Skeptic News: You can do anything that you wanna do

NZ Skeptics Newsletter


You can do anything that you wanna do


Thanks to everyone who joined our online Skeptics in the Pub meetings over the last two weeks. We’ve had such a good time chatting with skeptics who we usually only see once or twice a year that we’ve decided to make our national online meetings a regular event.

We’ll schedule an online Zoom session from 6pm on Friday to run every four weeks, and I will post the event as a recurring meeting to all the Skeptics in the Pub Meetup groups. Please come along if you want to say hi to other skeptics, if you’re looking for a place to engage in fun, skeptical conversation (with beer), or if you just need to unload about something you’ve heard that’s annoyed you because it’s obvious nonsense.

We have two submitted segments in this week’s newsletter. Our first is from a regular at the Wellington Skeptics in the Pub meetings, John Maindonald, and follows on from a mention I made of Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword a couple of weeks ago.

The second is a podcast recommendation from member Stephen Hall, who has been writing to us about his thoughts on the transmissibility of the new delta variant of COVID. Steve wonders if maybe delta is no more transmissible than previous strains, and that the new variant might instead be spreading more because of differences such as changes in people’s behaviour, rather than due to a beneficial genetic mutation. Steve has heard this idea from a podcast run by Professor Vincent Racaniello, who has been promoting this view in the media recently. Given that most scientists don’t appear to agree with Racaniello’s thoughts on this topic, I will include a proviso that, as always, you should remain skeptical and use multiple sources to fact check any claims you hear.

Mark Honeychurch

Newton’s Laser Sword, and Farts

I feel impelled to comment on Mike Alder’s "While the Newtonian insistence on ensuring that any statement is testable by observation (or has logical consequences which are so testable) undoubtedly cuts out the crap, it also seems to cut out almost everything else as well. Newton’s Laser Sword should therefore be used very cautiously.”

I take this as an admission that, when push comes to shove, Alder does admit that he has to agree with Daniel Dennett:

"There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” — Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 1995.

Newton’s Laser Sword cuts out everything that Mike Alder has to say.  In order to use it, a sense is needed of what is appropriate caution.  That is a question that has to be settled by a framework of understanding (a philosophy, surely) through which we understand the world as we observe it.

Alder repeatedly lumps together, without evidence, the views of mathematicians with those of scientists.  My own perception, equally based on nothing more than my own experience of engaging with mathematicians, is that pure mathematicians, and some slightly more applied mathematicians who work on the boundaries of cosmology and particle physics, do accept something akin to the view that Alder attributes (not quite accurately) to Plato.  Nor is there much unanimity in the views of scientists.   

Newton’s Laser Sword does not seem to have much influenced Newton’s religious views.  Or is it that, in such matters as Newton’s use of biblical texts to predict that the world would end  in 2060, one really did have to wait until 2060 for the matter to be tested?  There’s a fascinating discussion of Newton’s prophetic studies at

From swords to farts — leave off the skeptics hat for a moment, and laugh


There’s an article in the Sept 6 New Scientist headed "Men fart more when eating a plant-based diet due to good gut bacteria". The paper can be found at:

What particularly caught my attention was:

"As previously described, the volume of gas evacuated per anus was measured for 4 h after the probe meal [1,17,18]. In brief, gas was collected using a rectal balloon catheter (20 F Foley catheter, Bard, Barcelona, Spain) connected via a gas-tight line to a barostat, and the volume was continuously recorded.”

No photos are supplied as visual evidence, unfortunately!

Technically, the study was "a single-centre, cross-over, randomised, open-label study”.  Anyone lecturing on study design who wishes to get the attention of a sleepy class will now be able to use this study as an example.  Did it matter that the study was open label? Making the study double blind would certainly have been a challenge.  Impossible?

John Maindonald

Conversion Conversation

Following on from our submission to the Justice Select Committee a couple of weeks ago on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill (outlawing conversion therapy), myself and Bronwyn Rideout from the NZ Skeptics committee gave an oral submission to some of the Justice Select Committee last week. I was surprised that oral submissions started so quickly after the deadline for written submissions, but thankfully in very little time we were able to put together an oral submission that was complementary to our written one, but different enough that we weren’t just boring the MPs with the same information they’d already read from us.

The submissions were all online, and we were given 10 minutes to talk - sandwiched between a coalition of Korean churches (who said that being gay is “wrong”, and that it should be their right to use a disproven, harmful therapy on their children) and the Young Nationals (who told MPs their membership were totally on board with the banning of conversion therapy, due to the lack of evidence of efficacy and how harmful it can be).

As skeptics we detailed some of the evidence that conversion therapy does not work, and also made sure to mention its harms. We then went on to talk about our broad approval of the new legislation, and mentioned some of the changes we would like to see made to it.

As an example, there is currently an exemption for healthcare practitioners. MP Vanushi Walters explained that it was assumed that the existing codes of ethics created by professional bodies for the various professions listed in the HPCA (Healthcare Practitioners Competence Assurance) Act would cover healthcare practitioners who were offering conversion therapy. We countered that our experience of these bodies suggests that they’re not always quick to take action when complaints are made, and that often no fault is found even when there’s a clear breach of conduct. Therefore our recommendation was to remove the exemption for healthcare practitioners from the new legislation before it becomes law.

You can read the text that was the basis of our oral submission on our website.

This Week In Virology

In 2008, the This Week In Tech podcasting network had been going for three years and a number of related topic podcasts started up on the network including one called Futures in Biotech. Modelled on the idea of having a weekly podcast on a specialist subject, a new podcast split away by Professor Vincent Racaniello of Columbia University called This Week In Virology (TWIV). It was inspired by this Week In Tech and given virus is also used in technology, the new podcast developed the tagline “the podcast about viruses – the kind that make you sick”. The first episode was on West Nile Virus and as someone who had no previous interest in viruses, the show fascinated me and fourteen years later I’m still a regular listener as I both enjoy science as well as having gotten to know the team well over the years.

With SARS CoV 2 the popularity of the podcast has increased and the podcast is now approaching 100,000 subscribers – quite remarkable for a science focussed podcast on the latest research papers on viruses. As a listener now for fourteen years, I love the focus on science and during the pandemic this hasn’t changed. TWIV has a number of regular contributors Professor Vincent Racaniello brings in guests on topics of interest, in the last eighteen months these have often been on some element of SARS CoV2. TWIV is not afraid to ask the questions that you won’t always see in the popular media such as is the Delta Variant really more transmissible or is there any science behind the lab leak hypothesis in Wuhan. These questions are examined in light of scientific evidence and through the eyes of leading Virologists rather than through the media who are not specialists in virology.

The podcast has now become the Microbe TV network and has spawned other specialist shows. TWIV alone has many hours of content each week and there is a weekly live stream on YouTube, a weekly medical update from Dr Daniel Griffin and two other weekly shows focussed on research papers or specialist guests. Microbe TV is about to move to a new studio being called The Incubator and Professor Racaniello is going to look to provide even more content on science and virology to the community. I highly recommend Microbe TV and This Week In Virology as a place to learn about science and virology. And if you listen to the end you’ll hear Professor Racaniello declare that another podcast has gone viral.

Stephen Hall

No, Steve from Blue’s Clues did not leave to join the Army

I have three school age kids, and so I’m no stranger to Blue’s Clues. I’ve watched many episodes with both Steve (Steve Burns) and Joe (Donovan Patton) hosting the show alongside the animated dog Blue, following the clues each week. Steve left the show back in 2002, but he made the news recently when he released a feel-good video:
On the back of this, there has been some online speculation that Steve left the show not to go to college, as he says in his video, but to join the army and serve in the Middle East. This speculation was fuelled in part by a series of edits to Steve’s Wikipedia page just over a week ago, variously claiming he was:
  • "serving as an operator in clandestine operations against the Taliban from 2002 to 2021"
  • "the CIA station chief for Islamabad Pakistan"
  • "serving with Special Forces in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban and Al Qada from 2002 to 2021"
  • "[in] the French Foreign Legion, where he would begin his own war on terror under the name Hugh Janus"

I think the last one in particular gives the game away, given the rude pseudonym.

There was also an image shared to Instagram that showed a screenshot of Steve in the show, wearing his signature green striped shirt and with a badly photoshopped US military vest and patches pasted on it. However, when you open the image you now see a blurred version with a warning saying “False Information. Reviewed by independent fact-checkers”:

Clicking on the See Post link opens the image, which has another link to the fact-check warning saying “See why fact-checkers say this is false”:

The text of the warning, from USA Today, lets people know that the image is not genuine:

Independent fact-checkers say this information has no basis in fact.
Fact-Checker: USA TODAY
Conclusion: False
More Information: Fact check: False claim that Steve Burns left 'Blue's Clues' for Afghanistan war
Learn more about how Instagram is working with independent fact-checkers to reduce false information.

Although in this case it seems obvious that the image is fake, and that maybe a “fact check” was not needed to debunk a badly photoshopped internet joke, it’s still great to see that there are news agencies who have the ability, and staff, to add these kinds of warnings to Instagram images. I’m sure many of you have seen similar warnings on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites as well.

In the age of weaponised misinformation being used against entire countries, tools like this that allow the countering of misinformation are going to be an important part of the effort to help people avoid falling down rabbit holes of misinformation. I’m sure most of us have at least one family member who, through social media, has gone from just believing in one pseudoscientific idea to spreading all kinds of nonsense through their posts and shares.

Of course, this is not to say that this kind of fact checking is sufficient to fix the problem of disinformation campaigns. And these fact checking services don’t excuse the harm that social media companies often cause when they feed people nonsense as a way to keep them engaged and maximise the number of adverts they’re able to show you. But it’s a start at least, and it’s fascinating to see that even silly internet jokes need to be debunked, lest people actually believe them and end up with a warped world view where the “mainstream media” are hiding the truth from them.

I’ll leave you all with the wise words of Steve and Blue:

Now it's time for so long, But we're gonna sing one more song
Thanks for doing your part, you sure are smart
You sure worked hard. When you use your mind, Take a step at a time
You can do anything that you wanna do

Coming soon...

We're excited to announce the combined NZ and Australian Skeptics Conference/Skepticon. We're holding this in person (COVID willing!) in Wellington and Sydney simultaneously on the weekend of 19th - 21st November.

There will also be the option to purchase a livestream ticket.

The conference will feature speakers from both sides of the Tasman as well as some exciting international speakers.

We're seeking registrations of interest so that we can gauge numbers.

Please visit the registration of interest page (hosted on the Australian Skeptics site) at the following link:

Register your interest

If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
[email protected]
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