Nov 232017
 
A "Jesus Potato Chip" I found during a TV shoot for the show "Miracle Detectives" with Indre Viskontas at the Holy Love Ministries in Ohio. I talk about it in episode 30 of Squaring the Strange! If you'd like to see a short clip of my appearance on that TV show, you can find 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!   
Nov 182017
 
As a professional skeptic (I know, that phrase sounds weird to me too—even after all these years—but you know what I mean) I deal with all manner of believer. Some are respectful, some are not, but the one constant is that we are approaching the topic from different viewpoints, including different standards of evidence and different ideas about what constitutes good evidence in the first place (the canard “the plural of anecdote is not evidence” often comes up). Since the general public, like the casual skeptic, doesn’t often engage in these run-of-the-mill interactions, it is useful to review them, as they provide insight into the differing worldviews. I thought about this recently when I received the following e-mail from a woman named Julia (verbatim throughout): “After watching a documentary about psychics, I really must comment on the fact that your skepticism is not only naive, but also arrogant, and actually quite rude, when clearly there is evidence for this phenomenon. Not all science has the answers; this has been proved in history, when science thought they knew everything; even calling Edison a lunatic when he invented the lightbulb. This is just one example. Please educate yourself, and come out of your little insular box, so that we can move forward. I have experienced Clairaudient, and can honestly tell you that I know more than you do. I am of normal mind, but I am not naive, arrogant, know all, or ignorant to the possiblity that just because we cannot see, smell, hear, touch something, that it does not exist. We have a physical body, and etheric body, spiritual body. If you, or any other orthodox sceptic refuse to understand this, then it is sad- for you at least. More and more scientists, psychologists- to name a few: Robert Lanza, Raymond Moody, Stuart Hameroff, have been studying this for many years, and have very interesting facts. Orthodox science will be proved wrong, even if they do not like it. The world is changing; there will be a shift in consciousness, and mindsets like yours will be left behind. I hope that you see this message, because you need to know that you do not have the answers to this Universe. Have a nice day.”
  • • •
  I couldn’t tell if the closing pleasantry was sincere, sarcastic, or merely a polite formality, but in any event I felt compelled to reply: “Hello Julia, and thanks for reaching out to me, good to hear from you. You don’t state which documentary you recently saw about psychics, or whether I was featured in it, so I can’t know exactly what information you’re referring to. In any event I’m not sure why you consider my skepticism about psychic powers to be “arrogant” or “rude.” I would never suggest that you (or anyone else) is arrogant or rude merely because you believe something different than I do. I celebrate the beautiful diversity of opinions and do not feel that others must believe the same things I do (or share my opinions on) science, religion, life, or anything else. We may disagree about whether there is evidence for a given proposition or claim, but I don’t feel that you are “naive, arrogant, and rude” for not sharing my beliefs. I find such intolerance disappointing but of course I respect your opinion. I quite agree that science does not have all the answers; indeed that’s a hallmark of science! Scientists keep trying to learn about our world and use scientific methods to experiment and test hypotheses. But I’m puzzled by the example you give: “even calling Edison a lunatic when he invented the lightbulb.” I was not aware that scientists called Edison a lunatic for inventing the lightbulb; from my understanding scientists such as Humphry Davy had been developing incandescent lights since the late 1700s, and the idea of an electric lightbulb was widely accepted by scientists throughout the world in the 1800s, including by many of Edison’s contemporaries. Edison’s problem was not that scientists thought he was crazy for using electric current to light homes, but instead that the existing filaments burned out too quickly to be useful. Of course I may be mistaken, and as you have asked me to “please educate yourself,” I would appreciate any correction or clarification you can offer about the example you gave. The same goes for evidence for psychics; you claim to hear voices and while that may be true it is of course not something that I can research. When you ask me to educate myself, what specifically would you suggest I educate myself about? Are there certain scientific studies you believe prove that psychic powers exist? I’m familiar with claims made by Moody (I’ve read several of his books, including Life After Life, about near-death experience and reincarnation), but I’m not aware of any research or published works by him about psychic abilities. I’m less familiar with Robert Lanza, but a quick internet search reveals no experiments or research testing or proving the existence of psychic powers. However I am more familiar with Stuart Hameroff, who appeared in the widely-discredited New Age film What the Bleep Do We Know, along with several other scientists who stated that their comments were taken of context. Like Lanza, Hameroff has not offered, and has never claimed to offer, evidence of psychic powers that I can find. So when you write “please educate yourself, and come out of your little insular box,” I am willing to do so, but I need to know what it is you believe I should educate myself about. You cited three people, none of whom are (or even claim to be) experts on the validity of psychic powers. I can’t educate myself about your personal experience or beliefs/opinions (everyone’s are different, subjective, and equally valid), so I’ll need to know what education you have that I don’t, that would clarify the issue. I’m also curious why you believe that my desire for scientific evidence for psychics is preventing progress; you wrote “Please educate yourself... so that we can move forward.” How is my lack of belief in psychic powers preventing people (or society) from moving forward? Does psychic power require universal belief in its efficacy, or the assent of skeptics? I don’t understand what you mean, so if you could clarify that would be helpful. It’s always struck me as odd (and a bit sad and cynical) that when someone disagrees with me about a topic I’ve researched and written about, I’m often accused of being ignorant, arrogant, and (often wilfully) misinformed. In contrast, I don’t assume that about other people when I’m exposed to new ideas or different opinions. I don’t assume that the other person is stupid, ignorant, or intentionally spreading misinformation. Instead I believe that perhaps we simply have different information, or spoke to different people, or had different experiences. No one can know everything about everything, and inevitably some people are better informed about some topics than others. Experts are one example, but writers and researchers, as well, tend to be better informed about the topic on which they’re writing than laypersons, if for no other reason that they’ve spent considerable time (certainly hours, but often days or weeks) specifically looking into it, seeing the various claims, contacting experts on both sides, etc. Instead of taking such a hostile, “us versus them” position, I believe people can have an honest difference of opinion without one or the other necessarily being stupid or arrogant. But that’s just my approach.”
  • • •
Julia wrote back a day or two later: “Hello Ben- thank you for your insightful message, and apologies for the name calling. Not something I make a habit of. Please do not take it personally. I just hope that more and more people become enlightened, and a shift in consciousness will take place- as has been predicted. Those who have experienced something spiritual; who have a faith (not talking about religion), and like me, who have had a profuound, tangible experience- which, by the way, I do actually question still, purely because we(experiencers) also tend to try and rationalise everything, but cannot because our experience was so real- both visually, and audibly, are the ones with the truth, I feel. Surely those who have really seen, heard something beyond our five senses, are the ones who know the truth. Scientists studying consciousness/life after death, have now ben able to prove that consciousness does in fact continue for 3 minutes after the brain has shut down: LIFE after death has been "confirmed" by scientists who have discovered consciousness continues even once a person has died. We all have Auras- including animals. We all have a soul. The outer layers beyond the physical body. Intuition, a knowing. Prayers being answered time and time again. Coincidence is one thing, but what I am taliking about it something different. It can be difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced anything, and I do respect your opinion, and what you say, but all I am saying is that those who have experienced something beyond the physical senses is proof surely. Animals (cats and dogs for sure) are definately in tune with something beyond the physical. If someone is highly sensitive/empathetic they tend to be on a higher vibration meaning that they are more likely to experience something spiritual. The consistancy in NDE's, and other phenomena is interesting also. I do not believe everything I hear from others, so I guess I do have some scepticism, or to put in better words, I am not gullible, because there are alot of crazy people out there, but one can normally distinguish between what sounds realistic or not. I do look for consistancy in peoples experiences, and prohecies etc about afterlife, and it is nice when there is a consistant explanation as with NDE's. Anyway, I hope I make some sense, and even though I may not have answered all your questions, hopefully I've covered some of it. Take care.”
  • • •
I appreciated the apology but noted that she ignored most of what I’d asked and discussed with her. She made a claim about Thomas Edison, and when I politely asked her for evidence or to explain what she meant, she chose not to (I assume because she realized she was wrong and had misunderstood or misapplied the Edison anecdote). I was neither offended nor surprised, but it seemed to demonstrate a tacit disregard for the truth, or at least an unwillingness to admit error. There was also no engagement with my ready admission that science doesn’t have all the answers, and other points. I was engaging with her respectfully and on her own terms. In replying to her request to educate myself, I asked her—quite sincerely—what specifically I should educate myself about, what topics or research or experts I should consult in order to understand her position or be better informed, since the ones she mentioned had little or nothing to do with the topic. Once again I got no response; instead of directing me to a book, journal article, or other resources that had apparently informed her opinion, she referred vaguely to auras, prayers, personal experience, and so on. In sum, I had politely asked a firm believer—who’d specifically requested that I educate myself—for information and sources upon which to do so, and was ignored. Sensing that the fruitfulness of the dialogue had reached the point of diminishing returns, I replied:
  • • •
Hello Julia, Yes, I’m aware that a new age of global enlightenment has been predicted and promised for decades (most prominently in the 1970s and 1980s) and earlier (with Edgar Cayce and even the Spiritualists, if I’m not mistaken). It’s a common belief, that the Truth will be revealed just around the corner. I’ve seen it written by UFO experts in magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, who say that any day now our space brothers will come down from the stars and usher in an age of peace (or that the global UFO government coverup is about to end). I’ve heard it from apocalyptic and Biblical End Times authors who for decades have assured their followers (and anyone else who will listen) that Judgment Day is imminent. I’ve seen it in psi researchers, Bigfoot believers, and in countless other paranormal, occult, or “unexplained” subjects, that there’s so much clear evidence that surely any day now the general public will just understand what they understand and we’ll all be on the same page. You (and they) may be right, but so far they’ve all been wrong. You wrote that “LIFE after death has been ‘confirmed’ by scientists who have discovered consciousness continues even once a person has died,” and you asked me to do some research and educate myself. I would respectfully suggest to you that I have educated myself on the topic: I’ve read several books on the topic (pro and con, skeptic and believer), and spoken with or interviewed several people who have researched it including Gary Schwartz. I’ve read books by Kenneth Ring, Raymond Moody, Ian Stevenson, Chris Carter, etc. on their claims for reincarnation and life after death. To get a balanced view I’ve also read books by G.M. Woerlee, Susan Blackmore, and Paul Edwards on their analyses/criticisms of NDE and reincarnation claims and research. My skepticism is borne not of ignorance about the subject, but knowledge of it. Let me ask you this: Have you educated yourself about the topic? Have you read any books that critically examine or analyze the claims, or have you limited your research to only one side of the story? Critical thinking (and determining what’s true about the world) often requires that we be open minded and engage in ideas, evidence, and opinions that are contrary to ours. We don’t have to, of course, but a willingness and tolerance for different ideas is important, I believe. We clearly have different approaches to evidence and different opinions on these topics. I’m certainly not going to talk you out of your beliefs, and would not even try. However I can tell you with certainty that there is a whole world of open-minded, legitimate, and evidence-based analysis of auras, life after death, NDEs, ghosts, psychic powers, and so on. Whether you choose to seek them out or engage with them with an open mind and open heart is another matter, but the material is available. If you’d like more information there’s an excellent free resource online called the Skeptics Dictionary; you can find it at http://www.skepdic.com/. It has short, readable entries and a good bibliography for further reading or research. If you have specific areas you’re interested in, let me know and I’d be happy to select a few of the most credible sources of information.” That’s all I could do.   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! 
Nov 152017
 
As a teenager I was fascinated by books about the strange and mysterious world around us. In the summer I’d walk to the local used bookstore and pull out a handful of crumpled allowance dollars to scoop up some old paperbacks from the Fifties. Along with Doc Savage and Tom Swift pulp novels, I’d pick up some “true mystery” books. In particular I recall buying several books by Frank Edwards, with titles like Stranger Than Science. Inside I found a banquet of odd and mysterious stories and phenomena, spilling from page after yellowed page. These weren’t ghost stories, or silly pulp fiction novels; these were, as the cover blurb read, “Astounding stories of strange events! All authentic —all absolutely true!” I loved these snippets of mystery, of supernatural coincidences, prophecy, terrifying creatures, and all other manner of oddity. They had titles like, “The Invisible Fangs” and “The Girl Who Lived Twice” and “A Voice From The Dead?” A blurb on the cover from the Colorado Springs Free Press called it a “fascinating collection of weird, fully-documented stories taken from life that modern science is powerless to explain!” Yet the assertion that the stories were “fully documented” was perhaps the strangest claim in the book, since none of Edwards’ stories cited sources, references, or in fact any documentation whatsoever! The “science cannot explain” line was quite popular, and also appeared on many other similar books, such as Rupert T. Gould’s 1965 book Oddities, subtitled “Mysterious, true events science cannot explain!” I pictured worried scientists—imagined as balding men in horn-rimmed glasses and white lab coats—huddled together chain-smoking and fretting about the mysteries they couldn’t explain. A few years ago when researching the famous Coral Castle in Florida I came across this claim repeatedly. In Homestead, not far from Miami and off the South Dixie Highway, sits the world-famous structure. Though not really a castle—and not really made of coral—it is nonetheless an amazing achievement. More than 1,000 tons of the sedimentary rock was quarried and sculpted into a variety of shapes, including slab walls, tables, chairs, a crescent moon, a water fountain and a sundial. “You are about to see an engineering marvel that has been compared with Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Egypt,” touts an information sheet available at the site. Many sources claim that the castle, originally called Rock Gate Park, is scientifically inexplicable. According to the attraction’s website, “Coral Castle has baffled scientists, engineers and scholars since its opening in 1923.” Despite researching information about the site, I was unable to find any references to all the baffled scientists. Who were they? When were they there? What were their credentials? What exactly did they test or examine that left them perplexed? When I put these questions to the staff at the Coral Castle I got baffled if bemused shrugs. How can you boldly claim that scientists can’t explain it, if you have no record of any scientists actually trying to explain it? They may or may not be able to, but unless they have made a sincere effort you can’t honestly claim that they failed. I was recently reminded of this when I was contacted via Twitter by someone with the handle “Ninel Kulagina Fans.” They wrote “In 50 years, no magician has replicated the filmed 1967 Kulagina/Naumpv macro telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions.” I promptly and politely replied: “Which magicians tried, where, and when?” It was a sincere and simple request: I was told unequivocally that “no magician has replicated the telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions,” and in order to determine the validity of that claim I’d need to know more about the times that magicians had tried and failed to replicate said experiments. The afternoon came and went without a reply, so the next day I repeated my request: “So: Which magicians tried, where, and when? Still waiting for a response.” Eventually the fan (or fans) of Ninel Kulagina realized that I was serious and asking for evidence of their claim. Instead of the names of one or more magicians who had tried to “replicate the filmed 1967 Kulagina/Naumpv macro telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions” (along with the dates, published research on the topic describing the experimental conditions, etc.) I got the following reply: “Doesn’t say ‘tried.’ A success by a magician would require a famous parapsychologist, science film crew. No reports in 50 years of success.” This answer—and its tacit admission—was quite revealing: The person admitted up front that no magicians had even attempted to replicate those telekinesis demonstrations under the same conditions (or any other, for that matter). It certainly is true that skeptical magicians (most prominently my colleague James Randi, as well as other including Ray Hyman, Banachek, and Dan Korem) have tried to replicate alleged claims of telekinesis by performers such as Uri Geller, James Hydrick, and others; the magicians were successful in those attempts—but only because they tried in the first place! Kulagina’s claims have been analyzed and discussed by many skeptical researchers including Randi, Martin Gardner, and Massimo Polidoro. Stating that no magician has replicated a specific telekinesis performance is only meaningful if one has attempted to do so but failed—which is the false conclusion implied in the tweet by Ninel Kulagina Fans. We don’t know whether or not a professional magician could replicate Kulagina’s performance because it hasn’t been done, and there’s no reason to think that the magician would fail. I responded with a final reply: “So you’re claiming that X has never happened, yet acknowledge that X has never been attempted. Do you see the faulty logic there?” Fans of Ninel Kulagina responded, “I see a red herring or avoiding the issue fallacy or both. As you know, Randi et al have simulated, but not under same conditions. Thanks.” The red herring claim was especially rich, but at any rate I’m still waiting for any Kulagina supporters to provide the name(s) of the professional magician(s) who tried to replicate Kulagina’s effects, where and when these attempted replications took place, under what conditions or controls, under whose supervision, etc. If and when those are provided (and validated) I’ll be happy to concede that no magician has replicated the Kulagina demonstrations under the same conditions. When it comes to claims of baffled scientists and skeptics, there’s a simple lesson to remember: “Can’t” isn’t the same as “didn’t try.”
Nov 122017
 
A few years ago a shark researcher offered a new theory about what might be behind some of the world’s famous lake monsters. Bruce Wright, a senior scientist at the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association, wrote an article for the Alaska Dispatch newspaper that proposed an interesting idea: “For years, legendary tales from Scotland and Western Alaska described large animals or monsters thought to live in Loch Ness and Lake Iliamna. But evidence has been mounting that the Loch Ness and Lake Iliamna monsters may, in fact, be sleeper sharks.” Wright suggests that the sharks, which can reach 20 feet long and weigh more than 4 tons, might migrate through rivers and into lakes and be mistaken for monsters. The Lake Iliamna monster (known as Illie) is said to resemble a whale or a seal and be between 10 and 20 feet long. There have been fewer than a half dozen sightings of Illie since it was first seen in 1942. The best known American lake monster is not said to be in Alaska but instead in Lake Champlain, which forms the border between Vermont and New York. “Champ,” as the creature is called, has allegedly been seen by hundreds of witnesses and is anywhere between 10 and 187 feet long, has one or more humps, and is gray, black, dark green or other colors. The best evidence for Champ—in fact, for any lake monster—was a 1977 photo taken by a woman named Sandra Mansi showing what appeared to be a dark head and hump in the lake. Later investigation by myself and Joe Nickell revealed that the object was a floating log that looked serpentine from a certain angle. While Wright’s hypothesis is interesting, there are many problems with his theory, including the fact that both Ness and Iliamna are freshwater lakes, while Pacific sleeper sharks, as their name suggests, inhabit saltwater oceans. Some saltwater animals can adapt to brackish or fresh water (freshwater bull sharks and dolphins, for example), but there are no known freshwater sleeper sharks. Another problem with Wright’s shark-as-lake monster theory is that, despite his suggestion that “the monsters’ shape and colors usually match that of sleeper sharks,” in fact most descriptions of the monsters in Ness and Iliamna bear little resemblance to sleeper sharks. Many eyewitnesses suggest that the unknown aquatic monster in Loch Ness resembles a long-extinct dinosaur-like marine reptile called the plesiosaur. As for Lake Iliamna, at least one eyewitness reported that Illie had a prominent (3-foot-high) dorsal fin, while sleeper sharks have very low-profile dorsal fins, barely a bump on the back. Researcher Matthew Bille interviewed Illie eyewitnesses for his book Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology, and believes that the most likely explanation for the monster is not a sleeper shark but instead a white sturgeon, which can grow more than 20 feet long: “the appearance of the White sturgeon-gray to brown in color, with huge heads and long cylindrical bodies—appears to match most Iliamna accounts.” Indeed, it would not be the first time that sturgeon have been mistaken for monsters. Bille notes that “Iliamna has 15 times the volume of Loch Ness. At the same time, it must be admitted there is no physical or film evidence for unknown creatures of any kind.” Such conclusions do not deter Wright; in fact he plans to organize field expeditions to Lake Iliamna and Loch Ness, hoping to find and tag any sleeper sharks he may find there. 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! 
Nov 082017
 
A woman in Germany has claimed she was hypnotized outside of a supermarket, put into a trance, and later woke up at home having been robbed. A March 4, 2014 Daily Mirror news article, explained that “A pair of hypnotists are being hunted by police after a victim claimed she was put in a trance before being robbed. Police in Germany are investigating a spate of crimes involving two Russian women who tell their victims they will read their fortune. In one incident 66 year-old Sarah Alexeyeva told detectives she was spoken to outside an Aldi supermarket in Elmshorn, Schleswig-Holstein. But the next thing she knew she snapped out of a trance and was sat in her armchair at home. All her jewellery and valuables had disappeared, police said.” Though such claims are unusual, they are not unheard of. According to a 2008 BBC News story, “Police in Italy have issued footage of a man who is suspected of hypnotizing supermarket checkout staff to hand over money from their cash registers. In every case, the last thing staff reportedly remember is the thief leaning over and saying: ‘Look into my eyes, before finding the till empty.” There’s a certain creepy gothic allure to the idea that a mesmerizing stranger can ask you to stare deeply into his eyes, or ask you to follow a pocketwatch swaying seductively to and fro and listen to him count backwards into a hypnotic trance. But it’s pure fiction. Hypnosis is a widely misunderstood psychological phenomenon, due largely to its depictions in popular culture and film. Many people believe that hypnosis is a way to access memories of traumatic events that have somehow been hidden or forgotten. In the book Human Memory: An Introduction to Research, Data, and Theory, Dr. Ian Neath of Purdue University notes, “The majority of studies do not find that hypnosis allows recollection of information that could not otherwise be recalled.” In fact there is a significant danger that any information or memories that may be recalled under hypnosis may be false, created accidentally by the power of suggestion. False memories elicited using hypnosis played a role in the “Satanic Panic” scare of the 1980s and 1990s in which dozens of people were falsely accused of physically and sexually abusing children. Some people even spent years and decades in prison for crimes they did not commit based on little or no evidence other than hypnosis-derived memories. Another common myth about hypnosis is that it can put someone into a helpless or suggestible trance-like state. To psychologists, however, this idea has no basis. If it were possible to simply stare deeply into a stranger’s eyes to induce a trance-like, compliant state, then it would happen all the time. Anyone with practice or skill in hypnosis could easily turn to a life of crime by walking into a bank, casting a hypnotic stare at a teller, and take whatever they like. In their book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, psychologists Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyerstein debunk this popular myth: “Recent survey data show that public opinion resonates with media portrayals of hypnosis. Specifically, 77% of college students endorsed the statement that ‘hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness, quite different from normal waking consciousness.’... But research refutes these widely accepted beliefs. Hypnotized people are by no means mindless automatons.” Many psychologists believe that hypnosis is not some special altered state of consciousness, but simply a form of deep relaxation. Stage hypnosis—such as the kind seen in Las Vegas comedy acts where “suggestible” audience members get on stage and pretend to be chickens or caught in embarrassing situations—is not true clinical hypnosis but instead a combination of showmanship and participatory comedy. There is some evidence that hypnosis might be useful in addressing some behavior-related medical issues such as quitting smoking or weight loss. There may be a placebo-like effect in that a person who is highly motivated to change their habits might get a boost from believing that hypnosis is helping them. However the evidence is weak because people who seek out hypnosis for help with their problems are by definition highly motivated, and any added success rate may be due to that motivation, with or without the benefit of hypnosis. It’s not clear why a person would believe or assume that he or she had been put into a hypnotic trance when they had not. Such a belief may be due to memory loss or confusion, but there’s no reason to fear hypnotist bandits.   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!   
Nov 052017
 
A snake-handling preacher who survived nine previous bites succumbed to his final, fatal bite in Kentucky in early February 2014. As CNN reported on February 18, “A Kentucky pastor who starred in a reality show about snake-handling in church has died—of a snakebite. Jamie Coots died Saturday evening after refusing to be treated, Middlesboro police said. On Snake Salvation, the ardent Pentecostal believer said that he believed that a passage in the Bible suggests poisonous snakebites will not harm believers as long as they are anointed by God.” Evangelical preachers like Coots not only handle venomous snakes but also engage in other dangerous activities such as drinking poison. They base their faith on Biblical verses in Mark 16: “And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Pastor Coots and his followers are Biblical literalists, believing that each and every word in the Bible is the true and inerrant word of God. This is a position that Bill Nye “The Science Guy” took creationist Ken Ham to task about during their January 2014 debate when Nye described the Bible as “verses translated into English over thirty centuries.” Even assuming that God wrote the Bible through men, all that copying and translating, Nye noted, leaves many opportunity for errors to creep into the verses. Thus the Mark 16 reference to snakes may simply be a metaphor, part of a well-known tradition of depicting Satan or evil in the form of serpents. Many evangelicals, however, take it literally. The premise behind snake handling is to demonstrate their faith, both to themselves and as an inspiration to others, by doing something dangerous. It just happens to be serpents because of a bible passage, but in theory the same ritual role could be fulfilled by drunk bullfighting or playing Russian roulette. Seeking medical attention for a snake bite is seen as a lack of faith in God’s ability to heal, a belief that can also be found in other religions including Christian Scientists and Scientologists. In many cases children have even died because their devout parents refused to take them to a doctor. Coots, though well-known because of his high-profile status on a popular television show, is far from alone in this practice. Though not common (and in fact illegal in many places), snake handling at evangelical events occurs on a regular basis. It’s not clear how many people have died from it—since official numbers are not kept and only high-profile deaths such as Coots are likely to make the news—but the victims likely number in the hundreds. Many wonder what effect Coots’s death will have on his followers. The most likely answer, surprisingly, is none. Their religious belief is what in logic is called non-falsifiable; that is, it can't be proven wrong or false. No matter the outcome of snake handling, it’s God’s will: if he gets bitten and dies, it’s fine because God called him home and it was his time to pass, and if he doesn’t get bit (or survives the bite) it’s because God protected him. It’s framed as win-win situation, so no matter the outcome it reinforces their religious beliefs. In fact it would be more surprising if Coots’s followers’ faith was shaken: After all, the whole point of serpent handling is about affirmation of faith; for them to lose faith because of what happened to him would be the ultimate betrayal. It’s not clear whether Jamie Coots’s son, Little Cody, will keep up the snake-handling tradition that killed his father, but it seems likely. In 2012 another well-known Pentecostal serpent handler, Mack Wolford, was killed in his West Virginia church after being fatally bitten by one of his snakes. Wolford’s father was also a snake handler, and he, also, was killed by a snake in 1983. Many greeted this news incredulously: Didn’t he learn a lesson from this? The answer is that of course he did; he just learned a lesson that’s different than most non-Evangelicals would take from this tragedy. Not that God wanted Wolford to die—and surely not that God doesn’t exist and left Wolford to his own devices when handling venomous snakes—but instead that Wolford’s faith was rewarded in heaven. While some have found dark humor in the irony of Coots’s death, the fact is that religious beliefs, like all other beliefs, have consequences. Coots, like religious zealots of all stripes, was willing to stake his life on the power of his faith, and he did.     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! 
Oct 312017
 
Halloween is here, and amid the make-believe witches, ghouls, and goblins, there are supposedly real-life villains who hope to harm on children October 31. News reports and scary stories on social media leave many parents concerned about protecting children from Halloween threats. But are they real or myth? Here are five scary myths and legends about the spookiest holiday! 1) Halloween is Satanic While many people see Halloween as scary and harmless fun some people, including many fundamentalist Christians, believe that there is sinister side to the holiday. They believe that underneath the fantasy costumes and candy-dispensing traditions there lies an unseen spiritual struggle for the souls of the innocent. Christian evangelist Phil Phillips and Joan Hake Robie, in their book "Halloween and Satanism," explain that the seemingly harmless costumes (such as witches, zombies and vampires) put children's spiritual lives at risk by interesting them in supernatural occult phenomena—and, ultimately, on the road to Satanic practices. Of course it's not just Halloween that these groups are concerned about—they have in the past protested against role-playing games, heavy-metal music, and even Harry Potter books. Historically, however, there is little or no actual connection between Satanism and Halloween; for one thing the early pagan traditions that many scholars believe became part of what we now call Halloween had no concept of Devil. The idea of a Christian Satan developed much later, and therefore Halloween could not have been rooted in Satanism. 2) Beware Tainted Halloween Candy The most familiar Halloween scares involve contaminated candy, and every year, police and medical centers across the country X-ray candy collected by trick-or-treaters to check for razors, needles, or contaminants that might have been placed there by strangers intending to hurt or kill children. Scary news reports and warnings on social media claimed that dangerous candy had been found, raising fears among parents and children. Many medical centers across the country, including in Harrisburg, Penn., are offering free X-raying of candy this Halloween. This threat is essentially an urban legend. There have been only two confirmed cases of children being killed by poisoned Halloween candy, and in both cases the children were killed not in a random act by strangers but intentional murder by one of their parents. The best-known, "original" case was that of Texan Ronald Clark O'Bryan, who killed his son by lacing his Pixie Stix with cyanide in 1974. In essence he used this myth to try to cover his crime. Yet the fear continues. There have been a few instances of candy tampering over the years—and in most cases the "victim" turned out to be the culprit, children doing it as a prank or to draw attention. Last year there were a few news reports about suspected tainted candy, and police determined that the incidents were hoaxes. In Philadelphia an 11-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy in who reported finding needles in their trick-or-treat candy admitted they made up the story for attention, and a 37-year-old father claimed to have found tainted candy in his kids' loot; he later admitted it was a hoax and claimed that he put the needles in the candy to teach his kids a lesson about safety. Fortunately, parents can rest easy: Despite the ubiquitous warnings on social media, there have been no confirmed reports of anyone actually being injured or harmed by contaminated Halloween candy from strangers. 3) Beware Halloween Terrorists After the September 11, 2001, attacks, rumors circulated that mysterious Middle Eastern men were buying up huge quantities of candies just before Halloween. Many people were concerned that this might be part of a terrorist plot to attack America's children, and the FBI looked into the case. Prompted by the public concern over potential terrorism, the FBI acknowledged that it was investigating the cash purchase of 'large quantities' of candy from Costco stores in New Jersey. A week before Halloween, on October 22, the FBI cleared up the rumors. It was one man, not two, who had bought $15,000 worth of candy, not $35,000. The man's nationality was not revealed, so he may or may not have been Arab or dark-skinned or even had an ethnic name. As it turned out the man was a wholesaler who planned to resell the candy, and the purchase was a routine transaction that had nothing to do with terrorism. 4) Beware Sex Offenders on Halloween Though the fears over poisoned candy (whether by malicious neighbors or foreign terrorists) never materialized, the reputed Halloween evil took a new form in the 1990s: sex offenders. This scare, even more than the candy panics, was fueled by alarmist news reports and police warnings. In many states, convicted sex offenders were required not to answer the door if trick-or-treaters came by, or to report to jail overnight. In many states including Texas and Arkansas offenders were required to report to courthouses on Halloween evening for a mandatory counseling sessions. The theory behind such laws is that Halloween provides a special opportunity for sex offenders to make contact with children, or to use costumes to conceal their identities. This has been the assumption among many local politicians and police for years. Yet there is no reason to think that sex offenders pose any more of a threat to children on Halloween than at any other time. In fact, there has not been a single case of any child being molested by a convicted sex offender while trick-or-treating. A 2009 study confirmed that the public has little to fear from sex offenders on Halloween. The research, published in the September 2009 issue of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, examined 67,307 non-family sex offenses reported to law enforcement in 30 states over nine years. The researchers wanted to determine whether or not children are in fact at any greater risk for sexual assault around Halloween: “There does not appear to be a need for alarm concerning sexual abuse on these particular days. Halloween appears to be just another autumn day where rates of sex crimes against children are concerned.” 5) Beware Scary Clowns In the wake of the recent scary clown panics across the country, several national stores including Target have removed scary clown masks from their shelves, and both kids and parents are asking children to both beware of people in clown costumes and to not wear scary clown masks. Several counties banned scary clown costumes and masks last Halloween. As one writer noted, "A Kemper County, Mississippi's Board of Supervisors voted recently to make it unlawful to wear a clown costume in public. The ban covers all ages and includes costumes, masks or makeup. The ban – which will expire the day after Halloween – comes at the request of the county sheriff... It comes after a series of reports from around the country and Alabama that spooky-looking clowns were threatening children and schools. Some of those reports were later debunked and a few led to arrests with concerns over the creepy clown phenomenon growing as Halloween approaches." Clown masks have also been banned from some New Jersey schools; as "USA Today" reported, "The West Milford Police Department has said there is no specific threat against the community. Still, there have been spotty and unsubstantiated reports on social media about people in scary clown masks lurking around township school yards in recent weeks." Fortunately so far there are no confirmed reports of children being seriously injured, abducted, or killed by anyone dressed in scary clown masks over the past few months. Most of the reports are hoaxes and copycats, usually by teenagers who have fun scaring people or seeing themselves on social media. Halloween is scary enough on its own, between overpriced candy and sugar-sated kids. The real threats to children don't involve tampered candy, Satanists, scary clowns, terrorists, or sex offenders; instead they include being hit by a car in the dark, or wearing a flammable costume, or injuring themselves while walking on curbs because they can't see out of their masks. Most kids are very safe at Halloween, and the average child is far more likely to die of a heart attack or be hit by lightning than be harmed in some Halloween-related menace.
Oct 302017
 
Episode 27 of Squaring the Strange is up! To begin our creepy Halloween lineup, Pascual and I talk about the world's best-known cryptozoological vampire, el chupacabra! The beast has lost its bite over the years, but we go back to the late 1990s when it terrified many in Puerto Rico and elsewhere...

Chupacabra illustration by Benjamin Radford

We also talk briefly media coverage of the Vegas shooting, and as usual, a two-minute skeptical fortune cookie! You can listen to 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! 
Oct 252017
 
I will be appearing on a new 10-part series on Discovery’s Science Channel, on a show titled “Strange Evidence.” It examines bizarre and seemingly inexplicable photographs and videos. (I’m one of the guests who takes the “un” out of “unexplained.”) Will I be on the new episode, or did I end up on the cutting room floor? Find out every Tuesday night at 7 PT / 10ET! Find out more 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! 
Oct 202017
 
In case you missed it, I recently appeared (along with Leo Igwe, Susan Gerbic, Eran Segev, and others) on the new episode of Richard Saunders's great podcast The Skeptic Zone.   Check it out 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! 
Oct 182017
 
Now and then I review films (I have since 1994), and I thought I'd share a recent one: The new slasher film Happy Death Day follows a young woman named Tree at a Louisiana university who wakes up in a dorm room with her phone blaring “Happy Birthday” (yes, it’s her birthday) and goes about her disheveled but otherwise ordinary day sniping with nasty sorority sisters and whatnot until that evening when she’s menaced (and eventually killed) by a creeper in a giant baby mask (it’s the school mascot, apparently). Terrifying enough, but then she wakes up the next morning—or perhaps the same morning—with a sense of relief that it was all a dream. But the relief turns to déjà vu as the day is repeated, with minor variations, until the killing happens again. Tree remembers what happened the previous day, of course (otherwise there would be no film), though none of the other characters do. At some point, with the help of her friend Carter, she somehow, apparently, divines the “rules” of the loop she’s in and tries to subvert them in order to prevent her death and catch her killer. Happy Death Day is kind of like the opposite of Happy Birthday—though technically it would be Happy Birth Day, which no one says, since “birthday” is one word—and, well, I guess the real opposite would actually be something like Sad Death Night, but anyway, yeah, I’m already putting more thought into the title than co-writer/director Christopher Landon did with the plot. Equal parts Mean Girls, Groundhog Day, and Scream, Happy Death Day has some ideas for directions the script wants to go, but it doesn’t really explore them. At one point the message seems to be that Tree is maybe reliving the day so that she can see what a bitch she is and become a better person; that theme propels a few scenes until it’s abruptly abandoned and the focus turns to trying to identify her killer (as she, for unexplained reasons, comes to believe that it’s the key to getting out of this recurring time loop). Because the film’s premise isn’t anchored in any discernible rules (other than what the characters intuit—and really we as an audience should have more information than they do), it’s hard to get too involved in the nonsensical plot. For a film whose gimmick relies on repeating key scenes, the filmmakers are resourceful (if not wholly successful) at finding ways of making the repetition less annoying. For example they use different lenses, depths of focus, and so on, to show the same scenes in slight different ways. What Happy Death Day does have going for it is a bit of fun and a talented lead actress, Jessica Rothe, who glides gracefully between camp and pathos. The twist at the end is the kind that makes sense if you think about it for a moment—but only a moment, because as that turns into two or three moments you realize that it doesn’t actually make any sense at all, and that (unlike, for example, Memento or The Usual Suspects) the joke is on you for wasting energy devoting neurons to what is essentially a shaggy dog story. If this is the kind of movie that annoys you (as it often does me), caveat emptor. Watching Happy Death Day I experienced a sort of film critic’s whiplash; parts of the movie were eye-rollingly bad, but a few minutes later were surprisingly good. Just as I thought it was stuck in a one-star gear, it found its groove and was heading right for three stars (but not four). It’s funny, but not really funny enough to be a successful comedy; it’s scary, in a few spots, but also not scary enough to be a good horror film. I guess it’s best described as diverting or amusing, a passable if uninspired way to spend an hour and a half of your life. Overall I have to give Happy Death Day a tepid recommendation—as long as you know what you’re in for.   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! 
Oct 172017
 
Manhattan millionaire Gigi Jordan was found guilty of killing her eight-year-old autistic son in November 2014. Jordan admitted killing her son, Jude Mirra, with a lethal dose of medications in a hotel room in February 2010. However she claimed it was a mercy killing—not because her son had a poor quality of life due to autism—but because she feared that her ex-husband would get custody of the boy, and then torture and sexually abuse him, as she believed had happened for years. Since her son was unable to verbally communicate because of his disability, Jordan relied on a technique called Facilitated Communication (FC), in which another person holds the disabled person's hand as he or she types out messages on a keyboard. According to the New York Times, “She said her son first described the abuse with a few partial words and gestures, but then, in a breakthrough three months later, learned to type on a laptop and gave a detailed account, naming several other people as well.” A CNN story noted that Jordan communicated with her son through a Blackberry device; witnesses described that “Jordan held the device in one hand while supporting and possibly guiding her son's arm with the other as Jude looked away.” In this way Jordan came to believe that her son was revealing that he’d been physically and sexually abused by many people, including an ex-husband and a woman who transported him to school. Yet the mystery deepened because police found no evidence of any abuse, sexual or otherwise. Nevertheless, Jordan was convinced that her son would not lie to her about such a thing and decided to kill him instead of letting him suffer further. It’s a bizarre, tragic case, but there's another explanation for the accusations, one that does not involve an autistic child lying about sexual abuse. In the 1980s many parents of autistic children turned to Facilitated Communication, which had been claimed to help autistic individuals, and especially children, to communicate. The technique is based on the idea that an autistic child’s inability to communicate is caused not by a brain disorder but instead a muscular or nerve disorder that prevents them from producing speech (this idea is not supported by the evidence or shared by autism experts). What is needed, FC advocates claimed, are trained facilitators to help the autistic children by holding their hands, fingers, or elbows while the child typed on a keyboard or pointed to lists of letters, words, or symbols. This technique was developed in the 1970s in Australia and introduced in the United States by Douglas Biklen, a special education director at Syracuse University. In the book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, authors Scott Lilienfed, Steven Jay Lynn, Barry Beyerstein, and John Ruscio summarize the rise and fall of facilitated communication: “In the early 1990s, shortly after FC was introduced to the United States, scores of enthusiastic facilitators reported astonishing success stories of previously uncommunicative autistic individuals typing out eloquent sentences, at times speaking of their sense of liberation upon at last being able to express their imprisoned feelings. Yet numerous controlled studies soon showed that FC was entirely a product of unintentional facilitator control over autistic children’s hands movements. Without even realizing it, facilitators were leading children's fingers to the keys. Regrettably, FC has raised false hopes among thousands of desperate parents of autistic individuals [and] led to dozens of uncorroborated accusations of sexual abuse against these parents—based entirely on typed communications that emerged with the aid of facilitators.” In other words, the abuse accusations came not from Jude Mirra but instead (presumably unconsciously) from his mother Gigi Jordan, who believed the stories, reported them to police, and eventually used them as a reason to end her son’s life. This is not the first time that the discredited technique has ruined people's lives, and it may not be the last. Despite the fact that Facilitated Communication has been widely debunked for many years the technique still has many supporters, and it received national attention in 2004 when a short film promoting it was nominated for an Academy Award. Information casting doubt on the validity of Facilitated Communication came too late for both Jude Mirra and his mother, who was found guilty of manslaughter and faces five to twenty-five years in prison.   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! 
Oct 152017
 
A decades-old murder in one of the strangest clown-related mysteries in history may have been solved. I wrote about this case in my 2016 book Bad Clowns...   It happened in West Palm Beach in the spring of 1990 when a woman named Marlene Warren heard a knock on her door at 10:45 in the morning on May 26. She opened the door to find a whitefaced clown wearing a bright red nose and an orange wig. The clown greeted Warren with a wordless nod and handed her a basket of red and white carnations, along with two silver balloons. As Warren looked down at the gifts she was receiving, the clown pulled out a gun and shot her once point-blank in the mouth with either a .38 or a .357. According to Warren's son Joseph, who saw the shooting, the clown had brown eyes and wore Army boots. The clown escaped in a white Chrysler LeBaron, which was later reported stolen and discovered abandoned. Warren died two days later in the hospital. Detectives at the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office suspected her estranged husband Michael Warren of plotting the murder, along with a brown-eyed, brown-haired woman who worked for him repossessing cars for Mr. Warren's auto dealership. According to The Gainesville Sun, "A woman matching the description of Sheila Keen, 27, bought a clown costume, makeup, an orange wig and a red clown nose two days before the murder, according to two West Palm Beach costume store clerks who tentatively identified Keen's photo from police files. Then, on the morning of the murder, a woman fitting Keen's description purchased two balloons and a floral arrangement at a Publix supermarket less than a mile from Keen's apartment, according to sheriff's documents... The balloons and flowers match those left at the scene of the murder, according to the documents. Neighbors at Keen's apartment complex in suburban West Palm Beach said they frequently spotted Michael Warren, the dead woman's husband, at the complex, according to police reports." Both Mr. Warren and Keen denied any involvement, either romantically with each other or in the death of Warren's wife. Keen claimed that she was out looking for cars to repossess at the time Mrs. Warren was shot. News of the killer clown shook the West Palm Beach community, and a news report dated a month after the shooting noted that "local adults and children are now apprehensive of businesses that employ [clowns]. ‘Unfortunately, children are only hearing the negative side,' said Yvonne (Sunshine the Clown) Zarza, owner of Balloons Above the Palm Beaches. ‘Normally, it's Don't go near a stranger. Now parents are saying, Don't go near clowns.'" Warren stood trial in 1992 on 66 criminal counts of fraud, racketeering, and grand theft related to his business; on August 8 of that year he was convicted on over three dozen counts of fraud, grand theft, and petty theft. For decades no one was arrested or charged in the death, but earlier this week that changed: According to CBS News, "Police in Florida say they've arrested a woman accused of dressing up like a clown 27 years ago and fatally shooting the wife of her future husband. A Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office news release says 54-year-old Sheila Keen Warren was arrested Tuesday in Virginia. A Florida grand jury recently indicted her on a first-degree murder charge." News reports suggest that DNA evidence led to Mrs. Warren's arrest, though it's not clear what items were recovered at the crime scene that would implicate Warren. There are a few other clown-related killings, such as those by John Wayne Gacy and the 2002 assassination of Mexican drug lord Felix Arellano.
    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! 
Oct 132017
 
I recently gave a lecture on skepticism and science communication for the Physics and Astronomy department at the University of British Columbia, it was a full house and spurred an engaging Q&A!   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! 
Oct 112017
 
The emailed press release I got last week began: "PETERSBURG, Ky., Sept. 26, 2017 - Since Darwin's ‘On the Origin of Species' was published in 1859, entirely new fields of science have been born and matured-fields which hold the keys to the origin of species. With a Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology from Harvard, Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson is uniquely qualified to investigate what genetics reveals about origins, and has released his findings in the book ‘Replacing Darwin: The New Origin of Species.' Due from Master Books next month, ‘Replacing Darwin' offers a revolutionary approach to the study of origins with a potential impact as big as Darwin's." It certainly sounded potentially intriguing, so I kept reading: "'On the Origin of Species' is considered one of history's most influential books and has become the foundation of evolutionary biology. This new work asks readers to consider: If Darwin was looking at the same evidence today using modern science, would his conclusions be the same? ‘Since 1859, we've had time to reevaluate [Darwin's] picture. A global community of millions of scientists can pool their resources and build on one another's work,' Jeanson states. ‘The cumulative observations of these scientists have built an unprecedented body of knowledge on the diversity and operation of life.' In ‘Replacing Darwin,' Jeanson argues that this knowledge has rewritten the long-standing explanation for the origin of species. Though a work of scholarship, ‘Replacing Darwin' is accessible. Jeanson uses an analogy to which all readers can relate - a jigsaw puzzle - to illustrate the quest for the answer to the mystery of the origin of species. He contends that Darwin reached his conclusions with only 15 percent - or less - of the total pieces of the puzzle. In addition, Jeanson argues that Darwin tried to piece together his findings without the constraints of edge pieces and corner pieces. If an actual jigsaw puzzle were put together under these conditions, would the participants have had any chance of success?" This is where some red flags began poking up and waving around--not wildly, but just enough to raise my skeptical sense that something was amiss with this upcoming book by Harvard biologist Nathaniel Jeanson. For some reason the jigsaw puzzle struck me as odd, but I couldn't put my finger on why. I kept reading. "Jeanson's book begins its account after the publication of the first edition of Darwin's book in 1859. Several years after Darwin made his bold claims, the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, who studied inheritance and the origin of traits, published his discoveries, which remain textbook science to this day. In the early 1900s, American scientist Walter Sutton connected chromosomes to Mendel's decades' old discoveries. The next question for the scientific community was how specifically the chromosomes contained the information for traits. The search led to DNA and James Watson's and Francis Crick's famous discovery of the double helix in 1953." So far so good; the text wasn't saying anything obviously scientifically incorrect, but it did seem to be bland and dancing around something. I just wasn't sure what... I read on: "Jeanson concludes that there is much more to be discovered in this field, with the genetics of millions of species yet to be determined and the mutation rates of each of these species to be measured." Okay, sounds right. I'm certain that no geneticist would disagree with Jeanson that "there is much more to be discovered in this field"; the same is true of virtually any scientific field. But the lede was buried in the very last two sentences: "He expects that connections will be found between many other species within a family (or genus), but that species from different families (or genera) reside in completely different puzzles sharply disconnected from one another, rather than pointing to universal common ancestry. With this new book, the scientific revolution to overturn Darwin may have begun." *Record scratch sound effect* Hold on there. What exactly does "rather than pointing to universal common ancestry" mean? The implicit answer is in the next line: "With this new book, the scientific revolution to overturn Darwin may have begun." No common ancestor? Overturning Darwin? Sounds a lot like Creationist Bullshit to me... and I realized why the jigsaw puzzle struck me as odd: it reminded me of bogus creationist analogies, such as the watchmaker analogy suggesting that a found watch must imply an intelligent designer. But there was nothing in the press release that was explicitly Christian: no references to God, or the Bible, or intelligent design. It was all very subtle, just like "teach the controversy" suckers people into thinking there's a controversy about evolution. So I looked up the publisher. It was not Harvard University Press but instead something called MasterBooks.com. A few seconds poking around the website revealed a trove of creationist pseudoscience, most of them with innocuous, sciencey-sounding titles like Earth's Catastrophic Past and Age of the Earth. But there was also an ad for "Ken Ham Books and DVDs," along with the MasterBooks "100% Faith Grower Guarantee," which--whatever that means--is almost certainly as nonsensical as it sounds. I didn't fall for this gambit, but I had to admit that the anti-science agenda was pretty well hidden. It took me about five minutes before I was sure what was really going on--and that's probably about four minutes longer than most editors and journalists will give it. Jeanson and MasterBooks are hoping that enough of them order review copies and/or pass along the information about this potentially groundbreaking book without stopping to take a closer look at it. In this age of social media and information sharing, it's more important than ever to be vigilant of misinformation. That goes for bogus news stories, but also for creationist books masquerading as cutting-edge genetic science. 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!   
Oct 062017
 
Hurricane Maria's devastation continues in Puerto Rico... As The New York Times reported, “Daybreak in Puerto Rico on Thursday exposed the crushing devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria — splintered homes, crumbled balconies, uprooted trees and floodwaters coursing through streets. The storm cut a path through the island on Wednesday and 100 percent of the territory remained without power. Officials predicted that it could take months to restore electricity as rescue brigades ventured out to assess the toll of death and injury. Maria had entered Puerto Rico’s southeast side on Wednesday with category 4 winds of 155 miles per hour, then lost strength, regained power Thursday and continued its furious roll northward, bringing pounding rains and heavy winds to the Dominican Republic.” Hurricanes are well known in the region, but lesser known is how another devastating storm twenty-eight years ago, Hurricane Hugo, helped spawn the world’s most famous cryptozoological vampire: the chupacabra. In 1989 Hugo killed a dozen people in Puerto Rico and devastated the island’s crops; banana and coffee exports were nearly entirely destroyed. Estimates of the damage reached $1 billion, as tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans were left homeless by the wind and flooding. The hurricane left a lasting legacy on the island, and was still very much in the Puerto Rican consciousness six years later when the chupacabra first emerged. In Puerto Rico I interviewed the original chupacabra eyewitness, Madelyne Tolentino, and asked her where she believed the monster came from. Tolentino responded, “Look, a journalist told me that El Yunque [jungle wildlife refuge in Puerto Rico, said to be the chupacabra’s origin] was allegedly closed down because of the damage caused by Hurricane Hugo. He told me that the truth was that some experiment had escaped—not monkeys or anything like that. They never found those creatures. The journalist... knows a lot about it, because he’s been researching this for a while.” This explanation, shared by the tabloid media, is widely accepted among Puerto Ricans, that the US government created the chupacabra in a secret laboratory, in a clandestine genetics experiment gone horribly wrong, a sort of Frankenstein-like conspiracy theory. As I discuss in my book Tracking the Chupacabra, there are clear and significant parallels between the chupacabra’s origin and that of the monster Sil in the 1995 film Species. Species—whose first scene is set in rural Puerto Rico—begins with a genetics experiment, led by scientist Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley). He has injected alien DNA sequence into human eggs; most died, but one was allowed to grow into a seemingly normal human child called Sil. But Fitch aborts the experiment when Sil begins aging at a fantastic rate, and during REM sleep, alien spikes emerge from the girl’s spine. He reluctantly decides to kill Sil, fearing that the experiment may soon grow out of control—and it does. Sil escapes the building and out into the wilderness to prey.

Chupacabra illustration by Benjamin Radford

The most popular theory about where the chupacabra might have been able to live undetected for all those years (except for rare appearances sucking goats and chickens) is in the El Yunque rainforest on the eastern end of the island. Given the thick vegetation this theory might seem plausible, except that El Yunque, though a sizeable park at 28,000 acres, is also the most popular tourist spot in Puerto Rico, attracting over one million visitors each year. That’s an average of nearly three thousand tourists walking and hiking in El Yunque every day, and more than eighty thousand each month. Yet apparently not a single tourist reported seeing, photographing, or being attacked by a chupacabra (nor, to my knowledge, finding the alleged chupacabra victim carcasses that would presumably litter the rainforest floor). It beggars belief to think that one or more chupacabras managed to live for years in such a heavily traveled area without ever being discovered or leaving traces of their existence. (The top-secret genetics lab where the chupacabra was said to have been created has never been found either.) Legends (and particularly urban legends) incorporate regionally specific and accurate place names as they evolve. For example a generic story about a woman’s tragic suicide, or the spot of a gang initiation attack, will change from place to place. The details in each local version will include specific actual locations and even reference real historical figures. This process lends credibility to the stories and legends, making them more salient and likely to be shared. Hurricane Hugo was only one of several factors that helped spawn the chupacabra legend, but the storm played a key role in the creature’s pseudohistorical folklore, the public’s understanding of where the creature came from, and why it suddenly appeared in Puerto Rico.   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!   
Oct 042017
 
On Squaring the Strange, Celestia and I discuss a recent story about a waitress being allegedly stiffed due to her pride tattoo. We go through numerous similar stories, some hoaxed, and discuss whether this is becoming a modern-day folk tale. Pascual joins for our main topic, a lively discussion on “psychic” John Edward, as we recount what we observed at a live performance. We go through cold reading and pivoting techniques Edward used as well as how the audience eagerly does much of the work for him... Check it out!   You can listen 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! 
Sep 302017
 
A decades-old murder in one of the strangest clown-related mysteries in history may have been solved. I wrote about this odd story in my book Bad Clowns.... It happened in West Palm Beach in the spring of 1990 when a woman named Marlene Warren heard a knock on her door at 10:45 in the morning on May 26. She opened the door to find a whitefaced clown wearing a bright red nose and an orange wig. The clown greeted Warren with a wordless nod and handed her a basket of red and white carnations, along with two silver balloons. As Warren looked down at the gifts she was receiving, the clown pulled out a gun and shot her once point-blank in the mouth with either a .38 or a .357. According to Warren’s son Joseph, who saw the shooting, the clown had brown eyes and wore Army boots. The clown escaped in a white Chrysler LeBaron, which was later reported stolen and discovered abandoned. Warren died two days later in the hospital. Detectives at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office suspected her estranged husband Michael Warren of plotting the murder, along with a brown-eyed, brown-haired woman who worked for him repossessing cars for Mr. Warren’s auto dealership. According to The Gainesville Sun, “A woman matching the description of Sheila Keen, 27, bought a clown costume, makeup, an orange wig and a red clown nose two days before the murder, according to two West Palm Beach costume store clerks who tentatively identified Keen’s photo from police files. Then, on the morning of the murder, a woman fitting Keen’s description purchased two balloons and a floral arrangement at a Publix supermarket less than a mile from Keen’s apartment, according to sheriff’s documents... The balloons and flowers match those left at the scene of the murder, according to the documents. Neighbors at Keen’s apartment complex in suburban West Palm Beach said they frequently spotted Michael Warren, the dead woman’s husband, at the complex, according to police reports.” Both Mr. Warren and Keen denied any involvement, either romantically with each other or in the death of Warren’s wife. Keen claimed that she was out looking for cars to repossess at the time Mrs. Warren was shot. News of the killer clown shook the West Palm Beach community, and a news report dated a month after the shooting noted that “local adults and children are now apprehensive of businesses that employ [clowns]. ‘Unfortunately, children are only hearing the negative side,’ said Yvonne (Sunshine the Clown) Zarza, owner of Balloons Above the Palm Beaches. ‘Normally, it’s Don’t go near a stranger. Now parents are saying, Don’t go near clowns.’” Warren stood trial in 1992 on 66 criminal counts of fraud, racketeering, and grand theft related to his business; on August 8 of that year he was convicted on over three dozen counts of fraud, grand theft, and petty theft. For decades no one was arrested or charged in the death, but earlier this week that changed: According to CBS News, “Police in Florida say they've arrested a woman accused of dressing up like a clown 27 years ago and fatally shooting the wife of her future husband. A Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office news release says 54-year-old Sheila Keen Warren was arrested Tuesday in Virginia. A Florida grand jury recently indicted her on a first-degree murder charge.” News reports suggest that DNA evidence led to Mrs. Warren’s arrest, though it’s not clear what items were recovered at the crime scene that would implicate Warren. 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! 
Sep 282017
 
A new show is out! Episode 25: Conspiracy Theories THEY Don’t Want You to Know About (released September 28, 2017) Ben ruminates on the blowup over Trump’s NFL tweets this week, wondering why so many people (especially Trump’s critics) seem to give him more power by fueling the outrage machine, thus distracting themselves from the core issues. Owing to Trump’s clear track record of lies, exaggerations, contradictions, and impulse thoughts, perhaps the best skeptical approach is to not give his tweets any weight at all—as they do not represent legislative action, the views of most of America, or even, perhaps, Trump’s core values (if he has any). Then, for their main topic, the guys delve into conspiratorial thinking: from medieval witch hunts to the Illuminati. What factors make people more prone to fall into believing conspiracies, and what are some hallmarks of a typical conspiracy theory? Why do proponents doubt some things so strongly but swallow every point made in an amateur Youtube video? It’s also valuable to examine what exactly is taken as evidence—and if, for argument’s sake, that “evidence” is true: does it really prove the theory put forth or is it simply one small strange thing likely meaning nothing? Finally, we run through a quick history of disseminating information, from the rise of the printing press to modern day. Cranks with conspiracy notions have gone from buying back-of-magazine ads and Xeroxing pamphlets (and in one case cementing tiles down on East Coast streets) to putting up websites and starting podcasts—and, alarmingly, being interviewed by mainstream journalists and quoted by the President of the United States.   Squaring the Strange brings evidence-based analysis and commentary to a wide variety of topics, ranging from the paranormal to the political. Investigating ghosts. Debunking conspiracies. Dodging chupacabras. If a claim seems strange, Ben and Pascual will try to square it with the facts. Squaring the Strange is supported in part by the Center for Inquiry, a non-profit educational organization whose Mission Statement reads in part, “At the Center for Inquiry, we believe that evidence-based reasoning, in which humans work together to address common concerns, is critical for modern world civilization. Moreover, unlike many other institutions, we maintain that scientific methods and reasoning should be utilized in examining the claims of both pseudoscience and religion. We reject mysticism and blind faith. No topic should be placed off limits to scrutiny.” Listen and subscribe 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! 
Sep 182017
 
Did you see my appearance on MSNBC talking about the theoretical effects of climate change on Bigfoot and the chupacabra?
Chupacabra illustration by Benjamin Radford

Chupacabra illustration by Benjamin Radford

You can watch 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! 
Sep 152017
 
Thought I'd share a minor victory: A man who e-mailed me last week saying "My employee and myself spotted a Chupcabra yesterday afternoon in Vacaville, CA, a hairless cat/dog with a stubby tail and narrow body and head. A friend later that day showed me on the internet this Chupacabra and I recognized it as the same critter." I diplomatically suggested that he seemed to be describing a mangy animal, expecting to be ignored in favor of a sexy mystery. This morning he followed up: "I spoke with a local critter guy who told me that what I saw was probably a Bob cat or Lynx with mange. That is why I saw no hair or fur on the critter. It still looked very creepy." Indeed; if these animals were easy to identify, there wouldn't be a mystery...   BigChupaCover-682x1024   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! 
Sep 132017
 
My new CFI blog on the return of Pennywise the evil clown!   Horror fans around the world have waited for years to see one of the most terrifying clowns in cinematic history, and finally Pennywise returns later this week in the new version of Stephen King's It. Figure 6.9 As a post on Uproxx noted, "Who needs nightmares when you can be traumatized by creepy-ass clowns in person? The Alamo Drafthouse is celebrating the arrival of the 2017 cinematic take on Stephen King's It with a clown-only screening of the movie. The Austin location of the theater chain will cater to a clown-specific audience on September 9th with a special screening of It. All attendees are expected to be done up like a clown (I can count the Captain Spauldings already) and can also visit ‘an IT pre-party where we will have face-painters available for clown ‘touch-ups,' a photo booth, raffles for prizes, and other terrifying merriment.'"   You can read the rest HERE.
Sep 122017
 
A psychic tells a TV show where to find the remains of a young mother who went missing four years ago; they go to where her psychic visions claimed the victim was and found bones. The police were called and the psychic claimed victory... until the bones were identified by scientists as non-human. If I had time/energy I'd contact the "psychic" and ask for an explanation, why she cruelly raised the hopes of the missing woman's family members to gain publicity for herself.   21762783_10211814487851906_3917403024710939909_o     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! 
Sep 082017
 
That time I explained why Obama could not be both Muslim AND the Antichrist: "According to Scripture, the Antichrist will try to deceive the public by claiming to work on God's behalf. He will be pretending to do God's work while instead furthering his own diabolical agenda. But President Obama has never implicitly nor explicitly claimed to God's work; his presidency has been fairly secular. George W. Bush, on the other hand, repeatedly invoked God and claimed that God wanted him to be president.... You can read 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! 
Sep 062017
 
In Ep. 20 of Squaring the Strange we explore how urban legends can sometimes turn dangerous, and even deadly, from Slenderman to ebola rumors. And Celestia opens another fun fortune cookie! Get it while it's fresh 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! 
Sep 042017
 
The publisher of my book "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries" tells me that orders for that book have shot up 60% in the past few weeks, and wondered why. Then I remembered that several college and university professors use my book as a classroom text. Thanks to all those teachers for using my work to spread critical thinking to students!   SPI Cover lower res for FB   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! 
Sep 022017
 
Live from Bubonicon last week with Pascual Romero for Squaring the Strange, right before my presentation on New Mexican UFO Conspiracies! 21078287_10211691787024462_1177530401623441082_n 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! 
Aug 302017
 
A few years ago I wrote a piece taking a closer look at the concept of karma: "The premise of karma is that people need to be threatened with cosmic retribution into good conduct: Don’t do evil, or else it will come back to you. How about just being good to others because it’s the right thing to do?"   You can read the rest 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! 
Aug 282017
 
My new blog on the ethics of spirit mediumship... Usually when people think of ghostly communication it's in a positive or benign light. Ghost hunters, for example, often speak of helping lost souls "cross over" after getting information from the spirits, and mediums such as John Edward and the late convicted felon Sylvia Browne often offer ostensibly reassuring messages from dead loved ones. Whether the communication can be proven to have a ghostly origin is of course up for debate, but in many cases there can be real harm done, especially when the dead are not generic stereotypes (a Confederate soldier, for example) but once-living people. I have discussed this issue in several of my articles and investigations, including in the haunted KiMo Theater in New Mexico and Rose Hall Plantation of Montego Bay, Jamaica. In those cases, specific once-living people's family names have been tainted by their later inclusion into ghost stories.   You can read the rest 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! 
Aug 252017
 
Many believe that a mere glance or stare can cause harm (or even death) to others. My article on folklore the Evil Eye is now out! Everyone gets a dirty look now and then, and we usually think little of it (especially if we deserved it). For most of us it is soon shrugged off, but in many places belief in "the evil eye" is taken very seriously, and requires immediate action to avoid harm. The evil eye is a human look believed to cause harm to someone or something. The supernatural harm may come in the form of a minor misfortune, or more serious disease, injury — even death. Folklorist Alan Dundes, in his edited volume "The Evil Eye: A Casebook" notes that "the victim's good fortune, good health, or good looks — or unguarded comments about them — invite or provoke an attack by someone with the evil eye ... Symptoms of illness caused by the evil eye include loss of appetite, excessive yawning, hiccups, vomiting and fever. If the object attacked is a cow, its milk may dry up; if a plant or fruit tree, it may suddenly wither and die." You can read the rest 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! 
Aug 202017
 
I will be speaking at Bubonicon, New Mexico’s premiere fantasy/sci fi convention; on Friday night August 25 I will be giving a presentation on “New Mexico’s UFO Conspiracies” and handing out sample issues of Skeptical Inquirer. We will also be recording an episode of Squaring the Strange, so look for my co-hosts Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward! This year's Bubonicon 49 runs August 25-27, and the theme is time travel. There's plenty of authors, experts, and costumed fun.   bubon Come check it out!   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! 
Aug 182017
 
Several of my Skeptical Inquirer articles are referenced in the new Indiana University Press book UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says, by Don Prothero and Tim Callahan, with a foreword by Michael Shermer (you can see the book HERE). I can't want to read it!   51K-HMnVP8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_   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!     
Aug 152017
 
I'm quoted in the August 2017 Journal of Law and Social Deviance on the topic of evil clowns, which was the topic of a popular CSI Special Report last year. You can read the law journal article HERE.  Bad Clowns small   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! 
Aug 112017
 
Episode 18: Food Evolution Documentary and Chewing the Fat on GMOs This week on Squaring the Strange, Celestia, Pascual, and I open with a discussion on what people consider uncanny, bizarre, or strange. What takes something from implausible to downright mysterious? An understanding of statistics is one angle to consider, but ignorance of particular fields is also at work: from the World Trade Center to the pyramids to cancer remissions, people who lack the relevant technical knowledge are the ones gobsmacked by particular events or facts. Headline writers emphasize this “bizarre” aspect without providing context, leading many to jump right to conspiracy theories or supernatural explanations. Then Celestia, back from the 2017 meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists, discusses the new GMO documentary, Food Evolution. The film was funded by IFT but director Scott Hamilton Kennedy was given complete control over topic, content, and approach, and he chose to tackle the human side of the GMO/organic controversy. Kennedy did a beautiful job bringing the human element to the forefront and takes viewers along a persuasive narrative of finding common ground and changing minds. We touch on hot button topics like GMO labeling, evil corporations like Monsanto, and patenting living organisms. We also discuss the negative feedback the movie has so far received, and the strength (or rather lack of strength) in the arguments that the anti-GMO crowd has put forth. Namely, a Huffington Post columnist supported by organic industries decries the appearance of a logo in the film’s background, and Mike Adams calls Neil deGrasse Tyson a race traitor. Lastly, we let you know how to check for a screening of Food Evolution in your area, and give shoutouts to some online resources for anyone wanting to learn more about GMO tech. 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!