the device is. My guess is that the screenshots are simple fakes, easily made if you know how to use the Chrome Inspector for developers.

The advert says the device is “100% legal”, which is not surprising given that it appears to be nothing more than a white box with a funky looking green LED. I was thinking of ordering one to test it out and pull it apart, but at $74 and with no guarantee that the scammers would even bother to send me one, it didn’t seem like a prudent use of my money.

Thankfully a friend told me yesterday about a YouTuber called Big Clive who reviews fake electrical devices. It didn’t take long to find a video where he tests and disassembles a device identical to the Voltex device, in a video titled “Worst fake "power saver" plug yet” - which gives you a clue as to what he thought of the device.

Big Clive’s conclusion about the device is that, if it was wired together correctly, the device would either do nothing or potentially increase your electricity bill - depending on how your meter measures electricity usage. However, the device he pulled apart didn’t even have the main component, a large capacitor, wired up correctly - both the anode and cathode were soldered to the same circuit board trace. So, even if the science was solid, which it isn’t, the device was as good as useless. There’s a concept behind these devices called Power Factor Correction which may be helpful for certain commercial power loads, but definitely not for domestic electricity usage.

There are many other companies out there selling similar devices with similar claims - Eco-Watt, EcoPlug, MiracleWatt, Enersonic, Voltbox, Earthwise Power Saver, Power Saver Pioneer, Energy Saver 1200, etc. Big Clive has tested most of them, and it will come as no surprise to hear that none of them work.

Like pretty much any device that promises fantastical benefits (pain erasers, get rich quick schemes, car fuel additives), it would pay to be skeptical about this product and avoid wasting $75 on what is essentially a 10 cent green light in a 20 cent plastic case. Not only will it not save you any money on your power bill, it might just burn your house down.

Does the COVID vaccine contain a microchip?

I’ve watched a few videos online 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. Let’s see 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 has that layer to stick to, and the object will fall off.

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. Of course, I haven’t had the COVID vaccine yet, but still the magnet stuck to my arm without the talc, and not with the talc - suggesting that it's not magnetism that's holding the magnet in place. We then tried the same experiment with a coin (a 20c piece), and had the same results. Without talc the coin stuck to my arm, but with talc it just fell off. I asked fellow committee member Bronwyn to try this experiment, as she has been given the COVID vaccine. In her case, magnets don’t stick to her arm even without any talcum powder - I guess she’s just not as sweaty as I am!

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 exists as usable technology.

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 companies. I'm sticking with the belief that nobody can make microchips small enough to fit unnoticed into a vaccine, until someone can prove otherwise.

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