Apr 052020
 

In recent weeks there’s been many rumors, myths, and misinformation about the current coronavirus pandemic, Covid-19. One of the most curious is the recent resurrection of a posthumous prediction by psychic Sylvia Browne.

In her 2008 book End of Days, Browne predicted that “In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”

This led to many on social media assuming that Browne had accurately predicted the Covid-19 outbreak, and Kim Kardashian among others shared such posts, causing the book to become a best-seller once again.

There’s a lot packed into these two sentences, and I recently did a deep dive into it. First, we have an indefinite date range (“in around 2020”), which depends on how loosely you interpret the word “around,” but plausibly covers seven (or more) years. Browne predicted “A severe pneumonia-like illness,” but Covid-19 is not “a severe pneumonia-like illness” (though it can in some cases lead to pneumonia). Most of those infected (about 80 percent) have mild symptoms and recover just fine, and the disease has a mortality rate of between 2 percent and 4 percent. Browne claims it “will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes,” and Covid-19 has indeed spread throughout the globe, but Browne also says the disease she’s describing “resists all known treatments.” This does not describe Covid-19; in fact, doctors know how to treat the disease—it’s essentially the same for influenza or other similar respiratory infections. This coronavirus is not “resisting” all (or any) known treatments.

She further describes the illness: “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.” This is false; Covid-19 has not “suddenly vanished as quickly as it arrived,” and even if it eventually does, its emergence pattern would have to be compared with other typical epidemiology data to know whether it’s “baffling.”

You can read my full piece at the link above, but basically we have a two-sentence prediction written in 2008 by a convicted felon with a long track record of failures. Half of the prediction has demonstrably not happened. The other half of the prophecy describes an infectious respiratory illness that does not resemble Covid-19 in its particulars that would supposedly happen within a few years of 2020. At best, maybe one-sixth of what she said is accurate, depending again on how much latitude you’re willing to give her in terms of dates and vague descriptions.

Browne’s 2004 Prediction

But there’s more to the story, because as it turns out Browne made at least one other similar prediction with some significant differences. I discovered this a few days ago. I have several books by Browne in my library (mostly bought at Goodwill and library sales), among them Browne’s 2004 book Prophecy: What the Future Holds for You (written with Lindsay Harrison, from Dutton Publishing).

On p. 214, I found an earlier, somewhat different version of this same prophecy. Details and exact words matter, so here’s her 2004 prediction verbatim: “By 2020 we’ll see more people than ever wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves in public, inspired by an outbreak of a severe pneumonia-like illness that attacks both the lungs and the bronchial tubes and is ruthlessly resistant to treatment. This illness will be particularly baffling in that, after causing a winter of absolute panic, it will seem to vanish completely until ten years later, making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious.” 

Comparing this to her later 2008 version (“In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely”) we can see a few differences. 

It’s not uncommon for writers to revise and republish their work in different forms, sometimes changing or summarizing material for different formats and purposes. But in the case of predictions, it also serves an important, albeit unrecognized, purpose: It greatly increases the chances of a prediction—or, more accurately, some version of that prediction—being retroactively “right.” It’s one thing to make a single (seemingly specific) prediction about a future event; it’s another to make several different versions of that prediction so that your followers can pick and choose which details they think better fit the situation. 

Note that the earlier prediction—which said “By 2020” (a limited, much more specific date than “In around 2020,” which as I noted spans several years)—focused on “more people than ever wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves in public,” which was “inspired by an outbreak of a severe pneumonia-like illness that attacks both the lungs and the bronchial tubes and is ruthlessly resistant to treatment.”

It’s certainly true that surgical masks (and, to a much lesser extent, gloves) are much more common today than, say, in 2019, but that’s an obvious and predictable reaction—as Browne herself admits—to the outbreak she mentions. Had Browne predicted any respiratory disease outbreak and specified that more people would not react by wearing masks and gloves, that would itself be an amazing (if nonsensical) prophecy. While we’re on the topic of self-evident revelations, note that Browne’s phrase “Both the lungs and the bronchial tubes” is redundant and nonsensical, providing only the illusion of specificity, since bronchial tubes are inside the lungs; saying “both … and” is meaningless, like saying “both the face and the nose will be affected,” or “both the West Coast and California will be affected.” Either Browne doesn’t know where bronchial tubes are, or she assumes her readers don’t.

Note that “This illness will be particularly baffling in that, after causing a winter of absolute panic, it will seem to vanish completely until ten years later, making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious” was changed to “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”

Note that the qualifier “after causing a winter of absolute panic” was dropped from the earlier version—which is convenient for Browne, because the widespread panic surrounding Covid-19 didn’t begin in winter but instead in mid-March. (Of course, I’m not suggesting that Browne predicted in 2008 that her 2004 prediction would be wrong and changed the phrasing!)

Another noteworthy prediction dropped in the later edition was that the disease would seem to vanish completely after ten years, “making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious.” But “seeming to vanish completely” for a decade has nothing to do with whether “its source and its cure” are mysterious. The source of the outbreak has been pretty well established: Likely a meat market in Wuhan, China. The exact source, the specific name of the very first person that first had it (and where he or she got it from), the so-called Patient Zero, may never be known—not because it’s inherently “mysterious” but merely because epidemiology is a difficult task. 

It’s not clear what Browne means by a “cure” because viruses themselves can’t be “cured,” though the diseases they lead to can be prevented with vaccination. Like the common cold, influenza, and most other contagious respiratory illnesses, people are “cured” of Covid-19 when they recover from it. In any event, neither the source nor the “cure” (whatever that would mean the context of Covid-19) are “mysterious” by medical and epidemiological standards.

Browne’s Other Predictions

After I wrote a piece about Browne’s failed predictions, I soon received hate mail from many of her fans who defended the accuracy of her prophecy and demanded that I take a closer look at her predictions. So I did; many of her predictions are set far in the future, but I did find a few dozen in her book Prophecy: What the Future Holds for You that referred to events between the time the book was published (2004) and this year. Here’s a sampling, in chronological order:

• “There will be a significant vaccine against HIV/AIDS in 2005” (p. 211).

•  “The common cold will be over with by about 2009 or 2010” (p. 204)

•  “By around 2010, law enforcement’s use of psychics will ‘come out of the closet’ and be a commonplace, widely accepted collaboration” (p. 180).

•  “By around 2010, it will be mandated that a DNA sample of every infant born in the United States is taken and recorded at the time of the baby’s birth” (p. 182).

•  “In about 2011, home security systems start becoming common … The windows are unbreakable glass, able to be opened only by the homeowner … Doors and windows will no longer have visible, traditional locks that can be picked or tampered with. Instead the security system allows access … by ‘eyeprints’” (p. 169).

•  “There won’t be a successful manned exploration of Mars until around 2012” (p. 128).

•  “In around 2012 or 2013 a coalition of five major international corporations … will combine their almost limitless resources and mobilize a vast, worldwide, ultimately successful movement to revitalize the rainforests” (p. 105).

•  “By around 2014, pills, capsules, and even most liquid medicine will be replaced by readily accessible vaporized heat and oxygen chambers that can infuse every pore of the body with the recommended medications” (p. 209). 

•  “By the year 2015 invasive surgery involving cutting and scalpels and stitches and scars will be virtually unheard of” (p. 205).

•  “Telemarketers will have long since vanished by 2015” (p. 171).

•  “To give law enforcement one more added edge, by 2015 their custom-designed high-speed vehicles will be atomically powered and capable of becoming airborne enough to fly several feet above other traffic” (p. 190).

•  “The search for extraterrestrials will ultimately end in around 2018 … because they begin stepping forward and identifying themselves to various international organizations and heads of state, particularly the United Nations, NATO, Scotland Yard, NASA, and a summit being held at Camp David” (p. 127).

•  “By the year 2020 researchers will have created a wonderful material … able to perfectly duplicate the eardrum and will be routinely implanted, to restore hearing to countless thousands … Long before 2020, blindness will become a thing of the past” (p. 203).

•  “By 2020 we’re going to see an end to the institution of marriage as we know it” (p. 255).

•  “By about 2020 we’ll see the end of the one-man presidency and the costly, seemingly perpetual cycle of presidential campaigns and elections” (p. 135). 

•  “The year 2020 will spark an amazing resurgence in the popularity of the barter system throughout the United States, with goods and services almost becoming a more common form of payment than cash” (p. 140–141).

 

There’s more—oh, so much more—but you get the idea. Hundreds of predictions, mostly wrong, vague, unverifiable, in the distant future, some right, and so on. On p. 97 of Prophecy: What the Future Holds For You Browne claims that “my accuracy rate is somewhere between 87 and 90 percent if I’m recalling correctly.” Yet another failed prediction. 

 

Apr 032020
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is now out, for those who want a break from virus bad news. Celestia, Kenny Biddle, and I tracked psychic detectives’s involvement in current cases. In this part 2 of the show, I talk about my examination of a 14-year-old Ohio boy who went missing last Christmas and the psychic detectives involved. Details of the case might be disturbing to some, but it’s an important topic.

Please check it out, you can listen HERE! 

Apr 012020
 

There’s a natural—almost Pavlovian—tendency to follow the news closely, especially during times of emergency such as wars, terrorism, and natural disasters. People are understandably desperate for information to keep their friends and family safe, and part of that is being informed about what’s going on. 

News and social media are awash with information about the covid-19 pandemic. But not all the information is equally valid, useful, or important. It’s easy to become overwhelmed, and science-informed laypeople are likely suffering this information overload keenly, as we absorb the firehose of information from a wide variety of sources: from the White House to the CDC, and from conspiracy cranks to Goop contributors. It’s a never ending stream—often a flood—of information, and those charged with trying to sort it out are quickly inundated. As important as news is, there is such a thing as medical TMI.

We have a Goldilocks situation when it comes to covid-19 material. There’s too little, too much, and just the right amount of information about the covid-19 virus in the news and social media. This sounds paradoxical until we break down each type of information. 

Types of Covid-19 Information

In thinking about the covid-19 outbreak and the deluge of opinion, rumor, and news out there, it’s helpful to parse out the different types of information. 

1) Information that’s true

This includes the most important, practical information—how to avoid it: Wash your hands, avoid crowds, don’t touch your face, sanitize surfaces, and so on. This type of information has been proven accurate and consistent since the outbreak began. This is of course the smallest category of information: mundane but vital. 

2) Information that’s false 

Information that’s false includes a wide variety of rumors, miracle cures, misinformation, and so on. The Center for Inquiry’s Covid Resource Center has been set up precisely to help journalists and the public debunk this false information. The problem is made worse by the fact that Russian disinformation organizations—which have a long and proven history of sowing false and misleading information in social media around the world, and particularly in the United States—have seized on the covid-19. 

3) Speculation, opinion, and conjecture

In times of uncertainty, prediction and speculation are rampant. Dueling projections about the outbreak vary by orders of magnitude as experts and social media pundits alike share their speculation. Of course, epidemiological models are only as good as the data that goes into them and are based on many premises, variables, and numerous unknowns. 

Wanting to accurately know the future is of course a venerable tradition. But as a recent post on Medium written by an epidemiologist noted: “Here is a simple fact: every prediction you’ve read on the numbers of COVID-19 cases or deaths is almost certainly wrong. All models are wrong. Some models are useful. It is very easy to draw a graph using an exponential curve and tell everyone that there will be 10 million cases by next Friday. It is far harder to model infectious disease epidemics with any accuracy. Stop making graphs and putting them online. Stop reading the articles by well-meaning people who have no idea what they are doing. The real experts aren’t posting random Excel graphs on twitter, because they are working flat-out to try and get a handle on the epidemic.” 

4) Information that’s true but not helpful

Finally, there’s another, less-recognized category: information that is true but not helpful on an individual level, or what might be called “trivially true.” We usually think of false information being shared as harmful—and it certainly is—but trivially true information can also be harmful to public health. Even when it’s not directly harmful, it adds to the background of noise.

News media and social media are flooded with information and speculation that—even if accurate—is of little practical use to the average person. Much of the information is not helpful, useful, actionable, or applicable to daily life. It’s like in medicine and psychology what’s called “clinical significance”: the practical importance of a treatment effect—whether it has a real, genuine, palpable, and noticeable effect on daily life. A finding may be true, may be statistically significant, but be insignificant in the real world. A new medicine may reduce pain by 5 percent but nobody would create or market it because it’s not clinically significant; a 5 percent reduction in pain isn’t useful compared to other pain relievers with better efficacy. 

One example might include photos of empty store shelves widely shared on social media, depicting the run on supplies such as sanitizer and toilet paper. The information is both true and accurate; it’s not being faked or staged. But it’s not helpful, because it leads to panic buying, social contagion, and hoarding as people perceive a threat to their welfare and turn an artificial scarcity into a real one. 

Another example is Trump’s recent reference to the covid-19 virus as “the China virus.” Ignoring the fact that diseases aren’t named for where they emerge, we can acknowledge that it’s technically accurate that, as Trump claimed, covid-19 was first detected in China—and also that it’s not a relevant or useful detail. It doesn’t add to the discussion or help anyone’s understanding of what the disease is or how to deal with it. If anything, referring to it by other terms such as “the China virus” or “Wuhan flu” is likely to cause confusion and even foment racism.  

Before believing or sharing information on social media, ask yourself questions such as: Is it true? Is it from a reliable source? But there are other questions to ask: Even if it may be factually true, is it helpful or useful? Does it promote unity or encourage divisiveness? Are you sharing it because it contains practical information important to people’s health? Or are you sharing it just to have something to talk about, some vehicle to share your opinions about? The signal-to-noise ratio is already skewed against useful information, being drowned out by false information, speculation, opinion, and trivially true information.  

Social Media Distancing

While self-isolating from the disease (and those who might carry it) is vital to public health, there’s a less-discussed aspect: self-distancing from social media information on the virus, which is a form of social media hygiene. Six feet is enough distance in physical space, but doesn’t apply to cyberspace where viral misinformation spreads unchecked (until it hits this site).

The analogy between disease and misinformation is apt. Just as you can be a vector for a virus if you get and spread it, you can be a vector for misinformation and fear. But you can stop it by removing yourself from it. You don’t need hourly updates on most aspects of the pandemic. Most of what you see and read isn’t relevant to you. The idea is not to ignore important and useful information about the coronavirus; in fact, it’s exactly the opposite: to better distinguish the news from the noise, the relevant from the irrelevant. 

Doctors around the world have been photographed sharing signs that say “We’re at work for you. Please stay home for us.” That’s excellent advice, but we can take it further. While at home not becoming a vector for disease, also take steps not to become a vector for misinformation. After all, doing so can have just as much of an impact on public health. 

During a time when people are isolated, it’s cathartic to vent on social media. Humans are social creatures, and we find ways to connect even when we can’t physically. Especially during a time of international crisis, it’s easy to become outraged about one or another aspect of the pandemic. Everyone has opinions about what is (or isn’t) being done, what should (or shouldn’t) be done. Everyone’s entitled to those opinions, but they should be aware that those opinions expressed on social media have consequences and may well harm others, albeit unintentionally. Just as it feels good to physically hang out with other people (but may in fact be dangerous to them), it feels good to let off steam to others in your social circles (but may be dangerous to them). Your steam makes others in your feed get steamed too, and so on. Again, it’s the disease vector analogy. 

You don’t know who will end up seeing your posts and comments (such is the nature of “viral” posts and memes), and while you may think little of it, others may be more vulnerable. Just as people take steps to protect those with compromised immune systems, it may be wise to take similar steps to protect those with compromised psychological defenses on social media—those suffering from anxiety, depression, or other issues who are especially vulnerable at this time. 

This isn’t about self-censorship; there are many ways to reach out to others and share concerns and feelings in a careful and less public way through email, direct messaging, video calls, and even—gasp—good old fashioned letters. Like anything else, people can express feelings and concerns in measured, productive ways, ways that are more (or less) likely to harm others (referring to it as “covid-19” instead of “the Chinese virus” is one example). 

Though the public loves to blame the news media for misinformation—and deservedly so—we are less keen to see the culprit in the mirror. Many people, especially on social media, fail to recognize that they have become de facto news outlets through the stories and posts they share. The news media helps spread myriad “fake news” stories—gleefully aided by ordinary people like us. We cannot control what news organizations (or anyone else) publishes or puts online. But we can—and indeed we have an obligation to—help stop the spread of misinformation in all its forms. 

It’s overwhelming; it’s too much. In psychology there’s what’s called the Locus of Control. It basically means the things which a person has control over: themselves, their immediate family, their pets, most aspects of their lives, and so on. It’s psychologically healthy to focus on those things you can do something about. You can’t do anything about how many deaths there are in China or Italy. You can’t do anything about whether or not medical masks are being manufactured and shipped quickly enough. But you can do something about bad information online. 

It can be as simple as not forwarding, liking, or sharing that dubious news story before checking the facts, especially if that story seems crafted to encourage social outrage. We can help separate the truth from the myths, but we can’t force people to believe the truth. Be safe, practice social and cyber distancing, and wash your hands. 

 

A longer version of this appeared on the Center for Inquiry site; you can find it here. 

Mar 292020
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! The first of a two-parter, in this episode Celestia and Kenny Biddle each examined recent (then-current) missing person cases and closely examined how psychic detectives “helped” (or interfered) with each. A sobering topic but we think you’ll find it enlightening. Please check it out HERE!

 

Mar 232020
 

Our recent episode of Squaring the Strange is about literary hoaxes!

I discuss some “misery memoirs,” stories of victims triumphing over incredible hardships (Spoiler: “Go Ask Alice” was fiction). Celestia discusses newspaper reports of horny bat-people on the moon, and we break down the cultural factors that contribute to the popularity and believability of hoaxes. We end with the heart-wrenching story of a literary version of Munchausen by proxy, one that moved both Oprah and Mr. Rogers. Check it out HERE! 

 

Mar 202020
 

For my Russian-speaking friends, I present my appearance on a Russian television show talking about monster folklore. Though Moscow paid for it, I promise my part (around 19 minutes in) is not Putin’s dezinformatsiya, and I got no Shill Rubles for it!

You can see it HERE! 

 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) nears its three-year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

Mar 152020
 

I was recently editing a piece by Rob Palmer (perhaps better known as “The Well-Known Skeptic”) on the subject of misinformation he encountered in the middle of the world. Or, put another way, bogus information on the equator in Ecuador (a country named after the equator).

I had a particular interest in the topic, having visited the equator near the Colombian border and listening to a tour guide give information I knew was simply false, about several equator-related myths including egg balancing. I wrote a column about it for Skeptical Inquirer magazine (July/August 2016) and discussed it on my podcast, Squaring the Strange.

Tour guide in Ecuador balancing an egg on the equator (a feat that can be done anywhere)
The author balancing the same egg away from the equator

In the process of fact-checking something for the Palmer piece (I’ve forgotten what), I happened to come across a short article for PrevueMeetings titled “3 Strange Equator Tests to Try in Quito, Ecuador,” by a writer named Jessie Fetterling.

It featured three “tricks”: the water-funneling trick (in which water drains in opposite directions above and below the equator); the finger-pulling trick (“involves one person holding their thumb and forefinger in an O shape. On the north and south side, it’s very difficult for someone else to pry them apart. However, on the equator, that same person trying to pry them apart can do so with ease”); and last, my personal favorite, the egg balancing trick (balancing an egg upright on a nailhead). All these have been widely debunked for years, and the explanations can be found at the links above.

I generally don’t spend much time correcting errors and misinformation I find online—who’s got time for that?—but sometimes as a courtesy to the writer I’ll send them a quick note. As a writer myself, I’m well aware that anything I put out into the world (especially online) reflects on me and my scholarship. No one likes to be told they’re wrong about something, but I appreciate it when people point out an error in my articles, so that I can correct it. Unlike an opinion piece, nonfiction writers have an obligation to their readers to get facts right as best they can—especially if those readers might use that information in some way.

I noticed that the website, PrevueMeetings, is “a multi-platform brand that inspires planners by providing immersive experiential travel coverage, professional development,” and so on. I’m not fluent in corporatespeak but Fetterling’s article promoted the tricks as “fun tests for attendees visiting the famous line and its Inti Nan Solar Museum to prove they are standing at the center of the Earth. Here are three that go beyond the typical sun-dial observation (that faces upward instead of horizontal on the equator) for planners to incorporate into a team building program.”

Team building activities are great and all, but should be based on truth and facts, not myths. If anything, these could badly backfire if any of the participants have a background in science or critical thinking, because it would undermine the credibility of those who endorse these myths. If I were in a team-building program and being shown “amazing facts and feats” that were easily debunked with high school science and/or a few keystrokes, I’d frankly wonder what else the host company told us was wrong. I’d be mortified to be a team leader or team building programmer and have one or more of the participants raise their hands during a demonstration and say, “Um, I took science courses in college and I don’t think this is right…”

I decided that the best thing would be to just write a reply, since the story offered a Reply box for comments. I typed in a short, concise, polite somment and finished Palmer’s article.

I thought nothing more about it until a few weeks later it crossed my mind to see if Fetterling’s article had been corrected or updated—or at the very least that my corrective reply had posted. It had not, remaining unapproved by a moderator and unposted.

I realized that PrevueMeetings might not want to have any comments showing that an article that appeared on their site was wrong. That was their choice of course—though it seemed to defeat the purpose of allowing people to reply to the piece; maybe they only approved positive comments. Nevertheless I felt obligated to contact Fetterling to let her know—after all, as a self-described travel junkie the article has her name on it, and it’s a significant error: the entire premise was flawed. It wasn’t a matter of fixing a date or spelling, it would have to be rewritten. Better yet, it could be updated and used as a critical thinking team building exercise: “Here’s three common myths about the equator—but are they true? How can we use logic and research to prove or debunk them?”

I contacted her, via both her website and Twitter, politely noting that her information was wrong, and providing links and references in case she wanted to correct it.

I never heard back, and today the article remains exactly as it has for three years, misinforming people about “tricks” at the equator. That’s okay with me, I’ve done due diligence. But this short story explains why and how bad information is sometimes created and perpetuated.

Calling “bullshit!” isn’t always enough—unless maybe you do it loudly in front of your team-building captain as she’s cheered for balancing an egg on a nail.

 

A different version of this article originally appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it HERE!

 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) nears its three-year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

Mar 122020
 

The recent Squaring the Strange is even more awesome than most! We talk with expert Ron Pine about the Minnesota Iceman, a “sasquatchcicle” hoax of truly epic proportions. How did a sideshow gaffe fool two prominent cryptid researchers, and make it all the way to the Smithsonian for (limited) examination? What does J. Edgar Hoover have to do with this? Or a reclusive California millionaire? Listen and find out!

 

Mar 082020
 

So this is cool: I’m quoted in an article on Bigfoot in The Mountaineer: 

If you wear a size 14 shoe, chances are some of your high-school classmates called you “Bigfoot.” But that doesn’t mean you are an ape-like beast who may — or may not — just be a myth. A 1958 newspaper column began the whole thing. The Humboldt Times received a letter from a reader reporting loggers in California who had stumbled upon mysterious and excessively large footprints. The two journalists who reported the discovery treated it as a joke. But to their great surprise, the story caught on and soon spread far and wide. Bigfoot was born. Of course, reports of large beasts were not exactly new. The Tibetans had a Yeti, familiarly known as the “Abominable Snowman,” and an Indian Nation in Canada had its “Sasquatch.”

Guess what? Cochran found out the hair did not belong to Bigfoot. It was sent back to Byrne, with the conclusion it belonged to the deer family. Four decades later, the FBI declassified the “bigfoot file” about having done this analysis.“Byrne was one of the more prominent Bigfoot researchers,” said Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine. “In the 1970s, Bigfoot was very popular.”

You can read the rest of the article HERE! 

 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) nears its three-year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

Mar 052020
 

As the world enters its third  full month dealing with the deadly coronavirus, misinformation is running rampant. For many, the medical and epidemiological aspects of the outbreak are the most important and salient elements, but there are other prisms through which we can examine this public health menace. 

There are many facets to this outbreak, including economic damage, cultural changes, and so on. However, my interest and background is in media literacy, psychology, and folklore (including rumor, legend, and conspiracy), and my focus here is a brief overview of some of the lore surrounding the current outbreak. Before I get into the folkloric aspects of the disease, let’s review the basics of what we know so far. 

First, the name is a bit misleading; it’s a coronavirus, not the coronavirus. Coronavirus is a category of viruses; this one is dubbed “Covid-19.” Two of the best known and most deadly other coronaviruses are SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, first identified in 2003) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, identified in 2012). 

The symptoms of Covid-19 are typical of influenza and include a cough, sometimes with a fever, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea. Most (about 80 percent) of infected patients recover within a week or two, like patients with a bad cold. The other 20 percent contract severe infections such as pneumonia, sometimes leading to death. The virus Covid-19 is spreading faster than either MERS or SARS, but it’s much less deadly than either of those. The death rate for Covid-19 is 2 percent, compared to 10 percent for SARS and 35 percent for MERS. There’s no vaccine, and because it’s not bacterial, antibiotics won’t help. 

The first case was reported in late December 2019 in Wuhan, China. About a month later the Health and Human Services Department declared a U.S. public health emergency. The average person is at very low risk, and Americans are at far greater risk of getting the flu—about 10 percent of the public gets it each year. Three cruise ships and several airplanes have been quarantined. There are about a dozen confirmed cases in the U.S., and most of the infected are in China or are people who visited there. Though the number of people infected in China sounds alarming, keep in mind the country’s population of 1.4 billion. 

The information issues can be roughly broken down into three (at times overlapping) categories: 1) Lack of information; 2) Misinformation; and 3) Disinformation. 

Lack of Information

The lack of information stems from the fact that scientists are still learning about this specific virus. Much is known about it from information gathered so far (summarized above), but much remains to be learned. 

The lack of information has been complicated by a lack of transparency by the Chinese government, which has sought to stifle early alarms about it raised by doctors, including Li Wenliang, who recently died. As The New York Times reported:

On Friday, the doctor, the doctor, Li Wenliang, died after contracting the very illness he had told medical school classmates about in an online chat room, the coronavirus. He joined the more than 600 other Chinese who have died in an outbreak that has now spread across the globe. Dr. Li “had the misfortune to be infected during the fight against the novel coronavirus pneumonia epidemic, and all-out efforts to save him failed,” the Wuhan City Central Hospital said on Weibo, the Chinese social media service. Even before his death, Dr. Li had become a hero to many Chinese after word of his treatment at the hands of the authorities emerged. In early January, he was called in by both medical officials and the police, and forced to sign a statement denouncing his warning as an unfounded and illegal rumor. 

Chinese officials were slow to share information and admit the scope of the outbreak. This isn’t necessarily evidence of a conspiracy—governments are often loathe to admit bad news or potentially embarrassing or damaging information (recall that it took nearly a week for Iran to admit it had unintentionally shot down a passenger airliner over its skies in January)—but part of the Chinese government’s long standing policies of restricting news reporting and social media. Nonetheless, China’s actions have fueled anxiety and conspiracies; more on that presently. 

Misinformation

There are various types of misinformation, revolving around a handful of central concerns typical of disease rumors. In his book An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perceptions of Disease, Jon D. Lee notes:

People use certain sets of narratives to discuss the presence of illness, mediate their fears of it, come to terms with it, and otherwise incorporate its presence into their daily routines … Some of these narratives express a harsher, more paranoid view of reality than others, some are openly racist and xenophobic, and some are more concerned with issues of treatment and prevention than blame—but all revolve around a single emotion in all its many forms: fear. (169) 

As Lee mentions, one common aspect is xenophobia and contamination fears. Many reports, in news media but on social media especially, focus on the “other,” the dirty aberrant outsiders who “created” or spread the menace. Racism is a common theme in rumors and urban legends—what gross things “they” eat or do. As Prof. Andrea Kitta notes in her book The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore

The intriguing part of disease legends is that, in addition to fear of illness, they express primarily a fear of outsiders … Patient zero [the assumed origin of the “new” disease] not only provides a scapegoat but also serves as an example to others: as long as people do not act in the same way as patient zero, they are safe. (27–28)

In the case of Covid-19, rumors have suggested that seemingly bizarre (to Americans anyway) eating habits of Chinese were to blame, specifically bats. One video circulated allegedly showing Chinese preparing bat soup, suggesting it was the cause of the outbreak, though it was later revealed to have been filmed in Palau, Micronesia. 

The idea of disease and death coming from “unclean” practices has a long history. One well known myth is that AIDS originated when someone (presumably an African man) had sex with a monkey or ape. This linked moralistic views of sexuality with the later spread of the disease, primarily among the homosexual community. More likely, however, chimps with simian immunodeficiency virus were killed and eaten for game meat, which is documented, which in turn transferred the virus to humans and spawned HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), which in turn causes AIDS. 

The fear of foreigners and immigrants bringing disease to the country was of course raised a few years ago when a Fox News contributor suggested without evidence that a migrant caravan from Honduras and Guatemala coming through Mexico carried leprosy, smallpox, and other dreaded diseases. This claim was quickly debunked

Disinformation and Conspiracies

Then there are the conspiracies, prominent among them the disease’s origin. Several are circulating, claiming for example that Covid-19 is in fact a bioweapon that has either been intentionally deployed or escaped/stolen from a secure top secret government lab. Some have claimed that it’s a plot (by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or another NGO or Big Pharma) to sell vaccines—apparently unaware that there is no vaccine available at any price. 

This is a classic conspiracy trope, evoked to explain countless bad things, ranging from chupacabras to chemtrails and diseases. This is similar to urban legends and rumors in the African American community, claiming that AIDS was created by the American government to kill blacks, or that soft drinks and foods (Tropical Fantasy soda and Church’s Fried Chicken, for example) contained ingredients that sterilized the black community (for more on this, see Patricia Turner’s book I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-America Culture.) In Pakistan and India, public health workers have been attacked and even killed trying to give polio vaccinations, rumored to be part of an American plot.

Of course such conspiracies go back centuries. As William Naphy notes in his book Plagues, Poisons, and Potions: Plague Spreading Conspiracies in the Western Alps c. 1530-1640, people were accused of intentionally spreading the bubonic plague. Most people believed that the plague was a sign of God’s wrath, a pustular and particularly punitive punishment for the sin of straying from Biblical teachings. “Early theories saw causes in: astral conjunctions, the passing of comets; unusual weather conditions … noxious exhalations from the corpses on battlefields” and so on (vii). Naphy notes that “In 1577, Claude de Rubys, one of the city’s premier orators and a rabid anti-Protestant, had openly accused the city’s Huguenots of conspiring to destroy Catholics by giving them the plague” (174). Confessions, often obtained under torture, implicated low-paid foreigners who had been hired to help plague victims and disinfect their homes. 

Other folkloric versions of intentional disease spreading include urban legends of AIDS-infected needles placed in payphone coin return slots. Indeed, that rumor was part of an older and larger tradition; as folklorist Gillian Bennett notes in her book Bodies: Sex Violence, Disease, and Death in Contemporary Legend, in Europe and elsewhere “Stories proliferated about deliberately contaminated doorknobs, light switches, and sandboxes on playgrounds” (115).

How to Get, Prevent, or Cure It

Various theories have surfaced online suggesting ways to prevent the virus. They include avoiding spicy food (which doesn’t work); eating garlic (which also doesn’t work); and drinking bleach (which really, really doesn’t work). 

In addition, there’s also something called MMS, or “miracle mineral solution,” and the word miracle in the name should be a big red flag about its efficacy. The solution is 28 percent sodium chlorite mixed in distilled water, and there are reports that it’s being sold online for $900 per gallon (or if that’s a bit pricey, you can get a four-ounce bottle for about $30).

The FDA takes a dim view of this, noting that it 

has received many reports that these products, sold online as “treatments,” have made consumers sick. The FDA first warned consumers about the products in 2010. But they are still being promoted on social media and sold online by many independent distributors. The agency strongly urges consumers not to purchase or use these products. The products are known by various names, including Miracle or Master Mineral Solution, Miracle Mineral Supplement, MMS, Chlorine Dioxide Protocol, and Water Purification Solution. When mixed according to package directions, they become a strong chemical that is used as bleach. Some distributors are making false—and dangerous—claims that Miracle Mineral Supplement mixed with citric acid is an antimicrobial, antiviral, and antibacterial liquid that is a remedy for autism, cancer, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, flu, and other conditions. 

It’s true that bleach can kill viruses—when used full strength on surfaces, not when diluted and ingested. They’re two very different things; confuse the two at your great peril. 

Folk remedies such as these are appealing because they are something that victims (and potential victims) can do—some tangible way they can take action and assume control over their own health and lives. Even if the treatment is unproven or may be just a rumor, at least they feel like they’re doing something.

There have been several false reports and rumors of outbreaks in local hospitals across the country, including in Los Angeles, Santa Clarita, and in Dallas County, Texas. In all those cases, false social media posts have needlessly alarmed the public—and in some cases spawned conspiracy theories. After all, some random, anonymous mom on Facebook shared a screen-captured Tweet from some other random person who had a friend of a friend with “insider information” about some anonymous person in a local hospital who’s dying with Covid-19—but there’s nothing in the news about it! Who are you going to believe? 

Then there’s Canadian rapper/YouTube cretin James Potok, who last week stood up near the end of his WestJet flight from Toronto to Jamaica and announced loudly to the 240 passengers that he had just come from Wuhan, China, and “I don’t feel too well.” He recorded it with a cell phone, planning to post it online as a funny publicity stunt. Flight attendants reseated him, and the plane returned to Toronto where police and medical professionals escorted him off the plane. Of course he tested negative and was promptly arrested.

When people are frightened by diseases, they cling to any information and often distrust official information. These fears are amplified by the fact that the virus is of course invisible to the eye, and the fears are fueled by ambiguity and uncertainty about who’s a threat. The incubation period for Covid-19 seems to be between two days and two weeks, during which time asymptomatic carriers could potentially infect others. The symptoms are common and indistinguishable from other viruses, except when confirmed with lab testing, which of course requires time, equipment, a doctor visit, and so on. Another factor is that people are very poor at assessing relative risk in general anyway (for example, fearing plane travel over statistically far more dangerous car travel). They often panic over alarmist media reports and underestimate their risk of more mundane threats.

The best medical advice for dealing with Covid-19: Thoroughly cook meat, wash your hands, and stay away from sick people … basically the same advice you get for avoiding any cold or airborne virus. Face masks don’t help much, unless you are putting them on people who are already sick and coughing. Most laypeople use the masks incorrectly anyway, and hoarding has led to a shortage for medical workers. 

Hoaxes, misinformation, and rumors can cause real harm during public health emergencies. When people are sick and desperately afraid of a scary disease, any information will be taken seriously by some people. False rumors can not only kill but can hinder public health efforts. The best advice is to keep threats in perspective, recognize the social functions of rumors, and heed advice from medical professionals instead of your friend’s friend on Twitter. 

Further Reading

An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perceptions of Disease, Jon D. Lee

Bodies: Sex Violence, Disease, and Death in Contemporary Legend, Gillian Bennett

I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-America Culture, Patricia Turner

Plagues, Poisons, and Potions: Plague Spreading Conspiracies in the Western Alps c. 1530-1640, William Naphy

The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter, Gary Alan Fine and Bill Ellis
The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore, Andrea Kitta

 

A different version of this article originally appeared in my blog for the Center for Inquiry; you can find it HERE. 

 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) nears its three-year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

Mar 032020
 

Did you catch our recent bonus episode of Squaring the Strange? I gather some myths and misinformation going round about Wuhan Coronovirus, aka Novel Coronavirus, aka “we’re all gonna die,” aka COVID-19. Then special guest Doc Dan breaks down some virus-busting science for us and talks about the public health measures in place. Check it out HERE! 

 

Mar 022020
 

I’m quoted in a new article about real estate omens and superstitions at Realtor.com! 

“An outdated kitchen and a lack of curb appeal aren’t the only things that can keep buyers from biting. When it seems like there’s just no explanation for a perfectly good home sitting on the market, you might consider other possible causes. Certain items, colors, and symbols have been thought to attract malicious forces to an otherwise peaceful abode. And while some people scoff at such beliefs, others take them seriously—and not just around Halloween.

“There are countless folkloric beliefs, and savvy homeowners are smart to acknowledge and respect such beliefs, whether they share them or not,” says Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and co-host of the “Squaring the Strange” podcast.”

 

You can see the rest HERE! 

 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) nears its three-year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

Feb 282020
 

Last month Neil Peart, the drummer and main lyricist for the rock band Rush, died. He’d been living in California and privately battled brain cancer for several years. The Canadian trio (Alex Lifeson on guitar, Geddy Lee on vocals, bass, and keyboards, and Neil Peart on drums) announced they’d stopped touring in 2015, after 40 years.

As a Rush fan and a skeptic I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on Peart’s passing and his skepticism-infused lyrics. There are over 150 Rush songs written or co-written by Neil, and many themes can be found among them, including alienation, skepticism, libertarianism, fantasy, and humanism. The discussion here is not comprehensive; my interest here is to briefly highlight some of the more potent lyrics and songs expressing doubt, skepticism, the frailty of perception, the fallibility of knowledge, and the dangers of certainty. Peart was likely one of the most widely-read lyricists in rock and roll, on topics ranging from philosophy to humanism to science. He was, as described in The New Yorker, “wildly literate.” George Hrab is among the many skeptics who offered a memorial to Peart (as well as Geo’s initial skepticism about the news of Peart’s death, and why Peart and the band seemed relatable), on his Geologic Podcast (episode 646).

As has been written elsewhere, Rush was a polarizing band that either you “got,” or you didn’t. I’ve met people who have barely heard of them, but few who were ambivalent about them. At the risk of employing the “I liked them when they weren’t cool” trope, I’ll note that my love of the band dates back to hearing “Tom Sawyer” on the radio for the first time in 1981 and being blown away. I joined the nascent Rush Backstage Club. This was back in a day when Rush fans such as myself connected via letters; a Pen Pals section offered a dozen or so addresses for Rush fans to meet each other and share their enthusiasm, at the comfortable pace of postal delivery.

I proceeded to buy all their albums and saw them live a dozen times over the years. Most of the albums were great, a few were good, and some of the later albums (Vapor TrailsCounterparts, and Test For Echo, for example) left me a bit cold. But Rush had earned my loyalty and I’d buy anything they put out, just on principle. The most mediocre Rush song—and there are many—was usually head and shoulders above most of the other rock music I was hearing.

For much of Rush’s history Peart was the shy, retiring member. He rarely did interviews or fan meet-and-greets after concerts; that was a role that Geddy and Alex happily—or, surely, sometimes dutifully—fulfilled. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate fans or thought it was beneath him, he just didn’t enjoy it and would rather be alone, read, or plan his solo motorcycle trip to the next venue (something he often did).

But that wasn’t always the case; as a member of the Rush Backstage Club I got their newsletter in which Neil would respond to questions from fans. This was the mid-1980s, of course, long before the internet; that’s how things were done in those days. I never wrote in, partly because I didn’t know what I’d ask him if he actually responded.

The quality of the questions varied widely, ranging from the insightful to the banal. Neil typically responded in earnest, though occasionally his replies revealed a latent and understandable irritation. One got the impression that Neil didn’t suffer fools lightly, but he also recognized that Rush fans were a broad lot that included (or perhaps dominated by) nerdy, misfit teenagers and young adults, mostly male, perhaps not unlike himself as a teen in St. Catharines, Ontario. (Peart wrote about this inevitable gap between performer and audience, expert and layman, in the song Limelight.)

The three performers, lifelong friends, often made better music than bands with two or three times the number of members. Watching other, larger, bands I was often confused: What the hell are those other musicians doing? Why are there three guitarists, two keyboardists, a singer, a drummer, and some woman on a tambourine? And the backup singers? Is this a flash mob or a rock band? The answer, of course, is that none of them were Geddy, Alex, or Neil.

Peart was widely known as “The Professor” because of his intellectualism, his analytical approach to percussion, and the fact that he taught and influenced a generation of musicians. I’m not a musician, and didn’t learn drumming from him (though I did learn about some of the history and techniques from him). I’m not a lyricist and didn’t learn songwriting from him either. But we had some shared interests including the 1960s British television show The Prisoner, as evinced by some of his lyrics and his wearing of the distinctive Number Six pennyfarthing badge used in the series. The Prisoner is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and cerebral series of the 1960s—or, really, ever. Had I gotten the chance to meet him, I’d have avoided talking about drumming—or even music in general—and instead steered the conversation to shared interests such as Africa, travel, writing, belief, skepticism, and so on.

To be clear: Geddy and Alex are no slouches in the intellectual and reading departments either, the latter having been photographed reading the Christopher Hitchens classic God Is Not Great. Lee and Lifeson are enormously accomplished outside of music as well, but here I focus on Peart’s contribution as a lyricist (I hear he’s regarded as a passable drummer as well).

I’m not going to engage in extensive dives on various meanings, allegories and interpretations of the lyrics. I believe that most of the lyrics speak for themselves; one of the qualities of Peart’s writing is that it’s (usually) accessible. In a 1992 interview with Roger Catlin Peart noted that “For a lot of people, lyrics just aren’t that important. I can enjoy a band when the lyrics are shallow. But I can enjoy it more if the lyrics are good.” Here are some lyrics I find especially resonant.

Tom Sawyer / Moving Pictures (1981)

No, his mind is not for rent
To any god or government
Always hopeful, yet discontent
He knows changes aren’t permanent

But change is

Freewill / Permanent Waves (1980)

You can choose a ready guide
In some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice

You can choose from phantom fears
And kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose free will

The “Fear” Series

Rush released four songs related to the topic of fear: Witch Hunt (Moving Pictures); The Enemy Within (Grace Under Pressure); The Weapon (Signals), and, much later, Freeze (Vapor Trails). I want to focus on Peart’s plea for reason and rationality in Witch Hunt:

Witch Hunt / Moving Pictures (1981)

The night is black
Without a moon
The air is thick and still

The vigilantes gather on
The lonely torchlit hill

Features distorted in the flickering light
The faces are twisted and grotesque
Silent and stern in the sweltering night
The mob moves like demons possessed
Quiet in conscience, calm in their right
Confident their ways are best

The righteous rise
With burning eyes
Of hatred and ill-will

Madmen fed on fear and lies
To beat, and burn, and kill

The lyrics reference xenophobia, moral guardians, moral panics, and censorship in the second half of the song:

They say there are strangers, who threaten us
In our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness, too dangerous
In our theatres and bookstore shelves
That those who know what’s best for us –
Must rise and save us from ourselves

Quick to judge,
Quick to anger
Slow to understand

Ignorance and prejudice
And fear

Walk hand in hand

Totem / Test for Echo (1996)

I believe in what I see
I believe in what I hear
I believe that what I’m feeling
Changes how the world appears

In his book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, Peart wrote, “At the time of writing those lines [before the death of his daughter Selena], I had in mind the contradiction between a skeptic’s dismissal of anything not tangible (true agnosticism) and the entirely subjective way many people tend to view and judge the world, through the filters of ever-changing emotions and moods” (p. 79).

Angels and demons dancing in my head
Lunatics and monsters underneath my bed
Media messiahs preying on my fears
Pop culture prophets playing in my ears

Roll the Bones / Roll the Bones (1991)

Faith is cold as ice
Why are little ones born only to suffer
For the want of immunity
Or a bowl of rice?
Well, who would hold a price
On the heads of the innocent children
If there’s some immortal power
To control the dice?

We come into the world and take our chances
Fate is just the weight of circumstances

That’s the way that lady luck dances
Roll the bones

Jack, relax
Get busy with the facts
No zodiacs or almanacs
No maniacs in polyester slacks
Just the facts

Brought Up To Believe (BU2B) / Clockwork Angels (2010)

I was brought up to believe
The universe has a plan
We are only human
It’s not ours to understand

The universe has a plan
All is for the best
Some will be rewarded
And the devil take the rest

All is for the best

Believe in what we’re told
Blind men in the market
Buying what we’re sold
Believe in what we’re told
Until our final breath
While our loving Watchmaker
Loves us all to death

In a world of cut and thrust
I was always taught to trust
In a world where all must fail
Heaven’s justice will prevail

There’s one final song I’d like to mention because it captures the mission of an inquisitive, Enlightenment-fueled mind:

Available Light / Presto (1989)

All four winds together
Can’t bring the world to me
Shadows hide the play of light
So much I want to see
Chase the light around the world
I want to look at life—In the available light

The “light” Peart is talking about is the same light of reason that Carl Sagan mentioned in his (borrowed) aphorism, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Peart was open about his agnosticism (some would consider it atheism) and wrote eloquently about the dangers of religion.

As an avid Rush fan I collected several tourbooks and one thing that stood out to me was how often Peart was photographed reading books. He could have been photographed drinking and partying, living the rock star life (see the accompanying artwork for pretty much any Guns N Roses album, for example). Peart was thoughtful and literate. In one album photo he poses with Aristotle’s classic Poetics, and it’s clear that it’s not done ironically. Peart didn’t grab a book to read when photographers were around; he just didn’t bother to put it down when they were. He was who he was, and he didn’t care whether he looked the part of a rock star. The band seemed down to earth, taking their music—but not themselves—too seriously (see their speech at Rush’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 for example).

Neil Peart isn’t resting in peace or anywhere else; he’s gone but remains with us. As he said during the Hall of Fame induction, quoting Bob Dylan: “The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?” He and his band have inspired tens of millions of people in ways large and small. As Neil wrote, “A spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission.”

 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Feb 252020
 

As advertised, the Oscar-nominated World War I film 1917 takes place in April 1917, when two British soldiers, William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are rousted from a weary daytime slumber. They’re ordered to cross enemy territory (a no man’s land littered with death and decay) and deliver an urgent message to another brigade to call off an attack. It seems that the other soldiers—including the brother of one of the men—are falling into a trap set by their German enemies who have cut the lines of communication.

1917 is reminiscent of other war films such as Saving Private Ryan and Gallipoli, but I was also reminded of a Roger Waters song from his album Amused to Death titled “The Ballad of Bill Hubbard,” a spoken account by World War I veteran Alfred Razzell who describes finding a mortally injured soldier, Hubbard, on the battlefield and is forced to abandon him.

1917 is about many things, and like most films can be viewed through many prisms. It’s a war movie, of course, but it’s also about friendship, loyalty, sacrifice, and so on. But the theme I saw most clearly in 1917 was information: what it is, how it’s used, and the inherent difficulties in its transmission.

Too often in fictional entertainment information is treated as certain, easily accessed, and easily transferred. Countless films, and especially spy thrillers such as the Jason Bourne series, have scenes in which the hero needs to get some vital piece of information which is instantly produced with a few keyboard taps, in dramatic infographic fashion, usually on giant, easy-to-understand wall screens. The Star Trek Enterprise computers are notorious for this: they predict (seemingly with unerring accuracy) when, for example, a planet or ship will explode. It’s always annoyed me as a deus ex machina cheat.

I understand why screenwriters do that; they want to get the exposition and premises out of the way so we can move on with the plot. No need to question the accuracy or validity of the information; the characters—and by extension, the audience—just needs to accept it at face value and move on. (Imagine a dramatic countdown scene in which the hero fails to defuse a bomb at the last second—but it still doesn’t go off and everyone is saved simply because a wire got loose or a battery died. Such scenes, though realistic, are dramatically unsatisfying, and thus rarely if ever depicted. They’re certain to raise the ire of audiences as much as an “it was all a dream” conclusion—and for the same reasons.)

Whether it’s a character in a fantasy or horror film being told exactly what words to say or what to do when confronting some great evil at the film’s climax, as a natural skeptic, I’m often left wondering, “How exactly do you know that? Where did your information come from? Who told you that, and how do you know it’s true? What if they’re lying or just made a mistake?” (Or, in a Shakespearean context, “Um, so, MacBeth: How do you know those are prophetic witches, not just three crazy old ladies putting you on?”). Army of Darkness (1992) and The Woman in Black (2012) are two of the few movies that actually take this issue seriously.

1917 takes the matter deadly seriously, depicting the decidedly unglamorous horrors of warfare. Though the events depicted happened a century ago, the basics of war have not changed in millennia; the goal is still to defeat, maim, and kill the other bastards—often when implementing wrong or incomplete information. It’s been said that truth is the first casualty of war, though that’s not always by design. Sometimes truth (or, more broadly, true information) can’t get from those who know, to those who need to know, in time to save lives. Sometimes that’s by design, such as when enemies cut off communications (as in this case); other times the truth is hidden with encryption, such as in The Imitation Game (2014). Often it’s merely the result of chaos and miscommunication. Isolation (including isolation from information) is an effective tool for building dramatic tension; that’s why many horror films are set in remote areas out of cell phone service. When dialing 911 or just asking Siri or Alexa could presumably save the day, screenwriters need to find ways to keep the heroes vulnerable. 

The film—co-written by director Sam Mendes and dedicated to his grandfather, a veteran who “who told us the stories”—also doesn’t give much depth to the two soldiers. Blake and Schofield are given the barest of backstories, and the actors do what they can to flesh them out. The acting is good overall, but the real reason to see 1917 is the immersive and compelling filmmaking.

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

 

A longer version of this piece was published on my CFI blog. 

Feb 202020
 

In case you missed it, our recent show was on the Mothman, a creature first spotted in the 1960s in rural West Virginia. Ben takes us on a tour of the area and discusses his trip there to help research the creature for a German television show. Like many cryptids, Mothman has gone through several incarnations and taken a few turns on its modern folkloric journey, from men-in-black conspiracies to Native American curses. And what do Point Pleasant residents think of their peculiar neighborhood monster, who brings with it a fully stocked museum and annual festival? From its glowing red eyes to its comic book abs and (by some accounts) grey feathery wings, we examine what makes Mothman tick.

You can listen to the show HERE. 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Feb 182020
 

I’ve investigated hundreds—probably thousands—of things in my career as a skeptic and researcher, from misleading polls to chupacabra vampire legends. Some investigations take hours or days; others take weeks or months, and a rare few take years. It all depends on the scope of the investigation and how much information you have to analyze. In some cases a mystery can’t be solved until some other information is released or revealed, such as a medical or forensics test.

However there are some mysteries that can be solved in less than a minute. This short piece offers one quick example.

I came across a “news” headline on several Facebook friend’s walls stating that “85% of People Hate Their Jobs, Gallup Poll Finds.”

It’s a false story. In this case, three clicks of a mouse, each on a different link seeking a source, led me to the origin of the myth. If you’re a slow reader, of course, it will take longer than if you can quickly skim the page or report, but with practice this could be done in just a few minutes.

The first step is a sort of skeptical sense that there’s maybe something to investigate, some claim that is false or exaggerated. After all, we see countless news stories and social media posts online daily, and the average person rarely if ever fact-checks them. One red flag is the source: where did the information come from? Is it a reputable, known news organization or is it some random website you’ve never heard of? To be clear: reputable news organizations sometimes get information wrong, and perfectly valid and accurate information often appears on obscure sites and blogs.

But in this case the information was clearly presented as a news story. It is formatted as a news headline and offers a surprising or alarming statistic from a reputable polling organization, Gallup.

When I clicked on the link I went to some site called Return to Now. The red flags popped up when the “news” article was revealed to be three years old. As I’ve written about before, old news is often fake news. But this “news” story was also uncredited. Someone wrote it, obviously, but who? A respected journalist or someone cranking out clickbait copy?

There’s no name attached to the piece, and the About section of the site isn’t any more helpful: “Return to Now is dedicated to helping humans live fully in the present, while gleaning tips on how to do so from our distant past. It’s a new kind of ‘news’ website, whose contributors are not as concerned with current events as we are with the whole of the human experience. Topics will include rewilding, primitivism, modern ‘tribal’ living, tips for getting off the grid, sustainability, natural health, peaceful parenting, and sexual and spiritual awakening.” It’s not clear what that means, though the fact that they put the word news in quote marks is revealing; I want—and readers deserve—news, not “news.”

In this case the piece offered a link to the Gallup poll it referenced. Many people would likely stop there and assume that the existence of the link meant that what the link contains had been accurately and fairly characterized. After all, someone must have at least looked at the content at that link in order to have written the sentence it contains, and the headline. Unless of course the person is lying to you, intentionally misleading their readers (or, perhaps has reading comprehension issues and badly misunderstood what it said).

If the article had not provided a link at all, that too would have been a red flag. Not everyone embeds links in their writing, but those who don’t at least provide a source or reference for their information, such as a book or published journal article. Otherwise it looks an awful lot like you’re just making it up.

In this case the click link was accurate and did work, and led me to the promised Gallup poll referenced in the headline and article. It’s a one-page blog and I skimmed it for the alleged statistic: that 85% of workers hate their jobs. It didn’t appear anywhere. Nor, for that matter, did any reference to “hate” or “hating” a job. Always be skeptical of polls and survey results reported in news pieces, and when possible consult the original reports; they often contradict the headlines they generate.

But I quickly realized that there was another prominent statistic that seemed to be the other half of the 85% figure: 15% (since 85% + 15% = 100% of a polled statistic). The Gallup poll found that 15% of the world’s one billion full-time workers “are engaged at work.”

But not being “engaged at work” is not at all the same thing as “hating your job.” You can love or hate your job, and be engaged or not engaged at it. The two measures have little or nothing to do with each other, and it’s clear that someone saw the poll and decided to mischaracterize its results and spin it into a clickbait article, recognizing that few would read a piece headlined, “15% of People Are Engaged At Work, Gallup Poll Says.”

The problem of misinformation and fake news on social media is of course made worse when people share the information without checking it. Those who share bogus stories like this are both victims of manipulation, and promoters of misinformation. It’s a good reminder to think before you share. You don’t need to invest hours fact-checking information; as this case shows in some cases you can do it in just seconds. Or better yet, avoid the problem entirely by only sharing news stories from reputable news organizations.

 

Note: This piece, originally appearing in a different form on my CFI blog, was inspired in part by a FB friend named Rich, one of those whose post caught my eye. After the quick search described above I diplomatically pointed this out to him, and Rich not only thanked me for doing the research, but quickly corrected the headline and vowed to do better. Be like Rich.

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Feb 152020
 

My buddy Kenny Biddle recently did a great investigation into a new book by TV ghost hunter Zak Bagans. You can read it HERE. 

Below is an excerpt: 

I really did not want to read the book this article is about. I know that will likely give away the tone of this overall piece, but it’s just my honest reaction. When I saw the first announcements on social media that semi-celebrity Zak Bagans was releasing a new book titled Ghost Hunting for Dummies, I immediately groaned, deciding I’d pass on reviewing it. I’ve amassed quite a collection of “How to Ghost Hunt” type books since the 1990s, and I didn’t see any possibility of Bagans offering anything new—especially given his spotless track record of completely failing to find good evidence of ghosts during his decade-plus on television. At the time, I had no idea how right I’d be about that.

A close friend and colleague, Mellanie Ramsey, mentioned she was going to review the book on a podcast. After a brief conversation, she urged me to read it and participate in the podcast. I reluctantly agreed, placing an Amazon order and receiving my copy of Ghost Hunting for Dummies two days later. The book is over 400 pages and published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., under the For Dummies brand, which boasts over 2,400 titles (Wiley 2020a). The “Dummies” books are meant to “transform the hard-to-understand into easy-to-use,” according to the company’s website (Wiley 2020b).

My first impression comes from the front cover, which I found to be an overall poor design compared to the Dummies format I was used to seeing: the slanted title, a pronounced and stylized Dummies logo, and either a character with a triangle-shaped head or a photo representing the content of the book. The cover of Ghost Hunting features the title printed straight across with a much smaller and less stylized version of the Dummies logo. The word for is so small that when I showed the book to my wife, she asked “Why did you buy a book called ‘Ghost Hunting Dummies’?” The cover also features a photograph of a basement stairway and door, along with an odd photograph of Bagans with his right hand extended toward the camera, like he’s reaching out to take your money. Overall, it’s just not an attractive cover.

Inside the book, the first thing I noticed was a lack of references; there are no citations or references listed anywhere and no bibliography at the end of the book. For me, this is a red flag; references tell us where the author obtained their information, quotes, study results, and so on. When a book is supposed to be educating you on a specific topic (or in this case, multiple topics), I expect to know the source material from which the information came. However, because this is the first book from the Dummies brand that I’ve purchased, I wasn’t sure if the lack of a bibliography was the standard format. I headed over to my local Barnes & Noble store and flipped through more than forty different Dummies titles, none of which contained references. I also noticed that all of the titles I checked, from Medical Terminology to 3D Printing, were copyrighted by Wiley Publishing/John Wiley & Sons. Ghost Hunting for Dummies is instead copyrighted by Zak Bagans.

There are several indications this book was rushed into publication for the 2019 holiday season. Chief among them are the extensive number of errors: typos, misspellings, repeated words, and missing words are littered throughout the pages. Another indication of premature release comes from the lack of the classic Dummies icons. On page 2, it’s explained that “Throughout the margins of this book are small images, known as icons. These icons mark important tidbits of information” (Bagans 2020). We are presented with four icons: the Tip (a lightbulb), the Remember (hand with string tied around one finger), the Warning (triangle with exclamation point inside), and the “Zak Says” (Zak’s face), which “Highlights my [Zak’s] words of wisdom or personal experiences” (Bagans 2020, 3). Over the 426 pages, there are only thirteen icons to be found throughout: five Tips, four Remembers, three Warnings, and one “Zak Says.” I guess Bagans didn’t have much wisdom to impart upon his readers.

Throughout much of the book, Bagans displays a strong bias against skeptics and scientists, even going as far as to claim to understand scientific concepts better than actual scientists. For example, while relating why he believes human consciousness can exist outside of the body, Bagans mentions Albert Einstein’s well-known quote, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another.” Bagans follows this with, “it’s baffling why this concept is so easy to understand for a paranormal investigator but not for a mainstream scientist” (Bagans 2020, 108). It’s actually mainstream scientists who understand this and Bagans who’s confused. The answer is very simple. Ben Radford addressed this common mistake in his March/April 2012 Skeptical Inquirer column “Do Einstein’s Laws Endorse Ghosts?”:

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Feb 092020
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is about literary hoaxes! I discuss some “misery memoirs,” stories of victims triumphing over incredible hardships (Spoiler: “Go Ask Alice” was fiction). Celestia discusses newspaper reports of horny bat-people on the moon, and we break down the cultural factors that contribute to the popularity and believability of hoaxes. We end with the heart-wrenching story of a literary version of Munchausen by proxy, one that moved both Oprah and Mr. Rogers.

Check it out, you can listen HERE. 

 

Feb 052020
 

This week we were joined by Erik Kristopher Myers to discuss a short history of a particular sort of easter egg: the dreaded “hidden subversive element” stuck into a kids’ show or game, either by a perverse animator or a much more sinister coalition bent on corrupting the youth of America. Disney has made a cottage industry of hiding adult content in cartoons–whether real or simply rumored. And the rumors of subversive dangers in D&D both plagued and popularized the once-obscure RPG. From pareidolia to pranks to the people who wring hands over such dangers, we break down a long list of memorable legends.

You can listen to it HERE. 

Feb 032020
 

This is the second of a two-part piece. 

The recent Clint Eastwood film Richard Jewell holds interesting lessons about skepticism, media literacy, and both the obligations and difficulties of translating real events into fictional entertainment.

Reel vs. Real

The film garnered some offscreen controversy when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution issued a statement complaining about the film, specifically how it and its journalism were portrayed. They and other critics complained particularly that the film unfairly maligns Scruggs, who (in real life) co-wrote the infamous AJC newspaper article that wrongly implicated Jewell in the public’s mind based on unnamed insider information. Scruggs, who isn’t alive to respond, is depicted as sleeping with FBI agent Shaw—with whom she had a previous relationship, at least according to Wilde—in return for information about Jewell.

The AJC letter to Warner Bros. threatened legal action and read in part, “Significantly, there is no claim in Ms. Brenner’s Vanity Fair piece on which the film is based that the AJC’s reporter unethically traded sex for information. It is clear that the film’s depiction of an AJC reporter trading sex for stories is a malicious fabrication contrived to sell movie tickets.” Such a depiction, the newspaper asserts, “makes it appear that the AJC sexually exploited its staff and/or that it facilitated or condoned” such behavior.

The newspaper’s response was widely seen in the public (and by many journalists) as a full-throated defense of Scruggs’s depiction in the film as being baseless and a sexist trope fabricated by Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray to bolster the screenplay.

Richard Brody of The New Yorker writes that “It’s implied that she has sex with a source in exchange for a scoop; those who knew the real-life Scruggs deny that she did any such thing. It’s an ignominious allegation, and one that Eastwood has no business making, particularly in a movie about ignominious allegations.”

Becca Andrews, assistant news editor at Mother Jones, had a similar take: “Wilde plays Kathy Scruggs, who was, by all accounts, a hell-on-wheels shoe-leather reporter who does not appear to have any history of, say, sleeping with sources…. Despite Scruggs’ standing as a respected reporter who, to be clear, does not seem to have screwed anyone for a scoop over the course of her career, the fictional version of her in the film follows the shopworn trope.”

It all seems pretty clear cut and outrageous: the filmmakers recklessly and falsely depicted a female reporter (based on a real person, using her real name) behaving unethically, in a way that had no basis in fact.

A Closer Look

But a closer look reveals a somewhat different situation. It is true, as the AJC letter to Warner Bros. states several times, that the film was based on Brenner’s Vanity Fair article. However the letter conspicuously fails to mention that the film was not based only on Brenner’s article: There was a second source credited in the film—one which does in fact suggest that Scruggs had (or may have had) sex with her sources.

Screenwriter Ray didn’t make that detail up; one of the sources the film credits, The Suspect, by two respected journalists, Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwan, specifically refers to Scruggs’s “’reputation’ for sleeping with sources” (though not necessarily in the Jewell case specifically) according to The New York Times. Ray fictionalized and dramatized that part of the story, in the same way that all the events and characters are fictionalized to some degree. This explains why Scruggs was depicted as she was: that’s what the source material suggested.

The defense that, well, while it may be true that she was thought by colleagues to have had affairs with some of her sources—but not necessarily in that specific case—is pretty weak. It’s not as if there was no basis whatsoever for her depiction in the film, with Eastwood and Ray carelessly and maliciously manufacturing a sexist trope out of thin air. Ironically this book—the one that refers to Scruggs’s reputation for sleeping with her sources—was described by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution itself as “exhaustively researched” and “unsparing but not unfair.” It’s not clear why mentioning her reputation for sleeping with sources was “not unfair” when Alexander and Salwan did it in their (nonfiction) book about Richard Jewell, but is “false” and “extraordinarily reckless” when Ray and Eastwood did it in their (fictional) screenplay based in part on that very book.

True Stories in Fiction

The issues surrounding the portrayal of Scruggs in Richard Jewell—just like the portrayal of Jewell himself in the film—are more nuanced and complex than they first appear. Eastwood and Ray were not accused of tarnishing a dead reporter’s image by including a true-but-unseemly aspect of her real life in her fictional depiction. Nor were they accused of failing to confirm that information contained in one of their sources. Instead they were accused of completely fabricating that aspect of Scruggs’s life to sensationalize their film—which is demonstrably not true.

More fundamentally, complaints that the film isn’t the “real story” miss the point. It is not—and was never claimed to be—the “real story.” The film is not a documentary, it’s a scripted fictional narrative film (as it says on posters) “based on the true story.” (The full statement that appears in the film reads, “The film is based on actual historical events. Dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purposes of dramatization.”) That is, the film is based on some things that actually happened; that doesn’t mean that everything that really happened is in the film, and it doesn’t mean that everything in the film really happened. It means exactly what it says: the movie is “based on actual historical events.” Complaints about historical inaccuracy are of course very common in movies about real-life people and events.

Similar complaints were raised about Eastwood’s drama American Sniper about the film’s historical accuracy as it relates to the true story of the real-life Chris Kyle; these pedantic protests rather miss the point. Much of the “controversy” over whether it’s a 100% historically accurate account of Kyle’s life is a manufactured controversy sown of a misunderstanding, a straw man argument challenge to a strict historicity no one claimed.

In an interview with The New York Times, “Kelly McBride, a onetime police reporter who is the senior vice president of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports journalism, said the portrayal of Ms. Scruggs did not reflect reality” (emphasis added). It’s not clear why McBride or anyone else would believe or assume that a scripted film would “reflect reality.” There is of course no reason why fictional entertainment should necessarily accurately reflect real life–in dialogue, plot, or in any other way. Television and film are escapist entertainment, and the vast majority of characters in scripted shows and films lead far more interesting, dramatic, and glamorous lives than the audiences who watch them. While fictional cops on television shows regularly engage in gunfire and shootouts, in reality over 90% of police officers in the United States never fire their weapons at another person during the course of their career. TV doctors seem to leap from one dramatic, life-saving situation to another, while most real doctors spend their careers diagnosing the flu and filling out paperwork. I wrote about this a few years ago.

Richard Jewell is one of many “based on a true story” films currently out, including BombshellFord v. FerrariA Beautiful Day in the NeighborhoodSebergDark WatersMidwayHoney BoyHarriet, and others. Every one of these has scenes, dialogue, and events that never really happened, and characters that either never existed or existed but never did some of the specific things they’re depicted as having done on the screen.

It’s understandable for audiences to wonder what parts of the film are historically accurate and which parts aren’t, but making that distinction and parsing out exactly which characters are real and which are made up, and which incidents really happened and precisely when and how, is not the responsibility of the film or the filmmakers. The source material is clearly and fully credited and so anyone can easily see for themselves what the true story is. There are many books (such as Based on a True Story—But With More Car Chases: Fact and Fiction in 100 Favorite Movies, by Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen) and websites devoted specifically to parsing out what’s fact and what’s fiction in movies. There are also a handful of online articles comparing the true story of Richard Jewell with the fictional one.

There’s no deception going on, no effort to “trick” audiences into mistaking the film for a documentary. It is a scripted drama, with events carefully chosen for dramatic effect and dialogue written by a screenwriter and performed by actors. It’s similar in some ways to the complaint that a film adaptation of a book doesn’t follow the same story. That’s because books and films are very different media that have very different storytelling structures and demands. It’s not that one is “right” and the other is “wrong;” they’re different ways of telling roughly the same story.

Similarly, to ask “how accurate” a film is doesn’t make sense. A fictional film is not judged based on how “accurate” it is (whatever that would mean) but instead how well the story is told. Screenwriters taking dramatic license with bits and pieces of something that happened in real life in order to tell an effective story is their job. Writers can add characters, combine several real-life people into a single character, play with the chronology of events, and so on.

Ray certainly could—and arguably should—have changed the name of the character, but since in real life it was Scruggs specifically who broke the news about Jewell, and it was Scruggs specifically who in real life was rumored to have been romantically involved with sources, the decision not to do so is understandable. It’s likely, of course, that complaints would still have arisen even if her name had been changed, since Scruggs’s name is so closely connected to the real story.

The question of fictional representation is a valid and thorny one. Films and screenplays based (however loosely) on real events and people are, by definition, fictionalized and dramatized (this seems obvious, but may be more clear to me, as I have attended several screenwriting workshops taught by Hollywood screenwriters). Plots need conflict, and in stories based on things that actually happened, there will be heroes (who really existed in some form) and there will be villains (who also really existed in some form). The villains in any story will, by definition—and rightly or wrongly—typically not be happy with their depiction; villains are heroes in their own story.

The question is instead what obligations a screenwriter has to the real-life people cast in that villain role—keeping in mind of course that interesting fictional characters are a blend of hero and villain, good and bad. Heroes will have flaws and villains will have positive attributes, and may even turn out to be heroes in some cases.

You can argue that if Ray was going to suggest that Scruggs’s character slept with an FBI agent (as The Suspect suggested), that he should have confirmed it. But screenwriters, like non-fiction writers, typically don’t fact-check the sources of their sources. In other words they assume that the information in a seemingly reputable source (such as a Vanity Fair article or a well-reviewed book by the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia and a former Wall Street Journal columnist, for example), is accurate as written. If they report that Scruggs had a reputation for sleeping with sources, or hid in the back of Jewell’s lawyer’s car hoping for an interview, or met with FBI agents in a bar, or any number of other things, then the screenwriter believing that she did so—or may have done so—is not unreasonable nor malicious.

In the end, the dispute revolves around a minor plot point in a single scene, and the sexual quid pro quo is implied, not explicit. Reasonable people can disagree about whether or not Scruggs was portrayed fairly in the film (and if not, where the blame lies) as well as the ethical limits of dramatic license in portraying real historical events and figures in fictional films, but the question here is more complex than has been portrayed—about, ironically, a film with themes of rushing to judgment and binary thinking—and should not detract from what is overall a very good film.

For those interested in the real, true story of how Richard Jewell was railroaded, bullied, and misjudged—instead of the obviously fictionalized version portrayed in the film—people can consult Marie Brenner’s book Richard Jewell: And Other Tales of Heroes, Scoundrels, and Renegades, based on her 1997 Vanity Fair article; and The Suspect, mentioned above.

The Social Threat of Richard Jewell

In addition to the potential harm to Scruggs’s memory, several critics have expressed concern about presumed social consequences of the film, suggesting, for example that Richard Jewell could potentially change the way Americans think about journalism (and female journalists in particular), as well as undermine public confidence in investigative institutions such as the FBI.

There is of course a long history of fears about the consequences of fictional entertainment on society. I’ve previously written about many examples, such as the concern that the 50 Shades of Grey book and film franchise would lead to harmful real-world effects, and that the horror film Orphan, about a murderous dwarf posing as a young girl, would literally lead to a decline in international adoptions. Do heavy metal music, role-playing games, and “occult” Halloween costumes lead to Satanism and drug use? Does exposure to pornography lead to increased sexual assault? Does seeing Richard Jewell decrease trust in journalism and the FBI? All these are (or were) plausible claims to many.

The public need not turn to a fictional film—depicting events that happened nearly 25 years ago—to find reasons to be concerned with the conduct of (today’s) Federal Bureau of Investigations. Earlier this month, a story on the front page of The New York Times reported that “The Justice Department’s inspector general… painted a bleak portrait of the F.B.I. as a dysfunctional agency that severely mishandled its surveillance powers in the Russia investigation, but told lawmakers he had no evidence that the mistakes were intentional or undertaken out of political bias rather than ‘gross incompetence and negligence.’”

No one would suggest that fictional entertainment have no effect at all on society, of course—there are clear examples of copycat acts, for example—and the topic of media effects is far beyond the scope here. I’ll just note that the claim that Richard Jewell (or any other film) affects public opinions about its subjects is a testable hypothesis, and could be measured using pre- and post-exposure measures such as questionnaires. This would be an interesting topic to explore, and of course it’s much easier to simply assume that a film has a specific effects than to go to the considerable time, trouble, and expense of actually testing it. Who needs all the hassle of creating and implementing a scientific research design (and tackling thorny causation issues) when you can just baldly assert and assume that they do?

There are certainly valid reasons to criticize the film, including its treatment of Scruggs, the FBI, and Jewell himself (who is also not alive to comment or defend himself). Good films provoke conversation, and those conversations should be informed by facts and thoughtful analysis instead of knee-jerk reactions and unsupported assumptions. Richard Jewell is a moving, important, and powerful film about a rush to judge and an otherwise ordinary guy—flawed and imperfect, just like the rest of us—who was demonized by institutional indifference and a slew of well-meaning but self-serving people in power.

 

A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it HERE. 

 

Jan 302020
 

The recent Clint Eastwood film Richard Jewell holds interesting lessons about skepticism, media literacy, and both the obligations and difficulties of translating real events into fictional entertainment.

It’s no secret that non-police security officers get little or no respect. They’re universally mocked and ignored in malls, security checkpoints, and airports. The stereotype is the self-important, dim, chubby ones, typified by Kevin James in Paul Blart: Mall Cop and—shudder—its sequel. Of course the stereotype extends to sworn officers as well, from rotund doughnut aficionado Chief Wiggum in The Simpsons to Laverne Hooks in the Police Academy franchise. They’re usually played for laughs, but there’s nothing funny about what happened to Richard Jewell.

Richard Jewell tells the story of just such a security guard who found a bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics celebration. He spots a suspicious bag underneath a bench and alerts authorities, helping to clear the area shortly before the bomb goes off. The unassuming Jewell (played by a perfectly-cast Paul Walter Hauser) is soon seen as a hero and asked to make the media rounds of TV talk shows and possible book deals. There’s no evidence connecting Jewell to the crime, but the FBI, without leads and under increasing public pressure to make an arrest, turns its attention to Jewell. Things take a turn when Jewell is named in the press as being the FBI’s main suspect, a tip leaked by agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) to hard-driving Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde). But when he becomes the target of unrelenting attacks as an unstable and murderous “wannabe cop” he seeks out a lawyer named Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) to defend him.

What’s the case against him? FBI “experts” assured themselves (and the public) that the bomber fit a specific profile—one that Jewell himself fit as well (a loner with delusions of grandeur and a checkered past; the fact that he was single and living with his mother didn’t help). Psychological profiling is inherently more art than science, and to the degree to which it can be called a science, it’s an inexact one. At best it can provide potentially useful (if general and somewhat obvious) guidelines for who investigators should focus on, but cannot be used to include or exclude anyone from a list of suspects.

Bob Carroll, in his Skeptics Dictionary, notes that “FBI profiles are bound to be inaccurate. I noted some of these in a newsletter five years ago. Even if the profilers got a representative sample of, say, serial rapists, they can never interview the ones they don’t catch nor the ones they catch but don’t convict. Also, it would be naive to believe that serial rapists or killers are going to be forthright and totally truthful in any interview.” For more on this see “Myth #44: Criminal Profiling is Helpful in Solving Cases,” in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, by Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyerstein; and Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article “Dangerous Minds: Criminal Profiling Made Easy.”

Psychologists will readily acknowledge these caveats, and their assessments are typically heavily qualified—much in the way that a good science journal report about an experiment will be candid about its limitations.

Journalists, however, are less interested in important nuances and caveats, and their readers are exponentially less so. The public wants binary certainty: Is this the bomber, or not? If not, why is the FBI investigating him, and why wouldn’t they explicitly announce that he wasn’t a suspect? Complicating matters, the public often misunderstands criminal justice issues and procedures. They widely assume, for example, that lie detectors actually detect lies (they don’t); or that an innocent person would never confess to a crime he or she didn’t really commit (they do). (In the film Jewell passes a polygraph, though little is made of it.)

When agent Shaw is confronted with evidence suggesting that Jewell does not, in fact, fit the profile and is likely innocent, instead of questioning his assumptions he doubles down, rationalizing away inconsistencies and stating that no one is going to fit the profile perfectly.

Jewell, a by-the-books type, is especially heartbroken to realize that his faith in the FBI’s integrity was sorely misplaced. All his life he’d looked up to federal law enforcement, until they turned on him. He isn’t angry or upset that he’s being investigated; he’s familiar enough with law enforcement procedures to understand that those closest to a murder victim (or a bomb) will be investigated first. But his initial openness and cooperation wanes as he sees FBI agents attempting to deceive and entrap him.

As Bryant tells Jewell, every comment he makes, no matter how innocuous or innocent, can be twisted into something nefarious that will put him in a bad light, and provide dots for others to (mis)connect. The fact that a friend as a teenager built homemade pipe bombs for throwing down gopher holes (long before he met Jewell) could be characterized as either a piece of evidence pointing to his guilt—or completely irrelevant. The fact that he has an impressive stash of weapons in his home could similarly be seen (if not by a jury, then certainly by a story-hungry news media) as being evidence of an obsession with guns—or, as he says with a shrug to Bryant, “This is Georgia.”

The film doesn’t paint the villains with too broad a brush; before an interview with the FBI Bryant reminds Jewell that the handful of agents harassing and persecuting him don’t represent the FBI in general; the entire U.S. government isn’t out to get him—no matter what it feels like. The news media is seen as a pack of vultures, camping out in front of his house, robbing him and his mother of privacy and dignity. You can probably guess what would have happened to Jewell in today’s age of internet-driven social media outrage; if not, see Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Shaw and the other FBI agents, as well as Scruggs (presumably) sincerely believed they’d named the right man—at least until a more thorough investigation reveals otherwise. The film is not anti-FBI, anti-government, nor anti-press; it is pro-due process and sympathetic to those who are denied it.

Ironically but predictably, even not talking to the police can be seen as incriminating. Those ignorant of the criminal justice system may ask, “What do you have to hide?” or even “Why do you need a lawyer if you’re innocent?” These are the sorts of misguided souls who would presumably be happy to let police search their property without a warrant because, well, a person should be fine with it if they have nothing to hide.

The result is a curious and paradoxical situation in which a completely innocent person is (rightfully) afraid to speak openly and honestly. Not out of fear of self-incrimination but out of fear that those with agendas will take anything they say out of context. This is not an idle fear; it happens on a daily basis to politicians, movie stars, and anyone else in the spotlight (however tangentially and temporarily). Newspaper and gossip reporters salivate, waiting for an unguarded moment when—god forbid—someone of note express an opinion. A casual, honest, and less-than-charitable but otherwise mild remark about a film co-star can easily be twisted and turned into fodder for a Twitter war. For example Reese Witherspoon laughing and reminiscing casually in an interview that, years ago, at a dinner party Jennifer Aniston’s steak was “tasty but a bit overcooked” can easily spawn headlines such as “Reese Witherspoon Hates Jennifer Aniston’s Cooking.” A flustered Oscar winner who forgets to thank certain people (such as a mentor or spouse) can set tongues wagging about disrespect or even infidelity—which is one reason why nominees write out an acceptance speech ahead of time, even if they don’t expect to win. The fewer things you say, the fewer bits of information you provide, the less fodder you give those who would do you harm. As Richard Jewell demonstrates, this is, ironically, a system that prevents people from being totally open and forthcoming.

Eastwood’s past half-dozen or so films have been based on real events and actual historical people: American Sniper (about Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle); The 15:17 to Paris (Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos, who stopped a 2014 train terrorist attack); The Mule (Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran-turned-drug mule); Jersey Boys (the musical group The Four Seasons) and J. Edgar (as in FBI director Hoover). The complex, sometimes ambiguous nature and myriad facets of heroism clearly interest Eastwood, arguably dating back over a half century to his spaghetti Westerns (and, later, Unforgiven) where he played a reluctant gunslinger.

This is not the first biographical film that Eastwood has done about a falsely accused hero. His 2016 film Sully, for example, was about Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks), who became a hero after landing his damaged plane on the Hudson river and saving lives. Where Jewell was lauded—and then demonized—in public, Sullenberger was a hero in public but behind closed doors was suspected of having made poor decisions. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials second-guessed his actions based, as it turned out, in part on flawed flight simulator data, and Sullenberger was eventually cleared. (In another parallel, just as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution complained about its portrayal in Richard Jewell—more on that later—the NTSB complained about its portrayal in Sully.)

Just as we have imperfect victims, we have imperfect heroes. Bryant eventually realizes that Jewell has an admittedly spotty past, including impersonating an officer and being overzealous in enforcing rules on a campus. Jewell, like many social heroes, humbly denies he’s a hero; he was just doing his job. And he is exactly correct: Jewell didn’t do anything particularly heroic. He didn’t use his body to shield anyone from the bomb; he didn’t bravely charge at an armed gunman, or risk his life rushing to pull a stranded motorist from an oncoming train (as happened recently in Utah).

He’s not a chiseled and battle-hardened Navy SEAL; he’s an ordinary guy who did what he was trained and encouraged to do in all those oft-ignored public security PSAs: he saw something, and he said something. This is not to take anything away from him but instead to note that mundane actions can be heroic. Any number of other security guards and police officers could have been the first to spot the suspicious package; he just happened to be the right guy at the right (or wrong) time. One theme of the film is rule following; Jewell saved many people by following the rules and insisting that the backpack be treated as a suspicious package instead of another false alarm. But the FBI did not follow the rules in either its pursuit of Jewell or its leaking information to a reporter.

Jewell’s life was turned upside down, and if not destroyed at least severely damaged. That didn’t end some three months later when he was finally formally cleared. The news media had spent many weeks saturating the country with his name and face, strongly suggesting—though not explicitly saying, for legal reasons—that he was a domestic terrorist bomber.

Who’s responsible for an innocent man being falsely accused, bullied, and harassed? In the real case, apparently no one: though in real life an FBI agent was briefly disciplined for misconduct in connection to the case, the agency insisted that it had done nothing wrong; after all, Jewell was a suspect and the investigation did eventually clear him. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also got off scot-free, with a judge later determining (in dismissing a defamation suit filed by Jewell) that its reporting, though ultimately flawed, was “substantially true” given the information known at the time it was published. Richard Jewell is having none of it, and points fingers at misconduct in both law enforcement and news media (though the film depicts no consequences for anyone responsible).

A longer version of this article first appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it HERE. 

Part 2 will follow soon…

Jan 252020
 

So this is cool: I’m quoted, and my book “Bad Clowns” mentioned, in a recent article on clowns in The Guardian (U.K.)!: 

 

“In his 2016 book Bad Clowns, Benjamin Radford writes: “It’s misleading to ask when clowns turned bad, for they were never really good.” Radford asserts that clowns and jesters have been ambiguous characters for hundreds of years. But he adds that the clowns of our nightmares have “flourished and found fame” in the past few decades. Clowns, as with everything else in modern life, have become polarised, leaving audiences unsure how to react to a performer in white face paint. As Radford writes: “You can no more separate a good clown from a bad clown than a clown from his shadow.” So where does this leave our well-intended red-nosed comedians?”

 

 

Bad Clowns by Benjamin Radford

Jan 222020
 

A June 6, 2018, article from ChurchandState.org titled “Propaganda Works – 58 Percent of Republicans Believe Education Is Bad” was shared on social media by liberals and Democrats, gleeful that their assumptions about conservative anti-intellectualism had been borne out in objective, quantifiable data from a respected polling organization.

The widely-shared article states that “Fox News, like Republicans and Trump, could never succeed as an ultra-conservative propaganda outlet without an ignorant population. The only way to continue having success at propagandizing is convincing Americans that being educated and informed is detrimental to the nation and its citizens; something Fox and Republicans have been very successful at over the past two years. The idea that education is bad for the country is contrary to the belief of the Declaration of Independence’s author, Founding Father and third American President Thomas Jefferson…. Obviously, the current administration and the Republican Party it represents wholly disagrees with the concept of a well-educated citizenry, or that it is beneficial to America if the populace is educated and informed. Likely because the less educated the people are, the more electoral support Republicans enjoy and the more success Trump has as the ultimate purveyor of ‘fake news.’”

There are a few things to unpack here. The first is that, like UFO coverups, this blanket anti-education effort allegedly spans many administrations and generations. Democrat and Republican alike are allegedly participants in this institutional conspiracy. The effects of Republican education cuts would not be seen in general education levels for years—if at all—and thus any “benefit” to keeping the public ignorant would of course boost the goals of future Democratic presidents and administrations as well. If true, it’s heartening to see this common ground and shared agenda between otherwise deeply polarized political parties.

Americans are in fact better educated than at any other time in history. In July 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that 90% of Americans twenty-five and older completed at least high school—an all-time high and a remarkable increase from 24% in 1940. Education has risen dramatically in the population as a whole, across genders, races, and economic statuses. In 1940, 3.8% of women and 5.5% of men had completed four years or more of college; by 2018 it was 35.3% for women and 34.6% for men. The United States spends $706 billion on education, according to the U.S. Department of Education (2019), which comes to about $13,850 per public school student. Not only does the government provide free, mandatory grade school education, but it also offers low-interest student loans for those who wish to pursue higher education. All this is puzzling behavior for a government that wants to keep its citizens ignorant, but perhaps someone didn’t get the memo. I discussed—and debunked—this idea in my recent column in Skeptical Inquirer magazine (see “Is America a Sheeple Factory?” in the January/February 2020 issue).

The article states, “Seriously, it is beyond the pale that anyone in this country thinks education is bad for America, but nearly 60 percent of Republicans is a mind boggling number. It is not entirely unexpected, but it is stunning that they have no issue telling a pollster that they believe education is a negative for the country.”

It seems damning indeed… but did 60% of Republicans really tell pollsters that? As always, it’s best to consult original sources, and in this case we can easily look at the Pew poll to find out. The question the 2017 Pew poll asked was not “Do you believe education is bad?,” but instead “Do you believe that _____ (colleges and universities / churches / labor unions / banks / news media) have a positive or negative effect on the country?”

These are, obviously, very different measures; you can’t generalize “colleges and universities” to “education” and “having a negative effect on the country” to “bad.” If you’re going to report on how people respond to certain questions in a poll or survey, you can’t retroactively change the question—even slightly—and keep the same results. That is, in a word, misleading and dishonest. Curiously, the fact that one in five Democrats (and left-leaning independents) believed that higher education has a negative effect on the country was completely ignored. That’s a third the number of Republicans who responded that way, but still a surprisingly high rate for self-identified social progressives (depending, of course, on how they interpreted the question).

I have often written about the perils of bad journalism in reporting poll and survey results. Having researched and written about misleading polls and news articles on many topics, including hatred of transgendered people (see, for example, my article  “Do 60% Of People Misgender Trans People To Insult Them?”); Holocaust denial (see, for example, my article “Holocaust Denial Headlines: Hatred, Ignorance, Or Innumeracy?”); I also recently debunked an article by Global News reporter Josh K. Elliott who wrote an article falsely claiming that “Nearly 50% of Canadians Think Racist Thoughts Are Normal.”

A closer look at this poll finds that the most likely reason for this response is not that Republicans think education is inherently bad (as the headline suggests) but instead that colleges and universities (which is what the question asked about) are bastions of liberal politics. (The original piece eventually and briefly acknowledges that—contrary to its clickbait headline—Republicans don’t actually think education is inherently bad.)

One recent example is Tennessee senator Kerry Roberts, who on a conservative radio talk show stated that higher education should be eliminated because it would cut off the “breeding ground” of ideas, a proposal that he said would “save America.” When asked about his comments Roberts later stated that “his listeners understood it was hyperbole” and that he was “was clearly joking” in his comments that eliminating higher education would save the country from ruin. Sen. Roberts has neither proposed nor supported any legislation that would in fact eliminate higher education. He said, however, that he absolutely stood by his criticism of American liberal arts education “one hundred percent.” So it’s pretty clear both that: a) he was indeed joking about wanting to abolish higher education in America (and that his words were mischaracterized for political gain, a routine occurrence); and b) that nevertheless he does believe that colleges and universities spawn liberal beliefs anathema to his own.

There is a very real and demonstrable anti-education and anti-science streak among many conservatives, on topics ranging from creationism to medical research (see for example, Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science). But this headline is not clear evidence of that.

While it may be fun for liberals and progressives to paint conservatives as inherently opposed to education, doing so creates an intellectually dishonest straw man fallacy. It is also ultimately counterproductive, obscuring the real forces behind those beliefs. If you approach the subject wrongly believing that many Republicans fundamentally disapprove of the idea of education, then you will badly misunderstand the problem. You can’t hope to meaningfully address a problem if you’re operating on flawed assumptions.

The marketplace of ideas is served when data and polls are presented honestly, and opposing views are portrayed fairly. Skepticism and media literacy are more important than ever, so check your sources—especially when you agree with the message—to avoid sharing misinformation.

 

A version of this article first appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can see it HERE. 

Jan 182020
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out, it’s “The Head Show!” It’s all about heads–too many and too few. Folklore about multi-headed or headless monsters, multi-headed people throughout history, beheadings, experiments on heads, and shrunken heads. Oh, and the frozen head of Walt Disney, of course. Heads up!

 

You can find it HERE!

 

Jan 152020
 

If you missed the 2019 documentary I’m in, “Wrinkles the Clown,” it’s now available on DVD and streaming. It’s a fascinating look at a real-life evil clown hired by parents to scare kids–or maybe something else entirely…

More info is HERE!

 

Jan 122020
 

Human rights advocate Dr. Leo Igwe joins us to discuss the dangers posed by so-called “witch hunters” in his home nation of Nigeria and other parts of Africa today. He discusses the entrenched nature of magical beliefs in the region, as well as the complicated power structure that props up those who call out fellow citizens as witches. Religions brought from Europe now play into the mix, with Islam and Christianity working alongside traditional beliefs; witch hunters are often pastors or church leaders, solidifying their power further. Victims are often powerless–the elderly, disabled, or children–and once accused they must run for their lives, abandoned by family and often the state authorities as well. Dr. Igwe talks about the challenges of getting the message across to international agencies and the UN, whose members are sometimes hesitant to speak out against these atrocities for fear of seeming racist or Islamophobic, a trend Igwe decries as stifling critical debate and much-needed open dialogue.  

 

Please check out this important topic; you can listen to it HERE. 

Jan 082020
 

For those who missed it: The recent episode of Squaring the Strange is out! In this episode we talk about caricature and mysterious crystal skulls. Can we trust what Dan Ayrkroyd tells us on his fancy vodka bottle? Are there really thirteen of these ancient and powerful relics? What is the Skull of Doom, and does it have strange properties that baffle scientists? We even look at an ill-conceived lawsuit against Steven Spielberg involving the crystal skulls featured in a Indiana Jones movie. Check it out, you can listen HERE!

 

Jan 012020
 

I have a new book out! Or at least some contributions in a new book: Imagining the End: The Apocalypse in American Pop Culture. I wrote several sections including on the Antichrist, the Mark of the Beast, the Rapture, Latter-Day Saints Prophecy, and more. 

 

You can see more about it HERE.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

 

 

 

Dec 282019
 

In a previous blog I discussed my research into an ugly episode of racial hatred that tainted the 2016 holiday season. The Mall of America hired its first African-American Santa Claus, an Army veteran named Larry Jefferson. A local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story about it on Dec. 1. Later that night an editorial page editor for the Tribune, Scott Gillespie, tweeted: “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with headlines such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel) and “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post).

George Takei responded the next day via Twitter: “Watching people meltdown over a black Santa in the Mall of America. ‘Santa is white!’ Well, in our internment camp he was Asian. So there.” It was also mocked by Trevor Noah on Comedy Central, and elsewhere.

Yet every major news outlet missed the real story. They failed to check facts. My research (including an interview with Gillespie) eventually revealed that the racial incident never actually occurred, and that–despite public opinion and nearly two million news articles to the contrary–the Star Tribune did not receive a single hate-filled message in the comments section of its story on Jefferson. What happened was the product of a series of misunderstandings and a lack of fact-checking, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age (for a detailed look at the case see my CFI blog “The True, Heartwarming Story of the Mall of America’s Black Santa.”)

I’ve been writing about journalism errors and media literacy for two decades (including in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), and usually there’s relatively little pushback (except, perhaps, from journalists reluctant to acknowledge errors). However a curious part of this story was the criticism I received on social media for even researching it. Perhaps the best example was when I responded to a post about the initial story on a fellow skeptic’s Facebook page. She and all of her friends on the thread took the erroneous news story at face value (which didn’t surprise me, as virtually everyone did) but what did surprise me was the suggestion that trying to uncover the truth was unseemly or even “a distraction tactic.”

One person wrote, “I actually can’t believe that a self proclaimed skeptic is even having this argument in a country that just elected Donald Trump. It’s not skepticism when it disregards the proven fact that a great deal of the country, enough to elect a president, are straight up racist.” Of course I never questioned whether many or most Americans were racist. My question was very specific, clear, and about the factual basis for this one specific incident. Neither Trump’s election nor the existence of racism in America are relevant to whether or not the Tribune had to shut down its comments section in response to a deluge of hatred against a black Santa.

The ‘Distraction’ Tactic

One person wrote that me asking how many people objected to the black Santa was “a distraction tactic–now we can talk about how most people are not racist and change the subject from racism.” I was stunned. I had no idea that asking if anyone knew how many people complained would or could be construed as somehow trying to distract people (from what to what?). I replied, “Trying to quantify and understand an issue is not a ‘distraction tactic.’ I have no interest in distracting anyone from anything.’” No one–and certainly not me–was suggesting that a certain number of racists upset over a black Santa was okay or acceptable. I never suggested or implied that if it was “only” ten or twenty or a hundred, that everyone should be fine with it.

But knowing the scope of the issue does help us understand the problem: Is it really irrelevant whether there were zero, ten, or ten thousand racist commenters? If Trump can be widely (and rightly) criticized for exaggerating the crowd at his inauguration speech as “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration–period” when in fact it was several orders of magnitude smaller, why is asking how many people complained about a mall Santa so beyond the pale?

Usually when I encounter claims of investigating being a distraction in my research it was itself a distraction tactic, an attempt to head off inquiry that might debunk a claim or show that some assumption or conclusion was made in error–not unlike the Wizard of Oz pleading for Dorothy and her gang not to look behind the curtain. (“Why are you asking questions about where I suddenly got this important UFO-related document?” or “Asking for evidence of my faith healer’s miracle healings is just a distraction from his holy mission” doesn’t deter any journalist or skeptic worth his or her salt.) If a claim is valid and factual, there’s no reason why anyone would object to confirming that; as Thomas Paine noted, “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.”

I tried to remember where else I’d heard the phrase used, when someone who was asked about something called the questions a “distraction.” Finally I realized where that tactic had become common: In the Trump administration. When Donald Trump was asked about a leaked Access Hollywood recording of him bragging about groping women sexually, he dismissed the questions–and indeed the entire issue–as “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today.”

Similarly, when Vice-President Pence was asked in January 2017 about whether the Trump campaign had any contacts with Russia during the campaign, he replied, “This is all a distraction, and it’s all part of a narrative to delegitimize the election.” Others in the Trump administration (including White House spokespeople) have repeatedly waved off journalists’ questions as distractions as well.

This is not particularly surprising, but it was odd to see some of my most virulent anti-Trump friends (and Facebook Friends) using and embracing exactly the same tactics Trump does to discourage questions.

There is one important difference: In my judgment Trump and his surrogates use the tactic cynically (knowing full well that the issues and questions being asked are legitimate), while those who criticized me were using the tactic sincerely; being charitable, I have no reason to think that they realized that the black Santa story and reportage had been widely (if not universally) misunderstood. But the intention and effect were the same: An attempt to discourage someone from looking beyond the surface to see what’s really going on, and attempt to separate truth from fact.

Importance of Due Diligence

A recent news story highlights the value and importance of bringing at least some skepticism to claims: Recently a woman approached reporters at The Washington Post with a potentially explosive story: that embattled Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore had impregnated her as a teenager and forced her to have an abortion. This would of course be a potentially devastating revelation for the conservative Moore, already under fire for dating (and allegedly sexually assaulting) teenagers.

According to the Post, “In a series of interviews over two weeks, the woman [Jaime T. Phillips] shared a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15. During the interviews, she repeatedly pressed Post reporters to give their opinions on the effects that her claims could have on Moore’s candidacy if she went public. The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists. Monday morning, Post reporters saw her walking into the New York offices of Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups. The organization sets up undercover ‘stings’ that involve using false cover stories and covert video recordings meant to expose what the group says is media bias.”

The Post reporter, Beth Reinhard, “explained to Phillips that her claims would have to be fact-checked. Additionally, Reinhard asked her for documents that would corroborate or support her story.” Reinhard and the Washington Post did not ask for evidence to establish the truth of Phillips’s account because they doubted that sexual assaults occur, or that Phillips may indeed have been sexually assaulted by Moore–in fact quite the opposite, since the Post was the first to break the story and publish accusations by Moore’s accusers–but instead because they were doing their due diligence as journalists. Investigative journalists and skeptics don’t question claims and ask for evidence because they necessarily doubt what they’re being told; they do it because they want to be sure they understand the facts.

Had The Washington Post not questioned the story–or been deterred by accusations that trying to establish the truth of Phillips’s claims was some sort of “distraction” tactic–the paper’s credibility would have been damaged when Phillips’s false accusation would have quickly been revealed, and the Post’s failure to do basic research used to cast doubt on the previous women’s accusations against Moore. Martin Baron, the Post‘s executive editor, said that the false accusations were “the essence of a scheme to deceive and embarrass us. The intent by Project Veritas clearly was to publicize the conversation if we fell for the trap. Because of our customary journalistic rigor, we weren’t fooled.”

What Happened?

There are several critical thinking and media literacy failures here. Perhaps the most basic is where the burden of proof lies: with the person making the claim. In fact I wasn’t making a claim at all; I was merely asking for evidence of a widely-reported claim. I honestly had no idea how many or how few Tribune readers had complained about Jefferson, and I wouldn’t have even thought to question it if Gillespie hadn’t issued a tweet that contradicted the thesis of the then-viral news story.

The black Santa outrage story is full of assumptions, mostly about the bad intentions of other people. To the best of my knowledge I’m the only person who dug deeper into the story to uncover what really happened–and for that I was told that I was causing a “distraction” and even hints that I had some unspecified unseemly motive.

It’s also important to understand why a person’s questions are being challenged in the first place. It’s often due to tribalism and a lack of charity. CSCIOP cofounder Ray Hyman, in his influential short piece titled “Proper Criticism discusses eight principles including the principle of charity. “The principle of charity implies that, whenever there is doubt or ambiguity about a paranormal claim, we should try to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the claimant until we acquire strong reasons for not doing so. In this respect, we should carefully distinguish between being wrong and being dishonest. We often can challenge the accuracy or validity of a given paranormal claim. But rarely are we in a position to know if the claimant is deliberately lying or is self-deceived. Furthermore, we often have a choice in how to interpret or represent an opponent’s arguments. The principle tell us to convey the opponent’s position in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner.”

To scientists, journalists, and skeptics, asking for evidence is an integral part of the process of parsing fact from fiction, true claims from false ones. If you want me to believe a claim–any claim, from advertising claims to psychic powers, conspiracy theories to the validity of repressed memories–I’m going to ask for evidence. It doesn’t mean I think (or assume) you’re wrong or lying, it just means I want a reason to believe what you tell me. This is especially true for memes and factoids shared on social media and designed to elicit outrage or scorn.

But to most people who don’t have a background in critical thinking, journalism, skepticism, or media literacy, asking for evidence is akin to a challenge to their honesty. Theirs is a world in which personal experience and anecdote are self-evidently more reliable than facts and evidence. And it’s also a world in which much of the time when claims are questioned, it’s in the context of confrontation. To a person invested in the truth of a given narrative, any information that seems to confirm that idea is much more easily seen and remembered than information contradicting the idea; that’s the principle of confirmation bias. Similarly, when a person shares information on social media it’s often because they endorse the larger message or narrative, and they get upset if that narrative is questioned or challenged. From a psychological point of view, this heuristic is often accurate: Much or most of the time when a person’s statement or claim is challenged (in informal settings or social media for example), the person asking the question does indeed have a vested interest.

The problem is when the person does encounter someone who is sincerely trying to understand an issue or get to the bottom of a question, their knee-jerk reaction is often to assume the worst about them. They are blinded by their own biases and they project those biases on others. This is especially true when the subject is controversial, such as with race, gender, or politics. To them, the only reason a person would question a claim is if they are trying to discredit that claim, or a larger narrative it’s being offered in support of.

Of course that’s not true; people should question all claims, and especially claims that conform to their pre-existing beliefs and assumptions; those are precisely the ones most likely to slip under the critical thinking radar and become incorporated into your beliefs and opinions. I question claims from across the spectrum, including those from sources I agree with. To my mind the other approach has it backwards: How do you know whether to believe a claim if you don’t question it?

My efforts to research and understand this story were borne not of any doubt that racism exists, nor that Jefferson was subjected to it, but instead of a background in media literacy and a desire to reconcile two contradictory accounts about what happened. Outrage-provoking stories on social media–especially viral ones based on a single, unconfirmed informal tweet– should concern all of us in this age of misinformation and “fake news.”

The real tragedy in this case is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for bringing hope, love, and peace to girls and boys, he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred.

The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort this holiday season. A few anonymous cranks, trolls, and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.

The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa. I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth–and the truth matters.

This piece appeared in a slightly different form in my Center for Inquiry blog. 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Dec 242019
 

Amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the 2016 holiday season.

blacksantatweet

It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black–a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child’s status on Santa’s naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. “What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy,” Jefferson said in an interview. “[Santa represents] a good spirit. I’m just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys.”

The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn’t wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don’t like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else–not erupt in protest that it’s available to those who want it.

However a black Santa was a first for that particular mall, and understandably made the news. On December 1 the local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story by Liz Sawyer titled “Mall of America Welcomes Its First Black Santa.

Scott Gillespie, the editorial page editor for the Tribune, tweeted later that night (at 9:47 PM): “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” The tweet’s meaning seemed both clear and disappointing: On a story that the Star Tribune posted about an African-American Santa, the racial hostility got so pervasive in the comments section that they had to put an end to it, out of respect for Jefferson and/or Star Tribune readers. He ended with a sad and sarcastic, “Merry Christmas” and sent the tweet into cyberspace.

Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with titles such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel); “Santa is WHITE. BOYCOTT Mall of America’: Online Racists Are Having a Meltdown over Mall’s Black Santa” (RawStory); “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post); “Mall of America Hires Its First Black Santa, Racists of the Internet Lose It” (Mic.com), and so on. If you spend any time on social media you get the idea. It was just another confirmation of America’s abysmal race relations.

There’s only one problem: It didn’t happen.

At 1:25 PM the following day Gillespie, after seeing the stories about the scope and nature of the racist backlash the Tribune faced, reversed himself in a follow-up tweet. Instead of “we had to turn off comments,” Gillespie stated that the commenting was never opened for that article in the first place: “Comments were not allowed based on past practice w/stories w/racial elements. Great comments on FB & Instagram, though.”

This raised some questions for me: If the comments had never been opened on the story, then how could there have been a flood of racist comments? Where did that information come from? How many racist comments did the paper actually get? Fewer than a dozen? Hundreds? Thousands? Something didn’t add up about the story, and as a media literacy educator and journalist I felt it was important to understand the genesis of this story.

It can serve as an object lesson and help the public understand the role of confirmation bias, unwarranted assumptions, and failure to apply skepticism. In this era of attacks on “fake news” it’s important to distinguish intentional misinformation from what might be simply a series of mistakes and assumptions.

While I have no doubt that the Tribune story on Jefferson would likely have been the target of some racist comments at some point, the fact remains that the main point of Gillespie’s tweet was false: the Tribune had not in fact been forced to shut down the comments on its piece about the Mall of America’s black Santa because of a deluge of racist comments. That false information was the centerpiece of the subsequent stories about the incident.

The idea that some might be upset about the topic is plausible; after all, the question of a black Santa had come up a few times in the news and social media (perhaps most notably Fox News’s Megyn Kelly’s infamous incredulity at the notion three years earlier–which she later described as an offhand jest). Racist, sexist, and otherwise obnoxious comments are common in the comments section of many articles online on any number of subjects, and are not generally newsworthy. There were of course some racists and trolls commenting on the secondary stories about the Star Tribune‘s shutting down its comment section due to racist outrage (RawStory collected about a dozen drawn from social media), but fact remains that the incident at the center of the controversy that spawned outrage across social media simply did not happen.

A few journalists added clarifications and corrections to the story after reading Gillespie’s second tweet or being contacted by him. The Huffington Post, for example, added at the bottom of its story: “CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s comment section was turned off when the story was published, not in response to negative comments.” But most journalists didn’t, and as of this writing nearly two million news articles still give a misleading take on the incident.

The secondary news reports could not, of course, quote from the original non-existent rage-filled comments section in the Star Tribune, so they began quoting from their own comments sections and those of other news media. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein the worst comments from hundreds of blogs and websites were then selected and quoted, generating another round of comments. Many people saw racist comments about the story and assumed that they had been taken from the Star Tribune page at the center of the story, and couldn’t be sure if they were responding to the original outrage or the secondary outrage generated by the first outrage. As with those drawn to see and celebrate Jefferson as the mall’s first black Santa, this was also a self-selected group of people–namely those who were attracted to a racially charged headline and had some emotional stake in the controversy, enough to read about it and comment on it.

Unpacking the Reporting

I contacted Gillespie and he kindly clarified what happened and how his tweet inadvertently caused some of the world’s most prominent news organizations to report on an ugly racial incident that never occurred.

Gillespie–whose beat is the opinion and editorial page–was at home on the evening of December 1 and decided to peruse his newspaper’s website. He saw the story about Larry Jefferson and clicked on it to see if the black Santa story was getting any comments. He noticed that there were no comments at all and assumed that the Star Tribune‘s web moderators had shut them off due to inflammatory posts, as had happened occasionally on previous stories.

Understandably irritated and dismayed, he tweeted about it and went to bed, thinking no more of it. The next day he went into work and a colleague noticed that his tweet had been widely shared (his most shared post on social media ever) and asked him about it. Gillespie then spoke with the newspaper’s web moderators, who informed him that the comments had never been turned on for that particular post–a practice at the newspaper for articles on potentially sensitive subjects such as race and politics, but also applied to many other topics that a moderator for whatever reason thinks might generate comments that may be counterproductive.

“I didn’t know why the comments were off,” he told me. “In this case I assumed we followed past practices” about removing inflammatory comments. It was a not-unreasonable assumption that in this case just happened to be wrong. Gillespie noted during our conversation that a then-breaking Star Tribune story about the death of a 2-year-old girl at a St. Paul foster home also had its commenting section disabled–presumably not in anticipation of a deluge of racist or hateful comments.

“People thought–and I can see why, since I have the title of editorial page editor–that I must know what I’m talking about [in terms of web moderation],” Gillespie said. He was commenting on a topic about his newspaper but outside his purview, and to many his tweet was interpreted as an official statement and explanation of why comments did not appear on the black Santa story.

When Gillespie realized that many (at that time dozens and, ultimately, millions) of news stories were (wrongly) reporting that the Star Tribune‘s comments section had been shut down in response to racist comments based solely on his (admittedly premature and poorly phrased) Dec. 1 tweet, he tried to get in touch with some of the journalists to correct the record (hence the Huffington Post clarification), but by that time the story had gone viral and the ship of fools had sailed. The best he could do was issue a second tweet trying to clarify the situation, which he did.

“I can see why people would jump to the conclusion they did,” he told me. Gillespie is apologetic and accepts responsibility for his role in creating the black Santa outrage story, and it seems clear that his tweet was not intended as an attempt at race-baiting for clicks.

In the spirit of Christmas maybe one lesson to take from this case is charity. Instead of assuming the worst about someone or their intentions, give them the benefit of the doubt. Assuming the worst about other people runs all through this story. Gillespie assumed that racists deluged his newspaper with racist hate, as did the public. The web moderator(s) at the Star Tribune who chose not to open the comments on the Santa story may (or may not) have assumed that they were pre-empting a deluge of racism (which may or may not have in fact followed). I myself was assumed to have unsavory and ulterior motives for even asking journalistic questions about this incident (a topic I’ll cover next week).

In the end there are no villains here (except for the relative handful of racists and trolls who predictably commented on the secondary stories). What happened was the product of a series of understandable misunderstandings and mistakes, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age.

The Good News

Gillespie and I agreed that this is, when fact and fiction are separated, a good news story. As noted, Gillespie initially assumed that the newspaper’s moderators had been inundated with hostile and racist comments, and finally turned the comments off after having to wade through the flood of hateful garbage comments to find and approve the positive ones. He need not have feared, because exactly the opposite occurred: Gillespie said that the Star Tribune was instead flooded with positive comments applauding Jefferson as the Mall of America’s first black Santa (he referenced this in his Dec. 2 tweet). The tiny minority of nasty comments were drowned out by holiday cheer and goodwill toward men–of any color. He echoed Jefferson, who in a December 9 NPR interview said that the racist comments he heard were “only a small percentage” of the reaction, and he was overwhelmed by support from the community.

The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort. Gillespie said that he had expected people to attack and criticize the Mall of America for succumbing to political correctness, but the imagined hordes of white nationalists never appeared. A few anonymous cranks and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.

The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for, as he said, bringing “hope, love, and peace to girls and boys,” he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa.

Some may try to justify their coverage of the story by saying that even though in this particular case Jefferson was not in fact inundated with racist hate, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of reporting if it raised awareness of the issue. The Trump administration adopted this tactic earlier this week when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus (and did not happen as portrayed and described), but insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”–that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.”

This disregard for truth has been a prominent theme in the Trump administration. Yes, some tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists; no one denies that, but that does not legitimize the sharing of bogus information as examples supposedly illustrating the problem. Similarly, yes, some tiny minority of Americans took exception to Jefferson as a black Santa, but that does not legitimize sharing false information about how a newspaper had to shut down its comments because of racist rage. There are enough real-life examples of hatred and intolerance that we need not invent new ones.

In this Grinchian and cynical ends-justifies-the-means worldview, there is no such thing as good news and the import of every event is determined by how it can be used to promote a given narrative or social agenda–truth be damned.

I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth.

Merry Christmas.

 

This piece originally appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog in 2017; you can see it HERE! 

 

 

Dec 202019
 

For those who missed it, on the new episode of Squaring the Strange, we discuss the darker side of ghost hunting. Not a demonic dark side, but instead real-world harms and consequences. Things like trespassing dangers, costs to historical sites and organizations, loss of life and limb, and even the mangling of reputations. Please check it out, you can listen to it HERE

 

Dec 152019
 

Better late than never: I was interviewed recently by Ty Bannerman on KUNM’s program “Let’s Talk New Mexico” about NM ghost stories and folklore. I discussed my KiMo theater ghost investigation, and a bit about the St. James hotel… check it out HERE! 

Let’s Talk New Mexico: We’ll be discussing the paranormal side of New Mexico, from modern visitations to traditional legends, as well as taking a look at why we are so fascinated by these supernatural tales. And we want to hear from you! Have you ever experienced a ghost sighting? What happened? Or do you just love ghost stories and want to share a few of your favorite? Why do you think people find these tales so compelling? 

 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Dec 122019
 

Celestia and I are especially pleased with a recent episode of Squaring the Strange, in which we spoke to Leo Igwe, the tireless skeptic, humanist, and human rights advocate in Nigeria. His work on behalf of people persecuted as witches in sub-Saharan Africa is both daunting and vitally important. Skepticism and critical thinking can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

Human rights advocate Dr. Leo Igwe joins us to discuss the dangers posed by so-called “witch hunters” in his home nation of Nigeria and other parts of Africa today. He discusses the entrenched nature of magical beliefs in the region, as well as the complicated power structure that props up those who call out fellow citizens as witches. Religions brought from Europe now play into the mix, with Islam and Christianity working alongside traditional beliefs; witch hunters are often pastors or church leaders, solidifying their power further. Victims are often powerless–the elderly, disabled, or children–and once accused they must run for their lives, abandoned by family and often the state authorities as well. Dr. Igwe talks about the challenges of getting the message across to international agencies and the UN, whose members are sometimes hesitant to speak out against these atrocities for fear of seeming racist or Islamophobic, a trend Igwe decries as stifling critical debate and much-needed open dialogue.  

Please check it out, you can listen HERE. 

Dec 072019
 

The issue of racism in Canada was recently brought into sharp focus when, shortly before the Canadian election, photos and videos of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in blackface and brownface emerged. They had been taken on at least three occasions in the 1990s and early 2000s. Trudeau—widely praised for his socially progressive agendas—quickly apologized and promised to do better. 

Trudeau’s repeated use of blackface (and his subsequent re-election despite public knowledge of it) angered many and left Canadians wondering just how common racism is in their country. Veteran hockey commentator Don Cherry was recently fired by Sportsnet following contentious comments about immigrants. The broadcaster issued a statement that “Following further discussions with Don Cherry after Saturday night’s broadcast, it has been decided that it is the right time for him to immediately step down. During the broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for.” 

Americans—and the Trump administration specifically—are often characterized as inherently racist; New York Times writer Brent Staples, for example, wrote on Twitter (on January 12, 2018) that “Racism and xenophobia are as American as apple pie.” Whether racism and xenophobia are as Canadian as poutine is of course another question. Earlier this year, on May 21, 2019, Canadian news organization Global News reported on a survey that seemed to shed light on that question. The article was titled “Nearly 50% of Canadians Think Racist Thoughts Are Normal: Ipsos poll.” 

The article began, “Almost half of Canadians will admit to having racist thoughts, and more feel comfortable expressing them today than in years past, a new Ipsos poll reveals … The poll, conducted exclusively for Global News, found that 47 per cent of respondents thought racism was a serious problem in the country, down from 69 per cent in 1992. More than three-quarters of respondents said they were not racist, but many acknowledged having racist thoughts they did not share with others. (All of the Ipsos poll data is available online.) ‘We found that (almost) 50 per cent of Canadians believe it’s OK and actually normal to have racist thoughts,’ said Sean Simpson, vice-president of Ipsos Public Affairs.” 

Having researched and written about misleading polls and news articles on many topics, including hatred of transgendered people (see, for example, my article  “Do 60% Of People Misgender Trans People To Insult Them?”); Holocaust denial (see, for example, my article “Holocaust Denial Headlines: Hatred, Ignorance, Or Innumeracy?”); and even whether or not the public believes that Native Americans exist, something about that headline struck me as off. I didn’t necessarily doubt the statistic—racism is a serious problem in Canada, America, and elsewhere—but my journalistic skeptical sense urged a closer look. The poll was conducted between April 8 and 10, 2019, sampling 1,002 Canadian adults and had a margin of error of ±3.5 percent. 

I clicked through the link to the original poll by the Ipsos organization. Their About Us page explains that “In our world of rapid change, the need for reliable information to make confident decisions has never been greater. At Ipsos we believe our clients need more than a data supplier, they need a partner who can produce accurate and relevant information and turn it into actionable truth.” 

The Ipsos page referencing the poll displayed a large headline “Nearly half (47%) of Canadians think racism is a serious problem in Canada today, down 22 points since 1992 (69%).” Just below this, in much smaller size, was the line “Even so, almost half (49%) admit to having racist thoughts.” 

That seemed to provide a clue, as of course 49 percent may be the “nearly half” referred to in the Global News headline, but I noticed that the wording had changed: The headline stated that about half of “Canadians think racist thoughts are normal”—not that half of Canadians say they have racist thoughts. Just because you acknowledge having a racist thought does not logically mean that you think it’s “normal” or acceptable to do so; plenty of surveys and polls ask about socially and morally unacceptable behavior, ranging from infidelity to murder (a 2018 survey in Japan found that more than one in four Japanese workers admitted that the thought of killing their boss had crossed their mind on at least one occasion). 

But I know that sometimes headlines are misleading, and I assumed that the statistic was contained in the poll. Many people of course don’t read past the headline; of those who do read the full article, very few will bother to click on the link to the polling organization’s data page; even fewer will actually open the original report; of those who do, most will read only the executive summary or highlights section. Vanishingly few people—if anyone—will read the full report. 

This is understandable, as audiences naturally assume that a journalist, news organization, or pollster is accurately reporting the results of a poll or survey. If a news headline says that 40 percent of hockey fans drink beer during games or 85 percent of airplane pilots have college degrees, we assume that’s what the survey or research found. As I discuss in my media literacy book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, that’s not always the case. 

Like a game of Telephone, each step away from the original findings may change (usually toward simplifying and/or sensationalizing) that information. Whether intentionally or accidentally, errors can creep in every time the data are explained, summarized, or “clarified.” Usually these changes are minor and go unnoticed, because of course a person would have to check the original report to catch any discrepancies. But now and then another journalist, pedant, or researcher will take the time to check and see that something’s amiss.

Because the poll is available online, I read through it. There were many questions about many facets of racism among the Canadian respondents, but I found no reference whatsoever to the statistic mentioned in the headline. I checked again and still found nothing. 

I reached out to the author of the piece, Global News Senior National Online Journalist Josh K. Elliott, and the author of the report, Sean Simpson, the Ipsos vice-president of public affairs, asking for clarifications, including which specific question item was referred to in the article. 

I wrote, in part:

I read through the original Ipsos report but was unable to find the poll results you referenced in the headline, and that Sean Simpson references in your quote. I did a document search for the specific term used, “normal,” assuming that it would appear in the survey question. I found three matches, on pages 3, 19, and 20, but in none of the cases was I able to find results suggesting that “nearly 50% of Canadians think racist thoughts are normal.”

I have been unable to find that data anywhere in the Ipsos report. The closest I could find was the statistic that half of Canadians say they sometimes have racist thoughts (Question 7). But of course just because you acknowledge having racist thoughts does not logically mean that you think it’s “normal” or acceptable to do so; plenty of surveys and polls ask about socially and morally unacceptable behavior, ranging from infidelity to murder. Question wording is of course critically important in interpreting polls and surveys, and I’m concerned that “having racist thought” was mistakenly mistranslated to “think it’s normal to have racist thought” in your piece. If that statistic appears in the Ipsos report cited, please direct me to it, either by question or page number. If that statistic does not appear in the report, please clarify where it came from. Thank you.  

After repeated inquiries, I was informed that Mr. Elliott no longer worked at that desk, but I got a response from Drew Hasselback, a copy editor at GlobalNews (and, eventually, a cursory and seemingly reluctant reply from Mr. Simpson).

I was directed to four questions that they said were used as the basis for the headline. I looked again at each of them.

• The first, Question 7.6, asks “To what extent do you agree or disagree that racism is a terrible thing?” In response, nearly nine in ten (88 percent) of Canadians agree that racism is terrible. It didn’t speak to whether Canadians think racist thoughts are normal, but if anything seemed to contradict the claim. 

• The second, Question 7.5, asked “To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following: I can confidently say that I am not racist.” Of those polled, over three quarters (78 percent) agree that they can confidently say they’re not racist. Again, this hardly suggests that racism is considered normal among the respondents, and it contradicts the reporting and the headline associated with it.

Frankly, I’m surprised the number is that high. Why might a minority of otherwise non-racist Canadians not be able to “confidently” say that they are not racist? In part because there is a presumption that everyone is racist, whether they realize it or not. This is a widely held view among many, especially progressives and liberals (it’s so common in fact that it serves as the basis for Question 7 in the poll). In other words, even if they sincerely and truly don’t consider themselves racist and have no racist thoughts ever, they would be reluctant to go so far as to state categorically and confidently to others that they are not at all racist. (You see the same issue with polls asking women if they would use the word beautiful to describe themselves; very few do, though they will call themselves prettyattractive, etc. Doing so is seen as vain, just as stating “I’m confident I’m not racist” would be considered by many to be boasting or virtue signaling.)

• The third was Question 7.3, which asks to what extent people agree or disagree with the statement, “While I sometimes think racist thoughts, I wouldn’t talk about them in public.” This, once again, does not support the news headline. It is vitally important when interpreting polls and surveys to parse out the precise question asked. Note that it is a compound question framed in a very specific way (asking about whether one would express a thought in public); the question was not “Do you sometimes think racist thoughts?” But even if it were, you cannot generalize “people sometimes do X” to “it’s normal for people to do X.” Merriam-Webster, for example, defines normal as “average” or “a widespread or usual practice.” Thus, a poll or survey question trying to capture the incidence of a normal behavior or event would use the word usually instead of sometimes

• Finally, we came Question 7.1, the only question that specifically uses the word normal and asks if Canadians agree that “It’s perfectly normal to be prejudiced against people of other races.” 

As I noted, this question and its response do not accurately capture the question of whether or not “X% of Canadians think racist thoughts are normal” (as the Global News headline reads), but even if it did, we find that the headline is still wrong. From this statistic alone, the correct headline would be “22% of Canadians think racist thoughts are normal”—which is less than half the number reported in the headline. About one in five whites and one in three minorities said that it’s normal to be prejudiced against people of other races, as did one in four men and one in five women. Instead of nearly half of Canadians thinking racism is normal, nearly 70 percent of Canadians disagreed that racial prejudice is normal

The Ipsos poll itself seems well-researched, sound, and contains important information. Unfortunately, its conclusions got mangled along the way. The question is not whether specific Canadians (such as Trudeau or Cherry) are racist but instead whether or not those views are widely held; it’s the difference between anecdote and data. Polls and surveys can provide important information about the public’s beliefs. But to be valid, they must be based on sound methodologies, and media-literate news consumers should always look for information about the sample size, representativeness of the population, whether the participants were random or self-selected, and so on. And, when possible, read the original research data. News reports, such as the one I’ve focused on here, leave the false impression that racism is more widespread and socially acceptable than it really is. Racism is a serious issue, and understanding its nature is vital to stemming it; indeed, as Iposos notes, “In our world of rapid change, the need for reliable information to make confident decisions has never been greater.” 

 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

This article has been adapted from my Center for Inquiry blog, available HERE. 

Dec 042019
 

Last month a Maine man made national news for finding tampered Halloween candy. He posted on social media that he found a needle in candy his son had bitten into. Police investigated and found he lied, hoaxing the whole thing (probably for attention).

He’s now been charged according to news reports

 

 

 

 

Dec 022019
 

When families of missing people are desperate they often listen to psychics.

Here’s a new article on the topic: 

“The psychic, Juanita Szafranski, led a search effort focused on a five-mile area surrounding the East Rock neighborhood. Peter Recchia, 59, went missing seven weeks ago, and was last seen in the area where Szafranski led the search. Szafranski says she got a strong feeling Peter, who suffers from mental illness, may no longer be alive, and she gave police specific areas to search in the coming days.”

I hope her information is accurate (it’s obvious to search near where he was last seen), but psychic detective success rates are at chance levels. I’ll keep tabs on this case to see what comes of it. I’ve previously followed real-time searches for missing persons, such as in the Holly Bobo case; we discussed it on a recent episode of Squaring the Strange

 

 

Nov 302019
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out!

In this episode we talk about caricature and mysterious crystal skulls. Can we trust what Dan Ayrkroyd tells us on his fancy vodka bottle? Are there really thirteen of these ancient and powerful relics? What is the Skull of Doom, and does it have strange properties that baffle scientists? We even look at an ill-conceived lawsuit against Steven Spielberg involving the crystal skulls featured in a Indiana Jones movie.

Check it out HERE!