Looking back at 2020 from a skeptical viewpoint, it was interesting that things got weirder as the year went on.
The year started off fairly normally, with the conspiracy minded worrying about the rollout of 5G, and its potential to cause cancer and other diseases. I honestly thought that this would be as weird as it got in 2020, until the arrival of COVID.
It was interesting to see how quickly COVID conspiracy theories cropped up, and how quickly they were linked to 5G and other conspiracies as well.
Several NZ based alternative medicine practitioners started selling cures for COVID early on during the pandemic, but thankfully the government was quick to deal with these as they cropped up. I ended up reporting an acupuncturist for selling herbs that were supposed to protect against, and cure, COVID, and a church that posted a video of advice from a functional nutritionist, including that drinking water and taking hot showers would rid the body of COVID.
Lockdown also seems to have led many people to believing in a wide range of conspiracy theories, including the now mainstream QAnon. I guess that’s what happens when you force people to stay at home and entertain themselves. The engagement algorithms used by Facebook, Google and others are tuned to optimise the time their users spend online, because this lets them put more adverts in front of people’s faces, which equates to more profit. Unfortunately it transpires that often the best way to engage people that already believe in a conspiracy theory is to create a customised rabbit hole of new conspiracy theories for them to learn about and absorb. Many people have come out of their time online believing in dangerous conspiracy theories, including at least two of my family members. It’s sad to see this happening, but the tech companies just claim that they have no responsibility because they’re "just a platform".
New Zealand’s own skeptical angel, Siouxsie Wiles, won the supreme award at the Women of Influence Awards this year for her amazing work helping to communicate clear, simple advice to all of us during the pandemic. Her calm, kind, rational outlook really is an asset to this country.
In the lead up to this year’s election here in NZ, it was interesting to watch some of the smaller parties vying for the votes of "alternative" thinkers who "do their own research". There were several parties that piqued my interest, and I ended up attending a talk given by New Conservatives leader Leighton Baker, and another by Family First. However, I didn’t get a chance to see the parties I really wanted to see - Vision NZ, The Outdoors Party and Advance NZ (aka the Public Party).
Vision NZ seemed to me to be doomed to failure. Who outside of Destiny church would vote for Ps Hannah Tamaki, especially given that we all knew her husband "Apostle Bishop" Brian Tamaki was the one pulling the strings behind the scenes. Bishop Brian has a history of making silly claims, including blaming gay people for earthquakes and telling his parishioners that Psalm 91 (a Prayer of Protection) would protect them from COVID-19. it’s not surprising that the party received just under 3,000 party votes (around 0.1%). I reckon that probably aligns fairly well with Destiny church’s congregation numbers across the country.
You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.
The Outdoors Party came out early against 5G mobile communications, making unscientific claims that 5G is dangerous and that NZ should halt our rollout of 5G infrastructure immediately. They were also anti-fluoride, anti 1080 and wanted DHBs to offer alternative medicine alongside medicine that actually works. I kept a watchful eye on the party via several right wing YouTube channels whose hosts seemed to be closely aligned with party leadership. Thankfully, they received a little under 3,000 party votes.
Advance NZ were the party where the dodgy claims ran thick and fast. Advance NZ was set up by Jami-Lee Ross after he resigned from the National Party, and earlier this year the party joined with Billy Te Kahika’s Public Party - because Billy TK was too late to register his recently formed Public Party in time for the election. The Public party was formed by Billy after he spent a lot of time during lockdown reading conspiracy theories on the internet. David Farrier (who does some amazing skeptical work) wrote a great breakdown of when and how Billy got sucked into conspiracy thinking.
The Public Party conspiracy tent is big, and pretty much everyone with fringe beliefs has been welcomed in. A quick look at their list of candidates rang a lot of alarm bells for me, with such luminaries as:
Siggy Henry, Advance NZ’s Hamilton East candidate, who has made the news in recent years as a Hamilton councillor, with such antics as trying to get free flu jabs for council staff defunded, being rabidly anti-vax and anti-fluoride, claiming that tampons and mammograms cause cancer and saying that overweight people are a health hazard because because they might fall on you. She received just 211 votes.
Nigel Antony Gray, a Scientologist - that fact alone should have been enough to ensure that nobody voted for him. Nigel rose from obscurity when he "predicted" an earthquake a few years ago in his Weather Modification Facebook group. On the back of that prediction, his group received thousands of new members - at which point Nigel performed a bait and switch, changing the group name to Spiritual Awareness and trying to promote Scientology to his new members. Nigel once told me I should get a colonic irrigation (I think I’d upset him by telling the media he was a crackpot, and I presume he was trying to say that I was full of shit). Nigel received a surprising 356 votes from the Wairarapa, which is more than the number of Scientologists in the entire country (321, as of the 2018 census).
Jeanette Wilson, who is well known to the New Zealand Skeptics as we have had several run-ins with her in the past, calling her out for her daft psychic readings, channeling, pictures of "orbs" and promotion of dodgy medical devices and psychic surgery. This year, in the midst of being embarrassed in the media as part of a sting operation run by Susan Gerbic from the US and several local skeptics, the all-round nonsense spewing psychic Jeanette Wilson announced that she would be running as an Advance NZ candidate. However, less than 24 hours later her candidacy was over. One has to wonder what happened that a party as weird and wonderful as Advance NZ ended up being incompatible with a shyster like Jeanette Wilson.
Vinny Eastwood, who spoke at an NZ Skeptics’ conference in Wellington a few years ago. Vinny is internet famous for running a YouTube channel where he interviews anybody and everybody who has a crank theory. Although Vinny didn’t run as a candidate, he did lend his support for Advance NZ, including weekly chats with Billy TK and interviews with several other candidates. Vinny constantly promoted Advance NZ because, in his words, a vote for Advance NZ is the only way to stop communism from taking over New Zealand. Oh, and also because Billy TK paid Vinny $1,000 towards the cost of fixing his wife’s car.
Mary Byrne was another helper beavering away in the background of the party. She is best known to skeptics as the longtime head of Fluoride Free NZ. By all accounts, she’s a committed volunteer, and she has been working tirelessly in New Zealand for many years trying to undermine science-based public health policy. Like with her Fluoride Free NZ work, I presume that Mary prefers to work in the background for Advance NZ, and would rather not have her name and face become public.
Billy Te Kahika himself, whose daft ideas are wide-ranging, although he seems particularly enamoured with the Agenda 21/Agenda 2030 conspiracy, where governments are apparently using the UN’s efforts to promote sustainable living as a pretext to remove all our liberties - and eventually place us all in concentration camps. Since the election it’s come to light that Billy is a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement - a breakaway branch of the Adventists who believe the end of the world is near, and that if possible it should be hastened. This might well explain his readiness to accept a lot of the conspiracy theories he seems to have fallen for. I found a short interview with Billy from back when he was baptised into the church, where he said:
"I pray that with my recent election to help church missionary work that God will use me to bring other people home to His church in preparation for His Son’s soon return to take His children home to heaven. Amen."
Billy managed to attract only 976 votes.
# Death of James Randi
Although not totally unexpected, it was still sad to see the great skeptic James Randi pass away recently. Randi was the father of the modern Skeptical movement, and his tenacity and trickery went hand in hand - being a magician allowed Randi to think like those who try to pull the wool over the eyes of the public, and he was very astute at figuring out how many psychics, mentalists and other shysters tricked people into believing they had special powers.
Some of Randi’s most impressive results include:
- Exposing evangelical preacher Peter Popoff’s cheating methods
- Repeatedly showing the media the Uri Geller is nothing more than a con man
- Showing that James Hydrick was blowing pages
- Exposing Jacques Benveniste’s lack of scientific rigour when testing homeopathy
Randi also created a million dollar prize for anyone who could prove they had supernatural powers - a prize that has still not been won.
The NZ Skeptics managed to locate a copy of the video of a talk (opens new window) Randi gave in Christchurch back in 1993. It’s a great lecture, and you can watch it on the NZ Skeptics’ YouTube channel. Just search for NZ Skeptics on YouTube.
There were many good obituaries for Randi, along with a few less savoury articles written by believers in the supernatural - even after his death, some people were still angry that during his long career Randi had, at some point, shown their beliefs to be nonsense.
If you want to know more about Randi, I highly recommend watching the documentary An Honest Liar. It’s well put together, and does a laudable job of exposing the bad as well as the good.
# Haunted House
A group called Haunted NZ released a slickly made video (opens new window) in November about a haunted house. Although the video looked good, it was unfortunately lacking in substance. We at the NZ Skeptics were asked to review the video for the media, and concluded that the style of using drone footage and a voice over didn’t make up for their total lack of substance, and that using equipment known for giving spooky looking results, like ambiguous audio and temperature changes, is not proof that ghosts exist.
Devices used were:
- EVP equipment (audio recorders)
- A ghost (or spirit) box (a radio that jumps between stations)
- Cameras, catching "orbs" (dust particles)
It’s unfortunate that these ghost hunters are happy to perpetuate people’s belief in the supernatural, even when it’s detrimental to those who believe they are being haunted. This kind of fear can have real, negative effects on people’s lives. This is just one of the many ways in which people with no training in science use the trappings of science and technology (lots of devices with flashing lights and beeps) to make it look like they know what they’re doing. In reality, it’s like they’re members of a cargo cult, using equipment they have no idea how to operate properly.
There’s a kind of arrogance to ghost hunters, along with conspiracy theorists, alternative medicine pushers and occultists who believe in magic. There’s a belief that they know better than science, and that things are true simply because they feel true. Science - actually doing hard work to ensure your ideas are true - is pushed away, deemed unnecessary or even useless. The scientific method has given us all the trappings of modern life, and has advanced our understanding of the world around us immeasurably. It’s so disappointing when people who rely on the fruits of science every day then blithely, openly deride it when it disagrees with what they want to believe.
There was a bit of light relief supplied this year by the discovery of a prism shaped monolith in a national park in Utah, in the US. Adding to the mystery, the monolith disappeared after about a week, and since then other monoliths have appeared around the world, including one here in NZ, in Christchurch.
Obviously there’s nothing other-worldly going on here. The monoliths appear to have been made using sheet metal and rivets, and latter monoliths seem to have been made by copycats. One disappointing thing to see was that the monolith in California was knocked down by a group of Christians and replaced with a cross - although a new monolith has since been installed there.
I really like these kinds of mysteries - both those that are obviously contrived puzzles, like the Kryptos monument (at CIA HQ), the Georgia Guidestones and the online Cicada 3301 puzzles, and those that hint at genuine mystery, such as the Somerton Man mystery and the Phaestos Disc.
However, some mysteries such as QAnon appear to be designed to foment unrest and deliberately deceive people, and that’s not okay. There’s a great article written by a game designer who designs real life puzzles (like escape rooms, but larger and longer), where they explain that even when part of designing a good puzzle is making the path to the answer obvious. If you don’t do that, people tend to get stuck following "patterns" that aren’t there by design, and become convinced that they need to keep working on their discovery rather than stepping back and looking for different answers.
For QAnon, it’s been designed like a puzzle with no real answer. Instead, people make what sense they can of the jumbled words, sentences and codes QAnon writes, and then post their ideas online. The most plausible of these explanations, the ones that resonate well with other QAnon followers, tend to get accepted and brought into the fold of what is canon. In this way, the story of the QAnon conspiracy is built by its followers as much as by its creator, taking on a life of its own.
# My Visits
Thankfully our brief lockdown didn’t curtail my visits to the strange and wonderful. During Level 4 I attended an OTO workshop about Ceremonial Magick, and I’ve also been to visit the Ancient Mystical Order of the Rosicrucians, a Sikh temple, an evangelical Christmas service, an anti abortion rally, Prayers in Parliament, a Focus on the Family talk, a church who were telling their parishioners who to vote for, and a witches’ market. Oh, and I bumped into the "Wizard of Wellington" in a pub the other week as well.
2021 will hopefully involve a return to the Sikhs, a visit to the Builders of the Adytum, talking about UFOs with Share International, trying some Binaural Beats and more.