Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “Finally! A textbook of investigation technique that comes at the subject from a sensible, scientific perspective without being patronizing. Radford employs his years of experience and knowledge to fine effect. Forget EMF meters and voice recorders. The only thing you need in your toolkit is this book.” --Mark Norman, author of Black Dog Folklore and creator of The Folklore Podcast 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!
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “Radford pulls no punches as he investigates paranormal investigations, from popular TV series to famous self proclaimed investigators throughout history. He breaks down the pseudoscience of what we call the ‘paranormal’ and tries to look past the glitz and glamour of the current popularity and find something, anything that provides proof of the existence of ghosts.” --Dave Schrader host of BEYOND the DARKNESS and Coast to Coast AM 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!
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “With a proliferation of popular TV shows which actively promote ghost hunting as an adventurous past-time Investigating Ghosts is an essential handbook for anyone wishing to go ‘beyond the armchair’ and investigate suspected paranormal activity. The emphasis this book places on explaining the need for properly scientific research and for genuinely analytical thinking will be invaluable to enthusiasts and to sceptics and debunkers alike—to everyone, in fact, who hopes to collect reliable evidence, and especially therefore to paranormal investigators who don’t wish to have wasted their own time. As Ben Radford points out, ghost hunting has been both popularized and democratized by the increased availability of electronic recording and monitoring technology, and, while many people might think of ghost hunting as a reasonably safe past-time, Investigating Ghosts alerts investigators to potential risks and pitfalls, including the risk of investing too much in technology, when, as the book says, the most important investigative tools aren’t electronic gadgets but a sound understanding of scientific principles and the possession of a questioning mind.” --Joe Banks, author of Rorschach Audio 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!
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “An informative read, this book is a must read for not only those who intend to investigate the paranormal but also for those who already do. Radford offers an up-to-date overview of the field of paranormal research in a way that demonstrates what good, rational research methods are alongside examples of how ghost research can (and does) go terribly wrong. Radford passes on useful and accurate information about how to be a good investigator in an easy-to-understand way, while also recommending a variety of other sources that will help people easily gain a deeper understanding of the research relating to this field. Ghost hunters may pick this book up and feel affronted as it tackles behaviours and methodologies that they employ, but it does so in a manner that isn’t dismissive and, hopefully, will help people reflect on the error of their ways. If people only choose to read one book about how to investigate ghosts this is the one—it’s got all you need to know! --Hayley Stevens, paranormal researcher and blogger 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!
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “This is without doubt the most comprehensive book on ghost investigation that I have read. It is written in a lively style that will engage the reader from start to finish. It should be read by everyone with an interest in paranormal claims—and perhaps especially by those ‘paranormal investigation teams’ that grace our TV screens night after night with their sensationalistic and totally unscientific approach to ghost investigation.” --Prof. Christopher C French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Department of Psychology, University of London 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!
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “Interested in the reported phenomena of ghosts and serious research into paranormal claims? Don’t count on TV shows for your paranormal knowledge. You’ll be misled about the critical concepts of investigation. Investigating Ghosts can open the eyes and minds of today’s paranormal investigators—if they dare to look. A comprehensive review of ghost hunting techniques, this volume describes the best practices of investigation that lead a useful result. Radford drills down into the modern approach to investigating haunting claims and how to correct it, covering the spectrum of viewpoints in this well-referenced volume.” --Sharon A. Hill, Science and society specialist and founder of Doubtfulnews.com 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!
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “This book presents a combination of the excitement and emotional tingle typically provided by ghost stories, a critical analysis of the reliability and scientific value of such accounts, an explanation of how ghost experiences can occur even if ghosts do not exist, and a prescription for how any future ghost research should properly be conducted. The author is an open-minded skeptic on the subject, and ghost hunter and skeptic alike will learn from his clear-headed analysis. This book is highly recommended both for anyone with a serious interest in ghostly phenomena and for readers who simply enjoy reading about ghosts.” --Prof. James Alcock, PhD, Department of Psychology, York University 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!
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “A great book. Benjamin Radford is one of those rare individuals who devote time, competence and passion to the scientific investigation of unusual claims. It would be much easier and profitable to follow the tide and support the supernatural and other unlikely events. The fact that Ben prefers to go against the flow is a testimony to his honesty.” --Massimo Polidoro, psychologist and author of Final Séance and Secrets of the Psychics 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!
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “With the plethora of television programs, websites, and books on ghost hunting today, Benjamin Radford takes a timely and welcome look at the field, and sets out clear, practical guidelines for would-be ghost hunters. This enjoyable and informative book is no-nonsense in its approach and is informed by the history, folklore, and psychology of ghost belief. Neither skeptic nor believer, Radford argues for a meticulous and sober approach to investigating hauntings.” --Owen Davies, University of Hertfordshire, author of The Haunted 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!
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “In the growing literature of scientific and historical examinations of fringe and paranormal practice, this book stands out. Benjamin Radford lays out in detail how ghost hunting should be done. If we are lucky, some of this might sink in.” ---Brian Regal, Kean University, author of Searching for Sasquatch: Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology. 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!
Maybe you've heard the news about the "secret" DoD program to find UFOs? Here's a quick take on it: Given that UFOs are literally "unidentified flying objects," the Pentagon's interest in the topic is both understandable and appropriate. After all, unknown objects over American skies could be a threat — whether their origin is Russia, North Korea or the Andromeda Galaxy. The Air Force investigated thousands of unexplained aerial reports between 1947 and 1969, eventually concluding that most of the "UFO" sightings involved clouds, stars, optical illusions, conventional aircraft or spy planes. A small percentage remained unexplained because of a lack of information. In December 2017, The New York Times reported on the existence of a secret U.S. Department of Defense program called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP). It began in 2007 and ended in 2012 when, according to Pentagon spokesman Thomas Crosson, "it was determined that there were other, higher priority issues that merited funding." Much of the program and its conclusions have not been released, and it's not clear what if any useful information came from the effort. Several short videos of military jets encountering something they couldn't identify have been released by AATIP. Already some have suggested that distant jets might be the culprit, and in the past crowdsourced research has yielded answers to seemingly inexplicable phenomena in our skies; a "mystery missile" seen off the coast of California in November 2010, for example, stumped military experts at first but was later determined to be an ordinary commercial jet plane contrail seen from an odd angle. The fact that the U.S. government had a program dedicated to researching unidentified craft and objects has caused many UFO buffs to triumphantly announce that they were right all along, that this finally proof that the wall of silence is breaking and the government coverup is cracking. There is, however, significantly less here than meets the eye. The government routinely spends money to research (and sometimes promote) topics that turn out to have little or no evidence or scientific validity. There are hundreds of federal projects that have been funded despite never having been proven valid or effective, including the Star Wars missile defense program, abstinence-only sex education, and the DARE anti-drug program. The idea that there must be some validity to the project, or else it would not have been funded or renewed is laughable. From the 1970s through the mid-1990s, the U.S. government had a secret project called Stargate, designed to explore the possibility of psychic powers and whether "remote viewers" could successfully spy on Russia during the Cold War. The research went on for about two decades, with little apparent success. Eventually, scientists who were asked to review the results concluded that psychic information was neither validated nor useful. Like AATIP, Project Stargate was soon shut down. One possible clue as to why the $22 million program might have continued despite yielding no clear evidence of extraterrestrials is the financial incentive to keep it going. The New York Times noted that "The shadowy program . ..was largely funded at the request of Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader at the time ... Most of the money went to an aerospace research company run by a billionaire entrepreneur and longtime friend of Mr. Reid's, Robert Bigelow, who is currently working with NASA to produce expandable craft for humans to use in space." 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!
New episode! This week, we kick off the first half of the "New Years Resolution" series where they look at woo in the gym. Just in time for your resolution, The Credible Hulk joins our hosts to walk us through some of the myths and misconceptions that run rampant in the bodybuilding/gym world. 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!
Santa brought me a great gift: A nice review of my book in a prominent folklore journal: "Bad Clowns is a thorough, useful survey of the history of bad, creepy, and evil clown narratives and imagery, and one that could prove a timely and accessible teaching text for undergraduate courses on contemporary legend, folklore and popular culture, or folklore and media. Bad Clowns does an outstanding job of querying why clown imagery has come to be associated with fear, crime, and violence... Ideas involving the uncomfortable intersection of childhood with adulthood, the catharsis of chaos, and the idea of a clown as a magnified cultural mirror – lurk deeper. For these questions alone, the book is worth a read." 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!
My investigation into a viral news story circulating one year ago this week, about a black mall Santa reportedly deluged with racist hate. It was tragic and sad--and fictional: "The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America's first black Santa has been tainted by a social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for bringing joy to kids he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson's stint as Santa is exactly the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America's first black Santa." One year ago , amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the 2016 holiday season. It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black--a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child's status on Santa's naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. "What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy," Jefferson said in an interview. "[Santa represents] a good spirit. I'm just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys." The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn't wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don't like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else--not erupt in protest that it's available to those who want it. 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!
I was recently a guest with Kurly Tlapoyawa, an archaeologist, author, and ethnohistorian, on his podcast. His research focuses primarily on the interaction between Mesoamerica, Western Mexico, and the American Southwest. We talked about pseudohistories, including of the chupacabra and also Peru's Nazca Lines and the Ica stones. 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!
This scene from 1600s New England depicts the use of a “courting stick,” by which young lovers could exchange whispers and sweet nothings in some privacy despite the entire family living in one room. What do you think this lad is saying to his sweetheart? 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!
I've been a huge fan of Warren Zevon for decades, and was fortunate enough to see him live a few times (and even got his autograph on a photo I took of him). Known as a highly literate songwriter, he had many books and writer friends. I learned he was dying shortly before my first book came out, and I dedicated that book to him. I also sent him a signed copy of that book, and was told by his agent he received it. I have no idea if he read it, but he likely at least looked at it--when he wasn't recording his final, Grammy-winning album "The Wind." Zevon's book collection was sold, and I wonder if mine is among them. That would be cool.
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! In it we discuss how to tell when "Just asking questions" is either a cynical conspiracy ploy or a sincere effort to understand something, and then move on to my research into the best evidence for lake monsters and Champ, the creature in Lake Champlain. 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!
My new CFI blog on how our expectations can and do influence our perceptions and interpretations... Earlier this month police in Schaumberg, Illinois, responded to a call of one or more gunmen walking around a business district. According to the Chicago Tribune,"investigators determined that the purported gunman was a maintenance technician wearing a belt that held a tool resembling a gun, police said. ‘Everyone is safe. Every office is open, and officers are clearing out,' Schaumburg Police Sgt. Christy Lindhurst said shortly after noon on Tuesday.' At 10:50 a.m. police received a call of a gunman at the Woodfield Corporate Center at 200 N. Martingale Road. A ‘very heavy police presence' responded, Lindhurst said. Some businesses evacuated. Others chose to shelter in place.'" Another news report offered additional details and claimed that a second gunman had been spotted: "Schaumburg police responded about 10:50 a.m. Tuesday to a report of two men with guns. Police later reported that there was no indication that shots were fired, no firearm was found, and police say no one was injured. Police reviews video surveillance, and confirmed that the original report was incorrect. Schaumburg police say there was no threat." How do we explain this mistake? Drills, nailing guns, and other construction equipment can look like a weapon from a distance. But the item was seen in a tool belt worn by a uniformed maintenance worker. Obviously a shooter could dress in any fashion they like, but there are tens of thousands of construction and maintenance workers with equipment-laden toolbelts across the country at any given time, and very rarely are they mistaken for active shooters. There's something else at play, and it involves eyewitness perceptions. This case is reminiscent of another from four years ago. In 2013 Ohio's Oberlin College cancelled classes after someone reported spotting a person walking on campus wearing what appeared to be a Ku Klux Klan-like hooded robe at night. College officials released a statement on Monday explaining that "This event, in addition to the series of other hate-related incidents on campus, has precipitated our decision to suspend formal classes and all non-essential activities ... and gather for a series of discussions of the challenging issues that have faced our community in recent weeks." What of the uniformed Klansman spotted on campus? According to a piece on Slate.com, "Local police responded to the report, but weren't able to find anyone wearing the hard-to-miss KKK garb. They did, however, discover a female walking with a blanket wrapped around her, suggesting the very real possibility that the eyewitness was mistaken." The Chronicle-Telegram added, "Oberlin police Lt. Mike McCloskey said that authorities did find a pedestrian wrapped in a blanket. He said police interviewed another witness later in the day and that person also saw a female walking with a blanket." It's much more likely that a person on campus was wearing or carrying a light-colored blanket, coming back from a toga party, or even a prankster dressed like a ghost, instead of dressed in full Klan regalia. As The Atlantic reported, "Reports on Monday that someone was walking around the campus of Oberlin College in Ku Klux Klan regalia--for which the Ohio liberal arts college cancelled an entire day's classes--may have been a huge misunderstanding. That's the sense one gets from reading a comprehensive report published on Tuesday morning by the local paper, the Chronicle-Telegram, which traced the early-morning sighting to someone wearing a blanket: ‘Oberlin police Lt. Mike McCloskey said that authorities did find a pedestrian wrapped in a blanket. He said police interviewed another witness later in the day and that person also saw a female walking with a blanket.' But no KKK garb." But why would someone make that particular mistake? The answer lies in what psychologists call expectant attention and confirmation bias. Expectation Influences Perception Though many people assume that eyewitnesses accurately perceive, understand, and report what they experience, we are subject to several biases--and they influence us in ways we often aren't unconsciously aware of. In order to make sense of what we see (especially things we don't recognize or fully understand), the human brain looks for contextual cues; we look for what else is going on in the environment that might lead to one interpretation instead of another. One powerful influence on our perceptions is our expectations. A well-known example of this can be seen in the illustration of a duck or a rabbit. Neither answer is wrong; both interpretations are correct within their context. But the context makes all the difference. How does this apply to the Klansman seen at Oberlin College? There were at several contextual factors that led the eyewitness to associate the figure with the Klan. Most importantly, the campus had recently experienced a string of events characterized as hate crimes, with flyers and graffiti targeting African-Americans, gays, and Jews appearing on campus. The events were widely reported and triggered much discussion on campus about the presence of hate groups. Most bald men are not skinheads, and racists can come in any race, gender, or color. But the most identifiable hate group-the only one with an image that is unmistakably associated with intolerance-is the Ku Klux Klan and their distinctive hoods and robes. Secondly, the location played a role in the misidentification: The white-clad figure was not seen outside a local pizza place or library, but instead outside the Afrikan Heritage House, the building on campus most closely associated with African-Americans. It's unlikely that if the same woman had been seen outside a campus synagogue she would have been interpreted as a member of the Klan. Then there's the fact that the eyewitness probably didn't know exactly what an actual KKK outfit looks like. Real Klan robes have a distinctive, specific cut to them, and typically a cross emblem on the front. The eyewitness only caught a glimpse of the person, in low light and early in the morning. Psychological studies have shown that under such conditions, the human mind is very poor at accurately perceiving, remembering, and reporting even basic elements of the experience. Our brains often "fill in" details with what we expect to see--not necessarily what we actually see--and we tend to bias our reports accordingly. Thus a person wrapped in (or even carrying) a light-colored blanket can become a Klan outfit. The same thing happened at Woodfield Corporate Center: In the context of school and workplace shootings, anything is possible and in light of scary reports many unusual things are plausible. In an enlightening article for New York magazine, David Wallace-Wells describes being caught up in a chaotic panic caused by a false report of a gunshot in a New York airport: "When the first stampede began, my plane had just landed. It started, apparently, with a group of passengers awaiting departure in John F. Kennedy Airport Terminal 8 cheering Usain Bolt's superhuman 100-meter dash. The applause sounded like gunfire, somehow, or to someone; really, it only takes one. According to some reports, one woman screamed that she saw a gun. The cascading effect was easier to figure: When people started running, a man I met later on the tarmac said, they plowed through the metal poles strung throughout the terminal to organize lines, and the metal clacking on the tile floors sounded like gunfire. Because the clacking was caused by the crowd, wherever you were and however far you'd run already, it was always right around you. There was a second stampede, I heard some time later, in Terminal 2. I was caught up in two separate ones, genuine stampedes, both in Terminal 1. The first was in the long, narrow, low-ceilinged second-floor hallway approaching customs that was so stuffed with restless passengers that it felt like a cattle call, even before the fire alarm and the screaming and all the contradictory squeals that sent people running and yelling and barreling over each other--as well as the dropped luggage, passports, and crouched panicked women who just wanted to take shelter between their knees and hope for it, or "them," to pass. The second was later, after security guards had just hustled hundreds of us off of the tarmac directly into passport control, when a woman in a hijab appeared at the top of a flight of stairs, yelling out for a family member, it seemed, who had been separated from her in the chaos. The crowd seemed to rise up, squealing, and rush for the two small sets of double doors." Examples like this help remind us that sincere, otherwise credible eyewitnesses can often be influenced by many factors, including what they expect to see. The idea that people often incorrectly see, remember, and report what they experience is not merely theory but a proven fact; there are over 2,000 published scientific studies demonstrating it. By some estimates, as many as one-third of eyewitness identifications in criminal cases are wrong, and nearly 200 people who were convicted of crimes based on positive eyewitness identifications were later exonerated through DNA evidence. By employing critical thinking skills and focusing on what we actually see instead of jumping to conclusions we can help avoid needless fear and panic. You can read the original 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!
With accusations flying around about misconduct by people of various political affiliations, I'm seeing lots of accusations of hypocrisy ("Why didn't you protest when X was accused?"). Many accusations of hypocrisy, however, are false, as I noted in a recent blog, with guests Celestia N. Ward, Ian Harris, and Michael Hartwell... Hypocrisy seems to be a running theme on the news and in social media, especially in the political sphere. It seems that hardly a week goes by that one political party is not accusing the other of hypocrisy, on everything from confirming Supreme Court judges to health care reforms. When President Trump fired FBI James Comey in May, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that the reaction from Democrats was "the purest form of hypocrisy" and that "Most of the people declaring war today were the very ones what were begging for Director Comey to be fired." This accusation of hypocrisy is objectively and factually incorrect; though many Democrats had criticized Comey at various times (including for his handling of Hillary Clinton's e-mail investigation shortly before the presidential election), almost none of them had in fact called for Comey to resign or be fired; the sole exception was Tennessee's Rep. Steve Cohen. In fact there was bipartisan concern over Trump's handling of the matter, as well as the varying justifications given for Comey's firing. Here is an analysis of three examples of claimed hypocrisy, followed by a brief look at the phenomenon. 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!
On a recent episode of Squaring the Strange, we have a roundtable discussion on the practical aspects of everyday life as a skeptic. Boots-on-the-ground skepticism efforts include social media presence, etiquette, and tactics; picking your battles; and knowing when you need your own little echo chamber for sanity’s sake. Keeping a salon discussion from devolving into a flame war is always the goal, but can anything be gained by out-and-out fighting? We all share some minor victories and also some pitfalls we have encountered. 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!
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!
Tonight on the Crypto-Kid, I return to the show to discuss my research into lake monsters, specifically Champ and the Loch Ness Monster. This is going to be a great episode, so check it out! Details below.
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.”
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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.”
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!
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!
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!
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.
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... 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!We also talk briefly media coverage of the Vegas shooting, and as usual, a two-minute skeptical fortune cookie! You can listen to it
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!
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!
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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. 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!