Sep 052015
 

My new blog on eyewitness testimony and how we can all be fooled…

 

Dennis Plucknett and his two sons, along with a friend, went hunting at a camp in northeast Florida in 2004. It was early morning, and the group had gotten separated. His fourteen-year-old son Alex was sitting in a ditch about 220 meters away from his father when someone yelled, “Hog!” The elder Plucknett grabbed his .308-caliber Ruger rifle with scope, steadied his aim, and fired one round at a boar in the distance. Within minutes, Alex was dead of a massive head wound, killed by his father’s shot….

Sep 042015
 

A journalism researcher named Craig Silverman published a report on best practices for debunking online misinformation in journalism and the skeptical community:

“I recently completed a fellowship with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism that saw me study how news organizations handle online rumors and unverified claims. I also examined best practices for debunking online misinformation. This research is collected in a detailed report called “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation.” Below is a report excerpt that offers a look at current debunking efforts in journalism, and among the skeptic community…”

In the report we find this nice quadruple-play complimenting my work, that of Skeptical Inquirer and CSI, as well as my Prometheus book Media Mythmakers.

“Benjamin Radford, also a scientific investigator, echoed this: “Of course often a mystery is debunked when it is explained, but I try to remain open-minded about the subjects.” Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine and a research fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a nonprofit educational organization. He has written many books on skepticism, myths, and paranormal investigation, including (fittingly) Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us.”

Sep 022015
 

Had a great time speaking at this year’s Bubonicon as this years guest Science Speaker discussing my chupacabra research (which, if you’re familar with it, you know has an interesting link to H.R. Giger and a certain science fiction/horror film). A good turnout, interested and intelligent crowd, and good questions. Always fun!

Sep 022015
 

When adventurer Steve Fossett went missing Sept. 3, 2007, Web users were enlisted to help in Fossett’s rescue from the comfort of their own homes. Using a program called Mechanical Turk, high-resolution satellite imagery of the search area was collected from a company called Digital Globe. Participants were shown a single satellite image and asked to note any objects or wreckage that could be a plane or its debris. Though Fossett and his plane remain missing, the satellite technology used to search for him could theoretically be applied to other searches, and may finally verify the existence of large, mysterious creatures reputed to inhabit the globe. Unknown animals such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, for example, might be easily located and captured–if indeed they exist.

While satellites would be of limited use in heavily wooded areas, Bigfoot creatures have been reported in many areas with relatively little forest, including Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Texas, and Arizona. A single twelve-foot Bigfoot may or may not be hard to spot, but a family of them surely would be easier to find. Furthermore, there cannot be only one Bigfoot; there must be a breeding population of them, by some estimates 6,000 to 10,000 in North America alone. Surely a coordinated, close inspection should reveal dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of Bigfoot in remote areas at any given time.

The search could include bodies of water as well. Many lake monsters and sea serpents are reported to be fifty feet or longer, and surface regularly where they are seen. If armchair investigators are up to the task, it should be possible to organize a team to monitor monster-inhabited lakes such as Scotland’s Loch Ness, Canada’s Lake Okanagan, and America’s Lake Champlain using Google Earth technology. Monster buffs don’t need to dip their toes into cold lakes or brave the wilderness to search for their quarry; they can scan a dozen square miles over cup of hot coffee at their leisure.

Of course, if such searches are done and still reveal no solid proof of the monsters’ existence, few minds will be changed. Diehard believers can always claim that all the monstrous beasts somehow hid undetected, or are masters at camouflage. Or the searchers didn’t look long enough, or in the right places. It only takes one live or dead Bigfoot or lake monster to forever prove that they exist, but nothing will ever prove they don’t…

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

 

Aug 312015
 

In this NPR piece from a few years ago I was interviewed about the accuracy of the Farmer’s Almanac (spoiler: I’m skeptical). An interesting look at “folk” predictions can be found HERE: 

Ben Radford, deputy editor of the science magazineSkeptical Inquirer, says mystery is actually a big part of why Tartisel and others might perceive the almanac as being more accurate than it actually is. People are attracted to the idea that a 200-year-old secret formula locked in a simple black box could outdo the weather geeks, says Radford, who has written books that examine urban legends and claims of the paranormal. So they tend to remember when the National Weather Service gets it wrong but forget when the almanac does.

Aug 302015
 

Benjamin Radford

Skeptics often encounter—or are cornered by—people making all sorts of claims. Most of them, such as those tested by me, Jim Underdown of CFI-West, the JREF, and others, are sincere people. They are very rarely hoaxers or liars but instead well-intentioned people who genuinely believe they have special abilities, or have discovered some important secret of the universe.

When I encounter these people I try to be as respectful and polite as possible. Ignoring them, or even worse, mocking them, is both cruel and unnecessary. Sometimes there’s much to be learned from engaging such people, in terms of psychology and understanding where mistakes happen.

Earlier this month I got an e-mail out of the blue from a foreign person whose message simply read, “I send a letter and an attachment.” Normally such an abrupt email would be deleted—pro-tip: that’s not the best way to submit an article for publication—but I opened it and read it. It was about 20 pages on dowsing, in which the writer claimed that a dowsing pendulum moved through some as-yet unknown “radiation” that he was studying. I saw what seemed to be a mistaken assumption on the first page, one upon which the remaining 19 pages of theory and writings relied upon to be valid. Willing to look at his work but wanting to help him nip the error in the bud, I wrote to him

“Thank you for your submission on dowsing. I began to review your article but found it confusing after the first page, and here is why: It’s not clear why you are attributing the pendulum movement to a form of radiation instead of the ordinary anatomical muscle twitches and tension associated with fingers, wrists, elbows, arms, and so on. If you could clarify that perhaps I could better evaluate your paper.

all best,

Benjamin Radford”

 

He got back to me about a week later:

“I am sorry for the delay, but I do not know English and had to use a text translator, and these things take time. If the dowser detects by means of a wand or a pendulum a water reservoir underground, some kind of radiation from this water must affect him.

As an electronic engineer, dealing with radiocommunication, propagation of electro-magnetic waves for over 40 years, I was mostly interested in searching for this radiation. My article concerns the methodology of searching this radiation, however I do not deal in it with phenomena in which this mysterious radiation, by an influence on a human, forces the pendulum to move in his hands. Perhaps I will write an article on that topic.

In physics, there are four basic forces of interaction on matter. Vocationally, during the entire period of my work experience, I have dealt with technical measurement of electro-magnetic radiation. I could not believe in what was being said in radiesthesia, that there is some kind of additional unknown radiation. And I was right.

Radiation of neutral hydrogen at the frequency of 1420 MHz is responsible for radiesthetic phenomena, known for many years, particularly in radioastronomy. It is observed and measured by means of two large parabolic antennas of the diameter of dishes above 15 meters. Science has accused me of identifying the type of this radiation with a pendulum. They say that if I had measured it, it would have been a different story. Namely, measurement over an underground water reservoir would have to be done locally with a small antenna, e.g. a half-wave dipole of a several-million smaller power gain from the parabolic antennas. So far, I have not had a measurement receiver of such sensitivity.

Even if somebody was able to locally measure the radiation, nobody would believe that it was responsible for the phenomenon of radiesthesia. Its identification can only be done by a human acting as a sensor, through his extraordinary sensitivity for this kind of radiation, and that is what I have done.”

 

I reviewed his response and replied,

 

“Thank you for getting back to me. My question is very simple: you wrote that “If the dowser detects by means of a wand or a pendulum a water reservoir underground, some kind of radiation from this water must affect him.”

It’s not clear why you are attributing the pendulum movement to a form of radiation instead of the ordinary anatomical muscle twitches and tension associated with fingers, wrists, elbows, arms, and so on. In other words, it is virtually impossible to hold a pendulum completely still for very long, and this is because of the ordinary movements of the body (breathing, arm muscles, etc.). So I don’t understand upon what scientific basis you are assuming that any radiation is involved in causing the pendulum to move. If you could clarify that perhaps I could better evaluate your paper.

all best,

Ben Radford”

About a week later I got the following reply:

“From the physics lessons, we know that the pendulum is a mechanical resonance oscillator with simple harmonic motion, and if it moves continuously when held between fingers then it must also be subject to a certain enforcing force of periodic variability through the human body. And if it is so then there must occur a frequency synchronicity of some kind between the both frequencies or else the pendulum cannot move. A child on a swing must be pushed in pace with the rhythm of the movements of the swing or else, if the pushing movements are random, the child won’t swing.

However, the vibration of the finger muscles, the hand or other parts of the body are completely coincidental and even if they oscillate the pendulum its vibrations will fast disappear; it is not going to be a continuous movement, unless someone intentionally moves his hand so as to enforce the oscillation of the pendulum for prolonged time, but then this would be a cheating.

By changing the frequency of the pendulum (we have no control over a change in the frequency of the gravitational field) we can observe how the pendulum adjusts itself (in a better or worse way) to the frequency of the field, the manifestation of which is a change of the shapes plotted by the pendulum in the space. Obviously, the latter would not happen if we use an ordinary pendulum: a weight on a thread where the thread is held at a different point each time. Such a pendulum is unsuitable for serious research.

In my pendulum, the weight is screwed on a steel wire (like a nut on a bolt) and the entire pendulum is suspended in a special grip on the blade of a steel pin.

Obviously, the muscle tensions of individual parts of the human body cause pendulum movements, however such a movement is coincidental and only interferes with the measurements, it is regarded as an interference impeding the measurement itself.

On the other hand, it is the micro vibrations of the skin (epidermis) of the fingers: the thumb and the index finger, in which the pendulum is held, that give the appropriate periodic movement to the pendulum and the direction of the movement, caused by the influence of the variable gravitational field of the surrounding.

The measurement of the distribution of the field is very burdensome; it consists in the transferring the pendulum from a point to a point and stopping at each point so that the vibrations of the pendulum become stabilized, which takes approximately three (3) minutes. In order to be able to find a point where the field strength equals zero and the pendulum does not move at all, the pendulum must be set in the space with an accuracy of a few milimetres.

My pendulum is quite heavy (approx. 50 gram), it would be difficult to hold it at specific point with such an exactness, and this is why it is suspended on a thin thread on a special stand (the photograph is attached).

A pendulum synchronised with the sought field moves in a single vertical plane with constant direction. Obviously, the direction of the plane is different at different points.

The direction of the plane of the movement of the pendulum in the gravitational field of the surroundings is the only and the base measurement done using my pendulum. The plane is always perpendicular to the vector of the magnetic field of the sought radiation which is polarised horizontally in the space above the surface of the Earth. Therefore, we know its situation at the points of measurement, and, consequently, its special distribution.”

With all due respect to this person—who I think really does believe he’s onto something—I still didn’t get what he was saying. It wasn’t an English translation issue, we just weren’t talking about the same things. I replied,

“Thank you for your response. You noted that “The vibration of the finger muscles, the hand or other parts of the body are completely coincidental… Obviously, the muscle tensions of individual parts of the human body cause pendulum movements, however such a movement is coincidental and only interferes with the measurements, it is regarded as an interference impeding the measurement itself.”

I understand that you believe that the muscle movements cannot account for the pendulum movements, but I do not understand why you believe this to be so: What is the basis or reason you say it is “coincidental”? Can you provide any citations or references to studies showing this? Or have you done any experiments that rule out muscle movement as the sole source for pendulum oscillations?

I am not trying to be negative or difficult, but I sincerely don’t understand why you believe muscles cannot account entirely for the pendulum movement. You must show that the pendulum moves with no muscle movement at all…

Thank you,

Benjamin Radford”

I await his response and hope that if it comes, it doesn’t simply send us around in circles…

Aug 272015
 

I’m finishing an interesting article on the pseudohistories of the chupacabra: The Hispanic vampire turns 20 this month and was created in large part by the 1995 film “Species.” However those who believe the monster exists have offered a wide variety of completely fictional “true” histories of the chupacabra… Look for it in an upcoming issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine!

Aug 262015
 

In this NPR piece from a few years ago I was interviewed about the accuracy of the Farmer’s Almanac (spoiler: I’m skeptical). An interesting look at “folk” predictions can be found HERE: 

Ben Radford, deputy editor of the science magazineSkeptical Inquirer, says mystery is actually a big part of why Tartisel and others might perceive the almanac as being more accurate than it actually is. People are attracted to the idea that a 200-year-old secret formula locked in a simple black box could outdo the weather geeks, says Radford, who has written books that examine urban legends and claims of the paranormal. So they tend to remember when the National Weather Service gets it wrong but forget when the almanac does.

 

Aug 072015
 

Police in Florida suggest that a triple murder in Pensacola late last month is connected to witches, Wiccans, and/or Satanists. My new article on why that’s almost certainly false, with a discussion of previous crimes police wrongly attributed to Satanists or witches, is HERE. 

Jul 252015
 

When James Holmes shot and killed dozens at a Colorado movie theater in 2012, many people claimed he was inspired by a Batman villain. I was skeptical at the time, and as far as I know I’m the only journalist who closely examined the news media’s claims about it. His fate is now in a jury’s hands, but over the course of his trial the claims about him being inspired by Bane or the Joker never materialized. Not even his own lawyers, trying for an insanity plea, brought it up. You can read my piece on it HERE. 

Jul 222015
 

A new study finds that self-described vampires are, not surprisingly, reluctant to disclose their sanguine ways to mental health professionals. My closer look at people who claim to be (and sometimes believe themselves to be) real-life vampires can be found HERE. 

Jul 202015
 

Amid a spate of six church fires in the South, people are concerned that the high racial tensions have played a role. While many people suspect that the fires were racially motivated–especially in light of the recent shooting spree at an African-American church in Charleston–officials have said that so far that have no evidence or reason to believe that they were racially motivated, and at least one fire that set a Florida church on fire was electrical.

Almost exactly twenty years ago there was a similar outbreak of fires involving nearly twice as many churches. In May 1996 a rash of twelve church fires was reported nationwide, five of which served mostly black congregations. The arsons were seen by many as being racially motivated, fueled in part by stories like the one that appeared in the September 2, 1996, issue of Newsweek: Below the headline, “We Live in Daily Fear” is the slug, “Greenville, Texas, thought it had outgrown its racist past. That was 41 fires ago.” The article went on to describe two recent church arsons in the town of Greenville. Curiously, the article notes that, in the case of both Greenville churches highlighted therein, “[P]olice recently charged a retarded 18-year-old black man with both church blazes.” So even though many in the public–and the Newsweek reporter–assumed that race was a factor, it apparently was not.

The following month President Clinton highlighted the problem in an address to the nation and announced that a national task force would be organized to investigate and combat the crimes. A year later the task force concluded that many of the 429 fires they examined were not racist but copycat crimes. They found no evidence of a racist conspiracy or even a clear pattern to the crimes.

Many were committed by individuals acting alone, and, of those arrested, 42 percent were juveniles. Though some of the fires were traced to racist motives, other arsons were committed for profit, vandalism, or revenge. Of the 199 people arrested in incidents dating back to 1995, 160 were white, 34 were black, and 5 were Latino.

The Insurance Information Institute, a trade group that collects data regarding insurance companies, examined the rash of fires in 1996 and concluded that: (1) most of the fires were set by serial arsonists; (2) the number of fires in white churches also increased in 1995; (3) in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Virginia, fires destroyed more white churches than black ones; and (4) in nine of fifteen black church fires, black suspects were named.

Eric Daniel Harris, former pastor of a rural Baptist church, confessed that he set his own Kentucky church on fire. Harris, who had implied that he thought the fire was either a hate crime or an act of vandalism, said he burned his church to unite his flock. In Wichita Falls, Texas, a minister and three others were accused of burning down their own church to collect $270,000 in insurance in November of 1996.

President Obama has so far not commented on the church fires specifically nor about the possible racial motives behind them, and in fact that may be for the best. The reason: copycats.

President Clinton’s announcement about the church fires actually led to more, not fewer, church arsons: Following the president’s speech, the number of incidents nearly quadrupled. Forty-seven churches were targets of fires or bombs, nineteen of which were black churches. This increase was mainly attributed to copycat crimes: Treasury Secretary James E. Johnson reported that some of those arrested said “they saw it on the news, and this became the thing to do.” Thus the news media, and all the discussions on social media about the fires, may inadvertently help perpetuate the problem.

Whether these church fires are related to each other, or related to race, remains to be seen. A motive, if any, can’t be determined until a suspect is arrested. Until then America will just have to live with the uncertainty but can take comfort that at least one previous rash of church fires wasn’t a racist conspiracy.

 

Jul 072015
 

A mysterious face seen in rocks on a small Canadian island: Unlike the infamous “Face on Mars” it might be carved, or it might be a product of human psychology, either way you could call it “man-made”… you can read my analysis HERE. 

Jul 032015
 

“Fat denial” by parents (and sometimes by kids themselves) is a significant contributor to the prevalence of childhood obesity. A lot of parents don’t (or refuse to) recognize that their kids are overweight, and in fact many adults underestimate their own weight; my recent article on Discovery News is HERE...

Jun 302015
 

My new article on KFC urban legends, and how a piece of chicken can look like a fried rat, is up at Discovery News, you can read it HERE.  It’s an interesting blend of psychology, folklore, and culture…

Jun 282015
 

Several foot-long lampreys have apparently fallen out the sky recently in Fairbanks, Alaska. They’ve been found in a shopping center parking lot and on lawns, and residents are unnerved by the creepy, toothed eel-like fish. You can read my analysis about it HERE. 

Jun 182015
 

I was a guest on the “After Dark Radio Show” recently, talking about everything from ghost hunting pseudoscience to the 1967 Patterson Bigfoot film to the nature of skepticism. Check it out, you can read it HERE. 

Jun 152015
 

Governments spying on citizens has been a perpetual boogeyman for many Americans, and the topic is in the news once again. In my new blog on the subject of privacy I discuss the medieval Peeping Tom demon Asmodeus and some myths about the seemingly sacred principle of individual privacy. I argue that personal privacy is a relatively new idea and that its value is exaggerated. You can read it HERE. 

Jun 112015
 

Earlier this month an infographic circulated on social media comparing the number of people killed by different animals. By far the highest of the group was mosquitoes, and that’s not only misleading, it’s simply wrong. I’ve traveled extensively in South America and Africa and am very aware of the dangers of malaria and the need to fight it. But mosquitoes (specifically female mosquitoes) do not kill humans through malaria; a different organism, a protozoan called Plasmodium, does. Some infected mosquitoes can transmit Plasmodium to humans, but they don’t “kill people” in the same way as the other animals listed. I’m all for education, but get your facts right. 

If the11425848_10205625736136981_277207288052384716_n argument is that any animal that can spread a disease is responsible for the deaths caused by the virus or disease they spread: Since humans spread countless deadly contagious diseases including flu, tuberculosis, HIV, plague, Ebola, etc. they should also be in that category. We don’t consider humans (as a species) to be the threat that kills others, we recognize that it’s the protozoan/bacteria/virus that kills. So why the different category for mosquitoes?

Apr 302015
 

Arguments in a sensational murder trial wrapped up recently in a New York City courtroom. The victim was 6-year-old Etan Patz, whose 1979 disappearance shocked and riveted the city. A man named Pedro Hernandez is on trial for Patz’s murder, but the prosecution has a problem: The boy’s body was never found and there is no direct evidence connecting Hernandez to Patz — only a confession. My article on why this may be a problem is HERE.